All the Little Creatures

by JAMIE CUNNINGHAM | 1st Place, student prose contest

Alice’s boutique was downtown, between an indie bookstore and a Jewish bakery. When the weather was nice, she liked to prop open the door with a heavy lawn ornament to let the rich fragrance of fresh-made bread waft in. On days when she couldn’t keep the door open, she burned a candle that smelled like baked cookies. She’d read somewhere that the aroma of fresh-cooked pastries put customers at ease, compelling them to spend more freely. Alice wasn’t sure about the science, but her shop always smelled nice.

As the new morning filled with sound and sunshine, Alice propped open her door, taking a moment to appreciate the morning sky marbled with wisps of milky cirrus. Next, she placed a large bowl of fresh water on the sidewalk. Alice loved dogs. The water dish began as a courtesy, but Alice soon found it was also an effective marketing ploy. As thirsty dogs paused to lap up the cool water, their owners window-shopped. Often, they quickly became patrons of Alice’s charming little shop.

With the door opened, the water dish filled, and the scent of bagels filling the store, Alice took her spot behind the cash register and began to look over her inventory sheets. Squinting through heavy-framed reading glasses to read, she cupped her coffee mug in both hands, relishing the warmth on her soft palms. Alice was increasingly aware that she was now of an age where her eyesight was diminishing some, and her hands were often cold. The flame of youth had long since dimmed, converting her once charcoal-colored hair to an ashen sheen. She’d come to accept her aging with grace and dignity, though she sometimes found herself lost in wistful nostalgia whenever young people visited her store.

She was about to pour herself a second cup when the motion sensor on the door bing-bonged the arrival of a customer. Alice installed the sensor so she could always know when someone entered the shop, even if she was in the back storeroom. Unlike her eyes, her hearing was still as sharp as a rabbit’s. Looking over the rim of her readers, she saw a young girl standing in the doorway, taking in the shop’s well-stocked shelves. Alice considered the young shopper with qualified discernment. The girl seemed harmless enough, though Alice had been fooled in the past by other seemingly innocuous kids. Alice recalled a charming little girl who kept Alice occupied with endless questions and stories while pocketing little trinkets and cheap jewelry. Alice realized she’d been bamboozled when the conniving child’s mother came to the shop to return the pilfered merchandise and offer apologies. Alice vowed never again to be duped. She closed her ledger book to keep a mindful eye on the girl in the store.

The girl was a slight little thing, around twelve or thirteen with a singularly acute and intelligent face. She was dressed in a breezy short-sleeved blouse and dark shorts, all arms and legs. Over one shoulder hung a small pink purse with the picture of a horse on the side. Alice acknowledged the girl with a welcoming smile and the girl responded with a wary lift of her chin. Then she turned her attention to a display of candles.

The girl’s head swiveled back and forth as she wandered aimlessly through the crowded aisles, occasionally pausing to pick up an item and quickly inspect it before returning it to the shelf. Eventually, her meandering path took her to the cash register. When the girl’s sweeping gaze landed upon Alice, she acknowledged the woman.

“Can I help you find something?” Alice asked.

The girl regarded Alice with a casual indifference. “I’m looking for something for my sister.”

“Wonderful. What’s the occasion? A birthday?”

“Sort of.”

Alice paused a moment to consider what a sort of birthday meant. Anticipating that she would have to lead the indecisive child toward a sale, Alice rose from her stool and came around the counter.

“So, you’re looking for a birthday gift for your sister. How old?”

“Old?” the girl asked, her eyebrows scrunched. “I didn’t know this was an antique store. I was wantin’ somethin’ new.”

Alice smiled. “I meant, how old is your sister?”


“Her name is Tuesday?”

“No. That’s when she was born. Last Tuesday.”

“Ah. Six days ago?”

“Sounds ‘bout right.”

“Your sister is a newborn. Congratulations!”

The girl shrugged, unimpressed.

“What’s her name?”

“Just a second.” The girl sighed and opened her little purse. After a moment of rummaging, she came up with a crumpled piece of paper from which she read aloud.  “Jew-LEE-uh Rose.”

“JewLEEuh? That’s an interesting name.”

“It’s spelled just like Julia,” the girl said with a slight roll of the eyes. “But Dad and Rachel wants ever’body to pronounce it like that—mostly it’s Rachel’s idea.”

“I see. I guess that’s how the new generation does it.”

“It’s okay if you think it’s dumb. I do.”

“I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine name once you get used to it,” Alice said, though she privately agreed with the girl. Children’s names today were becoming awfully convoluted to spell and pronounce. Whatever happened to simple names like John or Mary or Tom? she thought to herself.  “By the way, my name is Alice. What is yours?”

“Pepper,” the girl said, putting away her paper. “As in Sgt. Pepper? My mom was a huge Beatles fan. When I was little, we listened to all her old albums together.”

“Pepper. That’s cute.”

“Coulda been worse, I guess. Coulda been Eleanor Rigby or Prudence or Lucy.”

“You could have been the walrus.”

Ku-ku-ka-choo,” Pepper chimed flatly. “So can you help me find somethin’ for the little slug, or what?”

“My shop is full of treasures. I’m sure we can find something around here for little, um, Jew-LEE-uh. How much money do you have?”

Pepper protectively covered her purse with both hands and said skeptically, “I think that’s my business, not yours.”

“You’re right. What I meant was, how much are you planning to spend?”

“I don’t know. She’s pretty new and all, but I suppose I could drop twenty bucks on her.”

“You’re a very generous sister.”

“She’s not my whole sister. Only half.” She made a chopping motion of her hand.

“A sister is a sister, no matter how many pieces she comes in.”

Pepper slowly turned away from the counter. “You got a lot of cool stuff here.”

“Thank you. I try to keep an assorted inventory.”

“You own this place?”

“I do.”

“I’m a businesswoman, too,” she said.

“Is that so? So you earn your own money…babysitting, perhaps?”

“Dad says I’m too young to sit on babies,” Pepper said while inspecting a display of ceramic birds. “I walk dogs for my neighbors.”

“Oh, I love dogs,” Alice confided.

“I did, too,” the girl sniffed as she moved to a table of tie-dyed tee shirts. “That is until I started spending my afternoons and Saturday mornings picking up steaming Labrador biscuits.”

Despite her no-nonsense delivery, Pepper’s voice still held the inflections of a child. Alice chuckled. “You seem very responsible for your age.”

Pepper looked over her shoulder at Alice and said, “I already told you I’m here to buy somethin’. You don’t have to butter me up.”

Alice raised her palms and smiled as Pepper returned to browsing the shelves. Satisfied that the girl was likely not a shoplifter, Alice returned to her perch behind the register and poured herself another cup of coffee. She decided against returning to her ledger as she noticed a small terrier out front lapping at the water dish. At the other end of the dog’s leash was a young woman dressed for exercise and admiring the ornate window display. Alice knew her next customer was just moments away, and she was not wrong.

“Is it okay if I bring Oskar inside?” the woman asked, holding up her end of the leash. “He’s usually well-behaved.”

“Of course,” Alice said, offering a pleasant smile. “Dogs are always welcome here.”

The athletic woman bounded inside with Oskar scrabbling along at her feet. She wore tight leggings worn by today’s youthful, health-conscious generation. Once again, Alice felt the bittersweet tinge of nostalgia wash over her like a mist of sea spray. She contemplated how different her youth had been compared to this hectic digital age. Everything and everyone moved so quickly now. Always on the go, Alice thought. Racing ahead, yet always behind. Not that Alice’s youthful days, fettered by poverty and toil, were ever ones of leisure. Certainly not.

The dog woman made her way around the store, pausing now and then to comment on how cute something was or to ask a price. Alice was always glad to engage and inform the customer. The boutique was in its twenty-eighth year of operation now, and Alice prided herself on her congenial customer service. Over the decades, she’d witnessed many neighboring businesses come and go, yet her shop remained, weathering the ups and downs of the mercurial economy. She attributed her success to good old-fashioned hospitality.

Eventually the young woman made her way to the counter with a gilded picture frame and a set of handsome onyx cufflinks. Alice rang up the sale and bagged the merchandise as the two women chatted amiably. Suddenly, Pepper appeared and crouched down to pet the terrier. Oskar seemed enormously pleased with the attention and licked the girl’s hand with all the enthusiasm of a puppy.

“He’s cute,” Pepper told the woman. “Do you have a regular dog walker?”

“Oh, well, no,” the woman admitted, caught off guard by the question.

With the flair of a seasoned street magician, Pepper produced a business card out of thin air and handed it to the woman.  “My rates are reasonable and I have a good group of small breeds. I think he’d fit right in.”

Ambushed by Pepper’s pitch, the woman promised to discuss the matter with her husband. Alice and Pepper watched the woman exit the shop while juggling her purchases and Oskar’s taut leash. Once they were gone, Alice turned to the girl.

“That was pretty slick,” she said to Pepper.

“I need to expand outside of my neighborhood,” Pepper said. “If I get enough dogs, I can hire my friends to work for me.”

“You’re certainly full of ambition.”

“Dad says I get it from Mom.”

“My grandmother used to say, ‘Little girls always want to grow up to be their mothers and marry their fathers.’”

“That’s kinda weird,” Pepper said, giving Alice a sidelong look. “You sorta have an accent. You’re not from here, are you?”

Alice smiled politely, though she was inwardly disappointed. Since coming to America as a young woman, she’d tried hard to scrub any trace of her native accent. Usually, her vernacular was neutral, but lately, whenever she reminisced, she found her mother’s tongue surfacing.

“I was born long ago in a country that no longer exists,” Alice said cryptically.

Pepper thought that the woman must be really old to outlive a whole country—but she kept her thoughts to herself.

“I grew up under communism. Do you know that word? Well, let’s just say it was not a good place for children to grow up. I loved my homeland and my family, but no one liked our government. And in those days there was often violence and war between the people and the régime. I’ve always loved dogs, and when I was your age I had a dog named Laika who went everywhere with me. But I did not carry a pretty little purse like you do. I carried a rifle.”

Alice saw an expression of emotion pass over the girl’s stoic face, though it was a little hard to decipher. Was it one of impress or astonishment? Skepticism, maybe. Whatever it was, the girl was noticeably stirred. Pleased that she’d finally broken through Pepper’s stony demeanor, Alice resumed her tale.

“So many of my countrymen fled our homeland because of the fighting. Eventually, as a young woman, I was forced to escape to freedom with my little dog. Laika and I traveled across the Atlantic on our own, on a ship. First to Canada and later to America. I was all alone, barely sixteen and quite beautiful then. Don’t look so surprised.”

“I’m not. You’re still beautiful. You know, you should write a book.”

“A book? About what?”

“Your life,” Pepper said. “It sounds pretty interesting. People like reading about adventures.”

“It wasn’t an adventure. We were just trying to survive.”

“Well, people like that stuff, too.”

Alice considered Pepper’s suggestion. Write a book about her life? Much of her childhood had been simply insufferable. Who would want to read about that? But the child had a valid point. These days, there’s a market for everything.

“Anyways, back to my dilemma,” said Pepper. “I don’t know what to buy a newborn slug.”

“Maybe a nice ribbon. Does little Jew-LEE-uh have much hair?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t really seen her,” Pepper said and focused her gaze out the window. “Not up close. She was born a little early so they’re keepin’ her at the hospital in an incubator. Like she’s an egg that needs hatchin’.”

“The poor little thing.”

“Yeah. Her and Rachel have been in the hospital all week.”

“Rachel, is your…?”

Stepmom. Every day, Dad and me come down to the hospital and check on them, see how they’re doing.”

“Did you walk here all the way from the hospital?”


“That’s about six blocks. I’m sure the hospital has a gift shop.”

“We pass by this place every day and I just thought you might have some neat stuff.” Pepper sighed, then looked down at her feet. “Besides, I hate the smell of hospitals. Reminds me of my mom. I had to get out of there.”

Alice heard the sadness in her voice. “Was your mother a nurse?”

“No. She had cancer and we spent a lot of time in hospitals before she…well, you never forget the smell.”

Alice understood immediately and placed a hand on Pepper’s shoulder. The girl flinched but did not pull away.

“How long ago was that?”

“When I was five,” she said softly. “Dad let me move her Beatles records into my room. When I’m feeling sad, I listen to them.”

Alice let silence pass between them, then removed her hand. Pepper looked up and met Alice’s gaze. The vulnerability in the girl’s big brown eyes broke the woman’s heart.

“Do you have other siblings?”

“Not that I know of.” Pepper grinned, regaining her poise. “That’s my dad’s joke. I’ve been an only child until now, so all this is kinda new to me.”

“I understand. I’m sure whatever you get for your new sister, she will love it.”

“It has to be the right gift,” Pepper said with steadfast determination.

Alice took note of the girl’s resolve. She surmised that finding a gift for Julia was less about the newborn and all about Pepper’s emergent need to give and to be needed. To find her place in this new and growing family. Life’s circumstances threatened to dwarf the girl’s ambition and it had prematurely pushed the girl towards an early independence. And now she was seeking acceptance from those she’d likely kept at arm’s length for a long time. Alice felt she understood all this because it had been much the same for her at that age.

“I think I might have just the thing for little Julia. Follow me.”

Alice led Pepper to a corner in the rear of the shop and was pleased to see the girl’s eyes light up when she saw a bin full of plush animals. With a jeweler’s precision, Pepper methodically picked through the stuffed menagerie, evaluating each one before rejecting it and moving on to the next. Alice let the girl mine for the diamond in the rough she so desperately sought. Pepper spent a full five minutes in the bin before finally pausing with a teddy bear in her hands. She touched its nose and smelled its tawny fur.

“This one,” she said.

“Excellent choice.”

“He chose me,” Pepper said. “His name is Chauncey. The price tag says thirty-five dollars. Don’t suppose you’d take a twenty?”

Alice smiled. “You’re in luck. Chauncey is on sale today for twenty-five.”

Pepper smiled, too.

After completing the sale, Alice and Pepper moved to the sidewalk. Alice found herself saddened to see the girl depart. Pepper seemed reluctant to leave, as well. She gestured to the water dish on the walk.

“I like that you do that for the dogs. When I’m walking my clients’ mutts I have to take them all the way down to Baker Springs for a drink.”

“People these days are always in a hurry. They forget about all the little creatures.” Alice studied the morning traffic. “Shouldn’t you take a bus or a taxi, maybe? It can be dangerous for a young girl on these streets.”

“Did you take a taxi when you were my age? I didn’t think so. I’ll be fine. I’m a professional walker, remember?”

The girl took a few steps.

“Will you visit me again?” Alice asked.

“Sure,” Pepper said. She paused to look over her shoulder. “And you’ll write that book, right?”

“Oh, no one would want to read about me.”

“I would. See ya.”

Alice watched Pepper make her way down the block, waiting until the girl safely crossed the street before she returned inside. She took up her position behind the register. Alice picked up a pen and looked at it for a long moment, considering all the girl had said. Could she really write something that anyone would ever want to read? She clicked the pen a few times as doubts beset her lonely, daring soul.

Then she put on her reading glasses and wrote:

There once was a little girl who loved dogs…


Jamie Cunningham’s short fiction has appeared in such literary journals as Confrontation, The Iconoclast, and Tulsa Review. He is also an accomplished musician and skilled artist.

From Scout Haggard: A work that is always in progress as it changes as the artist changes, she is at a place where she feels completely herself even if that place is a little uncomfortable and confusing at times.