PORT RICHEY — The woman seemed to appear out of nowhere. One minute, Justine Parnell was in the parking lot, sobbing a howl reserved for life-breaking moments.
And then there she was. Thin and fierce, a buzz-cut of shocking blond hair, deep hollowed blue eyes. She asked gently:
And Parnell told her. The puppy she had given her best friend — Tammy Horsley, who is dying from cancer — had Parvo, a deadly and contagious disease. The emergency animal hospital wanted $800 up front to treat him. So Zeus, the tiny Shih Tzu-poodle mix, was going to be euthanized.
Before Parnell could tell the woman any more — that they had been there for six hours, calling everyone they knew who might have some extra money — the woman was running through the hospital door.
Zeus' leg had already been shaved to administer the lethal injection. But the woman found a vet tech and said Zeus was not going to be put down.
"I'm paying the bill," she said.
Theresa FairLady is opening an insurance business next door to the animal hospital and was walking to her car for mouse pads on Sunday when she saw the woman crying. She knew she had to help her, but she can't explain why.
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Horsley hasn't believed in people for a long time, much less guardian angels. As a teen in church, she asked questions that were always answered with "have faith" and it annoyed her.
The 39-year-old has been married and divorced three times, accumulating tattoos, piercings and a distrust of humanity. Her two boys live with their dad. She said one fiance died in a freak go-cart accident and the other was murdered in Las Vegas. She was in jail on drug charges when her mother passed away. A few years ago, she came home to Port Richey to take care of her ailing father. Parnell helped her get off drugs. Her life seemed to be getting better.
Then she found the lump in her breast.
Doctors told her the cancer had spread to her bones. It was stage four. Terminal.
If there is a God, she thought, he surely hates me.
She says she has stayed clean since the diagnosis. She gets chemotherapy treatments once a month, she said.
Parnell gave her Zeus because Horsley needed someone in her life to love her no matter what. Horsley can't believe FairLady saved Zeus. "I've had so many creeps in my life," Horsley said, "My first thought was, 'Okay, what does she want?' "
But she didn't want anything.
"I just knew that dog couldn't die," said FairLady, 48, who is beginning a new chapter of her life. She used to be a professional baseball umpire and then opened an animal clinic in New Port Richey with her partner of 17 years. Together, she thinks, they rescued more than 5,000 animals, spending their weekends at shelters saving pets slated to die. But then they broke up.
"It was devastating," FairLady said. They sold the clinic. Her name used to be Theresa Cox but she changed it to FairLady last fall. She says it's what people called her on the field, The Fair Lady.
She stopped rescuing animals because it reminded her too much of her ex.
But then there was Zeus.
"He's a miracle puppy," FairLady said.
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Zeus is 3 months old, a black puffball weighing 2 pounds. He came home Wednesday and spent that night cuddled next to Horsley. He is still weak, but he will survive.
The next day, Horsley brought him to meet FairLady.
"Thank you," Horsley said, hugging FairLady. "This dog means the world to me."
Horsley, who lives on disability payments, had $50 in her purse to give to FairLady, who said she didn't have to pay her back. But Horsley is determined to do so, even if it's just bit by bit, month by month.
After all, this kind stranger changed her world.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.