Just Life

A Novel


By Neil Abramson

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From Neil Abramson, USA Today bestselling author of Unsaid, comes a riveting novel that explores the complex connection between humans and animals.

Veterinarian Samantha Lewis and her team are dedicated to providing a sanctuary for unwanted, abused, and abandoned dogs in New York City. But every day it gets harder to operate her no-kill shelter. Sam is already at her breaking point when she learns of an unidentified, dangerous virus spreading through their neighborhood. The medical community can only determine that animals are the carriers. Amid growing panic and a demand for immediate answers, suspicion abruptly falls on dogs as the source. Soon the governor is calling in the National Guard to enforce a quarantine–no dog may leave the area.

Samantha knows from her own painful history that, despite the lack of real evidence against the dogs, a quarantine may only be the beginning. As questions about the source of the virus mount and clash with the pressure for a politically expedient resolution, Sam is forced to make life-altering choices. She finds allies in a motley crew of New Yorkers–a local priest, a troubled teen, a smart-mouthed former psychologist, and a cop desperate to do the right thing–all looking for sanctuary from their own personal demons. But the person Sam needs the most to unravel the mystery of the virus and save the dogs is the last one she’d ever want to call on–because contacting him will mean confronting the traumatic past she has fought so hard to escape.


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Book I



Samantha Lewis woke in a panic as she most often did these days. This was not a "damn, the Klonopin has worn off" slow ascent to anxious wakefulness; this was full-on, deer-in-the-headlights, "holy shit I've left the dog under anesthesia too long" or "I nicked the cat's liver when I removed the spleen" alarm. She could hear an incessant beeping like an enormous clock ticking off the time that she would never get back.

No, not a clock. The alarm-like ring tone of her phone.

She reached it just before the call went to voice mail.

"You up?" Kendall demanded in his bear-like growl of a voice.

He never called her this early. "What's wrong?"

"I need help. Central Park Lake near the 108th Street entrance."



"I can't keep doing this, Kendall. I don't want to anymore."

"You know I got no one else," Kendall said, and disconnected.

Sam thought about ignoring him, but couldn't do it. Kendall was one of the few good guys left.

Sam glanced down at the bottom of the bed, where Nick, her giant husky mix with ghostly blue eyes, looked back at her with concern. There was a time when he would have been the first one awake, pacing with his leash in his mouth, urging Sam to start their morning run in Central Park. But that was history; Nick no longer tried. Even a strong dog will eventually surrender to the stillness of his human's doubt-induced lethargy.

A wave of nausea suddenly coursed through Sam. Control it, she pleaded with herself. Think about something else. "Breathe," she muttered.

No use. She threw off her blanket, ran into the bathroom, and puked up her dinner of red wine and brown rice (mostly wine) from the night before.

With her head still hanging over the toilet bowl, Sam's pendant escaped from its permanent spot under her T-shirt and swung into view. She grabbed it and ran her fingers over the nineteen metal dog tags. She felt for the names she knew so well. Those names usually brought Sam the comfort of clear purpose. This morning, however, the pendant felt particularly unsympathetic, heavy and cynical.

Sam flushed the toilet and eyed herself in the bathroom mirror. When had her face become so skull-like? When had the hollows under her eyes become so dark? When had she stopped looking twenty-nine? "Snap out of it," she told her reflection. Self-pity was for the end of the day, not the start. Otherwise she wouldn't be able to trick herself into getting out of bed at all.

Sam returned to the bedroom and grabbed her journal and a pen out of the nightstand drawer. She quickly scrawled the date on a fresh page, and wrote beneath it, "Panic 1, Numbness 0." Her therapist said that these were merely flip sides of the same problem—her inability to address her anger. Turned outward, this anger became extreme anxiety; inward it was cold detachment. Sam thought this was a load of crap and a sign that she really needed to find a new shrink. Still, she kept the journal because she figured if the day ended with the numbers low and roughly equal she was doing OK. That, however, was becoming about as rare as a comma in her bank account balance.

Nick trotted into the bedroom and dropped his leash on Sam's feet—further confirmation that the day was moving forward whether she wanted to be a part of it or not.

She threw on sweat pants and sneakers and clipped the leash to Nick's collar, and together they ran down three flights of stairs and across four blocks to the Central Park entrance.

Sam kept running until she saw Sergeant Jim Kendall's towering presence. He stood a few feet back from a ninety-pound pit bull mix with penetrating eyes and a badly scarred muzzle. Kendall kept his long arms out in front like he was trying to placate an emotionally disturbed perp. "It's OK. I just wanna help you," he told the dog.

The pit, a female, snarled and snapped at Kendall, pacing in a circle around a smaller terrier-type dog that Sam guessed was either dead or dying.

A few early-morning joggers stopped to gape. "Just keep moving," Kendall told them. They didn't argue with the big cop.

Sam tapped Kendall on the shoulder and he jumped. "Crap, Sam. Don't do that!"

The pit bull growled at Nick, lips pulled back over her teeth. Nick sniffed the air and dropped to the ground at Sam's feet, ignoring the challenge.

"I wasn't sure you'd come," Kendall said.

"Yeah, right. What happened?" Sam asked.

"No idea. A jogger called it in."

Sam could now see the little dog's gruesomely broken jaw. "This was batting practice."

"Probably got too close to the work site."

A hundred yards deeper into the park, work crews were busy constructing a massive stage and fifteen-foot scale replicas of the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol building. These were the preparations for the Central Park Gala to honor the governor of New York after he accepted his party's almost certain presidential nomination at the convention scheduled for the last week of September.

Sam nodded to the construction. "Man has come to the forest, Bambi," she said.

"More like assholes. Ever since they found that rabid raccoon near the site, the hard hats have been pretty aggressive with anything that crosses their path."

"That's a bad excuse for animal abuse. There's been rabies in the park before," Sam said. "No one's ever been bit."

"Yeah, but we've never had the governor and ten thousand of his closest black-tie political friends partying in the park before." Kendall shook his head. "But today's problem is that the little dog is still breathing and I can't get to it. I'm supposed to call animal control for every incident near the site, but…"

Kendall didn't need to finish the sentence. Not with Sam. They both knew "animal control" these days meant a one-way trip that ended with a body bag. Kendall could never be a part of that—whether it was for the president or the pope—just as he could never bring himself to remove the photo of his long-dead K-9 patrol partner, Phoenix, from his wallet.

"Let me try," Sam said, and handed Kendall Nick's leash. Kendall and Nick usually did well together. Nick sniffed Kendall's shoes, but quickly lost interest.

Sam stepped forward, showing the pit bull her open palms. The pit looked from Sam to Kendall and then to Nick, but remained silent. Sam took another cautious step.

"Careful, Sam," Kendall whispered behind her. "This one feels different."

Sam nodded without turning around. "It's OK," she said, more to herself than to Kendall. "I got—" Before she could stop herself, Sam locked eyes with the pit bull. Damn, she thought. Rookie mistake. Locking gaze with a dog was a challenge. She mentally cursed her own stupidity. The pit bull growled deep in her throat.

Sam tried to look away, but the big dog's dark eyes were too powerful. She saw fear, anger, and something else in them. The word grief darted into Sam's head, but that feeling was never very far from her own thoughts, so she couldn't be certain of its source.

Sam tried to clear her mind of everything except the big dog staring at her. "I won't hurt him. I promise," she said.

"I'm not liking this," Kendall called. He wiped away the beads of perspiration that had suddenly formed on his dark-brown skin. Sam heard the fear in his voice and tried to ignore it while she stood motionless, waiting.

The pit bull finally dropped her gaze and retreated, coming to rest on the grass a few feet away. Sam finished the distance to the injured terrier and carefully cradled it in her arms while the scarred pit looked on. The little dog didn't make a sound. Sam knew this was a bad sign; dogs are supposed to make noise. Kendall moved forward to help, but Sam quickly waved him back.

The pit bull slowly got to her feet. She appeared exhausted and defeated, all her menace gone. She whined and glanced backward, as if something waited for her in the dense woods of the park.

Sam probably could have corralled the big stray, but she thought about all the dogs in cages in her shelter. Sure, she could provide them with food, safety, and even love. But freedom? True sanctuary? A place with sky, grass, trees, and wind? That was off the table for now and probably forever. She just couldn't bring herself to fill a cage with another unwanted creature. She couldn't pretend any longer that keeping something alive was the same as giving it a life.

Sam lowered her arms so the terrier was at eye level with her companion. The pit bull sniffed the terrier, licked him on the muzzle, and whimpered. After ten silent seconds, the pit bull turned and ran back toward the woods.

As Sam watched the dog run off, she recalled other recent partings, and an aching sadness pierced her chest so forcefully that it threatened to knock her over.

Kendall put his huge hand on Sam's shoulder. "The shelter?" he asked.

Sam shook her head. "We need to get to a real operating room to have any chance."

"Morgan then."

"She won't like it. I'll need a big cop to convince her."

"Least I can do."


New York City is overwhelmingly huge, but real New Yorkers don't live in New York City. They live in their neighborhoods—a handful of contiguous streets holding their apartments, schools, places of worship, and essential stores. The neighborhood is the art of juxtaposition brought to life and can make city living personal, tolerable, and, often, peculiar.

The streets that made up the working-class neighborhood called Riverside were already heavy with pedestrians hurrying to get to the subway or the downtown buses, while shop owners raced to open in time to grab a piece of the morning rush. The presence of the six-foot-five African-American cop carrying the body of the dog in his arms, running next to the pretty five-foot-eight white woman leading a wolflike dog on a leash, was odd even by city standards. People slowed to look.

"Coming through!" Kendall shouted, and lowered his shoulder like the high school football star he had once been. The pedestrian traffic reluctantly parted to let them pass.

Four minutes later they stopped before the imposing glass-and-chrome structure of the Hospital for Advanced Animal Care. Sam tried the front door. Locked. She rang the buzzer. Kendall was less patient and kicked at the door. "We've got an emergency," he yelled. "Please open up."

Footsteps, and then Dr. Jacqueline Morgan opened the door. Morgan was a handsome woman who, because of her Chanel outfit and perfectly highlighted blond hair, looked far younger than her real age of fifty-five.

"Sorry, Jacqueline," Sam said, and pushed past her into the empty waiting room. "This one won't keep." Kendall followed, carrying the injured dog. Nick trotted in last and sat by the large reception desk.

"What are you doing here?" Morgan demanded.

"Police emergency, Dr. Morgan," Kendall said.

"I'm sorry, Sergeant." Morgan spoke as always in the polite tone of a well-mannered maître d'. "I am not able to accommodate you." She smiled, but her teeth remained hidden behind her tightly sealed lips.

"This dog's in shock," Sam said. "He'll die. You have to let me try to save him."

Although Morgan's smile never wavered, her sanpaku eyes narrowed when she turned to Sam. "You of all people should understand that what you ask is simply not possible."

"Don't make this about us," Sam said.

"Of course it is not about us," Morgan replied calmly. "My insurance policy prohibits any work on these premises by non-employees. That, of course, would be you."

"Then you can do it," Sam said. "At least start an IV, open him up, and stop the bleeding."

"Why don't you take him to your little shelter and work on him there?"

"Because, thanks to you, I don't have a surgery room or any equipment."

"I'm not responsible for the terms of your city lease."

"No, that's right. You only make sure they're enforced by threatening…" Sam shook the rest of the sentence out of her head. She didn't have time to argue. "Can you just look at the dog?"

Morgan glanced at the terrier in Kendall's arms for less than a second. "Another stray. Oh joy. This one looks hopeless at this point," she said.

Sam felt herself losing control in the face of Morgan's genteel obstinacy, knowing that every lost second put the dog's life further out of reach. "God, you are such a bitch!"

Nick rose at Sam's tone and took a step toward them. Nick and Morgan were not buds.

"You are so much like your father, you know?" Morgan said. "Once you get past the self-righteous indignation, there is so little substance."

Even though Sam knew Morgan was pushing her buttons—as usual—that understanding didn't help. "Leave my father out of this." Sam grabbed the injured dog from Kendall and brushed past Morgan to the bank of exam rooms in the rear of the hospital.

"Where do you think you're going?" Morgan demanded.

Kendall fished a credit card from his pocket. "You can put all the charges on this." He tossed the card onto the reception desk.

Morgan reached for the phone on the desk. "I'm calling your precinct captain."

"Damn, Morgan. Why can't you just be a decent neighbor for once?" Kendall asked.

"But that's exactly what good fences are for, Sergeant."

Sam sensed an almost imperceptible shift of energy from the dog in her arms. In the movies she had loved growing up, death always came in one of two ways—with an agonal breath and then a panicked, desperate grab for the last vestiges of life, or with a deep, peaceful exhalation followed by a contented sigh. Either way, the act of dying was a remarkable moment that commanded the attention of all those in proximity. But Sam had learned the truth about death in vet school: it wasn't special at all. It wasn't even an event. Death was only the failure of life. It crept into the vacuum created when you couldn't beg, cajole, or push life out any further. This was why death always eventually won; the act of fostering life requires constant diligence and we tire or get distracted far too easily. That was true, Sam knew, whether the dead thing was a mutt in shock or a parent who happened to end up on the wrong side of a windshield.

Sam wrapped the still dog in a towel that she grabbed from a pile and returned to Kendall. "Let's go," she said.

"Wha—?" Kendall started.

"He's dead." Sam opened the towel and shoved the body into Morgan's face so that his fur almost touched her nose. "Take a good look! I want you to recognize him when you see him again. You have no idea how many little eyes are waiting for you!"

Morgan didn't even blink as she continued to hold the phone to her ear, waiting. She was frighteningly good at maintaining composure and restraint. "Hello, Captain?" she said smoothly into the receiver. "It's Dr. Jacqueline Morgan… Yes, we have another issue…"

Nick growled again, low and guttural. Sam sensed that this time it wasn't just for show.

Kendall stepped in front of Sam and her dog. "Not here, Sam. Not now." Part of Sam understood that she was only making things worse—and they were bad enough—but a larger part just wanted to unload on Morgan in every human dimension they shared. "Sam?" Kendall gently touched her arm. "Let's just go."

Sam nodded in defeat and whistled for Nick. In a moment she was on the sidewalk holding a dead dog.

Kendall came up beside her. "Sorry about all this," he said. "I really didn't have anyone else."

"Yeah, well." Sam struggled for calm. "I figure people come into each other's lives for a reason, you know?" She noticed a group of grade school children walking toward her on their way to Riverside Elementary School. Six of the youngest kids were sporting surgical masks over their tiny noses and mouths. "What the hell?" Then she remembered.

The virus.

The CDC had reported the first case at the beginning of the week, and soon there had been four. The disease started like the common flu, but then the symptoms became frighteningly neurological: tremors, memory loss, speech deficits, followed by paralysis. All the victims were kids and all the kids lived in Riverside. Besides those two facts, the children had no other obvious connection.

Kendall followed her stare. "You heard the first kid died early this morning?"

Sam shook her head. "How old?"

"She was only four."

"Christ. Those poor parents. Did you know them?"

"Just by sight at the playground. They seemed nice enough. Regular folks… you know?" Kendall shrugged.

Sam did know—not the kind of people who deserved to experience an unimaginable life-altering loss. No words would offer comfort, let alone hope. Their lives, like their hands, were now forever shrouded in the odor of freshly turned soil.

Kendall brought her back. "Another case reported too."

"What the hell is this thing?"

Kendall often learned things at roll call that wouldn't break publicly for hours, if at all. Some of it was just gossip and rumor, but the "blue telegraph line" was usually accurate and Kendall had realized long ago that he could trust Sam. "State department of health thinks it's zoonotic." Kendall dropped his voice. "They're assuming avian source. I wouldn't want to be a pigeon in Riverside right now."

"You mean like West Nile?"

"Something like that. But I'm hearing lots more questions than answers. They're thinking about closing the schools in Riverside for a few days until they've got a better idea about the source."

"Sounds a lot bigger than the city is letting on."

"They're always worried about panic. Me too. The timing sucks with the convention coming to town in two weeks. People might start making poor choices if they think the virus poses a serious risk to their little presidential show."

"Yeah," Sam agreed, feeling the weight of the dead dog in her arms. She had seen too often that frightened people do frightening things.

"I'll stop in later and let you know what I hear." Kendall dropped a hand down to Nick's head. The dog licked it. "You watch her back," he told Nick, and headed down the street.

Sam watched him go and experienced a deadening fatigue that she knew no amount of coffee could relieve. She really believed what she had told Kendall—people did appear in your life for a reason. What she questioned, though, what made her grind her teeth through the night so hard her jaw ached in the morning, what made her furious when she passed the Mother's Day card section at Duane Reade, and what regularly sucked the life right out of her, was the utter lack of reason for all the exits. Sam had yet to find any logic on that side of the life equation and feared she never would.

But she did know one thing for certain—the day was still coming to get her, whatever she believed.


A New York City subway station is a dirtier, darker (in both light and energy), warmer (in temperature only), and smaller microcosm of the street above. There are shops, cops, riders, beggars, thieves, con men and women, preachers, schoolchildren, roaches, rats, performers, and lost pigeons. It is both an overwhelming and a numbing country, where all interactions explode against a soundtrack of rattling trains and a melody banged out by some musician praying for a few dollars dropped in a case, box, or hat.

Most humans do not linger in a subway station unless they hope to be saved, need to be saved, or are trying to do the saving. Andy was none of these today. His short blond hair, lanky frame, smooth face, high-top sneakers, and bulky backpack could have put him in high school, but something about his vaguely feral demeanor, piercing green eyes, and assured gait made him seem older.

Andy was about to exit the station with five hundred other self-absorbed riders when something familiar but wrong caught his eye.

The beggar with the one leg who often sat on a mat near the stairs had a new addition—a sickly-looking dog with a narrow face and dirty-blond coat from its Doberman/yellow Lab ancestors. A soiled rope that served as both leash and collar secured the dog to a railing while a sign on its neck completed the humiliation: "Help feed my dog! Please!!!"

The dog was panting hard, but not from thirst—the beggar had at least thought to provide the animal with a plastic dish of water.

"Your dog's sick," Andy said.

"Nah, man, just hungry."

Andy shook his head. He knew the dog was ill as surely as he knew his own name.

"C'mon, kid. Help feed him and a Vietnam vet. I fought for your freedom."

"I know you, don't you remember?" Andy said. "The closest you've been to Vietnam is the noodle shop on the corner."

"Leave me alone, kid… not bothering anyone."

"Where'd you get the dog?"

"A guy I know couldn't take care of it anymore. So he gave it to me."

"Him, not it," Andy corrected.


"Never mind. You're only keeping him because he helps bring in the cash, right?" The beggar shrugged and looked away. "Well, now he's sick. I need to take him."

"But it's mine. We… we care for each other."

"Right. So what's the name of this dog that you care for so much?"

The beggar hesitated for a moment. "I call it Brutus, and if you lay a finger on it, I'll start screaming."

"And assuming I don't put my foot down your throat first, what do you think that's gonna accomplish?"

"The cops'll come."


"And when you can't prove you own it, they'll take Brutus away."

"Then you won't get to keep him either. So nobody wins."

The beggar shook his head in mock sadness. "'Cept we both know that in the pound they'll kill Brutus. And I think that might weigh heavily on a nice young man like you."

Andy wouldn't be put off. "I know people. I could get him saved before that happened."

"Go ahead then. Take the chance."

Andy didn't need to do the math. Although good and caring people worked at the regular city shelters, it was a question of overwhelming numbers. Once the dog went into the central system, he would be lost for days or longer in a river of creatures flowing downhill to the garbage chute. Andy knew about that too well from his own journey down a parallel course. He leaned into the beggar close enough to smell his urine. "You know I can end you right now and no one would even care."

"Oh, I know you could. But I know you wouldn't. You got the smell of the system all over you. You don't wanna go back, do you?"

At the beggar's words, Andy heard the clang of cold steel doors locking for the night. He saw himself shivering on a mattress so thin he could name each bedspring. He smelled the slightly sour odor of overcooked vegetables and undercooked meat. He felt hard and unforgiving hands on tender skin.

Andy had a problem with memory. His entire personal history since the age of eleven was a constant physical presence in his life. He could recall specific memories with photographic clarity at any moment—what he'd worn to school on November 12, 2009, where he'd had lunch on June 5, 2010, and what he'd eaten, the combination of every lock he had ever used, and the number of stairs in every foster home that had swallowed him. He "saw" his past the way other people watched old movies. And because each memory connected to another, he often became lost in the theater of his history, like some musician trapped in an infinite loop of a twisted version of "And the Green Grass Grew All Around." When that happened, it required all of Andy's emotional and physical strength to return to the present.

The scientific name for Andy's rare condition is highly specific autobiographical memory or HSAM. Andy just called it "piking." HSAM sounds like a remarkable gift… unless your life has sucked. Then, as Andy would have quickly acknowledged, it was like being trapped in a cage made out of razor wire.

Andy bit into the top of his own hand to bring himself back to the present. He left new teeth marks, but stopped before breaking the skin. These would quickly fade. Other marks he had previously posited on his hands and elsewhere would remain with him forever.

Andy's eyes found the dog's. He saw intelligence there, as well as pain and desperation. He was about to make a move for the dog that undoubtedly would end with yet another police interaction, when the beggar said, "Of course you can also buy it from me."

"Right," Andy answered. "Because he means so much to you." The beggar smiled in response, showing his gray teeth. "How much then?"


Andy clenched his fists, but forced himself to remain still. He knew he couldn't allow this to end in violence. Too many people were starting to slow as they passed him. A few had stopped, waiting to see what would happen. He dug his hands into his pockets and pulled out three five-dollar bills and four singles. "All I got is nineteen. You're gonna take that." It wasn't a question.

"No. I'm not." With one eye on the growing crowd, the beggar announced, "You can't take my dog." Then louder for the audience, "It's all… he's all I've got in the world."

Andy knew the bastard had him. He was down to one choice. He shook off his backpack, pulled out an old, battered violin case, and removed his violin and bow. Then he yanked an almost clean paper bag from the nearest garbage can and propped it open at his feet. "Not the Mendelssohn," Andy mumbled. "Please not the Mendelssohn."

Andy lowered the bow to the strings and closed his eyes, bracing himself for the searing pain of recollection.

The Mendelssohn. Of course.

Many believe that the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Although perhaps not as technically challenging as the Bartók, it is more melodic, more layered, and more inward-looking. For Andy, for reasons having little to do with the piece itself, this particular composition was transporting; the music turned him into a tourist in his own ruins.


  • "Just Life is a new treasure that I'm adding to my list of favorite books about dogs and people. Rather than just writing about the human-animal bond, Abramson seems to write from inside it...Just Life is ethically rich, with several different interwoven themes running throughout the story...Just Life is not just for animal lovers, though, but for anyone who enjoys a good story with interesting characters and a captivating plot."—Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., Psychology Today
  • "Propelled by a strong moral imperative, Abramson's taut and suspenseful novel demonstrates what happens when the lines of scientific ethics and citizen welfare are blurred in the name of political expediency."—Carol Haggas, Booklist
  • "If you love dogs and well-written, suspenseful fiction that is uplifting and will inspire you to open an animal sanctuary, read this lovely novel."—Jeffrey Masson, author of Dogs Never Lie About Love, The Dog Who Couldn't Stop Loving, and Dogs Make Us Human
  • "Rarely has a novel captured so movingly the deep bonds between people and the animals that share their lives"—Parade on Unsaid
  • "Unsaid is an extraordinary story of animals, afterlife, and the power of love. I found myself captivated by the world of this book. It will make you remember, rethink, and rejoice in every meaningful relationship you've ever had. Everyone needs to read this book!"—Garth Stein, author of the international bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain on Unsaid
  • "UNSAID will really make you think about the relationship between people and animals. I was not able to put it down, and I read parts of it twice."—Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human on Unsaid
  • "Abramson delivers a touching and dramatic story that is sure to please animal lovers.... [A] solid story of loss and love."—Library Journal on Unsaid

On Sale
Apr 4, 2017
Page Count
416 pages
Center Street

Neil Abramson

About the Author

NEIL ABRAMSON is the author of Unsaid. A partner in a Manhattan law firm, Abramson is a past board member of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an award recipient from the ASPCA for his legal work on behalf of animals, and a founding member of the New York City Bar Association Committee on Legal Issues Relating to Animals. He and his wife, a veterinarian, share their home with a wide variety of animals.

Learn more about this author