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Animal obsession 

My parents are manic collectors. Every few years, it seems, Bill and Stella fancy a new enthusiasm that they pursue with a few thousand miles on odometers and a few grand of cash. Local wine, shiny handguns, Ford Mustangs: Since I left for college, they've obsessed over collecting each and, soon enough, forgotten they ever really cared. These days, it seems, Dad wouldn't want to tell you the difference between a pinot noir and a pepper-box pistol.

But for the past few years, they've devoted most of their time to college athletics (an earlier obsession they discarded after my older brother, Senter, hung up his Pirates jersey at East Carolina University) and dogs. Dad, for instance, snagged lifetime rights to a few seats in N.C. State's Carter-Finley Stadium not long after I graduated from school. And this fall, they made the move up to Vaughn Towers, the high-rise looming over the stadium's west side, to gain a bird's-eye view of the (so far, somewhat pitiful) action below. They travel to away games, too, and come basketball season, they'll drive 30 minutes or so to the RBC Center each week to cheer on the Wolfpack from the same seats they've had for the last two years. "Extreme," my brother and I have called them.

So Dad surprised me, then, when he called four weeks ago to ask unceremoniously if I wanted a dog. They live on the same lonely country road where they raised me, and, one night, someone apparently abandoned a young black-and-white dog. She'd wandered up their steps, looking for food. Good for her: Mom and Dad have four dogs now—their trusty, aging shih tzus, Mattie and Millie, and DJ and Raven, a well-fed golden retriever who's survived cancer and being hit by a car and a black lab with epilepsy and a surgically repaired leg, respectively. Those dogs, it seems, are sufficient surrogates in an empty nest. Grooming and veterinarian appointments have replaced the football and history bowl practices in my mom's schedule, and without two overeating sons to feed, she'll cook legitimate meals for the dogs. Just as my parents would defend Senter and me growing up, they have become their dogs' champions, too: Mistreat Raven, and Dad will mistreat you. Mention DJ's size, and Mom will swear he's lost weight, or that he's "just the sweetest thing." So why wouldn't they want another kid? And did I want a dog so lackluster that even they wouldn't keep her? Though I did want a dog, I was charmed neither by a photo Mom sent of the dog, a midsize terrier-and-collie mix, nor "Flossy," the name Mom had given her. I passed.

Two weeks later, someone broke into the house where my late grandparents had lived, right across the woods from Mom and Dad. The next week, Dad was scheduled to be out of town. Mom asked me to spend the week with her, and I did. But mostly I spent it with Flossy, an adorable little dog with a square jaw, a relentless tail wag and this great little move where she'll hug your leg until you shake her free. I've renamed her Alice, and she now lives in Raleigh with two parents who, like Bill and Stella, have a new enthusiasm and obsession—her.

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