Excerpt from ‘The Gift’

 

Spike

 

He knew she was sick. He’d tried every which way to let her know, too, but she wasn’t having any of it. He didn’t know what to do. He’d spent a lot of time reflecting on how to get her help, and one sunny morning, when he was standing on the front porch, smelling the arrival of spring in the air, wind chimes jangling softly above his head, it came to him. He needed to get her to the man in whose hands he felt whole. The hands that he’d sensed, right from the beginning, would heal him no matter what. But how could he do that?
He thought some more, watching beads of icy moisture on the barren branches of the magnolia tree tremble in the early morning sunshine. He knew the man with the hands was somewhere close to the river. He remembered that. And he knew that the van that came once a month to clean the carpets was from somewhere close to the river. So what he needed to do was watch for the van and get a ride in it.
If the van could get him to the river, he was sure he could find the man with the hands. And if he could find the man with the hands, he could get her help for her illness.
So that was what he’d do, he decided as two beads of moisture dropped from the tree onto the scraggly grass. He’d watch for the van.

 

Chapter 1

 

Leo was in the middle of a really, really good dream when he felt a whisper-soft kiss on his ear. He started to roll toward it but the sound of his cell phone dragged him into semiconsciousness. He slapped his left hand around on his bedside table, realizing this must be why she’d woken him, and turned away from her nuzzling when his fingers located the phone.
“Mm huh?” he grunted into the sleek rectangle. He knew it was his vet tech, Mackenzie Manning—or Mac, as most people called her—because of the ringtone. He made himself look at the clock on his bedside table: four thirty a.m. Something must be up.
“I hate to wake you,” she said, her voice warm, resonant. She didn’t wake him very often—almost never, in fact—but Dr. Leo Friel was always glad that the one voice he would allow to disturb his sleep for the sake of the clinic was Mac’s.
He rolled onto his back again, tugging some of his hair up at the front of his scalp to increase blood flow to his brain. “What is it?”
“Heather Coy called and said her cat’s having trouble peeing.”
Trouble urinating could be a stone in the cat’s urethra, which would back up waste products into the kidneys. Usually clients called saying their cat was constipated when they saw it straining over the litter box, not realizing it was really struggling to pee, but Heather had nearly lost her cat to urinary crystals once before. So she knew what that straining meant. And she knew it was the one thing that would drag Leo out of bed in the early hours. “All right. I’m on my way.”
The ear kissing became more pronounced as he hung up and slipped his phone back on the bedside table. Leo turned to face Venus, his five-month-old golden retriever. She pushed her wet puppy nose under his chin and started licking the tip.
“Stop!” he chuckled. “I need to go to work.” But Venus just scooted closer, belly flat on the bed, back legs splayed, tail wagging softly from side to side. She moved up to kissing his nose. Leo caressed her with his left hand, then levitated to a sit. He couldn’t lay here and snuggle with his puppy. He needed to get to the clinic.
He rubbed his eye sockets with the heels of his hands and then looked at the rest of the bed. It was empty. He felt a pang in the pit of his stomach. He caressed the soft golden fur on Venus’s back, feeling her loose puppy skin move with the motion. He leaned forward and cupped her muzzle with both his hands, putting his nose close to hers, and whispered, “How come I can make this relationship work, but I can’t do the same with the human ones?”
Behind him he heard a thump thump thump on the floor, and he twisted his head around to see Harley, his older Heinz 57 mongrel with hips too stiff to get up onto the bed anymore. The big black dog with paintball patches of gold and white had propped his chin on the edge of the bed, hoping to be included. “Yes, I love you, too,” Leo reassured him with a quick scratch behind one ear.
He swung his legs over Harley, put his feet on the floor, and stood up out of bed. “You stay here, okay?” he ordered both dogs.
He padded into the bathroom, took a leak, and then splashed cold water onto his face one, two, three times. He’d heard Jerry Seinfeld describe doing this as a wake-up trick—“like reveille,” said his interviewer—and decided if it was good enough for Seinfeld, it was good enough for Friel. He towel dried his face and looked in the mirror above the sink, his eyes bleary. He needed to shave, but he’d do that at the clinic, after he’d assessed the cat. With a stone in the urethra, there was no time to waste.
Leo set the towel down on the side of the sink and stretched both hands up into the air. He looped his thumbs together, biceps tensing, and arced slowly right, then left, to warm up his back. At fifty-eight he knew the one part of him he needed to keep supple was his spine. He came to center again, turned away from the sink, and folded forward at the hips, pulling his muscular torso in tight to his legs. In that snug forward bend he counted to twenty while another part of his mind flashed a reminder that he was supposed to be somewhere today. It disappeared before he could catch where. He let the thought go as he unfurled back to a stand. Okay, he told himself. Let’s do this.

*****

The last thing Mac needed was to be woken early by an emergency for the clinic. She’d been at the opening night cast party for the summer Shakespeare production of Hamlet till almost one in the morning, so she knew it would be a struggle to get up at her usual time of five thirty. But four twenty? Really? This had better be an emergency, she thought as she snatched up the phone, hoping not to wake her husband, Chad. And, of course, it was. On the one morning she could have used an extra five minutes in bed.
But Heather Coy has been a client at the clinic for a dozen years and Mac knew Dr. F thought the world of her, even though she was kind of wacky. Well, more than kind of. “Certifiable” was probably closer to the mark, but nobody ever said anything about it to her. All the staff at the clinic just listened and nodded when Heather told them about the marriage ceremony she’d had with her cat, Buster, and how they got a letter from the President—President John F. Kennedy, mind you, who Mac was pretty sure died before Heather was even born—giving his blessing to their union. Dr. F would look at her, with those big baby blues that worked so well on the female clientele, and ask, “So when did you first notice Buster was limping?” Mac wondered how he kept a straight face at times; but then she knew how laser focused he could get when he was examining a pet, so she imagined he spent a lot of time thinking she could deal with any extraneous jibber jabber. And Mac spent a lot of time telling herself she was glad she was an actress in her spare time.
After Heather called, Mac willed herself to get out of bed. Today was a big day for Dr. F, but she knew there was no way he was going to pass on helping Buster. Plus it should go pretty quickly, she thought, if they could get it done before the clinic opened at seven. She hit his cell-phone number as she stumbled around her little house in the mountains, wondering what she was going to wear. She had a brand-new pair of scrubs with Olaf the Snowman from Frozen at the clinic, but she needed something to pull on to get down there.
Dr. F picked up on the third ring as Mac nudged her Jack Russell terrier, Puck, off a pile of clothes her friend Janie had given her for costumes. Janie was curvy, just like Mac, although Mac had a little more in the boob department. Still, she figured there ought to be something in the pile that she could wear.
She told Leo what was going on and, of course, he said he’d be right there. As Mac hung up she found a pair of black spandex leggings in the pile. Perfect! Then she found a baggy gray T-shirt with the words, “It’s just a flesh wound,” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail on the front of it. She chuckled. That was her kind of shirt.
She tugged on the leggings while Puck ran circles around her, and then called Heather Coy back and told her to head on over to the clinic. She hung up, tossed her phone into her purse, pulled the T-shirt over her head, scooped up Puck, and walked him into the bedroom, so he could go back to sleep with Chad.
“You need me to drive you down?” Chad mumbled from his cocoon in the blankets.
“Nah, it’s Saturday,” whispered Mac, pushing her fists into the bed to lean over and kiss him. “You go back to sleep.”
She pulled the bedroom door closed behind her and made a beeline for the bathroom to put on her eyeliner. Mac didn’t care what her clothes looked like under her scrubs, but dammit, she was an actress as well as a vet tech. She had to have her makeup on! She applied a quick stroke of kohl black on both lids, to highlight what Chad referred to as the liquid amber of her eyes, then put on a few dabs of foundation and some powder. She looked in the mirror; that would do.
It was just after four thirty by the time she was in her Honda Element, starting the thirty-minute drive west on the North Cascades Highway. The road meandered left and right, alongside the beauty of the great Skagit River, which came down from Canada and through the town of Mount Vernon, where the animal clinic was located, before heading out to the Puget Sound. Chad usually drove, so Mac could nap in the car, but she was glad she’d told him to stay in bed this morning, because she caught that special hour—“The hour before the heavenly-harnessed team / Begins his golden progress in the east”—and saw dawn to sunrise in a watercolor progression of pale pearl to opalescent gold.
She pulled past the “Riverside Animal Clinic” sign at exactly five a.m. and wound around the back to park next to Dr. F’s Jeep Cherokee. The clinic sat about twenty feet above the Skagit River, and Mac took a moment to watch the morning sunlight dancing, like so many fairy lights, on the tips of the tiny whitecaps in the teal-green water. When she slid out of her car, she was smiling.
She hustled around to the side door to let herself in and saw that someone had dumped a used black T-shirt with bands of yellow across it, like the utility workers wore, on the ground there. It reeked of urine. She tsked. Why couldn’t they have carried it over to the dumpster rather than leaving it by the door? She leaned forward to snatch it up, then thought twice about it. Maybe she should put on gloves before touching such a thing.
She swung open the door, stepped inside, and scooted down the short hallway housing the autoclave, microwave, and toaster oven. She continued on through the treatment room, heading for X-ray, to dump her purse. It was quiet when she hurried through treatment, but it didn’t take long for the “hey-I’m-here-can-you-see-me?” addition to her day to start. Bark, pause, bark, pause, bark: low, deep, rhythmic.
Mac hung her purse on one of the hooks at the far end of the X-ray table and turned on the light in the adjacent break room. She guessed that the low, steady bark was coming from Ginger, the spaniel-hound mix in the large dog ward. From his kennel he could see through the window in the door and undoubtedly caught Mac shooting past into X-ray.
She slipped into her scrubs as a louder, more insistent WOOWOOWOOWOOWOO joined in with Ginger. That was probably the black Lab cruciate ligament surgery in the kennel farthest from the door. He was due to go home today. He set off the steady, high-pitched whine of the two Great Dane pups next door to him.
Mac sped back out into treatment hearing WOOwhineWOOwhineBarkWOOwhine. She booted up the viewing computer for the digital X-rays, moved down the counter and opened the door to the oxygen closet, which set off the yap yap yap yap yap meow meeOOOWW in the small animal ward next door. She turned on the oxygen tanks just as some critter in the large dog ward added a periodic howl to the dose of dissonance for the day. Mac always wished she could think of it as free jazz, but that would suggest there was music in all the mewing and baying and yapping and howling, when really it was just noise.
She snapped on a pair of latex gloves to go deal with the T-shirt outside. It wasn’t going to get any less stinky sitting out in the July sun. She put her head down and started for the door.
Dr. F appeared at the end of the short hallway leading to his office. “You want to go get Buster?” he asked, even though there was very little question in his tone.
Mac rocked awkwardly on her feet, caught between the wants and musts of her job. “Er, sure,” she said, knowing Dr. F’s impatience when on a mission to help an animal. She’d have to go dump the T-shirt later. She pulled off the gloves, stuffed them in the pocket of her scrubs, and headed out the double doors to fetch Buster.

*****

Five minutes later Mac and Dr. F were both staring at the X-ray of Buster’s abdomen. “Do you see anything?” the doc asked, leaning forward slightly as if he wasn’t close enough.
“I don’t. No.” Mac was on one side of him, directly in front of the large dog ward, cradling the sleek gray Russian Blue in her arms. Buster tensed as Ginger began to bound up against the door to his kennel, bark-pause-barking. Mac leaned toward the computer screen to remove Buster from Ginger’s line of sight.
They peered some more, squinting to see signs of the white circles that would indicate crystals in the urine. Dr. F made a deep hmm of intrigue in his throat. “His bladder wasn’t full when I palpated his abdomen,” he said, more to himself than to Mac. “And I checked his colon to make sure he wasn’t just constipated. It felt normal . . .”
“You want me to get a urine sample?”
Dr. F didn’t reply. Mac waited, knowing he was running every scenario through his mind and thinking about his options. After a few seconds he smacked his lips decisively and threw his shoulders back. Mac knew that meant “game on.” Now it would be full-speed ahead to cure Buster.
“No. Let’s run an ultrasound,” Dr. F declared. “Then, if we can’t see anything from that, we’ll catheterize him, fill his bladder full of radiopaque dye, then re-X-ray him.”
“You want me to air fill and X-ray it first?”
The vet’s eyes narrowed as he chewed on this for a moment. Mac knew he was worrying over the cost of the extra tests for Heather Coy. “Let me see if I can’t get some more information out of the client first,” he said. “And then, of course, we’ll have to see if you can catheterize him.”
Mac nodded. If she couldn’t, it would be a sure sign of a blocked urethra.
Dr. F lifted his right hand and signaled the list of procedures: thumb, finger, finger. “So client questions, ultrasound, catheter.” Buster craned forward and sniffed the doc’s raised fingers, then rubbed against them, looking for love. Dr. F smiled and tickled the top of Buster’s head before starting toward the double doors out of treatment. “And then, if all that fails to tell us what we need, then yes, air, dye, air.”
Mac scooted Buster back into his pet carrier on the floor of treatment, so she could go dispose of the stinky T-shirt while the ultrasound machine warmed up. Buster growled argumentatively, and Mac scratched him behind the ear to appease him. She felt a small, fresh wound.
“Have you been fighting?” she asked. She tipped his head down and parted his fur to take a closer at the wound. It needed cleaning, but it didn’t seem to be bothering him. He nudged his head up and around under her fingers, like he wanted her to pet him some more, then stepped toward her. Mac laughed. “Yeah, think again, little man,” she said and closed the door to the pet carrier on him. “You’re in there till I’m ready for you.” He huffed his nose up in the air, emitted a tiny mewl, then lowered himself, front legs folded underneath his chest, and promptly closed his eyes.
Mac buzzed back into X-ray and plugged in the ultrasound machine. If she was really quick, maybe she’d even have time to fix her hair in the bathroom before they took a second look at Buster. She dashed through treatment, tugging the latex gloves back on, and stepped back out into the gathering daylight. She bent forward and grabbed a corner of the T-shirt, but when she pulled, it didn’t lift up off the ground. Mac felt a warning prickle on the back of her neck. She crouched down, holding the back of her left hand against her nose to mitigate the smell. The T-shirt was oversized brushed cotton and looked like it had been kicked around in the dirt. She unfolded the fabric with the fingers of her right hand. “What the . . . ?” she uttered.
Without a second thought, she scooped the whole works up and ran toward X-ray.

*****

Leo peered through the peephole to exam room 1 to see if that’s where Heather Coy was waiting for news of Buster. He spied her narrow shape and spiky hair, even though she was facing away from him, her fingers clutched tightly around her upper arms like she was trying to hold in her fears with the fiercest of hugs. He hoped she was calm enough that she could give him the information he needed to help Buster. Leo decided to take the cat’s chart in with him to prompt her and headed back into treatment to fetch it. But as he walked through the double doors, he saw Mac speed by, holding something out in front of her. He instantly switched gears.
He grabbed his stethoscope off its hook and hurried after her into X-ray, recoiling at the acrid aroma filling the small space. He assumed it was coming from the big black T-shirt with the yellow stripes on it that she’d laid on the X-ray table. As Leo came around to stand beside her, Mac threw open the T-shirt to reveal an unconscious and badly wounded dog. Leo could see immediately that the dog’s left rear leg was broken and his right hip was protruding at an angle that made him think it was dislocated. He watched Mac carefully ease the lower half of the lifeless canine into the air to pull the shirt out from under it. He checked as Mac freed the rest of the T-shirt from under the pup’s shoulders and head. It was a male.
Leo unclipped the raggedy blue collar around the dog’s neck. It had a rusty ring on it that wasn’t fully closed. Maybe it had held a nametag at one point, but not anymore. There was a scrap of fiber tied around it in one place that might have been the edge of a bandana.
“Any indication who he belongs to?” asked Mac.
Leo shook his head no. He gave her the collar, and she took it with the T-shirt to the garbage out in treatment. Leo flipped over the dog’s lip to see his teeth and check the color of his gums. There wasn’t much tartar on the teeth, so this was a young dog. Maybe a year old. He put the bell of the stethoscope on the dog’s chest and listened. It sounded like there was fluid in the lung cavity. And his heartbeat was faint.
Leo pulled the stethoscope from his ears and hooked it around his neck. He felt the dog’s abdomen. It was squishy. He leaned forward and tapped on it, listening for the gurgle of moving liquid. He heard it, a sure sign of internal bleeding. He ran his hand over the dog’s right hip and felt the end of the femur detached from its socket. He noted the pronounced separation of the dog’s ribcage from his belly as he parted the matted and dirt-encrusted fur; fleas ran every which way. Poor thing, thought Leo. Not only had he suffered an extreme trauma, but also it looked like he’d been a victim of neglect.
Mac bustled back into the room with a handheld plastic box and moved it over the top of the dog’s spine. “Let’s see if you’ve got a chip in you,” she said. The machine didn’t beep, and no number flashed on the tiny screen. “Nope,” she said and slipped it in the pocket of her scrubs.
Leo was still staring at the pup, chewing over his predicament. He could feel Mac’s eyes on him and avoided looking at her because he knew they would be filled with pleading. Pleading for him to save this dog, the one thing Leo was sure he couldn’t do.
“Hit by a car would be my guess,” he said, staring down at the dog.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“Although the state of his coat and his emaciation make me think he wasn’t living a great life to start with.”
“Somebody loved him enough to leave him here,” Mac shot back.
Leo’s stomach tightened. He’d hoped Mac could be realistic. This poor dog had no owner to claim responsibility for him if Leo did fix him up. No owner, not much of a pulse, and a slew of ailments that would require immediate surgery.
“He looks like a basenji,” was all he said.
“Uh-huh. Except his tail isn’t curled.”
“That could be because he’s unconscious.”
“He looks kinda big for a purebred basenji,” Mac remarked, her fingers tickling the fur between the dog’s pointed ears. “Even as skinny as he is.”
“And his coat’s thicker,” Leo concurred.
“But I love the rusty red,” she said. Leo felt her eyes on him again. “Don’t you think that’s a great color?”
Leo nodded. “I bet the top of him looks like a shiny copper pot when he’s all cleaned up.”
There was a moment of silence as they both stood side by side, staring at the dog, neither of them wanting to bring up the inevitable. Mac eventually did the deed.
“Are we going to clean him up?” she asked.
Leo looked at her, his forehead tipped down, his eyebrows up. It was a cautionary look. “He’s got a pneumothorax, a bad break in that left leg, his right hip’s dislocated, and he’s bleeding internally.” He shook his head no. “I can’t help him.”
Mac’s spirit visibly collapsed. “I put down three dogs yesterday afternoon. I can’t do one first thing today.”
Leo’s tone softened but his resolve was fixed. “What about Buster?” he said. “I can’t make him wait even as long as it would take me to do a quick fix on this dog. And this dog needs a lot more than a quick fix.”
“Did you talk to Heather Coy yet?”
Leo shook his head no.
“I could put this one on oxygen and get some initial X-rays while you do that. You know how quick I can be.”
“His gums are pale blue,” Leo insisted. “And it’s not like he’s got an owner waiting on him—unless . . . was there a note in the T-shirt?”
Mac looked down at her hands. She shook her head no. Leo could tell she was close to tears, and he empathized. One of the hardest things the staff had to do at the clinic was put animals down. It drained them of all their reserves of joy, like letting air out of a balloon. He touched her shoulder and said, as gently as he could, “I don’t think this dog’s going to regain consciousness.”
She looked up at him, her eyes wet, and Leo did the only thing he knew to do: he moved forward with his decision. He slipped his hands under the limp body of the dog and lifted him just enough to get a rough weight for the Fatal-Plus. “Not much more than eighteen pounds, I’d guess, so get three ccs of the blue stuff.” He lowered the dog and made eye contact with Mac once more. “It’s time,” he said.
She walked heavily out of X-ray, muttering sufficiently loudly that Leo could hear it, “Sometimes I hate my job!”

*****

While Leo waited for Mac to return with the pentobarbital sodium, the ultrasound machine blinked the name of the manufacturer across the screen to indicate it was ready for use. He didn’t notice. He was bent over the dying pup, his left hand cupped under the dog’s head while his right caressed his ear and face. “It won’t be long now,” he whispered. The other side to the pain of having to euthanize animals was the knowledge that they wouldn’t have to suffer any longer.
Leo ran his right forefinger under the dog’s chin, stroking the tip of his fur back and forth, back and forth. Even as unwashed and bedraggled as this dog was, his fur was incredibly soft. Like a dandelion head gone to seed. Leo knew the dog was completely out of it, but he held him nonetheless, not wanting the pup to feel alone in the little time he had left before he received the injection of Fatal-Plus.
“I’m sorry, buddy,” he whispered to the basenji, feeling something familiar in the pup. He wondered how hard his year of life had been and whether he was glad to be letting go. He also wondered why somebody had brought him this far and yet not stayed to see if he could be saved. Money, probably, Leo thought. He was a vet with a reputation for not letting the finances get in the way of helping an animal, but maybe that reputation hadn’t reached as far as the owner of this pet.
Leo smacked his lips together and looked up at the wall in front of him, his eyes settling on the chart of the X-ray guidelines. He felt the shallow, rhythmic breathing of the dog vibrate through him, like a background beat, as his mind wandered from never letting money get in the way of treatment, to the reputation he had with his clients, to that one jarring conversation in the mall.
It had been about eighteen months ago, and it still stung when Leo thought about it. He had been out with his wife, Sheena, on one of their rare shopping trips together, when they ran into a client—a heavyset banker with a cheerful disposition—who was fond of pugs. He’d been doing business with Leo for more than a decade.
The banker looked tickled, running into Leo like that. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you outside the clinic.” Then he joked, “It must be Christmas.”
Which it was. Well, almost. It was about a week before Christmas.
“No, I’m glad to see you do take breaks,” the banker went on more seriously. “Although don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the long hours you put in at the clinic. Very much. In fact, if it weren’t for that, I might never have met you.” The client turned to Sheena and explained. “My wife and I woke up one morning to find our pug, Napoleon, struggling to breathe, and the only small-animal clinic we could find open at seven in the morning was your husband’s. Of course, that was back fifteen years ago, before there were emergency clinics for small animals, but still. He was there when we needed him. And he’s been there every time we’ve needed him ever since.” The banker smiled across at Leo and patted Sheena on the shoulder as he started to move away. “You’re married to a really great guy,” he said with such sincerity that Leo felt humbled.
“Yeah, he obviously doesn’t know you at all,” scoffed Sheena as she and Leo continued on their way. Leo was so gobsmacked that he stopped right there, in the middle of the mall, and let her march away from him.
He was still gobsmacked that she could have said such a thing. Why? he wanted to know. Was that how little she thought of him?
Of course, he never asked. He never said a word, in fact. He just regrouped from the roller coaster he’d been on and hurried after her. Which may have been a mistake, now that he thought about it, because not saying anything to Sheena about how much this comment hurt had given her permission to unleash all the spite she’d been saving up against him. Which had sounded the death knell on their marriage.
He still didn’t get where all that spite had come from. He’d tried to give Sheena everything she wanted, and they had two great kids together, so why had she fallen out of love with him? He knew he’d been too young in his first marriage, but his second one—he’d really thought his second marriage would stand the test of time. Yet it hadn’t.
Leo could see Mac relocking the controlled-substances safe in treatment. He felt a sudden, deep, and pervasive sadness. Was it him? Did he just not deserve to be loved for some reason?
Something rasped gently against his right thumb. Leo looked down. The basenji was mustering everything he had to lick Leo’s hand. This little dog that Leo thought was virtually dead, that he knew was completely unconscious, seemed to have dragged himself awake to make a gesture of reassurance. For Leo, not for himself. And as Leo stared down at the pup, not believing what had just transpired, the dog turned a pair of soft brown eyes on him with such a look of love in them that Leo felt himself choke up.
“Thank you,” he voiced, tenderly rubbing his finger on the side of the dog’s face. “I needed that.”
The canine let his head fall back down into Leo’s left hand and closed his eyes.
Mac slouched back into the room, holding the needle with the three ccs of Fatal-Plus.
“Get the oxygen,” Leo instructed with a nod of his chin toward treatment. “Let’s see if we can’t save this little guy.”

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