To celebrate this site’s returning to life, below is a short story of mine.
A DOG’S LIFE
By Gryffyd Eamonn Dempsey
The dog trembled on the veterinarian’s metal examination table. Don Tyler thought he felt the vibration through the soles of his shoes. His palms pressed against the dog’s flanks and shook.
“It’s okay, Bear,” he said. The black Labrador did not turn its head toward his voice and continued to shudder. “It’s not what you think,” Don said, but he knew he understood nothing of a dog’s thoughts. The dog knew it was in a place that reeked of fear and pain and death and the man had brought it there.
Don kept his hands on his dog, a finger hooked under its collar so it could not suddenly leap away. Don had a friend whose dog had once broken a leg that way. This was already going to be an expensive visit. He thought of Gwen and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to put away guilty expectations of his wife’s reaction.
He held his dog as it whimpered, a faint noise like the natural rhythm of its rapid panting. “The doctor is going to make you live longer,” Don said in a cheery voice.
“That I am,” said the veterinarian in a loud, professional voice that seemed to Don untuned to his profession. The vet let the door swing shut behind him, where it was caught and opened by a young woman in hospital scrubs. She followed the vet in his white coat into the examining room. The dog tried to move away from these strangers, its claws clattering on the table. John held its shoulders to his chest with one arm and scratched behind an ear with his free hand.
“Hi Bear!” said the veterinary tech brightly. She set a plastic tray down on the counter on the wall opposite. In the tray were a square of white cloth, a syringe, and a medicine bottle. The doctor picked up the latter two. “Let’s make some magic,” he said as he inserted the needle into the gel cap of the bottle. The tech moved in and cupped her hands around the dog’s muzzle. The vet leaned over her and picked at the scruff of the dog’s neck. Don held its haunches. “Long life,” said the vet as he pushed on the plunger. “Come back in a week for the second injection.” He stepped back and dropped the syringe into a sharps box.
“I thought it was just one,” said Don.
“That’s what you paid for. But the full course takes three shots.”
“But the ad said, that was the cost.” Already far too much.
“For the first of three, I believe it says. Admittedly in smaller print.”
“Will just the first make him live longer?”
The vet shook his head, impatient. “It takes all three, like I said. Come back in a week.”
On the drive home Don let Bear ride in the front passenger seat. It tilted its large head and sniffed through the opening at the top of the window. All its earlier fears were gone, the scent of betrayal and doom vanished with their exit from the veterinarian’s building and with the sight of the familiar automobile.
Done was agitated. He glanced from the road ahead toward the dog, then back in time to notice the red taillights ahead. He pressed quickly on the brake pedal, and automatically stuck out his right arm to stop the dog from being thrown forward. The car lurched to a stop and the dog resumed smelling the air after bounced back from his arm. Don patted its side. He felt buyer’s remorse.
“You could live another forty years, Bear,” he said. The dog was around five years old, with some uncertainty about that age depending on whether the animal shelter estimated all dogs of unknown origin and of a certain vitality of being a year old. The dog was anyway unlikely to be older than John’s marriage, in fact had been a gift to Gwen on their second anniversary. She had wanted a child, he got her a dog; she got the baby anyway. “A friend for life,” said Don. The car ahead of him accelerated away and Don followed.
Bear trotted ahead, through the open door from the garage to the kitchen. The other dog, Lucy, was standing in the archway to the dining room, wagging its bushy tail. The two dogs sniffed noses perfunctorily, the Lab bending its head to the smaller cocker spaniel mix.
Don turned to close the door to the garage. Gwen’s car was not parked there. “Honey?” he called anyway as he pulled the door shut behind him.
There was no answer as he looked at the whiteboard on the refrigerator to see if she had left him a note. It was blank. Don stood with his hands on his hips, anxious to confess and happy for the reprieve. He tried to remember her schedule that day.
The burden, he knew, was not the charge to their credit card. The crux was the next two payments and how to make them happen. He looked on unhappily as Bear drank water from the bowl in the corner. The dog’s tongue lapped in triplets and Don absentmindedly tapped his fingers on his belt in rhythm. Then he took off his coat and slung it on the back of a kitchen chair.
“Come here, pup,” he said and Bear huffed and hopped across the linoleum floor, claws clacking. Don rubbed its flank as the dog leaned against his knees. “Do you feel different, dog?” he asked. “Better?” The dog did not reply. “Feel like a cookie?” he said and the dog’s head rose and it looked him in the eye. “Yeah,” said Don.
He opened the dog treat jar on the canister and pulled out a dog biscuit. “Sit,” he said and Bear sat abruptly. He held the biscuit in front of its nose, waited a heartbeat, then said, “All done.” The dog quickly and deftly took the treat in its front teeth. Don watched as it chomped, crumbs splattering the floor, then took another biscuit and tossed it to the other dog.
Don sat at the desk in the study. On the monitor in front of him shone the website of their credit card company. Bear lay on a rug between his chair and the door.
Don looked at the charge from the veterinarian, then up and past the monitor. Through the window he saw a branch of the sycamore tree, leaves beginning to bud. From here on the second floor of their house he could see the upper windows of neighbors and the crowns of their own trees.
He looked back at the monitor, then pushed the mouse and clicked on the “Request a Credit Limit Increase” link. On the next page he entered some figures, then clicked on the “Submit” button.
The dog lifted its head and Don heard the sound of the garage door opening, then the muffled hum of a car engine from beneath the floor below. The engine cut off and then there was the excited yapping of Lucy. Bear stood up, paws on the hardwood floor scrabbling for purchase, the paws on its other side shoving the rug from its station exactly between desk and door.
The little icon still whirled. “Come on,” hissed Don, jiggling the mouse. The twirling icon danced across the screen.
Bear’s deep bark joined Lucy’s noise and the clatter of the garage door unrolling and closing. The rolling icon froze. Don groaned. The icon moved again, then turned back into an arrow cursor as the page refreshed. He noted the text that promised him an answer within forty eight hours.
A car door slammed shut and his wife’s voice, indistinct, called to the barking dogs. Don clicked in the “Account” link. Another car door closed. He clicked the password reset link. The door from the garage opened into the kitchen below.
“Okay, okay,” said Gwen.
He typed L!v3d0g! in one box, then the next, then clicked “Submit.”
“Don?” called Gwen.
The page refreshed and told him the password change was successful.
He rose as he closed the browser and quickly tiptoed to the hall, and halfway down it. He stopped at the bathroom door and turned.
“Sorry,” he called out. “Was in the bathroom.”
That night, as Gwen slept beside him, he thought, Bitch, remembering Ellen, his girlfriend the last year of college and the two years after. Porky was the shepherd mix stray that had attached itself to him his freshman year. He had kept the dog, sheltered it secretly in dorms and off-campus apartments, smuggled it into his graduation ceremony.
“Don,” said Ellen. “He’s old. He’s dying.”
“His name,” he had said, “is Porky.”
“Porky can barely see anymore, Don. He snaps at people and one day he’s going to bite a child and then you’ll be in a shitload of trouble.”
“I’ve never seen him do anything like that.”
“Anne told you how he almost bit her face.”
“She shouldn’t have stuck it right up next to him. Probably startled him.”
Eventually she wore him down and they drove to the county animal shelter. Don was miserable and couldn’t look in the back at the dog with its head out the window.
“He’s old,” said Ellen to the man at the front desk. “Blind, we think.” The man looked into the dog’s cloudy eyes, nodded, in agreement or judgment.
Outside Ellen had cried, but he hated her.
“Can you put me on a payment plan, or something?”
“Ha,” said the vet. “Not with what the drugs cost me.” He pinched Bear’s skin between his index finger and thumb. “You can’t even go to Mexico yet and get it on the cheap there. They’ve got this stuff locked down good.” He inserted the needle into the tuft of skin.
“Can I put off the last shot for a bit then? Maybe the price will come down.”
The vet shook his head. “Not if you don’t want to see Bear here dying of runaway tumor growth in a few months.” He patted the dog’s head.
“I don’t want that,” said Don.
At the counter he waited for the woman to swipe his card through the reader. She held the card for a moment, wrist cocked, until something changed on the screen. She smiled and handed him the card. A small printer churned out a receipt. He breathed in silent relief as he took the pen she offered.
Don held his one-year-old child in his arms. The baby made meaningless sounds as his father worried. He patted his son’s back and felt his warm breath on his neck and looked at his dog.
The child still felt like an odd heavy sack to him. He shifted him into the crook of one elbow and leaned his head back so he could look into the boy’s eyes. What connection was there? He used his free hand to tickle the boy’s chin. “Do you likes scratchies?” he cooed.
“Honestly, Don,” said Gwen. She set the wooden bowl of salad down on the dining room table, and reached out her hands. “Come here, baby,” she said as he held the child up. “Come away from this silly papa of yours.” He walked toward her and she took hold of their son.
Gwen gave the child her attention with a totality that shamed and unnerved Don. He looked again at Bear, lying on the floor near the table, hopeful. He had to tell her. “I hope this dog lives forever,” he said.
Gwen made a mock pout with her lower lip. “Poor Bear,” she said. The dog lifted its large head from the floor, but the woman had gone back to cooing to the baby. Bear put its chin down on the floor with a loud sigh.
“Seriously,” said Don. “They’re doing things these days with animal longevity.” He said it as if casually introducing an interesting topic.
“Oh?” she said,” jiggling the baby. “I’m not stupid, Don.”
“I know how to do a password reset request. It’s a fucking shared credit card, Don,” she said, her voice still in a chirpy sing-song. “The only reason I haven’t divorced your sorry ass yet was to see how long it would take for you to grow the balls to tell me.”
“To tell me what a moron you are.”
“I’m not a moron,” he said.
“Who does that? For a dog?”
“You love Bear. It’s for us, as a family.”
“I’ve had Lucy since she was a puppy but I would never do this for her.”
“Is this about Lucy getting the treatment too? Because we could come up with the money—”
“No, you idiot. We didn’t have the fortune you’ve already spent, and even if we did I wouldn’t spend it on a fucking dog.”
He slapped her. Even as he raised his hand he knew it was wrong and he should stop, but he just wanted her to shut up.
As he opened his mouth to apologize, Bear’s jaws clamped down on his wrist. His bones ground together. He screamed. The baby howled.
“So this is a voluntary surrender?” They were in the familiar vestibule of the county animal shelter.
“Voluntary, yes, but for the dog to be put to sleep. I wrote it on the form.”
The clerk read. “After a first bite it’s not required.”
“I can’t risk it,” said Gwen. “Not with a baby in the house.” She looked at Don. “Right, honey?”
The dog’s tail wagged as it followed the clerk through a door behind the counter.
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