There are 15 minutes left in my second week as an emergency clinic vet tech when two kids come in with a dying German Shepherd. The girl can’t be more than eight or nine, dressed in fleece pajamas and red rain boots with penguins on them. She’s got a set of car keys in one hand and a wad of her brother’s shirt in the other. His hair is rowed back, clothes loose and black, but can’t be much older than 16 himself. The dog is draped across his arms and I can see the effort it’s taking to pretend he’s not struggling under the weight.
“Are you a doctor?” the boy asks. His eyes are slick with restrained tears. “She’s sick.”
I look at the dog and it looks back, blinking slowly.
“Set her here on the desk,” I tell him.
I work my fingers into the meat on the inside of her leg, looking for the femoral pulse. I peel back her lips to find pale gums.
“Shit,” I say under my breath. The boy catches it.
“She’s dead?” he whispers.
“Not yet,” I tell him. “But she’s in shock. How long’s she been like this? Did you have to carry her to the car?”
He shakes his head quickly, eyes wide, like he thinks I won’t believe him.
“She didn’t look good, but she was walking. Real slow. She’s been like that about 20 minutes now, I guess.”
“Where are you coming from?”
I can think of three 24-hour clinics between Dearborn and here. Better staffed ones, too; at least that’s what they all told me last month when I was making the rounds and dropping off resumes before my swing shift at the gas station started.
I tell the kids to sit, and carry the dog to the back. My triceps burn. My quads feel swollen in my scrubs. The bones in my feet are soft and warped. I miss my mom, who I never get to see now that I’m working nights and can afford my own little apartment in Harper Woods. The rooms are still full of unpacked boxes with her handwriting on them. Sometimes sunlight, or UPS, or a Jehovah’s witness knocking will rouse me from bed in the middle of the day and I’ll call her. She asks me how are things and I tell her it feels good to be making a difference.
“That’s my baby girl,” she always says. When I still lived with her, taking pre-vet classes at the community college for my Associate’s, studying whenever the gas station emptied out, I would hear mom talking about me to her sisters and friends on the phone. She would tell them how I’d always loved animals; ask them if they remembered me doing mock surgeries on my stuffed animals.
Maybe it’s better I’m not able to call her as much. There’s a lot I don’t want to tell her. For instance, that as a vet tech, I don’t feel like I’m making a difference at all. That I pat the shoulders of heartbroken owners, handing them a plaster cast of their dog’s pawprint; a keepsake from the worst night they’ve had in a long time. Or that other owners bitch about the cost of drugs, even though they rolled up in a Lexus. My first day, Dr. Harris told me to remember that we’re a service industry.
“You’ll want to think that we work for the animals, but we don’t. We work for their owners.”
I told her I understood. At the gas station, taxi drivers would buy calling cards from me, use them up right away, and drive right back, claiming I sold them an empty one. Or the same crack head would show up three times in one night, asking for the roses in glass tubes that we didn’t carry. When the woman with the Lexus elected euthanasia over treatment and said, “I think I’ve done all I could for him,” I could see the wrenched desperation in her face; she needed someone to tell her she wasn’t a bad person, and I knew that lie was my job.
I’ve invented a faceless person who sits next to me on the drive home through wet, empty streets. We watch the sewer grates steam pointlessly. She asks me what the hardest part of being a vet tech is, and I tell her it’s the loneliness. I tell her all the things I’m too ashamed to tell my mom. I already know that today I’ll tell her that as I carried the German Shepherd back to Dr. Harris, and I watched its breath rise, shudder, and get caught in its ribcage, I mostly just felt annoyed that the kids had come in 15 minutes before 5 a.m., and not 15 minutes after.
Dr. Harris is as calm as she is competent. I find myself, during slow moments, looking at her life like it was a nice car or a house you don’t have to rent. Something it would be nice to be able to afford.
“There, but weak. More like an echo. And pale gums.”
“Ever placed a catheter?”
I shake my head.
“Excellent; you’ll learn something today.”
We muzzle the dog, just in case, and run Lidocaine and fluids. I think of the Nebutal on my bedside table and insist to the faceless stranger in my head for the 20thtime that it’s just until I get used to working nights. Dr. Harris works the catheter while I start compressions, humming “Stayin’ Alive” under my breath to keep the proper rhythm. My triceps go from sore to burning. But the funniest thing happens: the dog doesn’t die. Dr. Harris confirms a stabilizing heart rate. I note that her breathing seems less labored.
“Go see what they want to do,” Dr. Harris says.
In the waiting room, the boy has his head in his hands. The girl tugs at his sleeve when she sees me returning.
“You drove yourselves, right?” They nod.
“You 18?” I ask the boy.
“Yeah,” he says, straightening in his chair.
“No you aren’t,” his sister says. “He turned 17 last week. We went bowling.”
The boy slouches back down.
“I’m eight and a quarter,” the girl says.
I do my best to smile. “Where’s your mom and dad?”
“Mom’s got work soon,” the boy says.
I wonder what she does. The boy’s shoes and clothes look nice, which is promising. It won’t be cheap to save their dog. The girl is reading one of the kid’s magazines we keep around the waiting room. It’s opened to a page that should be colored in, but we don’t have any crayons. She’s tracing the lines with her finger instead.
“Is she gonna be okay?” the boy asks.
“We’re working on that,” I tell him. “What’s your mom’s number?”
She picks up after several rings. Her voice sounds like cigarettes. There’s a constant thrum of noise wherever she is, and we’re both straining to hear one another.
“Your dog was in a fairly advanced state of shock by the time the kids got here,” I say.
“That’s the bad news. The good news is that for now, against some heavy odds, we managed to stabilize her breathing and heart rate. There’s a chance that we could actually save her, which is more of a chance than most dogs in her shape get. I can’t guarantee anything, obviously. We’d need to keep her for a couple days and find out what precipitated her injuries in the first place. A lot of the time it’s household poison.”
“How much?” the woman asks.
“Depends on the poison; if it’s something like those mouse trap pebbles people put out, it doesn’t take much.”
I know this isn’t what she meant by the question.
“No, I mean—”
“You mean cost.” I quote her a number that’s a little over what I’d make in a month at the gas station. The silence is so complete that I imagine the world eating itself, turning inside out, leaving just the clinic, floating in some void.
“Unbelievable.” The woman says, finally.
I don’t say anything.
“I said you people are unbelievable.”
“I heard you.”
“So? You’re just going to let my dog die? In front of my kids?”
“Ma’am, we understand that not everyone is in a position financially to spend that much on a pet.”
You bought a dog. You didn’t think about saving money in case it got sick. You didn’t wonder what that meant for the dog. Like how much pain it would feel. But you’re not a bad person. You’re not a bad person. You’re not a bad person.
“There’s got to be something you can do for me,” the woman says. “I’m headed in to work already. On the bus, because the kids have the truck. Know what time I get off? Not until five tonight.”
“I’m afraid the only other option at this point is euthanasia.”
“I’m sure you charge for that, too.” Her voice is a sneer. A dare.
“Of course we do. You don’t ask for free drinks at a restaurant because you aren’t getting dinner, do you?”
Silence again. I lay my head on the desk and listen for the start of my brief career ending.
“Ma’am, I apologize. I work long shifts, too. I was saying that the cost of euthanasia is two hundred dollars.”
“I said, or what. What if I don’t pay. What are you going to do about that?”
The dare in her voice has curdled to a taunt. I close my eyes. I made the conversation about hurting me instead of saving the dog.
“In that case,” I say, “we wouldn’t be able to ensure the dog’s comfort in its final hours.”
“Sounds like you should have thought of that earlier,” the woman says, and hangs up.
Dr. Harris is still doing compressions when I return. She looks up at me with her eyebrows raised and I shake my head.
“Shit. We’ll prep for euthanasia, then.”
I shake my head. “Not that, either.”
Dr. Harris takes off her gloves and backs away from the dog. We have to make some big show of this: when the customer says stop care, we stop care, even the stuff that doesn’t require money, like compressions. Not that they’d do much good now, anyway. I study Dr. Harris’ face. I want to see the unfairness of it all reflected there, but it’s hard to tell.
“So what now?” I say.
“Send it home with the kids.”
I shake my head.
“No. No way I’m doing that.”
“I’m not doing that. Just take care of it. Kill it.”
“They can’t afford it,” Dr. Harris says.
Maybe they could, I think. Maybe this is all my fault.
“They’re fucking kids,” I say.
Dr. Harris lays her palms back on the table.
“If it were going to die painfully, I would. I promise I would. But she’s just going to close her eyes in a couple minutes. My guess is she doesn’t survive the drive home.”
I haven’t worked here long enough to know if this is right. I decide to nod and hope that it makes me feel better. It doesn’t.
“I’m not going to be the one to tell them,” I say, not expecting an answer and not getting one.
Dr. Harris holds the little girl’s hand as she talks to the kids. I watch her from behind the desk, wondering what she could possibly be saying to them. She hugs them both when she’s done.
“Go get some sleep,” she tells me after they’ve gone. “I’ll finish up the paperwork. Proud of you,” she says, squeezing my arm. I feel a twinge of guilt.
I check my watch when I leave and see that I’ve only stayed 15 minutes past when my shift was supposed to end. 30 minutes total on the case. It makes me feel worse somehow. The pickup is still idling in the parking lot. I wonder if they’re looking at me, what they’re thinking. In my car, I cut the radio. I think about my empty apartment, the unpacked boxes, and when the pickup turns left out of the parking lot, I decide to follow it, even though my place is the other way. We cross town together. The sky is a bruise that heals as dawn breaks. Little beads of moisture swell and roll down the edges of my windshield, glittering a bit as they catch the light.
I tell myself I’m going to tell the kids the truth. But I also know that I don’t know what the truth is.
They live in a boxy brick house off of Warren Ave. in Dearborn Heights. All the houses on the block look like variations of one another. I slow and pull over a couple houses down from their driveway. The boy gets out and opens the girl’s door for her. He pulls the dog out from where it must have been resting on her lap. It looks dead. But then, it looked dead when they brought it in, too.
I know I won’t go up and knock on the door. I don’t have anything to tell them. I cut the engine and think of them staying home from school to be with the dog. I think of their mom at work, wishing she could be with them. And I think of the dog, blinking slowly, feeling herself disappear, bit by little bit, behind something that washes quietly in from the sides of her vision. I’m here, I tell them all. I see you.
Matt Denis is a graduate of Purdue University and the MFA program at UMASS Boston. His work has previously appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Carolina Quarterly, Buffalo Almanack, and Breakwater Review, and was named a semifinalist in Carve Magazine‘s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. His unpublished story collection Something Worse was a finalist in the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and a semifinalist in Black Lawrence Press’ St. Lawrence Book Award contest. He lives in Iowa with his wife Katie, dogs Yuni and Beau, and cat Scout.