“Wait, wait, wait, Mrs. Florence. Just… slow down and tell this to me again,” Margaret Jones said.
The little woman standing in front of the counter sighed, and Margaret let her attention drift for a moment. The reception area of the animal clinic was bedecked with plastic garlands for Christmas. Even the small philodendron in the corner had been similarly attacked with a few ornaments. Margaret had been looking forward to an easy day of vaccinating people’s Christmas puppies and kittens. On the day before the clinic was set to close for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the worst she could expect to see were a few worried owners babbling about how Rover had eaten a bag of M & Ms. At least, that was the plan. As soon as Mrs. Florence shuffled through the door, clutching her purse and looking fearful, Margaret knew that her plan had gone right out one of the multicolor-lighted windows. Mrs. Florence owned no pets, had no children, and, at age sixty eight, wasn’t about to get a pet. But she was the sort of person to do some rescuing.
Margaret stared on in mock interest as Mrs. Florence began again in her reedy voice. “Well, I was going to buy a nice veal roast for my nieces and nephews to have at Christmas from Mr. Christensen - you know Mr. Christensen?” Margaret nodded on cue. Christensen was the local butcher, a mean-spirited old geezer who reportedly used trick weights to cheat everyone in the town. “Well, I was at the counter, when somethin' pushed open the door and strolled on in --- but wouldn't you know it, 'twas a half-froze dog, a real wolfish lookin' thing. Goodness, might be a wolf still, I don't know, but it waltzed up to me and started begging with all its might, polite as you please. It looked just so awfully lonely and just bone thin that, since Mr. Christensen was back getting me my veal, I took a sample of lunch meat from the counter and tossed it to the thing. It just seemed so happy at that little scrap o' food, that I was about to toss it another when Mr. Christensen came out from the counter, ohh, just hissin' and spittin' he was so mad 'bout havin' a dog in his shop. He grabbed his broom straightaways and chased the poor thing outside, and I thought he was gonna stop there, but you know how there's that intersection --- right there --- just by his shop that stays so busy? Well --- and I yelled at him to stop, believe you me!, but he chased that poor dog right into the road, and --- oh, that blond gel tried to brake, and --- "
Seeing Mrs. Florence get more and more upset, Margaret grimaced. Run over by a car --- an injury that she wished the clinic saw a lot less of.
"Anything left of him when you got there?" she said, voice tinged with sarcasm. She knew the intersection quite well, a lot of strays and runaways had met their (rather squashy) dooms there.
Margaret felt relieved when Mrs. Florence nodded an emphatic yes. "Oh - yes - th' poor thing was still alive, but kept moanin' so pathetic-like I had to bring it here."
"And it let you pick it up?" Margaret's voice held a doubtful edge. It wasn't like strays, or any sort of wild dog --- which, by Mrs. Florence's description, she had pegged this thing to be --- to let just anyone pick them up.
Again, Mrs. Florence nodded a strong yes, much to Margaret's surprise. "Really quite uncanny, it was. Like it knew I was comin' teh help it - it let me pick it up and even put it in my car..."
"And you said you met Joshua on the way in?"
"Or another one of them vet techs. He said he was goin' teh bring the thing in."
Margaret sighed, pulling out a bunch of forms from somewhere in the depths of a drawer. "Now... Mrs. Florence, we'll need you to fill out these and turn them back in..." As she handed the papers over, she couldn't help glaring at the wide double doors and murmuring to herself: "Where's Joshua? It's been fifteen minutes!"
That was the cue for Joshua, the burliest of the vet techs, to amble in, kicking the door open as he wrestled with a limp dog in his arms. Well, dog may not have been accurate. Margaret's eyes widened when she saw it: the thing, fur matted and horribly emaciated as it was, could not be full canis familiaris. In fact, Margaret figured it had to be at least part wolf.
Well, whatever it was, it whimpered in distress, and Joshua grimaced as if feeling its pain. Margaret scrambled to open the door to the back rooms for the two so that Joshua wouldn't have to kick open another door and shift the whimpering wolf-dog in his arms. As the two disappeared down the corridor, Margaret shut the door after them. Goodness...
A few minutes later, peace had returned to her position at the front desk. Mrs. Florence's paperwork, with an official account of the wolf-dog's injuries, had been filed. Margaret had forgotten about the odd creature, playing yet another game of solitaire on the company computer as she waited for the next case. Yes... Through one lucky bet on a football game, Lauren, the most gullible of the small group of vet techs, was doing all of the dirty work while she got the easy vaccinations. Heh, heh, heh. Life was sweet.
Lauren poked her head nervously out of the private back rooms, and Margaret glared. What was that lowly peon doing here? The reception area was her domain! Well... might as well ask. "What is it, Lauren?"
"Uhm --- uhm --- Margaret --- it's Doc Gray," she said nervously, speaking of William Gray, the head veterinarian at the clinic. "He --- he wants you back here, they're having to do some surgery on that --- well --- uhm --- "
"Freaky wolf thing?" Margaret drawled distractedly as she clicked and dragged an ace of spades on screen.
"Uhm --- yeah. And he said, he said it would be uhm, uhm, good experience, and that one of us should be there, and I think he meant you --- "
"So? Remember our deal, Lauren. No way I'm dealing with surgery. I just got a manicure. It's the holidays, you know."
"But --- but Margaret ---"
"Oh, all right. You deal with it in surgery, but I'll deal with it post-op. Good?"
"Oh --- oh Margaret, thank you!" Lauren squealed, and then disappeared.
Margaret hmmphed with a little smirk. She liked giving the impression, to Lauren at least, that she was mean-spirited. She could be nice, when she wanted to, but... today wasn't one of those times. She'd been guaranteed a day of relaxation with pay, and now she wanted it. She grinned at the computer, knowing she had a few hours to kill before she had to move anywhere or do anything.
A few hours later, Margaret held a small bowl of brown mush in her hands. To anyone else but a vet tech, it would have been absolutely disgusting, but only a trained professional knew its importance. Mushy dog food laden with medicine and vitamin supplements. Margaret looked it over and smiled. It was probably just what that, well, freakish wolf thing needed.
Browsing the rows and columns of boxy kennels, she finally found the one she was looking for. The wolf-dog was slumped against the side, fast asleep, a front leg thickly bandaged in a cast. The paw on the same leg was also heavily bandaged, but she could also see a few chrome rods protruding, obviously the product of reconstructive surgery. Margaret grimaced. Even after years of training, some things never stopped being gross to her. She also took a closer look at the creature itself. It was male, and quite possibly the most emaciated dog - --well, canine --- she had ever seen. Shifting the bowl in her hands, she reached out with a hand to gently pet his fur. He didn't seem to notice. Indeed, he was fast asleep, apparently still feeling the sedatives from his surgery. Margaret paused to watch the creature breathe --- it was easy enough to see. It was just as easy to count all his ribs. She had a hard time not wincing in sympathy.
As she looked at the limp and sleeping creature, one question still nagged at her. What... exactly... was he? A wolf, a wolf-dog, or some sort of dog variety she hadn't seen before? Frowning, she ruffled a bit of his fur, and the thing sighed with a whffff. Well... he certainly looked like a wolf, except... wasn't that muzzle just a little too broad? Probably some mix, then. Husky, maybe.
Margaret shifted the bowl of food in her hands again, bringing it up to the raised kennel. The wolf-dog began to wake --- nose first. Sniffling, nostrils flaring, he raised his head, then began to blink his eyes blearily. Firguring out that Margaret had food, he promptly shoved his snout in the bowl, happily smacking away. Margaret chuckled, holding the bowl for the creature to eat. And he did --- more and more --- until Margaret was pretty sure the pathetic thing had fallen asleep eating. However, the wolf-dog finally withdrew his muzzle, eyes only open halfway, and set his head down with an infinitely exhausted air. Before Margaret had time to withdraw her hands, and the bowl, from the kennel, the wolf-dog raised his head a moment more and gave her right hand four oddly pointed licks with his long, pink tongue.
He seemed to be saying thank you.
But by the time the wolf-dog had done it,)and Margaret's shock-addled brain had fully grasped this hidden meaning, the wolf-dog's head had slumped back down and he was once again lost in the sweet release of sleep. Margaret stiffly jerked her hand away, staring at the creature as he slumbered, not sure whether to believe what had just happened.
She would leave it for now. But... she needed to go wash her hands. Her thoughts picked up speed as they returned to terra firma instead of the unfamiliar ground of whether animals such as wolf-dogs were capable of higher thought. Yes, she needed to go wash her hands, and rinse out the bowl. She hated dogs. Germy creatures --- big --- stupid --- lumbering. She blustered off in a huff. Margaret liked puppies fine, but there was a rather big difference between a puppy and a dog. No, she wasn't going to let herself get attached to that --- that --- thing. Because she hated dogs.
“You really want to take him home with you over Christmas? Margaret, I’m surprised. I thought you hated dogs.”
It was several hours later, and Margaret could have bashed her head into Dr. Gray’s desk then and there. She couldn’t believe that she had actually said that. But she did. And she had.
“Well, ah, you know, I thought he might appreciate a little extra care over the next few days... And Laura’s told me a lot about the case, so I’m much more qualified to care for him than the clinic over in London that we’re going to ship our other cases to...” Margaret rambled in a vain attempt to save face.
Margaret, after all, was the only person at the clinic who didn’t have any pets at home. She had tried numerous excuses: allergies, she couldn’t have them where she slept; she couldn’t find one she liked; her family wouldn’t let her; there were too many valuables in her home. At each one, the entire group of workers at the clinic seemed to chortle, knowing each was just another dodge. If you hated animals, you didn’t work as a vet tech, and sooner or later, Margaret was going to get a pet. That day had come.
“Of course, Miss Jones, of course. He can come home with you, he seems well tempered enough, but you’d better take some extra sedatives just in case.” Despite his kind words, Margaret couldn’t help noticing the wide "I told you so" smile painted all over Dr. Gray’s mustached face.
“But I’ll only keep him for this long. Only this long. As soon as I come back, he does too.” Margaret couldn’t help but sound huffy as she responded to Dr. Gray’s tone. She stood, getting ready to leave.
Surprisingly, he smiled, but his voice held a touch of gentle sarcasm. “Of course, Miss Jones. Of course you’ll bring him back as soon as our Christmas holiday is over so that we can put him up for adoption.”
Margaret shot him a venomous glare, and stormed out. However, as she walked back towards the indoor kennels, her temper was soothed somewhat. She kept thinking of the odd wolf-dog. The more they interacted, the friendlier and more even-tempered he seemed. And, in an almost gentlemanly manner, he remembered to thank her for any food, even trying to wag his tail once or twice. The more the wolf-dog acted like this, the more perplexed Margaret became. Strays and wolves certainly didn’t act this gallantly.
It just didn’t make sense. That was mainly her motive for bringing the odd critter home: she wanted to put him under the microscope and really examine what he was doing, because something just didn’t seem right about that wolf-dog, and she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. That, and popular suspicion was right. Margaret started admit begrudgingly that the wolf-dog was endearingly cute in a strange way. She was making plans to buy him something for Christmas --- some sort of squeaky toy or chewy bone to keep him entertained as he was weaned off of sedatives and spent less and less time sleeping.
She opened her now-favourite kennel with a grin, and woke up the wolf-dog inside by giving him a light pet.
“’Lo, Lop-ears.” The wolf-dog blinked up at her sleepily, his tail twapping in greeting. "Lop-ears", as the wolf-dog apparently understood, was his new title. Margaret was far too amused with the fact that, if you played with them enough, you could make his pointed ears flop down like a rabbit’s. Sniggering, Margaret proceeded to do this, and the wolf-dog put up with it like any good sport, although he did sigh with a massive whufffff...
It was later that evening when the trouble started. The office was tidied, ready to be left alone for the next few work-free days. All of the other animals had been shipped to another veterinarian's office around midday. All except the wolf-dog, Lop-ears, whom Margaret was taking home. And therein lay the problem.
"Look, if you're going to ride in the car, you need to be in the carrier," Margaret wheedled, gently pushing on the wolf-dog's rump. It was no use. The critter wouldn't budge, still staring warily at the tomb of pink plastic. Margaret sighed, and tried again, speaking to the wolf-dog as if he were a small child.
"C'mon. Please? I can't have you bouncing all over the car!"
The wolf-dog didn't move, although he did move his head just a fraction to give her a glare. Margaret read his meaning perfectly. He was injured, he was bruised, and he was exhausted, so did she really think that he had the strength to wreak havoc in her car and cause a crash?
"Fine. Fine!" Margaret grumbled, standing, snatching up the carrier and placing it up on a shelf. "But you're walking, you hear? Walking. I am not carrying you."
This seemed just fine with the wolf-dog. As she stormed her way out, he followed at a hurried limp, his tail wagging happily in victory.
A few moments later Margaret glared at him, as the wolf-dog had settled down into the passenger seat with all the regality of a lion. That dog was getting fur on her leather seats, she fumed. She couldn't stand it! She sighed, exasperated. At least it was only a short drive home, and the wolf-dog didn't seem to be up to anything.
Angrily, she punched at her car's stereo system until the radio came on. A obscure pop-rock rendition of some Christmas carol floated out of her speakers. Margaret glowered. She was not exactly in a Christmas mood. In fact, she was prepared to hate the world. Oddly, the wolf-dog flattened his ears back with a whimper and Margaret got the distinct impression that he didn't think much of the song either. As they slowed to a stop at a red light, the wolf-dog carefully reached out with his good paw to bat at her the radio dials. Margaret tensed, gripping her steering wheel tightly. But her curiosity overcame her fear for her beloved sound system, and she decided to watch. With some skill, the wolf-dog managed to twiddle the knob that changed the frequency of the radio station they were listening to, from Margaret's preset pop to... something... else...
There was a song, just coming through the static --- a nice song, done by someone who could actually sing. It ended as the female singer held the last, long note and the piano added a final flourish. The wolf-dog relaxed. In fact, he almost seemed to smile. Then, through the buzzy hum of static, Margaret could just hear a slick announcer's voice:
"This is Arnauld Trewick, and that was another great song by Celestina Warbeck here on WRN..."
A loud BRRRRRNK! of a car horn made Margaret jump with a yelp, making the wolf-dog do much the same thing. The light had gone from red to green without Margaret noticing, and the impatient driver behind her leaned on his horn, glaring. The wolf-dog's paw slipped, turning the knob from the odd radio station --- into static.
Margaret, cursing, hurried to get her foot off the brake and her car back in motion. The rude truck driver quickly swerved to pass her in his impatience. Margaret, however, was too preoccupied trying to get the odd radio station back, frantically twiddling the knob.
"Hey - wait - where'd it go?" Only static greeted her, even when she was sure she had gotten it back to the right place. She glared at the radio, then at the wolf-dog, only occasionally looking up at the road.
"This is all your fault."
The wolf-dog whimpered.