Authors: Catherine Anderson
After returning Laura to the clinic parking lot after lunch, Isaiah headed toward home to check on Hapless, as promised. He had just turned onto Old Mill Road where his house was located when his
pager beeped. When he phoned in to get the message, he pulled a U-turn and rushed back to the clinic. A dog had raided its owners' garbage can and dined on the remains of a turkey carcass wrapped in tinfoil. Unfortunately for the dog, the owners suspected that more foil than turkey had found its way into the animal's stomach.
Belinda came in to assist Isaiah in surgery. Preliminary X-rays showed a blockage in the large intestine, so the operation was more complicated than Isaiah had first hoped. When he had finally closed up, Belinda gave him an inviting smile.
“How about a hamburger? It's about time to eat, and I'm starved.”
The atmosphere in a hamburger joint was pretty safe, and given the fact that Belinda had just sacrificed a whole afternoon to help him out, Isaiah would have liked to buy her supper to show his appreciation.
“I'm sorry, Belinda. I have a young boarder at home, and I need to go check on him.”
“A boarder?” Her eyes gleamed with curiosity. “Do tell.”
Isaiah recounted the harrowing rescue of Hapless. It was one of the few tales he'd ever told that required no embellishment to make it interesting.
“Oh, he sounds so precious!” Belinda cried. “Hapless. What a cute name.”
“It's the only cute thing about him.” Isaiah went on to describe the puppy. “He looks like he fought with an ugly stick and lost. Poor little guy. Laura is convinced she can find a home for him, no problem, but I'm not so sure.”
Belinda smiled. “Ah, now. He can't be
bad. If nothing else, maybe Laura can keep him.”
“No way. Even if her landlord would relent and allow her to have a pet, her place isn't really suitable.”
“You've been there?”
“Yeah, a couple of times.” Isaiah pictured the small rooms chock-f of breakable knickknacks, and a grown Hapless slapping them from the tables with his tail. “No fenced area, and hardly room to turn around in the house itself. It'd never work.”
Belinda's smile faded. “That's too bad. Hopefully some kind soul will take him. Poor little fellow.”
An hour later Isaiah discovered that the “poor little fellow” had gone on a chewing rampage in the shop building. An entire new pack of shop towels, made from particularly strong and absorbent paper to absorb grease, had not been able to withstand his puppy teeth. The interior of the building looked as if it had been heavily sprinkled with confetti. Isaiah might have just shrugged and hauled out the Shop-Vac to clean up the mess, but when he went to get the barrel-shaped vacuum, he found that the hose now had holes in it. Even worse, his nylon ski bag had been torn open, and every Velcro strap had been cleanly removed from his three-hundred-dollar ski boots.
” he yelled. “Not my
Hapless was lying on his pillow, looking altogether too innocent and unconcerned. Isaiah stalked toward him.
“You miserable, vicious little cur. What else did
you destroy while I was gone? I left you chew bones. Why didn't you teethe on those?”
The puppy's response was a deep, happy-sounding growl. He bounded from his bed to attack Isaiah's pant leg. Once the denim was secure between his sharp teeth, he braced on all fours and backed away, dragging Isaiah's foot with him.
“Let go. I'm mad at you. Let go, I said.”
In the end, Isaiah had to pick the puppy up to rescue his jeans. Growling again, Hapless immediately began licking Isaiah's face.
“She should have named you Growler. Better yet, how about Velcro Breath? That suits you better.” Isaiah turned to survey the remaining valuables inside the shop and was glad to see that his wall tent had escaped the puppy's notice. “Well, this cinches it. You'll have to sleep in the utility room until Laura finds you a home.”
saiah awakened to mournful howls, followed by a quick succession of shrill yips. He groaned, rolled over to peer through the darkness at the red digital readout of his alarm clock, and pulled the pillow over his head. Two o'clock in the morning? It was a holiday weekend, one of his few opportunities to get a full night's sleep, and that ungrateful little wretch wanted to get up at two in the morning? No way.
As though sensing that Isaiah had covered his ears, Hapless raised his volume a notch.
Yip, yip, yip, howl.
Over and over the sounds reverberated through the house, growing louder and louder. Isaiah tried to ignore them. He tried using two pillows to block out the noise, but succeeded only in almost smothering himself. He even tried counting the yips as if they were sheep in an attempt to go back to sleep.
Finally he slapped back the covers, swung out of bed, and stormed through the house. “All right, damn it, you win.” He opened the utility room door. “But it's only for a couple of nights.
Understand? The minute Laura finds a home for you, you're out of here.”
Just as Isaiah said that, he stepped in something cold and squishy with his bare foot. “Son of a-a-a
” He was too far from the door to flip on the light. Judging by the smell, he stood in the middle of a puppy-poop minefield. The dog food, he thought dismally. Puppies often got loose bowels if their diets were abruptly changed. “Damn it,” he said as the stuff oozed up between his toes.
An hour later, after the utility room was cleaned and both Isaiah and Hapless were freshly showered, the pair snuggled down for a long winter's nap in Isaiah's bed. In Isaiah's estimation, it was the only way he would get any sleep. Hopefully Hapless wouldn't cry if he could curl up against a warm body, and this way Isaiah would wake up if the puppy needed to go outside. As Isaiah's eyes drifted closed, he gruffly whispered, “Don't get used to this, mutt.”
Hapless emitted a happy little growl and thrust his wet nose in Isaiah's armpit.
Over the next week Isaiah frequently repeated that refrain, or facsimiles thereof. “It's only temporary. The last thing I need or want is a dog. Got it?” These proclamations generally came on the heels of a notable event, such as the purchase of Hapless's first bed, a huge, contoured thing made of foam cushions and lined with sheepskin, or after a visit to the pet shop, where Isaiah and Hapless could shop together for puppy toys, a pastime they frequently engaged in after they left the clinic in the
evening. Oh, yes, Hapless accompanied Isaiah to work. It was the only practical solution, Isaiah told himself. Otherwise the puppy chewed on everything
his toys while Isaiah was gone. At the clinic Hapless could be around people, and there wasn't much that he could damage. It was also an ideal place to housebreak a puppy, with indestructible floors and lots of watchful adults to escort Hapless outside before he had accidents.
“I am not keeping that dog,” Isaiah was often heard to say to anyone who would listen, and in the beginning he meant it. But after a week a bond between man and dog began to be forged. At the clinic Hapless followed at Isaiah's heels everywhere he went, parting company with his unwilling master only when a door was closed in his face. At home Isaiah discovered that having a dog around made the big, empty rooms feel less lonely. Hapless particularly enjoyed their homecomings. En route to the house, he bounded wildly around the yard, still so short of leg that he sometimes disappeared entirely in the drifts of snow. Then, the moment Isaiah opened the door, the puppy ran excitedly through the house, growling and barking as he sniffed out his toys.
The second week Isaiah sought Laura out once a day to ask, “Has anyone responded to the ad yet?”
The ad Isaiah referred to was a three-line description of Hapless in the lost-and-found section of the
Central Oregon Bargain Shopper,
a small weekly newspaper with cheap ad space that practically everyone read.
“No,” Laura always replied. “I check with Val
every day to see if anyone's called, and so far nothing. I don't think any-one is going to claim him.”
At the end of the week, Isaiah came to a decision that surprised no one but him. “Just cancel the ad,” he told Laura. “No one's going to claim him, and it doesn't look like you're going to find him a home. I'll keep him.”
“Really?” Laura struggled not to smile, for it was apparent to everyone at the clinic that Isaiah had fallen in love with the big, clumsy puppy. “Are you sure, Isaiah? My friends the Kesslers are still talking about taking him.”
Isaiah frowned and then shook his head. “There are plenty of other strays out there that need homes. Hapless has settled in with me. It'd be mean to uproot him again.”
Laura knew it was ornery, but she couldn't resist saying, “You think he's ugly, though. Wouldn't you rather get a dog you like?”
Isaiah narrowed an eye at her. “You're enjoying this, aren't you? I didn't like him at first, and now you're rubbing it in. A guy can change his mind, can't he?”
“Of course.” Just then Hapless entered the kennels. When he saw Isaiah he bounded up the center aisle, growling happily and wagging his tail so hard that his whole body whipped back and forth. Laura crouched down to greet the puppy. “Well, I guess you're here to stay,” she said as she stroked the puppy's head. To Isaiah she added, “A clinic dog instead of a cat. I'm glad it's worked out between you. He needed a home, and you needed a dog to love. It must have been fate.”
“Maybe so.” Isaiah hunkered down, too. They fell silent for a moment, petting the puppy that squirmed with delight between them. “I didn't know I needed a dog, but I guess maybe I did. I really like having him around. It's weird, actually, how the best things in my life are always the things that happen along when I least expect them.”
Laura got a wet puppy kiss on the mouth. She laughed and sputtered. “Yuck!”
Her amusement faded as she met Isaiah's gaze. He was looking at her oddlyâalmost speculatively. “What?” she asked.
“Nothing. I was just thinking.”
A mischievous gleam slipped into his eyes. “That's for me to know and you to find out, I reckon.”
What Isaiah couldn't tell Laura, what he could scarcely admit to himself, was that she was one of the wonderful things in his life that had just happened along when he least expected it. If not for Laura, the clinic wouldn't have been aglitter with Christmas lights and garlands. If not for Laura, there wouldn't be a staff Christmas party planned. If not for Laura, the fridge and cupboards would still be empty every time he went foraging for food. If not for Laura, he might never have gotten a dog because he'd always considered himself to be far too busy to care for a pet.
If not for Laura.
Ever since he'd hired her that October evening, she'd been systematically altering his world. Everyone at the clinic seemed to laugh
more now that she was around. Coffee breaks were no longer brief, dreary affairs where people sipped bitter brew, wishing for cream or sugar. Thanks to Laura, the condiments were well stocked, and along with the coffee there were always cookies, doughnuts, and cinnamon rolls, all of them tasting homemade. Isaiah no longer felt as exhausted when he left the clinic at night because he now ate snacks throughout his workday and didn't drain his energy stores to such critically low levels.
When Isaiah tried to recall what it had been like at the clinic before her arrival, he had difficulty remembering. It was the oddest thing, but he felt as if she'd been a part of his life forever. For that reason he was vastly relieved that nothing more untoward occurred at the clinic while she was working. If someone had been plotting to get Laura firedâand Isaiah would always believe that had been the caseâthen the enhanced security procedures and the candid comments that both he and Tucker had made at the staff meeting had discouraged the perpetrator.
Late in the afternoon in mid December, Isaiah was about to call it a day when a pregnant rottweiler was rushed into the clinic. The dog had been left at home alone while her owners were at work, and she'd gone into labor. As sometimes happened with first litters, the rottweiler experienced complications and started to hemorrhage. By the time her owners returned home, the dog was near death. The instant Isaiah saw her, he knew it would take a miracle to save herâpale gums, cold lips, dull eyes.
“C-section!” he yelled. “Belinda, Angela, I need you, stat.”
Everyone rushed to get a table ready, and with efficient speed Susan prepped the dog. In the end, though, all the hurry was for naught. The animal had lost too much blood, and she died during surgery.
Isaiah felt sick about it. She was a beautiful dog, a purebred with fabulous markings and conformation. He left his techs to care for the pups and went to the waiting area to speak with the dog's owners, a husband and wife who sat huddled in a corner. Isaiah guessed they were in their mid-thirties, professionals judging by their dress, the man in a blood-smeared street coat over a tailored gray suit, the woman in a dark skirt and blazer. She was sobbing on her husband's shoulder, saying, “Oh, God, I hope she'll be okay. My poor, poor Phoebe.”
“Hello,” Isaiah said, extending his right hand to the man. “I'm Dr. Coulter.”
The fellow patted his wife's shoulder and gently pushed her away as he stood up to shake Isaiah's hand. “How is she, Doc?”
Before Isaiah could reply, the woman cried, “She went into labor while we were at work!”
“Ah.” Isaiah might have pointed out that leaving the dog alone near her due date had been irresponsible, but that would only have made the situation worse. The people had learned their lesson the hard way and would do better the next time. “That happens sometimes.”
The woman nodded and sniffed. “When we got home there was blood everywhere. We had made
her a birthing bed in our closet.” Her voice went high and thin. “She was just lying there like she was dead.”
Experience had taught Isaiah that bad news was best delivered quickly and simply. That made it no easier for him to say what had to be said. “I'm so sorry, but Phoebe didn't make it.”
The woman covered her face with her hands. The man made a strangled sound and bent his head.
“We did our best to save her.” Isaiah always felt helpless at times like this. “But we were too late. We lost her on the table.”
“I shouldn't have left her alone!” the woman cried brokenly. “Oh, God, my poor Phoebe.”
“Complications like these aren't something any-one can predict,” Isaiah said gently. “It's always easy to second-guess ourselves after the fact, but all that accomplishes is to make us feel worse. What you need to focus on right now is that you loved her and did your best to give her a good home. Not all dogs are so fortunate.”
The woman's husband inserted, “That's right, honey. Don't start blaming yourself. We had no way of knowing that she'd have problems.” He glanced at Isaiah. “We did everything to make her comfortable. We just had no idea.”
Isaiah nodded. “Next time around you'll know from experience that complications can arise. But you didn't know that this morning.” He waited for the woman's sobs to abate somewhat. Then he said, “I don't know if this will be any comfort, but we were able to save Phoebe's puppies.”
“You saved them?” The woman's eyes lit with hope.
Isaiah smiled. “She left you thirteen beautiful babies. I got only a glimpse of them before I came out to talk with you, but they all looked healthy.”
The woman sent her husband a wet, tremulous smile. “Oh, Stanley. Did you hear that? Her babies made it.”
Stanley shook his head. “Their mother's gone, Nan. We can't take on thirteen puppies when we're both working like we are.”
Isaiah held up a hand. “There are puppy formulas available. Orphaned newborns can do very nicely. You just have to bottle-feed them every two hours.”
“Every two hours?” Nan echoed. “All day and all night?”
Isaiah nodded. “In cases like this most people wean the pups at four weeks. It'll be a rough month. I won't kid you about that. But Phoebe was a beautiful dog. It's my guess that her puppies will sell for a lot of money. Perhaps, considering the financial reward of such an endeavor, one of you can afford to take a month off from work.”
Stanley shook his head again. “I can get time off for emergencies, but the death of a dog doesn't qualify.” He looked at his wife. “And you have the art show in two weeks. You can't drop the ball right now.”
Nan wiped her cheeks. “I own an art gallery.”
“Ah,” Isaiah said again. It was his favorite word at times like this, noncommittal, meaningless. People could take it to mean whatever they liked.
“You know how it is,” Stanley went on, rubbing his brow as though his head hurt. “Nan's running herself ragged twenty-four/seven right now, and I'm a project manager, trying to meet a deadline.” He looked sadly at his wife. “We have to be practical, honey. There's just no way we can do it.”