“This is the last one,” I said, tossing the previous patient’s paperwork on the desk and grabbing the next empty clipboard. I didn’t mind the work, of course I didn’t. It was my life’s passion.
The animals weren’t the problem. Their thoughts were mostly pure and tunneled. Food, hurt, thirsty, mating, sleep, and attention from their owners, not always in that order.
Humans, on the other hand...I could do without my gift in that department.
My practice was small, but I liked it that way. My patients ranged from puppies to cattle and everything in between.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Peterson. I’m Dr. Cage. Is this the baby blue pit bull you called about?”
She nodded and for a minute nothing else hit my mind. It was a three-minute vacation at best.
“Yes. I’ve been bottle feeding her, but she’s still about fifteen or so pounds smaller than her brothers.”
Shouldn’t have even tried to save her. She won’t make me any money in this condition. Probably pay more in vet bills than I could sell her for.
I winced. Those were the things I didn’t need to hear.
“Well, let’s get a look at you, baby blue.” I opened the pup’s mouth and sure enough, not only did she have a cleft palate, it was severe. Most cleft palates had some missing pieces or were a few centimeters apart, but this one was a full three inches. I could see inside her sinus cavities.
“This is one of the worst I’ve seen, Mrs. Peterson,” I addressed the owner. “She’s going to need surgery, and even then I’m not sure she’ll ever eat properly. Food will lodge in her nasal passages and maybe cause her to choke.”
From her expression, I knew that wasn’t the news she wanted to hear. She was a breeder of prize-winning pit bulls, but this one wouldn’t be winning her any trophies.
“Should we just put her down?” She whispered the question, and I loved on the puppy, clearly dehydrated and weak.
“I can try to repair it, but it will cost a good bit. You know I’ll let you make payments, though. You’re good for it. Always have paid the bills.”
She nodded. I ground my jaw against the onslaught of thoughts. She always shouted them.
Ain’t worth it. If he doesn’t agree to put her down, I’ll just do it myself.
“How about this?” I interjected. “I know an adoption place that will perform the surgery and save her, if that’s possible, and take care of the bills. Then they will try to find her a home. That way, it’s off your plate, and you can move on. I’m sure this has been hell on you.”
I almost rolled my eyes. This cleft palate and not being able to take in the proper nutrition was hell on this pup. I had heard her stomach growl nonstop since she got here. Her mind told me she was weak, slept all the time, and it burned to gag down the pup formula her owner forced on her.
“That would be great. Are you sure she’ll be okay?”
Her words were sincere, and I realized I’d been too harsh in my assessment. She ran a business. On one hand, she loved the pups, but on the other, broken ones didn’t pay the light bill.
“I’m sure. We’ll take her from here.”
Mrs. Peterson walked out, a weight off her chest and onto mine. I carried the pup down the hall to Ace, one of my vet assistants.
“Ace, take this pup and let’s X-ray her before prepping her for surgery tomorrow. We’ll try to fix that palate and then get some nutrition into her. Just fluids tonight, okay?”
He took the pup and spoke baby words to her. “Is this another one of your special cases?”
I nodded. “Yep. Soon as she’s well, she’ll become part of my pack. She deserves it.”
“Nobody ever figures out that you are the ‘adoption place’ that takes care of the animals.” He carried her away to set her up with a drip in a kennel with a warmed blanket. He emerged a little while later, just as I finished my notes. “The little one fell asleep almost immediately.”
“That’s the last patient for me tonight. I’m out.” I tore off my scrub shirt and pulled the name tag from it, pinning the tag to the corkboard for tomorrow. The top went into the laundry basket.
“Doctor?” I heard from down the hall and I took off, run-walking toward the back door as fast as my human legs would walk.
“Felix, wait.” Leah’s light footsteps gained on me.
“But, Felix,” she said with a tone I recognized.
“What is it?” I stopped and sighed, hands on my hips, turning to see what was up.
She got closer, so close I could smell the flavor of coffee creamer she’d used earlier, Southern butter pecan for the record. Leah had started here the day I did—she’d been my number-one receptionist since the day I opened my practice.
“Doctor, it’s a…” Instead of saying the word, she pointed to the chicken scratch on a yellow Post-it note.
“Out past Rob and Sasha’s place. He came out of the forest behind their house. In a trap. He’s caught in a trap.”
I nodded and grabbed my keys. My old Dodge Ram SUV was fully stocked with anything I might need in the field. While I went to the truck, I shucked my flip-flops, the only shoes I ever wore. It didn’t feel right, walking on the earth, on the grass, in the mud without feeling it on my soles.
While I pulled out of the parking lot, I dialed Rob and put him on speakerphone.
“Yo, Doc Cage, what’s up? You coming to pick up this one?”
“I’m on my way. Give me some details.”
He said something to his mate Samuel and then got back on the phone with me. “Looks like a young one, but completely gone.”
I panicked, and my heart sped up. “He’s dead?”
“No, oh no, sorry. I’m a bastard. He’s gone as in, I think this is a shifter. I think. But, Doc, if he is, he hasn’t gone two-legged in quite a while, you feel me?”
“Yep. My ETA is in five minutes.”
“He’s outside my back porch. I didn’t try to take the trap off his leg. Damn thing tried to bite me.”
I grunted. “Keep your distance.”
With that, I hung up and pushed down on the gas pedal harder. If the fox managed to drag himself and the trap away, we might never find him, and I shuddered to think what that could mean for the shifter…or even just an animal. We all feel pain just as much.
I got to Rob and Sasha’s in two minutes flat. Rob waved me to the back porch, taking no time for niceties.
“Oh, damn it.”
I smelled the creature before I saw it, a fox just like me. He reeked of clotted blood, urine, and mud. Rob was right. He was shifter, that much I could smell, even if the human in his system had faded to nothing more than a tang in my nose.
The scene was shocking. This fox had given up. His thoughts revolved around dying and being okay with it. There was nothing left for him to live for. If I had to guess, this fox had tried to bite Rob not out of fear but because he didn’t want to be freed.