by Kody Wescott
Henry’s eyes were wide, their corners pulled down in fear as he scanned his unfamiliar surroundings. It was cold. The tabletop refused to warm, no matter how long he lay there. The hum of the lights hurt his ears. Their white glow illuminated the featureless cabinets and the equally dull counter tops laden with medical equipment. The most unsettling part of the room was the smell. He couldn’t pick out a single scent. Not the earthy smell of soil nor the familiar dustiness of a house. It smelled of artificial chemicals that burned his nose with each breath he took. Henry yearned to be free of this place, to bolt through the door into the sun and the breeze where he’d recognize every scent for miles around. Kevin’s presence was the only thing that kept him still. Not that he could have run if he’d tried.
Seeing Henry like that, all skin and bone, too weak to move, lying on a metal table with an IV in his arm, Kevin was sure his heart would burst. There was no way it could endure the pain that continued to well in his chest. He sat in a chair next to Henry with one hand resting on his paw while the other gently traced circles through his fur. The vet was speaking, had been speaking for some time now, but Kevin had stopped listening after her first few words. I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do.
Kevin stared at his best friend. With his head resting on the table, his body motionless save for the too frequent rise and fall of his chest, Henry could have been sleeping. The only thing that said otherwise were his eyes. They were alert and full of fear, darting around the room until they fell on Kevin’s. His frantic breathing slowed, if only slightly, and the panicked movements of his eyes ceased. Kevin’s vision blurred as those deep brown eyes held his gaze. He’d been looking into those eyes for as long as he could remember. It had never occurred to him that he’d be looking into them for the last time.
It was a childish thought, Kevin knew that. Dogs don’t live as long as people, but kids don’t think about those things. Henry had helped Kevin through so much. When Kevin was sequestered in his room, his parents screaming at each other down the hall, Henry was right there with him. After Kevin’s Dad left, while his Mom was working double shifts, Kevin would spend hours playing with Henry. Henry didn’t know it, but those hours saved Kevin. They kept him occupied, kept the depression at bay. Kevin could make it through anything with Henry at his side. That’s why, when Kevin went off to college, he worked two jobs on top of his schoolwork to afford an apartment that allowed dogs. Kevin needed Henry, would always need him. The idea had taken root deep in Kevin’s mind, and had never wavered, not even into adulthood.
It was several moments before Kevin realized the vet had stopped talking. She was watching him. He was surprised by the pain in her eyes, nearly as much pain as he felt in himself. It was the look of someone who’d been in his shoes and knew nothing she could say or do would make it better.
“I’ll give you some time,” she said. There was a soft click as the door closed behind her. Kevin ran his hand through Henry’s fur. It was still soft but it’s gold luster had faded with Henry’s health. Kevin didn’t speak for a long while. He just kept stroking Henry’s fur, doing his best to give him some measure of comfort. Tears sprang into Kevin’s eyes as his hand ran across Henry’s ribs. Where once he would have found nothing but lean muscle, Kevin’s fingers rose and fell with each rib. He brought his hand up to scratch behind Henry’s ears. If he closed his eyes he could nearly believe they were at home, before Henry got sick, just lounging on the couch.
“I remember the day we got you,” Kevin said. At the sound of his voice, Henry’s eyes flicked to Kevin. “It was just a normal day. I had been having some problems in school. Mom and Dad wanted to cheer me up. I got off the bus, walked inside, and there you were. A wild ball of golden fur.” Kevin chuckled to himself. “The moment you saw me, you charged. I was barely bigger than you were so we both went down in a heap. They got so scared,” Kevin chuckled. “They thought you were attacking me, but I erupted in giggles. I was sure you were going to lick my face right off.” Despite the growing pit in his chest, Kevin smiled.
“Remember the time at the lake when you knocked Mom into the water?” Kevin laughed as he spoke. “We were playing fetch and I threw the stick out into the water. Mom was walking on the dock, and you barreled right into her and knocked her head first into the lake. She was mad for the rest of the trip.” With each story Kevin told, ten more came to mind. They’d had so many adventures.
Henry could feel Kevin’s whirlwind of emotion as he recounted story after story. It was a mixture of feelings Henry had never sensed from Kevin before. Pain and sadness mixed seamlessly with joy and exhilaration. Henry’s eyes closed as he lost himself in the rise and fall of emotion. He could almost imagine he was miles from the animal hospital, running through the woods with Kevin, experiencing his excitement, his happiness.
The door opened suddenly, and the joy and excitement vanished, replaced by a spike of fear that instantly roused Henry. His eyes found Kevin, who was staring at the nurse as she entered the room. His face was contorted in anguish, and paths of moisture glistened on his cheeks. Kevin’s pain was so acute, Henry could feel it in his bones. He tried to bark, to get Kevin’s attention, but only managed a whimper. It was barely audible, but Kevin heard.
“It’s okay, boy,” Kevin said, trying his best to convey a calmness he didn’t feel. Henry’s body trembled as he tried desperately to sit up. His whimpers grew louder, more pained, but he managed to get his front paws under him. Kevin was too shocked to move. Henry hadn’t been able to so much as wag his tail in weeks. Henry’s nose stretched towards Kevin’s face and nudged him gently. His tongue rolled out lethargically. It found Kevin’s cheek, then his nose. The touch was barely moist, nothing like the slobbering kisses he remembered from their first meeting, but they brought a smile to Kevin’s lips. He took Henry’s face in both his hands and rested his forehead on Henry’s.
Kevin saw the nurse out of the corner of his eye as she moved quickly to the counter. She returned, something small hidden in her hand. Kevin rubbed Henry’s face. He was still sitting upright. His eyes looked stronger than they had in weeks. His licks became more fervent. Even now, at the darkest moment of Kevin’s life, Henry was there, his beacon in the night.
“What am I going to do without you?” Kevin asked quietly as Henry nuzzled against his face. Kevin heard the rustling of the IV bag. Henry heard it too, but Kevin wouldn’t let him look. “I’m right here, Henry,” he said soothingly, his hands gently running across Henry’s head and down his neck. “I’m right here.”
Henry’s legs were shaking at the effort of remaining upright. Kevin’s eyes found the vet standing next to the table near the IV with a syringe full of pink liquid in her hand. He nodded quickly. She unhooked the IV from the bag, and inserted the syringe. With a press of the plunger, the pink fluid shot into the IV.
“I love you, Henry,” Kevin said, forcing himself not to look at the IV as the pink liquid rushed towards Henry’s arm. Kevin squeezed his eyes tight, forcing a torrent of tears down his face. He opened them slowly. Henry’s big brown eyes were staring at him, the strength seemed to drain from them as Kevin watched. “I love you, boy.” Tears streamed freely down his face. Henry stopped shaking. His eyes began to droop, and his head grew heavy in Kevin’s hands. “I love you.”