We stood in the hallway between examination rooms after seeing the morning patients. I waited for the Doctor to announce lunch. If the appointments were short the Doctor went home early, leaving me with the animals and Cheryl the receptionist, who was a sweet, often painful distraction from my work. Sometimes, the Doctor rode away on a woman’s bike with a wicker basket on the handlebars. He didn’t care what people said. But instead of lunch, which I expected: his dour announcement-a push-up maybe and out he’d go-instead; he opened the drawer where the controlled drugs were kept-valium, phenobarbital, ketamine-stuff I’d been trying to figure out, and took out the euthanasia.The Doctor was a short man with natural curls dark as Louisiana mud (I was stationed there and know that mud), a receding hairline, and a face with eyes that jumped ahead of things (as if his face were slicing into wind). He was athletic too. Hopping over treatment tables, juggling glass vials, a few push-ups between patients were not uncommon. So when he tossed the euthanasia bottle in the air like a purple ball, I was not surprised. It was as if, at that very moment, the vibration of the room changed. When he rolled the jar in his palm, I heard the clank of his gold ring against the glass like a rifle butt against the edge of a metal bunk. I tried to catch his eyes, a subtle language we’d learned in just a short while, but he didn’t look. I rolled my shoulders, felt the muscles pull in my neck, and tried to guess what he was planning.

He scooped a syringe from the drawer where I kept the needles and tubes in stock and perfectly lined up by size to make them easy to grab; the Doctor grabbed them fast like you’d snatch your car keys and sucked up those vaccines: Distemper, Rabies, Parvo. He uncapped an 18-gauge needle, the fat ones, and plunged it into the purple stuff. I was thinking: what the hell for? All the patients were gone, just routine too, check for hookworms, vaccines, express a Dalmatian’s anal glands.

But watching the purple stuff ooze into the syringe, like saliva from a dog’s chin, helped me remember the Doctor’s warning. He’d been standing just like that when he’d said it. At that time, I’d never witnessed a shot drawn up from start to finish and couldn’t forget. It was a warning that had no weight to me then, like the threat of a drill sergeant on the first day of basic training.

So I just stood there hypnotized by the syringe, telling myself how important the job was while the euthanasia oozed and I knew the warning from way back about King and his fate was real. I knew it and tried to bury it with facts. I did not want it to happen, but I said nothing. Then the Doctor said to me, “go get King.”

I just nodded and started down the hallway between the rooms where we saw patients, but I started thinking fast because the Doctor was waiting and he got pissed when I took too long to do something like if he was holding some dog that would bite and I had to grab the stethoscope from the counter. I should have been thinking about King, but there my mind stumbled like a private with two left feet.

I remembered how much I’d loved animals when I was a kid. I used to tell my mother I wanted to live on a ranch with fifty dogs. But I got older and started smoking dope and those kinds of thoughts slipped away and I just thought about dope and hanging out with my buddies who had been thinking the same things. And that was how I ended up in the Army. High school drop out.

I stood at the door to the kennel-a little room with cages and runs and food and a tub, everything I needed for boarding animals and the cleaning stuff too. It was my room. I gave the animals medicine when they needed it, and marked it on the chart. I reminded myself it’s important to do everything on schedule, but I was thinking below that: he’s going to kill King.

King had arrived long before I started work at the clinic. A car hit him and he was injured bad. His hips moved in a circle instead of up and down. He was a German shepherd, more like the German kind than the American, which means bigger with more black fur than tan. Anyone who owned him would be real proud. But whoever brought King in way back then, you see, it would have been an emergency situation, everyone rushing around to get the dog treated for shock and such, no one would bother with money right then. But whoever brought him in couldn’t pay, and they just left him. So King was more or less OK, but lived outside in this big run at the back of the clinic.

There was a dog house in the corner of the big run and a slab of cement stained from leaves and the boarding animals who went out there to do their business, get a little fresh air. I did it. I’d let them out for a little while in the morning, then locked them back up for the day when I helped the Doctor see patients.

But it turned out that King was pretty old to begin with and the Doctor found out King had heartworm. The Doctor said those worms came from mosquitoes and a lot of dogs that lived outside got them if they didn’t take these pills we sold. The Doctor said King’s heart was like a wet paper bag filled with 8 ounces of cooked spaghetti. We’d never given King the pills because of the costs involved.

When I’d first arrived King tried to bite me and wouldn’t deal with me at all. But soon we were taking walks in the little woods by the clinic on Wednesdays when the Doctor worked half a day and I didn’t have any animals to bathe or dip. The dogs who were boarding (an old cocker spaniel who moped all day and a fox terrier who wore a pink, rhinestone collar) barked at me as I stood in the doorway of the kennel, but I was finally used to it and really didn’t hear them more than a sound at the very bottom of my thoughts. I thought no one had asked me if King should be put to sleep, and I didn’t want any part of it.

We chased squirrels and just walked around and I threw my cap sometimes and he trotted out to fetch it. But if a car drove by he kind of froze, flattened his ears and sulked toward his cage. Usually I could stop him by talking and he calmed down, but he still wanted to go back to his run.

So I went outside to the run and it was cold and leaves were blowing through the gaps in the chain link fence and there were pine trees way up over the cage wires and shadows. King raised his ears and his eyes had this expression that was like a person looked when he smiled. He trotted over in his funny way and pushed his muzzle in my crotch. I grabbed his head and pulled his chin up and looked him in the eye and said, “King, my boy, he wants to kill you now. I don’t know what to do.”

King wagged his tail and looked up at me and I loved that dog and I didn’t know why really other than the fact that he reminded me of when I was a boy and loved dogs so much. My uncle had bought a German shepherd puppy that he’d let me name, and I’d named her Happy. I remembered the smell of a carpet and the puppy and spending the day on the ground and Happy’s little tongue and sunlight coming through a sliding glass door. That’s where I’d begin again. I wouldn’t make so many mistakes. And I knew King would fight for me just the same as Happy when she was grown and I would never have killed Happy. I would have done anything for Happy, carried her around in my pocket if I had to.

“King,” I said. “Do you want to come live with me? I’ve got no money, just what’s coming on the next check, so it won’t be easy, boy. But we could run off now, we’ve got to go quick, and just figure things out ourselves. OK, King? What do you say?”

King wagged his tail and walked to the gate where I let him out for our walks. I opened the gate and King headed toward the trees. I felt the good outside in my bones and remembered all the bad times in the Army like when we had bivouacked and I lost my rifle and the whole platoon was pissed off at me and the sergeants made me sleep naked in the mud while it was raining.

The Doctor had been good to me. And I knew this would ruin everything. I would never be able to come back. I would be sent back to the world. And this town scared me. It was hard enough to find a job. I imagined my mother’s face. When I’d come home after the Army she wouldn’t speak to me. But I had no money and nowhere to go. Her new husband had circled me around the outside of the house to the garage. I sat in there with the cars and the unused tools and waited for their meeting to finish.

After that, I’d followed them in my car to a trailer park. Eventually, the landlord showed up. It was getting dark. The new husband paid three months rent. I saw him hand the cash to the landlord. Then my mother finally turned to me. I was standing in the kitchen of the trailer. She was walking toward the door. We were alone for just a moment. “That’s everything I give you,” she said. She was so prophetic. It had that ring to it, like there really was nothing else. I tried to hug her. I wanted to explain the whole situation. It wasn’t as bad as she saw it. It wasn’t really me. “I’ll pray you find a job,” she whispered, then left.

King pushed his body close, dug his muzzle into my hand and I couldn’t hold back and felt this big warm dog in my arms and I was confused as hell because the time was so short and I had to decide what to do and what I wanted. So I hugged King once real good and tried to shake the feeling that we were trapped inside. I pulled him toward my car in the lot right there and he knew and pulled back.

That was some shit. King was scared as hell of cars. And soon that back door was going to fly open. “King,” I said, “we’ll have raspberries and shoo fly pie. We’ll eat peanut butter right out of the jar. We’ll take walks and talk about the Army and catch squirrels if you want, or just look at them.”

King didn’t wear a collar so I tugged at his neck some and coaxed him. But he was in a sitting position, pulling back as hard as I pulled forward. So I knelt next to him again and felt the thick rolls of his fur and his warm muscles and said, “Happy King, my boy, he wants to kill you today and the time is gone. You’ve got to go with this idea.”

I reached to his backside and curled my arm around and I was ready to lift, but as soon as I put some pressure to the lift I heard his bones crackle like wrapping paper, and he snapped his head back and moaned. “OK, King,” I said. “But now we’re in trouble.”

Because I heard the back door opening and I stood and smoothed my shirt and tried to look like something, but my excuse and what I was going to say to the Doctor slipped away. I saw her blonde hair first, the top part that is all frizz, some magic trick of hair spray I couldn’t understand.

“The Doctor wants to know what the hell’s going on,” Cheryl said.

“Well,” I said. “Cheryl, I’m surprised. How I love that red shirt you wear. Is it a sweater? It’s getting a little chilly nowadays.”

King leaned into my leg and stared at her too. It was my favorite top she wore. It was cut in a V at the neck and I could imagine the feelings trapped between the tops of her pale breasts. She wore her make up all wrong, heavy as paint, a mask to hide the good secrets beneath. You couldn’t get a bead on her face with all that green and silver above her eyes. How I had dreamed of her. How I had imagined her in the mornings with unpainted eyes.

“Look, forget the sweater. The Doctor’s waiting for you. What’s the problem? I’ve got to go to lunch.”

“Cheryl, I’ve never told you this, but I’m in love with you. I’ve got to tell you now. You’re skin is so soft. I can’t describe the feeling it gives me. Will you come with me?”

Cheryl rolled her eyes and leaned into the fence, cruelly pressing her chest against the chain links. “You’ve told me before, idiot,” she said. “And I’ve told you before, I have a boyfriend. If he heard you say that to me, he’d kick your ass.”

I thought of her behind the front desk, men clients dripping over her, the way she smiled and made her eyes big. “I don’t want King to die. I love King,” I said and put my hand on King’s head. King wagged his tail and panted, his pink tongue dripping. He loved Cheryl too. King knew her essence. She was made of some chemical that made men suffer. She had it more than other girls.

I stepped closer to the fence. King stepped with me, tail thumping the backs of my legs. “I know this is crazy. But how can it hurt you? You have everything, and I have nothing. It won’t hurt you, Cheryl. Such a small thing to ask for,” I begged for the hundredth time. “If you would only show them to me once, Cheryl. So I can have the image in my thoughts. So I can think of them at night,” I pleaded while pointing at her chest.

“Look, just tell me why it’s taking so long, OK? Please?” She asked. ” I love King too,” she added.

Once, I saw her put a kitten’s paw in her mouth. That killed me. Her lips painted red red. The Doctor saw it too. But I don’t think he saw it the same way I did. Cheryl leaned her forehead against the fence, turned her hips and raised her arms. “If I show you, will you bring King inside,” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Just a look.” Cheryl reached for the bottom edge of her top. “OK?”

I moved closer, just an arm’s length to the fence, and nodded.

I saw her brown nipples poking past the wire, her pale, globular tits, a shape unlike anything I could describe. I stared. She pressed them against the fence. Then King groaned and I was ashamed and wanted to turn away. I felt King’s fur against my fingers, smelled rain in the air. I saw myself from a distance, through the trees and dark sky. I was a boy, a child.

“I’ll tell him you’re coming right now. OK?” Cheryl tucked in her shirt.

“Yes, tell him I’m coming,” I said. I wanted to punish myself. I’d struck the wrong deal.

I knelt as Cheryl closed the back door. “King, I said. “I was all wrong. I’m sorry for who I was. But you must see how things are stacked against me. You’ve got the heartworms and I’ve got nothing to go on.”

Then King suddenly pulled away and trotted toward the trail faster than I’ve ever seen him move. “King,” I yelled, then tried to pull it out of the air. I didn’t want the Doctor to hear. I followed King into the trees. It started to rain. I heard the rain tapping and looked up.

I went to the place where a tremendous maple tree stood over a clearing. It was the tallest tree on the grounds. Above it, I saw a sheet of rain. Then, coming through the bushes, I saw King sitting on his haunches watching something I could not see. When I got closer King didn’t look away, and I saw, standing on a scattering of leaves, a squirrel with a long tail eating the last of a hot dog bun.

I stood next to King, lightly touched his stiff ear and watched the squirrel who watched us without concern and ate.

“What’s happening, King,” I asked. King only yawned.

Then suddenly the squirrel dropped its food and ran toward us. King’s ear twitched, but he did not move. I heard the squirrels nails in the grass and felt its insignificant weight, like a breeze going past. The squirrel climbed a branch behind us and sat there chattering.

Then King mouthed a sound like dogs sometimes do like he was trying to sing or speak like a person and I heard the squirrel chattering. The rain came down harder and I heard my name mixed in with the splatter. It was the Doctor shouting my name from the side door of the animal hospital.

I was in a perfect spot to grab King and lift him, despite the pain he’d feel in those hips. I heard my name again. The Doctor was angry. He shouted my name and banged on something, probably the door. I lifted King. His wet fur filled my mouth. King yelped and turned, and I saw the surprise in his eyes, so I jogged through the trees.

I put King down on the gravel and held him close, then opened my car door. I shut the door just as King shook out his wet fur and I watched the splatter of water and mud on the inside of my windshield as I ran around the front. Inside, King had moved to the back seat. He was panicked. I said, “King. Old boy this is it. You’re saved.” I heard splashing on my back seat. King had started to pee . I started the car and pulled out. I turned my face from the hospital. I just couldn’t look. I didn’t want to feel regret. I didn’t want to think about hard things.

We were on the street at the side of the hospital and the rain slowed. The hospital was just a house the Doctor had bought and converted into a clinic. I saw my eyes reflected in the car window. It didn’t look like me. And then I saw the Doctor and Cheryl standing just outside the front door, waving. The Doctor had something in his hand. A syringe. It caught the sunlight. For a second they looked like a family, a mother and father, but then it didn’t. King poked his head between the seats and pressed his wet nose against my cheek. “Hey King,” I said. “Hey.”