Watchers Page 53

The more Nora knew of James Keene, the more she liked him. He was lighthearted in spite of his morose appearance, and his sense of humor ran toward self-deprecation. His love of animals was a light within that gave him a special glow. Dogs were his greatest love, and when he spoke of them his enthusiasm transformed his homely features and made of him a handsomer and quite appealing man.

The doctor told them of the black lab, King, that had saved him from drowning when he was a child, and he encouraged them to tell him how Einstein saved their lives. Travis recounted a colorful story about going hiking and almost walking into an injured and angry bear. He described how Einstein warned him off and then, when the half-mad bear gave chase, how Einstein challenged and repeatedly foiled the beast. Nora was able to tell a story closer to the truth: harassment by a sexual psychopath whose attack had been interrupted by Einstein and who had been held by the retriever until the police arrived.

Keene was impressed. “He really is a hero!”

Nora sensed that the stories about Einstein had so completely won the vet Over that, if he did spot the tattoo and knew what it meant, he might conceivably put it out of his mind and might let them go in peace once Einstein was recovered. If Einstein recovered.

But as they were gathering up the dishes, Keene said, "Sam, I've been wondering why your wife calls you 'Travis.'

They were prepared for this. Since assuming new identities, they had decided that it was easier and safer for Nora to continue calling him Travis, rather than trying to use Sam all the time and then, at some crucial moment, slipping up. They could claim that Travis was a nickname she'd given him, that the origin was a private joke; with winks at each other and foolish grins, they could imply there was something sexual about it, something much too embarrassing to explain further. That was how they handled Keene's question, but they were in no mood to wink and grin foolishly with any conviction, so Nora was not sure they carried it off. In fact she thought their nervous and inept performance might increase Keene's suspicions if he had any.

Just before afternoon office hours were to begin, Keene received a call from his assistant, who'd had a headache when she had gone to lunch, and who now reported that the headache had been complicated by an upset stomach. The vet was left to handle his patients alone, so Travis quickly volunteered his and Nora's services.

“We've got no veterinary training, of course. But we can handle any manual labor involved.”

“Sure, ”Nora agreed, “and between us we've got one pretty good brain. We could do just about anything else you showed us how to do.”

They spent the afternoon restraining recalcitrant cats and dogs and parrots and all sorts of other animals while Jim Keene treated them. There were bandages to be laid out, medicines to be retrieved from the cabinets, instruments to be washed and sterilized, fees to be collected and receipts written. Some pets, afflicted with vomiting and diarrhea, left messes to be cleaned up, but Travis and Nora tended to those unpleasantnesses as uncomplainingly and unhesitatingly as they performed other tasks.

They had two motives, the first of which was that, by assisting Keene, they had a chance to be in the surgery with Einstein throughout the afternoon. Between chores, they stole a few moments to pet the retriever, speak a few encouraging words to him, and reassure themselves that he was getting no worse. The downside of being around Einstein continuously was that they could see, to their dismay, that he did not seem to be getting any better, either.

Their other purpose was to further ingratiate themselves with the vet, to give him a reason to be beholden to them, so he would not reconsider his decision to allow them to stay the night.

The patient load was far greater than usual, Keene said, and they were not able to close the office until after six o'clock. Weariness-and the labor they shared-generated a warm feeling of camaraderie. As they made and ate dinner together, Jim Keene entertained them with a treasure of amusing animal stories culled from his experiences, and they were almost as comfortable and friendly as they would have been if they had known the vet for months instead of less than one day.

Keene prepared the guest bedroom for them, and provided a few blankets with which to make a crude bed on the floor of the surgery. Travis and Nora would sleep in the real bed in shifts, each spending half the night on the floor with Einstein.

Travis had the first shift, from ten o'clock until three in the morning. Only one light was left on in the far corner of the surgery, and Travis alternately sat and stretched out on the piled blankets in the shadows where Einstein lay.

Sometimes, Einstein slept, and the sound of his breathing was more normal, less frightening. But sometimes he was awake, and his respiration was horribly labored, and he whimpered in pain and-Travis somehow knew-in fear. When Einstein was awake, Travis talked to him, reminiscing about experiences they had shared, the many good moments and happy times over the past six months, and the retriever seemed to be at least slightly soothed by Travis's voice.

Unable to move at all, the dog was of necessity incontinent. A couple of times he peed on the plastic-covered mattress. With no distaste whatsoever, with the same tenderness and compassion a father might show in caring for a gravely ill child, Travis cleaned up. In a curious way, Travis was even pleased by the mess because, every time Einstein peed, it was proof that he still lived, still functioned, in some ways, as normally as ever.

Rainsqualls came and went during the night. The sound of rain on the roof was mournful, like funeral drums.

Twice during the first shift, Jim Keene appeared in pajamas and a robe. The first time, he examined Einstein carefully and changed his IV bottle. Later, he administered an injection after the examination. On both occasions, he assured Travis that right now they did not have to see signs of improvement to be encouraged; right now, it was good enough that there were no indications of deterioration in the dog's condition.

Frequently during the night, Travis wandered to the other end of the surgery and read the words of a simply framed scroll that hung above the scrub sink:


The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves Ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog. A man's dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master's side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wing and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

-Senator George Vest, 1870

Each time he read the tribute, Travis was filled anew with wonder at Einstein's existence. What fantasy of children was more common than that their dogs were fully as perceptive and wise and clever as any adult? What gift from God would more delight a young mind than to have the family dog prove able to communicate on a human level and to share triumphs and tragedies with full understanding of their meaning and importance? What miracle could bring more joy, more respect for the mysteries of nature, more sheer exuberance over the unanticipated wonders of life? Somehow, in the very idea of a dog's personality and human intelligence combined in a single creature, one had a hope of a species at once as gifted as humankind but more noble and worthy. And what fantasy of adults was more common than that, one day, another intelligent species would be found to share the vast, cold universe and, by sharing it, would at last provide some relief from our race's unspeakable loneliness and sense of quiet desperation?

And what other loss could be more devastating than the loss of Einstein, this first hopeful evidence that humankind carried within it the seeds not merely of greatness but of godhood?

These thoughts, which Travis could not suppress, shook him and drew from him a thick sob of grief. Damning himself for being an emotional basket case, he went into the downstairs hall, where Einstein would not be aware of- and perhaps be frightened by-his tears.

Nora relieved him at three in the morning. She had to insist that he go upstairs, for he was reluctant to leave Keene's surgery.

Exhausted but protesting that he would not sleep, Travis tumbled into bed and slept.

He dreamed of being pursued by a yellow-eyed thing with wicked talons and foreshortened alligator jaws. He was trying to protect Einstein and Nora, pushing them in front of him, encouraging them to run, run, run. But somehow the monster got around Travis and tore Einstein to pieces, then savaged Nora-it was the Cornell Curse, which could not be avoided by a simple change of name to Samuel Hyatt-and at last Travis stopped running and fell to his knees and lowered his head because, having failed Nora and the dog, he wanted to die, and he heard the thing approaching-click-click-click and he was afraid but he also welcomed the death that it promised-

Nora woke him shortly before five in the morning. “Einstein,” she said urgently. “He's having convulsions.”

When Nora led Travis into the white-walled surgery, Jim Keene was crouched over Einstein, ministering to him. They could do nothing but stay out of the vet's way, give him room to work.

She and Travis held each other.

After a few minutes, the vet stood up. He looked worried, and he did not make his usual effort to smile or try to lift their hopes. “I've given him additional anticonvulsants. I think . . . he'll be all right now.”

“Has he gone into the second stage?” Travis asked. “Maybe not,” Keene said.

“Could he be having convulsions and still be in first stage?” “It's possible,” Keene said.

“But not likely.”

“Not likely,” Keene said. “But . . . not impossible.” Second-stage distemper, Nora thought miserably.

She held Travis tighter than ever.

Second stage. Brain involvement. Encephalitis. Chorea. Brain damage. Brain damage.

Travis would not return to bed. He remained in the surgery with Nora and Einstein the rest of that night.

They turned on another light, brightening the room somewhat but not enough to bother Einstein, and they watched him closely for signs that the distemper had progressed to the second stage: the jerking and twitching and chewing movements of which Jim Keene had spoken.

Travis was unable to extract any hope from the fact that no such symptoms were exhibited. Even if Einstein was in the first stage of the disease and remained there, he appeared to be dying.

The next day, Friday, December 3, Jim Keene's assistant was still too sick to come to work, so Nora and Travis helped out again.

By lunchtime, Einstein's fever had not fallen. His eyes and nose continued to ooze a clear though yellowish fluid. His breathing was slightly less labored, but in her despair Nora wondered if the dog's respiration only sounded easier because he was not making as great an effort to breathe and was, in fact, beginning to give up.

She could not eat even a bite of lunch. She washed and ironed both Travis's clothes and her own, while they sat around in two of Jim Keene's spare bathrobes, which were too big for them.

That afternoon, the office was busy again. Nora and Travis were kept in constant motion, and Nora was glad to be overworked.

At four-forty, a time that she would never forget for as long as she lived, just after they finished helping Jim deal with a difficult Irish setter, Einstein yipped twice from his bed in the corner. Nora and Travis turned, both gasping, both expecting the worst, for this was the first sound other than whimpers that Einstein had made since his arrival at the surgery. But the retriever had lifted his head-the first time he'd had the strength to lift it- and was blinking at them; he looked around curiously, as if to ask where on earth he was.

Jim knelt beside the dog and, while Travis and Nora crouched expectantly behind him, he thoroughly examined Einstein. “Look at his eyes. They're slightly milky but not at all like they were, and they've stopped actively leaking.” With a damp cloth, he cleaned the crusted fur beneath Einstein's eyes and wiped off his nose; the nostrils no longer bubbled with fresh excretions. With a rectal thermometer he took Einstein's temperature and, reading it, said, “Falling. Down two full degrees.”

“Thank God,” Travis said.

And Nora discovered that her eyes were filling with tears again.

Jim said, “He's not out of the woods yet. His heartbeat is more regular, less accelerated, though still not good. Nora, get one of those dishes over there and fill it with some water.”

Nora returned from the sink a moment later and put the dish down on the floor, at the vet's side.

Jim pushed it close to Einstein. “What do you think, fella?”

Einstein raised his head off the mattress again and stared at the dish. His lolling tongue looked dry and was coated with a gummy substance. He whined and licked his chops.

“Maybe,” Travis said, “if we help him-”

“No,” Jim Keene said. “Let him consider it. He'll know if he feels up to it. We don't want to force water that's going to make him vomit again. He'll know by instinct if the time is right.”

With some groaning and wheezing, Einstein shifted on the foam mattress, rolling off his side, half onto his belly. He put his nose to the dish, sniffed the water, put his tongue to it tentatively, liked the first taste, had another, and drank a third of it before sighing and lying down again.

Stroking the retriever, Jim Keene said, “I'd be very surprised if he doesn't recover, fully recover, in time.”

In time.

That phrase bothered Travis.

How much time would Einstein require for a full recovery? When The

Outsider finally arrived, they would all be better off if Einstein was healthy and if all of his senses were functioning sharply. The infrared alarms notwithstanding, Einstein was their primary early-warning system.

After the last patient left at five-thirty, Jim Keene slipped out for half an hour on a mysterious errand, and when he returned he had a bottle of champagne. “I'm not much of a drinking man, but certain occasions demand a nip or two.”

Nora had pledged to drink nothing during her pregnancy, but even the most solemn pledge could be stretched under these circumstances.

They got glasses and drank in the surgery, toasting Einstein, who watched them for a few minutes but, exhausted, soon fell asleep.

“But a natural sleep,” Jim noted. “Not induced with sedatives.”

Travis said, “How long will he need to recover?”

“To shake off distemper-a few more days, a week. I'd like to keep him here two more days, anyway. You could go home now, if you want, but you're also welcome to stay. You've been quite a help.”

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