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"Toto" was never the most creative name for a little, black terrier, but I never had the heart to say so to aunt Sharon, no matter how many times she'd explain and re-explain the reference, as though nobody outside her own childhood had ever heard of The Wizard of Oz. I'd never even been much of a dog person, but Toto was such a sweet little thing, insatiable for attention but demanding it only with the gentlest little tap of his paw. You could pick him up like a baby and he'd fall asleep in your arms, every time.

I guess Sharon knew I visited her more to see Toto than for any other reason, and knew he'd keep getting pampered and loved when she willed him to me. I'll admit, when I realized the little guy would be coming home with me, I cried - happily - harder than I did at her passing. Knowing how much she loved him herself, I know she wouldn't have taken it personally.

That was almost ten years ago to the day, and it's hard to believe just how much I've been through since. Failed careers, failed relationships. A hard-earned college degree that proved ultimately useless in the real world. I've moved from one run-down apartment or family member's basement to the next, and for a while I was even sleeping in my car - which, of course, no longer actually ran. I'll be if Toto didn't make it through every minute of it with me. Whether I came home to a real front door or a hunk of plywood held up with bungee cords, he was always there, wiggling his ridiculous little tail-nub and sitting up on his hind legs to be held again. Sometimes, he was the only thing really keeping me together. The only surefire little island of happiness in an ocean of.

Needless to say, I felt stabbed in the gut when I came home to my latest hovel to find him simply lying on the floor, tongue lolled out, not so much as a twitch of an ear in my direction. I knew, in the back of my mind, that he was an old dog. That I wouldn't have him forever. He'd never shown it, though. He always seemed like the same vibrant mop of fur as the day we met. I couldn't begin to guess what could be wrong with him now. Did he swallow something? Had he been sick and I just didn't notice? Was it a stroke? A tiny heart attack? 

He was breathing, but still barely responsive. I'd have probably given up a limb on the spot if that would have saved him, but unfortunately, vets only usually accept money as payment, and until my next paycheck, my bank account was in the negatives.

I figured there had to be some kind of animal ER, right? Maybe a charity clinic? Something with free walk-ins? Somebody offering payment plans?

I checked the web...and there it was. 

"DOCTOR FLEAGOOD'S DISCOUNT VETERINARY SERVICES." Fifteen minutes out of town. The entry was bare-bones and there were no user reviews, but it was rated five stars, and what little information it provided was almost eerily appropriate.

"CHARITY CLINIC. FREE WALK-INS. PAYMENT PLANS OFFERED."

It was like it read my mind.

I was out the door so fast, I'd almost stepped out onto the porch without Toto. I didn't have a carrier, but I'd bundled him up in his favorite blanket - the same tattered thing he came to me with, all those years ago - and kept him in my lap as we drove. I could feel the sickly heat pouring off him, and a sour, dirty dog smell I was sure he'd never had before. He was, at least, still breathing, but I could hear his little lungs rattling, almost gurgling.

Every minute felt like twenty on the winding, cryptic route to the mystery vet. The road wound through woods and past cow pastures I never knew existed just outside the city, pavement soon giving way to dirty gravel as I followed my GPS through country roads that seemed alarmingly deserted. I felt a rising panic as I realized the path itself was the only trace of human activity I'd seen for more than half the journey, not so much as a single sign to break up the empty, yellowed fields and whispy groves of unseasonably bare trees.

What if I'd gone the wrong way? What if this place didn't even exist? Why hadn't it even crossed my mind to CALL first?!

I was on the verge of a breakdown when I finally emerged into some semblance of civilization. Even my GPS was only calling things "ROAD" at this point, but at least I'd passed a gas station, however obsolete it looked, and a few scrappy houses with some signs of habitation.

Then, as I rounded one last bend, I saw it.

"DQCT0R FLEAGO D'S

DISCNT VETERINARY

bring the wh0le family!"

It was one of those signs with the changeable letters, and someone had obviously run out of O's. Not the most comforting first impression, but the lit interior and "open" sign may as well have been a choir of angels.

I screeched to a stop in the curiously empty parking lot. Where did the staff park, if the place was really open? The ten seconds between leaving my car and finding their door open felt like torture.

Fresh alarm bells rang when I found nobody inside to greet us. No receptionist, not another patient, nothing.

"....HELLO?" I called in no particular direction.

Another nerve-wracking ten seconds.

"SIT. THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU SOON," came the stern, slightly muffled reply. I couldn't tell what door it had come from.

"IT'S AN EMERGENCY!" I cried back, not actually knowing if it was an emergency.

The voice simply repeated itself, word-for-word. Rude. A little creepy. At least I was the only one waiting.

I cradled Toto against my chest and took the only seat available in the cramped waiting room. A grimy, plastic bench modeled after a cartoon dachshund.

Minute after minute ticked by on an off-model Garfield clock. More red than his usual orange, with more cat-like, slitted pupils than he's ever been drawn with. The whole place actually seemed cobbled together from the racks of a discount gift shop and designed in some well-intentioned but awkward attempt to comfort children. Where the walls weren't plastered with poorly printed cat memes or inspirational posters, they were painted with copyright-safe cartoon animals - yellow Daffy Duck, Goofy as a moose, even a two-eyed Plankton from Spongebob - enjoying various degrees of medical attention from the same orange, fraggle-looking doctor character. It took me a while to realize it was supposed to be a flea, with shrek-like antennae and an extra set of limbs. Doctor Fleagood, I presumed.

Under every one of these murals were the words "he did it again!" in flowery, purple cursive.

I was just starting to wonder why a vet's office would put so much effort into appealing to human children when I heard the door behind me creak open, and that muffled voice, now clearly coming from somewhere behind the reception desk, informed me only that "HE IS READY."

I still wasn't sure who kept speaking but still clutching my canine pal, I stepped through the open door.

"Well hey there, who do we have here!?"

The voice sounded like a clown had just inhaled a helium balloon.

In the middle of the examination room stood a pale, lanky, middle-aged man, dressed like any ordinary doctor, with thick-rimmed glasses and thinning, grey-black hair. He smiled wide, his teeth just a little crooked, but didn't move a twitch. He was gesturing with one hand to the examination table, stiff as a statue, and with his other hand...

Oh god no.

The doctor had a puppet.

It was one of those doctors. 

I thought back to the dentist my parents used to take me to, who gave kids an entire exam dressed like Mickey Mouse. It was another of those things that were supposed to make kids feel more comfortable, but it always just felt more patronizing and at times unsettling.

Besides...I was a grown woman. I really didn't need a hand puppet to tell me if my best friend in the world was dying or not.

"Well, come on, we haven't got all day!!" squeaked the clown-voice from seemingly nowhere, the felt doll flapping its pac-man mouth slightly out of synch with the words. It was, of course, the spitting image of the Dr. Fleagood murals, almost like someone recolored Kermit the Frog and sewed another set of arms onto him.

I wanted to leave. I practically wanted to scream at this guy that the only thing I really cared about could die at any minute and he was standing here playing with dolls.

But then what? What if he COULD die at any minute? Where else was I going to go? This place looked like it had been in business for years, maybe decades, and it did have that five star rating on Google, right?

I calmed down almost as quickly as I'd grown enraged. The guy was weird, yeah, but he was still a doctor, and I needed a doctor.

Still a little lost for words, I gently laid Toto out on the table.

"MmmmMMMMmmmm! Mighty tasty-lookin pooch, you got there!" trilled the felt flea.

"WHAT THE FLYING SHIT IS WRONG WITH YOU!" screamed my brain, as I silently gritted my teeth.

"He...I don't know what's wrong...I just, came home and he was like this..." is what I actually said, my eyes starting to well with tears for the hundredth time in the past hour.

"Awwww, don't worry your tasty-lookin head, toots! Old Doctor Fleagood's never lost a dinne-errr-patient, yet!"

I really, really wasn't appreciating these jokes about eating my dog.

"Please..." I croaked. "He's all I have."

"It's okay," said the doctor. The actual doctor. "Trust us. Toto will be safe."

The real, human words were comforting, as flabbergasted as I still was on the inside.

...But when had I told them Toto's name? Did I just forget? I was in an awfully emotional state, I admit, but wasn't this my first interaction with anybody here?

"First thing's first, let's have some of that BLOOD!" said the puppet, with a certain uncomfortable relish. I cradled Toto's little face in my hands, doing my best to reassure him as the doctor produced a syringe. It seemed larger than it should have been, but again, I was a wreck. Almost anything sharp around my dog might as well look like a guillotine.

Still...it seemed like they were drawing an alarming amount of blood from such a small dog. I was almost positive it had to be too much, but I kept telling myself this was a professional, however bizarre and awkward his little hobby, or whatever it was. Some of the best minds in the world were weird as hell, weren't they? So he was eccentric. So what. He was a doctor. A doctor. I kept repeating it in my head, and I almost relaxed enough to start smiling.

That was until he finished filling the needle. 

Without a word, he turned the syringe on the hand puppet and began to squirt out its contents.

I stood petrified, in stunned silence as the doctor drenched his hand puppet's open mouth in my dog's blood.

"MmmmMMMMmmMMmmmm...sweet as a kitten's heart!" chirped the helium-voice.

The vet shook his head with a wide, phony grin. "Doctor Fleeeeaaaagooood! You did it AGAAAIN!"

"More...MORE!" the puppet's voice was getting raspier, more intense.

"Hold yer, horses! Doc!!!" replied the puppeteer.

"Oooh! We've got horse, too!?" the puppet quipped.

I was practically choking on my words as the doctor began pulling another syringe from another pocket, easily three or four times the size of the first.

"What the ABSOLUTE FUCK!?" I finally shrieked, practically ripping Toto from the table and crushing him to my chest. I'd sooner kill him myself than let this pervert touch him again.

The puppet waved its little arms. "Awwww, whatsamatta, juicyveins?"

"You're SICK, THAT'S WHAT." The words quavered a lot more than I'd intended.

"Come ooon, sweetmeats!" he squeaked. "We can share this time!"

The exam table stood between us, but the door was on his side. He positioned himself directly in front of it and brandished the empty needle like a dagger.

Threatening me. This bent piece of was threatening me.

In a combined rush of fury and panic, I ripped the nearby desk lamp from the countertop and hurled it straight for the's face. As he ducked out of the way - away from the door, as I'd hoped - I put my full weight into flipping the surprisingly heavy exam table with my free hand. He made another effort to dodge but was clipped hard in the knees and toppled to the floor, hurling the syringe and blood-soaked puppet to far corners of the room.

Heart racing, I kept my eyes locked on him as I moved for the door as if the old man might spring back to his feet at any instant...but he didn't make a move.

...In fact, he lay as still and silent as a corpse. 

I swallowed hard. He couldn't be dead, could he? I was defending myself, right? His eyes were wide open, unblinking, and a smile was still plastered on his lifeless face. Images of a life in prison whirled through my head. Would anyone believe my side? What kind of friends did this guy have? What kind of strings must a bloodthirsty puppet fetishist be able to pull to keep a medical clinic open??

That's when I noticed it.

His left hand.

His missing left hand.

Where the puppet had been sitting, he had nothing but a stump. No scars, no blood, just a smooth, flesh-colored surface like the arm of a plastic mannequin.

"What the f-" was all I could get out before I felt something cold and sharp stab me straight in the thigh.

I practically performed a mid-air twirl as I leapt, with a primal scream, and faced my new assailant. It was a testament to the I'd already put up with - here in this very room as well as throughout my life - that I wasn't even surprised to see a fuzzy, red-stained figure standing of its own volition.

The puppet, if it had ever been a puppet, brandished the huge needle with all four of its noodly, fabric-covered arms, its smug, sock-puppet mouth sucked inward like it was stifling a laugh. 

I didn't scream again. I didn't say a word. All I did was swing one foot with my every ounce of strength and punt the little like a football.

"EEEYYYYYAAAAGGGHHH!!!" squealed the googly-eyed, the scream breaking up a little like a poorly filtered computer-voice.

The world was a blur from the exam room to the interior of my car, and I tore a lovely set of ruts in the driveway as I peeled out.

Toto was curled back in my lap as I raced back through the podunk landscape.

Wondering where I'd go.

Wondering what I could do.

Wondering what just happened. What that thing was. How any of it had been possible.

Wondering...





...Wondering since when the hell I ever had a dog before an hour ago.






I glanced down at the small, black ball of fur in my lap, and I saw a little, shining smile.



Credited to Scythemantis

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