The Huffmans were the type of people I prayed would bring their dogs in for shots or neutering. They were backwoods folks – deep, deep backwoods – and that often meant their dogs ran around half feral, spurting out litters. Half the pups would die of parvo and most of the rest be drowned in a gunny sack to hide them from the government. At the same time, even if the Huffmans or those of their ilk lugged their pets in to see me, they rarely brought any money. Sometimes the government would subsidize the sterilizations, sometimes they wouldn’t. Most work done on those animals was gratis, performed with the hopes that I’d at least prevent something worse from happening down the line.
So when I heard that the Huffmans were coming in with a truckload, I sighed with relief at the same time that the muscles just next to my wallet clenched. I heard the baying of their hound mutts long before I saw Janie Huffman through the front window as she got out of the truck, something swaddled in a white towel in her arms. Brett Huffman hopped down from their old truck soon after, his face white as a sheet and his steps uncertain.
I gulped. They didn’t pay any attention to the dogs howling in the back – not when they scrabbled at the sides of the truck, not when the biggest dogs jumped out and ran wild, and certainly not when the littlest dogs cried to escape. Whatever was in the blanket, I thought, had to be deathly ill and concerning the Huffmans deeply.
The bell on the door dinged as they rushed in and ignored the lady manning the front desk. They looked through to the back, finding me easily while Janie held tight the bundle in her arms. “Dr. Worthington!” Janie shouted. Tears ran down her face, and Brett wrung his hands a few feet behind her. “Dr. Worthington, you’ve gotta help us. Please, please help.”
This was only fifteen years ago, mind. I was already old, my husband already retired, fiddling in his woodshop and coasting out on our nest egg. I put my hands in my pockets and resolved not to give out something for free that I would regret later. I tried to keep my feet planted where they were, but I’m afraid my voice may have betrayed my resolve by handing out tones of concern. “What’s wrong, Janie?”
Her lips quivered. “My baby,” she said, “My baby – I don’t know what to feed it. I hatched it from an egg, Dr. Worthington, but I didn’t plan it out at all. You gotta help me.”
I raised a brow, curious what she had brought in that was the size of a loaf of bread but had hatched from an egg. I was foolish enough to reach forward to the blanket and take a corner. “May I see? Is it a girl or a boy? Dog? Cat?”
Janie shook her head, tears flowing down. “I don’t know what to do. I’m scared I’m gonna kill it, Doc.”
The moment I tugged on the corner of the blanket, I heard a screech like that of an infant. I let go of the blanket immediately and took a step back. “Is that a human baby in there!?”
Brett reached forward, taking my forearm in his meaty hands. “It’s not what you think,” he assured. His hands twirled around at the blanket, a finger pointing. “Show ’er, Janie.”
Janie clutched the swaddled creature even closer and gave me a desperate frown. “You won’t take it away, will you?” she asked. “I ’member what you did to Roy, takin’ him away when he got sick.”
I sighed. “If you pay for services rendered, I won’t have to hold it as collateral. If you care for this creature more, I won’t have to get it seized from you.”
“I’ll care for it,” Janie said. “I’ll give you all the rest of my dogs if I can keep just this lil’ one. I’ll keep my job, stop smokin’ weed, whatever it takes.” She put her hand on top of the bundle.
I settled myself down and nodded. I’d take these people’s dogs – that wasn’t a hard offer to argue – but I had a sinking feeling down deep in the pit of my stomach that they’d stolen someone else’s child. There’s no way these two had passed parental tests, no way they hadn’t been sterilized a decade ago. I put my hand back on the corner of the blanket and tugged it with more vigor this time. “I’ll help the baby out. Here, let me look-”
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