Fred Learns a New Word
By: Lisa H. Owens

If there was one thing Fred hated, it was going to the vet. He felt a deep-seated dread even thinking about it. He hated it even more than the nasty pill his master tried to drown in peanut butter then feed to him, without fail, on the first Saturday of each month. Many moons ago, he'd overheard Bob talking on his cellular device to the vet about a clunky pill that prevented heartworms or some other such nonsense. Fred didn't believe in heartworms. In his entire 18 months of life, he had never once seen a worm shaped like a heart. He had, however, eaten a worm that was fuzzy. Bob had yelled at him to DROP IT, but it was too late. He was already swallowing it. The Asp Caterpillar continually stung him, starting with his lips, and ending somewhere mid-throat.

So, that was Fred's first experience at the dreary brick building at the end of a dead-end road, where one ceramic fire hydrant was placed with purpose at each corner of the building. It was a wonderful place to pee, but other than that, utterly terrifying. He'd blanked a lot out about that trip; but the thing he couldn't seem to shake was the memory of a man in a white coat with an evil grin who had talked to him in baby talk, then stuck him in the scruff of his neck with a long needle. He had to admit his mouth and throat quit stinging shortly after the assault on his neck, but he despised the white coated man with his fake fire hydrants and baby talk since that very day.

Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, Fred was minding his own business, watching a spider meander across the floor when he heard the recognizable click of a leash snapping onto his dog collar. He was then tricked into hopping into the backseat of Bob's Jeep with the promise of a Pup-Cup at Dairy Queen. When Bob drove right past Dairy Queen, it became evident that it was all a big ruse to get Fred into the car without a wrestling match. Fred barked, "Hey Bob, um…I think you passed…hey BOB!"

Bob just asked, "Who's a good boy?" Then refused to make eye contact with Fred in the rear-view mirror. Fred stared a hole into the back of Bob's head, mainly focusing his laser beam on the bald spot, lightly covered with a few wisps of hair that were meant to be bangs. An unsightly comb-over. Fred was quickly distracted when he spotted a squirrel on the side of the road. He recognized the fishing pier just off the boardwalk behind the squirrel. It was the street that led to Scary Drive, the fitting name of the road that dead ended at the parking lot of the dreaded brick building.

In an attempt to reroute Bob's destination, he barked, "Fish…fish…fish," and the window on the ocean side magically rolled down just enough for Fred to stick his head through. He took a healthy sniff. Ah. This was what he loved best about life. The salty spray of the ocean with its distinct day-old fish aroma.

In a last-ditch effort, Fred tried to wedge his shoulders through the opening to escape to the freedom of the pier, possibly scoring a fish or two from incoming fishing boats, but Bob eyeballed him through the rear-view mirror. "Oh no you don't, Houdini," and the window moved up one inch. Fred backed up until his head was inside the Jeep and the window magically closed. He looked away and pouted. His fate was sealed.

Bob turned right onto Scary Drive and parked in the suspiciously vacant lot. It was still early. Fred scooted back, hunched in the backseat corner of the passenger's side when Bob opened the driver's side back door. "Who wants bacon," Bob cajoled as he pulled a thick piece of the cheese flavored Beggin' Strip, Fred's favorite treat, from his coat pocket. Fred sniffed and his mouth began to drip thick tendrils of drool, which was quite embarrassing, but Fred turned away to gaze out the window. Aloof and uninterested.

Bob reached one long arm across the backseat attempting to grab Fred's ocean themed collar. Fred had been allowed to pick it out himself at PetSmart. It had a variety of deep-sea fish and anchors embroidered all the way around a Fred-neck-length of one-inch-wide turquoise nylon fabric. Fred was evasive as he slipped into the floorboard area and curled into a tight ball, but the long arm found him, and he was unceremoniously dragged out by the collar into the empty parking lot.

Fred let out a yelp, "Ouch!"

Bob said, "Quit being such a drama queen," and laughed when he snapped the matching ocean themed leash back onto the collar. "Gotcha!"

Fred was allowed a moment in which to pull himself together when Bob stopped by a fake fire hydrant. Fred tried to remain aloof but immediately began to sniff the aroma of many years' worth of pee that gave off the distinct scent of fear. He lifted his leg and marked his spot, adding to the mix in solidarity of the many victims of the dreaded brick building, and then was pulled around the corner and through a large glass door.

"Who do we have here," a lady behind a tall counter asked and the rest was kind of a blur.

Fred, a wiry mutt of unknown origin, weighed in, before Bob, the dirty traitor, turned him over to a smiling vet technician who patted him on the head, like he was a simpleton, then tugged at the leash. Fred—irritated—firmly planted all four of his stout legs, but the tech was a champ. His nails made an ear-piercing screech against the stained concrete floor as she dragged all 42 pounds of him…off to his death, he thought. He didn't know what the word neutered meant, but it sounded both deadly and menacing.

The lady took him into a large room with a padded table smack dab in the center. Above the table hung a giant metal halo of a lamp aimed downward. Fred bristled when he detected the scent of the baby talking man in the white coat but was neatly swooped up and lifted onto the table before he had a chance to protest. He began to shiver, and his tail involuntarily tucked low between his hind legs. Embarrassing, because it made him look like a big fat baby, which he most definitely wasn't.

The vet tech pinned him down—she was scrappy—and his worst nightmare was realized. A hairy hand holding a long needle descended toward him. He went limp, trying out a tactic a particularly frightening Chihuahua from the neighborhood dog park, Edgar (his master was a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe), had bragged about using, the time he was at the brick building. As the needle pierced Fred's skin, he pitched his body sideways. He rolled neatly off the table and hightailed it through the door—slightly ajar. He heard loud footsteps and shouts behind him but made it to the front lobby and out the front entrance, nearly knocking over a little old lady who was just making her way inside, clutching an orange scrawny cat.

She let out a startled humph and the cat took that opportunity to leap out of her arms and followed Fred out the door and through the parking lot, heading towards the pier.

They ran side by side for a while and the cat finally thought to ask where they were going. Fred breathlessly barked, "To the pier, you silly cat-brain," then redoubled his speed. He was impressed that Cat-brain stayed with him, not winded at all by the run. He faintly heard his master's voice in the distance calling out, "Who wants bacon," Bob's go-to phrase when Fred escaped, but he kept sprinting.

They dashed across the street without incident only to spy an enormous fog enshrouded wooden galleon docked at the end of the pier. Through the mysterious fog, they were able to make out three masts flying tattered square sails and a black flag whipping back and forth as high winds buffeted, and buckets of rain began to pour from the sky. They made it to the end of the pier and without slowing down, Fred scrambled across a narrow gangplank stretching endlessly upward from the pier to the top of the hull.

He heard a shrill meow, "Wait up, dog-breath," fast on his heels and leapt over the side, feeling a sharp pain as he scraped his underbelly and man-parts on a board, loose and flapping in the wind. Fred hit the deck flat on his back, feeling it shift under his weight. He panted and gazed skyward through sheets of pelting rain and momentarily dissipating fog. Intricate rigging and sails that were shredded and blackened in places, still billowed causing the ship to strain against the pier. The black flag unfurled, and he saw it clearly for the first time—the Jolly Roger—a skull and two crossed swords splattered with flecks of crimson. A shiver passed through his body at the realization that he was on an ancient pirate ship.

Time slowed down as he watched one fat red droplet fall from the tattered hem of the flag, floating toward him in slow motion, twisting, pulsating, and hovering briefly before landing squarely on his nose. His tongue automatically swept up to lick the spot, leaving a rusted stain on his snout. He blanched; it tasted of blood and fear and death.

Cat-brain finally decided to join the party, an airborne ball of orange fur gracefully landing on her feet, like cats do, after rocketing by mere inches from his rust-stained snout. "Why are you lounging around on your back," she hissed as the ship swelled under cresting waves. The deck creaked as it rolled and shifted and he heard a crusty voice shouting orders, "Arrrrr, batten down the hatches, me mateys. Weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen, ye witless scallywags!" The ship set sail at a speed to match the gale-force wind into the zero-visibility of pea-soup fog.

Fred sprang to his feet, feeling an intense electric jolt in his privates and snapped his head around to use his teeth to yank a sliver of protruding wood out of his left nut. Cat-brain rolled her almond shaped yellow eyes in disgust.

They heard a loud clacking noise, like dominoes falling, and felt a vibration as a skeletal crew marched in tight formation from somewhere below deck. They were a crew of bones, bleached white as snow, wearing threadbare rags that reminded Fred of that time he and Bob had gone trick-or-treating dressed as pirates…just for fun. The skeletons didn't seem fun.

They clicked, clacked, and marched while chanting what oddly sounded like "Arrrrr! Bacon. Arrrr," to Fred's rain saturated ears. Their approach was surprisingly fast for a bunch of old bones and Fred and Cat-brain barely had time to scamper aft to tuck under a bulging tarp. Collectively, their eight paws skidded on watery blood and entrails, sending them crashing into a heap of mangled blood-drenched bodies wearing gore spattered coats that were once white.

The identical features of faces in various states of decomposition all wore the evil grin of his nemesis…the baby talking vet. Fred was elated that every one of those white-coated bastards was dead. There wouldn't be a reason, anymore, for deceitful attempts to offer Fred a Pup Cup, only to take him to Scary Drive to be neutered, whatever that meant.

Cat-brain snuggled up close to him, her breath suddenly noxious with the stench of rot and decay, and whispered a wet garbled, "Meow!" Fred turned toward her, and his jaw dropped. She no longer looked like scruffy Cat-brain. Fred was mortified when his tongue shot out to inspect a pulsating glob on her head. God his innate instincts were embarrassing sometimes. Who was he kidding? All the time.

It was just as he suspected. She was still a cat with a brain, all right, but he could see the brain, like a mottled glob of mac and cheese, as it pulsated out of a crack in her skull. Fred could see that she was in an advanced stage of decomposition as he stared at her crooked off- kilter face, repulsed by gelatinous leaking eyeballs encased in crusted yellow pus. Her blackened bloated tongue pushed against shattered teeth as she struggled to talk. He couldn't wrap his brain (thankfully, still inside his skull) around Cat-brain and her monstrous transformation.

He whined, "What are you saying?" Her noxious breath wafted, entombing him, and he felt himself grow weak. It was almost hypnotic, staring into her glazed fixated eyes. Rays of light suddenly burst from every crack and orifice in her broken body. The dizzying bright light was calling him. It was peaceful. He wanted to let it all go. To curl in a ball and sleep.

He jumped when he heard a chant, growing closer, "Arrrr, one of us. One of us. One of…" and the clack-clack-clack of the marching skeleton crew coming to take him stopped abruptly. They were silent on the other side of the tarp, waiting to welcome him into their midst. Like Cat-brain, he would become one of them, and his body would rapidly fester and deteriorate into the doggy version of his cat friend. His stomach lurched as he felt himself fall into a dark tunnel, one from which he hoped he would never awaken.

The last thing he saw was the gory mouth of Cat-brain, working to tell him something, a broken slurp of words drifting off, "Fru. Frru-duh. Frrru-duh Frrrred, Fredd," a steady stream of black slime dripped from the hole in the side of her head, where a whiskered cheek should have been. Her bloody paw reached out and sharp claws locked into his shoulder, shaking him until his teeth clacked. Clack-clack-clack. He tried to shove her away, using his shoulder, but she was gone. Weird because he still heard her voice. The voice beginning to deepen, called, "Fred. Fred," while a hand softly shook his shoulder. His eyes felt heavy. He lifted one lid. His teeth chattered and he felt cold.

A blazing light shone down, flooding him with brightness. Warming him, somewhat. He closed the eye. Longing to rest. Something seemed to be going on in his undercarriage. He knew the splinter was gone; he'd yanked it out with his own teeth. Nevertheless, it was really throbbing down there. He shifted to ease his discomfort.

"Fred! Fred!" He heard mounting excitement in the familiar voice. "Who wants bacon?" He slowly roused himself enough to see eyes very close to his face. The brown eyes of his master, gazing at him with concern. Bob visibly relaxed, and the shaking to his shoulder turned into a shoulder scratch, one of Fred's favorite things. "Glad your back, buddy," Bob whispered. "You gave us quite the scare."

He saw a man in a white coat, wearing a face identical to the faces of the tarp-covered dead bodies, peering over Bob's shoulder. He wore the evil grin. Fred spooked when a big hairy hand squeezed his befuddled head. The irritating baby talk voice asked, "Who's a good boy," then he turned towards Bob and in a regular voice said, "He should be fine now. He'll just need to rest for a few days. Give him a pill for pain every four to six hours. You can coat them with peanut butter if he won't take them."

Fred whimpered, "Not the peanut butter again," then sighed.

The vet continued, "Oh, and he'll need to wear this, so he doesn't pull out the stitches." He lightly touched the area with stitches (still sore from the splinter, Fred thought), and Fred flinched. Something was missing under there, though he still felt twinges. Phantom ball pain, he reckoned. He finally understood the meaning of the word neutered. He didn't like the new word.

Lastly, the evil man handed Bob a conical clear plastic contraption. Fred growled, "No! No! Nooooo! Not The Cone of Shame." He remembered that time Edgar (formerly the tough Chihuahua) had to wear the contraption at the dog park. He shamefully admitted that he had been neutered and the older male dogs gasped in horror; but the meaning was lost on Fred. Edgar lost all credibility, no longer their fearless leader, after that. Fred longed to go back to a rotted ship run by a skeleton crew. Anything was better than the humiliation of being emasculated and wearing The Cone of Shame. He muttered a soft, "Arrrr. Yuck…peanut butter." as he drifted off to sleep.

The End

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