After a while, Question Mark notices me. He trots toward the house. His legs have become affected. It takes him a while to get here. Poor Question Mark. He has lived in this house since he was a puppy. It must feel strange to him that the destinations he was able to reach with such ease—a powerful leap, brown lightning through the air—now pose such a challenge.
He walks in, hesitant and unsteady, his face tilted.
He wags his tail. But he doesn’t look happy. He’s not good at pretending. Absent mindedly, he bites at one of the red infected spots on his right front leg.
“Come on, let’s go treat your lesions.”
He follows me to the bathroom and patiently sits on the red rug. He is used to this routine. The ointment is supposed to make him feel better. It must help with the itch. I spread the beige paste on the affected spot as he watches, then guide him to lie on his side and inspect his belly. Everything is okay here, for the time being. The random swirls of gray hair hide amidst the dominant brown, a pattern that has always fascinated me.
It’s time to get back to work. We don't have much time. The lab is dark, sad, like it always is when not in use. I turn the lights on. The unit is waiting to be activated, its healing capacity hindered by the missing electricity. I flip the switch.
It took us too long to fine-tune the unit—too long for Question Mark to take advantage of its promise, but enough to suffer the side effects. But he had a good doggie life, even if it was shorter than average.
I feel a pang of fear as I realize that I’m thinking of him in the past tense. Guilt overwhelms me. I kneel down beside him. As I pet him and talk to him, I keep reminding myself of the value of our work.
He knows the sound of these words. He licks my hand. His eyes are half open. He must be very tired.
My advances elicit no interest. Question Mark wags his tail slightly, as if saying sorry. I know we don’t have much time. But I must continue my work. For the first time since the start of this experiment, I’m alone in my lab. Fortunately, in this realm everything is coming together. The results are consistent. The lab mice, which used to die by the dozen, are happy and energetic. The work is nearly finished. I get absorbed in it, so much so that when I check the time, four hours have passed. I’m tired. I turn the unit off.
Question Mark is lying on his side, breathing hard, a wheezing sound like sandpaper on my ears. I remember him as a little puppy, a furry ball of brown chasing squirrels in the back yard. He whines. He looks into my eyes. I know what he is asking for.
It’s all set up. I call the vet. They are ready for us. I have the sedative they gave me during our last visit. A small plastic pouch with two yellow tablets. I find it in the refrigerator. It’s on the palm of my hand, and I stare at it, frozen, weighing my options. Finally, I decide against it. Question Mark is already quite subdued.
As we walk out the front door, I wish there were a way to explain. But perhaps in a dog’s mind, everything is already explained. He doesn’t look sentimental. He just follows me.
I help him into the car. I remember the days of endless excitement at the prospect of a car trip. Question Mark would leap onto the back seat the second the door was opened. I feel awkward as I shove him in. We have not practiced this. He looks embarrassed, his big grey eyes staring at me sideways.
The drive is short. I wish we had forgotten something at home so we could go back. I wish we had done everything differently. But we couldn’t, could we? The building is gray, huddled between two residences on a semi-residential street.
The receptionist knows us. She is in her sixties—a pleasant, intelligent face. She doesn’t make eye contact. Her manner is brusque, businesslike, disapproval apparent in every gesture. Am I just reading this into her busy behavior? The space is white. The cat of the house presides next to the cash register, clearly indifferent to the health problems of other animals.
“It’s time,” I say, just to say something.
“I’ll let the doctor know.”
“You don’t like me very much, do you?”
She looks up at me, flustered. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s not my business to like you or not like you. I just work here. But since you’re asking, I’m just not sure why you had to do this to a dog.” She points at Question Mark, lying by my feet.
“Yes, yes. But you see, I didn’t know about the radiation. True, I could have thought of it. It just hadn’t occurred to me until it was too late.” I pause. “And, you know, this thing we’re working on is really going to help people. It’s going to cure several types of cancer, and…” I mumble, aware that there is no way to explain.
“I see,” she says, her posture still strict, but softened. “Well, it’s a real shame.”
The doctor comes out to meet us. He is middle-aged, tall, confident, his blue eyes focused on me. His attitude is not as merciless, as if he can more easily see the point of my research. We discussed it last time I was here. We are taken to one of the examination rooms. We’ve been here before. It’s standard: the plastic seat, the metal examination table, the posters of happy animal faces, the smell of animals and detergent.
“Do you need a couple minutes?”
I nod, and the doctor walks out.
“So, here we are, buddy. Here we are.” Tears well up in my eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
Question Mark looks at me with devotion. I swear he knows what’s going on.
“Will you forgive me?”
I know he already has. I wish he hadn’t. It would have been more fair. I wrap my arms around him, his head under my chin. We just remain like that. He licks my neck. Is there an elegant way to say goodbye under these circumstances? Is there an elegant way to say goodbye at all?
The doctor returns too soon.
“Can you please lift him up?”
I place Question Mark on the metal table. The dog looks at me inquisitively but doesn’t fight. I sit next to him, his head in my arm. Electric clippers show up in the doctor’s hand, and with a menacing buzz, Question Mark’s right front leg is shaved, the beige of his skin strangely naked in an area free of lesions. I hold his head, and he licks my hand.
When everything is ready, I find myself trying to think of another step, something else that must be accomplished before we reach the ending. But there is nothing left to do, no further excuses, no conceivable delays. I’ve practiced this scene, imagined it for weeks, but now that I’m in the middle of it, I feel utterly unprepared.
I nod to the doctor, and he nods back. He picks up a syringe. A cheerfully pink solution inside it—how inappropriate. A skillful movement, the needle easily sliding into the vein. I hadn’t expected such a rapid effect. A few twitches, the electricity of death. A gurgle in the dog’s belly, a final gasp, bladder discharge, and then—stillness, as the yellow liquid spreads on the table next to his body. It’s happening too fast, yet in slow motion. The doctor mops up the urine with a paper towel. He carefully listens to his stethoscope, focusing on the emptiness over my head. He nods again. Questions Mark’s eyes are still open, and I am struck with a dilemma: should I close them like they do when people die?
I close them.
We remain like that, Question Mark’s head on my left arm, my right on his side. I continue petting him, as if it still made a difference. I don’t know how long we spend this way. I don’t notice the doctor’s moves. Motionless and empty, this dog’s body is still the same one I have observed near me all these years, moving or still, going through the rituals of a canine life. How can this same body be so vacant?
I stand over the new rectangle of earth. Soon, grass will move in, cover the traces.
I must get back to work. Now it’s just me and my equipment. Fortunately, we are good friends. I’m finishing a summary for my article. I need to write the summary first, just in case. My findings speak for themselves.
A few hours pass. The work is going well, but my forehead begins to itch. I’m tempted to scratch it. Instead, I limp to the bathroom and examine it in the mirror. Nothing much: just another lesion. I get the ointment. I don’t mind using the same jar. This experiment is almost complete.