Tire iron in hand, I approached the clinic. Behind me, Rusty barked his frustration from the back seat of my beat-up Corolla. One last check to make sure … yep, the rear tire was visibly flat. Small price to pay for the story of a lifetime.
The clinic door wouldn’t budge even though it was early Wednesday afternoon. I pressed my face against the glass and used my free hand to block out the sun. A shadow of movement inside. Someone was there! I rapped my knuckles on the door then shrugged my shoulders at the security camera in a clueless-girl sort of way.
“Whath do you wanth?” a lisping female asked via intercom.
“Oh, hi.” I cocked my head like the bottle-blonde sorority girls did at my school. “My tire’s flat and I’m not able to get the screw-thingies out of the wheel. Anyone in there who could help?”
“We’re a plasthic surgery clinic, noth a garage.”
“I know. Sorry.” I ducked my head. No good to look overeager on camera. “It’s just that my phone’s dead so I can’t call for help. Maybe I could use your phone?” C’mon. Open the door.
“Ith that your dog barking?”
“Yeah.” Rusty, head sticking out of the back window, alternated between pay-attention-to-me whines and let-me-out barks. “It’s pretty hot. He could use some water if you have any.”
I chewed on my fingernail, resisting the urge to press my face against the glass to see what was going on. C’mon, c’mon, let me in.
I’d been looking into this “business” all semester after two years of driving passed the place and never seeing any cars in the parking lot. Most people have probably never noticed the nondescript building nestled off the road, but most people aren’t journalism majors hoping for a big break either. I’d made public record requests. Called for interviews. Heck, I’d even bribed my sister to make an appointment. No response. How did a clinic stay in business when they never answered their phone, even to paying customers?
After a few moments, the door clicked and an old man greeted me. Seventy-years if he were a day. Eyes that crinkled around the edges. Ultra-conservative gray pinstripe suit. “Good afternoon, Miss …”
“Terra.” I shook his outstretched hand. Paper thin skin.
“Please come inside. You and your animal. My assistant has called Triple A. You’re welcome to wait until your vehicle is drivable.”
“Thanks.” I switched one form of protection for the other—the tire iron for Rusty—and slung my purse over my shoulder, hidden camera facing forward. Pulitzer Prize, here I come.
Once inside, Rusty lapped the clinic’s water from his bowl in huge, noisy gulps. Aside from me, my dog, and the old guy, no one else was in the lobby. Where was Lispy?
My host wore a thoughtful expression as he stared at my dog. “Beautiful animal. A Rhodesian Ridgeback, correct?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Typical clinic chairs lined the periphery of the room, and a low square table housed perfectly spaced magazines. Darwinian animal sketches decorated the walls.
“Would you like a tour, Miss Terra?”
My gaze snapped to my host. Was I wrong about the clinic being a cover for something like money laundering or a meth lab? “Sure, Dr. …?”
A smile tugged at his thin lips. “Montgomery. It would be best if your hound waited here.”
Reluctantly, I gave Rusty the stay signal—he’d come if I called him—and followed Dr. Montgomery into a hallway. More pictures lined the walls, but these reminded me of something I’d seen on Facebook. Photoshopped animal hybrids. A pug’s face on a black-eared rabbit. A snow leopard with owl wings. A wolf-headed penguin. Odd choice for a plastic surgery clinic. We turned a corner and the pictures became more bizarre. A dachshund with human eyes and mouth. A man with the face of a chimpanzee. A beaked-woman with wings for arms. Certainly not the type of pictures I’d find reassuring if I were about to have my nose done.
Dr. Montgomery entered a room at the end of the hallway. I double-checked my shoulder strap to make sure the camera would have an unobstructed view, took a deep breath, and followed. Receptionist Lispy sat at a desk inside a spacious laboratory. Understanding clubbed me over the head so hard my mouth fell open. The reason for her lisp was clear. She had a cat’s mouth and ears, like a Doctor Who episode come to life.
My brain finally realized Dr. Montgomery was speaking.
“… and once we found a way to suppress the interspecies graft-versus-host problems, everything clicked into place. Even across species, DNA is highly conserved in the animal kingdom. We all have eyes, ears, limbs—”
Hot fire coiled in my stomach while a cold sweat broke across my skin. “Why are you telling me this?”
The doctor blinked his surprise. “You’re Teresa Martin, are you not? The girl who has been badgering us for months and even had her sister call to request breast augmentation. Isn’t this the information you seek?”
Images shuffled through my head at blinding speed. Was this what people meant when they said your life flashed before your eyes? But these weren’t memories from my life, not really. They were headlines from news articles about mangled corpses, and new missing pet fliers taped to my apartment mailbox each week. All the information was there and I’d missed it. Some investigative reporter I was.
Worse, I’d come here with Rusty.
My back slammed into the door frame before I realized I was moving and dislodged my purse from my shoulder. No time to retrieve it. My flip flops slipped and slid as I careened down the hallway until I kicked them off and ran full speed.
I burst into the lobby aiming for the front door. “Rusty, come on, boy. Let’s go!”
My dog wasn’t there.
Across the room, a door I had noticed when we’d first entered swung shut on a desperate yelp. Damn, damn, damn.
Go after Rusty or get the heck out of here?
The slap of approaching footsteps grew louder.
I wrote this story for NYCmidnight.com's Flash Fiction challenge in 2016. The prompts were: Suspense / A plastic surgery center / A tire iron. I wanted to leave it to the reader to decide if she went back for her dog or hightailed it out of there. What do you think?
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