The moan of pain brought Crankhandle out of his thoughts. He scanned the highway and his mirror, making sure there was nothing to be concerned about on the road, then looked over toward the floorboard on the passenger side of his truck.
"What's wrong, Muffin? Huh? What is it, girl? You a-hurtin' again?"
Hearing her name called, Muffin, Crank's little tan mixed-breed dog looked up at him. Her expression told him that the last bump he'd hit had jarred her painfully.
"Awwwww! Okay -- you just wait till I can stop and daddy'll get you a cushion to lay on, okay? Poor baby!!" She looked at him as if in perfect agreement with that idea.
Crank turned his attention back to the road ahead of him and sighed. Dog was getting old, he thought. She had these painful spells that came and went, and they seemed to be happening more frequently nowadays. Her ears weren't nearly as sharp as they'd been a few years back, and her legs were so weak now that she couldn't make the hop up onto the passenger seat any more. Probably not too much longer and she'd no longer be with him. His heart grew heavy at the thought of that. Muffin had been his constant companion on the road and off for almost ten years. He shook his head, not wanting to contemplate life without his beloved pet around any longer. He tried to force himself to think of other things, but his thoughts kept coming back to Muffin.
A few more miles went by and then Crank spotted a rest area, where he pulled into a vacant truck slot. He got up from his seat at the wheel and went into the sleeper, where he grabbed an extra pillow he kept in one of his cabinets. Putting it on the floor, he picked the dog up as gently as he could and placed her on it, petting her head and shoulder lovingly. Muffin licked his hand and looked up at him with the expression of unconditional love and devotion that all dogs have for their owners.
"Now you got something to protect you from those mean old bumps on the road! You stay here, girl, till I go use the little boy's room, then we'll go on to this shipper."
Walking back to his truck from the building a few minutes later, he looked at the empty driver's window, realizing how much he missed her sitting on his seat, faithfully waiting to greet him with her yipping bark and doggie smile when he returned. She just wasn't able to do that anymore, and it made him sad.
He went through the gears, getting back up to speed again and idly watched the white divider lines flash by for a few minutes. His thoughts drifted back to when he and Muffin had first met. She'd been fully grown when he first saw her, although she was still quite young at that time. Laurie, a waitress who worked in one of his regular watering holes, had taken him out behind the restaurant, where she'd made a little makeshift doghouse for her out of a large cardboard box. She had explained that the dog was a stray and had just showed up one day. She and another waitress had taken her in until they could find someone who wanted a pet.
"Boss said she's gotta go," Laurie had told Crank. "Can't keep a dog around here because of the health department regulations. Heck, Crank, you need a pet to ride with you! Be great company for you to have around. You won't get so lonesome all the time! Look at her! Ain't she the sweetest little thing??"
Crank looked at the cute little mutt, with her long, curly tan hair and the one little tuft that half-covered her eyes. The dog looked up at him, grinning as only a dog can do and yipped. He reached out to pet her and she licked him, then looked up appealingly at him. Crank's heart had melted. She was adorable, just as Laurie had said, and it was love at first sight.
"Hell, I reckon she likes me. Looks like she's adopted me. Okay, I'll take her along and see how she likes truckin.' Been thinking about getting me a pet anyway. She is a cute little thing!"
"Oh, look at you, Crank!! You're already in love with her!! A woman can tell these things, y'know? One woman to another!! " Laurie giggled and petted the dog affectionately. "Gonna miss you, little gal, but I know you're in good hands with Crank!"
The rest, as they said, was history now. The dog had taken to riding in the truck like a duck takes to water. She was a smart one, too -- easy as pie to train and housebreak, and she had the sweetest temperment Crank had ever known in a dog. He'd named her Muffin because of her particular affection for the blueberry muffins that Crank ate for breakfast all the time. She would roll over, jump up and down and beg for a bite whenever he broke open the cellophane wrapper on one of them. He ended up giving her nearly half of every one he ate.
After picking up his load, Crank drove another three hours before pulling into a truckstop for his DOT break. He lifted Muffin from the truck, hooked up her leash, then took her over to a grassy area where she slowly walked and did her business in the accustomed routine manner. After he'd put her back in the truck and locked it, Crank went inside to shower and eat supper. He brought a doggie bag with scraps back out with him -- another regular routine -- then filled Muffin's water bowl and put the scraps in her dish, leaving her to eat, while he sat on his bunk and watched a show or two on his TV set.
Growing drowsy after an hour or two, Crank went back up front, to tend to Muffin's dishes. He saw that she had hardly eaten at all. She nosed at the food, but wouldn't eat it. Strange, he thought, and totally unlike her at all. She had always been an enthusiastic eater. Oh, well, maybe she just wasn't hungry. He tossed the scraps away and emptied the water bowl, then picked Muffin up and put her down at the foot of his bunk, where she always slept. He turned off the TV, stripped to his skivvies, turned out the sleeper lights and turned in. He was asleep in minutes.
Next morning, he knew something was seriously wrong with Muffin. She just lay listlessly on the bunk, while he put on clean clothes, not bothering to lick him and play with his socks, as she'd always done. He petted her head, and she looked up at him. There was recognition in her eyes, as always, but she wasn't smiling. And there was something else in those familiar canine eyes; something like a plea for help. Muffin was sick, Crank knew. Just how sick he didn't know, but he did know that he needed to get her to a vet as soon as he could. Of course that would have to be after he delivered his load, and he still had to drive four hours to that customer.
"Just hang in there, girl! I'll get you to see a doc just as soon as I get this load off and let dispatch know! I promise."
On the drive to the customer, Muffin groaned and moaned many times, even when the road was smooth, as if the truck's vibration was hurting her. He kept driving, telling her to hang in there. It seemed like days before he drove onto the customer's lot, but he finally did. Fortunately, they got him unloaded quickly. He got his signed bills, pulled over to a corner of the lot and called his dispatcher, telling him about Muffin's condition. Dispatchers being dispatchers, of course, he wanted him to pick up another load first, almost a hundred miles away. Crank, who was usually very cooperative, rebelled.
"No, not this time! My dog comes first. Hell, she's like family to me! They gave me the number of a vet in town here and told me I could drop my trailer while I take Muffin over there. I don't know where any doctor is in that other town. Heck, it's so small they might not have a vet around there! I gotta get Muffin looked at right away! Hell, haven't you ever had a sick pet??!! For God's sake, man! I usually do anything you want, but this is different. My dog's suffering!!"
Crank's dispatcher finally agreed, realizing that Crank wasn't going to budge this time. He dropped his trailer where it sat, called the vet's office, and was told to come on in, since it was an emergency. The receptionist gave him good directions and told him where he needed to park his tractor. Crank fired up the diesel and wasted no time driving over to the office. He picked Muffin up tenderly, causing her to moan and yelp a time or two and noting that she had vomited on the floorboards. Yellowish fluid. Sick dog vomit. Being as gentle as he could possibly be, Crank carried her into the office.
He was called back into the exam room in less than thirty minutes. He shook hands with the veterinarian and told him about Muffin's painful spells, her lack of eating the night before, and how she'd acted this morning. The doctor had him put her on his examining table and asked him to stay while he did the exam.
"Sometimes it's much easier for them if their owner is around to comfort them," he explained. "You can pet her and talk to her while I examine her." Crank agreed.
While the doc took her temperature, then prodded and poked here and there on Muffin's anatomy, Crank kept up a steady chatter with her, trying to soothe her as best he could. He stroked her back and head. One spot the vet pressed on Muffin's stomach brought a yelp of pain from her. He pressed again, with the same results. He shook his head.
"What's wrong? Is it bad?" Crank wanted to know.
"It's -- not good," the doctor confirmed. "Not good at all, if it's what I suspect it is, and I'm pretty sure. Just give me time to finish up."
He wrapped up the exam, then told Crank to leave Muffin where she was and come back to his office. He indicated a chair and Crank sat down, while he went into another room, to study an x-ray he'd made of Muffin's stomach region. His face looked grim when he returned and Crank knew that the news wouldn't be good at all.
The vet's voice was gentle as he broke the news to Crank. "Muffin has a tumor in her stomach. Quite a large one. Looks like it's been growing for some time now. It's cancer and it's in an advanced stage. Her pains, the anorexia she had last night -- those are all symptoms."
The news went through Crank like a bolt of lightning. "Is -- is there anything that can be done? Anything at all?"
The vet shook his head sadly. "No. I'm afraid not."
"How long does she have?"
The vet took a deep breath. "Not long, probably. A few weeks at best. But she'll keep suffering and it'll get worse every day. You'll be distracted with worry out there on the road. You won't be as safe as you need to be with her on your mind." He looked at Crank, his eyes sad, but knowing. "The best thing you can do for her now is let me put her down. End her suffering."
Crank was stunned. "I -- I -- I just don't know if I can, doc!! That dog -- she's like family to me. I love her so much!! I just -- I -- I don't know!!"
The doctor's voice was sympathetic and soothing. "You'll be doing her the greatest favor you can ever do her. I know it's hard. I realize that -- believe me --I do. But it's for the best, for her sake. Look, think about it a little while. Just sit down and think about it. She's never going to get better and she's in pain. Think of how hard it is on her! What's hardest to do? Putting her out of her pain, or watching her suffer and slowly die? I'll be back in a few minutes. Think it over." Before Crank could say anything else, he walked out of the room.
Crank walked over to the table where Muffin still lay and stroked her tenderly. She looked up at him in response, but she was listless -- not herself at all. And never would be again, he knew. She couldn't talk, of course, was unable to tell him what was wrong, or how she felt, but it was obvious that she was very, very sick. "Poor baby," he said, over and over, as he stroked her. He closed his eyes. He knew that this day would come, eventually, and now it was here. He had to make a decision and the doctor was right; worrying about her would affect his performance on the job. And it would bring him almost as much pain as she was in, watching her suffer and knowing that there was nothing he could do to help her. Finally, Crank took three long, deep breaths and straightened up. He'd made his decision; the only logical one he could make.
"Go ahead, doctor," he told the vet, when he returned. "Put her down. You're absolutely right; it's the best thing I can do for her."
"All right." He drew out a syringe from a drawer and took a glass vial from a wall cabinet, then busied himself preparing the massive, fatal overdose of drug. "You can wait in my office, if you don't want to watch it," he offered.
"No, I'll stay in here, right beside her, and pet her one last time."
"Very well." They stood on opposite sides of the table, Crank's hand on Muffin's shoulder, as the doctor took one of her paws in his hand and held the syringe close to a spot on her leg, where a major vein lay just under her skin. Muffin twitched once as the needle went in. The vet began to push the syringe's plunger, injecting the drug into her vein.
"Goodbye, my little friend. Sure gonna miss you," Crank intoned quietly, as the plunger went down all the way. Responding one last time to his voice, Muffin looked up at him, making eye contact for a long moment. Then her eyes slowly closed. Forever.
Crank felt hot tears welling up in his eyes, then broke completely down for the first time in years, crying as he hugged Muffin's still form on the table and kissing the top of her head. Finally, he gathered his composure and apologized for his uncharacteristic and unmanly behavior.
"It's perfectly all right to cry," the vet told him. "You loved her. I understand that. Anyone would. It's the same as losing a family member, or any loved one. Don't be a bit ashamed of that. I know how much it hurts. But you did the right thing. That's what really matters the most."
"Thanks, doc. But the look in her eyes -- that's what got to me. You didn't see that because she was looking at me. Doctor, she was thanking me. She really was. There's no mistaking her last expression. I know now what I did was right. She told me herself. Still hurts like hell, though. Take some time to get over it."
"I know, but you will. And hey, I know it's too early to talk about this, really, but there's other dogs out there that need adopting. Get you another traveling companion."
"Oh, I probably will, soon as I get over Muffin a little."
That afternoon, Crank buried Muffin under a tree near the bank of a little stream. It was a place where they had romped and played several times in the past and Muffin had always enjoyed the trips here. It was a fitting final resting place for her. He straightened up after he'd covered her grave over.
"Goodbye, Muffin. If there's a doggie heaven, I know that's where you are now. Maybe we'll see each other again. Someday."
Slowly, his heart still heavy as lead, Crank walked back to his truck, started it up, put it in gear and drove away. He'd miss Muffin forever, but she was better off now, he knew. Wiping away tears again, he headed up the road, toward another destination and another delivery.