by Mark Piper
Talk about being blindsided. It was nothing more than an annoying lump on Sam Stone’s neck. He never suspected cancer. The doctors assured him he it could be easily eradicated without surgery. That was the good news. The bad news stayed the same: He had cancer.
Sam and Gloria spent some days coming to grips with the diagnosis until a PET scan revealed no sign of cancer anywhere else in Sam’s body. Just the single swollen lymph node. They were told the radiation and chemotherapy treatments would quickly take care of that, but there would be a downside. His oncologist warned him to expect to become weaker and sicker as the treatments continued. Sam would have to take a leave of absence from work. It would soon be hard for him to swallow that a feeding tube would have to be inserted into his stomach. Recovery from the cancer would be easy compared to recovery from the treatment. He listened intently to everything the doctor told him about the inevitable physical and psychological problems he’d have to face. It all amounted to just a bunch of abstract notions to Sam. Maybe some patients succumbed to depression and despair; Sam figured he could handle it.
Gloria’s family had never had to deal with cancer. Sam’s parents had lived into their 90s without showing any sign of it. But now Sam had it, and he was only 66. Cancer wasn’t exactly the legacy he had hoped to leave his descendants but now he had to give his daughter, Paula, the bad news.
Sam sent her a text message asking Paula and Ron to come by the next evening. He told them he had something important to tell them and that it would be best if he could do it face-to-face. They handled it like the adults they were: they fortified themselves with a couple of drinks before they came over. Once Sam explained what the doctors told him to expect, Paula vowed to do whatever was necessary to help her parents through it. And as things turned out, she did stop by semi-regularly to bring dinner, help with shopping, and eventually to give Sam rides to his treatments. All that was normal and expected.
Ever since kittenhood, their 10-year-old mixed-breed tomcat, Buster, had slept in the guest room in a special cat bed Gloria had crafted for him, but from the time Sam came home with the cancer diagnosis, Buster slept curled up next to him every night, as if to offer Sam warmth and comfort during his ordeal. Cats sense things.
On the day he was diagnosed with cancer, Sam spotted a fox sunning itself on the deck in the backyard. At first he thought it might be a coyote, but then he looked it up on the Web. The weird thing was that foxes had never been seen before in the Stones’ townhouse community, miles from any forested areas. It simply didn’t make sense.
Strictly an indoor cat, Buster watched the fox with great interest. He didn’t take to hissing or making the loud, threatening noises he usually did whenever another animal invaded his territory.
The fox reappeared each day. Sam and Gloria began to refer to it as Nadia, as if any fox would naturally be Russian. They assumed the fox was a female, a “vixen,” even though Internet experts claimed it was just about impossible to tell male foxes from females, especially from a distance. Sam learned that there were ways to determine the sex of a fox, but they involved tranquilizers and close examination of the animal’s private parts. Neither of those options appealed to either Sam or Gloria; besides, the name just seemed to fit.
A couple of days later Sam noticed the remains of a blue jay lying near the front of the deck. Sam and Gloria knew cats were notorious for presenting their latest kill as trophies for their humans to enjoy, but according to the Web, foxes didn’t typically do that. Sam cleaned up the remains of the unfortunate bird, with the requisite grumbling and colorful language.
“It’s time to get rid of Nadia,” Sam said. Gloria reluctantly agreed. He checked with Wildcare, the local animal advocacy group, and discovered if he had the foxes professionally removed, by law they would have to be killed—even if the animal control people told Sam they’d be released into the wild. Besides, he learned that the foxes would most likely be gone in a few weeks anyway. He and Gloria decided to wait it out, even though Sam sure as hell didn’t need this extra hassle right now.
The question of Nadia’s gender was answered the day Sam looked into the backyard and saw that Nadia wasn’t alone. Four small foxes—which, thanks again to Google, he learned were called “kits”—frolicked near her on the deck. The kits came out to play on the deck every day. They were completely carefree, playing tag, wrestling, and gamboling in the sun like puppies. They chased each other around the yard, through the patio furniture and up onto the back fence. Sometimes Nadia would lead them single file along the fence, presumably off to hunting and survival skills training. But they always came back.
Once, with the family of foxes off on some adventure, Sam discovered a small opening dug under the side of the deck just large enough for a small animal to crawl through. Nadia had chosen to give birth underneath the Stones’ deck. Buster prodded Sam to follow him to the sliding glass door that led to the backyard. That’s when Sam saw the large sewer rat—gutted but not eaten—lying at the very front of the deck, where it could be easily seen from the house—the same place he’d found the dead blue jay. Sam had to fight some angry bees and irritated flies in order to bag up the disgusting carcass and gift.
Soon a dead vole was left in the same front-and-center spot at the edge of the deck. Sam disposed of it too. He read that foxes didn’t normally leave any of a kill behind. Besides, Nadia had four kits to feed. By now he and Gloria were convinced that Nadia was leaving these examples of hunting prowess as presents—in spite of what they’d read online. Probably he and Gloria were simply reading too much into the whole thing. When you’re fighting cancer, everything is magnified.
The kits seemed content to frolic in plain sight of the family, which gathered in front of the sliding door every day to watch them. For Sam they served as a welcome respite from the increasingly unpleasant radiation treatments he faced each day. Sometimes he laughed out loud at the kits’ antics, but soon enough even laughing became too painful.
Nadia’s gifts continued: a few field mice, another sewer rat, and the occasional small rodent that neither Sam nor Gloria recognized. While the Stones appreciated Nadia’s helping rid them of sewer rats, by now the physical effort of removing these dead animals had become a lot more difficult for Sam.
Most often Paula, and sometimes both she and Ron, came by after dark, when the foxes kept out of sight. But even when Paula came by on a weekend day, she never saw the foxes. Sam and Gloria continued to regale her with delightful fox anecdotes, and even though Paula pretended to believe her parents’ tales, she showed only a passing interest. She was focused on her dad.
Sam, was relegated to a liquid diet. Too soon he had trouble getting even the liquids down, and he started losing weight at an alarming rate. It wasn’t long before Sam admitted he was too weak to drive, and then climbing the stairs to their second-story bedroom wore him out.
Sam and Buster still watched the foxes each day, but now from a chair by the upstairs bedroom window overlooking the backyard. Now in early fall, the foliage was beginning to lose its color. It wouldn’t be long before the trees would be stripped bare and the ground would be covered in a blanket of rotting leaves. For the first time he wouldn’t be able to clean up after Mother Nature.
It wasn’t easy for Sam to make it even the few steps from the bed to his vantage point, but he made the effort because it seemed important to keep track of Nadia and her brood. Besides it amounted to the only exercise he could manage anymore. By now the nearly full-grown kits were virtually indistinguishable from their mother.
Sam and Buster often observed Nadia leading her brood along the fence and out of the yard. One day they didn’t return. They knew the kits would eventually leave to claim their place in the world. They’d been through that with their own child, after all.
After five weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, the swelling on Sam’s neck had completely disappeared, but the threat of the dreaded feeding tube had become a reality. Sam was mostly confined to bed, and Buster never left his side.
One week after his last chemotherapy session, Sam was rushed to the emergency room with a high fever and a dangerously low white blood cell count. They kept him in isolation in the hospital for ten days.
“What are his chances?” Gloria asked the doctor. He asked about their funeral plans.
But Sam returned home. He’d regained a bit of his strength, but saw a corpse when he looked in the mirror.
As he lay in bed, too worn out to complain out loud, Buster sprang off the bed, leapt up onto the windowsill and began to mew. When Sam didn’t move, Buster jumped back onto the bed and began to nudge him with his nose. After several choice epithets—mostly directed at the cat—Sam forced himself to make the painful climb out of bed and grumbled the few steps to the chair by the window to see what Buster was so damned adamant about.
After nearly two months, Nadia had returned, alone. Sam had learned enough about foxes to know that they only bred once a year. So she had not come back to produce another batch of kits. With Gloria’s help Sam made the agonizing, ponderous trek down the stairs and across the living room to the sliding glass door where Buster awaited them. Gloria brought Sam a chair, and he slumped down into it.
Nadia padded closer until she was just a few feet from the glass. Sam locked eyes with her. He wasn’t sure if foxes could smile, but Nadia’s expression sure looked like one to him. He struggled to stand, and Gloria helped him up. Sam gently removed Gloria’s supporting hand from his elbow and straightened up; somehow he felt it was important for him to stand tall in front of Nadia. Slowly she tipped her head toward him, and Sam nodded back.
At that, Nadia swung around and glided under Gloria’s three baskets of bright pink geraniums hanging over the deck, and hopped up onto the fence. She strode along it until she was just about to step out of sight. She turned back one more time, and then she was gone. Gloria put her arm around him and held him as he sobbed. The dark leaves made their final swoon to the dingy ground, the flash of pink from the geraniums added a single touch of color to the almost-winter bleakness.
About Mark Piper
Mark Piper is a longtime freelance writer and video director/producer. He holds an MA and a PhD in English from the University of Oregon, and he taught literature and writing at the college level for several years. His stories have been featured in Short Story America: Volume III, The California Writers Club Literary Review, and the online magazines Slurv and Flash Fiction World. His story, “Changing Spots,” was an Honorable Mention selection in the 2013 Short Story America Prize contest. You can see more of his work at www.markpiper.net.