Animal Hospital

by Midge Raymond

The vet tech’s name was Kristy, and she had a shrill, candied voice that grated on Monica’s nerves. Her husband, Louis, was the one who usually took the dog to the vet.

“Oh, poor baby,” Kristy crooned as she took the dog from Louis’s arms. “What happened to you?”

“She had a seizure,” Louis said. He started to follow them into the back, but another tech intercepted him.

“If you can just fill out these forms,” she said, “we can get started on treatment right away. What happened exactly?”

Louis was still staring at the door through which Kristy had taken the dog, so Monica reached for the clipboard. “I’ll do it.” She was about to explain what happened when Louis began talking.

“We had people over,” Louis said, “and we saw that Pepper was acting a little funny. She was hyper but also walking strangely, sort of swaying.” He moved his hands as if to imitate the dog’s motions. It was the most he’d said all evening.

“She looked drunk,” Monica added.

“And then I noticed that she’d gotten sick. All over the hallway.”

“Poor baby,” the other tech said. Were they all the same? Monica wondered.

“We just thought she ate something off the kitchen floor,” Louis said. “But a little while later, I went to check on her, and she didn’t seem better. Then she had the seizure.”

“Do you know what she might have eaten off the floor?”

Louis looks at her then, and Monica shakes her head, annoyed by the implied accusation. “No idea,” she said.

“Okay,” the tech said, taking the clipboard Monica held out. She scanned the form and said, “If Pepper goes into cardiac arrest, do you want us to resuscitate?”

“Yes,” Louis said, at the same time that Monica said, “No.”

They looked at each other.

“I just thought—” Monica began.

“Yes,” Louis repeated, looking at the tech. “She’s only eight years old,” he added. Monica knew this was meant for her, though he didn’t look at her.

“For a beagle, that’s like being seventy,” Monica said.

He ignored her and told the tech, “She’s my dog. Resuscitate her.”

The tech nodded. “Let’s get you into an exam room,” she said.

Monica and Louis followed her to a tiny, airless room with chipped beige paint. “As soon as we know what’s going on with Pepper, the vet will come in to see you,” the tech said, then left, letting the door fall open to the hallway.

Monica looked around—a dispenser of hand sanitizer, an examination table, a small rack of worn magazines, a dated poster of a dog in a field of flowers. The room had no chairs, only a wooden bench, on which Monica tried to sit but found it too hard and too cold. She stood again, leaning against the exam table, inspecting the Formica. Louis wouldn’t look at her.

“This could take a while,” she said.

“You’re free to go.”

“You know, I care about Pepper, too,” she said. “Even though she’s not my dog.”

He’d adopted Pepper two years before they met.

“I didn’t mean that,” he said. “I just can’t believe you’d let her die.”

“I wouldn’t want her to suffer, that’s all. I’m surprised you don’t feel the same way.”

“Well, I guess we’re both full of surprises.”

They were still a little drunk. When Louis had realized Pepper was in trouble, he’d called Monica away from their friends in the dining room. In the hall, holding Pepper in his arms, he asked her where the car keys were. He’d always been a little overprotective of the dog, and Monica had tried to talk him out of going—houseful of guests, the animal hospital on the other side of town, both of them unfit to drive.

But then, Pepper had begun seizing—eyes suddenly wide and unblinking, body rigid, legs jerking about—and Monica’s first instinct had been to dial 911, which of course she couldn’t, not for a dog. So, as she opened her laptop to find the address of the animal hospital, she dialed the number of the cab company she kept in her cell phone for emergencies. She’d never had to use it before; in Southern California, calling a cab truly was a last resort.

She’d been prepared to let Louis take Pepper himself so she could return to their guests, but then Stephanie had walked in and heard her on the phone, saw Louis hunched over the dog—trying to still her twitchy legs, to wipe the brownish froth from her mouth—and Stephanie had taken charge, ushering Monica and Louis and Pepper all out the door, promising to take care of everything until they returned. That was what Stephanie did. She played hostess at other people’s parties, probably because she never hosted any of her own. Stephanie’s husband, Shaun, was reclusive and private—even more so than Louis—and they never entertained at their own place. Lately, Monica had been playing a private game of counting the number of words Stephanie and Shaun said to each other during the course of an evening. Tonight, she’d counted only nine.

“I’m just saying, we left all these people at home,” Monica said now.

“Good to know you have priorities,” Louis said, taking a turn on the bench.

“Don’t blame this on the party. These things just happen.”

“Surprise parties don’t just happen,” Louis said.

“What was I supposed to do, let your fortieth birthday go by unnoticed?”

“Noticing it would’ve been fine. It’s the party I have a problem with. What’s so wrong with having a quiet dinner, just the two of us?”

“It’s a big year,” she said. “It deserves a celebration.”

“Even if I didn’t want one?”

“Most people would be happy to have a spouse who’d go to all that trouble.”

“Most people.”

She sighed. “Maybe the vet will be quick.” She wandered over to the dog poster, saw that its plastic frame was smudged—from a dog’s nose, or a child’s? An adult’s? She felt an absurd urge to press her face to the frame, as if it might provide a visual portal into the back room, reveal what was going on with Pepper.

She decided to change the subject. “Lara’s hardly showing at all,” she said. “Did she say anything while I was in the kitchen?”

“I wasn’t paying attention,” he said.

“You’re the poet, Louis. You’re supposed to be the curious one. The observant one. How is it that you never see anything?”

“I suppose the breeding habits of your friends aren’t within my scope of interest.”

“They’re your friends, too.” She pulled out her phone, started to dial then paused. “It’s only a matter of time before Stephanie and Shaun get pregnant, too, if they’re not already. We could be missing the big announcement right now.” She put her phone away. “I wish we’d installed that little video camera you were thinking about getting. You know, to keep an eye on Pepper. I’d love to see what’s going on there. Hear what they’re saying about us.”

Louis was flipping through a month-old copy of Newsweek. “That system had no audio. And what makes you think you’d still be the center of attention?”

“The baby thing,” she said.

He looked up. “What baby thing?”

“The fact that we don’t have one. They think it’s odd—you know that. Especially since everyone assumed that was why we tied the knot so fast.” She and Louis had married in a civil ceremony five years ago, eight months after their first date.

“Why do you care what they think?”

“I don’t,” she said. “I don’t care.”

He shook his head. “Everything you do has to have an agenda. Give the best party, have a baby right on schedule. You act like you’re still trying to get into a good college.”

“I like having parties.”

“You like showing off,” he said.

“So you’re just content to let every milestone pass without acknowledgment? To let everything die?” She realized then that she might not have chosen the best of words.

But he didn’t seem to be listening; his head was lowered to the magazine.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” she said. “We’re practically the only childless couple we know, and we had to leave our own party because of our dog. We may as well have a child.”

He murmured something she didn’t catch. A sudden pulse of anger surged through her, tempting her to yank the magazine from his hands. “I know what you’re thinking, so why don’t you just say it?” she said.

“About what?”

“You think I’m a lousy parent. To Pepper.”

“Well, you’re not the most maternal person on the planet,” he said. “And you never expressed an interest in having kids until everyone else did. Why do you try so hard to pretend you’re just like them when you’re not?”

“I don’t.”

“Of course you do. You want everyone to see you in a certain way.”

She gave him a short laugh. “This from a man who makes everyone call him Louis.”

“It’s my name.”

“Right,” she said. “You don’t want anyone calling you Lou because it’s not poetic enough. Because it sounds like the name of someone who fixes toilets for a living.”

He looks down at the magazine again.

“You know the reason you’re so attached to that damn dog?” Monica said. “Because she can’t talk back to you. She doesn’t challenge you. You live under the guise of being this solitary poet type, when really you just don’t like people.”

He turned a page. “You’re right, I don’t.”

“If you had your way, you’d sit in a depressing little room like this one”—she waved a hand around—“and write poetry all day and night.”

“Why do you always say write poetry like you’re spitting it out?” he said.

“Because poetry doesn’t pay the mortgage.”

“So let’s sell the house. Let’s rent an apartment in Hillcrest or a cottage in North Park. Let’s not have kids. Why do we have to play by the same rules as everyone else?”

Monica saw that Kristy was in the doorway and motioned for Louis to turn around.

“I just wanted to let you know the vet will be in soon,” Kristy said. “There’s another case before yours, but it won’t be too much longer.”

“Just like being at the real doctor’s office,” Monica muttered, looking at her watch.

“There’s some coffee and tea in the lobby,” Kristy added. “Help yourself.”

“Thank you,” Louis said.

Kristy moved on to another exam room down the hall. Monica heard a door open; she heard voices but not what was being said.

The pleasant intoxication Monica felt at the party had worn off, a hangover already settling in. She didn’t want to fight with Louis, but she couldn’t seem to help it. And she would rather be fighting than to end up like Stephanie and Shaun, not speaking at all.

“I’m going to the lobby for some coffee.” She was a couple steps out the door before she turned around to ask, “Do you want anything?” She didn’t get a response.

Out in the reception area, the coffee smelled burnt and old. She found hot water, packets of tea and hot cocoa. She mixed a cup of cocoa then sat down, hoping it would tame her hunger pangs. They’d barely sat down to dinner when Louis had called her away to tell her about Pepper.

Another family sat in the waiting area, across from her, against the wall: a woman and two teenagers. They weren’t looking at one another—the kids were absorbed in their phones, texting or playing games; the woman was reading Cat Fancy. Monica looked at them, and, for the first time, she began to wonder what the point was. Did all kids grow up to reject human contact, to choose bytes on a tiny screen? Monica began to glimpse her future: kids like Louis, heads down, ignoring everything around them; or kids like her, not caring that they were in an emergency animal hospital on a Saturday night, other than the boredom and inconvenience.

She didn’t want to admit, even to herself, that Louis might be right, that she wasn’t maternal enough to have a baby. A year ago, Monica had missed a period and, thinking she was pregnant, bought a home pregnancy test. As they waited for the results, she told Louis about all her symptoms: she’d been tired, her breasts tender, her stomach queasy. And she hardly noticed until she looked back on that moment, that he’d looked a little queasy himself.

The test was negative, and Louis’s unmistakable sigh of relief set off a whole night of arguing. Finally, he’d left the house to walk Pepper. While he was out, Monica took the other two tests in the box, hoping for a different answer each time, then getting upset with herself for hoping.

Monica swirled the hot chocolate in its paper cup. The lobby was overly air-conditioned and cold, but the hot chocolate tasted chalky and stale; she couldn’t drink it. She put the cup down on a table and dialed Stephanie.

“How’s Pepper?” Stephanie asked.

Monica could hear a piano concerto playing in the background, though she distinctly remembered that Herb Pomeroy had been on when they’d left.

“We’re still waiting,” Monica answered. “How’s everything there?”

“Great. Your torte was fantastic, by the way.”

“You had dessert already?”

“Oh, I hope that’s okay,” Stephanie said. “We finished eating, and then I cleared the table—”

“It’s fine.”

“Lara asked for the recipe,” Stephanie continued.

“Well, if we ever get out of here, I’ll gladly pass it on.” Monica couldn’t keep the irritation from her voice. Stephanie had never been her favorite. Louis and Shaun had been fellow adjuncts at the state university for nearly ten years, and Monica and Stephanie had become friends by default—the type of friends who commiserated over being married to moody writers but never spoke of what was really going on in their marriages. Monica suspected that, like herself, Stephanie was looking for a way to recognize the man she’d fallen in love with in the man to whom she was now married.

“Still there, Monica?”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Call me when you get news about Pepper,” Stephanie said. “I made coffee. We’ll all be here awhile.”

Monica hung up and paced the linoleum floors. She glanced over at the strange, silent family and wanted to be away from them. But she didn’t want to return to Louis either.

The odd thing was, she knew, Pepper’s health aside, that Louis was happier spending his birthday in a tiny windowless room than at a party in his honor. She’d never understood his reluctance to celebrate, to share special occasions with friends. When he’d said he wanted to “stay in” to celebrate his fortieth, she told him she’d plan a special dinner then she’d invited three other couples and convinced herself that the surprise would be a welcome one.

Her demanding career in software had always taken precedence over becoming a decent cook, but for once, instead of hiring caterers, she’d spent the whole day preparing, sending Louis out so that she could have the kitchen to herself. The polenta and chocolate torte, both new recipes, had made her particularly nervous—and in the end, she hadn’t even been able to see her guests’ reactions.

But the day had gone surprisingly smoothly, at least in the beginning. Louis had been thrilled to be kicked out of the house; he went to a café to write. But when he came back to a house full of candlelight and jazz, to friends in cocktail attire calling Surprise!, there had been no mistaking the look on his face for one of utter disappointment.

It was a look that had grown more familiar to her over the past couple of years: the way his eyes seemed to close off even while open, the tension in his smile. She saw it when she made weekend plans for them with friends, when she opted not to walk with him and Pepper, when she told him over breakfast that she’d be having another late night at work.

By the time they’d met, Monica had written off marriage; she’d grown accustomed to being alone, to working late into the evenings, to spending weekends at the office or working in her downtown condo. There’d been little room for her among friends who became couples, and devoting herself to work kept her mind off being alone—in fact, the feeling had become so familiar that the idea of loneliness ceased to exist for her; it was simply her natural state of being, the way she imagined other people were content or even happy.

It was true that she and Louis had never talked of children, even when they moved into a house in an exclusive suburb—it was for the quiet and extra space, not for raising kids. She hadn’t given children much thought before getting married because she never thought she’d have a choice in the matter; she assumed she’d be too old. Then, when they were newlywed, and even the first few years after, Louis filled up the empty places in her life so well that she didn’t think she needed more. But now, as she felt the two of them growing apart, she knew they needed something to bind them back together again.

She heard the electric doors slide open and watched a man rush in, carrying a large, floppy dog in his arms—a golden retriever, maybe; Monica didn’t know much about dogs.

“I just hit this dog,” the man said. He was breathless, his face taut with anxiety. “I don’t think he’s doing too good. I haven’t heard him breathe in a while.”

Kristy had already jumped up, knees on the desk, and she leaned over to take the dog into her arms. The dog was completely limp, and Monica was impressed by her strength; the dog had to weigh at least a hundred pounds, but Kristy held him firmly and didn’t sag under his weight. “Wait here,” she called over her shoulder then disappeared into the back.

The man who’d brought the dog looked about Monica’s age—late thirties, though he could have been in his forties for all she knew; she never could tell with men. He looked more sober than she felt, and she wondered how the accident had happened.

She glanced at her watch. It had been nearly two hours since they’d brought Pepper in, and this new case would surely take precedent.

The man caught her looking at him, and she was struck by the expression on his face—sorrowful, as if it were his dog, though it didn’t appear to be. She held his eyes for a moment, and then he lifted his shoulders.

“He came out of nowhere,” the man said. “Like he was chasing something. Only there was no one around. He doesn’t even have a collar or anything.”

“Poor dog,” Monica murmured, surprised by the way her voice echoed the techs’, by suddenly caring even more for this nameless dog than for the one she lived with.

The man was deeply shaken, she noticed, and though he’d just come in from the warm air outside, he hugged his arms tightly to his chest as if he were freezing. She stood and took a few steps toward him, then a few more until she was standing next to him. She reached out and touched his arm and felt him trembling under her hand.

“It’s not your fault,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do in a situation like that.”

“I hit him. I should’ve been more head’s-up.”

“As you said, he came out of nowhere.”

He shrugged. “It takes two. As they say.” Then he looked at her. “So,” he said, “why are you here?”

“My dog’s sick. They think she ate something.” She didn’t notice the pronoun until after she’d said it. My dog.

But Pepper had never been her dog. Even after five years, the dog always chose Louis, sleeping at his feet, greeting him at the door. It wasn’t that Pepper wasn’t a nice dog—she was good-natured, a little rounder than she used to be, with a cute white nose, ears slightly darker than the caramel color of her face. Monica liked her as much as she could like any animal, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. When Louis wasn’t around and Monica picked up her leash, Pepper would look around as if to say, Seriously? You’re my only option? Monica knew that she lacked a certain warm-and-fuzziness, which she could fake with most people. Animals, on the other hand, knew better, and Pepper saw right through her.

To her, Pepper was merely a pet, akin to furniture that moved and breathed and ate; to Louis, she was part of the family, the child they didn’t have, and the child he thought they didn’t need. A life without Pepper would be, for her, a life with cleaner floors, with no more hairy clothing or leashes or shit in the backyard. But what did a life without Pepper mean for Louis?

Kristy returned to the receptionist area, empty handed. “He’s gone,” she said to the man, her voice thicker, more somber. “But thanks for bringing him in,” she added. “That’s a lot more than most people would do.”

She handed him a clipboard. “If you can just fill this out for our records? Just telling what happened and that it’s not your dog.”

The man bent over the clipboard, and Monica felt a wave of sympathy for him, suddenly picturing the dog lying motionless on an examination table—something she had not yet imagined with Pepper. Yet somehow, she felt she could understand this man even more than she could understand Louis—the loss of control, the random helplessness of having done such a thing.

Monica had long gotten over attachments herself; she’d learned how early on, when her childhood cat, Fritz, had died. He’d been old—they’d had him since before she was born—but he’d been her most consistent and loyal friend. Monica was an only child, and her family had moved frequently for her father’s work. Each time they packed up, Fritz had curled up in her lap in the car, where they’d been wedged together into a backseat crammed with boxes and bags. Monica never made friends quickly or easily, and, after the fourth city, she’d given up on trying to make new friends at all. But coming home to Fritz was the one constant, the one bright spot in her day.

It wasn’t until junior high that things got better socially, and that was when it happened—one day, she found Fritz lying in the back of her closet, near a pair of cleats she needed for soccer practice. He’d always liked to sleep in odd places, and without thinking she’d reached out to pet him. The moment her hand touched his fur, she knew. It wasn’t that he felt cold or stiff—not yet—but she could sense the absence of life. Hoping she was wrong, she stroked his back for a few long moments that felt like hours, willing him to stretch his paws toward her as he always did, willing him to open his eyes.

It had taken months before she could sleep well again; she missed his soft whiskered face next to hers at night. When her parents talked about getting another cat, she said no. She told herself: never again.

Now, watching this man hand the forms back to Kristy, Monica wanted to say something but didn’t know what—and when he turned to leave, their eyes met again, briefly.

“I hope your dog pulls through,” he said.

“Thanks,” she said. “Take care.” The words felt stupid and inadequate.

The man nodded, then gave her a half-smile before the automatic doors yawned open and swallowed him into the dry, windy night.

Monica quickly turned her gaze to the walls, a lighter shade of beige than the exam room, with a slightly pinkish hue, the color of the sand in Maui where she and Louis spent their honeymoon. A trip they’d taken alone, just the two of them—and of course, he’d given her a hard time about checking her e-mail, for even bringing her laptop along, until she pointed out that he’d brought a notebook, books, a collection of fine-point pens in three different colors: his writing materials.

That’s different, he said. I’m just jotting down observations, details, ideas.

So? she said. If you’re writing, you’re working. That’s your job. We just use different tools, that’s all.

He’d relented, and they’d agreed to an hour of work before breakfast and another before dinner, though that second hour usually involved opening a bottle of wine, which caused their work time to stretch well past sunset. But neither of them minded; they both had everything they wanted.

She left the lobby, and on her way back to the examination room, she stopped at the restroom. She looked at her face in the mirror, then drew back, appalled by her reflection. She’d had her hair done that morning, had spent nearly forty minutes before the party choosing her clothes, applying makeup. Yet her hair had gone haywire in the hot, dry Santa Ana winds, and in the fluorescent light the bags under her eyes loomed large. She turned her head to examine them—dark half moons that hung above a constellation of tired features—then turned away from the mirror, shutting off the light as she left.

She found Louis sitting on the bench, magazine in his hands, though he wasn’t reading. He looked over at her when she walked in. “I got an update,” he said. “Pepper’s not doing well.”

“Why didn’t you come find me?”

“The vet’ll be back. He’s running some tests.”

She sat down next to him. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t respond. She took his hand, but he didn’t acknowledge her squeeze, so she let go. She considered telling him about the man in the lobby, then realized it wasn’t a story she wanted to share. Instead she said, “Stephanie’s taking care of everything at home. They just had dessert. Apparently the torte was a hit.”

He looked surprised. “They’re still there?”

“Of course. They hadn’t even finished dinner when we left.” She looked at Louis and saw that disappointed look again. “Stephanie’s on top of it. We can stay here as long as we need to.”

He stood. “I’m going to get a cup of coffee,” he said, and that was when she realized he didn’t want her there. “Come get me if they have any news.”

She watched him leave, running her tongue along the cocoa powder lingering at the corners of her lips.

*

He stayed away for a long time. As a quarter hour went by, then another, Monica began to hate this little room—the blandness and sterility, the waiting. It was a room, she suspected, in which bad news entered often, and while she had no great love for Pepper, she began to worry for Louis’s sake. And perhaps, she realized, for the sake of their marriage.

With his sporadic teaching schedule, Louis and Pepper spent most of their days together, and Monica had always been strangely intimidated by the fact that he and the dog had a longer relationship, that they might even have a stronger bond. She still found it disconcerting that Louis could be so attached to a dog yet not at all interested in having a child—and she didn’t want to consider what might happen if they did lose Pepper.

Restless, she paced the little room, checking her e-mail, responding to a few messages. Even on a Saturday night, people were working—in software, deadlines were everything. For a moment, she wished she could be at work.

She heard voices down the hall, ignoring them until she heard Pepper’s name, then a few words she didn’t recognize. Then Kristy’s voice: “What should I tell them?”

Another voice, probably the veterinarian: “I’ll do it. Where are they?”

“Exam room eight,” Kristy said.

Monica felt a shard of dread lodge in her chest. She heard footsteps heading toward her, and she put her phone away.

It was Louis. “Any word?” he asked as he sat down on the bench, a Styrofoam cup in his hand.

She paused for a moment. “Nothing yet,” she said.

“It’s taking such a long time.”

“I’m sure we’ll hear soon.” She rolled her head from side to side, trying to relax the tightening muscles.

A knock at the door interrupted them, and a man’s head appeared around the door. “I’m Dr. Stevens,” he said, and Monica recognized the voice as the one from the hall. “I have some test results to share with you.”

He opened a file folder. “Pepper’s labs show toxic amounts of theobromine,” he continued.

“What’s that?” Louis asked.

“It’s a stimulant,” Dr. Stevens said, “commonly found in chocolate. Do you know if Pepper consumed any chocolate today?”

Monica felt her heart jump a few quick extra beats that made her eyes blur.

“My wife made a chocolate cake,” Louis said, “but Pepper didn’t eat any of it. It was still on the counter when we left.” Then he turned to Monica. “Right?”

She nodded, but she was thinking of the box of baker’s chocolate on the counter, of the thick, dense squares. She hadn’t used them all, and now her brain spun as she tried to remember how many had been left over. Whether Pepper had been in the kitchen. Whether the dog would’ve been able to reach the countertop using the chair Monica had moved to retrieve the Cuisinart from the top shelf. She couldn’t remember putting the leftover squares away—she only remembered throwing away empty wrappers.

“Are you certain?” the vet was asking. “For Pepper to be this sick, she’d have had to eat quite a lot. Or to have eaten a concentrated version.”

Monica felt Louis’s eyes on her. She felt him waiting for her say, No, I don’t have any idea how this could have happened.

And she could have said as much; he’d never know the truth. But she couldn’t do it.

“She might have gotten hold of some baker’s chocolate,” Monica said slowly. “I used it for the torte. It was on the counter, out of her reach, but—I don’t know. That’s the only thing I can think of.”

The vet was nodding, jotting down notes. “That makes sense,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much to make a dog Pepper’s size very sick.”

“Will she be all right?” Louis asked.

“There’s no antidote,” Dr. Stevens said, “but we’ve been treating Pepper with activated charcoal to help move the poison through her system and to prevent any further absorption into the body. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“How soon will you know?”

“We’ll have to wait and see,” he repeated and closed the file. “You’ll be able to call and check on her any time. We’re here twenty-four hours.”

The vet went on to discuss financials, and Monica tuned him out. Her head spun as if she were drunk again combined with a hollow, queasy feeling—not unlike the time she thought she was pregnant. How could she have let it happen?

The vet left the room, and she reached out to touch Louis’s arm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I had no idea about the chocolate. I don’t know how she got into it.”

He pulled his arm away. “I want to see Pepper. You go handle the paperwork.” He left, following the vet’s path down the hall. Monica was relieved he didn’t ask her to accompany him—she didn’t do well around sickness—but at the same time she felt as if something significant had just happened, that she was being left behind in more ways than one.

In the lobby, she completed the paperwork and handed over her credit card. Kristy gave her the same cheerful-yet-sympathetic smile, and impulsively, Monica asked, “How do you do it?”

“Do what?” Kristy asked.

“How do you get used to all this? The death, especially.”

“You don’t,” Kristy said. “Not really. But there are moments that make it worthwhile. Like when the animals do recover, and they start wagging their tails or purring.” Kristy paused, and then shook her head. “Most owners, if their dog or cat has to be euthanized—they can’t take it. They leave, and their animals just stare at the door, waiting for them to come back. That’s when I feel most useful. When I can be there for them, you know, when no one else wants to be.”

“Do you have kids?” Monica asked abruptly.

Kristy smiled. “I’ve got three cats and two dogs at home. That’s enough for now.”

Kristy handed back the credit card, and Monica signed the slip. As she pocketed the receipt, she said, “I wonder what’s keeping Louis.”

“You can go back there if you want.”

Monica began to shake her head no, then stopped. “Okay,” she said.

Kristy led her down a short hallway and pointed toward a swinging metal door. Monica pushed through it, entering a large room with two examination tables and several dogs in kennels, quiet in their various stages of illness. Louis stood in front of one of the kennels, its door open, and Monica could see the brown, white, and caramel colors of Pepper’s coat. She approached them and stood next to Louis, who didn’t move.

“How’s she doing?” Monica asked.

Louis didn’t answer. Monica wanted to reach out to touch Pepper, but a part of her was afraid that if she did, it would feel the same as it had so many years before, with Fritz.

Then Louis said, “She’s okay.”

Monica reached out and stroked the soft fur between Pepper’s ears, and Pepper’s tongue weakly flicked out toward her hand. She glanced over at Louis. “I’ll call Stephanie and tell her to send everyone home,” she said. “We can stay as long as you want.”

Louis took a step away from the kennel. “There’s nothing we can do. She needs to rest.”

Monica nodded. “I’ll go call the cab company.”

The ride home was quiet and felt much longer than the journey there. Monica saw with relief that the cars parked in front of her house were gone, living and dining room lights off. As the cab pulled into their driveway, Monica’s phone rang, and she pulled it out, expecting Stephanie. But it was another number—the animal hospital, she realized; she’d put her cell number on the forms.

“It’s the vet,” she said.

Louis looked up. “That’s odd.”

“Maybe it’s good news.”

“Maybe it’s not.”

She didn’t want to be the one to take the call, so she held the phone out to Louis. He took it and pressed the answer button, and she watched their future cross his face as he held the phone to his ear.

 

Midge Raymond is the author of the short story collection, Forgetting English, which received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Originally published by Eastern Washington University Press in 2009, a new edition was released in 2011 by Press 53. Midge’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and Poets & Writers, among others.

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