Scrabble Goes to the Vet
by Jacob Austin
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
John adopted Scrabble on a cold morning in late January. Scrabble had waited patiently for days on the steps of John’s rental home, occasionally giving a playful swat at his leg as he went to and from work and, each time, John told himself, “Don’t look at it. Don’t talk to it. Don’t touch it.”
This became harder to ignore when Scrabble started bringing him gifts, peace offerings to sweeten the pot. Mice. Birds. Half-chewed insects. Most of them were still alive, save for a decapitated starling delivered one Friday evening. Scrabble sat behind the bloody mess of feathers, purring and squinting up at John as if to say, “Look what I did for you!” The starling’s head was in her mouth.
“Do you think this is impressing me, you little sicko?” John’s voice was firm, but he couldn’t help but grin at the cat’s logic. “Well, it isn’t. But I admire the effort.”
John opened the front door and winced as the frigid air stung his cheeks. He turned back to the cat, who looked unfazed by the wind as she continued her nonchalant squint. Her eyes were an arresting shade of orange, and this was currently her only redeeming quality. She was missing fur on her face and at the end of her tail. Two scaly rashes had formed on both her shoulder blades. Her exposed skin was cracked and bloodstained, and John winced again as his eyes followed the cracks into blotches of still-intact fur.
It’s clearly not doing well, and it’ll be even colder outside tonight. Shouldn’t be much longer. Surely someone else will... take care of it... it could just be someone else’s proble...
He closed his eyes and took in a long breath.
It’ll be even colder outside tonight.
“Okay,” he said, opening his eyes, “you can stay here until I—”
The cat was gone. For a moment, John sighed with a blend of relief and, though he was reluctant to embrace it, disappointment.
Then there was a muted thump inside the house, and John turned to find the cat already in his living room. She was batting at a small stuffed rabbit keychain on John’s key ring, which hung on a lanyard near the kitchen entrance. John removed the rabbit from the key ring and placed it in front of her. “You’ve got some nerve, you know that? You better be good to help with rent.”
Scrabble batted the toy into the kitchen and chased it. She was now purring loudly, a broken, almost raspy vibration; it sounded like she had not done so in a long time. John shook his head and laughed to himself. “Well, damn.”
* * *
John named the cat “Scrabble” completely at random, as he was uninterested in the board game. Something about the name just stuck.
“Scrabs, for short,” he said to her as she played. She had been carrying on with the rabbit toy for two hours now. “Screw it, that’s your name. Deal with it.”
John had been splitting his attention between keeping an eye on her and searching the web for inquiries like “skin conditions in cats,” “local animal shelters,” and “is mange fatal.” He was able to borrow a spare litter box and a bag of food from a neighbor, who emphasized the importance of “keeping the food and litter separated at all costs.” John pretended to view this advice as commonsensical, but he wrote it down on a sticky note when he returned. “Food, poop box: keep separate.”
Next, he called a vet’s office to set up an appointment, another bit of advice the neighbor had provided. “If it’s a stray, get it to a vet pronto. You don’t know what it might have in the way of worms.” John had not told the neighbor about the cat’s current condition, about her piecemeal fur and arid-looking skin. Worms would be icing on the urinal cake.
A cheery male receptionist answered his call after a brief directory menu. “Good evening, Dr. Gerbera’s office. How may I help you?”
“Hi,” John said, “I, uh, I took in a stray cat today and I was hoping to get it checked out.”
The receptionist chuckled. “Of course. Sounds like you’ve had an interesting day, then.”
“Yeah, guess so.”
After another chuckle and some audible keystrokes, the receptionist said, “Okay, so it does look like we are pretty jam-packed up until next Saturday. Will you be okay with the cat until then?”
“Well, uh, I think...”
John glanced over at Scrabble, who was watching him intently with her patchy face. The rabbit toy was lightly ensnared in her tail, as if the cat had done this on purpose to keep it close. “This cat has something wrong with it, I think. It’s acting normal enough, but its skin... I’m not sure if it’s mange or, like, scabies or something. She’s missing fur on her head and on, like, her shoulder blades, if that’s what you call them with cats.”
For a while there was no response.
“Hello? Are you still—”
“I... I’m sorry,” the receptionist said. “I was just... taking down some notes here. That could... be a few different things. Could just be... allergies... severe dry skin. I’m sure it’s that. I’m sure of it.” He paused again. “But we’ll want to see her asap if that’s the case. I can sneak you in first thing Tuesday morning. Is that okay?”
“That’s, uh, that’s fine,” John said. “I’ll bring her by. Thanks.”
The receptionist hung up without responding.
John put his phone on the counter with a frown. This could have been someone else’s prob—
There was movement high in his peripheral vision, and he flinched. Scrabble had climbed onto the living room shelf and was weaving her way between pictures. She was purring again, a sputtering boat motor.
“Hey!” John yelled. “Hey, get off of that!”
Scrabble leapt from the shelf with a single hiss, which sounded just as awful as her purring. Her back legs knocked one of the pictures to the floor. John lunged at her — he remembered hearing something about “the scruff” in times like these — but he missed her as she retreated beneath the coffee table. There, she cowered up at him, keeping her legs bent in preparation to flee again.
“That’s strike one!” he barked down at her. “You hear me? Don’t push it!”
He picked up the fallen picture and looked at it for a while. It was a picture of him and his parents at an amusement park. He was eight or nine; his parents were as old as he was now. The three of them were smiling — his father in mid-laugh — as they posed in front of a water ride that, at the time, had seemed so intimidating.
John swallowed a lump in his throat, put the picture down, then turned and said, “Okay, maybe that was a little uncalled—”
But the cat was already rubbing against his leg. He could feel her pathetic purrs through his jeans, her crusted cheeks sawing against the seams.
He bent down and stroked her chin, which she stuck out in pleasure. His throat lump had faded, replaced by a ball of guilt. “I’m sorry, okay? Just... be careful.”
His other arm swept the floor behind him until it found the rabbit toy. “Look here. How about this?”
He threw it into the hallway, and she sprinted after it and retrieved it. Then he threw it again, and again she brought it back. By the fifth time John was smiling. By the tenth time he was laughing at her erratic play motions, especially when she rolled onto her side with the toy in her outstretched paws.
“What’s that supposed to be, an alligator death roll? You look like a...” John paused and sighed. “You know what? I forgot to get you a carrier.”
He tossed the toy one more time and grabbed his coat from where he had hung it the previous night. Scrabble moved to the back sliding door and began pawing at the glass, flinching in play as birds flew in and out of the trees surrounding the deck.
“Just, uh, keep making yourself at home. I’ll be back.”
When he returned, the cat had curled up and fallen asleep beside the wood stove. Her tail was again awkwardly coiled around the rabbit. John found her there the next morning — she had slept through the night — and she gave a chirp and stretched as he approached.
“I thought cats were nocturnal,” he said, and she squinted up at him. He wondered how long it had been since she’d gotten proper sleep, uninterrupted sleep.
John scratched the cat’s ears. “I have to go into the office and grab some stuff, okay? Here’s food.”
She sniffed as he placed a full food bowl in front of her. “Don’t piss on my couch, got it?”
He started for the door, then turned to face her one more time. She was still watching him with her mangy face, purring louder as if to coax him back. “I’ll see you in a little bit. Hang in there.”
* * *
Scrabble’s condition had worsened by Monday. The patches on her shoulders were particularly bad; each had given way to a slimy pink knob that John reluctantly assumed was exposed flesh. The skin on her tail had warped into a spiraling rash, the tip curving inward; John feared it was beginning to atrophy.
Yet, the cat continued to eat, purr and play like nothing was wrong. She also seemed to be getting larger, which helped offset John’s concern. Gaining weight and keeping it. That’s good, right? Does it happen that fast when you’ve been starving?
He came home and played with her over his lunch hour. She greeted him by rubbing against every edge and corner she could find at cheek level and, then, as he stepped inside, she ran away and brought him the rabbit toy, which was already beginning to fray at the sides.
“We’ll have to get you a new toy soon, an actual cat toy,” John said. “Though you’re more like a dog or something at this point.”
She was waiting with the toy when John woke up the morning of the appointment. It was again tangled in her tail, which was beginning to resemble a dead weed. John was relieved when the toy rolled away as Scrabble walked to his bedside; he was concerned he would have to pluck it from her jagged skin.
“No, no, not right now,” he said as he stroked her back, carefully avoiding the afflicted spots. He could tell she wanted to be up on the bed with him, but she had not yet gained the courage to make the leap. Instead, she had spent previous nights looking up at him and wiggling her back before giving up and sleeping on the floor. John found this consistently hilarious, but he was starting to feel bad.
“Okay, fine.” He looked at the clock, then reached for her. “You’ve got five minutes. I know you might have a tough day ahead of you.”
He hoisted her onto the bed, and she immediately climbed onto his chest and curled into a ball. Her ragged purs vibrated down to his breastbone. “You better not have worms. Just saying.” They lay there together for fifteen minutes.
* * *
The Veterinary Clinic of Dr. Haley Gerbera was only a short drive away, and John’s neighbor had personally recommended their services. “Don’t believe some of the crap that’s on the Internet about her; she’s really great.”
The clinic was a modest, houselike building, but the interior had all the traits of a traditional vet’s office. There were walls decorated with cartoon dogs and cats. Waiting room end tables provided outdated magazines about golf and pop culture. The front desk had a jar of personalized pens and a stack of hand-outs labeled: “What You Should Know About Rabies.”
“Hi there,” the receptionist said. “John and... Scrabble, I presume?”
“That’s us,” John said, tapping on Scrabble’s carrier, which was covered with a blanket. She had barely resisted the carrier, which surprised John; every cat he had ever met hated confinement.
The receptionist gave a troubled smile and handed John a clipboard. “I’ll let her know you’re here. If you could just fill out this new patient form, we’ll get you back.”
They did not have to wait long. The waiting room remained empty the entire time, and John felt like asking why he had to be “snuck in” at all. He abandoned the thought as he was approached by a young woman in cobalt medical attire. “Hi. I’m Stacey, one of the vet techs. Is this Scrabble?”
John nodded. “Yup, she’s in here.” He tapped the carrier again, and it vibrated with Scrabble’s purring. “I didn’t know how she’d be with other animals, but it looks like I don’t need the blanket at this point.”
The woman smiled. “It’s fine. You can keep her in there until we’re in the examining room. Come on back.”
When they got to the room, Stacey closed the door and placed her clipboard on the counter. “So I have it down here that we’re dealing with a... skin issue? Probably just some irritated skin? And... that you took her in as a stray?”
“Yeah, there’s definitely something going on,” John said. “But she seems happy. And it looks like she’s been gaining weight back, getting bigger, but maybe I’m seeing things. Everything seems fine otherwise.”
Stacey punched notes into a small laptop. “You’re bold to have done that. A lot of people wouldn’t have.”
She took a deep breath and said, “Go ahead and let her out. Whenever you’re ready.”
John opened the carrier, and Scrabble emerged with a dopy squint as the light hit her eyes. The rabbit toy was in her mouth; she had insisted on bringing it into the carrier. She was still purring.
“Here she is. Sorry, she’s been obsessed with that toy since I—”
“Oh. Oh, okay. Okay. I...” Stacey took a step backward as Scrabble explored the examining room. “I... I apologize. I was just...”
John allowed a smile, but could not help feeling offended. “Yeah, it’s bad-looking... I know. I wish they could have gotten her in sooner.”
They stood in silence for a few moments, and Scrabble’s purring filled the room. Finally, Stacey said, “Me too, and I’m sorry we didn’t. Let me just...”
She typed more notes into her laptop, then closed it and turned promptly for the door. “Dr. Gerbera will be in shortly. Just sit tight.”
The door closed and Scrabble’s head popped out from under the examining table, an inquisitive look in her dilated eyes. John may have laughed had he not been perplexed by Stacey’s short-lived triage. No weight check? No closer look at her teeth?
Scrabble purred and rubbed against his leg, then jumped back playfully as the door re-opened. This time, Stacey was accompanied by a short, stocky woman with faraway pupils and a prominent set of bucked teeth. She had a tattoo on her cheek — a small heart.
“Hi, I’m Haley Gerbera,” she said, shaking John’s hand. Her voice was eloquent and soothing, and John felt guilty for assuming it would sound anything but. “So...”
She beckoned to Scrabble, but pulled her hand away just before the cat could rub her cheek against her fingers. “Yes, oh my! Look at you!”
Scrabble resumed her exploration, and Dr. Gerbera sighed. “Let me start by saying that I’m sorry it took so long to get her in. We just hired Tim out there, the new receptionist, and let’s just say he’s still learning the ropes with certain aspects of our protocol.”
“That’s fine,” John said, trying to avoid eye contact with Stacey, who looked even more uncomfortable than before. “I just want to figure out what’s wrong with my cat. That’s all.”
Dr. Gerbera gave a fleeting smile. “Yes, well... I have several cats of my own.”
John waited for more, but it never came. “Yeah,” he finally said, “I... lost both my parents about a year ago, and I’m pretty new to the area... so, well... I guess this was good timing in a way.”
Dr. Gerbera handed her clipboard to Stacey, but remained silent.
John stroked the top of Scrabble’s head with two fingers. The fissures in her cheeks were much more prominent in the bright examining room light. They looked wider than before. “So,” he said, “at this point... what do you think is—”
“This shouldn’t take long and we’ll get you out of here,” she said, interrupting him. “Okay?”
She stepped closer and held out her arms. “If it’s okay,” Dr. Gerbera said, “I’ll go ahead and take her now. We’ll run a few tests down the hall. Weight. Blood work. You know.”
John’s eyes gravitated to her belt, which was decorated with a large buckle, a flip-phone case and a hunting knife resting in a leather sheath. “That makes a little more sense, I guess. I... uh, sure, right.” He handed Scrabble over, trying not to stare at the knife. He expected the cat to finally become distraught — it had to happen at some point; it was the damn vet’s office — but she continued to purr.
“Can you get the door?” Dr. Gerbera said to Stacey, but Stacey did not respond. Her eyes remained locked on the floor.
“Stacey, I said can you get the door? Please? Now? Today?”
Stacey snapped back to reality and grabbed for the door, missing it the first two times. “I... sorry.”
“Hey,” John said, pointing to Scrabble as she squinted at him over Dr. Gerbera’s shoulder. The rabbit toy was still in her mouth. “Be good for the vet. You... you be a good kitty.”
Dr. Gerbera never stopped walking and, just before the door closed, her pace quickened and the toy fell from Scrabble’s mouth. It landed face down on the examining room table.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Jacob Austin