Scrabble Goes to the Vet
by Jacob Austin
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Fifteen minutes passed. Then a half hour. At the 45-minute mark, John’s patience began to erode. He noticed he could hear Tim the receptionist scheduling appointments down the hall. “Great,” John whispered, “the walls must be paper thin.”
Then he realized something: he had not heard anyone else enter the office since he was brought back. There were no greetings, no requests for new patient forms. No clattering of paws in the hallway. The office had remained silent.
John stood, stretched his legs and was about to step into the hallway when another voice finally joined that of the receptionist: the seething voice of Dr. Gerbera. Their exchange started loudly, but quickly fell to a whisper.
“This is seriously the last strike, do you understand me?”
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t realize—”
There was a sound like pencils snapping, and Tim cried out.
“I don’t care what you realized, okay? Just... do better. Listen to me when I tell you to do something. I’m right on the brink of losing it over these things. I thought this was all over. So I swear to god, the next time someone calls... and it’s this... if you don’t immediately tell me...”
The whispers grew softer, so that even the office’s pointless walls could no longer give them away and, before John could absorb what he had heard, a series of quick footsteps made their way down the hall.
Dr. Gerbera entered the examining room. She gave an empty smile that faded as soon as the door closed behind her. “I apologize for the wait.”
She pulled her lips inward and slid into a chair next to John. For a while she was quiet, and John suddenly felt too nervous to ask what had taken so long.
“So here’s the deal,” she said, and she took a deep breath. “Your cat, she’s not well. Not at all. I’m sorry, but her quality of life is... it’s not salvageable.”
She leaned toward him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Do you understand what I’m saying here?”
“I...” John swallowed and ground his teeth. “But... she didn’t seem like she—”
Dr. Gerbera sat back against her chair. “What you saw was a cat hiding its pain. It’s a survival instinct. When she showed up at your house, she had a choice: leave you alone and freeze to death or pretend to be okay so you’d take her in and give her a fighting chance.”
She took another long breath, seeming to sense that John needed a beat. “And, John, you gave her the best chance you could. But this situation... it’s outside our power here. Your power. If you had waited any longer, it only would have been worse. So that’s good. But her condition is progressing quicker and quicker... and it has to be stopped right now before it’s too late.”
John’s voice became shrill as he battled back tears. The implication was setting in now. “Too late? What... what’s wrong with her?
The tears reached his eyelids and were starting to pool, collecting in red around his corneas. “I only just got her... I don’t... I... can’t...”
“It looks to be a genetic defect,” Dr. Gerbera said. “This is...”
She stood and walked to the examining table, where she sat again. “Your... Scrabble. We think she’s part of a defective litter. A family brought a bunch of them in, a while back, young ones just like her. Same problem. All of them had to be put to sleep.”
Her heel knocked against the table, and she jumped. John could see her toes thrashing in her shoes. “The mother, they also had her. Back at home. We did a house call, and it was... I can’t even begin to describe it. And we had to put her down as well, right there. We thought that was the last of them, but then you showed up with one more.”
She ran her fingers over her necklace: a small silver cross. “Just know that we have no real choice here, John. The only choice we have is to do the right thing.”
John stood from his chair and paced to the window. “I know she isn’t sick! She was playing before we left! There’s no way that—”
“John, like I said, it was an act. I already said that she—”
“I refuse to believe that! She was getting healthier. Getting bigger, bigger each day. How can—”
“Bloat, John. Her body has been slowly... bloating, okay? I didn’t want to have to mention that... so please, enough. Listen to me. Please understand this has to happen.”
She touched the necklace again and walked to the door. “I know this is hard, but we can’t, in good faith, allow her to leave here like that. I’ll be right back and we will discuss next steps. Just... take a minute.”
“Wait a second,” he said.
Dr. Gerbera paused with one foot out the door. John swallowed again and turned to face her. “Will I... can I at least see her first?”
“John, of course. Just take a minute and we’ll sort that out. I know this is a lot to take in. I’ll be back, and we can—”
She paused and started talking to someone down the hallway. “What? Okay. I’m, just... will you shut up, Stacey! I’m... just... okay! I’m coming!”
After a long, irritated breath, she turned back to John and said. “I’m sorry about that. I’ll be back, John. Just a few minutes.”
The door clicked shut and John grimaced. He should have been crying, shaking, spinning with vertigo; but all these expressions seemed to be trapped inside his ribcage. A lump finally formed in his throat when he looked at one of the cartoon pets painted on the wall: a dopey-faced cat holding a mouse-shaped lollipop; a lighthearted depiction of a good patient being rewarded, of normalcy returning.
There was a scream from down the hall. It launched out of a gasp, swelled to a watery crescendo, then ended abruptly. John heard a series of thumps, followed by a crashing sound. Then nothing.
Then there were whispers, this time from the other end of the office. “Just... just will you calm down... I... yes, just... just keep an eye on everything, okay? I need another minute to... I... yes. Stacey, will you please just shut up and hold it here until I...
John stormed to the door, his heart palpitating. “Hey! Is everything... what’s going—”
Dr. Gerbera re-entered the room before John could leave. Her face was a shade of red. Tim the receptionist was behind her, his arms shaking. John immediately noticed his cheek, which was swollen in a hand shape and transitioning from red to bluish-grey.
“Hi, John. Listen, okay?” Dr. Gerbera closed the door behind her, keeping herself pressed against it. Her knife was gone. “There was a problem. A... a complication. Your cat... I’m so sorry, but we have to move forward with the procedure now, John, and I’m going to have to ask you to remain in here.”
John strained his eyes as brief dizziness took hold. “In here? What? Why?”
“John, I’m sorry, okay? Her condition has already gotten to the point where she... this... it wasn’t planned at all. At least not this soon. And...”
She was quiet for a moment, clutching at her necklace with her thumb and index finger. “Tim will stay here with you for now. I really have to get back to—”
“How?” John’s demeanor quickly transitioned from vulnerable confusion to deep anger. “How could you let this... how... as a... as a... a vet. Aren’t you supposed to know what you’re doing?”
Dr. Gerbera’s face sunk into a trollish frown. “Don’t. Don’t you... do that. You can’t say that to me. I tried... I’ve been trying. You should be thanking me. Do you understand?”
John took an aggressive step forward. Tears were already halfway down his cheeks. “You listen to me, okay? You’re going to take me in there right now, and you’re going to tell me... going to show me what is—”
There was another scream down the hall, this one hitting a new pitch.
“Hold him.” Dr. Gerbera bolted out the door and, before John could give chase, Tim bear-hugged him and pushed him toward the wall. He was much stronger than John would have assumed.
“Hey! Get back, get off me!” John squirmed feebly, trying to get an arm free to fight back.
“Sir,” Tim replied in almost a whisper, “sir, please just listen, I need you to—”
Tim cried out in pain when John swung his heel into Tim’s shin and twisted out of his grip. John gave chase into the hallway, but Dr. Gerbera had already retreated down the hall and into a room labeled “Operating.” There were drops of blood in front of the door.
“Hey! Hey!” John tried the door, but it was locked. He pounded on it with both fists. “What did you do? What the hell did you—”
There were several more thumps behind the door, followed by a single whimper. Then nothing.
Before John could yell again, Tim had spun him around and pressed a hand against his mouth. “Please, sir... please listen to me,” Tim said. “Please. You need to leave. There’s no fee today.”
John pushed him off and gave a mucusy scoff. Tears had again pooled in his eyes. “Go to hell! Open this door! They’re killing my... I’m not going anywhere until—”
“You’re in danger right now.” Tim’s own tears had started to break through, but he maintained his composure. “Please. I’m sorry about this. I’m sorry. But you... please, you have to leave. It’s over.”
He grabbed John’s hand and pulled on it, but John held his ground. “Listen to me,” John said, and there was an inexplicable urge to belly laugh. “I’m... calling the police. Okay? And I’m not leaving until they—”
Tim’s grip tightened. “I’ve already called the police. Do you understand me? Right before we came in just now.”
John felt sweat slither down his back. “What?”
Tim gestured to the operating room. “And... she can’t know I just did that. Okay?”
After a moment, he leaned closer and said, “Listen, everything she told you — the bloating, the genetic defects — it’s all crap. She lied to you about almost everything. Your pet had nothing wrong with her, nothing that warranted a death sentence, at least. She deserved a chance, they all did, and this won’t go on any longer. But right now you have to—”
Something shattered on the other side of the door, causing both of them to flinch.
John’s voice became oddly calm despite his spiking anxiety. “What is going on in there?”
“I... I don’t know,” Tim said, “This isn’t... please... please, you have to leave.”
“What about you?” John said. “Is everything—”
“Don’t worry about that,” Tim said, his face growing increasingly impatient. “I’m going to stay here until the police arrive. Just, please...”
He reached into his pocket and put something in John’s hand. “And here, take this. I’m sorry again for all of this.”
John looked down at his hand. Tim had given him Scrabble’s rabbit toy. “What about her body?” he said.
Tim’s eyes glistened. “Sir, you don’t understand... I’m sorry. Right now you have to trust me and get out of here. I won’t ask again.”
John looked back at his hand. The toy stared up at him, its button eyes lopsided and its cotton tail holding on by a few threads. He put it in his pocket and left without another word. When he got home, he collapsed to the living room floor in sobs.
* * *
In the days that followed, a series of news reports answered John’s immediate questions while creating many more:
Tragedy in Rhye Township as a veterinarian and her employee have died. Investigators say Dr. Haley Gerbera, a vet with decades of experience, was found dead in her office’s operating room. The body of Stacey Patrick, a vet tech and recent college graduate, was also found in the same room. There were signs of a struggle, including a shattered window and broken equipment. A bloodied Ka-Bar Becker BK2 hunting knife was recovered at the scene. The operating room’s door had been locked from the inside.
Police are currently investigating the incident as a double homicide and have taken Tim Lepp, the office’s receptionist, into custody. Lepp, who called police to the scene, has maintained his innocence, calling the incident “a freak accident.”
This remains a developing story. Anyone with information related to this case is encouraged to contact local law enforcement.
John expected his own conversation with law enforcement soon enough, probably to ask why he had fled Gerbera’s office, but he made no effort to initiate this communication. He simply went through the motions of his life, eating when possible, crying when he had no choice. There were urges to visit the crime scene, possibly to retrieve Scrabble’s body, but the mere thought was emotionally draining.
A week after the incident, there was a knock at the front door as John made dinner. Outside, the sun had set and the birds had scattered from the trees in the backyard.
A middle-aged man in a grey suit waited on John’s doorstep. “John, hi. I’m Detective Martinez. I’ve been assigned to the Haley Gerbera and Stacey Patrick murder case, and I was wondering if you had a moment to discuss what you witnessed while you were at Dr. Gerbera’s office. We understand you had been there around the time of the incident and were her final patient.”
John took a deep breath. “I do.”
Copyright © 2020 by Jacob Austin