My doctor wouldn’t approve of my little excursion. I wasn’t supposed to leave the house or drive or desecrate graves. I wasn’t supposed to do anything, but wait to die.
The woman at the kill shelter doesn’t comment on the dirt underneath my ragged fingernails nor the crusts of dried mud on my jeans. She doesn’t lose her patience as I thoroughly inspect each of their eight black cats for tufts of white to find the best match. When I snap a battered blue collar around a female cat’s neck, the shelter worker doesn’t raise an eyebrow. The woman doesn’t say anything at all as I pay the adoption fee with coins and crumpled singles.
She is blissfully ignorant of the whole sordid operation I’d recently undertaken. I’d dug with a small spade and then with my bare hands to retrieve the box my brother had buried. Fearing the corpse of my daughter’s cat was amass with maggots, I squeezed my eyes tight before burrowing inside the box, feeling the fur and the stiff little body. As I struggled to remove the collar, along with the jingling of the bell, I’d heard something snap.
Even though she’s barely eight, I’ve been teaching my daughter how I balance my bank account and pay my bills. Can’t have Charlie seeing a canceled check or a charge from the shelter. Can’t have her knowing I’d replaced her beloved pet with an imposter. Can’t leave her with no one to hold as I move into hospice.
I try to sneak the cat into my home, but a pitiful wail from the carrier gives me away.
My brother turns on the kitchen light. He takes the carrier from me, and I nearly stumble.
“I should’ve realized you were up to something stupid when you asked me to babysit.” He pokes his finger into the carrier and scratches the cat’s chin. “Charlie’s gonna know that ain’t Vex. Anyway, might be good for her to get a little lesson in loss before….”
“It’s just a fucking cat,” I say. “And it’s none of your fucking business.”
Exhaustion is a flame and my body a matchstick nub. I square my shoulders, using the dregs of my energy to keep myself upright.
He pulls me into a rough hug. “Amy’s gonna lose her shit when she finds out we’re adopting a cat along with your kid.”
I don’t remind him that he was responsible for Vex escaping and running into the street, because he wasn’t responsible for the speeding car that spelled the kitty’s doom. And he’d only come at Charlie’s request, after she found me unresponsive, lying in a heap on the floor of the shower.
Charlie loves on that cat as much as she did the original Vex, but she never challenges its decidedly unVex-like behavior. The way the feline has become my shadow. The way it sleeps on my pillow instead of at her feet. The way it ignores its predecessor’s toys and turns its nose up at tuna.
As Amy hugs Charlie and sprinkles catnip on the carpet, I try not to bristle. She insists on taking the cat to the vet, and I make her and my brother promise to use a new doctor, one who has never seen our original Vex. I hate that he’s clued his wife into the secret, then hate myself for being angry. They’ve always be there for us, and they’d be there to keep Charlie from burying herself in sorrow. She belongs in the light with her replacement pet and her replacement family while I slowly slip into the darkness of death.
The cat was supposed to be my daughter’s pet—not my comfort animal. As the days go by, I start slipping the cat scraps, and let its gravely purrs lull me to sleep. I stop raging at the unfairness of not being able to see my daughter grow up and make mistakes of her own.
Morphine makes my eyes heavy and my head foggy. The bell on Vex Version 2.0’s grave-robbed collar seems to beckon me to the afterworld. Sometimes, I have double vision, and I’m certain the original Vex is with me too.
Serena Jayne has worked as a research scientist, a fish stick slinger, a chat wrangler, and a race horse narc. When she isn’t trolling art museums for works that move her, she enjoys writing in multiple fiction genres. Her short fiction has appeared in the Arcanist, Shotgun Honey, Space and Time Magazine, Unnerving Magazine, and other publications