The summer after Brad graduated from the State University of New York at Canton with a degree in Veterinary Technology, he took a job with the Albany County Animal Hospital. The pay wasn’t great, but he liked the work. He fell into a comfortable routine: long days spent anesthetizing, intubating, castrating, spaying, suctioning, and suturing dogs and cats – and the occasional domestic rodent – following by long evenings drinking beer and watching the sports channel at T Foot’s Bar & Grill.
His routine changed a few months later when Millie began her internship. She was working on her DVM at Cornell and was clearly out of his league. Pale skin, straight dark hair cropped short, pretty hazel eyes always sliding away. She had a few years and about a hundred IQ points on him, but that just made her more interesting. He tried to get a rise out of her once in a while – crack a joke or comment on the weather. He was happy to get the faintest smile.
She could handle a scalpel or run a cannula like nobody’s business, and she was great with the animals. They’d submit to her touch in a way they never did for him. He’d get scratched and bitten just taking cats’ vitals. For her, they would stay stock-still, as though entranced.
One day, in August, while Brad was filling prescriptions, he heard a commotion in the waiting room, turned to see Millie sweep down the hall, and followed her into one of the examination rooms. A kid and his mom were standing there, bawling their eyes out. They lifted a blob of wet fur out of a wicker basket and set it on the stainless-steel table. Turned out they hadn’t seen the kitten climb into the washing machine – those damn front-loaders. At least they found him before the spin cycle.
While Brad stood there trying to decide what to do, Millie picked up the cat with both hands and started pumping the chest with her thumbs. Then she lifted the cat’s face to her mouth and blew once or twice. The vet came in, saw what was going on, and said softly, “Millie.” She gently set the animal down. No one moved.
Then the cat twitched. It rolled over, opened its eyes, and let out a pathetic wet squeak. The vet jumped back and bumped into a cabinet, rattling bottles. The little boy scooped up the cat and pressed it to his chest. The vet pulled himself together, checked the cat’s heart – checked it again – and pronounced it fine. Everyone left the room but Brad, who stood there thinking, what the hell just happened?
At quitting time, he made a point of walking out with Millie. It was dusk; a warm summer evening. Heat radiated from the sidewalk and the brick of the buildings they passed. The scent of lilacs drifted over from the park across the street.
“That was something,” he said, “I’ve never seen anyone do CPR on a cat.”
“It wasn’t CPR.”
“Whatever you call it. Maybe you can teach me.”
“I doubt it,” she said. “The cat was dead when I picked it up.”
He glanced at her. She was serious.
They stopped at the corner. His Civic was parked at the curb.
“It’s getting stronger,” she said with a shiver, crossing her arms. Then she said good night and walked away.
“What’s getting stronger?” he asked.
She kept going.
“You need a ride?” he shouted after her.
She waved a hand, turned the corner, and was gone.
That night at T Foots, he had trouble concentrating on the game. He kept seeing the cat in her hands; replayed their conversation. He wanted to get inside her head. It wasn’t the first time he’d become obsessed with a crazy woman. He reminded himself how it usually ended and ordered another beer.
He saw her at the hospital the next morning, but they were both busy and didn’t get a chance to talk. Mid-afternoon, a middle-aged couple brought in their old Australian Shepherd to be euthanized. Buster had lived a long and happy life, they said, and was only suffering now. They didn’t stay to watch the vet do his thing.
At the end of the day, when Brad was putting out the pickup for the incineration service, Millie came to the loading dock.
“Hey,” he said. “What a day. Lots of nip and tuck. That catch and release program. Feral cats. Nasty. But I’m getting better with needles.”
She walked slowly around the sealed black bags of animals and organs, oblivious to his babble.
“It’s happy hour at T Foots,” he said. “How bout a beer?”
She stopped and closed her eyes, held her hand palm down, fingers splayed.
“I want to show you,” she said, reaching out and touching one of the bags.
“Show me what?” Something was building in the air, slowing everything down. A bead of sweat ran down his temple. He stuck a finger inside the collar of his tee-shirt and tugged it away from his neck.
Millie glanced at him and smiled.
He couldn’t understand the leaden feeling that overcame him then, the tripling of gravity that drained his strength. It was all he could do to stay on his feet. Maybe it was food poisoning, he thought, something he ate.
A low growl rose from the bag beneath her fingers. He spun away and doubled over, baffled by his own reflex. There was a yip or two, the rustling of plastic, clicking of toenails on concrete, and then Buster was licking his face.
Millie looked at him and said, “See?”
Dread pooled in his guts.
Buster trotted off and sniffed at the bags, wagging his tail.
“How is that possible,” he said.
“Let’s take a drive. Take him with us.”
“Take him where?” He walked woodenly to the car as his mind raced.
He drove. She told him to head south. They left the city and drove through the burbs, past farms and fields, into the hills. Buster was in back. Every now and then he got excited and licked Brad’s ears. The road led through dense forest. Millie gazed out the window.
“Park,” she said. “Now.” He hit the brakes and Buster flew halfway into the front seat. They slewed to a stop on the shoulder. Millie got out, walked a few steps back, and knelt down out of sight behind the car. He wanted to drive off, but felt powerless to do so.
“Come here,” she said.
He pulled himself out of the driver’s seat and around the car to where she was squatting. A scrap of gray fur and some bones were flattened in the gravel. She touched them. Nothing happened.
A wave of relief washed over him – maybe the natural order was intact after all.
But then the fur and bones began to rise. His stomach rose with them and he hurled its contents into the drainage ditch. He waited until he heard something scamper off into the woods before he turned to her.
She had a glow about her. She’d never looked so beautiful.
“I wonder how little can be left, and still come back?” she said. “A hair? A single cell? A molecule?”
This was too much for him. The absurdity of it – her conceit! He doubled over again, laughing this time, tears streaming down his face.
She ignored him, kneeled down, lay her hand flat on the dirt along the shoulder, and closed her eyes. He watched them move under the lids. Buster circled her nervously, whimpering. His circles got larger and more frantic, until finally he tore off into the woods.
The earth churned under her hand. Fleshy lumps erupted from the soil, wet and shiny, like some grotesque species of mushroom in a time-lapse video.
He ran to the car as in a dream, in slow motion, found himself in the drivers’ seat, gasping for breath, without strength even to close the door. Millie stood close to him.
“Dead things,” she said, “are everywhere.” Her fingers fluttered against his face, like so many butterflies. Her hazel eyes went wide. “In you,” she whispered, “so many dead things!”
The next morning, a few miles away, a farmer found an Aussie cowering in the stable. No tags, no collar.
“Hey fella, where’d you come from? I bet someone’s looking for you.” The farmer scanned the edge of his property, where the fields met the forest.
The underbrush was alive with movement.
Rob Tyler lives in a barn on 30 acres of scrubland in Upstate New York. His short fiction tends toward the absurd, the weird, and horror. When not writing, he can be found wrangling his feral cat, running hills, or shooting pool at the local watering hole. Online at robwtyler.com.