Graphic by Tamara Rees, Copyright VIN
Clouds swarmed across the horizon just as I pulled in front of the greying picket fence. I scowled at the sky, hoping the rain would hold off until this last appointment of the day was over. Sometimes being a house-call vet lacked glamour.
I checked the schedule and the address one last time before locking my van. The house in front of me was the sole decaying tooth in a neighborhood of pearly whites. Tufts of stale grass reached out of the dirt of the front yard. A blackened tree that looked blighted by more than an early autumn reached twisted fingers over the shingled roof. "Yeah, that’s not a hazard," I thought, more eager than ever to be done before the storm kicked up.
I mentally reviewed the patient’s scanty file and appointment information as I walked to the front door and rang the bell: 5-year-old female cat, un-spayed, last veterinary visit was as a kitten. The owner mentioned that the cat had suddenly stopped eating yesterday. I started running through questions to ask the owner in hopes of narrowing down the list of possible causes. Since they’d called me rather than take the cat to a clinic, my brain had formed a picture of sweet, elderly owners with an overweight, spoiled, and somewhat fractious kitty.
A familiar odor stood out from the smells of musty leaves and incipient rain. I wrinkled my nose and looked toward the street. I hadn’t seen any fresh road-kill, but the perfume of death hung in a veil from the porch roof.
The doorbell echoed through the house into a strange silence. According to the record, the owners had two dogs, but there wasn’t so much of a scuffle of nails on the floor, let alone a bark in response to the bell.
No one came. The tree scratched at the porch. I turned to head back to my van, and the door cracked open.
So much for my imaginary sweet, elderly couple.
The man at the door was maybe a few years younger than me. His skin was completely smooth, not a wrinkle, freckle, or hair in sight. His pale blue eyes were deeply set and pinched his nose.
He didn’t slouch exactly, but the way he leaned into the doorway made me wonder if the house was holding him up.
“You had an appointment? I’m the veterinarian. For your cat?”
“Yep. Me and Norman’ve been expecting you.”
I kept my eye-roll mostly hidden as I entered the house. This looked like a miscommunications party waiting to start.
“So what has been going on with Norman?” I asked, carefully ignoring the mismatch between cat name and sex.
“He was fine until yesterday. I don’t know what happened.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. “Ummm…our records show that your cat is female?”
“Yep. Like I said, he was fine until yesterday. Totally normal.”
The smell was stronger inside the house. I tried not to sniff. Sometimes it’s better not to know. This call couldn’t be over soon enough.
I was led into a parlor, through an archway, down a hall, past a couple of dark doorways to a closed door. “Norman’s down here,” the man said, opening the door and pointing to a narrow stairwell lit by a single bulb.
“Maybe it would be better if you brought Norman up here? I can examine him better in the light.” I don’t know who I thought I was kidding. The whole house was a rats’ nest of shadows. Still, I’ve watched enough movies to know that nothing good ever happens to the girl who goes into the basement.
And now I knew where the smell was coming from.
Gagging seemed unprofessional, so I swallowed before asking, “I’m sorry, but what’s that smell?”
I prayed that the answer wasn’t “The last vet.”
“What smell? Oh, you mean Norman? Yeah. He’s gotten a little ripe the last week or so, but he was totally normal until yesterday. Guess I should give him a bath once you fix him up.”
“So, can you bring him up here?”
“Nah. He doesn’t like it. He’s set up all comfy down there. With a bed and plenty of light and everything. Mother is down there with him.
I peered into the gloom. I took one step down, paused and turned back toward the door. “I need to get something from my --.”
The door slammed.
I rattled the knob. Locked. The sliver of light beneath the door vanished.
A scream pushed against my throat. I swallowed. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe he’d been having a heart attack and fell against the door. And the light switch.
Or maybe I had been locked in a psychopath’s basement with something that smelled unsettlingly like prior victims.
I shoved at the door and kicked it, accomplishing nothing other than a sore foot. Having exhausted my top-of-staircase options, I slowly descended toward the silver-blue light coming from one corner of the basement. I prayed it was coming from a window with a streetlamp outside.
A rhythmic creak came from the same corner as the light. Right. He said his mother was down here with the cat. That bolstered the accidental-lock-in theory. No one would shut his own mother in the basement.
Nothing answered me, but the creaking seemed louder. I finally reached the bottom of the stairs and let go of the rail, feeling as though I was casting myself off into space.
The blue light surrounded a woman in a rocking chair clutching a bundle.
The rocking continued.
“Can you help me?” My voice quivered as I tried to shut out the smell. There were no windows. I stepped closer to the rocker.
The woman’s head lifted. Something was wrong with her face. She looked like a broken doll with a painted mouth. Blue gas floated from her eye sockets.
My mouth went dry. My heart pounded in my ears. “I came to look at the cat.”
She pulled back the blanket, and my heart stopped its pounding.
The last thing I heard, as blue light flared and all went black, was a voice from the top of the stairs, “They were just fine yesterday.”
March 25, 2015
Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
November 4, 2014
November 4, 2014