Nick and Amy have been married for seventeen years and for all those years, plus the two years they were dating, they have shared a cat named Sonny. Nick and Amy were just college students playing house when they spontaneously chose a scrawny kitten the color of midnight from a litter for sale in front of the grocery store one rainy fall night, never imagining that all these years later Sonny would still be alive and kicking. To be fair, Sonny did more napping and puking than actual kicking, but nonetheless, he was a treasured part of the family. Nick and Amy’s three children: Stella, Peter, and Sophie, had grown up with the cat and rolled their eyes when their parents got out the pictures of the olden days where Sonny is swaddled and carried like a baby.
But in the last year, Amy has been noticing that Sonny is no longer the lithe feline with the inky black coat he once was. In fact, he looks more like a zombie cat with one hip perpetually jacked up higher than the other due to his hip dysplasia, one milky eye that he can no longer see out of, and shaggy greying fur becoming more matted by the day because he could no longer clean himself. The family pet wasn’t winning any contests for health or beauty and Nick and Amy were often shooing Sonny from the room when company came over because his appearance had become quite alarming.
“Mom come up here. Something is wrong with Sonny,” Amy’s sixteen-year-old daughter Stella yells from the kitchen.
“What?” Amy hollers back from the basement, hoping it’s only a false alarm and no one actually needs her. She’s standing knee deep in dirty laundry in front of the washing machine on a Saturday morning and cursing her children for their inability to wear an outfit more than once before it’s tossed down the laundry shoot.
“Something’s wrong with Sonny. Just come up and see for yourself.”
Amy wades through the piles to the door, gathering her unwashed hair into a sloppy ponytail as she trots up the narrow steps, expertly dodging the soccer cleats, shin guards and her husband’s random tools dotting the stairs and posing as active land mines. Stella is hunched over the elderly cat in the corner of the kitchen.
“Ok, what am I looking at?” Amy asks slightly winded, and Stella steps aside, revealing a wild-eyed Sonny folded unnaturally back on his haunches, panting and foaming at the mouth. Amy rushes to her fur baby, but he lets out a ferocious hiss followed by an ear-piercing yowl that immediately triggers Stella’s tears and stops Amy in her tracks. Inching forward slowly, Sonny finally allows Amy to approach and stroke his back.
“Shhhhh, it’s okay kitty. You’re okay. Stella, go get your dad and tell him to come here.” Turning, Amy sees her terrified daughter hovering in the corner motionless. “Honey, I need you to go get your dad. We need to get Sonny to the vet.”
“Mom, what’s wrong with him? It’s like he can’t breathe!”
“Stella, please go get your dad.”
Turning back to the problem at hand, Amy hears her daughter tear up the stairs crying for Nick. Scratching behind his ears is something Sonny normally loves, but this affection today is met with another wail from the cat. Amy reaches out to smooth down the few soft patches in Sonny’s matted fur along his back.
“Good lord, Sonny. What’s wrong with you buddy?”
Nick’s footsteps fall heavy on the stairs and come to a halt just outside the kitchen. Glancing over her shoulder, Amy sees him peeking around the door.
“Babe, if it’s gross, you have to tell me,” Nick says quietly. “Don’t make me look if it’s gross.”
“Are you serious right now, Nick?” Amy shoots back, exasperated. “He’s just breathing really hard. Will you get your ass in here and help me?” A yowl from Sonny bounces off the walls and tiled floor and Nick rushes toward them with his eyes closed.
“I think we need to get him to the vet. This doesn’t look good.” Amy looks to Nick to confirm the plan, but he’s on his belly, face-to-face with a growling animal wanting no part of his whispered consoling and is openly hissing in his face.
“Nick, honey, he’s going to bite your face off. He’s clearly uncomfortable. You need to back off a little.”
“Babe, Sonny would never bite…,” but Sonny takes a swipe at his face and Nick jerks back and scrambles to his knees a few feet safely away from the cat. “See, he didn’t bite me.”
“I’m calling the vet,” Amy says, pushing herself off the floor. She digs through her purse for her cell phone.
“Whoa, whoa,” Nick interrupts and he stands to take the phone from her hands. “Let’s just slow our roll here. I don’t know if we need to head straight to the vet. I’m going to Google some of these symptoms and see what we’re dealing with. Maybe there’s a home remedy we can try first?”
“Nick. The cat is sick. You’re not a vet. You can’t diagnose him. We’re going to have to take him to the vet. This is not the time to debate how much it costs.”
“This isn’t about money, I just want to be informed. Let’s see. Cat. Breathing trouble. Crouching,” Nick mumbles to himself as he taps keywords into Amy’s cell phone browser. Amy sighs loudly and bends back down to watch Sonny.
“So, it says here that it’s probably a respiratory illness or possibly heart failure or maybe rabies. God, those aren’t good options.” The thickness in Nick’s voice gives him away before Amy looks up to see him blink back tears. “I’ll call the vet now.”
Over Nick’s shoulder, Amy sees the worried faces of their three kids in the kitchen doorway. Stella has pulled herself together, but the younger two are pale-faced and stricken, watching to see what was happening to Sonny.
“Kids, Sonny is sick. Dad’s calling the vet and we’ll probably have to take him in. Stella, why don’t you take Peter and Sophie upstairs?” Amy says softly, hugging the three of them in close and kissing the tops of the bedheads. Stella nods and the younger two allow their big sister to nudge them away from the kitchen.
“Uh yes, I believe my cat Sonny has dyspnea or heart failure. I think that’s how you say it. I’m reading it off PetMD.com. He’s crouching kind of funny and is breathing heavily. He’s obviously distressed and I was wondering if there were meds or something we could pick up for him or if maybe there’s something we can try here at home first, like maybe some oils or something. My wife has lavender and thieves here.”
Amy rolled her eyes at her husband and throws her hands in the air. As if the vet is going to just give Sonny meds without seeing him first, she thinks. And lavender? Lavender is going to cure her cat?
“Well, I’m pretty sure that’s what he has,” Nick is arguing into the phone. “I mean, according to PetMD that’s exactly what it probably is. I guess we’ll bring him in if we have to. Can we come right now?”
Amy glares at her husband but Nick shrugs her off and makes a face at her. She crouches next to Sonny again and rubs the edge of his ear.
“I’m sorry, Sonny. Hang in there, buddy.” Sonny lolls his head to one side and blinks his good eye at her and she can’t help but feel terribly sorry for this pitiful cat. Nick tosses Amy’s phone onto the counter and kneels beside his wife.
“Nick, did you really think they were just going to give you pills for Sonny?” she asks tersely. “I didn’t realize you went to vet school. And lavender? Thieves? What’s wrong with you?”
“Maybe. They could have. I don’t see what the big deal is about asking.”
“Whatever. Nick, do you think we should think about putting Sonny down?”
“What? No way. He’s not even that old!” Nick protests, shocked that Amy would even say such a thing.
“Babe, he’s nineteen years old. Look at him. He’s not well.” She gestures down to their pet, who is beginning to hiss and yowl again.
“No way! He’s like twelve at the most. He’s still got some good years left in him!”
“Honey listen to me. Stella is sixteen and we got Sonny way before she was even born. He’s nineteen. And if he lives anymore years, I don’t know that I want to see what that looks like.” Amy takes Nick’s hands and looks him square in the eye. “Nick, look at him. He walks like a peg-leg pirate because of his hip dysplasia. He can’t clean himself anymore and he can barely see. He barfs every single day, sometimes multiple times a day, and I’m not even sure he has any teeth left. Honey, he’s scary to look at.”
“He’s not scary!” Nick shoots back. “He’s handsome.” Nick and Amy look down at Sonny and he belches out a wet meow as if to let them know that even he knows he’s disgusting. Nick and Amy can’t help but giggle.
“Okay, so he’s no longer handsome. But he’s a good cat. He’s the best cat.”
“He is, babe. He’s the best cat,” Amy agrees, wrapping her arms around Nick’s middle. “He’s had a good long life, but I think it’s time. We need to have the kids say goodbye.”
Nick didn’t answer, but he knew it was the right thing to do.
The kids are gathered around Sonny on the kitchen floor taking turns telling him how much they love him. Stella is stoic and thirteen-year-old Peter is holding back tears, but Sophie, who is only ten, and adores her pet is openly weeping over him while telling intermittent stories of their life together.
“Remember when Sonny got outside a few years ago and came back covered in burrs and fleas and we had to take him to the vet and have him shaved down? Remember how mad he was and how he pooped in the shower for three weeks after that?”
“I remember that well,” Amy grimaces. “Good old Sonny. He’ll always let you know he’s mad by pooping in the shower.” A smattering of giggles breaks through the family circle.
“Remember when Sonny caught that mouse and left it in Stella’s bed, but Stella didn’t notice it until the morning and so she slept with the dead mouse all night?” Peter shares, nudging his sister in the ribs.
“I remember,” Stella says, making a face.
“Remember when Sonny ripped open his cat toy and rolled in the catnip and then ran laps around the living room for an hour?” Stella sniffles, but she has a grin on her face.
“Remember when we found out that catnip gives Sonny diarrhea?” Amy adds, her eyes meeting Nick’s.
“Oh, I remember,” jokes Nick. “I’m the lucky one who got to clean that up.”
“Remember when I was sick last year, and I had to sleep with the puke bowl but I hate sleeping with the puke bowl and Sonny slept with me to keep me company and he barfed in my bed twice so I didn’t feel bad?” Sophie recalls.
“Hey, he barfed on my bed too!” Peter counters.
“Mine too!” pipes up Stella.
“And ours!” Nick quips, not to be excluded.
“Well, see then. What a great cat Sonny has been. He shits in the shower and pukes in solidarity with Sophia,” Amy giggles but tears fill her eyes quickly and she leans into Nick and pulls her kids close. “He really has been the best cat. But guys, Sonny is really sick, and we need to say goodbye. Dad is going to take him to the vet and we’re going to have to have him put to sleep. But we are always going to remember what a great cat Sonny is and how much we love him. Right?”
“Er, maybe you should be the one to take him, Amy?” Nick pulls Amy aside as the kids give Sonny last hugs and pats.
“Why?” she balks. “You’re the vet. I think it should be you. Plus, I’m doing all the laundry. Do you want to do the laundry and clean the bathrooms instead and I’ll take Sonny?”
“You’re right. I’ll should take him. And it’s not because I don’t want to do laundry.”
Amy plants a kiss on his lips and pats his butt as she heads to the basement for the cat carrier. “Sure babe. I believe that.”
She checks her phone again, but her last three text messages to Nick have gone unanswered. Amy busies herself by loading breakfast dishes into the dishwasher and tries to avert her eyes from the litter box she’s dumped into the trash. There’s a twinge of guilt as she breathes a sigh of relief that their days of scooping the litter box are over. And there will never be cat shit in the shower ever again, she thinks positively. Then she hears Nick’s tires on the driveway outside and readies herself to draw him into a hug. She smiles to herself and thinks she’s probably going to offer him a nooner upstairs later to lift his spirits. The back door bangs open, but instead of the tearstained face she expects to see, Nick looks quite sheepish as he wrestles with the cat carrier with a cat still inside.
“Oh shit,” Amy mutters under her breath. “We all said goodbye, Nick. You were supposed to leave him there.”
“Now Honey,” Nick begins, “here’s the thing.”
Amy inhales deeply and shakes her head, wondering how the hell she’s going to explain this to her kids. “What Nick? What’s the thing? Can Sonny be healed? Is it not what we thought?”
“No. He’s in congestive heart failure, which is exactly one of the seven things I thought it could be based on the internet. But I just couldn’t do it,” he admits. “I couldn’t put him down.”
“Damnit Nick. He looks terrible,” Amy admonishes, peering down at a Sonny, who seems to be breathing a little easier, but the fur along his spine and his tail is bushed out to twice its normal size and it looks like maybe he’s even losing clumps of fur due to stress. For good measure, Sonny looks at her with his one good eye, opens his toothless mouth and hisses at her.
“So, do we have to give him pills or what?”
“Okay, babe. Don’t get mad, but you need to give him shots in the neck twice a day.”
Straightening up immediately, Amy slides her eyes over to look at her husband who is purposely avoiding her by fiddling with latch on the carrier so Sonny can get free. “Excuse me?”
“What? You worked at a vet clinic when we were in college.”
“Nick, I cleaned kennels and gave dogs baths. That’s hardly giving shots in the neck. Why aren’t you doing the shots in the neck.”
Shuffling his feet, Nick frowns and looks at the ground. “It’s gross, Amy. You know I can’t do gross things.”
“Did you pass out at the vet?” Amy asks with a smirk.
“No!” he shoots back indignantly, but Nick still won’t make eye contact with her. Amy continues to stare him down, sure that he did and if she was going to have to poke her cat with needles, he was going to admit to this, by God.
“I did not pass out. I may have had to sit down and put my head between my knees. Maybe lay down for a few minutes. But I did not pass out.”
Amy’s face cracks into a wide smile and she reaches out to swat her husband before she leans her head into his chest.
“I can’t believe you brought Sonny back home. I mean, the kids are going to be traumatized. We all said goodbye.” Amy takes a deep breath and reaches for the paper bag Nick tossed on the counter. “Show me what I need to do.”
At the sight of the bag, Nick drops to the kitchen floor and begins to mimic Sonny’s panting.
“Oh my god, Nick. I didn’t even open the bag yet!”
“I’m sorry, but I know what’s in there and…” his excuse it interrupted by a dramatic dry heave. “Don’t show me the needle but I’ll tell you what you need to do.” Nick gags again.
Amy rolls her eyes at this nonsense and looks at Sonny, who by the pissed off look on his face, completely agrees with how ridiculous Nick is. Sonny yowls loudly and bangs on the door of the cage. True that Sonny, thinks Amy, true that. My husband is a giant baby.
“Grab him by the,” Nick retches, “scruff. Pinch the skin and stick the needle in his.” Nick makes a noise that sounds ironically similar to the noise Sonny was making this morning that alerted Stella to his ailment.
“I got it, Nick. How often?”
He holds up two fingers, scrambles to his feet and makes a run for the bathroom.
“What’s up, babe?” Nick answers briskly. “I’ve only got about ten minutes before my next meeting. What’s up?”
“Nick, we have to talk. I got a call from Sophie’s teacher today. It seems our daughter has invented a new game on the playground and taught her entire class. All the kids are dying cats but if they can make it to the vet, he’ll give them needles to stick in their neck and they can be saved. Mrs. Fisher is horrified, and she didn’t come out and say it, but I could tell she’s wondering what kind of parents we are. Then, while I was on the phone with Mrs. Fisher, I got an email from Peter’s teacher because he apparently wrote a disturbing story in creative writing about a zombie cat who is on the hunt for a magic serum to cure himself. The serum comes in a needle that he has to stick, wait for it, in his neck!”
“Nick! You’re not even listening to me! I can tell you’re reading your email and not listening to me.”
“Sorry, you’re right. Say it again,” he confesses and Amy rushes through the story again just to hear Nick gagging on the other end of the line.
“Dammit Nick!” Amy screeches. “Seriously, talking about this can’t make you sick!”
“I’m sorry, babe. Can we do this…?” Nick coughs and chokes before the line goes dead.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit!” Amy mutters to herself and slaps her phone down on the counter. Great, my kids are totally obsessed with death, she thinks. They’ll probably become serial killers or sociopaths. We’ve screwed them up for life.
“Mom! Can you come up here and listen to this new poem I wrote?”
Amy stops in her tracks, drops the basket of folded laundry she’s carrying and makes a beeline for her teenager’s bedroom. It’s not often she’s asked to come in here, so she’s taking full advantage of the opportunity.
“Sure, sweetheart. Let’s hear it,” Amy agrees. Sonny is perched at the end of Stella’s unmade bed, staring off into space with his one good eye, panting softly and Amy does her best to crawl in without disturbing him.
“Death is but a needle in the neck of love,” Stella begins to read as she casts a glance on Sonny and a tear slips down her face.
Amy rolls away from her daughter to squeeze her eyes shut tight and clench her teeth together while silently cursing her husband for bringing this upon her family as Stella emotionally reads on.
The family sits somberly together at the table, but no one is speaking. Amy finally clears her throat and intertwines her fingers as she stalls for how to begin.
“Guys, you know Sonny isn’t getting any better. He’s still sick and today we’re taking him to the vet and having him put to sleep.”
“For real this time?” Peter blurts out. Amy nods, giving her husband the side eye, but Nick is busy sweetly and conveniently rubbing his son’s back to make him feel better.
“Yes, for real this time,” Amy continues. “I want us to remember Sonny as the happy cat who liked to sleep in the sun all day and race around in circles keeping us all awake all night long. Okay?”
“Mom’s right,” Nick adds, “and we’ve got these great drawings here that Sophie made of Sonny to remember him by.” Her husband holds up two pictures of black cats with one crazy eye and syringes sticking out of their necks from awkward angles. Nick smiles and wags his eyebrows at his wife over Sophie’s head.
Oh, really husband, Amy thinks, no dry heaving now at the hideous things our baby is drawing? Though she is groaning loudly on the inside at the horror her ten-year-old has depicted on paper, she smiles tenderly at her and reaches out for her hand.
“That’s cryptic,” Stella retorts.
“No, they’re lovely. Tell your sister they’re lovely,” argues her parents at the same time.
“Ok kids, it’s time,” Nick announces. “Your mom is taking Sonny to the vet now.”
“I am? Nick, I thought we were doing it together?” balks Amy, as she stalks into the kitchen to look for her keys. Nick follows her in sheepishly.
“Amy, don’t make me go. Let me say goodbye here and I’ll stay with the kids and talk them through it,” he pleads.
“Fine. You’re such a baby. Do you know that?”
Amy is driving home with the empty cat carrier next to her in the front seat and singing All By Myself through flowing tears. The entire ordeal was more difficult than she had anticipated and as she stroked Sonny’s matted fur, she couldn’t help but think back to when he was a tiny kitten eating tuna from a can when she and Nick couldn’t afford to buy cat food until payday or when he’d curl up in the crib when the kids were babies. When the vet handed her the empty cage after it was done, Amy had started to cry quietly. She had done a horrible thing. She bawled in the parking lot for fifteen minutes before she felt ready enough to drive home and as soon as Celine Dion came on the radio, she was wailing along, thinking of Sonny and her devastated family back home waiting for her terrible news. It took Amy several minutes to notice the flashing lights flashing behind her as she sped along. In fact, she didn’t notice the lights at all until there were sirens to go along with the lights.
“Shit! Shit, shit, shit!” Amy yells to no one in the car and she swerves to a stop on the shoulder. She fumbles for her purse, praying the insurance card she is carrying is current. She glances in the rearview mirror to see the policeman striding towards her. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she gasps in embarrassment. Puffy and swollen eyes are bad enough, but she has a string of dried snot from one cheekbone to the other. Furiously she tries to wipe it away with her sleeve at the same time as she rolls down her window.
“Ma’am, do you know how fast you were going back there?” the officer asks, craning his neck to look down at Amy.
“I’m so sorry, officer. My cat Sonny just died and I’m coming from the vet and my jackhole husband wouldn’t come with me and I had do it by myself because he’s a giant baby who dry heaves when I have to give the cat shots in the neck and my kids are drawing pictures and writing poems of dead cats with syringes in their necks and they’re probably going to be damaged for life and then this song came on and I was crying because it’s Celine Dion and I am all by myself now because I had to put my cat to sleep.” Amy’s string of incoherency is punctuated by a sob and a fresh wave of tears start again and she puts her head against the steering wheel.
“Ma’am go home. I’m sorry about your cat. You can go on home now.”
“Okay,” Amy sobs some more. “Thank you, officer.”
He turns on his heel and starts to walk away before he pauses and calls back to Amy. “Do I want to know why your cat had to get injections in his neck?”
“No, no you really don’t,” Amy answers with a hiccup.
As the officer turns to go, she swears she hears him gag.