They'd broken down and talked a few days before about him being where he said he’d be, doing what he said he’d do. He'd meant it when he said he wanted to be better, that it mattered to him, but that was then, and now he was standing in the office trying not to get grease on the phone with a line of cars needing work stretching straight through to five, at least.
"Did you call your Mom?" he asked.
"She has class," his daughter said. He could hear the tears she was holding back in her voice. It made him mad.
"Well what do you want me to do about it?" he asked.
"Take me to the vet," she said.
"It's a rat!" he said, then lowered his tone when the secretary stared. "I'm not throwing money away on no rat."
His daughter began to cry quietly, but didn't argue, which made it worse. "Honey, I've got to get back to work. Everything's going to be all right. We'll get you another pet, a dog, this time."
"I'm allergic to dogs," she said in a choked voice.
"We'll think of something," he said and hung up the phone.
He was almost back to the garage when the intercom announced he had another call. He spun on his heel and marched back, scowling at the smirking secretary. It was his wife. As soon as he picked up the phone, he knew he'd already lost.
"I'm busy," he said.
"Well get un-busy and go get your daughter and take her to the damn vet."
"Jim's out sick already, and I've got a line of cars—"
"I've got a room full of students doing busy work while I waste time arguing with you. If I could take her, I would, but I can't get away until after 4."
"So go then."
She paused. "It's suffering, Ed," she said. There was something in her tone that nagged at him, but he wasn't sure what it was.
"Well," he said, but had nothing to follow it with.
"You know how much she loves those rats," his wife continued. "She stayed up with it all night. Frankly, I'm surprised it made it this long."
Several smartass replies came to mind, but Ed remembered the look in his wife's eyes when they'd had the talk a few days ago; it was a look that said I've got one foot out the door and I'm aching to sprint. He thought back to the image of his daughter from the night before, cradling the white, panting form in her bed. He'd only glanced in her room as he’d passed on his way to the bathroom. She'd been singing a little song to it. He thought it was gross, frankly, not only having the things in the house, but her having it in her bed.
"So, what are you saying, she wants some medicine?"
"Maybe, if the vet thinks that'll help. Ed," she said, her voice becoming softer, "it's tearing her up. Waiting."
She was telling him something he didn't understand.
"So you want it put down," he said.
"Maybe," she said, softly. She was still trying to tell him something; that was only part of it.
He sighed long and loud and knew he couldn't win, so he hung up the phone and told Jerry he had to go deal with his kid and hoped the secretary wouldn't fill in the blanks.
He pulled up to the house and Sherry was already waiting, wrapped up in a coat.
"You know where this place is?" he asked.
"Where's the thing?" he asked.
She opened her coat and smiled up at him. It’s pink nose was cradled against her chest, panting. A look of revulsion crossed Ed’s face. "Don't let that thing loose in my truck," he said. "I mean it."
"All right, Daddy," she said, in a quiet voice that made him feel about two feet smaller.
He'd been half-expecting the vet to look at him like he was crazy, but once they got inside, the receptionists all went gaga over Sherry and her rat, saying how sweet natured it was. They looked up at him when they said it, sometimes winking, as though he were the thing’s father.
"What's her name?" they asked.
"Daisy," Sherry answered. "She's three."
"Does she bite?" one woman asked.
Sherry shook her head. The woman glanced at Ed.
"She's always playing with them," Ed added, "and they never bite her."
He glanced over into the waiting room, where an old woman watched a look of disgust. Ed looked at his daughter, who hadn’t noticed the woman. She was a small thing, thin and almost as pale as her rat. He dredged a memory up and added, "You taught them their names, didn't you, Sherry?"
He remembered her showing him and the wife how they'd come when she called.
He wouldn't have believed if he hadn't seen it.
She nodded and the women acted even more impressed. She held the thing close and he watched it struggling to breathe, eyes wide and red, its whole body heaving. He put his hand on his daughter's head for a moment and she turned a sad smile to him. He glanced at the woman in the waiting room, daring her to look, but she didn't.
The vet had a clipboard and wore a coat just like a doctor. Ed didn't know what he'd expected. She talked about the medical history of the rat, which Ed knew nothing about.
"We tried Beytrol, right?" she said, her eyes moving from Ed's to Sherry's.
"Yeah," Sherry said. "It seemed to help at first, but then she got sick again."
"We decided she might have a bad heart, didn't we?" the vet said.
"Yeah, and lung damage from the microplasmosis," Sherry said.
It was like they were speaking a foreign language. Sherry tried to set the rat down on the table so the vet could listen to it breathe, but it clung to Sherry's hand and refused to be away from her. The vet listened with the rat in Sherry's hand.
"I'm really not hearing much normal breathing," she said to Ed.
"So can we put her on Beytrol again?" Sherry asked.
The vet looked at Ed again. "We could," she said.
Sherry looked at her father, and he realized something was being said.
"Would you like to talk about this in my office?" she asked Ed.
"Sure," Ed said.
The vet led him out into the hall and explained the options for euthanasia.
"We can put Daisy in a gas chamber and then inject her heart," she said.
"I don't know," Ed said. "What does it cost?"
"Minimal. It's included in the office visit."
Over her shoulder, he could see the doorway to the examining room. His daughter was inside.
"So if we gave it medicine, that wouldn't help?"
"Might buy her a couple days, but she'd be suffering."
Ed was silent. The vet's face softened. "I would recommend the gas chamber. That way, she goes to sleep and it’s over. It’s the most humane.”
Ed laughed a little then caught himself.
"Sure," he said, "whatever."
"I'll give you a moment to break the news to her," the vet said.
"Honey," Ed said as he stepped back inside, but as soon as he said it, she started crying. "It's suffering," he added, mimicking his wife's tone.
"She, Dad, she is suffering," Sherry said. “Her name is Daisy.”
Her voice hit him like a slap. He nodded and watched his daughter cry until the vet returned and tried to take Daisy away.
"Will it hurt?" Sherry asked.
"No," the vet said.
"How long will it take?"
"A few seconds."
Sherry tried to hand the rat over to the vet, but its claws dug into Sherry’s palm and wouldn’t let go. She ran up to Sherry’s neck and clung there, shivering, wide-eyed.
“No,” Sherry sobbed.
The vet looked at Ed. “Let it go, honey. It’s time,” Ed said.
“Can I hold her? She’s scared. Can’t I just hold her?” Sherry asked.
“I could just inject her directly in her heart,” the vet said.
Sherry held Daisy, sobbing, while the vet injected it. The rat squeaked once, making Sherry moan. It went still for a second then it started twitching. The vet listened to its heart and injected it a second time to make sure. This time, it stopped twitching. Ed put his arm around his daughter and held her because he didn't know what else to do. She sobbed pathetically.
"Are you taking her with you?" the vet asked.
For a moment, Ed thought she meant Sherry.
“Yes,” Sherry said.
They put Daisy in a box and handed her to Sherry. That’s when Ed realized what they were actually talking about, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to make a scene.
Sherry cried the whole way home, fat, sloppy sobs that made Ed wince.
“What are you going to do with that box?” Ed asked.
Sherry clutched it to her and didn’t answer.
He pulled into the driveway and stopped, but Sherry just sat there, sobbing.
“Go on inside,” Ed said. “Your Mom will be here soon. I got to get back to work.”
“Thank you, Daddy,” she said, opening the door.
He watched her carry the box inside, shivering with her sobs. Pitiful.
Guess I’ll have to bury it after work. Just what I need, Ed thought. An image of the rat came back to him, struggling to breathe on her shoulder, then her holding it, sobbing as it died. It hurt him, suddenly, in a soft place he couldn't name. She really loved that rat. He had no idea why, but she did and it really hurt her to lose it. He remembered that woman in the waiting room, flashing that look at a little girl. Then he remembered his wife’s voice and how she was trying to tell him something, but he didn’t know what it was. He was close, though.
His cell phone started vibrating. It was Jerry calling to remind him that there was a line of cars waiting for him to fix and Jim was already out. He didn’t answer. Instead, he killed the truck’s engine, got out and went around back and got a shovel from the shed. Then he went in and found his daughter.
"I guess we should bury Daisy," he said.
Sherry nodded, teary eyed and he led her outside and let her pick the spot. He stuck the shovel into the ground and tossed the dirt to the side while she watched, singing that same little song. It hurt him again in that same little place. When the hole was dug, she placed the box in and told the rat what a good pet it had been, then watched as Ed buried it. He tamped it down and gave her a long hug before he left.
"We'll get you another one," he said.
"Thanks Dad," she said.
It made him smile. As he drove back to work, the image of the thing and of his daughter comforting it kept playing in his mind.
"Poor thing," he said, and it made him feel better, like he was in the right place, for once. “Poor thing.”
CL Bledsoe has fiction recently in The Pedestal, Mudluscious, Right Hand Pointing, and previously in Clapboard House. He is an editor for Ghoti Magazine http://www.ghotimag.com