She’s there and not there, a ghost lying on the rug, an apparition sitting by my feet. Maggie, my sixteen-year-old miniature poodle, died two days ago. I see her regal head, her soft black curls, her wagging tail. There and not there. I’m still not sure what happened.
One minute I’m at the movies and the next I get a phone call.
“What?” I say to my husband. “What?”
Michael’s voice is breaking in and breaking out. Panicked. A word here, a word there. My soon-to-be-divorced daughter and I are having an afternoon out. Trying to relax. Watching the world’s dumbest film.
But Michael’s panic is contagious. You just know something’s wrong. I drop the popcorn. Then holding the phone, I get up from my seat, walk into the corridor, pass the restrooms and concession stand, and try to find a place where there’s reception. I’m shouting to my husband while I shake the phone. “What? I can’t hear you!” Then I swat at the screen. “Stupid. Stupid phone,” I yell. Like you can talk sense into a phone.
Gradually I get one, two, then three bars. Before I know it, I’m outside the theater. The day is bright, warm, sunny. October in Miami. I can hear my husband clearly and realize it’s more than the phone. Michael sounds like his throat is closing, like there’s only so much space in his airway for words to push through.
“It’s Maggie,” he’s saying.” I’m upstairs doing some work,” he says, “and suddenly I hear this scream. This awful awful scream. I run downstairs and the dog’s shaking all over, screaming.”
The day before we were at the vet’s office. Dr. F. checked her over, clipped her nails, gave her fur a little trim. Years ago, when Maggie was in her prime, we’d see the vet once or twice a year. But now I’m a monthly fixture. My poor dog’s nearly blind and deaf. She gets a boatload of drugs for arthritis. Special food for her kidneys. Probiotics. Supplements. You name it.
The routine was always the same. The vet asked and I answered. Is she walking? Eating? Wagging her tail? Then she’s good to go. See you next month!
Of course, I knew my dog was a mess. But the possibility of her leaving never sunk in. When I walked through the front door, she was always waiting, circling my legs, offering a little jump, happy to see me. Like out of the whole universe I was the only one who mattered. Thank you thank you thank you she seemed to be saying. For being you, for coming home to me.
“What do I do?” says my husband.
There’s an ER vet around ten minutes from my house. I give my husband the address and tell him to meet me. Then I grab my daughter and drive like a maniac. I get to the vet before he does.
While I fill out the paperwork they clear a room. Snot’s streaming down my nose. I’m trying to talk and hiccuping sobs at the same time. I tell them about the seizure. About Maggie’s stage three renal disease. About how she seemed fine–truly fine–until she wasn’t.
The receptionist looks worried. Her eyes are darting back and forth. In fact there are two three women sitting at the front desk, and they all seem to be communicating telepathically, their eyes shifting, their hands flurrying, making tiny nervous gestures, thinking who’s this crazy old lady, we handle dogs every day of the week, but this crazy old lady looks like she’s going to have a heart attack, we’ve got to calm this crazy lady down.
Meanwhile my husband’s so flustered he gets lost. Usually Michael has a great sense of direction. But his head’s not screwed on so while my daughter’s holding down the fort in the examining room, I’m standing on US1 waving my arms trying to flag my husband.
Finally, after making an illegal U-turn and parking in a space that says “DO NOT PARK HERE. YOU WILL BE TOWED” he makes it to the ER. Of the two of them, my husband looks a whole lot worse. Though Maggie’s wrapped in a towel, her little head is peeking out. She takes in my smells and licks my hand. When my daughter offers her a dog treat, she gobbles it up. But something’s off. When we lay her on the examining table, she just lies there. There’s no fight, no protest, no Mommy I just hate this place! Get me out of here right now!
Meanwhile the vet is all business. While I stroke Maggie’s head, she listens to her chest. Then she proceeds to talk in doctorspeak, a jumble of words I barely compute. “The dog should stay at the hospital, ” she tells us. “She needs an IV for hydration. We have to run a few tests.” Blah. Blah. Blah.
My husband, daughter, and I all look at each other. Maggie has already outlived her lifespan and more. We had long ago decided on no extraordinary measures. When the big crisis came, we had decided, we’d let her die in peace.
But then again….
“I want to take her home,” I hear myself saying.” Just make her comfortable, ” I tell the vet. “Shoot her full of fluids. One seizure means nothing, right?”
I’m in the middle of my little speech when all of a sudden Maggie starts shaking once more. Her little head is moving back and forth while my hand moves with it. Then her whole body starts seizing. Instantly, the doctor scoops Maggie in her arms and whisks her away. “I’m putting in a port,” she says, over a shoulder. “She needs an anticonvulsant now.”
Ten minutes later the doctor comes back alone.
“It’s time,” she says matter-of-factly.
The vet acts like she does this every day of the week. Go to the grocer’s. Check. The dry cleaner’s. Check. Whip out the Nembutal. Check.
“There’s already an IV in her leg. So it’s easy. First we give her a sedative. Then the second drug stops her heart. “
Crying, holding each other, my husband, daughter, and I nod yes.
Soon Maggie appears. A nurse carries her into the examining room wrapped in a fluffy blanket. Though I want to hold her, Maggie’s still flailing. I’m not sure if she’s seizing or just disoriented. The doctor works quickly, too quickly. She lays her on the table and plunges a liquid into the port. Within seconds, Maggie stops twisting and turning. It seems like she’s nodding off for a nap.
For a moment, I’m confused. Maggie looks fine. Really. Her eyes are open. Her chest’s moving up and down. And in that wedge of time between hope and despair, my mind starts wandering. Maybe me and my dog should make run for it. Head to the hills. Do a Selma and Louise. Jump in the car and go. This euthanasia thing is crazy. A big big mistake. This isn’t nature taking its course. This course really sucks. This course will and can be changed.
But before I can speak, before my lips can move and words can form, the second liquid plunges into Maggie’s leg. It happens faster than I ever imagined. And after a single heartbeat, she’s gone.
It’s been two days and still she lingers. Though we’ve cleaned the house and donated Maggie’s stuff, her presence looms. I see her crate next to my bed, her water bowl in the kitchen, her blanket under my desk where she liked to sleep. I hear her paws tapping the floor, the jingle of her collar, her bark when the garbage truck rolls by. And every time I come home there she is, waiting by the front door, the wisp of a snout, the flick of a tail, my shadow dog, there and not there, to greet me.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Upstreet Magazine, Arts and Letters, Eclectica, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.