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Illustration by Andreea Dumuta @galactixy_illustrations

 

Abby was pretty sure the dead cat hadn’t been on her doorstep the night before, but she wasn’t certain. Other things she wasn’t certain of included: if the cat had died of natural causes, if the cat had friends that could attempt revenge if they suspected the cat had not died of natural causes, and who she could call to remove the cat from the middle of her doormat.

She called Stephanie at work, which she knew was frowned on by Stephanie’s boss, but she figured the banality of office protocol could be brushed aside in the face of death, especially death that hadn’t yet been untangled from the possibility of murder. She considered saying as much to Lila, the secretary with the orange highlights she had met at the holiday party, but in the end she just asked for her wife. She wished, as she was put on hold, that Stephanie would transfer to a normal company where workers could be reached by cell. Stephanie’s boss once heard in a TED talk or in another, less well branded motivational YouTube video, that unauthorized cell phone use costs the average company almost a million dollars a year. So every morning Stephanie and her coworkers dropped their devices into an old hat box that sat at the edge of Lila’s desk, buzzing and beeping insistently for eight hours.

“A cat died on our doormat,” is what Abby said when Stephanie finally answered the phone, because she hoped saying it with certainty would eliminate the horrible possibility that the cat died somewhere other than their doormat and was placed there, postmortem. She expected Stephanie to ask for details, but instead she just said, “Call animal control,” which seemed painfully obvious as soon as she said it.

The woman who answered the phone at animal control sounded bored, like all the animals had been under control for years. Abby clarified, haltingly, that this was animal control before saying, for the second time in thirty minutes, “A cat died on our doormat.” The bored woman asked, without even the smallest shift in tone, if the dead cat was her cat, which made Abby gasp, not dramatically, but audibly. Because what kind of person would find their pet, cold and stiff where people wipe their feet, and not, when describing its demise, give it its name? The animal control woman asked Abby if it had a collar. Abby hadn’t noticed a collar, she said, expecting to be encouraged to investigate, to return to her doormat to be sure there wasn’t a collar, but the animal control woman had already breezed past Abby’s shaky memory to the next question. Was she sure it was, actually, a domesticated house cat and not a coyote, fox, or other animal that might pose a threat in a residential area? Abby felt a kind of indignation that someone, a stranger, was questioning her ability to identity a cat.

“I don’t think it can be a threat to anyone anymore,” Abby said in a bored tone that matched the woman’s. It was the most cutting thing she had said since an incident in the girls’ locker room in middle school, and the thrill it gave her was so electric it made her forget, just for a moment, the situation that lead to the opportunity to unleash such witty bitchiness.

“We have to consider things beyond the one animal, ma’am,” the woman said, seemingly unaffected by the jab. Abby walked back to the front door, peering through the screen at the pile of fur. She knew, of course, what the bored woman meant. That if a pack of wild yet sickly coyotes had descended on the neighborhood, certain steps would need to be taken. Text alerts should go out. Recess at the elementary school would need to be held inside. It still sounded surprisingly cruel, though. The suggestion that this animal’s death couldn’t even for one moment be considered separately from a bigger picture. Abby suddenly and desperately wished the cat had a collar, even if that meant she would have to look for a former cat owner not yet aware of their new qualifier, if the cat might be put in a shoe box lovingly decorated with markers and puff paint.

There were other questions Abby was asked to answer, about mouth foam and other warning signs Abby’s doormat cat (“doormat” a thin but solid wall preventing true ownership), and finally the bored woman came to the conclusion that the cat was not dangerous or a harbinger of animals becoming out of control, and told Abby she could feel free to dispose of it as a traditional house pet. Abby considered telling her she didn’t have a shoe box or a shovel or enough emotional distance from the demise of her childhood hamster to perform a traditional house pet disposal, but decided to simply offer her lack of a backyard.

“You may leave the body, placed in a black trash bag, on the curb on your scheduled trash day. Make sure it’s clearly marked,” the woman said.

“Clearly marked?” Abby asked, wondering what the code could possibly be to alert the poor trash collectors they could add animal undertaker to their resume.

“Clearly marked, ‘dead cat,’” the woman said. It’s possible she said other things after that, but Abby didn’t get a chance to hear them, as she had hung up. She had hung up because whatever her frustration with the woman, she didn’t really know what was going on in her life, and it seemed cruel to make her listen, without warning, to the sound of Abby retching, and the sick splat of vomit hitting the deep bottom of the kitten sink.

Molly Horan works as an adjunct professor at NYU and the School of Visual Arts teaching creative writing and literature. She is currently working on a children’s book involving pets with a much happier ending.

51 comments

    1. Jaon ( Likes: 457 ) says:

      It seems too short. There is so much the author could have done with this. I am not sure why deathmatch would think this story is better than mine.

    2. Jaon ( Likes: 457 ) says:

      She finds a dead cat on her doormat? When has that happened? I can’t ever remember hearing something like that.

    3. Jaon ( Likes: 457 ) says:

      But okay. Maybe that’s what catches the reader’s attention. I can go along with that.

    4. Molly Horan ( Likes: 21 ) says:

      I do like to use memorable first lines. I got the idea for this story after someone explained to me that pets that die in apartments or houses without backyards are put in clearly marked trash bags. It’s an image that’s stuck with me.

    5. Jack Barnes ( Likes: 473 ) says:

      Or maybe that’s why they tell you to put them in a clearly marked bag. They bury them in a special place where the deer and antelope play.

    1. Molly Horan ( Likes: 21 ) says:

      I appreciate the call for votes 🙂 Just voted for yours glad to see it pulled ahead!

    1. Molly Horan ( Likes: 21 ) says:

      Cats are the animals I most notice in my neighborhood, so I guess they were on my mind.

    2. Jack Barnes ( Likes: 473 ) says:

      I think the dead cat is perfect. Cats like to wander so they can end up dying anywhere. Dogs not so much. And squirrels usually end up as roadkill. At least here.

    1. Molly Horan ( Likes: 21 ) says:

      Thanks! I really love writing short flash fiction, but I sometimes worry that doesn’t give me enough room to explore the character.

    2. Egg ( Likes: 455 ) says:

      That is a drawback to short stories. But I also think it is a good teaching tool for authors.

    3. Jill M. Talbot ( Likes: 720 ) says:

      I’ve been surprised how much a talented writer can reveal about a character in a small space. Short stories say a lot. Often they can say as much as a novel does. I think the best example is George Saunders.

  1. Dan Glover ( Likes: 618 ) says:

    If Abby’s wife went to work that morning, wouldn’t she have noticed a dead cat on the mat? I should think so. So Abby’s wondering whether or not the cat had been there the night before seems a bit daft. Then again, Abby seems a little out there to begin with so maybe it works.

    It would never occur to me to call animal control over a dead cat lying on my doormat. So in that, I suppose I’m a bit like Abby. But really, who would call animal control over a dead cat on their doormat? I mean, seriously? On the other hand, I live in the country so if something dies you dig a hole throw it in and cover it up. What does a city person do? Is that really what animal control is all about? Sort of makes me wonder.

    All in all, though, it isn’t a bad opening sentence.

    1. Molly Horan ( Likes: 21 ) says:

      I don’t know about animal control, but you do mark a trash bag and leave it out for normal collection for a pet in the city. Weird fact I’ve always wanted to write about.

  2. Charlotte Joyce Kidd ( Likes: 1208 ) says:

    For me, this story was going somewhere and never quite got there.
    This character is trying to deal with the physical reality of life/death in this detached, over-the-phone way. Abby is traumatized, but no one else seems to think the dead cat is a big deal. Our ways of communicating are bizarre and dysfunctional. Closeness can feel impossible. But everyone kind of knows this, right? And to me, Clearly Mark the Bag never got to the point of saying something new about these problems.
    She just barfs at the end? There was no real escalation of Abby’s distress to make this seem like a fitting conclusion.
    On the other hand, you’re a strong, clear writer and you obviously know how to tell a polished story concisely, which is not easy and I don’t claim to be great at it – so I admire you for that!

    1. Jill M. Talbot ( Likes: 720 ) says:

      I’m not sure I agree. Brief is part of the style. Reminds me of Lydia Davis meets Miranda July… But I prefer quirky short stories. I think the more advanced people become, the less closure they desire. I’ve noticed that in workshops.

  3. Dan Glover ( Likes: 618 ) says:

    This is good. The story drew me right in and kept me reading till the end. Could it have been fleshed out a bit more? Possibly. But I also think there are things to be said about when a story makes its point and then shuts up about it. Well done! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jill M. Talbot ( Likes: 720 ) says:

    This is definitely one of the better stories, I guess it’s all about hussle? There seems to be a common idea that a good story jumps through hoops like a dog in a bow tie. I think this story is the best rebuttal to that idea.
    That said, I think there could be a bit more of the narrator’s life.

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