Please be sure to check the content warnings on this story if you are sensitive to harm to animals
As soon as I stepped into the vet’s office, I felt eyes on me. The way their gazes lingered—their lips parted as they watched me. There were people hidden behind doors or pretending not to look from behind glass panels, but I knew they were there all the same. The secretary set down her clipboard, huge eyes magnified by her fishbowl glasses as she looked up at me from her seat behind her computer. I wasn’t much taller than the marble countertop, setting the cat carrier next to me as I rocked up on my tippy toes to speak to her.
“Do you have an appointment?” she asked, eyes homing in affectionately to the carrier I had with me. “What was the name?”
“Yes, my name is—”
“No, the lovely lady here,” she cooed at the cage.
As if on cue, my cat scurried to the back of her carrier, away from the secretary as she leaned in to get a closer look. “She’s so cute,” the woman said with a smile. “And so well fed. You’ve kept regular appointments at your normal vet?”
“Yeah. They were just booked up, and I’m running low.”
She didn’t even look at her computer. “Yes, we have an appointment for little Daffodil here.”
Pet food wasn’t sold at grocery stories anymore—it had to come from a vet’s office. It was getting harder and harder to get since the food shortage was getting worse. I wouldn’t have come to a new vet if I had other options, but here I was, at a strange office next to the local Meat Association office and whatever meeting they were having. I never was fond of them—they tried hard to capture the old ways of life that were clearly out of our grasp, through whatever means necessary. I normally tried to avoid places like it, but it was right next door, with the employees who watched me from behind closed doors and a secretary who wouldn’t even give me the time of day.
“Thanks for fitting me in…” I began, but she started up with her own thread.
“I’ll go and take her to a vet, and we’ll come get you after we’ve finished the initial exam.” Her hand curled around the handle of the cat carrier. “Please have a seat.”
“I can’t come back?”
The secretary’s eyes turned on me finally, huge and wide and vacant behind her glasses. “Sometimes guardians have gotten violent during the examination of the patient if we find something… questionable. This is for the safety of all parties involved.”
I heard a door shut somewhere I couldn’t see. From behind the set of doors that led into the exam rooms, maybe.
“Oh, um… okay.”
“Have a seat,” she insisted.
I felt my neck heat, felt her watching me as I trudged back to a chair across the waiting room. Everything was white and sterile. Impeccable and shiny. Not a trace of loose dog fur or a cat whisker on the clean alabaster tiles. The posters that clung to the wall were neat and tidy—all new in their neon ‘look at me’ glory. Even the ones with tear-away bottoms were torn so neatly it was hard to believe everyone didn’t carry scissors around just to snip off phone numbers for a teenager’s dog walking service.
The sound of the secretary’s typing filled the room—a slow clacking that sounded fake and measured. I caught her staring from the corner of her eyes, and her head jerked back to her screen quickly, behind the blink of an eye. I looked back down at my phone. When I looked up again, she had to act like she wasn’t watching me.
I hated that I couldn’t go back with Daffodil. She had been basically my only support through most of the end of the world. I know a lot of people adopted pets and it had turned out badly—I understood their caution. I’d heard stories. I’d seen the news. It had gotten especially bad after the meat shortage. It was fine, for a little while, because we had cheese. But when meat runs out, people run to cheese. When people realized they didn’t want to live without meat, we settled for eating the dairy cows and the goats. It had been the National Meat Associations who had pushed for eating dairy cows and goats instead of vegetarian options. And so then the cheese ran out and people got even more desperate than before. Then bad things started to happen to pets and strays, no matter how small.
A scrawny young man—a kid, really, maybe barely twenty—came out and grabbed Daffodil’s carrier. He, like everybody, kept his eyes on me as he took ahold of the handle. The secretary whispered something to him behind a piece of paper.
They both glanced at me.
The boy took my cat and went through the doors, shutting the door with a soft click behind him.
About fifteen minutes later, a man in a white lab coat leaned into the waiting room from the doorway. I heard the squeak of his latex gloves over the silence as he spared a look at me, the light catching on his glasses as he did. He looked me up and down slowly before shifting his attention back to the secretary.
“Is that her?” he asked, his voice low. Secretive.
The secretary nodded.
“Bring her back.”
He closed the door without another word.
The woman behind the desk sighed, her breath cutting through the stillness of the room. I tried not to notice as she pushed herself up, her ergonomic chair rolling out behind her. “Ma’am?” she called. “If you’ll follow me, please, the vet is ready to see you. He’ll discuss Daffodil with you in exam room two.”
She came around the counter. A small nametag was snapped to the front of her blouse, now that I could see it, but the label printed on it was blank. Her photo was there, looking like it had been from a few years ago. She looked happier. Healthier—fatter, with more color in her face. Not dull and thin like she was now, her hair wispy and dark circles under her eyes. When she walked me through the threshold to the exam rooms, I saw smeared blood on the door from the veterinarian’s gloved hand.
This back hallway was much darker than the bright, well-lit front of the office. Low lights kept me from seeing too far ahead of me, and I couldn’t tell the color of the walls. Just that they were freshly painted and splotchy. I could smell paint, metal, and the overpowering smell of cleaning supplies that hospitals always had.
“It calms the patients to be in the dark,” the woman explained offhandedly. She opened a door for me, and it was like a beacon in the night. “Have a seat. We’ll be right with you.”
I stepped into the room, looking around. It was like a theater set the way it was lit up, fake and meant for show. “Where’s Daffodil?” I asked.
But instead of an answer, I just heard the door click shut. I sighed and sat down in a chair and waited.
The smell of antiseptic and bleach was so overpowering in this room. It looked more like a doctor’s office than a place for animals, but things had changed since the world ended. It had a full-size bed, maybe for larger animals. Veterinarians held one of the many jobs who had adopted several other responsibilities while running on bare bones supplies. The bed was probably a hand-me-down from somewhere else. There were straps on the bed holding paper in place for easy sanitation, but the paper was running low. There was a drain on the bottom of the floor. I assume for pet hair and waste to be washed down.
I sank further into my chair and held my purse close to me.
Fifteen minutes passed without a noise on the other side of the door. Had they forgotten me? Had the secretary brought me to the wrong room?
I tried the door, and it opened into the dim-lit hallway. The room I was in was marked with a bright, reflective number five. I counted the rooms as I walked back towards the front waiting room. I popped open the front door, avoiding the drying blood mark the vet had left beforehand. The secretary was nowhere to be seen—just the empty, fake storefront. I stepped back into the darkness.
She had told me room number two. I’d passed it on my way to the front, it was lit up the same way the room I’d been put in had been. I reached for the handle and—
There was a crash. It came from down the hall, opposite from the exam rooms. There was a second crash, and then I heard the rattle of the door at the other end of the hallway. I watched as the door swung open before I could even think to move—before I could think to hide. The scrawny intern kid from earlier came out from behind the door, stretching gloves onto his bony fingers as he huffed. He startled when he saw me, freezing just like I already was.
“Oh—um…” he stammered. “Were you lost? Weren’t you supposed to already be in the exam room?”
“I was waiting, but—”
“You dumb bitch!” a voice called from the room. It echoed down the halls, now that the door was open. The boy’s eyes shot open wide at the screaming, and he darted back into the room. “You’re still here? I left the door open for you and—fuck! Get that thing away from me!”
I ran to the doorway, following the familiar voice that was insulting me, crying out desperately into a hallway she couldn’t see. Inside the room were large kennels, some of them thrown open, but most of them locked. They were stacked on top of each other. The secretary was inside one, thrown back against the wall as the kid stuck his arms in to try to reach her with a syringe in one hand.
A few seconds felt like forever as my body moved automatically. I saw the fallen surgical tables, the spilled supplies, but I honed in on the extra syringe—just like the one the boy was holding. I grabbed it and jabbed it into his shoulder.
He slumped forward into the cage, feet slipping out beneath him, until he was limp on the slick concrete flooring. There was a similar drain in this room as there was in the exam room—bits of long hair and bone clogged the top of the drain, catching the bright lights from the overhead lamps.
“Good girl!” the secretary crooned. “Come here! Grab the bone cutters and cut off the lock.”
All the adrenaline had me shaking. I was paying for whatever movement my body had put me through. I was sitting on the floor, level with the man I might have killed with whatever was in that needle. “What’s going on?”
“We don’t have much time! Stop crying! Come on!”
I hadn’t even realized I was crying. “Where’s Daffodil?”
“I told you, your cat was in exam room two. I left the door unlocked for you. Why did you come here?”
Exam room two. I had just been there—I had been about to enter when I heard the commotion and saw the boy. I could have gotten her and left and… never saw any of this. Never known any of this.
“Hey, come on. Let me out! They’re gonna take me if you don’t hurry!”
The secretary sighed. I could see her exasperation as she tried to calm herself down, grasping desperately at the crossed bars on her kennel. “Honey, don’t you watch the news?”
Her words were meant to be a comfort, but everything about it was cold.
“Women are going missing. They were going to take me tonight because they’re short on their shipment.”
“I left the door open for you so you could leave and call the police,” she explained, her tone harsh, condescending. “Didn’t you think it was weird?”
“Everything is weird!” I screamed. “The world is weird!”
“What’s weird is that you haven’t let me out—” Her voice rose in pitch and volume. She pounded on the bars. “—of this fucking cage!”
“What about my cat?” I could barely talk. I was sobbing. I had this lady screaming at me, and I could have died that night. How many women had she already let die, and it was only to save herself that I might have been saved? “Where the fuck is my cat?”
“I told you she’s in exam room two! Now let me out!”
“Why should I?” I screamed. “All the women you let die? What about them? What happens to the animals after you kill their owners, huh?”
The secretary reached through the bars to grab at me. “Is this a game to you? I had to live, too. What do you think happens if you don’t let me out of here. You lose a witness to this whole thing and you have blood on your hands. The vet will get back from next door soon and then what? We’re both dead.”
I couldn’t stop crying.
I wanted her to die. I wanted so badly for her to die—to pay for all the women she’d killed to save herself.
“Hey,” she said. Her tone different, gentle. When I looked at her, she looked calm. In control. “We wouldn’t have hurt your cat.”
“The animals shouldn’t pay for our mistakes,” she said. And she looked genuinely… sad? She looked sincere about what she was saying. “We take them and send them somewhere where they’ll be safe. They won’t get eaten.”
“Are you serious?”
The secretary nodded solemnly, her hands still tight on the bars of her enclosure. I stared at her and swallowed the lump in my throat.
“Exam room two, you said?”
She nodded again. “Yes, she’s safe. Let me out and we can go together—we can go to the police and nobody will have to go through this again.”
I stood up.
“Yeah, just grab those bone cutters and…”
I left the room and closed it behind me.
I heard her shouting, screaming as I walked down to exam room two. Inside the room was Daffodil in her carrier with a hastily scribbled note sitting atop of it. There were bags and containers of different pet foods lined along the walls and in the cabinets. I crumpled the note, shoved it in my pocket, grabbed my cat, the food I needed, and left.
I called the police a few hours later.