What you don’t know when you sign the release form is that death isn’t the permanent void that nonbelievers swear it is, nor is it the tranquil bliss that the enraptured would lead you to believe.
The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. The truth is, they are your organs for a reason that seems to transcend the biological. Your eyes may now be transmitting patterns of light to someone else’s brain, but they are still your ticket to the world and, frankly, I don’t like what I see.
What I’m seeing at the moment is an old man’s spotty hands forcing an orange tabby into a ratty carrier. Then there’s a swoosh-like blur, like watching a movie where the camera moves from place to place without cutting. Now I’m looking up at a young woman in a doorway, who’s squinting back tears. The old man’s hand comes into the frame and pats her on the arm. She steps back. There’s a one shot of the open-mouthed cry of the child in her arms. It goes dark. The old man has shut his eyes.
What the woman won’t see is the man placing the carrier tenderly on the lap of his gray-faced wife, his accomplice, and several blocks away, stopping the faded beige Toyota and switching the cat to the trunk with all the others. That’s the worst part, when the trunk opens and all those cats look up, their eyes dilated from darkness and fear, their mouths open in long yowls.
He’s good at this. He crams in the carrier, slams down the trunk, cranks up the radio and off they go.
There’s not a lot of money in selling cats for medical research or zoology classes. It’s hard work. He has to read all the classifieds, be the earliest caller, cover the whole city. It takes a lot of first class acting — first on the phone and then in person.
I know this because he reads from a script, how they need another cat because they’ve just lost Old Jake, or little Molly, “the sweetest calico you’ve ever seen.”
Every morning I follow his arthritic finger through the same sad stories: owner divorcing, dead, allergic, called up, moving overseas. Once upon a time, one of these was mine. Perhaps this is why this has happened to me. I was done with domesticity: husband, house, pets. The feeling was mutual. We ran an ad.
Free to good homes. Cats!
I used the bait word: free, the one that brings cat sellers right to your door like raw chicken brings gators out of a swamp. An old couple showed up, not my current couple, but another old couple, just as gray, just as quiet, and what do you know! They took both cats, “To keep them together.” How wonderful for big fluffy-gray Furangela and little white, part-Siamese Celandine, those best friends, who always slept together, curled light and dark, like Yin and Yang.
I never knew what I’d done until I woke up seeing my sin played out daily through the cat man’s corneas.
There are no accidents. There’s stupidity, there’s indifference and there’s redemption; and I’m done with the first two.
The cat seller and I meet in the mornings as he lifts his razor and stares into the mirror, into his eyes, my eyes.
Repent, I say, sensing some long ago Baptist in his lineage.
He stares for a moment, frozen, the razor ear-high, like maybe he hears me, like maybe I’ve become a faint ersatz conscience.
He says something, always the same thing, before jabbing one finger into the slack flesh of his face and pulling it taut over the cheekbone.
“A man’s gotta eat.” I think that’s what he says just before the razor goes to work.
Repent! Damn it! Repent.
Karen Stromberg is the proud companion of three cats, and would like to believe that fiction can somehow, somewhat, atone for past cruelties, even those performed in blatant ignorance. Other flash fiction can be found at qarrtsiluni and Pedestal Magazine.