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Fifteen Days


The Friday night traffic rushed beneath Ellen’s feet. Crimson and pearl streaks of light as the commuters raced past the small town exit, forging ahead toward the city, anxious to get their weekend underway. Usually Ellen would be home by now, stirring herself a cup of tea and pouring Heath a can of Bud Light—always in his favorite pewter tankard so he could pretend it was one of those fancy beers he liked to drink during his second tour in Germany. 

Maybe she should go back to the market and pick up a six pack of the ritzy stuff. Surprise him with it. Heineken, she thought it was called. Maybe that would solve the problems. Set things right, somehow.

The thought was only fleeting. A nonsensical grasping of straws. 

Ellen looked back to the starburst of taillights.

Fifteen days. Fifteen days was all it took to turn the world upside down.

Two weeks and two days earlier, Ellen celebrated her birthday. She’d driven home from work to find a giant banner hung across the overpass—strung in the same place she sat now—that read: Happy 60th Birthday, Mom!!! We Love you!

Her sons were home, flown in to celebrate her big day. Luke, still single, but handsome as ever, proud to boast about his promotion in the front office of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And Matt, her eldest, her quietest, living all the way out there in Los Angeles. How he ever found love and began a family in such a large, cold city, she couldn’t understand. But somehow he’d managed to marry the love of his life and they’d given Ellen the gift of Sophie—now three years old—her first grand baby, and thankfully not her last. Sweet Nicole was expecting again, which was why Matt could only stay the one night. 

The party at Eli’s Fish Grill was big—bigger than Ellen ever imagined. How so many people would want to come and celebrate her birthday, she couldn’t fathom. Friends from high school, parishioners from church, the ladies from the Mystery Book Club, Heath’s construction buddies, even some of Luke’s schoolmates that still lived in the area had shown up to surprise her.

Only Shannon, her youngest, was absent. Two more finals and she would don her cap and gown once more, walking away with her Masters in Zoology. 

Ellen loved to attribute her daughter’s love of animals to herself. For five days a week for the past 33 years Ellen had opened the doors of Compassionate Critters Veterinary Clinic just a mile down the road from her home, working as the Front Office Coordinator and managing the smooth operation of the small town business, despite several changes of ownership over the years. 

The current owner, a gentle, soft spoken veterinarian named Trent who moved to town five years earlier was by far Ellen’s favorite. He was kind, considerate, good to his office staff, and most importantly, compassionate to the animals. It didn’t matter to Ellen that he was married to Martín and their 11 and 13 year old children were adopted. It bothered some in town, of course, but Ellen always wondered where the Christian charity was in that. Had God not commanded His flock to love all? Judge not.

The Friday morning after her party she’d arrived ten minutes late to open the doors of the clinic. She hadn’t run late in over a decade, but two glasses of wine at her party and getting Matt to the airport on time during rush hour had taken its toll. She apologized to Amy, the vet tech waiting on the sidewalk—Amy had been one of the last to leave Eli’s Fish Grill the night before and looked a touch groggy herself—and got straight to work. Trent had been gone on a photo safari in Africa for two weeks, but was scheduled to return today. She wanted to have everything in order before he arrived.

Ellen sorted through the voicemails and emails and then reluctantly turned to her least favorite task of the day—organizing the PTS files. Put to Sleep. It was a necessary evil of the job—but it always broke her heart. Usually she saw the pets come in, which made it even harder, but she’d only worked a half day yesterday and Carl—the Tuesday/Thursday tech—had received the in-takes in her place. At least that made it easier today. She didn’t have to see their sweet, soulful faces.

There were three. Two cats—a stray and an owner surrender—and a dog. Ellen glanced over the files, checked the payment completion, and stacked the cards neatly for Trent. He hated the PTSs and also preferred to get them done first thing. “Carry them across the rainbow bridge,” was how he referred to it, his lips always drawn into a thin, pressed line to hide his sorrow.

The phone rang and Ellen answered. Mrs. Holland with her Yorkie Poo. She listened distractedly as the woman went on about another eye infection and another hot spot and described the dog’s stool in vivid detail—Mrs. Holland called at least once a week, always certain Bernie was dying. She glanced at her watch. 8:20. Matt would be boarding the plane by now. How she wished he could have stayed an extra day.

Mrs. Holland was prattling on about Bernie’s itchy ears when Ellen noticed a file on the floor. “Poor Bernie,” she said absently into the receiver as she picked up the file. Carl’s messy, hasty scrawl in ink glared up at her. 

Meg. Border Collie. The box next to PTS was smudged in blue, the file having gotten wet—the condensation of a glass, it looked like. It was supposed to be marked in red. Always red. Ellen looked through the file. 14 years old. Rapid Weight Loss. History of seizures. Onset of blindness. Owner drop off. Carl must have gotten distracted. He always worked too fast, too flustered. Ellen considered calling him to verify, but he was getting married this weekend. She hated to interrupt him when he was already no doubt in a panic. She looked over the file again—the dog hadn’t been seen here before. Typical of owners that wanted to put their pets to sleep without being present. They somehow found it more comforting to have it done by a stranger than their regular vet. More comforting for them, Ellen thought, bleakly setting the file atop the other three. It certainly wasn’t more comforting for the pet. 

Mrs. Holland chattered on until the other line dinged and Ellen politely excused herself. “Feel free to bring Bernie in,” she concluded as Trent walked through the door. He looked refreshed from his vacation—tan, hair freshly cut, the bags beneath his eyes nowhere to be seen. Ellen waved hello, handing him the four PTS files, and listened to the Pedigree Rep drone across the phone about a new Veterinary Recommended line of canned dog food Compassionate Critters should stock on their shelves.

That evening, a few minutes before closing, a woman in a business suit, her headphones crammed into her ears, brushed through the front doors and slapped her credit card down onto the counter, her attention on her phone call. “Yes, Friday next—New York,” she was saying, before glancing down at Ellen and tapping the American Express card. “Meg,” she whispered, not to interrupt her caller.

Ellen was certain she hadn’t heard her correctly. Her eyes shifted quickly to the tiered file holder where she kept the paperwork on the pets ready to go home. It was empty. The last patient—a Persian cat named Micah—had left a few minutes earlier.

“I’m sorry?” She said to the unfamiliar woman.

“I’m here to pick up Meg.” The woman was annoyed, having to interrupt her call.

A flood of sickness washed over Ellen, filling her with dread. The cover of the stained file folder flashed in her memory. The blue, smudged ink. No red. It couldn’t—she couldn’t... Her palms were instantly clammy, her voice shaky.

“Did—did you want to pick up her body?” She managed in a strained, wheezing voice. It was her only hope, her only salvation, but she knew. She already knew.

The woman stared at her, her phone call forgotten. “Her body?” She blinked. “She got her teeth cleaned.” Her face began to contort as realization dawned. “What the hell are you talking about?!”

Ellen’s heart was hammering against her chest. She felt like her head was going to explode from pressure. How could she have made such a mistake? “I—her file said—I assumed—she was 14—I’m sorry—I’m so sorry—”

The woman’s screams brought Trent from the back. What happened over the next twenty minutes Ellen could hardly recall. She felt like she was living in a horrific nightmare—any minute she would wake up to the sound of her alarm, kiss Heath, get dressed, take Matt to the airport, and head to work. This wasn’t happening. It wasn’t real.

But that night as she sobbed at her kitchen table waiting for Heath to get home, the day replayed over and over in her mind. The woman’s husband, also in a suit, also on the phone—but this time speaking very clearly to his lawyer about how they would sue the veterinary clinic who had mistakenly put down their dog—had called her every name in the book. He would have attacked her, Ellen thought, if Trent hadn’t intervened, finally having to call the police to come aid in the situation. Ellen had tried to apologize—again and again—but what good was an apology? Their dog was dead because of her.

Holding her in bed that night, Heath tried to calm her, to console her. It would be all right, he whispered, his face against her hair, his strong hands, finally beginning to show the knotted knuckles of age, gripping hers. “This too shall pass, Ellen.”

Early the following morning Shannon called before class. There was a post going around Facebook, she said, about Compassionate Critters and the mistaken euthanasia of a dog. Did she know about it? Ellen handed the phone off to Heath. She couldn’t talk about it. By that evening the story was viral. A hashtag on Twitter was trending—these were terms she learned from Luke, back home in Florida—about the clinic. #CompassionateCrittersKills. There was a GoFundMe for the couple who lost their dog—raising money to pay attorney fees to make certain this never happened to another unsuspecting owner and innocent animal at the hands of an illiterate and incompetent veterinary staff. The fundraiser and subsequent news stories all shared photos of the black and white border collie, ten years younger, smiling, sitting up on her haunches, waving her paw, jumping through an agility course, kayaking with her owners, running through the snow.

The backlash against the clinic was cataclysmic. Picketers showed up the following Monday, protesting the inhumane treatment of animals, demanding the business be closed down. Trent asked Ellen to take a few days off, to let things die down, but by Wednesday he called her—hesitant and remorseful—and told her he had to place her on a temporary leave while his own attorney sorted things out. He was kind, as always, but Ellen could hear a strain of agitation through his soft voice she had never known before. And how could she blame him?

The following day Heath woke her with the daily paper. On the front page was a photo of Compassionate Critters—it’s daisy yellow walls spray painted in bold black lettering across the cheerful facade: “Rot in hell, faggot!” The front door was tagged with a swastika and the bay windows were smashed in a sea of glass across the sidewalk. “What do I do, Heath?” Ellen’s body managed to rally tears she had long since thought ran out. Over and over she relived those minutes made in a hurried assumption—if she had only called Carl. If she had only asked. That poor, sweet dog… Trent. The clinic. Even Shannon, at University, had been tracked down on social media. Pet killer’s daughter Masters in Zoology one of the articles had read.

Heath’s blood pressure was up again, the medication no longer keeping it in check. The entire world was falling apart.

The following week Trent called again. “I’m sorry, Ellen.” He sounded so tired, so fractured. His voice became cold, unrecognizable. “I have to let you go. I—the clinic is facing a lawsuit, malpractice charges. I—I need your letter of resignation by tomorrow.”

“I understand.” Ellen’s voice choked.

“This has ruined my fucking life, Ellen—” Trent’s voice broke, hostile, desperate. “Do you really understand?” In the background she could hear Martín trying to shush him, to calm him. That evening Ellen sent over her demission of employment—attached with a long, heartfelt letter to Trent expressing the immense devastation she felt for all the hurt she had caused.

The next evening while in the market, Ellen trying to pick up some fish for dinner, to resume her daily tasks in some manner of normalcy, Shannon called. 

“Hi, sweetheart.”

Ellen could hear she had been crying. 

“How did my name get linked to this, Mom?” Shannon started in while Ellen was in the checkout line. Her calm, compassionate, easy-going Shannon. Another reporter had tracked her down at school, asking for an interview. “What am I supposed to say? How did you let this happen? There are so many safeguards, Mom! Did you never stop to think?!” She hung up without saying goodbye. Without saying “I love you.” She had never left a call without I love you.

The fish still on the checkout counter, Ellen walked out of the market. Out of the parking lot, down the road, away. Her carelessness—her thoughtlessness—had destroyed everything. Everyone. She was drowning and didn’t know how to get back to the surface. To breathe again. To feel her heart beat again.

She found herself on the freeway bridge and climbed onto the railing. There was still a zip tie where the sign for her birthday hung weeks earlier. The traffic was loud, deafening, colliding with the pounding in her head. She had to make it go away. To make it better. She set her phone on the railing and looked down. The world was better off without her. Everyone was. Without letting herself think, without giving herself a chance to change her mind, Ellen swung her legs over the side, took a breath, closed her eyes, and felt herself falling.

Her phone chimed, a flash of text coming through. Shannon’s smiling face on the screen from a picture last summer hanging out with a giraffe. “I’m sorry, Mom,” the message read. “It’ll be ok. I love you.”

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