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American

There is a point past weeping, Dr. Christensen thought to himself, when the pain numbs.


He peered at his face in the back of a spoon. The distorted image magnified the broken capillaries under his eyes. From medical school, he knew his lacrimal glands were responsible for his bloodshot eyes and dilated pupils. He maneuvered the spoon to view the extent of his puffy red face, caused mainly by the salt from his tears.


The spoon’s reflection revealed the monster he felt he had become.


No wonder his wife had left. No wonder his son had been taken.


For a third time, Dr. Christensen attempted to spoon tuna directly from a can into his mouth, but he could not swallow. As he walked to the sink to spit the tuna out, he heard a plaintive high-pitched mewing from the yard.


“For the love of God, please leave me alone!” the distraught physician screamed, ostensibly at the feline announcing its presence in the alley next to the three-story brownstone. As is often the case when tragedy strikes, his demons mocked him, not the orange tabby cat that had found a home behind the tin trash cans overflowing with rubbish and memories. 


Detesting the feeling of powerlessness that enveloped him like a straightjacket, Dr. Christensen ripped open the screen door that separated him from the interloper and flung the remnants of the canned tuna at the cat in a fruitless attempt to regain the comfort of silence. 


The cat, however, just stared at the man as the can flew harmlessly over his head. Then it meowed again as if to say thank you before devouring the feast now conveniently at its feet. 


Dr. Christensen watched the cat blithely finish its meal, completely ignoring the neighbor’s barking dog, which strained at its leash in a futile attempt to sink its teeth into orange fur. As barks grew into snarls, the cat merely licked its paws, then blinked its green eyes at the doctor, as if they shared a private joke. 


“I hope you enjoyed yourself,” the doctor said, a small smile curling the corners of his mouth. “Now move along. Find another home. There’s nothing here for you.”


The cat walked closer to the screen door, purposefully misunderstanding both the doctor’s words and tone. It meowed again in earnest.


“No more for you. Go away,” Dr. Christensen said, half-heartedly. 

The cat tilted its head, taking in the sad-eyed man who still wore his scrubs from the Emergency Room. Splatters of blood had long turned to rust.


“I can’t help you,” the doctor replied, “I don’t think I can help anyone…”


The cat meowed more loudly, putting its two front paws on the screen door and lifting itself up to peer into the kitchen.


The doctor turned to see a cabinet open. Perhaps the cat was still hungry? He still had several cans of tuna. They’d always had tuna on hand. His son liked to eat his tuna melts. No, that’s not right, Dr. Christensen corrected himself, adjusting his thinking to the new normal. His son used to like his tuna melts


At that thought, the man’s knees buckled. He slid to the floor and started to weep again. Burying his face in his hands, his shoulders heaved as he keened into the night.


At the pitiful sound, the neighbor’s dog quit barking. 


The orange tabby cat sat still, watching over the man through the screen until the morning light.  





Few things are less comfortable than sleeping on the cold tile of a kitchen floor, but to Dr. Christensen, it wasn’t nearly intolerable enough. He felt he no longer deserved much of anything. So when he woke to see the orange tabby cat sleeping on his porch, he felt immeasurable guilt. 


Surely God was mocking him.


His son, his beloved son, had asked for a cat on his eighth birthday. Instead? He was given a stethoscope. His son had begged for a cat the Christmas of his twelfth year, only to be surprised by a new sweater and an itchy sports coat. And when he brought home a stray cat he had found under the bleachers during his sophomore year in high school, Dr. Christensen forced the lad to take the creature to the animal shelter, knowing full well that no full-grown cat would be adopted. Each time the physician closed his eyes, all he saw was the somber face of his teenage son as they walked silently back to the car after leaving the cat for others to euthanize.


God had sent only a single orange tabby cat for his comfort, yet his seeing the cat brought the doctor a peace he hadn’t felt since the day his son died in his arms.


“Hello,” Dr. Christensen said to the cat who steadily blinked at him. 


The cat said nothing.


“Would you like to come in?” the doctor asked, opening the screen door. The late autumn breeze had a chill, and the cat sidestepped brown crinkly leaves to enter the kitchen. 


“Tuna again? Or maybe some ham…” He opened the fridge and poked among the takeout containers. He hadn’t cooked much after his wife left. 


The cat rubbed against his leg, purring with contentment in the cozy kitchen.


“How about both tuna and ham?” The doctor busied himself, opening another can of tuna and dicing the remaining ham. It was good to keep busy. At least, that’s what his therapist said. 


If his son, or anyone else for that matter, had seen how carefully Dr. Christensen sliced the ham into bite-sized pieces, they might have thought the surgeon was practicing his knife skills. Perhaps he needed more practice, he thought bitterly, since he had been unable to save his own child.


His wife had rushed his son to the ER. Already turning blue in his face, lips, and fingernail beds, Dr. Christensen worried that too much time had passed as permanent brain damage occurred after four minutes.


His son clearly had an esophageal food bolus obstruction, but the remnants of the hot dog he’d ingested were stuck too far down his throat for his father to reach. Fumbling with his medical instruments, Dr. Christensen watched his own son code before he could perform an endoscopic procedure.


His wife had clawed at his face when he told her. 





Dr. Christensen had no idea if cats preferred their tuna and ham on separate sides of the bowl or mixed together in a cornucopia of deliciousness, but watching the cat eat with such intense delight brought him back the sound of his own laughter.


“How did you like your breakfast, Bob? Or are you a Tom?”


The cat, oblivious to the man’s inquiries, continued to play with a dustball he found under the kitchen table, causing another spontaneous chuckle. 


“I know. I’ll call you Willie, after my son, William. I think he’d like that.”


At the boy’s name, the cat darted out of the kitchen, and, before the doctor could stop him, zoomed up the stairs.


“William, come down here this instant!”


Dr. Christensen shuddered at the sound of his own words.


“Willie,” he said, more gently this time. “Come, back down here, my friend.” He took a step towards the second floor. “Don’t be afraid.” He took another step, then another.


At the top of the stairs, Dr. Christensen turned to where the orange tabby cat sat waiting for him, just outside the familiar bedroom door. He hadn't had the strength to climb the stairs or walk down the hall before, but the cat seemed to be guiding him, just before disappearing into his son’s bedroom.


Dr. Christensen's throat constricted, tears beginning to fall.


Entering William’s room for the first time since his passing, the doctor found the orange tabby cat curled on his son’s bed. Without a word, the man lay down on the handmade quilt.


Dr. Christensen had been in his son’s room many times, but he had never seen it from that particular vantage point. As he looked around the room, he thought he would see a monument to a life cut short, but to his surprise, he saw something different. He saw a tribute to a life well lived.


There were pictures of father and son trout fishing alongside a needlepoint his wife had made before their son was born. There were snapshots of friends including one of a cat that looked a lot like the one who snuggled next to him. Every corner of the room held a memory or a memento of a young man who had been loved and cared for.


At that moment, Dr. Christensen had no memory of the day his son’s life ended. All he could remember were the other days. And those memories brought a different kind of tears, tears of joy.


After drying his tears on the back of his hands, the man picked up his new cat and smiled—really smiled—now peacefully contented as an orange tabby cat full of tuna and ham.

March 03, 2023 22:54

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4 comments

10:05 Mar 05, 2023

Heartbreaking and heart mending all at once. 🐈

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3i Writer
01:44 Mar 06, 2023

I'm surprised you're able to write an extremely emotional story out of this prompt.

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J. D. Lair
00:24 Mar 06, 2023

Very enjoyable and well written. Thank you for writing. I love the portrayal of grief turned around by a change in perspective and overcoming fear with the help of a ‘friend’. Clever title too!

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Thom With An H
00:12 Mar 04, 2023

I really thought there were no good stories to be had with the prompts this week. I was wrong. This is really special. Oh and the title is fantastic.

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