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Today's Story by Jessie Hennen

"Trust me," I say, "it gets better."

Dr. Doolittle Does Too Little

Princess stares at me from her pillow, paws crossed in front of her. Pretty as a picture. She opens her small pink mouth and I assume she’s about to yawn, but instead she blinks and says, in a high thin meow, “I want to die.”

This is surprising, and I have no idea how to respond. There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but I don’t particularly want to partake in any of them – not this morning, where the sun is so friendly and warm – so instead I stare out the window and watch as the garter snakes, stretched out on the lawn, perform their morning yoga. Her distant voice ringing instructions, the teacher leads the group in the Cobra pose, which is, to be honest, pretty much all they know (albeit the one they do best).

This morning, I take their yoga as overly demonstrative, a personal insult. Why should snakes want to stay thin, after all – don’t they mate in a writhing ball? Who would notice a spare bit of fat? And don’t they, in the process of digesting mice or rats or whatever, become engorged? How does a rat, being digested inside a snake, look any different than belly fat? Who could tell? Other snakes, I suppose. I frown and pat my gut, turned petulant.

Something tickles my legs – Princess has leapt from her perch and is twining between my ankles, back arched. I lean down to pet her, and as she rubs her forehead against my thumb, she whispers in a low purr, “Stop looking at them. Kill me instead.”

“Princess,” I say weakly, “you cost four hundred dollars. I’m not going to just kill you.”

She blinks up at me, eyes green under white fluff. She seems insulted, an expression cats excel at. “Don’t you love me?”

“Of course,” I hasten to mention, and I can feel my neck begin to sweat, as if I’ve been caught in a lie. “That too. That’s really why I don’t want to kill you. Look, do you mind me asking why you want to die?”

She rolls her eyes. “Weltschmerz,” she meows, then trots away to lap water from her dish, tail held high. She’s trying to be dignified, but she always forgets how easily visible her pink, puckered cat anus is when she’s acting prim. For all her airs, she’s still a teenager, a slightly-larger version of the four-hundred-dollar kitten I held in my lap nine months ago.

I remind her of this, gently. “Look, Princess, you’re growing up. Everyone feels like this for a time. It’s just the hormones, really, that make a person – or, well, a cat – not want to live in this world anymore. Trust me,” I say, “it gets better.”

She raises her head from the water dish, looks blankly at me, then settles her feet beneath her and lies down in the patch of sun. Encouraged, I select a toy and roll the little jingly ball over to her paws.

She contemplates it for a second. Her eyes meet mine. There is a breath – then she flops over on her side, her tail twitching weakly. “Stop being dramatic,” I bark. No more Mr. Nice Guy! “You know, you have it easy. I’ve been to Europe and I have seen gutters full of newborn kittens drowning in the rain, and did any of them meow “uncle”? No, Princess,” and I kneel down so that our faces are level, “they paddled!”

“Well, whatever. I mean, they were probably about to die sooner or later,” she says, her lips barely moving. Delicately, she adds: “Of worms.”

“THAT IS BESIDE THE POINT,” I thunder. “Look, maybe what you need is a little education about how good you have it. Maybe I should just lock you out, bar the kitty door, and see how well you do in the suburban wilderness. How would you survive without your pinky-pink feather bed, Princess? What would you do without Fancy Feast?”

“Probably die,” she sighs. “All right,” and she cracks one eye, “I’m in.”

Exasperated and late, I have no choice but to leave for work. I lift her limp, hopeless, fluffy body into her kennel, then shut the toilet seat lid so she can’t drown herself if she manages to escape. It is the least I can do; cats are such difficult creatures. She meows pitifully behind the grate of the cage, but I disregard it, saying as I slam the front door, “Enjoy your Weltschmerz from THE CRATE!”

Initially, the feeling is one of vindication, of having pulled one over on Princess and depressives in general. I enjoy the sunlight and stride widely, whistling and swinging my briefcase. As I walk, however, I realize I have no clear plan for handling my suicidal Persian cat once I get home. I realize that I have just shoved the problem off until later, as usual.

I look up. I intend to cast my eyes upon the cheerful clouds, but I’m forced to jump when I see the squirrel. Its little gray hands seize the bark of an oak two feet away from me, and it is directly at eye level, like a small, annoyed person. I’m so close that I can nearly hear it breathe.

“What?” I hiss, irritated.

Slowly, it exhales, its breath whistling through cheeks full of nuts. Then it narrows its eyebrows – I haven’t up until now thought about the possibility of squirrels having eyebrows – and shakes its tiny gray head.

What is it with them today? Why have the animals chosen this otherwise balmy morning to be difficult? Utterly exasperated, I stride on past, my shoes slapping against the pavement in a Business-Man-About-the-World way. Twenty feet later, I feel eyes on my back and stop. I slowly turn. It is still watching me.

“What am I SUPPOSED to do?” I yell. “What would you propose, squirrel?”

Terrified at last, it scampers up into the leaves. Feeling simultaneously victorious and weepy, I tell myself I don’t care, but stick around to catch what it chatters to its friends, who have been waiting up there like vultures. The only word that I catch, fluttering down from the branches like a browned, dessicated autumn leaf, is “…asshole.”


Jessie Hennen currently lives in Munich, Germany, and will begin studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall. She wrote this story while she was at work.


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