This is the story of the day I killed Lydia Martin's cat.
I used to teach American Literature and Advanced Composition at Three Rivers High School. School let out at 2:42, and while our contract required us to stay until 3:15 Monday through Thursday, we were allowed to leave immediately after the final bell on Fridays, and on this particular Friday, that’s what I did.
I lived on Haydn Court, a cul-de-sac in the Sonatas, a relatively new housing development in Three Rivers. Andy and Becky Martin lived in the house to our left and had been close friends since we moved into our respective homes in the summer of 2003. Andy and I were the same age--26 at the time--but Becky was a bit older than Annie, and while their daughter Lydia had just turned five, Annie was pregnant with our first. Becky and Annie scrapbooked together, and Andy and I played on the same 16-inch softball team. We barbecued a lot. When they went on trips, we took care of their cat, Snowflake.
On that Friday afternoon, I pulled onto our street looking forward to a few minutes of alone time--on Friday afternoons, Annie was the Story Lady at the grade school, where they began and ended half an hour later than we did at the high school. As I pulled into our driveway, I saw what appeared to be a dead squirrel lying in front of the Martins’ driveway. It was not. It was Snowflake. Shit. Now, I didn’t like Snowflake--or any cats, or animals in general, for that matter--but I did like Lydia. Annie and I lost our daughter, Reagan, shortly after she was born, but I always imagined that she might have turned out a little like Lydia--pretty and precocious and confident. I always enjoyed the stories and the jokes and the magic tricks that she would share when our families got together to throw steaks on the grill. She had bright eyes and a great laugh. Sometimes, I would watch her after school until her parents got home. I would be watching her that afternoon, in fact. And Lydia loved that cat.
I paused for a moment, wondering what the hell I was going to do. Lydia would be home at 3:30. I didn’t look forward to telling her that Snowflake was dead--in fact, I tried to imagine a scenario in which I wouldn’t have to do it at all--but for her to actually see her cat this way would have been devastating. And as I stood at the curb, arms crossed, the situation became even more complicated when I heard Snowflake take a labored, raspy breath. Her chest moved almost imperceptibly. I watched more closely, thinking that I must have imagined it. Her tail was bloody and raw. Pink, bubblegum organs bulged out of the exposed side of her body where the white fur had been torn off. Her legs were flattened, and one was folded up underneath her body. Her mouth was wide open, and her eyes were motionless, barely open. She breathed again.
“Holy fuck,” I said to myself. Or maybe I just thought it. Who knows? I looked at my watch. 3:20. Snowflake breathed once more, then I turned and walked quickly to the garage. I returned in a moment with a shovel, which I used to scoop up Snowflake’s nearly-dead body. I got her on the first try, but she slipped off as I tried to lift her. She was stuck. All the dried blood had plastered her tail to the pavement. I reached down and pinched the tip of her tail between my thumb and forefinger. I looked the other way, then slowly peeled Snowflake’s tail off the street. When the tail had been liberated, I stood again and tried to shovel her back up, but this time couldn’t get her to stay. Instead, I pushed her around the cul-de-sac for a few seconds, much the same way that I sometimes push around that last bite of rice on my plate on nights when Annie decides to make Chinese food. I usually end up trapping the rice with my finger. Here, I used the curb to trap Snowflake, then I slid the shovel beneath her. I extended my arms as far as I could while keeping Snowflake balanced on the shovel, then carried her into my backyard.
I laid the body beside the air conditioner and wiped some sweat from my brow. There was really only one option, but I closed my eyes, searching for alternatives. None came to mind, and I didn’t have time for brainstorming, so I wrapped my hands tightly around the handle of the shovel, lifted it as high as I could, then opened my eyes and drove the edge of it hard into Snowflake’s throat. Her head rolled to one side, but her body stayed put. A split second later, I heard the kind of scream that you brace yourself for at horror movies when the heroine is about to enter the room where the psychopathic killer is hiding. It was Lydia.
I glanced at my watch. 3:28. She was early. I turned and tried to use my body to hide her dead cat. Lydia looked at me with a pitiful combination of confusion and disgust.
“Why did you do that?” she whispered. In her eight-year-old mind, this had been an act of malice rather than compassion. I knelt down.
“Lydia, I want you to listen to me. Snowflake was hit by a car.”
“Liar!” she screamed. “You killed her!” And with that she turned and ran home, sobbing.
You couldn’t blame her. To a perfectly rational adult the situation would have looked suspicious. In fact, Lydia’s misconception was much more logical to her than the truth would have been to almost anyone. I took my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed Annie. She answered after two rings.
“Hey you,” she said. She was in a good mood, I could tell. She was always in a good mood after Story Time.
“Um, hey,” I said.
“You sound weird.”
“Yeah, well, something awful happened.”
She paused for a moment. “What is it?”
“Snowflake got hit by a car.”
“Christ, Charlie, you scared the hell out of me. I thought it was your father.”
“No, no. Just Snowflake, but it was pretty bad.”
“Is she dead?”
“Yeah. Now she is. Only she wasn’t when I found her. She was close. Practically dead. And Lydia was on her way home.”
“Okay,” she said, drawing out the second syllable of the word in a confused way.
“So I killed her. Snowflake. I put her out of her misery really.”
“I know, but that’s not the worst part. Lydia saw me do it.”
“Shit, Charlie! How the hell did that happen?”
I explained to my wife what had happened. She considered the situation.
“Where is she now?” Annie asked.
“She went home. I don’t know what to do. Do I go try to talk to her?”
She thought about it. “No. I’m sure she’s just crying in her bedroom. Let her be. I’ll be home in ten minutes and I can go try to calm her down. Just clean that shit up for now.”
I told her okay, then ran inside, grabbed a garbage bag, and returned to that spot by the air conditioner. I turned the bag inside-out, the way you do when you’re picking up dog shit, and I lifted Snowflake’s body. It was still warm. Once her body was securely in the bag, I did the same thing with her head, which felt smaller than I thought it would. I cinched the bag and carried it to the edge of the woods that run along our property on the north side. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the bag that contained Snowflake, but I knew that I couldn’t keep it in our garbage--the smell was already pretty close to unbearable--and I sure as hell wasn’t putting it in my car to take it anywhere, not even in the trunk. So I set it down and began to dig.
It was the end of March, and in Wisconsin, that means that the snow has been reduced to patches here and there. The sun was out--I remember that I wasn’t wearing a jacket--and that meant that the soil was soft, easy to dig. I worked quickly, and it was only a few minutes before I had a hole big enough, I thought, to bury a cat in. I bent down to pick up the bag, and that’s when I heard footsteps. They were squishy--I told you that the ground was soft and wet--and I flinched, thinking that a raccoon or a deer was approaching. Instead, it was Lydia. With a loud grunt, something louder than I would have thought such a sweet girl was capable of, she stabbed me hard in the lower back. I instinctively backhanded her across the face, but it barely fazed her. She got in three more sharp jabs--one more to my lower back and two to my side--before I dropped to one knee. She looked me in the eye, drew back her right hand like a pitcher about to deliver a fastball, and thrust the blade of her mother’s kitchen knife deep into my throat.
It was about this time that Annie parked her car next to mine in our driveway and shut off the engine. I sometimes wonder how long she looked at the splattered blood and the patches of dirty white fur where Snowflake had lain for who knows how long before I found her that afternoon. Did she stand in the street and imagine what happened? Or did she cover her eyes, afraid that her weak stomach wouldn’t be able to handle it? Perhaps she vomited. (But this is unlikely, isn’t it? It was only a dead animal. She had no doubt seen a few on her drive home.) At any rate, she got out of her car and walked to the Martins’ front door, which Lydia had left open. She called out to Lydia, but there was no answer. She walked up to the pink bedroom with the Dora the Explorer bedspread. Also empty, so she went back down the hallway, down the stairs, and into the kitchen. Surely she didn’t notice one missing knife from the block on the new, granite countertop.
She walked to the sliding glass door, and then she screamed, and then she opened the door and sprinted across the lawn to the edge of the woods. She stopped and dropped to her knees with her head in her hands, surveying the scene. There sat Lydia, contentedly petting the headless body of her bloody white cat. And beside the two of them, I was slumped over, my head in a shallow, muddy hole, a knife wedged in my throat. She knelt there for a long time, my wife, watching me closely, just waiting for me to take even one labored, raspy breath.