A Goodbye For Soldier 
By R. D. Flavin
 

     "Get up and feed the cats, before I kill one of them!" she threatened sleepily. 
     Kevin knew she was kidding, but he threw back the covers and got out of bed nonetheless.  Slipping on his robe quietly, he heard Susan's breathing deepen and knew she'd fallen back asleep.  She probably hadn't gone to bed until after two again.  The cats began to meow once more, and he quickly left his sleeping significant other and the bedroom, closing the door behind him. 
     They swarmed at his feet as he walked to the kitchen.  Incessantly, the four cats tripped over themselves to be first in line to eat, just in case the food ran out part way through the feeding.  It had never happened before, of course, but the cats couldn't take any chances.  They knew instinctively that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, and as Kevin opened a can of shredded ocean whitefish, their litany reached an annoying crescendo. 
     "Will you please shut up?" he begged them.  "If she wakes up again, she'll take you the butcher and sell you for seventeen cents a pound!"  They didn't believe him and meowed even louder. 
     Even though the four cats had lived together as a family for almost five years now, they still fed in pairs.  Kevin's two female cats ate together in one corner of the kitchen and Susan's two male cats required another.  As he tossed away the lid of the canned cat food and fishy smells playfully overran the room, the voices of the cats combined into one raw, demanding howl.  They were spoiled, but Kevin didn't care.  He loved them with all his heart. 
     Calling out their names as he individually fed them was a private tradition. "Gilda-food," he said softly, spooning a portion into the youngest cat's dish.  "Katie-fat-butt-food," Kevin quickly added, depositing a sizeable dollop of cat food in a second dish.  Stepping across the kitchen floor, trying not to walk on Susan's cats, he divided the remainder of the can between the two males.  "Max-baba-food," came first, followed immediately by "Old Soldier-food."  At last the house was quiet once more as all four cats enjoyed their breakfast.  Susan could sleep through the morning and the cats would not be sold to the butcher. 
     Outside, the sun mounted the horizon and started its slow climb skyward.  The kitchen filled with warm sunlight as Kevin prepared a pot of coffee.  It was a quarter of seven and he had forty-five minutes before he had to go to work.  Usually, he'd go through a ten-minute workout before showering and getting dressed, but this morning he felt like doing something special for Susan. 
     Since she started taking night-classes to finish her master's degree, Susan was never home for dinner except on weekends.  Carrot-sticks, apples, and cold, brown sugar Pop-Tarts became her standard evening meal, rapidly consumed as she raced from her receptionist job across town to school.  Susan referred to herself as "culinarily challenged," which basically meant she could boil water, make toast, but little else.  Kevin, who did all the cooking in the household, took some mixed vegetables, cut up a chicken breast, and combined them for stir-fry.  Tonight, at least, she'd eat well. 
     Smelling the chicken, the cats began to take turns rubbing against his legs on the outside possibility a stray piece of fresh meat might just happen to fall to the floor.  "Not a chance, kids," Kevin said, chuckling to himself.  However, and predictably, the cats heard instead, "Rub harder against my legs, and maybe you'll eat again!" 
     "You don't give up, do you?"  Kevin didn't have to answer himself.  As the meowing started once more, the correct reply was obvious. 

     She awoke feeling exhausted, as if she hadn't slept at all.  Midterms were in a couple of weeks and Susan was staying up late studying every night.  Fortunately, her reception job didn't start until ten and so she didn't have to get up until eight-thirty.  It still meant she was only getting a little over six hours of sleep a night, but a degree in computer science, and a chance at a "real" career, would hopefully make it all worth while.  As her eyes focused and she looked around the bedroom, there seemed to be sleeping cats everywhere. 
     "You kitties sure got the good life," she mused out loud.  As if in appreciation, Soldier woke up at the sound of her voice and marched across the bed and began to suck on one of her fingers.  The ten year old, jet-black cat was her favorite and would often go through the motions of nursing at her hand.  To anyone else, even Kevin, he was unsociable and would usually hiss and run away.  But, Soldier was the first cat she ever owned and their love was the deepest. 
     "That's enough, old boy," she said after a couple of minutes, gently pushing 
Soldier away. 
     The cat retreated a few feet, near the foot of the bed, and stared at her silently.  Their eyes met, held for a heartbeat, and Susan sighed deeply, got out of bed and walked to the kitchen. 
     Pouring herself a cup of coffee, she read the note from Kevin.  Opening the 
refrigerator door and seeing the chicken stir-fry caused her to squeal in excitement.  "He knows the way to my heart, that's for sure," Susan said to herself. 
     At her feet, Soldier began to wheeze and cough.  Over the years, the cat's asthma had worsened and the increasing regularity of the attacks saddened Susan, leaving her with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.  The choking sounds brought the other cats into the kitchen to investigate, but like Susan, they simply watched Soldier's suffering and didn't try to do anything.  There was nothing anyone could do. 
     She readied herself for work, listening for any change in the old cat's condition.  Usually the attacks lasted only a few minutes, but sometimes they seemed to go on forever.  A veterinarian had told her once that there was no immediate danger to the cat's life, but the asthma would, over time, drag down his health and kill him.  That was five years ago and Susan lived with the ever-present image of coming home at some point and finding her favorite cat dead.  After a fashion, it was the main reason she let the cat nurse at her fingers.  Soldier was not long for this world and a little kindness was the least she could do. 
     However, Susan also recognized she wasn't alone in either her love for the ailing cat or in possessing the ability to grieve.  Seven year old Max had spent his entire life with Soldier as his pal and older brother.  And, with Kevin came Gilda and Katie, who also loved the cat in their own mysterious, feline ways. 
     "I have a favor to ask regarding my cats, and yours too," she asked Kevin one day, shortly after they first moved in together. 
     Susan explained her approach to life, death, and how closure is a necessary thing.  She'd asked that if ever Kevin found one of the cats dead, of any cause or reason, that he wouldn't simply dispose of the animal or allow some vet to whisk the carcass off to backrooms unknown.  "Please place the body in the same room as the other cats and give them the chance to discover for themselves that the cat has gone on.  If they don't get that moment of realization, they could pine horribly for years, believing the cat had just run away.  Let them know death..." 
     At some point the attack ran its course and Soldier wasn't coughing anymore.  Susan was racing around the apartment collecting books, papers, keys, and everything else she'd need for the next twelve-plus hours.  In the kitchen, she put the plastic container of Kevin's chicken stir-fry in a paper-bag, along with an orange and a small box of juice.  Soldier sat near the kitchen door which lead to their third-floor porch.  The cat gave a pathetic, low howl, asking to be let outside. 
     "Fresh air and birds for the old cat?" Susan asked cheerfully.  She opened the kitchen door a couple of inches and Soldier immediately squeezed through.  Of all the cats, Soldier most enjoyed the out-of-doors.  He'd a wild, reckless, and untamed streak, though he had shared a couple of 'prizes' over the years.  Depending on where they lived, it was sometimes a bird, once a bat, but usually mice.  Soldier was ...independent. 
     Susan watched him carelessly roll on the porch in the morning sun.  "Happy kitty," she said, and remembering the traffic tie-ups of the last few mornings, hurried off for a long day of work and school. 

     It became gray and overcast in the early afternoon, and by the time Kevin got home from work it was pouring rain.  Cold, damp air greeted him as he opened the front door to the apartment.  Hanging up his coat and kicking off his boots, Kevin began going from room to room looking for an open window.  In the kitchen, with gusts of wet wind blowing through the open door, he discovered why the apartment felt so cold.  Thinking nothing of it, he closed the door, went into the living room, turned on the television, and began to watch the evening news. 
     This restful arrangement, however, lasted only a few minutes.  It was dinner-time and cats galore began to encircle his chair and insisted on being fed without delay.  Sometimes they'd meet him at the front door, other times he might be able to get in a half-hour of news.  Sooner, rather than later, the cats would get their evening meal.  The cats knew it and so did Kevin. 
     The air in the kitchen was still damp and chilly as Kevin opened up a can of cqt-food and summoned the cats with a loud, "Come and get it!"  Little calico Gilda was always first, screaming as she ran into the kitchen.  Then, a full fifteen pounds of gray Katie thundered in, her big belly bouncing from side to side as she ran.  Max and Soldier always entered together -- always a touching show of cat-solidarity,  But, there was just Max, hungry and wanting to be fed. 
     "Soldier!  Come on, old guy!" Kevin cried out.  There was no sign of the cat. 
     He walked slowly through the apartment calling Soldier to dinner.  After a few moments of no response, Kevin began to seriously suspect the worst was both inescapable and happening now.  He remembered the open door and ran to the kitchen. 
     Standing on the porch, wind and rain hitting his face, Kevin looked over the railing and saw his world change irrevocably.  Soldier lay unmoving, three floors below, on the ground. 
     The single word "No," that passed his lips was powerless to change what had happened.  He walked through and out of the apartment, past his coat and boots, and down the stairs.  Numb to the soaking downpour all around him, Kevin made his way to the rear of the apartment building and stood silently over Soldier.  He wanted to scream out in rage and frustration, but instead he cried.  He already missed the old guy. 
     With more tenderness and care than he'd ever shown before, Kevin picked up the cat in both his arms.  He didn't need eight or ten years of scientific training to determine the cat was dead--its body was already surprisingly stiff.  The fall must have happened hours ago. 
     Susan's instructions came back to him as he took the lifeless body of Soldier 
back upstairs.  She'd loved the cat for ten years and his passing, though expected, would still hurt her greatly.  Kevin placed the dead Soldier in the middle of the living room, following Susan's wishes, and let the other cats hold a wake and grieve in their own way. 
     He sat down on the couch, turned off the television and watched the three cats sniff and paw at Soldier.  Susan probably wouldn't be home for three or four hours.  There was nothing to do, but wait. 

     Opening the door to the apartment, an unnatural quiet greeted her and dispassionately announced that something was terribly wrong.  The lights were off and usually the television was blaring, often with Kevin sound asleep on the couch.  She'd seen his car downstairs and knew he was home. 
     "Kevin?"she asked hesitantly, reaching for the light-switch on the wall in the hall. 
     "Don't turn on the lights, please..."  His voice was husky and thick with emotion. 
     "What's wrong?" 
     "It's Soldier..." 
     Her eyes probed the darkness of the living room and she eventually saw the three cats sitting quietly around the prone body of Soldier.  The tears came violently, her chest heaving in sobs and her stomach tightening like a giant fist.  "Oh, Soldier," she cried out after several minutes. 
     Kevin left her alone.  It broke his heart to watch the woman he loved in so much pain, but he respected her grief.  The old cat shared a private part of her for years before he'd started dating Susan, and he owed these moments to both of them. 
     She was still crying as the cats left Soldier's side and took turns rubbing her legs briefly, before leaving the room and their old friend.  Several deep, cleansing breaths brought a small amount of calm, though tears still fell from her eyes.  Walking into the living room, Susan knelt beside Soldier and began to stroke his fur. 
     "Goodbye, old boy.  Sleep well," she said at last, standing and turning into the waiting arms of Kevin.  "Oh, Kevin," she sobbed, "I don't know what to do with him!  I've never had to make this decision before! 
     "I'll take care of him.  Don't worry about it," Kevin answered, holding her tight. 
     "You can't just put the body in the trash!  That's cruel!" 
     "I was thinking about a nice spot in the park, maybe under a tree so he could listen to the birds and they'd keep him company..." 
     "And annoy him for all eternity!" she laughed through the tears.  Susan had passed through the first stage of her personal grief and realized there was life after loss.  Hugging Kevin as tightly as she could, she looked up into his eyes and said, "Go ahead...  It sounds like a good idea..." 
     Wordlessly, they separated.  Kevin took down an old and tattered wool blanket from a closet shelf and Susan selected a couple of Soldier's favorite cat-toys.  Before he wrapped up the cat, Susan kissed Soldier and gave him one last pet on the side of his face. 
     "There's some sandwich meat in the fridge," Kevin said over his shoulder.  "Why don't you make yourself something to eat and I'll be back in a bit.  Okay?" 
     "Okay," she replied, as he left with Soldier. 
     The next day Susan told Kevin she didn't want to visit Soldier's final resting place for a while.  She wanted a period of adjustment and to put some distance between her pain and the rest of her life.  Kevin agreed, not really understanding, but trusting her to handle her own emotions in the best fashion. 

     About four weeks later, on a bright sunny spring day, Susan brought home a tiny kitten, jet-black and looking like a little version of Soldier.  "Does it have a name?" Kevin asked cautiously. 
     "Norm," Susan answered immediately. 
     "What?" he asked, coughing in amazement.  "Like the regular on CHEERS?" 
     Smiling broadly, she corrected, "No, 'Norm' as in short for 'Norman '-- like Norman Bates in the movie PSYCHO.  The crazy, little guy bit me the first time I picked him up!" 
     Laughing together, Norman was put down and immediately got into a fight with Gilda, while the other two cats pretended not to care.  There were four cats again and the apartment seemed a happier place. 
     Grabbing Kevin's arm, Susan said, "Come on, show me where in the park you put the old boy.  I want to make sure the birds are doing their jobs." 
     They left the apartment to the loud noises of kitty-hisses and cat howls -- the sounds of home. 

The End.

[Note: A previous version of this story appeared in the online The Greenwich Village Gazette 10-18-96.]

c. 2002 by R. D. Flavin.

return to Flavin's Fictions