Angel of Death
Today, there were five. Three cats and two dogs. Frank usually had an easier time with the cats, and he felt a certain degree of guilt for this. They were all God's creatures.
First, Frank took hold of a thin calico cat. It's tag had labeled it a stray, but Frank could tell just by touching her that this cat had at one time lived among humans. For about a week, the cat had sat at the back of her cage, not responding to the people coming through every day trying to make momentary contact--trying to decide whether this is the cat that they will give another chance to live. At first, the cat had meowed and rubbed up against the fingers coming through her cage. But before too long, trauma, confinement, and depression got the best of her, and she had stayed in the back, lying in her soiled litter, looking anything but adoptable. Frank had warned her. He warned all the animals, advising them on how to increase their chances of adoption.
But this was no longer the time for advice. This was time for Frank to give the only thing he had. He held the animal close until he could feel the cat's rapid heartbeat slow down, until he could sense that he had broken past the animal's stress-induced psychological barrier, until he knew the animal felt his love. As he held the animal close, he softly whispered words into its ear.
"It's okay", he sometimes reassured them. "You don't have to worry anymore," he occasionally would say. "It's for the best," he would whisper. Or, "I love you," he told them.
This time, sensing something in the animal's spirit, he said, "You can come back again if you want. Maybe it will be better." Frank was a believer in voluntary reincarnation.
Then he moved the animal to The Room. He repeated the procedure with each of the five animals, sensing the warm glow come through in each of them before taking them to The Room.
Then he did what he had to do.
Frank's mind wandered as he took the bus back to his apartment. He muttered an incoherent greeting to his roommates Joe and Kevin as he arrived home. Both were sitting in the front room watching what looked like an old movie on the small, black and white TV. Frank squeezed through the cramped furniture into the kitchen, started some rice simmering, then went into his bedroom to meditate.
Frank's twice-a-day meditation was something between a prayer and a sťance. First, he cleared his mind of all thoughts and let stillness and peace enter him. Then he called upon the spirit of Kwan. He made a small prayer for each of the five animals, asking Kwan to escort them smoothly into the afterlife. Frank then tried to contact each animal's spirit himself, to make sure that they were not sad or lonely--that they were all right. He had never been disappointed. Once they were out of the world, Frank could sense that the animals always felt free and happy. Frank thanked Kwan, gave him a long mental-hug. Then he apologized for letting his former dog and best friend die. But Kwan always forgave him.
After meditating, Frank felt cleansed. He sat for a moment, looking at his room with clarity. It was small, dark, cheap, and musty. Yet after he meditated he could feel satisfied with it. He could sense his own presence permeate every corner.
Frank continued to sit and listen as someone came through the front door. It was Melissa, Kevin's girlfriend.
"Where's Joe and Frank?" Melissa said.
"Joe just went out like a minute before you got here," Kevin said.
"To the bar?" Melissa asked. Frank could tell she was smiling. He also had a hunch she was right now sitting on Kevin's lap, playing with his blonde hair.
"Didn't say. But I think it's a good bet."
They both laughed.
Kevin continued, "And Frank's here. I think he's doing whatever it is he does in his room."
They laughed again.
"How did you manage to find such creepy roommates?" Melissa asked.
"Frank's harmless. He talks to his dog sometimes. I heard him through the door," Kevin said.
"His dog? He has a dog? How come I've never seen it?" Melissa was now whispering, but Frank could hear her clearly. It was the meditation. It made all his senses temporarily acute.
"Not here. The dog's been dead for ten years. I asked him about it once. He had the dog when he was in vet school." Kevin's voice, already low, went down to a mumble, "did I ever tell you what happened to him in vet school?"
"Yeah. He cracked up, right?"
"Right. So he was in the hospital, and I don't know how long he stayed there, but it was a long time, like six months at least."
"Wow. Six months?"
"At least six months. And I heard he wouldn't leave bed for most of it. And he had this dog, Quiwan."
Frank was waiting for the pain of remembering to overtake him, but he did not feel it, nor did he feel the embarrassment of having has his history exposed. More than anything, Frank was irritated at the incorrect pronunciation of his dog's name. He had to fight the urge to go out and correct Kevin.
"So he loved this dog. I mean he was nuts about this dog."
"You mean besides being just plain nuts," Melissa said, and they both tee-heed in an irritating way.
"I heard the first thing he asked about when his parents visited him in the hospital was his dog. And his parents told him not to worry about his dog, that everything would be okay. Every time they came he asked about the dog and they reassured him that everything was fine."
"They should have just brought the dog with them to visit," Melissa said. "He probably would have gotten better faster."
"Well, they couldn't really do that, 'cause they were kind of nutty too. So Frank finally gets out and goes to his parent's house to get all his stuff, and the first thing they tell him--this is like hours after getting out of a psych ward remember-is that they took his dog over to the pound like the day they checked him in."
"Oh my god." Melissa said. "So what happened? Did he crack up again?"
"No. He may have come close, but no he didn't. He apparently went over to where they dropped the dog off. It had been put to sleep months ago. I guess he never really got over feeling guilty about it. I mean he still talks to the dog."
"That's awful, why should he feel guilty? His parents did it. I can't believe they did that."
"Yeah, but he thinks he let it happen. He said once that his dog died because he was too weak."
"So that's why he goes to the shelter every day?"
"Do they know he's finished most of vet school?"
"No. I went over there once. I think they just think he's some loser who doesn't work and gets disability checks and likes animals. They think he's kind of weird."
They were both laughing when Frank walked into the room. He played it like he hadn't heard a thing. They didn't even bother to stop laughing.
Frank walked over to the kitchen and looked at his overcooked rice. Most people would call it ruined, but Frank accepted the food. His error was no reason to throw away nature's gifts. He added a little tofu and soy sauce, then sat down in the chair opposite Kevin and Melissa.
"Well how are you doing today Mr. Frank Michaels?" Kevin said in a faked deep voice.
Frank nodded to indicate he was doing fine and kept on eating. But the two of them gave each other a funny look, like he had just proved some point.
"I'm okay," Frank finally said. Then he took his rice back to his bedroom.
There was a reprieve in the killing for a few days, but it never lasted long. Frank knew some seasons were lighter and some were more deadly, but there was always some killing to take care of. Frank cleaned cages, tended to the sick, walked dogs, did what needed to be done. All except the front desk. He would never do that. He could not even stand to walk through the front office, even though it was the only passage from one side of the shelter to the other without exiting the building. Frank could not quietly watch while somebody filled out a form to dispose of inconvenient animals. Even the people coming to adopt an animal were suspect, since a good percentage would be back to turn them in within the year and for many of the other animals it would probably be just as well if they did get turned in. So Frank avoided the front office like other shelter workers usually avoided The Room.
The other workers had been more than happy to put Frank in charge of killing the unfortunate excess. This was fine with Frank. Death was hard, but it was better that he did it than someone who didn't care. He remembered an existential author once wrote that the only thing that mattered in life was having a happy death. Frank thought he could at least give the animals that much; a peaceful and warm bon voyage to the after-life. True, the death of every single animal added a small weight to his soul. But he could handle it. That was why Frank meditated. It helped to lighten the load.
To differing degrees, Frank was attached to every animal in his care. But once in a while an animal came along that he simply could not get out of his head. This time, it was a black and white spaniel mix with piercing blue eyes named Lucky. Frank always found it grimly amusing how many animals named Lucky were dropped off at the shelter.
So far, Lucky had not been so fortunate with getting adopted. She had been at the shelter over two weeks now, and Frank knew that any time her name would be on the list of dogs to take to The Room.
When Frank got home, Kevin and Melissa were again whispering to each other on the couch.
After meditating, Frank joined them with his daily rice.
. "I don't know how you can stand doing that to those animals," Melissa said. Kevin nudged her with his elbow, but she continued. "Doesn't it bother you? I can't even bear to visit that place."
Frank gave a small smile. "It's not easy. But pretending it doesn't exist does not make anything go away."
Melissa shook her head hard repeatedly as if to send the bad thoughts out her ears through centrifugal force. "I just couldn't do it. I just couldn't. I would take each one home until my landlord threw me out or I became like one of those people on the news with 200 cats living in their house."
Kevin shifted around uncomfortably. Frank could see that his roommate thought he was much more fragile than he actually was. It irritated him. Once somebody finds out you have been in the mental hospital, they think you will just explode at the stupidest things.
"Don't you just get an urge to take them home and keep them sometimes?" Melissa continued, oblivious.
"I'll never own an animal again," Frankly quickly retorted,
There was an uncomfortable silence. Frank realized his tone had come out a little harsh. He tried to smooth things over by confessing more. "Sometimes, I find one that just so clearly wants to be alive that I just can't do it. I adopt them, then turn them in to another shelter. I can't keep them, but at least it gives them another shot at getting adopted."
Frank had never told anyone this before, and he felt strangely naked. Melissa and Kevin were silent, and Frank was uncertain whether to interpret the silence as disapproval. He suddenly felt an urge to flee. Frank abruptly retreated into his bedroom with his rice, shutting the door quietly behind him.
Today, there were five dogs and six cats to be killed. There would have been six of each, except Frank had Lucky in the car. He filled out the adoption paperwork and paid his fee, just like anybody else. The $60 fee was hard on Frank, since the social security check he received barely covered his basic living expenses. But Frank quietly paid, and a shelter worker who Frank saw everyday silently accepted the fee. She did not ask him what he did with all the animals he took home. She did not even look him in the eyes.
Frank took Lucky to the park and gave him a couple hours of outdoors time. This was a dog that loved to be outside. It ran in circles and smelled everything and kept jumping up to lick Frank. She was so excited to be out that it broke Frank's heart. He knew what the dog did not. He knew that within a few hours she would be back within the small, cold, malodorous confines of a new shelter. But at least Lucky would have another chance. This is what Frank kept telling himself.
Before leaving, Frank calmed Lucky down and had her sit still for a moment on a large rock. Frank asked her to pray with him for the other animals he had sent off earlier that day. Then he said a silent prayer for Lucky. Finally, with tears in his eyes, he brought the dog to a shelter across town.
When Frank came out of his room to eat his rice, Joe was again out at a bar. Kevin and Melissa were sitting together in a torn recliner.
Today they turned quiet as soon as he came out. Frank could sense tension in the air as they silently watched him eat. Frank liked very few people. Joe was a friend. Kevin and Melissa were sometimes tolerable. But tonight, he found them irritating in a way that made him want to increase their discomfort.
Frank looked directly into Melissa's eyes. Then he said, out of nowhere, "did you know I was in a mental hospital once?"
Melissa started to reply. Stopped. Bit her lip. Looked at Kevin. Then replied with a level of sincerity that Frank found both impressive and disturbing. "Really? I had no idea."
Frank let the thought hang and went back to his rice. He loudly slurped his rice as if it were soup.
"Actually, more than once," Frank said after he felt the tension in the air start to decline. This new tidbit should be news to Kevin as well. But they both played it cool.
Frank went back to slurping his rice. His head faced down into his bowl, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Melissa give a look to Kevin that seemed to mean 'shouldn't we go now?'
"You know," Frank started quickly, "in the hospital for the longest time I just wanted to die. In fact I was trying to die. I was absolutely convinced that if you really, really wanted to, you could will yourself to die. That's what I did all day. I lay in bed and just tried to will myself to die."
Kevin and Melissa gave each other another look. But this time, it couldn't be anything about leaving. Frank knew there was no way they would get up and walk out after that confession.
"I never did," Frank said after a few more minutes of tense silence.
When Frank looked up he saw Melissa leaning in to put a hand on his arm. "We're glad you didn't," she said. She seemed genuine, but who could tell?
Frank could feel tears trying to form in his eyes. He worked to push them back. They would just misunderstand. The tears were not for anything they were talking about. They were for Lucky. Frank could feel Lucky spending her first night in the new shelter. Alone in a cage. In the dark.
He distracted himself by talking, saying anything. "I still believe it you know. I think you can will yourself to death. I think I would do a better job now. The paradox is that when you're depressed enough to be in the hospital, you're too weak to will yourself to death. Now I could do it. Now I could."
Melissa was massaging his arm with her hand. She was looking at him intently, but Frank looked away. He closed his eyes, and he saw Lucky. The dog had bonded with him from the first day she was brought to the shelter. It was cruel to take her to that park, Frank thought. Lucky believed she was going to a new home. Lucky knew what was supposed to happen when a person liked an animal and an animal liked a person.
"Excuse me," Frank said abruptly, and ran to his room.
Frank came back home from the shelter with his heart heavy. There had been a dozen animals today to take to The Room. Frank needed to meditate, but before he did, he decided to make a phone call. It was a phone call he dreaded.
Frank waited on hold for the front desk person at the understaffed shelter to pick up. His heart was beating rapidly.
"Yes, hi," Frank said. "I brought a dog in a couple of weeks ago. I just wanted to check how she's doing. ID number is DA9805039."
"All right, let me put that in the computer....five-oh-three-nine....name is Lucky?"
"That's right," Frank said.
The shelter worker's voice changed. "Oh. Sir. I am sorry to have to tell you this. That dog was put to sleep two days ago."
Frank dropped the phone. He heard a voice asking if he was still there, but he felt off balance and needed to sit. He was not sure why this one had affected him so. He had seen plenty of animals die. He knew death was not a bad thing. He still believed the dog would go on in the spirit world or could be reincarnated if she chose to. Just like Kwan. Kwan. There was something about Lucky. Maybe it was Kwan coming back. Kwan altering circumstances to bring them back together. Only to be put back to sleep.
"Death is not a bad thing," Frank muttered aloud.
Yet still the weight would not lift.
Frank went immediately into his meditation, chanting "death is not a bad thing," silently, over and over in his mind. For the longest time, it did nothing. He was just sitting in a small, dark room, chanting a meaningless phrase. But eventually the background started to fade, and he started to believe the words. Frank could feel Kwan smiling at him. Soon he could feel Lucky too. Then he could feel the other animals from that day. All of them with little, perfect innocent souls singing "death is not a bad thing" right along with him. They did not blame him. They loved him, just as he loved them. They welcomed him.
He felt his spirit soar with them as the weight was lifted. There was no blame. No pain. He wanted to stay here with them.
The realization came to him that this time was different. This result was inevitable. Noone can do what he did forever. Eventually it would cost you either your soul or your life. He chose the latter.
"Join us," they said. "Join us."
And he did.