The Stray

His one-time girlfriend Leyla Santiago stood in the misting rain with Dr. Nancy from the Best Pal Clinic.  The two of them wore face coverings, and he had the car windows up, so everything they said was like mock, mock, mock. A little while ago, one of the vet techs took inside the carrier holding Leyla’s cat, Darla. She might’ve been around sixteen years old and weighed 4 ½ pounds.

Bart had already blown it with Leyla, though when he volunteered to drive her and Darla to the clinic, she’d said all right. She rented an apartment in downtown Birmingham, worked out of there. The starter in Leyla’s car had been busted going on nine months and during the pandemic she’d had the time to consider many things about her life, including how much she had to do with the fucked-up environment. She had decided that if something wasn’t within walking reach, she didn’t need it. Her good intentions made tricky the wait-outside-in-your-car-until-we-send-out-a-tech-to-get-your-pet system Best Pal had established.

Under her open lab coat and stethoscope, Dr Nancy had on a cantaloupe-colored sweater. Leyla wore all denim, and her graying hair was made silvery by the rain. The talk about the cat went on for five minutes. Then five minutes more. Bart was getting cold but thought twice about starting the car engine because of the looks he might get from them. He rubbed his hands together. Leyla still could rock those faded jeans. At one point, it looked like the doc was ready to head back inside, but Leyla reached her hand forward. Hang on. He heard that. Dr Nancy’s expression remained patient, kind. The news could not be good.

Finally, they parted. Dr Nancy returned to the clinic, and Leyla came over to the passenger door, opened it, then dropped herself in next to him. She tugged down her mask, swiped her palms on her cheeks, then tapped them at her temples.

“Long talk,” he said.

“There’s a lot wrong.” She leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms. “I’m glad that D didn’t hear any of that. My little baby. They got to keep her overnight. Maybe a couple of days. They think Pancreatic cancer.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Just be happy with the time she has left, that’ll be the verdict. So, that’s it.”

“. . . we just go?”

“They have to bring out the bill.”

“Of course. Anything I can do?”

“You did it, you drove me here. On your Saturday morning.”

“It was nothing.” He stared at the windshield. “There’ve been times I’ve been upset at the whole world, too,” he said. The misting rain had brought an opaqueness to the glass. “Like everything’s for shit.”

She sniffed. “When did that happen to you last? For example.”

He wanted to joke, say, When I watched the news this morning. “Lemme think. I want to say when somebody I knew died. But people die, it does happen.” It was not quite the right thing to offer. “I guess when you broke up with me,” he said.


He couldn’t tell if she doubted him or wanted him to change the subject. “Well, I was in love with you. I just shoulda said it more.”

“Yeah, you should’ve.”

“Would it have made any difference?”

“No,” she said. “Not in the end. I didn’t love you, Bart. Not in the end.” In his direction, she turned her head part of the way.

He could barely make out the cobalt-blue neon letters C-L-I-N-I-C over the doorway. “What’s it called when a painter uses little dabs of paint . . .?”

“Um, pointillism, I think. The painter is a pointillist.”

“Right. That’s what this looks like with the raindrops, I guess.”

She was on her phone then, checking her response against what was out there. She said, “Here, Oxford Languages says, it’s ‘a technique of neo-impressionist painting using tiny dots of various pure colors, which become blended in the viewer’s eye.’” She waved at the windshield. “Actually, the rain kinda blurs things.”

“I’ll be. Hey, here.” He’d taken out his wallet. “Lemme pay for half of the bill today. Take it.” A Discover card.

“I couldn’t accept that.”

“Darla.” he said, in a quieter voice.

Then, she said, “All right. Thank you.” When she spoke again, she said, “This clinic is expensive, best in town.” She tucked the card in the pocket of her coat.

On cue, a different vet tech than the one who’d taken Darla away, appeared at the fender of Bart’s Honda. Leyla got out to see about it. Through the pebbly windshield, he could see the tech holding the clipboard over to Leyla, who examined the charges. There must’ve been quite a number of them because it seemed like Leyla was running her index finger down the length of the page. She reached into the pocket of her jacket—-was she charging all of it to him? In another pocket, she drew out the slender wallet where she kept her phone and cards. After the tech had gone inside, Leyla stood out there alone, with her arms crossed in front of her. He could tell when she’d glance in his direction. He recognized the frowning. He’d wanted to help her today in any way he could, in any way she allowed. He’d listen to her talk about how worried she was about Darla. Or whatever else. Roe, Ukraine, 2024. An argument, one of the last, had been about all the talking. It seemed ridiculous to him now.

With her arms still crossed in front of her, Leyla came to him. The driver’s side window rolled down and in came the flecks of rain.  She brought her face within a foot of his, had forgotten to pull up her mask. “I don’t want you to think badly of me,” she said.


“I want to bring Darla home. They say they want to keep an eye on her, but I don’t know.” Her eyes kept blinking; a damp strand of hair lay plastered to her forehead. “What does it matter? But I’m worried it’s selfish.”

“Well, everyone’s selfish if you really look at it,” he said.

“What kind of answer is that?”

“Maybe they have medicine here for her.”

“They can give it to me, and I can give it to her.” She considered the entrance to the clinic. “What do you think?” She wasn’t going to take his advice, he knew that. Right then, he wondered why people did that, asked for an opinion when they’d already made up their mind.

I can’t speak for a cat, he wanted to say.

“I’ll wait, whatever you decide.” At this, the glass door at the entrance opened and Leyla went back in that direction. The tech presented her receipts. Leyla spoke and the tech listened. The window on the driver’s side had remained down and Leyla cut her eyes, perhaps thinking he was eavesdropping. After the tech went back inside, Leyla brought over the paperwork so he could see the cost and then she returned to the fender of the car. The rain had stopped. When exactly had that happened?


The receipts came stapled to the paperwork Leyla had filled out earlier. She’d written “16(?)” for Darla’s age. Darla had been taken in literally at Leyla’s doorstep. This had been maybe seven or eight years ago, well before Bart had come along. One morning, when Leyla had gone to take her dog Penny for a walk, she’d spotted a cat in the hallway of her apartment building. Cats got locked out of their apartments, it happened. They’d make a little escape, then realize they wanted back in. This cat was down at the far end of the hallway. When Leyla and Penny returned to their apartment, the cat was standing in front of her door. She was panting. She was skeletal, disoriented. Leyla grabbed her up, went straight to the vet. They started in with the IVs. They discovered she didn’t have a microchip.

While Bart and Leyla were sitting up on the couch at her place, Darla would jump up and join them. They’d pet her and play with her. They’d talk about where she’d come from, how she’d gotten into the building. Of course, the security door was a joke. They theorized she’d been a drop-off, somebody figuring a downtown-living, bleeding-heart would take her in. Darla had some scavenger in her, she couldn’t have survived otherwise. Bart had been the one to offer this idea. They knew nothing else about her.

The carrier was brought out to Leyla. The tech also held over pill bottles. Bart swiveled, reached for the backseat passenger door. Leyla guided the carrier onto the back seat, then situated herself next to it. Immediately, she swung open the little door of the carrier and Darla stepped out. Leyla guided the carrier behind Bart’s seat so that Darla would have more room. She was a cat with pigeon-gray fur, small paws. Her hair was damp in places, maybe she’d tipped over her water bowl or something. Her eyes kept blinking. “Little heat, please,” Leyla said. Darla stood in the middle of the passenger seat and didn’t look steady. Her balance seemed tenuous. He was reluctant to put the car in reverse. “I’ll watch her,” Leyla said.

“Can you just put her in your lap or something?” he said.

“Let her do what she wants.”

Bart decided to back up. When he pulled onto 4th Avenue, he had a make a sharp turn and did so as slowly as possible. He swerved to miss a pothole and Darla tipped in Leyla’s direction. Leyla caught her, decided then to pick her up, and cradle her. Darla wanted down and returned to the middle of the seat. She was skin and bones. The face of a domestic cat was quite small, really. When a cat’s hair wasn’t all dry and fluffy, you could tell that. During a long red light at the intersection of 29th Street, Darla finally sat back on her hind legs. He heard Leyla sniff, and his eyes went to the rear view.  She stared hard at the passenger window on her side.

Fourth Avenue was uneven in places. He observed how poorly the streets were kept. He thought, Goddamnit, who’s in charge of this, anyway? Darla remained in her sitting up position. Trash lined the wet, downtown streets. They were in terrible shape overall. He made note of the cavities, fractures, chuckholes. The least he could do was provide a smooth ride. Who knew, maybe Leyla would invite him in, if only for a cup of coffee.


Andrew Plattner lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He has a dog named Ollie. Earlier this year, his story collection, Tower, was published by Mercer University Press.