Animal Hospital! Animal Hospital! the children would shout. We want to play Animal Hospital! Together the brother and sister sounded like kooks, like bedlamites, like unchristened savages. Animal Hospital was a game the father had invented one day while the mother was away; it was only ever played in her absence. No one needed to say this directly, as it was something both the boy and the girl intuitively understood because there was something about the game that was troubling, not-quite-right. It began soon after their pet cat, a Russian Blue, had been put to sleep, after which the children fell into an adult grief that lasted several weeks. During this time, the children lay on the floor, beside bowls of stale milk, sadly meowing. It went on like this until one Saturday, a month later, when the father said, Enough. He had been lying unhappily on the floor, allowing his children to whine and pelt him with toys. He sat up and adjusted his glasses and said, Okay. Let’s find something else to do. Something fun.
What’s fun? the children asked.
I know, the father said. Let’s play a game.
No, the children cried, as if they had been scalded.
Come on, let’s make something up.
No, they cried again, rolling around on the floor like lepers. The father tried to conjure up the least interesting game he could think of, something that would keep the children busy but would require almost no effort from him.
I know, he said. Let’s pretend to be Lutherans.
No! the children shouted in protest.
Let’s pretend to work for the IRS.
No! the children said again.
I know, I know. How about animal doctors? Let’s pretend to be animal doctors. He picked up a stuffed animal, a furry white rabbit, and said, Look. This animal seems to be sick. Who can help?
The daughter looked down at the stuffed rabbit and said, He looks fine.
The father adjusted his glasses again and then leaned over, poking the animal’s fluffy side. No, its belly looks a little swollen, he said. And I’m not getting much of a pulse.
Maybe it has a tumor, the boy, six years old, said.
Maybe it has a heart defect, the girl, four years old, replied.
The father raised his eyebrows, thinking it over. Maybe, he said. Should we operate?
The children nodded seriously. Their operating tools were a plastic toy telephone, a child-sized flashlight that was missing its batteries, and a broken doll’s arm. The father held the instruments aloft and tried not to be invasive. He mimed removing an important organ and then held it up proudly. I think its kidney is infected, he said. Let’s put in a new one.
Hurry. The patient’s blood is beginning to coagulate, the boy said.
Really? the father asked.
Hurry. Its eyeballs are starting to pop out, the girl said.
Hold on, the father said. Here. Look. A brand new kidney, he said, holding up a piece of red felt. I’ve attached it. Just in time.
No, the boy said. It’s dying.
Really? the father asked. We just put a new kidney in.
The kidney didn’t work, the girl said. Look. It’s shaky. Its heart is beating too hard.
Then here, the father said. Let’s give it a new heart.
No, the boy said. It’s too late. It’s dying.
Really? the father asked again. Because, I feel like we should get another doctor in here, maybe someone with more experience?
No, the girl said. It’s dying. We’re going to have to put it to sleep.
Really? the father asked, more than a little incredulous.
The children both nodded grimly. It felt like they were trespassing then, stepping beyond some age-old boundary, like the room itself had suddenly fallen into shadows. The father looked at them and said, We only put them to sleep if there’s no other way.
There’s no other way, the children both agreed. But this too was part of life, and so the father sighed and picked up a broken plastic pen, using it as a syringe.
Any last words? the father asked.
Say hi to Jesus, the girl said.
The father blinked and then inserted the imaginary dose of pentobarbital. The children looked down at what they had done. There was a gruesome pleasure, an odd freedom, to the proceedings; the father was sure he had allowed the children to do something they weren’t supposed to, but felt he lacked the mother’s resources—the affectionate, irrational instinct—to prevent them from what they had done. The stuffed bunny—now looking limp, now properly euthanized—was left in a corner of the basement, never to be played with again.
Two days later, the children began to plead, Animal Hospital, Animal Hospital, demanding to play the game again. The father felt uncertain about this, as he did most things. He was glad they were doing something other than lying on the floor, throwing things at him. He was also happy he could, for once, give the children something they wanted, as this was the position most often held by their darling mother. But it all felt a little wrong. Finally, seeing their round, cartoon-shaped faces, he agreed. The boy presented a rotund polar bear, placing it on the floor before them.
What seems to be the trouble with this fellow? the father asked.
The girl turned the polar bear on its back and said, It’s got hettles.
Hettles? the father asked.
It’s like a rash, the girl announced. But on the inside.
Is that even possible? the father asked.
But the girl only shrugged her shoulders. The father tried a false smile. Well, that sounds easy enough. Here, and he pretended to feed the bear a large capsule. One of these and he’ll be as good as new.
No, the boy said. Look. He’s choking.
He’s not choking.
Look at his eyes. He is, the girl said. The hettles are on the inside of his throat.
The father held the polar bear close and then gave it an injection from a disposable pen. Here, he said. The antidote. I just discovered it. This will save the patient.
No, the boy said, now it’s got heart failure.
Its heart is bad, the girl added. We have to put it to sleep.
But look, the father said. Look. It’s moving.
Those are worms. From the infection. They only make it look like they’re moving.
Really? the father murmured. Worms?
We better put it to sleep, the girl said again.
The father looked up at the serious expressions on their faces. Our mortality rate around here guys is . . . it’s not good. Let’s try something else. But both children had already made up their minds. The father sighed a deep sigh, wishing he had some sort of secret, abiding strength, but found there was none. Defeated, he slid the imaginary needle in and then set the instrument down. The children’s faces looked eerie and pleased. They said they wanted to put on a funeral for the bear, but the father waved them away, saying he suddenly had a headache.
The following Saturday, while the father and mother were laying in bed, the children began to shout: Animal Hospital! Animal Hospital! We want to play Animal Hospital!
No way, the father said. You guys . . . No way.
But the children would not relent.
Animal Hospital! Animal Hospital!
Finally the father crawled from bed and fixed some instant coffee. The girl placed the patient—a sad-eyed elephant—down on the glass table. The father stared at the animal, poking it impersonally with his pinky.
What’s wrong with Mr. Floppy? he asked.
Lice, the boy said.
Lice? That’s it? That shouldn’t be too hard.
Lice, the boy said. They’ve burrowed into his heart.
Jesus. You guys, he said. You have to . . . The father paused, running a hand over his tired face. Well, what do we do about it?
You have to save it, they said.
The father sucked in a breath and looked around the floor for something to use. He found a broken meat thermometer and prodded it into the elephant’s side. There, he said. A dose of penicillin. All better.
No, the boy said. Now it’s got gangrene.
No, the girl said. Now it’s got polio.
Polio? the father asked. What the . . . you guys are . . . your mom is trying to sleep in there. Let’s play this game later.
No, they said. You have to save it.
Jesus, the father grumbled. Just . . . Jesus. He pulled a corkscrew out of a drawer and inserted it into one of the patient’s floppy ears. There, he said. This is an inoculation against both gangrene and polio. Now he’s fine.
No, the girl said. Now it doesn’t want to live.
Come on, the father said, a little too excited. You guys . . . Here, he said again. I just gave him some antidepressants. Now he’s feeling better.
No, now he’s overweight, the boy said. Now he’s got diabetes.
No way, the father said. No way.
We’re going to have to amputate, the girl said. We’re going to have to cut off its legs.
The father put down the imaginary needle and said, Okay. We’re done here. We’re done playing this game.
The children said, No. We have to put it to sleep.
No way, the father said. We’re not putting anything in this house to sleep.
But the children would not concede. The father thought that if he could only convince them of something—to get them to see that death was not the end, not the only answer—that they would come to understand something important, something necessary, something fiercely beautiful. But he did not know how to put any of these things into words. He thought about waking his wife, thought about asking her what he should do, but knew she would only give him a look of familiar disappointment.
Animal Hospital. Animal Hospital. Animal Hospital, the children were now chanting. Animal Hospital. Animal Hospital. Animal Hospital.
He held the imaginary needle aloft, doing his best to think, once again not knowing what to do.