“Douglas Ferguson, Doctor of Fey Veterinary Medicine.”
Tom read the message on his laptop screen. The online receptionist had said the doctor would be with them soon. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulder, and followed her worried gaze to the bundle in her lap.
Skittle poked his finger-tip sized bronze head out of Loraine’s scarf. She cradled him in one hand and gently stroked the ridge along his back. Skittle wrapped tiny forelegs around Loraine’s thumb, his long snake-like tail curled around her wrist, and gave a weak chirp.
Tom bought the genetically engineered fey creature for Loraine after their youngest son graduated from college and moved out. She named him Skittle for his colorful droppings. The two of them had giggled together like teenagers, played with the young sprite, and fed him white bread cubes soaked in cream. Sprite magic kept their house tidy, revealed lost things, and produced a soothing aura. Young Skittle had filled their home with a relaxing peat-smoke scent.
But just like them, Skittle was getting old. His purple feathers were tipped with gray, his shiny bronze scales dulled. He didn’t have the energy to fly anymore, and his clear yellow eyes had turned an opaque orange.
Tom rearranged the scarf around Skittle, nestled in Loraine’s hand. He kissed the top of her head, breathing in her clean lavender scent. She was as lovely today as the day he married her, and it hurt him to see her distressed.
The screen flickered and a young man in a white lab coat sat down. Tom thought of Doogie Howser, except this youngster was probably in diapers when that show was on TV. “Mr. and Mrs. Williams, I’m Doctor Ferguson. How can I help you today?”
“A pleasure to meet you doctor,” said Tom. “Skittle, our sprite, seems to be sick.”
Doctor Ferguson’s smile conveyed the perfect mix of sympathy and clinical concern. “Of course. May I?”
Loraine rested the small bundle gently on the table and cooed, “There now Skittle sweetie. The nice doctor needs to take a look.”
Tom pealed back the scarf.
Skittle’s eyes glowed dark orange. He hissed at the doctor.
A crash. Dr. Ferguson’s on-screen head was abruptly replaced by his torso. Tom exchanged an exasperated look with his wife as the doctor righted his chair and sat down again, back straight.
Dr. Ferguson cleared his throat. “Pardon me. How old is your sprite?”
“About fifteen years.”
“Do you still have the iron sprite habitat?”
Tom turned the laptop camera toward Skittle’s metal home on the kitchen table. The box included perches and a sleeping sling. He readjusted the laptop to face himself and Loraine.
Dr. Ferguson seemed to relax. “You’ll need to put your sprite in the iron habitat and bring him to my office right away.”
“What’s wrong with Skittle?” demanded Loraine.
“I’m so sorry. I’m afraid that Skittle is quite old for a domestic sprite. He’s dying.”
Tom squeezed her free hand. “Can’t you do something for him?”
Dr. Ferguson shook his head. “You’ve taken good care of Skittle, he’s lived a long and satisfying life. Longer than most.” Dr. Ferguson cleared his throat. “We have several young sprites to choose from. You can take one home today.”
Tom and Loraine looked at each other, bewildered. “What about Skittle?” they asked in unison.
“You’ll have time to say goodbye. We’ll keep him very comfortable and then, uh, euthanize him of course.”
Skittle growled and Dr. Ferguson leaned away.
“What? Why would we do that?” Loraine gathered up Skittle and cuddled him against her chest. Tom leaned in to position himself protectively between his wife and the screen.
Ferguson’s jaw was set. “Domestic sprites were engineered with the intelligence of a Labrador retriever to generate helpful, benign magic. But as they reach the end of their life, genetically engineered sprites revert to their natural, wild state.”
“Didn’t you review the warning literature when you bought him? Have you read any traditional fairy tales? Wild sprites create mischief. They are extremely dangerous.”
“Skittles would never hurt us,” declared Loraine.
“We won’t abandon Skittle just because he’s old,” Tom agreed.
“We’re keeping him at home.”
Ferguson shook his head. “I understand how you feel. Many sprite owners become attached.” He pulled up his sleeve to reveal a row of ugly red scars. “A sprite isn’t a pet like a dog or cat. Skittle is dangerous. By law I can send a HazCon team to confiscate him.”
Loraine rested her head against Tom’s shoulder and began to cry.
Tom pulled her close, doing his best not to lose his temper with Dr. Horrible. “Be reasonable. After all the years Skittle has given us, it’s only right that he pass peacefully at home.”
That evening Loraine made Tom’s favorite meal, chicken enchiladas, for dinner. She and Tom lingered at the kitchen table with Skittle in the iron habitat, and reminisced about the good times with their sprite. They took turns offering Skittle cream-soaked white bread cubes he licked with his forked tongue, but didn’t eat.
Dr. Ferguson made them both sign a liability waiver. They were not to make any important decisions. No guests, especially not their grandchildren. He and Loraine promised to watch each other for unusual behavior. If they changed their minds, they could bring Skittle to Dr. Ferguson’s office, inside the iron cage.
Tom began clearing the dishes.
“Do you want help, dear?” asked Loraine.
“No way. You cooked this delicious meal, it’s only right that I clean up after.” He gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek and a gentle nudge toward the living room.
Tom had just filled the sink with soapy water when Loraine sauntered up behind him and whispered in his ear. “You’ll never guess what’s on TV. Gremlins.”
Tom grinned. Gremlins was the last film they saw in a drive-in. Truth be told, they didn’t actually watch and their daughter was conceived that night. “What about the dishes?”
She grinned back and shrugged. “The dishes can wait. Want to relive a fond memory?”
“You bet.” Tom dried his hands. “Be right back.”
“I’ll make popcorn.”
Tom left his cane behind and hurried to the bathroom. He opened the medicine cabinet, but his bottle of blue pills was not there. He looked under the sink, on his nightstand, under the bed. The aroma of popcorn wafted from the kitchen. Tom limped back.
Loraine’s face fell when she saw him. “What’s wrong, darling?”
From the habitat on the kitchen table, Skittle chirped.
The liquor cabinet key was the next thing to go missing. Tom lost the rubber tip from his cane. When Tom couldn’t find the TV remote, he knew Skittle had to go.
Tom shuffled into the kitchen and reached for his favorite coffee cup, World’s Best Grandpa. A deep growl vibrated from the sprite habitat on the table. The sour, spoiled milk stink that permeated the house was strongest there.
Tom lifted the coffee pot and poured a cup. Though just brewed, it smelled like it’d sat on the warmer all day—burnt. He took a carton of cream from the refrigerator and poured a congealed lump that splashed black sludge onto the countertop. Skittle chirped.
Eleven days since they’d seen Ferguson, and the damn sprite was still alive. Skittle perched in his habitat and watched Tom with half-closed blood-red eyes. Loraine had been feeding the little monster herself since it bit him. Tom’s finger was still sore.
He left the cup on the kitchen counter and grabbed a beer bottle from the fridge. He dropped the beer-cap in the trash on top of several empty frozen dinner cartons.
Loraine had stopped cooking meals, to Tom’s relief. She said it messed up her clean kitchen. The microwave dinners weren’t that bad, and he didn’t have to worry about his wife poisoning his food. Yet.
Tom limped into the living room, where Loraine was watching an infomercial. If it’s got to be clean, it’s got to be tripe. He congratulated himself for remembering the TV remote was missing before he sat down. From the panel control, he selected a Hitchcock film, Shadow of Doubt. Loraine got up with a huff just as Tom settled in to watch.
The film was at the best part—the girl trapped in a garage with an idling car—when Loraine returned armed with their new bag-less vacuum cleaner. Its roar drowned out his program, and she swung the hose around with the ferocity of a Jedi knight combating dust bunnies. She nearly lost the fight when the suction end caught on one of the silly embroidered doilies she kept on the coffee table. She rescued it just in time.
That weak-minded old woman was clearly affected by the old sprite’s mean-spirited wild magic. Cleaning all the time. Before the sprite’s demise, Loraine had never been so inconsiderate. Now that cleanliness was next to obsessiveness, he stayed out of her way.
Tom retreated to his workshop in the garage to drink his beer in peace. From the dust-free state of his tools, Tom suspected his wife had even succumbed to her illicit affair with Mr. Clean in the sanctity of his workshop. He needed to put a stop to this. It was only right.
Everything he needed to commit sprite homicide was laid out on his workbench. The plastic hose, white vinegar jug, baking soda, large Ziploc bags, and measuring cups were all ready for tonight after Loraine went to sleep. In the center was the air-tight storage container big enough for the sprite habitat. Or as that website described it: the euthanasia chamber.
“Tom!” Loraine called. Her voice had that edge of panic usually reserved for discovering a spider. Why didn’t she do the sensible thing and simply suck it up with the vacuum hose and leave him alone? But, a test subject was just what he needed, so Tom hurried inside and found her in the kitchen.
She stared into the sprite habitat, still holding the vacuum hose. “Just look at poor Skittle. He’s dying!”
Skittle drooped on the main perch, eyes closed. The sight of his tiny chest rising and falling with labored breath filled Tom with regret. He wouldn’t get to try out his home-made euthanasia chamber after all.
Tom awkwardly put his arm around her shoulders, something he hadn’t done in over a week.
Loraine waved the vacuum hose. “What’ll we do?”
Tom wrinkled his nose. The stink was strongest near Skittle. “Let’s go out to eat and see a film. It’ll all be over by the time we get back.”
Loraine sniffed. “But… poor Skittle is suffering!”
Tom thought of the TV remote and the supplies on his workbench. “We could speed things along a bit. Put Skittle out of his misery.”
Loraine pushed him away. “What do you mean?”
In his enthusiasm, Tom forgot his plan was a secret. “Carbon dioxide. Quick and painless. Skittle would go to sleep peaceful-like, and not wake up.”
Loraine’s hand rested on her hip, eyes narrowed. For a moment Tom thought she might hit him with the vacuum nozzle in her other hand. “You mean kill Skittle? By using the car exhaust or something?”
The thought had crossed his mind, a few dozen times. “You’re thinking of carbon monoxide. We can make carbon dioxide with vinegar and baking soda.”
“That stuff in your workshop! You’ve been planning this all along? I thought you were going to make a volcano with the grandkids!”
She’d found the incriminating evidence. Tom stuttered. “No. No way. A volcano with the kiddies was exactly what I was, um, planning. But, you said as how he’s suffering so we may as well—”
The outrage on Loraine’s face stopped him mid-sentence. Eyes on the vacuum hose she wielded, Tom shook his head. “Fine. What do you want to do?”
Loraine reached into the habitat and gently stroked the sprite’s head. A bronze scale came off on her fingertip. “I want to take Skittle to that nice doctor. What was his name?”
“I’m sure he’ll make Skittle’s last hours… more comfortable.”
Tom looked at the clock. “Just an hour before closing.” This was working out better than he’d hoped. They’d bring home a new sprite and he’d have his TV remote and blue pills by bedtime. “I’ll get the car keys.”
Loraine hesitated. “Wait. Just look at the habitat. It’s a mess.”
The habitat floor was covered in dried-up bread cubes and rainbow-colored droppings. He shrugged. “I’m sure they’ve seen worse.”
On his way to the garage, Tom reflected on how young people got to have all the fun. The car keys were missing from the peg. They’d just have to call a cab.
He found Loraine in the kitchen holding the vacuum nozzle to the habitat floor. She reached for the switch.
The vacuum whooshed, followed a second later by the strained-motor suction of a blocked hose.
Thwump. The blockage rattled down the hose as the motor roared back to life. Rainbow droppings and a gray, purple and bronze lump spun around the clear canister.
Loraine cried out, dropped the vacuum hose, and collapsed to her knees.
Tom switched off the vacuum and disconnected the bin assembly. Or as he would refer to it in the retelling: the euthanasia chamber. He dumped the contents right onto the kitchen floor in front of Loraine. Gray and purple feathers mixed with dust billowed up from the pile of rainbow poo, followed by the plop of Skittle’s crumpled body.
Tom lowered himself to the floor next to Loraine. They stared at the shimmering pile together in silence.
The sprite’s bronze scales and feathers began to spin around the body, accelerating until it all collapsed into a ball then burst open like a confetti popper. The liquor cabinet key and scales jingled and bounced off the floor, along with the TV remote, bottle of blue pills, cane tip, car keys, and everything else they’d lost.
Tom sat back on his heels and rubbed his temples. He felt lighter. The soured sprite aura dissipated and the irritation he’d felt toward Loraine lifted.
The sprite’s influence was gone.
Tom recalled his recent horrid behavior. The memories washed over him in a wave of guilt for the way he had treated his wife.
He gathered Loraine into his arms and caressed her back tenderly. Tom murmured into her ear, “I’m so sorry, lovey.” Skittle had meant so much to his dear wife. He added, “At least it was quick.”
Loraine smiled for the first time in over a week. “Your method would’ve been better.”
Tom smiled back. After all these years, he loved his wife and fellow sprite murderer more than ever.
Miriah Hetherington lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. She has never been faced with the agonizing choice to euthanize a family pet… as far as her children know. Miriah’s infrequently updated blog can be found at http://miriah.net/