Falling for the Pet Doctor by Crystal Lacy

CHAPTERONE

Felix woketo the image of Freddie Mercury staring down at him from the ceiling in bright acrylics. The familiar sight made him want to shut his eyes again. Nope. Not a dream. Still, maybe if he closed his eyes for long enough it could become one.

When he opened his eyes again, Freddie’s stare was still assailing him. Felix cursed his teenage self for deciding it was a good idea to paint a queer music icon on the ceiling of his bedroom. Who even was the guy who’d done that, and why didn’t Felix feel like him anymore?

From the kitchen he could hear his mother’s parrot making increasingly shrill contact calls. Now Felix was one hundred percent certain this wasn’t a dream.

Fuck. He really didn’t want to be here today. He hadn’t wanted to be here this entire week, but he owed it to his mother to stay—at least until he could figure out what to do with the remains of her life. That wasn’t something he could do right this minute, though, so Felix threw his pillow over his head, added a blanket for good measure, and tried to go back to sleep.

He drifted in and out for a while, until a weird, nagging feeling in the back of his head made him resurface. It took him a while to realize: Dorian had stopped vocalizing.

What a relief.

Felix rolled over and got up, making his way to the bathroom. He turned on the tap to wet his toothbrush and began brushing his teeth. The rush of water was a welcome change from the silence that permeated the entire house. Felix peered into the mirror at his red-rimmed eyes, wondering how he could look so tired when he’d slept so much in the past three days. Much, much more than he ever slept when he was in L.A.

He’d still be sleeping at that very moment if he didn’t have plans with his cousin Mei, who’d insisted he meet her for brunch.

“Get out of that gloomy house,” she’d said at the funeral as they’d picked through cold catered chow mein noodles, and it had seemed like a good idea at the time. It didn’t seem like a good idea right now.

Still, she was probably right. It would do Felix good to get out of the house. It had been so long since he’d been downtown, and he did like eating out. It would beat subsisting on the mountain of frozen meals he’d bought himself the night after his mother’s funeral.

The house was still eerily silent as he changed into a nice T-Shirt and board shorts and made his way to the front door. He was about to go back and check on Dorian when he heard the parrot’s soft squawk.

“Guess you’re still alive,” he muttered. He felt a pinch of annoyance at how much that simple fact relieved him, because at least someone else in this place was. That’s my cue to get out of here. He started out the door.

* * *

Felix watchedas Mei tapped her fingers impatiently against the side of her water glass. She fidgeted in her seat. “I’m starving. I could eat an elephant. Two elephants.”

“Ew,” said Felix, smirking. Mei laughed and swatted him with her folded napkin.

“You’re gross,” she told him. “Why do I hang out with you?”

“No idea. You were the one who wanted to.”

The reminder distracted Mei from her indignation. A frown flashed across her face. “I wanted to make sure you didn’t isolate yourself. I’m worried about you.”

“Isn’t Auntie the one who’s worried?”

“Both of us are worried. You just lost your mom. And you’re back home after all those years away. It’s a weird situation. We both thought you could use some company.”

“Can’t coddle me forever. You’re going to have to go back to ignoring my existence some time.”

Mei’s frown deepened at this. “Hey. I’ve never ignored your existence. Can I remind you you’re the one who hasn’t accepted my friend request on Facebook? The one I sent two years ago?”

Felix felt a prickle of guilt. When he’d left home four years ago to pursue an art career in L.A., he’d wanted to cut ties with everything. Start over. Make a name for himself before he came back, triumphant, to tell his mother he had made it despite all her misgivings.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be such an asshole. I just wasn’t ready to share how crappy my life over there was.”

Mei leaned in, all her attention on him, her expression softened. “Was it really that bad?”

“It wasn’t that great,” he admitted. “I was working a temp job for an ad agency and commuting four hours a day to work. On my days off I was too exhausted to work much on actual art. And when I did get something done …” He shrugged. “None of the galleries were interested. The most I got were some design commissions online, but even those were few and far between.”

Mei was folding her napkin into a progressively smaller rectangle. “Are you going to go back?”

“Eventually, I guess. There are still a ton of things to handle with the house. If I’m going to sell it, I have to decide what I’m going to do with all that stuff. And the damn bird.”

“She loved that bird,” Mei said. “Insisted on taking him everywhere, even though he made everyone uncomfortable.”

She must have loved him more than she loved me, Felix wanted to say, but he knew it was unfair. At least, it was unfair now, because Susan Lu was gone. She couldn’t refute anything he said.

“Ma says she’d love to have you over for dinner some time. Maybe next week?”

If Felix refused, Mei would probably insist on going out for lunch again. As nice as it was to eat food that didn’t come out of the freezer, he wasn’t sure he could handle more of this painfully careful conversation.

Luckily, before he could answer, the waiter arrived with their food. The plates were huge. Mei took a few seconds to gape at all the delicious things before her, her phone’s camera pulled up so she could snap photos of the food from every angle.

“You’re really weird,” he said, but pulled out his own phone to take a picture of his steaming bowl of chicken pho: clear mellow yellow broth, dotted with bright green spring onion.

“Shut up, I’m hungry.”

They remained quiet except for soft slurping noises and the clink of their utensils as they polished off their meals. Felix sat back in his seat and stretched, feeling a burp coming on.

“Wow, I haven’t been this full in …”

In a week, at least. Not since he got the news of his mother’s passing.

Mei caught the thread of his sentence and shot him a sympathetic look. She reached for his hand across the table, and Felix was too tired to pull it away from her. As they sat in silence, Felix remembered why he’d always gotten along with Mei. She was the only one of his relatives who would sit with him in commiserating silence at a moment like this. They’d been close since they were kids. She understood him.

“I’ll add you on Facebook,” he said. “If I can bother wading through the pages and pages of friend requests to find your profile pic.”

Mei let out an unseemly snort. “Yeah, I’m sure you really do have pages and pages of friend requests. “

Felix had one page of friend requests, and it had four people on it, two of whom he was sure were ad bots. The fourth was a sorta-ex he didn’t want to deal with. “Talk like that and I won’t look for you.”

“How will I ever survive the disappointment?” she asked dryly.

* * *

He got back home laterthan he’d planned to. They’d walked around Chinatown after lunch, and then Mei had roped him into seeing a movie at the Dole Cannery theatre with her—some art film she’d wanted to see forever. Felix had let himself be dragged along. As exhausting as it was, after an hour and a half spent in living human company, away from Dorian’s annoying contact calls and the ghosts of his mother’s memories, he’d remembered what it was like to do things, and he hadn’t wanted to go back. Too bad there was nowhere else to go. God, he hated this island.

The house was bathed in darkness. He flicked on the lights.

“I’m home,” he called sarcastically. Silence hung like a heavy curtain over everything. Felix frowned. In the few days he’d been back in this house, his mother’s parrot had never failed to make annoyingly loud squawks and whistles whenever he came back.

“Dorian?” Felix called. “Are you—”

He stopped in his tracks when he got to the kitchen. The parrot was huddled at the bottom of his cage, pressed into a corner, his feathers ruffled and his eyes blinking blearily up at Felix. His feet were wet with something. It took Felix a second to realize what it was, but there was no mistaking the dark red-brown splatters that spotted the newspaper lining.

“Shit,” Felix whispered. “Dorian.”