The Animal House

By Manuel Gonzales

Wendy claimed she found the house on her way home. She claimed she could smell it from the sidewalk, and maybe she could. Her nose was better at smelling things than mine was. As it was, I couldn’t smell anything even standing on the small, cement porch out front. Only after she opened the door and I stuck my head inside did the smell hit me. It was thick and damp, full of hoof and fur, though when I mentioned this to Wendy, she told me, “None of these animals have hooves.”

The noise was such that I was surprised we couldn’t hear them bawling and cawing and thrushing in our own house, two blocks away. The animals were caged and I asked Wendy, “Where did those cages come from?”

She shook her head. “Animal shelter?”

“I thought the shelter closed,” I said, but she only shrugged.

Then we walked through the house. There were ducks and grackles, a couple of squirrels, a few feral cats, a litter of rats, and two brown animals I didn’t recognize that Wendy said she thought were nutrias, which didn’t sound like the name of an animal so much as a sinus medicine. In larger cages outside, she told me, in the backyard there were three stray dogs. She showed them to me, all of them, gave me a tour of the house and all its residents, and for a moment she acted as if they were her animals, her responsibility. And then she bent down to one of the cages and I asked her what the hell she was doing and she said, “I want to hold one of them.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t think you should.”

She gave me a sharp and disapproving look and then shook her head and then opened the cage and pulled out one of the nutrias, which climbed into her arms. She pet it on the head and cooed in its ear and lifted it out and held it for me to touch, and when I told her, No way, no how, she told it not to listen to the bad man.

*   *   *

When I first met Wendy, I was lying in the middle of the floor of an empty house and it was dark and she was standing over me. A house I should mention I had broken into thinking it could be a place I could live. She was brandishing what had at first looked like a shotgun, but which was a floor lamp, held not like you’d hold a gun, but like you’d aim a cattle prod, or a spear. She was the first person, aside from my parents, I’d had any real interaction with since moving back.

I’d moved in with my parents, and I was short of cash, having used the last of it to work my way back home, which I came to discover had been all but abandoned for no other reason than that, for most people, it seemed like a good time to move on—to some other small town, or a city, maybe—and then, of course, some of the people didn’t move on, but instead passed away, which more or less had the same effect. In any case, it seemed like as good a time as any to move back to my parents’ house, my parents being some of the few who decided to stick it out, and there get my bearings straightened out, or oiled, or whatever thing you do to bearings to make them work again. After a short while I figured I needed to find my own place but I still had no money and there was a shortage of jobs, so I found it difficult to scrounge up enough money to move out. But the town was sick with empty houses, old and rundown, and I figured they couldn’t be in such bad shape I couldn’t pull them together again and then live in one of them, and so I began to wander through town and study them with a critical eye.

The one I’d finally picked, though, turned out to be Wendy’s, which I discovered the first night I spent there.

The sight of her, silhouetted against the front window, faint moonlight filtering in through the threadbare shades, made me feel drowsy and unhurried, and for a moment, I considered going back to sleep, knowing she’d stay standing over me until I woke again.

“That’s not how you hold a gun,” I told her.

“It’s not a gun,” she said, knowing, as she said it, she should’ve lied. “What are you doing here?” she said.

“Is it a cattle prod? Or a spear?” I asked.

“A cattle prod?” she said, and in her voice I sensed that she wanted to laugh at what I’d said. Instead, she slammed the lamp onto my shin, which was how I understood it to be a lamp.

It hurt because it was unexpected, not because it hurt. She didn’t have the strength to hit me hard enough, and the lamp was cheaply made, and she didn’t have good leverage on the swing, throwing the end of it down from her chest, like a hockey player slapping his stick against the ice. Which made me wonder, briefly, what had happened to all of the ice from the skating ring in the mall now that the mall had closed.

“What are you doing here?” she said again.

It had been a long time since I’d had to come up with anything substantial to say to anyone, and when she asked me the question, I didn’t know how to answer.

She swung her lamp down at my shin again, thought his time I was prepared for the attack and moved mostly out of the way.

“Wait,” I said. “Wait.”

And she paused, her lamp brandished higher, ready for another, stronger swing, and she waited for me to say something, but I didn’t know what to say.

Part Two

Six or seven or eight years ago I worked a little job for a small zoo near where I lived with my parents, or not a zoo, more a nature trail, or a series of trails that had animals on it. I mean, the land had animals on it, wild animals, owls, bobcats, squirrels, snakes, rats, mice, hawks and buzzards, and other sorts of wild animals, but it also had a small area set aside for an odd assortment of caged animals. These consisted of two dik-diks, four ring-tailed lemurs and two brown lemurs, a porcupine, a pair of wallabies, a greenhouse-like structure full of butterflies, a capybara, and an African wild dog. It wasn’t a good job. I was an office assistant and sometimes they would ask me to watch the ticket desk or to move furniture around in the small conference room they advertised for businesses that wanted to conduct meetings or ropes courses there. I didn’t do anything interesting and I wasn’t paid well and I didn’t receive any benefits, but it was, out of all the jobs I held before leaving home, my favorite, mainly because very little was asked of me, the smallest amount of effort on my part warranted high praise, and when no one was paying careful attention, I could easily sneak away from my desk or whatever clerical task I had been assigned, and spend half an hour, and sometimes up to an hour, wandering through the trails.

This was the last job I had before I left home to go out into the world and make something of my life, and my first thought, after living with my parents again, was that I should live there, that if I was really going to leave my parents’ house, what better place to live than in the woods, among those trails and the animals that inhabited them. I pictured a small, mobile camp, somewhere in between the Hoot Owl Trail and the Woodduck Trail or deep into the trees off the Bluestem Trail. I pictured a minimal kind of life, a paring down, a small fire just after dark and when the weather turned truly cold, nothing to signal that I was there, that anyone was there. I pictured all of this so well that the next night I walked to the only bookstore left open in town and which happened to specialize in hunting and survival texts. For an hour or two, I browsed through various survival guides, including books that promised to show me how to survive in any climate and on any terrain, and books that instructed me on brain tanning and field dressing and head and leg removal and flintknapping and on making primitive tools, like a primitive adze or a primitive vise, but ultimately I bought the book recommended to me by a man in his late twenties or early thirties, a pit-bull of a man with a short, square haircut and tanned, rough looking skin, who pulled a book off the shelf and handed it to me and told me if I was looking for a real and a really good survival book, the book I should use was this one, which he owned himself, and which he used when he airdropped—I think he said airdropped—himself into Southeast Asia with just a knife and some rope and a small pack and this book and spent six weeks living completely off the land before walking himself back out of the wilderness and into civilization.

He was an earnest looking and trusting man, the kind of man who might have served several duties in some part of the armed forces, eagerly, no doubt, and might be gearing up to serve yet another, and I felt a little guilty accepting his recommendation knowing what I had planned to use the book for, but not guilty enough to put the book back.

When I got back to my parents’ house, I ate a quick dinner, spoke only briefly to my father, my mother having long before fallen asleep, and then hurried upstairs to start learning all I could learn about survival in the wilderness. I flipped to the contents page and glanced briefly at the headings and then flipped to the section on how to build a hobo shelter and then flipped to the sustenance chapter and read the section on procuring a snake using a forked stick, and then I closed the book and placed it on the nightstand, and then never opened it again.

*   *   *

Which was what I told her, the girl with the lamp. Not the whole thing, but the bit about the zoo and the trails. I thought it might appeal to her, or to anyone, really, standing over me with a floor lamp in her hand. How dangerous is the guy who worked for a nature reserve? I told her this and then I began to tell her other things about myself, lying there on the ground, not sure what else to say or how, except to start from the beginning and as quickly as I could, until eventually I pulled us through the sludge of my recent past and into the mire of my present. I had come home again, I said, but I wasn’t sure why, and I had plans for one of these empty houses, but I wasn’t sure what plans. I said this one appealed to me, but I didn’t know why about that either.

Then she told me about herself, which wasn’t much to tell. She had just finished school. She had left home when she was sixteen. She liked living in these old houses. She had stored some of her stuff in a few other old empties—she called them empties as if they were beer bottles—around town. She wanted to be a veterinarian. Her dad, before he died, had been a large animal vet. It all seemed pleasantly run-of-the-mill, and so I stood up, finally, and lightly pushed aside the lamp, which had grown heavy in her arms and dragged along the floor, and leaned in to kiss her, and then a week later, she made me leave the house, which I was afraid to leave, afraid I wouldn’t be able to find it or her again, but she forced me to go. “It’s been a week,” she said. “Your parents must be worried sick. You need to go see them.” And so I left.

I went back to their house and told them what had happened to me and they were upset, my mother especially, though I can’t say for sure what upset her most. That I had been gone so long without telling them where I was and that I was okay, or that I was still alive yet living so recklessly. When I told them about Wendy and about our plans, my mother locked herself into her bedroom and didn’t come out again until after I left.

When I made it back to the house, I walked inside afraid Wendy would have skipped out, that there’d be nothing left, no trace of her, and some small part of me worried I’d made her up entirely, but there she was, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and when she saw me, she jumped up and hugged me and then stepped back and looked at me and said, “I’ve missed you so much, I could just eat you up, like scrambled eggs.” Then she mimed cracking eggs into a skillet and stirring them around with a spatula and then eating them up with a knife and fork, and I said, Who eats scrambled eggs with a knife and fork, and then she punched me in the shoulder and then she kissed me, and I knew I was home.

*   *   *

We thought, Wendy and I, to make a home of the emptied house, mainly by rooting through the other houses on the same block, which I hadn’t considered might be as stripped bare as our own. When, after hours and days of house-looting, we returned empty-handed, I figured we would give up on the idea of furnishings and home-making of that sort and that we would settle into a less permanent lifestyle, our possessions carried with us on our backs. Wendy wouldn’t have any of that, not since I first convinced her that I had serious plans to renovate and build in one of these houses. “We need something to sit on, at least,” she said. And when I came home with seats I’d stripped out of one of the abandoned cars in a body repair shop nearby, she smiled and kissed me and said, “Now we just need something to sleep on.”

What struck me now, though, about that first conversation, about our earliest confidences, and what worried me about this house full of animals she had claimed to have only just found, was that small detail of her life that I had at first thought pleasantly bland and unimportant. What girl, at one point in her life, doesn’t want to become a veterinarian? It had seemed a safe assumption that she had long since given up on the idea of becoming a veterinarian. It had seemed a safe assumption that this feckless and transient lifestyle had precluded any faint desire to make something of herself. But then she showed me this house she had found, and I wondered if she had found it or if she had made it herself.

Part Three

The fact of the matter was: I didn’t have any actual experience judging homes or estimating what it would take to fix one up, but it was something that came naturally to my father, who owned a now defunct and practically empty hardware store, and I had always assumed that if you were to toss me into a hardware and repair sort of situation, that push come to shove, a store of knowledge, buried but innate, would bubble up, and I would be just as good at it as he was. And it occurred to me that Wendy had at some point in her life hit upon the same flawed philosophy, that a skill or talent would necessarily pass from father to child, except that she expected to know how to fix these animals because her father had known how to take care of horses and mules.

I can’t say, then, that it surprised me too much when one night I woke up and turned to look at her and found that she had a bird. I asked her where she got that bird and she said she couldn’t sleep with all the racket the bird had been making outside and that she’d gone to investigate and that this is what she’d found. It had broken its wing somehow, and she had gathered it to her and tended to it. There was a gentle way to how she was holding that bird that made me certain she had done this before. Are you going to maybe put that one with the rest of them, I asked. She shook her head and said, Not tonight, and then she put her lips to the bird’s beak, though I couldn’t tell if they touched, and then she said, Tomorrow, you go into the house with the others, but tonight you sleep with us.

The whole night it didn’t make a sound and she didn’t let go of it, and when I woke up, she was asleep but still with that bird in her hand. I sat up and then pulled my pants on and then poured some water into a cup for the bird, but the bird didn’t stir, and I thought to myself, I don’t know you, bird, or how to fix what’s wrong with you, but I don’t doubt that you will soon be dead. And for a minute or two, I considered lifting it gently from Wendy’s hand and breaking its neck or smothering or suffocating it, though I didn’t know the first thing about going about suffocating a bird. I thought I should do this for her, anyway, for her peace of mind, and for me, I’ll be honest, for my own peace of mind. It would be harder on her when this frail creature died in a week or two weeks than if she woke up now to find it had died while she slept, but then Wendy began to shift and wake, and the bird lifted its beak and poked lightly at her finger, and my opportunity window had closed.

*   *   *

For the next few weeks, I tried to ignore the toll that house full of animals took on us. But it wasn’t easy. She was never home, it seemed. She was always at the other house or she was out searching for other injured or sick or stray animals to ensnare. Our house, the house we were living in, had begun to take on the other house’s smell. I don’t know how this happened. Maybe that smell grabbed hold of her clothes and her hair and her skin and snuck in that way, or maybe it followed her home, some physical thing trailing behind her like a cartoonish wisp of smoke. Anyhow, I could smell it and I mentioned this to Wendy and she shook her head at me (scattering wisps of stink everywhere) and told me it was my imagination. And more than once, I woke up to find her asleep with another animal tucked under her arm like it was a stuffed animal she’d been sleeping with since a child. How she managed to coax these creatures into these docile positions, I never understood. Nor did I know where she found them in the first place, and when she wouldn’t tell me—or told me only vaguely, Here and there, or, At the park, or, On the side of the road—and when it appeared to me that some of them were less sick and more just stray, I began to suspect her of sneaking into people’s homes, or into pet stores, or in the neglected city zoo, and stealing these creatures to bring back to our house. And if I hadn’t become more and more engrossed in how angry this was all making me, I might have stopped to admire her way with animals, but in truth, I wanted desperately for them to die off or break free, but they didn’t seem to want to do either. And after a month of this, and of living in a house that became increasingly dirtier and dingier, I decided I should leave Wendy and this house, that I should let her have her animals and this other house she had found herself, and return to my parents’ place before setting out in search of another abandoned shack where I could set up camp. Or maybe I would leave town altogether, start fresh again somewhere new.

Then, before I decided I would leave for good, she got sick. She was nauseous and throwing up, light-headed and weak and sweaty. I gave her some water. I stole into my parents’ house and found her some variety of pills—for headache, for sinus, for cough—but none of them helped much. In the end, she asked me if I could go on my own to the house with the animals in it and change their cages and administer their medicines. I wanted to ask her, Is that really a thing we need to concern ourselves with? Is this an exercise we need to be devoting our time to? Instead, I asked her what she wanted me to do and then how to do it, and she explained, retching and looking green and unwell, and then I said, Do you need anything while I’m out, and she shook her head and lay down, and I left.

*   *   *

It would be easy enough, I thought to myself, to show up at my parents’ house. To show up and let myself in and climb upstairs to my old room and go to sleep, and then to wake up the next morning and act as if nothing had happened, as if nothing more than a long walk, one really long walk that I’d only just now returned from had happened. My mother would act diffident toward me, would refuse to smile at me and would tilt her head my way and say, “You think you’re so funny, don’t you,” but she would be happy to have me home. That much I knew.

And there would be no consequences, either, nothing that might damage me, anyway, in leaving Wendy and those sickly creatures, and there would be potentially bad consequences in returning to them. I thought of all of this as I walked and I knew I should have turned around and gone somewhere else, anywhere else, but I didn’t.

The house smelled, of course, as it was full of sick or dying animals, smelled of their fur, their hair, their feathers, of the mucous that dribbled from their noses or the pus filled sores on their footpads or on their bellies, and it smelled of their piss and shit and of the disinfectant Wendy sprayed throughout the house to hide that smell, and of their breath, and of the animals themselves, whatever their smell was, a smell I associated with zoos and circuses, which, I supposed, this collection of monsters, ordinary monsters, was as close to a zoo as our small town was likely to see. But there was another smell, too. It was an overpowering and metallic smell that a part of me recognized at once as the smell of blood, but since there was no reason for there to be this smell in the house, I dismissed the idea.

Moving quickly through the house, hoping to root out the cause of the smell and get rid of it so that maybe the smell would have faded by the time I finished administering to the animals, I slid on something and fell forward, only barely throwing my hands out in front of me in time to break my fall. Turning to see what had tripped me up, I felt a wetness on my knees and saw a blooming red stain on my pants, and for a moment I was scared that I’d seriously hurt myself, hurt myself so badly that I couldn’t even feel the pain of whatever wound resulted in so much blood, but then I realized I’d fallen into a pool or a smear of blood, and that what had tripped me in the first place had been the metal gate to one of the cages, pulled apart, twisted and mangled and tossed into the open doorway.

Eventually I found five more cages with their doors also torn from their hinges. Studying these cages, I couldn’t remember what had once lived inside them, but they were empty, now, the only sign that the cage was once home to some living thing being the trail of blood leading away from the bent or broken frame. The sight and the smell of all this carnage was upsetting enough that I quickly left that place without opening a single cage or refilling a single bottle of water, and when I finally walked back through our door, I found Wendy asleep on the floor, and, taking my pants and my shirt off, I went to lay on the floor next to her but didn’t fall asleep until just before morning.

Part Four

I didn’t tell Wendy what I had found. Instead I told her everything went fine, and then I asked her how she felt, and we went about our day, the secret of what was waiting for her at the animal house making me tense and nervous. I would act surprised, of course, shocked and devastated, would offer theories—It must have come in after me, whatever it was, early this morning, maybe?—when she told me what horrors she’d found, and then offer to help her clean the mess up and console her as best as I could. But when the time came for her to go tend to her animals, she began to throw up again, and I left in her place.

By the time I arrived at the house, I had prepared myself to find there nothing but death and decay and had presumed that whatever hadn’t died naturally, or because of my negligence, would have been taken by whatever had taken the first five animals. But the animals weren’t dead. They seemed, in fact, energized by my arrival, as if they were hungry and thirsty and they knew that I was the one who had made them so.

I searched the house first, ignoring the cries and caws and barks of the animals waiting to be fed and watered, but I didn’t find any sign of a brutal struggle, and didn’t count any more among the missing. Feeling obligated to make up for my poor showing the night before, I opened the windows to air the house out and then began feeding the animals, giving them water to drink, and, one by one, I cleaned their cages. I cleaned the blood on the floor as best as I could, and I removed the empty cages, feeling that, had it been me, I wouldn’t want to live side-by-side such a graphic reminder of the fragile nature of life, the inevitability of potentially violent death, and so on. I did all of this and felt somewhat cheered by the work, which was methodical and mechanical. Even handling the animals, which seemed to have been tamed by Wendy or else were simply too sick and weak to care who lifted them from their cages, calmed me. I enjoyed it and while I didn’t think it was necessarily the right thing to do or that it would help any of them, I gave the animals the medicines as Wendy had instructed—medicines of a questionable origin and usefulness, I would add—and when I finished it all, I left.

The next night, I did the same, and the night after that, and the night after that, and so on for a week, and then two weeks, and then a month, each night expecting to find them all dead in their cages, or half of them dead, and some number of them stolen away, but over the next month, they only seemed to grow stronger, and I wondered if maybe they were getting well and if one day they would be well enough that I could set them loose.

You could say, too, that, over time, I became attached to these animals. Not to all of them, but to enough of them that on occasion I had to stop myself from giving a certain squirrel or a certain pigeon a name, and that on other occasions, unable to stop myself from naming a raccoon, say, I had to stop from speaking that name aloud, from trying to scratch it behind its ears, had to stop myself from thinking of them as pets or friends.

You could also say that being in that house, spending time there, more time than was even necessary, was a release to me. That the house, despite the smell and despite the noise, or because of these things, became a place I often wanted to return to, became the place I thought of when I was at our home, when I was home with Wendy.

Wendy hadn’t gotten better, or, rather, she would begin to feel better, gaining her strength and her color, and then fall back into whatever sickness had taken hold of her. For a time, I worried that she had contracted something chronic and incurable, potentially contagious, but then the idea that she wasn’t sick, that she was pregnant, began to sprout between us, though this possibility was a thing we never directly spoke to. Instead we ruled out, over and over again, the things it couldn’t be.

“Not syphilis,” she said.

“Oh, no, certainly not that. I think the symptoms are all wrong.”

“Heart palpitations, perhaps?”

“Let me check my Physician’s Desk Reference,” I said, and she smiled, weakly.

“I don’t suppose you’ve fallen prey to something so silly as the flu. Or mono?”

“If I have mono, it’s certainly all your fault.”

“Well, then, no, I suppose it must be malaria. Or diphtheria.”

And after a while, this conversation, like the others before it, came to an uncomfortable, winded end, the two of us having painted ourselves into a corner, the fact that she must be pregnant soon the only idea left to us and still the only idea neither of us wanted to verbalize.

Unsettled by this and what to do about this, I often left our house and Wendy in it, after she had fallen into a restless sleep or shuffled herself quietly into a corner to let herself wallow in nausea. I walked up and down the streets of our neighborhood, wondering who if anyone lived in these houses around us, surprised sometimes to see a light on in a living room or a kitchen or on the porch, having forgotten that there were people around us who had their own lives, who lived in these run down houses, but with furniture and appliances and families. Then, eventually, I would find myself back at the animal house, and there sit for hours with one or two of the animals set free from their cages and allowed to hesitantly sniff out a safe perimeter around the other cages. On occasion, I would lure one into my lap with a piece of food, some special treat, but mostly I just sat there alone and quiet and watched the animals sleep or turn about in their cages, or I would close my eyes and go to sleep myself, and soon I began to consider possible outcomes for us, the consequences of a pregnant Wendy, a new life brought into our routine, and I began to make plans, vague and potentially unworkable plans, but regardless, through this I came to feel certain about a burgeoning and sustainable new life for us, for our small piece of this world. Look, I would think to myself, if you can take care of these animals, and not just you, but Wendy, too, if you and Wendy can take care of these animals, how much harder a child? And I would start to imagine this life, Wendy and myself and some faceless, sexless person bundled to one of our backs as we tended these animals and as we moved through our days together, but I never got very far with these images, and soon, no matter where I was, with Wendy at home, or wandering aimlessly through the streets, or at the animal house, I felt agitated and jittery and unhappy, so that when the thing came back, I at first welcomed the distraction.

Part Five

Once it returned, though, the thing, which I never once saw even a glimpse of, made short work of all I had done.

Feeling emboldened or strong or simply desperate, it went first for the dogs in the backyard. I like to think that I heard them howl that night they were killed. At some point in the night, I woke with a start, unsure of where I was or why I was there, and then turned to see Wendy next to me, and then slowly settled myself back into a tense and restless sleep, but it was just as likely a foul dream or thoughts of pregnancy that woke me. After I found the dogs, or, rather, their cages, mangled and empty, I knew it was back and I set to work on the house.

I boarded the windows. I boarded all but the front door. I stood on the roof and patched whatever holes I could find. I found steel wool under one of the bathroom sinks and began to stuff it into every open space. I searched the basement. I searched the attic. Still it found its way inside and stole next the nutrias, and then the raccoon. Soon, I noticed a pattern—attack, rest two nights, rest three nights, then attack again, and with each successive raid on our house, it would steal more. No amount of preparedness, it seemed, protected the house. The thing bore holes into the walls and dug up underneath the house and found weak spots and exploited them. So I changed tactics and waited for it. There were days and nights I spent crouched outside the house, hiding, hoping to catch the monster in the act. I had found a knife, a kitchen knife, the blade dulled but its point still sharp, sharp enough. I waited and I consoled and I cleaned up after it had done whatever damage it could attend to while I was gone or even as I sat outside waiting for it to arrive.

During that time, I dreamt about the animals in their cages, and sometimes I dreamt about the baby, and these were disturbing dreams but not so disturbing as those nights my dreams bled one into the other, and I dreamt that on the one hand the baby was the monster or beast terrorizing Wendy’s animals, and that on the other hand, the baby was one of the animals, a weak and wasted thing living in one of those cages waiting for death—natural or violent—to come for it. And then there were times when I was inside the dreams, too, and these were the worst of them, though not when in the dream I was the monster or when I was my own child trapped inside that cage or even when I was one of the other animals witness to the massacre of my child, fearful of my own death, which was surely forthcoming, but when I was myself, when I wasn’t anything or anyone more frightening or disturbing than myself, and it was me who unlocked the door to the house and ushered the beast inside.

And then all but the last of them was gone. I could tell even as I stepped inside. I walked through the house as quickly as I could and found it, the bird Wendy had rescued from our backyard what seemed so long ago. It looked sad, shivering from the cold or fear in its cage, which had been set atop the kitchen counter, which might have been why it had been spared. I went to it, kicking aside the mangled, empty cages littering the floor. I gently lifted it out of its cage and looked it in the eyes.

“Can you fly yet?” I asked. “Your wing all better yet?”

Then I put it back in its cage. I carried it to my father’s hardware store and broke in through the back door. I grabbed some twine and some washers and a gas can and some scissors and a water hose and some rags, and then I walked all of the way back to the animal house, stopping every so often to siphon off some gasoline from parked cars along the way.

When I got to the house, I set myself to work. I lined up a trip wire, tying off washers at the end of it to alert me when the trip wire had been tripped, and then I stacked the cages in a tight circle around the middle of the living room, into the center of which I placed that small bird in its small cage. I set the cage open just a crack, just enough so that if that bird got curious or scared, if it nudged that door, it would nudge the door open, and then I left.

I waited outside next to the washers. Then I fell asleep. I dreamt the creature had followed me home. That it had waited for me, watched me enter the animal house, listened for my despairing cry, and then waited so it could follow me, thinking maybe I had another houseful of easily picked morsels for it to eat. It followed me, and as Wendy opened the door to greet me, the creature lunged at her, and in my dream, I pushed her aside and let the thing take hold of my arm, and for a moment, I was happy, or not happy, happy isn’t the right word for what I felt, and not content, either, but I was satisfied, I was prepared, this was something I had prepared for, and even above the pain and the sight of my own blood and the sharpness of the monster’s teeth, this fact stood out in my mind, and for the moment I was able to ignore the rest, ignore the rest just long enough to take that blade and shove it deep into that beast’s head or through its neck, feeling like some modern Beowulf or knight, shoving it deep and then twisting it around and then slipping it out and pushing that knife back in, again and again and again until long past the point the animal had let go of my arm, had stopped moving entirely, and lay cradled in my bloodied lap, looking no more threatening than any other big dog or German shepherd. And then I woke up, and then I turned to Wendy only to realize I hadn’t gone home yet. The dream was fresh in my mind, so fresh that I had to clench and unclench my fist to make sure I didn’t have a knife with me, hadn’t picked it up somehow while I slept. I tried to go back to sleep, and then the washers started rattling and jerking every which way. I jumped up and ran to the house carrying the gas can, and I did a quick sprint around the house, splashing gasoline around the front of the house and on the front porch and around the back and the sides and then to the front again. Then I soaked some rags, and I wondered why I hadn’t prepared this stuff before hand, but I heard a commotion going on inside still and hoped it would last. When the rags were soaked, I kicked open the door, and down the hall I could see the little bird flying and flapping like mad, a second or two above the wall of cages I’d built, and then it would tire, or be knocked from the tenuous perch it had found as that thing scrambled to get at it.

Then the wall of cages was knocked cleanly to the floor and I saw a blur of dark, reddish brown fur, and then it was gone after the bird again, and I stopped watching, cast that can stuffed with rags into the middle of that melee, and then closed the door and lit a match and then lit the trail of gasoline I’d laid on fire.

I watched everything burn. I stood there and watched. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for. For the fire to spread? I hadn’t come prepared to do anything about stopping a spreading fire. For someone to call the fire or police department? If that’s what I was hoping for or feared would happen, the neighbors disappointed me, for no one was called, or if called, no one came. For some signal of the beast, of its suffering, its death, its escape? After a while, as the flames consumed the house, I realized it was pointless and dangerous and foolish to stand there, and so I decided to walk back home, back to Wendy.

As I walked, all I could think of was my dream. All I could imagine was our front door torn open, the house wrecked beyond repair, and Wendy, gone, stolen away, or maybe there, maybe the beast would have left her there but only the ruined mess of her. And soon I wasn’t walking. Soon I was running. I couldn’t hear anything but my feet slapping against the sidewalk, couldn’t feel anything but the blood pounding in my ears, and by the time I stopped, I was wheezing and weak-kneed and my head and my shoulders ached, and, light-headed, I doubled over. But the house was fine. The door was fine, and inside the house was normal. Everything was normal. Wendy was there sleeping, peaceful and quiet on our makeshift bed, and I watched her sleep for ten minutes, for thirty minutes. I watched her sleep and I thought about what I could do for her and what I could do for myself, and for the baby if there was a baby, and then I pulled the scissors out of my back pocket and held them clenched in my fist. I walked back outside and set myself up on the front steps with those scissors, and I waited and while I waited, I considered all the different, painful administrations I might perform with those scissors on any creature, man or beast, that might try to push past me.