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Fiction

Animal

Here’s everything that happened just before the thud in the basement:

Kendra took a snort of blow off the counter and said: “Did you guys know that pet store workers have the highest rate of drug use in the retail industry?”

“That’s such a load of horseshit,” Telly said.

Kendra leaned all the way back, blinking a thousand times a second, mouth open. Telly and I just watched; she looked like a bear rearing up to full height. Would she sneeze? Eat us? It was anyone’s guess. “No pun,” she said when she was done blinking.

“No pun,” Telly agreed. “But if it was, it’d be a double-pun, which gives you extra points. You want some, George?”

“George doesn’t snort,” Kendra said. “She smokes.”

Telly raised an eyebrow at me. I nodded, pulled a joint out of the cigarette case in my inside pocket of my denim jacket, smiled. Telly flicked his lighter about fifteen times in front of my face before it lit.

“Slick,” Kendra snorted.

“Shut it.”

I inhaled, released. Telly put his face on the counter, pulled deep.

“Time you in tomorrow?” Kendra asked.

“I’m not,” I said.

“Megaplex?”

“Ayche-oh-dee.” I let out a smoke ring with each letter and I won’t lie, I felt pretty cool. I have these huge glasses I wear, grandma glasses some hipster boy called them one time. I think he was flirting with me. But they really were my abuela’s and my uncle still had them cuz he doesn’t throw anything out, and I’m like bat-blind, so I found them floating around the general debris of the house and I kept them.

“Indeed,” Kendra said.

H.O.D. stands for House of Death, this video game Kendra and I take turns whupping the fellas at. We’ve beaten all eighteen levels and recently started playing with various handicaps to make it more interesting: one handed, eyes opened and closed for alternating five second intervals, that kinda shit. Mostly we do it to irritate the guys even more because how dare we, girls, defeat them with such ease on their own turf, right? Right. And besides: Zombie blasting. Fucking yes.

“What’s H.O.D?” Telly asked when he came back from staring at nothing for a few seconds.

“Mind your business,” Kendra said.

“Shut up, Martha.” Martha Gainsborough is a six-hundred pound white lady that lives in a shack on the edge of Drapeston. Kendra’s white and she’s pretty large, but nowhere near Martha large. Kendra’s tall and has a smallish head; she was a bowling pin one year for Halloween and . . . it worked out pretty well.

“You shut up, Charlie fucking Chan.”

“Charlie Chan was Chinese, I’m Vietnamese, fuckmonster. And George is Vietnamese too, so you’re outnumbered.”

“I’m Mexican,” I said and punctuated it with a curt, “jackass.”

“Then why isn’t your name Jorge? Anyway, you look Vietnamese.”

The thud comes as Kendra is reaching across the counter to swat Telly. I don’t even know why she was hitting him, she just doesn’t like when people say shit to me, even if it’s not all that bad. I do kinda look Vietnamese, I guess. Whatever that means. The thud is so loud we all flinch. Kendra stops, swathand a few inches from Telly’s arm. The next thing that happens is all the birds go bonkers, squawking and carrying on. Kendra and I look at each other. Telly says, “What the fuck was that?”

The birds get all quiet, which is almost weirder than them going batshit in the first place. Not a peep.

“Is Bravefart still here?” I ask. Brad Fruevart owns Pet City. He’s a dickhole, but basically harmless.

Kendra shakes her head. “Hasn’t been in all day. I think Mrs. Bravefart is supposed to drop Baby Bravefart today; he’s probably at Memorial South with her.”

“Well then I repeat, what the fuck was that?” Telly sounds really and truly scared, which surprises me. Maybe it’s the blow. He’s not usually such a spaz. I admit the thud startled me, but c’mon. It’s a pet store. We’re in Drapeston, Connecticut; our chief export is dickholes like Bravefart and the biggest mess to happen to us happened three towns over and eight years ago, and it was a murder-suicide. Yawn.

“Go find out,” I say, punching Telly in the shoulder.

Kendra pours out another little mountain of blow and starts organizing it into a line. “Yeah, man, go find out.”

“You’re the shift supervisor, you go.”

Kendra shakes her head, leans over the blow with the bill. “That’s not how it works. I’m the shift-supervisor ergo therefore, I supervise shit, including you. Now go the fuck downstairs and find the fuck out what the fuck happened. ‘kay? Consider yourself supervised.” She snorts hard, too hard I think for a second as her eyes disappear back into her head and she slow-mo rears back, hands spread to either side. Strands of her blonde hair shimmer in the fading afternoon light, wavering gracefully like seaweed or tiny underwater ballerinas, and then I remember I’m pretty high myself. “And don’t forget to check the safe,” Kendra says.

“What’s the combo, boss-lady?”

“By check I mean make sure it’s locked. That’s it.”

“Fine.” Telly pauses at the doorway to the basement. “But I get blowjobs when I get back.”

I spit out an ice-cube I’d been chewing on. “I’ll wake up the guinea pigs.”

“Fuck y’all.” And then he’s gone.

• • • •

It’s not that I hate the town of Drapeston itself; I just hate the people in it. Hate is a strong word, I know. I’m cool with that. There’s a few people I don’t hate: Kendra. A couple of the other Poblanos on my block are cool—Mario, Raymundo and Hector—or at least not quite hate-worthy. My tío Jesus is bearable, but only barely, he almost never speaks, got all fucked up during the dirty wars, tortured I heard. And Telly is just all right.

There was a solid year of my life when I wanted to die. My body’s never really felt like it belonged to me—I’m not graceful or smooth; it doesn’t do what I tell it to—but suddenly it felt like someone else’s entirely. An invisible chain sagged my shoulders; my gaze always found the floor and stayed there. Whenever I was alone in my room, which was pretty close to whenever I wasn’t here at fuckass Pet City or fuckass Drapeston High, it was like a man made entirely of emptiness was sitting on my bed beside me. And he was hungry and I was food, and no matter what I did, no matter what music I listened to, he wanted to consume me, become me, envelop me in that shroud of emptiness. And I wanted it too, I wanted it like a lung wants air when you hold your breath for too long and the world becomes a hazy, headachey mess of blue and gray. I tried once, one of the half-assed attempts that guidance counselors and ER doctors call a cry for help—took a bunch of pills in the house and came out with a wicked bellyache, vomited them a few hours later and probably fucked the hell out of my liver. Tío Jesus was too deep in his PTSD and comic books to notice, and my mom and dad still live in Puebla; I send them part of my check and a letter saying everything’s okay, I’m getting good grades. All that shit.

And then one day the empty man was gone and I was even more alone. Felt sadness instead of the heady weight of gravity pulling me toward death. All around me were boys that wanted to call me Pocahontas and girls that didn’t want to talk to me and silent Tío Jesus and Kendra. And then the sadness eased and the haze lifted, and I’d somehow managed to hold onto my job at Pet City even though I was a high school dropout and essentially pointless at age seventeen.

Things are, in a sense, just beginning to feel real again. I still drag my feet along and you’ll never see me smile, but I’m alive. And even if getting high with Kendra and shaming boys with my zombie-killing skills at the megaplex is all I got, it feels like something. I don’t know how I crawled out of the pit, but I did. And I think the earth is gradually reappearing under my feet again, and sometimes I think I might design video games one day because . . . I’m here right? And I kill at them, so why not? It would mean going back to school, getting my GED maybe, but I could do that if it’s in the service of some larger purpose and that larger purpose involves digital zombies.

Right now though, the quietness of the birds is bothering me more than thoughts of the future and past. That and the fact that Telly has been down there for what feels like a half-hour, but I really have no idea; my whole sense of time is fogged.

“The funny thing,” Kendra says without looking up from her gamer mag, “is I don’t even have the code to the walk-in safe. Bravefart won’t give it up.”

“I’m checking on the birds,” I say. Kendra nods.

Pet City has three parrots, eighteen parakeets, two cockatoos, and about eighty of those stupid little fat yellow things that aren’t parakeets but might as well be. They come in handy when we run out of snake food. Right now, every single one of the birds is huddled in the topmost corners of their cages, the corners furthest from the back of the store, which is where the basement stairwell is. And they’re all shivering.

“Kendra,” I say.

But then the door swings open, setting off the customer alert robot voice; it blurts out: “Hello! And welcome to Pet City! Your one stop shop for all pet needs in Drapeston!”

“Where is he?” a woman’s voice says. I can’t see her because I’m behind the hamster aisle, but I’m guessing it’s Mrs. Bravefart. Betty? Barbara? I don’t know. Her voice is raspy like she’s holding back tears.

“Who are you looking for, Marlene?” Kendra’s probably playing dumb because it’s pretty obvious who Marlene is talking about. Then I hear a baby gurgle. I start walking down the aisle toward the front of the store.

“You know goddamn well who the fuck I mean,” Mrs. Bravefart hisses. “Don’t play with me, Kendra.”

She’s tall and white, though not as tall as Kendra. Her blonde hair’s pulled back into a loose ponytail, and she’s wearing a bloodstained nightgown over a pair of sweat pants. Winter has been creeping along toward us, and it’s too cold to be wearing so damn little, even for a batshit white lady. She must be in serious trouble. Then I look at the baby. He’s adorable, sleeping peacefully in her arms. And he’s brown. Not like a tan shade of white brown, not ambiguously maybe kinda-sorta brown. The kid is straight up without a doubt one of us brown brown. He looks like my little cousin Antonio did when he had just popped out.

“The fuck . . .” I say before I can stop myself.

Marlene looks up at me and instead of cursing me out she bursts into tears. “That’s what Brad said,” she moans.

“But who . . .”

“Raymundo,” she sniffles, “that’s who. Raymundo the fucking groundskeeper at the university I teach at. That’s fucking who. Okay?”

“Okay,” I whisper. I know Raymundo; he’s one of the guys on my block that says hi every time I see him and smiles like he means it. Not in the creepy way either. He’s one of the few I don’t hate. His wife and kids still live in Puebla, not far from my parents.

Marlene shakes her head and sniffles. “He’s . . . dead.”

“Raymundo?” I say.

She nods. “It was Brad. When he saw the baby he . . . he lost his mind. I’ve never seen him like that and . . . and . . . he found Ray and . . .” Her bottom lip quivers. Raymundo is dead. I barely knew him but still: the knowledge is cold water down my spine. I want to take the baby out of Marlene’s hands. She looks like she might shatter at any moment, and I don’t want any shards of her to hit the little guy. He stirs in his sleep but keeps those tiny eyes closed. I take a step toward her.

“No!” Marlene hisses. “Tell me if Brad’s here.”

“Hasn’t been here all day,” Kendra says.

“Open the safe.”

There’s something off about this woman. Besides the bloodstained hospital gown and expanding domestic tragedy, I mean. Her skin’s almost green and her fingers seem unusually long, wrapped around that little bundle. There’s an extra flap of skin reaching across her elbow pit, like a few generations back her family may have had wings. Or maybe that’s the chronic jacking my vision. “Open the safe,” she says again.

And then we hear another thump from the basement, and I remember we sent Telly down there to find out what the first thump was. It seems like an entire lifetime ago that all that happened. And then we hear Telly screaming.

• • • •

The screaming gets louder and footsteps clamor up the stairs. They’re too fast and then there’s a crash—Telly must’ve tripped. The basement door busts open and Telly’s standing there, but instead of two normal, healthy arms, his left one is just a shredded, bleeding mass that ends in wispy, dripping strands of flesh.

He bolts down the aisle toward us, says “Hrughhhhnnnnnnn!” and then drops next to the guinea pig shavings aisle, a few feet from me.

“Jesus, he’s here,” Marlene says. I crouch where Telly’s collapsed. He’s normally a pleasant golden brown, but right now he’s paler than Kendra.

“We have to call fucking 911,” Kendra says.

I’m holding Telly. His blood is already covering me. It’s not really gushing out, just sloshing around and dripping everywhere. I pull off my jacket and wrap it around his arm.

When I look up, Marlene has placed the baby on the counter and is digging through her purse. “You’ll do no such thing.”

“But, Telly,” Kendra says, the phone in her hand.

“You’ll do,” Marlene growls and pulls a small revolver from her purse. “No such motherfucking thing.” She levels it at Kendra. It’s the kind spies give their girlfriends in movies to keep hidden just in case, a slim, sexy little thing. Marlene wields it like an axe, though. No couth at all. Her hands shake, but her eyes say she’s not fucking around.

Kendra puts the phone down next to the baby.

“You little bitches don’t understand a single thing about what’s going on here.” She turns the gun toward me. I mean, she’s right about that much. Telly’s stopped squirming. His eyes are closed and his skin is cold, but I can feel his rapid breath against my body.

“You don’t know what Brad is.

“He killed Raymundo,” I say. It seems like a stupid thing to mention; it’s just that the truth of it is finally settling in now that Telly is probably dying in my arms.

“Both of you. Down in the basement.”

“Down in the . . . what?” Kendra says. “Are you fucking crazy?”

“Go!” Marlene screams. “Now!”

Kendra puts her hands up and walks down the aisle toward me. I ease Telly to the floor and stand up. “You’re just gonna leave the baby there?”

Marlene sighs and shoots a glance at the big storefront window. The street outside is deserted—fuckass Drapeston really doesn’t have shit going on at seven on a chilly October night. Telly’s mostly out of sight behind the huge bags of guinea pig shavings, but a passerby might be curious about the bundle on the counter. “Get the baby.”

“And Telly?”

“Leave him. Move.”

The child is the same shade of brown I am, and he has about eight chins. He looks like a tiny little old man. He’s warm against my chest; stirs slightly and then settles back into those untainted newborn dreams. Marlene waves us ahead of her with the gun. Kendra and I exchange nervous glances, but there’s nothing to be done. The birds are still cowering in the topmost corners of their cages. The boring-ass fish just glide along like nothing’s happening, and for them, I guess it isn’t. We pass the canned food aisle and the toys. I trace the splatter-paint dot design Telly’s blood made as he ran. Kendra takes a few steps down the stairwell, looks back.

“Go on,” Marlene whispers behind me.

The basement is pretty well organized thanks to Kendra actually being a fairly competent supervisor. Stacks of overstock kibble and kitty litter cover all the walls. A few file cabinets sit in the far corner. There’s a bathroom—great for getting high during store hours because the ventilator is grade A excellent—and next to that is the walk-in safe. Don’t ask me why a pet store needs a walk-in safe. I never thought that hard about it because frankly I just don’t give a shit. But it’s always been there, and we joke about what might be inside but never bother trying to enter.

On the floor in front of the walk-in is a pool of Telly’s blood. At least, I think it’s Telly’s. The walk-in door is ajar.

“Bradley?” Marlene says. Her voice quivers, as if this shit isn’t horror movieish enough. And me being brown, I’m sure Imma be the first to get ate. Well, second, counting Telly’s arm. I look down at the beautiful bundle in my arms, still fast asleep.

“Bradley. Come out. We can talk this out. You don’t have to . . . you don’t have to do this.”

We’re standing in a semi-circle around the safe, Marlene in the center and back a little. I see Kendra’s eyes darting around, probably looking for something to use as a weapon but the place is tidy. Her effective ass has one of us clean up down here at least twice a week.

The door creaks open. Brad’s in there all right, but it’s not quite him either. It’s like if Brad had had a baby with some demon scorpion bat creature. His jaw is too long, his open mouth hangs halfway down his hunched over body and creases up to his pointed ears. Scales stretch across his arms, which reach to either side and end in foot-long claws. He has a mane of bushy black hair that halos his scrunched up face and then covers his otherwise naked torso. Three horns dot the crown of his hairless head. Brad has always worn hats but I figured it was just some bald guy insecure thing. He’s panting and drooling, and those beady little eyes—that part isn’t so different than normal human Brad—keep looking back and forth between me, Kendra, and Marlene.

“Holy fucking shit,” Kendra says.

Marlene sighs. “You didn’t have to . . . Oh, Bradley.”

I’m holding Baby Bravefart close to my chest, holding him so tight I’m afraid I might crush him when I realize it. I take a step back, and then there’s a blur of movement. In three long strides, Marlene has crossed the basement. She shrieks—it sounds like those videos of bleating goats they have on the internet, the ones that sound like they’re almost trying to be human—and then hurls herself into Brad. Something happens as she moves: her arms stretch long and a row of spines breaks out along her back, shredding the bloodstained nightgown.

Brad hisses and then they collide, a horrible clattering of tearing flesh and screeches. Kendra is close to the door. With just a tap, they’d be trapped inside. But when I look over at her, she’s frozen, her eyes glazed over. I try to get her attention with eye contact, but I’m afraid if I move too much they’ll come for me.

“I said I was sorry,” Marlene hisses. Her voice has a gurgle to it now, like she’s speaking from the bottom of a cup of watery ice.

“Bitch,” I hear Brad roar amidst the sound of thrashing and screams. Brad was always weird, but he was the polite kind of weird.

“I knew you didn’t have it in you to understand. And don’t you see we’re all we have?” Marlene raises a clawed hand above her head. She’s on top and has Brad pinned beneath her. Three sharp horns protrude from her forehead too, poking through what I now realize is a wig.

Brad shrieks and then gurgles as his wife’s claw comes down on him once, then again. Then with a snarl she leans in and tears what’s left of his throat out with her massive jaw. For a few seconds all we hear is the gnashing of those long, thin teeth on flesh.

“We’re all we had,” Marlene whimpers between bites. “Don’t you see?”

The gun. It’s like a little ping goes off in my subconscious. Marlene must’ve dropped it when she went flying across the room. Ever so slowly, I turn my head. It’s on the ground a few feet from me. Marlene looks up, her beady eyes meet mine. “Don’t even . . .” she starts to say, crawling off her husband’s carcass. Cradling the baby against my chest, I throw myself across the floor. She’s scattering toward me and I’m just shy of the gun. I hear a dull thud and Marlene says, “Ugh!” and clatters to the ground. Kendra still has her arm out when I look up: a flawless clothesline. It’s all the time I need. I crawl a few feet further, snatch up Marlene’s revolver and aim it at her face, which is suddenly way too close to mine.

“Back the fuck up.” It comes out real steady, and I feel proud of myself because inside I’m a quivering ball of shit. I say it again, not loudly but with a little more growl. Marlene retreats a few steps without taking her eyes off me or, eerily, changing her body position from the crouch she’d fallen into. She moves something like a wounded crab.

“Come now,” Marlene says, smiling way too broadly. “Come, come.”

“Get in the safe,” I say. The baby in my arms coos and stirs against me.

“Let’s be reasonable,” Marlene says. A string of drool dangles from her too-long jaw. Pieces of her husband’s throatflesh are still caught between her teeth. “I was in a dire situation. You saw it. You both saw it.” She backs up a few more steps, shoots a pleading look at Kendra.

Kendra shakes her head.

“We’re sisters. We have to have each other’s backs, right? We’re . . . we’re sisters. He would’ve killed me! And he hurt your little friend. And he killed . . . he killed Ray . . . Raymond.”

“Raymundo,” I say, cold as fucking ice. “And you’re not my fucking sister.”

Marlene’s squinting eyes widen. She tenses and I know she’s about to pounce.

“Give me my baby, you brown bitch.” She leaps and I fire. I’ll be honest, I was aiming for her head. The crack is deafening. I’m off by a good couple inches, big-ass jaw and everything, and the bullet clips her shoulder. It’s enough to throw her back on the ground.

“You animal!” Marlene screams. Dark purplish blood streams from a hole in her scaly flesh. The baby in my arms paws his little hands against my breast and coos. I don’t look down, can’t take my eyes off Marlene, but I know he’s fully awake now.

“Try again,” I say. “Come on. I want you to.”

“You don’t know what,” Marlene’s voice still gurgles with that awful fluidy sound. She takes a long, raspy breath. “The fuck. You’re getting . . .” Another breath. “. . . Into. Bitch.”

“The safe,” I say. “Now.

Marlene limps backwards, eyes glued to mine. When she crosses the threshold, I nod at Kendra and she pushes the door. Marlene lets out a raspy, high-pitched howl that’s cut off by the heavy slamming of the door.

• • • •

Every cell of my body wants to collapse, but I have a tiny, brand new being in one arm and a pistol in the other, and both are shaking now that it’s all over. I put the gun down and lean my back against the wall. I’m about to release the tidal wave of a sob that’s welling up inside of me when the little guy I’m holding does it first.

It’s a righteous wail, maybe his very first since being born. He paws a tiny hand across my breast again.

“He’s hungry,” Kendra says. She hasn’t moved. I can almost see the shock fade slightly from her body as she takes in the carnage around her and the little brown baby in the midst of it.

“I . . . What are we going to do?” I say.

“I don’t know.”

I almost burst out laughing. Then I almost break down crying. Kendra’s face does a few contortions that let me know she’s feeling about the same.

“There must be . . . a tunnel in there.”

“In the safe?” I hadn’t even considered it.

“Unless Bravefart was here this morning when we came in. He had to get in somehow. And if he killed Raymundo like she said then he wasn’t here . . . and he didn’t come in the front.”

“Have you ever been in there?”

Kendra shakes her head. “Told you, I don’t have the combination.”

The baby’s still crying. “What are we going to do?” I say, not knowing which of the five hundred different fucked up situations I’m referring to.

“Fuck,” Kendra says suddenly. I look up at her. “Telly!”

She bolts past me and up the stairs.

• • • •

Everything is very peaceful, like we’re underwater. For the first time in my life, I feel like my body knows exactly how to move. With precision, grace even, I look down and lock eyes with the baby in my arms. He’s still crying—long, outrageous wails that feel like they come from inside me as well. And he’s beautiful and brown like me. I take his little hat off. Three lumps stare up at me from the top of his head. I close my eyes, open them again. The lumps are still there. He paws at my breast again and wails.

I don’t mean to smile—I’m standing in a pool of blood and I just shot a homicidal half-human death creature and my friend probably doesn’t have an arm and I saw someone get his throat ripped out, even if he was a demon whatever creature too it was fucked up—but the smile breaks out across my face anyway. I know a thing or two about keeping things hidden. I know how to smile at the frowning world when a maelstrom rages in my heart. I know what I have to do.

There will be explanations and lies to come up with, but I’m no stranger to that. Kendra’s one of the deftest bullshitters I know. And Telly’s explanations, if he lives, will be chalked up to traumatized ravings.

With one hand I lift my shirt. Tiny lips find my nipple and close around it. There’s no teeth, just a soft, urgent pulling. I think I’ll call him Raymundo after his father. I doubt there’s any milk in there, but the gentle glow that Raymundo emits as he nuzzles his face against my breast tells me all I need to know.

Daniel José Older

Daniel-José-OlderDaniel José Older is the author of the upcoming young adult novel Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015) and the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and guest edited the music issue of Crossed Genres. His short stories and essays have appeared in Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, New Haven Review, PANK, Apex, and Strange Horizons and the anthologies Subversion and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel’s band Ghost Star gigs regularly around New York and he facilitates workshops on storytelling from an anti-oppressive power analysis. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at ghoststar.net and @djolder on Twitter.