Storyglossia Issue 21, July 2007.

The Pet Palace

by Clifford Garstang


Sandy knows she should tell Ash about the baby. And she will. Later. Not in the car on the way to their small-town jobs. Not when they've just quarreled about money she spent on a new outfit, a red satin cocktail dress she won't even fit into in a few weeks. Not when she hasn't decided whether to forgive him for his fling with that slut Ivy, who she thought was her friend. He claims he's broken it off, swore it with tears splashing down his cheeks like a little girl, and she believes him. She does. But does it make sense to bring a baby into a picture that's already so mixed up?

Ash pulls his squad car into the Sparksburg Pike strip mall and stops in front of Books Etc., where Sandy has been a cashier for six months, since the day she picked up her diploma from South River High School, packed two suitcases while her mother was having her hair done, and they eloped. Ash leans to kiss her, but she edges away. Is it him, or is it his limey cologne that turns her stomach? And has he somehow suddenly shrunk, his uniform baggy at the shoulders, bunched at the waist? He seemed so hot when they first hooked up, him a rookie cop, her a bored twelfth-grader desperate to tell her mother where she could put her nagging. Pull down that skirt! For God's sake put on a bra! Now the smooth, jutting chin she remembers has disappeared, the hard stomach gone soft. Is that even possible in such a short time? She thought his eyes were piercing, a steel blue, but now they just look weak and gray. Pools of water instead of sheets of ice. Was he even the same man?

The police radio crackles—a suspect's description, something about tattoos—and they both stare at the voice as if a picture of the man might appear. When the bulletin ends, Ash reaches for her hand. She doesn't want him to touch her, her stomach lurches at the thought, but she also feels guilty for her revulsion. On some level, she knows her mother would say, wagging a finger like the schoolteacher she is, isn't it her fault that Ash slept with Ivy? Isn't that what happens when you push a man away? Isn't that what happened with Sandy's own father?

To make amends, to offer the beginnings of a truce if not yet forgiveness, to buy herself time to think before she makes matters worse, she brushes imaginary lint from his shoulder. She pictures herself in the red dress—casually bearing the single red rose he's bought her, a night out at the only classy restaurant in town, the one with candles and a wine list, making Ash pay for what he's done—and she smiles. Ash smiles back, and Sandy climbs out of the car.

She's early, as usual, since Ash's shift in the Sheriff's office begins before hers in the bookstore. The manager won't unlock the doors for another hour, so she can't even kill time with her favorite magazines, the ones that transport her to far away places, tropical resorts and European castles, with pictures of women in sparkling ball gowns and muscular men on sailboats. Real men. Not shrinking men who cheat on their wives and then bawl like a baby while begging forgiveness.

As she does every morning, she window-shops. At Kent's she spots pricey heels and a matching bag that will be perfect with her new dress. In the display at Kat's Cookery, a gleaming set of kitchen tools calls to her, although, despite her mother's efforts, she isn't sure she knows the difference between a spatula and a slotted spoon. A tiny pink snowsuit in the window of The Baby Shop takes her breath away. For a few minutes, she's forgotten. How could she forget? What kind of person forgets her own baby?

The next store, The Pet Palace, is already open. She had no pets growing up—her mother wouldn't allow it, too much of a mess—and, since Ash is allergic, she has none now, so she's always been drawn to this store. She hasn't planned to go in this morning, there'll surely be no pets now with a baby on the way, but as she strolls past, its automatic doors open invitingly.

The place smells of pee and damp fur, and her stomach rebels. She looks for a bathroom, just in case, but her eyes land on the big man at the cash register, attractive, if you like rough edges. Malik, Assistant Manager, his nametag says, and he welcomes her with a wink. About 6'4", shaved head, tattoos across both forearms and a blue snake creeping up his thick, coppery neck. Hang on. Wasn't that the description she heard in the patrol car? Dark, tattoos? Wanted for robbery, they said. Armed and dangerous. If he's running from the cops, what the hell is he doing here? And there was nothing on the radio about a strong, handsome nose or broad chest, not a word about brave brown eyes. It can't be the same guy.

She slips past the reptile cages, with their tongue-licking monitor lizards and sneering king snakes, into the dogfood aisle, and peers around the towering sacks of puppy chow to watch Malik at the register. His forearms are the size of Ash's biceps.

"Too much for crickets," says a white-haired woman clutching a shiny black handbag. "It's for my classroom animals."

"You want 'em or not, lady?"

It's something Sandy would say, fed up with her pathetic customers, but this Malik doesn't sound like much of a manager. Maybe the guy is here to rob the store and he has the real manager tied up in the back! She summons the radio description again. Did they mention the snake?

The aquarium next to the counter casts an iridescent glow over Malik. The shadow of a clownfish swims across his sprawling back. An eel lazes at the bottom of the mammoth tank. What if it is him? What if there's a reward?

Sandy flips open her cell phone and calls 911. "I think it's him," she whispers. "That robbery guy . . . No, I can't talk louder." She backs further down the aisle, out of sight. "At the petshop in the mall." An African gray parrot squawks when she bumps into its cage.

"Help you with something?" Malik appears behind her.

Sandy slips the phone into her purse and turns around. She looks up. A splash of black hair divides his bold chin, and the man seems to fill the whole aisle. She wonders if her baby will have Ash's mousy coloring and slight build.

"Just looking at the bird," Sandy says. "Beautiful. So . . . gray." Its beak is orange, the bird's only color, other than its beady green eyes. Not like any parrot she's ever seen.

"Nine hundred bucks," says Malik. He strums the cage. The bird squawks again.

"Oh," she says. "Guess I'll keep looking."

Heart thumping, Sandy rushes into the next aisle, a display of collars and leashes for every size dog, more varieties of kennels and crates than she can count. She peeks through the kennel bars at Malik, showing off for a pair of teen girls, letting a tarantula dance across his bulky shoulders. They remind Sandy of her and Ivy, not so long ago, skipping school, cruising the mall. Why has Ivy done this to her?

Malik cradles the spider in his hands and thrusts it at the girls. They shriek and flee outside. Malik laughs, a deep, lusty laugh, and drops the tarantula back into its glass coop.

For a moment, Sandy identifies with the spider. It exists in a glass house, no privacy, no life. Occasionally it's allowed to think its captivity has ended, that the mysterious walls are gone and it can go, finally, where instinct says it must. And then the hand, a force the spider cannot fathom, puts an end to the folly.

A distant siren replaces the girls' wails, and then stops—no reason to warn the bad guys that the cops are about to arrive, Ash explained once. She wants to stay and watch, her reward is at stake, but, on second thought, maybe it's time for her to leave. It's such a small town, there's a chance it will be Ash responding to her 911 call, and Ash is the last person she wants to see. She makes her way to the front of the store, keeping an eye on Malik. Slowly, slowly, she passes the hamsters (or are they gerbils?) spinning in their wheels, the guinea pig barricaded in its nest of wood shavings, the huddled white mice with their pink babies. The baby! She forgot again! What a terrible mother she'll be!

She moves faster toward the door and smiles in case Malik is watching. She's decided now that he isn't the robber after all, he's just a petshop manager with a fondness for tattoos, but it doesn't hurt to be careful. Then, before she can step on the rubber pad to open the automatic door, the cop car appears, its cherry top flashing, and screeches to a stop.

The store lights go out. Sandy turns and sees Malik's hand on a switch by the registers, his other beneath the counter. She steps on the pad but the doors don't open. Ash—she was afraid it would be Ash—and his partner, Kelvin, each with a hand on his gun, pound and push on the doors. She wants to tell them it's all a mistake, they've got the wrong guy, when Malik's hand clamps on her elbow, and he pulls her away from the glass.

She tries to tug free.

"I don't think so, girlie," says Malik, sounding like some B-movie villain, and wraps his thick arm around her neck. She feels bone braced against her throat. He waves a gun in his other hand.

Kelvin shouts. Ash opens the trunk of the squad car. Malik and Sandy stand by the cases of snakes and lizards and tortoises and spiders, and Malik stuffs the gun in the waist of his jeans. He flattens his hand against the glass and looks toward the cops. Sandy looks with him, tries again to pull away from Malik. Ash seems even smaller than before.

Malik pushes. The cases crash to the floor and shatter in a blizzard of glass. The snakes slither for cover, the lizards and spiders shuffle out of sight, the crickets bounce away like BBs. With one arm still around Sandy's neck, Malik flings open cage after cage and the store is filled with dozens of parrots and parakeets, banging against the windows and ceiling, screeching and squawking. All the dogs in the store bark, deep-throated shepherds in harmony with soprano terriers, as the big man sets them free. Puppies yelp. Cats hiss and arch their backs. Malik pulls out the gun.

In a second shower of glass, Ash shatters the door.

"Freeze," shouts Kelvin, his gun poised. "Let the girl go."

Sandy closes her eyes and wishes that it's all a dream—the baby, Ivy and Ash, Malik. She wants to wake up and still be in high school, living with her mother, and go to the prom and graduate and maybe go away to college. California would be nice. She wants to be anywhere but here. An explosion opens her eyes.

Malik has shot through the massive aquarium, sending more glass and fish and eels and thousands of gallons of water tumbling at the cops' feet as Kelvin clutches his chest and falls, taking Ash's legs out from under him, landing them both in the middle of the seething wave. Sandy screams. She forgets to struggle when Malik pulls her out the back door and shoves her inside an Impala low-rider. In a squeal of tires they rocket out of the alley and onto Sparksburg Pike, scattering traffic in both directions. Malik clamps one hot hand on Sandy's neck while he drives.

She worries about Kelvin and hopes—it's standard procedure, isn't it?—that he was wearing a vest. Ash said they always wore the vests. And Ash wasn't hit, was he? Wasn't there only one shot? She thinks she might be sick.

"They're not going to get me," says Malik in his bad movie voice. Sandy gasps for air.

"Baby," she says, but she isn't sure the word actually leaves her mouth.

Sirens chase them down the highway. Malik jams the accelerator and the Impala whines. She scratches at his arm but he squeezes her throat tighter and she stops. She feels his rough hands against her skin, wants to tell him about the baby, that he should be careful, surely he wouldn't want to hurt her baby. Malik steers in the middle of the road and goes even faster. Oncoming cars veer aside. The sirens fade. He's getting away. They aren't going to catch him.

He relaxes his grip on her throat, then lets go. He turns sharply off the highway, then turns again, heading into the mountains, pulls to the side of a dead, dirt road and stops.

"Get out," he says.

Ash is fine. Kelvin is probably fine. No need to worry about them. The wind swirls a cloud of dust in front of the car. She gazes beyond, at the hills and the distant ridgeline, and pictures Ash with Ivy, the two of them back in their small-town lives, shriveled miniatures of themselves.

Malik leans over her to open the door. He smells of sweat and animals.

"Get out," he says, louder.

"Do you like children, Malik?"

He laughs his lusty laugh. The snake tattoo on his neck seems to climb out of his t-shirt, out of the dark and damp of Malik's chest. He laughs again.

He's a strong man. He knows what he wants. She feels her belly. He'll be good for the baby, and for her, too. He won't try to own her. They'll be free. It won't be sunset cruises and champagne, no candle-lit dinners, but there will be adventure. There will be life. Sandy reaches for the door. Before she can pull it shut, Malik pushes her out of the car.

She rolls and tumbles and twists and finally stops, sprawled in the tall grass at the side of the road. The door slams and the Impala leaps away, dust belching up behind, trailing Malik's deep laugh.

She gazes up. In the clouds she sees a rabbit, a duck waddling across the sky, and a snake. She wonders where Malik is headed, whether there's someone waiting for him. She should have told him about the baby.

Copyright©2007 Clifford Garstang