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Authors: Diana Wagman

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BOOK: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets
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She would be locked for days in this hot house, raped repeatedly and finally murdered and thrown from the trunk of his black car into a ravine off the Angeles Crest.

He put his head back. He closed his eyes. This has to be a
dream, Winnie begged the universe. I am still sleeping. I am home in bed. My blue comforter is tucked up under my chin, my pillow soft against my cheek. It seems so real, and then for some reason you realize it is just a dream. And you wake up. You wake up. Wake up!

But she was still there.

Something scratched and scraped behind the kitchen door. An accomplice? Two men at once? Her stomach lurched, her teeth chattered and in the incredible heat she felt a feverish chill.

“Just a minute!” His voice startled her.

Another scrape, the sound of someone digging into the wooden kitchen door with a spoon or dull knife.

“Stop it!” he yelled again.

The sweat spilled from every pore. She was drenched between her breasts, along the bottom of her sport bra, between her legs. The salt stung her eyes. Her ponytail wrapped around her neck in tentacles.

He stood. She shrunk into the chair, but he stepped past her, around the coffee table, through the dining room, to the kitchen door. He went inside and the door swung shut behind him.

“What's the matter with you?” She heard him complain. “Jesus Christ.”

It sounded like paper ripping. Not an accomplice, it was his previous victim, or his insane mother, someone without legs lying on the kitchen floor, scratching at the walls, peeing on newspaper.

She stood and walked quickly, quietly to the front door. Her hand was shaking as she slipped the chain out of its slot and let it down gently against the doorjamb. She slid the bolt back. She turned the doorknob silently.

He grabbed her shoulder, turned her around and shoved her back against the door. Her head thumped against the peephole.
There were beads of perspiration on his nose and forehead. His eyelashes were as pale and long as millipede legs. She closed her eyes.

“Where you going, Mom?”

He cursed her with it again. She should never have told him she had a child.

“Nowhere.”

“That's right.”

Winnie felt his fingers brush her breastbone. He slowly, gently slid down the zipper of her warm-up jacket. She kept her eyes closed. He used both hands to open her jacket. Underneath, she wore a sleeveless tennis shirt with a logo over her breast.

“Hey,” he said softly.

Maybe it was just sex. That would not be the end of the world. She would grit her teeth, get through it, and kick him in the head the minute she had the chance.

“I said, hey. Look at me.”

She had lived through bad sex before, sex with men who wanted it when she did not, sex when it was easier to say yes than otherwise, sex when she felt sorry for the guy or grateful to him or obligated. On her first date after the divorce she had forced herself into bed with Phil the pharmacist. He was short and pot-bellied with thick fingers he insisted on sticking into her mouth again and again. He did not kiss her, but rubbed his chest and belly against hers in circles, squishing her into the mattress and leaving drool on her cheek. Afterwards he wanted her to tell him how wonderful he was. He had asked her for a play-by-play critique. She had cried when she was finally home, and then, two days later, laughed about it with her friend, Sara.

Why was she thinking about Phil now?

“Hey,” he said again. His hands relaxed on her arms.

Her eyes opened and she kicked him as hard as she could
between his legs. He screeched like a girl and tripped over his own feet as he backed away. She spun around and opened the door. She fumbled with the lock on the screen. She yelled and kept yelling.

“Help! Help! Help me!”

The street was empty. The houses looked unlived in, as if everyone had locked up and left for vacation. Or as if every house held a solitary victim. She scratched and clawed at the rusty lock. The screen door had not been opened in a hundred years.

“Help me!”

He twisted her ponytail hard and she fell backwards onto the carpet. He slammed the door shut and leaned down and slapped her. She was too frightened to cry. Her cheek burned. Her skirt was up around her waist. She tried to straighten it without his noticing, but she saw him glance at her thighs, exposed and shaking. She blushed, embarrassed by her tennis panties with the upside down pockets for the balls. She rolled to her side to get up, but he pushed her down flat on her back. He threw a leg over her waist and straddled her. He took the knife out of his pocket again.

Now she would die.

A drop of his sweat slid from his temple, down his chin, and onto her face. Scratch, scratch, scratch from the kitchen. Scratch, scratch, scratch. A curl of his hair fell across his forehead and he used his knife hand to smooth it back. She clearly saw his watch: 9:23. She had been at the mechanic's shop before nine. Lacy was in Biology. Jonathan was at work. A car drove down the street outside. Where was that person going? What did they see when they looked over at this house, these closed blinds, this locked door? Nothing. No one saw or knew anything. They never would. Her body might never be found. Then Lacy would
think her mother had left her, dropped her off at school and never come back. Winnie couldn't even remember what they had been fighting about.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. It had become rhythmic and constant.

“Cookie!” he shouted. “Shut up!”

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

He climbed off her and got to his feet. “Cookie!” he said again.

She rolled to her hands and knees and scrambled toward the kitchen. Whoever Cookie was, he or she had to help her. She crawled like a dog toward the kitchen door.

“Goddamn it!” he shouted. “Don't!”

She pushed the door open. “Help me, please,” she cried and looked into the face of an enormous lizard. Gigantic. Its head was bigger than hers. It hissed. She screamed and clambered away, right into her kidnapper's legs where he stood behind her.

Cookie blinked slowly, the bottom lid coming up to meet the top.

“Get up.”

She stayed where she was.

“Get up or Cookie will bite you.”

She stood and backed up against the kitchen wall. The lizard turned away from her to watch its master as he went to the refrigerator. Inside it was like a small produce market, green, leafy, bright splotches of orange and red. She took a deep breath, grateful for the puff of cool refrigerated air. He grabbed a bag of spinach and three carrots. The entire kitchen had been turned into Cookie's home. There was a cave built in one corner, a real boulder, and a climbing log nailed into the wood beneath the counter. And scattered on the linoleum floor were the cedar chips she had smelled.

“No wonder it's so hot in here,” she said. “It's for Cookie.”

“You're a fucking genius.” He threw the vegetables into a purple dog bowl. Cookie waddled in that direction. “He's beautiful, isn't he?”

Winnie heard the pride in his voice. She knew to agree. “He is. Okay? Yes. He's beautiful.”

Cookie was a rusty orange, not green as she would have expected. There were olive patches here and there and his belly was whitish, but his body and forelegs were definitely orange. He had a row of spikes down his back and a large, floppy piece of skin under his neck. His eyes were small and rimmed in red. He had weird large circles of skin or scale just behind his mouth where the hinge of his jaw might be. And his legs. There was something horribly humanoid about them, the muscles so apparent under the scales, and the hands with five long jointed fingers and wicked, sharp nails. Each finger could articulate on its own.

She couldn't help it, she shuddered, but then she tried to smile. “Beautiful.”

“Glad you think so.”

“Is he vegetarian? You know, I'm vegetarian.”

“So what.”

He pushed her back into the dining room, letting the kitchen door swing closed. She was relieved to be away from the creature even as her kidnapper pushed her again with both hands, and she stumbled against the wall. He leaned over her, one hand on either side of her head.

“You're one of those women who like to talk, aren't you? You're a chatterbox. Yak, yak, yak.”

“No. Actually I'm quiet. Everyone says I'm quiet. I can be quiet.”

He squinted at her. She stopped talking. He was sizing her
up, trying to figure something out.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Thirty-eight.”

“Really?”

“Don't I look it?”

He shrugged.

She wanted to keep him talking. “Do you live here alone?”

“No.” He looked at her as if she were stupid. It was a look she recognized from her daughter.

“Who with?”

“Duh. Cookie. I live here with Cookie.”

“The lizard.”

“I hate it when people call him a lizard. He's an iguana.”

“What's the difference?” Keep him talking, she thought. If he was talking he couldn't hurt her.

“There are three thousand different types of lizards, from those little geckoes you see on your patio to Komodo Dragons. But Cookie is from the family
Iguanidae
. There are only thirteen kinds of iguana. He's the largest: a Great Green Iguana. And even for his breed, he's enormous. Most of them are much smaller than he is, but I know how to take care of him. He's so healthy, he'll probably keep growing. Did you see the way his scales shine?”

He grinned. His face opened, the line between his eyebrows went away.

“Shiny,” she agreed. “How long have you had him?”

“All his life.”

“I didn't know they got so big.”

“Most don't. Cookie started out less than six inches. Now he's eight feet from his nose to the tip of his tail. Bigger than most and weighs more too. A champion.”

“There are competitions?”

“Of course. There are Reptile Expos twice a year and smaller contests in between. Cookie will win every prize.”

“He certainly is big.”

His face clouded over again. The furrow on his forehead returned. He stepped back, out of reach of her feet. He looked her up and down.

“You're hot,” he said quietly. “Take off your jacket.”

“I'm fine.” She did not want to take anything off; she wanted every possible layer between them.

“I asked you to take off your jacket.”

“Do you need money? Is that it? My ex-husband has lots of money. I'll call him. Or better yet, take me to the bank. I'll get you money.”

He shook his head.

“My ex-husband is Jonathan Parker. The actor,” Winnie continued. “I'm sure you would know him if you saw him. He has a game show,
Tie the Knot
. He's the host. He's on every day. It's the most popular game show on television. Maybe you could be a contestant. Would you like that? I'll call him. Do you have a phone? You could be on TV. Wouldn't that be great? You have such a good look. You're so handsome. You could be a star. Really.”

“I want you to be quiet.”

“I just want to help –”

“Don't talk. Stop talking. And take off your jacket.”

“Okay, okay. I'm really fine in my jacket, but—”

“Shut up and do it.”

She had to peel her jacket like skin; the sleeves clung to her sweaty arms. He watched her, stared at her breasts and stomach revealed in her damp nylon shirt.

“You're short,” he said, “but you have a pretty good body.”

Winnie cringed and kept talking. “My mother is an actress
too. Famous. Daisy Juniper. She's won two Academy Awards. She has money. She'll pay you to let me go. She will. Is it money you want?”

“Money. Money and fame. Fame and fortune. You think being rich and famous makes you special. Every idiot with a cat on Youtube is famous.”

“I'm not famous. I'm nothing. Really. Nothing. I work as a secretary in an office. I'm nobody.”

“Didn't I tell you to Shut The Fuck Up!”

Winnie pressed herself against the wall, tried to be as small and flat as possible. Cookie scratched against the kitchen door.

“What does it want?”

“He. Not it. He. Cookie needs attention.”

“Go ahead. I'll wait right here.”

“Sure you will.” He sighed again. “I think Cookie's tired of the kitchen. He'd like the run of the house, but I can't have iguana shit all over the carpet.”

“He's not paper-trained?”

“He's not a pet. He's a wild animal.”

He emphasized “wild.”

“Like you,” she nodded at him. “You seem wild, to me.”

He smiled. She had said the right thing.

“It's cooler in the back.” He took her arm. “Come on.”

She wanted to stay near the front door, but she didn't want to make him angry again. Maybe there was a phone in the back. Maybe in the cooler air she could think more clearly. Maybe he would get her back there and slice her into pieces with his little knife. He couldn't have Winnie shit all over the carpet.

He led her toward the hallway. Her skin was slick with sweat and she easily pulled her arm out of his grasp. She looked at the front door.

“Don't,” he said. “Just don't.”

He took his knife out of his pocket and clicked it open. The blade was long, partially serrated. It would hurt. She offered her arm. He gripped it tightly.

“Thank you.”

Two steps down the hallway she stopped again.

He exhaled, exasperated. “What now?”

“What's your name?”

“Why?”

Winnie was sure it was a good thing to exchange names with a kidnapper. She had read it somewhere. He had to see her as a person then. “My name's Winnie,” she said. “Short for Winifred. Isn't that awful? What's yours?”

“Bob.”

“Really?”

“No. It's Rob.”

“Are you Irish?”

BOOK: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets
6.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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