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Authors: Diana Wagman

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BOOK: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets
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“What question?”

Madame shrugged. She lifted a knobby arthritic finger to scratch under her wig. “What do you want?”

“When you put it like that—” Winnie began, but then her cell phone rang. She dug in her bag for her phone and looked at the number. “Sorry,” she apologized. “It's my mother.”

She got up and walked to the front window. “Daisy.”

“Where are you?”

“This phone is for emergencies.”

“You weren't home,” Daisy complained.

“Are you okay?”

“Where are you?”

“I'm at a psychic.”

Her mother snorted. “A good one?”

“Near home. I drive by every day.”

“I can recommend the best. Gary. My Gary. He's amazing. He's here in New York, but he can read you over the phone.”

“Is something wrong?”

“I can't believe you just walked in off the street. Look around. Does it look like the house of someone who knows the future?”

Winnie looked at the ugly carpeting, the sagging floral couch, the glass shelf filled with porcelain angel figurines.

“Well—”

“Don't give her any money. Go home. I'll give you Gary's number.” Her mother paused. “You don't need a psychic anyway. You need a dating service.”

Winnie sighed. “Daisy.”

“Listen, I'm insanely busy. Can I talk to you later?”

“You called me.”

“I guess I just had a feeling I should. Go home.”

Winnie hung up and walked back to the table. “I'm sorry,” she apologized again. She sat down, but Madame Nadalia stood. She scratched under her wig. She looked at her watch. She started for the kitchen.

“Wait,” Winnie said. “Are you coming back?”

“The things I have to tell you, you will learn anyway. Soon enough you will live them. You will meet a man. There will be much excitement, a trip to another place.”

“All that is going to happen to me?”

“I am only the weather report,” Madame said. “I can tell you it's going to rain, but you'll forget your umbrella anyway.”

“No. I won't. I promise.”

Madame Nadalia shook her head as she went through the beaded curtain.

“So?” Winnie tried to laugh. “How big an umbrella do I need?”

“Ask your mother.”

She disappeared around the corner. The TV got louder and then a door closed and it was muffled again.

Jesus twinkled. His right eye seemed to be staring at Winnie. She breathed an odor of infection, like the yellow pus of a child's skinned knee. The rain fell harder as she opened the front door to leave. She almost laughed, she did need that umbrella.

As she drove away from the psychic, Winnie wondered what it was she really wanted. She should want to go to college. She
always meant to get a degree in something, but she kept putting it off and then she met Jonathan. Eight months later she was pregnant with Lacy.

As a child she had wanted to be a clown. She loved making people laugh. She knew she wasn't beautiful like her mother, but she was strong and flexible. She taught herself to walk on her hands and sometimes, when Lacy was at school or sleeping, she still flipped upside down and turned the pages of the newspaper with her toes. There was always clown college—two birds with one stone.

She had never wanted to be an actor. Never. She knew too many, Daisy and her friends, and they were boring, myopic, and self-absorbed. Most of them were stupid. Of course her mother assumed she thought she wasn't good enough, that she didn't try because she knew she couldn't compete. And that was fine with Daisy.

“Don't worry, darling. We can't all be important. Maybe you'll marry someone fabulous.”

And then, to her mother's smug satisfaction, she married Jonathan.

Winnie thought she wanted a new man in her life, but then again, maybe not. The thought of sex on the dining room table as wine glasses crashed to the floor or bent over a kitchen chair with her skirt lifted just made her tired. The idea of loving anyone as much as she had loved Jonathan was exhausting. She had been addicted to him. They would spend hours together, eating, playing, cooking, screwing. Finally, he would drop her off at her apartment, kiss her, and tell her he'd see her tomorrow. She would go inside and walk in circles in her living room, unable to sleep or even sit down, and then she would get in her car and drive back to his place. She had no shame. She banged on his door begging for more. More, more, more.

The only thing Winnie knew she wanted was to still be married. She had always wanted a lasting, meaningful marriage and Jonathan had ruined that. Daisy went through men like maggots through shit. Winnie had wanted to be steadfast and true, loyal as a dog and in love forever. It was the one thing her mother was not good at.

“You're the pot of jewels at the end of my rainbow—or whatever that expression is,” Jonathan had said on their very first date.

“You make me feel invincible,” he said that same night in bed.

“You're dragging me down,” he said eleven years later. “You make me feel like a failure.”

They were in the kitchen. She was making coffee and she went on making it. His game show had taken off; the ratings were astronomical. He had met Jessica, but she didn't know it yet, only smelled something floral in the creases of his neck and saw a new satisfaction in his chest and shoulders. She thought it was the show, the makeup, his success.

“I think you can do better,” she said, meaning better than the game show, not better than her and Lacy. “When is your contract up?”

“You're so negative,” he said, “You're putting that harmful energy out into the universe.”

“I can't believe you just said that.”

“I'm leaving.”

“What about Lacy?”

“I'm not running from the past, I'm going forward to my destiny.”

“Where did you get this crap?” The answer streaked across her mind like a shooting star. “What's her name?”

And, a year later, long after Jessica had moved in with him,
Winnie was still driving by his house. She would get a babysitter so she could watch through the windows as they cooked dinner, practiced yoga together, and went up the stairs to bed. A year later she was still calling in the middle of the night just to hear his voice. She bought every magazine with an article about Jonathan Parker, host of television's most popular game show. She drew mustaches and warts on the photos of Jessica.

But finally, eventually, more than two years after he had left her, she stopped. She did not drive by his house. She did not wait for the phone to ring. And she discovered she no longer wanted anything. She stopped masturbating, after twenty minutes of effort and even accoutrements she was still making To-Do lists in her head. She did not care what she ate, if she saw her friends, or what would happen next. She did not cry at movies. She was never frightened. She was numb. Perhaps that was what she should have asked Madame Nadalia. “Will I ever feel anything again?”

9.

“Fuck!” Oren shouted. The text had come too soon. Kidney wasn't supposed to arrive until next week. Next week. When all of this would be over. “Fuck!” he said again. Now what?

He opened the door to the bedroom. She was still out, snuffling a little as she breathed. She was tied down. Could he leave her? He couldn't. It would take an hour to get all the way down by the airport and an hour to get back and he had his plans. His plans.

“Can't wait to see the pix,” he texted Kidney. “Working today. Tomorrow?”

The answer came back almost immediately. “Today only.”

“Fuck!”

He knew Kidney was the best. He knew Kidney would get him the best iguana possible, but Oren didn't even have all the money. That was part of the plan too; get this rich mom to fork over the thousand dollars he was missing. He was sure she would give it to him later, after they had talked, when she understood what he needed from her. The money was the least of it. She would be grateful to him. She would thank him for opening her eyes. She would think a thousand dollars well worth it, cheap even. Shit, shit, shit. When would she wake up? He leaned over her and hissed her ear. The way his mother used to wake him, “Ssssssssss.”

He looked down at her dark head. Her scalp was visible
through the damp hairs. She smelled bad. Later he would let her take a shower. Good, he thought. She would appreciate him. She would know he was not a bad guy. He had thought carefully and prepared a list of questions. Eventually she would begin to understand the meaning of this—the good cause it was for. Years from now it would be a story they would tell. He had not imagined that before, but all at once he could see it. Sitting around the table, maybe it was a holiday, Thanksgiving or Christmas. A long table filled with food and everybody drinking expensive champagne. There would be children and old people too.

Tell it again, someone would say, Oren, tell how you met Winnie.

He took a deep breath. It would all work out. It was still early. She could wake up now and he could take her with him and they would have time for everything. He put his mouth close to her ear and hissed again. He tried not to breathe in the cooked vegetable smell of her dirty hair.

“Ssssss,” he said. Like a cat when it was angry. “Sssss.”

But she did not move. What was the difference between being asleep and being unconscious?

He went through everything step by step. He would have to force her into the car. He would have to keep her tied up; otherwise how could he drive?

He needed the gun from the box in the closet. It was not a real gun, just a cheap bit of plastic. It was as light as air, but it was flat gray and a very realistic copy of a Glock. He had bought it for a Halloween costume and even the people at the party had thought it was real. They had stepped away from him, smiling as if to keep him happy. Two girls had left the party as soon as he arrived in his trench coat with the plastic gun. As if he were the type to have a gun. He did not do drugs or even drink beer. He did not speed. He never broke the law.

“Sssssss,” he hissed again.

Maybe she would cooperate just because. Because he brought her the water and the aspirin. Because he was nice, a nice guy. He had no idea if he would hurt her if he woke her up. He had moved her when he wasn't supposed to, and she was still alive. The bump on her head wasn't that bad. Waking her was probably fine. And he had to. He did. Today only, Kidney had said. Today was the day.

“Get up,” he spoke through clenched teeth. “Wake up!”

Winnie's eyes fluttered open. When her eyes focused and she saw it was him, she tried to turn her head. She tried to get away. It hurt her to move. He could see that.

“Wait,” he said.

But she closed her eyes and slipped away from him.

“I wish,” he thought he heard her say. “I wish.”

“Wake the fuck up!” Oren said to her. He jostled her shoulder again. Her head flopped and she frowned in her sleep. “Wake up!” Was she pretending? Her eyes had opened for a moment. He touched her again and she flinched and moaned.

Why me? He thought. What am I going to do? He pounded his fist into his leg. And again. Stop it. Stop it!

He couldn't wait anymore. She had to get up. He tipped the glass of water over on her face. Not all of it, but most. She coughed and sputtered, her eyes opened.

“Come on,” he said.

She looked up at him and he saw how frightened she was. This was not working out. Not at all. She had to understand him, to learn from him, to realize that what he wanted was best for everybody. It would not happen if she was too scared to listen.

“I'm sorry I had to wake you up.”

She threw the blanket onto the floor. That wasn't nice of her. It was a clean blanket. He had put it over her to make her
more comfortable. Now he could see her, all of her. Her bloody shirt was clinging to her chest and stomach; her ponytail was wrapped around her neck in a wet black clump. She struggled against the ropes tying her to the bed and the flesh on her thighs wobbled. Her eyes went up to the fairy hanging from the light fixture, then back to him. If anything, she looked more terrified than before.

“I brought you water,” he said. “There's still some left. And aspirin.”

He put the glass down again on the bedside table. He picked up the bottle of aspirin and shook two of them onto the bed.

She was so slow. Usually he had a lot of patience, it was one of his strengths, but today it was all he could do not to grab her and yank her to her feet. She was looking around, examining the bare room. Was she stupid? Handicapped somehow?

“Take them,” he said. “We have to go.”

10.

Winnie looked up past her kidnapper. A dried and shriveled monkey skeleton with wings hung from the overhead light fixture. Monkeys don't have wings, she thought, do they? Her head hurt so badly she could not remember. No, monkeys do not have wings, but there was definitely one hanging from the ceiling. It was something he wanted to do to her. Some kind of hybrid experiment. In a basement operating room, he would amputate her legs and hands; attach bicycle wheels to her knees and feathers to her wrists. He would hang her from the ceiling when she died. She clenched her teeth to keep from screaming.

She sat up slowly and took a deep breath to keep from vomiting. She tugged at the ropes around her ankles. The knots were under the bed. Without thinking, she lifted her shirt to inspect the cuts on her stomach and pulled the barely formed scabs away with the fabric. They began bleeding again. There would be scars on her stomach, if she lived long enough to heal. Or would she mend after death, the cells rejuvenating like hair and fingernails that continue to grow in the coffin? Her hand went to the enormous bump on the back of her head. A real goose egg. Stuffed goose. Only six weeks from now she might be his Christmas dinner.

“What do you want?” she mumbled thickly.

BOOK: The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets
13.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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