Animal

Mary Francis

It was raining – not today, but when it happened. She hadn’t thought that kind of thing happened in the rain.

Today, the sun was shining. A northerly brushed the tops of the sweet-smelling lavender bush sentries posted at the corners of the garden. Over the wooden fence and past the ant trails of cars crawling towards the city, the hills of Brooklyn rose with their stately homes speckled among the bush, looking down on Newtown in the heat of the afternoon. Blank eyes seeing, but doing nothing. She shut the front door against them and locked it, fingers trembling.

Rick had disappeared inside the house, giving her space and time, as instructed. Leaving her alone where it happened.

The wallpaper in the bedroom had been hung in a hurry and the flowers didn’t match up - half roses, half bluebells - cheap paper Rick had bought and put up in a rush before she got home. He had left the window open. She lurched over to it, slammed it shut and locked it. Every window had a lock now.

He’d put fresh flowers on the bedside table. The book she had been reading was still there, the soft leather tongue of the bookmark lolling out of the pages. He’d bought new bedding. The pillows strained against their pillowslips, fat like lambs.

He’d put a lock on the bedroom door, as she’d asked. He’d always said no till now. Fire risk, he’d said. She touched it with the tips of her fingers. Thick and cold, a serious bronze bolt that made the wood of the door seem flimsy.

There was a stain on the carpet. He’d put a rug over it but she knew it was there and pushed the secondhand Turkish imitation aside to look. Rust brown, patchy with bleach. She dropped the rug back over the mark, pressing it down with her crutch.

The hallway was too long. She’d always said that. These workmen’s cottages, one room wide, stacked the living spaces one after the other, funnelling you from end to end, a rat in a trap. She teetered. There was a mirror halfway along, to increase the light, make the space seem wider, and it acted like a circus mirror, sliding and expanding her as she passed it.

The rugs that had been here were gone, on her command. They’d slid under her feet when she was running. She’d tripped and fallen, sprawled, scrambled, rugs tangling underfoot, slowing her down. She could have escaped without the rugs. She could have locked the bedroom door, if there had been a lock.

Rick was in the kitchen making tea.

The window here was open, too. She walked over and closed it. Shot the bolt.

He’d shut the French windows, at least. Had enough common sense to do that. But she could see the back garden. Stretch of emerald green grass, more lavender bushes, the lemon tree, the back fence.

“I thought you’d like the fresh air,” he said into the silence. “After the hospital.”

She stood in the middle of the living room and stared out.

“Sit down, love. Here’s a cuppa.”

With the wind from the north, you couldn’t hear the zoo. That had been her greatest fear, as he parked the car and opened the passenger door for her. Would she hear the noises from the zoo. The screeching. The roaring.

She would hear it later, when the wind dropped. When the noise of the city died away. When the animals set up their chattering at dusk. She shuddered.

Rick put a gentle hand on her shoulder to guide her to the couch, as if she’d forgotten where it was. She shrugged him off and sat on the chair instead. Upright, firm. Easy to jump up from.

He sat on the couch, putting his mug on the coffee table to go cold.

The couch was long, to fit the long, narrow room. She had slept on it, some afternoons. The sound of the rain on the roof, the French windows open if the wind was a southerly, blowing the rain away from this side of the house, bringing the faint farmyard smells of the zoo, the hoots of the gibbons and the cries of the birds. The dull roar of the lions.

She started to cry. The tears dripped down her face and onto her tracksuit, the only clothes loose enough to pull on over the bandages. Her body shook with the sobbing. Rick waited it out.

Nobody would buy this place. Not with the story still in the media. Not before the final liability was assigned, the final sentence passed, the final payment made from ACC and everything back to normal, scars hidden under long sleeves and long skirts, and she’d grow her hair out so it covered her jaw and ear and neck.

After all of that, once they’d changed all the carpets and the wallpaper, painted over the marks, maybe then they could sell it for a price that would get them something decent somewhere else. Until then, this was still their home. That’s what Rick said.

You’ll get used to it, he said.

Better to face up to it, he said. Better than running away.

The tears stopped, and she could hear the blood in her ears. Thumping. The sound of heavy feet on the floorboards. Breath, so loud, like a steam engine. The stench of sweat and dirt. She squeezed her eyes shut, gripping the arms of the chair, jaw clenched, the panic washing over her, the vision alive in front of her again. She felt the damp wind through the open French windows, heard the growl, opened her eyes, saw the hooded eyes fixed on her.

The chair clattered to the ground as she leapt up and tried to run, but Rick blocked her, wrestled her, shouted at her to stop. She couldn’t fight him. Her body, seized with terror, half-healed and cramping, went limp. Rick caught her.

“It’s all right,” he said. “It’s all right,” over and over.

They’d bought the house on a sunny day, like today. Southerly breeze. The sound of the animals like distant music. “You’ll hear the lions at night,” said the real estate agent. They’d laughed. Newtown was diverse. Up and coming. They ignored the halfway houses, the police sirens. A friend was mugged on the street outside his house at eight in the morning. A neighbour was robbed twice in one month. Inner-city living. The cops were responsive and kind. The zoo noises made it exotic. Exciting.

Why did you leave the doors open? Why did you fall asleep? Why didn’t you fight back – grab a knife from the kitchen? Why not hide in the bathroom, with its lockable door? Why not get out the front door into the street and scream for help?

“Nobody could have predicted it,” Rick had said, sitting beside her bed in the hospital, after the cops had left the second time. “Getting out… finding our place, when the doors happened to be open, when you happened to be asleep… it was a freak incident. It was just bad luck.”

There had been a heartbeat of stillness, after she woke up that wet afternoon, and then she had thrown herself off the couch and run. Torn through the kitchen and up the hallway, blind to the knives, blind to the bathroom door with its flimsy hook and eye lock, slammed against the front door and scrabbled at the deadlock, felt it catch her from behind and drag her backwards. The beast free from its cage, huge and reeking, grunting and roaring. Her, a panicking animal, wriggling helplessly.

Rick lowered her onto the couch, where she’d sworn she’d never sit again. The panic drained away, leaving its residue buzzing in her ears, blurring her vision. She sat dumbly as he phoned the GP. He was already failing. He’d put in all the locks but left the windows open. Covered up the blood but the stains were still there. Made her a cup of tea and put her back on the couch. Told her it was all right.

They would sell the house. And she would move away, to a small town with no zoos, no predators prowling. She’d hire a man to put in deadbolts and locks and screen doors. Rick would stay in Wellington – for his job, he’d say. And she would sleep with the lights on and the bolts in place and no rugs on the floor to slip underfoot.

She lay on the couch, looking past her feet, through the glass to the back garden as the sun went down.

Mary lives in Wellington, capital city of Aotearoa New Zealand. She writes flash fiction and short stories, and performs spontaneous theatre and stand-up. Her stories have been published by Reflex Fiction, Queer Sci Fi, Bath Flash Fiction, Grindstone and Best Small Fictions.