, , , , , , ,

by Lynn Mundell

The wild animal park at night is as noisy as a lockdown unit, with inhuman shrieks and howls. Her flashlight beam floods the dirt path, the tall pines and summer lily-of-the-valley, the fenced enclosures.

In her first weeks, she’d barely been able to look at the caged animals, and even now it pains her. Illuminated, the porcupine named Fred trundles around his cage in his coat of long pick-up-sticks. The bobcat, Cloud, paces back and forth as though waiting for a cab that’s late.

Barry had said that the animals are safer in the park than in the wild. “They live three times longer,” he’d told her. But a hundred times more unhappily, she’d thought, or perhaps she’d said it aloud. She’d looked up to find her boss watching her closely. What was the expression? Like a hawk?

She’d first come here at 15, a decade ago, on a special outing. She’d thought that the animals would be loose in the park, like children on a playground. When she’d seen the cages, they’d reminded her of her room back on the ward, where she was observed day and night, fed and weighed like livestock. Locked up until she could stop hearing so many sounds, so many voices. That day she’d cried and the aide had held her hand, although it had felt more like she was being walked on a leash.

Her high beam picks up Sam, the bald eagle, pointedly turning his back to the path, his noble profile like the side of a coin. Roger, the barn owl, stares at her from a corner perch, his heart-shaped face a blank valentine.

Barry gave her the three-digit codes to the cages yesterday. It took nine months; some basic instinct must have told him not to trust her. Maybe she was too cheerful, too punctual, not like the park’s other employees. 729. Roger’s gate opens. Apples, the badger, is doggedly trying to dig his way out to the surrounding woods. 338. She hurries to all of the cages, giddily, like a trick-or-treater, entering the codes, leaving the gates open. At the end of the path, she shines her beam on a wooden platform, and like magic Puck the russet fox is there, an actor on a stage, his beautiful face turned up to the moon. 294.

In the far corner of this cage there’s a soft rustle and Laura the grey fox appears like her red companion’s ghost, but with a half-tail. Barry had named the fox after her a month ago. He’d said it was in honor of her dedication, but she thinks it’s because he’s telling her he knows she’s just like the animal — damaged.

Entering the cage, she picks up a branch and gently herds out first Laura and then Puck, who unwillingly climbs down from his platform. The gate slams shut and memories rise up. White bed sheets. Blue pills, the ones she doesn’t take anymore. The day she was released, and how her father locked the car door before they drove away. His daily phone call, even still. She claws at the gate.

Outside again, she sees Puck and Laura sitting patiently together a few yards away. The high beam of her flashlight catches the porcupine slowly picking its way along the path. The owl and eagle haven’t moved. The badger still digs in place. Only the bobcat has disappeared. She clicks off her flashlight and the night is its own cage surrounding her. In the forest, many sets of eyes watch her, waiting to see what’s next.

Lynn Mundell’s work has appeared in Number Eleven, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, The A3 Review, Oblong, FlashFlood, Counterexample Poetics, Eunoia Review, KYSO Flash, and elsewhere. She lives in Northern California, where she co-edits 100 Word Story. Find her on Twitter: @lynnfmundell.