Twelve-year-old Mary wiped an arm across her sweaty brow and leaned her bike against a cottonwood tree. The Animal House was like her own, but smaller and less ornate. The grass was unkempt, and an ominous pillar of smoke sometimes wafted from the stone chimney. Mary peddled to the wretched place as fast as she could.
Mother said it was too late, but Mary refused to believe that.
She dashed inside, didn’t even bother knocking, which Mother would have whipped her for, no doubt about it. Against the oak flooring, Mary’s shoes thundered. Cleaning compound stung her nose and did nothing to hide the smell of excrement and urine. And something else…bad. It was the smell from the butcher. Mother talked with him as he prepared their meat order. The butcher’s thumbs and some fingers had crimson fissures in them and blood gunked in the whites of his fingernails. Mother smiled and didn’t seem to notice the bloody fingerprints on the white butcher paper. He always gave them a good price and the best cuts. Mary suspected it was because of Mother’s smile.
Little Lightning, Mary’s kitten, was somewhere inside this dark place.
There was nothing wrong with Little Lightning. The real estate agent had found her in one of her rental properties. Mother wanted to say no to the kitten–Mary could tell–but the agent was shrewd. She winked at Mary when Mother wasn’t looking, and she painted the kitten as an orphan, and what sort of a person isn’t charitable to orphans, furry or otherwise?
Mother was out-maneuvered.
Little Lightning tore around the house, jumping and sliding, her little claws making music along the wood floors.
“Not the way a cat should behave,” said her mother. “That thing gave me a case of the nerves.”
Gave, not gives.
Mary had questioned her Mother upon waking to a tombishly-quiet house: “Where’s Little Lightning?”
Mother averted her eyes.
“But where is she?” Mary asked many questions, not wanting to believe Mother would take Little Lightning away. In her first act of deviance, Mary stomped her feet and shouted that she’d buy him back from the pound herself.
“He’s…not at the pound.” Spoken softly. That sort of quiet was not Mother.
“You gave him away? Well, they’ll have to give him back. He’s mine.”
Mother shook her head.
And Mary knew it was bad. There was only one place Little Lightning would be, the place animals went when they weren’t wanted. And maybe–said some big kids–the place where people went, too. Bad people nobody wanted anymore: the house with the smoking chimney, long grass, and peeling paint. The Animal House.
Mary had never seen who owned the Animal House. The driveway went around back. Sometimes muffled barks or yelps came from inside. Once, Mary thought she heard bleating. And the squawking of fowl. But her fear for Little Lightning was bigger than the fear of Animal House and whoever or whatever was inside.
She waited in the foyer for her eyes to acclimate to the darkness. Music emanated from the kitchen, a string instrumental. Someone moved about, disrupting the blade of light under the kitchen door.
She couldn’t bear to imagine harm coming to Little Lightning, to not pet his tiny, pink nose with the little birthmark on it. To not watch his eyes close in happiness when she pet his fuzzy head. From the kitchen came the clang of silverware and running water.
The only responses were sloshing, humming, and softly-playing Pachelbel.
She pushed open the swinging door. A man had his back to her. He was, as she suspected, doing dishes. Square chunks of raw meat were stacked on the butcher block beside him. The blood ran over the counter and dripped on the floor. He was oblivious, humming with the cello.
Until the kitchen door hinges shrieked.
“You’re the Animal Man?” Mary asked.
His hands were clean, not like at the store. But the smell was enormous. His eyes followed hers to the pile of beef.
“Where’s Little Lightning?” Mary’s heart was on that butcher block, in fragments.
“Your mother brought him.”
Mary rushed the butcher, grabbed onto his shirt, and yanked and cried.
He sighed and stood for it, took her flailings and little punches. The terrible thought–that he was probably used to the struggles of small creatures–made Mary even more hostile. She wanted to claw out his wet, sad-looking eyes.
“YOU CHOPPED UP LITTLE LIGHTNING!”
“Mew.” The sound came from the foyer.
The butcher shrugged. “I call him Zig Zag.” He nodded at the beef livers on the counter. “That’s his dinner.”
Mary’s fact in her own words (Because it’s so dang interesting. And horrible.):
A real estate agent gave me [Mary] a black kitten when I was 12. I named the kitten Little Lightning. It acted like a normal kitten and went crazy running around the house in the late afternoon (this was the Oviatt Mansion, built in 1865 by a civil war general). My mother decided that the kitten was having fits, so she took it to a vet, without asking permission from me or my sister, and had it euthanized.
Also true: I couldn’t write Mary a horrifying story because the truth is bad enough. This tragic decision by her mom is (I’m guessing) the basis for many of Mary’s cat protagonists, all of which give her readers a smile. Mary took her childhood grief and used it as the raw material for many lovely storylines. She’s an accomplished author, including a Nebula in 2007.
Also, also true: I have the joy of sharing my writing journey with Mary. She’s one of the five Little Red Writing Hoods.
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