With a jangle and a crunch, the little glass bell fell off the front door and hit the ground outside, where it dimpled and skidded instead of shattering. It was unsecured, sure – but that was because the pet store was closed. Closed, and out of business.
There was only one person who would ignore a clearly labeled “Closed” sign and barge in, so Curtis didn’t even look up. Curtis was shoveling shavings and shit out of the last row of terrariums into one last plastic sack, and with the air conditioning turned off, the whole place smelled like a sunny spot in a cow pasture. Maybe the bastard would just turn around and leave.
Of course, this was impossible.
“Jeez, sorry about the bell,” said Weaver, letting the door slam shut behind him. The broken bell swept inside along the arc, where it rolled behind a cardboard display for flea and tick collars. Perhaps Curtis would leave it there as a parting metaphor.
Curtis peered through the rows and rows of translucent boxes. Weaver had un-tucked his collared shirt, meaning he must have just finished counting down the tills for the evening shift next door. Curtis always tried to be gone by now, but that was not the plan for today. The sad thing was that Weaver probably thought they were pals. Peers. Curtis wasn’t the sort that cared enough to put up a strong, discouraging front or make his hatred sting. But it didn’t matter. This would be the last time he would ever have to see Weaver or any other Fete employee again.
Underneath the lipid fluorescents and risking a mouthful of swirling mouse shit flakes, Curtis openly smiled to himself. Maybe this would be fun.
“I’m in the back,” shouted Curtis weakly. He could hear Weaver pick his way through the store, pausing at irritating intervals to soak up the emptiness and perspire satisfaction. As usual, he stopped in front of the vending machine and sucked his whole bottom lip into his face in a gesture of supreme annoyance before continuing on. Evidently, the vending machine offended Weaver’s business sense somewhere primal.
“Why would anybody want to buy chips and candy bars in a pet store?” asked Weaver, sidling up next to him. “That was a real bad investment. I’d like to shank the guy who sold you on that one.”
Curtis didn’t bother replying. There was a crusty ball of filth stuck in one corner of the Egyptian Corkscrew Rat case, and it required his full concentration to pry it loose. All he could find to use was a wooden stick meant for scraping the ice from car windshields. The truth was that the vending machine was the best investment he had ever made.
Not because anybody bought anything. No, Weaver was right about that.
Curtis popped the ball of gunk free, junked it, and cinched up the bag. He tossed the black bundle onto the pile, where it landed like the final piece of some horrifying fractal. Piled together, the trash bags all looked like mouse shit. Each trash bag primarily contained mouse shit, and the mouse shit was made of perspiring globules of mouse shit atoms. So what did that make his defunct pet store? What did that make the whole damn world?
Curtis took off his work gloves and tossed them onto the pile, too. He wiped his hand on his shirt, then held it out and wiggled his fingers. He was pleased to note that despite the gloves, the wrinkles of his palms were still traced in the brown ash of animal offal.
Weaver shook it grudgingly.
“Goodbye, Weaver,” said Curtis. “Unless you want to help me take these sacks out to the dumpster. I’ve got to be here all night cleaning up if I want to get my deposit back.”
Weaver fingered his nametag and laughed nervously. His shiny jowls glowed like they had been marinated in butter, and his piggy eyes flickered twice before going dead again.
“I just wanted to see you before you left,” said Weaver, “I still think it’s awful you’ve got to leave like this. So sudden. What are they going to put in here, anyway?”
“I heard it’s going to be a store that specializes in monogramming. Monogrammed towels, monogrammed golf balls. Whatever you’ve got, they’ll put your initials on it. Evidently, it’s catching fire in the South. I guess we need a machine for what other mammals accomplish through selective urination.”
“Awful,” said Weaver, “Just awful.” He looked around, flaring his nostrils, grimacing, breathing through his mouth. “So what happened to all the animals? They were here yesterday.”
“Dead,” said Curtis. “I had to kill them. There was no time to move them anywhere.”
Weaver winced, and tried very hard not to look at the pile of trash bags. Curtis noticed for the first time that Weaver’s scalp had little nodes of gristle poking through it like undercooked bacon.
“I just want you to know that I never saw any vermin, myself,” said Weaver, “Not in produce. I think what Fete did to you was just awful. I wish I could have spoken up or something, but you know how it is.”
“Of course,” said Curtis flatly. “And the world keeps turning.”
Curtis picked up two sacks of garbage and stared. Weaver looked around, kicked at a stain on the floor, and then smiled painfully.
“Well,” he said.
Suggestively, Curtis slung the bags over his shoulders.
Weaver turned around, coughed into his hand, and then rocketed out of the store as if hooked by an industrial winch. Curtis watched him go through the plate glass storefront, tracking him coldly. As soon as he was gone, Curtis let the bags drop from his hands and then took his store keys from his pocket. First, he locked the front door, and then he locked the back.
Time to get to work.
He had already rolled up all of the rugs and stripped the store down to its bare linoleum, so pushing the aquariums together was not as difficult as he thought it would be. He pulled them from the edges and the center rows, forming them at angles to make a tight circle in the store’s center. Every day, these aquariums had been his pocket universes in constant need of careful attention, and he could barely stand to see them empty and hollow. These sucking voids should have been cubic paradises for blameless innocents, and only temporary fantasy could contain his rage at those who had emptied them. As he worked, he imagined smashing these forgotten worlds, and scattering their glass in cakes and pies meant for connoisseurs and industrialists. Throwing them through windows at hateful baby carriages. He wanted to pick them up over his head, run outside, and toss them into the gleaming sedans of every pampered customer of the gourmet market that had run him out of business.
But that was not his plan. His plan was deeper. So he made them into a circle and he willed his hands not to shake.
It took an hour and a half, but he eventually had his invisible glass cage. The last aquarium sealed the gap, and his sweaty fingers left a meaty palm print perfectly in its center – like the signature of a kindergarten craft project.
He took a cigarette break. Then he started heaving the trash bags inside -- up over the top like medieval warriors breaching a hardened fastness. They exploded like rotten fruit. Like water balloons filled with entrails. He intentionally gave them as much arc as possible in order to manufacture satisfying explosions of scat, sawdust, and pet food. In they went, one after another, plastic sliding on plastic, a fenced-off mound of sweltering garbage that splashed its rotten juice all over the sides of its glass restraints.
This new cage quickly began to creak with abandoned pet effluvium, growing waist-high with bags, their busted contents, and teeming hordes of opportunistic gnats and flies. The aquariums may have been empty, but they were something different now. Bones for a new cage, perhaps. Another wrinkle to the fractal. What kind of creature could live in such a hell? Was there any beast as deserving as man?
Conspicuously absent from the pile were the corpses of any animals. No, the animals were somewhere else. He could no sooner kill his friends than he could kill his enemies, when it came right down to it. But there were better ways to get revenge.
His final step was to hose down the putrid mess with petrol from a duffel bag. It had a sewn-in bladder that held nearly three gallons. He was pretty sure the rancid tumble would burn unaided, but it was better to make certain. When he was done, he tossed the duffel bag over, along with the cash register and the rest of the display stands.
The addition of gasoline to the reek of two hundred pounds of pet excrement was nauseating. It made his eyes water, and burned the little hairs of his nose. He wanted more than anything to lower his head and flee into the fresh air, but there was still one last thing to do. He still had to say goodbye to his troops, wish them good luck, and send them on their way. He still had to pay one last visit to Wonderworld. So he squirted some jasmine-scented hand lotion into a handkerchief and held it to his nose. The smell didn’t disappear, but it did mutate into something manageable.
He stumbled over to the corner vending machine. It was the last thing left in the store (his impending bonfire notwithstanding). There was no reason to be careful anymore, so he lowered his shoulder and rammed into it full force. The vending machine tipped, and then fell on its side with a spinning crash. Melted candy bars and potato chips like waxy coins jarred loose from their moorings and smacked into the front plastic like horseflies into a screen door. Curtis grabbed it by the exposed steel runners on the bottom and swung it clear.
Underneath was an inky black hole just big enough for the torso of a spare man to squeeze through. A chilly breeze blew up from underneath and ruffled his hair, making a sound like wind through an oak. He made sure no one was watching, and then he dropped down inside, letting the handkerchief fall from his hands and flutter to the ground like a crumbled moth.
Curtis would have been a fool if he didn’t know his pet store was going to fail six months ago when Fete Foods bought out the Hobby Horse -- a hobby shop that had been around since Curtis was little. Francine Gonzales, who had run the Hobby Horse for a decade and who used to play poker with Curtis on Tuesday nights, said the whole strip was changing and that the future didn’t have hobbies or pets: it only had room for dainties, gadgets, and tanning beds.
So when two police officers showed up at his door yesterday with an eviction notice and court papers alleging extreme health code violations, Curtis was not surprised in the slightest. He almost laughed in their faces when they told him he had a right to appeal. He couldn’t afford a legal battle with Fete, even if he was completely justified. Anyway, it didn’t matter: he had been preparing for months, and he was just glad they had given him so much time.
Time to build.
Curtis fell seven feet straight down in the dark and landed hard on his tennis shoes. He didn’t roll, but he pitched forward and nearly hit his head on an exposed pipe. If he hadn’t been in such a hurry, he could have used the ladder he had installed, but he wanted to get this over with as soon as possible, and the stink was making his head swim. Wouldn’t that have been funny, though? If they had found him down here in the dark, his skull curled around a copper tube and his brains running down his shirt like a nosebleed?
The tunnel was dank and cold – a shock after being inside the hot box upstairs -- and until he found the cubby where he put his electric lantern, he could almost hear the chirping and scrabbling of a million bristling insects zealously flipping end over end, segments and feelers catching, gripping, and ripping in claws and mandibles. The darkness was only intensified by the blot of light above. His hands shaking, he finally found the button, clicked the lantern on, and illuminated his path.
The entire strip center was built on the forgotten foundation of an old tire factory, and Curtis figured that the corridor that connected his pet store to Fete Foods had once been some sort of storage space. Every once in a while, he would stumble over a long, shredded tire peel that looked fifty years old or more. He had made a pile of them near the hole, and they served as a perfect reminder of the kind of sewage that built poisoned flowers.
He walked deeper in toward Fete under the parking lot, following his own trail of red plastic flags. He could hear the noise of cars on the surface above. Every once and awhile, a plume of dirt would trickle down, and Curtis wondered how long it would be before some giant forty-wheeled delivery truck punched through and brought the whole lot down here with it. Curtis hadn’t explored very far, but he was almost certain the structure went down deeper. It would be a hell of a thing to see – a parking lot suddenly turning into a throat.
After fifty yards of cramped duck-walking, Curtis came to Fete’s property line and the edge of the frosted Lucite cage that marked his Wonderworld. He gave it a hard rap with his lantern and was rewarded with an operatic squeak. They were awake. They were restless. They were hungry.
The Lucite oval was the size of a hotel swimming pool. Half of it was sunken into the ground, and half of it pooched up over the top, where it curled back around on itself to make a lip. This was vital; otherwise the haughty citizens of Wonderworld would make a living pyramid and escape. He had learned this the hard way in the exotic pet business.
Curtis shined his light against one concrete wall until he found the step ladder there. He brought it to the side of the oval and climbed high enough to look inside. It was still amazing to him; still an absurd marvel. He nearly forgot that the clock was ticking. He had always loved to watch tiny lives, and tonight was no exception.
The idea had come from those Victorian carnival attractions that pet store owners chuckled about at private gatherings -- the inevitable “Happy Family.” The Happy Family was a collection of predators and prey that had been conditioned and raised to overcome their impulses and get along in a closed environment without eating each other. Without eating each other very often, anyway. It was supposed to be a metaphor for the promise of an enlightened, rational society – man overcoming his hostile, murderous nature to build a global democracy. But to sideshow junkies, its main attraction was its horrifying oddity. Was a society really like this? Could a cougar really be cowed into letting a canary perch on its nose? It was pure tension. Maddening, worth the money, and rarely resolved.
The Lucite came up to his neck, and went down again as far. There were enough creatures inside that Curtis could reach out and touch the top layer if he so desired. He didn’t.
Inside the Lucite oval were not only all of the animals from his pet store, but animals Curtis had been raising down here for nearly a year. They lived on each other and what he occasionally fed them from the dumpster to give them a taste of class. To prepare them for their eventual home. There was only a thin layer of soil, and Curtis was sure that after another year down here they would collectively shit enough to raise them up and out.
It wasn’t just rats and mice, although there were plenty of those. It wasn’t just exotic rodents, like hyraxes and tusker voles, although Curtis was an expert on them, and in fact had written several minor articles for veterinary journals on their care and keeping.
Curtis had also thrown in his snakes, and his spiders, and his toads and slugs. He had even spent the year rescuing mutants from pet stores all over the state and letting them try their luck at Wonderworld. Such creatures shouldn’t have gotten along together. They didn’t really. But there were just so many of them.
Plus all those cockroaches. He didn’t know where they came from, but every gap was plugged with their lithe, slippery bodies. Curtis was pretty sure they ate what died, because he rarely saw anything in the tank stay still. The roaches were beautiful. Unearned gifts. All they did was multiply.
In fact, the amount of furry, chitinous sex going on must have been enormous. The rats and mice bred so fast that the snakes and other reptiles couldn’t even begin to put a dent in their population, and even the Mexican Reticulated Cottonmouth – a breed known for its vicious streak and appetite -- lay fat and lazy like a scaly log in one corner, a pillow for a pair of hairless freak rabbits with two puffs of cotton tail a piece. Conversely, the rodents were all near starvation, and routinely cannibalized each other when they weren’t fucking.
It was lovely, but he didn’t have time to gawk. He climbed back down and put the ladder back. Satisfied, he walked all the way around the Lucite oval – feeling his way until he was sure he was officially underneath Fete Foods.
This was the tricky part of the whole plan. He had to be very, very quiet, because the walls were thin, and the chamber echoed. If he listened very closely, he could hear the cocktail mumble of the people above – their shopping carts squeaking, their feet shuffling, their canvas sacks of organic toothpaste clunking into the floor. Bolted to the side of the Lucite oval was a plastic tunnel that Curtis had stolen from a fast food playground. His guide. He put one hand on top of it and killed his lantern.
He followed the tube into the dark, his hand caressing each divot in the hard plastic as it trolled by. When he came to the bend and the vent in the ceiling to which the tube was sealed, he had a moment of panic in which he was certain he had forgotten his wrench and would have to go all the way back. But there it was, clamped to the side of his belt.
Curtis gave the seal a hard twist with the wrench. There was a stale expulsion of air as the vacuum breached. He shook the tube and made sure it was still fastened. After all, it was about to get some heavy traffic. Satisfied that the tube would hold, he followed it back to the Lucite oval and opened the seal on the other end. There was a skittering sound as the animals lining the walls suddenly found a new hole to explore. His embryo had its umbilicus. The baby was ready to feed. The tube started to shiver and creak as it began to fill with pods and hair.
“Goodbye, you little wonders,” whispered Curtis, “Time to make a mess.”
Back he went through the caliginous bister, only stopping to light another cigarette and take two satisfying drags. He scrambled back up the ladder, and junked the lantern.
Now the fun started.
As soon as he climbed out of the hole, he ran to the front door of his shop and unlocked it. He turned around to face the circle of aquariums. He took another drag, and then he flicked the lit cigarette at them. It went spiraling away to land uselessly against a stack of hamster wheels. So much for cool drama.
He picked it up and tried again, overhand this time. It sailed into the center, and he immediately ducked outside, quick as a cat. He could feel the heat on his back as the pile ignited. The flames were tremendously loud. Even outside, he could clearly hear their raging warble. A woman unloading groceries into her minivan stared at him as he sprinted, but he didn’t care. Anonymity wasn’t part of the plan.
He was only five steps from his truck when he heard the aquariums explode. The pile of glass would keep the fire from spreading, but it wouldn’t contain the smoke. Which meant it was time to get downwind. He leapt inside his pick-up and pulled out as fast as he could.
Five minutes later, and he was in a back alley behind the shopping center’s obligatory gas station. He had a clear view of the entire area, and he could see directly into Fete Foods (“Where Shopping Is an Art Form”) while staying relatively hidden.
Curtis could barely restrain his excitement as a foul, swirling cloud of smoke started to pour from his pet store and roll slowly toward the grocers. He danced. He bounced. He tapped adrenaline disco onto the wheel. He opened his glove compartment and took out a pair of binoculars, a bag of black licorice, and a can of orange soda.
According to his schematic, Wonderworld was attached to a vent underneath the floor of Fete’s dairy department. He adjusted his binoculars. It wasn’t long before he saw a black shape dart across the floor unnoticed. The first rain drop of a hurricane. His timing was going to be perfect.
The rats came first, riding a wave of white mice and roaches. Good old rats. Rats were natural born leaders, and couldn’t stand to be cooped up. Every time Curtis went down to visit, the rats would turn their heads to stare at him in unison, squinting and squawking. He could almost feel the gnaw of their teacup brains at the corners of his mind. With their little human hands, horrible intelligence, and puke-colored fur, they fit right in at Fete, thought Curtis. Somebody should give them aprons.
The closest person to the grate was a sacker with dreadlocks and a pencil behind her ear who was stacking wheels of Brementon into a tall cube. Curtis watched her face melt into a scream when she saw the horde bubble up. God, all those eyes – coming right at you. He did a quick pan of the store. Everybody stopped whatever they were doing and looked in her direction.
The animals sluiced through the grate, dividing up nicely into jittery traffic patterns. The other people in the dairy section were too shocked to do very much. A woman with cat-eye glasses and natty brown hair piled up in a handkerchief dropped her basket of foot and head cheeses, and started to wobble like an arrhythmic metronome.
The aluminum grate started to wobble, too. To lift up. There was some serious pressure under there, thought Curtis.
Two toddlers – a blond little boy and girl -- were running around and around a giant promotional cow dressed up in a smoking jacket and blowing bubbles from a cardboard pipe. Out of nowhere came the rats and roaches to tickle their hairless legs, and the boy and girl ran right into each other and fell over onto their diapered asses.
Then the grate blew off and flew across the store like a careless Frisbee. It smacked into a shelf laden with Guatemalan Paint Peas, and knocked a row onto the floor. Now there was nothing holding back the swarming warren. The creatures poured out in rippling waves as freedom spread on down the line, a promise carried on by chitters, clicks, and smells. From where Curtis sat, it looked like somebody had sheared the top off of a fire hydrant.
It wasn’t long before the entire floor of the dairy section undulated and pulsed like digestive carpet -- like pictures Curtis had seen of the cilia that lined the human stomach. The woman with the cat-eye glasses fainted dead away. Her glasses and handkerchief were carried off by a raccoon with only one urinal-cake-pink eye in the center of its forehead. The sacker got her wits back, and was yelling something to the front.
Better start climbing, thought Curtis. You want to get up high, if you ask me. The rest of the store was as frozen as Butterscotch Cheroot Rice Cream, leaning against each other and trying to keep their balance, their mouths puffed into fish-face screams.
The sacker started chucking cheese wheels like mortar shells into the densest part of the onslaught. A three-legged squirrel was crushed like a paper cup when a wheel smashed into its spine, its neck and back legs slamming into each other like clapping hands. She shouted something again to the front, but nobody moved to help her.
Curtis bit into a hunk of licorice and grinned.
Cockroaches quickly spread across the store like greasy ball bearings. What was it about cockroaches that turned people inside out? Strong-looking adults started running for the door, leaving partners and children behind. The cockroaches flowed like a puddle in a gymnnasium, distributing cleanly and heading for every bottom and hole. The fluorescent lights scrambled their ganglia, and there was something pathetic about the way they fell off of the shelves and onto the customers whenever they moved from shadow to glare.
The rats lingered. They climbed the dairy case and immediately started ripping into the cheeses, fighting each other for crumbs of Derryshale, Tippersly, and Hugo before realizing they had found rat heaven. They were soon joined by an army of hairless ferrets whose bodies slipped through the cold case like severed forearms -- punching, chewing, scratching, spitting, and performing unappreciated feats of acrobatic virtuosity.
Other rodents went in different directions. A platoon of conies went for the vegetables, and the other aisles quickly filled up with squirrels and stoats. They chased each other over boxes of tampons made from recycled paper, between jugs of fair trade dishwashing liquid, and through sea sponges supposedly harvested by hard-luck Maoris. They knocked bright packages to the ground like they were apples and nuts, and then ran away to find new fun. A parcel of horn-rimmed beaver-moles found the plastic grain tubes, and started rolling them onto the floor where they busted into salty dunes. Kangaroo rats and sugar gliders swung from the scoops and scales, cheering them on.
Finally, the reptiles and the arachnids found their way to the surface, burping out of the hole like crude oil. The big snakes looped into the little ones, and the Gila monsters and monitor lizards peeped slowly over the edge before fully emerging, their tongues tasting the air and finding it merciful.
A troop of scorpions and spiders made their way ineluctably to the deli, blazing a trail for the nearly-transparent albino copperheads that Curtis had been raising since college. Meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat!
The sacker with the dreadlocks and the pencil behind her ear was the only person who tried to put up a fight. She stood with her legs inside two shopping carts, and rolled through the rat-covered floor like a juggernaut crushing its worshippers. It was a good idea. Tails and heads littered the twin streaks of black jelly behind her, and wherever she went, the vermin scattered. But as soon as she saw the snakes, she lost control and crashed her chariot at full speed into the condiment aisle. The whole shelf-case tipped and hit the one next to it. The shelves dominoed on down the line, shooting pimento chutneys, breadfruit jams, and lemon essences like geysers until they came to rest in a heap against the herbal healing counter. The sacker landed tits-up in a pile of fitness magazines -- stunned, but not dead.
The store emptied in short order. Customers and employees alike came streaming out of the electronic doors, leaping over the backs of the slow, and slipping on their own spilled blushes and merlots. They huddled in the street, holding their heads and shrieking. Was this the apocalypse?
They ran right into the green cloud of pet shit smoke. It hit them at the door, ambushing them before they could make it to their cars. It flooded the storefront, and billowed into the parking lot like somebody shaking cockles from an army surplus blanket. A few people fell over backwards as if stringing themselves on a clothesline. Some were actually buffeted back into the store to stand with their faces smooshed against the glass, screaming and crying. Those who stayed outside grabbed their throats and fell to their knees, retching, not sure which way to crawl. Through the binoculars, the people and the vermin started to look like kissing cousins.
Fire engines sounded in the distance. There would also be police, thought Curtis.
Curtis started his truck and drove up to within earshot. He rolled down his window. In the crowd, he spied Weaver on his hands and knees, his eyes shut, puking into a gutter. Funny. For the first time, Curtis realized why the man persisted in bothering him. He probably had no place else to go.
Curtis leaned his head out the window.
“The world is alive, you know,” shouted Curtis at the dazed throng. Only a few people looked up through the smoke. “It’s not just a bunch of trophies.”
Curtis debated with himself. Things were probably not going to get any worse, and the smoke was blocking his view anyway.
He put his truck in gear, drained the rest of his soda, stuffed the can into the empty licorice bag, and then tossed it into the truck’s bed through the sliding partition behind him.