Joyland

The South |

Chicken Necks

by Elise Burke

It was Willy’s job to feed the big cats. Luray Zoo’s got a lazy Bengal tiger that was rejected by its mother, an ocelot born with a deformed jaw, a limping lynx with a missing chunk of hind leg—but the two-toed serval’s always been my favorite. She’s got this tiny head and long body, with stripes on her shoulders and cheetah spots everywhere else. She looks like some kind of messed up jungle experiment, fitting right into this orphanage for misfit animals. Willy used to say that all the animals at Luray Zoo have something that make them special. But it’s more like they’re unfit to live without a human handful of chicken necks passed through the wire cage.

Now I’m stuck here, too. I pulled off the highway after the combination of the hurricane and the flat I’ve been driving on for three days got to be too much. The wind is rocking the rusty cage of my Chevy, all off kilter on the zoo’s front lawn. I’m parked in the mud next to this hollow T-Rex statue. If there were dinosaurs left, they would have migrated away from Luray, Virginia, that’s for sure. The T-Rex sits by the empty highway like he’s waiting for a ride—anywhere but here.

Getting inside is my only choice if I want to get to work—or if I want to get anywhere during this storm. It isn’t like I have any intention of stealing money or wrecking the place or setting the rejects of the animal kingdom free into the mountains; I just need a phone.

In the rearview mirror, the shadows under my eyes make me look like I lost a fight. The humidity’s making my thin hair look a little sexier than usual. Even though I’ve got these bony, freckled shoulders—my serval spots, Willy used to call them—I’m one of the lucky ones for Luray. Willy was one of Luray’s finest, too. He had that honey-colored hair that, if you squinted, sparkled rainbows in the sun. But that shiny hair covered up a brain that won’t get him too far outside of the valley.

I shift my weight and reach for the crowbar in the backseat. The back of my jeans are damp with sweat. You’d think the hurricane’s hail would cool this humid mess of a summer down a bit, but it just makes it a little stickier. Pellets of ice are collecting on the ground and I grip the crowbar tight. A little déjà vu swirls in my stomach and I squint, trying to get hold of that memory or moment I’m feeling. It’s the ice—it looks like the little shards of glass that popped off the asphalt after I did Willy’s windshield in. I’ve changed my mind a good couple times about whether or not I’m proud of myself for it. I made a man’s life that wasn’t that easy even harder. But maybe I helped him—he might have finally taken that piece of junk to the shop. Or the scrap yard. Either way, that truck wasn’t helping anybody the way it was. And it’s possible that if it weren’t for my bad behavior, he would never have gotten out.

Not that Willy had ever been employee of the month or anything but last time I was here, a photo of him was hanging in a dusty frame by the cash register. He had an uncomfortable, posed smile, his posture like a scarecrow, as he held up a handful of that pulpy meat. The serval was in the corner of the frame, staring at him like if he didn’t feed her soon, she’d have his neck instead. The first time I saw that photo, I pointed at it, scoffed a little and said something quippy about how silly he looked. The girl behind the register zeroed in on my pupils like they were targets and said, “I don’t know what you mean; to me it looks like he’s looking straight in the camera’s heart.” She blinked a couple times, showing off dots of mascara on her eyelids. She ended up skipping town about the time Willy did. It wouldn’t surprise me if she was in the passenger seat of his busted Dodge on their way up north, spewing the closest thing Luray had to poetry about the hearts of cameras, new lives and little houses surrounded by cherry blossoms instead of Shenandoah pines.

I’m afraid of what else I might find inside. Maybe Willy and register girl sent a Polaroid of some tacky wedding they had in a community center. Already, I hate register girl’s floppy wedding hat and the fact that Joe, the zoo’s owner, would consider two employees that flew the roost worth boasting about. Though I guess his job is just to take care of the ones that can’t escape.

*

To get into the zoo, I have to run into these big, green plastic crocodile jaws—the teeth hang over the door like a row of stalactites. It looks more like a cheesy obstacle at Putt-Putt than an entrance to a zoo. There’s a pair of real crocodiles in some plaster moat behind the fence. They just lay there, bloated and rescued. Nothing else to do but survive—assuming their scaly armor will protect them against the pelts of hail. In the wild, they could retreat, go anywhere else that their instincts took them. But, not since they were rescued. 

Inside the jaw of the crocodile, I pant and wait a minute for my heart to settle back behind my ribs. I have to laugh—me, all wet in a sequin top, looking like a fish the shore spit out, hunched over and gasping in the mouth of a crocodile. Easy prey.

The crowbar’s flat end is split like a snake tongue and I slip it slowly between the two doors right above the bolt lock. I take in one more breath and let it deflate before prying; something shiny is coming at me from behind the doors as I jerk the crowbar between them. My heart speeds up for a second, but I realize it’s just the glass reflecting the jolt of the sequins. I keep my breathing paced and pry with every exhale, a little more metal bending. The hail is getting wild again—the wind’s blowing it right into the crocodile’s mouth. Ice flicks my back and wet hair’s sticking to my cheeks. I can’t see or breathe steady, but I’m jerking the bar hard between the metal frames of the glass doors. Caked on layers of paint and chunks of metal start falling, but the bolt lock won’t snap. When the hail lets up, I pause and pick the wet strands of hair off my forehead and try to catch my breath. I start feeling guilty when I see all the different coats of paint I’m breaking through—like I am disrespecting this place. But this is no worse than what I’ve already done here.

Willy used to feed the cats a half hour before he got off work. Back then I couldn’t wait the extra thirty minutes, just imagining him pushing me up against the glass tank of the diamondback. The snake would hiss and rattle wildly as I fumbled with Willy’s belt; his hands would still be clammy from the meat as they slid up my shirt. The uneven tattoo of his initials, W.E.D for William Evan or Elliott or Edward Dillan, would peek out from under his sleeve and swell up on his bicep when he got real excited—it made me real excited, too.  I’d bite down on his ear lobe when he got close and I’d whisper things in his ear, like what I was making for dinner, which always seemed to get him off, even though it was usually just microwave mashed potatoes.

When I walked out of the reptile room after we’d fuck, I had to settle my heart and breath and smile all nice and calm for Joe—tell him I had just wanted to say hi to Willy before my shift at Luray Lanes. Once in a while Joe would pat my suspicious shoulder on my way out, all slick with sweat and grease from the chicken necks. Then I’d drive the few miles to the bowling alley, my engine rumbling like a mating call, just thinking about the serval’s jagged teeth gnawing on the purple meat.

At work, I’d get dizzy from the shoe polish fumes and daydream about Willy and me in some imaginary marriage bed wrestling each other out of our dress clothes, the milky potatoes sitting on the nightstand. I’d see myself pulling a puffy veil off my head and throwing it on the floor. I’d pull up Willy’s shirtsleeve and we’d laugh about how his tattoo said what we’d just done. The diamondback would be there on the floor, too, mad and rattling when the veil landed on him. I always stopped my imagination from letting the snake get us—I’d push away the image of him slithering up the bed before he’d get the chance to set his fangs into our happy, pulsing muscles.

When I catch my breath, I wedge the crowbar back between the doors. I put all my weight into it and push; the door buckles again but isn’t opening. The chips of paint and metal fall like ash on my jeans. I can’t stand to see my reflection all clumsy with the slippery tool. A warm wave of anger comes over me. I want to just bash the glass. I close my eyes and pry another two times before the bolt finally bends enough to snap. I’m smiling and panting, all proud and relieved, wishing someone else was here to witness one of my few victories.

The place smells like it used to, all sawdust, animal urine and a stale vinegar smell lingering somewhere. The dampness from the storm makes it worse. There’s no reason to worry about setting off an alarm, but I’m hesitant to move. Thunder cracks—the storm’s hovering right above me now, the pressure making my head feel like it’s ready to pop off. I have to hurry to get this call in before the wind knocks trees and lines down. All of a sudden it hits me that the blowing alley has got to be empty tonight. No one but me is gonna get in the car and try to drive into a storm they’ve been warned about for days. Rodger would never let me off work though. He’ll be paying out of his pocket just to torture me, but I bet it’s worth the few coins to him. 

I wipe my shoes on the mat, the soles still leave muddy zigzags on the tile. My breath sounds loud in this silent lobby. I knew this place once. Where Joe goes to make private calls, where Willy went to anoint a snake bite, where the employees keep their snacks. But, I have no idea where the chicken necks are.

Behind the counter is some ancient looking telephone with Chiclet-sized buttons and one of those colorless curly cords. I’m clumsy with the receiver, like it’s a dumbbell I just can’t get a handle on. I know that Rodger is racking up the reasons to fire me. After I’m done with the shoes, they’re always still rough with scent. The bar is sticky, the patrons aren’t placated enough to keep them glued to the barstool—never teased enough to want to come back. Rodger usually asks me to take off my sweater to please them since I’m not good with words or smiles, but I lie and say I’m too chilly. When he turns the heat up to eighty degrees, I keep my sweater on. The heat doesn’t do much for the boys except make the liquor set in faster and the sweat seep yellow through their once-white t-shirts. I’m not so dumb that I think I could survive anywhere else quite yet. So, if I make it to work tonight, maybe I’ll take off my sweater. There aren’t many other choices in Luray if I’m to get fired. If I don’t leave soon though, it’s likely I’ll be buried here after a long life of serving sad bowlers.

*

Since I was a kid, I’ve had this nightmare about dying in Luray. When they’d go to bury me, the casket would fall through crumbling dirt into the underground caverns. My body would get caught between the stalagmites and stalactites and they’d chew me up like the serval’s spiky teeth on a chicken neck. I can suffer another few years here so long as I make it out before I die.

I try and dial the number to the bowling alley and mess up twice before it starts to ring.

 “Yep?” Finally Rodger picks up the phone and in the background I hear the twang of that Neil Young record that plays twice during every shift.

“It’s Sally. Sorry I’m late—got stuck off 211 in the storm.”  He doesn’t respond right away and I stretch out the cord until the curl just looks like one long straight strand. I can hear that somebody’s actually bowling.  They got a strike—same kind of sound as filling a glass with ice. I guess it isn’t much of a surprise. This town is full of morons like me. We think we can compete with nature. Or maybe we just don’t care that we’ll lose to it.

“Hello?”

“Sounds like you aren’t in too bad of shape. Where’re you calling from?”

“Well I pulled off at the zoo ‘cause I’ve driving on a flat for a few days and I was nervous, you know, when the hail started up—”

“Should have left earlier.”

“They were saying the storm wasn’t headed up here for another few hours.”

 “So,” I hear him crunching on what I know is a bag of Fritos with two squirts of ketchup shaken in, “you didn’t answer my question.”

“I’m at the zoo. I’m calling from the lobby of the zoo.”

“Joe get stuck out there, too?” The phone gets brushed with static and I hear him yell at someone. I hate myself for calling Rodger but he’s the only set of wheels with any motivation to come get me. The only car my daddy and I have is the one sinking in the mud out front and even if we had another, I’m not so sure he’d be willing to leave the house at this hour. This is the time of day he gets the TV working. It takes him many determined hours to get the antennas just right and sometimes when I walk in from work, I slam the door nice and hard so they fall out of place. I’ve convinced him that I don’t mean to—that I always just forget. He can’t believe he’s raised a girl so simple, he says. Sometimes he says stupid—a girl so stupid.

“Rodger, can you just do me a favor? I know your jeep can handle it—”  

“You think the jeep can handle it?” He snorts and I know I screwed up.

“I mean, I know you can handle the weather. The jeep just doesn’t hurt.”                          

“Honey, the only reason the jeep can handle anything is ‘cause I’m driving it. Understand?”

I add whiskers onto a cat drawing Joe must’ve left on a pad of yellow paper. I know that jeeps would be jeeps without Rodger, but I also know I would be stuck here without Rodger, too.

“I do understand. That’s why I called you. You know, Stuart Combs lives up the road and he’s got a jeep, too. But I called you.”

Rodger laughs until he hacks. “Stuart Combs’ got no use for you!” He sounds more delighted than he’s ever been before. Hail hits the roof like a thousand cracking knuckles.

“I’ve got a handful of customers. Actually, you’ve got a handful of customers. How’s it look if I leave no one here?”

“Who’s there? The Dodsons? Send Riley. He won’t mind. I’ll pay for his next round.”

 On Thursday nights the Dodson brothers come in. Sally from the Valley, working at the Loo-ray Alleys! Riley Dodson croons this line every week, swiveling on a barstool and spilling half his whiskey and soda on his jeans. They tip well. So well that sometimes I feel guilty. Those boys need all the help they can get. Once the money they inherited from their daddy’s accident runs out, they’ll be lost. A couple weeks ago, I slipped the two tens Riley Dodson tipped me into his back pocket while he was celebrating his brother’s spare. A few minutes later he found the money while he was looking for his smokes, hollered like he won the lottery and ordered another round. Trust me when I say that from his perspective, the bigger favor is serving him whiskey.

“Hey Riley, come here a minute.” Rodger’s voice dips in and out as a web of lightning bolts light up the valley. “Sally needs a lift—she’s stuck off 211 at the zoo. Says she’ll pay you for it.” I can only imagine what dick-sucking gesture he’s just made because all I hear is a couple big laughs that turn into coughing fits. I’ve only been with Willy and a couple other guys, but that’s all it takes for the men out here to think they’ve got a good shot at you. The worst part is that some of them do have shot. Almost anything’s better than going home at night.

 “So, is he gonna come?”

“That all depends on you, honey.” He starts to tell the rest of the guys the joke he’s just made and hangs up.

I turn around to look at the clock and before I can protect myself, I see that picture of Willy. I almost forgot why I can’t be in this place, why I can’t just curl up in the reptile room like a boa and sleep until morning. The picture’s faded but I still see the veins on Willy’s forearm all blown up with blood. Knowing he’s got blood making its way around his body makes me want to break every glass surface in this place. But instead, I look at that dumb smile of his. Willy didn’t open his mouth when he smiled—just bunched his lips to one side like only half of him was happy.  The only times I ever got to see his mouth were when he’d lose control, when I’d drive him to the point of slack jaw. It could go either way though. Either that good kind of abandon or the kind that said I was gonna get left.

Wasn’t long after he made that open-mouthed face that he did leave. His last words were something like, ‘I’m done,’ or ‘fuck this.’ One of those interchangeables. What I know for sure is that he was lying on my lap in the backseat, telling me what he thought was a funny story about this old man named Les. Les’ up there in age and he’s got a couple screws loose. He used to roam around the zoo in the afternoon. Joe never charged him, they’d just let him walk from cage to cage, asking the same questions about the animals every day. So, Willy’s ear was stuck to my thigh while he told me that Les had come in that day, and that he spent close to a half hour watching the lynx pace back and forth before feeding time. And Willy laughed—said, “Oh, I probably should have told him that the cat gets a little territorial before he eats. I’ve seen it happen a dozen times.”

“What happened already?”

“Well.” Willy pushed greasy hair up off his forehead, “The cat backs his ass up against the cage and sprays. He sprays right at Les.” Willy shook his head and pushed his eyebrows down all sympathetic-looking but he was still laughing. I should have beaten him to it and left him right then but I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was all despicable and mean, and I got scared, realizing how much I needed him. Willy lifted up his hips to rifle through his back pocket for a pack of Winston Reds and he put all his weight in his head. He was leaning on some pressure point in my knee. I wanted to grab him by the hair and use his face to break the backseat window and throw him out of it. But instead I just opened my palm for a cigarette.

“The thing is, Les just stayed there. He didn’t move. And I dropped the bucket of meat down and ran to him—grabbed him by the back of his shirt and pulled him out of the way. The lynx soaked him. All over.”

I imagined Les standing there in jeans as faded blue as they get, zipper probably at least halfway unzipped—shirt partially tucked in. I could see his blank face as the lynx shot some milky, territory-marking liquid at him. This guy, this decorated war vet, he was known for never letting anyone he was fighting beside get shot. But he just stood, taking it. He didn’t flinch.

 “Why the fuck would you tell me that like it was a funny story?”

“I mean,” He shrugged a little, still smiling, “I was just trying to tell you something about my day.” 

 “You should have told me what you had for breakfast then.” I pushed my fingers against my forehead and felt the little hairs between my eyebrows that needed plucking.

“I had eggs.” He did that bunched smile—the last real smile of his I’d ever see. He looked up at me and tugged my hair with the fingers that weren’t holding the cigarette.

“I don’t think it’s funny, Willy. You’re an asshole.”

I’d gotten away with it before—usually even gotten something out of it. He was always making up for being a little bit of an asshole in ways I probably didn’t deserve but felt damn entitled to at the time. But this time, he shot up and shoved me against the car door.

“You know that everyone’s been asking how long I’m going to put up with this shit from you—everyone asks when I am going to sack up. You can’t even take a joke. You don’t even like me, for fuck’s sake. I’m just what’s here.” 

He wasn’t right, but at the time I couldn’t see how wrong he was. I just sat there, staring straight ahead, letting his elbows knock me around the backseat as he buttoned his jeans and laced his shoes. 

 “You’re the asshole! You’re just going to sit there? You’re an asshole, Sally.”

He slammed the car door and lumbered down the road. I kept quiet even though I knew it wouldn’t have taken much to make him stay. That was the last time I ever saw him up close. Not but three days later he was helping register girl over a puddle in the lot across the highway from the zoo. Didn’t take long for me to turn the car around and take the crowbar to his truck.

Before Willy left, I used to joke that he should convince Joe to adopt his piece of shit Ram and my old Impala for the zoo. “They’re just as useless as the animals,” I’d said.

Willy rolled away from me and told me not to be condemscending. His spine slithered like the diamondback as he readjusted in my backseat. When he misspoke, it made me want to push him out of car onto the dirt road where we’d parked, all naked and sweaty and stupid. But after he left me, all I could do was replay all the bits leading up to the end. That’s when I realized maybe he was just asking me not to be condescending and not to condemn him for all the things he was and wasn’t. And it isn’t until I’m in the lobby of this zoo that I realize I had done both. All along I was worried about him being another stupid hillbilly fuck with a homemade tattoo as blue as his collar when really, I was the thick one for thinking we were all that different.

*

I’ve got a good ten minutes until Riley gets here, so I decide to feed the cats, since it may be tough for Joe to make it in tomorrow. It isn’t that I care about Joe’s captives—I just figure a kind gesture may help excuse the break in.

I rifle through the drawers under the phone until I find a ring of keys I remember seeing hooked to Willy’s belt loop. I go through the reptile room and the bright light startles me. The snakes are holding themselves upright under the heat lamps, slithering toward the bulbs. I look for the diamondback and I see a different snake in his tank—an inch or two thicker and much longer than the one I remember. It takes me a second for me to realize this is the same damn snake, it’s just been that long since we’ve seen each other.

I unlock a door that says employees only with a drawing of a snake wrapped around the letters. The lights flicker on slowly, one by one. There’s a table with mismatched folding chairs, crates of food labeled for each animal and this dirty, old refrigerator covered in pinkish blood spatter. When I open it, I jerk my head away from the smell of salty blood and rotten meat. I hold my breath and look inside at the uncovered bowls and buckets—every container is half full of juice so thick that I can hardly tell the meat from the fruit. But I recognize the necks right away—they’re a pretty inoffensive looking cut. There are no bones sticking out or anything, just the smooth, damp curve of meat.

I grab the bucket and go through the door that leads to the outdoor section of the zoo. The hail has let up, but the rain is falling in sheets—the wind tosses it in every direction. The chicken necks practically fly out of my hand and I fumble, spilling some blood on my last pair of good jeans. I rush to the serval’s cage and feel the wind, like a sign, pushing me the other way. I get to the cage and hold onto the wire. The serval is huddled under a little wooden shelf that hardly covers her. Her eyes are darting, following the direction that the wind takes the rain, and I try and coax her toward me with some ‘here kitty, kitty’ shit. But she doesn’t come.

I grab a neck and it feels familiar. Like a dick without a body. I try to shove it through the wire but the neck’s too thick. The meat gets caught in the metal so I feel around the bucket for a smaller one. As I push it through the mesh I can feel the perfect, smooth meat tear.

I let out a tearful grunt so animal that the all the nearby cats’ eyes shoot towards me. Even in the dark storm, I can see the gold irises of the Bengal tiger. I want to hate myself for crying about tearing this piece of meat but I give in, knowing there’s no tip for me tonight. I keep pushing and begging the smaller neck to make it to the other side of the cage. But when it’s halfway through and I’m banging at the wire, I hear the growl of Riley’s ridiculous F-150 competing with the thunder as it comes down the road. The light from his high beams comes over the fence and the lemurs across the zoo start to howl.

The serval inches further backwards, her shoulders arched and aggressive like I am a predator. She’s still got her instincts. I feel sick seeing her trapped—a hostage to people that appreciate her nature and excite by her wildness. But they don’t believe in her. Despite her flaws, the bits of her that are missing, she’d still be better off on her own.

Of the million keys on the ring, I remember the strange shape of the one that unlocks the serval’s cage. It barely has any notches—it looks just like her stalactite tooth. I find the key and open the cage door. Her eyes dart around but she stays huddled under the wood plank.

Riley lays on the horn. I point the way out and smile at her. She growls so fierce that I can hear it over the storm and Riley’s honking.

I swing the bucket against the wire. “Go!”

She hisses and tries to back further away from me but she’s as deep in her cage as she can get. I take a few slow steps closer and all of a sudden I’m in the cage with her.  I can’t feel the storm in here, just a few staggered drops of rain, and I look up. There are long bamboo strips woven into the grates overhead. When Joe first brought the serval back to zoo, Willy would spend entire nights working her pen. It’s amazing how he was able to make a cage feel so safe. No wonder she doesn’t want out.

Riley’s truck door slams and he’s yelling my name. I turn around, but I don’t want to leave even though the serval’s warning me with a low, gargled hum. I expect her to pounce on my back, but she just keeps growling.

I drop the bucket of chicken necks outside the cage and run towards the door, thinking maybe her instincts will tell her to chase me. But, I look back and she’s just watching me from the corner with her big eyes still on me, her shoulders still hunched. The other cats bat against their cages and push their noses through the wire grates, smelling the meat I’ve left just out of reach.

My garbled shoelaces trip me up as I rush around the corner to the employees only-door. I run through the room of snakes, still slowly slithering toward the light like they’re being charmed. There’s a partial handprint that I left on the diamondback’s tank. I have the impulse to wipe it down with my wet shirt, but that’ll just leave the kind of smudge that comes from trying to clean one. I get back to the lobby and am startled by Riley’s big, lopsided shoulders hunching over a shelf of stuffed animals, most of which aren’t even the kind of animals the Luray Zoo’s got.

 “Jesus, Riley.” I put my hand to my chest and my heart is racing. My fingers are oily from necks. My hand lingers there for a minute, pushing hard on my breastbone, rubbing in the grease that Willy used to coat me with. 

It’s a miracle Riley doesn’t drop dead at the sight of me— I’m caked in the wormy smell of mud and sour blood. But he just points to this lemur puppet on his other hand and goes, “Look at this.”

“Yeah, it’s great,” I tuck my upper lip into my teeth to stop myself from sneering. “How’d you get in here?”

“You left the door open when you broke the lock, honey.” He passes me the puppet and lays a worn out ten dollar bill on the counter. “Looks like it’s been a rough night for you.” 

Not that I’m a flowers kind of girl—and the closest I’ve come to a diamond is in a pack of cards—but something tells me a puppet is a shitty present. In the movies, guys always win these huge teddy bears and the girls wrap their arms around the winner’s neck. I wonder if that’s what I am supposed to do.

“I’ll be right out.”

He nods. He’s halfway out the door when I yell thanks to him, but I’m not sure he hears me because he doesn’t turn around. I put the puppet back on the shelf and shove the crumpled ten in my pocket, knowing that I’ll throw it on the driver’s seat when he gets out of the car.

I look over at Willy’s picture but the light from Riley’s high beams comes in through the busted door and reflects in the dusty glass. I can’t see Willy—just framed light.

I climb into Riley’s truck, apologizing for getting his seats all wet.

He shrugs and puts it in gear. “Thing needs to be cleaned up anyway.”

We’re driving through wind and rain, in the storm’s shadow. It must be working its way up north, tangling up other valleys.

Riley slows, dodging fallen tree trunks and tossed around garbage cans. But, even the flooded streets are still lit up. I laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Riley starts laughing too, like my laugh is the joke.

I shake my head. “I could’ve just waited for the storm to die down. Probably didn’t even need to break into the zoo. I was so bent out of shape about losing power. It’s stupid.”

“I think it’s out up the road, the way we’re headed. I saw some lines down. But, don’t worry about the zoo. You were looking out for yourself. If anyone will understand that it’s Joe.”

Riley looks over at me but I don’t respond. I wonder if someone like Joe, compassionate enough to take on the wounded, will be able to see past what I’ve done to his refuge.

“Plus, you know, they always say we’re getting these things worse than we do.  I think the valley is usually kind of,” Riley pauses, looking for the word, “protected by the mountains.”

“That’s one way of looking at it.”

We stop at a red light even though no one else is on the road. I close my eyes and breathe like I am taking the whole world in. I think about how small this place feels but how much of it I haven’t seen. If the serval escapes, I don’t know what creeks or rivers she’ll find for water—if there are bobcats or bears hiding in the hills.

I look at Riley. “Do you like living here?”

He furrows his eyebrows like he’s never had to consider that. Riley taps his thumb against the wheel to the beat of the windshield wipers. He lets a silent minute pass before he says, “The Blue Ridge Mountains aren’t really blue, you know? The trees let off some chemical that gives them that effect.” 

“No, I didn’t know that.” Even though I have known that since first grade, I feel like there’s something else about this place that I never knew—something I just figured out. Maybe when you get rescued, all that’s left to do is sit, stuck and surviving. But maybe getting rescued is only a thing that happens instead of a thing you are.

I look over at Les’s house on Tickland Holler. The light’s on. The back of his bald head’s in the window and he’s watching some black and white movie on TV.

Riley coughs a little and readjusts in his seat. His arm, as thick as the diamondback, points in the direction of Les’ house.

“Looks like old Les has still got power.” Riley honks and Les takes a minute to turn around but when he sees its Riley, he smiles nice and big—his gums exposed.

Les and Riley are waving for what seems like forever. I start waving, too. Every time I open and close my palm, I feel the slick layer of chicken necks on my hands.

Later when the storm lets up, the serval will come out from hiding. She’ll rub her head against the wire cage and she’ll be ready to walk through it. After she gnaws on a little extra meat than she’s used to getting in one day, she’ll realize that I left all the doors propped open so that, if she wants, she can escape.

“Go,” I say, even though the light is still red.

Riley’s brow furrows and I like him for the first time—he doesn’t want to break the law even though there’s no one on the road. But he does anyway.

I close my eyes.

Even though I know where I’m headed, I’m glad enough to be moving.