E
Jul/Aug 2017 Fiction

Wild Animals

by Emily Ansara Baines

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream


Victor Vaughn's ten-year-old daughter Victoria stands at the top of the stairs clutching a cheap Styrofoam tombstone to her chest. She is dressed as some sort of wild feline. One of Vivien's leopard print shirts hangs loose on her like a dress.

Victor stares up at her from the front door entryway, briefcase still in hand.

"What, dear child, are you doing?" he asks.

Victoria does not like it when her father calls her "dear child." Victoria does not like that her name so closely resembles her father's. Victoria does not much like her father.

"I am going sledding," she says, with dignity.

"Sounds fun," he replies.

She sets the grave down and primly sits upon it. Before Victor can voice the required admonition to be careful, Victoria is already sledding down the stairs towards him. All he can do is watch in horror and prepare for her to break open her head, a ghastly beginning to a ghastly holiday. Instead, she slides triumphantly to a stop at his feet. Victor expels the breath he did not realize he was holding.

Victoria stands up. She kicks the fake grave to her right. It spins like vinyl, finally pausing against the entryway table that hosts the garish fresh flowers Vivien claims are worth the expense.

"Anticlimactic," Victoria declares.

Victor wonders where his daughter learned such a word. Vivien teaches history, not English.

"Life is anticlimactic," he says. He sets down his briefcase. It falls over.

Victoria shrugs.

"Where's your mother?" he asks.

She stares up at him defiantly. She is definitely Vivien's flesh and blood.

"You better put that grave back where you got it."

His wife takes the holidays seriously. The west side of their front yard is a graveyard, complete with an assortment of ghouls. The east is a mad scientist's laboratory. Vivien pronounces it "lab-bore-a-tory." Her work friend Chuck McAllister ("Coach Chuck" to Chadwick Prep students) will play the part of mad scientist. She volunteered Victor to take Victoria and Chuck's son Tommy trick or treating.

"I hate Tommy," Victoria says, reading his thoughts.

"Me, too," Victor says. "He's a real Caspar Milquetoast." He doesn't expect Victoria to understand the reference. "But sometimes we have to spend time with people we don't like. For the greater good." Two weeks ago, Tommy's mother ran off to Arizona with a barista. She left a goodbye note for Tommy covered in heart stickers and puff paint. Tommy ripped the note into little pieces and ate it. According to Vivien, Coach Chuck has taken to crying during football practice, and Tommy has taken to wetting the bed.

"Fuck the greater good."

"Language."

Victoria shrugs and runs back up the stairs. He can see her underwear. It is one of Vivien's—leopard print. It sags from his daughter's hips like a dirty diaper.

"Don't forget your cat ears," he calls after her. "Otherwise you'll look like a street walker."

"Language," she replies before disappearing down the hall.

He picks up the tombstone and holds it under his arm.

Vivien sits at the kitchen table, surrounded by three partially carved jack-o-lanterns. Each pumpkin has one eye.

"What's this?" Victor asks, gently touching his wife's shoulder on his way to the fridge. He wonders if there is any orange juice. He places the grave in front of a window.

Vivien doesn't look up. "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."

"Three wise monkeys."

She aims her fingers at him like a gun. "Bingo."

"How do you plan to represent that?"

There is no orange juice, but there is some chocolate milk.

"I'm still figuring it out."

She starts to carve a second eye in the smallest of the pumpkins.

"How was class?" he asks.

"We discussed the history of Halloween. Did you know jack-o-lanterns were originally turnips, not pumpkins?"

He pours himself a glass. "Really?"

"Look in the laundry room."

The laundry room adjoins the kitchen. He glances in. Sitting in a pan atop the dryer is a large, white turnip. It has the carved face of a murderer from one of Victoria's beloved horror films. He chokes on his milk.

"Jesus," he gasps. "Don't show that to Victoria. She'll have nightmares for weeks."

Vivien looks up. "Are you going trick-or-treating dressed like that?"

Vivien hates his dentist scrubs. She is afraid of dentists. Her therapist has lots to say about the fact that she married one.

He checks his watch. "I have time to change. The sun hasn't set yet."

"They're children. You take them out before it gets too dark."

"Did we do that last year?"

"You weren't here last year."

Above them there's a blast of music. Victor recognizes Cher's voice. He cringes when he hears the phrase "half breed."

"Victoria has discovered the '70s," Vivien continues. "Consider yourself lucky. The month before you returned home, it was all disco, all the time—including ABBA."

He feels the quick heat of annoyance, but stuffs it deep down in the cold part of him to open later, when he's in therapy, or allowing himself one of his weekly cries in the car. She says "return home" as if it had been his decision to move out in the first place, when it was Vivien's decision, her ultimatum, really.

Instead of starting another fight, he smiles and reaches for her. "You're my dancing queen."

She flinches. He takes a step back and picks up his glass of chocolate milk instead.

Vivien turns back to the pumpkin, her chin in her hand.

"I shouldn't have thrown out the earlier attempts," she murmurs.

They were more than attempts, they were outright successes. Less than a week ago the Vaughn porch had been lined with 15 smiling pumpkins of similar size. He'd been pleased to discover Vivien had decided not to terrify the children this year. The neighborhood seemed to feel similarly. Many of the neighbors had stopped by to compliment their "festive holiday spirit."

"I don't know what they're all getting so excited about," Vivien had complained over her usual Wednesday dinner of Rice-A-Roni. "I always decorate for Halloween."

Even old Mrs. Smith next door had brought over her "famous pumpkin muffins" and had decreed with a sniff as she handed over the basket, "Glad to see you're finally enjoying the holiday." Victoria had refused to try the muffins on account of the childhood rumor that Mrs. Smith was a witch. Their neighbor sure looked like one: large, untamed silver hair, wrinkles spread across her face like a topographic map, two small ponds of murky blue eyes.

He'd naively hoped this Halloween would be different, maybe even fun. The one silver lining in this horrible year was the potential Vivien would prefer to make the local kids smile instead of scream. So he'd been dismayed when, three days later, he'd arrived home to find the pumpkins gone, already decaying in the trash thanks to what Victor could only assume was Global Warming-inspired humidity. He imagined the heat eating away at their carved smiles until they decomposed into frowns. The happy jack-o-lanterns had been replaced with the usual morbid zombie and mad scientist setup. He noticed with a pang that Vivien had even brought out the decomposing body that the previous year had earned them three different letters from the neighborhood council.

Like his therapist had taught him, he took ten deep breaths before entering the house. Victoria had been sitting in the living room reading one of Vivien's books on Churchill. She'd looked up when he'd walked in and cleared his throat.

"Mother is wasteful," she'd said, pointing her chin out towards the trash. According to Vivien, Victoria only started calling her "Mother" instead of "Mommy" when Victor moved back home. "Mrs. Larson says we shouldn't waste God's gifts."

"Mrs. Larson is a fool," he'd replied. "There is no God. Your mother is a perfectionist. It's what makes her a good teacher."

"We'll see," Victoria said. She returned to her book, her signal that he was dismissed.

He knew his wife had been shaken by the sudden and unfortunate turn of her favorite student. Laurie Monroe had been Vivien's pet since the two started working on the literary magazine two years ago, when Laurie was in ninth grade and possessed literary aspirations. Vivien had nurtured Laurie's love for literature, giving her magazines to read and weekly writing prompts. "She doesn't feel safe sharing her writing with any of the English teachers," Vivien had said smugly when Victor asked why Laurie didn't share her work with those who specialized in the field. "She says I'm the only one who truly gets her." Over the spring, right before Vivien had kicked him out, Laurie had put together a collection of her stories and dedicated the book to Vivien. Vivien had insisted on reading the stories every night to both Victoria and Victor. Victor found the prose overly flowery and rather soporific but hadn't dared say so. Their relationship was rocky enough.

Then, this fall, Laurie had unexpectedly joined ranks with the Goth kids, the ones who claimed life was futile and smoked behind the school dumpsters, the ones who laughed at the idea of belonging to a literary magazine, or any school organization for that matter. The more Vivien reached out to Laurie, the more she pulled away. When Vivien had suggested they spend a day "as writers" at the city library, Laurie had replied, "Those who can't, teach." Laurie's grades plummeted. The most recent parent-teacher conference had been futile. Last month, when Vivien called Laurie in for a "one-on-one" in a desperate plea to save her spiraling student, Laurie called her a bitch to her face.

Victor is well aware that this tragedy is the only reason Vivien ended their trial separation early. "I can't handle Victoria and Laurie," she'd said when she'd called him home a month ago. "Just promise you've cut the drinking along with the hussy, and we'll work the rest out later in therapy." They had yet to actually attend a single session. Vivien was spending all her free time trying to figure out how to help her once most-talented student. Victor suspects that if anyone can help Laurie, it's his wife.

His wife. Victor loves that he can still call her that. Thanks to a fight two weeks ago, he knows that hidden somewhere in the house are divorce papers, partially completed with her signature. "Just in case," she'd hissed through clenched teeth. It'd been their first fight since his return, and he'd just been grateful it ended with them still sleeping in the same house. It was a downright miracle they'd gone to sleep in the same bed.

Unlike the jack-o-lanterns before them, those papers will never be completed. Now, on the few days he is home before Vivien, he searches the house for the papers so he can throw them out—no, he'll destroy them. Rip them into tiny shreds and flush them down the toilet along with the rest of his shit.

Vivien gasps and drops the knife. It clatters on the linoleum ground. He quickly grabs a dishtowel and wraps it around her thumb. Crimson blood blooms through the white cloth.
"Let me—" but she holds her thumb away. Her eyes are mirrors, and he doesn't like what he sees. He looks away. "I should get changed. Are you going to be okay?"

Like their daughter, she answers with a shrug.

 

Upon learning Tommy McAllister is afraid of dogs, Victoria won't stop barking.

"Cut it out, kid," Tommy says in a pathetic grasp at maturity. Tommy is five weeks older than Victoria and dressed as a pirate. He waves his plastic sword at her. "Scat."

"Arrrrr," Victoria replies.

Neither Tommy nor Victor knows if this response is pirate or canine code. They stand in front of their first target, an old colonial, which features a giant spider staple-gunned across the crumbling roof.

"Well, go do your thing," Victor says. He adjusts his clown wig. The wig itches. He hates the wig. He'd wanted to dress as Groucho Marx, but Vivien said he looked like Hitler. Then Victoria had vetoed his next choice, an Abraham Lincoln hat. The clown wig, a reject from a potential costume years ago, was the only accouterment the women in the family could agree on.

"We can paint his nose red!" Victoria had squealed.

Luckily, Vivien had found the red ball nose. It made breathing a challenge, but at least he wouldn't have to worry about the makeup washing off or leaving a stain.

Victoria runs ahead, her trick or treating bag flopping against her right thigh.

Tommy sighs dramatically and tugs Victor's sleeve. "Victoria shouldn't run. She could fall and hurt herself."

"Cats can land on their feet."

Tommy looks at him like he is an idiot. "She's not actually a cat."

Victoria skips back over to them. "They gave me Three Musketeers," she says, holding up her treat before biting into it. A group of kids dressed as Jedi Knights amble up. Tommy quickly runs up the walkway to claim his piece of chocolate.

"The force is strong with this one," Victor says to the mom in charge of the Star Wars group. She is dressed as a flapper. She is fully committed to the role: her hair is molded into tiny pin curls. He gives the flapper an appreciative thumbs up. "Well done."

The flapper narrows her eyes at him. "Pervert."

He grabs Victoria by the shoulders and quickly guides her towards the next house. Tommy sees them walking away and shrieks, "Wait for me!"

He starts to run towards them. In his panic, he knocks over a six-year-old Han Solo. Tommy does not apologize. Neither does Victor.

"Did you really think we would just abandon you?" Victor asks.

Tommy does not answer. Instead, he wipes his nose with his eye-patch.

"There's no telling with you," Victoria says, echoing her mother when she'd held up the telltale hotel receipt, all those months ago.

Forty-five minutes later, the trio is tired. Not enough houses are giving out Crunch bars to satisfy Victoria's appetite, Tommy needs to pee, and Victor is pretty sure the top of his head has a full-blown case of eczema. Plus, he can't stop thinking about the comfortable way Chuck slung his arm around Victoria's shoulders as he and the kids walked down the walkway. Like he and the kids were the interlopers, and this was Chuck and Vivien's house. (As if Chuck could afford that house on a coach's salary!) Victor checks his watch. They were supposed to be out for two hours. But when the children start to squabble, Victor thinks it best to call it a night. He is relieved when neither of the children argues with the new plan.

"Let's sneak in through the back and scare your mother," he suggests.

"Yeah!" Tommy exclaims.

Victoria glances up at him with pursed lips. "Why?"

It's his turn to shrug. "Why not?" That's not an adult answer. He is supposed to be the better person. "Because your mother loves Halloween. We can show her we're in the spirit."

"So it's like a trick," Victoria says, slowly.

"And you'll get a treat at the end. I'll let you eat all the candy you've collected."

"All?" Usually they only allowed Victoria three pieces of candy a night.

"Yes. So you get a trick and a treat. The best of both worlds." His voice is high-pitched, as if he is a teenager again who swallowed helium on a dare. This is how he sounds when he tries to inject false cheer: clownish. The costume fits.

Victoria nods. "Okay."

"I prefer cookies," Tommy says.

"No one cares," Victoria replies, following Victor. They don't check to see if Tommy is following them. They can hear his sniffles easily enough.

When they stop in front of Mrs. Smith's dilapidated colonial, Tommy whimpers. "The witch lives here."

The only way to get into their house undetected is through their backyard. This means they have to ask Mrs. Smith to let them through her backyard so they can climb the white picket fence that bisects the two properties. Mrs. Smith hates that fence. So does Victor, though he'll never admit it to Vivien. It was Vivien who had the fence built when they first bought the property 15 years ago, before property values in South Pasadena skyrocketed. They'd been unpacking boxes when Mrs. Smith knocked on their front door.

"You're building a fence," she'd said, pointing her cane at Vivien as if it were a gun and Vivien the deer.

"You must be Gertrude," Vivien had replied, standing up. She held out her hand. Mrs. Smith did not take it.

"Are you afraid I'll trespass?" One of her eyes was cloudy with glaucoma.

"No," his wife had quickly replied, "we just like our privacy."

"You think I snoop?"

Victor had tried to help. "If we have children, we don't want them wandering into your yard."

"That's up to you, isn't it?" Mrs. Smith asked. "You bad parents or something?"

Maybe the neighborhood kids were right and Mrs. Smith was a witch. She'd been strangely prescient, after all. Victor secretly suspects that he and Vivien are terrible parents. Just look at Victoria. She is one weird kid. At least twice a month she is sent home for biting. Once, in Kindergarten, Vivien had stood on the lunch table and shouted, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Vivien and Victor been called in for an immediate "parent conference." Neither parent knew where Victoria had heard that phrase: the Vaughns were not Paddy Chayefsky fans.

"Well, she heard it from somewhere," the principal of New Horizons had replied after Vivien's tangent on the pointlessness of kitchen sink realism.

Since then, they had enrolled Victoria in public schools, even though they lived in a less-than-desirable school district. At public schools, Victoria would have to do a lot worse than quote a movie or bite a kid to get suspended.

Tommy pulls at Victor's sleeve. Victor shakes him off. "She's not a witch," he replies.

"She's a banshee!" Victoria screams. She waves her fingers in front of Tommy's face and makes ghost noises.

Tommy starts to cry.

Victor squeezes his shoulder. "Come on kid, be a man."

Tommy sniffs. "Mommy says we shouldn't rush things."

"Did she say that before or after she left your father?" Victor asks before he can stop himself. He truly is a monster. Even Victoria is looking at him like he's grown fangs.

"Don't be scared." Victoria pats Tommy's shoulder. "If you do this, I'll give you half my candy."

This perks Tommy right up. "Really? Even the Snickers?"

Victoria solemnly nods her head. "Cindy's mom says we girls won't be able to eat candy much longer without gaining weight."

Victor makes a mental note to have a talk with Cindy's mom.

"A moment on the lips, forever on the hips," Tommy acknowledges.

"Jesus Christ," Victor says.

"Don't take the Lord's name in vain!" Tommy shrieks.

Victoria laughs and points at Victor. "You're going to Hell."

Mrs. Smith opens the door before they finish crossing the porch. She has turned off all her lights in the universal signal that trick or treaters are not welcome.

"What do you want, Vaughns?" She studies Tommy. "And child."

"We were wondering if we could go through your backyard."

"We're playing a trick!" Victoria informs her.

"You're not a witch," Tommy says.

"And you are not a pirate," Mrs. Smith replies. She turns to Victoria. "Who are you tricking?"

"My mother!"

Mrs. Smith turns to Victor. "That seems like the mature pursuit of a healthy marriage partner," she comments, raising a bushy eyebrow. "Would you like some candy with the rest of the kids in costume?"

"Just permission to walk through your backyard."

A golden lab runs down the street. Tommy, torn between fears, grabs onto Victor's leg. They watch as the dog's owner, a woman dressed as a sexy nurse, chases after it. Victor cannot tell if she is crying or laughing.

Mrs. Smith clears her throat. "Knock yourself out. You can walk along the outside of the house, just follow the grass." She smiles at Tommy, who takes a quick step back and raises his sword. "Happy Halloween."

The kids stare at their feet. "Happy Halloween."

As they traipse across Mrs. Smith's backyard, the grass far better kept than Victor had previously suspected, he swears he can hear her cackling from inside the house. All three quicken their pace.

"They should be in the front yard laboratory or the kitchen," Victor says as he lifts the kids over the fence.

"You mean lab-bore-atory," Victoria corrects.

"Should we shout boo?" Tommy asks. He adjusts his eye-patch. Victor hands him his plastic sword.

"We should say rawr!" Victoria says. "Rawr means more than boo. It packs more of a punch."

"No it doesn't," Tommy mumbles. He trips over a dip in the grass, and Victoria pulls him back up roughly by the elbow.

"Yes it does." Victoria has her mother's temper: she does not like to be disagreed with. "Boo just sounds sad, like boo-hoo."

"Rawr sounds happy. Like, Rawr! I am a lion and I am here to kill you and I am happy about it!"

"It's that, too," Victoria says. "It's happy and it's sad."

"You can't be both."

"Yes you can."

"Regardless, we should let Daddy go in the house first," Victor says, interrupting them. He wants to make sure the kids won't see or hear anything untoward. If memory serves, Vivien can be quite vociferous when in the throws of passion. Not that Victor would know from recent experience. He needs a drink. After he'd moved out, Vivien threw out all the alcohol in the house, but he thinks there is still some whiskey hiding in the false bottom of his desk's third drawer. He quietly pulls open the sliding back door.

"Who's Daddy?" Victoria asks.

"Me," he replies, "I'm Daddy."

In the end, their pilgrimage through the backyard proves unnecessary. They walk through the dining room, the living room, and through the front door, but neither Chuck nor Vivien are waiting for them in the front. The elaborate laboratory is abandoned, a ghost town of terror. The graveyard remains unlit, though Victoria's sled has been put firmly back in place. A large bowl of candy sits on the bottom of the porch steps, along with a note in the curled handwriting Vivien uses on her classroom posters: "Only one per child, please!" Next to the request is a crudely drawn smiley face. He has to give the neighborhood kids credit for actually following directions.

"Where's Mother?" Victoria asks.

Tommy bends down and grabs three Milky Ways from the bowl.

"Read the note," Victor says. "One per customer."

"Where are they?" Victoria repeats, her voice rising. "Where's Mommy?"

She blinks, once, twice, three times, and Victor catches his breath with the realization that his strong, vibrant daughter is holding back tears. After everything they've put Victoria through, he and Vivien still have the ability to make their daughter cry. His surprise shames him.

Victor knows exactly where Vivien is. He heard the telltale creak of the bed upstairs as he led the kids through the house.

He pretends to check his phone. "Oh, they ran to the store for more chocolate milk."

Victoria studies him. Her gaze is reminiscent of Vivien's all those months ago. He had sworn at the top of his lungs that he'd stopped drinking, that there were no more bottles of booze in the house. "You're imagining things," he'd told Vivien. She'd given him that look, the one of disbelief and, yes, pity, the same look reflected in Victoria's now. Vivien had simply walked out of the kitchen and into the garage, towards the empty paint can on the second shelf of the North-facing wall. She defiantly pulled out his bottle of whiskey and handed it to him. It was his shock that kept him from opening it with shaking hands and draining its soothing contents. Only then, when he felt himself visibly deflate, did she bring up the other woman.

Victor places an arm on Victoria's shoulder. "Why don't you two play out front for a little bit? Hand out candy to trick-or-treaters?"

"We are trick-or-treaters."

The moonlight colors her blonde hair white.

"In a few minutes, I'll cut us some cake." He turns towards the door.

Victoria grabs his hand. Her fingers are so small and so cold. She called Vivien Mommy.

"Where are you going?"

"Just to change out of these clothes." He fakes a shiver. "I'm cold."

She doesn't let go. "So you're coming back."

He drops to his knees and makes his voice gentle. "Yes, sweetie. I'm coming back. I'll always come back." He likes saying the words aloud. It's an oath now, a promise as much to him as to her.

Victoria nods and drops his arm. The candy wrapper wafts to the ground. He doesn't tell her to pick it up. She takes a few tentative steps towards Tommy.

She turns back to Victor. "I'm going to wreck some zombies."

"Zombies are assholes anyway," he offers. "They ruin lives."

"Maybe they just don't like seeing other people happy," Victoria suggests.

"Then they should stay dead."

Tommy throws a plastic skeleton arm at Victoria. It bounces off her living, muscular one. She drops her bag of candy and runs after him, roaring.

Victor heads inside.

Chuck and Vivien sit in his marriage bed, waiting for him. The duvet is pulled up clandestinely over their laps. Chuck stares at the ceiling. Vivien's arms are crossed across her breasts. Victor does not appreciate their sudden need for modesty. He loves how Vivien's right nipple is slightly larger than her left one. Maybe Chuck loves it, too.

"So now you know," Vivien says. "You're not the only one to stray."

"It was just a one time thing," Chuck tells the ceiling. "It won't happen again."

"It's true," Vivien says. "I think we should get a dog."

Chuck starts to cry. Vivien pats his arm.

Victor tosses his clown wig and nose onto the dresser. He walks across to the window that overlooks the front yard. Below, a cat chases a pirate round and round the graveyard. He can just make out the cat's laughter, disintegrating into the night sky.

"We're all just wild animals," Vivien says, now standing behind him.

"Rawr," Victor replies.

 

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