This is the thing about living next door to a zoo: sometimes a peacock escapes into your yard and nibbles at your junipers, and you have to chase it around with a laundry basket until David the hunky zookeeper swoops in to retrieve it. You watch him tuck the bird under his muscular arm and try your best to look like a woman who has never sweated.
“Sorry,” David says each time, smiling awkwardly, raking his free hand through yellow-gold hair, and you search for a way to turn this apology into an invitation for a drink—you keep spiked lemonade in the fridge for this very purpose—but he always turns toward the gate before the words can journey from your brain to your mouth. You’re left to stare after them: the glossy blue bird-head wobbling in space, the hypnotic ripple of David’s shoulders, which even his sexless khaki shirt can’t hide.
You toss down the laundry basket and pick up your watering can, an old-fashioned green thing that’s mostly corroded inside, that’s probably doing more damage to your junipers than the peacock if you’re being honest, and you upend it over your plants. You move in a loose spiral around the yard—to the crepe myrtles that shade your angel statues, the marigolds your son tramples each time he slips into the shed—and eye the half-hearted trickle of yesterday’s rain. You pretend that you are one with the water. You are the sustenance. Then you return to what you were doing before the peacock waddled through your gate, which could be described, very loosely, as jewelry design. You scavenge antique stores and tag sales for old brooches and rings, metal hexes and letterpress types, smash them to pieces, drill in holes, and reassemble them into something you call hardware chic. Your friends tell you over the phone, one after another, that they could just die at your imagination, they would kill to be so creative.
This, of course, is bullshit. Your jewelry is tacky and awful. It rattles incessantly and digs red grooves into their necks, but at least it’s all the rage. So you will keep at it, and you will eventually turn a profit, and you will rub it in your husband’s face until the day you decide to start poisoning him, dish by dish, and not just in your fantasies.
It’s hard to be thirteen. This is what Jack repeats to himself, a little mantra, as he travels the quarter mile from school to the zoo with his best friend, Zane. He is too philosophical for his own good, he thinks. Maybe he should speak up more. He knows that he won’t. For instance, he won’t tell Zane that he’s tired of listening to him blather on about Game of Thrones, the books, not the show (which his parents won’t let him watch), as if Jack hasn’t heard this a million times.
A hundred paces ahead: Liam. Liam has just dyed his hair a stunning lavender that Jack can’t stop staring at. He would like to tell him it looks cool, but he can’t quite picture a scenario in which he walks up to him and says, “Hey man, your hair looks really cool,” and touches his arm, maybe, and Liam turns to him with that lazy smile, and Jack doesn’t pass out from sheer anxiety. This, he imagines, is not a problem Liam would ever have. Last week Mrs. Carpenter, the sex ed teacher, stood in front of the marker board and announced that they would not be discussing homosexuality, abortion, or masturbation—“Just remember the acronym HAM,” she’d told them, scribbling the letters next to a smiling pink pig face—and Liam raised his hand and said, “Aren’t those topics way more relevant than, like, the exact location of Fallopian tubes?”
The whole class lost it. They lost it even harder than the time Mrs. Richmond handed out reading with the word “penis” in it. Mrs. Carpenter turned a distinct shade of burgundy and sputtered that Liam could learn whatever he liked in the principal’s office. Since then, everyone has called him Fallopian Tubes.
Everyone, of course, except Jack. He doesn’t call Liam anything. They have four classes together and they both volunteer at the zoo twice a week, but they haven’t had an actual conversation since maybe third grade. Even when he’d lent Liam his TI-84 Plus for the weekend—which had gotten him yelled at by both parents for well over an hour—it was Lauren, perky blond Lauren, who whispered the request. It was also Lauren who passed it back on Monday with a murmur of thanks. Jack cradled the calculator under his desk and imagined it resting on Liam’s bedspread, surrounded by pencils and books, its buttons stroked by his long slim fingers. He held it until the last trace of Liam’s body heat had been replaced by his own.
Jack knows better than to mention this to anyone, even Zane. He blends in as best he can, joins the other seventh-grade boys in snorting over how Ashleigh’s tits are totally poking through her shirt, in speculating about certain girls from their homeroom—a game they call Spit Or Swallow. From the corner of his eye, he watches Liam sing arpeggios and choose hilarious adverbs for Mad Libs and flat-out not care that people think he’s weird. Meanwhile, Jack plays his mantra on a loop. He nods approvingly when Zane raves over the crazy-hotness of Bella and Maddie and Grace. He wonders if he needs therapy.
A hundred paces ahead: Liam cuts a sudden left through a yard scattered with Playskool cars and disappears.
“Huh,” says Jack, hoping he sounds nonchalant. “Where’d he go?”
“Who?” Zane frowns. Jack has interrupted his monologue on which Starks and Lannisters he’d like to see in a WWE-style smackdown, a transgression that might take a few minutes to forgive.
“You didn’t see Liam?”
“Liam?” Zane is still frowning, but now he lifts a brow, the picture of skepticism. “You mean Fallopian Tubes? Mr. Purple Hair?”
“He was walking ahead of us, and then—” Jack shakes his head. “Never mind.”
Why does he feel like every old lady in the neighborhood is staring out her window at him? Why doesn’t Zane go back to jabbering about nonsense?
“It’s just a little weird,” Jack mutters.
“Well, duh,” Zane retorts. “He has purple hair, Jack.”
Jack glances over his shoulder at the spot where Liam vanished. There’s not much to see: an azalea blooming pink, a tall weathered fence, a stretch of parched grass. As he’s about to look away, he notices the missing slats, four in a row, their absence neatly concealed by the flowers.
Zane is still walking. He’s resumed his monologue and doesn’t seem to realize that his audience has disappeared through a hole in a stranger’s fence.
This is the other thing about living next door to a zoo: sometimes the air hangs so heavy with animal shit that the stench is inescapable. It follows you into the house, makes itself comfortable, and sits back while your husband conducts his lectures.
On the night Principal Shaw called with news of Liam’s little outburst—your husband’s words, Liam’s little outburst—there were no fewer than four speeches, all variations on the theme We Love And Accept You No Matter What, But Maybe Tone It Down A Little. Liam smiled vaguely through each one, and in the morning appeared with fresh lilac-colored hair. It looked good on him. You wondered when he’d bought the dye.
“Jesus Christ, Liam.” Your husband set his coffee down with a thump. “Were you even listening? Did you hear a goddamn thing I said?”
“I heard you,” Liam said, shrugging, and pulled a cherry Pop-Tart from the cabinet. “But this is, like, who I am.”
“As long as you live under my roof,” he said, “I have the final say on who you are.”
You wondered at the idiocy of this. Stared wordlessly at the man’s exquisite jawline and tried to remember—not for the first time—whether this was the sole reason you married him. Were you impressed by his admission into law school? By his interest in the French New Wave?
“Honey, back me up here,” he said, turning to you.
Liam looked at you, too, your darling son, his green eyes round and earnest. You honestly didn’t know whose side to take. What difference would it make, really? His hair was already purple, his father was already mad, and you were just trying to eat your goddamn yogurt.
“Liam, listen to your father,” you said, with as little conviction as possible.
Your husband took a long, smug pull of coffee. Your son fought to meet your gaze, but you focused all your energy on your spoon.
You suspect that this is the moment Liam had his epiphany: he wouldn’t live under this roof at all. He’d gather his paperbacks and his old Spiderman sleeping bag and a hot plate—where the fuck had he found a hot plate?—and take up residence in the shed.
And you, sitting on the deck, surrounded by your ridiculous hardware, breathe in the shit smog as penance. You failed your son—are still failing your son!—and you have a feeling you should be knocking on the flimsy plywood door of the shed and begging forgiveness. You’ll tell your husband to stand down. Or to fuck off, maybe. You imagine shouting this into his face: Fuck off, motherfucker!
But when you hear the low squeak of Chuck Taylors on the chain-link fence, your stomach drops into your feet. It’s Liam, of course, sneaking into the yard and hoisting himself through the window he thinks you can’t see from across the lawn. You need to figure out the words you’ll say, and in what order. You need to lift yourself from your chair.
You are seconds away from succeeding, you can sense it, when a spot of red catches your eye. For the most fleeting of seconds you think it’s a very large cardinal with outspread wings. Then your vision catches up and you see that it’s a dark-haired kid in an NC State T-shirt, perched cautiously on top of the fence. You watch him leap to the ground and disappear behind the shed.
You assumed that you had a few years, at least, until your son started sneaking around with boys. This, you realize, is something you were fine with in the abstract, but the arrival of this flesh-and-blood being who doesn’t seem to notice you gaping at him has plunged your stomach from your feet to the layer of red dirt and earthworms that extends below the deck.
Through the missing slats, around a swing set, across stones that edge a mostly dry creek bed, over a chain-link fence and then a second one, Jack feels like Ferris Bueller, cutting through neighbors’ barbecues to make it home in time.
He’s careful to stay at least ten feet back, to keep his footfalls and his breathing as quiet as he can. Is he breathing? Or awake, even? He imagines himself floating. He imagines the inside of his brain, filled to the brim with big purple clouds. The only real sign that he’s still conscious is the all-too-familiar zoo smell.
He ducks behind the trunk of a dogwood and watches through the fence as Liam advances on a large gray storage shed, white shuttered with a sloping roof, and heaves himself onto the stepladder perched below the open window. Then, gripping the top of the frame, he swings one leg inside, and then the other, and lands unseen with a quiet thud.
Jack counts to thirty and waits for Liam to bob back up. When he doesn’t, he starts moving tentatively toward the fence. He grips the metal, cold beneath his hands, and sticks a foot through a mid-high ring, then leaps to the grass below.
Crouching, he breathes deep through his nose and releases the air from his mouth. Elephant shit, he’s almost certain. He could always abandon this mission—the zoo is so close, and David’s probably looking for him by now—and head on over with some excuse about staying after class. After all, it’s his turn to brush the goats. He loves the goats.
But no. He’s forever talking himself out of things. And he’s made it this far already.
Which is how he finds himself skulking over to the window, sliding the stepladder out of his way, and peering inside.
At first he doesn’t see him. Then a flash of freckled shoulder catches his eye, a tuft of lavender hair, and he realizes that Liam is stooped directly below, rummaging through something—clothes, maybe? Jack inches forward and presses his hands against the plywood wall that separates them.
“Excuse me?” The voice is soft but sharp, distinctly female, and catches him so off guard that he tumbles sideways and lands elbow-first in the grass. He looks up. The woman is tall and blonde and in yoga pants, a delicate beaded necklace at her throat. “What are you doing?” she asks, squinting at him. She has Liam’s eyes.
“I—” His voice has escaped him. He rises slowly to his feet, imagining what he must look like: some skinny kid trespassing on her property, watching her son through the window of a shed. Like a fucking creep. Although, come to think of it, why is Liam in a shed? Why is there a milk crate stacked with books, and another overflowing with shoes, and a Jimi Hendrix poster tacked against the opposite wall?
“Hey,” says the woman, but Jack can’t quite bring himself to raise his head. “I don’t know what’s going on, exactly, but why don’t you go in and talk to him?” Before he can stop her—he’s almost certain his limbs are frozen—she’s striding forward and knocking at the side of the shed. “Liam?” she calls through the open window.
An ice-cold panic seizes Jack’s stomach. The zoo! his brain screams. Run! Why aren’t you running?
And then there he is, framed like a painting: narrow face, eyes like peridots, the wires of his bright blue earbuds dangling out of view. He’s changed into a dingy white T-shirt with rips in the shoulder and the zoo logo across the chest. He stares at Jack like he’s never seen him before.
“Hey,” says Jack. His face is so hot that he suspects his skin might actually be melting off. He has never felt so stupid, not even when he suggested, in front of his entire fifth-grade class, that Rome was the capital of Spain.
“Hey,” says Liam, and glances quizzically up at his mother.
“Invite him in,” she says. She points to the shed door, then turns and strides off toward the house, leaving the boys to stare at each other through the window.
You take the stairs two at a time. You conjure the word amends, turn each letter over in your mind—from the loop of the a to the curl of the s—and decide that it’s high fucking time to make them, you and your husband both.
You slide on your favorite black dress and the heels that provide the most authoritative clack and return to the kitchen, where you pull saucepans and bowls and measuring spoons from their cabinets and drawers. You stack everything by the sink. You pour yourself a glass of red wine, then drop into a chair to wait.
“That sweet, sad boy,” you say aloud, and realize that you don’t know his name, only that you’re heartbroken for him, and for your son, and for yourself a little, too. You pour a second glass.
The sun is beginning to set, bleeding orange-gold and spreading shadows across the lawn. You glance out at the shed just as a tiny light clicks on—Liam must have taken his old giraffe lamp with him—and your husband comes barreling up the patio steps. He looks hungry, you think. Good.
You hear the squeak of his fancy leather shoes, and a moment later he appears in the doorway, leaning against the frame and loosening his tie. His sniffs at the air, then frowns.
“What’s for dinner?” he asks, eyeing your dress. “Are we going out?”
“No.” You empty the contents of the bottle into your glass. “We’re having a nice tikka masala. It’s Liam’s favorite, and we already have the ingredients.”
“So Liam’s eating with us then?”
“I hope so.”
“You hope so? You haven’t told him yet?”
“I haven’t asked him yet,” you correct, setting down your glass and looking him square in the eye. Your expression must be intense because he takes a step backward and gulps. “You’re going to ask him. You’re going to apologize for being an asshole, and then you’re going to cook him dinner.”
He snorts, literally snorts, and shakes his head. “Honey, this is the bed Liam’s made for himself. If he wants things to go back to normal, he’s going to have to come to me.”
By the time he stops talking, you’ve already left the room.
It’s surprisingly nice, the shed. It has a lofted space with a sleeping bag and extra pillows, plus an old-timey TV and a wall full of miniature watercolors: slim-hipped girls with flowers for heads, skydiving and on jet skis, riding mechanical bulls.
“These are really cool,” says Jack.
Liam nods. “My mom did them, way before I was born. But now she makes jewelry, because paintings just don’t sell.” At this, his voice takes on on a strangely pompous tone. “I found them in the attic. I found most of this stuff in the attic, actually.”
“Oh,” says Jack. He’s not sure what else to say.
Liam has given him the tour, told him why he’s staying out here—“my dad’s kind of an asshole,” he explained—and offered him a warm Coke. “Let’s sit,” he says now, gesturing to a pair of faded lawn chairs, and Jack knows it’s time.
“I’m sorry I followed you,” he says. “It was weird, I know.”
“Yeah, well.” Liam shrugs, like it’s no big deal, then asks, “Why did you, though? Honestly?”
Jack closes his eyes. This is an alternate universe, he tells himself. It’s the only explanation for how he could be here, here, in a scratchy old chair, in a tastefully decorated gardening shed, having an actual conversation with Liam McLeod, who’s sitting in an identical chair only inches away. This is a universe so removed from his real one that of course he can say it out loud, this thing he’s never revealed to his parents or to Zane, that he can barely admit to himself.
But when he opens his eyes, all he can manage is a single word: “You.”
It must be enough, because he’s rewarded with a slow smile.
“Yeah,” Liam says. “It’s shitty, right?”
“Oh my god. The shittiest.”
They sit quietly for a while, studying the daisies and violets that top each woman’s torso.
“Hey,” says Liam. “Want to watch TV? I only get over-the-air channels, but there’s usually an awful old B-movie playing. My favorite is the one where the guy sticks a dead alien in his refrigerator.”
Jack laughs. He tries to imagine the universe in which he would even consider saying no.
You are feeling slinky in your black dress, and just the slightest bit drunk. You’re barely drunk. You had a reasonable number of glasses. You’re not even driving! You’re walking! You saunter in the straightest line possible across your driveway, through the darkening thicket of trees—you’ve always thought of them as cypresses, but you could be wrong—to the perimeter of the zoo, which is demarcated by a low wooden fence. It is now dusk; the sky is dotted with fireflies, the zoo emptied of all but staff and a handful of stragglers.
A low growl. You guess tigers. Where is the tiger enclosure? You pull a stray bobby pin from your hair and imagine jimmying open the lock. Could you do it? Release those claws and those teeth and that fur-covered muscle into your yard? And would David lunge at them to save you? Swashbuckling! A damsel in distress! But no: you would use your own cunning to help trap the tigers in the shed. Once they were captured, you and David would make frantic yet tender love in the grass.
Which is where you have fallen. You close your eyes and wonder, will Liam let you sleep in the shed tonight? It’s humid out, but maybe he will share a blanket and nestle against you like when he was a child, the two of you watching fireflies flit about the ceiling, casting tiny lights into the purpling dark. If nothing else, you can hope.
Sarah Andrew is a freelance writer and editor in Greensboro, North Carolina. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she served on the staff of Ecotone and Lookout Books.