The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
As green as he was in the use of firearms, Joe Begley had assumed he would complete the job in a single try. Instead the horse kicked pitifully and sprayed blood over his loafers but refused to die. The animal had been donated for tiger feed by a stable in Altadena; it was feeble and blind, and it had spent two days idling by a rusted water basin. There was no reason to tie it to anything: even a blind horse knows the Mojave sun kills worse than a bullet.
“Sorry, bud!” Begley stifled a surge of nausea. “Last thing I want to do is torture you.”
“Nothing wrong with not knowing how to shoot,” said Daryl, devouring a burrito under the stingy shadow of a Joshua tree. The sanctuary relied on volunteers alternating through the days of the week, local boys fresh out of the military. Daryl covered Fridays.
“You weren’t counting ammo up in New York City, am I right?”
“My point exactly,” Begley struggled to reload, “A man has to get his hands dirty eventually or he’ll breed disdain for his own existence.”
He was a sinewy man, with a pompadour of prematurely graying hair that had been salvaged by a transplant. In the cauldron of the desert he wore slacks and a white shirt with creased sleeves, symbols of civilization he had retained against common sense and exclusively for Livia’s sake: his wife had turned into a blister of acid ever since they had swapped New York’s high culture for the primitivism of Phelan, California.
As if in agreement with her, the horse stirred at the feel of its own dripping blood.
“You want me to finish it?” Daryl said and licked bean juice off his fingers.
Begley raised the shotgun with a heavy hand and shot the animal in the chest. Its body hit the dirt in stages, first the front knees and then the belly, barely a few feet away from the house. When the head came down, the horse turned its eyes away toward a scattering of sagebrush, as if not to discomfort its executioner.
“This awful heat,” Daryl said. His three hundred pounds made him sweat profusely but the perspiration evaporated as fast as it came out of his skin.
“Nothing awful about it,” Begley said. “It burns your lungs so you know you’re breathing. Try living in an air-conditioned apartment your entire life.”
He used Daryl’s help to pull the horse under the sole cottonwood on the property. The shadow offered only symbolic relief: since mid-morning the temperature had passed triple digits. Yellow haze from Los Angeles spilled over the mountains; it mixed with one’s sweat and layered over the skin like sap. There was something invigorating in the heat, something to do with death, like a motorcycle ride or the scorching taste of a habanero. Begley was energized: after a year in the Mojave he could recognize his steady progression into savagery. He brought out a chainsaw, spread sunscreen over his face, put on gloves and an apron and pretended not to notice Daryl’s amusement. The smell of blood rose with the heat and drew flies and yellow jackets. Twenty years on Wall Street had taught him not to mind the sight of a slaughter but twice he stopped to vomit. In the back, the tigers stirred: meat was on the way.
It took optimism to call an acre of bad dirt a sanctuary. The land claimed by the “Forever Wild” refuge for exotic cats stood at the end of a desert hamlet west of Interstate 15, a fifth of the way between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. A dirt road washed up against the mobile home that was the main structure of the compound. The house was separated from the earth by cinder blocks and raccoons lived underneath. The cat cages were in the back, across a dirt yard, accessible only through a door secured with latches and locks that kept Begley’s son Eric from wondering near the tigers. Eleven adult cats and a blind cub came from abuse, torture and neglect. They were Begley’s freedom, his frantic claim to innocence. The solid build of their cages stood in contrast with the ramshackle human structures: spacious boxes with steel bars and concrete foundations, each one containing a wooden shed for the animals to sleep in and a tin pool for them to cool off. The cages, and not Begley’s home, appeared to be the piece of civilization claimed from the sand and the snakes. “I’ve never seen such solid build,” the Fish & Wildlife ranger had said on his first visit. “In my profession, when a man is trying too hard it means he’s hiding something, which tends to be a lack of experience. The state of California doesn’t want amateurs taking care of dangerous animals, Mr. Begley.”
Begley spat in the dirt and turned the chainsaw off. Livia’s voice was breaking out from the house.
“Joe, next time can you do a better job spreading these towels? The paint is dripping all over the floor!”
“I’ll be right there, baby, can it wait five minutes?”
“Sure it can,” she called out. “What are a few minutes in a year spent in squalor?”
She was only trying to create something that resembled living conditions, she went on. A phone began to ring. Daryl was chewing his lunch and spits of food were flying out of his mouth. The smacking of his tongue and the smell of cilantro were making Begley nauseous. He walked into the house, wiping blood from his hands. His voice could be heard between silences, and when he stepped out he walked into a puddle of horse blood without noticing.
“Almquist from Fish & Wildlife will come by,” he said and picked up the chainsaw.
“Again?” Daryl said. “He was here last week!”
“Was he? I don’t remember.”
“I warned you from the start,” Livia’s voice came from the house. “That man doesn’t think you know what you’re doing.”
“It’s good someone makes sure rules are followed,” Begley said and ran the chainsaw. “Plenty of sadists running these sanctuaries, claiming to be taking care of the animals. Almquist is welcome here any day.”
He drank water from a hose, poured some on his head and continued cutting the horse. For the rest of the afternoon he carried a metallic taste, as if he had been licking the blade of a knife. The heat, the dirt, the ammonia stench of animal urine: it had taken an Ulyssean journey to discover a haven this primitive and he wasn’t about to give it up. A dog that forsakes its bone without a fight doesn’t deserve to keep it: he had taught the lesson countless times on the trading floor.
“Smells good, furballs?” he called out to the cats.
Tikka, a Bengal-Siberian mix, released a deep crunch of the larynx that resembled a falling tree; in the next cage the blind cub Saber whimpered and threw a paw in an indiscriminate direction. Whistling came from the back door and Begley made out his son, too small for his eight years and standing like an apparition behind the bug screen.
“Greetings, Boss!” Begley waved. “Want to help daddy prep Saber’s food?”
“OK,” Eric said.
He whistled to the tigers once more and disappeared into the house. Since birth, not a loving word had been granted by the son to his father. Still, Begley persisted in courting Eric’s affection: he had taught the boy to navigate the dirt roads and let him feed the raccoons. Such goodwill was accepted as a chore and without gratitude, which left Begley with the sensation that he was his son’s concierge.
“Maybe we can go out and shoot the gun a few times,” he called out to deaf ears.
Daryl loaded horsemeat into an industrial freezer while Begley distributed the rest to the cats, talking and chuffing to them. As he did every night, he brought out his guitar and serenaded them. Sometimes the cats sang back. Saber whimpered along during the most poignant songs and Tikka threw itself against the bars and roared: it had never really appreciated its keeper. As Begley strummed, he felt so much love for his new life that he was overtaken with the terror that it would all suddenly vanish. By the time he finished the last song, Daryl was getting into his truck.
“We should wash Tikka’s cage,” Begley said.
“Didn’t the guys wash it on Tuesday?” Daryl said.
“His shit is all over the cement.”
Daryl laughed. “That’s seven hundred pounds of teeth, Joe. We need a couple more people to maneuver the cat.”
“Nonsense, it’s not that complicated.”
“Look, Almquist is not wasting his Friday night on work. I’ll come back on Monday so we can tidy up, how’s that? Tonight my girlfriend is out on leave from the base.”
Begley nodded. “You should go then,” he said and watched Daryl drive off.
The sun dropped behind the mountains and the lights of the interstate drew a line through the evening haze. Despite his optimism, Begley lived with the awareness that terrible things might happen at any moment to anyone and anything he cared about. One dirty cage was all it took for Fish & Wildlife to revoke a license. Getting lazy now could sabotage a year of effort and sacrifice.
The cleaning of the cages was done the old-fashioned way, by moving the tiger into a portable cage, spraying the permanent one with a hose, then scraping the feces with a spatula and releasing the tiger back inside. It was a process that consumed time and was perilous even when overseen by an entire crew. The portable cage was a wooden box with wheels and enough space for an adult cat to turn. By the time Begley managed to line it against the permanent cage, he was drenched in sweat. Tikka threw its weight against the steel bars and roared.
“One day you should tell me why you hate me so much,” Begley said.
He threw a slab of horsemeat inside the portable cage and climbed onto the roof. The beams bent under him. He pushed open the gate of the permanent cage and a hole opened because the roof of the portable cage was not as high as the gate. Tikka stirred. Begley raised a piece of cardboard to mislead the tiger that there was a wall covering the hole. He discovered that he was afraid. The cat could not be seen anymore, and Begley prepared to feel the cage under him shake from the force of the animal Then he saw Tikka, still in his permanent cage and nowhere near the gate. Something flew through the bars, there was a voice and Eric emerged, barely five feet from the bars. The boy held pieces of cooked chicken and threw them at Tikka one at a time.
“Stay away, Eric!” Begley screamed. “They’ll think you’re playing.”
The boy stepped closer to the cage and threw another piece. Begley jumped off the roof and landed on his hip. The cardboard he had been holding tumbled over him. Sensing that the tiger had an opening for escape, Begley stuck his hand inside the cage and pulled the gate shut, then lunged back to avoid the claws reaching for him. He lay on the ground, breathing dirt. Behind him, Eric began to cry. Begley scrambled up and went to the child. He found him dripping with the cat’s urine.
“How did you get out?” Begley pulled Eric by the sleeve. The boy cried, more from loss of dignity than out of fear.
Livia dashed out of the house amidst the jingling of her bracelets. A silk tunic sailed about her and gold earrings swung over her shoulders. She wore a wide-brimmed hat topped by a cactus blossom, a coating of orange lipstick and stiletto heals that left point marks in the dirt. She looked mildly grotesque, like a gilded faucet in a bathroom. What had been an exotic taste in New York seemed to have been transformed by the desert into the musings of a deranged exhibitionist. It occurred to Begley that perhaps the volunteers masturbated thinking of her.
“Don’t come close to my child or I’ll cut your eyes out!” she hissed at Tikka.
The tiger sat on its hind legs, panted and presented her with an enormous erection.
“Livie, you shouldn’t let Eric out here,” Begley said. “We’ve talked about this.”
“He should be able to play in his own house. And you should make sure he’s safe.”
She reached for Eric’s hand. The boy was gazing through his tears at the glow spilling over the crest of the mountain.
“The fire will be on this side by morning,” he said.
Begley thought, without a doubt it will be just as the boy says. In eleven months Eric had learned to read the desert.
“We can watch the airplanes put it out,” Begley said.
“I hope it burns down everything,” his son said.
Begley reached to ruffle his son’s hair but Eric moved away.
“It’s too hot to eat dinner,” Livia said. “I’m guessing you’ll be spending the evening with your cats?
She led Eric into the house without waiting for a response. Begley could not hold anger against her: she was a woman at war and he had made her this way, one ultimatum at a time. Suddenly, he was infuriated with Tikka. Why help an animal so eager to attack him? He picked up the meat and walked away, leaving the cat pacing in hunger.
Out on the road he looked for a cloud of pink dirt that was the doorbell of the desert. Alarm spread through him: he had the eerie sensation that he was waiting for his destiny at a meeting he had called himself. A road sign warned about flash floods. Like all signs in the area it was riddled with bullet holes: teenagers used it for target practice on weekends. When he reached the property next to the sanctuary, he moved to the opposite side of the road. Rattle snakes had taken over an abandoned bungalow and bred undisturbed; one could hear them at night, shifting over the sand like a field of grass.
Just a year before he knew nothing about the desert or how to care for wild animals. Twenty years of attaining power and riches had taught him to disdain himself with the self-awareness of a microbe and, on a gambling trip to Las Vegas, worn out from the cigar smoke, he had driven out onto the back roads. At the bottom of a dry lakebed, with badlands around him, he cried himself to sleep by recalling his childhood when he had fantasized of becoming a sword juggler or an international thief. On the way out he received directions from a man who owned a patch of desert, a cougar, a wildlife sanctuary license and a desire to leave his own prison.
A man is at his most merciless when he falls in love with a dream. A week after returning from Las Vegas, Begley resigned from his position as a head trader of default swaps and bought the sanctuary in the desert. Livia, prone to simplifications, denounced it as posing. Like the babblings of a mad man, her husband’s enthusiasm left her terrified. For a month Begley tried to make her see that this was the only way he could go on living until finally he flew to California alone. Livia and the boy followed him a month later: she knew that if she didn’t, Begley would erase her from his mind. On that first night in the desert she let him have her against the outside wall of the trailer home, with the tigers watching and Eric sleeping inside. “I didn’t marry a prick,” she said when he was done, “but I’m stuck with one now.”
Begley listened to the snakes until the sun dropped low behind the mountains. He walked back into the house with a horse leg and a basket of plucked chickens he had bought from a Mexican store in Phelan. Perched on the backrest of a sofa, Livia was completing the image of a pigeon on the wall just below the ceiling. Over the last months she had become interested in painting murals, which she practiced indoors. They were a brew of unfinished landscapes of Manhattan that appeared to have been abandoned mid-way, when a different idea had struck the artist. Sheets and curtains covered the living room floor to protect it from the paint. The furniture, shipped from New York where the family had occupied an immense apartment, claimed too much space to be moved one way or another. Gilded drapes, velvet sofas and brocade ottomans, Persian rugs and chairs of Brazilian rosewood appeared pharaonic in the confined spaces of the prefabricated house. Items that Livia believed would complete the design but could not be shipped were also painted on the walls, the floor and the ceiling, which made the house evoke the mad nostalgia of a theater director.
“I fail to comprehend why everything in this place needs to fall apart,” Livia wiped her sweat as she descended from a chair. She had been drinking and her voice gurgled as it usually did when she was in a good mood. An electric fan stood dead in a corner and dinner waited on the table: a half-finished bottle of Spanish wine and an open bag of pork rinds.
“Eric’s sleeping,” she said. “I gave him a bath.”
“He’s provoking the tigers, Livie.”
“Perhaps he’s trying to make you notice.”
“Well, I have,” he said, “and I don’t like it.”
She looked for her glass and when she couldn’t find it she drank wine from the bottle.
“Did you see that tiger’s dick when I yelled at it?” she laughed.
“I wasn’t paying attention,” Begley said.
She said, “It’s amazing how in awe we are of these animals until they expose themselves for what they really are: just animals.”
Begley started the elaborate ritual of preparing the next weeks’ food for the blind cub. The bottles and the nipples were placed in a sterilizer and steamed to kill any bacteria. He poured milk, attached the nipples and placed them in the refrigerator. Separately, he boiled the chickens and chopped them with a cleaver into tiny pieces to make them easy to swallow and to prevent choking. As he went through his tasks he had to move Livia’s cans of paint, which had been left about the room.
“Livie, it’s crucial to keep the area where I make the food clean,” he said. “Otherwise we risk contamination and infection.”
“Contamination with what?” she said. “It’s in their nature to eat blood and guts and to sleep in their own shit.”
“I’m trying to offer pointers on how we can improve as a sanctuary,” Begley said.
The mood had changed, he sensed, and her eyes were burning holes in his back as he continued to arrange the meat into containers. He moved his thoughts away: there were too many tasks to complete to waste time on emotions. Each container received a piece of tape designating the day and the meal it was to be used for: Saturday breakfast, Sunday dinner, Monday lunch. A speck of blood flew off a carcass. Livia watched it settle into a Turkish carpet.
“Why don’t you admit that having us around annoys you,” she said.
“Where do you come up with this nonsense, Livie?” Begley forced a laugh. “I love having you here.”
“You look at this freedom of yours without being able to touch, like some receptionist in a jewelry store.”
His shame arrived suddenly, as it often did. In New York she had built a meaningful existence as a prosecutor until he had diminished her to an afterthought in a world she cared nothing about. He had ripped her away from everything she loved: the museums, the food, lofty conversations and the distinct sensation that she was living at the tip of civilization.
There was a noise outside and Begley was thankful for the distraction. He ran to the window but it was nothing.
“What a sad sight you are,” Livia said. “If you were as interested in your son as you’re terrified of Fish and Wildlife, maybe Eric would smile for you, or tell you he loves you.”
Begley opened a new bottle of wine.
“Come on, Livie, you know Fish and Wildlife are being overly diligent. A man trying to build something out of nothing should be allowed to complete his work, not be harassed with minutiae.”
She put on a grin. Was he that naïve to think she hadn’t heard people talk? Did he think that he would give away his entire fortune and she wouldn’t connect the dots? They were left with barely enough to eat and yet he was feeding steak to a bunch of tigers.
“You’re buying your conscience at the expense of your wife and son,” she said.
“A man has to put his hands in the mud sometimes,” Begley said. “It’s good for us to be here, it’s good for Eric too.”
She grabbed his chin and he thought she would spit at him.
“While you’re saving your cats, your son has learned to hate you,” she said.
He reached to take her hand but she pulled back and careened onto a sofa, amidst the accent pillows and the drapes of her silk dress: it was her habit to be theatrical. Her skirt folded up and he could see the tuft of pubic hair under her panties.
She said, “It must be saying something bad about me that after all of this I still love you.”
The wind threw sand against the screen door. Livia looked at a mirror she had painted on the wall.
“The only things that belong in this dump,” she said, “are the dirt that gets into everything, and the stench of piss and shit.”
Begley held her hand and kissed it. He ran wine through his teeth and the back of his hand against her breast, and felt the need to sleep. She was like a vision he had dreamed about, but somewhere along the way he had forgotten what to do with her. A sound came from outside, a coyote maybe, or the screech of a misaligned wheel. A cat coughed. The alcohol made it hard to avoid a flare of indignation against Almquist, who had decided, it seemed, that it was within his rights to appear at any hour. Begley walked to the window and glared into the night. There were no car lights but a noise broke out that was easy to mistake for something else. As he walked out to take a look and Livia walked after him, he felt his lip go numb.
The night was dense with smoke from the mountains. For a moment Begley was elated: by the end of the month the dust that blew in from the dry lakes would settle, the flash floods would seize until spring, and the love of his wife and son would give up all conditions.
“Is that Eric?” Livia asked in confusion and the numbness came back to Begley’s mouth.
The boy lay at an awkward angle against the bars of Tikka’s cage, with his eyes closed and his left arm motionless against the dirt, like a doll arranged by a mindful child. It appeared from the position that the tiger had reached for Eric as the boy had stepped in the two feet of space between Tikka’s and Saber’s cages. Massive and alert, the cat stood inside its cage, claiming the boy’s body by laying a paw on it through the bars.
“Eric!” Livia screamed.
Begley ran to the cage. In the last moment he threw himself down by instinct and Tikka’s claws cut the air over his head. He grabbed a plastic bag that was lying around and waved it at the tiger. The animal glanced at him without interest and sniffed Eric’s face. It was difficult to tell whether the boy was breathing. Blood, if there was any, would be hard to make out in the dark. In the back, there was noise as Livia stumbled into the house.
“Call someone!” Begley shouted but didn’t hear his own voice.
He was taken over by a certainty that Eric was dead and recognized a sensation that he could not remember experiencing in a lifetime of taking risks: a fatigue accompanied by a powerful desire to give up. The shame and the guilt stabbed him again and he took a step toward the cage. There was a flicker where Eric lay. The boy’s sneakers, a present from Begley for Eric’s birthday, were catching the outdoor light in their reflectors.
“He’s moving!” Begley shouted.
Behind him Livia was charging out of the house and across the dirt. In the black darkness she looked like tumbling fog. She was waving the shotgun and swaying it wildly in the direction of the tiger.
“No!” Begley screamed and jumped in front of the weapon.
Livia stood confused. She wavered and then her face turned gray with hate.
“Pick up your son, coward!” she said and spit came out of her mouth.
She threw the shotgun and charged toward the cage. He ran after her and pulled her down. “You’re a monster, monster!” she said with a voice that was coming from her guts.
“How did he get out?”
By the cage, Eric was trying to stand up. Tikka slid beside him and the boy began to whimper. The cat nudged him with its nose and licked his face as if to calm him down. Livia cried in the dirt.
“Stay down, Eric!” Begley said softly to avoid agitating Tikka.
He found the shotgun that Livia had abandoned and fired into the sky. The cat looked on without urgency. Begley ran to the freezer where he had left the horsemeat and pulled out a slab. He felt ridiculous, his intentions obvious and predictable. He threw the meat into the cage.
“Can’t you see it doesn’t care?” Livia screamed.
“Livie, don’t shout. Please!” he whispered.
The moon emerged over the mountains and spilled gray light over the desert. Years later Begley would wonder whether, had it not been for the influx of visibility, it might have taken them until dawn to discover Saber – and whether that would have changed anything.
“What’s that!” he said and moved to the cub´s cage drawn by new fear. Saber was stooped against the bars; in death its head was turned to the house and its face was smeared in blood. A piece of horsemeat it had been eating flickered when it caught light. Begley picked it up and cut his thumb on a shard of glass. Bad taste rose in his mouth, like the sudden rush of regurgitated food.
“What are you doing there!” Livia called out. “Why are you leaving Eric!”
Begley’s hands were shivering. He studied the meat but there was no mistake: pieces of broken glass had been pressed into it, enough to tear a cat’s insides. Confused thoughts tried to make sense of the situation and all of them lead to bad places. Heat rose in his chest, as it does when one is confronted by a street mugger, along with the desire to believe that what he was seeing was too awful and had to have a different explanation. One cannot simply accept that a young, disabled animal can be tortured for no reason other than to make it die in agonizing pain.
By Tikka’s cage, Eric began to hiccup.
“Goddamn it, Eric, don’t make a sound!” Begley snapped.
Tears came to his eyes but he stopped them: in the moment they would appear inappropriate.
¨Mommy!¨ Eric cried and tried to stand up but the tiger reached between the bars and pushed him down.
“Listen to your father, Eric,” Livia began to whimper.
She had shriveled into a ball. Begley held her against him.
“What have we done, Joe!” she said.
She was soft and light, as she had been when there had been no complications, no desert, no children. A set of car lights, barely a pair of dots, wondered through the darkness and vanished.
“Almquist,” Livia said with hope.
She had called him first in her panic. The car lights flickered again and vanished. Begley thought of running onto the road but distances could be misleading, and would anyone see him in the dark? They waited and fatigue came over them like an odorless gas. Tikka touched Eric with its nose, but Begley could not tell if it was once or many times. The boy lay against the bars, rolled into a ball, with his face in the dirt. Good boy, Begley thought; you deserve better than the father you got. The need to sleep returned. He broke off bark from a Joshua tree and ate it: he had heard it calmed one’s nerves. He sat and watched his son and the tiger, and thought about the snakes in the abandoned bungalow next door. He imagined himself as one of them, but now the other snakes had grown legs. A flashflood was coming and they were running away. He tried to keep up by crawling but it was not enough. Boulders and trunks crashed after him and he prepared to die with the sadness of someone aware of the value of his life. When he opened his eyes his muscles were throbbing as if he had been cutting cat feed, and a truck was pulling up against the fence with its headlights aimed at the cages.
Almquist was alone. Livia ran to meet him and he walked after her, ready to dispatch professional help. He was lethargic as he assembled a tranquilizer rifle but Begley was reassured by the lack of energy: it transmitted signs that the situation might not be as dire as it looked.
“How did the boy get here?”
“He must have taken the keys,” Begley said.
“To do what?”
The nauseating taste returned to Begley´s mouth. He took Livia’s hand and held it. Almquist didn’t conceal his resentment: the boy might make it out alive but Tikka would have to be destroyed – and they had only their negligence to blame. It didn’t matter that the cat had done what was natural to it. An aggressive cat was a dangerous cat to the law. Little boys had no business standing around tigers, and it was the parents who needed to make sure of it.
“A wildlife refuge is not a zoo,” Almquist said. ¨Why is it so hard for you people to comprehend this?”
He took a minute to get the rifle ready and then wavered as if he was reluctant to proceed. Finding an angle to shoot was a challenge. As he walked around the cage Tikka moved with him, always standing close to Eric. Almquist’s irritation grew and his voice shook with emotion. He needed assistance. Using a tranquilizer gun with the boy in such proximity would be criminal. His radio was back at the truck and he went to get it. Begley raced after him.
“I’ll get Eric out!” he said. “Nobody’s going to get hurt, trust me!”
Begley could tell that Almquist wasn’t taking any of this new confidence seriously but, still, the man would wait: Begley had exposed himself as one of those unyielding romantics who hurl their wishful thinking at a mountain in their path until it melts away like ice cream.
Begley threw himself in the dirt and crawled to his son. Livia was crying but he chose not to hear her. Tikka stood by the bars. Begley waited for the claws to reach and peel off his face; instead the tiger bared its teeth and walked alongside the fence. Begley’s mouth filled with the flavor of chocolate and roasted peppers, a favorite indulgence from his childhood. He took it as a sign that he was about to die. He had to rise to his knees to gain leverage and pull Eric away. His motions were fast and determined, and still too slow for a big cat with any interest. He slid between Eric and the cage to cover the tiger’s access to the boy’s body and in the process exposed his own. There was no relief, no sudden comprehension of the universe; there was only horror. His eyes filled with dust because he had forgotten to blink. He took a step back, and then another. Looking at the retreating target, Tikka yawned, then turned around and walked away like a child bored by a toy.
Eric was shivering in Begley’s arms and grasping onto a stuffed sock. Begley pried the boy’s hand open and found it drenched with blood from several cuts. Inside the sock there was a piece of horsemeat with crushed glass pressed into it. Begley had no time or desire to think. Livia was running over, at once kissing Eric and screaming at him. She was crying at the sight of his bloody hand and pulling him away into the house. Before the boy disappeared inside he looked back at his father. Begley thought he saw satisfaction on his son´s face.
“I should take my son to a hospital,” Begley said.
“It’s just a few cuts,” Almquist said. “But it’s probably a good idea.”
There was pity in the man’s eyes.
Begley said, “ Do you still have to put down Tikka?”
“For what?” Almquist said.
Begley wanted to smile but he was too tired. Almquist threw a finger at the blind cub’s carcass.
“Of course, we’ll have to take a look at that one. Figure out the cause of death and so on.”
“You’re a good man,” Almquist said. “You seem to love these animals.”
“We’re doing our best,” Begley said and felt a rush of warmth from the unexpected compliment.
Almquist measured another thought.
“You should go back east, this is no place for folks like you,” he said.
New light rose over the Mojave. To the west, airplanes took turns flying over the burning mountains. They dropped red curtains of fire retardant that looked like sheets of blood. Rain drizzled in the higher altitudes and helped them. Begley sent Almquist off and walked back among the cages. The sock was still in his hand and he tossed it into a plastic barrel he used for trash. He filled up a bucket with horsemeat and brought it to Tikka. The cat ate and when it was done, it brought its head against the bars. Begley was taken aback by the ease of the tiger. He waited and when he saw that there was no hidden threat, he ran his fingers over the soft fur. The fire had crested the mountain and the smell of burned brush spilled over the desert.
© Nickolay Todorov July 2011