Unnatural Habitats

by Angela Mitchell

Layton buzzes over his three acre lot, the riding mower knocked into high gear. He loves this mower, which he bought mostly for its cool-looking roll bar. His wife told him to get one with a canopy. Sheila tells him to wear a hat, too, because his hair is thinning at the very crest of his head, but hats are for pussies. So are canopies. The mower is black with yellow stripes—like a sweat bee—and was the most expensive model on the floor at Lowe’s. He paid for it with his debit card, shielding his fingers from the customers in line behind him as he punched in the PIN. There are wolves all around and he can’t be too careful. This is a fact he learned the hard way when his old business partner betrayed him. It was Gary, he was certain, who’d had him hunted down like an animal in the dark and beaten nearly to death. He didn’t get a good look at his attackers that night, and so in his memory he does not see blurs of men’s faces or arms or the weapons they used to bring him down, but something he can only describe as the color of the pain, the blows replaying in bursts of red and purple and green.

But that was years ago and his life has changed since then. He lives now in a subdivision of garishly overbuilt houses, designed to evoke what the developer calls “a unique tradition of Southern glamour and grace,” but Layton thinks they all look like the red-brick fraternity house he lived in for two semester at the university, their thick, white columns a nod to some antebellum fantasy. His neighbors are businessmen and bankers or big honchos at Tyson—Arkansas’s new rich—and, like Layton, they bought there mostly for the size of the houses (a required minimum of 6000 square feet!), rather than the architecture. But unlike Layton, none of his neighbors have any interest in mowing their own lawns. They hire the job out and, several times a week, a small army of brown-skinned laborers descends on the subdivision. They skim across the zoysia on stand-up mowers, whipping them under their boots like surf boards, filling the air with gas fumes. When they are done, they march over the hilly acres with trimmers and blowers, their mouths and noses hidden behind brightly colored bandanas. Bandidos, Layton calls the men. If he wanted, he could hire his own crew of bandidos, but where is the fun in that? He considers his ride time on the sweat bee a necessary moment of solitude, when he can indulge in a fat joint without disruption, the smoke wafting up and over his head and beyond the boundaries of the subdivision.

Over the growl of the mower, he hears his children scream as they jump off the diving board into the pool. He watches them and sees his oldest son, Elijah, appear to be drowning one of the younger children. The water is roiling, two hands thrashing above the surface. Elijah’s shaggy brown hair drips over his eyes so that all Layton can see of his face is a mean grin. Layton waves at him and shakes his head “no” and holds his fingers in the peace sign. Elijah ducks lower into the water as the drowning child bursts up, gasping for breath, and punches him in the side of the head. Layton releases the peace sign, nods to Elijah, drives on.

He steers the mower near his eastern neighbor’s property. The green space between the houses is supposed to be left open, but a few months earlier, the couple living there petitioned for special permission to install a wrought iron fence with spear-like points at the top, dividing their property from Layton’s. They are old, the man and woman, and spend their days on the golf course behind the houses, the electric green grass ending at a steep ravine. Layton does not play golf and he doesn’t appreciate the balls that so often land in his yard. Elmo, his bichon frise, once managed to get one stuck in its mouth so that Layton had to wedge his fingers between its jaws to pry it out. It is not a smart dog, the last of the pack his wife used to breed when they lived on a small farm near the Missouri state line. Ahead of him is another white ball and he speeds up and runs over it. It whooshes to the side and lands with a ping against one of the points of the speared fence.

This is when he sees them.

The old man is standing there in his aqua-blue Bermudas, white socks pulled up over his ankles, his wife beside him. She is too thin, but Layton can tell she had been beautiful once. Probably even hot. What remains of her younger self has not left her the way it does most women, who seem to dissolve within themselves as they age, any beauty disappearing beneath rolls of belly fat and teased-up Brillo pads of hair. The neighbor woman’s hair isn’t a Brillo pad, but is cut in an elegant bob, the color of ice. He doesn’t dislike the couple, but he’s fairly sure they are not in love with him or his family. Still, they haven’t been aggressive toward him. They have not reported the extra storage shed he built (strictly forbidden under subdivision by-laws) or even the young deer he captured and kept as a pet for the kids until it died for no reason at all. What he feels for the man and woman is merely a comfortable indifference. As he nears them, he smiles and offers a kind of salute, but they do not respond. Maybe they don’t see him?

He comes closer, waves his hand again, swishing it wildly back and forth, but still they do not move. It is as if they are posing for a picture, the woman’s flamingo pink sarong fluttering against her legs. Layton puts the mower in park. He slides his sunglasses onto the top of his head and squints his eyes, the joint clamped tightly between his front teeth. He takes one long, last draw off the joint and holds the smoke in his lungs an extra count of three before he exhales, tossing the stub on the lawn. Near their pool, he sees it, the cat laid out beneath a chaise lounge, her thick forearms stretched in front of her. The bob of her tail twitches.

“Hey,” he says, but the old couple do not acknowledge him. Their eyes are fixed on the bobcat, a stare they don’t break even as he opens the gate and slowly steps toward the patio. He looks at the cat, then back at the couple. “You want me to get her?”

They are frozen, silent. Fuck. She’s not a goddamn cheetah. When Layton was younger, he would’ve said this out loud, but he has learned you can keep some thoughts to yourself. It is a lesson that has improved his business, which had, in turn, made the house and the pool and the fancy subdivision possible. His wife is thrilled to be a resident of The Estates at Devil’s Den, a name he would’ve thought laughable had it not been for “devil” in the title. That part he likes and secretly thinks appropriate.

“It’s really all right to move,” he says. “She isn’t a grizzly bear, you know. She’s just a bobcat. She’s a pet.”

“It’s. Still. Wild.” The old man tries to speak, but without moving his lips so that he looks and sounds like a bad ventriloquist.

“Listen,” says Layton. “I’ve got kids. What kind of dad would keep a wild animal around a bunch of kids?” The cat’s name is Bobbie and she is supposed to stay in her pen at all times. If the kids want to play with her, they have to go inside the pen, too, and close the latch behind them. Layton bends down and looks under the chaise lounge, snaps his fingers at the cat. She blinks, sleepy in the heat, and turns her face away. He slips two fingers beneath her orange mesh collar and gives it a tug. She is old for a bobcat, but strong, and she somehow makes her body heavier than it is and growls, a warning rumbling from her chest.

“You. Better. Be. Careful.” The old man is still being a ventriloquist. The cat’s body tightens as Layton drags her near him, her claws scraping against the bricks.

“Fine, motherfucker,” he whispers. “Make it hard for me.” He takes the beach towel draped over the lounger and scoots closer to the cat. “Here,” he says, offering his other hand for her to sniff. She refuses to move. He picks her up off the ground by the collar and she begins to fight him, her claws pushing out of the pads of her toes. Layton swaddles her in the beach towel and presses her to his chest. To keep a bobcat as a pet, he is supposed to have a permit with the county, but he never bothered with it. She belonged first to Gary and all her original paperwork is still in his name. Layton did not want to explain how he’d come to have the cat himself, so he’d simply avoided the issue entirely. Besides, he thinks the paperwork for animals and houses and cars is almost certainly a violation of his rights as an American citizen, and as long as nobody gets all pissy about the cat and calls the sheriff, why does it matter? He looks at his frozen neighbors. The man finally turns his head and glares at Layton, his eyes watery from not blinking for so long. He will definitely call the sheriff.

The cat growls again and Layton feels her body tighten, like she is winding herself up to let loose a tornado of fur and spit. A stream of warm piss spreads through the beach towel and saturates his t-shirt.

“Okay, we’re going now.” He tries to say it as if nothing has happened, the way he might talk to a small child. “Call if you need anything.” He wants to sound friendly, but it won’t do any good. His arms are getting tired from clutching the cat and he walks as fast as he can to his own backyard, breathing through his mouth to avoid the rising smell of ammonia. The cat’s pen is behind the pool and he sees now that the front latch is open. He goes inside the pen, squats down and throws the cat to the corner before he escapes out the gate, locking it behind him. He pulls off his shirt. The back is still dry and he brushes it over his stomach to rub off the urine. It’s nearly impossible to get the smell of bobcat piss out of clothes—another thing he has learned the hard way—and he wads up the shirt and hurls it toward the pool. He does the same thing to the beach towel, which lands just shy of the water near the edge where his daughter rests her head on her arms as she practices kicking her legs out behind her. The girl’s head bolts up when the towel lands in front of her face and she lets out a screech of surprise. Then she gags, making a choking sound, and pinches at her nose before she lunges backward and disappears beneath the water.


“Guess what I found in the mailbox today?” says Sheila. Her hair is different than it was this morning when Layton left for Insure-U. Her nails are newly painted, too, with tiny rhinestones lined along the tips. When they first met, she had brown hair bleached through in thick chunks of white so that she looked like she could be in a band. They both spent a lot nights at River City, a club down on College Avenue that had nasty green turf for carpeting and was frequented by sorority and fraternity kids and a shocking number of drug dealers. Sheila partied back then, but she wouldn’t do the things Layton demanded of his other girlfriends, like giving hand-jobs to his coked-up friends or ferrying bags of weed around in the glove compartment of her car. She told him straight out that she wasn’t some whore. Strangely, it was her defiance that attracted him to her and they had been together ever since, even though he’d run around on her plenty. If Sheila knew, she didn’t let on.

“Just tell me,” says Layton. “I hate guessing.”

“A letter from Animal Control.” Sheila picks the envelope off the counter and waves it in front of his nose. He grabs her wrist and takes it from her hand. She has put on weight the last couple of years, but her wrists are still thin and boney.


“Why? Why do you think? It’s about Bobbie, of course.”

It has been two weeks since Bobbie’s visit to the neighbor’s pool and the old man and woman have said nothing. He figured they’d decided complaining wasn’t worth the energy. Layton reads the letter, then crumples it and throws it into the corner of the room. The carpet is spotted over with paper towels, a pile of guinea pig turds hidden beneath each one. Layton won’t pay for a lawn service, but he is fine with housekeepers. It’s expensive, though, and he’s committed to getting the most for his money, so no one in the family is to so much as pick up a pair of dirty underwear before each week’s cleaning. The guinea pig belongs to his daughter, their only girl, and it is allowed to run free through the house, which also means it is allowed to shit wherever it wants. It was Layton’s idea to simply cover the crap piles with paper towels, leaving them for the housekeepers to deal with later.

“You better take it serious, Layton,” says Sheila. She looks at her cell phone and frowns. “We’ll get fined. I’ve got enough problems with Elijah.”


“So?” Her fingers flick over the phone screen. Sheila is never without her phone. “He’s our son and he’s turning into a little monster. Don’t you listen?”

“I mean about getting fined. I’ve got the money, so what’s the problem?”

Sheila puts her phone on the counter, covering it with her hand.

“Do I really have to explain this to you?” she says. “We don’t live out in the country, Layton. We signed a contract when we moved in. There are rules here.” She rolls her eyes and releases a loud breath of exasperation. “I don’t like that damn cat anyway. You’ve been pushing your luck all along. I’d love to see you get rid of it.”

“What do you care about the cat? You never even go out there with it.”

“Exactly. And you know why I don’t like it?” She picks up her phone again. “It’s where it came from, what all was going on then. I don’t like the memory.”

“Not that shit again,” says Layton. He throws his hands in front of him, then points a finger at her, holding it just inches from her nose. “Just shut your face, Sheila.” He gives her the hardest look he can, one he hopes shows that he isn’t scared of her. He isn’t scared of anyone. At the church Sheila makes them go to, the preacher likes to yap about how a husband should respect his wife, how he should treat her like a gift from God. The preacher says you shouldn’t cuss your wife, but Layton can’t take the man seriously, not with his gelled hair and the pitiful soul patch beneath his bottom lip. Layton is who he is and that is a man not so different from the one he had been seven years ago. He is fatter now, sure, and he wears khakis everyday, but he is still the guy who stole Bobbie and those big, dumb dogs. He is still the guy who beat the fuck out of Gary, who got his revenge. He can still do whatever he wants.



Layton wakes up at 3 in the morning, his mind too alive with thoughts of his old business partner to go back to sleep. Where was Gary now? Layton doesn’t think about him often, but he used to all the time. They’d had a good thing going—Layton running the office, Gary doing the adjustments and handling the drugs—right up until the day Layton was nearly killed. It happened outside an apartment complex, a block from the university, where he’d gone to meet some college kids who wanted to buy a little Ecstasy. There was a woman he’d been seeing on the side and he’d intended to meet up with her when he was done. It should’ve been a simple drop, but something went wrong. His car door was yanked open and he felt hands pulling him out before he fell to the asphalt. Men had him—he didn’t know how many—and they were hitting him, but why? And with what? Their fists? Could fists be that hard? He covered his head with his arms, looking up just once to catch a glimpse of what was coming down on him. Baseball bats. He didn’t remember what happened between the final slam to the back of his skull and waking up days later in a hospital bed. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw his father’s fat head above him, his lips murmuring in prayer.

It was months before he was back on his feet and, in the meantime, Gary was in charge at Insure-U. Layton was bad off, his mind foggy from painkillers, but even in that state he could see how much Gary enjoyed running the business on his own. That was the first clue that he was behind the attack. It was all about power, about envy. He was jealous of Layton, but it made sense. It was Layton who had the rich father, who’d managed to finish college, graduating with a degree in business despite being stoned nearly every day for his last three semesters. A part of him, though, had wanted to give Gary a chance to come clean, to repent.

“Tell me who you think did this to me,” he asked Gary. Layton was home from the hospital then, but he could barely walk on his own and it was painful to sit up straight and talk. Three of his ribs were cracked all the way through and the doctor said he’d been fortunate to not have a punctured lung. Gary didn’t even flinch at the question.

“You don’t know?”

“No, I don’t know. Tell me.”

“Your girlfriend’s husband, of course.”

Layton’s anger boiled up in him, settling in his throat. “Her husband? He’s not even around. They’re separated.”

“And that means exactly shit,” said Gary. “You were plowing another man’s field and you got found out. Think about what you’d do if you found out Sheila was fucking somebody else.”

“So you think it was cool for somebody to do this to me?”

“No, not cool at all,” said Gary. He sat with his legs crossed and unwrapped a piece of hard caramel someone had put beside Layton’s bed and popped it in his mouth. “Just logical. I think the bastard should’ve taken it out on his woman, not you, but that’s not how it went. Obviously.”

That was when Layton made up his mind. Gary was too quick to blame someone else. Retaliation was non-negotiable. The trap at the old battlefield, the beating, it was completely justifiable.

But why was it bothering him after all this time? Gary was a moron to fuck with him, yet, with each passing year—Layton will turn 40 in November—he feels a stinging wave of sadness about it, a feeling that pinches inside his stomach. Worse still is a haunting, new doubt he can’t seem to shake. If Gary really was the one who hurt him, then it meant Layton’s instincts about him had been wrong from the start, and if a man can’t rely on his instincts, what chance does he have to protect himself? When he met Gary, he had instantly trusted him in a way he had no one else and he’d often confided in him as he might have a brother. At Insure-U, Gary had few qualms about dealing with the Dallas assholes, meeting up with them in middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma and Arkansas and Texas to make trades of drugs and money. He never got hassled by the state patrols and, even if he had, he’d have known what to do. Gary even liked the legitimate part of Insure-U and he was good at checking out wrecks and assessing claims. He knew a lot about cars—he’d worked on them with his dad out at the same house where he later lived with the girl with the bleached out hair, with his dogs and birds and snakes and the bobcat. Layton likes to imagine that Gary and the animals are still there and the thought brings him comfort, which bothers him even more.

Layton cannot fall back to sleep, so he goes downstairs, where he plops himself onto the big couch. It’s like a giant, brown marshmallow and he sinks deep into its cushions. He can hear the cicadas outside, their electric hum rising and falling. The ground is pock-marked with holes where they have crawled out of their seven and fourteen year beds and taken their place up and down the bark of the trees, red-eyed aliens splitting from their husks. They are so loud this year that some people wear earplugs to keep from getting headaches. It sounds to Layton like the cicadas are right there in the room and he looks to the sliding glass door, which is open. He shut it and locked it himself before going to bed, but someone has come in or gone out since then. Sheila thinks Elijah has been sneaking out at night, then coming back and making a mess. She finds trash in the kitchen some mornings, wrappers from Ho-Ho’s and Ding-Dongs and Pop-Tarts scattered along the counters and floor. But when she finally confronted Elijah about it, he merely raised a single eyebrow and looked down at the muffin top spilling over her jeans, his thoughts too obvious to hide, that maybe she had eaten all the snacks herself? “He’s completely disrespectful, Layton,” she’d said. “He used to be the sweetest kid, but now he just acts like he hates everybody. It’s like he doesn’t even recognize authority anymore. It kind of freaks me out.”

Layton shrugged away any concern. He had long regarded Elijah as an unremarkable child, one easy to ignore. He doesn’t remember much from the time when Elijah was born, except that his birth changed Sheila. She’d been so adoring of Layton during the pregnancy—pathetically so, he’d thought—even as he preoccupied himself with Insure-U and barely acknowledged their coming child. His father had bought the franchise for him and he felt weighing on him the pressure of the man’s expectations. He suspected he was a disappointment to his father, and this became his excuse for creating the illegal side of the business. It guaranteed a positive in-flow of cash, but it was also an act of quiet rebellion, a secret he held back, like a weapon. Another child would follow Elijah two years later, then another and another, but Layton has little connection with them, either. For Elijah’s part, he has never seemed to care. Once, when he was probably no older than eight, Layton watched him skid out on his bike, his face plowing into the pink gravel road in front of their old house. He rushed to the boy, who sat stunned in the middle of the road before he wiped his hand across his lips, smearing blood over his cheeks. Layton tried to take him into his arms, but Elijah’s body went stiff at his touch and Layton let him go. Sheila came from the house then, running to Elijah, who willingly let her clean his face with a dampened wash cloth. Between them was a tenderness Layton had never noticed before and he had been struck by the unfamiliar feelings of love and jealousy.

Layton starts to turn on the patio light, but stops himself. If it is Elijah out here, he wants to surprise him, to catch him in the act, whatever that might be. He hesitates, but decides to leave behind the baseball bat he keeps by the front door. There is no one on the patio and so he steps into the yard, but the dark makes him feel off-balance and he walks with his hands out to his sides. He tries to listen for a hint of someone there, but it is hard to hear anything over the cicadas. A ripple of fear hisses up his spine and he thinks he senses the presence of someone near. His body begins to ache, a phantom reaction he’s had dozens of times since the beating. “Hey, who’s there?” he says.

He hears a cough and then the sound of laughter, too high-pitched to be Elijah’s. Until now, it has not occurred to him that Elijah might be running around with a girl. That’s all he needs. God, but he doesn’t want to take care of some teenager’s baby. “Is that you, Eli?” he says into the dark. “You better get your skinny ass in the house.”

Layton stands still, waiting for his son to rush out of the darkness and into the dim light, but nothing happens. He calms himself and swallows, shakes his head, disgusted with his own fear. Elijah is just a teenager—his own teenager, at that. The cicadas hum louder and Layton turns and goes back to the door. He slides it closed behind him and sits down again on the couch. He reaches over to the lamp and pulls the chain and the room goes dark. The couch reclines and he decides to just sleep there since he doesn’t feel like going to his room where Sheila will wake up and ask him a million questions about what he’s been doing. The conversation will drag on all night. He crosses his arms over his chest and takes a deep breath and feels himself getting groggy, his body relaxing into the marshmallow. The cicadas fade away and he dreams that he hears footsteps coming nearer, nearer, then of a man standing over him, talking.

“Hey, Dad,” says the voice. Layton opens his eyes. He smells beef jerky and beer, maybe peanut butter. Elijah’s face is above him, but upside down as the boy looks at him from behind the recliner. With his hair hanging down around his face, he looks like a wolf. “What are you doing down here?” Then Elijah presses down on the back of the recliner, rocking it up and down as if he means to catapult Layton into the air before he releases it and goes up the stairs to his room.


“It was Elijah,” Layton tells Sheila the next morning. He has on his khakis and his blue oxford button-down. It is what he wears every day to the office, some combination of the pants and a different colored oxford. A couple of years ago, he had the Insure-U emblem embroidered on the chest pockets of his shirts and got matching ones for all his agents and secretaries to wear, too. After awhile, though, it made him feel stupid, like he was working at a grocery store or Walmart and he made everyone stop. Gary would’ve hated the matching clothes and he thought about that as he collected up the shirts and threw them in the trash.

“It was Elijah what?”

“Who’s been sneaking down here. He’s the one who probably let Bobbie out, too. I heard him. He was with a girl.”

“Did she have red hair?”

“I don’t know,” says Layton. “I couldn’t see anything in the dark. I just heard somebody laughing.”

“Well, you told him that he’s done with it right? That he’s grounded for the rest of the summer?”

Layton turns his back to her and digs down in a kitchen drawer to find his keys. “No,” he says. “He went to bed. I fell sleep.”

“Goddamn it, Layton.” Sheila punches him between his shoulder blades. “Could you help me with a little discipline here?”

“He knows I know, so he’ll lay off now,” says Layton. “And don’t hit me, Sheila. You know I don’t like that.”

Sheila puts her fists on her hip bones and stares at him. He hates it when she does this, acting as if she has the right to threaten him. She needs to be grateful for what she has, for the big house, the pool, the money, the cars. “By the way,” she says. Her voice is spiteful. “I saw Animal Control cruising by first thing this morning. You better make sure your cat’s where it’s supposed to be.”

“She is. And the lock’s got a combination on it, so they’ll have to break in to get her.”


“God what?”

“You act like it’s something valuable, like it’s something that matters to you,” says Sheila. “I don’t get it.”

“She is valuable,” says Layton. “She’s mine. I took her and she’s mine. Animal Control can fuck off.”

“You took her so she’s yours so she’s valuable. That makes no sense, Layton. And what’s with this ‘she’ business? Bobbie’s an ‘it.” Animals are ‘its,’ Layton.”

He doesn’t bother to answer. Who does Sheila think she is? An English teacher? This is life with her now, going round and round about everything. For years, she’d been complacent, rarely questioning him. But something changed during her pregnancy with their fourth and last child, when she told him she didn’t feel right living a life paid for by illegal activities. She said she’d had a spiritual awakening, complete with a new vision for her family. She’d started taking the kids to church, to a non-denominational congregation in Bella Vista, and she’d recommitted her life to Christ. By then, Layton’s father had figured out the truth behind Insure-U’s swollen profits and he’d expressed his disapproval through the worst way possible: his silence. For a hard-core Presbyterian, he had an odd take on God and retribution. He did not believe that God punished those who went astray or withheld blessings, but merely removed himself from the presence of the guilty, leaving them to survive in the isolation of their own poor judgement. As a parent, his response to bad behavior was the same. Between the pressures of his wife and father, there seemed to Layton little point in resisting reform. He was tired and, without Gary, there was no one to do the dirtiest work. The guy who’d helped with Gary’s beating had turned out to be an idiot who quickly lost interest in the practicalities of the business. He’d been a failed car salesman before that, which should’ve been a clue that he would suck at insurance and dealing. Layton was alone at Insure-U and he had nothing to lose by getting his shit together. And, like his father’s business, the insurance firm turned out to be a success once he let himself focus on it. Insure-U was all about high-risk clients and the world churned up a mountain of them every day, their premiums far exceeding what the company paid out in settlements. Layton didn’t even have to tell his suppliers he was quitting the drug scene; they simply fell away from inattention. Until then, he had never known how powerful neglect could be.

“Listen,” he says. “I’ll go to the county office and talk to Animal Control, okay? I’ll see about getting the license for her, then everybody will be happy.”

“Happy?” says Sheila. “Whatever.”

“Whatever,” says Layton, mocking her.


“Fuck that shit,” says Layton as he walks out of the county office building. Getting the license requires that he prove the cat is up to date on her shots and that a county inspector be brought out to certify the cage she stays in is both large enough to be considered humane and secure enough to ensure she can never escape. There is no way Layton will let an inspector on his property, some government asshole on a power trip who could nose his way into anything he wanted, dinging Layton for any number of violations. Problem is, now that Layton has tipped his hand that he has a non-domesticated animal in his possession, the county says he has only three weeks to comply. “What if I don’t want to?” he asked the desk clerk.

“Don’t want to what?” she said.

“Comply,” said Layton. “What if I don’t want to do it?”

“The animal will be taken away and destroyed.”


“Put down.”

“Like, killed?” said Layton. The clerk gave him a blank look, blinking her eyes in a way that reminded him of Bobbie.

“Like killed. That’s exactly what that means,” she said, using a tone he felt certain she reserved for the elderly and morons. But he wasn’t a moron. He was just trying to get things straight before he got pushed into anything he didn’t want to do.

“Are we done?” said the clerk. It wasn’t really a question, but a dismissal. Before he could even step aside, she had clicked the remote to the digital sign above her head and called out the next number. She was rude and he wanted to tell her he was a tax paying citizen, that he drove a Cadillac Escalade. It cost $75,000 and he had so much insurance on it, he could crash it straight into the building and never pay a dime. Instead, he cursed her under his breath and walked away.

But he did learn something useful at the county office, that there were no past records on Bobbie after all. Gary never had a license to keep her, though Layton is sure that he remembers him saying she’d had shots for rabies and distemper. Gary might have done those himself, just gotten the vaccinations from a vet that came out to the farms around him to check cattle and horses. His place was so far out in the country, he could’ve kept the cat a secret and no one would’ve known. He’d let Bobbie roam freely, coming in and going out of the house through a flap installed in the back door. Even now, Layton thinks it was one of the coolest things he’d ever seen, Bobbie climbing down out of a tree with a squirrel or an entire bird’s nest in her mouth, then lumbering across the yard and into the house to flop down in front of the television and sleep. She ignored her prey, which was left to linger in pain until Gary took it outside and finished it off.

The morning he’d smuggled off the cat from Gary’s, Layton was high from snorting two long lines of cocaine and, as a result, his memory was fuzzy. But he could still picture the image of the guy who’d come along to help—the prospective new partner—and how Bobbie had quickly slashed him across the lips, how the blood dripped down his mouth so he looked like a strung-out vampire. Later, they’d used a crowbar and a tire iron to beat Gary, chopping down on him like they were splitting wood, the blood seeping from his wounds so fast that, at first, Layton thought it was only piss darkening Gary’s jeans. But then he saw the broken leg bone, jagged and poking through the skin, Gary’s body cracking apart from the inside out. He got down closer and smelled the rank scent of shit. Gary had lost control of his bowels and Layton collapsed onto his knees, turned his head to the side and choked. He was overcome by the savage intimacy of it—the unmaking of another man’s body—and a sting of acid from his own stomach surged into his throat. Until then, he had been euphoric, pumped full of adrenaline. Seeing what he’d done to Gary, though, he felt dizzy and sick and his own body began to shake and all he could think to do was get in his car with the other man and drive away.


“The neighbors won’t speak to me,” says Sheila. “Thanks a lot, Layton.”

She has ordered pizza for supper and she divides it onto paper plates for the kids. They are all there, pushing and poking each other in their seats. Even Elijah is at the table. He rarely joins the family for meals, though Layton doesn’t know what he does instead. The house is so large, it is easy to lose a child in the maze of rooms, but in the last few days, Eliljah has been more present than he has been in months. In fact, since having his keys taken away (by Sheila, of course, who also put a lock on the steering wheel of his car), he has made himself impossible to miss, camping out in the living room in front of the big screen television and refusing to let anyone else have the remote. It doesn’t matter. They have four other TVs around the house and the other children merely drift off to various rooms by themselves. Elijah is there on the marshmallow couch in the morning when Layton walks through the living room to the kitchen to get his coffee and the kid is still there when he arrives home at the end of the day. Does he get up for anything? To eat? To go to the bathroom? Sheila says he does, but when Layton is around, Elijah never leaves the marshmallow, never turns his head to acknowledge a visitor to the room, never speaks to anyone. The other children do not bother to come in the living room anymore. His mere presence has become a threat.

“You know what?” says Layton. “I don’t want to listen to this tonight. Drop it, Sheila.”

“Did you go to Animal Control?”

“Yes, I did go to Animal Control. Last week. Again, drop it.”


Layton’s mouth is full of pizza. Only one of the children likes pineapple, so Sheila orders one side of Layton’s pizza with it. His side is meat lover’s, but a pineapple tidbit has made its way over onto the pepperoni and sausage and hamburger. It squishes between his molars and he grimaces and spits it out.

“And there’s all this shit I have to do to keep the fucking cat,” he says. He isn’t supposed to use bad language in front of the kids. Sheila worries they will repeat it at school or at church.

“Are you gonna do it? Because it won’t make things better. I can tell.” Sheila doesn’t even bother to correct his language. “These people here think we’re a bunch of hillbillies, Layton. They don’t even care about the money.”

“Right,” he says, flatly. If he refuses to show emotion, maybe she’ll shut up?

“We aren’t hillbillies, are we?” asks their daughter. Layton looks at her from across the table. She is a pretty child with blue eyes and delicate, pale skin, ginger freckles scattered over her nose. She looks wholesome enough to be on the Disney Channel. For some reason, though, she has grown sensitive to words like “hillbilly” and “redneck.” It started after they’d taken the kids to Silver Dollar City earlier in the summer. She’d watched with intent the basketmakers and blacksmiths in their old-timey clothes, the women in bonnets, the men with long, white beards. Later, the family ate at a giant buffet restaurant, the streets of Branson glittering like a small-time Vegas outside the window of their booth. An excessively fat family pushed their way to the front of the buffet line and filled their plates until they were heaped up in pyramids of food covered in salad dressing and gravy. Behind them a man pretended to whisper. “Those are the real fuckin’ hillbillies,” he said, looking around to make sure someone was listening. “Inbred hogs.”

“No, baby, we’re not hillbillies,” says Sheila. “We’re just from Arkansas. We’re just normal.”

Layton snorts. He doesn’t mean to do it, but it is such a dishonest thing for Sheila to say. The last thing they’d ever be is normal. He starts to laugh, the swig of Coke he just swallowed working its way up into his nose and out onto his plate. The kids look at him and then at Sheila. They start to laugh, too. Sheila glares at him and takes a bite of pizza. Only she and Elijah do not find the whole thing hilarious. God, but the boy is becoming as humorless as his mother.

“I think you should release Bobbie back into the wild,” Elijah says. The other kids’ laughter has simmered down to random giggles and none of them are listening to their oldest brother. Sheila and Layton look at each other. They have not heard Elijah speak in days and this feels like a miracle.

“I agree,” says Sheila. She sits up straighter in her chair, somehow empowered by Elijah’s words.

“She shouldn’t be caged up like she is,” he says. “It isn’t cool to do that to animals that are meant to be out in nature. It’s just dickheads who try to turn them into pets.”

“Elijah said the D word,” says the girl. “That means ‘penis’.”

“Let me tell you something about this animal,” says Layton. He points his fork first at Sheila, then at Elijah. “This cat hasn’t lived out in nature since she was a kitten and she won’t know jack shit about how to get along without someone serving up a can of 9 Lives for her every day.” Layton is lifting the whole rule about cursing. It is his goddamn house and he can say what he goddamn wants.

“She doesn’t eat 9 Lives,” says Elijah. “She eats hamburger. Raw. Like a regular, wild animal.”

“Wild animals eat other wild animals, not hamburger. And that’s not the point,” says Layton. He isn’t going to be told what to do by a pimple-faced teenager. “Trust me on this. She’ll find her way straight to somebody else’s back door and they won’t be like ‘oh, sweet kitty cat.’ They’ll be like, ‘oh, shit, where’s my gun?’”

“Not if you take her back where she came from. If she knew the territory, she’d stay where she belongs. Where’d you get her anyway?”

“From a friend.” Layton won’t look at Sheila. She is glaring at him again.

“Then take her back to the friend.”

“He’s gone.”

“To where?”

“Nobody knows,” says Layton. “Into the fucking ether. But here’s how it is: she’s not going anywhere. I’ll fix the cage. I’ll deal with the inspector.”

“But not the neighbors,” says Sheila. “Because that’s my job, right? Because you really don’t give a shit if people look the other way when they see us coming. If everybody’s scared to death of us. If they treat us like a bunch of outlaws.”

The kids all get up and leave upon hearing their mother curse, except for Elijah, who clenches his fists, flexing his fingers out and in, his nostrils flaring. Who does he look like? Elijah had been the spitting image of Layton when he was first born, but he’d changed soon after, morphing between a resemblance to Sheila and then, finally, to Layton’s father. If the kid would cut his hair and trim the silly little excuse for a mustache above his lip, he’d be handsome. Instead, his hair grows wild, full with curls that twist into knots when he neglects to use a comb. For some reason, it makes Layton think of John the Baptist, running around in the wilderness, twigs and shit in his hair, probably smelling like a beast.

“You take her back.” Elijah pushes his chair away from the table and stands. “Or I will. But one way or another, Bobbie’s going home.”

The boy’s hands are planted flat on the table, as though he is preparing to lunge across it. Skinny as he is, he shouldn’t be a threat to anyone, yet Layton pulls back, braces himself. Elijah’s face is broken out in whiteheads around his mouth and chin and, though he shaves it, the hair along his jaw is sparse. He hasn’t really looked at Elijah in months, but he can see it, that the boy’s face has slimmed, his brow widened. His arms have grown wiry with new muscle that flexes at his wrists and forearms. Elijah’s eyes twitch from staring so hard. This is a test, Layton decides, one that will determine who is in charge.

Layton stands up and crosses his arms over his chest. “I don’t think you’re in any position to be telling me what to do.” He is putting an end to this right now. “And I’ll be damned if I’m going to be bullied into doing anything by my own goddamn son. Bobbie is staying right here. This is my fucking castle, Elijah. This is my fucking kingdom.”


The idea is to take Bobbie back to Gary’s house and leave her, though Gary himself is no longer there. After the beating and while Gary was in the hospital, Layton was questioned by the police about what might have happened to his business partner. Had there been a conflict between them? Did Gary have any enemies? Had there been trouble, perhaps, with a customer angry over an adjustment? When Layton asked who had rescued Gary, they said a park ranger at the battlefield found him on her way home. He managed to push most of the suspicion onto the blonde girl who had worked for him and lived with Gary then. He could never remember her name, but she’d witnessed the beating before she ran off, literally, into the woods. It was her own mother who’d helped Layton trap Gary. He’d given the silly woman one of Sheila’s extra dogs and, after that, she’d started hanging around the office, wearing low-cut blouses and bending over every chance she got to show off her sagging tits. She’d tanned too much and her chest skin was like brown crepe paper and Layton found her simultaneously sexy and repulsive. Still, her obvious need for his attention had made it easy to convince her to lure Gary up near Pea Ridge Battlefield, onto one of the country roads, by calling him to say her car was dead. He was there within the hour and, once he’d crawled under the car (Gary never hesitated to crawl under a car—Layton had watched him do it dozens of times to see what he could fix), Layton and the other man came out from the bushes, their weapons already raised above their heads. It had worked just the way he’d planned and Layton was pleased he knew Gary so well, that there was no way he could resist the chance to be a hero. What he’d failed to plan for was the aftermath.

But soon enough, the police dropped the case and he was glad because, if he were completely honest about it, being questioned scared the shit out of him. Why hadn’t he considered that he would be the most obvious suspect? That someone would find Gary, that he wouldn’t just disappear? His father had taken care of most of Layton’s fuck ups over the years, but this was a new level of fuck up, of the variety even the most powerful father might not be able to undo. The realization of how near he’d come to being caught—to being punished—settled on him like a dark epiphany. It gnawed at his mind and, months later, he knew he needed to make peace with Gary. He drove out to his place past Gravette and knocked on the door, but no one was there. Of course, the big dogs were gone—Layton had taken them himself and dumped them over the Oklahoma border a couple of weeks before he stole Bobbie—but when he pressed his face up against the living room window, he saw that all the terrariums and aquariums, once filled with snakes and fish and lizards, were gone, too. He went to the back of the house where Gary kept his birds. Even the big cockatiel was missing, and the house was devoid of any life at all, animal or human. He got back in his car and went home. Fayetteville was a small place and after asking around, he learned that though Gary had survived, he was not well enough to live on his own. When he left the hospital, he moved in with a cousin in Malvern while he went through his physical therapy. Layton figured Gary would come back to his own home someday and then there’d be a reckoning to be had, but wherever Gary had gone or whatever he’d decided to do next, it hadn’t included facing down Layton Vines.


“She doesn’t want to go in the crate,” says Elijah. He has the cat wrapped in a towel like a burrito, but two paws have already escaped the binding. She catches the sides of the crate opening and pushes against it. “She’s crazy strong.”

“I wish I’d got some tranquilizers,” says Layton. Any second now, Elijah is going to get clawed across the face, then he’ll see how stupid this whole thing is, how unnecessary.

“Then she’d just be disoriented.” Elijah squeezes his arms tighter around the cat. “You could’ve fed her some weed, I guess.” Layton sees that Elijah’s eyes are squinting at him. Did Elijah hate him? Could a son hate his father? As much as he’d rebelled against his own, he never hated him. He loved his father and, by every indication, his father loved him, too. All that was in between was a mystery, one that Layton has not worked hard enough to understand.

“I don’t have any weed.” He tries to stand taller, the way his father used to do when he’d had enough of Layton’s smart mouth. Sheila says he needs to assert more authority over their kids, especially Elijah, that it is a father’s duty to discipline his children and raise them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Layton doesn’t want to be that kind of father, maybe because he really doesn’t care. He has consented to fatherhood, but not to enjoying it. Instead, he tolerates it, which seemed a compromise both he and Sheila, until recently, could equally accept.

“Fucker,” Elijah says. Was he calling Layton a fucker? He decides the boy is talking to the cat. “Maybe we could just leave her loose in the backseat?”

“Give her to me.” Layton takes the cat, pushes her arms down as he squeezes her close to his chest. Elijah stands beside him and he realizes that the boy is tall, but will probably never be as big as him. When Layton was a skinny teenager himself, he was still broader across the chest and shoulders than Elijah is now. The cat calms against him. Her back feet are enveloped by the towel and Layton slides her into the crate, back legs first, then snaps the door shut. Once in, the cat flips so violently that the crate tips over sideways and she lets out a strange, high-pitched sound. Elijah moves to straighten the crate in the back seat, but it flips again.

“Stop,” says Layton. “She’s pissed enough as it is. She doesn’t want you to make it better.” He pats the top of the crate before he closes the door. “Just leave her alone.”


On the drive to Gravette, Elijah sits hunch-shouldered in the passenger seat, gnawing on a foot-long stick of beef jerky.

“Where’d you get that?” They are passing by Fayetteville, the traffic already heavier from the students returning to the university.

“Mom gave it to me,” says Elijah. “I was hungry.”

“Why don’t you just wave it under Bobbie’s nose, huh? Rile her up a little more?”

Elijah looks at the cat behind him and takes another bite off the stick before he pokes the rest into her crate.

“You didn’t just give that to her, did you?”

“You made me feel bad about it. I couldn’t just throw it out the window. That’s littering.” Layton hadn’t meant for him to throw it away, but the idea of a cord of beef jerky flying from the Escalade and thumping into the windshield of an unsuspecting drives strikes him as funny and his shoulders shake with the beginnings of laughter. Elijah curls his lips up in a snarl.

“What?” says Layton. “It’s funny.”

“I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

“Well, don’t look like that, okay?”

“Like what?”

Layton turns to him and makes the face, pulling his top lip up and panting.

“I don’t look like that.”

Layton glances down at the speedometer. He is going too fast, a good twenty miles over the limit, and he taps at the brake. The smell of urine makes it’s way to the front seat. He hopes it doesn’t slosh out of the crate onto the white leather seats.

“How far is this place?”

“A ways,” says Layton. “What? You don’t like the drive?”

Elijah does not answer.

“Did you have plans or something?” Layton decides he won’t let Elijah give him the silent treatment. If the kid is pissed about giving up his day to return the cat, he’ll have to get over it. He’ll have to learn there are consequences to his actions. “You have a girlfriend, right? Some redhead?”

“She dyes it.” He looks out the passenger window.

“She must be wild then.”

“Don’t make fun of her.”

“I’m trying to figure out what she’s like,” says Layton. “Are you in love?”

Elijah leans his head against the back of the seat and closes his eyes. He crosses his arms over his stomach and takes a long, deep breath.

“I remember love,” says Layton. “You gotta be careful with that. Not do something stupid.”

The boy turns his head to look at his father. He lets out a puff of air from his nose and rolls his eyes. “You remember love?” he says. “I bet.”


The road has changed over the seven years since Layton was last at Gary’s. The gravel is paved over and there is a new sign post with the name of the road, Leonard Ranch Road. He’d never known its name before. What had previously been a fallen down fence of rusted barbed wire and split rail posts has been replaced by a glossy, black metal one that stretches on for a half mile before it finally ends. A large realtor sign stands on the outside of the fence. Everything out here is for sale now.

Everything, that is, but Gary’s place. It has simply been abandoned. The mailbox is still there, the name “G. Moore” barely visible beneath a layer of dust. There is no real driveway left and Layton worries about pulling in and accidentally dropping into a ditch. He thinks he knows where the drive is, though, and he is relieved to discover he is right, the high wheels of the Escalade crushing through the tall weeds. The path leads into a field and ends at the bottom of a low hill. The house is still there and it doesn’t look as bad as Layton figured it might.

“Be careful when you get out. I bet it’s real snakey around here.”

“I don’t mind snakes,” says Elijah.

“You’d mind if you got bit by a copperhead,” says Layton. “I knew a guy growing up who got bit out on some Boy Scouts campout.”

“Did he die?”

“No.” It would’ve made a better story if the kid had died. “But he got plenty sick. They couldn’t get him out before the swelling started, so one of them had to hike back by himself to get help. The rest stayed with the guy who got bit and they said they thought his skin would burst open, his leg swelled up so big.”

Elijah looks at him. He probably thinks he is lying, but he isn’t. He knew lots of snake stories and they were all true. In Ft. Smith, where he grew up, the Arkansas River would flood every few springs and, when it did, the streets filled up with enough water that his father would take out the canoe and he and Layton would tour the neighborhoods in it. He remembered seeing a family of snakes, an adult and a dozen babies, like fat worms, gliding over the surface of the brown water. They came right up next to the side of the canoe and Layton had panicked, but his father didn’t. His father pulled the paddle from the water and rested it on his knees, allowing the snake family to go by undisturbed. Layton had been told at school that reptiles didn’t stay with their young, but his father said that wasn’t true. “Not all the time,” he said, digging his paddle into the water again. “One time, I saw a nest of babies curled up in the tail of a big black snake, thick as my arm. I guess it might’ve been waiting to eat them, but it didn’t look like it to me. We don’t know everything about creation.”

Layton wishes he’d worn his cowboy boots if he is going to be in weeds like this. The weeds are surely covered in chiggers and ticks. He’ll be eaten up by them and Elijah will be, too. The kid is wearing thin, nylon shorts and Nike flip-flops, nothing to protect him. Elijah waves his hands over the tips of the grass as if wading into the ocean. As he walks, a spouting of grasshoppers flies up around him, one landing in his mess of hair, but he doesn’t move to brush it out.

“Who lived here?”

“A guy I knew,” says Layton. “A friend.” Elijah peers through the front window. He walks around the side of the house, out of view.

Layton opens the back door of the Escalade and finds the leather gloves he brought along and puts them on. He starts to pull at the crate, but he smells the piss again and remembers that he doesn’t want it spilling out if the whole thing tips over. When Bobbie is mad, she can make crazy things happen. It’s as if her anger gives her super powers.

“Eli,” he says. “Come help me with this.” Layton bends down to see the cat behind the wire door. Bobbie is panting, her tongue hanging out of her mouth. She’s thirsty, but she’ll find something to drink once they let her out. He remembers that Gary had a big pond in the acres behind the house. The water will be filthy, but she’ll be all right.

A wind picks up and blows across the lawn, the weeds twisting and waving in all directions. Layton puts his arms down by his sides and feels a prickle that he is afraid is a spider biting on his wrist, but when he goes to brush it off, he sees it is only beggar’s lice. The little burrs are stuck on his jeans and he starts plucking them off, but there are too many.

“Elijah,” he calls again. “Come on.” He doesn’t want to stay here a long time. He doesn’t even want to get close to the house, which he knows is childish of him. He hadn’t expected to be scared, but here it is, a flashback of multi-colored fireworks coming into his thoughts again. Gary is gone, the blonde girl is gone. There is nothing to fear, yet the fear has come back to him and he feels his heart beating in his chest, a new pain stretching along his shoulders and into his arms.

Where is Elijah? He steps away from the Escalade and walks down by the side of the house. The picnic table is still there, as is the clothesline, which hangs rusted and loose between the steel posts. A handful of wooden clothes pins, blackened with must, are still clipped to the lines. He imagines for a second that he is at a crime scene. There was a family in Bentonville who disappeared last year and the nightly news had shown the police combing through their house and lawn and their cars still parked inside the garage, the keys nowhere to be found. The family’s two collies were discovered dead under the backyard play set, a puddle of antifreeze left in the bottom of their water bowl. He hadn’t heard anything more about the family in months and he supposed it was one more case the police had given up on.

“Fuck it,” says Layton. Elijah is messing things up by playing a game. He’d been the one to insist that the cat go back where it came from, but now he doesn’t want to help. Layton walks on top of the crushed weeds to the road and looks again at the giant real estate sign on the other side. Why hadn’t Gary sold this place? He owned the house, he owned the land, but if he wasn’t coming back, wouldn’t he want the money from it? What’s the point of hanging on? Like the missing family, what remains of Gary’s life here doesn’t make any sense and Layton gets the shadowy feeling that it is a mistake to have come back. He could’ve taken Bobbie just as easily down into the Boston Mountains, on the old 71 that no one but tourists drive now, risking their lives on the twisting road just to see the fall colors. Elijah wouldn’t have known the difference. Or he could’ve put an end to the cat altogether. She was pickier than a dog—and smarter—but she might’ve lapped up a bowl of antifreeze, been fooled by its sweetness. No one would care, no one would know. The truth is what you want it to be, Layton has decided, whether it is Sheila wanting to pretend at being normal, at being sanctified, or whether it is Layton pretending to be good, there is no true right or wrong, no action that cannot be ignored or forgotten. The lines and the rules are simply things people create to make them feel life is more manageable, less unpredictable than it really is.

Layton goes back to the truck and watches Bobbie. She pushes her nose between the wire squares. Cat piss has, in fact, spilled onto the seats, but there is nothing to do about it. He unclips the latch and opens it quickly, scooting back several feet to keep clear of Bobbie when she lunges out. But she doesn’t lunge at all, only sticks her head out and sniffs, pulls her lips into a full grimace. She is tentative in her movements, putting one front paw out, then the other and stands at the edge of the seat.

“Go on.” Layton takes another step back, hoping she will accept it as an invitation to move. “You used to live here. Get out and go explore.”

The cat raises her head and twitches her ears. She seems to have heard something and Layton holds his breath. She probably just hears Elijah tromping around behind the house or wherever it is he has gone. He turns to look behind him and, when he does, the cat leaps into the grass. She hunches down in the weeds, confused by the feel of so much of it beneath her paws. Layton shuts the door of the Escalade. He’ll have to find Elijah now, who is probably waiting to jump out and scare him. He’s a little shit, Elijah is, and is just trying to get attention. The night before, Sheila had told Layton this, that Elijah’s new interest in Bobbie’s freedom had nothing do with a love of animals. “The kid never even wanted a dog and he doesn’t care a thing about that cat,” she said. “But he’s got it in his head that he needs to be around you, Jesus knows why.”

“How much more am I supposed to be with him?” Layton had said. “He’s a teenager and it’s summer. He’s here all day. He’s here at night and all weekend long. What’s he want to do? Hang out at the insurance office?”

“That’s not it,” said Sheila. She waved him off, dismissing him again. Then she tilted her head to the side and gave him a coy smile, as if she were about to tell him something sweet. “He thinks you don’t love me.”

“How is that his business?” said Layton. Sheila’s eyes widened and he waited for her to speak, to come back with something hateful and mean, something meant to cut him down to size, but that he wouldn’t feel at all. Instead, she stopped smiling and her chin nearly dropped to her chest as she pushed her rhinestoned finger tips into the corners of her eyes. “What?” he asked, but Sheila didn’t answer him. This morning, she silently put the coffee on and fed the kids before she got dressed herself. Usually, she rattled off her entire to-do list, a litany of tasks that held no interest for Layton whatsoever. When he’d asked her if he had any clean pants, she answered that they were folded in the laundry room, her tone not one of standard annoyance, but of resignation. He didn’t think about it until after she was gone, how strange it was for her to behave that way, as if she didn’t even care enough to insult him.

“Hey, Dad, come back here.”

“Back here where?”

“Behind the house.” Layton goes around back, careful as he moves through the grass. The sea of grasshoppers rises and divides, just as it had for Elijah. But when he turns the corner to the rear of the house, Elijah isn’t there. The oversized shed that Gary used for drying marijuana is there and, in the far distance, beyond the open acres of pasture and brush is a hill that leads up to a new subdivision. The field is yellow from the late summer drought, but the subdivision’s lawns are an almost artificial green. From here, it is a perfect land of neat houses and sidewalks, but he knows that, up close, the shortcuts the construction company surely took—cheap brick veneer, shallow porches, vinyl siding—would leave you feeling like you’d been tricked. The Estates at Devil’s Den were not that way, though. Everything about them was real, solid, with granite countertops and teakwood floors on the front porches, even if what went on inside felt, to Layton, like a life unreal.

Layton hears the truck door shut and the engine start. He runs to the front and sees the Escalade leaving the drive, Elijah waving at him from behind the steering wheel. The boy turns the SUV around and starts toward the highway, hitting the gas pedal so hard that the wheels spin in the dirt, leaving behind a cloud of dust. Layton runs after him, the dust sucking into his mouth so that it grits between his teeth, but there is no catching the Escalade. Elijah is gone. Layton realizes he left his cell phone in the cupholder, along with his wallet. Now, he has no choice but to walk to some stranger’s house to ask for help.


He starts down the road, checking behind him to see if Bobbie is following. She isn’t. She darted away when Elijah took off in the Escalade, but Layton thinks she might come back when she realizes she’s safe. There is a house at the crest of the next hill. Maybe there will be someone there and maybe there won’t, but who knows if Elijah is even heading back home? If Sheila caught him, she would ask him about his father. She keeps her phone in a little case hooked to her belt all through the day, paranoid that someone will need her. It annoys Layton to see her so obsessed with it, though now he sees the wisdom in it. Besides his own, he has only two numbers memorized: Sheila’s cell and his parents’ land line.

The house on the hill is a two story red brick with tall, white columns along the front porch. The bushes leading up the front walkway are freshly trimmed, a precise row of flat-topped boxwood. To the side of the house is a horse pasture, and the single horse in it—Layton thought it was a Palomino—whinnies at him as he makes his way up the walk. When he rings the bell, a chorus of dogs’ barks come from inside and he steps several feet back from the door.

The woman who opens it is flustered with the dogs. “Kennel! Kennel!” she repeats, more focused on controlling the dogs tap-dancing behind her than greeting the stranger at her door. When she does turn to Layton, he sees that she is attractive, a brunette with fair skin, probably only a few years older than him. It embarrasses him to explain his predicament to the woman, but he can’t think of a decent story to replace the real one.

“I know this seems real strange,” he says, shifting his weight between his feet. “But I hoped I could use your phone?”

“Well, sure, I guess you can.” She is bothered by him, he can tell, but she is trying to act like she isn’t. “I’ll bring it out to you.”

She is more trusting than Layton would be, but not so trusting as to leave the door wide open while she goes to get her phone. He wonders if she is calling a husband or a neighbor to let them know a man is at her door. Really, who needs to borrow a phone these days when everyone has a cell? It does sound suspicious.

The door opens again and the woman holds a cordless phone in one hand and, in the other, the leash to one of the dogs, now sitting quietly at her feet. “I’ve got something on the stove, so you can just leave the phone on the patio when you’re done.” She points to the wrought iron table and chairs as she hands him the phone. “I guess you’re calling to get a ride or something?”

“I am,” he says. “I was out here looking at some property and my son ran off in my Escalade.”

“Oh,” she says. “Well, that’s odd.”

“He’s a teenager,” says Layton. He sees himself as the woman sees him—a potential criminal—and he feels his cheeks flush.

“They can about drive you crazy.” The woman gives him a sympathetic smile. “I’ve got to get back to the stove.” She closes the door, clicking the deadbolt behind her.

Layton sits on the front step and dials Sheila’s number. She never lets the phone go past two rings, but this time it rolls to three, four, five, and still she doesn’t answer. He leaves a message. She could be in the bathroom, although he knows for a fact that she keeps her phone with her even when she’s on the toilet. He counts to fifty before he dials again. No answer. He’ll give her another minute and, while he waits, he calls his own number, thinking Elijah may have the decency to pick up, at least to make sure his father isn’t hurt. But Elijah isn’t answering, either. He calls Sheila’s one more time, letting it ring enough to roll over to the voice mail again before he disconnects.

It has been years since he called his father for help. They spoke often, of course, but their relationship is different from how it was during the years when Layton freely sampled the drugs he and Gary trafficked, when he was dumbly unaware of how dependent he was on others for keeping his life straight. Gary made sure the taxes were paid, the claims filed. At home, Sheila took care of the bills, cooked the meals, kept the kids alive. His father’s job had been that of a distant shepherd, one quietly reappearing when troubles arose. Layton had been responsible only for himself. When he stopped all the drugs (except for the occasional joint) and his head cleared up, he was surprised by all that went into the day-to-day management of Insure-U, of what went into being an adult man. He hadn’t liked it, but his father’s praise and obvious relief made it tolerable.

Layton dials his parents’ number. Like the woman here at the house, they have kept their landline when others have surrendered them. They mistrust cell phones and regard them as something to be used only as a last resort. On the second ring, his mother answers.

“I need to talk to Dad,” he says. “Could you put him on?”

“You’re not at the emergency room, are you?”

“No,” he says. “I’m not hurt.” His mother had to be sedated the night he was delivered to the ER, beaten and so badly swollen, he was nearly unrecognizable. She had become so wild with grief and worry that he would die, she had lost control and gone screaming through the hospital. Sheila told him later that by the time they caught his mother and shot her up with Haldol, she had made her way into the cafeteria and flipped over a half dozen tables and chairs.

“All right, I’ll get him,” she says. In the background, he hears her call out his father’s name—Rodney—and his response. Layton can picture them standing by the desk in the kitchen, his mother handing the phone to his father and, as she does, his father leaning down to kiss her on the lips. This is their ritual, kissing at every departure or return, but also at other small moments throughout the day. They are an affectionate couple and publicly so. Layton has never questioned it.

“Can I help you, Layton?”

“You can,” he says. “I’m stranded. It’s a long story, but Elijah’s having some problems and he left me high and dry.”

“Left you where?”

“Up here by Gravette.”

“Gravette,” says his father. His voice is stern. “What are you doing up there?”

Layton had not thought this through. His father blamed Gary for Layton’s beating, too, a belief he revealed only after Gary met with the same fate and then disappeared. But Layton never told his father about what he did to Gary. He explained away the bobcat by saying a customer asked him to take care of her because he was moving away. Rodney had offered only a simple “oh” to the explanation.

“You’re at Gary’s old place.”

“No, we’re just up here driving around, Dad.”

“You know as well as I do there’s not one thing to see in Gravette.”

“Okay, okay,” says Layton. “But I still need you to come get me. Elijah’s run off with the SUV.”

“You took Elijah to Gary’s? You know Gary isn’t there.”

“I know that.”

“Do you?” says his father. “You understand this, Layton: Gary is never coming back. He will never be back to that house. He will never be in your life again.”

Layton is unsure of what to say. How can his father know so much about Gary? Layton never told him he knew where Gary went after the hospital. The finality of his father’s words is disturbing.

“I’m not sure about that, Dad,” he says. “It hasn’t sold or anything.”

There is silence on the phone. His father doesn’t know everything. That house and the little bit of land that went with it is all that Gary had of his life with his own parents. He inherited it when they passed away, his father from a heart attack, his mother from cancer.

“How do you know that, son?”

Layton feels small and young talking with his father like this and, yet, he feels a kind of relief, too, a sense that he does not own every wrong he has ever done, that he does not carry them alone. “I guess I don’t.”

“And that’s for the best,” says Rodney, a lightness returning. “Now, I know I come up 71, but you’ll have to remind me of the rest.”

“I’m sorry you have to do this,” says Layton. “I tried Sheila first, but something must be wrong with her phone. And I don’t know what to say about Elijah.”

“It’s no burden to a father to help his son.” Rodney’s voice is gentle. “I love you, Layton. You have sons of your own, so you understand what that love is, don’t you? How it changes a man?”

Layton’s face grows hot and his throat tightens, though he isn’t sure if it is from shame or gratitude or love. He should’ve asked the woman in the house for a glass of water when he asked for the phone. It will be at least an hour and a half, probably longer, before his father can make it all the way up from Ft. Smith. After that, they will have the long drive home, then a confrontation with Elijah and Sheila, his father there to witness it all. But maybe that is all right. His father’s presence might still the waters, might buy him some time to figure out what he is supposed to do.

For now, though, his job is to wait. He says goodbye to his father and sets the phone on the patio table and walks out into the yard. As he nears the edge of the property, the dogs begin to bark again from inside the house and he guesses the woman has been watching him all along, waiting for him to go. He turns around and waves at the house. Along the roadside, he steps near the ditch, closer to the few trees that remain so that he can take cover beneath their shade. The air smells of dust and the leaves of hickory trees and the house’s fresh cut lawn. He told his father he would be at Gary’s property, that he could wait there without bothering anyone.

At Gary’s, he makes his way down the flattened path. It is strange to be here alone and he feels a kind of homesickness. He climbs on top of the picnic table and sits with his legs folded beneath him and waits. In the afternoon stillness, he listens to the world around him. The cicadas are not as loud as they were even a week before, their hum a comfort. Layton closes his eyes before opening them again, squinting into the light. Something moves in the weeds in front of him, the blades shifting in waves, serpent-like. He holds his breath. It could be one of Gary’s exotic snakes, the boa constrictor or python left to grow into a monster here on its own in the woods.

He hears the growl first—not a threatening growl, but one of greeting. Bobbie stops in front of the table and sits and licks one of her front paws. She yawns and blinks her eyes. Layton puts out his hand so she can sniff it, which she does, the wet of her nose brushing his fingers. She comes closer and stretches out below the table’s long bench, her belly pulsing with her breath and the beat of her heart. Layton wants her to stay, but if he moves down beside her, she may change her mind and go. On top of the table, he slowly unfolds his legs and lies down flat on his back so that he can see the clouds, he can hear the birds and the insects in the trees, the sound of Bobbie on the ground below him. Layton is safe here and he inhales, filling his chest with the warm air. He had come here for forgiveness—he understands that now—but he would settle for this, a kind of repentance. He exhales, reaches his arms out long on either side of his body, his palms open to the sky, and makes himself an offering and a sacrifice to the wild all around.

ANGELA MITCHELL’s stories have been published in Colorado ReviewNew SouthCarve MagazineMidwestern Gothic and other journals. She is a past winner of Colorado Review’s Nelligan prize (for her story “Animal Lovers”) and attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar. An eighth generation native of southern Missouri, she now lives in St. Louis with her husband and sons. Mitchell is the current director of the St. Louis Writers Workshop.