The first time Gail ran away from Cleary Mayfield, she drove south across the Florida panhandle to the Gulf and rented a room in a cheap motel three blocks from the beach. She rarely left the room, and when she did, she tucked her long, dark hair under a hat and wore sunglasses to hide the bruises. She walked to the gas station where she bought junk food and beer. Nights, she lay awake and peeked out the drapes every time she heard a car in the lot, expecting Cleary’s old van to come to a rolling stop in front of her room and shine its bright lights through the plate-glass window.
When Cleary didn’t come, Gail wondered why. Maybe she’d done too good a job of disappearing, or maybe he didn’t care enough to look for her. She didn’t love Cleary. She craved him. She drank herself to sleep in the dusky hours of morning and dreamed a black leopard lay at her feet, his eyes forlorn.
When she got off the interstate, she was still half an hour from the animal refuge Cleary owned. Virgin pine forest and swamp surrounded Animal World for miles and miles. The wilderness bred its own population of bobcats, deer, alligators, coyotes, armadillos, snakes, maybe even bears. Until the interstate opened up a few years ago, the old highway had been a major route to the coast. Now, not many people stopped at Animal World.
Near the refuge she saw the first hand-painted sign—ANIMAL— and then the others, a quarter of a mile apart—WORLD, STOP, and a hundred yards from the entrance, NOW! The signs had been Cleary’s idea, but she had painted them.
Gail parked next to the flamingo-pink wood fence. The padlocked front entrance had a yellow paper tacked up on it. “What the hell?” she said. She unstuck her bare thighs from the vinyl seat and got out of the car. “Closed until further notice,” she read, “by order of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Fisheries.” She didn’t take time to read the fine print.
She pulled around back. Cleary’s van was there. She sat for a minute to let her heart calm down before she rummaged in her purse and found the key to the private gate. The minute she stepped inside, her eyes watered at the ammonia smell of urine, the sour-sweet stink of feces. The cages nearest the back of the compound held the big cats. Cleary had called it his anticipation strategy; let the customers see the other animals first and build up to the best part. They weren’t real cages, but pens built out of chain link fence. Fencing covered the tops, and each pen had a single, padlocked entry. Only the big cats’ pens had concrete floors. Cleary aspired to have real cages, he had told her. Real cages were part of his long-range plan.
In the first pen—or the last, if you were a customer walking through—the male black leopard, Garcia, stopped his pacing and leveled his yellow eyes at Gail. Those eyes sent heat through her, like a lover’s.
“Hey there,” she said. “How’ve you been, Garcia?” But she saw how he was—agitated, hungry, thinner than when she left. Big dumps littered the cage. Cleary must not have cleaned the pens at all while she was gone. The cat growled and rubbed against the chain link, and the light caught the variations in his blue-black coat, the rosettes of the spot pattern barely visible. He was beautiful, and he was partly hers.
After their only tiger died six months ago, Cleary had searched the Internet for a replacement. He had found the black cat on a private zoo’s website in south Florida.
“A panther?” Gail said when he showed it to her.
He shook his head. “No such thing as a black panther. There’s mostly black leopards or jaguars. This one’s a leopard. It’s a shame we can’t buy him.”
Gail saw the price. “I could pay some.” An impulse, the words out of her mouth before she thought about it. She’d made good money working as a waitress at the Beau Rivage on the Gulf coast. Casino customers, especially older men, were big tippers. After she lost that job, she’d worked in one bar or another and spent maybe half of what she’d saved up, just to get by. She’d held on to the rest and never told anybody about it, until now.
He clicked off the screen. “Naw. I can’t let you do that.”
But Gail couldn’t stop thinking about the black leopard. Except for her car—a clunker she’d bought while she had the casino job—she had never owned anything.
One night, in bed, she said, “Nothing on the refuge is mine. Let me help you buy the cat. He’d be, like, my stake in the place.”
Cleary had given in, or maybe, she thought later, her paying had been his strategy all along. Whatever, she had withdrawn the money—nearly two thousand dollars—out of her bank account, and they had driven all the way to Fort Myers to buy the cat she’d named Garcia.
“We’ll mate him,” Cleary had said. “We’ll make a fortune.”
Now, Gail regretted bringing Garcia here. The filthy cage, no sign of food—he deserved better.
“I’ll be back,” she said to Garcia. “I’ll bring you something to eat, I promise.”
In the next pen, the bobcat, Jewel, lay curled in the back corner, her eyes glassy and sticky with pus. Flies buzzed around her head, and she didn’t bother to flick them off. A piece of rotting horsemeat lay a couple of feet away.
“Cleary?” Gail yelled. She walked towards the trailer she and Cleary lived in, checking the other pens as she passed. The orangutan lobbed shit at her. “Same to you, buddy,” she said.
Cleary came out of the trailer. He wore a dirty muscle shirt and cut-off jeans and a few days’ stubble of beard. His eyes looked hollowed out, like he hadn’t been sleeping, and Gail hoped he had learned something. Maybe he would think twice before he hit her again.
He said, “Well. Look who’s here.”
“Yeah. I’m glad to see you, too. What’s with the place being closed?”
“The goddam Humane Society reported us to Wildlife. You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, I don’t guess.”
“Lord, no. Did they take any animals?”
“If we don’t comply, they will. They’ll shut us down for good. They gave us nineteen citations.”
“Did they mention sick cats? Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed Jewel. And Garcia looks like he’s starving.”
“What was I supposed to do? I can’t do it all.”
“Meaning you won’t.” Back five minutes, and they were already fighting. “We should call the vet.”
“It’s the heat, Gail. Jewel’s okay.”
“I don’t think so.” Gail started up the trailer steps, and he grabbed her arm.
“We can’t have anybody like that coming in here. Not till we get things shaped up.”
She looked at his hand. “Let go. That hurts.”
He stepped back, running his hands through his hair. “Jesus,” he said. “Damn.” He pulled her to him, kissed her hair, her face. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I about went crazy with you gone.”
She wanted to push him away, she really did. Driving back, she had promised herself she would go slow with Cleary, take the measure of things, see how steady he was. But she had never been with a man like him. He was not a big man, and he wasn’t handsome: he was lean and sunburned, sinewy and strong, as though he had been forged, not born. She had never seen eyes like his, green-gold and luminous in his weathered face, and once she met his gaze, once she felt his breath on her neck and his hands on her breasts and moving down, she forgot everything else.
He let her go, the space between them abrupt, empty, cruel. This is what you missed, she thought. This is what you almost lost.
“Where’s your bag?” he said.
“In the car. I’ll go get it.”
“No. I’ll do it later.”
She went with him into the trailer.
The next morning, Gail left Cleary asleep and went out. She needed to keep busy so she wouldn’t think too much. All he’d had to do was put his hands on her. She hadn’t even fed the cats last night. “Slut,” she said aloud. “Trash.”
She unlocked Jewel’s gate and tossed in a chunk of meat, but Jewel barely lifted her head. Garcia devoured his portion and looked at her like, Where’s the rest? Turned from her with a growl, ambled the length of the pen, back and forth, back and forth.
There was no more meat; she’d given them the last in the cooler.
No sign of Cleary yet. She would clean out the cages herself. She dragged a hose with a high-pressure nozzle to Jewel’s pen and washed it out. When the water hit the concrete in Garcia’s cage, he spooked, roared, charged the chain link. Gail shut the nozzle off. “Hey,” she said. “You’re okay. It’s okay now.”
She went to the shed and got the big broom and the heavy canvas coat and gloves Cleary wore when he went inside the cages. He had forbidden her to go in, but somebody had to clean out Garcia’s pen. Her pulse drummed in her ears. Any cat could be dangerous. An agitated, hungry cat even more so.
She waited a while for Garcia to settle down. Once he did, she filled a bucket with water, put on the coat and gloves, and picked up the broom and bucket. She opened Garcia’s gate and stepped inside, closing it behind her. Garcia whirled and growled, then backed away.
“It’s all right, Garcia. You’re all right. That’s a good boy.” Gail poured water on the floor and started sweeping the filth to the back of the pen. The muck stank something awful. She pushed it out through the chain link, keeping the cat in her line of sight as best she could. Garcia paced the far side of the cage, grumbling, pawing at the fence. “Just a little more,” Gail said. She brushed sweat out of her eyes and felt it trickle down her sides.
She heard a noise and turned, expecting the cat to be on her, but Garcia faced the path. Cleary walked toward the pen.
Gail didn’t raise her voice. “Cleary, stay there. He’s fine.”
But Garcia lunged at Cleary, fell back. Cleary didn’t flinch. “Garcia, Garcia. Easy now,” he said, his voice calm. He kept coming. “Gail? Get out while I have his attention.”
“Get out of there. Now.”
Gail slowly backed away and out of the pen.
Cleary came around and locked the gate. “Don’t you ever, ever do that again!”
“Somebody’s got to.”
He practically dragged her back to the trailer and shoved her inside. “Stay here. I’ll tend to ’em.” His hands worked and clenched. “The cat could have killed you. Don’t you know that?” She steeled herself for him to hit her, but he walked out and slammed the door.
She still wore the canvas coat and gloves. She stripped them off and sat on the unmade bed. Last night, she hadn’t paid much attention to the state of things inside the trailer. Last night had seemed like old times.
Nearly a year ago, Cleary had pulled a guy off Gail in a dark parking lot behind a bar on the coast, picked her up, and put her in the back of his van. She didn’t know Cleary, but she was too drunk to care.
Later, in and out of fitful sleep, she would wake in a curtained-off space with one high, dirty window. Sometimes, a man sat on the side of the bed. In her dreams she heard the roar of big cats, tropical birds calling, the howl of wild dogs. The man held her hair back when she vomited and bathed her face. He said little. He never touched her except to help her.
She finally woke late one afternoon, alone, not knowing where she was or how long she’d been there. She made it to the toilet on her own and vomited. When she was done, she turned, wiping spittle with the back of her hand, and the man was there, leaning against the open sliding door.
“My name’s Cleary,” he said. “What’s yours?”
When she was well enough, he took her outside and walked her around the place—a refuge for animals, he called it. All his. He told her he had bought the place three years ago with his savings from a twenty-year stint in the postal service. “My dream ever since I was a kid,” he said, “but the place has gone down. I don’t know shit about what I’m doing.” He used to own an ocelot and a hybrid wolf, both dead now, he said. He’d sold a pair of lions to keep the place going. The colony of macaque monkeys was down to one female. Gail felt a deep sadness, as though she’d lost the animals, too.
Cleary bought groceries but no beer, made scrambled eggs and canned soup. “You got to eat to get strong,” he would say. She had been at the refuge a couple of weeks when he asked if she had a place to go.
She thought about the dingy apartment and the guy she’d been living with, a kid, really, only twenty-two to her thirty. They’d gone to the bar together that night, but he’d done nothing to save her. Cleary had.
“No,” she said. “I don’t.”
“Well. You could stay here.”
She picked at her eggs, getting cold now, didn’t look up. “I’d need to get my car back.”
“No problem,” Cleary said, “if it’s still there. It might not be.”
He took her into town the next day. The car was where she’d left it, and she was surprised when it started. She followed Cleary back to the refuge because she didn’t know the way.
Cleary worked her hard. When she put fresh hay down over the old in the petting zoo barn, he made her rake it all out, hose down the stalls, and start over. “I don’t care if it’s just a stall,” he said. “You make one mistake, you won’t learn to think, and you’ll make a bigger one. You can’t work that way around animals.” Gail went back to the trailer most days smelling of shit. Cleary never praised her, which made her hungrier to please him. She fell into bed every night, exhausted, and he slept on the narrow couch. They moved about the claustrophobic space inside the trailer, brushing against each other, backing away, like a kind of dance. Each time she closed the sleeping alcove curtain that separated her from Cleary at night, she lay awake and heard his restless turning. One night, when Gail had been at the refuge for more than a month, she walked naked into the other room, took Cleary’s hand, and led him to his own bed.
For a while, things were good. Cleary called her his little wildcat. “Just looking to be tamed, aren’t you?” he would say.
When Cleary turned sullen and edgy, she got scared. She had lived this downward spiral before, but she thought what she had with Cleary was different.
The first time he hit her, he was headed out—the third night that week—and she stood between him and the door. “Take me with you,” she said.
“I told you, no. I got business to tend to. You’re not going anywhere.”
“You picked up another stray, Cleary? Is that it?”
He slapped her hard and walked out. She slid down the wall and lay curled and shivering on the floor. She didn’t cry.
Cleary came in at daylight and tossed a fat roll of bills on the bed. “Don’t even ask,” he said, and she didn’t.
That had become the pattern—Cleary going out, sometimes coming home with money, more often not, always mum about where he’d been.
Now, Gail looked around the trailer that smelled of cigarettes and beer and sweat. She ran her hand over the faded sheets. She’d been a fool to come back.
Her stomach rumbled. She found a box of stale saltines and ate half of them. She read the violations from the state wildlife people: insecure cages, unsanitary conditions, inadequate food, neglect, housing dangerous animals without proper license. None of them surprised her. Cleary had been given a month to get the place in line. If he couldn’t re-open, then what?
She tried the door, but it didn’t open. He must have padlocked it like he did sometimes when they were both off the place, as though they had anything worth stealing. “Cleary?” She listened, yelled again. “Cleary! Let me out!” The tropical birds cried on the far side of the compound, in a stir about something. Garcia roared. She would know that sound anywhere.
Early afternoon, Gail heard the van leave. She waited up until after midnight and finally fell asleep on the couch. Around two, Cleary stumbled in, humming a song she didn’t recognize. In the dark he walked right past her to the bathroom. She heard him pee and belch. He came back and turned on the light. “You awake?”
“I am now. Where’ve you been?” He popped the top on a beer and drank. “I found a way to bail us out.” Gail sat up. She had the hysterical notion that he’d robbed a bank. “What’d you do?” He dropped beside her on the couch and kicked off his boots. He reeked of more than beer. His pupils were wide and black and bottomless. “I made a deal.” He pulled her close and whispered, “I sold Garcia.” She thought she hadn’t heard him right. “You what?” He slapped his thigh. “I sold the black leopard. Can you believe the luck?” Gail scrambled up off the couch. “But we’re going to breed him! And he’s half mine. You can’t sell him unless I say so!” Cleary knocked back the beer and tossed the can on the floor. “I can’t wait around to breed him. I need money now. There’s this guy, runs a place near Tallahassee. I went to see him, showed him Garcia’s papers and some photos, and he wrote me a check on the spot for three thousand dollars. Three thousand, Gail. Didn’t bat an eye. We can fix up the place. We can—”
“But he’s mine, too,” she said again, knowing it didn’t matter.
Cleary stood, wavered. “I know you love that cat. Sometimes I think you love Garcia more than me.” He tilted her face toward the light. “That’s not true, is it?”
They had never talked about love. She shook her head.
“We’ll make it. You’ll see.” He let her go, knocked over a chair on his way to the bedroom, and yanked the alcove curtain shut.
Gail rubbed her chin where Cleary had touched her. An animal moaned, long and low, somewhere in the refuge. This time, she couldn’t tell which one it was.
*** At dawn, she slipped out of the trailer. She loved the refuge early in the morning: light filtering through the canopy of water oaks, bougainvillea and hibiscus opening, trees alive with calling birds, not the captives but the others.
The animals that remained were a different story. Hunched at the back of his cage, the thin, mangy macaque monkey watched while she filled the water pan. The orangutan, usually feisty, didn’t even rouse. The coyotes snarled and snapped. Hungry, and she had nothing to give them. Surfacing from the murky pond, the crocodile stretched his jaws. She had nothing for him, either. She spread fresh hay inside the petting zoo and threw out a few handfuls of corn, the goats nuzzling and nipping her and bedraggled chickens squawking around her feet. She didn’t go in the snake house. She hated their rickety glass cages. If she’d told Cleary once, she’d told him fifty times they needed to secure the snakes or get rid of them.
But he hadn’t gotten rid of the snakes and he hadn’t made the refuge better and he hadn’t meant it when he said he was sorry. And now he’d sold Garcia.
The cat pens were quiet. Jewel looked better. She had eaten some of yesterday’s meat. Gail stayed a long time at Garcia’s cage. He seemed in a kittenish mood, rolling on his back, climbing his fake tree limb and lying along its length. How long before the man who’d bought him would come? How much time did they have?
She went back to the trailer. Cleary was up, and calm, like he didn’t remember yesterday.
“One of us needs to go to the packers’,” she said. “We don’t have any meat left.” When they couldn’t afford to order frozen meat—which happened often—they bought waste cuts from a meat packing plant thirty miles away.
“Can’t. I got to fix a hole in the bird enclosure,” he said. “I get done with that, I’ll go to the woods, shoot them something.”
Sometimes Cleary went out and killed squirrels, a rabbit or two, a possum, whatever he could find, and tossed the dead animals whole into the pens.
“Don’t,” she said.
He looked at her. “Don’t what?”
“Shoot something. Let me buy the meat. Just enough to get by.”
Cleary pressed his palms over his eyes. “What the hell. Go.”
“I need money, then.”
He brought out his wallet and peeled off three twenties.
She shook her head. “That’s not enough. You know how much the meat costs. We need groceries, and I need to do laundry.”
He handed her one more twenty. “The laundry can wait.”
She drove to the packing plant and made a cheap deal on a few pounds of meat, mostly offal. At the grocery she bought two small ribeyes marked for quick sale. She put twenty dollars’ worth of gas in her car. She hoped Cleary wouldn’t ask for his money back. If he did, she would say she’d spent it all. The meat had gone up, she would say.
That afternoon, she cleaned the trailer. By the time Cleary came in, she was baking potatoes and cooking the steaks. She wore a low-cut black tee and jeans. She had washed her hair and pulled it back.
He looked around. “What’s this?”
He reeked of animal waste. It nauseated her, but she didn’t let on. Instead, she smiled. “Go take a shower. Dinner’s ready.”
After dinner, while she was washing dishes, Cleary wrapped his arms around her from behind and kissed her neck. “You know,” he said, “when I got this place, I thought it would be my ticket. But I screwed up. Then you came along, and I knew we could make it.” He let her go. “I’ll pay you back for Garcia, I swear. We’ll get another cat.”
“I know.” She turned, and he kissed her.
“I’m going to bed,” he said. “You coming?”
“Go on. I’ll be there in a little while.”
She waited an hour, thinking Cleary would fall asleep, but he didn’t. When he pushed up the tee shirt she slept in, one of his, she didn’t turn away. She lay under him, staring out the narrow window where she could see the tops of live oaks and stars and a few scudding clouds, no moon. After Cleary was done and asleep, she listened to the sounds of the night and the refuge. She imagined Garcia pacing his cage, his eyes penetrating the darkness.
When Gail got out of bed and found the keys to the pen padlocks in Cleary’s jeans, it was still gray-dark. After she had gone in Garcia’s cage, Cleary had kept them on him. She took a flashlight and stuffed her wallet and a change of clothes in a backpack and made her way along the path. With any luck Cleary would sleep till noon.
She walked to the back of Garcia’s pen. In the flashlight’s beam, his eyes glowed florescent green. He crouched, his body taut, as though he were about to spring. He would be like that in the deep woods and swamps, she thought: silent, powerful, stalking his prey, making the kill. Or would he? He’d been caged all his life. What if he ran for the highway instead? He wouldn’t get far before somebody shot him.
She shook off the thought.
Garcia slunk towards her, growled. “I know you’re impatient,” she said. “It won’t be long now.” She tried several keys, glancing over her shoulder, expecting not to be lucky, expecting Cleary to come.
By the time she found the right key, the eastern sky had gone rosy and birds called in the trees. Gail laid her palm flat against the chain link and closed her eyes. She could hear Garcia’s breathing, his footfalls on the concrete pad. It was as close to him as she would ever get. Her hands shaking, she turned the key in the padlock, wrenched it free, dropped the lock and the key ring, and opened the gate wide. She stood behind the gate and watched the cat. Garcia came to the opening, turned away, paced. “Come on, now,” she whispered. “Come out, boy.” But Garcia circled the pen, rolling his head from side to side.
Gail stepped into the open. Garcia stopped and looked at her, but she didn’t avert her eyes. “Come to me, Garcia,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Come to me.” And what if he came out but didn’t run? What if he took her down instead, pinned her, clamped his jaws around her neck, dragged her into the brush? But Garcia didn’t come. He backed away, bared his teeth, moaned. “Damn it, Garcia! Get out! Run!” Gail picked up a piece of pipe and banged on the fence post. Cleary might hear, but it no longer mattered. “Come on—” A swing of the pipe— “Come on, come on!” Another, and another.
Just then, the sun topped the tree line, washing the refuge in golden light, and everything—the water oaks, the flowers, the dew-tipped grass, the pond, even the dilapidated cages—looked lit from within. Birds rose out of the trees in a rush of wings like wind, and Garcia bolted from the cage, passing so close to Gail she might have touched him. He crossed the compound in a zigzag pattern, and for a moment Gail lost sight of him in a thicket of trees, but then there he was, on the other side of the pond, gathering speed as he approached the back fence that bordered the wilderness. He lifted into the air in a long, graceful arc and cleared the high fence. Gone.
She picked up her backpack and ran too then, down the path and past the trailer, expecting to see a light, or Cleary standing in her way, but the trailer was dark. She let herself out the private gate, locked it, got in her car and headed down the drive and out onto the highway. She gripped the steering wheel, her heart wild in her chest. She kept checking the rearview mirror, but there was no sign of Cleary.
She drove for three hours without a break. Near Tallahassee, she stopped at a gas station with a Subway and bought a sandwich. Cleary might be awake by now. He might be looking for her. He might already have reported Garcia missing. But a cat on the loose would bring the Wildlife folks and the Humane Society down on him fast. It would bring out the law. She didn’t think Cleary would make the call. She felt bad for the other animals, but it would all play out soon enough. Animal World would shut down, and they would be rescued. That was what she told herself. What she had to believe.
She bought a map and took to the back roads, avoiding the interstate, heading south. Where she was going, she wasn’t sure. She had always wanted to see the Everglades; now was as good a time as any, but it was a long, long way. She had forty dollars left, which meant one tank of gas, a burger, a coffee in the morning. Tonight, she would sleep in the car. Tomorrow, she would need to find some godforsaken, one-stoplight town and stay a while, get a job waitressing or tending bar, hunker down in case Cleary came looking. Then she would move on, like she’d always done.
The day had turned clear and hot. Garcia would be miles and miles from the refuge by now, running at a steady pace as though he knew where he was headed, going deeper into the wilderness until it swallowed him up. She willed him to be safe. She willed him a better place.
Gerry Wilson is a recipient of a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship for 2014-2015. Her short stories have appeared previously in Prime Number Magazine and Prime Number Magazine Editors' Selections: Volume 2 and also in Sabal: Best of the Workshops 2011, Good Housekeeping, Arkansas Review, and other journals. Gerry is currently working on a new novel, querying another, and putting the finishing touches on a story collection.