By Keri Korteling
I have always loved animals. A week ago when the Otay Mountain fire jumped the last firebreak and one of the county’s three junior forest rangers came up with the idea to move some of the inhabitants of the Wild Animal Park to the Seaside Circle Mall, I volunteered to be the volunteer co-ordinator. I used to work at that mall before stores started closing, and with nothing to fill my days, I felt I could be useful. There are no volunteers, and with no one to co-ordinate, it has become my job to bring food and carry water and sweep out shit the size of which you would not believe. It’s ruining my love for animals. I already hated malls, so there you go.
While I take care of animals that should never walk on tile or cement, the rest of eastern San Diego County is on evacuation order, an order that includes my apartment. I have no idea if my things are still there. I worry about the notebooks I’ve been keeping since grade school. Thousands of drawings could be burning. They could be wisps of charcoal that shatter when you touch them. Maybe they are still lined up on my bookcases next to the fawn figurines I’ve collected for almost as long. My favourites depict baby deer resting on bunches of grass and daisies. I have some, given as gifts, that show fawns awkwardly balancing on splayed legs, and one I keep for sentimental reasons that displays a tableau of doe and fawn, noses touching, butterflies alighting on the nearby grass. It was from my old boyfriend Gene. We lived together in my apartment while he took community college courses in math and music. I used to call him “genius” as a kind of a pet name. I used to think that he was the one for me. The forever one. But then his college band mates decided to go on tour. He said, “I am going to go and do something for me now. You should do the same.” When I asked if he thought we would get back together after the tour, he said he didn’t think so.
I hear something that sounds like another person when I am trying to feed the llamas. All that spitting and hissing starts to sound human. The heat must be getting to me. Without air conditioning, the mall is unbearable. I hope that it feels like home for the okapi, who are looking down in the mouth. They could be sad because there’s no watering hole in this section of the mall. But they might also be suffering some angst from being tossed in with animals that originated on another continent. It’s crowded, but we’re not monsters. All the grass eaters are together; they’re kept far away from our one predator, a cheetah, who’s housed on a locked loading dock at the back of the old supermarket. I like to have fun when I’m feeding the animals, because we’re all stuck here for now. I imagine drawing the female llama in one of those bun rolls and a flowered dress. She could hold a fan and have a thought bubble that reads, “It’s getting hot in here.” Even better, a group of okapi singing earnestly, “Fire’s burning, draw nearer.” It’s no wonder I’m hearing things. The animals hate me and all the human conditions I represent: fluorescent lights, the industrial carpeting in their temporary home, the old Gap. They even hate getting fed, because it just reminds them of how stuck they are. I tell them that’s just what it’s like in a mall.
Most of the lower floor is empty of goods. A lot of the stores let their leases lapse after the recession hit. The mall is surrounded by boarded-up houses that were owned by Pendleton soldiers before the banks started foreclosing on them.
The voice, scratchy and swollen from the heat, is hard to distinguish from a whinny. It takes three tries, and then I can make it out: “Help. I’m hungry.” I find the boy crouched behind some of the boxes, and he looks terrified. “I don’t know where my parents are,” he says, his lips cracked and dry. He looks worse than the animals. I tell him I’m in charge. I tell him it will be okay.
He holds my hand with both of his as I walk him over to the food court.
“How long have you been hiding in those boxes?”
He shrugs. How would he know, when even I can’t tell what time it is without sunlight? He tells me that he was in the back of one of the jeeps for a few days, but he isn’t certain how long. He seems happy when I find him some caramel corn to eat, and begins shoving fistfuls of the stuff into his mouth. The boy eats everything I give him after the popcorn: fruit juice from the Orange Julius, boil-in-the-bag chicken teriyaki from Teppan Sushi, a towering stack of Premium Plus crackers from the soup place. He makes eating noises that sound content. The coatis are hanging around by the garbage bins, sniffing at the air as if they are trying to make the boy drop a kernel of his snack. They will take the crumbs we leave and hide them in the movie theatre for later. I make a mental note to set out bowls of water for them there. To distract the boy, I ask how he got to the mall.
“We went to see the cheetah at the Wild Animal Park.” He curves his fingers into claws. “Cheetahs are my favourite. Did you know cheetahs can run faster than a car on the freeway?” He gets up to demonstrate their speed, and his striped shirt hangs past his hips, making him look small and not at all fierce.
I return him to the question. “Why were you in a Jeep? Is that how you came here?”
He slows and shambles back to me. “There was a fire. I thought it was a game like at school.”
“You mean a fire drill?”
He nods, eyes down. “I ran to the truck with the picture of the cheetah. I wanted to see the cheetah.”
“What grade are you in? Kindergarten?”
I don’t know what I should do with a boy. I am barely managing the animals. I want to fill him up with fresh clean water and happy food and hope. I can’t guess whether his parents are still around. I have much more to find out from him. Upstairs we have access to round-the-clock news in the electronics store, the fire burning on all of the televisions. I haven’t figured out how to turn them differently. Sometimes the weather guy Warren– the only other person here, I thought – powers up the laptops to watch music videos on YouTube. I don’t mind. Sometimes we just need to sing along with a familiar song.
I tell the boy, “I work in the Gap. Well, I used to. Now it’s where the grass-eating animals live. I’m trying to make friends with them. Would you like to meet some llamas?”
He looks at me with wide brown eyes, the kind of lashes that could double as wings, and whispers, “Cheetahs.”
I tell him everything happened very fast – the decision to move the animals out of the park. They had less than a day to do it. This is a mall turned into a temporary zoo, but it’s no Noah’s ark. It’s a free-for-all. Well, I didn’t tell him that last part. His eyes fill. I wonder if he’s been trying to cry for days, but this is the first time he’s had any water. “Cheetahs are my favourite,” he says. He crouches on all fours again, arching his back like an angry housecat, and roaring in his tiny way.
Warren comes over, whistling as he always does. He’s careful to show a constant attitude of nonchalance. He’s always complaining he’s bored. That’s because he’s not doing any work. Or at least he’s not doing any work that doesn’t involve tweeting selfies with the animals. You’d think that kind of publicity would help us out, but I guess it means no one’s getting through the fire lines. I’m also pretty sure it means that Warren has only a handful of followers. When he first arrived, he said he was on special assignment to report on the progress of the fire crews on the front lines. But I recognized him as the weather guy from Channel Five, and there’s nothing else to back his story. I suspect he came here planning to get a scoop, and now he’s trapped just like us. Once I heard him talking on that phone with someone. He said, “I have a view that most Southern Californians will never see. Yes. But there are giraffes in the atrium. It’s totally fucked up.” When he saw that I was close, he re-arranged his body to make himself look taller, and went off toward the old toy store where the meerkats throw their poop around. He passed by whisper-shouting, “but I’m on the ground here.”
“Who’s this then,” he wants to know, barely breaking his tune. I can’t name most of the songs he whistles, although they sound like something I should know. Gene was always teasing me about my lack of musical knowledge. He said, “It’s part of the culture. Stop being such a snob. Get out and enjoy it. Enjoyment has joy inside of it.” He said stuff like that. Warren is maybe twenty years older at least, forty-something, but he knows every pop song ever. I wonder why he doesn’t leave. Either he also lives in the evacuation zone, or this is the most interesting thing he’s got going on in his life.
I realize that I haven’t asked the boy anything about himself. I’ve been busy imagining how I will take care of him, be the heroine, save the day. I would draw myself as a superhero with an expandable, refillable overnight case for him (extra clothes, good organic food). I’ll soar through the air, cape flapping in the breeze, and spot his parents from 30,000 feet, all without my glasses. When I belatedly ask his name, the boy stretches his lips around two small syllables: “Ethan.” A delicate boy’s name. There’s no way to shorten it, or toughen it. Forever, when he introduces himself, people will nod, and give him extra space, a cone of specialized oxygen molecules that he’ll need to breathe deeply to shield himself from pain or panic. I want to drape my cape around him now.
Warren interrupts my reverie. “Have you alerted the authorities?”
“Hey Ethan,” I say, giving Warren my best steely glare. “Go check out the window of the jewellery store. “You might be able to see the hissing cockroaches.”
His face registers a mix of horror and excitement, and he dutifully trots over to the windows. He has to stand on his toes to see in, but he starts wiggling as though there’s something good crawling around.
I turn to Warren. “Not yet. I was just trying –“
He interrupts to say he will call his station manager. “She’ll send someone down to do a shoot. Put his picture on some screens, have him home in no time.”
Of course. Ethan solves Warren’s dilemma about how to get himself into this news story. “Not TV,” I counter. “He’s already frightened. I’ll call the fire captain. He can get a message out.”
“Do you have the number? I have it right here.” Warren makes a show of fishing for his phone in his jeans pocket, and he starts to dial. He loves that phone.
“Wait a minute. Think about the parents.” I reach for his wrist. I’m going to be in charge. I’m going to calm the situation, but instead I cause him to jiggle the phone and it slips out of his hands. I kneel and gather both halves of the case and his phone. “Warren, we may be at the Seaside Circle Mall, but we’re ten miles inland, and the fire crews aren’t letting anyone in.” I wished for Linda to call. Linda was the owner of the Wild Animal Park, but we hadn’t seen her since the animals arrived. If Linda came, we would know it was getting better.
Warren fiddles with his phone, snaps it together. “You’d better get on that, Sara. He’s scared and he looks pretty thin.”
“Don’t worry,” I say to Warren. “I got this.”
We sit by the fountains waiting for the giraffes to stop hiding behind the elevators so that Ethan can see them up close. One flamingo stands out of reach, its head cocked at an unnatural angle. It must be too hungry to hold up its leg and its head at once. I have my pencil and notebook. “Ethan,” I say, “Let’s draw you in front of your house. Tell me what it looks like.” His description tells me he lives in an ordinary home with nothing that would make it stand out, make it easier to identify, but also that he’s used to looking at objects, recording details in his mind. It’s too early for me to make a prediction, but I draw him on his front lawn in front of the jacaranda tree with an easel under his arm as though he were off to paint en plein air. I am only projecting my own interests. When Gene said that he wanted to do something for himself, he meant that he was tired of what I wanted.
I quiz Ethan about his address. “Linda can tell the fire captain that you need to find your parents.” He knows some of the particulars, such as the street number and name, but falters at the city. “San Diego?” He’s not certain. “Did you take a plane to get to the Wild Animal Park?” He thinks this is hilarious, his laugh high and round. His parents drove, but from far away. I think about the pictures I’ve seen on TV. Roads melting, car tires stuck in soft taffy ruts. The fires are serious, tearing through the county, making people and animals homeless and gobbling up the idea of safety, but there are still cell towers and phone lines. I’ll make the call right after we finish our drawing session.
The last time Linda came she brought chocolate. And wine. Actually it was the only time she came. Warren and I had just met and we drank the bottle in front of the fountain where they used to have light shows set to music. He must have been feeling lonely, because he slid himself close to me and said, “I’ve seen how kind you are when you feed the animals, how you go out of your way to give a pleasant word or sing a little song.” He stopped there. We both knew he was lying. I never sing. It would never work; we couldn’t even have a disaster fling. Since then we’ve talked about Linda. We hope she is dropping in and checking on the other animals, the ones that were too difficult to move, the elephants, and especially the white tiger. Warren says she’s been getting away without paying taxes or doing proper repairs at the park for years. But I think this is just another one of his attempts to make real news, instead of weather.
Later, Ethan and I are walking around the old Sears, trying to be quiet so we can find the California condor or one of the owls. They put the birds up here because there’s a skylight over the entryway. I guess they thought the birds would be reassured to see sky, even if they couldn’t fly in it. They made their own aviary in the changing rooms on the second floor, where women’s lingerie used to be. Linda, I say to Ethan, is all straight lines. Her blonde hair cut sharply to chin length, her nose a perfect isosceles triangle of peeling sunburn. She even wears a pith hat.
“What’s a pith hat?”
I draw an old time English military hat for him, but to try and cheer him I place it on top of a sketch that’s supposed to be me. I am the opposite of Linda. Circles for face and cheeks, small rounded shoulders. He points to the face and looks at me with the question in his eyes.
I nod. “It’s me.” I tell him that the hat shows how organized and capable I am. I think of myself marshalling resources, making calls, pacing, waiting. But first I’m going to show him some fun. It would do him some good and cheer him up. I’ll have to find more food. He looks as pale as a wisp.
We see Warren in the central atrium of the mall, the giraffe area. It’s not ideal because there’s no way to keep them from roaming throughout the mall, but they seem content to eat leaves from the spindly trees that stand in for an Africa they’ve never experienced, as though the mall were just a walk in an odd park with bright lighting and stacks of orange t-shirts with University of San Diego stitched on them. My first impulse is to duck into the drugstore so that I don’t have to talk to Warren again, but Ethan gives a wave. He walks over to tell about our bird watching. Aside from the flamingo, we have seen none, but that hasn’t dampened the boy’s enthusiasm.
Warren reaches out to ruffle Ethan’s hair. He pulls a soft punch and takes one back in the stomach, pretending it’s winded him. Warren rolls on the ground while Ethan giggles. And as they’re laughing together, Warren fishes the phone out of his safari pants — he must have found them in one of the boxes in the Gap’s storeroom. He shoots the two of them laughing, portrait and landscape, shows the boy. Of course Ethan’s more delighted with photos than with my drawings.
“I can make some connections for you, kid.” Warren assures him that we can track down his parents. He seems so at ease with Ethan, the mountain-shaped wrinkles in his forehead flattening, disappearing, and I wonder whether he has a child of his own. Perhaps he is one of those men who actually want children. I have only ever read about them in magazines. My thoughts are interrupted when Warren glares at me, quickly signing a telephone to his ear.
“I’ll take him to see the cat, and you can make that call,” he says in a tone of seriousness that he must use when he’s talking about the on-going drought in the state.
There’s no putting it off any longer. I will make the call as soon as the llamas are fed. But in the meantime, I can take care of the boy. I am more responsible than Warren. I’m the one doing all the work and the feeding. I’m the one wading through shit. I haven’t even changed my clothes and he’s whistling pop songs and tickling the boy and making the Internet believe it’s a laugh at the mall in the middle of a firestorm.
I make my voice bright. “Let’s make it a working trip with a big reward at the end. What do you say Ethan? I know where to find a fast cat. Get your roar going on!” The boy looks from Warren to me. He’s torn, and we can all see that I’m trying too hard. I have stopped halfway through a roar, so that I sound like a hysterical cheerleader. If I’m not careful the animals are going to think I’m offering myself up as food. They’ll be able to smell my desperation from clear across the mall.
I steer Ethan toward the drugstore. Maybe we will be able to find some BBQ-flavour nuts or some of those round green mints to keep our mouths busy. I check my phone – 7% battery. We go upstairs where I can plug in, and jump on beds until Ethan finds one he wants to sleep on.
“I’m never allowed to do this at home,” he squeals as he makes half-sized footprints on a king-sized mattress patterned with roses and crowns.
“It’s all fun with me,” I say, breathless from all the jumping. He’s leaped onto one of the twin beds and so I sit on the bed next to his and stretch my leg across to measure the difference between my shoe and his. Twice the size, five times his age, half as brave. The numbers are making me tired.
“There’s no blankets,” he says.
“No. Just beds. There’s really no rhyme or reason for what got left here, and what got packed up and moved. Everyone was in a big hurry. The beds were heavy. Or too heavy to remove in a hurry.”
“What’s going to happen to the animals?”
“You mean, when they put out the fires?” He nods, his face open to me and flushed after the jumping. I can tell that he’s looking for a story. A fairy tale about renewal and magic and love ever after. “Linda will bring her big trucks and pick them up, and they’ll be so happy to see her, and they’ll get in and go home.”
He gets down from his bed and climbs onto the bed with me, sitting hunched, his eyes on the floor. “But their home is all burnt.”
I forgot. He saw the fire tear up and over the hillside. He makes little sniffles, his face turned away from me. I can’t make it all better. So instead I tell him that in the morning, we’ll make the rounds, talk to the animals, hope for good manners from the llamas and smaller poops from the giraffes. He snuggles in beside me, which might mean he believes in me. He’s too young to realize I haven’t kept the usual schedule of feeding and shovelling. Before, it was simpler. The animals chewed and I sketched. Now I wonder if I should look up symptoms of malnutrition for grass feeders. A little sigh comes from the small body beside me, and his breathing becomes regular as he falls asleep.
The next morning we get up early and walk over to the grocery store. All of the checkout lines have useless chains across them, but we make a game of first going under the chain at number fourteen, and then over thirteen. He gives up after the next one. I ask what’s the matter. “Are you tired of jungle gym? Get it? We’re in the jungle with all the animals?” No reaction. He looks hollow. I wish there was something healthy to give him. Granola bars are my constant companions, but he doesn’t like them. When Linda came, she brought a family-sized bag of baby carrots along with the chocolates and wine. I stopped eating the carrots when they got white and limp. I saw Warren carrying the bag yesterday. Maybe he was feeding the llamas. I never bring treats. No wonder they hiss at me. It would be good for Ethan to have food with vitamins in it, instead of chewing on red and yellow bears from the drugstore, but maybe he’ll cheer up once we see the cheetah. I’m afraid and excited all at once. I hope it’s not too hungry.
At the back of the store, there’s a set of metal doors with a round window set in each side. I put Ethan on my shoulders. “Ninja captain. Scout the landscape, locate the targets, plan our sneak viewing.”
“On your mark, we will somersault inside.”
“Somersault,” he echoes. I’m not even sure of myself, but I can feel the excitement of his knees vibrating against my shoulders. He grips my hair, and pats my head a little bit. I am definitely winning him over.
We open the door slowly but it makes a loud squeak to announce us to any hungry meat-eaters looking for a snack. I take a deep breath and imagine us as a giant, a creature that would scare away even a desperate, fast animal. The flies are worse here than in the meerkat zone, and the smell is overwhelming. Ethan retches, and I feel his legs clench at my neck. There is no one to clean out the shit, and a hunk of uneaten meat is hosting an entire life cycle of bugs. “Just pull your t-shirt over your nose,” I tell him, while doing the same. I walk us forward.
“Are there birds in here?” asks Ethan.
I wonder if I’ve opened the wrong door, and then we see the cat. She’s stretched out on the loading dock where the sun would be shining if the smoke wasn’t blocking most of the light. She’s skinny and there’s a gash that’s swollen one of her back paws. There’s a chirping sound coming from her. She looks straight at us and then in one graceful move, she’s on her feet. She takes two steps forward. I feel all the warmth leave my blood, and I can’t help it. I lose my grip on Ethan. He tumbles backward onto the cement floor and begins to bawl. I try to shush him with useless pats on his shoulders, worried that his protests will provoke the cat.
She doesn’t take any more steps. We can both see now that she’s not a real threat.
“Make it better.” He’s tugging on my arm, pulling me toward the cat. “You have to.”
I don’t want to look. The sight of the listless cheetah sickens me. But looking at her isn’t going to make her better. We say that we’re doing our best, or we promise ourselves that it will get better. We tell ourselves these lies every day just as soon as we wake up and remember everything that happened the day before. I wonder if Gene has stopped lying. Perhaps every morning he wakes and says, “Here’s a new town. I am getting better every day.” He is staying one day ahead of disappointment.
“We can call Linda. She has a veterinarian,” I say, grasping at straws. I scoop Ethan into my arms and endure a small pummelling. “These animals aren’t meant to be here. They are sad to be locked up inside.” I back up to the metal doors and carry him out into the empty grocery store, his shouts echoing off the empty shelves.
“We have to go back and save her,” he shouts.
“Ethan wait.” I take a breath. I’m going to make the call as soon as I can calm him down.
“I bet you don’t even know a person called Linda,” he screams. He won’t look at me.
After he runs out of the grocery store, I walk over to the old Gap store. There’s a small closet in the back of the changing rooms, where we used to store merchandise returned by customers because of imperfections: shirts with sleeves of two different lengths, pants missing their pocket linings, that sort of thing. It’s the only place in the mall that hasn’t been sullied by the animals – no pieces of hay or hard kibble or meat scraps, no poops of any size. I lock myself in the closet with my notebook, but all I can draw are triangles with their sharp pointy edges and rectangles in 3D.
Being alone is the worst punishment of being stuck at the Seaside Circle Mall. At first I thought there would be a stream of visitors, brought by reports of the animals at the mall. We weren’t so far from the edge of the evacuation zone, but as the fires worsened, everyone forgot about us. The damage was too serious to make a few starving African animals and their impromptu caregiver into a visit of interest.
When I see Ethan again, he’s play-fighting with Warren. They share a genuine laugh. At my approach, the boy runs away to sit in the glass-fronted elevator.
Warren says, “I called the fire captain last night. No one will be able to get through until tomorrow at least, but they were able to find his parents and we just had a nice Skype with them.” He takes out his phone and turns it around in his palm, swipes the screen to check the weather report, and clicks the screen off. “I called the station and they’ll be here to film the reunion.”
I nod and look over at Ethan, but I can’t think of anything to say.
Back at the Gap, the animals are so hungry they act happy to see me. I tear off a page from my notebook and offer it in my opened palm. One llama makes a noise like curiosity, and curls her lips around the paper. The others join in. They eat my drawings one by one. The one of Ethan in front of his house, me in my superhero costume, the geometric sketches I made in the closet. Their chewing crunches like boots on hard snow. There’s a sketch of Ethan on a stage with a phalanx of cameras pointed at him, like missiles, like television in the old days. He’s curved his hands into claws and his teeth are bared. A speech balloon above him reads ‘ROOOAAAAAAAARRR.’ He almost looks fierce. I hold it in my hand for a long time, and when the llama takes it in her mouth, she bites my finger a little bit, like she knows it’s the last one.
Keri Korteling is a writer and editor from Vancouver, B.C. Her writing has also appeared in Red Rock Review.