TJ Moore Books

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Pet shops are dangerous places after dark.

THE MAIN ATTRACTION

A Short Story By TJ Moore

I’ll never work at a pet shop again. It’s more than just the terror I experienced. My morals have changed. I no longer think it’s a good thing to keep animals caged up in close quarters with no exercise and no real care. Actually, it disgusts me. I secretly believe nature sees everything. It probably wants all the animals back in the wild. That’s where I believe they belong. But I didn’t always think about animals that way. I respect them now because I fear them. I’ve seen what they can do.

Growing up, I thought animals were nature’s little angels with their oh-so-obedient whiskers. My hamster would trundle over and softly nudge my ankles with his wet nose. That was before I had any real responsibility toward animals.

Those warm and fuzzy feelings are in the past.

That was all before I met Skittles.

Mr. Vinny’s Pet Emporium was tucked away in a New Jersey town I’d rather not name. For those of you that have spent a while in Jersey, you’ll know where I’m talking about. As for the rest of you, just imagine a town where more white-trash-dumpster-divers die from falling vending machines than dump truck accidents. Of all the horrific ways to go, an unbalanced vending machine just might make the late nightly news. Oddly enough, this tragic phenomenon happens so often here in ___________ New Jersey that onlookers simply chase after rolling cans of free Mountain Dew instead of calling 911.

That’s just one example of the ass-backwards priorities in Jersey. That awful Jersey Shore TV show, staged and fake as it is, provides a small glimpse into the ongoing drama that does happen. Some people outside the state joke about that show being a documentary. And from what I’ve seen, they have a valid point.

Why is this town so insane? Has civilization declined this far in morality? These are the questions that used to keep me up at night before the animals took over.

———

I’ve worked for some memorable characters at different jobs, but none of them scared me as much as Vinny Johnson, the owner of the pet shop. He is a total douche bag and has one of those faces that looks like he sneezed wrong, scrambling his features. For example, his eyes are spread so far apart that he can watch NASCAR in the front row without turning his head. His mouth curls up in a permanent sneer—the aftermath of a nasty dog bite. There’s another scar that weaves between his eyebrows, ending just next to his bulbous nose. I’ve always wondered if his nose honks. But I’ve never been brave enough to give it a squeeze. He’d probably bite my finger off.

And boy-oh-boy, he likes to tell stories. They aren’t the kind of stories you’d tell at a picnic or family get-together. You wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—but he does.

Yeah, he’s not shy about his past. Our staff meetings were usually spent listening to one of his recent adventures. You see, he likes to travel as much as he can. When Vinny was a teenager, he began collecting snakes. He started with the kinds of snakes you’d expect: garden snakes, rattlesnakes, even vipers. But the sheer thrill of collecting the “tame ones,” as he called them, eventually lost its sting. I can’t make up this shit.

Now, I really have no idea where the hell he found one, but I’ll never forget the day—it was a Tuesday—that Vinny waltzed into the pet shop with a picture of his new specimen: a South American anaconda with thirteen stripes down its back.

I’d never seen Vinny so jacked before.

He was jumping up and down like a schoolgirl, waving the Polaroid picture around, trying to gauge our reactions. The other pet shop workers, Buzz and Phyllis, tried to act impressed. What a motely crew they are. Buzz even asked if he could get Vinny to sign a copy of the picture to post on eBay.

I could see through their empty grins.

Buzz hated snakes. He believed they slithered from volcanoes, straight from hell. His superstitious beliefs are kind of pathetic when you think about it. The snakes we kept in the shop didn’t bite since most of them were defanged.

Even so, Buzz refused to clean the snake cages. 

That job was usually up to me. 

Vinny never explained how he got the anaconda across the border or through customs. But there was a detail he wouldn’t shut up about: the price.

Vinny tucked the Polaroid into his leather jacket and took a deep breath before revealing how much legal tender he’d dumped on this prehistoric behemoth.

“Listen, guys. Listen,” he said, wiping sweat from his forehead. “You’ll never believe what I shelled out to get him. A beauty, he is. Gawd. You’ll never guess.”

“How much?” Buzz said. “Spit it out.”

“You sure you don’t want to sit down before. …”

“What?” Phyllis snapped her hand to her hip and tapped her foot. “Vinny, give us some credit here.”

 “How much?” Buzz actually looked like he wanted to know.

“Seven,” Vinny said.

Phyllis popped a bubble in her gum. “Seven …?”

“Thousand?” Buzz chimed in.

“Nah, guys. Come on,” Vinny said. “It’s a friggin’ anaconda. Not a beat up Toyota.”

“Seven million.” Phyllis leaned against the counter.

“Really, Phyllis? Nah! Naaaah, man. Seven. Ya know. Seven of the big G’s!”

“No way.” Buzz did that snapping thing with his fingers, a habit most people leave behind in middle school when they realize it leads to arthritis: the universal gesture for ‘poned.’

Vinny cracked his neck, letting off steam. “All right, enough guessing. I’ll tell you. Seven hundred thousand, baby. I’ve been saving up.”

“Holy shit!” Buzz just kept snapping his fingers into his wrist, hard and fast enough to start a fire. “You didn’t.”

“I sure did.”

Phyllis clenched one of her burly fists. “Don’t tell me that, Vinny.”

“What?”

“Don’t you tell me you burned that kind of money on a damn snake!” Her eyes went baseball wide then softball wide.

“And …?”

“God, you are really too much, Vinny. How many years have I been beggin’ for a raise? Or a rotten Christmas bonus?”

“Now look. …”

Phyllis flung her hands into the air, side-swiping the cockatoo cage. “That’s it, Vinny. I’m sick of it. I will not be upstaged by another pink-tongued serpent!”

She heaved herself over the checkout counter and swung her legs over the change jar, almost scattering hundreds of nickels and dimes across the linoleum. Phyllis plopped her middle-aged muffin top in front of the cash register and pulled out a stack of 20s. She riffled through the bills and shoved the wad of greasy cash into her bra, adjusting it without breaking eye-contact with Vinny. “I should have listened to my friends, Vin. They told me you’d pull something crazy like this. I just didn’t think it’d be another damn snake, you sonofabitch!”

“Hold on now. …” Vinny took a step toward the shop entrance and propped the door open with his right foot. A grin took over his face. Then he hollered out the door, “Steve-o! I think they’re ready to see it!”

Phyllis closed the cash register and froze. “No…No…No! You’d better not be doing what I. …”

Vinny spoke over her fear. “That’s right. It’s time to show him off. Get the cage ready, Buzz. Our little shop just got a main attraction. Okay, Steve-o, bring in Skittles. And put your gloves on. She’s probably hungry.” Then he let loose a fog-horn guffaw.

Phyllis marched out the back door. “Burn in hell, Vinny!” 

Vinny didn’t follow her.

The $230 she stole from the register would be back when she returned a few days later to reclaim her job. Vinny knew Phyllis would be back. In fact, he would have bet money on it. That’s just the kind of person he was; a gambling man. He and Phyllis had history. The romantic kind. Let’s just say she broke his heart, snapped it right in half. This wasn’t the first time Phyllis acted out this scene. It was her way.

Pure, unadulterated drama. She a diva and he a douche.

Thinking back on it, they were perfect for each other.

———

Vinny made me stay overnight to keep watch over Skittles. The first night with any new animal is always touch and go. I had to make sure the cages were air-tight and to start the regimented food cycle. For a snake thicker than a fire hose, the food portions are extreme. I prepared a full meal of seared beef tips, gravy, and asparagus. Any cowboy chuck wagon cook would have been proud. I usually tried to make the first meal special so the animals created a positive association with me in their minds. It was safer that way. At least, I thought it was.

After preparing Skittles’s meal, the charred BBQ smell made me hungry. I slid the snake’s food into a rotating compartment in the cage and cooked up a T-bone steak that had been calling my name in the freezer. She watched me cook the meat, flicking her tongue into the air, tasting the cloud of seasoning coming from the grill.

It was eerie at first, eating with the snake. She kept tilting her head down, always keeping me in the corner of her eye. Skittles was sizing me up: she the prehistoric predator; I the potential prey. Thank God for that steel cage. It was the only physical barrier separating us. Sitting across from her, letting the T-bone steak melt in my mouth, I remembered my own mortality. This situation could have been avoided altogether if I hadn’t signed that damn contract.

Vinny is truly a bastard. He should have warned me about all the dangers involved in running a pet store. I’ve been clawed at, spat at; Bandit, the teenage raccoon, threw shit at me once. All this abuse for $8.40 per hour. I guess it’s better than the years I spent shoveling rocks at my uncle’s landscaping business. At least at the pet store, I got to see kids find new friends when they took home a bunny or a puppy for the first time.

Sleep came like a sledgehammer.

The excitement surrounding Skittles’s arrival must have exhausted me.

I don’t remember falling asleep. But I’ll never forget waking up.

My face was sticky with BBQ sauce, momentarily gluing my face to the workbench near the backroom grill. As my vision blurred into focus, I looked toward the grill, thankful I hadn’t left it on overnight. Vinny would instantaneously combust if I accidentally burned down the place.

A clear stripe of sunlight cut across the floor, and my eyes followed it. The light etched up the first row of cages, past legal documents and calendars, then curved toward the door near the cash register. A sharp pain shot through my lower back. I sat up and realized I was sitting on a gnawed-clean T-bone from last night. I removed the bone and threw it across the room, missing the garbage can entirely. Thankfully, no one was around. I was embarrassed without an audience.

I sat up, stretched my neck, cracked my knuckles, all those early morning tune-ups before facing the day. Getting up, the blood drained from my head, blotting my vision with purple spots. And when I took a step, my left knee locked up, pricking my skin up and down with pins and needles. Half of me was still asleep.

Then, I noticed the freezer was open. Even after I tripped over myself, an invisible force pulled me toward the freezer. Empty bags and naked T-bones were strewn all over the floor. I stepped on a few peas that had since thawed to mush. A family of flies surveyed the carnage, eating their fill.

Did I really eat this in my sleep?

I looked down to my stomach, no bigger than normal. I didn’t feel full. Actually, my stomach was talking to itself, growling.

There’s no way. Otherwise, I’m a total fat ass!

A trail of BBQ sauce weaved through more crumpled freezer bags. The sauce was speaking to me, hinting at the images I was about to witness. It was a path I didn’t want to follow, but no one else was around to walk it for me. Staggering into the main room, I heard the stacks of cages shaking with energy.

Part of the ceiling had been ripped open by a destructive force. I could hear the morning traffic filtering through the opening. Peering up, neck extended, I suddenly closed my mouth to avoid the pieces of pink insulation falling in tiny clumps like cotton candy. Scratch marks had been carved toward the opening as well, leaving a deadly etching of whatever burrowed through the roof. The scratches weren’t deep. Instead, they were smooth; almost resembling rope burns. Their cause wasn’t clear to me. But I knew the long carvings hadn’t been there when I fell asleep. And the gaping hole in the ceiling hadn’t been there either. I would have remembered that, at least.

I turned my attention back to the cages. The bunnies panicked and balled themselves up in the corners of their cells. Then, I noticed a generous collection of feathers wilting at the bottom of the birdcages. One of the cockatoos ruffled his feathers and puffed out his chest, ashamed about the new bald spot just above his tail. The birds rarely acted like this. And from what I remember, the birds didn’t shed feathers this dramatically either.

As I walked closer to them, the birds turned their heads, piercing me with sharp stares. Now, the spicy-tang-smell of the BBQ sauce was stronger than before. I turned the corner around the last birdcage and a ticking sound reached into my ears, pecking under my skull.

Click-a-clacka…tick-tick…click-a-clacka…tock-tock...

More mushed peas.

Click-a-clacka…

Water everywhere.

Tick-tick…

A pungent, rank odor.

Tock-tock…

Shards of glass, scattered like clear daggers.

Click-a-clacka…

Magnetically, I became entranced by the sound. I saw the bare, steel frames of the fish tanks, shattered beyond repair. Then lifeless, yet still vibrantly colored forms with closed gills were strewn all over the linoleum. I tip-toed around them, careful not to squish them further.

Enticed by the limitless smorgasbord just out of reach, Mittens, the one-eyed alley cat, hissed and pawed through the bars of her cage. When I looked at her, a rush of panic chilled my stiff legs.

The rascal…the prankster. That out-of-control raccoon, Bandit, was missing from his cage. But the lock was still attached to the latch. The top of the cage was dented as if something heavy and dense had fallen onto it, bending the bars enough for Bandit to escape. I looked up and over, just above Bandit’s empty dwelling. And for a moment, my heart stopped beating.

What I saw made it kick into sudden overdrive. Total turbo.

There’s a big difference between seeing and believing. That morning, I knew the difference. My gut squirmed when I finally realized…that Skittles…our striped anaconda…our new main attraction…was gone!

Copyright © 2017 by TJ Moore