An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
A Chance Encounter
By Kellie Doherty
Isis fiddled with her bracelet, swirling it around and around. The metal bit into her wrist. A nervous habit. She hoped to overcome it as an adult and yet, she still swirled. Her apartment loomed around her. The white walls and a hardwood floor seemed to judge her. Everything seemed to judge her. Everything would for running away. Brown boxes full of her old life sat piled in the corner by the door. It hurt too much to look at them. A green wallet and pair of sneakers sat beside them. The rest of the apartment lay bare, lifeless. An ache thudded deep in her chest. She rubbed her arms, wishing she had more than a t-shirt to wear. She had already walked through the place – a single bedroom and bath down the short hallway, a small kitchen to her right – she stood in the living area, facing the only window in the entire place.
The San Francisco skyline seemed imposing, the building spires jutting into the sky and the harsh white lights blotting out the stars. Headlights flashed by from a passing car. She shielded her eyes from the glare, but the taillights, crimson in the darkness, held her gaze. Its fading light splashed on the pavement, drawing up instant memories. Blood on the road, spilling from a cracked skull, eyes slowly shutting. Pain lanced through her heart. She pressed her hands on the sill, steadying herself. Even in this chilly apartment her palms sweated. Did her father have time to break? Isis rubbed the back of her neck and forced the memories down. Shifting her weight, she sighed and closed the blinds.
“Ms. Ivori? Are you ready to sign?”
Isis Ivori jumped. She had almost forgotten the landlord. A red faced man in a bright yellow shirt and pants that barely covered his girth, he snacked too often on jerky. In her apartment, too. She smiled. She had thought of this as her apartment. Funny. How fast things could change. Too fast, almost. The smile slid off her lips. She turned to Tomas Henderson.
“Yes, I’m ready.”
Tom handed her a clipboard of paper and a blue pen. She signed quickly, not wanting him to see her half-bitten nails. Too quickly, perhaps, for the ink smeared on her hand. It was always an issue when a southpaw like herself. She wiped the leftover ink on her jeans and gave him a smile. He didn’t know her well enough to know it wasn’t sincere. No one would know here.
“I guess that’s it then.” Tom mumbled through a mouthful of beef. He took the clipboard from her and strutted out the door. A bird, exactly like an ostrich actually, strutting like that. The door slammed heavily behind him.
“Yes,” Isis replied, “that’s it.”
Karla sat beside an empty container of ground-up earthworms, hands covered in the brown substance. Patrick, the bearded dragon, sat on her leg and munched on the last morsel of worm, he seemed content. She stroked his back, finger running over the dimpled skin, tracing the tan patterns. Patrick lifted his front leg and circled it, the common greeting for his species. He did it when he was happy, too.
“Good boy, Patrick.” Karla lifted the reptile from her leg and placed it in the tank. She flipped on the heat light. Patrick wandered over to the stone underneath it and flopped down. “That’s it, rest up for tomorrow. We have a show to put on.”
Karla feathered out the ferns in the corner of his tank over, providing some more hiding spots if necessary, then pinned the screen top in place. She lifted a tiny bottle of sanitizer from her vest pocket and squirted some into her palm, spreading it around with the other hand. Couldn’t be too careful. Another trainer had refilled Patrick’s water bowl and scooped the soiled areas clean. Truthfully Karla didn’t even need to be here, not this late at night. But she hadn’t been able to sleep and this placed always made her happy.
At night it was the best place to be, the San Francisco Zoo. Dragging her fingers across the chairs in the center, she looked at the all too familiar surroundings She loved it here, the darkened pathways winding around the mammal habitats, the quiet hooting from the bird cages. The usual noise of the city seemed muted in this place. Karla grabbed a plate of lettuce and, humming softly, moved deeper into the reptile habitat. Cages lined the walls here. The sweet scent, the soft glow from their heating lamps, even the heavy moist air seemed comforting.
Suzi’s tank was in the back, the only alligator lizard in the habitat, a species native to California. Karla walked over to her tank, tucked in the corner of the habitat, right next to the exit door. Suzi’s tank was darkened. Some assistant had probably forgotten to turn on the light. Laughing, she placed the lettuce on the fake green grass table islanding in the center of this room. Squeezing herself between the wall and the cage, Karla fumbled with the wires. Sure enough one of the plugs lay on the dirt floor. She plugged it back in. Light bloomed overhead. Karla tapped on the glass, peering inside. She spotted her friend instantly. Suzi hid under her branch, her bright yellow and green scales standing out against the brown flooring. Movement caught Karla’s eye, she stared past the double glass panes and gasped. A women clad in jeans and black coat reached for the lettuce. The woman’s shoulder length blond hair hid part of her face, but sky blue eyes stared intently at the food. The woman snatched a leaf and brought her hand to her mouth.
“Don’t eat that!” Karla yelped.
Isis jerked her hand back, the lettuce she grabbed falling to the floor. The reptile spoke to her? No. She narrowed her eyes. A black haired stranger stared at her from behind the tank, dark eyes widening. What the hell was the woman doing behind the glass? Isis glanced at the fallen lettuce. What the hell was she doing? Her stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten anything since she heard of her father’s death. Hadn’t wanted to. She synched her coat tighter, hoping to quell the noise. The woman came around the cage. A black zoo jacket with McField, Animal Trainer stitched in white covered her basic white shirt. The stranger wiped her hands on her dark pants.
“It’s just lettuce.” Isis picked up the greenery and held it out.
The woman plucked the lettuce from Isis’s fingers and placed it on the plate. “It’s laced with sedative. And vitamins to make Suzi’s scales shiny. It’s not meant for human consumption.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean–”
The worker grabbed the entire pile of leaves and fiddled with the tank, dropping the lettuce into the space. Isis couldn’t help herself. Isis stared, she couldn’t help herself. The worker was very pretty, and her jeans practically warranted it. Scrubbing a hand over her face, Isis cursed herself. What was she doing? Her cheeks burned, and she folded her arms across her chest. She had no right to stare.
The worker closed the cage up, then faced Isis again. Lines creased the sides of her mouth as her frown deepened. “You’re not supposed to be here. The Zoo is closed. How’d you even get in?”
Isis scowled. Not her proudest moment, but she didn’t like the tone of the woman’s voice. Her own tone hardened. “I snuck in.”
The woman snatched the now empty plate. “Why?”
“Fifteen dollars is too much for entry. But I wanted to see the birds.”
The woman sighed, tucking the plate under her arm. “What’s your name?”
“Isis Ivori. What’s yours?”
“Karla McField, nice to meet you. Ivori, huh? The woman pulled out her phone and flipped it open. “Good, I can alert the authorities now.”
Isis stepped back, mouth falling open. Her stomach growled again, louder this time. The woman glanced down, eyeing the tightened belt.
Karla grimaced at the thinness of this woman’s waist. This Isis Ivori was obviously a recluse, judging from the way she shied away. Karla’s compassion built up over years of dealing with injured animals as a vet before her zoo years pried against her anger at finding this woman after hours. She did seem awfully hungry. Karla reached into her vest’s pocket and got out a crisp ten-dollar bill.
She pushed it to the woman. “Here.”
Isis stared at the money. She tentatively held out her hand.
Karla dropped the bills into it. “Buy some real food. I won’t call the cops this time. But if I ever catch you here again, Isis Ivori, you will be taken to jail.”
Isis jerked her head down and dashed away, her footsteps gradually getting softer as she ran.
Karla shook her head. “Am I crazy?”
No, she answered her own question. Just shocked to see another person here at night. Heat crept over her cheeks. And such a pretty one at that. Karla smiled. Down, girl, no need getting excited over some homeless woman. Besides her kindness had another side. She pushed against the exit door, bursting out into the fresh air. If she had called the cops, they’d wonder why she was here as well.
Isis awoke, her dream still wanting to pull her down. The giant hole inside the earth, the stone tablet, the tiny bouquet of lilies haunted her even here. She shook her head, stretching her arms to ease the building tension. The mattress seemed lumpier than at her home. Was that even possible? No, probably not, it was probably her who was out of sorts in this city.
Her actions of the previous night came back to her in a rush. The pretty zoo worker. The sad look creasing the worker’s face. The charity money she used to get a pathetic dinner that she hadn’t even touched. Of course she’d make that kind of impression.
But when the zoo worker, no when Karla stared at her with those bright gray eyes, Isis’s heart pounded much too erratically. She tried to shove her feelings down. No one really knew about her love for women. But that was because she hadn’t told them. She meant to, though. The ache started again, deep in her chest, shoving the air out of her lungs. She had always meant to tell her parents, always meant to discuss this aspect of her. But she never had the courage.
And now she never could.
The tightness in her chest squeezed. Her throat constricted. She swallowed the guilt down and got ready for the day.
Dressing in her best outfit – a simple pair of black slacks, an unadorned gray shirt she particularly liked today, and a pair of black heels – she locked her apartment and walked down a hallway, trailing her fingers on the smooth yellowed wallpaper. Tom had stopped by three times that night as she unpacked, once to check her water still worked, again to see if she had enough bedding for the night and a third to ask her out for dinner.
She refused, mainly because she needed to unpack, but also because he wasn’t her type. A small part of her she kept hidden from the world revolted against the man. No, he was far away from her type. She had gone out soon after. And met the zoo worker. The intensity of the woman’s gray eyes stayed with Isis. Her chest tightened. Tears prickled the backs of her eyes. She reached the end of the hallway and pushed the main door open, the chill autumn air chasing the pain away. For now, at least.
Isis passed by unfamiliar faces in this unfamiliar city, the spires dwarfing her small statue. She pulled her old black peacoat tighter across her stomach and kept her gaze to the sidewalk. It was easier that way. Reaching the building she needed, Isis went into a lawyer’s office, the only one in town that had given her a job. She slid behind the receptionist’s desk and counted the hours down until the end of day.
Karla clapped her hands. Patrick sauntered over to her, waving his foot around. The audience surrounding her red Showcase table cheered. A glass pane separated them and her. The protective column kept the audience members from touching her pets. One little boy smiled and tapped his finger hard on the glass, his eyes trained the lizard. Karla stared at the little boy and wagged her finger, putting on her sternest of faces. The boy backed away. Karla winked and the boy smiled again. It took very little to cheer the younger ones up. The adults though, she scanned the crowd, the adults watched passively thus far, hands on their children’s shoulders, waiting for the chance to pull them away. She tried hard to impress the older generation just as much as the younger. Her act hadn’t failed her yet.
“Patrick may be a lizard, but he’s a gentleman as well,” Karla said in a clear voice.
Karla reached under her table and brought out a tiny black top hat. She perched it atop Patrick’s head. Patrick slowly bobbed his head up and down, a sign of submission, causing the children to clap. One father raised his eyebrow, a smirk climbing up his face.
Karla continued her routine with practiced ease. “He does look very good, but he might just need a cane and briefcase too.”
She brought out a tiny cane and a matching black case, both handles coated with a sticky substance to allow Patrick for easier grabbing. She put the items next to her lizard and stroked his back. Pulling out her spray bottle, she misted the area around her pet, then misted him as well. It was their sign, that she would scare him in a few moments and to not worry. She didn’t like pushing him, but he always seemed to enjoy it. He inched closer to the toys, wrapping his claws around each item.
More adults zoned in. One mother even leaned closer.
Karla smiled. They would love this. She plucked her last item from under the table – a single bird feather. Dragging the feather across the table, she flicked it against Patrick’s tail. He spooked. Lifting onto his two hind legs, he ran a few steps, unintentionally clanking the cane on the table and swinging the briefcase in the process. For a second, he actually did look like a lizard businessman, late for a bus. The audience burst into cheers. He lowered onto all fours and his skin brightened to yellow. His happy color. Karla smile widened as the children gasped at the sudden change. She placed her hand gently by his side, stroking her thumb across the spins of his neck. He always was happiest after she spooked him. Somehow, he knew it was a game. She slid her hand under the belly, careful to curl her fingers underneath and support his bulk. His tail rested gently on her arm.
Once reassured he was comfortable, she raised her gaze. Bright blue eyes stared back. The woman from before. Isis Ivori. Still wearing her black jacket, still peering intently at her. Karla had been on the receiving end of a staring contest many times before, but, for the first time, it felt as if the other woman stared not just at her, but through her, too. Exposed, Karla dropped her gaze. The audience members clapped their hands and wandered away, the high-pitched bell ringing through the air, cutting conversations and viewings short. Karla started, like she always had this week. The new addition to her zoo would take some getting used to.
A tapping distracted her. She looked up. Isis moved closer to the pane, a ten dollar bill faceup on the glass. Isis face crinkled adorably as she smiled. Adorably? Karla shook her head, shaking that thought out of her mind. It had been a full two weeks since she’d seen the strange woman, and long since forgotten her money offering. Karla put Patrick back in his little carrying case – a gray box with holes punctured through it and bedding inside – and washed her hands in the tiny sink next to her table. She latched opened the column. Isis met her on this side, holding out the cash.
Shifting Patrick from one hand to the other, Karla took the money, trying to ignore the sudden heat in her fingers as they grazed Isis’s.
“Thanks,” Karla muttered.
“No.” Isis shook her head. “I wanted to thank you for giving it to me in the first place. It was my first night here and I didn’t really plan on getting dinner. You solved that for me.”
“You’re new?” Karla motioned for Isis to follow, leading the way down the path towards the reptile habitat. She felt surprisingly at east with this new girl. The woman looked no older than herself, twenty-five at most. Her black jacket fell open, revealing a purple shirt and what looked to be the same tattered jeans as before.
“Yes.” Isis blurted the word out quite loud. Karla raised an eyebrow.
Isis continued, her words mashing together. “I have an apartment by the Seward Street Slides. I work as a receptionist. I have money, really. You just caught me on a bad day. I had to move and didn’t plan it very well, that’s all.”
They reached the reptile habitat. Karla held the door. A blast of warm moist air washed over them. Karla breathed deep, but caught the grimace crossing Isis’s face. Did she not like it inside the reptile room? A crazy sense of chivalry pounded through Karla’s mind and, for more than a second, she wondered if they should sit outside instead. Then Isis walked into the habitat, pushing back her long hair. Karla caught a flash of something silver on Isis’s wrist. As if responding to her curiosity, Isis brought her hand up and twisted the bracelet around and around.
Karla slid past her. “What? Did some guy break your heart or something in your old town?”
“Yes, actually.” Isis stopped twirling the bracelet.
Shit. Karla pushed too far again. She cursed her stupidity. Why was she so damn curious about this woman? She tried backtracking. “Oh, I’m sorry–”
Isis interrupted her. “My dad died.”
Isis bit her tongue, the pain spiking through her mouth. But she had to or all the other crappy things in her life would come blubbering after. Why was she spilling her guts? In the middle of some hazy room surrounded by reptiles to some woman she only met once before. What the hell was she doing?
Isis tried to cover her slip. “I’m sorry, Karla, I didn’t mean to say that. I hardly know you.”
Karla let the lizard go back into its tank. “It’s okay.”
“No, I shouldn’t–”
Karla sat down on the padded chairs that ran through the middle of the reptile habitat. She patted the seat beside her. “It’s okay. You can talk to me if you’d like.”
Isis slumped into the chair. She leaned back, running a hand over her face. It all came back to her too fast. The rain, the slick roads, the terrible car accident and the terrible night her father died. Her chin trembled. Her dad died. She’d never see him again. She looked, unseeing, at the tanks glowing around her. She rubbed her arms, trying to warm them. It didn’t work. Shock ran through her once more and, even in the midst of all this, she put her head in her hands and cried. Much to her surprise, Karla rubbed her back.
“I ran away.” Sniffing, Isis tried to compose herself. She couldn’t breath very well. It came out in a rush, her story. “I ran away from home like a pathetic little girl. I left my mom. I just couldn’t stand it there anymore. There was this car accident, a horrible car accident, the car was completely wrecked and my dad…” Isis couldn’t finish. Her sobbing cut off her speech. She took a few steadying breaths. Her eyes trained on the dirt floor and the varying footprints embedded in it. “My father died. It was just a month ago. When I heard the news, I just couldn’t process it. So I ran away. It was stupid, I know, but I couldn’t take it. I never did it. I never could tell him that–”
Tears coursed hot rivers down her cheeks. She ran a hand over her face, tying to scrub the pain away. Her chest tightened. She hated that Karla’s hand still resting on her back felt so good. It made her cry all the harder. What the hell was she doing? Sobbing her life story to a woman she barely knew? Pathetic.
“Tell him what?” Karla asked.
Isis shook her head. She couldn’t tell some random woman. Not if she couldn’t even tell her own parents. It would be too pathetic. So she lied. “Tell him that I loved him.”
“He knew that,” Karla whispered. “Of course he knew that.”
Isis drew herself up, tightening her muscles to keep them from shaking, and swiped a hand over her eyes. She took a few more deep breaths. They didn’t help very much. “Yes, yes he did. I’m just being silly, crying all over the place.”
Karla reached over and touched Isis’s hand. Normally she would flinch away but, this time, Isis didn’t mind.
“It’s not silly. It’s not silly at all.” Karla squeezed her hand. “Hold on, wait here for a second, okay?”
Isis nodded and Karla darted out the door.
Karla couldn’t stop thinking of Isis as she ran through the now empty zoo. Poor girl. She skidded to a stop at the eatery – a quaint little wood cabin. She snuck inside, hinging the heavy door open so it wouldn’t squeak. It was a simple eatery, round tables on one end and an open kitchen on the other. She went around the counter and snuck her hand underneath, procuring a bottle and two shot glasses. Mike wouldn’t mind. But just in case she slapped four dollars onto the table then headed out. The stuff wasn’t even worth spending that much but at a time of need even this crap could taste okay. A father’s death warranted it anyway.
She arrived back at the reptile habitat and slipped inside. Isis looked no happier, fingers of one hand twisting through the bracelet of another. The chain snapped and the bracelet fell to the floor. Karla swooped down to pick it up before Isis could and handed it back to Isis. The simple chain with three silver charms – owls, all of them, all lined up in a row – rested lightly on her palm before Isis snatched it back.
She nodded to the bracelet. “What’s with the owls?”
At the question Isis seemed to perk up. She straightened in her chair and drew her finger across the charms. She even smiled a little. “They were my dad’s favorite creature, he always thought that liking owls automatically made him wise.”
Karla laughed. When she realized she shouldn’t, though, she stopped. “Sorry. That’s a nice way of thinking.”
“What’s that?” Isis pointed to the bottle Karla still grasped in her other hand.
Karla brought it around, the frosted glass displaying a single sweet treat. “This is doughnut vodka. Mike has some better stuff in the back, but he wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Isis merely stared. “Vodka made from doughnuts?”
Karla laughed. The woman seemed so shocked. What town was she from anyway? She opened the bottle and poured two glasses. “They can put almost anything into vodka nowadays. What little hick town did you grow up in?”
Isis took a sip and shuddered. “Cornfields. It’s in Arizona.”
Karla eyed Isis. If only the woman wasn’t so beautiful. Even in this harsh environment, her skin seemed to glow. “And you picked California because…”
“It was close enough to home but far enough away, too.” Isis took another sip. “This stuff tastes disgusting.”
Karla downed her shot and grimaced as the liquid burned down to her stomach. “Yeah, well it’s not really supposed to taste good.”
“Then why drink it at all?”
“Because it’s better than nothing.” Karla smirked and poured herself another shot. “So, what else didn’t you tell your dad?”
Isis downed her shot. It seemed to be a bright idea to make more time for herself, but the stuff burned so bad she ended up hacking into her hand instead. How did this stranger ask such good questions? Her entire body seemed to ache from holding in this truth. She kept it hidden for so long, her little secret. She couldn’t tell anyone now. But she had always meant to tell her parents someday, when the time was right. What the hell? This woman doesn’t know her from Jane anyway.
Isis blurted out the truth. “I never told him I’m a lesbian.”
Karla leaned back in her chair and downed her second shot. She nodded. “It can be hard to do.”
“How would you know?”
Karla smiled. “I’m one as well.”
Isis couldn’t believe it. The second person she really talks to in this big city is a like her? “What?”
Laughing, Karla put her glass down and rested her elbows on her knees, glancing over her shoulder. “You didn’t think there were many of us around? Or that you somehow where the only one did you?”
“No, it’s just… I didn’t think I’d…” Nothing smart came to mind so Isis halted her mumbling.
“You’re not alone, you know.” Karla leaned back once more and hooked her arm around the chair, fully turning to face Isis. “If you feel so strongly about it, you should do it. Tell your father’s grave if that’ll make you feel better. He probably already knew anyway. My whole family knew before I realized it myself.” She patted Isis’s leg. “You should go home and grieve with your mother. She probably needs you more than ever right now. After that, tell her what you wanted to tell your dad, let her know how you feel. It’ll be hard, terrifying actually, but you’ll get through it and come out stronger on the other side.”
Isis marveled at this woman sitting beside her, this stranger who seemed to know her so well and say the exact things she needed to hear. “You’re very wise.”
“And I don’t even have an owl bracelet.” Kayla smiled and nudged her on the shoulder, as if to say, go, go now! A small smile pulled at Isis’s lips. She nodded. Yes, she should go home. She placed her glass on the chair, squeezed Kayla’s hand between her own, and walked out the door.
Kayla could only smile. She went over to Patrick’s cage and thumbed the screen open, reaching inside. Her fingers curled around Patrick’s wide belly, stroking the soft skin underneath. He curled around her hand and waved his arm.
She petted his chin. “Sometimes all you need is a little push to reach your full potential, right, bud?”
© 2013 Kellie Doherty