An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Pree K. Kastelic
“Frances? Are you Frances Miller?”
Even though he sat next to the swamp cooler, the sound of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” was not masked beneath the whirring, displaced air of the fan. Frank detested Journey, and his aching headache throbbed against his jaw as he gritted his teeth. Willing his hands to stop shaking, he raised the third cup of black coffee to his lips. If he were to sit in the tiled lobby of “Holly Rollers” doughnut shop long enough, he would hear this 1981 chart-topper three times or more, and each time his entire body thrummed with intense annoyance. Instead of looking immediately at the stranger, who had pounded through the door only moments before, he continued staring down at the pages of his Tom Clancy book, raising it to keep it in eyesight as he lifted his mug for a noisy sip. With a defeated, heavy sigh, he set the open book on plastic pink laminate tabletop, avoiding the circle of moisture left from his mug.
He already knew what this was about. Frank had thought he was through with this particular chapter, after the visitors into town had dwindled to nothing almost three years before. Never supposing he would have to deal with this conversation again, he had begun going ritualistically back into town to run errands on Sundays.
There’s no protection in having habits, Frank decided.
“I suppose you’re here about that night?” he said, gesturing toward the door where the man had come. “No need to look surprised. I had a lot of visitors that first year, when people around town were still gossiping about it. Just sit down, boy, and let’s get this over with.”
The boy visibly hesitated, watching him beneath a head of slightly unkempt blonde hair. After a moment, he pulled out the chair with a gentle screech across checkered tile and sat, pulling his backpack over one shoulder to cradle on his lap, his jaw set and his gaze uncertain.
“My name is Matt Hanson,” said a mouth surrounded by gruff stubble. Though the man looked young and boyish to Frank, he placed his age somewhere in the mid-20’s. Hardly a boy at all. A bright-eyed, sturdy-jawed man sat in front of him, watching him, less nervous as he settled into his seat.
“Well, it seems you know who I am– and I know better than to tell you to shove off,” Frank said, putting his down coffee cup as he paused. “Nope, that never worked. Just… Tell me, first. Why all the interest? Why come all the way to Holly Springs, Mississippi to talk to a man about crop circles? Don’t you have something better to do?” Frank’s voice conveyed just how old this topic had become, and he had by then received a wide array of answers to this question, most of which bored him within the first few sentences. Stories of alien abductions and searches for the truth against a governmental conspiracy were frequent and, by this point, expected. This man, however, was pulling out a notebook and didn’t seem to hear him for a time, his hand scrambling around the bottom of his bag.
When he finally spoke, his voice was nervous no longer. He had the clipped voice of a professional, staring the older man straight in the eyes until Frank’s gaze trembled and darted away. “I’m a Master’s student at the University of Texas. My professor and I are currently studying the mental phenomenon of alien hallucinations and other paranormal stories,” he disclosed.
“Well, Hansen, I don’t know anything about aliens. I never saw any aliens. I’ve been telling people for years– it was a bolt of lightning. I put out the fire with a central pivot irrigation system.”
This seemed to snap the man out of polite courtesy. “I don’t eat that!” he reproached, defiant. “Not even for a second.”
In his hundreds of interviews, Frank had never received this reaction. It made him stop mid-sentence, suddenly, his mouth suspended in time. As he closed it, Matt Hanson continued to speak, unhindered by the near interruption.
“I’m telling you, Mr. Miller, it’s a phony story. You’ve rehearsed that exact explanation, hundreds of times, but you’ve never explained just how you managed to find the fire at two o’clock in the morning, walk a mile from your house, move the central pivot to the correct positioning, and put out the fire before it spread more than eight meters across. I’m not here to be dismissed so easily.” Clearly, he had been anticipating this explanation, and he was gaining confident fervor every moment while the greasy, slightly dirty man in front of him watched in disbelief. “Tell me. Please. What really happened that night?”
For a moment that dragged through the doughnut shop, Frank’s thoughts were like a chugging locomotive. The blonde man’s gaze held him steadily, he could feel them taking him in– sizing him up. Frank wondered how he had been described by whomever had pointed him here. “Long hair. Thick facial stubble. Clothing, dirty. Fingernails, dirty. Jeans, torn. A ruddy drunk escaping into mystery novels and shoving doughnuts into his face– may explain why he’s been thickening around the middle, too. Can’t miss him.”
Pulling himself back to the present, Elton John’s “Guess That’s Why they Call it the Blues” wailed from a pair of old speakers. The fan whirred on, raising goosebumps on the thin arms of the man in front of him. Finally, Frank let out another long, smooth sigh. “Alright, kid. You win. I’ll tell you. Just go on up to the counter and get a bear claw. Listen… The least you can do is spend $4 and support a family business– not many people travel this way since the Bankhead Highway’s been sidestepped.” Frank was standing, heading for the door, but he left his paperback on the table.
The sun beat off the asphalt like a living organism, the air thick and humid as the few cars in the lot twinkled metal sunlight his direction. Frank stretched himself on a seat outside the window, his brow glistening instantly with humidity. The door swung helplessly on its hinges as Matt Hansen emerged, holding a plate full of large pastry.
“You won’t find a better bear claw a hundred miles around,” Frank said, conversationally. As the man began tearing doughy pieces and flaking sugar glaze from his treat, Frank watched him, succumbing with a tired hand through his greasy hair. “I’ll tell you everything I remember.”
Frank was unaccustomed to the uncomfortable feeling that follows a great-grandparent’s death. Knowing it would happen eventually, and not being particularly close with his mother’s grandfather, he found himself the newest resident of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Within the town that reports a smaller population each year, he was forced to accept the condolences from strangers with a somber grace. An awkward, forced interaction would ensue, consoling memories fondly shared by many residences of the small town regarding his great-grandfather’s work ethic. Though Frank hadn’t visited Mississippi often as a child, he was now suddenly put in charge of the “family farm”. His mother, an only child, had called him one morning to tell him the news. She had a career, she said, travel plans, and had no intention of leaving California.
His mother looked a little different every time he saw her. The money she garnered from her third husband, a medical lawyer, during the crux of their dark divorce supported her desire to remain young and wrinkle-free. She barely resembled herself, all lips and chest. Frank never knew what to talk to her about, but she usually filled a conversation without requiring any discourse. Each phone call became a steady stream, Frank holding the receiver and waiting only long enough for a pause to promptly end the conversation.
In the weeks that followed, repeated phone calls and classic Catholic guilt had removed any choice Frank, thirty at the time, may have had otherwise. There was no one else to move across the country, to Mississippi, to attend the property and continue the family tradition. Plus, with his Bachelor’s degree in English, Frank had worked only hard enough to support his drinking habit as he received rejection letters from his writing exploits. He had no family, no obligations, and he had spent his twenties penning dark poems in bar corners. The plot of land had passed through the generations since the late 1800’s– any thought of abandonment was utterly out of the question.
Each time he spoke with Brittany on the phone the first year away, she told him how rarely their mother was home. His sister was not completely self reliant at twenty-five, due to her location on the Autism spectrum– Frank knew she needed supervision and guidance, and their mother had no space in her life for maternal cares.
Frank had to admit that he was only marginally superior as a caretaker. He often left her alone too long, and would find her still camped in front of the television where he had left her, sinking into the cushions with a sagging air of complete despondence. Opening another beer by skillfully pivoting the neck against the countertop, he took a long guzzle as he went to the pantry for some noodles and canned spaghetti sauce for dinner. He had never learned to cook much else.
They learned early on that there is very little work associated with corn farming. They worked only a few days a year, it seemed, and the rest had cadenced in a severe and depressing boredom. He would often tune out her incessant rambling about what she watched on television, but sometimes he could only scream to keep from despising his sister, his only company on this desolate island of farmhouse amidst the windswept waves of government-subsidized corn crops.
It seemed, after five years or so, that the rest of the world had abandoned them. Television, hangovers, and beer became his daily ritual, and he gauged a successful day by the amount of hours he spent outside the house. Sometimes, he would look out from the porch where his grandfather had often camped, surveying the acreage with bored resignation.
When he was young, his first exposure to death had shaken him for weeks. He had been riding his skateboard down the sidewalk when he stopped short, suddenly, feeling the concrete beneath his sneaker to cease his momentum. Abandoning the skateboard, it rolled into the weeds of the field and waited. He took to his knees and found himself suspended above a baby mouse, back broken, helplessly feeling the world with blind sweeps of its impossibly tiny front legs. Its mouth opened and closed in silent screaming, wordlessly desperate cries for help.
He had been too horrified by the macabre of the scene to turn away. He did nothing but watch, his cut-off shorts and ACDC t-shirt, the sun above baking the skin underneath. His father had once gone, alone, put their cat to sleep when it was diagnosed with feline leukemia. “Put to sleep” was such a nice thought, an animal being put in a state of perpetual, peaceful resting. This was different. The mouse on the impossibly hot sidewalk was suffering in every jerky, wretched movement, and he was utterly helpless to assist. The mouse was better off dead, he realized. It would never recover from such a debilitating injury– even its mother had known that in some way, some cognitive understanding, before she left her baby on the sidewalk.
Throwing himself into the bushes, he kicked weeds aside in search. When he found a sizable boulder, a shadow of possibility passed over him. Slowly, his knees buckling under the weight of the boulder beneath him, he made the march back to the sidewalk with his heart helplessly pounding in his chest. It was merely a matter of positioning. Of letting gravity do the solemn task for him. He sat on the boulder and sobbed into his dirty hands.
The memory of that hot afternoon came back to him that night in the living room, his sister’s arms jerking involuntarily as she shook and jolted. Heart in his ears, he could only sit there and watch the seizure, his sister’s body jolting on the corner chair. A choking sound had alerted him, and he perched himself nearby, leaning against the arm of an old green sofa. The farm was nearly an hour away from Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, but he sat there with her and ran a drunken, mental inventory of everything they would need to make the trip to Tennessee. When her seizing stopped, she was quiet and still. He tried to sober up for their journey, and all he could say as he sipped water next to his barely-conscious sister was, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Frank didn’t breathe until they were in Memphis. Though the two of them stayed overnight in the hospital and underwent a staggering number of tests, the two of them quietly left the next afternoon without solid answers. Life changed very quickly, then. Something inside of him had snapped to attention that night– perhaps the realization that things could have easily dissolved into chaos, and he had not been in a clear state of mind to deal properly with an emergency. Or, perhaps, in that moment when he watched his sister, helplessly immobile on the couch, he couldn’t stop the vision of a tiny, helpless mouse. He realized how deeply he loved his sister, and how broken and lonely he would be without her presence.
A month later, he was watching Brit’s smile, wider than he had seen in many months. She laughed and cried in happiness when the service dog moved into their dilapidated farmhouse. Trained to alert him to potential danger with his sister’s health, the animal became a steadfast commodity in the wake of two more seizures. His sister and the dog became instantly attached to one another, and Keen spent most of his time positioned near Brit’s feet. Before long, Brit and the dog were taking long, silent walks around the farm. There was a marked improvement in her ability to communicate– whether it was the changes in Frank’s behavior, or the presence of the dog, he was entirely uncertain.
The biggest change, however, was Jackie. Precisely one month before the crop circles appeared, an exquisite dog trainer from Memphis came to visit the farm for the first time. Only poets and philosophers could comprehend the sheer volume of Frank’s emotional investment in a woman he had barely met. Yet, from the first moment he opened the door and stared into those pale blue eyes for the first time, he was transfixed. Captivated. Enraptured.
She was everything a man could tick off on his fingers. Frank’s afternoons after that first Wednesday were spent in silent reverie. Beautiful, but not vain. Kind hearted, but not weak. With a smile wider than the rolling hills and a tinkling laugh that went straight through him. A polite, articulate angel who gave commands with unabashed assertiveness.
For the first time in seven years, he opened the pages of an old composition notebook that had been buried amidst the rabble of his belongings. The handwriting within had been inked by his college self, the frantic scratching of a youth that could not translate thoughts onto paper swiftly enough. Just like that sturdy-jawed, wrinkle-free man of his past, his lamentations came freely, filling page after page.
Frank’s awareness of composing a sonnet for this woman hadn’t formally been realized. Yet he found himself on hot afternoons planted on the back porch, jotting down lines to translate into iambic pentameter, and time stopped. Brit brought him a glass of lemonade with a smile, and sat next to him. Silent, for the first time in days, she perched herself on the steps in front of him, blinking in the sunlight. They sat there a long time, and a wave of contentment washed over his cognizance.
The writing desk in the upstairs hallway was full of his great-grandfather’s stationary, relocated deep in the recesses of his memory on one of his initial explorations of the old house. Frank penned the final product in careful cursive, discarding ruined attempts in crackling heaps, and when he held the finished product in front of his face at arm-length, the overall effect filled him with pride.
Though he had only met this woman four times, he knew — somehow — that their souls had met before. Perhaps hundreds of times. Perhaps thousands of times. It was this absolute knowledge that bade him to stop her near the door before she left. Blinking, she took the letter with a slightly dubious politeness, tucking hair behind her ear as she shouted final goodbyes to Brit and the dog. Frank followed her white sneakered feet out the door, and watched her climb into her small green Neon, blowing dust behind tires as she distanced herself along the road, away from the farm.
That was the last time he ever saw Jackie. Jacqueline, the song of his pen and the pathetic, tiny heart inside his chest. The entire week, he anticipated her Wednesday arrival. His pulse beat like a caged bird beneath skin when he thought of her, reading his poem, realizing what a beautiful treasure she held. Positive that she would be overjoyed to see him, he attended to himself. Shaved his face. Cleaned his fingernails. When he looked in the mirror that morning, his face had grown far more gaunt, wrinkled, and tired than he remembered. In fact, he barely recognized the face in the mirror. Getting older wasn’t supposed to feel this way– he had intended to age gracefully, to accept the lost functionality of his body with wholehearted fortitude.
Yet, when the doorbell sang through the old house, he did not find the slender-legged Jackie standing there. A man, instead, young and vibrant, smiled widely at him from the porch. No explanation was given. It appeared this person was newly assigned to the dog’s training in Jackie’s place– calling himself Park Kingsley, speaking sweetly and depreciatingly to Brit. As they settled in for a session in dog training, Frank went straight to the garage.
No drink had touched his lips since the night of Brit’s first seizure. From the moment he had understood, with clarity, the reason for Jackie’s countenance during their last meeting, he felt shattered. Ruined and utterly despondent. The alcohol helped as it clouded his vision, the fourth drink in his hand. He wandered directionless through the house, lost and vacant. Immune to the sound of Brit’s constant inquiries, he tuned out the sound of her voice with skill born through years of daily practice.
When Brit helped him into his bed, the sagging ceiling above him spun like a vortex. Somewhere between the despair and desolation, he must’ve fallen asleep. He dreamed the window was ferociously rattling in its pane. He jolted upright, eyes snapping to the window to investigate. No sooner had he stood than his spine arched backward in sudden, crashing drunkenness and he immediately lost his balance. A floodlight appeared through the window, blinding him. He was falling backward as his eyes strained against it, and suddenly his feet no longer touched ground.
Neck snapping backward against the force, he found himself propelled against the atmosphere in front of him. He was flying toward the window with alarming speed– no time to react against the collision. Holding his forearms in front of him to brace for impact, he grimaced with tension and gritted his teeth. Yet, the seconds passed and the collision never came. Opening his eyes, he found himself in bed once again. His body shaking with adrenaline, he sat up and did not recognize the scene that suddenly encompassed him.
This bedroom was unfamiliar, with neat furniture and white drapes slapping in the morning sun. Something stirred next to him, and he found a complete stranger sitting up to reach for a nearby pair of glasses. She was pretty, with short black bangs, sleepily smacking her lips as she pushed a pair of thick-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. He went to the floor-length mirror, and didn’t recognize the face as his own. It was fuller, refined, framed by short clipped hair. More rattling from the window drew his eyes outward. Four barred owls watched him from the casement, each making guttural, deep-throated hoots. They grew outward, each of them with thin arms and hands, reaching straight through the windowpane. Their eyes were impossibly wide, black, and vacant.
When he woke, he was still completely intoxicated. He sat up on the mattress, holding his spinning head in his hands. The house was silent, though he wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he lost consciousness. Like a shell of a person, he held himself against the bannister as he blundered clumsily down the stairs. The dog barked suddenly from the doorway of his sister’s room. The sound visibly startled him, but didn’t hinder his progress as he walked to the side door in the kitchen, leading to the garage. The dog was left barking at the door, barred from pursuit.
He had stacked the matches atop a red plastic jug earlier that day, and found it easily in the dark. Feet slapping gravel, then grass, he abruptly plunged into the rows of corn without reluctance. Yellow and dry from the heat of summer sun, only a week from harvest, corn stalks towered high above his head. His feet clumsily led him forward, sideways, east and west. He was blind amidst the stalks, the sloshing of the black-spouted jug disturbing his balance further as it hung near his knees.
Unsure of his location and unaware how long he had been traveling, he stopped suddenly. Unperturbed, he splashed nearby crops and sloshed the ground ahead of him until the jug ran dry. Carefully sidestepping the liquid, the strike of the match illuminated soaring walls of crops all around him. With a sudden flick of his wrist, the sliver of burning wood soared through the air. The shock of sudden, audible`flame made his stomach catch in his throat. Within moments, the intensely bright orange fire was licking the stalks of corn crops. Turning with the jug, he ran.
Directionless and scrambling, he did not see the deep irrigation ditch until it was too late. He found himself on his knees in a current of muddy water sweeping his waist, two shallow walls of concrete on either side of him. Frank looked upward toward the smoke rising from the direction he had come.
“No…” he breathed.
Standing against the force of irrigation water, he urgently located the sprinkler system some yards away, far above his head. “No,” he repeated breathlessly. “No, no, no…” Clambering out of the ditch, he located the nearby crank in the dark and scrambled toward it, finding the metal cold and rusted beneath his calloused hands. Suddenly the crops to the north and south were showered with buckets of hissing water. He realized, with sudden purpose, that the line of sprinklers would have to be moved above the flames in the distance.
No memory resurfaced, when he woke suddenly, on precisely how he had managed to drown the fire. He must’ve lost conscious on a tangle of broken corn crop, his jeans wet and swampy around his legs. The sun had risen to the east, and far above him the sprinkler system was still pumping water. Frank laid in the squelching mud that was streaming excess moisture into sizable puddles. Too debilitated to move, he was suddenly aware of a persistent, throaty sound nearby.
A pair of perfectly round, vacant, obsidian eyes watched him from between the crop rows. A deep, guttural, rumbling sound issued from the small bird, and he recognized it immediately. For a moment suspended in time, they watched each other– he and the owl in a stand-off, each refusing to back down. The creature was close, wind ruffling lightly over brown feathers as it observed him, unmoving. Without warning, it suddenly took flight and left him, sweaty in the sun, a headache pounding his forehead unceasingly.
When he entered the farmhouse, Brit was sitting at the table. The dog barked viciously, growling, from its place by her feet. “You came back!” she cried, suddenly grinning. “I had a feeling– I had a feeling they would give you back.”
Holly Rollers doughnut shop sat on a lonely road on the skirting edge of the small town center. The parking lot still beat the energy from the sun against the two men sitting in front, an empty plate on the floor next to Matt Hansen’s feet.
“You were right,” said Frank, defeated. “It wasn’t lightning. And now you know how I found the fire so fast at two o’clock in the morning. Are you satisfied?”
For a long time, Hansen watched him. He seemed to hesitate, unsure. “I must admit. That wasn’t the story I was expecting to hear.”
“If you go around with expectations, Hansen, life will beat you down… Every time.” Voice quiet, he pulled his hair off a sweaty neck, licking moisture off his upper lip. He leaned back against the chair, watching the younger man flip to a page in his notebook. Locating what he was searching for, he pointed knowingly at the page.
“Well. It’s just not the story your sister told me, that’s all. It doesn’t match up.”
Frank had never discussed that night with his sister. She had never mentioned it again, even when a crop-dusting airplane had reported the scene and alerted the local authorities. There was no end to the questions, and Frank maintained his lightning story in each retelling. This admonition of his sister’s knowledge surprised him, silenced him, made him turn his entire body toward the other man. “What do you mean?” he said, his voice gruff and challenging. “What do you mean?”
“She… Well, she said she went into your room because she heard an odd noise. ‘Frank talks about owls when he’s in his drink,’ she said. She showed me the taxidermic owl above the fireplace, and said you often stood in front of it with a horrible glare on your face. She’s an awfully nice girl, isn’t she? She stopped doing the dishes to serve me lemonade, and she told me everything. ‘That night,’ she said, ‘I saw them take Frank straight by the chest– out the window!’ I asked her if she was afraid… She said she wasn’t. The Owl People, she called them.”
A loud eighteen-wheeler blew past on the empty road, leaving the air rife with rumbling silence behind it. Not a word was spoken between the two of them, each staring out at the ramshackle parking lot. Clearing his throat, he wiped the sweat from his face into the bottom of his t-shirt, revealing a pudgy belly underneath. “You shouldn’t listen to everything my sister says. You’d go deaf if you tried. I guess the most important thing… Is what you want to believe.”
“That’s not the most important thing,” said Hansen.
He was standing, and Frank could hear what sounded like deep, guttural hoots issuing forth from the man. His blood ran cold as he looked up, the air around them hanging like wet sheets. Hansen’s eyes looked wide, dark, utterly vacant in their sockets. “Every moment you stand at the precipice between what you’ve been in the past, and who you will be, going forward. The most important thing… Is what you do now.”
Frank didn’t need the theatrics. “I know,” he said. “I know.”
© 2013 Pree K. Kastelic