Jack: My mother used to tell me that I was a changeling, born out of an ostrich egg. We lived then on an ostrich farm, so it was not as strange as it sounds. At the age of nine, I went through a monster phase, in which Mom indulged me. She and I would drive to the library and come home with books of real-life horrors, which she would read to me before bed, as though to guarantee I would not fall asleep until dawn. I loved them all: giant squids, alligators, and woolly mammoths, now extinct. But none could touch the majesty and strangeness of the beasts I was accustomed to.
There were nearly a hundred ostriches on our farm. The pens were arranged in a grid, bordered by strips of dusty road, and the birds stalked proudly beside the fences, booming their raucous shouts. They grew to be eight feet high. The males were black and white, the females gunmetal gray. Once I saw my mother climb on the back of a hen and—screaming with laughter—race from one end of the paddock to the other, her hands around the bird’s strong neck. It was barely a stretch to imagine that I, like a dewy chick, had been found in one of those enormous eggs. My mother told me that she had tapped open the shell with a hammer and found me curled inside, blinking at the light.
Sandy: None of us really liked Arizona, out in the scrub and cacti. The heat kept Jack awake, damp in his bed, and he came to breakfast with shadows printed under his eyes. My husband Kenneth—a young man then, no white whiskers, no paunch—worked as an architect. He had always dreamed of building the perfect Montessori school, complete with gyms, an auditorium for music and dance, and a working organic farm for the middle school students to maintain. However, in our small town, out on the fringes of Phoenix, there were no Montessori schools, and Kenneth was given his choice of office buildings, strip malls, or unemployment. I can still see him there, bent over his desk late into the night, sketching out trickier ways to hide the mall exits so that the shoppers would have to traipse back and forth past enticing store windows, searching in vain for a way out.
I spent my days tormented by ostriches. Kenneth once said to me, “So they’re birds that can’t sing, fly, or build nests?” They nipped my arms and legs. There was the day one of the cocks shattered a farm worker’s arm with one hot blow of his beak. They scratched up their necks trying to break through the fences. When the birds were bored, they would eat the feathers right off each other’s backs. Their bodies were made to run, as fast as horses. In the wild, zebras and gazelles treat the ostriches as lookouts, and when the birds flee, everyone else does too, even if no enemy has been sighted. My ostriches raced each other from one side of the paddock to the other. They shook the dust from their feathers a hundred times a day.
Jack: At the age of nine, I ran away from the farm. I had my reasons, none of which had anything to do with the place itself; the ostrich farm was paradise to me, particularly on my long summer vacations, when there was nothing to do but feed the birds and chase the baby chicks.
It was June when I made my plan. I waited until the early morning, when my mother let the alarm go off four or five times in sequence, slamming the snooze button over and over and cursing to herself. My father had already left for work. I fished out my red backpack and stuffed it with water bottles, comic books, granola bars, and a compass (which would do me no good, as I had no mental image of the map of my local area—but in my adventure books, people always brought compasses along, and I felt obligated to follow tradition). I thought all of this would sustain me. I thought I knew about the desert, since I had lived there all my life, but naturally there is a world of difference between spending half the morning outside—then retiring into the house for a cool glass of water, a snack, and a quick nap in the gloom of the couch—and walking through the Arizona wilderness alone. By late morning I was staggering along, half-blind, parched beyond reckoning. By noon I had entered the realm of the walking dead. My throat was a grainy cavern. Every joint creaked. But it did not occur to me to go back. To be frank, very little occurred to me then. I had reached the stage where I would walk until I died.
I remember every moment of my two-day jaunt in the desert with grim clarity, regardless of the intervening years. I definitely wished to be dead, though I didn’t have the language to know that death was what I was yearning for; I only knew that I wanted to become part of the dunes. I wanted to stop being a fleshy aberration in a universe that, except for me, was comprised of heat, air, and sand. But there was nothing else for it. I made my way in baby steps, inch by inch, head bowed, arms barely moving. It took forever to get anywhere, but it cost me almost nothing to move at that pace. Eventually the sun did begin to sink, but I didn’t really believe it. It seemed as though I had never done anything but walk in the desert, with the sun beating down on me, until it wasn’t clear if I was crossing over sand or the surface of the sun itself. At some point darkness fell, and the first tingling coolness wafted through the air. I glanced up and saw the sky netted with stars.
Of course I had no clothes to protect me from the desert’s chill. I had not planned for that either. The cold felt good at first, but eventually I was shivering, and finally I buried myself in sand to keep warm. I did sleep a little—it was more like dropping in and out of consciousness—but the pain in my body was enough to wake me every time. I remember that the stars were intensely bright. The sky was painted with milky constellations. I remember a fat lizard crawling right over my belly. I remember that something howled, a long, sweet cry that hung in the air like mist.
But mostly I remember the pain. Over the next few hours, once the sun rose and I began to walk again, the pain never ceased. In the morning the sun pushed me along, blazing on my back, and at noon it hung over my head, mocking me. Then it began to sink west, dragging me after it as though it had me by the throat.
Sandy: I was the one who found him, miles from the farm, on a dirt road that angled off the highway. I rounded the bend in the old pickup truck (Big Orange—Jack always liked to name inanimate objects) and saw him shimmering like a mirage against a hillside, stumbling along in a resigned sort of way. I swerved off the road, sobbing, and stumbled out of the pickup. I tackled him to the ground.
My son was covered head to foot in grime. His eyes were bloodshot, his mouth chapped to splitting, his left side bruised from a nasty fall when the parched shoulder of the highway had crumbled and sent him into a ditch. The sun had broiled his skin and blurred his features. If not for the tufts of dark hair, his gender—his very species—would have been all but indeterminate; he could have been a miniature golem or a monkey escaped from the zoo. He hit me weakly with both fists and then collapsed against my chest. In the delirium of heatstroke, he muttered about ice cubes and rain.
On my way to the hospital, I dialed Kenneth on the cell phone I had borrowed from one of the farm workers. I wept for a full minute before I could get out the words. Jack rolled in the passenger’s seat and kicked the car door. As I drove, I checked him again and again with my hand—his forehead, the side of his cheek, his sweating palms—to prove to myself that he was there. He had been missing for two days. The police had found his backpack that morning, dropped carelessly beside a boulder, and everything since had been one long dark tunnel of fear.
A young social worker met us at the hospital. Until I saw Jack in a white gown, the sheet up around his waist—until I saw in the doctor’s face that there was no cause for concern—I could not gather my wits enough to answer anyone’s questions. The nurses put an IV in his arm, a moist towel on his forehead, and a balm on his sunburned skin, even his chest and back, which had burned right through his T-shirt. I sat beside him in the hospital room, looking up into the face of the social worker, and whispered my answers. She was kind, for which I was thankful.
I explained that there had been no quarrel, no change, no abuse. I had simply woken up and found Jack’s bed empty. It took me a few hours to be sure there was a problem; he often rose before me and was a great favorite among the farm workers, so at first I had assumed he was out on the grounds somewhere. I made breakfast, which usually brought him home on his own. When he did not come, I searched the hatchery and the pens, shouting for him, annoyed at his forgetfulness. A swelling wave of maternal anxiety began to rise, cresting into a blazing peak, and suddenly breaking, tipping over—at which point I sounded the alarm. Since Jack had no earthly reason to run away, I assumed he had been taken. We called the police, and I, unable to sit still, climbed into Big Orange and went out to scour the countryside.
In the hospital bed, Jack moved in and out of sleep. Presently the social worker beckoned Kenneth and me out into the hallway. Amid the chaos of that day, her figure stands out in my mind: a tiny woman, saucer-eyed, with pale, flyaway hair. In a mild voice she explained that Jack seemed a bit “shut down.” He had point-blank refused to discuss his reasons for fleeing the farm. She suggested that we try family therapy—at which point Kenneth lost his temper and stormed off down the hall.
Jack: I did think about telling her. Running away had broken my spirit, and I was ready to tell someone. But I could not bear it to be my mother, with her lovely, anxious face, permanently lined by the sun. I would not dream of telling my father; I could barely meet his eye and shuddered away from his gentle touch. The social worker, however, seemed sympathetic and benign. She had asked me so sweetly, as though she really cared about the answer, as though we had been friends for a long time. You could tell she had done this sort of thing before, wheedling awful information out of children in hospital beds. I almost believed her; I felt that I did know her quite well, that she would fix the situation. And yet I did not give in. I pretended to myself that I was a soldier on a dangerous mission. Even then, I understood the power of the secret I was carrying. It was too big for me to cope with, but I knew that once it left me it would do horrible damage. My ability to keep the words in my mouth was all that was holding things together.
For two weeks I had been burdened by this weight. Children are supposed to sleep soundly, and my mother definitely did. (It took her half an hour each morning just to drag herself out of bed, and it was usually another hour after that before she could be civil, glowering over her coffee cup at the offensive sunlight.) That was certainly what my father had counted on. But one night I had woken up during the small hours. The full moon shone through a crack in my curtains. My mind was filled with the monsters Mom had been reading to me about—anacondas and vultures and I don’t know what else. I thought I might just get up and visit my parents’ room, to make sure I was adequately protected.
But as I made my way down the hall, I saw something flash past one of the windows in the living room. It looked like a human hand. I could not be sure of what I had seen—it happened so fast, a pale flicker. I held still, ready to scream. Then it happened again. A small white palm landed, smack, against the glass, spread open like a starfish.
Without question, it was the most terrifying moment of my life. As in a dream, I moved forward. The hand appeared to be signaling to me; I lost all thought of waking my parents and moved helplessly down the corridor. In the distance, one of the ostriches gave its deep, rattling cry. The hand was tugged away before I got there. It slid down the glass. I reached the window, my heart pounding so hard that it was interfering with my vision—at the crescendo of each beat, the world danced a little. Two figures were lying on the patio of our house. I could see them plainly in the moonlight. One was my father, and I was instantly reassured, although he did seem to be in the process of killing the other person, a woman pinned beneath him. At first I thought it was my mother. But the figure was too tall. Her feet, kicked up beside his back, were too delicate. I watched, entranced. The girl was Megan, who worked on the farm. (Until that moment, I had nursed a bit of a crush on her, something my mother had been quick to tease me about.) Megan could usually be found in the hatchery, tending the eggs that glistened in rows in the steamy darkness. She dealt with order forms and the newborn chicks that we nurtured in the pen behind her station.
Now she lay sprawled on the ground, her arms moving as though she were making a snow angel. My father was moving too. He was dressed in his usual silken pajamas, except for his bare bottom, which swiveled around in the air. I had seen that naked orb before; I had seen all of him without clothes on, as he toweled off in the bathroom or changed in a hurry after work. His hairy frame held no surprises for me. But now it was different. He was pumping away like a piston. Megan’s hand rose up again and clapped suddenly against the window, inches from my nose. I jumped back, screaming a little, but they didn’t hear me. They were making breathy sounds of their own. My father dragged her hand down and pinned her to the patio. I backed away, shaking all over. Two weeks later, I ran away.
ABBY GENI is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Iowa Fellowship. “Captivity” won first place in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and was listed in The Best American Short Stories 2010. Her stories have also received Honorable Mentions in the Kate Braverman Short Story Prize and in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Competition. She lives in Chicago. Please visit www.abbygeni.com.
Adapted from The Last Animal, by Abby Geni, Copyright © 2013 by Abby Geni. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press.