The Escape

Rob McClure Smith

The Neighbor
The dog knew first.


I was walking her on the ridge of the pasture by the thin wire fence. This was about 4.30, two hours before dark, and she starts up this whimpering, wouldn’t go on. I haul at the leash and give it a bit snap and see that the hair on her neck has gotten puffed up and how she’s tucking her tail in. I believe weather’s coming because I only ever saw her ears lowered and pulled back that way in a thunderstorm.


And then I feel a shiver go up me and know I’m being watched.


On clear days you could see the outdoor pens lined up either side the driveway close to the house, set back from the road a ways. If the light was right you saw movement. Summer nights sometimes a roaring came through the trees. So I knew about his lions and mountain lions and the leopards and tigers. He got them at rescues and auctions I believe. Hell, he probably bred a few, wouldn’t put it past him. There were the stories too. People would tell how giraffes just appeared in the fields one morning or how a crowd of camels this time broke loose onto I-80. But those are made up, mostly. I don’t believe he had camels. A few times I happened upon him picking deer carcasses off the roads and dragging them on up to his pens. He’d wave. Twice a week he’d load his van with chicken parts from the slaughterhouse and they didn’t charge him any, they all liked him. He had a way about him. One time he offered me a boat for half price. “Why half price?” I ask. “Well, it’s only half a boat,” he says, laughing. And it was. He did have a heap of junk about his place.


So I see a black shape, the hump of its back, over behind the crest of that wasted field slopes down from his farm. Then I see the rest of it. It was an African lion with a big gold mane, like on Discovery Channel, twenty feet away, pressed against the wire, flat on the grass with its head up, watching. Looking dead at me with cold yellow eyes.


I didn’t know much about lions generally, but supposed it might be unwise to challenge them by staring them in the eye, and that if you ran away they might have a tendency to chase and eat you and so on. So I scooped the dog up and settled on a brisk walking pace, which is not that easy carrying a dog. I suppose I was as calm and steady as any person being watched by a lion can manage. I lit out across a gully that was sodden from night-before rain, and my boots started slurping in the muck till one got sucked clean off. I’m hobbledy-hoy now and wondering if I maybe appear injured and easy prey. I’m halfway when I get the urge to look back, like Lot’s wife, and see the lion’s in the same place, still on the other side, though it’s obvious to me it can get over that fence just anytime it wants to. That fence had six strands of wire strung between its posts and that lion’s back ran parallel to the second from the top. I do believe I commenced praying at this juncture. I don’t even recall getting to the door. I might have crawled the last 50 yards, like a worm. First thing I do after latching up is call him, as the closest help, like I did to come get his pit pony when it pushed through the fence that time before. This is different of course, with the lion involvement. It was just the answering machine picked up. Next I called 911. I’m recalling him telling me how this time a leopard sneaked out and his wife lured it back by laying a trail of vanilla-cream wafers. “You’d never think a leopard would go for that,” he says, grinning at me. “People just don’t understand animals.”


The Dispatch


Yes, this is John Embury on Hillier Road. I live next to Dyson’s and there’s a lion out.
Could you say that again, sir?
There’s a lion got out.
Did you say a lion, sir?
Yes. A lion. I did. Right. . . right up behind my property.
What’s your name?
What’s your first name, sir?
And it’s behind your house?
Pardon me?
Is it behind your house?
The lion?
Is it behind your house?
It is.
Can you describe it?
It looks a lot like a lion.
Can you still see it?
Well, I don’t especially want to, ma’am.


The Sheriff


Two hours into my shift, I get the call he has an animal out. Didn’t seem that big a thing. I’d been out there before, for loose horses. I pull up where the fence narrows into a pipe gate secured with big looping chains and massive padlocks like hearts and looped bicycle links, none of which I discover is actually attached. Beyond, the road starts out straight then curves into an alley of junked cars, a blue Volkswagen bug, a yellow Mustang, a ’68 Studebaker rusting out. There’s a burnt-up wheel-less trailer, an upright piano filled with rainwater and a couple of boats sunk in a field, moored against dead trees. That’s what got me about him: how he would never sell anything. If he liked it, he kept it. And none of it got took care of. There was a beautiful ’57 Chevy with a half inch encrusted dust and chicken crap all over it locked in a barn with his kangaroo. It breaks my heart how he could never let anything go. Off behind the dead car junkyard are woods run down a slope to the highway before the washboard gravel slopes right, up an incline. There’s a barn, half-caved in, and an ancient Duesenberg with a broke plank stuck through its windscreen and this is where the pens sit, like a gauntlet either side the driveway. There’s that idiot sign he put up also.


So I see a wolf loping away casual as you like and I know this is something more than what we had before. When I notice the pen doors are open I get the full gravity. I radio in ‘everything is out’ and tell the dispatcher to get me JW Morris up here and put a call in to the zoo lady whose name I misremember. I run through a mental list of the best shots in the department and request all of them be in the vicinity asap.


The house is a big brown-brick that was a doctor’s before, and there’s a fetid pool out back. Place must have been something before being given over to the animals. I parked out front and laid on my horn, having decided not to get out. No answer. Then I see a figure back on the diving board. It was stupid of me ever to get out the car. I don’t know what I was thinking. Soon as I turn the corner I see the leopard, sitting in the sun. Basking, I suppose. It might as well have been lying in a lawn chair with a margarita in its paw it looked that relaxed. We stared a while at each another and came to an understanding: I don’t bother you if you don’t bother me. I got back in the car sharp after that. I was thinking to myself no other law-enforcement agency in the world has faced this and there is no manual for what is going on here. I was also thinking that other things will happen to me in this life, but this is never going to happen again.


Ten minutes after, DS Bob Dawson pulls up in his Chevy Silverado with JW strapped like a bomb in the passenger seat. Bob is the first person I’d want in a situation like this. He’s an ex-marine, tall, a hunter, can handle an assault weapon. Today he looks like the cat got the cream.


“I shot a lion,” he says, nodding. “I didn’t have any choice,” he adds.
“You had a choice,” JW says to him, face like a bulldog chewing wasps.
“You did what you had to do,” I say, giving JW a look.
“Fucking lion,” says Bob, breathing heavy. “Hard to believe.”
JW is the babysitter did the feeding when he was out of town. I don’t believe JW has a job can be called regular. He’s a twisted little homunculus actually. I ask how many there are by his reckoning.
“Between 46 and 50,” he says, “depending.”
I don’t know that I could tell you everything that I was thinking at this point.
“What you all got up here?”
“Lions, tigers, leopards, wolves, a bear, some monkeys.”
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” says Bob.
“I don’t consider the monkeys will be around long in this current environment,” JW tells me.
Well, it was 6 a.m. after they were all accounted for and laid out that we went inside there. It had been considerably let go and was a place of filth, stunk up with rotting food and bin-bags spilling garbage and dung. I found a pair of pants and the belt was a bit of twine. It was sad to see and think about how the person lived here had lost their mind. I found him in the back bedroom near a pair of green bolt cutters and a stainless steel Ruger .357 magnum and called it in as a Code 16 possible 58. You could tell he had lay at one spot for a while and then was dragged, it looked like by the arm that was gone, and his pants and stuff were pulled down, and he had been chewed on some. There were scraps of raw chicken round the body, which led me to believe he wanted to be eaten. Also a burned-up old notebook, without much sense to the pages left.
I still think about finding him like that. Maybe it’s worse that I’m retired, with more time for thinking. I feel sorry for him. I mean, I’m mad at him obviously, but I feel sorry too. If you weren’t there, you can’t ever know. I was the one had to go find that arm. It was beyond anything you would ever want to experience. I for sure don’t need to be made to feel worse about something I already feel terrible about. It’s easy for others to have opinions about what should have been done and be all self-righteous and high and mighty.
But just this last weekend I was driving my granddaughter to soccer practice. The field is out on 40 and on the approach you drive down a tree-lined road. Anyway, I caught myself scanning the woods, keeping an eye out for any shivers in the grass.
See, after all this time, I was thinking they might still be out there.

The Dispatch
99 Traffic
99 Traffic.
What’s going on?
We have an exotic animal caution on I-80. Please confirm you see the signs.
The Tranquilizer

blinding signs flashing flicker highway flicker CAUTION EXOTIC ANIMALS    big moon up new white an applehalf mournful as me yes chalk star clicking broken fields
rack of black clouds troweled up in the sky     now      storm coming in and no stars or moon and leaves scattering at the car like poured coins out the dark
town too small to be called a town Minaville the other side the highway a nursing home & McDonald’ s & A&W & gas station & what’s so super about a Super 8       mile down 40 a school enclosed by pines       CAUTION EXOTIC ANIMALS       a school god help me trees       everything is out so throw on a stupid yellow raincoat
he said ever been this close to a killer       tiger pawing cage       which of you is that and he laughs i live a very normal life besides the fact i have alternative animals
what can we do then exasperated red face nothing i say nothing it’s not illegal if he doesn’t charge admission its unregulated in ohio sheriff       this is such bullshit       this is ohio is what it is
straight math Kris listen up listen big cat eats fifteen pounds meat a single sitting you can’t be pushing five hundred pounds of flesh into those pens every day       i don’t doubt you love them him and them both       your heart has outstripped your means
sad look well-black pupil of an iris       this six months before she left him them.
sky flooding the trees mixed feelings little man apoplectic they had to restrain got a stainless steel plate in my head shitforbrains       and by their count only one left       deputy thinks he’s Hemingway heard something from out a stand of trees behind the barn a wicked noise he said and I knew then a tiger       nestled in a thicket pocket of thorns yards deep in brush       you couldn’t see her just the blades she shifted
redface sheriff says save it enough is enough says this such bullshit       deputies disappointed a train faraway liquid clicking and shunt
eight eyes maybe ten I hope not       a curious watching       black bolt-action with a scope looks like a tackle box Miss and medium darts 3cc filled loaded       that lecture i do not forget panicked animals have be known to resist the tranquilizer for fifteen minutes more       also allow for the wind also find muscle.
oh walk without crushing the trees drops of rain watery coins such lapping, lapping water’s somewhere       fifteen feet lying head up is called sternal recumbency actually     didn’t you know that      injured exhausted both    no eye contact which is good as difficult emotionally       i couldn’t lean gently enough when i moved coldslicked
aim for flank but how she’s spread in the grass scope find a patch of orange in a tunnel of green and squeeze is all       i have come so far to gather you from clocks
flinch for me girl
you hit it he said too loud       snagged in tangles clawing shoulders die here rain spattering trees windslap   come on shhhh its dead i know its dead
no i said no i shouted
so slow her labored breathing blowing drops of water like the woods were feeling with rain never did see eyes no       body settle in soft ground sinking deeper each breath stopping the clock of her
for fucks sake
why youre just a slip of a girl       why it looked like looked like looked like
came as soon as i was able       the survivors should be taken to the zoo i say crying please don’t take my children please insisted on removing the baby leopards herself said she spent $30,000 buying them used to sleep with them and before unlatching sang them a lullaby Too-la-roo-la-roo-la irish lullaby I believe my own father to me them       clinging her sweater as she lifted one by one to carriers paws round her neck little heads whiskers rubbing on breasts fuck those fucking policemen she whispered me by a clothesline a red shirt on it
the dead will be buried on the property she says       chose the spot       here       crickets make a curtain of sound smudge crows on cornfields white dots of daisies sun slipping down a    here       slit in the earth where a big digger dug and       your heart has outstripped your means       scooped by the bucketload warm the dirt backhoed over them.
hello my role in life is to care for animals and to educate and inspire about them

The News
Warnings issued as erotic* animals escape


People in Minaville, Ohio have been told to stay indoors after dozens of exotic animals escaped from a wildlife preserve. Police killed 30 of the animals but warned more were on the loose and that they were “mature, big, aggressive.” “These are not your typical wild animals,” Sheriff Matt Newsome warned at a press conference. Motorists reported multiple sightings of exotic animals along interstate 80. Currently police are patrolling the preserve and the surrounding areas in cars and armored vehicles, not on foot, and are concerned about animals hiding in the dark near forested areas. Armed deputies had gone to the preserve in response to a 911 call. The deputies saw a number of animals outside the main compound and others that had escaped the property, and commenced euthanizing them. There have been no reports of injuries among the public, but Newsome urged people to stay indoors. Staffers from local zoos are also on the scene, helping to tranquilize and capture the animals.


*corrected later
The Hunter


You had an M4 assault rifle and an MP5 submachine gun, with about eight thirty-round magazines stuffed in your cargo pants, a Glock on your leg.


The Sheriff’s Silverado was idling at the pipe gate when you got there. He was shook up and said you were going to be alone and you were going to have to shoot every goddamn animal you saw. Deputy Dubino was a sniper on the SWAT and had, you believe, a nine-millimeter H&K. Deputies Miller and Frey had assaults. You all got in the truck and locked and loaded and it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes when just all hell broke loose. It was like Noah’s Ark wrecked. The first tigers were within eight feet when you opened up. There was a wolf at one instance. These chicken parts scattered everywhere.


You kept right on pouring bullets into the dark. The back of the truck and the cab was all filled with casings, so you had some trouble keeping your feet. One got up inside your collar and you could feel the hot metal sliding down your back. Your hearing was well blasted out by now and everything got muffled, shouting and muzzle fire all just a watery ringing. You must have burned though 220 rounds. The perimeter was totally littered with brass. It was just a firing range. You couldn’t hear a thing.


Worth noting how Glaspell is this tiny person, a few inches over five feet and slender. It’s a thin line between brave and stupid and there are some just don’t mark it. She was stuck in thorns and trying to pull herself out. The tiger was lit up in the headlights, the beams spilling onto a patch of fur. A tiger is a beautiful thing to see, you saw, a sort of gleaming wet orange. Then it was up and somersaulting kind of and you never did see anything like that in your life. You have read all about Kenya and hunting the big cats of Tsavo and all, but this is as close as you’d ever want to get. You heard Glaspell shout ‘go’ and still remember looking at the shadow of her hair against her yellow raincoat. What was drilled into you at weapons training kicked in: Shoot what you see. So you did. The muzzle blast blew out a lens from your glasses so it was through just the one eye you saw the column of white rip up from its spine.


After that of course was the whole scenario with her and Jaydub screaming blue murder and that was the start of the whole ‘dumb small-town law-enforcement brigade murders dozens of noble beasts because they’re too retarded and trigger-happy to think of a better alternative’ type deal. People still say you must have been sick, shooting those animals, because true enough they didn’t ask to be there. But neither did you. It wasn’t like you were happy about it either and, in all seriousness, you consider yourself a major cat person. But you’ve taken more grief over this than you could believe.


The Sign
Do not taunt, mock, imitate, diss, nag, jeer, insult, tease, needle, offend, outrage, sneer at, revile, upbraid, impersonate, deride, slander, razz, pester, satirize, rib, agitate, alarm, badger, disturb, upset, vex, incite, torment, browbeat, displease, scare, irritate, distress, provoke, bully, kid, snub, confront, laugh at, infuriate, threaten, disparage, scoff at, gloat, ridicule, or inflame my friends


The Babysitter
A. I began a count in my mind, trying to remember each face, each pair of eyes. There were seventeen or eighteen tigers, as many lions.
“Forty-six,” I told him. “Maybe fifty.”
“Holy shit,” Deputy Dawg said, loading up, practically creaming his pants.
That’s when I knew they were going to kill them all. It didn’t need to happen, but it did. Like they were all out on some fucking dream safari. I couldn’t look. I relate to animals being one-sixteenth Cherokee.

A. I may have took a swing. I believe this was right after said individual commenced singing the weemaway song. You know, about how the lion sleeps tonight.

A. “But,” Newsome tells me, slaughtering done, “thing is, you know the inside of that house better than anyone, being a caretaker. The geography of it.”
“Yeah, I’ll take care alright,” I say. “I’ll scratch your back you knife mine.”
The fan was all the sound there was in there. It didn’t make the air any cooler just a little more lively and I was sweating like two rats fighting in a sock from the heat and fearfulness of it. I mind the awful stench. The bedrooms were tidy, but the rest was taken over by the animals. Floors covered in dirt. In the kitchen two monkeys kept up a screaming and a shaking of the bars of their cages. Three leopards, two spotted, one black, and a small bear were still locked in, crashing around. He had let the rest go, cutting their cages. Then he set his fire, burning his secrets away. I often wonder what he didn’t want found. All that was left was gibberish, but I kept it anyway.


A. I reckon he just put the gun to his mouth and blew the top of his head off. The white tiger I believe was the one took to gnawing at him and dragging him around, for his throat was seriously punctured with the teeth. The top of the head was missing, other parts of him, must have been a few pints of blood soaked in the floorboards since it was sticky to walk through. I have seen some bad things in my time.

A. Saw a woman hit by a tire iron on the head round back of the Harris Lee Parcus rest stop in Arab, Alabama. Kept right on talking as if nothing happened, as you might always suspect a woman might. Also saw a cat light a man on fire once, on accident. But I think this event would have to be the worst, seeing as I knew the man.

A. Ten years ago, after the first heart attack, he had a bypass. He had just gotten a Bengal cub and when he got back from hospital he wasn’t willing to displace it. In general it’s not ideal to have a tiger jumping all over someone has just had major heart surgery. So what he did was build a fence around his couch and T.V and that’s his recuperation: in a cage inside his own house looking out at the tiger looking in at him.
I said, “What’s wrong with this picture then?”
He thought that was funny as hell.

A. I said to him he was well on the way to being a regular old cat lady.
“With larger tastes, JW,” he says. “With considerable larger tastes.”
He never seemed to have any sense of ‘Okay, this is too many.’ I asked him why he needed that many.
“Because I can,” he told me.
He shook his head when he said that, like he knew but didn’t know.

A. Vietnam it was did him in. He wanted you to know he’d been there, came back upset with the army because he’d seen some ugly things in a helicopter. He was a machine gunner with an M6o and did a lot of emergency evacs, which involved dragging bodies and wounded into the chopper. They could only get so many on and he had had to pry the fingers off the metal so they could get off the ground. Never got over that. Like the man said, we might be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us. He wrestled with the biblical thing too: “I guess I’ll never go to heaven because I killed people.” He wasn’t religious exactly, said how he had all them Baptists to die for his sins anyway. He’d say his philosophy was the same rain falls upon the just and the unjust, but mostly upon the just because the unjust had most likely made off with their umbrellas.

A. From way back. Back in high school he was always laughing and would be pleasant, smiled a lot, bit of a ladies man. Came back different. One of those never left there. Locals were wary of him, a Second Amendment man, kept wild animals, ran his bike loud, was the type of person you weren’t real sure what he would do. I think that was a lot of it. I’m not saying he wasn’t reckless. But he had an honest to god heart of gold. Just couldn’t keep his brain on the right track.

A. No one knows the story of him. What I figure is when a man’s life explodes in a shower of sparks and shrapnel, those left sort through the remains and see what suits them best, so he’s whoever you want him to be now.

The Dispatch


Yeah, my name’s Shane Matthews and I’m from Melbourne Australia and I think you’re a shower of murdering scumbags. Just saying.
Do you have an emergency, sir?
I’d shoot the lot of you. It’s you don’t deserve to live.
Please keep this line clear sir. Thank you.
     –      – – – – – – – – – –
Hello? I’m calling from Manchester, England. About what you people did to those poor animals.


The Doctor
The subject may have suffered from a variety of psychological disorders. The hoarding of objects is a relatively new area of study, and even less is known about the sub-category of animal hoarding. It is probable that a variety of conditions can ultimately result in this pathological behavior. In this case, I’d follow DSM-IV and characterize the behavior as symptomatic of obsessive-compulsive disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Since hoarders are typically resistant to psychotherapy and commonly used medications, my professional advice would have been institutionalization or placement under some type of protective care.


The Journal


[move in utter silence, except the shelly clicking of their claw]
[to causes a feeling of chill despondency and despair]
[opens from ear to ear, with ridges of bone instead of teeth, and the head is so heavy]
[king them useless for defense, although if pursued it can expel its dung a great distance (as much as two acres]
[red pustules and vomits from its mouth a milky liquid; if this touches any part of the human body i]
[olive complected with short bro]
[as physical sensation, and without a true physical form]
[sensations of this type include vast dark blurs obscure the sky]
[and strange crunching noises whi]
conceive at the mouth and give birth through the ear (though it is the other way arou
[so poisonous even its breath]
[opped in half the two parts immed]
[crawls backwards to keep sand out its eyes]
[venom the source of a love-charm and a spell to slow litigation in courts and to stop
fluxes of the womb in]


The Spouse


I loved him so, but I couldn’t live with him. At the end, I just couldn’t. No one could. I had to get away.


Oh, that man. He had such a personality, this charisma. If he’d said to me the moon was made of green cheese or that the sun came up in the west I’d have believed it.


I can still see him slouching in our front yard. He didn’t look too copacetic standing there beside the chickens. He had a ducktail hairstyle then, listened to Fats, Jerry Lee, wore Levis, penny loafers, had a leather jacket. He was something.


Daddy was sizing him up. Daddy wore a white short-sleeved shirt, black slacks, funny argyle socks. Immovable object.


That blue dress wet glued to my body in the hot sun.


“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m going to marry him, bad or not.”


He told me once he’d rather live a day as a lion than decades as a sheep.


I’d always been a bit of a dreamer, falling in love with movie stars. I was crazy about James Dean, had heard the phrase ‘falling head over heels’ but never thought it’d ever happen to me. But he looked at me and smiled all his teeth my way and that’s what happened. I wanted to sleep in his pocket.


I was a perfectly normal girl until I met him. I was a May queen.


And I loved him more than anything in this world, all his little ways, and then when he came back from there he needed holding, needed protecting.


We never had kids and he wanted kids.


We had the animals.


He wrote me every single day when he was gone. He told me he had befriended a monkey. They lived in a tent near the jungle and it took to coming and hanging out with him. And I think that monkey planted the seed of caring for animals. He took care of it most of the time he was there. He wrote me how it kept him sane.
I don’t know what happened to it when he left.


Rob McClure Smith’s fiction has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Manchester Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Barcelona Review, StoryQuarterly and many other literary magazines. A story collection The Violence is forthcoming this Fall from Queen’s Ferry Press.