House of Animals

“Good afternoon everyone, this is Channel 5 News and I’m Gloria Rachels,” the reporter smiled into the mic, flipped her straight brown bangs out from in front of her angelic face, and propped her free hand up on her hip, “here with Mrs. Sarah Bethany also known as the Hampton Hoarder, isn’t that right Mrs. Bethany?”

A low rumbling growl rolled out from the old woman standing beside the reporter. The hag shook, shivering, as if it was cold, yet it was July. Two brown grocery bags sat beside her on the sidewalk, tickling the edges of her wrinkled, snot stained night gown’s thin pink fabric as it shimmered in the sunlight. Her hands were drawn up to her sagging breasts like a tyrannosaurus rex. Her upper lip curled like an angry canine.

“Rumor has it that you’ve got quite the collection of stuffed animals,” Gloria Rachels said, still grinning.

“Go way,” Mrs. Bethany spat.

“Is it true that you haven’t been able to cook sense your children left because your house is that crowded?” the reporter continued.

“Ain’t no crowded, it’s a plenty of room!”

“Well, if you let us inside Mrs. Bethany, we will pay to get you treatment for your freakish disorder! How does that sound?” the reporter never once looked away from the camera, never once looked at the woman she spoke to.

“Ain’t no disorder,” the old woman grumbled, stooping to pick up her grocery bags.

“Well just let us take a peak-”

“Leave me be!” the crone snapped, picking up her bags.

“Ma’am, we won’t touch a thing!”

“Leave me BE!” she screamed this time, pointing her flattened nose into the air, projecting her scratchy voice out into the summer sky.

“Ma’am-”

She dropped her bags with a grunt. A milk carton tumbled out of the bag, its corner smashed in, leaking a trail of white milk along the sidewalk. Sarah Bethany screamed at the sight of the ruined milk and fell to her knobby knees, all the while mumbling beneath her breath, “Leave me be!” She leaned over the milk, sniffed it, then reached out her tongue to gently graze the growing puddle. Lapping it up like a house cat. The reporter stepped in the puddle of milk, one slender black high heel entering the old woman’s view.

“Listen here you old cunt, they gave me this story and I’m going to get this story. So you let us in or my cameraman there will light you and all your little stuffed animal buddies on fire.”

Sarah Bethany looked up from the milk. She looked for a few seconds at the smooth tan skinned ankles propped up on heals before her. The reporter’s legs looked so plump, so incredibly plump and soft. Mrs. Bethany growled, making a gurgling guttural sound, and pounced onto the woman’s leg. She reared her head back as the reporter fell to the concrete, her mouth opened to reveal her toothless rotting gums before she bit down on the woman’s calf, gumming her.

“Jesus Christ!”

“Gloria!” the camera man left the camera and ran over to the reporter, “Get off-,” the camera man brought one foot back and then kicked the old woman in the ribs, knocking her off of Gloria, “-her!”

Gloria crawled over to the News Channel 5 van, looking from the woman to the toothless marks in her leg. Mrs. Bethany, still on all fours, hissed at the cameraman.

“Let’s get out of here, I think we got her attack on tape,” the man said backing away from the woman.

“Yea,” Gloria mumbled, still stunned as she opened the van’s passenger door, “I can’t believe it,” she wiped the saliva from her leg with a McDonald’s napkin sitting in the passenger cup holder, “the bitch really bit me.”

Mrs. Bethany barked, watching the van as she slowly stuffed the groceries that had fallen back into her brown bags. The van pulled out, as she crawled down her driveway. She skittered over the cracked concrete to her front door, watching the street as she stood on all fours.

– – –

            “Mischief!”

The boy looked down the street. The sun was setting. He looked up the street. The street lights were already on. The lump grew a tiny bit from where it was lodge in his throat, making it hard for him to swallow. Where was Mischief?

“Come on, kitty, kitty, kitty, where’d you go?”

The sunset was orange, radiant orange. Mischief orange. The boy could hear the voice of his older brother in his head. “She probably crawled up in the wheel well of the neighbor’s El Camino. You see any blood on the drive way?” The boy swallowed the thick saliva in his throat. He rubbed his eyes. Clenched them shut. He wasn’t going to cry.

“Come on Mischief,” he continued down the sidewalk, “Come on, it’s bouta be dark!”

He turned. The house in front of him was quiet. Distorted shadows filled the windows, only allowing the tiniest cracks of light. The silhouettes were bulbous, deformed, puffing up against the glass like a sack filled to the brim with goodies. “That’s the Hampton Hoarder. She eats mice…” the boy gulped “…alive.” Some of the windows of the house were broken, but the holes were plugged with a growling lion’s face or an elaborately colored stuffed bear, all but one. Light shone through one of the jagged holes in the window and the boy could see a tiny tunnel was made through the stuffed animals. The boy slowly walked towards the hole across the uncut lawn and stared through the window into the Hoarder’s house.

“Oh Mischief,” the boy whispered, “Please don’t let her eat you.”

– – –

            Sarah Bethany sat upright in her bed. She scratched her forehead, her forehead which grew larger each day as her hair receded further back along her scalp. Flakes of dandruff rained down on her night gown. A couple flies buzzed around her, a few gnats hopped along her body, and a dozen bed bugs crawled up from their tunnels in her mattress and began to burrow into the useless fat along her thighs. Tiny warts covered her skin, sagging like bloated ticks. Her skin was pale like bone and shriveled like a raisin, her bottom lip hung partially open even when her mouth was closed.

She grunted. Rubbed her eyes. Swatted at a fly.

Her bathroom door was filled with stuffed animals, lions, tigers, bears. Turtles filled her bathtub. Hippos clogged her sink. Snakes wound their way around her toilet. Her bedroom itself was an ocean of polyester faces. Her bed was only partially clean, a swamp amidst the sea of cotton filled creatures. Her closet was a mud slide of monsters and her fan was a canopy of cockatiels.

“Good night, James,” she said to a tiger.

“Good night, Berry,” she said to a dragon.

“Good night, Frank,” she said to a bear.

“And Frankenstein,” she said to another.

“Good night, Ray,” she said to a lion.

“Mrrrrrrow,” Ray replied.

Sarah Bethany’s eyes grew wide.

“Ray?”

“Murmrrrow!”

“Ray its bedtime.”

“Mow.”

She glared at the lion for a moment.

“It is,” she deepened her voice, “bedtime.”

“Mow, mow, mow.”

“Do I have to come over there?” she asked.

The lion stuffed animal was silent. The old woman watched. Ray, the lion, shook a little and then stopped. Sarah Bethany waited a moment. Ray remained silent.

“Alright,” she turned from the lion to look at a stuffed parrot sitting on one of the blades of the fan above her, “Good night, Polly.”

– – –

            “I didn’t really know what to do,” the camera man said, pausing the tape that was shoved into the VCR, his voice was higher-pitched than usual, he sounded confused, genuinely worried, but, most of all, he sounded innocent, “I mean what do you do when an old crone starts biting someone’s leg?”

“Apparently you kick em,” Stacy replied.

Stacy stood with her arms folded. The rest of the people, men, were crowded around the TV with goofy grins across their faces. Stacy tapped her foot on the carpet of the staff lounge at the Channel 5 News Station. Her pretty pink dress, with bright yellow flowers, tickled at her cankles. She shook her head, “That’s disgustin.”

“What’s nasty is her teeth!” one of the cameraman’s colleges said.

“And them warts.”

“And that nighty.”

The men chuckled.

“Yall are what’s disgustin! She’s some poor old lady, all alone with nuttin but stuffed animals to keep her company and yall are laughin at her!” the pudgy woman continued, “Yall should be ashamed of yourselves!”

“Poor old lady?” Gloria laughed as she strode into the staff lounge, her sing-songy voice and curvy physique demanding attention, “She bit my leg.”

“She didn’t have no teeth, hun,” Stacy continued.

“Well don’t act like she’s a Mother Teresa,” Gloria opened the fridge, “She’s insane, unstable, and it’s unsafe for a woman like that to live on her own.”

Stacy shook her head.

“Hey man, rewind it. Jimmy didn’t get to see the part where she pounced,” one of the men said.

The camera man pressed the rewind button, holding it down for a moment then pressed play. They all watched silently as, on the TV, Gloria approached the old lady.

“Listen here you old cunt, they gave me this story and I’m going to get this story. So you let us in or my cameraman there will light you and all your little stuffed animal buddies on fire.”

Stacy turned away from the TV screen. The staff lounge erupted with laughter. Stacy left the room, shaking her head.

– – –

            Sarah Bethany spent the entire morning moving stuffed creatures from the kitchen counters. She shoved some in practically full closets, tossed some in the pre-packed washer machine, and piled the rest up in front of the front door. By the time she had enough room to cook around the stove, the entire hallway before the front door was a thick jungle of plush penguins, fluffed frogs, and stuffed stingrays.

Ray, the lion, sat on the counter beside the stove. He was propped up against a rusted toaster, leaning as if exhausted, his weary marble eyes resting on the old rusted cast iron skillet sitting on a glowing hot eye. Sarah Bethany dug through cabinets, her arthritic talons sliding through walls of animals until she found what she was looking for. She left the kitchen cabinets with a toothless smirk, a bottle of decade old vegetable oil in her hand.

“You’s awful quiet dis morning, Ray,” she said, approaching the skillet, “I’d uh thought you was meowin last night on account oh hunger, but I spose you ain’t hungry no more,” her voice grew bitter, “Spose you ain’t hungry no more after I spent half the day cleanin jus so I can reach the kitchen so as to cook you a something,” she was practically screaming now, “Spose you ain’t hungry now, huh?”

Staring at the stuffed lion, glaring with an intensity that only an elderly woman can muster, she flipped open the cap of the vegetable oil. But instead of the cap opening so that she could pour the oil out through a small tubular spout, the entire cap, made of an old crusty plastic, popped off the bottle’s top and as Mrs. Bethany turned the bottle upside down to pour out the oil on the skillet, keeping her eyes on Ray, the entire contents of the highly-flammable oil gushed down the bottle neck, splashed off the skillet, and doused the orange-glowing eye below.

WHOOSH!

Flames burst up into the air, engulfing the bottle and the old arthritic hand that carried it. Sarah Bethany attempted to scream but nothing came out. She flung her hands up in the air and leapt backwards, slamming into the kitchen table. The kitchen window curtains were aflame now, fire hopping up the thin fabric and jumping onto the pealing wall paint. Bethany screamed as she watched the fire lick at the cabinets and surge across the wood, growing and reaching out, fueled by her beloved animals. Ray stood at the center of the inferno, beside the stove, his body a black silhouette behind the intensity of the fire.

“Ray! Lawd, Ray’s gone. He burnt up,” Sarah said, spinning in circles, looking around the kitchen, searching for a way out, “And I’ma burn up soon too. I gotsta get out. I gotsta.”

She swam through the piles of cotton filled creatures, pushing them carelessly aside. By the time she reached the edge of the kitchen, the flames were only seconds behind her. She stared at the front door, or where the front door would’ve been if it weren’t hidden behind the piled animals that she’d moved from the stove.

“No way out. No way out. Back door ain’t no way out, no, the babies block the back door too. The babies block all the doors,” she told herself, “the babies tryin to kill me. Ain’t nobody taught you not to bite the hand that feeds you! Ain’t there no respect!”

Sarah hurried back into her bedroom, turning to watch the fire hungrily swallow her stuffed animals. Combusting camels, crocodiles, and cows, burning bengals, bisons, and bears, the inferno didn’t discriminate, it would destroy anything in between it and the old lady. She spun back to stare around the bed room, searching for some hiding place, some place of refuge, and then she found it: the bathroom.

She flung the animals out of the bathroom, tossing them onto her bed as the fire reached the bathroom door. She could feel the heat, feel the oxygen of the house being sucked away as smoke rushed in to take its place. She cleaned out the bath tub and stumbled into the stained, once white porcelain, tub, then turned on the water.

“You bastard!” she screamed at the fire as it devoured her bed, taking with it James, Berry, Frank, Frankenstein, Polly, and the others. The flames coursed up through the door frame of the bathroom, climbing across the roof as it pulsated in the doorway, as if hesitating at the sight of the old woman. The woman trembled, her beady black eyes glaring into the bright tongues of flame, opening her mouth to scream defiantly, “Leave me be!” before the roof, a fiery clump of wood and plaster, collapsed on top of her.

– – –

            “Ma’am, what can I do you for?”

Stacy stood outside the smoldering remains of the Hampton Hoarder’s house. Tendrils of smoke still rose from the crime scene, parts of the house had merely folded in on themselves. It seemed as though the entire small town of Hampton came by at one point or another to visit the horrifying sight, all those shaking their heads as if saddened, as if they cared. It made Stacy sick, just as the tape the beautiful Gloria and her camera man had shown off back at the station had.

The beautiful perfect Gloria would no doubt get to cover this story too. She was the Channel 5 News’ little angel. “Stacy, you should try a diet sometime, no offense.” Yea, some angel Gloria was. Gloria never had to say it, Stacy could read it in her pretentious glare, Gloria didn’t believe overweight women belonged in the News business. Gloria could have her beliefs because Stacy had some of her own. Stacy didn’t believe violent, attention hungry whores belonged in the News business.

Stacy handed the officer the VCR tape.

“This fire was no accident,” Stacy said.

“Excuse me ma’am?” the officer asked, surprised by her blatancy.

“Watch the tape,” Stacy said, “This fire was no accident.”

With that, Stacy strode away, leaving the crime scene with a bitter smile. Later tonight she would sit down on her couch in her lonely apartment with a carton of ice cream and a jug of chocolate milk to watch Gloria Rachels’ arrest.

– – –

            The boy stood nearby the cop and Stacy when she handed the cop the VCR tape. He stood staring into the house, his jaw hanging loose, his eyes wide, the smell of burnt wood, paint, and mold wafting up to sting his nostrils.

“Mischief,” the boy whispered sadly.

MRRROW!

            The boy flinched and then beamed as he saw his cat climb up out of a storm drain, a dead mouse clamped between his jaws. A wave of relief washed over the boy’s body. Leaning down, the boy scooped up his feline friend and strode away from the smoking rubble of the Hoarder’s house.