The street is a billowing carpet of cobblestones, rising up and down, up and down, like ocean waves.
The locals nap behind heavy curtains and painted shutters; the tourists have flocked to the beach. I’ve spent the morning wandering in the old town, along rickety walls covered with creepers, counting plant stands fashioned out of rusty bikes. The midday heat has simmered everything down to an illusion. I’ve followed a narrow lane uphill, hoping for a view, or maybe a cool church offering deliverance from the sun.
Instead, I’ve found a shop with a dirty sign above the entrance: Pet Suggestions for Older Sisters.
I wipe sweat and sunscreen from my eyes and look again. It just says Open.
Inside, the lights are dimmed. A ceiling fan slices into sweet animal stench, offering no respite from the heat. Rows of tanks and cages stand teeming with critters: parakeets perch on swings, hamsters burrow in wood shavings. Fluorescent fish swirl around a sunken ship. Dog bowls are stacked next to bags of cat litter. The low hum of pumps and filters blends with the whoosh of blood in my ears and makes me drowsy.
I’m about to leave when I hear the clink of ice cubes. A woman appears in a floaty coral dress, holding a pitcher. She’s improbable and familiar, like a forgotten great-aunt in a family album.
“Fresh lemonade,” she says. “You look like you need it.”
A macaw lets out a shriek. I realize I’m already holding the cool glass in my hand. The lemonade tastes of childhood: backyard summers, Claire and I in the paddle pool. I push the memory away.
“You should’ve gone to the beach. A day like this.”
I respond with a flustered half-laugh and tell her I don’t like beach days. Or maybe I just think it.
The woman motions me towards a musty armchair. She lifts a tortoise out of the seat so I can sit down. I’m too embarrassed to say I won’t buy anything, that I’m only in town for my sister’s birthday.
I glance at the ceiling, confused to find the fan gone. In its place there’s now a paper lampshade, with animal shapes cut out of it. Claire and I had these in our bedroom, when we were little. Mine had tigers, elephants and lions chasing each other in circles. Claire’s had fishes swimming around sailboats.
The tortoise nips at my big toe. The pain renews my resolve to thank the woman for the lemonade, and I stand to leave, but she gestures for me to follow her, past guinea pigs, gerbils, a chameleon. A snake, coiled up tight.
“Those are not the interesting animals,” she says. “Come.”
She leads me to a rat cage.
“These rats worked with Professor Skinner.”
She scans my face for a reaction. I touch the little medal on my necklace. That’s what I do when I’m adrift.
“He built them a maze, and studied how fast they learned to get out. He gave them treats if they did well, and electric shocks if they made mistakes.”
The rats stop in their tracks and size me up with a look.
I want to ask how long rats live, but she cuts in: “You grew up here. And then you left. That is one maze you have escaped. But perhaps rodents aren’t your thing. Let’s see some birds, shall we? Here, meet Navy Blue and Commando — homing pigeons from the Second World War. And he,” she points to a raven, “belonged to Edgar Allen Poe. The famous one in the poem.”
I want to say something about having to get back, about Claire’s birthday, about people waiting. But she’s speaking faster and faster now, in a manic effort to show me more animals: Mike, the Headless Chicken (technically a rooster), that lived for eighteen months without its head, now sharing a cage with a mutant rabbit from Chernobyl. A cat that sank with the Titanic. Something I thought was a heap of rugs in a corner comes to life as Dolly, the cloned sheep.
The woman swirls around in her colorful dress like a whirlpool.
I feel a rising panic in my throat. I want to head for the exit, but the scurrying, gnawing, murmuring and shrieking grow louder around me and I lose all sense of direction. I can’t see the cages and tanks anymore, just the shadow animals on the wall, cast by the lampshade, going round and round.
Looking bigger and bigger.
Somehow, from the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of the woman as she crouches down and picks up a small dog that’s trotted out from nowhere.
“Oh, there you are!” she exclaims. “Meet Laika. She’s not for sale. But you can pet her.” The room stops spinning at once. I do know Laika.
The Soviets sent her to space in the ‘50s. With no plans to bring her back.
Claire named her own dog Laika after her — a stray she took in off the street. My sister’s Laika had a brown patch over her left eye and ear, exactly like this dog, in this woman’s arms.
The woman’s voice is a little girl’s voice now. She’s six years old, and bubbles rise from her mouth as she speaks:
“She doesn’t go to space anymore, you see. She ran away and went to the beach. But I found her. I found her at the bottom of the sea.”
The shadow animals begin to circle me again. They become sharks, swimming faster and faster. The room fills up with water all the way to the ceiling, and I’m swept away by a current that is too powerful to fight.
Not sure how much time later. I open my eyes and find myself outside, in the sunshine — staring at a boarded-up shop front. There’s no one inside and no one around. Church bells chime, then fade against the loud cicada song of summer. My hair’s wet, my dress is sweaty and I’m alone.
I touch the medallion on my necklace. It has Claire’s name engraved on it.
Far in the distance, over the sea, a quiet breeze starts to stir. I turn back to walk down the lane, and I’m still walking when the first raindrops begin to fall.
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