A note from the editor: I'm a sucker for dinobirds, but this has very little to do with my being charmed from page one by Carolyn Oliver's characters in "Crepuscular Behavior." From the narrator to the supporting cast, everyone here is rich, textured. Read on to get to know them all.
Yi Shun Lai, Fiction Editor
Reading time: ~15 minutes
The delivery truck that hit Lorenzo gave me two big breaks.
First, the company fired the truck driver, so I tipped off my roommate Max about the job opening, and he got the rest of my roommates to lay off about both Grant and my bounced rent check. Grant was a three-foot-long lizard, a black and white Argentinian tegu, and also the reason my check had bounced.
Second, Lorenzo being out of commission meant everyone in his department moved up a notch, at least until Lorenzo’s legs got unbroken and his right lung uncollapsed and he could see out of his left eye.
Like every other zoo I’ve worked at, this two-bit private Midwestern one-step-up-from-a-circus zoo ran on hierarchy so strict you’d think they were trying to impress the Vatican. You had to put in your time hauling beet pulp and hay, shoveling shit, assisting at vet calls, all while paying attention and hoping to make some sparkly observation that would impress a senior keeper and bump you up the promotion list. At least I was spared from endlessly directing visitors to the bathrooms; I only worked the early morning and late night shifts.
The morning after the accident, I passed my shovel to a bright-eyed, alarmingly young college intern and started a new rotation, one I actually wanted. I’m a herpetologist—an amateur herpetologist, Debbie the office manager loved to remind me, since I don’t have a college degree. I wouldn’t even get an interview at any of the major zoos, but in a county still aching from the last recession while it waited for the next one, there weren’t a lot of college grads to go around. After they finished their summer internships (a valuable line on the résumé, at least, and fodder for “challenging situation you faced” interview question), they skedaddled back to school faster than kids run when they hear the ice cream truck.
The last zoo—if you could call it that—where I worked closed with no notice; my boss disappeared with a few valuable animals and my chances of getting a reference. That’s why they started me here as a janitor, in the aquarium building. I was pretty glad to have a job, though. After a couple months the keepers began to trust me, allowing me to help out with feeding half dozen Adélie penguins, four nurse sharks, tropical fish restocked from a pet store an hour away, and a sea turtle, Polly, that hadn’t been laid in half a century.
I liked Polly. I learned her well enough to know when something was wrong. After the vet saved Polly’s eye, even Debbie had to admit that I’d been useful. But no good deed goes unpunished; they promoted me to assistant zookeeper in the small mammals department, where I wallowed for three years.
Then Lorenzo got hit by the truck and I was finally where I wanted to be. Officially, I was the assistant keeper of reptiles, amphibians, and birds, reporting to the interim head keeper, Brad, who happened to be the nephew of D. W. Breck, who owned the zoo. When Brad chose to show up, which wasn’t all that often, he’d spend hours in the office with Debbie “going over reports.” I hoped that when Lorenzo came back they’d shuffle Brad to some other department and let me stay, so I worked my ass off. This wasn’t a stepping-stone to a better position at the zoo; I liked Lorenzo fine, and wished him a speedy recovery. But I secretly planned, back then, to put away some money for a degree, and then get a job someday at a big zoo, a place with more animals, maybe even a komodo dragon.
I never got over my dinosaur obsession, or my first lizard, an iguana named Beagle. My mom got him for me when I was ten or eleven. He seemed small and manageable, but we didn’t know anything about the kind of light he needed, and before the year was out his bones went soft and he died. Unlike my mother, he never complained. That’s the thing about reptiles: they don’t expect anything from you, and they offer nothing in return, most of the time.
After Beagle, I kept to reptiles in books and on field trips, when my mom settled long enough to enroll me in school. It was years later, when I was crawling out of a dark hole, that I realized I could find jobs where I’d get to be around the scaly beasts I’d loved as a kid. While I was in mammal purgatory, I kept tabs on the zoo reptiles and amphibians unofficially, coming in a little early or staying late to take notes on my favorites, like the python, Gerald, and the blue poison dart frogs. Now that I’d been promoted, it was my privilege to keep them safe.
The downside of the promotion: birds.
Now, unlike everyone else who saw Jurassic Park the summer before Lorenzo got hit by the truck, I’d already read about bird evolution. I said I love dinosaurs, and that’s the truth, but I do not love that birds are related to them. You ever see a bird up close, or watch one of those David Attenborough documentaries on a big TV? The leathery legs, the gripping claws, those eyes that flick from side to side—those I’m used to in my reptiles. But cover a reptile with feathers—pretty or fluffy—and it looks like a costume, like something not quite at peace with its nature. Not to mention the flying. I don’t like things I can’t see coming.
Sure, ninety-five percent of the time if you leave them alone they’ll extend the same courtesy to you, but that five percent comes into focus real quick when you work with animals for a living.
I didn’t mind Brutus, the crotchety bald eagle; he was a real jerk if you paid him any attention, so I ignored him when I passed by his cage, only sneaking a look inside if I was pretty sure he wouldn’t notice. I didn’t like the brown ducks that swarmed me whenever I went to feed the pair of cranes, or Dollface, the insane free-ranging peacock, who used to preen in my path when I needed to move cartloads of supplies, especially when it was blistering hot or pouring rain. Worst of all was the aviary. The few times I got roped into picking up extra shifts I tried to arrange my visits for after sundown, but even then chances were fifty-fifty that I’d be washing bird shit out of my uniform before I staggered into bed. Those little fuckers were annoyances I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with, but they were the price for the pleasure of working with animals I knew and liked, the snakes and the frogs and the lizards.
Laila, though. She was something else.
“Rochelle!” Debbie yelled at me as I was picking up the previous shift’s notes the first day after the accident. “Make sure you see the cassowary at least three times today. And type up your report—Lorenzo wants someone to bring it to him in the hospital.” Her voice was sticky-sweet and slow, like molasses, and I was afraid I was liable to drown in it someday if I didn’t pay attention. She knew just about everyone in the county, and meddling was her idea of entertainment. I grimaced into the folder I was reading, but managed a bright “Sure thing!” before I headed out on my rounds.
In the six months Laila had lived at the zoo, I’d only seen her a couple times. The first was when they called all hands on deck during a surprise blizzard in early March, and a few of us slogged to the paddocks in the northwest corner, farthest away from the main entrance. Lorenzo and I shoveled a path to the cassowary’s building, tossing the snow against the chain link fence, which was covered in green plastic to prevent visitors from peering inside at old D. W. Breck’s latest investment. The bird was under wraps until her big debut in the summer.
“Want to come in for a minute?” Lorenzo asked when we got to the door.
I nodded, happy to take a break from freezing my ass off.
Usually considered temporary lodging for animals in quarantine or rehabilitation, the concrete building had all the charm of a cell. The cassowary had been in there for almost three months. Behind the glass I could see potted palms, and branches artfully arranged to give the illusion of a stand of trees. Lorenzo had tried to perk the place up.
I took off my soaked mittens, but the air was cold and clammy, and I wished I’d left them on. I blew on my cupped hands as I approached the glass. The branches blocked my view of her head, so that if I hadn’t known a giant bird was in the enclosure, I might have mistaken her for a mammal, maybe a curled-up chimp, or even a small bear. Her black feathers—each long and thin, like hair, packed densely into a glossy coat—shimmered in the slight breeze from the heating vent above.
“Why isn’t she up? It’s the middle of the day,” I whispered.
“Laila’s crepuscular. Dawn and twilight. Like you,” he teased.
I felt embarrassed that my hours were odd enough to be remarkable and turned to go, forcing my fingers back into my mittens. Lorenzo was still watching her intently, almost willing her awake, I thought. “Where are the wings?” I asked.
“Too small to see, really.” He pushed his hair out of his eyes and sighed, sorry to leave her or sorry to go back into the storm. I couldn’t tell.
Laila couldn’t fly, but God, could she run. A few weeks later I was signing off on early morning deliveries of frozen mice for the reptiles and a truckload of last year’s apples for our long-suffering elephant, Archimedes, when I heard Lorenzo shout from the direction of Laila’s building. I hustled over, curious, and swiped my badge to get inside. Laila’s cell was empty, and the keeper’s door was open. I went through, and found Lorenzo in the space between the exterior of the building and the paddock’s perimeter fence, invisible to zoo visitors. He had an apple cradled in a lacrosse stick—a relic left behind by an intern—and when Laila got close to the fence he whipped the stick forward, launching the fruit all the way to the other end of the paddock. She was gone before I could get a good look at her face.
Picture an ostrich running—a gawky kid who hasn’t grown into his legs, right? Now picture a professional linebacker, a big hulking barrel body on two legs. That was Laila. Head down, wings tucked, legs pumping. Taller than me—and I’m five ten before I put my boots on, tall enough to look down on most people—and maybe a hundred and fifty pounds of muscle. Hard to say, since you couldn’t weigh her. Too dangerous.
Lorenzo grinned when she circled back to the fence, looking pretty pleased with herself. Beneath that barrel body were thick gray legs, pebbled and crackled like an elephant’s—lizard legs, with big three-toed feet. On the inside toe of each foot was a huge claw, four or five inches long, that made me think of a goring tusk more than a talon.
Did I mention that cassowaries can jump?
Yeah, Laila could come at you blazing fast and then leap six feet into the air and land with those claws sunk in your skin, or slash an artery. Not even Lorenzo ever went in the enclosure with her. Sometimes I wonder why cassowaries evolved that way—who was out to eat them.
When I said I had to get back to my rounds, Lorenzo barely looked at me, just waved me off as he gazed at Laila, racing for another apple. Seeing his admiration for her speed and her strength made me think that Breck’s plan could work. I guess that bastard got one look at Laila’s claws and thought, “Velociraptor,” followed by, “money.” Can’t say I blame him. He figured that promoting her as a living dinosaur would get even more kids than usual into the zoo on summer vacation. And it turned out he was right.
As I pulled the gate shut behind me, I found a group of boys—it was April, the week of spring break—clustered at a tiny hole in the green plastic, whispering about the “dinosaur bird.” One of them, with dark brown hair and long legs, shivered in the sun. I gave them a wide berth.
That night I started calling around to different pet stores and suppliers, asking about their reptiles. A smooth-talking guy in Mason convinced me to put a deposit down on a tegu, and I marked my calendar for Grant’s arrival in late May. I admit to being a little lonely, just then.
When I arrived at her enclosure, still annoyed about Debbie’s orders, Laila was waiting for me, or it looked that way. Maybe she was waiting for Lorenzo. She should have been resting in the sun, but instead she stood inches from the fence, glaring at me with one amber eye fringed by lashes so long they seemed fake. She looked alien, or like a child’s drawing of an alien: her face and neck were a shocking electric blue that shaded to turquoise near her eyes and ears. Her wattles were lava flows of red skin, and the patch of crimson at her nape looked like an open wound. Looming above her head, tapering down to her beak, was her casque, the feature that made her look more ancient, more frightening, than her bald cousins, the emu and the ostrich. A casque is a big wedge of skin-covered keratin on top of a cassowary’s head, something between a rhino horn and a parasauralophus crest, dark gray and lightly ridged (striated, Lorenzo would want me to say) like a fingernail. Laila’s casque—a good six inches high—was tilted slightly to her left. Lorenzo told me later he thought it had been damaged in transport.
I chucked a pear over the fence. She caught it in mid-air and swallowed it whole. I was about to toss a plum father away—standard operating procedure to get her indoors so her enclosure could be cleaned—when I noticed something, a small nick or a divot, in the side of her casque. Had it been there all along, or had she bumped into a fence or a tree? I noted it down for Lorenzo, then reached for the plum again.
Boom. I could feel the rumble in my spine, radiating out into my bones.
The sounds that came out of that cassowary normally were guttural, croaking. Unreal, almost. Nothing compared to that booming call, though; I swear the air around us vibrated. I threw the plum as hard as I could and left. The cleaning could wait another day.
Lorenzo had always looked rumpled and sort of underfed, but his floppy brown hair, big eyes, and graceful lope had saved him from looking like a total bum. Now part of his head had been shaved so the doctors could stitch up a big gash, both his legs were in casts, and tubes sprouted from underneath the grimy beige hospital gown that covered him. He turned off the TV with the remote when I came in, which I appreciated. I waved weakly and tried to smile at him.
“How’s Laila?” he said.
I decided to bluster through. “Nice to see you too. All the animals are fine. That zoo in Arizona called again about borrowing Helium for their breeding program. How’re you feeling?”
“Jesus, Rochelle, what do you think? Like fucking shit. Go ahead and recommend loaning the gila monster—she’s in good shape. Now tell me about my bird.”
“Your bird?” He glared at me with the one eye not covered in gauze, so I kept talking, deflated. “Debbie said she would send you my report. Laila seems to be eating enough, normal digestion.” I made a face; cassowaries have an incredibly fast system, so normal meant diarrhea all the time. “She’s getting exercise and hasn’t stabbed anyone or anything. I think she’s good to go for the move to the new space.” Breck wanted her right in the middle of the zoo, in the paddock that had been empty since the giraffe died in the fall.
I focused on a sagging balloon tied to an empty vase on his windowsill. “I don’t know, something seems off. The first time I went to feed her she growled at me.”
“Really low, right? I think it’s a warning sound, amplified through the casque—”
“Yeah,” I cut in before he could give me a zoology lecture. “And she’s done it twice more.” I shuddered a little. I could practically feel the echo resonating in my body, hours later, redistributing into jittery unease. I took a deep breath and shook off the feeling as best I could. “Also, speaking of the casque, something about hers looked funny to me.”
“That’s why I asked you to come over. I read your report and got worried.”
“It looks nicked. Like she banged it against something. Could she be disoriented? I wish we could let a vet in there. Any of her former keepers mention her hitting fences or walls?”
Lorenzo looked down, fiddling with the tubing on the back of his hand. “That’s the thing . . . there are no former keepers.”
“You mean they didn’t have a bird keeper at that place in California?” I’d overheard the name in the office months ago, but it didn’t register. Just another private “sanctuary” that’d closed and shipped all its animals—if they were lucky—off to places like ours.
“No, I mean she wasn’t in a zoo.”
I’d been hovering by the door, but now I dropped into the hard visitor’s chair next to the bed. “You have got to be fucking kidding me. She’s a fucking import?”
Lorenzo nodded miserably.
“How did you find out?”
“When they brought her in I had questions—I had an emu pair in the last place I worked, but I’d never even seen a cassowary before. I pulled her files, but there was barely anything in there besides the legal paperwork, so I made some calls and finally found someone who worked for the California place. They never had a cassowary. Then I remembered Breck’s Australia trip from the newsletter. I put two and two together. When she’d been here for about six weeks I heard Debbie and Brad talking about the plan, how Breck saw one in some asshole’s backyard out in LA last summer and decided he wanted a dinosaur bird of his own.”
“Why go all the way to Australia? Why not just buy one here, or get a baby?”
“Baby takes too long to mature, and besides, they’re hard to breed in captivity. He wanted something fiercer. He wanted her angry.”
“No wonder she sounds like she wants to kill me.”
A film of sweat covered Lorenzo’s face, and I was glad when a nurse knocked. Grateful for a minute to think, I stepped outside while she did her business. I couldn’t fathom the logistics of getting a fully-grown cassowary into the States illegally. Or the money required. Shit, one of my old roommates was doing ten years for jaywalking with two ounces of pot in his backpack. I could taste rage on my tongue, powdery and bitter, like I’d ground layers off my teeth.
“What do we do?” I asked when I came back in. Lorenzo looked paler, but tidier too. The new gown was patterned with tiny blue diamonds. It was the most colorful thing in the room, aside from the balloon. I thought of Laila’s six months in a concrete cage.
“I just told you Breck ripped a wild animal—a dangerous, secretive wild animal—out of an Australian rainforest to make it his pet project. And you think we can do something about it. You think we have a chance against a guy with that kind of connections?”
“You’re smart, you’ve worked there forever, they trust you. I thought maybe you had a plan.”
“My plan is to make sure her life isn’t a living hell. That’s the best I can do. Actually, I can’t even do that.” He gestured at the bed, the room, his legs.
I took a deep breath. Small steps. “So what’s the deal with the casque?”
“Maybe she hit it trying to jump the fence. Or in the dark she forgot where she was and whacked her head. Just keep an eye on her, ok? I know you’re the lizard woman and whatever, but …”
“Yeah, yeah. Ok.”
A week later, right before the local schools let out, we moved Laila to her new pen. Mike, the head keeper, and the best of the three on-call vets, Maria, supervised while I ran the operation, which involved tossing fruit into a small delivery truck and waiting for hours until Laila got hungry enough to take the bait. Her kicks made bulges in the side of the truck until it looked like it had broken out in boils.
I stretched my hours long, arriving just before dawn and leaving at eight or nine so I could catch Laila’s active hours at dawn and dusk. In the hot middle of the day, while Laila huddled listless in whatever shade she could find, I hid from Debbie and everyone else in spare offices, logging my notes and drawing up intern schedules, avoiding the busloads of day camp kids and harried chaperones imported for field trips. The zoo had a few people on staff as tour guides and “educators,” but in a pinch a wild-eyed teacher will grab anyone in a uniform. From the office windows I watched children hopping like chickadees, collecting animals for their scavenger hunts.
Sometimes after work I’d visit Lorenzo in the hospital. I told him about Grant and my lost iguana, and he told me stories about growing up in Montana: the clear dome of the sky that shrank or billowed with the weather, the snow that gleamed from mounds high over his head, the animals he and his father and sister tracked not for sport, but because they needed to eat. Together we started planning, imagining how we could bring Laila’s lush, wet, Technicolor home alive in the vast middle of the country, where we could see the summer heat crisping the long grass outside his window.
Then one of his wounds got an abscess and his temperature spiked and he was sent to the ICU. I couldn’t see him for a few days, and I missed our visits. Laila seemed to tolerate me better, but she was still growling at the interns. At night, as I read library books on rainforests and living fossils. I spent my time off in the backyard with Grant, chasing patches of shade and weeding Max’s unkempt garden. I felt suspended between the part of my life I knew and the part that I couldn’t see coming.
I was already grumpy when Mike Hurston found me tossing mangoes and lettuce to Laila one early morning in mid-July. The day before, Debbie had called me into the office to inform me I’d be working a wedding over Labor Day weekend. The zoo made a lot of money gussying up the place with Christmas lights and twists of craft store gauze for people who wanted a “unique” wedding experience. Keepers had to be on hand to answer questions for guests, and some of us—always women—got roped into waitress duty or bartending. I hated working weddings, and Debbie knew it. I mean, the money was good—though I had to be careful about that, since my first sponsor had drilled it into me that a big pile of cash was a temptation—but it never seemed worth the hassle. And I’d have to trust an intern with Laila’s feeding.
I felt Laila’s rumble before I heard Mike’s heavy footsteps behind me, and before he could get close, she stalked off with half her breakfast still in the bag, even though mangoes were her favorite. Mike watched her go, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. He was a big man, and steady, batting away annoyances before they got under his skin. Privately I thought of him as a stegosaurus.
“She always do that?” he asked, waving at Laila’s retreating form. I knew he meant the rumbling. Even though he was technically in charge of all the animals, Mike was a mammal guy, and mostly left the birds and reptiles people alone.
“No, not too often. Lorenzo says she’ll quit it once she gets used to the place.”
“How’s he doing?”
“Getting better. Another couple weeks, I guess.”
“Glad someone gets over to see him. I don’t think his folks are nearby.”
Lorenzo’s dad was dead, but I didn’t feel like telling Mike that. “Why are you out so early?” I asked.
“One of the pygmy hippos gave us a scare. Turns out she’s pregnant. Maria’s on top of the whole thing. And speaking of the good doctor,” he said, “I need you to keep track of what the cassowary is most likely to eat and what stays in her system the longest.”
“Any particular reason?”
“We want to be able to calibrate sedatives for her, in case she needs any medical treatment.”
I thought of her tilted casque and the dented truck and nodded. “Sure, sure.” It would be a headache, but Mike was a decent guy. I didn’t mind doing him a favor.
The weeks-old Fourth of July bunting that swathed the wedding pavilion—known during regular zoo hours as Jungle Jim’s Burger Joint—drooped in the heat. The bride was one of Breck’s nieces, but given the lackluster décor and the cash bar, apparently not one of his favorites. He was somewhere among the guests, who were glazed with sweat, batting away mosquitoes and wandering off in pairs down pathways looped with Christmas lights.
I was stationed at the bar, watching as Debbie played hostess—through her display of charm and competence, she hoped to snag a ticket out of town, a job at Breck’s office in LA—and offering weak Manhattans to the old ladies, taking the caps off endless bottles of beer for overfed accountant types, mixing rum and cokes for teenagers. What the hell did I care?
Around ten Debbie wandered over as I was gulping down ice water. “What’s that?” she asked, shouting over the obnoxious DJ.
“Give it to me.” So much for the charm offensive.
I handed the half-empty glass to her. She sniffed it and handed it back.
“What? Did you seriously think I had a big tumbler full of vodka or something? I’m not a drunk.”
“I know what you are,” she slurred in her saccharine sing-song. “And it’s not a drunk.” The ‘k’ popped from her mouth like a grenade pin.
I pretended to ignore her, handing a glass of red to an older guy with lips stained purple. I started washing glasses so she wouldn’t notice my hands shaking.
“You think nobody knows what you are. What you did. You’re not special, even if people think you’re so mysterious.” Hanging onto the counter by her fingertips, she swung away, then tipped back toward me in a rush. “Like that stupid blue-faced bird everyone loves so much. No mystery there. She’ll look like all the rest of them when she’s running around after her little brats.”
The smell of the soapsuds made me nauseous all of a sudden. “What are you talking about?”
She mimed locking her lips and swung away again, lurching off toward the dance floor.
An hour passed. An asshole wearing a wedding ring tried to jab his tongue down my throat, so I let him have it. By the time Mike showed up and asked for a beer, my feet were killing me and my ears felt like they were full of cotton.
“Why the fuck does Debbie think the cassowary is going to be breeding soon?”
He took a long pull. “Breck made some calls to a place in Alabama. They have a male and they’re going to try it out. Bring him in around Thanksgiving, give them a few months to get to know each other before the breeding season. We pay for the transport and housing, and we get a bigger share of the eggs.”
“You know she could kill another bird, right?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“But she just got here!” He looked puzzled, and I realized Mike thought all of Laila’s papers were in order. Shit. “I mean, how’re we going to fit more birds in the space? It’s barely big enough for her to run in.”
“Preaching to the choir. I had this whole conversation with Breck, but he really likes the ‘deadliest bird’ angle. Says she’s too quiet during the day, thinks he can train new birds to be more—interesting.” The word curled up with his disgust. “Wants a whole flock of them so he can put up billboards and draw in more business.”
He took another swig, gave me an apologetic pat with his big hand, then rapped his knuckles on the bar and headed back into the scrum. A bunch of little kids hopped up on wedding cake and past-bedtime euphoria grabbed at his arms and badge, like sparrows attacking a piece of bread. He crouched down to answer their questions. I got back to wondering just what Debbie knew about my life, how she got to know it, and whether she’d told Lorenzo.
I was one of the last to leave, scooping up the leftover fruit from the dessert table to bring to Laila. Beneath the midnight sky she was a wedge of blacker dark under the trees, until the moon came out from behind a cloud and her feathered body gleamed like the ripples on a slow river. I didn’t want to wake her. Grant got the fruit.
The next night, Lorenzo and I were supposed to be celebrating his imminent move to rehab. He’d set aside his low-sodium chicken soup in favor of a piece of mocha truffle wedding cake when I told him about the breeding plan. He started shouting, and I started picking my cafeteria tuna sandwich into little pieces.
“That asshole knows nothing, absolutely fucking nothing, about these animals. First of all, the mother doesn’t raise the chicks. Doesn’t even sit on the nest! That’s the father’s job. This other zoo is just going to let their cassowary go for months and months on end? Fuck this.”
One of his monitors started beeping, and the night nurse—Annie, neck long like a diplodocus—rushed through the door, giving me a sharp look before she turned off the alert. “What’s the matter? You need another dose of pain meds? Your anxiety bothering you?”
“No, I’m fine.” He winced as a pillow she was fluffing tugged at his IV cord. “Actually, yeah, I’m not feeling so great.”
“Be right back.” She glared at me again on her way out. I cringed.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Mike is going to agree with whatever you say, but in the end he’s just as helpless as we are.”
Lorenzo nodded, but he wasn’t really listening. He was waiting, I realized, for Annie to come back. I thought I understood. Need is like that. Makes everything else around you—the whistle of wind through trees, the cold shock of water, the smell of sunlight on a baby’s scalp—fade into background noise.
Annie came back with pills in a tiny paper cup, the pleated kind you pump ketchup or mustard into. She watched as Lorenzo tossed them back. “You finish that soup, ok? And the call button is there for a reason.”
As soon as she left he spit the pills back into the cup. “I have a plan,” he said. “But first come over here and help me with the soup.”
I liked Annie, but I still tossed the soup in the sink. Then I sat down, for the first time, on the edge of Lorenzo’s bed.
Nobody thought it was weird when I volunteered to work Thanksgiving Day; I always worked holidays. After I fed Laila in the morning—mangoes unearthed in the fourth grocery store I visited, an hour away—I spent the rest of the unseasonably warm day out on the usual rounds, filling out paperwork, leaving extra notes. After I visited Polly and Gerald and the frogs, I walked the whole perimeter of the zoo waiting for lavender hour. She’d be up by then, pacing and hungry. The grapes were sitting in the fridge, each one stuffed, like a cocktail olive, with sedatives Lorenzo had been squirreling away. And a few more things I’d managed to find with the help of some old friends.
Lorenzo is a good person, a good keeper. That’s why I left Grant at his place.
An hour after I fed her the grapes, as wisps of cloud turned scarlet in the sunset, I walked into Laila’s enclosure. She was still warm. The blue leather of her neck was soft, much softer than I expected, and her casque was even bigger up close, scarred with fine lines. For the first time I wondered how old she was. How many chicks she’d left to fend for themselves, without looking back.
At the service entrance, I knew Lorenzo would be waiting with a horse trailer and a pickup to take us all to his sister’s ranch in Montana.
I still imagine it sometimes, that trip we didn’t take. I’d drive for hours and hours, way into the dark, the air in the cab dense with the smell of fruit, Patsy Cline on the radio. I’d trail my gaze over his propped-up legs to the side mirror, watching as this part of our lives was winnowed away to nothing across the endless plains.
Carolyn Oliver had this to say about "Crepuscular Behavior":
“Crepuscular Behavior” began when I saw a picture of a cassowary. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten where I saw it, but I couldn’t forget the cassowary’s electric blue feathers, its talons, its casque. I read about their diet, their habitat, their fearsome reputation, and listened to recordings of their booming calls. As I pried at the edges of a story about a woman with secrets and mistakes she doesn’t share with anyone (anyone human, that is), the cassowary pecked at my attention, until I realized the isolated woman and the huge bird belonged in the same story.
Reprinted with permission from the author