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Exotic Pets

             After driving for 13 straight hours, Trace arrived at his dad and step-mom Hettie’s house in Multioak just before 3 on Thanksgiving morning. He found the key where his step-mom had told him it would be in the bush by the backdoor and let himself into the house. The light over the kitchen sink had been left on in anticipation of Trace’s arrival, but the rest of the house was dark. His much younger step-sister Celine lived in Multioak not far from her mom and Trace’s dad, but her car was in the driveway so Trace figured she must be spending the night in her old bedroom. Trace had been out on his own for a long time before his dad married Hettie and moved to Multioak, and Trace had only visited them here once before. Finding their house had been a nightmare that time and it hadn’t gone any better this time. For some reason, Trace’s GPS rendered this neighborhood in a way that bore no resemblance to the real thing.

As he found his way to the guest room and clicked on the light, Trace realized he’d left his bag in the car. He could get it tomorrow when he woke up. For now, all he wanted to do was collapse into the guest bed and sleep. As Trace took off his coat and shoes, he noticed two pictures hanging on the wall that he remembered from the house in which he’d grown up. One picture was a photo print of an elderly man playing cards in an empty saloon, no one at the table with him, no one anywhere in sight, just him and his cards. This picture had always hung in Trace’s dad’s den and Trace remembered thinking the elderly man’s name was “Poker” when he was a kid, so he must have asked his dad some questions about the picture and gotten the answers mixed up. The other picture was one he recognized from the old upstairs bathroom. It was a print of a painting of a collie sniffing at a bee perched on the blossom of a red tulip. When Trace was little, he’d always felt scared for the dog, knowing there was a good chance his nose was about to be stung, but also knowing that the dog had no idea that he was facing imminent danger. The artist hadn’t bothered to put anything in the background of the painting other than some blue squiggles. And now Trace remembered that he’d always thought the dog’s name was “Tulip” when he was a kid and he wondered if maybe these mix-ups weren’t his fault, if maybe his dad just hadn’t listened closely to his questions.

Trace didn’t remember either picture being here in the guest room on his previous visit and it felt strange to see them in this new context. Both pictures were so tied to his childhood home that when he closed his eyes, he found it impossible to envision them anywhere else than in his dad’s den and in the upstairs bathroom, even knowing that when he opened his eyes again they’d be right there on the wall in front of him. Trace stood up and took off his overshirt and pants, draping them over the edge of an empty desk with no accompanying chair. Then he looked at himself in the mirror hanging on the closet door and adjusted the bandages on his nose, marveling again at the grotesque appearance of his two black eyes, which were both far more yellow and purple than black. He was not looking forward to the barrage of questions and comments he’d have to deal with when his dad and Hettie and Celine saw him in the morning. He hoped they’d let him sleep in.


Trace’s dad and Hettie and Celine did not let him sleep in. His dad knocked on the guest room door at 8:30. “Trace? You up?”

                “No, dad, I got in at 3 last night and I drove 13 hours before that. I’m tired.”

                “All right.” His dad paused. “‘Cause we just want to spend time with you while you’re here. Make the most of the time, you know?”

                “I know, dad, I’ll be up soon. I won’t be any fun to hang out with if I can’t keep my eyes open.”

                “And we could use some help preparing the meal. Hettie’s already been at it in the kitchen for an hour.”

                Trace said nothing and a few moments later he heard his dad walk away from the bedroom door. However, this did not indicate a concession to Trace’s desire to sleep in, but rather a change in strategy, and a few minutes later Trace’s dad and Hettie were engaged in loud, idle conversation in the kitchen and someone turned on music in the living room, music which sounded like it was comprised entirely of trumpets.

                Trace sighed and got out of bed, pulling his clothes from the night before back on. He wished he’d just gone back to the car last night when he first realized he’d forgotten his bag. Putting yesterday’s clothes on again made him feel stale and oily. With his shoes in his hand and his coat over his arm, Trace left the guest room and walked down the hall to the living room where Celine was reclined on the couch looking at her phone. She wore pajama pants covered with a pattern of cute-ish skulls and a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, her long, dark hair spilling out of the hood around her face.

                Trace knew what was coming, there was no avoiding it. He just had to marshal all of his patience and try to get through it. Celine saw him out of the corner of her eye, looked over at him, and shouted, “Whoa, Trace! What happened to your face?”

                The chorus of trumpets on the living room stereo continued to blast merrily away as Trace’s dad and Hettie rushed into the living room from the kitchen. When they saw Trace’s face, they too were alarmed and horrified. Hettie covered her mouth with her hands and Trace’s dad froze where he stood, whisk in hand, and said, “We’re going to the doctor. Put your coat on.”

                “Dad, I’ve been to the doctor. Where do you think I got these bandages?”

                “They look old and dirty. You need new ones.”

                “That’s because these are yesterday’s bandages,” said Trace. “I wore them all yesterday while I was driving. I have fresh bandages in the car, I was just about to go get my bag.”

                “But how did it happen?” asked Celine, sitting upright on the couch now, her face alight with intrigue. “Ugh, why is it so yellow?”

                “My nose isn’t even broken,” said Trace. “It looks a lot worse than it is.”

                “I’m sure it was an accident, Celine” said Hettie.

                “Well, yeah, I didn’t set out to injure my face,” said Trace.

                Everyone fell silent, their eyes on Trace, sensing that the explanation for his monstrous appearance was imminent. It was the moment Trace had been dreading since the injury had happened. Even as he was lying there on the floor, his head spinning, feeling the blood trickling down the sides of his nose, he’d thought, “Now I have to explain this to dad and Hettie and Celine and it’s going to be terrible.” He’d tried to think of lies, of ways to deflect or minimize or dodge, but the thought of maintaining these deceptions for two days, and maybe for the rest of his life, made him so weary that he’d decided just to tell the whole truth and be done with it. But now that the moment of truth was upon him, Trace was reconsidering. Maybe he should try to deceive them after all. But he had nothing prepared. If he was going to deceive them, he should have decided on a story beforehand.

                And then, just as Trace opened his mouth to say something, although he still hadn’t decided what that would be, there was a tiny knock on the front door. No one else seemed to have heard it, but Trace, his every sense straining for some sort of providential intervention, turned to the door and said, “Someone’s here.”

                “What?” asked Celine. “I didn’t hear anything.”

                “Someone just knocked,” said Trace. “A quiet knock.” Then the doorbell rang, although that somehow sounded fainter than it should have as well. “See?” said Trace. “I’ll get it.” He knew his appearance didn’t make him the ideal candidate for answering the door at a house where he didn’t live, but he was eager for the interruption to have some staying power. He opened the door and there, on the front porch, was a girl of about 10 with tears brimming in her eyes. She was dressed for the cold, damp weather in articles of clothing that were evenly split between solid black or solid green. She did not, to Trace’s surprise, visibly react to the hideousness of his face.

                Before Trace could say anything, the girl blurted, “Sir, can you help me? Can you help me find my exotic pets? They escaped, well, they didn’t escape, my mean step-mom set them loose this morning, she just let them loose out the front door and now they’re gone and I can’t find them, I’ve been looking but I don’t know where they went. I need help, can you help me find my exotic pets? There’s a bird, a mammal, a spider, a lizard, and a fish. They’re lost and scared and it’s cold out here and they’re exotic, they’re not used to this, I don’t want something bad to happen to them, I don’t want them to die alone in the cold on Thanksgiving. Have you seen any of them? Will you help me look? Please? Please!”

                “Not all step-moms are mean,” said Hettie. She and Celine had come up behind Trace to see what was going on. Trace’s dad still stood in the doorway between the living room and kitchen with the whisk in his hand. Trace caught his eye and realized that he, at least, had not allowed this girl’s interruption to throw him off the scent of the mystery of Trace’s facial injuries.

                “What were the exotic pets again?” asked Celine, stepping up next to Trace and stooping so as to be head-level with the girl.

                “A bird, a mammal, a spider, a lizard, and a fish.”

                “You said ‘a fish?’” asked Trace. “I don’t think a fish could have gone far.”

                “They’re all gone,” said the girl. “They all ran away. My step-mom scared them off.”

                “You don’t have to call her your ‘step-mom,’” said Hettie. “Just call her by her first name.”

                “We would love to help you find your pets,” said Celine, squeezing the girl’s shoulder through her coat. It was hard to tell how much shoulder was actually in the squeeze and how much was just coat. “Right, Trace?”

                Trace could feel his dad’s eyes on the back of his neck. “Yeah,” said Trace. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll drive, Celine, and you keep watch out the windows.”

                “No,” said Celine. “That won’t work. We have to go on foot and we have to go in different directions. The exotic pets won’t be by the road. We’ll miss too much in the car and if we guess the wrong direction, they’ll all be, uh, alone longer.”

                “But I don’t know the neighborhood,” said Trace.

                “You’ll be fine,” said Celine. “Just remember your route and follow it back home.”

                “Please hurry,” said the girl. “They’re exotic.”


1.       The Bird

The sky over the neighborhood was streaked with horizontal strips of cloud and grimy morning

light. Trace and Celine had walked to the end of the driveway, Celine had turned right, and Trace had turned left. And Trace still hadn’t changed clothes. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was looking for. The girl hadn’t given many specifics about the lost exotic pets. She didn’t seem to even know their exact species and her descriptions of them were limited to size and vague adjectives. The bird, mammal, and lizard were small. The spider and fish were big. All of them were exotic, weird, sorta different, and exotic again. Trace had always thought part of the pleasure of owning exotic pets was knowing a bunch of stuff about something that no one else knows about, but the little girl seemed to know as much about her exotic pets as someone who’d seen a picture of them while flipping through a nature magazine.

                Trace stayed on the sidewalk as he made his way in a straight line through the neighborhood, looking mostly at the yards and houses on his left and occasionally glancing over at the yards and houses across the street on his right. He wondered what had happened to that exotic fish after the girl’s step-mom had thrown it outside. He supposed that either one of the other exotic pets or a neighborhood cat had been the end of it.

                The houses that Trace walked past were old but well-preserved. They looked faded and weathered, but also sturdy and cozy. Only a few of them rose timidly beyond one story. Most of the houses had two trees in their front yards, a big one and a small one, and as a rule, the small ones clung more tightly to their few remaining leaves while the big ones were aggressively bare-branched. As Trace walked, he allowed his eyes to crawl up the trunk of one of these larger trees, up through the thicker lower branches and on to the spindly branches at the top of the tree where he saw a small patch of color, a red, orange, and green blotch, among the brown twigs and against the backdrop of gray chunk of sky. And then, as Trace stopped and watched, the patch of color took off and flew one yard farther down the street, landing at the top of the next large tree on the block. Trace realized that it must be the bird, the little girl’s exotic one. Some kind of, what? Parakeet? It was very brightly colored, clearly out of place in a neighborhood like this. Keeping his eye on the exotic bird, Trace followed it down the street as it flew from tree to tree, taking off again whenever he got close. Then, when it reached the end of the block, the bird went left and crossed to a tree on the other side of the street. Trace followed. He had no idea how he was going to catch the bird. It was far too high to reach and even if it came lower, there was no way it would hold still long enough for him to sneak up on it and grab it. It was tame, though, right? The little girl had probably held it before, maybe it wouldn’t mind being held. He tried to call Celine to tell her he was on the trail of the exotic bird, but she didn’t pick up.


2.       The Mammal

                The exotic bird made another left, then, up a smaller side street, then took an almost immediate right down a street that ended in a cul-de-sac. Trace had to walk through a few back yards to follow the exotic bird two streets over where it again took a left and flew from tree to tree parallel to the road. With his eyes fixed on the exotic bird, Trace didn’t see the three little boys kneeling side by side on the sidewalk facing a small, crude wooden cross stuck in the yard until he nearly tripped over them. The little boys looked up at Trace, their eyes wet and solemn, their hair the same inconspicuous brown and of varying lengths, their coats perhaps inherited from older, wealthier cousins. None of them seemed interested in the condition of Trace’s face.

“We hardly knew him,” said one of the little boys.

                “But we loved him,” said another.

                “And we miss him,” said the third.

                Trace looked at the cross in the yard, protruding from a low mound of fresh, black earth. Its cross-beam was crooked and written on it in black marker was the name “Nebuchadnezzar.”

                “What did you bury?” asked Trace.

                “We don’t know,” said one of the boys. “It was small and weird.”

                “And furry,” said another of the boys. “We didn’t see it give birth, but I bet if we had, there would have been live young, not eggs.”

                “What happened to it?” asked Trace. “How did it die?”

                “It wasn’t from around here,” said one of the boys. “It was all alone and sad and shivering when we found it. We looked out the window and it was in our yard and it didn’t want to move anymore. We came out into the yard to try to save it, but when we saw its face, we knew it didn’t want to be saved. Not by us, anyway.”

                “Or maybe,” said a different boy, “it knew that we couldn’t save it. We’re just kids and this neighborhood is all we know. And even we get lost in it.”

                “How did you know its name?” asked Trace.

                “We didn’t,” said one of the boys. “But it seemed so far from home. It seemed like it needed a far-away name.”

                “Please,” said another boy, “we’d like some quiet time for reflection now.”

                Trace nodded. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, which sounded dumb, but it’s all he ever said to grieving people. It always seemed to get the job done. And then the bird was on the move again, gliding down the street to the next big tree.


3.       The Spider

It didn’t take long, as he followed the exotic bird’s erratic, twisting flight through the neighborhood, for Trace to encounter another group of people, this time a family standing on their front lawn attired inappropriately for the weather: coatless, hatless, even a couple examples of shoelessness, although these feet were stockinged, at least, thank goodness. There was a mom, a dad, a son, and a daughter, although any of them could have been “step” or, in the cases of the son and daughter, “half” variations on those roles. The dad, one of the two shoeless members of the family, held a tray with a cooked turkey on it. The son, also shoeless, held a loaf of bread under his arm. The daughter, the tallest person present, held an empty drinking glass with two hands. The mom held nothing. They all stood gathered under the bare branches of the large tree atop which the exotic bird had alighted.

“Hello,” said Trace. “What’s going on?”

The family turned to look at him as one. “Our house was invaded,” said the son. “On Thanksgiving Day.” This fact seemed particularly painful to him. He hugged the loaf of bread with both arms, mushing the center.

“They’re in there now?” asked Trace. “Did you call the cops?”

“We called someone else,” said the dad.

“Our home invader is a giant spider,” said the daughter. “Like you see on TV shows about spiders that could theoretically exist in the rainforest.”

“Really?” asked Trace. “It’s still in there?” He glanced around the barren yard for a bucket or a pair of rubber gloves or even some good tongs. The yard, barren as it was, immediately revealed itself to be devoid of these things. “I’ll get it out for you,” said Trace. “If you have something I could put it in? Maybe in your garage?”

“It looks like the last thing you need is another spider bite,” said the mom, glaring at Trace’s facial unpleasantness.

“This isn’t from a spider bite,” said Trace. “This was something else. Listen, I know the little girl who that spider belongs to and I’m out here ‘cause I’m trying to help her find it.”

“My sister gotten bitten by a spider when she was 48 years and 8 months old,” said the mom. “And that happened to her face.” She pointed at – where else? – Trace’s face.

Trace looked up at the exotic bird in the tree. It was still just sitting there. Would it make more sense for him to try to run into the house and go after the exotic spider but risk losing track of the exotic bird? Maybe it would, especially since it seemed unlikely he was ever going to have a chance to get his hands on the exotic bird. He had just decided to sprint for the front door and try to find a receptacle for the spider once he got inside when a white van came roaring into the driveway, screeched to a halt, and two men sprang out, both of them wearing hazmat suits minus the helmets. They ran around to the back of the van, opened it, and extracted their helmets, which they struggled to put on. Donning one’s hazmat suit helmet appeared to be a thing to not do hurriedly. Trace was reminded of something his friend who had been in the army used to say: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

“Is that who you called?” asked Trace as the men, helmets clearly improperly affixed to their suits, charged headlong toward the house. Trace thought perhaps they might both attempt to go through the front door at the same time and become wedged like doofuses in a silent comedy, but one of the men pulled ahead of the other and made it through the door first when the second man stumbled on the front steps. The men disappeared into the house and left the front door standing open. A minute later, loud banging sounds began emanating from the house and they were still going strong when the exotic bird again took wing.


4.       The Lizard

“It’s there,” said the woman. There was nothing about her that said “today is Thanksgiving” except for her turkey leg earrings and the aura of gravy that surrounded her. She pointed at an evergreen shrub near the front of her house.

“I don’t see anything,” said Trace. He’d been standing in the woman’s front yard waiting for the exotic bird perched in her biggest tree to decide what it wanted to do next when the woman had come bursting out of her front door in a state of high excitement shouting, “It was on the window! It was right on the glass!”

And now she believed it to be in the shrub. She insisted it was. “Right there,” she said. “You can see its sinister, reptilian countenance.”

“I only see the shrub,” said Trace. “Are you pointing at that leaf stuck in there?”

“No offense,” said the woman, “but your eyes don’t look fully functional right now.”

“I can see fine,” said Trace. “It looks worse than it-”

“There!” shouted the woman, pointing at the ground, at the rudimentarily patterned stonework of her front walk upon which Trace now stood. “It’s on the brick! It changed color, it’s camouflage!”

“I don’t see it at all,” said Trace, stooping to peer down at his feet, his hands spread as if ready for action.

The woman shrieked. “It’s on you! It’s on your pants!”

“Where, where?” shouted Trace, hopping about.

“It’s gone,” said the woman, her shoulders sagging. “Oh, thank God, it’s gone.”

“Where did it go?” asked Trace. “I’m trying to catch it. It’s exotic. Did you see which direction it went?” His eyes scanned the ground, the shrub, the siding on the house, still not knowing what he was looking for.

“Maybe that way,” said the woman, pointing behind Trace. He turned around to look at the ground behind him, or at the trunk of either of the yard’s two trees.

The woman shrieked. “It’s on the back of your head!”

                Trace cupped his hand and slapped it against the back of his head, hoping to trap the lizard, but to no avail. The lizard was already gone again. Trace turned to face the woman. “If you find the lizard, will you try to catch it and give me a call if I give you my pone number? The lizard belongs to a little girl.”

                “That lizard is long gone,” said the woman. “I wouldn’t be surprised if no one ever sees it again. It’ll disappear into the yards, into the gardens, into the crawlspaces and cellars, into the abandoned mole tunnels and the innards of rotten trees. It will vanish. That’s possible in this neighborhood.”

                “What do you mean?” asked Trace. “Are you sure?”

                “That was our chance,” said the woman. “You think it’ll ever let itself be seen again after all that carrying on, you hopping around, you slapping at it, not to mention your horrifying face?”

                “You were shrieking,” said Trace. “A lot.”

                “Lizards can’t hear,” said the woman. “Happy Thanksgiving.”


5.       Not the Bird

The exotic bird seemed tired. Trace had been following it long enough to notice the strain in each flap of its colorful wings. This gave him reason to hope. If the exotic bird wore itself out, he might have a chance to capture it. It was a pet, after all, maybe it would welcome the chance to ride back to the little girl perched on his shoulder or cupped gently in his hands. The exotic bird rounded another corner and flew to a large tree in the front yard of a house all by itself at the end of a dead-end street. There was a man standing under the tree wearing a flannel shirt, which was not surprising, but his pants were also flannel, as were his shoes and his necktie, believe it or not. The man had a cigar in his mouth and the cigar was producing an astounding amount of sweet, dark smoke which drifted up toward the bird through the branches of the tree.

“The missus never let me smoke inside while she was around,” said the man in lieu of a greeting. “I’m not gonna start smoking inside now just because I found out she only forbade it because she resented me going bald on her after showing her all those pictures of my ancestors with thick hair down to the middles of their backs stretching all the way back through eras in which such a hairstyle was extremely unpopular for men in their 60s. What’re you looking at?”

“That exotic bird,” said Trace, pointing.

The man stepped out from under the tree and walked out to where Trace stood on the sidewalk in front of the house. “Ah, yep,” said the man. “You know what kind of bird that is?”

“No,” said Trace. “I just know it’s exotic.”

“It’s a bird of paradise,” said the man.

“Huh,” said Trace. “Long way from home, right?” He smiled.

The man scowled. “I know what you’re trying to say. I get it. This neighborhood is far different than your idea of paradise so that bird must be miserable here. That bird must be hating every second, desperate to get away. Let me show you something.” The man stalked across his yard toward the side of his house, and after recovering from his surprise, Trace followed him. When Trace got to the back yard, the man was there waiting for him, standing with his arms folded under a large tree, the branches of which were filled with brightly colored birds of all shapes and sizes, quietly preening themselves or sleeping. As Trace gaped at the birds, the exotic bird he’d been following all morning flew over the roof of the house and took its place on a branch high up in the tree, ruffled its feathers, and went to sleep.

They like it here,” said the man. “Too bad they can’t explain why to you. Me? I don’t need to know why.”

Trace touched the tender bridge of his nose with a single finger. “So that bird…?”

“That bird’s been living in this neighborhood for two years,” said the man. “And it seems very content.”


6.       The Fish

Now Trace had to find his way back to his dad and Hettie’s house. He called Celine but she didn’t answer. He called his dad who did answer. “Dad, it’s Trace. I got lost in the neighborhood looking for those exotic pets.”

“You see any street signs?” asked his dad.

“Yeah,” said Trace. “I’m at the corner of, uh, Dirge and Shirshire.”

“I’ve never heard of those streets,” said his dad. “Let me see if Hettie knows.” Trace heard his dad ask Hettie if she knew where the streets were, heard her say she’d never heard of them, and then his dad came back on the phone and recapped the conversation for him.

“So what am I supposed to do?” asked Trace.

“I’m not sure,” said his dad. “I try not to stray too far from my usual routes in this place.” He lowered his voice. “But just between me and you, son…what happened to your face? Just tell me now and I won’t mention it again, I won’t tell the ladies.”

“Dad, I-” Trace stopped. There, less than 50 yards ahead of him, flopping its way off of the curb and into the street, heading for the opposite curb, was a glittering, golden fish. Trace jammed his phone into his pocket and ran up the street, grabbing the slippery fish with both hands. It was dry to the touch and its fishy eye stared up at Trace as its mouth worked in futility. Trace sprinted to the nearest house and pounded on the front door until it was answered by a woman with a baby cradled lovingly in one arm and a small, empty plastic trashcan cradled indifferently in the other arm. “Ma’am!” said Trace. “I need to save this exotic fish! Please lend me that trashcan and some water!”

“I’ll need to think about it,” said the woman.

“Ma’am, please!” shouted Trace.

“Just kidding,” said the woman, chuckling. “Come on in. Do you like cranberries?”


An hour and a half later, the woman dropped Trace off at the curb in front of his dad and Hettie’s house. “I knew we’d find it eventually,” said the woman as Trace stepped out of the car with the fish in the trashcan full of water. “The trick is to just keep following your gut, no matter how many times it betrays you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Trace. “Bye, Alfie!” He waved to the baby in the back seat. Alfie’s carseat looked to be crafted out of recycled materials. Trace really hoped it was safe.

“I got the fish,” Trace announced as he entered the house. The table was all set for Thanksgiving dinner and his dad and Hettie were watching a made-for-TV movie about families valuing family values. “Has anyone heard from Celine or that little girl yet?”

Trace’s dad stood up from his recliner. “The fish is in that trashcan?”

“Yeah,” said Trace. “I found it flopping in the street miles from here. No idea where it thought it was going.”

“You’ve got water in there?” asked his dad.

“Of course.”

“Fresh water?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Let me see that,” said Trace’s dad. He walked over and took the trashcan from Trace. “This fish is dead. Most exotic fish are saltwater fish, Trace.”

Trace pulled the trashcan back from his dad and looked down into it, his heart splintering. “I thought he was just being still ‘cause he was cramped.”

“Nope,” said Trace’s dad. “I think the fact that he’s cramped is the only thing keeping him from floating belly-up.”

There was a commotion outside, shouting, feet clambering up the steps, and then Celine burst through the front door. “I found the exotic bird! I found the exotic bird and the little girl is so happy and I threatened to harm the step-mom if she ever turned the exotic bird loose again and she agreed not to and everything was just going so well that I thought, well, these all must be signs, so I went to the convenience store and bought a scratcher and I won 15,000 dollars!”

Everyone was stunned. Trace spoke first. “What did the bird look like?”

Celine’s smile was as radiant as a Thanksgiving candelabra, if those exist. She said, “Oh, the exotic bird was repulsive. But maybe it’s just ‘cause I’m not used to it. Just a matter of taste, maybe. I could barely stand to touch the thing, but it hopped right onto my finger when I pressed it to its breast and I carried it all the way back. I was so relieved when that little girl took it from me. Ick!”

“But what color was it?” asked Trace.

“Ick!” said Celine, laughing. “But! 15,000 dollars!” And then she set to prancing.


Trace’s dad was at the head of the table, Trace was at the foot of the table, and both of the women were on the side of the table to Trace’s right. Everyone had their heads bowed, waiting. “Dear, Lord,” said Trace, to God. “Thank you for this food. Thanks for my safe travels. And thank you for helping Celine find that exotic bird and win 15,000 dollars on the scratcher. Please be with that little girl as she’s probably sad about her other exotic pets, like the mammal.” He paused. “And Lord, please help my face to heal. I don’t want to tell anyone how I got hurt, but I’m going to tell you now even though you already know and if other people find out that way, then so be it.” He paused again. “Lord, I don’t need to tell you that I’ve got no money and no plans, you know all about that. I don’t need to tell you that Jillian cracked me in the face with a VHS tape of Best Dunks of the Early 90s and told me to go somewhere I belong, if there even is such a place, and Lord, you’re probably aware some people at this table said I never belonged out there in the first place, but I never felt like you thought that, Lord, but now I guess it seems like maybe I’m not as cool as I thought I was, but I don’t know how to act less cool or what that entails, exactly. But, again, thanks for the food You’ve provided. Oh, and bless it to our bodies. Amen.”

And everyone else said, “Amen.”

Discussion Questions

  • Where did that nutty fish think he was goin’? Ha ha!

  • Do you remember any of the art your parents had hanging on the walls of your childhood home? How well did you understand it? Well enough to accurately appraise its value for a collector of fine art?

  • Can you spot the mixed metaphor somewhere in the previous three questions?

  • Have you ever felt like an exotic pet, out of place, too “spicy” for the “soup” you find yourself “ruining?”

  • Is “Spot” the worst name for an exotic pet? Or is it “John Smith?”

  • What makes a pet seem exotic to you? Asexual reproduction? Poison?