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Animal Control

By Nathan Willis From Issue No. 5

Loren kept the Planet Creeper alive for three days. It was sick when he found it and no matter what he did, it kept getting worse until it died. That’s when he asked me to come over.

If I had known it was to get rid of a body I wouldn’t have brought Hailey. She can’t keep her mouth shut about anything. She’s seven. She treads in a purgatory of blameless honesty and thinks it will last forever. She broadcasts unfiltered and it’s impossible to predict what station her brain will be dialed to. Just the other day she told the cashier at the grocery store her mom moved into a new man’s house in Michigan.

We were stocking up with the money Karen left us. I got fancy cheese and corn chips. Hailey got peanut butter and fruit snacks. She uses them instead of jelly. Each sandwich requires two and a half packs. We bought an entire case.

I waved off the cashier’s apology and noticed a bag of tortellini on the belt.

Hailey shrugged. She said she wanted to try it. She said it sounded fun.

Loren was on his back porch next to a tarp. There was a lump in the middle and it was weighed down with bricks at the corners. He kicked one of them aside and pulled back the plastic.

“Any idea what it is?”

I shook my head.

It was the size of a lion with patches of dark hair along the spine. The rest was covered in black and white scales that shimmered like gasoline on asphalt. In place of eyeballs it had sagging golf ball-sized orbs half-full with a milky white liquid. It had four spindly legs with paws of flattened flesh and claws sprouting out in every direction. Its mouth cut almost to the back of its head. There were no lips, only thick yellow fangs that fit together in a sharp, uneven zigzag.

Hailey came up with the name Planet Creeper. She was going through an Outer Space phase. She had to know about everything we couldn’t see. How far away everything was. What everything was made of. What it was like there. Why that place was different than this place.

We would come up with a more appropriate name later.

Loren covered the Planet Creeper back up.

“This needs to be preserved until we find out what it is. If it’s something new, we’ll be famous.”

Hailey gasped, barely containing a squeal. In addition to space, her other primary concern was establishing herself as a worldwide brand. She was convinced the only reason this hasn’t happened yet was because we won’t let her take social media by storm.

Loren looked uneasy. “I don’t want anything to do with it. Not after seeing it in the condition I did. I can’t.” He was getting upset. “It kept making this noise.” Loren drew in a deep breath and made a gravelly moan through clenched teeth. It came from the bottom of his throat. It was awful.

I told him that was fine. I would take care of it on my own.

Loren keeps to himself as much as possible. I think he’s in some kind of recovery program. He never leaves the house so he doesn’t go to meetings. Every once in a while someone from the county shows up to check in on him. Whatever it’s for must be bad if he isn’t even willing to risk taking credit for discovering a new kind of animal.

He took another deep breath.

I told him to stop.

He made the noise again.

I never knew anything about medical supplies but I didn’t have to. MediCart promoted from within based on seniority. I started in the Returns department and inherited a territory of doctor’s offices. It was easier for them to keep buying from me than switch to another provider. The only thing I had to do was be relatable. If the doctor was stoic, then I spoke sparingly and stared off in the distance exuding loss. If the doctor thought we were on the cusp of an epidemic, I was building a hermetically sealed bunker in my basement. And if the doctor had a predilection for pregnant chicks, then I pantomime the less respectable capabilities of our newest birthing dummy, oblivious to the patient walking by in the hall, and get myself fired.

The patient saw my van in the parking lot and called MediCart to complain.

The doctor corroborated the story and I was on the phone with HR before I made it home. They explained the only way they could avoid filing a harassment claim was if I were an independent contractor, which meant buying the van and supplies outright. Otherwise, they were legally obligated to draw a line between themselves and my behavior.

I keep everything in the garage. It looks like a third world hospital. I am prepared for a multitude of minor disasters and comfort care scenarios.

When I told Karen about the extreme level of debt I put us in, she took away my bankcards and got her realtor’s license.

She warmed up with a few houses around here then started traveling to take on bigger, more expensive homes. She called them Vanity Listings. Sometimes that meant trips to Illinois or Indiana. This time, it meant Michigan.

Loren and I grabbed the tarp and dragged the Planet Creeper to the garage. It was too big for the deep freeze and there was no way we could leave it out. It had been a hot summer. The stench would drive us out of the house in a day.

I looked around at the supplies lining the walls.

“Hailey.” I said, “Get one of the good knives from the kitchen. And the beach towels. And any buckets you can find. Loren, you probably don’t want to be here for this.”

Karen can only sell houses she loves. That’s why she takes listings that are far away. She’s not supposed to live in them, but she does. She has to. It forces her, over and over, to erase any trace she has been staying there. She’s learned there’s no better way to love something than by making yourself disappear. She does this before every showing and open house until all that’s left are clean, empty spaces staged with minimal decorations, complimentary color schemes, and whatever small possessions the owners leave behind to emphasize that this is a place where anyone can be happy and safe.

The houses always sell when we are just about to run out of food. Then Karen comes back home, slips inside and unquestioningly finishes whatever we have left. The next day we take a big trip to the grocery store as a family. We do not buy fancy cheese or corn chips. We do not buy fruit snacks by the case. We buy organic fruits and vegetables. We support local farmers and small businesses. We buy ingredients for full meals. Salads. Side dishes. Entrées. We will make things from scratch and never run out.

I sliced open the belly and removed the organs to get to the meat. There’s no telling if it’s safe but I wrapped it in parchment paper and put it in the freezer anyway. If Karen ever finds a house she can’t sell, we may have to risk it.

I wiped the inside of his cavity with sanitizer, filled him with gauze, glued the seams and moved him into the living room.

The equipment is designed for people, so that’s how I had to pose him. I put pins in his bones and tied his neck to a heavy-duty patient lift. He’s frozen, trying to stand on two feet, unsure if he’ll collapse back to the ground or not.

That night I dreamt I made a deal with the Planet Creeper. If I wear his skin, I can leave home forever. I will feel no guilt. It was not a tough decision to make.

The Planet Creeper said to keep my eyes open no matter what. He took a deep breath, raised his head and the milky liquid began to slosh back and forth.

Hailey woke me up. She was wearing a Planet Creeper mask she made out of construction paper. She explained that she has been going around the neighborhood, baring her teeth, lunging at the neighbors and telling them to come see the Planet Creeper for free while they still can. This is Phase One of her marketing plan. For Phase Two, she wants me to contact the morning shows. Not local. National. She wants me to say the Planet Creeper attacked her and I had no choice but to kill it with my bare hands. It will be TV gold. She’ll turn on the tears and everything.

“There are concerns,” she says, absolving herself into the general public, “that you won’t be able to handle the attention this will bring.”

I agree to a practice interview. That night after dinner she put on a pair of Karen’s old glasses, tucked her t-shirt into her skirt and used an eggbeater as the microphone.

“How did you find the Planet Creeper?” She shoved the mic in my face to show this was an important story.

“Can we come up with a different name first?”

She told me to not sidestep the question. The public had a right to know. Apparently, the public also had a right to know why I didn’t call the authorities for help, what my wife thought about this, why wasn’t she here, didn’t I think the world would be better served if this were in a museum, and did I think we lived in a vacuum.

I told her they wouldn’t recognize it for what it is. My wife doesn’t like it. She’s staying with friends until this blows over. We’re open to entertaining offers, and who told you we live in a vacuum?

“Mom.” The mic drifted to her side. “What does it mean?”

I sent Hailey to bed. In the kitchen I opened a pack of fruit snacks and swallowed them in one mouthful. This is what it means to live in a vacuum.

That night I got a call from Loren. He whispered that there are more Planet Creepers. He hasn’t been able to catch them yet but he is going to get night vision cameras and make more traps. He’ll let me know when he has another one.

I went to the window and saw he was sitting on his patio covered with a plaid blanket for camouflage.

“I thought you said this one was sick.”

He said it was. It fell down right there at his back door. It made a loud noise and that’s why he got out of bed. He tried everything to save it and nothing worked.

I don’t know how he killed it, but I’m sure I got rid of any evidence when I prepared it for display.

Loren and I weren’t friends. We were two people who understood betraying each other would mean betraying ourselves. One of us was more afraid of that than the other.

The Harrison twins live down the street. They’re little, but since there are two of them they get away with bullying the other kids. This seemed to be of no concern to Hailey when they knocked on the door and said they wanted to see the monster. She told them to hang on, ran over and told me to leave. He wouldn’t be scary if I was there. I went to the hall and sat on the stairs to listen.

Hailey had created a meticulously detailed background for the Planet Creeper. She said this one was from Pluto, which used to be a planet but now it isn’t. But everyone knows it still is anyway whether it wants to be or not. She explained that Planet Creepers use their eyes to paralyze their prey. Whatever they attack stays fully aware and conscious while it eats them alive, one small bite at a time. The prey endures an incredible amount of pain, but cannot express anything until it is dead, at which point it appears relieved because the ordeal is finally over. The Planet Creeper thinks it has provided this relief, without ever being aware of the pain it caused.

She shook the Planet Creeper to rock the eyeball fluid back and forth. The twins turned their heads, so they didn’t see one of his teeth fall out. Hailey swooped on the tooth and shoved it in her pocket before the boys started moving their arms and legs to make sure they hadn’t been affected.

Then they said this was a rip off. He looks fake and dead.

Hailey said that was impossible because fake things were never alive to begin with.

She’s still young. She’ll learn.

When they’re gone, she doesn’t mention the tooth and I don’t bring it up.

I was stacking the frozen meat on the counter to thaw when the phone rang. It was Terry McCullah with Channel Two. She had received an anonymous call saying I have a mythical creature.

Hailey gave me an enthusiastic double thumbs-up.

I told Terry it was dead when we found it. It’s more unusual than mythical, but it’s stuffed and looks exactly like it did when it was alive.

She wants to come out the next morning to do a story. They are going to bring an expert from the zoo and film it live. Would that be okay?

Hailey said the national shows wouldn’t take her calls and the other local channels didn’t take her seriously. She doesn’t realize Terry McCullah isn’t someone they send to cover hard-hitting stories. They send her out for the kooks and oddballs, things that are interesting without being scary as long as they only exist on TV.

Hailey wants to celebrate so I make the tortellini. This is the last of our food. Hailey said it wasn’t as fun as she thought it would be.

I was watching for more Planet Creepers from the bedroom when I saw movement outside. It was shadows dancing in headlights. A car slowed down and pulled into the driveway. It was Karen.

She was already inside going through the cupboards when I got downstairs. I put my arm around her shoulders and told her to sit down. I’d make something for her. She looked like she had been up for days.

I turned on the oven. The Planet Creeper meat was all we had left.

At medium rare I plated the first cut and watched her take a bite. She made a face like it didn’t taste good then kept eating. She asked what it was and I told her this is a monster that attacked Hailey. I killed it with my bare hands and harvested the meat.

I imagine what it will sound like if she makes the same noise Loren did.

I turn on the other burners and start cooking the rest. There is more here than any other time she has come home.

Karen looks around and sees the Planet Creeper suspended in the living room. Her eyes well up with tears.

I want to tell her how excited Hailey has been, about her marketing efforts, the interview the next day, the local personality, the zoo expert—but none of these things will make her feel better. The only thing that will is consuming the whole monster. She has to erase what I have done while she was gone. This is what she needs to do to love this house. This is what she needs to do to love me.

And then I finally knew what I needed to do too.

I took a knife over to the Planet Creeper and put the point against the base of a tooth. It fell out without me pushing or twisting the blade. I used my hands to pull the rest of his teeth, put them a baggie and went upstairs. If Hailey was awake, she did a good job of pretending to be asleep. I put the bag in the drawer of her nightstand. With any luck, it will be years before she finds them.

I ducked into our bedroom and called Terry McCullah. I want to tell her it was all a hoax. That I’m a liar and there’s no such thing as the Planet Creeper. Then I see Loren, still out on his patio covered in the blanket. There were traps in his yard and plastic tarps spread out around him.

The recording for Terry’s extension kicked on.

I said she had the wrong address and gave her Loren’s instead. I can only hope she gets the message before she leaves in the morning.

The rest of the meat finished cooking. I put it on a large plate, set it on the table in front of Karen and told her this is the last of it.

I untied the Planet Creeper, carried him to the van and adjusted his body until he was slumped over like a real passenger.

I make the noise the way I think it would sound if he were healthy. It was the sound of an engine starting, pulling away, and driving. That sound went on for hours until I hit a stretch of highway with nothing behind me. I pulled over, reached across and opened the passenger door.

The Planet Creeper straightened his back and turned to look at me. The milky liquid in his eyes rocked from side to side in small waves.

The prey is paralyzed, helpless. The Planet Creeper eats one small bite at a time. The prey endures an incredible amount of pain, but cannot express anything until it is dead, at which point it appears relieved because the ordeal is finally over. The Planet Creeper thinks it has provided this relief, without ever being aware of the pain it caused.

I unbuckled his seatbelt, leaned back, and used my foot to push him onto the shoulder. I pulled forward and watched to make sure he didn’t move.

In the rearview mirror, the Planet Creeper looked like any other dead animal on the side of the road.

I turned the van around and as I drove home, I watched the stars disappear one by one until it was finally light out again.

When we get back from the grocery store, I’m going to talk to Karen about putting the house up for sale.

About Nathan Willis More From Issue No. 5