By Richard Risemberg
She had never gotten used to it: not the clean and silent streets, not the stucco façades of the townhouses, with their garage door blankness. Garage doors that opened on command from little boxes in the cars, so no one ever had to step outside and, God forbid, smell the hillside flowers or touch the landscaping. The landscaping that seemed to serve only the gardeners who worked so hard to keep it under strict control: pink flowers here, yellow flowers there, the splayed thrusts of irises placed boldly along a walk that no one used. No one except herself, it felt like. One old lady taking walks twice a day, because there was nothing to do inside except read—she didn't watch TV—and because she had to move or she would die. Literally and figuratively: her heart needed it, the doctor had said so in the glaring white examining room, and her own soul said so, nagging her to get moving as she stared at the clean white walls, when she had finished a chapter of whatever she was reading that week.
On Saturdays her daughter-in-law dropped her off at the library and then drove on to the grocery. The development where they lived was three miles up a hill from the shopping area. The shopping area was all parking lots and beige painted stores and chain restaurants. The library was huddled up to a low dull building that passed for city hall, alongside a police station and a shed where the county parked its chunky yellow trucks. The library was also low and dull, but they could call books in for her from the big-city library on the other side of the hills. Her daughter-in-law always spent about an hour at the supermarket, then picked her up. They drove up the long hill in silence. Nothing ever happened there, so there was nothing to talk about while cruising between the cinderblock walls of the subdivisions, walls painted an odd pinkish beige. Saturday nights they went back out in the car, all of them this time, to eat in one of the chain restaurants. The food was neither bad nor good: like everything else in the community.
So she walked. There were trails in the vast mountain park nearby, trails she'd been warned not to use because of the dangers of rattlesnakes, of unknown thuggy teenagers that might gather there, so she walked around the houses, which all looked so much alike. Every once in a while her next-door neighbor would recognize her and offer her a ride back to her house two or three blocks away, a ride Maggie always declined. The neighbor herself, whom Maggie had talked with twice, drove down the hill to a gym to use the running track there. Maggie couldn't see the sense in that. She drove her car only to go back to the city and see her friends now and then. Her son disapproved, had always disapproved of the neighborhood she'd moved to after the divorce. Maggie had been happy there, but after losing her job and discovering that Social Security wouldn't cover her expenses, she accepted her son's offer of a room in his suburban townhouse. Her car had to park outside though: they had only a two-car garage. She didn't mind. It was an old car anyway. Driving was not her hobby. So she walked.
She walked the curving streets fronted with townhouses built, she had finally noticed, on three patterns, which were reversed regularly to add an illusion of variety. Two stories tall, the same pinkish beige as the walls of the subdivisions, red tile roofs that didn't quite match the building style, the same rigid gardens in front, and, Maggie presumed, the same little crewcut lawns in back. There was a tiny blank park in the center of the subdivision, probably repeated in all the other subdivisions on the hill. She almost never saw anyone there except for two nannies, each herding a pair of strutting blond waifs that played together in a sandpit while their brown protectors chatted in Spanish. She nodded to them once in a while but they seemed so shy that she never spoke. Maggie wished she still smoked: it would feel like rebellion out there.
She was sitting at one of the rounded concrete picnic tables when the teenager approached her. He was, like the tables, cast in a pattern: disheveled blond hair, a lanky slouch, an arrogant thrust of the lip. She guessed him to be about fifteen, maybe sixteen. Though if he had been sixteen he would have been out driving, no doubt. He walked right up to her, moving neither fast nor slow, his face a bit sullen. She wondered whether she should begin to worry: even though he looked like most of the people who lived in the subdivision, he could have come in from outside. He stood in front of her: "Hi," he said. Neither smiling nor stern.
She smiled at him. "Hello, young fellow. Are you lost?"
The young fellow smiled at last, and chuckled: "I was going to ask you the same thing. But I know you're not lost. I've seen you walking here before. From my window." He shrugged in the direction of a row of houses, across the blacktop that circled the little park. "I was just wondering why you didn't walk in the hills. It's nicer than here."
"Do you walk in the hills, then?"
"Yeah. Lots. I don't like it here. It's…." His voice drifted.
"I know," she said. "I don't like it here either."
He narrowed his eyes. "But you stay."
"I live with my son and his wife. To save money. I guess you live with your parents."
He shrugged. "Yeah. They're okay, I guess. Except that they live here. If they weren't okay I'd run off. But it's…."
"I know. I left home as soon as I was old enough. Maybe that's why I'm too poor to have a place of my own now. That and the divorce, of course."
"I know," he said "My mom lives in the city. My stepmom's okay though. My mom's kind of wild."
"Did you inherit her wildness?"
"Nah. I'm still here, in this place. But I like the real wild. Outside the walls here. The hills." They studied each other silently.
"You got time?" she said. "Give me a tour. How do you get there? Without driving a long way?"
"There's a back gate with a broken lock. Let's go. You have good shoes on?"
"I'm an old lady. That's all I wear any more." She stood up. "Maggie," she said.
"Todd." He started walking, and she followed.
The gate was a plain steel door touched with rust. Todd had to pull on the handle several times before it creaked open. Outside were dry rounded hills covered sparsely with gray shrubs and spindly trees. Once in a while a desert oak, dark and twisted. The subdivision was named after the oaks but didn't allow any of them to grow within the walls. Their leaves were small and stiff and almost black, not decorative at all. Dry grasses twitched in the breeze around a small cinderblock shed. A sign on the door said "Danger—High Voltage," and a faint buzz emanated from the shed. Beyond the shed a narrow trail led up the hill. Todd looked at her, and she nodded. "Let's go. Not too fast though."
Todd said, "I'm in no hurry." He started up trail at a sauntering pace. It wasn't too steep, and the sparse shrubbery didn't crowd the trail. The sage-scented air filled her lungs with peace. "This is more like it," she said.
"The real 'Live Oak Villas.' Where the critters live."
"Are there really rattlesnakes here? My son always warns me of rattlesnakes. And teenagers."
"Both," Todd said. "More snakes though. I'll tell you if I see one. I don't always see one. Mostly lizards, like that little guy there." He pointed, but she couldn't see anything. Then as they stepped closer a scratching sound exposed a small gray reptile hurrying into the scrub.
"Cute little fellow," she said. "What I could see of him."
When the trail turned Maggie noted that they were well above the subdivision. Rows of tile roofs wound round with curving streets: she couldn't figure out which one she lived in. The trail turned again and she studied the rounded hill above them, the pale bluish sky beyond. They went around a shoulder of hill and startled a deer, which bounded away into a shallow canyon.
"Ah, that was lovely! Are there many deer in this area?"
Todd shrugged. "I see one about once a week."
"I suppose there's no hunting here, with the houses around."
"Not by humans there's not. Do you hunt?"
"I did, for a few years when I was young. With my husband. I didn’t like it. Gave it up. Of course, I gave him up too, eventually. Does something inhuman hunt the deer?"
"There's a cougar, they say. I've never seen it."
"I read about it in the paper. I thought it lived far off."
"They say it walks a long way. It's a male. They wander more. A hundred miles sometimes. If they don't get squashed crossing the freeway." Todd hesitated: "He's been here."
"How do you know?"
"I'll show you. If you really want to see."
"I'm ready for anything."
Todd smiled. "This way, then." The trail forked into a narrow canyon. There was actually shade in parts of it. Maggie was glad. She didn't have a hat and was feeling the sun.
The trail into the canyon was more rudimentary, and she picked her way carefully. The brush grew a little thicker there. As they wound deeper into the canyon, she began to catch a whiff of something rotten. At one point the canyon turned and opened into a narrow bowl with sycamore trees surrounding a damp spot. The smell was worse there.
Todd stopped and pointed. "Behind that tree. One of his kills. It's pretty gross."
"I was an army nurse. Vietnam. That's what I escaped to when I left home. I've seen worse, I'm sure. I know I've seen worse."
Todd shrugged. Maggie supposed that Vietnam meant nothing to someone his age. She went behind the tree. The smell was nauseating there, but the war years had inured her to nausea. She felt it but didn't feel it. You had to work anyway. The kill was there, under a gathering of sycamores, all ribs and emptiness, surrounded by paw prints, large and small, in the moistened soil. Only it wasn't a deer.
"Todd!" she said.
He was standing beside her, trying to look impassive. "I know. I just found him. Two days ago."
"And you didn't tell anyone?"
He looked at her. "I can't decide. I know I'm supposed to. But then…."
She waited. "But then what?"
"Then they'll kill the cat." He waited. "And we're the intruders, aren't we? The critters were here first."
"People," she said, "have lived here for twenty thousand years."
"Not the way we do," he said. He gestured back up the trail with his chin. "There's not much left for them. The cats, the snakes, whatever."
"You can't leave him there. He would have people somewhere…."
"I know. Maybe that's why I asked you to come. I don't know what to do."
"It looks like a young man. Is it someone you know?" The face was still recognizable.
"Oh god no!"
"And if it was?"
"I guess I'd tell someone."
"Then we've got to tell someone." She looked down at the mess. Maggots in the rib cage, white and writhing. Todd was strong. The first time she'd encountered maggots it had made her retch.
Todd finally nodded. "Okay. But you tell them. Just say you found it on your own. You know."
"I know. Don't worry. You meant well. I guess." She took his shoulder and turned him around. "My son will be furious that I came out here."
"You got the right to go where you want."
"Yes. I do. In fact I will come out again. Are you still willing to walk with an old lady who plays by the rules a little too much?"
"Good. Let's stick to the ridges next time though. And let's hope that cat's in the next county by now."
Todd smiled. "Next Friday? I'm off school for the summer. I got a summer job but I don't work Fridays."
"I'm off school forever. But I'm still learning stuff. Like who I am. I'll see you Friday. And don't worry about the cat. He might be fifty miles away by now."
"I hope so," Todd said.
"So do I." When they left the canyon, the full force of the sun hit them. She realized she would need a hat. Next time she went into town to visit friends she would buy one. She knew a tiny hat shop near where she used to live. They would have what she needed, she was sure of that. Outside the walls.
Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He's spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and blithering on about it with keyboard or his own big mouth.
He has published widely in the last few years, mostly short fiction in literary journals. You want to see proof? Visit Crow Tree Books and click a few links. Some of the stories may disturb your sleep; some will give you sweet dreams.