The Initial Insult - Mindy McGinnis

Chapter 1


Out here, something can turn to nothing real fast.

The buildings fade out as you drive from town, paved roads turn to gravel, and then to dirt. Cell phone towers start to disappear, electric lines begin to sag, and soon, you’re nowhere. Grandpa Cecil says that’s a good thing, says the animals like it that way. But the animals he’s talking about are in cages, and I don’t think they like much about life at all.

Most of them were bred in captivity, but those that weren’t—like the panther—they’ve got a different feel about them. Something in the eyes. Something they lost. They watch me and Cecil, waiting for us to make the mistake that will give it back to them. I’m always aware when I’m near the cages, but Cecil’s awareness drifts a little with the drink, and he’s got a bad eye on account of it, damaged and filmed-over gray.

The cat got it, and Cecil swears he wants the other.

The sign out by the road reads “Amontillado Animal Attractions,” but last week somebody spray-painted “White Trash Zoo” over it. I’m scraping away with the end of a screwdriver, tiny curls of red paint falling around my feet, the tips of the poison ivy vine that climbs the sign post brushing against my arms. I’m not worried; I don’t get poison ivy. Cecil says that’s on account of my mom, but she’s gone, so I can’t ask her if she got the rash or not. I push deeper, accidentally digging into the planks and sending a chip flying off into the overgrown ditch, a new scar bright against the old wood.

An autumn sun is burning into my back, giving the last of the summer warmth to my skin as I work. School started two months ago, but it’s still hot down in the valley, and the school board spent their whole last meeting debating with parents over the cost of air-conditioning. That and the flu that’s burning through Prospero, the next town over. It turned into an argument about taxes and the last levy failing, then the school nurse getting shouted down by someone with a WebMD printout. My cousin, Ribbit, told us all about it, said pretty soon the parents were fighting with each other, about what was more important—health or air-conditioning.

Me, I don’t have parents. Just Grandpa Cecil. That’s something of mine that turned to nothing overnight back in fifth grade, my house and my allowance and my toys and clothes all following about a month after. Friends took more time to disappear. But they did.

“Air-conditioning,” Cecil huffed when Ribbit stopped by, his rusted-out truck idling in the driveway because he’s never been quite at ease with the animals.

“Walk outside,” Cecil said. “There’s air.”

Air-conditioning was for pussies, Cecil went on, and he didn’t raise none of them. I didn’t argue against that, since the person he did raise is gone now, and what he does for me can’t exactly be called parenting. More like just making sure I don’t die, and if I do, that it’s not because one of the animals killed me. Then his business would be shot.

“Nice sign,” Ribbit had said when he put the truck in reverse, ready to head back to the Usher house, down the road. I hadn’t noticed it until he pointed it out, our sign being something I looked at every day but never really saw, like Cecil’s milky eye rolling in its socket. The spray paint was new enough to still be shiny but old enough to have soaked in. Days, then. For days people down in town had likely been laughing, and me driving right past it in Cecil’s old truck, coming home from school to feed the animals their bloody, raw-meat dinners, not seeing it. Not seeing the insult, painted in bright red right at my own doorstep.

Cecil had raised his ball cap and scratched his head, honestly stumped. “Who would go and do a thing like that?”

I know. I know exactly who.

It’s got to be someone who doesn’t mind driving the switchback over the ridge in the dark, the turns so tight you pray you don’t meet someone, because these roads weren’t meant for more than one car at a time.

Someone who knew Goldie-Dog, my ancient mutt who I named back before I had much of a vocabulary, and would still follow me to the cages at feeding time, even though I’d be done and headed back to the house by the time she got to the