Where the Wild Things Were
by Owen Zabel
I believe that children are the future…
“Alex, I’ve asked you three times, turn down the volume.”
He continued to play, his thumbs dancing across the buttons, tickety-tic. A green aardvark waddled across the TV screen, sucking up gold and silver coins. The sound effects tumbled over each other, competing for attention: coins jingling, tongue slurping, chirpy music playing…
She stood in the doorway. She was a patient woman, but sometimes… “Alex. Right now. Turn it down.” And then, “I’m waiting.”
Alex succeeded in ignoring her completely.
She marched into the living room, bent down behind the TV and pulled the plug.
“Go to your room right now.”
She was stunned for a moment by his reply. He really was getting worse lately. “Excuse me?”
“You can’t make me.”
“I can’t? Why not?”
“Only Dad can make me go to my room, and he’s not here.” He waved his hand toward the TV. “Plug it in.”
She walked across the room and before he had time to react she’d firmly gripped his ear and hauled him to his feet. Alex wailed more in surprise than pain. She’d never done anything like this before. She led him briskly up the stairs, still holding his ear as he clung to her arm.
“You are going to your room. You will stay there until I say you can come out. Also, you will not be eating dinner with us.”
“Good. Ow ow ow…”
She deposited him in his room and slammed the door. He could hear her as she walked away. “And when your father gets home he will get a full report.” Her voice had an edge to it.
“I hate you!” he yelled through the door. He wondered if he might have pushed her just a little too far, as he cupped his throbbing ear.
He sat on the edge of his bed, listening. There wasn’t a sound in the house. Then after a while he heard his mother in the kitchen, making dinner. Alex began to realize that he was actually quite hungry. Was she going to bring it up to him, like she’d done before?
He couldn’t believe the way she’d grabbed his ear. “I should sue her.” He pictured himself being interviewed on Action News at Ten. He imagined what he’d do with the money. He could buy a flat-screen TV for his room, with every video game. He’d buy all the DVDs and comic books he wanted. “I’ll get a trampoline, and my own swimming pool. My own private house. A motorcycle.”
He heard someone pull into the driveway. He rushed to the window just in time to see the back of his father’s silver car going into the garage. Alex crept to the door and put his ear against the crack.
He heard the side door open and shut, and his father’s voice saying something. This was followed by a brief silence. Then both of them were talking quietly, but he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. They talked a while longer, until he heard something change in his mother’s voice. It was rising and falling more, and soon he realized she was crying.
He felt dizzy. He remembered when he’d last made her cry, at that pizza place during spring vacation. She didn’t cry easily. Maybe he was really going to be in trouble this time.
He looked over at the window. Should he? At any moment his father would be coming up the stairs. Alex went to the window and undid the latch. He slid it up as quietly as he could. He crawled out, whispering a curse as his belt buckle clattered against the aluminum frame. He’d climbed out the window before, but this was the first time he’d used it to escape. He began crawling up the steep shingles, trying not to make a sound. Then he froze- the window! He backed down and slid it closed, then ducked out of sight just as his father came into the room.
Alex felt his heart hammering as he tried not to breathe. He didn’t dare move. He expected the window to fly open at any moment and his father’s big, hairy arms to come out and grab him. The seconds crawled by. Finally he heard his bedroom door slam shut.
A few moments later he could hear angry words downstairs, then the front door flew open almost directly below.
“Alex!” boomed his father’s voice. After a few moments the door slammed shut again. A minute later his father was stomping around in the back yard calling his name. Alex prayed he wouldn’t go to the front yard.
Finally he went back into the house and began calling from room to room. It was now or never. The previous times that he’d climbed out the window Alex had stayed on the roof, shooting bottle rockets or spying on the neighbors. Now he had to figure out how to get down to the ground without breaking his neck.
He gingerly made his way across to the garage, hoping nobody was watching. When he got to the far edge he looked down at the compost pile. It was full from recent raking. He sat on the edge of the roof, inched forward and pushed off. The landing was awkward, and he stumbled a little, but he made it.
He ran for three blocks and ducked into the burger place. He peered out the window to be sure he wasn’t followed, then went into the rear dining area to play video games.
Pretty soon he was almost out of quarters, so he sat in a booth, wondering what to do next. He obviously couldn’t go home, and the manager was giving him dirty looks. They didn’t like kids hanging around unless they fed a steady stream of quarters into the games. Alex obviously had to move on, but where?
He shuffled outside and began walking slowly in the direction of the mall. It seemed ridiculous without his skateboard. Could he walk the whole way? He wondered if he could somehow sneak back into his room and get his board, but he quickly abandoned that idea and trudged on.
Cars roared by spewing exhaust. Trash tumbled in the wind. Scary homeless men grinned as he walked past, or just looked at him blankly. Alex felt sick to his stomach. Why go to the mall, anyway? He only had fifty-three cents. He decided he was going because it was indoors, and he could sit for a while without being bothered. He bent down to get what looked like a coin on the sidewalk, but it was just a little round stain.
When he got to the mall he looked for his friends. They were all at home, of course, eating dinner. Alex strolled through the deafening din of the arcade, watching other people play. The kids hanging out were older. One guy looked like he was packing a gun in his jacket. Alex spent his last two quarters playing White Ninja, because he could make it last the longest.
After a while he was utterly bored. He took a walk through the mall. The stores were all the same, so numbingly familiar. The smells, the sounds, everything was boring. He tried to be interested in the stores he’d never gone into before, but they were just as dull on the inside as he’d imagined. Shoes, clothing, silverware… He wandered over to the food court and the smells there made him even more ravenous. Pizza, gyros, doughnuts… He stopped and stared at a wall of candy in clear plastic bulk bins. He felt in his pocket where he used to have two quarters. “I could’ve gotten some malt balls, goddamn it.”
Getting his courage up, he approached the counter of the gyro place. The guy looked pretty nice. “Uh, excuse me.”
“Well, uh…” Alex leaned closer. “Could I get some fries, just a small bag, and pay you tomorrow?”
The guy laughed. “Yeah, right.”
“Seriously. I swear I’d pay you tomorrow.”
“Well, do you have any leftover fries that you’re going to throw out?”
“Try the dumpster.” The guy turned his back and began wiping down the chrome hood over the grill.
He shuffled off, stomach growling.
“Psst. Hey you.”
Alex ignored it. Probably some fruity guy.
“You want fries? Here, I don’t want these.”
Alex turned and saw an old man sitting at one of the tables, pushing a red plastic basket towards him. It was about half full of fries.
“Uh, you sure you don’t want them?”
The old man waved his hand. He was mostly bald, peering at Alex through thick bifocals. He wore a dark green sweater with brown patches on the elbows. “I never eat them. I told him at the counter, no fries, but he put them on there anyway.”
Alex eyed the fries. They looked pretty good. He looked at the old man. His clothes were worn but clean. He probably wasn’t a bum, with all those pens in his pocket and the top button buttoned on the plaid shirt he wore under his sweater. “Why don’t you eat them?”
“All I want is their skinless chicken sandwich. Greasy fries are like poison to me. Cholesterol.” He nudged the basket again. “Take them.”
Alex sat and began scarfing down the fries.
“Easy, chief. You’ll make yourself sick.”
“I always eat like this,” he said between mouthfuls. “Got any ketchup?”
The old guy pushed over a couple packets that Alex tore open with his teeth and applied liberally. “Jesus, kid, that looks like an accident scene. I can’t watch.”
Alex wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Thanks.”
“No big deal. Doesn’t your mother feed you?”
“She kicked me out of the house.”
“Really? That’s a cold thing to do to a kid.”
“Tell me about it.”
“My mom never did that to me. She used to send me to my room without dinner, though.”
Alex didn’t reply.
“When I was your age I got in trouble all the time.”
“Oh yeah?” Alex grinned. It hardly seemed likely.
“Yeah. Stole apples, put paint on doorknobs, dumb kid stuff like that. I used to ditch school and come down here.”
“No way. I know the mall isn’t that old.”
The old man snorted. “Hell, this place is practically brand new.” He looked up at the iron supports in the ceiling. “I used to come down here before there was a mall. Wasn’t anything but a weedy old dirt road and wilderness.”
Alex squinted at him. He couldn’t quite picture it. “What do you mean?”
“Well, right where we’re sitting, for instance. It used to be a pond.”
“I skipped stones on it. My grandpa showed me how. He called it Ducks and Drakes. A small pond, but it sure attracted a lot of critters.”
“There’s no such thing as critters.”
“What? Of course there are. Or back then there were. This pond had crayfish and perch and one summer there was even a beaver. All those are critters.”
“Oh.” He looked sideways at the old man.
“Well, I can see you don’t believe me, and I’ve got to shove off now anyway.” He stood slowly and started down the walkway.
Alex ate the last two fries and tagged along after him. He didn’t have anything better to do and it still felt too early to go home. He had to dodge through a group of very focused mall-walkers before he could catch up. “So, that was a pond back there?”
“That’s what I said.” The old man didn’t even look at him.
“Uh, ok. What was over there?” He pointed towards the sporting goods store.
“I thought you weren’t interested.”
“Well…” He stopped and looked around, getting his bearings. It seemed for a moment like the old man was looking at some other place, an invisible world. “That was a clearing. No, more like the edge of a clearing. Trees and bushes by a little meadow. Tons of rabbits in those bushes. Bobcats too, sometimes.”
“Bobcats? They aren’t real.”
“What are you talking about? Of course they are. We needed them too, to eat up those rabbits. Don’t you learn anything in school any more?”
“What was over there?” Alex pointed to the toy store.
The old man walked towards it, squinting and tilting back his head. “Let’s see, this was where a brook ran towards the pond, if I’m not mistaken.” They now stood in front of one of the store displays, a low fiberboard pen in which various battery-powered toys were skittering about. A monkey slowly crouched, then did a backward somersault. A spider with wheels on its legs rolled around, its head bobbing wildly. “I used to see raccoons here all the time, cleaning their crayfish in the creek. Now I suppose you’ll tell me there’s no such thing as raccoons.”
“I’ve seen raccoons. They’re on TV, and they eat dog food, not fish.”
“Crayfish…” The old man was distracted by one of the toys, a pig that waddled around until its snout bumped into something. Then it would back up and change direction. “That reminds me, I even saw a wild pig down here once.”
Alex burst out laughing. “A wild pig!”
“Yeah, it scared the hell out of me. Let out a grunt that sounded more like a bear, then crashed off through the bushes. One tusk was broken off, but the other one looked mean enough, for sure.”
“Ok, how about dinosaurs? Did you see a T-Rex?”
The old man looked at Alex, who appeared straight-faced. “Too bad you couldn’t have been there. Hell, you kids don’t even get to have a childhood any more. It was a lot more fun than you think. I saw eagles swoop down and catch fish. Even saw one try to pry a turtle out of its shell for half an hour.”
“And there were other birds. Thousands of them. The trees were full of singing. So many different kinds… Some were so colorful they were like little jewels.” He gestured with his hands while he talked, which made Alex feel uneasy. “There were other birds that were real plain-looking, but when they sang it was really something.”
“There’s a bird over there, in the bookstore.”
The old man looked over where Alex pointed. Above the cash register a little plastic canary swung back and forth, chirping the theme from a recent Disney movie.
“They got a fish tank too. Come on, I’ll show you.” Alex tugged on the old man’s sleeve, leading him into the bookstore. He followed reluctantly to the back, where the aquarium display was set up. “It’s from that TV show about those fish and the pirates and stuff.”
“Wait a minute…” The old man peered into the little round tank at the two fish that wiggled around and around, as if counting laps. “Those fish aren’t real. They’re plastic.”
“What do you mean, not real? Plastic’s real.”
“Well, they’re not alive. They move around in the water because there’s a little turbine somewhere, probably behind the treasure chest. Or maybe it’s magnets…”
Alex walked over to another display. “And look at this.” He picked up what at first looked like a book, but when you pressed different places on its spine all kinds of noises came out: screams, explosions, tinkly music, mad laughter…
“Ok, ok, that’s enough.” The old man was already on his way out. “Pretty soon they won’t have room for books.”
They walked along until they came to one of the shoe stores. “Used to be a waterfall right about here. There was a ledge and you could jump off into a pool. Cold as hell. Saw deer there, too.”
“My dad says deer used to run around outside,” said Alex.
“Still do, in some places. I think they do, anyway…”
“Nope. It’s illegal.”
The old man laughed and fished a cigarette out of his pocket. “Wouldn’t surprise me a bit.”
“Smoking is prohibited in the mall and the mall parking lot,” said Alex.
He put the cigarette away again. “Fine. To hell with it. I’m going home now. You should go home too, and see if your mother will let you back into the house.”
Alex shrugged. “She won’t.”
The old man shook his head. “That’s no way to treat a kid. You’re too young to be hanging around this time of night. There’s lots of weirdos these days.” He looked at Alex and raised his eyebrows. “How do you know I’m not a weirdo?”
Alex hesitated. “Would you buy me a pizza?”
The old man laughed. “Go home.” He headed for the exit.
“Wait… Did you really see all those animals and stuff? Right here where I’m standing?”
The old man nodded. “Yes, I really did.” The double doors slid open and he walked out into the night. The doors slid closed again and Alex looked at his reflection in the glass, a shadowy version of himself standing outside, looking in.
He wandered around the mall a little more. He thought about sneaking into the movie theater, but chickened out. He found a mustard-stained newspaper and read all the funnies, even the boring ones.
At about ten thirty he headed home. As he walked he rehearsed all the things he was going to say when he got there. Fat, brown cockroaches scrambled across the sidewalk ahead of him.
His parents met him at the door and Alex was relieved to see that he’d waited just long enough for their anger to turn to worry. He apologized and stared at his shoes while they scolded him. When they were finally done he was given some leftovers warmed in the microwave and sent to his room. It was the most delicious food he’d ever eaten.
Later, when his parents were asleep, he went downstairs and turned on the TV. With the sound off, he played video games until three in the morning.