Excerpt

Kept Animals

Kate Milliken

April 21, 2020 
Kate Milliken is the author of the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award–winning collection of stories, If I’d Known You Were Coming. A graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, she has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Tin House Summer Workshop. She lives in Northern California with her family. Kept Animals is her first novel.

June Fisk was gay. Rory knew this. Everyone knew this—everyone except Gus—and they knew it was the source of a rift in the Fisk family. Despite this tension or maybe because of it, June wore a necklace with a small charm of two entwined Venus figures, a piece of jewelry that Rory had heard she revealed whenever one of the younger boarders at the barn got up the nerve to ask if “it” was true. So, when Gus told Rory that June had offered to drive her home from the barn, Rory hesitated, picturing her mother, Mona, at the kitchen table, a cigarette dangling from her lips, her expression souring as they pulled in, as if June’s goddesses of love were entwined on the body of her Mercedes itself. Mona’s moods and opinions took up an inordinate amount of space in their house, but lately, there’d been a new energy in Rory, something spirited, maybe even angry, and she’d been letting this new energy make different choices for her.

So here she was, riding in June’s little gold Mercedes convertible. It was not unlike galloping downhill. June’s cropped blue-black hair danced at the line of her chin. Rory tucked her braid into the back of her shirt.

June said something that Rory couldn’t hear, then repeated it: “You work too hard.”

Rory shook her head. She could have said the same about June, except she only rode her own horse and didn’t have to spend half the day forking out stalls.

“You ever get away? Leave the canyon? Leave the barn?” June asked.

“For school,” Rory said.

“Polk High?”

Rory nodded. Polk was in the valley, off the 101, cloaked in smog. She knew June went to a private school, somewhere in Brentwood or Santa Monica, near the ocean’s salt-scrubbed air. June had a broad, plain face with a slightly piggish nose and large white teeth. She was not what Rory thought people considered pretty, but her features were tidy, well-kept, her eyes the wide honest kind, though she often wore large round sunglasses. She always rode in a white cotton button-up shirt, tan britches, and tall polished black boots; dependable as a uniform. The opposite of her twin brother, Wade, who often showed up in swim trunks and a serape, smelling of Banana Boat, only putting his horse in a turnout. June stuck a cassette into the tape deck.

June Fisk was gay. Rory knew this. Everyone knew this—everyone except Gus.

“Lou Reed?” Rory asked.

“Yeah,” June said. “The Velvet Underground, so yeah.” She nodded at Rory and turned it up. “How old are you?” June was practically yelling, competing with the wind and the music.

“Fifteen.” Rory knew she was small for her age, muscled and flat-chested.

“You ever smoke? Pot, I mean. You ever smoke weed?”

Rory’s cheeks flushed.

“Aw, I should get you high sometime. I kinda owe you—all your help with our horses.”

It was rare for June not to come work her horse, Pal, but when Rory had the chance to ride him, she considered it a pleasure. She’d have ridden Pal for free, but she thought better than to say so. Rory knew that plenty of the barn brats—this was a Mona phrase—smoked weed. She knew the wet-skunk smell. “Okay,” she said, louder than necessary as the car slowed, then stopped, and the wind stilled. Then more softly, “I mean, sure. I’d smoke with you.”

June smiled. They were stuck in a line of traffic now, backed up a half mile from the stop sign at the fork onto the main road, right alongside the gated entrance to the Price estate. One of the two winged gates was standing open, like a beckoning arm. The closed side of the gate read, 521 OLD CAN, the lettering in glinting hot silver. The other half—Rory had driven by a thousand times—completed it: YON ROAD. She’d never seen the gate open this way, never laid eyes on the front doors. A broad silver plate framed the doorbell, shiny as a mirror. “You know them? The Prices?” June asked. Everyone knew of the Prices.

“No,” Rory said. “You?”

“The daughter?” June said, her voice ticking up in a question. “Vivian? She transferred to our school, Merriam Prep. Seems nice enough, a little arrogant maybe. But it’s got to be tough being a movie star’s kid.”

“Right,” Rory said. But June wasn’t laughing. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No. Really.” June tucked her hair behind her ear. “Wade sure thinks she’s all that.”

“He thinks she’s pretty?” Rory asked. “Vivian?” She liked saying her name, the slip of it, like rope untangling.

“You’ve seen pictures of her, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, of course,” Rory said. She’d seen Vivian in Mona’s magazines, the kind full of gossip and wardrobe imperatives, but also— “Our house looks down on their yard.”

“Bullshit,” June said, glancing at Rory. “Really?”

It was another two and a half miles and a two-hundred-foot climb up the ridge before they would reach the bridge that led to Rory’s driveway. Carlotta’s sprawling house was perched above the dilapidated little A-frame they rented from her, and now that house, their house, hovered ironically above the opulent expanse of the Price estate. All the canyon’s walls were tiered with houses this way; people putting themselves where they didn’t belong. After the winter rains, the pylons of some houses would become exposed, precarious as the legs of a new foal. But the Prices had dug themselves a big flat lot, and from Rory’s bedroom window, through a stand of scrub oak, she could see the landscaped gardens, the winding slate paths, the giant sandbox, the blue gem of their pool. “I swear. From my room. I’ve seen her. Not a lot, but—” She’d watched Vivian swimming. Often. Countless times. Seen her lying at the edge of the water, the top to her bikini flung aside. “I can see their pool.”

“From your room? Shit, that’s something,” June said. “Maybe you’ll show me?”

“Sure.”

When the Prices bought the land, it had been only a hillside containing the oaks, a windbreak of eucalyptus, and a small adobe shack. Then orange-vested surveyors came scrambling around like colonizing ants. Bulldozers followed, digging out the slopes. They downed oaks and eucalyptus, chain saws buzzing, setting them on truck beds like piles of matchsticks. Eight months later, the adobe shack had stretched into a single-story estate, the shape of a flying white crane, with its wings holding—rumor was—eight bedrooms, all spotted with skylights. There’d been grumbling about the bulldozing, more Hollywood types moving in, until a sizable donation was made to the Topanga Historical Society.

At the fork, Rory directed June left, but they still had to wait for a break in traffic.

“Do you think she’s pretty?” Rory asked, amazed by her own boldness.

“Vivian? I think she’s pale.”

Pickup, car, van, car. Too many people with maps. June gunned it through the smallest break between oncoming cars, saying, “This heat has got to quit.”

In the dirt turnaround that served as their driveway, June stopped short, and a net of dust hung in the air. Mona’s car was gone, and Rory let out a relieved breath. “She’s at work.”

“Your mom?”

“She’s a bartender,” Rory said. “In Reseda,” she said, wishing she hadn’t.

“Huh. So, nobody’s home.” June cut the engine.

“You want to come in? There’s beer. Some harder stuff, too.”

“You drink?” June was running lip gloss over her lips, checking it in the rearview.

“Sometimes.” A lie, but the kind with a wish folded up inside, a wish for another version of herself.

“Right,” June said, puckering her lips.

Inside, Rory saw her house as if she had never seen it before: the trail of crusted dishes, the dripping faucet, the dead flies on the windowsill. June moved past her and pulled a glass from the kitchen cupboard, tearing away the last paper towel on the roll, cleaning the glass’s rim. She filled the glass, downed it, then looked at Rory. “So, where’s your room?”

“Do you think she’s pretty?” Rory asked, amazed by her own boldness. 

Upstairs, June slipped off her sandals, and set her sunglasses down on the dresser. She paused to touch the battered camera that Rory kept on a hook beside the bookshelf. A Canon AE-1 that Mona had given her, unearthed from the bar’s lost and found. Rory had accepted it indifferently until Mona elbowed her, saying, “Come on, I know you wanted one.” It was uncomfortable, these moments when her mother knew her like that, though Rory couldn’t say why.

June was in the bathroom, looking at the two taxidermied birds Rory kept on a wicker table beside the sink. The ones Rory had snuck off when they’d first moved in with him, before Gus could pack them away at Mona’s insistence. Rory had believed, at only five years old, that she was rescuing them from the horror of being sealed up in a dark cardboard box. A red-winged blackbird and a towhee. Each frozen atop mesquite perches, permanently alert.

“Those are weird,” June said, brushing off her hands. Then she pulled her britches down and sat on the toilet, the stream of her urine audible. Rory turned, fiddling with the knob of the floor fan, the room suddenly hot. “But it is nice up here,” June said.

It was nice up here. It was always a relief, to remember her separateness from Gus and Mona, from how they lived below. Her room had been the attic, long, like a train car with a pitched ceiling, but with three windows that sat above the tree line and Gus had refinished the floors and reworked the plumbing, turning the narrow storage room into a bath. Years ago, Rory had begun cutting images from magazines, from Equine Times, National Geographic, Vanity Fair. Otherwise, Rory kept the room spare: her bed, a rocking chair, the single dresser, a bookshelf, and the industrial metal fan—its low breeze lifting the corners of the pictures now. June was holding down the image of two women walking across a beige wash of desert, each balancing a basket.

“You headed to Kenya, Scott?” June asked, her finger to the caption.

“Probably not,” Rory said. Scott was Gus’s last name, but Rory didn’t correct her.

“Sure you are,” June said, pulling a bag of weed from her pocket.

Rory opened the window and stepped out onto the narrow lip of grating. It was a place for setting plants, not people, but June stepped out, too, sitting on the windowsill, not yet bothering to look down, focused on the rolling paper, the thread of weed she had pinched there. She was quick with her hands, creasing and tightening. She flicked her lighter to the end of the joint. “Shit,” June exhaled, handing the joint to Rory. “That really is some place.” She lowered herself in beside Rory.

The half-smoked butts Rory had lifted from Mona’s ashtrays, had Rory expecting the burn on inhale, but this was better, the taste lusher. Their knees pulled up to their chests, they passed the joint on the outside of the bars. Down the hill, the pool lights came on like the opening of a show.

“They really can’t see us up here?” June asked.

“Nope.” A lightness had come over Rory, as if the iron grating were floating away from the house. June’s bare foot was up against hers. “The lights are on a timer,” Rory said.

June smiled. “How often do you sit out here, Scott?”

Rory took it for granted that the trees concealed her, though one of the gardeners had looked up once, shielding his eyes from the sun, and Rory had waved to him, a tic of cordiality from working at the ranch. “Our TV was broken for a while,” she said.

June laughed, a high shrill laugh that she let roll on too long.

The week before, Rory had watched Mrs. Price overseeing a delivery of succulents, while her diapered son smudged his face against the glass of the sliding doors. June knocked one knee against Rory’s. “Look, look,” she said, pointing at the house.

Someone was moving behind the white curtains. “That’s the mom,” Rory said.

“Mrs. Sarah Price,” June announced, trumpeting into the shortened joint.

Mrs. Price came outside in a sleeveless, white, ankle-length nightgown that glowed against the darkened yard. She walked past the pool and June crouched into herself.

“She can’t see us,” Rory said, though a chill moved over her.

“Can she hear us?”

“I don’t know.” Rory whispered. “I’ve never sat out here with anyone.”

Mrs. Price and Vivian had the same long, amber hair, the same light-footed gait. She was eyeing a flower bed near the sandbox now, a spade in her hand. She began digging.

“She knows it’s like fucking night out, right?” June said. “Does she always do shit like this? Dressed like that?”

Rory shook her head. She thought Mrs. Price looked like the subject of a painting, a photograph.

They watched her go in the house and out again. June remained quiet, mouth open.

Rory was feeling light and tired, half steeped in a pleasant dream, when Vivian Price walked out wearing the black one-piece, her hair pulled up in a high bun, a towel slung over her shoulder. June covered her mouth as if to stop herself from shouting. Rory straightened, feeling she’d just made good on a promise.

Vivian looked in her mother’s direction, but neither of them spoke. She dropped the towel at the pool’s edge and stepped onto the stairs, the marbled light of the pool dancing against her skin. Her dive into the water was silent, and she came up, swimming a breaststroke, her face rising and dipping at the water’s surface. June began to laugh a scoffing, quiet laugh. She put her hand on Rory’s knee, as if to steady herself.

“What?” Rory asked.

“I mean, are they, like, vampires?” Her laughter pealed higher, her hand still on Rory.

“They are pale,” Rory said quickly, somewhat worried Sarah Price could hear.

But there wasn’t anything sickly about the Prices. Vivian Price, especially. Rory knew this from the magazines, but she knew from this distance, too. It was clear in the way she carried herself, as if leading others behind. When Vivian stepped out of the pool, she slung her towel over her shoulder without drying off and June’s hand loosened from Rory’s knee.

“You think she’s pretty,” June said. “I can tell.” She was facing Rory—the proximity of her breath, its disrupting warmth. “I’ll light this again,” she said, lifting the joint to Rory’s mouth. “There’s one hit left.” Rory inhaled, smelling the lighter’s fuel. “Now keep it in,” June said. Her hand was back on Rory’s knee, the other on Rory’s shoulder turning her until June’s cropped hair hung like a curtain around their faces. “Now exhale,” June said, her mouth already on Rory’s mouth. Not a kiss. Rory recognized this was not a kiss. June was inhaling, pulling the smoke up out of Rory’s lungs and into her own. Rory started to cough, and June sat back, her lips sealed, her breath held, until she smiled. “I wasn’t sure you’d let me do that,” she said, a thin ribbon of smoke escaping the side of her mouth.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Kept Animals by Kate Milliken. Copyright © 2020 by Kate Milliken. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.




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