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A List of Cages
Author:Robin Roe

When I heard the screeches, I bolted back out front to find the boa constrictor guy ducking a squawking cockatiel, freaked-out ladies hopping onto countertops, Santa soothing the ladies, little kids chasing the mice, and Santa’s teenage helpers chasing the kids. Somewhere amidst all this chaos, I blurted out that I just couldn’t give a living creature to that guy.

Later, as the manager was firing me, he laid a wrinkled hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, you don’t have the stomach for the pet shop business.” He was right. I did not have the stomach for mouse execution.

I didn’t have the stomach for freshman intimidation either. I could see that it was a necessary evil, but I left that to Charlie. One harsh sentence from him that day and they sat down and shut the fuck up.

Charlie’s still looking pissed, worse even than his normal pissed, so I have to ask, “You all right?”

“My mom’s having a baby,” he answers.

“ANOTHER ONE?” Jesse says.

For some reason Charlie’s mom waited seven years after he was born to have a second child, then produced a kid every twelve minutes after that. I remember our first-grade teacher telling the class during circle time that something wonderful had happened to Charlie that morning. He’d become a big brother. He responded by flinging himself into the center of the circle and screeching, My life is ruined!

“What’s this one going to be called?” Camila asks with a little smirk.


“Shiv?” I say. “Isn’t that what they call knives in prison?” It’s a good thing I’m sitting too far away to get punched.

“And,” Charlie adds, “I failed my Chemistry test. I don’t know why I let my counselor talk me into taking AP. I’ve gotta get her to switch me into Regular! Adam—”

“I’ll talk to her.” If I don’t agree immediately, I’ll have to hear him say that maybe his parents would have time if they didn’t have nine million other kids—the bitter complaint he’s been using since Brother Number One. I know I could refuse, tell him that he’s totally capable of pleading his case himself, but knowing Charlie, he’d end up doing something crazy and get another in-school suspension.

By this point, Emerald’s eaten the majority of my chicken. I’m debating whether to take my container back or to keep watching her chew.

“So are you guys coming or not?” Jesse’s asking, and I realize I have no idea what everyone’s talking about.

“Maybe,” Matt says. “Could be cool—”

“No,” Camila interrupts him as if that’s the end of the discussion for both of them. It probably is. She’s older by two minutes and has used this to rule over him ever since I can remember.

“It’s too far,” Charlie whines. “Like at least an hour drive.”

“Yeah, it really is far.” Of course Allison agrees with him. “We don’t even know if they’re good.”

“They are good,” Jesse insists. They must be talking about some obscure band he wants us to go see, because he has a prejudice against anything anyone might have actually heard of.

By now the entire table (Charlie, Allison, Camila, Joe, Natalie, Kate, Bianca, Michael, Josh, Maddie, Sean—basically everyone) is grumbling that they don’t want to go. The concert’s outdoors and not till the end of October. It’ll be cold. It’s too far. Jesse and Matt both look disappointed but seem to be settling into acceptance.

“I’m in,” I tell them, already getting excited, because the mini road trip will be fun. “Yeah, it’ll be awesome. Adventure! And we’ll bring blankets.”

Jesse grins and shoves one of his earbuds in my ear, painfully hard. “You will not be disappointed, man. Listen.”

The screaming vocal and clashing guitar sound about like every other band he’s shoved into my ear, but I smile and chew my last bite of chicken. I can only half-hear the table now as they decide how many cars we’ll need to get all of us there.

AFTER SCHOOL, I take a sharp right and cut through the park. It’s not really much of one—no slides or jungle gyms or anything that might attract parents and their kids—but it’s thickly wooded, with a few small ponds and some faint pathways. I like this route better than going through the neighborhoods not because it’s faster, but because it’s as if I’m doing this deliberately instead of avoiding Jared and the bus like a coward.

Sometimes, if I try hard enough, I can picture the Jared I met way back in kindergarten. I remember when Mom picked me up that first day, I told her there was a very mean boy in my class. Jared pinched kids when the teacher wasn’t looking. He scribbled on everyone’s watercolors with black crayon. He knocked down their towers in the block center.

Mom listened, nodding, then she said there was no such thing as a mean child, only an unhappy one.

“But you don’t know,” I told her. “You didn’t see.”

“I don’t have to see. I know.” She wouldn’t tell me how she knew, but she swore that Jared deserved nothing but my sympathy.

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