Inside the Cage
by Joseph Grant
part 1 of 2
The nightmares would come to Andrea every few weeks with no way of her controlling them. Going to sleep soon became an increasing gamble into nocturnal insanity. She tried to stay awake by every means possible, but to no avail. She had read cases of patients who suffered extreme insomnia and extended sleep deprivation and how a few of them ended up going mad. Only in this case, the madness waited for Andrea in her dreams.
Andrea’s conscious world consisted of working at the local animal shelter caring for sick animals. That was where her passion and future lay; she had decided that a long time ago.
Having just moved out of her grandmother’s apartment and getting her first taste of independence, Andrea was naturally apprehensive about being on her own. The fact that she rarely went out socially didn’t faze her.
This was not to suggest that Andrea was a sociophobe for she was not. She just did not care to be around people. While she did not fear or hate them, rather, she coldly accepted them. As a result of seeing abused animals come through the door on daily basis, she thought humans proved themselves to be the true sub-species; and besides, humans were not capable of loyalty and unconditional love as animals were. Humans were the wild animals who needed to be locked away in cages.
The dreams came with great regularity, in sadistic waves that made Andrea’s already fragile mind even more agitated and stressed. It was only the vocation of caring for her small, furry patients that gave her respite to this cold, caged existence.
Judy Saunders noticed Andrea’s state and approached her one evening while they were cleaning the animals’ cages in the back room. It was Friday, nearly closing time, and just about time to start the already overdue weekend.
“Hey, Andrea.” Judy called out with a friendly voice.
“Hey,” Andrea answered nonchalantly.
“What’s up?” Judy asked.
Andrea ignored the question
“I said what’s up?” Judy now demanded.
Andrea answered with a shrug and a mumbled answer.
“You down about something?”
Again, Andrea disregarded her.
“You know, Andrea, I’m not gonna talk to you if you’re not going to talk to me.”
“I’m busy.” Andrea finally answered as she scrubbed the inside of one considerably filthy cage.
“Too busy to talk?” Judy asked in a pissed tone. “Dude, I’m just trying to be friendly, that’s all.”
Andrea turned to her and looked her in the eye, “I’m sorry. I know you are. I’ve been in a funky mood lately. I think I might be coming down with something,” she said and felt around her neck for swollen glands.
“No problem,” Judy waved her off. “You know a bunch of us are going out clubbing tonight, it’ll be fun, it’s almost time to get outta here.”
Andrea looked up from the cage she was cleaning. “Nah, I gotta clean these cages and...” she stammered.
“Forget the cages!” her co-worker snapped. “Let’s go out and get wasted and meet some guys!”
Andrea did not budge. “Nah, I think I’ll take a rain check, thanks.”
“Come on, Andrea, guys!” Judy pulled off her lab coat. “These cages can wait till Monday!” she begged. “Not to mention the constant barking and yelping from these poor, demented animals. Doesn’t it ever get to you?”
“No,” she lied.
“How can you stand it?” Judy threw her hands up in the air. “So, come on, last chance: are you coming or not?”
“I can’t,” she begged off, “maybe some other time, okay?”
Judy looked at her with sympathy. She knew Andrea was not exactly social and most likely never had a date in her sad, young life. Most likely she was a virgin, she deduced. Her heart went out to her; life had a way of beating up on these sorts.
“Well, I’m gonna head out early then, Andrea, punch out for me when you leave, huh?” she asked.
“Sure,” Andrea nodded, “I hope you meet somebody, somebody nice,” she called out good-naturedly.
Judy shook her head as she threw her lab coat off and headed towards the back exit. “I’m not looking for somebody nice.” she replied and shut the door behind her, leaving Andrea the last person in the shelter.
Andrea looked woefully into the cages full of scared and anxious animals. Some days she would peer into the cages and feel like crying, echoing the cries of the caged creatures. Empathy washed within her heart.
She had always thought of herself as a small kitten, lovable and precious to everyone. ‘Kitten’ was her father’s pet name for her and she smiled at the remembrance. Her thoughts went to her father. She missed him. A sad smile roamed across her face. Everyone loved him. It seemed that everyone she had ever loved had deserted her, all except for her animals, she mused.
Though morose, she knew she had to be strong in front of the animals. They sensed negative energy as well as fear, grief, and other human emotions. In front of the animals, she bravely held her emotions in, as if in wearing an armor to protect and nurture them.
She was also keenly aware that if she broke down in front of these animals and let loose the ocean of sadness that crashed in self-pitying waves inside her, she might never stop. She was also well aware that she could never truly cry out all of the hurt and all of the wrong that had been done to her.
That evening, she had The Dream. The same unspeakable dream she had always had, since she was a child. Only this time when she awoke in the morning, she remembered it in vivid detail, more so than ever before. This time, she could remember a shadowy face and something to do with the feeling of being pinned and not being able to move.
Andrea could recall every horrendous detail; the sensation of helplessness that washed over her in the weighted darkness and of hands reaching and grabbing at her, pressing her down. Held down without consent, against her will and in the middle of the dream she remembered hearing someone crying out in pain. The dream had never stayed with her for long and this time it bothered her more than most.
One Friday, while cleaning the cages, Judy spoke to her about doubling at a movie with her and a guy she met at one of the clubs. The guy had a friend who was in need of a date. It would be fun, Judy promised.
“I don’t know, Judy,” Andrea sputtered nervously. “I’m not really looking for anyone right now.”
“We won’t be out late tonight, I swear, c’mon, I really like this guy and you’d be doing me a big favor. It’s just a movie, that’s all; you can even go home right after, okay? We won’t be out late,” she reiterated and your grandmother-”
“I don’t live with her anymore.” Andrea corrected her tersely.
“Oh, really? When did that happen?” Judy asked with an exaggerated expression, “Anyway, come on, if you do this for me, I’ll owe you big time and I’ll work for you next Saturday.” she begged, “I’ll even drive, okay?”
“Okay, if you think it will be all right.” Andrea conceded. “Is he cute?”
“Of course he’s cute!” she lied, having never seen the guy. “It will be fine,” she smiled broadly. “You’ll see and who knows? You might even get some.”
“Judy!” Andrea bristled at her forwardness.
“Well, you might!” she patted Andrea’s shoulder. “Believe me; it’d do you a world of good!”
Later that same evening, a knock came to the back door of the shelter. It was Judy’s new boyfriend, Ken and his friend, John. Judy opened the door and immediately locked into a passionate grip with Ken while Andrea and John stood awkwardly by and exchanged embarrassed glances. After a few sloppy minutes, short introductions were made.
Andrea locked up the shelter. She felt miserable about leaving the yelping pets behind. Another issue was bothering her. She was not at all comfortable with being thrust into a social situation but went along with it on account of her desperate friend. Thankfully, the guys followed Judy and Andrea in their car.
The movie was not her forte. It was an action movie with some super bad actor that would not die from scene to violent scene, although it seemed that everyone else he came in contact with did. It was nonsensical and absolutely did not suit her. Her tastes were more eclectic, literary.
As a slight mist began to fall, she, Judy and their dates walked through the cold multi-cineplex parking lot, Andrea found her date, John, did not quite share her views.
“What?” he exclaimed exasperated. “That was a great film, maybe it wasn’t your kind of film, maybe not a chick-flick but it was a good film.”
Andrea returned a look of shock, “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, take it easy, Andie,” Judy interjected, trying to smooth over the conversation, “It wasn’t a chick flick. John’s right.”
“Well, what does that even mean?” she persisted, “Are films gender specific now?”
“I just meant it was more of a guy film, that’s all,” John said.
“There’s no such thing,” she snapped at him.
He grimaced and looked at his friend, who in turn looked at Judy.
“Lighten up, Andrea, okay?” Judy begged. “It’s starting to rain. Ken’s gonna go with me, okay?” she said quickly without waiting for an answer, “John will take you home.”
Judy gently nudged her in the ribs, “Be nice, huh?” she winked, “I think he likes you.”
Andrea glared at her friend. Judy had obviously planned this all along. Judy knew Andrea was not comfortable being out socially and here she was now going off with a practical stranger. All she knew about the guy was his first name and his poor taste in cinema. The date was over as far as she was concerned. She had done her part, now all she wanted was to go home.
As she watched her one excuse to get out of an awkward social situation wander away with another guy, she never felt so alone in her life.
As Andrea drove through town with John, he nervously tried to break the great wall of icy silence between them.
“You still live at home?” he asked.
“That’s cool.” he smiled. “I live with a few roommates. Bet your parents were happy to see you out of the house, huh?”
She stared at him, “What makes you say that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you normally make random, odd statements without anything to back them?”
“No.” he stammered, “I’m just tryin’ to make conversation, that’s all.”
“Keep trying” she thought as she looked out the rain-slicked window.
“You get along with your parents?” he finally said with a laugh, “I mean, I don’t get along with mine.”
“Look...” she simmered, “for the last time, my parents are dead. I don’t want to talk about it, if you don’t mind. It’s nothing personal. But not to you, whom I hardly even know, not to anyone.” her eyes welled up with tears.
“Hey, I’m really sorry... really, I had no idea.” he apologized. “I didn’t know.”
“Well maybe you should think before you speak.” she sniffed.
“No one told me, Jee-zus!” he griped. “Look, I said I was sorry! You know you’re not exactly the easiest person to speak to, you don’t talk, you don’t smile, you don’t give someone a chance,” he said to her wall of blank stare. “I’m just tryin’ to talk to you, get to know you better, that’s all,” he huffed. “Anyway, so which church do you go to? That’s mine right over there.”
“You don’t go to church?”
“I’m Jewish and before you ask, no I don’t go to Temple, either and I-”
“That’s great.” he said, cutting her off. “Do you really like this town? I don’t know. I don’t, well, not really. It’s just an afterthought to a closed refinery nightmare.” He joked, trying to make her smile. It’s the armpit of the world.”
“Gee, thanks. I was born here,” she spat. “I like it!”
He glared at her and then back at the road and rolled his eyes. “Yeah right, sure you were.” he muttered. “I thought Judy said you were born in Florida.”
“No, genius.” She shook her head. “I was born here, but I lived down there all during my childhood...” her voice trailed off. “But I moved from there a long time ago. I moved up here, but I still got my Grammy down there.”
“My grandmother.” she pouted, “I lived up here with my other Grammy, um, grandmother, and live on my own. There, you happy now? You know everything about me. Well, what do you do?”
“I work in an auto repair shop.” the comment faded, “nothing glamorous. Just fix catalytic converters and things like that.” He shrugged.
“My father did that,” she said in an off-handed way.
“Oh yeah?” John said, excited to have an actual conversation going for once. “Does he still...” he said and stopped himself mid-sentence before completing the thought, remembering both her parents were deceased.
“My father’s dead!” she shot back. “I told you that, Einstein!”
“Right and I forgot for a moment.” he snarled. Kee-rist, he wanted to dump this one off at the next corner, he told himself.
“I never got a chance to talk to him. I never really got a chance to...”
“What do you care?”
“Hey, look, I’m just askin’. You brought it up.” He sighed. “Did they die together? Like a huge car crash or something?”
“Did who die together?” she asked pointedly.
“Your parents.” He answered with equal bark.
“What, are you still thinking about that movie?” she said and broke out into a laugh, “A car crash? Oh, thank God, no! I’d be a head case! My mother died of cancer and my father, my father, well... he died,” she said and then thought for a moment before continuing.
“It was a suicide, actually. It was after my eighth birthday and then after that I went to go live with my Grammy up here. I was the one who found him, hanging in the garage.”
Her brow furrowed and then relaxed. “No, if they died at the same time, I’m afraid my poor fragile little child mind wouldn’t have been able to process that and I’d really be a head case!” she repeated briskly and shook her shoulders dramatically. She followed the remark with another nervous snicker.
She may not be far off the mark, he told himself. Why would she laugh? “I’m sorry, if that means anything.” He offered.
Her expression spoke as if she were bored by the comment or had heard it many times before by anyone who tried to come near.
“Um, but as I was saying I work in an auto repair shop about a half-mile from here.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Well, I don’t think you should be so high and mighty about it, you clean dog crap all day.” he groused and gripped the wheel hard.
“What are you talking about? I didn’t say anything.”
John wasn’t about to let this one go, not this time. “And you have to deal with those horrible animals and-”
“Stop right there. I have a degree in biology. What do you have?”
“You work in a glorified pet store!”
Andrea’s reaction struck him as a new wave of odd in a night of rough, abnormal sea. She smiled at him and began to warm her approach, “You know, John, you’re one of the few people I’ve ever allowed talk to me like that. That’s a point in your favor. I like it when a guy is strong and not afraid to voice his opinion. You got moxie. You remind me a bit of my father.”
Copyright © 2009 by Joseph Grant