I lift the lid off the glass tank where my bat Kevin has lived for a year since he dove through the evening air into my windshield. I reach in, touching his back, the fur so soft it’s hard to tell if you’ve actually made contact. I take his miniature claw-hand and concertina his good wing out, the leather webbing matching his massive ears. I untuck his bad wing, and open it out as best I can. I do this twice daily as physical therapy. His eyes, shiny black pebbles, watch me, and he opens his mouth wide, tiny shark jaw exposed.
My little brother Eddy leans on my doorframe, wearing fire truck pajama bottoms and no top. He goes shirtless on account of the heat generated by the latex horse head. Yeah, my brother wears a horse head. It’s chestnut with spooky eyes – the kind where the white goes all the way around the pupils – and stiff lashes, a fuzzy mane. There are holes beneath the nose for him to see through and a slot for his mouth. He found it in the basement a couple months ago and I haven’t seen him awake without it since. It’s less of an issue than you might think as he’s home-schooled. Allegedly. I’m not sure how much schooling goes on, but the home part’s accurate. He hasn’t left the house since before I rescued Kevin. He’ll stand on the front porch, or the deck out back, but he won’t step in the yard. I tried too hard at Christmas to coax him out for a drive to see the lights, and he didn’t eat for eighteen hours.
“I’m running out for milk, then I have work, then homework,” I say.
Junior year means a back-breaking school bag and a spirit-breaking work load. On top of that, I work three evenings for Mr. and Mrs. Fiorino at Magic Fountain, serving scoops to kids from school who aren’t my friends. Often Mrs. Fiorino offers me a treat: a slice of rainbow cake or a plate of large choc chip cookies, or a small tub of butterscotch ice cream, and sometimes I think about bringing it home for Eddy. But I can’t because he’d love it, and then the next time I go to work, he’ll get excited and expect me to bring him something again. It’s kind of sad: he misses out on a treat because his mind makes connections too strongly.
Eddy moves into my room, over to Kevin. He crouches, tilting his horse head back so he can see through the glass.
“Yes, Mr. Ed. Kevin’s okay.” I pick up my wallet, shove it into my backpack. Eddy is still, staring at Kevin. I wish I could see Eddy’s face and get a read on his thoughts.
“You know, Eddy, he belongs in the wild. He’s here because it isn’t safe for him out there with his busted wing.”
The horse head nods. I look at Kevin and see him through the horse’s eyes, protected in his cage. A few moments later, I nod too: I have a chance to set both free.
“Can you get the damn milk already?” Mom yells from the living room.
I get to work early and make the call, busying myself scrubbing the counters as I talk. I’ve had the number for Woodlands Sanctuary since Mrs. Todd looked it up for me after I told my bio class about Kevin. That was a mistake. Now I’m referred to as Batgirl in the hallways, which is marginally worse than not being referred to at all.
“Why the hell are you gonna drive all that ways out there? For a damn bat? Put him out behind the house. Jesus.”
“Mom, this is hard for me; they’ll look after him.”
“I’m not paying for the gas, that’s for damn sure.”
Eddy sits on my bed as I feed Kevin. The mealworm wriggles on the end of the pencil and Kevin becomes animated as he gnashes at it.
“Why he has to go?”
“It’s best for him, he should be with other bats, living as close to a normal life as possible.” Eddy doesn’t move. “You want to come with me to take him?”
“Can’t. He going now?”
“Tomorrow.” I ruffle his mane, turning my scrunched up face away from him.
Eddy’s in the kitchen when I come home from school, shoving fistfuls of goldfish crackers through the horse mouth, into his own. Orange cracker dribble slides down the square lip and onto his chest.
“Hey, Bud, where’s Mom?”
“Sleep. Kevin go now?”
I nod. The horse head drops down and knocks the carton of crackers off the table, onto the floor. The horse looks startled. Those spooky eyes.
“You’d better pick them up, Eddy.”
He follows me into my room. I have a smaller box for transporting Kevin. As I get close, I see Kevin isn’t hanging on the frame I made him. He’s lying on the soil below.
“No, no, no!” I pull the lid off and pick him up. He’s cool in my hand. His baby bird eyes closed. My knees shift and I sink to the floor, holding Kevin to my chest. Eddy joins me, his horse head on my shoulder, horse breath warm and damp in my hair.
It’s early evening by the time I have Kevin prepared in the smaller box, now his coffin. I’ve made it comfortable with a soft pillowcase folded up. On the back deck, I pull on my sneakers. The cicadas sing for Kevin, and a breeze moves through the leaves behind me.
“Where going?” The horse head pokes out from the screen door.
“I’m going to bury him under the oak tree.”
Eddy steps out and bangs the screen behind him. “I come too, okay?”
Having moved from England aged 24, Jo now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey. Her short stories, creative nonfiction, and poetry have recently appeared or are forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Manqué Magazine, Brevity Blog and Nine Muses Poetry. Last year, Jo was a writer in residence at L’Atelier Writers in France. Currently studying for her MFA and working on her novel, Jo can be found on twitter as @jovarnish1.
2 thoughts on “Sanctuary by Jo Varnish”
What a moving and insightful story.
Just sat for a moment absorbing all the thoughts and feelings after reading this piece–short and yet packed with so much. So good!