With the sound of the dogs barking behind their chain link fences, Stella Silva drove through East Hialeah for what she hoped would be the last time. At the traffic light, a scar-faced peddler tapped on her window, hawking long plastic bags of Key limes. She shook her head, but the driver in the next car lowered his glass to buy one. The too-loud radio blasted the newscaster on a local Spanish-language program repeating the big news of the last few months–that residents were complaining about the chupacabra, a goat-like, blood-sucking monster, which was roaming the streets at night, draining the life out of innocent pets.
The traffic was heavy, and it took nearly an hour on the Palmetto for her to reach the newly-constructed houses far west of Miami. It was the nineties when people thought it was good to move to developments far from downtown, where houses with associations didn’t permit chain link fences and probably frowned on animal sacrifices, too. Their new house was in the comfortable blandness of Bent Tree—every house beige, every wood fence brown, every roof gray, and the streets free of peddlers, animal sacrifice, and urban monster myths.
It was the dead chickens that kept turning up on the banks of the canals that pushed her to finally drop a down payment for a house in one of those cheap developments going up out west toward the Everglades. Unlike the majority of the citizens of East Hialeah, who believed the chupacabra stories, Stella knew it was probably the people who performed animal sacrifices that were leaving their chickens along the canal banks. The mayor was trying to outlaw the practice, but nobody could outlaw a myth. Stella wanted to raise her children away from the stories of the gullible, even if she were only one generation and a college degree removed from being one herself.
Bent Tree was still satisfyingly dull when she signed the contract, but now as she led the kids into the house on 46th Lane, the sticks that the builders had planted as landscaping had begun to sprout wildly and look vaguely like trees, and not particularly cultivated ones.
Within a month, one of the resident owners moved out of his house at the very head of the cul-de-sac, and renters moved in. They kept their shades suspiciously drawn at all times, inspiring the first neighborhood myth. A rumor began that inside that shut-up house lived a boy who was kept in a cage. It was the first sign that the forced sameness of the all-beige homes did nothing to stop the madness that had begun to color the neighborhood. To add comedy to horror, it was said the boy’s name was Fluffy. Stella was not amused.
She was even less pleased when Sophie, who at seven was already a perpetual questioner and arguer, maybe even a bit of a skeptic, did not doubt the myth’s veracity. The rest of the parcel of twenty houses seemed just as taken with the story, and gradually the children in their subdivision began changing their pets’ names. Even nameless stray cats began sporting the name Fluffy as fast as the leaves on the tiny trees could sprout. That was the second sign that their insipid little section, their tame development, Stella’s idyllic cul-de-sac paradise, had taken a turn.
The killer fire ant myth sprouted next. A story began circulating that John Carmen’s ninety-nine-year-old mother had suffered a fire ant attack. The ants had marched right into her room one evening, and the next morning the bedridden old woman, covered with ants, was dead.
In the fourth month in their new house, Stella drove the kids from school on early release day, and thought about these new disturbances. Sophie sat in the back seat babbling to her brother, saying something about how the bestest, most beautiful name in the whole universe, the name of the boy in the cage, had been chosen for her very own raccoon.
Stella snapped out of her thoughts. “What raccoon?”
“This one,” said Sophie. She opened her backpack and pulled out a stuffed toy, holding it up for Stella to see in the rear-view mirror. She chatted on about wishing she had a real live fluffy pet like a dog to protect her from fire ants. Or at the very least she’d like to change Joey’s name to Fluffy and keep him in a cage.
“Nooooooo!” Joey cried.
“Sophie, nobody keeps a boy in a cage around here, and that fire ant story is nonsense. People like to make things up.”
“Can we have a cat then? John Carmen has a cat named Fluffy.”
“It’s a stray and it doesn’t have a name. Besides, it hates people.”
“If it’s not his pet, why does he let it in his house?”
“John Carmen is a saint.”
The retired man, a Cuban exile, bursting with stories about how rich his life had been in Cuba before the Revolution, felt compassion for Stella’s state as a single mother abandoned by her husband. He helped her by doing some minor repairs around the house and walking her children to school along with his four grandchildren. She heard that he did favors for everybody, the ideal neighbor. “Only a saint would let that feral cat in his house.”
At home, Sophie propped the stuffed raccoon on the TV and her brother began throwing rolled up socks at it. When Stella walked over to scold him, she noticed a photocopied sheet under it titled “Taking Care of an Underprivileged Raccoon.”
She could see that this was another one of Big Mac’s cockamamie ideas. Big Mac was how the second-graders referred to Mrs. McDermott behind her back, and the moniker stuck.
She read Big Mac’s first paragraph. The students were to learn compassion for the underprivileged with this stuffed raccoon. One child a day, by lottery, was to take the raccoon home and take care of it. The raccoon was supposed to represent a child who was unable to speak or communicate its needs.
“Sophie, do you know how you’re supposed to do this homework?”
From Sophie’s speedy babbling, Stella deciphered that she had won the first lottery to take the raccoon home. When it was time to vote on a name, the girls had mostly wanted Fluffy, while the boys argued bitterly over whether to call it Uncle Road Kill or Fluffy. With the boys’ irreconcilably split vote, the stuffed thing also became Fluffy.
“We named it after the little boy in the cage,” Sophie said.
“For God’s sake! There is no little boy named Fluffy living in a cage. The family probably keeps a pet chinchilla or something.”
Stella stormed off and sat at the computer at the direction of her boss, who wanted her to write a budget proposal by Monday. She tapped brutally on the keys. The silly urban myth was beginning to annoy her, but she had no time right now to sit and teach her children the difference between fantasy and reality.
She had only just started to try out some columns and graphs for the proposal when John Carmen knocked on the door to tell her that his grandson’s rabbit, Fluffy, escaped its cage and had been found mutilated. He said people in their parcel were saying it was sucked dry by the chupacabra, but it was not true, not to worry. His son-in-law had seen the mutilated rabbit himself, and it looked like the work of a vicious dog. Stella nodded, grateful that saintly John Carmen could also be the voice of reason amid the blossoming insanity.
“But call a pest control service,” he added. “It’s expensive, yes. But the fire ants are all over this neighborhood, and you know how dangerous they can be for old people.”
Stella shut the door behind him a little too abruptly, and went back to the computer. A shriek outside caused her to hit the wrong key and her two columns multiplied into eight. She walked outside to where her children and John Carmen’s four grandchildren stood at her front door, horror in their six pairs of eyes.
“John Carmen’s trying to kill Fluffy!” Sophie grabbed Stella’s hand, trying to drag her out. “He threw him in the garbage can!”
“Wait a minute.” Stella stared at Sophie’s friends. “John Carmen? Your grandfather?”
Davy, Jenni, Bryan, and Laurie nodded, their eyes even rounder with disbelief over being related to such a monster. She could see in those many pairs of brown eyes that the innocence of childhood was already dying in the wake of these strange myths, this new one turning Bent Tree’s most beloved citizen into a cat murderer.
The children dragged her to John Carmen’s aluminum garbage can. On top of the empty milk cartons, orange peels and overflowing rubbish lay the stray in rigor mortis, like a fallen-over display in a diorama of urban squalor.
“It’s dead,” Stella said, regretful over its undignified burial. “That’s why John Carmen put him in the garbage. He’s not trying to kill him.”
The children stood silent, waiting for Stella to do something. Nobody had cared for that stray until it got that idiotic name, and Stella silently cursed the mushrooming foolishness while she wrapped the stiff, dead cat in newspapers.
As she dug a hole in the backyard, Joey, despondent in that three-year-old way of discovering death, asked the inevitable question. “Do people die too?”
“Yes,” Stella answered firmly, and an unnatural silence settled on the six children.
“Except Mommies,” Sophie whispered, stroking his hair, at once understanding what Stella had not.
“Mothers are not immune from mortality.” Stella wanted to be the last person to perpetuate myths, but hoped the vocabulary would keep the rawness of that particular truth at bay a little longer. She tamped down the dirt over the burial mound and looked up at the six children staring at her with the inconsolable clarity that truth inspires.
“Mommies die?” Joey gave her one more chance to wipe away the reality.
“Let’s go buy a pet,” Stella said.
Avoiding a question, after all, was not perpetuating myths.
Joey’s eyes brightened. “A dog?”
“Anything but.” Stella strapped him in the car seat.
They rode home with two tan and white hamsters as well as a shiny new cage with a feeding bowl, a wheel, and a bag of cedar chips. Both children wanted to name their hamsters Fluffy, and so, as the car radio played loud enough to keep Stella sane, they argued. After a few threats and Sophie’s eloquent description of the inferiority of little brothers, she was about to win the argument when Joey bit her. They ended up with two identical hamsters with the same name.
Almost immediately after the cage was set down in the family room, one Fluffy began to move all the cedar chips to one side, leading Stella to suspect a female in the pair. After an afternoon snack, Stella tuned the television to the Disney channel and returned to her computer. She was deeply absorbed in examining the numbers when the screaming started.
“Fluffy’s eating a baby!” Joey had his face up against the hamster cage. One of the Fluffies was indeed eating a tiny, naked newborn, bleeding on the cedar chips while other squirming, hairless little rats, barely bigger than fat worms, waited their turn. Joey cried hysterically, his eyes on the deranged carnivore, a bloody head of a newborn hanging from its monstrous mouth.
Stella slung her purse over her shoulder and opened the cage door to remove the cannibal. “Open the front door for me, Sophie. We’re returning this one.” The other Fluffy squirmed away past her wrist, jumped off the table, and passed Sophie on her way out the door.
The hamster safely in an empty shoe box, they headed to the pet store. Sophie wailed that Fluffy didn’t need to eat its baby when it had plenty of Purina Happy Hamster Chow right there in its little feeding bowl. Before Stella could ease the car into the pet store parking space, a horrifying screech caused her to slam her foot against the brakes. She turned around to find Joey holding up his index finger. Two tiny holes the size of hamster front teeth glistened with blood.
“Put that thing back in the box, Joey!”
“It’s still eating the baby!”
“It’s already dead, Joey.” Stella drove faster than necessary, her anger rising as she realized her clever pet-buying ruse to skirt discussing the death of mothers led to their witnessing parents eating their young.
The children were inconsolable at the loss of so many Fluffies in one day. Sophie bombarded Stella with questions. “Why did Fluffy bite Joey? Why did Fluffy eat his own baby? Why did Fluffy die, and why did John Carmen dump him in the garbage like he was junk?”
Before Stella could think of some honest answers, Joey asked his own question: “Does everything bite and die?”
Stella shook her head, powerless against the heartbreaking truth of nature. That the cutest and fluffiest animals could be savage. That even the saintliest old man was capable of savage neglect. And mothers could die. At least the pet store returned her money.
Stella left Sophie and Joey outside talking to John Carmen’s grandchildren about the tragedy they had witnessed and went back to doggedly tapping at the computer keys. Not long after she started, she heard another scream. It came ringing out across the entire length of their twenty-house parcel. Stella ran out of the house in time to see Joey racing for his life, a look of utter terror on his round, babyish face, and his mouth wide open, screaming, “FLUUUUUUFFY!”
He fell into his mother’s arms, and hung tightly, panting with fear and clinging to her as if he had been rescued from the mouth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
At the cul-de-sac, Stella glimpsed a hairy dog chained to a stake in front of the renter’s house, growling fiercely in their direction. “That dog’s name is Fluffy?”
Joey nodded without releasing his grip. “It’s Kenny’s dog!”
Stella finally saw the humor in the story about the boy named Fluffy living in a cage. It was simply a case of mistaken species identity. Fluffy was a dog chained to a stake, not a boy in a cage.
Stella unwrapped Joey’s arms from her neck. “Don’t worry, sweetie. Fluffy’s chained up.” She felt a sardonic amusement at calling that matted, snarling creature Fluffy. The dog looked like a mix of chow-chow and Tasmanian devil. He was in desperate need of freedom.
“You go home with Sophie. I’ll go find out why that dog is chained up and left outside like that.” Stella walked determinedly to the house. Once she exposed the myth, the boy in the cage named Fluffy would go away, as would the chupacabra and fire ant stories. Bent Tree would be back to normal.
As she approached, Fluffy stopped barking and wagged his tail. She reached out to pet him, and he let her. “Oh, you think you’re a big pit bull, don’t you, fella? Was it you who killed that little rabbit? You feel mean being chained up like this, don’t you?”
She knocked on the door and was greeted by a boy of about twelve. Like a hippie’s in the sixities, his pale blond hair hung straight and limp to his shoulders, and his teeth begged for an orthodontist.
“Are you Kenny?”
The boy nodded, narrowing his eyes.
“I’ve come to talk to you about Fluffy.”
His eyes darkened like a shut-down computer screen. “He’s OK. We treat him OK. We wash him and his bed is clean.”
“Yeah. My momma ain’t here, but she said to let you in.”
Stella followed the boy into the house. All the blinds were pulled taut, darkening the inside. The furniture was threadbare, and the smell of stale cigarette smoke permeated its plaid cushions and worn throws. A liter of Coke stood on the old Formica dining table set alongside three plates and three foggy glasses ready for dinner.
The boy led her into a bedroom. Half the room was a wood platform on which mattresses had been laid. Heavy chicken wire was nailed from the bottom of the platform to the ceiling, separating the room in half. Hanging on the chicken wire was a large handmade sign with “Tommy” painted in large childish letters in purple watercolor. Under the name, in black ink, someone had written “Fluffy.”
A boy of about six suddenly emerged from the corner of the bed and climbed on the chicken wire, hanging by fingers and toes, grinning like a lonely puppy whose owners had come home. Stella stared as he hung there in sky blue pajamas, smiling and grunting. His hair was the pale blond shade of his brother’s, only curly and puffy like a clown’s wig.
“See? Momma said to make sure you see the sheets and blankets are clean. We throw ’em in the washer twice a week, and he always wears diapers now in spite of he hates ’em.”
Stella nodded, realizing she had been mistaken for a social worker. Kenny tried valiantly to save his unfortunate brother from an intruder who might take him away. Stella was unable to speak and reassure him otherwise. She was unable to do anything but stare at the myth who was not a myth.
“Hey, Fluffy,” Kenny said. Approaching the wire, he touched the boy’s fingers. “How’s my buddy?”
The boy, responding in the only way he could, grunted, jumped off the wire mesh and jumped back on again.
“You having fun?” Kenny’s face crinkled into a smile. Tommy answered by opening his mouth in a honking laugh. Kenny turned to Stella, the smile evaporating. “He’s going to school. That’s why we rented here. So’s he could go to that elementary school over there that’s gonna take special kids.”
“Bent Tree Academy is going to take special kids?” She began to understand why Big Mac had concocted the raccoon project.
“Yeah. Startin’ next September.”
“And the boy. He’ll be able to leave his cage?” Her eyes remained fixed on Tommy.
“’Course he will,” Kenny snapped. “It’s his room, not a cage. He just ain’t safe out of it unless someone’s watching and holding on to him every second.” He glared at her. “You gonna report us?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Stella managed to say, although her throat was closing up. “I’m not from Children’s Services or anything. I’m glad you introduced me to Fluffy, but I came here about the other Fluffy. The dog outside.”
“That dog ain’t Fluffy,” Kenny snapped. “That’s Scruffy. Tommy’s scared of him. He was supposed to keep him company, but they don’t get along, so we don’t wanna keep him no more. My momma’s gonna take him to Animal Control when she gets a chance. She’s kind of too busy usually.”
“Well, listen.” Stella chose her words carefully. “About Scruffy.” She hesitated, then made her decision and spoke. “I mean, he shouldn’t be chained up like that. I can take him to the Humane Society if your mom is too busy.”
“Yeah, sure,” the boy said without hesitating. “Momma won’t mind.”
While Stella unhooked the dog’s chain from the stake on the ground, an old blue flatbed Ford pulled into the driveway. A thin, gray-haired woman at least six-foot tall got out of the truck with a dark-haired girl of about eight, holding a paper bag emanating the greasy aroma of fried chicken. Stella nodded at the woman, whose gray eyes revealed nothing. She nodded back. Stella guessed that the boy in the cage was the worst, but not the only one of a series of explosions in the woman’s shattered life. Stella reconsidered her belief that being abandoned while pregnant was the worst thing that could ever happen to anybody.
“Your son said I could take Scruffy. Is that OK?”
The woman shrugged, muttered “sure,” and disappeared into the house with the girl.
Stella untied the dog, and his tail wagged as she walked him home. “Why did you bring Fluffy here?” Sophie demanded, her arms akimbo. “He’s not cute enough to be a pet.”
“His name is Scruffy, not Fluffy. We’re taking him to the Humane Society.”
“The Humane Society?” Sophie arms fell to her side. “They kill pets!”
“Not always.” Stella’s heart fell at what she read in Sophie’s eyes. One Fluffy after the other biting, dying, eating other Fluffies, or taken to their deaths. Did it ever stop? “Look, if you want this dog, I’ll let you have it,” Stella blurted out, instantly regretting it.
Joey stepped out from hiding behind Sophie. “We can keep him? He doesn’t bite?”
It was too late for Stella to change her mind. Of all pets, a dog was the one that promised the most trouble, the one she wanted least. “All dogs bite. But we can teach him not to. Be gentle.”
The children cautiously approached the dog, and gingerly touched the top of his head with their fingertips. His tail wagged madly. Sophie wrapped her arms around the dog’s neck and Joey stroked his back. As if that day could go any other way, Laurie and Bryan came running from Kenny’s house, their eyes registering more bad news.
“We found your hamster, Fluffy! It was like . . . ” Laurie was unable to get out more words.
“Yeah! Half of him is gone,” Bryan said. “We saw it over in Kenny’s yard. That dog there killed it.”
Sophie and Joey backed away from their new pet.
Stella sighed. The kids couldn’t possibly take anymore.
“Time to go in and take care of your underprivileged raccoon, Sophie. Mrs. McDermott is going to kill you—I mean, isn’t going to like it if you don’t do your homework.” Maybe Big Mac had it right after all with her nutty assignments.
“Did Scruffy kill my hamster?” Joey’s eyes filled with tears, and Stella was taken aback by hearing the dog’s real name.
She knew only one way to absolve Scruffy and wipe away the raw, horrifying truth. Her neighbors in Hialeah had done it with their myths. “He didn’t kill your hamster. But I’ll tell you who did.”
Tomorrow, maybe the next day, maybe the day they stopped believing in Santa Claus, Stella would tell them chupacabras didn’t really exist. Instead, she told them about the blood-sucking beast, who couldn’t resist hamsters and rabbits, and who was probably to blame for most of the unsolved murders and incomprehensible horrors in their otherwise peaceful neighborhood. “The moral of the story,” Stella said, “is to keep your pets inside and always walk Scruffy on a leash. The end.”
Joey smiled, and Sophie, analytical Sophie, somehow knew it was a fantasy she could live with. She hugged the matted Scruffy and announced she would change his name to Fluffy.