Mark sends Axl to South America without telling Slash.
“You think he’ll talk to me today?” I asked them, feeling the beginnings of a warm ray of sunshine starting to spread across the back of my neck. “Maybe I can convince him to go with me…”
The Burmese python on my left arm looked at me and hissed softly, flicking its tongue against my skin. It was really a beautiful snake, with red and gold streaks threading through the large spots along its body. With its piercing hazel eyes and long, narrow nose, it reminded me a bit of Axl.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. I turned, half-hoping to see the man himself, but it was only Mark.
“Hey, Slasher,” he said. “Did you hear?”
I shook my head, and Mark grinned, walking over and taking one of the snakes off my arm. “Axl left the country late last night. He’s headed to South America to get the animals. He won’t be back until Friday.”
It was Monday. I felt myself tensing up, thinking about the long week ahead. “W-what animals?”
“Well,” Mark said, reaching into the folder he was carrying, “apparently, a quetzal, a rhea, a boa constrictor, and some penguins from Cape Horn.” He looked up at me and smiled, but I didn’t smile back. There was something off about this, and it took me a minute to figure out what it was, exactly:
“I never ordered that…”
“According to Axl, you mentioned it to him when you two were getting a drink last night.”
“Yeah, well, I mentioned the rhea. Maybe. I didn’t say I wanted one, and certainly not all those animals—”
Suddenly Mark was right in my face. The snake he was holding automatically started coiling back around my wrist, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Listen, you ungrateful little shit,” he snarled, “I ordered them. All right? I figured you’d appreciate me doing you a favor. It’s not like having him here was doing any good, anyway.”
“What do you mean, he wasn’t any good?”
“You said yourself he’s an arrogant prick.”
“You said we couldn’t afford a lot of animals! You said we might have to let a few people go if we keep getting more.”
Mark sneered. A glint flashed across his eyes; he looked, for a moment, evil. He stepped back from me, and the heated lamps on the snakes’ glass cage caught his teeth, made them shine.
“Exactly,” he said.
That day I had lunch with Izzy, who seemed interested when I told him I played guitar.
“I jammed with Axl,” I said. “He’s a brilliant pianist.”
Izzy nodded, taking a bite of his sandwich. “His stepdad used to enter him into piano competitions back in Lafayette all the time.”
“His stepdad sounds like a real asshole,” I said, conversationally, but Izzy didn’t reply. His shoulders went sort of tense, and his eyes shifted to a point behind my head. He seemed uncomfortable, so I hurriedly changed topics:
“Mark sent Axl down to South America.”
“Oh, really?” Izzy looked surprised. “Axl did what Mark wanted?”
“Axl thought I ordered all these animals,” I explained. “He’ll be gone all week.” A sudden sense of loneliness, of clawing desperation, filled my chest. I had never felt a longing for someone like I did for Axl; if this was love, I wasn’t sure if I liked it. My eyes met Izzy’s; beneath his curtain of soft shaggy hair, he looked as sad as I felt.
“How’d you do it?” I asked hoarsely, struggling to fight back the tears I knew were coming. “How’d you make it without him for four whole years?”
He stared down at his lap. “You just go,” he murmured. “Day by day. You have to survive… so that he can have someone to come home to.”
So I survived, though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Mom and Grandma saw me moping, but I couldn’t tell them what was wrong without revealing things that I didn’t want them to know. On Thursday, Mark said:
“One more day, Slash. You can always call him and fire him, y’know… bring Bob back…”
“Why the fuck would I do that?”
“Because Axl’s no good!”
“You don’t know him!”
“I know him better than you do, Hudson,” Mark snarled, and I felt my cheeks heat up.
“It’s still my zoo, not yours.” I folded my arms across my chest and glared at him, and he glared back, steel on steel.
“Fine, Slash,” Mark snapped after a while. “Ruin your life. Just don’t expect me to hang around and watch it fall.”
And then it was Friday, and it was time for Axl to come home. When Izzy came into my office to clock in, he was smiling, his fedora tilted over his head.
“You excited about Axl comin’ back?”
I nodded, blushing a little. Izzy scrawled his name over the sign-in sheet and picked the keys to the giraffes’ cage off its hook.
“I hope everything works out for you two,” he said quietly, before walking out. I filled out a few papers; then walked to the reptile cages, fed them, held them. The closer it got to noon, the more nervous I became. I was walking around, trying to avoid Mark, getting my thoughts in order. I had reached the lynx cages and was standing there, my back to the door, when I heard footsteps behind me.
“You’re a hard man to find,” said a familiar voice behind me. My heart jerked in my chest, and I turned to face Axl, standing in the doorway of the building, the midday sun shining against the red-gold fire of his soft, silken hair. He looked absolutely goddamn beautiful, with his head tilted slightly and his bangs falling into his emerald eyes. He lifted his chin at me in greeting, and it was all I could do to avoid tackling him.
“Hey,” I said. “How was South America?”
“Gorgeous,” he replied, watching the lynxes behind me as they prowled around restlessly behind bars. He held a folder out to me. “You need to sign these and have them sent back to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, so the shipments can start.”
“You mean they haven’t yet?”
“No… the animals are ready, though.”
I took the folders, feeling our fingers brush slightly and trying to ignore it. “Sounds complex…”
“Oh, yeah.” Axl nodded, then stuck his hands in his pockets. He swallowed and lifted his eyes to meet mine.
“Listen, Slash—” he started, his cheeks slightly flushed, but suddenly Mark came in, looking furious.
“Why the fuck aren’t you in your office?” he screamed at me. “There are workers who had to clock in at mine because of your laziness!”
“Go screw yourself, you goddamn queer,” Axl snarled, turning from me, hatred blazing all over his face. Mark stared at him for a second, then turned and stormed out. For a little while, Axl stood with his back to me, shoulders tense, then he said:
“We have to talk, Slash. Are you busy tonight?”
“No,” I murmured.
“Good. Come to my place after work, all right?” He looked over his shoulder and offered me a breathtakingly beautiful half-smile, which I hesitantly returned.
“All right,” I said, swallowing. Axl nodded, then walked out without another word. I sank to the ground, shaking a little, and finally let out the breath I had been holding almost from the moment he’d entered the room.