The three-headed snake hissed, the dog-sized frog croaked, and the four-eyed owl hooted.
Anne smiled as she entered the pens with the bag of feed slung over her shoulder. It must have weighed nearly as much as she did, yet she walked with surprising ease on legs more bone than meat.
“Charlie, dinner,” Anne said, dumping the bag on the straw-covered floor. She tapped a metal cup against the grate of the nearest cage and a five-limbed cat approached, sniffed once, and flicked out his forked tongue. Anne ruffled his coarse gray-and-black fur. “You’re not scaring anyone, silly. You’re not Clayton.”
Anne worked her way down the line, offering scratches behind the ears as readily as the food. All the animals — even the most timid — had warmed to her touch in time. All but Clayton. She found the big wolf at the end of the chamber in a rusted cage that looked part fortress, part prison. He lifted his gray head when she came near and snarled, revealing a mouth full of yellow canines and blood-red gums. His skin looked pink across his flanks where his fur had fallen out.
“Sorry, old boy,” Anne said. “I know you hate this.”
Clayton lunged at the cage in response, threatening to tip it over. Luckily the bolts on the floor held, though they could do nothing to silence the wolf. He howled and snarled, throwing saliva between the bars.
“It’s for the best,” Anne said with a sad smile. She used tongs to take Clayton’s bowl from his cage, though not without him trying to bite it in half first. After she returned it full of food, she knelt down to watch him eat. Instead of inspecting the contents of the bowl, Clayton stared at her.
“I know what it feels like to be locked up, though not behind metals bars,” Anne said. She would have patted his head like her mother used to do to her, but she needed her hands — even the third — so she turned and strode out into the night while her animals mewed, mooed, and whimpered behind her.
The night hummed with noise and light when Anne stepped outside. Over her small shop loomed the Televian aviation plant, where they made the great ships that cleaved through space on their way to better places. The towering building cast long shadows across the broken asphalt, and Anne tried to avoid them as she walked. She had grown up beneath the specter of that dark building yet still found herself casting backward glances at it.
“Freak show,” someone said to her. He appeared out of the shadows, a tall, wiry man with a pock-marked face. Anne knew him well and never broke stride. She had found Tom looming outside her shop on many nights looking to cause trouble, if for no other reason than he had nothing better to do.
“You should come tomorrow to see the new cat I found wandering in the swamps beneath the plant,” Anne said. “He’s a real charmer. Only five dollars to see my menagerie, Tom.”
“Mutant zoo,” Tom said, spitting at her. “They’re cursed like you. Ugly, twisted, and deformed. How many nights do I need to tell you to leave?”
“We’re only this way because of that plant,” Anne said, pointing with her third arm at the Televian building behind her. The appendage jutted from between her breasts, short and stubby like a baby’s. “We’re the casualties of the space race.”
“Those animals should be left out in the sewage swamps to die, not be brought into the city. And freaks like you should go out there to die, too.”
“And then what fun would your pitiful life be, Tom? I’m okay with mine.”
Despite Tom’s harassment, it had been a good day. More than fifty people had come through to see her animals, and while most mocked them, at least they paid for the opportunity to be cruel. Let them laugh as long as their dollars provided food and shelter for her and the animals.
The next day turned out to be not so good; Anne arrived at her shop to find it engulfed in flames. Despite the heat of the conflagration, she charged into the building, face shielded with her arm. Still, smoke stung her eyes and coated her throat. Around her, animals screeched, hissed, and cried. She could hear Clayton loudest among them, roaring at the back of the room and throwing himself against his metal bars.
Anne tried to pry Charlie’s cage open first but found the bars too hot to touch. Not that it would have mattered. The cat lay sprawled at the back of the cage, its eyes closed for good. Anne slapped fire off her burning sleeve and continued to stumble blindly forward, ignoring the pain as she went.
Anne found the animals dead in cage after cage, and the longer she spent searching for one alive, the louder Clayton howled. When she reached him, she knelt and coughed blood and soot. She found the key in her pocket and opened the lock quickly. Clayton bounded out, bowling her over. Anne lay on her back and stared at the smoke swirling around the rafters until the blackness took her.
Anne awoke on the broken asphalt with Clayton looming over her. She spit up black saliva and ash while the big wolf licked her face with a leathery tongue.
“I told you to go at least three dozen times,” Tom said, appearing from an alley. He carried a dented gasoline can in one hand and a spade in his other. “No one wants your kind around here.”
“The animals…” Anne said.
“They weren’t animals. They were abominations.”
And then Clayton lunged. The wolf gnashed Tom with his teeth, just above the man’s hipbone, tearing out his entrails. They flopped like eels on the asphalt, as black and slippery as ones Anne used to own.
Anne crawled to where the dead man lay in his ripped T-shirt, and noticed a bulge on his chest, just between his collarbones. Anne poked it hard enough to pop it, springing a small appendage loose that looked like a chicken claw. In time, it would have grown to be the size of Anne’s own third arm.
Anne shook her head and scratched Clayton behind the ears.
Shane D. Rhinewald was raised and continues to live in Western New York. He’s a public relations professional by day and writes speculative fiction by night (except when there’s hockey on TV, of course). His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Big Pulp, and the Short Sips anthology.