Galactic Mountain had always been there, and in our minds it always would be, the way it had been then. Its neon lights were a beacon to train our bikes toward, its flashing sign our refuge. We would lean our bikes in a tangled pile of metal against the brick building, crowding into the entryway which yawned up over our heads in a dark arch of pocked plaster, thick and high and gleaming, neon letters flickering green and blue.
Inside, the ceiling was low. It was always dark, always cool. The neon sheen followed us into the gloom. The room was dotted with games—lights darting around their curving edges, buttons flashing blue and green and pink, begging us to pound our fists against them, for the long red tongue of tickets to spew from the black slats beneath the plastic bubbles that allowed us to peer down inside the games, to watch the lights dart back and forth over glistening bulbs of glass, praying that our light landed on just the right spot.
Galactic Mountain had many rooms, and not all of them arcades. There was a room of tubes—long, winding tubes of thick plastic with clear windows to peer from, pits of foam blocks to leap in, columns of foam hanging from low ceilings for us to run through, to get lost in. There were rooms of TVs, gaming consoles snaking their thick black wires toward the buzzing screens. We would sit on the beanbag chairs that littered the floor and run our thumbs up and down the gleaming controllers, the TVs warming our cheeks with their soft blue glow, setting our eyes ablaze.
Near the front of the building was the Prize Zone, where we set ribbons of red tickets on the clear countertop to let the lazy teens finger through them as we peered into the plastic bins at our rewards. We fought over pencil toppers and Chinese finger traps, praying that we had enough tickets for a water bottle with Galactic Mountain’s logo screen-printed onto the gray plastic, all neon and bolded letters, or one of the stuffed aliens that hung from the ceiling by the tops of their heads, long arms hanging down past their narrow green hips, huge almond eyes of glistening chrome set back in their heads, their mouths a thin black line. The Mountain was where we belonged, where we felt safe, sheltered by its trembling lights and humming games. To us, it was everything.
* * *
Inside the Mountain, there were windows lining the walls of the room with the climbing tubes, allowing us to peer in at the animals at the pet shop next door, Karl’s Krazie Kritters. Mr. Tierkling owned the whole building, and he’d bought the arcade mainly to finance the pet store. We pressed our hands to the plexiglas and tried to get the puffer fish to follow our fingers, tried to get the lizards to snap at our noses. They lazed on their pieces of bleached wood and synthetic rock, eyeing us sleepily under the red glare of their heating lamps. The creatures looked small behind their glass walls, contained. We watched them as they slumbered, inert and all but lifeless. We would sometimes tap the glass, urge them to move, but they seldom stirred from their caves and heating pads. We were certain it was the glass that confined them that lead to this lethargy, that the cages themselves somehow stifled the creature’s vigor. The wildness we knew was lying just beneath the surface—the wildness we felt in ourselves as we raced down the backstreets on our bikes, hooting and laughing, trying to stick our sneakers in between the flickering slats of each other’s tires, clanging sticks along mailboxes—yearned to be released. It may have been this recognition of their entrapment that enticed us to enter Karl’s Krazie Kritters the few times we did, this idea that began to swell and fester in our minds. That if we could revive them, do more than simply tap on the glass and hope for the flick of a tongue or twitch of a tail, they would come to life, would regain the portion of themselves that had been lost among the faux rocks and climate-controlled habitats. We felt they deserved it, that injustice was being done otherwise. Or, that’s what we would tell ourselves years later.
That summer day, we had been sitting in the plastic tubes, shoulder-to-shoulder, cross-legged, staring through the windows at the lizards. Tommy Greene had been the one to bring it up first. He was lying on his stomach in the curve of the tube, legs dangling down the slide that led into the foam-block pit. He knocked his tennis shoes against the side of the tube, the plastic vibrating beneath us rhythmically.
“They look pretty bored,” he said, still watching the lizards. Roman Todd looked at him, his hands still pressed against the plexiglas.
“You think?” he said.
“Yeah. I don’t think they get to come out very often.” We had not yet spoken directly of our concern for the creatures, had only made passing comments about the number of hours a day they spent sleeping or how small their cages seemed. All summer we had noticed the somewhat staggering amount of animals Tierkling had managed to stuff into the section of the building dedicated to them. There were a number of smaller rooms branching off from the main one, housing mostly large, murky fish tanks. The sides of the tanks were usually thick with algae, the fish just dark shapes moving behind the glass. We would peer in, try to make them out. Usually, Mr. Tierkling would enter the room behind us, leaning in close before we realized he was there.
“See, boys, that there’s a silver arowana,” he would say, motioning to the long, dark form moving along the surface of the water. “Careful, now. They jump.”
He had both tropical and marine fish and their tanks lined the walls, one row on top of the other, held up by thick wooden frames. They covered the tiny rooms, warm water thickening the air.
The center of the main room was full of small mammals, rabbits and guinea pigs, hamsters and ferrets. Reptile tanks and bird cages pressed against the windows to the Mountain that we so often gazed through. The parrots would stare at us from behind metal bars, turning their bright heads this side and that to get a better look. Their beaks were thick, keratin chipping around their curved ends from years of nipping and gnawing at the bars of their cages, flecking them with white.
“I bet they’ve never come out. They’ve been in there their whole lives,” Michael Peabody said. The rest of us nodded solemnly.
“Someone should go let them get around a bit,” Liam Swarbly said. Someone said that sounded like a good idea.
“Mr. Tierkling doesn’t really like us going in there,” Peter Browning said. “He gets angry when we ask him to feed the piranhas.”
Peter was a year or two older than the rest of us, around fourteen at the time. He helped Mr. Tierkling out in the pet store on weekends. He would scrub out the reptile enclosures, siphon the fish tanks, lay down fresh bedding for the rabbits. He wasn’t quite old enough to officially work for Mr. Tierkling, but he begged and pleaded enough that his parents finally called and asked Mr. Tierkling if he could please let Peter hang around the store, give him odd jobs, make him feel like he was a part of things. So Mr. Tierkling agreed, and Peter could be found in a green apron and rubber gloves most Saturday and Sunday mornings, teetering on wooden ladders, elbow-deep in the gloomy tanks, running a blue algae scrub up and down their thick panels.
“Well he doesn’t have to know,” Roger Finn said.
“How will we get past him?” Tony Callibri said. We never saw Mr. Tierkling far from the front desk of the pet shop, clicking away at the products with his price tagger or bent low over the counter, scribbling into notebooks full of yellow lined paper.
“Easy,” Tommy said. “We come back after the Mountain’s closed.”
We thought on this for a while. We talked it over.
Peter wrung his hands. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem safe,” he said.
“Come on,” Tommy said. He propped himself up on his elbows. “We’ll get them back inside when we’re finished.”
We looked at each other. Peter touched his glasses with a quivering hand. He knew Tommy would come out victorious in this. He always did. And we boys were always quick to follow him. Tommy had been the one to convince a smaller sect of us to fire off bottle rockets he had swiped from his older brother in Schumacher Park two years ago, on the low, wooden stage where the community theater performed Shakespearian plays in the summer. He had been the one to convince Kenny Clinton from our geography class to moon Trisha and Carly Noble, along with their mother, through the window of the McDonald’s where the three had been enjoying milkshakes last spring.
“It’s okay,” Tony said. He nudged Peter’s leg. “We’ll make sure they’re all right.”
“It’s settled.” Tommy smiled toothily. Peter looked down at his tennis shoes. “Meet around back at 7:30 tonight. Mr. Tierkling will have gone home by then.”
We all nodded this time, agreed.
* * *
That evening, we piled our bikes up behind the building as usual. Mr. Tierkling’s and the Dairy Queen were the only things around, the other buildings along the road were abandoned or forgotten, all fading cement walls and dark windows, empty parking lots with tufts of dry grass poking up through the sun-bleached asphalt. Tommy did a headcount.
“Who are we missing?” he said.
“Roger is still at soccer practice,” Roman said.
“Well, forget him. Let’s go.”
The back door was locked, as we knew it would be. Liam stood on Michael’s shoulders and tried to force open the window to the right of it. To our delight, it had been left unlocked. With a few good shoves he pried it open. We climbed over one another until we all were safely inside, Peter reaching down to grab Tony and pull him in last.
The pet store was dark, the thrumming of the aerators droning into the gloom. We shuffled through the store, bumping against one another nervously, shushing each other. Tommy held out an arm and we all stopped.
“Elvis will hear you.”
We’d forgotten about the parrot. Mr. Tierkling had a blue-and-gold macaw named Elvis that sat on a wooden perch next to the register and watched as we wandered the store, white irises flicking after us. Elvis would always squawk for Mr. Tierkling in his guttural, avian voice and Mr. Tierkling would shoo us back into the Mountain, knowing full well that we didn’t intend to buy any of his prized beasts. Now, we peered out from behind a wall of shelving toward his perch. He was a ruffled mass of dark feathers, head tucked down under his wing. We looked at each other.
“Keep low. Don’t knock into anything,” Tommy said.
Liam and Michael stuck close together, falling behind. They enjoyed Tommy’s pranks, enjoyed being the spectators of his shenanigans. But this felt like too much. This felt too risky, like he was asking to get caught. The boys looked at each other. Kept quiet.
We approached the rows of reptile tanks. Their day lamps had been shut off and just the red glow of the heating lamps remained. They all lazed beneath faux-rock huts or bits of wood, eyes shut, leathery sides rising and falling softly.
We began to remove clamps from the lids, lifting and placing them at our feet. Some of the lizards raised their heads. A four-foot savannah monitor flicked its tongue as Tony lifted the lid from its gigantic tank. It peered up over the lip of the glass, tongue skimming Tony’s knees. We whispered excitedly to each other, and soon our voices turned to shouts and laughter. We began to cheer each time another metal lid clattered to the floor, each time another cage door swung wide.
Roman eyed the rows of merchandise hungrily. He wiped his palms along his jeans. Mr. Tierkling had called Roman’s mother about a month ago because he had thrown a controller at one of the televisions, causing it to crack the screen and the controller alike. He had been banned from the arcade—his mother’s doing, not Tierkling’s—for three weeks. He had just been allowed to return. Roman was eager to pay the old man back, even in the smallest of ways. A few broken fish bowls, maybe a few bags of mouse food strewn across the linoleum. Maybe someone would forget to lock a few of the animal cages when they left.
“Now what?” Michael said.
“Let’s go for the birds,” Roman said.
We split into a few groups. Some of us began unlatching the birdcages. Others moved to the small animals and fish. We unlatched the chinchilla cages and removed the lids from the mouse prisons. We watched as they sniffed at our fingers, blinked their black eyes up toward our faces into the dark.
We stood back and admired our work. Lids littered the floor, cage doors stood ajar. Michael was up on a stool and dipping his pinky into the piranha tank, tapping on the glass with his free hand.
“Why aren’t they moving?” Liam asked. The creatures peered at us from the darkness of their cages. Some of the smaller animals huddled in tight groups, bunching along the corners of their enclosures. We looked to each other, confused. Why didn’t they dart from their cages, explore the store? What was holding them back now that their prisons had been dismantled?
“Maybe they need something to wake them up,” Tommy said. He began to head toward the doorways that led to Galactic Mountain. We followed.
He began flicking on the TV screens, punching buttons on the game consoles. We joined in, booting up the games, flicking switches behind the Prize Zone, watching as the arcade buzzed to life.
We ran toward our favorites, hooting and laughing once more, our worry lifting. We looked over at the dimly glowing doorways that led into Karl’s as we clutched glossy controllers. We thought we heard a clang.
“Start playing,” Tommy said.
The ping of lasers darted between us, the systematic bloop of our games opening levels. We heard a few of the birds start to chatter. Then a screech.
“TIERKLING,” a voice squawked.
“It’s Elvis,” Tony said.
“TIERKLING. TIERKLING,” the bird wailed. We heard the beating of wings. The skitter of nails on linoleum.
“It’s fine,” Tommy said, “let them run.”
We played on. As we progressed through the levels, our games grew louder, our own voices rising above the noise. We could no longer hear the animals moving in the other room, but we hoped that the sound of our games would rile them, would get their hearts pounding just as ours were. Tony howled and beat Michael on the back as they battled in front of one of the largest TV sets. Roman leaned in close to one of the arcade games, squinting. Liam cursed and banged a fist against one of the pulsing monitors. Peter squirmed.
After what seemed like hours, we heard a screech ring out over the chaos of our own voices, bright and piercing. We glanced back at the doorways, trying to focus on our screens. Peter leapt back from his console as a red-tailed boa slithered across his sneakers.
“You guys, we need to go,” Tony said. His face was pale in the bright light of our games, eyes wide. We turned from our devices, our own excitement waning as we looked to the doorways that led into Karl’s. We heard another chorus of screeches.
“We can’t leave them like this,” Peter said. His voice was high and tight.
“Let’s go try to get them back,” said Michael. We scurried away from our games, glancing to the dark floor for anything moving.
When we entered the pet store, Tony screamed. There were animals littering the floor, dark shapes flickering and sliding across the tiles. Birds squawked on top of shelves, perched amidst the rows and rows of product crowding the main room. Rabbits thumped by our feet, chinchillas darted behind displays. The savannah monitor clawed its way toward us, long tale whipping along the polished floor.
Liam moaned. A ball python unraveled its dark body to reveal the crumpled carcass of a mouse. The snake unhinged its jaw and the mouse began to slip inside, the snake writhing with delight. The savannah monitor had gotten hold of a rabbit and was shaking it, the animal’s body thumping dully against the side of a row of shelves, dark dots of blood staining its fur.
Snakes continued to zigzag across the floor, slithering behind shelves and tanks. The fish darted and swarmed the corners of their tanks, mice and hamsters scurrying along the wooden shelves that housed them. Some of the rodents had fallen into the dark water and struggled to climb back out. A few were unfortunate enough to have fallen in with piranhas. The water was now dark with blood, the fish tearing at the furry bodies in a cloud of green, tails flicking in the dark. Liam gagged and leaned on his knees. Tony started to back toward the register where a cluster of leopard geckos blinked up at us, where Elvis still yowled.
“TIERKLING. BOYS ARE HERE. HELP,” he wailed in his rough, mechanical-sounding pitch. Peter covered his ears.
“We have to go,” Liam said. It sounded like he was crying.
“No, we need to get them back,” Peter said. A green-headed caique swooped toward him and screeched, trying to land on his head. He squalled and batted at it with his hands.
The birds were all screaming now, chips and clicks and squawks. Their wings beat at the air furiously, their bodies knocking thickly off of the large windows that peered into the Mountain, against the ceiling, cracking against the floor where they writhed and struggled, spinning on their backs in frenzied circles.
We ran to the back door. We tried to shoulder it open, forgetting that it was locked. Michael wailed as the savannah monitor approached us, tongue flicking, curling claws scraping the floor.
Tony fumbled with the lock and threw the door open. We piled out, tearing across the pavement for our bikes. The monitor stuck its head out of the door, tasting the world with its flicking tongue. We rode off down the dark street, Elvis’s screeches following us.
* * *
By the morning, the town was full of the news. Almost every animal in Mr. Tierkling’s shop was gone. Only a few nervous parakeets and guinea pigs remained, found huddling behind stacks of knocked over merchandise, beneath the rows of bubbling tanks. Smears of dark blood stained the floor. A few rodents bobbed in the hissing water of the tanks, some with chunks taken out of them. They must have climbed up the wooden shelves and gotten too close to the edges, people said. They didn’t stand a chance.
A few of the animals had already been spotted around town. A gray lionhead rabbit had been seen out behind Giant Eagle, gnawing at a hunk of cardboard left out by the dumpster. A California king snake had been discovered curled on a lawn chair that morning, sunning itself. The savannah monitor had been seen out along 1193, tearing at a piece of matted road kill.
The police had looked for evidence of a break-in, had found the forced window. We had left no sign of ourselves for them to follow. Mr. Tierkling had no cameras, nothing to spot us. But it was obvious that it must have been someone who knew the shop, someone who knew where to look, someone who would think to turn on the games. And everyone in town knew that we were the boys to frequent the Mountain most—we were the regulars. Our parents sat us down, cried with us, scolded us, shouted and moaned, tried anything to wring the truth from our throats. But none of us spoke. We kept our mouths shut.
Eventually, it was Peter who confessed. He told his mother a few days after the incident, told her that he thought the animals needed to get some exercise, that he would let them out for a bit, just a little while. He didn’t mention the hunger we saw in them that mirrored our own. That they deserved to feel as free as we did. All he said was that he didn’t know it would get so out of hand. He hadn’t had any idea of what it would turn in to.
Peter’s mother sent him to his aunt’s upstate for the remaining weeks of the summer. At least, that’s what we heard. We didn’t hear from him until school began, and even then, he wouldn’t speak to us. He sat in the back row of the classroom, lingered along the edges of the blacktop at recess. We never tried to approach him.
Mr. Tierkling shut down the pet store a few weeks after the break in. Galactic Mountain went soon after that. He never confronted us or our parents, never pressed charges. We didn’t talk much about what had happened, didn’t like to think about Mr. Tierkling entering the shop that morning to find his animals frightened, gone, dead. A few of us met up after Mr. Tierkling had gone. We sat along the lake a few blocks from the Mountain, back in Tommy’s neighborhood. Tommy didn’t join us.
We threw rocks at the stagnant water in silence. We sat together until the sun went down, listening as the rocks plunked into the lake, sunk out of sight. Then we went home.
* * *
For what remained of that summer, we kept to the woods. We hunted for the animals, searched for traces of them, and sometimes got lucky. We spotted a few lizards, a snake or two, even saw a ferret dart into the hollowed body of an oak. We never managed to catch any. They were always a few steps ahead.
Michael swore he’d heard Elvis calling from behind his house one night. Roman said he’d seen him out by the highway, perched on one of the sound barriers. A few other people in town thought they’d seen him too, but he never seemed to linger long enough for anyone to snap a picture, never let anyone get too close.
Mr. Tierkling moved away about a month after the building closed. We didn’t know where, and we didn’t ask. We still biked past the skeleton of the Mountain, its parking lot even more forgotten and desolate, garbage and abandoned cars littering the lot. We kept to the woods, kept looking up.
For years afterwards there were mentions of animal sightings, but eventually they started to dry up. We stopped riding bikes and began driving cars. We scattered and drifted. No one bought the old building, no one tore down the neon sign or the plaster mountain that adorned the entryway. We stopped looking toward Galactic Mountain, began to no longer think on Mr. Tierkling or his animals, began to forget as best we could.
Ohio native and first year MFA student at Western Michigan University Justine McNulty teaches English Composition, is a volunteer reader for Third Coast Magazine, and received her MA in Fiction last spring from the University of Cincinnati. She has a story published in Confrontation Magazine and currently lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan with her guinea pig, Rory.