This is my second post for the Fierce Kingdom blog tour, by Gin Phillips. I am excited to share this exclusive extract for you below and it is a book I thought was gripping from start to finish. You can read my review of this novel here.
*Exclusive Extract – Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips*
Joan scans the sand pit for any forgotten plastic men, and then she takes Lincoln’s hand and heads down the path leading out of the woods. She wonders when he will stop wanting to hold her hand, but for now they seem equally happy with the arrangement. In less than twenty steps the trees have opened up – it’s only an illusion, the seclusion of this place – and there’s the sound of the waterfall splattering on the rocks in front of the otter exhibit.
The otter is one of their favorite animals, one of the few that will still pull Lincoln from his stories. The two otters have a huge cavern‐styled enclosure with faux‐rock overhangs, and the animals curve and flip and dive in a greenish pool behind a wide glass wall. The rocks jut over the walkway, and a waterfall rushes over visitors’ heads and spills down to a turtle pond thick with lily pads and reeds and some sort of purple‐flowered stalk. The wooden footpath that winds over the pond has always struck her as the prettiest part of the Woodlands – but now it seems only empty.
Lincoln laughs next to her. ‘Look at the otter. Look how he swims.’ He still struggles with words ending in ‐er. ‘Ott‐o,’ he says, instead of ‘otter’. Lex Luth‐o. Score a goal in socc‐o.
‘I like his paws,’ she says.
‘He has paws? Not fins? Real paws like a dog or finger paws like a monkey?’
She is tempted to stop and point out the anatomy of otters. This is what she wants most for him, maybe, to see that life is full of astonishing things, to know that you should pay attention – Look, it’s beautiful, he said, staring into a puddle of gasoline in the zoo parking lot – but they don’t have time. She gives his hand a tug, and he comes easily enough, though his head is slow to turn away from the otter. As they step onto the wooden bridge, lily pads to either side of them, she wishes that they would see someone else, some other chattering fam‐ ily also running late. Not that it’s unusual to have the path to themselves. They often see no one else all the way to the exit in the afternoon, and they are pushing it closer than usual to closing time. She picks up her pace.
‘Want to race?’ she asks. ‘No.’
‘You want to skip?’
‘No, thank you.’
He plods along.
She sometimes wonders if his determination not to do a thing is in direct proportion to the amount of enthusiasm she shows for it. He continues meandering along the bridge, pausing to shrink back from a gnat or to stare down at a speckled koi. He comes to a complete stop to scratch his chin. When she asks him to hurry, he frowns, and she knows by the look on his face what he will ask for.
‘I want you to carry me,’ he says.
‘I can’t carry you all the way to the car,’ she says. ‘You’re getting too big.’
She watches his lip slide out.
‘Here’s my compromise,’ she says, before this escalates and slows them down further. ‘I’ll pick you up when we get to the scarecrows, and I’ll carry you from there. If you can do a good job of walking to the scarecrows.’
‘Okay,’ he says, although his voice is wobbly and his lip is extending more, and he is starting to wail even as he moves his feet in time with hers.
She did not, it occurs to her, specify that he could not cry as he walks. He is technically meeting her terms. It is possible that he will cry himself out in a few seconds and get distracted by some passing thought of Thor’s helmet or Odin’s eye patch. It is possible that he will only cry more loudly, and she will give in and pick him up because he has actually walked quite a long way, uncomplainingly, on his small legs. It is possible that he will keep crying and she will stand firm and make him walk all the way to the car because she does not want him to turn into one of those children who throw tantrums.
Such a system of checks and balances – parenting – of projections and guesswork and cost–benefit ratios.
A dragonfly hovers and darts. A heron picks its way along the edge of the water. The wooden path cuts back and forth through trees and wild grass.
Lincoln has stopped crying, and she’s fairly sure he’s hum‐ ming the Georgia Bulldogs’ fight song – ‘Glory, glory to old Georgia! / Glory, glory to old Georgia!’ – although as soon as she finishes the thought, he switches to the Texas Long‐ horns. No one in their family is a fan of either team, but he soaks up fight‐song lyrics as he soaks up superheroes and villains.
He is a collector. He accumulates.
Through the trees she can see the tent‐like top of the merry‐go‐round. It shines white against the dishwater sky. They pass a chicken‐wire‐enclosed exhibit for a one‐legged eagle and a near‐invisible enclosure for a pair of egrets. There are dead logs and monkey grass and lime‐green weeds. She walks toward an overhanging branch, and one of its leaves detaches, turning into a yellow butterfly and weaving up to the sky.
Finally they are back on the concrete sidewalks, which are as wide as roads. Jack‐o’‐lanterns perch on the fence posts.
They take a few steps into civilization, and she glances over at the merry‐go‐round. It is still and silent; the painted giraffes and zebras and bears and gorillas and ostriches are frozen. Lincoln used to love the merry‐go‐round, although he would only ride a zebra. Now the carousel animals have rubber bats and tiny Kleenex ghosts floating around them, hanging from the wooden framework. She and Lincoln are close enough that the white canvas top covering the carousel spreads over them, bright and calm.
‘Mommy,’ he says. ‘Carry me.’
‘When we get to the scarecrows,’ she says, ignoring his arms stretched toward her. ‘Just a little farther.’
He doesn’t protest this time. They hurry past the merry‐go‐round, toward the food court and the Kid Zone Splash Park, with the fountains of shoulder‐high water still arcing onto the blue‐raspberry‐colored splash pads.
‘Medusa’s been here,’ Lincoln announces, and she looks beyond the spraying water to the shaded spot with the stone statues of a turtle, a frog and a lizard. These days, anytime they see stone figures it is a sign that Medusa has passed by. Spider‐Man has been here, he says to spiderwebs.
‘Those poor guys,’ she says, because it is what she says every time they pass Medusa’s victims.
‘They should have kept their eyes closed,’ he says, because it is what he says every time.
She glances at the darkened glass of the Koala Café, with its shelves of plastic‐wrapped sandwiches and Jell‐O and hard‐boiled eggs, but she sees no sign of movement inside. The plastic chairs are upside down on the square tables. The staff usually close down the restaurants and lock the buildings fifteen minutes before closing time, so she’s not surprised.
Off to their right is the playground with the rock moun‐ tains and swinging bridge. Once upon a time, Lincoln was interested in Antarctica, and the big rocks were icebergs. Then last spring he was playing knights and castles on the swinging bridge, yelling at invisible kings to bring out the cannons and to fill the catapults with rocks. Now that same bridge is always Thor’s rainbow‐colored pathway to Earth. In a year Lincoln will be in kindergarten and these days of superheroes will fade and be replaced by something she can’t guess, and then at some point the zoo itself will be replaced and life will have gone on and this boy holding her hand will have turned into someone else entirely.
They are making good time now, scurrying past the gift shop and the wooden cut‐out where a kid can stick his head through a hole and pretend he is a gorilla. They slow down by the algae‐clogged aquariums at the edge of the children’s area – Lincoln cannot resist looking for the giant turtle – and an older woman appears a few yards in front of them, just around the curve of the aquarium walls, staggering backward slightly. She is holding a shoe.
‘The rock’s out, Tara,’ she says, and there is a certain cheerful desperation in her voice that identifies her as a grandmother. ‘Come on, now.’
Two blonde girls, surely sisters, come into view, and the grandmother leans down, holding out the shoe to the smaller girl. Her hair is in pigtails, and she looks a little younger than Lincoln.
‘We’ve got to go,’ says the grandmother as she works the rubber sandal onto a small foot. Then she straightens.
The little one says something, too quiet to hear, even though they are all within a few feet of each other now. Several flies tap against the aquarium glass.
‘I’ll take them off when we get to the car,’ says the grand‐ mother, out of breath. She takes an off‐balance step, holding the girls by their wrists. The girls blink at Lincoln, but then the woman is propelling them forward.
‘That’s a grandmother,’ Lincoln says, too loudly, stopping suddenly enough that he jerks Joan’s arm.
‘I think so, too,’ she whispers.
Joan glances toward the older woman – there is a flowery chemical smell in the air, perfume that reminds her of Mrs Manning in the sixth grade, who gave her and no one else a copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins on the last day of school – but the woman and her grandchildren are gone now, already past the curve of the final aquarium.
‘If I had a grandmother, is that what she would look like?’ Lincoln asks.
He has been fixated on grandparents lately. She hopes it will pass as quickly as all his other phases.
‘You do have a grandmother,’ Joan says, tugging him for‐ ward again. ‘Grandma. Daddy’s mommy. She was here at Christmas, remember? She just lives far away. We need to go, sweet.’
‘Some people have lots of grandparents. I only have one.’
‘No, you have three. Remember? Now we’ve got to get going or we’ll get in trouble.’
The magic words. He nods and speeds up, his face serious and resolute.
There is another popping sound, louder and closer than before, maybe a dozen sharp cracks in the air. She thinks it might be something hydraulic.
They’ve come to the edge of a pond – the largest one in the zoo, nearly a lake – and she catches a glimpse of swans cutting through the water. The path forks: the right branch would lead them around the far side of the pond, up through the Africa exhibit, but the left will take them to the exit in a few less seconds. She can see the green‐and‐red flash of the parrots up ahead, unusually quiet. She likes their little island in the middle of all the concrete – a bricked‐in pool with a grassy mound and spindly trees – and it is always their first and last stop, the final ritual of every visit.
‘Start practicing your parrot caws,’ she tells him.
‘I don’t need to practice,’ he says. ‘I just want to see the scarecrows.’
‘We’ll have to look at them while we walk.’
A long row of scarecrows has been propped along the fence that circles the pond. Many of them have pumpkins for heads, and Lincoln is fascinated by them. He loves the Superman one and the astronaut one – with the pumpkin painted like a white space helmet – and especially the Cat in the Hat.
‘All right, sweet,’ she says.
He drops her hand and lifts his arms.
She glances along the fence, spotting the bright‐blue
pumpkin head of Pete the Cat. About halfway down the fence several scarecrows have fallen. Blown down by the wind, she assumes, but, no, it hasn’t been stormy. Still, the scarecrows have collapsed, half a dozen of them scattered all the way down to the parrot exhibit and beyond.
No, not scarecrows. Not scarecrows.
She sees an arm move. She sees a body way too small to be a scarecrow. A skirt, hiked indecently over a pale hip, legs bent.
She is slow to lift her eyes, but when she looks farther, past the shapes on the ground, past the parrots, toward the long, flat building with public bathrooms and doors marked employees only, she sees a man standing, facing away from her, unmoving. He is by the water fountain. He is in jeans and a dark shirt, no coat. His hair is brown or black, and other than that she cannot see details, but she cannot miss it when he does finally move. He kicks the bathroom door, his elbow coming up to catch it, a gun in his right hand, some sort of rifle, long and black, the narrow end of it stretching like an antenna past his dark head as he dis‐ appears into the pale‐green walls of the women’s bathroom.
She thinks there is another movement around the parrots, someone else still on his feet, but she is turning away by then. She does not see more.
She grabs Lincoln and heaves him up, his legs swinging heavily as he lands against her hip, her right hand grabbing her left wrist underneath his bottom, linking her arms.