"Hi Jim."

"Hi Isadora."

He was leaning against the door to the linen closet, like he usually did, wearing black slacks and a pressed shirt with green pinstripes. He was old-fashioned like that.

She, on the other hand, was a 21st-century phenom blazing her way down the hallway and into the bathroom, flushing her morning dose down the toilet and then tackling the stairs down three at a time. Jim waved after her.

Isadora's father looked up from the coffeepot, a thin line of worry creased between his eyebrows. "Did you say something?"

She just rolled her eyes in his general direction and ran out the door. The Failmobile was parked crookedly at the end of the driveway, rusty tailfins catching the light and turning it brown. Unclipping her nametag from the visor, she attached it to her shirt and peeled out of the driveway, Dad watching her from the kitchen and Jim watching her from the upstairs window.

The r in Oakbrook Hobbies was out, making it read Oakbook, which she personally saw as an improvement. Still, Susan was going to be on Zach's ass until it got repaired. Cherie was at the front desk, yelling after Isadora as she walked in the door. "Hey, can you punch in? I want to get out of here."

In the back, Susan the owner was yelling at her son Zach for something. She ignored it and punched in, waiting for Cherie to stop groaning and leave so that she could have some peace and quiet amongst the aisles of toys. The door, propped open, let in a wet summer breeze that rustled the leaves on the giant faux-oak tree that had put down rubber roots near the front of the store. The sound, coupled with the chugging and clacking of the toy train that wound its way around the track anchored to the ceiling, made an odd sort of background music for the weird old woman that appeared in the section labeled Thomas the Tank Engine.

After examining some pieces of wooden track with her wrinkle-encrusted eyes, she came forward and placed it on the counter. "How much'll that be…"she squinted at the nametag for a moment, "Isadora?"

Ringing it up, she said "Five dollars and seventy-three cents."

The old woman began to sort through her purse, and began angrily shaking it, making all the coins trapped on the bottom clank together. "My, one moment please."

She continued digging, muttering odd grunts as she came up with a few wrinkled dollar bills and a handful of change. "Hey Isadora! Have you seen the keys to the back case? Zach lost them again." Cherie's sensible shoes made muffled thumping noises on the industrial-grade carpet.

"Sorry, I haven't." She told her co-worker. Turning back to the old woman she was checking out, she found the space in front of her empty, the track gone, like the old woman had never been there at all. Isadora quickly deleted the invoice before anyone could look at the monitor, watching her co-worker's back warily as she took off after her shift.

Cursing herself mentally, she left the space behind the counter and began to straighten up the stuffed animals, knowing she should have recognized the woman before things could have gotten so carried away. Damn it. Damn it damn it damn it.

There was a loud clattering and tumbling noise that came from the back, and Susan emerged carrying a large box. Under its weight, she waddled to the front counter and set it down, reaching for a box cutter and neatly slicing open the packaging tape. "Isadora, could you vacuum and straighten up the craft section? Some guy completely screwed up the paint-by-numbers looking for a puzzle."

After that some fat kid asked "How much is the giant stuffed tiger?" to which she had to respond with the traditional 'It's not for sale. Though we could put you in touch with company that sells them in California. They run about $400" that was said to every person who asked about the life-sized stuffed tiger. And that was her morning.

The clock showed 5:53 pm, seven minutes before the shift change, the numbers on the display blinking every so often. She sat in the swivel chair and spun around once, twice. Pat shuffled through the door, early as usual, in his oversized red sweatshirt. His faded blue hair hung long over his eyes, and with his pale, nearly translucent-white skin, he could have been a breathing mockery of the American flag. Maybe that's the look he's going for today, she thought to herself with a small laugh.

He flopped his hand around in something that was supposed to pass as a wave, jogging towards the back of the store to talk about some schedule matter with Zach. A few minutes later, as the clock was perched on the tenuous edge of 5:59, he punched in and signaled-wordlessly, as usual-for her to take off. Sometimes he could be as tight-lipped as a defensive clam, but he would perk right up the minute a demanding customer walked through the door and made an ass of themselves. Pat had people-skills like that.

The sky was puffy and grey with low clouds that roiled and folded in on themselves, twisting into fantastic shapes.

Crap. She sprinted over to the Failmobile just as the sky broke open, dumping buckets of water and drenching her more thoroughly than if she had jumped in a lake. Raising the stubborn crank window with whip-like speed, she turned on the car and let it idle for a few minutes, letting Soft by the Kings of Leon finish on the radio before pulling out of the parking space and flipping on the headlights.

After a 3-hour binge of Eureka Seven, she set her laptop aside and closed her eyes. Her younger sister's voice had echoed up the stairs earlier: Don't normal eighteen-year-old girls go on dates and have lives on Friday nights? And Isadora's response echoed down the stairs: what's the fun in being normal? Damn prepubescent.

The clock said 3 am, but her body said it wasn't time to sleep yet; but in the end, she always let the clock win out. Isadora pretended that there was a dull heaviness in her limbs, that her mind was still, that her breathing slowed, and when she closed her eyelids, she could almost believe in sleep. Insomnia wouldn't let her alone. It was like a 90 pound girl trying to wrestle with a 280 pound Sandman, who was really quite sparse with his distributions of sleeping dust; the chance was so slim, and the battle so arduous, she sometimes wondered why she bothered at all.

A world without sleep was a bleary one indeed. So she passed the time in a blurry half-trance where the characters from House got up to their witty shenanigans and sometimes someone died, but hey, weren't they the lucky ones?

Those simplistic mental meanderings were shattered when a nine-year-old head stuck itself through the door, long platinum-blonde cornrows hanging down on either side, beaded ends clacking into each other. "Dad says to get up."

Isadora drew her arm across her sleep-encrusted eyelashes. "What time is it?"

"Ten," the head said, throwing its chin up as it said it, like a challenge.

"I'll be down in a sec."

"Sure." She wanted to shake the head's cornrowed skull until the bratiness in its tone came lose. The head closed the door behind it.

Out in the hall, he was leaning in his usual place against the linen closet. "Hi Jim," "Hi Isadora," went the traditional exchange, except this time she lingered for a moment, not having anywhere to rush off to.

"How goes it?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Well enough. The wife's been a bit of a pain, so it's good to get out of the house."

"So you're married then?" It was always good to know the back-story.

Jim broke into a huge grin. "Going on three years now. Matilda's pregnant with our first you see." He leaned in close, "She's a bit moody," he said, like a secret.

Isadora made a noise half between a loud exhalation and a laugh. "I hear pregnant women get like that."

"Jenny!" her father's voice demanded from the bottom of the staircase.

With a grimace, she turned away from her conversation. "Be seeing you," Jim said.

She couldn't help it. She laughed. "You know it."

In the kitchen, her father looked her up and down with exasperated eyes. "You're still in your pajamas at 10?"

"It's summer. I've got nowhere to be," she folded her arms, defensive.

"Well, you might want to change. I've gotten a last-minute 10:45 with Dr. Bardag."

"I thought we agreed I was done with Dr. Bardag?"

"Well, your sister tells me she's heard you talking to yourself again…"

"Dad, what the fuck? Doesn't everyone talk to themselves? It's kind-of sort-of NORMAL."

He just gave her a look that said, Not for you its not. "I still think the appointment is a good idea. An opportunity. I really think you and he were starting to make some progress."

An opportunity for what? For her to lie to (yet another) shrink? The one time she opened up to one of those bastards, she got put on the pill that turned her into a bad combination of the movies Little Miss Sunshine and Night of the Living Dead. Hence the toilet ritual.

Her father just shook his head. "Just go get dressed and we'll talk about it in the car."

In a bad mood, she changed into patented combo of fishnets and Lil' Wayne T-shirt and stomped down the stairs, indulging her urge to act her shoe size (8). Her father's (or as she thought of him when particularly pissed, Howard's) Prius had neatly navigated around the Failmobile's boat-like barrier at the end of the driveway, and was sitting pretty and environmentally sound.

Needless to say, the drive was tense; she attempted to (fruitlessly) lighten the mood by plugging her iTape into the tape deck and playing Pollywog in a Bog by the Barenaked Ladies. Although she sang along, it had little effect.

As they walked into the waiting room, she selected a seat directly under the strongest fluorescent light, so that lil' Wayne's gold-painted grille would sparkle just so. "In a puddle by the trail / flips its tiny tail / just like a great big whale / but smaller than a snail…"

She was just getting ready to go hardcore into the tadpole rap when Dr Bardag called her into the office, the look on his face obviously registering her as "Disturbed Youth." "Hello Isadora," he called her back, his voice a tad high.

"Hello." Her greeting came out as forced as a class of schoolchildren forced to greet their teacher in unison, Good morning Miss Etcetera. She went in and lay on the beige couch, eyeing the strategically placed box of tissues with distaste.

The doctor settled down into his overstuffed swivel chair. "So," he coaxed, "how've you been lately?"

Might as well barge through the door and get it over with. "I'm sure this whole thing is a misunderstanding."

His eyes widened a fraction of an inch, a bit unsure of how to handle someone who didn't dance around the subject like a drunken monkey. "What do you mean by that?"

My sister has it in for me, is what I mean. But she couldn't say that because he'd scribble down a little note that said Paranoia. "My sister and I have been in a bit of a tiff."

He lifted up a sheet of paper on his notepad, reading for a moment before letting it fall back down. "I would hardly call tripping her down the stairs and making her break her wrist a 'bit of a tiff.'"

Bitch was asking for it. Besides, that was almost a year ago. Between the two of them, there had been three concussions, a bruised ribcage and a tube of paste swallowed since then. But it wouldn't do any good to explain that. "Between sisters, that stuff fades pretty quickly. As of right now she's angry because I bought some new clothes" with her own fucking money "that I won't let her borrow. I'm sure she's just out for some petty revenge."

"So she's hitting you with the lowest blow," he said, nodding as if he agreed with what Isadora was saying about her sister.

"Mhm." She wouldn't say it.

"The schizophrenia." Goddamn it she hated that word.

"Yeah."

"It's not only your sister, you know," he said. "Your father is also expressing some concerns about your mental state."

"What? Does he think I've jumped back on the crazy train? Trust me, I'm sane as a clam." Wait, is that how that saying goes? Probably not.

"Still, he would like you to consent to a drug test. You know, to make sure you're keeping up with the proper dosage."

She puffed herself up, half with anger and half with bravado. "What the hell?" she soft-shouted, throwing her hands indignantly up in the air. "I'm taking the fucking pills and I'm rather quite pissed that my father doesn't trust me enough to believe when I say 'I'm taking the fucking pills!'" She slouched back on the couch and turned her gaze angrily away from Dr. Bardag's tightened jaw muscle and pulsating vein near his left eye.

The rest of the hour passed tensely, strained questions and snippy answers until he practically shoed her out the door and ushered her father inside. Settled back in her chair, Isadora looked down at her shirt. "Lil' Wayne, it would seem we are in quite the predicament."

Her one regret was that a hallucination of Lil' Wayne never came along.

When her dad came out of the office, he trailed Dr. Bardag with his tail between his legs, practically whimpering. He stopped at the receptionist's desk, shelled out the 10-dollar co-pay for the insurance company, and then they were on their merry way. In the car, it took him about five minutes to work up the words. "I don't see why you have to be so hostile."

She died a little inside. Not this argument again. "I don't see why you can't trust me."

"Maybe when you earn that trust I'll give it back."

"What the hell did I do to lose your fucking trust in the first place? Find out I was crazy? Yeah. I totally decided, 'you know, today I'm going to start seeing crap, have to take shitty medication, burden my family, and become a fucking shut-in."

"Don't try to change the subject. This isn't about that. You might want to take into account all of the crap you've done to your sister."

"She seems to have minimal qualms about doing the same shit."

"She's eight years younger than you," he said, as if this were definitive proof of her innocence.

"She's evil."

"Okay!" he said, pretty much shouting hysterically now. "Alright, I give up. She's evil, you're sane, and I'm a fucking fairy godfather. Everyone wins."

Isadora just put her chin on her palm, stared out the window and calmed herself down with Green Day. Worked like a charm. Until they got home anyway, and she had to take the headphones out of her ears. In fact, in record speed, her father was about to jump on the subject again, mouth poised open in an attractively absent gape.

She ran into the house, grabbed her crap and then swung out from the doorframe in an arcing launch towards the Failmobile. "Where are you going?" Howard called after her.

"To a place til a time," she opened the creaky door and flew into the cigarette-burned cloth seat in one fluid motion, starting the car with a little flourish. The boat gave a jittery cough, and for a second seemed like it was going to explode before jumping forward down the street. She waved a cheery goodbye to her hacienda in Little Mexico as she pulled onto the main streets.

She turned on her Bluetooth headset and called Jenny. Ah, unnecessary technology; you got to love it. Jenny picked up on the first ring. Girl lived with her phone glued to her forehead. "What's up!"

"I'm coming over."

Her friend didn't even hesitate. Sad thing was, neither of them had better things to be doing on a Saturday. "Okay. But my dad's walking around without pants on, so I think we're pretty much going to be confined to my room in order to avoid being scarred for life."

"Ew. Someone should tell him that fat and hairy isn't going to bring the chicks in."

"Dude, even my mom won't touch that thing anymore."

She laughed, a genuine vocal expulsion of air without a trace of sarcasm in it. "I'll text you when I'm there."

"Alrighty then. Laters on the Men-jay."

"Jobin," Isadora said before hanging up.

Jenny lived in a quaint little suburban cul-de-sac where all the neighbors were dutiful attendants of the annual Homeowners Association meetings, stopped their cars in the middle of the street to talk to each other, and whose children got drunk and did meth for kicks.. I'm here.she texted. Her signature With my final breath, I curse Zoidburg! attached itself to the message, and off it went.

Within twenty seconds of her parking the boat, the garage door was lifting and a miniature look-alike of Professor Trelawney was waving excitedly from between a silver minivan and a Grand Am. Living in the last house on the cul-de-sac gave Jenny a few advantages, one of them being a surplus of parking space.

"Hey Isadora. How rotates your pendulum?"

"Was that words?"

Professor Trelawney / Jenny shrugged. "Close enough." And on that sentiment, they went inside.

True to form, her father was wandering around in his underpants, so they kept their eyes fixated on the stairs, gaze never leaving the yellowed white carpeting until they were safely in the confines of her room, door locked before they entered through the hanging bamboo screen.

Dominating the room was an antique roll top desk (with the roll top broken off) and three bookcases along the same wall, stuffed with books, the overflow spilling into a puddle of books on the floor.

Isadora made her way over to the 49-gallon fish tank (situated on the shelf of a bookcase built into the wall) and looked down at the prickly face that stared up at her. The bearded dragon wiggled his way over to the glass, thrashing around and wiggling like a snake, having lost the use of his back legs in some unknown accident before Jenny had adopted him.

He slowly blinked his eye, the lid covering his massive black pupil and brown-red iris, before springing back up again as he quirked his head in a way that either meant Hello! or Food? What an odd, strangely majestic creature he was. She reached her hand into the tank and petted him along the spine. "Hello Merv."

Jenny sprung down on her sadly deflated beanbag chair and put her hands behind her head. "So what do you want to do?"

Looking at her friend on the floor, she shrugged and leaned against the fish tank. "I don't know."

"Fair enough."

Silence ensued for a few moments as Isadora kept unblinking eye contact with the lizard and Jenny flipped lazily through the August issue of The Writer. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is going to be on at eight," Professor Trelawney said to the air.

"That's a must," she yawned an slid to the floor, leaning against the cabinets of the built-in. "I don't know if I'll be able to hang out for that long before Dad decides to spontaneously be a good parent and decide I've stayed out past a curfew I didn't know I had."

"He being a bitch again?"

"He scheduled an 'emergency appointment' with Dr. Bardag this morning," she said as if it explained everything.

Which it did. "Ouch," Jenny winced. "What went down?"

"Douche wanted me to take a drug test to prove I was 'ingesting the correct dosage'" she said in her best snooty voice. "Or some shit like that."

"You're still flushing the Senokot, or whatever it's called?"

"First of all, yes. Second of all, Senokot is a laxative."

"Both will give you peace of mind!" Jenny chorused, as if she were in a commercial.

"Indeed," she laughed, half at the joke and half at her friend's stupidity.

After that, they wound up going to Family Video and renting movies. Mini's First Time (Great), Andy Milonakis Show Season 1 (A must-watch), Zach and Miri Make a Porno (Didn't get to watch it), and of course, Thunderpants (A Failtacular-a Fail so epic, it's almost a Win).

Inevitably, she ended up back at her own house (late at night, after her father would be asleep). Crawling under her own covers, with minimal expectations, she closed her eyes and waited patiently for the sun to come up. Unexpectedly, she slept:

A standard dream, really. There were mountains in the distance that looked vaguely breast-shaped, and she was standing in front of a gorge. Three unicorns stood on a rope bridge suspended over the gorge, and she could just make out one of them saying, We're on a bridge, Charlie! before her attention was snatched away by a homeless man wielding a shovel.

Agh! But before the smelly bearded man could attack, there was a shift in scenery, and Isadora was standing in a most un-standard of dreams.

There was a small hut, more like a large dog house, really, surrounded by tulips, rotting bits of flesh scattered amongst the flowers. And then, emerging from the black entrance of the house was a very, very large jaguar, albeit a blue one with gold rosettes. It yawned. "Hello?" he said. The voice was definitely male.

"Hi," she ventured, wondering how the hell she had ended up in this place.

"What would your name be?" the big cat yawned, showing yellowed fangs.

"Isadora." For some reason, now she wanted to yawn too. Well, they did say that yawns were contagious.

"Well isn't that lovely?"

"What's yours?" she asked.

"My what?"

"Your name."

"Oh? Yes….why don't you guess?"

"Uh…ok." She rolled her tongue around in her mouth for a few minutes before guessing, "Fluffy?" The cat rolled his eyes in disgust. "Trevor? Genghis Khan? Patrick Slam?" No, no, and no.

"Maj?" she threw out.

The jaguar rolled his red eyes and shrugged his shoulders in a gesture that clearly meant, Oh, why not?

"Maj, then," Jenny said more confidently. "Well, what are you doing here?"

"In your dream, you mean?"

She thought about it for a moment. "I guess it is a dream. Huh. Well, I guess that explains it."

"Explains what?"

"What you're doing here."

"Not really, I mean, couldn't I be some sort of childhood ghost? Or a subconscious effort to awaken your inner child?"

"Who gives a shit?"

"Let me guess: not you?"

"Bingo."

"Well, I guess I can't really keep you here, can I? Best be off, shouldn't you?"

"Sure." And with that, she faded back into her other dream, emerging at the point where the letter Y had just exploded.

The next night she was having a different (but extremely enjoyable) dream, involving characters from young adult vampire romance novels. They were right at the point in the saga where the dreamy vampire boyfriend is about to abandon his everlasting love because he "doesn't want to hurt her," and leaves her to befriend the werewolf.

Yet it was at that point that Maj the blue-and-gold jaguar strolled in, though he blinked surprised at Isadora when he saw her. "Hello," she said, annoyed.

He muttered something to himself. "Sorry," she shouted. "Didn't quite catch that." God, she thought. I sound just like my father,

He drew back his lip, pulling back his whiskers, annoyed. "Is it really your business what I said?"

"Since it's my dream, I would assume so."

"Claiming squatter's rights, then, are you?"

"It is my subconcious."

"Well then, I'll just meander off, shall I?"

"Feel free."

He stalked off, tail erect, and faded amongst the green vegetation, and she tried to get back to her dream, which of course she failed to do. She lay awake and stared at the ceiling for three hours until she could rise with the sun, chewing on the odd recurrence of the cat.

The trees blushed peach in the dawn light, her entire backyard glowing with the subtle glow of a pregnant woman. Stereotypical sunrise. The lighting could be a hell of a lot better, and whoever the hell wrote this scene needed to get sent back to Screenwriting 101. Whoever wrote her life needed to get sent back to Screenwriting 101. No, scratch that. They needed to be shot. In the face. Several times. Her thoughts were morose that morning.

She got dressed with minimal motivation, struggling to pull an angry dinosaur T-shirt over her head and sliding into some purple skinny jeans. Looking in the mirror on top of her dresser, she decided: Good enough.

Burrowing through her closet, she found the purse with her money in it and counted out the folded bills: ten, twenty, twenty three, fifty, eighty two, etc. The total came to around three hundred and thirty seven dollars, which was a lot, but nowhere near close to enough; she sighed and put in the inner pocket of another purse (the one she would be using that day).

A text sat on her cell phone, emitting forlorn beeps every once in a while. It was from Jenny: You ready to rock?

Oh yes.

But just as she was applying mascara, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at her chamber door. Before she could say 'Get the hell out,' her father had opened the door, and he stood there in shock for a few moments. "So you're up then," he said, scratching the back of his head with his fingernails. A few dandruff flakes floated to the floor.

"So it would seem," she said gallantly, waving the mascara brush around like a scepter.

"Well, I'm glad you're showing some compassion for your sister."

"Huh?"

He smacked his forehead with his palm. "Please tell me you remembered that we're supposed to go to the circus with your sister today."

Shit. "Why?"

"It's her birthday. She wanted to go to the circus, so we're going. Any questions?"

"Yeah. How come when I asked for money to take summer courses at the community college for my birthday, I get vetoed; but when the precious princess asked for a pony last year, you bought her one, and then when she got tired of it you just got rid of it?"

He threw his hands up in the air. "This isn't about you!" He walked out the door.

Isadora angrily ran down the stairs, without even pausing to say hi to Jim. She banged out the front door and walked to the end of the driveway, falling down into a squat at the curb in order to cool down. She texted Jenny: There might be a slight problem.

Her response came less than a minute later: What?!

My Dad wants me to go to the circus with my sister. It's her birthday.

Awwww. COME ON old man! This is the Barenaked Ladies we're talking about here!

Isadora laughed, typing, I know, right?

Please tell me you'll find a way out of it.

I'll try.

She flipped her phone closed and rose, heart rate slowed enough that she considered herself able to interface with her father without going into cardiac arrest. As she turned around, she heard a jingling. Her father stood in the doorway, holding two sets of keys: one was to the Failmobile, and the other was to the house. He also had her purse. The bastard. "You're going," he said, and pocketed both keys.

He left her purse sitting on the stoop, where the prepubescent looked at it, interested. Yet the nine-now-ten-year-old-girl scuttled off like a crab when her angry sibling swooped in and grabbed the bag, then climbed into the backseat of their father's car. She put her headphones in her ears and closed her eyes.

Only to have them opened three seconds later, to behold an orange pill bottle clutched between her father's fingers. Music paused. Cap screwed off. Two small pills dumped into her hand. Put in her mouth. A cup of water offered. Swallow, holding the capsules under her tongue. Spitting them out into her hand, hidden behind a yawn. Thrown out the window. They drove on.

The circus in question was The World's Greatest Fair, hardly able to be considered the greatest big top in the world. It was a sad little place, yet the prepubescent's eyes lit up and danced when they drove into the parking lot. "Can we go see the Big Top act, Daddy?"

"You don't want to look around first?"

"After."

"Alright then." They got out of the car and started walking, leaving Isadora like an afterthought. She texted Jenny: No luck.

The response was swift, setting her phone buzzing before she could even close it: fuck.

Her sister's giggles in the distance were high-pitched and grating, and their backs were growing smaller as their forgotten family member dawdled by the curb. Finally, giving up, she sprinted after them. The wind in her face tasted like stale popcorn and moldy corndogs. Isadora paused at the tent entrance, watching her family let themselves be swallowed by the gaudy tent, as father and daughter chatted amicably about lion tamers, ring masters, and trick-performing elephants. Shrugging, she turned away, letting frustrating father and superfluous sibling to wander.

Away from the big top, there were a series of buildings that housed a museum, a concession area, and one sign with flowing script read Menagerie. Interest piqued, she entered the dusky-dark place, inhaling the smells of hay, dung, and loneliness. She was reminded of stables, and riding lessons with Mom, the happy Mom, not the vengeful wraith that had stormed out of their household.

Behind velvet ropes and chain link, a ratty old lion was working his tongue through his matted fur; two giraffes leaned against each other like scaffolding, as if each were the only thing holding up the other; a few pigs flopped down in the dirt, deftly snuffling at the ground; and a lonely elephant rocked back and forth, back and forth, sucking on its trunk.

Isadora trailed a glance over these forlorn animals, then hurried on, not trusting the big-eyed, half-lidded gaze of the giraffes. At the back of the menagerie there was another chain link enclosure, this one with a raised wooden platform against the back wall. The platform was strewn with mangled stuffed animals, necks casually ripped open, disemboweled stomachs spilling fluffy white innards. And reclining amongst the dismembered plush, like a great toy himself, was a large cat painted with rosettes; in the darkness it was difficult to distinguish whether it was a leopard or a jaguar.

It flicked its tail rhythmically, lazily, looking haughty and vaguely bored. As if it were too good for this place. She felt an odd sort of kinship to it. She hopped the velvet ropes and curled her fingers through the silver chain link, seeking out the animal's amber eyes. "We aren't so different, you and I," she breathed.

Hearing her voice, the animal swiveled its ears. "My, isn't that a sad thing to say?" came a voice.

She turned and looked carefully over her shoulder, trying to figure out if the voice belonged to a flesh-and-blood presence or to a phantasm in her mind. "Hello?" she called out.

Fear licked its tongue up Isadora's back, raising hairs as it went, but she willed her feet and toes to sink roots in the ground and stay. Looking around calmly, she saw that no one was there. This was bad; she had not heard voices in the five months she had gone off her medication; she had counted it as one of her biggest accomplishments.

"Hello?" she asked again.

And then, lo and behold, the cat rose from its platform and stepped out of its shadows, and like a negative rising forth from the photograph actual, her dream inverted its colors from light background coat covered in dark rosettes to a rich peacock-blue undercoat and shiny golden markings. Fuck. What was he doing outside of her sleeping mind?

"How are you on this fine day?" Maj asked in a conversational tone.

"I would be a lot better if I hadn't run into you. What are you doing in the waking world?"

The cat shook itself and twitched its whiskers in amusement. "Is it my fault that you occupy different parts of your mind than everyone else? How can I know when I'm going to run into you if you go about meandering the parts of your brain that most people leave deserted?"

"That's hardly a definitive answer."

"Oh? What did you mean then?"

She decided to humor him. After all, she got into conversations with Jim, who seemed nice enough, for all he didn't exist. This newcomer seemed like he could be very interesting. "I mean what are you doing in my mind in the first place?"

He shrugged. "What's a lonely traveler to do? I was tired and had walked a long way, decided to hole up on someone's perception of the world, and your seemed the most interesting-very art deco, or is it more of a seventies revival…? Anyway, love what you've done with the place, got any good decorating tips?"

"What the hell are you trying to say?"

"What? You can't take a compliment?"

Isadora sat down on the floor and watched the jaguar through the fence. "You're one of the more interesting things I've seen."

"And what do you mean by that, little Isadora?"

"I mean that most of the others are fairly run-of-the-mill."

"What others?"

"You know," she said, stretching her arms behind her head, "the other hallucinations. Haven't you heard? I'm crazy." She laughed a bitter laugh, coughing it up like a crow's rough mirth.

Maj nodded, turning his head to and fro, as if looking at things only he could see. "That would explain all the birdcages, no?"

"I have no idea what you are talking about."

"Perhaps you need to take a closer look at your own mind?"

"Perhaps you need to get out of my mind."

"What's the phrase? 'Each in his own good time'?"

She leaned her head on her palm, starting to get irritated. "Why don't you just hop on the gravy train to funky town and get out of my life?"

"What's this now? Such witty turns of phrase? I've got it: you are poet laureate, aren't you?"

Isadora stood and brushed the dust from her ass, walking away and leaving the fantastical jaguar to mutter to himself; like he was the crazy one. Outside, the sunshine was searing to her corneas, and her pupils shrank away from the light like vampires. She wandered into the Big Top entrance, standing a safe distance away from the ticket seller so that they would know she had no interest in watching clowns throw pies at each other or seeing poor elephants jabbed with cattle prods.

Everything was alright, anyway. She could hear the final act being announced, so Pap and the Brat couldn't be too much longer. She leaned against a trash bin and watched the flies weave about drunkenly, wishing she were alone in her own head.

"My son was born today."

"Wow! Congratulations! What did you decide to name him?"

"We went with Nicholas." Jim was smiling wider than Isadora had ever seen him. He was one proud nonexistent father.

"That's great, Jim. But I really have to be getting off to work, so I'll talk to you later."

"Alrighty then," he waved cheerfully before abandoning his station in front of the linen closet, walking into the bathroom and out of her sight. She leapt down the stairs three at a time, hand lightly gripping the banister, palm slick with sweat; the incident at the circus three days ago had put her frayed nerves even farther towards the edge, whether she liked to admit it or not.

Spinning out the door like a dervish, she locked it behind her and fast-walked over to the Failmobile, leaning against one of the rusty fins to secure a trailing shoelace. Once the knot was secured in a pretty bow, she peeled out of the driveway, adding a new set of skid marks to the heavily blackened asphalt.

It was Pat behind the counter today, and she smiled at him as she walked past; he gave his patented floppy wave and continued labeling the new Rokenbok® merchandise, among other things. Punching in, she was cornered by Susan next to the time clock and accosted about her day. Where was she planning on going to college in the fall? How was her family doing? Wow, that's really great. There's a box labeled New PLY by the back door that needs to be unpacked and the merchandise put on the shelves. Oh, and she needed to wipe down the Thomas the Tank Engine®play table, because some kid was blowing mucus all over the damned thing earlier.

Hauling the box up to the front, she found Pat immersed in label sheets, peeling them off and sticking them to the ends of his fingers before applying them to the various boxes and packages. He looked up, and she could tell that at one point his hair had been a vibrant shade, not unlike that of Maj, before it faded. No, don't think about that damned cat.

He held up his hands and swiped at her, making bear noises, the flimsy white labels on his fingertips mimicking claws. "Hello to you too, Pat, o Lord of All Things Wild. When are you going to punch out?"

He shrugged, neatly thumbing a label onto a shiny purple bocks that claimed to "Grow mystical rock formations in just 30 minutes!" "Susan said I could go when I finished the labeling."

Isadora looked at the squalor of purple and yellow boxes around his ankles. "So I take it that you're going to be a while."

He peeled the last label off his left thumb, deftly jabbing it onto the box. "Not really. I finished most of it already-Zach made me reorganize the whole middle section to make room for this crap."

"Ouch."

"Eh. This is just the dregs. I'll have it done in twenty minutes-flat."

"Oh-ho, my boy, this sounds like a bet."

"Alright. I say that I can get this done in twenty minutes. Stakes: loser has to buy the winner a sushi platter from that new place that opened up four stores down."

Wow, sushi. Expensive. "You're on."

Pat smiled a manic smile and, like a flash of lightning, peeled more labels off the sheet and had them on the ends of his fingers, slapping them on boxes fast as a typewriter clacking away under the hands of a secretary.

She shook her head and grabbed the box cutter from the plastic bucket under the counter, neatly slicing the tape on the cardboard box and staring into the faces of obscenely cute plush toys neatly packed in cylindrical bags. Tearing open the bag, she held one of the lemur-puppy-fluff animals up for viewing. "Tell me this is not the scariest thing you've ever seen." She squeezed it, and it emitted a sound that sounded like a serial killer's giggle.

"I see what you're doing: trying to break my concentration. It shall not work."

She shook her head and ripped open more of the bags, lining the shelves of the stuffed animal section with the wide-eyed murdering lemurs. Finishing, she collapsed the box, only to look up and see Pat halfway through his pile, the labeled boxes neatly stacked on the counter, the waiting ones in an ever-shrinking puddle at his feet. Isadora took her empty box to the back and stuck it in the recycle bin, having quite some difficulty maneuvering it up and in. By the time she made it back to the front, Pat had finished labeling, and had even stacked the boxes into a triumphant pyramid.

"Done," he gloated.

Ah, but he had forgotten the loophole. "You said twenty minutes flat, correct?"

"Yes," he said showing his teeth in a smile.

"It's only been seventeen minutes."

He placed his hands on his hips, swiveling his head back and forth like a cockatoo. "Oh no you di-in't! You can't claim victory on a technicality."

"Why not? Technically, I did win."

He rolled his eyes. "Fine, but that's still a low blow. How about we go halvsies?"

She smiled, enjoying the thought. "Sure, sounds good."

He pulled a copy of the schedule out of his back pocket. He drew his index finger over to a Friday, and paused. "Looks like the next time we work together is the 18th. It'll be a busy day, so Tory and Rory will be working, but it should quiet down around 2. We could grab our breaks at the same and head over to Sushi City."

"Well aren't we Mister Has-a-Plan?"

"Well aren't you Miss-Comes-up-with-Crappy-Nick-Names." He grabbed a stack of the Rokenbok® and dragged it back to the shelves. When he grabbed the final stack, he said, "See you then," and ran to the back to punch out and grab his Mag (man-bag) before galumphing out the door.

"What's this now? It couldn't be a crush, could it?"

"Not really," she said without thinking, before snapping her head up and looking around for Zach. The voice had definitely been male. Oh. Shit. Not here at work, this could not happen here at work.

Silence.

Unnerved, she tidied up behind the counter, picking up ripped labels that Pat had left behind, and throwing scraps of paper in the trash.

"Weren't you taught to speak when spoken to?"

She looked up again, scanning from the giant plastic oak tree to the giant stuffed tiger; everything seemed normal. That is, until the tiger turned its head towards her and blinked, transforming itself into a massive Maj.

She ignored him, glancing towards the door to the back offices nervously. "Hello-o?" the cat taunted. She began to straighten the merchandise on the shelves, making sure everything was organized to look like they had the maximum volume of product. "Well now, this isn't very civil of you, is it?" Angrily, Isadora grabbed the vacuum cleaner and began to zealously attack the carpet, drowning out the cat. He was not going to get the better of her.

A few teenagers wandered into the store, looking for her coworker Tom. "He's not working today." They murmured various epitaphs of disappointment and meandered among the shelves.

The jaguar looked at the newly arrived company and threw his nose into the air with a humph noise. He met her gaze with electric red eyes. "Another time, then?" and disappeared.

She lay in bed, sweating. The light from her digital clock was a garish red. Creatures she couldn't see crawled around her ankles, cackling. She smelled smoldering rubber, and wind blown from a high place. The Things were back.

She couldn't name them, because sometimes they were only eyes, glaring amethyst from the foot of her bed. Sometimes they were only voices that came to her in the twilight lands that lay before sleep: promising torture in sweet voices, or murmuring conspiracies into her ear. They had started it all. They had driven Mom away.

They had come every night for two and a half months, until she had broken. One fowl punch thrown at her sister and after that: darkness. White halls. A gurney. Syringes. Screaming. And the slow ladder of therapists, the ascent out of madness.

Only to fall right back in again.

She grabbed her cell phone and frantically texted Jenny: What's up? She needed human contact. Sane contact.

Do you have any idea what time it is?

Sorry.

Nah its fine. Things're good. U?

Could be better, Isadora wrote. A lot better.

Do tell.

It's a long story and I'm delirious.

She could imagine Jenny shrugging as she typed: Whatevs. Have you seen my tarot cards anywhere?

Nope. She concentrated on the message, but the crawling feelings at her ankles intensified, continuing up her legs until she felt as if she were bathing in mealworms. It wasn't real. It wasn't real. The Things laughed, telling her that her sister was standing outside the door, listening to her squirm, waiting to tell her father that his problematic child was in a fit, needed to be put back in the mental hospital.

No!

She saw a flash of too-white teeth, like a Cheshire-cat apparition, then nothing. More laughing. Her phone fell from her fingers as she curled into a ball, bouncing against the floor with a thunk. She could feel their fingers probing up her spine, breasts, throat. Oh God oh God oh God.

"What have we here?"

She looked up to see gold patterns shining in the dark. A lithe shadow pounced on the source of one cackling voice, and she heard a sound like burnt flesh tearing. She saw red eyes and whiskers, and she ran for the door, slamming it behind her. She slammed the bathroom door behind her too, turning the lock with fumbling, shivering fingers.

She dug through the drawers, frantically searching for a glimpse of orange. When she had gone through two she spotted the medicine bottle on the counter, right in front of her face. She desperately pried off the lid and tossed back two of the pills, sticking her face near the water faucet and sucking down some water. She curled up on the bathroom's furry pink rug and fell asleep.

And woke with a killer kink in her neck; exhausted, sore, but content. She stood up and looked at her reflection in the mirror, wrinkling her nose at her hair. Raking a brush through it, she walked out of the bathroom and back towards her bedroom, where she heard the sound of birds coming through the window along with the grey predawn light.

She raised her hand to say hi to Jim, but he wasn't there.

Of course he wouldn't be there.

Isadora stretched, tired, and rolled her neck around to try and work the kink loose, but had little luck. Annoyed, she lay in her bed and tried to fall asleep, but her insomniac nature had taken hold, and she couldn't seep at all; instead, she tried in vain to count the bumps on her popcorn ceiling, losing track at seven thousand, five hundred and thirty two, when the sun rose. Her pupils slowly dilated in accordance to the increased light spilling through the window. Birds sang louder. She couldn't sleep. Might as well get up. Might as well.

She pushed herself up, sitting still for three minutes and forty nine seconds as she waited for the sun to reach her. She imagined a pretty flower perking up in the sunlight, and tried to bask in the glow, and suddenly be healthy, but to no avail.

Getting up and stretching some more, she noticed her phone sitting on the floor, and picked it up. There were three unread text messages from Jenny, all from last night.

Damn, you haven't? I could of sworn I saw them laying around your house.

Hello?

Did you fall asleep?

Downstairs, her father was already up and dressed for work, eating a cereal bar and gulping some milk out of the jug, then slurping some coffee out of his I wish I were dead mug. She had gotten it for him two Christmases ago. No wait, three Christmases. Yes, three. Somewhere in her head she was surprised that he still used it. "Hi," she said, voice neutral.

"Morning," he groaned, then paused for a second to look at her. After five seconds of eye contact in which she did not start an argument, he turned away warily. Maybe his daughter had come to some sort of realization last night. Or maybe the medication was finally kicking in. Either option was just fine by him. "I'll talk to you later." He swung his briefcase over his shoulder and started heading out the door. At the threshold he paused, adding, "Don't kill your sister."

"Will do."

She sat down in front of the kitchen television and watched morning news, and then midmorning talk shows, until her sister padded down the stairs in her pajamas, bleary-eyed and blinking profusely. "Oh," she said, stopping at the door to the kitchen. "You're up."

"And a good morning to you too."

Her sleep-encrusted eyes narrowed. "If you try anything…"

"God," Isadora muttered. "Don't be so paranoid," at which point she walked back up to her bedroom, leaving her sister scrambling for words, a comeback, a snaky remark, anything.

Not having eaten, she changed into shorts and a comfy, hideous T-shirt, and was pushing her arms through the holes when her phone buzzed on the bedspread. It was Jenny again. You there?

Yup.

Well what happened last night? Merv was worried.

I saw some stuff; it was no big deal, but it freaked me out a little bit. I decided I'm going back on the pill.

?-? Came the face that Jenny attached to her message. But I thought you decided that you were a bitchy zombie on your meds?

Better a bitchy zombie than an insane sociopath.

I thought you said you didn't mind being insane? That 'why be normal' crap and all….

Meh.

After a while the text messages stopped, and Isadora pulled out her laptop, logged onto the internet, and watched the final few episodes of Eureka Seven. Time for a new anime addiction (most likely Ghost in the Shell). Her eyes were starting to hurt, so she closed them and counted to one thousand; when she opened them, there was no pain left at all.

Looking down at herself, she realized she was still wearing pajamas even though noon was creeping near. Dressing, she texted Jenny: you wanna hang out?

Sure. Mom and Dad are out of the house.

I'll be over in a few.

On the way to Jenny's house, she swung by Family Video, renting season two of the Andy Milonakis Show. After Andy Molonakis had been popped into the DVD player, they watched in silence, giggling occasionally at his hilarious shenanigans. The Professor Trelawney look-alike kept giving her friend anxious glances, wary of this tame thing that had taken the place of her exuberant, moody best friend.

Merv thrashed his way up to the glass, impartial and wise-looking as always. He looked at Jenny and the meaning was clear in his eyes: Where the hell are my crickets, woman?!

"So," Jenny said as the credits started to roll in between episodes, "what exactly were you seeing that freaked you out so much?" The theme song started, with Andy looking at them angrily from the screen.

I rock peas on my head, but don't call me a pea-head…

"It's kind of hard to explain."

I rock bees on my head, but don't call me a bee-head…

"Was it the Things?" Her friend's eyes widened in concern, blue light from the television screen playing across her eyes like it did on windows.

Bruce Lees on my head, but don't call me a Lee-head…

"Kind of. That's what set me over the edge."

Now if you'll please excuse me, I gots to get my tree fed….

"What else was it, then?"

She opened and closed her mouth like a fish gasping for air, uncertain what words could describe Maj. "Well," You wear name brands, I make my own clothing, "there's this jaguar," I hang out with an apple that loves self-loathing…

And then she was telling all about the dreams, the appearances, the red eyes, the uncanny way he answered everything with a question. "So that's why you went back on your meds…" Jenny's perplexed look was easing its way off her face.

When life gives me lemons, I make beef stew…

A slight breeze kicked itself up, blowing through the window, stirring up Jenny's wind chimes tha hung over her bed. "My, isn't that a pretty sound?"

Professor Trelawney's head snapped up, hair gone wild as she turned her neck fast as a snake. "Dad?" she called. No answer. No one had spoken. Isadora, however, recognized the voice.

Despite her medication, she felt the advent of horror. "Please tell me you did not just hear that."

"I did not just hear that," Jenny exhaled suddenly, willing herself to believe it. "Who's there?" she called quietly, not really wanting a response.

Isadora raised her hand sharply. "Don't ask."

"Oh, my dear, why shouldn't she ask? She has nothing to fear, now does she? 'Curiosity killed the cat,' they say, but here I'm the cat, aren't I?" And then there he was, reclining on Jenny's bed, looking down at the two of them stretched out on the floor with mild disdain.

Jenny turned her head wildly. "Who's that?" Turning to see her friend's eyes fixed on something she herself couldn't see, she asked again, breath coming faster, "Who's that?"

Maj's electric red eyes were unfocused, or rather, it seemed, focused on something they couldn't see. "My, here I thought I knew where to expect you in your head, and you throw me a curve ball-you're a sneaky little devil, aren't you? Now you're right where most people are, except it's all…" he looked around, pressed his paw on something intangible, "spongy? Is that the right word? Or is it more of a springy texture…? Do you think 'confining' is a better word?"

"What the fuck do you want!" Isadora yelled at the cat.

He seemed taken aback, ears flattened as if he were offended. "My dear girl, I was just looking for a place to rest-is that such a crime?"

"Why did you have to ruin my life?"

"Isadora, Isadora…did you honestly think that I intended to cause you any harm?"

She crossed her arms, nearly blowing smoke out of her nostrils. "Sure as hell seems like it."

"I paused to rest, and I found you interesting and decided to stay and chat-are you going to fault me for that?"

"Most likely."

"And here I was, thinking I was proving to you that you weren't completely bonkers, and all you are going to do is yell at me?"

The silence was tangible, and Isadora reached hopefully towards the hope he dangled in front of her like a shining silver fishhook. "You mean I'm not schizophrenic?"

Maj laughed a luxurious laugh, vibrant blue and glorious gold coat rippling. "My dear, of course you're crazy-that's why the medication works, right? You're just not crazy all the time; am I making sense?"

Jenny, who had been silent in confusion and awe for the duration of their conversation, injected a thought into the silence that stretched out between the invisible jaguar and her friend. "That just makes things a whole lot more complicated."

He smiled with his sharp yellow teeth, and shrugged. "Who said life wasn't complicated? Whoever he was, he was notoriously mistaken, agreed?"

"Well, what do you want me to do?" Isadora said, muddled thoughts struggling to straighten themselves out.

"Girl, you can do whatever you want-can't everyone? Besides, don't you think right about now would be a good time for me to be making my exit?"

Jenny raised her voice. "Can she go off her meds?" she asked the air.

The blue jaguar raised his eyebrow. "That's her decision, isn't it?"

"I mean can she do it without getting attacked by the Things."

Maj's tone was quizzical when he said, "Isn't it in the nature of her condition to sometimes be set upon by things she can't control, things that frighten her? I'm guessing it will inevitably occur at some point, so 'will she meet the Things?' is not the correct question to ask, the correct one being 'will she be strong enough to face them?'"

That was the closest to a straight answer they ever got out of the cat, because then he stood up. "Well, ta-at my lovelies, but I really must be going, now mustn't I? I always do this: either overstay my welcome or come in danger of forming a bond of some sort or another, and I nearly did both-quite remarkable, no?"

He started to saunter off, the reality around him fading into a sort of corridor, so that Isadora saw past, no beyond Jenny's window, and viewed a long corridor of doors. In her peripheral vision she got the impression of a confining space, like a small locked room, like restraints tying you to a gurney. Turning back to her friend, she achieved a vibrant, fleeting view:

Birdcages, made of tapered gold wire, stout black iron, heavy steel, all arrayed endlessly in front of her. And the vibrant flashes of color: parakeets, parrots, cockatoos, cockatiels. It was like the bird section at a pet store, all vibrant colors and loud ruckus, ruffling feathers and small piercing eyes. Mom had loved these kinds of birds, and Isadora had watched her mother take secret delight when she saw wild parakeets making nests outside their house: bright flashes in a dark green climate.

The birds all watched her from behind their bars; and then it was gone. There was only Jenny, Isadora, and Merv indignantly attempting to win a staring contest with his owner, who paid no attention. Her friend was still looking around wildly. "Is he gone?" she asked in a whisper.

"Yeah, he's gone."

There was silence…Andy was attempting to give a loan to the pizza delivery boy that had come to his house. "So…" Jenny paused, as if uncertain. "Are you going to go off your meds again?"

"Maybe. I don't know. But Jenny, you know what?"

"Hm?"

"You have been witness to a momentous occasion."

"Yeah, I kinda sorta got that part."

"You can vouch for the fact that I'm not completely crazy."

"Glory Hallelujah!" Jenny threw her hand sin the air, attempting to be jovial, but clearly shaken.

"What did we miss?" Isadora asked, pointing to the television. "I think we skipped over the Lower East Side Dysfunctional Monster Gang Squad Family."

"You're right. I think we did. We completely missed out on Acid Reflex Charlie and the Not-so-human Stick." So they bantered, pretending that the fantastical thing hadn't even happened-at least for that night. Isadora thought about the money in her purse. Maybe she wouldn't run away to the city after all. She would figure it out eventually, don't you think?