What started as a rumor, sweeping from one end of Cactus Country RV Park to the other like a tumbleweed, was now an immutable fact: the pigs were back.
From the playground, we children surveyed the evidence, marking what we knew on a crude map of the park drawn in the dirt with a stick. The javelina had been spotted three nights in a row by various neighbors out walking their dogs. We’d seen their small, heart-shaped tracks imprinted in the dry riverbed. Their poop was unmistakable, lumpy pellets strewn over the earth like busted rolls of quarters. The javelina would drink from the shallow birdbaths and eat seed that dropped from the feeders along the park’s barbed wire fence. That fence was meant to keep ranchers’ cows from wandering into the park, to protect them from getting hit by massive, rumbling class A motorhomes and trucks hauling long, triple-axle fifth-wheel trailers. But the javelina could duck under the fence, no problem.
The javelina were much smaller than wild boars, their closest animal relative. Up close, they had short, stocky bodies, with spiky black hair and tusks that gleamed white in the moonlight. I knew this because I’d seen an entire herd—six grown pigs and a few babies—crossing the dry river bed into the park when I was out walking my neighbor’s dog, Max, the night before. He’d barked a big game, lunging in their direction like they were a harmless colony of rabbits. But the javelina didn’t scatter. They stood their ground, glaring at Max as though daring him to come closer. He wanted those pigs bad. I practically choked him to death trying to keep him back, he tugged against his lead so hard. If he got free, I knew I’d never catch him. Those javelina would have taken him down for sure. I relayed the encounter to the boys at the playground, pausing for dramatic effect.
“So then what’d you do?” Brendan asked.
“I grabbed Max by the collar and pulled his ass back to the trailer,” I said. “Once they were out of sight, he forgot all about the pigs.”
“Damn,” said another kid. “It was close, huh?” I nodded. Already this season, the javelina had gored a couple dogs. They were protective as all hell. To get between a mother javelina and her baby was about the stupidest thing a body could do. But dogs didn’t know that. Most people didn’t either. The RV park staff had posted signs all over the bathrooms and the recreation hall library, telling people not to approach the javelina or leave food out where they could get to it. They had removed the birdbaths and seed, but this only encouraged the javelina to come further into the park in search of it. Sightings proliferated until the javelina were all anyone—adult or child—seemed to talk about. Neighbors crowded around picnic tables and swapped stories over morning cigarettes. Cactus Country staffers could be overheard discussing javelina diversion strategies over two-way radio as they scooted around the park in their golf carts.
They were nocturnal animals, so conversation among us kids always centered on who’d seen them the night before, and where. In the winter RV season, when the park was full of people, there were usually about six or eight of us; the exact number fluctuated week by week as families moved in and out of the park, driving their trailers onward to or far away from the nineteen acres surrounded by desert on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, where my parents and I lived year round. Cactus Country was a place of transition, with most folks staying only a month or two at a time before moving on. Some years, they came back; other years, they didn’t. During the time of the javelina, our group was all boys—or, like me, considered themselves a boy—between the ages of eight and fourteen. To us, the recent javelina sightings were the most exciting things that had happened all season. Though diminutive as far as pigs go, we played them up in our stories. With each retelling, the javelina seemed to grow taller and fatter. Their tusks became longer and sharper. Gradually, they acquired an unquenchable thirst for blood.
One of the younger boys, Ethan, swore on his mother that he’d seen one standing on its hind legs, peering through his trailer window to where he was sleeping on the couch. “Son of a bitch stared right at me,” he said. “His eyes were glowing red as the devil.” We gasped, cupping our open mouths with our hands. Holy fucking shit, we breathed, though we knew damn well Ethan was a liar. It didn’t matter. Nothing much happened in the park, and his story had exactly the kind of action we craved.
Plenty of kids might have boasted that they weren’t scared of the javelina. But there was only one person in the whole park who was bold enough to mess with them. Crazy Larry was a slender French-Canadian retiree with a short mop of wispy white hair, often stuffed under a ball cap. The first time we noticed him circling the outer perimeter of the park’s fence with a pair of binoculars, we thought he might be bird-watching. But didn’t he know all the seed was gone? The boys and I stopped our bikes to ask what he was doing.
“You ever heard of a luau?” Larry asked, peering through the binoculars.
“Huh?” I said.
“It’s a kind of party they have in Hawaii. They put a pig on a spit and roast it over a fire,” he said, miming a cranking motion. “If we caught a javelina, we could have a luau right here in the park. What do you guys think about that?” He looked at us expectantly.
We exchanged glances, none of us quite sure what to say. It was hard to tell whether he was being serious.
“Are you stupid?” Ethan blurted. He wasn’t being funny; it was a genuine question.
“That’s very disrespectful, young man,” Larry said. He returned his attention to the desert, waving us all away as though dismissing us from class.
“Is he stupid?” Ethan whispered once we’d pedaled out of earshot.
“Maybe,” I shrugged.
Every time I saw Crazy Larry after that, he had javelina on the brain. To anyone who would listen, he talked about digging a deep barbecue pit and what kind of seasonings he would use. The roasting would take all day, he said, and he would need volunteers to rotate the pig so it got cooked all the way through. He showed me elaborate drawings in his notebook, of javelina traps he’d devised. Once I even saw him skinning a long ocotillo branch into a spit, as if to have on hand at a moment’s notice.
“What do you suppose javelina meat tastes like?” he asked me one afternoon as I was out walking Max after school.
I wrinkled my nose. “I don’t know, gamey?” I said. Larry looked at me thoughtfully for a moment before making a note in his pocket-sized ledger.
“That’s a beautiful dog,” he added. Larry reached down and gave Max a scratch before heading on about his javelina business. Max looked up at me, tongue lolling from his open mouth. He was beautiful: a golden retriever with soft, sandy fur. Strong, too; it took all the strength I could muster in my scrawny thirteen-year-old body to keep him steady on the leash when he saw another dog or—God forbid—a rabbit darting back into the creosote bushes along the edges of the park. But I didn’t really mind. It was all part of being a good dog walker.
“C’mon, boy,” I whistled.
We continued along the fence, Max stopping to carefully sniff each of its poles, while I thought about the person Larry used to be. A couple years back, when I first knew him, he’d been a social drinker who was pretty good with a guitar. He and his wife were snowbirds from Oregon—retired people who came down to Tucson during the winter to escape the cold. Last year they’d hosted a couple of barbecue parties in front of their little camper trailer. The parties were a hit. All the adults stayed up laughing and drinking long into the night, while we kids hunted around the surrounding desert with flashlights. One boy dressed up in an old Halloween costume, wearing the mask from Scream, and chased the rest of us through the cacti. This was before the first javelina sightings, when the desert seemed safe enough to wander.
But last summer, Larry went hiking by himself in the Oregon wilderness and couldn’t find his way back. He spent three days and nights lost and alone in the outdoors, without any food or water, before he finally found his way out again. Other than being dehydrated, he seemed to be okay. But Larry was never quite the same after that. He became prone to going off on bizarre tangents, and had a hard time following conversations beyond the usual pleasantries. The few times I heard somebody quietly ask his wife how he was doing, her answer was always buried in a sigh. She still loved him; that was clear. But I’d heard the adults whisper about how he had become a handful and a burden. There would be no more barbecue parties.
As Max and I rounded the corner back to his trailer, I wondered whether Larry remembered the person he used to be. Maybe all this javelina business with the luau was his way of trying to get things back to the way they once were. Or maybe he was just nuts. There was no real way to tell.
I climbed the wooden deck steps up to Max’s trailer and knocked on the door to let Terry know we were back from our walk. Terry was one of Max’s people. He wore an oxygen tube for his emphysema, so it was difficult for him to get up from his armchair and answer the door, let alone take Max out for walks.
“Hey Terry,” I said, unhooking Max from his leash and pouring him a cup of dog chow. “You need me to come by tonight and take him out again?”
He nodded. “Lori’s working late,” he said. Lori was Terry’s wife. She was a generation younger than most of the other snowbirds in the park, and a professional photographer. Needing someone to come by and take care of Max while she was at work, she answered the ad I’d posted on the Cactus Country “What’s Happening?” bulletin board. It read: “Zoë’s Dog Walking Service — Reliable. Professional. Good with dogs.” I’d illustrated the sign with a drawing of me walking a dog, huge smiles plastered across both of our faces, and listed my family’s campsite number (#153) along with instructions to “ask for Zoë” at the door of our airstream. I agreed to walk Max every weekday afternoon when I got home from school, and again in the evenings as needed. In return, Lori paid me $20 a week, usually leaving the cash with Terry.
“Money’s on the table,” he said, pointing to a couple of folded bills tucked under a vase. He pulled a fresh pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his blue bathrobe and smacked it against the palm of his hand.
“That’s bad for you, you know,” I said. I knew his wife didn’t like him smoking.
“Well, I’ve already come this far, right kid?” Terry said, holding a lighter to the cigarette between his lips. “Can’t stop now. Then I’d be a quitter.” He smiled at me.
I liked Terry. He’d ask me about school and then regale me with stories about his own youth—the meals his mother used to make, his favorite subjects to study, how he’d gotten in with the wrong crowd as a teenager.
“That’s where I learned to smoke these,” he said, considering the smoldering cigarette between his fingers. When he wasn’t talking about the old days, Terry would catch me up on the latest episode of Monk, a show I’d never seen but that was his favorite.
I could tell Terry was lonely because of the way he’d talk and talk and talk. It occurred to me that, apart from Lori, I was probably the only person he saw on a regular basis. He hadn’t heard anything about the javelina herd, for instance. That night, I asked my mom if we could bring our dinner over to Terry’s trailer on plates and eat with him. She said yes. I dashed across the park and breathlessly told him my idea. My mom made pesto chicken and rice! She could bring it over right now! We could even watch Monk while we ate! Terry smiled, but said no thanks. He was still in his blue bathrobe—the same one he always wore. I’d never noticed how stained and faded it was, or how his trailer smelled stale and a little like a hospital. I hadn’t considered how my gesture, no matter how well-intentioned, might put him on the spot.
“Can I bring a plate just for you?” I asked, awkwardly. Terry shook his head. He wasn’t hungry, he said. I told him I’d be back after dinner to take Max out one more time.
“Kid?” he said as I turned to go. “Thanks. I mean that.” He smiled.
A few hours later, I returned with a boy named Patrick to pick up Max. Patrick was fifteen, lanky, and homeschooled. As the oldest kid in the park, he thought himself too mature to join the rest of us in our games and javelina lore. He was the only person I knew, other than Crazy Larry, who wasn’t afraid to go walking around at night during the javelina scare.
“They’re just pigs,” he scoffed, when Brendan and I told him Ethan’s story about the red-eyed beast stalking him through the window. Patrick was Brendan’s older brother. Though Brendan was twelve, just a few months shy of my thirteen, he wasn’t allowed to leave the family’s motorhome when it got dark. But Patrick went on a walk alone almost every night, and was always willing to join me whenever I was on dog-walking duty. I was glad for the company; I hated walking Max by myself so late. Even in the moonlight, the desert was dark—a black mass of sharp shadow and relief. Anything could be hiding out there. I’d heard stories from kids at school of people getting pulled into the desert by creatures called skin walkers, never to be seen again. Max was always hearing something in the darkness and growling at it, which was enough to terrify me.
But none of it seemed to bother Patrick. We’d talk about video games and all the girls he had crushes on back home in Maine. Other times, we’d walk in silence, listening to the hum of cicadas, or the whistle of a far away train. I admired the way Patrick could walk nonchalantly beside the darkness with his fists stuffed into the pocket of his hoodie. He didn’t believe in monsters of any kind, said it was kid stuff. And for an hour at a time, walking along the fence with Patrick, I could believe it, too. At least, until it was time to go home. Because then, alone in the dark, I swore I could feel the presence of something sinister in the desert. Following me. Watching me. Biding its time. Though I told myself I was imagining it, the feeling proved impossible to shake. That night, before bed, I was careful to draw the curtains of all the windows in my family’s silver airstream trailer, keenly aware that its thin aluminum frame was the only barrier between me and whatever lurked in the darkness outside.
The next morning, Crazy Larry came to the playground with a javelina-related announcement. He’d come up with a new song to the tune of “Hello, Ma Baby” and wanted us to sing it with him. None of us were interested, but Larry insisted we should all learn the words. “I’m not going anywhere until you kids sing!” he said.
“Leave us alone, Larry,” I said. “You’re being annoying.”
“Yeah, go away, Larry!” some kids echoed from their perches above the monkey bars. Since Larry didn’t behave like any of the other adults we knew, we didn’t feel the need to speak to him like one.
But he wouldn’t go, instead singing at the top of his voice: “Hello, my jav-eh! Hello, my li-na! Hello, my tas-ty pig…”
What began as a few kids trying to push him away from the playground quickly became a brawl, with one of the bigger boys practically shoving Larry to the ground. He caught himself and didn’t fall, but as Larry stumbled Brendan took the opportunity to steal the notebook from his back pocket and toss it to Ethan, who threw it back, monkey-in-the-middle style. Someone else snatched Larry’s hat from his head and ran away with it. Larry was getting upset, his lean face growing pink and flustered. “Stop that, boys!” he cried. “Stop that right now!”
“Get out of here, you crazy old man!” Ethan shouted. He ran across the street to the cactus garden and sunk Larry’s notebook straight into a sprawling prickly pear. We went on chanting at him to go away until one of the Cactus Country staffers came along in a golf cart and threatened to call all our parents if we didn’t leave Larry alone. He made Brendan return Larry’s hat, shooting us a menacing look before scooting away in his cart. After that, most kids retreated to the playground.
Larry hunched himself over the prickly pear cactus, trying unsuccessfully to whack his notebook loose with a stick. I knew there was no way he would be able to get to it. He was too old. I sighed and went over to him and crouched down in the dirt, sticking my arm slowly and carefully into the space between the cactus pads to retrieve the notebook. Fine, hair-like needles sprinkled onto my bare arm as I pulled the book from its hiding place. I plucked some of the errant spines from its cover and handed it to Larry, who took it silently, his expression unreadable, and left.
That winter season in Cactus Country went quickly. By April, the snowbirds had all flown north for the summer and most of the boys in the park had scattered across the country, back to the states they called home. My family and I were among the few who lived in the park year-round. Our lives shifted with the seasons. Tucson summers were harsh and unrelenting; the usually-temperate desert climate grew too hot to stand in the sunlight longer than a few minutes. To me, life really began in the winters, when the park was again teeming with people and there was the possibility of reuniting with old friends. So that next year, when Lori returned to Cactus Country with a new trailer in tow, I was excited to see Terry and Max. But they weren’t with her.
The story going around the park went like this: They’d been staying at a KOA campground in Utah. Lori was out at the grocery store. Terry had dozed off with the TV on and a lit cigarette between his fingers. It dropped onto his oxygen canister and set off an explosion with the force and power of a pipe bomb. The windows of the fifth wheel shattered, the glass blown out all over the street. Terry died in the blast. Max, too. The RV was in flames, and the fire department was called to put it out. Lori heard what happened over the telephone from a neighbor and, too late, rushed home to find the ruins of the trailer still smoking.
I sat on one of the swings in the playground, alone, kicking dirt around with my bare feet, trying not to think about Terry and Max. I hoped they hadn’t suffered. I hoped Terry had slept through the blast. Maybe they hadn’t known what was happening. Violent images flashed through my mind: blood spackling the walls of the trailer, skin and fur baked into the carpet, bodies engulfed in flames. I shook my head, as though I could get rid of the images if I disagreed with them hard enough. I could feel my face growing hot, my throat burning. My eyes stung. The tears were coming. I smacked my cheeks raw to try and keep them away. I didn’t want any of the other boys to come out and see me crying. I didn’t want to have to explain myself to them.
I was thinking about going to hide in one of the public bathroom stalls when I spotted Crazy Larry walking along the road in front of the playground. I didn’t call out to him, but he saw me and ambled over to talk about his latest javelina-related scheme. He had only been back in the park about a week, but he’d had all summer to think about his plan. No one had even seen a javelina yet this year.
“Do you really think you’re going to catch one?” I spat through clenched teeth, rubbing tears into my face. The way I said it was unkind, but I was suddenly furious and couldn’t stop myself. “It’s just so fucking stupid.” Larry was never going to catch a javelina. Of course there would be no luau. He had to know that. Adults were supposed to know how the world worked. But all Larry knew was how to tell stories. And they weren’t even the ones anyone needed to hear.
Larry stared at me as though for the first time, his mouth hanging slightly open like he wanted to say something but was thinking hard about what. For that long second, I could’ve sworn I saw a flash of the Larry I remembered in his eyes.
“I don’t know,” he said, softly. “It’s just something to do.” He took the swing beside mine and we sat together in silence for a long time, watching the broad sunset streak across the sky in hues of purple and red. It was the kind of sunset snowbirds would come out of their trailers in the evening to watch. They were supposed to beautiful here, like nowhere else in the world. I’d never really appreciated them. A sunset meant it would be getting dark soon. In a minute, I’d have to get up from the swing and go inside for dinner. I would wake up the next morning and go to school. When I got home, some of the kids I knew from last year—Patrick, Brendan, Ethan—might be back, or they might not. The javelina would return this season, or they wouldn’t.
I thought back to last winter, to Terry and Max’s final night in the park. The season was nearly over, then, with the Tucson spring well on the way. The air was warmer, even at night. Cacti were in various stages of bud and bloom. The javelina hadn’t been spotted in months, and the big talk surrounding them had died down considerably. Most kids, including me, took Patrick’s perspective and insisted they’d never been scared of those pigs anyway. But that night, as Max and I were heading back from our walk, a stray javelina lunged at him from under the deck stairs leading to his trailer. Max bared his teeth, snarling and struggling against me to fight back. I had to haul him up the stairs by his collar. The javelina retreated somewhere under the trailer. It must have gotten separated from its herd, I thought. The rest of them couldn’t be far behind.
“What was all that noise?” Terry asked. I hadn’t bothered to knock before coming in, and Max was still barking. I told him about the javelina. We checked Max all over for any broken skin, but he was okay. I poured Max his dinner and lingered for a long time with Terry, saying my goodbyes to both of them. But it was getting late, and I had school in the morning. My parents would be worried if I didn’t come home soon.
I stood on Terry’s deck and steeled myself for the run. From across the park, I could see our Airstream shining in the dim moonlight. I’d need to run past the playground and the bathrooms, and through a few campsites, to get there in the fastest way possible. I took a deep breath and vaulted myself over the side of the deck, hitting the ground hard. My bare feet stung from the impact, but I was too scared to care. I could almost hear the pigs galloping behind me, their hooves clicking against the pavement, the shrill squeal of their battle cries. I ran until my blood pounded in my ears and I was gasping for breath in the warm night air. I ran until I reached the porch in front of the Airstream and dashed through the door, slamming it behind me. My mom looked up, alarmed, from where she sat watching TV on the foldout couch.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. But I didn’t answer. I ran to the back of our trailer, to the large bay window facing the way I’d come, looking out to see how narrowly I’d escaped the herd. But it was pitch-black. I couldn’t see a thing.