“So this is what this place looks like,” Howard noted, scanning the posh party room with approval. “No wonder the waiting list to use it hasn’t gotten any shorter.”

The event he had in mind was gonna be legendary, if he could ever get management approval to reserve it. It had occurred to him that he might have been blackballed, but he tried not to dwell on his intrusive thoughts. His therapist always preached the importance of challenging the negative voice inside his head whenever it sought to drag him back into the muck.

“Thank you for coming in today, Mr. Botkins,” an attractive blonde in a red blazer and miniskirt said, gesturing to a throng of empty chairs. “Please, have a seat.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll stand,” Howard declined. “Sitting for extended periods of time makes my sciatica flare up.”

“Of course,” the blonde replied, sitting down next to a dour looking man in a rumpled suit and very bad toupee. He smelled like strawberry milk.

The slight frown that appeared on April’s face was quickly replaced by a thousand watt smile. She wasn’t accustomed to being told no.

“I’m sure you know why we asked you here today,” she resumed, crossing her legs and smoothing her skirt, drawing attention to her bright red nails. “As the numerous letters and citations we have mailed and posted on your door can attest, you have been quite the topic of discussion amongst your neighbors and the staff here at Briarpatch.”

“Quite,” the mothball sitting next to her added.

Howard turned to face him.

‘I’m sorry, but you have me at a loss,” he said. “I remember April here from my initial tour and lease signing, but who are you exactly?”

“Bartleby Jacobs, attorney at law,” the man croaked.

“Mr. Jacobs is the in-house counsel for Briarpatch,” April clarified.

“Is this about the music,” Howard asked. “Because I keep telling Stan downstairs that I only play classical to keep Steven company when I’m at work. I am always conscious of the volume. I never set it above three.”

“It’s not about the music, Mr. Botkins, it’s about the … wait,” April started. “You are supposed to be the only resident in your unit.”

“I am,” he confirmed.

“Then who is Steven.” she demanded.

“An emotional support tiger.”

The room fell silent. April’s frozen smile seemed to hold too many teeth. Any moment now, Howard was sure that her jaw would unhinge and reveal row upon row of pearly whites waiting in reserve should any in the front line fall.

“What,” he asked the apartment representatives with evident confusion. “I provided a doctor’s note when I moved in.”

“D-did, you say t-t-tiger,” the attorney stuttered. He had mastered his childhood speech impediment long ago, but it still showed up from time to time in moments of extreme distress. His left eye began to twitch.

“Oh relax, Steven wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Howard assured them, chuckling. “Do you really think they would let just any old tiger become an ESA? Anyway, sorry about the music. He gets antsy when I’m away. Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead helps him relax.”

“You can’t have a fucking tiger in an apartment, you psycho,” April exploded. Her chair shot into the wall behind her as she jumped to her feet.

“Woah, woah, woah, now,” Howard shouted back, hands up to ward off her words. “What did you just call me? A person in my condition? Do you have any idea how offensive that is? My attorney is waiting outside. One call and I could own this place, but I will settle for an apology.”

“Apologize, are you out of your fucking mind,” April screamed. The lawyer grabbed her by the wrist and shook his head once, silencing her.

She closed her eyes and took three deep breaths.

“I’m sorry I called you a psycho,” she said at last through clenched teeth. “We here at Briarpatch Luxury Apartments are an equal opportunity housing community committed to empathy, compassion, and inclusiveness for all.”

The lawyer relaxed his palsied grip on her arm.

“Apology accepted,” Howard sniffed.

“Mr. Botkin,” April resumed. “With all due respect, we have a strict ‘no pet’ policy here at Briarpatch-“

“Steven isn’t a pet,” Howard interrupted. “He’s an emotional support animal, which by law, you must accommodate.”

“Not if it violates both state and federal law, and puts our other tenants at risk,” April corrected. “The documents you provided with your lease indicated that you had an angel fish.”

“Oh, Ariel.” Howarded lamented. “Yeah, she died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” April said under the watchful eye of the attorney.

“It’s okay,” Howard assured her. “We didn’t really click anyway. She was kind of judgy. I just didn’t think I needed to get permission to swap out a dead support animal for a new one. It wasn’t really top of mind while I was grieving the relationship I wanted, but never had with poor Ariel.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal if you got another fish, Mr. Botkins. Maybe even a bunny. But a tiger?”

“Oh, I didn’t replace the fish with the tiger,” Howard chuckled. “Heavens, no. I’m a fish and reptile kinda guy. I only got Steven to help Pisces with his anxiety.”

“Who is Pisces,” April inquired, regretting the question even as she asked it.

“Pisces is my emotional support python,”

April was again rendered speechless. Her nostrils flared in horror beneath her arctic blue eyes.

“W-w-w-w-what k-k-k-ind of p-ython,” the lawyer stammered. “R-rosy? P-p-p-pigmy?”

“Burmese,” Howard boasted. “He really is the sweetest lug. It gets expensive feeding him, but rest assured, the goats and pigs don’t stick around the apartment long. And the thumping that Stan loves to complain about is over well before he starts banging on his ceiling with that broom handle of his. Is this a bad time to file a formal harassment complaint?”

“Trust me, I tried everything else,” Howard continued when he was met with silence. “Miniature donkey, baby hippopotamus, a very short giraffe … Pisces ate every last emotional support animal I brought home for him. I would have tried a salt water croc if I had a bigger tub. Steven was a last resort.”

“Your emotional support animal can’t have an emotional support animal.” April managed. She felt as if she were breathing through a straw.

Is Ashton Kutcher still punking people, she wondered. Is that still a thing?

If that’s what was happening here, Bravo. Mr. Kutcher.

“Well, my attorney says otherwise,” Howard retorted.

Just then the double doors to the room burst open. A tall, dark figure in a three piece suit strode confidently towards them, his highly polished shoes echoing on the porcelain tile floor with each satisfying tap. He held a patent leather briefcase in one hand and a business card in the other.

“Johnie Cockatoo, tenant’s rights advocate at your service,” he boomed in a deep baritone as he handed the card to April. She gave it a quick glance.

The tagline read: If the snake don’t hiss, you must dismiss!

She flipped it over.

And if it don’t constrict, you can’t evict!

“Cute,” she deadpanned as she passed the card to the slouched and twitching corporate attorney to her left.

The new entrant placed his briefcase on an empty chair and opened it with two loud snaps. He withdrew a single page and handed it to April.

“A letter from my client’s vet for his ESA’s anxiety.”

“It is this herpetologist’s professional opinion that Pisces would benefit from an emotional support animal to help combat anxiety inherent in a 6 meter python bivittatus confined to an 800 square foot apartment,” April read aloud.

“Sure,” She added. “Why not?”

“You can’t exactly prescribe a snake Xanax now, can you,” Cockatoo answered.

“Your client never even told us what his actual disability is,” April objected, casting a sharp look at Howard.

“Careful,” Cockatoo warned. “You don’t want me to give you the other document in my case, do you?”

He withdrew a much more substantial stack of papers and waved it in her face.

“You think Matlock here is up for a fair housing lawsuit,” he asked, jerking the thumb on his free hand in the direction of his counterpart. “Ask him what the penalties are for discrimination against a protected class on a per violation basis. That doesn’t even begin to address damages for the pain and suffering this harrassment has caused my client. It doesn’t stop there. I’ll subpoena your records from the last decade and go through them like a goddamned spelunker on methamphetamines. If I can’t find a hundred other disgruntled former tenants like my client here to join in a class action suit, well, my name isn’t Johnnie Cockatoo.”

He winked, returned the document to the briefcase, turned on his heel and strode out of the room. The clacking of his shoes on the tile seemed somehow even louder. The doors slammed shut behind him with a punctuating boom.

April and Howard locked eyes in the ensuing silence.

“Relax, Steven is agoraphobic,” Howard said at last. “He’s never going to get further than the balcony. I do want to talk to you about what accommodations can be made for his fear of heights, however.”

“So who was that really,” April demanded. “Friend? Co-worker?”

Howard let out a big sigh, realizing the jig was up.

“Character actor I found on Craigslist,” he admitted. “Had you going though, right?”

Her bright red lips peeled back in a predatory smile.

“We’ll be out by the end of the month,” Howard relented. “It’s for the best anyway. I found a two bedroom for the same price across town at Shady Cove. Gives me a lot more space for the exposure therapy my shrink wants to try for my arachnophobia.”

The apartment lawyer fell out of his chair and started flopping on the floor like a fish. Howard shuffled out of the room, grabbing at his hamstring.

Damn, sciatica.


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