The Zoo at the Edge of the World (14 page)

BOOK: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
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28.

T
he empty capybara pen was made of thin metal rods. I unscrewed one of them from the frame and jammed it into the seam between the door and the wall. When I pulled, the rod bent. It was useless. Then I took the wooden stool from the staff room, raised it over my head, and brought it down on the brass door handle. I bashed it and the knob broke off, but the door still wouldn't open.

I didn't even know what I'd do if I got out. I wondered where the Jaguar was—long gone by now, I hoped. If I'd had it to do over again, I would have still freed him and still told Father I'd done it. But there was no way I would have stuck around for his reaction.

Father wasn't the man I thought he was. He loved the jungle, and what the duke had planned was terrible, but I couldn't comprehend what Father had done to Nathtam. The thought of it hit me hard every time I allowed it in. My father had killed a man—or ordered a man killed, which was no different.

And that made him a murderer. I'd always been frightened of that word and what it meant. It was a word beyond reason, living in shadows. But if I stayed in the light, I always thought, I'd be safe. Father didn't live in the shadows. He wasn't insane. He was a reasonable man, yet now he said he had reasons to be a murderer.

Night fell and the moonlight came through the windows at the top of the Snake House. They were open but too high for me to reach, even standing on the stool.

The snakes and frogs and lizards in their cases were quiet and still. I put my mouth to the glass and tried to talk, but they didn't answer.

Dead Eyes was there, just as quiet and motionless as the rest of them. The hills and valleys of his enormous body filled his cramped case in a messy heap. I tried to follow his body from head to tail, but I couldn't unravel him.

The
BANG
of a gunshot rang through the window at the top of the Snake House. The second gunshot I'd heard that day.

Faint sounds I couldn't make out came through in tiny peeps.

Screams. Far away, but they were human.

I ran to the door and tried to open it again. But the knob was busted, and the door was still locked.

The screams were louder now. I could make out a woman's voice, shrill and howling.

I picked up the stool and bashed its leg into the dent where the knob was, trying to bust through the lock. I rushed at it from the other side of the room and hit the door like a battering ram.

The stool leg cracked, and the seat hit my chest and knocked the wind out of me. The door didn't budge.

BANG!

Another gun blast sounded.

The screams through the window were shriller now. I pounded my fists on the heavy door.

No one answered.

 

“Master Marlin!”

A voice called from far away. I shot up from the stone floor where I'd crouched, my ear perked to the window.

“Master Marlin!” the voice rang out again. It was Kenji.

“Kenji! Kenji!” I screamed desperately. My fingers pressed against the rough brick of the walls, lifting me slightly higher so that I might catch a sound.

“Master Marlin!” Kenji appeared in the window above. I leaped back and pumped my fist in the air.

“Boy, am I glad to see you!” I said.

“Master Marlin, what are you doing in here?”

“Father locked me up,” I said. “He was the one who killed Nathtam.”

“What?” Kenji said, climbing down the wall and hanging off the bricks.

“It doesn't matter, Kenj,” I said. “What's going on?”

“The jaguar stole the keys and gave them to the apes.”

“What?”

“Master Marlin let him out of the cage,” Kenji said. “That was very bad.”

“But . . . Father was going to kill him.”

“And now he's going to kill your father,” she said. “He snuck into your house at night and snatched the keys. He brought them to Monkey Maze and said, ‘You with hands, split these up and let out the animals. Tonight, we take the jungle back.'”

That explained the shooting, and the screaming.

“Was anyone hurt?” I asked. “Were any animals shot?”

“There was no one left to do any shooting. All the guards ran away.”

“I heard a gun go off.”

“Your father got a gun. But the chimpanzees took it.”

“Is he all right?” I asked.

“All the people are heading for the Great Hall. They're scared.” She reached for my collar and pulled herself off the wall and onto my shoulder. “Kenji's scared too.”

A shadow fell over us.

I looked up to the window and saw the moonlight blocked by a furry silhouette. The muscled mass squeezed its way through the small opening and spilled out onto the ledge above. We retreated to the other side of the room, and I took the stool in my hand again.

“There's going to be another circus show,” said the shadow. “And this time, little Marlin, you're the star.”

Blue Boy the chimp was standing before us. His lips curled in a devious smile, and he stank of filth. His arm extended powerfully and dangled a small set of brass keys.

“Did you lose these? Or was that your father?” The chimp laughed. “You all look the same to me.”

I could tell from the shape of the ring that these were keys to the cages on the eastern side of the zoo. The Snake House key would be on that chain.

“I've been trying to find this little one, Kenji,” Blue Boy said. “Glad I thought to follow you!”

“Puh—Please,” I said, “let me go. I can lead the people out of here. They'll never come to the jungle again.”

“You can trust Master Marlin!” Kenji pleaded.

Blue Boy gave Kenji a withering look. “I did trust ‘Master Marlin' once, and he made me jaguar bait.”

“I'm sorry,” I pleaded. “That was a mistake! I didn't think he would—”

“Stay away from him!” Kenji shrieked, jumping between me and the chimp.

“I'm returning the favor,” he grunted, kicking Kenji into the wall. She crumpled to the ground.

“Please don't—” I backed into a row of display cases.

“Now, now, I'm not going to hurt you,” Blue Boy said, and his eyes shone. “But I can't speak for him.”

He gestured to the back of the Snake House, where Dead Eyes lay dormant behind his triple-thick glass.

The chimpanzee padded over and rapped loudly with his knuckles.

“You awake in there?”

He considered the keys on the chain and glanced at the lock below Dead Eyes's feeding chute. He tried to shove a key into the hole, but it was too big. He tried another that fitted but wouldn't turn. Then another and another, methodically.

I knew which was the right key, and when he slid it into the lock, I couldn't help screaming.

“Don't!” I yelled. “The Jaguar and I—we're friends. If I get killed, he'd—”

“What the jaguar doesn't know won't hurt him.” He laughed. With a flick of Blue Boy's wrist, the key released the latch, and the triple-thick glass of Dead Eyes's exhibit slowly, creakily swung open.

Moonlight filtered through and illuminated the terrible snake in all his greatness.

Blue Boy jumped up and down excitedly.

“And now the real show begins!”

I felt my muscles seize in horror, my body rigid with fear. I was fifteen feet away from a monster that could kill me in an instant.

“Take him, snake!” Blue Boy called. “Feed!”

The moonlight seemed to change from blue to yellow.

Or no, it wasn't the moon. It was the snake. He'd shot across the room and filled my vision with his swirling skin.

But he hadn't come for me.

Choking screams issued from the center of a tornado that his body had made. At the peak, I saw Blue Boy, gasping with his arms in agony, caught up in a death grip. The snake undulated up and down with the struggling chimp, wrapping his body around him, constricting.

I turned away and saw a glint of golden light. The keys had flown from Blue Boy's grip and clinked down at my feet. Kenji was reviving herself and climbing the bricks toward the window ledge. I picked up the keys and turned to the door.

The knob was smashed off, but the mechanism was broken only here on the inside. The door could still be unlocked from the exterior.

Blue Boy thrashed and gurgled as the snake lifted him higher.

I called to Kenji at the window. “Take these and let me out on the other side of the door.” I threw her the keys and she caught them without looking, fixated on Blue Boy's death rattle.

“Kenji, now!”

She pulled her eyes away from the horror and looked down at the keys.

“Kenji isn't strong enough to turn the lock!” she said.

“You have to try!” I shouted.

“Not strong enough!” she called, looking at Blue Boy as he went limp. “Kenji must go!”

“No!” I screamed as she leaped into the night. “Kenji, come back! Kenji—”

I froze midsentence. It was silent in the Snake House. Kenji was gone, and Blue Boy was no more.

It was only me and Dead Eyes now.

And, for me, Dead Eyes listened.

29.

I
tried not to look, but I couldn't turn my back on Dead Eyes either, so I ended up watching him swallow Blue Boy whole. There was almost no noise. Dead Eyes slowly loosened his jaw away from his skull and slid his mouth and face around the chimp like a sock sliding up a foot.

“This is the hardest part,” Dead Eyes said around Blue Boy's body. “My throat has become a bit sensitive in my old age.”

I didn't respond. The old blind snake bobbed his head back and forth slightly above the floor. It was the first time I'd ever gotten a good look at his face.

Black, pebbled skin radiated from his sharp snout, and small shadings of yellow and orange lurked between the scales. When he spoke, I could see the double rows of sharp teeth, one following the line of his lips like most animals', and one leading down his throat.

His eyes were withered and gray, lacking the strange glow most snakes' eyes had. They'd been scratched out years ago and were dead things now.

He was silent and listened for me to respond.

“You don't need to be afraid of me, Marlin. I do not care about a jaguar, nor your father.”

Again, I didn't respond. Without moving my shoulders, I craned my neck toward the staff room in the back of the Snake House. If the door was open, I could race there and slam it shut behind me.
Someone will come for me eventually,
I thought.
Unless everyone forgot about me and ran off. Then I'll starve there. But I'd rather starve than be snake food.

My neck muscles strained as I flexed them to their limits. I stared and squinted. The door was closed. I'd slammed it shut when I'd dragged the stool out.

Dead Eyes would be slowed by the meal still in him. If I made a straight run for the staff room, I could unlock the door and close it before he caught me.

But I'd need the keys for that. And I'd given those to Kenji, who'd run away with them.

For a moment, I cursed Kenji for abandoning me. But I couldn't blame her. This was my fault.

“Are you thinking that I'll eat you, Marlin?” Dead Eyes laughed. “But I am so full.”

His tail began to writhe and twist. Between his head and the lump in his neck, the snake was immobile. But the length of his body behind the digesting meal was still active and deadly.

“It seems as though the zoo is under new management,” he hissed. “I wonder if the monkeys will come to feed me after what I've done to their friend.”

Dead Eyes flexed his neck horribly and moved the Blue Boy–shaped lump farther down his body.

“It doesn't matter,” he went on. “This meal will last some weeks. And until then, well, I'm lucky to have you here, Marlin. You may keep me company.”

His back end slid toward me across the floor like a whip. I pushed against the top of a display case and lifted my feet as the tail swished under me. Silently, I touched the ground, toes first.

“I just want to get a grip on you, Marlin.” The snake heaved, growing angry. “You know I like a live feeding.”

Again, he swept the floor with his enormous body. He could have cleared the whole length of the Snake House if it hadn't been for the lump anchoring his neck. But he'd find me soon enough.

The thick, black body came sliding toward me. It was too fast this time, and I was forced to leap onto the display case, breaking through the glass lid. My hand squished into a lizard's food bowl, and the little creature nipped at my thumb. I yanked my arm out of the case and cut it on the broken glass.

“There you are!” Dead Eyes shouted, and flung the whole weight of his back half against me. It knocked me over to the shelf of lizard displays on the opposite side. The small end of his tail hung over the glass and draped down my shoulder. It sensed me immediately and curled around my neck.

I forced my fingers between my skin and his. I could feel the jerk of his body on the other side of the display shelf, trying to move the bulk of his body toward me, weighed down by the chimpanzee inside his throat.

I managed to get my fingers around his tail, and with all my strength, I was able to uncurl it.

The small end of the tail grasped for me like an arm, and the thicker parts down his body flexed and bent and dragged his top half nearer.

His midsection rose above me, thick as a tree trunk, and came down with all its weight, crushing me beneath it. I could not lift him off or roll away. He grew heavier on top of me.

“Marlin!”

A girl's voice screamed as the great iron door to the Snake House opened.

Dead Eyes's midsection tensed and slid away, launching toward the door.

“Ol—Olivia!” I shouted.

She stood there in the doorway, Kenji perched on her shoulder. She was in shock and stiffly held the key to the Snake House in her hand.

“Who's there?” Dead Eyes bellowed. He whipped all his weight toward the intruders, sliding toward the door where Olivia remained frozen.

I jumped to my feet, sprinted five paces toward Dead Eyes, and kicked him full force in the face. His head reeled back from the blow, and his jaw flailed horribly.

I leaped over three or four layers of writhing flesh and tackled Olivia, gripping the unbroken exterior handle and pulling it shut behind me.

Behind it, Dead Eyes screamed.

BOOK: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
2.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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