The Zoo at the Edge of the World (17 page)

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35.

T
he first thing I felt was human hands gently caressing my face.

Then, sounds. A low voice moaned, “My boy, my boy, my boy, my boy, oh my boy . . .”

Then I saw chapped lips coming down over my eyes. Mustache hair tickled me as I was kissed again and again on the head.

And then the pain.

I coughed up thick black tar. My veins felt like they'd caved in. Each breath sent spikes all through my body. I tried to keep them short, but I was desperate for air. And so thirsty.

“My boy, my boy, my boy,” Father droned on above me.

I managed to raise my head and look around me. Behind Father I could see that we were surrounded by apes. Trébone stood chief among them, looking at me in awe. All the apes did. My vision was still foggy, and I blinked my eyes to clear it.

The Jaguar was there, standing next to Trébone.

Blood rushed back into my body, and I tried to sit up. My father was on top of me, weighing me down.

“L—lll—leave me!” I said.

“I won't leave you, my boy. I promise,” Father answered, mistaking my meaning. I summoned what strength I had and pushed him away from me. I saw the palm of my right hand. It was burned black like it been in a fire, and a horrible scar crossed where I'd cut myself that first night.

Father sat back into the dirt and I leaped up, racing toward the Jaguar.

“Marlin!” he purred happily, and raised up his head. I knelt before him.

“You're alive.”

The wound had disappeared from his neck. In its place was hairless, smooth skin. He laughed heartily and licked my face.

“What do we do with him?” asked Trébone uncertainly. The circle of apes had closed in on my father, waiting for orders.

I spun to them. “You're not to hurt that man!” I said, feeling power in my lungs. Trébone looked to the Jaguar, who made no objection. “He is my father,” I said. “And if you hurt him, men from the city will follow us into the jungle. They will try to kill us in revenge.”

The Jaguar turned to me quizzically.

I smiled at him and considered the circle of animals surrounding us. “I'll be coming with you.”

The Jaguar purred and showed his teeth. “Are you our protector now?” he asked, half joking.

At my feet, Father was breathing heavily. The Jungle Look was in his eyes.

I lowered myself to help him sit up. He glanced nervously behind me at the Jaguar.

“Marlin?” he asked, shaking. “What are you?”

I put a hand on his wrinkled cheek and wiped mud from his lips with my thumb. Out of my front pocket I took the shriveled Paw that I'd once prized so much. Looking at it now, I saw it was only the hand of a creature he'd killed. I pressed it into his palm and closed his fingers round it.

“I'm m-mm-more than I knew,” I stammered. “M-mm-more than I eh-eh-ever imagined.”

36.

T
he fire was smoldering down in the trees, and the Jaguar and I led a party of animals away from the peak of the pyramid.

A foghorn sounded, and through the clearing smoke I could see the
Saint of the Animals
entering port.

The Jaguar had told me to grab hold of his fur, and he leaped from stone to stone with me on his back. We descended the steps of the Golden Path at breakneck speed. The apes were opening all the cages, and the animals of the zoo stampeded behind us.

We found Kenji up in a tree, and the Jaguar scaled the trunk as though it were nothing. I picked her off a branch, and the three of us went crashing to the ground.

“What's happening?” she shouted.

“We're going home, Kenji,” I assured her.

Animals from all over the zoo were with us. We even took care to crack open the Snake House door for Dead Eyes. We led them through the Grand Gate in waves while the guests watched from the safety of the Great Hall.

Past the clearing and the stupefied sailors docking the
Saint of the Animals
, we ushered them all into the forest and watched as they disappeared by the dozen: elephants, tapirs, snakes, lizards, apes, sloths, armadillos, dogs, boars, all absorbed into the shaking trees.

When there were none left but Kenji and the Jaguar, I pointed across the clearing to the yellow wall of the resort and asked if we could scale it.

“Hold tight,” the Jaguar said. I clung to his back and Kenji clung to mine. He bounded forward and leaped onto the wall, digging his claws into the cracks between the bricks. I hung precariously from his hair. Kenji screamed, but I just laughed.

Once we reached the top of the wall, we watched. The Zoo at the Edge of the World was no longer there. The dying embers in the trees illuminated the pathways and half-burned buildings. But there were no animals in the cages along the path, no workers making their rounds. It was no longer a resort. Everything had burned away. The ancient temple still stood, littered with a few modern buildings that would soon be claimed by the jungle.

The guests had left the Great Hall and were bravely making their way through the Grand Gate toward the
Saint of the Animals
. They took nothing with them. I peered into the crowd and spotted Olivia with her parents. She was far away and looked small as a cricket. Still, I watched her stop and look in my direction.

Did she see me? I couldn't tell. She didn't wave or even stop for long. It made me feel that I hadn't fulfilled my promise. I'd told her she'd see me again. My heart pulled me toward her for a moment, but I ignored it.

She boarded the boat, and I wondered if we'd ever again be close enough to touch.

Then Father came into view. He limped his way to the dock, refusing the aid of a sailor. Everyone gave him a wide berth.

Ronan Rackham came to the jungle when he was fourteen and built himself an empire. Now, forty-six years later, he was leaving again, keeping only what he'd brought with him.

Nothing.

What would become of this place without him? Georgetown grew every day, and men like the duke had eyes for jungle riches.

Father never thought he had done anything wrong. He'd desecrated a temple to make use of it. He'd captured animals to care for them. He'd ordered Nathtam killed to keep what he had.

Father did love the jungle, and he wanted to be its protector. I couldn't fault him for that. But I'd learned something he never knew.

You cannot be a conqueror
and
a protector. You cannot preserve the jungle from men like the duke while being a man like him.

Father trudged up the gangplank and into the ship without glancing over his shoulder.

His life's work lay behind him in ruins, and he never looked back. Was that the Rackham way?

I decided to try it myself. I gave the Jaguar a pat and smiled at Kenji. Heaving myself onto his back, I gripped the Jaguar's fur as he gracefully descended the wall, stone by stone. Kenji bounced happily on my shoulder, and when we touched down on the clearing outside the wall, she pointed and cried, “The jungle, Master Marlin, the jungle!”

The line of trees was in front of us. The sounds of birds and monkeys formed a symphony. Beneath me, the Jaguar purred, and I squeezed him with my legs.

Then—as quickly as Ronan Rackham had walked out of the jungle, perhaps never to return—his son Marlin, along with a tamarin monkey named Kenji and a strange old black jaguar called just that, walked happily into it.

Acknowledgments

M
y greatest thanks to Nick and Matt Lang, who talked out this idea with me one late night in our college apartment nearly eight years ago, and in many more apartments since. Whenever people ask me for writing advice, I always tell them, “Find friends who write.” These guys are some of the best friends a writer can get.

My editor, Jordan Brown, is one of the smartest people I've met in this business, and his thoughtful edits pushed this book so much further than I ever could have on my own. If you don't believe me, write in and I'll send you some early drafts.

I'm so grateful to my agent, Erica Rand Silverman, and all the good people at Sterling Lord Literistic for keeping me going.

And, of course, I'm forever indebted to every member of Team Starkid for working with me, supporting me, and being my buddies.

My mom gave me my love of animals, and in return, I give this book to her. I hope she'll share it with every member of my human and animal family: Dad, Alyssa, Jade, Bowser, Willow, Megan, and Annie. I love you all.

This is my second book. If you'd like to let me know what you think, please email me at [email protected].

About the Author

ERIC KAHN GALE
is the author of
The Bully Book
, his first novel. He lives in Chicago. You can visit him online at www.erickahngale.com.

 

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www.AuthorTracker.com
for exclusive information on your favorite HarperCollins authors.

Credits

Cover art © 2014 by Vivienne To

Cover design by Erin Fitzsimmons and Michelle Gengaro

Copyright

Balzer + Bray is an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

 

The Zoo at the Edge of the World

Text copyright © 2014 by Eric Kahn Gale

Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Sam Nielson

Map art copyright © 2014 by Mike Schley

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.

 

www.harpercollinschildrens.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gale, Eric Kahn, date

    The Zoo at the Edge of the World / by Eric Kahn Gale ; illustrations by Sam Nielson. — First edition.

        pages    cm

    Summary: “Marlin, a stutterer, can talk smoothly and freely with the jungle animals that populate his father's zoo in South America—until a mysterious man-eating black jaguar that his father catches and brings back home talks back”— Provided by publisher.

    ISBN 978-0-06-212516-3 (hardback)

    EPUB Edition JULY 2014 ISBN 9780062125187

    [1. Human-animal communication—Fiction. 2. Jungle animals—Fiction. 3. Zoos—Fiction. 4. Stuttering—Fiction.]  I. Nielson, Sam, illustrator. II. Title.

PZ7.G13134Zo 2014

2014002144

[Fic]—dc23

CIP

AC

14  15  16  17  18    CG/RRDH    10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

FIRST EDITION

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BOOK: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
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