James Van Pelt is the author of the novel Summer of the Apocalypse, and nearly 90 short stories, which have mostly appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, and Talebones. He also has two collections, Strangers and Beggars and The Last of the O-Forms and Other Stories.
Van Pelt had been writing a series of stories about slower-than-light ark ships fleeing Earth, when it occurred to him that he had generalized that the ark ship passengers were escaping from the “mutation plagues,” and it might be interesting to write about what was going on back on Earth. Thus, “The Last of the O-Forms” was born.
This story, which was a finalist for the Nebula Award, takes place in a world where there are no more normal births. Each and every one is a mutation–which is both good and bad for Dr. Trevin’s Traveling Zoological Extravaganza…
The entire text of this story appears here courtesy of the author.
The Last of the O-Forms
by James Van Pelt
Beyond the big rig’s open window, the Mississippi river lands rolled darkly by. Boggy areas caught the moon low on the horizon like a silver coin, flickering through black-treed hummocks, or strained by split-rail fence, mile after mile. The air smelled damp and dead-fish mossy, heavy as a wet towel, but it was better than the animal enclosures on a hot afternoon when the sun pounded the awnings and the exhibits huddled in weak shade. Traveling at night was the way to go. Trevin counted the distance in minutes. They’d blow through Roxie soon, then hit Hamburg, McNair, and Harriston in quick secession. In Fayette, there was a nice diner where they could get breakfast, but it meant turning off the highway and they’d hit the worst of Vicksburg’s morning traffic if they stopped. No, the thing to do was to keep driving, driving to the next town, where he could save the show.
He reached across the seat to the grocery sack between him and Caprice. She was asleep, her baby-blonde head resting against the door, her small hands holding a Greek edition of the Odyssey open on her lap. If she were awake, she could glance at the map and tell him exactly how many miles they had left to Mayersville, how long to the minute at this speed it would take, and how much diesel, to the ounce, they’d have left in their tanks. Her little-girl eyes would pin him to the wall. "Why can’t you figure this out on your own?" they’d ask. He thought about hiding her phone book so she’d have nothing to sit on and couldn’t look out the window. That would show her. She might look two years old, but she was really twelve, and had the soul of a middle-aged tax attorney.
At the sack’s bottom, beneath an empty donut box, he found the beef jerky. It tasted mostly of pepper, but underneath it had a tingly, metallic flavor he tried not to think about. Who knew what it might have been made from? He doubted there were any original-form cows, the o-cows, left to slaughter.
After a long curve, a city limit sign loomed out of the dark. Trevin stepped on the brakes, then geared down. Roxie cops were infamous for speed traps, and there wasn’t enough bribe money in the kitty to make a ticket go away. In his rearview mirror, the other truck and a car with Hardy the handyman and his crew of roustabouts closed ranks.
Roxie’s traffic signal blinked yellow over an empty intersection, while the closed shops stood mute under a handful of streetlights. After the four-block- long downtown, another mile of beat-up houses and trailers lined the road, where broken washing machines and pickups on cinder blocks dotted moonlit front yards. Something barked at him from behind a chain link fence. Trevin slowed for a closer look. Professional curiosity. It looked like an o-dog under a porch light, an original-form animal, an old one, if his stiff-gaited walk was an indicator. Weren’t many of those left anymore. Not since the mutagen hit. Trevin wondered if the owners keeping an o-dog in the backyard had troubles with their neighbors, if there was jealousy.
A toddler voice said, "If we don’t clear $2,600 in Mayersville, we’ll have to sell a truck, Daddy."
"Don’t call me Daddy, ever." He took a long curve silently. Two-laned highways often had no shoulder, and concentration was required to keep safe. "I didn’t know you were awake. Besides, a thousand will do it."
Caprice closed her book. In the darkness of the cab, Trevin couldn’t see her eyes, but he knew that they were polar-ice blue. She said, "A thousand for diesel, sure, but we’re weeks behind on payroll. The roustabouts won’t stand for another delay, not after what you promised in Gulfport. The extension on the quarterly taxes is past, and I can’t keep the feds off like the other creditors by pledging extra payments for a couple months. We’ve got food for most of the animals for ten days or so, but we have to buy fresh meat for the tigerzelle and the crocomouse or they’ll die. We stay afloat with $2,600, but just barely."
Trevin scowled. It had been years since he’d found her little-girl voice and little-girl pronunciation to be cute, and almost everything she said was sarcastic or critical. It was like living with a pint-sized advocate for his own self- doubt. "So we need a house of . . ." He wrinkled his forehead. "$2,600 divided by four and a half bucks. . . ."
"Five hundred and seventy-eight. That’ll leave you an extra dollar for a cup of coffee," Caprice said. "We haven’t had a take that big since Ferriday last fall, and that was because Oktoberfest in Natchez closed early. Thank God for Louisiana liquor laws! We ought to admit the show’s washed up, cut the inventory loose, sell the gear, and pay off the help."
She turned on the goosenecked reading light that arced from the dashboard and opened her book.
"If we can hold on until Rosedale . . ." He remembered Rosedale when they last came through, seven years ago. The city had recruited him. Sent letters and e-mails. They’d met him in New Orleans with a committee, including a brunette beauty who squeezed his leg under the table when they went out to dinner.
"We can’t," Caprice said.
Trevin recalled the hand on his leg feeling good and warm. He’d almost jumped from the table, his face flushed. "The soybean festival draws them in. Everything’s made out of soybeans. Soybean pie. Soybean beer. Soybean ice cream." He chuckled. "We cleaned up there. I got to ride down Main Street with the Rosedale Soybean Queen."
"We’re dead. Take your pulse." She didn’t look up.
The Rosedale Soybean Queen had been friendly too, and oh so grateful that he’d brought the zoo to town. He wondered if she still lived there. He could look her up. "Yeah, if we make the soybean festival, we’ll do fine. One good show and we’re sailing again. I’ll repaint the trucks. Folks love us when we come into town, music playing. World’s greatest traveling novelty zoo! You remember when Newsweek did that story? God, that was a day!" He glanced out the window again. The moon rested on the horizon now, pacing them, big as a beachball, like a burnished hubcap rolling with them in the night, rolling up the Mississippi twenty miles to the west. He could smell the river flowing to the sea. How could she doubt that they would make it big? I’ll show her, he thought. Wipe that smirk off her little-girl face. I’ll show her in Mayersville and then Rosedale. Money’ll be falling off the tables. We’ll have to store it in sacks. She’ll see. Grinning, he dug deep for another piece of beef jerky, and he didn’t think at all what it tasted like this time.
Trevin pulled the truck into Mayersville at half past ten, keeping his eyes peeled for their posters and flyers. He’d sent a box of them up two weeks earlier, and if the boy he’d hired had done his job, they should have been plastered everywhere, but he only saw one, and it was torn nearly in half. There were several banners welcoming softball teams to the South-Central Spring Time Regional Softball Tourney, and the hotels sported NO VACANCY signs, so the crowds were there. He turned the music on, and it blared from the loudspeakers on top of the truck. Zoo’s in town, he thought. Come see the zoo! But other than a couple of geezers sitting in front of the barbershop, who watched them coolly as they passed, no one seemed to note their arrival.
"They can’t play ball all day, eh, Caprice. They’ve got to do something in between games."
She grunted. Her laptop was open on the seat beside her, and she was double-entering receipts and bills into the ledger.
The fairgrounds were on the north edge of town, next to the ball fields. A park attendant met them at the gates, then climbed onto the running board so his head was just below the window.
"There’s a hundred dollar occupancy fee," he said, his face hidden beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat that looked like it had been around the world a few times.
Trevin drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and stayed calm. "We paid for the site up front."
The attendant shrugged. "It’s a hundred dollars or you find some other place to plant yourself."
Caprice, on her knees, leaned across Trevin. She deepened her voice in her best Trevin impersonation. "Do we make that check out to Mayersville City Parks or to Issaquena County?"
Startled, the attendant looked up before Caprice could duck out of sight, his sixty-year-old face as dusty as his hat. "Cash. No checks."
"That’s what I thought," she said to Trevin as she moved back from the window. "Give him twenty. There better be the portable potties and the electrical hookups we ordered."
Trevin flicked the bill to him, and the attendant caught it neatly in flight as he stepped off the running board. "Hey, mister," he said. "How old’s your little girl?"
"A million and ten, asshole," said Trevin, dropping the clutch to move the big rig forward. "I’ve told you to stay out of sight. We’ll get into all kinds of trouble if the locals find out I’ve got a mutant keeping the books. They have labor laws, you know. Why’d you tell me to give him any money anyway? We could have bought a day or two of meat with that."
Caprice stayed on her knees to look out her window. "He’s really a janitor. Never piss off the janitor. Hey, they cleaned this place up a bit! There was a patch of woods between us and the river last time."
Trevin leaned on the wheel. Turning the truck was tough at anything less than highway speed. "Would you want trees and brush next to where you were playing softball? You chase a foul shot into the undergrowth and never come back. . . ."
Beyond the fair grounds, the land sloped down to the levee, and past that flowed the Mississippi, less than a hundred yards away, a great, muddy plain marked with lines of sullen grey foam drifting under the mid-morning sun. A black barge so distant that he couldn’t hear it chug up-stream. Trevin noted with approval the endless stretch of ten-foot-tall chain-link fence between them and the river. Who knew what god-awful thing might come crawling out of there?
As always, it took most of the day to set up. The big animals, stinking of hot fur and unwashed cage bottoms in their eight-foot-high enclosures, came out of the semi-trailers first. Looking lethargic and sick, the tigerzelle, a long-legged, hoofed animal sporting almost no neck below an impressive face filled with saber-like teeth, barely looked up as its cage was lowered to the soggy ground. It hooted softly. Trevin checked its water. "Get a tarp over it right away," he said to handyman Harper, a big, grouchy man who wore old rock concert T-shirts inside out. Trevin added, "That trailer had to be a hundred and twenty degrees inside." Looking at the animal fondly, Trevin remembered when he’d acquired it from a farm in Illinois, one of the first American mutababies, before the mutagen was recognized and named, before it became a plague. The tigerzelle’s sister was almost as bizarre: heavy legs, scaly skin, and a long, thin head, like a whippet, but the farmer had already killed it by the time Trevin arrived. Their mother, as ordinary a cow as you’d ever see, looked at its children with dull confusion. "What the hell’s wrong with my cow?" asked the farmer several times, until they started dickering for the price. Once Trevin had paid him, the man said, "If’n I get any other weird-lookin’ animal, you want I should give you a call?"
Trevin smelled profit. Charging twenty dollars per customer, he cleared ten thousand a week in June and July, showing the tigerzelle from the back of his pickup. He thought, I may not be too smart, but I do know how to make a buck. By the end of the summer, Dr. Trevin’s Traveling Zoological Extravaganza was born. That was the year Caprice rode beside him in a child’s car seat, her momma dead in childbirth. In August, they were going north from Senetobia to Memphis, and, at eleven months old, Caprice said her first words: "Isn’t eighty over the speed limit?" Even then, there was a biting, sardonic tone to her voice. Trevin nearly wrecked the truck.
The crocomouse snarled and bit at the bars as it came out, its furry snout banging against the metal. It threw its two hundred pounds against the door and almost tipped the cage out of the handlers’ grip. "Keep your hands away," snapped Harper to his crew, "or you’ll be taping a pencil to a stub to write your mommas!"
Then the rest of the animals were unloaded: a porcumander, the warped child of a bullfrog that waved its wet, thorny hide at every shadow; the unigoose, about the size of a wild turkey atop four tiny legs, shedding ragged feathers by the handful below the pearl-like glinting horn, and each of the other mutababies, the unrecognizable progeny of cats and squirrels and horses and monkeys and seals and every other animal Trevin could gather to the zoo. Big cages, little ones, aquariums, terrariums, little corrals, bird cages, tethering poles–all came out for display.
By sunset, the last animal had been arranged and fed. Circus flags fluttered from the semi-trailer truck tops. The loudspeakers perched atop their posts.
The park attendant wandered through the cages, his hands pushed deep into his pockets, as casual and friendly as if he hadn’t tried to rip them off earlier in the day. "Y’all best stay in your trucks once the sun sets if you’re camping here."
Suspicious, Trevin asked, "Why’s that?"
The man raised his chin toward the river, which was glowing red like a bloody stain in the setting sun. "Water level was up a couple days ago, over the fences. The levee held, but any sorta teethy mutoid might be floppin’ around on our side now. It’s got so you can’t step in a puddle without somethin’ takin’ a bite outta ya! Civil Defense volunteers walk the banks everyday, lookin’ for the more cantankerous critters, but it’s a big old river. You got a gun?"
Trevin shrugged. "Baseball bat. Maybe we’ll get lucky and add something to the zoo. You expecting crowds for the softball tournament?"
"Thirty-two teams. We shipped in extra bleachers."
Trevin nodded. If he started the music early in the morning, maybe he’d attract folks waiting for games. Nothing like a little amusement before the heat set in. After a couple of minutes, the park attendant left. Trevin was glad to see him walk away. He had the distinct impression that the man was looking for something to steal.
After dinner, Caprice clambered into the upper bunk, her short legs barely giving her enough of a reach to make it. Trevin kicked his blanket aside. Even though it was after ten, it was still over ninety degrees, and there wasn’t a hint of a breeze. Most of the animals had settled in their cages. Only the tigerzelle made noise, one long warbling hoot after another, a soft, melodic call that hardly fit its ferocious appearance.
"You lay low tomorrow. I’m not kidding," said Trevin after he’d turned off the light. "I don’t want you driving people off."
Caprice sniffed loudly. "It’s pretty ironic that I can’t show myself at a mutoid zoo. I’m tired of hiding away like a freak. Another fifty years and there won’t be any of your kind left anyway. Might as well accept the inevitable. I’m the future. They should be able to deal with that."
Trevin put his hands behind his head and stared up at her bunk. Through the screen he’d fitted over the windows, he could hear the Mississippi lapping against the bank. An animal screeched in the distance, its call a cross between a whistle and a bad cough. He tried to imagine what would make a sound like that. Finally he said, "People don’t like human mutoids, at least ones that look human."
"Why’s that?" she asked, all the sarcasm and bitterness suddenly gone. "I’m not a bad person, if they’d get to know me. We could discuss books, or philosophy. I’m a mind, not just a body."
The animal cried out again in the dark, over and over, until in mid-screech, it stopped. A heavy thrashing sound followed by splashes marked the creature’s end. "I guess it makes them sad, Caprice."
"Do I make you sad?" In the truck cab’s dim interior, she sounded exactly like a two-year-old. He remembered when she was a little girl, before he knew that she wasn’t normal, that she’d never "grow up," that her DNA showed that she wasn’t human. Before she started talking uppity and making him feel stupid with her baby-doll eyes. Before he’d forbidden her to call him Dad. He’d thought she looked a little like her mother then. He still caught echoes of her when Caprice combed her hair, or when she fell asleep and her lips parted to take a breath, just like her mother. The air caught in his throat thinking of those times.
"No, Caprice. You don’t make me sad."
Hours later, long after Caprice had gone to sleep, Trevin drifted off into a series of dreams where he was being smothered by steaming Turkish towels, and when he threw the towels off, his creditors surrounded him. They carried payment-overdue notices, and none of them were human.
Trevin was up before dawn to feed the animals. Half the trick of keeping the zoo running was in figuring out what the creatures ate. Just because the parent had been, say, an o-form horse didn’t mean hay was going to do the trick. Caprice kept extensive charts for him: the animal’s weight, how much food it consumed, what vitamin supplements seemed most helpful. There were practicalities to running a zoo. He dumped a bucket of corn on the cob into the pigahump’s cage. It snorted, then lumbered out of the doghouse it stayed in, not looking much like a pig, or any other animal Trevin knew. Eyes like saucers, it gazed at him gratefully before burying its face in the trough.
He moved down the rows. Mealworms in one cage. Grain in the next. Bones from the butcher. Dog food. Spoiled fish. Bread. Cereal. Old vegetables. Oats. The tigerzelle tasted the rump roast he tossed in, its delicate tongue, so like a cat’s, lapping at the meat before it tore a small chunk off to chew delicately. It cooed in contentment.
At the end of the row, closest to the river, two cages were knocked off their display stands and smashed. Black blood and bits of meat clung to the twisted bars, and both animals the cages had contained, blind, leathery bird-like creatures, were gone. Trevin sighed and walked around the cages, inspecting the ground. In a muddy patch, a single webbed print a foot across, marked with four deep claw indents, showed the culprit. A couple of partial prints led up from the river. Trevin put his finger in the track, which was a half-inch deep. The ground was wet but firm. It took a hard press to push just his fingertip a half-inch. He wondered at the weight of the creature, and made a note to himself that tonight they’d have to store the smaller cages in the truck, which would mean more work. He sighed again.
By eight, the softball fields across the park had filled. Players warmed up outside the fences, while games took place. Tents to house teams or for food booths sprang up. Trevin smiled and turned on the music. Banners hung from the trucks. DR. TREVIN’S TRAVELING ZOOLOGICAL EXTRAVAGANZA. SEE NATURE’S ODDITIES! EDUCATIONAL! ENTERTAINING! By noon, there had been fifteen paying customers.
Leaving Hardy in charge of tickets, Trevin loaded a box with handbills, hung a staple gun to his belt, then marched to the ballfields, handing out flyers. The sun beat down like a humid furnace, and only the players in the field weren’t under tents or umbrellas. Several folks offered him a beer–he took one–but his flyers, wrinkly with humidity, vanished under chairs or behind coolers. "We’re doing a first day of the tournament special," he said. "Two bucks each, or three for you and a friend." His shirt clung to his back. "We’ll be open after sunset, when it’s cooler. These are displays not to be missed, folks!"
A woman in her twenties, her cheeks sun-reddened, her blonde hair tied back, said, "I don’t need to pay to see a reminder, damn it!" She crumpled the paper and dropped it. One of her teammates, sitting on the ground, a beer between his knees, said, "Give him a break, Doris. He’s just trying to make a living."
Trevin said, "We were in Newsweek. You might have read about us."
"Maybe we’ll come over later, fella," said the player on the ground.
Doris popped a can open. "It might snow this afternoon, too."
"Maybe it will," said Trevin congenially. He headed toward town, on the other side of the fairgrounds. The sun pressured his scalp with prickly fire. By the time he’d gone a hundred yards, he wished he’d worn a hat, but it was too hot to go back.
He stapled a flyer to the first telephone pole he came to. "Yep," he said to himself. "A little publicity and we’ll rake it in!" The sidewalk shimmered in white heat waves as he marched from pole to pole, past the hardware, past the liquor store, past the Baptist Church–SUFFER THE CHILDREN read the marquee–past the pool hall, and the auto supply shop. He went inside every store and asked the owner to post his sign. Most did. Behind Main Street stood several blocks of homes. Trevin turned up one street and down the next, stapling flyers, noting with approval the wire mesh over the windows. "Can’t be too careful, nowadays," he said, his head swimming in the heat. The beer seemed to be evaporating through his skin all at once, and he felt sticky with it. The sun pulsed against his back. The magic number is five-seventy-eight, he thought. It beat within him like a song. Call it six hundred. Six hundred folks, come to the zoo, come to the zoo, come to the zoo!
When he finally made his way back to the fairgrounds, the sun was on its way down. Trevin dragged his feet, but the flyers were gone.
Evening fell. Trevin waited at the ticket counter in his zoo-master’s uniform, a broad-shouldered red suit with gold epaulets. The change box popped open with jingly joy; the roll of tickets was ready. Circus music played softly from the loudspeakers as fireflies flickered in the darkness above the river. Funny, he thought, how the mutagen affected only the bigger vertebrate animals, not mice-sized mammals or little lizards, not small fish or bugs or plants. What would a bug mutate into anyway? They look alien to begin with. He chuckled to himself, his walking-up-the-sidewalk song still echoing: six hundred folks, come to the zoo, come to the zoo, come to the zoo.
Every car that passed on the highway, Trevin watched, waiting for it to slow for the turn into the fairgrounds.
From sunset until midnight, only twenty customers bought admissions; most of them were ball players who’d discovered that there wasn’t much night-life in Mayersville. Clouds had moved in, and distant lightning flickered within their steel-wool depths.
Trevin spun the roll of tickets back and forth on its spool. An old farmer couple wearing overalls, their clothes stained with rich, Mississippi soil, shuffled past on their way out. "You got some strange animals here, mister," said the old man. His wife nodded. "But nothing stranger than what I’ve found wandering in my fields for the last few years. Gettin’ so I don’t remember what o-form normal looks like."
"Too close to the river," said his wife. "That’s our place right over there." She pointed at a small farm house under a lone light, just beyond the last ball field. Trevin wondered if they ever retrieved home-run balls off their porch.
The thin pile of bills in the cash box rustled under Trevin’s fingers. The money should be falling off the tables, he thought. We should be drowning in it. The old couple stood beside him, looking back into the zoo. They reminded him of his parents, not in their appearance, but in their solid patience. They weren’t going anywhere fast.
He had no reason to talk to them, but there was nothing else left to do. "I was here a few years ago. Did really well. What’s happened?"
The wife held her husband’s hand. She said, "This town’s dyin’, mister. Dyin’ from the bottom up. They closed the elementary school last fall. No elementary-age kids. If you want to see a real zoo display, go down to Issaquena County Hospital pediatrics. The penalty of parenthood. Not that many folks are having babies, though."
"Or whatever you want to call them," added the old man. "Your zoo’s depressin’."
"I’d heard you had somethin’ special, though," said the woman shyly.
"Did you see the crocomouse?" asked Trevin. "There’s quite a story about that one. And the tigerzelle. Have you seen that one?"
"Saw ’em," she said, looking disappointed.
The old couple climbed into their pickup, and it rattled into life after a half-dozen starter-grinding tries.
"I found a buyer in Vicksburg for the truck," said Caprice.
Trevin whirled. She stood in the shadows beside the ticket counter, a notebook jammed under her arm. "I told you to stay out of view."
"Who’s going to see me? You can’t get customers even on a discount!" She gazed at the vacant lot. "We don’t have to deliver it. He’s coming to town next week on other business. I can do the whole transaction, transfer the deed, take the money, all of it, over the Internet."
One taillight out, the farmer’s pickup turned from the fairgrounds and onto the dirt road that led to their house, which wasn’t more than two hundred yards away. "What would we do with the animals?" He felt like weeping.
"Let the safe ones go. Kill the dangerous ones."
Trevin rubbed his eyes. She stamped her foot. "Look, this is no time for sentimentality! The zoo’s a bust. You’re going to lose the whole thing soon anyway. If you’re too stubborn to give it all up, sell this truck now and you get a few extra weeks, maybe a whole season if we economize."
Trevin looked away from her. The fireflies still flickered above the river. "I’ll have to make some decisions," he said heavily.
She held out the notebook. "I’ve already made them. This is what will fit in one semi-trailer. I already let Hardy and the roustabouts go with a severance check, postdated."
"What about the gear, cages?"
"The county dump is north of here."
Was that a note of triumph he detected in her voice? Trevin took the notebook. She dropped her hands to her side, chin up, staring at him. The zoo’s lights cast long shadows across her face. I could kick her, he thought, and for a second his leg trembled with the idea of it.
He tucked the notebook under his arm. "Go to bed."
Caprice opened her mouth, then clamped it shut on whatever she might have said. She turned away.
Long after she’d vanished into the cab, Trevin sat on the stool, elbow on his knee, chin in his hand, watching insects circle the lights. The tigerzelle squatted on its haunches, alert, looking toward the river. Trevin remembered a ghastly cartoon he’d seen once. A couple of crones sat on the seat of a wagon full of bodies. The one holding the reins turned to the other and said, "You know, once the plague is over, we’re out of a job."
The tigerzelle rose to its feet, focusing on the river. It paced intently in its cage, never turning its head from the darkness. Trevin straightened. What did it see out there? For a long moment, the tableau remained the same: insects swirled around the lights, which buzzed softly, highlighting the cages; shining metal against the enveloping spring night, the pacing tigerzelle, the ticket counter’s polished wood against Trevin’s hand, and the Mississippi’s pungent murmuring in the background.
Beyond the cages, from the river, a piece of blackness detached itself from the night. Trevin blinked in fascinated paralysis, all the hairs dancing on the back of his neck. The short-armed creature stood taller than a man, surveyed the zoo, then dropped to all fours like a bear, except that its skin gleamed with salamander wetness. Its triangular head sniffed at the ground, moving over the moist dirt as if following a scent. When it reached the first cage, a small one that held the weaselsnake, the river creature lifted its forelegs off the ground, grasping the cage in web-fingered claws. In an instant, the cage was unrecognizable, and the weaselsnake was gone.
"Hey!" Trevin yelled, shaking off his stupor. The creature looked at him. Reaching under the ticket counter, Trevin grabbed the baseball bat and advanced. The monster turned away to pick up the next cage. Trevin’s face flushed "No, no, no, damn it!" He stepped forward again, stepped again, and suddenly he was running, bat held overhead. "Get away! Get away!" He brought the bat down on the animal’s shoulder with a meaty whump.
Trevin fell back, dropping the bat to cover his ears. It shrieked again, loud as a train whistle. For a dozen heartbeats, it stood above him, claws extended, then it seemed to lose interest and moved to the next cage, dismantling it with one jerk on the bars.
His ears ringing, Trevin snatched the bat off the ground and waded in, swinging. On its rear legs, the monster bared its teeth, dozens of glinting needles in the triangular jaw. Trevin nailed the creature in the side. It folded with surprising flexibility, backing away, claws distended, snarling in a deafening roar. Trevin swung. Missed. The monster swiped at his leg, ripping his pants and almost jerking his feet out from under him.
The thing moved clumsily, backing down the hill toward the levee fence as Trevin swung again. Missed. It howled, tried to circle around him. Trevin scuttled sideways, careful of his balance on the slick dirt. If he should fall! The thing charged, mouth open, but pulled back like a threatened dog when Trevin raised the bat. He breathed in short gasps, poked the bat’s end at it, always shepherding it away from the zoo. Behind him, a police siren sounded, and car engines roared, but he didn’t dare look around. He could only stalk and keep his bat at the ready.
After a long series of feints, its back to the fence, the nightmare stopped, hunched its back, and began to rise just as Trevin brought the bat down in a two-handed, over-the-head chop. Through the bat, he felt the skull crunch, and the creature dropped into a shuddery mass in the mud. Trevin, his pulse pounding, swayed for a moment, then sat beside the beast.
Up the hill, under the zoo’s lights, people shouted into the darkness. Were they ball players? Town people? A police cruiser’s lights blinked blue then red, and three or four cars, headlights on, were parked near the trucks. Obviously they couldn’t see him, but he was too tired to call. Ignoring the wet ground, he lay back.
The dead creature smelled of blood and river mud. Trevin rested a foot on it, almost sorry that it was dead. If he could have captured it, what an addition it would have made to the zoo! Gradually, the heavy beat in his chest calmed. The mud felt soft and warm. Overhead, the clouds thinned a bit, scudding across the full moon.
At the zoo, there was talking. Trevin craned his head around to see. People jostled about, and flashlights cut through the air. They started down the hill. Trevin sighed. He hadn’t saved the zoo, not really. Tomorrow would come and they’d leave one of the trucks behind. In a couple of months, it would all be gone, the other truck, the animals–he was most sorry about the tigerzelle–the pulling into town with music blaring and flags flapping and people lined up to see the menagerie. No more reason to wear the zoo-master’s uniform with its beautiful gold epaulets. Newsweek would never interview him again. It was all gone. If he could only sink into the mud and disappear, then he wouldn’t have to watch the dissolving of his own life.
He sat up so that they wouldn’t think he was dead; waved a hand when the first flashlight found him. Mud dripped from his jacket. The policemen arrived first.
"God almighty, that’s a big one!" The cop trained his light on the river creature.
"Told you the fences warn’t no good," said the other.
Everyone stayed back except the police. The first cop turned the corpse over. Laying on its back, its little arms flopped to the side, it didn’t look nearly as big or intimidating. More folk arrived: some townies he didn’t recognize, the old couple from the farmhouse across the ball fields, and finally, Caprice, the flashlight looking almost too big for her to carry.
The first cop knelt next to the creature, shoved his hat up off his forehead, then said low enough that Trevin guessed that only the other cop could hear him, "Hey, doesn’t this look like the Andersons’ kid? They said they’d smothered him."
"He wasn’t half that big, but I think you’re right." The other cop threw a coat over the creature’s face, then stood for a long time looking down at it. "Don’t say anything to them, all right? Maggie Anderson is my wife’s cousin."
"Nothing here to see, people," announced the first cop in a much louder voice. "This is a dead ’un. Y’all can head back home."
But the crowd’s attention wasn’t on them anymore. The flashlights turned on Caprice.
"It’s a baby girl!" someone said, and they moved closer.
Caprice shined her flashlight from one face to the other. Then, desperation on her face, she ran clumsily to Trevin, burying her face in his chest.
"What are we going to do?" she whispered.
"Quiet. Play along." Trevin stroked the back of her head, then stood. A sharp twinge in his leg told him he’d pulled something. The world was all bright lights, and he couldn’t cover his eyes. He squinted against them.
"Is that your girl, mister?" someone said.
Trevin gripped her closer. Her little hands fisted in his coat.
"I haven’t seen a child in ten years," said another voice. The flashlights moved in closer.
The old farmer woman stepped into the circle, her face suddenly illuminated. "Can I hold your little girl, son? Can I just hold her?" She extended her arms, her hands quivering.
"I’ll give you fifty bucks if you let me hold her," said a voice behind the lights.
Trevin turned slowly, lights all around, until he faced the old woman again. A picture formed in his mind, dim at first but growing clearer by the second. One semi-trailer truck, the trailer set up like a child’s room–no, like a nursery! Winnie-the-Pooh wallpaper. A crib. One of those musical rotating things, what cha’ call ums–a mobile! A little rocking chair. Kid’s music. And they’d go from town to town. The banner would say THE LAST O-FORM GIRL CHILD, and he would charge them, yes he would, and they would line up. The money would fall off the table!
Trevin pushed Caprice away from him, her hands clinging to his coat. "It’s okay, darling. The nice woman just wants to hold you for a bit. I’ll be right here."
Caprice looked at him, despair clear in her face. Could she already see the truck with the nursery? Could she picture the banner and the unending procession of little towns?
The old woman took Caprice in her arms like a precious vase. "That’s all right, little girl. That’s all right." She faced Trevin, tears on her cheeks. "She’s just like the granddaughter I always wanted! Does she talk yet? I haven’t heard a baby’s voice in forever. Does she talk?"
"Go ahead, Caprice dear. Say something to the nice lady."
Caprice locked eyes with him. Even by flashlight, he could see the polar blue. He could hear her sardonic voice night after night as they drove across country. "It’s not financially feasible to continue," she’d say in her two-year-old voice. "We should admit the inevitable."
She looked at him, lip trembling. She brought her fist up to her face. No one moved. Trevin couldn’t even hear them breathing.
Caprice put her thumb in her mouth. "Daddy," she said around it. "Scared, Daddy!"
Trevin flinched, then forced a smile. "That’s a good girl."
Up the hill, the tigerzelle hooted, and, just beyond the fence, barely visible by flashlight, the Mississippi gurgled and wept.
– END –