A little boy in red and gray striped pajamas stood in front of the lion cage, his face pressed up against the glass fence that surrounded the moat. Little puffs of condensation created circles around his mouth. On his head perched a navy blue skull cap; bits of fluffy blonde hair stuck out every which way underneath it. On his feet was a pair of furry green slippers that looked like they were two sizes too big for him. The lion was in his den, but the lioness was at the edge of the moat, watching the boy’s every move, her breath steaming in the cold morning air. I wondered where the boy’s coat was.
“Hey there,” I called. “You, boy, come here.” The boy turned to look at me, his mouth a giant “O” of surprise, and then he took off, running to the right around the lion enclosure and back up towards the elephants.
“Dammit,” I swore, hobbling after him. My trick knee was giving out on me again. I should have soaked it for another hour last night, but the game was on and I didn’t want to miss it because I was laying in the bathtub like some chick.
I rounded the corner, and saw the boy disappear up the path through the elephant enclosure. Luckily the thing was closed for renovations so the kid wouldn’t be trampled to death.
Idiot kids don’t know what it’s like to be up against something that could really kill them. You think a lion’s the shit? Try facing it alone with no fence on the Serengeti. Not so great when he’s ripping your guts out. You want to really show off, try staring down the barrel of a loaded AKM while some guy screams his head off. Without a moat.
I unclipped my walky from my belt and spoke into it. “Some kid got into the zoo. Headed through the elephants, he’s gonna hit the otters next. Gotta catch him ‘fore he gets hurt.”
A crackle of static came over the walky, and Dwayne’s sleepy voice crackled over the airwaves. “Hurt by the otters?” Dwayne was not the brightest bulb.
“The bear exhibit’s after the otters, Dwayne,” I emphasized the Y in his name. “Bears’ll tear him to pieces.”
“Everything’s a calamity with you Carl,” Dwayne drawled, unaffected. “Oh no, the Dip n’ Dots are melting…Oh no, the monkeys threw shit over the fence again…Oh no, the bears are gonna eat a kid.”
“It happened in San Francisco,” I said, sulking. “Sides, you couldn’t care less if someone came in here and shot all the animals.”
“No one’s going to shoot the animals, Carl,” Dwayne said. “’Sides, I’m packing, so it would be over real quick,” he bragged.
“You ever shot a gun, Dwayne,” I asked. I already knew the answer.
“You know I have,” he said grumpily.
“Shootin’ ranges don’t count,” I protested.
“Eh, what you know. Don’t you have something to clean up?” He chuckled, then cut out again.
I grimaced. “That was low, even for you Dwayne.”
“Well, hero, while you’re yacking with me that boy’s probably getting eaten by the otters.” Dwayne said. “I’ll see if I can pick the kid up on the cameras. When John gets in I’ll send him out to do a once over in the cart.”
I clipped the walky back to my belt and kept looking for the boy. If he’d crossed the elephant enclosure, then he was probably walking up the incline past the red pandas and the rest of the Ursidae exhibit. I circled back around the other side of the path stealthily, hoping to catch him coming round. I caught a flash of blue up ahead of me, and throwing my all into it I sprinted up and caught the kid by the collar of his pajamas.
“Lemme go!” He shrieked, wriggling like a fish on a line. He glared up at me, his little pug nose wrinkled in anger. Up close he was about the age of my son Teague. I wondered how big Teague was these days. It was hard to tell from the pictures that Marybeth sent.
“What are you doing in here?” I asked, holding on to his collar for dear life. “Where are your parents?”
“Asleep,” he said, kicking out and catching me on my bad knee. I gasped, and doubled over, but I didn’t loosen my grip.
“Well, that’s pretty sensible considering it’s 5:00 in the morning.” I countered when I could finally speak again. My leg was on fire. I could feel the bullet inside of it locking my knee in place. I desperately needed to sit down, but the zoo had gotten rid of benches years ago to keep the homeless out.
He stuck his tongue out at me, and I felt the urge to wallop him. But that wouldn’t do. Can’t go hitting someone else’s kid in this day and age, although a few could do with a good spanking if you ask me. I began to haul him over to the administrative building, sending a quick message to Dwayne on the way.
“No,” he yelled again, trying to pull out of my arms, “I want to stay!”
“What’s so important you gotta be at the zoo this early for?” I yelled at him.
“It’s my birthday!” He yelled piteously, tugging his arm out of my hand. He fell back on the pavement, panting. I was breathing hard too, and as the kid didn’t seem to have it in him to get up and run again, I took the opportunity to catch my breath.
“So, what, you’re having a party here today and you want to get an early start?” I wheezed. The kid glared at me.
“No.” His voice dropped and he looked away from me, and I could see tears welling up in his eyes.
“My dad promised to take me here, but last night he said he couldn’t. He didn’t even tell me why.” His voice broke, and he ran his sleeve roughly across his nose.
I thought of all the times I’d promised to go see Teague but backed out last minute. I had no money to take him out and I was afraid he’d be embarrassed by my limp. I coughed, clearing the lump in my throat.
“Kid, I gotta call your parents. I’m sorry about your sob story, but there’s nothing I can do.” The boy stared at me for what felt like forever, then stood up. Without protest, he followed me down to meet Dwayne at the admin building where we called his parents. His dad came to pick him up twenty minutes later, a warm wool coat with toggle buttons and squeaky clean shoes in hand. He walked over to his son and knelt down in front of him. To his credit, the kid didn’t cry.
“Your mom is so mad at you!” he said, gripping the boy on the arms. The kid dropped his head to his chest, and I could see his lip quivering as he fought back tears.
“I’m sorry,” the dad said. “I know today was important to you, buddy. It’s just, I’m supposed to report back to base today…” And then the dad started crying, pulling his son close to him.
Dwayne, who had been silent, looked up at me and then turned back to the pair.
“How would you two like an early morning tour of the zoo?” He asked, too cheerfully. The father looked up in surprise.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I know you don’t open for three hours…” The boy tugged at his father’s sleeve in excitement.
“Yes,” the father said, tears in his eyes. “That would be wonderful.”
Dwayne led the boy and his father out of the office and I watched them walk away, the boy gripping his father’s hand fiercely.
And for a second there, I thought I felt something.