The morning of the zoo break began uneventfully. Most exhibits had been fed and watered, and in the centaurs’ case, given their rainbow assortment of pills. The unicorns were napping, the pegasi too, and the sasquatch was attempting to groom itself. And yet, the zoo seemed uncharacteristically empty, for most of the staff members had flown to Atlantis. They were determined to bring back a kraken, and their combined expertise was needed to catch one. Only two keepers were left to care for the animals. Two against nearly a hundred. An unwise decision, perhaps. But the public demanded its cryptids.
The more experienced of the two keepers, Horizon, stepped toward the front gate, looking at the gathering crowd. The zoo still had nearly an hour before opening, but the public always came early. They pushed and shoved, demanding to be first in line, to see the cryptids, take photos, make faces. They were creating a spectacle themselves, and every snap of their phones confirmed it.
Horizon snorted, crossing his arms. “Not open yet!” he told the crowd. A cap-wearing boy flicked him the finger, but no one else in the crowd acknowledged his words. Horizon shook his blond head and stepped away, turning to his coworker, Maribella; she’d been staring at the crowd as well, barely blinking, frozen in place.
Maribella was short, dark-haired, small-mustached. She had a roundness that was holiday-like, and the pink of her cheeks could be from excitement, exhaustion, anything really. Today, Horizon suspected it was from many things, since the work of a dozen staffers condensed into two could take a toll on anyone.
“Every day, the same thing,” Horizon said. “You’d think they’d get tired of this, huh?”
Maribella frowned, but she didn’t respond. Her lack of words served as disagreement. At least, that’s what Horizon suspected, but he’d never really understood his coworker—not in the half year she’d interned at Zuzu’s, nor the few weeks she’d been part of full staff. Certainly not in the awkward hour he’d taken her to lunch. Not on a date, not that he ever thought much on that hour, or much on Maribella, who—
A loud shriek rolled over the zoo, shaking the trees, the ground, everything. Horizon recoiled, and Maribella’s frown tightened. The crowd, mostly adults, squealed and giggled, pointed and grinned. They all recognized the shriek: the banshee, grown bored. At least, that’s what the keepers said, and the public had no reason to doubt them.
The banshee was in the process of a painful molt, so Horizon knew there was no need to check on it. Its wailing would die down, eventually, because the wailing always died down. But there was still plenty to do before the zoo could open, and the crowd was only growing more anxious. The gates pulsed against their weight. Their shouting grew louder, harsher, impatient.
Animals, Horizon thought, and the thought was far from original.
“You hit up the vamps, Maribella,” he said. “I’ll busy myself with the mermaids.” He wiped his already sweaty palms on his already sweaty shorts. “Sound good? You up for it, yeah?”
Maribella gave a thumbs up. Then, she started toward The Cave. She didn’t say goodbye or OK or anything else, and Horizon suspected this was an agreeable sort of silence. He had no way of knowing, so why not assume? Wasn’t that the way of understanding women, like her?
With that thought, he was on his way to The Pier, trying to ignore the banshee, who continued to shriek—its molt was caused by Zuzu’s lighting, the unfamiliar climate. Nothing could be done to help.
The sky was hot and blinding when Maribella reached The Cave; the moment she stepped inside, everything became somehow brighter, like the room contained an extra piece of sun. It was also warmer, but agreeably so, since Maribella’s shirt and shorts were thin. Everyone on staff wore the same material, as it was easy to overheat in the exhibits. But the cryptids preferred it this way, her boss had said. Even the yetis, constantly sleeping.
The vampires, one of the zoo’s most illustrious attractions, were housed behind several enforced panels of glass. They weren’t the grey-skinned, long fanged creatures of fairy tales. Instead, tiny black bats hung from the ceiling, each held in place by an even tinier, adorable ankle bracelet. They could flutter in place, even screech out a greeting. But they couldn’t fly off; they’d never leave.
Oh, how Maribella loved the vampires! And how easy they were to see in the eternal light, because that was the way of the vampire, the truth behind why they avoided being seen in the day—they could only keep human form in utter darkness. Beneath the bright bulbs, they remained as bats, flapping their wings, swiping the glass. Unable to sleep, and unable to change, only able to hiss, and hiss, and hiss.
“Friends, how are you today?” Maribella asked, as she walked closer to the enclosure. She tapped the glass with a chipped red nail, and one of the vampires flew toward her, snapped at the air.
Maribella smiled. “Energetic today, hmm?” She loved that about her friends. If she could, she would stay here and talk to them for the rest of the day. She’d ask them about flying, drinking blood, their dreams.
She’d always dreamed of working at a zoo—Zuzu’s, specifically, which had been around several years, since she was a child. Back then, the exhibits had been more like a carnival sideshow. Step right up and see Big Foot! You’ll never believe it, the amazing centaurs! But as the zoo found more cryptids, bred more hybrids, it took on new life. New walls. New procedures.
One of those procedures was the no-darkness rule. Bats taking the shape of humans would be inhumane, had been inhumane, her supervisor said. He never explained why, and she never asked. People who asked questions tended not to stay here long. And Maribella intended to stay forever.
When she’d heard about the internship all those months earlier, her dreams became attainable—and now, here she was, her dream made real. And here too were the bats, flying in place, happily hissing. Loving Zuzu’s.
Horizon hated the smell of chum. But he loved the company of mermaids. As he walked toward them, bucket in hand, he continued trying to ignore the banshee. Its exhibit was closer to The Pier than The Cave. Much louder. He could have told Maribella to work with the mermaids and chosen the bats for himself. But enduring the banshee’s wails was worth it, more than worth it, if only to hear the mermaids sing.
Already, he could hear them humming, and it hit his stomach, made it tight. He nearly threw himself forward, nearly ran toward The Pier, where a ten foot tall fence would keep him from jumping forward. Each new zookeeper was taught to resist the mermaids’ song, and the fence kept all visitors from doing the same. Sure, some of them tried to climb it, some almost succeeded, but a keeper was always there to stop them.
As The Pier came into view, Horizon could clearly see the mermaids, red tails swishing, lips pursed as they warmed up their voices. There were three of them, all females, all inbred to the point of stupidity.
A week earlier, Zuzu’s sole merman had died unexpectedly. He’d become stuck on the bottom of the tank, his tail caught in the water filter. And mercreatures—poor, dumb things—were air-breathers, like whales, or dolphins. The merman had suffocated within minutes.
Horizon had been on shift when it happened. Nothing could be done to help.
Now, the mermaids were all alone. Except for Horizon, of course, and he had to assume that was enough—that he was more than enough. Especially for the one with silver eyes.
He never touched the mermaids, of course. That would be obscene. Except, of course, for the one who wanted it. Who batted her lashes and flapped her tail. The mermaids were half women, as much as they were half fish. And when they came up, gasping for air—how he loved to watch their heads fly backward. Tails sputtering. Mouths opened wide.
The silver-eyed one would tousle her hair and arch her back. He loved that most of all.
Today, she was sitting on a rock at the other end of the cage. Her long hair fell across her breasts, and she ran her fingers through the strands, watching the water fall down her arms. Horizon walked closer; she saw him and froze, then threw both arms into a dive. Quickly, she swam to his side of the fence, then flopped on land, and thrust her lips between the bars.
Horizon grinned. He reached into his feed-sack with one hand and reached for her hair with the other. The other two mermaids watched from across the water.
Horizon often tossed the other two mermaids their food, though he hand-fed Silver, sometimes, as he reached through the rings of the too tall fence. She’d grab his fingers, toy with them, yank them, like she wanted him to join them, needed him, craved him. Because yes, he was enough, even if some people didn’t seem to realize. Even if one woman in particular had too much going on at work and preferred the company of bats over humans.
The other staffers had their favorite attractions, sure, but they’d much prefer to talk to one another than to stay with the cryptids. The same was true of Horizon, because as much as he enjoyed the mermaids, they needed him far more than he needed them.
They were beautiful. Their voices, especially. Silver, especially. But they weren’t people, not at all. Maribella wasn’t a mermaid. Less fish. Less beautiful. But more human, and that was something.
Maribella finished feeding the vampires, having only the slightest trouble with one, a Nyctimene Stokyr, who tried to fly through the crack through which she dropped their breakfast. She thought that was sweet, that it wanted to see her, but she couldn’t allow it. She couldn’t break any rules.
“Goodbye, friends,” she called as she left, closing the door behind her. Again, the vampires hissed their gratitude, and it warmed her heart to know they loved her.
Once out, she made her way back to the front gate, where even more visitors had begun to assemble. The already pulsing chains were starting to bend, and the giggles and squeals crescendoed, becoming shouts.
Above even those shouts, the banshee wailed. It hated the light. Poor, sweet thing. But there was nothing to be done to help it—not at Zuzu’s, where the sun was brightest. Besides, the light was good for it, her supervisor said. Good for all of the cryptids.
Horizon soon joined Maribella. He was sweatier than he had been earlier, and he smelled of fish. “Vamps good?” he asked, not making eye contact.
Maribella nodded. She didn’t speak.
“No incidents? Anything at all?”
“One nipped at me.”
Horizon jumped, likely startled, because Maribella rarely talked around him. He grinned, and she regretted speaking, because his wasn’t a respectable grin. Horizon wasn’t a respectable man; that’s why she’d given him the one date, all those weeks earlier, and nothing since, and nothing to come.
Her interest in Horizon had been purely born of misunderstanding. He worked at the zoo, she’d be working there also, and he must love cryptids the same way, right? She’d quickly learned his own interests were opposite hers, that her love for the zoo’s creatures was only rivaled by his disinterest. He worked for his paycheck, for something stable. And—she suspected—for the mermaids.
The zoo’s sole merman had died under his care. Her supervisor called it a tragedy.
“You’ve gotta be more careful with them,” Horizon said. “What if one of them got out? One of them bit you?”
Maribella laughed. “They won’t,” she said. What silly beliefs and superstitions—the same beliefs that said they hated garlic and avoided crosses. Maribella wore one herself; they didn’t mind. “What else is left?” she asked, changing the subject. As if voicing approval, the banshee screamed.
“Only the centaurs,” Horizon answered. The words came hesitantly, almost like he was trying not to say them. Maribella understood why—running the centaurs was always the hardest, requiring multiple staffers, too much time.
How were they to do it themselves?
She wished the others hadn’t all left that morning, though she’d understood their reasoning. Now that the zoo’s sole merman was dead, Zuzu’s needed a new exhibit, and a kraken could easily fill that role. But there were roles to be filled right now, and she couldn’t fill them alone. She certainly couldn’t fill them with Horizon—seniority meant nothing to cryptids.
“Ready to do this?” she asked.
“We’ll just leave them, run them later.”
“We need to now. Their legs need exercise. Those joints can’t be cooped up all day.”
“They’ll be fine. The others get back in—”
“We need to run them,” Maribella repeated.
Horizon crossed his arms. His grin was still there, still slimy. “Tell you what,” he said with a snort. “If you can get the latch open, you can run them.”
Maribella frowned. That wasn’t possible. The latch normally required a key and two staff members to open. The bolt was intentionally heavy, too much for one person. A failsafe against the centaurs lifting it themselves.
Horizon pulled out his master keyring—the keys that let him inside all the exhibits: the centaurs’, the wailing banshee’s, and, even sometimes, the poor, poor mermaids’.
“What do you say?” he asked.
Maribella didn’t answer; she grabbed the key.
The Mountain really wasn’t a mountain, only a long plain of grass ending in a tiny bump. It was enclosed by a large steel gate, 20 feet high, and the gate itself was kept locked by several large beams. One of these beams ran across a door, and Maribella pushed the key into the slot and turned. The door unlocked, and with a grunt she tried lifting the beam.
Her arms strained. The beam remained.
She repositioned herself, gripped even tighter. Pushed up, all her strength.
One of the centaurs stood nearby, watching. A male, as most of them were, with a dark torso and darker legs. His arms were bulbous, hard as stone. His hair grew in slants, neither side unshaven, unlike the other centaurs, whose marks stood out against the baldness.
The centaur galloped towards her. Its tail swished behind, and now that it was closer, Maribella was certain it had no mark. Most centaurs had one, a horseshoe shaped stab in the side of their head. A necessity, for their own good.
The centaurs were an anxious group. Constantly needing stress management, which could only be provided through surgery. If this one didn’t have a mark, it must be new, especially well-behaved. Perhaps inbred toward gentleness, like the mermaids.
Through the gap in the fence, the centaur reached forward. Instinctively, Maribella pulled back her hands. Then, she laughed. What was she thinking? The centaur was friendly. It wouldn’t hurt her.
She repositioned her hands on the latch. The centaur reached forward once more. Hands on her own hands as she lifted, raising the beam, higher, higher, until it clicked out of place.
Wasn’t that adorable? Maribella thought. The centaur was helping, almost as if it knew of Maribella’s love for it and all cryptids. Almost as if it knew she was here to help. Almost as if the centaurs loved her back, almost as if they knew how much she—
Crack! The panel swung up, smacking Maribella in the jaw.
Her teeth clanked together, and her head flew back.
She stumbled, trying not to fall.
The gate crashed open, and the centaurs were running.
They ran past her, legs kicking up dirt.
She fell over, fell beneath them.
Their legs trampled over her. Crushing.
On the opposite side of the zoo, Horizon had returned to the mermaids. There was nothing else to do while he waited. Nothing else he wanted, at least. Their song was especially loud today, nearly as loud as the banshee, or the screaming crowd. He stayed a distance away, remembered his training. He controlled the lock, not the other way.
Silver splashed near the surface, then tried to pull herself up shore. She fell back in the waves, creating bubbles. But then, she resurfaced, and threw back her hair. Horizon walked closer, hand on his keys.
He hadn’t been inside the exhibit since the merman. He was sure the other keepers had their ideas about what happened that day, and they were free to have those ideas. But his supervisor had warned him not to go inside again, not to have a repeat of last time. He wasn’t sure what his supervisor believed had happened; nothing too bad, or he wouldn’t still have his job.
Silver spotted Horizon, froze again. And then, she dove down, started toward him. But instead of resurfacing, the bubbles continued. The other mermaids looked at the bubbles, looked at each other.
Horizon hadn’t liked the merman. But, he hadn’t tried to kill him. No matter what Maribella or the other keepers thought—it really had been an accident.
He’d been in the exhibit, hand-feeding Silver. The way that he did, sometimes. Fish in one hand, her hair in the other—her own hands wrapped tightly around his dick. It had been like training a dog, really. But instead of whistling and getting a dog to sit, he handed out a fish, and Silver did the rest. The other two mermaids would watch from afar, unmoving. Too dumb to do anything else.
Usually, the merman would sit there, too. Quiet, eyes barely open. But on that day, something changed. Instead of waiting off to the side, the merman swam over; he’d grabbed Horizon’s arm. He’d pulled him off of Silver, and Silver swam off. But, the merman didn’t let go, only held on tighter, and started biting.
Horizon had grabbed him by the neck. It had been instinctive. An accident. He’d thrown the merman off him, into the middle of the water, the creature’s head smacking artificial land before it sank. Horizon watched the body fall, become dark and distorted, then float back up, chest facing the floor. And yet, his face wasn’t down, or even to the side, but tipped toward the sky, eyes wide open.
Horizon grabbed the merman, touched his face, then shook him as if shaking could fix the nothingness in his eyes. But the merman didn’t respond, just continued to stare, as the mermaids swam toward them. Silver screamed.
Quickly, Horizon grabbed the merman’s arm, dove underwater. The body was heavy, but he pulled it to the enclosure’s floor. He wasn’t sure what to do, his mind already shrieking, wanting to escape the cries above.
He hadn’t intended it. He really hadn’t. But, the water filter gurgled beside him. The merman’s tail spasmed, inched toward the opening. Still hearing the screaming, Horizon let go, gently pushing the merman toward it.
Horizon popped back up. Silver still cried. She tried to dive down, but he grabbed her, threw her back.
The bubbles had started slow. And then, they’d boiled. Finally, they disappeared altogether, and Horizon left to file his report.
Horizon had cracked the merman’s neck, and he had drowned, and Horizon hadn’t meant for any of it. But that’s not what he told his supervisor—he mentioned the drowning, and he mentioned the bubbles. The bubbles that boiled, like the bubbles that were boiling now.
Silver was a good swimmer. A great one. There was no possibility that she was stuck, or too tired to swim. And yet, the bubbles continued. She didn’t resurface. The bubbles slowed, and then, began popping.
Horizon moved closer. The banshee kept screaming. The other two mermaids hummed as Horizon stared through the gate.
He could unlock it. He could walk in.
The mermaid stayed under. Horizon’s chest tightened.
No one else was here. Not his supervisor, not even Maribella. Maybe he could reach forward, go inside—
He took out his keys, put one in the latch.
Thought of the merman. The minutes of bubbles.
Before he could decide, the banshee shrieked louder. Louder than thunder, or a cannon, or anything Horizon had ever heard. He turned toward its cage, and then, he saw it—the centaurs, running toward him. At him.
Horizon dropped his keys. He tried to run, but the centaurs were already upon him. The tallest one picked him up by his uniform and held him high. It threw him skyward, over the fence. With a gasp, he smacked the water on the other side. He bobbed back up and blinked away water. Saw Silver bobbing beside him.
“Silver,” he tried to say, but the water choked him, burying the word.
In an instant, her hand was in his hair; the other mermaids swam beside her. They grabbed him as well, one on each arm. And then, they pulled him down, so very far down. They stayed underwater as their own oxygen drained, as Horizon’s turned into small bubbles of fear, then into nothing. The mermaids did not resurface, nor did Horizon. The bubbles continued, until they stopped.
A centaur grabbed Horizon’s keys. And then, the centaurs ran on.
The banshee continued to wail as the centaurs arrived, and they flipped through the keys until they found one that fit. With a turn of the lock, the banshee was free. It rolled out of its cage, pulled at its skin.
The centaurs ran through the rest of the zoo, stopping at each exhibit and releasing the animals. They first helped the pegasi, whose wings were clipped, but they could still run, and did run, and were free. The sasquatch was next, and it beat its chest as the centaurs reached for the lock. One lowered his hand, and the sasquatch sniffed. Its mouth curved up, and it let out a joyous shriek as the door flew open.
In this way, the centaurs freed the fairies, two dozen gnomes, a pair of bonded cherubs, even a witch’s familiar. Then, the centaur led their kinsmen to the zoo’s entrance, where the crowd had grown bigger, louder, impatient, eager to enter, ready to oooh and ahhhh and tap on glass and make a spectacle.
Seeing the creatures, some customers laughed.
What trick is this? What has the zoo prepared for us now? Even their whispers formed a wail. Cryptids, outside of their cages! But soon, they realized the creatures were not merely out of their cages—the creatures were no longer the zoo’s. They ran through the crowd, pushed their way through, never biting or scratching, but not caring who screamed or ran, or was unable to run. They escaped, and thus they were free, and they scattered the world. Disappeared in plain sight.
Perhaps the centaurs forgot the vampire bats, or maybe they feared their true vampire form, which was not that different from that of the humans. Whatever the reason, the bats remained in The Cave, flapping in place beneath the eternal light. When the other staffers returned, no kraken in tow, they made the room even brighter, even hotter—so hot that the vampires shrieked, withered to ash, but the keepers did nothing, turned up the light.