Submissions are accepted on a regular basis, year-round. Can include, short stories, essays, poetry and prose. Must not exceed 3,000 words. Must be written by a current ESA student, or alumni. Submissions are accepted: email@example.com
I’m frozen, stuck in place. I can only faintly hear the sounds of the crowd around me, and my four year-old daughter Jules tugging at my sleeve, urging me to move forward. I feel as though I am a ghost, standing outside of my own body, watching a scene unfold around me. A spectator to the play, at times a tragedy, at times a comedy, that is my life. I feel a great weight on my chest, as though I know that something bad is about to happen. I can sense it. Something is going to happen, of that much I’m sure. But what?
I am uprooted from my trance by my wife, Carla. She put a hand on my shoulder, as a person might do to a close relative, who is dying or has alzheimer's, while lying on a hospital bed or in a nursing home.
“Ray, are you alright?” Her voice carries a note of concern, but she seems more curious as to why I’ve stopped. I blink, and slowly look around. I’m groggy, as though I’ve just woken up from a deep sleep. One with a lot of dreams.
“Huh, oh, yeah. I’m good,” I mumbled, just loud enough to hear. But even as I say it, I’m not entirely convinced. I try to shake off the feeling, whatever feeling that is. It’s early, I think. Yes, I was up early. The interstate was packed. So far there have been a lot of reasons to fall asleep standing up, which I guess is what I just did.
“That’s what happens when you sing about baby animals all the way to the zoo,” my wife says to my daughter. “Now daddy has a headache.”
Jules puts on her sad face, drooping lips and big eyes. “I’m sorry, daddy,” she says earnestly, and hugs my leg. I give her a little pat on the head and reassure her that it’s okay, and that I’m fine. That I pick her up, giggling, and put her on my shoulder. As I carry her to the zoo gate,I’m reminded why I had children. I’d been moaning about it for the first few months, when the nights were sleepless thanks to constant tears.
“Why did we have a kid?” I’d moan to Carla as we rolled out of bed to solve whatever problem Jules had now, “I know it made sense at the time.”
We reach the zoo gate without me blacking out again. A pimple-faced teenager, about sixteen, leans forward and smiles at us with way more enthusiasm that is expected or necessary for the situation; that situation being the purchasing of day passes for the zoo. Two adult, one child. A total of $56, twenty-three bucks per adult, and ten more for Jules. A steal, if you ask me. We walk past the gift shop, which is conveniently situated right in front of the entrance, which is also the exit. So once your kids are hopped up and sugar from some ice cream cart or cotton candy stand, and after they’ve chosen they’re favorite animal and said about a million things that you already knew about it, there sits the gift shop, with a stuffie for every single zoo creature.. And every kid just has to go in after all that. I try to ignore it, and promise myself, stupidly, that we won’t go in a buy something like we did the last three times.
Then, we pass the sign. “Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo”. It’s the last word that catches my eye. I’m a newspaper editor. I tend to see certain words differently than other people. Words that are interesting, words that are out of place. That kind of stuff. Anyhow, the word “zoo” grabs my attention. The meaning pops into my head from a corner of my mind.
Zoo,n. An establishment that maintains a collection of wild animals, typically in a park or gardens, for study, conservation, or display to the public; a situation characterized by confusion and disorder.
The second half of the description is what sticks in my head. Confusion and disorder. Those two words sound so familiar to me, like friends that I often go out for drinks with. I seem to see a lot of those two these days.
I am forced to relive a bit of my childhood in many places. My childhood home, where my mother still lives, twenty years after I moved out, is one example. Another would be the Vietnam war monument (which my father pointed out all the time because he fought in Vietnam), which I passed everyday on my way to elementary school. But today, my youth is at the forefront of my memory for a different reason. When we go to the “Carnivore’s Cove”, I notice the polar bear enclosure. There is a new cub on display, and Jules can’t wait to see it. I remember when I was eight, my father, Charlie, and I would drive to the zoo every other weekend, just so I could see the cub they had then. The cub had a large plaque in the middle of it’s pen, which bore its name, Snowball. The cub would always trying to pick fights with the plaque. It would stand up on a rock and dive down at the oversized nametag. But, because the plaque was slanted, the cub would slide right off. It always seemed hilarious.
I was thinking about my father when I heard the kids. They were only about eleven. Both were short for their age. One had a backwards Cubs hat on, and the other bore large, purple sunglasses. They were standing outside the tiger enclosure, throwing stuff in. When I looked closer, I saw that they were drawing stones out of a blue knapsack and hurling them at the tiger. They were hooting with laughter. But the tiger was in no laughing mood. It roared, stood up and it’s haunches, then charged. It cleared the pit around its enclosure, but not the concrete partition between the pit and the people. The beast crawled out of the pit to meet another volley of stones from the boys. It roared and flashed its teeth, then sulked back to the far side of it’s enclosure, where the rocks couldn’t reach it. At this point, a zoo guard noticed the commotion. As soon as he did, I got the same awful feeling. Like my brain was giving off a bad omen. The guard approached the kids. Whistle in hand. The next time they threw a rock, he blew. As he did, the tiger began moving. The feeling grew. I felt my wife’s had on my shoulder.
The guard grew closer, shouting for the kids to stop. The tiger picked up speed, it’s legs bending, it’s jaw snapping. The guard grabbed one of the kids by his shirt sleeve. The feeling hit it’s all time high, like Spiderman’s spider-sense. My ears were ringing.
The tiger jumped, claws angled forward, mouth open. The guard lept back. The kids too. But they were too close. In a single sweeping motion of a claw, they were all knocked down, bleeding badly. The heaving jaws closed, with the guards shoulder inside. The scream is what broke my trance. The whole crowd of people whipped around turning their attention from the cute, cuddly bear cub to a vicious, bloody mauling. The tiger, it’s tormentors, the children, dispatched, charged the crowd. That was the last time I saw my wife’s face.
The crowd surged forward like a wave, trying to get out of the tiger’s way. I scooped up Jules, who was looking all around, trying to find out what was happening. As the crowd pushed away from the bear cub, Carla was caught by pushing people and swept away. Then the tiger leapt again, landing in the center of the crowd. I heard the screams, but didn’t look back. Then I spotted the mangled zoo guard’s gun. A Glock, I think. Maybe a Walther like my cousin has. I moved towards the gun. Nothing like a little protection. But maybe it was my fear, or maybe the pushing crowd, but whatever it was, I tripped. I dropped Jules. I thought that she’d follow me out of the crowd towards the guard, but she didn’t. Still, I ran forward, unhooking the gun from it’s holster. Then I wheeled around. Jules was out of the crowd, but standing a good ten yards away from me. Then, the tiger emerged from a mess of bodies. Caught in it’s bloodstained teeth was a large lock of my wife’s auburn hair. I heard Jules scream.
The tiger turned on her taking a few steps forward. I reacted, screaming a bit myself. The tiger became distracted by me. I began to circle, trying to decide which one of us to maul; me or my daughter. Jules or Ray. As it looked at me, I raised the gun. I felt the monster’s eyes burn down on me. They seemed to say “Well, Ray, what’s it gonna’ be.” That’s something my father would say whenever I had a decision to make. The animal looked back and forth, back and forth. Then it stopped. It had chosen it’s prey. And then it rushed towards me.
I squeezed the trigger of the gun in my hands. The force pushed my aim off a touch, but the real reason I missed was because I so nervous. My hands shook, and my shot whizzed into the concrete behind the animal. I was the same with my next two shots. I was filling with adrenaline, and started firing shot after shot, just hoping to hit something. I felt like the polar bear cub I saw as a kid, attacking the plaque in the center of its pen. I’d come close every time, but could never quite grasp my target. Then, I saw the tiger leap. Thought it was still a few yards away, the jump’s power closed the gap fast. And then… The feeling struck me. All of time began to slow, nearly grinding to a standstill. I could see every hair on the tiger’s arching back, its colours rippling and it heaved its own great weight threw the air. I saw the beast’s eyes, wide and full of rage. And I saw the mouth, gaping open. And that’s where I, moving in slow motion, placed my final, miraculous shot.
The power of a bullet is astounding. They can smash glass, crush concrete, rip up wood. Bullets can tear apart most anything. And in this case, my bullet had no trouble soaring through the tiger’s teeth, past the roof of its mouth, and clean into the beast’s brain. There was no roar of anguish, no scream of pain. Only silence. As the tiger’s limp body soared towards me, I ducked, rolled and tried to avoid the crushing weight of a full grown animal in power jump mode. My leg was caught, and I felt a surge of pain rush through me. I heard the crack just before I blacked out
When I woke up, I was in Northwestern Hospital. Jules was sitting nearby my bed, sound asleep. A doctor was looking at me from the foot of the bed.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” he said. He smiled, as if he had no idea how I’d come into his care.
“W-What happened. Where’s the tiger, where’s my wife?” Of course, I knew the answer. The tiger was probably in the ground, or in an urn. And my wife, or part of her, was inside him. The rest was probably unrecognisable, and as such put in an unmarked grave regulated by the city. I felt hot tears in my eyes.
“I’m sorry about your wife, sir. If it’s any condolence, you’re a hero to the city. You saved a lot of lives.” Then, the doctor walked out of the room. I turned to look at my sleeping daughter. Things would be hard from now on. I couldn’t handle her quite like Carla. But even though I hadn’t saved my wife, I had kept Jules alive. So yeah, maybe I am a bit of a hero.
The doorbell rings. You check the
alarm clock and notice it’s way too early for someone to be visiting.
You crawl out of the warm bed and scuffle across the house to the front
door. You crack it open and no one is there. Upon opening the door, you
notice an unmarked package on the step. A strange scratching sound is
coming from inside, so you decide to lift the lid and investigate. What
do you find in the box, and who left this for you?