Strange Tales
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Strange Tales

Bad Penny & the Petting Zoo that Time Forgot

My name is Penny and I’ve been very, very bad. Or so I’m told. I live with a witch in the deep, dark forest just outside of your ideal commute range. We call it the suburbs. I don’t go to Skoul, because it’s a tentacled horror that eats the dreams of children, and I answer to no man. Or dogman. Or purse dogman. I don’t care how cute they are!

Just the other day, in fact, I forced these upright-walking cockers spaniel to play tag with me by holding their hamster hostage. Maybe not my finest hour — or theirs, they sucked at tag — but you gotta understand, it gets lonely being a feral child who lives with an old witch. We don’t play boardgames, ‘cuz witches always cheat. We don’t dress up, ‘cuz everything in her closet is cursed. Nobody ever comes over, ‘cuz Mama Yaga is an unabashed cannibal and I never sleep over at a friend’s house ‘cuz I don’t have any friends!

There, I said it.

So I kidnapped these wee dogmen’s dinner and threatened to set it free unless they pretended to be my playmates for an hour. Like you’ve never done anything wrong. If it makes things better, I set the hamster free anyway. They sucked at tag, right? I liked the hamster’s chances.

Point is, the whole ordeal put me in the mood for a petting zoo. There was only one within bike range — even when your wheels are made of giant dreamcatchers — and it was a schlep, way out past the truck stop Mickey D’s. Best chicken fingers this side of the cornstalk sea, but it’s uphill both ways. Real M.C. Escher situation. Total downer… or upper, depending.

In any case, I was exhausted by the time I reached the weathered totem pole of prehistoric beasties that passed for signage at the petting zoo that time forgot. Down a long, dirt path and through a wooden gate like king kong’s friggin’ doggy door, I beheld a sight that took my breath away. A herd of hulking, knuckle-walking, giraffe-lookin’ things grazed along the tree line as towering, flightless birds smashed their anvil beaks together near a pond. A pack of dire wolves strutted their adorable stuff in a separate enclosure, probably wise, but I only had eyes for one monstrous mammal… the bone-crushing dog.

He ran right up to me, bounding through a bamboo grove with his tongue flapping about like a soggy wind sock, a dopey grin painted across this cinder block mug. He barreled me over with his immense oven mitts and would’ve crushed the life outta me, if not for the fact that I had a human femur in my backpack.

Now, let’s not get hung up on why a feral little girl would be biking around with a human femur slung across her back. And let’s not waste a moment’s thought on how she might have come by it, nor to whose pelvis it may once have been connected. I guarantee you, the answers are never as interesting as the questions. Let’s just accept that the femur in question was inside my backpack exactly when I needed it… which kinda vindicates the whole thing, if you think about it.

Anyway, I tossed this friendly colossus a bone and he busied himself with crushing it. It’s right there in the name. This being a petting zoo and all, I sidled right up and started scratching behind his ears. He thumped his massive foot contentedly as the bone gave up its marrow.

Clearly, I was in love.

At this point in the tale, I should mention that there were zero posted rules at this Pliocene Park. Not a single one. No “do not feed the animals,” no “all children must be supervised by an adult,” and absolutely no “you must be this tall to ride the animals.” So naturally, I tried to ride the animals. Can you blame me?! Most of them were the size of a horse and twice as cuddly. The other half were even bigger. They’d barely even notice the weight of one, tiny, feral girl. Barely notice it, I say!

The big guy wasn’t having it. I tried climbing his side, but he shook me off in a shower of dog sweat. I tried leaping down from a tree, but he trotted out of the way at the last second. I tried grabbing his ears and waiting for him to fling me onto his back, but he was happy just slobbering down the front of my hot pink overalls.

My next plan would have worked. Guaranteed. It was brilliant, inspired, utterly fool proof. I shan’t bore you with the details, but it would have changed the world, had I not been unfairly targeted by the Zookreeper. He was just jealous that his animals liked me more than him. That and he was an unholy monster from the depths of time.

Twelve feet tall and thin as a fistful of straw, he descended on me in this ridiculous, feathered coat and wide-brimmed, straw hat. His face was hidden behind a plague doctor’s mask with a long, crooked beak and gleaming, circular eyes. The specter plucked me off the ground like a fallen fruit, screamed “BANNNNED!!!” in a voice like a murder of crows, and hurled me over the fence with the greatest of ease.

I thought I was dead, a conclusion made all the more plausible by the fact that I’d landed in hell. It was hot, dry, and lousy with pitchfork-wielding devils. They may have been farmers. I cratered an empty cornfield and a great plume of dirt burst up from the impact, then rained down upon me. The little devil-farmers scattered to the winds. Guess I put the fear of god into them.

Miraculously, I was fine. Apart from being caked in dirt and probably damned and humiliated by a giant bird-man. Except for all that, I was fine. I got up and started walking, found a dirt road not far from my crater. It rolled down and down and down over low hills in both directions.

The sun never moves in hell. It just stares straight down at you until your organs bake inside your dry, peeling skin. It was hot, is what I’m saying. Empty Coke bottles were rattling around my backpack like a xylophone falling down the stairs before I got desperate enough to ask for help.

There was only one entity I knew of who could get a girl outta hell: Sineater. She was — still is — the great spirit of confessionals and drive-thru windows, two not entirely dissimilar things. She trades guilty secrets for guilty pleasures. More importantly, she can move freely between hell and any fast food location. (Plus, I couldn’t stop thinking about those chicken fingers.)

So I stopped at a crossroads and made an offering. I wrote down something bad I’d done, but never confessed, and buried it in the center of the intersection. (I’d recently taken Mama Yaga’s flying Maytag washing machine for a joyride and wrapped it around a tree, told her a gremlin did it. Don’t judge me! That gremlin had it coming.) I didn’t have any cheeseburgers or fries to sacrifice, but I dug a fistful of ketchup packets out of my bag and tossed them in, figuring it was the thought that counted.

It was not.

“What am I supposed to do with those?” a high-pitched, indignant voice heckled me from behind. “Garnish the world’s smallest wiener?” The voice belonged to a man in a white zoot suit and black wing-tips. Definitely not Sineater, who had more of a creepy clown kinda vibe. A ridiculous peacock feather projected from his fedora.

“You can do whatever you want with your wiener,” I told him. “Who the devil are you?”

“I have many names,” he bragged, kicking the dirt innocently. “Jerry Rig, Hap Hazard, Slap Dash, Slip Shod.” I must have had a look on my face, because I always have a look on my face, but I guess he expected one of those to ring a bell. It did not. “I’m the Great Spirit of Horseshoes and Hand Grenades! I show up whenever somebody really phones in a summoning. Anything I can half-assed help you with?”

What other choice did I have?! I was in hell. “Had a tussle with a real wicker man lookin’ dude at the petting zoo,” I confessed. “The one with the terror birds and the, um… bone-crushing dog. What are your feelings regarding revenge?”

“I’m cool with it.” He took a shuffle step toward me, hands in his pockets, padded shoulders sagging. “Question is, what price are you willing to pay?”

“Me?” I scoffed. “I already sacrificed my last ketchup packets. My last ones! I am utterly without condiments, right now.”

He whistled low and long. “Lucky for you, I have my own reasons for wanting revenge on the Zookreeper. He banned me for life, which is a long time when you’re immortal! Tell you what: If you use it to take that pretentious beak bag down a peg, I’ll give you my half-assed blessing.”

“Thanks?” I shrugged.

“You’ll be swapping that question mark for an exclamation point after you see it in action,” he assured me with a gleaming grin. “Got anything I can tune? A harmonica, kazoo, pair of spoons?” I made a show of checking my bag, but I was never a musical person. And I eat with my fingers. “Are those empty Coke bottles, I hear?”

“How half-assed is this blessing?” I asked.

“Just give ’em here.” I tossed one of my fallen soldiers to the maestro. He blew across its neck a few times, but the resulting tone only sounded worse. “Close enough for jazz,” he pronounced and passed it back to me. “Now go forth and do the lord’s work.”

“Are you the lord in this scenario?”

“Yes.” He said it so deadpan, he may have been serious. You can never tell with deities.

“Good, because there’s still the matter of getting me out of hell,” I reminded him.

“Out of where now?”

“Out of HELL!” I gestured in all directions. “H. E. Double hockey sticks!”

He tipped his hat before vanishing abruptly. “We’re a few miles outside of town, dummy,” his disembodied voice chided. “The petting zoo is right around the corner.”

My first plan was brilliant: Dig up that awful totem pole, use it to break down the petting zoo’s gate, and lead all those oppressed cuties to freedom. Simple and to the point. Pretty perfect, right? Would’ve worked, too, if I hadn’t tried so damned hard. Or been so damned competent.

I dug up the totem pole with a shovel I’d pinched along the way and let it fall across the handlebars of my indestructible witch-bike. I peddled its dreamcatcher wheels up the dirt path, faster and faster, until my battering ram slammed into the gate. King Kong shuddered, buckled, then broke wide open. He ain’t got nuthin’ on me.

The totem pole rolled to one side as I charged through the gap. My bone-crushing dog came loping across the pen soon as he saw me. “Miss me, Good Boy? Yeah, you did. I missed you, too.” Then, addressing the rest of the inmates, “You’re all free! Let’s go, right out the gate!”

Nothing.

The terror birds stood straight up, all ten feet of them, but did not ruffle a feather. The dire wolves perked up their triangular ears, but made no move to leave. The giant sloths may have been raring to go, but how could you tell? “Come on, guys! Freedom awaits!”

Not even Good Boy wanted to leave. I tried dragging him by his floppy ears, pushing this enormous ass, even went outside and whistled for him. He just grinned his adorable grin and slobbered all over my bike.

That was when I realized two things. First, the animals weren’t being held here by a chain link fence and a novelty gate. They were being held here by magic! Second, Slap Dash’s blessing was half-assed and I’d been using my whole ass.

“Come out, you overgrown aftermarket Halloween decoration!” My whole ass wanted to tear open the dire wolf enclosure, knock down the information kiosk, and put the gift shop to the torch. Half my ass just bashed the feed dispenser a few times with a shovel. Dry corn and oats poured all over my boots.

The Zookreeper appeared behind me among the phantom wingbeats of ten thousand ravens. What a drama queen. “BANNNNNED!!!” he cawed and, once again, tried to throw me out. My whole ass wanted to dive through his fingers and slash his wrist with my blade. Half my ass just smacked him across one knuckle with a lazy backhand swing. He withdrew his talons and screeched like an owl. Big baby.

“How’d you do it, you pompous two-bit kidnapper?!” I spat, desperate for a good gambit, but settling for ham-fisted insults. “No way a hack like you built this place yourself. Who helped you? Was it Skoul? He likes keeping cute things in cages.” I slapped his big toe when he tried to squash me beneath his galoshes. He hopped on one foot like a flamingo that needed to use the bathroom. Sad sack.

That was when I noticed the key ring jangling on his toolbelt. Oddly, it ringed no keys, just a dozen iron padlocks. “You’re a petty petnapper!” I howled. “What kind of self-respecting god-thing steals pets?! I mean, I may have held a hamster hostage earlier today, but I’m a feral little girl. I have a reputation to uphold. Let these animals go, you glorified animatronic scarecrow! You Big Bird cosplay gone wrong! You towering homage to poor taste in leather accessories!”

The Zookreeper unclipped his plague mask and removed it slowly. Air sucked in around the edges as it pulled away. Where his face should have been… only darkness, like the heat death of the universe. Tiny, distant flecks of light swarmed in those depths, approaching rapidly until a murder of crows erupted from under that wide-brimmed hat.

I had no clue how I was going to half-ass my way out of that one! I hid behind my shovel and crushed my eyes shut against impending doom, trying my hardest to wish them away. I didn’t have to. The bone-crushing dog leapt in front of me, jaws snapping, paws crushing, magnificent haunches shielding me from the hailstorm of hungry beaks.

“Fetch, boy!” I hollered over the mayhem, pointing to the Zookreeper’s key ring that wasn’t. Good Boy charged forward and I went with him, swatting the murder with my shovel. He ran right up his keeper’s leg while I huddled beside one massive, rubber boot. His bone-crushing maw came down on the ring like a bolt cutter, snapping it in half. Padlocks slipped off the ring and rained down around me. The Zookreeper staggered back and kicked Good Boy with his knee, sent him flying into the fence. It buckled under his weight, but did not fail. He hit the ground like a side of beef.

The rest of the menagerie may not have cared about their freedom, or about me, but they cared about their bone-crushing friend. Terror birds raced toward the Zookreeper with their battle axe beaks braced for impact. Dire wolves snarled and snapped at the Zookreeper’s ankles. Giant sloths… well, they never actually made it to the fight, but they sent their thoughts and prayers. The faceless monster in the feathered coat fended them off as best he could, but even his wicked talons weren’t enough.

My heart was howling at me to check on the dog, but I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity he’d given me. That he’d given us all. Clearing my mind of clever stratagems, and resisting the urge to use my entire ass, I wailed on the padlocks with my shovel. They popped open like plastic eggs on Easter, giving up their prizes.

As they did, the animals broke off their attacks. One by one, they wandered through the busted gate and out into the world. A terror bird, then another. A dire wolf or three. Possibly the sloths; I didn’t wait that long. Presumably, they all got away, all except the bone-crushing dog, lying still by the fence.

The Zookreeper watched me smash the last of his locks, his wounds rapidly closing. The murder flew back into his face-hole and he strapped his plague mask back on before lumbering off himself, to where… I hope never to learn.

Finally, I checked on Good Boy. He was still breathing, chest rising and falling like a bellows. I hugged him until he woke up. Gotta admit, I was kinda hoping he’d stand and conveniently lift me onto his back, but the sleepy fella shook me loose like a spray of bathwater. He gave me that dopey grin before limping off into the forest.

I tried not to take it personally.

“You may hear some tall tales about me wrecking up a petting zoo,” I told Mama Yaga that night. “None of them will do it justice. I was amazing.” We were skeletonizing a few dozen spicy Asian wings over the dining room table. The whole thing was less about dinner than it was about restocking the old witch’s craft drawer — she went through a lot of chicken bones — but I never look a gift horse in the mouth. I mean, really, what are you gonna find? Big teeth?

Anyway, Mama Yaga was neither concerned nor impressed. She just stuck another wing in her wrinkled maw and muttered “uh huh.”

“I kicked the Zookreeper’s butt,” I bragged. “Didn’t even use my whole ass.”

She pulled a perfectly clean bone from her puckered lips. Her voice was like sandpaper against a chalkboard. “Never heard of him.”

“Well, he was a punk. And twenty feet tall. And old as time. How would you feel if I brought home a dog?”

“Murderous,” the crone in the clear, plastic babushka replied, “and a little hungry. Why? You got one on you?”

“No…” I ventured, not without reservation, “but I met one today. He’s a real good boy, couple a hundred pounds, prehistoric and — “

“Absolutely not!” she thundered, suddenly animate. She stabbed the table with one of her long, gnarled nails. “No pets.”

“But the whole house is your pet!” I whined. “It jumps around on frog legs. That’s, like, at least half a pet.”

“Fine,” she conceded. “No more pets.”

“You’re a pet,” I muttered before packing myself a doggie bag and retreating to my room. That was as close as I was going to get, it seemed.

I set my dinner on the window sill and gazed into the night, imagined Good Boy out there somewhere, having adventures. I went looking for a beverage and rediscovered my blessed Coke bottle. A hairline fracture zipped down its side like a bolt of lightning. Worse, it made a single, steady note when I blew across it. The magic was gone.

I sighed and dipped a wing into tangy barbecue sauce. Outside, all was cool and quiet. Night mares galloped across the clouds on their flaming hooves. Mothmen perched in the treetops, eyes blazing. But then I noticed something strange… a hulking shadow at the edge of the forest, a shade with a cinderblock jaw.

Good Boy watched me watching him. Maybe it was stupid to think I should keep him in the house. Maybe I was a fool to want to make him my pet. What was I, some kinda Zookreeper?

I climbed out my window and down into the corpse garden, crept over Mama Yaga’s fence of skulls, and shared some wings with my new friend. He nuzzled me with his big, flat face and scooped me onto his back.

= ^.^ =

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Short fiction about ghosts, monsters, and other nonsense.

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Dan Bayn

Dan Bayn

User Experience, Behavior Design, and weird fiction.

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