Miguel woke to gentle taps on the glass. He curled up tighter with a grunt. Not again. He was tired of those stupid people waking him up, hitting their fingers on the glass so they could see him move. Soon they’d want to watch him eat, scream at the way his body crushed a trash can into scrap.
Tap tap tap.
Okay I’m up, he thought, and raised his head, curving his body around to look at the walls of his cage, expecting to see a goggle-eyed idiot pressed there with his mouth open and his tongue waggling.
But there wasn’t anyone there. Confused, Miguel turned a circle, sliding over to the other side and back to make sure. No one.
Tap tap tap.
He looked up at the ceiling and let out a hiss of pleasure. It was raining. He watched it for a few minutes, enjoying the way the water slipped off the glass and the silver of the clouds beyond. He had the urge to stick his head up and look around a little.
Across the hall from him, Aaron snoozed peacefully beneath a log. Miguel could see the tips of his horns peering out from the shadows. Cindy and Lulu, two baby crocodile girls, were in the water of their cage, peering through the glass with sharp eyes. Cordalles the Puerto Rican Coquí croaked, the sound echoing down the empty hall.
Was it that early? Miguel had a good schedule of waking up as visitors were arriving. Thunderstorms didn’t even stir him. Why had he woken up? He wondered if the place was closed, but no, it couldn’t be. The Carolina Indoor Zoo of Rare and Exotic Species got twice as many visitors on rainy days. Mr. Warren wouldn’t dare close it.
He glanced around the Reptile Hall to see if anyone else was up, but nobody, as far as he could see. Ginny the Formosan Odd-Scaled snake was up at all odd hours of the night- he knew because she was constantly hissing at him through the walls, trying to engage him in conversation- but even she seemed to be asleep, her soft snores echoing through the glass.
A rattling behind him gave him his answer. All four of his walls and his ceiling were glass, and he saw, quite clearly, Louie the zookeeper leering at him through the glass. He arched his neck and hissed softly, but Louie grinned wider and rapped his knuckles on the glass, raising his eyebrows. See? You can’t hurt me.
Louie was a foul creature they hated. Five-four in height, with long yellow teeth, dirty dreadlocks, and sunken eyes, it was Miguel’s and many others’ dearest ambitions to give him a good bite.
Louie had unlocked his cage, all while eyeing Miguel carefully, and now he slid an open metal box in place of the door. He glared at Miguel.
Miguel knew this game, and had no interest in playing it. If he didn’t get in the box, Louie would put food in. If he still didn’t go, Louie would poke at him with a stick. And if Miguel still wouldn’t get in the box, Louie would climb into the cage, which meant Miguel would be trapped underneath a metal net and flung, hissing furiously, into the box with scratches on his neck from that stupid stick.
So Miguel slid in obediently, which made Louie smirk and slam the door shut with a menacing, metallic bang. They set off down the hall, with a few of Miguel’s now-awake friends blinking blearily at the dirty shape of Louie pushing Miguel on a cart, and Miguel curled miserably into a little ball.
He’d been in the box before, of course. Every once in a while he was taken away to breed with females from other zoos, or to put on a show where he squeezed his body around large and heavy metal objects and crushed them into tin cans. He assumed this was another case like that.
But he wasn’t led to the right where the exhibits were, or down the hall where he was sent to breed, but left to a staircase he hadn’t seen before, lined with cages of wolves and lynxes among a deep-green forest of moss. They eyed him majestically through the bars, pacing back and forth against the glass. Eventually Louie stopped at a handsome wood door that he pushed open to reveal a very odd room.
It was large and square, with a floor made of hard concrete that looked cold and a row of metal cages along one wall. The ceiling, like everything at The Carolina Indoor Zoo of Rare and Exotic Species, was made entirely of glass. Peeking through one of the air holes on his cage, Miguel could see that it was still raining. He was in awe for a moment of what such a large ceiling must look like covered in water before Louie’s haggard face appeared, grinning at him and revealing missing teeth. Miguel retreated instantly with a hiss.
“You’re in for a treat,” Louie chuckled. “Bloke here’s settin’ up a business and wants you to be a part of it. Mr. Warren said he’d think about it for the right price, and… well, guess they found the right price.” He grinned.
Miguel wasn’t sure what he meant, but the utter joy on Louie’s face both made him nervous and sickened him, and he coiled back farther into the shadows.
Louie wheeled him around to one of the metal cages and raised the crate up to it, opening the door expectantly for Miguel. Miguel slithered out and into the new cage, and Louie slammed the door shut. Something next door made a funny, high-pitched noise.
“Shut up, you bugger,” said Louie, banging on the cage. “Behave yourselves while I’m gone.” He vanished, presumably to collect another animal.
Miguel slunk to the back of his new prison and closed his eyes to sleep. Whatever was going on, he wasn’t going to worry about it until Louie got back.
“Hey,” said a voice from next door, rasping and low. “D’you have any idea what’s going on?”
“None,” Miguel said softly. “How long have you been here?”
“While,” said the voice. “Over an hour, I think. There’s someone above me, but he won’t say anything. And I think the one next to you might be asleep.’
“Who else is here?”
‘I don’t know,” the voice said nervously. “You were the first I saw to come in. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone’s asleep; it’s early.”
“Right,” said Miguel.
“I wonder if they’re going to sell us. Or eat us. Or both. I’m a little scared, aren’t you?”
“Suppose so,” said Miguel.
“I don't want to get eaten. Maybe getting sold would be better than here, I have so little room to stretch my legs and the food’s ghastly. Last week we got something that looked like little goat pellets, and the water had straw in it. Louie really doesn’t care for how we live. It's insulting to say the least-- if we’re prisoners we might as well have a nicer prison, that’s what my mother always said before she died. Owen and Pete wanted to eat her to have something decent for once, but I wouldn’t let them. Of course they wouldn’t listen to me, and I confess I was getting rather hungry myself, which sounds barbaric, but if you saw the things we eat you’d understand. Then Louie took her away and we were left with nothing but those goat-pellet things, I don’t know what they’re called, I think dog food-”
“Will you shut up?” snapped a voice above Miguel, which was good because Miguel was starting to want to bite him.
“Sorry,” said the first voice. “You’re right of course, I talk when I’m nervous, so sorry-”
“You’re still talking,” grunted another voice to the far right.
“Yes, well, I’m still nervous-”
“We don’t care,” snarled a low voice from the corner. From the lisp of her words, Miguel guessed it might be another snake. “I’ve been listening to you blabber for the past hour. And guess what? I still don’t care. So shut up, please.”
The first fell silent.
They sat there for a long time in a tense, angry silence, listening to each other’s breathing and the occasional high-pitched giggling of some creature. Miguel wondered vaguely if they were going to be fed anytime soon, and whether he could eat the animal next to him when the time came.
Sometimes back in the exhibit an animal disappeared from their cage, never to be seen again. It was assumed they had died but Miguel wondered if something more sinister might be going on. Mr. Warren, the zoo head and a creature unpleasant as Louie, was greedy and awful, and Miguel could see him selling his animals to the highest bidder with no difficulty. In fact, Miguel doubted he’d think twice over giving a bear to a seven-year-old girl if she gave him enough cash.
Suddenly Miguel was certain that this was the plan, that they were going to be sold to a rich stranger and shipped off to the circus or something, or sentenced to live in an old woman’s basement. Miguel wasn’t happy here, but he shuddered at the idea of leaving. What would he do without Mickey the Cobra, or Chloe the tortoise? Even Ginny seemed warmer in his mind at the thought of leaving her.
They can’t sell me. Would they really sell me?
He worried over this for several minutes until the door opened with a great clatter and Louie stomped through with another, larger, metal box on a cart. He went over to one of the cages on the floor, grunting, and carefully tipped a squealing lynx into it. Then he waited, tapping his foot impatiently. Two men sidled through the door, talking to each other loudly.
“$1500’s the deal, no bargaining…”
“Come on Walter, it’s just a fox…”
“A very valuable fox! It’s a Tibetan Sand Fox, brought directly in from China! He offers a good price, my friend.”
Miguel recognized the first man: Mr. Warren, the zoo head, but the other was a stranger. Mr. Warren bounced on the balls of his feet, looking incredibly smug. The other man walked up and down the cages, peering into them and occasionally sticking a finger in, smirking as a set of teeth or fangs snapped at him.
“I like ‘em,” he announced. “I get the whole lot, do I?”
“The ones you wish to use in your… business.” said Mr. Warren.
The stranger grinned at him. Louie, standing in the middle of the floor, cleared his throat impatiently but neither of them noticed.
“You think any of these guys stand a chance against, say, a bulldog? Lab? Maybe a Saint Bernard?”
“I should think so,” Mr. Warren said. “I picked the toughest and smartest just for you.” He gave the man a doting smile and Louie rolled his eyes.
“Heh,” said the man. “How do I know you aren’t lyin’? I mean, this one’s just a pig.” He frowned into one of the bottom cages and a loud snort answered him.
“That’s a wild boar brought in from Stuttgart,” said Mr. Warren severely. “They’re vicious, deadly, and extremely aggressive. He stands more of a chance against a Saint Bernard than you do.”
“You wanna see a fight?” the man asks, ignoring him. “I got a dog in the car. Pick one of your creatures and they can go head to head. Cheap even, just $85. That’s a deal, Mr. Warren, that is.”
Mr. Warren frowned, but Louie looked excited. “Please, Mr. Warren,” he said eagerly. “I’ll take on the night shift!”
“You’re already supposed to be on the night shift, son,” growled Mr. Warren, but he too looked tempted by the offer and stroked his beard. “I suppose just once?” he said finally. “I mean, it’s not technically legal, but no one has to know… you won’t tell, Louie? Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a good fight.”
It took Miguel a minute to catch on, but when he did, he didn’t like it at all. He knew he could best a dog easily, but that sort of life didn’t appeal to him. He preferred sleeping under a log, being fed, and chatting with the neighbors. People tapping his cage and waking him up didn’t even seem so bad compared to this nightmare of an idea.
“It’ll be delicious, Mr. Warren,” the stranger said with a horrible smile. “Louie, get the dog from my car. Mr. Warren, I hope I can choose an animal?”
The man walked up and down the cages, considering. Miguel pressed himself farther into the corner, shivering as the man’s yellow eyes passed over him. Finally he stopped at the end, smiling. “This one,” he said.
Mr. Warren advanced with a pair of gloves and a noose at the end of a stick. There was the frantic scrabbling of claws from inside.
Finally Mr. Warren succeeded in taking out a whip-thin wolf, with yellow fur covered in clumps of black and white and huge, batlike ears tattered at the edges. Its breathing was loud and its gold eyes darted around the room, plainly terrified. The stranger surveyed it with great interest.
“What is he, Mr. Warren?”
“African Wild Dog. They’re rare, them. Hard to find these days.”
The dog bleated pathetically and both men laughed. “I can see why,” said the stranger. “Ugly, aren’t you?”
Louie came skidding into the room, panting and holding the leash of an enormous dog with black and brown fur over a barrel chest. The wild dog shrank against Mr. Warren’s legs as the creature advanced on it, growling.
“Back up, all,” grunted the stranger, tugging the dog back. “These things get nasty.” The men found chairs and propped them up onto tables before sitting eagerly to watch. The stranger let the dog go.
At once it pounced on the wild dog, grabbing an ear in its massive jaws and tearing, snarling horribly. The dog shrieked and leapt back, shaking its head to clear it.
The fight was horrible and over quickly. Miguel closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to watch the final death-scream of the dog. For all he knew, he could have been great friends with him. He didn’t even know his name.
Louie was laughing and clapping his hands. “Another one!” he cried.
“Alright, but we need a better spot,” said Mr. Warren, who had a big, goofy grin on his face. The stranger laughed and money was passed around.
Miguel still had his eyes shut, and didn’t register for several minutes the presence of the stranger, pressed up against his cage and breathing loudly. His eyes had a feverish, eager light to them. “This one,” he cried. “This one’s perfect.”
Miguel was too shocked to even snap at him. Louie marched forward and dragged him from the cage with another of those foul sticks and into a metal crate similar to the one he’d been carried in.
They were taken to another place for the fight: a room housing several empty wire cages. The dog was dragged into one. Mr. Warren hesitated to release Miguel. “Are we sure he can’t get through the bars?” he asked.
“C’mon, it’s fine. Don’t be such a worrywart. Snake’s gonna be too focused on the dog to even think of gettin’ out.”
Actually all Miguel was thinking about was a way to escape. He could hear the distant thuds of rain on the roof, and all he was focused on was finding a way outside, so he could taste the rain on his tongue, feel it on his scales…
He felt rather than registered the sound of the door slamming shut, and had a few seconds to focus before the dog suddenly leapt at him, huge and bloody, with thick fur and teeth long as Miguel’s head.
The dog was much larger suddenly, and Miguel shot back to the side of the cage, hissing furiously, his coils sliding against each other, his head arched in a warning. His mind was racing, and he was vaguely aware of clapping from the side.
Kill the dog, then escape, he thought, just as it pounced on him again. Teeth tore into his tail and he let out an angry hiss. And WAKE UP, you idiot!
Miguel slithered to the side, coiling himself up again. As the dog sprang, Miguel lunged forward, hissing a death curse, his fangs plunging into the leg. The dog collapsed, and Miguel surged forward again, sliding over its body, wrapping himself around its limp form. He began to squeeze, and heard cheers. The dog whimpered and Miguel looked down at it.
Its eyes were bulging, its tongue between its teeth, and Miguel felt awful. He loosened his hold. The dog was just as much prisoner as he was, and didn’t deserve to die.
He slowly turned to face the men, rage pulsing beneath his scales, and lunged through the bars directly at Louie. His teeth sank into his arm and Louie screamed.
The other two jumped up, shrieking, Louie shouting with them. Miguel let go, and slithered to the door, sliding across the ground like a river, fast as he could. It opened a crack and he pushed through, glancing back once at the men shrieking and hopping around at the blood from Louie’s arm.
This is what happens when pigs get bored on a rainy day, he thought, momentarily amused. He moved through the halls as swiftly as he could, knowing one of them was bound to catch up to him soon. The screams had set off the animals, and the Carolina Indoor Zoo of Rare and Exotic Species was roaring, howling, hissing, shrieking, wailing and croaking their support.
Miguel hit the front doors and slid into a beautiful, beautiful rainstorm.