This is the 26th (and last) round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I wrote one story for each letter of the alphabet, this being the last, or “Z” story.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on the total votes received.
The story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of this round, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “Z” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — E. J. D’Alise
(3,480 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Fred yawned. Long drives on the Midwest’s backroads offered a chance for introspection and reflection, but the monotonous passing of similar landscape took a toll on even the most disciplined introspection practitioners.
A lonely billboard up ahead caught his attention. Specifically, one word.
It was only as he got near that he read the rest:
The only Zoo of its kind!
2 Miles ahead, $2 Admission
No Children Allowed
Fred smiled as he imagined various dead animals made up to resemble familiar creatures of lore . . . and then felt sadness for what must surely be a terrible indignity to suffer after death. A mile closer, a second billboard advertised a gas station ahead, and Fred welcomed the chance to stretch his legs, fill his tank, and use the facilities.
It turned out the station and the zoo were part of the same stop. The station itself was small and looked more like an afterthought attached to the large hanger sporting a faded sign with the word CRYPTIDS and an outline of the most famous of them all, Bigfoot.
Fred looked around as he filled his gas tank. He could see no buildings other than the station, the hanger, and a shed. Come to think of it, he’d not seen any cars for a while, and without any nearby crossroads, this seemed like a poor location for a gas station, let alone a tourist trap zoo.
Fred made his way into the small building after replacing the pump’s handle and getting his receipt from the pump. The building looked old, and a worn “Help Wanted” sign hung crookedly under the flickering “Open” neon sign.
The man behind the counter didn’t fit Fred’s expectations. Actually, he didn’t know what he’d expected, but certainly not someone dressed as a Big Game Hunter. The man looked hard, like he’d seen and done a lot. Hard but tired, or maybe bored. After looking up from his book to glance at Fred, he went back to reading without saying a word.
“Good afternoon,” Fred said and looked around before asking, “Where are your restrooms?”
The man pointed to the door with the sign “To the Cryptids Zoo“.
“I’m not interested in the zoo,” Fred clarified.
“Restroom is through that door and on your left,” the man said without looking up, his voice rich but raspy, “before you get to the zoo’s entrance.”
The door gave way to a hallway lined with photos of cryptids; Fred recognized a few, and some were new to him. On the way back, he paused to read a few of the names he didn’t recognize; Flatwoods Monster (West Virginia), The Nain Rouge (Detroit, MI), Kirtland Melonheads (Ohio) . . . and some Native Americans supernatural beings; Dagwanoenyent (Iroquois), Baykok (Anishinaabe), Wendigo (Great Lakes and Atlantic Regions), Qalupalik (Inuit).
The Illustrations were as interesting as the names and, despite himself, the sheer quantity piqued Fred’s curiosity. The size of the attached hangar now made sense. Heck, it might even be too small, given some of the beasts it purported to hold. Plus, the list contained both aquatic and flying cryptids in addition to the land-based manifestations of people’s imagination.
On the way out, Fred stopped in front of the man, who acknowledged Fred’s presence by looking up from the book.
“I have a question,” Fred said.
“Probably more than one,” the man answered, placing a bookmarker on the page he was reading and closing the book. “Ask away.”
“How many cryptids are housed in the zoo?”
“Cryptids is a marketing term. I prefer mythical beings,” the man answered. “By categories, seventy-eight. If you’re speaking individual specimens, sixty-six. Some of these beings cover multiple myths.”
“Beings?” Fred asked. “Not creatures?”
“Look … Fred; these beings have intent. They’re not creatures intersecting with our lives by chance. They exist to specifically affect people’s lives.”
“You speak as if these mythical beings are real,” Fred said.
The man said nothing; he just kept looking at Fred.
“You’re saying these are real?”
“Fred, it took me many years to capture these beings. Some are still out there because I work alone. Some I let be because local economies depend on them to draw tourists,” the man replied. “Like, for instance, Nessie. Not only is she huge, but locals depend on her to draw in tourists and researchers. She’s harmless, so I let her be. Others, like Detroit’s Nain Rouge, are not only practically unknown but endangered, as well.”
It took a few moments for Fred to register what the man said, and when it did, his skepticism crept even higher, pushing his tone to border on derision.
“Wait. Captured? Are they alive? You’re saying you’re a cryptids conservationist?”
“This is a zoo. Like most zoos, it’s a little of everything. Some of these beings I captured to put on display, some to keep them from hurting humans, and some are here because they are in danger of disappearing from memory.”
“But, if that were the case, you would be swamped with visitors!”
“Yes, I can see how anxious you are to visit the zoo,” the man replied, his sarcastic tone also managing to sound castigating. “Just like everyone else.”
The man sighed. “Here’s the truth; it’s not for the faint of heart. Most people don’t make it even a third of the way through and certainly don’t recommend the place to their friends.”
Fred said nothing, and the man continued.
“But, I’ve grown tired of arguing with skeptics. You either want to see for yourself, or you don’t. If you want to go in, it’s two dollars.”
“You can’t possibly maintain the place charging that little.”
“Do you want to pay more?” the man asked, and then shook his head. “Admit it; as little as the admission is, you’re thinking you’d be wasting your money. You probably don’t think twice about spending five dollars on a latte you’re going to piss out an hour later, but even at two dollars, you’re hesitating. That’s why there’s hardly anyone here!’
“So, how do you make enough money to maintain the place?”
“Stock photos and footage,” the man replied. “I sell to advertisers and can even arrange photoshoots as long as precautions are followed. Haven’t lost a customer yet!” The man winked and then added, “… but I suppose there’s always a first time.”
Fred checked his watch. He was ahead of schedule, and his curiosity by then was as aroused as his desire to debunk the man’s claims.
“What the heck,” he said. “Here’s two bucks.”
The man ignored the money on the table, picked up and opened his book, and pointed at the door.
Fred went through the door, the hallway, and through the door with the large sign that said:
(close door behind you)
Standing in a corridor that curved both to his left and right, the first thing Fred noticed was the poor lighting. That made sense as most cryptids, or, mythical beings, usually appeared in poor light or outright darkness. Next, Fred registered the utter lack of smell. The air was still, but clean; no musty smell. He’d expected some animal smell, but he couldn’t even say it smelled good because he registered no odors at all.
Lastly, the quiet. When he’d closed the door, a quiet had descended as if a physical property. So quiet that Fred became aware of the sound of his breathing, and even the noise from his clothes against his skin when he moved his head.
An arrow on a small sign in front of him pointed to his left. Fred concluded the corridor must go all around the perimeter of the hangar and started off to his left, his steps sounding odd to his ears. It took a few moments to understand why. There were no echoes of any kind, as if the walls, floor, and ceiling captured any sound and held it fast.
The first display he came to was that of Bigfoot. The plaque in front of the short railing separating the enclosure from the corridor displayed the name “Sasquatch, Mogollan Monster, Skunk Ape, Knobby, et al.”
It was a large enclosure, and the content reminded Fred of the Old-growth forests he’d hiked in the Pacific Northwest. The lighting was poor, but he could make out large tree trunks, mossy groundcover, and sparse saplings. Fred was impressed by the recreation, although it lacked the musty smell of undergrowth.
Grasping the railing, he leaned into the enclosure and turned his neck to see how far up the trees went, but he couldn’t make out details. He was about to lean back when he simultaneously felt a warm breath on his neck and heard a rustle of a shrub at the edge of the display. Startled, he reflexively jumped back.
Looking at the shrub, it took a few moments to make out a pair of brown eyes staring back at him through the foliage. Instinctively, he leaned forward for a better look . . . and that’s when the eyes moved, rising well above him, and then Fred made out a vaguely humanoid shape moving away from his position. It hardly made any noise, but in the quiet surroundings, he could track its progress. Fumbling for his phone, he managed one photo before the figure melted into the display. Fred waited a few minutes, scanning the enclosure for signs of movement and listening for any sounds. Unnerved, he stepped back from the railing and checked the photo on his phone.
It was blurry, but the figure was definitively bipedal, tall, and covered in fur.
Fred chuckled, imagining some poor guy whose job was to stand there, dressed in a monkey suit waiting for the rare visitor to come close. Shaking his head, he moved on to the next display.
“Wendigo,” the plaque said. Dark, desolate, with an appearance of coldness, the enclosure emanated an aura of scarcity, famine . . . starvation. The plants themselves seemed to starve for nutrients, and a swirling gray mist completed the effect of desolation and despair. Again, Fred was impressed by the recreation. He extended his hand past the railing and was shocked. The air inside the enclosure was chilled, giving him an even stronger sense of desolation and scarcity. It was then that what appeared as a gnarled trunk moved, reaching for Fred’s hand.
Hastily pulling his hand back, Fred could make out a tall figure. Looking vaguely humanoid, impossibly thin, it appeared gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones. Ash-gray in complexion, its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo — if that’s what the figure represented — looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. Fred brought up his phone, snapped a photo, but as he looked a bit closer, the “Wendigo” now appeared more like a gnarled trunk of a dead tree than a humanoid figure. “Must be an animatronic puppet,” he thought. “A pretty good one, too.”
Two displays and Fred was thoroughly impressed by the place. Even if all the others were a bust, just these two were worth the price of admission.
Glancing at his watch, Fred decided to pick up the pace. Phone at hand, he paused by each enclosure and snapped a photo once he could make out the cryptid contained therein. The displays were a mix of live figures — the Chupacabra probably a mangy coyote, and Mothman was likely a barn owl — and animatronics — the Jersey Devil, Dover Demon, Pope Lick Monster.
The enclosures rivaled the best of Disney’s Showcases. As Fred made his way around, he couldn’t understand why this wasn’t publicized and a major destination for tourists, be they fans or skeptics alike.
Pressed for time, at some enclosures, he just snapped a photo even if he didn’t see anything, intending to review them later that evening, at his hotel.
The last display gave him pause. Barren, poorly lit, it contained a lone figure sitting on an oversized chair. He looked at the sign . . . “God (various)” it said.
Fred waited for the figure to say or do something, but it just sat there, so Fred called out.
The reply was omnidirectional, so Fred assumed the figure was miked, and its voice piped to surrounding speakers.
“So, you’re god?”
“It depends. What religion do you follow?”
“Ah, an agnostic.”
“Atheist, actually,” Fred clarified.
“A person of conviction,” the figure said.
Fred was still trying to determine the gender and age of the person sitting there, but nothing that he could see or hear gave him an indication of either.
“That’s because what I am is up to you. Were you a Christian, I’d be old, male, robed, and sitting on a throne. For some Christians, I’d be nothing but a light too bright to focus on. Where you Pagan, I’d be Zeus, also male and also sitting on a throne. Within various religions, I could be any number of Gods, male and female. ”
Fred was taken aback by the unprovoked answer to his unasked question.
“Are you reading my mind?” Fred asked.
“And more,” the figure answered.
“What number am I thinking of right now?”
“Please, I don’t do parlor tricks. Besides, you’re not thinking of a number; you’re just challenging me. No matter the answer I give you, it would be wrong.”
“OK,” Fred replied, “I’m thinking of a number now.”
“Atheists are familiar with scriptures, often more so than believers. Tell me, what happens when someone tests God?”
“… they are killed by snakes …” Fred replied, and as he did, he heard a dry, raspy sound all around him.
Despite his certainty of it all being a trick, Fred’s primal response triggered, and he looked around where he stood, ascertaining to himself no snakes were about to descend upon him.
“Very good,” the figure said. “You know your scriptures.”
“You have to admit it’s a bit convenient,” Fred said. “It absolves you from proving who you are.”
“That’s because most religions are based on faith,” the figure answered.
“But I’m not religious. Why would I be bound by the belief of others, let alone that of a specific religion? What if I were Buddhist?”
“As the Buddha, I know the nature of existence, but I wouldn’t know what number you’re thinking of, so it would be pointless to ask.” As he spoke, Fred could see the figure slowly morph into a more rotund being, the chair morphing into a thin platform.
“Ah, a hologram. Clever,” Fred thought.
“As the Buddha, can you enlighten me as to the meaning of life?” Fred asked, smiling at the double meaning of the question.
“Even if I did, you would not understand it. That’s something you must come to it on your own through self-examination. It’s not something that can be ‘given’ to you. You achieve understanding by meditation and discipline and transcending the very limits that keep the answer from you.”
“Again, that seems self-serving, allowing you to avoid answering the question.”
“Perhaps, but I still speak the truth.”
“What can you do to convince me you’re God?”
“That’s a question I would pose of you … were I interested in convincing you. Believe or don’t believe, it doesn’t matter to me.”
The hologram had morphed back into a figure on a chair, and Fred took the opportunity to snap a photo with his phone. The figure laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Fred asked.
“You seek confirmation that I don’t exist. Go ahead, check your photo.”
Fred opened the photo gallery app and looked at the last photo. It showed an empty enclosure.
“Satisfied?” the figure asked. “You now have proof I don’t exist!” said a now mirthful voice.
“So, a parlor trick…” Fred said.
“And yet, here you are, talking to me. Why the interest if you’re so sure it’s a trick?” the figure asked.
“I nearly always engage people who make extraordinary claims.”
“I’m not ‘people’.”
“Someone made you,” Fred said. “I’m engaging whoever made you.”
“You speak more truth than you know,” the figure replied.
“If you are God, why are you here? How can anyone bind you?”
“Ah, a question I can answer… The Protector.”
“The man out front?”
“How can a mere human contain God; any God?”
“Who says he’s a mere human?”
“I’m not familiar with the mythology of The Protector. What is he?” even as he asked, Fred realized how gullible he sounded.
“You lack understanding of the words I would speak, but think of Prometheus, Vishnu, Enki . . . heck, even Dahariel Regem.”
“I’m only familiar with some, but… wait. Are you saying he is the creator, benefactor, and protector of humankind?”
The figure did not reply.
“He’s not doing a good job of it, if you ask me,” Fred continued.
“He’s not here to protect you from each other. That is a burden left to humans. They will either grow for the benefit of all, or perish like many before them.”
“Then what’s he protecting?”
“He protects humankind from the Supernatural.”
“Riiight! Well, there too he seems to be doing a poor job of it.”
“We’re in here, aren’t we?” the figure asked.
“Yes, but we still have religions and paranormal beliefs, and… I mean, if you really are God and kept here, what’s fueling religious beliefs and belief in the supernatural, including the beings I saw trapped in this … this … zoo?” Fred swept his hand from the figure and back toward where he’d just come from.
“That’s on you and your kind. Beliefs wane and strengthen, usually for self-serving reasons.”
“OK, this is silly, and I’m late. I’m out of here!” Fred said, heading for the exit.
“Nice chatting with you, Fred.”
Fred stopped and doubled back.
“How do you know my name?”
The figure didn’t answer.
“Of course… the credit card charge. Clever.”
And with that, he exited the hanger.
As he got back to the front building and was about to exit, the man at the desk spoke without looking up from his book.
“Did you enjoy the zoo?” he asked.
Halfway out the door, Fred stopped, thought for a moment, and then went back in and walked up to the counter. The man picked up the bookmark and closed the book around it, then sat back in his chair.
“You know what? I did, mostly,” Fred replied.
“Except for the last part,” the man said.
“Except for the last part, yes. You should close that display.”
“Yes, for believers as well.”
“What do you mean?” Fred asked.
“It has no more answers for them than it did for you. Maybe less so, because they expect answers. Many of them get mad, some even violent.”
“Then why not give them answers?”
The man looked at Fred for a bit before answering.
“Ah. You think it’s a trick,” the man replied, sighing before continuing. “It’s not in its nature to give answers. It just asks leading questions, gives cryptic answers, and people make up their own answers depending on their fears, hopes, and wants. That’s what makes it dangerous to humans. It appears to give justification to their worst tendencies.”
Fred looked at the man for a number of seconds before blurting out the question.
“Why do you call yourself The Protector?” he asked.
“He told you that, did it?” the man frowned. “… must have thought you’d be interested.”
The man pointed to the “Help Wanted” sign.
Fred laughed. Involuntarily, but sincerely, he laughed out loud. The man didn’t seem to mind.
“Sorry,” Fred said. “You caught me off-guard.”
“No offense taken. I didn’t take you for the type.”
“The type who would take on a thankless but crucial job.”
“What job would that be? Capturing more gods?”
“No, there’s only one, with multiple personalities, and it’s already in the zoo,” the man answered. “But, there are more mythical beings running around and more cropping up. Not just here, but around the world. I could use the help.”
Fred stared at the man, smiled as he shook his head in disbelief, and left.
“I’ll find you if you change your mind,” he heard the man say just before the door closed at his back.
Later that evening, his business in the area concluded, and spending the night at a hotel before heading back, he reviewed the photos he’d taken.
Admittedly, the photos that had turned out were impressive. Some of the best effects he’d ever seen, rivaling CGI efforts found only in high-production-value in movies.
It was when he got to the last photo that a cold chill ran down his spine.
What had been a photo of the empty “God” display now showed a grinning old woman wearing American Indian garb. Fred dropped the phone when she winked and waved at him.
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