Trapped in Twingle’s Twilight Zoo

the part in which Henry the elephant meets Paula the peacock

        Henry ran to the top of the path. It didn’t take but a minute to get to the courtyard, and just as it was the day before, the gate was closed. Henry figured it was locked again too, because there were some kids already milling around in the courtyard, and none of them seemed anxious to rush the gate again.
        Henry slowed to a walk and felt the lightness in his chest dissipate as he realized he was still stuck in the zoo. But even though he wasn’t sure what to do next, he knew he had to remain calm. He rather liked being a boy, even a small one trapped in a zoo, and he didn’t want to turn into an elephant again. So Henry wandered toward the girl with her face painted like a peacock and the boy who was talking to her, who had his face painted like a panda. As he approached, they both looked at him, and Henry could see the girl’s expression fall.
        “I tried to warn you, you know,” she said matter-of-factly, crossing her arms across her chest.
        Henry was confused, and it must have shown on his face because he didn’t even have a chance to say anything before she interrupted.
        “Yesterday … when you were walking around by yourself … and you stopped in front of my pen and I was yelling at you to get out of the zoo.”
        “How was I supposed to know what you were saying?” Henry asked, putting his hands in his pockets. He did remember how frustrated the bird had seemed, and he was a little afraid the girl might flip out on him again. “It’s not like I know how to speak peacock.”
        The panda boy sniggered, and Henry couldn’t help but smile, and apparently, the girl thought it was funny too, because a moment later, she laughed and smiled too.
        “Well, you should learn, elephant boy.”
        “Henry,” he said quietly. “My name is Henry.”
        “My name is Paula, and this is Sam.”
        Henry nodded at Paula and then turned to give Sam a nod too. Everyone kept smiling, and apparently nobody knew what to say because a long moment passed with them all in silence. Paula started to shift and swing her arms, and Sam was looking around. Henry realized they weren’t getting anywhere.
        “So, what do we do now?” he asked after another uncomfortable moment passed.
        “Well, most of the boys play tag, but I only play sometimes,” Paula started. “They don’t always play by the rules and the last time we played, I made it back to safe before Pim did, and he ran into me and I skinned my knee,” she said, pointing to her leg. And then she ran on, and Henry wasn’t sure she had even bothered to take a breath. “I was worried it might get infected, because my peacock pen isn’t exactly clean. It’s full of dirt and leaves and there’s this gross green stuff growing on the rocks around the watering hole, which I never, ever, ever want to touch … but it’s kind of hard to avoid it.
        “But my knee is better now, and it didn’t really hurt that much, but it was the principle of the thing, you know?”
        Henry wasn’t sure it was really his turn to talk, but he opened his mouth anyway. “No, I mean, what are we going to do to get out of here?”
        “We can’t get out,” Sam the panda said. “We’re all stuck in here.”
        “Well … there has to be a way out.”
        “Nope. There’s not,” Paula added, crossing her arms and thrusting out her hip. “We’ve tried everything, but every time we touch the gate or any part of the fence, we turn into animals again. I thought maybe we had a chance yesterday with you turning into an elephant and all, but nope, you couldn’t even bust it down.”
        Henry thought for a second, and he could feel himself getting frustrated. “But you can turn into a bird. Why don’t you just fly over the fence?”
        Paula was obviously getting frustrated too, and even though her face was painted blue and white like a peacock, Henry could see her neck flush red.
        “I tried … I’ve tried a hundred times at least, but the fence keeps us in. Whenever I get close to it, it grows taller, just so I can’t get over it.”
        “How did you even pick a peacock anyway,” Sam grumbled, clearly getting caught up in the frustration of the moment. “You know the blue ones are boys, right?”
        Paula’s eyes got even bigger, and she leaned toward Sam as if she was going to peck him, even though she wasn’t a bird at the moment. “These are modern times. I can be anything I want … don’t you know that?
        “And while we’re on the subject of choices, why didn’t you pick a real bear anyway?         Something big, like a grizzly or a polar bear … at least then you’d be helpful.”
        Sam clenched his fists and stiffened his back, his neck turning bright red to match Paula’s. “I didn’t know I was going to turn into a panda, okay!”
        “Guys,” Henry said quickly, hoping to stall what was becoming a tense moment in its tracks. If they all turned into animals, he liked his chances as an elephant in between a panda and a peacock. But while they were kids, he wasn’t so sure he’d survive if Sam and Paula kept at it.
        The three of them stood quietly, and then Sam and Paula relaxed. Henry took a deep breath in relief. Paula turned to Henry.
        “The point is, the gate changes. Didn’t you see it … what it did when you got close?”
        Henry realized he hadn’t, and he shook his head, a little deflated not knowing what Paula was talking about.
        “The bars got really thick, Henry. Really, really thick. They get really thick whenever any of the boys get close, because you all picked to be these big strong animals.”
        “Oh,” was all Henry managed to say.
        “The fence knows how to keep us in,” Sam added, as if to put a period on the hopelessness Henry was feeling.
        “I just … I can’t believe it …” Henry mumbled, and he really couldn’t believe any of it. How he had found a zoo in the woods. How he got stuck inside. How he turned into an elephant. None of it made any sense.
        Henry looked around. He hadn’t realized it, but the other kids had gathered around him, and seeing the frustration in his face, they slumped their shoulders, perhaps realizing he wasn’t going to be much help.
        “Come on, guys,” Pim the lion said, walking away. “Let’s go play hide-and-seek.” The other boys and the one other girl among them turned to follow Pim down the path.
Paula sat down cross-legged, and Sam and Henry followed.
        The sky was getting dark, and so was the zoo. As if they had been lit on cue, gas lamps along the fence and along the paths lit with bright yellow flames. The park started to glow a warm yellow fireplace-at-Pappy’s kind of glow, and if Henry hadn’t been so worried about whether he was going to make it back, he might have enjoyed it.
        “So, how long have you guys been here anyway?” he asked, not sure he really wanted to know the answer.
        Both the kids shrugged their shoulders at the same time. “I think it’s been a long time,” Paula said, looking at Sam.
        “I don’t know anymore.” Sam looked at Paula. “I have been here longer than everyone but Pim and Gerry. I don’t think Paula has been here for more than a few weeks—”
        “No way,” Paula interrupted, shaking her head. “There’s no way. I’ve been here lots longer.”
        “I don’t know,” Sam said, seeming to not want to get on Paula’s bad side for a second time. “However long, we have both been here long enough to lose count of the days,” he added, looking back at Henry.
        Henry stared at the two kids and realized his mouth was hanging open, so he closed it. Sam was about as tall as Henry, but he was bigger around the middle, and he had plump cheeks and a small mouth. Henry thought he might have actually looked like a panda even without the face paint. And Paula’s dark hair and long thin neck and shoulders could have easily reminded Henry of a bird even if she didn’t have the colors on her face to match.
        Henry couldn’t help but stare, realizing if these two had been there for longer than they could remember, maybe there really wasn’t a way out of Twila Twingle’s terrible zoo.

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