Petting Zoo by Steve Toase


“Can I have an ice cream? Please, Daddy? I’ve got enough pocket money.”

Ben looked at the two inches of snow across the path into the wild park and shook his head. His son’s face dropped.

“It’s too cold, Alfie. If you spend your money on ice cream, you won’t have enough for the gift shop.”

Michael knelt down by Alfie, put something in his small hand, and closed his fingers over the top.

“If your daddy won’t let you spend your own money, then you can spend Grandad’s. What flavour do you want?”

Ben watched them walk over to the kiosk. The attendant looked puzzled for a moment, then opened the freezer and passed over a ready packaged cone.

“For fuck’s sake,” Ben said under his breath, but loud enough for Sophie to hear. “Why does he always do that?”

“Because he wants to treat his only grandson,” she said, lacing her gloved fingers into his.

“And because he wants to undermine me.”

She shrugged and walked them both across to a map of the park, the glass frosted to opaque.

“If it bothers you that much, say something. He’s not an ogre.”

“He’s not,” Ben agreed. “He’s your dad, and in the ten years I’ve known him not once has he listened to me.”

Alfie ran back holding up his prize.

“Look what Grandad got me. A grown-up ice cream.”

“That’s very kind of Grandad,” Ben said. “Make sure you eat it all up.”

Michael stared at Ben and ruffled Alfie’s hair.

“You eat what you like Alfie. It’s Grandad’s money to spend and it’s Grandad’s money to waste.”

“How did you know about this place, Dad?” Sophie said, linking arms with the two men and walking down the path. Frozen pine needles splintered under their steps.

“Old friends set up the park. People I met when I was on the force. Wanted kids like Alfie to see some of these animals closer than they ever could in the wild.”

“Are there goats, Grandad?”

Michael smiled and pointed to an enclosure just visible around the corner.

“At the crossroads. Plenty of goats to see.”

***

Alfie pressed the coin into the slot and watched green and grey food pellets tumble into the wax paper cup. Ben tried to guide the hand holding the half-forgotten ice cream away from the goats’ grasping tongues.

“This is how they make their money,” he said.

“You don’t have to buy food for the animals. Can still come in for free,” Michael said.

“Is it special food, Grandad?”

Michael smiled and pulled Alfie’s glove free from the goat’s lips.

“It is. They make it specially on site. The animals eat a very special diet. Only some animals though. Can you see the sign?”

He pointed to a small green plaque bolted to the fence. Alfie nodded.

“That means the animals eat this special food. If there’s a red sign, then they have their own diet.”

Ben watched him show Alfie how to flatten his hand and let the animals lick the pellets up.

“And how far around do you think we’d get with a six-year-old who wasn’t allowed to buy any treats for the cute little creatures?”

Alfie tipped the contents of the cup onto the frost hardened soil just inside the fence and watched the goats butt each other out of the way as they fought over the offerings.

“You only think in terms of money, don’t you?”

“I can see a con when it’s being played. Parking. Cups of feed. Snacks and drinks. Soon adds up.”

“And you’d have been paying that even if there was an entry fee.”

Ben shook his head.

“If there was an entry fee we wouldn’t have come.”

Alfie took a large bite of his ice cream and handed over the empty cup.

“Grandad? Why are there photos of people on the cages?”

Michael knelt down next to the boy and sneaked a bite of his cone.

“Those are very special people who have given generously to the park to help keep the animals fed.”

“Can I have my photo next to an animal, Grandad?”

“Ooh, maybe when you’re older. We’ll have to see if you can be a good boy.”

“I can be a good boy. I’m very good, aren’t I, Daddy?”

Ben smiled.

“Sometimes, Alfie. Sometimes.”

“You shouldn’t put him down like that,” Michael said, leading the boy on to the next animal enclosure. Behind the fence two reindeer lay on fresh straw in a three-sided byre turned from the worst of the wind.

“Can I feed these?” Alfie pulled on his Daddy’s sleeve letting the cold January air into the gap.

“What does the sign say?”

The boy stared at the red notice for a moment.

“No?” he said, unsure of his answer.

“The food isn’t good for the reindeer.”

Losing interest, the boy turned his back to speak to his grandad. “What’s the biggest animal in the park?”

“Well, that would be the bison. They’re big softies.” He smiled a rare smile. “But there are some vicious animals here. Would you like to see a vicious animal?”

***

The slope up to the cat enclosure was coated in twice frozen snow and barely surfaced with grit. Ben clung to the banister and held his son’s hand tight, lifting him back onto his feet at least twice. Up ahead Michael leant on the barrier, waiting for the rest of his family to catch up.

“The boy would be much faster if you let him take risks.”

Ben looked at the steep slope, steps barely visible under the crust of compacted ice.

“You weren’t there when he went down the stairs. You didn’t have to pinch his scalp together in the ambulance.”

“And you don’t have to spend the rest of his childhood holding him back.”

Sophie squeezed Ben’s arm and he went quiet, taking the last few steps to stand next to his father-in-law.

“Look,” Michael said, turning Alfie’s head. “Can you see it? Hiding in the undergrowth?”

Alfie shook his head, then the lynx moved, stalking across the whitened grass to walk in front of the viewing platform.

“Big cat!” Alfie said, pointing to the creature. “Can I take a photo, Daddy?”

Ben handed the boy a small digital camera and watched as he balanced it on the railing, trying to freeze the creature in the viewscreen. Michael’s hand steadied the lens.

To distract himself, Ben knelt and read the small Perspex fronted panel. The photo was poor quality. A colour photocopy blown up until the features pixelated. Underneath was the girl’s name and date of birth.

“Twelve seems young to be donating to keep a big cat.”

“Maybe someone did it on her behalf,” Sophie said crouching beside him.

“I think I recognise her,” Ben said, leaning back to get a better view.

“Hard to tell from the picture.”

“Still, looks young to be sponsoring a lynx.”

Michael sighed and stood back to let Ben move closer to the barrier. The lynx had settled down by a tree opposite, the trunk bristling with metal spikes to stop it climbing.

“Someone else was responsible for her donation. You can do that. Doesn’t mean she’s spent all her pocket money on a year’s food for the creature.”

“I knew that,” Ben said. “It just seems to be an aggressive animal for a kid.”

“Does it look aggressive? It’s just a tabby cat. She probably wanted to spend all her pocket money on the big kitty from the park.”

“Pocket money. Can I have my pocket money? Can I buy something from the shop?”

Ben knew that his father-in-law would just use the opportunity to give the boy more money if he didn’t say yes.

“When we get around there.”

***

The elk stared from behind two lines of fencing, a chute cutting through both coming out at just the right height for the animal to feed.

“I can give this one food, right, Daddy?”

Ben crouched beside his son to read the green sign. Next to it a couple stared out of an old Polaroid sellotaped to a sheet of paper with their names and hometown written on.

“You could, but you gave all the pellets to the goats, and the goats seemed to enjoy them.”

“So I can’t feed the big deer?”

Ben shook his head.

“It’s an elk, and no. Not this time.”

At the sound of tumbling pellets, Ben, Alfie and the elk all looked up. Michael carried the full cup over and placed it in Alfie’s hands.

“Is ‘no’ the only word you can say, Ben? It’s not much, and he won’t get the chance to do this often.”

Ben leant over Alfie as the boy tipped the pellets into the waiting enclosure.

“Stop undermining me, Michael.”

“Let Alfie have some fun, Benjamin.”

Alfie grabbed his Grandad’s sleeve, and the older man knelt, readjusting his cap.

“Can I eat these pellets, Grandad?”

“No, they’re specially made. Only for animals. You know some animals eat grass?”

Alfie nodded.

“And what would happen if you ate grass?”

“I’d be sick.”

“You’d be sick,” Michael agreed. “It’s the same. Your tummy wouldn’t like these.”

In the enclosure the elk was bored of trying to nip the tiny spray of food off the floor. Walking back to the tree, it lifted a branch with one antler then used the ground and the canopy above to balance it between its tines.

“That’s clever isn’t it?” Michael said, turning Alfie’s head so he could see.

“The animal is obviously bored,” Ben said. “Or thinks it needs to perform for food.”

He turned to Sophie for support. She shook her head and mouthed, Nothing to do with me.

“I think it’s time to see what else we can find,” she said out loud, and took her son’s hand.

***

Around the corner the playpark came into sight.

“Can I go on the slide, Daddy?”

Ben shook his head.

“It’s too col—” he started to say.

“I’ll take him,” Sophie said. “You walk on a bit with Dad.”

He gave her a look that she ignored and watched her walk their son over to the playpark.

“If I’d coddled Sophie like you coddle him, you’d never have fallen in love with her,” Michael said and looked thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe that’s where I went wrong.”

“He’s our son. We’ll bring him up how we see fit.”

“She doesn’t agree with you. Thinks you don’t let him take enough risks.”

“You’re wrong,” Ben said, shaking his head. “We talk all the time about the best thing for Alfie.”

“You might talk, but you don’t listen. That’s why she’s over there playing with your son and you’re here babysitting the old man. She knows he’ll have fun with her. With you? He’ll just get bored and cold. I taught Sophie how to enjoy playing.”

“For a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. When you weren’t in the pub.”

An expression crossed Michael’s face that Ben couldn’t quite place.

“Times were different then. Parenting was different then.”

“And that’s exactly the point I’m making. The way we bring up children has changed.”

“Still no reason to stop the kid playing.”

They stood in silence, staring at each other, and Ben tried to pin down the moment when things had changed. They’d always got on in the past. Even at the wedding he’d been Ben’s biggest fan. Until they’d told Michael that Sophie was pregnant. Then things changed. Then he realised that his daughter had a new family. That time was a long way off for Ben. He tried to imagine how he would feel when he was no longer his son’s life support.

“There’s something I want to show you,” Michael said gesturing down the path.

“I’m not a fan of goats.”

“Just try and play along without a smart comment. Just for once.”

***

The pen was bigger than most, with a set of small, doored huts at the far end, beside them a clump of oak trees. Several wild boars churned up the frozen soil between the roots, searching for oak mast in the dirt.

“She really could do better than you,” Michael said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “You’ve dragged her down for years and now you’re doing the same to my grandson. Holding him back. Stopping him growing and developing. By the time he leaves school he’s going to be frightened of his own shadow.”

“He’s going to learn respect and the value of things.”

“He’s going to learn nothing about how dangerous the world is.”

Michael’s hand came out his pocket. The fist caught Ben in the throat, taking his breath and words. The next three punches closed his eyes; two boots to his knees robbing him of his balance.

“I can’t let that happen.”

Twitching, Ben slumped forward onto the fence. Michael leant in close until Ben could smell the tobacco on his breath and grabbed his son-in-law’s neck.

“Those photos you see on the pens? They’re people who have contributed to feeding the animals in a direct way. Helped in making the pellets, in a very real sense. Made a huge sacrifice. Became nutrition. Most of them were useless like you, and finally doing something productive. My friends offered me the same service, but I wanted you to actually experience something in your worthless little life.”

Grabbing the semiconscious Ben by his belt and neck, Michael tipped him into the enclosure.

The boars heard his unmoving body hitting the ground and were on him in moments, chewing through his clothes to get the muscle underneath. Piercing his cheek with their tusks and tearing his lower jaw free. Michael watched the large male force the others away, grab the spasming man by his neck and drag him across the enclosure to the pen. The other boars followed, crowding in to feast on the unexpected meal, the sound of snapping bone echoing like forest sticks underfoot.

Reaching into his coat, Michael brought out a photo of his son-in-law dressed in his wedding suit, Sophie cropped out. Opening the fence-mounted photo case, he slipped it inside and stepped back. He rolled a cigarette and waited.

***

“Why’s there a photo of Daddy there?”

Michael smiled and lifted Alfie up onto the fence.

“Because your Daddy decided to be very generous and donate to the park to feed the wild boar.”

“What’s a wild ball?”

“Wild boar,” Sophie said correcting him. “It’s like a big pig.” She put a hand on Michael’s arm. “Did you sort things out?”

“We came to an understanding.”

“Grandad? The sign on here is green. That means I can feed the wild balls, doesn’t it?”

“Well, you could normally, but can you hear that crunching sound?”

Alfie put his ear to the fence and nodded.

“That means the wild boars are having a special meal and probably won’t be hungry. Let’s go and find something else to feed your pellets to. Maybe the llamas. Or the siki deer. They look really funny, like they’ve got fangs.”



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Copyright Steve Toase 2019

Steve Toase was born in North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in Munich, Germany. He writes regularly for Fortean Times, Folklore Thursday. His fiction has appeared in Three Lobed Burning Eye, Shimmer, Lackington’s, StarShipSofa, Not One Of Us, Cabinet des Feés and Pantheon Magazine amongst others. In 2014, "Call Out" (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year 6, and two of his stories have just been published in Best Horror of the Year 11. He also likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails. You can keep up to date with his work via his Patreon https://www.patreon.com/stevetoase, www.tinyletter.com/stevetoase, www.facebook.com/stevetoase1, www.stevetoase.wordpress.com and @stevetoase.

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