Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
It was one of those nights where nothing went according to plan.
An evening out with friends, but I couldn’t find a parking spot anywhere around the place. Two blocks down the street, then hustling through the chill, puffing breath like smoke. All that only to discover I’d shown up at the wrong place. Then back toward my car, the skin around may ears prickled and numb, feeling like an idiot, just in time to see the parking enforcer glide past me without a word like a specter of death.
Too far from the curb. I didn’t even know they gave tickets for that. But I was already so late. I couldn’t let that bother me as I raced through the dark neighborhoods as a shortcut—not until I slammed to a stop in front of construction work closing off the road. I remember thinking how this night couldn’t get any worse as I pulled a sharp U-turn, but that was before a loud pop and a lurch nearly spun me off the road.
I was out on the street, ready to fight whatever hit me, whether it was a tree or a sign or a mailbox or a man. Then I found it—a power drill that one of the workers had left by the side of the road. The drill-bit was lodged securely in my tire which, like my hopes of meeting with my friends, deflated before my eyes.
It was one of those nights where everyone was the worst and everything was everyone’s fault but mine. The kind of night where the lights seemed half as bright as they ought to, and the wind carried whispers of forgotten names. The kind of night not to talk to strangers.
“Flat tire, huh?” asked the fattest man I had ever seen in my life. I don’t know where he could have come from for me not to have seen him, but now I could hardly see anything else. The segments of his legs overlapped each other in great wads, his bulk swinging sluggishly to catch up beneath his baggy shirt.
I bit my tongue to avoid lashing my frustration on this hapless bystander. Fumbling with the trunk, checking for my spire tire that I knew wasn’t there.
“Want some help with that?” I could hear his weight even when I wasn’t looking at him. Every word seemed swollen somehow, as though they could barely crawl over his blubbery lips. I looked him up and down, my expression intending to convey that he was doing enough just getting one foot in front of the other. He must have gotten the idea, because he dismissively waved a hand like a passing manatee.
“Bah, you don’t know. At least pull it off the road. We don’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves tonight, eh?”
“Who is this? A friend of yours, Sebastian?” A second voice, speaking in clipped tones. This man might as well have been a parody of the other, for he was so terribly thin that I could clearly make out his knuckle bones beneath his skin. Sharply inward drawn cheeks, eyes sunken into their sockets, and a curly knot of brown hair on his head.
“Never mind about his car, we’re going to be late,” the thin man continued. “It won’t be in anyone’s way while the road is closed.
A long, thin hand caught me by the back of my shirt as I tried to get back in my car. I wrestled away from him and he snorted in amusement. “No skin off my back. Here, hold onto your own ticket.” Then turning sharply from me — “Sebastian! Wait for us, Sebastian. Oh I do wish I’d brought a camera.”
I stared down at the ticket in my hand, with its elegant handwritten note glittering in gold ink.
The Human Zoo. Admits one. Every flavor of human.
The night wasn’t going according to plan, but why let it be a complete waste? Curiosity can race twice way round a head before better judgement has a chance to put on its shoes. I never exactly made the decision to follow him, but neither did I stop once I realized what I was doing.
It wasn’t difficult to catch up with the fat man who was plodding his way down the sidewalk. By that point they both seemed to think that I was here with the other one. Neither of them paid me much attention as they approached an iron gate which protected a strange and crooked house. The planks of wood bent and splintered as they struggled to support the slouching building, and in place of electric lights spluttered burning oil lanterns enclosed in twisted iron. The thin man produced a key to the gate. Moments later, he was knocking upon what once might have been a bright green door, though it was now peeling and faded into a sickly shade.
The Human Zoo, in small golden letters above the door. A thousand questions on my lips, but I kept them unvoiced so as not to betray that I didn’t belong. Maybe it was something like a freak show. Whatever someone looked like, I didn’t like the implications that they were less than human though. Maybe there was human trafficking going on, and people were being bought and sold like animals. Or were the series of unfortunate events of the night making me paranoid, and there was a much more innocent explanation? All I knew is that I had to take a peek, or be left wondering forever what I might have seen.
The door opened to reveal a rather stiff, unpleasant man in a dark suit. He had the face of a man who might order a drink, discover he didn’t like it, and pour it on the floor rather than return the offending beverage. It was certainly the type of expression he gave the three of us as he collected our tickets and ushered us into the dark hallway.
Low burning lanterns were mounted on the wall, the guttering light shifting the thick shadows across the dozen or more people already here. There wasn’t enough light to see them clearly, but several bodies were strangely proportioned, possessing a clubbed foot, or dreadful swelling, or tumorous bulges. A few inquisitive faces caught the light for a moment, but swiftly they returned to the main attraction: the long line of ornate picture frames which occupied both sides of the hallway.
Well that was a relief. Here I was imagining the worst when there was nothing but a gallery inside. Stepping away from the people I arrived with, I hoped the pair wouldn’t have a chance to figure out I hadn’t been invited. I pressed myself toward the thickest part of the crowd where I hoped to blend in. I still felt conspicuously out of place though, and I had gone a good way before I found the courage to look up and see what everyone was looking at.
There was a painting of a girl: a teenager, or maybe a little older. She had long brown hair twisted into a braid. The painting style focused more on shades of light than any specific detail. It was clearly a painting though, which is why I was so surprised to see the girl step away from the frame to kneel beside a backpack. She proceeded to withdraw a small stack of books and set them upon her bed.
I turned to look at the painting on my other side, and found myself face-to-face with a middle-aged woman. The viewpoint was fixed, and I could only see her from the back. That was enough to tell she was in the kitchen, silently chopping something with a knife. I waited a minute to see if she would turn and face me, but she showed no realization that she was being watched.
“Oh oh oh, that’s more like it,” croaked an elderly man. Several other people and crowded around the painting he stood before. “Sarah Berkley, 242 S. Colver Street. I didn’t know she was expecting company.”
My eyes caught on the bronze plaque below the painting of the cooking woman. A name and an address—all of them had one. I followed the shift of people and tried to get a glance at what everyone was looking at.
“Let’s get some sound from her. What do we pay you beastly people for?” another voice rose form the group.
I had almost made room to get a proper look when a distorted pop crackled in the air. It sounded like an old-fashioned record player spinning to life. Filtering through the gentle static came a sudden heaving breath, intermingled with a soft moaning sigh.
“A thousand bucks says she regrets it,” the elderly man said.
“Are you mad? She’s fancied him for weeks. Thousand bucks, you’re on,” said another.
“Oh no, not with you. I’m still waiting on that five large for the man who hit his wife.”
“He only pushed her out of the way, and you know it. That doesn’t count!”
“Thousand bucks says she likes it, and she does him again before the week is out,” rolled the fat-man’s distinctive blubbery words.
“Done and done, shake on it Sebastian and we’ve got a deal.”
The moaning was getting louder—the breath more ragged. I still couldn’t get a clear look, but I was starting to feel really uneasy. I kept my distance from the painting and pretended to be interested another adjacent one. It was a man at his desk before a computer. I couldn’t focus—there were more and more people arriving, and it kept getting louder.”
“Look over here—we’ve got one crying.”
“Pretty little thing. Want to pay her a visit and see if we can’t give her a better night?”
“You go. I’ll watch. Whatever you do, don’t make it boring, eh?”
Then from farther down the hall— “Oh Wesley, you’re such a fool. I can’t believe you thought she loved you. That’s right, runaway. Runaway you fat ugly fool.”
“Hold on a second. Everyone quiet!”
Hold on a second. Everyone quiet. The distorted echo of those words were repeated from the darkness.
“I thought so. One of the animals has found its way into the gallery. Look, you can see the windows behind him!” Then the voice said my name, and then my address. I slipped back toward the door as unobtrusively as I could, but I was the only one moving. One pair at a time, the eyes of the patrons shimmering in the flickering light as they turned toward me. Then I was running out the door, the gasp of cold air flooding my lungs as though I’d been drowning.
“Pick him up after he falls asleep.” Those were the last words before I heard the door close behind me.
I know you aren’t supposed to drive on a flat tire, but the rumbling protest of my car was nothing beside the silent screaming between my ears. How can I go home knowing they’re watching me? How can I ever know that I’m alone when they know where I am? And how can they think I’m an animal, when I was part of the human zoo?
WRITTEN BY: Tobias Wade
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