A Night At The Zoo

- 1 -

“Are you excited?” Uncle Paul leaned over placing his hands on the knees of his dingy green coveralls.
“Omigod,” Little Jumpy McJumpy replied breathlessly. “I can not wait. Baby Jumpy McJumpy is going to be soooo awesome. He’s going to be like a real live baby doll. You know why? Because he’s going to be a real live baby! I want to hold him. Mom said I can, you know.”
“No,” was all Big Jumpy McJumpy could manage.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Uncle Paul said patting Big Jumpy on the head. “Are you excited about being at the zoo with me is what I want to know.”
“Oh, yes! I love animals. All kinds except maybe bats. Or worms. And we get to stay up past our bedtime.”
“A worm is an insect,” said Paul.
“Actually, a worm is an invertebrate,”said Big Jumpy.
“We have a pet spider. Did you know that?”
Paul picked up Little Jumpy and sat her in the crook of one big arm. “Of course I do. I live right next door, remember?” he said giving her a kiss on the forehead.
“Spiders are arachnids,” said Big Jumpy.
Paul was looking after Big and Little Jumpy McJumpy while their parents were at the hospital having Baby Jumpy McJumpy. As these things happen, Baby Jumpy decided to come into this world in the middle of the night so Paul had no choice but to bring them to the zoo where he worked as the night janitor. Little Jumpy began tugging on a loose thread from the embroidery that spelled Paul in cursive on the chest of his coveralls. He set her on his green contraption before she unraveled it to the point where it only read Pau.
Now, this zoo was no ordinary zoo. It was high on a hill and overlooked the tiny town of Gulliver in the big state of Montana and looked more like a castle than any zoo you ever saw. There were manicured lawns leading up the the zoo castle with a hedge trimmed path leading to massive wooden doors that opened into a Great Hall. Two-story wings branched off in either direction with turrets on each end, capped with spires shaped like birthday hats. It had to be at least hundred years old. Maybe more.
They had arrived long after sunset in Red, Uncle Paul’s old pickup truck. Where it wasn’t obliterated by rust, it’s dusty rose color made it difficult to imagine Red’s once shiny red paint. It burped and farted along the winding road that lead up the to the zoo, with jarringly little assistance from what remained of Red’s shock absorbers. Big Jumpy and Little Jumpy were already in their pajamas and were just tucked in bed when Mom announced that “it was time.” Meaning, Baby Jumpy McJumpy was on his way.
Big Jumpy would have been just as happy to stay in bed. What could possibly happen anyway? Big was roused from his bed as Little was jumping on hers, wide-eyed with the prospect of having a little brother, when Uncle Paul arrived to take them to the zoo. There was only one seat in the truck, a long one in front that they could all sit on together. Little Jumpy sat nestled next to Uncle Paul and offered to help him drive while Big Jumpy looked gloomily out the passenger window, watching the inky shadows of the little town float by.
Red’s passenger door no longer worked so they all had to climb out of the driver’s side after Uncle Paul parked near a side entrance of the zoo. Even if Big Jumpy could have slept through Red’s rumbling up the hill, he was wide awake when an owl protested their intrusion as they made their way across the parking lot to the zoo, the gravel crunching under their feet. Big grabbed a hold onto Uncle Paul’s leg as Little clung to the other.
“How do you know which key opens the door?” Big had asked. The key ring that jangled from Paul’s belt had more keys than Little could count, of all shapes, sizes, and colors. But before you could say “Jumpy McJumpy,” Paul selected a long key made of blackened iron with a four-leafed clover on one end and notches sticking out one side of the other end.
“Here. You do you it,” Uncle Paul said handing the ring to Big Jumpy.
They were heavier than Big expected and it slipped to the ground in a jangled mess. If they hadn’t landed on Paul’s toe, they might not have found them in the dark, the full moon having slid behind a cloud. Big fumbled through the keys but was quickly able to pick out the right one by himself. He put it in the keyhole and the lock turned easily, releasing the iron latch on the door.
Just inside, Paul used a rather ordinary key to unlock the door to the janitor’s closet where he used a tiny silver key to open a panel of switches. He flipped this one and that until dim lights began coming on down the zoo castle’s corridors. From a hook, he retrieved coveralls that were still labeled Paul and pulled them over his clothes. This is also where Uncle Paul got the green contraption on which Little Jumpy McJumpy now sat.

- 2 -

“This is hard,” she said as Paul set her down.
“Can I push it?” Big Jumpy McJumpy wanted to know.
Little Jumpy McJumpy was sitting on a green, metal thing. It looked a little bit like a fire hydrant only completely different. First of all, it was green and very shiny. Much shinier than Uncle Paul’s truck, Red. It was made up of a bottom part and a top part that were bolted tightly together. There were no latches and no hinges, no way to make it open. It had no blinking lights and no switches either. It was round on the top - which is where Little Jumpy was sitting - and the whole contraption sat on a cart with wheels and a handle for pushing.
“What does this do?” they both asked.
“I’m not entirely sure,” said Uncle Paul.
Big Jumpy gave the cart a shove and when it failed to move, he pushed with all his might. It was heavy but he was able to push it a little way before he offered to let Uncle Paul take over.
“Fish tank!” Big shouted running ahead along the carpeted length of the first floor hallway. Uncle Paul followed pushing the cart with Little atop the green machine. Squeak, squeak, squeak sang three of the cart’s wheels as they followed, the fourth wheel seemingly having no purpose as it wobbled back and forth uselessly.
When they reached the fish tank, Big was already there with his hands on the glass looking into the tank. It was twice the size of his bedroom. “Are there octopuses in there?” asked Little.
“Maybe,” said Paul.
“Stingrays?” asked Big.
“Maybe,” said Paul.
“What about whales?”
“Could be.”
“There can’t be whales,” protested Big. “There isn’t enough room!”
“You can never be sure,” said Paul.
“What are they doing now?” asked Little. On the other side of the glass a beautiful array of colorful fish were lining up next to each other, all facing the glass and looking out at them. There were white ones with orange stripes that had long noses that looked like tiny straws. There were blue ones with yellow fins that had mouths that looked like they were blowing kisses. There were yellow fish, orange fish, pink fish, and polka dotted fish that were yellow, orange, and pink. There were blue fish with orange faces, orange fish with blue stripes, and fish with blue, yellow, and pink stripes all on the same fish. There were blue striped fish with yellow fins, and orange and white fish that looked like tigers. There was even one fish that had so many colors it looked like it was wearing paisley. They all swam in place facing the glass.
“They’re just saying hello,” said Paul.
“All of them?” asked Little.
“All but the shy ones,” said Paul.
“Like the whales?”
“There aren’t any whales,” said Big. “Uncle Paul is just playing.”
“Maybe,” said Paul.
There were dozens of aquariums built into the walls the entire length of the hallway with windows that allowed visitors to peer at whatever lived inside them. The fish tank was the largest, of course, located about halfway down the hall. Lizards, snakes, frogs, and other slithery things were on one side of the hallway while bats, cockroaches, and spiders were on the other side. The beautiful surrounded by the misunderstood.
“There’s Harry, our pet!” said Little pounding on the thick glass of one aquarium.
“That’s not Harry,” said Big. “That just looks like Harry.”
The tarantula, unresponsive to Little Jumpy’s greeting, continued to groom himself before going to sleep. All the rest of the slimy, slithering, creepy, crawling creatures seemed to be sleeping already tucked away in their favorite hiding places. The lack of any visible creatures made the the cages appear as if they housed nothing more than a lonely tree branch stuck in some sand with a tiny dish for water.
“I saw a snake eat a hat once,” Little announced.
“You did not! It was in a story,” Big explained to Uncle Paul.
As the three moved down the hallway with the cart squeak, squeak, squeaking along, soft lights followed them automatically as they went, like the lights in the freezer aisle at the grocery store. As they came to one aquarium the dim hallway light brightened just far enough so they could see their outstretched fingertips, then darkened as they left leaving just the barest of light behind them, like a nightlight. One by one, as the visitors passed, the slimy, the slithering, and the creepy, and the crawling would come out from wherever it was they had been hiding - a leafy branch, a dark corner, from under a rock - and watched them go. They munched their midnight snacks that appeared just as magically as the automatic lights before returning to their beds, their glass walls shiny and clean no matter how many Big Jumpy McJumpy had pressed his nose to.

- 3 -

Eventually, they reached center of the zoo - the Great Hall. This was where regular, daytime visitors to the zoo started after having walked the hedge lined pathway that led to the zoo’s front entrance. Coming into the Great Hall from where the fish tank was and where the slimy, slithering, creepy, crawling creatures lived was like emerging from a dark tunnel. The hall was an enormous round room, two stories high, and capped by a glass dome. Even though there were no lights, Paul and the McJumpy’s could see perfectly well. The full moon had revealed itself and shone its light through the domed ceiling illuminating all but the furthest reaches of the Hall.
The entrance to the zoo was at the front of the Hall. At the back were ivory colored pillars that supported an upstairs hallway that passed through the Hall overhead. Around the sides there were two staircases that led from the entrane doors to the second floor, one along each round wall. The railings were iron wrought into intricate curlicues that tapered to delicate leaves. The handrails were wood, black as night, polished smooth by the hands of many visitors.
In the center of the Great Hall’s white marble floor was a black and gold mosaic. Around the edges the Hall was bordered in burgundy marble flecked with gold, set apart by inlaid brass. There were no rugs and no furniture making the room echo with their absence. Without the usual throng of daytime visitors, the Hall was hollow and still.
Entering the Hall, Little Jumpy let out a shriek and ran straight through, arms in the air, to the opposite side creating a cacophony of sound. “Try to find me!” she shouted from behind a shadow.
Big Jumpy and Uncle Paul advanced to the center of the Hall. Paul’s footsteps sounded loud like a kettle drum, low and steady, in his thick-soled work boots. Big Jumpy’s smaller footsteps had the pattern of a bongo, quick and light, stepping twice for each step his Uncle took. Boom, da da, boom, da da. After a moment, they heard the tip, tap, tip, tap of Little Jumpy’s ballerina slippers as she ran from shadow to shadow, giggling all the way. “Try to find me!”
“Come back here!” Uncle Paul’s voice reverberated in the Great Hall. A moment of silence was followed by tip, tap, tip, tap.
“Okay,” said Uncle Paul. “Have it your way.” He grabbed Big Jumpy’s hand and together they ran to hide in a shadow of their own.
Again, the Hall became very still. Then, tip, tap, tip, tap followed by boom, da da, boom, da da until the room was quiet once more.
This carried on for several minutes with Little Jumpy’s trying to evade Uncle Paul and Big Jumpy’s search. Finally, there was a long stillness. Little Jumpy was leaning against the zoo’s front doors. She tried to stand as still as she could for as long as she could, all the while feeling the rough wood of the doors behind her. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, she felt a warm breath on her neck. She let out a piercing shriek and ran to the center of the room where she skidded to a stop. She twirled this way and that, desperately trying to find Uncle Paul and Big Jumpy in the shadows. She was standing in a pool of moonlight when Paul and and Big Jumpy joined her from across the room.
“That wasn’t nice,” Little Jumpy cried, punching her brother in the arm.
“It wasn't me!” said Big Jumpy, punching her back.
“No punching!” said Uncle Paul separating the two. He got on his knees to face them. “Did something scare you?”
“Yeah, he did!”
“I wasn’t anywhere near you!”
“Was it you?” she asked Uncle Paul.
“Was what me?”
“Something was right behind me! I could hear it breathing!”

- 4 -

Uncle Paul threw his arms around them both and squeezed them so tightly they could barely breathe. “I think we should stick together, okay?”
They sucked in air when they were released and each took a hand as they headed to a room at the back of the Hall where the green contraption sat waiting. The door, in a shadow of its own, was marked with a small plaque that read “Elephant.” Uncle Paul had only to wave his keys near the handle for the door to open, releasing a blinding light that came from within. As if it was desperate to separate the light from the room from the shadows of the hall, the door automatically swung shut hitting Uncle Paul’s green contraption before it was entirely inside the room. Paul held the door open as he maneuvered his contraption and Little Jumpy and Big Jumpy adjusted to the light.
They were not far into the room when Little Jumpy said, “It’s hot in here,” peeling off the pink sweater she wore over a purple skirt and dropping it to the floor. Big jumpy carefully removed his red plaid shirt and tied it around his waist.
Through a short passageway, they found themselves in what looked like a study. This room was round like the Great Hall, although not nearly as large, and had a very high ceiling. In the center was a green wool rug with intricate patterns on it. In the center of the rug was a heavy wooden desk behind which no one sat. Around the walls were bookcases filled with books from floor to ceiling. There was a ladder that could be pushed on a rail around the room to so you could get a book from the tippy top if you wanted.
Half a dozen people in lab coats hurried back and forth bent over clipboards, consulting notes, sometimes referencing a book. No one looked up or greeted Paul. They just went about their business, whatever that was. They looked like scientists. Or, maybe, doctors.
To one side, an open doorway led to a smaller study. It was dimly lit and in one corner of the room was a pile of straw. In the middle of the room, there was a king-sized bed and in the bed, under a thin wool blanket of green plaid, was an elephant.
“Please tell me we are not here to clean up elephant droppings,” said Big Jumpy. “That would be gross!” (Only when he said it, it sounded like ghee roess.)
“No, we’re just here to say hello. Tiny’s doesn’t feel well and I wanted to see how she’s doing.”
As they rounded the corner of the bed, a young man wearing a white coat and square black glasses was holding a cloth the size of a bedsheet as Tiny blew her nose with a loud honk. “Ew!” said Little Jumpy as she turned away.
Big Jumpy said, “Can I see?”
Matt, the guy with the sodden rag according to his name badge, looked up as if he wasn’t aware he wasn’t alone. He handed it to Big Jumpy who unfolded it to see its slimy contents. “Cool! Can I keep it?” he asked.
“I don’t think your mom would appreciate that,” Uncle Paul laughed. “When she was little, she didn’t even like blowing her own nose. I’m pretty sure elephant snot isn’t what she has in mind when she gets home from the hospital with Baby Jumpy.”
“Oh, right,” said Big Jumpy. “Probably not.”
Little Jumpy, meanwhile, had had gone exploring. With her back to the elephant’s soggy snout, she tapped on the tough toenails of one of Tiny’s not so tiny feet that was poking out from under the blanket. Little Jumpy rounded the corner of the bed, dragging her hand across the surface of the bed. She stopped to braid the bristles at the end of Tiny’s tail, then trailed her hand across another corner of the bed, until she found one of Tiny’s ears that flopped behind her back on the bed.
Big Jumpy returned the giant handkerchief to Matt as Tiny reached out with her long nose to do some exploring of her own. She gently poked Big Jumpy’s belly, then traced it upward until she reached his face. She sniffed his face with the soft end of her nose and then wrapped her snout around his waist to pull him closer.
“Hey!” he shouted.
“It’s all right,” said Paul. “Listen.”
Big Jumpy could hear a low rumble. “Is that coming from Tiny?”
“She’s purring,” said Uncle Paul. “She likes you.”
“Elephant’s purr?” Big Jumpy put a hand out to touch Tiny’s cheek and felt her rough and wrinkled skin. Just as he reached out to touch Tiny’s think, long eyelashes, he heard Uncle Paul say, “I think we’ve lost your sister again.”
Big Jumpy slipped out of Tiny’s embrace and dropped to the floor to take a look under the bed. Tiny searched for Big Jumpy with her nose and started to tug at the shirt around his waist. Slipping free once more, Big Jumpy and Uncle Paul started to search the room but didn’t have to go far to find that Little Jumpy had crawled onto the bed and was doing her best to cuddle the massive mammal, softly rubbing Tiny’s back.
“Little Jumpy!” scolded her big brother. “What are you doing?”
“Tiny doesn’t feel well. This is what Mom does when I’m sick. I thought it would make her feel better.”
“Tiny isn’t sick,” Paul said. “Tiny’s pregnant.”

- 5 -

“When?” Little Jumpy implored. “When is she going to have her baby?”
“Pretty soon,” Uncle Paul said. “Maybe tonight.”
“Can we watch?”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea. It can get a little messy. Besides, we have the rest of the zoo to take care of. That’s why we’re here, remember?”
“Will Tiny be okay?” Big Jumpy asked.
“Of course she will,” Uncle Paul said. “Come on. We still need to brush the giraffes’ teeth.”
“Giraffes have teeth?”
Little Jumpy kissed the back of Tiny’s head before sliding out of the bed while Big Jumpy gave Tiny a soft pat on her back. They headed out of the little study, through the big study with the tall shelves of books, and back into the Great Hall with the door clanging against the green contraption as Uncle Paul pushed it through.
They headed to the hallway opposite from the the hallway they had just come from - the one with the slimy, slithering, creepy, crawling creatures. They hardly had to pass through the Great Hall but only had to round the corner, really. Uncle Paul pushed the green contraption - squeak, squeak, squeak. Big Jumpy followed behind, wondering how an elephant gives birth to a two hundred pound baby. Little Jumpy followed but stopped short in the Great Hall when she spotted the most beautiful pony she had ever seen.
It stood on the far edge of the pool of moonlight cast through the dome above. It was twice as tall as she but only half as tall as Uncle Paul. Little Jumpy and the pony stood as still as statues as they observed each other. The pony’s legs were as white as snow but became speckled grey as they reached the pony’s belly which was entirely grey. The grey turned to orange - the color of pumpkin pie - at the pony’s middle. The pony’s back was the color of espresso - the kind of coffee her grandmother liked - a brown so dark it was almost black. Each color blended into the other so that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other one started. The face, mane, and tail were black as a witch’s hat.
“I wish you were a unicorn,” she whispered. “Then you would be perfect.” She took a step forward.
The pony took a step, too.
Little Jumpy took another step.
The pony took another step, too.
Soon, they were only a few feet away from each other. Little Jumpy reached out her hand to pet the pony’s nose when the pony pulled back its lips to reveal sharp teeth and let out a growl like the fiercest dog Little Jumpy could imagine. This was no ordinary pony!
Little Jumpy snapped her hand back as the pony growled, barked, and bared its teeth. Before she could let out a wail, Big Jumpy was at her side. He grabbed her hand and they took off running. They pony chased them, snarling, its hooves clip-clopping loudly against the marble floors. The hall echoed with the pony’s sinister snarls.
“I just wanted to pet the pony,” Little Jumpy shouted.
Big Jumpy tugged his little sister’s arm as they ran to get out of the Great Hall. Just as they reached the next hallway, they ran headlong into Uncle Paul’s sturdy legs. The pony slid to a stop before crashing into the lot of them standing in the hallway - the hallway opposite the one with the slimy, slithering, creepy, crawling creatures.
Still snarling, the pony stood just inside the edge of the Great Hall. Little Jumpy and Big Jumpy huddled against Uncle Paul just outside the edge of the Great Hall. “Don’t worry,” Uncle Paul said. “Buttercup won’t leave the Great Hall.”
“Buttercup?” Little Jumpy and Big Jumpy couldn’t believe that was the name of such a vicious creature.
“She guards the zoo at night but she’s really quite sweet once she gets to know you.”
“Is that who was breathing on me?” Little Jumpy wondered.
“I hope so,” Uncle Paul said. “Otherwise, I don’t know who it was.”

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