"Now children, please refrain from sticking your hands between the bars, unless you're not fond of them."
The group's excited chatter sounded like dozens of squawking birds as every child marveled at the creatures before them. Great fowl with long necks and little wings, deer as small as mice, emerald snakes curled about trees, and all manner of other amazing beasts, all together in the same exhibit.
Really, the multitude of voices were giving the woman a headache. Times like these made her question why she became a teacher... though of course, it only took a fond remembrance or two of giving those impish little brats the punishments they deserved to find the answer. Today, though, she would not be the one doling out justice-- and in a way, that almost irked her-- but it was for the best. Those who didn't listen to her would surely regret it today.
At the front of the crowd, a young green-haired boy stood with his hands loosely clutching the bars, staring at the animals roaming about before him. Something about them seemed... off. Unnatural. Their eyes were all devoid of life, or emotion, or any kind of spark. They were sluggish, their movements lazy, unmotivated. "They look sad." he said to himself, the rest of the group miles away in his mind.
"Yeah? They only look sad 'cause they don't like ugly people starin' at 'em!" came a voice the other boy knew all too well.
Turning his head (and craning his neck a tad), he found himself face-to-face with a particularly mean looking redhead. Beside him stood his partner in crime, a greyish haired girl who was much nastier than she appeared. The boy was quite familiar with both of them, but by no means was he the only one.
Yes, these two tykes were rather notorious. They hadn't lived a day without pushing around some poor, defenseless, probably-younger-than-they-were kid, and to say they were a handful would be the understatement of the century.
Gordon Bishop-- or Gorey, as he insisted he be called-- was the muscle of the two. Bigger and stronger than anyone in his class, he found asserting dominance over his peers no daunting task, and in no time at all was wrangling pocket change and favours out of those around him.
The other was Elsa Griffith, a pretty girl-- but the niceties stopped there. Lurking under her innocent exterior was a manipulative little monster, always looking for new ways to get what it wanted. Particularly fond of acting, she had the voice and expression for every situation imaginable, and could pull just the right strings to make people do and say exactly what she wanted. Being the brains of the operation, Elsa tended to the finer points in their schemes, always willing to lend a hand when simple force was not applicable.
Together, they made a formidable duo, and not even the teacher's threats and nagging could make them rethink their ways. And, in typical schoolyard bully fashion, they loved picking on the weakest children the most. Children just like...
"Yeah, Simon! It's rude to stare, you know. I thought you had better manners than that!" Elsa giggled cruelly.
Unfortunately, poor Simon was not only a prime target of their bullying, but had to endure Elsa for much longer than anybody else. After all, it was hard to avoid someone to whom you were related. Much to his dismay, the boy was often forced into "playing" with his sister, and she always tested new "techniques" on him. Though it wasn't hard to figure out she was simply playing a part, Simon could never find the drive to object, letting her freely drag him around like a lifesize doll.
There just was no escape.
As the two stepped closer, Simon shrinked back. "U-Uhh..."
"What? Spit it out!" Gorey demanded, looming over his prey.
From within the cage, a small tamarin jumped onto the bars near the three children and began squeaking panickedly. For a moment, the redhead forgot all about Simon and turned his attention towards the animal. "Hey, why's this thing makin' so much noise?"
Pure noise, however, was something Simon did not hear. In fact, the tiny thing sounded like it was talking!
"Don't do that! Don't let them see you do that!" it cried. By now the whole crowd's attention was on the monkey, and soon a handler stepped into the cage and took the flailing, struggling creature out of the exhibit.
The class was silent as peace once again returned to the artificial habitat. The other animals had all silently watched their comrade be hauled away to who-knows-where, and now were back to listlessly grazing or staring off into space as if nothing had happened. An air of defeat hung around them, of uselessness, of surrender.
"It... it talked." Simon uttered in disbelief. Had he just been hearing things? No, he could have sworn he heard human syllables coming from the animal's mouth.
"What, you gonna say you can talk to animals or somethin?" Gorey butt in, refocusing his attention now that the distraction was gone.
"U-Uh, you didn't hear it...?"
"Nope! You must be hearin' things." The boy cracked his knuckles. "Maybe you oughta let me fix it for ya."
"Don't rough him up too bad, Gorey! He's a very important guest to my tea party later." Elsa chimed in.
Ohh no. Not another tea party... flashbacks of previous parties spun through Simon's mind. Elsa standing before her tiny tea-time table with Simon at the head, the other chairs filled by worn stuffed toys, the beady eyes on their stained faces staring him down. Being poured a cup of that murky brown liquid, taking a sip, and realizing she had accidentally(?) used salt instead of sugar. Looking up and seeing her cheerful smile, more threatening than anything else, and knowing a cringe was a death sentence.
"How is it?"
"Well, great! 'Cause there's still a whole pot left."
Of course, Elsa never drank any herself; She didn't even like tea.
In the instant Simon remembered these not-so-pleasant moments, Gorey drew his fist back-- but nothing ever connected. The green-haired boy was pulled away from his own thoughts by a woman's voice.
"You'd better put that hand down. They don't tolerate misbehaving here."
Gorey turned to see Ms. Pinkerton, a woman with a fondness for big hats, and meddling in other peoples' affairs. She wasn't even his teacher, but that never stopped her from getting onto him about his bullying.
"Yeaaah, what are you gonna do about it, huh?" he taunted, sticking his tongue out. "C'mon, Elsa, let's get outta here!"
The two scampered off and out of sight, barely noticed by the rest of the crowd. Ms. Pinkerton made no effort to chase them-- after all, they were alone now, separated from the herd. They'd be caught soon enough.
Simon looked around, a question on his mind now that the situation had blown over, though he was hesitant to ask it. "U-Uh, excuse me, but..." he looked up at the woman, "how are all the animals able to live together like that?"
"Because they're good little things. Not at all like those two."
The boy glanced over his shoulder for a few moments before looking back and nodding once. "I see." Something about her answer troubled him, but he couldn't quite place his finger on it.
"Why'd we even have to come?" the boy whined, "We've already seen all this stuff!"
The pair were wandering around the narrow menagerie streets, strangely alone-- there was nobody out. "Jeeze, kinda creepy, huh?" Elsa remarked.
"Nah! My dad wasn't afraid when bullets flew past his head, ya'know!! And compared to that, this is nothing!!" The other exclaimed.
"Ohhh Gorey, you're so brave!!" The girl mock-swooned. "I think I'm gonna faint!"
"H-Hey, don't start acting like a princess now!" ... "But I am pretty brave."
Suddenly, Elsa stopped. "Hey, look," she pointed to a small red building off to the side. "It's the reptile house."
Gorey had fond memories of it-- where the rest of the trip had been dull, that one place proved exciting. All the snakes and lizards within weren't like the ones in the other exhibits. They were fierce. They snapped, and hissed, and bared their fangs. They held tightly onto that little wild flame in their hearts, even if it meant being cooped up alone day in and day out, and that was something the boy admired.
Last time, it'd been hard to get a good look at most of the inhabitants, considering he'd been in a big group. But this time it was just the two of them, and he wouldn't have to knock others around just for a chance to see the snakes.
As they pushed the door open, light flooded the dim facility for just a moment before near darkness returned to it, heat lamps placed atop the various tanks and cages the only source of illumination in the room.
Immediately the two set out, admiring the scaly creatures. Elsa examined a spotted gecko clinging to the top of its tank, while Gorey watched a snake follow his finger with its eyes. "Hey, do you think I'd be able to sneak one of these guys out of here?" he asked, looking across the room at his friend.
"The headmaster would kill you!" she replied without breaking her eyes away from the gecko.
"He doesn't have to find out! Maybe if I--"
Silence. "Maybe if you what?" No reply. The girl turned around and noticed she was alone. "... Gorey?" Her voice echoed a bit. "Is this a joke or something? If you think jumping out and yelling is gonna scare me, you're wrong!"
Minutes passed, and nothing of the sort happened. As she began to search the room, she saw the animals acting restlessly, knocking against their tanks, some even making noises as loud as they could. Gorey wasn't there. Something was wrong.
As she started for the exit, however, something stopped her dead in her tracks.
The doorhandle moved on its own-- and then so did the door itself. A man entered the building, a devilish grin plastered on his face. "I do hope you've had your fun, because this is where it ends."
'He doesn't look like he means well...' Elsa backed up a few steps, but the man simply walked forward to match.
"We've already got your friend. Wouldn't you like to join him?"
"We saw how you two harassed that poor little boy. How you defied your superior and broke away from the group. You two are bad children-- and the world doesn't need bad children." In no time at all he had backed her against the wall.
Elsa was afraid-- who wouldn't be? But she had to get out of that tight spot somehow, and only one course of action came to mind.
She began quivering while her eyes filled with crocodile tears. "N-No, you've..." her voice cracked a bit, as if she were trying to hold back hysteria, "you've got it all wrong..."
"Oh? Have I?" the man asked with a chuckle. "Do correct me, then."
"I-I'm not a bad girl, honest...! B-But he... he makes me do all kinds of stuff for him..." she sniffled. "H-He's terrible! H-He pushes me around a-and says that, says that if I don't do what he says... h-he's gonna beat me uuuuppp...!!" she wailed, full-force sobbing in effect. "H-He's always so, so mean to my little brother! A-And he makes me watch while he," Sniff, "while he makes fun of him!! A-And if I say anything, then he hits me!!" she pointed to a bruise on her upper arm-- true, she'd gotten it from falling off the jungle gym two days before, but for now, it'd work nicely for her claim. "I-I told him maybe he shouldn't take all of Ollie's pocket change a-and he punched meeeee...!!" So hysterical she didn't even stop to think this man wouldn't know who 'Ollie' was. Elsa knew every trick in the book to seem convincingly upset, and it was almost fun being able to use all of them in one go.
The man's features had softened considerably by the end of it all. "Oh, my... I'm terribly sorry." he said, his voice gentler than before. "Well, he won't be a problem anymore."
Elsa looked up at him. "R-Really?"
"Really. He won't push you or anyone else around ever again."
"A-Are you gonna..." gulp, "k-kill him?"
"Oh, heavens, no! We're just going to teach him how to be a good boy..."
Through the fake waterworks she gave an equally fake smile. "W-Well that's good...!!"
"Now, then, let's go back to the rest of your class." the man extended his hand, and Elsa took it gently, remembering to keep up the good, delicate girl act. All the way back to the group she was almost bubbling over with pride at her skill.
When he finally released her, she immediately sought out Simon and hugged onto him. The man, satisfied at their reunion, took his leave.
Simon, not so satisfied at their reunion, didn't know what was up at the sudden touchy-feeliness of his sister, but recognized that it couldn't have been good for him.
The girl whispered in his ear, "They took Gorey away. I dunno what they're doing, but you're gonna help me find him. Got it?"
Simon reluctantly nodded. What other choice did he have?
It was cold in the little room; cold and dark. Somewhere in the distance, beyond the walls, he could hear the faint sounds of animals, howling and scratching and snarling. He didn't know how long he'd been out, or where he even was-- all he knew was that somebody had hauled him off somewhere. Groping around in the blackness, the boy's fingers met cold steel bars, and the ceiling provided no standing room. 'Am I in a cage or something? What's going on?'
A few minutes passed before the lights suddenly flickered on, and a bespectacled man wearing a pink tie entered the room. "Ohhh, you must be the new one!!" he said cheerily. "What's your name?"
Gorey snorted. "Why should I tell you?"
"Ohh, that's no way to act towards an adult... but I guess that's why you're here!"
This guy didn't sit right with the boy. He didn't like how he hadn't stopped smiling the whole time. "You should tell me who you are!"
"Me? Oh, my name is Rima!"
"Whatta weird name."
"If everyone had a boring name, the world would be a lot more boring, too, wouldn't it?"
This guy's name wasn't the only thing weird about him.
"So are you gonna let me out of this cage or what?"
No. Just like that.
"Wha? 'Nope'? Do I look like an animal to you or somethin'!?" Gorey was getting aggravated, and his tone showed it.
"You sure act like one! Why not calm down a little?"
And now this man was patronizing him. Gorey didn't like this one bit. "Someone's gonna notice I'm missing! And they're gonna go looking for me, and when they find me down here with some weirdo, they're gonna lock you up!"
Rima abandoned his neutral position and walked across the room to a counter upon which sat a jar, then began rifling through a large chest of drawers nearby, pulling out various containers filled with questionable contents-- though Gorey could have sworn he saw little eyeballs in one of them. "Oh, I assure you, by the time anybody notices you're gone, we'll be done here."
"Done here? Where is 'here,' anyway?"
"The zoo, of course!" he exclaimed, beginning to add the ingredients from the containers into the jar on the counter. "What, did you think you were somewhere else?"
"Wait, so you've been keeping this place in the zoo? Just wait 'till I get outta here and tell them...!"
"Tell them what? I work here, you know! The zoo knows all about this."
"So you mean..."
"Yep! We're all in on it~"
"... So what are you planning to do, huh? Why lock me up?"
"It's not just you! It's every bad child we come across. See..." he turned to face Gorey, "we like good children, the cute, darling little angels they are! We envision a world full of them!" he threw his hands up, "BUT." a finger was pointed in the boy's direction, "There's always the bad seeds, the ones that make a goal like ours harder to reach!" he turned back to the jar and continued putting various things into it. "So we want to teach the bad little boys and girls to be good! Then maybe all of us can live in a peaceful world!"
Gorey had only listened to the first and last sentences, really, but he figured he had a pretty good grasp on the speech. "That all? Here, I promise to be a good kid from now on. Scout's honour! Can I go now?"
"Aww, that's not very sincere, you know. Listen, there's only one way I'm gonna let you out of there..."
"Yeah? What would that be?"
Rima took the jar from the counter, apparently satisfied with the mixture, and placed it in the cage in front of Gorey. "Drink that, and I'll let you go~"
The boy stared at it-- the liquid inside was green with an almost metallic shimmer to it... and it didn't smell too good, either. "Uhh... all of it?"
"All of it!"
"No way. I'm not gonna drink something some stranger gave me!" he pushed it away.
"It's your punishment. If you don't drink it, I'm afraid I can't let you out."
"It's poison or something, isn't it?"
"Of course not! Do you really think we'd still be around if we were poisoning anybody?"
Well... maybe. Gorey looked down at the stuff again. It didn't look very tasty. Was the message supposed to be, Don't misbehave, or you'll have to drink gross-tasting stuff? Like castor oil or something? His dad wouldn't have chickened out! His dad would've drank all of it, then slammed the cup down and laughed! A real man wouldn't be afraid of something like that!
"Fine!" he decided, taking the jar.
"Glad you could be so cooperative." Rima said, his smile never faltering.
The two kept close-- well, Elsa made sure Simon kept close-- in the group as it migrated from pen to pen, exhibit to exhibit. As they neared the reptile house, Simon noticed a small shack with no label nearby. "U-Uhhh... t-that building doesn't have a name or anything..." he said meekly, motioning to it.
Elsa narrowed her eyes. "Hmm, y'know, I don't remember going into that place last year. I bet that's where they took him! Let's go!"
As the children poured noisily into the facility from which Gorey had been hauled off just an hour or so ago, Elsa and Simon managed to sneak out unnoticed.
"Wow, security around here's pretty bad..." she mumbled as she opened the door to the mystery shack just a tad, peering in to find nobody around. Leading her brother inside, she made sure to shut the door behind her.
The interior looked like a lounge, probably for the staff. Several couches and chairs were arranged around a large carpet on the floor, along with small tables strewn about. Elsa immediately got to work scouring the place, while Simon hung back and scanned the room, his vision eventually resting on a particular spot.
Elsa looked up at the boy and frowned. "Why aren't you helping me look? What are you staring at?"
Simon wordlessly pointed to the carpet in the middle of the room-- there was a small bump poking out from underneath it.
The girl pulled the carpet back to find a handle, and with it, a door, right in the middle of the wooden tiled floor. "Woah..." she lifted it open, revealing a flight of stairs, and began down it, turning and motioning for Simon to follow.
The two could hear voices getting closer and closer as they made their descent, until from the staircase, they could see Gorey in a cage. He seemed to be talking to somebody, but they didn't dare continue out of fear of being seen.
"Fine!" the boy said, grabbing a jar near him in the cage.
"Glad you could be so cooperative." came a cheery, disembodied voice.
Gorey stared down at the liquid in the cup, debating his decision. 'Better get this over with...' he pinched his nose with his free hand and brought the cup to his lips. The taste was strong, sickeningly sweet, and the consistency thick and syrupy. He almost gagged, but forced himself to down all of it in one swallow before putting the cup down again. "There! I drank it. Now let me go!" he thought for a second, "Please." Not very convincing, but maybe it'd do.
When Rima made no effort to move, though, Gorey quickly became impatient. "C'mon, you said you'd let me out! You weren't messing with me, were y--" A burst of pain in his chest stopped him midsentence. "Nngh...!" His whole body suddenly felt uncomfortably hot, and a tight knot formed in his stomach. He cried out in pain as his bones began to loudly crack and reshape within him, his arms and fingers shortening up, becoming little paws. Dark fur began spreading over his body, covering every inch of him until his skin no longer showed at all. His trousers ripped as his legs changed as well, a poofy little tail forcing its way out of his lower back. His face began to push outwards, the pain like nothing, in all his years of being a boy and doing boy things and getting into all the trouble and mischief he could, he had ever experienced before, his nose growing flat and black and wet, his canines growing longer and the rest of his teeth sharpening. He tried to call for help, but it came out as an unintelligible growl, the simple cry of a helpless animal. As his human ears disappeared into his body, a pair of new, fuzzy, rounded ones took their place atop his head, followed shortly by two thin black antennae, like some sort of insect. And just when things seemed over, a pain grew in his shoulders, until a pair of translucent, bee-like wings burst from his back-- and then the small creature flopped over, breathing heavily, surrounded by the tattered remnants of its former self.
It was only then that Rima unlocked the cage and lifted off its top, reaching in and pulling out the exhausted beast. "Ooh, so cute! Like a bear and a bug... a bugbear! That has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"
Gorey wanted to struggle, to flail and kick and bite, but he was so tired, and his muscles and bones and everything still ached... so he did nothing at all, and hated himself for it.
"See, you're not in the cage anymore! I wasn't lying. Now, let's go find a place for you..."
Elsa was still in shock, unable to focus on anything but what had just happened. Simon heard footsteps and tugged on the girl's shirt. "W-We have to go..." he whispered.
"Hm? Do I have visitors? I love company!" Rima announced, approaching the staircase... and seeing nobody. "Oh... there's no one here. I must be hearing things. Ah well!"
"And he... he drank something, and, and he turned into a bear!! A bear with little antenna and wings!!"
There was a pause, followed by a mass of giggles.
"W-Why are you laughing! This is serious!" Elsa said, her face reddening.
"Yeah, and I'm a unicorn!" said one boy, putting his finger to his forehead and jumping in place. The rest of the children laughed again, and this only served to upset Elsa further.
"S-Simon! You saw it happen too! You tell them!" she demanded, pushing Simon in front of her.
The boy nodded once, but by this time, the crowd had stopped paying attention to them.
"Augh! Nobody believes us! How are we supposed to do anything!?"
Simon looked around before quietly speaking. "U-Uh, well... I... I heard that monkey talk earlier... l-like a person."
Suddenly, his sister was very interested. "And what did it say?"
"I-It was telling you and Gorey not to be caught, uh, bullying me..."
"Hmm. All I heard were noises, but... if they turned Gorey into an animal, I bet all the other animals were kids, too! And you can hear them! That means we can get information from them, right!?"
"I, uh, I guess so..."
"Good, then let's get started, before we have to leave!"
And so began a rather strange rescue mission...