Gary hadn’t visited the zoo in many years. He’d been a child the last time, six or seven perhaps. The sense of wonder was still there for him, love of the penguins and the lions. He was glad he came, eager to revisit that sensation.
Finding his plastic blue elephant key was what did it. Coming across the souvenir in an old desk drawer, pleasant memories sprung forth. Inscribed with the zoo’s name and instructions on the side, it used to be for setting off metal recording boxes by enclosures that would tell people all about the respective animals housed within. He’d loved those.
Last time he visited, the boxes were in pretty bad shape, and not many had been left, but he still vividly remembered.
Perhaps someone else did too. He saw a staff member while he was waiting for the snow leopard to come out of hiding and walked over. The black woman’s eyes grew wide.
“Where did you get this?” she demanded. “I haven’t seen one of these in years! They’ve all been lost or destroyed.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “This is serious. You need to come with me right now.”
With a tug, she spirited Gary away deeper into the park. Her grip was like iron. She seemed to be an animal keeper of some sort, perhaps some kind of researcher as well, but Gary didn’t have a chance to ask.
“No time! Come on and hurry up,” she ordered whenever he tried to speak.
It was a little disconcerting, especially given how alarmed she seemed. Was he being accused of theft? It was a cheap, plastic trinket. No doubt there had been thousands, even if they might now be rare. Who would steal one? Why would they want to? Gary’s unease only grew when she dragged him down a service tunnel entrance and bore him underground.
“What is this place?”
“This is the inner workings side of the zoo. We’re on our way to see the Elephant Lord. Administration gave up all hope, but then I found you. You simply have no idea what this means.”
Gary was pretty sure he did. He imagined she was insane and pulling him to his death. That was all perfectly clear. If there’d been any way to get away from her, he would have done something about it. For the moment, he played along.
However, the tunnel then led into a chamber lined with gold and precious gems. It was palatial, immense and decorated with alternating lines of sapphires and rubies. An image of a stern elephant head adorned the ceiling, which had to be at least a hundred feet high. Gary silently admitted that he was impressed.
“Kneel,” the woman instructed. She’d just pulled them to a stop.
In front of them lay a large elephant reclining on its back, a crown of platinum filaments atop its head. Park staff surrounded, all operating different medical and other electronic equipment. A single tear fell from the elephant’s eye.
Gary realized he hadn’t yet kneeled and did so. The woman had already bent down.
“My Lord,” she intoned. “This man has one of the old keys. Perhaps he can help.”
The Elephant Lord bolted upright. The staff all began talking excitedly. The woman pushed him forward. He had little choice but to go.
“The Elephant Lord is atomic,” she said. “He has a secret reactor core. Once a year, it must be removed and wound or the Elephant Lord will die. Not only will he die, but we would all die as well, and all zoos with us. Your key was for the information boxes, but also the reactor core access panel as well.” The Elephant Lord pointed to a keyhole on his chest. “They were molded from the original master key as an homage, but now yours is the only one left, the only hope. You must restart the reactor core or everything here will cease to be.”
Gary swallowed. The Elephant Lord and the staff all looked at him expectantly. He walked up and unlocked the panel. Then he removed a device that looked like a small, glowing pocket watch. Finding a knob, he gave it a turn.
The staff burst out laughing. Even the Elephant Lord cracked up.
“What a rube!” the woman sputtered. “Thinks we needed him to save the Elephant Lord! Like we couldn’t have opened it with a wire coat hanger!”
“But, but…the Elephant Lord?”
“I’m sorry,” the woman snapped suddenly, snatching back the reactor core, “but you’ll have to leave now. The park closes in twenty minutes and you’ll need that long to get to the gate.” Then she shoved him back through the tunnel.
Gary was thinking that it’d be a few more years before he’d consider coming back.
David S. Atkinson is the author of books such as Roses are Red, Violets are Stealing Loose Change from my Pockets While I Sleep, Apocalypse All the Time, and the Nebraska book award winning Not Quite so Stories. He is a Staff Reader for Digging Through The Fat and his writing appears in Spelk, Jellyfish Review, Thrice Fiction, Literary Orphans, and more. His writing website is www.davidsatkinsonwriting.com