a short story
Gary Baker, June 2016
(based on the true events of the death of Harambe and the Cinci Zoo)
I remember the day it happened. I remember the horrors, the screams, the chaos. You see, my usual job is nothing. I’m basically a janitor of the grounds, roaming like a battle-dressed cyborg among the patrons as they gawk and wonder with eyes like saucers, while I politely pick up their trash without a word. There are those who stare at me, sure, but I know it’s not me they are afraid of… it’s the old-fashioned hunting rifle hanging on my shoulder. Patrons stare at me as if wondering when I will strike and start felling any in my way. They wonder when I will snap.
I think the only thing going for me in most cases is the fact that I am one of the best shots in my field. As a former Navy Seal, I can hit a button from one hundred yards without a problem, no questions asked. That easy.
So when the screaming began, my training kicked into gear and my partner and I bolted. We had just been about to hand over change for a couple cokes with extra ice, but were forced to leave both behind. I don’t even know what happened to my ten dollars. All I know is that the cages were just around the bend and the crowds were major.
I could hear a womans voice over all the other screams. Even in war, I had never heard anyone who wasn’t a mother make that sort of wail. We tried to get there faster, but the crowds took time to move. That was when Doctor Jeffreys pulled up in the emergency jeep and let the horn rip with gusto. Patrons suddenly got the hint and scattered just barely far enough.
Jeffreys moved into the space given and kept moving as more patrons shuffled aside. “L.T!” My partner, Halden, called down with an arm held out for me. “Hop on!”
I didn’t need to be told twice, and grabbed the tire-bar at the back of the jeep and swung high, landing firmly with my combat boots crushing someone’s lunchbag. By now the rifle was at my side, held at mid-mast like Excalibur in my right hand. The tarnished brown wood suddenly felt natural in my hand again. It felt like I was finally coming home. It felt like I was doing what I was meant to do again, after so long without. The shouting, the screaming, the horrific tremors of fear then all fell into place and my heart slowed. I had the rifle set on the main beam of the roll-cage and had the stock held at the pit of my shoulder, when the Zookeeper showed up and hopped onto the jeep behind me.
Halden nodded. “What’s the story, sir?”
The immaculately-dressed old man breathed deep and grunted. He crossed his arms and I could feel him watching the beasts ahead, through the trees, as if his eyes were a set of binoculars. “Some twat fell into the exhibit. With the gorillas. Not even a child, yet.”
I glanced over as the jeep finally hit a large gap and we surged forward. “How close are the apes?”
The man scowled. “Not apes, gorillas. There’s a difference.” Then he shook his head regretfully. “The Alpha was closest to the boy, just moments ago. Maybe seventeen yards”
“Well if I’ve learned anything about Alpha’s by working here, it’s that he won’t take too kindly to a visitor,” Halden cursed. “Darts, then?”
The Keeper cursed under his breath and handed me my round.
Eyes wide, I scowled back at him. “Live munition?”
“Just make it quick, son.”
The jeep jolted to a stop and that was when I got my first sight of the fray. Up ahead, down in the pit, sat a young boy of about five in the moat near the base of the enclosure wall. He appeared scared shitless as any child would, but what caught my breath was the beast coming for him. It was magnificent. The gorilla was a behemoth of muscle, all lean and covered in scars from battles with the lesser males. He was intimidating, but in a gorgeous way.
“Dammit, just fire!” Ordered the Keeper.
So I pressed forward and brought the sight along the scene. The gorilla had grabbed the boy by his ankle and was dragging him. At first glance I thought the beast was about to smash the child on the cement, but looking closer it seemed on the verge of saving him from the moat. I hesitated because I couldn’t imagine killing such a feat of natural selection. It was clearly intelligent, and just wanted to save the boy, right?
Then out of nowhere the Zookeeper snatched up the rifle from my hands and didn’t even brace the barrel on the jeep. The rush of noise was maddening, so many voices in hellish torment at the sight of a lifetime. He let the barrel drift for hardly a second when he exhaled and his finger began to close on the trigger.
Had he not been right beside me I never would have heard the old man breathe “I’m sorry” just before the crack tore the chaos in two and gave people a new reason to scream. I’m still not even sure who the apology was for: me, for taking the rifle from my hands in such a way? The child for the trauma this would ultimately cause him for ages into his life? Or was it for the gorilla, itself?
When the deed was done, the old man scowled into the distance as though to be sure of his shot, the one that had rendered the gorilla’s skull into crimson markings of oblivion on the enclosure wall, and brought a cigarette to his lips with the liquid ease of a man in desperate need. He took a long drag as he handed the rifle back to me, then released the pent up tension with eyes rolled back and his teeth grit. When he finally opened his eyes again, the Keeper then shook himself slightly, almost unnoticeably, and shot a look to Doctor Jeffreys at the wheel. “Get a crew down there to get the boy and start a clean-up. No more mess-ups, we clear?”
He turned away from the enclosure and we happened to make eye-contact as he did. “I’m sorry, sir.” I mumbled meekly.
The look he gave me was almost too stoic, the look of a man just hinting at the sensation of any emotion at all. “Don’t be. Back in my early days post ‘Nam, I would have done the same.” He pat my shoulder lightly and began to climb to the ground again. “Killing another man is nothing compared to killing one of those beauties. Takes a different kind of man, and you just weren’t it right then.” Halden then gave me a sympathetic look, no longer entranced in the aftermath down below, and shrugged.