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A piercing scream jolted him awake. It was early next morning, before the zoo had opened. He sprang up on the couch, still thick with sleep. When his head cleared a bit, he realized the scream had come from Yumi above. Suddenly awake, he tumbled off the couch and scrambled up the stairs. He stepped onto the landing of the upstairs hallway just as Yumi was crashing out of bathroom door, her face stricken with fear. She was wet and naked except for a towel hastily wrapped around her torso. Andy could hear the shower running inside the bathroom.
He ran to her, wide-eyed and panting. "Yumi! Are you okay? What's wrong?" Without responding, she scurried behind him and pushed him toward the bathroom like he was a human shield. "What? What is it?"
Yumi forced him into the bathroom and pointed up to the far corner of the room, above the shower. "S-S-Spider!" she shouted.
All the adrenaline coursing through Andy evaporated. He slowly spun around and stared wearily at Yumi. “Really? You woke me up for this?”
“It’s freaky!” she shrieked, her wet cheeks flushed with terror and disgust. She kept her quavering eyes fixed on the spider while water dribbled from her hair and gathered into a puddle around her bare feet.
“Well, looks like you and my Yumi have one thing in common,” Andy muttered. As a matter of fact, he had never known his Yumi to be squeamish about anything else. Spiders were her Kryptonite.
"Will you just shut up and kill it?" she huffed. "I have a phobia! It's a medical condition!"
"Right," Andy mumbled.
Yumi glared at him from the corner of her eyes. "What was that?"
"Nothing, nothing.” He turned around, breezed past her down the hallway and fetched a magazine from his bedroom. He rolled it up in his hands as he crept closer to the spider. Getting a better look at it, he had to admit Yumi wasn’t wholly unjustified in her panic. It was startling, even to someone unhindered by arachnophobia. Long, spindly legs sprouted like barbed wire from a muscular thorax black as charcoal and prickly as a cactus. It clung to the corner, still as a porcelain figure. A bed of eyes like tiny chips of obsidian glinted out of a shadowy face. Andy had never seen a spider quite like it.
“Wow, that is freaky,” he admitted.
“See, I told you,” Yumi huffed, cowering behind him. “Kill it! Quick!”
“All right, all right.” Andy shut off the water and slowly reached up to the spider with the rolled-up magazine. "Sorry to do this, little dude," he whispered.
But before he could take a swing, the spider suddenly sprang off the wall and leapt right at his face. Andy shrieked as the horrid little arachnid bounded off his forehead and darted out of the bathroom as soon as it hit the floor. Yumi jumped up onto the toilet cover and unleashed a screech straight out of a 50's horror movie. If there was a ceiling fan in the bathroom, she would have been hanging off of it.
“It’s getting away!” she screamed, pointing hysterically at the fleeing spider.
After Andy got over the shock, he gathered himself and bolted into the hallway, brandishing the rolled-up magazine like a war club. The spider was already halfway down the hallway, scuttling like mad for his bedroom. Andy couldn’t believe how quick it was! He lunged at it, heaving the magazine down onto the floor with a resounding thwack. Close but no cigar. The nimble spider veered away at the last moment and darted into his bedroom. Andy thrust himself through the doorway, swinging away spastically, but again and again, the spider desperately evaded every one of his blows like a pinball. Panting, Yumi caught up to Andy just in time to see the spider shoot underneath the beanbag in the corner of the room.
“Be careful!” she rasped.
“Relax. I got this,” Andy said soothingly. Then he couldn’t help but chuckle. “But man, I almost feel like he deserves to live after that incredible escape. I can’t believe how crafty this little sucker is!”
“Hurry, before he sneaks away somehow! I’m not going to be able to sleep anymore if I know that little monster is crawling around in this cell somewhere.”
“Okay, okay,” Andy sighed.
He grabbed the beanbag and tossed it aside in one swift motion. They spotted the spider cowering, trying to tuck itself as deep into the corner of the room as it could.
"Sorry, buddy, end of the line," Andy uttered.
He raised the rolled-up magazine over his head like a medieval executioner and--
Yumi and Andy jumped into each others' arms and leapt backward like a flame had been lit under their feet. A tiny voice had screamed at them!
"Did you hear that?" Andy gasped, thrusting the magazine in front of them like a crucifix before a vampire.
Yumi choked. "You heard it too? Are we going nuts? That sounded like it came from--"
"Put down the magazine, damn it!" squeaked the spider, wrapping its prickly, anterior legs protectively over its tiny head. "It's me! It's Mo!"
Yumi and Andy stared at each other in shock, their cheeks pressed together. Then they turned back to the spider and shouted simultaneously. "What?"
"Look, I'll prove it," it squealed.
Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, the spider exploded in size and morphed into a man.
“Recognize my voice now?” He asked in the dusky voice Andy had heard echoing out of the vent for the last month.
Leaning back against the corner, he lifted an eyebrow and flashed his neighbors a crooked grin. Butt naked. Yumi and Andy flailed apart, cringing from the visual assault. Andy whipped his head to one side and Yumi clapped a hand over her eyes.
"Oh, for the love of--!" Andy blurted.
Yumi curled her lips in disgust. "Ugh!” Then a second later, she spread her fingers and took a long, lingering look. "Oh," she breathed this time.
Mo looked like the love child of Johnny Depp and Kurt Cobain. With an Olympic swimmer's body. He could’ve been mistaken for a human man in his thirties but for a few exceptional features. Around his perfectly chiseled face, a tumbling river of luminous silver hair cascaded down to his broad shoulders. And the silver from his hair seemed to run into his skin as delicate gossamer lines swirling and interlacing like Celtic knots. These beautiful, elaborate patterns started from his forehead, ebbed around his face and spread across the upper half of his torso, framing and complimenting his already perfect features. Like fingerprints for humans, these markings seemed natural to Mo's species, seeing how seamlessly they were integrated into his skin. They behaved like extension of his hair, shimmering into mercurial hues when he moved or flexed a muscle. And to punctuate all of this stunning beauty, he gazed up at Andy and Yumi with a pair of wintry eyes the color of storm clouds. Storm clouds literally laced with a silver lining.
"My god, you're gorgeous," Yumi uttered hypnotically despite herself.
"Drink it in," Mo purred, draping himself on the floor like he was modeling for an Calvin Klein underwear ad. Minus the underwear.
"You're also disgusting!" Yumi snapped out of her trance and shrieked furiously. "You were spying on me!"
"Yeah," Mo replied casually, his silvery gray eyes wandering across Yumi's body. "I was naming all of your dimples when you interrupted me." Then he looked down at his manhood. “This half-chub is all you, baby." Andy loathed to admit it, but he was packing the Cary Grant of dicks.
Yumi pulled her towel tightly around herself. "You perv!"
Andy yanked his bathrobe from his closet and hurled it at Mo. "Put this on! And close your legs! Jesus!"
A few minutes later, they found themselves gathered around the kitchen table, Yumi fully dressed now and Mo lounging in Andy's bathrobe. Yumi had a notebook spread open in front of her. Juggling a pen between her lips, she adjusted the damp towel piled atop her head. Then she pushed her glasses up on her nose and glared at Mo. Mo munched on a Poptart.
Yumi put her pen to paper and started the interrogation. "All right, asshole. Explain yourself."
"I'm an ani-mage," Mo said nonchalantly. He took another bite out of the Poptart.
"You're a magazine devoted to anime?" Andy asked wryly.
"I can transform into a variety of animals." With each syllable, Mo instantly morphed into a different creature. First he shrank into his spider form, then he grew into a dog, then a cat, then a string of animals Yumi and Andy didn't recognize. They could only assume these were animals native solely to Mo's dimension. Yumi and Andy reeled, gawking in slack-jawed disbelief. Finally, Mo reverted back to his humanoid form and regarded his snack. "So you said this is called a 'Poptart', huh? Not bad. Could use a little hot sauce, but..."
Andy was groping for words. "What... Who... How do you do that?"
Mo picked at his teeth. "I don't know. I've just always been able to do it."
Yumi's pen was flying across the notebook. "So you're from a dimension where people can change into animals! Amazing..."
Mo dragged his gaze across Yumi's chest. "Not as amazing as those downy puppies," he said, smirking.
"Really? You think so?" Yumi looked up excitedly, a rosy flush blooming across her cheeks. "I always thought the left one was a little--"
"Yumi!" Andy cut in.
Yumi snapped to her senses and roared. "I mean, eyes on the road, jerkwad!"
"You're also wrong," Mo continued casually. "There are very few ani-mages in our world. In fact, as far as I know, this power only runs in my family. Which is also why the Praxians have no idea about my little talent. They think I’m just your average Kyderon."
“Kyderon…” Yumi mumbled to herself as she wrote it down.
“Yup,” Mo replied, “Kyder is what we call our version of this planet back in my dimension.”
"So... You've been sneaking in and out of your cell the entire time you've been locked up in here?" Andy asked incredulously.
"Pretty much. All I've got to do is change into an insect, and I can go anywhere through the vents. I can even go outside or... to any other cell in the zoo." He stopped to point and wink at Yumi. Yumi responded with a savage, disgusted scowl. "The only drawback, obviously, is that my clothes don't change with me. Of course when you look like me, it's not really much of a drawback, is it?" He raised an eyebrow and smiled, flashing a perfect set of pearly whites. Andy wanted to puke into his stupid, smug face.
"Wait, what about the surveillance cameras set up in every cell?" Andy asked. "I know Dash hacked into the feed from this cell but--"
"I had the same thing done to my cell a long, long time ago. I... convinced... a Praxian who doesn't work here anymore." Mo tossed back a shimmering lock of hair. "Anyway, now you know how I’ve gotten to know these Praxian fools so well. I've had a lot of time to observe them and this wacky world of theirs. I'm a regular fly on the wall. Literally."
Yumi continued scribbling like the wind, her writing hand desperately trying to keep up with Mo.
Andy was flabbergasted. "So why the hell are you still here? You could've escaped ages ago!"
"Why the hell would I want to escape?" Mo asked through a mouthful of Poptart. "I've got a sweet set-up here. I don't have to work a day in my life, I've got a roof over my head, and I get three square meals a day. When the zoo closes at night, I'm free to roam around and do whatever I please. What more could a guy want?" Mo leaned back in his chair and propped his bare feet up on the table.
Yumi stopped writing and looked up. "Oh, I don't know... A career? A family? A sense of purpose? A life?"
Mo yawned. "Bah. Overrated. All that crap is what your world has brainwashed you into thinking you need to have a fulfilling life. But really, all that nonsense is just magnets for stress. Here at the C.I.S Zoo, I have a completely stress-free life. And I don't have any intention of giving it up."
"I can't believe this," Andy muttered, shaking his head. "Another person who actually wants to be in here... Am I in The Twilight Zone or something?"
Then his disbelief slowly gave way to unbridled excitement as he pondered what Mo’s abilities meant for himself.
"Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" He grabbed Mo by the bathrobe and yanked him up to his face. "Mo! You're my ticket out of here! With your help, I can totally escape! Okay, this is all we have to do. You go out into the hallway through the vent, open up that window Dash uses to feed me, and then--"
Mo dropped his feet back onto the floor and brushed Andy's hands away from him like they were flies. "Why the hell would I want to help you?" He looked utterly confounded.
"Um... Because I'm your friend?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's not go crazy here, kid. We're neighbors. Acquaintances at best."
"Okay... Then... just out of the goodness of your heart?"
"Sorry, that’s one thing I don’t have."
"Goodness or a heart?" Yumi asked in an icy voice.
"Okay, two things I don't have," Mo chuckled.
"Mo, you hardly have to do anything!" Andy pleaded. "All I'm asking--"
Mo turned serious and cut him off. "Why the hell should I put my neck on the line for you? If they caught me helping you, they'd probably shoot me on the spot. Even if they didn't kill me, they would at least find out about my shape-shifting ability and seal me up in some airtight cell. Look, I like you, kid, but I'm sorry, my life here is way too peachy to jeopardize. Especially for some dude I barely even know from another dimension."
Before Andy could respond, Yumi coughed in Mo’s direction and shot him a piercing stare.
"Well, here's a thought," she said. "If you don't help us escape, the Praxians might not even have to see you using your power to find out about it. Since there are two other residents here at our wonderful zoo who are privy to your little secret..."
For the first time, Mo was at a loss for words. He sat motionless, staring back at Yumi with the Poptart hanging off his lips. However, after a silent moment, a crooked grin spread across his face. His stormy eyes seemed to crackle with electricity as he carefully put the Poptart down on his plate. Then his right hand shot out like a cobra and grabbed the seat of Yumi's chair, just below her crotch. Before either Yumi or Andy could react, he yanked on the chair, dragging Yumi toward him, like a car magnet pulling in a paper clip, until her face was inches away from his.
"Well, here's another thought. All it might take is a little slip of my tongue for the Praxians to unlock the mystery of your 'ruby slippers,'" he grinned. "You tell, I tell."
Then he slowly pushed the chair back with his foot. Yumi was dumbfounded. Mo leaned back in his chair and propped his feet back up on the table. He peered smugly at Yumi from the corner of his eyes, his shit-eating grin chiseled into his face.
Yumi stammered. "How did you--"
"I told you. I'm a fly on the wall." Mo stretched and put his hands behind his head. "There isn't a thing that goes on in this zoo that I don't know about."
Andy gawked back and forth between them. "What the hell are you two talking about?"
But Mo and Yumi were in their own world now. They locked eyes like two cowboys fingering their pistols at High Noon.
"Yumi?" Andy tried again.
Yumi hissed at Mo through clenched teeth. "All right. A truce then."
Mo spat into his hand and extended it to Yumi. "Shake on it?"
“Don’t push it,” she snarled.
Andy's befuddlement was brewing into anger. "What is going on?"
"Just trust me, Andy," Yumi muttered. "We keep our mouths shut... For now."
Mo tossed the last chunk of Poptart into his mouth and rose from the table. "Well, it's been fun, but I’ve got to get back into my cell before the zoo opens. Thanks for breakfast, neighbors. And the show." He shot Yumi another wink, flashing a blinding smile.
The pen in Yumi’s hand threatened to snap as she tightened her grip into a trembling fist. "I find you in my shower again and I will squash you between my toes before you can say To Catch A Predator.”
"Oooh. Promise? Because next time I'm coming in like this," Mo purred, opening the top of his bathrobe.
Yumi blushed. "Well, in that case, maybe--"
"Yumi!" Andy snapped, pounding the table.
Yumi wrenched her eyes away from Mo’s perfect body and snapped to her senses. "I mean--"
Suddenly a tremendous boom shook the room. No, not just the room... the entire zoo. Plates rattled in the cupboards and a few picture frames jostled off the walls in the livingroom. They gasped and scanned the cell frantically. "What was that?" Yumi sputtered.
The boom was followed shortly by an ear-splitting alarm. Then, from somewhere in the depths of the zoo came the sound of gunfire. Yumi and Andy bolted up from their seats and the three zoo mates stood frozen, straining to hear whatever was happening over the bleating alarm.
"Jesus! Is that… gunfire?" Andy hollered, voice cracking. "Mo, do you know what's happening?"
"How the hell should I know?" he yelled back over the alarm.
"So this has never happened before?"
"Not as long as I've been here."
"Maybe you should sneak out and see what's happening!" Yumi suggested, clapping her hands over her ears.
"I can't right now! I told you, I have to get back into my cell. The zoo is opening in a couple of minutes. If the Praxians find my cell empty, my life here is over.” He rubbed his chin anxiously. “But I'm definitely going to do some reconnaissance tonight after the zoo closes..."
And as suddenly as it started, the din halted. The abrupt silence was jarring following the dreadful racket. They stood dazed for a moment, waiting for something else to happen.
"Whatever it was," Yumi whispered at last, "it looks like it's over..."
Andy caught a glimpse of Mo at that moment, and for the first time, detected a look of genuine alarm on his face. The Kyderon cautiously peered out into the zoo hallway outside of Andy's cell, his handsome brow knitted with suspicion.
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