A World Without Heroes(5)

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Go avenge me. Knock the covers off some balls.”

Jason concentrated on his breathing, trying to ignore the clanging of aluminum bats. He began to feel more centered. He made eye contact with April, who squinted sympathetically. By the time Matt left the cage, Jason could stand without the ground tilting much.

“I want to snag some grub before I hit the zoo,” Jason said.

“Sorry, I’m supposed to meet up with my cousins,” Matt said. “I’ll already be a little late.”

Tim checked his wristwatch. “I can’t go either. You would have been on your own with the twins. My brother is picking me up in about five minutes. We could give you a lift.”

“I have my bike. I’ll catch you guys later.”

Tim and Matt returned the helmets to the counter, while Jason went to the parking lot and claimed his bicycle from the rack. A string of warmish days had melted the snow, even most of the roadside drifts, leaving the streets unseasonably welcoming to cyclists. Although the sky was currently overcast, the temperature remained much too warm for snow. If anything it might rain.

As Jason pedaled up the hill to Anderson’s grocery store, his head began to ache, and he started to feel unbalanced. Rather than push through the discomfort, he opted to walk his bike the rest of the way.

Leaving his bike chained near a soda machine, Jason entered through the automatic door and went to the Chinese food counter off to one side. He ordered the lunch special, and the guy behind the counter spooned orange chicken, beef and broccoli, and chow mein onto a compartmentalized Styrofoam plate. The broccoli was a bright, fluorescent green—a color that would seldom occur in nature. The broccoli always looked that color here, as if it were spray-painted or made of plastic.

After finding a seat at a little table near the deli, Jason started eating. The orange chicken mixed with the chow mein was his favorite, but he only made it through half the food before he began to feel nauseated. He took a long sip of water and rubbed his temples. Then he unwrapped the fortune cookie, cracked it open, and removed the slip of paper. New experiences await on the horizon.

They should be a little bolder, he thought, and assert something like, “You are about to suffer from violent food poisoning.”

Jason headed outside. As he biked farther up the hill, traversing a few crosswalks, his head felt clearer, although a dull ache persisted, pounding a bit as climbing the slope elevated his heart rate. Before long he reached the Vista Point Zoo parking lot. Although the family-owned institution was no match for the Denver Zoo, Vista Point housed a respectable population, with more than four hundred animals representing almost one hundred and sixty species. Typical for an afternoon in winter, the lot was mostly empty.

At his locker Jason pulled on a set of gray coveralls and replaced his shoes with work boots. He was a few minutes early, so he thumbed through his biology textbook. The words seemed a little fuzzy. Closing his eyes periodically, he recited the names of various bones and processes.

Glancing up, Jason noticed the clock. Time to clean the hippo structure.

When he entered the hippo viewing area, Jason paused to admire a glass case on the wall labeled: MONUMENT TO HUMAN STUPIDITY.

It contained various items workers had fished out of the hippo tank over the years: aluminum cans, glass bottles, coins, cigar stubs, two cigarette lighters, a dental-floss dispenser, a pocket knife, a tangled Slinky, a plastic wristwatch, a disposable razor—even a few rounds of ammunition.

Pacing behind his push broom, Jason watched debris accumulate in front of the dark bristles, wondering how some idiot could top the random dangerous items in the display case. Maybe by chucking in a lawn mower. Or a few bars of uranium.

Jason paused to stare over the railing at the enormous hippo resting motionless below the water on the floor of the tank. Hank was the only hippo in the zoo, an adult male with his fortieth birthday coming up in the summer. Jason shook his head. The majestic hippopotamus—hard at work as usual. They might as well replace it with a statue. No visitor would know the difference.

Faintly, on the edge of perception, Jason heard tinkling music rising from the water. Head slightly cocked, he wandered around the area trying to pinpoint the true origin of the sound. As the volume of the music increased, growing richer and clearer to where he could discern different instruments, he returned to the water and had to admit that the melodic strains seemed to emanate from the submerged hippo.

Had they installed underwater speakers in the tank without his knowledge? Some new technique for soothing the obese mammal? Perhaps it was a pathetic attempt to give the hippo more crowd appeal.

The melody was unfamiliar, supported by harmonies and complemented by interweaving countermelodies. A deep, gentle percussion kept time. Jason leaned over the rail, perplexed by the bizarre phenomenon. He wished another person were present so he could verify that he wasn’t having an auditory hallucination.

The hippo stirred, vast mouth momentarily yawning open, and for that instant the music became much louder and more distinct, as if the hippo truly were the source of the elaborate tune. Then the great mouth clamped shut.

The music became muffled again when the mouth closed, but continued to gradually increase in volume. Could the hippo have swallowed a stereo? That was the only plausible explanation, but it seemed just as ludicrous as the idea that the hippo was spontaneously producing the sound.

Maybe there was no music. Maybe he had been thumped on the head more severely than he’d realized. But his mind felt clearer than it had earlier, and the unsteadiness was fading.

Scanning the area, Jason saw no other people around. Would there be time to run and fetch someone else? He thought of the Warner Bros. cartoon about the singing and dancing frog that clammed up whenever witnesses were present.

Leaning his stomach against the top of the railing, Jason teetered far over the metal bar, baffled by the beckoning melody. If he could get an ear closer to the water, he could confirm whether the music was really coming from down there. The hippo remained motionless.

As his ear descended toward the rippling surface, a powerful sensation of vertigo swept over him. Jason overbalanced, lost his grip, and plunged head foremost into the pool above the massive hippo. As if this were the chance for which the lethargic beast had waited its entire captive existence, the hippopotamus surged upward with jaws agape, the music chiming louder than ever.

Before Jason could react, his hands were grasping at a slimy tongue, and his face was sliding against a greasy surface. Sprawled on his belly, he raced along a dark, slippery tunnel. No creature was this big! What was happening? In counterpoint to his distress, melodic music rang clearly as he sloshed along the humid corridor. He tried to brace himself against the rubbery sides to slow his slide but failed, until his arms and head suddenly emerged from an opening in the side of a dying tree, near a river lined with ferny vegetation.

Night had inexplicably fallen. A silver path of moonlight trembled on the water. The music he had heard was coming from a wide raft drifting on the lazy current. He squirmed out of the gap, his coveralls drenched from the plunge into the hippo tank, and turned around to inspect the hollow inside of the tree. The inner walls felt moist and rotten. He could locate no opening save the one through which he had emerged and an aperture directly overhead, at the top of the hollow trunk, through which he could see stars.