THE HEAD SMELLED like an onion left out in the sun. Putting it on the first few times, Takeshi tried to hold his breath; it only made things worse. The head stared back at him now, disproportionate features, leering at him, reminding him of his lowly status. A cartoon tiger, crudely stitched together, with a giant red tongue flopping from its mouth, the head cruelly mocked him; he imagined a high pitched voice using ironic phrases from television. When he accepted the position at The Tama Zoological Park, this was not something mentioned in the job description.
“Everyone takes a turn,” Shintaro said, standing in the locker room’s partition. His uniform crisp even in the ungodly heat. The menace wafted off the man whose slick backed hair shone in the fluorescent light.
Takeshi was already dressed in the orange and white outfit save for the final piece. The inside concealed a battery pack, which fed a hose up through the head to a fan inside. It was supposed to allow for better respiration and cool the person within; it didn’t.
“If you have a problem with this...”
This was how Shintaro began fifty percent of his conversations, wielding his authority like a club. He never needed to finish his rhetorical question. He was the chief of zoo security and Takeshi’s direct supervisor; he ran the show with an iron fist.
“No problem,” Takeshi said, and placed the animal’s head on top of his own to complete the outfit.
Since the earthquake in 2011, there was concern the animal pens might be destroyed from Nature’s wrath. Above all else, safety for the patrons and zoo creatures was tantamount. The board of directors, with little provocation, drew up various contingency plans to be put into action post haste. Every month the security teams would have to drill scenarios in which animals had escaped, needed to be captured, and returned to their enclosures.
Today, Takeshi’s job was to avoid capture for as long as possible. The record stood at three minutes flat. While dressing for work in the locker room, bets were made as to whether he would break it.
“I don’t know, he might prove us wrong,” Hideo offered, long bleached blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail. He moonlighted as the lead singer for a Skid Row cover band. Well liked by everyone, often groupies would show up to the park with no interest in seeing the ocelots or the tapirs.
“I give him thirty seconds,” Sonya said, with laughter greeting her statement. She stared at Takeshi with indifference. He looked away as he began to dress in the outfit. She bordered on androgynous and in uniform, her femininity almost fully disappeared. Still, there was something about her which caused Takeshi to sneak a second glance while pulling up the lower half of the tiger’s body.
Outside the sun continued to cook the land, intensifying the smell. He was going to start outside of the actual Tiger’s pen, then was free to roam as far as he could go. Walking toward the cage, the specimen inside paced back and forth. It was a monster of an animal, weighing close to a thousand pounds.
Takeshi turned to see Hideo, all smiles.
“I guess so.”
“Look, we all did it.” Somehow Takeshi doubted that.
“Prove us wrong,” Hideo added, then smacked Takeshi’s backside and walked to his starting position. Around them onlookers had gathered taking time from their tours to watch a grown man, in a costume, get hunted like dangerous game.
Shintaro approached, flicking his nightstick so the lanyard wrapped around his wrist, then spun it back the other way.
“You know what to do?”
He signaled the teams: one in a golf cart, and another two on foot, each armed with nets and “tranquilizer” weapons. The crowd’s murmuring ceased.
“Prove everyone wrong,” Takeshi muttered to himself.
Shintaro blew his whistle.
Takeshi had the route mapped out since they told him he’d have to give chase. He immediately diverted from the path and cut through a hedge. Over the loudspeaker, his position was tracked. Making it through to the other side, he broke right just as the golf cart came into view: Sonya behind the wheel with Hideo riding shotgun, holding a net.
Takeshi stopped, waited, drawing them into his trap.
Closing in, the excitement apparent on their faces, he paused another second, then took off. Sonya turned to follow, forgetting about the curb which now existed. Takeshi heard her profane utterances fade.
By now, they managed to secure his perimeter. Sweating and out of breath, he started to panic, forgetting the next part of his plan. He shut his eyes and inhaled the vile secretions of person’s past.
Making a final break, he ran in a serpentine manner and felt them close in. Slowing until he was walking, he instinctually raised his hands. Fanning out around him, they approached with their weapons drawn.
One last chance if he could make it past the encircling ring, he might have a shot. Frantic orders cried out to coordinate and block him. Almost through a gap, the rifle butt slammed into his sternum, sending him backward. Dazed, his exhalation felt like his soul escaping through his mouth. Trying to breath, everything in exit mode, nothing coming in. Above him, Hideo stood with a wry smile. He bent down and helped Takeshi to his feet. Expecting some welcoming sentiment, or an apology for an unnecessary strike, Hideo leaned in,
“Two Minutes Fifty-six seconds.”
Sitting down onto the seat caused Takeshi to wince.
Though he couldn’t see it, upon his first cursory examination in the locker room, he was almost certain by now his chest was a mixture of purple and yellow discoloration.
In the seat next to him, the tiger’s head poked out of the duffle. He was required to keep it clean, and his earlier tumble got grass stains on the back and legs. He stared at the glazed eyes, and goofy grin, which seemed to intensify everything. He could hear the animal’s voice resonate within his mind.
Takeshi pinched the bridge of his nose. The train picked up speed. His eyes closed, he felt the presence of someone standing next to him. Great.
He looked up. Flawless; that was the only thing which came to mind.
“Yes?” He was amazed he could speak clearly; even his chest seemed to be cured by her recognition.
“Is that yours?”
Immediately he felt sunken, poisoned by shame.
She smiled and sat down on the seat in front of him, but kept her legs in the aisle so they could face each other. Up close, she radiated.
“Listen, I was supposed to have some friends over tonight, but they had to cancel at the last minute; you look like you could use some company.”
Takeshi pursed his lips, trying to keep whatever reaction, he couldn’t tell if it was laughter or sorrow, from bursting forth. He scanned the train for hidden cameras. The perfect end to a perfect day: her reveal of his being setup, his face turning red, watching her leap from the chair, pointing at him, while some multicolor tuxedoed bastard came out from the engineer’s compartment as confetti fell from the ceiling. Scantily clad women dancing around, and worst of all: costumed cartoon characters.
But none of that happened.
Instead he found himself agreeing to join her, and in two stops was following her to her apartment. Everything was happening so quickly, he barely had time to process his change in fortune. Still, anxiety took hold; perhaps, she wanted to harvest his vital organs? She was a wisp of a thing, but there could be a gang of thugs upstairs. Or worse, perhaps a yakuza enforcer like Kakihara from Miike’s Ichi the Killer, ready to inflict a torrent of sadistic cruelty. He stopped walking; was she one the the proverbial Red Riding Hood girls, luring the wolf into a trap? He was not yet a wolf though. She took his hand, and in the intimacy of her gesture, all of his anxiety dissipated.
Her apartment was unlike anything he’d ever seen. Walls were covered with forest landscape, depicting jungles from something out of a child’s nursery rhyme. Plants, placed on ledges, and the floor, completed this surrealist impression.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, and excused herself to the washroom.
He didn’t have to move to take in the entire apartment. The bed, positioned directly against the far wall, was covered with plush animals from video games, anime, film. Stacked neatly in rows, they looked like an approaching army, googley-eyed soldiers, ready to march forth off the comforter and seek their fortunes on the floor.
She emerged from the bathroom completely naked; he felt his throat constrict.
“Now,” she began, and walked toward him. Her undressing of him was silent, careful and methodical. When his shirt fell, she ran her fingers delicately over his bruised sternum.
“What happened?” Genuine concern.
“Oh, I work security...” he started, but she was already digging around the duffle bag. She removed the head and marveled at it in awe. He didn’t fight her when she placed it on top of his own, and fit it, so it was snug. She took a step backward to behold him, then cleared the stuffed brigade from her bed and beckoned him forth.
Rational thought had long since vanished, now he acted driven solely by carnal desire. She fit him with protection, then guided him.
“You are the most glorious, Shere Khan,” she spoke.
Through his obstructed vision, he watched her face contort, uncertain if it was himself or the fantasy supplying the pleasure. It was irrelevant; he was now both things. No longer was he Takeshi, lowest man on the totem pole, ridiculed and made to wear a third rate knockoff costume; he was Shere Khan, king, ruler of the jungle. He looked around the room at the vast expanse of his empire, his minions strewn about at his feet. He could imagine these vassals singing nursery rhyme haiku, acting out Kabuki recreations of his exploits, hearing the lamentations of those crushed before him. This sense of pride allowed him to perform wondrous feats, and her body trembled before him. She writhed and moaned; he had ascended to the heights of a Demi-God. Desperately, he wanted to share this feeling with her, kiss her mouth. He removed the head and cast it to the floor, moved in closer. The slap broke any and all connection, searing his flesh with stinging.
“What are you doing?” She said, chest heaving, anger and ferocity.
“I, uh, I just...” he started, but nothing followed. His head removed, all of his strength, courage, went with it. She pushed him back.
“Just go,” she said, stood, and draped a robe over her slender frame.
“Be gone when I come back.” She walked to the bathroom and shut the door. He quickly dressed, grabbed his gear and was gone. On the landing, he had trouble breathing. The head out of the duffle bag was silent, which made everything worse. Taking the stairs two at a time, he emerged into the night, feeling like a thief fleeing the scene of a crime.
He ran, unsure of where he was going until he reached the tributary. Out of breath and on the verge of tears, he gripped the head in his hands, ready to launch it into the water. Holding it aloft, a decapitated foe, he faltered staring out into the murky water.
“Begone you cursed and vile thing,” he wanted to scream and watch it sink into the briny deep, ridding himself of all of his problems. Another moment passed, then he put the head back in the duffle, when he realized he could not afford to lose the security deposit.
Andrew Davie received an MFA from Adelphi University. His work can be read in Bartleby Snopes, A River and Sound Review, The South Dakota Review, Menacing Hedge, Necessary Fiction, Crack the Spine, and LitroNY.