Fiction · 06/20/2018

Escapees

Empire, the famous giraffe on loan from San Diego to our county zoo, had a freak accident and injured his neck and died. He was immediately buried in the zoo’s cemetery despite San Diego’s insistence that his body be returned.

I had never taken my son Terrence to the zoo, let alone its cemetery. I can’t afford to give him much, but it’s just us at home, and I can listen. Terrence said the day after the accident, Empire’s ghost began to visit local kids. The visits scared the first few children, but they soon became a right of passage. You couldn’t get a seat in the back of the Calypso Elementary bus without a story. Carter swore he met the ghost halfway up the radio tower on North Rock Road, and Madison said the ghost floated through the screen of her bedroom window like smoke from the grill, and Eddie said the ghost napped beside the water tank on Blue Mountain. Each night before bed, Terrence begged me to call Empire from the window. Two weeks after the accident, he was the only one in fifth grade who hadn’t seen him.

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Giraffes are herbivores who nibble acacia trees and roam savannas. Who am I to know what attracts a ghost giraffe? The street in front of our row house is parked tight with junkers, and our backyard fails yearly at tomatoes. I swapped the bulb of Terrence’s desk lamp with an orange incandescent from the costume shop, the same charcoal glow as the equatorial dawn. I removed the shade and aimed the bulb out the window. Terrence asked me what I was doing, and I explained the theory.

He said, “What if I make a dummy?”

And I said go for it, thinking the idea would pass when he couldn’t find supplies. But there he was with a box and scissors, and he cut a silhouette. A shadow puppet towered on the bedroom wall. By now it was past his bedtime, and mine too, and I left him with the lamp and decoy.

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Terrence didn’t come down for breakfast the next morning. He wasn’t in his bed—his window was open, the orange bulb was shattered, and the silhouette was gone. A house-wide search brought nothing. We parents and guardians had received a neon yellow card for how to report a missing child. Dazed, I found it in the junk drawer and called the police.

After three days of county-wide panic, of humiliation on the local news (yes, I told them we’d laid the bait), of sleeping with my phone’s ringer as loud as it could go, Terrence clomped downstairs for breakfast. He had sticks in his hair and a new matting of freckles. Had he grown? He wouldn’t let me measure on the doorframe. But he had a new confidence, the ease I had tried to develop through all our muddy adventures. His calm didn’t fade in the following weeks, and that was more than I could ask. He didn’t say anything about what had happened, and I didn’t push any questions.

Six months later, our zoo settled with San Diego and agreed to send Empire back to California. They dug and discovered the grave held not one giraffe skeleton, but two. San Diego, exasperated, gave permission to leave the remains in place. Our zoo planned to put up a monument, and Terrence finally told me his story: the decoy that conjured a partner for Empire from a faraway grave, their safari as a family of three, their goodbye at the county zoo. Terrence said he only told me his secret to make sure the zoo engraved the right names. But really, I think he wanted me to know his temporary parents showed him our family is real.

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Brett Stuckel’s fiction appears in Electric Literature’s Okey-Panky, Split Lip Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. On Twitter, he’s @1kMarquis.