The townsfolk of Yoris have spent their lives being entertained by the foolish, but very dangerous, people behind the fence. The chain fence made sure the town remained safe from the savage humanoid zoo creatures.
Then Ryan found the hole.
Written by Gregory Patrick Travers
“Stay low! Slow down! Are you crazy? Someone might see us!”
Up ahead, maybe ten or twelve yards, Jilin continued to stroll casually along the path, back straight and chest puffed out, arms flapping at his sides, and his bulbous head sticking above the twiggy brush that hid them from the view of town.
Ryan’s raspy calls from a crouched position halfway inside the bushes went without heed, or any sort of validation for that matter. He started to feel a tingle of fear in his belly. The further Jilin separated from his side, the worse it got. If they were caught, or found out after the fact, they would stand to face some heavy consequences. Maybe not a full-blown shaming in the Town Court, but trouble undoubtedly.
And yet Jilin marched with his head high, giving high-fives to outstretched branches, soaking up the sun-rays beating down on us in a perfectly clear blue sky, a smile of peace and contentment smeared lazily on his face like he hadn’t a worry in the world. He could be spotted by a citizen or an Elder at any minute with the way his head stuck out of the brush like that. And yet he hadn’t a worry in the world. This characteristic of Jilin’s was one that Ryan admired greatly, perhaps even to the result of envy.
Why can’t I smile like that? Ryan wondered. Why am I always so worried? So uncomfortable?
And yet Jilin always brought Ryan along with him. Sometimes Ryan thought Jilin was trying to teach him to brave. And perhaps it helped. One thing is for sure, Ryan would have never skipped school to go play catch by the Goolies with anyone else.
“Come on, Ryan. Don’t be such a sissy piss,” said Jilin, lazily turning around and taking a few backward steps. He tossed the ball up into the air and caught it as if to hypnotize or entice Ryan onward. “You need this more than I do.”
For a moment he looked as if he might topple over from the momentum of his wide, boxy upper-half which was a sharp contrast from his short chicken legs. His father was just as odd-shaped, but he performed on the stage and was looked at with high regard by the townies of Yoris. That’s probably why no matter how many times Jilin got into trouble, he’d never been shamed in the Town Court. The worst he got were worship duties and slaps on the wrists. Elder Philip even said to Jilin that when the time came for him to continue his father’s legacy, his plays better be twice as cheap and twice as good for all the second chances that have come his way.
Ryan thought Jilin would make a good actor. He was charming and funny, and his strange physicality drew your attention in a somewhat alluring fashion. Acting was a good legacy to be born into. It led to a good life. Not that Ryan was jealous in any sort of way. He was proud to be born into his own legacy. Installing and maintaining water lines was an honorable service. Maybe the allowance wasn’t as abundant as an actor’s, but it was just as honorable without question. And now that his father had fallen sick and disabled, it was a very real possibility that Ryan may have to continue the legacy a lot sooner than the bulk of his school friends.
So when Jilin told Ryan that he needed this, he had hit the nail right on the head. A trip back to the zoo that he used to visit with his parents as a young boy was indeed something that would help ease his anxiety about leaving his youth behind. Kind of a ‘letting it go by revisiting it’ type of thing. And the fact that Jilin would be thoughtful enough to think to bring him there made Ryan happy to have a friend like Jilin. Even if he was completely reckless and a touch insane.
“Yeah, yeah,” grumbled Ryan, slowly moving forward in his crouched position, feeling well enough now to come out of the bush entirely. “Just wait up, will ya?”
Jilin turned forward. Before Ryan was faced with the back of Jilin’s curly-haired head, he saw a grin forming and growing. “What’s a matter, Ryan? You scared?”
Ryan scowled. “No. You’re scared.”
“Your mom’s scared,” said Jilin, his voice trailing off as he skipped ahead.
As Jilin continued to drift down the path, Ryan felt the tingle in his belly return and he picked up his pace to close the gap between them.
Taking the path to the outskirts instead of the road resulted in just over an hour of a hike. But when the long stretch of chain fence appeared over the horizon, stretching north to south as far as the eye could see, the boys knew they had reached their destination.
Beyond that fence was Goolie territory.
Even without the fence to separate them, it was easy to see where the Town of Yoris ended and the Goolie Zoo began. The lush green grass that was commonplace in Yoris ceased to grow with a laser-sharp edge along the fence line and the terrain became dirt and dust with only patches of wild, sporadic, and unkempt grass. The Goolies had some berry bushes, which kept them fed. That and the bugs. Ryan had always thought that to be gross, even as a child, or perhaps especially as a child. In a lot of ways, the Goolies were strangely similar to normal people, which mystified Ryan even still now that he was in his more mature adolescent years and a lot of things that had glittered in childhood had lost their shimmer, but not with that. Not with eating bugs. That was, and always had been, disgusting.
Besides the berry bushes, there were scattered huts in what Ryan guessed would be what a Goolie considers a village. But the huts were made of mud and sticks, and they were about as primitive as their dim-witted Goolie counterparts. And never mind plumbing, a Goolie brain didn’t have the intricacies necessary for that sort of thing. They collected rainwater to wash and drink. It was a laughable sight to see, how excited a Goolie would get when it rained, racing for its clay bowl, cleaning themselves right there out in the open.
Imagine that, thought Ryan with a head shake as he stepped out of the bushes.
“Go long,” called Jilin as Ryan started jogging a along the fence line. The stone city of Yoris was now faded far in the distance, too far to see them. They were safe. “I’m feeling it today.”
As he ran, Ryan noticed a little Goolie coming out of his hut to check on the noise. He slowed down and smiled at the creature, whose big eyes bulging out of a head that was too big for its body looked back at him; curious, but timid. Young Goolies were a cute bunch. You almost wanted to take one home as a pet. They did eventually grow into those big heads, though. And that was not very cute. Dark circles formed under their eyes, their posture became hunched and twisted, their hair fell out in unsightly patches and their whole demeanor turned shifty and strange. One always was on his toes in the presence of an adult Goolie, as stupid and non-threatening as they appeared. You never quite knew when one would have a primal outburst of rage and violence. Even with the chain fence between them, one never felt completely safe. There was always a hint of fear. A whisper of panic.
The fence shook and clanked. The young Goolie jumped up, startled, and retreated quickly back into the hut. Ryan turned and saw Jilin down the way, with his fingers interlocked in the steel diamonds, a grimace on his face. The noise had scared Ryan too, but he didn’t show it. Nor did he show his fear that the momma or poppa Goolie, Ryan could never tell which was which, would be out there in a moment, gnawing and clawing at the fence, protecting its young.
“Cut that out,” said Ryan with a sidelong look.
Jilin rolled his eyes. “Are we hear to play catch or swoon over stupid Goolies?”
Ryan didn’t answer, but he did keep jogging on to his position.
They threw the ball around for about an hour, enjoying the summer day that would usually have been watched glumly from inside the stone walls of their school as they sat through another boring lecture about the importance of obedience. You Shall Replace the Past and Move Aside For The Future, the slogan on the first page of every textbook, on a banner in every classroom, the backbone of every single one of Preacher’s sermons, along with his other much-repeated phrase, The Town is Bigger Than The Person. Order is Greater Than Freedom. It all could be a bit much sometimes, at least to Ryan. But that was a thought Ryan would not divulge to even Jilin. To anyone. Ever.
He was grateful to Jilin for taking him on this venture. It had helped clear his mind from thoughts of his sick father and the pressures of taking on that legacy. He truly did feel like a boy again; happy and playful. He only wished that there might be a little more Goolie activity on the other side of the fence, but sadly the creatures remained hidden in their huts. Ryan half-expected this anyhow. Goolies came out most in the evenings and through the night when the temperature had cooled. The day was too hot for their liking. The best time to see Goolies was at dusk, after Preacher’s sermon. Then the Goolies were really out and about.
“Okay, here we go!” called Jilin from where he stood. “This one is going to be a bomber! Step back!”
“Yeah, yeah,” groaned Ryan. “Just throw the ball!”
He watched Jilin plant his back foot, wind up, and, with a furious swing of the arm, catapult the ball up across the sky. Ryan lost sight of it when he looked into the sun and became blinded momentarily. He squinted and refocused just in time to see the ball fly over his head. As he whirled, he saw the ball land about ten yards away.
Ryan groaned. Jilin hadn’t even tried to aim for him, he just threw it as hard as he could to exhibit how strong he was. He was like a Goolie trying to assert alpha dominance over the pack. Now Ryan had to scramble to find the ball in the grass.
He jogged over, seeing the spot of white among the blades of green and retrieving the ball from where it lay. As he stood up, ball in hand, Ryan noticed something sticking out of the fence just a little further down. He almost ignored it and turned back, but the way the sun was gleaming off the tip of whatever piece of metal was sticking out of the fence, struck Ryan with curiosity. At a closer glance, Ryan realized that it wasn’t something stuck in the fence, but the fence itself. There was a hole in the fence, a small hole about waist high, enough for someone to pass through if they were crouched, and the severed chain links were curled and branched out like a claw.
This caused Ryan to become afraid, consumed with the idea that a Goolie might have gotten through and be on the loose somewhere in Yoris. It might have even been hiding in the bushes where the secret path was located, it could have seen them, snatched them up like they had that one boy, all those years ago.
He wasted no time in running back to inform Jilin.
Jilin, of course, demanded that Ryan show him the hole at once. Ryan obliged. Upon seeing the hole a smile grew on Jilin’s face the size of which Ryan had never seen. And there was a hint of malice to it, the playful malice Jilin was famous for.
“Oh, man,” said Jilin. “We have to go exploring!”
Ryan felt like he had been smacked across the face by such a suggestion. “Are you insane?”
Jilin flashed a quick grin, then became silently thoughtful for a beat before looking back at Ryan with clarity. “You’re right,” he agreed. “We’ve been gone for too long. Schools out soon, we should be getting back before someone notices. But we’ll come back. Tonight. After worship. And we’ll bring the girls.”
Jilin nodded as if in agreement with himself, then started back for the path back to town. “Come on. Let’s go.”
With a hard swallow, Ryan resigned to his fate and followed Jilin back to the path. There was no arguing with Jilin once he had made up his mind.
Ryan had just enough time to get home and wash up for dinner. They set up the table in the sitting room so his father could eat from the couch. No one mentioned anything about being absent from school, so Ryan assumed he was in the clear. When they had finished eating, Ryan got changed into his worship clothes and headed out on his bike to pick up Dolly from her house. His father had been exempted from worship because of his illness and the same exemption had been given to his mother so she could stay home and tend to him.
When he and Dolly had arrived at the Town Court, most of the town had already congregated. They parked their bikes and headed into the crowd to find Jilin and Mable. As they shimmed through the bodies, they passed some men that worked with Ryan’s father at the water department. They wished him well and his father a speedy recovery, though they had a tone in their voice that was less than optimistic. Ryan took their condolences with regard, knowing that these adults would most likely soon be his co-workers.
They spotted Jilin and Mable and pushed through the crowd, having to wedge themselves between another couple in order to get next to their friends. The couple seemed less than pleased over the intrusion, but Ryan knew very well that during worship, the people of Yoris rarely ever showed anything but their best, most pious, face. As Ryan suspected, the liberty he and his Arranged had taken was overlooked and forgiven.
“Where are your parents?” asked Ryan as he and Dolly sat cross-legged on the grass.
“Sitting upfront,” answered Jilin with a rolling of the eyes. “Wannabe seen by the Preacher throwing rocks at Ming.”
Ryan wasn’t surprised. In order for entertainers to be accepted by the citizens, they needed to adopt the causes of the citizens. This including throwing stones at the shameful.
Jilin’s eyes switched from exhausted to blown wide open. “So? Did you tell Dolly?”
“Yeah,” said Ryan.
Dolly tucked her shoulder-length auburn hair behind an ear and leaned in, speaking softly as to not be heard by the surrounding adults. “Did you guys really find a hole in the fence?”
Jilin nodded jesterly. Dolly and Mable looked at each other and shared a laugh. Ryan’s focus wandered through the crowd, zeroing in on Ming elevated over the crowd on the stage, tied to the fountain, his pants around his ankles, and naked manhood exposed for the entire town to ridicule. His head hung low, eyes hiding from the many staring back at him.
Ryan looked away.
“Can you believe that about Ming?” asked Jilin, noticing Ryan’s focus. “Refusing to marry is Arranged? Why would you do something like that? Do you not like sex or something?”
Sitting next to Jilin, Mable soured her face as she stared across the crowd at Ming tied to the fountain. “Ew. How shameful. Not that his Arranged is missing much by the looks of it. Still…how can a person just abandon their duty?”
Jilin shrugged with indifference. Dolly squeezed Ryan’s arm, her blue eyes locked on his. “You would never abandon our union, would you?”
Ryan forced a laugh, but when it came out, he was worried he had forced it a bit too much. “Of course not. That’s absurd.”
His eyes drifted back to Ming at the fountain. By this point, the restless crowd waiting for the sermon to begin had started to toss sticks and stones at Ming, whose head remained hung despite the objects rapping at his naked torso. The crowd laughed when Ming started to groan. Ryan looked away.
He would never say it aloud, but Ryan didn’t see anything wrong with choosing to deny a union with an Arranged. Surely it wasn’t so shameful as to be tied and stoned for it. If Ryan had his choice of the females in Yoris, Dolly would not, by far, be the one he picked to be his companion for the long walk of waking life.
It wasn’t that she was unattractive, in fact she was quite cute with her big blue eyes, soft cheeks, and small button nose. She stayed well under the weight limit for her age and rode bikes enough to keep her haunches well-formed. But she was bossy, and not very interesting, at least to Ryan. She shared the same administrative persona as her mother, a bookkeeper, the legacy that Dolly would one day be taking over. Bookkeepers were a dull sort, but proud of their dullness, fully engulfed in the teachings of the Elders and voracious supporters of Yoris law. Once, Ryan had asked Dolly if she would ever open up the books on other legacies, thinking it would be fun to learn the ways of a legacy that was not your own. And since Dolly would have access to the books, it would be very possible to accomplish such a task.
Dolly found no humor in the inquiry.
“That’s a shame-able offense,” said Dolly with a straight face. “Do you want me to be tied to the fountain in the Town Court, breasts exposed for the town to aim their stones?”
“Of course not,” Ryan replied. “I just thought it would be interesting to…”
She cut him off before he could finish. “Perhaps you should keep these thoughts to yourself, else appear to descent the laws of Yoris. You may find yourself tied to the fountain one of these days.”
Ryan left the topic there, afraid to speak on the matter any further.
No, Dolly wasn’t the girl Ryan imagined for his mate as a little boy, when he first learned of what was to come in his later years, but to refuse their union would result in him being tied to the fountain and stoned, just as Ming was tied now.
Ryan’s eyes crept to the stage once more and watched Ming, bound to the fountain, head hung in exhaustion and humiliation. Then, as if Ming had heard Ryan’s private thoughts, his head lifted and he looked across the crowd, directly at Ryan. Ryan panicked and looked down at his lap, just as Preacher made his way to the stage.
The citizens began to cheer and clap. Dolly sighed and shuttered, never discreet about her crush on Preacher, a silver-haired man three times her age.
Yet another thing Ryan disliked about his Arranged.
Preacher was a confident man, who moved quick and smooth for a man of his age. He could talk with anyone from any legacy for hours and always appear pleased and interested in the conversation. He had the man’s respect and the woman’s adoration. But there was something about him that Ryan found repulsive, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what. Maybe it was his exuberant talent for shaming, as he was about to display for the citizens’ enjoyment tonight.
Worship began how it always had, the Preacher calling out to the crowd and the crowd repeating his words, The Town is Bigger Than The Person. Order is Greater Than Freedom.
Ryan had not realized that he had mumbled the words back at Preacher, but a sharp elbow and glare from Dolly told him otherwise.
The sermon began, something to do with the importance of Arrangements. But Ryan had tuned out thinking about the hole in the fence. He wondered if the Goolies were aware of it. Probably not, he assumed, knowing how dumb the average Goolie tended to be. They’d probably walk right past it and not notice a damn thing. The thought almost made Ryan laugh, but he contained it. The smile on his face, however, was unstoppable. He packed it away just as Dolly started looking at him sidelong. But for the next hour, he was on a constant eye patrol from his Arranged.
He focused on the Preacher, now working up to the climax of his delivery, the crowd still and gaping, enthralled in his words, in his persona. Dolly stared at him deeply. Lovingly.
“Let us always remember,” he said, pointing up to the sky, “that to deny your legacy is to deny your duty! It makes you an enemy! It makes you a villain! Without order, we are no better than the savage Goolie! Our ancestors created that zoo for us! So we could see how things were in the past before order. Before law. And it is a terrible place to reside. They are animals. They are without purpose. We have a purpose! What is that purpose?”
On cue, the crowd responded, Replace the Past, Move Aside For The Future!
Preacher’s pointed hand went from the increasingly pink evening sky to Ming. “To deny your Arranged is to deny your future, deny your legacy! You think your choices are your own, but they are not. By denying your future, you weaken the very town that provides for you. And that is barbaric. Shameful. Are you not ashamed?”
Ming’s head remained bowed and unresponsive. Preacher looked at him as if he were about to take a swing. The crowd booed and hissed.
“It is only through shame that he may find the light! Only through pain may he learn to live right!”
The crowd chanted back, “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!”
The energy, the fury, was palpable. In the fiery eyes of the citizens of Yoris that night it looked to Ryan that if any of them had been given the opportunity to walk on stage and cut a piece of flesh off Ming’s body, they would do so with great pleasure, and lick the knife clean of his blood before punching their fists in the air to celebrate their righteous trophy. It made Ryan feel heavy, almost dizzy.
“We must keep order! Else we fall back into the ways of the past. The ways of the Goolie tribes!”
The crowd booed and shook their heads.
Preacher’s face was red now, a vein visible in his neck, even from that far back on the grass. “Are we animals?”
“No!” roared the crowd.
“Are we savages?”
“No!” they returned, faces flushed with rage.
“Then shame this citizen!”
With a great bellow from the crowd, rocks began to whizz across the sky, many of them hitting their target in the head and torso before falling with a thump on the stage. His skin broke and bled. Others, like Jilin’s parents, aimed for his exposed manhood and laughed at how it made Ming sob so. To them, his cries were music of which to dance and rejoice. But Ryan couldn’t bear to watch it any further. He suggested to Jilin that they leave for the fence right then, while the crowd was distracted. Luckily, Jilin thought it a good idea and nothing more.
By the time the four of them reached the fence line, the pink sky had darkened into a deep navy blue. Shadows had begun to swallow their surroundings, while the first stars in the sky began to reveal themselves to the world below. Though the receding of sunlight made it harder to find their way along the path, all one had to do was follow the sounds of Goolie gibberish to find their way. This was the time where the Goolies were out of their huts, eating and socializing in their dim Goolie fashion. When the four of them came out of the brush, Ryan could make out six Goolies right away; four adults and two young. They spotted Ryan as well and stared back at him and the others for a moment or two before returning to their Goolie gibberish. The two young started to laugh and wrestle one another by a berry bush.
“I’m hungry,” whined Mable, rubbing her stomach as she trailed behind Ryan and Dolly. Jilin was up ahead, eyes peeled on the fence as he jogged along. She continued on about how there were too many bugs and she wasn’t wearing a proper long sleeve shirt. How it wasn’t proper of a girl to be gallivanting around in the bushes in her worship clothes, and other things of the sort. But when they came to the hole in the fence, Mable’s whining stopped on a button. “Oh, my…” she gasped. “You guys weren’t kidding.”
Jilin chuckled. “Nope.”
“Do you think one of them will crawl through?” asked Dolly.
“It’s certainly big enough,” said Mable.
“Maybe we should call an Elder. Or Preacher,” suggested Dolly rather quickly.
Jilin looked at her sideways. “And spoil all the fun? No way!”
“Well, what do you plan to do?” asked Mable.
Jilin grimaced. “We’re going Goolie chasing.”
Mable let out a short, sharp laugh. “You can’t be serious. Those things are dangerous.”
“Are you kidding me?” said Jilin. “Those bug-eating idiots? They’re harmless.”
She shook her head. “No. They’re dangerous. Remember that story about the kid who jumped the fence? What was his name?”
“Olly,” said Ryan. The name had been on the tip of his tongue since they had found the hole that afternoon.
“Yeah, him!” exclaimed Mable, so loud some of the Goolies turned their heads. “The Goolies took him and he never came back!”
“What do you think they did to him?” asked Dolly.
“Ate him, I bet,” laughed Mable.
“That’s just a story the adults tell kids to scare them. They just don’t want us to go over there because the Goolies carry diseases and stuff.”
“Oh, and that’s a lot better,” said Mable with a rolling of the eyes. Ryan was baffled at how alike she and Jilin had become as of late. It definitely wasn’t the same with himself and Dolly.
“You ready?” Jilin asked him.
Ryan looked back at the four adult Goolies. They had wandered off further down where a second group of Goolies were resting by their hut. The kids were a little closer, but too involved with themselves to notice Ryan or his friends.
“Don’t even think about it, Ryan,” Dolly answered for him. “I need you alive for our union.”
Ryan pretended to be disappointed, but this time he was actually happy for Dolly’s foreboding. He thought messing around with the Goolies was a terrible idea.
Jilin shrugged. “Fine. Be a wimp. But I’m going.”
He crouched down and wiggled his awkward shaped body through the hole. At one point he had to get on his knees in the dirt, and when he got to the other side and stood up, the girls laughed at the mess he had made of his worship slacks. But dirty knees aside, he was through, He was in Goolieland. Ryan couldn’t believe it.
“What do you think, girls?” he asked, hunching over, crossing his eyes and sticking out his lower jaw. “Could I pass for a stupid Goolie?”
“Pass for stupid, that’s for sure,” laughed Mable.
Dolly looked offended by the sight of him.
Jilin, still doing his best impression of the beasts, started to walk in circles and kick up dust, which clouded and stuck to his clothes. “Grr, I’m a Goolie,” he mimicked. “Give me bugs!”
“Ewww,” droned Dolly.
“Gross,” said Mable. “If you eat a bug, I’m never kissing you.”
Jilin looked back, there was a good distance between him and the adult Goolies. He seemed a little relieved by that, though he wasn’t keen to show it. He tried at Ryan again, “Come on, Ry-baby. Don’t make me tell everyone at school how much of a sissy you’re being.”
Ryan looked to Dolly, who crossed her arms and returned to him a cold glare. “Go then. But be careful.”
Ryan swallowed his reservations and resigned to his fate. There was no evading it. He was going. He crouched down and crawled through the hole. Like Jilin, he was forced to go down on his knees in the dirt and when he stood, his black worship slacks were powdered a dusty brown.
Well, if the Goolies don’t kill me, my mother will, Ryan thought to himself.
A cool breeze, the first of the evening, swept through the land and chilled Ryan’s skin so that the hairs on his arm stood tall. All at once, the magnitude of what he had done struck him and his knees almost buckled, his breath taken out of his chest. He had breached into Goolie territory. He was in the wild. The land of the savages. Dolly and Mable looked back at him from behind the fence, as if waiting for him to say something.
“Well…” said Ryan, forcing a playful grin. “These Goolies aren’t going to chase themselves, are they?”
“Right on, Ryan,” Jilin said, adding a slap on his back. “Let’s go exploring.”
He led the way and Ryan followed close behind. They got to a hut and Jilin signaled Ryan to stop while he peeked around the front to where the Goolies sat barking their gibberish at each other. The boys still had not been noticed. Jilin’s attention fell on the two Goolie young playing with each other about eight yards out. He whispered and waved his hands to get their attention. One of them looked, and even started walking over, but it stopped when it was only a few feet away. It stared back at them with its big eyes, its small mouth twisted to the side thoughtfully.
“Here, Goolie Goolie,” whistled Jilin. “Come to daddy.”
For a moment the Goolie young tilted its head and looked at Jilin curiously, forming what might be described as a smile. It said something to the Goolie young behind it, then the pair of them stepped forward cautiously.
Ryan leaned and peeked around the front of the hut to see what the adult Goolies were up to. Off in the horizon something caught his eye. He had never been able to see it from behind the fence, but now that he was deeper in, there was definitely something big off in the distance. It looked to be buildings. Stone buildings like the kind in Yoris. If he didn’t know better, he could have sworn that there was a town out there, bigger than Yoris by the looks of it.
That’s impossible, he thought to himself.
Beside him, the Goolie young had gotten close enough to them they could be touched. But Ryan was focused on the buildings.
“What did the five fingers say to the face?” Jilin asked the creature. It stared back at him blankly. Jilin wound up and struck the Goolie across the face. “Slap!” he yelled.
It yelped and the two of them immediately scattered.
“What you do that for?” Ryan lectured.
“What can I say?” laughed Jilin. “I always wanted to smack one of those things.”
Ryan took another look around the front of the hut. The circle of Goolies had disbanded. Not one was to be seen.
“Uh….Ryan?” said Jilin, his eyes focused on something behind them.
Ryan turned around to see one big adult Goolie standing over Jilin. It looked angry. The young one that Jilin had slapped stood behind it. The adult said something loudly in gibberish. Slowly, other adult Goolies began to exit their huts.
“I think it’s time we got out of here,” said Jilin. His voice shook almost as bad as his knees.
The pack was starting to close in; snarling and breathing heavily through their wide, flat noses.
“Run?” whispered Ryan.
Jilin silently agreed, darting to the side and making a hard sprint back toward the hole in the fence. Ryan followed, almost being struck by the thick, powerful arm of the Goolie behind him. He got out of the way just in time. The Goolie growled and said something in gibberish. The pack followed after them. As they got closer to the fence Ryan saw Dolly and Mable screaming at them to hurry, but the boys didn’t need any encouragement, the hot breath of the pursuing beasts on their neck was motivation enough. One slip, one misfooting, and they were done for.
If we make it out alive, Jilin is going to pay for this one, Ryan promised himself.
Jilin crouched and dove into the hole. Dolly and Mable were there to pull him out by the arms. Ryan tumbled to the ground and used his elbows and forearms to crawl into the hole. He was halfway through, watching Dolly and Mable help Jilin back to his feet, when the rough, callus palm of a Goolie gripped his right calf. Then another hand grabbed his left and before he knew it he was being pulled, dragged, backward. Ryan clawed and scraped until the last blade of Yoris grass slipped from his fingers and his palms were in dirt. They had him. The Goolies had him. And the terrified screams of his friends would do nothing to save him.
This is it, Ryan thought to himself. I’m finished.
The hut Ryan had been shoved in was dark, but even in the dark he could feel the smallness of the space, of the cramped, humid land igloo that the Goolies called home. He had been left alone, a relief for the moment. He was sure that Jilin and the girls had made a break for town and told the Elders what had happened. Help would surely be on the way.
About an hour into his isolation, a Goolie entered the hut, breathing heavily through its nose, glaring at Ryan with its intense, cold eyes. When the monster reached for him with its rough, meaty palm, Ryan was sure he was about to meet his maker. But to his surprise, the Goolie only dragged him out into the open, where a man in a wool cloak silhouetted in moonlight stood with is sleeves pressed together, a hood shrouding his face in shadow. The man in cloak spoke the Goolie gibberish to the one who had accosted him and the Goolie lifted Ryan to his feet. With one final glare and huff, the Goolie crouched and entered his hut, leaving Ryan with the mysterious man in cloak.
“Are you okay?” said the cloaked stranger. He spoke Yoran.
“Am I going to die?” asked Ryan, the question that had been burning on his mind since his capture.
The man in cloak seemed amused. “We all are going to die, Yoran.”
Ryan wondered who this man was, and why he could speak the language of his people. “Who are you? Why am I here?”
“You are here on your own doing, are you not?” asked the man in the cloak.
“We were just playing around. I didn’t even want to come. My friend made me.”
“Your choices are your own,” said the man.
Ryan was caught off guard. The words stunned him. Confused him. “Not where I’m from,” Ryan said.
“I was once where you reside. Yoris. I was young and ignorant then, believing the truths taught to me by my Elders. I climbed the fence and, like you, I was taken.”
The thought hit Ryan like a punch in the gut. “Olly?”
Silence, and then the stranger removed his hood to reveal a face like Ryan’s. It was a Yoran man, there was no questioning it.
“That is a name I have not heard in some time,” he said.
He was no longer a boy, like the one of legend. Now he was grown and filled out. Truly a man, and a fine specimen at that. But his face did not sag like the adults of Yoris. His eyes were alive and his spirit radiated around him like a shield. He had a life in him to which Ryan had only dreamed in his most confidential of dreams.
“I…I thought they killed you,” Ryan sputtered out.
“Come,” said the man with a warm smile. “There are things I must show you…”
Olly walked him to a complex rectangular machine with four wheels at each corner. On each side of the machine were doors and the inside of the machine was hollowed out for seats, two in the front, and three in the back. Olly opened one of the side doors and motioned for Ryan to get inside.
“What is this thing?” asked Ryan as he climbed into the seat.
“It’s a vehicle,” said Olly, closing the door and walking around the front of the machine to get to the door on the other side. He opened it and got in. Unlike Ryan’s side of the machine, Olly’s side had a navigational wheel that Ryan assumed controlled the four treaded wheels on which the vehicle rested.
He pressed a circular red button on the right of the navigational wheel and the machine came to life, humming and rumbling with the surge of power. Olly smiled at Ryan, who was frozen still in his seat, afraid to move. The machine started to ride through the dirt like a bicycle, only much faster and without the need to pedal to induce acceleration. Before Ryan knew it, the Goolie village was behind them and they rode along toward the city in the distance, the one Ryan had seen on the horizon before his capture.
“What is that place?” asked Ryan, eyes ahead out the protective viewing port.
“It’s a city. Many people live there,” answered Olly.
“I had no idea the zoo was so big.”
Olly’s eyes lowered for a moment. He looked troubled. When he spoke next, Ryan understood why.
“There is something you must know, Yoran,” he said. “It is not the people on this side of the fence who live in a zoo. It is you. Yoris is the zoo.”
Ryan looked at him strangely. The man sounded absurd.
Olly continued on, “Many years ago, the people here created Yoris to remind their people of what life was like before choice, before freedom. A life where your path and legacy is chosen for you, even before taking your first breath. A life where knowledge is hoarded away from its citizens so that they may never know the truth about who they are.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Ryan.
“Nor did I,” said Olly.
They continued to speed along and soon came to a paved road which made the ride much smoother. The city on the horizon grew and grew until it came upon them and they were surrounded by the tall buildings and streets bustling with people that looked like Goolies, only different. Their clothes were not ragged, but colorful, and they walked upright, not slouched. Their faces were full of life as was Olly’s and there were no dark circles around their eyes.
The city was so large and the architecture was so varied and complex that by comparison, it made Yoris look as primitive as the baron Goolie village.
“You see, in the world outside Yoris, the citizens are free to choose their own legacy, free to break the ties of past generations and live their lives as they see fit. They are free to create anything they may dream up in their heads.”
“Like this machine?” asked Ryan. He corrected himself, “Sorry…this vehicle?”
“Exactly like this vehicle,” replied Olly. “People are always improving on the design. Always improving life. Well, mostly always. Because people are free to do as they wish, it is up to the individual to decide how they wish to spend their time. Some spend their days working hard on their creations, working late and sleeping little. Others choose to create nothing, and they sleep late and work little. With little work comes little reward and those people tend to drift out of the cities, to the vacant land by the fence, where they will not be bothered. They live on the bare necessities, like dirt and sticks, berries and bugs.”
Things were becoming clearer to Ryan. “The Goolies?”
Olly nodded. The vehicle came to a stop in front of a building at the head of a long staircase. Soft-edged columns stretched high up in front of the main doors.
Ryan thought about it. “But I don’t understand. In Yoris, the bookkeepers hold the lessons on each legacy. How could you choose a legacy that hadn’t been given to you?”
“There are no bookkeepers here, Yoran. The knowledge for every legacy is kept in this building,” he said, motioning to the massive structure. A person walked by the vehicle and started up the stairs toward the main doors. “Citizens can learn as much or as little of whatever they so desire. But it is up to them, and them alone.”
Ryan stared up the stairs, marveled at the columns and the size of the building itself. Inside, he imagined shelves and shelves of books for as far as the eye could see. The feel of leather hardback covers on his fingertips, the smell of old paper and its musky allure. And Silence. Peace. No shaming or stone-throwing. Ryan wanted to fill his head with the lessons of seven generations. He wanted to learn everything that was kept from him by the bookkeepers of Yoris. He found himself hungry, starving, for answers to his questions.
“And what about Arrangement?” he asked Olly.
Olly smiled. “You are free to pursue your mate of choosing. Just as they are free to want nothing to do with you. It’s all a big gamble. But that’s the point. True freedom is scary because you always have to be on guard, always maintaining. There’s no one looking out for you.”
“But you chose to stay,” noted Ryan, curiously.
Olly nodded. “I was given the choice. And yes, I felt that life better suited me on this side of the fence. And now I will give you the same choice. You must decide if you wish to return to the zoo, or remain free on the other side. Here. With us.”
“I need to talk to you,” Ryan whispered to Jilin when he got into the classroom the following morning. Jilin stared back at him, mouth agape as if he were looking at a ghost.
“You’re alive!” Jilin whispered back.
Elder Brookhause glanced up from her desk at the boys, who, sensing her watch, went back to pretending to organize their desks. When she had returned to her paperwork, Ryan whirled back to Jilin and mouthed, “Tell you later.”
At lunch, two very long hours later, Ryan took Jilin to the most secluded area of the school he could find, where there was no chance they would be interrupted or overheard. There, in a shadowy corner near the doors to the exercise yard, Ryan told Jilin everything that had been revealed to him by Olly.
Jilin laughed heartily, from the bottom of his twitching belly.
“You must have hit your head on a rock or something,” he said, wiping tears of laughter from his eye. “Do you hear yourself? Yoris is a zoo? Goolies built giant cities? Vehicles? It sounds like fairy tale nonsense. And you look terrible, you know that?”
“That’s because I’ve barely slept!” Ryan exclaimed with a sudden burst of excitement. He immediately caught himself and looked over his shoulder, afraid he might have been heard. “You know what I was doing all night?”
Jilin looked uneasy. “What?”
“Olly dropped me off when the night was still young. In the vehicle. But I didn’t go back home just yet. I started running, as fast as I could, along the fence line. I ran through the entire night, until my legs burned and my lungs felt like they were being stabbed with needles. And then I ran some more. I had to see for myself if what Olly told me was true. And he was right. I followed that fence all the way around, and he was right. It’s us who are fenced in. We are the zoo.”
A gasp fell out of Jilin’s mouth, his face a mix of terror and disgust. “No. You couldn’t have. That would mean you would have had to hike through the forest, through Farmer Mackie’s wheat fields! In the dark of night!”
Ryan’s eyes widened, he grinned almost madly. He felt mad. Mad and giddy all at the same time. “I did. I went through it all. It took me hours upon hours, I fell and cut myself countless times…but I did it.”
Jilin stared back at him without so much as a sound.
“Can you imagine?” Ryan squealed. “A world such as that? A world of freedom? Of choice? Think of the possibilities! I plan to return tonight, and I want you to join me. Come on this adventure with me, Jilin! Escape this prison! This cage!”
Jilin’s face had turned white, sickly even. “Okay, Ryan…Tonight. We’ll go. I’ll tell the girls.”
“No!” Ryan blurted out. “Not them. No one else. You’re the only one I can trust with this.”
Jilin rolled his eyes and sighed. “Okay. Just me and you, then.”
Ryan returned home after school that day and filled a small travel bag with the few things he would need to get him started beyond the fence. When he was done, he hid the bag under his bed and went into the kitchen to help his mother with dinner. As usual, they set up the table in the sitting room so Ryan’s father could join.
Although Ryan was far too excited to have much of an appetite, he forced down what he could, and then changed into his worship clothes, while putting the dirty clothes from the night before into the laundry basket. When they were found, Ryan was sure his mother would not be too happy about her discovery, but by then Ryan would be long gone. Before he left the house that evening, he kissed his mother on the forehead, knowing it would be the last time they would see each other.
He got on his bike and, instead of going to Dolly’s, he made pace for the Town Court where Jilin said he would be waiting for him by the fountain. As he rode, there was a small part of Ryan that felt guilty for abandoning his family, and his duties at the water department, but he reminded himself that he was not leaving Yoris to escape duty, rather find a duty that one does not wish to escape. He vowed to be a hard worker at whatever legacy he took up. And one day, he would start a family of his own, with a mate of his own. He would tell his kids how lucky they were to grow up with choice, with freedom. Maybe, he would even take them to the zoo every once in a while when they were acting up, so they could see what life is like on the other side of the fence.
But when Ryan arrived at the Town Court, he was surprised to learn that Jilin was not alone. With him were his parents, the girls and their parents–and Preacher, who wore a heavy frown on top of his lavish ceremonial garb. Ryan stopped pedaling and the bike came to a stop with ten or so feet between them.
“The game is up,” called the Preacher over the breeze swaying through blades of grass. “We know everything.”
Ryan’s heartbeat got quick in his chest. A chill of panic shot down his arms. He kept a firm grip on his handlebars and a cautious eye on all of them.
“You need help,” added Jilin, to Ryan’s dismay.
He had been betrayed.
“How could you abandon me?” cried Dolly, squeezing on to her father, who glared violently in Ryan’s direction.
“Get off the bike and come here, son,” urged the Preacher. He forced his voice calm but his fury was obvious.
“What are you going to do with me?” asked Ryan, scanning the scornful eyes of the parents.
“Y’all are in some hot water,” said Jilin’s father.
“Come down off that bike, young man,” ordered Mable’s mother.
Ryan repeated himself. “What are you going to do with me?”
Preacher extended his hand to Jilin, Dolly, and Mable by his side. “For their part in this, these kids will write an apology and serve three months of worship duties. But at least they came forward. At least they cleared their conscious. For you, young boy, you will spend a day tied to the fountain in the Town Court!”
“He’s only a boy, Preacher,” said Jilin’s father humbly.
Preacher’s focus stayed on Ryan, his face trembling with rage. “The punishment is necessary!”
Tied to a fountain. Just like Ming. Just like anyone who ever sought to deviate from the given path. Anyone who ever sought a better way. Anyone who sought to be themselves.
All at once, desperation washed over him and Ryan knew there was only one course of action left to be taken.
He kicked back his back wheel and pushed forward, pedaling as fast and as hard as he could toward the fence on the horizon. Jilin’s father ran forward and swiped at him, getting a grip on the travel bag resting on Jilin’s back. Ryan jerked hard to the left and freed himself from his grip. He pedaled harder.
The fence was so far in the distance that its thick top bar, gleaming under the sinking sun, looked like a strand of spider webbing, and the chain diamonds could not be seen at all. Yes, it was far, thought Ryan. But not too far. Not compared to what waited for him in the other direction. He pedaled faster, harder, his butt was off the seat and his entire body weight leaned forward over the handlebars so that a simple snag in the road would have sent him flipping over the front of the bicycle. But he didn’t care. He pedaled faster and faster. Harder and harder. Behind them, the Preacher and the rest of them chased, yelling things at him, pleading with him to stop before he made things worse. But things couldn’t get any worse, could they? Ryan reminded himself as the wind crashed against his body and rustled in his ears.
He pedaled on, knees jerking up and down, thighs stinging with heat, chain whizzing in unstoppable propulsion, so fast Ryan thought it could fly off the guard at any moment. But he did not relent. He did not slow down or look back. The screams and pleas behind him dissipated to silence. The fence on the horizon grew and grew, every detail making itself known to Ryan until he saw the hole he had crawled through the night before. It was waiting for him. Calling for him.
Something resembling a laugh shot carelessly from the broad smile growing on Ryan’s face. The sun was warmer on his skin than he had ever felt it. He knew right then that things would never be the same again.