Every year in January, Cast of Wonders highlights some of our favorite episodes from the previous year. It’s a great chance for us to take a bit of a breather, and let you, our listeners, catch up on any missed back episodes with new commentary from a different member of the crew.
Today’s episode is hosted by associate editor Andrew K. Hoe.
The Raptor Snatchers
by Rachael K. Jones
Dad said you can’t buy friends, but that’s not always true, because I bought my best friend Zilla with my 10th birthday money. She didn’t cost much because velociraptors were pests, which meant there were too many of them in Absence, and nobody liked them. Rooster’s Rescue was overflowing with raptors.
Zilla was real funny-looking. About half her brown crest feathers had fallen out, and underneath her skin was bright pink, my favorite color. At the rescue, she’d squeezed out of her pen to chase a kitten up Mr. Rooster’s trouser leg. Mr. Rooster lassoed a cord tight around Zilla’s neck and forced her back into her cage. She looked so sad, like Godzilla in movies Dad watched, getting shot by airplanes when he just wanted to be left alone, so I picked her and named her Zilla.
The vet gave me a big tub of slimy white cream that smelled like Grandpa and made my fingers tingle. I had to rub it on her pink patches once a day. Zilla hated it. She nipped my hand, but not hard. Zilla had sharp little teeth and a huge, hooked claw on each arm we had to trim every month. Dad told me she was a carnivore, which means she ate meat, and way back in dinosaur times velociraptors used to be apex predators, which means huge bullies that eat anything they want.
We got a lot of stray raptors in Absence. They were indigenous–that means they were from around here, even before the first settlers, and that’s how they saved the lives of Mae Beth Harris, and Old Jim the Presbyterian, and the rest, because otherwise the Founders were going to eat each other. I asked my teacher if people are carnivores too, and he said yes, except there’s another word for it when it’s people eating people, but I forgot the word.
Everyone but me hated raptors. They got in people’s trash cans at night, and sometimes they ate people’s dogs. We kept Zilla well-fed on raptor chow, which Mom got from the grocery store. I leaned against the glass barrier while she ordered from the woman behind the butcher counter. There were meat patties shaped into burgers in the little fridge below, and I poked my initials into one–A.J.H. for Amy Jo Harris–until Mom made me stop.
“Is this what Zilla eats?” I asked.
Mom said nuh-uh and then showed me where the butcher fed slimy purple strings into a funnel. “Hamburger is too expensive for animals. We’re feeding Zilla organ meat.”
I snuck a taste of Zilla’s raptor chow when Mom wasn’t looking. It was bland and chewy. I measured out two cups into Zilla’s bowl and mixed it with a few pebbles because the vet said Zilla needed rocks in her stomach to digest her food, and she squatted down on her thick hind legs, cheeped, and tucked right in.
On Fridays after school, if I’d been good and the teacher didn’t say I talked too much, Dad took me to Entropy Burger for a daddy-daughter date. Usually he brought Zilla, because she got over-excited if you left her home alone, and would claw gouges in the front door.
Mr. Milner, Entropy Burger’s owner, allowed pets as long as you sat on the patio or walked through the drive thru. I had Zilla trained to heel, and she’d squat at my feet, snuffling around the pavement for food scraps. Sometimes Sam, the drive thru lady, gave me chicken nuggets for Zilla. I liked Sam.
Sam wasn’t working the week I tried the raptor chow, so poor hungry Zilla didn’t get any nuggets. When Dad went to the bathroom, I slipped her a big hunk of my Junior Entropy Burger With Cheese combo. She sniffed it and tilted her head at me. Mom always yelled at me when I gave Zilla people food at home. “It’s good.” I shoved a big bite of burger into my mouth and chewed it right in her face. “Mmmm, see? Tasty!”
She got real agitated, like that kitten trying to crawl its way up Mr. Rooster’s leg, and strained away from me.
“What’s wrong, girl?” My mouth was full, so it came out funny. I yanked her leash closer. That only made her madder, because she hissed like I was the devil, and snick went her long front talon right across my arm, opening a big C-shaped slice on my wrist.
I held up my hand and stared at the cut, because it didn’t hurt at first. Watched the skin hang open. It was meaty and bloody, like Zilla’s raptor chow, like the raw burgers in the butcher’s case with my initials poked in them. Then the pain caught up and I started crying.
It took three stitches to close my skin up. Dad was not happy, not one bit, and Mom was even madder. I don’t know if they were madder at me or Zilla. I kept trying to explain it wasn’t Zilla’s fault, that the burger upset her, but that only made it worse because she wasn’t supposed to have people food. The way they talked about Zilla made me real scared. Stuff like, “I told you a raptor’s no pet for a child” and “They say those things never stop being feral underneath.”
I don’t know what feral meant, but I wasn’t feeling very good after the emergency room. Mom and Dad let me camp on the couch with the TV, but they wouldn’t let in Zilla. She stayed tied up in the back yard. I checked on her late that night. She’d left a dead squirrel on the back stoop as a peace offering, and when she heard my voice, she rubbed her head against my leg and cooed, like she was sorry, like she knew she’d hurt me but didn’t mean to. But I couldn’t make Mom and Dad understand.
They wouldn’t change their minds, no matter what I promised. Even after my wrist healed, and the doctor took out the stitches and all I had was a really cool scar–C like Carnivore, pink like my favorite color–even then, Zilla stayed outside.
I wouldn’t have worried except for the Raptor Snatchers. Mandeep told me about them. She had a pet raptor too, except her raptor Pogo was a chick when she got him, so he could fetch and climb trees and other things Zilla was just too old and lazy to learn. Old raptors are like old people–they don’t like trying new things. They just want more of what they’re used to.
One night, Pogo up and disappeared from his yard. Mandeep went to feed him and he had vanished, slipped right out of his collar.
“How do you know Pogo just didn’t run away?” I asked Mandeep during recess.
“Because of the van. There was a white van circling the neighborhood, and Pogo got one sniff and went crazy. And the next morning, Pogo was gone. That’s the Raptor Snatchers. You always see the van right before they come for your raptor.”
Mandeep’s mom helped her make posters with Pogo’s picture on them, and hung them all over the neighborhood. If you asked Mandeep about it, her face would squinch up like she smelled something bad and she’d get real mean.
She didn’t mean to be nasty, though. She just missed Pogo, and she was mad other kids still had their raptors. I tried to tell Dad about it, and he just said, “Sometimes raptors want to be with other raptors, in the woods where they belong. There’s no Raptor Snatchers, Amy. It’s just homesickness.”
For a whole month, Mandeep wandered up and down the neighborhood, yelling for Pogo until her throat hurt. Sometimes me and Zilla would keep her company. Mandeep would sit in the gutter, Zilla drooped across her lap, and she’d sniffle into Zilla’s feathers. I hoped I never had to be that sad about anything.
Pogo wasn’t the only raptor to disappear. Another kid, Garrett Zaltman–his raptor vanished too, and during P.E., he told me about the white van. Orange posters went up on the telephone poles beside Mandeep’s tattered blue ones. Then my friend Bea emailed me an article, and it was all about how raptors were going missing in Absence, and the government was proud because nobody liked raptors since they ate garbage and dogs, unless it was Founder’s Day, which was the one time everyone liked raptors.
I decided to ask Dad on our next daddy-daughter date to let Zilla back inside, but it took me longer because I had to stay late at school that Friday for auditions. The school put on a big play for the Absence Founder’s Day Festival just before the mayor gave her speech, and this year I tried out for the part of Mae Beth Harris, the trail guide. If they picked me, I’d get to wear a coonskin hat and carry a wooden rifle, and even get speaking lines. Dad stayed up late helping me practice, so he was real excited when I got the part, and took me to Entropy Burger to celebrate.
“Can we bring Zilla?” I asked, and his face fell like when you get a horrible birthday present because your grandma thinks you’re still five when you’re really ten.
“Amy, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.
“Why won’t you forgive her?” I said it like we’d practiced last night, when Dad taught me about speaking dramatically, which means putting all your feelings into your voice. “You can’t leave her out there with the Raptor Snatchers around!”
“There’s no such thing as Raptor Snatchers. You don’t have to worry about that.” He tried to hug me, but I just stood there stiff like a flagpole with my arms glued to my sides.
We ended up going through the drive thru. When we got home, I just ate the fries and poked my name into my burger until Mom and Dad left me at the table to pout. The scar on my wrist was fading white. I wrapped up my leftovers and took them to the back porch. Zilla sniffled at the greasy packet, and got real agitated, chirping and squawking.
“What is it, girl?” I set down the burger and she scuffled at it. She trotted to the fence, trotted back, chirped. “You want to go for a walk?”
Zilla cooed. I ran inside for her leash. “I’m going across the street to Mandeep’s!” I shouted into the living room, where Mom and Dad had turned up the TV so I could barely hear them arguing. When I snapped on her leash, Zilla hauled me down the sidewalk, snuffling at the gutter, a telephone pole, then a street sign. She spent five whole minutes lingering around Mandeep’s house. Then she took off at a trot past the organic garden on the corner, and down the slope into the shadowy, overgrown valley.
I got a bad feeling in my stomach, like bubble gum that won’t digest. Maybe Dad was right. Maybe Zilla wanted to be with the wild raptors. I tried to see it from her point of view, how she never lived with a human family until she got brought to Rooster’s Rescue. Maybe she had a mom and dad and just wanted to make sure they were okay.
“It’s okay, girl,” I told her. “We can look for them.”
I felt just like the real Mae Beth Harris, following the dirt trail that led to the caves where you got to take a field trip when you were in 6th grade. That’s where the Town Founders spent the winter with the raptors. Zilla strained at the leash. She took a sharp turn off-road, tilted back her head, and let out a piercing caw. Way off in the woods, a raptor answered.
“It’s your family, isn’t it?” The brambles scratched my arms and a twig whipped my eye and made me cry lopsided. Through the darkness beneath the trees, I made out a chain link fence with barbed wire on top. I crept closer, and saw a yard with a whole bunch of raptors packed together in pens, all cooing and screeching. They had scabs and cuts and missing feathers. The one closest to me had an eye swollen shut. Its brown-and-white patchy face looked familiar.
“Pogo?” He stuck his nose through the chain links and snuffled me.
“…nother three died this morning, including your champion fighter.”
“It’s okay. That’s normal. They don’t last forever in the ring, and there’s always more strong ones in town. Load the carcasses in the van, and take them to Entropy Burger. Milner will buy them.”
A man in big dark sunglasses bobbed into view. He carried a bulging sack about my size over his shoulder. “On it. Back in twenty. And make sure Schoenbach gets paid. It’s his raptor.”
Zilla hissed. I was afraid the man would hear us, but the other raptors in the cage screeched louder. The man in the sunglasses weaved around the sand pit to a white van parked in front of the cabin.
Pogo’s cage was held shut by a lever. I groped around in the dead leaves until I found a big stick, which I stuck through the chain links and smacked the lever. Pogo butted the door open and all the raptors in his pen charged into the yard and toward the woods. I hoped they’d make it home. I tugged Zilla back toward the road, toward home.
A white van rumbled up the dirt road behind us. It looked like the ice cream truck, except instead of pictures of sno-cones on the side, it had a symbol like a planet wearing hoola hoops. The driver’s window rolled down. It was the man in the dark sunglasses and floppy black hat. “You okay, kid?”
“Uh huh.” I picked up the pace. Zilla rumbled inside her belly, like a lawnmower starting.
“You’re pretty far out in the woods. How old are you?”
“Twenty-six,” I said, which was a total lie, but Dad says it’s okay to lie to bad people.
He slammed the breaks. “Don’t smart off to me.” He flung open the door. “What were you doing out in the woods? Did you scare off my raptors?”
Zilla screamed, a choked, strangled sound. She swiped at his leg with a hooked claw, tearing a slice from his jeans. I dropped Zilla’s leash and bolted uphill. I looked back–she was still scrabbling with the scary man. His face was all scratched and bloody, and he’d grabbed Zilla’s stubby arm, twisted like he wanted to break it.
I couldn’t leave my best friend alone. I ran back and kicked the awful bad man in the knees. That’s when I realized I should’ve got Dad when Zilla gave me the chance. If I had, maybe everything would’ve turned out different.
He twisted my arm around my back so I couldn’t move, and kept me in front of him like a shield, so Zilla stopped slashing at him. He wrestled me into the back of the van. My head banged against the door. Everything went swimmy around the edges. Zilla screeched outside, and the bad man yelled and spun around. I struggled to shake off the fuzz in my mind, to get outside where the bad man and Zilla were fighting again. He’d grabbed a stick shaped like a Y, and he was using it to hold back Zilla’s body while he groped around my feet in the van until he grabbed some thin rope, like you use to pitch your tent when you go camping. Then he pinned her to the ground with the stick and lassoed her neck.
“Leave her alone!” I yelled, and I tried to kick him in the face from my perch at the van’s back doors, but the bad man shoved me down again. He shoved Zilla into the van, practically choking her as he roped her neck to a ring in the door. Then he duct taped my wrists and ankles and tossed me against a pile of big, soft sacks. He slammed the door closed, leaving us in the dark. The van started rolling.
Zilla nuzzled my middle. She looked just about as sad as a raptor ever got, her crest-feathers drooping and her tail coiled around her feet in the sunset dimness filtering in. She held her right arm close to her side like it hurt.
Something poked my back. Through the brown sack I saw a big black raptor claw. I hoped it wasn’t someone’s pet. I swallowed back my tears.
The claw gave me an idea. I squirmed until my taped hands touched it, and sawed against the pointy edge. It took a little practice, and I poked myself a couple times, but I finally ripped the tape. Then I untied Zilla’s rope. There were no windows in the van, but I put my eye to the crack in the door and saw streetlights flickering past.
I opened one of the sacks and a dead raptor stared back, its sharp teeth gaping. I smoothed down its feather crest and covered it back up.
The van slowed and stopped. When the bad man climbed out and opened the back door, Zilla launched at him before he could get his arms up and defend himself. My teacher told me that wild raptors used to be really scary back during the Founders’ time. Raptors in packs could take down deer, or even wolves. I slipped past them, and found myself at the back door of Entropy Burger.
I’d never been so happy to see the Entropy burger. I barreled through the door into the hugest kitchen I’d ever seen, with at least ten big knives stuck to the wall and this machine that made lots of noise. A trash can overflowed with feathers, and a pile of black raptor claws sat at one end of a long, steel table in the middle. The floor had a groove in it, stained red like rust. I screamed and screamed, even louder than the machine because I was so scared, and I was pretty sure the bad man was going to hurt Zilla, and that this was a bad place.
Mr. Milner ran down the stairs, and right behind him, Sam from the drive-thru. I threw my arms around her waist and sobbed until I hiccuped. She petted my hair. “Hey, hey, hey–what’s wrong? What’re you doing down here, Amy?”
But all I could manage was, “…Zilla… the bad man… over there!” and I pointed back through the door, and sure enough, the bad man stood there, his shirt completely shredded so it flopped open, scratches crisscrossed all over his skin. Zilla had gotten him good.
“Eddie,” said Mr. Milner, “what in heaven’s name is going on here?”
The bad man hung his head. “Sorry, Diondre. I found this kid out in the woods getting attacked by a raptor. I thought it was feral, and put it down. Turned out it was her pet. Poor kid is confused now.”
“Did he try to hurt you?” Sam asked softly, and because speaking was hard, I looked up through watery eyes and nodded.
“He’s been stealing kids’ pets!” My voice was high and funny, like all the crying had squished it flat.
Eddie shook his head. “That’s just not true. Look at what that thing did to me.” He pointed to the scratches all over his arms and face and chest. “Heck, look at what it did to her arms!”
Sam took me by the wrist, and you could see all the scratches from where the dead raptor claws poked me when I was cutting the tape. She traced the long, white C where Zilla cut me before. “Amy,” she said seriously, looking me right in the eyes, “I know how much you love Zilla, but you should tell us the truth, okay? Sometimes animals have a nasty streak. It’s not your fault.”
It made me so mad the bad man lied, and they just believed him. I didn’t know how to make them listen. “But Zilla didn’t do anything!” I fought tears so hard, I couldn’t say anything else. It was like my throat was twisty tied closed.
“That raptor attacked her once before,” said Mr. Milner, his face wrinkled up a thundercloud. “I’d better call her parents. Sorry for the trouble, Eddie. I’ve got some ointment for those cuts.”
“Thanks, Diondre.” Eddie shot me this look like nobody’s ever given me before–not my parents, not my teachers, not nobody. I’d seen bigger kids use that look before they beat someone up. It scared me. I dropped my eyes to the red groove in the floor. I didn’t care about anything anymore. I just wanted Zilla. But I thought I knew the meaning of that big garbage can full of feathers, and that pile of raptor claws.
Then Eddie brought her in.
She was so still, like a stuffed animal. I didn’t like how her neck flopped over the edge of the table, so I arranged her in a little ball like she was sleeping. Nobody had to tell me she was dead. I only cried a little, because you’re not supposed to cry when you’re 10. But inside I was crying a lot harder, because I loved Zilla, and she’d died tearing that bad man to pieces so I could get away from him.
“Come upstairs and I’ll give you something to eat while we wait for your Dad,” said Sam. I didn’t want to leave Zilla in that awful place, with Eddie’s brown lumpy sacks and the red groove in the floor. But I couldn’t do anything else for her.
Sam seated me in the booth closest to the bathrooms, and brought me a burger and strawberry milkshake. I took the top bun off, scraped away the ketchup and cheese, and sniffed it. Stupid burger got Zilla in trouble to begin with. I hated burgers. I stabbed Zilla’s name in the top with a plastic fork, and then I remembered what was downstairs, and I felt bad and cried again.
Dad and Mom were real dramatic when they got to Entropy Burger until Mr. Milner told them the bad man’s story. Then they wouldn’t stop saying thank you to him, and they kept hugging me and saying not to wander off alone ever again. They said it was a mistake to ever get me a raptor, and how feral they were, and how they would get me a puppy. They said it over and over again, even though my heart wasn’t into raptors or dogs or any pet, now that Zilla was gone.
When we got home, I wouldn’t eat the free burgers Mr. Milner sent home with us. “Dad, it’s made from raptors.” I pushed the gross meat back into its wrapper.
Dad’s shoulders sagged. “You know, Amy, even if that were true, raptors are just meat. It’s just like with the Absence Founders, surviving on raptor meat all winter.”
“That’s not even funny, Dad.”
“Didn’t you read the school play? All the way to the end?”
Truth was, he was right. They all ate their friends to survive, Mae Beth Harris and the rest of them. They did it because they were bigger and stronger, and because they could.
I didn’t want to be in the play anymore.
The morning after Zilla died, Mandeep stopped by my house, and there was Pogo on his leash. She smiled so big, and I smiled back, except deep inside my heart hurt because she had a raptor, and I didn’t. But she let me bury my face in Pogo’s feathers, and he smelled a little like Zilla, and I rubbed my eyes on his neck so nobody could tell I was crying.
Mandeep understood, though. She was the only one who believed me. I told the story in a quiet hush, because otherwise Mom and Dad would ground me again for lying. We tried to go out into the woods and look for the raptor-fighting ring, but we never found it. I think Eddie’s people moved it.
I see Eddie every now and then, cruising his white van up and down my street real slow. Sometimes it’s just the ice cream truck. Other times, it’s him. It’s hard to tell from far away. I never feel like ice cream anymore, because just seeing the truck makes me think of Zilla, and Entropy Burger, and then I want to barf.
I got an A on my report at school on the food web. I wrote all about carnivores and how humans are omnivores, which means they eat meat and vegetables, except that’s not actually true. Some humans are just apex predators, big bullies who go around thinking they can eat anything smaller than them. But Mandeep only eats vegetables, you know. I’ve decided I want to be an herbivore too. Friends aren’t supposed to eat friends. That’s what Zilla kept trying to tell me, why she got so mad about the burgers.
The adults don’t understand it, not like us kids do. It’s why Mandeep yelled herself hoarse for Pogo until he came home, even after the adults gave up. It’s why all the kids keep putting up those posters after the white van visits. It’s why the wild raptor flocks call from the woods at night, and all the pets at Rooster’s Rescue answer back. And it’s why no matter how much time passes, the scar on my wrist won’t fade.
About the Author
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, will be out with Fireside Fiction in late 2018. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
About the Narrator
Kara Grace is an aspiring voice actress and geographer always looking for new adventures and projects. This is her first narration in a long time and she’s really excited to get back to this world!