The Cult of Rhino Dan by Alyssa Gillon

Agent Canary chokes the newspaper like a bride with her bouquet because today’s the day Zoo Crew springs Rhino Dan. The only one with a sweet smile of square human teeth, without zebra stripe or lizard scale face tattoos, no horns erupting from her forehead, Canary is the mission’s elect. Agents Flamingo and Zebra wait in the getaway car. Flamingo pokes at a can of sardines with his nose.

Weird kids bring news articles, shake me by the shoulders to get my memory going. I flew with eagles; they say I was lifted by bats. High above the city, I shouted over the stampede: “Animals, divide and run, escape, escape!”

I nod and make my eyes lightbulb for them; truth is I don’t remember a dang thing. I don’t remember the zoobreak, don’t remember rotting in jail. I know an armadillo from a potato but that’s as good as it gets. The freed aviary swooped to snatch toupees. Bats rained steady streams of guano. Hippos smashed cars to smithereens. How did I get caught? Did the animals drop me?

The other Zoo Crew agents are back at headquarters preparing Rhino Dan’s kingly room. Fluffing the pillows, preparing the snacks, measuring the medicines. Popping a couple of the fun ones here and there. Grinning and jumping on the bed. Biting and ripping the pillows to shreds. Frowning, considering the implications of down feather fluff.

“Oh shit, the harness!” Agent Monkey says. He’s just noticed he’s wearing it. He packed the backpack: the rope, the pulley, the carabiners, one harness. Not the other.

“Too late now,” Zebra tells him through the walkie. “Mission in progress.”

Monkey stuffs a banana in his face and, in the absence of nits, crouches to pick at his toenails.

Canary smiles real sweet to the receptionist, ignores the sweat on her brow.

“Don’t say ‘Rhino Dan,’” Zebra said during the planning meeting. “Say ‘Grandpa Dan.’ Check your notebook. Say ‘Room 518?’ Like you’re unsure. If it’s a new receptionist, you’re in the clear. But if it’s Sherry, watch your shit.”

“Are you nervous?” Iguana asked. “Take this.” He gave Canary a chocolate bar, told her to tear it open and put it in the front zipper of the backpack right before walking in.

“I’m here to read to my Grandpa. Grandpa Dan, room 518?” Canary says. She holds her notebook, pretends to check the number. Her hands are shaking.

“First time here, sweetie? Feeling guilty about old pops?” Sherry looks Canary up and down, eyes lingering on the backpack. “Well, I don’t blame you for not visiting,” the receptionist says, “that room is usually packed with freaks. Some animal fan club. And I can smell the chocolate from here. Don’t try to tell me it’s for you, and don’t try to get away with that again,” she says. She taps a plastic sign: NO OUTSIDE FOOD PERMITTED. PATIENTS HAVE STRICT DIETARY REGULATIONS.

Canary lets her mouth hang open, shows off her blush, nods, and gets out of there. Takes two stairs at a time to Rhino Dan’s room on the fifth floor.

I want to remember riding the rhinoceros through the city. If the weird kids can be trusted: the rhino rams a cop car. It was different then, with guns. The police carried clubs!

I ask them “Was anyone eaten?” And they tell me, that yes, lions ate the mayor. Tigers and snakes swallowed the most terrible people. The magical night they describe: kangaroos smashing cars in the streets, rhinos stomping sweatshops, ostriches nipping crime, I don’t remember a darn tootin’ thing about it.

Canary sits on the stool at Rhino Dan’s bedside. He looks dead. She leans in to put her palm over his nose to feel for breath: he’s sleeping. He opens his mouth before he opens his eyes. He looks like he’s tasting something.

“Who are you? Where’s your funny outfit? What are we reading today?” Rhino Dan asks. “News clippings?”

Agent Canary expected muscle and tattoos. Arms slashed with scars from lions that swiped at him before recognizing the ultimate ally. Zookeeper gone wild: an anarchist! But everyone grows old.

“My outfit’s in the backpack. And sorry, but no reading today,” Canary says.

“Now that monitor is going to beep,” Zebra said. “And you’ve only got a couple of minutes to lower him down. So first, set up the rope system. Get him to pop a relaxer. Strap him into the harness. Then, at the last moment, unplug.”

“How about some animal clues?” Rhino Dan asks.

“Have a candy first.” Canary gives him a pill.

“You think I’m an idiot?” Rhino Dan winks and swallows.

“I never forget,” Canary says, working. She attaches the pulley to the windowsill with three quick hammer bangs.

“Too easy!”

“I am a proud bird, but I wasn’t born that way.” Canary threads the rope and ties a double-eight knot.

“Peacock! Those babies are ugly as sin,” shouts Rhino Dan.

She clips the knot through with a carabiner. “Slice me right and I’ll make another of myself.”

“Starfish! Come on and give me a challenge!” Rhino Dan yawns and shuts his eyes.

“Why don’t you ask me one?”

“How did they catch me? No one will tell.” Rhino Dan says. Canary unplugs Rhino Dan and the shrill beeping echoes in the room. A light above the door to room 518 flashes.

“Eventually, the elephant you were riding remembered that you were human,” Canary says, and hoists Rhino Dan over the window ledge. She lowers him down to Agents Zebra and Flamingo, who are waiting on the grass.

They say your life flashes before your eyes, and let me affirm. While I dangled there above the pink freak who stinks like fish and the one with hooves, I see the oversized keyring in my hand, slick with sweat. I remember jiggling the locks while bears growled in the nighttime. The baseball bat I swung at the glass separating the anacondas from a night on the town.

Canary shakes the backpack. No harness to get her to the ground. Just a pair of cardboard wings covered in soft yellow feathers from the arts and crafts store. A plastic conical beak with elastic meant to cover her face. A chocolate bar.

“They sent me into the mine,” Canary says. People are coming down the hallway now. Agent Canary hears their footsteps. She stands on the windowsill, her feet teetering on the edge, and watches Zebra and Flamingo load Rhino Dan into the getaway car.

Alyssa Gillon writes and hikes in Oregon. She is working on a novella.
(Front page image via)

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