Authors: Jason Starr
Looking back, Jeremy was grinning, saying, “Faster, Daddy! Faster!”
The exertion was giving Simon a rush, and he wanted more. He increased his speed, going as fast as the bicycles on the downhill, and this got a loud “Yippppeee!” from Jeremy, but then it hit Simon that he wasn’t being safe. Jogging strollers probably weren’t built for that kind of speed, and what if the wheels couldn’t handle it and Jeremy went flying from the stroller? Simon slowed to a normal jogging pace, angry at himself for not being vigilant and almost slipping up. Was this how it would always be? Would he never be able to go ten minutes again without slipping into werewolf behavior?
“How come we can’t go faster?” Jeremy asked in a whiny tone.
“Because we can’t,” Simon said firmly, to put a quick end to the discussion.
Passing the Ramble, Simon tried but failed to ignore the allure of the woods and the pungent aroma of mulch and dew, and the sounds of the birds in the trees and the rustling leaves and creaking branches. Nature had never seemed so seductive. He remembered how amazing it had felt to run around freely and wildly in the pitch-darkness, and then he was overwhelmed by a sickening sensation in his gut, and he stopped jogging suddenly, causing Jeremy to lurch forward in the stroller. Jeremy was fine, but Simon wasn’t. He was remembering last night when he’d detected the werewolf scent. Weirdly he hadn’t thought about the incident at all today—maybe he’d blocked it out—but now the memory of the odor was so clear that he became convinced he was smelling it all over again.
He looked around, sniffing frantically.
Jeremy started laughing. “Why are you making such silly faces, Daddy?”
Simon knew he probably looked crazy with his eyes darting around, flaring his nostrils. A couple passing by—they looked like tourists, maybe from Italy—were looking at him with concerned expressions. Simon forced a smile, an attempt to reassure the couple, then said to Jeremy, “Because you have a very silly daddy, that’s why,” as he continued to try to detect the scent of werewolf.
He didn’t think he smelled anything unusual anymore and decided it was all in his imagination—now, but not last night. Last night there had definitely been another werewolf in the Ramble.
“I have a very, very, very silly daddy,” Jeremy said.
Jeremy was smiling now, but kids’ emotions could turn on a dime and Simon wanted to make sure he wasn’t frightened.
Putting on an overly upbeat tone, like a clown at a birthday party, Simon leaned around the stroller and said, “Are you ready to have some fun today?”
This backfired, as his sudden happiness seemed to frighten Jeremy a little.
Toning down his excitement, Simon said, “I mean, we’re going to have a great time today, right? Just you and your daddy at the zoo; won’t it be fun?”
“Yes,” Jeremy said cautiously.
Walking downtown, pushing the stroller ahead of him, Simon tried to shake the memory of last night, but couldn’t. Who had been in the Ramble? Maybe it was Michael, but it could have been Charlie or Ramon. The last time Simon had seen them, Michael was biting into Ramon’s neck, and that psycho werewolf Olivia had bitten off chunks of Charlie’s body. It was possible Charlie and Ramon were
both dead, but why couldn’t there be other werewolves in Manhattan? Maybe werewolves were rampantly passing along their blood around the city, around the country, around the world. Maybe this was all some kind of raging virus, but instead of weakening its victims, it made them stronger, faster, healthier, and sexier.
“Can I have a balloon, Daddy?”
Jeremy’s question jolted Simon from his swirling thoughts. He was shocked to see that they were already near the entrance to the Children’s Zoo, on the other side of the park and much farther downtown, near Sixty-fourth Street. It must have taken them twenty minutes to get here, but he had completely lost track of time.
“Of course you can have a balloon,” Simon said. “How about two balloons?”
“Okay!” Jeremy was thrilled.
Simon decided he had to stop worrying about things he couldn’t control. He hadn’t asked for any of this; it had just happened to him, and just as he didn’t have any control over the past, the future was equally unpredictable. If werewolves were taking over the world, and disaster loomed, what was Simon supposed to do about it? There was certainly nothing he could do to control the situation. But what he could control was his life right now, in the moment, and that meant being a great father.
“What do you want to see first, the pigs or the goats?” he asked.
“Both,” Jeremy said.
“Okay, we’ll see both first,” Simon said, smiling.
Simon unstrapped Jeremy and folded up the stroller. A few minutes later, as they went along the narrow dirt path, approaching the pigpen, Simon was suddenly in a great mood. In the past he wasn’t a huge fan of the Children’s Zoo and would go just because Jeremy wanted to. But now Simon was as excited as or more excited than his three-year-old
son. The prominent odor of manure and the sounds of the pigs, goats, and sheep had an oddly comforting, familiar effect on him, as if he had been traveling for a long time in a foreign country and had just returned home.
Other kids, mainly with their moms and babysitters, were ahead of them, and they had to wait their turn to see the pigs. Although Simon didn’t make eye contact with any of the women, he could
the fixated attention of at least a couple of them.
Finally it was Jeremy’s turn to pet the pigs. Jeremy reached over the low wooden fence, but instead of letting him pet them, the pigs cowered away to the other side of the pen.
“Why’d they go away?” Jeremy asked.
“I don’t know,” Simon said, but he did know. Dogs on the street and in the park had been shying away from him for weeks, so why would it be different with other animals?
They waited for the pigs to return, Jeremy saying, “Come back, piggies, come back,” but they didn’t.
“Let’s go say hi to the sheep,” Simon said.
He was hoping for a different situation, but when they were several feet away, the sheep suddenly starting bleating, making a ruckus, as they scrambled to get away from the fence. Other people nearby noticed what was going on, and a zookeeper, a young blond guy, seemed, if not alarmed, then at least concerned, as he rushed over to see what was going on. The sheep were still pushing and shoving one another, making a racket, as they tried to get as far away from the petting fence as possible. As the zookeeper went into the pen and tended to the sheep, Simon didn’t wait to see if the goats would let Jeremy pet them. Instead, he cut his losses and picked up his son in one hand and the stroller in the other and made his way toward the exit.
“I want to pet the animals,” Jeremy said, getting upset.
“We can’t today,” Simon said.
“Because the animals don’t want to be petted.”
“Because they’re too shy.”
“It’s not fair; I wanted to pet them.” He was about to lose it.
“We’re going to go to the grown-up zoo, okay?” Simon said. “You can pet the animals there.”
“I don’t want to pet those animals, I want to pet these animals.”
“You can pet a polar bear. You want to pet a polar bear?”
There was nothing like a good lie to avoid a three-year-old’s crying fit.
“What kind of polar bear?”
“A big, fluffy, friendly one,” Simon said.
Outside the Children’s Zoo, Simon managed to get a calmer Jeremy back into the stroller. He had dodged a fit bullet, but he was still disturbed and angry by what had just happened with the pigs and sheep. He didn’t want to go to the main zoo, but he knew Jeremy would lose it if he reneged. He figured they’d go in, zip around, see a few caged animals and the birds, and then Jeremy would be ready to leave. As long as they didn’t get too close to the animals, Simon figured it would be fine.
They arrived just in time for a seal show. With a crowd of maybe a hundred people they watched a guy do tricks with the seals, getting them to jump up and grab fish and do other tricks. This was a much better idea than the Children’s Zoo. There were more looks from enamored women, of course, but Simon did his best to focus on Jeremy and the seals. Jeremy didn’t seem to be having the greatest time in the world, but at least he was watching the show and wasn’t on the verge of a full-blown meltdown.
Next they went to see the bird house. The birds didn’t have any unusual reaction to Simon, but he felt extremely uncomfortable in the narrow hallway, as if he were a bird himself, trapped in a cage. He’d been experiencing similar feelings of claustrophobia lately when he was in confined spaces, such as elevators, and he’d been avoiding the subway, as being underground was the absolute worst. Several times in elevators and small rooms he’d had actual panic attacks—which worried him because he didn’t know whether a panic attack could potentially cause a transformation into a werewolf—and he felt much more comfortable and secure outdoors, in open space. In addition to the incredible stuffiness of the bird house, the odors of so many varieties of bird poop were overwhelming, and Simon suddenly had an awful headache. But Jeremy, out of the stroller, was enjoying himself, so Simon sucked it up and stayed for as long as he could—about ten minutes—and then said, “Let’s go see the polar bear,” and they went outside. The fresh air was a huge relief; Simon couldn’t get enough of it in his lungs.
Imitating Simon, Jeremy was taking exaggeratedly deep breaths.
Making it into a joke, Simon said, “You have a very silly daddy, don’t you?”
Jeremy, still imitating the face, didn’t answer.
On the way to see the polar bear, Jeremy said, “Oooh, can we see the monkeys?” pointing toward the large outdoor space with a lake and rocks where the snow monkeys were kept. A couple of monkeys were hanging out not far from the fence, and people were watching them. Although Simon and Jeremy were about thirty yards away, the monkeys must have sensed Simon approaching because they suddenly made a mad dash to the other side of the lake.
Immediately veering away, Simon said to Jeremy, “We’ll see the monkeys later. Mr. Polar Bear is waiting for us.”
Simon felt comfortable seeing Gus, the famous Central Park polar bear, as he was kept a good distance away from viewers. Also, if the other animals had reacted to Simon because they sensed his inner wolf, he doubted a polar bear would be intimidated.
So he and Jeremy walked up the steps to the viewing area overlooking the rocky area and artificial lake where Gus was swimming back and forth.
“I can’t see anything,” Jeremy said.
Simon lifted him up onto his shoulder and said, “See, right over there. That’s Gus.”
Simon was holding Jeremy’s legs. In order to point he needed to let go of one of the legs, so he did, but at the same moment Jeremy said, “I see him!” and leaned forward suddenly. Simon lost his grip and Jeremy started falling forward. They were very close to the railing, and if Simon hadn’t grabbed his leg at the last moment he could have fallen over.
“God, are you okay?” Simon asked frantically.
“What?” Jeremy said.
Jeremy didn’t seem to realize something had almost happened, but Simon’s heart was still racing.
“Never mind,” Simon said, taking Jeremy off his shoulders. “Let’s go, we’ll get a better view downstairs.”
Simon was calming down. He was irritated with himself for losing control of Jeremy for a second and putting him in danger. It had been an accident, but the old Simon would have been more mindful and probably wouldn’t have been so close to the railing to begin with. In his head Simon heard Alison saying,
I need to know I can trust you
, and Simon knew before he could legitimately convince her that
he was a trustworthy parent, he would have to be able to convince himself.
There were about twenty people—a combination of grown-ups and kids—bunched in front of the Plexiglas for an underwater view of Gus.
“I want to see, I want to see,” Jeremy said.
A woman in front heard this and smiled understandably at Simon, then moved aside to let Jeremy through.
“Thanks,” Simon said.
The woman was still smiling, but in a different way. She was gazing intensely at Simon, with a look of restrained lust. Not wanting to lead her on, Simon looked away immediately, focusing on Gus, who, at the other end of the lake, was flipping back around like an expert swimmer and heading back toward the Plexiglas.
“Here he comes,” Jeremy said excitedly.
The enormous animal was moving gracefully, effortlessly in the water, and, obviously a seasoned performer, was heading right toward the onlookers for maximum entertainment effect. Simon was focused on the bear’s big dark eyes when something strange happened. A sudden sense of panic overtook Simon’s body, a fight-or-flight mechanism kicking in, as if he were under attack. But he wasn’t under attack. He was behind Plexiglas, watching a zoo animal perform. He wasn’t in danger.
Or was he?