's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" Zoophobia "

Submitted by Jazz Jackalope

I remember some of the times we went to the zoo on free days when I was a kid. Most of it was rather boring and blurred together, but there were a few animals that stuck out in my head. Once there was a spotted hyena who paced in and out of the visible part of his enclosure, whom I remember thinking seemed upset. Another time, there were peafowl that were free to run around with the humans, tempting for an eight-year-old kid to chase.

Then there was one I wish was just a blur in my mind: some *thing* in the aquatic animal exhibits, which I remember as a few dozen windows allowing one to look into indoor tanks. If I saw any animal in there besides one, I don't remember; all I recall is a giant, long, black shape undulating through the murky, teal water. Possibly an eel, but I don't think I ever made out its head.

Whatever that creature was, I figure it couldn't have come from the *deep* sea, since intellectually I know that most of those... things can't come up here. The pressure shift, and all; they'd explode. Though, I really do wonder if that thing is what started off my fear of them anyway.

Now I haven't been to the zoo in years. But it's been on my mind lately. Why? Several months ago, while channel surfing, I tripped over a news report that an animal got loose. As usual when this occurs, the handlers tranquilized it and restored it to its tank. It's the word "tank" that caught me, and made me stay to see the entire report. Not once did they mention the animal in question.

Back then I must have been in a jumpy mood, because that night I had trouble falling asleep. Faint images of that dark form writhing and doubling over itself flickered in front of my vision, springing to clarity whenever I dared close my eyes. Somewhere inside, I was certain this mystery creature they did not mention was that *thing* I saw all those years ago.

At the same time, I've always known my fear of sea monsters hurtles into irrational paranoia. Eventually I calmed myself by reasoning it was probably a penguin, pushing down the objection that if it were, they would have just said "penguin". And that the birds weren't really kept in tanks.

One restless night later, with two entire hours of sleep under my belt, I considered if the best course of action was to see if any online news sources may have information on this aquatic escape artist. On one hand it would lay the issue to rest, but on the other I wasn't sure if such knowledge would actually help calm me: It was just as likely that I would never get a good night's sleep for the rest of my life if my fear was confirmed. Such a fine line with me.

But really. One animal escapes from one tank and I jump to Defcon 5. Who said it was something capable of surviving outside the water? For all I knew, it was a tiger shark. Zoo patrons sure as heck wouldn't like the notion a shark could jump from its tank, which would explain the ambiguity in the news. All very rational, cut and dry, no nightmarish monsters in the picture whatsoever.

Thus convinced, the next night I again got two hours of sleep, broken into minute spans throughout.

At this point it may be clear I scare very easily and over stupid things. Yet strangely enough, I don't usually have nightmares. Sure, bizarre and creepy events and objects crop up often, like a forest of those hands from the game Eversion; I just never seem to consider any of it unusual while I'm dreaming. Heck, there's another annoying aspect of fear-induced insomnia: sleep would be an escape if only I could get and stay there. Up till a few months ago, I'd only had dreams that really did scare me about seven times. Ah, and I never have the same dream twice.

Recovery time from such nerve-wrecking jolts is usually three days, perhaps a week before going into my own basement stops giving me the willies. This time, the chill that report gave me took an entire month to shake off. Because I'm such a lucky person, it was that exact time that I happened along another salient news report: poor Warren Jackson, 26, had died just yesterday in the course of work.

His work? Handler at the local zoo.

I heard nothing specific about what animal had killed the poor man, or if some other hazard had done him in. That was the problem: I would go all in with my paltry money that every news report about someone's death would at least name the cause, which animal did it if there was a beast involved, and if they had put the poor thing (or in this case, just "thing") down.

You would think at this point I'd avoid the news, if it was going to make me need a nightlight. My mind does not work that way. As I've demonstrated, it won't let something eerie go, real or imagined, at least until after I've found the root of (or somehow rationalized) its existence - that's why even poorly-written scary stories can work so well on me, after all. On an instinctual level, there's also the notion that if this *thing* is out there, it somehow can get me - which is why the very existence of the fauna in the deep sea terrifies me whilst I live in a landlocked state.

Hence, I began to actively watch for zoo-related news reports. And sure enough, I heard over time of a handful of more deaths that were just as casually unelaborated. Two more handlers, a visitor, the zoo's oldest elephant...

The reports happened to be spaced apart with no implication of links to each other (aside from all of them happening at the zoo). Before I found... the pictures, I was willing to assume these *were* isolated incidents and I was just paranoid. My life would be so much *nicer* if I was just paranoid.

But the nightmares began anyway. Rather, nightmare. I remember it distinctly despite all attempts to force it out of my mind, because it was the same damn thing every night for weeks. Utter darkness: not a blank dream, because I was aware, suspended in thick, heavy, pure black. Though I've never been good with complete darkness, at first I was quite calm; the pressure around me was somehow soothing, familiar.

But then I felt *it*. Circling, surrounding me, swirling space itself.

Up flared the panic like a flame on a stove. I screamed internally, fighting and struggling against the crushing pressure that was now the tightest of restraints. Screamed, louder and louder until it felt my throat was straining somehow. And in my panic, I didn't notice the circle of the grimy, smooth body closing in on meuntilIfeltthe*teeth*

which was the exact point I woke up. For the first of many times, I woke at four in the morning, too early and too tired but too frightened to fall back asleep - and, as if *that* wasn't bad enough, at some point I had wet my bed. *I'm twenty-frickin'-one years old.* And yes, it happened every time I was stupid enough to drink just before bed.

After a week's worth of justified insomnia and stained sheets it was clear the time for assumptions and guesses was long gone. For the sake of my psyche, I *needed* to know what went on at that zoo.

And for the sake of my well-being, I had to accomplish that without actually going there. I knew that whatever I might find on the internet, if anything, could be filtered through Photoshop and possibly conspiracy theorists, people as jumpy and deranged as I am, but I had no choice. In no way or alternate universe would I ever be so stupid as to physically go to the zoo to uncover these answers. If this really was the *thing* I had seen years ago, why the hell would I put myself any closer to it than I am now?

The search took a solid three days, during which I was hardly sleeping anyway in futile efforts to avoid the nightmare. If there's anything positive about how my mind anchors to things beyond their expiration date, it's that it makes me doggedly persistent. Like with any internet search, my query yielded tons of junk to shift through - official zoo websites, biology reports, weird porn I could have done without seeing - but it paid off.

I use that phrase loosely.

I never found any pictures of the creature, so I don't even know if it *was* the same beast I saw years ago. Which I consider good. Visuals can obviously scar me forever, and a clear picture of that thing would probably do me in, given that I've actually been physically near it. But what I found instead was not any better: a picture of a victim.

Ohhhh boy. There are three prospects that never fail to send me in paroxyms of terror. One's been covered and the other isn't relevant. The third includes exactly what this creature does to its prey. I would love to be in denial and attribute it to a python or something, since at least that would fit into my previous, comfortable worldview. But no snake could do this.

I had no idea what I was seeing at first: just a big long narrow tube, fraying at the ends, ranging in color from red to white to the drab brown spectrum. Then my eyes fell on the caption underneath it, and soon the gruesome details sprang into clarity. Oh god, why didn't I look away? Why did I examine that thing? I can still see it! Splintered and crushed bone - pink intestine curling out at both ends - an eye in the midpoint, lidless and nearly burst - smooth scales, slime on my skin, teeth, hundredsofpointsonmy-

Damn it, I'm stupid. Of *course* I can't handle thinking about it. I've never had that fortitude and I know I never will. But I have to say my piece.

How do I know for sure that this was a real victim of that creature? Because, for the sake of closure and at the cost of my nerves, I saw it at different angles on different sites from different people claiming to have seen this body - and the *thing* slithering away from it. Some of the photographs showed people in the aquatic exhibit standing around the body with true expressions of fear: lost-looking wide eyes, posed in mid-shuffle, clearly having no idea how to continue with daily functions after something like *this*. Other, more morbid people could be seen taking pictures with their phones at angles that corresponded to the others I saw. In one of the close-ups, I also noticed a broken name tag in that gory mess, jutting from what used to be a lung. The name? "Warren J."

If this madness was a large-scale hoax, then it was very well pulled-off - although I don't see the point of forging something like this. I could have emailed the photographers to learn more about that scene, but at that point I'd seen enough to know that I did *not* really want to discover what the animal was, and that I will never go to the zoo again as long as I live. Besides, after I recovered somewhat and managed to look at this more objectively, I realized that the creature was probably a very large squid. It fits with the evidence, and more importantly, squid I can handle. Squid I like, even if they can do... that. My mind's objection this time is that none of the witnesses seemed to know what the heck they saw; if it were a squid, why did they not just say--


Oh god. It *just* hit me: I think I *did* see the creature. One of those photographs... I thought it was a shadow, but now I remember a cluster of luminescent dots on it - and water on the floor, trailing from what used to be Warren to it - and a man standing some feet away with his camera raised, but his fingers clenched around it and his skin white as a sheet -- and I see the flowing edges and I see the dimension to the "shadow", part of the tail fin *I think*, at least as tall as that man...


No. Goddamn it, not a-fucking-gain. I shouldn't be afraid for *me*. Somewhere in my research I saw a claim that the animal has been transferred to some other zoo out-of-state (why they didn't destroy this monster is anyone's guess). Too little, too late to soothe me any, but at least that would put it further away from me.

There's one big reason it's not a blessing, though. I'd nearly forgotten the reason why I'm telling this story. After all, the reports of deaths at the zoo have ceased, and no monstrous sea beast ever touched me (not *physically*, at least). Normally I try not to think about these things, because, go figure, I enjoy sleeping at night.

But you see, there's a good friend of mine who lives in another state, whom I usually see online almost every day. By now it's been about two weeks, and I haven't heard from him. No one has, with no explanation or reason given, other than his last known chatroom message:

"bbl, taking my little cousin to the zoo"