Short Story Contest
All winners

Peter and Ju

by Max Fox

It was Peter's birthday. Today he was turning 2 and his Dad was taking him to the zoo. Peter had a chubby, round face with deep brown hair. His nose turned up a little, and his ears always glowed. He looked like a little fat elf when he was wearing all green. He mostly had a runny nose and was always wiping it on his sleeve. Peter was very calm, he only cried when he fell down, and he was nice to be around because he would listen very quietly, always interested.
Peter was very excited. As he sat in the front car seat, he could not wait. "When are we donna get 'ere?'' he said over and over.
His father said, "Soon.'' When at last they came to the tall brownstone gates bordered by bushy juniper, Peter's dad picked Peter out of the car and carried him through the gates.
Peter's small round face was flushed. You could easily see that he was amazed; he looked in awe at the multitudes of exotic animals and tried to decide where to go first.
After a while, Peter came to a decision. "Dad, go to the cats."
"See, Peter this cat can go as fast as a sports car!" His father was leaning over a placard that said "Cheetah."
"That cheetah is 2 years old today," a strange voice said. Peter looked around to see where it was coming from. A man in a brown uniform was talking to a woman in a brown uniform with long yellow curly hair.
Peter walked over to them and said proudly, "Today is my birthday, too, and I'm also 2." They turned to look at him.
Then the woman said, "Oh, then maybe you'd like to meet Ju. He's a cheetah." Peter started over to the cage, but the woman said, "He's not outside. He's in the back room." Peter ran inside the Cat House.
His father was surprised. "You have another one?
"Yes, we have three," the woman said. "By the way, call me Dr. Howe. When you come again, ask for me at the Big Cat House. I've never seen Ju so interested in a visitor before. Peter s father turned around to look. He saw Peter kneeling in front of Ju's cage. He had put his little hands through the bars of the cage and was stroking the cheetah's back. The cheetah was looking at Peter with trust and friendship.
"I see ...," Peter's father said.

That was the beginning of the great friendship of Peter and Ju. Every Saturday, Peter would go to visit Ju, rain or shine, even if he had a cold. He got to know all of the workers, and they said when he was much older that he could work as a summer intern. Peter was ecstatic. Years and years went by.
Once, the manager had planned to sell Ju to another zoo, but Peter, his mom and his friends at the zoo convinced the manager not to. Once, there had been a large cloudburst, and all the food was outside. It was completely soaked. The zoo didn't have any other food in store, so if it rotted, the animals would have nothing to eat. Peter helped dry out as much food as he could, and then got all of his money together and bought food for the animals. As the years slipped by, the zoo had become a second home to Peter. By the time he was 9, he had taken all of the zoo camps there were.
Peter loved the zoo, and he loved being with Ju. They developed a bond so strong, they could almost talk to each other. But then, a terrible thing happened.

Ju was pacing his cage impatiently, his golden spotted hair glinting in the sunlight.
"Come on, Champ, it's not that bad. It's just once." Dr. Howe and Dr. Ken, a new trainer, were sitting in Ju's concrete cage, trying to soothe him. Ju looked at them imploringly.
"Look, Champ, I called his mother and she said he's on a sleep-away camp You need to stop worrying, he'll be fine.
Ju growled.
"Anyway, Ju, you need to eat things other than your vitamins. lf you eat only vitamins you'll get sick and you might die," said Dr. Ken. Ju gave an obstinate meow that meant, "I don't care." Visitors came to look around. Ju raised his head to sniff them, but put his head down, uninterested.
A mother, holding two babies asked, "Is he sick?" Dr. Howe said, "No, he's lonely, so he won't eat."
"Oh," the mother said and walked away.

Peter was having the time of his life at camp; he hardly noticed when the first Saturday went by. But one night one of the counselors had an encounter with a mountain lion, and Peter remembered Ju.
"Peter, why aren't you eating?" a 10-year-old boy named Nate stuck his freckled face in front of Peter's lined, white one.
"Huh? Oh. ..." Peter had been thinking about Ju. "Um, I guess I'm not that hungry. ..." Nate chomped noisily on his instant oatmeal and said, "Why? You usually like eating this stuff, and now you're really sad."
A scheme was beginning to form in Peter's head. "Well, I am feeling a little stomach-achey. Maybe I should go see Pam." Pam was the head counselor.
"Yeah, maybe you should." Peter got up from the table gingerly and walked over to the counselor's table.
Ten minutes later, Peter was in the car with his mom. "Peter, I don't see why you had to come home from camp so early. They wouldn't even give me a refund," she complained.
"I told you mom, I'm not feeling well. I don't think that it would be good if I stayed there and infected everybody. Anyway, I haven't seen Ju in a while. I need to check up on him every Saturday. And," he added "I'm old enough to make you drive me around wherever I want to go." They both laughed.
Peter rushed down the "streets" of cages to the Big Cat House. He jumped up all the steps, and ran to the right hand corner, Ju's cage. He stopped, breathlessly, only to find the sign "SICK" pasted onto the walls. Peter couldn't believe it, but he wheeled around and burst into the building for sick animals. There on the table was Ju, apparently sleeping. The doctors had a tube going into his foreleg.
"Hello Peter," Dr Howe said. "Ju missed you."
"What s wrong with him?" asked Peter, quietly.
"After Saturday he wouldn't eat anything but his vitamins. Then, he got woozy and banged his head against the wall. When we X-rayed and PET scanned him, we found he had a brain tumor from the vitamins and old age. There's not much we can do. He might--." Dr. Howe paused to think of a word. "He might stay a few days."
Peter walked slowly over to the table that held the limp Ju. He bent over to pet him, then he pulled out of his pocket a piece of chicken, and held it under Ju's shiny black nose. His eyes flickered open. Ju looked up at Peter, then ate the chicken. Peter had more, so he gave it to him.
Then Ju noticed the tube. He raised his head and bit it off. Peter looked up.
"Dr. Howe," he said, "Ju looks much better. Can he and I take a walk around the zoo?" Dr. Howe said "Well .<\p>.<\p>. take a leash." Peter smiled, thanked her, got the leash, and then walked out the door, with Ju slumping behind him.
They walked past the elephants: they remembered Ju and nodded.
They walked past the penguins: they recognized Ju and bowed.
They walked past the aviary: the birds remembered Ju and hooted.
They walked past the apes: they recognized Ju and beat the ground.
They walked past the Big Cat House: Ju remembered it and lay down and DIED.

Today was Peter's birthday. He was turning 12. His dad was taking him to the zoo. Peter felt very blank as they stopped in front of the tall brownstone gates bordered by short, squat juniper bushes.
"Dad, can we not go to the Big Cat House today?"
"We don't have to if you don't want to, his father said.
As they were walking past the gorillas, Peter felt an uncontrollable urge to go to the Big Cat House, half hoping that last month's event was only a bad dream. He quickly and quietly ran inside.
Everything was horribly familiar: the jaguar jumped up in greeting. But the cheetah's cage was empty, empty, empty. Peter felt a lump the size of a pumpkin rise in his throat. He had to run back to his father, who had moved onto the chimpanzees. Dr. Ken was in the chimp cage, holding a baby. "Hi, Peter," he said.
"Hi," said Peter darkly, the lump rising.
"Peter, this is Farook, Farook, this is Peter," Dr. Ken went on. Oh, no Peter thought, not again.
"Farook's an orphan, Peter. I was wondering if you. ..."
"Oh, no, no, I couldn't." but then Farook looked up at him with big, dark, lonely eyes. Peter gave in. "OK," he said, "I'll do it," and he put out his hand and started stroking the monkey.