By Samuel John Claussen
It wasn’t the darkness of her fur that intrigued the old janitor, but rather how she made everything else in the botanical center seem so much brighter, as if the flowers and trees and other colorful plants had sprouted out of the rich soil of the Amazon itself.
She was almost impossible to spot for the untrained eye. The only light left on after hours in the botanical center was the gift shop and a few glowing vending machines. Only once had he seen her, and that was enough to spawn years of pursuit.
“Where are ya, girl?” The old janitor asked as he pushed the wheeled garbage can across the dirt-ridden path.
She was above him, of course, just like she always was. He knew that; he just wanted her to think he didn’t. If she were to believe that he didn’t know her whereabouts, then perhaps she would draw close to him, like that night so many years ago.
Unfortunately for the janitor, the two of them had been at this game for years. She’d grown smart of his tricks. The janitor knew as much; it was still worth a try, being that the smartest beast, that being humans, were still prone to making mistakes.
He jerked around suddenly, reaching for the low-hanging tree above him; the only thing his wrinkled hands could grasp were some leaves, with which, after cursing, he threw into the trash can. He looked above into the darkness of the trees for a minute, trying to catch a glimpse of her. To no success, he continued down the path, picking up candy wrappers along the way.
She waited a short while before she began to follow him.
She was silent, despite her size. She leaped from limb to limb, her ferocious claws digging into the bark to remain steady, although in all actuality she was nimble enough without them. Still she used them; it kept them nice and sharp. It also made her feel powerful, a step above the stumbling drunk that limbered beneath her.
No matter how much he would drink or how old he grew, however, she felt connected to him, in a way all opponents do, but more so. They’d been at this game for years, ever since the night she’d snuck down and touched him with her nose, just slightly on the top of his bald head.
Being that the plants had just been watered, he assumed that the wet blotch had fallen from a leaf, but he soon discovered her; she had wanted him to, as any would if they were lonely in a strange new world. She’d expected him to be scared, as most of his kind were when they’d seen her in her homeland. But the janitor just smiled, acknowledging that the game was afoot.
The reason the old man was so accepting of her, she believed, was because he’d been just as lonely as she had been; he would’ve played along with anyone that night, his own species or any other.
Unfortunately their friendship, over the long, never ending game of cat and mouse, had begun to dwindle. He’d yet to tag her back, beginning the second round of the competition. No, the old janitor was too slow to either touch her or catch a glimpse. She could allow him to win, which she had pondered before, but the game had become more important to her than the friendship, and the same for him.
Her tail whipped back and forth as she crouched on a limb above him, watching him hum a drunken tune.
He didn’t use to drink; or, at least not to the extent of which he did now. At first he was excited about the game, running from one end of the botanical center to the next after ruffling leaves, sounds she would create to mark her current bearings.
After years of failed attempts and not a single glimpse, save for the first, he’d turned to the drink. She believed that he drank so much not because he was depressed of his failures but rather so he could blame them on the flask rather than himself.
“I’d have ya by now if it weren’t for the drinkin.” She heard the janitor say as he took a long swig.
What a pathetic excuse, she thought. If he really wanted her, he could catch her. She had seen her kin captured before by his kind. True, they had to result to cheating, but nevertheless it could be done. But the old man had just given up instead of bettering himself to reach what he wanted so badly. What a pathetic excuse.
Not only was he pathetic, but selfish as well! To agree to compete and then give up without trying more than a quick sprint down a dirt path was terribly insulting to her. At first she had thought him her equal (to an extent); now he was nothing more than the weak prey she used to hunt.
She would be okay with all of this if he’d admit that he’d lost, be he refused to do so. He continued to play the game, every night moving a bit slower than the night before.
She made a considerably long jump across the path to an adjacent Kapok tree, the moon from the clear dome-like ceiling illuminating her, almost appearing as majestic as an angel, or perhaps one of the fallen. She turned swiftly as soon as she’d landed, looking down on the old man.
Before, when he was still excited and lively, he would’ve seen her. He’d seen her before when she was stalking in the dark canopy, but now when she made it so easy for him he didn’t take any notice; not of her shadow casted down, not her breeze against his stubble-ridden cheeks, not even the sound of the leaves rustling. The only thing he took notice of was his flask drawing empty.
With this he grew angry, throwing the water bottle he’d picked up back onto the ground.
“You aint even real, are ya girl?” He cried out desperately; she drew close to listen. He waited a few seconds, looking into the canopy with hopelessness, his eyes bulging as he tried to spot her. He sighed in another failure and continued to walk, picking up the water bottle he’d tossed to the ground.
“No, just a drunk old man’s imagination, I suppose.” He said under his breath, her ears perked to catch it.
Not real? How could he say such a thing? They’d spent years competing, years growing close. He’d seen her, had heard her and felt her touch, more than enough to prove her existence.
She growled, a low rumble resembling thunder as she followed closer, climbing down to a lower set of branches. What was the point of the years of pursuit if she wasn’t real? And his cursed drinking, what good was it if not in response to his failures?
She had now come close enough to pounce on the old man with perfect precision. Was all of the pain he’d went through to tag her really worth it if he was going to dismiss her quite obvious existence? It was all for naught.
She was incredibly close now, as close as she’d come the night the game had started. If she didn’t exist, then how could she get so close? She raised her paw, ready and willing, in this moment of anger, to kill him with a single swipe.
Unexpectedly, too quickly for her to respond, the old man swung around to face her, slapping her on the tip of her black nose.
“Gotcha, girl!” he yelled victoriously. His breath didn’t smell of whiskey, but rather of some sweet juice. In a few seconds all of the age that she’d seen painfully increase over the last few years returned to the janitor, his face gleaming.
He’d trapped her, and not with a gun or net like others of his kind, but with her own curiosity. She was shocked, too shocked to respond quickly enough to tag him before he ran off. She’d never seen him run so fast and with such energy, not even in the early days of the game. After recovering she took pursuit.
She had an unfair advantage on the old man. No matter how much energy the current victory had given him, he was still human, and an old one at that. She shot across the trees, gaining ground faster than the old man had hoped, who was hobbling along below her. She decided that there was no use in keeping to the trees any longer, being that he’d already discovered her. She pounced down to the ground, sprinting after him.
The old man looked back to see her in all of her brilliance. She was so beautiful, so strong and cunning. For a second he considered slowing down to watch her as a young boy would at the zoo, but he quickly remembered his tight agenda, and if he wanted to win once and for all he’d have to move quickly.
She began to lunge after him, her back arching with each dive. She darted back and forth, trying to confuse the old man on which way she was planning on going. He looked to be heading to the gift shop; he’d never make it to the door.
She had to commend him on his bravery, at the very least. This was by far the most exciting night she’d had since the very first, and this was still more riveting. The thrill of the hunt brought back memories of her past life, a life she was forced to leave behind.
“You…can’t catch me…girl!” The old man yelled, gasping for air as he laughed.
He was getting cocky, and for no reason. He had to know that she would catch him; in the few seconds between taking to the ground and the present she’d closed most of the distance between them, now at his heels with each lung.
They were off the dirt path now and onto the main cement road that circled around the entire center. Her claws clinked against the concrete menacingly. He looked back at her, slightly worried, but nevertheless he continued to gain ground.
He must’ve been training for this, she thought. He must have been training to outrun her for years. She would catch him; that much she was certain of, but to last this long was impressive for his age. He shot up the staircase that led up to the gift shop doors.
The staircase, long and steep, surpassing the highest trees, was hard to scale for the old man, puffing loudly between each step.
Her claws retracted as she made her way up the metal staircase. She was close enough to take him down now, but she decided to let him get to the door before ending it. He deserved that.
When the janitor reached the doors to the gift shop, and she was in mid pounce, he turned swiftly to the left, running along the metal corridor. She pressed off the door to the ground, not taking any time to recover before continuing the pursuit.
Why he hadn’t escaped through the gift shop perplexed her. He could’ve won the night right then and there. Suddenly the old man stopped. For some reason, she felt the moment called for her to stop too. He took a couple of deep breaths, laughing in between them, supporting himself on his knees.
“You’re…you’re as fast as I imagined you’d be, girl.” He said, chuckling. He was giving up, she thought as she walked smoothly towards him, like the shadow she was. He then stood up, leaning onto the railing, looking out over the trees.
“You’re just as beautiful, too.” He said, grinning at her as she came within a few yards.
And with that he climbed up the railing and stood upon it, waving his arms to balance himself as he laughed. She was confused, looking up to him, her head cocked. He looked down at her, still laughing, a crazed look in his eye; the look of madness.
“I win,” He said, winking at her.
The janitor, with a hoot of excitement, jumped from the railing toward the trees below. She shot after him, falling onto the first tree and then descending as quickly as possible, but it was too late to do anything, if she could’ve at all. She heard the cracking of branches as the janitor plummeted toward the ground, and then a solid thud as he struck it.
She approached his lifeless body, lying there with scratches and bruises from the fall. No matter how grotesque he looked, he still held a smile on his face, the smile only the victorious gain. He’d won the only way he could have. She slinked towards her competitor. With the tip of her nose, she touched his forehead, and then disappeared into the darkness of the jungle around her, slowly fading away.
Samuel John Claussen is a short-story author and novelist who lives in Des Moines, Iowa. His previously published work includes Creatures of the Darkness, which Blackbird Magazine praised, saying, “There’s something definitely charming about it. It creates an eerie, otherworldly feel. A dreamy feeling.” His first novel, Men of Renown, is in the final stages of editing, and he’s currently working on his next novel, The Extinguisher.
You can follow his Facebook page for updates on his writing and future projects: https://www.facebook.com/samueljohnclaussen