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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

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Joe Meno

The zookeeper's heart is broke. His wife has left him and gone with some stranger to Peru. In his grief, the zookeeper has opened all the of animals' cages and thrown away the keys. He has left a note and flung himself into the exhibit of the poisonous African bees. The rest of the animals, sleepy-eyed and lacking courage, do not escape at first. They only stand in the open doorways of their confines and stare, sure this is a trick of some kind. Ha, ha, ha, they think. Very funny, Mr. Zookeeper. The elephants, using their lovely trunks, feel around the openings, their limbs twitching and momentary, their hearts secretly waiting to be shot with the precision of a well-oiled elephant gun. The monkeys, smarter than most of the animals, convince their neighbors, the gullible but charming pandas, to open their cage doors, sure the clumsy bears will be immediately tranquilized for trespassing. The tigers and lions moan in unison, and also in disbelief, then give up and go back to their grooming. A brave little antelope named Eeka finally marches out of its holding pen. Together all the animals wait and watch, then are dumbfounded when nothing happens, the antelope simply disappearing into the forbidden expanse of the nearly empty park. Have the doors really been thrown open? their small animal hearts all ask. Their small animal hearts all answer: Yes. The animals hurry towards the entrance of the zoo, still half-believing they will be exterminated before they make it to the parking lot.

At that moment, Emily Dot, a third-grader, is sitting on her front porch, waiting to be punished. She is in trouble, serious trouble. She has been shouting in class again. This time she has yelled, "There cannot be a God! If there is a God, why are there no dinosaurs anywhere in the Bible?" Emily Dot has been known to yell things like this in class, ever since her mother's untimely death. The cause of her mother's death? A car accident. Highly improbable, yes, but it happens, at least several hundred times a year. In religion class, Emily Dot's teacher has warned her to please keep her comments to herself, but it is of no use. Emily is very, very sad. Like the zookeeper; like the world's heart, Emily's too has been broken.

Mr. Dot, her tall and handsome father, unties his necktie and sits on the porch beside her. He is in sales, a salesman, a project manager. He has been known to manage a project or two in his time, you better believe it. "What are we going to do about these interruptions in class?" Mr. Dot asks seriously.

"I refuse to be talked to like a child," Emily says. "I know there is no such thing as God and I won't be forced to think there is."

"No, certainly not, dear. No one can make you think something you don't want to think."

"I've tried to be polite and ask questions, but Mrs. Shields only gets angry whenever I speak."

"I imagine you must try her patience quite a bit."

"Mom always answered whatever questions I had. She never lost her patience with me."

"Yes, she was very kind and very patient."

"She never once talked to me like a child."

"No, she did not."

Emily Dot and her father, Mr. Dot, look up just then and see an amazing sight: it is a beautifully-massive, ivory-horned rhinoceros, quietly hurrying down the middle of their street. It slows to a halt, seeing them, then huffs through its great gray nostrils. It looks from daughter to father, blinking its enormous black eyes, then continues on its way, ambling behind a small yellow house on the corner, disappearing from their sight. In a moment, a spotty-orange tiger follows, then a silvery crocodile, one after the other like a very strange parade, the animals making their way aimlessly down their street. Several lovely white reindeer pause a moment to taste the Dots' hedge, then sprint along, scraping their great antlers along the elms that line their neighbor's small blue house.

"We ought to phone the police," Mr. Dot says and hurries inside quickly. Curious, Emily Dot climbs down her porch and hides behind the great green hedge, watching as a massively round hippopotamus strolls towards her, lolling its heavy tongue over its pearly teeth. It takes a large chomp out of their azalea bush, ignoring the small girl, who curls into a small shadow at its feet. In a moment, the hippo is wailing. Two cheetahs have sprung from nowhere and are making short work of this, a very enormous meal, pouncing upon the hippo's great, wide back, snapping its preposterously large vertebrae. Emily Dot stares up into the twin, mewling jaws of certain death, stunned, when her father pulls her to her feet and up onto the near safety of the porch. The cheetahs ignore the father and child, quite content with the shambling feast breathing its last breath before them.

"We'll be safest up there," Mr. Dot says, and they hurry up the rose trellis to the second story. From their slanting, shingled roof, Mr. Dot and his daughter watch the animals maraud their tiny neighborhood: the Foster's duplex becomes a temporary Snake House, the Foster's prized poodles appearing as mysterious bulges in the digestive tracts of several anacondas, the Hamiltons' front lawn becomes a makeshift savannah as ibex and zebra gracefully feed on their magnolias, Dickey Peterson, the neighborhood bully, is accosted by several gorillas who carry him up into the dense shadows of the Willmington's maple trees.

"There's a little gray monkey on the corner there," Mr. Dot exclaims, pointing.

"That is a bushbaby," Emily says. "We read about them in science class."

"Oh, yes. A bushbaby," he says. "Where do they come from?"

"The rain forest."

"Oh, yes. Of course."

They both stare, watching the tiny, furry animal preen itself, hanging from the street sign quite nimbly. They are quiet for a long time, the unfamiliar chatter and prattle of jungle creatures echoing in the twilight.

"I am sorry for shouting at school," Emily says.

Mr. Dot nods and replies: "Yes, you'll have to stop doing that."

Emily huffs and then looks down. "I really miss mom," she mumbles. "I think about her all day."

"I miss her, too, pumpkin. I miss her, too."

Emily itches her nose and sighs, then says what she has been thinking for quite a long time: "Nothing's been right since mom died."

"Yes," her father says, taking off his glasses. "You're exactly right."