I tap my fingers on my desk, as I wait for the website to load with last night’s winning lottery numbers. It’s like walking to check the mailbox when you aren’t expecting anything, but you go anyway just in case there’s something important waiting. I bought three tickets, but I didn’t watch last night’s news. I heard talk in the breakroom that someone won, so I thought I would pass some time by checking my numbers against the life-changing ones on the screen.
I hear a ding from my speakers as a pop-up tells me that my work computer has blocked access to the site. Of course it has, I groan. I stuff the tickets back in my wallet and vow never to play the lottery again. I promised myself the same thing after I lost the last big jackpot, but every time the amount rises to 50 or 100 million the lure of walking out of the bank and never looking back becomes too strong.
I daydream of all the things I would do with 750 million dollars, as I help the next customer withdraw 250 dollars from their nearly empty account.
“Hi, Tina. Did you try one of the cookies my wife made?” my co-worker, Greg, asks another one of the tellers.
“No, Greg. You know I don’t eat carbs,” Tina responds.
“You couldn’t just try one cookie? It wouldn’t hurt,” Greg pushes with a plastered on smile.
Tina puts her hands on her hips and stares Greg down with a withering look that is answer enough. Greg mumbles something and walks over to me with the plate of cookies in his hands.
“Hi, Patrick. Did you get one of the cookies my wife made?” he says with his wide smile.
It’s not worth the trouble to protest, so I take one of the cookies off the tray and swallow a bite. “Mmmm…” I mumble as I give Greg a thumbs up. Once he’s out of sight, I drop the rest of the cookie in the trash. I think Greg just tries to pawn off his wife’s cookies on us, so he doesn’t have to eat them.
“Can you believe him?” Tina says as she sits down at the window next to mine. She unfolds the paper on her desk, and I spot a headline about the lottery.
“Can I borrow that real quick?” I ask.
“Sure thing, as long as you tell Greg off if you win.” We both have a good laugh at that.
I compare my tickets one-by-one and set the first two aside. When I get to the third, the first numbers start matching up. I get to the fourth number when I hear someone clear their throat.
“Excuse me, can I deposit this check sometime today?” a balding man asks us.
Tina and I had been too entranced by the numbers to notice him.
“Of course, Sir. So sorry about that,” Tina replies as she flashes the man a charming smile.
She goes through the transaction while I finish checking the numbers. And recheck them, twice. I push back my chair, carefully place the last ticket in my wallet, and stand up. I point to the balding man.
“You, Sir, are an asshole.”
Tina gasps and turns to me.
“Keep doing you, Tina,” I tell her with a huge grin on my face. I wave her on to follow me. “You’re gonna want to see this.
“No way,” she says, but I hear her heels clack along behind me.
I find Greg in the breakroom. I march up to him and put my hand on his shoulder.
“If you stopped trying so hard, people might actually like you.”
A puff of air escapes his throat and his eyes widen. Before he can respond I have moved on. Tina is doubled over chortling. I walk into my boss’s office.
“I quit,” I tell him, as I flip him the bird.
He just stares at me, mouth hanging open. On my way out of the bank, I high-five a couple of bewildered customers. I get in my car and put on my seatbelt before I realize I don’t know where I’m supposed to go. I pull out my phone and look up “where to go to claim a winning lottery ticket”. I plug the address of the lottery headquarters into my phone’s GPS and start my road trip. I roll the windows down and blast the radio, thinking about what kind of new car I will get after I collect my winnings.
“Wooooo Hooooooo!” I scream into the wind blowing through the window. Then I begin to laugh almost hysterically. How the hell did I just win the Powerball jackpot?!
After deciding to take the lump sum up front, I walk out of the lottery office with over $350 million dollars. They advised me to speak with an attorney right away, because I will likely owe more taxes than what they withheld. However, I think I’ll make a couple of purchases first. I’m too excited to contain the urge to spend money.
My initial idea was to get a new car, but that seems so…predictable. I’ll definitely get a new car soon, but when people ask about my first purchase, I want to have a good story. I think through some other things I could buy: a mansion takes awhile to close on, I don’t have anywhere to wear a fancy suit, a yacht isn’t really my thing. Then, inspiration hits.
I’ve always wanted a pet, but I wasn’t sure I had the time to take care of one. I don’t want an ordinary house pet though, not if I’ve got millions. Maybe I could get a tiger…no, too dangerous. Definitely not a python or anything scaly. I want a cute animal that I can keep in my house, but that’s more rare. I wonder if I can find a Koala in Florida?
I pull out my phone and look for the nearest pet store. 20 minutes later I pull into a strip mall where a sign reads “Puppies and More”. The door jingles as I walk in and the smell of animals hits me.
“Welcome. How can I help you?” a man asks from behind the counter.
“Hi, what’s the most unique animal you have?” I ask.
“Uh, we’ve got some big snakes,” the man responds.
“Do you have anything…with fur?”
“What about a rare dog breed?” he asks. Before I can answer, he calls out again. “Fredrick, show him the dogs.”
Another younger man pops his head out from the back. He leads me over to a section of glass enclosed cages full of puppies.
“I’m actually not really looking for a dog. I was hoping to find something more unique, or exotic even,” I tell Fredrick.
I start to turn from the wall of dogs, but something in his gaze stops me. He looks to be sizing me up, but for what, I’m not sure.
“You can afford something exotic?” he asks.
I snort, but then compose myself. “Yeah, I can afford it.”
“Come back at 9pm,” he says before disappearing in the back again.
I pull into the now dark parking lot in front of “Puppies and More” at 5 til 9. The sound of my car door closing seems too loud, and I try to soften the steps of my feet on the asphalt lot. In the light of day, this seemed like a good idea, exciting even. Now, I’m beginning to wonder if I should be here.
Fredrick steps out of the store, and I expect him to let me in. Instead, he locks the door behind him and walks toward me.
“I’m in the silver truck. You can follow me there,” he says.
“I thought you had the animals here.”
“There’s not enough room here for exotic animals, so we keep them off site.”
I nod and get back in my car, not entirely prepared to follow Fredrick wherever he may lead me. Along the drive I work to convince myself that this is all above board. Plenty of people own exotic pets. I’m sure they’ll have whatever certificates I may need.
The rumble of my tires on a gravel road brings me back to the present. The road winds through trees dripping almost sinisterly with moss. When the wind blows, the moss reaches out like fingers to drag along my car. Through the greenery, I see glimpses of a metal building ahead.
Fredrick’s car rolls to a stop in front of a large warehouse. Despite the remote location, it looks like a well-kept building. I feel a bit relieved. It’s like Fredrick said, they probably just needed a bigger space where the noise wouldn’t disturb any neighbors.
By the time I’m out of my car, Fredrick is knocking on the warehouse door. It’s then that I notice another car in the lot. A tall, scruffy man opens the door and waves us inside. As my eyes adjust to the light, smells similar to a barn accost me. Then, I take in the large cages and glass enclosures full of animals.
A fierce mountain lion prowls one of the enclosures, and I decide to steer clear of that area. I turn toward the sound of a howling monkey, a much safer bet. I marvel at the cages of swinging primates. This place could fill a zoo with animals.
A glisten of scales catches my eye, and I turn to see a section of tanks with alligators, pythons, and other large reptiles. I shiver, and continue searching the room in silent awe. Koalas, foxes, wolves, sloths, and other furry creatures, whose names I don’t know, surround me.
I clear my throat. “These are all…legal?” I ask.
The scruffy man chuckles. His laugh is a bit off-putting, and so is his lack of response.
Fredrick steps up to appease me. “Many of these you can legally own in Florida. Just ask me if you would like to know which ones.”
I spin around the room, overwhelmed by the choices, some terrifying and others adorable.
“If you had a million dollars, which would you choose?” I ask.
“Do you have a million dollars?” the scruffy man asks too quickly.
I turn to him and watch as he and Fredrick hold a wordless conversation.
“I do,” I say out of curiosity, despite thinking I may regret it.
The man’s eyes snap to mine. After a pause, he turns and strides to the back of the warehouse. He presses his hand into the wall, and a door swings inward with a creak. The door blended seamlessly into the wall, but now I see nothing but darkness beyond. The man descends into the black void. I take a steadying breath, and follow.
At the bottom of the stairs, the man flicks on a switch. Light skitters down a long stone hallway, illuminating an endless set of identical archways. The pulse of my own heartbeat fills my head, interrupted by echoing footsteps. After what seems like an hour, we reach a heavy wooden door. The scruffy man pulls out a key and unlocks the door, which swings open with a groan.
I don’t know what I was prepared for, but it wasn’t this.
What I see isn’t just shocking or awe-inspiring; it’s unbelievable, literally impossible.
A huge cavernous space, several stories high, is filled with caves and cages of creatures that shouldn’t exist. I rub my eyes. They can’t exist.
“Welcome to The Shadow Grotto,” the man tells me. “Where you can find creatures from your wildest dreams.”
My legs nearly give out, and I lean against the nearest wall. The scrape of rough stone on my palms grounds me. I begin to take in what I see, still unsure how I went from working at the bank this morning to ending up here.
There’s a lion with hooves and a monkey with wings. A two-headed bird and a dog with snakes for a tail. A creature prowling like a panther, but covered in alligator scales.
And then I look up.
A higher row of caves features creatures from legend: a unicorn, griffin, centaur, pegasus, phoenix, and lastly, a dragon. There is something different about these animals, an otherworldly quality. The air around them seems to pulse with…magic.
I turn to the man who brought us here. “How?” I whisper.
“The chimera,” he answers, as he points to a mash-up of a beast that is chained to a cave wall and enclosed by thick bars of metal.
That’s when I first notice the chains, but when I look back at the others, I see they are all in chains. Something about these magical, majestic creatures being shackled makes me feel sick.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“Every beast in here is a child of the chimera. We breed her with other exotic creatures. Sometimes we get an ordinary creature, other times something unique, like a monkey with wings, and rarely, something magical is born. That’s when we hit the jackpot.” His eyes sparkle like the gold he is pondering wistfully.
“But…how did you get a chimera?”
“We stumbled upon her in the woods when we were looking to poach some bears. Can you believe it?” He chuckles joyfully, as he boasts of his accomplishment. “At first I thought I must be delirious, but we all saw her. She was just as shocked to see us. I think that’s the only reason we managed to catch her.”
A rumble escapes the chimera’s belly. A flash of light illuminates the cave, as fire bursts from her mouth. The flames can’t reach us down here, but the anger in her gaze pierces my heart.
“May I inspect some of the creatures more closely?” I ask.
“At your own peril,” he says. “Just try not to get killed. I want your money.” He grins mirthlessly.
I walk along the rows of creatures, as I ponder what to do.
“How much, then?” I ask. I’ll buy them all, if I can.
“For the bottom row, the oddities, as I call them, it’s 1 million. The magical ones are 10 million.”
“And the chimera?”
He laughs in that disconcerting way. And he doesn’t answer.
I climb to the highest level as I count the creatures: 6 magical beasts and around 30 “oddities”. I stop as close to the chimera’s cage as I dare, making sure she can see into my eyes.
“I’ll take all of the creatures,” I say, as much to the chimera as to the man. Then I whisper, “I’ll find a way to free you too.”
The chimera steps as close to me as she can get. I see understanding in her eyes, as she dips her head to me. I reach out a shaking hand to touch her lioness mane. A picture flashes in my mind, a wizened old man with kind eyes smiling and waving from outside a small cottage in the wilderness, and I jerk my hand back.
I walk back down the stone stairs, willing myself not to look back at the chimera, not to give us away.
“I’ll need a week to arrange a location to keep all these beasts,” I tell the man. I near the exit, but pause, as if a thought has just occurred to me. “Where was it that you went bear hunting?”
The man smiles as if he has made a new acquaintance with a shared hobby. “Found her up in Hyde County, North Carolina.”
I grin as if he’s caught me out. “Maybe I might get lucky enough to catch my own chimera.”
After convincing the man that I was also interested in finding a chimera of my own, he gave me more details about the location she was found. Between that information and the image the chimera shared with me, I’m hoping I can find who I’m looking for. Although, I’m not sure what to do once I find the old man. I just have to trust the chimera; she obviously believes that this man can help rescue her.
I’m just hoping the man from the vision will have a plan.
I pull up to a mountain lodge and throw my backpack on, as I inhale the fresh scent of pine. I booked a room in case I can’t find who I’m looking for in one day. After a quick check-in, I set out into the woods right away. I don’t want to waste any time.
The first couple of hours are quite nice. I hike through the woods to the melody of birdsong mingling with the crunch of twigs and pine needles under my feet. The cool mountain air makes the exercise comfortable. Every breath makes me feel invigorated. I’m on a mission. But I’d forgotten one crucial thing.
This was bear hunting territory. And I hadn’t come armed.
As I get deeper into the woods, I come upon a creek gliding through a rock bed. I decide this would be a relaxing place to take a break. I sit upon the rough surface of a boulder and dig through my pack for water and some trail mix. I hear some rustling behind me. Not the rustling of a squirrel darting through branches, but the rustling of something much more substantial…and terrifying.
I turn my head and try not to make any sudden movements. Which is very hard when you are face-to-face with a bear.
I stand and back away slowly, but I can’t go very far with the creek behind me. I debate whether to jump in and try to swim away, but I think bears are good swimmers. As my eyes are roving for anything to help me, the bear starts to back away. I blink. It turns and stomps back into the treeline.
I turn to see a man standing on the other side of the creek. My eyes go wide.
The man rubs his head and smiles. “I know, I have quite a way with animals,” he says.
“No, it’s not that,” I tell him. “I’ve been looking for you.”
After the man walks me back to his cottage, the one from the chimera’s vision, he sits me at a small wooden table with a cup of tea. As the drink warms me down to my toes, I begin to tell him my tale. As I speak about the chimera, his eyes go wide. But not in the way I would expect from someone who is just learning of the existence of a mythical beast. His face looks more like he has found something precious that he had thought lost.
He waits patiently for me to finish my tale. When I do, he exhales slowly and pats my hand.
“You found Fiasuru. I didn’t even know she was captured. I thought she had just returned home and decided,” he gulps back an emotion I can’t read, “decided not to come back.”
He drops his head into his hands. “Oh, this is all my fault. I should have known she wouldn’t be safe here.”
I pat the old man’s shoulder, unsure what else to do.
“Fiasuru is my friend. I told you before I have a way with animals, but that’s not the whole story. I can communicate with them. Some, I can even control. Not Fiasuru though,” he says with a chuckle. “She found her way here, and we formed a bond. She would come often to visit me, and then one day, she just stopped. I should have known something was wrong.”
The old man sits up tall. “I am Adius, and I will help you rescue my friend.”
By nightfall, we have come up with a plan. I stay at Adius’s cabin for the night, and we rise at dawn to trek back to my car. It takes the rest of the day, and into the night, to drive back to Florida. We make arrangements until the day arrives to rescue the animals.
We meet Fredrick and the mysterious scruffy man at the pet shop. I turn over the 90 million dollars for the mythical creatures they agreed to sell me.
“I didn’t say you could bring anyone else,” the man says.
“This is my animal caretaker. I need his help transporting the creatures and getting them settled,” I respond.
The man eyes Adius, and I assume he finds him to be harmless. Adius and I get into the enormous truck we brought with us, complete with stalls for the animals. We wind our way out to the warehouse where I first laid eyes on the magnificent creatures we are about to save. I have to remind myself to keep breathing and act normal.
Our footsteps echo through the enormous warehouse, as we stride past the exotic creatures that are ordinary compared to the ones hidden away. I take note of where the man presses his hand to unlatch the hidden door. We walk through the numerous stone archways until we arrive in the Shadow Grotto.
Adius stops, and I can see the effort it takes to compose himself as he takes in our surroundings. Not just one chained chimera, but all her children held captive. His eyes lock on Fiasuru, but she must understand that we are up to something, because she simply shifts to her feet and stares at us.
We go through the motions of loading all the creatures into the truck, Adius communicating to them that they must remain chained for now, but we will not harm them. We shake hands to close out our transaction, checking our truck one last time as we wait for the men to get into their cars. At the last minute, I run up to the scruffy man’s window.
“One of the beasts wasn’t chained up right. We could use some assistance,” I say.
The man hops out of his car and waves Fredrick on. “I’ll take care of it.”
I make sure Fredrick is out of sight before we climb into the back of the truck. I point him to the back corner, where the griffin is yanking against it’s chain and clawing at Adius. Without suspecting a thing, the man jumps in to help restrain the griffin. That’s when Adius releases the griffin from it’s restraint.
The man falls back as the griffin lunges toward him. It pounces and digs it’s claws into the man’s shoulders, pinning him. He screams, thrashing against the weight of the griffin and swinging his fists into the creature’s hide. Powerful wings flap, lifting the man to the ceiling. The griffin drops him, and he tries to scramble backwards through winces of pain. The griffin pounces again, and with one swift strike, the man is silent.
I try not to look at him, as I dig through his pockets for the keys. Adius stays with the animals, unchaining them one at a time. I rush into the warehouse and push on the wall to open the secret door. My feet pound down the arched tunnel and up the stone steps to Fiasuru’s cage. I unlock the bars of her cell and the chains keeping her bound to the wall.
“I told you I would free you,” I whisper to the chimera.
Fiasuru nods once to me before flying out to reunite with her friend.
What did you think of The Shadow Grotto? If you could get any exotic or mythical pet, what would it be? If you enjoyed this short story, we would love for you to leave a comment!
Thanks so much for reading!
-Clever & WTF
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
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The story invoked strong personal emotions
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