The two ice cream cones Henry bought from the street vendor had been in his hands for less than a minute, and already rivulets of vanilla were flowing over his fingers and trickling down his arms. Ice cream dripped off his elbows and splattered the narrow strip of dirt between the train tracks and a thirsty cornfield. The circus train sitting on the tracks offered no shade.
Henry slowed as he moved through the crowd that was gathering near the train. The people hoped to catch sight of the circus’s main attraction without paying to watch the show. According to Henry’s father, the stock market crash had taken everybody’s money, but people still had plenty of curiosity. Every time the circus train pulled into a station, a crowd was there to meet it. Henry usually waved at them from the window of the luxury train car where he lived with his father, the circus’s owner.
Crowds came to the stations because Henry’s father planned ahead. Days before the circus arrived, advertisements appeared in local papers, inviting people to come see a real-life movie monster! A living King Kong! A ferocious ape from a remote Pacific Island! A sketch of a white ape inside a gilded cage accompanied each advertisement. Newspaper articles told the story of a man-eating beast that had been caught in a hunter’s trap and sold to the circus.
The crowds gathering along the tracks were too busy wondering which of the train’s identical boxcars held the ape to notice Henry—a short twelve-year-old with hands full of melting ice cream—rushing past them. They didn’t even notice when he splattered their shoes and skirts with vanilla.
Henry knew which car contained the King Kong. He also knew his father wouldn’t let anyone unload the beast until nighttime. The heat of the day would have chased the crowds away by then. Most of the people Henry passed were already fanning themselves with their hats. As the afternoon got hotter, they’d settle for a glimpse of a hyena or a black bear and then go home.
The crowd thinned as Henry neared the end of the train. He stopped at one of the red boxcars and heaved open the heavy wooden door with his sticky forearms. From the darkness inside came the rustling of animals and the hot scent of ponies, straw, and manure.
“Jack?” Henry called through the opening. “I brought ice cream.”
Henry didn’t expect an answer from the darkness, and he didn’t get one. Vanilla dribbled down his shirt as he struggled to open the door wide enough to step inside. He managed to get into the car without dropping too much ice cream and stood blinking in the dusty darkness.
When his eyes adjusted, the shadows became sleeping ponies and the animal cages his grandparents had built when they started the circus in 1880. At the back of the boxcar, something small and almost human crouched in the dimness. The creature wasn’t in a cage. Whenever Henry’s father locked this animal behind bars, it screeched so loudly that Henry begged for it to be let out.
Brushing past the warm flanks of ponies, Henry carried the cones to the huddled shape.
As he neared the creature, it backed farther into the corner. It didn’t trust humans. The heavy chain that connected its wrist to a metal hoop in the wall of the boxcar clanked and carved a path through the straw that littered the floor. The beast’s colorless eyes narrowed.
This was Jack, the circus’s famous King Kong. Henry had named the beast after his first—and only—trip to a cinema. He’d gone with his father to see King Kong, and he’d named Jack after Jack Driscoll, the hero who saves the girl from the monster ape in the film.
Henry knelt out of Jack’s reach. “Hello,” he said in the calm voice his father had taught him to use around nervous animals. Henry tried not to let his own nervousness show. Jack wasn’t really a man-eater—he was an herbivore—but circus advertisements could be persuasive, even for the son of the circus’s owner.
Jack stayed in the corner, panting from the heat. His pale tongue drooped from his mouth. Straw clung to the wispy white fur that covered his body.
Henry took a deep breath and held out one of the cones. Jack had never hurt anyone before, but he got excited about food, and his bony body was stronger than it looked.
The creature lunged from the corner and snatched the ice cream. Henry yanked his arm back so quickly he almost toppled over. Cone crunched under Jack’s furry fingers. Ice cream streamed down his arms and fell to the straw in globs. He licked what remained off his hands.
Scooting backward, Henry bit his own cone. He didn’t know if ice cream would make Jack sick—the creature mostly just ate peaches—but Jack deserved ice cream. The street vendors who sold it came to the train station because of the crowds, and the crowds came for Jack.
People waited hours to see Jack, but after they saw him, they usually left frowning and shaking their heads.
When the circus acts finished each night, guests could pay a few extra pennies to wander through a tent labelled Ferocious Beasts and get a closer look at the animals. Some people paused to examine the skinny lions and sluggish alligators, but most people headed right for Jack’s cage. Henry always stood near the cage, under the amber glow of bare lightbulbs, wearing his best suit and holding a long cane to keep anyone from getting too close. Jack cowered in a corner of the cage, gibbering and whimpering.
Henry witnessed disappointment every night:
That little thing could never climb the Empire State Building like King Kong in the film, the circus-goers said.
According to Henry’s father, he’d purchased Jack from a hunter who’d just returned from Sumatra, but Henry didn’t know if that was true. Circuses were built on lies and illusions. All he knew for sure was that Jack had appeared on the circus train a few months ago, and that Jack wasn’t happy here.
It’s not King Kong, but what is it? the circus audience always wondered.
A white orangutan? A deformed chimp? An Abominable Snowman? they guessed.
In the dim light of the boxcar, Henry finished his ice cream. Jack had gulped his quickly and then eyed Henry’s cone. Henry considered handing it over, but he worried that too much ice cream would make the creature sick.
Outside the boxcar, an unfamiliar voice laughed. Strangers were coming toward the train. Turning away from Jack, Henry peered through the forest of pony legs. He’d left the door open a crack to let in the sun and to keep the smell of animals from getting overwhelming. The edge of the cornfield showed through the gap. Dust motes swirled in the sunlight.
The voices got louder.
Jack grunted and yanked on the chain that held him to the wall. The links clattered against the floor.
“Quiet,” Henry warned. “They’ll hear you.”
Jack let out a piercing howl and tugged at his handcuff. The ponies pinned their ears and skittered sideways.
“Stop,” Henry ordered. “They’ll hear you and come in here. You won’t like that.”
Another howl. More jerking on the chain. The voices outside came closer.
Melted vanilla and spit slicked Jack’s arms and hands. With a final shriek, he wrenched his hand out of the cuff. It dropped to the floor, empty.
Henry scrambled to his feet, but before he could grab the creature, Jack ran past him and between the legs of the whinnying ponies. Jack galloped across the boxcar on all fours, his wet hands slipping in straw.
“Wait!” Henry dashed after him.
The door rattled on its track when Jack forced his way through the gap. A woman outside screamed.
As Henry reached the door, Jack bounded into the cornfield. He’d cut in front of a group of strangers. A woman’s hat lay on the ground. Her hands covered her face. Beside her, a little girl stared with her index finger pulling down the corner of her mouth like a fishhook.
“Sorry! He’s not dangerous!” Henry yelled as he plunged into the cornfield, chasing the trail of swaying stalks left in Jack’s wake.
“What was that?” someone on the edge of the field asked. “A dog?”
“Looked like a monkey to me,” someone else said.
Henry ran faster. Wilted corn leaves brushed against his bare arms.
“That was Kong,” a voice behind him said. Hurried footsteps and the rustle of cornstalks trailed Henry through the field. The crowd was coming.
Laughter and voices pushed Henry forward. He had to find Jack before they did. The crowd would frighten him.
“Jack!” He shouted across the field.
A splashing sound. Henry stumbled to a stop, thinking he’d misheard. It was too hot for anything to splash.
The sound came again. Henry glanced over his shoulder, but the crowd was still winding between the stalks. He tried to move silently through the leaves as he followed the splashes.
When he parted the corn, he found Jack wallowing in water. Somehow, Jack had discovered the only puddle for miles and lay down in it, slathering himself with mud. He wasn’t panting anymore. He twitched his lips in an expression that might have been a smile.
Henry smiled back. He’d never seen Jack look happy before.
The crowd was still coming with their flashing cameras and endless questions.
“What was it?” someone asked.
“A man in a furry suit?”
“A child playing dress-up?”
“A monster from outer space?”
Questions and footsteps came closer, closer. Cornstalks snapped. Jack lifted his head, and his body hunched into a crouch. The smile vanished. His pale eyes darted from side to side, searching for a hiding place. Henry knew that if Jack had a choice, he’d stay far away from humans. He’d run back to the wilderness.
Henry didn’t know exactly what Jack was, but he knew he was something wild, and he didn’t belong here, in front of a crowd.
Henry whispered, “Run.”