by J. David Bell
Kevin kept his Chimaera in the backyard, staked to the turf to prevent it from singeing the picket fence. Each of its triune parts screamed danger: its frontal lion’s head a fusion of fangs and fire, its midsection all crimped goat horns and spiked eye flanges, its whiplash snake tail streaming venom like confetti. You had to wear protective gear to approach it. When they’d bought it from the GenetiPet store three years ago on Kevin’s eighth birthday, it was little more than a cub, tiny fleshbumps on rump and thorax the only intimation of the horrors to come. A new iteration of the recombinant critter GenetiPet had cooked up years before, the Chimaera 5000 had turned out far more lethal than anyone dared imagine, more lethal, even, than the discontinued Manticores that had stung their owners with scorpion tails and munched their legs with rancid cherub faces. As then, there were exposés, lawsuits, recalls. But Kevin begged his father to let him keep his pet, and in the end, being an indulgent parent, the man gave in.
For really, Kevin’s Chimaera was a gentle beast, prone to pawing for shanks of horseflesh, pleased to let its owner, clad in his flame-retardant jumpsuit and balanced atop a stepladder, scratch behind its mane and fondle its horns. On the rare occasion Kevin was allowed to take it, muzzled and hooded and tail-tied, on excursions to the park, other children migrated over, their own Rocs and Griffins and Kelpies forgotten as they stroked the monster’s fur where silky leonine gold met bristly caprine gray. It made a deep noise in its twin throats like a steam shovel, its amber forward eyes squeezed shut. Kevin wished then he could reach up and give its neck a hug to show it was specially his very own, but it was fully six feet at the shoulder and so the best he could do was tickle its belly and watch it squirm with pleasure.
Then the war came. Rockets sizzled through the sky, boomed underfoot. Kevin’s Chimaera jogged and howled through the night, covering its lion eyes with its front paws in a gesture almost human. Kevin’s mother was killed when the hospital was hit by a Think Bomb and disintegrated. Soon the street was a vacant lot of rubble and ash. Kevin and his father set out for the west, where, rumor had it, oases remained. Before they left, an argument ensued.
“We can’t take that thing with us,” Kevin’s father insisted. “We’ve got nothing to feed it, nowhere to keep it. It’ll make us a target to anyone who’s watching.”
“Please, dad!” Kevin begged. “I’ll take care of Benjy, I promise! He’ll eat anything, birds, snails, frogs! He won’t be any trouble at all!”
“Son,” the man said sadly, “I’m not sure there are any birds, snails, or frogs left.”
“But he’ll die!” Kevin whined. “If we leave him alone he’ll die!”
“Son,” the father tried again, but then another thought struck him. “All right,” he said. “Maybe he’ll even turn out to be useful.”
“He will, daddy, he will!” Kevin beamed. Turning to caress his pet’s throat, he didn’t see his father’s look, didn’t dream what use his father had in mind.
They started west, traveling by night. Their meager store they carried in a sort of hammock they’d made of a laundry bag and slung over the creature’s back. During the day they slept beneath bridges, then in woodlots, then in barns, the Chimaera muzzled and hooded, leashed and tail-tied, heaped with branches or straw. Though there was in truth little for it to eat, a bird here, a snake there, it didn’t complain, even when the rumbling of its vast empty stomach kept the man up with memories of how his lost wife used to snore.
Each night they crept steadily in the direction they saw the sun set. But there was nothing there, only scorched fields and burned-out shells of buildings and the constant whine of missiles overhead and concussions in the gut of the earth. As the days passed and their food dwindled, the father began to eye the Chimaera greedily (as, he thought, it did him). By now the beast’s ribs showed like barrel staves and its straggly mane drooped to the ground as it panted along beside them. In a week at best, he judged, it would be gone – gone, or well-fed with its human consorts. The deed would have to be done soon.
He fashioned a skewer from a walking stick. He scouted the beast’s flanks for the most vulnerable spot. He wished there were a way to anesthetize it, both to ease its passing and to ensure that once struck it would not return the blow. Watching it, though, it occurred to him that physical weakness coupled with doltish devotion would probably take care of that. The real issue was what to tell Kevin, whether to tell Kevin.
In the end he decided to come clean – sort of.
“Benjy is dying, Kevin,” he announced one gray dawn, the Chimaera lying beside their campfire drawing shallow, labored breaths. “He won’t last much longer. It’s not right for him to suffer so.”
Kevin looked at his father in the firelight, his young face registering grief at the assertion but no awareness of the implication.
“Back home,” his father continued, “we’d have called it ‘putting him to sleep.’ It means when an animal gets too old or too tired or too sick to care for, we help him.”
“Help him?” Kevin’s eyes were wide.
“Help him to die.”
All at once, as is the way with children, Kevin connected the sharpened stake and the Chimaera’s shrunken sides and his father’s grimace, and he flung himself on his pet, hugging its sallow hide, burying his face in its belly. He would not be moved, and the man let him cry. It was harder, he thought, for a child on the verge of manhood than for a child still a perfect child. The boy could no longer harbor any illusions.
That day, once Kevin had cried himself to sleep, the man finished the job. The animal never protested, never flinched. Whether too exhausted or too faithful to retaliate, it lay on its side, one front paw held feebly in the air, while he drove the stake home.
Children learn about the real world through fantasy, the man reminded himself as he twisted his weapon deep into the creature’s paunch. And therein, perhaps, lay the problem. For a child’s sake a man may keep up the chimera of hope. There comes a time, however, when boy turns man, and knows there is none.
J. DAVID BELL is the author of Framing Monsters (2005), a study of science fiction and fantasy film. His own speculative fiction appears in such periodicals as Niteblade, Rotten Leaves Magazine, Cover of Darkness, and Farspace 2. He blogs at bellsyells.blogspot.com.