Zach hated being near animals. It wasn’t so much the creatures themselves, but rather his freak-of-nature ability to understand them. Of all the possible superpowers in the universe, he got stuck as Dr. Doolittle. He had managed to do a reasonable job either avoiding them or blocking it out (both of which much harder than they sounded) so far, despite living in the suburbs where everyone had a dog.
For this exact reason, Zach was less than thrilled with the prospect of visiting his mythical Aunt Claire—mythical in the same sense as Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, with confirmed sightings, and yet no hard evidence of existence. And to top it all off, he would be spending the entire trip babysitting Gray, the prodigy. The very word made Zach sneer, plunging deeper into his headphones.
Surrounded by animals—man-made or not—and his annoyingly enthusiastic little brother for several weeks just sounded like a dream.
As Zach watched the massive island approach, he snorted in appreciation. At least it would get him away from his joke of a relationship. Zach knew he should feel something other than annoyance for her, but his cold-shoulder and indifferent attitude seemed to actually spur her on. At least it gave him a slight semblance of normalcy. Indeed, everyone thought he was a regular, sullen, closed-off, moody teenager.
On the ferry, he watched a group of teenagers closely—three boys and two girls. They looked a little older, maybe college students. He watched the way the shirt rode up on the tall one with dark skin, watched the sun glint off the exposed mid-drift. His eyes shifted and he met eyes with one of the girls. Zach tore his gaze away, looking down at the water on the other side of the railing he was leaning against, and swallowed deeply.
Their mother had assured them that Aunt Claire would be waiting for them on the docks, but Zach couldn’t say he was surprised or disappointed that Claire’s assistant had picked them up instead. Either way, a name card would have been necessary.
Throughout their time being carted around by the assistant—glued to her phone, great babysitting choice, Aunt Claire—Zach kept his headphones on, ignoring Gray to the best of his abilities.
“Why are you always listening to music?” his brother asked on the monorail. “Come on, you’re gonna miss the important stuff.”
To drown out the animals, you, everything.
Zach didn’t respond, instead turning his head further to gaze out the window beside him.
It helped that there were so many people, so much noise. He could blend in, disappear, never be found again.
Gray ran everywhere, so full of energy and excitement and passion. It would have exhausted Zach, but he had the good fortune of having an adult who was being paid not to lose track of Gray. For once, Zach could let his attention waver from the golden child.
Their hotel room was nice—the nicest Zach had ever been in, which wasn’t saying much—and he wouldn’t mind waiting out the rest of the vacation here. They had VIP access to the rides, and Zach knew at that news that he would see very little of the hotel. After all, what Gray wanted, Gray got.
Gray swung open the curtains in their room, opening up the best view in the hotel to overlook the attractions of Isla Nublar. Zach looked out beside him, taking in all the people, all the greenery—all the presumed dinosaurs.
Would they be louder? Chattier? Angrier? Zach could already feel a migraine coming on with the thought of having to work harder to block them out.
The first stop on their whirlwind tour of prehistoric Hell was the museum. Zach thought this might be his favorite attraction of the trip. He didn’t understand why Gray was so obsessed with dinosaurs, but for Zach, the best kind of animal was a fossil—it couldn’t speak to him, but he could still connect the bits and pieces he’d picked up over the years to it in his head. He’d learned from experience rather than textbooks certain behaviors and patterns and survival techniques of creatures.
Whereas his girlfriend’s parents yelled at their cat when it wouldn’t shut up, Zach was the only one who knew that it cried because it was lonely. They’d give it more food in its bowl and walk away, sure that a meow was only for sustenance. The cat had begun to seek out comfort in food instead of humans. No one realized how similar animals were to people. Sometimes Zach wanted to cry at the ignored voices—for the animals and for himself—but he would put up another wall, close another window, and look away. Put his headphones back on.
Life was easier when you didn’t see, couldn’t hear.
Zach bit the inside of his cheek when Gray started showing off his genius IQ with the interactive elements in the museum. He hated sibling bonding. And oh hey, there was Bigfoot Dearing in the flesh. The myth, the legend, the bottled ginger.
Just like Zach’s preferred method of interaction, it was “hi, here’s a pass for food, there’s your caretaker Zara, bye.” He briefly wondered if she’d had to relearn their names and ages and faces. Zach hadn’t seen Claire in seven years—why should their shared blood make them anything less than the strangers they were? Gray was eleven. He probably didn’t even remember Claire. Why was he disappointed that she wouldn’t be spending time with them?
Avoiding conversation and ignoring his environment behind headphones worked great until the raptor paddock.
They stood outside the enclosure with the rest of the tourists, Zara tapping away on her phone, Gray as close as he could get without losing a hand. His eyes snapped here and there, trying to find the velociraptors. They were hiding.
“Zara, where are they?” Gray whined.
“Don’t worry kid, they’ll show when it’s feeding time,” a deep voice replied.
Both Gray and Zach whirled around to find a man standing next to Zara, eyes shining, smile pulling at the corners of his lips. He was older—maybe in his early thirties—and tall, his body defined with lean muscle.
He held both of their interest.
“When’s that?” Gray asked.
The man grinned with white teeth as he bent down to get eye-level with Gray. “Don’t worry kid, it’ll be in just a few minutes.”
The younger boy nearly buzzed with excitement. His eyes looked back and forth from the viewing wall to the older man.
“Oh good, Barry. These are Miss Dearing’s nephews,” Zara introduced, looking up from her phone for only a minute.
Barry nodded at them both. Zach looked away and put his headphones back on, but with the sound off. He listened through his protective barrier.
“I’m Gray, that’s Zach. Do you work here?”
“I do indeed, Gray. I assist the lead raptor trainer, Owen. Those girls inside are good friends.”
Gray’s eyes got impossibly bigger and his mouth dropped. “How many are there? What are their names?”
Sounds in the crowd caused the party to look out the viewing wall to see four raptors coming out of the shrubbery and into the clearing, chasing a pig. The pig ran into a slot in the wall, the door closing behind it.
Their heads turned up expectantly to the catwalk above the clearing, and Zach’s eyes trailed up as well to find a tall man with wide shoulders, his frame filled in with pure muscle. His mouth went dry and he couldn’t help but lick his lips.
“Those are the sisters. That small one with the scar on her head? That’s Echo. Next to her, the brown one with the stripes is Charlie. Delta is the green one. The one in the middle there with the blue racing stripes is aptly named Blue.”
Zach tried to pay attention to what Barry was saying, tried to tune in to the forming crowd around them, but the second he heard the first screech from a raptor, he turned his music back on. His eyes drifted up to Owen, and he watched the man unabashedly.
They’d named the dinosaurs after the NATO alphabet. Zach looked around. But this wasn’t a military operation. It was an amusement park, an overgrown zoo.
The raptors reacted to Owen much as trained dogs would. Zach didn’t want to see this. He wanted to see bloodthirsty, vicious monsters. He didn’t want to see them like this, like pets.
Zach looked away.
Eventually the crowd started dispersing, and he guessed the show was over. Zara began leading them away, except Gray grabbed his arm and yanked him in the opposite direction instead. Zach pushed his headphones down to hang around his neck.
“Dude, where’s the fire?”
They stopped in front of metal bars, away from the viewing wall. It was a holding cell, trapped in between the outside world and the paddock. Owen was in there, and Barry was just outside of it, talking to him.
Zach’s heart thudded in his throat. He clenched his jaw and yanked his arm out of Gray’s grasp, putting his hands in his pockets and following Gray the rest of the way at his own pace.
Barry laughed good-naturedly when he saw that they had followed him. “Wanted to meet the man in charge?” At Gray’s grinning enthusiasm, he turned to Owen. “Owen, these are Claire’s nephews, that’s Gray and that’s Zach. This here is Owen, Father of Raptors.”
Owen smirked, the sides of his eyes crinkling in amusement. Gray launched full-speed ahead with his mouth. Zach tried to look anywhere else, but his eyes always returned to Owen like a magnet.
“Barry told us the names of the dinosaurs. Is Blue the leader? She looks like she would be.”
“Good call, but Blue’s the Beta.”
Gray perked up. “Then who’s the Alpha?”
“You’re looking at him, kid.”
Zach’s head snapped up, eyes wide, as he took in Owen’s confident smirk. That should not have been as hot as it was—Owen being a velociraptor alpha should not have have caused his lower stomach to twist with warm arousal.
Owen’s eyes cut over to capture Zach’s. His heart thrummed loudly and he struggled to swallow.
He needed to get out of here.
Thankfully, out of the Heavens flew Zara to rescue them, harp in hand. “There you two are. We are ten minutes behind schedule. Your aunt wanted you to have the full experience.”
“But I want to stay here,” Gray whined. “Can I meet the raptors?”
“Maybe another time, kid,” Owen said with a kind smile down at Gray.
His eyes drifted up to meet Zach’s before the boy ripped his head away and led the three of them in the opposite direction of dangerous blue eyes.
Later that night, as Zach stood under the cold shower, he tried to swallow down his shame. But all he could picture was Owen’s blue blue eyes staring into his and that warm, muscular body that he had no right looking at.
Sleep came, but at the cost of the pill bottle stuffed under Zach's pillow.
He didn't dream. It was better that way.