Palo Alto Weekly 32nd Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Teen

The Last Act

By Tina Zeng

About Tina Zeng

Tina is a seventh grader at Pinewood who enjoys writing because she thinks it's fun. She used to live in Beijing, China, but moved to Palo Alto, California in fourth grade and has lived there ever since. Tina loves to read, write and spend time on the internet. Some of her favorite books include J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson" series, Sarah J. Maas's "Throne of Glass" series and "A Court of Thorns and Roses" series. She also loves "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak, "Turtles All the Way Down" by John Green, and too many more to list.


I think animals deserve fair treatment; I love animals of all kinds, and the right combination of things and places in my mind at the same time helped me come up with the idea for "The Last Act." I also used "The One and Only Ivan" by Katherine Applegate as a guide on the writing style I want to use: simple and raw, straight to the message.


Judges' comments

Written in diary form from the point of view of a captive elephant, this story is tense and poignant. It's a compassionate and effective imagining of a real world injustice -- the mistreatment of animals -- and is presented in a refreshingly original way.


ugust 4

Word of the Day: Desperation (n.) - hopelessness, distress, and misery that leads to rash or extreme behavior.

I'm Jumbo. I'm an elephant. The elephant, really. "Jumbo the Elephant," "Jumbo the Fantastic," "Jumbo with the Wings," and so many titles I couldn't count them even with human fingers. Another name's "Jumbo the Intelligent," but humans don't believe I understand the language they speak and write. It took time, but Rosie and I did learn their language. The only who knows this is Mia. She's nine, the daughter of Trainer Harvey. Funny how one human family includes both someone so nice and so cruel.

Today, Mia patted my trunk. I bent down so she could climb onto my back. I carried her around until Trainer Harvey entered the tent. Seeing Mia on my back, he yelled at me, used the bullhook. and Mia almost fell off. Then Trainer Harvey ordered her to leave. As she stumbled away, she was crying.

We had a terrible training session. Trainer Harvey hit Rosie so much I could almost see the pink of her skin behind her left ear. Afterwards, Rosie was so tired she passed out. We perform tomorrow, but with Mia by our side, we will be fine. I hope she never becomes like her dad.

August 5

Word of the Day: Flaw (n.) - a mark, fault, or other imperfection that mars a substance or object.

Everyone cheered and clapped and whooped when Rosie and I did our tricks. People yelled especially loudly when Rosie and I walked the wires high in the air. The crowd was smaller, though. I heard Trainer Harvey on the phone saying people were "boycotting" the circus because of animal abuse, specifically, elephant abuse. We do not know what "boycott" means, but I think it is good for Rosie and me because it makes Trainer Harvey angry.

Today, Mia was also happy. She said, "Jumbo and Rosie, I made a friend today. At the park, I met a girl my age named Laura, and we braided each other's hair! Look!" Mia's lush brown hair was neatly braided and coiled around the top of her head, pinned down by a glittery pink and green flower. Rosie and I huffed, lowering our heads to gently pat the top of her head with our trunks. Sometimes Rosie and I think Mia sucked all of Trainer Harvey's kindness into herself.

I wonder what Trainer Harvey has been through. Humans are shaped by their experiences, and whether Trainer Harvey likes it, Mia loves all the animals in her life, just as we love her. So what made Trainer Harvey open King Circus and treat us so mean? Everything? Mia says her nan told her her dad dropped out of high school. After struggling a while, he joined a circus. Eventually, he took it over and along the way became as cruel as he is now.

August 6

Word of the Day: Boycott (v.) - withdraw from as a punishment or protest.

Today, we had rehearsals. Trainer Harvey draped us with the itchy costumes of red cloth with gleaming gold and grassy green embroidery. Little plastic flowers are stitched into the fabric. The head piece is a circlet of golden jewels. We're preparing for the year's biggest show. Then we pack up and move. In every town we have visited, Rosie and I leave behind bad memories.

We met all sorts of animals. I cannot communicate with them the way Rosie and I do, but we share something—a common experience and pain. The trainers always strike in the most unnoticeable spots, but Rosie and I can see the marks, the slight limp. We see it all.

August 8

Word of the Day: Sanguine (n.) - red liquid that circulates in the veins of vertebrae animals carrying oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Mia asked if Rosie and I are related. I couldn't answer Mia in human words, but I thought them in my head and hoped with all my mind that she could see that I understood her perfectly and wanted to answer.

Rosie and I aren't related. Trainer Harvey bought her from someone. Like my mom and dad, I was born into the circus and have become even more famous than my parents. People sometimes call me "Jumbo the Destined"—definitely destined to live a life of captivity and pain.

When I was three years old and Rosie had just arrived, she kept crying that she wanted to return to her parents. I had seen my parents maybe seven times, but Rosie had lived with parents who loved her. They actually lived. Not in cages or costumes, but foraged, slept, and frolicked together. She had friends, she had family, she had everything I could ever want. Then she lost it all. For weeks, Rosie screamed before Trainer Harvey got sick of it and hit her whenever she even grunted.

Once, when she was sitting in the corner of our cage, silently staring at a wall, I went over to her. I didn't need to ask.

"You know, Jumbo, it feels wonderful to move across plains. I love running with my friends and family. Spraying water in the air, splashing in the lakes, sprawling on soft grass, content and carefree. One time, my brother was hurt, not seriously. We had to move, so somehow my brother got up, broken bones and all, and walked with the rest of us. When we found another pond, he flopped down and started to sleep. His wound was swollen, so we cleaned it and waited, hoping that by the time we moved on, he could join us. And he did! My brother woke up. He had healed and he was there, right beside us, trotting, alongside the rest of us. I'll never see him again."

I sat and listened as Rosie spoke. All night, from one story to the next, one adventure to the next. I felt that I was living her memories, too. The next morning something felt different between us. Overnight, we became family. She'd confided in me, and I finally felt close to home. It was perfect, in the most flawed way.

August 11

Word of the Day: Tears (n.) - clear salty liquid secreted from the eyes when one is angry or sad.

We've been so busy sometimes I can't stay awake. I'm so tired and worn out, and everything hurts so bad. Even when it's not our turn in the show, we are practicing. When the humans are dancing, we are practicing; when the bears are jumping, we are practicing; when the horses are galloping, we are practically dying. Trainer Harvey does not know when to stop. We are the Jumbo Circus' jumbo act, and we must be perfect.

Trainer Harvey is trying to teach Rosie and me how to stand and move on the wires the way humans do. Honestly, I don't think I can. Even on the ground, keeping myself upright is hard, so draining. How could I possibly walk wires thin as a bear's paw. Dozens of meters off the ground, I feel that at any moment I will slip and fall. What would the point of my life have been if that's how it ends?

Rosie feels it, too. The pain, the desperation, the fear. So much fear that she and I may not live to act in this year's big show.

First, we walked on wooden beams just thick enough for our feet. Then, we graduated to ropes the same thickness. Gradually, the wire thinned until it is now barely enough for us to stand on even with years of struggle under our pelt.

August 13

Everything hurts. I can't stand without shaking. How can I perform?

August 15

Word of the Day: Monster (n.) - ugly, frightening, evil creature with no heart.

Yesterday, Rosie and I got some rest. Not nearly enough to function properly and do all the tricks Trainer Harvey wants us to do, but enough to stay awake and move, however sluggishly.

Today, Mia came again. She was jumping around with excitement because she and her friend Laura met up again.

"This time, me and Laura met up at the park! It was really fun because we got together with other kids there, and we played tag. It was my first time, but it wasn't anyone else's, so it was kind of weird, but it was really fun!"

Rosie and I huffed our agreement, and I bent down so Mia could climb onto my back. For one second, I felt my eyes flutter, wanting me to just close them and sleep, but I couldn't. If Trainer Harvey found me asleep ... Once she was on my back, giggling and dancing, I moved around, swerving and swooping slightly against the exhaustion that threatened to drag me under.

Recklessly happy and daring, Mia lifted her arms and let the soft breeze of my movement whip her hair around.

For just a second, Rosie swayed on her feet from exhaustion. Mia didn't catch the slight slip, but I did and stumbling from my own exhaustion, I rushed to Rosie.

Mia's voice pierced the air as her scream echoed and rang in my ears like a fire alarm. A soft thud immediately after told me of the crime I'd committed. I turned and knelt gently beside Mia, the sudden movement blurring my sight as I blinked rapidly in an attempt to keep my eyes open. Slowly, she tried to push herself up, but her arms failed her as she fell back to the floor. Blood gushed from wounds on her knees and elbows, bruises and bumps beginning to form everywhere. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Mia, dazed, stared at her own blood. She blinked once, still only half awake from the blow she'd taken to the head.

"What's happening in there?" Trainer Harvey's sharp voice boomed. He rushed in, another trainer in tow. As he assessed the situation, angrily devouring the scene before him with his livid eyes, I stepped away from Mia. His eyes narrowed at me and I felt a chill shoot down my spine. Oh, no.

I couldn't breathe. My lungs felt swollen and unresponsive as I sucked in breath after breath, wondering if it was even worth the effort. Everything around me blurred and unfocused; all my concentration aimed at not screaming. Pain reverberated through every inch of my body as I wheezed. How had he managed to hit me so hard without any blows showing? It seemed unfair that I could feel all this pain, but no one could see it.

August 16

Word of the Day: Death (n.) - the end of life for an organism.

The show is today. I still feel unable move, but it's not like I have a choice. Jumbo Circus's annual Jumbo Show can't go on without Jumbo the Elephant, now can it?

Rosie says the other trainer carried Mia away to clean her wounds. I hope she's okay. I hurt her. I am the monster.

- - -

The show has started, the lights have faded, and the cheers have begun. I wait, trying to ignore the screaming pain. As we wait for our act, Rosie sits next to me.

It's time for us to perform. Trainers lead us onto the stage and we are shown off in blinding lights as we stand, twist, dance, and jump. Deafening cheers crowd my thoughts, vying with the pain and exhaustion still roaring in me.

The time comes for one of our most dangerous acts. Tense and taut as the wire beneath us, Rosie and I step into the light and onto the wire. We start at opposite ends and make our way to the center, where we stop, turn, turn again, and continue moving until we've arrived at the other's starting point. Roars and whoops fill the air as Rosie and I walk the wire, slowly crossing the path. I reach the other side and turn to see Rosie raise her trunk toward me in celebration of walking the wire. I reciprocate the gesture. Rosie and I move to the back of the stage, situating ourselves in the most relaxing and comfortable position possible before settling into a delicate silence.

Finally, it's time for Rosie and me to end the show with our newest act: walking the high wires. Fatigue has finally settled into my eyes in a way I can't fight, and the pain still rages just beneath my hide. For the second time in one night. in our scratchy, flowery outfits, Rosie and I walk to opposite sides of the stage to the high wires.

"And now, Jumbo and Rosie in a feat never before attempted, ladies and gentlemen, this perfect pair will walk the high wire on their hind legs!"

Gasps and screams echo through the crowd. A jab to our thighs signals Rosie and me to move. Slowly, I make my way onto the wire and cross it, two of my feet in the air. I filter out the noise of the crowd, children and adults at the edge of their seats.

A scream in the crowd pierces the air. High and terrified, it sounds just like the scream of a young and trembling girl. I stumble. And I fall.

Cheers morph into gasps and shouts as people flock to see the fallen me. I blink. Once, twice. Rosie has skipped the wire, and I hear her footsteps as she rushes towards me. The scream I hear every second of the day. Mia, bandaged and cleaned, limps toward me. She kneels down next to me right before Rosie falls beside her; Mia's tears glisten in her eyes and spill out in rivulets. I blink again. And then, with a last small breath wisping out of me, I close my eyes.

September 27 - Rosie

Today, I was set free. I'm back on the plains. Maybe I'll even find my family again, who knows? After Jumbo's... accident, strange men in uniforms came every morning and night, and with each passing moment Trainer Harvey grew more anxious. One day, some humans came and took Mia away. Something about "child neglect." A bit before, some kind humans came, and we moved into something white and glossy. I think the thing flies. Jumbo would have loved all this. So would Mia. I swatted away the memories. Thank you, Jumbo. Thank you, Mia. Thank you for everything.

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