Palo Alto Weekly 33rd Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Young Adult


By Marvin Lin

About Marvin Lin

Marvin, a rising senior at Los Altos High School, hasn't always lived in NorCal. Growing up in Irvine, he moved to Mountain View a mere two days before freshman year started. Outside of class he enjoys playing varsity golf, chess, and piano, as well as debating public forums for the MVLA debate team. He also enjoys writing open prompt stories, such as this one.


A recurring idea that kept on coming up while I was brainstorming for this project was perspective. No matter how much you describe your thoughts and feelings to others, they'll never be able to completely understand exactly how you feel and how you view things. If someone is led to view the world from a single perspective for their entire life, they would naturally believe that as the truth and everything else to be a lie, which is the dilemma faced by our favorite orange canine as he decides between the freedom of the wild and the home he's known his whole life.


Judge's comments

Welcome to Foxtrot and its call of the mild, complete with a meticulously rendered foxes'-eye view of the zoo where he is captive, a look at the unrefined line between humans and foxes, and the bittersweet taste of escape. To venture out on his own, or to remain in the compound and punch his meal card for three squares a day: this is the choice that Felix, Foxtrot's vulpine protagonist, must make. Freedom never looked so daunting. Kibble never looked so tasty.
— Tom Parker

The ground rumbled as the deep toll of a bell sounded throughout the zoo. It reverberated up and down the small roads, in and out of every enclosure, signifying a paramount time for both the humans and animals at the zoo. It was feeding time. 

As cafe seats filled up with families juggling children, food, and gift shop merchandise underneath the occasional splotch of shade, Felix trotted down from a small hill, upon which stood a solitary elm tree. He leapt gracefully over the small river that trickled through the center of the enclosure and stopped short of the dimly lit back wall: a towering mass of concrete, slathered in light blue paint, most of which was peeling off to reveal the gray, bland foundation underneath. The frame of a small maintenance door traced into the paint, hidden to all but the most keen-eyed of creatures.

It was in front of this door that the menagerie gathered. Felix heard a faint rustle behind him as four sleek streaks of orange stealthily materialized from the artificial foliage of the paddock and gathered around him: his mother, and his three siblings. A faint click click click noise radiated from behind the wall as the locks were turned, and the door swung open. Right on schedule. The shadow of a human emerged from the frame. She studied the leash of foxes with a pair of weary eyes and plastered a smile onto her face. She crouched and set down a bowl of kibble and a head of brown, rotten lettuce. The foxes cantered over and began to eat, following the same routine they did every day since they were born.

They ate like domesticated dogs: slowly nibbling at the mountain of kibble, carefully dissecting the lettuce slice by slice. The primal hunger attributed to the carnivores of the wild was gone, absent, lost in the gene pool. As Mount Kibble slowly eroded down to a hill, and then a knoll, the foxes began to disperse, off to do whatever zoo animals do for an entire day.

As they ate, the human walked around the enclosure, first clockwise, then counterclockwise, then from end to end, sweeping through a routine maintenance check. She didn't need to walk far, maybe ten paces lengthwise, and some factor of pi around. Her eyes darted around the pen, skipping from the colorful wrappers and cups carelessly cast away by visitors to the algae swirling in the turbulent waters of the stream. A quick pen-stroke across the clipboard finished it, etching deep into the square next to "satisfactory", for the twelfth day in a row. With a slight shiver, she scooped up the empty bowl and hastened out of the enclosure.

Sometime after the human had left with the empty kibble bowl, Felix wandered by the back wall on a walk  (his favorite pastime was to see how many circles he could walk around the enclosure before getting tired). A light, unfamiliar breeze floated by, causing the elm leaves to dance and rustle in the moonlight, reciting a calm, yet ominous sonata. He turned to face this wind and spied a thin golden stripe leading to the door, whose frame was illuminated in an artificial radiance. Felix felt the breeze blow stronger as he meandered curiously towards the door.

The crack between the door and its frame measured about a hair's length, just enough for him to squeeze his paw through. He reached through and batted the door a couple of times to broaden the gap. Perfect. Squeezing through the crevice and into the night, Felix turned to take a quick glance back at the cement walls that made up his world. I'll be right back, he thought.

Felix felt…free. The mighty tailwind of liberty propelled him up and down the artificial roads, zigzagging between continents. African safari? Been there. Antarctic adventure? Done that. Deep-sea Dive? Fish are friends not food, of course! He was a free spirit, floating from exhibit to exhibit. After two laps to each, Felix began straying away from the other animals, opting instead to examine the other human-made structures around the zoo.

The snack cart stood in solitude, stacks of colorful drinks cups, cotton candy, and gourmet popcorn bags reflecting in the feeble light. Next to the towering cart of calories stood a post, upon which was a decorated sign: a silhouette of a human feeding a fox, only half of which was visible through an oversized scarlet X. Another silhouette, a human dropping a cup into an enclosure, also slashed out by the crimson paint of regulation. Felix took note of these two signs as he aimlessly butted at the wheels of the cart, but the behemoth of snacks stood steadfast,  inert, unmoving.

A line of silver boxes reflected a pattern of moonlight onto the concrete ground. From each protruded three long bars, some bent at strange angles. Hundreds of dusty, oval prints lay between the boxes, each a different size, different shape, different pattern. Beyond these boxes stood a massive (thankfully unmoving) tiger, frozen in a pose of ferocity. Its jaws stretched wide in a fierce howl, as it reached up with a paw, claws extended, to swipe at whatever creature was ill-fated enough to fall prey to it, or perhaps at an unwary tourist. A sign above the tiger donned the words "Welcome to the Zoo". But beyond that lay a place Felix had yet to explore. He ducked between two of the metal containers and embarked towards the statue. Felix broke into a slow trot, and then a stride, and finally, he began to fully sprint, releasing the tensions that had been accumulating in his joints every day of his life. The confining enclosure in which he lived for his whole life inhibited the pleasure of running. He let out a yelp of delight as the wind screamed past his ears, and he sailed towards the entrance of the zoo.

Felix sprinted until he stood at the edge of an asphalt pathway. A red stripe at the edge of the road formed an imaginary barrier, between the safety of the zoo-grounds and the vast world beyond. The asphalt extended a short distance, then turned and meandered all the way to the horizon, farther than even the keenest-eyed animal could see. 

Across the asphalt was a forest. Trees for miles upon miles, until they reached the foothills of the mountains in the distance. As he stood panting by the road, gazing in awe towards the horizon, dawn broke, painting the dark peaks of the mountains with radiant shades of purple and gold.

The wilderness called to Felix. The trees beckoned to him, their boughs welcoming him as they swayed in the breeze. The birds began their melodies, singing to him in songs of the sirens, reaching out, trying to grasp his soul. The fresh air. The freedom to traverse the woodland. The opportunity to explore the world unknown. It was almost too much. Almost.

Felix felt that he belonged there. Perhaps it was some primal force within him, calling him home. Perhaps it was the idea of freedom, liberty to go wherever he pleased whenever he pleased. But there was something else: a teeny-tiny, almost microscopic seed of doubt, that had embedded itself in the back of his mind, roots grasping at his conscience, leaves yearning for logic and reasoning in order to perpetuate its prospering.

Felix hesitated. The foreign unknown lingered, distant, a potential threat to him. Years of being served three meals a day had dulled his senses; his eyes were no longer as strong, his movements were no longer as fast, his reflexes were no longer as strong. He didn't know what the wild was like. And it was too late to learn.

By the time the zookeepers were scheduled to arrive in the morning, Felix had made up his mind.

Taking one final glance at the distant forest through the morning mist, Felix turned, and loped back to the cement confine he knew as home. It was his only home, the place he belonged. Besides, it was almost feeding time.

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