Handler

Larsson handed Joe back into his cage and closed the door, smiling. Joe was getting old and grumpy, and was known to growl at the newer handlers… but he always behaved like a lamb for Larsson. Koalas weren’t much for mateship, he knew, but he reckoned Joe trusted him to treat him right.

“There you go, fella,” he said, and patted the cage on the way out. Joe was almost the last – just the baby, Kelly, to go. Kelly, he mused, was not old and grumpy, thank God. They needed a star that the kids could pat and occasionally cuddle, and Kelly was perfect. Picked up young on the side of a road, she was hopelessly dependent on humans, but also perfectly docile. Even pinches by bratty kids just got her shifting uncomfortably. Joe would’ve bitten them.

“Hey, beautiful girl!” he crooned at the young female, still sitting in her tree in the ampitheatre, “Let’s take you home for a good meal, eh?”

She shambled over to the trunk of the tree and let him pick her up. She was starting to wake up for the night, but still bleary-eyed.

“Hard day’s work, eh gal?” he asked. People occasionally asked if the park drugged its koalas, not understanding that the nocturnal animals were just trying to sleep through the noise of the crowds. The place came alive at night when everyone had gone home.

He put Kelly in her cage, made sure she was comfortable and showing interest in her food, and sighed. It had been a long day, and the next wasn’t likely to be any easier. School holidays plus middle of winter meant that the koala park was a popular spot right now.

“Only a few days,” he muttered to himself. A few more days and they’d be left to the tour groups and the elderly and the young mums. Quieter, easier, and less shows.

A large figure loomed out of the darkness beside him.

“Hey, Larsy boy, aintcha gonna put me to bed?”

Larsson laughed.

“Why, if it isn’t Kenny Koala, the biggest, ugliest marsupial in all the world!” he said with his best “kids’ show” voice, “And look, he’s afraid of the dark!”

The koala snorted and removed its head.

“Phew, that’s better!” Gary said, grinning, “You have no idea how hot it gets in here!”

Larsson raised an eyebrow.

“It’s winter, Gary.”

“It’s still bloody hot in there, dude!”

“What are you still doing in the suit? You didn’t hang around just to chat me up, did you?”

“Nah, special kids’ thing down at the caf – hang with Kenny, get some lollies, go nuts in time for bed.”

“Sounds fun!”

Gary snorted.

“I hate kids,” he said, sighing.

****

“Wow, you’re full of beans, Joe!”

Larsson shook his head in amazement as Joe scampered up a branch and climbed slowly onto Larsson’s shoulder. Usually the old animal had to be carefully picked up and placed where he was needed, not believing in expending energy where it wasn’t needed. He placed Joe in the show tree, and watched him climb up to some new growth to feed. Odd. He shrugged, shut the door, and walked back to pick up the rest of the koalas.

****

“And this, folks, is Kelly! She’s the youngest of our koalas, and she loves to be patted – who’d like to pat Kelly?”

The inevitable forest of hands shot up.

A little girl in a wheelchair sat a couple of rows back, straining to see. Larrson couldn’t see much of her except a pink bow, askew, and a mass of black curls.

“You – little girl with the pink bow! Folks, mind stepping aside to let her through? She’s the first to say Good Morning to Kelly today!”

The crowd parted, a few adults awwwing at the little girl. Larsson sighed. Poor kid was probably 11 or 12, for all she was the size of a 6 year old. She was twisted to one side, her neck weak, but her eyes sparkling and mouth grinning.

“What’s your name, beautiful?”

“It’s Kelly!” said the teen pushing her wheelchair, grinning too.

“WOW!” yelled Larsson, playing to the crowd, “Hear that, folks? This young lady’s name is Kelly too!”

He knelt down, carefully shifting the koala to his his chest, closer to the little girl.

“Kelly, meet Kelly!!”

The crowd applauded, and the girl tentatively reached out to stroke the koala’s fur.

“Sssoft!” she whispered.

Larsson nodded and smiled.

Kelly turned around, growled, and bit her.

“Shit!” Larsson said, and snatched the koala away, standing up. She growled again and lashed at him, then launched herself at his face, biting, as the crowd stood silent, stunned.

He hit the emergency button on his radio, opened the show cage, and threw Kelly in, not worrying about being gentle.

“Get an ambulance here – koala bit a little girl, and me, we both need medical attention ASAP!” he yelled.

“You’re joking?” came the crackly answer.

“No joke! Get on it!” he yelled, and stuck it back on his belt, hurrying back to the girl in the wheelchair. She was pale but quiet, watching the blood well out of the bite marks on her arm.

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