The Raptor Snatchers
by Rachael K. Jones
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Dad said you can't buy friends, but that's not always true, because I bought my best
friend Zilla with my tenth birthday money. She didn't cost much because velociraptors were
pests, which meant there were too many of them in Absence, and nobody liked them. Rooster's
Rescue was overflowing with raptors.
Zilla was real funny-looking. About half her brown crest feathers had fallen out, and
underneath her skin was bright pink, my favorite color. At the rescue, she'd squeezed out of her
pen to chase a kitten up Mr. Rooster's trouser leg. Mr. Rooster lassoed a cord tight around
Zilla's neck and forced her back into her cage. She looked so sad, like Godzilla in movies Dad
watched, getting shot by airplanes when he just wanted to be left alone, so I picked her and
named her Zilla.
The vet gave me a big tub of slimy white cream that smelled like Grandpa and made my
fingers tingle. I had to rub it on her pink patches once a day. Zilla hated it. She nipped my hand,
but not hard. Zilla had sharp little teeth and a huge, hooked claw on each arm we had to trim
every month. Dad told me she was a carnivore, which means she eats meat, and way back in
dinosaur times velociraptors used to be apex predators, which means huge bullies that eat
anything they want.
We got a lot of stray raptors in Absence. They were indigenous--that means they were
from around here, even before the first settlers, and that's how they saved the lives of Mae Beth
Harris and Old Jim the Presbyterian and the rest, because otherwise the Founders were going
to eat each other. I asked my teacher if people are carnivores too, and he said yes, except
there's another word for it when it's people eating people, but I forgot the word.
Everyone but me hated raptors. They got in people's trash cans at night, and sometimes
they ate people's dogs. We kept Zilla well-fed on raptor chow, which Mom got from the grocery
store. I leaned against the glass barrier while she ordered from the woman behind the butcher
counter. There were meat patties shaped into burgers in the little fridge below, and I poked my
initials into one--AJH for Amy Jo Harris--until Mom made me stop.
"Is this what Zilla eats?" I asked.
Mom said nuh-uh and then showed me where the butcher fed slimy purple strings into a
funnel. "Hamburger is too expensive for animals. We're feeding Zilla organ meat."
I snuck a taste of Zilla's raptor chow when Mom wasn't looking. It was bland and chewy.
I measured out two cups into Zilla's bowl and mixed it with a few pebbles because the vet said
Zilla needed rocks in her stomach to digest her food, and she squatted down on her thick hind
legs, cheeped, and tucked right in.
On Fridays after school, if I'd been good and the teacher didn't say I talked too much,
Dad took me to Entropy Burger for a daddy-daughter date. Usually he brought Zilla, because
she got over-excited if you left her home alone, and would claw gouges in the front door.
Mr. Milner, Entropy Burger's owner, allowed pets as long as you sat on the patio or
walked through the drive thru. I had Zilla trained to heel, and she'd squat at my feet, snuffling
around the pavement for food scraps. Sometimes Sam, the drive thru lady, gave me chicken
nuggets for Zilla. I liked Sam.
Sam wasn't working the week I tried the raptor chow, so poor hungry Zilla didn't get any
nuggets. When Dad went to the bathroom, I slipped her a big hunk of my Junior Entropy Burger
with Cheese combo. She sniffed it and tilted her head at me. Mom always yelled at me when I
gave Zilla people food at home. "It's good." I shoved a big bite of burger into my mouth and
chewed it right in her face. "Mmmm, see? Tasty!"
She got real agitated, like that kitten trying to crawl its way up Mr. Rooster's leg, and
strained away from me.
"What's wrong, girl?" My mouth was full, so it came out funny. I yanked her leash closer.
That only made her madder, because she hissed like I was the devil, and snick went her long
front talon right across my arm, opening a big C-shaped slice on my wrist.
I held up my hand and stared at the cut, because it didn't hurt at first. Watched the skin
hang open. It was meaty and bloody, like Zilla's raptor chow, like the raw burgers in the
butcher's case with my initials poked in them. Then the pain caught up and I started crying.
It took three stitches to close my skin up. Dad was not happy, not one bit, and Mom was
even madder. I don't know if they were madder at me or Zilla. I kept trying to explain it wasn't
Zilla's fault, that the burger upset her, but that only made it worse because she wasn't supposed
to have people food. The way they talked about Zilla made me real scared. Stuff like, "I told you
a raptor's no pet for a child," and "They say those things never stop being feral underneath."
I don't know what feral meant, but I wasn't feeling very good after the emergency room.
Mom and Dad let me camp on the couch with the TV, but they wouldn't let in Zilla. She stayed
tied up in the backyard. I checked on her late that night. She'd left a dead squirrel on the back
stoop as a peace offering, and when she heard my voice, she rubbed her head against my leg
and cooed, like she was sorry, like she knew she'd hurt me but didn't mean to. But I couldn't
make Mom and Dad understand.
They wouldn't change their minds, no matter what I promised. Even after my wrist
healed, and the doctor took out the stitches and all I had was a really cool scar--C like
Carnivore, pink like my favorite color--even then, Zilla stayed outside.
I wouldn't have worried except for the Raptor Snatchers. Mandeep told me about them.
She had a pet raptor too, except her raptor Pogo was a chick when she got him, so he could
fetch and climb trees and other things Zilla was too old and lazy to learn. Old raptors are like old
people--they don't like trying new things. They just want more of what they're used to.
One night, Pogo up and disappeared from his yard. Mandeep went to feed him and he
had vanished, slipped right out of his collar.
"How do you know Pogo just didn't run away?" I asked Mandeep during recess.
"Because of the van. There was a white van circling the neighborhood, and Pogo got
one sniff and went crazy. And the next morning, Pogo was gone. That's the Raptor Snatchers.
You always see the van right before they come for your raptor."
Mandeep's mom helped her make posters with Pogo's picture on them, and hung them
all over the neighborhood. If you asked Mandeep about it, her face would squinch up like she
smelled something bad and she'd get real mean.
She didn't mean to be nasty, though. She just missed Pogo, and she was mad other kids
still had their raptors. I tried to tell Dad about it, and he just said, "Sometimes raptors want to be
with other raptors, in the woods where they belong. There's no Raptor Snatchers, Amy. It's just
For a whole month, Mandeep wandered up and down the neighborhood, yelling for Pogo
until her throat hurt. Sometimes me and Zilla would keep her company. Mandeep would sit in
the gutter, Zilla drooped across her lap, and she'd sniffle into Zilla's feathers. I hoped I never
had to be that sad about anything.
Pogo wasn't the only raptor to disappear. Another kid, Garrett Zaltman--his raptor
vanished too, and during P.E., he told me about the white van. Orange posters went up on the
telephone poles beside Mandeep's tattered blue ones. Then my friend Bea emailed me an
article, and it was all about how raptors were going missing in Absence, and the government
was proud because nobody liked raptors since they ate garbage and dogs, unless it was
Founder's Day, which was the one time everyone liked raptors.
I decided to ask Dad on our next daddy-daughter date to let Zilla back inside, but it took
me longer because I had to stay late at school that Friday for auditions. The school put on a big
play for the Absence Founder's Day Festival just before the mayor gave her speech, and this
year I tried out for the part of Mae Beth Harris, the trail guide. If they picked me, I'd get to wear a
coonskin hat and carry a wooden rifle, and even get speaking lines. Dad stayed up late helping
me practice, so he was real excited when I got the part, and took me to Entropy Burger to
"Can we bring Zilla?" I asked, and his face fell like when you get a horrible birthday
present because your grandma thinks you're still five when you're really ten.
"Amy, I don't think that's a good idea," he said.
"Why won't you forgive her?" I said it like we'd practiced last night, when Dad taught me
about speaking dramatically, which means putting all your feelings into your voice. "You can't
leave her out there with the Raptor Snatchers around!"
"There's no such thing as Raptor Snatchers. You don't have to worry about that." He
tried to hug me, but I just stood there stiff like a flagpole with my arms glued to my sides.
We ended up going through the drive thru. When we got home, I just ate the fries and
poked my name into my burger until Mom and Dad left me at the table to pout. The scar on my
wrist was fading white. I wrapped up my leftovers and took them to the back porch. Zilla sniffled
at the greasy packet, and got real agitated, chirping and squawking.
"What is it, girl?" I set down the burger and she scuffled at it. She trotted to the fence,
trotted back, chirped. "You want to go for a walk?"
Zilla cooed. I ran inside for her leash. "I'm going across the street to Mandeep's!" I
shouted into the living room, where Mom and Dad had turned up the TV so I could barely hear
them arguing. When I snapped on her leash, Zilla hauled me down the sidewalk, snuffling at the
gutter, a telephone pole, then a street sign. She spent five whole minutes lingering around
Mandeep's house. Then she took off at a trot past the organic garden on the corner, and down
the slope into the shadowy, overgrown valley.
I got a bad feeling in my stomach, like bubble gum that won't digest. Maybe Dad was
right. Maybe Zilla wanted to be with the wild raptors. I tried to see it from her point of view, how
she never lived with a human family until she got brought to Rooster's Rescue. Maybe she had
a mom and dad and just wanted to make sure they were okay.
"It's okay, girl," I told her. "We can look for them."
I felt just like the real Mae Beth Harris, following the dirt trail that led to the caves where
you got to take a field trip when you were in sixth grade. That's where the Town Founders spent
the winter with the raptors. Zilla strained at the leash. She took a sharp turn off-road, tilted back
her head, and let out a piercing caw. Way off in the woods, a raptor answered.
"It's your family, isn't it?" The brambles scratched my arms and a twig whipped my eye
and made me cry lopsided. Through the darkness beneath the trees, I made out a chain link
fence with barbed wire on top. I crept closer, and saw a yard with a whole bunch of raptors
packed together in pens, all cooing and screeching. They had scabs and cuts and missing
feathers. The one closest to me had an eye swollen shut. Its brown-and-white patchy face
"Pogo?" He stuck his nose through the chain links and snuffled me.
The yard connected with a big two-story cabin on stilt legs. Just past the raptor pens
was a sandy pit with another fence around it, scuffed and covered in raptor prints, and stained
dark in places. I heard voices approaching from the cabin.
". . . another three died this morning, including your champion fighter."
"It's okay. That's normal. They don't last forever in the ring, and there's always more
strong ones in town. Load the carcasses in the van, and take them to Entropy Burger. Milner will
A man in big dark sunglasses bobbed into view. He carried a bulging sack about my size
over his shoulder. "On it. Back in twenty. And make sure Schoenbach gets paid. It's his raptor."
Zilla hissed. I was afraid the man would hear us, but the other raptors in the cage
screeched louder. The man in the sunglasses weaved around the sand pit to a white van
parked in front of the cabin.
Pogo's cage was held shut by a lever. I groped around in the dead leaves until I found a
big stick, which I stuck through the chain links and smacked the lever. Pogo butted the door
open and all the raptors in his pen charged into the yard and toward the woods. I hoped they'd
make it home. I tugged Zilla back toward the road, toward home.
A white van rumbled up the dirt road behind us. It looked like the ice cream truck, except
instead of pictures of sno-cones on the side, it had a symbol like a planet wearing hula hoops.
The driver's window rolled down. It was the man in the dark sunglasses and floppy black hat.
"You okay, kid?"
"Uh huh." I picked up the pace. Zilla rumbled inside her belly, like a lawnmower starting.
"You're pretty far out in the woods. How old are you?"
"Twenty-six," I said, which was a total lie, but Dad says it's okay to lie to bad people.
He slammed the breaks. "Don't smart off to me." He flung open the door. "What were
you doing out in the woods? Did you scare off my raptors?"
Zilla screamed, a choked, strangled sound. She swiped at his leg with a hooked claw,
tearing a slice from his jeans. I dropped Zilla's leash and bolted uphill. I looked back--she was
still scrabbling with the scary man. His face was all scratched and bloody, and he'd grabbed
Zilla's stubby arm, twisted like he wanted to break it.
I couldn't leave my best friend alone. I ran back and kicked the awful bad man in the
knees. That's when I realized I should've got Dad when Zilla gave me the chance. If I had,
maybe everything would've turned out different.
He twisted my arm around my back so I couldn't move, and kept me in front of him like a
shield, so Zilla stopped slashing at him. He wrestled me into the back of the van. My head
banged against the door. Everything went swimmy around the edges. Zilla screeched outside,
and the bad man yelled and spun around. I struggled to shake off the fuzz in my mind, to get
outside where the bad man and Zilla were fighting again. He'd grabbed a stick shaped like a Y,
and he was using it to hold back Zilla's body while he groped around my feet in the van until he
grabbed some thin rope, like you use to pitch your tent when you go camping. Then he pinned
her to the ground with the stick and lassoed her neck.
"Leave her alone!" I yelled, and I tried to kick him in the face from my perch at the van's
back doors, but the bad man shoved me down again. He shoved Zilla into the van, practically
choking her as he roped her neck to a ring in the door. Then he duct taped my wrists and ankles
and tossed me against a pile of big, soft sacks. He slammed the door closed, leaving us in the
dark. The van started rolling.
Zilla nuzzled my middle. She looked just about as sad as a raptor ever got, her crest-feathers drooping and her tail coiled around her feet in the sunset dimness filtering in. She held
her right arm close to her side like it hurt.
Something poked my back. Through the brown sack I saw a big black raptor claw. I
hoped it wasn't someone's pet. I swallowed back my tears.
The claw gave me an idea. I squirmed until my taped hands touched it, and sawed
against the pointy edge. It took a little practice, and I poked myself a couple times, but I finally
ripped the tape. Then I untied Zilla's rope. There were no windows in the van, but I put my eye
to the crack in the door and saw streetlights flickering past.
I opened one of the sacks and a dead raptor stared back, its sharp teeth gaping. I
smoothed down its feather crest and covered it back up.
The van slowed and stopped. When the bad man climbed out and opened the back
door, Zilla launched at him before he could get his arms up and defend himself. My teacher told
me that wild raptors used to be really scary back during the Founders' time. Raptors in packs
could take down deer, or even wolves. I slipped past them, and found myself at the back door of
I'd never been so happy to see the Entropy burger. I barreled through the door into the
hugest kitchen I'd ever seen, with at least ten big knives stuck to the wall and this machine that
made lots of noise. A trash can overflowed with feathers, and a pile of black raptor claws sat at
one end of a long, steel table in the middle. The floor had a groove in it, stained red like rust. I
screamed and screamed, even louder than the machine because I was so scared, and I was
pretty sure the bad man was going to hurt Zilla, and that this was a bad place.
Mr. Milner ran down the stairs, and right behind him, Sam from the drive-thru. I threw my
arms around her waist and sobbed until I hiccuped. She petted my hair. "Hey, hey, hey--what s
wrong? What're you doing down here, Amy?"
But all I could manage was, ". . . Zilla . . . the bad man . . . over there!" and I pointed
back through the door, and sure enough, the bad man stood there, his shirt completely
shredded so it flopped open, scratches crisscrossed all over his skin. Zilla had gotten him good.
"Eddie," said Mr. Milner, "what in heaven's name is going on here?"
The bad man hung his head. "Sorry, Diondre. I found this kid out in the woods getting
attacked by a raptor. I thought it was feral, and put it down. Turned out it was her pet. Poor kid
is confused now."
"Did he try to hurt you?" Sam asked softly, and because speaking was hard, I looked up
through watery eyes and nodded.
"He's been stealing kids' pets!" My voice was high and funny, like all the crying had
squished it flat.
Eddie shook his head. "That's not true. Look at what that thing did to me." He pointed to
the scratches all over his arms and face and chest. "Heck, look at what it did to her arms!"
Sam took me by the wrist, and you could see all the scratches from where the dead
raptor claws poked me when I was cutting the tape. She traced the long, white C where Zilla cut
me before. "Amy," she said seriously, looking me right in the eyes, "I know how much you love
Zilla, but you should tell us the truth, okay? Sometimes animals have a nasty streak. It's not
It made me so mad that the bad man lied, and they just believed him. I didn't know how
to make them listen. "But Zilla didn't do anything!" I fought tears so hard, I couldn't say anything
else. It was like my throat was twisty tied closed.
"That raptor attacked her once before," said Mr. Milner, his face wrinkled up a
thundercloud. "I'd better call her parents. Sorry for the trouble, Eddie. I've got some ointment for
"Thanks, Diondre." Eddie shot me this look like nobody's ever given me before--not my
parents, not my teachers, not nobody. I'd seen bigger kids use that look before they beat
someone up. It scared me. I dropped my eyes to the red groove in the floor. I didn't care about
anything anymore. I just wanted Zilla. But I thought I knew the meaning of that big garbage can
full of feathers, and that pile of raptor claws.
Then Eddie brought her in.
She was so still, like a stuffed animal. I didn't like how her neck flopped over the edge of
the table, so I arranged her in a little ball like she was sleeping. Nobody had to tell me she was
dead. I only cried a little, because you're not supposed to cry when you're ten. But inside I was
crying a lot harder, because I loved Zilla, and she'd died tearing that bad man to pieces so I
could get away from him.
"Come upstairs and I'll give you something to eat while we wait for your Dad," said Sam.
I didn't want to leave Zilla in that awful place, with Eddie's brown lumpy sacks and the red
groove in the floor. But I couldn't do anything else for her.
Sam seated me in the booth closest to the bathrooms, and brought me a burger and
strawberry milkshake. I took the top bun off, scraped away the ketchup and cheese, and sniffed
it. Stupid burger got Zilla in trouble to begin with. I hated burgers. I stabbed Zilla's name in the
top with a plastic fork, and then I remembered what was downstairs, and I felt bad and cried
Dad and Mom were real dramatic when they got to Entropy Burger until Mr. Milner told
them the bad man's story. Then they wouldn't stop saying thank you to him, and they kept
hugging me and saying not to wander off alone ever again. They said it was a mistake to ever
get me a raptor, and how feral they were, and how they would get me a puppy. They said it over
and over again, even though my heart wasn't into raptors or dogs or any pet, now that Zilla was
When we got home, I wouldn't eat the free burgers Mr. Milner sent home with us. "Dad,
it's made from raptors." I pushed the gross meat back into its wrapper.
Dad's shoulders sagged. "You know, Amy, even if that were true, raptors are just meat.
It's just like with the Absence founders, surviving on raptor meat all winter."
"That's not even funny, Dad."
"Didn't you read the school play? All the way to the end?"
Truth was, he was right. They all ate their friends to survive, Mae Beth Harris and the
rest of them. They did it because they were bigger and stronger, and because they could.
I didn't want to be in the play anymore.
The morning after Zilla died, Mandeep stopped by my house, and there was Pogo on his
leash. She smiled so big, and I smiled back, except deep inside my heart hurt because she had
a raptor, and I didn't. But she let me bury my face in Pogo's feathers, and he smelled a little like
Zilla, and I rubbed my eyes on his neck so nobody could tell I was crying.
Mandeep understood, though. She was the only one who believed me. I told the story in
a quiet hush, because otherwise Mom and Dad would ground me again for lying. We tried to go
out into the woods and look for the raptor-fighting ring, but we never found it. I think Eddie's
people moved it.
I see Eddie every now and then, cruising his white van up and down my street real slow.
Sometimes it's just the ice cream truck. Other times, it's him. It's hard to tell from far away. I
never feel like ice cream anymore, because just seeing the truck makes me think of Zilla, and
Entropy Burger, and then I want to barf.
I got an A on my report at school on the food web. I wrote all about carnivores and how
humans are omnivores, which means they eat meat and vegetables, except that's not actually
true. Some humans are just apex predators, big bullies who go around thinking they can eat
anything smaller than them. But Mandeep only eats vegetables, you know. I've decided I want
to be an herbivore too. Friends aren't supposed to eat friends. That's what Zilla kept trying to tell
me, why she got so mad about the burgers.
The adults don't understand it, not like us kids do. It's why Mandeep yelled herself
hoarse for Pogo until he came home, even after the adults gave up. It's why all the kids keep
putting up those posters after the white van visits. It's why the wild raptor flocks call from the
woods at night, and all the pets at Rooster's Rescue answer back. And it's why no matter how
much time passes, the scar on my wrist won't fade.