Slash meets Axl for the first time on the day his zoo opens.
I looked up. “What?”
He made a sort of disgusted sound at the back of his throat. “Only Axl doing another one of his fucking ‘humanitarian’ spiels,” he snarled. “I swear, that man makes me wanna shoot myself.”
The thing that caught my interest at the time was not Axl’s name—because I had never heard of him—but Mark’s disgusted tone. He was normally such a laid-back guy that seeing anything ruffle him was absolutely fascinating.
I stood and walked over to where he was. He had his newspaper open to the Environment section; the picture that stared up at us was a black-and-white photograph of a surprisingly small man grinning cockily at the camera, his head tilted slightly to one side. The caption read: “Exotic Animals Dealer Axl Rose Returns from China with Rare Bird”. Axl was strikingly attractive, and I wondered vaguely what he looked like in color.
“Who is that guy?” I asked. Mark turned and stared at me, looking as incredulous as if I’d just told him I was going to have a sex change.
“Axl Rose is the biggest name in the whole goddamn business,” he explained. “He moved to Los Angeles from some little town in Indiana about five years ago, and he’s been spending all his time since as a rare animals dealer. He travels all over the world, looking for the most exotic animals to bring to various zoos scattered across the country.”
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with this Axl guy, and I told Mark so. He sighed heavily.
“Axl Rose is just an arrogant, self-centered asshole,” he said. “When and if you get around to running your own zoo, just… stay away from him. Please.”
I promised I would, though I course I didn’t really mean it. Mark may have saved me from a life of shoveling elephant shit at the circus, he may have given me a place in college and a future in zoo keeping, but he couldn’t control what I did.
A few weeks later, I graduated from college and started my training on becoming a true zookeeper. Focused on getting everyone to take me seriously despite the fact that I was only eighteen, all thoughts of Axl Rose slipped from my mind.
That is, until now.
The morning my zoo opened, I knew right from the start that it was going to be a good day, because the air wasn’t too hot, the smog wasn’t too thick. The official name for it was the Los Angeles Zoo, but privately, my friends and I referred to it as the Zoo of Hudson. Mark and I, being its confounders, had been allowed a pre-run, and I liked what I saw: great glass cages for the reptiles, with more glass to separate the venomous and non-venomous; a bat cave lit with black light; a swamp for alligators. It wasn’t a huge zoo, but it was enough.
“Welcome,” said the mayor to the tiny group of people gathered outside my zoo. “This is the official unveiling of the Los Angeles Zoo, on September 4, 1984.” He waited until we’d stopped clapping, then introduced me:
“This young man is Slash Hudson. He is the youngest zookeeper in a century, being only nineteen years old. Three years ago, Slash dropped out of high school and planned to join the circus. But he was ‘rescued’ by the man who has college-trained him for this day—Mark McDunn. Mark?”
The audience applauded Mark, who stepped forward, all smiles. I felt a brief, unreasoning surge of jealousy rush through my chest; Mark was getting nearly all the credit for what was technically my zoo; he wasn’t the one who had been living on the streets before being found; he didn’t have any racial problems to overcome. But before Mark could say anything, a voice sounded behind us, unfamiliar and deep and slightly sardonic:
“Mark McDunn. Haven’t seen you in a couple of years.”
Mark’s eyes narrowed slightly, and, automatically, I turned. Standing there, looking like a wild animal himself, was a pale, red haired man that I recognized almost instantly from the newspaper, even if it had been a year:
“You’re Axl Rose, aren’t you?”
His eyes cut from Mark to me. He had a deep, probing gaze, made of cut emerald and turquoise, and I shivered slightly. His hair was gorgeous where it caught the light: copper and blond and burnt sienna. His skin was deathly pale, and the next time he spoke I detected an accent, Midwestern. Vaguely, as he started forward, I remembered Mark mentioning Indiana.
“You’re Slash,” he said in response, when he was close to me, close enough to touch. His eyes slid up and down my body, and his upper lip curled slightly.
“Aren’t you a little young to be a zookeeper?” he asked.
Before I could answer, Mark spoke up from behind us. “Leave him alone, Axl. He isn’t your property.”
I saw a flash of real anger cross Axl’s green eyes, and felt a shiver of fear run through my body. He looked over my shoulder at Mark, raising one eyebrow slightly.
“Just ‘cause I wouldn’t let you suck my dick don’t mean you gotta ride my ass for everything, McDunn,” he snapped.
My mouth dropped open. Mark is gay? I thought, naively, until Axl drifted his focus back to me and sort of smirked conspiratorially. I bit down on my lower lip and looked away to keep from laughing, and Axl snorted contemptuously, though at who I wasn’t sure.
Then he said, “Slash, who’s your animal dealer?”
I thought for a second. “Bob Guccioni, Jr.,” I said. Again, I saw a flash of anger cross his face; again, I felt a brief shiver of fear.
“He’s worth shit to you,” Axl said. He locked those emerald eyes onto mine; placed his hand on my shoulder. “You want lots of animals, yeah? You want this—” he gestured widely at my zoo—“to expand?”
He smirked again, and though I knew from the change in his tone that he was speaking to Mark, he kept his eyes fixed on mine. “Then it’s settled,” he said. “Fire Guccioni. I’m yours.”
Behind me, I heard Mark make an angry, disparaging sound at the back of his throat. A moment later, I felt his hand clamp down on my other shoulder. I turned to look at him, breaking eye contact with Axl, and it felt like someone had sucked all the energy out of me.
“Don’t,” Mark pleaded with me. “Remember what I told you.”
Axl frowned slightly. “What’d you tell him, McDunn?”
“That you’re arrogant,” I said, hastily, before Mark could. “And you’re self-centered.”
Axl laughed harshly. “That’s about right,” he said. He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked backwards on his heels. “But I’m also one of the best fucking animal dealers in the nation.” Again, our eyes locked. “It’s your zoo, Slash. Do you want my help… or Guccioni’s?”
I swallowed hard. Everyone was staring at me, including the mayor. My mother, in the crowd, looked hard at me, and I saw in her eyes what she was thinking: it’s your call.
Taking a deep breath, I looked at Mark. “Sorry,” I said to him, “but I’m taking Axl.”
Behind me, Axl laughed triumphantly. Pain crossed Mark’s face and he said, “Fine, Slash. Just fine.”
Axl’s arm went around my shoulders, and I could feel the power wafting off him. “We are gonna do good together,” he said quietly to me, gently squeezing my shoulder.
Mark smiled sadly, looking from Axl to me. “You’re his now,” he said to me, and it would be a while before I would truly understand what he meant.