There are four in the car: Bridget and Jack, who have been cuddling in the backseat the whole way; Anita, who is driving; and Shane, her all-but-fiancé, who is navigating. Anita and Shane have been together so long that they don’t hold hands in public much anymore, or cuddle in backseats. And for the whole drive, they’ve been watching the other two snuggling in the rearview with smiles that are indulgent, if a little strained. At twenty-five, Anita wants her smile to say (especially to Bridget whom she has known since high school and who was once a much closer friend), we need no public canoodling; but in reality she’s jealous.
No shady spots are left in the parking lot when they arrive, only the sparking glint of metal cars crammed together under the sun. They park against the border between smooth blacktop and jewel-like green grass, and a mile from the entrance to the zoo.
Now they are getting out of Anita’s car and Bridget is brandishing her sunscreen like a weapon. She is telling Jack in vain to put some on also. She is pouting at Anita when Anita says she is too brown to get tan. She is fussily rubbing the last white smears into the shallow pale valley of her cleavage and stuffing the bottle of lotion into her tiny backpack anxiously worrying about whether it will get too melty.
Anita is herself anxious, anxious to get going – she never wanted to get here this late in the first place, and she’s secretly upset with Jack for insisting on stopping for lunch at some suburban hellhole chain that served beer, and for drinking so much of it and tempting Shane into drinking it, too. She is in fact beginning to think Jack rather a boor, but she does not want to upset Bridget his girlfriend or Shane his cubicle buddy by talking about it. Let’s march, she says.
The distance from the far edge of the parking lot to the zoo entrance is nearly half a mile of hot soft tar sucking downwards on their flipflops. On their way they pass no visitors, exiting or entering, and no moving cars; they can hear their own footsteps, and the faint roar of the highway, a few miles off.
They pass a minivan with its trunk hanging open and a beer can on the fender. There is a cooler beside it, also open, all the ice melted.
They must have turkey sandwiches in there, Bridget says with her nose scrunched, it smells awful.
You’re such a princess Bridge, says Jack, to which she gets a little huffy, but he only says he’s joking and then wraps his burly arm around her so he can kiss her neck with a smack. She runs away yelping but Anita can see that she’s smiling.
They sidle up to the zoo entrance which has a sign Est. 1897 and tilt their faces up up up to the top of the iron fence that joins the arched entrance and stretches around the zoo. Before the arch is also a cast-iron statue of a giraffe at half-size. Shane, always ready to be goofy, throws his leg over it and yells, Giddyup!, slapping the wide plane of its graven hipbone. He makes Anita take a picture of him that way, slightly ridiculous in Nantucket red shorts and a yellow polo, his leg barely reaching over the statue.
Meanwhile Bridget tiptoes through the entrance, the way Bridget seems to tiptoe everywhere she goes, followed as ever by Jack. She peers through the constellation of lip-level holes in the ticket-taker’s window.
It’s empty, she says. Completely empty.
They gather, stare into the cubicle, stare in front of them into the zoo. Brown brick paths curl away from them in several directions, but not a man woman or child is to be seen upon them.
Any maps? says Shane, ever practical.
The maps are ruined, just a waterlogged block of ripply papers stuck together, but Anita peels a few away, making a squelchy tearing sound. She distributes to Bridget, to Shane, to Jack.
Bridget wants to go to the elephants right away, but Anita says they always start with the reptiles.
Oh okay, says Bridget, I was just suggesting, that’s fine. She is twirling the toe of her flipflop against the brick of the path.
We’ll go to the African section eventually, Shane says.
He’s so nice, Anita thinks, so nice to sad girls, sweet and blonde and pliable like Bridget, honeying up to him with their dewy mascara-ed eyes. Is that how it starts? For what brought Anita and Shane to the zoo to reconnect in the first place, what Bridget and Jack are still blissfully unaware of, is a certain piece of knowledge about a certain girl at Shane’s office, recently, painfully acquired by Anita, that has yet to quite separate her from Shane. But it has her watchful, waiting, broken.
Jealous even of Shane’s momentary kindness, she stops feeling like a bully for not letting Bridget see the elephants and flips down her shades to stare at the glint of the pipes lining the roof of the reptile house. Water is dripping from them onto a pile of damp dark fallen leaves. All insouciant she marches down the path best suggested by the wavy ruined lines of her soggy map. Her slight anger makes her walk with a tilt to her hips; when she looks back at Shane, he’s giving her an admiring look, the kind she remembers from when they first fell in love.
Behind her Jack has apparently appointed himself the reader of the factoids on the map. They have fifty-two species of lizards here, he announces.
Oh do you think they have tree frogs? Bridget says. I love those little guys, they’re so cute!
Those aren’t lizards, Bridge, says Anita, laughing grudgingly. They’re not even reptiles.
Jack slings an arm around Bridget’s thin shoulders and says, Good thing you’re so cute.
The entrance hallway of the reptile house is dark. When they get there Shane hangs back, but Anita says, Let’s at least try it. She shoves at the door, and it opens smoothly.
The way beyond the entrance vestibule is lit by the green glow of mini-habitats visible through inset oval windows, luring them into a cavernous circular hallway, walls floor and ceiling painted black. They stop in front of the first exhibit, and Anita reads the sign aloud, her face reflecting the lizard lights with sickly fluorescence.
The world’s longest venomous snake, the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is found throughout Southeast Asia and India. Its colors are green or brown so that it blends in with the underbrush….
Below the text is a picture of a snake labeled with the name Victor and a birthdate.
All four press their faces close to the oval glass. That’s camellia in back, says Anita, the one with the flowers. She points to the shrub, dotted with fat waxy pink blossoms.
They examine fervently the place where the roots of the shrub meet the dirt on the floor of the exhibit. Bridget thinks she sees something, but then it’s just an orphaned branch, laid down presumably for the entertainment of the snake.
It’s not there, says Shane confidently.
It has camouflage, dude, says Jack. It’s definitely there.
After another minute or two they decide, no: It’s not there. And move on to the second exhibit, ostensibly containing Burmese pythons.
The largest type of Indian python, the Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) is covered in a beautiful net-like pattern that makes it very vulnerable to hunters, who sell it for use in clothing. The two Burmese pythons you see here are a brother and sister named Min and Jin…
Do you think brother and sister snakes, like, reproduce if they’re in the same exhibit together? says Jack, always in touch with the important issues. All alone, nothin’ to do…
Snakes don’t care if they’re related, Anita says.
I bet they neuter them or something, so they don’t, says Bridget.
Ouch, Jack says.
If it prevents Jin from sticking it where it doesn’t belong, then good for them, says Anita. Shane freezes in place.
But if they reproduced they could sell the babies, make a little cash, says Jack with the air of a man pointedly avoiding a conversational pitfall.
That would be wrong! They’re not supposed to make money off the animals, Bridget says.
Look around you, says Anita.
After a pause, Bridget says, I don’t see the pythons either.
None of them sees a python. (Think they’re camouflaged, too? says Anita to Jack, who says, Fuck off.)
Their pace quickens. They look into each crevice in the wall, filled with sand or orphaned tree branches or miniature ponds, bordered by black-lacquered wood; they strain to see into decaying crannies in the trees, to see beyond unrippled surfaces of water, to catch hints of movement in the grains of sand. Nothing.
At the iguana exhibit Shane says, Iguanas have two dicks.
That’s helpful, Anita says witheringly.
That’s twice the castrating you’d have to do, Shane says.
She shoves him lightly. Their eyes meet, and he gives her a sweet shy smile, which for once she actually feels like returning.
Let’s just move on, says Bridget. I don’t think they’re showing the lizards today.
Okay, says Shane slowly, but then where did they put them all? It’s not like they can all be hanging out in the back together, in some magical secret sandbox where lizards don’t eat each other.
The lion and the lamb, says Anita. Or in this case, the python and the chameleon.
What is that, Shakespeare? says Jack, who is waving his cellphone around trying to check the zoo’s Twitter feed, though none of them has had a single ping from a mobile network since taking the exit off the highway for the zoo.
So it wasn’t like this when you guys came here before? Bridget says.
Anita finds this question irritating, but after a beat she says, No, we’ve been here lots of times, and it’s never been like this.
Damn, no Komodo dragons either, says Jack, motioning to the biggest window they’ve come across, with a boxy minimalist black bench in front of it and a horde of flies buzzing around a discarded Apple & Eve fruit juice box. There’s a picture of a toothy lizard in front of it, spiked and scaled. I wish we would’ve seen one, says Jack.
Had seen one, mutters Anita.
Shane reaches out to massage the back of her neck, which means I love you and also means Calm down and annoys the piss out of her sometimes. Anita slides her neck out from his grip and moves away.
How sweet would it be to have one for a pet? says Jack.
So sweet, says Shane. Take it for a walk on the sidewalk, with like, a steel chain-link leash and a muzzle.
Anita and Bridget share an eye-roll. I don’t know if a muzzle is going to help when it’s feeding time, Anita says.
I heard Sharon Stone got attacked by one, says Bridget. She broke into the zoo at night and got her foot eaten off.
No, that was her husband, Anita says. Remember we just saw her at the Oscars? In that crazy-ass dress? She definitely had both her feet.
Sharon Stone is hot, Shane says.
She was hot, Jack says. No one wants to see her cooch now. Wrinkle city!
Bridget goes to stand next to him at the window. Oh my God, she says. There’s a huge spider in there.
They all crowd around to see the spider. It’s fat and light-brown in the body, hairy in the legs, and at least three inches across; it seems to be waiting, still and serene, for its prey.
Anita shudders. When Shane puts his arm around her, absent, paternal, she lets herself relax into it. But that lasts only a moment before Jack and Bridget are leading the way towards the outside.
Heat slams them full in the face from the slow-sinking sun when they exit. The rays bounce off the dull red paint of a stopped wooden trolley, passengerless and motionless on nearby tracks; off the tall pointed aviary to their left, shaped like a sharpened pencil and made of glittery white sandstone; off the condensation droplets forming on a nearby lemonade cart.
To the aviary? says Jack, squinting at his map. To the aviary, they all agree. On the way they pass large bare enclosures: designated for sheep (domestic, Urial, and Bighorn), goats (domestic, mountain), and wild boar. Anita takes a few pictures of the wide, empty fields. Then a peacock strolls unfettered across their path, and she kneels to snap its picture too.
That isn’t even a zoo animal, Shane says. Why are you taking pictures of it?
I don’t know, she says, I brought the camera, and at least it’s an animal isn’t it?
There’s no arguing with that.
The aviary’s entrance vestibule, like the reptile house’s, is also dark. They gather round in the musty vestibule, lit through the window only well enough to see particles of dust floating everywhere, and smelling like the old sweat of the endless vast numbers of people who have preceded them.
I hear tweeting, comes Bridget’s quavery voice into the silence.
There is a pause; then Shane begins shaking his head. No one else hears it.
Well, says Jack, shall we?
The bird house crowds them closely with thick foliage, everywhere, multiplying and multiplied, layered and folded. Branches tickle their heads, reach out towards them from the sides of the narrow wooden slats that mark a pedestrian path. There is wire netted around the path, so thin and inconspicuous they might as well be walking through a humid, fertile, eerie, aureate jungle; ahead of them, narrow stairs lead up to a raised platform, where you can walk through the treetops, live with the (invisible) birds.
Don’t you hear it, says Bridget, but they still don’t hear anything. Anita can tell the boys, like her, think Bridget’s imagining things; as a group they tend to think of Bridget as impressionable and sensitive, not in the good way (if such a thing exists) but in a way that makes her weak. They might sometimes bully her, sometimes protect her, but they rarely listen when she comes up with her odd upsetting ideas.
When Shane scampers up the stairs and off the platform onto a rope bridge that hangs above the orchids, the slats creak and groan underneath his feet. Anita joins him just where the bridge dips lowest; a few of the slats on the far end, she can see, have rotted through. The pencil-point of the building is barred by wire netting above them, though the vines grow through the wires, swirl around the conical ceiling, and gather in a flourish of green where the cone reaches the teeniest round opening to a blue sky.
They watch from above as Bridget makes her way towards Jack, who’s afraid of heights and is waiting underneath a baby Joshua tree with a purple blossom in his hand, illegitimately plucked from some helpless plant nearby. The two embrace, kiss, a smooth blonde head and a spiky brown one, undeniably pretty together.
Charming bastard, says Anita.
They certainly do that a lot, says Shane. He tries to snake his arm around her, but she moves restlessly away from him, leaving his hand dangling from a limp wrist, mid-air.
Look at these vines, she says, wrapping around the tree trunk like that.
They look like they’re killing the tree, he says.
Well, they’re pretty.
Hey, Shane says.
She looks at him, bemused by the urgency of his Hey.
Forget the vines, he says. You’re pretty.
A moment passes in which any number of things might have been said, such as: As pretty as that girl in your office? Or, Then why did you…? But all Anita really wants to say is, Tell me again. So she allows a sort of relief to tug her lips upwards.
I mean it, he says. You look great today.
Anita tugs her T-shirt better into place, looking down to see the convex line of her stomach over her shorts. Lately she’s been feeling as if the womanly, fleshy body she’s always been rather proud of was the reason Shane was pulling away; the sweetness of his gaze on her is unexpectedly reassuring. Let’s just go downstairs, she says, embarrassed.
Down on the main level, they see that Bridget has tucked the purple flower into her hair and is smiling sunnily at them. I guess we’ve seen all there is to see here, she says—making no mention of the phantom birdsong she heard before.
It is then time to find the ladies a bathroom. Jack manages to decipher its location on his blurred dog-smelling map, and he points them behind the aviary, where a set of stairs lead to an ominous basement.
Inside Bridget says, I didn’t really have to go. I just figured I’d keep you company.
Bridget always seems to think everyone else is as afraid of being alone as she is. From her stall Anita says reluctantly, Thanks, that’s nice of you. Above the echoing crash of her urine into the toilet, a faint buzzing emerges to their ears.
Oh, says Bridget. There’s flies all over the walls.
Yeah, I didn’t want to say anything, but there’s a used tampon on the floor in here with a whole colony of flies on it, Anita says.
God, people are such pigs, Bridget says.
Anita comes out to find Bridget staring at the fuzzy halo of blonde hair on her head, reflected in a flat piece of tin tacked to the wall as a mirror.
Water’s not running, she says. I couldn’t flush.
Bridget pulls hairspray out of her bag and mists it everywhere. Freaky, she says to her silvery reflection.
When they get outside the boys are pretending to have fallen asleep. Anita tugs Shane up by the wrist, and Bridget resorts to the ennobled tactic of kissing Jack’s ear until he’s docile enough to get up and follow the others.
They round a bend in the path around a shallow azure pond. Anita can remember seeing a flock of flamingos there on many of their previous visits; she remembers, too, stopping here with Shane on one of their early dates and kissing up against the chain-link fence, their legs tangling in dogwood stalks. The dogwood stalks are in full bloom now, wildly bedecked in purple and white. But if he’s thinking about it, or wondering where the flamingos have all gone, she can’t tell from the slope of his neck while he walks, slightly ahead and stooped, with his hands in his pockets.
They follow the same path they’d be treading if there were animals and other people here, reading all the informational signs with a pretense at intellectual curiosity. They walk by white-tailed and yellow mongoose signs, signs for duikers and gazelles (the last in front of a wide expanse of field, gently swelling, hill by hill). Cages for marmosets, squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchins, all empty but for tree branches and plastic toys. Anita’s throat is too dry to talk, but she does snap a picture of the crow atop the duikers sign. Then they get to the lion enclosure.
It’s weird they just have this low wire fence, says Bridget, around a park full of lions.
They’ve got this ditch between the fence and the park though, says Anita. It’s like a hundred feet deep.
Couldn’t they just… jump over? says Bridget. Cats can jump really far. This doesn’t seem that wide.
They are all four silent for a minute, peering over the fence into a gash in the earth so rough and weed-strewn that it almost looks accidental.
Probably not, says Shane.
Yeah, says Jack. They do research on how far the lions can jump. They wouldn’t have it like this if it were unsafe.
How do you research it, though, Bridget presses. Hold some sort of long-jumping event for lions? I mean what if there was a storm or you know, someone’s pet looked really juicy to them, and they got hungry and jumped further than usual?
Well, it’s not an issue now is it? says Shane. It would certainly make this trip a little more interesting, if one did appear to jump at us.
Or it’s how they all disappeared, Jack says in an intentionally creepy voice. They just jumped.
It’s funny, says Bridget suddenly. I wonder if anyone’s ever pushed anyone over the fence.
Craning their necks to tilt their heads towards the very, very bottom of the ditch, which is too dark to see, gets tiring after a few seconds. They drift over to a large enclosure for gorillas, fenced all the way around, with a grassy mound in the middle and plenty of grasses. They can’t see over the mound to the other side.
I’m thirsty, Shane says. I’d kill for a beer.
The momentary silence falls that comes after a suddenly-revealed universal truth.
They walk around, trying to figure out if anyone is still around to sell beer, but the carts are mostly unlit, unmanned, with puddles of ice cream or once-frozen lemonade or Icee spreading beneath them, dark on the smooth red brick of the path. A few carts do have signs saying “Cold Beer,” but it probably wouldn’t be cold anyway.
I would settle for just a pink lemonade, Bridget says rather pitifully. I’m tired.
Or a hot dog! says Jack, pointing at a lemonade-and-hot-dogs stand nearby.
It has some ready-made plastic cups of lemonade, wet with condensation, so they take two for the boys, and Diet Cokes for the girls – and they take four fat crusty pretzels, too, out of the dim pretzel case, tucking cash into the crack under the sugar- and ketchup-crusted lid of the ice bucket. The hot dogs, cool to the touch and rubbery inside their heating cage, are too much even for Jack to stomach.
God, says Shane when he’s put in his eight dollars along with everyone else, the zoo is such a fucking rip-off. It’s like Disneyland around here. Thirty goddamned dollars for a snack.
Bridget mumbles something, but she’s hard at work on her pretzel and the sound dies in her mouth.
I thought you were still on a diet, Jack says.
I’m not having the fucking lemonade, am I? she says with a flash of temper.
I didn’t say anything about the lemonade, sweetheart.
Okay everyone, Anita cuts in, let’s maybe go to that restaurant that’s at the end of the zoo and sit at a real table and stuff. There should be some shade there, at least.
They sit in pale gray shade underneath a Coca-Cola umbrella on a preternatural, smooth patio. Nearby is an empty set of small display cages for rabbits and hares, still carpeted in wood shavings. Shane rips off his shirt, revealing that tattoo Anita loves, a seahorse with its tail curled right around Shane’s nipple; the seahorse is shiny with his sweat. They suck down the drinks, sorely neglect the pretzels. The afternoon sun lazes slowly over their skin and in the pleasure of quenching their thirst no one speaks for what seems like an age.
Jack is the first to speak finally: Gotta whiz.
He pees right off the edge of the patio, onto tall taupe grass stalks. Then goes with Shane inside the restaurant to hunt down more drinks.
Sorry about that, says Bridget, motioning to the wet spot on the dried grass.
He’s not your son, Anita snaps. Don’t apologize for him like he’s a baby.
At Bridget’s hurt look, she almost apologizes herself—but oh she meant it, Bridget might as well know how she sounds.
Free sodas, says Jack on his return, handing a lukewarm can of diet Mountain Dew to each of them. Drink up ladies. Provided for you by the gentlemen.
Anita and Bridget clink, resentfully. The Mountain Dews gurgle goldenly, then disappear; they have little fizz left and taste like metal.
It falls upon Bridget to suggest, a few minutes into their aimless walk back towards the animal enclosures as they pass the gift shop, that they get souvenirs. Inside the store they all make fun of the price of a zoo-branded sweatshirt and read to each other from big cardboard books about farm animals.
I’m getting one of these, anyway, says Bridget waving around a rolled-up T-shirt. To memorialize this trip.
No amount of their laughing at her can dissuade her, not even when she has to peel a full forty dollars out of her wallet and lay it on the counter under a zebra magnet functioning as a paperweight, not even when the T-shirt (size small), pulled over her tank top, swallows up her bony shoulders and torso into its blowsy cotton shapelessness.
Keep eating those big-ass pretzels, you’ll fill it out soon enough, says Jack.
Nobody answers him.
There is a stadium-sized slate cylinder of cement rising above the shrubbery, off to the left. There’s a seal show there at five, and it was Shane who suggested that people might actually show up to it.
I love shows like this, Bridget says while they walk towards the show. They always make me think about…
About what? says Shane.
Well, about how the animals have to be trained for it, says Bridget. Like, even presuming you can get them to do something a second time or a third time by giving them a fish. How do you start it the first time? How do you plant the idea in their head that you want them to jump up out of the water and do a back flip? Or whatever?
They are walking in a circular path between two high concrete walls, following signs that alternately read SEALS with a long brown arrow, and BLEACHERS with a long brown arrow. One sign says SEALS BLEACHERS. The next after that says POPCORN SOLD ALL TIMES.
I’m hungry again, Shane says after they pass that sign.
I knew that was coming! Anita exclaims.
He looks at her with uncertainty, as if he’s not sure whether he ought to smile; she refrains on purpose and then immediately feels mean for punishing him.
They sit on the first-row bleachers, spreading the zoo map and Bridget’s T-shirt out beneath their legs to keep skin from pebbled hot concrete. There is, of course, no show, and no audience. Anita stares at the shallow pool, bright aquamarine, and slightly dusky at the edges, where a few leaves and detritus have gathered. A pile of white rocks protrudes from the far side, giving the pool a naturalistic coastline on its north end. Dozens of seagulls have gathered on the rocks, sunning.
She doesn’t know why but she insists on taking a picture of all four of them, Anita on the edge with one arm slung around Bridget’s shoulders and the other extended out with the camera. It takes a few tries but she gets all of them, round faces crowded together and sunwashed on the two-inch LCD screen: gets Shane still topless and filmed over with sweat, Bridget and her T-shirt, and Jack with crumbs of salt in his stubble.
After that success they stretch out on the bleachers, relaxing for a moment, feet propped up.
Popcorn would make this better, says Shane.
We get it, says Bridget, laughing.
It seems suddenly to Anita that nobody in this group likes anybody else anymore, or loves or wants or appreciates them; nobody, that is, except Bridget and Shane, who don’t expect anything from each other, and are therefore kind to each other. Anita’s jealousy awakens, stretches, yawns inside her like a purring cat.
Just then Jack announces that he’s bored and leaps down to the observation deck around the pool, where the glass lets you see right underwater, ten feet of blue blue blue, threaded with white lights from around the edges.
Who cares, there’s nothing there, Anita whispers, but Shane and Bridget are gone now too, they’re all running halfway around the pool to get to the rocks. Seagulls float whitely away like dandelion fluff; the humans clamber up the rocks, gripping with hands and feet, like monkeys. She watches them idly, as if watching trained animals perform.
The female human leans over, clutching her arms around herself, and peers at the water. Because the air and the zoo and the sky are clear and empty, Anita can hear the smaller male’s voice from all the way across the pool, where she’s still sitting on the bleachers, as if she’s been baked there solid by the sun:
Anita didn’t come with us.
His voice bounces off the surface of the pool, comes at her ripply and plaintive. The next voice, issuing from the other male, is stronger.
Oh she just needs her Midol.
He’s got a hold of some tiny floppy thing – a worm maybe, or a lizard, that he picked up off the rock – and is waving it at the few remaining seagulls as they preen on the warm rocks.
Anita strains forward.
Maybe I should go get her, she hears the smaller, nervous male say.
Maybe you’re so fucking whipped I want to put you on a pumpkin pie, comes the alpha male’s voice, even clearer, even louder.
She gets up then. She gets up and walks down the bleachers and spiraling outwards she enters the main part of the zoo and she’s running now, flipflops clapping against the concrete, and she hears Shane’s voice echo around and around her calling her name.
When he catches up to her she says furiously Oh I’m tired of it, let’s just leave, we’re never going to see anything real or do anything we meant to are we, why keep taking pictures?
I don’t know, I thought we were having fun, Shane says, his hand wrapped around her shoulder.
Just tell them I want to go, please. Tell them I want to leave.
Okay, he says. Okay. And he looks back over his shoulder a few times as he walks back towards the bleachers, as if to check she’s still standing there waiting, right up until the very moment he disappears behind the curve of the wall that spirals back inwards towards the empty theater.
The walk back to the car through the still-deserted parking lot seems if anything longer than the walk there. The sun is lower but bears upon Anita with a red dry heat. Blue shadows extend east from each car.
She is alone: she waited for Shane for what seemed like hours, though the sun had barely moved, and it began to seem as if he had been swallowed up by the spiralling passageway, which was as silent and gloomy as if there weren’t three people inside. She stared around blankly, wondering why she didn’t go in after him, why she didn’t go in and yell at Bridget and Jack and demand that they all leave—it was her car, after all; she could decide to leave them if she wanted. But her nerves failed her; she felt obscurely as if there were a reason that Shane hadn’t come back out yet. And though she laughed at herself and repeated This is stupid, slow down, don’t just leave them all here because you’ve gotten nervous!, she found herself nearly running by the time she got to the zoo exit and encountered a wall of dry, bright heat.
Now she’s halfway across the lot. The sour milky smell that had been emanating from some of the open cars is gone; having also escaped the pervasive odor of manure in the zoo, Anita now only catches the acrid smell of melting tar. She passes the open cooler by the minivan that they had seen on their way in, and it is empty now, turned on its side, and covered in flecks of dark black wet-looking dirt. The colors of the plastic have been bleached to near-white.
When she gets to the end of the parking lot where she remembers leaving her small blue Honda she stops and stares blankly until she realizes: the car is in front of her. So overgrown by twining green shrubbery that she almost can’t see it, except the edge of a bumper here, or a patch of shiny roof there. The bushes themselves have burst up out of the pavement, splitting the concrete into crumbled blocks, and grown around her car.
She looks around and sees what she missed while walking, that the entire parking lot has shrunk, taken over at the edges by the impossibly fast encroachment of greenery. The cars in the middle are untouched for now, even though their owners too left them with doors open and food decaying in them. But anyone can see what their fate might be.
Anita feels almost frozen in the spot where she stands, as if her legs have grown right back through the broken surface of the parking lot and spread roots beneath in the gravely moist ground.
How long have we been here? she wonders distantly. How old are we now?
Behind her the wide scallops of the zoo’s gates and the statue of the giraffe whose hipbone Shane slapped seem to have lost their luster; they reflect only a meagre gray-silver back at her squinting eyes. In her panic she thinks of fighting her way into the car through the tangle of greenery and taking off. Far behind her the vines would keep growing, entwining their way around the cars in the lot, erupting through the dusty surfaces of the roads in the zoo, twisting up and up over the bars of cages and eventually, perhaps, choking right through the corroded metal that once held captive antelopes, elephants, spider monkeys, pandas, dragons safe in their exhibits, and kept human visitors safe outside.
But that would mean leaving the others behind, and she’s sure they’ll come out any minute now. They wouldn’t leave her alone to face this. In fact, she can’t wait for them to see it. They’ll be blown away. How weird, they’ll say; what the fuck is going on?—and the way Jack says it will bring the thing squarely back to the realm of the ordinary.
She feels comforted by this idea, by the prospect of relating her story of nearly missing the blue Honda beneath all these vines once the others get here, and spends some time coming up with a punchline making fun of herself for being so nervous that she almost ditched them.
After some time she decides to sit while waiting for them all to come for her; it’s been a long hot day after all, and she’s tired. She spreads the map out on an intact patch of pavement and sits on it, arms wrapped around knees.
She can’t hear the distant roar of the highway the way she could this morning. What she hears is something else—a faint rustling all around her, its volume increasing and decreasing in gentle lapping waves. It’s a nice sound, and she closes her eyes to listen. When she opens them she notices, between her feet, a slender tendril of vine curling flat along the pavement. Was that there before? Are they coming closer?
Anyhow, it’s pretty, she thinks. Prettier than just cars on a lot, that’s for sure. That deep leaf green against the black tar; it would make a good photo. I’ll take one in a second.