Do Not Feed the Monkeys!!!
From Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall (ChiZine Publications, 2014)
The zoo, for Walter, was a magical place.
He loved the thick animal poop smell of it, the bright orange paw prints. He loved the blue-green of the aquarium and the way the light made weird shadows across the brickwork. He loved the monkeys, yeah, the monkeys were always good! He loved the way Pops gave him a bag of peanuts and made him swear to God half the peanuts for snack time, and half the peanuts for the monkeys who gave big stupid grins and fought when he tossed one in the cage.
He loved the way Mom said she disapproved, but then she wouldn’t look away—not to snap a picture of the macaws maybe, or the bonobos which Walter never liked as much as the chimps. She’d just stare. She’d tut maybe. She might scowl. She might even shake her and whisper, “Roger, don’t! Don’t let him!” But she’d look. She’d still look. Then Walter would flick a peanut through the octagonal mesh and watch as the bigger monkeys wrestled down the littler ones. He’d watch their teeth shining like little knives. He’d watch their fingers crack open the shells.
Mom used to smile at the monkeys’ antics. She might tap the sign that said “DO NOT FEED THE MONKEYS!!!” as if she hadn’t been complicit, as if she hadn’t wanted to see them fight too. Walter loved the way she smiled at them; her smile wasn’t anything like the monkeys’ smile. It was thin, delicate. Pretty. It was a smile with a certain kind of substance to it, like perfume. It was there. It wasn’t there.
The smile made Mom beautiful.
The zoo made their family beautiful.
It locked the animal parts of their love in cages.
They were free to wander, to hold hands, to point and marvel and giggle together. Afterward, if Pops had got work that week or Mom had picked up enough tips, they would get ice cream, all three of them, and Mom and Pops would share. Walter wouldn’t have to. Walter would get his very own cone, all to himself. He’d stick his tongue deep into the cone like he was drilling for oil and the ice cream would well up over the edges so he would have to lick it clean before it dripped. Sometimes he would eat Mom and Pops’s ice cream too because, even sharing, they wouldn’t finish it on their own.
Walter never had to share. Mom and Pops did. But Walter always got his own.
That was the way he liked. That was the way he wanted it to be forever. Him, Mom and Pops.
It was at the zoo they told him.
“Hey, champ,” said Pops. He was holding a bag of peanuts. They were close to the monkeys now. Mom was standing beside him and she was resting her hand very lightly on his arm.
“Can I have the peanuts?” he said.
“Not just yet. We have something to tell you.”
“Okay,” said Walter. He kicked a rock. The rock went clang against the cage, and startled a hornbill.
Mom and Pops looked at each other. They smiled. “Well, champ,” said Pops. “We. Well. You. I mean, this is about you too. You are going to have a little sister. A little baby girl. We’re so excited!”
And they were. Walter could see that they were. They had big stupid grins plastered all over their big stupid faces.
“You’re excited,” he said. Walter kicked another rock. The hornbill squawked angrily.
They waited for something else. Their smiles remained frozen in place. They stared at him.
“Okay,” said Walter at last. And that was that.
But it wasn’t okay. Of course it wasn’t okay. Walter knew he would have to share. His room. His toys. His parents. His ice cream. No more single cones for Walter. No. There would be a baby girl. A baby girl to fight with to see who got to lick the cone first. A baby girl to make his bedroom smell like baby girl poop.
He’d have to share everything with her and he had so little already! His room was small. It was very small. Yes, Mom and Pops had put up glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceilings that went green when the lights went out. But that didn’t mean there it was space. Not really. It was fake. There wasn’t any space in the room at all! Not enough for a little sister!
They were whole as they were. They were perfect. How could she be a part of that?
Mom got big. She got big as a pumpkin. Big as an elephant!
There was nothing delicate about Mom now. She plodded. Her ankles were thick. Ice cream made her sick and Walter couldn’t have any, but then, suddenly, Mom would need ice cream, she had to have it immediately and she’d work her way through an entire carton in one go and none of it would go to Walter.
“Good morning, Mom,” Walter would say at the breakfast table.
“Say hello to the baby!” Mom would exclaim.
“Hello, baby.” Walter would whisper. It was like there was something trapped inside her. It was like the tigers when they slept in their pens. Sometimes they wouldn’t come out for Walter. And Walter would shout, “Hey, tiger! Tiger!” Sometimes nothing would happen. But sometimes—sometimes—the tiger would let loose with a roar that shook his bladder. Walter didn’t do that anymore. He had once seen a tiger piss on a man with a camera from ten feet away!
The baby was like that. Sometimes the baby kicked.
The baby kicked and Mom got bigger.
Just as Mom looked so big that, really, it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t just split open, they had to go to the hospital. Pops had told him they’d have to go to the hospital. Pops told him they would need to be ready to go. They could go at any time. There were bags to be brought. There were things they would need. Walter would have to help them remember.
But when they went they didn’t bring any of the things.
“What about the bags?” Walter asked. “You said we have to bring the bags? What about them?”
“We don’t need them,” Pops said.
“But why?” Walter asked. “Doesn’t the baby need them?”
“Christ, Walter. Not now!”
And Walter flinched. He ran away from Pops and he sat on his bed. He breathed in the air. It smelled like dirty sheets and stale farts. He knew that smell. It smelled like him. He was used to the smell. But was it a good smell? Suddenly, he didn’t know. Suddenly, he wondered. Maybe it wasn’t a good smell. Maybe a baby girl would smell better. Maybe baby girl poop smelled better than dirty sheets and stale farts.
But then Pops was storming into the room, and he grabbed Walter by the wrist.
“Get in the effing taxi, will you, Walter?” But he didn’t say effing like he was supposed to and so Walter was afraid. Walter was afraid all the way through the taxi ride. It was like his Pops wasn’t his Pops anymore. And Mom. Mom grunted and squealed. Her face was gray. There was blood on the seat of the taxi. There was blood everywhere. It was like the time Walter had the nosebleed. Except it wasn’t like that. Not at all.
“Should we get ice cream, Pops?” Walter asked very quietly.
And Pops stared at Walter. He stared like he was going to start yelling again. But then whatever animal was inside of him went back to the corner of the cage, and it was just Pops again. He didn’t say anything. He just put his arms around Walter and started to cry.
They rode like that all the way to the hospital.
The hospital was a strange green colour. It reminded Walter of the colour of the aquariums. They made Mom wear a big plastic-green gown. Pops wasn’t crying anymore, but Walter could feel that somewhere inside he was still crying anyway.
Pops bought him things out of the vending machine. Walter wasn’t hungry but he munched on chips anyway. And then a chocolate bar. It made him feel sick but he didn’t stop. Pops just kept bringing him more and more until Walter was sitting in a little pile of wrappers that scrinched and crunkled whenever he had to get up to pee.
And Walter wasn’t allowed in the room. Only Pops was allowed in the room. Pops would go into the room. And then Pops would come out again. And mostly Pops would go to the vending machine and he would buy more things for Walter to eat.
Once a little girl came by. She was wearing a white dress with pink roses. The hem was dirty. She had the look of someone who was sick. The way everyone in hospitals looked. Pale. Grey. But she was smiling.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Walter,” said Walter.
“I’m Emily. What are you doing here?” she asked. She kicked at one of the wrappers. It didn’t go very far.
“I’m getting a little sister.”
“Oh,” she said. “Can I have a chip?”
Walter gave her a chip.
“Ewwww,” she said. “Sour cream and onion!” And she ran off giggling.
Walter wondered if his sister would wear a dress like that. He kicked his feet. The pile of wrappers scrinched and crunkled. He decided he liked the girl. He decided he didn’t like sour cream and onion anymore.
But then Pops went into the room and when he came out he didn’t buy anything from the vending machine. “I’m sorry, champ,” he said. “You aren’t going to have a little sister.”
Walter’s stomach ached. His mouth was covered in chocolate. The taste of chocolate made him feel sick.
Pops sat down heavily beside him. The wrappers went scrinch and crunkle. Walter hated the wrappers. He hated them so much.
“I would have shared, you know,” he said. And Pops didn’t say anything. His breathing was a heavy whuffle. Walter tried to touch his hand but the wrappers went scrinch and crunkle and Pops flinched, and he stood up, and he went back into the room.
Walter thought of the girl. “Ewwww,” she had said. He had liked the way she scrunched up her face. Just like a monkey.
“I would have shared with you,” Walter whispered. “You could have been my sister. You should have stayed with us.”
And the baby said nothing. Because she wasn’t there anymore.
And for a while after everyone was sad and they didn’t go to the zoo anymore.
This is how it was for months.
Mom didn’t leave her room much. Walter could hear noises through walls. Sometimes they were low and crooning. Like a deep-throated bird. Sometimes they were high, shrill and broken—animal sounds. Hungry. Desperate. Nothing human sounded like that. Mom never sounded like that.
And Pops was different. He spoke in a whisper now. His back was hunched at the dinner table. It was just the two of them. Pops spooning out three-day-old chili and when the meat ran out, then just beans and onions with a dollop of sour cream on top.
It made Walter think of the girl. Walter didn’t like to think of the girl. There was a hole inside him when he thought of the girl.
And the hole sounded hungry. It sounded desperate.
It tasted like stale beans and souring cream.
And all Walter wanted was for Mom to smile again. Just one Mom smile. And then he knew it would be okay.
He wanted to tell her maybe his sister would come back. Maybe she’d be ready soon. Maybe they just have to wait.
So he waited.
And the hole got bigger.
And the hole got bigger and bigger.
And the hole got so big Walter thought it was going to eat him up. Him and Mom and Pops and all of them.
And when the hole got so big that it seemed that everything was the hole, that there was only the hole, then Pops came home and he said, “Right, champ, we’re going to the zoo.”
At first Walter didn’t say anything. It was like Pops’s voice was coming from somewhere outside the hole and it took a long, long time to reach him.
“What?” he said.
“The zoo, champ. Get your things. We’re going to the zoo! You like the zoo, don’t you? You want to come with your old man?”
“Sure,” said Walter and part of him was happy—part of him was ridiculously happy, part of him was grinning like an idiot. But part of him was not. Because Pops wasn’t grinning.
“Is Mom coming?” Walter asked.
“Mom is sleeping,” said Pops.
“Should we wake her?” he asked.
Pops said, “Not today. We’ll let her sleep today. It’ll be just be us boys. Just the men, okay? You’re my little man, aren’t you?”
Pops looked tired. The skin around his cheeks had started to sag and wrinkle. His eyes were wet and glassy. Walter thought, just for a moment, that he might reach out and touch his father’s face. That he might stretch out that skin again. Feel the roughness of greying stubble. But he didn’t. He got his things and climbed into the car.
Feature image via 'Art Collection - The Metropolitan Museum of Art'
Walter knew the way to the zoo by heart. He knew the road signs. He knew the turn-off. But he didn’t know these road signs. He didn’t recognize any of them.
“Where are we going, Pops?” he asked.
“Just you wait, champ.” Pops said.
And they drove. And they drove. Walter got tired. He leaned his head against the window, watched the strange landscape, the dying light, and he slept.
Then Pops was shaking him awake.
“Are we here, Pops?”
Walter wiped his eyes. His head felt heavy and aching from the heat, his stomach queasy. He looked around. The place was a dump. A real dump. There were two large wooden gates done up crusted red and yellow paint. A welcome sign that say “Welcome.” It read, “Gallery of the Eliminated.” Further down, a postscript: “Limited engagement.” The sign was old. A stiff breeze would have knocked it free.
“Pops, I don’t think I want to go to the zoo after all.”
But Pops wasn’t listening. He was tugging Walter along into the queue.
“C’mon, champ. Just like I promised.”
“But Pops—” he tried.
When they reached the ticket ripper, he looked Walter up and down with a steady, loveless gaze.
“How much for this one?” He asked. Pops gave a guffaw.
“This one stays with me,” Pops replied.
The ticket ripper did not laugh. He shrugged his nobbled shoulders and when Walter passed he leaned down a great ways and whispered into his ear.
“Don’t you dare feed the monkeys, you hear? Don’t you dare. Don’t you goddamn dare.”
The zoo looked different than any zoo Walter had ever seen before. There were no bright pawprints on ground. There were no safari wagons selling ice cream. The place was practically empty.
“Pops,” Walter began.
“Isn’t it great, champ? Isn’t it just something else?” Pops’s eyes were gleaming. His mouth was stretched wide. Not like a smile—like when the monkeys jammed their fingers into their mouths and pulled and pulled and pulled on their lips.
“Yeah, Pops,” Walter said at least. He didn’t want to look at Pops anymore.
And, well, the zoo was something else. It sure was. Not like the zoo he knew at all.
“Pops,” Walter said, “what is that thing?
“That’s an aurochs, champ.”
“What’s an aurochs?”
“It died out a long time ago, champ.”
And he was right. That’s what the sign said. “AUROCHS—DIED 1627—KEEP HANDS OUT!”
And the aurochs was massive! It had eyes the color of black marbles and horns that curved out into a nasty hook. Walter wanted to touch the horns. He wanted to bury his hands in its deep, matted wool. He wanted it very badly.
“Woah, champ,” said Pops.
Walter snatched his hand away from the cage.
“Please, Pops,” Walter whispered. But his Pops took his hand led Walter on to the next set of pens. When Walter looked back, he could see that one eye—that giant eye, the size of an egg, but black as outer space—following him and his Pops as they went.
They walked until the sun had rounded the tops of the buildings.
There was the striped quagga, the size of a miniature pony but striped in gold and brown. The herd skittered away as he approached them. They were nervous things. Walter loved them anyway.
QUAGGA—HUNTED TO EXTINCTION—DO NOT TOUCH!
Walter did not touch them.
He heard the sad, low howls of the Honshu wolf. They were small and spotted. Their ears flexed back against their skull. It looked like they were grinning at him. Walter grinned back. So did Pops. He pulled at the corners of his mouth, stuck out his tongue, and made the best Honshu wolf grin that he could. And then they both began to howl together. They just threw back their heads and let the noise come pouring out of them.
HONSHU WOLF—DIED 1905 FROM RABIES—KEEP BACK!
Walter was getting sweaty and hungry, but he didn’t want to stop.
“C’mon, champ,” said Pops. “We need to take a break. Just a quick one, okay?”
“A quick one,” Walter repeated.
“That’s a good boy.”
Pops tugged him inside the shelter of one of the main buildings. The blast of air was cool and welcome. The air conditioner it rattled like a tin can.
“Here?” said Walter,
It didn’t look like a reception area. The walls were painted bright yellow. Their trim was the colour of dried blood.
“This way, champ.”
The hallways were narrow. They were lit by fluorescent lights and filled with the buzz of overworked air conditioners. There were pictures hung up, dusty, unlit. Walter could still make out the shape of a bird’s skeleton in one. It looked like a picture in a science book. There were rocks with bones poking out of them. Fossils. Walter wanted to stay longer to look at these, but Pops was pulling him along now.
“Pops,” Walter said. “My feet hurt. Can I take a rest?”
“Just hang on there, champ,” he said. He pulled Walter up short in front of a door that looked no different than most of the doors they had passed with the word GRANT stenciled onto it.
Pops stared at the door. Walter stared at the door too but he didn’t know why.
“Pops?” he asked, but he was hushed with a flapping of his hands.
“Quiet there, champ. There’s just a thing I have to do. Okay? Just one small thing? Will you let me do this thing?”
Walter looked at his Pops’s face. It was flushed. There was a strange twist to his lips.
“Sure,” Walter said at last. Then Pops knocked very loudly three times.
The door swung wide open. Behind was a very thin, very tall man. His face looked like a melted wax candle. His cheekbones were sharp. He made a soft whicking sound when he inhaled.
“You are Mister Crewe,” he said in a nasal voice—(whick, whick, whick went his lungs). “I believe we have been in correspondence?”
Pops said nothing.
“Good, good, good.” He ushered Pops inside with a wave. Walter tried to follow. “Not you. You can stay out here.” The man placed a hand on Walter’s shoulder and gave a little push.
“Is that all right, champ?” Pops asked. His voice was small. It might have been scared.
“Yeah,” Walter said, at last. Pops patted Walter on the head.
The door began to close behind them and suddenly it wasn’t all right. The door reminded him too much of the hospital door. The hospital where he had lost his sister. Walter didn’t want Pops to go in there alone. “Wait,” he called out, and the door opened an inch. That fleshy, drippy face appeared in the crack.
“Yes?” (whick whick)
Walter didn’t know what to say. Pops had gone in there. Pops had asked him to stay out. Walter knew that he wanted him to stay out here. He wanted him not to know what was happening in there.
“Please,” he said. He tried to poke his head through the door. He could see something on the table. A dress. Mom’s dress—the one from the hospital. It was covered in blood. Pops was clutching at it. He was sniffling.
But then there was the man standing in front of him.
“Stay,” the man hissed. “This is not a place for children.”
The door slammed an inch from Walter’s nose.
Pops had left him in the hallway. There was a chair. Walter didn’t want to take the chair. He started to walk.
He didn’t know where he was going. Not really. There were rooms coming off the hallway. Each one was labeled with a name—BARROW and ZEIGLER and DENNISON—but Walter didn’t know what those names or who they belonged to. They reminded him of the animal pens.
At the end of the hallway were two rooms with open doors. The room on the left side of contained a skinny, dark-haired woman. Her face was covered with red blotches like strawberry jam. She didn’t look at Walter. The sign read KIST.
In the other room was a woman who was fat. Very, very fat. Walter had never seen a woman so fat! Great rolls of flesh flubbed off her stomach. The fat woman looked at him. Her eyes were small and wet. They peeked out underneath the flesh. She said nothing.
“Where did you come from?” he asked. The question just popped out of his mouth. The fat woman said nothing. The question hung in the air between them.
At last the fat woman smiled and her jowls quivered with tiny little vibrations of laughter.
“From my mother,” she snorted, “who do you think?”
Walter wanted to leave. He wanted to go back to the chair, but he had talked to the woman. She was peering at him curiously. Like she had never seen a boy before. He knew he was in it now and deep too. He scuffed his shoes.
“Me too,” he said at last.
“My mother was a lion tamer.”
“She tamed lions?”
“Until the lions ate her.”
Walter again was silent. He watched the fat woman. Her stomach rippled and bulged. He wondered if she was hungry. He wondered if that’s why her stomach was moving like that.
“I like lions,” Walter said.
The fat woman shifted on her chair. It was like watching a tower of jelly move. Every part of her seemed like it spread in a different direction. She rippled. She fanned out.
“I like the lions as well.”
“Even though they ate your mom?”
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s what lions are there for. To eat things. Not much good a lion does otherwise.”
Walter turned to leave.
“Wait,” she said. “Do you want to see something, kid? Something special?”
“Sure,” Walter said uncertainly.
“Close the door.”
Walter went to the door. He thought about leaving. He thought about running back to his Pops and pounding on the door until they let him in. He thought about going home. He wanted to go home very badly. But he closed to the door. He turned back to the woman.
“Good,” she said. “Now watch.”
She squinted her eyes until there was barely anything left of them. She stuck out her tongue. For a moment, Walter thought she was holding her breath. Her face began to turn red. There were bright red splotches just below her eyes. Her neck was flushed. But now she was grunting. It was a deep, guttural sound. The sound a warthog makes.
And then the flesh of her stomach began to move.
It wasn’t just that she was shaking. It was that it was moving. It was crawling. Her shirt was pulled so tightly that Walter could see the way it rippled. There was a bulge. It pressed against the fabric. The woman let out a mighty grunt, and then a whoop.
But Walter was watching her stomach in wonder. The bulge became something recognizable. A nose. A nose pressing against the inside of her stomach. Suddenly another divot. Two. There were little nobs in the centre. Three of them. Like knuckles. And then the straining became more intense. The nobs pushed further and further until Walter could count toes.
“Bugger,” said the woman and she heaved herself out of the chair. She was shivering. The veins were standing out in her neck. And as she moved the fabric of her shirt finally gave with a tremendous ripping sound. Walter wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t. He was fixated. He was rapt. He could see her breasts hanging like old rucksacks. The nipples were round and brown and thick as rope.
Then, slowly, slowly, the ripping sound began again. But this time it was not fabric. No. Her shirt was in tatters from her shoulders. The tails fluttered as she heaved the breath into her lungs.
And the ripping continued.
And Walter could see the woman’s flesh beginning to split. Slowly. Slowly. An inch. Another inch. And through the tear came a tiny black nose. No bigger than a puppy’s, but with two giant nostrils pushed. And then an entire snout. The jaw was blunted. The lips flexed like a camel’s. A long tongue—as long as Walter’s hand!—darted out to taste the air. Then came the rest of the head. It had great jowls, furry, slicked with blood and slime. And Walter could see an ear matted into the fur, twitching.
“Watch—” grunted the woman. “She’s coming!”
And this time Walter did turn away. He didn’t want to watch anymore. He ran to the door, gulping at the air. He couldn’t breathe. The door wouldn’t open. His hands trembled on the handle. Slicked around it. He couldn’t get the thing to turn.
“There!” screamed the woman, “there! There!”
There was a popping sound. A deflation. The sound of a slow, wet fart.
“Boy,” the woman called. “Here, boy. Look.”
The woman’s stomach was torn open, and her eyes were white and round with pain. But she was pulling safety pins from the table beside her. A long string of them. And she was poking them through the skin. Her hands worked fast. She was very good at it. She barely had to look.
“Ugh,” said Walter.
And the woman gave a giant belly laugh that made the vast surface of her torn skin twitch and shoulder.
“Pass me a blanket,” she said hoarsely. “There, in the cupboard. Go on.”
Walter went to the cupboard and he pulled down an old gray blanket. The kind he had seen in the chimpanzee enclosures. The fabric was rough against his fingers, but the woman took it easily enough. Draped it around her shoulders. Her fingers pulled her stomach together.
“She’s a beauty,” the woman muttered.
At first Walter didn’t know what she was talking about. But then he followed her gaze, forced himself to look properly at the…thing. The rolly-polly ball of fur lying between her knees. It blinked at him, the eyes still unseeing. Or seeing for the first time.
The tongue darted out and touched his knee. Walter let out a yelp and leaped away from the beast.
“Careful,” the woman said. “She’ll startle easy. Keep down the noise, would you?”
“Okay,” Walter whispered. “Okay.”
“You can touch her if you like.”
Walter shook his head. He didn’t want to touch it.
“Go on then.”
Walter shook his head again, but this time he knelt down to get a better look. It looked something like bear, but not quite like a bear. The size of a German Shepherd, maybe. Maybe an anteater. Its eyes were close to its smooth, brown snout. Two pinpricks in a giant heap of fur. It looked a little like it was smiling. It looked a little like the fat woman.
Walter put out his hand carefully. The little thing reached up one of its own paws. It had three long claws and they curled very carefully around Walter’s thumb. He giggled. He couldn’t help it.
“What is she?” he asked. “It’s a she, yeah?”
“Megatherium,” she said. “The giant sloth. Died out, oh, ten thousand years ago. I’m mostly good for the Pliocene era. Mammoths. Stegodonts. Three-toed horses. Jeanine in the room over does cats.”
“Woah,” said Walter. He tilted his head. The sloth-thing tilted its head as well. Puckered its lips. “She’s beautiful!”
“I know,” said the woman. She reached down and she plucked the sloth-thing into her massive arms. She pulled it close to her face. Slowly. Slowly she began to lick at it. It was gross. Walter knew it should be gross but somehow it wasn’t gross. It was delicate. Like she was eating an ice cream cone. Lovingly she began to clean the sloth-thing with her tongue. Its eyes blinked. It let out a tiny murmur. It reached its spindly upper arms around her neck and nuzzled its head against her chin.
Walter watched in fascination. He wanted to hold the sloth-thing himself. He wanted to cradle it in his arms and feel its animal weight.
He reached toward it but the fat woman pulled away.
“She needs sleep now,” the fat woman said. She wiped her mouth across her wrist. She rested her chin down. Smiled when the sloth-thing’s long tongue touched the bottom of her cheek.
“Thank you,” Walter said, “for showing me that.”
The woman said nothing for a moment. Then she got a look on her face. “Well,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t have. But. You know.”
“I know why your dad is here.”
Walter thought about this for a moment. He didn’t know why Pops was here.
“It’s a survival instinct. You never lost a parent so you don’t know what it’s like.”
“You mean your mom? And the lion?”
The fat woman blinked. “I guess I do. It’s bewildering, you know. To realize that you are next. Link by link, generation by generation, the chain of your people are being pulled into death. And you are next—the link before you? Gone. Your last protection. But losing a child is different. It’s like seeing the end of the chain. Watching it dangle over the abyss. Your dad, well. He’s lost. But what we do here only works with animals. Not people. I’m sorry, kid.”
“Do you know how many mass extinctions this earth has seen?”
Walter stared at her. “What’s a mass extinction?” he asked.
“That’s when everybody dies. Everybody. All the animals. Wiped out. Just like that. An asteroid maybe. Or climate change. Whatever. It’s happened five times.”
“I don’t believe you,” Walter said.
The woman shrugged. “Fine,” she said. She gave a tremendous yawn. The sloth-thing stretched against her. Curled its snout into her giant breasts. It made little whimpering noises from time to time. “Whatever, kid. This little one here? Starved to death. Her mother died. Hunted by our ancestors. Maybe one of mine even. Ha. And she couldn’t feed herself. Not even with that great big tongue of hers.” The woman sighed. “But that was ages ago. Ages and ages.” She tickled the fur underneath the sloth-thing’s chin. “Just you wait. She’ll get big enough to knock down trees. Four tons. Like an elephant. Can you imagine that?” She bopped the sloth-thing on nose. The creature scrunched up its face, pawed at the air. “We wiped them out. Do you know why that is, kid?”
“No,” said Walter.
“Because we’re the last mass extinction. It’s us, kid. People are different than animals. Because we’re the next link. These ones fell before us. Now we’re slipping over the edge.”
Walter watched as the woman’s eyes drifted shut. Her thick lips let out a snort. Almost a snore.
And he thought about the hole that had swallowed Mom. Had almost swallowed him. It had a name now. Extinction. And right then he missed Mom with a viciousness that reminded him of one of the baby’s kicks. He wanted to curl up next to her. He wanted to nestle his head underneath her chin.
“I don’t believe you,” he whispered.
Walter went to the door. It was time to find Pops.
“Hey, kid, wait.” Walter turned back. The fat woman blinked her eyes fuzzily. Waved a hand toward him. “Just a second. Just a second, kid, you hear? What was your sister’s name?”
“I don’t have a sister,” he said.
“But you were supposed to, right? That’s why you’re here. What was her name going to be?”
“I don’t know,” said Walter. Then: “Emily.”
“Okay,” she said. “Emily is a pretty name. You wave goodbye to Emily.” The sloth-thing yawned delicately. Walter could see the white nubs of its teeth. “Come back soon, you hear? Then you’ll see something special. Emily’ll be something then.”
Feature image via 'Art Collection - The Metropolitan Museum of Art'