The animals stood in rows. Two of each. A gray shoulder flinched. A floppy ear twitched. Both gorillas stretched their necks. A felt-tipped tail flicked. The little boy imagined they were sleeping standing up. He’d learned some animals did that.
The boy narrowed his eyes. His nose was inches away. There was a smell he’d never smelled before, but it reminded him of his dusty hands after he finished playing in the sandbox with the other kids. He moved his head back.
Lingering heat from the Safari Kit’s open doors warmed the kitchen. The black and purple industrial plastic box creaked as it cooled. It took up nearly half the dining room table and was half as tall as the boy. Stickers on its sides depicted scenes from the jungle. The mother peered into the box’s open metal doors, at the intricate trove of bent and winding aluminum pieces. A pencil-thin red laser shone in the back. She had no desire to learn how it worked. The toys they made for kids these days were not like the toys she’d had growing up. This was almost witchcraft, but people like her husband called it “modern advancement” and “scientific achievement.” There was something unsettling about it.
At the other end of the room, at the bar, the father perched on a stool. He talked to Mr. Duncan, an old family friend and longtime business partner. With one hand the father twirled a pen. He did not do it well. Every couple of seconds it clattered onto the polished bar top and rolled.
While the animals flexed their miniature limbs, or yawned, or stretched their bodies, the mother shielded her hands with a pair of pink potholders to lift the metal tray and move it to the bar. She had twenty seconds before they’d start their march, and she didn’t want to disappoint the boy. The handles were not hot—they were designed to be touched without potholders, and the directions said so—yet she used the pink ones anyway. She set the tray atop the bar, on the opposite end from the father. She was careful not to disturb the living things.
Mr. Duncan’s shimmering body hovered just above the bar stool, although his posture did not fit that of a man sitting on a stool, but rather in an overstuffed chair. He was cast from a flat metal box with a pinhole of flickering light streaming from one of its sides. The box sat next to the father. On top of that was clipped a small camera into which the father spoke, at times smiled, and at times looked away.
It just seemed bogus, the way they carried on. That particular model was not the latest, and the mother had been pushing her husband to order the superior, higher-definition device. There were many reasons to have the most cutting edge technology. Like experiencing someone you’d never be able to meet in person. Like someone you met randomly online and found, through chance conversation, that you were perfect for each other. How could you ignore someone when he made you feel as though you lived in a fairytale? She envisaged the show that Marco from Spain had promised to give her the next time she was home alone. Maybe tomorrow afternoon, when the boy would be taking his lessons. Even better if she could press her husband to buy the sense adapter which boasted the ability to “send from afar electric impulses like real life touches.” But she was told the sense adapter was expensive, as if his extended business trips were not costly.
The boy stepped onto the rungs of a stool and plopped onto the padded seat. He peered over the tray’s walls. The mother reminded him to close his mouth. “It is improper to breathe that way,” she said.
Per the instructions, the mother released the small swinging gate at the far end of the rectangular metal tray. On cue the animals started forward. Two by two. Marching orderly and without fear. They weren’t engineered to, but if they did go wild and run all over the place, the mother had slipped the neon green flyswatter into her back pocket. She also counted them lest any be missing at the end. She didn’t think she could handle finding one beneath the couch cushions.
A tiny blast trumpeted out of the elephant’s raised trunk. The boy’s eyes widened. He clapped his hands. The mother’s muscles tightened. “Don’t frighten them,” she said. Why was she so hard on the boy? “Just watch them.”
Next in line trudged the hippos. They plodded, nothing special really, keeping two precise inches between their noses and the elephants’ back ends.
The boy stared at the giraffes. One held its head high. The other had its neck lowered. The boy’s attention skipped to the lions and tigers.
The father glanced at the stiff procession treading toward him. His voice faltered. The pen dropped from his fingers. He regained his thought and carried on with his conversation, although in starts and stops.
The boy’s tiny finger reached toward the tiger. “Don’t touch it,” the mother said. “You don’t touch them.”
He withdrew his finger. He wanted nothing more than to pet the kitty. To pet the tiger’s black stripes on its orange coat and white collar under its neck.
The tiger hadn’t reacted to the looming finger. Why not? the mother thought, disappointed. Just a snarl. Or swipe of a claw. Not to hurt the boy, of course, but because that’s what tigers did. The mother was pleased the beasts did not act like real beasts, but shouldn’t they at least have the instinct to protect themselves?
And then the boy saw the gorillas. Nimbly they carried their front weight on their fists. They shook their heads and picked at the hair on their legs and chests. The male stood tall, looked around—what did he actually see?—and then lowered to all fours and ambled on.
A notification pinged on the mother’s mobile device. She’d set it next to the wall, away from the animals, well before they were done cooking. They hadn’t cooked, she knew. But what? Ripened? Bloomed? Baked by radioactive precision? She glanced at her device. A note sent by the refrigerator. An updated inventory. A shopping list for next week. She pushed the order button, then swiped aside the application as she watched the animals, and the boy, too, as he watched. She wished they’d be done already. And why hadn’t Marco sent a goodnight message?
The father swiveled the camera unit to face the boy and the parading animals.
“How do they get them to march in a line like that?” Mr. Duncan asked. His image flickered as he shifted in his chair. “How does the whole thing work, period?” he asked.
“It’s all ones and zeroes,” the father answered. “It’s information plugged in just right, down to a cellular level. The proper heat and chemical reactions to get the amino acids to snap together and the molecules to line up. Hell, I’m surprised they didn’t figure that out when I was a boy.”
“You’re not a biologist,” the mother said. She had her arms on the bar in case she’d have to pummel the tiger or the lion with the swatter if they leapt onto the boy’s face.
“I’m not that,” the father said, “but I’m right about the programming. They cracked the code.”
“I forgot you know everything,” the mother said. “Maybe you can tell me why the cats don’t attack the giraffes, or why the hippos don’t charge the cats, or why the gorillas don’t yank the tigers’ tails?”
“Would you two stop bickering,” Mr. Duncan said. His voice came hoarse through the speakers. “It’s bittersweet a person can’t see them naturally anymore. But marvelous just the same to experience them in your own living room. I suppose I’ll have to get one for my granddaughters or they’ll disown me. How much did it run you?”
“Plenty enough.” The father rotated the old man back toward him and continued his discussion. “It’s going to be an ugly Monday morning, boy-o. You’ll have to do some editing before the board even considers voting on it.”
The marching slowed. The animals swayed. A giraffe stumbled and fell. It knocked over its partner. Both tried to stand. Neither had the strength. One toothpick leg kicked the air.
The little boy leaned in close, but not too close. An elephant pitched forward. Its trunk and tusks dove into the hardwood, leaving a barely perceptible scratch. Its skin, the boy noticed now, was very similar to the wrinkled leather in his grandfather’s car—the one that was so old it didn’t self-drive.
The second giraffe raised its head quickly, like a snake might dart out of its coil. The boy flinched. The mother caught herself breathing through her mouth. She closed it and transferred her thoughts to Marco from Spain. How tempting the accent was. He was married, too. So he understood the problems that came with such a precarious social arrangement.
A lion croaked a roar that the boy could hardly hear. Its front paw caught and bent beneath its leg. The dusty yellow king of the jungle bowled over. His mouth stretched open and snapped shut.
The gorillas stood on their hind legs and watched the other animals falter. For a second, the mother thought they weren’t going to collapse like they were supposed to. Could she kill them if she had to? Not in front of her son. The flyswatter wouldn’t be enough. Could she stomp on them with her boots? They weren’t mice, exactly. But what were they? Did they have real guts? Could she drown them in the sink? They were too bulky to flush down the toilet. She imagined them crawling up the inside of the porcelain bowl, toward her, with their soaked hirsute arms swinging around the edge and lifting them over. Goodness, what if they didn’t die?
How it was orchestrated so well, so timely, she didn’t know. Did their microscopic hearts quit beating as if on a timer? Did the gorillas know they were next? Was it painful? The male beat its chest with its fists. The female did, too. She used open palms. The boy and his mother could hear the slapping sounds. The male fell. The female wrenched open her mouth and set free a howl past her pink gums and blocky off-white teeth. Eleven beasts had sprawled out in two tidy lines before her.
When all the animals were still, the mother used the plastic scooper and shovel that was generously included in the Wild Safari Kit to scrape up the remains. She stopped beside the lion. The white skin beneath the soft fur over its rib cage looked thin as paper. She dared not touch the creature with her finger. She poked it with the sharp purple edge of the scooper. It left a pink scratch on its belly. She scratched the belly harder until a drop of blood formed. She stopped. The boy’s eyes were upon her.
At the dining table the mother made a face as she tilted the scoop toward the open hatch of the iron incinerator hooked to the back end of the kit. She didn’t know the boy was standing behind her, holding his hands to his chest. She pushed the beasts off one or two at a time with the shovel. They hit the bottom with a plunk. The mother consulted the single sheet of directions. She reached into the colorful cardboard box on the floor and lugged a metal cloche onto the table. Its edges sank into the light blue embroidered tablecloth. She pressed a switch at the rear end of the kit and a gear whirred within. As quickly as possible, she hoisted the cloche and lowered it until it was snug.
“Well, how damn long should they last?” the father was asking Mr. Duncan. “How long is a child’s attention span, anyway? I wouldn’t want to have to feed the little suckers. Besides, it’s how they get around it being inhumane.”
“I suppose you’re right,” the old man said. “Just seems like a waste. All that life for two minutes. Just seems like a shame.”
“All that life, but hardly lively,” the father said. “I’d go for the rainforest pack next time. Snakes and parrots and whatever else.”
“Just seems like a shame,” the old man said again.
A light smell, acrid enough to make the mother cough, floated out from beneath the cloche. It was not unexpected. The directions had warned that a faint odor might linger
She thought the smell would disturb the boy, but he was gone, playing in another room.