You hang up and turn back to the row of children watching you, half-excitedly, half-fearfully. You are in the middle of a demonstration. A tarantula crawls in its slow, absorbed way along the arm of your khaki uniform. The hairy legs lift mechanically. You finish your lecture with every semblance of calm, gesturing to the tarantula’s pedipalps and spinnerets.
Two days later, your former mother-in-law calls. The zoo is full to brimming in the warm weather. Children sprint past the Reptile House and the Aviary. Parents shout futile instructions. Babies add their shrieks to the din. Beneath it all, the animals make themselves heard: a lion’s roar, the elephant’s boom. When your phone buzzes, you answer against your better judgment.
The conversation is short. Colleen has never liked you. Despite a decade of “accidents”—despite the black eye you had one Thanksgiving, the bandaged wrist at Easter—despite that dreadful night, three years ago now, when the neighbors intervened—despite the squad car, the ambulance—despite the five surgeries you endured—despite her son being packed off to prison—Colleen has never once wavered in her belief that the whole matter is entirely your fault.
Even now, over the phone, her distaste is clear.
“Doug would like to see you,” she says.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” she says. “Can he come by your work?”
You tell her no. You tell her no, no, no. You tell her to pass that message along: no. Then you hang up, your hands shaking.
He comes in the evening, one week later. The zoo has just closed for business when there is a gentle knock at your office door. Doug looks smaller than you remembered. He is clutching his hat in both hands. Your heart leaps into your throat, beating like wings.
In that moment, the thing is decided. You take a steadying breath. You are prepared for this. You have a plan.
“I want to talk. We need to talk,” he says, but you preempt him, holding up a finger.
“Come with me,” you say.
You take him through the back channels of the zoo. He trails after you, bewildered. This is not what you wanted. You had hoped against hope for something different. Your no has never had the power to stop Doug before. But perhaps, against all odds, prison might have changed him.
“We should talk,” he says again.
“Of course,” you say. “Right in here.”
You open a door and gesture him inside. Then you slam it shut and peer through the window. A swarm of gibbons is already in motion. Doug screams as their deft hands rain down on him. They are yanking at his hair, tugging it out by the roots. Tufts of brown float on the air.
When you let him out, he is disoriented and breathless, as bald as an egg.
“This way,” you say.
The next stop is the aviary. You shove Doug through a door and watch the vultures open their black wings. Their talons swipe cleanly. They carve out his eyes, those damp blue marbles. They snap off his fingers and carry them away like twigs. You wait for him to stop howling, to reach the stage of shock, gasping and still. Then you lead him onward.
It takes all night. The zoo is methodical and thorough in its work, but slow. The vampire bats descend in a cloud, draining Doug’s blood, leaving him ice-pale and shivering. The lions, for their part, are not particularly hungry. They bat Doug around for a while. One female experimentally chews on his hand, leaving a red, mangled stump. The giraffe, on the other hand, takes swift action, shattering Doug’s ribcage with a single kick.
Night has fallen by this time. The moon is blurred by wet clouds. Before your eyes, the silverback gorilla tears off Doug’s foot, hurling it contemptuously across the pen. The rhino—always in a foul mood—delivers one swipe and lumbers irritably away again, Doug’s intestines now looped around its horn like a necklace. The sand cat is subtler, burying Doug’s ears in the turf, saving them for later. The naked mole rats nibble at his skin.
At last, you stand outside the coyote pen. Inky shapes circle in the gloom. You hear a crunch, a damp growl. Soon it will be done.