At the end of the day, Ray, the keeper, lets himself into the loft above Wild Critters Snack Shack with a small silver key. It’s a real key, a metal one, with sharp ridges and a little weight to it when it sits in Ray’s pocket all day, secured to his beltloop with a retractable lanyard. A real key for a real lock—no breath analysis, no retina scanner, no thumbprint ID, no facial recognition, no molecular DNA readout. Old-fashioned security for an old-fashioned establishment. Nostalgia, or something in that neighborhood.
The Snack Shack slings old-world fair food all day long, four fryers going at once to schluck out as many deep-fried donuts and battered onion rings as Ray’s hungry visitors can put away, and in the age of the peace treaties they can put away a lot. Folks spin out each day like they’re making up for the days before it, trying to unearth the years of living they missed in the war and wedge them into every hour of the new dawn. The new dawn seems to require a lot of onion rings.
The smell of smoking oil follows Ray deep into the upstairs loft, where the last of the sunshine is filtering across the rows of screens and dials and switches and levers. The energy meter bolted to the wall above the central monitor is still safely in the yellow. Every month, the tracker pushes into the red as the days tick past, but under Ray’s careful rationing, they’ve never once gone into the black.
And isn’t the park worth the luxury, worth the monthly fight against the meter? The tall loft windows look out over the park, and sometimes at the close of the day Ray stands up here for hours, just watching. The visitors have all gone home with their onion rings and their gift shop novelty refrigerator magnets, and the park is empty but for Ray in the loft and the maintenance crew below, sweeping the paths. And the animals. Of course the animals, the jaguars and giraffes and the family of warthogs, the pythons in their glass case and the parrots in the aviary, the zebras and lions and three kinds of bears, the water buffalos, the armadillos, the gazelles. All the Wild Critters of the earth, spread out before Ray like a well-planned village, everyone arranged neatly by region of origin over the acres of the park, lit by the golden glow of evening.
As the sun sinks lower, the light sparks: from the waves of the park’s lagoons, from the handrails and the metal fencing, from the informative plaques and the street signs. It sparks from the substance of the animals themselves, lancing through their glittering coats, through the thin transparency of their bodies. Ray approaches the windows and squints against the glare. It’s like watching a recording from life before the war, something on tech so old it stutters and fails, the emerging film grainy and insubstantial, a memory, a dream. It’s like watching ghosts.
Ray has been keeper so long his hands can work the controls by feel. His fingers find the master dial, the metal slick from use. One twist of the hand, one click to the left, and all at once, around the park, the animals fade with the dying sun.
The holograms are expensive, but it’s all in the setup fees. Things hum along cheaply, now—Ray’s even making money, enough to make payments towards his crushing buy-in debt. One eye on the energy meter and the zoo park nearly runs itself, a place for the old to bring the young, to point to the long-necked giraffes or the frenzy of the hyenas at feeding time and say, this is what it used to be. Before the war, before the peace. My small body, held in balance with an elephant. My fragile hands, meeting a chimpanzee’s through the glass. My soft voice, roaring with a lion. This, here, now, is nearly the same. Nearly.
Nearly. Ray is plagued by the word. Nearly as exotic, nearly as fascinating, nearly as wild. His holographic animals can run and bark and jump and eat their holographic hay. Nearly the same as the real thing. Nearly! And what is it? What is the difference? Ray spent months stalking the park paths, glaring into first one pen, then another. The howler monkeys weren’t loud enough. Fine, he upgraded the speakers. The tigers didn’t drip when they emerged from their lagoons. Very well, he refined the visuals. The elephant seemed detached, unreal, a trick, curling her weightless trunk just right but not, in the end, striking at the heart of the matter, the essence of elephant-ness. Ray pumped in the hot smell of elephant shit and felt the weight of failure. And of course Ray keeps away from the elephant pen, when he can.
Nearly. Nearly the same.
When Ray was a boy, his mother brought him to the old zoo park daily as the war reached its zenith. His mother had a terrible fear of being trapped in their tenth-floor apartment if a bomb should fall from the sky. The open spaces were better, she said. Better for her nerves, at least, and better for young Ray, who jangled about the apartment if left to himself, tipping over boxes to hear the crash, jumping on beds, pressing his face to the windows,wishing for wings, for powerful jumping legs, for a body strong enough to break away and run forever, away from the warning sirens and scurrying people, and away from the way his mother’s face looked when she watched the live coverage from the North Sea, the wobbly footage of the Cyrillic painted on the sides of drones.
The zoo was better only in that Ray could run himself ragged up and down the park paths, leaving his mother to take anxiety pills on the bench near the snow leopards. It was good for her to be beyond the four walls of the apartment, where Ray would watch her pace back and forth across the kitchen with a wooden spoon in one hand and her phone in the other, endlessly scrolling through updates from the war, dinner forgotten on the stove. Ray felt it himself at the zoo, the freedom of movement, the sense that all the world was a long road to run down. At home, they both spent a lot of time glancing at the locked apartment door.
Ray lost entire afternoons of his childhood watching animals. The brown bears wore a long furrow in the false rock of their pen pacing back and forth, eyes glassy, tongues out and panting. The chimpanzees screamed and beat their heads against the glass viewing windows. The tiger’s cage still had bars, the sort that modern zoos had mostly abandoned because they made the visitors feel bad, and the lone tiger held within spent hours chewing at them, wearing deep bloody sores into the corners of his mouth. In the aviary, the cockatoos plucked out all their own feathers. Ray’s fingers jittered over his own skin as he watched. He imagined the rip of it, a terrific bloody business, yank yank yank. He wished he had his own feathers to pull.
As the dogfighting from the Russian dugout in Scotland advanced towards the Eastern Seaboard, the schools closed and Ray spent every day with his mother. They passed the frozen winter months at the zoo, the sky overhead a blue so clear it was like a drawing in a picture book, marred only by the contrails of fighter jets making for the Atlantic. The zoo did not close because the animals still needed to eat, and with the trade embargo in place and inflation stopgaps failing, admission fees were more important than ever.
In February of that year the city froze for so long and so hard that the elephant could not come out of her stall to walk her endless laps. Her feet rotted from the lack of movement and she had to be shot in the head. The zoo did it at night, and Ray did not hear the gunshot, but the next day he stared into a pen that was a different kind of empty than it had been the day before and thought he heard the echoes in the falling snow.
The dead elephant was a long time ago. There’s no need for gunshots or their echoes in the holo zoo, nor is there a need for fallout shelters built next to the snake house or warning sirens mounted on the roof of the Snack Shack. Small boys still waste their energy racing up and down the park paths, but now their mothers post photos from their chip phones of the whole family smiling. The zoo has become a study spot for local college students, who park their tablet screens in the pavilions surrounding the peacock lawn. The war is something they cover in their history books, the trade embargo a lecture for econ theory. Ray reminds himself that this is a good thing.
It’s the beginning of summer and the world is meeting the season with vigor, green and blue and warm in a way that Ray, a man with one eye always on the winter, finds a surprise. The park is full of visitors in sun hats and good spirits. The college students exchange their homework for picnic blankets spread on the lawn. They cackle with laughter when one of the peacocks walks through them, joyful with the way the birds’ jeweled tails disappear into the mass of a living body and reappear on the other side. Even Ray finds himself lifting his face to the sun, and in the loft above the Snack Shack he fiddles with switches and dials until he’s increased the animation of the animals to record levels. It will drain the energy rations, but the sunshine has put Ray in a mood for excess.
He walks the park himself to observe the results of his extravagance, marching up and down the long steep paths. He watches the brown bears splash in their stream, the tigers play-fight in the shade, the chimpanzees swing themselves around their network of ropes. He stays away from the elephant pen. All the animals are awake and energized, raising their snouts to sniff the breeze, and Ray watches them until the sun makes him sweaty and tired and he can no longer ignore the hollow weight in his chest. His face is frozen as he watches the hippopotamus surface from her pool, yawning hugely around the posts of her ivory. He examines this feeling in himself with a sense of frustration. He’s just like the other old grandfathers, watching the wonders of his expensive holograms and wishing for the days when any man could trap a cougar in a cage and charge a dollar to see it snarl.
When Ray powers down the zoo for the night, the energy meter is pushed halfway into the red. With the rest of the month to go, Ray will need the animals at low animation, sleeping mostly, slowly walking the limits of their pens. He tries very hard to care one way or the other.
Ray thinks about his zoo all day and late into the night, sitting up in bed as a powerful thunderstorm rips open the sky. He watches the flashing at the edges of his drawn curtains, a light show that seems to go on and on. Thunder rolls overhead, loud and louder. He stops thinking of his zoo and thinks instead of the fighter jets of his youth, manned and unmanned, all of them shaking the air. What a time they had in those days, the whole city packing the dance clubs and the dive bars and the zoo park, everyone clutched together in a desperate need to bear witness to something alive.
The thunder overhead vibrates in the walls. But of course there are no more bombs to fear.
In the morning Ray fits his key to the loft above the Snack Shack and knows immediately that something is wrong. There is no gentle humming of machines, no blink of monitors. He turns the slick master dial to the right again and again, but nothing happens. Then he looks at the energy meter. The tiny orange arrow is pointing all the way into the black.
The city service tech Ray calls on his chip phone is sympathetic but unyielding. It was the storm, no doubt about it. Rations will be reset at the beginning of July, exceptions only for the hospitals, the fire stations, those establishments essential for life.
There are two weeks until July. Ray spends the day turning visitors away at the gates. Most are understanding. The mothers will take their young sons to other parks, ones with living squirrels that dart about with trembling whiskers, creeping so close that their tiny thrumming hearts stand out from their chests. It bothers Ray, the way his visitors’ plans change so easily. Not once does someone say to him, “Where am I supposed to go?”
The zoo of Ray’s youth finally closed when the city evacuated. When Ray saw them last, the animals were thin, prone to savaging each other in the night when the keepers went home. Ray remembers a leopard dragging her mangled hind leg, unable to climb her imitation tree. She paced behind the layers of steel mesh separating her from Ray, back and forth, back and forth, pulling the leg behind her. Ray hooked his fingers in the mesh links and watched her for two hours. He saw in her face that the walking was painful. The other leopard, the mangler, slept on a ledge high in the enclosure, pendulum tail hanging down. Neither acknowledged the other’s existence.
The next morning Ray and his mother arrived at the zoo to find the gates shut tight. His mother’s hand closed tight around Ray’s, crushing his fingers. Slowly they turned around, back down the street, towards home. Riot police stood to attention in the mouths of the shops. An open truck filled with silent soldiers rumbled past. A jet screamed overhead. His mother led them back to their apartment with her head down. Late that night, his mother’s phone began an emergency alert wail that no amount of button-pushing could silence. They packed, and left.
Without its holograms, Ray’s zoo park is nothing but a collection of empty pens. Ray wanders the silent park paths for days, leaning over the railings, watching the grass grow tall and come out in patches of clover. The quiet hums through the park, through the cold Snack Shack fryers and the bare peacock lawn, pushing its way into the tangle of Ray’s thoughts with a sort of soundless buzzing. He’s nervy with it, moving restlessly from one pen to the next, watching dragonflies alight on the surface of ten different water features but not, of course, the one in the elephant pen. The path leading to the African Veld looms before him again and again, wide and untraveled, beckoning. There’s a knot in his gut, as if he is waiting for something, some great event lurking around the corner, some marvelous catastrophe. The anticipation zings within him. In some ways, it is more than he has felt in his zoo in years.
At night Ray can’t sleep; in the day he can’t sit still. It is as if he is a boy again, that small boy who bounced around the apartment, who raced up and down the zoo paths, who wished with all his heart for wings. His fingers drum against his folded arms as he glares into an empty pen. June is drawing to a close, and in a few days the bare ground beyond the fence will be full of twelve small penguins and a holographic ice floe. He glances to his left, at the signpost marking the juncture of paths. This way to the lions, to the gazelles, to the elephant. Ray has the nonsensical feeling that he is running out of time.
On the final evening of June, Ray brings a small black energy drive to the control room above the Snack Shack. The drive plugs into the main console and the system lights up with a weak yellow glow. The drive is weak, meant to recharge a dying chip phone or tablet, not to power a hologram network. But Ray is only planning for a single animal. Tomorrow, he feels sure, will be too late.
He leans against the fence of the elephant pen in the light of the setting sun. The hologram inside dwarfs the young linden trees planted along the edge of the pen, a great African female, tusks as long as Ray’s arm, gray sides rising like bellows with imaginary breath. Ray watches her loop her trunk around the middle of a holographic tree branch and lift it over her head, this immense warrior with her battering ram. The detailing on her hide is exact. The musky, rich smell pumped in from the hidden valves carries on the breeze. The speakers play her snorts and footfalls. It is nearly the same as the real thing. Nearly. Nearly the same. Ray grits his teeth in a sudden impotent fury. Nearly, nearly, nearly, nearly. Nearly the same! Ray imagines the elephant swinging her tree branch against the symbolic walls of her pen, imagines her knocking out a hole for herself, the crash it would make. He imagines her racing towards him, the great gray barque of her body bearing him down. In his vision, when the figure of the hologram with all of its trickery of photons and energy passes straight through the meat of his body, it is as if she is the one who is real and he the one with no more substance than a shimmer of heat.
Ray is struck then with the image of the elephant of his youth, from long before she went lame and was shot in the head. When it came time to leave the zoo at night, his mother could always find him at her pen. They would stand together for a moment, his hand in hers, watching the elephant sway back and forth. Her sallow head would swing like a pendulum, like dancing, like a long sad song was always playing in her mind. It occurs to Ray that he’s never seen the holographic elephant do this. He is overwhelmed with a bone-deep exhaustion. He does not want to watch the holographic elephant any longer. Ray stumbles back a few paces to the bench in front of the pen and sits down heavily, closing his eyes as the tide of his childhood boils up around him. Oh, take him back! Let him go back to the old time, those days when the world knew how to dance, how to flutter every moment on the wingtip of disaster, how to dare an itchy trigger finger to go ahead and pull. That old song—it sounded like echoes of a gunshot in the February snow, a tune anyone could whistle. A melody everybody knew, back then, elephants and people too. It came in with the morning news and kept you two-stepping all day long. You heard it on the breeze, you drank it in the water, you ate your fill and asked for more.
For Ray, the new dawn has been nothing but a beat of silence that goes on and on and on.
Ray was very young at the start of the war, before the first shots were fired, before the half-hearted diplomacy dried up. The zoo struggled in those days to compete with the hundreds of attractions a lively city had to offer, playhouses and restaurants and weekend festivals. But Ray and his mother still came, because there were animal shows. Red and blue macaws sailed from fist to fist and kookaburras laughed on cue, and in the elephant pen the young female stood on her hind legs and took faltering steps across the bare earth. Her huge body was unstable in the air, not built for two legs, but when she came down the keepers would coax her back up. They held black rods tipped with shining silver hooks that bit into the muscle of her limbs. She squealed and shied away and up she went again, lifting her front legs out of reach. For a boy as small as Ray, it was glorious to see, a creature as big as a city bus rearing like a stallion in an old western movie. It was better than a movie. It was happening here, now, in front of him. Ray looked up at his mother, but she was not smiling. “It’s all the same,” she whispered, and Ray turned back to see a bright bloom of blood where the bullhook sank in too deep. One of the keepers hurried to douse the flow with a dark gray powder. A strange feeling started in Ray’s chest, and his mother squeezed his hand so tight all of his fingers went numb.
The holo zoo falls silent, speakers shutting off with a click. Ray opens his eyes to find the pen empty, the energy drive gone dead. A true black night has fallen, and in the darkness, Ray understands what he has been missing.