END OF A ZOO
The Louisville Zoo was closed. The sun was setting. Professor Fourier and her inferior, Postdoctoral fellow Dr. Karl Winthrop, rushed to finish the day's work.
The laboratory was in a state of permanent frozen chaos. Dirty beakers and test tubes were strewn throughout. Used Tupperware with mohawks of pubescent mold had sat so long in their spots they were now considered part of the furniture and ignored.
The previous thirty-eight months had taken a dire toll on them. The stress broke the group first, then came for each individually. They hadn't had assistants in so long. The janitorial work, completed hurriedly at the beginning of the calamity, was soon done to a subpar standard, and then done not at all. Trash bags of discarded pipettes and agar plates littered their main working area, creating tidal eddies of movement where they were forced to walk around the spilling garbage.
The overworked pair sometimes indulged in near-erotic nostalgia about what it used to be like when they had their small army of assistants. The perky undergraduates who, for criminally low wages, references, and credits, cleaned the enclosures, monitored the apes, took out the trash, prepared fresh media, drafted the papers, dusted the countertops, washed the test tubes, beakers, and flasks, provided free therapy and light conversation, and even--
"Who was that girl who always shared her food? Zozo?"
"Zaza-" Professor Fourier corrected. "I think about her a lot."
"How do you think she's doing?"
Zaza was the last to leave. At their final lunch together as a group, she held back her tears as she chewed.
"T-thank you." She stammered. "For letting me work here. I love the animals." The plate of crystallized ginger cookies, baked both for the apes and for the humans, sat untouched. Both Karl and the Professor refused to eat her gift, knowing that once they took the first bite, her loss would become real.
"We should be thanking you." The professor met her gaze, wet-eyes to wet-eyes.
"We're very sorry to see you go. Things will be tough without you." Karl added.
"I don't want to go!" Zaza said, wobbly. "It's just that, there's no one else to take care of my dad... And I can't quit my other job... I'm sorry..."
Karl reached across the table and placed his hand on her arm.
"It's OK. Everything will turn out OK."
Zaza grasped his hand as tears spilled from her eyes.
Once Zaza left, it began the years of Lead. Trapped between inescapable debt, three decades combined of single-minded dedication to their research topics, love for their apes without anyone else to care for them, escalating publication standards and dropping pay, the professor and her battle-worn postdoc were locked into a scientific death spiral. They took 3 meals a day plus a snack in the laboratory and brushed their teeth in the lab sink. They hadn't visited their apartments in months. The sheets on their cots were stained. They spent 90% of their time in each other's company, tense silence punctuated by the sounds of scientific labor, the clinking of glass, the weighing of powder.
To keep their jobs, they were simultaneously performing 13 experiments linked to 4 in-progress papers at any given time. Studying simultaneously the effects of artificial sweeteners on Great Ape psychology, physiology, and group behavior, as well as exposing them to plastics, PFOAs, and unnamed experimental military materials. Besides the official experiments, a set of unofficial experiments in pushing the boundaries of Great Ape care were occurring, such as what happens when a group of Juvenile Western Gorillas are exposed to poor cleaning of their enclosures, inconsistent feeding schedules, and reduced patience from their caretakers.
That particular unofficial experiment was going badly. The Gorillas grew restless. Fights broke out between distressed group members and there was nobody to break them up. They gave each other injuries. There was no one to heal them. The Gorillas weren't alone in that: new self-harm wounds appeared on Karl's hands and thighs. Straight scars and burn pockmarks. The Professor noticed them but hadn't the faintest energy to bring them up. She was drowning too. Drugs came to the laboratory, weighed on the powder scales. Stimulants to get the morning started, depressants to be able to sleep as the Gorillas howled and fought. Standard issue street drugs and experimental hypnotics shipped from the web. The pair were amazed the mail was even still running at that point. They were always a very disciplined pair, so their slide into chemical dependence shocked themselves, at first. But then, it just became part of survival. Adderall instead of food. Vyvanse instead of joy. Alcohol instead of calmness. Hypnotics instead of rest, opiates instead of love.
Things got worse and they didn't get better. Their calls to help to the administration were answered at first by pleading voices, then the calls rang with nobody to answer them. The only people left were frantic, the only thing working was the power. Animals escaped their confines but there were no workers to chase them down. They were left to their fate, a new addition to Louisville's fauna, a shock to the confined animals who found themselves wild once more.
The Louisville Zoo was closed. The sun was setting. Occasionally, in their only moments of respite, the Professor and Karl liked to sit together in the grass outside and watch the Sun pass behind the horizon. It was one of the last beautiful things that was free. The sunsets were more spectacular than ever, explosions of color more vibrant than could be captured by artists, their hues more dire and haunting than an apparition of death.
"Do you think we're gonna get out of this?" Karl asked her.
"I don't know, Karl."
They didn't say anything else. They could barely speak anymore. They were lucky if they ever saw anything but grimacing and exertion in each other's faces. They clothes grew dirty. Slowly they lost their human names, knowing one another only as the other one. Slowly they began to love each other more and more, and understand what was happening less and less. A desperate love, a fierce love of sweat and survival, beyond eroticism and beyond romance, the kind of love only shared by those who confronted death together. A totally silent love of shared trust.
Eventually the supplies stopped coming in the mail for their experiments. So the experiments stopped. And then soon after, money stopped appearing in their accounts. Then the power became intermittent and the power locks on their doors started failing. Still, they were working desperately, no longer on science, just trying to keep all the animals alive, even animals they knew nothing about. They ran around the zoo, trying to keep everyone fed, losing weight because they were eating the same food the animals were eating.
One day, it was finally the end. Professor Fourier ran to her car. She fumbled with the lock. She needed help, supplies, labor, a savior, the second coming, anything at all that could be spared. She opened the door. She jumped in the driver seat. She reached for the wheel-- she couldn't remember what to do next. How did the car start again? It had been so long since she had driven, that she couldn't remember how. Mixed in 3 different direction by two stimulants and three tranquilizers, she ran her shaking hands across the buttons on the dashboard, confused, twirling knobs at random.
"So this is it?" She thought.
She slumped against the steering wheel and cried a helpless cry of a child. A cry of defeat she had held in during those breathless years of lead. Decades of work. She didn't even know if the servers that held her countless papers were even online anymore or had power.
"AAAAAAGGGHHHHHH!" She screamed, punching the ceiling of her car, pounding the dash, pulling bits of dash instrument board loose. She leapt from the car and left the keys in it.
That was indeed it.
She returned to the lab. Excrement slept in puddles on the floor from where Karl was losing control of his bowels. Self-harm scars traced in figure-eights up his arms and legs like the tattoos of a warlord. This was the end of two warriors, and it was a hard end.
"It's time." The professor said. Karl nodded.
The pair limped to the Gorilla habitat and hoisted the gate open, propping the doors open with sticks from the habitat as all the power controls had failed.
"Come here Zaza!" Professor Fourier beckoned. A female adolescent made her way hesitantly to the gate of the enclosure.
"It's okay, honey. Come on through." The Professor's voice shook as she waved the young Gorilla through the gate.
Zaza stepped timidly out of the gate and into a new world.
The other Gorillas soon followed. The pair of scientists lead them out the lab exit, previously used only by humans. The Gorillas looked pretty damn confused. But then again, everyone was confused.
Professor Fourier and Karl walked through the zoo, propping the doors of the enclosures open for any of the animals that were still alive. They carried tortoises out by hand and scooped freshwater fish into the Ohio. They made ramps for armadillos, released Macaws and Parakeets into the blue sky, opened the doors to predator enclosures and ran the hell away. It was chaos as animals hunted animals they'd never hunted before and animals got eaten who'd never been eaten before. After a few days, the only animals left were the same deer and squirrels that were always there.
And then, finally, Professor Fourier and Karl walked out of the zoo for the last time. They plopped down on the grass outside. The zoo was closed, for the last time. The sun was setting. Herds of wild animals streamed from the zoo, the Louisville flora and fauna totally unfamiliar to their past knowledge of a tiny enclosure, frozen in time. They mourned the previous fake panoramas they had inhabited, not knowing that those painted rocks and manicured ferns were not the whole world. And now they inherited the world, made domesticated then made wild again.
"We're the same as them." Karl said.
"What do you mean?"
"We're wild again too."
"I love you, Karl."
"I love you too."
The sunset over Louisville that night was the most beautiful one they had ever seen.