After the worst of the heat has passed, the girl slips out of her father’s toolshed carrying a pair of leather gloves and a set of bolt cutters. She mounts a rickety ten-speed and pedals into the night. The handles of the bolt cutters stick out of her backpack on either side of her head like short horns.
Abandoned cars, their paint jobs faded by ultraviolet light and pockmarked by hailstones, clutter the streets. Firelight flickers in only a few of the ruined concrete houses jumbled on either side of the cracked asphalt. The girl backtracks and detours rather than pass in front of them.
She pedals until she escapes the city and coasts down a stretch of intact interstate until she reaches the fracture zone. There she abandons pavement for dirt and sets to climbing a long incline.
A gap-toothed sign reads “an Dieg Anim Park.” The girl veers right, onto the access road, bypassing the ruined ticket booth adorned with crumbling statues of animals that used to inhabit the globe. She lets the bike glide to a stop and rests the soles of her sneakers on the hardpacked dirt. She wipes sweat from her forehead and waits for her breathing to slow.
The giraffe stands on the other side of cyclone fence. Its puzzle-piece hide hangs dully over ribs and hip bones. The animal strains toward dusty leaves clinging to a dying cypress. Its blue-black tongue curls around nothing but dry air.
The trees growing on the far side of the dirt road are still green. Heavy metals and organic chlorides have killed the trees that once grew closer to the river. Algal blooms have choked out the fish the microplastics didn’t kill.
Few of the imprisoned animals that filled the zoo survive. Buzzards and rats have prospered.
The girl dismounts and leans her bike against the fence. The giraffe steps away from the dying tree and faces her.
The girl blocks the bike’s tires with loose stones and wedges the handlebars into the metal mesh. She dons the gloves, grabs the bolt cutters, and climbs her bike. She stands on the seat and cuts as high as she can reach.
The giraffe stands immobile, its eyes obsidian-dark in the moonlight.
By the time the girl finishes cutting, her hands are blistered under the oversize gloves. She ties the rope to the loose section of chain link and walks backward. The slit in the fence widens into a hole.
The giraffe takes a step backward.
The girl ties off the line. “It’s okay,” she says. “I’m not coming in.” She stows the bolt cutters in her pack and steps away from the fence.
The giraffe ducks through the opening and walks unsteadily to the trees on the far side of the road. When it has eaten its fill, it walks downhill toward the reservoir. The girl follows, pushing her bike.
She doesn’t see the two sets of bootprints on the other side of the road.
Cracked tires and chunks of concrete litter the gravel-and-sand beach that rings the polluted reservoir. The trees are thicker here. Jumbled mounds of boulders mark the course of floods long past. The air is still; the lake motionless. Across the water, stars dim as dawn nears.
The girl drops her bike into the sand before she reaches the stinking mud closest to the waterline.
The giraffe picks its right front foot up and sets it down in the mud. It scents the air and turns its head from side to side.
The girl sits crosslegged in the sand.
Behind the closest boulder mound, a man wipes his eyes with a sunburned hand and looks again. He turns and whispers, “Kenny.”
Kenny wakes silently. He twitches his nearly colorless eyebrows. A silent question.
“The Lord has delivered us a feast,” the first man whispers. “We must not waste His bounty.” He motions Kenny forward.
Kenny peers around the boulder. The first man pulls a slingshot from the bag hanging from his shoulder. A blood-red marble glimmers in his right hand.
The giraffe steps its left front foot into the mud.
Kenny strings his bow. His fingers move noiselessly as he searches for his truest arrow.
The first man points toward where the girl sits braiding her dirty-blonde hair. He points to himself.
Kenny nods. He has nocked the arrow and risen to a crouch.
The giraffe splays its front legs out to either side and lowers its head toward the polluted water.
The girl presses her hands together and brings them to her lips.
The first man holds up three fingers. Then two. Then one.
Kenny’s eyes shine as he draws his bow.
Kenny cleans his arrow before butchering the giraffe.
The first man tosses the girl’s body into the lake then moves off to gather driftwood from along the shore. Light from the rising sun shines on the giraffe’s hide. The first man smiles.
It’s going to be a wonderful day.
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This story was prompted by This Life’s Illusions (giraffe, marble, beach).