When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Fossil
BY NANDITA NAIK
At first, the wildfires are pale and distant, so we dance under rose-lit clouds, but as the fires eat more houses and start on the copper mines, they turn green and ferocious, and we choke on soot as we dance.
The Five Extinctions! amusement park is eerie at night, lit by a cerulean glow. Moths stitch the midnight air. For thematic purposes, the park is decorated with fossils. The pterodactyls hang from ropes, the saber-toothed tigers prowl at waist-level, and ammonites pebble the ground.
Due to the evacuations, the employee party is small, around fifteen people. Officially, we are celebrating the completion of a Five Extinctions! park in Florida. The new park opens in a week. By then, this one will have burnt down.
I want to dance but, like, we’re all crammed together, and the crowd is still condensing. The spaces between our bodies whittle down to centimeters. An elbow is in my ear, a knee is in my stomach, and nothing about this is fun. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.
I was supposed to evacuate an hour ago, but I drove here to see the amusement park one last time. I work as a tour guide in the HoloQuarium, where holograms of prehistoric sea creatures swim through a simulated ocean. In the back room, we have the partial skeleton of a plesiosaur. The shoulder girdle and skull, which are rare and expensive, have already been evacuated, shipped out to Florida to decorate the new park. But the seventy-six plesiosaur vertebrae are still here.
Two days ago, the state ordered all California residents to evacuate by today at the latest. The animals evacuate, too. A spectral cloud of dragonflies migrates south. A line of ants ripples between my feet, streaming towards the park entrance.
A raccoon had lived in the park dumpster for, like, three years. We had a routine going, me and this raccoon. Every night, I’d lock up the HoloQuarium and pass the raccoon, raiding the trash can. The raccoon and I made eye contact. I’d consider kicking him out, but then I think about how hard the raccoon works to open the trash can, and if he doesn’t use the trash, who will? He gets his trash and I get to reward a hard-working park resident, et cetera, so it’s a win for both of us.
I haven’t seen that raccoon in a week. A primal instinct must have called him south, away from the fires, like the dragonflies, like the ants. My suitcases are still in the car and I am sober. I could leave now, take a five-minute walk back to my house, and drive out at midnight when the traffic will be okay.
I fight my way out of the crowd. The world topples and rights itself again. A man catches my arm, and his fingers ghost over my sleeve. His hands are slicked with sweat.
“You okay?” He says.
I push his arm away. But then I notice that his forearm has a detailed tattoo of an asteroid hitting the Earth, which appeals to the nihilist in me. In his tattoo, the Earth is a simple circle of green and blue. It is the asteroid that is finely detailed, the shades of red and gray and silver, the unhinged shadows. A primed weapon, ready to kill.
I recognize Danny, who works in the Permian-Triassic section. His job is to dress as a saber-toothed tiger and scare visitors to give them that immersive prehistoric experience. We’ve spoken once or twice. He told me about his favorite extinction, the Ordovician-Silurian, five hundred million years ago, eighty-five species gone, et cetera. I was interested at first, but then he went on for another ten minutes. He is boring but in an oddly specific way. Which, paradoxically, makes him interesting. And, despite the man bun, he is cute. I am glad I came.
Normally, I like to let my skirt billow outwards, like the bell of a jellyfish that buoys me through the sea. But when Danny’s eyes rake over my body and stray to my skirt, I pull the scraggly ends down.
The way he caught my elbow was quick and fluid. They suggest he’s done this before, to another girl, and normally this would bother me. But tonight I am flattered, mostly. I think I like the way his desire radiates out from him. He feels uncomplicated. If I flirt with him, I’d get a release, a way to channel the nervous energy I’ve been struggling to hide all evening.
“Want to take a walk?” He asks me.
I do. We wander away from the party. An ambush of cricket song from the east. Their song is livid. It drowns out the music. Only male crickets make noises, so they can attract mates. I wonder if the crickets will evacuate, too, or if they’ll stay here, rub their wings together, and hope for a mate until the fires come.
“What’s it like, dressing up as a saber-toothed tiger?” I ask him.
“It’s not that hard,” he says. “You just prowl around the park, growl at tourists, terrify small children. But my boss mandates that I growl loudly. Which isn’t what a real saber-toothed tiger would do. They were silent, deadly hunters. If I wanted to be accurate, I’d pick a target and hunt it for hours.”
“Can I be your target?” I ask coyly.
He considers it. Moonlight dapples his face. Filaments of amber in his eyes. We walk past shut-down rides and kettle corn stands and an overstuffed trash can, which the raccoon would have loved.
“I’m just being honest right now, if I was a saber-toothed tiger out hunting, I would not go for you,” he says. “You’re too skinny. You wouldn’t make a good meal.”
I flinch, but he is right. I am too skinny. I have juvenile osteoporosis, and I am also underweight. My bones are bad at doing what bones are supposed to do. Like, for example, holding me up. The disease will not kill me directly, but it makes me more likely to fracture vertebrae, which will indirectly kill me. I am fascinated by fossils because you know. Bones.
But I don’t like that he pointed this out. So I redirect the conversation.
“Do you know what you’re going to do after you evacuate?” I ask him.
“Even before the evacuation order, I didn’t plan to stick around for long,” he says. “I’m destined for paleontology grad school. I only came here to earn my tuition. I still haven’t earned enough, so after we evacuate, I don’t know, I still need to find another job.”
I can almost imagine Danny in his tiger costume as he hid behind a bush and prepared to scare visitors. The hunger in his eyes, a frosty gleam. But hunger wasn’t enough to save the saber-toothed tigers. Either they were over-hunted or they starved to extinction, and then after they died, the Ice Age ended and the glaciers melted into waves, nebulous and foamy.
We return to the party. Many people have left. A few stragglers remain. They throw up in a corner, pump their fists, or gather in circles and talk. The party seems peculiar and empty. Voices overlap. They talk about the evacuations again, of course. What we leave behind and what we plan to do next.
I tell Danny about how, after the evacuation order came out, I ran a lavender-scented bubble bath for two hours. I used to be so careful about not wasting water. I reused, reduced, recycled. I converted my existential despair into an urge to compost. And what did it do? The fires will burn anyway.
Danny isn’t interested in my bubble bath story, but when I ask about his asteroid tattoo, he becomes excited again. He talks about asteroids, nihilism, his philosophical views in general.
“So what I’ve concluded,” he says, “from years of thinking about these matters, is that it’s not about us. It’s about the thing that destroys us.”
This is when I sense danger. Pretentious men. They’re kinda my weakness. I could see my ex-boyfriend from art school saying what Danny said to justify why he sculpted a beer bottle for class. It’s not about us, professor. It’s about the thing that destroys us.
I’ve dated a wannabe lawyer, an artist, multiple sculptors, and a philosophy major. It’s embarrassing, I know, but it’s because these men are so confident. They practically disgorge waves of undeserved confidence. I want to feed off their confidence like a parasitic marine worm.
I ask him when he plans to evacuate, and he says tomorrow morning. He will take the bus. I didn’t even consider the bus. It’s not a bad idea. Public transit is more energy-efficient, though why should I care? My home will soon be on fire. He asks me when I’m evacuating, and I say, probably in an hour.
“That’s a bummer,” he says.
Danny scuffs his toes on the ground and checks his watch. He seems uncertain of what to do next. But I don’t want to leave. I still want to get to know Danny better, nudge him out from his carapace. There’s something about the way he is so into prehistoric fauna and, also, into himself. He picks up a bottle of Fireball from one of the abandoned party tables.
“Want a shot?” He asks me.
If I do a shot, this will mean I’m not evacuating tonight. Or it means that I can still evacuate, but take the bus instead. What is he implying by offering me a shot? A quick walk back to his place? Maybe a movie, lights at a low simmer, an uncomfortable night in his bed, we evacuate in the morning?
It’s a good sign that the Events Committee didn’t cancel this party. It had been planned for months before. I interpret this to mean the evacuation is more of a formality, a way for the state to avoid any liabilities. I want to return in a month and find my apartment still standing, and the rooms as I left them: the potatoes in the fridge, the wilted succulents, my bed unmade.
“Pass me the Fireball?” I say.
This isn’t a logical decision. But I am lonely, and I want him, and those feelings mix into a soup of irrationality.
I revise my evacuation plan. What if I drink the Fireball, stay here a little and wait until later in the evening when my BAC has lowered, drive home, sleep off the alcohol, and drive out early in the morning? It won’t make much of a difference if I evacuate at 7 AM instead of midnight. Both are still, technically, tomorrow. And there is a tantalizing stretch between now and the time I drive home.
I pour myself a shot and drink. The cinnamon flavor warms my throat and stomach.
“Another?” He says.
I say, of course.
Before long, I can’t remember how many shots I’ve had. The world blurs. The pleasant kick of whiskey helps me predict how this evening will end. We will search the amusement park for some dark corner where no one will see us. The next morning, we’ll evacuate, hopefully to different cities. He is a little annoying. I want to sleep with him and never see him again.
“We have some plesiosaur vertebrae in the HoloQuarium backroom,” I say. “Want to come see it?”
His gaze flickers down to my waist, and then back up to my eyes. He says he’d love to. Really, he’d love to. Nothing could be better.
We walk away from the party, towards the HoloQuarium. The night stews around us. Spray paint snakes across the walls, spelling out promises, love declarations, regrets: JANELLE WAS HERE. SORRY ANDY. ROSA + MARK 4EVER.
It is hot, but still, I draw my sweater close around my body. Whorls of smoke corrode the moonlight. Above us, geese fly south. But some animals are staying. A rat skitters past my feet, and the crickets still sing.
We pass the hollow where Lava Lake used to be. When the ride was in operation, the lava was only water, dyed red with food coloring. Now, the water is gone but the red streaks stain the hollow, like wildflower petals, like a gladiator arena after the fight is over.
I unlock the HoloQuarium and the door creaks open. Inside, only darkness. Reminds me of those movies where you disturb a forbidden ruin and unleash a flood of arrows, a ghost, a curse. The air smells briny, like seawater, which we spray at company-mandated intervals.
“Can you turn the light on?” Danny asks.
I flip the light switch. We are in a long, featureless corridor. I can barely recognize it. Earlier today, my coworker and I turned off the HoloQuarium forever. It was hard. Felt like we killed live creatures.
“Would you like a tour?” I ask Danny.
He says yes, so I power on the HoloQuarium. The air shimmers and is replaced by rippled blue light. There is a syrupy texture on my skin, and when I move, it feels like swimming through caramel. I dial the viscosity down, and the resistance disappears.
The floor warps. Now it’s sequined with crab shells and coral and fake sea monster scales. Kelp silks across our ankles. Silhouettes of wild pterodactyls appear on the ceiling, mimicking a prehistoric sky. The foamy crests of waves breach where the ceiling meets the walls. I almost expect the holographic waves to crash down on me, even though they never will.
A flash of amber in the kelp forest. It is a horseshoe crab, weaving through the kelp. The other holograms must be further down the corridor, swimming towards us. Danny kneels to inspect the horseshoe crab.
“Exquisite,” he says.
He reaches out to touch the crab, and his hand passes through it. The neural networks that fuel the hologram’s brain classify him as a HoloQuarium Visitor and instruct the hologram to act crab-like. So the hologram nuzzles Danny’s hand before it skitters away. I have always wondered whether they are conscious. Maybe I’ll never know.
As we walk down the corridor, we reach a group of trilobites, and they hover around our ankles. The trilobites are low-tech and glitch frequently. I am glad to see them, after our goodbye earlier today. I hope they’re glad to see me, too. When one trilobite sees me, it molts, possibly from excitement. Half of its exoskeleton breaks away.
I want to see how Danny interacts with the trilobites, whether they like him, how they all get along as a group. Sort of like, meet the parents. But, you know, with trilobites.
“Come to papa,” Danny says.
He touches the nearest one, but the trilobite rolls into a ball for protection.
The trilobites went extinct during the Ordovician-Silurian, Danny’s favorite extinction. And you can feel his genuine interest in paleontology, which I always look for in a man. But I’ve never found anyone who meets that criteria. I’ve made myself settle for men who don’t know their Burgess Shale from their Coralville Lake, or their mastodon from their mammoth. Men who emphasize how little they care about the Cambrian explosion, and, by extension, about me.
Danny is so good with the trilobites. He spans out the width of their thoraxes, measures their exoskeletons. The trilobites approve of him. I can tell from the way they pulse their thoraxes and scuttle through his chest.
“Do you have a favorite trilobite?” I ask him.
My favorite trilobite is the one with defensive spines on its back. Danny says that he likes them all equally, and asks if we can move on.
I am a little annoyed that he doesn’t want to stay with the trilobites, but I continue the tour. We walk down the corridor. The plesiosaur vertebrae are stored in the back room, away from the holograms. Before the evacuation order, my manager planned to mount the fossil at the in the HoloQuarium, to emphasize the contrast between the holograms and what they’d look like as fossils.
But we’ve had problems with mounting the vertebrae. The fossil unnerves the holograms. They don’t like to see it when it’s out, so they attack it. I wonder if they look at the fossil and recognize themselves.
On the way to the backroom, we pass giant turtles, ammonites, armor-plated fishes, and other sauruses of varying shapes. A plesiosaur slinks past us with reptilian ease. I’m glad that he doesn’t attack Danny. It’s a compliment, in a way.
The plesiosaur likes to stalk small children, but it’s not his fault. His programs try to suppress his predatory instincts, but he knows what he’s born to do. One time, he dive-bombed this small girl with pigtails. She was unhurt. He floated right through you. But her parents threatened to sue, and I wanted to tell them, like, your kid is totally fine, but I’d get fired if I did.
Sometimes, the plesiosaur keens, a throaty sound that gutters in the middle. I like to think he mourns himself, but how would the plesiosaur know he is extinct?
The tour goes well. When I reach the backroom, I feel confident about my taste in men. I open the unmarked door. Mosquitoes rain from the ceiling. The plesiosaur vertebrae are mounted above us in the shape of a spine. The bones are discolored, yellow, and skeined with fractures.
Bones soothe me. It’s funny how they scaffold our bodies, but we rarely talk about them or see them. If I could see other people’s bones, I’d probably get jealous. For example. Danny is tall and he stands up very straight. I’m sure his bones are fucking perfect, with no cracks or fractures, the optimal ratio of marrow to hard outer coating.
But fossils are imperfect, vulnerable. Even the complete ones are fractured, eroded by water and rockslides. Their necks bend backward, at unnatural angles. I read somewhere that some wooly mammoth bones even carry signs of osteoporosis. It gives me hope that these diseased bones stayed semi-intact for millions of years, that we can still see them and hold them and touch them.
I tell Danny that the plesiosaur fossil was found in a river, where it was quickly buried, and that the soft tissues degraded, replaced by minerals and stone. I tell him that plesiosaurs gave birth to live young, which suggests they might be warm-blooded, unlike the other prehistoric sea creatures. It all comes out in an excitable rush and Danny seems excited, too, and this warms me. I brainstorm ways to get us away from talking.
“Another drink?” I say.
We pour ourselves drinks and I take more shots. The floor blurs and the iridescent carapaces of spiders glint at me from the walls. Whenever I see a spider, I either want to set it gently on a leaf and carry it outside or smash it with my fist. I have done both, sometimes a few hours apart. What I choose depends on the people around me. Danny seems like a person who’d want to save a spider, but I am curious about what he’ll do, so I alert him to the spider.
“Where is it?” He says. “Don’t be scared!”
“I’m not scared.”
Danny balls his fist up and crushes it. He grunts while he crushes the spider, too, which makes me think this reaction is somehow connected to his masculinity in a way that bores me. I could smash the spider with my fist, too. I am as capable of violence as he is.
Danny sets the crumpled spider’s body carefully down on the floor. Then he lies face down like the floor is telling him a secret.
“Is it just me, or do you hear that?” He says.
I close my eyes and listen. Outside, screams bloom like strange flowers. A fierce hum sounds and popcorn kernels pop, and a thousand stubbed-out cigarettes in between the sidewalk cracks revive themselves to burn again. The party music cuts out.
I’m terrified, but Danny is here, and he heard the fire before me. He is attentive, he listens, and he is very knowledgeable about the Cambrian explosion, saber-toothed tigers, science. His presence calms me.
“I thought it was far away,” Danny says.
His voice is soft and dreamy. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Stop, drop, roll? This doesn’t make any sense. I blame my uselessness on the alcohol and curl up into a ball on the floor. When I look up, Danny is also curled up.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “The HoloQuarium is fireproof.”
I had to memorize this fact, but I am not sure if it is true, since people these days like to use the word “fireproof” in objects that aren’t. I’ve heard of fireproof homes, fireproof bedroom doors, and fireproof blankets, all charred to ash. I suppose the HoloQuarium is fireproof because it is expensive technology. Would take Five Extinctions! a lot of money to replace this.
“We need to worry about smoke inhalation,” Danny says. “I read somewhere that smoke inhalation causes around fifty to eighty percent of fire-related deaths.”
“What we should do is drink more alcohol,” I suggest. “That way, if the fire reaches us, it won’t use the alcohol as an accelerant.”
“But the fire won’t get in here. I have people who will check in on me,” he says. “When they realize I’m missing, they will raise the alarm. We’ll get help.”
I don’t know what people he’s referring to. But Danny’s confidence comforts me. All we have to do is wait until the morning, then we can evacuate.
But then my back aches and I feel my vertebrae reflexively. I haven’t been taking my medications regularly because they give me heartburn. And, after we evacuate, what if I get a vertebral compression fracture? They’d need to do vertebroplasty and inject literal cement into my vertebrae. Even if they don’t perform vertebroplasty, my vertebrae will weaken, narrow, and flatten out. But the plesiosaur’s vertebrae are strong and supple. They were pressurized under flat sheets of rock, bent out of shape, kneaded by erosion and weathering, and still, they are here. I hate them.
“What’s wrong?” Danny asks.
I tell Danny about the twin fractures, one in each of my wrists, and then I tell him about my diagnosis, vertebroplasty, the medications, and the heartburn. I talk about my symptoms clinically, because it’s easier that way, like I’m watching this happen to someone else. He says uh-huh, which I like at first, but then his uh-huhs start to repeat every thirty seconds. It gets repetitive, robotic, so I stop talking.
Danny shuffles his feet and clears his throat. Finally, he nods.
“Thank you for telling me,” he says.
His face is guarded, carefully blank. I know this face. In high school, I would ruin parties and mention my grandmother’s death, and then I’d run off and cry, requiring someone to come find me. They would wear a version of Danny’s face.
Danny pats my shoulder. One, two, three. I wonder if he’s counting in his head.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
I don’t respond. He goes to hold my hand, but I jerk away, so then he grabs two of my fingers. Like that time I stuck my fingers into a Venus flytrap when I was feeling lonely. The flytrap did its thing. It gently caressed my fingers. When it discovered my fingers weren’t flies, it let go.
But Danny doesn’t let go of my fingers. He redoubles the strength of his grip like he meant to grab my fingers and not my hand. I revise my impression of Danny. His confidence that we’d be rescued seems like self-delusion. I don’t think we will escape.
We sit there and he clutches my middle finger and bends it back. Capillaries purple my palms. He is cutting off my circulation and he doesn’t even realize it.
If we can’t escape, how do we pass the time? We have one option left, the action that is expected of two drunk people at a party, who are locked in a room together, alone. I am not entirely against this possibility. It might be nice to feel hands all over my skin, a semblance of comfort, like someone tends to my body before it is gone forever.
Danny releases my fingers and closes his hands over my arm.
“You’re so delicate,” he says. “So bony.”
My pretentious ex from art school called me bony when he drew me for his figure drawing class. Afterward, he gave me the drawing as a present. In the drawing, my bones jut out at awkward angles, and my hips are like bird bones. It made me uncomfortable to look at myself, drawn like that, and so I returned the present after we broke up.
Danny scratches a mosquito bite on his leg, and I look away to give him privacy. Next to me, a cockroach prowls the wall. A line of ants seethes through a crack in the wall. I am trapped here, trapped with this man, trapped in the HoloQuarium while there’s a fire outside. I deluded myself, too. I should’ve evacuated earlier. I watch the cockroach crawl up a wall, then slide down. Cockroach, you and I are in this together.
When did the plesiosaur realize that it was unrescuable? Did it even have a realization, or was it killed instantly? I circle the fossil and look for a placard, but there is none. All I have are the facts I memorized. The plesiosaur was found in a shale deposit, during construction for a local high school. I imagine the construction workers uncovering the bones. Then the paleontologists would take the bones and try to pull out a memory, understand its injuries and fractures, make guesses about the creature’s diet and, finally, classify it.
If I was a fossil, I want to be preserved beautifully. All my soft tissues would be intact. It would take an entire team of paleontologists to extract me from the rock. My bones would be pored over by paleontologists, examined with the greatest level of care. They would conjecture how I behaved, what my mating patterns were, and whether I was a social animal or not. They might hypothesize how I came to be here trapped in a HoloQuarium, next to another skeleton.
“How common is it for humans to become fossils?” I ask Danny.
“Very rare,” he says. “It’s one bone in a billion. Our bones are smaller than, say, dinosaurs, and so other creatures will come and carry them away. They disperse easily. A femur might get preserved, or a thighbone, but it’s unlikely for a whole human to get preserved. Why?”
So I won’t be a fossil. In a way, this is a relief. If I won’t be preserved, then does anything I do matter? I could sleep with him or not, and it won’t matter. Maybe I’m going to die, but at least I’ll have some fun before I go.
I am still nauseous, but I step toward him, take his hand, and kiss him. He kisses me back, but it is too rough. When he bites my lip, my stomach turns. His hands are so broad, broad enough to crush a pigeon. Something crawls across my stomach, but when I look down, nothing is there. The cockroach in the corner twitches its antennae.
“Can I unhook your bra?” He whispers in my ear.
There’s a syrupy quality to his voice, a pleading desperation that makes me think he needs this. He needs to pretend everything is normal. That we are two normal coworkers having a casual pre-evacuation rendezvous in a metal building, the way people marry quickly before they go off to war.
But it is all too much. His fingers are wrong, and so is the pressure they apply to my stomach, to my thighs, and it is absurd that his arm is fused to his torso, which is fused to his lips. Each seems to be a separate animal. The arms, wrapped around me. The torso silently leans forward. The lips fumble on top of mine.
Hadn’t I predicted this? I had wanted this to happen. I had asked him to come to this room, alone. Of course, he assumed this.
But I was more comfortable when we talked about fossils, when his attention was diverted, because when we kiss, then I think about loneliness, and when I am lonely, I remember the fire outside, how we might be the only people alive for miles around.
You’re so bony, he’d said. But this was obvious. Isn’t that all I’d be in the future? Only bones? So I pull away and untangle ourselves. His face is shadowed by the darkness.
“Is it the fire?” He says.
I want to say it is about the fire, so I can spare his feelings. We can still salvage this evening, too, from his perspective. I say that it is about the fire, then I tremble and act scared, and he pats my head and hugs me. And the evening will be saved in a way that will appeal to him.
But it isn’t entirely about the fires, either. I don’t want him. And I don’t want to pretend that the assumption between us when we left the party is the same as it is right now. Because things have changed. This place is on fire. When does it become less about two drunk people getting it on, and start being about two drunk people, like, surviving.
“No,” I say. “It’s not only the fires.”
His eyes narrow.
“What did you want then?” He said. “When you said, let’s have an after-party, only us. I don’t blame you at all, but I think you could have handled the situation better. If you weren’t interested, you could have at least let me know before we came in here. Maybe then I would have evacuated.”
“It’s not my fault you came in here,” I say.
“I wasn’t saying it was your fault. But if I knew you weren’t interested, I wouldn’t have come in here, right? And I wouldn’t have stayed, waiting for something to happen.”
He stands up and strides over to where the bottle of Fireball is. Then he angrily pours himself a drink. I am embarrassed for him because his hands shake. I can’t watch this. I turn around and walk out of the back room, into the HoloQuarium.
“Where are you going?” He says. “Come on. We can still hang out, right?”
When I look back, the cold blue light of the HoloQuarium defamiliarizes him. That is when I wonder about his family. What they might think of him, hiding out in an aquarium with some girl he met at a party. How little we know each other.
As I walk away from the backroom, deeper into the HoloQuarium, my eyesight adjusts to the shades of blue upon blue. My hands are washed in marine light and barnacled with strange lumps. A mauisaurus swims past me.
I hear the waves crash, a sound which always plays, and I wonder what the plesiosaur must have heard all those years ago. When I give tours, I always tell the visitors to take a conch shell and hold it up to their ears. I love seeing their faces change when they hear what’s inside. I have done it around one hundred times. We keep around seventy conch shells in the storage cupboard for this purpose.
A lattice of moonlight overlays the HoloQuarium walls. As I walk, the holographic creatures bob to follow my path. I know it is because of motion sensors that track my movements, so the holographic creatures engage with the visitors. But still, I feel like they can watch me.
A basilosaurus lunges for me, and I don’t move, because I know it’ll pass right through me. It is an ancestor to modern whales, huge and lumpy, with minuscule eyes. It went extinct because of changing ocean circulation and global cooling.
The eurypterids died in the Permian extinction, after a possible comet impact. They are giant sea scorpions. They wave their pincers at me, and their movement stirs the holographic water. During my second month on the job, in a moment of self-indulgence, I bought a eurypterid plushie from the HoloQuarium gift shop. It’s bright pink, and I hug it as I sleep.
The spiral saw shark swims next to the eurypterids. Its entire lower jaw is circular and its teeth spiral inwards. It chews like a buzzsaw. The spiral saw shark managed to survive the Permian extinction, but died a million years later, for reasons unknown. There is no way to make these sharks cute, but the gift shop has given them whirring mechanical jaws, perfect for slicing open salami or cutting bread.
Even if the holograms are conscious, and they know about the fires, their behavior doesn’t change. The holograms swim, bite at the kelp, and tunnel deep into the seafloor.
I can stay out here, or I can return to the backroom. Maybe one of us could pretend to forget it happened. We could say, it’s because of the alcohol. Alcohol is always a convenient excuse.
The spiral saw shark nuzzles my hand. In the wild, it would never behave like this. It is designed this way, to make visitors feel at ease. But I appreciate this falsification of the shark’s true nature because it makes me feel like I’m not alone.
After some time passes, I am ready to return. I will get myself together, pretend that nothing happened, and be a capable human being. We will discuss survival methods.
What survival methods do I know? During a forest fire, mice dig to find cooler dirt. Salamanders burrow under a rock or hide inside mossy, cobwebbed logs. Birds of prey love forest fires because it makes it easier to hunt. Sometimes they will start fires themselves. A firehawk will carry a burning stick in its beak, drop it in some flammable grassland, and swoop in to catch the grasshoppers as they leap off the ground. The deer run, but it is too late for that now.
When I creep back into the main room, Danny is asleep. I reach up and touch the plesiosaur vertebrae and feel the hollows where the bone had flowed with water and mineral deposits, the sinewy texture that carries the memory of muscle.
Danny sleeps on his stomach, his arm angled underneath him. The zipper on his jeans isn’t pulled up, and his soft underbelly is exposed. I expect him to snore, but he doesn’t. He is so quiet and still that I run over to him and feel for a pulse. It beats against my hand like a hummingbird’s wings.
When the fire reaches us, we’ll be ash and vapor, shadows blending into the night. Then the fire will forget our bodies easily and cocoon the hills in smoke. Our homes will be forgotten, and so will the Five Extinctions! amusement park.
And after it’s done, who will fossilize, who will the Earth preserve? Possibly wolves, who have large bones. Or chicken eggs, which will make trace fossils, indentations in the rock. I know that, because humans rarely fossilize, because my bones are small and porous and eager to break, it won’t be me.