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The Zoo

I've always hated the zoo.
Being the youngest in the family, though, I don't get a lot of choice. My brother loves it; he gets to see these animals in pens made up supposedly like their natural habitats, all from the safety of the well-swept sidewalk. He gawks, he makes faces. He taps on the glass of some of the enclosures.
Mom and Dad are fascinated as well. Dad tells us he never had anything like this when he was growing up. He's fond of telling us about how his father was a farmer, and hardly ever took them into the city. Mom always takes photos of any of the animals we see, and when we get home she tries to paint pictures of them. They look sad. The paintings are pretty bad art, but she likes to do it.
To me, visiting the zoo is no fun. It's gross. It stinks and it's noisy.
When I mention that to my brother, he makes a face at me. "You stink," he whispers. His large eyes squint at me as he says this, and then he smiles innocently.
"Dad, he's being a jerk," I say as we pull into the parking lot.
"Am not. She is."
"Come on everyone, let's go," Dad says, ignoring us both. "At work I heard they've got something new this week." We get out and make our way to the entrance.
They say it's a miracle. After all this time we've finally found life on another planet.
Scientists have brought many specimens back home to study--and are bringing more every day, it seems--but the creatures, really, have become just another tourist attraction.
Some of the zoo enclosures are larger than others, with big moats around them to keep the animals with long teeth and claws inside. Can't have them running amok, attacking the patrons and eating the children. Other enclosures have big domes of net stretched over them, to keep the creatures from flying or climbing out. Still other enclosures are inside buildings, because some animals have special requirements: they need more heat, or live underwater, or whatever.
The new animal was supposed to be a big deal, but we can't see it. Not a single hoof, or claw, or antler, or whatever it's supposed to have. The spaces between the rounded, red stones in its enclosure are empty, and the badged zoo staff member standing by the sign assures us that the animal is just shy, and as soon as the creature gets used to his new home, he'll be visible.
Maybe it just doesn't like being on display. Who could blame it?
With the new animal display a complete letdown, Dad's in a hurry to get to his favorite place.
"Come on! We don't want to miss it."
Oh, but Dad, I do want to miss it. I don't say it, though. I let myself be dragged along in their wake, like litter spinning in air currents behind one of the big ships.
It's feeding time.
I shudder.
It's a popular attraction, and I don't really know why. In one sense, I suppose I get it. They're the closest to us, genetically, so there's that fascination. I've heard that some get angry about it, saying things like, There's no way I'm descended from that! But that's not the way teachers explain it to us. We just have similar signatures in our makeup. They show rudimentary intelligence.
Dad checks the time and gets more agitated.
"We're going to miss it if you don't get moving!"
When Dad opens the door of the green building, the noise and the scent hit us like a physical blow.
We enter just as zookeepers begin the feeding. Bright-colored fruits and vegetables tumble out of small tubs onto the floor of the enclosures, and the shrieks spiral even higher.
At this end, the ones with tails swing from perch to perch. About halfway down, we can see the big black ones with the silver backs on one side and the red ones with long hair and huge cheek pads on the other side. But Dad passes by those enclosures, going right to the end.
The large enclosure where they keep the highest form of creature from that planet.
In the habitat, several of them fight and scream over the food they've just received. Three females, two males. Different colors, different shapes. One sits apart, eyes hooded morosely, until he sees us.
He stands slowly, then approaches the glass. His head is smaller than ours--the teachers say they have smaller brains than we do. His body, arms, and legs are longer, though. He walks upright, just like us. A strip of dirty cloth is wrapped around his waist. He stares at us for a moment, then presses a large hand to his side of the glass. Five widespread fingers.
My big brother puts his smaller, gray, six-fingered hand to the same spot on this side of the glass, giggling. "Mom, take my picture!"
Mom begins to raise the camera, then stops. The creature's eyes go back and forth, from Dad, to Mom, then to me. Searching.
"Please," the creature finally says, "Please...let us go back home. Have pity. I miss my wife. I miss my children. I miss... Earth." His green eyes are wet, and water droplets trail down dirt-streaked cheeks into a tangled mat of facial hair.
"Did you hear that?" Dad says, amazed. "This one's learned speech."
"Come on, Dad," my brother says with a sneer, "they just mimic. They can't learn our language." Dad turns back to the creature, who shudders as he takes another breath.
"Please," the pitiful creature says again, his chin quivering. "Take us back home, or just let us die."
I run to a trash receptacle, my bare feet slapping the cold tile. I vomit into the drum. My mother's cool hand reaches out to me. She strokes the back of my smooth gray head, and I know she understands.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 9th, 2021
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