We Went to the Microzoo
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
The biggest attraction at the microzoo was, of course, the tardigrade. Guests would come from all over the world to be shrunken down to size, their hands now small against the metal poles that separated the micro-animals from their guests, and marvel at this strange, slow creature, its body like a wormy cloud. They would throw miniaturized peanuts into its pen, whistle at it, call for it by name—Piglet—as if it were a lion, or giraffe, or wild coyote at the local zoo. And the tardigrade would ignore them, moving as if it were submerged in water, its body coming so close to the poles you could almost touch it—but always your hand would retreat before doing so, as if repelled by something on the tardigrade’s skin.
Edward Corden took his family, little Doe and Scottie and his wife Carmela, to the microzoo 18 months after it opened. It was officially called something else, its name meaningful in Chinese, but all the Americans and Australians and Britons that visited the place called it the microzoo.
“Daddy, can I have another cotton candy?” Doe was pulling at Edward’s sleeve, her small hand grubby and sticky and leaving little pink marks on his white button-down. “Scottie got another one.”
“No, he didn’t,” Carmela cut in. “He got exactly one, just as you did.”
“Your mother is right,” Edward replied. He wanted to add ‘like she always is’ but did not want another fight just yet, after the fights that had occurred on the plane, in the lab as they had been shrunken down and in line to buy tickets. He would save this fight for later, when he was not so chilly from the cold lab air or full of greasy food.
Edward had his eye fixed on an aquatic exhibit, several copepods and cladocera flitting through the darkened water, their bodies—to his eyes—as big as killer whales. It reminded him of the first time he’d seen those black and white creatures, their bodies too big for their tanks. He had gone with his own mother and father and brother, and he marveled at that—how it seemed like a lifetime ago. It even—
“Edward,” Carmela said, her voice snapping him back, away from the memory and the smell of the whale tank. “Doe just slapped Scottie’s cotton candy out of his hand. Is there something you’re going to do about it?”
“What would you like me to do about it?”
“Well, jeez,” Carmela said, her hands crossing over her chest, a position they seemed to be fixed at permanently nowadays. “Gosh, I don’t know. How about be a parent?”
“Doe, apologize to Scottie,” Edward said. The cry of his youngest son did not faze him. His eyes were back on the exhibit, on the translucent and hot pink bodies of the copepods.
“No,” said Doe, and Carmela let out a long and breathy sigh. Edward said nothing more, but began walking to the next exhibit, where large dust and spider mites prowled the grounds, their bodies thundering against the earth—or, rather, against the linoleum of the laboratory’s counter—as they pounded their way across the exhibit.
“Isn’t this amazing?” he said, and looked at his family. They were not looking at the dust mite or spider mite, or even at the cornucopia of theme park food and fare: cotton candy machines blasting out pink and blue clouds, the Ferris wheel up and blinking and going round and round, the sheer number of people all speaking different languages and looking at each other with shared, childlike excitement. No, they were turned to the fallen cotton candy, and Scottie was still crying and now Doe was, too, and even Carmela looked like tears could fall from her eyes at any moment.
And it was as Carmela started to cry that Edward Corden ran into the crowd before his family could even react to what had happened.
The loricifera tank was the one that took Edward’s breath away. There was something about the creature, its body like a chamber of the heart wearing a crown, that made Edward stand still, his eyes fixed on the behemoth as it crossed its tank. He couldn’t help but place his hand on the glass, couldn’t help but nearly press his nose to it. It was so beautiful, so complex, that he wondered how it had been unseen for so long.
Edward did not worry about his family looking for him, or finding him. They were not the type to give chase. At home he had spent hours alone in his study, or sitting outside on the veranda, without anyone calling to him, or looking for him. Often he had poked his head inside the living room, expecting for someone to say something, but only then did it ever seem like his family was getting along—his wife sitting on her large rocking chair, the children sharing the family tablet. All of them smiling. This had caused a strange sensation in Edward: The reason that his family did not get along was due to him. It was almost, in some weird way, a relief to know that.
The next exhibit held the rotifers, their bodies like top-down views of sea slugs stretched out ever so slightly. They were not as impressive as the loricifera, but Edward spent a long time staring out at their exhibit nonetheless. It was as he reached out to grab a pamphlet from outside their cage, which bore the words A MACRO GUIDE TO MICROANIMALS, that the first screams sounded. He had not even flipped to the second page before people came thundering past him, their feet echoing against the linoleum desk.
“What’s going on?” Edward shouted to no one in particular—just the moving, pulsing crowd.
Someone, a middle-aged woman, took pity on him, pointed back the way she’d come, and shouted, her accent tinged with Mother Russia: “Get the hell out of here!”
Edward joined the crowd, his body merging in with them as if it were an open lane of traffic. As he ran, he looked around for his family, shouting ‘Carmela,’ ‘Scottie’ and ‘Doe’ half-heartedly. He did not see them, and it was a relief.
“It’s getting closer!” someone in the crowd shouted, their voice so high-pitched that Edward could not tell if it had even been said by a human at all. He smelled it then—something sweet and burnt.
“What the hell is it?” Edward asked, and no one answered. He pulled away from the crowd, running back towards the mite pen, and started calling out for his family in earnest. He ran towards the sickly sweet smell, thinking of the way the trio crowded around the fallen cotton candy.
He saw Carmela near the tardigrade exhibit, kneeling down, her knees all bloodied, and Scottie and Doe screaming. And in the distance, Edward could still see the cotton candy upturned on the linoleum.
“Carmela! What happened?” Edward asked, rushing over to her. She was crying, too, although she did not look sad.
“I heard the screaming. I fell.” She looked up at him, a glazed look in her eyes. “Edward? You ran away,” she said, her mouth slightly open. Her speech was slow.
“I know. I’m sorry. We all have to run now, okay?”
“Okay,” Carmela said. She allowed Edward to help her up, and they scooped up the kids, their legs carrying them as fast as they could. They could see the crowd running together, just in the distance, and the smell, that sweet burning smell, hung heavy in the air.
“Why aren’t they making us bigger?” Carmela shouted.
“We’re too close together, and they don’t have room for all of us,” Edward said, avoiding an overturned picnic table.
“Can’t they just grab us? Pick us up with their hands?”
“No way they’ll do that. They might crush us. They might not even know what’s going on.”
“How could they not?” Carmela half-asked, half-shouted. “My god, what is that smell?”
“Oh, shit!” Wei shouted, watching as his soda spilled all over the table, the liquid running faster than he could reach for a towel. “Oh, seriously? Goddamnit. Throw me that paper towel roll.”
Min had his headphones on and did not hear him. Wei tried to wave him over, but it was no use. He ran to the little kitchenette that adjoined the lab and came back with several white paper towels. Min was standing over the microzoo, staring down at the flood of soda, when he returned. It had reached the microscope and some of it had splashed across the sides of the table and onto the floor.
“What the hell did you do?” Min chided as Wei tried desperately to mop it up. “Don’t crush them with that. We have to make them big again.”
Min walked back to the computer and began typing in the commands, Wei still looking down at the telescope, the soaked towel in his hand dripping down onto the floor. “I’m fired, aren’t I?” he sighed.
But Min just laughed, his fingers flying over the keyboard, and shrugged. “Hey, they’re the ones that sign the waiver. You know exactly what you get when you go to the microzoo.”
Edward turned, and just around the corner saw a thick, fizzing brown liquid coming towards them, the flood filling the air with the burnt candy smell. He did not answer Carmela, but pushed her forward, running as fast as he could, his legs pounding against the linoleum so hard he almost felt as if they were vibrating.
Scottie was still in his arms, and he felt the boy cling to him in a way he hadn’t done since he was small. “You’re okay,” Edward said, but he knew the boy was watching the flood, could smell its odor hanging in the air.
As they rounded a turn, Edward could see the rest of the crowd stopping, as if they were waiting for something. He could see a behemoth figure towering above them, just large sheaths of white and blue and tan, too big to piece together into an actual image. And as he focused on this behemoth, its body shifting and moving, he fell.
Scottie leapt from his arms and landed on his knees, crying out. Carmela stopped, Doe screaming in her arms, and looked back—first at Edward and then at Scottie and then at the flood.
The last thing Edward remembered was this, his eyes locking with his wife’s, and the thought that at least he was not alone. And then, at the last second, wishing he had been.
Ashley Burnett is a writer living in California. Her work has previously appeared on The Toast, Wyvern Lit, Necessary Fiction, and Split Lip Magazine. You can find more of her work at ashleyburnett.net.