Chapter Excerpt: The Petting Zoos - Dundurn
Jul 01, 2024

Chapter Excerpt: The Petting Zoos

Read an excerpt of The Petting Zoos by K.S. Covert below, one of our featured summer reads! Don't forget to save 25% off this book when you use code PETTING25 from June 27 - July 3, 2024.

Going Back to Work

They sent us back to the office when the bonnellies became a social hazard.
Much as the idea of just travelling to and from the office scared me — my brain was still having a hard time convincing its inner lizard that I could be safe around other people despite the vaccines — I felt the relief of someone who’d been stopped in the nick of time from doing something irrevocably stupid. I mean, I could shake my head with the best of the net pundits at the people who couldn’t handle the solitude, voice my scorn at their weakness, and vow I’d never show that fragility of character myself, sure. But when it came down to it, I had walked right up to that line and stood with my toe hovering over it. The only thing that stood between me and the bonnellies was cowardice, and lack of access to opiates. And an enduring fear that I’d kill myself and no one would notice. I shuddered to think of people coming to investigate the smell and finding my body a bloated mess on the floor.
There was also the tiniest smidgen of fear of missing out: a curious certainty that the day after I killed myself, things would get better and I’d have just missed it.
As soon as I heard about the third bonnelly in a week — and those were just the ones that were reported — I expected a call, and sure enough, a day or so later, there it was: Everybody into the office.
It was probably time — past time, really, but I’d become so used to working at home that the rigamarole associated with actually leaving my apartment and making my way into an office threw me. I didn’t know how offices worked anymore — how did that many people occupy one space without killing each other?
But the bonnellies were getting out of hand and the word from the regency was that this was the way to combat the madness. The last one, a woman, had set herself on fire in the middle of a downtown sidewalk, but she had killed only herself, which was a blessing. Men always took someone with them, like Arthur Bonnell had.
But if anything was going to change for me, I needed to get over my fear of people.
For starters.
Solitude, loneliness, lack of contact with other living beings — the things that drive the bonnellies mad — had been nibbling away at the corners of my psyche for a long time, even before Henny Penny, to be honest. But back then, I had hope. And even if Nietzsche was right about hope being the cruellest thing, I knew better than some that lack of hope rips you apart. If you’re lucky — or, like I was, somewhat inured to it, having gone long periods of my life without the touch of a loved one — you can shut down enough to continue anyway. For a while, at least. If you’re not, you go insane. Maybe not Bonnell insane, but mad enough to matter.
Funny how when there’s no official scarcity, you can live without touch for years — perhaps not fully, perhaps not happily, but you can do it because the prospect is always right outside your door, or at the very least, right around the corner. Theoretically, you can always find a likely somebody and invite that person to touch you and they’ll take you up on it and life is fine and you go on with it — maybe with that person, maybe not. That wasn’t precisely how it worked for me before Henny Penny, but something like that happened often enough that I never exploded with despair. Now that it couldn’t happen, now that I could barely open my door and go through it, it was all I could think about — if I let myself think about it, so I didn’t often let myself consider the lack, the absence. Ten years after Henny Penny was wrestled to the ground, people were still dying because of it, but this time for want of physical contact. I didn’t want to be one of them.
But that first step was a doozy.
And it was going to have to be a literal step. I had gas rations, but needed a new tire for my car, and my bike chain was broken, and neither was going to get fixed any time soon. I couldn’t bring myself to book one of the extra cars the regency had put in the taxi fleet to accommodate the influx of at-home workers needing a ride, couldn’t commit myself to sitting in a closed space with another person.
That was one of my guiding paradoxes. Did I trust the vaccines? Yes. Did I think the masks and gloves were effective at preventing the spread of the virus? Yes. Was I terrified of people and public spaces anyway? Yes. It wasn’t rational, but fear never is. I read a lot of articles, particularly in the early days, about the fear-anxiety feedback loop that a lot of people experienced: being afraid of Henny Penny, and then becoming more anxious about things as their body responded to the fear itself instead of the actual situation on the ground. Knowing I was probably on a loop didn’t make me less afraid, though. The only thing that would cure me was behavioural modification, and I wasn’t strong enough to impose that kind of therapy on myself.
The day the order came down, I looked at myself — judged myself — in a way I hadn’t bothered to do in years. My hair, my nails, the full pelt on my legs and under my arms: all of them proclaimed me an at-home worker. I cut my hair myself when it got long enough to annoy me, and the result was as could be expected. I’d started to go grey but had never really paid attention to what it looked like — we see ourselves at least partly through others’ eyes, and when no one you care about is there to see you, you become a bit blind to the things you care about others caring about. Some people go grey in a pretty way. I am not one of them. A carb-heavy diet proclaimed itself from my middle and thighs. I continued to moisturize my face when I could find creams, but otherwise my skin was dry and flaking: the soap I could buy at my corner store did me no favours, and I thought about lotion only when my skin grew so dry it hurt. My clothes were an uninspiring mish-mash: either wellworn items that were comfortable but made of illegal, untreated fabric, or the ill-fitting Impermatex clothes that I wore when I had to go outside. I had to order new Impermatex outfits to wear to the office.
I thought about makeup, but my eyeshadows were all dry and cracked, and my foundation smelled vaguely rotten. Just as well: no one was going to see my face under the mask, anyway. Or my fingernails. I’d never been a girly girl, although I suppose if I had been, maybe I would have found a way — or a reason — to obtain cosmetics. I’d grown up in an all-male household after my mother left, where femininity was not celebrated. If I ever displayed the slightest hint that I thought I was special — if, for example, I wore makeup — that idea was quickly and roundly quashed. And most of my friends were like me: shy, unassuming mice, by nature or by nurture. Until I met my friend Sophie, I’d spent the better part of my life trying not to draw attention to myself. Even now, wearing makeup felt like putting a big neon sign on my face, saying, “Look at me!” I only ever wore it when it seemed inappropriate not to.


“For god’s sake, Lily, I’m not going out with you when you look like death.” It was Sophie’s twenty-first birthday, and she had come to my room in our dorm to pick me up on the way to her party.
     “This is how I look, Sophie.” I was wounded, to have made an effort and still not pleased her. It was Sophie in front of me, but I heard my mother’s voice. My best had never been enough for her, either.
“You keep insisting on wearing grey. You can’t wear grey without makeup — I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that. It washes you out. Sit down, let me fix you up.” She pulled her makeup bag from her purse. “You’re so pretty, I don’t know why you don’t flaunt it a bit.”
“If I’m so pretty without makeup, why do I need to wear it? Besides, no one’s looking at me.”
“Stop being childish. Call this my birthday present. You’re going to look nice because I want pretty people around me.”


 On back-to-work day, I slid the elastics of my regency-issued disposable surgical face mask behind my ears, pulled on my gloves, shrugged into my backpack — which held my laptop, ID, and lunch rations — took a deep breath, and opened the door. And screamed in fright, in turn scaring the hell out of the neighbour I hadn’t expected to see walking past at that moment. I’d never laid eyes on her before, and I tried to apologize as she scurried by me. Another person not used to the morning commute — or at least not used to it including me.
     The thing about being an at-home worker is that you — obviously — don’t get out a lot. But because you move easily around your own environment, you don’t consider the ramifications of that lack of activity: how the length of your stride shortens to match the available space; how your ever-efficient body packages energy into apartment-size boxes and then doles them out grudgingly if you ask for more. I hadn’t gone much further than the corner market in ages. Every so often, I’d get an urge to go further afield, but the panic attacks — or if not a full-on attack, the endless second-guessing about the wisdom of my actions — would always start within a few blocks and I’d high-tail it home again.
I don’t know why I thought I’d be fine walking the two miles to the office, or that it would take me only half an hour. After the first five blocks, I was miserable.
It wasn’t just the exertion, truth be told. The noise of the traffic was a full-on assault once I’d left the side street I lived on and stepped into the stream of people heading to work via the main artery through the city. The sounds of motors and horns and brakes echoed off the flat surfaces of tall buildings and the plywood covering former storefronts. I felt terrorized by the number of people on the sidewalk with me, even though by pre–Henny Penny standards it was a quiet day. I jumped into the street as one man barrelled toward me, giving no indication that he intended to veer away from his logical trajectory, which would have taken him far too close to my left shoulder. My heart pounded at this near miss, but he continued as if he hadn’t noticed me at all. When a driver honked at me, I scurried back onto the sidewalk and found temporary refuge in the doorway of a boarded-up store, taking deep breaths to try to calm down.
“They can’t kill you they can’t kill you they can’t kill you,” I chanted to myself, willing my heart to slow. “It’s all right.” There were people passing by me, but all I could see were disease vectors. It had been that way for me ever since the Sickos carried out their reign of terror.