Michele Lombardo | Fiction

Animatronics

1.

We clinked glasses to celebrate our safety at a steakhouse attached to a chic hotel. By now we were a block away from The Franklin Institute, inside a restaurant with a Whole Foods feelreclaimed wood, exposed beams and chalkboard artbut could still view the chaos through the warehouse-style windows opening onto a dull spring day in Philadelphia’s Museum District. Ambulances and fire trucks clogged 20th Street at the museum’s base, the blue and red lights reflecting off the windows next to us, coloring our water glasses, lighting the face of my dirty martini. We raised our voices to compensate for the sirens. We should’ve been somber. Instead, we struggled to contain a guilty giddiness, as if we’d fought off death with our bare hands, the heroes and heroines of a horror movie, spared due to quick thinking and physical prowess.

It was Memorial Day, and my seven-year-old daughter Cassidy and I were spending it with her best friend Advik and his dad, Vihaan, who was my lover. The affair had lasted over a year and Vihaan and I  prided ourselves on our skill at concealing it from our spouses, when in fact Julie was simply indifferent and David, absent. That morning, Vihaan said he wanted to start a new life with me, was ready to steal me away from David by whatever means necessary. It wasn’t a threat, exactly, but the surfacing of my own blind spotdeep into an affair with a man I didn’t trust, breaking what was probably the cardinal rule in successful affair-making, so obvious anyone could see, if that anyone was a consciously-thinking human.

Vihaan pressed his leg against mine under the table. “The most ferocious dinosaur ever to have lived couldn’t get the best of us.” He growled and gnashed his teeth and the kids cracked up, pounding the table with their fists.

Advik coated a large, chilled shrimp in cocktail sauce and devoured it, red gunk seeping from the corners of his mouth. “Yeah! I was about to kick him in the head but then he just, you know, kind of died.”

Cassidy bounced up and down on her knees. “Mommy said he was too slow and he was!” She looked at me, beaming. As a former paleontologist, one’s competence isn’t easily flaunted. Today’s exhibit had given us our long-awaited moment in the sun, one where I knew things and she could be proud. The fact that the Academy of Natural Sciences fired me years ago and I was now teaching sixth grade science to a bunch of horny tweens was irrelevant.

“What if the dinosaur had gotten me?” She shivered theatrically, prompting Advik to do the same.

The obvious answer was that I never would’ve let it happen. That I’d protect her from harm above all else, but given my ongoing sexual exploits with her best friend’s father, I couldn’t bring myself to reassure her.

Vihaan wiped his mouth and threw the napkin onto the table. “I would’ve wrestled it to the ground before it had a chance to hurt anyone. Then, we would’ve escaped together.” He offered her a gleaming, leading-man-worthy smile.

Cassidy scampered around the table to whisper into my ear. “I know you would’ve saved me. You did.” I folded her into my torso and smoothed her hair. She tucked her face to my shoulder and smiled.

2.

At the museum, we had entered the final exhibit room and Allison, the lead “park ranger,” appeared on the digital monitor to inform us that our VIP access included an exclusive opportunity to observe the dreaded T. rex at mealtime. It would be unforgettable. An alarm interrupted her, flashing red lights blinked from her console and a calm, robotic female voice said, “Asset out of containment. Please report to the innovation center immediately.” Allison frowned, wide-eyed, and excused herself. She had a “situation” to deal with, but assured us we’d be perfectly safe.

The animatronic T. rex stomped out for feeding time, a laughable absurdity. Anyone who knows anything about large, dangerous animals knows that you never enter the “feeding room” unless you intend to become the meal. Fully scaled, the dinosaur was a perfect replica of what we’re accustomed to seeing, even though it’s likely that feathers actually covered at least part of its body. The collagen proteins detected in T. rex’s bones most closely match those of chickens.

T. rex roared, eyes flicking about in short, rapid movements consistent with a predator possessing heightened sensory abilities. It paused before us, head hovering fifteen feet above. It screamed, teeth long like fingers. Cassidy and I reflexively cowered, then laughed.

Cassidy asked me if any other dinosaur could take on a T. rex, speaking loudly so Advik would hear and sneering at him until he obediently took his place beside her as a witness that I possessed answers to the pressing questions of the day.

I explained that T. rex’s only possible weakness was speed, although scientists are split on that, some believing it was incapable of running, and others that it was the fastest large theropod, reaching speeds of 45 mph.

“Could it kill an Indominus rex?” Advik asked. He unhooked his backpack from one arm, swung it around and attacked it, chomping the canvas like prey.

“That’s a fictional dinosaur.”

Advik sighed. “So?”

An imagined dinosaur versus another of which so little was known, it was practically a myth. Cassidy widened her eyes and nodded her head at me, as if to say: We’re losing our audience, here! Answer him, already!

“Sure.” It seemed superior to the truth: that one camp believes the T. rex was the world’s most feared predator, and another that it simply scavenged.

“I. rex is smarter. It has raptor DNA.” Advik bit into his backpack once again, clenching it between his jaws and shaking his head like a dog with a chew toy.

Paleontologists are expected to hold all conceivable factors within the realm of possibility until proven otherwise. Our research is rarely confirmed or denied within our lifetime. It was suspected that the T. rex possessed short, two-fingered forelimbs similar to the gorgosaurus as early as 1914, but that hypothesis wasn’t confirmed until a forelimb was unearthed in 1989. In the meantime, every possible scenario had to be considered. When you’re dealing with an extinct, prehistoric species, nearly everything is a hypothesis, the list of possibilities a thousand times longer than the list of knowns, yet we must move rigidly through this landscape of inconclusiveness, hundreds of variables circling one another, spawning infinite possibilities, a complex jigsaw puzzle that has confounded stronger minds than mine. We must always say perhaps and probably, and if you give into the temptation to close an open loop too quickly, to treat the almost definitely as fixed, to determine that, based upon a T. rex’s binocular vision, its tooth structure and the tendon avulsions likely obtained by struggling prey, that it was, in fact, a predator that only scavenged opportunistically, and you knew this in your heart when you held its bones in your hand, could feel the aggression palpitating in the dried-up marrow, its compulsion so strong, as clear as your certainty that it would destroy you if given the chancewell, in that case you’re accused of being emotional, a hysterical woman betraying science, of bending it to suit your needs. In my defense, how many people could handle such sprawling uncertainty?

Impatient for its meal, T. rex nudged at a parked jeep, hoisting it into the air under its probing snout, retreating so the vehicle crashed back down to the ground. Lift, crash, lift, crash. A young boy next to us screamed and another started to cry. I caught myself wondering why the rangers weren’t feeding it.

“He’s not the only hungry dinosaur here,” Vihaan said, pumping his eyebrows at me.

The first time we’d had sex he convinced me to call in sick and go on a hike with him. He took me to a trail along a waterfall-riddled creek behind the Indian Steps Museum, along which he’d planted a number of small plastic dinosaurs for me to “excavate.” Romantic in the silliest of ways. In the midst of all that digging, I found a real arrowhead. After that, we swam in the falls. Naked. Gradually, though, grand gestures were overshadowed by the mundane; we operated like a married couple, infrequently scheduling sex amid the rhythms of our kids’ activities.

“True. Advik is hungry, too,” I said, gesturing to his son and the bag dangling from his jaws.

Vihaan seemed to consider whether I was dense or just fucking with him, then pulled the bag from the boy’s mouth and tossed it over his shoulder.

Something went wrong as T. rex backtracked toward an offstage voice, beckoning it with promises of food. There was an uncharacteristically large head jerk, then a false step, a mechanical interruption, and the creature wobbled and leaned. Vihaan looked at me, a question in his eyes. I didn’t know if it was part of the show or not, but I gently pulled Cassidy back, feeling silly for doing so. The T. rex roared, but it was whiny and protracted, the sound of a toy whose batteries have run out. Two rangers ordered us from the room just as the creature careened to the side and flattened the gate that held it. Miraculously, only one person was hurt. Regrettably, it was a child.

It hadn’t been obvious to back away, and I could easily imagine another scenario where I hadn’t, one where Cassidy was injured. The exhibit had built to this, a series of escalating brushes with danger, and we’d been immersed in the climax, standing a few feet from an agitated T. rex as Allison ostensibly tracked down a runaway dinosaur. It seemed natural to watch the next Hollywood-style misadventure unfold, to stay within the dream until the credits rolled.

We were quickly shepherded away from the chemical smell of burned wires, the smoke and the smashed glass and the slain lizard, which didn’t break into pieces like everything else, but simply flopped down, completely intact, as if from old age. The child, whose leg had been mangled from a projectile slice of metal, wailed, but was not moved as he and his family awaited a stretcher. We were led straight to the exit and onto the sidewalk, where jittery employees collected our contact information for the police or detectives or whomever would call, loaded us up with vouchers, and sent us away.

3.

Diners gathered along the window-lined wall, watching the lights. News crews had arrived, a circling helicopter as well as reporters on the ground, holding microphones to the mouths of exiting museum-goers.

The waitress brought our lunch and peered out the window before setting down the plates. “What’s going on over there?”

“We saw it happen!” Advik said.

“Such a travesty!” Cassidy stuffed a crisp French fry into her mouth.

“Eat your broccoli, please,” I said to her.

“A dinosaur malfunctioned and fell over,” Vihaan said. “A boy was hurt.”

“Badly?” the waitress asked.

“Just his leg,” Vihaan said.

“He’s lucky,” she said.

I’d thought the same, initially. A person could live without a leg. But there had been blood, perhaps shattered bones. And that was just what was visible.

Vihaan pursed his lips. “Looked pretty bad. Poor kid was probably only five or six.”

The waitress told the kids they were brave. She told us to enjoy our lunch, that we deserved it after what we’d been through.

Cassidy wanted to call Daddy.

“First eat your broccoli,” I said.

Advik stabbed his hamburger with a plastic T. rex tooth. “Good thing we got souvenirs first.”

4.

In the gift shop, Vihaan stood before a display stacked with boxed T. rex teeth. “Where is he this week?”

“Minneapolis. I think.”

Cassidy and Advik ran over, red-cheeked and sweaty, waving silver packets of astronaut ice cream.

“Daddy! Can I get it? Pleeeeeease?” Advik asked.

Vihaan nodded.

Cassidy didn’t even ask, assuming she was entitled to whatever Advik got. It was the dinosaur keychain, the dinosaur rubber ball and the dinosaur excavation kit that she wanted to know about.

Advik tossed his keychain and the silver packet aside, lifting a box from the display. “Woah, cool.”

Vihaan took it from him, examining all four sides. “Is it real?” He looked at me when he asked, like it was an earnest question.

“Are you kidding me?” As if a prehistoric specimen was just a massive version of a shark tooth someone might loop onto a leather necklace and sell on the boardwalk for ten dollars.

After some negotiations, the children were off again and we were alone, or as alone as two people could be in the flagship gift shop on the ground floor of a busy museum.

“Where’s Julie?” I asked, surprised that I hadn’t thought to earlier.

“Finishing her dissertation. She couldn’t care less where we are or what we’re doing, so long as we’re gone.”

The hurt in his voice startled me, and I wondered if maybe we were both just losing ourselves in a fantasy, creating a distraction from our respective lists of perceived slights, keeping score in the most childish way we could muster. Yet I sensed that his attachment to me was tangled in pride. If I left him, I couldn’t imagine him recommitting to Julie. He’d fight for me, claw to keep the façade going, even as it sputtered and spewed black smoke. There would be casualties, the extent of which I assumed included my family.

“You sound upset.”

“She just takes herself so seriously. Like I’m just a capitalist chump. Like paying the bills is nothing. And it’s not like she’s curing cancer or anything. It’s not like humanity would end if she didn’t figure out pesticide toxicity in fish. I mean, you’ve made important advancements in your field, but you’re not making everyone else feel like an asshole.”

“I’m a middle school science teacher.”

“And you don’t mind a day out with your kid, looking at plastic dinosaurs and t-shirts in a gift shop.” He gestured at a display of candy. “Licorice and gum balls and Nerds.”

I worried he might list everything in the store.

When we entered the Jurassic World exhibit, a man handed us iPads loaded with a guided tour. “The people who pay extra for the iPads are less likely to be eaten by dinosaurs,” he told Cassidy. She ignored him, smart enough to know that we didn’t just pay $200 to have a T. rex tear at our flesh and crush our bones.

The kids scarfed the remains of their astronaut ice cream and stuffed the foil packets into their pockets. Sticky residue circled their mouths, their fingers stamping crusty prints onto the iPads. We shuffled into a room fashioned as a ship. Large-screen panels along the walls showed the ocean slapping against the ship’s sides and the dinosaur-riddled island we were supposedly visiting nearing on the horizon. A park ranger named Allison manifested on our screens to explain that we were VIP guests for the day and would experience an exclusive tour off-limits to the general public. Allison delivered the exact same message on a large monitor that the non-iPad users watched, as well, meaning we spent twice as much for the privilege of exposure to extra, VIP-style germs. But at least we wouldn’t get eaten by dinosaurs!

While searching my purse for hand sanitizer, Vihaan pinched my ass, and I could tell from Cassidy’s expression that she’d seen it. She was still, her troubled brain searching through possible explanations and, because I was trapped, I pushed her pliable mind in the direction I needed it to go.

I slapped at his hand. “That’s not a very friendly game!”

Game. The word that enabled her to believe what she most wanted: that I was a good mother that loved her family and we would be blissfully tied to one another in perpetuity. No threats, no predators, no transgressions. The breakthrough inspired her to start pinching my ass like a maniac, inviting Advik to join in. They hopped and shrieked and laughed hysterically, taunting the other kids in the room that, though likely itching to join, remained pressed to their parents. I imagined Cassidy relaying the story to her father later. “Vihaan pinched mommy’s butt, so we had a butt-pinching party!” I swatted them away, but the game died slowly.

When the ship “arrived,” I distracted them by pointing toward a 24-foot tall brachiosaurus. They ran past the map of the island, past the gate, past Allison warning us to keep our distance from the dinosaurfor our own safetyand right over to its feet. That’s when it hit me that the whole thing was based on a movie. It should’ve clicked when I first saw the name of the exhibit, or when I bought the tickets, or maybe even when I was riding the “boat” to the fictional island. But it hadn’t, the most obvious things being hardest to see. This real-life science museum, albeit one geared to kids, had traded the dissemination of actual facts in favor of the impossible, science-lite logic of a novelist whose book spawned a Hollywood franchise. Though beaten and left for dead years ago, the scientist in me bristled.

Vihaan grabbed me to offer a Vihaan-esque apology. “I should be more subtle.”

I grunted, unable to say what I should’ve. That the length of the affair had made us lazy and careless. That the fact that our kids were best friends made it doubly inappropriate. That I was having doubts.

Dense ferns surrounded the brachiosaurus and a thick canopy of trees fanned out just above its head.

“Is it real, mommy? Is it?”

Cassidy danced around me in circles and for some reason I hesitated to answer. Rationally, it wasn’t possible that the museum decided to breed several man-eating dinosaurs and trap them inside of a non-fortified museum in the middle of a major city. Surely I hadn’t been so consumed by political headlines that I would’ve missed that scandal. And yet. The brachiosaurus lowered its head toward us, pausing to determine if we were friends or foes. Several aspects of the dinosaur were scientifically accurateits tail shorter in proportion to its neck, forelimbs longer than hind limbs, and large trunk adorned with a high-ellipsoid cross section. But it was the eyes that got me. It blinked. Its eyeballs rotated and the pupils constricted, appearing to focus on us. It moaned, a long, lamenting wail.

Cassidy squeezed my hand. “It’s real, isn’t it?”

I’d always answered her questions honestly. Last year, during a similar conversation, I informed Cassidy that I was Santa Claus, a conversation she promptly forgot because it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. In subsequent months, she never acknowledged the disclosure, and repeatedly informed me that Santa had to be real because parents weren’t clever or wealthy enough to pull off Christmas on their own. She not only chose to believe what she liked, but was evangelical about it. So now I adopted a knowing parent smile and said, “I don’t know. What do you think?” Vihaan performed a similar side-step with Advik, and the two children bounced up and down like exploding popcorn kernels, chanting, “It’s real! It’s real!”

I reminded myself it wasn’t real as we strolled through rooms containing a parasaurolophus, a momma and baby triceratops, and an incubation lab containing rows of large eggs and newly-hatched babies warmed beneath heat lamps. In the lab, colossal chunks of amber containing prehistoric mosquitoes lined one wall. An adjacent table displayed the tool used to extract the mosquito DNA and create the dinosaurs. The wall-mounted explanations conceded that none of it was scientifically plausible, but only the parents read that. I got it. Using a movie containing fake science to generate excitement and prompt the future exploration of real science. But still.

The exhibit intensified in true Hollywood style. In the raptors paddock, Allison warned us to keep our distance: raptors remained wild animals with killer instincts. An unseen trainer, likely a projection of a human-shaped shadow paired with audio track, soothed an agitated raptor named Blue. The raptor, however, was undeniably there. “Easy, Blue. Easy,” the trainer warned as Blue paced ominously behind the metal bars, complete with horror-movie scoring, the animal’s heavy tail thwapping against the bars with each turn.

Vihaan sidled up next to me. “Think they have babysitting services? So parents can pop in next door for a drink and an emergency shag?”

He wasn’t British, but often used the word ‘shag,’ an adorable idiosyncrasy that had turned stale with time.

“Maybe that guy knows something.” He nodded toward a ‘park ranger.’ He was kidding, yet this was the way of our affair. Stolen carnal moments jimmied into our schedules of work and kids. A half-hour after drop-off at school, or before pick up, or in between soccer practice and homework. Lately, I felt like a convenience store in the midst of a prolonged hold-up.

In the beginning, the sheer novelty of his attention attracted me. The way he’d hang on every word, still listening after everyone else had stopped. The way he’d often buy me thingsthoughtful thingswhen my husband couldn’t even get his head around it once a year for Christmas, and flagrantly ignored birthdays and anniversaries. The way that he never acted superior even though he was the founder of a private equity firm and brilliant and I had failed miserably at so many things. The affair began after I’d lost my job. My daughter was idolizing every fantasy that crossed her pathSanta, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, everyday fairies, you name it, conflating fact and fiction as if it were as harmless as mixing peas with carrots, me hovering somewhere in the middle, not sure what I believed in, only that it was no longer myself. A constitutional purgatory. The affair had given shape to an otherwise amorphous phase of my life. Then, the consequences had seemed too murky to fathom.

The raptor lunged toward the bars, baring its teeth. The trainer’s voice turned panicked. “Blue! Blue! Retreat!” Reluctantly, the raptor backed away from us, following the voice. Allison emerged to concede that the raptor show was more exciting than they had planned, but our visit with T. rex in Paddock #9 would be harmless.

“What’s up with you today?” Vihaan looked put out, hints of anger breaking through his good-natured, pot-smoking, backyard barbeque-ing father veneer. He was a man who didn’t believe in mistakes.

I blinked at him. “I’m just…you know, thinking about what it means that they’ve subjugated science to cinema.”

His smile was genuine, all glowing teeth and dimpled cheeks and bedroom eyes. “Well quit being deep. Let’s ditch these kids.”

My smile took effort. Advik darted over to whine about a bellyache, which happened every time he ate dairy. Vihaan gave me a look and produced a roll of Tums we all knew wouldn’t fix anything.

Cassidy literally twisted Advik’s arm, pulling him into the next room. “Hurry up. T. rex is next!” To me, she said, “I knew he shouldn’t get the ice cream. I told him to get dinosaur eggs, instead.”

I nodded, thinking how much easier it would be if we let other people run our lives. If we never wanted the things we knew were bad for us.

5.

The hotel lobby was studded with glass-fronted fireplaces and lacquered tables that appeared to be dipped in nail polish. Cassidy, teeth flecked with rogue broccoli florets, handed me the phone after reciting the incident to her father in painstaking detail.

“Sounds like you’ve had an exciting morning,” David said.

“It was really something.”

“I’m glad everybody’s safe. I worry about you two when I’m not around.” He paused, then added, “Which is all the time.” David had been traveling for work nearly non-stop for the past four years, every weekday, some weekends. The travel had taken its toll. “I expected to tell you all about Sarah asking me to consider an EVP position. Less travel. But who cares about that!”

“That’s wonderful news.”

“I think it’s time. It’s been so hard.”

The truth of the statement winded me and I sat there, immobilized. My mouth was so dry, perhaps the result of my lunchtime martinis. I desperately needed water. People streamed into and out of the rotating doors with fierce determination. Long strides, destinations fixed, lone business travelers moving among the couples and trios of friends and lovers enjoying a long weekend, shopping bags held high, spa appointments set, eyes scanning their phones for texts or emails from the people left behind, or fixated ahead toward the next thing. They seemed to be rushing out of the moments they occupied, away from the people accompanying them, too preoccupied not to be missing something essential.

David cleared his throat. I awaited his excuse to end the call, but he lingered. “Cassidy says you saved her. You’re a good mom, Myra.”

“It was nothing.”

“A boy got his leg mutilated. But you’ve always been good at saving people.”

He was referring to our honeymoon when, dehydrated and hungover, we went zip-lining. On the platform, before he was harnessed, he became queasy and numb. His legs started to give out. If I hadn’t held onto him he might’ve dropped into a Costa Rican waterfall.

“How did Vihaan and Advik handle things?”

I hated the sound of Vihaan’s name coming from David. Advik and Vihaan sat on a couch near the bar making the same phone call. “Oh, you know. Like two heroes that had slain a deadly monster.”

David laughed. “I can picture it perfectly. Seriously, though. How is he?”

I thought he meant Vihaan, yet couldn’t think of a reason he should ask. Cassidy was spinning in circles under a massive chandelier comprised of suspended shards of glass encasing black and white photographs. I pulled her next to me and squeezed so tight she yelped.

“The boy? Will his leg be okay?” David asked.

“I think so.”

People streamed past. The harried mothers trailing their kids. The tribes of people who’d chosen each other once upon a time, lost in the bustle, making their lists, negotiating their own survivals, churning through decisions that hadn’t yet been made, or were made but not enacted, or would be made in the future, consumed with the wrong worries, the petty slights, the careful construction of a dream that would one day shatter, leaving them to deal with an inevitable fallout against which they could only hope to recover all that was lost. I hoped the hardest.

Michele Lombardo is a fiction writer, Co-Founder of the monthly writing series Write Now Lancaster, a member of Philadelphia Stories’ Fiction Board and an Art Advocate for the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Crack the Spine, Permafrost Magazine, The Journal of Crime, Law and Social Change, and others. She is a graduate of UCR Palm Desert’s MFA Program. Her story “Benched” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Learn more at michelelombardowrites.com or follow her at @michele_lomb.

2018-11-03T01:24:03+00:00