The digital display blinked 0:00, as if warning them about the impending detonation. The oven had never worked right since Steve and Sydney moved in. The oven, along with the rest of the apartment, had once been top of the line, but that line had quickly fallen. That’s what made this place such a good deal. He tried to explain this to Sydney: issues were all a part of a good deal.
“Sorry about dinner,” Steve said. The meal was a disaster: the steamed synthetic vegetables were soggy, and the organic, free-range chicken was tough and dry. Steve picked at his dinner plate. “I’ll try to remember to call tomorrow.”
Sydney was busy with her iSight, watching TV or checking her newsfeed. She acted like she didn’t notice the food. He could take the hint. The apartment had always been an issue. Their complex wasn’t one of those eco-efficient jobs that converted sunlight to electricity and collected rainwater for the plumbing. Steve promised this was only going to be a stepping-stone, but it was becoming a destination, a one-bedroom cage.
He fumbled with the strap on his iSight. It reminded him of night-vision goggles only without the dental-drill whine and camouflage color. Of course they came in camouflage and white and a number of other colors. Sydney picked blue, the color he liked best, and so he picked yellow, which in the store hadn’t seemed so loud. Now every time he put it on he felt like he was wearing a caution light.
He turned the iSight on and pulled the lenses down over his eyes and began flipping through TV shows, passing one of Sydney’s housing infomercials where a B-list celebrity explained how the solar panels on your future house work, laughing after he tells you there are zero emissions, saying, “Can you believe it?”
No, Steve couldn’t believe it. He’d seen it all before, every pitch, every handshake followed by, “You look like a reasonable man.” Reasonable, yes, but they didn’t have the money to upgrade unless the house converted reason to cash. If they were every going to have kids and a yard, they had to get out of this apartment. They had to get out of the city and escape its jaundice-colored sky and the dirty rivers running through it, toxic from the mining runoff in the mountains. And then there was the snow. The local news always warned you to seek cover, especially from the freak summer blizzards. A kid died last summer when he got caught on his bike in one. Temps going from 72 degrees down to single digits faster than you can button a coat. Steve imagined the boy frozen to his bike mid-pedal.
Sydney and Steve sat across from each other at the dinner table not saying anything. They ate dinner like this every night, each lost in their own online worlds. When they’d first started dating, they had conversations, but then again they didn’t own iSights or eTablets, they didn’t have a million things begging for their attention.
“They’re doing a special on the last lion,” he said, trying to make conversation while he watched the last lion on earth galloping across his screen. Once, when he was a boy, he’d seen a real lion in person at the Denver Zoo. This was before avian flu made the zoo go all animatronic. Now when the lion roared, the speaker inside its mouth crackled.
“Must’ve chosen a winner,” Steve said, again looking for any signs of life across the table from him. He’d finally surrendered to the food on his plate, placing his fork and knife back to their neutral position.
There had been a reality show to decide this, where people competed on huge, inflated obstacle courses for a chance to hunt and kill the last lion. Steve and Sydney had only watched once, maybe twice. The same reality circus, different clowns, Steve thought. They did tryouts at Walmart, but none of the finalists looked like people who had ever stepped foot inside the crowded megastores, each contestant buff and tan with runway smiles, all their teeth fully intact.
Steve fidgeted in his seat and began peering at Sydney from the edges of his iSight. Sydney kept staring straight ahead, and tiny flickers of light bounced off her cheeks.
The news report on Steve’s screen showed the winner on a podium, smiling. She was waving like an Olympian. An American flag hung behind her along with the sponsors’ logos. He flipped his retractable visor up and rolled his eyes, disgusted by the whole thing. Sydney stayed still. She avoided the bait to discuss the lion situation with him.
He sighed again.
“All right, what is it?” she said, flipping her visor up.
“It’s weird to me the lions are all gone,” he said. “When I was a kid we’d go to the zoo and see them.”
“I don’t remember anything other than the mechanical ones.”
“It used to have real ones,” he said. “I remember seeing the lions in the African safari exhibit, not the motorized ones on tracks. Once you’ve seen real lions it’s hard to believe in anything else.”
“It’s probably for the better,” she said, shifting in her seat. “Would you want to be the last one?”
He thought about being the last man on earth, how lonely it would be. He wasn’t sure it was any different than how he felt now.
She shifted in her seat. “It didn’t bother you when the last panda died or the whales disappeared. Things change.”
“Things change?” he said. “That’s cold, Syd.”
“You can’t hold on to everything. It’s the way of life, evolution.”
She pushed her plate aside and flipped the visor on her iSight back down, fingers adjusting the settings on the sides of the lenses. Steve tried to say something but stopped mid-thought. Avoidance was something his mom had taught him. It could keep you out of fights, she told him. It’s an escape plan for a one-bedroom apartment on the 89th floor.
“We used to go to the zoo, me and my mom,” he said, softly, iSight hanging crooked across his forehead. “Had a season pass or something. We’d spend hours there wandering.”
The air purifier was the only thing that seemed to acknowledge what he was saying, oscillating slowly in the corner, a tiny hum coming from its fan as it turned. Sydney placed both hands on the sides of her iSight and twisted them to zoom in on something.
Steve looked down at the synthetic beans. Still hungry but too lazy to try and make anything different, he thought about the damn wall oven. The whole apartment was a disappointment – the old couch and faded recliner, furniture they’d bought on credit and were still paying off even though it would be in the dumpster before the bills stopped. And he’d promised her more – that’s the part that felt like a gut punch. They were better off than most, he’d tried to explain during a recent fight, but she just ignored him.
Last week on the evening news they watched, fingers clamped to the smooth, rounded edges of their iSights, as firefighters tried to put out an inferno in a high-end apartment building where the internal security system had malfunctioned and locked all the doors and placed the complex on lockdown. No one could get in or out. Not with those shatterproof windows. They’d watched the whole ordeal, both sitting in the same exact places at the dinner table, facing each other, expressionless, as reflections from their screens bounced colors across their faces. It was like watching an aquarium fill with smoke, the roof one giant chimney billowing out black clouds.
“He’ll die anyway they say – his habitat is gone,” she said, her visor still down.
“Along with everything else in industrialized Africa,” he said. “I wonder if they really knew what they were getting into when they started letting companies buy their countries…”
She snapped her visor up and looked at him. “Hmm, trading genocides and AIDS epidemics for full-time jobs and benefits – I’d hope they wouldn’t have to think too long on that one,” and then cocked her head to the side as if to add “Dummy” on the end. He didn’t like it when she added “Dummy” on the end of things. She’d been adding “Dummy” to a lot of things lately.
“I guess that’s evolution. Things change, right?”
“Evolution is cruel,” she said. “If you’re lucky, you adapt.”
“So the lions should’ve taken jobs at Walmart – that’s what you’re saying?”
“Don’t be an asshole because you’re fondling some childhood memory of mommy and you at the zoo.”
Steve tightened his lips and looked away. The evening sun was starting to go behind the mountains. Long shadows stretched across the living room floor. The Magic Hour. He thought again about his mother and those days at the zoo. He felt guilty and needed to make time for her, something more than a Skype call. He’d been working so much lately he hadn’t bothered to even call or send a quick email. He promised himself that he’d go visit her. She was set up in one of those all-inclusive communities with 24-hour service and streams with those overgrown goldfish floating as if in suspended animation. He’d ask her if she likes it and if they’re treating her okay, and she’d probably act surprised, maybe because she’d sense his guilt, before telling him she’s fine. He’d ask her about the lions at the zoo, ask her if she remembered them.
“Hey,” Sydney said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
“My father used to go deer hunting,” she said, as she took off her iSight and set it on the table. The strap left a dent in her hair where it wrapped around her head. “You had to hunt them or they would starve. People would get in car accidents swerving to avoid them. It was a mercy killing.”
Sydney did this often, pandering to his realistic side, the common sense play.
“It was the only humane thing to do,” she said, resting her hand on top of his as a peace offering. He took it and gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
Outside the wind rattled the slider so hard they both looked up. The sun was fading behind the mountains as a storm began to roll over the top like a wave breaking over a dam. Steve stood up and walked over to check the latch. Putting his hand against the glass, he felt all the warmth fading like a memory.
A Michigan native, Mike Salisbury’s fiction has appeared in Avery Anthology, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Bombay Gin, and The Emerson Review. Mike is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Pacific University. He lives and works along the Front Range of the Rockies.