Animals at the Ball by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill
A sequined ball gown glides past me. Eyes in an ostrich mask narrow. “Are you a donkey?”
I waggle my mask’s brown ears. “Aardvark. They eat–”
She’s spun away by a guy in a lion costume, his wire tail bouncing and flirting along dancers’ legs.
Fine. I don’t know what an aardvark eats anyway. Ants? The only reason I picked this is because I heard the new hire will be a zebra. I’ve been practicing my pick-up line for her. “Hey we’re A to Z. Get it?”
Shit, do I really look like a donkey? When security helped ease me through the protestors and picket lines outside, no one said anything.
I adjust my tux. The company ball is in full swing and people take its theme “Go Wild” to heart. They’re screaming laughter. Shouting songs. Tufts of artificial grass wave on the dance floor, and recordings of exotic birds shriek over music. Of course, the company’s made so much this year, hell, there might be real birds in here. With the roll-backs on environmental protections, we’re fracking and drilling like it’s a party. It is a party.
I look for zebra-girl.
The buffet has fancy faux cheese and chefs searing real lab-grown steak. A jokey sign says, “Do not feed the animals.”
“Really,” a flock of women in flamingo masks mutter. They pull down plastic stripes that look like iron bars and shove them in a corner. “Zoo decor? So inappropriate.”
“Unethical. At least the caterer is woke.”
I grab a drink and hors d’oeuvres wrapped in fakin’ bacon. Then I see her. God almighty. She’s wearing a black leotard and striped stockings that come up to her thighs. I can’t see her face; it’s under a zebra head. But she’s a knock-out. A is for aardvark. Z is for zowie!
“Ooh, are you an elephant?” Someone looks at my long nose.
I angle my way over to zebra-girl. She’s sitting beside a masked pregnant woman who’s a kangaroo, with a little sign over her pouch: “Coming soon!”
“Do you want to dance?” I ask zebra-girl.
She nods and paws her slender foot on the floor. My heart soars.
We do a little shuffle. Her waist is warm in my hands.
“Want a drink?”
She nods and stamps the floor again.
I’m well on my way to getting shit-faced. The zebra head is getting unnerving though. What if I wake up next to it, like a scene from The Godfather? But she finally takes it off.
It’s Susan. My ex-wife.
“Hiya.” She smirks, tweaking my aardvark nose.
“I’m not a donkey.”
“You’re still an ass.”
Okay, I had a wandering eye when we were married. I admit it.
“Why would you keep dancing with me like that, and not say anything?” I ask her. “I thought you were–”
“It was fun! Call it payback.”
I take another drink and frown. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“I came with Kali.” She points to the pregnant kangaroo. “Bob left her,” she whispers.
“Jesus, you work with her every day.”
Two guys inside a camel costume trot past. “Hump daaay!” The IT guys are hyenas and they cackle. I know they’ve jammed everyone’s cell signals tonight, at HR’s request, so no one can live-stream any party antics.
In a corner, I see the new hire in a zebra-striped dress. Ah! Z is for zipper down the back!
The drinks are hitting me hard, and I try to make my way over to her.
But drums pound and our CEO waltzes in as a big game hunter. Pith helmet, boots, the works. He pulls back a curtain to reveal a backdrop for pictures. We can pose triumphant with hologrammed dead lions, giraffes, elephants . . . big as boulders.
3D lamps project our profit margins. Stock going straight up the walls, straight for the moon! And the room is glittery and champagne-heady. The IT hyenas laugh. Hump-day the camel is literally trying to hump everyone.
I’m drunk and it’s a party.
I lurch around to the real zebra-girl and grab her shoulder.
“Congratulations to us!” I point to the holo-charts.
“Let me go!” She jerks away.
I stumble, falling into the plastic zoo bars in the corner. Conversations spin around me.
“Big game hunting? It’s not ethical.”
“But I hear the money saves the animals.”
I laugh. “Kill ‘em to save ‘em!”
I watch Susan dance and she’s beautiful.
A is for aardvark. B is for bitter
Someone whispers, “Our profits are unsustainable. And the environment . . . “
C is for complicit.
D is for drill.
Picking myself up, I lurch around the room, tripping over the fake savanna grass. The dancers spin faster. Pregnant kangaroo girl sits in the corner, chewing on her lip. The CEO takes center stage and whoops, throwing his pith helmet. It skitters across the dance floor like a khaki beetle.
The flamingo ladies nibble the cultured filet mignon. “Clean meat makes me feel slimmer.”
One watches a couple necking. “Some things never change at these things.”
Another says “And really, the zoo thing is just not ethical . . .”
The holo-flow charts swoop and color everyone in disco-ball yearly profit bling-bling, and I laugh and laugh again, but also feel a little sick.
When the lights flit to a golden yellow, it’s as if we’re all caught in amber.
I fall toward the exit. But I miss the door and hit the glass hard. A smear of blood. Protesters outside watch me, surprised.
My tie’s askew. I’ve lost my mask. I don’t know what I am anymore. I didn’t even know the A to Z’s in my own marriage.
E is for end.
I wipe my nose and wave to the “no Arctic drilling” signs. Behind me, birds shriek and insects hum and music throbs.
A protestor feels sorry for me, the bloody-nosed drunk inside. He lifts his hand.
Waving at all the beautiful animals.
Joy Kennedy-O’Neill teaches English at a small college on the Texas Gulf Coast. Her works have appeared in Nature, Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, New Orleans Review, among other places. More of her work can be found at JoyKennedyOneill.com.