Invasive Species

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Table of Contents

Invasive Species

By Amanda Baldeneaux

The polar bear’s diorama had been a background of painted ice, but the museum paid an artist to melt the Arctic scenery into water. Viviana had turned the white ice floes into blue sea with such realism that the manager of the Waller Museum of Natural History’s Wild Kingdom Halls extended her contract, hiring her to paint the backgrounds for their newest diorama collection: “Overthrown: Invasive Species of North America.” Viviana had painted theater sets when she still had her work-study scholarship at the Templeton College of Art & Design, so wildlife diorama backgrounds weren’t far out of her comfort zone. Painting in front of a live audience was, but she’d gotten used to it over the weeks, as families and school groups stood gaping at her and Sam from behind the glass while they painted zebra mussels onto cargo-ship hulls and European rabbits hiding behind kudzu vines overtaking a hipped-roof farmhouse.

Today, Viviana and Sam worked on a new diorama depicting a python eating a scarlet ibis, a bird now almost extinct thanks to shrinking wetlands and invasive predators. The python, a former pet, was one of many that had been released into the everglades when it grew large and unruly. This one had been captured and killed by a team from Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation, its body one of many stuffed and shipped in crates to museums around the U.S. Viviana was working white paint into water to represent sunlight on the everglade grasses when her boss, Wendy, opened the diorama’s hidden back door and stuck her head in.

“About to clean up,” Sam said, wiping a paint smudge off his finger onto his chest.

“Not yet,” Wendy said. “Going to need you to go a little late tonight.”

“Can’t,” Viviana said. “I have to catch the bus.” The museum closed at six o’clock. Viviana needed to take the six-thirty bus to her parents’ house, where she’d deliver them dinner before catching the eight o’clock bus to her second job, where she worked three nights a week as a night nanny for a widower and his two surviving children. The city busses would stop running at 8 p.m. sharp, as they did the third Friday of every month, when all fossil-fueled and personal-transportation vehicles were illegal, except for ambulances and police cars, for one week. The temporary bans were a last-ditch effort to stem the swell of air pollution that had choked the city to the brink of zero visibility the past ten years. Electric cars were on the horizon, but their affordability was tied up in litigation at the federal level, so the transition was proving difficult, especially for regular people like Viviana, who just needed a way to get to stores and to work.

The whole state was working on the transition to electric vehicles, solar power, and wind, but the process was slow and fought on all fronts by the fossil-fuel lobby and the politicians they paid. If Viviana missed the eight o’clock bus she’d be late, and if she was late one more time to the Pepperdine house, she’d be fired. Viviana couldn’t afford to be fired.

“Fifteen minutes,” Wendy said. “Maybe twenty. Tour group from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Art Club wants to see the artists at work.” Wendy checked her watch, then closed the door, sealing Viviana and Sam back into the unfinished everglades. Once the background was painted, the sculptors would come in, crafting fake water and grasses for the python to stalk.

“You can go,” Sam said. “One artist is fine.”

Viviana shook her head. The museum was already predicting fourth-quarter budget cuts, and artists were an extravagance she knew most of the Board of Directors viewed as expendable. She couldn’t afford to be expendable if they decided to shrink the art department; they’d already spent the money earmarked for employee bonuses on the new virtual-reality headsets that hung in the middle of the Wild Kingdom Hall. Why stare at a static diorama when you could be immersed in the African Serengeti or the Brazilian rainforest through the magic of pixels and sound mixes? Dioramas were a dying breed in museums across the country. The new invasive-species displays were only happening thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which desperately needed the public to stop releasing lionfish, pythons, and other exotic pets into what was left of the American wild, and for ranchers and other hunters to stop shooting apex predators that kept both native and invasive species in check.

“I’ll make it,” Viviana said, more hopeful than sure.

Sam checked the time on his phone. “Why’re they letting a group in so late, anyway?” He dipped his brush in a mixture of green paints.

“Ritzy private school,” Viviana said. She rubbed her thumb against her fingers. She’d played basketball against St. Andrews back in middle school. “Parents are probably donors.”

“Figures.” Sam finished stippling a blade of black rush grass as a group of children in blazers ran into the hall, their foot-stomps shaking the cups of water and paint tables. The sculptors were scheduled for the following week, when viewers could watch them craft fake swatches of grass and stacks of mud. The taxidermist would come last, arranging the dead python in the water made of glue, poised to strike an unsuspecting native bird, its bill dipped low, searching for the dwindling fish.

Each of the diorama scenes were like this: the action of the animals frozen midstride, ears perked up as though pausing to assess a possible danger, breath held. The danger, of course, had passed long ago, on the day the animal had been shot by the conservationist hunter. Some of the animals in the museum’s collection had been shot just after the Industrial Revolution, the air over parts of the world still thick with ashes and soot, just as it had become again in the age of internal combustion.

Viviana often felt herself liable to combust at any moment, her life on hold as it was. She’d been studying for a degree in interior design, paying her way with a combination of work-study and loans, when her father had the accident at the warehouse where he fulfilled orders for online shoppers. He’d shown no sign he’d come out of the coma while in hospital, and his doctors predicted he never would, and sent him home to lay like some stuffed, inanimate version of himself until his heart or his wife gave up. The cost to rent the medical equipment now set up in her parents’ bedroom ate up everything the Pepperdine family paid her to warm bottles for the motherless baby at three-hour intervals every night, and to soothe the nightmares of the surviving eight-year-old, his twin sister lost along with their mother. Viviana’s own mother was ready to unhook her father from the life support that kept his lungs filling with and exhaling air, but Viviana wouldn’t let her. Not yet.

The children in the hall unhooked the virtual-reality headsets, slipping the black goggles over their faces and staring at the walls and the ceiling as the video immersed them inside experiences as grazing bison, foraging bears, and flying birds. Others pressed their hands and noses to glass, some knocking on the thick pane that separated them from Viviana and Sam, trying to get their attention. The artists weren’t supposed to stop or acknowledge the spectators on the other side; they were to keep working, like an exhibit on a loop.

“Hey mister! Hey mister!” The kids leaned over the railing, slapping the glass with open palms despite the signs instructing them not to.

“They’re talking to me,” Sam said.

Viviana swirled and swirled her brush in blue paint, her face warm. The medicine she’d begun taking less than six months before had slowed the growth of dark hairs on her face, widened her hips, and caused painful breast buds to swell, but her chin was still long and sharp, her shoulders broad. She’d begun growing her hair out when she started the hormone therapy, but it only filled a short ponytail, so far, and her pastel clothes—the most feminine she could find that fit, for now—were hidden beneath the puffy white bodysuit all the artists wore when working inside the displays.

“It’s alright,” Viviana said, though it wasn’t. Her doctor said it’d be several more months before the estrogen therapy overtook the work that years of testosterone had done on her body. She checked the time.

“They’ll get hungry and bored quick,” Sam said. “They’re like, twelve.” He leaned into the wall, darkening shadows with paint. Sam had come to this job after art school, a course of study he’d decided against after high school in favor of a “practical career,” pushed on him by his parents. He’d been a flight attendant before the airlines constricted, citing the strict climate-mitigation regulations as a chokehold on their earnings. He missed travel, he said, but art had always been his real passion, and the dioramas were transportive in their own way. He was where he wanted to be. Viviana, on the other hand, was not. The museum, to her, was just a layover until she could finish her degree.

Behind the glass, the St. Andrew’s chaperone pointed out their brushstrokes and technique, their use of color to imply the sun setting on what was left of the everglades, but the kids were already scattering. Not even a new, modern scene could capture the attention of kids for too long. Their bodies craved movement, the steps on the ground that the stuffed animals, their paws and hooves always stalled in a hover, could never take. Viviana worried she’d stay like the displayed animals forever—frozen in incomplete action. She began to sweat. She’d never make it to the Pepperdine house if she missed the last bus. The monthly week-without-cars froze the city midstride. Many jobs had evolved to allow people to work from home, but others just shut down for the week, placing everything on hold until movement could be resumed once again. The city felt dead to Viviana, then, too sprawled to allow easy movement from suburb to suburb, the neighborhoods severed by the knotted ribbons of highway. The Wild Kingdom Hall felt dead to her, too: a zoo without life. She felt bad for the animals, some just babies when killed. A forest exhibit displayed a dead moose cub suckling at its mother’s dry teat. The milk would never come. The baby would always be thirsty. No argument for inspiring a need for conservation in the dead animals’ viewers could convince Viviana that the dioramas’ existence was ethically justifiable. And yet. Here she was.

“Will they ever clear out?” Viviana’s pulse quickened, ready to run out the everglade’s back door as soon as the halls were cleared.

“Just go,” Sam said. “We’re just background noise, anyway.”

“Being the background is the point,” Viviana said. “You wouldn’t know,” she ribbed. Sam was white, and male. Good-looking, too, even in his puffy white suit.

“Beauty like this is hard to hide,” he said, winking. The chatter outside the glass quieted as stomps reverberated down the hall and toward the ocean exhibits. “They’re gone.”

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Viviana unzipped her painting suit, stumbling over the feet as she tried to get out of it as quickly as she could. A stuffed polar bear glared at her from the corner of the restoration room; the large male had been removed from the scene that Viviana had painted out the ice floes from. The configuration had been all wrong; male polar bears wouldn’t have sat near the females and cubs in the cozy family scene originally depicted. Males were aggressive. He sat alone in the corner now, being dusted, stitched up, and prepared for storage. The emptier diorama resonated more with the current reality of the Arctic, anyway. Viviana had been told to paint over swaths of sea birds from the original background to further represent the dramatic loss of animal life in the polar region. She’d felt like a killer, painting bird after bird from existence. The placard on the exhibit had been changed to explain the dwindling populations, and humanity’s role in their decline. She slung her purse over her shoulder.

It was six-twenty; she had ten minutes to run down three flights of stairs and out to the bus stop flanking the museum’s front drive. She sprinted out of the restoration room, skipped steps on the escalator, and ran to the stop as the city bus’s doors squealed open for waiting passengers. She scanned her pass, out of breath and silently cursing Wendy. She couldn’t complain, though. While Viviana needed her night job to help with her father’s medical bills, she needed this job to pay her rent and save up for a deposit on a new apartment further north. Her current building had already been sold to a developer who planned to turn it into high-end condos with a bagel shop on the ground level. All of the buildings in the neighborhood had suffered similar fates—houses renovated and turned into million-dollar homes or law offices; corner bodegas converted into cupcake shops or expensive grocers who sold flowers out of buckets in front and twenty-dollar cheese from glass-doored fridges inside. There were wine bars and breweries, now. Brunch restaurants that closed by two o’clock. Everything Viviana had known in the neighborhood while growing up—barber shops, produce markets, record stores—had closed. Her parents had moved out of their one-story Craftsman when Viviana was a freshman in college, selling it to a white family who popped the top and built tall fences to close out the neighbors—families whose kids Viviana had grown up playing with in the street. She hated to be pushed out of her apartment, her last stake of ownership in the place she grew up, but she couldn’t afford to buy back her own place as a condo.

It was summer and the sun hung low and round over the skyline, blinding Viviana through the bus window. She slipped her sunglasses down, but the mask over her nose and mouth that filtered out pollution made her glasses fog up, so she pushed them back on her head and turned away from the city. She scrolled celebrity Instagram on her phone. She didn’t care much about what celebrities cooked for dinner or where they vacationed, but she liked to look at how they decorated their homes. In the backgrounds of pictures of noodles with caviar toppings or videos of kids dancing in living rooms were design details Viviana kept note of—vintage doorknobs, sleek cabinet handles and drawer pulls. Bathroom marble veining. Spun table legs and Windsor chairs. Viviana wanted to design homes for the wealthy, one day. Backgrounds set the scene for everything in life, even if her future clients didn’t realize that fact as they ate their immigrant-picked apples, sawed into minority-butchered fine steaks.

Finishing her degree would have to wait, though. As long as her father lay comatose in bed, there was no extra money to take courses. Viviana didn’t know what he could or couldn’t process. He could blink, but not in a discernible pattern. He couldn’t move his limbs or his face. As far as she or the doctors knew, he was trapped inside of his body. Viviana shuddered. She knew what it felt like to be trapped inside of a body that didn’t feel right. At least hers could move.

The bus stopped four blocks from her parents’ house, and Viviana stepped out in front of her aunt and uncle’s empanada restaurant. The restaurant bordered the street between the quickly gentrifying blocks of Viviana’s current apartment and the blocks to which her parents had fled for affordable housing, and where she would soon follow suit. Empanadas were popular with the people moving into the old houses and buildings, and her aunt and uncle simultaneously benefited from the boom in their business and suffered from rising rents that crept closer and closer like an encroaching tide. They knew all about encroaching tides; the seaside village where they’d lived before immigrating to the U.S. was now underwater, the street signs and storefronts serving as popular photo spots for the new breed of sea-reclaimed land divers. Viviana’s aunt swore she saw items from her mother’s kitchen for sale on a website featuring artifacts pilfered from flooded cities and villages. The pottery pattern was the same, she swore, the palm leaves the same color and width as those on her mother’s good plates.

Dinner for Viviana’s parents waited on the front counter, bagged up in bamboo boxes that leaked sauce into the contraband plastic shopping sack. Plastic bags had been illegal for two years, but restaurants had bought them in bulk boxes of thousands before the ban, and still used them. Viviana pulled her mask down and waved to her uncle in the kitchen. Her cousin sat behind the register, staring at an iPad.

Her aunt and uncle made food for her mother most nights, to help cut down on shopping trips outside of the house. Her father was immunocompromised and the bad air quality exacerbated the sorry state of his lungs; he’d spent most of his early years smoking. Viviana couldn’t even go upstairs to see him without putting on hospital-grade protective gear and scrubbing her hands till they bled. Her mother had a garden in the back of the new house, once, but the lack of light through the city’s brown cloud made the plants spindly and frail. Not worth the effort to grow anymore, so she’d quit. She still managed a few flowers, though, their leaves growing wide and fat to absorb what filtered sunlight they could.

Viviana grabbed the bag of food off the counter and left, the bell over the door dinging behind her. She fast-walked to her parents’, not wanting the sauce in the boxes to slosh out more. Her mother complained when Viviana spilled, contaminating one type of sauce with another.

She crossed through the wrought-iron gate that bordered the front yard and took her shoes off on the porch. A broom rested against the doorframe; her mother had always kept an impeccably clean house, even before her father got injured and sick.

“Momma?” Viviana flipped on the switch in the front foyer. Upstairs, she could hear the machines connected to her father’s body puffing air in and out of his lungs. A steady beep like sonar signaled he was still alive somewhere inside.

Her mother didn’t answer, and Viviana sighed, annoyed. She wanted to hand the food off and run. She was already cutting it close to catch her bus. She wished she’d grabbed coffee from her uncle before leaving; she’d need it to stay awake through the night. Tomorrow, she could sleep, though. If she didn’t get fired. If she did, she’d have to spend the day scouring want ads; her father’s life literally depended on it.

Viviana moved through the house toward the kitchen. Pictures of her as a child stared back—a plump boy with hair that hung over his eyes. Her mother hated that she’d always covered her face with her hair, but Viviana had hated her face. The stubble that’d begun to grow when she’d turned thirteen. The thick brows. The primary-colored polos her mother forced her to wear to look “nice.” None of it had been her; she’d always known that. She wished her mother would take down the pictures. They looked like a series of strangers squatting in her parents’ long hall. The persistence of the photos made Viviana wonder if her mother preferred her as her old self, the boy’s body she’d been born in. The photos hung as some sort of defiance to the person Viviana had become, to who she always had been.

Viviana dropped the food on the kitchen counter and followed the sound of her mother’s humming out back. She slipped her mask back over her nose and mouth and found her mother in the garden, a bucket of soapy water in hand as she hovered over her crop of wan-pink, thin-petaled roses.

“Food’s here,” Viviana said, kissing her mom on the cheek through her mask.

“What is it?” Her mother plucked a fat beetle from a flower and dropped it into the water.

Viviana shrugged. “Didn’t look. Why are you drowning them? That’s so cruel.”

“Not enough birds to eat them,” her mother said. “They eat the flowers.” She grabbed another shiny, green beetle from between the folds of a flower and dunked it into the bucket. The bodies of dozens of other Japanese beetles floated at the top of the suds. “I made chicken soup yesterday. You want some?”

“Momma,” Viviana said. “For the thousandth time. I’m vegan.”

“So, you can’t eat my soup?” She rummaged through leaves, hunting more beetles.

“I have to go,” Viviana said. “I didn’t spill the sauce; it leaked before I got it.”

“You work too much,” her mother said. “You’ll burn yourself out.”

“Someone has to pay for things.” Her mother looked wounded and Viviana regretted the words.

“You torture him,” her mother snapped, her face scowling behind her gauze mask. “He’s not in there anymore.” She tapped her forehead with her fist. “We keep him this way just for you.”

Arguments rose up Viviana’s throat like bile, but she swallowed them down. She’d had this argument with her mother too many times. As long as she paid the bills for the equipment, her mother would only argue so far. “I’ll miss my bus,” she said, not kissing her mother goodbye. Her mother kept her eyes fixed on the flowers. She crushed a beetle in her gloved hand before dropping it into the grass.

Before Viviana had to work two jobs, she’d have stayed and had dinner with her parents. She used to eat with them every Wednesday, back when she had class during the day and a car to get around. Not many people had cars anymore; they were too expensive to maintain. She used to go to clubs and bars every weekend and take car trips down the coast with her friends. There was no time for that now. No money for hotels. No mobility. She missed her old life. She missed how the sky had been blue in her childhood. Ever since the end of elementary school, the brown haze had been growing thicker and closer. At first, she could only see it through polarized glasses when staring out across the horizon. Then it was a fog sitting always a mile up the road. Then it was overhead, blocking everything. Trapping everything. The mitigation efforts had done little to alleviate it, as the oil rigs and refineries and other big factories were exempt, but the government and their advisors promised results in three years, five years … the calculations were always changing. Viviana liked to think that her full transition and the first glimpse of blue sky over the city would coincide, one day. A grand reopening of life. Not that she could afford the surgery anytime soon. All of that was on hold.

She slipped her shoes on and ran to catch the last bus of the week, chasing its exhaust down the street till it stopped at an enclosed bus shelter; some of the new ones had air filters and air conditioners so people wouldn’t drop dead while they waited. That’d happened in recent years, as the summer temperatures routinely crept well over one hundred.

The bus ride across town was long; there were at least twenty stops before it deposited her on the outskirts of the Pepperdines’ neighborhood. The sun had almost set and long shadows crept down the street from the tall roofs of the sprawling suburban houses. The Pepperdines used to have two houses, but the father sold their beach house after his wife and one of his children were swept out into open ocean from a bay while paddling a canoe. They hadn’t worn life jackets; the water was too calm. No need. They were just floating off the dock for some sun. Twenty minutes later, they were gone.

Viviana let herself in the back, leaving her shoes on a mat by the dog door. The kids would be in their rooms finishing homework. The day nanny fed them dinner and the night nanny did dishes. Viviana would spend most of the night heating up bottles, keeping the baby quiet, and watching design-show videos on her phone. It was easy money and good money, aside from the sleep deprivation. She didn’t want to lose the gig.

The Pepperdines’ old dog lumbered over from its bed in the kitchen and licked her wrist. Viviana stuffed her face mask in her purse and washed her hands.

The kitchen, as far as she could tell, hadn’t changed since the wife died, almost six months ago. A desk in front of a window still had shopping lists in a woman’s scrawl sitting on top of a day planner from the previous year. A phone charger with an out-of-date plug still connected to the socket in the wall. The dead child’s backpack still hung on a hook by the door.

She didn’t see the father much. He went to bed before nine and woke up at four, leaving to go to the gym and then to work before his children woke up. From what the older child, Owen, said, this was the same routine he’d had before he was widowed. He hadn’t changed much of anything, it seemed. Viviana wondered if he still slept on one side of the bed.

Owen sat at his desk in his bedroom, bent over an iPad with a science textbook shoved into the corner. His laptop screen was dark, where usually a cartoon played in the background as he worked math problems or answered questions about colonial history from the end of a chapter.

“Need anything?” Viviana asked, nudging the door open. “Get your homework done?”

Owen shook his head. “The Wi-Fi is down,” he said. “Again.”

Rolling brownouts had become a regular thing in the city, another attempt to save power during the transition from coal to a mix of renewables. The brownouts often hit the cable provider at night.

“What do you need it for?” Viviana sat on the edge of Owen’s bed, smoothing the wrinkles from his pillow. The room had been decorated for a much younger child, but Owen hadn’t changed it—probably because the décor had been chosen by his mother. His sister’s room sat across the hall, the door open like a waiting tomb.

“I have to write about an endangered species,” he said. “For science.”

“Okay,” Viviana said. “Which one?”

“I can pick,” Owen said. “I want to do bears.”

“What do you know about bears?”

Owen shrugged. “They eat fish. They sleep in winter.”

Viviana knew about bears; there were five different species on display in the museum. There weren’t many bears in the wild anymore. Not the real wild. They’d all been herded onto preserves, but even then, hunters still found them. The hall had a mother bear and two cubs shot by Teddy Roosevelt during a “conservation trip” in Yosemite. Viviana thought of Owen’s mother and sister, wondering if the ocean had collected them as specimens for an underwater museum.

“I can tell you about bears,” Viviana said. “We can go see them sometime, if you like.”

When she was growing up, there’d been zoos. Now it wasn’t safe to keep animals in cities unless they could be kept inside, in temperature-controlled, air-purified habitats. Big animals, like bears, had been sent to rural areas with less pollution and more land. She told Owen about how bears hibernated by lowering their body temperature to near freezing, almost stopping their own hearts to survive. She told him how bears could spend up to seven months inside dens in the woods without eating or drinking a thing. How they could awake strong and alive in the spring, like nothing had ever happened. Viviana wished her father were a bear.

“I wish I could see a real one,” Owen said. “In the wild.”

“Me too,” Viviana said. The baby cried in the room down the hall. “Someone’s hungry,” she said. “Are you?”

Owen shook his head. “Thirsty, though.”

“I’ll get you some water.” She stood, her back sore from standing in front of the diorama for hours that day, squinting at details like the configuration of constellations the day the python was killed, the proper width of the scales on fish in the water, the correct number of leaves of grass that sprouted from each species of tuft.

The dioramas weren’t substitutes for real animals, but at least they could show someone like Owen what life for a brown bear would look like, could look like again. She flipped on the bottle warmer and got Owen a glass. At least Owen would remember his mother and sister; the baby never would. Death seemed cruel to Viviana, though she often thought of her old self, her male self, as dead. He had to die so that she could live. Roosevelt had said the wild game he shot had to die so that their species might live. Roosevelt just liked to shoot things, she thought. She scooped formula into the bottle. The baby had been breastfed and refused the bottle for weeks, almost dying as a result. She thought of the moose calf in the museum. She thought of her father. Viviana tasted the milk, testing its temperature, and thought, hopefully, of herself.