In a virus-fearing world, skin hunger can drive you crazy — and human petting zoos can return you to yourself.
Ten years after the deadly virus nicknamed Henny Penny, the world has largely recovered — there’s an interim government as well as law and order, and life is returning to normal for the greatly reduced population. But despite effective vaccines, the law still requires people to wear protective masks and gloves at all times in public, and many still fear a resurgence of the virus. On top of this, people who haven’t been touched in years are going crazy from skin hunger.
Lily has lived in fearful isolation for ten years, afraid to rejoin the world. But a return-to-work order and an invitation to go to a petting zoo — a highly illegal club where people go to touch and be touched — start to bring her back to life.
A post-apocalyptic sex adventure and a woman’s journey of self-discovery, The Petting Zoos is an erotic love story for an age of extreme caution, in which the value of safety itself is questioned.
About the author
K.S. Covert examined her talents and realized she had two options for a career: writer or rock singer. Writing seemed more stable, and a career in journalism ensued. But always the idea of living to write, instead of just writing to live, bedevilled her. The Petting Zoos is her first novel. She lives in Ottawa.
Excerpt: The Petting Zoos (by (author) K.S. Covert)
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.
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 well-worn 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.
Combining elements of science fiction with whip-sharp social commentary, this punchily erotic elucidation on the human condition also succeeds on the artisanal level, making the reader wonder: why hasn’t anyone else written about this?
Victoria Hetherington, author of Autonomy and Mooncalves
Julie S. Lalonde, author of Resistance Is Futile