Their father only had three dollars on him and he told them that, repeatedly. “That’s it, that’s all there is.” He opened his brown leather wallet like he was showing off an empty mouth. “You’ll have to share whatever you get.”
Liana and Amber didn’t care. They wanted to buy a two dollar wax animal from one of the stations set up around the Sanford Zoo. So far they’d seen wax figurines they already owned: a brown monkey that hung from a disembodied branch, an orange cougar paused mid-saunter, and a lime green snake with matching green teeth. Their father took them to the zoo every other month for visitation. The alternating month was reserved for the beach; he owned a surfboard and a one bedroom condo right next to the water. Sometimes they went in his Jacuzzi and drank Capri Suns.
He handed the money to Liana, because she was the older of the two by a year.
“Pick whatever machine you want,” he said. “Don’t lose it. I don’t have any more.”
She folded the money over so it almost looked like it could have been four dollars, and then stuffed it into the front pocket of her jean shorts. Their father’s phone rang from the front of his belt and he turned around to face the wall of the glass snake exhibit to answer it. The reflection of his bearded face was superimposed over a chunk of wood where a coral snake lay coiled in a jeweled heap.
“I want a flamingo,” Amber said. She reached for Liana’s pocket and Liana grabbed her wrist and twisted it until Amber yelped and jerked away.
“We’re getting the rhino, numb nuts.”
They left their father and walked along the cool hallway that took them through the heart of the reptile house. Their mother would never have let them wander around by themselves, even though Liana was eleven and definitely old enough to go places alone. Liana humored her mother because she was sad and lonely and told the girls they were all she had left. It was something their mother said fairly regularly: when she picked them up from school or dance classes, when they refused to eat the lima beans she’d heated to go with dinner. You girls are all I have now, their mother said in a voice that sounded like ice cracking in a glass of warm water. You’re it.
Exiting into the sunlight, they paused to stare at the Zoo’s obese alligator, who lounged silently behind his chain link fence. There was a scummy water receptacle in front of him, meant to look like a pond, but he lay still beside it as he had for the last three visits. The only sign he was alive was the steady rise and fall of his dry belly. Liana thought he looked like he’d eaten a flatbed truck. All along his back were bits of garbage that people had thrown on top of him — the top of a soda cup, string and a toothpick, assorted loose change and even a small yellow chunk of pencil.
“Hey fattass, wake up!” Liana yelled, shaking the fence and then shoving her body against it until the whole thing bounced. Their father often performed this trick with the alligator and it made the girls laugh every time. Amber didn’t laugh when Liana did it, though. She just sucked on her lip and rubbed the wrist that Liana had twisted.
When the alligator didn’t budge, they hurried down the path and around the corner, past the cart selling hotdogs that spun endlessly on their wire spits, around the squawky overfilled bird cages, toward the rhino enclosure. The sign overhead read “GREATER ONE-HORNED INDIAN RHINO” and the air was thick with humidity and the odor of waste. It reminded Liana of visiting the horses at her Uncle’s farm; a deep, dank manure smell combined with rotting vegetation.
The wax machine sat in front of the entrance, cozied side-by-side with a coin press. Liana had handfuls of those already; pennies with flattened versions of various mammals and Lincoln’s smashed silhouette ghosting across the back. There wasn’t anyone in line, so they stood beneath the wide black awning as Liana dug the money from her pocket. She handed one of the bills to Amber. “Flatten it,” she instructed, sweeping hers back and forth over the edge of the machine until the line from the center disappeared.
“Lemme put the money in,” Amber asked, but she didn’t reach forward to try and push her bill inside. She just waited and frowned. “Please, Liana.”
“You can do one.”
Liana’s went in easy, but Amber’s was still crumpled. It finally injected after three tries and Liana smoothing out the corners between her fingers. The machine started up, loudly, like a car engine turning over. Its wide molded plates slid together to form the hollow shape of the rhino, scraping across the platform where deep striations had already formed. Both girls pressed their faces to the glass and watched the gray liquid pipe from the tubes at either side of the enclosure. The smell was heavy like melting crayons and always reminded Liana of her school art class. After piping, the machine sat silent for five minutes while the wax cooled. Their breath fogged up the glass, Florida sun beating down on their calves and the backs of their knees from where they hung out from under the shade of the awning. Liana itched at the back of her leg and anticipated a weird looking sunburn.
There was a sudden whirr and hiss, and then the metal plates slid smoothly apart and released the wax figurine. It slid down the middle of the platform and fell into a hole, which led to a small trap door.
“It’s done!” Amber said. “Get it!”
“Finally. That one took forever.”
Liana reached in and pulled out the rhino. It was still warm and was roughly the same size as her palm, just small enough to close her fingers over and still see gray peek through. They bent over it and moved to the side when a kid in a soccer uniform ran up with his mother to use the machine after them. This little guy has a perfect face, Liana thought. It was the most flawless figurine she’d even gotten from one of the machines; they usually popped out with holes, or divots, or had hard juts of wax from where the plates hadn’t matched up and a little spilled over. The rhino was posed in a clump of gray wax grass and its head was lowered to take a bite. Its horn was smaller than her pinky nail and unbearably cute.
“Let’s show it to Daddy,” Amber said, pointing across the path to where their father stood talking to a woman in bright pink shorts. He looked up then and waved, motioning them over, and that’s when Liana saw that he had his arm braced behind the woman’s back. He was just leaning against the railing, really, but something about the way that he stood there — casually, smiling at the woman with all his teeth showing — made her hand clench into a tight fist. When she unfurled her fingers, the tiny wax horn had broken from the rhino’s nose and lay at the bottom of her palm.
“You show him,” Liana said, passing the rhino to her sister. “I don’t want it.” As Amber ran across the pathway, Liana stuffed the horn in her pocket. She walked over to her sister and father and the unknown woman, the horn digging sharply into the meat of her thigh.