OTTERS AT THE ZOO by Christopher Allen

My imaginary son is learning about otters in imaginary third grade. He has to write a report. I think he’s a bit young for reports, but his imaginary teacher, Mrs. Florida, thinks otherwise. Two hundred words. Due Monday.

So I plan a trip to the imaginary zoo though my imaginary son says the fastest way to learn about otters is the Internet. He spends all his internet time reading about sea otters. He’s an official member of the Otter Appreciation Society. 

Did you know, he says, that otters can talk? He whistles, growls, says he’s learning Otterish, says he doesn’t have time for a zoo when he’s got 42,689 search results to get through for “All Things Otter.”

But the fresh air, I say. The snake house. Churros. 

Nah, he says.

There’ll be imaginary sea otters, I say. Real ones.

He’s already in the car.

My imaginary son is just big enough to sit in the front without his imaginary car seat. He buckles up, smiles like that click is the most adult thing in the world. And maybe it is. He asks how far the imaginary zoo is, and I say it’s seven carrot sticks and that tuna fish sandwich in his imaginary backpack. He tucks into the sandwich.

My imaginary son’s obsession with sea otters is nothing new. Ever since he hatched from my thigh he’s been a little otter fellow. I allow it. A boy needs a hobby. I collected stamps.

Did you know, he munches, that ninety percent of sea otters live on the coast of Alaska? 

I didn’t, I say, and he says, We live in Delaware.

A shame, I say. Where do the other ten percent live?

Did you know, he says, they store food in their armpits?

That’s gross, I say.

Super gross, he says like super gross is the best thing ever.

The imaginary zoo is hopping today. It’s the birth of Wen, the imaginary panda. It’s been all over the news. We’re waiting to enter the imaginary panda pavilion when I spot the churros cart. I’m starving, and we’ve been waiting in the queue for what seems like a million carrot sticks, so I tell my imaginary son to hold our place while I grab us churros. I return with the most aromatic imaginary confection to the same queue, the same panda pavilion, but no imaginary son.

Have you seen a kid? Have you seen a kid? I say to the parents in the queue. 

This is a zoo, someone says. It’s an ocean of kids.

He’s eight, I say, looks like a miniature me. Like this, I say, and squish my cheeks up into my imaginary son’s goofy face.

You left your kid? someone says, For churros?

I run up and down the queue—Have you seen my kid?—getting only judgmental glares for taking my eyes off him for four seconds, but then I hear him beyond a cobblestone path. He’s jumping up and down squealing Otterish on a platform made for kids so they can traumatize the sea otters below.

He settles when he sees me, knows I’m not the kind of dad who’d haul off or why I oughta. He knows I’m just grateful for every moment he decides to stay. Did you know, he says, that otter mothers leave their babies floating on the water when they look for food? He takes a churro from the bag, and it may be the cinnamon and sugar dusting the air between us, but I feel a breeze of something real, something unfamiliar like, I don’t know, but that’s just it, isn’t it? I don’t know.

Why is that? I ask.

Their fur’s too thick, he says. They can’t swim under water. But they float great. He smiles and throws an imaginary fish to the otters below.


Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins. His work has appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2019, Booth, Split Lip Magazine and more. He's a nomad.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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