“I was born in the zoo,” Maurice said. “People watched me pee and poo all day long. ‘Oooooo Daddy! Look how much that elephant shits!’ I had sex in the zoo, my kids were born in the zoo and I died in the zoo.”
“You know Maurice, I’ve always wondered what animals thought about being in a zoo.” As a child he would often visit the city zoo because admission was free. There were only farm animals there plus a few peacocks and hens but he had wondered how the more exotic animals coped.
“I know. That’s why I found you.”
“To tell me life in a zoo sucks?”
“It was all I ever knew,” Maurice seemed to shrug. “I got my meals brought to me every day and I never had to work a day in my life. Humans were scared of me so they didn’t bother me too much.”
“But all those people watching you all the time.”
“You guys have CCTV. You get used to it.”
Alfie looked at Maurice carefully. Having never spoken to a six tonne bull elephant before gave him nothing to compare anything to. Maurice must have been a magnificent animal when he was younger. He wasn’t too short of magnificent now that he was dead.
“You never met another elephant that wasn’t captured?”
“You never heard stories about what it might be like in the wild?”
“You didn’t feel cheated because you weren’t part of a herd?”
“I was a part of a herd. We elephants stuck together. Always.”
“Huh,” said Alfie, perplexed.
“I never got sick or injured or had to worry about some lion chewing my ass.” Maurice seemed to shrug again. “C’mon Alf, let’s get some air. I’m feeling a little claustrophobic.”
There was a small portal just behind them and Maurice backed up through it.
“Care—“ Alfie was too late in warning Maurice that they were on the second floor. He looked down below just in time to see Maurice perform a graceful front roll. “Well I never thought I’d see that,” he muttered to himself as he stepped off.
Man and elephant walked companionably down the road. Alfie had no idea where they were going but he hoped he might see Lucy again. He wanted to talk to her about the children. Maybe they could do something to help matters. Something had to be done.
“Do you miss anything from life?” Maurice asked.
“You mean like living?” asked Alfie.
“Don’t be fresh. I’m just asking.”
Alfie stopped for a moment as if compiling a very long list. He hadn’t been to his nice warm bed since he’d been dead but that hadn’t occurred to him before so he didn’t think that counted. He hadn’t been to the toilet but he had gone so often when he was alive due his faulty prostate that he definitely didn’t miss that. He found his wife and could see the kids. He could watch television and he had more company now that he was dead than he was alive. He missed touching things but he could do that if he earned physical force points. Suddenly, he had something.
“I miss tea!” Alfie said triumphantly. “Milk with one sugar.” He punched the air. “The next time I get some physical force points, I’m going to steal a sip of tea!”
From out of nowhere, Ivan re-joined them.
“Boys, am I glad to see you. We got to get to the hospital quick. I have a great idea!”
Things were as grim for Sarah as they had been before. Alfie was glad she was unconscious—surely the pipes in and out of her various orifices would have been painful. In particular, Alfie shuddered at what he knew from experience was a catheter and a feeding tube. From the lumps beneath the sheets, he knew there had to be more medial inventions going on that he would be better off—and more comfortable—being ignorant of.
“OK Alfie,” Ivan said. “I want you to do your thing.”
“What thing?” Alfie asked with alarm.
“You know, the whole scaring thing. Give her a fatal heart attack!”
“Ivan, I am not going to kill your sister.”
“C’mon, man. Do it for me.”
“Oh yeah. Murder her. I’m not even all that confident we won’t be judged at some point.”
“You’d be doing something merciful.”
“I’d be doing something illegal.”
Ivan looked at Alfie as if he were stupid. Alfie didn’t like that one little bit.
“She’s not even conscious. How are you going to scare someone who is not even conscious?”
It was the strangest voice Alfie had ever heard. It was like someone was talking with their larynx tucked up just behind their wisdom teeth. He looked around the room and his eyes rested on a emperor penguin chillaxing with a copy of an old Sunday Times. Next to the penguin was a flamingo who was just about pink around the edges and next to the flamingo was what he thought to be a puffin.
Alfie looked at Maurice who was smiling broadly. “I thought you could ask them too.”
“Ask them what?” Alfie had never been so flabbergasted in his entire life. He felt as if his brain had just blown up.
“Ask them if they minded being in a zoo, of course.” Maurice said as if Alfie should have known.
“Oh we were tweeted fine,” said the flamingo, high fiving the puffin.
Alfie rolled his eyes heavenwards. “You know, at one point I was kinda relieved I didn’t go to hell but I can see how my opinion could change really fast.”
“You ever wonder why flamingos stand on one leg?” asked the puffin. “Because they would fall over if it lifted the other one.” A surprisingly loud and ever so obnoxious laugh escaped from the puffin.
The penguin snorked. “You guys are so funny, so funny!”
Alfie looked at Ivan. “This place is a zoo.”
“You know,” Ivan said menacingly, “One of our best friends is a cat.”
“Oh we met her, all right. We met her,” said the penguin.
“It was a right catastrophe!” cackled the puffin.
“Categorically!” screamed the puffin. They were laughing so hard they had to lean against each other to remain upright.
“Purrfect! Purrfect!” shouted the penguin, flapping his arms that weren’t quite wings.
Alfie decided he wanted to change the subject. “Ivan, you were saying something about your sister?”
Ivan looked as if he had to force himself to look away from the birds and when he looked at Alfie, it seemed to him Ivan had smelled something really bad. Without answering Alfie, he looked at Maurice.
Maurice did his shrug. “Alfie said he wondered how animals felt about being in a zoo. He wouldn’t take my word for it so I thought I’d bring in some reinforcements.”
“You couldn’t get a rhino or a giraffe or, I don’t know, an animal who doesn’t tell stupid jokes?” asked Ivan.
“What fun would that be?” asked Maurice, genuinely perplexed. “They have to entertain themselves somehow.”
Alfie looked at Sarah lying motionless on the bed. He didn’t want jokes or silliness. He wanted time to think about what he should do. Ignoring the birds—and Maurice—he motioned for Ivan to follow him.
“What is it?” Ivan asked. “Hear enough of the cheep jokes?”
Alfie rolled his eyes. “Don’t you start.”
“Seriously, no more puns. We need to talk seriously.”
Alfie looked back to the room. Maurice was doing another strange elephant dance and he could hear the puffin screaming with obnoxious laughter. “I know what you want me to do but I don’t think I can. Not after Julie.” He paused to think. Seeing her laugh with Maurice made him feel like he didn’t know anything about anything. He had sided with Tom. “I thought maybe Julie would be better off with us. You know?”
Ivan looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure about Julie,” he countered truthfully. “She’s a young child. Sarah is a grown woman who has lived a good life for a long time.”
Alfie nodded, understanding. “What was she like then? Before she got ill.”
Ivan took a deep inhalation and examined his fingernails. To Alfie’s surprise, his eyes were watery. “She was the type of woman who would give you a great karate chop if you looked at her the wrong way. She could crush apples in her hands and when I was a kid, I was scared of her. She has always been the backbone of her family. I can’t say she was thoughtful or reflective or any of that mushy stuff. Sarah was hard core. And believe me, Alf, she would not want to lie there with everyone looking at her and know she was completely helpless.”
Around them, nurses rushed about with their trays and supplies.
“So you want me to scare her into a heart attack.”
“If she opens her eyes again, yes. “ Ivan lowered his voice. “To be honest, I’m terrified if I don’t do something, she’s going to come over here and kick my lumpy ass.”
Alfie laughed. “Really Ivan. She wouldn’t do that.” He was thinking of Lucy. Hadn’t he thought she would give it to him when she found him again?
“If you knew her when she was healthy, you wouldn’t be laughing. She would never forgive me and if I weren’t already dead, she’d kill me.” Ivan looked serious and thoughtful. “And did I ever tell you the woman could carp like no other?”
Alfie still found this funny. Sometimes he had joked about people finding each other in the afterlife and having their revenge but he never thought there was anything in it. Just silly threats. But now he knew differently.
He was just about to go back to Sarah’s room when he was sucked out and squeezed back into Elliot’s house. He landed awkwardly into the kitchen and was surprised to see Lucy waiting for him and not looking too happy about it.
“Really?” she asked Alfie. “You’re going to help him before you help out your own family?”
“What do you want me to do?”
Lucy glared at him. “Have a think about it. The lad is going to have a heart attack before he hits 40 and the girl is going to end up god knows where. We can’t just let them do whatever they want to do.”
An alarm clock sounded and Alfie looked to Lucy. What on earth did she expect him to do? With a clarity that shocked him, an idea came to him. “I need Ivan!”
“What do you need him for?” Lucy was giving him one of her patented looks—the one that said he had better produce the goods or he was going to get it.
“What that boy needs is a girlfriend!” Alfie said proudly. “He needs to fall in love and get himself into shape to impress her.”
Lucy looked Alfie as if he had lost his mind. “And Ivan can help?”
“Ivan’s the love doctor! He sets people up. He’s already had a really good score putting Clarice together with someone.”
“Yeah, the girl that used to bring me my Sunday roast!”
“Ivan put her together with someone?”
As if summoned, Ivan dropped in from the ether.
“Whoa,” he said, looking around. “I’ve never been here before.”
“It’s my son’s house,” Alfie told him.
As if on cue, Marvin came into the room, scratching himself through his bathrobe. Opening the fridge, he reached in, grabbed a beer and unceremoniously drained it before Ivan’s disbelieving eyes.
“He’s how old?” asked Ivan.
“Fourteen,” he and Lucy answered together.
Marvin went through his ritual of opening the freezer, taking out a burger and popping it into the microwave.
“I take it he doesn’t know how much cholesterol is in that thing?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so.”
Ivan shook his head. “That boy needs a girlfriend.”
Alfie met Lucy’s eyes. She nodded at him knowingly.
“Ivan, let’s make a deal,” Alfie said quickly.
Ivan turned to look at him fully. He nodded to indicate he wasn’t averse to a little dealing.
“If you can make Marvin fall in love, I’ll help you out with Sarah.”
“Done deal,” said Ivan. “Any requests on how we should make this happen?”
Alfie thought for a moment. The rock throwing trick was a stroke of genius but he couldn’t see how that would work on someone who didn’t seem keen on any sort of sport.