That was the moment Clarice knew what she was going to do and although she had no way of knowing it, she had helped Caroline move forward too. In her dreams, Caroline had often dreamed of saving someone, of meaning something to someone. So when Clarice returned the next morning in her immaculate uniform with a smile on her face and huge bouquet of flowers, for the first and most significant time of her life, Caroline felt she had done something important. Never in her short life had she received any sort of flowers from anyone. It’s a big moment in a girl’s life to receive her first flowers and Caroline never forgot it. From that morning on, whenever she felt worthless or unneeded, she remembered Clarice’s warmth, kindness and unspoken understanding and put her feet down in the shallow waters. She thought of those flowers and she never sunk under again.
And Clarice, so often the saviour of all things great and small started to see a greater need to put herself first, to allow good things to come to her and to find the courage to pursue what she wanted. In time—not too much time—she filed the divorce papers and then told her parents what she had done. Financially, she took a huge punishing but she swallowed those losses and kept at her job and re-built her life just like she knew she had to.
From time to time, Clarice and Caroline bumped into each and regarded each other as mutual saviours in life. They could never quite articulate how one had helped the other but there was a great sentiment there. So a few days later, when she was out of the hospital, Caroline asked Clarice for a little help on a very big problem called Nathan.
Elliot took his phone out of his pocket and stared at the screen for what felt like the millionth time. When he saw the screen empty, he shoved it back in his pocket and put his hands behind his head. Closing his eyes, he was dimly aware that his heartbeat had become irregular and was echoing in his eardrums. Look at what you do to me, he thought to himself. Maybe he was going to have a stroke. And then the phone vibrated.
Fumbling the phone from his pocket, he took a steadying breath then looked at the screen. It was her.
“Valerie!” He tried to sound nonchalant but knew he had failed miserably. It was amazing how just her number flashing on the screen of his mobile could be such a turn on. Listening carefully for a few moments, he looked over his fingernails before taking a tentative nibble on the jagged skin surrounding his thumbnail. Without thinking too much about it, he ripped the skin away then spat it out onto the floor. “Are you sure?” he asked. “I’ve already bought the tickets a few days ago.” He brushed his receding hair from his forehead and gritted his teeth. Saying goodbye as nicely as he could, he ended the call and then hurled the phone across the room in a fury. What was he going to do two box seats to the game? He sure as hell wasn’t going to sit there like a lonely old has been like his father.
Alfie watched his son as if he could read his thoughts. When Elliot had been a child, he had seemed totally unable to express anything other than bland neutrality or raging fury. More often than not, Elliot would fly off the handle for absolutely no reason that anyone else could fathom. Lucy and Alfie had often fretted over broken crockery and cracked glass in picture frames trying to work out what had set him off. They could only conclude it had been some girl, some conversation or some event that had resulted in hurt feelings that could only be expressed via rage.
There had been that time that he had nearly throttled Beth, leaving her with bruises that went all the way around her neck. On the surface it had been because she had been repeatedly cracking her gum as they watched some television programme together and he had asked her to stop but she hadn’t been able to refrain from one final pop. Alfie didn’t see it but judging from the bruises, he knew it had been bad. Beth could not even go to school and Lucy had been terrified someone would call the police. Poor Beth had to wear a scarf around her injuries for weeks. Of course Elliot had apologised but how do you express remorse over such a thing? Elliot’s only defence was that it had been Beth’s fault for cracking her gum. They found out later some girl had laughed at him because he fluffed a play during a game of football.
Then there was the time when Nathan had pranked his brother by pretending to be a girl on the telephone. To the amusement of the rest of the family, Elliot had hopelessly fallen for the ruse and whispered sweet nothings to his brother for several minutes. There had been no immediate comeback but when Alfie saw the V shaped burn from the iron on Nathan’s arm, he knew it could only come from one source. Nathan had said nothing about and Lucy helped him to keep the wound clear from infection but everyone knew it had been the work of Elliot.
Alfie could have punished Elliot far more severely than he did. Elliot deserved a good hiding but even as a relatively young man back then, Alfie was doubtful he could win a hand to hand confrontation with his son. All the same, Elliot did not dare raise a hand against him or Lucy. That was worth something.
Taking up long distance running had done Elliot a world of good. It gave all that anger a direction and maybe even a purpose. Keeping him in good training shoes and in all weather gear provided Alfie with the carrot on a stick to keep the lad on the straight and narrow.
Still, it had been an awful shock when he brought home the girl he had knocked up. From the very start, both he and Lucy had taken a dislike to her. There was just something about her that seemed dishonest. She was attractive enough but it all seemed so superficial as if her pretty clothes and makeup were hiding something unpleasant. Through all of the drama, with her parents accosting them in the biggest supermarket in town, with the school counsellor insisting they attend “mediation” meetings with her parents and just the general shame of having a son who did not seem to know where to find a condom in this day and age, he and Lucy had held their heads high. They had done their best and they certainly could not be held to blame for their boy’s decision when he had had every opportunity made available to him.
It was hard to face but Alfie had begun thinking that perhaps Elliot’s affair was the reason his marriage had collapsed. Surely a woman like Bonnie would not tolerate violence. For one, she was most likely capable of doing some serious damage herself. Perhaps she was the one who was violent against Elliot, for all he knew. The thought of such a vulgar woman terrorising his son incensed him. Perhaps Bonnie and Sarah might like to be friends in the afterlife.
But Alfie was only speculating and, as anyone who knew him when he had been alive knew, Alfie was not so great at speculation.
Bonnie finished putting on her makeup and then finished dressing. She was not the type of woman who would be happy going out in less than her best. It wasn’t that she felt unattractive if she wasn’t at her best it was more a case of doing the rest of the world a favour by not exposing everyone to her flaws. And she had many and as the years marched on, it became more apparent in ways both great and small.
She knew Elliot was being an idiot and she knew the young girl he was fooling around with was an even bigger one. These kinds of arrangements only ended up with the wife being completely vindicated and looking virtuous while the errant husband and other woman ended up looking ridiculous—as well as the relationship not surviving the embarrassment. Once an affair became public knowledge, the cheating couple almost always could not live with the damage they had done to the wronged woman.
Bonnie was counting on it but she still couldn’t resist a little espionage.
Logging on to a social networking site, she typed in the name of her husband’s little fling to see what she was up to. The whole thing of keeping in touch with friends this way seemed so puerile to Bonnie but it was the best way to keep up with what younger people were doing. And there the silly girl was, taking yet another flattering selfie with her bum sticking out comically. When she had been a kid, no one wanted a big butt and now girls were risking slipped disks to get one. It didn’t make much sense. Bonnie just thought this was all part of the process of getting older and losing touch with what was fashionable in the world. Truth be told, she was almost glad.
Flicking through more photos, Bonnie saw one with Elliot and the girl. It was a new one. Clearly they had both had a bit too much of booze and if Bonnie knew Elliot, he had had too much of the Columbian marching powder. What intrigued her was the pose: the girl was standing in front of Elliot, bending at the waist. Elliot was standing behind her in a mock sexual pose. Bonnie right clicked the photo and saved it on her computer. It would come in handy during the divorce trial.
Marvin sat outside on one of the bleachers, thoughtfully munching one of the cafeteria’s ever so healthy option of greasy burritos washed down with a large bottle of cola. He wasn’t looking forward to the summer like most of his friends. Not a fan of the heat, he preferred to hide away under layers of insulation that he could take off as needed rather than have to wear light weight clothes that revealed the huge perspiration stains over areas of his body he didn’t want to draw attention to.
There had been a few questions about why Caroline had been taken away in an ambulance but he had not been able to answer them any more than anyone else. She never told him anything and barely spoke to him in their house let alone in a public place like school. Truth be told, he was pretty sure she hated him. When he thought no one was looking, he poured a good measure of whiskey into his cola. It just might take the edge off of having to go to algebra. Wishing he had the courage to just skip class, he sauntered off to see what anyone else had to tease him about—as if blowing out the seat of your pants in front of the prettiest girl in school weren’t enough.
No one was more shocked than him to see the prettiest girl in the school waiting for him outside of algebra lesson. She even smiled when she saw him before drifting off as casually as she could to her own lesson. For several seconds, he could only watch her walk away.
“Are you in or out?” asked his Algebra teacher, holding the door waiting for him to make up his mind.
“My dear,” he told her with the confidence of a well-seasoned player, “I’m out.” And he turned on his heel to follow the prettiest girl in school.
Ralph was dying and he knew it. And if he lived, it wasn’t going to be a whole lot of fun anymore. Getting shot in the leg—in the thigh—was not a good thing. There were too many hospital consultants hanging around him looking at his notes and far too many policemen snooping around. He was a wanted fugitive and it was only a matter of time before someone worked it out and arrested him.
Ralph just didn’t get it: the only thing he needed to get out of the country was a car. He had it all in hand: it was only going to be a matter of taking the nurse’s car and getting over to Canada. All he had to do was persuade her to drive. He had the gun and the situation under control. And what happens? He shoots himself in the leg! He just couldn’t believe his dumb luck.
Of all the places on earth that Maurice was now free to roam, it was airports he liked best. Humans were odd creatures, to be sure. For example their liberal use of deodorants to hide their smell as if disguising their nasty scent was ever going to be achievable. Shaving their body hair: what was that all about? But mostly what Maurice found hard to understand was family in fighting. Sure, family members fell out and in his own herd, sometimes an elephant did something that could put everyone in danger. Like maybe, for example, calling attention to the whole herd which might in turn attract an enemy. But this was not a risk in a zoo. For little indiscretions such as this, a little isolation might be necessary just to ensure it would not happen again. But then again, he had never lived in the wild and had never heard any firsthand accounts of another elephant who had roamed the savannahs or who had been chased by a hungry lioness.
Maurice’s favourite place to people watch was the security gates for here all manner of bad human behaviour was present: an annoyingly polite security officer, the smuggler who couldn’t quite pull off the smuggle. The harried parent and the irritated other people who blamed the parent because the child was screaming the place down. Little kids and the way they would talk to anyone—including him if he were lucky.
“Hello,” said one little kid looking right him.
“Are you talking to me?” asked Maurice.
“Yes I am,” said the kid.
It was so thrilling that Maurice could never resist busting a few moves, sometimes even demonstrating his newly discovered jete skills. His battements needed a bit more practice.
“Who are you talking to?” the parent would ask anxiously and looking straight through Maurice.
“I’m talking to that dancing elephant,” said the kid watching Maurice plie.
And the parent would of course put it down to an over active imagination.
Stress affected people in funny ways but it was odd how a person might not even look like they were going to explode until they finally did. Right up until they lost their rag, some people had the ability to look cool. He had often heard a zookeeper explaining that elephants were hard to predict but Maurice though pachyderms had nothing on humans. Still, he was fairly confident he could tell when someone was close to losing their temper.
So he was a bit worried about Alfie and Sarah because he recognised there were hints of stress showing in Alfie’s expressions and mannerisms. He wasn’t sure exactly what Alfie could do to Sarah if he did lose his patience but he understood a long brewing disagreement between them could have dire consequences on a lot of things. He felt this had something to do with Julie although he could not pin the feeling down or think of how their disagreement could affect her. But all the same, he didn’t want to take any chances.
Brandon’s head felt as if it were made of frozen pineapple. He had had a CAT scan and was now resting in a hospital room waiting to hear if he had concussion or any bleeding on the brain. He didn’t feel right and the long day he had just experience seemed very far away.
Janie, he thought randomly. Who cares? Of course, Brandon was completely oblivious to the fact that there were three ghostly birds watching and listening to everything that was said around him.
“Janie,” he said out loud, testing to see if there was an emotional reaction to the word. There wasn’t.
Brandon had met Janie the very evening he had been promoted. When he looked back on that night, he didn’t think he had consciously intended to pick someone up but she had been very special. Her team had just won a softball tournament and she had played a great game. Still sweaty and smudged in dust, she had caught his eye across the bar. Actually, when he really thought about it, it hadn’t been too much of a bar. It was just a flimsy large room that looked like any ordinary basement in anyone’s house. There was a crappy pool table that took centre stage although very few people seemed to be interested. That evening it had only been the guys from work and Janie’s softball team so perhaps it was unsurprising Janie had caught his attention. She had the flat belly and small breasts of an athlete. Brandon disliked large breasts and full hips. For most of the evening, Janie pretended not to be interested in him and inexplicably, this turned him on. He would take a sip of his beer and look at her just in time to see her look away. He knew she had been watching him. The other guys poked and ribbed him and eventually cajoled him into making the first move.
“I must have wanted her bad,” Brandon said to himself, frowning.
“And I-I-I-I-I-I-I- will owlways love yooooooooooo,” sang the puffin.
As usual, the flamingo high fived him.
“This is no joking matter! No joking matter!” said the emperor penguin. Like Maurice, he knew humans were very strange creatures that they had no hope of understanding. Brandon was supposed to fall in love with Clarice but that was never going to happen if he was still in love with Janie.
As if summoned, Clarice entered the room. She knocked on the door which the penguin thought very odd as she worked there.
“Hey,” she said to Brandon. She picked up his chart.
“What does it say?” asked Brandon. He tried to push himself into a more upright position but winced with pain.
“It says you shouldn’t exert yourself for awhile,” she said. It sounded like a scolding.
Brandon made a helpless gesture.
“Should I tell him to kiss her? Tell him to kiss her?” asked the penguin.
The flamingo gave him an are you stupid look?
“I think they should kiss,” said the puffin. “It’s what they do on the soaps!”
The penguin was just taking a deep breath to give a good old shout.
“Don’t you dare,” said the flamingo. “Don’t you remember that’s what caused this whole mess?”
There was the sucking sound again and Maurice was dropped into the room. “Don’t do anything!” said Maurice. “I think I have the secret for understanding humans.
Persephone morphed into the room to listen. The birds exchanged uneasy glances.
“Well go on then,” urged Persephone. “Let’s see if you can work them out better than I can.”
Maurice cleared his throat. “So they are both under stress, right?”
Everyone looked doubtful.
“OK, he’s been dumped and she’s miserable in her relationship, right?” Maurice, being a creature that mated for life, did not understand this at all. “That’s stress,” he added knowingly.
Everyone still looked doubtful.
“Look at me, am I stressed? I’m away from my mate!” shouted the puffin.
Maurice rolled his eyes. “You’re dead, dummy,” he said as if the puffin had forgotten this.
“I don’t get it! I don’t get it!” said the penguin.
Maurice puffed up and rolled his trunk up and then out. “What I’m saying is: There is going to be one hell of a row in a few minutes!”
The birds looked at each other and then at Alfie.
Persephone paced backwards and forwards on Brandon’s bed. “I’m not sure how Maurice is getting this,” she said, “But I would have to say I agree: there is one hell of a row building up.”
In unison, the birds said “Ooooooo-oooo-oooo!!”