Elephantine

I wrote my first version of this short story in junior year of high school, and now as a sophomore in college, I’ve given it a much-needed update.  I hope the story surprises you and leaves you thinking.

The gritty concrete nibbles into the pockets of my Levi’s, but I don’t mind.  I crouch onto my haunches and let my knees release a satisfying creak as I squat down by the wall.

            I swear to god—I’ve definitely seen that yellow Beetle cruising around town before.  Yup, I can’t help but notice the telltale bumper sticker on its side, so shiny and mesmerizing.  I think it’s one of those cool “Coexist” stickers, but I’m not sure.

            “MARISE.”

            I look up.

            “Quit zoning out, or blocking me out.  Really, I don’t know with you.”

            I gauge the situation and automatically rate it a ‘six:’ disappointed demeanor, slit-like eyes carved by a packaging knife, and – the bloated face?  I guess it’s not quite red enough for a ‘seven.’  Go me!  I’m right again!

            “Look down at your jeans,” he points.  Then he raises his caterpillar eyebrows in a way that makes me want to either guffaw or smile, neither of which is appropriate at the moment.

            “You know I’m clumsy, mm?  Surprised?”

            “Hardly.  And stop. They’re Levi’s for heaven’s sake.”

            I widen my eyes pointedly and gesture to the deep black fabric.

            He grits his teeth threateningly, so I sigh and halfheartedly dab a napkin at the left thigh of my size tens.  Size tens… I have elephant thighs, according to Jules. 

Red globs of slushy hug the little napkin fibers.  Then, shoop!  Up they go to investigate my slightly stained pants.

            “All right, we’re goi—”

            “Can I buy another slushy first?”

He’s looking at me with a decided “no,” but then he pauses with a blank expression.  “Unless it’s for Janis.” Surprisingly, he smiles, wistful, sympathetic, and…

…sad, I think?

            “It is.”

            He still wears that expression.

            Brushing off my elephant thighs, I head toward the door and hear an airy jingle from above.  He follows me inside.

            “Make it quick.  I have places to go.  I’ll drop you off back at the house right after this, so hurry.”  His tone has obviously changed.

            With a few dollars less in my pocket, I’m out the door again with another triple cherry bomb slushy in tow.  I’m automatically brought back to the memory of the first time I’ve ever had one of these bad boys: it was the time Janis had accidentally dropped her Wendy’s frosty on my fifth grade graduation dress.  She’d felt so bad!  She’d hugged me tight and bought me my first-ever cherry slushy with her allowance money.  “You’re all right, big sissy,” she’d said.  And in spite of my last-minute change into a new dress, graduation turned out pretty great, I suppose.

Don’t sip it.  I pull the straw closer.  Nope, stupid.  I pull it back.  Uh-uh. Oh, maybe just one sip… Damn it, I know that Janis will throw another fit if my “mouth germs” happen to “infect” her straw.  Looks like I’ll have to find that stubborn girl and give her the slushy before I give in.

            Our feet crunch across the gravel in unison.  I pull open the gray Honda door and plop down unceremoniously onto the stiff seat.

            He ‘tsks’ at me disapprovingly.  Apparently I’ve forgotten I have a “problem item” in my grasp—the red slushy.

            “You do it on purpose.”

I look down pointedly at the still-clean seat.  But still, I guess I’m not a very good soldier.  I’m willing to wager that I make a better elephant.  Yeah, have at me, Jules.

            With a turn of the key and a stab at the gas pedal, we’re suddenly off.  There’s no traffic in sight, which means smooth sailing—in silence, as usual.  Within seconds, I’m passed out in the shotgun seat.  My earbuds hang loosely in my ears and sway to the rhythm of the Honda as it hisses into the swallowing night.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

            Mm….  Hm, hrngh…  What?

My eyes open slowly and then slam shut.  Then open again.  I spy the familiar tan driveway easing into view and notice that the sky outside has darkened considerably.  A beautiful, clear moon sits in full sight on its starry perch.  We’re parked in the driveway, so I open the car door with a forceful and systematic swing.  Then, since it’s nearly a ritual for us, I hop out and salute goodbye to him while he pulls immediately out of the driveway and away.  The little Honda disappears down the road faster than the yellow Beetle had.

            I turn to the door and heave it open, kicking off my worn Doc Martens onto our scuffed green rug.  My size tens make it awkward because apparently size ten means I’m too big to move.  It is completely dark in here, and it looks like our automatic lights have not flickered on just yet.

            “Janis!”  I call.  “Janis, I’ve got a slushy for you!  Triple cherry bomb, so hurry your butt up!”

            No reply.  Well, of course.  Dumb preteens.  Time to find her and bring her to justice with a little bit of tough love, a little bit of hatred.

            “Janis, you idiot!  Why do you always pretend you don’t hear me the first time?”

            No response.  Again.  What is that damn girl up to anyways?  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised though, since it’s always been this way.  See, with Janis, she’s always so aloof and hiding because she’s got the best surprise for you in store.  I’ll never forget the time I was eight—she was four—and I’d come home from school with a sad face for the sixth day in a row.  Unsurprisingly, I was the weird kid at school who none of the other kids liked, and I suffered dearly in terms of nicknames: “poopy head,” “weirdo,” “bug lover girl,” etc.  None were too specific, save for the last one, but they still hurt. 

And so I’d come home that day from school feeling sad, looking for Janis, hoping for anyone or anything on which I could take out my anger… but where was Janis?  It’s funny how she seemed to disappear whenever you needed her. 

With all options out of the question, I settled in front of my mismatched dollhouse filled with dinosaur figurines.  A deep funk cast over me as I picked up a crew of dinosaurs, haphazardly mashed them together, and called them a family.  But just as I was settling my beautiful dinosaur family down into the lonely kitchen, Janis had burst into my room with a giggle and a handmade card in her hands. 

I remember being so confused and then happy as I opened the little pink card… Inside was a really poorly-taped praying mantis figurine for me to add to my dollhouse collection, in addition to a sweet note that said in scrawly scribbles, “You arnt a poop hed i love you luv janis.”  The ‘s’ in her name had been endearingly backwards, like an evil snake turned good.  After I looked happily upon my first bug figurine, Janis had smiled and swayed back and forth saying, “Mommy told me I could w-we could get buggy cause I said you were sad c-cause of the poop heads at school.”  And I’d smiled and hugged her tiny pink-covered frame with my own gray-covered arms.

            Now, here she was, at it again, with this whole nowhere-to-be-found business.  Surprise, surprise… that wonderful little bitch. 

“JA.  NIS.”  I make loud slurping noises.  “I’m sucking on your straw and ‘infecting;’ it, so hurry up, lazy!” 

When I don’t hear footsteps, I sigh.  I set down her slushy a little too harshly on the table corner.  Naturally, the lid goes flying off, and now the floor is coated in triple cherry slush.  An explosion of vivid red lies on the dark wooden floor.  What a mess.

Wow, I’ve used up so much of my clumsiness quota in one day.  But it’s the usual. 

I dab furiously at the tragic spill.  Once again, I observe the white little fibers as they latch onto the red flecks, but this time the single napkin isn’t enough.  I grab more and repeat the process with my army of napkins.

            I dare to peer inside the Styrofoam cup.  It is now very battered despite having been under my care for less than a day.  Heck, less than an hour.

            “Shit’s great,” I mutter under my breath.  “Now there’s barely anything left.  Joke’s on me, Janis already hates me.” 

            Then, louder, for Janis to hear my broadcast: “I KNOW YOU HATE ME, Janis!” 

It strikes me as odd that I’m screaming this now, because just a few summers ago, there’d been this agonizing public experience in which I’d yelled the exact same thing at the park.  I really did feel like an accusatory fool that day.  As I recall, it all began with this routine I had of storing a pack of gum in my battered Hello Kitty jacket (which I abhorred) for every park trip.  I loved taking two pieces at a time and glomping them together for a huge ball of gum to chew on. 

Mm, what can I say? —it was a daily park ritual.

That day though, as I reached for both the monkey bars and my first stick of gum, I panicked.  My hands felt around in my pockets and touched nothing but sticky sides.  In my shock, I slipped off the edge of the playground platform leading into the monkey bar pit.  The pain was pretty intense, which would have been unfortunate if it weren’t for the fact that I wanted my damn gum.  Yeah, my bleeding elbows could wait.

My suspicious mind jumped straight to Janis as the culprit. 

So I called her out in front of the whole park.  “I KNOW YOU HATE ME, JANIS!  AND I HATE YOU, TOO!!”  It was one of the loudest yells of my life, but Janis took it in stride, I guess.  She’d jumped off the slide, confused and looking a bit hurt, asking, “What?  What did I do?”  I was seething with anger—yes, over an 18-pack of Trident Spearmint gum—and so I shoved her a little too hard into the slide.  But then, the thing was, a girl about my age ran right past me at that moment.  Her mouth was wide open in laughter to catch her stupid friend. 

My sharp, accusatory eyes spotted a green blob of chewed gum bouncing up and down in her idiot jaw.  Target acquired.

Time to handle this bitch once and for all with a confrontation. 

In retrospect, it was a wild assumption to make on my part, to assume that this random eleven-year-old girl had stolen gum straight out of my sticky pocket, to assume that she hadn’t just gone to Walmart herself to pick up some similarly-colored gum.  But I was right that day—through blubbering fear, the stupid girl confessed to me that she had indeed nabbed my precious eighteen-pack right out of my pocket. After her confession, I harshly grabbed back my gum pack from her criminal hands.  And of course, Janis had been watching the whole thing, so I felt a little bad that I’d accused her.  For the first time in my life, I might even have considered myself publicly embarrassed.  Without a word, I’d laid out my palms to offer Janis my gum pack as a token of silent apology.  Yet she’d only curled back my bleeding fingers with the gum still enclosed in my palm, and she’d smiled at me.  Keep it, Marise!, she seemed to say. 

What a nice-ass little sister, huh.

But I’m back to the present now, and I’m getting a little concerned.  I’ve called Janis so many times, and she still hasn’t answered. 

Where is that girl?  What is she up to?

Maybe Janis isn’t doing so great?

“Hey!  Janis!  You good?”

            No response.  Again. 

I really should go find her now.  Aren’t I the older sister?  Aren’t I the responsible one who should be looking out for her?

But before I act, I stop to think for a second.

 She can’t possibly be out; it’s a school night, and she’s too good for that.  She’s probably not out shopping with Jules, since Jules is a stingy bitch.  She’s probably up to something up there… drugs?  Is she trying to hide them while she can, before she answers me?  That doesn’t sound like Janis though.  She’s probably just going to the bathroom… but she always takes her damn phone with her and would have sent me a mocking text by now.  Maybe she’s asleep… or, uh, I don’t know.

I’m actually starting to get worried now.  And there’s a stupid iciness snaking up my arms.

            Now I’m darting for the staircase. My feet, cocooned tightly in my slippery socks, fumble clumsily for grip across the slippery wooden floor panels.  We used to play “don’t touch the lava” here on couch pillows almost every day.  I’m running up the stairs two steps at a time now, which I’ve been told too often is not a good idea, especially for someone as clumsy as me.  I bet my elephant thighs are clapping together, and it’s probably really weighing me down.  Somehow, I still can’t escape Jules’s disapproving gaze from our family portrait on the dank wall.  It’s the one she always wears around me.

I’m out of precious breath by the time I reach the top of the stairs, but I quickly gain my composure and burst into Janis’s room.  I hear an airy jingle from high above.  The slushy is still bouncing in my hands.  I flip the light on with a flailing arm, and my hands shake.  I think—I hope—everything is all right.

            “Ja.  Nis.”  I pause.

            She’s frozen and already looking up at me, as usual.

            “Janis.  Don’t tell me you didn’t hear me screaming the first time.”

            But she’s frozen and already looking up at me, as usual.  As always.

            “You totally did.  You totally heard.”

            Janis is frozen though, like I mentioned, two-dimensionally.  She’s already looking up at me.  As usual.

And I’m so damn sick of the usual.

Yep, I said it.  She’s always on the bedside table.  Frozen.  She’s always like that, doomed to stay on the bedside table forever unless we move her.  Stuck here.  I’m so stuck, too…

            “Ja.  Nis.  Don’t tell me you didn’t hear me screaming the first time.  Screaming… at you to get out of that pool.  Begging you to… to get out so that you’d be here with me still.”  My throat is a bitten cloth and my words are shy moths.  Then I remember to smile.

            “We’ve all had a long day, I guess.  We should be off to bed by now.”  I prove my point by yawning loudly.  As I yawn though, drops of stinging water blur my vision.  This is bad, because in the distant past, I’ve been told that these water droplets make you become an easy target for the enemy.  You are inherently weak, and being the elephant that I am, it really isn’t helping my ability to blend in here.  But I’m also a soldier, apparently.  And a soldier is supposed to be tough and forget how to feel.

            I grab two-dimensional Janis and hug her close in her frame, which is her forever house now, a stiff lonely cage.  I tuck the two of us under Janis’s dusty covers.  I hold Janis—her cage—close to my face.  Etched into the cage are the words ‘In memory of…,’ but there’s nothing written in the little square they left for a name.  They should have put her name in sparkly Sharpie here.  She would have liked it.

The cage: it feels so cold and empty…

I’m half-asleep, half-lost right now—lost in thought.  And all I do is remember…

And remember…

And remember.

But… what if I don’t want to remember?

And then I remember that it’s useless because I’m an elephant.  I’m an elephant, Jules.  That’s me.  It’ll always be me, just like Janis’ll always be a glossy sheet.  Just the usual.

And an elephant never forgets.

 

~ Ruth

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