WEDNESDAY: Undertones

BY L. S. POPOVICH

This is an excerpt from an upcoming novel. Copyright is held by the author.

DANE STARED at his homework. It stared back at him defiantly. Somewhere inside him a tiny grain of motivation drifted upon a sea of distraction.

Midway through the evening, Serena walked through his door. Random visits from her were not unprecedented. It was best not to question them.

“Gaston said you’d be here. Are you doing anything right now?”

“Homework,” he replied gruffly.

“So no, then.” She smiled. It had been a long time since he had seen her smile.

Hunching her shoulders to pass through the doorframe, she stared at him, and leaned against the movie poster on his wall: (Samurai Octopus Part II: Revenge of Shark Ninja).

Dane swivelled in his desk chair irritably. Serena’s gaze lingered over the brimming trashcan and the tower of plates in his kitchenette sink. The judgement was palpable.

She shoved a massive pile of dirty laundry aside to sit on his bed. He flipped a page of the book in front of him unconvincingly, underlining a few words with his ink-dipped claw as if he had hit upon an answer to something. Serena waited for the silence to become unbearable. The fur on Dane’s shoulders stood up, tingling.

“Your room hasn’t changed at all,” she commented. He screwed the lid on his ink bottle carefully and sighed.

“Why do you hold onto those LPs when your record player’s broken?”

A mortified look passed into his eyes, but departed quickly. “I’ll get it fixed eventually.” He glanced at his bookcase, which was warped out of shape from piles of moldering records.

“As if you’ll listen to all that punk and ska?” She smiled.

The tingling moved to behind his ears.

“Once you discovered jazz, you could never go back,” she went on.

“They have sentimental value.”

“I always liked your sentimental side,” she said. “Why do you try so hard to hide it?”

“Are you here to reminisce, or to try and convince me we should get back together?”

He watched her eyes burn with things she was unable to say.

“How many times have we given it a go?” The cruel words slid out of his mouth easily, but his heart throbbed. “It’s like one of those feline melodramas. At the end of every episode the lynx and the jaguarundi get back together.”

“I lost count long ago. I was never very good at playing this game with you.”

“Everyone said we made an odd couple. Opposites attract and what not.”

“Are you . . . still attracted to me?” she muttered.

“Never stopped being. So what’s it gonna be, Serena?” He placed his claws on the armrests to stop them from shaking.

“I need more time to think about it.”

“Well, I haven’t lost count,” he fumed. “We’ve broken up seven times, believe it or not.”

“You’ve always been good with numbers,” she said.

He glowered. “It’s harder, each time. And you haven’t showed up to band practice in like, eons.”

Her brown eyes fell gently on his. “I came to apologize. I want to be part of the band again. If you’ll let me.”

He regarded her with mild disappointment. “I’m not your boss or anything. Come if you want.”

The distance between them, which for a moment had subsided, rapidly increased.

“We both know you’re not going to get any homework done. Why don’t we go out?”

“Go out?”

“For practice.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Remember our first date?”

“No,” he lied.

“Let’s go ice-skating.”

***

Even in the squalid afternoon, the ice rink was nearly deserted. Only a pair of chinstrap penguins practiced competitive ice-sliding down the side-ramp. Dane and Serena stood in line. They overheard an elephant arguing with the cashier. The ice simply was not thick enough to support elephants, the employee said, but the young elephant was not hearing it.

Dane was careful not to make inappropriate comments in front of Serena. He only hoped she would not start defending the elephant’s right to skate.

“I recognize that guy,” Serena said.

“Who? The elephant?”

“Yeah. I’ve seen him at protests.”

All elephants look the same to me,” Dane shrugged. In response, she glared at him.

Eventually, the overweight patron had his way, was rented skates of the largest size, and set out for the rink with an air of triumph. Strong sunlight slanted in from the frosted windows and lit up the sleek arena.

Serena took a few hesitant steps onto the frictionless surface and tumbled forward. Stifling a laugh, Dane hoisted her up.

“How embarrassing,” she grunted. Bits of snow clung to her patched fur.

“There’s no one here but us,” Dane reassured her. He was not counting the elephant, since they apparently knew one another. On their first date, she had spent much of the time in the bleachers, too humiliated to get back on the ice.

“I used to be good at this when I was little,” she lied.

They gingerly circled and listened to the soft jazz piping through the speakers. “One of the greats,” Dane said to himself.

Though Serena was small for a polar bear, she was a little heavy for Dane to support on his shoulder. For the time being, she was satisfied with holding his claw. They meandered through the open rink slowly, drawing a stare from a roguish janitor flicking a broom beyond the partition.

“I’m confident around you, except when it comes to things like this,” she said.

“Don’t worry about impressing anyone. Even if animals give us dirty looks, I’m plenty used to it.”

“You’d think I’d be good at this, being part polar bear and all.”

“It’d be much easier if you took the skates off. But they don’t allow that, of course. Everyone’s gotta wear skates. That’s how they make money. If you got on all fours like your ancestors, the ice would be no problem.”

“How could you even suggest something so bestial?” She would not grant that he was right. “I can tell I’m holding you back. Why don’t I wait here while you show me your moves?”

“What moves?”

“I remember what you did to impress me last time. Go on.” She leaned against the Plexiglass.

Dane skated toward the centre, brushing the ice with his bushy tail. Gathering speed, he performed a jump and a spin in midair.

“Just like in the ninth grade,” she sighed.

“It’s the only thing I learned from hockey practice.”

Suddenly, peering over his shoulder at her, he wobbled and slid into the wall. Not missing a beat, she burst into laughter.

The teenage elephant stood on the opposite side, watching. Serena saw him remove a garish nostril ring and tuck it into a pocket. When he proceeded, he stumbled awkwardly. An elephant on two legs was a rare sight. Though they tried to conform to modern society’s etiquette, large mammals struggled to remain upright for long periods of time and suffered plenty of intolerance for it. Watching the determined fellow encouraged her though, so she continued skating.

Dane felt happiness blossom inside him as Serena inched forward on the ice. He wondered how long it would take for some argument to end their newly resuscitated relationship. Inspiring them both, the audacious elephant scooted across the gleaming surface impressively, but left massive gouges in his wake. A rail-thin zebra in a blue jumpsuit who operated the Zamboni eyed the awful mess on the rink with noticeable aggravation.

Serena finally got the hang of it, and they talked about the band, school, and her activist projects. When they were ready for a break, they scrutinized the food court unenthusiastically. Several other animals had joined the penguins on the ice slide by then.

“So, I’ve been meaning to ask,” Serena started. She paused, giving the hair on the back of Dane’s neck enough time to stand up. “Why were you at the underground racetrack?”

If he would have had teeth, he would have gritted them. “I wasn’t, but someone I know wanted me to try it one time.”

“Dane, don’t laugh this off or lie to me. I’ve known you since we were kids, back when things like racing were more common. I was there when you tried your first ant.”

“Don’t bring up ants. It’s not like I’m an addict or anything.”

“I’ve never had trouble telling when you were lying.”

Dane cussed emphatically. Was it already time? Could she not enjoy the contentment for more than an hour before dredging up the old can of worms? He could already feel them gravitating toward that inevitable argument that would lead to their breakup. Already his heart wavered and his mind reeled.

“Dane, I’ve always tried to accept you, along with your faults. At bottom, I know you’re a good animal. Just like Dill . . .”

“Who said anything about Dill?”

“Come on, it was almost too obvious . . . I hope, with time, maybe I can get you back on the right track.”

“Don’t talk down to me like that! What about you? You were there too. And I didn’t see you holding a sign either.”

She shuffled her feet and growled. “Your perception is as keen as ever. To be clear, I have gone in before. I wanted to see it for myself. I even recorded some of it. I don’t go about these things lightly.”

“And you’re always trying to fix me, right? Like another one of your projects. You ever think you’re taking the activism too far? What if someone saw you there?”

“They didn’t. I know how to handle myself. Dane, we should fight for what we care about. So I give up my time. You should be proud of me instead of ashamed.

“We don’t have to go into it now,” Serena went on. “We can forget we were both at the track. It’ll take me time to build a case anyway. But it’ll be on my mind. And if we’re spending time together we’ll have to discuss it eventually.”

Everything always has to be discussed, doesn’t it? he thought. Nothing can ever be kept in the closet. Everything has to be aired out. It has always been that way.

“You should try protesting with me sometime. You meet folks from all walks of life.”

“I’ll think about it.” It was the last thing he wanted to spend his time doing.

“That elephant was better than me at skating,” Serena said, veering into a new subject. “Guess what’s in our genes doesn’t determine what we can do.”

“I feel sorry for the Zamboni driver,” Dane said bitterly.

For a while they watched the penguins in silence. Dane got up to skate more, and had to drag Serena back onto her feet. When they grew tired again, they returned their skates.

“Have you seen that damned elephant?” the arctic fox at the front desk asked.

“No, why?” Serena squinted at the surly employee.

“It’s not our job to keep track of your customers,” Dane reminded him.

“Didn’t turn in his skates,” the clerk said.

“Maybe he forgot he was wearing them and walked out,” Dane suggested.

“As if!” The fox scoffed contemptuously. Dane noticed a strangely familiar scent, like a barely applied cologne wafting from the irate employee.

They turned to leave.

“What are we gonna do now?” Serena asked. They shaded their eyes from the blinding sunlight at the entrance.

“I don’t care what we do,” Dane said. An anxious feeling nagged at him, and he thought about sneaking off to nibble a few ants.

“Maybe your theory was right,” Serena suggested.

“What?”

“See that?” She pointed at several gouges in the sidewalk. Like the marks left in the ice earlier.

“That elephant is going to have some sore feet,” he chuckled.

“Makes me curious . . .” Serena’s face wore a slightly worried expression.

“Not on my radar, not my problem. Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

“I haven’t heard that phrase in a long time.”

It was not until Dane got to his bike that he noticed cigarette smoke pouring out of the window of the bowling alley next door. Glancing down the dirty alleyway, he glimpsed a suspicious black Cadillac. The sunroof was open and the head of a giraffe stuck way out the top of it. From behind the round sunglasses, Dane felt steely eyes pierce him like icicles. The car tires screeched and slammed across the pavement as if weighted down. He could see nothing through the tinted windows.

“Well, that was sketchy,” Serena said, clutching his arm.

“I feel like checking out what’s back there,” Dane said. His heart pounded, but a surge of insatiable curiosity propelled him forward. He did not even hear the unmarked black van roll in front of the alleyway behind him.

“Don’t!” Serena urged him.

Carefully, he picked his way across the overturned trash cans and came upon a spreading pool of red liquid.

“I knew I smelled something,” he mumbled. Behind a wet black tarp a huge mound wheezed spasmodically. A bloody ice-skate lay on its side next to the massive body.

Dane stood, nailed to the spot, until an ear-piercing scream jolted him.

Turning, he saw a grizzly two or three times Serena’s size wrap an arm around her neck and drag her from the mouth of the alleyway.

“Serena!” he yelled. He pounced and clawed, but with a flick of a bushy arm the bear flung him against a dumpster. Serena thrashed. He watched her tossed onto the ground and trampled by a trench-coated lion, and then clubbed brutally for good measure.

The brutish animals piled into the van and backed against the building as if waiting for the right moment to speed off. Dane sprang to his feet. Trembling, he coughed uncontrollably, before sinking to his knees next to Serena’s limp body.

Without thinking he took a handful of ants from a bag in his jacket pocket and shoved them in his mouth.

She was still breathing, he found, placing his ear at her mouth. She was still breathing.

A few feet away his bike lay on its side. In disbelief he glanced back at the elephant under the tarp. The white fox employee stood behind the fogged window, leering at them. Dane stared back.

A little time passed. He held Serena’s paw, too afraid to touch her battered face. He stroked her broken claws. In one of them he noticed something. A fat gold earring was tucked in her grip. He brought it close to his eye. Clinging to the sharp clasp was a pink piece of ear.

One comment

  1. Dave Moores

    Hmmm. Forced and didactic and oh, all those trailing adverbs! Liked the dialogue, though.

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