The Children’s Zoo

 

Pimp My Lent/Day 18

The Prompt:

Bruce Coleman’s sexy blue lady

The Product:

“Shit! Oh, shit…” She exhaled in rough gasps. Her hands shook, her vision blurred. Her heart beat against her ribs like it was trying to break on through to the other side, break on through to the side, break on through to the other side.

Obviously the heat was getting to her.

Shit. Oh, shit. Shit…!

Dani looked left and she ran right, knocking into a meaty little girl with a tight red ponytail. “I’m so sorry!” She said. The girl was maybe five years old, maybe, and nearly as wide as she was tall, her round head set into the flesh of her round body. The child had barely noticed Dani, distracted by the flamingo pond, the kiosks selling bright plastic souvenirs and food. The straw huts had the longest lines, selling hats, spray bottles with battery-powered fans, and “Ice Cream of The Future.” The predicted high was 93. By the burning she felt on her arms, Dani was certain that they’d hit the high and sprung past it already.

The round girl’s round mother, herself another set of circles, said nothing but her look to Dani was barely suppressed hatred. The father, having saved the child before she toppled backwards, had snapped his head up, angry, hot, ready to let Dani have it. But he had stopped, mouth open slightly, jaw working. Dani crossed her arms over her breasts. The mother’s face hardened, hawk-like.

“I know! All right? I know!” Dani said, louder than intended, voice thin and shrill, her fists clenched. She’d been getting that look – those looks – from men and women all over the park today. She now knew that this dress was not dress to wear to the children’s zoo. It was just a sundress! Baby pink, a modest hem that hit just above the knees, and the plunge top held up by two thin straps: she had seen this exact same dress worn all over the park today. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters all had on the same design, or variations of it. Even the round, hateful mother glaring at her right now wore one, the woman’s milk-white blobby breasts as much on display – more so. But Dani was alone here, and thus she was the enemy. Uncovered, unescorted breasts were not allowed in the children’s zoo.

“I’m really sorry!” Dani called to the backs of the round family. The mother slid her hand around her husband’s arm and pulled him close. “FINE! Okay! I get it!”

Her cell phone chimed. A text. Powell.

Done, leaving now. Braums in 30? Thx a million n love u more. Cant wait 2 show you how gr8ful I am…

“Shit.”

She needed to leave now. Right now. The awful heat and the crowds and, oh yeah, she’d lost her fiancé’s kids.

Dani fought the urge to run by pacing back and forth, scanning the crowd. She’d lost his children. Seven-year-old Hunter, quiet and dull, cotton-white hair and – what color eyes, blue maybe, green, but more importantly what was he wearing, shorts, t-shirt, yes, but what color? And Eden, the child from hell, evil minion of her angry dissatisfied mother. Eden, middle-aged woman trapped in a nine-year-old body. The child’s natural malevolence – surely they could trace her by the trail of darkness that followed her gloominess, by the flowers slumping over dead as she passed by, trees shuddering into a fatal droop, songbirds dropping from the sky.

I am so losing it.

Dani stopped the ridiculous trotting back and forth. She took a long pull off her water bottle and lifted her hair off her neck. She had worn her hair up this morning. Just like last night, she had prepared everything, laid out the right shoes (not the right dress), and had everything they might need – water, sunscreen, band aids, snacks, money – all packed neatly in her fun pink backpack. But today Dani had had only the one rubber band, the one she’d worn in her hair. Now she didn’t have it, thanks to Eden, and her neck felt raw with heat rash. Not two minutes after they’d entered the park this morning – an hour late because of Eden’s endless, manipulative dawdling – the girl had executed an embarrassing meltdown, sitting down in the middle of the crowded plaza and weeping loudly because her hair was hot on her neck.

This, from the child who would not listen to reason this morning about this being July in Texas and insisted on wearing the long-sleeved long white nylon bride costume from the past Halloween. Eden thrived on arguments, seemed to draw power from the adults who dared oppose her until they, depleted, caved and bent to her will. Powell had tried everything this morning, including offering Eden a $20 bill if she would wear something more suitable for heat, and let him gather her long, tangled hair up into a ponytail. But no.

Dani checked the time again. Another ten minutes had gone by since she’d last seen the kids. An eternity. Where were they? They were right there with her standing in line at the snack bar, and then they were not. Hunter had wanted to go to the reptile house, but Eden had moaned and groaned about the heat, and said she make it another step without something cold to drink. She didn’t want the water that Dani’d brought, she wanted a coke, a coke, a coke, a coke, a coke, a coke, a coke, A COKE. Finally, Dani acquiesed. She managed to manuver the three of them, Eden moaning and dragging her feet, through the nearly shoulder-to-shoulder crowds to claim a place in line at the snack bar.

Where are they?

Dani’s mind shot straight to all the worst-possible situations, and she felt faint. No. She forced herself to stop, and take a ragged, pinched breath. Another. Another. A rock. There was a rock, across the way. If she stood on the rock, she could get a better view of the crowd, and maybe she could spot them. Dani pushed her way through and across, shaky and impatient.

Where the hell are they?

Fourteen thousand people in the zoo today, she’d overheard one of the staff say. Fourteen thousand. And somewhere among them, the children of her still-married fiancé’. What a mess.

It was Saturday but he really had to go in to work today, for just a couple of hours, and please couldn’t she please just this once? He had promised the kids a day at the zoo. He only got them every-other weekend now, and he had promised them this. Couldn’t she just pitch in, just this once?

“Can I help you, ma’am? Are you lost?”

Dani looked down. The odd voice matched the odd woman. Squatty body, thick black-framed glasses, a cloud of wiry grey curls shooting out from the Metro Zoo cap that was too small for her head. The woman wore a khaki shorts and a blue tie-dye shirt that said ZOO VOLUNTEER! in fat balloon letters stretched across the woman’s cockeyed breasts, so wide apart they were almost under her arms.

“Come this-a way.” The woman sang out, “Lost Parents is this way.”

The receptionist in the administrative office took a description of both children. Dani finally remembered that Hunter was wearing his matching Texas Longhorns t-shirt and shorts. The woman nodded and picked up the radio, saying “Attention, all zoo staff. Attention, all zoo staff. We have a Code 1. We have a Code 1. Two lost children, last seen at Oasis Station. Mother is waiting in the office.”

“I’m not their mother!” Dani blurted out, her tone sharper than intended. “I’m not her.”

The receptionist just nodded and kept reading the description that Dani had written out in a shaky hand.

Her cell phone chimed: Did u get my msg?

Dani’s fingers skimmed the keys. Kids lost pls come now. She rested her thumb on the “send” button but did not send. She waited, watching the clock, watching the door, waiting. The two-way radio stayed busy, staff asking for a repeat of the description, but there were no leads, and another ten minutes went by and another and no sign of the children.

Her phone rang then. Powell. Her thumb stroked the answer key. For now, he was concerned about her. When he found out….

Hunter, sweet but dim, had never questioned why his first grade teacher was now living in Daddy’s house as Daddy’s girlfriend. He’d just accepted this as he accepted most things, just part of the how the day unraveled. Dani envied Hunter’s ease in the world. With Eden – there was nothing easy there, ever.

The call went to voicemail. Not five seconds later, Powell called again.

Once she answered this, once he knew…. She took a drink, rested the cool water bottle against her forehead, and answered the phone.

Five hours later. Five hot, excruciating hours. The park was now closed. Only one exit gate was open, the zoo visitors forced into a long, long, long line in order to leave the park. Angry, outraged, yelling, grumbling – until they heard the why.

Missing children.

The word spread through the crowd, and a heavy, tight silence took hold. Parents who’d spent their last molecule of patience reached down to their children’s sweaty heads, and held their babies a little more firmly.

Every exhibit building had been searched, every restroom. Once the park was cleared, all buildings would be searched again. Police were stationed inside the gate, watching the crowd slowly and quietly now moving through to the outside where Powell stood flanked by two more officers, watching, looking at every single face of every single person who filed out.

Dani stood behind him, clutching her water bottle, feeling the heat of the pavement pulling her down. Powell had not spoken to her since he’d arrived.

Some people, some of them, spoke to Powell and expressed sympathy and hope, many said they’d be praying for him and the children. Dani stood behind him, out of his sight. An hour and a half went by. Dani’s knees finally gave way. The zoo director was there, half-carrying/half-escorting her off. When she refused to wait in his air-conditioned office, she was made to sit in an open-air shuttle parked nearby. Paramedics were already in the park because of the heat and the crowds, and when summoned came quickly to check on Dani.

Heat exhaustion. She’d been hydrating all day, but she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. The children had disappeared before she’d ever reached the snack bar. The temperature had spiked to an unexpected record high of 102, and she’d been out in it for almost eight hours.

“You ought to be checked out by a doctor.” The medic told her. “I’m pretty sure you’re fine. But just to be safe.” He looked like somebody’s dad. Big shoulders, grey hair, smashed up nose, glasses. He looked her in the eyes. He talked to her. Dani wanted to thank him for this, but did not because of concerns of how it would sound later in the courtroom, when she was put on trial for neglect and causing injury to a child, or death of a child, and had to explain to the jury why she was thanking a paramedic for not staring at her breasts when she should have been focused on her fiancé and the children she’d let out of her sight.

Dani signed the waiver saying that she had declined further medical care and the ride to the emergency room, and the medics left.

She did accept two bottles of icy sports drink that someone handed her, and also the cold towels that someone kept laying on her sunburned shoulders. The drink bottles were sweating, dripping on the baby-pink dress already filthy with sweat and grime,. Her hair was plastered to her head, her neck and shoulders. She’d drunk so much water today, and hadn’t gone to the bathroom once.

“I should- ”  Dani said, standing up and then falling down again.

“Dani. Dani.” Powell’s voice. She opened her eyes. Fluorescent lights. She was on the couch in the director’s office, her feet elevated, cool, damp towels on her chest, neck, legs. She looked at the shadow of him buried in the glare of the light. He was not in the room, but standing at the doorway, gripping the doorjamb. Not looking at her.

“Get up.” He said. “Let’s go.”

The park was empty. The second search turned up nothing. There was no sign of the children. The police issued an Amber Alert.

The long ride home. Powell drove. Dani sat in the passenger seat with her hands on her thighs, palms up, fingers curled, lacking the strength to move or speak. The police would be waiting for them when they got home.

A block from their house – Powell’s house where she lived or lived for now – he finally spoke.

“It’s not your fault.” Powell said. “You didn’t do this on purpose.”

She could not muster the energy to speak or take his hand.

“I shouldn’t have asked you. I should have known better.” He said. “You’re obviously not a parent.”

He pulled in the driveway. Candice was there, stumbling out of her mother’s car, rushing towards them, hysterical.

“Oh god.” Powell said, softly. “Poor Candice….”

Candice. The hostile, emotional, raging soon-to-be-ex-wife. The wronged woman. The mother of the missing children. The police had notified her hours earlier, hoping that the children had called home.

Dani waited in the hot car, trapped there, hands on her thighs, palms up, completely empty, fingers curled, listening but not hearing as Powell comforted and Candice railed. She was wild-eyed, and then calm, strong and then dropping down as if to faint and then springing back up, lunging, tearing at Powell’s shirt, straining to get beyond him, into the car, get at Dani, the home-wrecker. Words, boiling awful words, the heat of the inside of the car – what did it matter? Dani didn’t feel anything.

Candice broke free from her mother and Powell, and beat on the car’s windows, screaming. And still, Dani would not have looked up except for a neurological reflex, the involuntary eye movement that followed a fleeting longing for a cool shower and the creamy-soft sheets of Powell’s king-size bed.

There was a light.

Dani lifted her arm, all 500 pounds of it and pointed to the second floor window.  There, in the master bedroom window, the blue flickering light of the television.

Powell was the first to finally turn and look. He ran for the house. Parents and police rushed in, flew upstairs and found them, the missing boy sound asleep against the pillows of his father’s bed, pillowcases smeared with pizza sauce from his dirty face. The missing girl, Eden, was watching “Twilight” on pay-per-view and finishing off the last of the sausage pizza she’d ordered with the credit card number that Powell kept written on the back of the menu tacked to the refrigerator.

“We were really hungry, starving, and she made us wait.” Eden said, lit up with pleasure at being the center of attention. “And it was crowded there, so we had to wait even longer, and it was hot.” Candice kissed her daughter, kissed the boy who was rubbing his pale (green) eyes and yawning. She held both children tightly, clutching and kissing them. Powell was on his knees by the bed, looking from one child to the other, taking them in, wiping tears from his eyes, wiping his nose on his shoulder.  Dani stayed at the bedroom door, leaning heavily on the door jamb, the cool wood soothing to her face.

“It was stupid there, for babies. We hated it. Right, Hunter?”

“I didn’t.” Hunter started to say. “I thought it was- ”

“No, we hated it.” Eden said. “I asked a man how to call a cab, and he told me, and I called one and then we left.”

The shower did not feel as good as she’d hoped. Her skin was tender, inflamed. The outline of the pink dress was burned onto her body. Dani washed her hair, twice, and rolled herself up in her old cotton kimono robe, and shuffled to the bed on tender, sore feet.

Powell, Candice, the children, the police: they were all gone The house was hers. She lay across the foot of the bed, towel wrapped around her hair, and slept.

“Move, baby.” Powell said. “Come up here.” He patted the pillows by his head. “Up here.”

Dani crawled up the bed, pulled the towel from her head, and collapsed on her back. Powell pulled the robe open at the neck, kissing her shoulder. She flinched.

He whistled, softly. “Boy you really got it, didn’t you? You look awful.” Powell kissed her temple. “You shouldn’t have stood out there in the sun. Were you really out there that long?”

I fainted twice, that not enough of a clue for you? She reined it in. He’d been out of his mind then, so had she.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Dani told him.

“Okay.” Powell moved closer, laying on his side, tucking himself against her body. His fingers stroked her breast through the thin robe. “Now.” He said. “Eden is going to apologize to you tomorrow. Candice and I both agreed. She owes you a big apology for running off.”

He sounded a little proud of himself. No. Not a little. A lot. Smug.

“We’re punishing her for it.” He said. “We took away her iPhone for a week.”

Powell pulled the kimono open and she flinched again as the cool air stung her skin. He was gentle though, kissing where there was no burn, so softly, brushing his lips against her skin.

“We also thought…” He said, whispering, kissing her lips, then brushing her damp hair back from her face, “that it would be a good idea for you to apologize, too. For losing them. Not that you really lost them. We know you didn’t. Just to make peace.”

Dani froze.

Powell’s hand moved up her leg, then slid between her thighs. “What do you think? Hm?” When she did not answer, he asked, “You okay? What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing.”

She was thinking about the paramedic. The man who’d looked her in the eyes. It was his job, of course it was his job, but he’d spoken to her so kindly, and sincerely. He had looked at her like he’d seen her. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had done that, really looked her in the eye.

When was the last time she had been able to look herself in the eye?

“What are you thinking, Dani?”

“Nothing.”

.

.

“Hey.” Powell said, groggy. “Dani. Turn off the alarm.” He rolled over. The alarm was still going. He groaned and crawled across the bed. She must be in the shower, he thought, then realized he didn’t hear the shower. It was Sunday morning and it was, what, 7:30? What was she doing up? Powell slapped the alarm clock and heard something fall and ping against the metal bed rail. Powell groaned again and flopped his arm over the mattress and felt around, his fingertips brushing against the carpet. He got it, the thing, and brought it to his face.

Dani’s ring.

He sat up. Her half of the closet was empty, cleared out.

“Shit.”

.

.

The End

.

.

Advertisements

About Vicki Caroline Cheatwood

Writerly. Rebooting. Evolving. Searching for great chicken salad.
This entry was posted in Pimp My Lent, Short Story. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s