Why didn’t the skeleton take the dare? He didn’t have the guts.
She giggles, but Elephant doesn’t laugh at her joke, and this makes her frown. She picks him up by his purple-y velvet skin and holds him inches from her face. He smells like spit and cheese puffs, and it makes her homesick. She stares into his eyes, tries to decipher his mood. Elephant always laughs at her jokes, so she’s concerned. Especially since this was a good one. Guts. She giggles again.
Is it me or my joke, she asks. He stares back at her and refuses to answer. She sighs. He’s being difficult. Chalking it up to a lack of sleep, she plops him back down onto the cracked, vinyl seat of the car. He was always so grumpy when he didn’t get to bed on time. But then she was too. Tired.
Her parents had fought late into the night. She’d clutched Elephant, tucking his snout under her chin just the way he liked, and tried not to hear. It didn’t usually work, though. Last night, it didn’t work at all. Tears had rolled down her cheeks, soaking into Elephant’s fuzz. Sorry, she’d whispered. She knew how much he hated it when she got him wet. How much he hated it when she cried.
She’d drifted off eventually, but certainly hours past her bedtime. Curled into her Holly Hobby comforter, Elephant snuggled against her chest, she’d been woken too early. The sky was still dark when her father had shaken her. Get up, he’d yelled. Get up.
What did the piece of ice say? Keep cool.
She looks at Elephant and thinks she can see a flash of a smile. She giggles again. That was a good one, better than the guts, she tells him. She and Elephant, they knew how to keep cool. She thinks she can see him wink. Picking him up with her one hand, she holds him against her stomach, setting him in her lap. She pets the top of his head, softly and in only one direction, exactly the way he likes.
In the cold and the dark, her father had yanked her out of bed and dragged her to the car. She’d clung to Elephant; she couldn’t, wouldn’t, go without him. Mommy was gone and he knew where she was, her father had said. They needed to go get her. Bring her back. Now.
Did you hear about the big fight at the candy store? Yeah, a lollipop got licked.
She’s positive Elephant is finally laughing this time, and she laughs, too. Got licked. That’s so funny, she says. Elephant agrees. But then she makes a mistake; she looks out the window at her parents. They are yelling again, and a man is standing, watching them. His hair is long and black and hangs like strings. Immediately she’s scared, sorry she has said the joke out-loud. She hopes God doesn’t let Mommy get licked.
Elephant shivers in her lap. Shhh, she tells him, it’ll be okay. Don’t be scared. Keep cool.
But then her father’s suddenly back at the car, pulling at her door. Why didn’t you tell me, he yells. But not in an angry way. He’s not angry anymore. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was scared. Maybe he even felt a little bad.
Why didn’t you say anything? He opens her car door and her left hand slides free. She gratefully wraps her throbbing fingers around Elephant’s cool fur. Relief fills her. He came back. She’d been afraid he never would.
Oh, honey, why didn’t you tell me your fingers were caught in the door, he asks as he slides into the driver’s seat. I would have come. I would have helped you.
She shrugs and doesn’t dare answer. She’s not sure she believes him. At all. Instead, she peers again out the window as the car begins to pull away. Holding Elephant up to the glass, so he can see too, she looks back at Mommy and the man whose hair hangs like strings. She and Elephant then wave goodbye for what would be the last time ever, her fingers burning at the effort.