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Phil and the Yellow Dwarf

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The next time they meet, it's the dead of winter.

Phil tries not to complain, since he got back. Twenty-five years at the end of the world, he learned about making the best of things. But he'd forgotten how cold New York could get in December. He's got a heavy coat and mittens and a scarf his mom knitted, and the wind still goes right through him. It's hard not to miss the jungle. Especially when the entire population of New York City is trying to do its Christmas shopping all at the same time.

He told himself he wasn't going to procrastinate any more, but it's the twenty-third and he still hasn't found the god-damned Furby his daughter wants, so shopping it is. Once, he wouldn't have cared – he'd have sent Carrie to do it, or got her something else. Now he doesn't want to waste a moment. The kids are growing up so fast, and the twenty-five years he spent imagining them not growing up at all makes it ever harder to accept.

Wondering if he should stop by the liquor store on the way home and get his brother-in-law a bottle of Scotch, he steps onto the curb and runs straight into someone. He's stepping back to apologize - or to yell at him to watch where he's going, he hasn't decided yet - and realizes that he knows the guy. It takes him a second longer to realise that it's George.

George freezes, like he's about to take a leap into the air and fly away, only he can't do that any more. The foot traffic flows on around them, and a couple of people elbow Phil as they go by.

"Hi, George," Phil says. Casually, like George is an old college buddy or a co-worker from some old job that he hasn't seen in years.

"Hi," George replies. "I was just -"

"Shopping?" he looks at the bags George is clutching, and wonders who he's been buying presents for.

They stand there interrupting traffic, Phil wonders if the smart thing to do would be to just say goodbye. That's what he did the last time. But now Carrie and the kids aren't here -

"Hey, do you want to grab a coffee?" he says, because it's better than 'so, how's life since you stopped being a giant lemur in the future?'

"Sure," George replies, with something that almost qualifies as a smile.

The nearby Starbucks is crowded, but warm. He hardly gets in the door before he has to take off the hat and the mittens and the scarf and starts regretting his coat. George finds them a table, and he gets two coffees. Nothing fancy, just black for him and white with two sugars for George.

When he gets back to the table, George is fidgeting with the napkin dispenser, but he really does smile when he takes the first sip of his coffee.

"How did you know?"

"Because you never shut up about it. Twenty-five years, I had to listen to you complain about coffee."

He wonders if he should mention it out loud, but it's so noisy in here and everyone is so busy. Nobody will listen. What would they make of it even if they did?

"I wasn't complaining! I just missed it sometimes, that's all." He reaches into one of his bags. "You know, while you're here, I should show you something."

It's a journal. Phil flips through it, and inside he finds page after page of cramped scrawl.

"I wrote it all down," George says. "Everything I could remember." It turns out George's handwriting isn't that much better with a real pen and actual hands than it was with a stick and paws, but Phil can just about make out most of it. "I changed the names."

"Yeah ... Bill. Real original, George. You think anyone would actually want to read about us going flying and eating sugar berries and ... stuff?"

"Maybe not, but what the point of us seeing the end of the world and coming back if we never tell anyone? Not that I'm planning to announce I used to be a flying lemur on Oprah, you understand."

"I understand."

They can't tell anyone. A whole lifetime away from here, and all Phil can do some days is stare at the people and think: you don't know. You don't know that one day all of this ends, that the universe is bigger and weirder than you can ever imagine. They all just drink coffee and buy Furbies and have no idea what the world is really like.

"How are you doing, Phil?"

He takes a long slurp of his coffee. "Everything's fine. Everything's great."

George gives him a look, the I-know-you're-not-fine-but-I'm-going-to-pretend-like-I-don't look that drives Phil up the wall. It looks exactly the same as it did when he was a lemur. Phil chooses to ignore it.

"How are you? How's – school?"

"Fine, fine." He fidgets with the napkin holder some more. "I'm taking flying lessons, Can you believe it?"

Phil smiles. "Yeah. Still can't believe you'd never been in a plane before."

"It's not the same, of course, but it's not bad."

And doesn't that just sum it up? It isn't that Phil isn't happy to be home. Of course he's happy. Couldn't be happier. It's just that life is so complicated and noisy, and he can't fly any more, and George isn't around.

"How's Carrie?"

"She's good. Keeps hassling me about my diet." He smiles, to let George know that it's not a complaint. "I didn't think, you know, back then, that when I got back here I'd have to give up the hotdogs and hamburgers anyway." He's not even really meant to be drinking this coffee, but it's not like Carrie or his doctor are going to find out.

He almost asks if George is seeing anybody, but he really doesn't have to. It's written all over his face, and Phil doesn't know how to ask the next obvious question. If he had his private ideas about why none of George's dates with women ever worked out before he turned into a flying lemur, he got plenty of practice at keeping his mouth shut.

Looking for a subject to change to, he opens the journal at a random page. A few choice words jump out at him. "Wow," he says, after he reads the whole thing. "You really did write down everything." This part is definitely not for publication, unless Penthouse has started printing really weird letters.

"I wanted it to be accurate."

"I'm not sure about your choice of adjectives."

George chuckles. "You know, I never saw you blush before."

"Oh, I blushed plenty. You just couldn't see it through the fur."

They just look at each other, and for a minute Phil feels like they're the last two guys on Earth again.

"You weren't just walking down this street by accident, were you?"

George is from New Jersey. There's really no reason for him to be here, just like there was really no reason for him to be at the Bronx Zoo. They got a zoo in Jersey, don't they? Although maybe not one with flying lemurs. Phil never checked.

"I wasn't looking for you, I just - wanted to see all the things you told me about. You know, I never went to the city much before."

George is a terrible liar. Phil wants to ask if he comes here a lot - to ask for George's phone number, ask if he wants to have coffee again. He even has the crazy impulse to ask if he wants to get a hotel room right now and check if it was just the lemur hormones all along or not. But he's not that guy. He can't cheat on Carrie, not after finally getting his family back. He can't forget twenty-five years in the jungle, either.

"I should go," George says.

"I - should get back to shopping. My daughter wants this Furby thing, and they're sold out everywhere."

"Well, good luck with that."

As they get up, George reaches for his wallet.

"You don't have to pay for the coffee," Phil protests.

"No, no, I should." George hands him a two-dollar bill, and their fingers brush against each other, just for a second.

"I'll see you around, OK?"

"OK," George says. Determined, like it's a promise.

Phil stands outside of the Starbucks and watches George walk away, until he vanishes into the mass of a hundred other humans, Christmas shopping forgotten. Maybe he should swing by New Jersey when the weather warms up, to see all the places George told him about. Or maybe he should pretend not to notice George the next time they run into each other. He turns away and goes back to hunting for another toy store, but a part of him is dreaming of the jungle.