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Elephant Man

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The first time it happens, Brian doesn't have any idea what to think.

There are no good reasons for anyone to mail him a ceramic elephant, three inches tall, from Oklahoma, and all he has is the package, clearly addressed to him, clearly here in his dorm (what the hell; his mom and sister are like, the only people who wrote down his dormitory mailbox number? It's probably in the print directory but again, Oklahoma) and the postmark (Bluejacket, Oklahoma. 74333.)

But the thing is, he likes it. It's enameled pale gray, shiny, with pink toenails and painted-on ear hairs, and its trunk is reaching for something. He puts it on top of the single box-shelf affixed to his concrete wall and names it Miranda.

When his roommate notices it two weeks later he shrugs and says he found it standing on a railing in the quad because explaining random elephant knick-knacks from Oklahoma is beyond their relationship. His roommate is barely more social than a cactus, so the conversation only just rises above the level of grunting anyway, and then they never mention it again.

Brian dusts Miranda every Sunday when he changes his sheets. This is more often than he thinks is necessary for both tasks, but his mother made him promise about the sheets, and they're the mnemonic for the dusting, so.

Brian's dorm, and then apartment, remain a single-elephant household for nearly five years, and then one day there is a package from Arizona addressed to him, and ...okay that's super weird. Most of his mail is: bills (so many bills), weekly letters from his mom, irregular letters from his sister interspersed with focused bursts of cards a couple of times a year, occasional packets of zines he's ordered because driving into the city for them is a pain, and boxes from Sears of the same pants and socks he always wears.

What, they're comfortable and predictable. All his fashion energy goes into choosing a shirt each day, and that's fine. It is. Even if everyone else doesn't shop that way and he's not changing now thank you ever so.

So this little box that is not from Sears, not the right shape for photocopied fanfiction, not from his mom, and presumably not a new-fangled 3-D bill from Ma Bell, is an anomaly.

It's a sparkly and very joyful little elephant made from some kind of cheap gemstone and wrapped in about thirty layers of crumpled tissue paper.

Postmark says Quartzsite, AZ. 85346.

Okay, so probably it's quartz.

It's a million little pieces all worked together (a mosaic? Kind of? Can that be a sculpture like this or is a mosaic always a flat work? hm.), but there's a single crazy-shaped piece that makes the trunk, all uplifted and happy. Brian figures probably the artist saw that and built the elephant around it.

He names her Arabella and places her on the mantel facing Miranda, in a space that feels empty.

(He still dusts them once a week, on Sundays, when he changes his sheets).

The next one is a little abstract, formed out of driftwood. He's a sad little fellow from Charleston, Oregon (there's a Charleston in Oregon? Brian gets out the atlas he still has from when his mom sent it to school with him although as he is approximately as adventurous as a sloth, this is the most use it's gotten, and looks until he finds it). Charleston is tiny, coastal, practically invisible, and apparently a place where driftwood is a thing.

He doesn't know what to name this one – nothing speaks to him – and so he just calls him Charlie and sets him between the girls on the shelf in his still fairly-undecorated condo. Where Miranda is painted and glossy, and Arabella shines from any of her many facets, Charlie is cool, gray, and almost insubstantial in Brian's hand, and something about that does speak to him, so he tells Charlie he'll be fine here with new friends, that there's nothing to be afraid of, that sometimes things just take time.

That some random person who likes to send him elephants knows where his condo is is probably something about which he ought to be concerned, but it seems absurd to, what, call the police and report that eight years ago someone started stalking him incredibly infrequently but he didn't take it seriously until now? And the evidence is three cute elephants? Two happy, one sad, zero creepy? Sure.

Hobart comes from Montana some two years after that, and is made of scrap metal. And, to Brian's surprise, there is also a postcard in the box, with a return address. No name, because why would it be that easy, but the PO box on the card is in the same zip as the postmark on the package, so it seems momentous.

Brian considers the card for three days, then writes a draft on college-rule lined paper at his desk, then when he's satisfied, copies the content to the card, in ink.

I named them: Miranda, Arabella, Charlie, Hobart in that order. They all still live with me, and I guess I don't know why. I also don't know who you are or why you're sending them, and I'd like to, so if you want to share, I'm all ears. But if you don't, that's okay, too. I like that there's someone in the world who wants to send me elephants on a somewhat-irregular basis, and so far each of them feels like someone who belongs so thanks, for that. --Brian

He hopes the card was, as he assumed, an invitation to engage in some way.

Elephant 5, the following spring, is made of leather and beadwork, and comes from Nevada with another card. This one has writing.

I think you should call this one Inez, but far be it from me to intrude upon your elephant-naming scheme, whatever it is. She's from Colorado, but I didn't send her until I settled in here.

More importantly: you don't know who I am? I kept going because I figured you had to know, but okay, Johnson, I am both surprised and delighted by this information, and also a little bit shocked you didn't call the FBI on my ass before you let an unknown party send you five elephants. Honestly, it's some kind of Christmas (in April this time) miracle, and as such, I'm going to let it stand. – The Elephant Man

Brian grins all the way through the card, then examines Inez, whom of course he is absolutely not going to rename. She's the kind of knick-knack that one might pick up in a tourist trap, marketed as a genuine Injun craft piece, but there's no mark that indicates mass production and also why the shit would any tourist trap in Colorado sell beadwork elephants? Anyway, she's adorable, and he puts her with Charlie, who still could use some cheering up.

Dear Elephant Man,

I think that name is commonly understood to be that guy in the movie a few years ago, but I'll allow it. Inez arrived safely and is currently trying to improve Charlie's ongoing despondent mood. I have no idea why there is a market for leather elephants in Colorado, but I'll take you at your word regarding her origins.

I didn't call the FBI, to explain it in the simplest terms, because the first one seemed random, and the second one made me smile on a tough day. I suppose I didn't want them to stop, and even though I had no reason to expect a continuing flood of elephants, an elephlood, if you will, well, I hoped. Also, I had nothing really to go on but two different zip codes.

Now, though, I have a clue. You are, or at least you say you are, a man. A man who has visited Oklahoma, Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado, and evidently stayed for at least some period in Montana and Nevada. Not much to go on.

Maybe I'll think of something else by the time you send another. Or I'll have another address to add to the list.

Yours, Brian

The next package is an envelope, and it arrives two weeks later. The return address hasn't moved.

Still here. I don't have another figurine for you, but you said something about a tough day, and the way you said it, I thought maybe you have them more often than you like. Maybe not, maybe I'm being weird and sentimental. Still, I've heard these cards are good for that.

The card is one of the Sandra Boynton ones, and it does, in fact, feature elephants.

Brian looks at the cover for a long time before he opens it back up.

The thing is, I picked up the first one because I was having a tough day, and it reminded me of a better one. I wasn't aware you and I were, like, psychically connected—is that a thing?—but I'm starting to feel like maybe there was a reason I sent it. Or I'm losing it in my old age. Anyway. Maybe I'll swing by he next time I'm in town. Obviously, I know where you are. Not in a way that should lead to you calling the FBI which would, without question, be detrimental to my well-being. I don't like the fuzz. --EM.

Brian puts the card with the elephant group and makes himself an uninspiring but nutritious dinner, then looks at it again while the dishes are soaking. Maybe he should get out more.

He doesn't mean to write back immediately – that's kind of pathetic? – but after he changes into his PJs and brushes his teeth, he pulls the lap desk onto the bed with him and starts to anyway, on thick-paper stationery with his name at the top.

Dear EM,

Maybe we are, but I don't know if elephants are proof of anything.

I don't know why it is that I feel like I need to write back right this minute, when your card arrived just hours ago, but somehow I really have to.

I said before that Arabella arrived on a bad day, and that's true. I hope your bad day was nothing like it. This story is shitty and I don't know why I want to tell it to you. Probably you're going to never send me another elephant, and I don't blame you, but you should know what you're wading into here. She got here the day after the day my boyfriend's mother had showed up at our apartment to take him, and everything I ever had of his, home.

We weren't together all that long. I mean, three years and change. End of college, start of New Life Being Adults. You know. But then he got sick. A lot of people got sick. His mom blamed me, probably because I didn't. Logically, I know that. Anyway, laws being what they were, and mostly still are, there was not a damn thing I could do. He'd have died here, too, and that would have been tough a different way.

So Arabella made me smile and there's nothing about that that makes sense, now or then. I guess somehow she made me feel like going on was something I-- Brian stops there, closes his eyes, bites his tongue, and shakes his head. He can't send this, obviously. He sets the lap desk on the chair and turns off the light, then lies there for a long time being not asleep.

In the morning he sends a card from his office. It's cheery and short, but mostly what it says is, thanks, man, I needed that.

Nadine, who is crocheted out of multi-hue purple yarn, arrives about six weeks later, from west Kansas, and she comes with a card that says, I'm on the move, so don't write back, but I'll be in touch when I land.

Brian considers again the letter he didn't send, which he can't seem to manage to throw out, and puts Nadine on top of his dresser.

All right, that's probably slightly weird because it's like she's watching him sleep. Two days later he wakes up with morning wood and stares at her for like a minute and a half before talking himself into getting out of bed because for fuck's sake, this is a stuffed toy made of yarn, Brian, get a grip.

Still, when Elvis, who is a put-it-together-yourself balsa and craft glue elephant with blinky Elvis-in-Vegas lights that work, arrives the following week with an instruction sheet in the same handwriting as the address (what. Was this handmade, for him?), Brian builds him immediately and is going to place them facing one another, when all of a sudden the obvious bites him in the ass, and he literally facepalms. There are about eight people in the world who know about that fucking elephant lamp, and he knows where most of them are.

He brings his stationery set to the desk and sits down.

EM--

I'm a fucking idiot, huh? How many people would send me an elephant to put together? Jesus.

He pauses and tries to figure out how to say "please tell me you haven't been laughing at me because I can't fucking take that" when there's a knock at the door, and since that happens about twice a year, usually in relationship to pants arriving from Sears, he runs the pen straight across the page, startled. Damn it. He takes the page with him to the door and opens it.

"John."

"Brian."

"So, I was just writing to you."Brian holds up the paper. "Uh, because I'm an idiot."

"Never." John takes the paper. "Although I guess this says so, so maybe I'm wrong."

"What are you doing here?" Brian has lived in this condo for nearly five years, and his guest total is his mother, his sister and her fiancé, and a handful of interactions with the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"I said I'd be in touch."

"I... guess I assumed by mail. Not that, um. So, you want a drink?"

"Will it be milk?"

"Could be, if that's your poison, but I was probably going for whiskey. Unless you don't, um."

"Unless I'm in recovery?"

"I was definitely not going to say that. Out loud."

John laughs, a snort followed by an actual chuckle. "Nice. I am not, in fact, in recovery, because contrary to all expectation, I managed to not make any more acquaintance with the gutter than when you and I last spoke."

"Well, good, because I wouldn't want to be responsible for you falling off the wagon."

John nods. "So, whiskey, then?"

Brian shrugs and goes to the kitchen, gets two glasses out, tosses in ice, a couple fingers of the very good Jack Daniels he rarely drinks, and squeezes in some lime because he might as well make it fancy if he's going to have an actual guest.

When he goes back to the living room his breath catches; John is standing at the tilted lap-desk reading the aborted letter he never sent all those weeks ago. Which is fair, Brian reminds himself; it is addressed to him, technically. He squares his shoulders and steps forward. "So, I didn't send that because it's heavy as shit." He offers the glass. "Uh, drink up, Johnny boy?"

John takes the glass and takes a careful sip. "Nice. So, did she ever come around? The mom, I mean."

"Hardly. I read the obituary in the paper, on microfilm in the library. Eventually. Hell, my mom is still pretty sure the whole thing was an aberration and I learned my lesson."

"Did you?"

"Sure. Don't fall in love with people whose families are bigots unless you're prepared to lose." Brian doesn't say, or just don't fall in love.

John knocks back the rest of the drink. "Not, don't bone men?"

Brian purses his lips. "You know, I don't know that I'd usually refer to what Del and I did in our relationship as boning, exactly," he manages calmly. "But either way that's not a lesson I would take away."

John looks at him hard. "When I saw the first one – Miranda, you said?" Brian nods, and considers as an aside that for some reason, John has remained interested in the elephants, enough to have paid attention to the names. "Yeah, when I saw it, her, I was. You know my folks kicked my ass out the minute I turned eighteen, right?"

"I didn't, although that seems in line with other things you said. You know, back then."

"All true. Anyway. When I saw her, I was on the street, trying to hustle any kind of job because shit, Chicago and winters, man. And I got turned away one more time, and I had like six bucks, right?"

"And you used it to buy me an elephant?"

"I maybe stole the elephant. I sent the money later, don't panic. Anyway, so I took her because what I remembered was how upset you were about that stupid light, and what a fucking terrible representation that was of who you were. I kept it for a year in its plastic box thing and then one day I was like, I'll send it to you."

"To remind me of my elephant light failure." Brian sips at his drink again, curious as to where this is going because that wasn't what actually happened.

"No, because..." John gives this little shrug and says, "obviously you know this was ten years ago."

"Eleven, but who's counting?"

"Not me. Because I got a decent gig, and then another one because I knew I wasn't shit?"

"My elephant lamp catastrophe gave you self-confidence?"

"Okay, so it sounds shitty and weird when you say it like that. But yes. Anyway, so I was sure you would think I was being a jerkoff, which maybe I was, only that wasn't what I meant to be doing."

"I got it the day I got accepted into my major." John looks a little blank and Brian adds, "I was in engineering, so there's a whole you get into the college in the first place and then you have to prove yourself and get accepted to the major."

"Like an apprenticeship."

"Roughly."

"But now you work as a chemist?"

"Why do you know everything about me?"

"I don't. But Allison and I, we stayed in touch, and she works for... you know, I don't know if I should say? She works for a government entity which has a lot of information."

"That's...weird."

"Right? But so you work as a chemist."

"Kind of. It's complicated."

"I see."

"Um, this isn't me saying you wouldn't understand it. It's that I'm pretty sure my boss and his boss don't, but anyway, it's materials science. It's using chemistry and physics to understand how..."

"Yeah, I believe you." John holds up his glass of ice cubes. "To materials science?"

"And elephants," Brian says. "Why are you here? Besides that you said you were going to be in touch?"

John shrugs. "I don't fucking know. I just... am."

"Are you working in the area?"

"Not yet." John steps closer. "I just felt like I needed to come home."

"This is hardly home."

"It is, actually. Partly I'm here because my old man will probably kick it soon—cancer, metastasized, not that my mom told me without my digging it out of my cousin—but there's nothing I can do by my presence or absence to make either of them happier; I just think I'll feel better if I'm around. And, I've been touring the country for a long time and I'm ready to be steady for a while." John looks at the little elephant crew on the mantel between a couple of Brian's awards for creative thinking (which he knows are actually awards for being the least rigid thinker on his team, which is less exciting), and says, "so, I don't need a place to stay, but I want a place to stay. I can pay my way, course."

Brian blinks. He has the room, and he doesn't feel any doubt that John is being honest (and he doesn't actually need him to contribute, financially), but what the hell, how did this happen? He says slowly, "Maybe I should tell you why I fell in love with Del."

"Hot sex?" John grins. "Or sexy brains?"

"Actually, neither. He reminded me of the best parts of you. Initially. Obviously once I got to know him he was just him. But he still kind of looked like you. A lot. Uh, I figured you maybe should know, in case it would make you uncomfortable."

John shakes his head. "Things that make me uncomfortable: sleeping in gravel, being barefoot below freezing, pneumonia. Things that don't make me uncomfortable: people being good to, and good for, each other."

"You had them spell out 'machine'?"

"You started it." John looks over the top of the paper, at Brian side-eying him. "You did. Before we ever interacted you had Miranda, Arabella, Charlie, Hobart. I just filled in the blanks."

"Why?"

"Lamp was a machine, duh. You just noticed?"

"I'm in materials science, not acrostics. Words are more your game."

"Pssh, one short story sold, and fifteen years of transient laboring. Hey, so how do you feel about Nutcracker?"

"The ballet?"

"No, the thing that puts innocent walnuts in a terrifying ballcracking vise. Yes, the ballet."

"I don't really have an opinion."

"So, if I were to ask you to go to it with me on Friday?"

Brian squints. "Am I going to have to understand how a nutcracker works?"

"No. If it comes up I will take charge of that part of the evening. I meant, like, for fun."

Brian considers for a moment, then nods. "I might be able to do that."

"Only maybe."

"The fun part. I can definitely attend."

John snaps the paper together. "Good. Allison wants to meet for drinks before, and she's a sharp cookie; I don't know if I can handle her alone.

Brian thinks probably John would be fine, but he doesn't say so. He goes in his bedroom, puts on the ugly Christmas sweater he's supposed to wear to work today, and tells Nadine, "I didn't expect you guys to fix my life, but I appreciate it."

Elvis twinkles at him, and it's not that hard to imagine he's winking.

Which wouldn't be any weirder than elephants in his mailbox, so he doesn't mind.