Carl gasps, choking on the swallow of chicken soup half down his throat. The spoon in his left hand clatters against the bowl, splashing a stream of lukewarm soup against his cheeks, his nose, his glasses. He groans, again cursing his useless right arm still trapped in cloth strips and plaster. A red-topped mop of hair springs into his vision, distorted by the dribbly coating of Mom's best attempt at soup on the lenses of his glasses.
He laughs despite himself, settling against the pile of down pillows propped behind his back, lunch still laid out on a tray before him but losing his attention for now.
For now, someone else has his full focus.
"Sorry Kid," Ellie says. "Didn't mean to startle ya!" She thrusts her scrapbook through the window first, flinging it from her arm like a champion discus thrower. It lands on the floor with a whump, startling motes of dust from a rug. Then she lifts herself effortlessly through the window, straddling the frame for a brief moment (and holding onto it like she were on the back of a furious, bucking bronco) before vaulting herself into Carl's bedroom as she's done for the past few weeks. Never calling beforehand, never giving advance notice. Just suddenly there like a sudden summer downpour.
Shocking but welcome.
"Y'wanna know where I've been?" she asks, eyes saucer-wide and gleaming impishly.
Carl's mouth drops into a loose "O" shape and he nods, his glasses nearly shaking off his nose with the effort.
"Okay! I'll tell ya!" She grasps her book from the floor and swoops onto his bed, settling there cross-legged Indian-style. Lunch is a lost cause, now, the rest of that soup sloshing free of the bowl and onto the tray. Ellie drops her book into her lap, letting it open to a certain page of its own accord. She grins, the gap in her teeth on full display as she flips the book around for Carl to see.
"See that?" She points eagerly to a single feather taped to the page. "It's a goose feather." Her eyes flick around shiftily, as if searching out for any miscreants who might be eavesdropping. "You ever meet a goose up close?"
Carl shakes his head, still too startled to speak.
"Geese are big and mean birds. It's the middle of migration season, and I was watching a flock of 'em resting at the pond. HONK! Some of 'em came after me! Charging like bulls after red flags! And they bite!" She lifts the leg of her overalls, revealing a beak-shaped scar against her shin, the skin still pale and healing.
Carl gasps again.
"Never ever EVER go up to a big bird and try to pet it." A pause. "NEV-VER."
Carl gives an emphatic nod, filing away that piece of useful knowledge for later.
He passes through high school hallways, saying farewell to friends at the end of the day as he heads for Mr. Bruckner's classroom, his brain readying for after-school Biology tutoring. He swiftly ducks into the classroom and starts for an empty desk near the front of the room when one of the storage closets swings open, stopping him in his tracks. A tiny hand clenches onto his tie, drawing him into the cupboard.
"Hey, Kid." BAM, the door slams shut.
Ellie's beaming at him in the dark, pressed up against him in the cramped space, her tiny fingers loosely wrapping themselves around and around the fabric of his tie. The bite of formaldehyde permeates the stuffy air in the cupboard, leeching from the dozens of jarred specimens stacked up on the shelves. But she's concentrating on the smell of Carl's aftershave, even if his large, squarish jaw's still smooth as a baby's bottom. At least he's making the effort. And effort should always be rewarded.
He laughs, liking this distraction from the schoolwork, even as he sets pleading eyes on her shadowy shape, his pupils magnified behind his specs. "Ellie. Mr. Bruckner won't like this. Us, in here, with his prized...tapeworms."
Ellie giggles, the sound kind and fond, and she kisses him, palms resting on his cheeks and fingers tracing along that strong jawline. She finds his worrying adorable. The worry makes the risks so much more worthwhile. She rests her forehead against his, eyes shutting as she focuses on the scent of his aftershave and on the warmth radiating from his face. She can't see it, but she can sense it. He's blushing.
He goes for another kiss, thinking how not even Charles Muntz ever had it so lucky.
Awkward positioning makes Carl's leg cramp up. He stretches, inadvertently opening the cupboard with a desperate shove of his foot. Light floods the space, revealing the plump shape of Mr. Bruckner looming over them, a mountain of a man with a scowl as deep and as craggy as the Grand Canyon.
Ellie takes swift hold of the nearest specimen jar, shoving it towards the Biology teacher. "Cestoda, Mr. Bruckner?"
The label on the jar slips off, fluttering to the floor.
Mr. Bruckner's scowl reaches the depths of the Marianas Trench.
He sometimes finds working at a zoo confining, stifling, repetitive. Day after day spent blowing up balloons and handing them over to kids.
Or tying them to kids' wrists.
Or to strollers.
One enterprising young boy tells Carl to tie his newest neon green buddy to the left hinge of his glasses.
No child simply holds onto a balloon anymore. No child clutches onto that length of twine with insistence, with urgency, and with conscious effort. Maybe that's the problem: too much worry required, too much thought. A knot overrides all of that, switches the child from an active role to a passive one. He's not playing with a balloon anymore; he's just a tether. An anchor. Dead weight. An agent of gravity forcing the balloon closer to the ground while a balloon's nature is up.
Always, always up.
And yet Carl's parked his balloon cart in the zoo every day, in the area dedicated to South American birds. Not because he's assigned to stay there by management, but because Ellie's there in that bird enclosure and Carl's never strayed very far from Ellie since the day they met.
Another balloon, his last yellow one, is tied to a little girl's wrist. It's late in the day, and long, summer shadows dance along the pavement. A cacophonous, feathered symphony wafts its way through the open spaces of Birds of South America. Even beneath a roof, the birds sense the sunset and are singing their farewells to the day.
There's a moment where Carl's fingers fumble. The string loosens and unfurls and straightens and the yellow balloon bobs up and up and up. A frustrated Carl curses in front of the girl. Not a really bad curse, not the kind of curse which describes certain untoward bodily functions, but it was strong enough, grating enough. The girl's mother braces her hands on either side of her daughter's head as she glowers at Carl.
All he has to offer her is an apologetic smile and another balloon.
The girl steadfastly points skyward, towards the shrinking yellow speck set against a sky gone pink with sunset.
Carl shrugs, extends a hand towards his tiny grouping of balloons. Greens. Blues. Reds. Oranges.
Grudgingly, the girl picks out an orange balloon, the largest of the lot.
Sighing his relief, Carl tries to hand it over, but his fingers somehow lose hold of the string. He manages to keep the curses to himself, and luck offers him a respite. The balloon lodges itself into a nearby tree, string entangled in its branches, orange brightly set off against the green. He's about to climb the tree, but Ellie arrives with a ladder, and a loose grin. Her chin dips, and her eyes raise a little, in the direction of the balloon. A silent urging up.
Carl's not fond of heights. He can tolerate them fine, but he's not exactly looking for excuses to lift himself more than a few feet off the blessed ground. That length of time he spent with a broken arm took care of that. But he takes each rung with purpose. At the top, he's stretched to the limit of his being, tip-toed on the very edge of the ladder, but the balloon stays steadfastly out of reach.
Carl suddenly realizes the second balloon rescue mission he's ever embarked upon will probably go the same way as his first. Balance lost, he flails wildly as Ellie repositions the ladder.
"Oh my gosh! Carl!"
He stumbles, tumbles, loses his footing. The ambulance ride to the hospital feels disappointingly familiar.
"You were an acrobat!" Ellie says, her arms thrusting out for balance as she lifts a foot off the floor of Carl's recovery room. She traces tight little circles in the air with her loose fists, mimicking Carl's desperate flapping about at the top of the ladder. "Or one of those...what do you call them?" Her fingers wriggle peppily, as if trying to grasp at something just out of reach. "High divers at the circus?"
Carl's gaze is drawn to the cast wrapped around his leg.
"Well, that's two down," Ellie says, tapping first at the toe end of Carl's leg cast, and then on his shoulder. "Promise me you're not aiming to collect a complete set of broken limbs, are you?"
Carl grins a lop-sided grin and traces an "X" on his chest, right above his heart. "Cross my heart, Ellie. Cross my heart."
A long, lingering kiss seals that promise.
"Somebody's shooting at us."
Ellie would snicker at that if Carl weren't so damned serious about it. The politest expression her face can tolerate right now is a tight-lipped grin. And she knows that if she even tries to speak, she's going to blow an overly big, overly loud, overly wet raspberry. And sputter it all over Carl's worried face.
"It's not funny!" Carl's insistent and anxious, and wondering how he ever got himself and Ellie into this mess in the first place.
And the answer, naturally, is as plain as the tree-shaped dent in their roof.
Repairs take money and they take time, and the Fredricksens don't have great amounts of either. All their savings, every single penny in the Paradise Falls jug, goes to fix the roof, and none is left over to pay for a place to stay while the contractors kick off those repairs.
They agree that camping seems like the best solution. Rather than pay nightly for a room at the hotel, they only pay once for a two person pup tent from Link's Sporting Goods. The idea seems sound enough and ordinary enough, but Carl has come to expect something a little extra when experiencing life as lived by Ellie.
Another bullet whizzes past their tent, clipping the canvas cover.
"They're not shooting at us!" Ellie insists.
"Could've fooled me!"
"They're just really bad shots!"
"You only just figured that part out, huh?"
Ellie gives Carl a quick kiss on the nose, her 'you're lucky you're cute because you're wrong' kiss, and before Carl can hope to hook his hand on her shoulder to stop her, she's outside.
A moment later and she's diving through the slitted door, clenching both fists against at her chest. Carl suspects the worst. How could he not? Ellie crumples to the floor of the tiny tent, and then she thrusts her arms out in shaky triumph, her hands clinging onto a sheet of paper, weathered and rain-wrinkled. Carl squints through the lenses of his glasses, trying to read the text on the page.
"Notice of 300 Bird Invitational at Continental Game Preserve. I pitched our tent on a game preserve?"
"Best place to go after pheasant in the county."
"I'm not much of a bird hunter, Ellie."
"I don't fancy shooting them, either."
"We could stay at my parents'?"
Ellie's jaw drops and her eyes widen, mind's eye filling with images of those somber Fredricksen folk. "I think we're safer with the hunters."
Carl can't help but agree with that.
Carl stretches his arms out, trying to feel his way around the house in the dark. He should be intimately familiar with the layout of the place, seeing as he's lived here with Ellie for the past four and a half decades. It's still a chore, though. Everything seems a lot farther apart when you can't exactly see it.
Or closer. He's not able to tell which.
"Ellie?" He's straining to pick her voice up through his newly-acquired hearing aid. "The power's--"
A shaft of light glints to life at the far end of the kitchen. Ellie holds the flashlight aloft, aiming the beam directly at the ceiling, and the light diffuses along the space, enveloping it in a dim, intimate glow.
"It's out," she says, offering a flashlight to Carl. "I know we have some candles around here somewhere. Help me find them?"
They dot the house with candles. Squat ones in the hallways. Long tapers for the living room. Carl's struggling with getting all of them lit, but he's not nearly as spry as he used to be. In trying to rush through the house, Carl scorches his fingertips on the flame of a nearly-spent match. A hiss and a surprised yelp and he's dropped the match onto the floor.
Nothing happens for a moment, and Carl's about to take that breath he's anxiously been holding ever since the match hit the floor. But then the rug smolders and thin wisps of light gray smoke curl up menacingly. The fibers of the rug take on a mesmerizing glow, but Carl stamps out the glimmer, hoping the worst behind him.
He raises a hand to his face, rubs at his eyes to relieve that knot of tension nestled there. Eyelids shut, he drops his hand, knocking a candle over and spilling wax and flame all over the rug. It flares up in earnest now, the blaze threatening to engulf the entirety of the rug.
"Carl!" Ellie exclaims, desperate to catch his attention.
He lifts his head and his eyes open and he's facing the fire with nothing to protect him. He squints through the shimmery haze towards Ellie's voice, but he can't see her. Why can't he see her? He tries to forge through the flames, but the heat forces him back. Groaning in frustration, he's about to try one more time.
Something sails right over his head and lands in the center of the blaze. Glass shatters, water spreads, and the fire dies. Carl crouches towards the smoking, wet mess, trying to see the remnants of the thing that saved him. Rose petals. Thorny stems. The shards of a clear glass vase. A wet and singed piece of paper with a hand-written note scribbled upon it, attached to a darkened piece of red ribbon.
Ellie steps over the smoking shambles. "Happy anniversary," she says, a sweet grin framing her face as she leans in for a kiss.
Her hospital room is quiet, warm, and nice. The staff go out of their way to keep her comfortable, but the only reason she tolerates their constant fussing is because it seems to keep Carl happy.
She's long ago figured out that she can't keep Carl happy forever. They'd managed to stockpile a great amount of memories, though. Some huge, life-changing ones; others, smaller. Yet the smaller ones are no less cherished. Friday evenings out. Sunday brunches. And ties. For the rest of her days, she'll not forget the never-ending parade of Carl's ties.
Her smile is fond and wistful. Carl's no longer a half-windsor man, but a strictly bowtie sort of guy. It suits him, now. His gray hair is turning white in some spots. That shocked her. One day she suddenly noticed Carl's gray hair and his wrinkled face and wondered how they'd grown so old, so fast.
And she waits, eyes trying to focus through her half-moon glasses, her gaze on the clock. Carl will be here soon, with his breakfast (a paper cup of coffee and a cheese danish), and she'll get hers (usually oatmeal, wheat toast, and orange juice).
"Hey, Kid." She's tired, but she knows his old nickname is usually enough to earn a smile from him.
It is. "Ready for breakfast?"
"Always." She can't remember the last time she actually felt hungry. She's only eating because she has to, because Carl worries if she doesn't.
He trundles her tray table towards her, positioning the platform just right. He spoons the oatmeal into her mouth, unaware that he's opening his own mouth at the same time as she is hers. She laughs, sputtering out a bit of the oatmeal.
"What's so funny?"
Ellie shakes her head. "It doesn't matter." And she opens her mouth for the next spoonful. Again Carl opens his mouth.
She giggles and angles her head to get a better glimpse of Carl's face. "I love you."
He smiles and kisses her forehead.
She's worried for Carl, worried for a time when she's not there to coax a smile from him. She's fought a battle her entire life, trying to break Carl free of his somber personality, to show him the wonders of a full life lived well. All she can hope for is for Carl to make friends after she's gone. They'd been best friends for over half a century, and her one fear, her one regret is that she's going to leave him alone. All alone. She'll have to give him permission, she thinks, to continue living after she's gone.
"You remember...that old scrapbook I had when I was a kid?"
"Sure. It's still on the mantle."
"Could you bring it with you next time? It's been so long. I'd like to see it."
She'll leave a message for him, something permanent and personal. Something he'll be able to look at and touch and know that a piece of her still exists in this world and in his life. And even if she's not there to wake up next to him in the morning, to share breakfast with him, or laugh with him, or sort through the day's mail, or deal with the myriad little routine things that make up a person's life. Even then, he'll know that it's okay to keep on living without her.
Thanks for the adventure -- Now go have a new one!