Actions

Work Header

Bringing Up Baby, A modern re-envisioning of the 1938 Film of the same name

Work Text:

Bringing Up Baby
A modern re-envisioning of the 1938 Film of the same name

by Elana D’Roarah

 

Table of Contents

Chapter One - Susan
Chapter Two - David
Chapter Three - David and Susan Make a Scene
Chapter Four - Boopee
Chapter Five - Baby
Chapter Six - Bringing up Baby
Chapter Seven - Uncle Carl
Chapter Eight - Jasper
Chapter Nine - Nissa
Chapter Ten - Dinner
Chapter Eleven - The Chase
Chapter Twelve - Double Trouble
Chapter Thirteen - Arrested
Chapter Fourteen - Jailbreak
Chapter Fifteen - The Sheriff
Chapter Sixteen - The End
Chapter Seventeen - The Beginning
Chapter Eighteen - David’s Backstory 1
Chapter Nineteen - Susan’s Backstory 1
Chapter Twenty - David’s Backstory 2
Chapter Twenty One - Susan’s Backstory 2
Chapter Twenty Two - Backstory 3
Chapter Twenty Three - A Second Denouement

 

Chapter One - Susan

Dr. Susan Huxley sat with a purple pen in her hand, hunched over her desk, diligently editing the Museum’s annual report when that oh-so-familiar scent tickled her nose, announcing the arrival of someone in her doorway. The first whiff was always a pleasant reminder it was her fiancé. The second whiff always reminded her she needed to ask him someday not to bathe in it. But somehow she never remembered.

“Please don’t linger; it won’t make the process go any faster.”

Jeremy Swallow carefully made his way through the large piles of books and scientific observational equipment crammed in Susan’s small office to nonchalantly sit on the edge of her desk, “Sorry my Dear, as much as I love to watch you bleed purple all over my report to the Board - I’ve never met a woman so beautiful, that even when she scowls she’s lovely - I’m actually not here to linger. I am here to remind you of your engagement with Peabody.”

Jeremy’s British accent made it hard to distinguish when he was jokingly being rude or just being mean. Either way, his comments about her scowl were quickly replaced with disgust with herself for one, forgetting and two, not wanting to go to her appointment. “Why can’t you go play golf? You like it, don’t you? I’m more likely to lose the ten million dollars by accidentally winning or something.”

“No, no. Peabody is just the lawyer for the donor: Carleton Random, III. And Random simply wants Peabody to meet and assess the Museum’s leading zoologist - you! Not the Museum CEO, before making the donation.”

“It’s such a waste of time! I am not a schmoozer; I don’t network; I don’t do small talk. This is going to be a disaster!”

“Nonsense. You will, as always, impress and charm, I’m sure. Then when you’re done we can have worry-free wedding weekend. Alright?” And with that he kissed her on the lips and departed.

Susan looked out the grimy window of the Museum’s nineteenth-century-old building and watched, for the third time that day, NYC Police cruiser sirens and lights reflect off the windows. She momentarily calculated the consequences of being the wife of the Museum CEO who lost the Museum ten million dollars. Unfortunately, she would have to finish those calculations later and start computing how to make up time so she wouldn’t be late.

 

Chapter Two - David

Even though Susan was part of a student golf club in college, she was not in the best frame of mind to play. This location Mr. Peabody chose had a dress code. Also, Mr. Peabody hired golf carts and caddies. An odd occurrence; you don’t normally do both. And to further ruffle her feathers, the caddies were beautiful college-aged girls in matching tight green tank tops and short-short white skorts. Not that Susan really cared about what people looked like, or whether or not people thought she was beautiful or any of the stereotypical thought processes females go through in the physical looks game. It simply added to the list of disadvantages Susan felt in this awkward new position of donor wooing.

Susan’s displeasure must have registered on her face as her caddie piped up on their drive to the first tee, “Don’t worry, Grandpa is not as old-school as he lets on.”

“Mr. Peabody is your grandfather?!”

“Yeah, but don’t worry, he didn’t hire us just because I’m his granddaughter. I do know what I’m doing; and well, he didn’t know what your skill level was. He figured we could maybe help. You know, if needed. If not, I’ll just be there... holding your stuff.”

“Oh. OK. Thanks.” Susan gave the girl a reassuring smile as if to say she understood. But in her mind she went past trying to understand the reasoning of Mr. Peabody’s choices to strategizing on how to talk to him.

However, she should have been visualizing how to play the game as her first shot sliced left and was a tree shot. She internally cursed herself and thanked God it wasn’t an air shot. With the first stroke blown, she decided to begin the talking portion of her purpose for being there as Mr. Peabody was teeing up, “I would like to say Mr. Peabody, that I am honored that the Random Foundation is considering our museum...”

Mr. Peabody cut her off, “Dr. Huxley, I’m in the habit of only talking about golf when I play golf. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss the Foundation during lunch after the game.” He took a swing and it was a nice drive down the green setting him up for a possible triple bogey. “I believe you hooked yours” he said as he pointed in the general direction of where Susan’s ball was.

Susan nodded. With the Peabody Jr. caddie in tow, off she went to find her ball. They were nearly there when a well figured man, dressed all in white, approached her ball and began to swing at it. Susan screamed, “Stop! Wait!” as she began to run to him, but it was too late; the mystery gentleman hit the ball on to the green of a completely different hole.

“What do you think you are doing?!” Susan inquired when they finally caught up to him.

“You know it’s rude to yell at a person when they’re about to take a shot,” he said smiling at the two of them as they approached. He didn’t wait for a response, he just began to walk away. Susan stood there stunned by his audacity. Peabody Jr. stood there stunned for completely different reasons.

His comments made Susan quickly fear her shouting may have disturbed Mr. Peabody’s second shot. A glance in Mr. Peabody’s direction confirmed he was looking at them. She quickly waved at him and shouted, “I’ll be with you in a minute Mr. Peabody!” before she dashed off into the trees to find the guy who stole her ball.

They found him just about to putt her ball into the hole. “Hey!” she shouted. They ran to him as he was taking the ball out of the hole. “That’s my ball!”

“That’s quite the bad habit you’ve developed,” he said as he bent down to pick up the ball.

She snatched the ball out of his hand. “This is my ball! See it has my initials on it!”

“Funny, you don’t look like the superstitious type.” And with that he gave them a wink and a smile, swung his club over his shoulder and sauntered away.

Susan gave Peabody Jr. an exasperated look and sigh before running back to the spot where she thought the ball originally landed. She quickly got to work looking for signs of where it landed in accordance to signs of the foliage they trampled; meanwhile, trying to remember the exact wordings of the “play where it lands” rules and regulations. She had just chosen a spot to place her ball, when Peabody Jr. exclaimed, “Oh no!”

Susan looked up, “What?”

“He’s stealing our cart!”

Sure enough, the man in white was stealing their cart (which Susan had left her wallet in). Susan took off like bolt after the cart.

David meanwhile was beaming on the inside as he drove away. Susan’s unusual reaction to his smile - that is, her absolute lack of a reaction - left him curious and wanting to investigate her a bit further. In his mind he was just having a bit of fun. He drove as slowly as he could manage, so she could easily catch him. All the while ignoring her pleas to stop the cart.

“Stop! This is my cart!” She yelled at him as she finally caught up with him and managed to hop on while he was driving.

“Your ball? Your cart? Is there anything here that doesn’t belong to you?”

“Yes thankfully, YOU! Now will you please stop this cart?!” Susan happened to see Mr. Peabody at this moment and cringed, “I’ll be with you a few minutes Mr. Peabody!” she yelled as David drove on, taking them further away.

Susan quickly located her wallet and showed it to David, “Look, here’s my wallet! It even has my ID. This is our cart! Now will you please stop?”

With that David stopped the cart, stepped out, and said “Sincerest apologies my dear lady” with a short bow, then he winked, smiled, and walked away. Susan watched him go for longer than your average moment. One, because she was truly dumbfounded and two, because she wanted to make sure he didn’t come back and try to further delay or disrupt her mission.

She drove back to Peabody Jr. who suggested that they skip the first hole and see if they could catch up with her grandfather. He wasn’t at the second hole. At the third hole they found his caddie alone waiting for them. “Mr. Peabody said he’s very sorry, but he had an urgent matter to attend to and that you should play through. Enjoy the course and lunch at the club, since it’s been paid for. And, he’d love to continue your talk at the Firefighters Foundation Fundraiser tonight at the Waldorf-Astoria. At 8.”

Susan just sat there. Completely devoid of thought and feeling a slew of negative emotions. She realized the two girls were looking at her. “What college do you go to?” she asked Peabody Jr.

“NYU,” she replied.

Susan looked at the other girl and she replied the same and mentioned they were roommates. Susan smiled, nodded and said, “Good school… I didn’t go there, but, I hear it’s a good school.” Susan felt like she was conversationally floundering again. She didn’t really care what school they went to, she just wanted to know if they were “starving college students”.

“Why don’t you two play the course and have lunch at the club. I’ll let them know to expect you.”

They both politely thanked Susan. Peabody Jr. again reassured her that her grandfather was a great guy and wouldn’t be put off by the day’s disruption and offered her a ride back to the club house. Susan thanked her and declined the ride. She needed to clear her head, figure out who she could borrow a cocktail dress from, and start mentally preparing for the upcoming evening.

 

Chapter Three - David and Susan Make a Scene

David stood at the bar dressed in a tuxedo drinking a Shirley Temple out of a martini glass without apology or concern. He was just standing there smiling and nodding to a variety of beautiful women who passed by when he notice a change in bartending staff.

“Charlie! How’s it going? I didn’t know you were working here tonight.”

“Just picking up some extra scratch. You know how it is.” As Charlie was putting on his apron he nodded to David, “Hey, I got new olive bit. Wanna try it?”

“Yeah, sure.” David took off his coat and stepped behind the bar. “Is this the how to move the olive without touching it trick?”

“Nah. This isn’t a trick, it just an old tyme bartender thing my grandfather showed me last weekend. You take an olive and place on the back of the fingers of your left hand.” They both do so. “You then, with your right hand, you tap the back of the left hand and pop the olive into your mouth.” Charlie proceeds to do so.

“Oh, that’s too easy,” says David as he tries and misses. “Wait. Show me again.” Charlie does followed by David trying, and missing, again. He misses a third time. And a fourth. On the fifth time however, he still misses, but the olive bounces off of David, then the bar, then lands on the floor; just as lovely lady with long brown hair and ill fitted dress walks by. David leaps over the bar to help the woman who has slipped and fallen on the olive. As helps her up, he sees that it’s Susan.

“I had a feeling I’d see you again,” she grimaces, “just as I hit the floor.”

“That was the olive,” replies David as he quickly brushes the squished olive off her derriere. “It got away from me.”

“I wish I could! A caddie and bartender? As admirable as it is to hold down two jobs, how in God’s name is it possible you could be here? Wait -- don’t answer that! I don’t really care. Just do me a favor - just go back to the bar and I will walk as far away from here as possible. And then maybe I can finish my meeting you completely ruined earlier. OK?”

“About that,” David started, “I’d like to apologize and explain… ”

“No, no, that’s not necessary. I just really need for you to stay, “ she makes the motion to stay like—you would to a pet, “while I go. OK? Now staaay.” Susan starts walking backwards still holding her hand up signaling David to stay. She turned around and within one step tripped over a chair. She quickly righted herself, faced David and silently gave the stay command again before safely walking away this time.

David watched her go. He looked at Charlie and shook his head and shrugged. Charlie returned the gesture in kind. David resumed drinking his Shirley Temple while the gears in his head turned. By the bottom of the glass he had made up his mind he was determined to make amends. So off he went to find Susan.

Susan meanwhile has made her way back to entrance of the fundraiser in hopes to catch Mr. Peabody. David found her at a vantage point where she could see Mr. Peabody coming in from the lobby and up either of the two staircases that led to entrance of the gala. David could see now, the dress she wore was way too big and someone had convinced her to take up the slack with one of those chair sashes tied in a bow. And she was nervously jangling a large clunky charm bracelet that looked uncomfortable. While, she didn’t look out of place in the outfit, she didn’t look in place in her own skin.

As he approached her, he said, “Hi again,” and smiled. She rolled her eyes and began to walk away but he firmly, yet kindly grabbed her by the fore arm and said, “I’m sorry, but I really feel it’s important to apologize for this afternoon.”

“No, it really isn’t necessary,” she interrupted, “disaster seems to follow you like a proverbial black cloud. If I say I forgive you, can we just go our separate ways?” In an instant she realized the comment was a bit too harsh and was immediately sorry. And in truth the word “disaster” did hit David square in the pit of his stomach. His whole demeanor changed and he began to loosen his grip. Susan began to pull her arm away and subsequently walk away. However, they were now more stuck together than ever before - his cufflinks became caught up in the jangly bracelet.

“Oh my God, this can’t be happening,“ she moans as she tugs on the bracelet.

“Be careful, you don’t want to ruin anything. Just let me see if I can wiggle my cufflink loose.”

“Who wears cufflinks?” she snaps.

“People with style.” He snaps back. “Now hold still, I think I almost have it.”

At this moment Susan saw Mr. Peabody (and presumably Mrs. Peabody) enter from the lobby. She gasped and instinctively thrust her jangly bracelet hand behind her back. She stood straight and stiff as a board with a scared and guilty smile on her face, and with David now oddly thrusted at her back. He followed her gaze to Mr. Peabody and said, “Did you just try to hide a full grown man behind your back?”

She closed her eyes in utter embarrassment and humiliation as she realized that for a moment that’s exactly what she did. She started to turn around when she realized she couldn't! The damn jangly bracelet was now stuck in the stupid sash!

Susan’s eyes got panicky and big as she looked at David. She began to swear under her breath repeatedly and to hyperventilate. David put his free hand at her waist, pulled her closer to him and says quietly to her, “Just breathe. Just breathe.” After a couple of breaths he says, “Ok, he’s stop to talk to someone. We have time to make it to a restroom and figure this out. OK?”

Susan nodded while she took a few more deep breaths. “Now there are two bathrooms we can go to. We can go down the long corridor after the stairway to the right of us and then down a short corridor which will take us past a lot of people and will require a little coordination. Or we can chance going down the stairs to the right of us and there’s a bathroom just around the corner. But we might be seen and it would take considerable coordination. Oh, and, you are going to have to trust me.”

“I don’t see what choice I have.”

“Look at me.” She does as he continues, “I have been in tight spots before, and I’ve always come out fine. We’ll get through this.”

Susan noticed two things. First, all the joviality and joking had left his face and was replaced with sincere kindness and concern. And second, despite being intimately close, it was non-threatening and business like.

“Alright,” she said, “Let’s go down the long corridor.”

They worked out the foot work coordination it would take for them to walk unseparated and then David gave one last word of advice, “Now don’t look back.”

Advice that flew directly out of Susan’s head as they approached the stairs. She looked. To her horror, she saw Mr. Peabody looking right at them with a very puzzled look upon his face. She panicked, mouthed/pantomimed “I’ll be with you in a minute!” and changed her mind on which bathroom to go to.

She neglected, however, to inform David about the course change. Which is how they ended up head-over-heels tumbling down the stairs together and with Susan smashing a vase at the bottom with mostly her head.

As David began to gather his wits about him, he overheard one of the paramedics on display shout to another paramedic, “Hey the demonstration has started!” David winced as much as in pain and in remembrance of the entire purpose for the fundraiser: to finish fundraising for new emergency medical response equipment and ambulances that are better equipped to handle many multiple casualties. There was to be a demonstration with actors that night at the fundraiser and a new ambulance was parked right out front.

David was trying to explain things to the EMTs when Susan bolted up at one point and shouted “I’ll be with you in a minute Mr. Peabody!” before fainting away. The EMTs concluded she need to be checked out at the hospital for a concussion anyway, so they loaded Susan and David up on a robotic-looking, two-person stretcher and loaded them into the ambulance. They sped away in the oddest looking new ambulance leaving behind, a crowd of spectators, a stunned Mr. and Mrs. Peabody and Susan’s phone, which had fell out of her purse and onto the street.

 

Chapter Four - Boopee

Susan was pissed. The more she stared at the ER curtains, the more pissed she became. “How could one day go so wrong?” she thought. She wanted to pull her legs up to her chest and just hug her legs and bury her face in her knees. But, she wasn’t sure the hospital gown covered everything. She glowered at the nurse who came in with another juice box for her to drink.

“Don’t blame me,” said the nurse, as she replaced the empty juice box with the new one.

As she left, David stuck his head in with a big grin on his face and said, “I’ve got good news, OK news, and great news.” As Susan’s facial expression changed from murderous to mindfully perturbed, David stepped into the curtained off area. “The good news is, you don’t have a concussion. All your beautiful brain cells are intact.” There was no reaction from Susan. “The OK news is that it turns out, you’re dehydrated. They want to keep you here for longer and let the IV do its thing and monitor you, but I’ve talked them into letting you go into my care. I just have to keep giving you juice.”

“Oh great!” said Susan sarcastically.

“And the great news is that Charlie brought me my coat!” David finished.

Susan hadn’t even noticed he was now wearing his coat and could frankly care less. “And why is that better news that the non-concussion?” she said with great ire.

“Because my coat had my car keys in it! So he brought me my car and we can now go see Boopee!”

“Who the hell is Boopee?”

“You know him better as Mr. Alexander Peabody, Esq. A.K.A. the man you’ve been trying to meet up with all day… well he’s an old friend of the family. And since I’m mostly at fault for you not meeting with him today, I figured the least I could do is drive you out to his house.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Look. I know we’ve been here a while, but he’s probably been at the gala this whole time and is most likely leaving soon for home. So if we leave now, we can catch up with him. It’s not that late. I’ve fixed your dress… ”

“You fixed my dress?”

“Yeah, I took off the weird section below the knees and put two darts in the front and two in the back and got rid of the chair sash. It should fit you much better now and your friend can easily have the dress mended back to its original state. Oh, and I fixed the bracelet once I got it untangled. I put it in separate baggie so it won't get caught on anything else. Here’s everything, including your shoes.” David hands Susan a hospital bag of stuff. “Look, you don’t have to go to Connecticut, I can take you home. I just figured I owed you one and you might not want to wait until Monday to clear things up.”

That last argument gave Susan pause. Even though she was not having a traditional wedding on Sunday, it would be nice not to have to worry about work this weekend. She checked her watch and realized was not too late into the night and what David was saying made sense. Still, she had her reservations. “You know I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s David Vance,” he said and he fished out his driver’s license and gave it to her. She examined it closely, being careful to make note of key details that she might need if the night continued like the day.

“Alright,” she said. “Where’s the bathroom?”

David helped her remove the IV line and showed her where the bathroom was. He then made sure she signed all the proper paperwork to be discharged. As she was signing, he apologetically explained he got her health insurance information from her wallet in her purse. He also gave a quick mention of the time he spent as an orderly in this particular hospital as a quick explanation of how he knew where everything was and who to talk to, to get her out of there.

As they were walking to the parking lot, Susan pondered out loud, “Maybe we should call him.”

“Huh? What?” David’s mind was on finding his car.

“Maybe we should call him.” she repeated. “Just so he knows we’re coming? You must know his number if you know him so well you know where he lives.”

“Yeah, I suppose if I had my phone I could do that, but it’s at home.”

Susan stopped and started rummaging through her hospital bag. “What are you doing?” David asked.

“How could you not have a phone on you? Everybody carries a phone today.”

“What are you talking about, you don’t have a phone on you.” he replied.

“What?! Sure I do!” Susan pulled her small evening purse out of the bag and started looking through it.

“I’m sorry Susan, but there’s no phone in there. I checked when I was getting you medical information. I was going to call your ICE number. But it’s not there.”

Susan felt sick to her stomach. She tried to rack her brain to remember if she left it someplace, but her head was still just a little too fuzzy. She mindlessly began to follow David, who had resumed looking for his car. Susan was just coming to the conclusion that it must have been lost in the kerfuffle back at the hotel and hopefully it was still there when David shouted, “Ha! There she is!” He pointed to a vehicle that Susan could only assume came from reject stock of a dealership called Safaris R Us.

“That’s not a car.” she said

“Nope,” David replied beaming with pride “it’s a 1978 Toyota Land Cruiser!” He helped her hop in, placed a six pack of juice boxes on her lap, slammed her door shut and jogged to the driver side. “And it’s no longer a gas guzzler. I converted the engine to biodiesel.”

Susan looked dubious, “You converted the engine?”

“Yeah, with some help from some friends from MIT.”

“You converted an engine. You can sew and fix jewelry. You’re a bartender and a caddie...”

“Nope, actually, I’ve never been a caddie. And I wasn’t bartending tonight. I just know Charlie from my bartending days in college. I can sew because I worked at my local dry cleaners when I was a teenager and had to learn to do basic alterations. And I spent a short time working in watch and clock repair shop, so I know a few things about repairing jewelry.”

“That’s quite the eclectic resume,” remarked Susan.

“Don’t judge until you’ve heard the whole list!” David then spent the next hour and a half telling tales of his lifetime menagerie of the oddest of odd jobs. Susan began to believe in reincarnation - that he was an nineteenth century sailor who could never be satisfied with just one port of call was now reincarnate into this guy. Or David was the best worst example of how ADHD can produce a lifetime of instability. Or...

“You’re a con artist!” Susan blurted out, interrupting David story of time he got to swim with sharks in some aquarium somewhere.

“What! No! Would a con artist show you his wallet?” he asked.

“You didn’t show me your wallet. You showed me your driver’s license.” Susan corrected him. So David fished into his coat pocket, got out his wallet and gave it to her. It was unremarkable except for its thinness. He had a couple hundred in twenties and only one credit card. He had no store loyalty cards. He had no debit cards. He had only health and dental cards, his license, a AAA card (“Thank God” Susan thought) and an Audubon membership card. That was it!

Well, until she dug just a little deeper to find an old photo of a smiling couple. When David saw she found it, he simply said, “My parents.” And for the first time tonight he did not elaborate. Susan handed him back his wallet, still unsure.

Her face must have registered her thought, so David then suggested she can look through the glove box if she wanted to continue her investigation. She did. Again, there was nothing much there or out of the ordinary, except for a Sweet Valley High book with a red maple leaf in the middle. She put all the things back and the sat in silence for a moment.

“Well?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” she admitted. “I just don’t know what to make of you. What’s that phrase?”

“'A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma?'” David offered.

“That’s the one. I don’t even know who said it, but it’s you.”

“It was Churchill,” said David. Wanting to change the subject he stated, “Well, I know something about you that’s not a mystery.”

“Oh? What’s that?” Susan asked.

“You have something really important happening this weekend. When I offered to help you get this over with so you could enjoy the weekend; that was the only idea that peeked your interest. So, whatcha got planned?”

“I’m getting married on Sunday.”

“Wow! Yeah, that's big. Wow!”

“Thanks for the utter surprise that someone would want to marry me.”

“No, no, no, it’s not that.” David said defensively. “I’m shocked that three days before your wedding you are so devoted to this mission to speak to Boopee. I mean you must have a hundred things to do. You must have family and friends up the wazoo needing something or trying to do something for you? A whole team of people you need to coordinate; events all weekend long… ”

“It’s not that kind of wedding. It’s just his parents and us. They fly in from England tomorrow. We have dinner tomorrow night. We get married by a Justice of the Peace on Sunday. That’s it.”

“That sounds horrible.”

“Not every woman needs a big, huge, monumentously expensive wedding.” Susan protested and waited for the inevitable dreaded questions about her family.

“No, I can understand the appeal of a small wedding. I just think if it’s going to be small, it should still be immensely special. You know? Big in a different way. A destination wedding to Italy, Spain, Greece, Brazil… done in a hot air balloon or on a riverboat near Niagara Falls. The wedding ceremony is your chance to shout ‘I think this is the most awesome person in the entire history of people! And I want to spend the rest of my life with this person!’ And yeah, most people do that with the ‘nearest and dearest’ 200 they can find. But it’s possible to capture grandness on a small scale.”

David turned off the ignition and stepped out of the car. Susan had not even noticed they had pulled into a darkened driveway of a darkened house that looked slightly familiar. Susan hopped out of the car and said, “Thank you.”

“For what?” asked David.

“For not asking about my family.”

“There are some things I never ask people about,” replied David somberly. He started to walk to the front door.

“This house looks familiar,” commented Susan.

“Does it?” questioned David as he turned back towards the house. He did not want his face giving away the truth they had in fact passed this house twice before in the past half an hour.

“And it looks dark, like either they’re not home yet or they’ve gone to bed. And I’d say it’s the latter since if they were not home yet a porch light or something would be on,” reasoned Susan.

David rang the doorbell while Susan said, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Never say that!” David reprimanded her in a loud whisper. “Geeze, don’t you watch sci-fi movies? That’s like the worst thing you can say.”

“Oh are we in the sci-fi movie now?” Susan teased.

“Come on,” he said as he left the front porch and went around the side of the building.

“Where are you going?” Susan shouted in a whisper as she ran to catch up with him.

“Around to his bedroom.” He shout-whispered in reply.

When Susan caught up to him she said, “Whatever you are thinking, it’s not a good idea.”

“It’ll be fine,” he insisted and pick up some stones from a garden path and tossed them up at the window and waited a moment. “Not big enough I guess.” Then he disappeared.

Susan stood there horrified not knowing what to do. Then she saw a light come on and a window open. Mr. Peabody squinted into the night and recognized Susan and started to question, “Dr. Huxley… ?” But then a rock, bigger than the pebbles, hit the widow’s screen with enough force it that is smacked Mr. Peabody right between the eyes and caused him to fall backwards into his room. Susan heard a scream from what had been Mrs. Peabody and froze with ultimate fear.

David dragged her away and gently stuffed the stunned Susan into the car. Then he casually drove away, so as not to bring any unwanted attention to their vehicle. They drove all the way back to New York in silence.

When David pulled up to Susan’s building, she turned to him and said, “I have something to say and I appreciate not being interrupted.” David nodded in agreement, expecting to be completely awash in the full wrath of Susan’s anger within moments. “I chose to go after my golf ball this afternoon. Foolishly. I could have just as easily gotten another out of the bag and kept playing. Not giving you the opportunity to aggravate me or accidently take our golf cart (if you did it by accident). And I chose not to listen to your apology this evening, which may have led to the end of our misadventure and of our acquaintance right then and there. And I am the one who panicked at the top of the stairs. And I am the one who agreed to go with you to Connecticut. And I am just as responsible as anyone for the mess I’m in. So, I know you, being a guy, are going to want to swoop in and save the day. But let me make myself quite clear. I Do Not Need You. This is my problem, my responsibility and I will find a way to figure it out. After tonight, I will never see you again. You are going to let me handle this on my own. Am I making myself clear?”

David nodded in agreement and sat there stunned as he watched Susan walk into her building. However, Susan had made a fatal flaw in her spoken desire to never see David again. Cardinal rule in such matters: Never leave them wanting more.

In all of David’s adventures, he had never heard a speech like that, never met a woman like Susan and was now determined to know more. He didn’t know how or when, but he was certain he’d see her again.

 

Chapter Five - Baby

Despite the late hour David got to sleep, he was awake before his alarm at 5am. So he exercised, showered, got dressed and went about his planned activities for that day and tried not to think about Susan.

Per his cousin Mark’s texted instructions, David went down to the docks to pick up what Mark had termed “my pet Baby”. And as Mark had saved David’s bacon, and life, on more than one occasion, David did not question. He simply decided to go really early as he knew, charm worked best in the last hours of a graveyard shift. If Mark’s “pet” needed picking up from Customs at the docks, something told David, he may need all the charm he could get.

So after a few hours of signing documents, smiling smiles, making jokes, commiserating real life graveyard shift experiences, David was able to retrieve Baby out of quarantine. None of which is particularly extraordinary, until it came time to leave with Baby. There are rules for transporting leopards after all, and none of them say: put large mammal in back of Land Cruiser and drive away. This is where David, being David, came in handy, as he was able to do just that somehow.

You would think that the amazing circumstance of acquiring your cousin’s pet leopard would put thoughts of Susan right out of David’s head. But instead, David found himself parked outside her building having a conversation with Baby: “Yeah, it’d be a good idea to have a zoologist along for the ride, but she’s not going to be happy to see me… in fact I don’t know how I’m going to convince her to see me… but once she sees you, how could she resist, huh?” Baby purred as David scratched under his chin.

David was fresh out of ideas before his friend, Joe, pulled up in his UPS truck. Then David began to formulate a plan.

Meanwhile, Susan was having a hard time holding her landline phone to her ear while talking with Jeremy and getting ready for her jog in the park. She was so use to her cell phone while multitasking.

“I don’t understand,” said Jeremy, “did you see Peabody or not?”

“Like I said, I did and I didn’t. The bottom line is the interview eventually went well when we spoke on the phone this morning. I’ll explain the whole story tonight. I'm just going to go for a quick run. Then I’m just going to wait for the ilium-ischium to arrive. I’ve been tracking it online and it says it’s ‘out for delivery’. I just can’t believe it’s finally here! I mean after eight years we can finally finish our research. And with the grant from Carleton Random we can get published, finish all the exhibits we planned and become a major player again in the museum world. And to top it all off, we’re getting married this weekend! I feel… I don’t know… so alive!”

“You do sound rather happy,” interjected Jeremy.

“Well, get used to it Dear. I have a lot to be happy about and I’m going to start showing it. I may even leave my desk at lunch time!” Susan heard a high-pitched sneeze in the back ground. “Are you at work today Jeremy?”

“Yeah, you caught me! I was worried about your meeting with Peabody, so I came in and asked Jean to come in to work as well to do some more on the report,” he said while he caressed Jean’s bare bottom in his bed beside him. “I just figured if the meeting didn’t go well, we’d need a completely polished report for the Board to continue our work. But now I guess I don’t have to worry and I can leave it until later. Good work my love. We’ll see you at the restaurant at eight.”

“OK, see you then!” said Susan smiling as she hung up the phone, which immediately rang again. It was the doorman. There was a package for her. Giddy with excitement, she told the doorman she’d be down in a few minutes. She finished gathering her stuff for her run and grabbed a lightweight backpack to put the ilium-ischium in, if it fits. If it fit, maybe she’ll run it directly to work - kill two birds with one stone.

The moment she stepped into the lobby though, the smile disappeared and her stomach did a summersault. There was David standing by the doorman’s desk with her package in his hand smiling. Before she could protest he said, “I’m not here to help or apologize. I promise.”

Susan quickly and cautiously walked over to David and removed the package from his hands. She checked the label to make sure it was what she thought it was and grabbed a pair of scissors from the desk. She carefully and swiftly cut the tape securing the package; bent down and lifted one panel of the box and took a deep breath. She sighed and said “Smells just like India,” and closed her eyes and smiled.

“India? That’s where Baby is from!” said David

Susan looked at David like he had two heads. David looked down at Baby who was sitting at his feet. Susan screamed and ran to jump on the sofa in the lobby and held the box over her head and said, “Th, th, th, th, that’s a leopard! A live leopard!”

“It’s OK! He’s tame. He’s my cousin’s pet.” Baby started to walk over to Susan and start rubbing his face on her shoes. “Look! He likes you!”

“DAVID!”

“Alright, alright.” David pulls out his phone. “Apparently he likes this song.” David started playing “Baby, Baby” by Amy Grant and Baby walks back over to him and starts rubbing himself on David. “The lady at Customs said he came with a note saying that’s how he got his name.”

“And he’ll follow your phone if you go over there?” Susan gestured to the elevators.

“Yeah, but the acoustics are really good right here...”

“David!”

“Alright.” David move away from the entrance and away from Susan on the sofa and went near the elevators.

Susan slowly got down off the sofa. She gently place the package in her backpack, eased it onto her shoulders, definitively said, “Goodbye David” and turned and walked out the door.

David looked down at Baby. Baby looked up at David. “Well,” David said, “If you want her to come with us, you better go follow her.” And with that, Baby padded after Susan. David said thanks to doorman on the way out and hopped into his car and waited for Susan to reach the street corner. He started up his car, pulled into traffic and stopped at the red light at the same corner as Susan.

“Good morning Dr. Huxley,” said David in a different voice. Susan turned to see who was talking to her and frowned. David continued in his normal voice, “You know, since Baby has taken such a shine to you, I’m going to give him to you!”

“I won’t take him” Susan said smugly.

“Oh, but you’ve already got him!” Susan turned around to see Baby sitting behind her. The light turned green and David drove off.

“DAVID! STOP!”

 

Chapter Six - Bringing up Baby

 

“Can you please pull off the road?” asked Susan as she scowled at David’s phone. “It doesn’t matter what program I use, the GPS keeps thinking we’re on the highway and not on this road.”

“Well if we took the highway, we wouldn’t have that problem. And there would be no question if I could get you back on time, ” replied David has he exited the state route for a small side road and looked for a good place to stop.

“I’m here for only two reasons. One, you left a wild animal at my side on the streets of New York, practically blackmailing me to come with you. And two, at your own suggestion, the safety of this creature in bringing it up to your Uncle’s ranch is best achieved with my presence. So again, no, I don’t think a live leopard in an open vehicle at highway speeds, or if we get into stop and go traffic, is what is safe for all involved. Why are we stopping here?”

David had pulled into a dirt parking lot next to a small body of water. Before Susan had a chance to point out that this may not a good idea, Baby leaped out of the car and headed straight for some birds. Susan screamed, “NO Baby!” and proceeded to chase Baby towards the water. However, she tripped over some tree roots and did a face-plant into some mud near the shore.

David rushed to Susan, but she was in a frantic state. She was shouting, “Not Me! Get Baby! Get Baby!”

David had to take her firmly by the shoulders and shout, “Susan stop! Baby is fine! BREATHE! Just Breathe!” Finally Susan stopped flailing and David let go. They both turned to look at Baby. He was indeed “fine.” He was busy playing with a half dead duck the way house cats play with half dead mice that they pounce on. Soon, he was playing with a completely dead duck.

Susan sat there completely stunned. Baby simultaneously looked both like a wild animal and a domesticated house cat. David notice her knee was scraped and bleeding and went to fetch his first aid kit.

As David patched her up she asked, “How did you know he wasn’t or isn’t going to just run away and be lost forever?”

“I guess I don’t really,” answered David. “But it doesn’t seem like a very logical thing to do. I mean, assuming he is as domesticated as he seems, why would he run away into a new wilderness not knowing where his next food source is going to be, when he knows humans are going to feed him? And pet him? And give him a warm dry place to sleep?”

They watched as Baby stopped playing with the dead duck and took a long drink of water. He then found a special place to spray, another to empty his bladder and then another to empty his bowels. David helped Susan to her feet and called to Baby, “Time to go!”

Baby picked up the dead duck, raced to the vehicle, deposited the duck onto Susan’s seat then hopped into the back. David put the first aid kit away as Susan stood in horror looking at the dead duck in the seat. When David noticed he said, “Aww, how sweet, it was present for yo… ”

Susan glared at David, then closed her eyes and shook her head. She then took a deep breath and at the same time shoved the dead duck to the car floor while grabbing her pack and got in.

David then made a suggestion, “Why don’t we get out an actual map and you can navigate like an old-tyme road trip? And I think now that, Baby’s stretched his legs there’s a good chance he might go to sleep. So let’s loop ‘Baby, Baby’ off the phone and as soon as he’s asleep we can get back on the highway. What do you think?”

“Yeah, that makes sense, I guess. What about food? When’s the last time he ate?”

“I’m not sure,” answered David, “But if he was really hungry, I think he would have tried to do more than just play with one dead duck. There is a town near the ranch. It’s got a historic district now, with a bunch of interesting shops to bring in the tourist. Including an old fashion butcher that sells locally hunted game meat. We can, maybe pick up some venison there.”

“Yeah OK,” said Susan in a small dejected voice and then began digging through the glove box for the maps she saw the night before. She found the right map and where they were on it while David put “Baby, Baby” on a continuous loop. Susan navigated them back on to their route.

“Listen,” said David interrupting Susan’s worrying of possible disaster thoughts. “Thank you for coming. I wouldn’t say I was scared to make this trip on my own, but I was definitely nervous. And having somebody else here does make it safer and, well, just better. So thank you.”

“Why me?” asked Susan. “You seem to be the guy who knows everyone. Especially from those stories you told last night. Out of all the people you know why pick someone you don’t know?”

“I may know a lot of people, but you seemed like the only practical choice,” answered David. “You may not have noticed, but I don’t have a lot of practicality in my life or thought process.” Susan snickered.

“So I can use all the help I can get. And the way you talked about your wedding, well, I kind of gambled you had the time to spare.” Susan didn’t say anything. “How about, we look at this as a bachelorette road trip? Don’t worry I’m not going to foist fake female friends and alcohol on you; just a last-minute, pre-marriage adventure. An impulsive spree to do something you would normally not do, but you kind of have an excuse to do. What do you think?”

“I think you’re insane. But on the other hand, what you just said sounds a lot better than the trunk full of nothing I had to say to Jeremy about this escapade. But I’ve had enough actual adventure, let’s try to keep the rest of this trip as uneventful and boring as possible. OK?”

“OK,” David agreed. “So, I’m to assume Jeremy is you fiancé?”

“Yes.”

“How’d you meet?”

“Why?”

“Well, if this is your bachelorette trip, it should still be about you and your upcoming wedding. And besides, as much as I like this song, I’d much rather have it as background noise and pay attention to what you have to say, than go crazy listening to one song over and over again. Sooo, how’d you meet?”

Susan sighed, and through terse short sentences she told how they met at work. And after a few more questions eventually, grudgingly, revealed he was her boss. She once again braced herself for an assumed response of teasing about dating the boss. However, once again, David surprised her, as the teasing never came. Instead he asked, “So what made you fall in love with him?”

Susan was caught off guard as she was busy mentally preparing for the teasing and not this question, her list of reasons she loved Jeremey flew right out of her head. All she could manage was, “Well, he’s great!”

“How so?”

“He’s smart. He’s responsible. He’s ambitious. He has an appreciation for the things I have an appreciation for. We work well together… ”

“Susan, I’m not really hearing statements of love. You know, like, ‘He makes me feel… ’ then you say the positive emotional effect the guy has on you. Where’s the emotion?”

“There’s plenty of emotion. I’m sorry if I'm not a simpering Sappho for you, all 100% GooGoo GaaGaa. That’s not how real relationships work. That’s not how real and successful marriages work.”

“Oh? And how do real and successful marriages work?”

“You don’t want to know. You just want to ridicule me if I say.”

“No, I promise. I’ll keep an open mind. Tell me.”

“Alright. Take away all the romantic ideas and notions of marriage and boil it down to its basics. Do you know what you get?” David shook his head no. “What you get is a situation where two equal but separate entities, each with its own separate strengths and weaknesses, join forces and merge. They go into business together: the business of life. Love is not what makes a marriage work. What makes a marriage work is: understanding, patience and cooperation. Not that love is not important though. It may not make a marriage work, but it is what makes it worthwhile. It doesn’t matter how perfectly matched two people are. There are going to be rough spots. Love is what greases the machinery and gets things going again.”

David wanted to say and ask a lot of things. But he didn’t think she would perceive them as coming from a place that was not ridicule. So finally he decided to say, “And, uh, that’s the kind of love you and Jeremy have?”

“I think so.” Susan replied.

“OK.” David didn’t know what else to say. As impressed that he was that she was able to take an idea that was so spiritual to David and systematically analyze and compartmentalize into a neat logical hypothesis, he was unable to form the passionate argument he knew would be required.

Susan looked at Baby. He was asleep, so she checked the map and gave David directions to get on the highway. After ten minutes on the highway Susan was asleep too. David turned off the music and drove the rest of the way internally debating spiritual love vs logical love interjected with thoughts of how to get Susan to realize Jeremy was not the man for her.

Susan slept until the exit ramp for the town. “Wow, I can’t believe I slept,” she said.

“After the last 24 hours with me are you really that surprised?” quipped David.

Susan laughed. A real laugh. A luscious laugh. She was too sleepy eyed from her nap be her normal reserved self. David liked her real laugh. David liked seeing the real Susan.

David drove into town and Susan saw that he had not misspoke. There was a sizable downtown area with a typical New England common green space with a gazebo. There was even a band playing, lots of people gathered, a balloon vendor and a few food vendors. The four main streets that led away from the square were lined with quaint little shops with nice sidewalks; well-maintained with flowers and Victorian looking lampposts.

The butcher shop was at the end of one of these streets. David pulled up next to a large black pickup truck. Susan somehow didn’t notice it wasn’t a real space due to the fire hydrant right in front of David’s car. David pulled out his wallet and said to Susan, “Do you want to watch Baby or buy food?”

Susan took his wallet and her pack and said, “I’ll get food.” Then into the shop she went.

David got out to stretch his legs. Then he leaned against his car facing the common green and listened to the music. Baby had also woken up and stretched his joints. But then he laid back down so that he was alert and awake, but you really couldn’t see him unless you were next to him.

As David was listening to the music a very young sheriff's deputy came up the street. He stopped when he saw David’s vehicle and David. “Sir, that’s a fire hydrant.”

David’s heart skipped a beat, he looked at the officer and looked at the hydrant and said, “Yes sir, I know.” He looked back at Baby just in time to notice Baby jumping into the bed of the truck next to him. There were some nice wool blankets there that smelled like an old friend he had back home. Baby curled up and wished he was home.

Luckily the officer was busy getting out his ticket book and did not see Baby’s jump, “License and registration please,” requested the officer.

“What?” David turned back to the officer. “Uh, I mean, why do you need my license and registration?”

“Sir, it’s illegal to park in front of a fire hydrant. I’ll need to give you a ticket. License and registration please.”

“Oooh!” David exclaimed in his most drawn out way to give his mind time to think. Then he realized whose truck Baby went into. “You mean you think this is MY car. Oh no. No, no, no. This,” he pointed to the black pickup truck, “is my vehicle.”

“Then why were you leaning on this one?” questioned the officer.

“I was waiting to help my girlfriend with the shopping.” At that moment Susan came out with copious amounts of meat from the shop. Her eyes got big as she spied the scene in front of her.

David ran up to help with the packages. “It’s OK Dear. He’s here to give that idiot a ticket.” David pointed to his car as he ushered Susan to the black pickup truck. He then opened the passenger side of the pickup and helped put the meat and Susan in. David then went around to the driver’s side, hopped in, found the keys in their usual place and started up the pickup.

Susan took the opportunity when she turned to grab her seatbelt to look in the back of David’s Land Cruiser and saw it was empty. As she buckled herself in she looked at the bed of the truck and saw Baby. David quickly explained as they drove away.

“So you stole a truck!” she whisper shouted.

“It’s OK, I know the owner.”

Meanwhile, an older sheriff's deputy approached the younger deputy who was still writing out a ticket on David’s vehicle and said, “If the Sheriff’s not due back until late tonight, who’s that driving his truck?”

 

Chapter Seven - Uncle Carl

Just as they turned off the main road onto a dirt road with a large wooden sign reading “Random Ranch” the police radio blurted out an APB of their vehicle and description. David immediately turned off the radio and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll get Baby settled; then get you to the train and then I’ll return the truck and get it all sorted out.”

Susan looked at him dubiously and said, “Tell me again what’s awaiting for us at this ranch? I really don’t want any more surprises.”

“Well, I don’t know if anybody is there. It’s not an actual working ranch; nobody lives there full time anymore. My uncle vacations or comes up on weekends sometimes. So I’m not sure if he’s there. But there is an old horse barn with stalls we can keep Baby in until I talk with my uncle on what to do next. And there should be an old Jeep of his I can use to take you to the train.” explained David.

“Well I’d be grateful not to see anyone. Especially in the state I’m in.”

David pulled up to the barn, got out, opened the barn door, and then drove the pickup into the barn. Susan got out and closed the barn door before Baby could make another jump. But Baby was still a little homesick and wasn’t moving from the horse blanket he had found. David tried calling him and coaxing him out. Then Susan unwrapped some meat and put it in the stall. But Baby still would not come out of the truck.

Finally Susan asked, “What about the song?”

“Oh yeah.” David got out his phone then gave Susan a pre-emptive apologetic look and said, “Um, it’s dead.” and then he braced for the anger storm. But Susan just closed her eyes and did her best to remember the lyrics to “Baby, Baby”. When David joined in with singing, Baby finally sat up. David and Susan moved backwards toward the open stall and motioned Baby to follow. Baby finally did and went straight to the meat Susan left him. Susan grabbed the blanket from the back of the truck and put in a corner of the stall and then closed and secured the barn door.

David pointed to the back of the truck and was about to comment on the blanket when Susan said, “I’m sure you’ll think of something.” She then proceeded to retrieve the rest of the meat and her pack.

As he took the meat from her he said, “Speaking of having a thought… ”

Susan interrupted David as they left the barn for the house, “I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know. Look, I’m tired, I ache, I’m filthy, and I have to pee. Please just tell me you have a non-destructive way to enter your uncle’s house so I can get in and cleanup.”

“That’s all I was going to suggest,” said David as he retrieved the hide-a-key and let themselves in. David showed her where the guest bedroom was with its own bathroom, “And you do have time to take a shower if you want. I’m going to go put this meat away and plugin my phone. Then I’ll get you some towels.”

When David returned with the towels, Susan was already in the shower. David knocked on the bathroom door and Susan shouted, “Can you put them on the sink please?” David open the door just a crack large enough to place the towels on the sink; then closed the door again. David noticed her muddied clothes were on the bed so he scooped them up and headed to the washer and dryer.

On his way David decided to check the washing instructions, so as not to ruin Susan’s clothes. Which is why he walked smack right dap into a middle aged woman wearing a pink scrubs top, jeans and sneakers. “Mrs. Gogarty!” Having knocked down Mrs. Gogarty, David helped her up and helped gather up the clothes and asked: “What are you doing here!? Is Uncle Carl here?”

“He said he wanted to check on the new rose bushes he had put in. But I know he’s just hunting for chocolate that he’s stashed around the place. I was going to do laundry; you uncle didn’t want to wait for it to be done at home: ‘It can be done there!’” Mrs. Gogarty picked up all the laundry including Susan’s (which David dropped in the shock). “But Mr. I’m-So-Smart forgot my husband has not been up here to fix the washing machine yet! Now I’ve got to go into town and use the Laundromat.” And with that she left.

David raced to Susan’s room. The shower stopped just as he stepped into the room. He was just about to shout through the door that his uncle had arrived when he spotted her pack. Curiosity and the desire to put off the inevitable got the better of him. “Hey Susan,” he shouted, “you never told me what’s in the box you got.”

“It’s an ilium-ischium!”

“A what?”

“A dinosaur bone!”

“Awesome!” David opened the box and fished out what looked like a giant white plaster pill with a couple odd knobby edges. “Um, I think they sent you the wrong thing,” David shouted, “This is just a plaster sculpture of a… giant pill!”

Susan opened door just a crack and looked through it at David, “That’s how they pack them for safety. Now please carefully put it back.” said Susan in a stressed voice and David complied. Susan sighed relieved, “Now can you please hand me my clothes? I left them there on the bed.”

David looked at the spot where he picked up the clothes and said, “Uh Oh.” Then he looked towards the front door and wondered if Mrs. Gogarty had left yet.

“What do you mean ‘Uh Oh’?” asked Susan.

“Um, your clothes are not here Susan.”

“Not here! What do mean! What have you done with them!”

“Well, I was going to wash them for you… and I may have accidentally given them to Mrs. Gogarty?”

“What? Why? Who in God’s name is Mrs. Gogarty?! And where did she take my clothes!”

“She’s my uncle’s nurse and assistant and she’s gone into town to the Laundromat with my uncle’s laundry because the washer here is broken and I may have accidentally bumped into her and dropped your clothes in with hers. I’m sorry.”

Susan stormed out of the bathroom wearing one large towel around her and one on her head. “You’re doing this on purpose! What is with you?!”

“No I swear, it was an honest mistake… ”

“You know what, there has to be other clothes here I can wear,” and she grabbed her shoes and socks (that David missed) and stormed out of the bedroom. “You can’t keep me here! I’ll call the police if I have to, to get out I here! I will!” she shouted over her shoulder right before she ran into a slightly short, mildly pudgy, middle aged man wearing a nice white buttoned down shirt, clean jeans and a pink lace bra that could just barely be seen through the shirt. But Susan was too startled to notice that last detail or the fact that he had a dog with him. She screamed and the dog started barking at her.

David ran out. Susan tried to run behind him. The dog followed barking. David and Uncle Carl tried to say hello and ask/answer some preliminary questions as Susan darted around them and in between them, trying to get away from the annoying barking dog. Finally, Susan ran to the first step of the stairway that led up stairs and at the top of her lungs yelled, “QUITE!!!!”

Everyone fell silent. Susan walked up to Uncle Carl and said, “Uncle Carl I assume?” He nodded affirmatively. “Can you, kindly, please tell me, for the love of all that you hold dear, if there are any, ANY, clothes in this place that I can have so I can get out of here?”

Uncle Carl thought for a moment and then said, “Well there are some old clothes of mine in the first room on the right at the top of the stairs. I’m not sure they’ll fit, but you may have anything that does.”

“Thank you!” sighed Susan. “I promise to clean and send back anything I take with me.” Not seeing David’s shocked face she hurried upstairs to the first bedroom on the right.

Uncle Carl turned to David and asked, “Who was that?”

“That was Susan,” David answered as he sat down on the stairs to wait for Susan.

Uncle Carl joined him, “And she is… ”

David didn’t know what to say so he finished with “...getting married tomorrow.” Probably so his uncle wouldn’t get the wrong idea why they were there and Susan was naked in a towel asking for clothes. But it didn’t work.

“To you?”

“What? No. Not to me. And no, we weren’t doing anything. It’s not what you think.”

“Well, I’m not really sure what to think. Please tell me David that you’re not in the middle of some scheme to break up a relationship that has nothing to do with you.”

“Not intentionally. No. But now that you mention it, the guy she is marrying is a weasel and she does deserve better.”

“Someone better like you?”

“No.” He said simply. “She deserves better than me too.”

Uncle Carl had never heard such an admission from his nephew. It worried him. So he stayed and talked with David while they waited for Susan to come down.

Meanwhile, Susan had entered a room that had more than three racks of clothes and a chest of drawers. She couldn’t believe her luck. And it was women’s clothes! Susan stopped in front of a long standing mirror and remembered how Uncle Carl said they were his clothes. It took a moment to sink in and to connect the dots. Susan then stifled an exclamation of surprise. “Uncle Carl is a transvestite!” she thought to herself. Then she looked at the mirror and asked out loud, “Who cares?!”

“Just find something to wear and get out of here,” she told herself.

Susan went through the entire dresser. And although it was filled with underwear and bras, she only found one pair of underwear that fit her. None of the bras were going to fit though. She wasn’t having much more luck with the clothes. They weren’t normal clothes. They were more like show clothes. Let’s just say there was a lot things that sparkled and twinkled. Even if she could find something that fit, she was not sure she would be able to wear it out into public

Finally in the way back of the last rack she found something that looked like it would fit. It was a bit shimmery, but it was tasteful (if albeit evening attire). When she put the outfit on, it was as if it was made for her. She finished dressing, picked up the towels and started down stairs.

Uncle Carl and David turned as they heard her come down the stairs. She stopped at the landing near a window. She was dressed in a two piece gown made of a shimmering light blue material. It showed her midriff without showing her belly button. It had slight shoulder pads and practically no back. The skirt was straight and narrow with a long cut up to the thigh. And despite the fact she was wearing her running shoes and socks, the way the light touched Susan made David realize he had never seen anything so beautiful.

Uncle Carl thought out loud in a whisper, “Your mother’s Hollywood costume.”

Susan didn’t hear what Uncle Carl said, but she saw David’s eyes change instantly. The jolly joyful lit-from-within look was gone and in its place was a sorrowful blankness.

David had been reminded: nothing lasts forever; so don’t bother getting to close. He quietly said, “We better hurry if we’re going to get you on that train.” He turned to Uncle Carl, “I’m going to take the Jeep; OK?”

“Yeah, sure,” said Uncle Carl. “It was nice meeting you,” he said to Susan and he walked away to leave the two of them alone.

“I’ll just grab my things,” Susan said, and went to the bedroom.

David went to wait for her by the front door. A moment later he heard a blood curdling scream come from Susan’s bedroom.

 

Chapter Eight - Jasper

David rushed to Susan. Her eyes were wide and wild. She was holding an empty cardboard box and there were packing peanuts all over the bed. David was just as bewildered when Susan asked, “What did you do with it?”

“I didn’t do anything with it. You saw me put it back in the box. You DID see me put it back in the box? Didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I thought I did! But it’s GONE! Where is it David?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know! There’s nobody here who would want a plaster covered bone. Nobody would even be able to tell it was a bone. I mean I couldn’t… Ooooh no,” David closed his eyes and groaned.

“What? What!?”

“Jasper.”

“Jasper the Friendly Ghost!? What?”

“No. Not Casper. Jasper! Jasper the dog.”

Susan was still confused. “The Dog?”

“Yeah. Dog. Bone. Dog… Bone… ”

“Oh No.”

“Oh yes.” David ran out of the bedroom yelling for Jasper and Susan followed suite. Soon Jasper came trotting in with a very self-satisfied look upon his face.

“Look Susan,” said David, “look at his feet, he’s been digging.”

Susan began to lunge at Jasper, ready to do him damage, but David held her back. “Susan, let me talk to him!”

“David, he’s a dog! You can’t talk to a dog!”

“Let me try, OK?” David bent down and with sweet baby talk and miming digging; he asked Jasper what he did with the bone. Luckily, he didn’t have to do it for long before Jasper shot off like a dart back outside. David and Susan followed as quickly as their feet could carry them.

At the first place Jasper took them he dug up a doll’s head. The second place Jasper took them he dug up a baseball. At the third place, Jasper dug up a sock. At the fourth place, a watering can shaped like a cat. (Susan was not as amused by this as David was.) Susan was getting irritated. David finally went to go get some shovels to help so they could help Jasper dig.

After a while Jasper wouldn’t even dig more than one or two scratches to show them where to dig. He was having more fun watching the humans dig his stuff back up. Especially the mean one.

“It’s official. That dog hates me,” said Susan two hours later.

“No he doesn’t.” replied David. “Look on the bright side - we’ve found something at every place he’s taken us haven’t we?”

“Not the bone. How big is this ranch? This Random Ranch?” Susan said as the sign for the ranch popped into her head. “Random Ranch. So apropos. Come to Random Ranch where Uncle Carl and David will serve up wickedly weird random shit for you.”

Susan suddenly stopped. “Uncle Carl,” she said out loud. Her stomach turned and her head began to throb as the words “Uncle Carl” and “Random Ranch” repeated over and over in quick succession in her mind.

She looked at David with a pleading look, ”Oh please, don’t tell me that Uncle Carl of Random Ranch is Carleton Random, III of the Random Foundation.”

“I’m afraid he is,” answered David.

Susan just slunk down onto the dirt and grass and briefly buried her face in her hands. “Oh what he must think of me. Coming out of one of his bedrooms naked with just a towel, yelling at his nephew. Taking a lovely dress and ruining it by chasing his dog all around his ranch. Oh this is hell.”

“Why does it matter what he thinks of you?

“The whole reason I was going to see your old family friend - which now makes sense - Mr. Peabody, is because he represents the foundation possibly giving my museum ten million dollars. And apparently it all hinged on meeting me!”

“Well, does it help to know that Uncle Carl doesn’t know who you are?”

“Wait. So while you were talking you didn’t mention who I was?”

“Well I didn’t say you were Dr. Susan Huxley, no.”

“OK, this may be salvageable. Just promise me you will not reveal who I am to anybody we meet. Promise?”

“I promise.”

“OK. I just need to get jackass Jasper to dig up the bone and get back to New York and get on with my life.”

“And get married,” David added.

“Oh! Shoot! Jeremy!” Susan had forgotten what time it was. She looked at her watch in despair to realize dinner with the impending in-laws was out of the question.

At that moment they heard Uncle Carl calling Jasper. Jasper took off for the house at once. As Susan moaned at the loss of their treasure hunter, David said, “We need a break anyway. Let’s go up the house and then you can call Jeremy.”

Susan begrudgingly agreed and they followed the path Jasper took back to the house.

 

Chapter Nine - Nissa

At about the same time Susan was meeting David for the first time, on Friday, just outside of Malone in upstate NY, there was a family on vacation visiting a large French Canadian traveling exotic animal show and exhibition.

There was nothing particularly interesting about this family: a Mom, a Dad, two daughters and a son. Unfortunately the boy, 10, was sometimes more than a handful and often it was easier to give into him than fight with him. If he was a girl, he would have been labeled as “spoiled” or “bratty”. However, as he was not, the mantra “boys will be boys” was often applied. (A fact that was not lost on his sisters.)

Today, being the next to the last day of their vacation, the boy was not having the best of behavioral days of the trip. Certain antics of his led them to be off schedule. Other antics, caused him to loose spending money privileges. And even more antics led to a timeout session. All of which resulted in the family missing the one attraction the boy really wanted to see: the big cat show.

Getting to see his sisters enjoy spending money on things like cotton candy and popcorn, and witnessing their delight of viewing their favorite animals (monkeys), the boy was becoming more upset by the minute. So he finally stopped acting out and started planning on how to sneak a peek at the lions, tigers and leopards.

In the midafternoon he finally got his chance to slip away. He snuck around back to where the animals, who were done with their shows, were either in cages waiting to be loaded or already loaded onto trucks. There he saw only one large cat - Nissa the Leopard.

Nissa was a good performer and usually a good animal. As long as she wasn’t in her small transport cage. She was OK in the performing space and the larger living-space cages. But the small transport cage reminded her too much of her capture. It was difficult to get her in it and they had to handle her with extra care while she was in it. That was why she was always the last one packed up and the first one off. And that was why she was the only feline the boy saw.

Nissa growled a low deep throaty closed mouth growl at the boy as he crept near. But with all the noise from the show and exhibition, it didn’t register in his hearing. He got within a foot of Nissa and stared at her with wonder and adoration. But after a while he wanted to see more.

He wanted to make his way to the truck that had the other cats already loaded. The way Nissa’s cage was situated; the boy had two ways to go. The first would keep him a very safe distance away from her cage but there would be a good chance he’d be spotted. The second would be to use the narrow path on the other side of her cage that was near some boxes. Since Nissa had not appeared to the boy as to have moved a muscle the whole time he was there, he figured she was “cool” with his presence. So he started to take the narrow path.

The boy’s howls from being nicked in the shoulder by just one of Nissa’s claws as he passed by her were heard through most of the exhibition. Although he had moved slowly by her, she was still startled by his actions and lunged at him more out of fear than anything else.

In that moment the trajectory of the boy’s life changed from growing up to being a money obsessed, sexually assaulting, self-absorbed bastard to a kind-hearted, generous, civic minded individual. In later years he will remark how he had the good scared into him and the bad scared out of him that day. And how he learned to be thankful for what you have in this world when you have it.

Nissa was not so lucky. Local authorities who were on site to monitor things quickly passed sentence on Nissa. Not only was she sentenced to death, but she couldn’t cross the border back home to Canada to be put down. The local authorities insisted it be done in the State of New York.

The authorities notified the closest location that could handle her, in Albany, to expect Nissa’s arrival. On Saturday morning she was sedated and loaded onto a small pickup truck (the only vehicle that could be spared) with a tarp to cover the cage. A young employee who had just joined the company a month ago was tasked with driving her down to Albany.

Had everything gone to plan, Nissa would have been gone by Sunday morning.

 

Chapter Ten - Dinner

As Susan and David approached the house they noticed Uncle Carl was relaxing on the porch with a drink in his hand. “Sorry to take Jasper away from you,” he said, “it was his dinner time.”

“And,” he continued, “I noticed the Jeep was still here, so I called Alice while she was still in town with the laundry to discuss your clothing issue.”

Susan looked shamefully down at her dress and then back at Uncle Carl and said, “I’m really sorry. I’ll make sure it's cleaned and mended...”

“It’s not really mine,” interrupted Uncle Carl. “As it was my sister’s it’s more David’s property than mine. And I don't think it fits him quite as nicely as it does you. Anyhow, Alice informed me that the Laundromat just happened to be closed. So she had a grand time purchasing new clothes for all of us. I suggest we all take the next hour to relax, clean up and dress for dinner, just like they use to do back in the day. Alice also brought back enough food to feed an army.” Uncle Carl smile at the thought of what was being served for Dinner.

David handed Susan his phone and said, “I assume Mrs. Gogarty put any new stuff for you in the room you were using before.” Susan nodded, murmured a “Thank you” and went inside. David sat down next to Uncle Carl.

“So,” started Uncle Carl, “Susan?”

“Yes?”

“What’s her last name? How did you meet? What does she do?” questioned Uncle Carl.

David had to think quickly, “Here last name is Bone.”

“Susan Bones? That’s an odd name… ”

“One bone. Just Susan Bone,” David corrected his uncle.

“Well either way… I guess I’m not one in a position to criticize. How did you meet?”

Here’s where David began to tell half-truths and half lies. He said they met at the gala, which prompted Uncle Carl to comment on the picture he saw of David and a woman being carried away in the double stretcher in the paper. David confirmed it was them, but that Susan had collapsed from exhaustion and since they needed a second person to demonstrate the stretcher, he volunteered.

David hated lying to his Uncle. He also knew that nothing bad would come from Uncle Carl knowing the truth. However, the fact that Susan would be very hurt if she found out he revealed the truth, now at this moment, kept him spinning tales. He did try to stay vague. Apparently, Susan was a naturalist who had a nervous breakdown about her impending wedding in the big city. David took pity on the poor soul and brought her up to the ranch for a few hours respite with the knowledge of her fiancé.

Uncle Carl listened intently, not believing much of it. But he knew if David was lying, it was for a good reason and he’d hear the truth eventually. The benefit of being older is mastering the art of patience. David excused himself to go and do as his uncle suggested: shower, change and relax. So, being the first to leave the porch, he did not see his uncle head to the barn in the search for hidden treasure.

In fact the only individual to see Carl in the barn was Baby. There was a storage box in his stall where Carl quickly found the hidden box of Oreos he stashed there last time. Uncle Carl was so intent on finding the Oreos, he did not mentally recognize the familiar pickup truck, he did not question why one stall had a closed door and the others did not; he did not noticed Baby lying still on a horse blanket in the opposite corner; and he did not think to close the door when done. He did however find a different hiding place for the Oreos package (minus the handful he snagged) before he made his way back to the house.

Meanwhile, Susan had found her way into a tub full of bubbles holding David’s phone. She was just staring at it or rather the same picture of a smiling couple she found in David’s wallet in the background. She had no idea what to tell Jeremy. She was terrified of what he would think or say. She finally took a deep breath and dialed his number.

It rang five times. And with each ring her stomach turned and her heart beat faster. Finally his voicemail picked up. She was a little relieved, but still had no idea what to say next. “Hi. It’s me. I, um… I’m trying to get back into town for dinner tonight, but I don’t know if I’m going to make it. Everything’s OK, I’m, um… just… I’ll see you and talk to you as soon as I can. I love you… OK – bye.” She placed the phone in a safe place and sank deeper into the tube completely mortified.

Susan didn’t want to think about what she was going to tell Jeremy. So instead she decided to review everything she knew about David. It had been such a jumble of facts, innuendo, truth and insinuation about this person, she just wanted to go through everything and figure out what was what. And to figure out just how much she can trust this person to help her find the ilium-ischium.

She was drifting off in a sleepy haze of memories of David’s tales of various blue collar/minimum wage jobs (all the while trying to reconcile the notion he has a rich uncle) when David’s cell phone rang. Susan, startled, sat upright in a bolt of fear. She didn’t check the phone. She knew it was Jeremy calling back. She still just didn’t know what to say; so, she didn’t answer it. She simply finished getting cleaned and proceeded back into the bedroom to survey the clothes purchased for her.

There was a surprisingly wide variety of items, including socks, a couple of bras, underwear and a pair of sandals amongst lots of tops and bottoms. Curiously, all the price tags had been removed. Susan took this to assume not to ask about the price or try to reimburse. She would have loved just to put on the blue jeans and black t-shirt, but in reviewing what Uncle Carl said about dinner, she went with a long broomstick skirt of fading blue, a dark blue snug fit tank top, and a loose-knit sweater of fading blue (in opposite direction to match the skirt). She slipped into the sandals, retrieved the phone and went to find David.

She found him in a room just past the bathroom she used. It looked like a kind of library with bookcases from floor to ceiling, reading chairs by a fireplace and a nice long leather sofa. David was sitting in one of the chairs near the unlit fireplace. With his nice trendy clothes and the old book in his hand he looked like an ad right out of GQ magazine. She handed him his phone and sat in the other chair and asked, “Where’s Jasper?”

David smiled and pointed to a sleeping Jasper on a large dog bed under a window. Then he asked, “Did you talk to Jeremy?”

“No. I just left a message.”

“Do you think he’ll call back?’’

“I think he already did.” Susan pointed to David’s phone and he looked at the missed call and nodded his head.

“I wouldn’t worry Susan,” he offered, “He loves you; he wants to marry you and spend the rest of his life with you; so I’m sure he’ll give you a chance to tell him all that’s happened and agree with every decision you’ve made.”

Susan just sat there in silence staring into the dark fireplace. David noticed for the first time a jewel encrusted anklet on her left leg. It must have been under her socks the whole time. He then noticed she had no engagement ring and made an assumption that the anklet was in lieu of a ring. He wanted to ask Susan and confirm his suspicion, but then thought better of it. “After all,” he thought, “she’s been through enough today.”

Uncle Carl came into the room with a guest behind him. He addressed Susan a couple of times, but as he was calling her by her fake name “Ms. Bone,” she didn’t notice. As he turned to either apologize or explain to his guest, David reached his foot out and nudged Susan’s to get her attention. She quickly stood up when she realized Uncle Carl had entered the room. And stood there in shock. Although, she knew now that Uncle Carl was transvestite, the pale green mother-of-the-groom-type dress still through her. In addition was the oddity of the extremely tall woman next to him in a dark green uniform looking type outfit.

David quickly stood up beside her and turn her towards him to explain that she was the “Ms. Bone” Uncle Carl was calling. So by the time Susan and Uncle Carl had turned back to one another, Susan had a kind of smiley non-threatening vacant look on her face. “Ms. Bone, this is Margery Applegate,” Uncle Carl announced.

Susan quickly offered, “Call me Susan” to both Uncle Carl and Margery.

“Call me Marge,” Uncle Carl’s guest replied.

“Marge is an old friend of ours,” Uncle Carl continued with the introduction, “She works for the Forestry Service. Shall we go to the dining room? Dinner will be ready soon.”

As they all exited the library Uncle Carl explained to Susan that Marge was a biologist and ran down a list of major duties she does for the Forestry Service. As they walked into the dining room, Marge interrupted Uncle Carl to say, “But I’m best known for my animal calls.”

The dining room was located just off the right of the foyer through a large archway. It was a big room with French double doors on the wall opposite the entry and door on the back wall that led to the kitchen. The double doors led to the porch that starts in the front of the house and wraps all the way to back of the house where there is a picnic area off the kitchen. The furniture was very elegant with an exception of an old ratty dining room chair near a window. Jasper, who had followed them, now jumped on it and immediately curled up to go back to sleep.

Sleep was not going to be an option for Jasper as Marge had begun to go through her repertoire of animal calls. Susan politely listed, still with a dazed kind of look on her face. She did manage enough gumption to interrupt Marge momentarily to thank Alice, who had joined them, for the clothes and for dinner.

Alice was thankful for the interruption, she was hungry and the soup was ready. “Should I bring out the soup?” she questioned Uncle Carl.

“Sure!” beamed Uncle Carl, then he turned his attention back to Marge who he was obviously smitten with and asked her to continue.

David wanted to help Mrs. Gogarty out. However, as he saw Susan kept sneaking glances towards Jasper, he knew she was not engaged enough in the conversation, such as it was, for him to leave her alone.

And although Marge had some amusing stories interspersed amongst her demonstrations of different animals, Susan’s mind did not deviate from the task of monitoring Jasper’s movement. Twice during the soup course Jasper got up to go outside to do some digging. And twice Susan followed him. And twice Jasper decided he did not want to be followed, so he just came back inside.

The second time Susan sat down, she found her soup missing. Almost childlike, she looked at her spoon and then at David, who just shrugged. Then Alice brought out the main course. As everyone began to tuck into their food, it was quiet enough for one particular animal noise to be heard. And this time it was not from Uncle Carl’s guest Marge. It was from outside. It was loud.

When Uncle Carl inquired, “What was that?” Marge and Susan simultaneously answered.

Marge: “A loon.”
Susan: “A leopard.”

David kicked Susan under the table; she yelped, realized she had said “a leopard” out-loud and quickly corrected herself. “A loon. I mean a loon. Just like Marge said.”

That started a debate between Carl and Marge about how could loon and leopard sounds sound alike. Meanwhile, Alice left the table to get some salt from the kitchen. Susan was rubbing the bit of her leg David kicked when the next animal sound came. That sound was completely identifiable: it was Alice screaming.

Everyone rushed into the kitchen. Alice started to tell Carl about the large creature she saw on the picnic table when David dragged Susan back from the kitchen.

“It’s Baby!” David said to Susan. He sounded worried.

“You don’t know that.” Susan said.

“Let’s check.” David grabbed Susan’s hand and half dragged her to the barn where sure enough, Baby was gone. David began to panic and pace.

“I don’t understand.” said Susan. “Why are you upset? He didn’t run away last time.”

“Last time we were right there. We could easily call to him or give chase. Last time he hadn’t eaten yet. This time, he’s nowhere to be seen and I don’t know how to get him back. How the hell did he get out?!”

“David, I’m sorry, I know you wanted to do a favor for your cousin, but it’s time to call Animal Control, or tell your Uncle’s friend about it… ”

“No, no you’re right. Marge is not equipped for catching animals. Here,” he hands Susan his phone, “I’ll go back and check on everybody, you make the call.”

David runs back to the dining room where Alice is now nursing a scotch and Uncle Carl is in the middle of verbalizing his bemusement, “If only you were there Marge, AND you had your tranquilizer gun! I could have had my first guest!”

“What are you talking about?” asked David.

“Didn’t I tell you David? I’m converting some of our land into preservation space for large feline animals that zoos and parks don’t want them anymore. In fact your cousin Mark was supposed to acquire our first cat, but all I’ve heard from him in the past few weeks was one quick text today saying ‘How’s Baby?’”

David’s heart began to beat faster and faster as Uncle Carl talked. He managed some excuse about needing to get back to check on Susan who he left in the barn and made sprint for her. As he burst back into the barn Susan was just hanging up his phone.

“Those people are insane!” she said “They thought I had caught a leopard and was going to bring it in myself. They kept saying ‘Yes, we’re expecting you’... ”

David, who was out of breath when he came in, finally said, “You have to call it off! You have to call them back! Say it was a mistake!”

“What?! Is everyone on some kind of crazy juice that I’m not aware of?”

David explained: “Baby belongs to Uncle Carl! I just found out… Mark never told me, but he acquired Baby for Uncle Carl. Uncle Carl is opening a big cat preserve. I’m sorry – I didn’t know.”

Susan’s head was spinning and hurting. She tried to call back the agency but she got locked into the auto attendant system. “It’s no use,” she said. “I must have been lucky to have gotten a person last time, because now all it says ‘If you’ve reached this line after business hours…’”

“We have to go look for him. If they find him, they’ll kill him.”

“Oh no, I’m not going on a wild leopard chase. And I’ve got to watch Jasper! I’m sorry David; you’re just going to have to go it alone.” Susan handed David his phone and went back to the house.

David stood there feeling more alone than he could ever remember. But he repressed any thoughts about it and went about collecting some useful items from the barn such a rope, a flashlight, and a few other things. He deposited the items on one of the porch chairs and bumped into Susan as he stepped inside to grab a coat.

“Jasper’s gone!” she whispered to him. “I asked where he went, but no one knows.”

“What if he went to pee?”

“What if he went to play with a leopard?” retorted Susan. Obviously she didn’t want to wait to find out. And honestly, if it meant Susan would join him on his hunt, he was secretly happy. “I’m going to go change my shoes. We’ll search for both of them.”

“OK, and grab some coats from the closet,” David pointed to the coat closet, “And I'll go think of something to tell everybody.”

David walked into the dining room where nobody was eating, but everyone had an alcoholic beverage of choice in their hand. David realized he hadn’t said one word to Alice, so he went over to her first, “How are you doing Mrs. Gogarty?”

“You would think working for your Uncle for over 20 years would prepare me for anything.” Alice took another sip of her scotch.

“Well, I’m sure it’s been scared off by your screams and if that didn’t do it, Uncle Carl’s fashion sense will keep it away,” David said teasingly. That brought a smile to her face and an objection from Uncle Carl, but David continued, “So Uncle Carl, do you have a plan?”

“No. I’m sure whatever it was, is miles away from here by now. It’ll be dark soon so there’s really no point in calling in people to look for it tonight. Marge will report to her superiors in the morning and I’ll make a few phone calls. Why don’t we finish this nice meal?” Uncle Carl smiled at everyone.

“If you don’t mind Uncle, I think I’ll take Susan for a stroll. She seems to still be a bit out of sorts. That is if you truly think there’s no danger,” David knew it was good to play to his uncle’s ego.

“Of course. Yes. Take a stroll.” And with that David left to join Susan. Unfortunately, playing to Carl’s ego led Carl to want to prove himself right, “Let’s all take a stroll in fact!” he said to remaining diners.

“Not me!” chimed in Alice, “I’m going to sit in the library next to the mantle with the shotgun.”

“You know it’s not loaded,” offered Carl.

“I do, but that creature doesn’t,” replied Alice.

“Alight.” Carl turned to Marge, “Shall we, my Dear?” and together they exited the dining room through the double doors and onto the porch.

 

Chapter Eleven - The Chase

As Carl and Marge walked through the garden, they continued their discussion on how different types of animals can make similar sounds. Carl was impressed with the interesting noises Marge could make and communicated as much to her. When Marge offered to teach him how to do a leopard calling its mate call, well, how could Carl resist?

Marge perfectly demonstrated a male leopard calling a female leopard to mate. It was completely different sound than what Baby made earlier. It was a kind of low repetitive grunting kind of noise. Carl felt a sudden urge to mention to Marge he must have had leopard DNA flowing in his veins and her calls was making his heart beat faster. But Marge, at the moment she finished, must have swallowed too much air and had a small coughing fit.

As Marge was trying to catch her breath, she heard the matting call repeated in her ears. She turned to Carl and said, “Wow! That’s really good for a first timer.”

“What was really good?” Ask Carl who was distracted by the mating call he also heard, but knew it did not come from Marge.

“The leopard mating call you just did.”

“But Marge, I didn’t do any call.”

"Really! … Um, Carl, maybe we should head back.”

“Oh, but it’s such a nice evening out… ”

“It’d be nicer with a gun.” Marge quipped

“Oh alright.” Carl gave in as Marge tugged on his arm and steered him back to the house.

They went to the library to find Alice. However, both Alice and the shotgun were gone. Carl went fetch his phone to see if she left any messages. There was one text:

“figured i wouldnt get 2sleep 2night if i didnt report it. so gone in2 town 2 do so n take back johns truck”

Carl had no idea what the last part of the message meant, but the first part left him feeling guilty. He decided to sit down in the library and ponder his choices of making amends to Alice.

Meanwhile, David and Susan were heading deeper and deeper into the woodlands of the ranch. Guilt was tugging at David’s mind too. “Maybe, Susan, you ought to go back.” he said.

“Are you kidding? What are you going to do if you find them or one of them? If you find Jasper are you going to stop looking for Baby and bring back Jasper? If you find Baby are you going to continue your search for Jasper with Baby as a scent hound? And if you find both? Then what? Tell them both to stay and give me a call?”

Susan was right; this was two-person job. “I just wanted to consider what you’ve been through the past two days. And I just don’t want to be the cause of anymore distress. And I want you safe. I can't guarantee either and that bothers me,” confessed David.

Susan stopped to ponder and respond when they heard a noise. It was similar to the animal noise they heard during dinner. “That's Baby!” she said.

Then they heard a dog barking. “That’s Jasper!” said David.

They quickly left the path and headed towards the sounds. They eventually made their way to the bank of a creek. Jasper and Baby were play fighting on the other side about ten feet from the creek bed.

“Look! They like each other!” David whispered.

“And what if Baby stops playing and decides Jasper’s really annoying?” whispered Susan.

David didn’t want to think about it. They spent a moment or two watching the pair continue to tussle when Susan finally said, “Oh, I’m going to lose my ilium-ischium! I just know it!... how deep is this creek?”

“A couple of feet in places. Why?” David replied. But he got no verbal answer as Susan began to make her way to and then across the creek. “Susan! No!” David tried to whisper shout so as not to scare off Baby and Jasper. He then went to the edge of the creek and took off his jacket and waited for the inevitable.

Just past the halfway point Susan screamed as she slipped on an algae covered rock and was beginning to be swept downstream. David waded in and scooped her up and took her to the other side of the creek. Once Susan got her breath back she asked, “Did we lose them?”

“We did,” answered David. “Now stay here. I’m going to go get my coat and build a fire to dry you off.”

David carefully navigated over the creek and back again. He built a fire and then questioned Susan about her aches, pains and scratches and concluded she wasn’t seriously hurt, just seriously wet. He gave her his coat to wear and then wrung out as many piece of her clothing as he could before laying them out or near the fire to dry.

“I don’t think your things will dry completely before you want to continue on, but at least they’ll be warm.” he said.

Susan sat staring at the fire clutching David’s coat around her. “Thank you,” she managed to say. Fifteen minutes went by before she managed to admit out loud, “I guess you tried to warn me. I guess I should have gone back.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.” admitted David. “Everything you said before is right. And I’d rather be out here with you than without you… It’s selfish to say I guess, but I just thought it should be said."

They sat a bit longer in silence before David spoke again, "I was admiring your anklet earlier; can I assume it's an engagement gift?"

Susan held her foot out toward the fire. She no longer had the energy to be standoffish and closed-off so she said, "Yes. I would have been OK with a normal ring but Jeremy said I deserved something more unique like me."

"May I look at it?"

Susan nodded in agreement, "They're not all real though… Just the two carat diamond is real. Jeremy said he needed an excuse every year to buy me jewels. I know it sounds silly, but I like the sentiment."

As David looked at the anklet his heart sank. He couldn't bring himself to tell Susan the truth: the only fake stone on the anklet was the diamond and that she had about eight and a half million dollars on her leg.

"It is very pretty in the firelight isn't it?" Susan asked. "You've must have seen glass gems when you were working at the watch repair place; how do these stack up?"

"They're exquisite," answered David as he lowered her foot to the ground gently. "We should check your clothes."

Her clothes were not dry, but they were no longer soaking wet and cold. David walked to the creek and kept his back to Susan while she dressed. Over his shoulder he said to her, “You know I think you’ve got it wrong about marriage. Not all wrong, partnership and cooperation are important, but… the love between two people who marry should be almost spiritual. There should be a real deep down in-your-gut reaction that just resonates throughout your whole body. You should be willing to make sacrifices you wouldn’t normally make. You should be willing to go farther, do more, to … to … ”

“Die for them?” she was suddenly standing right behind David; fully dressed and offering him his jacket back.

David grabbed her by the shoulders, pulled her close, looked straight into her eyes and intently said “No. Willing to Live for them. Willing to make every day, every moment count. And willing to go on living that way even if they were gone… When we truly love other people, all that is good within us gets imprinted on them and it inspires us to be great. Or it should.”

David released Susan, put on his coat and went about putting the fire out.

For the first time since Susan met David, she kind of didn’t want him to shut up. She realized he smelled nice too. She turned away from the campsite and took a moment to look up at the stars that were just beginning to come out. She was trying to remember when she last saw the stars when David’s voice brought her back to reality.

“The trail we were on before continues further downstream before it crosses a bridge and loops back north towards our location. If we head west fifty or a hundred paces, we should hit it.”

“And then what?”

“And then we start again and hope we get lucky again.”

 

Chapter Twelve - Double Trouble

The truth of the matter is, you can have a smartphone with four GPS applications loaded on it and still manage to get lost -- twice. It doesn’t matter how smart your gadget is, a natural good sense of direction will always be more valuable. And so, after being lost for four out of the last eight hours of driving, it is sometimes helpful to stop and add some nourishment to a starving body and brain.

It is by 100% coincidence that Nissa's driver stopped at the Pig N' Whistle Diner on the same small state road that leads to Random Ranch. It is also complete happenstance that the trail David and Susan were on, lead to, then paralleled that very same road. Which is how David came to spy an odd looking pickup with a very familiar looking occupant.

"Susan look! They've got him! They got Baby already!" whispered David.

"Are you sure?" Susan squinted at the truck. "There's no emblem on the truck and why would they have put a tarp on the cage?"

“I swear I saw something moving that looked like Baby. Maybe we should get a closer look?”

Susan nodded in agreement. They carefully crossed the road and did a crouching-run to the truck’s tailgate. They peeked inside the cage and saw Nissa trying to stand up for a second time.

She was still under the influence of the knockout drugs. She could manage to lay down with her head up and sit up. But it’d take a few more minutes before she could stand up or walk. Meanwhile, she stared at the back of the truck. There were two humans there and one (or both) smelled like a boy leopard.

“OK,” said David, “I see Baby but no driver.” He peered around the vehicle to the diner. “There’s only one person in the entire place. So that’s got to be the driver… What are the chances he’ll just give us Baby back if we ask?”

“Would you hand over a leopard to complete strangers with a story as cockamamie as ours?”

“No, I guess not. So which do you want to do? Get Baby out of the cage or go inside and keep the driver busy?”

Susan thought for a moment. “I’ll take the driver,” she finally offered. She once again did a crouch-run to the front door of the diner. She then stood as tall as she could, smoothed out all her clothes, ran her fingers through her hair, pinched her cheeks and went inside. David started humming “Baby, Baby” and went to work on untying the ropes that held the tarp on. Nissa watch with careful hope at a chance for escape.

As Susan stepped into the diner, nobody noticed her. She saw her target in a booth near the window reading a large map. She plopped herself down opposite the young man and gave him a big David-like smile and said, “Hello!”

“Hi,” said the startled young man, but he quickly went back to studying his map.

Still trying to be overly chipper, “Going on a road trip?”

“Not really,” he muttered. “I have to go to Albany.”

“Oh, I’ve been to Albany! It’s OK… if you like that kind of place.”

A waitress approached and the young man asked her where they were on the map. She eventually found it, but in order for Susan to prolong the conversation she said, “I thought we were here?” and pointed to a different spot.

As the waitress justified their location, asked where the young man was going and gave him directions that did not take him on the highway, David finished up what he thought would be the difficult part. He had managed to quietly get the tailgate down and undo enough rope to open the door of the cage. However, he wasn’t quick enough with the rope he made into a leash and hadn’t expected the leopard not to wait for him to get it out and place it around his neck. As soon as Nissa saw the door unlatched she took her opportunity and sprang from the tuck! She was across the road and in the woods within minutes.

David ran into the diner and said “He’s gone!”

Susan bolted out of the booth and they both ran out of the diner.

“I think he went south towards town!” David shouted as they ran back across the street and into the woods. They didn’t stop running until they hit the trail again. They stopped to look for tracks but they didn’t see any. They decided to head south towards town.

“Who knows,” smiled David, “we could get lucky again.”

“Don’t say that. It reminds me of that song lyric ‘if it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,’” Susan mused.

And so they continued down the path that paralleled the road into town at a jogging pace looking for any clues at all.

 

Chapter Thirteen - Arrested

Alice drove up to the police station but was confused by all the scaffolding and darkness. She went up to the entrance. There she found a notice about the building’s renovation and the temporary lodgings of police business located in the old jail section of the museum. So she got back into the truck and drove over there.

Unlucky for her, as she drove up, the young deputy from earlier came walking out. He arrested poor Alice on the spot. And since she was ranting and raving about a large forest cat at a ranch, he placed her in one of the old jail cells to wait for her to calm down before he processed her. Or maybe he just wanted to wait for the other deputy on duty, who was out on patrol, to be present. Either way, Alice was now stuck. Safe, but stuck.

Alice was being held in old style jail cell. There were five cells in a large rectangular room with a high ceiling, two on each long wall and one on the back wall. The cells were adjacent to another large room that had an entrance from the street and one from the museum next door. Each cell had old fashion thick bars, a bed with a thin camping mattress, bars on the windows and nowhere to go to the bathroom. It was a good thing Alice went before she left the ranch.

After a few minutes of contemplative silence Alice finally called out to the young deputy, “Hey, can my one phone call be a text?”

The young deputy was stumped, so he lied, “Ma'am, you can have your one phone call once you are booked from a regular non-mobile phone here in the station. I am currently waiting for my superior officer to finish booking you. He should be here shortly.”

And so Alice sat and waited, and waited, and waited. An hour and a half later she was still waiting. She was getting bored and Carl was finally getting worried.

Meanwhile David and Susan were jogging down the trail, still hoping to get lucky. They were about five hundred feet from a break in the path that intersected with a driveway to someone’s home when they saw something jogging towards them. It was small and furry and started barking its head off once it got in scent range of them.

“Jasper!” David called out. They had stopped running and David tried to get Jasper to come to him but he just kept his distance and kept barking at them. David turned to Susan and said, “Betcha ten bucks he’s found Baby and wants us to follow him.”

“Sure!” shrugged Susan, “I’ll buy anything at this point.”

They both started to walk towards Jasper and he in turn began to trot back in the opposite direction he came. David and Susan found themselves jogging after him to keep up. They followed him down the trail and then up the driveway to a medium size house. He finally stopped in front of a second story window, barked twice and sat down and waited for praise. Susan scooped him up before he had a chance to protest and absentmindedly started petting him. David had stopped ten feet from the house and stared at the second story window. Susan re-joined him with Jasper under her arm.

“Jasper found Baby!” he said to her and pointed to the roof. And sure enough, there was Baby.

“What do we do now?” asked Susan.

“All I can think of is to sing,” replied David before he started singing “Baby, Baby”. Susan joined – then Jasper began to howl. Which is why they probably did not notice the sound of the window opening.

When the man inside the house yelled, “HEY! What the… ” Susan jumped, yelped and accidentally let Jasper go. Jasper ran to the trail and Susan followed. David attempted to keep singing.

The man at the window was replaced by a woman who also tried to ask David what he was doing. David may not have noticed the woman repeat his answer: “Singing to my Leopard to get it off your roof,” to someone on the phone; however, he did notice the man coming out of the house with the shotgun, when he slammed the door behind him.

As Baby raced to the other side of the roof and leapt into a tree, David exclaimed “Aaagh! You just scared him away!”

The man from the house held the gun on him until the deputy who was out on patrol came to arrest him. David tried to explain the circumstances, but the deputy wasn’t listing. He just loaded David up and headed back to town.

On the way, the deputy also arrested Susan. Apparently it is very suspicious to be jogging through the woods yelling “Jasper!” at the top of your lungs. And it won’t help your cause any if you are just so wiped out you can’t pass a sobriety test with flying colors. In addition, the original call from the house was about two suspicious persons; so naturally, it helps to arrest two people instead of one.

Susan also tried to explain about a dog and a leopard, but this experienced officer knew that drugs made people say crazy things. It was just best to take them in and let them cool their heels in a cell for a few hours. So he radioed his younger colleague with an update and ETA. The younger deputy was relieved and puzzled. He didn’t get the joke about putting an APB out for a baby leopard.

 

Chapter Fourteen - Jailbreak

By the time David and Susan were arriving at the museum/jail, Uncle Carl was growing very concerned. Marge had left some time ago and he had no texts or phone calls from anybody. The fact Alice wasn’t answering her phone was most concerning. If David’s cousin Mark hadn’t called when he did, he just might have just started calling hospitals.

But Mark did call. He was excited and anxious to tell Uncle Carl about his trip to India and inquire about Baby. After about twenty minutes on the phone with Mark, Uncle Carl was able to put two and two together and realized the significance of some of the evening’s events. He got off the phone as quickly as he could with Mark and headed into town.

Back upon the arrival at the museum/jail, David asked the deputy, “Why are we at the museum?”

“The station is being renovated,” was the reply.

“Museum?” inquired Susan.

“The old courthouse and jail were turned into a museum. They’re both on the national historical registry. The jail was actually a stop on the Underground Railroad.” David quickly and quietly informed her.

The inside of the jail was quaint with a waiting area section separated by a waist high partition with Victorian style balusters. There were large windows and high ceilings. Two very old large wooden desks facing each other leaving a path down the middle of the room to get to the cells. The walls were covered with oil paintings and old photos. The wall with the windows was broken up with a large brick fireplace.

However, no matter how quaint this jail was, it was still a jail. Susan was officially in “LaaLaa Land” in her head. Her mind felt fuzzy wuzzy and everything seemed so surreal, all she could do was wait and react. Long gone from her brain were the computations and calculations of her possible future actions. She gave up trying to predict the will of the world.

The deputy led them to the desk near the fireplace and searched their belongings. He confiscated David’s rope, flashlight, matches and other odd bits and bobs David brought from the barn. Susan had nothing on her. And neither of them had their wallet. He then escorted them to the cells.

“Alice!” Susan cried out when she saw Mrs. Gogarty.

Then all at once all three of them began talking loudly trying to find out the what, where, why and how each party ended up in this spot. This led to a quickened pace of getting David and Susan into cells. Officers of the law do not like loud boisterous suspects; it puts them on edge. The older deputy had to yell “Quiet Down!” quite a few times before it was quite.

When it was the younger deputy pointed to David and Susan and said, “Those two there are the ones who stole the Sheriff's truck.” The he pointed to Alice and said, “I caught this one bringing it back.”

“What’s your name?” the older deputy asked David.

“David.”

“No last name?”

David remained silent.

“What’s your name?” the older deputy asked Susan.

Not really sure which name to use or why David didn’t say his last name she answered, “Susan.”

“No last name either I suppose?”

Susan looked away and the older deputy turned to Alice. Alice knowing David most of his life, knew if he was holding back, there might be a good reason. She followed suit and only gave her first name.

“Well this is an odd bunch indeed,” said the older deputy. He turned to the younger and asked, “Did anything else happen today that was odd?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Didn’t you ticket a car parked in front of a fire hydrant?” asked the older.

“That’s right; I thought it was his initially. But when he drove off in the Sheriff’s truck, I assumed it wasn’t his. Why steal a truck to get out of a parking ticket?"

"That would be strange. Run the plates. If the owner's name starts with David, you'll know who it belongs to." He looked at his watch, "I have to go pick up the Sheriff at the train station. Don't do anything else until we get back."

Susan quickly transferred from fuzzy head to freaked-out head. The two minutes of anonymity provided such a false sense of security that its impending absence was creating a false sense of panic. After the older deputy left to pick up the sheriff and the younger went to his cruiser to run the Land Cruiser's plates, Susan asked David if there were any hidden passages or rooms in the jail from its Underground Railroad days.

“Yeah. Um, you see those odd looking wooden columns embedded on the side of brick fireplace?”

“Yes.”

“Well the one closest to us swings out if you lean on the left side of it. There’s a small space in the fireplace and metal rungs like in a sewer that leads to a chamber below and a tunnel to the gazebo. Why?”

Susan didn’t want David to talk her out of her next idea. Probably, because, deep down, she knew it was stupid and risky. “Just interested in the architecture,” she lied.

When the younger deputy returned Susan stood at her cell door, pursed her lips together and, trying to do her best Rosie Perez impression, yelled, “Hey Vato! Cum ‘ere!”

“Susan, what are you doing?” asked David surprised and dismayed.

“Cum ‘ere! I have a cunfession! Cum ‘ere”

“Susan—No! Whatever you’re trying to do… it’s soo wrong… and it won’t work!”

The younger deputy walked over. “You have a confession?”

“Yeah, you know. I figure if I confess, you’ll protect me, right? Well, I want out of this gang, but it ain't safe you know? Just leave on my own. So, I like, need protection, you know.”

“Susan, this is sooo offensive! For the love God, stop!” pleaded David.

“Gang?” questioned the deputy.

“Yeah. The Leopards. That’s us. You heard about those gas stations being hit this month?”

“That was you guys?”

“Yeah, it was pretty sweet, until dis two-timing hustler had to dip his stick into someone else’s honey pot!”

David reached through the bars and grabbed Susan’s arm and tried to pull her close to talk her down. But she screamed and pulled away and yelled at the officer, “Yousee! Yousee what I have to put up with? He’s constantly assaulting me!” She started to cry. “I don’t know what to do anymore! It’s like I’m trapped. Trapped!”

Susan would not let up. She continued her accusations and wailing until the deputy opened the cell and began to lead her to the front room. The moment she was out of her cell she profusely thanked and complimented the deputy. The deputy led her to the desk near the fireplace, sat her down at the desk and provided tissues to dry her tears.

As she was drying her tears, Susan went into a fake coughing fit. She stood up as if to breath in more air but, that seemed to make the coughing “worse”. She finally communicated “Water” to the deputy and as he went across the room to get her some, she kept a close watch. The moment his back was turned she coughed really loud and shoved as hard as she could on the left side of panel that was supposed to swing out of the fireplace.

It did swing out! She quickly and quietly dove under the desk. When the deputy turned around the place was empty and quiet. Then he noticed the open passage. He swore profusely and went into the fireplace, got out his flashlight, swore some more, and then went down the metal ladder.

As soon as the deputy was out of sight, she popped out from under the desk and grabbed all the items that were confiscated from David and ran out the door. The deputy had the keys to the cells, so she could not get David and Alice out even if she wanted to. All she could do was catch Baby. Then the officers would see they weren’t lying. Then the officers would be a little more willing to listen to reason.

Ten minutes later, the younger deputy came crawling out of the fireplace looking like he spent two days spelunking. He was obviously distressed. Lucky for Susan, she didn’t take the tunnel route for escape. The other end had been boarded up and secured a half a century ago for safety reasons. She would have never been able to get out. Had the younger deputy known that, he wouldn’t have been in such a rush to follow her. He now frantically searched the entire museum in the hopes she was just hiding out.

He finally gave up and called his superior to give him the update.

 

Chapter Fifteen - The Sheriff

When Carl arrived at the museum/jail he found a disheveled, disgruntled and disgusted young deputy leaning against a desk in deep thought. Or, Carl assumed it was deep thought as the young man jumped when Carl spoke, “Excuse me, I think there may have been a mix up about a leopard.”

At that point both Alice and David shouted hellos. With the deputy in his current state of mind, a middle aged man in drag suddenly appearing, his two remaining prisoners shouting and the mention of a leopard was too much for him. He arrested Carl on the spot. He gave no reason. He just wasn’t taking any chances any more. He just locked him up and went outside to wait for his superiors.

Once Uncle Carl calmed down he started asking questions of his nephew and assistant/nurse: “Where’s John?”

“The other deputy went to get him from the train station.” answered David. “They should be back soon.”

“And where’s Baby?”

David looked at him wide eyed.

“Yes,” said Carl, “I know about Baby. I just got off the phone with Mark… ”

“I’m sorry Uncle Carl,” David started. “I didn’t know… Mark didn’t tell me… “

“I figured that much out,” Uncle Carl interrupted, “but where is he now?”

“I don’t know. Susan and I put him in the barn and made sure the stall was closed, but he managed to open it and get out.”

“You put a baby in the barn!” Alice piped in.

“No, no. Mrs. Gogarty. We put a leopard, a tame leopard in the barn,” answered David.

“So it was a leopard I saw! Good to know I’m not going crazy!” Alice thought for a moment then said, “And I betcha it wasn’t the leopard who opened the door!” She then glared at Carl.

“Well… let’s not go into that now. How did you get in here anyhow? Never mind. I probably don’t want to know. But what about Susan, where is she now?” Uncle Carl redirected the conversation.

“She was here too, but she left.” answered David.

“Here? Left?”

“We were both arrested and she managed to trick the deputy and escape. I assume she’s out looking for Baby and Jasper.”

“Jasper! What does she want with Jasper?”

“Jasper took something of Susan’s and buried it. And Jasper’s been hanging out with Baby all night. Or at least the two times we’ve seen him after dinner, he’s been with, or near, Baby.”

Carl was contemplating these answers when the Sheriff walked in with his two deputies behind him. Both Carl and Alice said, “Hi John.” The Sheriff nodded hello and approached David’s cell.

“Hello Uncle John, ” said David.

“Did you park in front of a fire hydrant?” the Sheriff asked.

“Yes Sir.”

“You will pay the fine for that and move your vehicle ASAP.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Did you take my truck?”

“Yes Sir.”

“And you returned my truck Alice?”

“Yes,” replied Alice. “I saw it in the barn this evening and figured you lent it to David. So I brought it back. I didn’t know you were out of town.”

“Smith, let Alice out,” ordered the Sheriff to the younger deputy. He then turned back to David, “Why did you take the truck?”

“Baby jumped into the back of it.”

“I assume,” said the Sheriff turning now to Carl “that ‘Baby’ is the ‘package’ my son acquired for you in India?”

“Yes. He’s a leopard!”

“And you,” said the Sheriff now turning back to David, “thought the best way to transport a wild animal here was in the back of your vehicle?” David didn’t respond. “Smith, let these two idiots out too.”

As they all started to walk to the other room the Sheriff now addressed the older deputy, “Didn’t you say you also arrested a young woman?”

“I did,” replied the older deputy and they all turned to look at Smith, the younger deputy.

He very embarrassingly and quietly said, “She got away.”

Before Sheriff Vance could ask any more questions, David interrupted, “Uncle John, um, I think Susan’s out there right now trying to get Baby and we should probably go and help.”

“What!? You mean, this animal isn’t secured at the ranch?!”

Embarrassingly, David admitted, “He got away.”

At that moment, Nissa’s driver walked into the museum/jail. While David started to explain about how Baby got out, the young man approached the group and politely cleared his throat and said, “Excuse me?”

The now exasperated Sheriff said to the young man, “Unless you’ve lost a leopard, Son, you’re just going to have to take a seat and wait!”

“How did you know?” said the now wide-eyed youth.

The room went still as all eyes turned to the young man. David approached him and said reassuringly, “It’s OK.” Then he turned to everyone and reassured them, “It’s OK, it’s just a mix-up… we called Animal Control when we first lost Baby. And when we went to get him out of your truck,” he gestured to the young man, “we lost him again… ”

As if on cue, Baby then came trotting in and jumped up on the desk closest to David followed by Jasper who barked once and jumped into Uncle Carl’s arms. Everyone except David and Carl stepped back and the officers drew their guns.

“It’s OK! It’s alright!” David said as he approached Baby and began to pet him. “He’s tame.”

Everyone was in awe watching David pet Baby. Especially the young man who stammered, “Th-that’s not my leopard.”

“And that’s why we got him out of your truck,” answered David.

“No, you don’t understand; I’m not from Animal Control,” the now frightened young man stated. “The leopard in my truck mauled a boy at our show’s last stop… I was taking her down to Albany to be destroyed.”

The air reverberated with the quickening pulses of the humans in the room and the stunned silence. Baby and Jasper could sense something was amiss. David turned to Uncle Carl and said, “She doesn’t know!” He turned to his Uncle John, “Susan’s out there trying to capture the wrong leopard!”

Truth be told, Susan already caught Nissa by that point.

 

Chapter Sixteen - The End

When Susan left, she headed towards the common park area and looked for the creek that they encountered before. She reasoned that if there was creek near the center of town, it would be the same one. She further reasoned that Baby wouldn’t be far from the creek and her best chances of finding him would be to follow the creek back towards the ranch.

She wasn’t more than ten minutes into her search when she spotted a sleeping leopard on a low lying, horizontal tree branch. She had no idea it was not Baby. She began to creep up on a sleeping Nissa.

Nissa by this point had eaten a rabbit and a Canadian goose, drank a lot from the creek and had fallen asleep from exhaustion. Her escape and post escape actions, after being drugged all day, left her with no energy.

She barely heard Susan. The smell of Susan, and that of another leopard, aroused her senses more than anything. As Nissa opened her eyes and lifted her head to investigate, Susan quickly placed a rope around her neck. This of course made Nissa very angry. But with her low energy, all she could manage was a deep throated growl.

Susan thought “Baby” was just being grumpy when he wouldn’t come when called or sang to. And gentle tugging on the homemade leash wasn’t working. Finally she said, “Look I’m sorry about the leash. But I’ve got to get you back to town! Now let’s go!” This time Susan gave a tug with significant force.

It pulled Nissa off of the branch and onto the ground. Nissa growled and crouched in a hunting stance that Susan did not see. Once Nissa was on the ground Susan turned around and started walking, figuring "Baby" would follow her. So Susan naturally mistook Nissa’s pre-pouncing steps to mean she was right.

Nissa did not pounce though. The moment the rope went taut, Nissa stopped in her tracks and growled and stared at Susan. Susan then had to once again turn around and give a serious tug. And once again Susan confused movement with compliance, as she turned around and started walking again.

This pattern continued long after Nissa figured out that Susan had no gun, no cage and probably no reason to hurt her. But she still didn’t like being taken anywhere and she wasn’t about to make it easy. The other reason Nissa decided not to just rip Susan to shreds and escape again was the scent of that other leopard got stronger the further along they went.

This is how Susan came to enter the museum/jail literally ass-backward, dragging a now known-to-be dangerous leopard along. David was the first to see her, and what he actually saw was just Susan pulling on a rope, “Susan!”

Susan turned around with a triumphant smile and said, “Ha! You thought I was crazy!” She started to walk forwards when she realized there were a lot of people in the room, David and Alice were not in cells and sitting on a desk calmly was a leopard. “Who’s that?” she pointed and asked.

A few people in unison answered, “Baby!”

Susan spun around in shock and amazement as Nissa began to crouch-walk through the door. Jasper and Baby were the first to run in the opposite direction. Followed by a screaming Alice and anyone who did not have a gun, with the exception of David. They took refuge in the empty cells while all the officers drew their firearms and aimed at Nissa. Or rather in her direction, as they did not have a clear shot.

“Susan,” David very calmly said, “You need to move back.”

Susan barely managed to say, “I can’t… I can’t move at all!”

David slowly retrieved the closest chair near him and moved himself in between Susan and Nissa. While holding the chair lion-tamer style, he got as close to Susan as he could and said, “Put your hands on my sides.” Susan did so. “Now can you feel me breathing?”

Susan nodded then realized he wouldn’t see her nod and managed a quick, “Yes.”

“Match my breathing.” David started to take long deep breaths. “Are you breathing?”

“Yes.”

“OK. You and I are going to start moving backwards slowly. Nobody else move!” said David loud enough to be heard but not alarmingly loud. “And nobody shoot,” he added.

As David and Susan began to slowly move back, Nissa stared down David and matched his every step. She was calculating how to leap at him but couldn’t figure out how to get around the chair. Anyway she visualized it, she was going to get hurt or killed. She had to wait for a better opening.

As David and Susan passed the threshold of the cell area David said, “Susan, I’m going to start turning soon so I can position her to back her into an empty cell. OK?”

“OK.”

“And when I get her in that cell… I’m going to need you to close the door... OK?”

Susan quickly looked at the door and realized he would not be able to safely get the leopard in and close the door. But if she was quick enough, she could. “OK,” she replied.

Nissa was so focused on David and the chair she didn’t notice all the bars until he and Susan started turning. Nissa match their turn but was not about to step forward anymore. She was not going to follow this bait into a trap. So when the he jabbed forward with the chair to bait her she growled and slapped at it. But she was not going to move forward.

David took a step forward. Nissa took a step back. David jabbed again and moved forward a little. Nissa swiped and moved back a little more. Susan successfully moved to David’s side while staying close to him without Nissa really noticing. One more jab and move and Nissa was nearly completely in the cell.

“I’m ready,” Susan whispered.

David said, “GO!” as he gave one last big jab and Susan sprang to the door and swung it closed. David held it closed with the chair while Susan fumble but then successfully locked the door.

David and Susan then jumped back as Nissa tried to maul what she could of the chair. They looked at each other as they were panting and smiling.

David gasped, “We Did It!”

Susan nodded dumbly and then fainted into his arms.

In the nano moment it took for her to recover, the first of her senses to return was the sense of smell. Her nostrils were filled with a pleasant musky earthy odor. Her sense of touch told her she was securely, safely, warmly being held. When she opened her eyes the only thing in focus were the most beautiful happy brown eyes she had ever seen, smiling down on her. The sense of hearing was the last to come on-line. A familiar British voice screeched, “SUSAN!” and a sudden rush of clarity came to eyes and ears.

David helped Susan to her feet. Apparently her fiancé and Mr. Peabody had walked into the museum/jail at her moment of fainting.

“Jeremy, how . . why?” Susan wasn’t sure which question to ask.

Not that it would have mattered. Jeremy’s exasperation was more than apparent, “Not only do I get a mysterious phone call from you from another man’s phone, the night before our wedding, but when I finally catch up with you, you’re in the arms of another man!”

“Jeremy, all of this is explainable… ”

“It is more than evident to me that we should postpone -- no, cancel our plans. The plain fact is if you truly intended to be my wife and partner in life you would have never done anything to jeopardize it. For someone who has always been stalwart and level headed, these crazy actions could only mean one thing: you never really wanted to be my wife… I’m afraid I’ll have to ask for the anklet back… and I think it best we don’t speak for a while.”

Susan stood there completely dumbfounded. A man she had worked with for eight years, dated for four, been engaged to for two was telling her that their entire relationship was over. There was no argument. There was no presenting her side. He simply stood there with his hand out waiting for her to remove her engagement anklet.

Susan couldn’t really accept it was over. She figured it was a test. If she gave him the anklet he’d see it, remember the romantic words he had said when he gave it to her and give her a chance to explain.

David stood there and watched the train wreck as it was happening. He wanted to somehow stop it, or maneuver it so it wouldn’t be so bad. But he knew he could not. When Susan handed him the anklet and Jeremy turned to leave, David gestured to his uncle.

“Just a minute.” said the Sheriff. Jeremy stopped and turned around. “Are you Jeremy Swallow?” question the Sheriff.

“I am,” confessed Jeremy with dignity.

“I need to look at the anklet please,” requested the Sheriff.

“Why? You just saw my ex-fiancé hand it to me? What do you need to see?” protested Jeremy.

“Sir, the anklet,” insisted the Sheriff

Jeremy stiffened up as he handed the anklet to the Sheriff. The Sheriff looked at it closely and then handed it to David who looked at it briefly and then nodded to his uncle. At that point Sheriff Vance arrested Jeremy Swallow for possession of stolen goods.

Much of what happened after that was a bit of a blur in Susan’s memory. The Sheriff ordered David to accompany the older deputy to the county jail to make a report. Then the Sheriff ordered the younger deputy to give Alice a ride back to the ranch. The Sheriff asked Mr. Peabody to see Susan safely home and provide her with any details Mr. Peabody felt prevalent. The Sheriff then turned his attention to Carl and Nissa’s driver, apparently completely done with Susan, David and Jeremy.

David took Susan by the shoulders looked her square in the eyes and said, “I’ll talk to you soon. Everything’s going to be OK. I promise.” Then turned to Mr. Peabody and said, “Tell her everything.” Then he was gone.

On the long ride back to the city Mr. Peabody told Susan that David was actually an Executive V.P. at the Foundation. He was also a forensic accountant and sometimes an amateur sleuth. He is in charge of investigating the financial stability of any organization applying for a grant from the Random Foundation. Apparently, most inconsistencies are easily explained, however, sometimes they lead to a discovery of embezzlement.

David had found out that over eight and a half million dollars was missing over time from the museum’s bookkeeping. The grant money was to cover up the theft. The anklet was made of real jewels. Jeremy needed a safe place to keep the money. He thought he was being clever hiding it in plain sight with the anklet, but he didn’t count on the anklet being stolen too. It made confirmation of his embezzlement all that much easier for the authorities.

Suddenly Susan’s life was all at once surreal and clear. All of Jeremy’s behavior over the years had an alternate meaning. And some things that Susan chalked up to just the mysteries of life, were not longer a mystery.

“So Jeremy was being investigated by David?” Susan finally asked.

“Yes. He was the one who applied for the grant and had all the contact with the Foundation and had the power and position to do the embezzlement,” answered Mr. Peabody.

“Was anybody else at the Museum a suspect?”

“You mean you? Yes. As his fiancé David had suspicions.”

“So our meeting on the golf course?... “

“It was kind of a stress test.”

“So everything I’ve been through with David was a lie too?”

“I don’t know, Dr. Huxley. I only know we were supposed to play golf and then we weren’t and then the three of us were to discuss things at the gala. How did you end up at the ranch?”

Susan gave a summary of the day’s actions.

“Interesting,” was Mr. Peabody’s reply. “The Randoms have always been a little eccentric, but in a good way. I was hoping David was beginning to take more after Sheriff Vance.”

“Vance?” Susan questioned. “Sheriff Vance?... Never mind.” More clarity was coming to her mind and it was making it hurt. But it didn’t stop her next question, “Did you drive Jeremy up?”

“You had used David’s phone to call him. He Googled David’s name and got a hit off the Foundation’s website… I was the only Foundation contact number he had. And he was so insistent on finding you, that I was worried. Knowing David all his life, I knew you were safe with him, but what little I knew about Jeremy… well I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t hurt you to get the anklet back. I figured it’d be best if I took him straight to the Sheriff and let things go from there.”

Susan didn’t want to hear anymore. She asked no more questions. Mr. Peabody provided no more insights. The day had ended. The adventure had ended. The life she knew was over. Not that that’s a bad thing.

 

Chapter Seventeen - The Beginning

Late Sunday morning a limousine pulled up to Susan’s building to deliver three astounding arrangements of flowers and a beautifully done-up gift box containing the stuff she left behind at the ranch and the items of clothes that were purchased for her. Also, with it was a lovely handwritten note from “Uncle Carl”.

The sentiments in the note were kind and sincere and set off yet another episode of sobbing alternated with laughter and back to sobbing. An e-mail on Sunday night from David detailing what Mr. Peabody already provided did nothing to help matters. She spent three days suffering the waves of years of repressed emotions. By Wednesday she had the outbursts under control, but couldn’t yet face people at the Museum.

When she finally called in to report the loss of the ilium-ischium, apparently they had already been told. Everyone she spoke to was very kind and sympathetic. And it was extraordinarily nice of the Board to accept her resignation when she was ready to give it. They could have fired her for gross negligence or because of her association with Jeremy. She considered herself lucky in being able to at least retain her reputation as a scientist. As to what she was then going to do with it at that point, she had no idea.

Two weeks later, Susan was in her office. Most of the clutter had been organized, passed on to colleagues or boxed up and put into storage. Susan was finishing packing up the final boxes when a knock came at the door. When she turned to see who it was all she saw was a fist holding and exquisite bouquet of multicolored long stem roses. Exquisite not because they were roses, but because each rose was visible in the arrangement. They cascaded in a diamond shape nestled amongst vibrant green filler and sprinkles of baby’s-breath. In other words, the person arranging the bouquet gave a damn; and that only usually happens when the person ordering it cares about the details.

And David wanted to get the details right. When he didn’t hear any retorts or comments he cautiously poked his head in. Susan couldn’t help but smile when she saw his toothy grin.

“Thank you,” she said, as she took the flowers from him. “And thank you for granting the museum the money.”

“Well, just because one individual isn’t worthy, didn’t mean the organization wasn’t worthy. And besides, the money he stole will be tied up in court for a while, unfortunately. So it works out for the best. Also, I have something else for you.” From behind his back David produced a sack.

Susan’s eyes got big and her smile wide as the size of the package could only mean one thing. As she took it and gingerly opened it on her desk as David explained, “Besides talking to your Board, I’ve spent every minute I could digging holes with Jasper. We dug so many holes I had to chart a grid system and start flagging areas. But we finally found it.”

Susan was staring at the hunk of plaster smiling and shaking her head. All she could manage was another “Thank you.”

“You might be able to get your job back, now that it’s back. Or I could talk to the board, if you want,” David hesitated, “I wanted to advocate for your job before, but I wasn’t sure you’d approve, so I figured, I’d ask first.”

Susan closed her eyes, smiled and nodded. She looked at David and again thanked him. Then she mused out loud, “Do I really want to be here?... There’s a part of me that just wants to run downstairs and crack this baby open and start running tests! But rest of me feels … free... new. Like the first month of college... only not. Even then I was so driven. Too driven to enjoy life. Now, it’s like I’ve lost that drive or...”

“Realized it’s not as important?” offered David.

“Yeah. And the weird thing is, I should be afraid, but I’m not.” The room was filled with a pregnant pause – the best kind of pause.

“I do have a few ideas,” he said cautiously. “There are at least three excavations in Latin America and one in Siberia going on right now. We could travel there as... well not colleagues,” he stammered, “but you know, not as a couple, but together. I mean I’m not a scientist, but I’m an excellent traveler and I know stuff...”

Susan smiled at this new un-sure David and said, “Yeah, that might work. There is one experiment I would like to do before we go though.”

Susan walked up to David, took his face in her hands, drew it close to hers and kissed him. As he kissed her back every nerve her body sparkled and tingled like never before. When she withdrew she said slyly, “Yeah that might work,” and grabbed a packing box to leave.

David grabbed the last box and followed Susan out of her office. Together they lived happily ever after.

As for the doomed Nissa… well her new beginning took many years of court battles. But eventually she was given a reprieve and allowed to live the rest of her days with Baby at the Random Ranch.

Chapter Eighteen - David’s Backstory 1

“This is the best part of my day,” said Eleanor Vance as she hugged her twelve-year-old son David in front of his school.

“I know,” smiled David as he pulled away from the embrace.

Eleanor thought her mischievous, good natured genius of a boy was looking particularly angelic in his school uniform this morning. “Any chance I can get an extra hug to last the weekend?” she asked slyly.

“Alright,” said David as he complied.

As she let go a second time she got serious and said, “Now please, don’t let your Uncle eat too much junk food this weekend. He becomes all out of sorts when he does and then he calls me up to complain and blame me!”

David laughed and said, “OK, Mom. I won't.” He turned and walked away. He shouted, “Have a good trip!” over his shoulder and waved good bye as he continued up the path to his school’s front doors.

Standing near the neatly trimmed hedges, next to the stately steps leading into a large colonial style brick building was a new student. He was watching David and his mom quite intently. He was about David’s age and most likely uneasy about starting at a new school in the middle of the fall term. Whatever he was feeling, his decision to make an example of David and establish himself as king of the prepubescent mountain did not go has he imagined.

“Look at the baby who still needs hugs from his mommy,” teased the new kid as David neared.

“Being cute and loved is a lot better than being ugly, stupid, and unloved like you!” was David’s retort followed by laughter from the other kids.

The warning bell rang and all the students started to shuffle in. A student next to the the new kid said quietly, “Please don’t tell anyone we’re related. I don’t want everyone to know my cousin was stupid enough to try and pick on the most popular kid in school.”

With the wannabe bully’s attempts squelched, David was feeling great. And his day only got better from there: he received an A on a report on Amelia Earhart that he thought he tanked; he was the last man standing in a game of german dodgeball on the playground; and both Julie and Anna shot smiles his way during the day.
By lunch time David was on Cloud 9 and heading for the stars. As he sat down with his friends, one of them said, “Hey David! Whadda wanna do about that new guy?”

“Just let it go,” said David. “Joe was talking about some cousin coming up from city to stay with him. And Joe’s cool.”

“Yeah,” said another friend. “He just needs to get use to our Connecticut ways...”

A chorus of boys voices then began to sing: “Kumbaya my lord! Kumbaya! Oh lord Smell My BUTT!!!”

The raucous laughter began to die down as the lunch monitor neared their location with a stern look. The conversation then turned back to David and his empty house.

“Hey! Hey David! I think I can talk my Mom into me letting stay over this weekend,” said one friend.

“Oh yeah! Me too! How long are your parents gone for this time?” asked a second.

“Are they going to Maine again? Are they bringing back lobster again?” asked a third.

“Uh, yeah, they’re in Maine. But, I don’t think my Uncle is up for another weekend like last time,” replied David.

David’s kooky Uncle Carl always knew how to have a good time. David and his friends always looked forward to his visits and Uncle Carl was never opposed to a gaggle of David’s friends around. That was until his last visit when a makeshift popcorn snowball fight led to one kid falling through a glass coffee table and a trip to the emergency room. He wasn’t hurt badly. It looked a lot worse than it was. However, the grownups involved agreed: no more group gatherings with just one adult around.

“The only way I think my Uncle would go for it,” continued David, “is if you were there to study for next week’s math test. He knows I’m already helping Allison out.”

The gang let out a few taunting ooooh’s at the mention of Allison’s name, followed by few “no thanks,” and the conversation moved on. David however remembered a note Allison slipped into his pocket just before lunch. He discreetly took it out and read it.

Apparently Allison wanted to meet during lunch to discuss what time to come over to study that weekend. David didn’t know why she wanted to meet him at lunch to ask. He could just have easily told her in passing in the hallway later. But David, being the agreeable type, found it hard to turn down requests or say no. So, when he saw a chance, he quietly and quickly took leave of his friends and went to the location Allison requested.
When David got to the gym, Allison flashed a bright smile and beckoned him to join her on the bleachers. As he did, he asked, “So you want to talk about what time to meet this weekend?”

“Not exactly. My mom ran into your mom at the supermarket. So she kinda freaked when she found out your parents wouldn’t be home. And she wasn’t too keen about having just your uncle around for some reason. She is being SOOO unreasonable. Anyhow, can you come over to our place?”

“Yeah, sure,” said David still curious why this conversation required the gym but then Allison continued:

“It’d mean that we’d totally have no privacy. Especially with my little brother… And I was thinking… this weekend … we could try something different?”

David was completely confused now, “Different? Like what?”

“Like this,” she said before she quickly leaned over and planted her lips on David’s and kept them there.

David was shocked and surprised and very unsure of what to do. So, he closed his eyes and waited a moment. Then the end of lunch bell rang. Allison pulled back smiled brightly again and said, “See you later!” before jaunting off to class. David smiled back and with a bemused look in his eyes managed to grunt an affirmative, “uh-huh.”

David’s euphoria fog surrounding his first kiss lasted for the entire day. So it is easy to see how David took no notice that when his uncle came to pick him up, he was not waiting outside of the car for him. Normally Uncle Carl would like to wait outside the car wearing something odd in hopes to embarrass his dear nephew in front of his peers. David also did not notice his uncle’s stiff posture. He was so full of excitement to share how his day went, he also didn’t notice that his uncle could not bring himself to look at David or verbally greet him or acknowledge anything he was saying.

David had gone on talking for a full five minutes before he had realized that his Uncle Carl had driven them exactly one block away from the school, turn into the nearest gas station, parked the car and turned off the the engine.

Uncle Carl still was not looking at him when David took a good look around at his surroundings and finally asked, “Um, Uncle Carl, why are we here?”

Uncle Carl shut his eyes and bent his head in an attempt to stop the tears; took a deep breath and stated quietly but clearly what he practiced in his head, “Your parent’s plane went down. Just off of Cape Cod.”

He looked at his nephew and continued, “They’re gone.”

The moment Carl uttered the word “gone” the realization of losing his baby sister hit him. Tears began to stream down his face and he turned away from David.

“You mean they’re missing?”

“No David,” said Carl choking back the tears. “I mean, they are not coming home.”

 

Chapter Nineteen - Susan’s Backstory 1

Little eight-year-old Susan sat as still as a statue beside the creek bed staring at nature. She observed a frog on a lily pad catch a fly for his lunch. She wondered if he had to calculate whether or not his tongue would reach it. Did frogs know how long their tongues were? Did they have contests to see whose tongue was the longest? Did the frogs with longer tongues capture more food; grow bigger and become alpha frogs? Are there alpha frogs?

From the butterfly that landed on her knee to the snake that slithered into the creek, little Susan Huxley conjured a dozen questions for every act of nature she witnessed. The only question, however, that should have popped into her head but didn’t was: what was she going to say to her mother when her mother found her?

As nature scattered around her at the first sounds of approaching human feet, Susan felt the dread of an unprepared answer to the question she knew was coming.

“Young lady, what are you doing here?” scolded Samantha Huxley as she approached her bookish and oddly neat daughter. Samantha always marveled how her daughter could spend so much time outdoors without getting coated in mud and dirt.

“Thinking,” replied Susan sheepishly.

Samantha signed. She surveyed the location for cleanest rock near Susan she could sit on, smoothed down her dress before she sat down and said, “Now Susan Dear, you promised.”

“I know,” Susan admitted. “It’s just…”

Samantha waited then finally inquired, “It’s just what Sweetheart?”

“It’s stupid!” Susan blurted out. “And it doesn’t make any sense! And listening to it once is bad enough! And fat chance I can sneak away when he practices…”

Samantha signed again and smiled widely at the little girl who was turning out more like her than her husband everyday. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“What?” pouted Susan not looking at her mother.

“Why do you think I do all the chores and laundry and shopping on Saturday?” asked Samantha.

Susan now gave her full attention to her mother and said, “I thought it was because you wanted the house nice and neat for Sunday.”
“It’s so I don’t have to listen to your father practice his sermon,” confessed Samantha. She continued “I always want the house nice and neat as a rule. You know that. And I could do the laundry and the shopping on Sunday afternoon or on weeknights if I really wanted to.”

Susan stared wide-eyed at her mother’s confession and took a moment to let it sink in before she asked, “Can I start helping you with the chores?”

Samantha laughed. “You know,” she said, “there is a very good reason why I have not had you help me: your father might be hurt if you didn’t listened to him practice.”

“More hurt than when I leave the actual service on Sunday?” asked Susan.

“Good point,” countered Samantha.

“Couldn’t we just lie and tell him I don’t want to spoil the surprise of it all? Or something like that?” inquired Susan.

“You are too smart for your own good Young Lady.” said Samantha sternly. Then she sighed again and said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Pleeeese!” begged Susan. “I mean I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but I don’t want to listen to his sermons. Not really. I mean not at all. Kind of.”

Susan was not as sure of her confession as her mother. Susan recognized that while her mother admitted she didn’t want to listen to the same sermon twice, Susan did not want to hear any sermon, ever again. She was unsure how her mother would react to this new revelation. She was also unsure if her mother understood what she was trying to say.

Samantha was indeed not prepared for this. She recently, secretly, began to believe in God again. Since she was formerly secretly agnostic, married to a preacher and raising a child to be apart of her husband’s faith, she never thought this would be a problem. Now she faced her child bemused as to which path to nurture. A year ago, she would have encouraged her to question all things, including religious doctrine. Today, she wanted her daughter to keep an open mind on the virtues of faith and community.

Being the analytical science teach she was, Samantha was left with just one line of inquiry: “Can you clarify please?”

Susan took a deep breath and said a sentence she had been practicing for quite some time: “Mom, religion makes no sense and it’s not logical. I don’t believe in God.”

Samantha thought in an instant of million things she wanted to say in rebuttal to this. She was reminded of an idea that kept nagging her: “write it down!” She surveyed the time and place of this conversation and made the following decisions: First, if her miraculous second chance should somehow slip away, she should be prepared with a journal of advice for her daughter that she will start that very night on this very subject. Second, she should get back on track to do what she came out here to do: retrieve her daughter and reinstate the family status quo.

“Susan,” she started, but then paused while she collected her thoughts and strategize her approach. “Susan, do you remember our conversation about art?”

Susan reflected back on the day she brought home an F in Art Class. She told her mother that art, “just isn’t my thing,” and thought that would be the end of it. Susan was dismayed to learn that her mother thought otherwise. Samantha then took Susan on a whirlwind tour of local museums. Samantha’s lesson: even if art is not your ‘thing’ you still need to develop an appreciation for it and it’s effect on society. Samantha repeatedly quizzed her daughter until she was sure the point was learned.

Susan replied to Samantha that she remember and Samantha continued, “Well, the same goes for religion. You don’t have to embrace it, but you do have to respect other’s choices and learn to appreciate the good effects it has on society. More importantly however, is you must respect the role it plays in our household regardless of your beliefs. Which I respect and fully recognize you are entitled to. However, when you’re older and moved out, you can conduct your life as you see fit. But for now, I’m afraid, we are in the business of religion and all it entails. It is part of what I expect from you as a good daughter. Do you understand?”

Susan nodded her head then Samantha continued, “Now to today and the fact that you snuck out after promising you would not. You will have two punishments.”

“TWO!” Susan interrupted

Samantha quieted her down with a stare then continued, “Yes, two. The first will be a secret punishment between you and me, in that you will for the next two months continue to listen both the practice sermon and the actual sermon. After which time I’ll have you start doing chores.”

Susan sucked in her excitement as she knew there was more coming and didn’t want to anger her mother further.

“Second,” Samantha continued, “you will accompany your father on every church errand he has to run in the next two weeks that is after school. Whether it’s visiting the old folks home or working the charity kitchen, whatever it is, whatever you father asks you to do, you will do it. No mall, no movies, no friends, just church business for two weeks. Got it?

Susan finally breathed out and nodded in agreement. They walked home together in silence. However, Samantha’s mind was in overdrive. It became abundantly clear that she would have to start preparing for the worst.

She was grateful to be so blessed at having a second chance at life. And she was immensely thankful for her community of friends, who were able to help her maintain her life while keeping her illness from her family.

However, if ever the time came that she got sick again, Samantha feared she wouldn’t live through it a second time. She also feared she would miss out on so much of Susan’s life. So from this day on, Samantha did her best prepare her daughter to be self sufficient and to note, in writing, all the guidance and counsel mothers daydream about telling their kids. Then she prayed that all her efforts in time wouldn’t matter.

 

Chapter Twenty - David’s Backstory 2

Carl found his nephew in the master suite’s walk-in closet surrounded by the aftermath of the youth’s tornado-like expression of grief. He pushed aside some of the debris of clothing and made space to sit down next to David who was quietly sobbing with his face buried in his knees.

Of the many things Carl wanted to say, he was unsure of what to say first. So he began with the conclusion: “I think it’s time to move to the city.”

David lifted his head, wiped his eyes and asked, “the city?”

“It’s been a month,” started Carl, “And I know it only seems like yesterday. And believe me, I know it seems like we’re running away… I’m sure that’s what your Uncle John will think… But the world never stops moving David. We need to figure out how best to move along with it. Even in our grief.” Carl sighed then continued, “Being here, surrounded by so many memories, especially with the holidays coming, it just makes sense. And we won't’ sell anything until you’re ready. We’ll just box it up and put it into storage. That way, when you’re older, you can deal with it on your own terms, in your own time frame.”

David didn’t say anything, so Carl continued: “It’s not going to solve all of our problems or make the pain magically disappear. Heck! I don’t even know if it’s the right thing to do. But we have to do something. It’s just you and me unless and until your Uncle John takes us to court for custody of you. And with your behavior at school and this,” Carl gestured to the mess around them, “well, we need a new start, you and I. A place that’s just ours.”

Carl waited for David to say something. Finally he said, “You really want me with you?”

“Of course I do! Why wouldn’t I?” replied Carl.

“From all the stories you tell, I would think that having a kid along would cramp your style,” admitted David sheepishly.

“Well, as any transvestite worth his sequins would tell you: the best thing about styles is that they change. And the only style that never goes out of fashion is having people you love and care for in your life on a daily basis.” Carl choked back the tears; he was suddenly reminded that Eleanor had once said something very similar to him many years ago. He gathered his composure and continued, “Without my sister and your dad, I’m going to need help too, getting through the days. So it’s just as much a question for you. Do you want to be with me?... Or do you want to live with your Uncle John and cousin Mark?”

“No,” said David without hesitation. He looked around the closet and then met his uncle’s eyes and said, “I think you’re right. We should go to the city.”

Carl and David sat for a moment it silent contemplation of post tragedy life in Manhattan. Carl did not want to break the spell, but knew he had to tell David now about his one requirement for life in New York City. “David, there is a caveat to us going. If we want your Uncle John to not make a fuss, or at least reduce any fuss-itude, we should probably find a grief therapist.”

David had no interest in talking with a therapist. But he desperately liked the idea of running away from all the sights, sounds, smells and memories of the lost happy life with his parents. He had no stomach any more for the pity in everyone's eyes. He was tired of be talked to in hushed tones, being awkwardly avoided by others and having to listen to non-empathetic, seemingly neverending, streams of sympathies. David would agree to almost anything to regain some semblance of normalcy.

With all that eagerness, he non-committingly said, “How soon can we leave?”

Within a week they were living in a two bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Within a month, as his Uncle Carl promised, all the belongings of David’s former life were either boxed up and stored, or donated. By the new year, David was attending classes at a new school.

A new normalcy was achieved. There was school, there was work, there were meals, there was television, homework, and books. Time passed in the world around them while Carl and David just passed the time. The past and future were a forgettable fog of memories and unmade plans. Spring arrived and David was a little taller in height, but not in mind. He had achieved by this point a status quo of forged positive emotions to complemented by his melancholy true disinterest in everything.

However, David not being an actual deity with the power of omnipotence, was unable to block miniscule moments of light and levity. Moments so small they were unrealized or quickly swept away by the next moment’s reality of blah. Until one day, he laughed long and hard at a genuinely funny incident.

He immediately extracted himself from the stunned looks of his new acquaintances, as he ran to face the overwhelming guilt churning within. What right did he have to laugh when his parents were dead and would laugh no more? Not that those exact words were going through 12-year-old David’s head. It was more like images of all the laughter his parents laughed in his life flashing before his mind’s eye in a taunting merry-go-round fashion. He found an open storage closet to sit and sob in, as the realization he’d never hear them laugh again hit him.

Now had he been attending the weekly grief counseling sessions Uncle Carl setup, this moment may not have been so raw. And maybe if he had attended those sessions, he may have had some “tools” or “mechanisms” he could engage to channel his grief. And maybe what happened next wouldn’t have happened at all.

As of today, there is a particular private school on the Upper East Side that no longer stores extra cans of spray paint in unlocked locations. And to this day, in certain light, evidence of David’s expulsion-worthy crimes is still faintly visible in the school’s gym. Rumors still exist among the student body of the acts and reasons one seemingly shy kid went nuts.

Uncle Carl hired a tutor for David to finish the year as “home schooled”. But more importantly, he and David, together, went to group grief therapy. A new normalcy was achieved once again. Albeit much more slowly this time. However, it was a normalcy that resemble real life more so than the last. By July, David seemed stable enough to go on his scheduled month long visit to his Uncle John’s. “Seemed” being the operative word, unfortunately.

Uncle Carl for all his good graces is human and makes mistakes like any new guardian would. Truth be told, Carl was hesitant to send David. If for no other reason, David would be turning 13 that month. But John had reassured Carl, that after having to raise Mark mostly on his own for nearly a decade now, he was well equipped to handle anything. It is hard to argue with people in law enforcement when they sound so reassuringly confident. So Carl relented, sent David to his Uncle and then set off to England to attend to his neglected business and Foundation ventures.

For three weeks things were actually great. They were really great. David found being around Mark liberating. Mark wasn’t a stranger that had to have things explained to him. Mark didn’t ask a lot of questions. Mark gave David space when he could sense David was in a funk and did not judge him for it. Mark was just there. Mark was just Mark. David could participate or not, without pressure, and for the most part Uncle John let them be the boys they were. Until of course, his big hearted mistake.

Ever since Mark was born, there was one thing John did really well. That was his birthday. He would make a big deal about Mark’s birthday without being extravagant. He just had a knack for making Mark feel special and loved on his birthday. Now, he wanted to do the same for David. So he misunderstood David’s one try at objecting to John’s plans as David’s way of being polite. He didn’t realize that David politely saying, “I don’t really need anything,” really meant: “I do not want to celebrate my birthday without my parents!”

So the night before his birthday David decided to “hide” John’s police cruiser. The thought being, Uncle John would be so busy looking for it, his birthday would slip by unnoticed. So Mark and David waited until John was asleep. They quietly snuck to the driveway, released the parking brake, put the vehicle into neutral and then began to push the car out of the driveway. A driveway which had a slight incline due to the fact that Uncle John’s house was nestled on the side of a hill.

It did not take much force to get the vehicle moving. And it seemed kind of cool that the car was moving down the long driveway on its own. Less work for them! However, the boys had not yet learn Newton’s first law motion. Namely: objects in motion tend to stay in motion… So naturally, excitement turned to fear when the car left the driveway, rolled across the road, through the barrier on the other side and down a steep embankment near a stream. The boys ran after the car and got to the edge of the road just in time to see the car hit a fallen log, turn sideways and somersault completely and land parallel right next to the stream.

Being avid action movie watchers, the boys stood breathlessly waiting for the car to explode followed by three firetrucks to descend on the scene followed by a half dozen sheriff vehicles and police chopper with a spotlight to chase down the culprits (accompanied by men with hound dogs of course).

After a few minutes David said, “Well, it seems alright.”

“Yeah, the windows aren’t even broken,” offered Mark.

“A tow truck could get that,” said David

“Yeah,” agreed Mark. Then he said, “It’s not as hidden as you planned.”

David shrugged, “Can’t do anything about that now. Guess it’ll have to do.”

With that the boys snuck back into the house and went to sleep.

Hours later, one of John’s more ornery neighbors was driving by after a full night of drinking. Knowing he was three sheets to the wind, he was cautiously driving by the abode of law enforcement when he noticed the break in the barrier at the side of the road. Being inebriated, Pete thought it was a good idea to stop and check it out.

When he saw what type of vehicle had made the breach and was now sitting on the bank of the stream, he began to laugh. He stopped himself incase anyone was watching. He squinted and tried to clear his blurred vision to see if there was anyone in the vehicle. When he was satisfied there wasn’t, he looked around, took out a cigaret and lit it. He then removed his urine excreting organ from his pants and proceeded to water the hillside.

He was immensely enjoying the thought of telling his buddies that he pissed on a cop car as he carelessly flicked the remains of the cigaret into the weeds of the embankment and turned to go. How exactly the drunken flick of cigaret could manage to land it in the path of gasoline that leaked from the ruptured gas tank is still a mystery. The resulting explosion however sobered up old Pete something fierce.

It still took three days for the Sheriff’s Department to piece together exactly what happened. Three very long days in which John came to the realization that no punishment was going to snap David out of this bad behaviour. David and Mark were both severely punished; as was David in the previous incidents. He also realized that Carl’s guardianship of young David was not to blame for David’s pervious actions; that David was not just like Mark; and that David still had a lot of healing to do. Any notions of challenging Carl’s custody of David blew up with the car. John came to realize that although he loved David as much as Carl, Carl had a lot more finances and resources available to help David.

July came to an end. Carl and David moved to England for the school year. There was so much that was new to him and so much to explore, it was difficult for the inertia of David’s destructive patterns to take hold. Instead, began David’s fascination of the next new thing. He managed to stay in the same school system for nine months at a time during his remaining academic years, but he and Carl moved every year after that. And when he was old enough to work, David often worked two jobs, but changed jobs every few months.

David became addicted to new experiences but not lasting ones. He grew into a kind, charming handsome young man who everyone liked but nobody really knew. He developed the freedom that comes with youth to intensely care about a current workplace or school, or the people around him, without having his attention diverted by the responsibilities to develop a tomorrow. He lived in the now, learned to cherish the past without regret or remorse and left the future alone to figure out itself when the time came.

There were only three constants in David’s teenage years: Uncle Carl’s unique but stable and loving guardianship, Mark’s adventurous and accepting kinship, and the sense David was searching for something he could never find.

Chapter Twenty One - Susan’s Backstory 2

Seventeen-year-old Susan laid in a black coffin with a cream interior on one side of the small room. Her mother was in a silver coffin with a bright white lining. Susan opened her eyes and remarked, “You know, when you said you wanted to go shopping, this is not what I had in mind.”

Susan’s Mom shot up and excitedly asked, “You want to go shopping shopping?! I thought you hated shopping?”

“I do. I just, am willing to overlook it to spend time with you. But this Mom?” Susan was now also sitting up in her coffin, surveying the scene with amused disbelief.

Samantha shrugged and replied, “I didn’t want to try them out by myself. Is yours itchy? Mine’s itchy.”

“I don’t think it will matter much when the time comes,” said Susan, as she climbed out of her coffin. Susan then assisted her mother out of her coffin and guided her to a couple of chairs in the outer waiting room.

Samantha was a frail looking 47. Susan couldn’t help the worried look on her face. So Samantha reassured her, “as I’ve said before, tomorrow’s visit is just routine. They are going to give me the all clear and everything will be fine.”

“Then why are we here?” Susan asked.

“Well I could get hit by a car next week… Look, I had to do a bunch of planning just in case the worst case scenario came to light. So I figured I’d jot down all the details I wanted. For most of it, I know what I want. The only detail I couldn't figure out was which coffin. And it’s not like I can ask your father.”

“No, then you’d actually have to tell him you’re sick, or was sick, or may be sick again,” quipped Susan.

Samantha released a big heavy sigh, then said, “I’m sorry Susan. I know this has been a terrible burden on you and I don’t think I would have made it through it this time, if it hadn’t been for all your help. I really wish I could have kept you out of it, so you could of had a normal senior year.”

“Normal is overrated,” retorted Susan. “I don’t mind being here for you. I love you and will always be here for you. I just do not understand this resistance to telling Dad.”

“Well, your Dad is not the best when it comes to crisis situations,” confessed Samantha. “I never told you about the night you were born.”

“You mean the night ‘God fixed a flat tire’? I always assumed someone stopped to help fix the flat or it wasn’t real.” Susan said all knowingly.

“No Susan, it was real, it was flat, and no one was driving by at 3:30 in the morning to stop and help. With my contractions 15 minutes apart and your father in the middle of a dirt field praying at the top of his voice, I got out the car’s manual, the spare and the tool kit and fixed the damn tire. Then my water broke. And I yelled to your Dad: OK, God has fixed the F-ing Tire now DRIVE ME TO THE F-ING HOSPITAL!

I didn’t actually say ‘f-ing’ of course; it was one of the few occasions I felt swearing was justified. But boy, was I mad. Until the next contraction hit that is. Childbirth has a way of distracting you from your circumstances. There wasn’t a mad bone in my body when you were born. Just absolute sunshine and happiness.

It wasn’t until a week or two later, I was staring out the front window after feeding you and putting you down for a nap that reality hit me. I was looking at the front yard and the car in the driveway and noticed the spare tire was still on. And a wave of despair hit me like a ton of bricks and I collapsed into heap to weep.

The thought that my young husband was not a man of action in a time of crisis nearly destroyed me. But truth be told, it was unfair of me to expect superhuman abilities from him. And let’s face it we are all human. And when we panic we do stupid things. It’s human nature.

I eventually came to the conclusion that I’d rather have a man who loved me and was good to me all the days of my life, but went a little goofy on a few occasions, than noone, or a mediocre man, who was only good in crisis. I just figured, true crisis moments in life were rare, few and far between; and I can be the one to handle them if need be. I just never counted on cancer.

Not that I would have changed anything if I had. I love your father and accept him as he is.”

“I just don’t understand why you feel the need to protect him from this,” responded Susan. “Yeah, initially he may go all goofy again, but he should love you enough to adjust.”

“I guess this is where my error prone humanity comes in, Susan. I’m not protecting him as much as protecting myself. I don’t have the energy to fight this illness and provide the support your Dad would need to cope with this. I’m just not strong enough. And maybe I’m a terrible wife for not giving him the chance, but the night you were born was not the only incident. Now, you figured out that I was sick before. You made observations and remembered when you were younger how I was sick a lot.”

“Yeah, it was like a flash. It just came to me that this was not the first time.” remarked Susan.

“And do you remember what your father was like during that time of your life?”

Susan thought for a moment. She replayed memorable scenes from the decade before. She slowly began to realized that her Dad’s sermons had begun to change when she was about 6 or 7. By the time she was 8, his sermons had gone over the top dark and fearful for a time. It was about this time she began question the reality of religion.

Her father’s sermons slowly reverted back to a more normal tenor until puberty hit Susan. They began to ramp back up again even more over the past year. Susan realized that her thinking it had to do with her inevitable leaving for college was a selfish viewpoint.

“You’re saying that subconsciously he already knows?” Susan respectfully asked.

“I think that if what we saw as a reaction on a subconscious level is any indication, then, yeah, I don’t think I could have handled his full blown knowledge,” replied Samantha.

“I’m sorry Mom. I know you love him, but I wish he was a better partner for your. I wish he would have been here with us. Well, not here…” Susan indicated the funeral home. “But just part of the team.”

“Well, hopefully when you get married, it will be with someone you love, loves you, is good to you, supportive and is good in a pinch. But don’t be upset if whoever he is, he’s not all those things. Most people aren’t; at least not all the time.”

As Samantha and Susan got up to leave Samantha put her arm around her daughter and said, “Besides, after tomorrow this will all be mute.”

“Are you sure you do not want me to come with you to the doctor’s tomorrow?” Susan pleaded.

“Your finals start tomorrow,” Samantha reminded her.

“They’d let me take them some other time if they knew… I think you planned it so I couldn’t go with you,” accused Susan.

For the billionth time in her life, Samantha was in awe of her daughter’s keen insight. “You’re right, I did. I’m all better and you do not need to spend another minute as my nurse. It’s time for you to return to your regularly scheduled life.” replied Samantha with the biggest smile she gather up the strength to give.

Susan conceded the conversation. She saw the finality in her mother’s eyes on the subject and for the first time in years gave into the idea of having faith in something. Faith in the words of her Mom.

Samantha felt bad about lying to Susan. With every part of her being, Samantha knew the truth: that last round of treatments did not eradicate the cancer. She also knew she was out of options. The only question was when.

The doctor formally informed her of her time frame of “months” at her appointment. Not surprised and not afraid, Samantha went back to the funeral home immediately following her appointment and purchased the silver coffin with the bright white lining.

Samantha felt emboldened with a new sense of purpose. Gone was the weight of worry. She was lighted with new energy. Of which Susan mistook as sign her mother was truly better. Even Susan’s father’s sermon following her graduation from high school was pleasantly unexpectedly uplifting. For the first time in a long time Susan began to breath easy in her heart.

Which is why Samantha’s sudden death from an “accidental overdose” of cancer medication a week and a half later felt so inhumanly unfair. Susan was left numb and emotionless with shock. She physically moved from moment to moment, through mornings, afternoons and evenings, day by day, without engaging her mind beyond what task needed completion. She watched without pity, fear, or sorrow as her father launched himself into an alcoholic dismemberment of all decency. She minimally observed her Aunt and Grandmother’s attempts to nursing her father back from the brink of insanity. Susan concentrated on getting her mother buried and taking care of the business that post death brings.

It was the day before the July 4th holiday weekend when grief finally came to pay Susan a visit. It came in form of her classmate, Juan, standing on her doorstep dressed in jeans and a bowling shirt with his dad’s flower shop’s name embroidered on it, holding a medium size storage box in his hands. The box had a big red bow tied around it with a single red rose placed behind the bow.

Juan stammered out an apology: “I’m sorry about the bow...my father insisted… I don’t think it’s what your mother ordered…”

“My Mom?” Susan softly asked in shock.

“Yeah, a week before graduation, she came into the shop; with this box and a request to have it delivered today with a rose…. “ Juan had realized he hadn’t offered his condolences and immediately felt guilty he didn’t start with that. He wanted to say something about how sorry he was, but as Susan just stood there looking at him, he felt awkward. So instead he said, “Would you like me to put this down somewhere?”

Susan took a step back to let him in and then gestured to a coffee table in the living room. Juan gently placed it down and they both stared at it for a moment, then he said, “Again, I’m sorry about the bow. Your Mom told my Dad it was for your birthday, but I know it’s not until the fall, and um….” Juan felt very awkward and unsure of what to say, but he stumbled on: “I don’t have any other deliveries for today. Do you need me to stay while you open it? … I know we don’t know each other very well, but… sometimes it’s nice to have someone around… you know, during difficult stuff.”

Susan looked at Juan and saw the sincerity in his eyes. She gracefully declined his offer while communicating to him her gratitude for it.

“Well, I’ll be at the shop if you need to talk at all this summer,” he offered as he left. Susan nodded and thanked him before watching him walk away as she closed the door. She stood with her back against the door and stared at the box not knowing what to do next. Fear hit her hard in the stomach, as Susan suddenly realized any family member could walk in at any moment. That box was evidence of what they would consider a crime and were currently blissfully ignorant about.

Susan quickly grabbed the box and fled to her room, tossed the box on the bed and locked the door. She threw the rose onto her desk and ripped off the ribbon and buried it in her trash so it wasn’t visible. She then took a deep breath and opened the box.

Inside the box was a pile of loose leaf notebooks. Susan dumped them out on her bed and spread them out. They were all labeled the same: on the top right on the front of every book, in her mother’s handwriting, were the words “For Susan.” Within each book were pages and pages of handwritten notes occasionally interrupted with a picture or object scotch taped onto the page.

Susan did not get much further than a single sentence from a single entry before bursting into tears. The memory of her mother’s voice lept from the pages to remind her she would never hear it again. A title wave of grief sent Susan into sobs. Susan finally began the mourning process.

Susan spent the month of July secretly mourning her mother and reading the books. Samantha had started the books during her first bout of cancer. Fearing she might not get the chance to advise her daughter on important matters of teenagehood; she began to write down bits of advice that all parents daydreamed giving their kids. How to handle dating, peer pressure, alcohol, driving, and so on and so forth.

As Susan grew older however, Samantha’s writing became more memoir-esque. She began to describe incidents or occasions that Susan made her proud. Sometimes she would re-iterate and expand on a lecture of good behavior when Susan had acted inappropriately. And some entries were just mementos of places they had been or things they had done with a short description and word of thankfulness or two.

The last entry in the last book was perhaps the hardest to read:

My Beloved Daughter, by now I am sure you have figured out all the truths surrounding my passing. Please forgive me. Right or wrong, I simply wanted two things: not to become a burden - to finish my life with dignity before I was too incapacitated to do so, and to provide you with a less than horrible begining to college.

Take the summer to morn. Then begin life again fresh and new at college.

I know that’s a lot to ask, and maybe I don’t have right to ask it. However, I hope you know, I believe I’ll be able to be with you and watch over you. And, of course now you have these notebooks to read if ever you miss me.

I know it’s not fair, not giving you the chance to say goodbye. Especially since it’s seems that I’ve spent years filling notebooks with lots of types of goodbyes. So for one last piece of advice: Go to my stash of “just in case” collection of containers in my desk. Pick out a test tube or a petri dish or just any old sampler container. In that container place the crumbled dried out remains of a flower that reminds you of me. If ever you feel ready to say goodbye, find a windswept location and release the flower into the sky.

I love you with all my heart Susan,
Mom

 

Chapter Twenty Two - Backstory 3

Anyone who saw Jillian, normally would have noted she was an intoxicating redhead. Green eyes, long curly red hair and body measurements equalling vah-vah-vah-voom status usually granted her approving stares and smiles. However, her fellow riders on the elevator in the Empire State Building were not appreciative of her overindulgence of perferfume on this particular afternoon.

If Jillian had noticed everyone shrinking away from her in the hope for less perfumed air, she wouldn’t have cared. She floating on a wave of romantic and physical pleasure on her way to meet a man. And, oh, what a specimen of a man! Last night’s foray into foreplay left Jillian smiling so much, her cheeks were almost beginning to hurt. Whatever David had in store for her, she was ready. She was even ready to fall in love or be in love. She felt free and weightless and ready for anything.

Jillian glided out of the elevator, hurried through the interior observation deck and stepped outside. She paused only a moment to feel the wind whip around her and flutter her hair and clothes in a romantic manner. She quickly looked for the directional marker above the door she just came out of, then set off to find “SOUTH”. As she rounded the corner of the south side of the building she paused again. This time to admire the view, the view of David.

Standing across from the directional sign and looking out onto the city was 21-year-old David. Dressed simply in a well fitting black t-shirt and jeans looking casual, comfortable and fashionable all at once. Jillian pondered that even the sculptors of ancient Greece would be impressed. She hurried to his side and enthusiastically said, “Hi!”

“Hello,” smiled David. It was a warm smile but slightly reserved. Inside, David was dreading this encounter. He didn’t want to break things off with Jillian, but he knew it was best. What he didn’t know was how to start. He had originally thought that the Empire State Building would provide a good vantage point to point out there were 1.5 million people in Manhattan; and from there explain the odds Jillian could find someone better than him to date. Upon reflection of this plan while waiting for her, David realized this strategy, at this well known romantic place, was a dumb idea.

“Well?” asked Jillian expectantly, “You said we had to meet… it was important…”

“It’s about last night,” started David. But when he saw how Jillian’s big smile got even bigger and her eyes twinkled at the mention of the previous night, he stammered, “it was great… but…” David searched for a way to say it wasn’t a mistake, but it shouldn’t have happened. “It was too much… I went too far, and I’m sorry.”

“Oh.” replied Jillian. She thought for a moment and said, “I’m not sorry. Not at all.” Jillian smiled playfully at David and put her arms around his waist. She was praying he was just being gentlemanly or gallant or some other show of romantic politeness that had long been lost between the sexes. It took a month for her to convince him to go out for just drinks and another three weeks to get a kiss. She almost thought he was gay until he kissed her; especially, the way he kissed her. Getting to last night seemed to be a monumental achievement and a turning point. If they had to slow things down again, well, it wouldn’t be as physically satisfying, but romantically, it might be nice.

David began again, seeing Jillian was not getting his drift, “I think I owe you a little honesty.” David took her hands from around him and held them together in his in front of him. “I think it’s obvious that I am over-the-moon physically attracted to you. And I think you are an amazing person. But I think you should know,” David took a deep breath and confessed, “I’m not romantically attracted to you.”

Jillian stepped back breaking the hold of their hands. She turned to look at the city, grasp the stone wall in front of her and tried to breathe. She felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach. Her mind began to race through thousands of encounters over the years from smiles to dates to breakups. Now, in this new light of this new concept, some of them made a new kind of sense. Jillian realized, she was never physically attracted to someone without being romantically attracted to them. It never occurred to her there could be a separation of attractions.

David stood and watched her. He did like Jillian. He even cared for Jillian. He certainly did not want to hurt her. However, he knew if he let things take their natural course, Jillian would end up much more hurt when he ended it later on. Normally he would not have let things go so far. Normally, David didn’t date. If he did date, it was only on few dates before he moved on to a new school or a new summer destination. David’s humanity however, did get the better of him every few years and despite those relationships being few and far between, he learned there was no escaping causing pain or being in pain.

David continued to wait for Jillian to talk next. He was determined to take whatever tongue lashing he had coming. He had never seen Jillian mad or upset. He was willing to bet that it would rival her abilities to be passionate.

Meanwhile, Jillian’s mind had quickly dismissed the questions as to why David wasn’t romantically attracted to her and if that was a changeable condition, and had moved on to asking if she needed David to be romantically attracted to her. Did she need to be romantically attracted, now, to be physically intimate? Could she seperate them? Had David told her this a week ago, she would have said no, she couldn’t separate them. After last night though, she had a pressing human need than a romantic one.

Jillian wiped the tears from her cheeks, squarely faced David, smiled broadly and said, “OK!”
David was dumbstruck, “OK?”

Jillian slowly said, “I am OK with it.”

“I still don’t understand,” David apologetically confessed.

“I am OK if we continue a physical, platonic relationship.” stated Jillian.

“Oh, I don’t know Jillian. I’m not sure I’m OK with that.”

“Huh? Why not?” asked Jillian.

“It’s not fair to you. You say you’re OK with it, but a month from now, when I leave for France, you may feel a lot worse than you do now. Jillian,” David paused, not sure if he should confess the next part, “I’ve been through this once before.”

Jillian mulled this new piece of information around in her head. She remembered he said he didn’t date much. He just said this happened once before - not many times before. He’s an exceptionally hot guy being confronted by a girl he admits to being attracted to and who is practically throwing herself at him with the offer of no strings attached. This man, Jillian concluded, must be petrified of falling in love, being in love or just being loved or all of the above. For his charm, wit and joviality, this man must be the saddest man she’s ever met.

“OK David,” she said finally. Thoughts of the previous night, however, would not stop flashing in her mind. “But you know, we started something last night…” She noticed David blushed a bit at remembering, “and I want to finish it. Just one night. Just be mine for one night.”

David was a little flabbergasted. She was so hard to say no to. Now he really wished he hadn’t taken an extra shift at the bar that night. “I have to work tonight,” he meekly said.

“When?”

“My shift starts at 9.”

“Well lets go now then!”

“Now?!” David looks at his watch, “Don’t you have to go back to work?”

“I’ll call in and tell them something.” Jillian moved in real close to David and softly, seductively said, “Come on.”

It was too much. Her eyes, her hair, her smile. There was no point fighting. There really was no reason not to. David conceded with a big smile and softly said, “Alright.”
They rushed to the elevator, practically running down the steps in the inner lobby and nearly knocking over a thin young woman with long brown hair they barely noticed. They managed a quick “Sorry” and hurried on their way to the elevator.

Susan looked at the backs of the deliriously happy couple as they eagerly entered the elevator and gave them a disapproving look. Not that they could see it. Still, she felt people should show more decorum in public places.

Susan turned back around and stared at the doors that led outside. There was a part of Susan that had no desire to go through those doors. But, she resolved, even if she didn’t do what she came up here to do, she paid money to come up here; she should at least enjoy the view.

Susan left the inner observation space of The Empire State Building and made her way to what seemed like the “quietest” corner of outside deck. There she stood for the longest time, hands in her coat pockets, not moving, not adjusting for the wind or other people. She stood there so long and still, it was almost as if she was apart of the building. A part no one took notice of.

It has been almost a year since her mother died. Susan was reviewing all the events in her life since then. In some ways she felt as if she aged ten years. I other ways she felt as if she was still waiting to reach maturity; still waiting to be a full fledged adult with all the rights and privileges thus afforded. Some students return home from their freshman year greatly changed; for some students, it takes a bit longer. And some students don’t return home at all.

Sometimes, home was a cocoon which the butterfly can never return to. That’s how Susan felt. Not that she felt like a butterfly or had any such romantic notions about herself that are normally associated with butterflys. She just felt her time from backwater Smallville USA was done, over, a closed chapter in her life.

College was much harder than she anticipated. Susan however, relished the challenge. At first she struggled, then she thrived and now she wonders how she could survive without it. A 24-7 smorgasbord of intellectual pursuit (if you want it to be that way). No romantic visions of religion. No romanticized views of life. Just analysis and study.

In the middle of all that intellect, studies and learning, there was a singular small bookcase. In the center of the middle shelf of that bookcase, neatly arranged, were the notebooks from her mother. Although she did not look at them at all during the year, they were a lovely reminder of who and what truly inspired her. Additionally, they reminded her of the last duty her mother had tasked her to do and she had been putting off.

As Susan stood there in that windswept corner of The Empire State Building she grew unsure of her task. Nevertheless, she reached into her inside coat pocket and removed a test tube and looked at its contents. She twisted the test tube round and round watching the larger crumblings of rose petals tumble over smaller particles of rose petals. Susan realized she was procrastinating. And she realized why.

“I don’t want to say goodbye” she thought. She sighed. She held back a tear.

Then she firmly grasped the tube, removed its cap and confidently poured a small measure of its contents on the wall. As the wind swept it away, Susan opened up her mouth and hoarsely managed the one thing she could think to say: “Thank You.”

Chapter Twenty Three - A Second Denouement

David scooched over to place his arm around his sleeping wife and to cuddle close. Susan let out slight moan. David jokingly whispered in her ear, “Do you want to make more babies?”

“No.” Susan whispered back, “I want to fart.”

“Should I get out of the blast zone?” asked David still whispering.

Susan rolled over and answered, “I’m not going to fart, because the girls have learned that it’s your sign you’re awake.”

“Really?” David waited a moment then let his morning release of gas rip. Moments later, the thumpety thump thump of little feet came racing down the hall. In through the bedroom door burst Sami, Ellie, Jasper The 2nd and Mister Cat Le Shat. The seven-year-old, the five-year-old and the dog bounded onto the bed all talking at once, while the cat sought refuge on a windowsill.

Amongst the cuddles, kisses, tickles, laughter, tattle telling, pouts and apologies came the sound of Susan’s alarm clock. David and Susan got out of bed while the girls and the dog began to bounce on the bed shouting: “WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!”

“ATTENTION” shouted David drill sergeant-esque style. “LINE UP!”

The girls and the dog formed a line on the wall of the bedroom near the door. The cat began to clean itself. David then gave his commands: “Ellie, you begin Morning Stuff in the bathroom. Sami, you begin Morning Stuff in the bedroom. Jasper-the-second head to the kitchen and await food. Shat… just keep licking yourself.”

Jasper-the-second barked and the girls in unison said “Aye Aye Captain Daddy,” before they saluted and went on their way. Susan had already retreated to their bathroom to get ready for work. David followed the dog downstairs, used the bathroom there and started preparing breakfast for everyone.

When Susan came downstairs, David was serving the girls their breakfasts. “For you little Ellie,” said David, “two sunny eyes with a bacon smile. For Silly Sami, poached eggs on cheddar and sourdough. Bon Appetit!”

Susan sighed, “David, they’ll miss the bus! You know most kids do just fine with a quick bowl of cereal.”

“If they miss the bus,” replied David, “I’ll drive them. And most kids are asleep by recess because all they had was measly cereal. Besides, our kids aren’t most kids.”

“OK, I give! I have to go, I have to prepare for the Board meeting. I’m proposing the museum expansion today.”

“You look very lovely today Mommy,” said Sami the charmer, smiling sweetly.

“You’ve done lots of hard work. You’ll do great today Mommy,” said Ellie, the analyst with a mouth full of bacon.

“Thank you girls!” said Susan as she gave them hugs and kisses goodbye. “Have a good day! I love you!”

David handed her a brown paper lunch bag and said, “Just a one egg omelet on an english muffin, and some green grapes. Nothing too messy. Nothing that would stain. Just a healthy start for your busy day.”

Susan thanked him and they kissed goodbye. It was one of those kisses, if they didn’t have kids, David would have made sure Susan was late for work. But as it was, once Suan left, David returned his attention to his mischievous minors.

“What should we do today?” he asked. “Go to the zoo?”

“Daaaad! It’s a school day!” giggle whined studious Ellie.

“Don’t you two little monkeys go to school at the zoo?!”

“Nooooooo!” they both shouted.

“Huh! Really? We’ll have to do something to fix that!” retorted David, which left the girls having to explain to their Dad the numerous reasons why they couldn’t go to school at a zoo. A discussion that lasted through breakfast, brushing teeth, getting out the door and halfway through the ride to school.

Then Ellie asked, “Do you really have a job?”

“Of course I do sweetie. You know I work for the Foundation. Why do you think I don’t have job.”

“Well, why don’t you have to be at your job early everyday like Mommy?”

“Well…” David had to think a moment. He learned the hard way kids literal understanding of the world makes explaining things in his normal joking manner difficult. “for one thing, I am very lucky the Foundation does not require me to keep specific hours. For another thing, the things I am paid to do don’t take me as long it might take others.”

“How come?”

“Well…” David really just wanted to say that smart people don't have to work so hard. Luckily he realized a thousand ways that could go wrong. “Since I studied really hard in school and I eat all my vegetables, I am really fast at doing my job. And what might make someone who hasn’t studied as hard or has only eaten junk food, say eight hours to do, may take me four hours.”

“Did Mommy not study as much as you did?”

David cringed inside thinking how the retelling of this story by his kids, to his wife would not go well. He had to correct this right away: “No. Mommy and Daddy are equally smart and accomplished and hard working. Mommy’s job is just, very different than Daddy’s. And one of the ways it is different is, it takes more time to do it. So, if I did Mommy’s job I would have no time to make your breakfast and if Mommy had my job, she would have time to make your breakfast. Is that clear?”

“OK Daddy,” responded his youngest, but David wasn’t sure she was even paying attention at that point. He knew both of his girls had learned to just say OK when they were ready to tune out.

David pulled up to the school and helped his daughters out of their seats and on with their backpacks. He gave them each hugs and kiss goodbye while saying, “This is the second best part of my day!”

“We know,” said Sami. Then in unison Sami and Ellie said, “The best part of the day is hugs and kisses hello.”

“Now…” said David expectantly pointing at Sami.

Sami stated, “Stay safe.”

David pointed to Ellie and she said, “Have fun!”

He pointed to both and in chorus again the chanted: “And Learn Lots!”

One more quick set of hugs with “Bye Daddy/Love you Daddy” and they were off to join their friends. David watch them go before climbing into his car. As he sat in the driver's seat he had an epiphany. Forensic accounting may be the job that he was paid to do, but fatherhood and husband were the jobs he was born to do. Maybe he’d play hooky today and read some of Samantha Huxley’s notebooks or maybe he would give Uncle Carl a call and see if he wanted to have lunch. Or maybe do both in a quest to seek advice from the experts.

After all, you can always improve what you’re currently doing, even if you think you are doing it well.