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The Surprising Stardom of Pookie Opterus

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James turned off the engine of the car and sat staring at the garage wall for a moment. His teeth were clenched. He forced himself to relax his jaw, jutting his chin out and moving it from side to side.

He pulled the keys out of the ignition and reached over to the passenger seat for his briefcase. He lifted himself out of the car seat and walked to the door of the house. He paused, hand on the knob, for a moment. Be pleasant. They didn’t do anything wrong.

He walked into the entryway. As he hung up his jacket, a sound behind him made him turn around. His wife stood there, her slender body hidden in part by the apron covering her work clothes, her chin-length brown hair sleek and tidy. "Katherine." He stepped closer to his wife and kissed her lightly. "How was your day?"

“All right, out with it. What’s wrong?” Her green eyes were focused intently on him.

He should have known he couldn't keep it from her. He forced a smile onto his face. “Would you believe me if I said ‘nothing’?” he tried.

Katherine’s lips pinched together like she was trying not to smile. "I'm going to go with no." She nodded as if to emphasize her words.

“It isn't that a big of a deal. Just... do you remember me talking about my latest assignment?” James felt a rush of heat flood into his face as he remembered the ranting he did and hoped maybe this once her memory would fail her.

“The ‘bullshit’ assignment? The ‘I didn't take a job at Publicis to make commercials nobody was going to pay for’ assignment?”

He looked down at the floor. Oh, she remembered all right. He moved his gaze from her painted toenails back to her face.

“The ‘I brought them the CIBC account and they hand me a pro bono bit of nonsense like I'm a brand new ad exec’ assignment? I vaguely recall you mentioning it once or twice.” She smirked at him.

He felt a smile flicker on and off. “Turns out? It is not so much a bullshit assignment as it is a crucial, highly valued project. Which my team hasn't even looked at yet. And which we’re supposed to present to the CEO on Friday.” He was screwed.

“Well, at least it means they are taking you seriously.” Her eyebrows were raised and her mouth quirked up on the right.

He could always trust Katherine to find the silver lining. “Yes, which means they will be even more annoyed when they realize that I wasn't taking them seriously.” He was such an idiot. This had all been totally avoidable.

“You still have time. Meet with your team tomorrow and see what you can come up with. You’ll have a couple of brilliant ideas to take in on Friday and everything will be fine.”

“You’re probably right.” James needed to be convinced.

“And in the meantime, there’s nothing you can do about it, dinner is almost ready so just enjoy your family.” She nudged him away from the door and towards the kitchen.

James picked up his briefcase and entered the kitchen. “Hi, Daddy!” J.J. ran up to him and he scooped the boy into his arms.

“Hi, Monkey.” He kissed his son’s cheek, carefully avoiding the smudge of blue paint. “What did you do today?”

“I made a nest for Pookie Opterus!”

Dammit, not this again.

“Mommy gave me a shoebox.” J.J. wiggled to get down and James set him on the floor. “I’ll show you!” He ran to the door of the kitchen and turned around. “It is sooooooooo soft. Pookie Opterus will love it!” He raced out of the room and James could hear the thuds as he went up the stairs.

James turned to his wife. “I thought we agreed we wouldn't encourage him in this ridiculous game.”

“No, you agreed. I don't think it is ridiculous. Lots of children have imaginary friends.” She shrugged. “It’s perfectly normal.”

“First of all, having imaginary friends isn’t normal. I never had one. You never had one. The sooner he learns not to lie, the better.” James set his briefcase on the counter with a loud thud. “And even if it were normal for him to have an imaginary friend, he doesn't have a ‘normal’ imaginary friend-- he has an imaginary miniature hippopotamus! That is just strange.”

Katherine moved over to the stove, took the lid off of a pot, and stirred the contents. “What harm does it do to let him have an imaginary hippo?” She turned around to face him, a grin on her face. “As pets go, it’s pretty easy to live with-- it sleeps 16 hours a day, so it's not like it's in the way. In fact, we’ve never even seen it!”

James was amused in spite of himself, but he pressed on. It was important for parents to teach kids how to behave appropriately. “Well, for one thing, if J.J. keeps leaving raisins and pieces of peanut butter toast on the floor, we'll get some sort of a bug infestation. And they won't be imaginary bugs!"

J.J. came back into the room, a shoebox cradled in his arms. “Look, Daddy.” He held out the shoebox. James crouched down and looked at the contents: a blue and white striped mitten, a ball of dryer lint, and some kind of string. “Don't you think Pookie Opterus will like it?”

James felt a sinking sensation in his stomach but he knew what he had to do. “J.J., Pookie Opterus is--”

“Dinner is ready.” Katherine’s voice was pleasant but her jaw was tight.

James felt his body relax and his stomach return to normal. He was grateful for the interruption.

Katherine started dishing food onto plates. “Put the shoebox back in your closet where Pookie Opterus can find it.”

After J.J. was gone, Katherine spoke quietly. “You won't crush him by telling him the truth until we've both agreed how to handle it.”

James rubbed his hand across his face and sighed. “I can’t sit there at the dinner table and pretend to believe in an imaginary hippopotamus!”

Katherine handed him two plates to carry to the table. “Nobody is saying you have to pretend to believe. You don't have to actively agree with him-- just don't argue with him.”

“So we let him lie to us.” A man was only as good as his word. James stood facing her, the peas in danger of hitting the floor as he gestured with the plates in his hands.

“It’s not lying-- it’s pretend.” She picked up the final plate and walked over to the table. James followed in her wake. “It’s like Santa Claus. We tell him Santa is real. You even dress up as Santa!”

“Yes, well, that’s… different.” It had to be.

She put the plate down and turned to face him. Her head tilted to the left and her eyes narrowed. “Because we’re the ones doing the lying?”

James opened his mouth, realized he had no idea what to say, and closed it again.

She took a deep breath and her face relaxed. She put her hand on his arm. “Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and hippos small enough to live in a closet--” Her voice was quiet but firm. “They’re all part of childhood magic.”

Magic. It had never been a part of his childhood. There was a sudden heaviness in his chest and his eyes felt hot.

-----

James sat in the conference room, forcing himself not to fidget despite the jittery nervous energy charging throughout his body. As the CEO, Mr. Clark, technically, but he loomed so large in James’ mind that he was more the position than a man, watched the team’s presentation, James scrutinized him. Although they'd presented their best idea for the ad, the CEO still seemed unimpressed. His face was rigid and he kept looking at his watch.

As the presentation came to a close, the CEO pushed his chair back from the conference room table and turned to face James. The dark eyes under their bushy grey eyebrows bored into him. James felt a sinking sensation in his stomach.

“That--” A large hand with carefully buffed nails gestured toward the front of the room where the team still stood next to the storyboard. “-- is entirely unsuitable. It’s not even close to what the CCA is looking for.” He leaned forward, his gray crew cut and linebacker shoulders edging into James’ personal space. “Have you seen any of the spots other ad companies have done for them?”

James swallowed hard and forced himself not to push his chair back. He would not look intimidated.

“Like that one with the body bag. That’s memorable! This? It's like you sat down at the last minute and threw something together.”

James flinched and he felt a burning sensation under his sternum. That was too close for comfort.

“No effort at all. Is this the best you can do?” The chair creaked as the CEO sat back.

James’ mind raced. He looked over at his team and they were all looking at him. Probably wondering if he thought one of them had told the CEO just how little effort they'd made on the project. Or just glad he was the one who was responsible for this whole mess. He felt sweat trickling down his sides. This was the moment that would define his future at the company. He looked back at the CEO.

“There--” James cringed at the weakness in his voice. He took a deep breath and leaned forward in his seat. “There was another idea we had.” He was scrambling. There wasn't. He didn’t dare look at his team. “It might be more what they’re looking for but it was a late-stage inspiration and we didn't have sufficient time to start the storyboard over again.”

James wondered how long he could get away with babbling out an introduction while trying to spontaneously dream up an ad in his head. If he had J.J.’s imagination, it would be easier. That gave him the seed of an idea. He felt a charge of nervous excitement tingle down his neck.

“It’s a little out there, but if they want memorable, this would be memorable.”

What would be memorable?” The CEO’s fingers drummed against the conference room table.

He was definitely out of stalling time. “It's about an imaginary pet.” He sounded like an idiot.

“An imaginary pet.” Although his face was expressionless, the questioning emphasis he placed on the last word revealed how dubious he was. Not a promising start.

“Yeah. Well, not a pet, exactly, but an imaginary animal.” His forehead grew damp. “At first, the ad would seem--the animal, I mean, would seem real. At the end, the animal isn’t real. Was never real. Getting across the message: ‘You can’t believe everything you see on TV!’”

The CEO leaned forward. “I’m not seeing how this would work.”

Don’t panic. Explain. “It’s like cutting down a nature show to fit into the timing of an ad.” James fumbled for a clearer description.

“Like the Hinterland Who’s Who.” Mike interjected.

James looked over at Mike who was still standing at the front of the room, his blonde cowlick sticking up and his tie crooked. James nodded, holding the eye contact for a second before turning back to the CEO. “Right, like the Hinterland Who’s Who commercials from the 70s. With that flute music? I remember one about loons. In fact, if we could get the same guy to do the voiceover, it would be perfect.” The brainstorming was flowing. This could work. “But, in our spot, the animal being shown and described isn’t real, which we reveal at the end.”

The CEO rubbed his hand across the top of his head, his hair popping right back into place as he removed his hand. “So it’s a Hinterland Who’s Who spot about, what, a unicorn?”

James didn’t know the CEO well enough to tell if he was ridiculing the idea or still trying to follow along. He hoped it was the latter or his career at Publicis was doomed.

“No, definitely not a unicorn. It needs to look at first like the animal is real. We need actual live footage and not a cartoon.” James took a breath. “I’m picturing a miniature hippopotamus. It’s easy to take live footage of a hippopotamus and make the animal seem significantly smaller than it really is. It’s living secretly in a house, eating raisins and crumbs and sleeping in nests made out of dryer lint.”

James took a deep breath and waited. Now that he’d laid it out, he felt calm. He’d taken his best shot. There was nothing more he could do.

“A tiny hippo living in a bedroom closet?” The CEO was smiling. James felt the knot in his stomach unwind and his shoulders drop further from his ears.

Mike interrupted. “A house hippo. That’s what we’d call it in the ad.” He sounded very authoritative for someone who had just heard the idea a moment before. Mike deserved a raise.

“Very creative. And memorable!” The CEO pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. “Put together a full storyboard and we’ll take it to CCA. I suspect they’ll be very happy with it.”

James waited until the CEO was gone before walking over to Mike and shaking his hand. “Great work chiming in like that. Really helped sell it.”

“Great idea!” Mike laughed. “I can’t believe you just came up with it out of the blue like that-- I thought we were toast!”

“Well, desperation breeds inspiration, I guess.” Desperation and living with someone who believed in magic.

-----

James fiddled with the remote. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to let him watch the commercial?”

Katherine sat down on the couch with him. “We always let him watch the debuts of your commercials. He loves seeing your work!”

“Yes, I know, but I’m worried...” He trailed off and stared down at the remote in his hand.

“Worried about what?”

“The commercial is about not believing in house hippos! And I don’t want...” James didn’t know how to put his concern into words.

“You don’t want Pookie Opterus to cease to exist.” Katherine smiled at him, her eyes crinkling.

James realized she was right. He’d gone from wanting to rip off the bandage and tell J.J. the truth to wanting to protect J.J.’s belief in magic as long as possible. “Yeah. Well, sort of. What if he realizes Pookie Opterus doesn’t exist because of my commercial, it would be like, like...”

“Like you killed Pookie Opterus.” Katherine made a slicing motion across her throat. “It’s not going to happen. It’s like with Santa Claus-- all the contradictory evidence gets ignored until they’re ready to learn the truth.” She rested her hand on his arm. “J.J. won’t get that the point of the commercial is that there is no such thing as a house hippo unless he doesn’t need Pookie Opterus anymore.” She grinned at him. “Besides, as much as I love your commercial idea, I would bet a million dollars that kids all over Canada are going to be asking Santa Claus for a house hippo this year! They will want to believe, no matter what the ad says at the end.”

The sound of J.J.’s footsteps getting closer stopped James from answering. “Is it time?”

James smiled at the sight of his son, hair damp from the bath, wearing his pajamas. “Almost, Monkey, come sit with us.” James patted the spot between him and his wife.

James turned the TV on and changed the channel. He looked at his watch and back at the screen. “It’ll be the first ad in the next commercial break. Any minute now.” James saw the kitchen appear on the TV and heard the first familiar strain of music. “This is it!”

It's night time in a kitchen just like yours; all is quiet, or is it?

“POOKIE OPTERUS!” J.J. shouted, throwing his hands up in the air like he was a referee calling a touchdown.

The North American house hippo is found throughout Canada and the Eastern United States.

“Pookie Opterus is on TV!!” J.J scrambled up onto his knees and leaned in towards the TV.

House hippos are very timid creatures and they are rarely seen, but they will defend their territory if provoked.

“Ha! Pookie Opterus scared the kitty!!” J.J. clapped and bounced up and down on his knees.

They come out at night to search for food, water, and materials for their nests.

“Pookie Opterus is swimming!”

The favourite foods of the house hippo are chips, raisins and the crumbs from peanut butter on toast.

They build their nests in bedroom closets using lost mittens, dryer lint and bits of string. The nests have to be very soft and warm; house hippos sleep about 16 hours a day.

“Pookie Opterus is yawning!” J.J. leaned against James’ side and looked up at him. “He’s sleepy.”

This was it. James tensed in nervous anticipation. His heart raced.

That looked really real, but you knew it couldn't be true, didn't you? That's why it's good to think about what you're watching on TV, and ask questions, kind of like you just did.

A message from Concerned Children's Advertisers.

James felt the muscles in his shoulders and neck tighten as he muted the sound on the TV, his eyes on J.J.’s face, watching for his son’s reaction to the last part of the ad. He hoped he wasn’t responsible for wiping the look of wonder off of his son’s face.

“Daddy!” J.J. jumped into his lap and James flinched in surprise. “Pookie Opterus is a TV star! He’s the most famous house hippo in the world!”

James noticed that J.J. had instantly latched on to the term ‘house hippo’ and was glad that he’d already put Mike’s raise through. He felt his entire body relax--Pookie Opterus would live on.

Katherine raised her eyebrows in her classic ‘I told you so’ expression.

“Okay, J.J., give your daddy a hug goodnight and tell him he made a great commercial.” James felt J.J.’s arms tighten around his neck.

“G’night Daddy! Great commercial!” J.J. scrambled down from James’ lap. “I can’t wait until Pookie Opterus sees himself on TV!”

James watched his son and wife head up the stairs, happiness bubbling up in the back of his throat, making him laugh. He stood up and started to walk to the kitchen. Even clever ad execs and good fathers have to do the dishes on the nights their wife cooks.

At the door to the living room, a faint noise caught his attention and he turned around. In the flickering, blueish light of the television, he thought he saw movement under the couch. What was it? As he watched, a very tiny hippopotamus emerged from under the couch.

“Pookie Opterus?” James said in utter disbelief. Was he hallucinating?

Pookie Opterus turned and faced James and let out a small trumpeting sound. He sounded like a piglet grunting for a meal.

Holy crap! Katherine needed to see this with her own eyes or she would never believe it.

He watched as Pookie Opterus lumbered towards him, grunting again. James turned and quickly walked into the kitchen, reaching into the cabinet by the sink to fumble out one of the tiny boxes of raisins that J.J. took to day care as a snack. He went back to the living room only to find it empty.

“Pookie Opterus?” he called, his voice soft.

No answer.

He looked down at the box in his hand. He felt faintly ridiculous, but he opened the box and shook out some raisins and tucked them under the couch where Pookie Opterus could find them.

At the sound of his wife’s footsteps, he stood up abruptly.

“Are you okay?” Katherine asked as she entered the room.

“Hey, I’m more than just okay-- remember, you’re looking at the guy who turned Pookie Opterus into a living, breathing TV star!” He spread his arms wide in a grand ‘ta da’ gesture.

“My hero!” Katherine came over to him and hugged him.

James looked down at the couch. There was no sign of their resident house hippo, but James knew he was there, snacking on raisins, unfazed by his sudden stardom.