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Oct/Nov 2013 Fiction

Elephants

by Jennifer Dunn

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns


It's a cocktail party, so we're all pretending. But you can see it behind their eyes, plain as cataracts, the way they all know perfectly well. It's September, so Eric can hide his ankle bracelet beneath a pair of trousers. Which doesn't really matter, because everyone knows it's there anyway—everyone except for Auntie O—but at least this way it isn't just hanging out there on his bare calf, black as a tribal tattoo.

My parent's boathouse has all the windows flung open and the baseboard heat on. The sun has dropped behind Farrah's Mountain and the water looks like it's being lit from below with fluorescent bulbs, blue and orange as a fountain gone still in Vegas. "Elephants!" Auntie O cries, as we gather at the window with our pinot noir and Glenlivet. It's her 90th birthday.

There is a silence, the kind breathless with the hope that someone will chime in with a some quip that will make the moment less awkward, and then party's engine starts up again, so no one could really say who had been the first to decide to ignore O's outburst. "Elephants," she repeats quietly, raising a trembling finger to the windowscreen, hooked as a shrimp, and pointing into the dusk.

"I need to tell you about Tony," Eric tells me for the third time. He's drunk, and I can't say I blame him. I think maybe because he's my brother, I forgive him more than I should, and he knows this. He's tugging me toward the dock by the sleeve of my sweater. But I don't want to know anything more—I don't want there to be anything more to know.

The ankle bracelet is so they'll know if he goes within 500 feet of any schools or playgrounds. He's also not supposed to use any computers with Internet. I suspect no one thought Eric would show up at the party tonight, and we did actually debate it beforehand. Eric both did and didn't want to go—we all did and didn't want him to go—but in the end it was decided it was best for Auntie O. And I think this decision made us all feel more human for a minute, like there was still a part of ourselves that could remain untarnished by things.

Auntie O adores Eric above all. She's calling to him as he tugs me by the sleeve. "Ricky? Ricky?" She's looking like she wants to turn away from the window; she's leaning hard on the side of her walker like this will make it move. But Blaire Reyburn is standing next to her, and she says, "Olivia, it's me, Blaire." Blaire balances her wine glass on one of the long windowsills. My mother has set blue tea lights at measured increments along the sills, the tiny flames holding steady in the stillness of dusk.

Blaire touches O's shoulder. "Can I get you something?"

Eric and I watch this from the doorway, each hoping for different things: Eric that Blaire is successful in helping O, so that he doesn't have to go over there, me hoping that she isn't successful, so that he does.

O looks into Blaire's face, and for a second I think she might scream, but then her look mellows. I don't think she has a clue who Blaire is anymore, but she has decided to just go dormant in that way she sometimes does, like an animal hibernating in a bank of snow.

"Alright, who the fuck is Tony?" The dock is cool. We both look back at the boathouse like we're kids sneaking a joint. Our father stands by the bar, twisting a corkscrew into a bottle of wine. He laughs too loudly, as if he hadn't really been listening but everyone else started laughing so he thought that he had better laugh, too.

"There were actual girls," Eric says.

By actual, I assume he means flesh and blood girls and not just girls on the Internet.

"I thought you said there weren't."

Eric looks out at Farrah's Mountain. A bat swoops toward the water, and then farther off by the channel, a loon calls. "I was hoping I wouldn't have to tell you."

He says Tony is the FBI agent who posed as a 15-year-old cheerleader on oldrguyz4yngrgirlz.com. "Tony knows. Turns out Tony had been watching me for a long time. You know... before."

Eric's drunk enough that he seems to think this should be enough information. He drinks his scotch and looks as if he's done talking. But I'm in it now—he's dragged me in as if into the freezing lake—so I say, "What does this mean then? For sentencing?"

"Prison."

From the boathouse, I hear the pinging of a fork on the rim of a wine glass and my mother's voice, thin with the effort of veiling her fatigue, singing the opening bars of Happy Birthday. The party joins in, its engine eager to have something this easy to latch onto, and the sound of their singing tumbles out across the water.

I leave Eric and go back inside just in time to see Auntie O wobbling on her walker before the enormous carrot cake my mother ordered from Bearberries. A single blue candle, thick as those emergency candles we keep in the cellar for when the power goes out, flickers in the middle. The singing has stopped, and O looks down at the cake, the room on pause because no one is sure what she might do. "Elephants know even after 50 years," she says. My father stands at her elbow, ready to blow out the candle in case she can't manage it. But O closes her eyes and throws back her little head of lavender curls and puffs up her cheeks and goes for it. A slender tail of grey smoke rises from the knot of people around her like a silver ribbon tied to an invisible, rising balloon.

 

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