With a crash, the two bodies collided with pots and pans hanging from the ceiling of a cooking tent. Elizabeth thought that the sound was magnified by the beating of her heart. Or maybe that was just his chain mail. Elizabeth’s mind was warm with drink, and she tried to maintain her balance and composure while kissing David as they sank to the floor, each trying to make the act seem more purposeful to the other.
The firelight outside of the tent glinted off David’s chainmail hood as he pulled it off his head in one smooth motion. “Ow, my hair…” David slurred as the loops of metal clung to his long brown hair pulled into a ponytail. Elizabeth carefully tried to extract David’s hair from the hood in the dim lighting as he fumbled with the ties of the corset on the bodice of her dress. Finally, Elizabeth had just given up and braced her hands gently against his head to tear the hood free from his hair without him feeling more than a tug, not that he would have felt anything anyway.
David was still struggling with her corset, turning his head away from her sloppy kisses to squint at it in frustration. Elizabeth sighed and unzipped the side of the corset, sliding it away from the blouse underneath. “What the hell is going on here?” A slender blonde woman wearing a snood stood at the entrance to the tent with her hands on her hips. Her silhouette bobbed and swayed like an angry hen. Raucous laughter erupted from men and women around the fire pit outside. Obviously, they were the butt of a joke.
The woman stepped quickly inside the tent and pushed Elizabeth away from David, toppling her backwards into a black plastic bag full of kitchen waste. “Is that her?” She hissed the question into David’s ear while tugging at his metal-covered arm. The combination of David’s chunky frame and his weighted costume made him impossible to physically jerk around. David rubbed his eyes and swatted gently at the woman roaring drunkenly, “Leave me alone, Liz, you fat whore, it’s never gonna’ happen between us again. “
A lump rose in Elizabeth’s throat as she sat dizzily on the ground. Her hands shook and she clambered up to her feet, somehow using a card table as support. The woman in the snood straightened up as if to make sure that she was taller. “I’m David’s fiancée, Amanda Kinney-Dunn. You’re Elizabeth Crown?” She sounded incredulous. Elizabeth winced at the sound of her maiden name. She faced the woman in the snood critically. Her blonde hair framed a face that was decorated with makeup that wasn’t even slightly from the right historical period for this renaissance fair.
“Look, D’Amanda, the name’s Lizzie Snavely.” Elizabeth thought she sounded pretty darn snappy and sober. “You divorced” Amanda snapped, “two years ago.” Elizabeth blinked through burning tears. Now was not the time to cry. She had to be strong in the face of David’s latest rival for her. “You can’t take the name away,” Elizabeth stuttered, “I… I changed my name when I got married. I keep promises… I…”
“Wait a minute…” David rolled onto his knees and tried to unsuccessfully move to a standing position. He ended up kneeling unsteadily. “If you’re Liz, and you’re Mandy, who the hell was that broad on me in here?” Elizabeth and Amanda regarded David tiredly before the two women glared back at each other. “Go back to the car, David.” Amanda produced a set of car keys from a leather purse. Elizabeth decided that now was the moment to steal swiftly out the open tent flap and away into the night. She bolted out toward the bonfire surrounded by a fascinated and inebriated audience and fell face-first into a patch of muddy grass.
Laughing, the mob around the campfire arose to help Elizabeth and David to their feet. Two men in suits of armor hauled David off toward the parking lot while a red-bearded man in a tunic mopped the mud enthusiastically off Elizabeth’s cleavage with a woolen cloak. “Thanks, Eric the Red, that’s enough.” Elizabeth dodged her large-handed friend and wobbled a bit.
Amanda narrowed her blue eyes in a final steely glare toward Elizabeth. “Stay away from David. He doesn’t want anything to do with you or your bastard son!” Amanda stomped off after her fiancé while Elizabeth rested heavily on a rustic bench at the edge of the fire.
She was pretty sure everyone had heard that embarrassing exchange, so she figured she wasn’t drunk enough. She groped for a bottle of wine, but Eric the Red snatched it away easily with a warm smile. “I’m switchin’ you to water, Lizzie. He handed over a leather drinking bladder on a shoulder strap. Elizabeth took a deep swig. It tasted like plastic. Her shoulders drooped and she shuddered huge sobs. Eric the Red’s club-like hands pawed her shoulders tenderly. “Aw, don’t worry. We all know Rob’s his kid. They’re the spitting image of each other, and nobody’s ever seen a wife so loyal as you. Faces nodded quietly in the firelight. The atmosphere around the bonfire was strangely somber.
“It’s not that,” Elizabeth sniffled into her lap. “It’s just that you won’t let me have the wine.” A chorus of groans swelled around her, and Eric the Red slapped his thigh and bellowed at the moon. “Look, we’ve got to get you home. Did Teddy drive you tonight?” Elizabeth shook her head and a teardrop waggled on her nose. “No, he’s watching Rob. I drove myself. Besides, he didn’t have an appropriate costume. The one he’s been working for all month looks like he was trying to be a robot. I think he got medieval confused with steampunk.”
Eric the Red chuckled at the thought of their mutual friend’s oddity. “Aw, that’s all well and good. I’ll drive you home. We’ll pick up Rob on the way.” Elizabeth sank hunched over lower. “I’m not going anywhere.” She felt a surge of anger, like she was a small child firm on getting her way. She felt Eric the Red seize her under her arms and lift her easily away from her seat, flinging her over his shoulder to the laughter of the group around the bonfire. Elizabeth kicked and swung her arms half-heartedly as voices wished her goodbye and glasses were raised in her foggy field of vision. She relaxed into the rhythmic lurch of Eric the Red’s footsteps lulling her to sleep as he carried her toward the parking lot.
Elizabeth woke on the couch in her living room. Her throat was dry, and her head throbbed. Her cat, Rumpleteaser regarded her from the coffee table with mild interest. She looked at the clock. It was just after noon. Elizabeth bolted upright, still encased in her muddy dress. She stomped around the house looking for her cell phone before realizing that it was back in her car at the campout. Damn. She looked for her little boy, first in his own room, though the toddler rarely slept in his crib, and then in her own bed, where her son usually flopped across the pillows like a puppy. Rob wasn’t there. Damn.
Elizabeth lunged for the cordless phone on the way to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water. Her mind was spinning with anxiety, but she decided to call work first. She was relieved to her coworker Cherise pick up the phone. “Peaceful Pines Half-Way Home, Cherise speaking.”
“Cher, it’s Lizzie…” Cherise sounded surprised. “Oh hey, I thought you were scheduled to work with me today. What’s up?” Elizabeth relaxed against her kitchen counter. Often, only one person would be looking after the sixteen mentally ill residents at Peaceful Pines, but every so often one of the case managers would be helping serve meals, dole out pills, teach life skills classes and clean house. “I’m so sorry, Cher, I completely spaced, and I woke up feeling really sick.” It was all true. She could hear a sympathetic hum come from Cherise on the other line.
“It’s okay, honey, I already called Darlene when I couldn’t get you on your cell phone and we figured there was just a scheduling error or something since you’re never late. Just so you know, you’re on tomorrow.” Elizabeth agreed and hung up the phone, peeling off her muddy dress while turning the phone back on to call Teddy’s cell to talk to Rob.
“Hey, Lizard, what’s up?” Teddy’s voice sounded casual, but they’d been friends for too long for anything she did to make him too angry. “Teddy, I’m so sorry, Eric the Red drove me home last night and we were supposed to pick up Rob on the way.”
“Oh, was that what that was?” Teddy sounded pensive and there was a crunching sound as if he were eating peanuts. “Some red, hairy giant was pounding on the door in the middle of the night. Rob told me it was a monster and I believed him, so we went back to sleep.” Elizabeth threw her dress in the bathtub. “I know you work today, where’s Rob? Did they let you drop him off at daycare?”
“Naw,” there was a pause and more peanut crunching. “It turns out that daycare isn’t like a bank where you can drop off valuables for anybody. He’s here at the DMV with me.” Elizabeth froze, imagining the horror of a two-year-old in an office environment. “Oh Teddy, I’m so sorry, I’ll be right there.” Elizabeth hung up the phone and wondered if she could skip a shower and run out the door. She turned to look at herself in the mirror.
Rope-like clumps of her straight brown hair framed her plump body, which was smudged with mud. Bright red sunburn glowed brightly from her shoulders, chest, nose, cheeks, and forehead. Her face was a collage of smeared makeup, bright green but bloodshot eyes, blotchy complexion, and exhausted expression. A shower was necessary. She slammed the shower faucet to as hot as her water heater was allowed to go in her apartment with a toddler and ran to the kitchen to grab a granola bar. She’d kill two birds with one stone.
Elizabeth ran into the DMV and right past a line of people queuing up to take tickets for service, prompting a series of grumbled expletives from the waiting public. All of the service windows were open except one, so she ran to the closed window in order to poke her head through and call out to anyone passing by to see where Teddy might be. “I’m right here, Lizard, his voice came from the floor below the window. Elizabeth looked down at Teddy’s tousled blonde hair. Teddy had his back against the drawers of the counter below the window and was tossing a small rubber ball against the opposing wall. The red ball would hit the wall, ricochet up to a shelf covered with binders and back to the floor to bounce once and return to his hand for another throw.
“Where the hell is Rob?” Elizabeth watched the ball make another round and hit every surface in precisely the same way. “Who? Oh, I don’t know. There’s some lady that I work with who is all old and empty nest crazy, so she’s been toting him around all day.” Elizabeth felt herself growing irritated with Teddy for the zillionth time that week. “What do you mean some lady?” The ball began another hypnotizing cycle of bounces. “You should have him under your supervision at all… dude will you knock that off? It is melting my brain.” Teddy caught the ball, pocketed it, and sighed heavily. “I don’t go to your work and tell you how to do your job.
“Dude, just go find my kid.” Teddy looked directly up, and his blue eyes met with Elizabeth’s. “Come back here and find him yourself. Can’t you see that I’m working?” Elizabeth rounded the corner and threw open the employee door. A grey-haired woman was holding Rob on her hip and the two of them were giggling. Elizabeth relaxed. She knew that Teddy wouldn’t have let her son be unsupervised. He wouldn’t even let his own teenaged daughter babysit Rob on the weekends right now because he worried about her being too irresponsible right now.
Teddy approached with a confident smirk on his face that melted into a look of concern. “Goodness, Lizard, you look so freaked out. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have played a joke if I had known you were so worried. I think that they tint the glass at the service windows of this place with a special film so that we won’t identify with our customers as emotional human beings. He wrapped Elizabeth in a bear hug, and she felt herself relax into his embrace. Her sunburn stung mightily. Pulling away, she took Rob from the arms of Teddy’s coworker and gave him a hug, setting him down on the floor in his blue tennis shoes.
“Why do you smell like homemade wine and shame?” Teddy grimaced. Elizabeth shook her head. Some things just don’t wash off that easily. “Don’t ask.” Teddy knelt to gently remove a stapler from Rob and handed him the red ball from his pocket instead. Rob looked delighted. Elizabeth reflected on how Teddy was a much better babysitter than DMV employee. Teddy stood up. He was wearing a loud tie and a striped shirt that was not tucked into his jeans. He had kicked off his shoes somewhere underneath a desk, but with his windswept hair and handsome face he looked too much like an eccentric entrepreneur to criticize. “Why do you work here anyway?”
Teddy pointed up at a sign on which was printed a state code with the words, “It is unlawful to threaten, harass or intimidate the employees of this establishment under state law.” Teddy grinned.
“There’s no other job around where you can’t get bullied. Not even cops have that guarantee. I spent high school and college walking away from fights and defending those who ate at my lunch table. I thought I was done when I got to the real world, but I was wrong. I’m sick of it. At least here I get a break for eight hours a day.” Teddy shrugged and scooped up Rob from where he was investigating a paper shredder, put him in an office chair and started spinning the delighted toddler around.
“Besides, I’ve always got other zany schemes.” Elizabeth laughed. Just about every month Teddy was starting some new and completely different business. Elizabeth had been focused on becoming a high school English teacher for the past five years of her life with no success. Meanwhile she worked part time at a mental health facility and part time at a local zoological park. She would have thought that six years of college plus experience working with crazy people and wild animals would make her a shoe in as a teacher for teenagers, but apparently the field of English was very competitive in this region. “What’s your latest idea, Teddy?”
“It’s a great one!” Teddy stopped the office chair from spinning and started twirling Rob in the opposite direction. “I’m going to be an exercise coach at local churches for little old ladies. We’ll put on inspirational music and dance around like goons praising Jesus. I don’t exactly get paid yet. I felt guilty when they offered me money right out of the church collection plate. But I’m signing up with a company that will let me sell exercise stuff like video tapes, equipment and memberships to their website, and there’s a lady in this area who says she makes thousands of dollars a month from that.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “But you’re not qualified as an exercise instructor! You don’t even go to a gym!” Teddy had always been naturally fit, slim, and muscular, ever since they were kids, which made Elizabeth extremely envious.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Teddy said, “I’m just an exercise coach for little old church ladies. It’s not like we’re pumping iron and running triathlons. Mostly we’re just sitting in chairs and waiving our arms around.” Rob fell off the office chair and Teddy sat down on the floor to comfort him. “I’m sorry, Lizard, he’s pretty tired. I tried to give him a nap in a box of shredded paper, but he just wanted to play in it for some reason.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes and pulled Rob up into her arms. They had a long bus ride home before he could be tucked in for a nap. “Hey, can you help me pick up my car after work, Teddy?” He nodded and stuck out his tongue at Rob. “See you later, Lizard.”
Elizabeth carried Rob out the door, and he refused to walk while holding hands in the parking lot, so she was forced to carry him all the way to the bus stop. He was weepy during the trip home, and she ended up carrying him up the three flights of stairs to their apartment unit. Once in the apartment, she fed him a snack of sliced apples and cheese. She didn’t even want to try the battle of attempting to make him nap in his crib, so she took him to bed with her and they both fell into an exhausted sleep.
Elizabeth woke groggily to hear knocking on her apartment door. Rob was asleep in a heap on her pillow, snoring gently with his fingers in his mouth. Elizabeth crept out of bed without waking him. When she entered her living room, Teddy was letting himself in the front door with the key that he used when house sitting her apartment. Rumpleteaser leapt from his spot on a cat pole by the windowsill and meowed loudly at Teddy, rubbing up against his legs with pleasure. He smiled and leaned down to scratch the cat on his head and said in a high-pitched voice, “what’cha doin’, stinky?” Elizabeth shushed him and harshly whispered that Rob was still sleeping, so they would have to wait until he woke up before heading out to collect her car.
Teddy smiled at her sympathetically. “You seem pretty tired, yourself,” he whispered. How about you go back to sleep.” He flopped onto the couch and patted the wide spot next to him, pulling a portable gaming system from his pocket and flipping it open. Elizabeth laid down on the couch as if she were beaching herself on a sandy shore. She leaned her head on Teddy’s leg and listened to the sounds of his thumbs clicking the buttons of the game as she drifted back to sleep.
When she awoke, Elizabeth was alone on the couch. It was dark outside. She heard Rob laughing in the kitchen. When Elizabeth walked groggily into the kitchen, she saw Teddy frying pancakes and Rob standing on a chair at the counter perpendicular to the stove, by the sink, messily stirring the bowl of batter with a ladle. A plate full of pancakes shaped like various capital letters sat on the kitchen table and Teddy’s fifteen-year-old daughter sat with a pancake shaped like the letter S poised on her fork. “Teddy looked up briefly as he lifted the pancake pan and flipped them expertly in the air. “Go ahead and eat up. I think we have most of the letters in your name, Lizard, except the Z’s because Rob wanted to eat them all because they were awesome. You’ll have to share the R’s with him, too, of course.” Rob smiled and waved the dripping ladle in the air. “Awesome!” He shouted.
Elizabeth glanced irritably at the clock. It was late, way past Rob’s bedtime and she had to work the next day. “Teddy, we have to go get my car now!” Teddy blinked at her, turned off the stove and shrugged, moving the bowl of pancake batter from Rob’s hands into the refrigerator. “That’s cool, pancakes always taste better after the batter has sat for a while, anyway. Elizabeth stuffed a few letter L shaped pancakes in her mouth and put the rest away while Teddy swung Rob up on his shoulders, hugging Rob’s foot with one hand and mopping up spilled pancake batter with the other.
Teddy’s daughter Sam rose gloomily to her feet to put her empty plate in the sink. She used to be such a hyperactive kid, but lately she had started dressing all in black and moping around a lot. The four of them trooped out of the apartment and down the ringing metal stairwell of the complex. “So, how’s school?” Elizabeth tried to make conversation with Sam since she knew they’d part ways at the bottom of the stairs so that she could go to Teddy’s apartment in the same complex. “Stupid” glowered Sam.
“It would be less stupid if you did your homework as soon as you get in the door,” Teddy shot back. Sam rolled her eyes and jumped down the last few steps of the stairwell, flicking her long hair over her shoulder and stalking off past the hedgerows.
Elizabeth, Teddy and Rob piled into Teddy’s Jeep, where Elizabeth strapped her son into the extra car seat they kept installed just for him in her friend’s car. “So, was David at the fair?” Teddy asked casually as they turned out of the parking lot. Elizabeth gritted her teeth but knew that there was no way for Teddy to know about her embarrassing night last night. “Yes. He was doing well.”
“Did you guys have a good time?” Teddy inquired. Elizabeth paused to think about how she could answer in the affirmative and have it be true. Yes, they did have a good time briefly. She nodded and smiled with her lips pressed in a thin line. Teddy shook his head, still watching the road. “I don’t know why you still chase after that jerk…”
“Because I’m in love, Teddy.” Elizabeth interrupted her friend, following a scripted argument that they had rehearsed seemingly daily since David had left her when she had gotten pregnant with Rob. “Love is the most important thing in a relationship… in the world. I made a promise when I married him that marriage would last forever. I don’t break promises. “She could see Teddy formulating his response in his mind, so Elizabeth decided to put him on the defensive, instead. Besides, you are still chasing after your girlfriend after fifteen years, not two, and you were never even married. I don’t even think you love her.”
“I love my daughter, Lizard, and that’s her mom. Sam needs a family again for us all to feel the love that we need, and no matter what her mom is always going to be a part of that family.” He blinked quickly as he drove but stopped speaking. Elizabeth didn’t realize how much he was hurting right now. Things between Teddy and Sam must be rough this week. They sat in silence for the rest of the drive until the tires began to crawl noisily on the gravel road into the parking lot of the Renaissance fair campground. Teddy’s headlights swept the parking lot and fixed onto Elizabeth’s tiny car. The word “SLUT” had been scratched in large letters through the poor-quality blue paint, highlighting the fact that an original rusty red color still lie underneath.
Teddy couldn’t help but chuckle. “Looks like I’m not the only one who has had a rough week. Care to share the story of that one?” Elizabeth hastily unbuckled her seat belt as he pulled to a stop.
“Don’t ask.” She said, jumping out of the car and opening the back door to the Jeep. Rob was fast asleep in the car seat, his head lolling to one side with soft brown curls of his overgrown hair drifting across his forehead. Elizabeth smiled and paused, thinking about how he would start crying as soon as she unbuckled his seat belt.
“Never, ever wake a sleeping baby.” Teddy said quietly from the driver’s seat. He tilted the rear-view mirror so that he could look at Elizabeth without turning around. When his blue eyes were isolated from the rest of his face, and especially his characteristic smirk, in that mirror, they looked soft and caring, almost longing. Elizabeth suddenly felt wistful and wanted to give him a hug. She felt sorry for how cranky she’d been with his insufferably cheeky attitude. “Give him a minute” Teddy said, “I’ll drive him back home. “
Elizabeth followed his car back to the apartment, listening to country songs crooning on her radio. When they parked in their designated spots at the apartment complex, Elizabeth locked up her car to walk to his and slid into the passenger seat of Teddy’s Jeep. They sat together silently for a moment, staring forward at the street view with the stars twinkling overhead. Elizabeth thought about what she might want to rant and vent about first. How David got yet another girlfriend, this time a fiancée. How the teaching job search still wasn’t working out and she seemed to be in an endless loop of emotionally draining part-time jobs so that she could work around her needy son’s schedule. How she just didn’t know if she had the faith left to keep praying to keep a roof over their heads with her meager earnings. Elizabeth took a deep breath, but Teddy beat her to it.
“So, Sam wants to go live with her mom now.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes, but when she looked over at Teddy, it seemed like he was taking it pretty seriously.
“Teddy, every teenager wants to run away from home. Don’t sweat it. Her mom doesn’t want anything to do with her.” Teddy hung his head. Elizabeth reached out to rub his shoulder reassuringly. Teddy had been trying hard to have at least a good parenting relationship with Sam’s mom ever since they had been together briefly enough for Sam to be conceived. However, she never intended to have a baby as a teenager, so she had never really been involved in Sam’s life except as an exasperated outsider. Sending cards and a few gifts to try to placate Teddy enough to have him leave her alone. She focused on her career as a publicist and moved in with another career woman. Teddy was either in denial about her lesbian identity or wanted to make some sort of arranged marriage in order to force his family to hang together like a torn dress on a coat-hanger. Either was likely. Elizabeth stayed quiet, hoping that Teddy would reveal what was going on in his mind.
“Can you talk with Sam sometime?” Teddy was asking so earnestly that Elizabeth stifled her urge to guffaw at what seemed like a joke. Having a heart-to-heart with a teenager was an adult punishment that should be reserved only for those who had the unfortunate task of being the teen’s parents. Teddy turned and looked at her directly, the dim light from the street illuminating half his face. “She needs a female role model, and her mom is too busy right now with work.” Seeing Elizabeth’s hesitation he added, “Besides, it will give you some experience relating to teenagers that you might need if you want to be a teacher.” Elizabeth wanted to feel insulted by that, but Teddy was probably right. She had all the right education to be a teacher, but none of the experience relating directly to teens aside from a short internship.
Elizabeth sighed. “I have to work the early shift tomorrow, so you don’t have to watch Rob after work. I’ll just use up one of my prepaid days at the daycare place.” She looked over her shoulder at Rob, who was still snoozing peacefully in the car seat. There was no putting it off any longer. She’d have to gently move him to bed so that she could get enough sleep to work bright and early the next morning. She opened the door and Teddy smiled at her as he got out of his side of the Jeep. “Take it easy, Lizard. Let me know if you need any help after work so that you can take a nap or something.”
Elizabeth circled the Jeep and opened the back seat door in order to carefully extract her son. He whined a high-pitched protest as she slid him out of the buckles and into her arms. She nodded at Teddy who waved cheerfully as he locked up his Jeep, carried Rob up the three flights of stairs and carefully jostled Rob to one side of her arms so that she could unlock her door without waking him up again. Once inside the door, she kicked it closed with her feet and then went on autopilot preparing for bedtime. The more tired she was, the more of a barrier the few things she had to do before the sweet embrace of her bed seemed.
She carefully deposited Rob in her bed and then went to the kitchen to pour a glass of water, hurriedly eat a snack, and feed the cat. Barely having the presence of mind to kick off her shoes and brush her teeth, plug in her cell phone, and set the alarm, Elizabeth climbed into bed next to Rob feeling completely exhausted but at peace.
A wet and cold hand pressed against Elizabeth’s check. She opened her eyes to see Rob sitting upright in the bed and smiling. He licked his hand and then again pressed it against Elizabeth’s check. She sighed and sat up, wiping her cheek with her upper arm. The clock read a little less than fifteen minutes before her alarm was set to go off, so she grabbed her cell phone to turn off the alarm. Rob shimmied off the bed and ran to the bathroom to start the morning routine.
After hurriedly getting dressed and eating several letter-shaped pancakes still cold from the refrigerator, Rob was still munching on a letter O when Elizabeth was pounding down the stairs to the car. She arrived at the daycare a little late for morning check-in for the drop-in kids and had to endure the scowls of the employees that worked there. Aubrey, the competent woman who managed the daycare had kind eyes when she looked at Rob, but her beautiful Asian features looked stern and cold when she regarded Elizabeth. “I’m sorry I’m late, can I still drop-in today?” Elizabeth wanted to go through the motions of being polite, but she really had to get to work to relieve the night shift.
Rob’s little feet hit the floor and he ran to hug Aubrey’s leg as she put a gentle hand on the top of his curly head. “We have a reason for the drop-off times” she explained perfunctorily. “We have to know how many snacks, supplies etcetera we’ll need for the day to keep organized for all the kids’ needs.” Elizabeth nodded. “I know, I know. I’ll be back for the three o’clock pickup. How many days left do I have as credit?”
Aubrey glanced over at a notebook near the sign-in sheet on which Elizabeth was scribbling her name. “Three days, Miz. Snavely.” Elizabeth nodded and said an inward prayer that her paycheck at the end of the week would be enough to buy groceries and pay for more daycare. Her schedule at her caretaker job was on-call and variable, so she never knew how many days she would need to provide care a week, though she hoped to take mostly swing and night shifts so that Teddy could watch Rob. During the weekend he also took over while she worked at the zoological park. “Well, have a good day” Elizabeth said and zipped out the door to get to work.
Cherise looked rather cross, even though Elizabeth was less than ten minutes late. “Lizzie, you made me miss my bus.” Cherise looked exhausted after an eight-hour night shift. Elizabeth winced. “I’m sorry, Cher, I really am. I was late getting my kid off to daycare this morning. I’ve just had too much on my mind lately, so the whole world looks like it is going in slow motion. “You’re the one in slow-motion, Lizzie” Cher snapped. She stormed out the door, presumably to go have a smoke and wait for the next bus.
Embarrassed, Elizabeth fell into the tasks of the morning. She checked to make sure that the residents were enjoying their breakfasts of various cereals poured from Tupperware containers with milk and juice. She began the mechanical task of counting all the opiate drugs, a task which had to be performed at the beginning and end of every shift to protect against theft. The numbers came out as expected and she recorded them in a logbook, passing out morning vitamins and medicines to the residents in tiny paper cups with Dixie cups of water to wash them down. Elaine came up to get the painkiller she could have every four hours. Elizabeth was pretty sure that Elaine was addicted to them more than in pain, but the old woman was living in a half-way house after being institutionalized for over forty years due to her psychosis, so it seemed silly to deny her even a recreational high.
Elizabeth sat next to Angie on the couch by the television while opening a huge binder in which logs were kept by the caretakers and case managers so that she’d know what was going on with the residents during the previous shift. Angie was attempting to roll a cigarette while watching a recorded documentary on aliens. “I see they got you, too” Angie said, nodding toward Elizabeth’s sunburns. “Who?” Elizabeth was distracted as she read that Rodney had screamed in the hallway all last night about demons. Rodney used to be a preacher before he became ill, and now he bravely battled what he thought were real demons every night, trying to keep them from getting the souls of his fellow residents and his caretakers. Angie nodded toward the screen, pointing a rumpled cigarette at an animation of grey aliens pointing ray guns at a frightened hillbilly who was recounting his story of an encounter. “What? No!” Elizabeth shook her head. “I got this because I didn’t put on sunblock.”
“Sunblock, eh?” Angie nodded thoughtfully, turning the cigarette in her hand before putting it carefully in a breast pocket. Elizabeth sighed and closed the notebook. “Angie, do you know how to talk to teenagers?” Angie laughed. “Oh my, yes, I had six of my own at one point, and I used to deal with them all the time when I was a beat cop.” Elizabeth nodded. Angie was also in this half-way home after decades of living in a hospital, so she doubted that Angie had ever been a police officer or even had children, but that didn’t mean that Angie still didn’t have good advice. Gentle Angie, obsessed with stories about UFOs and conspiracy theories nevertheless often had sage advice about dealing with people, no matter where she managed to find it in her cluttered brain.
“I have to talk to a friend’s kid, she’s fifteen.” Angie chuckled and shook her head.
“Ah, they should give fifteen-year-olds the year off and let them come back home when they’re sixteen.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Well, that’s just the problem, really. She wants to run away to her mom’s house… Mom and dad aren’t together. But her mom really has never wanted anything to do with her. She never wanted kids. Her daughter just thinks that the grass is greener on the other side and is sick of dealing with the rules and boundaries that her dad imposes. I’m supposed to talk to her because I used to be a teenaged girl once or something, but I was always a super good kid. I always did what my parents wanted.”
“In that case,” Angie gave a wicked grin, “maybe you have something to learn from that teenaged girl!” Elizabeth frowned. Angie was being nonsensical again. Angie continued, “If you didn’t learn your lessons about that back then, are you doing what people tell you to do now?” Elizabeth tried that thought on for size. Just about everyone was telling her to stay away from David, and that was the exact opposite of what she was doing. Many people had also told her to give up on her dream of teaching, since she was doing a pretty good job at the mental health facility and might even be able to get promoted to full time case manager soon. Angie nodded knowingly. “Maybe the two of you have more in common than you think.
After work, Elizabeth picked up Rob from the daycare on time and rushed home determined to meet up with Teddy and return his kindness by trying to establish some kind of relationship with Sam. How hard could it be? Elizabeth was just worried about where to start. She knocked on Teddy’s door and waited until he peeked out the peephole to make a face. Teddy had some sort of odd obsession about zombie attacks that was probably just an excuse to buy strange gear off of the Internet but did make him weird about opening the front door.
Teddy threw open the door and said “Peek-a-boo” to Rob, which made the little boy squeal delightfully and stomp his feet before running into Teddy’s apartment. “You guys are just in time for dinner if you want. Elizabeth took a quick swing by the kitchen to peer in and see what was cooking. Bright green spaghetti was straining in the sink. “Uh, why are the noodles green?” Teddy blinked as if that was a foolish question. “Why not?” He answered. “It’s just food coloring... relax.” Sam was stirring a pot full of sauce that was purple in color. “Dad, it’s turning purple instead of blue.” Teddy nodded. “That’s because red and blue mix to make purple. It’s okay, though, it looks good just the way it is.” Sam looked bored and frustrated. The phone rang and she shot over to it like lightning, grabbing the cordless phone and running for the other room.
Teddy started mixing together green pasta and purple sauce. Rob had climbed up on a kitchen chair and was chanting the word “hungry” over and over again. Elizabeth set out the plates and forks. “So, I’m ready to try to help out with Sam,” she began slowly, “but I’m not sure how to get started. Should I buy tickets for a concert she likes and take her? Does she need help with homework? How do I sneak into her life in a way that is subtle and yet influential.”
Teddy shrugged. “I don’t know. Let’s find out… Hey Sam!” He leaned out in the hallway to yell at her.” There was no answer. Elizabeth shook her head. “No, Teddy! You can’t just ask her! We have to be covert about this! Teenagers never want to do things that they think you want them to do!” Teddy frowned. “That doesn’t mean we have to be deceptive about it. That seems wrong.” No wonder Teddy was having such a tough time with his daughter. It was like he had never been a teenager before and had forgotten about how tough they could really be.
Sam wandered out of the back room sullenly and looked inquisitively at the two of them. “Are you guys talking about me?” Teddy nodded enthusiastically, as if a lecture from one’s parent was just the thing any teenager wanted on a Monday evening. “Yeah, Sam, you need a good female role model, you said so yourself. And Elizabeth needs a friend as well. I thought that the two of you could brainstorm how to get through this complicated part of life together so that I don’t have to keep trying to do it with my little brain.” He scooped a messy glob of green and purple onto Rob’s plate.
“She’s not my mom,” Sam seethed as if Elizabeth weren’t even in the room. “You can’t replace my mom with your best friend just because you’re a crappy dad.” Teddy handed her a vibrant plate of spaghetti, unphased. “I don’t think you need to limit your female role models. I don’t limit my heroes just because Tesla is awesome.” Sam sat down with a huff and shoveled a bright fork full of food into her mouth, taking a swig of something neon pink that Teddy was pouring. “It’s just milk.” He explained.”
Finally, Sam swallowed and spoke in a calm and even hopeful voice, “If you really want to hear what I want… I want to be trusted more. I want a job instead of you just saying that I can’t take time off of schoolwork or that I am too irresponsible to babysit.” She glared at Teddy as if gearing up to repeat an argument. Elizabeth had been a spectator at that family play before as well. Teddy would remind her about neglected pets and lies about school performance. Sam would pretend like the entire world was out to get her and begin pointing out mistakes Teddy made in his own life.
Instead, Teddy just nodded thoughtfully, not yet taking a bite of his own food. “How about you get your CPR and first aid certification before you go taking care of anything human.” Shocked, Sam nodded and continued eating. Teddy looked at Elizabeth, “How about you and Rob have a practice run with Sam as a babysitter this Sunday. You can stay in the apartment to make sure everything is okay, but Sam can be in charge. I won’t be around because of my new business. I’ll be teaching some little old ladies at the church how to work out until they have buns of steel, or at least the same consistency as the church pews. I’ll be back before Lizard has to head off to her zoo job.”
Elizabeth nodded. Clever. She would have all morning with Sam to try to make friends with her on Sunday. She could spend that time asking coworkers and friends and maybe even searching the Internet for tips on how to relate to teens. This would certainly be an excellent way to get some experience so that she could teach in a high school. Besides, Elizabeth felt isolated with very few girlfriends with whom she could share some of her inner feelings. She wouldn’t be able to burden a kid with details about her problems, of course, but the interpersonal experience would at least be better than trying to talk with a guy friend about those sorts of things. Rob overturned a bowl of bright green spaghetti on his head. Purple sauce dripped down his ears onto his shirt. Elizabeth couldn’t wait until the weekend.
When Sunday morning rolled around, Elizabeth eagerly headed over to Teddy’s apartment with Rob, happy to get started forging a better bond with Sam. She’d gotten a book from the library at the beginning of the week about how to use nonviolent communication techniques with teenagers and was excited to use the formulas to try to help Sam feel more empowered while still working on the same side as her team of adults.
Teddy opened the door. He was wearing sweatpants and a tight T-shirt that had obviously been hand silk-screened by him with the words, “I’m a witness for fitness!” Elizabeth couldn’t help but laugh. Teddy threw his hands up in the air. “Testify!” he shouted gleefully. “So, which church are you going to hit up?” Elizabeth was genuinely curious because she wanted to find a home congregation in the area. She hadn’t been to church regularly since she was a child, and now she had made too many excuses what with being busy with work and a child. However, she hoped to raise Rob with some sort of strong faith community, and time was passing quickly. Teddy waggled his eyebrows, “That’s the beauty of it. I’m going to be hitting three different churches. Next week I’m going to add even more to my rotation.” He grabbed a notebook from the coffee table that was presumably filled with information about memberships and fitness equipment he hoped to sell to churchgoers, snapped a headband around his forehead, letting his blonde hair sweep up adorably, and jogged out the door enthusiastically. Elizabeth wished that she had Teddy’s zest for life.
Sam bounced into the room seeming happier than she’d appeared in a long time. She knelt down to talk with Rob at eye level when Elizabeth set him down. “What do you want to play, Rob?” Rob held up his arms to her. “Hug!” He shouted decisively. Sam shrugged. “That’s not a game, but, whatever.” Her small arms lifted Rob and she carried him to the couch, setting him down with a thump and grabbing the remote to switch on the television. “Sam,” Elizabeth said sweetly, “Rob is too little to watch TV.” Sam’s mood shifted quickly as she angrily switched off the television set. “So, now you’re going to criticize everything I do, too?”
Elizabeth sat down on the couch quietly. This wasn’t going well at all. Sam continued darkly, “Dad is always on my case about everything, not trusting me that I have everything under control.” Elizabeth wished she knew how to tell Sam that she didn’t have everything as under control as she thought. She’d already heard Teddy’s fears about Sam since her grades were slipping for the first time in her life and she wasn’t following the rules of safety around his house like her curfew. Sam continued, “the guy I like at school says that I’m too annoying. What does that mean? Liz, how do you get a guy to like you?”
Elizabeth snorted with laughter. “If I knew that I’d…” She trailed off, not wanting to get into the situation with David with a kid. Sam rolled her eyes. “Whatever, you got Teddy to love you and stuff, and you don’t even have to try.” Sam’s eyes were welling up with tears. Her skinny arms wrapped around her knees on the couch, and she suddenly looked like the little child that Elizabeth used to take to the zoo and the playground. Whose tears would try after a hug when she scraped her knees. But this time, when Elizabeth reached over to hug her, Sam just pulled away.
“Sam, you don’t understand. Teddy and I are friends. I’m sure you have lots of friends who love you. Finding true love is different, though. It’s hard. Some people live their entire lives without finding true love at all.” That was the wrong thing to say. Sam buried her head in her arms and sobbed deeply. Rob climbed up to a standing position and tugged at her arms curiously, not understanding what was going on. Elizabeth tried to backpedal. “But… But that won’t be you. You’re lovable. You have courage and smarts and a lot of other things going for you.” Sam lifted her head, her lower lip still trembling.
“Not even my mom loves me.” She squeezed her knees close to her again. Elizabeth wasn’t sure how to respond. She thought carefully. “Some people can only love in a certain way. We can’t force them to love in other ways. Some people just love us enough to be our friends. Others even less than that. But there are some people in this world who are willing to love you more. Sam looked up at her. “I just broke up with my boyfriend, but he said he loved me once. Does that make him my lover?”
Elizabeth smiled. “You already had a boyfriend who told you he loved you once. That’s great! Next, you can work on finding one who will tell you he loves you at least once a day. And finally, I hope you find one who will tell you he loves you every day for the rest of your life.” Sam sat up straight and rubbed her nose, looking a bit like that little girl again. Rob cuddled up against her, sliding down onto the couch and sucking his fingers while tugging on his brown curls with his other hand.
“So, what do you want to do today?” Elizabeth asked. Sam patted Rob on his little head. “I’m the babysitter in charge, remember.” She turned to Rob. “Do you want to bake cookies, little buddy?” Rob pulled his fingers out of his mouth quickly. “Cookies!” He said. He climbed off the couch and ran to the kitchen. “Cookies, cookies, cookies!”
Elizabeth resisted the urge to join them as Sam followed Rob into the kitchen. She had to let Sam know that she wasn’t being closely supervised while still staying available in case Sam wanted to talk some more. Elizabeth tried to pretend to read a coffee table book that Teddy had left about DaVinci machines while surreptitiously stealing glances into the kitchen. Sam was carefully following instructions from a book, letting Rob mix the cookie dough before would fold in the chocolate chips. Elizabeth was amazed at how such a cautious and systematic child could come from Teddy. She was pretty sure that Teddy hadn’t followed any instructions correctly his entire life, preferring to blaze his own trail.
Despite herself, Elizabeth became absorbed in the coffee table book about DaVinci. She could see why Teddy wanted to be an inventor or an entrepreneur. To create something new that the world had never seen before and be remembered for something special and fantastic. Before she knew it, Sam was putting Rob down for a nap in a small playpen in her room. Elizabeth was shocked that he went to sleep all by himself. If she were caring for her son, he would insist on taking a nap with her. “I should have you babysit him every day!” Elizabeth beamed at Sam. Sam laughed, obviously pleased with herself.
Around noon, when Rob was still sleeping and the two of them were enjoying grilled cheese sandwiches and soup, Teddy slowly opened the front door. He looked white as a ghost. “How did your first day as a spiritual exercise coach go?” Elizabeth asked, eying his pale features, wondering if he had somehow overdone it. “Oh…” Teddy said, “I don’t think I’ll be doing that business idea anymore. One of the sweet little old ladies died.”
“What!” Elizabeth was horrified, and imagined Teddy barking orders at elderly women as they did jumping jacks behind the pews. Sam laughed inappropriately. “Are you sure she wasn’t just possessed? Maybe you exorcised her demons to death?” She snorted at her own joke.
“No,” Teddy said slowly as if truly giving the matter careful thought.” I’m pretty sure she was just an ordinary elderly woman who probably shouldn’t have been praising Jesus so enthusiastically today.” He sat down next to them at the kitchen table and then shook his head briskly, as if recovering from a daze. “Anyway,” he said calmly, as if the entire matter was behind him, “I picked up a flyer from one of the paramedics that says you can take free CPR and first aid classes down at the fire station.” He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his sweatpants and handed it over to Sam. She took another bite of her sandwich and chewed thoughtfully while reviewing the material. By this time in her life, she was pretty accustomed to Teddy’s zany schemes going horribly awry.
Teddy snatched the other half of Sam’s sandwich from her plate to her protests and gobbled it up. He peeled his “I’m a witness for fitness” T-shirt off his broad shoulders and regarded it with a sense of distaste before rising from the table. “I’m going to go get changed and start drawing up some plans for a new business idea.” Sam rolled her eyes and Elizabeth shuddered. “I’d better get going to work at the zoo” Elizabeth said. Sam winked at her over the table. “Better than the circus around here.” Elizabeth and Sam shared a warm smile. Maybe this attempt to bond with a teenager really was working out.
“Oh yeah, how did Sam do today?” Teddy called from the bathroom as Elizabeth was pulling on her coat. She had to head back to her apartment first in order to change into her beige zookeeper outfit. “She did great!” Elizabeth was surprised to say that it was true, but she always thought that Teddy was being a little overboard with his assumption that Sam was irresponsible just because she was disobeying rules and staying out late. That was typical teenage behavior, really. Elizabeth would be more worried to know a teenager who didn’t display those traits.
She dashed off to her apartment to pull on her khaki cargo pants and matching buttoned shirt with a big zoological park logo. She pulled a green fleece sweatshirt with a matching logo over her head and made sure that she had her name tag. She donned her most important zookeeper equipment, galoshes, before heading out the door to her car.
Elizabeth’s job at the city zoological park was pretty paradoxical. It turns out that getting an official job scooping poop at the zoo is actually pretty difficult. There are countless children who grow up wanting to become zookeepers, and then keep those jobs until the day they die. The only way to get a job as a zookeeper is usually to have already had two years of paid experience at an accredited zoo. The only way to do that is usually to end up working at a zoo in a boiling hot climate in the middle of nowhere. Elizabeth somehow was working a zookeeper’s job but she wasn’t officially a zookeeper. Instead, she had initially been hired as a checkout girl at the zoo’s gift shop, and then had begun volunteering part-time with the zookeepers. Gradually, the zoo began compensating her for her volunteer hours at her normal cashier rate of pay. By now, her entire time spent at the zoo was done outside of the gift shop and with the other zookeepers. However, her job title was still a retail sales associate, which meant that it didn’t look so great on her resume. It was sort of the worst of both worlds.
Elizabeth’s first stop through the gate was at the gift shop, so that she could briefly punch-in through the system. Then, she went straight to a small building near the primate house to begin preparing diets for lemurs and marmosets. There were freshly cut exotic fruits, expensive vitamin powders to dust onto the fruit and crisp vegetables. Behind her, a zookeeper prepared some cooked venison for the cougars that had originally been salvaged roadkill. Still, these animals ate much healthier and quality food than Elizabeth did at home.
Elizabeth took plates of food into the enclosures for the black and white ruffed lemurs and the red ruffed lemurs, and then to the larger enclosure that was packed full of many ring-tailed lemurs. As she entered, small bodies leaped catlike onto her shoulders. Cold, clammy hands fingered her buttons and touched her cheeks. She giggled as a baby lemur stuffed slices of banana into his cheeks. This job was the best any time when she wasn’t actively being bitten by anything. One lemur used her shoulder as a springboard onto a climbing vine. Another quickly took his place, making adorable chattering noises in her ear and touching her hair with his sticky hands.
Elizabeth left the lemur enclosure and went to her next duty, the night exhibit. She prepared bags of blood for the vampire bats to drink like hummingbirds at a nectar feeder, leaving the utility sink behind the night exhibit looking like a murder scene. Elizabeth went to the reptile house and greeted the two keepers who worked there, asking what duties they had for her to do. It was time to apply iodine to some cuts on red-eared slider turtles, she was told. They were housed in the same enclosure as a vicious caiman, which sort of behaved like a cross between a dangerous crocodile and a wildcat. Sometimes the turtles got some puncture wounds when they ventured too close to the caiman’s sunning spot.
Elizabeth was handed a piece of particle board with a handle nailed to the back as if it were a shield, to keep as a barrier between herself and the angry caiman, if he were to spy her. Elizabeth ventured into the large watery enclosure in which the turtles and the caiman were housed. There was no sign of the caiman, so Elizabeth hoped that he was all the way on the other side, in an artificial cave provided for him to hide in a cool spot.
Elizabeth crouched down and leaned her particle board shield against a wall, dipping a paintbrush into a bottle of iodine and painting it liberally on a small turtle with a rather large gash. She waddled forward to reach a larger turtle that was near the water. He slipped into the water quickly and Elizabeth had to fish him out, holding him in her hands and gently turning him over to inspect for injuries. She crawled forward so that she could pull a few more turtles out of the water to have a closer look. Some of them were lined up sunning themselves on an enormous piece of driftwood. She grabbed her particle board shield and waded into the water towards where a line of turtles regarded her suspiciously from the driftwood.
From beneath the driftwood came a low sound of air escaping, as if perhaps an intake valve were broken. Elizabeth looked around to make sure that she was hearing the source of the noise correctly. Elizabeth bent down to get a better look at the dark cove underneath where the driftwood was beached on a high spot in the pool of water. She met with the glinting eyes of a caiman who opened his toothy mouth wide to let out a low and ominous hiss. Elizabeth slowly backed away, sliding the particle board shield in between her and the nasty crocodilian. The caiman slipped into the water easily making little more than the sound of a sip of water from a glass.
Elizabeth stayed absolutely still for a moment, wondering what to do, and then decided that the best course of action would be to get out of that water as soon as possible. Clumsily, she pounded out of the water in her galoshes, lifting the shield high over her head and spraying droplets of water all over her hair and shirt. As she exited the pool, the caiman followed her at a quick speed. Elizabeth expected him to slow down when he hit the land, but he lifted himself up high on his legs, unlike a crocodile, and ran after her in a waggling, weaving lizard motion. He was only about five feet long and skinny, but he was hissing loudly and showing jagged sharp teeth. Elizabeth turned and ran. She suddenly became aware that zoo visitors were watching her from a balcony above the enclosure and laughing hysterically as if she were part of the zoo entertainment.
Elizabeth reached the door and tucked the iodine and paintbrush under one armpit as she fumbled with a set of keys, whirling around to slam the particle board shield down between her and the oncoming caiman. The caiman impacted the particle board with its jaws, turning its head this way and that to try to find a way to clamp down on the shield’s flat surface. Elizabeth successfully unlocked the door and slipped inside, awkwardly pulling the particle board shield inside so as to not pinch a caiman in the doorway. One of the reptile keepers looked up briefly from where she was stuffing food with vitamins for a gila monster. Elizabeth grinned and raised the bottle of iodine in salute before they both went back to what they were doing.
Elizabeth checked a list of duties before hosing out a python enclosure and counting poison dart frogs. Then, her time in the reptile house was over, and she had to move on to the most time consuming and effortful job of the day which was to clean acres of reindeer habitat. After washing out and filling rubber buckets with food and water for the reindeer, she set out with a bucket and a rake to start cleaning up the little reindeer poops that looked like piles of pebbles scattered across the landscape. It is funny how many people dream their entire lives of becoming zookeepers and don’t realize quite how much time is spent picking up animal poop. Elizabeth found the task rather meditative, however. Filling buckets and hefting them into a small vehicle that she would later drive to a drop-off point where the zoo would turn around and sell the manure to gardeners. It felt like being part of an important circle of life, volunteering for animal conservation and performing a repetitive task that beautified the landscape remarkably enough to be fulfilling all at the same time.
At sunset, an announcement went over the intercom that all visitors had to leave the zoo within thirty minutes. Elizabeth had just taken the last load of manure back to the pile and returned the car to where it plugged into a wall she paused to overlook a garden of flowers with a visitor who was lollygagging on her own way out of the zoo. Small bunnies hopped among the flowers. The visitor remained blissfully unaware that the keepers would actually be poisoning those adorable bunnies after the visitors had exited the premises. Elizabeth spotted movement from the corner of her eye and looked to her right about ten feet to notice a small rat nibbling food along the wall.
Elizabeth turned to notice a fellow zookeeper as he was sneaking up on the rat. Elizabeth tried to attract his attention without the visitor noticing, so that he would realize that there was a zoo guest present, but it was too late. He leapt forward and violently attempted to stomp the rat to death. The rat dodged expertly and darted into some bushes as the zookeeper swore and suddenly realized that there was a zoo visitor among them. “Oh, lady, I’m sorry” he said. “You looked like a staff member.” To be fair, she was wearing an all-tan outfit. The shocked woman backed away and headed briskly for the zoo exit.
Elizabeth shook her head. It was time to head back and pick up Rob. As she headed back toward the gift shop to punch out of the time clock, she heard the zookeeper yell at her. “Hey Liz, check the job postings. There’s an opening for a full-time bird keeper, entry level. I bet since you’ve been officially an employee for a couple of years now, you’d be a perfect match with all the keeper recommendations around here.” Elizabeth felt like she was floating on a cloud. It wasn’t teaching, but she could sure use the stability of a regular full-time job to feel more confident about her ability to pay rent on time. She would have to prepare her resume tonight after Rob went to sleep. But for now, she had to get home and take a quick shower before picking up her boy. She couldn’t stand to be in her own skin.
Merci pour la lecture!
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