L. S. Popovich, Undertones
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Length: 248 pages
Dane was a reliable guitarist until he got addicted to ants. Now he’s just a giant anteater with an abysmal grade point average. On a date with lead singer, Serena, they witness a gruesome incident. Waking up in the hospital, Dane realizes Serena’s missing. Going to the police only gets him a felony for possession of ants. Now, forced to lick the habit while he tracks down Serena, he’s going to need a little help from the band.
Investigating familiar watering holes (while stopping for one or two drinks) leads him to an underground criminal organization. Is it a coincidence that a feline fatale attempts to recruit him for the mob? Should he expose the dirty underbelly of their society, putting Serena and his band on the line, or try to take them down from the inside? Either way, it’s going to take more than the Komodo dragon on clarinet.
Dane squinted the glare out of his eyes. His eyes were narrow to begin with. They watered up with the effort, the tip of his long nose curled up slightly, and the string of red tongue emerged for a second, like a serpent’s testing the air for danger. The familiar sensation of ants crawling inside his nasal cavity came and went, and he clenched the muscles of his snout to alleviate the aggravating itch. He often ran his noodle-like tongue along the gritty channel of his mouth, searching for stray flavors. Later, in the privacy of his apartment, he would pick the wrinkled bag of dried ants out of his pocket and go to town. But for now, he leaned against the tall speaker, playing it off with style, totally aware that he was the only giant anteater in the room.
The stage was set. Everything gleamed. Gaston flexed nimble fingers above the ivories. Years ago Dane caught sight of the numbat at a nursing home, performing for a herd of elderly gnus. For a numbat, he could cover a huge range, and his tail curved under the stool, patterned like the keys, and would often lever his lightweight body from side to side as he tickled or pounded out the notes.
The crowd was restless, though you could not really call the half-empty barroom a crowd. Dane could not wait for the set to end. The first few songs had gone okay, but they were beginning to bleed together in his mind like the past few nights, and the various flavors of his life. Luckily, he got by on muscle-memory alone, and let the music carry him away. It had always been like that, tough to start, but once he got going, no big deal at all. At times a euphoric bliss came over him during a guitar solo. It was the closest thing he knew to eating ants.
After lapping his reed from end to end, Rick blew a test note on his tenor sax, causing an irritable bison in the front row to jump. The shaggy-headed mammal turned his head slowly, catching glints of neon light in his greasy beard. Rick did not apologize but hopped back. Dane told them to minimize eye contact with audience members. They were putting on a show, after all.
Like any good jazz band, a third of their time was spent warming up. Gaston drummed his foot, and music started to flow out of the upright Yamaha. According to him, this approach built tension in the room. A few lingering notes tricked animals into thinking something was about to happen. Once the goat bartender got that impatient look on his mug and gripped the grimy rag until it squeaked against the smooth counter, all Dane had to do was nod his head at his companions, and the opening riff would erupt abruptly from Ava’s bass as if she had stumbled onto it by accident. Then the trumpets and drums would burble to life, drawing a few glances from tables in front, and the waiter paused in the act of setting down a pitcher, flash-frozen by jazz. Conversations broke off, and every corner of the dusty room filled with the majesty of their sound, like a mesmerizing fog.
Dane did not bother trying to read the audience anymore. Only the sound mattered. It was an interplay of high and low; a meshing of natural rhythms that had existed in their bodies since the day they were born. For him, it came as easily as conversation, intimate talk between lovers - or how he imagined intimacy to be. He loved the certainty of it, but more than that, he loved the formula behind it. Put notes together like a good equation, and the world swooned or cried. It passed like a dream. Someone had turned the hands of the clock - no, their allotted three hours were already up.
A profound dryness asserted itself in his mouth. He watched Chelsea place her fiddle in its case, handling it as gently as a newborn chick, with the tips of her feathers. She caressed it one last time before shutting the lid.
“What kind of jazz was that?” a cob with an incredibly high collar said, bending to gurgle his fizzy water in a shallow bowl.
“Dirty jazz,” Dane replied, wiping spittle off the microphone with exaggerated slowness.
Dipping his beak by tilting the effeminate glass ever-so-slightly, the middle-aged swan leaned in with wide eyes. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything classy from a place called The Hair of the Dog. However, I’m surprised you keep an avian in your band.” The swan gave a look to Chelsea that spoke of how he felt about birds deigning to play in such a motley group.
“There’s a froufrou pub on Jefferson and Maine called Horse Feathers,” Dane said snidely. “Too much glockenspiel for my taste, but it might tickle your fancy.”
The swan snorted, and rolled his pure black eyes before whispering something to his companion.
“Can’t wait to get out of here,” Gaston said, slamming the keylid shut, “I haven’t even started my Geology assignment yet.
“I’m in the same boat, mate.” Rick said, slinging his case over his back. “Chels, I think we might need to reschedule our date. That blasted professor assigned a devil of a paper right at the start of the semester.”
The burrowing owl fluttered onto the kangaroo’s muscular shoulder. “Working date is okay. I finished it yesterday. I always love Geology!” It is hard to tell when an owl is kidding, but Chelsea had a way of ironically turning her head around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.
“You go on without me,” Dane said, “I’ve got to see Harrison about something.”
Gaston paused, putting on his diminutive gloves, and stared enigmatically at his roommate. Behind his glasses, his eyes betrayed a knowing calm.
“Don’t give me that look,” Dane laughed, unsettled by the numbat’s glare. “Just want him to comp me for taxi fare - that time I filled in for that other singer.”
Gaston clearly did not buy it, but followed Chelsea and Rick down the creaking stairs, lugging his backpack.
Ava straightened her glasses, smoothing the furrow in the red fur of her nose. “I suppose Tech and I’ll handle the amps?” She said coolly, straightening the bandanna over her dreadlocks.
“Sure. Whatever,” Dane said to the red panda before idling up to the bar. He had to squeeze his bulky frame between two small tables, drawing stares from a group of cats in three-piece suits. He barely caught himself before stepping on the cleaning sparrow, who picked at microscopic crumbs underfoot.
“Hey, Billy.” Dane called to the one-horned barmen. The goat spat into a nearby spittoon.
“You know I hate being called Billy,” he said dryly. “It’s William. Why do you think I go by my last name?”
“No one calls you Harrison when you’re not around, you know?” Dane said, leaning on the counter.
“Get to the point. I’m surprised you’re still here. Don’t you go to the clubs?”
“We’re college students. That means we have classes.” Dane’s tone made it clear how little stock he put in academic pursuits. “Now, I didn’t come here to chat.” He lowered his voice, directed his eyes to either side of the bar, and said, “How about a cup of crawling joe?” He hid his urgency with effort. The goat smiled thickly, and finished polishing a cloudy glass.
Grinning at Dane with toothy arrogance for several seconds, he said, “You keep going through them at this rate and you’ll have to start stealing them from the sanctuaries.”
Nonetheless, he pulled out an unmarked, black velvet bag. Dane took it and glanced inside. Live ants crawled around inside like a congealed shadow. “Hey, we all have our vices.”
“Well, I don’t mind slipping folks a fix here and there, but if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself in pretty bad shape.”
Dane shrugged, “I’m still young, aren’t I?”
“Young and inexperienced.”
“Speak for yourself.” Dane laid down a small wad of cash before heading for the door.
On Saturday mornings, Dane typically met up with one of his bandmates. It was his preferred method of homework avoidance.
“Why does it always take them so long to bring your coffee here?” Nihleen snorted in aggravation, pounding the table with enough force to make it wobble. A few sheep grazing on grass pies in a nearby booth looked up, startled. She glanced at them with exaggerated patience. It was a conscious effort to slow her twitchy movements, and soften her fierce expression. One of the downsides of being a Komodo dragon.
“Well there’s always instant coffee” Dane said, sipping his flavorless barley tea. He was used to the explosive gestures of the reformed carnivore by now.
“You ever suggest that to me again, and I might go feral,” she said grumpily. Her large claws strummed across the shiny surface of the table. “Is coffee supposed to give you withdrawal symptoms?” Dane flinched as uncomfortable memories surfaced in his mind. The word caused a flashback to the week before, when he had gone four days without ants, and started shivering uncontrollably in the middle of the night, until he got up and satisfied his craving from his stash.
He knew Nihleen would not hurt a fly now, but coffee was essential to her equilibrium.
“Relax, Dill will be here soon, and the two of you can do your morning run,” Dane said. “You’ll feel better after working out those scaly legs of yours.”
She scoffed, and they sat in silence for a minute. Growing bored, Dane snuck a few ants from his jacket pocket when no one was watching, but Nihleen caught him out of the corner of her eye.
She snarled. Even though they had known each other for years, it still sent a shiver up his spine every time she growled.
“Do you have to do that when I’m around?” she whispered. “You know how it makes me feel. It’s hard enough keeping meat-cravings at bay without you munching in front of me.” She glared at him, but Dane revealed nothing behind his blank countenance. As a pre-law student, Nihleen made a point of being as perceptive and vocal as possible.
“Maybe music practice will lower your stress levels,” he suggested.
She fumed, smacking the table again. “Oh, I get it. Since Serena and I weren’t there last night, you think we’re unstable now?”
He sighed. “Don’t overreact.”
Nihleen waited a moment and apologized. “Sorry, I know you don’t want me horning in between you two. She and I recently added something else to my busy schedule.”
Dane waited for her to go on.
“It’s a support group... For former carnivores.”
His eyes rolled involuntarily. “You haven’t resorted to your old diet since I’ve known you,” he said simply. He could not tell if her claws shook because she was nervous or for another reason.
“Better safe than sorry, right? Which reminds me - Where the hell is that coffee I ordered?” She smacked the table again. “I thought Dill would be here.” She had a way of changing the subject when talk got too personal.
“Punctuality has never been his strong suit.”
She flicked her tongue at him rudely.
“Hey guys! Sorry I’m late.” Dill strolled in, panting. “Some kids were doing awesome skateboard tricks outside the dorms. I couldn’t help it. I had to show them my skills!” Dill beamed, yawning from ear to ear. Since he was a golden mongoose, he was already yellow enough. Combined with the vibrant yellow shirt he wore, Dane was blinded by the sudden brightness. Dane leaned back in his seat, shielding his eyes. Dill could’ve written the book on how not to enter a room.
“Hey Nihleen, you all set?” Dill asked. “It’s a perfect day for a run. We could swing by the basketball court and shoot a few hoops if the wolves aren’t practicing today. If you’d rather go biking, we could ask that lemming downtown again. Last time he gave us a steep discount. Yesterday I was at the Frisbee tournament at the beach and...”
“Dill, I can’t handle this before coffee,” Nihleen said. “I have a quiz tomorrow on Avian Law, so the only place I’ll be running after our jog is straight back to my room.” Nihleen buried her pointy face in her claws, clenching her massive jaw muscles behind dark green scales.
Finally, a doe approached with coffee. Nihleen eagerly took the hot brew. Blowing on the steam, she downed the coffee in one loud gulp, heaving a sigh of relief as her tension dissolved like a lump of snow.
“I’ve got math homework,” Dane said. “I figure since I’ve got nothing better to do, I’ll get started on it.”
“Ugh, math,” Dill said. “Glad I got my pre-requisite out of the way already. Well, if no one’s going to work out with me later, I might go on a solo hike. You won’t catch me doing homework on a day like this.”
Nihleen grumbled, and followed Dill out of the café.
* * *
Dane made his way to his dorm, stopping to savor a few ants behind the library. Though he preferred them alive, dried ones were easier to carry around. Discretion was the name of the game. He did not need to give the school another reason to expel him, on top of his academic record. The taste ravished his tongue and calmed him, until he hardly noticed the sun-drenched campus around him. He followed a disgruntled group of pigs into his building.
Proceeding obliviously, he did not catch sight of Serena until he nearly bumped into her. She startled like no self-respecting bear ever should, and apologized before she recognized him in the crowd.
“Dane,” she said coolly. Her large brown eyes revealed troubled emotions kept in check.
“Serena” he said awkwardly, wishing he could think of something to say. True, they were in an “off” stage of their relationship again, but that did not make the fact that she had missed their gig after having promised to come easier to swallow.
“Sorry about last night. A penguin ended up needing my help petitioning for avian benefits.”
Knowing she had gone to the support group with Nihleen, he wondered if she was lying to protect her friend’s privacy, or to remind him of her activist leanings yet again. Serena always had a soft spot for helping others, due in no small part to her own struggles as a mixed species, but Dane grew ever wearier of the way she stuck her nose into everyone’s business.
“I saw something about equal access to bird-specific buildings?” Dane muttered. “But if penguins can’t fly how-”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” she huffed, letting out a low growl of annoyance under her breath. “If you were a penguin, how would you feel if everyone lorded it over you that you couldn’t fly?” She huffed again and tugged at her tight jacket. The jacket was secondhand, and might have belonged to a badger before, since her thick arms nearly burst out of the sleeves. She was used to getting odd looks because she insisted on wearing sustainably manufactured clothing, no matter how ill-fitting or out-of-season it might be. Some of her family were first-generation rural polar bears who’d never quite gotten out of the Arctic mindset. But she had black bear genes too. It was hard to tell if all her panting was on account of the heat or from the constant strain of her own vexations.
“Whatever. Half the band wasn’t there anyway,” Dane said. “There’s always a mouse in trouble, or a salmon to throw back in the water.”
She blinked with righteous disdain, and he continued past her. Passing a lecture room, he decided to sit in on the end of the professor’s class, since it was stadium seating, and he could slip in unnoticed. On occasion, he listened to tapes on Engineering Math, so he was able to follow most of the proofs in graduate level math classes. It was the only subject he cared about (and had always been good at). He was perfectly happy hiding this fact from everyone he knew.
“Dane, let’s go do something,” Dill said. Dane had gotten nowhere on his Economics homework. Dill batted a ping-pong ball against the wall absentmindedly.
Dane glanced at Dill’s workout gear. Sometimes the mongoose dragged it from one place to the next. It was impossible to predict when he would break into a sprint, or otherwise engage in some athletic activity. After much debating, he had convinced Dill to tone-down the bright shirts during their performances.
“Didn’t you just get back from the gym?” Dane asked
“That was an hour ago.”
“Do you have to be doing something every instant? Can’t you simply sit on the couch and veg?”
“Mongooses don’t hibernate. Plus, the way you were concentrating on that homework made me nervous. I don’t like to think about it when I’m not in class.”
Dane wondered if he should extrapolate on the definition of ‘homework.’
“That would explain your grades...” he said. Dill’s crestfallen ears made him immediately regret his words. The only thing keeping Dill in school was Chelsea, his tutor, or so the owl liked to brag. “I guess we can go do something,” Dane conceded halfheartedly.
Brightening instantly, Dill smiled like a cub about to go on a roller coaster. “I’ve got just the thing.”
Dane packed his books with pronounced slowness. The crawling sensation had returned, and was trickling down the back of his throat. A distraction would do him good, he decided. “This better not turn out to be another one of your harebrained adventures.”
“What? You telling me you didn’t enjoy TP-ing the rookery dorms last week? Or putting that tapioca on the tree dorm vines?”
Dane flinched. “Don’t let any avians or apes hear you,” he whispered, “Do you want to be branded as a speceist?”
They hurried down the ramp onto the crowded thoroughfare. Dane skirted around an elephant strolling as leisurely as a steamroller. Keeping up with Dill was a challenge. The exuberant mongoose led him over the ornate bridge of the meditation park, where various wrinkly lizards were doing hot yoga under a colossal heat lamp. Dane averted his eyes until they made it to the boardwalk. A yellow moon hovered over the water, and distant music drifted from an enormous yacht in the center of Homer Lake.
“Where on Earth are you taking me?” Dane asked, struggling to catch his breath. “Is this a new dance club or something?”
“We’re almost there,” Dill replied.
Winding through several labyrinthine alleyways, Dane became convinced Dill had no idea where they were going. It would not be the first wild mongoose chase he had been on in recent memory. In due time, Dane was surprised to see a crowd at the entrance to a run-down warehouse near the pier.
“Uh-Oh,” Dill said, coming up short before the gathering of animals of all shapes and sizes, striped and spotted, squawking and chirping. Several intimidating rhinos stood in front of the warehouse doors, aggressively shoving back the masses.
“What’s this supposed to be, Dill?” Dane asked, socking the mongoose on the shoulder.
Dill frowned, flexing his bushy tail nervously. “Better head back. Sorry, Dane.”
“Wait,” Dane said, blocking his path. “Tell me what’s going on in there? Some kind of riot?”
“It’s a race track,” Dill said quietly.
“A RACE TRACK?”
Dill’s beady eyes widened. “Keep your voice down.”
“Do you have a gambling problem?”
“I don’t bet, I only go to watch...”
Dane sighed. If anyone other than Dill had led him here, he would’ve been worried. But he knew Dill simply could not help himself sometimes. It was only a minor disability, having a weakened fight-or-flight instinct, which made him more susceptible to sudden whims and explosive excitement. Keeping their primitive natures at bay was a social responsibility, but some animals managed it better than others. Interesting mishaps aside, Dane and Gaston usually kept Dill in check.
“Well, we obviously came at a bad time,” Dane said. A dozen gazelles pranced back and forth with glaring signs, and distant sirens rang. “If we wait around we can be part of the stampede when the fuzz arrives to shut it down.”
“It was kind of fun. I got caught up in it, you know, imagining what it’s like to run on all fours.”
Dane regarded him skeptically. “Man, if Serena knew I was here...”
“Well, let’s forget it.” Dill made a move toward the alley from which they had come.
“Dane! What are you doing here?” Whipping his head to either side, he could not tell from where the voice had come. In a moment, Serena stood next to him.
Dill emitted a high-pitched squeal when she appeared, which was thankfully swallowed by the general racket. “Well...”
“Did you come to protest?” she asked eagerly. “I didn’t know you cared!”
“Looks like you caught me red-handed,” he said casually.
“You know animals were racing in there? On all fours!”
“So I heard.”
“Reverting back to savagery. I couldn’t believe it. I came right down. You know, you shouldn’t make fun of me for defending the penguins when you do this sort of thing too.”
Dane had to admit, the sudden change in her attitude toward him quickened his heart. - Was it possible she still had feelings for him? Was this stupid misunderstanding all it would take to get back together?
“The police’ll be here soon,” Dill said. “Why don’t we go out for snow-cones? Just the three of us. I don’t feel like filling out a report.”
“What are you afraid of?” Serena asked, smoothing down the fur of her bangs. “If there are reporters, it’ll be the perfect time to speak out. You know that some of those animals are racing against their will? They get scammed into thinking they can pay off their debts and what not.”
Dill gulped audibly.
“Actually, ice cream sounds better than snow-cones,” Dane said.
Together, the three of them left the congregation behind and traversed the busy streets. Night fell precipitately, and a chilly wind stirred up the competing smells of restaurants.
“Guess I need to find a new place to watch races,” Dill said morosely. They were on their way to band practice.
Dane flashed the mongoose a warning glance, “You know that sorta thing is illegal, right? Then again, you thought Hogwash was a place where pigs got clean.”
“How was I supposed to know it was a jazz bar?”
Dane did not press the point any further. “Why not try a legit spectator sport?”
“I admire the animals who do it,” Dill continued in a low voice. “I always wanted to try sprinting on all fours. It’s a full-body workout.” The mongoose looked so downcast, Dane could not help but laugh. Before he could answer, a familiar voice chimed in.
“What’s this about running on all fours?” They both turned to see Gaston approach. Though he was not much taller than Dill, he was large for his species, and cut a dashing figure in his spiffy dinner jacket. It could have been the numbat’s spotless dress shirt and creased pants that looked out of place next to the two friends in tank tops, but he stood out like an opposable thumb.
“It’s nothing, Gast. Dill tiptoes around the corners of acceptable society.”
“The spirit of our ancestors should never be forgotten,” Dill said.
“Even if they devoured each other indiscriminately?” Dane added.
“Don’t tell me you’re still getting into trouble, Dill,” Gaston said glibly, as he removed his spotless glasses to clean them. Dane had known the numbat long enough to detect an unconscious sign of stress in this habit. Diffusing the tension in the air, he knocked Gaston on the shoulder playfully.
“Come on. If Dill didn’t have wrestling practice every week I’d be worried. He’s got to do stupid shit every once in a while or he’ll explode.” Gaston cast a withering glance to hide his amusement, and suddenly, an uncharacteristically serious look crossed Dill’s golden features.
“Now that I think about it, wasn’t it a crazy coincidence Serena was there? I know you two are taking a break, but weird how it turned into a chance to impress her. Maybe the Great Animal’s on your side, eh?”
“You saw Serena?” Gaston said. “How many seconds did it take before you started arguing?”
Dane frowned and suppressed the desire to scratch the furious itch on his snout. “Like Dill, I’m wild at heart. Hard for an animal like Serena to understand.”
Thinking back on it, she had not been carrying any protest signs or her usual pamphlets. Was it his imagination, or had she seemed a little nervous? Considering he had known her since preschool, there was not much they could hide from one another.
* * *
“Hello friends!” Chelsea greeted the band warmly as she entered the practice studio. At a glance, Dane took mental note of the missing band members - the usual suspects. Tech, their part-time, heavily tattooed mole roadie, was not there, but since he did their AV, he sometimes appeared midway through the session - when they finally started being productive. Dutch never showed. Though the red fox’s peerless knowledge of jazz and matchless improvisational ability on the trumpet allowed him to get away with winging it most of the time, Dane usually filled in his parts. Guitar, trumpet, piano, vocals, Dane covered for everyone at one point or another, and that was why he was unanimously voted band leader from the beginning.
Chelsea tested her violin strings with her talons, Nihleen practiced chords on her clarinet, and Mickey, their giant pangolin drummer, was taking a rare break from her phone to adjust her cymbals. Bigby was polishing his trumpet and smiling at his reflection. The little hedgehog could not come as often as everyone liked because he taught an Herbology class, but he was more consistent than some of them. Ava was even more frantic than usual to get things going, when her brother bounded out of the storage closet with a spare microphone.
Rick was not particularity large for a red kangaroo, but his muscular frame and goatee-framed scowl lent him an imposing quality. Dane tried to look busy and avoid eye-contact. The two of them were overdue for a fight.
“Dane,” Rick said, “I need to hear an apology.” Dill and Gaston inched back ominously, giving them space to air their grievances. Rick stood in front of Dane, taller than the anteater at his full height, plus four inches of tail. Gently, Chelsea landed on his shoulder and frowned with worry. Rick’s fiancée was the one animal who could calm him down. To be fair, Dane and Rick were in the same Astronomy class and had decided to share the egregiously high-priced textbook. Last week Dane left it on the bus, and now neither of them stood a chance on the first test.
“When are you buying another one?” Rick asked.
“The campus bookstore was sold out,” Dane said, though he had not bothered to check. Rick and he both knew there was no chance he could afford it.
“If I bomb this class I’ll have to take Physics instead,” Rick groaned. “You know how miserable I am at science, mate!”
“Physics is no problem, Rick,” Chelsea cooed, and then hooted. Rick’s thick neck muscles tightened beneath her. Science was not the problem, Dane knew, math was. And anything involving math. As one of his Geometry teachers had once told him, you either get it or you don’t.
Before Dane could come up with a snide remark, Bigby interjected. “Why don’t we get down to business, folks? Personal squabbles can wait till later.”
“We haven’t even started practice yet and they’re already at it?” Nihleen entered the discussion, “Does this always have to happen?”
“You don’t show up enough to know what happens regularly,” Dane replied. This statement garnered a threatening growl from the Komodo dragon and irritated stares from the rest of the band.
“Everybody needs to be on their best behavior today,” Ava announced seriously. “That talent scout from our last show said she might pop by to talk business. You wouldn’t want to ruin our chance at the big time.”
“This isn’t go’en away till he pays up!” Rick fumed.
Further argument was cut short when a newcomer materialized from behind Nihleen’s shadow. Though the tension did not vanish, an eerie new silence filled the room as everyone observed the presence of the well-dressed black cat.
Chelsea puffed to twice her usual size and shuddered involuntarily. The black cat was used to this reaction, and peered through slitted yellow eyes at everyone in turn. The cat cleared her throat and began in a disarmingly soft voice. “Sorry for appearing out of nowhere. It’s in my nature.” She waited for the slightest comment, and her tail twitched reflexively. She continued: “My name’s Carmen. I manage local talent. I’m not a real agent - just a scout with connections.” She paused. “I saw you at the Lucky Hoof. My organization wants to work with diverse bands. Progressive animals like yourselves with level-headed musical competency.”
Ava stepped forward and said, “We might be interested. What sort of gigs do you have in mind?”
“I’m looking for someone to open at a formal Animal Rights’ dinner,” the cat said. “But The Undertones doesn’t have much name recognition yet.”
“We’re starting to draw crowds,” Ava said.
“What does the name mean, though? Have you ever thought about changing it?”
“The name is nonnegotiable,” Dane said gruffly, sidling up to the cat, who smoothed a tuft of fur on her face with a small comb.
“I’m afraid then,” she purred, “I’ll have to reconsider.”
“Hold on,” Ava stammered.
“What’s the big deal, Dane?” Dill protested, “It’s only one night.”
“Out of the question,” Dane said.
The cat sauntered between each band member in turn, glancing casually about until she neared the exit. “Sorry to cause a fuss,” she said. “Feel free to look me up on Hargrave Street sometime.” Before disappearing into the noisy alley beyond the door, she flicked a business card into a nearby guitar case.
“Way to go, Dane!” Ava said sarcastically, chittering in frustration so that her glasses fogged up. “That could’ve been it!”
“When we’re good enough, venues will be begging us to play for them. Let’s start practicing. It’s getting late.” Dane bent to pick up Carmen’s business card. On it he read her name and noticed a design he had seen in various locations throughout the city. It was a circle comprised of the prints of the major animal kingdoms: mammalian, avian, reptilian, and aquatic. Rick eyed him murderously as he pocketed the card.
Without one thought about the future, as usual, Dane sought the flow from his guitar, and listened for the aura of music expanding from the instruments getting into gear. The large room was like a container in which their sound was free to metamorphose and blossom. They settled into place and swayed to the rhythm, finding the luscious grooves and tweaking the tempo.
Between songs, Dane caught Bigby peeking through the window shades. Quiet descended once again. Bigby mouthed, “She’s listening,” and pointed to the door. Curious, Dane walked over and peered through the gap in the shutters. The alleyway was full of pinecones and dried leaves. A slender black shadow hovered in the archway right outside the door, barely visible in the darkness.
* * *
“I don’t think I’m cut out for this, Dill,” Gaston could barely huff as the treadmill ripped away the ground under his scurrying legs.
“You’ve only been jogging for ten minutes. If you plan to do the 10K with me you better train.”
The mongoose’s little legs moved with such speed it hurt Gaston’s nearsighted eyes to watch them. “I never said I’d sign up for the 10K!” Gaston spluttered. He punched the machine’s controls until it came to a grinding stop, and he could catch his breath.
“Don’t you have a more breathable shirt?” Dill asked. “Why’d you dress up for the gym?”
“Because, Dill, a gentleman always looks his best.”
“I didn’t know numbats had sweat glands,” Rick chided. The kangaroo bounded toward them from the entrance. Chelsea wobbled behind him with tucked wings.
“We sweat, just not very often,” Gaston fluffed his exquisite sideburns.
“Very good day, Gaston!” Chelsea said.
Dill paused the treadmill to join the other three, seizing the opportunity to give Chelsea what he called a wing-five. “How are you guys doing? Did you come to work out?”
“Not right now, Dill,” Rick said, “We’ve got a date later.” Chelsea nuzzled him with her head.
Out of the corner of his vision, Gaston noticed two cougars in spaghetti straps snickering loudly. He shot them a spiteful look, but Rick and Chelsea paid them no mind. Some old-fashioned animals looked down on inter-species couples, but Gaston had always admired Rick and Chelsea’s relationship for how well their personalities complemented one another.
“Where’s your date going to be?” Dill asked, jabbing Rick in the tail suggestively.
“I wanted to ask Gaston for a recommendation. He always knows the best places to chow down.”
“You will surprise me?” Chelsea said, winking and hopping out of earshot.
“After picking her up from Language class there’s still time to beat the crowds,” Rick said.
“I thought she was done with those classes,” Gaston said, scratching his glossy chin.
“She’s still self-conscious about her accent,” Rick muttered.
A muscle-bound gorilla roared at his own absurd pose in front of the wall-to-wall mirror, interrupting Gaston’s train of thought.
“I wish we could all stop worrying about our little differences,” Gaston said. His words felt empty as a trickle of sweat traversed the rills of fur on his back.
“Hey, if it weren’t for that class, we never would’ve met. And my accent’s basically gone, mate.”
“Not much of an accomplishment when you’re still speaking the same language... I’ll think of a few places you can choose from and text you.” Gaston cleared his throat. A huge baboon with a barbell screeched and thrust a mountain of titanium weights above his inclined torso.
“Dill, I think I’ll head out,” Gaston said. “I never realized there were so many blockheads who worked out here.”
“I’m not a blockhead, right?” Dill asked, just to be sure.
“Care to follow us, Dill?” Rick asked before Gaston could answer.
“Fine,” Dill sighed.
“You decided?” Chelsea asked, trotting with her tiny legs on the bouncy-mat floor.
“It’s a surprise,” Rick reminded her.
“I’ll see what Dane’s up to,” Gaston said.
“He’s probably practicing. All he ever does,” Rick said.
“It’s crazy how he doesn’t get bored,” Dill added.
“Well, he’s dedicated,” Gaston said. “When you come from such a talented family, you can’t help but compete with your siblings.”
“Yeah, but didn’t the rest of them actually accomplish stuff?” Rick said.
“His parents are both renowned scientists. They were crushed when Dane chose to pursue music. But you have to admit, Dane knows what he’s doing.”
“It won’t matter if he flunks out before we get famous,” Rick said.
“Judging him solely on his current academic standing is putting the cart before the horse.”
An irritated Clydesdale within hearing neighed at them as they passed through the automatic sliding doors into the afternoon brightness.
“Some of us have to work hard to maintain our grades,” Rick went on, “He doesn’t even try.”
“He only needs time to get his priorities straight.”
“I learn a lot of music knowledge from Dane,” Chelsea said.
An awkward silence ensued, during which Gaston could feel the waves of jealousy radiating from the kangaroo. Not only was his fiancée the best violinist they had ever seen, she utterly humiliated Rick when it came to grades.
Dane stared at his homework. It stared back at him defiantly. Somewhere inside him a tiny grain of motivation drifted upon a sea of distraction.
Midway through the evening, Serena walked through his door. Random visits from her were not unprecedented. It was best not to question them.
“Gaston said you’d be here. Are you doing anything right now?”
“Homework,” he replied gruffly.
“So no, then.” She smiled. It had been a long time since he had seen her smile.
Hunching her shoulders to pass through the doorframe, she stared at him, and leaned against the movie poster on his wall.
Dane swiveled in his desk chair irritably. Serena’s gaze lingered over the brimming trashcan and the tower of plates in his kitchenette sink. The judgement was palpable.
She shoved a massive pile of dirty laundry aside to sit on his bed. He flipped a page of the book in front of him unconvincingly, underlining a few words with his ink-dipped claw as if he had hit upon an answer to something. Serena waited for the silence to become unbearable. The fur on Dane’s shoulders stood up, tingling.
“Your room hasn’t changed at all,” she commented. He screwed the lid on his ink bottle carefully and sighed.
“Why do you hold onto those LPs when your record player’s broken?”
A mortified look passed into his eyes, but departed quickly. “I’ll get it fixed eventually.” He glanced at his bookcase, which was warped out of shape from piles of moldering records.
“As if you’ll listen to all that punk and ska?” She smiled.
The tingling moved to behind his ears.
“Once you discovered jazz, you could never go back,” she went on.
“They have sentimental value.”
“I always liked your sentimental side,” she said. “Why do you try so hard to hide it?”
“Are you here to reminisce, or to try and convince me we should get back together?”
He watched her eyes burn with things she was unable to say.
“How many times have we given it a go?” The cruel words slid out of his mouth easily, but his heart throbbed. “It’s like one of those feline melodramas. At the end of every episode the lynx and the jaguarundi get back together.”
“I lost count long ago. I was never very good at playing this game with you.”
“Everyone said we made an odd couple. Opposites attract and what not.”
“Are you... still attracted to me?” she muttered.
“Never stopped being. So what’s it gonna be, Serena?” He placed his claws on the armrests to stop them from shaking.
“I need more time to think about it.”
“Well, I haven’t lost count,” he fumed. “We’ve broken up seven times, believe it or not.”
“You’ve always been good with numbers,” she said.
He glowered. “It’s harder, each time. And you haven’t showed up to band practice in like, eons.”
Her brown eyes fell gently on his. “I came to apologize. I want to be part of the band again. If you’ll let me.”
He regarded her with mild disappointment. “I’m not your boss or anything. Come if you want.”
The distance between them, which for a moment had subsided, rapidly increased.
“We both know you’re not going to get any homework done. Why don’t we go out?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Remember our first date?”
“No,” he lied.
“Let’s go ice-skating.”
* * *
Even in the squalid afternoon, the ice rink was nearly deserted. Only a pair of chinstrap penguins practiced competitive ice-sliding down the side-ramp. Dane and Serena stood in line. They overheard an elephant arguing with the cashier. The ice simply was not thick enough to support elephants, the employee said, but the young elephant was not hearing it.
Dane was careful not to make inappropriate comments in front of Serena. He only hoped she would not start defending the elephant’s right to skate.
“I recognize that guy,” Serena said.
“Who? The elephant?”
“Yeah. I’ve seen him at protests.”
“All elephants look the same to me,” Dane shrugged. In response, she glared at him.
Eventually, the overweight patron had his way, was rented skates of the largest size, and set out for the rink with an air of triumph. Strong sunlight slanted in from the frosted windows and lit up the sleek arena.
Serena took a few hesitant steps onto the frictionless surface and tumbled forward. Stifling a laugh, Dane hoisted her up.
“How embarrassing,” she grunted. Bits of snow clung to her patched fur.
“There’s no one here but us,” Dane reassured her. He was not counting the elephant, since they apparently knew one another. On their first date, she had spent much of the time in the bleachers, too humiliated to get back on the ice.
“I used to be good at this when I was little,” she lied.
They gingerly circled and listened to the soft jazz piping through the speakers. “One of the greats,” Dane said to himself.
Though Serena was small for a polar bear, she was a little heavy for Dane to support on his shoulder. For the time being, she was satisfied with holding his claw. They meandered through the open rink slowly, drawing a stare from a roguish janitor flicking a broom beyond the partition.
“I’m confident around you, except when it comes to things like this,” she said.
“Don’t worry about impressing anyone. Even if animals give us dirty looks, I’m plenty used to it.”
“You’d think I’d be good at this, being part polar bear and all.”
“It’d be much easier if you took the skates off. But they don’t allow that, of course. Everyone’s gotta wear skates. That’s how they make money. If you got on all fours like your ancestors, the ice would be no problem.”
“How could you even suggest something so bestial?” She would not grant that he was right. “I can tell I’m holding you back. Why don’t I wait here while you show me your moves?”
“I remember what you did to impress me last time. Go on.” She leaned against the Plexiglass.
Dane skated toward the center, brushing the ice with his bushy tail. Gathering speed, he performed a jump and a spin in midair.
“Just like in the ninth grade,” she sighed.
“It’s the only thing I learned from hockey practice.”
Suddenly, peering over his shoulder at her, he wobbled and slid into the wall. Not missing a beat, she burst into laughter.
The teenage elephant stood on the opposite side, watching. Serena saw him remove a garish nostril ring and tuck it into a pocket. When he proceeded, he stumbled awkwardly. An elephant on two legs was a rare sight. Though they tried to conform to modern society’s etiquette, large mammals struggled to remain upright for long periods of time and suffered plenty of intolerance for it. Watching the determined fellow encouraged her though, so she continued skating.
Dane felt happiness blossom inside him as Serena inched forward on the ice. He wondered how long it would take for some argument to end their newly resuscitated relationship. Inspiring them both, the audacious elephant scooted across the gleaming surface impressively, but left massive gouges in his wake. A rail-thin zebra in a blue jumpsuit who operated the Zamboni eyed the awful mess on the rink with noticeable aggravation.
Serena finally got the hang of it, and they talked about the band, school, and her activist projects. When they were ready for a break, they scrutinized the food court unenthusiastically. Several other animals had joined the penguins on the ice slide by then.
“So, I’ve been meaning to ask,” Serena started. She paused, giving the hair on the back of Dane’s neck enough time to stand up. “Why were you at the underground racetrack?”
If he would have had teeth, he would have gritted them. “I wasn’t, but someone I know wanted me to try it one time.”
“Dane, don’t laugh this off or lie to me. I’ve known you since we were kids, back when things like racing were more common. I was there when you tried your first ant.”
“Don’t bring up ants. It’s not like I’m an addict or anything.”
“I’ve never had trouble telling when you were lying.”
Dane cussed emphatically. Was it already time? Could she not enjoy the contentment for more than an hour before dredging up the old can of worms? He could already feel them gravitating toward that inevitable argument that would lead to their breakup. Already his heart wavered and his mind reeled.
“Dane, I’ve always tried to accept you, along with your faults. At bottom, I know you’re a good animal. Just like Dill...”
“Who said anything about Dill?”
“Come on, it was almost too obvious... I hope, with time, maybe I can get you back on the right track.”
“Don’t talk down to me like that! What about you? You were there too. And I didn’t see you holding a sign either.”
She shuffled her feet and growled. “Your perception is as keen as ever. To be clear, I have gone in before. I wanted to see it for myself. I even recorded some of it. I don’t go about these things lightly.”
“And you’re always trying to fix me, right? Like another one of your projects. You ever think you’re taking the activism too far? What if someone saw you there?”
“They didn’t. I know how to handle myself. Dane, we should fight for what we care about. So I give up my time. You should be proud of me instead of ashamed.
“We don’t have to go into it now,” Serena went on. “We can forget we were both at the track. It’ll take me time to build a case anyway. But it’ll be on my mind. And if we’re spending time together we’ll have to discuss it eventually.”
Everything always has to be discussed, doesn’t it? he thought. Nothing can ever be kept in the closet. Everything has to be aired out. It has always been that way.
“You should try protesting with me sometime. You meet folks from all walks of life.”
“I’ll think about it.” It was the last thing he wanted to spend his time doing.
“That elephant was better than me at skating,” Serena said, veering into a new subject. “Guess what’s in our genes doesn’t determine what we can do.”
“I feel sorry for the Zamboni driver,” Dane said bitterly.
For a while they watched the penguins in silence. Dane got up to skate more, and had to drag Serena back onto her feet. When they grew tired again, they returned their skates.
“Have you seen that damned elephant?” the arctic fox at the front desk asked.
“No, why?” Serena squinted at the surly employee.
“It’s not our job to keep track of your customers,” Dane reminded him.
“Didn’t turn in his skates,” the clerk said.
“Maybe he forgot he was wearing them and walked out,” Dane suggested.
“As if!” The fox scoffed contemptuously. Dane noticed a strangely familiar scent, like a barely applied cologne wafting from the irate employee.
They turned to leave.
“What are we gonna do now?” Serena asked. They shaded their eyes from the blinding sunlight at the entrance.
“I don’t care what we do,” Dane said. An anxious feeling nagged at him, and he thought about sneaking off to nibble a few ants.
“Maybe your theory was right,” Serena suggested.
“See that?” She pointed at several gouges in the sidewalk. Like the marks left in the ice earlier.
“That elephant is going to have some sore feet,” he chuckled.
“Makes me curious...” Serena’s face wore a slightly worried expression.
“Not on my radar, not my problem. Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
“I haven’t heard that phrase in a long time.”
It was not until Dane got to his bike that he noticed cigarette smoke pouring out of the window of the bowling alley next door. Glancing down the dirty alleyway, he glimpsed a suspicious black Cadillac. The sunroof was open and the head of a giraffe stuck way out the top of it. From behind the round sunglasses, Dane felt steely eyes pierce him like icicles. The car tires screeched and slammed across the pavement as if weighted down. He could see nothing through the tinted windows.
“Well, that was sketchy,” Serena said, clutching his arm.
“I feel like checking out what’s back there,” Dane said. His heart pounded, but a surge of insatiable curiosity propelled him forward. He did not even hear the unmarked black van roll in front of the alleyway behind him.
“Don’t!” Serena urged him.
Carefully, he picked his way across the overturned trash cans and came upon a spreading pool of red liquid.
“I knew I smelled something,” he mumbled. Behind a wet black tarp a huge mound wheezed spasmodically. A bloody ice-skate lay on its side next to the massive body.
Dane stood, nailed to the spot, until an ear-piercing scream jolted him.
Turning, he saw a grizzly two or three times Serena’s size wrap an arm around her neck and drag her from the mouth of the alleyway.
“Serena!” he yelled. He pounced and clawed, but with a flick of a bushy arm the bear flung him against a dumpster. Serena thrashed. He watched her tossed onto the ground and trampled by a trench-coated lion, and then clubbed brutally for good measure.
The brutish animals piled into the van and backed against the building as if waiting for the right moment to speed off. Dane sprang to his feet. Trembling, he coughed uncontrollably, before sinking to his knees next to Serena’s limp body.
Without thinking he took a handful of ants from a bag in his jacket pocket and shoved them in his mouth.
She was still breathing, he found, placing his ear at her mouth. She was still breathing.
A few feet away his bike lay on its side. In disbelief he glanced back at the elephant under the tarp. The white fox employee stood behind the fogged window, leering at them. Dane stared back.
A little time passed. He held Serena’s paw, too afraid to touch her battered face. He stroked her broken claws. In one of them he noticed something. A fat gold earring was tucked in her grip. He brought it close to his eye. Clinging to the sharp clasp was a pink piece of ear.
Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Popovich