This story is by Lon. Do you know Lon? You should know Lon. I first met Lon when I was battling Hemingway’s ghost on the A1A just outside St. Augustine. Hemingway fights dirty you know, with a pack of roving manatees, their hands flat and large as a schooner’s wheel. If not for Lon, I might be dead right now.
And maybe so would you.
Like Baby Elephants
by Lon Prater
The dead buildings of the distant city stood long and white. There was no shade and no trees but the van hid them from the two figures trudging up the lane of concrete in the sun. Inside, the van was warm and shadowed. A graduation tassel, made of string and a metallic fob with two numbers on it, hung beneath a shattered windshield that let in the flies. The man and the girl with him hid in the bucket seats, facing the city. It was very hot and the figures on the road ahead would be beside them in forty minutes. Behind the van, the road went on to another ruined city.
“When can we drink?” the girl asked. She had her hair held back with a sweaty red bandanna.
“It’s too soon, pumpkin” the man said.
“Just a taste.”
“Just a taste,” the man said. He handed her the canteen.
“It’s almost gone,” the girl said.
“Yes. No big sips, sweetie.”
The girl opened the canteen and held the cap upside down. She tilted the canteen to pour water into the cap then drank from it like a cup. She put the cap back on the canteen and handed it to the man. The girl squinted at the pair on the road. They were small in the sun and holding hands. The shorter one lagged a step behind the other.
“They look like baby elephants,” she said.
“You’ve never seen baby elephants.” The man drank a capful of water.
“Yes I have. On a billboard.”
“You might have,” the man said. “But it wasn’t the real thing. It was a picture.”
The girl looked at the graduation tassel. “The numbers they put on it,” she said. “What did they mean?”
“Graduation. Those were the last two digits of the year.”
“Did you graduate?”
The man coughed. He touched the tassel and then adjusted the broken rear view mirror.
“I want to graduate.”
“Because there are no schools?”
“I wonder what it was like,” the girl said. “Was it good?”
“It was all right. We had a party.”
“Did you get a tassel? And eat cake?”
“Yes. I lost it. We had an ice cream cake.”
“I’m so hungry,” the girl said. She put a stone into her mouth to suck on.
“Everyone is hungry.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “And everything tastes the same. Even if we had ice cream cake right now, I bet it wouldn’t taste any different than the skin inside my own mouth.”
“Oh, cut it out.”
“You started it,” the girl said. “I was just talking. I’m in a good mood.”
“Okay, let’s try and hang onto that good mood.”
“All right. I’m trying. I said those two in the road looked like baby elephants. Isn’t that a nice way to look at it?”
“I wonder what it would be like to try new foods? People used to try new foods all the time, didn’t they?”
“I guess so.”
The girl looked out at the two figures coming down the road.
“They’re so skinny,” she said. “They don’t really look like baby elephants. I just meant the way they were holding hands, with one in front of the other.”
“Do you want another drink?”
The warm wind blew the tassel away from the broken glass.
“The water’s not as good hot,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“It’s really not that awful, honey,” the man said. “It’s not supposed to be bad at all.”
The girl looked at the ground outside the van.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it. If you didn’t know what it was. It can’t be all that different.”
The girl did not say anything.
“I’ll get them and you can stay in here the whole time. You don’t even have to look.”
“Then what about after?”
“We’ll be fine. Just like we were before.”
“What makes you think so?”
“We’ll only do it when we need to. When we’ll die if we don’t do it.”
The girl looked at the tassel. She put her hand out and took hold of the strings and fob.
“And you think then we’ll be all right.”
“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. By now most everybody has had to do it.”
“So we have to try it this once,” said the girl. “And after, we can go back to sucking rocks?”
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to do it you don’t have to. I wouldn’t make you if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s the only way we’ll survive.”
“And you really want to?”
“I think it’s what we have to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now, pumpkin. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, can I say they are something different, like baby elephants, and you’ll like it?”
“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think of it that way. You know how worried I am about you.”
“If I do it you won’t worry anymore?”
“I won’t worry about you starving because we’ll have a solution.”
“Then I’ll do it. But won’t other people want to do it to me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do the same thing to me.”
“Well, I won’t let them.”
“Oh, yes. But they’ll want to do it to me just as much. And if I do it to them they won’t like it any more than I would.”
“I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.”
The girl arched her back in the bucket seat and looked out the window. On the far side of the farthest lane grew fields of tall brown grass. On the horizon, mountains loomed. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grass and no animals moved in the trees.
“And we could be the last ones,” she said. “And we could do it to everyone else until there was no one left but us.”
“What did you say?”
“I said we could be the last ones.”
“We can if we keep each other safe.”
“No, we can’t. It isn’t safe anywhere.”
“I’ll keep us safe.”
“But what if you can’t? What if they take me away, and you can’t get me back?”
“I won’t let them take you away.”
“We’ll never know till it happens.”
“I’ll keep you safe,” he said. “You mustn’t feel that way.”
“I don’t feel any way,” the girl said. “I just know things.”
“I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to–”
“Or anything that isn’t good for me,” she said. “I know. Could we have some more water?”
“Soon. But you’ve got to realize–”
“I realize,” the girl said. “Can we maybe stop talking?”
They squatted down in the van and the girl looked across at the brown grass on the far side of the median and the man looked at her and down the road.
“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. If you want I can go through with it myself and hope we find something different for you.”
“Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We might find something else right after.”
“Of course it does. But I don’t want to be unable to protect you. I don’t want anyone to hurt you. To me, it’s perfectly simple.”
“Yes, it’s perfectly simple.”
“You don’t see it, but I do.”
“Would you do something for me now?”
“I’d do anything for you.”
“Can we please please please stop talking about this?”
He did not say anything but looked at the other cars scattered along the road from the city. Some of them had stickers on them promoting things that no longer existed.
“But I wish we didn’t have to,” he said, “I wish there was anything else we could do.”
“I’ll scream,” the girl said.
The smaller figure stumbled in the roadway and the taller one stooped to help it up. “They’re almost close enough to hear,” the man said.
“What did you say?” asked the girl.
“You’re my good girl. You’ll make the right choice.”
The girl beamed at him.
“We need to stay low and quiet till it’s over,” the man said. She smiled at him.
“All right. Then can we maybe find some more water?”
He pulled up on the door handle and opened it half an inch.
He looked up the road but could not see the two figures. He held the girl’s hand, waited for them to come back into view. He gave the girl the last of their water and looked at the pair on the road. They were walking reasonably along the painted yellow lines. He watched the graduation tassel twitch in the breeze. She was looking away from him, the stone rattling against her teeth.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me, Papa. I’ll be fine.”
Originally published in After Ever After.
There are men who careen ambulances down mortar-pocked roads, and love la corrida, and sweat grain alcohol, and write spare, spare prose. Lon Prater is none of those men, but he remains convinced that if he could just get the hang of the spare, spare prose, all the rest would fall into place. Failed attempts are on display at http://www.LonPrater.com. (No appointment necessary.)