Heat, laced with the aroma of animal feces, was swayed by the fan's heavy breeze. An upturned cleaning bucket served as my comfort away from the rest of the world. I felt at peace. I closed my eyes, and the bland music from the overhead speakers remained. I took a breath inward, easing my nerves. Soon, the music faded away, as did the intensity of the sweltering sun. I couldn't feel the humidity anymore. I thought of Laura.
The sudden loud shrill of Maddison's voice caused my eyes to snap open, and I forgot the feeling of Laura's warmth. I set the palm of my hand against the back of my neck to assure myself her presence hadn't been real; it wasn't. I was at work. I stood up. Maddison's long legs carried her nimbly, and she arrived by my side in an instant.
"Good morning, Larry." Maddison smiled. Her long, black hair was strung up in a ponytail, and her bangs feathered around her chin. The sleeve of her sweater flopped against her wrist as she waved.
I wiped sweat off my forehead, eyebrows raised at her gaudy sweater. It was bright yellow and our zoo's emblem was sewn on the chest. The emblem looked creased, as if the sweater had been freshly unpackaged. Underneath the sweater she wore shorts and tattered sneakers. The smell of the zoo's central office seeped like toxic from the sweater, greatly contrasting my stench of sweat and animal dung.
I sighed. "It's not morning, you know. It's already past noon. Is there any sign of the volunteers?"
Maddison's smile widened, and dimples embellished her dark skin. "It's great seeing you back, Larry. How was your trip outta town?"
"I heard you and Laura were going outta town. How was it?"
My legs nearly collapsed beneath me at the mention of her name after so long, and I heaved a breath after catching myself. Maddison was misinformed, which I had come to discover was common for her. She was in her own world, no doubt.
"We aren't together anymore," I said slowly. "We haven't been for almost three months now. Have my volunteers arrived yet?"
Her arms dropped to her sides. Disbelief and defeat crossed over her face and her posture slumped. "You broke up? Nobody mentioned it to me–sorry, Larry."
I was fuming. Nobody mentioned it? My engagement crumbling apart overnight was a hot topic among the office staff, and yet she hadn't heard about it. She wasn't paying attention to anything around her, as usual.
"My volunteers?" I asked for a third time. Maddison apologized, but she didn't look all that sorry.
"Try not to let the breakup get you down," She wore a soft smile. "You should forget about her as much as you can. It's not worth it in the long run, y'know?"
I'd heard she had never been in a romantic relationship, and I was beginning to believe the rumor held air. I should forget about Laura entirely, should I? What would Maddison know outside of animals in a zoo? As if some unknown force read my mind, the walkie-talkie hooked to Maddison's belt rang; she turned from me to answer it, putting our conversation to a close.
My mind was hazy. Ever since my old curator left last year, I'd been stuck with Maddison. I did all I could to avoid her. During my vacation, avoiding her was easy, but as my vacation days waned, I feared returning. Now that I was back, it had taken a couple of minutes for my patience with her to unravel. It was time to avoid her, as always. I'll have her send me my volunteers and I'll be done dealing with her.
I settled back into my spot in the shade, on top of the cleaning bucket. I stripped the gloves from my hands and set them aside. I was relieved until I caught sight of Steve out of the corner of my eye. I jolted up in my seat, squinting at the kid walking next to him. Soon they came into sight, allowing me a better look at him.
He was short and pale with tasseled dark hair. He held a smartphone in his hands and appeared to be halfway immersed in it. Steve was taking the lead in their conversation, waving his arms ecstatically.
I stood up as they approached, scanning the name tag on the kid's shirt. It read Todd, Sophomore at Palm Springs High School scribbled in tiny handwriting. Steve noticed me before Todd did, and turned me into the topic of conversation.
"This is the keeper I mentioned before, his name is Larry. He's one of our best keepers. That lady behind him on the talkie," Steve pointed. "That’s our curator, but she's got a few loose screws."
I reached out for Todd's hand, engrossed in his presence now that he was in front of me. He pocketed his smart phone, looked up to me, and returned my handshake. "Hello, sir. It's a pleasure to be working with you this year."
He looked far too familiar. My eyes fell back onto his name tag. I wracked my brain for a few seconds. Our hands still conjoined, I said, "Todd, is it? I think I remember you, actually. Did you go to Sterling Lake Middle School?"
A chuckle escaped him, revealing his top canines. "No. I'm not from Florida. I don't think I could stand the heat. I just moved here a few months ago."
I tried to match his chuckle, but it came out awkwardly. "Sorry, it's just that you seemed familiar."
He glanced me up and down, shrugged, and moved beside me to squalor under the shade. "Your name doesn't really ring any bells. What do you do to stay cool on the job, anyway?"
I frowned when he sat on top of my bucket, stealing my perfect spot in front of the fan. He leaned in to the fan and said, "Jeez, you weren't kidding about your curator being off. Why's she in a sweater when it's scorching hot out?"
Steve squinted, noticing her sweater. “We just got those in. They’re for the gift shop. Pretty nice, right? I designed them.”
“Designed what?” Maddison asked as she strode forward, hooking her walkie-talkie back onto her belt.
“Did you?” She was impressed, as if the fact should be new to her.
“One of the volunteers just got here.” Steve went on. “Were we expecting more today?”
“I’m gonna have to ask the volunteer manager. Hey, Larry,” Maddison looked over to me. “Can you do the next gator show in fifteen?”
“Err,” I said. “Did Anthony leave early?”
“Yup. Can you cover with this kid?” Maddison nodded at Todd.
“I guess I’ve got to.”
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Todd said. “My name’s Todd.”
Maddison grinned. “Pleased to meet you, Todd. Come this way, I’ll show you our gator den.”
Todd quickly matched her fast walking pace, and I lazily trailed behind them. Steve met with me, and nudged me in the arm, whispering so that the others couldn’t hear.
“Hey, Larry, what was that back there? Do you know this volunteer or something?”
I shrugged. “I could have sworn I’d seen him somewhere before, apparently not.”
“What, you think you’ve got a long lost kid?”
Steve brought a hand to his mouth to smoother his laughter, but the others still heard, and looked to us. Maddison laughed, assuming him to be laughing along with what she had said. “I think it’s pretty funny too,” she slowed her pace, turning her face towards us. “She loves our nutrition biscuits, and she’s still our biggest gator.”
Soon we were back up on the main walkway. The walkway was wide across and wooden planked. Trees surrounded either side of the walkway, stunting the sunlight from reaching the zoo guests, which I’d come to notice usually consisted of family units. Some guests were generous enough to let us through upon noticing our uniforms. We reached the back entrance to the gator den, where Maddison always left the gator food throughout the day. There were several buckets full of different assortments. Todd curiously leaned down to look into one, repulsed by the raw meat.
Maddison checked her wrist watch. “Only a few minutes now,” she said. “Kid, will you hold the bucket with the green label?”
Todd responded with apprehension, reaching slowly for the bucket. “You know, ma’am, I have a name.”
She looked genuinely puzzled, which caused Steve to snicker and nudge my arm.
“Oh, sorry.” she said, eyeing Todd’s face a little more carefully this time. “I’m pretty bad with names. Who has the mic?”
“I do,” I held the microphone up. “Wasn’t there a meeting this afternoon?”
“It isn’t for another hour. Where's the spare mic?"
My insides shrunk. Maddison rarely joined in on our shows. Why today? The possibilities rushed through my mind and I didn't catch Maddison's question. By the time I noticed, Maddison had found the spare mic and was halfway done unwinding its cord.
"Okay," she smiled ear to ear. "I'll start us off!"
Without response from any of us, she stepped out into the gator den. I followed in a panic as Maddison's mic-check blasted through the speakers. I arrived beside her, finding her mic check consisted of tapping the microphone against her shirt. I groaned mildly. Around the gated den, an audience was already gathered. Children were as close to the gate as they could get, eager to see the gators up close. There were waters all through the den, and as soon as Maddison stepped out, the gators had been enthralled by her presence, connecting it to the possibility they were going to be fed. Their large, dark bodies loomed carefully through the water, towards where we stood on their sunbathing island. A sunbathing gator was already on land, which I noticed when Todd nearly dropped his bucket with a yelp.
"Hello!" Maddison's voice bellowed through the speakers. "Welcome to Union County's gator den! I'm Maddison, one of the curators here. This is one of my favorite attractions because we home over fifteen full grown gators here, as well as a few crocs."
One of the gators began to reach land. Steve swooped closer to the shore, alarming them with a training stick several feet in length. Their large bodies fumbled slowly backwards into the water.
"Our waterway goes well around the park for the gators," Maddison went on. "this way, they can come and go as they please."
I hadn't turned on my microphone yet, but I had gauged I wouldn't need it. Maddison seemed to understand just how to carry on the show, which I hadn't expected. Steve lured forth a croc onto shore with feed, allowing Maddison her opportunity to explain the difference between the American Alligator and the American Crocodile. I backed out of the way for this, and as a result, almost bumped into Todd. He was towards the back, as far away from any of the gators as he could get.
"Ouch!" Todd grunted. "You stepped on my foot."
"Oops," I whispered. "Sorry."
He shifted awkwardly on his feet. I forced a smile when he glanced to me.
"You're lucky," I said. "We usually don't let volunteers into the den."
"Do they really live to be as old as she said?"
"Yeah, especially in captivity."
He became silent. I looked him over once more—definitely familiar. Was it his hazel, almond shaped eyes? Was it his long, ballpoint tipped nose? No, it wasn't his appearance. It was the way he stood, slouched slightly, arms to his sides; it was the way he carefully examined every corner of the den; and it was the carefree manner in which he spoke.
Maddison had drawn our biggest female alligator close to the shore. The gator was slowly edging to Maddison, trudging through the sand below. Her skin was dark grey and seemingly more scaly and rough than the other gators of equal youth. Her jaw was agape, almost as if she was smiling. She reached Maddison and was rewarded. Maddison announced her name was Stella, and that this week would be her last.
I realized that must have been why Maddison wanted to take part in today's show. Her caramel eyes sparkled as she detailed Stella's personality to the audience. She seemed more attached to Stella than the rest of the gators, but was grateful it was her time to be set back into the wild. A thunderous boom cut her short. We looked up. Thick, grimy clouds had appeared out of nowhere. We were used to this, though.
"I've only got a few minutes more here, folks." Maddison said. "I'll gladly take any questions before we head out."
When the rain began to fall, it poured as if we had just escaped a drought. Maddison rushed to her meeting half-soaked and forty minutes late. Steve chuckled as she bolted off through the rain, leaving us backstage under the overhead where we sought safety.
"Look at her go," Steve said. "She's so weird."
"I learned a lot of interesting things during the show." Todd glanced up from wiping the screen of his smartphone dry with his shirt. "Is she just bad with people or something?"
"Horrible with them." Steve brushed a hand through his thick hair, which was trodden from rain. "She doesn't seem that interested in people."
Todd stared at me, hardly acknowledging Steve's reply. He was waiting for my reply. I tucked my hands into my pockets. "Oh, yeah. It's difficult to hold a conversation with her."
"Why do you keep looking at me?" Todd raised an eyebrow.
"H-huh?" I faltered. "You're imagining it. I wasn't."
"You were—and during the show, too."
"Larry's got photographic memory with people." A sly grin crossed Steve. "He's great with faces. One time, he recognized this woman from his 3rd grade class who came in with her husband and kids. She didn't even know who he was."
I felt hot and my hands plunged deeper into my pockets. "It's not like that though."
"I get it, now." Todd said. "You still think you know me from somewhere, is that it?"
"I don't!" I snapped. "Steve, will you knock it off?"
"Woah, Lar, chill." He looked irked, and gazed up at the sky. "It's not showing any signs of slowing down. Want me to show you our reptile house, Todd?"
They went off in the opposite direction, and my face still felt warm for a few minutes. Why did he have to bring that up? Without meaning to, I detailed Todd's face. I wasn't going to forget it now, but it wasn't what drew me to him in the first place; I had met someone with a personality like his before. There was an air around him that I recognized. I thought about it for a few moments, watching the rain seep down the drains.
Out of nowhere, I thought of my mother, and her classroom. The memory muddled my brain with the smell of sharpened pencils and fresh paper. As a teenager, she often had me help out in her classroom after school. It struck me that Todd could have been among the students in her class. It was possible he didn't remember me because he had been young at the time. But, wait! Didn't Todd mention he hadn't lived in Florida before? Ah, well. It wouldn't hurt to ask, and I hadn't spoken to my mother much since I told her my fiancé and I had split up.
After digging out my phone and lighting the screen, I forgot all about my mother, the phone call I was about to make, and the new volunteer. Everything fell to the back of my mind so I could comprehend the text on the screen. I blinked, but it remained unmistakable—One missed call from Laura Page.
I had nearly forgotten about Laura for the first time in months, and yet here she was, ruining the peace I was beginning to feel. I was enraged; why would she call me after the horrible fights we had? Did she call to pick another fight? That damned woman!
But then, something seemingly more logical struck me. Something had happened to Laura, and she needed my help. I froze up as the possibilities weighed down on me. I clicked into my voicemail, but I found nothing from Laura. She didn't even leave a message, how important could it have been? Momentarily, I reverted back to spiting her. She didn't leave a message because she would have spouted nonsense! But, my reasonable side won me over: if something had happened, it might be too important to detail over voicemail.
I was starting to feel nauseous. I flipped up her contact and pressed the call button. Each ring brought my heart fluttering faster, but she didn't answer. I grumbled and stuffed the phone into my back pocket. Screw it!
I wiped sweat off my face and unclipped my walkie-talkie from my belt. It was getting nearer to closing time. With the rain and lightning as heavy as it was, many of the guests would be heading out. I dialed management on my way out of the den. According to them, Maddison had permitted me to go home early for the day. I asked if they were sure, and they were. Unconvinced, I dialed Maddison's talkie-channel, and asked. No answer. I sighed and pressed the talk button once more. "Maddison, are you there?"
No answer again. Could she still be in that meeting? She was late for over half of it! I clipped my talkie back to my belt, and sauntered along the walkway with overhead, preventing me from getting any more soaked than I was. I neared the front office when I saw Maddison. I jumped back a step in surprise. She was slouched over on a bench, with a towel half hanging around her shoulders. Although I was a few feet away, she hadn't seen me yet. She gazed blankly out into the distance. Edging closer, I noticed her hair was down and strands of it were helplessly entangled by the towel around her shoulders. It was as if she had started to dry her hair, but the effort became too overwhelming.
Her walkie-talkie was missing from her belt loop. So that was why she didn't get my call. Ought I ask her if I can leave? But, she looks miserable. Laura's face flashed through my mind. Carefully, I constructed something respectable.
"Oh, hey, Maddison." I moved a bit closer, and she sat a little straighter now that I was present. "Are you okay? I couldn't get a hold of you on the talkie, but I was told I could leave early today."
She looked back ahead, lifting the towel to dry her hair more; it cascaded down her back and had become frizzy from rain. I hadn't seen her with her hair down, but somehow it accentuated her face in a bright way. Was bright what I meant—? She was sulking, which was another trait I had never seen from her. It etched into my mind, along with all of Laura's unhappy expressions, and merged into some kind of permanently unhappy beast.
"Of course," Maddison said at last, her voice soft. "I should have told you myself, you can head out. I'll see you for our keeper chats tomorrow."
"Did something happen?"
"It's nothing." she said too quickly. She blushed a little and lowered her head.
Maddison retaining conscious thought threw me off. This couldn't have been the same person I knew. Then again, I didn't know much about her. All I did know was that she never regret her decisions, if not because she never paid much attention to anything around her.
She met eyes with mine, her confidence returning so much that it made me aware I was caked in dirt, rain water, and sweat.
"I wanted to apologize for what I said about forgetting Laura. I wouldn't want you to forget someone you cared for so much. I feel even worse that I should have known you two had split up, and I didn't."
Was I dreaming? Why would Maddison apologize? I pocketed my hands. "It's no big deal."
"I'm not the best manager," she admitted. "Actually, I always thought you'd be better suited for it."
"Oh, no—I'm no leader."
She flashed me a doubtful expression, and then laughed as if certain I was joking. So this was Maddison's true identity? She was like a normal person now. But why did she drop the act?
"Can I ask you something personal?" she said.
I shrugged. "Sure."
"Suppose you met someone who was a lot like family you used to know, but it wasn't the same person. They were the same person, yet not entirely. What would you do?"
It was a normal question. She wanted to know what to do when a family member changed. And yet another part of me was trying to interpret it differently. The center of my forehead ached. The rain poured harder.
"Sorry," I said. "I don't quite get that last part."
Maddison looked away and gazed at the rain. I waited a minute more, but she didn't respond. It almost appeared I had lost her, and she had left to her own world in her head. I tried again.
"Do you mean that you met someone who had similar traits to your family?"
"Never mind it." she said as she stood up, removing the towel from around her shoulders. "I should go now—I was supposed to finish inspecting some cages."
"Uh, wait a minute, Maddison—"
"See you tomorrow."
I could detest no further, watching her hurry down the path I had come. What did she mean? I settled onto the bench, next to where Maddison had been seated. The humidity from the downpour was starting to affect me. The air felt damp and hot, sticking to me like glue and seeping into my veins. As the heat had its way with me, it hit me; Todd reminded me of family I knew. I held my head. Yes, that was it—I could almost taste the chalk dust in the murky air.
His face came back to me in an instant, and a dated memory accompanied it. I saw him with my mother, grading papers together after hours, huddled over her desk at the front of the classroom. He was so tall that I felt like I would break my neck if I stared up at him too long. His eyes were soft green and freckled in brown, and he had prominent sandy-blond waves that went down his neck, melting into the tops his shoulders. His eyebrows were thick, sitting naturally rounded over his eyes, and he had a shadow from his prickly, unshaven face which he rarely felt the desire to keep up with.
I breathed slowly. The image of his face was a little blurry, but still there nonetheless. I hadn't seen him since he passed away—how long had it been? I must have been 12 or 13 when I lost him. I let it sink in. It had been almost 20 years since then!
He didn't look like Todd, though. I leaned back and gazed up at the overhead. Even if he didn't look like Todd, it was as if his soul were in Todd's body. How could that be, though? Was it possible?
I smiled; what was I thinking? Todd couldn't have anything to do with my dad. It must be that I miss him, that's all. I stood up, clocked out and went home. That night, memories of my father flooding back to me made it difficult to fall asleep.