This was a short story I wrote for a fun challenge on Patricia Briggs' board, Hurog. The main element had to be a stuffed hippo, and it had to be 2000 words max. I came in second with two others. :-)
by Pia Newman
The attic was a mess. Books and toys were scattered on banged-up shelves and strewn over the floor next to boxes of electronic equipment and the remains of ancient garden chairs. Mom’s old handbags and shoes, which she never had the heart to get rid of, were thrown in a messy pile in one corner beside a heap of smelly old blankets and pillows.
I hoped I could navigate through the melee on my crutches without falling on my butt. I let my eyes roam the chaos, hoping to hook on bright red fabric or white fluffy toy innards. The last time I’d seen Schnoz, he was in four pieces, and the stuffing was bleeding out of holes where his head and legs had once been.
“If he’s still here anywhere, then upstairs in the attic,” mom had told me yesterday on the phone in a hesitant voice.
She was enjoying a week at a health resort, which was why she couldn’t help me look for him up here, or at least help me up the narrow stairs to the attic. I wasn’t sure she’d help me look for him even if she were here. She hated Schnoz, because Kaley and I always used to fight over him quite viciously.
Which was how he ended up torn limb from limb, unable to hold up under the strain of both of us pulling on him as we tried to rip him out of each others hands. We’d been fourteen at the time, far too old in mom’s opinion to be fighting over a stuffed hippo.
I’ll never forget the look of horror on Kaley’s face nor the feeling inside me that matched it, when Schnoz ripped apart between us. She was suddenly holding only his big-nosed head while I clutched his right leg in one hand and the left leg in the other, his fat little torso dangling from one leg, held only by a few threads. Kaley screamed and threw the decapitated widely-smiling head at me, then tackled me.
Mom stopped our brawl by taking Schnoz’s busted pieces away from us and hiding them so well that even after three days of combined searching – we reconciled for the purpose of looking for him – we weren’t able to find him.
She never gave him back to us, although she swore at the time that she didn’t throw him away. Yesterday on the phone she wasn’t so sure about it anymore.
I needed to make sure.
I went through the clutter clumsily, leaning on my crutches as I bent down to move stuff around. But after half an hour of awkward searching, I turned my back on the attic empty-handed. He wasn’t here.
I drove home in my specially fitted car in despair. I had the feeling that Schnoz had been my last hope. I had hoped he could bring Kaley and me back together again.
Back at home I hobbled to the kitchen, turned on the stove to heat up some baked beans on toast, got a bottle of coke out of the fridge and sat down to think. The picture I’d dug up the other day, which got me pondering about Kaley again, was still lying on the table. It had been taken a few years before Schnoz’s ‘death’. It showed Kaley and me, looking like exact copies, each with an arm lying around the others’ shoulders. Schnoz was wedged between our arms as if linked with us. He looked pretty mangled even then; one small ear sewed back on, one button-eye dangling lower than the other, crooked teeth in the grinning big jaws, and the once fluffy red ‘fur’ matted. We hadn’t seen those flaws, though – to us, he was perfect in every way, the perfect conspirator, and the perfect friend.
The coke tasted flat to me today, putting me in an even worse mood. I racked my brain for another option but none came. I got up and prepared my dinner so I wouldn’t sit around uselessly, biting my fingernails.
For almost three years, Kaley and I hadn’t spoken to each other. Yesterday, finally, looking at the photo again, I thought of a way to show her that I was sorry about everything.
I wanted to repair Schnoz and give him to her as a peace offering for our birthday, which was in a week. I hoped she’d understand the gesture.
Or I had hoped. But Schnoz was gone. I had no peace offering.
While I ate, I stared at my crutches leaning against the table. They still reminded me of the accident every day, but I’d learned to live with them, and with my shattered legs.
Kaley had been driving the car when we crashed. She swerved to avoid a deer darting onto the road, and the car coming towards us hit the passenger side where I was sitting. Kaley got out of the wreck with only a scratch on her forehead. I was pulled out by the fire brigade with my legs mangled beyond recognition.
Once again, she came out of the situation the winner. It took me a long time to realise that was my real reason for hating her. At first, all I knew was that I was mad at her. I accused her of doing it on purpose. I told her it was her fault I was in this crippled state, that she would rather sacrifice me than hit an animal. She apologised, begged my forgiveness, saying it was just a stupid accident. I didn’t want to hear it. And I especially didn’t want to see her. When I looked at her I saw myself as I should be, whole and healthy and beautiful, and I couldn’t bear it. Finally she gave up trying to talk to me. One day, after another yelling match, she just didn’t come to the hospital anymore, and I was glad.
Mom and dad tried to get us to reconcile again. Until dad died of a heart attack in the same year as the accident.
Kaley and I both attended the funeral, but we didn’t speak a word to each other. I was still in a wheelchair, and when I saw her standing at the grave, tragic and beautiful, I couldn’t do anything but hate her. She didn’t once try to talk to me. Mom was mad. She said the rough iron ore miners dad had worked with showed more respect for him than we did. She told us she wouldn’t celebrate Christmas with us if we behaved like this every time we met.
So for the last three years Mom had met us separately at Christmas.
Last Christmas, one of her gifts to me was this photo of Kaley and me and Schnoz, a picture of together-times. She slipped it into the new paperback she gave me, and it fluttered out from between the pages when I unwrapped it. Neither mom nor I said a word about it, and I found myself unable to throw it away. Instead, I got into the habit of staring at it for long times, remembering little details of our childhood.
I still did that.
I felt no anger anymore. My wounds had healed as well as possible, and I’d accepted my fate. Now I only felt sad and lonely. I missed my twin, my other half.
I wished I had the courage to go see her, go up to her, hug her, and say ‘It’s all my fault. I’m sorry.’ But I didn’t.
Talking was her strength, not mine. I was the listener. People with problems came to me but people who wanted to have fun went to her. She was the witty one, the funny one, the bold one, the one in the spot-light. I always stood in her shadow and felt cheated; why did I look like her when I couldn’t be like her? Being a cripple only deepened that feeling, and I made sure she knew how I felt. I knew I made her feel bad and that my accusations were born out of spite, not truth.
I hurt her more than she had ever hurt me.
So I needed Schnoz. He was the only way for me to show her that I was really, truly, sorry.
The phone rang, interrupting my thoughts, making me jump. I grabbed the photo and one crutch, hobbled over to the phone and took it off the charger, then carried it to the couch on which I sat down before pushing the button.
“It’s me,” Nicole’s cheerful voice chimed over the line. “I was wondering what you had planned for your birthday. You’ll want to celebrate this year, surely!”
Until the accident, Kaley and I always celebrated together. Of course that had stopped, like the Christmases.
“I don’t think --” I began, but Nicole interrupts me.
“You need to get out and have some fun,” she said in slightly accusing tones. “You’ll never get rid of your gloomy thoughts if you sit at home all day thinking them!”
Nicole was my best friend. I met her at rehab where she underwent the same physical therapy as I. If my rage at Kaley was the ship that carried me across the deep waters, then Nicole was the anchor that kept the ship from drifting far out to sea. Nicole was one of those amazing people who could laugh at the limp in their walk and feel good in spite of it. She could coax a smile out of anyone.
“I know, Nic,” I told her with a sigh. “But who would I invite?”
“Me, of course,” she said with a grin in her voice. “Dan, our cute physical therapist. And how about your mom and sister? You said yesterday you want to get in touch with Kaley again – what better occasion than your birthday?”
Yes, what better occasion? Though the problem remained that without Schnoz to speak for me, I’d have to talk to her. I looked down at the photo again. The good eye in the big-nosed red face gleamed.
“I have an idea,” I said.
I wrote a formal-looking invitation, using expensive letter paper and a fountain pen.
I’m planning a little party on our birthday starting at 3 pm at my place.
Please be there, too.
I couldn’t bring myself to write more emotion into the letter than the simple ‘please’.
I tucked the letter into a beautiful envelope alongside the photo of us with Schnoz. If the real Schnoz couldn’t help me, this memory of him and us would just have to do.
I sealed the envelope, stuck a stamp on it and brought it to the letterbox, throwing it in with nerves jangling in my belly.
About two hours later, the mail man arrived with a package. I signed the slip of paper he held out to me, then went inside and opened it, expecting the medication I ordered last week. But it was something different.
Inside the crude post office box were a beautiful carton and a matching envelope. I opened the envelope first. Inside I found a letter on beautiful paper, written in black ink.
Our birthday is coming up, and I don’t want to face it alone again. It would mean the world to me if you came to my celebration at my apartment at 3pm on that day.
I am truly sorry for all that happened.
For several moments after reading the letter, I stared down at the carton in a daze. Then suddenly I couldn’t get the lid off quickly enough to see what was inside.
Matted red fur and a large boat-nose. A crooked ear and a dangling eye. Stitches running around the neck and legs. No white stuffing in sight.
Scarred, but whole. Kaley had sewed him back together!
With trembling hands I lifted the stuffed red hippopotamus out of the carton. As I pressed my face into Schnoz’s nose, inhaling his familiar musty scent, I could have sworn that his good eye winked at me.