It took a while, but I finally got Beej to calm down, having him breath heavily into a paper bag. I was going to stuff it with dog turds and light it on fire later, but luckily I hadn’t loaded it yet.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He got to his knees and then to his feet with only a little bit of trouble. “I’ve been getting overwhelmed ever since…since..well, you know.” He couldn’t bring himself to complete his sentence, but he didn’t have to. I knew what, and when, he was referring to. He was talking about Friday.
The pets, or at least pieces of them, had all come back that day. Every single one of them. Even the furry prick that we had picked up in the condemned pet store. After we had tracked it to the Pet H el, I killed some time flipping logs and looking at bugs and working on my screen play for a musical called Jurassic Trailer Park. We never set a scheduled time to meet up again, but I felt in my bones that it was time to head back to the fort. When I got there, sure enough, the mangy bastard was back in his carrier. Whether or not they had combined it with another animal or two, I couldn’t tell, as it was just an ugly stinking mass of fur and teeth and claws ever since we stumbled across it in the dark. We had named him Fluffy.
I thought it was weird that Elizabeth didn’t notify us that Fluffy was on its way back, but I shrugged it off. Maybe her tracking gizmo didn’t work anymore, who knows? I wasn’t going to drive myself crazy wondering why, she would let me know when she came back to HQ. Only thing was, she never did.
Several hours had passed before we went looking for her. The first hour after Beej showed up and we waited for Elizabeth to round out the group, we had joked around and been able to think about and talk about other things. The following hour was full of fidgeting and nervous laughter. We still joked around, but none of our jokes or smiles were wholly sincere. The third hour, we sat in a horribly still silence, each quietly trying to will the other to say the words out loud first. Finally, I could stand it no more.
“We should check her house first.”
We rang the bell and waited. There was no answer. We knocked, waited, then knocked again. Again, nothing. Not a single stirring to be heard about the house. I tried the knob and found it was locked. I tried it again with the same results. I cursed, grabbed the knob and tried a third time. Nothing, it seemed that my foul words had no effect.
Frustrations rising to a breaking point, I lost my temper. I shouted and grabbed the knob in both hands, calling it every name in the book until I had rattled and kicked the door right off of its track. The door swung open, extending an unuttered invitation.
I turned to Beej and shrugged. “Look at that, the door was left open. We should check it out.”
We stepped inside, but we didn’t have to go far. Immediately we knew that something was wrong. Sitting on the sofa facing the television was a lumpy stuffed koala, its dark button eyes revealing nothing of what it knew. This was the first time I had ever seen it apart from Elizabeth. Ever. It sent chills down my spine.
BJ walked over to the koala and picked it up somberly. The lifting was light but the act was heavy. “I’ve never seen her without her bear before,” he said in a low tone.
“I’ve never once seen her with a bear,” I responded. Beej looked up at me sharply and waved the koala in my direction with all the grace of a drunken toddler. “What are you talking about? She carried this with her every single day,” he said in an annoyed tone that I didn’t appreciate.
“That,” I said as I gathered up all the patience I could muster, “is a marsupial, not a bear.”
BJ’s face flushed and he puffed out his cheeks in frustration. “Same thing,” he grumbled. I clucked my tongue at his foolishness. “It’s really not,” I assured him. “You would know the difference if you ever looked at anything in those National Geographics except for nude tribespeople. You pervert.”
He socked me in the arm like a coward, but then looked me in the eye with a grave expression on his stupid face. “I’m not going to fight with you right now, I’m sorry. I know that we’re both stressed out. But you know what I was trying to say. Elizabeth is gone, something happened to her.”
I wished with every fiber of my being that I could disagree, but I knew that I couldn’t. They got to her. Those Nazi bastards got her. Wiping a scant few newly-formed tears from my face, I met BJ’s stare. We both had the same question in our eyes. What are we going to do now?
Without Elizabeth, we were missing a crucial part of the equation. It was like trying to do the scientific method with only two steps, it was pure madness. I was the idea man, sure. And most of my ideas are great! At least half of them, anyway. Well, maybe closer to 60/40. Point is, all of my ideas are great, but there are simply too many of them. My mind was an awesome, unstoppable force, but it could use a little guidance sometimes. That what Elizabeth was best at. She could listen to all of my amazing ideas and then pick out just the right one for the occasion. Then she’d pass that off to Beej and he would figure out a way to implement it. Now, without Elizabeth, we were lost.
I pitched ideas at Beej for the better part of an hour, but he spent most of that time asking me stupid obvious questions or trying to get me to slow down and explain more. Without Elizabeth there to help filter it, everything was going either over his head or in one ear and out the other. I sighed and closed my eyes.
Suddenly, there it was. A flash of inspiration, a profound epiphany. The perfect plan. It was the kind of plan, however, that offered no kind of relief.
“Beej, I’ve got it. We need to stop at my place for something.”
As we walked, I explained the plan. I knew at once that he wouldn’t like it. I knew that he would fight me tooth and nail on it. But, by the time we got to my dad’s house and grabbed what was needed, he had exhausted every avenue of argument. There was no getting around it. The plan was perfect. It just wasn’t pretty.
BJ didn’t agree to the plan out loud, and I think that he did that for legal reasons, but the end result was that he stopped disagreeing with what I was saying so I knew that he was now onboard. When the chips were down, I knew that he would have my back.
We were on our way to Pet H el to enact the plan when BJ got hit with a panic attack. I could hardly blame him. Things were about to get, for the lack of a better word, dire.
As Beej breathed into the brown bag, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to distract him. “You know Beej,” I began, “we need to be prepared for absolutely anything in there. That’s why I think we should talk about the possible ways we can get combo-ed.” He knit his brow. “Combo-ed?” He asked, thankfully out of his daze at last.
“Yeah, combo-ed. Like the animals we’ve seen. If we get caught, they might do the same to us.” This gave BJ some pause, a faint worry starting to creep into the edges of his features. We couldn’t have that, so I continued quickly.
“They’ll probably combine me with a stallion, or maybe a fox,” I said, striking a few flexes and poses while I spoke. BJ rolled his chestnut eyes, but I was happy to see that my plan was working. “Or maybe a barnacle,” I added. “You know, because of the huge wang.” BJ groaned and elbowed me, telling me to shut up. “You’re right, my bad. I shouldn’t talk about wangs in front of you, don’t need you getting all horned up before a crucial mission.”
“That’s exactly it,” he sarcastically assured me. After a pause, he asked, “Can we change the subject?”
“Sure,” I said. “But since that’s exactly what the Nazi doctor will say before surgery, we should talk about what you might get turned into.”
If possible, he rolled his eyes even farther into his head. Almost like he had already had a set of chameleon eyes put in. “You’re already big, hairy, black and gay, so they’ll probably just make you a literal bear.” As I teased him, I saw him start to visibly calm down. His wearied mind gratefully grasped at the strings of normalcy I was dangling before him. I rubbed my chin as I murmured thoughtfully. “Then again, you’re also a snazzy dresser, so you’ll probably be combo-ed with something with a lot of color. Maybe like a parrot! Yeah, a bear-parrot combo,” I prattled on. “A bearrot! Think about it, it probably wouldn’t even be that bad actually. Half your life is already looking in a mirror and pruning, and the other half is sleeping. You’re already half bearrot if we’re being honest. I’m actually jealous. I’ll probably be forced to breed all the time, or maybe fight like the ultimate super warrior I am. But like, with teeth and claws added and - ”
“Jamesy,” he cut in, putting up an imploring hand to stop the torrent of my words from continuing to spout out like a broken faucet. “Can we be serious for a minute?”
That question shot ice through my veins, it was the very last thing that I wanted to be. The seriousness of our situation, the sheer gravity of it all, it weighed as heavily as my back pocket. Instead of giving voice to any of these thoughts, I just zipped my lips and nodded.
“I know that we already looked at it from every angle, but…but I’m a little bit afraid to…” He drifted off and sighed heavily. He looked me in my eyes and finished his thought in one more go. “I’m scared to use ‘The Closer.’”
At the very mention of it my hand flew instinctively to the bulge in my back pocket. A reflexive grab, a southern belle clutching her pearls at the mention of something terrible.
I tried to smile, to feign confidence and set his mind at ease. Despite my best efforts, the effect wasn’t convincing. I saw the pleading in his eyes, the want for comfort. It seemed, however, that I was ill-equipped for such a job. After a few beats of thick silence, I quietly admitted to him that I was scared too.
We stood together in that silence, let it grow and twist and surround us. We stared ahead at the soulless building in the not too far distance, hardly noticing the temperature dropping as we watched the sun begin what could be the last descent that we ever saw.