The Return, by Nathan Cromwell
Asking for my money back was really a terrible idea; if the ferret’s right, I could die. Or screw up my afterlife. Or even my marriage. The ferret won’t talk anymore. Got offended when I took it back for a refund—which I didn’t get. In fact, the Asian girl at the counter treated me like a moron for insisting they’d sold me a rude, talking ferret that had risen from the dead, and the manager outright called me a liar and a half-wit. I won’t be going back there.
I guess I riled the ferret worse when I got home and tossed it into its cage and stopped letting it out to frolic, or whatever word it is for what ferrets do. Of course, if you knew how, after months of normal chattering and chuckling, it had suddenly announced in English that I should never have children because I was an idiot and my wife immoral, followed by various proofs of our stupidity shamelessness, you’d know why I was sore.
Though I still hold it might be wrong about me, I’ve since discovered it was right about my wife. And now that she’s told me she’s pregnant—whether from some affair or because I put the condom on backwards again I don’t know—I’m worried. The ferret, after insulting me and my beloved, had told me a story, which, I think, was meant to warn me. I can’t plumb what it means, and the ferret’s mum now, but maybe you can figure it out. Look, if you want to keep telling me about timeshares you’ll hear me out or I’ll hang up. Okay, listen:
When I was like you, Nick—human and male, though younger and a lot smarter—I fell hard for a classmate in Lit 101. Unlike most Asians, who choose a safe brown when they dye their hair, she’d banded wide white and yellow swathes through the black. And was she stacked. At first I treated her as eye candy, but as the semester wore on I began to desire her, as strongly Gatsby did what’s-her-name in that book I was supposed to read, and I started shadowing her. I discovered that she was into all sorts of causes and loved animals. I often saw her stop to adore some mongrel. She even worked part-time at an animal shelter.
After a week or two I felt prepped to approach her. I decided to ‘shop’ for a pet, and on that fateful Saturday afternoon I walked in and began browsing. She came over and said she remembered me from Lit class as the guy always reading her whimsical tee shirts. The conversation went okay, but I started to notice she was puzzled, and then I remembered that she was expecting me to be all into animals, so I told her I’d come to look for a pet. That helped, and soon she was dragging me from one cage to the next and burbling all the occupants’ virtues and what she knew of their provenance. I told her I was a busy man and didn’t want one that needed a lot of upkeep and walking around, like a dog. She asked me what I did that kept me so busy, since she had noticed that I often dragged into class late and sleep-deprived. I evaded answering by adding that my studies required focus, so distracting things like kittens and cats that shoved and scraped all over you when you were reading were out. For some reason she volunteered that her brother with ADHD had trouble studying, but I assumed that her talking about family was a good thing.
I nixed rats, mice, gerbils, and rabbits as being either rats or too much like rats. Snakes interested me, especially when I asked what they ate, but I guessed that telling her I was fine with sacrificing animals she had been cuddling moments ago would not do me any favors.
In the end I could find no real objection to birds: they stay in cages and don’t eat anything cute. At first I was pleased with myself—I was sure I had made some definite inroads—until I realized she expected me to get one. Having already told her I had no objections, I began looking around for something cheaper to adopt. Sadly, the only turtle they had died as soon as I tapped the cage; it slipped off the rock onto its back and lay there inert, its face a frozen mask of open-mouthed horror and relief.
So she talked me into a mynah that an elderly woman couldn’t properly care for anymore, the biddy having died. Daisy—I had found out her name!—practically wet herself over having found it a home. She had fallen in love with the bird and really wanted to place it in a deserving home. She explained in excruciating detail how to take care of it, told me what pet names she called it with the clear intention that I do so as well, and extracted a promise that I would send her photos—aaaand now I had her number! This was inspiration rewarded.
So of course, since things had gone so well, I asked her out. Despite the careful building of rapport she seemed suspicious, but I told her it would just be a pizza and afterwards she could visit the bird—just for a little while, because studying. Reluctantly, as if someone was trying to sell her a pet she didn’t want, she green-lighted the upcoming Wednesday.
Back at my off-campus apartment I placed the cage in an optimal location, fed and watered the bird, and sat down at the computer, I suddenly wondered why, if she loved the bird so much she hadn’t taken it herself. I filed that away as a question for Wednesday.
I updated my social networking profiles to ‘single’ and erased posts that included any mention of Myrtle. I was deleting photos of me getting tired-looking at Rufus’ Pub when that blasted bird spoke. Daisy had told me it talked, but I hadn’t heard a peep until then, and it started me.
I turned and raised one eyebrow. It repeated what it had said: that my attempts to hide that I had been dating mere minutes ago would actually bring a flood of comments from jilted Myrtle, whose nose would be thoroughly out of joint, as well as from her friends, and thus if Daisy chose to research me, as I obviously feared, she would see what a creep I was. I flipped around and saw it was true. I blocked Myrtle and her supporters, deleted forty pages of their vitriol, and told the bird to shut up twice a thousand times. Seemed it thought St. Daisy could do a lot better than me.
My social image papered over, I turned my full attention to that bird. For twenty minutes we shouted at one another. Later, researching mynahs, I confirmed that talking birds are mimics and cannot carry on conversations, deliver diatribes, or recite rhymed, metrical slander, but at that point its verbal ambush had muddled me. I ended the debate by covering the cage and unwinding with Call of Nature 3 until I stalled on the hard level.
That night was just the start. The bird, any time I was home, would do its best to divert me from the great and loving Daisy. Though still amazed by its ability, I would inevitably wind up arguing and inventing vivid new epithets. On Monday, struck by inspiration, it told me that when I brought Daisy home it would tell her how repulsive I was. I answered that if it wanted to eat, it would keep its mouth shut. After pointing out the irony of what I had just said, it finally clammed up.
Tuesday, when I opened the cage door to feed the now quiet bird, it stabbed my wrist with its beak. In the interval between my recoiling and recovering it bolted. I chased it around the room as it mocked me and knocked over small items. Finally, patience gone, I had the inspiration to grab a sheet off my bed and fling it over the damned pest. Thinking under adrenalin, I cut off its shouted abuse by swinging the bunched sheet in dizzying circles. Unfortunately, before my brain had cleared, the head of my whirling ghost caught the kitchen doorjamb, and that was that.
Of course I panicked. This had been Daisy’s jewel, along with the snub-tailed kitten and that one slobbery dog. She would not snuggle me under sheets that had killed her beloved.
On Wednesday the pizza part of the ‘date’ (Daisy’s quote marks) went great. I learned more about her that I could file away and use, and she did not learn certain things about me. She mentioned that she was swimming on Saturday to raise funds for the proposed African-American art annex; people could pledge either a flat sum or a per lap amount with a maximum of twenty. I gallantly dashed off a check.
She was flagrantly disappointed when I would not let her visit the mynah. I explained that my friend George and his sweetheart Eliza were trysting at my place as they fled north. She still seemed put out, so I started embroidering the prepared parts of my lie. She asked a lot of questions, caught up in the spurious bigotry of the pursuing father and the invented backstory of an abused uncle, and my tale became so byzantine that she developed a headache and went home. But not before I promised to attend the charity event and she didn’t object.
As I unwound later, replaying the good parts of our encounter, I had an epiphany: I was screwed. My budget did not allow for my usual lifestyle, an expensive bird, and the princely charity bid I had just forked over. Something had to give.
It turned out that asking the shelter for my money back was really a terrible idea. Not only did they histrionically refuse, but also, even though I had sneaked in on a day she didn’t work, Daisy found out about it, as I discovered during her distraught phone call. I tried to explain that through no fault of my own the bird had mysteriously passed and that I had treated it as best I could, but apparently that flatchested Goth and her shrill supervisor had thought to mention the head wound, as well as the coffee grounds and Cheetos shards peppering the corpse.
Both classes that week she sat across the room. She wore dark glasses and did not take her eyes off me, or so I assume. If the intent was to keep me from approaching her and to make me miserable, it worked: I started to feel a sharp pain right around my naval, which signaled guilt combined with romantic despair.
Though I moped the next days through, feeling sorry for myself and ulcerously miserable in the pit of my stomach, I was suddenly cheered by an inspiration—tomorrow, the day of the swim, I could approach her. She would not be prepared, would not be wearing those daunting glasses, and would be surrounded by people in front of whom she would not want a scene. Also, bathing suit.
As expected, she did not anticipate me. Nor did I anticipate that she would have a guy with her. Well. Normally this would cure my affection instantly, but I found that the pain in my stomach stayed, and, oddly, moved down and to the right of my abdomen. As I pondered this and whether one of the stands served beer, she recovered enough to recoil haughtily from me, placing her foot askew the curb and collapsing onto the asphalt. An onsite medic pronounced a sprain.
I realized that she would not be able to swim. In hindsight, asking for my pledge back was really a terrible idea: her fists were fine and she delivered a shot to my stomach that was amazingly powerful for a woman so slight, because I almost passed out from pain. I staggered home and collapsed onto the bed.
Two days later and worse than ever, I was surfing my symptoms on the internet. While reading about diseases of the appendix I pitched forward onto my keyboard, my nose flattened against the ‘z’ key, and I succumbed to acute peritonitis.
You’d think that would be the end of my tale. But next I was standing in front of these astounding gates. The guy in white robes behind the desk was bald and Asian and wearing a fake beard, like for a Santa costume. I realized who he was, but I was confused. So I asked: why was the Buddha dressed like St. Peter? He told me it took off some of the sting for the people who’d guessed wrong. Then he turned into Its true form, a giant pair of eyes staring away from your very soul in disappointment.
Then It got down to business. I had built up a lot of good karma in past lives, allowing me to be born in a First World country to a well-offish family, and now I had blown a bunch of it. The deal was that I could start over as an ignorant insect—which offered less temptation and thus an easier path to living a blameless life—or return, knowledge intact, as a higher animal but with the onus of helping others to avoid doing idiotic things—which held a greater likelihood of stupidity and failure on my part. I think you realize which I chose. So, what do you say, Nicky old boy? Why not refrain from passing along your bad genes and your wife’s poor morals to another genera—hey, what are you doing?
So, what do you think? Am I on a path to doom? Damnation? Hush, now—I’ve yapped a lot less than you did. Sure wish I knew what was what, but the ferret’s not talking, not since the day I carried it back to the pet store shut up in grandma’s diaper pail. Yes, asking for my money back was really a terrible idea.
Nathan ignored the ferret’s advice and now has two healthy boys. The first one spills gold coins from his mouth when he speaks, the other toads. His wife swears this is normal.
Nathan enjoys writing, rafting, and referring to himself in the third person in biographies, as it makes him feel like his own evil doppelganger.
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