Short Story Elmo’s Struggle
I raised my eyes heavenwards, seeking strength in the blue expanse. Let Zoe have her foolish notions. I would not let Rocco trouble me today.
Sesame Street was pleasant on this sunny morning, as it was every morning. The keen light illuminating the brownstones opposite my window thrilled me as it ever did. I breakfasted before heading outside, and the chatter of high voices pulled me in a northerly direction. Zoe and Gabi were standing by the nearest lamppost, talking about their favorite clouds. Gabi was wearing a red t-shirt, tucked neatly into her jeans. Close to the color of my fur, but not an exact match.
“Hi,” I said.
They chorused, “Hi, Elmo!”
Gabi smiled at me. I smiled back.
“We were just talking about what to do today,” Gabi said. “Let’s go to the beach.”
Zoe’s hand snaked out, holding a gray rock at eye level. “Rocco wants to go swimming.” She tilted her head, as if listening. “He says he’s the world’s greatest swimmer. Way better than any of us.”
“Rocco can’t swim,” I said.
All eyes turned to me.
“You’ve never seen him swim,” Zoe pointed out. “How do you know what he can do?”
“Because he’s a rock.”
“So?” She moved her hand a little closer to my face, forcing me to contemplate the pitted rock. “Are you scared that Rocco will beat you?”
It wasn’t worth arguing so early in the day. “Okay,” I said. “Elmo will go to the beach too.”
No one had yet asked me what my favorite kind of cloud was, and as we packed a large wicker basket full of picnic treats, it occurred to me that likely the conversation had been forgotten. Bitterness rankled. Probably somebody had asked Rocco what his favorite kinds of clouds were.
By the time we arrived at the beach, the sun was high in the sky. Cumulus clouds scudded past, obscuring the light for only a brief moment before bounding off to seek larger adventures. Above them, ponderous stratocumulus hovered like anxious babysitters. Our shadows were little more than slender, dark puddles at our feet; definition, without shape. The beach was otherwise deserted. Gulls screeched in the distance, circling something I couldn’t see.
I sighed, my heart swelling with appreciation for the view. The harsh beauty of the sea, contrasted against the stoic pale sand never failed to rouse a deep and profound feeling of calm. Gabi laid the red plaid picnic blanket down on the beach and set the basket down beside it. I picked the spot nearest her and made to sit down, but Zoe flung herself onto the blanket first, declaring that Rocco wanted to lie in the exact middle so he would feel safe. She placed the rock down reverentially and it sank into a slight depression, whiskering the blanket on all sides.
I raised my eyes heavenwards for a moment, seeking strength in the blue expanse. Let Zoe have her foolish notions. I would not let Rocco trouble me today. And yet—
“Rocco says he’s the greatest swimmer ever, right?” I said, wriggled into my water-wings. “Elmo and Rocco can race to the water and see if Rocco is right.”
“Oh, Rocco can’t race you on land,” Zoe said, absorbed in applying sunscreen to Rocco. Her fingers stroked the rock, ensuring every crack and crevice was slathered. She smiled and patted it, as one might do with a particularly well-behaved dog. “He needs a little help getting to the sea.”
I chewed on my lip fur. “If he can’t even walk to the water, how can he possibly—“
“Some people need help on land, Elmo,” Gabi said. “Water allows us to float. Gravity is lessened in water. When people have car accidents or need to learn how to reuse a broken leg, gentle exercises in water can strengthen their muscles without putting any strain—”
“But Rocco doesn’t have legs.” My fists were clenched. I took a deep breath.
“It’s not polite to point out what people are missing, Elmo.” Gabi smiled without malice. “We talked about this.”
I splayed my feet out, watching the sand rise between my furry toes. Soft, yet gritty. “Okay, Gabi.”
Zoe took off, racing towards the ocean. I sprinted after her, hampered by the awkward bulge of my water-wings around my pistoning arms.
“Go, Rocco!” She spun the rock in her hand and launched it out to sea.
I plunged into the water. A wave slapped my face with cold fingers. I swam a few feet towards the horizon, before turning back. Zoe was standing by the shore, foaming tide lapping around her ankles. In her hand was Rocco.
“But Rocco doesn’t have legs.” My fists were clenched. I took a deep breath.
I licked salt from my lips and bobbed in the water, letting the waves guide my body. I was seeing red; I swept my wet fur out of my eyes. “How did you do that?”
“How’s the water?” Zoe called, ignoring my question, and then without waiting for an answer, swung Rocco into the air once more. The rock struck the water, a mere foot from my head.
Again I dived under, pushing against the natural buoyancy of the water-wings, hoping to catch the arc of the rock, but on the ocean floor there was only seaweed, streaming in the current like trees under heavy winds.
When I surfaced, gasping for air, Rocco was back in Zoe’s hand and her fur was wet. The water did nothing to cool my agita—what did Zoe gain from tormenting me in this fashion? I, who had only ever been a dear friend to her. I, who had indulged so many of my friends and neighbors in their conceits over the years. Resentment tugged at my chest, as weighty as the ocean itself, and I knew that if I stayed for a moment longer, the provocation would cause me to lose my temper.
I thrashed my way back to the shore, water-wings hindering my progress rather than helping it, and made some half-hearted excuse about being hungry already. I trudged back towards the picnic blanket, leaving a trail of splattered wet sand in my wake.
Gabi was lying down on the blanket, sunglasses perched on top of her head. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was slack. I wasn’t sure whether she was asleep or not.
The answer came without a pause. “Yes, Elmo?”
“Elmo is just curious . . .” I sat down on the blanket, cross-legged, and began to peel off my water-wings. “You know how a speck of dirt can get inside a clam?”
I set the water-wings aside, but left them partially inflated, in case I later wanted another dip. I took a sandwich from the wicker basket and bit off a corner.
“And you know how a clam can turn a speck of dirt into a shiny pearl?”
Gabi nodded, eyes still closed. “Isn’t that a wonderful thing? Nature is full of miracles.”
“Mmhmm.” I chewed. The bread was fresh, the sweetness of the cheese offset by the tart acidity of the onion chutney.
“Nobody would be interested in the dirt on its own,” she continued. “But the evolution of the dirt into something full of luster makes it interesting and valuable.”
“Sure,” I said.
In the distance, Zoe’s figure bent and straightened, bent and straightened, before she lifted both hands high above her head. The fingers were splayed upwards, towards the sun. She whooped, then shrieked a few words, although I could not make out what was said. Several feet away from where she stood, a tiny grey speck lay discarded on the pale sand. Was it forgotten, or a willing witness to her games? Impossible to tell.
“But isn’t a lie kind of a dirty thing too?”
“What do you mean?” Gabi didn’t change position, but her jaw tightened.
“This thing with Rocco—”
“Oh, Elmo!” She gestured, hands flapping in exasperation, and propped herself up on her elbows. “We’ve been over this. Rocco is—”
“Not alive,” I cut in.
“Rocco is what Rocco is.” She lay back. “Rocco has just as much right to anything as you or I, in Zoe’s eyes.”
“Elmo thinks a lie is like a speck of dirt,” I pressed. “It isn’t worth anything. It’s only when people pay attention to it, and build upon it, that the lie becomes something different. Sometimes, when something is beautiful, Elmo thinks we can forget that it can also be dangerous. And sometimes, when something is super fun to pretend, we might forget that it isn’t actually real. Isn’t that right, Gabi?”
The water did nothing to cool my agita—what did Zoe gain from tormenting me in this fashion? I, who had only ever been a dear friend to her.
She was silent, although her eyes softened. She took my free hand, which I clutched with fervor.
“Elmo knows Zoe loves Rocco,” I said, desperation creeping into my voice. “But please, tell Elmo that you don’t reall—”
A silhouette slid onto my feet. Zoe stood, dripping, Rocco in her hand. “What’s that about Rocco?”
“Elmo and Gabi were just talking about how Rocco is like a pearl,” I said, staring at the wet rock in her hand. A smudge of dark seaweed dangled from the bottom of the stone. Ridged, like a dragon’s tail. “Do you hear that? You’re a pearl, Rocco.”
Zoe smiled; orange delight, mixed with yellow malice. A deep honey hue, neither one thing nor another; a sticky cruelty—peculiarly her own—made just for me.
“Aww, thanks Elmo!”
“No problem,” I said, and helped myself to another sandwich. The cheese which I had so much enjoyed only moments before sucked all the remaining moisture from my tongue; I mouthed my own name, in a vain attempt to unstick myself.
My shadow had lengthened, elongated into a tall grotesque figure. A mockery of my small stature, and no true reflection of my person, as something was dragging it by the fur back towards the sea. I thought again of the seaweed, and how easy it would be to drown in that underwater forest, with no one around but a rock to hear my cries. The sky above was choked with cumulus, and not a single cirrus cloud could be seen.