No Rest for the Wicked
by Leanne Fitzpatrick
The elephant stood on the third level of its cage, where the trees had been planted and there was a small pool it could wallow in.
Occasionally it shook its head, ears flapping, in an attempt to cool down or remove a bothersome gnat.
At approximately the size of a rabbit it was a feat of genetic splicing and animal husbandry.
At least it had been, back when such creations were novel rather than common. Now, every fashionable household had a miniature something- lion, tiger… Even giraffes. An old, grumpy elephant wasn’t newsworthy or fluffy enough to warrant attention.
“Don’t worry old chap,” the elderly gentleman that had taken in the abandoned creature said as he dusted around the cage, sweeping away the detritus of a hundred or so rich, spoiled people. “There’s someone coming for you.”
There had been a zoo once, when activists had campaigned against splicing and for a time there had been peace for the elephant… Loneliness too ass the naturally sized herd wouldn’t, or couldn’t accept him. But then activists had campaigned again and the zoo had closed, forcing hundreds of semi-domesticated animals to be separated and shipped around the world, back to their natural habitats where countless had died, unable to fully adapt to a life without routine.
The elephant trumpeted, a small noise compared to its brethren, but a noble effort nonetheless. It rubbed the dulled ends of its tusks against the bars.
“I know,” the old man said. “We’re both old and forgotten. I know just how you feel.”
The bell over the door jangled and he looked up as a stunning young woman entered
She stood tall and proud, hair tucked up in a neat bun beneath a beret. A tan brown fitted shirt was tucked into darker trousers. The only flash of colour was the teal band around her left arm, signifying her rank in the order.
The old man paused in his work and nodded respectfully.
“Is there something I can do for you ma’am?”
“Inspection,” she said, curt and aloof as her flat gaze travelled over him, the elephant and the rest of the merchandise.
“Ah,” he murmured. “I’ll get my papers.”
“It is a requirement that papers be carried on a person at all times.”
“Yes miss, and also that they be kept clean. Hard to do that mucking out animals.”
She gave him another withering look up and down but said nothing as he hobbled past her and into the back room.
She stared at the elephant. It glared balefully straight back.
“Here you go ma’am,” the old man said, holding up the papers.
She glanced down at him, all but snatching the little wallet from him and flicking through it.
“You’re to report to the district office to renew these before the end of the month.”
“And that… thing-” She jerked her head towards the miniature elephant, her mouth twisting into a sneer of disgust, “will be collected before the end of the week to be disposed of properly.”
“It’s an abomination against nature. It’ll be kinder to euthanise it.”
The old man took back his papers, saying nothing as the official turned on her heel and stalked out of the shop.
“You know,” he murmured when the jangle of the bell had died away, “I can remember when they used to sell cookies and were lovely, helpful girls. How times change.”
The elephant trumpeted once more and moved down a level to wallow in the mud pit. The old man sighed and continued his dusting.
The air was becoming heavy as the weather turned muggy. He plugged in the geriatric fan- almost as old as he- and set it to moving warm air around the shop. Occasionally he spritzed water into the stream and both he and the elephant enjoyed the cooling mist.
The bell chimed again and he raised an eyebrow. One visitor was an occurrence. Two in the same day was unheard of.
He peered round the till at a small brunette girl. She wore dark colours, but not the tan uniform of the Scouts.
“About time,” he murmured, settling back down in his chair. He waited in silence, nodding off a couple of times as she moved about the shop, picking things up and examining them, looking for something amongst the oddities of his collection.
“What sort of shop is this?”
Her voice cut through the hum of the fan and he jerked out of his doze with a snort.
“Are you a junk shop, an antique shop? What?”
“Never really thought about it.”
“Everything in here is covered in dust.”
“Most of it’s been here a while.”
“Do you ever sell anything?”
“A few things, yes.”
“Not this side of the century,” she muttered.
The old man smiled as she turned away, dismissing everything with a glance.
“Something in particular you’re looking for?” he asked.
“Everyone that comes in here is looking for something. It’s that kind of shop.”
She glanced at him, and he saw a spark of something in her eye.
“Do they ever find it?”
“Sometimes- but those that don’t aren’t always looking for a thing.”
“Sometimes they’re looking for an answer, or a question, even a feeling one time.”
“And what happened to them?”
She shook her head and turned away. In his cage the elephant watched her from his mud pit as she left, the bell once more jangling.
“Don’t worry old friend,” the old man said. “She’ll be back.”
She was, the very next morning. Her clothes were different and her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. For a moment the old man had a vague inkling that she was a familiar face from the television, but he rarely watched it any more so he shrugged the feeling away. This time she spend more time exploring the shop and avoiding him. He winked at the elephant and settled down behind the till with a cheese sandwich, munching contentedly and pressing apple slices through the cage bars.
“Why?” she asked at last.
“Why all this stuff? Why no theme, or organisation? Everything just looks like it sits where if fell.”
“It makes it more exciting for those that come in. You never know what you’re going to find.”
“But- but all that does is waste time. Things should be easy to find, I should be able to come in, see what I want straight away and buy it without hassle.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“Would you appreciate it if it was easy to get?”
“I’m buying it, aren’t I?”
“Plenty of stuff in here y9ou can see. Buy one of those.”
“I don’t want those.”
“What do you want?”
“I- I don’t know. Not this stuff. It’s junk.”
“To you. To someone else it might be a treasure.”
Her expression told him exactly what she thought of someone that found the knick-knacks a treasure.”
“How do you even stay open?” she demanded at last. “No one comes in here.”
“You came in.”
“I was looking for somewhere to hide.”
“And so you came in and found what you sought. Another success for me.”
“That’s not a success. Anyone could come in here- they just don’t because it looks like a dump.”
“For such a pretty girl you have an ugly attitude towards other people,” he sighed, poking the last apple slice through the bard. The elephant took it gently in its trunk and crunched on it. The girl looked at it, and blinked as if she were seeing it for the first time.
“That’s an elephant,” she said at last.
“Remarkable powers of observation.”
She ignored him, stepping closer to stare at the creature. It watched her as she stared.
“Miniature elephants are banned, you know.”
“They weren’t when he was made.”
“How old is he?”
“Now? Got to be going on forty years or more.”
“Where did he come from?”
“All sorts of places. He’s had an interesting life.”
“What’s his name?”
“He doesn’t have one.”
She stared a while longer and then shook herself.
“I’ve got to go,” she murmured. “‘Bye.”
She almost ran out of the shop. The old man eased his back and leaned on the counter.
“A mite more polite than yesterday. Tomorrow she might even crack a smile.”
The elephant trumped and made it’s way up the levels to where a copse of ferns grew. The old man watched it tramp a few down before it lowered itself onto its side and slept.
The old man tutted and shuffled off into the back room where there was a much comfier chair and a geriatric computer he could use to whittle down the hours.
She was early today, and she didn’t bother searching around the shop before coming straight to the till. The old man kept his head down and his breathing steady as he waited.
“You said people came in here to find something.”
“I was sleeping.”
“You weren’t. I could tell you were pretending.”
He huffed out a breath and looked up. She looked even less made up than the day before- different clothes again, but her hair hadn’t been washed and her hat was old and battered.
“Seems to me you aren’t looking for something, but rather trying to hide from it.”
She jerked back, glancing at the door before finally relaxing.
“I-” she sighed, leaning against the till desk.
“Why don’t we have a cup of tea.”
“That won’t solve anything,” she muttered.
He shrugged. “Amazing, the restorative powers of a good cuppa. Celebrations or tragedies… Doesn’t matter. It’s always appropriate to put the kettle on.”
She watched him shuffle into the back room and turned to the cage. The elephant had disappeared. She searched the levels, and then smiled with a snort to see it wallowing in the mud at the bottom of the cage, just it’s trunk and the top of its head exposed.
“You’re a funny looking thing,” she murmured. “Something as small as you shouldn’t exist.”
“Lots of things in the world that shouldn’t exist,” the old man said behind her. She jerked back from the cage. “Atom bombs, super bugs, rap music.”
“Can’t abide it. Not a patch on the old blues they used to sing.”
“That was over a hundred years ago.”
“So was the invention of the wheel, and you’ll not it hasn’t been improved upon.”
“I don’t think-”
“Neither do a lot of young people, and that’s why the worlds in such a mess.”
“That’s hardly fair-”
“Neither’s life.” He pulled a tin down of a shelf and cracked it open with gnarly, arthritic hands. “Biscuit?”
“How long have they been there?” she asked, eyeing the dust on the tin lid.
“Somewhere between half an hour ago and the dawn of time.”
She peered into the tin.
“I guess,” she murmured, reaching in and pulling out a custard cream.
“Life’s too boring if you don’t take a few risks,” he said, disappearing through the doorway again as a kettle began to whistle. She bit into the biscuit gingerly, expecting it to be soft with age. It crunched pleasingly against her teeth.
She turned back to the cage, the elephant watching her, and then lowering it’s trunk under the water to blow mud bubbles.
She giggled as they popped.
“He likes you,” the old man said as he brought two mugs of steaming tea through to the front of the shop. “He doesn’t usually perform for anyone.”
“At least he has good taste,” she murmured with a smile. “Thank you.”
She took the offered mug of tea and wrapped her fingers around it, staring down into the milky brown liquid.
“So. Three days on the trot. What, or who are you hiding from?”
She glanced up at him and back down to the tea.
“My management,” she sighed. “I’m gonna get into so much trouble for sneaking out again… But I just wanted a bit of peace. Everyone shouts, they all make decisions and no one listens to me.”
“Do you speak to them the same way you spoke to me?”
She flushed, avoiding his gaze.
“Sorry about that- I guess I’m too used to being the bratty pop star.”
“Ah,” he murmured. “That’s where I know your face from.”
They sipped their tea, and from the cage there came the occasional sluggish pop of mud bubbles.
“Why does no one else come in here?” she asked at last.
“Most people don’t notice it.”
“I noticed it.”
“Then there’s something in here for you,” he said at last.
“That’s up to you to find.”
She glanced again at the elephant.
“I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“Then it’ll be even better when you find it,” he murmured, sipping his tea.
They remained in silence until she had finished drinking her tea.
“Thank you,” she said at last, pushing her empty mug towards him. “I have to go.”
“Back to the rat race?”
She nodded, rubbing her arm.
“They aren’t bad people,” she said. “They just-”
“You don’t need to explain. Everyone needs a break now and again.”
He watched her leave and sighed, moving over to the cage. The elephant was on the middle level, grazing.
“Sometimes,” he said, opening the cage door and placing several cubes of pineapple on the turf, “I really despair of people. And you. If you want to go with her you should make more of an effort.” The trunk slapped against his hand and he scowled. “Fine,” he muttered. “Be that way. See if I give a damn.”
The elephant was staring at the door the next day. Even the old man checked his pocket watch a few times. The minutes ticked by and she didn’t come.
“That’s unusual,” he murmured. “I wonder where she is?”
The elephant trumpeted, an almost forlorn sound as it stamped it’s feet.
Several cups of tea were made, and several more went cold until at last, a few minutes before the designated closing time, the bell jangled and a small figure, hunched against the lashing rain pushed the door too and leaned against it.
“Can I help you?”
“It’s me,” she murmured, “please- can I stay here… I don’t know where else to go.”
“I’ll be closing up in a bit.”
“Please- I won’t be any trouble, I just- There’s nowhere else where I won’t be found.”
There was the sound of feet stomping on grass in the silence.
“I’d best pop the kettle on then. Mind where you drip.”
He’d found an old stood from under on of the displays, and she sat there, wrapped in the thick blanket he’d used to separate the back room from the rest of the shop. He put a mug of tea down on the till and sat in his usual seat watching her.
“You aren’t going to ask?” she asked after the silence stretched out.
“Figure you’d tell me if you wanted to. Other than that, none of my business.”
“They locked me in my hotel suite,” she said quietly. “Said I was reckless and a danger to myself. They think I’m on drugs and that’s why I keep running away. They called doctors for blood tests and everything.”
“So that’s why you were so late,” the old man murmured. “Sounds like you’re living in a prison.”
“I know they mean well- they don’t want me hurt or put at risk or anything-”
“Sounds to me like they’ve found themselves a money maker and don’t want to lose control of it.”
“I have a pretty face and a good voice… it was this or join the Scouts.”
“A prison either way then,” the old man sighed.
“I just-” she lapsed into silence. There was a soft trumpet from the cage and she turned. The elephant was standing at the bars, trunk reaching out to her. She untangled a hand from the blanket and reached back.
“Well I’ll be buggered,” the old man said with a smile. “First time I’ve seen the old git do that.”
She said nothing as the tip of his trunk touched her skin, patting the top of her hand. She smiled, scratching the underside as she would have scratched a dogs under jaw.
“He’s a handsome guy,” she said at last, when the moment was over and he’d gone back to grazing the turf.
“You want to feed him some fruit?”
She nodded, not looking away from the creature. The old man shuffled out of the room. When he came back, the cage was empty and the elephant say lying on her lap enjoying having it’s back scratched.
His grunt was the only comment he made.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I-”
“If it were a problem I’d have already kicked you out. It’s nice to see the the little shit take to someone.”
“Growing up I always wanted a pet- a cat or dog or something.”
“You didn’t have one?”
“Allergic to cats and puppies were too much work to fit in around everything else.”
“What everything else?2
“School. Dancing lessons, singing classes, music lessons… Extra language lessons.”
“And at what point did you have time to play?”
She looked down.
“Play was frivolous. My parents wanted to make sure I got the most out of life.”
“How often did you smile?”
“All the time.”
She didn’t answer.
“Thought as much. When was the last time you actually laughed for the joy of it?”
Again there was no answer. The old man shook his head.
“No point in a life where there’s no laughter,” he grunted.
“You don’t laugh,” she cut in.
“See these wrinkles?” he pointed to the deepest crows feet around his eyes. “Laughter lines, all of them.”
She raised a hand to her own smooth skin.
“I can’t risk lines like that,” she murmured. “Age is the career killer.”
“Age is inevitable,” he said. “Death is the only absolute, even in these technologically enlightened times. Better to go out with no regrets than a belly full of wasted years.”
“I have no regrets- in fact I’m extremely grateful for everything I have. My parents have ensured I’m highly educated, have endless opportunities-”
“And merely exist, rather than live. Besides, if you were truly grateful you’d be back in your hotel suite being pandered to rather than in here with an old man and a relic of human interference and stupidity.”
She glanced back down at the elephant, it’s trunk wrapped around her wrist and she drew in a shuddering breath.
“I’m happy. I know I am. So many people wish for the opportunities I was handed.”
“Would you have them if your face was so pretty? I see the screens outside, the pictures in magazines. Vapid nonsense sold by beauty as fragile as porcelain. Is that the life you want?”
“I said I was grateful for it-”
He smiled, and it was almost nasty. “But not what you want. You’re like him.” He jerked his head at the elephant, “except your prison is your face and the bars are invisible.”
“You think I’d be better off like you? Locked in a dusty shop with no one for company, old and decrepit, with stale biscuits and nothing but nasty words for anyone that finds their way here?”
He smiled and sipped his cup of tea.
“Difference is, I chose this because it’s what I like. You- you don’t even have the spine to stand up for yourself. Childhood managed by parents, career managed by an ever changing line up of people, social life curated to make connections and further the goals of other people. You’re a spineless pawn and for all your education you don’t have the intelligence to see it.”
She let out a small gasp in the resulting silence, perfectly manicured hand curling into a fist. The elephant stirred and she glanced down at it.
“No one has ever dared speak to me like that,” she muttered.
She glared. He grinned.
“And there it is,” he murmured. “The first true sign of life in you.”
She swallowed, focusing on the elephant, cheeks flooded red with anger.
“If you keep frowning like that you’ll wrinkle.”
“Shut up,” she growled.
“I’m serious. A big crease right between your eyebrows. Most unbecoming in so delicate a face.”
“I don’t care.”
“Good.” He got up, reaching for the tin. “Biscuit?”
“You-! Fine. One biscuit.”
She pulled out the custard cream and dunked it in her tea.
“You’re a horrible person, you know,” she muttered.
“I know. But I choose to be, and I’m happy with it. You’re wasting your life on things that don’t matter.”
“I know… but it’d be ungrateful if I didn’t do what they wanted. I owe them-”
“And there’s your problem. You don’t owe anyone a single thing.”
“But my parents-”
“Did you ask to be born? No. No one did. Your parents wanted a child. You aren’t obligated to be what they want.”
“But my team-”
“Are parasites. They make their money from you, they’re your best friend while you rake in money and they’ll abandon you as soon as the cash flow stops.”
“No- they’re my friends.”
“How many have you spoken to about how you feel?”
“Exactly,” he said when no answer was forthcoming. “Instead you ran away to a dusty old shop with an old man because he’s the only person in your life that isn’t financially invested in you.”
“Don’t say it like that-”
“The truth is painful,” he sighed. “But it also sets you free.”
“People, places, things. Truth and principles are important. You’ll lose a lot of people in your life, but the ones that matter will stick by you. Usually the ones you weren’t expecting too.”
“And if no one stays?”
“Then they don’t matter.”
“But I’ll have no one.”
“You’ll have him.”
They both looked at the elephant.
“I never said I was going to buy him.”
“We both know you are, otherwise why would you have taken him out of his cage? Besides, he likes you. Are you really going to abandon him here, in this dusty old place with only me for company?”
“You aren’t that bad,” she said at last.
“You always wanted a pet,” the old man said, “and you’re more than old enough to start making decisions for yourself.”
“What if I make the wrong ones?”
“Then you learn from them. Besides, the wrong decision can sometimes send you off into uncharted territory, and that, my dear, is where adventure lies and life is experienced.”
“You think I can be trusted with him?”
“Your rich and famous enough that the Scouts won’t come after you for him.”
“They want him?”
“He’s an abomination to them… They want him destroyed.”
Her arms tightened reflexively around the sleeping elephant and the old man sat back, satisfied.
“All rebellions start small,” he said quietly. “And when the public find out your rescues him from slaughter… Well…”
She looked up at him.
“You planned this from the beginning, didn’t you.”
“No. He did.”
“He’s an animal.”
“Doesn’t mean he’s not intelligent. He likes you. He’ll be a good companion to you… Besides, elephants are fantastically loyal, and noble. He’ll be good for you, and you for him.”
She nodded, and with a small smile pulled a wallet from her pocket.
“I knew there was a reason I always carried cash.”
She pushed the wad towards him, not counting it, or even asking the price. It didn’t matter.
In her lap the elephant trumpeted in its sleep.
“I should give him a name.”
“Take your time. It’ll come. Everything does in time.”
She nodded and looked through the window. Late afternoon sun filtered through the window, picking out dust motes.
“It’s stopped raining. I should go. They’ll be wondering where I am.”
“Chin up, back straight. Don’t let them cow you or beat you down.”
She smiled. “Thank you,” she said as she stood.
He nodded and watched her move to the door.
She hesitated. “What are you going to do?”
“Not much. Have a cuppa, maybe think about giving the place a tidy up.”
“I meant, you know- without this guy.”
The old man shrugged.
“Someone’ll turn up to keep me company for a bit. They always do.”
She watched him for a few moments and then nodded.
“Can I come back?”
“If you feel the need to come back, then the shop will be here.”
She nodded again and turned the doorknob.
“Well, I guess, I’ll see you around.”
The old man nodded. She smiled and pulled the door open.
Sunlight streamed in, lighting up the impossibly deep rows of knick-knacks for a moment and she stepped outside as the doorbell jangled.
“Sorry, excuse me,” a young, male voice said.
“No, sorry, my fault,” she responded as their voices were joined by the complicated shuffle of disentangling bodies.
“Well would you look at that,” the old man murmured as a heavily coated figure stepped over the threshold. “No rest for the wicked. I’d best put the kettle on.”