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Contemporary Fiction Inspirational

Theo was having second thoughts. Erin had been in the bathroom for a few minutes, no longer than a normal amount, but his mind was still racing. Erin was cute, with inquisitive eyes and a charming, big-toothed smile. The conversation had flowed well thus far, about thirty minutes and one drink in. They had a darkly sarcastic conversation about their approaching thirties. But with her away from the table he was now seeing a bit more of the surrounding room and a different perspective of the bar he had chosen. The crowd was slightly younger, with some more brash and gaudy patrons, and the music was just barely too loud. That’s what he gets for picking a popular bar in the middle of the city. He worried she was thinking the same thing. Would that be the ruin of this date? 

He checked his phone again. No new messages, no new notifications. He swiped through his Instagram feed for a moment, and naturally to the stories, bumbling through several old coworkers, classmates, colleagues, and strangers before yanking himself out of the trance. He looked away from his phone, all too aware of its power over him, and diverted his attention to another screen, the television behind the bar. No live sports were on this early in the evening, and it happened to be that one week in July when nothing was on but the sparse, uninteresting baseball game. Sportscenter droned on for likely the tenth straight loop. Currently the “Not Top Ten” was playing, and the second-worst play this week according to ESPN was a throw on an attempted steal of second base that hit off the attempted stealer’s foot and hit the shortstop in the groin. Theo recognized the shortstop, a hotshot jock from high school with a promising future that ended up panning out. He opened his phone again, after a momentary chuckle, and went to text Phil, who he knew would also find it funny. They hadn’t spoken for a week, evidenced by the time stamp on their latest messages, but Theo shot over a text anyway.

“Sorry about that,” Erin said, taking her seat across from him once again, placing her phone down on the table, and picking up her glass of rosé. “So where were we? Despair and loneliness?”

He laughed at that. One of the main reasons he had pursued this date was her sarcasm in their first conversation on the app. It was hard to know when exactly to ask to meet up, or even if he should ask. The matches came at a decent clip, especially in a new city, though so often no words were exchanged or the conversation just never went anywhere. But it was also a negative to chat too long, ruining the flirty and spontaneous banter and dulling the interaction into occasional check-ins with uninterested strangers. Dating apps were a shitty, fickle game, but steadily becoming the only game in town. This conversation with Erin, though, was brief and charming and led them both here. 

“Yep, exactly,” Theo said. “So tell me again what exactly do you do? Not exactly sure what ‘Financial Analysis Consultant’ means.”

She laughed at that and took a sip of her wine. As she answered Theo saw her phone flash. Normally he wouldn’t care—his phone was on the table too—but he saw the notification with the dating app logo. 

And there it was. His eyes must have lingered just a little too long, because she interrupted her thought, turning her phone over but not too quickly, just in a way to express she wanted to ignore it. He returned the smile, but it seemed both of their trains of thought were interrupted. 

“It’s so hard,” Erin said, fully acknowledging the change of topic. “Like we’re dating around, and obviously we’re seeing several people at a time, right, but we have to pretend like we aren’t. And you can’t really commit to someone until it’s one hundred percent certain that it’s something. It’s awkward but it is what it is.”

“True,” Theo said, though only half-heartedly. He wasn’t seeing anyone else, partly due to the app’s finicky nature and partly because he felt he could only really put effort into one person at a time. He felt old-fashioned in that sense, knowing that most people thought the way Erin did. And that’s what made every decision so difficult. With unlimited choice and so much pressure around him to find a partner, he felt every minor move had the potential for damnation, a miscalculation that would flick him into the endless discard pile. But instead of saying all that, he said, “Yeah, the apps suck.” 

“But they’re what we’ve got. So let’s pretend like we’re just on a date, just us two. Where were we?”

The date ended with a hug and mutual musings about doing this again. Theo said goodbye and got in his car for the drive home. Five minutes of city traffic and fifteen minutes of the highway. He checks his phone again just as he sits in his old Corolla, the air extremely hot and stale and sour from the afternoon sun broiling old fuzzy cloth seats. The sun had set while on the date, and the glow of his phone’s screen illuminates the car. No messages from Phil or anyone else. Yet he felt light, content with a successful interaction and the hope of a second date. He rolled the windows down as he pulled away and stuck his hand out the window to feel the growing press of the wind as the car accelerated. 

About six minutes into the highway portion of his drive the road turned to a darkened one-lane speedway, winding through hills and brush, flat lands interrupted by the rare large tree. Fences appeared along the drive, portioning these lands into private property, big swaths of countryside cordoned off to the world. The landscape glowed silver from the moon, the road in front of him a bright yellowy white. 

He felt a buzz. Maybe Phil had seen his message? It would be nice to catch up, to rehash old stories and talk about their wildly different lives today, Phil married in their hometown and Theo far away on his own, driven out here by career ambitions and opportunity, trying to restart his social life. Phil was someone he could open up to, one of the few friends he felt comfortable sharing his discomforts and true thoughts with. He could call, after all, but he was sure Phil was sitting down to a nice dinner with his wife, or watching a show together, or doing some sort of activity he wouldn’t want to interrupt. 

Keeping one eye up ahead he looked down at his phone and saw it was Erin. His heart fluttered a moment and his pulse quickened in response, a schoolboy excitement he rarely experienced nowadays. 

To be safe he pulled to the side of the road, parking alongside one of those big chain-link fences that generously granted a car-width of shoulder grass before it. 

“Hey, tonight was fun,” he read and the tightness in his throat loosened slightly, “but I don’t think it’s going to work out. I think we just live too far away, and I don’t see things really progressing.”

Rather than re-tightening, he felt something knock loose. His breathing, vision, hearing, everything slowed to a mild crawl, his body seeming to weigh triple itself. He sighed, shook his head, and stepped out of the car. Nothing new here, he thought, knowing he had seen similar messages before, but he was still unable to shake the dissonance of the throughline between date and rejection. The thoughts from earlier haunted him, his choice of bar in the middle of the city and revealing his commute from outside of it, his focus on her app notification, and the discussion of loneliness and unlimited choice. Maybe she wasn’t as sarcastic and aligned with him and was just playing along. He felt the doubt sink deep inside him and put his phone back in his pocket. He sat for a moment, just breathing, leaning on the door of his car, waiting for something, for nothing. 

Then he heard barking. But not like his parents’ Labrador, something more feral and angry. And there were multiple barks. His mind jolted for a moment, but then he remembered the fence, the large divider between the sounds and him, and he relaxed, still straining to see where the noise was coming from over the moonlit hill.

He was right: a pack of coyotes was in pursuit of something big. It was running on long legs, a big, fast, hulking beast, its legs appearing to move slowly because of their length but just barely outpacing the snarling coyotes. The chasing caravan came over the hill toward Theo and the fence, the large animal seemingly drawn by Theo’s headlights in its fight for survival. 

Theo watched as the big animal raced toward him, likely afraid of this glowing specter ahead but even more afraid of the dogs behind. He could see the animal better in the light. A horse? No, it was too tall and had pointed ears and stubby horns like a giraffe. It was too small to be a giraffe. But it had stripes on its legs like a zebra. What was this thing? Theo quickly realized with panic the dire situation the animal was in. It couldn’t see the fence between them, so was going to run into it and get caught by the coyotes. Thinking quickly, he ran back to his car door and leaned his entire body on the steering wheel. 

The car horn blared a long, steady blast. The coyotes seemed to notice, because they fell back, seeming to regroup and eventually deciding whatever this was, it was not worth the chase. Theo watched as they slinked down the hill to his right along the fence and squeezed through a small hole in the metal mesh, and across the road into the open fields. 

But the big animal hadn’t left. It stood in the headlight beams, facing Theo with a blank look that could have ranged from shock to confusion to appreciation. It was indeed unlike any creature he had seen: six feet tall, it’s big, round, black eyes staring directly into his from eye level. It had the thickness and muscularity of a horse, but the face of a giraffe. Its legs had stripes, but instead of vertical black and white zebra stripes, these were dark brown and white rings.  

It was some sort of zebra-giraffe-horse hybrid. Couldn’t be natural in this area. He wanted to look up what it could be on his phone but didn’t want to interrupt this intimate moment. There was something about the way the creature stared at him that told him it knew what he had done for it, and was thankful. 

“What are you doing here?” He asked it, aware it wouldn’t answer but curious all the same. He took a small step closer to the fence, and it didn’t move. “How are unicorns not real and you exist?”

He was bewildered and felt like talking to it more. A fleeting thought told him he had lost it, that this wasn’t real. But he heard something, a mechanical rumble. A fluorescent light was rising over the hill behind it, a tractor or golf cart coming to see the commotion. He took one more look into the creature’s eyes, stepped back into his car, and drove away. 

Theo had bought carrots earlier in the week, so he grabbed them before leaving the house this morning, heading to that stretch of fence to see the creature again. 

It was called an Okapi. He hadn’t ever heard of it, but clearly the internet had. It wasn’t native to the area, in fact, it only existed in the Congo in Africa, and there were only 22,000 left in the world. So what was it doing behind this fence?

He arrived at the area and waited for some time, with no sight of the animal. He honked the horn, hoping the sound would attract it. It didn’t show up, and after some time he needed to leave or else he would be late for work. He left the carrots, sticking them through the fence. 

Just then it appeared over the hill. It slowly slunk his way, the long legs like stilts moving slowly over toward the fence. It stopped a few feet away, wary of Theo’s presence, before bending its long neck down and eating the carrots. It picked one up in its mouth and raised its head back up, making that leveled eye contact once again. In the morning light, its eyes had a different sort of depth, still black and big but seeming to see him more than before. 

“Never seen anything like you,” he said. “What should I call you?” He thought a minute, looking once again at the creature’s legs, striped like huge chocolate straws. They reminded him of the Piroulines his mother used to have in the house for holiday gatherings. “I’ll call you Piro, I guess. I’m Theo.” 

It was strange, speaking to an alien animal that most likely wouldn't understand him. And still, it felt good to be heard, be seemingly listened to, to be able to say whatever he wanted and express himself. “Nice to meet you, Piro.” 

He returned to the spot that afternoon, dropping off carrots, berries, and leafy plants for it to eat and leaning on his car as he spoke about life and all of its ups and downs. He began to feel lighter as he conversed with Piro, who snacked while listening to him ramble on about all the things he wished he could tell his friends or parents, or any other person. He reflected on things he had read about the loneliness epidemic and its exacerbation by social media and the disconnection people experience now; how our culture has so trained people to socially and fiscally demonize individuality, that we’ve become over-dependent on romantic partners for all social needs, burdening these people with too much emotional responsibility. Nothing was off the table for Piro to listen to while eating. Piro, the therapist Theo never would have admitted he needed.  

Theo left when the sun went down, and on his way home began to think a little differently: what was Piro doing there, and why? Was it even legal for an Okapi to be privately owned, considering it was endangered? The answer was no, according to the internet, which bothered him. Something was weird, but he didn’t know what he could do about it. He could get wire cutters and break the fence, letting Piro run free, but where would it go? It would either be attacked in the plains by predators, or hunted by humans and recaptured. He was content for now to just talk to his new friend. 

The next morning, Theo approached the fence in the morning to a shock. Piro was there waiting but with a smaller Okapi: a calf. Bewildered, Theo approached slowly, smiling at the baby, a tiny clone of Piro three feet tall. It had the same chocolate straw legs, so he felt it was only appropriate to finish the Pirouline naming. 

“Lina,” he said, amused at himself. “Here, have some berries.” But Lina was hesitant. He heard a squeaky whimper and smiled to encourage it. Looking at the calf, though, he noticed more fear on its face than hesitation. Then he saw something on its rear, obscured by the magnificent stripes: a searing burn, a brand. It was red and swollen, some sort of symbol burned into the calf that appeared to be infected. 

Shocked, he looked to Piro, who seemed to be echoing his concern. Why was Lina brought to him if not for him to help? The sun was high at this point, and he needed to get to work in the city. But he was steeling himself for his drive home. 

All day he thought about his options. There’s no haven for an endangered animal set free. He looked into the laws online, and while it was illegal to own an Okapi, he wasn’t confident whatever government agency responded to a complaint would adequately help. Or he could do something more daring. 

He rushed back after work, jumping out of his car just as Piro and Lina appeared. He took out the large wire cutters he bought and started chipping away at each chainlink.

“You don’t belong in there,” he said, “What kind of friend am I if I leave you?” 

 Eventually, as the sun began to set, he had cut a large door’s worth of fence, enough for them to get through. They majestically walked onto the other side, free, and Piro’s big black giraffe tongue appeared and licked his head. In excitement, he jumped onto Piro’s back and saddled onto him as they galloped down the golden road, toward whatever came next. 

But he didn’t really. He stood on the wrong side of the still-intact fence, close enough to hear Piro breathing, his hand on the metal in longing as the sun just started its descent. He still asked his question, but this time he said it with sadness and resignation. The answer was the kind of friend in the real world, a world of harsh, unfair truths and cruel, callous sadness. 

“I called the wildlife department and the city zoo. They’ll come to get you, I promise.” He said, choking back tears as he thought about the emotional journey they had been on, the freely listening and receptive ears, and the sympathetic soul Piro had provided when he needed it most. He couldn’t fight the entire system, but hopefully this was enough. He spoke, and did too with her eyes. 

“Thank you. I feel alive. I feel free. Soon I hope you can too. Thank you.”

August 25, 2023 16:51

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5 comments

Mary Bendickson
20:17 Sep 08, 2023

Wonderful well thought out story on many levels as mentioned by others. Thanks for reading and liking 'My Kneaded Touch.'

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Tom Skye
07:35 Sep 08, 2023

This was a unique read. Combining the everyday plight of modern dating with the trapped animal connection. I really enjoyed your general depiction of dating apps. Everyone has their opinion of that world , but I believe (and I think you do too) that it is messing us up more than we realize. There is an early line about it being the "only game in town". I think this this is an unfortunate side effect of dating apps . At first it was a way for people who struggled for a date, but now everyone struggles to get one any other way. It's suck the ...

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Danie Holland
22:14 Sep 06, 2023

Just dropping by to say, not at any point where this story began did I think that it would end the way it did. I am truly so saddened by their separation. What was he thinking? He could have loaded them up. He could have taken them with him. How could he be so selfless? My heart is broken. We don’t always have to do the right thing my guy. A good friend calls wildlife. A great friend brings you home and lives happily ever after. It’s not illegal if no one knows, right? That’s how that works. 😭 K thanks, Bye

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Helen A Smith
16:23 Sep 04, 2023

Hi Zach. Lovely story. It combined some great elements. A beautiful animal and empathy. The contrast of the animal (something real) against the world of social media (nonsense and often meaningless, certainly not solving the problem of isolation and loneliness) worked well. The main character seems a great guy, makes the reader hope someone will see it. Also, that things will work out for the Okapi. Immersive.

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Nina H
11:12 Sep 02, 2023

There’s so much to relate to and love about this story. The emptiness at the beginning replaced by the unexpected meeting of Piro, and how Theo found more fulfillment there than with his human interactions. The ending works well giving them both a chance to feel free. And maybe a new perspective on things for Theo. Sidenote: piroulines are the best at holidays!!! 😄

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