River Otter by Julie Wright; for more information, visit http://www.thestudiozoom.com

When an Otter Brings You Pralines

by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill

The street tacos were delicious. The woman sat back and sighed. “All we need now is an otter to bring us pralines.”

Her husband laughed and she was pleased. It had been a long time since she’d said something that he thought was clever.

“Do you want me to buy you a praline?” he asked.

“Oh no. Too much sugar.” She was thrilled he was even offering. “I just thought it would be cute.” She’d been watching otter videos before they left the house, escaping into a world that seemed so adorable and more comforting than her own.

They returned to the taqueria a few days later; it was only a few blocks from their house. Her husband read as he ate. They did not talk. When they finished, he slapped some money down on the table and a little brown otter walked up to them on his hind legs. He placed two plastic wrapped pralines on the table, squeaked, then ran like a wet ribbon back into the kitchen.

She was flabbergasted. “What…”

“It always does that.” Her husband took his complimentary praline and put it in his pocket.

“But … the last time we were here, I said this should happen.”

“What do you mean? There’s always been an otter here. It’s this place’s thing. They’ve trained it to deliver desserts.”

“But…”

“I can’t believe you’ve never noticed,” he shook his head.

She was unnerved. Had one of her wishes come true? Now? After a lifetime of worry and a cancer scare and a fractured marriage, this was what had come true?”

“So . . . all we need now is a million dollars?” she whispered to the universe, testing it. And from the restaurant’s half-opened kitchen door, she saw the liquid black eyes of the otter watching her.

***

A relative died— one who had lived frugally and invested wisely— and left it all to her.

Her husband was still cold and although she tried saying funny and clever things, he didn’t laugh. She still drove too slow in the fast lane, even in a brand-new car, and someone passing called her a bitch. Her aging dog had to be put down, and there were blasts and bombs all over the world, as there had been since people learned to blast and bomb.

The next time she came to the taqueria, she was alone. She’d invited him, of course, but he’d only grunted and said he wasn’t hungry. She ordered the migas and ate carefully, with much deliberation. Then she rolled her paper napkin into a ball and put her money on the table.

The otter came out of the kitchen through the swinging door. He walked on all threes this time, clutching one paw to his creamy chest. In it was a single praline. He stood on his hind legs and placed it on her table. His little paws were webbed fingers.

“I wish there was no more suffering in the world,” she whispered.

He looked at her with eyes so black they looked like holes of space, little black wells of nothing and everything.

***

When she left the restaurant, her new car had disappeared and her old car waited.

The first thing to go was art. The paintings on her walls blurred and faded. The words in her books evaporated. Then hospitals vanished. Churches were next, dissolving until even their steeples left no traces in the air.

She was relieved to see that her old dog was alive again and no longer in pain; he jumped easily on the couch and licked her face, but then he blurred as well. He faded away entirely that night as he slept on her feet, and she called and called him until her husband claimed they’d never had an animal and that she must be losing her mind and could she please, please stop talking so he could sleep?

In the morning she watched the children in the neighborhood fade. What had they been unhappy about? She had forgotten about the terrible, suffering grief of growing up.

The squirrels went next. Their lives were bound by fear of talon and tooth; without that, they just slipped away. One minute they were spiraling up trees and the next, all the branches were ominously still.

People vanished. Their gleaming husks of cars stood idle on the streets.

She panicked.

She ran down empty sidewalks back to the restaurant. Even the trees were starting to fade. The worms in their roots and the beetles in their bark sang of end times. She hadn’t realized sun-hunger and water-thirst were the suffering of plants.

And she began feeling in herself, also, a numbness. It was a dissolving of sorts, just like sugar in hot tea.

She fought it, rushed into the restaurant. There was no one there.

“Hello?” she called. She pushed open the door to the kitchen and there was the otter, lying on his back and juggling a round pebble in his paws. Or maybe it was the world; she couldn’t tell.

She said, “I wish for everything to come back. Like the way it was.”

The otter looked at her, still juggling the stone. She thought of her job and her husband and the people who honk at her in traffic, and noise and terrorism and the general chaos of the world.

“But it’s really all too much for me,” she explained. “I want to be alone. Safe,” she added. And then, because she really couldn’t be too careful, she said, “Living comfortably by myself.”

The otter rested the pebble on his chest.

***

She didn’t remember stepping outside the restaurant, but she did remember walking into a little cabin in the hills, a place all her own. It was decorated with her art and books, which she was relieved to see existed again. There were whitetail deer nibbling grass in the back and a little clear creek running at the bottom of her hill. (It had no otters. She checked.)

And she was very happy. She read and made art and built a garden and learned to can fruits. Planes left contrails in the blue sky, and the world went on quite nicely without her.

Did I already say she was very happy? She hugged herself in the bath and at night she bundled extra blankets on the bed, pretending the weight was a person. She lost the art of conversation, even with herself. She tried to make friends in the small town nearby, but she was ignored. Telecommunications didn’t work at her cabin; every technician who tried scratched his head and shrugged, not looking at her.

Even the cats and dogs she wanted to befriend didn’t stay long, looking at her with suspicion, sniffing her guardedly. They seemed to know that she carried a shadow—the sharp-shade of wishing.

After several years, she got in her beat-up old car and drove back to the town she had shared with her husband. Would the place still be there?

It was. It had a new outdoor patio and played louder Tejano, but still the same. She ordered migas, ate quickly, and put her money down. She waited.

The otter came out. Perhaps its muzzle was grayer, she couldn’t tell. It clutched a praline for her.

“I want it to be like it was before I started making wishes,” she said. “I’ll just have to figure it out as I go.”

The otter blinked.

***

She was sitting across from her husband, with an empty plate in front of each of them. He slapped down some money. She waited and looked around. There was no otter.

“I just meant that they’re cute,” she said.

“What’s cute?”

“Otters. When I said it before, I was just trying to be funny.”

He didn’t remember her saying that.

“I’d seen a video of sea otters, holding hands in the water,” she explained. “They floated on their backs and…”

“They only hold hands so the tides won’t rip them apart and bash them on the rocks,” he said. “And they kill baby seals. Sometimes they even drown female otters when they mate, holding them underwater.”

He balled up his paper napkin and stood up.

She felt slightly ill. She discovered a praline in her pocket and unwrapped it with trembling fingers.

He held the door open for her and rested his hand on her back. The sky was blue and birds were chattering; a child cried and music played. Someone laughed. A pigeon had been hit by a car, and the road had a mess of dove-gray feathers and blood. The tree leaves glimmered green in gold light.

The praline was so sweet, it hurt her teeth.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing. I feel fine,” she said.

She stepped out into our horrible, beautiful world. Out into a humid summer that made her feel as if she herself was drowning.

About Joy Kennedy-O’Neill

Joy Kennedy-O’Neill holds a PhD in literature and teaches English at a small college on the Texas Gulf Coast. She’ s published in Strange HorizonsNatureFlash Fiction OnlineNew Orleans Review, and Daily Science Fiction. More stories are forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge and The Cimarron Review. Find her at http://www.joykennedyoneill.com.

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