by Sunil Patel
Sunil Patel is a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming inFireside Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, The Book Smugglers, FSI, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, among others. Plus he reviews books for Lightspeed and is Assistant Editor of Mothership Zeta. His favorite things to consume include nachos, milkshakes, and narrative. Find out more atghostwritingcow.com, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging,” “exclamatory,” and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.”
The alligator had been missing for fifteen hours now, and Madhuri was getting worried. Sally had been too ornery last night to affix the tracking device, which was not good news for the citizens of Portland. She could be anywhere. Madhuri had checked Voodoo Doughnut — Sally had no taste for donuts, but she loved the smell — and the man behind the counter had reported no alligator sightings in the last fifteen hours, or, in fact, the last fifteen years. She got lost in a chat about the history of the shop and the changes in the political climate in the last decade and a half until he’d said, “Miss, shouldn’t you be out looking for your alligator?”
“Yes,” she sighed, taking a bite of her pecan cruller. “Truthfully, though, I hope she’s looking for me.” But that couldn’t be true. Sally knew her way home. Given the state she’d left her guards in, Madhuri felt confident in assuming Sally had no wish to return.
“You seem like a nice lady,” the man said. “I’ll bet your pet alligator is worried sick about you.”
“Oh, she’s not my pet,” said Madhuri. “She’s my experiment. She’s psychic, you see.”
“Psychic? Like she can read my mind?”
Madhuri laughed and almost choked on her cruller. “Heavens, you make it sound absurd. Of course she can’t read your mind.”
The man returned to arranging the black-pepper-and-blackberry donuts as he said, “For a second there, I thought you were—”
“She can read alligator minds.” With that, Madhuri swallowed the last of her cruller, wiped the crumbs on her dress, and stepped out into the sunlight. Of course, the solution was obvious: she needed an alligator to catch an alligator.
The Oregon Zoo was surprisingly cooperative once Madhuri showed them her credentials. “You work with Dr. Zhao?” said the trainer. “I applied to join his lab years ago, but he wouldn’t let me in. And now I’m here.”
“There, there,” said Madhuri. “In a way, you are a part of his lab today, assisting him in his mission to unlock the psychic potential of humanity by inducing psychic abilities in animals.”
The zoo alligator was named Lance, like that bicyclist on TV who made Sally so happy. She took Lance to the park and scolded him when he tried to eat a baby. “He’s not mine,” she told the baby’s mother. “But he’s harmless. He’s more afraid of the baby than it is of him.”
The problem with Sally’s psychic abilities was that, technically, they had never been verified, since they only had one psychic alligator. In addition, they had found it difficult to communicate with Sally to confirm that she had read the control alligator’s thoughts. Yesterday, Dr. Zhao had suggested they do an invasive brain biopsy to examine her pineal gland, and it had been on Madhuri’s mind all day. When she found Sally, she wouldn’t let that happen.
“Lance,” she said, “I need you to tell Sally that we want her to come home. We won’t hurt her for what she did to Steve and Winston, and she can even have an extra Chilean sea bass for dinner.”
Lance stared at her. He opened his jaws as if to yawn and then snapped them shut. When Sally did that, she was being uncooperative.
“Okay, Lance,” Madhuri added. “Don’t tell Dr. Zhao, but you may also have a Chilean sea bass if you help me find Sally.” The alligator intoned a deep rumble of what sounded like assent.
Madhuri wasn’t sure she believed in Lance’s ability to send the appropriate psychic signals, but she believed in Chilean sea bass, sometimes encrusted with pecans, if Sally had done particularly well. She envisioned pan-seared, pecan-encrusted Chilean sea bass, covered in a sweet red wine reduction. She held the image in her mind and imagined Sally approaching the plate. Sally, unlike Lance, was gorgeous, a uniform dark green with a pistachio underbelly — Madhuri sprinkled pistachios around the fish and then made them roasted pistachios — and she moved with the grace of a dolphin, even on land. Lance would waddle like a penguin and step all over the plate, surely. In her mind, Sally gently sniffed the sea bass, bringing her snout up close, nuzzling a few pecans off the crust. With her teeth curving out from her lower jaw, she always looked like she was smiling, but here it was genuine.
Madhuri felt something cold and scaly nuzzling her leg. She opened her eyes and looked down to see a beautiful reptilian snout — not Lance’s. She smiled warmly at Sally, whose teeth still had some of the guards’ blood on them. “I missed you, Sally,” she said. She looked around for Lance, who had wandered off toward another baby. “Don’t move,” she told Sally as she ran to retrieve Lance.
Returning, she introduced the alligators. “Lance called you back,” said Madhuri. “And you heard!” Sally had proven her ability, but Dr. Zhao would require more evidence. The zoo could do without Lance for a few more hours. She needed to take them back to the lab and perform rigorous tests, but no brain biopsies. Sally would have been so scared if she’d known.
She motioned to Lance and Sally to follow her back to the van. The difference in their gaits was apparent, and Sally beat Lance to the van by several yards. Madhuri bent down and patted her head. Sally clamped her jaws open and shut a couple times as Madhuri withdrew her hand. She had come back and she expected to be fed. Madhuri put her hand to her chin to think about what to do, since she could not feed her the Chilean sea bass from her mind, and as she put it back down again, she realized with horror and delight that it smelled faintly of pecan cruller.
Originally published in Fireside Magazine, April 2015.