A FAIR TO REMEMBER

 

An original fanfic

by Gidget

 

TaleSpin and its characters are the property of Buena Vista Television/Walt Disney Co.  The other characters are created by me, and may not be used without permission.  Iggy Sparks and Roz Hustle appear permission of co-creator Bearcat.  My deepest gratitude to Bearcat, Herodotus, Staci “Cody” Faulkenberry, Beth “Starflash” Boemert, Ted Heinz, and Will for their fabulous AND honest feedback and support  (Rated PG for mild coarse language, suggestiveness, and occasional violence.)

 

 

3 - Rebecca (right); Baloo (left)

4 - empty car

5 - Handy

6 - Violet (right); Bonnie (left)

7 - (last car) Thursday (right); Archer (left)

 

Chapter 16

 

 

The clamor of their screams echoed inside Joanna’s head; she felt the wind whistling against her body as she plunged to earth.

 

This is it, she thought with sudden terrified clarity.  I’m going to the other side.  Wonder if I’ll meet anyone I know---!

 

Kit, still clinging for dear life to the makeshift rope, thought fast.  She was falling too rapidly for him to grab her, so he did the next best thing.  He swung sideways, bumping her into a long stretch of canvas awning over a large tent below.  Then he gasped.  He had saved her from falling into the machinery, but now she would crash to the ground.

Oh no!  What have I done?

 

He watched, stunned as Joanna bounced twice on the conical roof and then began to somersault off the edge.  She had no control.  A tumbleweed of arms and legs, she rolled so rapidly that she couldn’t grab onto anything, and felt herself sail backwards into empty space. 

She squeezed her eyes shut, bracing for deadly impact.

 

For a few seconds, they had all watched the falling woman in horror.  With his left hand gripping the front bar and right arm around Rebecca’s waist, Baloo could just barely hold the little girl too.   Momentarily distracted, he managed to hook his fingers through one of Molly’s jumper straps, dangling her like a marionette.

 

She relaxed only slightly --- she was too tired and sore to do otherwise.  But very slowly, she began to slip.

 

"Becky!  I can’t hold the both of ya --- grab her!”

With his arm wrapped round Rebecca’s waist, her own hands were free; she caught the child and clasped her to her bosom.  ”I’ve got you, sweetie! I’ve got you!”

Relieved, Baloo managed to haul them both back into the car;
Rebecca flopped into his lap with Molly tightly in her arms.  Sick with bitter gratitude, he held them tightly.  They were the world to him, but…

Rebecca raised her head to look up at him.  His eyes were damp as he stared in space and his mouth hung open as though unhinged.  She buried her face into his chest, overcome with emotion.

 

“Oh, Baloo!” she murmured, over and over.

Joey, he thought dully.  Joey. 

* * *

 

Strummer ran from the trailer, thinking, I did it!  I caught him!  No… not caught --- Captured.  It sounded more dashing.  He wanted everyone to know that he had captured a dangerous criminal mastermind.  It was so easy.

He laughed aloud with pure joy.

Oh, Strummer, Joanna would cry, throwing her arms around his strong neck, you’re my hero!

 

He, of course, would be very suave about the whole thing and allow her to kiss his face all over, from his manly forehead to his strong, chiseled jaw.  He would pause for a moment, allowing her another moment to adore him, then, taking her chin in his hand, tipping it upward…

I know, he would whisper huskily. And you know what that means.

Oh, yes, my darling,
she would whisper back, closing her eyes, I’m yours --- I always was.

And they would kiss in front of everyone --- that was important --- so they’d know that she was his girl.  That fat pilot would twist his hat with jealousy, but would step aside, knowing that he was unworthy. And fat.


With these rosy visions, he was blissfully unaware that he had, in fact, left the ‘criminal mastermind’ to burn to death.

 

 

* * *

 

Meanwhile, in Joanna and Violet’s trailer, Covington had problems of his own.

 

“Help!  Somebody help me!”  His shoulder was bruised from throwing himself repeatedly against the door, but the shovel on the other side was wedged tight.  His eyes were red and smarting from the smoke, his throat raw from screaming.  But it seemed to him that he was still shrieking, although his voice could no longer compete with the rampaging flames.  

 

I’m trapped in here!  I’m going to die!

 

The flames had now begun to lap the walls of the trailer, curving upward toward the ceiling.  His voice in his own mind taunted him; he thick, black smoke gathered around him, like ghosts from hell.

 

“Somebody get me out!  Please!”   His voice was a ragged sob, a desperate whisper.

He no longer cared if he went to prison.  Anything was better than ending his days as a pile of ashes.  He fell to his knees, where the air was clearer, but he could barely open his eyes wider than slits as he tried to see the door.  It seemed to float, then almost disappear. 

 

Lightheaded and nearly overcome by the weight of heavy smoke, he almost gave in.  He slapped himself in the face.  Stay awake!

 

He crawled awkwardly, fumbling for support.  Feeling the edge of a dressing table, he squinted, seeing a tiny window off to the side.  Blindly, he started to pull himself along toward it.

 

A perfume bottle exploded, spraying the room with glass.  With a cry, he instinctively covered his eyes, but a shard slashed him across the cheek, across the three wounds where Pearl had clawed him.  Small drops of perfume rolled down his face and seeped into the wounds, stinging him.  He fumbled around on his knees, blindly searching for furniture to brace himself on, accidentally crawling onto broken glass.

 

Suddenly he remembered that he still had a gun in his pant pocket. Shoot the lock!  With slippery, shaking hands, he aimed at where he thought the door was, completely missing it.  One bullet ricocheted, narrowly missing his head.  Disoriented, he screamed and fired wildly, hitting a window.

 

* * *

 

Strummer kept running, spraying mud at every step.  Twice he slipped in the muck, skidding and rolling and clumsily getting up again. He saw the lights of the coaster flashing, heard screams but was far from feeling panicked --- he was exhilarated.   He saw Helen kneeling in the mud by the unconscious Pearl, holding her head.

 

“I did it!” he crowed.  He’d escaped, locked up the creep and now he was going to save Joanna, Ma and everyone else.  They would see that he wasn’t a loser after all.  He’d get respect.  Everything was going to be all right. 

 

I can’t wait to see Joanna’s face!

 

“Hey, Ma --- everybody! I got him! I got him!” he shouted.  “Ma, I got him locked up---!” He stopped, seeing Pearl, and turned a little green.

 

Helen was screaming and pointing at something. Then he looked up and saw what looked like a rag doll being thrown from the top of the roller coaster, bounced twice off a large tent below, then rolling helplessly toward the edge.

 

Joanna!  She’ll be killed!

 

Even afterward, he would never be able to explain what happened just then; time seemed to slow down, then become warped.  Blood rushed to his head, making it pound along with his heart.  Dazed, he saw the boy --- Kid --- or whatever his name was, swing from some sort of rope, Tarzan-like, standing on some boomerang and deliberately slam into his girl.  Adrenalin surged through his gangly body, galvanizing him, propelling him forward, crashing through puddles, past his mother and Pearl, past everything until all was a blur.


“I’ve got you, Joanna!  I’ve got you!” he shouted.  “Oof!”

 

She crashed into his waiting arms, plowing them both into the mud; the impact jarred her entire body and rattled her teeth.  She heard a couple of snaps --- and wondered if she’d broken anything.

  

Eyes still squeezed shut, Joanna said, dazed, “No… I think I got you.” 

 

For a few seconds, Joanna was assaulted by the memory of her desperate leap for freedom as she threw herself from the moving truck and landed with solid force on the gravel road, shrieking in agony as she rolled over and over in the dust.  The truck was bearing down on her, its insanely smiling driver mouthing, I love you.

 

In shock, she dimly realized that despite the laws of nature, she was miraculously alive.  Squinting, she was hardly able to make out her surroundings against the bright carnival lights.  The ground felt unnaturally still.  For a moment, she kept her eyes closed; the darkness inside her eyelids was too comforting.  Without recognizing Strummer, she began to sob, impulsively throwing her arms around his skinny neck.  She needed something solid to hold onto, just to convince herself that she was alive and safe on the ground. “Oh… thank you thank you thank you…”

 

She was jolted back to earth by her rescuer’s gasp of pain. 

 

“Oh!  Sorry!” Immediately she started to let go, but he held her fast with his good arm.

 

Unknown to her, Strummer’s eyes were also closed, a disbelieving blissful smile on his face.  His dream was coming true --- his pain seemed unreal in comparison. He stroked her tangled hair as though it were the softest of down.  For a moment, Joanna tolerated this strange contact, still not ready to return to reality.

 
“It’s all right… everything is all right,” he crooned nonsensically in her ear. “I’m here now…” 


She wrinkled her nose; he smelled strongly of sweat, as though he’d been running hard.   She thought she heard him whisper something else, but couldn’t hear him over the clickety-clack of the ride.  That, and the screams of the passengers.  The whole thing made her head pound and she couldn’t think. 

 

What?  Speak up.”

 

Again, he whispered it, as though the words were caught in his throat.

 

She frowned and tried to pull away.  Something about above you?

Squinting against the bright lights, she raised her face towards the source of the shouts and saw the roller coaster looming over her, the cars flying along the tracks with Kit holding on for dear life, swinging in wild arcs.   She started to stand, but her legs --- as weak as those of a newborn fawn --- buckled under her, she fell to her knees.  Out of the corner of her eye she spied a pair of familiar black-rimmed spectacles sinking in the soft sludge; the frames had snapped in two, leaving the glass cracked across the right lens. Blinking rapidly, she fumblingly picked up the two halves and found herself saying, “Oops… sorry about that…”

 

Still kneeling, she started to hand the pieces to Strummer.  As their fingers touched, their eyes met and time stopped for a moment.  Then she stared, really seeing him for the first time. The broken rims slipped from her fingers.  Her mouth went dry. She was too paralyzed to move --- she had to clench her teeth to keep from screaming.


Strummer stood there dazedly, his right arm hanging at an awkward angle.  He regarded her with an expression of… well, she didn’t know what.  Anyone else could have told her what it was --- the look of pain, pleading, despair, and elation --- all the things that were at once pitiful and sweet --- and horrifying on the countenance of one who was truly ugly.  His ghostly pale, homely face was almost entirely coated with mud, but that wasn’t the worst part.  His eyes were abnormally large and startlingly white around the pink irises --- like a toad’s. His wet, magnified gaze was truly frightening --- the face of a toad in love.

 

Holy sh--!

 

Then she fainted, sliding bonelessly to the ground.

 

 

* * *

11:25 pm
Meanwhile, in an apartment several blocks away, reporter Iggy Sparks, a weasel in both species and deed, was busy spying through his binoculars on a couple and their son across the courtyard.  The husband was waving a white piece of paper around with a tiny F circled in red ink and shouting at the boy, who looked as though he wanted to crawl into a hole.  Iggy could read lips fairly well. The wife was crying, Why me? 

To his chagrin, he couldn’t hear them, but mentally shrugged.  A stupid report card.  Why couldn’t they do something interesting? 

He sighed, and made a note.  When F stands for Fatal… Man kills son over report card.

Oh, that’s good! 
He glanced at his other story-in-progress disdainfully.  Even better than the carnival closing because of bad hot dogs.  I wanted to ride the ponies, darn it!

 

The wife suddenly noticed him, stopped crying and pointed. They all stared at him.  The husband glowered at him and picked up the phone, mouthing, I’m calling the cops.

”Uh-oh…” Iggy muttered.  “Looks like I’ll be apartment-hunting again.”

Still holding up the binoculars, he started to turn away; but couldn’t resist taking one last look for more lit windows, signs of life --- and a possible story.  The rain was beginning to abate, washing the night sky clean.  A few stars slowly appeared.  He had an excellent view of the occasional shooting star, the rare eclipse and dazzling sunsets, but he always focused on what was going on in his neighbors’ windows instead of enjoying them.

 

A star that may have been Venus twinkled on his far right.  He ignored it, scanning for other angry silhouettes in the other windows.

 

“Nothin’,” he muttered disgustedly.

 

Just before he was about to put the binoculars away, flashing lights were suddenly caught in his peripheral vision; then he snatched them up again.  He also had an excellent view of the carnival. The roller coaster was going full tilt, and he could see tiny figures in the cars, stretching what looked like a tangled clothesline between them.  Something green and fuzzy clung to the ‘clothesline’ and was tossed around like a demented yo-yo. And further --- almost too tiny to make out, he saw something orange flicker --- fire?   He promptly forgot the family across the courtyard and snatched up the phone.

 

Roz, her voice raspy with whisky and cigarettes, answered it.  “Yeah.”

 

“Roz?  Remember how we had to leave the park because of bad hot dogs?  Guess what --- someone’s riding the roller coaster!  I thought it was closed!

He heard his colleague, and sometimes-photographer Roz Hustle expel a long sigh.

 

“You dope! You woke me up to tell me that?”

 

“News is slow these days.  We haven’t had a mugging or a murder in weeks.  We could---!”

He could picture her grinding her ever-present cigarette between her teeth.  She always had one in her mouth --- she once told him that she went to sleep chewing on unlit ones, as she wasn’t stupid enough to smoke in bed.  She’d laughed at him then.  “Try to make a story out of that.  I dare you.”  Of course, that had taken all the fun out of it.  Iggy Sparks considered himself a serious reporter who occasionally took mundane events and made them newsworthy.   Some people called it sensationalistic journalism.  Roz called it lying, but took the pictures anyway.  They were a team.

 

“Iggy.  I’m going back to bed.  Go chase this one by yourself.”

 

“But there’s a fire---!”

She hung up on him.


He dressed quickly, snatched up his notebook and camera and called a taxi.  I’ll show her, he thought.

 

As he waited downstairs, he briefly considered calling the fire department in case there really was a fire, but decided against it.  All those firefighters would just get in his way if he tried to snap pictures.  They always did.

 

The taxi pulled up and like a shot, he was in the back seat, waving a fifty-dollar bill under the cabby’s nose. “All yours --- if you step on it, pal.”

 

“I ain’t losing my license over a speeding ticket.” The man shrugged.  “Make it a hundred and I’ll run over my own grandmother.”

 

“What!  That’s highway rob---!”  Iggy gritted his teeth.  “Seventy-five, okay? That’s all I’ve got.”

 

“Let’s roll,” was the cheerful reply, and he was suddenly thrown from side to side as the vehicle careened into the night.

 

 

* * *

 

Heart pounding in his chest, Kit realized that Joanna was still alive.  He breathed a little easier.  “She fainted!  She’s okay!”

“Did ya hear that, Becky?  Joey’s okay!”

 

“Thank goodness! Now what about us?” 
 
The air whistled shrilly past them…the rain came down in sheets, blinding them.  A faraway rumble of thunder… then lightning flashed across the sky then zzzap! on one of the rails, just missing the detectives' car as the train roared past.  Both yelped.

 

Archer wailed, "Help!  Stop this crazy thing!"

 

Bonnie moaned, “Would somebody turn this stupid ride off!

“I’m… trying!” Grunting with the effort, Kit hung onto the makeshift rope for dear life.   The train turned a corner, causing it to buckle for a few seconds, then it became taut once more.  The airfoil was the only thing keeping them upright.  “I can’t control this thing!  I can’t hold on much longer!”

 

“Then just let go!” Rebecca cried.  A wave of dizziness made her head swim and she forgot about it.  “You’re on an airfoil --- can’t you just glide down, land and turn this thing off?”

 

Kit did a mental head-smack.  I can’t believe I didn’t think of that!

 

Taking a deep breath, Kit tried to estimate the distance between the tracks and the ground.  He could try to land on the same stretch of canvas awning that had briefly softened Joanna’s landing, but he had to do it just right. Hey, Joanna fell and she’s still alive.  Vertigo was not a problem for him… how hard could it be?  But it was dark and he was in constant motion.  Let go at the wrong time and he could easily flip over into the machinery.

 

One screw-up and I’ll get splattered like a fly on a windshield!

 

He swallowed.

 

Okay.  Here I go.

 

He let go of the makeshift rope, shifting his weight on the board, arms spread out like a surfer.  The cold wind sliced his cheeks, making his eyes water.  Momentarily blinded, he made out what he thought was a large metal box.

 

Yikes! Sharp corners!

 

He’d just missed the control panel.

 

“Navigator down!” Baloo shouted.  “Kit!  Kit!

 

Thinking fast, Kit stood on one foot, deliberately knocking himself off-kilter.  Clumsily, he bounced against the wall of the big tent, and landed hard on his back, skidding through the mud, making it rise like a small tidal wave.  Cold, gritty muck clung to his eyelashes. Using his already filthy sleeve to wipe his eyes and nose, he managed to look up.

 

Kit squinted, but carnival lights were too bright to make out much.  Weakly, the boy gave a thumb’s-up in Baloo’s general direction and gamely tried to crawl to the control panel, but he was just too sore to do more than roll over onto his stomach. The wind knocked out of him, he found himself facedown in the dirt, coughing and sputtering.  “Yuck!  And women pay for mud packs?”

 

"Ooh… I’m gonna be sick…” Archer moaned.  His face was a sickly yellow.

 

His partner pushed him away.  "Over there!"

Baloo’s eyes widened.  “Throw…throw!  That’s it!  Next time we pass, somebody throw somethin’ heavy!  Try ta hit the switch!”

 

“With what?”

 

Rebecca looked down at the shrieking Molly in her arms. Thursday looked at Archer.  Handy was writhing on his seat, one hand on the bar, the other clamped across his mouth. 

 

Violet glanced at him in annoyance.  “Can’t reach,” she muttered to herself.

 

Frantically, she looked around… until her sight fell on Bonnie’s feet.  She wore her usual heavy knee-high riding boots --- hideous and covered in dried manure --- but tough and able to withstand the crushing weight of a horse’s hoof.

 

“Bonnie!” Violet shouted.  “Bonnie, I need your boots!”

 

“What?”

 

“Your boots!  Give them to me.”

 

“Are you out of your…”

 

“Don’t argue.  Just do it.” Violet put out one arm to steady her as she untied her left boot and pulled it off.  “Hurry up… we’re getting close to it!”

 

Violet snatched the riding boot and threw it hard at the switch; spinning out of control, it sailed several feet off the mark and disappeared.  She swore loudly, making Bonnie cringe and inch away from her.

 

Baloo groaned in frustration and gritted his teeth as they went through the circuit again.  “Lady, throw the other boot!” he shouted.  “But this time when you’re closer to it.  Harder!  More impact!”

 

“Yes!” Rebecca mimed throwing a baseball.  “Harder!”

 

“Don’t tell me what to do, you big fat ---!”  The rest of the tigress’s reply was mercifully drowned in the clamor of machinery.

 

The big pilot stuck a stubby finger in his ear, trying to clean it.  “What’d she say?”

Had he possessed the ability to read lips, however, he wouldn’t have wanted to know.

 

Genuine anger made Rebecca yell, “Forget it!  She can’t do it!”

 

”Rebecca!” Baloo was shocked. “What are ya sayin’! We need her!”

 

“I don’t care!  We’re doing all the work and she’s just bellyaching!”  She taunted, “Even Molly could throw it harder!”

 

Molly forgot to scream and joined in.  “Yeah!”

 

Violet’s eyes glowed a fiery green.  She commanded Bonnie,  “Gimme the other boot.  Now!”

 

“Are you crazy?  You’ll just lose that one too!” The lioness’s temper snapped.  “And the kid’s right!  You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn!”

 

“Or even Baloo!”  Rebecca added, suddenly realizing what Kit was doing.

 

“Yeah!  Ya couldn’t even hit me!”  Then the big bear paused.  “Huh?”

 

The tigress reached down and roughly grabbed Bonnie’s foot.  “It’s you or the boot.”

 

Numbly, she complied.  “This better work.”

 

Violet grimly waited for the train to complete its circuit once again; she stood up, drew her arm back and threw it hard.  This time the boot’s heel struck the switch, knocking it to ‘off’.  With the wheels squealing on the rails and spitting sparks, the train started to climb halfway up the first loop, then, with a low, metallic sigh, gently rolled backwards until it was ran out of momentum. 

Everyone cheered. “You did it!”


Violet climbed out and held the side of the car until her equilibrium returned.  Smugly, she turned to Bonnie.  “Well, what do you say now?”

 

Bonnie leaned over the side for a moment, then raised her head to look at her. “So you got lucky.  It was my boot.”

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

Everyone, with the exception of Archer and Handy, shakily got out, and collapsed to the ground, exhausted and nauseated.  Handy held his hands over his bloody mouth, while the bulldog detective just flopped in his seat and sighed, grateful that the world was finally still.  However, his stomach wasn't.  Thursday couldn't get out fast enough.  

 

“Kit!” Baloo shouted, scooping the boy up in his arms.  “Man, that was some landing!”

 

He groaned. “Not quite the same as falling off the Iron Vulture, but close enough.”

“Oh, Baloo!” Rebecca was laughing and crying at the same time as he gathered her, Kit and Molly in a group hug.  “I’m so glad I know you!”

 

“Hey, Becky, about that raise…”

“We’ll talk about that at home --- I mean later.  Right now I want to hold my daughter and never, never let her go!  Oh, sweetie!”  Rebecca sobbed, clasping her daughter to her chest.  “Thank goodness you’re all right!”

 

“It’s okay, Mommy…Mom, I can’t breathe!”

 

“Oh!  Sorry, pumpkin!”

 

“Will someone call a doctor already?” Helen interrupted, indicating the blood-soaked slip she kept pressed to Pearl’s wound.  “I don’t think I can do this much longer!”

 

Thursday, looking a little pale, managed to stand up and walk over to them.   He noted Pearl’s ashen face and shallow breathing and said in with quiet urgency, “Mrs. Haley, where are your blankets?”

 

“I think there’s some in the nurse’s tent.  Oh, do hurry!”

 

“I’ll get them,” Bonnie volunteered. She pointed at the clothes-rope, which Kit was busy coiling up and tossing in one of the empty cars. “How about those?  Someone untie the coats from that rope thing and wrap it around her.  We have to keep her warm.” 

 

“Good idea.” Thursday nodded distractedly.  “Here --- use my coat… Lou’s too.”

 

Wiping bile from his chin, Archer heard and protested weakly, “But Sam, she’ll get blood all over it!”

 

“So send me a cleaning bill,” Thursday snapped.  “Give it to her.”  He looked down at Strummer, got a startling look at the watery, unnaturally large eyes, but managed to conceal his revulsion.  Criminy, no wonder that Midway dame fainted!  Trying not to look directly at him, he asked brusquely, “Did you call the police?”

 

The albino bear gasped with pain, but forced himself to answer. “Ow!  Um… I guess in all the excitement… um… I forgot.”

 

Thursday gave a heavy, long-suffering sigh.

 

Eager to redeem himself, Strummer hurried on.  “But wait’ll I --- ow --- tell you what I did!  I got this shovel---!”

 

“Later, kid.  Lou, go to the call box and--- aw, forget it!  I’ll call for back-up and get the ambulance here right away.” 

 

“I’ll stay with her until help arrives,” said Bonnie.  Barefoot and disheveled, she stumbled toward Pearl, arms laden with blankets and coats. 

“Are ye sure---?”  Helen started to go to Strummer, and looked back at her questioningly.

 

“I know what to do.  Remember last year when that horrible little boy shot a bee-bee gun at my Bluebelle?” 

 

“Bonnie, Pearl ain’t one of yer horses!”

 

“What’s your point?  Until the ambulance arrives, I’m all you’ve got.”  She added, nodding meaningfully to Strummer, “Someone else needs you.”

 

“What?  Oh, yes… of course.”  Helen fell to her knees and took her son into her arms.  “Oh, Nicky, thank goodness you two are alive!  Are ye all right?”

He started to reply, but she noticed his broken glasses and released him. “Oh dear. Nicky, what ‘appened to yer specs?”

 

“Well, I---!”

 

“Never mind, luv. You don’t need ‘em anyway.”

Indeed he didn’t --- had anyone troubled to look, they would have realized that despite the thick rims, they were not prescription lenses --- but plain glass.


She beamed and hugged him again. "Oh, m'darling! Yer alive after all!” 

 

“That’s all right, Ma…” He coughed and tried to stand, but she was hugging him too tight.  He yelped.  “Ow!  Ma! My arm!”

 

"Oh!  Sorry, luv!”  She loosened her hold only slightly.  Then she got a better look.  ”My goodness!  I think your arm is broken!  Why didn’t you tell me?  Here, let me take a look…!”

 

Ma!  People are looking!” He squirmed out of her reach, absurdly grateful that Joanna wasn’t conscious to see this.

 

“But it’s just hangin’ there!”


It was true --- Strummer’s left arm hung uselessly at his side. Though he was in terrible pain, he was in no mood to be mothered.  It was his turn to be heroic and he wasn’t about to be robbed of it.  He tried to deepen his reedy voice and thrust out his almost none-existent chin.  “That ain’t important.  Ma, I have to --- ow --- talk to that detective straight away.  I caught that---!”

 

“Just a minute, dear.” She was only half-listening to him, her attention distracted. “Violet?  What are you doing?”

 

Their voices roused Joanna, who was fitfully dreaming about being chased by two giant pink eyeballs, felt a stinging sensation in her cheeks and only dimly realized that someone was lightly slapping her.  “Ow!  Go ‘way.”

 

“What?  Wake up, Jo!  Are you hurt?”  Slowly, Violet’s face came into focus. 

 

Joanna caught another glance behind her at Strummer, who blinked and regarded her dopily over his mother’s shoulder.  She heard Helen tell him ‘just a minute’   Quickly, she shut her eyes again, unable to stand the sight of him. During the five years she had been with Haley’s Carnival, how could she have failed to notice his how truly homely he was?  “The horror… the horror… ohhhh…”

 

The tigress glanced behind her, gave a delicate shudder and turned back to Joanna, asking impatiently, “Is anything broken?  Can you move?”

 

Helen’s voice sounded as though it was coming through a tunnel. “Howwww is sssshe, Viiiiolet?

 

Sssshe’ll be fine, I think.  Sssshe faaaainted, thaaaat’s alllll.”

 

As Joanna felt herself slipping away into semi-consciousness, she thought she heard her mutter under her breath, “Thaaaat’s it.  One mooore little accident… I’m out of here.”

 

What?  You’re quitting?

 

Don’t go.  I won’t have any friends here…

She felt a plump hand, clammy but comforting move a few strands out of her face.  Helen’s voice was closer now, directly over her.  “It’s all right, sweetheart.  Nobody’s going anywhere.  You just keep still.”

Joanna didn’t realize that she had spoken out loud.

 

A sudden flash got their attention.  Archer yelped again, covering his eyes. “Lightning!  We’re gonna die!”

 

“It’s not lightning, you idiot!”  Baloo yelled.  “It’s a reporter!  Hey, you!  Cut that out!”

 

Sure enough, a seedy-looking weasel in a cheap suit flitted from place to place, snapping photographs.  He didn’t reply, but concentrated on adjusting the lens for a long shot.  He wished Roz was here.  She was the real shutterbug. 

 

Detaching himself from the group, Baloo marched over to him and deliberately covered the lens with his palm.  “How long were you standin’ there?”

 

“Long enough.” The weasel slapped his hand away. “’Cuse me, Tubby.  I’m working here.”

 

“Hey, just who the heck do ya think you are, ya sawed-off little---!”

 

Rebecca stood up carefully, still carrying Molly.  “Baloo, please!  We don’t have time for this.  Now, just who the heck do you think---?”

 

In what was obviously an automatic movement, he fished in his shirt pocket and quickly showed her a dog-eared business card.  “The press, lady.  Iggy Sparks--- the Cape Suzette Gazette.  Mind if I ask a few questions?”

 

“I’ve got questions myself, buster! How long were you there?  Why didn’t you help us?”

 

“Sorry, I just got here,” he said, not sounding the least bit sorry.  He caught sight of Strummer and Joanna. “Whoops!  Hey, it’s been a slice, but I got a job to do.”

Baloo stared after him.  “Well, how do ya like that!”

 

Rebecca set Molly down.  “Hmmph! Some people will do anything for publicity.”

 

“Um, Baloo?” Kit tapped him on the shoulder and indicated Strummer, who was bending low over a cringing Joanna. “I think your girlfriend needs help.”

 

“Oh, man!  I forgot all about her!”  Baloo hurried away.

 

“Honestly!  That man…” Rebecca shook her head.  “She’s going to have her hands full.”

 

Kit looked at her, smiling slyly.

 

She caught the look.  “Don’t. Say. It.”

 

“I didn’t.”  He kept grinning, then winced. “Ow.”

 

“What is it?” Rebecca asked anxiously.  “I was so worried about Molly that…”

 

“It’s okay.  Forget it.”  He rubbed his arm.  “I think I hit that coaster car harder than I thought.”

 

“Is anything broken?  Let me get a look at you,” She took his head between her hands and tried to peer into his eyes, then his mouth. “Stop squirming, Kit!  Stick out your tongue.”

 

“Hey!  I’m bruised, not sick!” He didn’t jerk away, but carefully detached himself from her, so Rebecca wouldn’t get her feelings hurt.  She couldn’t help mothering him.  Sometimes he’d even let her, like the time he was sick in bed with the flu. “Thanks, though.”

 

She came to Higher for Hire to work as usual, but ended up taking care of him while Baloo delivered the day’s cargo. She had ignored the phone that day, letting it ring in order to check up on him, serving him toast and strong tea --- the only thing he could keep down --- and generally took the day off to nurse him back to health.  Baloo had complained that he could have taken the day off to take care of Kit himself, but had later admitted to the boy that “Becky sure came through in a pinch.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Really, I’m fine.”

 

“But you’re filthy.  Let me clean you up.”  She licked her fingers and was now rubbing at the mud on his snout, which was now streaked with a slimy mixture saliva and dirt.

 

Mmmph! Mo --- I mean, Miz Cunningham!” He pulled violently away, frantically scrubbing his face with the hem of his already dirty sweater. “Look! See?  I’m clean!  I’m clean!”

 

“All right, Kit,” she said, mildly offended.  “Just remember to take a bath when we get home.”

 

“Okay, okay, I promise!”

 

Rebecca finally backed off and turned her attention to the beginnings of a circus around Joanna and Strummer.  Iggy was busy snapping pictures, rattling off directions that nobody followed and questions that nobody answered. 

 

Joanna slowly regained consciousness and heard, “…what a story! And you say you saved this lucky young lady and all those people from certain disaster?”

Then a nasal, twanged voice replied as though he couldn’t quite believe it himself.  “Well, I was just at the right place at the right ti---ow!  Me arm!”

 

"Can you hold your arm a little more this way?  Try to look like you're in agony --- that's it!  Oh, this is gold!"

 

Joanna heard the sound of a camera flashing, and opened her eyes, blinking rapidly.

 

“She’s awake!  Hey! Look this way, miss!”

 

“What?”  The sun seemed to explode.  She batted ineffectively at Strummer’s chest, making him gasp with pain.  “Stop that!  Get that thing away from me!”  In her confusion, it was unclear to anyone whether she meant Strummer or the camera.

 

“Joanna --- it’s me!”

 

“No!”

 

"Just one more, miss,” Iggy tried to reassure her.  “How about giving your hero a big juicy smooch for saving your life?”

 

“Go away, you creep!” she screamed, covering her face.  “I hate having my picture taken!  Leave me alone!”

 

“What, a cute little thing like you?  Don’t be so modest.  I bet you’re a real doll under all that mud.”

 

He wrinkled his nose.  Not even a blowtorch could make that dame look good.

 

“Leave her alone!  Can’t you see she’s scared?” Strummer blocked his view, relieved that it was the camera flash that repulsed her, not him.  He tried to soothe her.  “It’s all right…”


All she saw were bulging pink eyes getting closer and closer until they seemed to become one giant orb with a shiny black center and nearly fainted again. 

Feeling sick, she managed to scramble to her feet and lunged almost drunkenly at Iggy, looking decidedly un-cute.  He neatly sidestepped her, and she fell on her face. “You lousy son of a---!”

 

The albino bear helped her stand up. She leaned against him limply, panting, eyes closed in exhaustion.  “Joanna!  Let me handle this!  N-now see here… s-sir… I don’t appreciate you upsetting her…!”

 

Okay, I get the picture, Bub. That’s enough for now.” The reporter laughed nervously, imagining his next conversation with Roz.  You should see this guy, Roz! He shouldn’t be let out in public without a blindfold… those eyes!  Like dinner plates…

Iggy fished out another business card and flipped it at the startled bear with practiced ease.  He said in a low voice, “Psst --- Hero --- name’s Iggy Sparks.  If ya want to be the toast of Cape Suzette, give me a ring.”

 

Strummer blinked. “M-me?”

 

“Sure.  But don’t tell your girlfriend.  I think she’s a little high-strung.  She is your girl, right?”

 

“Um… well…” Then his voice became stronger, then proud.  “Yes.  Yes, she is.”

 

“Give me a call this week.  Don’t lose the card.”

 

“I-I won’t.”

 

I can see it now… Freaks in Love...Bug-Eyed Freak Saves Mud Girl… Iggy chuckled to himself, but he knew the boss wouldn’t go for it at the Gazette.  They had to show some sensitivity.

 

He spotted Bonnie, Helen and Pearl and took a picture.

 

Both glared and said, “Stop that!” 

“Just a minute.” Click.

“Leave us alone!” The elderly koala scolded.


“I’m workin’ here!  I’m workin’ here!” He ignored her and snapped a couple more.  “Wow, that looks awful!  Ma’am, could ya turn her more this way?  I’d like to get her face.  What happened?  Is she dead?”

 

“Go away, ye dirty swine! Helen screamed at him.  Pearl mewled and seemed to shrink inside the coats and blankets.  “There, luv.  It’s all right.  I weren’t yellin’ at you…” Then:  Get out of here, ye bloody vulture! 

 

He backed off, hands held up in surrender. “Okay, okay, don’t get excited.  I’ll come back when you’re in a better mood.  Have a nice day.”

 

Suddenly, he was roughly jerked off the ground, making him squawk.  He found himself looking up at Baloo.  His expression was stony.

“Okay, buddy, interview’s over.  Hit the bricks.”

 

Iggy’s legs pedaled the air furiously as if he was riding an invisible bicycle. “Hey! Put me down, you big ox!  The public’s got the right to know, you know?”

 

“Yeah, well, you got the right ta remain silent!” 


Rebecca added, “I’ll call the police!  Hey, Detective Thursday!  Over here!”

 

At the word ‘police’, Iggy Sparks decided that it would be wise to beat a hasty retreat.  He remembered that he still had his camera; raising it to eye level, he pushed the button several times.  “Smile, fatso!”

 

“Hey!” Temporarily blinded by the flash, the bear dropped him.

 

“Later, suckers!” Iggy shouted as he hit the ground running and disappeared.
 

Baloo noticed Strummer supporting Joanna as she stumbled around in circles, disoriented.  “I’ll take from here, pal.”

 

The albino bear began to splutter.  “But--!  But--!”

 

None too gently, the pilot bumped him aside and held her close. “Aw, Joey!  Are ya okay? How do ya feel?”

 

“Like I just fell off a roller coaster.  And it’s Joanna.”

She wavered on her feet, but he didn’t let go.  “Oops! Gettin’ kinda wobbly there, ain’t ya?  Why don’t ya sit a spell?”

 

“No, I think I need to walk and clear my head.” 

 

“Joanna, I don’t think you should walk around in your condition and all…”

”I’m fine.  Go hold someone else’s hand.”


“Hey, what’s the matter?  I was just ---!” Baloo said helplessly.

 

“Just what?  You were late for our date, ate most of the pizza and left me to Mollysit while you and…” Here she jerked her head at Rebecca, who was walking over to them with her daughter in tow, “she rushed down here. Oh, never mind! Just leave me alone!” she shouted, shoving him away. Furious at being seen disheveled, filthy and helpless --- and photographed, her face burned with shame.  Something else bothered her, although she was too angry to know exactly what it was. Something stupid, she was sure, but didn’t feel like figuring it out yet.

Dumbfounded, Baloo watched her go. He didn’t see the look of satisfaction on Strummer’s face.

 

Rebecca came over, an exhausted Molly in tow.  “Baloo, what’s wrong?”

 

“I don’t get it, Becky.” He was bewildered. “What’d I do?  I-I think she’s mad.”

 

“No, she’s probably just… scared.”

 

“Well, sure, we all were!  But that ain’t no reason to---!” 

 

Rebecca tried to comfort him.  “We’ve just been through a horrible experience.  She’s not like us --- she hasn’t been in life-threatening situations on a regular basis the way we have.”

 

Kit said quietly, “I hate to say it, but you sure took your time going over to see if she was all right.”

 

Baloo scratched his head. “That’s why she’s all bent out of shape?  But I was busy seein’ if you guys were all right!”

 

“Exactly.”  Kit said.

 

“But th-that’s nuts.”

 

Kit sighed. “Baloo, you might dress up like a girl sometimes, but you sure don’t think like one.”

 

“I wouldn’t even try. But that funny-looking guy was takin’ care of her.  I was busy.  I did go over ta see if she was okay.  What difference does it make when?”

 

“She’s your girlfriend, Baloo.  You forgot about her.  Your own words, remember?”

 

Rebecca found herself saying, “Don’t blame yourself --- that man… thing, or whatever --- saved her life.  What else does she want?”

 

“Yeah. He caught her and she was fine.” 

Kit said, “Baloo, what if it were you lying there, and someone you thought was your friend just forgot about you?”

 

He moaned. “Aw, man… why are gals are so complicated!”

“To you, mailing a letter is complicated,” Rebecca snapped.  She fell silent for a moment, remembering the way he had been dazzled by Kitten Kaboodle and happily went on a tour around Starrywood Studios, enjoyed two hearty meals and was nearly killed in a sabotaged stunt plane before he remembered that his boss and friend existed.  She knew all too well how it felt to be ignored by the pilot.  He had a big heart and many good qualities, but thoughtfulness was not one of them.   “Besides, Kit’s right.  We did just leave her there.”

 

“Yeah.  I guess I just didn’t think she’d mind if she was unconscious.”

 

Thursday returned.  “I called for back-up and ordered some meat-wagons, er, ambulances here, pronto.  They’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“Thank goodness! Ye ‘ear that, Pearl?  Just hang on a bit longer.”

“What should we do?” Bonnie asked him, looking worried.

 

“Keep talking to her.  Keep her awake.”

 

Within moments, two squad cars and three ambulances arrived.  Pearl, of course, was taken away first.

 

One of the medics, a short hyena, asked abruptly, “Where’s the gunshot victim?”

Helen pointed.  “Her name is Pearl.”

He and his partner, a young lion, immediately got to work.  After she was bandaged tightly across her mid-section, they gently lifted Pearl off the ground and placed her on a stretcher. 

Helen wanted to ride with her, but was not permitted to do so. 


“We’ll take care of her, ma’am,” the lion medic promised.  He gestured to her temple. “You don’t look so good yourself, if you don’t mind my saying so.  That’s a nasty bruise.”

 

“Never mind me.  Just tell me where you’re taking her and I’ll come later!”

With blaring sirens, the hyena drove the ambulance, while the lion medic sat with Pearl, making sure her bandages were tight.

 

He accidentally brushed against the wound, making her cry out. 

 

“I’m sorry, miss!  I’ll be more careful.”

 

Her eyes widened as they took in the strange surroundings.  He read her expression.  “You’re in an ambulance.  And your mother will come see you later.”

 

“What?” She was too disoriented by the sirens to either understand, or correct his natural assumption.  “M-mother?  I don’t have…”

 

“The old lady --- the koala.”

 

Helen?

 

She groaned. “So tired…”

 

“I know, but stay awake, okay?”

 

She groaned again.  “It hurts so much…so much…”

 
He adjusted a piece of tubing.  “You’re going to be fine, honey.  We’re almost there.” He was a young lion, and not handsome, but had kindly features that somehow reassured her.

 

“I don’t feel so good.”

 

“Shhh… none of that.  I know you feel lousy. Here, don’t cry, you’ll get your bandages wet.”

 

“I’m so stupid… I thought he loved me…!”

 

“Here, let me tape that down.  There.” He fixed a piece of bandage that had come loose.   His voice had an edge to it. “He sounds like a piece of work.  He shot you?”

 

“Yes… no… I don’t know.  It’s my fault…”

 

“No, it’s not.  He had the gun, didn’t he?”

”Y-yes…”

 

“Then it was his fault, not yours.” 

 

He added, “You’re very lucky, you know.  I’m told that nice lady didn’t leave your side --- not for a minute.  She saved your life.”

 

“What for?” She sobbed until she hiccupped.  “She hates me… everybody hates me… just let me die.”

“Sorry, can’t do that.  My boss’ll have my head on a platter.”  He smiled down at her, and she thought drowsily, He has nice eyes.

 

“Uh-uh, stay with me now.  I’m going to ask you questions and I want you to answer, okay? What’s your name?”

For a few seconds, she couldn’t remember.  “P-pearl…”

 

“Nice to meet you, Pearl.  I’m Jerry.”

 

Meanwhile, Iggy Sparks followed the thick smoke; his nostrils flared as he sniffed the air.  He remembered the smoke he saw from his apartment window.

Oh, right, the fire!
Gotta get some pictures before some boy scout calls the fire department. Or that fat bear comes over thinking it’s a barbeque.  Dumb schmuck.

 

Suddenly, there was a fiery explosion, blowing him off his feet.

 

 

End of Chapter 16

 

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