“It’s your turn.”
“I just went in there.”
“I was just in there, and I can’t get her to sleep.”
I looked at the clock. It said 3:15. In the other room, my daughter was crying like a lost thing.
I grunted something that a tolerant person might have taken for an okay. My feet found the floor. I grabbed my phone and dragged myself down the hallway. I was just conscious enough to keep from stumbling over the toddler gate.
She was sitting up in her bed. “No, Mommy,” she said, and then started wailing again. I picked her up anyway, and took her into the guest bedroom so she wouldn’t wake up her older sister. I sat down in the armchair and held her close, trusting that the warmth of my body would help her calm down. It only took a minute for her to dial down the sobbing to the point where she was just emitting a soft whine, like an electric fan or a car with a worn-down timing belt.
“What’s the matter, huh?” I asked.
“There was a scary hippopotamus.”
“A scary hippopotamus?”
“Scary hippopotamus. He had potatoes in his mouth.”
“What was he doing?”
“He chased Mommy. Then he chased me. And he ate me all up.”
“There’s no such thing as the scary hippopotamus, sweetie.”
I didn’t feel like arguing, and she didn’t feel like staying awake any longer. She put her head down, and I switched my phone on. People in England were tweeting about their morning coffee. I sat there and read until she started snoring and her limbs went slack. I put her back in bed and put the covers back on. This time I didn’t remember the toddler gate was there, and I banged my knee—not enough to do any damage, but enough to smart.
“Did she go back to sleep?”
“God, I hope so.”
“What was the matter?”
I woke up in the restaurant I used to hang out in college. You probably know the kind of place—mediocre burgers and decent shakes, fake wood paneling, varsity pennants up on the wall. I had money in my pocket, so I ordered a cheeseburger and a Dr Pepper. I was looking for a table when I saw the hippopotamus. He was wearing a black leather jacket and was wedged into a booth in the back.
“What are you looking at?” he asked.
I sat across from him. He was chomping on a mound of French fries. There was ketchup in the corners of his huge mouth.
“Was that you?” I asked.
“What’s it to you?”
“It was you.”
“Maybe it was. What are you going to do about it?”
“You scared her.”
“Leave her alone.”
“Not my problem. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. If she gets in the way, tough.”
“She’s a little girl.”
“A little girl who thinks that wild animals are cuddly and cute. World doesn’t work like that. You should let her know the facts.”
“That doesn’t give you the right to scare her.”
He took a long sip of his peanut butter shake. “I’ll ask you one more time. What are you going to do about it?”
“I told you. Leave her alone.”
“You’re all talk. If you’re going to do something, do something. Otherwise, leave me alone.”
“Maybe I will.”
“You do that.”
I looked around, but I didn’t see any weapons close at hand. I checked in my pocket, and all I found was a key.
“This isn’t over,” I said.
“Do your worst, big guy.”
I gathered up my lunch and stalked out of the restaurant. The hippopotamus was right. I couldn’t lay a glove on him. He was big and scary and tough and he could show up wherever he wanted. All I had was a key. I looked closely at it, and it had a remote-entry button. I pushed it, and a huge black pickup truck beeped back at me.
I climbed inside the truck. The way I figured it, if there were still people in the restaurant, they could get out of the way. But the hippopotamus wouldn’t be able to get out of his booth in time. I started the engine and revved it up. I got the RPMs as high as they would go, because you really only get one shot at a hippopotamus that size. I buckled my seatbelt, closed my eyes, and popped the gearshift.
“You gonna get up?”
“Just a minute.”
“We’re going to be late.”
“What do you think her problem was last night?”
“Don’t worry about it. I took care of everything.”