The Elephant of Surprise (The Russel Middlebrook Series Book 4)

BOOK: The Elephant of Surprise (The Russel Middlebrook Series Book 4)
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For Michael Jensen

And for Harold Hartinger

 

Two men who both

still know how to surprise me

 

PREVIOUSLY

 

The Elephant of Surprise
is the fourth book in the Russel Middlebrook Series, the story of a gay teenager named Russel and his collection of friends, especially Min, who is bisexual, and Gunnar, who is straight.

In
Geography Club
, the first book in the series, Russel and Min create a secret gay group at their school, which they call the Geography Club, thinking it sounds so boring no straight person will join. One of the members is Kevin, a popular jock, who Russel begins dating. But when Min suggests they ask Brian Bund, the school outcast and a rumored gay kid, to join their group, the issue splits the membership. Kevin especially wants to keep the club as secret as possible. The disagreement causes the Geography Club to implode. Russel is outed, and Kevin doesn't stand up for him. Kevin eventually apologizes, but it's too late: Russel decides he doesn't love Kevin anymore.

In
The Order of the Poison Oak
, the second book in the series, Russel, Min, and Gunnar get jobs working as counselors at a summer camp for burn survivors. After competing with Min for a guy named Web, Russel eventually begins a relationship with another counselor, a burn survivor named Otto Digmore. Meanwhile, Gunnar also ends up in a relationship, with a girl named Em. Russel and Otto spend a happy summer together, but must then return to their homes, eight hundred miles apart.

In the third book in the series,
Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies
(also sold under the title
Split Screen
), Russel, Min, and Gunnar get jobs as zombie extras in a horror film being filmed in their area. We then see the events of the following week from two different perspectives: Russel's and Min's.

In
Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies
, Russel's version, Otto Digmore, Russel's long-distance boyfriend, comes for a visit. At the same time, Kevin reappears in his life, apologizing for past misdeeds and hinting he wants to get back together. Russel eventually makes the decision to stay with Otto. He meets Kevin in a park at night to tell him the choice he's made and is shocked to see Kevin hooking up with an older man. Russel confronts him, but Kevin acts like an arrogant jerk. Russel is more certain than ever he was right to choose Otto.

In
Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies
, Min's version of this same period of time, Min falls for a new girl, Leah, despite the fact that Leah is closeted. They begin dating. Meanwhile, the same night that Russel confronts Kevin in the park at night, Min meets Kevin first. She lays into him, telling him he had his chance with Russel before and he screwed it up, and he's going to ruin Russel's new chance for happiness with Otto. Tearfully, Kevin agrees. In other words, the "older man" Russel saw that night in the park was merely Min hugging Kevin in the dark. Min listens in the bushes while Russel confronts Kevin. Kevin is a total jerk to Russel, but Min knows he's only pretending in order to get Russel to hate him so he can move on with Otto. Min finally sees just how much Kevin truly loves Russel. But she also knows that Russel has chosen to be with Otto, and that for the time being, she must keep Kevin's noble actions in the park a secret.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

I was deep in the thick of the jungle, wild animals glaring at me from all around. I stood frozen, certain that if I made even the slightest move, these vicious beasts would lunge for me, biting with glistening fangs and rending my flesh with razor claws.

No, really, I was!

I know, I know. You're thinking: "He always does this. He starts the story pretending he's in the middle of some exciting event—a war, a fire, a zombie apocalypse—but then it just turns out to be something
metaphorical
. I'm not falling for it this time."

But this time, I really
was
in the middle of a jungle. I really
was
surrounded by vicious, wild animals.

Okay, so it was just the "African safari" section of the zoo. The "jungle" was the bamboo and banana plants growing along the concrete pathways, and the "wild animals" were in the enclosures all around me—the "immersion" kind, designed to recreate the animals' natural habitat, but with cleverly disguised moats and hidden wire fences keeping the lions and hyenas and wildebeests away from all the helpless people.

But hey, at least it's not a metaphor for anything!

My name is Russel Middlebrook, I'm seventeen years old and a junior in high school, and I'd come to the zoo on a Saturday afternoon with my two best friends, Min and Gunnar—although Gunnar had wandered off somewhere else at that exact moment.

"Did you know that lions are the only species of cat where the males and females look different?" Min said, staring out at the animals.

I hadn't known that. There was a lot I didn't know, something I was reminded of whenever I spent any time around Min, a self-described "Chow Mein brain." This is my polite way of saying that—at least in a certain light and from a certain angle—Min can be something of a know-it-all.

"They act differently too," she said. "The females don't just raise the young, they also do most of the hunting. The males look and act all regal, and they're big on fighting each other, but they're mostly sort of worthless." At this, she sort of eyed me pointedly.

"Wait," I said. "What was that look for?"

"What look?"

"You just sort of eyed me, as though the way male lions act is somehow a reflection on me, on males in general."

"I did not."

"You totally did! That's totally sexist. You of all people. I can't believe how sexist that is!" For the record, Min is an outspoken feminist (I am too).

She ignored me, just turned for the wildebeests. (Or wildebeest? Does anyone know the plural of "wildebeest"?) Out in their immersion pen, five of the animals stood listlessly in the dirt—their hooves had long since worn the grass down to almost nothing. So much for recreating their natural habitat.

"As for the wildebeest"—naturally, Min knew the plural of wildebeest—"people talk about herd animals like they're mindless, that the 'herd mentality' is just everyone blindly following everyone else. But herds can actually be intelligent. Scientists now refer to it as something called 'swarm intelligence.'"

Min was being even more know-it-all-y than usual today. This had the effect of making
me
feel even more insecure.

"What's the only marsupial where both sexes have a pouch?" I said.

She looked at me. "What?"

"Marsupials. You know: animals with pouches—like kangaroos and koala bears."

"I know what a marsupial is," Min said.

"The water opossum. That's the only one where both the males and females have pouches. Well, I guess male Tasmanian tigers also had pouches, but they're supposed to be extinct."

She kept staring at me. "What exactly does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, you were just talking about how male and female lions were different. And about how wildebeests—I mean wilde
beest
—use swarm intelligence."

"Yes, but that's because we were looking at lions and wildebeest. We're not looking at water opossums. I mean, this is the African savannah. Aren't water opossums from Mexico?"

Were they? I didn't know. I'd only known that bit about male water opossums having pouches from a special on TV a few nights before, but I didn't remember the narrator saying where they lived. So not only did Min know more than I did about every other animal, she even knew more than I did about the one animal that I'd thought I'd known something about.

She smirked. "Feeling a little insecure today, are we?"

I've already admitted that if Min could be something of a know-it-all, I could be a little insecure—at least in a certain light and from a certain angle.

"What about you?" I said.

"What about me?" she said.

"Something's up. What's going on?" I couldn't come right out and accuse Min of being more know-it-all-y than usual, but it was kind of implied.

She turned and headed into this fake cave-tunnel that led to the next cluster of animal displays. I followed. Inside the cavern, there was this stretch of glass panels that showed African termites in their nest, sort of like a giant ant farm. I think the idea was that we were supposed to be walking through one of those giant termite mounds you see on the African savannah. It wasn't bad, actually.

Min lingered at the termite display. Behind the glass, termites plodded. They're slower than ants: they don't scurry.

"It's Leah," she said.

Min is bisexual, and Leah was her girlfriend who went to a different school. It was February, and the two of them had been going out forever, at least since November.

"What about her?" I said, concerned.

"She's hiding something from me. Keeping secrets."

This bears some explanation. Back in November, when Min and Leah had first started going out, they'd had this big conflict because Leah didn’t want to come out as a lesbian, at least not in high school. Leah knew she was a lesbian—she wasn't conflicted or "questioning"—but she also wanted a "normal" high school experience. She just didn't want to have to stand up for herself or be the center of attention. For a time, this had been a real sore point for Min because (a) she's definitely a stand-up-for-yourself kind of person, and (b) she'd gone through this disastrous relationship earlier last year with this girl who refused to come out, and Min had vowed never to do anything like that again. But eventually Min had come around to the idea that different people, even people who like each other, can sometimes come to different conclusions about things.

"How do you know?" I said to Min, about the secrets Leah was supposedly keeping.

"Little things. Like she's weird about letting me borrow her phone. And she changes the subject whenever I talk about the future."

"You could be imagining things," I said.

"I know. It's mostly just a feeling."

I spotted something on the floor of the fake cave: a dead termite. Was it possible one of them had escaped from the colony? And if one of them had escaped, did that mean one of the lions or hyenas or tigers could get out of their cages too? Hey, maybe I really was in danger of being torn apart by a wild animal.

"How's the relationship itself?" I asked.

"That's just it. I thought we were doing great. But suddenly it feels like she's withdrawn. I mean, she's not here today, is she?"

"But maybe she's just reacting to your being suspicious."

"I know." She sighed. "Do you think she could be cheating? Like, with a boyfriend or something? I mean, isn't that part of the 'normal' high school experience?"

I thought about this. I was tempted to say, "No way! Never!" But I'd had an experience of my own back in November when I'd learned something about my ex, a guy named Kevin Land, that had totally shocked me. Now I knew you couldn't ever assume anything about anyone.

So finally, I just said, "I don't know. I don't think so, but I'm not sure I know anything anymore."

Min gave me a long look, like she wanted to say something, but didn't quite know what. Finally, she turned and walked the rest of the way through the termite mound out into the daylight of the next cluster of displays: zebras, elephants, and monkeys. You expect monkeys to be swinging around and whooping it up, don't you? These weren't. Maybe it was too cold that time of year. What were they doing putting  animals from the African savannah outside in February anyway? Besides, those monkeys were in cages. How excited could they ever be?

"How are things with Otto?" Min said as we stopped to watch the monkeys.

Otto was my boyfriend—a really great guy. We'd been going out even longer than forever, since summer the year before when we'd met at camp. Unfortunately, he lived eight hundred miles away.

But how
were
things with him? I had to think about that. It was right then I noticed the air smelled like three different kinds of animal shit.

"Things are good, I guess," I said. "Wait, no, they're great. No, hold on, maybe they're just good."

The last time I'd seen Otto, back in November, Min had been trying to figure out if she and Leah could be together, and I'd been trying to figure out if Otto and I could make a long-distance relationship work. In the end, we'd decided we could. And we had. That wasn't what was wrong. But something was. Did my feelings toward Otto have something to do with the fact that I'd been feeling especially insecure that day?

Min and I sighed at exactly the same time.

We looked at each other and laughed. It was one of those unexpected moments where you feel totally connected to the person next to you—sharing the exact same feeling in the exact same moment in time. Better still, you know it.

"Can I be totally honest?" I said.

"No," Min said. "Whatever gave you the idea you could be totally honest with me?"

I smiled. "I think I just feel like I'm in a bit of a rut. You know? I mean, I go to school and stare at screens and blackboards. I go home and stare at televisions and computer screens."

"And right now, Otto is nothing but a blip on one of those computer screens."

"Yes. No. Maybe. It's more than that. But yeah, with our relationship being an online one, I guess everything does seem a little predictable. There's no excitement. No adventure. How could there be? We're in completely different states!"

Now we'd finally gotten to the bottom of it: Min and I, the know-it-all and the insecure neurotic, were both feeling weirdness about our partners.

Over in one of the enclosures, a zebra shuffled its feet.

Relationships are tough, I thought. Who'd have thought that after all that drama with my ex, I'd miss it with Otto on any level? I guess it just goes to show that when it comes to relationships, you can never predict what's waiting for you up ahead. There are always dangers lurking, just out of sight. The whole experience was like being lost in a…

Oh, damn. I guess that whole jungle/wild animal thing is turning out to be a pretty good metaphor after all. Sorry about that! (Which isn't to say the "wild" animals were playing their parts. Would it have killed them to be a little less listless? For one of the lions to let out a terrifying roar behind us?)

At least I wasn't lost in the metaphorical jungle alone. I had Min, and she had me, and together we had our other best friend Gunnar. We'd forge our way through the metaphorical termite mounds together.

It was at that exact moment that Gunnar, in fact, finally reappeared. Hippopotamus ears sprouted from his tousled head—a headband of some sort, probably from the gift shop—but he had his face in his phone.

"Gunnar!" I said. I was always happy to see him—even after all these years as best friends, even after only being separated for fifteen minutes.

He looked up. "What's gnu?" he said.

"What?" I said.

"Gnu is another name for wildebeest," Min said.

I should explain (Gunnar always takes a little explaining). If Min is a know-it-all and I'm insecure, Gunnar is…different. Quirky. Take the hippopotamus ears. Was he being hipster-ironic? Geek-chic? Or just kind of clueless?

That's the thing with Gunnar: you never really know. That's also what's so great about him. It's not that he doesn't care what other people think of him—sometimes he
does
care, desperately. He just can't ever do anything about it. He is too different to even realize how different he is, if that makes any sense. It's something of a curse, but it's a good curse: it makes him one of the most interesting people I've ever met, and probably one of the most interesting people I ever
will
meet.

"Oh!" he said suddenly. "A pissing zebra!" With his phone, he immediately took a photo of the zebra and posted it to his online profile.

Okay, once again, I need to explain something Gunnar-related: a couple of weeks earlier, he had announced to both Min and me one day at lunch: "I've decided to chronicle my entire life, every waking second of every day, online for the whole world to see."

"How is that different from every other teenager?" Min had said.

"Mostly, it's a question of degree," Gunnar had said. "Plus, I'm doing the whole thing ironically." He'd been typing into his phone even as we'd talked.

BOOK: The Elephant of Surprise (The Russel Middlebrook Series Book 4)
3.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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