Cynthia squeezed the tube of the moisturizing agent—that's what it said on the front—so that two colorless drops came out on the tip of her index finger. The drops always appeared in twos. The tube must have been designed to produce that outcome.
The drops were separated by a space that could have been filled with a third drop and looked like what would have been bottomless eyes on Cynthia's finger if her skin hadn't been there at the back. She had learned that the drops contained more moisture than their size suggested. They could make a pickle slick all by themselves, once they were applied to a surface. Cynthia knew how far a little went.
Sometimes she wanted to knock on her mother's head, to hear another sound in the room beyond their breathing.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are," she'd say, then snicker, which was how she laughed when she was nervous.
The knock would probably be like wrapping on a pumpkin. Pumpkins had a knack for sounding hollow but not so hollow that you didn’t believe there was something in there, even if you hadn’t seen the contents before.
Her mother had taken her to the zoo once, a trip that was a long time coming. Zoos were not very serious. Cynthia had had to sell her mother on their educational value. She tried for a long time. It was probably all of fourth grade.
Her father would take her to any zoo she asked him to, when she stayed with him, but that wasn't the point. She wanted to go with her mother. Go somewhere with her mother. Going to a café—what her mother called "a quiet restaurant”—to read their books and not talk didn't count.
But finally she made whatever the clinching argument was—it could have been her school paper on the kinds of frogs that can live in terrariums and be happy, and the kind of frogs that need to be in the wild or else they’ll die.
The teacher hadn’t expected any of the kids to do research, but Cynthia had wanted to. And she also really wanted her mom to take her to the zoo.
And then it happened, whether it was because of the paper or not. The teacher had even written a note next to the grade, which was the best anyone could get: there were three pluses next to the A.
“I honestly didn’t know this!” the teacher said, like she was grateful that now she did, because she probably wouldn’t have found out from anyone else but Cynthia. Her mom must have picked up on the significance of terrariums, because they did go to the zoo and the hippos there even made Cynthia’s mom laugh.
Usually she'd just say, "And tell me why I should care?" when Cynthia had something to share and was excited because she wanted her mother to be excited. Or if not excited, at least interested. Often it was, "And tell me why I should care, Cyn?"
That was the only time she shortened Cynthia's name, which felt familiar and caring, but also like she'd done something wrong.
"I just want to know what you think the reason is," Cynthia's mom continued.
It was as if she preferred that Cynthia make some kind of a case to earn someone else’s interest and was helping her practice for how life really was, but there wasn't one to be made. Not in that regard. Cynthia just wanted to share.
But when the keeper at the zoo fed the biggest hippo of all—she was a girl hippo, Cynthia just knew it—a pumpkin, Cynthia's mom had this huge smile that looked like it was just waiting for a chance to become something brighter and bigger.
The zookeeper was pretty, but she wore overalls and looked dusty, like she’d do anything—roll around outside—if she thought it was fun. Wasn’t nobody going to stop her. She was proud and smart. Cynthia could feel her chest blaze with admiration. She’d love to be that way herself.
“Someday,” she thought, hoping the zoo would still be there so she could try and get a job being a zookeeper.
The hippo balanced her two front legs on the slope of her pool as if she was trying to get out of the water, but wouldn't get out all of the way, because she didn't want to scare her trainer who had that delicious pumpkin on a big snow shovel.
It was near Halloween, and Cynthia had so many questions. Why didn't humans eat pumpkins? They were a fruit, right? And that hippo looked so happy. Pumpkins couldn't have just been delicious for hippos. And was this the only hippo that ate pumpkins? Did she get pumpkins year round or just when she'd behaved really well or only at Halloween? Did that make Halloween like Christmas for the hippo? For hippos in general?
The pumpkin didn’t have its stem. Someone had cut it off. Cynthia thought how even though she didn’t know that person, they must have been nice.
She was grateful they had cared like they did, because you wouldn’t want your throat to get scratched by the stem of a pumpkin, even if you were a hippo.
They probably had hard throats, but still, a throat was a throat. Cynthia could feel a lump in hers as she looked down into the pool. It was all so exciting—but that was only a part of it.