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"My Life As An Otter" - Chris L. Brock

     They say I haven’t been the same since the war.  But it wasn’t the war.  It was that damned otter costume.

     I do not say damned lightly.  I am convinced that as soon as I put one foot into that fuzzy, forsaken getup, there was no turning back from my plight.  I was doomed to a life of damnation.

     It was, originally, a noble plan.  The wife wanted a surprise for our two kids, Jason, 7, and Angela, 5, whom I had not seen in my 18-month deployment.  Instead of a quiet welcome home ceremony at the base followed by a quiet dinner and intimacies at home, she and some friends settled upon a plan involving the city zoo, TV cameras, a buffet, and a reception.

     Who was I to argue?  I took a lot of crap in Afghanistan, and I figured this first day back in the States in the otter costume would be the beginning of a normal life.  But I overestimated my hopes for normal.

     I couldn’t blame the wife.  She had lots of time on her hands even though she was raising our kids on her own.  She couldn’t avoid watching those warm-hearted videos on TV and on YouTube of returning soldiers surprising their kids in all sorts of situations.  I’ve also seen them.  Kids of returning soldiers being surprised at school, in church, and I even saw one video where a Ranger jumped out of an airplane and surprised his kids at a baseball stadium.  That was cool, and all-American, but still, I could do without such force-fed hullabaloo.

     But maybe these orchestrated performances of soldiers coming home and surprising their kids are a way for civilians to further detach themselves from the reality of war or to mask it; kind of like all those yellow ribbons I see around town, as if the ribbons were trying to patch up an entire community of guilty consciences – guilty for not feeling, or experiencing, any real wartime sacrifice.

     For that, I can’t blame them.  Who would want to think of such things?  But returning home shouldn’t be like a Disney Park attraction.  But as I said, to humor them, I reasoned one day in an otter costume would never hurt anybody – or so I thought.

     The wife, thus brainwashed, felt she was just doing the American thing when planning to put me in the costume.  She discovered that the city, unlike the school district, had no restrictions on public surprise reunions involving the military, so she contacted the city zoo, which was more than happy to help out.  The zoo had an otter costume that had been in storage since the 1980s, purchased in the year when the zoo hosted the ill-advised parade of animals through the city.  Several costumes were purchased, ranging from alligators to the damned otter.  It was some sort of fundraising event.  The parade kicked off a dark period of time that lasted several years in the city.   People dressed in the costumes and would appear unannounced at the people’s homes, mostly at night, looking for zoo donations.  The fundraiser abruptly ended when one volunteer, dressed as a monkey, frightened an old lady, who proved still to be pretty handy with her shotgun.  The pseudo monkey survived.  The costumes did not.  All were sold, except for the damned otter costume.

     My family did not attend the official welcome-home ceremony at the base on the day of my unit’s return.  The wife kept the children at home.  Instead, a few hours after we were officially given leave, I was whisked away to the zoo, where I was to surprise my family.

     I was led into a back room of the administration building, where the otter costume hung in the dark recesses of a storage closet.  It looked like a limp prisoner of war after a round of torture, and for a moment, I was happy to be freeing it.  But that quickly changed.

     My concerns began with each of the extremities of the costume.  Each entrance was covered by cobwebs, as if the spiders knew what evil lurked inside it and wanted to trap anything attempting to flee it.  Once those cobwebs were brushed aside, I unzipped the rusty main zipper in front of the costume.

     Out rushed a rotting smell that nearly dropped me.  Luckily, the zoo administrator was near my side.  He was armed with a can of Lysol, which quickly neutralized the smell but left my eyes burning.

     I stepped into the costume gingerly, waiting for any creepy crawlies to latch onto my skin.  Nothing of the sort happened.  But the thing was incredibly hot.  I couldn’t wait to get out.  Then the head of the beast came into view – being carried by the zoo administrator like some kind of trophy.

     “Here,” he said, with a near-sinister smile.  “Put it on.”

     As I said, I have seen stuff that I don’t want to talk about and which you wouldn’t want to hear.  But the sight of him holding the otter head was creepier than a lot of other stuff I’ve stumbled upon.  The head was a smiling thing with buck teeth and fur that looked like a mixture of pulled pork and octopus tentacles.  The eye slits were snake-like:  tiny and beady, as if challenging me.

     I put it on and was immediately surrounded by darkness.  I could hardly see.  The zoo administrator took my hand, which was now a paw, and led me out to greet my family.

     It was supposed to be a short walk.  I was to meet my family at the mountain lion exhibit.  But half-way there, the administrator’s phone rang.  A co-conspirator of the welcoming ceremony told him the family was on the move and had diverted from the original plan.  They were now at the bear exhibit.  It was a one-mile walk.

     But a few steps out of the administration building, I knew it was not going to be a smooth reunion.  The suit became hotter.  I began sweating like a pig and began itching.  Worst of all, I could feel little things that had become activated by my body heat start crawling around under the suit and digging under my clothes.  Then, whatever the things were started to bite.

     I pulled on the administrator’s hand and told him I had to stop.  But his grip was firm, and I was losing strength.  My otter legs started dragging.

     “Water!” I said.

     “We’re almost there,” he said.  “Imagine the surprise of your family.  Hang in there.  The TV crew is waiting to welcome home a hero!”

     I shook my legs, shrugged my shoulders, and shook my head back and forth wildly in hopes of shaking whatever was under the costume.  But this just seemed to dislodge them to other parts of my body.  And apparently, the sight of the administrator guiding a spastic, shaking otter was becoming a spectacle.  Other zoo visitors took notice.

     “Don’t worry, folks,” the administrator told worried patrons.  “It’s one of our mascot trainees.”

     By the time we reached the bear exhibit, I was near collapse, and I had my arm around the administrator’s shoulders.  But at the sound of the voices of my two kids and my wife, I suddenly gained strength.

     “Hi, folks,” the zoo administrator told the growing crowd.  He then bent down to Jason and Angela, who were strategically placed in the front of the mob with their mom.  “Would you like to meet a very special guest today?” he told my kids.  “I’m giving Otto the Otter a tour.  He’d like to meet you!”

     That was my cue.  I let go of the administrator and swayed just a bit.  I tried to focus out of the snake-eye holes.  My kids looked wide eyed and wonderful.  I just wanted to be a dad, not an otter.  But I was at the point of no return.

     “Hello,” I tried to say.  But I found my lips and mouth were numb.  Whatever was biting me must have injected enough insect venom or whatever into me to prevent me from talking, or at least forming intelligible words.  I could feel my mind going foggy.  Sweat poured down my back.

     “Hammpphh,” was all I could manage.

     “What did he say, Mommy?” my son asked.

     My wife must have thought I was trying to speak otter language or something because she offered no assistance.

     Instead of talking, I spread my arms in a universal hug gesture.

     “You’re a stranger,” my daughter said.  “Mommy said not to go near strangers.”

     “That’s right, dear,” my wife said.

     To this day I wonder:  did my wife betray me by not trying to explain the situation further?  Or did she think I was betraying her with this scary, oddball otter act?  But then again, spousal miscommunication had been the norm since deployment.

     The effects of the suit and being shunned were too heavy a burden to bear.  I collapsed to the ground, falling onto my hands and knees.

     I overheard a zoo visitor, not aware of the surprise reunion, say, “Is that guy drunk?”

     “Mommy, I want to go,” my daughter said.

     Sadly, I realized nobody was offering to help me.

     “I am a soldier!” I managed to scream through the otter costume head.

     Or at least that’s what I thought I said.

     “I think he said he has a shotgun,” a bystander said.

     This was too much.  I reached up and grabbed the otter head, tore it off, and tossed it.  It rolled down the sidewalk, its creepy face like a strobe as it rolled.  It came to rest at the entrance to the American eagle exhibit.

     My kids screamed and began running away.

     “Wait!” I said, finally gasping fresh air and gathering strength to get on my feet.  Thankfully, they stopped and looked behind them.  But what they saw wasn’t their dad.  It was a teary-eyed, sweating creature with a red, puffed-up face and lips.  The creature had a wild, desperate look and was wearing rumpled fur.  I would have also run from it.

     The zoo administrator, now sensing the seriousness of the situation and the PR disaster, called to my children:  “Hey, you two.  It’s your dad!  It’s a surprise!  He’s home!”

     But my kids stopped only once to look back before continuing their retreat.

     They studied me – with expressions that showed they understood the real me, and what I had become.