by Fraidy Cat
Disclaimer: If I owned Don and Charlie, they would still be working.
Charlie stood at the Edge of Africa and calculated the distance to Nairobi.
It was hot, but the weather did not account for the beads of sweat gathering on his forehead, or for the perspiration trailing a silent line down his spine. It was the sweat of apprehension, the perspiration of angst. His eyes flicked quickly to the left, and then to the right. He looked for danger, and wondered again how he's gotten himself into this mess.
It had seemed both a safe and wise decision: a family vacation. When Amita and Charlie had returned from six months at Cambridge, she was freshly pregnant. Don and Robin had snuck off to Vegas for a quickie wedding during their absence, and Alan was decidedly unhappy. He was living in the remodeled garage, now his "man cave", but every time Charlie went out there, he saw brochures for condos lying around. Alan had looked forward to his sons marrying for so many years; he was disappointed that neither of them had the large, extravagant affair that he had imagined. He had perked up a little at the news of Amita's pregnancy, but so far, her gestation had been easy. She suffered no morning sickness, her energy level had remained high, and there had been no need to alter her schedule. Alan had become convinced that no one particularly needed or wanted him. He settled into a funk the likes of which he had not allowed himself since the months directly after Margaret's death.
Don and Charlie knew something had to be done. When Charlie was invited to participate in a symposium discussing an algorithmic approach to linear orderings at the University of South Florida in early September, a plan began to form. Cal Sci had not started its year yet, so Amita was free to go along; she planned to spend some serious time studying USF's advanced electronic systems for astronomy. Don and Robin had only had a long weekend in Vegas for a honeymoon, so they were willing to complete the difficult task of coordinating their schedules so that they could take ten consecutive days off at the same time. Charlie had shamelessly played The Grandfather Card to talk Alan into going with them. "I know Amita's feeling good right now," he had whispered to Alan in the kitchen, "but I worry. She's still in her first trimester, and that's supposed to be a delicate time, isn't it? She could wake up exhausted tomorrow, for all we know." Even though the ruse was well-known to Amita, Charlie glanced at the kitchen door fearfully, as if he expected her to enter at any moment. His whisper grew more frantic. "She wants to go, while she can still travel...but I don't want to leave her alone all the time I'm at the symposium." He ran a hand through his curls. "She'll work too hard! She'll overdo! Please, Dad, please come with us and help me keep an eye on Amita!" Alan had leapt at the bait like a hungry bass, and September 1st found the Family Eppes cramming aboard a 757, thanking God for mileage upgrades, and winging their way toward Florida.
It came as a shock to everyone (except Alan) when Amita actually did wake up exhausted their second day in Tampa. While Charlie enthralled students and faculty alike with his elegant math, Don and Robin drove a rented car to Siesta Key beach in Sarasota, Amita slept until almost noon - and Alan lounged in the hotel lobby and tried to teach himself how to knit. Amita began to feel better after a few days, but she was still given to mid-afternoon naps and early evenings. Robin, regardless of her L.A. tan, somehow managed to come back from Siesta Key with an extremely painful sunburn. Now it was Labor Day, and Alan's usual sunny disposition was back. He was in full "I'm needed" mode, happily supplying one daughter-in-law with aloe and another with fruit-and-yogurt smoothies, chamomile tea and whatever else he could think of. USF was shut down for the holiday, and Don and Charlie were encouraged to spend some time together. Bonding. As brothers.
Charlie swallowed nervously, squinted up at the sun, and wished again that they had gone golfing. They almost had; Don loved to golf, but he knew that Charlie didn't share his enthusiasm. Even though Charlie had been willing to go along, Don had tried to politely decline. Eventually, as Charlie insisted, Don became less polite; he pointed out that Charlie was a terrible golfer, and spending the day on the links with him would be more of a punishment to Don than a vacation.
That's when things started to go sour.
They were standing in the hotel lobby at the time, in front of a tourist display of attraction brochures. Offended, Charlie had blindly grabbed one. "Fine," he huffed. "Let's go here." He thrust the glossy brochure at Don.
Don glanced down at the advertisement, grinned slowly and raised his twinkling eyes to look at his brother. "Seriously?" There was an undercurrent of hope in his voice.
Charlie wondered what he had done. His own voice quivered a little when he answered. "Um...yeah?"
Don's smile grew wider. "The last time I took you on a roller coaster, you almost had a nervous breakdown. You cried — and you were 14 years old. In college, already!"
Charlie paled and tried to snatch back the brochure. "What? Where? When? What?"
Don laughed and let Charlie have the brochure. "You remember. Dad and I were helping you and Mom settle in for your sophomore year at Princeton, and there was some kind of county fair, or carnival, or something...anyway, there was a roller coaster. Little tiny thing, but you still cried like a baby." He barked another laugh.
Charlie shook the brochure at him. "THERE ARE ANIMALS!" he practically shouted. "It says here we can take an off-road truck tour, and, and..." He glanced at the brochure again. "We can feed giraffes," he finished lamely, trying not to think about how much taller than him a giraffe was.
Don nodded, still grinning. "Cool. I've heard a lot about Busch Gardens. We'll find a lot to do." He winked. "Lots of coasters to choose from."
Charlie glanced at the brochure display. "We could go somewhere else," he started, but Don put an arm around his shoulders and started steering him toward the hotel's parking garage.
"Nah, Busch is good," he said. He felt the tension in Charlie's shoulders and tossed his brother a bone. "Tell you what," he offered. "We'll off-road for a while, then we'll split up. If you can avoid me for two...no, three...hours, I'll go on the coaster without you."
Charlie stopped walking, and looked suspiciously up at Don. "What's the catch?"
Don shrugged. "I just know you can't do it," he teased. "I know the way you think, Buddy - and trust me, that scares me a little. I'm a cop, and I'm your brother. There's no way you can ditch me. When I find you, you have to go on at least one roller coaster ride with me. I want to see you cry."
Charlie tossed his curls and started for the garage again, pulling away from his brother's grasp. "You will so regret this," he promised.
"One of us will," he heard behind him.
The conversation had taken place almost four hours earlier. Don had thoroughly enjoyed the Serengeti Safari open-truck tour, cramming huge lettuce leaves into antelope, giraffes, and the occasional zebra. Charlie had huddled in a corner of the truck bed and watched. He had also begun studying the park map, and plotting his route. He was a freakin' genius; how hard could it be to avoid Don for three hours? After the safari, the brothers had ridden the Serengeti Railway through the greater part of the park. At one point, near Stanley Falls, they had viewed SheiKra, a coaster that climbed 200 feet, included a 90 degree drop, and traveled at speeds exceeding 70 miles per hour. Don had smiled widely and winked at Charlie. Charlie had almost started crying then, and again frantically consulted the park map.
After some smoked beef brisket at the Zambia Smokehouse (a restaurant Charlie was sure Don chose because of its view of SheiKra), the brothers strolled to the Edge of Africa, synchronized their watches, and shook hands solemnly. "I'll go into that restroom over there for five minutes," Don said. "I won't see which way you go." He grinned. "Not that it will matter." Charlie simply grunted. When Don was out of sight, Charlie sprinted all the way to Timbuktu, where he nervously endured the first 15 minutes of a 45-minute production that had something to do with the Sesame Street Film Festival. The deal he had made with Don prohibited Charlie from finding a restroom and hiding, but Don had agreed that the theme park's shows were fair territory - if Charlie wanted to risk staying in one place for that long. It was Charlie's plan to keep moving, but Timbuktu's 4-D Theater was filled with screaming children and crying babies: it was the last place Don would ever look for him.
After looking carefully for any sign of his brother, Charlie implemented the rest of his plan. He headed up the hill, through Jungala, toward the Congo River Rapids. He walked rapidly, but refused to draw attention to himself by running. He tried to attach himself to groups: couples, families, busloads of retirees. Finally he arrived at the Congo River Outfitters gift shop, and smiled grimly. Charlie was about to disappear.
He purchased a towel, a t-shirt, board shorts, sunglasses, flip-flops, and a baseball cap. It was hard to believe Don hadn't thought to make "no disguises" one of the rules, but Charlie sure wasn't going to volunteer the idea. When he finished at the gift shop, he crossed the short distance to the Congo River Rapids ride and rented a day locker for fifty cents, placing the bag of freshly-purchased items inside. Then he joined the blessedly short line waiting to ride the rafts. A recorded voice in an endless loop warned him repeatedly that he would get wet (and possibly soaked). Finally, Charlie stepped out of the line, returned to his locker, and slipped his wallet and watch inside with the gift shop bag. Then he rejoined the line.
The ride was short; full of hard stops and numerous opportunities for cooling off. In spite of his best efforts, Charlie found himself enjoying fulfilling the Prophecy Of The Voice. He was soaked less than twenty seconds into the ride, courtesy of the deadly aim of the strangers on the road above, who were putting quarters into water cannons and shooting at the rafts as they passed. Splashing and dipping through a set of rapids left Charlie with underwear full of water, and he knew he'd be flying commando during the rest of the day. The circular raft took a brief turn through a cave; as it emerged out the other end, approximately 100 gallons of waterfall fell directly on Charlie's curly head. When he climbed out of the raft at the end of the trip, Charlie felt as if he had put his jeans on directly from the washing machine. He retrieved the items from his locker, and found a nearby bathroom. He used the towel to dry off, changed into his new clothes, and dropped his soaked tennis shoes, jeans, and everything else he had been wearing, into the plastic bag. Charlie checked his watch as he slipped it back onto his wrist: almost an hour had passed since he and Don separated. Only two more to go.
He corralled most of his wet hair under the baseball cap, and was out of the bathroom less than ten minutes after he squelched his way in. His next stop took him back to the Edge of Africa in the Serengeti Plain. Don knew that Charlie had already had a big lunch, so Charlie reasoned that his brother would not look for him in restaurants. He went to the magnificent Crown Colony, the park's only traditional sit-down-and-order choice. He ordered a fruit plate and stayed as long as he dared. When he had finished eating, Charlie went to the nearby boarding station for the off-road open-truck and purchased another Serengeti Safari. Not only would Don remember how reluctantly Charlie had endured his first safari that morning, the tour would take him deep into the animal habitat, and away from the theme park crowds. It was a perfect way to use up twenty-five more minutes. It was unfortunate that this tour guide was much more insistent than the first, and Charlie ended up touching a giraffe tongue. Unfortunate - but still better than a roller coaster.
After the safari ended and the truck had unloaded its passengers, Charlie wound his way past King Tut's tomb, the Moroccan Palace, the Marrakesh Theater, the Garden Theater and Aviary, and onto Walkabout Way. He exchanged unblinking stares with several kangaroos and two wallabies before his watch alarm sounded. With only twenty minutes left until he could claim his victory, Charlie headed for the absolute last place Don would look for him.
It took Don exactly twenty-two minutes to reach the theater in Timbuktu. Naturally, Charlie would assume that Don would never look for him around a bunch of screaming children and squalling babies. Don arrived just in time to see Charlie - who was much taller than most of his fellow park patrons, here in the Sesame Street Safari of Fun, and therefore, easy to spot - sneaking out of the show early. Don backed quickly into the shade of one of the ever-present gift shops, and shook his head fondly. For a genius, his brother was such as idiot. He glanced at his watch: found him in twenty-two minutes, in the first place he looked. Idiot genius.
Don slipped into stake-out mode and began to follow his prey, always hanging back far enough so that he wouldn't be spotted. When Charlie bought his disguise at Congo River Outfitters, Don was a little impressed. He himself was wearing a hastily purchased baseball cap and a t-shirt with a large tiger silkscreened on the front; he had gone directly from his restroom hiding place to the nearest gift shop (which is why it took him all of twenty-two minutes to find the Idiot Genius); he was a little surprised that Charlie thought of doing the same thing. When Charlie actually got in line for the raft ride, Don glanced back at the coin-operated water cannons and grinned. He loitered near the three-dollar drying station at the end of the ride until Charlie had joined the line for the second time, and was approaching the boarding location. Then Don withdrew all the quarters he could find in the pockets of his jeans, and claimed his water cannon.
It was like shooting fish in a barrel - or Idiot Geniuses in a raft. His first shot hit Charlie dead-center in the back. Charlie ducked forward toward the center grip bar, but didn't look up to see who had fired the kill shot. For good measure, and because he could, Don fired another shot over his brother's head, practically into the open mouth of the screaming girl sitting on the other side of the raft. Then he hung around and fired a few rounds at the next raft. He was having so much fun he almost missed it when Charlie squelched within two feet of him on his way to change in the bathroom; Don almost turned right into him, but he caught a glimpse of soggy curls and hugged his water cannon instead. Charlie just kept walking.
Idiot. No other word for it.
Don was a little stunned when Charlie emerged from the bathroom. Neither he nor his brother were given to wearing shorts...and was he flopping around commando? Then Charlie, who had just eaten half a cow less than an hour before, went to the Crown Colony and ate some more. At least Don assumed Charlie had to order something in there; he was busy outside circling the huge restaurant, trying to watch all the exits. What he wouldn't give for a few extra agents right about now. As it was, the Idiot Genius almost lost him. Don came around a corner of the restaurant just in time to see Charlie disappear into the crowd. Don quickened his step and frowned.
Oh, no, you don't, Whiz Kid.
Great; how he was channeling Granger.
Don was actually a little relieved when Charlie signed up for another safari. He knew how long they lasted, so he could find a bench and rest for a few minutes. While he sat, he allowed himself a begrudging admiration of his brother. If Don hadn't already been tailing him, he never would have checked out the safari; Charlie hadn't seemed all that keen on the one they took together earlier that day.
When Charlie reappeared twenty-five minutes later - looking disgusted and wiping one hand repeatedly on his new board shorts - he led his older brother on quite a merry chase. Don was panting by the time Charlie reached the walkabout. Funny…he didn't remember Charlie walking so fast. Maybe he was still trying to air-dry his commando parts. It was a little tricky avoiding detection once they got into the aviary and the kangaroo habitat; this was a lightly populated area of the park. Twice Don had to duck into a gift shop or behind a huge jet ski that was being raffled, and once he had to dive off the paved street onto a dirt path marked for "trainers only". He waited to be attacked by a tiger or a white rhino.
Finally, Charlie was out of the kangaroo habitat and on the move again. A quick glance at his watch told Don that the three hours were almost up. He was grateful; his younger and skinnier brother was about to walk him into an early grave. Charlie kept moving as he studied his map, and Don wondered where they were going. They passed through the Sesame Street Safari of Fun again, and moved on to Lory Landing. Don saw what lurked ahead, and smiled.
He wasn't planning on really riding, but you couldn't even stand in line holding a bag - so Charlie rented another day locker, stored his wet clothes, and walked as slowly as he could toward the end of the line.
The line was not nearly long enough; but Don would never look for him here. Never; it was a necessary evil. If Charlie started to approach the front of the line, he would just step out and go back to the rear. Let people assume he was scared shitless. They would be right. He glanced nervously at his watch, and allowed himself a tiny smile. Thirteen minutes, and it would all be over.
The roar of machinery sometimes overpowered the screeches of the patrons; the combination of the tumultuous, constant, noise and the anticipatory churning of his gut was giving Charlie a headache. He moved forward another few inches, thought longingly of his loving and lovely bride, and couldn't wait for this frozen moment in time to be over.
Don almost hated to do it.
Charlie was so thoroughly miserable already. He had stopped moving with stealth, stopped constantly checking out the landscape around him, trying to avoid Don. Part of that was probably because he didn't expect his brother to look here; again, the Idiot Genius at work. If Don hadn't been tailing him since Minute Twenty-Two, his back-up plan had been to come here and just wait for Charlie to show up. Of course he would think he was safe here - so of course, he was not. Idiot.
Charlie checked his watch again and Don offered a five-dollar-bill to the teenager in front of him. The kid was part of a larger group, so in the end, it cost Don twenty dollars to cut in front of them in line. He marveled as he stood directly behind Charlie, undetected. When there were only four people ahead of Charlie, the professor made a lateral move, obviously intending to go to the back of the line. Don clamped an iron hand onto Charlie's shoulder and leaned forward to speak directly into his brother's ear. "Hold up, Buddy. We're almost there."
He felt Charlie wither beneath him. His brother's eyes were impossibly large when he swiveled his head to regard Don. "Please, officer," he begged. "I'll do anything."
Don didn't loosen his hold. "I've been behind you since Minute Twenty-Two," he shouted above the noise. "I was the one who shot you at Congo. This was so not even close." He grinned and waggled a lifted brow. "Although going commando was a nice touch."
Charlie seemed to redden and pale at the same time. "Dear God" was all he said before the ride attendant was reaching for him.
"You two want to ride together?" he asked. "I only got room for one on this car."
"We'll wait for the next one," answered Don, still holding onto Charlie. "We're riding SheiKra together."
They were on the track for just three minutes.
Charlie made it past the first four-second braking, at a height of 200 feet. He even made it through the first 90-degree drop, at 70 miles per hour. By the time they were upside down in the Immelman loop, his eyes were closed. He was pretty sure his left kidney ruptured during the second 90-degree, 138-foot drop through an underground tunnel. After a 360-degree climbing carousel, SheiKra splashed to a halt in a water feature, and Charlie lost his second set of clothes that day. The brothers disembarked - Charlie requiring significant assistance from the ride attendant - and his eyes were luminous and shining when Don turned to look at him.
He would have felt guilty - if he had been a different person. Instead, Don grinned cockily. "When did you start crying?" he asked. "Was it that first drop, or did you hold out until the tunnel?"
Charlie staggered a little as they made their way toward the gate. "Don!" His voice was excited, not at all the tear-clogged rendition Don was expecting.
He pushed through a turnstile and waited for Charlie to join him on the other side. "Yeah?"
Charlie beamed at him for a moment, then abruptly turned toward the line of passengers waiting to board the coaster. "That was fun," he enthused, grabbing a fistful of Don's t-shirt. "Let's go again!"
Don's mouth gaped open and he stumbled after Charlie. Another 138-foot drop at 70 miles per hour?
He felt his eyes begin to water. "The park's closing," he protested weakly.
Charlie glanced at his watch. "We've got almost two hours," he answered. "Maybe we have time to do it twice."
Don felt the brisket in his stomach lurch and considered his options. He could go quietly, or he could cry. Nothing short of crying would end this hell.
He smiled, clapped Charlie on the back, and gamely took his place in line. He probably had just enough time to eat a little crow.
This was written as a tribute to the day I spent recently touring Busch Gardens in the company of Serialgal. She didn't get me on SheiKra, but we did wash my clothes in the Congo and I survived one of the smaller roller coasters. For the record, I'm ready to do it again!