“If Only”
July 20, 2014

    “Hey, Marlene. Sorry I’m late,” Skipper said, sitting on the درخت branch اگلے to Marlene in the park. “I was giving the boys a job to keep them busy and I had to argue with Rico over park surveillance.”

    Marlene waved a dismissive paw. “It’s all right, Skipper, I understand,” she کہا half-heartedly without meeting his eye.

    Skipper’s expression filled with concern. “Marlene, what’s wrong?” he asked, trying to look into her eyes.

    Marlene drew in a breath. “Well,” she started distantly, “earlier today, this little girl came to my habitat with cotton candy in her hand. She held some out to me and as I ran to get some, Alice pulled her away and started blabbing about the animals being on strict diets and how she needed to learn how to read the signs. She was just — so rude!” she explained, looking crossly at the sky as if Alice was flying around up there on a broomstick.

    Skipper waited for her to continue, and when she didn’t, he cracked an amused smile. “That’s it? Alice does that all the time. You’ve never taken it this hard before.”

    “Well, it’s just that . . . this time I just . . .” Marlene sighed and closed her eyes. “You’re right. It’s stupid. I’m . . . sorry I bothered you.”

    Skipper pressed his beak shut and sighed. “You know آپ can tell me anything, right?” he کہا assuringly. “It’s no bother, really.”

    Marlene opened her hesitant eyes and took a deep breath. “The truth? I don’t really understand why I suddenly feel this way after all this time, but I just wished I could’ve told Alice off یا something. She has no . . . subtlety. Even with children. Someone needs to tell her how it is, and I’d like for it to be me,” she explained.

    Skipper refrained from an amused laugh. “Marlene, the whole zoo feels that way. Why are آپ letting it bother آپ now?” he asked.

    “Well, not saying that it doesn’t bother me, but that’s not really what I’m upset about,” Marlene continued, still refusing eye contact.

    “Okay,” Skipper replied, his curiosity growing, “then what is it?”

    Marlene suddenly shifted from uneasiness to guilt, much to Skipper’s concern. “Well, I sort of . . . started thinking about a lot of things I can’t do because I’m an otter. How I have to sneak to the cotton candy stand and hope no one sees me and tells me to ‘go away, آپ stupid, filthy animal!’” The anger rose in her voice. “You know one time I was called disease-ridden? And then children want to pick آپ up without your consent! Sometimes I just wonder — I just wonder how things would be different —”

    Marlene looked at Skipper in a way that was meant to be a hesitant glance, but she caught his understanding eyes and held contact as he finished for her.

    “— if . . . آپ were human?”

    Marlene exhaled and looked down into her paws. “Yeah. If I was human,” she repeated softly.

    Skipper thought for a moment and smiled. “Well, for starters, آپ would have never befriended someone as awesome as me,” he teased.

    Marlene laughed. “Thanks for the help, Skipper,” she replied sarcastically.

    Skipper chuckled and nudged her. “Anytime, dollface,” he replied. “All joking aside, I don’t really know what to say, Marlene. I always thought آپ enjoyed your life as an otter.”

    “No! I do, I really wouldn’t give my life as an وٹر, اوٹار for anything,” she amended. “I guess what I do want is . . . a day. Just to get a taste of what it’d be like. Is that weird?”

    Skipper shook his head. “I don’t think so. To be honest, I’ve had my own thoughts on the matter.” He leaned in closer to her. “Between آپ and me, I imagine being a total Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome as a human,” he کہا with a wink.

Marlene reacted with a laugh and a roll of her eyes. “And what does that make me?” she asked, turning back to him.

    Skipper thought for a moment. “Ms. Brown-Eyes,” he answered softly.

    After a moment of awkward silence passed between them, Marlene broke eye contact.

    “Well,” she کہا with a sigh, “I guess we’ll never know.”

    Skipper looked up in thought. “I don’t know, Marlene. Never say never,” he said, going deep in concentration.

    Marlene looked at him curiously. “What are آپ thinking, ‘Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome’?”

    Skipper smiled. “You’ll see.”

    Two weeks later, after agonizing curiosity when the team swore to secrecy, Marlene got her answer. Skipper led her into the HQ with a blindfold over her eyes.

    “Skipper! C’mon! What’s this about? آپ know I hate not being able to see!” Marlene urged as Skipper directed her to a stop سے طرف کی bracing one flipper around her shoulders and tightening his grip on her paw with the other.

    “All right, stay still and you’ll see,” he said, preparing to remove the blindfold. “On three: five — four — three!”

    Marlene blinked a few times as her eyes adjusted and found herself in Kowalski’s lab, with Kowalski, Rico, and Private standing in a horizontal line in front of her without any space between them, all smiling suspiciously.

    “What’s going on?” Marlene asked, turning to Skipper.

    Skipper nodded toward Kowalski and Marlene turned back to him.

    “Marlene, I present to you, Mirrality!” Kowalski announced as they all parted to reveal a small device attached to a set of helmets and a small screen.

    “The — what?” Marlene asked in confusion.

    “The Mirrality! It’s a machine that will pull آپ into a virtual world that’s a mirror of reality, only آپ can choose to be whatever آپ want to be,” Kowalski explained.

    “Even a human,” Skipper added with a smile. Marlene caught his eye in shock and reminiscence of their conversation in the park.

    “Is it — safe?” she asked no one in particular.

    “Of course!” Kowalski assured. “We tested it ourselves this morning! It works flawlessly!”

    “I was a unicorn!” Private exclaimed with a smile. Kowalski and Rico rolled their eyes.

    Marlene looked at the device and hesitated. “How does it work?”

    Kowalski picked up one of the helmets. “You put one of these on and I’ll ask آپ a series of questions: What species do آپ want to be? Where in the world do آپ want to be? What would آپ like the weather to be like? After I input the information, I hit this green button,” he said, pointing at one of the buttons on the small device. “I found this little PlayNation Portable in the Lost and Found. Nifty idea, hm?”

    Marlene opened her mouth to respond, but instead ended up nodding. Skipper noticed the uncertainty falling over her expression and turned to the others.

    “Boys, why don’t آپ give us a minute?” he requested. “Is everything all right, Marlene?” he asked once the team had shut the door behind them.

    “I’m fine, I’m just . . . surprised,” she said, laughing incredulously.

Skipper smiled. “Well, that was the idea,” he said. “Then what’s the matter?”

    “To be honest, I’m — scared. When I told آپ about my thoughts on being human, I didn’t think I’d actually get the chance. Now that I do, I just — don’t know what to expect. What did آپ think?” she asked, turning toward him.

    “Well,” Skipper sighed, “I don’t know. I was waiting to try it with you.”

    Marlene smiled warmly. “Aw, آپ didn’t have to do that,” she said, although she was grateful that he did. She wouldn’t be going into this alone.

    Skipper shrugged a shoulder. “I know. But between آپ and me,” he lowered his voice, “I’m a little scared myself.”

    Marlene fake-gasped. “Skipper admitting he’s scared? Yep, the universe will implode tomorrow,” she teased.

    Skipper smiled. “Are آپ ready یا not?”

    Marlene thought for a moment and smiled. “Let’s do it.”

    After making themselves comfortable in the chairs, putting on the helmets, and answering the start-up questions, Kowalski prepared to send them into the virtual world.

    “All right. To come back out, just close your eyes and say the word ‘escape’ three times over,” he informed them. “Ready?”

    When they nodded and relaxed, Kowalski hit the button.

    Marlene’s world turned black, and a moment later, a cool breeze skipped past her cheeks and a warm sun danced on her skin. When she opened her eyes, she was standing in Central park on a sunny, Spring evening. Hesitantly, she looked down and found not her body, but the body of a slender woman wearing a black, spaghetti-strap tank top, jeans, and flip-flops that revealed her tender, pinkish toes. She held up her paws to find hands in their place — hands with small, thin fingers with pinkish tips like her toes.

    She brought them to her face and felt slender cheekbones, and a small, pointed nose wrapped in smooth skin, and round, petite little ears . . . with earlobes!

    “What do آپ think so far?”

    She turned at the sound of Skipper’s voice to find a tall, well-built man with squared shoulders and a chiseled jaw wearing a form-fitting white tee with camo-print سلیکس and — of course, how could she not have guessed? — combat boots. His hair was black and close-cropped, revealing perfectly sized round ears and ocean-blue eyes.

    Marlene let a laugh escape her throat. “I . . . I . . .” She found herself unable to find the right words. Skipper laughed.

    “I know,” he said. “Kowalski really outdid himself.”

    “This is just — amazing!” Marlene laughed.

    Skipper smiled. “If آپ think that’s cool, check this out,” he said, holding out his hand and closing his eyes, going deep in concentration. A moment later, a hand mirror materialized in his hand out of nowhere. He opened his eyes and held it to her face. Marlene admired the fair-haired woman staring back at her with refined features, curled lashes, and hazelnut eyes.

    “Wow . . . I’m . . . I look so . . .” She became speechless.

    “Beautiful?” Skipper suggested.

    Marlene looked at him past the mirror with a lopsided smile. “I was going to say ‘real,’” she corrected.

    Skipper lowered the mirror awkwardly. “Right . . . I knew that.” He cleared his throat. “Why don’t آپ try? Just hold out your hand and imagine something there, and it’ll appear.”

    Marlene nodded and held out her hand. When she decided what she wanted and concentrated, Skipper smiled warmly upon the appearance of a Monarch تیتلی appearing on her palm. When she opened her eyes, the تیتلی fluttered from her palm and landed on Skipper’s nose. Skipper stared at it for a moment with an eyebrow cocked, and then he shook his head to make it fly away. Marlene giggled and Skipper rolled his eyes playfully.

    “Want to go imagine Alice falling into a water trough?” he suggested with a mischievous grin.

    Marlene returned the smile. “If only I could do that in real life just سے طرف کی imagining it,” she replied.

    Skipper offered his arm. “Next on my to-do list,” he affirmed.

    Marlene laughed and looped her arm through his. “You’re a mess,” she کہا as they started toward the virtual zoo.

    Skipper put his opposite hand on the hand Marlene had latched to his arm. “Dollface, آپ have no idea.”