The palm trees now grew in three neat rows, evenly spaced along a boulevard of shops. Across the boulevard was a Starfish coffee shop, closed at this late hour.
Fluffikins caught up to Florence, who stood between a metro supermarket and a Lycra For Every Body clothing store. The window display featured mannequins of a well-dressed zebra, flamingo and lizard.
Each store was dimly lit, providing reassurance in this sudden dark of night.
The boulevard was deserted. At least if Florence started yelling at Fluffikins he would not be bothered by a staring crowd. He lingered behind, waiting for her to speak. Faced with new scenery, Florence had calmed down a bit.
“I don’t know about you,” she said, tracing a circle with her toe on the paving stones, “but I need to explore Slipper Island. You can dog paddle back to the leash if you want and claw your way back into the entrance hall.”
Fluffikins thought better of saying it out loud, but Florence was not exactly a strong swimmer herself. Sure, she could dog-paddle a few lengths of an indoor swimming pool, but only by stopping for a huff and a puff, clinging onto the safety string.
Florence looked down the boulevard, first left, then right. She wondered which direction to explore first. She was attracted to a box of sticks. Florence loves sticks. She trotted closer and read the sign.
“Ooh, I’ve always wanted a pogo stick,” Florence said, forgetting her bad mood for a moment.
Florence had put ‘pogo stick’ on her Christmas wish list for three years in a row, but never got a single one. She’d also asked for:
- A grey and pink heli-chopper (life-size and fully functional)
- An underground labyrinth with treasure at the centre, guarded by a dragon
- A backyard swing set with a slide and a jumpoline
- A genie in a lamp (for continued unlimited wishes).
That’s how you end up with nappy-pants and socks.
But here was her pogo stick, at last! A whole box full of different pogos — tall ones, short ones, ‘mild’ ones with small boingers, ‘super bouncy’ sticks with big boingers. Florence being Florence, she grabbed the bounciest of the lot.
“Look at me!” she wanted to say, because jumping high is always more fun with an audience, but since Fluffikins was on the No-Speak list she bounced off down the boulevard. She teetered left, then right, then committed to the left.
Fluffikins whimpered. He had never seen a pogo stick, never dreamt of a pogo stick, never had ‘expedition via pogo stick’ in his life plans. But he’d have to go after Florence.
He picked the mildest-looking stick from the box and tested it with one foot. This did not look like a sensible mode of transport. But there was no time for thinkings and musings. His beloved Florence was boinging away into the darkness. Soon he would lose her scent.
He grabbed a pogo at random and grasped each handle with his paw-hands. These grips weren’t made for dog-people. Next he wondered briefly whether to push off with his left or his right leg. So many decisions, so little time!
There comes a moment after a heavy fall when you know it’s going to hurt. But it doesn’t hurt yet. You wait. You dare not take a breath. And then the pain comes, all at once, like a stabby cat on a rampage.
“Yowwww!” Fluffikins shrieked.
He wasn’t asking for attention. He wasn’t asking for Florence to come back. This howling came from somewhere deep inside, without his permission.
Bounding like a unicycle-kangaroo down the boulevard, Florence heard a distant and familiar voice. Florence knows the difference between all the howls. This one made her cringe.
This was The Shriek Howl.
Florence threw down the pogo-stick and sprinted on all fours back to Fluffikins, lying on the concrete, doubled up and rocking.
“Are you all right, Fluffikins?” she asked. “Talk to me, Fluffikins! Count to eight! Tell me your name!”
Fluffikins managed a little nod, though he was clutching his leg. He was even crying a little.
“Where does it hurt? Where? I’ll rub it for you.”
Fluffikins pointed, first to his knees, then to his pink elbows, then to the top of his head.
Florence gave his knees and elbows a rub. She patted his head.
Fluffikins pointed to that good spot under his chin. Florence rubbed there, too. Then he sniffled some more and pointed to that extra-good spot above his hip: The spot dogs can’t reach on their own.
Fluffy pulled back his coat so Florence could scritch there, too.
“Pretty sure you could scritch your own self, Fluffy. You got human arms that reach!”
One fluffy leg started cycling in the air.
“Wait a minute!” said Florence. “Is your body hurt or are your feelings hurt?”
“Both,” said Fluffikins, after some thought. “Both can be injured at once, you know.”
Fluffikins looked so hurt that Florence wished she hadn’t floated the idea out loud. For a moment there she thought she had lost him. For that moment she was overwhelmed with all the doggy love in the world.
She forgot that his good behaviour had shown her up at home.
She forgot how he would eat his dinner so slowly that he’d still be munching long after Florence had finished, making her wish she’d savoured her own helping.
She forgave his dish-half-empty outlook on life — how he believed the world was full of dog traps and stabby cats.
She forgot how he had yelped stupidly when Mister Teacher fell against him in the backpack, blowing their cover.
She forgave him for saying, “A foul wind doth blow!” whenever he farted, covering one eye as if he were some kind of pirate, yet never actually agreeing to go with her for an adventure at sea.
Until now, she supposed.
For that brief moment, scritching him in the deserted boulevard, Florence actually liked how he never yelled at her, ever, even when she craved a yelling match.
“I wanna go home,” Fluffikins whimpered. “To your house.”
“Can’t we just stay on Slipper Island for a holiday?” said Florence. “I don’t mean forever. I just really need a break from The Real World and — who knows — you might like it too, if you could relax and let yourself enjoy it.”
“We might be marooned here forever,” said Fluffikins. “Since our slipper got sucked into the ground.”
“Don’t fret,” said Florence, brushing Fluffy down. “The place is called ‘Slipper Island’, for dog sakes. Surely we’ll find another slipper somewhere when it’s time to row back to the dog leash.”
“All right,” said Fluffikins, wishing he’d thought of that himself. He was inclined to worry about hypothetical futures.
“Let’s go exploring, then,” said Florence, taking him by the paw-hand.
Fluffikins slipped his grazed hand-paw into hers, vowing never to set foot-paw on a pogo-stick ever again.