Confiding and Concealing
The morning of December 3rd arrived with Hamton waking not sore as he had feared but fully rested. Smiling, he stretched out his arms and flexed his toes beneath his blankets. Everything, from his pig ears down to his short, squiggly tail felt renewed, ready for a new day. But this wonderful relief lasted for only a minute before Hamton discovered, by glancing to his alarm, that he was fifteen minutes behind schedule.
After hurriedly cleaning himself up and downing two bowls of cereal with toast, Hamton rushed out the front door, not forgetting to lock it. He then broke into a jog while zipping up his winter coat, taking a moment to glance at the clean, snow-free driveways he had shoveled the night before.
His elderly neighbor waved at him through her window. Hamton returned her friendly gesture with a quick wave of his own, then continued on without delay.
He walked quickly down the country road, reaching the edge of the city much faster than usual. Short of breath, he turned a corner and met a friendly and rather adorable sight.
"Hey . . . Buster. Hey . . . Babs," he called, panting his way towards the two rabbits holding hands.
"Morning, Hamton," they said together. Buster, noticing Hamton's ragged breathing, said, "You okay, pal?"
"Oh, yeah," said Hamton, catching his breath. "I w-woke a little late and had — had to rush breakfast. But I — I'm fine. You guys doing okay?"
"Yep," said Buster. "Snug as a rabbit in a rabbit hole."
"Guess what we each had for breakfast," said Babs, her tone dry yet amused.
Hamton, wiping his brow on his coat sleeve, gave a light smirk. "Carrots?"
"Carrot cereal, actually," said Buster. "Not as bad as it sounds, but I swear, if anyone decides to invent carrot milk, I might have to put my foot down."
"Just be careful you don’t smoosh anyone," Babs remarked. "With feet our size, you can never be too careful. But that aside. Hamton?" She turned to him, looking concerned. "Is everything okay from yesterday?"
Hamton frowned. "What do you mean?"
"You know . . . when we were at the Mall," she responded gently. "Have you — uh, thought over the whole gift thing at all?"
"Oh, yeah," said Hamton with a nod. "It was a bit tricky, but I've decided what I'll do."
"And?" asked Buster, an eyebrow raised. Babs, too, looked intently at Hamton as the three of them crossed the next city block.
Making sure they reached the other side before he said it, Hamton took a breath of crisp December air, then spoke. "I'm going to try and get it."
Buster and Babs stopped walking. They didn't seem to understand what Hamton just told them, or perhaps they did but just didn't see how Hamton could've said it. In either case, he clarified, "I'm going to try and buy the perfume for Fifi."
A car drove by down the street, its tires sounding much louder than usual on the snow.
Hamton didn't think he could've made himself more clear than he had, but apparently he thought wrong, because Buster and Babs went from confused to outright baffled.
"Hamton!" said Babs, sounding alarmed. "That's crazy! There's no way!"
"I'm going to try," he told her confidently.
"Hamton, that's fifteen-hundred dollars!" said Buster bluntly. "That’s like five weeks’ worth of paychecks! How do you expect to raise that kind of money?"
"I'll just have to go and look for jobs, I guess, wherever I can find them."
"Like where?" Buster asked incredulously. "Where are you going to look?"
"Anywhere they show," said Hamton, shrugging. "I made twenty-five dollars last night shoveling snow for my neighbors. It's not much, but it's a start."
Babs looked at Hamton as though she were trying to sympathize with a very deep and sensitive issue. "Hamton . . . Fifi will like whatever you get her. You know she's not fussy about presents."
"Yeah," said Buster, also sounding deeply concerned. "You'll work yourself to death trying to make all that money, and I don't think Fifi will like seeing you in that kind of state."
Hamton listened but kept his state of mind determined. However, he could plainly see how worried Buster and Babs were, so he said, reassuringly, "I appreciate you guys being worried about me. Really, I do, but I think I can do it."
Buster and Babs' anxious expressions did not vanish.
"Look," said Hamton, frowning, ". . .Buster, Babs, I know it's a lot. Trust me, I've had plenty of time to think about how crazy it is last night. But . . . I want to try. I want to try and give Fifi the best I can give her. But," he added on a last note, "if Christmas approaches and I haven't raised enough, I'll buy Fifi something else."
Buster and Babs looked a little more eased by Hamton's final words, but they still held a hint of worry, not necessarily at the thought of Hamton overexerting himself, but from something Hamton couldn't quite read.
Whatever it was, Hamton was relieved to hear Buster say the following words. "Okay, Hamton," he said calmly. "You do what you think is best."
"Thanks," said Hamton.
"Just promise us both one thing, Hamton," said Babs, her index finger held up and her tone both serious and caring. "Promise us you won't hurt yourself going about all this. The holidays should be a time of enjoyment, of being happy with your friends and family. Presents are just a small part of the festivities, so, please, don't push yourself too hard or do anything too crazy, okay?"
A warm feeling of gratitude flowed through Hamton.
"Okay," he told them with a nod. "I promise you both that I'll be careful."
"And?" Babs asked with emphasis.
"And I’ll try not to do anything stupid."
Pausing, thinking of a sudden and important contingency, Hamton added, "And, uh, Buster, Babs, can you both do me a favor?"
"Don't worry," said Buster, waving his hand in assurance. "We won't tell, Fifi."
Hamton gaped at him.
"That is what you were going to ask us, right?"
"Yeah . . . but, how did —"
"Lucky guess," Buster said with a shrug. "Come on. We better get going to school. Prof. Leghorn won't like it if we're late."
Babs and Hamton both agreed, and the three of them began again down the block.
"What'd you guys write for your Hound Teasing essay?" asked Babs. "I thought it'd be a good idea to have more than one back-up plan, like a sassy impression if the dog's male, or a poor begging orphan if it's female."
"What would it matter if the dog was female?" asked Buster. "If the dog's vicious I don't think it would matter if it was facing an orphan or an old man in a wheelchair."
"Yeah, but Prof. Leghorn never explained the dog's personality," Babs added, sounding smart-alecky. She then reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a folded rectangle of paper. "I packed enough words into this essay to suffocate a dictionary."
Babs gave the folded essay a light shake and Hamton swore he heard it rattle, as though the written words were bursting to fall out.
"Wow," said Buster, mildly impressed. "I didn't know you liked Hound Teasing that much, Babsy."
"What can I say, it's fun to tease," said Babs, smirking at Buster in a mischievous way.
Hamton then watched as one of Babs' long, pink ears, the end set with a violet bow, tapped Buster on his right shoulder. Buster jumped and turned to see what had poked him, but, with his back turned, Babs planted a kiss right on his cheek. Then, being just close enough, Hamton heard her whisper, "I just can't help myself."
Smirking, Hamton shook his head in amusement.
Buster, looking slightly annoyed but in no way upset that Babs had kissed him, said, "How'd your essay turn out, Hamton?"
"Oh, fine, I guess," he said, digging around in his coat pocket. "I wrote it in a bit of hurry, but from what we learned in class, I think I wrote enough to . . . to . . ."
Hamton's calmness faltered. He reached deeper into his coat for his essay, but all he felt was the cold metal of his house keys.
Now that he thought about it, he couldn't remember ever folding his essay so it could slide into his pocket. . . . He had simply left it in his notebook . . . on his desk. . . .
Hamton’s mouth went dry, drier than the winter air. He may have just frozen to the sidewalk.
"Hamton?" asked Buster. "You okay?"
"I forgot!" he shouted in a panic. The people near enough to listen turned sharply in the direction of the three Toons. A man driving his car actually turned his head in surprise towards the shout, from which then came a loud crash as an out-of-sight sheep let out a bleat that nobody gave notice to.
"My essay! I left it at home!" cried Hamton, his bare hands gripping the sides of his head. "I gotta go back!"
He turned and ran. "I'll see you all at school!" he shouted back to Buster and Babs, his lungs already protesting as he sprinted through the cold morning air, back the way he had come.
For the second time that week, the citizens of Acme Acres heard a light, beautiful humming moving down the cold sidewalk as they bustled here and there, getting ready for the day. Last time it had been a rendition of "Habanera," the famous aria of a not-so-admirable gypsy. Today, it was an unknown but no less delightful tune, and its sound was enough for anyone to imagine it belonging to a beautiful sight. They weren’t wrong.
Fifi was walking the path towards school, passing houses and parked cars coated in frost. Her large fluffy tail bobbed with each step and the ends of her white scarf were swaying gently. She was humming a little song she had played on the harp last night at the Acme Acres Country Club: a light serenade to which she was now quite fond of.
All things considered, Fifi La Fume was quite happy.
Most was excellent in her life: a good job, wonderful friends, a decent (to be modest) appearance, and, as far as she could tell, she had written a fair essay for Prof. Leghorn's Hound Teasing class and was ready for the school day ahead. The only thing that would've made her life perfect was having that special someone right next to her, holding her hand as she trekked along this December morning.
"Le sigh. . ." Fifi said aloud. "Where, oh where in ze wide world is my darling boy? Whezher on earth or over ze moon, I will seek, so zat I may swoon and kiss his tender cheek."
Fifi giggled at her little rhyme and continued on towards school, its tall clock tower peeking out over the city buildings.
Fifi had spoken sentences like these so many times before, it had become a kind of hobby of hers — a hobby she was not shy to perform in public. She knew that her true love, her darling boy, was out there somewhere, if only unaware. . . . If so, then Fifi made sure to speak her affection aloud, confident that, should he be close by, her perfect man would hear her and come rushing.
But, of course, there were more "Le sighs" with this belief than hugs and kisses. That, or her dream boy was deaf beyond remedy (which Fifi wouldn't mind, so long as his nose didn't mind skunk musk).
But no matter. Determinedly, Fifi pressed on, all the while secretly hoping she would find her true love when she least expected, whether today or tomorrow, whether walking on the sidewalk or even waiting for her beside the archway that marked the entrance to Acme Looniversity.
When Fifi arrived outside the said arch, the only people standing there were four of her five dearest friends. Buster and Babs were standing close to each other, observing Plucky and Shirley, who were having what appeared to be an argument.
Hamton, for whatever reason, was absent. Fifi frowned at this; it wasn’t like Hamton to miss school. Was he sick?
Slowly, Fifi approached her friends, going unnoticed by Plucky and Shirley as they continued to bicker.
"Come on, Shirls!" Plucky moaned. "You can't still be holding that to me. It's been two days already! And besides, I told you —"
"Yeah, I, like, heard you!" Shirley cut across him, arms folded. "You're too embarrassed to have me kiss you, let alone on the cheek!"
"But I told you already, Shirley," Plucky said through gritted teeth, "that I didn't want you to be embarrassed! There's a huge difference!"
"Like what?" Shirley shouted, sounding much angrier than Fifi ever heard before. "What's the difference? You being embarrassed by the kiss or you feeling embarrassed that others might see me kiss you?"
Still unnoticed by the squabbling duck and loon, Fifi walked up to Buster and Babs, who both greeted her with a wave.
"What is happening?" asked Fifi.
Buster, with a weary sake of his head, replied, "Oh, they're fighting about something that happened when we left Frosty's the other day. Apparently Plucky said something stupid after Shirley kissed him on the cheek."
"Typical Plucky," sighed Babs.
"But zat was on Monday," said Fifi. "They seemed all right yesterday."
"Yeah, they were," said Babs. "But this morning, Shirley kissed Plucky on the cheek again when they were out for coffee, and, being the unbelievably immature boy that he is, Plucky complained about being kissed in public."
"Such a lame-o thing to do!" Shirley shouted, drawing Fifi’s, Buster’s, and Babs’ attention again.
"Shirley," said Plucky, his voice strained with impatience. "Don't get me wrong, okay? I do like you. I really —"
"Then what's wrong with me kissing you?" she asked. "What about it is so embarrassing?"
"Nothing, I just don't —"
"What? You don't want everyone to think you’re in a relationship or some junk?"
"No, I —"
"Or," Shirley said very darkly, "maybe you’re afraid what people will think if they learn you're going out with me. Am I, like, too much of a 'loon' for you?"
"What? No! Shirley —" Plucky tried desperately, but she wouldn’t hear a word of it.
"Oh, sure, continue throwing excuses and making stuff up! I'm surprised your karma hasn't kicked you into space yet!"
Plucky looked incensed. "Again with Karma!" he shouted, and this time, Shirley fell silent, looking alarmed.
"Karma, karma, karma! Ooo!" he said exasperatedly, his voice becoming a mockery of Shirley’s. "‘You better be nice or the world won't be! You should always watch your feet so you don't trip over them! Never mind that I can just levitate off the ground so I don't have to worry about that junk, or some junk!’ Oh, sure!" Plucky's voice returned to normal, though he looked no less angry. "Yeah, Shirley. I'm a real lame-o! At least I don't go shoving fortunes up people's —"
"ENOUGH!" Fifi bellowed. "BOTH OF YOU, TAIS-TOI!"
Plucky and Shirley both jumped in surprise, their anger turning to shock.
"Fifi?" said Shirley, surprised and delighted. "Like, whoa girl! Talk about a Houdini!"
"Yeah," said Plucky. "When'd you get here?"
"One minute ago," she said sharply. "Now, as I am sure you both have your reasons for acting stupide and, how zey say, 'an old married couple', allow me to help you both solve your little problem, right now!"
With anger and frustration awhirl inside her, Fifi stepped forward and grabbed a scared looking Plucky by the wrist.
"Plucky," Fifi said with the voice of a stern mother, "learn to think before you speak, and stop feeling embarrassed about such silly things. Zhere is nothing embarrassing about kissing, especially when it is with your girlfriend!"
"You tell him, gal-pal!" Shirley said, patting Fifi on the back.
"And you!" Fifi grabbed Shirley's wrist with her other hand, wiping the smile off her face. "You are not without blame, either! You need to stop interrupting and let Plucky explain himself! Hold off on your beliefs and allow Plucky to say what he needs. Even if his reasons are childish, he still deserves to be heard!"
Then, with a surprising amount of strength, Fifi pulled their hands inward and linked them together. Plucky and Shirley nearly tripped on the force of the pull, but maintained balance as Fifi was there to steady them.
"Zhere," Fifi said heavily. "Now, are you two going to behave?"
"Yes! Like, so yes!" said Shirley at once, a little shaken.
"What are you, my mother?" Plucky replied.
Fifi shot him a horrible glare.
"I mean, yes, ma'am!" He smiled awkwardly, taking a step back.
"Good," said Fifi steadily. "And will you two fight again about such silly things?"
The duck and loon shook their heads simultaneously, their argument forgotten in fear of the passionate skunk standing before them.
But Fifi wasn’t scowling anymore. She smiled warmly and folded her hands together over her heart. "Very good. Now let zis petty moment pass. Cherish what you both have, learn from what happened, and grow closer togezher, for zat is ze nature of love."
Silence followed these words. For a brief moment, Fifi thought Plucky and Shirley would laugh, thinking she was being, how they’d say, ‘cheesy’ or ‘lovey-dovey’, but, still holding each other’s hands as Fifi had linked them, they both gave her a light smile, and that was enough for her.
"Bravo, Fifi," Babs complimented. "Beautifully handled, and spoken."
Clearing her throat, Fifi backed away and eased herself.
"I am sorry," she said to the rabbits and waterfowl. "I did not wish to shout, but I do not like seeing my friends fight. And zat goes double for couples, and zhose still learning how to be a couple," she said in the direction of Plucky and Shirley, still holding hands and now looking sheepish.
"Well," said Buster, "I hate to break up this random bit of relationship counseling, but class starts in five minutes." He pointed his thumb up to the clock tower, which read 7:55.
Realizing the time, the two rabbits, duck and loon got their wits about them and entered the school grounds through the arch. Fifi, however, stood where she was, glancing around.
"Where is Hamton?" she asked.
"He had to run back home," Buster replied. "He forgot his essay on Hound Teasing."
Fifi turned to look down the snow-covered sidewalk where Hamton and their group usually came when walking to school. Maybe it was only her imagination but, far out in the distance, there seemed to be someone running towards her.
It obviously wasn't a 'skunk-hunk', judging from the shape, but Fifi couldn't help picturing it: her long elusive true love running up to her, sweeping her off her feet and proclaiming undying affection.
Yes . . . only her imagination. . . .
"Fifi, like, let's get going!" Shirley called after her.
Fifi gave the running person one last fleeting gaze, then stepped forward under the arch and ran to join her friends.
"So," Plucky said to Buster and Babs, "what was that you two said when me and Shirley got here? Something about Hamton trying to —"
But Plucky broke off when Babs side-stepped him. Frowning curiously, Fifi thought she heard Babs mutter, "Not right now. We’ll tell you later."
"But you said Hamton —"
"Later!" Babs whispered heatedly. "Jeez, have you already forgotten what Fifi told you?"
At that same moment, Plucky and Babs both glanced behind and gave Fifi an awkward smile. Having no idea what to make of this, Fifi smiled awkwardly in return and climbed the stairs to the school, out of the cold and into the warm entryway.
Hamton's lungs were screaming as he heaved in the chilly air. His sides felt ready to pop and sweat was freezing to his skin underneath his coat and hat.
Using his last bit of strength, he rushed up the school stairs, sprinted down the hallway to his locker, threw his coat and hat inside without bothering to hang them up, and ran, gasping, to a classroom labeled:
Prof. F. Leghorn
At the precise moment Hamton thrust open the door, the 8:00 bell rang.
"Coo-Coo! Coo-Coo! If you’re not in school by 8:00, you’re coo-coo!" cried Gogo Dodo from over the intercom.
Relieved that he had made it just in time, Hamton collapsed onto the classroom floor, breathing hard amidst the shock of the class.
"Well," said Prof. Leghorn, sounding business-like, "glad to see, I say, glad to see you decided to join us, Hamton. Have you got your essay?"
Still on the floor, Hamton weakly reached into his pocket and pulled out his essay. It was crumpled from having been stuffed into his overalls so fast. He handed it to the teacher.
"Well, it could've been handled a bit better," said Leghorn, observing the wrinkles and the lack of a staple, "but at least you got it in on time. Alright, up and at 'em, boy." He reached down and pulled Hamton onto his feet by the straps of his overalls. "Go and take yer, I say, go and take yer seat, son. You're holding up the rodeo."
"Yes, sir," said Hamton breathlessly, and he dragged his feet over to his desk beside the window, right behind Plucky's and in front of Fifi's.
His friends didn't have the chance to ask him if he was okay, but it became apparent as Hamton caught his breath that he was going to be fine. A little exercise never killed anyone after all — not even a pig.
Thankfully, Hound Teasing didn’t end up being very taxing this morning. Prof. Leghorn bored the class with a slideshow on how he became a professional hound teaser, which became tedious rather quickly, watching him spank a dog with a wooden fencepost for a whole hour.
Buster and Babs had their hands pressed against their bored faces. Shirley was apparently trying to meditate while keeping her open eyes set on the slideshow, though she looked very tired while doing it. Plucky had flat out fallen asleep and was drooling on his desk, snoring quietly. And because she was seated directly behind him, Hamton didn't know what Fifi was doing.
At the beginning, Leghorn had suggested, with a fair amount of smugness in his voice, that the students should take notes while observing a master dog teaser.
"Take notes now, I say, take notes," said Leghorn. "This material may just come up in your Cartoon Exams in two weeks."
The only one writing anything down in their notebook was Hamton, but his mind and notes were quite far away from Hound Teasing. He shifted his notebook closer to his chest and away from any prying eyes, looking over what he had written so far:
Job Ideas for Gift
Hamton tapped his pen on his notebook, trying to concentrate over the sound of dogs barking and the yelps they made after they ran the length of their ropes. But for as far as his ideas stretched, the slideshow may as well have been playing at full volume. The list was not very satisfactory and didn't grow in length at all over the rest of the class.
When the bell rang, Hamton tore out the list, folded it, and placed it in the pocket of his overalls. Shutting his notebook, he left the classroom with his friends as Leghorn proclaimed that, next time they meet, they'll be given a pop quiz on the ways in which he teased dogs in the past.
"Like that's difficult," said Plucky sarcastically, as he and the others walked out into the hall. "All he's done is spank them with fence posts."
"Plus used a few choice pranks from the Ace Novelty Company of Walla Walla, Washington," Buster added. "Courtesy of Daffy Duck."
"Oh, yeah," said Plucky, now smiling. "Man, Daffy was a genius in that episode."
"Not really," said Babs, opening her locker, "considering how he ended up being shoved into a bottle."
Plucky said nothing to this, but muttered something along the lines of, "Nobody’s perfect."
"By the way, how are you feeling, Hamton?" asked Buster
"Huh?" Hamton said. "I'm fine. Why?"
"Ze weather must have been hard on you zis morning," said Fifi, her voice gentle.
"It — it wasn't too bad." Hamton inched towards his locker in order to hide a looming blush.
"It must have been chilly, zhough," she said. "I mean, if you ran all ze way back home and zen all ze way to school."
"Ah," said Hamton, shrugging, his face burning hotter, "I was okay. At least there was no wind."
The six of them headed on over to Prof. Daffy Duck's Advanced Wild Takes class, where goofy faces and outrageous overreactions were the key to success. Due to the wackiness of the whole class, and the physical strain it often put on the students' faces, Hamton didn't have much time to think up any more ideas on how to raise money for Fifi's present. Some people may disagree and make an attempt to multitask, but you try to brainstorm while your teeth grow three times their size, or while jumping ten feet into the air to shout with glee.
Calculations was no better, and Hamton didn't dare risk writing down ideas for fear that Granny might notice and make him explain what he was doing. As kind and calm as she usually was, Granny wasn’t afraid to be strict when she wanted to, and oh man, when she wanted to. . . .
Lunch, which was usually Hamton's favorite time of the school day, was less enjoyable due to his lack of ideas to raise money, although he was able to conceal this from his friends reasonably well. And besides, he was a firm believer that having a full stomach helped immensely when it came to thinking.
So, seated between Plucky and Buster, Hamton helped himself to a tuna sandwich on wheat as he and his friends passed the time discussing Prof. Leghorn's lessons, to which Babs cleared her throat and spoke in a spot-on impression.
"I must say, I say, I must say that I can't say any sentence without, I say, without saying 'I say'. You'd think working part-time in the library would've given me a bigger vocabulary, 'cept my beak's packed with more 'I says' than a I can ever say, I say!"
Everyone laughed. Hamton chocked a little on his sandwich, but recovered when Buster have his back a hard pat.
Six of Babs’ amusing impressions later, including one of Yosemite Sam doing a mumbling-profanity meltdown, they all headed to the library to spend the last half hour before classes resumed for the afternoon.
Fifi found a book on famous cartoon couples and sat down with her hand pressed to her cheek, staring dreamily at the stories of old animated lovers. Plucky and Shirley headed off behind a bookshelf, disappearing from sight, and Buster and Babs remained behind and approached Hamton just as he was about to take out his job list and try and brainstorm some more ideas.
"Hamton?" Buster whispered. "You got a second to talk?"
"Now? Uh, sure," he whispered back. "What abou—?"
"Not here." Babs shifted her eyes in the direction of the shelves where Plucky and Shirley walked off. "This way."
Confused, Hamton stood up from the table and followed Buster and Babs to a row of tall bookshelves. Glancing behind, Hamton saw that Fifi was still happily submerged in her book and didn't notice them leave.
They headed down a particularly long aisle of shelves where books of every size and color were stacked neatly, reaching high up to the ceiling. The florescent lights became slightly dimmer the farther they walked and there wasn’t any sound whatsoever, for even their footsteps were muffled by the carpet. Hamton was about to ask Buster and Babs what is was they wanted to talk about when they turned the corner, coming face to face with Plucky and Shirley who were waiting alone.
"Finally! So are you two going to tell us what’s going on or what?" Plucky asked impatiently, his voice a bit too loud to pass as a whisper.
"Keep quiet!" Babs hissed. "I’m leaving it up to Hamton!"
"Leaving what up to me?" asked Hamton, frowning.
Buster waved his hands inward and everyone moved into a huddle.
"Hamton," he whispered, "me and Babs didn't tell Plucky and Shirley yet. We wanted to wait and ask you first, just to make sure it's okay that they know about you-know-what."
Hamton blinked, but caught on fast. "Oh! Yeah. Sure, of course they can know, so long as they don't tell."
"Don't tell what?" Plucky whispered hectically, shaking his hands in mad exasperation.
"That I'm going to try and buy Fifi that Du Coeur perfume," Hamton answered.
The reaction to this simple statement was incredible, though admittedly quiet. The five friends broke their huddle and it was here that Hamton saw the full effect of his decision.
Plucky’s eyes bulged to the size of baseballs. Shirley's calm expression seemed to shake slightly, as though someone had just told a very frightening fortune. Even Buster and Babs, who were already in on the secret, seemed to shift uncomfortably, eyeing Hamton with something like pity.
Then, looking as though he thought Hamton had gone mad, as well as forgetting they were in the library, Plucky shouted, "Are you trying to go broke?"
"SHH!" Buster and Babs hissed aggressively.
"Plucky, for the love of —!" Buster muttered.
Calming down, Plucky responded more quietly, "Hamton, you can't honest —"
"Yes, I do," Hamton whispered confidently. "I want to try at least. I started just last night and I think off to a decent start."
"Do you, like, know how you're going to get that much money, though?" asked Shirley, and though her voice was considerably calmer than Plucky's, Hamton could tell that she was deeply concerned.
"I'm trying to think up a list," Hamton replied. "For now, though, I'll just go around and see if anyone needs help with anything. Odd jobs and that sort of thing, you know."
But Shirley didn't look too convinced. "That's gonna be majorly tough, Hamton. I mean, the holidays are, like, just around the corner and people will be saving money to buy gifts and all the other usual junk. It'll probably be more of a job trying to find someone with money to spare."
"I guess. . ." said Hamton, his spirit sinking a little at this unpleasant realization. "But I won't know 'til I try, will I?"
"Hamton!" said Plucky impatiently, pinching the space between his eyes and bill. "You do realize we’re not on Tiny Toons anymore, right? That you don’t have to go out of your way to do outrageous and irrational things like we used to, right?"
"Of course I know we’re not on Tiny Toons," said Hamton, feeling slightly annoyed by Plucky’s words. Outrageous and irrational? That was a bit much, wasn’t it? All he wants to do is to buy Fifi a nice present. "Guys, look, I know it sounds crazy, but don’t worry. I’m not going to go overboard with it. I’ll just do as much as I can. Maybe I’ll get the perfume and maybe I won’t, but I know I won’t have a chance unless I try."
"Oh, you don’t have to try," said Plucky with something of a scoff. "This situation is predictable enough as it is."
"Predictable?" repeated Hamton. "What do you mean my situation’s predictable?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Hamton didn’t answer. "Fine, allow me to explain."
Plucky cleared his throat, then placed his hands together like a man about to give a calm and orderly speech. "Hamton, here’s what's going to happen. You’ll spend all of December looking for ways to earn money, doing whatever you can find. Meanwhile, as time passes and the deadline draws near, you’ll grow more and more exhausted and desperate. And, even if by some impossible miracle you do manage to get all the money, you’ll be too late because the store will end up selling the last of the perfume before you have a chance to buy it. All of your work and sacrifice will be for nothing, then you’ll cry and be sad and wonder why in the name of Steven Spielberg you let yourself be put through all that unnecessary pain.
"That’s what I mean by 'predictable'," Plucky said, ending on a blunt note.
The shaded library corner went totally quiet. Hamton stared at Plucky, struck dumb by everything he just said.
"Quite the motivational speaker, aren’t you, Plucky?" said Babs dryly, her arms crossed.
"Oh, come on, Babs!" Plucky said, forgetting to whisper. "I’m just trying to spare Hamton the trouble. I mean, you guys can't seriously think this is a good idea!"
Hamton looked from Plucky to Buster and Babs, anxious at what they would say.
After a long moment in which the two rabbits looked at Hamton, apparently trying to collect their words, Buster said, very strained, "Well . . . it's not . . . too crazy. We’ve done crazier things in the past. I mean, we are Toons after all. It’s kind of our job to go out of the ordinary."
"Shirley, what do you think of this?" asked Babs.
"Honestly?" she asked. "I think it’s kind of cray-cray, like Plucky said. But," she added quickly in Hamton direction, "I also think it’s very sweet that you want to go that far for Fifi, Hamton. It really speaks volumes for your spirit."
"You too, Shirls?" asked Plucky incredulously.
"It’s up to Hamton, Plucky. As his friends, we should accept what he chooses."
"But as his friends," Plucky stressed, "we should also try and keep him from doing anything stupid. I mean, seriously, Hamton," he said, turning to him, "ask yourself. Do you honestly, truly, really sincerely think this is a good idea?"
Hamton let out a slow exhale and dropped his sight to the ground. "I can’t honestly say I do. I know it’s going to be a long month, and I don’t know if I’ll make it in time, but you guys," he lifted his head and looked at his friends, pleadingly, "I want to give Fifi something good, something that she’ll love. If I do, then . . . maybe she’ll. . . ."
Hamton’s face burned in the suffocating quietness of the library; he couldn’t bring himself to finish his sentence, but he didn’t have to. It was plain from the looks on their faces that each of his friends got the gist of what it was he had meant to tell them.
"Oh, Hamton . . ." said Babs quietly.
Plucky let out a sigh and a shake of his head. "Okay. . . . Hamton, pal, if you’re up to it . . . then by all means go ahead. Just try and not make this whole thing too ‘predictable’."
Hamton managed to chuckle. "Don’t worry. I won’t. Oh, and one more thing!" he said abruptly, only now just remembering it. "Please, please don’t tell Fifi about this. I want it to be a surprise."
"Like, of course, Hamton," said Shirley. "Why would we tell?"
"You can count on me, buddy," said Plucky.
Buster, Babs, and Shirley all raised their eyebrows.
"What? I’m serious," he said, crossing his arms. "I don’t have that big a mouth."
"You did for the last two days," Shirley said dryly.
"Yeah, well . . . That was before Fifi told me and you to —"
"Before I told you two what?" came a sweet voice off to the side.
Startled, the five friends jerked around. Fifi was standing a few feet away, holding the book on Cartoon Couples.
"What are you all doing here?" she asked. "I thought I heard Plucky shout . . . about something zat had ‘broke’?"
Hamton’s throat seemed to constrict from the inside; the awkwardness of the situation felt so tangible it was almost suffocating. Fifi tilted her head to one side, her expression somewhere between curiosity and slight irritation for being left out on what must have appeared to be a secret meeting.
Hamton tried to speak, to utter any sort of excuse, but his usual timid voice had shrunken even deeper.
What on earth could he possibly say? Should he lie? No. He was a terrible liar and would hate lying to Fifi of all people; not to mention, it might cause a serious misunderstanding that could lead to something worse. On the other hand, Hamton knew perfectly well that he couldn't tell her the truth. This was not how Hamton wanted Fifi to find out how he felt, never in someplace as bland as a library corner. And yet to say nothing at all seemed, somehow, worse than telling a lie or spilling the beans.
But Hamton didn't have to say anything. Someone else did it for him: Plucky.
"Oh, Shirley was just talking back to what happened this morning," he explained. "You remember, Fifi, when you told me I should learn to think before I speak? Shirl’s here commented on how big a mouth I have. She said she’ll ‘break’ it if I don’t keep it on a leash."
"Like, I did not say I would break it!" Shirley retorted.
Fifi's puzzled face became suddenly stiff. "You two are not fighting again, are you?"
"What? No!" said Plucky, waving his green feathered hands. "That was just a little joke she made, just a laugh. I mean, let's face it, I do have a big mouth."
"Even more so after this morning’s Wild Takes class," said Buster, smirking, in what Hamton thought was an attempt to steer the conversation in a better direction.
"So . . ." Fifi said, an eyebrow raised, "you five all got togezher, gathered in a shaded corner of ze library, just to say Plucky has a big mouth?"
There were a few moments of awkward silence.
"Well . . . if you want to know the whole truth, Fifi, we were also discussing gift ideas," Plucky responded, sounding humble.
Hamton's teeth clenched so hard together, it was a miracle they didn't break. His heart pounded frantically; he could feel his mind going numb. He looked imploringly at Plucky, mentally begging him not to say what he was about to say next. Buster was shooting Plucky a look of anger and disbelief, and Babs and Shirley looked ready to punch him should he dare blab one more syllable.
"Gifts?" asked Fifi. "For whom?"
Feeling as though he might explode from lack of oxygen, Hamton's eyes zoomed back to Plucky.
"For whom? For me, of course, " said Plucky, smirking around at them all. "I was going to ask you to come and join us too, Fifi, but you looked real busy with that book." He pointed at the volume she held to chest. "I thought it over and decided there are really only a couple things I would like to have this Christmas. You all know the lists I gave you on Monday?"
"Hard to forget," said Babs dryly, her fists unclenched. "I nearly threw my back out carrying it home."
"Hardy har har," Plucky replied sardonically. "Anyway, you all know the last five pages, the ones with the most expensive gifts? You can all just throw those pages away and keep the rest. That should narrow the ideas down a bit."
Nobody said anything. Hamton was too speechless (and enormously thankful) at how Plucky managed to turn the conversation away from the promise he just made and was, at this very moment, keeping.
"Narrow it down a bit?" Buster repeated, disbelieving. "Plucky, you practically wrote out the encyclopedia for Christmas presents. You can hardly call five fewer pages an improvement."
Plucky ignored this, pretending, Hamton knew, to look insulted.
"Well, I know what I’m getting you, Plucky." said Babs, shaking her head with her arms crossed. "I’m gonna buy you a nice, large roll of duct tape — perfect for your oversized duckbill of a mouth. If nothing else, it’ll stop you from being punched every time you say something stupid."
"Hmph," said Plucky with a shrug, "fair enough."
Hamton glanced back at Fifi, and, to his delight, saw that she looked thoroughly convinced.
"Well," Fifi said, "if you ask me, Plucky, I still think you would be better off if you just stop to think before you speak. All you need to do is practice a little."
"Oh, trust me, Fifi" he said heartily, "I'm doing it right now."
The other four nodded, knowing the secret truth behind Plucky's words.
"Anyway," said Buster all of a sudden, "since were on the subject of gifts, do you have any other ideas, Fifi? Other than the ones you told us at Frosty’s, that is?"
Hamton noticed Buster's eyes glance momentarily towards him.
"Oh, non, not really," Fifi said, shaking her head with a smile. "Like I said, I will be happy with just about anything. Alzhough . . . admittedly . . . meeting him would be most wonderful." Fifi did not elaborate who "he" was, but embraced the Cartoon Couples book in her arms.
"Well, I am going to get back to my book," said Fifi. "I am on ze most adorable chapter about an elephant boy and a cute little tiger girl." And with that, her beautiful smile never leaving, she turned and disappeared behind a bookshelf, her huge tail brushing the edge as she went.
Babs checked around the corner to make sure Fifi was gone before speaking. When she turned back, her eyes were wide.
"Plucky . . . " she said, practically speechless. "You . . ."
"What?" Plucky asked, an eyebrow raised.
"You . . . you thought before you spoke!"
If the library was quiet before, it was practically nonexistent with this statement.
Plucky, who at first looked a bit baffled, suddenly smiled. "Hey . . . I did, didn't I?"
"Not bad," said Buster, nodding. "Very convincing job."
"Yeah, like, excellent improv," Shirley commented, giving Plucky a one-armed hug.
"Ah, ghee..." Plucky rubbed the back of his head modestly. "I was just going along, you know."
"Thanks, Plucky," said Hamton, the amount of gratefulness etched in every syllable.
"No problem, pal. You really didn't think I would blab one of my best friends' secrets, now would you?"
Hamton shook his head. But Babs said, "Not for free, you probably wouldn't."
"Oh, shush, Babs," said Shirley in her boyfriend’s defense. "Plucky's not that shallow. I, for one, think he was totally awesome in how he handled it."
Plucky blushed slightly. "Thanks, Shirls."
"Now, Hamton," said Buster, "you sure you still wanna do this?"
"Yes," said Hamton.
"Even though Fifi just told us for a second time that she'll like anything she gets?"
Hamton reconsidered, his gaze falling to the carpet where four pairs of feet stood. The world had gone quiet again.
Here was the deciding point, Hamton knew; what he chose to say next would determine what will happen over the course of the following weeks. He can go through with the plan he already started, putting his hopes on the Du Coeur perfume, OR he can stop now while he’s still ahead, leaving Fifi’s gift to chance.
Hamton bit his lip and closed his eyes. The image of a purple, heart-shaped bottle floated in front of him. Though small, it felt like it weighed a thousand tons. Then, taking its place, Fifi appeared, looking at Hamton expectantly.
What is it zat you want? she asked. Be honest. What do you truly, truly want?
And that was it.
Hamton opened his eyes and lifted his gaze. Eyeing his friends with confidence, he nodded.
"Okay, then," said Plucky in a tone of resolve. "Well, I wish you luck, Hamton."
"Like, me, too," said Shirley.
"Same here," Buster and Babs said simultaneously. And Babs added, "And don’t worry. We won’t say a word to Fifi."
The five of them separated and moved out from the shelves and back into the bright florescent light of the main study. Hamton returned to a table out in the open, reached into his pocket and pulled out his list of possible jobs. Unfolding it, he grabbed a nearby pencil and brought it to the paper, ready and eager for more brainstorming.
Fifi was seated a short ways away in an armchair, her face full of admiration as she read on about cartoon sweethearts.
Smiling, keeping Fifi just above his line of sight, Hamton returned to his list.