Where Bear Gets His Feet Wet
THIS is the way my world ends.
I know this is going to be hard for yu to read, but I hope yull understand.
I have to leave, Bear. Tom got a job out of state and Im going with him. Im doing this becuz I think it will be easier on all of us if it is red rather then sed.
This is a chance for me to make something for myself. Tom sez there are a lot of jobs where we’re going which will be better then here in Seafare. Remember my last job? At the Pizza Shack? Remember how well that went? In case yu can’t tell from this just being a letter, I was being sarcastic. It didn’t go well at all. (At least we know my future is not in pizza!)
I know yu never liked Tom, but he treats me ok. Yu shoudnt worry about him and me, as we’ll be fine. Well, I know yu won’t worry about him, but still. Hes stuck around longer then yur father did, and don’t even get me started on Ty’s dad. At least Tom hasn’t hit me yet or anything. He even said that when I save up enouf money, he’ll let me get one of those online degrees from University of Phoenix Arizona, or whatever its called. Imagine me, with a college degree!
Speaking of that, I hope that yull get a chance to be a writer like yu want to. I know this kind of messes up yur plans about going to school next year, but why do u need college for that? Yuve been making up stories since you were a little kid n e ways so its not like they could teach yu anything else, right? But that skolarship thing will be there later, right? It’s not like yu could never get it again. It just cant be right now becuz I need yu to do something for me.
Tom sez that Ty can’t go. He sez that having the Kid around will just “freak” up his concentration. (Ok, he didn’t say freak, but yu know what I meant) I know this seems like I am making a bad decision but last nite I had a dream. It was all black around me and there was a flashing light really far away. I felt like I had to walk a long time to reach it. I finally got there and the light was a sign for a motel. Yu know what the motel was called, Bear? It was called the LAST CHANCE MOTEL. Do u see what that means? LAST CHANCE MOTEL. It means it’s my last chance! My dream was a message, I know it, and I think Whoever is watching over us knew I was having a tuff time making this decision and that’s why I had the dream.
But Tom does say that Ty can’t go. So I am going to leave him here with yu. Yu were always better at taking care of him then me. Remember when I was sick for like a month last year couldn’t move, and u took care of Ty becuz we couldn’t afford to send him to camp at the YMCA? Yu did a really good job then and I remember thinking yur going to be a good dad some day, not like yur dad. Now that I think about it, yu take care of Ty a lot more then I did anyways like a good brother should and yu were always better at it. That is why I feel ok about leaving him here with yu. I just think it would be better for him if he stayed here. What if something happens to me when Im with Tom? I don’t want him to see that.
I got sumthing I printed from the internet for yu. Its called a Power Of Attorney. It means that yu can do stuff for Ty without me. Like doctors and school and stuff. It means yull be in charge I guess. At least thats what I got from it. Denise from downstares told me about it. Yu would normaly have to be there with me to have it notterized, but Denise owes me for that time I gave her some smokes when she couldn’t afford to buy more. Her kid is a nottery public or something (do yu really have to go to school to learn how to sine and stamp papers? How hard can that be?) and she will cover for me and notterize it. Yull have to wait for yur birthday but thats real soon. Its my present to yu. I hope yu like it.
I am going to miss yu, so yu know. Yu grew up ok, despite everything. I hope yu don’t hate me or n e thing for this, but maybe Ill be back one day if this doesn’t work out. Maybe, I don’t know. Maybe, I was never meant to be a mom. I see yu sometimes and I think how much better it would have been for yu if yu were never born. But I remember yu as such a happy baby, not like Ty who cried all the time. Yur smile still makes it worth it and I hope yull still smile even after this.
Please make sure Ty gets the note I wrote for him.
I don’t know what else to say.
Please don’t try looking for me. I don’t want Tom to get mad.
P.S. I left a little bit of muney to help yu out for now. I really can’t give more becuz Tom sez we need to save for our future. Remember, Rent is due at the beginning of the month, along with the other bills. Yu paid those for me n e ways, but what kind of a mom would I be if I didn’t remind yu.
Yu listen to yur brother and do what he sez, ok? Mommy loves yu!
THAT’S what I found when I came home from work that day. It was a Saturday night. I didn’t know where the Kid was.
She left $137.50 in an envelope with my name on it.
The next day, I turned eighteen. Three days after that, I graduated high school.
Where Bear Sees People
Come Home for the Summer
Three Years Later
SO, JUST to be up front with you, my name’s not really Bear. It’s actually Derrick McKenna, but I’ve been Bear since I was like thirteen or fourteen. It’s when Ty was trying to say my name as a baby and couldn’t say Derrick. It came out all weird, like “Barick,” but once Mom heard that all she could focus on was how it sounded like he called me “Bear.” I guess it was a sort of divine comedy in its own way as I had done something similar to someone else when I was little. But I’ll get to that later.
Anyway: Bear. So she started calling me Bear. Of course I hated it at first. There wasn’t and still isn’t anything bearish about me. But she insisted, and anytime I had a friend over or she answered the phone for me or talked to one of my teachers, she made a point of calling me Bear. I was just beginning high school then, too, and you know how that is: anything done as a freshman gets remembered forever. This was all thanks to my mom. The name stuck, she didn’t.
I’m not trying to sound all maudlin or anything. This isn’t that kind of story. This isn’t about poor old Bear and how his mom ran out on him, leaving him to raise his younger brother and how his life was totally screwed up by it, but in the end he learns A Very Valuable Lesson about life and shit. It’s not going to be like that.
Well, okay, scratch that. I don’t know what kind of story this is. I just hope it’s not going to be saccharine and make you gag or anything. Things like that make me queasy.
But I digress.
I just wanted to be up front with you about my name. I imagine, for some reason, when people hear my name as I get called now, Bear McKenna, that they assume one of two things: that I’ll either be a really big, hairy lumberjack with a stern demeanor but a heart of gold or that I’m pretentious as all hell. Usually it’s the first thing, until they see me and blink a few times, trying to associate such a name with what they’re seeing. As for the second part? Think about it: if you met someone for the first time named Bear, wouldn’t you assume they were an exaggerated version of themselves? Yes? No? Well, I guess I don’t think like most people. And I don’t fight them about it anymore. My name’s Bear McKenna.
Well, most of the time it is. I look in the rearview mirror and see my little brother, Tyson, staring back at me with an expression on his face that I can’t quite identify. Usually, he reserves calling me Derrick for when he is about to ask something serious, like if there is a planet of cows that have farms that milk people, then slaughter them for their tasty cutlets, or why Mom left and didn’t come back. He asks a lot of questions.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“How do you know if you’re in love?”
I smile. I try not to think about where this is going. Understanding the Kid’s line of logic is an extraordinary exercise in futility. He thinks on a whole different level than the rest of us. Last week I explained to him, at his insistence, where babies came from. He sat with a look of dire contemplation on his face through the entirety of the conversation. When I finished, he’d gotten up and gone outside to play without a word. Later, when I was tucking him into bed, he finally responded: “Bear, why on earth would any girl want to push a baby out like that?” I didn’t know how to answer him then, as I sometimes don’t. Not many people can make me speechless, but Ty manages it on a daily basis.
I look back now at Ty and arch my eyebrow. “Why? You got someone you haven’t told me about, Kid?”
He shrugs vaguely. “I dunno. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about me, Bear. It’s just a question.” By the way, my brother is eight going on sixty. Given everything he has gone through in his life, I can’t blame him. Most kids his age haven’t gone through a quarter of the shit he’s been through. But at the same time, how many third graders do you know that are vegetarians by their own decision? I had nothing to do with that, trust me. I like hamburgers with bacon and sausage (and stop grimacing until you try it—it’s damn good). But that’s what I get for allowing him to watch some documentary on slaughterhouses on TV. He hasn’t been the same since.
I stare ahead so I don’t rear-end someone on the freeway, but I’m hedging and he knows it. I feel his eyes on the back of my head. I sigh again. “I guess it’s when all those stupid songs on the radio start making sense.” I chance a glimpse in the mirror and see him frowning. “What do you think it is?” When it comes to these esoteric sorts of questions, I always find it better to let him answer. But factual questions about babies and stuff, I make sure I answer for him. Even if I want to pull my hair out while doing so.
He’s quiet for a moment and then says, “I think it’s when you can’t go on another day without the other person. That they make you feel like your stomach is on fire but in a good way.”
“That sounds good to me.”
“Can we stop? I have to pee.”
“Sure, Kid. We’re kinda early anyways.”
I see a sign for a rest stop ahead and move off onto the exit. The parking lot is empty and it’s drizzling outside. I pull into a space in front of the bathrooms, already knowing the routine. Ty sits patiently in the car while I walk into the men’s room to make sure it’s empty. It is. I walk out the door and wave. He gets out of the car and walks up to me.
“Bear, you’re going to wait right here, right.” It’s not said as a question, but as a command.
“Okay, I’ll be right back. Make sure you wait right here.”
I nod, knowing that I’ll be here just as sure as he knows. Ty refuses to use public restrooms when there is anyone else in them. He always makes me check first. When I give the all-clear, only then will he go in. He doesn’t allow me to go in with him, stating very plainly that he is “old enough to know how to work his parts.” But before he does, he makes sure of where I’ll be. And I mean in the exact spot. If I move a foot or two away from where I said I would be, he notices. I know he understands that I’ll never leave him like that, but he still needs those reassurances. It’s the same with what time I will pick him up from school or what time I’ll get off of work. If I’m late, he has sort of a panic attack, where his breathing becomes constricted, and he has thoughts run through his head that he knows aren’t true. I took him to a doctor at a free clinic who suggested putting him on some kind of anti-anxiety medication that was supposed to be all the rage these days. But Ty told the doctor and me plainly that he didn’t want to become “one of those kids.” I try not to be late. It’s easier.
I can hear him humming while he pees, his sign that he’ll be a while, so I turn and look out at the rain. It’s the end of May, but in Oregon that doesn’t matter. It can still be cold and raining whenever it wants to be and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Especially when you live in Seafare, a small town on the Pacific Ocean, like we do. For anyone never having been to the Oregon coast, the ocean there is nothing like the ocean in California. It’s cold and foggy and rainy pretty much all the time. Oh sure, we do get sunny days, but the Pacific Northwest has its reputation for a reason. I hear that a lot of people commit suicide up here. Weirdos.
We’re currently making the sixty-mile trek to Portland to pick up my best friend, Creed Thompson, from the airport. I haven’t seen him since he came home for spring break. He’s a junior at Arizona State, majoring in computer science. Pretty soon he’ll graduate and go to work for IBM or Google and make a bazillion dollars per year, but as of right now, he’s still Creed, the guy I’ve known since my first day at Seafare Elementary School in the second grade. We were instantly connected at the hip, maybe just because of how opposite we were. He’s outgoing and can talk to anyone, whereas I don’t like most people. His parents are still married (and around and alive). They’re rich, but not so much that you became distracted by all the stuff they have. I’m obviously not rich. So life goes.
Mr. Thompson had had some sort of computer company in Seattle in the late eighties and early nineties and sold off everything before it all went to hell. He then decided he hated living in a big city and hated having a lot of stuff. He sold all the things he didn’t want and moved the family to Seafare. I always found it funny how Mr. Thompson seemed to be the only rich person who hated being rich. It still didn’t stop him from buying one of the biggest houses in Seafare, where I’ve spent a lot of time through the years. The same house where we are having a surprise birthday party for Ty soon, providing I can keep it a secret.
Creed’s parents are cool as far as parents go, but I’m glad that they’re gone. Not gone-gone but off in some country on some kind of retreat, helping to build homes in Africa or curing leprosy in Sweden, I don’t know. I know they’ll be gone until November so there’s a big empty house for us to use this summer. It’ll be nice to get out of the crappy apartment for the next few months.
Don’t get me wrong; I have friends. It just so happens the majority of them are at school somewhere else and living their lives, doing whatever it is they do. Most don’t come back to Seafare if they can help it. The rest might be imaginary. Creed comes back a lot, saying that Arizona is actually located on the surface of the sun, not next to California like a map says. But with his parents being gone the majority of the year, he can always come back here, and it’s like he has his own private vacation home, which is cool if you’re into that kind of thing. When I told him this, he just looked at me funny, saying he never thought of it that way. We didn’t talk about it anymore.
It’s hard to maintain normal friendships when you’re the guardian of the smartest eight-year-old in the world. Most couldn’t understand why I did what I did. Hell, there are times that I don’t understand it, either. The only way I can rationalize it is that a person can do strange things when they don’t have any other choice.
The only other person I really care to see is my sort-of girlfriend, Anna Grant. But she lives in Seafare, too, commuting back and forth to the next county to go to the community college there, so it’s not like I don’t get to see her. She was the second person I met after Creed way back in the day. We’re together more often than not, but it’s not a lot of the time. It’s not a joke: one time we did get back together and broke up five seconds later when I accidentally told her that her nose looked flat from the angle I was at. I didn’t mean it as a bad thing; it kind of just popped out of my mouth. She got mad and stormed off. Five seconds. But she’s my other best friend, so I generally try not to worry. I find if you worry too much, you spend less time doing other things.
Like standing outside in the rain at a rest stop, waiting for your brother to get done peeing. I turn back toward the door and hear him humming still. I look down at my watch. It’s two thirty. Creed needs to be picked up in a half hour, and we’ve still got a few miles to drive. “Hey, Kid? You good? We gotta get going.”
I hear him stop humming. “Bear, I don’t talk to you when you’re going to the bathroom,” he says matter-of-factly.
A few minutes later he comes out. I make sure I’m standing in the exact spot he left me in. I see him give me an appraising look, finding me there. I hold out my hand and he grabs it, and we walk out back into the rain.
“THERE he is!” Ty points out excitedly. I see Creed standing at the entrance to one of the terminals. He sees me coming, and Ty’s waving like mad, and he laughs. Most girls think Creed is “mad crazy hot” (his own words) and I guess, from a male perspective, he’s okay-looking. He’s got short blond hair that kind of does whatever it wants, white even teeth, green eyes, and even I’ll admit he’s built like a truck. From the looks of it, he has put on more muscle than even the last time I saw him in March. And he’s tall, which is the bane of my existence, being only 5’9” myself. And my hair is dark. And my eyes are brown. And I’m pale. And I think for some reason that I still have one of my baby teeth because one tooth is a lot smaller than all the others. I tell Creed the only reason I’m his friend is because he is a big, tan rich kid. He says the only reason he’s my friend is because I’m little, white, and I live in the ghetto with my baby teeth. We get along great.
He opens the door and thrusts his bags over the seats to the back, next to Ty. He gets in and grins over at me. He reaches over and puts one arm around my shoulder, pulling me into a hug, and I feel rain water roll onto my cheek. He pats my back with the requisite three-pat man-hug and pulls away. “What’s up, dude? How’s coastal life?”
I smile and shrug. “Same as when I talked to you last. I think you would know if anything major was going on.”
He grins again and looks over his shoulder into the backseat and quickly rubs his hands over his head, spraying water all over me and Ty, who laughs out a mock protest. “What’s up, Kid? Bear treating you okay, or do I need to take him down a few pegs for you?”
Ty puts his hand to his chin in concentration and thinks for a moment. Then, “Maybe just one peg. He wouldn’t let me get that new documentary about PETA from the video store.”
“That was a month ago!” I protest, knowing what’s coming.
Ty glares at me. “I remember things.”
Creed laughs. “One peg it is,” he says and punches me on the shoulder. Yeah, he’s definitely put on more muscle.
“Bastard,” I growl, rubbing my arm. “You should have seen this movie. It was all about how to become an ecoterrorist and fight against the system. If the Kid had gotten it, he probably would be blowing up some celebrity for wearing fur right now.”
“Eh, what can you do?” Creed says. “At least it wasn’t like last time when he said three pegs for not getting him the right brand of soy milk.” How could I forget? I had a bruise on my arm for a month.
Ty speaks for me. “He gets me the right kind now. And, Bear, I can’t believe you said it was about how to ‘fight against the system.’ I guess it’s disheartening for any child to learn their big brother is still living in the Reagan years.”
I don’t even know what that means.
AN HOUR later, we’re still on the freeway, traffic having backed up, and it’s raining harder. Creed’s been telling us what’s been going on in Arizona, more for Ty’s benefit than mine as I speak to Creed a few times a week. Ty tells him about the new teacher he had at school who he’s had to correct a few times when the teacher had been wrong in class, and about how I had to go in for a “Brother-Teacher” conference (he refuses to call it parent-teacher). He makes a face as he tells Creed about how Mr. Epson had called Benjamin Franklin a fine president. Creed looks over at me quickly, and I nod, and Creed turns back in horror to Ty, asking how anyone could get that mixed up.
“I know!” Ty mutters darkly. “There are apparently no standards to teach the third grade. And we don’t get out of school for another month.”
Ten minutes later, Ty’s talked out and asleep, his head resting on Creed’s bags. Looking back over his shoulder to make sure the Kid is actually asleep, Creed then turns to me and says quietly, “I thought Benjamin Franklin was a president.”
“I thought he was too! I had to look it up later just to make sure. Apparently he didn’t do a lot of things I thought he did.”
“He’s on money though, right?” Creed asks.
“Yeah, he is. How’d he do that if he wasn’t president?”
“He probably had a big dick.”
I grin. “Like the bigger it was, the higher the bill you would be on or something?”
“Yeah. Poor George,” Creed says, laughing. “Of course, I would be on the million-dollar bill.”
“They don’t make a million-dollar bill.”
“Well, yeah. They haven’t seen how big my dick is.” We both laugh. Then he quiets down and looks over at me. “It’s good to see you, Bear. Thanks for coming to pick me up.”
I shrug. “Sure. It’s not every day you come back, so it’s no big deal. How were finals?” I ask, trying to prolong the conversation from where it’ll inevitably go.
He groans and covers his face. “A nightmare. I don’t think they’re going to let me go back next semester.”
He grins. “You’re right. Bear, I could do this crap in my sleep. I’m getting so bored being in school. I’m doing this stupid internship right now, and it’s literally the most idiotic thing I’ve ever done. Apparently ‘intern’ means ‘glorified errand boy’.” He shakes his head. “The recommendation will be good when I graduate, though. Speaking of, I know it’s a year away, but make sure you know you and the Kid need to be in Phoenix for graduation.”
I nod. “It’ll give me enough time to start saving up some money. We should be able to swing it, at least for a couple of days.” Goddamn it! Why’d I have to—
“Bear, if you’d just let me—” Creed begins, going into that same old dance that I’ve long memorized the steps to.
I cut him off. “Don’t start that again. You know that if I needed help, I’d ask. It’s not that I’m so full of pride that I don’t know to ask if I needed to.”
He looks out the window. “I know that you would make sure Ty’s covered but you wouldn’t ask help for yourself.”
I don’t respond because I know it’s true, and anything said to the contrary would sound hollow to both of us.
Creed turns back to me. “C’mon, Bear. You know I worry about you and the Kid. It’s my right as your best friend and job as being Uncle Creed.”
“I know,” I say irritably. “But we are actually doing okay right now. I’m almost all caught up with the bills. We’re not behind on rent like we were last year. The only things I am really worried about right now is what to do about the Kid’s school next year and”—I look back to make sure Ty is still asleep—“his birthday party.”
“Brother-Teacher Conference. Apparently he’s a ‘disruption’ in class, but even the teacher and principal think it’s because he is too smart for the material. They want to move him up to fifth grade next year, but I don’t know.”
Creed whistles. “Skipping a grade? How the hell did he get so smart?” He grins and lightly punches me on the shoulder. “We know it’s nothing you did.”
I punch him back, careful not to swerve the car and end up in a ditch. “You’re telling me? I know that already. I just wonder if he needs the disruption of skipping a grade. I don’t know if that would be good for him or not.” And I really believe that. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse that Mom chose to leave me with the goddamn smartest kid on the planet. “Whatever I decide, they want an answer two weeks before the new school year begins, to fit him into a classroom.”
“And they’re not giving you any more shit over the power of attorney?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Nah. Not as much as they did at first. But they’ve been dealing with me since Ty was in kindergarten. You know I was at these meetings more than my mom ever was. The only thing that really changed is that her say-so really wasn’t needed anymore.” This had terrified me at first, of course, on top of everything else—that I had the final say over anything and everything Tyson. Even if I’d been the one to attend these teacher conferences and doctor’s appointments when our mom had still been around, she’d usually still signed off on everything. I remember being afraid that everything I did was going to be wrong and that there’d be no one there to correct my mistakes. Looking back, I don’t really know how we survived. Sheer force of will, perhaps.
Creed looks back at Ty and then at me. “Dude, if you’d have told me three years ago that we’d be having this conversation, I would have said you were high.”
“I know. It’s crazy, right?”
He laughs. “Full-on Papa-Bear mode.” He looks out the window as we pull into the Seafare city limits. “Ah, home sweet home. Did you know when I left Phoenix it was 113 degrees outside?”
I make a face. I don’t understand how anyone can live in that kind of weather. The Kid and I went to visit Creed over their holiday break a couple of years ago. It was hot on Christmas Eve, and we went swimming at this barbecue we went to. I swore I got skin cancer for the week we were there. The Kid told me I was a drama queen. Arizona is weird. Give me the ocean and cold anytime.
I turn down Seaway Avenue, which leads to the Pinecrest Coast side of town, where Creed’s house is at. And before this goes any further, let me repeat something, just so we’re clear: Creed’s family is rich, I’m not. That’s just the way it is. I’m not some kind of wrong-side-of-the-tracks cliché that needs to be saved from his life of poverty. I’m not fighting those that oppress me in some all-out movie-of-the-week kind of way. These are just the facts of life, and it is what it is and blah, blah, blah. I’m doing okay. We’re doing okay. I’ve learned in my short time here on Earth that things could always be worse.
Creed is saying something about some girl he boned or wants to bone or got halfway to boning when we turn onto his street, and his words cut off. I look over at him and see him staring at the window.
“Whose car is in my driveway?”
I look further down the street and indeed see an older Jeep Cherokee sitting in front of Creed’s four-car garage. It’s black and missing a hubcap on one of the tires. I haven’t seen it before, and I don’t think it belongs to his parents. “Do you think we should stop?”
He laughs. “Where else we gonna go? If it’s someone breaking in, I need to at least make sure they’re not taking any of my stuff.” We get closer to the house, close enough to see no one in the Jeep and to see the front door is closed and not in splinters like my overactive mind thought it would be. “Park next to it,” he says, pointing to a spot in the driveway. “I’ll go in. You stay out here with the Kid and keep your window down, and I’ll shout for you if I need help.”
I roll my eyes. “That’s sounds like a great plan. I’ll make sure to come running. Together, we’ll be able to take ’em down with all the weapons I keep in my car. Way to think that one out.”
Creed doesn’t say anything as he opens his door and gets out into the rain. I see him look through the windows on the garage door, but he doesn’t see anything that would make him run back to the car. I reach for my cell phone and dial 911 and hold my hand over the send button, just to be safe. I look in the rearview mirror and see that Ty’s still sleeping on Creed’s bags.
Creed walks up to the front door and opens it with his keys and pushes it open, calling out with deepened voice and a stuck-out chest, “Hello?” I snort and accidentally dial 911. I look at my phone in horror and hang up, hoping it didn’t go through because those people can track you anywhere. I look back up in time for Creed to buckle over, laughing.
“No way!” he yells into the house and turns back to walk out to the car where I sit, still unsure if it’s a robber or if 911 is going to call me back.
“Who is it?” I demand as he opens the door.
Creed grins at the Kid asleep on his bags and then looks back at me, his eyes dancing. “Dude, its Otter. My big bro came home.”