Or, Where Bear Reveals The Truth
I’VE lied to you from the beginning, and for that, I’m sorry.
My name is Bear McKenna, and I’m in a shitload of trouble.
“It didn’t have to come to this,” Otter growls, the barrel of the gun he’s pointing at me like a gaping black tunnel. “You should have just left it alone, Bear!”
I glare at him, this man who I thought loved me, but who, in the end, betrayed me like no other had done before. I take another step back, and my right foot slips off the edge of the rooftop we stand on, the street below at least eight hundred feet down. Blood trickles down from the cut on my face where he’d caught me off guard, right after I’d discovered who he really was. How did I not know? That this man, my man, was not who he seemed?
“How long?” I snarl at him. “How long have you been working for the FBI hunting my kind? Was any of this real? Did you ever care about me at all?”
This causes pain to cloud his hard face, and his eyes grow dark. The gun pointed at my head begins to shake. There’s doubt in him, and my breath catches in my throat. Maybe… just maybe….
“I was recruited right out of high school,” he says as he begins to pace, the gun still pointed at me. “I was told that there were things in this world, things that defied belief, and that they were dangerous, and we had to stop them. They said I had an extraordinary aptitude for everything I did, and I was a perfect candidate for a new division of the FBI. I was trained to find these things… and to stop them.”
“What things?” I snap at him, needing him to say it, needing to be sure.
He stops, and I hear him take a ragged breath before he whispers: “Were-Bears.”
Shit. So he does know.
I didn’t get my nickname as I’d told you before. I got it because of what I was, what I could become. I discovered at a very early age that I was a shifter, a being capable of turning from human form into that of an animal. You’ve probably heard all the shifter lore before, but I’m here to tell you it’s all bullshit. There’s no such thing as Werewolves, or Were-Panthers, or Were-Giraffes. Only Were-Bears actually exist, and we are slowly dying out, our kind hunted almost to the point of extinction. The Council of the Bears had called an emergency session to try and curb the tide against us, but I was unable to get there in time, seeing as how my supposed boyfriend had suddenly become the hunter and trapped me here on this rooftop.
Thunder explodes overhead. Lightning flashes.
“I trusted you!” I shout at him as rain begins to fall from the darkened sky. “You are my—” But I stop myself before I make the biggest mistake of all. He can’t know what he is to me, not if he’s to stay safe.
But this is Otter, and I should know better. “I am your what?” he asks me, taking another step closer.
It seems despite my resolve, I can deny him nothing. “You are my mate,” I say miserably. “A Were-Bear is destined to be with only one person, one person who understands him completely, whose biological makeup completes the bear. It’s next to impossible to actually find one’s mate, but I found you. Somehow the Bear God saw fit to give me you. It was always you.”
“I knew it,” he breathes. “I knew there was something….”
I shake my head, trying to clear out the hope starting to crowd in my mind. “It doesn’t matter,” I whisper. “You’re a part of the FBI’s secret side agency: People for the Execution of Terrestrial Abnormalities. I knew it the moment I saw your PETA badge!”
“Bear, you don’t understand!” Otter says as he lowers his gun and rushes to me. My Were-Bear instincts threaten to take over, wanting to maul him and shred the skin from his bones, and then hibernate for three to six months in a cave on a nest of grass and leaves while my stored body fat keeps me alive through the winter. But I look up into the gold-green, the eyes of my mate, and the rain falls down around us, and I can’t maul him any more than I can turn him away. “You don’t understand!” he says again. “I’m not what you think I am, either!”
“You’re not?” I whisper as he kisses my forehead gently.
“No,” he says, taking a step back. “I only agreed to go into PETA because I knew I could keep tabs on what they were doing from the inside. You see, I know what you are. I’ve known for a long time. Because… because I’ve been keeping a secret too.”
“What?” I ask, chills racing down my spine. “What is it?”
“I’m a Were too,” he says, setting his gun down onto the ground. “Bear, there aren’t just Were-Bears in the world. Werewolves are bullshit, but there are others. I….”
He closes his eyes and raises his face toward the sky. “I… am a Were-Otter.” Then, as if my night couldn’t get any stranger, Otter’s skin suddenly begins to shift and tremble, fine brown hairs sprouting from his arms as he shrinks. Muscles and bone snap and creak as they shorten, and within seconds, Otter the man is gone, and from a pile of clothes crawls out a fat brown otter. He waddles over to me and sits up on his haunches, his nose twitching as I fall to my knees.
“Otter?” I whisper. “You’re… an otter?”
Yes, I hear him say in my head, his voice a caress. I’ve always been a Were-Otter.
“Why didn’t you just tell me?” I ask, my voice hoarse. “Don’t you know how alone I was? Even with you there, I felt so alone because I couldn’t tell you my greatest secret!”
Otter looks at me sadly, his whiskers drooping.I just w anted to keep you safe. If they had found out about you, you would have been taken from me. And I’m not just talking about PETA.
“Who?” I ask, not wanting to know the answer. A loud crack of thunder rolls out of the sky.
His nose twitches in my direction, and for a moment, I wonder if he is trying to smell me. I think that’s very weird. The Clan of Otters, he says. There was a prophecy foretold generations ago that there would be a union between a Were-Bear and a Were-Otter, and it would unite the two groups. But Otters are fiercely territorial and have since been trying to negate the prophecy so we don’t have to share our underwater dens. Bear… there’s something you should know: you are my mate too. And the prophecy… is about us.
“No,” I whisper. “It can’t be.”
Otter falls back to his feet and waddles back to his clothes. It is true, he thinks back at me. And I have the proof right here. Bear, what I am about to show you has never been seen outside of the Clan of Otters. I risked my life to get this, in case a moment like this arose, where I needed to make you believe. But first, shifting always drains me, and I need to eat to regain my strength. Otter pulls a clam out of his coat pocket and rolls over onto his back, placing the shellfish on his stomach.
“What the hell are you doing?” I growl.
I am an otter. We eat clams off our bellies. It’s how it’s always been.
“We don’t have time for this!”
All done. Here… take a look at this and—
But that’s all he’s able to get out. The rooftop door suddenly opens, and men in full Kevlar race out onto the building, automatic rifles pointed at each of us. Otter shifts back into his human form, standing naked between me and the gunmen. “Whatever happens,” he says quietly to me, “I need you to trust me. Can you do that, Bear?”
Can I? This man is everything to me, but everything I knew about him was a lie. But even I, the Crown Royal Prince of the Were-Bears, cannot deny my mate. “I trust you,” I whisper. I feel him shiver against me, my words causing gooseflesh to ripple across his skin.
Then the leader of PETA walks out onto the rooftop.
I should have known. I’d heard stories about how sadistic the guy in charge was, and I should have put two and two together. I haven’t seen him since a year or so ago, when he discovered my identity and we last battled, but he hasn’t changed at all, not really. That grin is still the same.
“Finally,” Tyson McKenna says, twirling his handlebar mustache. “I have you both right where I want you.” He cackles maniacally.
“Nice eyepatch, Kid,” I snap at him. “It’s certainly an improvement.”
The Kid reaches up and rubs the patch covering the right socket where his eye used to be, a remnant from our last fight. I’d ripped the eye from its socket while in my bear form, and his screams had been long and loud. “You’ll pay for your transgressions, Bear,” the Kid shouts, “and pay dearly you shall! You have nowhere to run. My men have this place surrounded! You are now my prisoners, and you’ll come back with me to the underground PETA lair, where I’ll perform dastardly experimentations and will finally glean the secrets of the Were-Bear and Were-Otter! The world will forever remember what PETA and I have done this night! The world will be mine!”
“I’ll never let you have him!” Otter hisses. “Bear is mine!”
The Kid cackles again. “Oh yes, I’d forgotten you were mates. Such a trivial thing, love is. It can bring even the greatest man to his knees.” He looks darkly amused as he glances between us. “Have you told him yet, Otter? Have you told Bear your final secret?”
“Kid,” Otter warns, “you leave that out of this!”
“Bear, you should know this before you are separated from your mate, never to see each other again.”
“Kid!” Otter shouts. “Don’t do this!”
“When a Were-Bear and Were-Otter are destined to be mates, such as is written in the Prophecy of Otter-Se-Ra, the otter is biologically endowed with the capability… to become pregnant.”
Lightning flashes overhead.
“You’re pregnant?” I whisper to Otter.
He nods sadly. “With a litter of Otter-Bears.” He presses my hand against his distended stomach. “There are sixteen of them,” he sighs. “And you’re the father.”
“I just thought you were getting fat,” I say, feeling a kick against my palm, the little life inside my mate.
“Fat with my love for you,” he whispers as he gazes into my eyes.
“I can’t let any harm come to you and my babies,” I tell him. And with that, I pull him off the edge of the building.
As we fall through the night air, the rain slashing against our faces, the Kid screaming from somewhere up above, I shift into the Great Grizzly that is my Were-Bear form. My arms and legs explode in muscle and hair, the claws stretching into wicked three-inch black hooks. My face elongates and my snout picks up a billion different scents in the air. But then my royal heritage reveals itself as wings unfurl from my sides, catching the wind and lifting us up.
“You can fly?” Otter shouts over the rushing cacophony around us.
Yes, I think at him. And I can breathe fire. I open my jaws, and a great flaming gout shoots out of my mouth, causing the rain around us to hiss as it evaporates.
“I can’t wait to have our babies,” he says to me, stroking my ears.
Me either, I think at him. Otter, I lo—
“THIS is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” the Kid says, scowling at me and interrupting my epic story. He sits up in his bed, the covers falling down at his sides. “Bears don’t have wings!”
“Fat with my love for you?” Otter says incredulously from his spot next to me on the Kid’s bed. “You made me pregnant and said I was fat with my love for you?”
“What the hell are you guys talking about?” I ask, feeling insulted. “That was getting really good!”
“If by good you mean not good, then, yes, it was getting very good,” the Kid retorts.
“You made me a pregnant shifting otter!” Otter yelps.
“Whatever,” I say as I roll my eyes. “Mrs. Paquinn told me that shifter stories are more popular than any other subgenre and that I should try to cash in on them.”
“I think if you’re going all the way down to subgenres to start with, then you have a problem already,” the Kid says. “Besides, aren’t those stories all pretty much the same? Be careful, Bear. You wouldn’t want anyone accusing you of copying someone else. Trust me: there’s a few people on the Internet who have way too much time on their hands.”
He’s got a point there.
His eyes flash. “And I won’t have you besmirching the good name of PETA! Although,” he concedes, “my evil mustache was a big selling point. And I liked the eyepatch. Can I get an eyepatch?”
“Do you want me to be pregnant?” Otter asks me. “Is that all I am to you? A baby factory?”
I ignore him and look at the Kid. “Well, if you hadn’t so rudely interrupted what is obviously a masterpiece in the making, you’d have found out that you also had a robot arm and dark secrets of your own. But since you stopped me, you’ll never, ever know what those secrets are. It’s time to go to sleep.”
The Kid rolls his eyes. “What secrets? Like I would have had an evil twin brother or something? Lame.”
“No,” I say, even though that was totally it. Dammit. I thought it sounded cool. “Bedtime.”
“Well, I did like how I was in charge of PETA, even if you made it evil.” He yawns and falls back onto his pillow. “Can you leave the light on low? I’m still not used to the new house.” I nod and flip the lamp to its lowest setting and kiss him gently on the forehead. The Kid is out even before I shut the door behind us.
As soon as we’re in our bedroom, Otter spins me around and shoves me face-first up against the wall, holding my hands above my head, pressing his body up against mine and grinding wonderfully into my hip. “I’ll show you pregnant,” he growls near my ear as he licks the nape of my neck.
“That sounds so wrong when you say it like that,” I manage to whimper before his other hand is down the back of my jeans and doing neat things to my ass.
Huh. If this is the reaction I get to one of my stories made up on the fly, maybe I should be a writer after all. Or something. I can’t quite seem to focus right now, and what was I saying? What were we talking about?
Here we go again.
Where Bear Goes to War
WE WERE at war, he and I.
I’d inadvertently fired the opening salvo on the day forever known as the Big Move (It’s About Time). It was not intentional, but I’ve learned that maybe the first shots never really are. Of course it wasn’t intentional; who in their right mind would want to face the wrath of the smartest nine-year-old vegetarian ecoterrorist-in-training on the planet?
Not I. Much greater men than I have fallen to him.
It was one of the last boxes in the apartment, and there were only a few things left to pack. I’d gone into the bedroom to make sure we’d gotten everything, that nothing was left behind. It’d startled me, if only for a moment, to see how empty the room was: divots on the floors showing where bedposts had rested for years. Faint outlines of posters on the walls. A stain in the corner that I just knew wasn’t going to allow me to get the damn deposit back (and I really didn’t want to know what it was; it was a greenish-bluish thing that screamed “bad tenants.” I thought maybe I should at least try to clean it, but it looked too gross, so I just left it alone). I was struck, oddly, by a sense of sadness at the empty space before me. I don’t adapt to change very well, even if it’s a good thing. So much had happened here, so much that had changed everything about our lives, that it seemed important that I stop and at least send up a grateful thank-you to who’d ever take it.
So I was distracted, okay? It wasn’t intentional. I swear.
I noticed something light blue near the closet. A shirt that somehow had gotten missed. I picked it up, rolling my eyes at the MEAT ISN’T NEAT slogan across the front. I don’t know how the hell he’d missed this; it was literally the most favorite thing he owned. Well, that and the random collection of other shirts he started ordering online with my credit card (once he’d learned that all it took was punching in the numbers into the website and he could order whatever he wanted—you’d have thought that Jesus had come back and told him that vegetarians are the next step in human evolution; he’d been that excited.) Every few days a new box would show up at our door, containing shirts with such winners as GIVE ME TOFU OR GIVE ME DEATH or one with Gandhi’s face and his quote underneath: “You can judge a society by the way it treats its animals.” That one had made me feel a little guilty. And way creeped out, because Gandhi’s eyes seemed to follow me everywhere, like he knew, just knew I was thinking about pulled pork.
But it was when that last one had come that I had to draw the line. Imagine, if you will, sitting down for breakfast one randomly bright and sunny morning, and your little brother walks into a room wearing a shirt that says WANT LONGER LASTING SEX? BECOME A VEGETARIAN! Seriously? Come on. Seriously!
I was in the middle of saying something to Otter when the little shit walked into the kitchen, pretending not to notice me noticing him. My spoon had dropped from my hand and clattered onto the table, and Otter had followed my line of sight as the blood drained from my face and my jaw dropped open. And did that big bastard help me? You bet your ass he didn’t. Otter started bellowing great gales of laughter and pounding the table with his gigantic paws, causing it to rattle and shake. I glared at him for a moment and then looked back and waited for He Who Was About To Have His Internet Privileges Seriously Revoked Forever to turn around.
You would have thought the Kid was the greatest method actor in the history of the craft. He calmly took a packet of oatmeal from the cabinet and laid it on the counter. He took a bowl from the dishwasher and placed it next to the oatmeal. He walked to the fridge and took out his filtered water and walked back to the counter. He tore open the packet and dumped the oatmeal into the bowl. He threw the packet into the garbage. He unscrewed the cap on his water and poured a bit into the bowl. He screwed back on the cap and walked back to the fridge and put the bottle inside and closed the door. He walked back to his bowl and walked over to the microwave and clicked the button and set his breakfast inside. He closed the microwave and set the timer for three minutes. While it counted down, he watched it with disinterest, glancing down at his fingernails, picking at something on his arm. He fixed his hair in the reflection off the microwave and got a spoon from the drawer. The timer finally dinged, and he took out his oatmeal and blew on it, grimacing slightly as if the bowl was hot. He grabbed the spoon and walked toward the table. He pulled the chair out and sat down, spreading a napkin in his lap. He politely asked Otter if he was done with the first pages of the newspaper. Otter—who by this time was gasping for air with tears streaming down his face—waved his hand in the Kid’s direction. The Kid picked up the newspaper and muttered to himself about this and that (depending on what day it was, it could be anything from the economy to gay marriage laws—that last he’d really taken an interest in, much to my horror) and opened the newspaper. He picked up the spoon and stirred his oatmeal for a bit, blowing on it to cool it further.
And while this whole thing was happening, while my little Marlon Brando was giving the performance of his career, that vein in my forehead grew bigger and bigger, and my jaw began to ache as I ground my teeth. My eyes had never left him, not once since he’d entered the room. I knew he’d felt them on him the moment he’d walked in. I knew he’d heard Otter doing his best impersonation of what it must sound like to be murdered by laughter. And through it all, Tyson McKenna’s face remained bland and passive, as if he were unaware of his surroundings.
I cleared my throat.
He flipped a page in the newspaper.
I cleared my throat again, louder this time, and it came out like a growl.
He took a bite of oatmeal, hissing a little bit as if it was still too hot.
I cleared my throat yet again, not so much a growl as me sounding like I was trying to start a lawn mower unsuccessfully.
He went back to the newspaper and said, “Gee, Papa Bear, I sure hope you’re not coming down with something. Especially since it’s so close to the Big Move (It’s About Time).”
“Kid,” I said through gritted teeth.
Otter looked back and forth between us, that crooked grin on full display, the gold and green in his eyes shining brightly. I made a mental note to kill him later.
“Oh, look,” Ty said, “Newt Gingrich made himself appear crazy again. Bless his heart. You’d think he’d know by now that he’s better seen and not heard.” He paused. “Well, maybe not even seen.”
“Kid,” I said louder, sharper.
“And the weather! Well, I never! The extended seven-day forecast says there’s a 40 percent chance of rain every day? I shall have to remember to take an umbrella when I have my engagements.”
“Tyson James McKenna!” I shouted.
He calmly folded the newspaper and laid it down on the table before folding his hands in front of him and finally looking at me. “I’ve noticed,” he said seriously, “that when people don’t have anything meaningful to add to a conversation, they usually just raise their volume.”
I didn’t get it, so I dismissed it. I figured he was insulting me somehow. “What… in all that’s holy… are you wearing?” I ground out. Quite loudly.
His eyes widened in surprise as he looked down then back up at me. He glanced at Otter as well, a look of gentle confusion on his face. I could hear Otter starting to lose it again, and I knew I needed to end this now.
“What are you talking about, Bear?” the Kid asked me. “I’m wearing clothes. It’s a thing people do. It’s kind of a societal norm.” He paused for a moment, his face scrunching up. “Well, except for nudists. Did you know that they have resorts where people can go and just walk around naked? CNN did this in-depth investigative report on one, something about how the main nudist dude was embezzling from other nudists or whatever, and for the life of me, I just can’t see the appeal in that, because it seems like it’d be kind of gross to have to stare at people’s dangly parts all day while you’re playing shuffleboard and sipping mimosas. I mean, what if you wanted to eat a veggie corn dog? The visual alone must be enough to make you ill. And don’t get me started on other phallic foods. You’d think Mother Nature was a nympho with how many foods are shaped like penises.”
“Tyson—” I said again, starting to stand, knowing if I didn’t end this now, he’d likely go on all day.
“What are swingers?” he asked, cutting me off.
Otter broke and started hyperventilating. Big help, that one.
“Are you out of your mind?” I shouted at the Kid.
“It’s true!” he shouted back. “There are so many foods that look like dongs!”
“That’s not what I’m talking about!”
“Then spit it out! I’m not psychic, Bear!”
“You can’t wear that shirt!”
He glanced down at it, then back up at me, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Why?” he asked. “Worried the soul of that cow you consumed last night won’t allow you to reach your full potential?” He looked over at Otter and reached out to pat his hands. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “You must be so bored by now. You know. In the bedroom.” This last part came out as a whisper.
“Hey! He eats meat too,” I reminded the both of them angrily, as Otter looked like he had just been given the Nobel Prize for Awesomeness.
“He does,” the Kid agreed. “But he at least has the common sense to feel guilty about it afterwards.”
“I do,” Otter whispered. “Sometimes, it’s hard for me to get to sleep at night, knowing the next morning I’ll be eating a big pile of bacon while I cry.”
“Oh, Otter,” the Kid sighed greatly, the weight of the world on his shoulders. “If only there was a vegetarian church where you could go confess and be absolved of your meat sins.”
“Like the Church of Edamame?”
“Church of Tofu?”
“So help me God, I will punish the both of you,” I growled, ignoring the smirk in the Kid’s eyes and the flare of lust in Otter’s.
“What is your major malfunction?” the Kid asked. He and Otter had recently watched Full Metal Jacket, and Tyson had thought Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was God. He asked me that question at least six times a day now. I told Otter he was never allowed to pick out movies ever again. Otter had just grinned and told me to shut up.
“You can’t wear a shirt that talks about sex!”
“I do! You’re nine years old!”
“Oh, please. I’m not wearing it because I have sex. I’m wearing it because it’s a proven fact. And I’m nine and one-quarter. That’s practically ten. Double digits, Papa Bear.”
“Proven by who?” I asked suspiciously.
He looked at me as if I was stupid. “PETA.”
I was incredulous. “PETA said that? PETA? Tyson, that’s like the NRA saying guns don’t kill people, that people kill people. Of course they say that!”
“I think both guns and people kill people,” Otter said, obviously contributing to the conversation.
The Kid looked at me with some newfound respect. “That was a highly intelligent observation, Bear,” he told me. “Color me surprised.”
“Yeah, well,” I said, blushing.
“No, seriously. It sounds like you may have actually read something.”
“Well, there was this thing online. You know. It just kind of caught my eye.”
“Good for you. It’s awesome to see you are broadening your horizons.”
“Yeah. And there was this other thing? On, like, how there’s all these uprisings? You know, in like Egypt and Syria and stuff like that? That looked… bad… for all those people.”
He nodded gravely. “A lot of suffering going on across the pond. I hope one day they can find peace and all the citizens can be free.”
I felt relieved. “Me too.”
He clapped his hands together. “Well,” he said. “This has been a most interesting breakfast. I really feel that we all learned something today. Now, if you don’t mind, I have some… things… I need to do online.”
“Okay,” I said, smiling at him. “Just remember, you need to start packing up your books this morning too.”
He grinned at me and it was dazzling. “I know, Papa Bear. I can’t wait for the Big Move (It’s About Time).”
My smile widened. “Me either.”
He cleaned his bowl in the sink and whistled as he walked out of the room.
I laughed quietly, feeling strangely pleased with myself. I’d gone toe to toe with the Kid on current events and hadn’t come across sounding like an idiot. I’m not normally one to be topical (I mean, really, who has the time?) but this caused me to want to learn even more. I picked up the Kid’s discarded paper and started to flip through it, wanting to read more news stories that I could talk to the Kid about. Expand my horizons a bit. I wondered who this Newt Gingrich was and why he was crazy, and I started searching for his name.
Otter stood and began clearing the table while I was on my quest for knowledge. When I’d finally found the dude’s name and started to read, he bent down and gripped my chin gently. He brought my mouth to his and kissed me sweetly, his tongue parting my lips and tangling gently with mine. I couldn’t help it when I groaned into him, his lips soft and warm against my own, urging, but not really pushing for more. He pulled away after a minute and touched his forehead to mine. I stared up into that gold-green that meant so much to me and sighed happily to myself.
“Bear,” he breathed. “You know I love you, right? With every fiber of my being?”
I nodded, suddenly feeling a bit misty-eyed. He tends to make me like that.
“And you know I think you’re smart?”
I nodded again, squirming at his praise.
“Well, then, I hope you’re not going to be upset when I tell you this.”
I shook my head, a little worried.
“The Kid just totally played you.”
I cocked my head.
“Like, seriously, completely manhandled you.”
I furrowed my brow, feeling my jaw grow tense.
“Like, he destroyed you.”
My eyes twitched.
“Like, to the point it was almost brutal to watch.”
My lip quivered in righteous indignation.
Otter sighed. “But, holy crap, do I love you.” He kissed my forehead and left.
“Kid!” I roared.
OKAY, so, what happened then wasn’t done on purpose. You have to believe me. Totally an accident. I’d found the MEAT ISN’T NEAT shirt piled in the corner, somehow missed but not forgotten. There were only a couple of boxes left, and I figured I could just put it in one of those to get it moved. How was I supposed to know that there was also a bottle of bleach in that box hidden under other cleaning stuff? How was I to know that said bottle of bleach had a leak in it? That when I shoved the shirt into the box without looking, it’d fallen right into the corner where the leak was happening? It wasn’t done on purpose. I wasn’t looking! I had a billion other things on my mind!
But, my God, did that start a war.
I was in the kitchen of the Green Monstrosity (our new house, our wonderful house, the house that was the most horribly offensive color known to man) when I heard the Kid cry out, the horror in his voice sending chills down my spine. I dropped the pots and pans I’d been putting away, and they clattered to the floor as I ran. I can’t even tell you how many scenarios exploded through my head as I rushed toward my little brother, who had cried out again, a sound so long and mournful that it caused me to ache. Did he hurt himself? How bad is it? Do we need to go to the hospital? Oh God, I hope I know where the insurance cards are. Fuck the cards, I can get them later. What if he broke his arm? What if he found a human skull under the floorboards? I never checked to see if this house had an unsolved murder that’d happened inside it. Why didn’t I check that before we moved here? Oh God, what if there are hundreds of dead bodies under the floors! Like, what if this was the former home of what will be known as the world’s worst serial killer? Is our house haunted now? I don’t believe in ghosts. That’s stupid. There’s no such thing as ghosts. What if the Kid saw a ghost?
When you hear your little brother cry out like that, it’s not always going to be rational thoughts that go through your head. I suppose I could continue on in that same vein, but you get the idea. I’ve learned in my short time being a brother/parent that it’s way too easy to automatically believe the worst has happened. I expected there to be blood or a severed limb or maybe a big python wrapped around his little body, choking the life out of him.
What I didn’t expect was the fury in his eyes.
I rounded the corner into our new living room, glancing around wildly until my gaze skittered onto the Kid. He stood before an opened box, a dripping white/blue something in his hands. I rushed over to him and heard Otter running in behind me.
“What happened?” I gasped out. “Are you alright?”
“Who did this?” he whispered, looking down at the fabric in his hands, moist and splotchy. At first I couldn’t tell what it was, and I began checking him roughly to make sure his bits and pieces were still attached. As far as I could see, he was fine, and I allowed myself a brief moment to relax.
Until I really saw what he held in his hands.
Then, I knew the shitstorm that was coming.
“What is it?” Otter asked, his tone worried and sharp. “Are you okay?”
“Who… did… this?”
“Did what?” I said, exasperated, my heart thumping in my chest.
He held up the blue and white fabric in his hands, his little fingers trembling. The fabric was soaked with something, and a bright smell bit my nose and eyes. I looked at the words on the front of his shirt and paled. The words that now read ME IS NEAT.
Oh, fuck, I thought.
“I dunno,” I mumbled.
Liar, my conscience chided.
Shut up, I said back.
“Bear, why won’t you look at me?” the Kid said through gritted teeth as I found something neat to stare at on the other side of the room.
“What?” I glanced back at him, then looked away again. “I’m looking at you.”
“Uh-oh,” Otter said succinctly.
“Did you put this in the box with the bleach?” the Kid asked me.
“There was bleach in there? I’m sure I didn’t know that.”
“The fact that the box is labeled cleaning supplies wouldn’t have given it away?” His voice was rising, and I took a step back, only to run into a wall of resistance that was my boyfriend. My big solid, stupid boyfriend who wouldn’t move to let me run out the front door and to the next county. Or even take the blame for this one. Otter felt me twitching and to ensure I couldn’t get away, grabbed my arm and held me tightly. I glared back up at him for just a split second. The traitor.
“You did this on purpose,” the Kid accused me with an angry tremor in his voice. “You did this to get back at me for the whole nudist colony/penis food/veggie sex shirt thing.”
“I did not!” I said, indignant.
The Kid shoved it toward me. “How the hell am I supposed to wear this anymore! You won’t let me buy more shirts because you’re scared of the vegetarian message and now you go and ruin the ones I have? I demand retribution!”
I looked down at the shirt again, reading its words. ME IS NEAT. “Well, you gotta admit, it has a new message now,” I told him optimistically. “Like, if you needed a self-confidence boost one day and didn’t mind bad grammar, you could still wear it.” I heard Otter snort behind me, and his body started to shake as he attempted to keep his mirth at bay to avoid the wrath of the Kid.
The Kid’s eyes narrowed. Apparently he didn’t think it was funny. “One day, Bear, and one day soon,” he warned ominously, “when you least expect it, I’m going to get you back for this. You won’t see me coming but, my God, it will be epic. You’ve been warned.”
He turned and left the room.
I turned and smacked Otter across the chest. He winced and growled at me, “What the hell was that for?”
“You could have helped me,” I snapped at him. “You should have said you did it!”
He cocked an eyebrow. “You’re joking, right? Did you see the look on the Kid’s face? Bear, I would take a bullet for you, I would jump on a grenade for you, but I would never get between you and the Kid when he’s pissed. You’re a goner, Papa Bear.” He grinned the Otter grin at me, but it took on a melancholy curve. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.” The smile faded and his lower lip quivered. “I am just going to miss you so damn much—”
“Shut it down,” I barked at him. “You’re not helping me at all.”
He started to back away. “I promise I’ll do my best to raise Tyson as you’d want me to. Somehow, I think we just might make it and I’ll—”
I took a menacing step toward him and sneered at him. “Bullshit. You wouldn’t make it a single day without me. You’d miss me too much.”
“And maybe someday,” he continued, the glint in his eyes growing brighter, “I’ll be able to find love again, and it’ll be like one of those romance novels that Mrs. Paquinn reads. Where a widowed man is responsible for a smart child and finds a new love who’s a doctor or a fireman who’ll break through the walls the sad man has so hastily constructed, and they’ll all live happily ever after as a family. My God, the clichés that will be our lives will be immense and wonderful.”
“Like hell,” I snarled. “If the Kid takes me out, you’re going to be alone forever. Nobody can put up with your bullshit like me.”
“Is that right?”
“Only me,” I insisted. He stopped moving and I bumped into him, looking up into his eyes. He smiled down at me, causing my breath to catch in my throat. I still hadn’t gotten used to the way he sometimes looked at me, that regard that threatened to flatten me.
He brought up a hand and cupped my cheek before kissing the tip of my nose, a spot he knows I hate but still allow him to do it. I’m not so very good when it comes to saying no to Otter Thompson. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days, and his stubble was wonderfully rough as he rubbed his cheek against mine, like he was trying to embed his scent onto me to mark me as his own. My dick began to fly at half-mast, and it was almost enough to make me forget about the threats on my life by a nine-year-old.
“Only you,” Otter said before kissing me deeply.
I WAS on my guard for the next day or so until I said something that caused the Kid to laugh hysterically, and he jumped in my lap and started babbling as he always did. After that, I figured we were in the free and clear. It was hard to imagine that someone like him could be so diabolical as to consider psychological warfare.
But that’s exactly what he did.
It started out with a simple observation. I had just gotten home from work at the grocery store, a ten-hour shift that exhausted me. I collapsed onto the couch as the Kid wandered in, smiling as he sat down next to me. We talked for a bit about our days while Otter cooked dinner in the kitchen. Then, as if distracted, the Kid stopped midsentence and reached up to brush off my shoulders.
“What?” I asked, looking down where his hands had been.
“Just a few hairs or something on your shoulder,” he replied with a shrug before continuing on about how he’d just finished watching some program on the effects of radiation poisoning. I tried to keep a straight face, but then he started talking about fingernails melting, and I had to gag.
“I can’t believe that shit doesn’t bug you,” I told him.
“Why would it?”
The next day, we were eating breakfast when he passed by me and gave me a hug. I was used to these little attacks from him, growing more and more frequent, much to my pleasure. His head rested on my shoulder for a moment before he looked up at me and smiled. Then I watched as the smile slid from his face. “What’s wrong?” I asked, trying to keep the worry from my voice.
He reached over and brushed my shoulder again. “You keep shedding,” he muttered. Then his eyes rose to my head, and he frowned slightly before beckoning me to lean closer. I did, keeping my eyes on him. “Well that explains it,” he said quietly, almost somber.
“The hairs I keep seeing on your shoulders.”
“What about them?”
The Kid looked slightly sad before he spoke. “You’re losing your hair, Papa Bear.”
Then, “Excuse me?”
“Your hairline,” he explained carefully. “It’s starting to recede a bit. Was your dad or grandpa bald?”
I laughed uncomfortably. “Shut up, Kid. You’re just trying to freak me out.”
“Okay,” he said, sounding dubious. “Maybe look in a mirror or something. You’re still pretty young for that to be happening. Wow, can you imagine if that were true, though? Bald by the time you’re thirty? Gosh, that would just suck.”
He walked out of the kitchen.
I stared after him.
Once I was sure he was gone, I leapt up from the chair and ran the opposite way, past boxes not yet unpacked, down the hall, until I reached the master bedroom and shoved my way into the bathroom, steam spreading across the mirror since Otter was in the shower. I could see him through the curtain, and for a moment, my mouth went dry at the thought of naked Otter all soapy and wet, those long legs, those big arms. Water falling in tiny rivers down his chest and stomach, leaving trails just begging to be licked. I adjusted myself, the front of my pajama shorts suddenly uncomfortably tight.
But then I caught my reflection. My hair.
I wiped away the fog from the glass and stared at my hairline, pushing it forward and back, trying to see if the Kid was right. My black hair looked like it always had, loose and floppy, in need of yet another haircut. But… didn’t it look like it had receded a little bit? Didn’t it look like I was losing my hair? I stared in horror at the mirror, the brown eyes of my reflection getting wider and wider, my hands trembling.
“Motherfucker!” I grumbled.
“Bear?” Otter called out over the water. “That you?”
I couldn’t answer.
He pulled back the curtain and stuck out his head, giving me an evil grin. “What’re you doing?” he said in that low voice of his, that voice that tells me he wouldn’t mind one bit if I got in the shower and got on my knees and proceeded to blow the fuck out of him.
“You’re going to leave me,” I whimpered as a hair fell off my head and onto the white countertop.
He laughed. “What? What are you looking at, Bear?”
“White sheets,” I blurted out, refusing to look at him looking at me.
“I want white sheets for the bed.” I thought hard for a moment. “And white pillow cases!” I didn’t dare say aloud that it would be so I could see any of the traitorous hairs that would flee my head during the night.
“Uh… you okay?” he asked me as he turned off the water, pulling the curtain completely to the side. I snuck a look over and saw all six foot one of glorious, tan, naked Otter. His dick swung out in front of him, begging to be grabbed. He looked like he had just stepped off a porno set, all wet and slick and raring to go. Something shorted in my head.
“White sheets!” I half screamed at him as I ran out of the bathroom.
I BOUGHT white bed sheets that same day (“Make sure you get five-hundred thread count,” my super diva princess boyfriend said. “You know I can’t sleep on anything less.”). I hurried home, throwing them in the washing machine, pacing in front of it until it dinged and then launched them into the dryer.
During this interminable hour and a half, a dozen different scenarios played through my head, each more realistic than the last as to how my life would be as a balding man in his twenties: So, if this is true, if this is really happening to me, the first thing I’ve got to do is accept it. Acceptance is the key; it’s the only way I can get through this. First thing to decide: do I try and work with it or shave my head? Shaving my head would suck because I’m pretty sure my head is lumpy and shaped weird. Working with it would suck because every day my forehead would look like it’s getting a little bit bigger, like my head is growing. Okay, so say I work with it? Do I do a comb-over? Like, maybe let it grow out a little bit more so I have something extra to work with? Oh God! What if I get that little bald patch on the back of my head that looks like a helicopter landing pad? What if it falls off in clumps and creepy patches and I look like I have leprosy? Can people still get leprosy? For that matter, can people still get the plague? Didn’t I read something that someone got the plague or something recently? Maybe that was anthrax. Why do people send white powder in envelopes to government agencies? They must be really fucking bored. And crazy. Like, okay. Say you hate the IRS. You decide to be all devious and put laundry detergent into an envelope, and you mail it to them because you owe a bajillion dollars in back taxes. Panic ensues. The worst thing that happens is that people get a day off from work. Ooooh, so evil. You showed them. How neat are you? I bet those people that do that shit are bald too. Oh crap. I’m going to be bald and mail Tide to government buildings, and I’ll bitch and moan about how The Man is bringing us down, and I’ll live in a shack in the middle of the woods. That’s my future. I’m going to be a bald detergent terrorist. Damn you, genetics!
Needless to say, by the time the dryer went off, I was a wreck.
The Kid walked by the open door of the bedroom and stopped to watch me for a moment as I tore off the old sheets and spread on the new ones, muttering to myself. “New sheets?” he asked innocently. “And white even. How sterile.”
“Just needed new ones,” I told him.
He nodded and shrugged and walked away, whistling some song I didn’t recognize.
By then it was only four thirty in the afternoon, way too early to consider going to bed, even if I was going slightly crazy. I eyed the Benadryl in the bathroom for a moment, considering chugging it down and going to bed right then. But then Otter said he needed help putting together the entertainment center, and I groaned and turned off the bathroom light, shutting the door behind me.
“ARE you tired?” I asked Otter at eight that night. We were in front of the TV, the Kid in his new bedroom, plotting the downfall of carnivores everywhere. “I’m tired. Are you tired?”
He cocked his head at me. “You feel okay? You’ve been acting weird all day.” He reached up to rub the back of my head, and I knew he would feel the growing bald spot, so I ducked my head away from him.
“No, I haven’t.” I scowled. “You’re weird.”
He rolled his eyes. “Good one. Seriously. What’s up?”
I looked at him for a moment, trying to decide what my next words would be, but of course, my mouth opened before I could stop it: “Would you still love me if I sent detergent to the IRS?”
He burst out laughing. “Is this one of those little games that couples play?” he asked me while he chuckled. “Like would you still love me if I had twelve fingers?”
I gaped at him.
“Oh, or would you still love me if I turned out to be a notorious bank robber on the run from Interpol?”
He was enjoying this stupid game he’d started way too much. “I know! Would you still love me if I wanted to get a sex change?”
I stared. “A sex change?”
He shrugged. “I’d still be the same person.”
“Yeah, but you’d be a chick.”
His eyes narrowed. “I would still be me,” he grumped. “And we all know you like chicks.”
This was weird. “Do you want to get a sex change?” I asked slowly.
“Apparently that can’t even be on the table because you’d dump me! I’d still love you if you turned out to be a laundry terrorist, but you wouldn’t be able to stay with me if I had a vagina? Uncool, Bear. So uncool. I thought you loved me. You won’t even let me be myself if I needed to be.”
“Are you fucking stupid?” I snapped at him.
He looked at me with that gold-green, and then his eyes flitted down to my shoulder. He reached up carefully and brushed it gently. “What?” I asked him, panic in my voice.
He shrugged. “Just a couple of hairs.”
Oh… my… God.
Getting ready for bed that night was a nightmare, the white sheets blinding in the overhead light that swung gently on the ceiling fan. They mocked me as I slid on my sleep shorts, telling me that when I woke up in the morning, it’d look like somebody had shaved a cat while we slept. Otter smiled quietly as he walked past me, pulling the toothbrush from his mouth to give me a Colgate kiss. How could he know the storm that brewed in me that night? How life as I knew it was so over, that I was so full of angst and despair that I just couldn’t possibly see how I could go on? Oh, how I wish he knew.
I got into bed, my heart thumping against my chest. Otter crawled in after me and pulled me tightly against him, his breath warm against my neck, his arms wrapping around me, forcing one of his big legs between my own.
“I love you, Bear,” he whispered sweetly as he reached up to switch off the light.
It went dark. He dropped off almost immediately.
I stayed awake long into the night.
“AHH!” I practically shouted when I opened my eyes the next morning.
There it was. Right next to my face. Mocking me.
A fucking hair. My life was over.
Otter grunted and rolled toward me, cracking open a blurry eye and sighing. “Bad dream?” he asked in a sleep-roughened voice. Normally, it was sexy when he sounded like that. Normally, it zinged straight to my dick. But now? Oh Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, now all I could do was stare in horror at the pillow, the single hair moving gently in the breeze from the ceiling fan, like it was waving good-bye, like it was saying so long.
“What is it?” he asked, coming more fully awake.
I raised a shaking hand and pointed at it.
His eyes followed my finger, and a look of confusion came over him until he became aware enough of what we were staring at. He reached over and picked it up, pinching it between his fingers, pulling it right in front of his face, his eyes thoughtful, the left side of his mouth struggling not to quirk. “Bear,” he said quietly, grinning. “It’s just a thread from your shirt. You’re really not letting the Kid get to you, are you?”
I was, but I couldn’t tell him that. I schooled my face and reigned in my breathing. “Of course not,” I scoffed. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“Never mind,” I muttered, pulling the covers up and over my head, hiding so he couldn’t see the warm crawl of fire burning my face. He followed me down into the dark and cuddled up against me, scrunching up his body so he could spoon up against me. I tried to resist, but… well, you know. It’s Otter. I can’t resist him no matter how hard I try. I found myself giving in and moved to my side, facing him, our knees bumping, his morning breath on my face. If you knew what that smelled like, you’d know how much I really loved him to be able to face it head-on.
“The Kid’s a jerk,” I grumbled at him.
“Should’ve watched where you put his shirt, huh?” he said, reaching over to rub the back of his hand on my cheek. There was no admonition in his voice, just a gentle teasing, lightened by the grin that I knew so well. Even there, in the dark, I could see the gold-green, now awake and starting to shine. I started having uncouth thoughts toward his person.
“Whatever,” I said, trying to shove it away.
But Otter knew better, and he leaned forward and brushed his lips against mine, the lightest touch. I loved it, gross breath and all. “Even then,” he said before he kissed me again.
“What?” I breathed, noticing how hot it was getting buried in the blankets, how hot it was getting because his hands had found their way to my sides and were beginning to rub against my shirt, suddenly against my skin. I was finding it harder and harder to think as a digit slipped down the waistband and caressed my ass.
“Even if you’re bald,” he said seriously.
“Shut up,” I growled before he laughed and rolled on top of me, smothering any other retort I might have had. It was okay, though. I’d get him back later.
DID you know that you can change Wikipedia? That apparently it’s a “living” encyclopedia, that people can update it whenever they want?
I sure as hell didn’t know that.
So imagine my surprise, then, when the Kid showed me on a Wikipedia page headlined “Bald” that researchers in the UK had discovered that eating meat was directly linked to losing your hair. Imagine my surprise, then, seeing those words slashed across the screen, that a Dr. Edmund Paddington-Kingsleyshire at the University of British Hair Studies had conducted an exhaustive six-year study into the matter. The Kid looked at me solemnly as I read the words, that vein on my forehead as big as a garden hose.
Now, look. Let’s be honest. You know me. You’ve heard the first part of my story. If you don’t and you’re one of those weird people that likes to start a story in the middle, I bid you welcome and good day (but I still think you’re weird). But for those that know me? You know, and I can say this with complete sincerity, that I’m not the smartest person in the world. I’ve often wondered if God decided to pass on giving me brains ’cause he knew he had to save them all for my maniacal little brother. I can admit it freely. I can be a little dumb sometimes, (okay, okay: a lot of the time. Whatever). So of course I believed in Dr. Edmund Paddington-Kingsleyshire and his obviously tenured relationship with the impressive sounding University of British Hair Studies. Of course I believed it, because it was on Wikipedia. It looked so official! How was I to know that Wikipedia was full of lies? Why would you let people write whatever they want for an encyclopedia?
It wasn’t till Otter found me minutes later hiding in the pantry in our new kitchen (it seemed to be the only place to escape Wikipedia) under the guise of reading the ingredients to a can of peaches (had to look like I had a reason to be in there), that I realized that maybe the Internet could be a liar. Ingredients: water… sugar… peaches. Simple enough. But I’d read it at least five hundred times by the time he opened the pantry door and came in with me, shutting the door behind him.
“What are you doing?” he asked, the laughter in his voice evident.
“Reading about peaches.” I glared at him. It should have been obvious. The “duh” at the end of my sentence was, of course, implied.
“Why are you reading about peaches?” He cocked his head to the side.
“They’re interesting,” I retorted.
“Huh. You know, when people ask why we’re together, I tell them about stuff like this and they look at me weird.”
I snorted. “Please,” I scoffed. “This is me keeping the magic alive.”
He chuckled and took the peaches from my hand and put them back on the shelf. “Bear, do you know what Wikipedia is?” he asked me gently.
“An asshole,” I hissed.
Then he told me what Wikipedia was. And how he knew the Kid had a Wikipedia account. And how I probably shouldn’t have ruined his shirt.
That little bastard.
ROUND 3: I went online and bought my own shirt and had it rush delivered. It was awesome. Puppies, the OTHER white meat. He pointed out to me that I had accidentally put it on backward in my rush to show him. I had wondered why my neck was itchy. Winner: the Kid.
Round 4: Tyson came inside from playing and told me he’d been asked out on a date by a boy who lived down the street, and he was thinking about going. I had a heart attack and a stroke and seriously flirted with incontinence. Winner: the Kid.
Round 5: Telling him I felt bad about the puppy-shirt thing, I told him we could go pick out a dog at the pound now that we had a yard for it. Instead, I took him to the dentist. Winner: Bear “Rock Star” McKenna.
Halftime: Otter took a white undershirt of his and wrote on it with a black marker: I think you’re both stupid and wore it around the house (which in of itself is not all that funny, except that I’d found his first attempt at writing the shirt in the trash can, and he’d initially written “your” instead of “you’re”). The Kid and I agreed that he was the stupid one. Winners: the Kid and me (because Otter’s not funny at all).
Round 6: Okay, I’ll admit, by round six, I was running out of ideas. It didn’t help that there was so much more on my mind. Fuck, we had court to worry about, stupid custody hearings, whether or not the Kid was going to skip to the fifth grade or not. As much as I felt the Kid deserved whatever he got for the whole hair-loss incident, I just couldn’t do it anymore. So, being the better person (and don’t give me that look, I was being the better person) I ordered him another MEAT ISN’T NEAT shirt. I swear to God, we’re the reason that stupid vegetarian clothing website is staying in business. So, yeah. It came and he opened it, a look of extraordinary distrust on his face as he parted the tape. But that look on his face that followed? You know, that look that showed he felt the sun rose and set upon me? That’s the look I hope for. That’s the look I live for. He shouted incoherently as he’s prone to do as he launched himself into my lap and babbled in my ear.
Look. You’ve been with me a while. I know sometimes I can go on and on… and on. I overthink things. I make stupid mistakes that lead to actions that could otherwise have been avoided. I hear voices in my head that make me sound like I’m crazy and maybe I dwell on them too long. Okay, okay: way too long. Geesh. I know this. I understand this. But really? It all has a point. It has a reason. It has meaning. I’ve learned things in the past few years, things that I didn’t think were possible. I could never have imagined that I’d be where I am now, at this point in my life. It’s scary. It’s wonderful. And I know it doesn’t matter what’s out there against us, even though it sort of does. It doesn’t matter what doubts I might have, even though I still have them. What matters is the Kid in my lap, playing with my fingers as he sounds like a kid. What matters is Otter’s hand at my back, rubbing gently while he watches the two people he says mean more to him than anything else in the world. This is us, okay? For better or worse, this is us. For all of our wrongs and for all of our rights, this is us.
This is who we are.