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"Daughter Bear," short story excerpt

Tuesday 1/11/22

“How many chances do you think we get to say goodbye?” Caley’s aunt Jill asked her at the hospital. It felt like a trick question, so Caley put a finger in her mouth to stop herself from answering too fast, which is how she preferred to handle trick questions.


She was inclined to say once, because of the way her aunt’s eyes bulged and the skin around them tightened as if someone was winding a spring inside of her skull and time was running down, but she thought seven could also be the right answer, only you didn’t know why it would be until you were an adult like aunt Jill.


Caley had questions of her own. There was the historical element. She took to history in school. Had anyone ever had a Christmas morning like this one? Had it ever happened?


Another question was whether there was still time to return the gifts or was it necessary to wait until next year, when they’d have value again because it’d be another time when other kids wished for them? She didn’t so much want the money as think she’d need it. Maybe that’s what they meant by nest egg in some of the TV programs and old movies she watched.


She wanted to know if it mattered when she went to the window at a time in the night that must have been so late that she thought it was probably off of the clock. Past where the numbers went, in the margins of a circle. She looked out into the yard for snow, and saw her mother sleeping in the frosted grass. She looked like Cinderella. Caley said everyone who she thought was beautiful looked like Cinderella because it was her favorite movie. They used to play Cinderella when Caley was asleep and it was time for school. She didn’t mind being woken up so much when her mom kissed her, pretending to be the prince. Later her mother said that she was the mother bear, and Caley didn’t enjoy that as much. Bears weren’t princesses. They were shaped like hairy mushrooms. You could fit four princesses aside through a door, that’s how graceful they were, and sometimes a bear couldn’t even get through just by itself, though honey helped for motivation, but then again that might just have been for Pooh and not a real bear.


She thought she’d go down the stairs, run outside, wouldn’t even put her shoes on, and present her mom with a kiss, but her dad was on the silver grass as well, standing, and he could give Caley’s mom a kiss and wake her up just by bending down since he was already there. She waved to him in her excitement, but he didn’t see her. The window must have been frosted over. Or maybe it was a dream. Maybe it was his dream and somehow she’d woken up at the edge of it like in the margins of the clock and they couldn’t interact but she could sort of watch. They’d been to a nice party that night, Caley’s mom and dad. A “to-do,” which was one of those funny words that made your nose scrunch up when you said it like you were about to sneeze. Caley had had a practical conversation with her mom before the babysitter came.


“Because you’re the momma bear, does that mean I have to be the daughter bear?” she asked, in her best studious voice. A voice that said, “hey, this really matters to me, so don’t rush your answer.” The opposite of a trick question.


Caley’s mom kissed Caley on her forehead, and said, “In a way, but you’ll always be my princess.”


Caley hugged her so hard. It was the perfect answer. She hadn’t even told her mom to say it, which meant that she really believed what she said.


The babysitter was relieved to see Caley so happy. Normally she wasn’t. The babysitter told her friends that there was a pall over the house, which is a word the babysitter started using because she was in tenth grade and read poetry books that other kids didn’t that she tried to get her friends to read as well. They watched Cinderella and Rudolph, and the next thing Caley knew, she was awake again in her bed, at that time of the day or the night that was neither day nor night, that didn’t fit on the clock, and her father couldn’t see her on the front lawn.


She waved again, harder, and he raised his arm like he was going to wave back, but his arm stopped when his hand became even with his head, and he had a gun like a toy in his hand, only it wasn’t a toy, because that’s the sort of dream her dad must have been having. Caley screamed when she heard the sound and he fell, like he’d been hit in the head by an invisible hammer, but a hammer with a hose, somehow, because the invisible hammer had also sprayed the silver grass. She ran down the stairs and through the door, pulling it shut behind her and hearing it lock, but she didn’t care, she just had to give them a kiss and everything would be okay.


Caley kissed her mother first because she didn’t recognize her father just yet, and when her mom was up again she’d know what to do, because she was the momma bear. They could put their heads together and determine how to lick this thing. Or how to wake up. To get back inside of time. To break the spell even it that meant breaking Christmas a little, because there was always next year and you shouldn’t be greedy.


But they wouldn’t move and Caley was so cold, her feet like dying pieces of paper, something she had never thought of as a thing, so she ran across the street to Mrs. Sweeney’s house, where her best friend Sarah lived, though she hoped it was Mrs. Sweeney and not Sarah who would come to the door, which was the opposite of what Caley usually wanted. She tried not to wake Sarah by the way she knocked, but loud enough so that a mom would hear it at least because mothers were that way.