By: Brooksie C. Fontaine
I woke up to find a bear in my bedroom.
It took me a second to realize what I was looking at. The thing was an undulating mountain of coffee-colored fur, producing loud, eerily human snuffling sounds. In my lingering, post-sleep stupor, my first thought was that a gaggle of misguided hippies were having an orgy underneath an IKEA throw rug.
Sunlight seeped into my room like agave nectar, and my sinuses throbbed in protest. I scooted back onto my elbows, with the hazy intent to tell these sex-crazed trespassers to take their business elsewhere.
That’s when I noticed the clear protrusion of shoulder blades, the blustering shudder of the creature’s flanks, the twin mounds of its hind legs. When it sat back on its haunches, its neck and head rose like a short, fat ionic column, rounded ears protruding like volutes.
As if becoming aware of my presence, the bear’s head pivoted in my direction with the lethargy of animatronic machine, showing the oddly elegant, canine slope of his muzzle, tapering to a wet a nose the color of a black olive. His lips were smacking, marshmallow white frosting clinging to the short, dark fur.
I realized, with moderate resentment, that he must have found the stash of Hostess snacks I kept hidden in my sock drawer, survivors of my fiance’s ruthless, extended junkfood purge.
The bear regarded me like an aging drag queen, with a kind of drowsy-eyed, curious disinterest. If anything, he appeared to think that I was the anomaly in this situation, a vaguely bemusing distraction that he didn’t quite have the time or energy to deal with.
After a moment, he seemed to decide I wasn’t worthy of his attention, and went back to feasting on my beloved twinky hoard.
It occurred to me that it would probably be a good idea to leave the bedroom. The unexpected presence of an apex predator notwithstanding, I was meeting my fiance, Guinevere, for breakfast. And I needed to pee.
I rolled gingerly out of bed, creeping on the balls of my feet to the closet. I winced at the audible turn of the doorknob, but fortunately, the bear seemed to find my sock drawer to be much more interesting than I was.
I selected a button-down shirt and slacks, stooping to collect my shoes, before making my hasty exit.
I wasn’t sure how the bear had gotten into my bedroom, but for the time being, I decided the wisest course of action would be to make sure it couldn’t get out again. I closed the door behind me, and, after a few moments of feeling around in the nearby chest of drawers, found the key with which to lock it. I had never been so grateful to live in an old house.
It occurred to me that the odds of the animal knowing how to operate a doorknob were negligible, but the thing had gotten into my house somehow. He had to have been smarter than your average bear.
It also occurred to me that I had forgotten to collect a fresh set of socks. After some deliberation, I decided the ones I’d slept in would be just fine.
# # #
The mystery of how the bear got into my house was solved fairly quickly. Some idiot (me) had left the sliding glass door to my living room wide open.
In my own defence, I lived in an almost tediously safe neighborhood, and I had never seen a bear in this part of Maine before. Still, my yard receded into a rural patch of woodland, so I should have accounted for the possibility of wild animals or escaped convicts.
I paced like a housecat around my living room, toothbrush buzzing against my molars, as I contemplated what to do.
My first priority, arguably, should have been to get the bear out of my bedroom. But what would that entail? Would any self-respecting 911 operator legitimately believe that there was a fully-grown bear eating twinkies out of my sock drawer?
Perhaps animal control would be more understanding. To be safe, I could say that there was an animal in my bedroom that I thought might be a bear. That way, I would sound like an incompetent buffoon instead of a lunatic.
But in my experience with authority figures, that would lead to a waiting time of at least an hour or more. I couldn’t wait here for an hour or more. I needed to meet Guinevere for breakfast.
I returned to the bathroom and spat into the sink, rinsing out my mouth and splashing cold water onto my face.
Alright. For now, the bear was contained. The odds of it getting out of my room were negligible. So perhaps, the best course of action was to simply wait until after breakfast to call the proper authorities.
Granted, knowing Guinevere, she would probably want to go look at wedding invitations or window shop for corsages, but that could be avoided by feigning an illness. I could be back here to deal with the bear in less than two hours.
Until then, I could ignore it. God knows I’d ignored bigger problems.
# # #
I had a difficult time enjoying breakfast.
For one thing, Guinevere had taken the liberty of ordering us salmon bagels, and salmon is not an ideal food choice when you’re trying to forget the bear currently trapped in your home.
For another, my boss decided our scheduled breakfast date–which he knew about–was a great time to call me up and tell me he needed me to come in to the office. Effectively shattering my bear-busting plans.
“It’s Saturday,” I pointed out. On principle, more than anything. I knew he wouldn’t change his mind.
“You think I don’t know that, son?” the voice on the other end bellowed. “Success, my boy! It never rests, it has no off-days, and it makes no exceptions. It works, industriously and diligently, towards a greater goal. I expect nothing less from you!”
Sometimes, I think the only reason Mr. Orso kept me around was for the pleasure of tormenting me. It must have made him feel big to tell me what to do, and there was nothing men like Mr. Orso enjoyed more than feeling big in comparison to others.
And, of course, he kept me around for Guinevere. Guinevere was, perhaps, the only human being in this world that Mr. Orso treated with value, regarding her with the protective reverence of a rare and beautiful object. That left him with little choice but to tolerate her favorite pet.
At the moment, she was watching me, nibbling her bagel like a fish. A striking girl, with tight blond ringlets and an olive complexion, makeup carefully emphasizing her natural beauty. She put a disconcerting amount of energy into maintaining the shape of her eyebrows, but apart from that, Guinevere was as close to perfect-looking as I’d ever seen a human being come.
I could also be considered attractive, but attractive in the manner of a choir boy or an infant deer. As a child, I had held out hope that my youthful, slightly feminine features and smattering of coffee-colored freckles would fade as I got older, but alas, they had not.
“I need those plans finished by this evening, or we’re going to have problems,” Mr. Orso’s voice boomed. “You understand me, son?”
“Yes, sir, I understand,” I recited dutifully. “Thank you.”
Mr. Orso hung up the phone without further comment.
I looked to Guinevere, unsure how much of the conversation she’d overheard.
“Mr. Orso wants me to work today,” I informed her.
“Oh, Daddy. That’s just like him.” She smiled sympathetically, giving my hand a comforting squeeze. “It’s how he shows affection, that’s all.”
Despite Guinevere’s repeated claims of such, I knew this was utter bullshit. Mr. Orso had hated me since I was in Middle School.
“He does love you, you know,” she assured me, appearing to sense my train of thought. “You’re like a son to him. He wouldn’t have taken you under his wing if he didn’t care about you.”
I wanted to tell her that Mr. Orso didn’t take me under his wing. His wife did, a disproportionately kind woman who became my unofficial guardian after the death of my mother.
Mr. Orso had made it clear I was not a welcome presence. He disliked my “poor moral fiber,” which was a socially acceptable way of saying he disliked that I was quiet, lacking in traditionally masculine attributes, and fond of daffodils.
He became the domineering father figure I’d never wanted.
“I know, Ginny,” I sighed. “I don’t take it personally. I’m just tired.”
Guinevere made a sympathetic sound, but seemed content to let the subject drop.
I returned to my salmon bagel, and tried not to think about the bear.
# # #
I took deep, steadying breaths as I navigated the dystopian terrain of cubicles, reevaluating my plans for the day.
Finishing my floorplans would undoubtedly take most of the afternoon. But afterwards, I would drive straight home, call animal control, and have the bear extracted from my house, and pretend this never happened.
Of course, the bear would be quite hungry by then. My Hostess collection wouldn’t keep a creature that size satisfied forever. I tried not to think about that too much.
Perhaps my cubicle should have provided me with some comfort, a place of order and familiarity in an otherwise chaotic day, but I loathed it as much as ever.
Despite my position in the company, despite the hard work and dedication I put into it, despite the clients and the salary, despite my impending marriage to his daughter, the cubical was a haunting reminder that I wasn’t Mr. Orso’s equal. I was his domesticated animal.
“Humility, my boy,” Mr. Orso had said, fifty dollar cigar pinched between plump, gold-ringed fingers, “is the foundation for all great men. One’s accomplishments are worth nothing, if he loses sight of his modest beginnings.”
Even my attempts to personalize it somewhat, with postcard-sized renditions of scenes from Greek mythology and Renaissance paintings, did little to alleviate the unhappiness the cubical caused me. It reminded me just how trapped I was, relegated to a featureless gray kennel that I might never escape.
The boisterous voice, and accompanying clap on my shoulder, caused me to jump in my chair. I had thought I was alone.
“You madman, don’t you know it’s a Saturday? You’re not supposed to be in here!”
My intestines writhed like a snake even before I saw that face, so generically handsome he looked like a cartoon character.
Images of the New Years Eve party Guinevere had insisted we attend, a shadow of the sorority days she’d idealized in her memory, flashed through my mind.
“You’re here yourself, Lance,” I pointed out, forcing a smile. “And anyway, I just figured I’d stop by. Try to get the Carnivoros’ plans done.”
Lance gave me a knowing look. “Ol’ Orso call you into work, did he? He can be a bit of a slave driver.”
I suppressed a shudder of rage. That earnest voice didn’t fool me. He just had to rub it in my face that Mr. Orso had my balls on a leash.
“Anyway, I’m going on vacation next week, so I figured I’d finish up a few things around these parts,” he said, with a broad smile.
It was all I could do to smile back. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d gotten to me.
Lance gave me another hearty clap on the shoulder. “You need anything,” he concluded, “I’ll be in my office.”
I watched him go, anger sitting in my chest like a hot lump of cole.
Fuck you, fuck you and the horse you rode in on, fuck you and your stupid chin cleft and strong jawline, fuck you, you two-faced son of a bitch.
It took my serendipitously placed depiction of Callisto and Zeus to remind me that there were more pressing matters.
I sighed, letting the cool intake of oxygen extinguish the fiery heat of my rage. I needed to get these plans done.
As soon as I finished them, I could get rid of the bear.
# # #
Well, that didn’t quite work out for me, either.
I arrived home around just before six o’clock, tired and hungry and stressed and more than ready to get the massive, hungry carnivore out of my bedroom.
The first sign of trouble–apart from the obvious–was the spicy smell of Thai cuisine.
I scowled, brow pursing as I sniffed the air. A bear had already broken into my home today. Had a squadron of Southeast Asian chefs followed suit?
Rounding the corner to my living room, I was greeted with two people I currently wanted to see even less.
Seated on my sofa was the petite form of Guinevere, her short white tennis dress showing tanned, glossy legs.
Next to her was Mr. Orso. He was a vast man, barrel-shaped and bull-necked, face perpetually ruddy.
“Hi, Teddy!” Guinevere chirped, with a theatrical little wave. She always seemed mentally and emotionally de-aged by her father’s presence. “Daddy and I couldn’t decide what to get for dinner tonight, so we decided to come here. Didn’t we, Daddy?”
Mr. Orso grunted in affirmative.
I stood motionless, forced to reconcile that my torment was far from over.
I could have pointed out that, though Guinevere was my bride-to-be, this was still my house, and I would have appreciated a little forewarning before they decided to host an evening meal here.
I could have pointed out that I was tired, and, at the moment, not feeling particularly sociable.
I could have been even more forthright, and said simply, “There’s a bear in my home, please leave.”
Instead, I forced a polite smile. “So, who’s cooking?”
“Marly is,” smiled Guinevere. “He’s in town for the weekend. I would have told you earlier, but we wanted it to be a surprise.”
My heart dropped into my stomach like a stone.
Marlon, Guinevere’s charismatic, law student older brother, had been a perennial presence in my life. In middle school, he had been one of my first friends, through whom I had met Guinevere and the rest of the Orso family to begin with.
That didn’t make the prospect of seeing him now any more palatable.
“While he’s cooking, son, I thought we could talk business.” Mr. Orso’s perpetually booming voice jogged me back to reality. “You still have the Kuma plans?”
I looked at him vacantly, with bone-deep, existential weariness. Today had been stressful, to put it mildly, and my brain currently had the functionality of a shot rubber band.
Nevermind the fact that the Kuma plans were currently in my bedroom.
“Mr. Orso, I just got back from seven hours of work,” I pointed out. “It’s supposed to be my day off.”
“Son, do you think it’s because I want you to be miserable that I demand highly of you?” Orso demanded, stalky arms folding. “It’s because I want you to succeed! Success, my boy, never rests. And neither must you, if you want to fulfill your potential.”
Guinevere rolled her eyes, shoving her father’s arm good naturedly. “Oh Daddy. Thirty minutes of rest isn’t going to make or break his career!”
I sighed, slumping in capitulation. I knew Mr. Orso wouldn’t change his mind, and this was a hole I wasn’t going to dig my way out of. Not without conceding that the plans were currently being held hostage by a hungry carnivore three times my size.
And anyway, confronting a hungry bear was, arguably, preferable to confronting Marlon.
“It’s fine, Ginny,” I assured her. “I’ll go get the plans.”
The only question was how I would do so while keeping my entrails intact.
# # #
My heart was pulsing against my ribcage as I opened the door to my bedroom.
Stuffing from my mattress was strewn across the rug like dandelion fuzz.
The bear itself was crouched in the corner of my room like a giant spider.
Unlike earlier, when it had been preoccupied with the contents of my sock drawer, it was now looking directly at me with glittering, predatory eyes.
I wondered if this was how it felt to be the fly.
“Look,” I addressed him. “Can you please be cool about this? In a few hours, you’ll be free to eat all the picnic baskets you want. They make a better meal than I do, I promise. Just please, please let me get these plans.”
The bear offered no reply, other than the soft heave of his flanks. In the crepuscular light seeping in through my bedroom window, I could see the faint quiver of his black nostrils.
I sighed, rubbing at my throat. “Why do I feel like I’m not getting through to you here?”
Still, what choice did I have? To return without the plans? To say I’d lost them? To tell them there was a bear in my bedroom, and I’d gotten so adept at avoiding my problems that I’d managed to go the entire day without acknowledging it?
I blinked. My God. My God, that last one was true, wasn’t it?
Even as I stared the bear in the face, I was overcome with a much more existential brand of horror.
I could have been honest from the start. Nothing was stopping me.
I could have said, “No, I can’t have breakfast with you, and no, I can’t come into work today, because there’s a bear in my bedroom. I have to deal with it.” And yes, there would have been chaos and disbelief and confusion, but the bear would be gone by now. I would be safe. The only thing keeping it there was my own habitual dishonesty and fear.
That same fear was the reason I couldn’t go downstairs right now and tell them the truth. Not just about the bear, but about everything.
I couldn’t tell them that yes, Ginny was a sweet and intelligent and effervescent person, but no, I wasn’t in love with her. That, through no real fault of her own, there were times when I really hated her, because her conceited tendencies and compulsive need to be liked reminded me how carefully fabricated my own existence was.
That I lay awake every night dreading the lifetime we would supposedly spend together, riddled with guilt for willingly entering a marriage built on lies, for the hypothetical children who would inherit our absence of love and pay the price for it.
Similarly, I couldn’t tell them that yes, architecture was my ideal profession, and yes, I loved doing it, but working for Mr. Orso was like slogging through a sea of wet cement, getting harder and heavier with each passing day. That I hated him for providing me with things I needed when I was young and vulnerable, just for the pleasure of having power over me.
I couldn’t tell them that Marlon–handsome, self-confident, intelligent Marlon, with the natural magnetism of the Earth’s Sun–was my greatest solace and my greatest source of pain, and he probably always would be.
I couldn’t tell them the truth when I’d built my entire identity around lies. What would be left of me without them?
The bear was watching me, as if anticipating my decision. His presence was a silent inquiry from the universe. Which did I fear more? Honesty, or death?
I already knew the answer. At least, I thought I did.
I looked from the bear to the plans in question, curled up neatly, like a treasure map. They were wedged between my ruined mattress and the desk beside it.
If the bear charged, the bed would serve as a buffer. And anyway, how fast could a bear that size run?1
I took a deep, steadying breath. I could do this. I had to do this.
I set my sights on the rolled up plans, and ran.
I felt as though I was running in a dream. That no matter how my muscles moved, I couldn’t accelerate fast enough.
Even as I stooped to pick up the scroll, I could see the bear advancing in my peripheral vision. A lumbering mass of darkness, moving to engulf me.
As I made my retreat, I didn’t feel as though I was moving at all, so much as the open door was getting progressively larger.
I stumbled through it, immediately overwhelmed with rapturous relief as I took that first step back into relative safety.
Then, I felt it.
They sunk into the tender flesh of my upper thigh before I felt the searing pain of it, heard the tear of my slacks as they split my flesh like miniature plows.
The shriek that left my mouth was like nothing I had ever heard before.
It wasn’t a muted reenactment of terror. It wasn’t cinematic. It wasn’t like anything from a television show or film.
It was the sound of a creature that knew it was going to die.
I watched the rug approach before I hit it, and tried, on reflex, to crawl away.
The bear paid no heed to my efforts, curved claws raking through fabric, flesh, and muscle. I was going to die. I was really going to die like this.
A high-pitched scream, like the whistle of a tea kettle, alerted me that I wasn’t alone.
Guinevere stood at the top of the stairs, hand clapped over her mouth and complexion the color of wax. Mr. Orso was standing next to her, eyes bulging with horror and face drained of its usual, ruddy hue.
I opened my mouth to request assistance–which, really, should have been somewhat obvious–but instead let out a guttural wail of pain. The unforgiving clamps of the bear’s jaws sunk into my hip, tearing flesh from bone. Eating me.
I was really going to die like this. Devoured by a bear, in my own home. What a sad, strange, supremely stupid way to go.
Then, a third figure appeared.
Tall and lean and muscular, with a cole black gentleman’s haircut and a five o’clock shadow. In his hand was what appeared to be a can of cooking spray.
Damn it. It was unfortunate that he had to bear witness to the consequences of my idiocy.
Marlon only spent a split second surveying the scene before he lept to action.
The only sound indicating my rescue was the hissing of the canola oil, as he sprayed it directly into the bear’s eyes.
With a low, vaguely disgruntled moan of pain, the shaggy throw rug of the bear’s form retreated back into my bedroom.
It was honestly a little anticlimactic.
Phantom hands–which I realized, belatedly, belonged to Marlon–hooked under my arms and pulled me the rest of the way out of the bedroom. A loud, wooden slam followed, which I realized belatedly was the bedroom door.
I was weightless, dazed and fuzzy and lethargic. I felt like a goldfish in shock, floating, adrift in reality, upside down and wide-eyed and possibly gutted.
Molasses-thick blood oozed from my ruined leg, saturating my carpet.
Some abstract portion of my mind noted, with surprise, how much of it I’d lost already. Maybe I should have been worried.
My skull felt hollow, bobbling uselessly on my shoulders, as Marlon wrapped me in his strong, tanned arms, supporting my torso.
The warm, clean smell of him, like a forest after a summer rainstorm, was in sharp contrast to the coppery stench.
“You’re going to be okay, buddy. You’re okay, you’re not going anywhere.” His voice, sweet and rich as maple syrup, was barely audible through the scream of static in my ears. “I’m here. We’re going to get you all patched up.”
My eyelids battled me, struggling to close as I looked up at him. At the chiseled marble of his features, at the warm, golden flowers of his eyes.
Suddenly, honesty didn’t seem quite so terrifying anymore.
I needed to tell him. I couldn’t die without telling him.
My jaw worked, impotently, even as he barked at Orso and Guinevere to call an ambulance. No sound came out.
Darkness was engulfing my peripheral vision. I was tired. So very tired.
I felt my eyes close, slowly submerged in warm, welcoming, primordial blackness.
There were worst ways to go, I supposed. At least this would make an interesting story for my funeral.
And if I was going to die, I was glad the last thing I would hear was the beat of his heart.
# # #
When I awoke, the first thing I saw was white light.
There was no pain, any and all physical sensation was overwhelmed by a kind of drowsy euphoria. I felt like I had been hollowed out and filled with helium, set afloat in the clouds.
Memories of the bear trickled back to me, and my first reaction was, of all things, relief. I had gone to the good place.
That was when a reddish sphere slowly materialized in my spectrum of vision. Generally speaking, anything within the red color spectrum wasn’t a good sign after you die.
I blinked a few times, and Mr. Orso’s beady eyes and bulbous nose came into focus.
“Oh, crap,” I muttered. “I knew you were the Devil.”
“What?” Orso bellowed, a droplet of his saliva hitting me in the face.
“Oh Daddy. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.” The disembodied voice of Guinevere took me by surprise. I became aware of her cool fingertips gently stroking my temple. “It’s all the painkillers they put him on, that’s all.”
I was able to locate her, sitting to the right of what seemed to be a bed. Her form was like a paper doll, a cardboard cutout against the white light.
“Ginny,” I managed. “Did the bear get you, too?”
Guinevere tilted her head, confusion evident.
“You’re not dead, honey. You’re in the Asphodel Medical Center.”
I looked around in search of the voice. A short, plump black woman with a cloudlike mountain of hair materialized in the doorway. Her clipboard and white lab coat told me she was a doctor.
Or a cleverly disguised angel. I still hadn’t given up on the prospect that I might be dead.
“You’re one lucky man, Mr. King,” the doctor informed me, adjusting her gold-rimmed spectacles as she approached my bed. “That bear tore open your leg. Took a chunk off your hip the size of a mango.”
Guinevere made a sound like an indignant hen. “How in the world is that lucky?”
“Because, most of that chunk was just superfluous tissue,” the doctor informed her. “No organ damage, no broken bones, no missing appendages. Unfortunately, there will definitely be a good amount of scarring on your hip and thigh, but we’re dedicated to minimizing it.” She gave me a reassuring smile. “You should be back on your feet in a week or two, Mr. King.”
I nodded, head still airy. It occurred to me that they had probably put me on quite a lot of drugs to keep me from feeling the mango-sized chunk purportedly missing from my hip.
The doctor looked between Mr. Orso and Guinevere. “Well. I’ll leave you folks to it,” she informed them. “Just remember, visiting hours are over in ten minutes. This fellow needs some rest.”
I was still rehabituating myself to the world of the living as she strode out of the room.
“Marlon,” I managed. “Where’s Marlon? Is, is he–?”
“Marly’s just fine,” Ginny assured me, smiling. “Talking to animal control. Apparently, that bear escaped from a local zoo. He’s not even native to this region.”
“He’s not? I’ve seen bears in Maine before.”
“Not brown bears you haven’t,” Mr. Orso scoffed. “Only black bears are native to Maine. Closest place you’ll find a wild grizzly like that is Washington.”
“He had no way of knowing that, Daddy,” said Guinevere, with a pointed glare. “The only reason you know is because the animal control people told you.”
Orso looked indignant that Guinevere would point out his bombasting. “If a man finds a bear in his own home, it seems to me he’s obligated to know what kind it is,” he informed her. “A man’s home is his castle, his veritable domain. He should know everything that goes on inside of it, or he’s no man at all. Let alone an employee of mine, or for that matter, a future son-in-law.”
Guinevere swatted his arm. “He’s just trying to hide how worried he was, Teddy. You should have seen how he was fussing when you were unconscious.”
I heard her comforting reassurances without listening, eyes fixed on the ceiling. It was decidedly less heavenly now that I could see the panels, the faded yellow spots of what appeared to be urine.
Yes, Mr. Orso might genuinely have been worried about me while I was out cold. Did I really care? What was his hypothetical love worth if it was only excuse to browbeat me, even after I had just been mauled by a hungry bear?
It would always be this way, wouldn’t it?
“That’s good,” I found myself saying. “I quit.”
Mr. Orso and Guinevere both looked equally taken aback. “What?” they demanded, Guinevere’s falsetto overlapping Orso’s incredulous bellow in perfect harmony.
“I quit,” I repeated. “The money I get from you isn’t worth the misery you cause me. It’s just not.”
“Teddy, don’t be ridiculous,” Guinevere interjected, lightly jostling my arm. Addressing her father, she added, “That’s just the painkillers talking. He doesn’t mean it.”
“It probably is the painkillers,” I conceded. “But I do mean it. I’ve thought about it a lot.”
“Oh Teddy, please don’t say anything you’ll regret.”
It was too late for that. I was more than certain I would regret every single word that was leaving my mouth. I still needed to say it.
“It’s not just this,” I continued, unperturbed by Orso’s cole-hard eyes burning into my own. “That you can never resist the urge to be a bloated windbag, even after I nearly died. It’s that I can’t stand you. I can’t stand your voice. I can’t stand the way you laugh at your own jokes, and everyone has no choice but to laugh along with you. I can’t stand the way you get drunk at parties, and everyone has to scurry to clean up after you. I can’t stand the way you talk about women, the way you look at them, even when you have a beautiful wife of thirty years at home. I can’t stand how you talk, and talk, and talk about integrity, and character, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, when you inherited everything you have from your millionaire father. I can’t stand how you provide me with things just for the pleasure of having power over me. And most of all, I can’t stand your stupid. Fat. Red. Face.”
I let the last words drip off my tongue like venom, dripping with years of compressed, pent-up loathing. My senses dulled as they were by the pain meds, this verbal expression of rage was close to orgasmic.
Mr. Orso’s sides heaved, mouth an ungainly, somewhat anal pucker. In my peripheral vision, I was vaguely aware of Guinevere looking back and forth between us with wide-eyed, confused panic.
“You’re fired,” was all he said, the sentence seething with white hot rage.
I smiled sleepily. “I guess it’s a good thing I quit first, then.”
A vein was pulsating in his temple, the tendons sticking out of the sides of his neck. His usually red face was the color of a fire engine.
“It’s for the sake of my daughter,” he growled, “that I don’t choke the life out of you right now.”
I could tell from the look in his eyes that it wasn’t an empty threat. The last time I’d seen this look, I’d been staring into the eyes of the bear.
The bed creaked as he got to his feet, dress shoes squeaking on the floor. “Pansy-ass little faggot,” he muttered.
He lumbered towards the door. If he had been a cartoon character, smoke would have been curling out of his ears.
He tried to slam the door behind him, but the soft slam hinges prevented it. As compensation, he physically pulled the door until it noiselessly fell shut. Mr. Orso shot me a final, fiery glare through the glass before disappearing from sight.
Guinevere looked at me in horror, jaw hanging open and eyes almost perfectly round, in silent demand for an explanation.
“I think I’ll start my own architectural firm,” I remarked. “I’ll market my skills as a freelancer, to start with. People around here like small businesses.”
“What were you thinking?” she hissed, in an unnecessary stage whisper. In her surprise, she had dropped her usual, bubbly lilt. “He gave you your first job! Provided for you! How could you speak to him that way?”
I lolled my head to look at her, eyelids heavy. “Doing something nice for someone doesn’t count if it’s an excuse to treat them like shit, Ginny,” I informed her. “It just doesn’t.”
Guinevere opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it again. I could tell she was searching for a way to refute the statement.
“Does it really surprise you that I felt that way?” I asked, honestly. “The man took pleasure in humiliating me, my whole life. It wasn’t cute or quirky to me, either. It was soul-destroying.”
“Of course it doesn’t surprise me.”
She seemed to say this without thinking, and it clearly caught her off guard. I don’t think Guinevere ever really let herself think about how her father treated me. I couldn’t really blame her for that. No one wants to think of their loved one as a bully.
After taking a moment to collect herself, she continued, “But Teddy, if you really felt that way, we could have talked about it. Worked it out, together.”
I huffed. She didn’t even realize that I had tried that already, only for her to coo and tell me I was being silly, that Mr. Orso loved me and that was just his way of showing it.
“No. I have to.” I swallowed, realizing how sandpaper-dry my throat was. “I have to feed the bear.”
Guinevere gave an incredulous, uncomfortable little bray. “What on earth are you talking about, Teddy? The bear is gone.”
I shook my head. “He’s still there. He always has been,” I informed her. “And I can’t ignore him anymore. He’ll only get hungrier.”
Guinevere’s head tilted, perfectly sculpted eyebrows drawing together like caterpillars, but she didn’t ask for further elaboration.
I provided it anyway. “I know you think I’m an idiot.”
Guinevere, whether through genuine emotion or stellar acting skills, actually looked hurt.
“Oh, Teddy, baby,” she cooed, her cool, gentle hand stroking my cheek. “Why would you say such a thing? I would never think you’re an idiot.”
My eyes, though heavy, never left her face. “Then why are you fucking Lance?”
Her jaw went a little lax, dim recognition sparking in her eyes. If anything, she looked like she just remembered she left the stove on.
“I was at that party. You were drunk. He was drunk,” I continued. “But I never cared for the stuff. I don’t like it, don’t like what it does to people. It’s what killed my mom, as you know.” I paused, running my tongue over my dry upper lip. “Being sober makes it easier to keep track of things. Like when you left the room together. Or how long you were gone.”
“The whole drive home, I could smell him on you. That…putrid cologne he wears.” I scoffed, eyelids fluttering closed. “I didn’t say a damn thing. I was that much of a coward.”
Guinevere clicked her tongue, like I’d told her about a recent bout of illness. She ran her thumb, gently, over my cheekbone, brow crumpled in a convincing look of remorse.
“It was just one time, Teddy,” she told me, softly. “It didn’t mean anything.”
She said it so earnestly, I almost believed it.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. The reason I never called you out on it, is because I knew how karmic it was. I had it coming, for what I was doing to you.”
She stared at me in silent, vaguely concerned inquiry. Under normal circumstances, my heart would be racing at the mere prospect of what I was about to say. I could only thank God and painkillers for my unnatural sense of calm.
“I’m in love with your brother, Ginny. I always have been.”
I kept the statement swift as a fatal blow, sparing the details that would hurt the most.
That all those sickly sweet stories she loved to regurgitate about how I went over to her house every day after school were really just an excuse to see him.
That once, when we went camping, he pulled me into his lap and kissed me. He was high and drunk on fireball whisky, and I, as the sober party, ended the encounter almost immediately. But I still had dreams about it.
That the basis for our entire relationship was other people’s expectations of me. Expectations that I was too afraid to refute.
Guinevere’s hand seemed to go cold as it slid off my cheek. Her eyes darkened as the words sunk in.
“We can’t call off the wedding.”
Maybe the statement should have surprised me. It didn’t.
Ginny was, in many regards, a lovely human being. She was also the single most superficial woman I had ever met. Every ounce of her self-worth was tied up in how others perceived her.
“We’re going to,” I said simply.
I felt bad for what I was doing to her, but it needed to be done. It wasn’t fair to either of us. It never had been.
“We can’t,” she pressed, looking at me with a kind of confused disgust. “What will everyone think?”
“I don’t care.”
To my own surprise, I meant it. What a wonderful feeling that was.
She sat back in her chair, anger pinching her features. “I’m going to tell him, you know,” she said. “I’m going to tell everyone. By tomorrow, everyone will know what you are.”
I swallowed, throat feeling cold. I still wasn’t panicked, but this kind of fear was more than adrenal. It was primordial, like a sleeping monster, submerged in the lake of my conscious mind. It was the reason I’d spent my entire adult life immersed in lies, forever avoiding the horrific vulnerability of being seen and known.
But I’d looked death in the face. And in that moment, my greatest regret was that I hadn’t told the truth.
“Go ahead. I need to tell them anyway.”
Guinevere stared at me, and I stared back, in a kind of emotional standoff.
She looked ready to say something else, when the sound of the door creaking open caught us both off guard.
“Visiting hours are over, ma’am,” said a young nurse, her round face polka dotted with pink spots of acne. “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”
Guinevere looked from him to me, jaw tight. Her trachea convulsed as she swallowed. “We’ll talk about this,” she stated.
I watched as she got to her feet and marched to the door with an air of offended dignity, nose held high in the air. She didn’t bother to look at me as she rounded the corner and left.
I pitied her. I don’t think Ginny was ever in love with me, so much as she was in love with how it made her look to be betrothed to her timid little childhood admirer. A wholesome grounding point for her otherwise glamorous existence.
But she still thought she was in love with me, and there was little doubt in my mind this breakup would hurt. There are few blows more painful than those dealt to the self-image.
In spite of this, in spite of my guilt, in spite of my still-nebulous fears for what the future would bring, a kind of bone-deep contentment blossomed inside me. It filled my marrow like warm water, running deeper than the pain medications could reach. I closed my eyes and breathed, relishing in the simple joy of letting air fill my lungs.
The bear had finally been fed.
1 As I would belatedly discover, they could run up to forty miles per hour.