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Bear, Otter, and the Kid
by TJ Klune

Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Three years ago, Bear McKenna's mother took off for parts unknown with her new boyfriend, leaving Bear to raise his six-year-old brother Tyson, aka the Kid. Somehow they've muddled through, but since he's totally devoted to the Kid, Bear isn't actually doing much living--with a few exceptions, he's retreated from the world, and he's mostly okay with that. Until Otter comes home. Otter is Bear's best friend's older brother, and as they've done for their whole lives, Bear and Otter crash and collide in ways neither expect. This time, though, there's nowhere to run from the depth of emotion between them. Bear still believes his place is as the Kid's guardian, but he can't help thinking there could be something more for him in the world... something or someone.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: September 2011

eBookeBook

62 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [578 KB]
Words: 147304
Reading time: 420-589 min.


Prologue

or
Where Bear Gets His Feet Wet

This is the way my world ends.

Watch:

Bear,

I know this is going to be hard for yu to read, but I hope yull understand

I have to leave, Bear. Tom got a job out of state and Im going with him. Im doing this becuz I think it will be easier on all of us if it is red rather then sed.

This is a chance for me to make something for myself. Tom sez there are a lot of jobs where we're going which will be better then here in Seafare. Remember my last job? At the Pizza Shack? Remember how well that went? In case yu can't tell from this just being a letter, I was being sarcastic. It didn't go well at all. (At least we know my future is not in pizza!)

I know yu never liked Tom, but he treats me ok. Yu shoudnt worry about him and me, as we'll be fine. Well, I know yu won't worry about him, but still. Hes stuck around longer then yur father did, and don't even get me started on Ty's dad. At least Tom hasn't hit me yet or anything. He even said that when I save up enouf money, he'll let me get one of those online degrees from University of Phoenix Arizona, or whatever its called. Imagine me, with a college degree!

Speaking of that, I hope that yull get a chance to be a writer like yu want to. I know this kind of messes up yur plans about going to school next year, but why do u need college for that? Yuve been making up stories since you were a little kid n e ways so its not like they could teach yu anything else, right? But that skolarship thing will be there later, right? It's not like yu could never get it again. It just cant be right now becuz I need yu to do something for me.

Tom sez that Ty can't go. He sez that having the Kid around will just "freak" up his concentration. (Ok, he didn't say freak, but yu know what I meant) I know this seems like I am making a bad decision but last nite I had a dream. It was all black around me and there was a flashing light really far away. I felt like I had to walk a long time to reach it. I finally got there and the light was a sign for a motel. Yu know what the motel was called, Bear? It was called the LAST CHANCE MOTEL. Do u see what that means? LAST CHANCE MOTEL. It means it's my last chance! My dream was a message, I know it, and I think Whoever is watching over us knew I was having a tuff time making this decision and that's why I had the dream.

But Tom does say that Ty can't go. So I am going to leave him here with yu. Yu were always better at taking care of him then me. Remember when I was sick for like a month last year couldn't move, and u took care of Ty becuz we couldn't afford to send him to camp at the YMCA? Yu did a really good job then and I remember thinking yur going to be a good dad some day, not like yur dad. Now that I think about it, yu take care of Ty a lot more then I did anyways like a good brother should and yu were always better at it. That is why I feel ok about leaving him here with yu. I just think it would be better for him if he stayed here. What if something happens to me when Im with Tom? I don't want him to see that.

I got sumthing I printed from the internet for yu. Its called a Power Of Attorney. It means that yu can do stuff for Ty without me. Like doctors and school and stuff. It means yull be in charge I guess. At least thats what I got from it. Denise from downstares told me about it. Yu would normaly have to be there with me to have it notterized, but Denise owes me for that time I gave her some smokes when she couldn't afford to buy more. Her kid is a nottery public or something (do yu really have to go to school to learn how to sine and stamp papers? How hard can that be?) and she will cover for me and notterize it. Yull have to wait for yur birthday but thats real soon. Its my present to yu. I hope yu like it.

I am going to miss yu, so yu know. Yu grew up ok, despite everything. I hope yu don't hate me or n e thing for this, but maybe Ill be back one day if this doesn't work out. Maybe, I don't know. Maybe, I was never meant to be a mom. I see yu sometimes and I think how much better it would have been for yu if yu were never born. But I remember yu as such a happy baby, not like Ty who cried all the time. Yur smile still makes it worth it and I hope yull still smile even after this

Please make sure Ty gets the note I wrote for him.

I don't know what else to say.

Please don't try looking for me. I don't want Tom to get mad.

Mom

P.S. I left a little bit of muney to help yu out for now. I really can't give more becuz Tom sez we need to save for our future. Remember, Rent is due at the beginning of the month, along with the other bills. Yu paid those for me n e ways, but what kind of a mom would I be if I didn't remind yu.

* * * *

Ty,

Yu listen to yur brother and do what he sez, ok? Mommy loves yu!

Mom

* * * *

That's what I found when I came home from work that day. It was a Saturday night. I didn't know where the Kid was.

She left $137.50 in an envelope with my name on it.

The next day, I turned eighteen. Three days after that, I graduated high school.

* * * *

1.

Where Bear Sees People
Come Home for the Summer

Three Years Later

So, just to be up front with you, my name's not really Bear. It's actually Derrick McKenna, but I've been Bear since I was like thirteen or fourteen. It's when Ty was trying to say my name as a baby and couldn't say Derrick. It came out all weird, like "Barick," but once Mom heard that all she could focus on was how it sounded like he called me "Bear." I guess it was a sort of divine comedy in its own way as I had done something similar to someone else when I was little. But I'll get to that later.

Anyway: Bear. So she started calling me Bear. Of course I hated it at first. There wasn't and still isn't anything bearish about me. But she insisted, and anytime I had a friend over or she answered the phone for me or talked to one of my teachers, she made a point of calling me Bear. I was just beginning high school then, too, and you know how that is: anything done as a freshman gets remembered forever. This was all thanks to my mom. The name stuck, she didn't.

I'm not trying to sound all maudlin or anything. This isn't that kind of story. This isn't about poor old Bear and how his mom ran out on him, leaving him to raise his younger brother and how his life was totally screwed up by it, but in the end he learns A Very Valuable Lesson about life and shit. It's not going to be like that.

Well, okay, scratch that. I don't know what kind of story this is. I just hope it's not going to be saccharine and make you gag or anything. Things like that make me queasy.

But I digress.

I just wanted to be up front with you about my name. I imagine, for some reason, when people hear my name as I get called now, Bear McKenna, that they assume one of two things: that I'll either be a really big, hairy lumberjack with a stern demeanor but a heart of gold or that I'm pretentious as all hell. Usually it's the first thing, until they see me and blink a few times, trying to associate such a name with what they're seeing. As for the second part? Think about it: if you met someone for the first time named Bear, wouldn't you assume they were an exaggerated version of themselves? Yes? No? Well, I guess I don't think like most people. And I don't fight them about it anymore. My name's Bear McKenna.

"Derrick?"

Well, most of the time it is. I look in the rearview mirror and see my little brother, Tyson, staring back at me with an expression on his face that I can't quite identify. Usually, he reserves calling me Derrick for when he is about to ask something serious, like if there is a planet of cows that have farms that milk people, then slaughter them for their tasty cutlets, or why Mom left and didn't come back. He asks a lot of questions.

"What, Ty?"

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, Kid."

"How do you know if you're in love?"

I smile. I try not to think about where this is going. Understanding the Kid's line of logic is an extraordinary exercise in futility. He thinks on a whole different level than the rest of us. Last week I explained to him, at his insistence, where babies came from. He sat with a look of dire contemplation on his face through the entirety of the conversation. When I finished, he'd gotten up and gone outside to play without a word. Later, when I was tucking him into bed, he finally responded: "Bear, why on earth would any girl want to push a baby out like that?" I didn't know how to answer him then, as I sometimes don't. Not many people can make me speechless, but Ty manages it on a daily basis.

I look back now at Ty and arch my eyebrow. "Why? You got someone you haven't told me about, Kid?"

He shrugs vaguely. "I dunno. It doesn't necessarily have to be about me, Bear. It's just a question." By the way, my brother is eight going on sixty. Given everything he has gone through in his life, I can't blame him. Most kids his age haven't gone through a quarter of the shit he's been through. But at the same time, how many third graders do you know that are vegetarians by their own decision? I had nothing to do with that, trust me. I like hamburgers with bacon and sausage (and stop grimacing until you try it--it's damn good). But that's what I get for allowing him to watch some documentary on slaughterhouses on TV. He hasn't been the same since.

I stare ahead so I don't rear-end someone on the freeway, but I'm hedging and he knows it. I feel his eyes on the back of my head. I sigh again. "I guess it's when all those stupid songs on the radio start making sense." I chance a glimpse in the mirror and see him frowning. "What do you think it is?" When it comes to these esoteric sorts of questions, I always find it better to let him answer. But factual questions about babies and stuff, I make sure I answer for him. Even if I want to pull my hair out while doing so.

He's quiet for a moment and then says, "I think it's when you can't go on another day without the other person. That they make you feel like your stomach is on fire but in a good way."

"That sounds good to me."

"Bear?"

"Yeah?"

"Can we stop? I have to pee."

"Sure, Kid. We're kinda early anyways."

I see a sign for a rest stop ahead and move off onto the exit. The parking lot is empty and it's drizzling outside. I pull into a space in front of the bathrooms, already knowing the routine. Ty sits patiently in the car while I walk into the men's room to make sure it's empty. It is. I walk out the door and wave. He gets out of the car and walks up to me.

"Bear, you're going to wait right here, right." It's not said as a question, but as a command.

"Sure am."

"Okay, I'll be right back. Make sure you wait right here."

I nod, knowing that I'll be here just as sure as he knows. Ty refuses to use public restrooms when there is anyone else in them. He always makes me check first. When I give the all-clear, only then will he go in. He doesn't allow me to go in with him, stating very plainly that he is "old enough to know how to work his parts." But before he does, he makes sure of where I'll be. And I mean in the exact spot. If I move a foot or two away from where I said I would be, he notices. I know he understands that I'll never leave him like that, but he still needs those reassurances. It's the same with what time I will pick him up from school or what time I'll get off of work. If I'm late, he has sort of a panic attack, where his breathing becomes constricted, and he has thoughts run through his head that he knows aren't true. I took him to a doctor at a free clinic who suggested putting him on some kind of anti-anxiety medication that was supposed to be all the rage these days. But Ty told the doctor and me plainly that he didn't want to become "one of those kids." I try not to be late. It's easier.

I can hear him humming while he pees, his sign that he'll be a while, so I turn and look out at the rain. It's the end of May, but in Oregon that doesn't matter. It can still be cold and raining whenever it wants to be and there's not a whole lot you can do about it. Especially when you live in Seafare, a small town on the Pacific Ocean, like we do. For anyone never having been to the Oregon coast, the ocean there is nothing like the ocean in California. It's cold and foggy and rainy pretty much all the time. Oh sure, we do get sunny days, but the Pacific Northwest has its reputation for a reason. I hear that a lot of people commit suicide up here. Weirdos.

We're currently making the sixty-mile trek to Portland to pick up my best friend, Creed Thompson, from the airport. I haven't seen him since he came home for spring break. He's a junior at Arizona State, majoring in computer science. Pretty soon he'll graduate and go to work for IBM or Google and make a bazillion dollars per year, but as of right now, he's still Creed, the guy I've known since my first day at Seafare Elementary School in the second grade. We were instantly connected at the hip, maybe just because of how opposite we were. He's outgoing and can talk to anyone, whereas I don't like most people. His parents are still married (and around and alive). They're rich, but not so much that you became distracted by all the stuff they have. I'm obviously not rich. So life goes.

Mr. Thompson had had some sort of computer company in Seattle in the late eighties and early nineties and sold off everything before it all went to hell. He then decided he hated living in a big city and hated having a lot of stuff. He sold all the things he didn't want and moved the family to Seafare. I always found it funny how Mr. Thompson seemed to be the only rich person who hated being rich. It still didn't stop him from buying one of the biggest houses in Seafare, where I've spent a lot of time through the years. The same house where we are having a surprise birthday party for Ty soon, providing I can keep it a secret.

Creed's parents are cool as far as parents go, but I'm glad that they're gone. Not gone-gone but off in some country on some kind of retreat, helping to build homes in Africa or curing leprosy in Sweden, I don't know. I know they'll be gone until November so there's a big empty house for us to use this summer. It'll be nice to get out of the crappy apartment for the next few months.

Don't get me wrong; I have friends. It just so happens the majority of them are at school somewhere else and living their lives, doing whatever it is they do. Most don't come back to Seafare if they can help it. The rest might be imaginary. Creed comes back a lot, saying that Arizona is actually located on the surface of the sun, not next to California like a map says. But with his parents being gone the majority of the year, he can always come back here, and it's like he has his own private vacation home, which is cool if you're into that kind of thing. When I told him this, he just looked at me funny, saying he never thought of it that way. We didn't talk about it anymore.

It's hard to maintain normal friendships when you're the guardian of the smartest eight-year-old in the world. Most couldn't understand why I did what I did. Hell, there are times that I don't understand it, either. The only way I can rationalize it is that a person can do strange things when they don't have any other choice.

The only other person I really care to see is my sort-of girlfriend, Anna Grant. But she lives in Seafare, too, commuting back and forth to the next county to go to the community college there, so it's not like I don't get to see her. She was the second person I met after Creed way back in the day. We're together more often than not, but it's not a lot of the time. It's not a joke: one time we did get back together and broke up five seconds later when I accidentally told her that her nose looked flat from the angle I was at. I didn't mean it as a bad thing; it kind of just popped out of my mouth. She got mad and stormed off. Five seconds. But she's my other best friend, so I generally try not to worry. I find if you worry too much, you spend less time doing other things.

Like standing outside in the rain at a rest stop, waiting for your brother to get done peeing. I turn back toward the door and hear him humming still. I look down at my watch. It's two thirty. Creed needs to be picked up in a half hour, and we've still got a few miles to drive. "Hey, Kid? You good? We gotta get going."

I hear him stop humming. "Bear, I don't talk to you when you're going to the bathroom," he says matter-of-factly.

Touche.

A few minutes later he comes out. I make sure I'm standing in the exact spot he left me in. I see him give me an appraising look, finding me there. I hold out my hand and he grabs it, and we walk out back into the rain.

* * * *

"There he is!" Ty points out excitedly. I see Creed standing at the entrance to one of the terminals. He sees me coming, and Ty's waving like mad, and he laughs. Most girls think Creed is "mad crazy hot" (his own words) and I guess, from a male perspective, he's okay-looking. He's got short blond hair that kind of does whatever it wants, white even teeth, green eyes, and even I'll admit he's built like a truck. From the looks of it, he has put on more muscle than even the last time I saw him in March. And he's tall, which is the bane of my existence, being only 5'9" myself. And my hair is dark. And my eyes are brown. And I'm pale. And I think for some reason that I still have one of my baby teeth because one tooth is a lot smaller than all the others. I tell Creed the only reason I'm his friend is because he is a big, tan rich kid. He says the only reason he's my friend is because I'm little, white, and I live in the ghetto with my baby teeth. We get along great.

He opens the door and thrusts his bags over the seats to the back, next to Ty. He gets in and grins over at me. He reaches over and puts one arm around my shoulder, pulling me into a hug, and I feel rain water roll onto my cheek. He pats my back with the requisite three-pat man-hug and pulls away. "What's up, dude? How's coastal life?"

I smile and shrug. "Same as when I talked to you last. I think you would know if anything major was going on."

He grins again and looks over his shoulder into the backseat and quickly rubs his hands over his head, spraying water all over me and Ty, who laughs out a mock protest. "What's up, Kid? Bear treating you okay, or do I need to take him down a few pegs for you?"

Ty puts his hand to his chin in concentration and thinks for a moment. Then, "Maybe just one peg. He wouldn't let me get that new documentary about PETA from the video store."

"That was a month ago!" I protest, knowing what's coming.

Ty glares at me. "I remember things."

Creed laughs. "One peg it is," he says and punches me on the shoulder. Yeah, he's definitely put on more muscle.

"Bastard," I growl, rubbing my arm. "You should have seen this movie. It was all about how to become an ecoterrorist and fight against the system. If the Kid had gotten it, he probably would be blowing up some celebrity for wearing fur right now."

"Eh, what can you do?" Creed says. "At least it wasn't like last time when he said three pegs for not getting him the right brand of soy milk." How could I forget? I had a bruise on my arm for a month.

Ty speaks for me. "He gets me the right kind now. And, Bear, I can't believe you said it was about how to 'fight against the system.' I guess it's disheartening for any child to learn their big brother is still living in the Reagan years."

I don't even know what that means.

* * * *

An hour later, we're still on the freeway, traffic having backed up, and it's raining harder. Creed's been telling us what's been going on in Arizona, more for Ty's benefit than mine as I speak to Creed a few times a week. Ty tells him about the new teacher he had at school who he's had to correct a few times when the teacher had been wrong in class, and about how I had to go in for a "Brother-Teacher" conference (he refuses to call it parent-teacher). He makes a face as he tells Creed about how Mr. Epson had called Benjamin Franklin a fine president. Creed looks over at me quickly, and I nod, and Creed turns back in horror to Ty, asking how anyone could get that mixed up.

"I know!" Ty mutters darkly. "There are apparently no standards to teach the third grade. And we don't get out of school for another month."

Ten minutes later, Ty's talked out and asleep, his head resting on Creed's bags. Looking back over his shoulder to make sure the Kid is actually asleep, Creed then turns to me and says quietly, "I thought Benjamin Franklin was a president."

"I thought he was too! I had to look it up later just to make sure. Apparently he didn't do a lot of things I thought he did."

"He's on money though, right?" Creed asks.

"Yeah, he is. How'd he do that if he wasn't president?"

"He probably had a big dick."

I grin. "Like the bigger it was, the higher the bill you would be on or something?"

"Yeah. Poor George," Creed says, laughing. "Of course, I would be on the million-dollar bill."

"They don't make a million-dollar bill."

"Well, yeah. They haven't seen how big my dick is." We both laugh. Then he quiets down and looks over at me. "It's good to see you, Bear. Thanks for coming to pick me up."

I shrug. "Sure. It's not every day you come back, so it's no big deal. How were finals?" I ask, trying to prolong the conversation from where it'll inevitably go.

He groans and covers his face. "A nightmare. I don't think they're going to let me go back next semester."

"Liar."

He grins. "You're right. Bear, I could do this crap in my sleep. I'm getting so bored being in school. I'm doing this stupid internship right now, and it's literally the most idiotic thing I've ever done. Apparently 'intern' means 'glorified errand boy'." He shakes his head. "The recommendation will be good when I graduate, though. Speaking of, I know it's a year away, but make sure you know you and the Kid need to be in Phoenix for graduation."

I nod. "It'll give me enough time to start saving up some money. We should be able to swing it, at least for a couple of days." Goddamn it! Why'd I have to--

"Bear, if you'd just let me--" Creed begins, going into that same old dance that I've long memorized the steps to.

I cut him off. "Don't start that again. You know that if I needed help, I'd ask. It's not that I'm so full of pride that I don't know to ask if I needed to."

He looks out the window. "I know that you would make sure Ty's covered but you wouldn't ask help for yourself."

I don't respond because I know it's true, and anything said to the contrary would sound hollow to both of us.

Creed turns back to me. "C'mon, Bear. You know I worry about you and the Kid. It's my right as your best friend and job as being Uncle Creed."

"I know," I say irritably. "But we are actually doing okay right now. I'm almost all caught up with the bills. We're not behind on rent like we were last year. The only things I am really worried about right now is what to do about the Kid's school next year and"--I look back to make sure Ty is still asleep--"his birthday party."

"Brother-Teacher Conference?"

"Brother-Teacher Conference. Apparently he's a 'disruption' in class, but even the teacher and principal think it's because he is too smart for the material. They want to move him up to fifth grade next year, but I don't know."

Creed whistles. "Skipping a grade? How the hell did he get so smart?" He grins and lightly punches me on the shoulder. "We know it's nothing you did."

I punch him back, careful not to swerve the car and end up in a ditch. "You're telling me? I know that already. I just wonder if he needs the disruption of skipping a grade. I don't know if that would be good for him or not." And I really believe that. I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse that Mom chose to leave me with the goddamn smartest kid on the planet. "Whatever I decide, they want an answer two weeks before the new school year begins, to fit him into a classroom."

"And they're not giving you any more shit over the power of attorney?" he asks.

I shake my head. "Nah. Not as much as they did at first. But they've been dealing with me since Ty was in kindergarten. You know I was at these meetings more than my mom ever was. The only thing that really changed is that her say-so really wasn't needed anymore." This had terrified me at first, of course, on top of everything else--that I had the final say over anything and everything Tyson. Even if I'd been the one to attend these teacher conferences and doctor's appointments when our mom had still been around, she'd usually still signed off on everything. I remember being afraid that everything I did was going to be wrong and that there'd be no one there to correct my mistakes. Looking back, I don't really know how we survived. Sheer force of will, perhaps.

Creed looks back at Ty and then at me. "Dude, if you'd have told me three years ago that we'd be having this conversation, I would have said you were high."

"I know. It's crazy, right?"

He laughs. "Full-on Papa-Bear mode." He looks out the window as we pull into the Seafare city limits. "Ah, home sweet home. Did you know when I left Phoenix it was 113 degrees outside?"

I make a face. I don't understand how anyone can live in that kind of weather. The Kid and I went to visit Creed over their holiday break a couple of years ago. It was hot on Christmas Eve, and we went swimming at this barbecue we went to. I swore I got skin cancer for the week we were there. The Kid told me I was a drama queen. Arizona is weird. Give me the ocean and cold anytime.

I turn down Seaway Avenue, which leads to the Pinecrest Coast side of town, where Creed's house is at. And before this goes any further, let me repeat something, just so we're clear: Creed's family is rich, I'm not. That's just the way it is. I'm not some kind of wrong-side-of-the-tracks cliche that needs to be saved from his life of poverty. I'm not fighting those that oppress me in some all-out movie-of-the-week kind of way. These are just the facts of life, and it is what it is and blah, blah, blah. I'm doing okay. We're doing okay. I've learned in my short time here on Earth that things could always be worse.

Creed is saying something about some girl he boned or wants to bone or got halfway to boning when we turn onto his street, and his words cut off. I look over at him and see him staring at the window.

"What?"

"Whose car is in my driveway?"

I look further down the street and indeed see an older Jeep Cherokee sitting in front of Creed's four-car garage. It's black and missing a hubcap on one of the tires. I haven't seen it before, and I don't think it belongs to his parents. "Do you think we should stop?"

He laughs. "Where else we gonna go? If it's someone breaking in, I need to at least make sure they're not taking any of my stuff." We get closer to the house, close enough to see no one in the Jeep and to see the front door is closed and not in splinters like my overactive mind thought it would be. "Park next to it," he says, pointing to a spot in the driveway. "I'll go in. You stay out here with the Kid and keep your window down, and I'll shout for you if I need help."

I roll my eyes. "That's sounds like a great plan. I'll make sure to come running. Together, we'll be able to take 'em down with all the weapons I keep in my car. Way to think that one out."

Creed doesn't say anything as he opens his door and gets out into the rain. I see him look through the windows on the garage door, but he doesn't see anything that would make him run back to the car. I reach for my cell phone and dial 911 and hold my hand over the send button, just to be safe. I look in the rearview mirror and see that Ty's still sleeping on Creed's bags.

Creed walks up to the front door and opens it with his keys and pushes it open, calling out with deepened voice and a stuck-out chest, "Hello?" I snort and accidentally dial 911. I look at my phone in horror and hang up, hoping it didn't go through because those people can track you anywhere. I look back up in time for Creed to buckle over, laughing.

"No way!" he yells into the house and turns back to walk out to the car where I sit, still unsure if it's a robber or if 911 is going to call me back.

"Who is it?" I demand as he opens the door.

Creed grins at the Kid asleep on his bags and then looks back at me, his eyes dancing. "Dude, its Otter. My big bro came home."

* * * *

2.

Where Bear Attempts
to Explain Some Things

Okay, so I know what you're thinking: first Bear, now a guy named Otter? I can explain that one too.

Remember when I told you how Ty is the reason that my mom and everyone else in the world started calling me Bear? I guess it was some kind of cosmic revenge for what I did to Creed's big brother. When I first met Creed at the tender age of eight, I was infinitely shyer than I am now. I'm okay now with meeting new people. Either that or I just ignore them. But back then, I was a nightmare when it came to strangers. I was over at Creed's house for the first time to play and spend the night. My mom had some new boyfriend that was taking up all of her time (oh, I know, poor me, right?) and the Kid was still a few years away. So when my mom found out I had made a new friend, I was instantly pawned off on this family who could have taken one look at me and closed the door. But they didn't, and after a while, it got to be where Creed's mom would recognize my voice when I called on the phone, and I would have dinner at their house more often than my own. Then Ty came and that got all curbed for a while so I could stay home and help my mom.

The first time I went over to Creed's house, I was a nervous wreck, and it all had to do with this unseen entity, this creature known as a big brother. Creed had told me before that he was sixteen and a jerk but that he would leave us alone if we left him alone. Naturally, that terrified the hell out of me. I imagined this great hulking teenager who would tear me apart if I even looked at him weird, and I suddenly didn't want to go. I begged my mom, but she told me that Bill or Frank or John or Bob or whatever other one-syllable name she was dating at the time was going to take her somewhere fancy and how she deserved it and didn't I think she deserved it? And of course not another word was spoken on the matter, and two hours later I found myself on the Thompsons' front porch with a Transformers overnight bag that my mom had purchased at a garage sale for the occasion. I rang the doorbell, wondering how a rich person's doorbell would sound and was in the middle of being surprised that it sounded like ours when the door opened.

"Who're you?" the older boy said with a scowl, looking at me over his Gameboy. The first thing I thought was how impressed I was that he had a Gameboy. You remember those things with the foul green screen that reduced every game to Gerber Mashed Peas? I always wanted one, but my mom said it was better to have a roof over our head. I was never one to try and argue with that kind of logic.

The second thing I remember was that Creed had said his brother could be a jerk and of course that meant he was capable of murder and that he would not hesitate to murder me. So I squeaked out my name, asking if Creed was home. He yelled for Creed over his shoulder and walked away. I didn't know if I should follow him or stay where I was. My legs wouldn't move, so I decided it was best if I stayed outside. Creed came to the door and grabbed my arm and pulled me in. I went in and said hi to his parents, who I'd met a couple of times before. Creed led me to his room so I could put my stuff down. We walked past another door whose hinges were about to be blown off by music pulsating deep from within that had a sign with almost illegible handwriting. And I will swear to God till the day I die that it said KEEP OUT OF OTTER'S ROOM.

Now, I didn't know the name of Creed's older brother when I arrived, and I puzzled all the way to Creed's room on why his brother was named Otter. I asked him this quietly in his room after I'd made sure no one could hear me as I didn't want to incur the wrath of someone somewhere. I remember Creed laughing hysterically, to the point where he was crying. You know where someone finds something so funny that you just don't get the humor in it, but they are laughing so hard that you eventually start laughing too? Yeah, it was one of those kinds of things. There we were, laughing our asses off, with one of us not understanding what was so funny. Between hitching breaths and snot hanging out of his nose, Creed finally told him that his brother's name was Oliver.

Everything was going good until Creed brought it up while all of us were at dinner.

I wished at that point, as I had never wished before, that I could disappear, become invisible, drop down dead, anything to get away from my sheer stupidity. Of course, I naturally assumed they were all laughing at me. I could feel my face on fire as I tried to think of something funny I'd seen to keep the tears from spilling over. Eventually, finally, the conversation switched over to something else. I kept stealing glances over at Oliver, wondering how mad he was at me and how he was going to get his revenge. One time he caught me looking and gave me a crooked grin. His eyes flashed.

I looked away.

The next time I went over to the Thompson house, everyone called him Otter.

* * * *

I reach back and shake the Kid a little bit, trying to wake him. He doesn't like to wake up in strange places, so this is gentle work. Eventually he opens his eyes and hunts around until he finds me and visibly relaxes.

"What's going on, Bear?" he asks, yawning.

"We're at Creed's house. Remember how I said we were going to hang out here tonight? Is that still okay? If we stay here for a while?" I had actually planned on crashing here tonight, but now that Otter's here I don't want to. Long story.

The Kid stretches in the seat and nods. "Do you think Creed still has the History Channel on his TV?"

I try to hide my smile but don't do very well. "I'm sure he does. Don't you want to watch cartoons or something, though?" He looks at me like I'm crazy. I sigh and remind myself once again how normal he isn't and how okay that is. I hesitate with my next words, but only for a moment. "Guess what else, Kid? Otter's here too."

The Kid pauses for a moment, thinking. "It's been a while," he finally says succinctly. He quickly unbuckles his seat belt and steps out into the rain. I zip up his coat, noticing how small it is on him now, wondering if I need to go get him a new one. I try and think if he has any other coat in the closet at home, but I can't remember. But that's all right. For now. For now, he seems to be okay.

"Bear, you coming inside or what?" Creed asks from the doorway. I startle, realizing that Ty has already run inside, and I'm standing in the driveway getting soaked. I grin sheepishly and rub my hands through my hair.

As I enter the house, I hear Ty yelling for Otter as he runs up the stairs. Creed rolls his eyes at me. "I guess I've been replaced already."

"Don't feel too bad," I say. "The Kid thinks you're cool, but 'Otter rocks!'" My voice rises to the octave of the Kid.

"Story of my life," he mutters.

"So, why is he here?" I ask, trying to sound casual, but Creed doesn't hear me.

I follow him into the kitchen, where I hear Otter thumping back down the stairs and Ty already babbling away at him. I see them pass by the aquarium near the bottom of the stairs, and I notice Ty already resting on Otter's back, his arms thrown companionably around his neck as he giggles into his ear. Otter has the same lopsided grin on his face that he always has. I remember when he used to be able to carry me like that. He's a bit shorter than Creed but more muscular than he is. Everything else, from the closely cropped blond hair to the green eyes is the same. Of course he's older than Creed and I, twenty-nine years old to our just-turned twenty-one. He hasn't really changed much over the years. I find myself uncharacteristically fascinated by the veins that bulge out on his massive arms, the way his back looks like it goes on for miles under the shirt he wears. His gigantic hands, the crinkles around his eyes that form when he smiles. There's something there, in the back of my mind, but I can't look at it now and berate myself quietly for noticing these things about him. About myself. What the hell do I care?

Otter sets down the Kid on the countertop in the kitchen, still giving Ty his full attention. Ty's telling him some story involving the evils of ham production and looks down for a moment. That's when Otter glances up over Ty's head just for an instant and searches for me. His eyes find mine, and Otter grins the Otter grin before quickly diverting his attention back to the Kid. He knows as well as anybody that when Ty is talking to you about something as important as ham processing, you pay attention like it's the last thing you'll ever hear. I try not to notice how my step stutters when he looks away.

I walk into the kitchen. Creed grabs beer out of the fridge and offers one to me, which I take. He throws one to Otter who catches it deftly with one hand while never tearing his eyes away from Ty. Ty pauses in a sentence, and then Creed interjects, "Kid, you want a beer?"

Ty's eyes widen and then narrow suspiciously. "What if I say yes?"

Creed shrugs. "Then I'd tell you you'd have to ask Papa Bear."

The Kid glances sideways at me then goes back to Creed. "Bear and I already talked about it, and he thinks I'm old enough."

I snort. "Like hell we did! You little liar."

The Kid looks back at Otter, who is struggling to keep a straight face. "You believe me, right, Otter?" he asks, making his voice sound as if he were some poor orphan boy asking for a meal. Otter can't contain it and bursts out laughing, a loud bellowing sound that echoes throughout the tiled kitchen. Ty crosses his arms and scowls.

Otter sobers up for a moment, looking down at the little boy in front of him. "How about this," he says. Ty instantly perks to attention. "How about I give you a sip of my beer and just a sip, and then I go get you some soy ice cream?"

Soy ice cream? I should have thought of that.

Ty looks at Otter for a moment to make sure he's not joking and then looks at me, eyes pleading. I pretend to mull it over for a moment while Otter, Creed, and the Kid begin making pitiful noises, begging, just begging. I throw my hands up in the air, and Ty knows he's got me beat.

Otter picks up his beer bottle and hands it over to Ty, saying, "You can sip until I count to three, and then you're done, okay?" Ty nods and lifts the bottle to his lips. "One... two... three, and you're done." He takes the bottle away from Ty, who sits there a moment before letting out a great burp. We all laugh, and Otter gives a high-five to the Kid, who is grinning, knowing he's one of the boys.

Otter picks Ty easily off the counter and sets him on the ground, asking him first in his gruffest voice if he is too drunk to walk and did he know that was against the law? Ty says he knows it was against the law, but he was peer-pressured into it, just like Creed pressured me to drink the first time.

Creed rolls his eyes and leans over and whispers to me, "So, that's what you told him? Damn liar."

"What can I say?" I whisper back. "I was young and impressionable, and you coerced me." Creed snorts on his beer, spilling it onto the ground. He searches around for a towel while cursing my name. While smirking at Creed, I feel a strong arm drop onto my shoulder. I look over and see Otter standing next to me, crooked grin and all. His teeth are big and white.

"Hi, Bear," Otter says. There's determination in his eyes.

"Hi, Otter," I say, looking back at him, fighting against the urge to throw his arm off of me.

For a moment he looks like he's about to speak but something must cross his mind, changing it, and he takes it back. He gives me a one-armed hug and then steps back to stand in front of me, looking down at the beer in his hand. I wonder what just happened and what he was going to say. I wonder a lot of things, but it's all batted down by the sound of rain on the roof. I look down at Creed, but his attention is still focused on the spilled beer, so he didn't see anything. Not that there would have been anything to see. I look back up to Otter and am trying to make out the mess that is my mind when he says, "So, what's the word, Papa Bear?"

I shrug. "Same, I guess. What's new with you? I haven't seen you since what, the Christmas before last?" I say this last bit coldly, as we both know damn well when the last time I saw him was.

He's about to speak again, but this time is interrupted by Creed. "Yeah, what's up, Otter? Not that I mind at all, but how come you're here? What, San Diego getting to be too much for you?"

Otter shrugs, and I don't think he's going to answer when he says, "Felt like I needed a change of scenery for a while." He takes another sip of his beer and doesn't speak further, and it drives me fucking crazy.

He'd graduated from the University of Oregon in Eugene and had stayed in Seafare for a while. After my mom left, some shit went down, and then Otter was gone too. I have only seen him once in the last three years. I know he works for some kind of photography agency down there where his work is apparently hot shit. The house I'm in right now is full of his pictures, his mom's equivalent of hanging coloring pages and good test scores on the fridge.

"Uh-huh," Creed says. "Are you sure it's not troubles with your boy--"

"Uncle Creed?" The Kid calls out from the living room, interrupting Creed, but not before I see the warning look that Otter shoots him.

Creed smirks and yells back "What's up, Kid?"

"Did Otter go get my soy ice cream yet?"

Otter laughs. "Is that your way of telling me I need to go get it right now for you?"

"Yes. I was trying not to be rude, but I would like ice cream for when my show comes on."

"What show is that?" I ask, trying to remember if he'd told me.

"It's a show about the history of slaughterhouses in the 1920s," he calls back.

"Oh, Jesus Christ," I mutter. There's nothing quite like the buzzkill of seeing how hamburger gets made. And nothing quite so boring as the history behind it. I turn to apologize to Creed and Otter, but Creed stops me, as he knows where I'm going.

"Shut up, Bear, and let the Kid do what he wants." He finishes off his beer and reaches in to grab another one, saying, "Besides, I want to watch it, too, and see how long it takes for me to get drunk enough to see if it gets funny. Why don't you go with him?" he asks me. "Give Ty some Uncle Creed time and you some time off."

I can think of at least four hundred reasons why that's a bad idea and look at Otter who is scouting around for his keys. "Do you want me to go?" I ask. The moment I say the words, I regret them. My mouth tends to move on its own.

He looks surprised but readily agrees. I tell him I'll be right back, and I go to find the Kid.

I walk through the hall, pausing to look every now and then at the pictures on the walls. There's one from, like, fifteen years ago of Creed, Otter, and their parents. There are separate ones of Creed and Otter and other family: grandparents, aunts, uncles. It used to weird me out seeing these pictures. We didn't have anything like that hanging in our house. My mom said that when I was seven, she took me with her and had our pictures taken "professionally," I remember her saying proudly. But when I asked her where the pictures were, she said she couldn't remember.

I get to another picture in the hallway and stop. It's black and white, taken when me and Creed were fifteen years old. Otter had taken it, showing us jumping on a giant trampoline that they used to have in the backyard. Otter had caught us mid-jump, our longer hair frenzied about our faces, our shirts bunched slightly up around our stomachs, revealing white lines of skin. I look at myself then and realize how different I look now. How different things are now.

I was too skinny all through high school, until finally I got sick of it and started working out. I'm nowhere near as bulked up as Creed is, but it's a lot better than where I started. My face isn't tragic and my skin is clear. I don't have a tan, but then most people that live here don't. I have brown eyes and black hair that needs to be cut. I have a white scar on my forehead near my right eyebrow where Creed had accidentally hit me with an aluminum bat when I was thirteen years old. That took four stitches, and my mom sat with me in the emergency room, saying I should see if I could get any Vicodin. I did and gave it to her.

I've never been one to be concerned with looks or vanity (for the most part). To be honest, I don't have the time. I don't have fancy clothes or expensive haircuts and don't really see the need for it. I'm more worried about keeping a roof over our head and buying Tyson new shoes almost every other week. I don't know how it's possible for a nine-year-old to go through so many pairs of damn shoes. So, with all that, I've learned it's significantly easier to be humble when you're forced to do it. You can consider that a life lesson from me to you. You're welcome.

I take a deep breath and look back at the picture, a moment caught from what feels like a lifetime ago.

I go out to the living room and see the Kid reclined out on the sofa, head on a pillow, eyes opened wide as he watches yet another show that looks like it belongs in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "Kid," I grumble at him, "I don't know how you don't have nightmares from this. This creeps me out."

"Maybe you just feel guilty about what you eat," he deadpans, never raising his eyes to look at me.

"You little punk," I growl, leaning down and tickling him right under his ribs where I know he gets it the worst. My mom and I are the same way. He tries not to laugh but is soon howling at me, "Bear, Bear!" trying to wiggle this way and that. I stop, and he looks up at me with such a look that for a moment I am blinded by my love for this kid, my Kid, that it feels like my breath gets knocked out of me. I kiss the top of his head, and he says, "Ah, gross!" but that's okay.

"You gonna be okay here with Creed for a little bit while Otter and I go get your ice cream?" I ask when I've recovered myself a bit.

His eyes steal away from the TV and lock onto mine. "You're going to come back, though, right?"

I smile reassuringly and ruffle his hair where I kissed him a moment ago. "You got it, Kid. I shouldn't be gone long at all. It should only take a little bit, but to be on the safe side, give me an hour, okay?" He looks at his watch and notes the time, then nods. I do, too, seeing it's almost seven. "You have your cell phone with you?" I ask. He nods again and pulls it out of his pocket. "Alright, then. I'll be back in a little bit, but call me if you need to." He nods again, already back into his show. I touch his head again and walk back toward the kitchen.

It may or may not be weird to you that he has a cell phone. It seems like a lot of kids his age do these days. It's not really something I can afford right now, but I make do. I learned early on after Mom left that if he had his own way to reach me, he felt better about being apart from me. He never uses the cell phone to call anyone else, and aside from Creed, Anna, Mrs. Paquinn (our next-door neighbor, more on her later), and occasionally Otter, no one else calls him on that phone. If someone needs to reach him, they do so through me.

I'm about to reenter the kitchen when I hear hushed voices, and I pause, immediately feeling guilty for eavesdropping. But I listen anyway. They're talking about me, so I figure I've got the right to hear what they say.

"What were you thinking, saying something like that to him?" Otter hissed.

"What the fuck are you talking about, Otter?" Creed sounds slightly amused and slightly pissed off all at the same time, which he has a great talent for. "He already knows. I told him a while ago. It's not a big deal. He doesn't care."

"I'm not talking about that! I don't care who the hell knows!" Otter sounds upset, and my breath catches in my chest, not wanting him to say anything further. But he does anyways. "It's not about that! Jesus, Creed! If you only knew...." Shut up, Otter! Shut up! "Besides, if I wanted him to know about anything, I would have said something myself. Stay out of it!"

But Creed pushes on: "So that's really why you're back, isn't it? It didn't work out between you and what's-his-name?"

"Creed, I swear to Christ, just drop it! I don't want to talk about this right now!" I hear someone slam their beer bottle onto the countertop, and I assume it's Otter.

"Chill, big bro. Like I said, Bear doesn't give a damn one way or the other."

Oh, Creed.

Silence falls in the kitchen, and I realize I'm still holding my breath. I let it out slowly, hating the way it sounds ragged. But that was closer than I ever wanted to hear it said out loud. It's not about that... if you only knew! His words ring in my ears, and I feel lightheaded. Okay. There might be something else that I should tell you--

"What are you doing, Bear?" the Kid says loudly from somewhere behind me. I jerk a little bit to the right, hitting my head against the wall. It hits a picture, and a second later I hear it shatter on the floor. Goddammit, Kid! I think angrily, knowing I am more upset with myself than with him. I look over at Ty, standing in the hallway, hands in his pockets, a big O expression on his lips. I mutter something incoherently and bend down to pick up the glass before he steps on it. Creed comes out of the kitchen, and I can feel his smirk on my hot skin.

"I'm sorry," I say through gritted teeth.

"What the fuck?" he says lightly. "No need to be all ghetto in my nice house."

I bark out a harsh laugh. I look down at the picture and see it's another one that Otter had taken. It shows Creed and his mom at our high school graduation. I am off to the side somewhere, out of sight, holding Ty's hand and the sign he and Mrs. Thompson had made for me, saying "Yay Bear!" The picture captures Creed at a perfect moment of wild youth, diploma in one hand, his other around his mom. There's a smile on his face so big you can almost count all of his perfect white teeth. Well, you could have before it had fallen on the ground, tearing right across his face. Shit! I think, feeling my face get redder. Before I can say anything further, Otter is hunkered down beside me, picking up shards of glass.

"Otter, I suck. I'm sorry," I whisper, wondering why I feel so goddamn bad.

I feel him shrug as his arm is touching mine. "It's just a picture," he says. "And it's not even very good. Anyone with a camera can take photos and say they're a photographer." He sighs, and I can feel the bitterness coming off him in waves, and I wonder if he is just saying those things for my benefit. I wonder if he is really as pissed off at me as I am at him. I wonder why he's really here.

I wonder a lot of things.

"Bear, just leave it," Creed says, towering over me. "Me and the Kid can pick it up. His show is on, and Otter owes him ice cream."

"Soy ice cream," Ty says, making sure we haven't forgotten.

"That's right!" Creed says, stepping around me and picking up Ty to throw him over his shoulder. Ty laughs in the way that only kids can as Creed carries him back to the living room.

Otter puts the glass on top of the picture, causing Creed and his mom to look all distorted and broken. He holds out his hand to help me up. I look at it for a moment.

"You ready?" he asks.

What a loaded question.

* * * *

We're in his car, after stopping at three gas stations, none of which carry soy ice cream. Big surprise, right? Otter suggests we go to the grocery store where I work, which is almost on the other side of town. It seems kind of weird because there's another store on the way that would probably have the gross stuff my brother eats, but I don't say anything. It's nice to get away for a little bit.

I know how that sounds, okay? I know that I'm in a kind of fucked-up situation with Ty and all, and I'm doing my best but sometimes I just want to get away. I feel guilty about it, kind of like how I am feeling now, but every now and then, the sheer joy of it outweighs the guilt. I wonder, not for the first time, if this is how my mom felt. Is this what she was thinking when she decided to sit down and write those letters? That undeniable sense of freedom that seems to loom up out of nowhere? I can see how easy it would be to fall to it, to just get in the car and drive and drive and drive until everything around you is unfamiliar and nobody knows who you are and what you've just done. To start over and become anyone you want to be. Who's going to know the difference?

But then, reality sets in.

I'm nothing like her. I've learned how to squash those thoughts quicker than they can take root. If I were to fall prey to it, like she did, then how am I any better than her? After she left, it took me a long time to be where I am at right now. I have a responsibility and not just to myself. What the hell would happen to Ty if he woke up one day and found me gone? I sometimes lay awake at night, these things floating around my head. I see him running from room to room, calling out my name, "Bear, Bear, Bear!" I see him picking up his cell phone with his little hands and calling me, only to find my number has been disconnected. What would he do then? I know for a fact he would never trust anybody ever again. He has a hard enough time doing it now. That's about the time I always realize I could never do that, not to him, not to anyone. I am not my mom. I am not my mom. I have to be a good father--

Shit.

Brother.

I meant brother.

Fuck. Not again.

I stare out the window. It's still raining.

* * * *

"You cool?" Otter asks me as he shuts his door. I feel my clothes getting wet again, clinging against my skin. My nipples get hard and I blush. I fold my arms over my chest and nod to Otter and start walking inside. I hear him rush to catch up with me, and then he falls into step beside me.

The automatic doors whoosh open and processed air washes over my skin, chilling it as goose flesh moves in. As soon as we get through the doorway, I hear my name. I look up and see Anna standing at a cash register, the magazine in her hand caught in mid-page turning. I smile weakly.

So Anna. And the grocery store.

Let's go with the grocery store first

It's where I've been working since I was sixteen. As soon as I was old enough, my mom said I needed to get a job to help out with the bills. Being sixteen and living in Seafare doesn't give you a whole lot of options. To be honest, being any age in Seafare doesn't give you a whole lot of options. It was either become a bagger or a busboy. Since my mom already worked at a restaurant at the time, I didn't want to take the chance of having to work with her all the time, so I chose bagger. Now I'm a lead cashier. And before you all grow wide-eyed with amazement over my rags-to-riches story, it's actually not that bad. I pretty much get to stand at the front desk and tell all the other cashiers what to do and when to go on break, stuff like that. It's kind of like being a manager without actually getting paid to be one. Oh, and the manager gets to sit in an office, not at the front desk. Okay, so it's not really like being a manager at all, but it could be worse, right? I could be working McDonald's and hearing the Kid mumble each night I came home that I smelled like bovine genocide. And before you think I'm being overly dramatic, I once worked the meat counter and that's exactly what he said to me. I requested never to be put there again.

So it's not so bad, okay? I've been here long enough that I get to work pretty much whenever I want, which is good, especially working days so I can be done by the time that Ty gets done with school. And they allowed me to put Ty on the health insurance they offer after you've been here three years. They didn't have to do that. I don't like to think about what I'd do because the Kid gets a cold every other minute or so. So see? Things could be worse. A lot worse.

Now Anna.

I told you before how she's my sort-of girlfriend. Do you remember? Now's one of the times when she sort of is, and I feel guilty for a moment because I told her that I was going to call her as soon as I got to Creed's house. But hey, I can say I wanted to just see her in person and everything works out. She'll see right through me, though, she always does.

"Hey," she says, smiling at me as I walk up to her.

"Hey, yourself," I say back, standing in front of her register like a customer. She leans over to kiss me, and I turn my face lightly, feeling her lips graze my cheek. She pulls back and looks at me funny.

I jerk my head to the side in a sort of nod. "Look who's here."

She looks over my shoulder, and I see her face light up. "Otter!" She laughs and bounds around the register. I turn to watch her go and see Otter still standing at the door where we walked in. Funny, I thought he was next to me. She jumps into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist, and I hear him say, "Oof."

So, yeah. Anna. I think I told you that she was the second person I met after Creed. She was in the same second-grade class as us, so it was inevitable that we would at least become friends. But it turned out to be much more than that. Anna is the only girlfriend I have ever had, the only girl I have ever kissed. We had sex, the first time for both of us, the summer between eighth and ninth grade, in the guest house that sits behind Creed's house. She's been my first everything, aside from having the honor of being my first best friend, as that goes to Creed. First love, first heartache, first (and only) proposal of marriage. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. But come on, we were ten! And she proposed to me, right after our first kiss. And it wasn't even really proposing, it was more of a "Derrick McKenna, I am only going to kiss you if you say that we are getting married when we're adults!" What's a ten-year-old boy to do? I said yes, and she kissed me lightly on the lips, the touch of a feather. I remember turning red enough to light the world on fire. That sealed the deal.

Except for the times when she's sort of not my girlfriend.

We're way too much alike to ever get along all the time. I swear to Christ when we fight, it's about the stupidest shit. She thinks she's right. I know I'm right, blah blah blah, and it always ends with her flipping her long brown hair, her dark eyes flashing, muttering under her breath and sounding so much like me that it's hilarious. And that's always the worst time to laugh, so naturally that's when I laugh. Of course, this pisses her off even more--which pisses me off--and it always ends with one of us stalking away, licking our wounds. I love her too damn much, though, and I know she feels the same and a couple of days later one of us will pick up the phone and call the other, and things will be good for a while.

And I do mean that. I love her. Anna was there for me growing up, listening to me bitch about how my mom was fucked up. She was there for me, making me talk to new people, telling me that the worst thing a person can do is not make new friends She was there for me when I found out Ty was on the way (trust me, I wasn't very happy about that at the time). She was there for me when I stumbled into her house after reading my mom's letter, tears of rage blinding me, clenching and unclenching my fists. She has seen the good, the bad, and everything in between that makes me who I am. Don't get me wrong: Creed was there through a lot of that, too, but Anna gets me in a way that he can't. It's not his fault or anyone else's. It just is.

It also helps that she worships the ground Ty walks on. Trust me, it could have been so much easier for her to walk away and not look back like Mom did. But she didn't, and you have to admit, that takes balls. Anna's one of the few people that Ty trusts and has no problem letting her watch him if I need to pick up a couple of extra shifts at the store. She's the only one who pretends to get his whole vegetarian phase (and I know it's just a phase; no brother of mine is going to eat like that forever). She has been there for him better than any woman ever was to him, and I think he needs that every now and then. He can't look up to just me for the rest of his life, right?

Otter sets her down and leans over to whisper something in her ear. She laughs and slaps his shoulder, and I hear her say "Of course I'm still watching out for him! Who else is going to call him on his bullshit?" They both look back at me, and Anna sticks out her tongue. I flash mine back. Otter rolls his eyes and mumbles something about "kids these days." They walk back over to the register where I still stand.

"Where's the Kid?" she asks me.

"Watching something gross with Creed," I say.

She smiles sympathetically. "That show on killing cows?"

"Yeah. How'd you know?"

"He told me about it last week when I was babysitting him." Anna looks over at Otter and whispers conspiratorially, "He didn't want me to tell Bear because he said Bear would be too scared to watch it." I scowl as Otter laughs. Just because apparently nobody I know is normal like me.

"So, Otter, what brings you back home? Getting too famous for California already?" she asks him.

He shrugs nonchalantly. "Just felt like I needed to come home for a little bit, I guess. Hey, where's the soy ice cream? I promised the Kid some after he drank my beer." Anna points toward the end of the store. "I'll be right back," he says, walking away.

Anna looks after him for a moment then turns to me. She leans forward a little bit, as if we are going to be overheard. "So what's going on with him?"

"I don't know. Why would I know?"

"He didn't tell you why he came back home? He never just comes back to Seafare like this. He hasn't been back for over a year. And," she says, quieter, "he seems a little sad." This takes me by surprise. I hadn't noticed anything like that, and I tell Anna she's projecting, a word she learned in her Psych 101 class that she uses on me all the time. She slaps me on the shoulder and goes to help a woman who looks older than God and apparently needed to come out into the rain to buy sandwich bags. And that's it.

"Has it been busy tonight?" I ask, looking around.

She shrugs as she takes the woman's money. "A little bit. It picked up again once it started raining, but Mary is here so it wasn't too bad." Mary is another cashier we work with who smells like menthols and Juicy Fruit. I don't know where she gets the gum from because I don't think they even make it anymore. Anna says she's got a stockpile of it at her house that she bought years ago. I think she's joking, though. I hope she's joking.

Otter comes back, setting the ice cream on the conveyer belt. I don't think he looks sad. He looks like Otter. Anna doesn't know what she's talking about. What would he have to be sad about? He has a killer job, gets paid lots of money. I am sure he's got a cool house or apartment or something. He doesn't have to worry about someone depending on him to survive. He's not stuck in Seafare. Boo hoo.

Okay, I'm sounding bitter. And I'm staring. And he catches me. Otter grins crookedly. "Did you want something too, Bear?" he asks.

Yes! I shout in my head. I want you to go back to California! I want you to stop talking! I want to know why I came with you! I want to know why you let me come with you! Why, Otter? Why did you run away! Right when I needed--

"No," I say out loud. "I don't need anything."

He shrugs and says to Anna, "So you coming over to hang out? I know Creed would want to see you."

Anna shakes her head. "I have to work late tonight and then study. I still have two finals left before I'm out for the summer."

"How's school going for you?" he asks.

"I'll be glad when it's done," she says, taking his money and handing him the change. "Then you can help me to convince Bear to start taking a few classes in the fall. You're going to be around for a while, right? How long are you here for?"

He hesitates. "I don't know. Probably for a little while. There are some things I need to work out," he repeats, looking down at his hands.

"Well, good," Anna says with a smile. "Then you can really help me make Bear go to school. Don't you think he could swing it? He's got a few of us here that would be more than willing to help with Ty." She's starting to piss me off.

"Yeah, sure," he says. "So, I guess I'll see you later, then."

"Bye, Otter."

He walks by me, arching his eyebrow. "I'll go wait in the car. Just don't be too long. I don't want to face the Kid's wrath if we get back, and his ice cream is all melted."

"His soy ice cream," I say back. He doesn't stop and walks out the door, back into the rain.

Anna comes round the register and grabs onto my arm. "You see what I'm talking about?" she asks. "Something's wrong."

I shake off her hand. "Nothing's wrong, Anna. Just leave it alone. Otter's Otter. He's alright." I turn to look at her levelly. "And would you just drop it with the whole school thing? You know I can't do anything about that right now."

She looks at me knowingly, seeing right through me, and I divert my eyes. I can feel her flip her hair in anger, and I don't want to fight with her now. I've got too many things on my mind to worry about one of us being mad at the other. I look back and kiss her lightly on the lips. "I gotta go. Otter's waiting for me."

She swats me on the ass as I turn to go. "Give me a call later if you're going to get drunk and need a ride." Her voice is neutral.

I laugh, knowing that she knows I'm not going to get drunk. I haven't been drunk in a while. A very long while. Stupid shit happens when I drink.

Whoosh, the doors go as they open and whoosh they go again, closing behind me.

* * * *

It's raining harder now. I don't say anything when I get back into the car, and I hope that Otter doesn't want to talk, either. Most people don't realize that it's nice to not talk every now and then. Talking makes things real. Talking puts things in the forefront. Talking is a waste of time. Nothing ever gets solved by talking about it. People speak too much and regret what they say, but if you don't speak at all, you can't feel like a jackass later.

I glance over at Otter out of the corner of my eye. His face is unreadable from what I can see, and that's only when a street lamp overhead passes by and flashes through the window. I think that maybe Anna can see things that I can't. She's kind of cool like that, having insights into people that I never have. Yeah, I give her shit about it, telling her she's prying where she's not wanted, telling her that she's projecting, but usually she's right. I sigh and look back out the window.

"What?" Otter asks.

"What what?" I say.

"It sounded like you just said something."

"I didn't."

"Oh."

It's quiet a little bit longer before, "So you and Anna still, huh?"

"Me and Anna," I say.

"You guys have been together for a long time."

"I guess. Off and on." 5... 4... 3... 2... 1....

"So how're you holding up, Bear?"

It's inevitable. People always ask me this like I am going to break. Like I'm going to fall down and never get up. I wish people weren't so predictable. I wish Otter wasn't so predictable.

"Fine."

"Oh." A minute passes. Then, "Well, you seem to be doing well. And Ty, man, the Kid seems to be getting bigger all the time."

"People change. That's what happens when you disappear for a while," I think, then bunch my fists as I realize I said it out loud. Shit.

"Disappear?" he asks, sounding genuinely surprised.

"Forget it."

"What do you mean, forget it? You can't say something like that and expect the conversation just to be over because you say it is, Bear." I can hear him gritting his teeth and I think it's because he's mad. Good. Let him be mad.

"Yes, I can," I retort, hating how I sound.

Another minute passes. Rain on the roof beating a song.

I hear Otter snort and shake his head. "I didn't disappear, Derrick. You knew where I was."

At that moment, I hate him. Using my name like that, like he's talking down to me, like he's better than me, like he's talking to a child. That's something my mom's infinite string of boyfriends use to do. I was never Bear to them, not that I wanted to be. But the way they said it, this knowledge in their eyes, grinning at me when my mom wasn't looking. Always with the same thought: Yeah, I'm here with her. What are you going to do about it? Stay home and take care of your brother like you're supposed to

"You left, Oliver," I snap at him. "Call it whatever you want, but you left."

His hands grip the steering wheel so that his knuckles turn white. I glare at him with my arms crossed against my chest, daring him to speak, daring him to try and say anything in rebuttal. He quickly looks over his shoulder and changes lanes, signaling to pull into a parking lot of a strip mall where tourists go to waste money on snow globes and dried starfish. It's all dark now, all of the shops closed since no one comes out in the rain. He pulls into a parking space and puts the Jeep into park. He sits there and stares straight ahead, tapping the steering wheel with the palm of his right hand. I turn away, feeling embarrassed. I should have kept my mouth shut. We'd be almost back to his house by now.

"Bear," he starts, still gritting his teeth. He rubs his hands over his head, the short blond stubble slipping through his fingers. "Bear," he starts again.

"What!" I huff, annoyed.

He turns to look at me, and now I can see what Anna was talking about. I can see the sadness in his eyes and etched across his face. If it was there before, it wasn't like this. I curse myself for being so weak, for calling him out on some bullshit he doesn't need to hear. Who the fuck am I to say anything? I am supposed to just grin and Bear it. That's what I've always done, and that's what I should have done now, regardless of how deeply, secretly angry I am.

"Look, Otter," I say, suddenly nervous. He shakes his head and I stop. He goes back to bumping his palm on the steering wheel. I wait.

Finally, after ages, "Is that what you think? You think I abandoned you?"

I don't speak. I don't trust what would spill out of my mouth. He waits some more, his hand beating in time with the sound of the rain on the Jeep's roof.

Again, finally, "I didn't want for you to think I was abandoning you, Bear. I just thought...." He sighs. "I just thought it would be better for everyone if I wasn't around for a while."

I can stay silent no longer. "Better for whom?" I cry out, gasping as I feel the sudden sting of tears. "Better for you? How could that have made anything better? I woke up and you were gone! Do you know what that felt like? Do you!" I know how I sound, but I can't stop. "You left, just like she did! And you promised you wouldn't! What the hell was I supposed to think?"

"Bear," he says, a warning in his voice. "You don't know what was going on."

"How could I?" I shout at him, raging. "You never told me anything! You did what you did to me, and then you left!"

His head snaps up to me, his eyes no longer sad, but blazing. "What I did to you? Jesus Christ! Who the hell do you think you are? You all but told me to leave!"

"I know who the fuck I am, you bastard. And I know who you are. You're just like her." I reach into my pocket for my wallet and pull it out. Inside is a piece of paper I've carried for a year and a half. It's yellowing with age and has ripped in a couple of places from how many times I have opened and read it. I hurl it at him. It bounces off his chin and into his lap. "Read it." He doesn't move. "Read it!" I shout.

He opens it and I see his face go white. "You... you kept this?" he whispers. "Bear, I--"

That's it, I can't take it anymore. I fumble about for the door handle, blinded by tears for Christ's sake, and throw open the door. I am furious. Furious at myself for crying in front of him, furious at Otter for tricking me like he did, furious at myself for thinking of him like that. No! I growl to myself, stomping through the rain, not caring where I am going. Otter did this! I didn't do anything wrong. He tricked me! He tricked me and left! Just like I knew he would! I think I hear him call my name, but my ears are pounding too hard to be sure. It sounds like the ocean. I'm about to start running when I feel strong arms wrap around me from behind, clasping on my chest. I turn around to swing at him but can only get partway before I get caught in a vise grip.

"Let go of me!" I snarl, wanting to kick and bite and punch and hurt.

"Bear," he says, his voice grumbling in my ear. "Bear."

"I'm not like you!" I say, still struggling to get away. "I'm not like that!"

"I know, Bear. I know." His breath is hot against my cold skin. "Don't you think I know that? I shouldn't have let it happen. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

I stop fighting him, feeling all the anger fall out of me like someone flipped a switch. "Why are you here?" I moan. "Why did you come back?"

He grabs me by the chin, forcing me to stare into his eyes. "It has nothing to do with what happened between us. As far as I am concerned, that was a mistake. We never should have kissed."


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