Kittylyn gazed out her window, dark eyes fixed on the distant mountains. They looked like mesas covered in trees. She scratched at the peeling white paint on the windowsill. Old gray wood shone underneath, and pieces of paint caught under her uneven nails. Since turning fifteen last month, she had been growing them. She would use a nail file and clippers when they were long enough. Then her nails would be evened out. Hopefully they wouldn't break before their time.
"K.L.," Frederica spat from the other side of the cracked door, "Mom says clean the house." Her steps receded down the hall. Doors closed, the massive truck roared to life and gurgled into the road. It faded away. Kittylyn could see it in her head, chugging up the highway, past the same old cars she saw every day.
The red Nissan worked in the hospital. The blue Toyota went to the fish hatchery. The white Ford was a middle school teacher. Dozens of other cars she could name and place chugged along. It was the ones from out of town that she wondered about. Where did they go when they sped by in the night? Were they on grand adventures? Were they escaping something?
Kittylyn headed downstairs to the kitchen. The relatives might have left a scrap of something behind. She kept away from the wobbly railing. If someone was meant to die on the stairs, it certainly wouldn't be her. A single chicken from Kentucky somehow remained in the greasy bucket that Aunt Belinda had brought home last night. Tearing into the cold meat, she threw the bones in the trash. Now it was time to clean. Every dish in the house was dirty. Red mud caked the floor. The couch pillows lay in corners where they weren't supposed to be. Sweeping, mopping, straightening up, it was all in a day's work. She took care of it in less than thirty minutes.
Padding to the couch, she switched on the television to watch something good for a change. Football, war movies and westerns drove her half-mad. As for the "hot new original series," those needed to be shot.
She glanced out the window. The snow was late this year, leaving the leafless cottonwoods stark naked. Long yellow grass swayed in the cold wind. She could see the white truck in her mind's eye. It hadn't even reached the halfway point up the hill. She stuck in a movie: boring. She went outside. Sitting in the tire swing hanging on the old cottonwood, she nudged herself back and forth.
"I thought you weren't supposed to go on that," said a boy's voice.
Kittylyn looked up. Nico was leaning over the fence from his yard. He hadn't combed his messy hair in a week. It could do with a chop; longer hair called in more lice. Some of the reservation boys braided their manes back. Others threw their lice into other people's hair for fun. The parasites usually ended up on Nico's head.
"Nobody's here today," she said. "They went to Pizza Hut."
"And left you here?"
"That shouldn't surprise you."
Nico hopped over the fence. Coming over, he leaned against the tree. "If I was you, I'd break their windows."
Kittylyn secured her black hair in a bun. "No, Hunter will come. And then he'll take me away."
Nico grew skeptical. "Your bear?"
"Yeah. You don't believe me, but I know it's true."
"You're really weird."
"That's true, too." Kittylyn turned the tire side to side. "If you do this, it feels like a carnival ride."
Nico laughed. "That's not a carnival ride. That's sad."
"It isn't sad at all. If you look straight up and spin around, all the trees spin with you. And if you keep doing it, you'll lose your balance and get sick. You can do it without a tire swing, but the tire is much more effective. Try it."
Nico stuck his hands in his pocket. "I'm too old for that."
"You're only twelve."
You're too old for that. I saw you trick or treating. You're crazy."
Kittylyn started to swing. "You're never too old for candy. Why didn't you come with me?"
"So I wouldn't look like a fool."
"You'll feel pretty foolish when I have candy and you don't. It looks like I'll have to leave some with you before Hunter comes."
Nico scoffed. "Sure."
Kittylyn dug her heels into the ground and forced the swing to stop. "I filled up a whole pillowcase. I have enough until next Halloween." She laughed. "I might be able to give it away."
"That's saving money." She swayed side to side. "See, you get all the candy you can. You don't eat it all. Then when next year comes, you give away the excess and get fresh candy. Everybody's happy."
Nico smirked. "What if everybody did that?"
"Then the candy companies would suffer. They wouldn't run out of business, because people do eat candy, but they would sell a lot less. So they're lucky that nobody does what I do."
Nico grunted. "I got important things to do. See you later." He headed back to the fence.
Kittylyn swung her back to him and then leaned back until she looked at him upside down. "Not too old for video games?"
Nico climbed the fence. "This is important."
"That's the real reason you weren't trick or treating. You weren't being grown up. You were being lazy."
Nico scoffed and headed back into his house.
Kittylyn swung in the tire until it was almost dark. The big truck guzzled into the drive.
"Mommy!" Babette's five-year-old voice was a high-pitched squeal that never stopped whining. "K.L.'s in my swing!" Shrieking, Babette leaped from the truck, darted across the yard and raised her hand to strike Kittylyn. The fifteen-year-old girl turned the tire and Babette smacked the hard rubber instead. Screeching in frustration, she attempted to strike Kittylyn again, but couldn't. "Mommy!"
Belinda blew across the yard like a wild bull and yanked Kittylyn out of the swing. "What are you doing touching her tire? You're too old to be swinging!"
Babette hit Kittylyn. "You stay away from my swing!"
"Apologize to her," Belinda bellowed.
"Did you bring me any pizza?" said Kittylyn.
Belinda pulled her pants up. "Of course not, everyone was hungry."
"That's too bad. Because if there was pizza, this would be a happier house."
Belinda's eye twitched. "What did you do?" She shouted at her boyfriend. "Alston, K.L. did something to the house!" She jostled Kittylyn inside and stood her in the middle of the living room. "Check the house to see what she did!"
Alston, Frederica and Babette scoured the house in their muddy shoes. They tossed their jackets all over to look more effectively. Pillows went flying to check for diabolical traps.
Alston kicked his shoes into the middle of the floor. "This place doesn't look very clean."
Belinda smacked Kittylyn in the face. "I told you to clean, and you didn't. You're just like your mother. Go upstairs. I don't wanna see you for the rest of the night."
"Fine, send me." Kittylyn forced back the tears. "I don't care what you do. Hunter's coming. I'm only here temporarily. And when Hunter finds out how you've been treating me, he'll eat you all."
"You and your stupid bear." Belinda rolled her eyes. "Go!" She thrust a bony finger at the stairs. Kittylyn marched back to her room. At least she didn't have to apologize to that stupid Babette.
"What's wrong with that girl?" Belinda's husky voice penetrated the thin choppy walls. "She doesn't clean. She doesn't take care of Babette. She lives in her own fantasy world with some made-up bear."
"Why did we have to end up with her?" said Frederica.
"I don't know."
"Why can't she stay in an orphan home or something? I don't like her here. Do you know what she said to me yesterday? I was talking about Hugo's new Lexus and she said cars were a...what word did she use?"
"I don't know," said Alston. "Petty, or something like that."
"Yeah, petty. She said they were a petty thing to be impressed with since they're all gonna end up in a junk heap one day anyway."
Kittylyn leaned over the railing. "And getting that old car smell. They're nothing to be impressed with. What you have to wonder is where they are going. Where have they been?"
Belinda's face went livid. "I said to go to your room! Is there a problem with your ears?"
"They're perfect," said Kittylyn. "Too perfect." She returned to her room.
Tiny taps sounded on the window the next morning. Kittylyn opened one eye and spotted a small bird on the windowsill. It was light gray. Two red stripes ran down its face. A few small snowflakes had landed on its black tail and wings. It chirped, jerking its head side to side.
Kittylyn pushed herself up and opened the window. "Hello. Is there any news from Hunter?"
The bird twittered and hopped.
Kittylyn's mouth fell open. "Really? I thought he might be hibernating already. I didn't expect him until spring."
The bird chirped.
"I'll go there right away." Not bothering to close the window, she dressed and hurried back. "If you'll excuse me, I have to crawl out the window. I've been banished to my room again." She started climbing out, and the bird flew away.
Keeping low when she passed the windows, she slipped out by the driveway and headed up the road towards the mountain. A light snowfall coated the sidewalks. Tire tracks had already cut black stripes through the white on the road.
"Kitty," Nico called behind her, "I saw you crawl out your window. Where are you going now?"
"Ah, Nico," said Kittylyn, "taking a break from the video games, or did the system finally break?"
"The boss had five forms, and on the last form, I got killed."
"Of course I did. You would, too. Where are you going?"
Kittylyn nodded at the mountain. "Over there. A little bird told me that I have a message from Hunter. It's been a long time since I heard from him, you know. About six months. But a bear can't really write letters with the hands he's got. His claws are made for tearing and grabbing and digging and climbing. It may have taken him six months to write the letter. He'd have to learn how to hold a pen in his mouth and try not to break it. Bear jaws are very powerful. They can crush human skulls." Kittylyn put a gloved finger to her chin. "I might take six months to read the letter, if it's been written by mouth."
Nico stared at her. "Are you okay? You seem weirder than usual."
"I'm perfectly fine."
"When people say they're 'fine,' they're usually not."
Kittylyn turned to him, hands outstretched. "I'm breathing, aren't I? I'm getting a letter from Hunter." She started walking again. "I keep wondering what sort of bird it was that had given me the message. I've seen them around. Do you think it had a hard time coming here? There are owls and hawks and all kinds of things floating around out there. I bet if the bird were bigger, it would have brought me my mail, just like the owls in Harry Potter, or the carrier pigeons. Of course, the letter would be too tiny for me to read and Hunter would have had the roughest time writing something that small by mouth."
Nico's brow cocked. He figured he might as well humor her. "So...what's the deal with you and Hunter?"
"Hunter is my bear, and I'm his human. It's not that complicated. We were always good friends. After my mom died and my dad went to prison, Hunter said he would fix it with his superiors so that I could come and live with him in the forest." Kittylyn hopped over a crack in the sidewalk. The light snow couldn't cover it up. "Bears have great big councils in the mountains. They're in charge, you know."
Nico brushed the last remark away. "I didn't know your dad was in prison."
"Yup." Kittylyn nodded. "He stabbed my mom to death with a flathead screwdriver. I was there. He was so furious because somebody told him that my mom was cheating on him. It wasn't true. The woman who told wanted to break my parents up, because she thought my dad was cute. She had no clue that my dad would kill my mom and then go to prison. Now she doesn't have a man at all."
Nico's face screwed up. "You were there?"
"He wanted to stab me, too, because he said I probably wasn't his daughter. Hunter saved me, though. He wasn't a very big bear at the time, so my dad got away from him. After that, I came here."
Pity gleamed in Nico's eyes. "That's why you're..." He indicated her up and down.
Kittylyn scratched her head under the fuzzy hat. "Do you ever wonder where the bears go in the wintertime?"
"When I go to live with Hunter, I'll write to you. The same gray bird with the red stripes on its face will deliver the message to you. Hopefully you won't be playing the game when it comes. It has a very soft chirp. You can't hear it if you're howling and rage-quitting all the time." She twirled in a circle. "Do you plan on being a Youtuber? I heard the very good ones are rich. Most of them can't even read. Isn't that wonderful, doing what you want and getting rich off of it?" She almost hit a fence, but kept spinning. "Nico, can a girl eat candy for a living? I guess that wouldn't be too healthy. But being that we'll all die of something someday, why not die of happiness?"
Nico refused to be pulled into her mania. "I'm gonna see if I can beat the game. My buddies are coming over in an hour."
"We'll be down from the mountain in an hour."
Nico grimaced at the monolith, about a quarter mile away. "I don't think so."
"Lazy, Nico. That's the problem with this place. Lazy." She stopped spinning. "I guess you can't make a living off of everything you like to do. Laziness never got anyone anywhere. Unless..." She tapped her chin. "Do you think they have people who test how soft beds are and sleep in them all day?"
"Sure." Nico backed up.
"Where are you going? There might be a field of dandelions up there."
"Endless wishes. Just make sure you don't make any stupid ones..." Her eyes roved all over the place in thought. "...like growing up so fast that nobody believes that you were ever a kid, or ever had a mother. I used to think those things were tiny ballerinas."
"Are you sure you still don't?" These were Nico's parting words as he ran back to his house.
Kittylyn continued up the mountain alone. Of course there are no dandelions at this time of the year. But Hunter should be sleeping, too, and he isn't. There might be magic dandelions up there. Who knows?
Leaving the relative safety of the neighborhood, she plunged into the forest. Dozens of animal and human trails shot off in countless directions.
At the top of the mountain, the gray bird with black wings chirped from a pine tree. Kittylyn raced to the base and dug around on the ground. Pulling out a slab of pine bark, she turned it over in her hands. Scrapes covered the smooth inner surface. She smiled.
"You're clever, Hunter." She headed back down, glowing with excitement.
"Did you get your letter?" said Nico, leaning on the fence.
Kittylyn fitted colored floss into a needle before she looked up. "I certainly did. Hunter wrote it on a piece of bark." She pulled it from her pocket and brought it to Nico. "See? It's all fixed. He's coming tonight. I've got all my precious things in the world in that bag." She pointed at the duffel bag sitting on the tire swing. It hadn't snowed anymore, but the thin layer that had fallen in the night remained crusted to the earth.
Nico shook his head. "So...why is Hunter a bear? Why isn't he a wolf or something?"
"Don't be utterly ridiculous. He's a bear. He'd be insulted to know that you should think he was a wolf. Wolves are a lot like dogs, and those are the nastiest creatures in the world. They smell, they bite, they drool."
Nico smirked. "And bears don't?"
He scratched under his hat. "Whatever."
Kittylyn leaned on the fence several feet from Nico. "If bears were like wolves, there'd be more complaints about them, see? Everyone complains about wolves. They eat everything. They stink the place up. They munch on cattle. The only reason they're protected is because they're canines. These days, canines have more rights than people do. The only ones who don't complain about them are the people who don't have to deal with them. They think wolves are like their pet dogs that they're probably sleeping with. You only get radical like that when you sleep with them. Take Alston, for example. He sleeps with Belinda. He's radical about her."
"Sure." Nico snorted. "I gotta go."
"What do you think?"
Kittylyn put her sampler in her pocket. "I think you're brain dead. Where do brains go when they die?"
"How should I know?"
"I guess it depends on how they died. See, yours is in a living death. Kind of reminds you of cubicles, doesn't it? And being a waitress. Probably anything that has to do with customer service. They said I couldn't get a job around here unless it was customer service. I decided to live with Hunter."
"Sure, Kitty." Nico ran inside.
Kittylyn continued stitching the sampler. The cold nipped at her fingers, but it was better than stitching inside. I think I'll give this to Nico when I'm finished. I don't know how much he'll appreciate it, though. His wife might, if he ever gets married. Maybe the video game girls will enjoy it. Seems like he'll be marrying one of them in VR sometime soon.
"K.L.," Belinda shouted, "what are you doing? Get in here and wash these dishes. I can't believe this! I'm working all day and you can't even keep the house clean for me!"
"You have three children," said Kittylyn. "One of them's Alston." She chuckled to herself. "Or two spawns and a consort."
Belinda hadn't heard any of it, or she would have slapped her. "You earn your keep!" Belinda dragged her inside.
Kittylyn slipped the sampler into her pocket. "I don't have to earn my keep anymore." She took off her jacket. "Hunter's coming tonight."
"You and that stupid bear. I should commit you."
Hanging her jacket on a chair, Kittylyn went to the sink. "I might as well do this now. After I'm gone, there will be no one left to do the dishes."
Belinda rolled her eyes and stalked out.
"They're coming to get her tomorrow," said Belinda from the living room. "I've had enough of that girl. She's crazy and she won't keep the house clean. I didn't know what else to do."
"Finally!" Frederica cried. "What time? Six, seven?"
"That is so long! I need her moved out tonight. We don't have to visit her, do we?"
"No, thank goodness. She'll be in the valley. She can take her imaginary bear with her."
Frederica laughed. "She'll probably think the van is Hunter. Oh, I know, I'll tell her the guys in the white coats are her bears. She'll probably believe me."
They roared with laughter.
"Guess whose car I got to ride in today?" said Belinda.
Kittylyn finished drying the sampler. She then turned it into a magnet.
"Not the properest thing to give to a boy," she said. "Oh well, it's better than a video game. His VR wife could use it. She can stick VR pictures of Nico on their VR fridge."
Dogs wailed down the street. Their cries drew closer as more dogs joined in. The din drowned out Belinda's talk about fancy cars and expensive clothes. It didn't matter, though. The household could recite her conversation on that subject word for word.
Kittylyn never liked the warbling wails of crying dogs. It reminded her of death. Dogs howling at the broken-down graves of their masters crossed her mind. There was no grass, and the sky was yellow.
Kittylyn's heart leaped, and she shoved the window open. The little gray bird chirped at her and flew away. Kittylyn gasped and leaned outside.
"Get your things, Kitty," said a low growly voice. "Wait for me at the end of the road, by the mountain."
"Okay." Kittylyn donned her warm clothes and climbed out the window. Now that she knew why the dogs were howling, she didn't care anymore. Maybe when she walked up the street, people might think she was a specter. They would talk about it for years! She stuck the magnet on the fence for Nico to find the next day, scattered candy on the ground, and snatched up her duffel bag.
The doorbell rang.
As Kittylyn hopped the fence and started up the road, Belinda shrieked. The whole house erupted in frantic screams. People looked out their windows, but didn't dare venture out. Kittylyn covered her ears and sped up. Further up the street, the wails drowned out the massacre in Belinda's house. Panting, Kittylyn made it to the end of the road, and waited.
A massive form slipped from the shadows to her right. "Are you ready?"
"Did you say good-bye to everyone you wanted to say good-bye to?"
She climbed onto the warm back, clutched the thick fur in her gloves. The bear broke into a run. A carnival ride was nothing to this, unless it meant being just as powerful. The great muscles rippled beneath the fur. Trees whizzed by in a blur of burnished silver and deep shadow, twinkling with loosened snowflakes. The ground seemed nothing but air, Hunter a great tornado.
They reached the top of the mountain in a few seconds. A moon-washed forest spread before them. Snow speckled the deep blue trees. Hunter's breath billowed from his mouth and nose.
Kittylyn pulled the red and white scarf from her mouth. "Do you know what's funny?"
"They'll probably write a sad story about me. One of those stories with a bittersweet ending like, 'she finally got out of her misery and went home. Nobody could understand her but the little boy she left behind.' Or something like that." Kittylyn chuckled. "They'll make a legend about me."
"Or they'll have a massive manhunt and think you slaughtered your family."
"That could happen, too. Then again, it might still be a legend. Since I'm Native, they'll turn you into a wolf."
A low growl escaped Hunter's throat. "Ugh, I hope not. Nasty little creatures."
Kittylyn giggled. "Maybe we can visit the movie maker guys and straighten them out."
"Or we could leave them to their stupidity and just enjoy life. You see those mountains with the flat tops?"
Kittylyn pulled the scarf back up. "Yeah."
"Home is that way. Hold on tight."
Hunter raced into the trees. Branches and brush whipped by. Icy night wind combed through fur and hair. An owl hooted over the trickle of a stream, as if welcoming them in.
x x x
I thought this a charming, sweet story to brighten the pages of anotherealm. Other editors have thought the same. Most of the writers who grace our site this year are making their debuts, but if they continue to produce the elegance this story exudes, they'll find our pages welcoming. Let me know if you agree on our BBS. -GM