Danny’s niece, Joan, sat at the newspaper covered folding table in front of the TV and painted the bear head he’d made for her school’s spring pageant. He trusted her with the head, when he would trust no one else with something he’d made, especially a child, but Joan understood how special it was to create objects. Joan didn’t destroy, and never had as far as he knew. Craig and Shannon, her parents, hadn’t complained about it anyway. Every book Danny ever gave Joan still existed intact.
From the entryway of the kitchen, Danny watched her lay brown paint over the bear head’s surface. He’d painstakingly smoothed with gloss and then textured it so that when painted it would have the appearance of fur. Now and then he came to stand by her, but he’d only had to explain the technique to her once. At the stove, he heated up oil for fried chicken, her favorite.
Joan was eight-years-old, and her parents were dead. Craig and Shannon, two nice people, one of whom was Danny’s brother, were killed in a car accident. It was almost mundane. His brother had been conventional, sweet, a little dull. When Craig asked Danny to be Joan’s guardian in the unlikely event something was to happen to him and his wife, Danny accepted, because the something would never occur. Craig and Shannon would grow old and Joan would mature with and test them, but it hadn’t happened. Here she was in his apartment, brushing brown and black paint on a papier-mache head.
“I want my bear to have blue eyes,” Joan said.
“Why?” Danny called from the kitchen.
Joan didn’t answer. The bear should have brown eyes or black. He’d let her paint the eyes blue and she’d see the mistake. He still didn’t like to tell her what to do. It didn’t come naturally to him.
Joan had once loved Danny loudly. Before her parents died, when he visited them, she wanted to sit next to him, or on him, while he ate or talked. She said, “Uncle Danny! Uncle Danny” if his attention strayed for a moment, and he’d have an urge to shove her off of him. God, what a horrible thing to think, but he wasn’t used to someone hanging all over him, never liked or wanted kids. Now, they only hugged if he asked if she wanted a hug and she’d say, “Of course, Uncle Danny.” Maybe she still loved him, but in a quiet way.
Tonight, he could have been fucking. He wanted it constantly now that he didn’t have time for it, and it was torture how easy it would be to find someone. He was young and when he looked in the mirror, he saw his temporary beauty. Strange to think of his brother in those moments, but he did. Craig, in the driver’s seat, crushed. How beautiful to have a body. The flesh would fall away from the bone someday. All this sculpture he’d been working on for ten years, all of this trying to put something together, to make life and a body out of armature and material, clay, or paper and glue, whatever, made him think about what lived under the skin. Joan, when he had his arms around her, felt as frail as an old lady, and she went out into the world every day and survived.
They ate the fried chicken, and after went back into the living room to watch Adventure Time together, the only show they both liked. The bear’s blue eyes had dried.
“It doesn’t look right,” Joan said.
“I told you.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Oh yeah. I meant to,” he said.
The bear’s mouth hung slightly open, so when Joan wore it, she’d see out of it, as if the bear had swallowed her. He’d painted the inside black, except for a vivid red tongue.
Joan dipped a brush into dark brown and dabbed it over the blue eyes, took up another brush and circled the dark brown with a paler brown. When that dried, Danny touched two dots of white paint in each iris and the eyes came alive. They looked too much like human eyes, but when he saw how happy they made Joan, who smiled without stopping herself, he loved them. They might have made his best work of art together. He wished he could take some of the freedom he’d felt putting this mask together and bring it with him to his other work, which he labored over in the most boring manner, trying to find meaning within a piece, a reason for making it, aside from the desire to build. Sometimes it’s just a bear head, the best one you can muster.
In the morning, with the light a sad pink out the kitchen window, he made pancakes with peanut butter chips, and they sat at the table in what he thought of as their dining room, a small space between the living room and kitchen.
“I had a dream that the Easter Bunny was a slaughterer,” Joan said. “He had a machete.”
She never told him her dreams. He tried not to visibly thrill.
“Jeez, really? Slaughterer?” Where had she come up with that word? One of her shows or books or games. How much of the world did she already know, if not understand? What other disgust could be introduced once your parents have been annihilated?
Joan shoveled a soft wedge of pancake into her mouth and stared at the bear head still on the folding table in the living room. It was only a bit larger than her own head, enough to fit over her.
“Can I bring the head with me to school?”
“No, I don’t want you carrying it around all day. I’ll bring it to you.”
“I won’t carry it around,” Joan said. “I’ll wear it.”
“I don’t think that’ll go over with Ms. Felice,” Danny said.
Joan emptied her plate and brought it to the sink and ran water over it. Before they left the house, she passed the bear and tapped it on the head.
He arrived at 3:00 PM to help set up for the show. Somehow, he’d become the type of person who volunteered. Last week, he’d found himself standing in an elementary school art room with his roll of brushes from home, painting a giant wood panel, which he had provided—something he’d found years ago and had intended to use for a project that never developed. He moved the panel now, with Ms. Felice’s help, out of the art room, down the hall, and onto the stage in the gymnasium/auditorium.
“Thank you, Danny,” Ms. Felice said. “This is really beautiful.”
She liked him, he knew. She was a good-looking woman, younger, and it made him nervous, even though he didn’t want her. So, he tried to be kind, but not too friendly.
“Very welcome,” he said.
The panel looked good in this space, in the dimness, with the curtains closed. He’d painted evergreens, like Joan wanted, and giant strawberries in the grass, according to her specifications. An odd landscape, he thought, which he liked, but the school could keep it for next year’s pageant. Joan would certainly be in the play again. It was the only thing she’d been excited about for months. In May, two weeks from now, her parents would be dead a year.
On the other end of the stage, Ms. Felice placed some of the props that had been passed down through the generations. Ugly things, basically. She unrolled a carpet of fake grass and the mustiness reached him from ten feet away. From a saggy cardboard box she removed three sections of a fake Christmas tree and clicked them together.
Down on the folding chairs, the third graders gabbed and fidgeted, some of them already in costume. Joan had taken the bear head from him when he arrived and put it on, and still wore it. Why she wanted to stand around in it for so long, he didn’t know. Wasn’t it uncomfortable, sweaty? he asked. She shook the head.
Soon, the parents arrived, along with the first, second, and fourth grade classes. The place filled with chiming voices, screeching laughter, adults talking, chairs scraping the floor. Danny stayed back to help Joan with the rest of her costume, which Ms. Felice had made. Joan climbed into it and zipped it up. He liked it and told Ms. Felice it looked well-made. She flushed and babbled about what a compliment it was for an artist to appreciate the work she’d done. Joan resembled a stuffed animal, but with the more refined bear head the effect became slightly unsettling. From a distance, she looked less like a costumed eight-year-old, and more like an actual animal. Not really a bear cub, unless that cub had been starved to the brink of death.
Once he joined the audience, sitting in the last row, his palms went cold and wet. A cool dribble ran through the center of his body. He jittered, afraid for Joan, though she didn’t show any fear. This was a play for kids! No one cared about the quality. He smeared his palms on his jeans. He wanted Joan to be good. He wanted her to be happy. Just let her have this.
After the lights went down, and Ms. Felice introduced the class, he felt better. The stage glowed bright yellow, and music started from somewhere, through speakers; a ghostly piano. A performer in a sparrow costume hobbled to the front of the stage and sat in a large nest made of straw. Once they’d gotten down into it and their legs disappeared, they looked like a giant bird. There were real, smooth brown and grey feathers, and the mask impressed him. Eyes gleamed black and dangerous, seeking an insect to devour. This little school. They didn’t mess around.
The kids sang a song about the sun coming out and making the sky happy. Some voices were muffled behind masks. The kids without masks—one boy dressed as a farmer, his feet bare, and a girl in an Easter dress—carried the song for those whose voices didn’t project.
When the song ended, the story began, but it was such a nothing kind of story that Danny didn’t bother following it. Where was Joan? After the song, she’d disappeared. No one had interacted with her.
“But what if we can’t find the magic egg?” the girl in the dress said to the farmer.
Danny caught sight of Joan. She’d been there the whole time, positioned in the dark by a panel of wood, next to the bare, false Christmas tree. Was she supposed to be standing there like that? He craned his neck to try to find Ms. Felice at the front of the audience. She shifted in her chair, held up her arm and pointed at something, whispered at the stage. He missed a bit of dialogue that made the audience laugh. Still, Joan stood and watched from her place in the dark, the white around her bear eyes visible in the gloom. Another song. The other children cleared the stage, leaving the farmer to sing it alone. The little boy didn’t appear nervous.
Joan stayed still until the song ended. The other children reappeared, and as they did, Joan joined them. She lurked, crouched and held her paws in front of her. The sparrow sat in its nest again and eyed the audience with one empty eye. Joan leapt at the farm boy and shoved him off the stage where he thumped at the feet of the front row and squealed. Ms. Felice shot to her feet and went to him. The other children turned and looked around at each other, wondering who had pushed the farm boy off the stage, except for the sparrow, who didn’t seem to be aware of anything. A boy dressed as an insect of some kind, didn’t seem bothered by the violence either. He zipped around the stage, playing his part, dedicated to his insect life. At any moment, the sparrow might snap him up. The audience made noises. The boy’s parents were at the stage. Joan stomped after a little girl in a bunny costume and climbed onto her. The girl couldn’t hold Joan’s weight, so she crumpled. Once she’d fallen, Joan left her there and moved on. Before she went after another victim, Ms. Felice appeared and put her arms around her and pulled her off the stage.
Frozen, a bell clanged inside Danny’s head, and he saw himself, a character in a movie, running through the halls of the school looking for an exit. No one knew him. They didn’t know Joan belonged to him.
He hurried up the aisle and climbed onto the stage where some of the other kids were crying, their parents coming for them, calling names.
Backstage, Ms. Felice no longer held Joan, but leaned against a wall on the other side of the room from her looking at the little bear.
“Ms. Felice,” Danny said, but didn’t know what else to say.
“Joan,” he said.
Had another child switched costumes with her? She stood as she had on stage, still and quiet in the dark. It looked as if she wasn’t breathing.
“Joan, come here.”
Ms. Felice came away from the wall and stood next to him. “Do you know what’s going on?” she said.
He didn’t want to talk to Joan while she wore the bear head, but she didn’t move to take it off. The air smelled sour, as if someone had spilled milk days ago. Yesterday, he would have gone to her without a problem and pulled the mask off, took her by the arm and brought her to the car, even if she screamed and cried, but today he couldn’t cross the room to her.
“Are you a bear?” Danny asked.
Joan didn’t speak. Danny tried to think of later, when this had ended. She would be in trouble. They’d spend a silent hour in front of the TV, and she’d go to bed without saying goodnight.
“You should take her home now,” Ms. Felice said. She sounded afraid. She wanted Joan away from her.
He didn’t want to take her home. You will live here now, with the props—Ms. Felice will fold you up and put you in a trunk until next year’s spring pageant.
“Joan,” Ms. Felice said. “I’m disappointed. You know I care about you so much, but I’m disappointed.”
The bear didn’t move its head, not an inch.
“We’re sorry,” Danny said.
“She might be in trouble. Ryan might be hurt badly.”
“You have my number,” Danny said. The stage wasn’t that high. Ryan would be fine, but it didn’t matter. The parents were angry, and they’d come for him.
“Take her home,” Ms. Felice said.
“I will. I am.”
“Do it, then” Ms. Felice said.
Neither of them needed to do anything. The little bear came out of the dark and walked toward them, between them, and out the door into the hallway. Danny went after her, afraid the parents might see her. He wanted to get out of the place, get her into the car where they would figure things out.
The setting sun filled the car with intense light, bright and real, and Joan still wouldn’t remove the head. He didn’t ask why she’d pushed Ryan off the stage or jumped on the bunny girl. They drove without the radio. A short trip home, but his body felt weighted down. A magnetic energy poured out of Joan from the passenger seat, and he wanted to look at her. He didn’t take his eyes off the road.
When they got home, they walked up the stairs, and in the echoing space, her silence chilled him. He touched her on a furry shoulder and she allowed it, but didn’t react to it, only waited for him. Keeping his hand there, he squatted before her, taking in the smell that came off the body in front of him—a mixture of things, of whatever the costume was made of, some synthetic fiber, the paint and glue, sweat from within. Unlike Joan’s smell, which he knew now as much as his own. He slid his other hand onto her opposite shoulder and with a quick movement he pulled the mask from her. Her face appeared, red and soaked, her hair slicked over her forehead and cheeks, her eyes bloodshot and tired. He hurried her to the bathroom, ran the water cold and splashed her face, and she screamed as if he were setting her on fire.
He thought, before catching himself, that he should call Craig and ask him what to do, but Craig was dead. So, he’d call Dr. Keyes in the morning if Joan wasn’t back to normal. After her bath, she wanted to go to sleep. Not hungry. He couldn’t tempt her with a piece of cold leftover fried chicken, which she always said was the best part of making fried chicken for dinner. She fell asleep immediately, and he sat in the room with her for a long time, looking at his phone, scrolling and scrolling, not taking anything in.
In the morning, she awoke, and he informed her that they would not be leaving the house today. He made breakfast and she ate it. Without prompting, she went into the living room to watch TV. Before she’d gotten up that morning, he’d put the bear costume in the closet in his bedroom. This day would be the hardest, and he’d think about it more than the spring pageant in the coming years. He washed the dishes, let the phone ring and ring, never did call Dr. Keyes, sat with Joan and watched TV, turned off the TV and insisted they read, insisted they draw, and throughout it all she didn’t speak, not until the sun had gone down and she turned to him and said “Are we going to eat today?” He realized he hadn’t made lunch or dinner. He ordered pizza and turned on music while they ate.
The next day, Ms. Felice called, and he spoke to her for a long time, closed in his room, while Joan completed her assignments at the kitchen table. Ryan hadn’t been seriously hurt, but his parents were incensed. They wanted an apology, and he may have to pay some medical bills for a broken finger. She had done her best to deescalate the situation. She wanted him to know she cared very much for Joan. Did he want to get together some time to talk more about Joan and her care?
What to say about Joan? He didn’t have words for what he felt, for his experience of her now.
“Maybe, the costume allowed her to be angry,” Ms. Felice said. “And out of it, things will go back to normal.”
It sounded nice and neat to him, but in his gut, he knew it wasn’t the case.
Uncle Danny sleeping. She watched him. Nothing woke him up because he was so tired all the time now, because of her. Having to take care of her. He slept quiet, not snoring like daddy used to. She got the bear out of the closet where she knew he’d put it. Went very slow out of the room and through the rest of the apartment, out the door and down the stairs, the whole time thinking he was going to yell at her or run down and grab her.
He didn’t know she was a night creature. Glowing eyes at night. She saw everything in the dark. At the bottom of the stairs, she climbed into the bear and zipped it, but waited to put the head on, carried it with her until she reached Fletcher Park, the prettiest park with the nicest trees and water. She didn’t care about the playground, swings, the sports fields. None of that. She liked the trails. In Under the Wooded Grove, when Jeremy was lost in the woods and he found the hedgehogs who were curled up in balls, each with the power diamonds inside, he was disappointed because the diamonds could send him home so easy. So, he threw them in the creek. That was her favorite book.
The trees were just getting leaves on them which meant it was summer soon. Tall light-posts lined the trail. She put the bear head on. Sometimes there were people here and she’d be scared because there weren’t supposed to be people here after dark. Not tonight, though. No people. If she needed to, she’d jump into the trees on either side of the path and be quiet. It always felt like she had a reason for coming here. She didn’t know the reason and it was frustrating to not know. She couldn’t sleep but got good at pretending for Uncle Danny. Once she’d come out here in the night air, she’d go back home and normally get to sleep. Only if she’d come out here first.
Ahead, something moved on the trail, something small. When she got closer, she saw a tiny animal running in circles around and around and around, racing itself. She didn’t like how it did that. Why was it doing that? Around and around. It freaked her out and she knew something was wrong with it. At the end of the trail was the pond where the ducks were. When they came here, Uncle Danny pointed. Look at the ducks, like she couldn’t see them. She preferred a lake or the ocean.
She crept closer to the tiny animal, a mouse she now saw. It didn’t notice her and run away like it should have, only chased itself in circles, stopping now and then, starting again. Joan watched it for several minutes, then backed away, afraid to turn her back to it.
Something had fallen between he and Joan that wouldn’t lift, and it hadn’t been there before the spring pageant. Their lives before that day faded from his mind. He sometimes caught himself thinking of scenes from the play, images of the sparrow’s eye peering at him from the stage, and the little insect boy fluttering about. These two had something in common with Joan. Dedication to being animals. He tried and failed to treat her as he’d always treated her. There were moments when he understood that he’d failed her, and those thoughts squeezed his throat, and he had to push them away too quickly to evaluate them.
She was Joan, after all. His brother’s child. He did everything as the weeks after the pageant passed—fed her, washed her clothes, brought her to school, watched her favorite shows with her, bought her another book from her favorite series. Underneath all of this lived the mistake he made each day without realizing it until it was too late. He feared her for a moment with every interaction, and it spoiled the air around them.
One night a few months after the pageant, he awoke sweating, shivering, his body molded out of wet sand. He’d been dreaming of pain in his head, and here it was when he awoke, following him out of the dream. A figure stood a few feet from the bed, human-shaped except for the head.
“You’re pretty sick,” she said.
“Yes. How did you know?” He sounded so frightened. For a moment, he had the ridiculous suspicion she’d poisoned him.
“You were yelling. You’re shaking.”
She was steady as a hunk of granite lodged in the earth. Didn’t come closer for a long time. When she did, she put her hand on his forehead. He felt an elemental indifference running through him, coming from her hand. Keeping her palm pressed against him, she slid it down to his cheek, where it cooled him.
His brother used to ask him if he worried about being alone, and he said of course he did. Wondered if straight people got asked that question as much as queer people. Well, you won’t be anyway, Craig had said. You have us, and you have Joan.
He did have her, in a way his brother never expected. Full time. When her hand touched him, he imagined that he was so sick he was dying. He couldn’t lift himself from the bed and Joan wasn’t strong enough. In a minute, he’d ask her to call an ambulance if he couldn’t get out of bed himself. She was here, and maybe she’d be there on his final day. Not in the room, but there, in his life. He hoped.
Joan standing next to him. She wore the bear head and he didn’t ask her to take it off. Crying in front of her would be like crying in front of a river. He breathed to calm himself and tried to remember he was young and strong. Like his brother had been. An error inside of him could delete him from the world. He wouldn’t even know it, that’s how easy it would be. It’d take Joan a moment to notice something had changed. She’d take her hand back when she realized he’d left the room, and stare at his long, empty body on the bed, a broken tree in her path.