“Bears need people. People need bears.”
— Pam Brown
The game operator gave a bland but sympathetic smile. “Sorry. Want to try again?”
“We’re good,” Becky said quickly. “I think we — “
Kevin slapped a five dollar bill on the booth, interrupting her. “Yeah, I do.”
The operator took the bill and replaced it with three baseballs in a slick motion, then stepped off to the side.
Becky bit her lip and also stepped away.
The last set of tin cans remained standing, and Kevin seemed to take their defiance personally, because he swore vehemently again before tossing another bill at the games operator.
“Kev . . . ” Becky began hesitantly, “you don’t have to win me a silly prize, it’s fine. C’mon, let’s go back to the rides.”
“I promised you, baby,” he said gruffly, not looking at her. “It’s a boyfriend thing, y’know?”
She saw him glance off to the side where a bunch of his basketball friends were, most of whom were pointing and laughing at him.
The muscles under his varsity jacket tightened and his jaw clenched in a way that screamed, “DANGER, DANGER,” and Becky felt her heart start to race.
He would never hurt her, not ever, she reminded herself — even as often as he got very angry, which he clearly was right now. The operator had put three more baseballs on the booth, and Kevin took a few deep breaths before trying again.
His aim was worsening, and so was his language. He then flipped off his friends, who had engaged in a fresh wave of laughter.
“C’mon, Kev, let’s just go . . . ” Becky said again, tugging at his sleeve. He shook her off.
“I’m getting you this damn thing,” he grunted, pulling out another five from his wallet. He glared at his friends as he handed the bill to the operator.
Becky sighed and looked at the prizes dangling from the booth’s ceiling. She wished she had never pointed them out. She wished she had never said anything. She wished they had never even gone over to the games. Everything had been going so well. Kevin had been energetic, almost excited about attending the carnival with her. A bunch of his friends were also going, so it “worked out,” he’d said. They had ridden a few rides already, including the Ferris wheel; even though she had thought he’d claimed to be afraid of heights, he had leaned over the side once they got to the top and tried to spit on one of his friends down below. He hadn’t even complained when she’d wanted to do bumper cars, though the ride operator had to repeatedly tell him and his friend to stop smashing into the walls.
That same friend was now heckling Kevin from the side as he prepared once more to try to knock the cans down. His jaw clenched again, and Becky looked away, again staring at the dangling prizes. It was a whole collection of teddy bears, all in various colors, though she noticed there was only one pink-colored bear.
For a split second, Becky thought it was staring at her.
A tinny fanfare played, and the operator gave a pleased (and Becky thought perhaps relieved) smile. “Congratulations!” she said. “Pick your prize, sir.”
Kevin had completely transformed. He was grinning broadly and pumping his fist in the air. “Suck it, Jason!” he crowed at his heckler friend, who just laughed.
He pulled Becky close. “Go on, baby, pick out what you want,” he said, and kissed her on the forehead.
Becky wriggled in pleasure. All was well again. She gazed up at the bears. The lone pink one again stood out, and Becky couldn’t fathom why she’d thought it had been looking at her, as it wasn’t even facing in her direction.
“The pink one,” she said happily.
The operator pulled it down with a long rod, and Becky hugged her new pink bear. “Thanks, Kev.”
“Anything for you, babe,” he said, as they approached his group of friends. He then pulled the bear out of her grasp and waved it around. “Winner!”
His teammates cheered, and to Becky’s horror, Kevin tossed the bear at them and they all began throwing it up in the air, as if they were making baskets.
“Hey!” she cried, and hurried over to grab it back, Kevin laughing behind her. She caught it in midair as it went flying. “You’ll mess it up!”
They booed her, but Kevin said, coming over, “Nah, it’s hers. Besides, don’t you have your own bear you sleep with, Jason? Like a baby?”
Everyone besides Becky and Jason gave an appreciative roar at this, and the pink bear was forgotten.
Becky smoothed its rumpled fur and wiped a smudge of dirt off its nose. It almost looked grateful.
They didn’t stay at the carnival much longer. Someone informed Kevin of a party going on at one of their friend’s houses that night, and he began to grow impatient.
“C’mon, Bex,” he said after they had gone on one of the spinning rides. “This place sucks. Let’s go to Manny’s, he’s got beer and pizza, and I’m starved.”
Becky had rather been enjoying herself and thought Kevin had too, but given the whole prize booth incident, she didn’t argue. She simply gave her little bear a squeeze and let Kevin lead her away from the carnival and back to the car.
Manny lived with his parents, and it was a big house with multiple rooms and a large backyard. Becky liked visiting, as Manny was one of the nicer friends of Kevin. His parents were also quite friendly and didn’t mind parties as long as the house was cleaned up afterward. It seemed that that one rule would end up being violated, for Kevin and Becky had to step around a series of broken bottles leading up to the house. An irritated-looking Manny answered the door.
“Sorry about the mess,” he said, letting them in. “Someone decided to bring vodka when I expressly said beer!”
This last word was shouted in the direction of the living room, from which thumping music and loud chatter emanated.
“Beer!” someone shouted back, and it was taken up by the rest of the crowd. “Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer!”
Manny rolled his eyes, and then seemed to register his new guests proper. “Hey, Kev. Becky.” He smiled at her. “Nice of you to come.”
“Well, we were just at the carnival, and — ”
“Place was for geriatrics,” Kevin interrupted. “I thought I heard you had pizza?”
“In the kitchen,” Manny pointed. He then noticed the bear Becky was holding. “How cute.” He rubbed its head. “Did you win it?”
“Kevin did,” Becky replied. “At the baseball toss thing? Took a few tries, but — ”
“Probably could’ve just bought the stupid thing at the dollar store,” Kevin snorted. “Waste of money.”
“Well, I’m sure it was worth it,” Manny said, frowning a little. “For your girl and all.”
Becky smiled. Kevin scowled. He stepped in front of her.
“Yeah, my girl, Valdez,” he said. “Back off.”
Becky gave her bear an anxious squeeze.
Manny held up his hands. “Relax, man. Just being polite. Go have some pizza.”
Kevin took Becky’s hand, still glaring at Manny, and they went to the kitchen together.
After Kevin had been placated with pizza, he found a couple of his friends and disappeared. Knowing that he was probably in search of the illicit vodka, Becky decided against trying to find him and instead found her own friends, a couple of whom were also the girlfriends of the members of the basketball team, and they chatted about the most recent game.
“I thought Jason was going to cry, honestly,” one girl, Sonia, said, taking a bite of pizza. “Missing that shot, y’know?”
They all nodded. “The coach too,” said Becky, grinning.
“Kevin looked like he was gonna pound him!” Marissa added.
“The way his jaw was jumping around, he probably did, in the locker room. I swear I saw Jason wearing face concealer the next day,” Sonia said solemnly, with her mouth full. “What happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room, after all.”
Everyone laughed, except for Becky, whose grin faded. “Kevin wouldn’t do that.”
There was an awkward silence. “Oh, of course not,” Sonia said at last. “Just a joke, sorry.”
Becky said nothing and squeezed her bear.
“Have you named it yet?” Marissa asked, obviously trying to the change the subject. Becky didn’t fight it.
“No, I’m waiting for the right name to come to me,” she said lightly. She set the bear on the coffee table they were sitting near, keeping it propped up with her half-empty beer bottle. Manny had walked by earlier and passed them out. “Maybe something with an M.” The bear looked pleased.
They spent the next few minutes discussing “M” names (Marissa insisted her name was the best) before the conversation turned away from that and also of the subject of basketball and its team.
Time went on, and Becky started feeling the late hour. She excused herself from the group and went to find Kevin, taking along the bear.
He had either found the vodka or a load of beers, for he was drunk and playing foosball in the game room. His coordination was off and kept missing the ball, though his opponent, Jason, was also obviously drunk and wasn’t doing much better.
“Hey, babe,” Kevin slurred at her. “Wanna watch me be a winner?” He raised up his arms. “Again?”
“Just thought we should maybe head home,” she said, though now she knew she would have to drive and she hated driving his car. “But maybe in a while.”
“Sure, sure, just lemme win this,” he said, yanking on the foosball bars. He missed the ball entirely and it fell into his goal.
“Winner!” Jason crowed, jumping around and nearly falling.
“Rematch,” Kevin growled. “You cheated!”
“Did not,” Jason shook his head. “Fairs and squares.”
With a great suddenness, Kevin swung his fist at Jason, who didn’t react in time. It was a poor punch, lacking focus, but Jason was still knocked to the ground. Becky gasped.
The room had gone quiet, the others edging away from the two boys.
“The fuck is your problem?” Jason spat, rubbing his shoulder.
Kevin just stood there, breathing heavily. “Nothin’,” he said finally. He grabbed a beer from someone’s slack hand and then stalked out of the room.
Becky didn’t follow. It wasn’t until someone had helped Jason up and conversation resumed that she realized how tightly she had been squeezing the bear. She tsked herself, and smoothed out its fur. “Sorry,” she whispered. The lights were a bit dim, so the bear looked like it nodded its forgiveness. She shook herself and left the room.
She returned to her friends, who asked what had happened.
“Nothing,” she said. “We’re gonna head out in a bit.”
She pretended not to notice Sonia and Marissa exchanging glances with each other.
Only when nearly everyone had left did Becky try to go find Kevin again.
None of this was particularly new behavior from him, so Becky wasn’t sure why it bothered her so much tonight. She supposed it was because she had planned the whole night out at the carnival, with a post-ice cream run and everything, and it hadn’t gone that way at all. She liked going to parties, Manny’s especially, as he was a good host, but not tonight.
Not on her birthday.
She passed Manny in the hall. “Seen Kevin?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Not for awhile.” He gestured with his head at his arms, which were full of empty bottles. “Found the vodka,” he said grimly. “Let me toss these and I’ll help you look.”
Becky shrugged. “I’m sure I can find him. Thanks, though.” She made her bear wave its arm, and grinning, Manny waved back with a couple of free fingers.
“Oh, happy birthday, by the way,” he said as she was about to walk on. “Hope you had a good one.”
Becky just nodded, squeezing the bear, and continued down the hall.
Certain noises were coming from a room on the right, and Becky hoped she wouldn’t have to check it. But then she saw Kevin in the left room, sprawled out on a bed. It was one of the many guest rooms, with its broad window facing the backyard. Moonlight blazed through the white curtain, and Becky could clearly see that Kevin was asleep, numerous beer bottles surrounding his head. She sighed. She had no desire to wake him, and doubted he would be in any condition to drive anyway. She’d have to ask Manny if they could stay over. She knew he probably wouldn’t mind, and she would help clean up the house in return.
Becky went to squeeze her bear yet again but discovered that she was no longer holding it. She looked around at the floor. Had she dropped it? She peered down the hallway and then back into the room.
In the corner of her eye, something moved.
She looked up.
It was the bear.
It was sitting on Kevin’s chest, looking for all the world as if it had been lovingly placed there, its arms slightly outstretched as if to hug him. It slowly turned its head to look at Becky.
She stared, unable to breathe or move.
The pink bear stared back, its black eyes boring into her own. Its head tilted to one side, then it carefully stood up, still on Kevin’s chest. He didn’t wake.
Becky wondered if she was going mad.
She wondered if she should scream or call for help or try to grab the bear or do something, anything.
The bear seemed to sense her fear and indecision, and it shook its head. With a fluffy pink paw, it pointed at Kevin.
It seemed to be asking permission for something.
Becky looked from Kevin to the bear and back, confused.
The bear moved closer to Kevin’s face, its stuffed limbs surprisingly agile. It pointed again.
Becky gazed into the bear’s glittering black eyes for a long moment . . . and then nodded.
The bear’s face split into an impossibly wide grin filled with sharp teeth. It turned toward Kevin, mouth opening. It seemed to be growing larger, its fur darkening, its limbs elongating . . .
Becky shut the door.
She stood in the hallway and stared at the closed door. She realized she was trembling.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Becky gave a violent start and a half-scream. Manny jumped back, equally startled.
“Whoa, what’s wrong?” he asked, reaching a hand out. “Did something happen to you?”
She couldn’t speak at first, still trying to calm her wildly beating heart. “N-no, nothing. It-it’s fine,” she gasped. “You . . . scared me, that’s all.” She glanced at the door.
Manny didn’t look like he believed her, but he didn’t press. “Did you find Kevin? Is he all right?”
Becky didn’t — couldn’t — answer that. She just looked at the door again.
Manny raised an eyebrow, and before she could stop him, he reached over and opened the door.
Nobody was inside the room.
Not Kevin, nor anyone else.
Just a pink teddy bear, propped up against the moonlit pillows of a perfectly made bed.
Manny gave a little laugh of surprise. “Ha, I thought you guys were playing a prank on me or something.” He went in and looked around. Becky stayed in the hallway. “Like, Kev was gonna jump out and scare me.”
She watched him peer behind the dresser and check the closet. “Guess not!” he said brightly, obviously relieved. He then picked up the bear on the bed. “Lost this?”
Becky gave the tiniest of nods.
Shaking his head, Manny came back into the hallway. “Quite a few jerks here tonight. No sense of personal property. No sense at all, really.” He smiled and held out the bear.
Becky couldn’t think of a reason to refuse it, so she carefully took it from Manny’s hand. It was warm. “Thanks.”
“Sorry Kevin seems to have disappeared on you,” he said, frowning a little. “I’m sure he’ll turn up.”
They stood there for a few moments, letting quiet fill the empty hallway.
Becky thought about Kevin and absently squeezed her little pink bear. She noticed how thick with fluff it was.
“Do you mind if we spend the night?”
Gotta be careful at those carnivals. Never know what you’re gonna get.