Teddy Bear Brown

Morgen Knight

            Kristen was having a good day when she walked into Day Old By Gones. It was a small shop on the corner of 9th and Charlotte. Dim, stuffy. She had a large, white shopping bag in her hand. Inside of it was a three hundred dollar sun dress. Her Ralph Lauren sunglasses were pushed to the top of her head. The click of her wedge shoes was lively off of the floor, before the carpet started. It was the only noise inside the shop, besides the entrance bell, which had comprised of a single, sweet, ding.

She stopped where the old, musty carpet began, looking around. There was a woman behind the counter, looking down at the paperback in her hands, a couple of people browsing, and a pair of teens, who’s heads were darting around with furtive looks. Stealing, she thought. One of them began to laugh quietly.

What was there to steal in a place like this? She had felt a sort of amused arrogance when she’d seen this shop. They sold crap here. Relics not old enough or valuable enough to be antiques, and nothing here was new enough to be the five-and-dime made in China loot. It was like…a yard sale, but in a store. There was the table full of records, the shelves of figurines, the hand-me-down clothes, and incomplete set of golf clubs for a hundred dollars, boxes of puzzles, metal photo frames, and more.  It was almost junk, but sometimes there were hidden pearls. First edition books, for example. Rare albums. She had once read about a picture sold at an auction of Betty Davis for ten grand that someone had found in the sole of a boot.

There weren’t many of these shops left for collections like this, she knew. You had to hit the yard sales and flea markets, which she didn’t have the time for. But she couldn’t resist the coming in here when she had seen it. There was a feel about these shops. A smell. It was like she could see the memories walking around.

Kristen walked by the picture frames. There was a silver one with a picture of a young boy standing near a pond in it. She picked it up. Some people didn’t take the pictures out when they sold the frames to places like this. She guessed that the frame was suppose to say something: Your life could be held here.  Look at the smiling faces. Pay attention to the joy. This could be your life, too. Kristen had seen the same thing at the super stores and in wallets. It was probably suppose to give the items life, or the buyer an idea for themselves, the way real estate agents will stage an empty home. The illusions of what could be. But all of those photos were fake. Actors or models, she supposed, put together to pose and smile. A happy family. A happy couple. And they were printed on cardboard, easily discarded. But, the picture in this frame was real. She could tell by looking at it.  In fact, looking up and down the shelf, she believed that every photo here was real.  Something about that felt empty.

The frame might be real silver, she thought. It had the look and weight. Maybe something bought at Tiffany’s a generation or two back, passed along, and now it was here. $25.00, the orange sticker read. Most prices in places like this were more like suggestions. She made a note of it and put it back.

There were coats (it was springtime) and jackets and old shirts on the rack that could be in fashion again. Maybe. You never knew what was going to come back around.  There was a small display case of jewelry at the counter: rings and lockets, mostly.

But it wasn’t until Kristen got to the back that the amused grin slid off of her face.  She didn’t even feel it go, the way leaves can fall from trees. All of the amusement bled out of her. She didn’t understand why; she didn’t even question it. All she knew was how unsettled she felt.

It was a long table full of stuffed animals that she was looking at. They were piled up, a few canted to the side, sitting like a church choir or jury. Along the front of the table was a line of bright children’s books. The sides were discolored, probably missing pages.  One of them had been drawn on with purple crayon. But she barely noticed the books.

Something deep, something sleeping was clawing its way up her back. Kristen could feel it, but was powerless to stop it. Her eyes darted left and right, looking at all of the stuffed faces interrogating her. There was a myriad of sort animals. A small zoo. All of them looked unkempt and tattered. Dirty.

When it seized her, Kristen gave an unbelieving gasp, dropping her sack on the carpet. Both of her hands came up to her face.

“It can’t be,” she whispered, believing it.

What had grabbed her was the face of a small bear. It was pressed up against another animal, a lion with mange, so that she could only see its face. There was no way that it could be her bear, but it…it looked just the same. The glassy eyes watched her familiarly. The crushed-in chest. The padding of the right ear gone, deflating it. There had been a mouth of simple black thread, but she had pulled that out–on her bear. Sure, this one looked the same, but there was no way that it could be, right?

Kristen picked it up, holding it out like a child you’ve lifted off of the ground. It was the missing right arm of the bear that made her face go white. The arm was gone, a thick line of stitching running from its belly to its shoulder. An amputee.

Him–the bear had always been a him. She had named him Browny. It wasn’t the most original name, she would admit, but she had been a little girl. Seven or eight. She had lived a state over, then. She had been so miserable. This was before her aunt had taken her in.

Kristen brought the bear close to her, slowly, as though afraid it would animate suddenly and bite her. Once she had it against her chest, she squeezed it, closing her eyes tightly, breathing it in. The bear smelled like dust and lemon cleaner, oddly. But there was another, softer, more intransigent odor as well. Kristen could smell smoke.

She had been a bright child. She knew this because her Aunt had told that to her a number of times. She knew this because the photos showed it, photos she would never leave in a frame that she was selling, whether it made the frame come alive or not. There was a small collection of them at her condo, in the first drawer of the table by her bed. Her smile in all of those photos was so big. She didn’t smile like that anymore. It was a lost art.

The bear was so soft, the skin worn in many places as to be nonexistent, covered in patches. She had carried this bear with her everywhere. Slept with it at night. Tea parties. Dress up. After her mother had died, it had been Kristen’s only friend.

Being happy, she didn’t recall. But being without a mother, she did. It was a heart attack, she knew now. Whether she had understood that at the time, Kristen couldn’t remember. The only specific thing that she did remember was the wake, and the way all of her family had acted. And then they were gone, all of that care and the smells and the tears leaving with them. The only tears left were her own. How many had Browny absorbed? Cuddled up in a corner, she had held that bear, never letting it leave her side.

I’m here with you, she could almost hear it say.

And she would talk to it.

Time was a warped thing, but to Kristen, it didn’t seem like that long after her mother was gone, that her father had remarried. He was a businessman that traveled a lot, she recalled. He was always gone. The woman that he had called Kristen’s step-mom had brought a daughter with her, a girl two years older than Kristen was. A step-sister.

We don’t have to like them, Browny had said.

Kristen had agreed. In fact, she had hated the woman and her daughter. As Kristen thought back on it, she couldn’t determine any realistic cause. The woman, Cindy, had not hurt her. She had not called her names. All that she had done was take her mother’s place. Kristen had not liked her step-sister, either.

Had hated them, and so had Browny.

The bear in her hands had a small sticker on his chest. 50 cents. She had thought that this bear was destroyed. It should have been. The bell rang once as she paid for the bear, the teens leaving. The woman at the counter had a concerned look on her face as Kristen dropped two quarters down and rushed outside-she had to know.

With a key, she opened the stitching along the bear’s side. When the hole was big enough, Kristen tore at it, plunging her hand in it, pushing the stuffing around. When she felt the paper, she almost cried. It was folded up and ugly. Time, water, and smoke.  Parts of it were brown. She unfolded it in the sunlight.

The picture that was on it, she had drawn. It was of her and her father holding hands. He was a man that she barely remembered, now. Her Aunt had raised her, just the two of them. She had taken Kristen in, loved her, made her go to school and college, helped her manage the inheritance. But the man was a ghost to her. Behind him was their house, flames shooting out of the windows.

Kristen fell to her knees, crying. The bear lay half disemboweled beside her, looking up indifferently.

It had been Browny’s idea to start the fire. She had used his right hand to do it, holding it over the match. He had asked her to, and she had, dropping him on the downstairs carpet. Afterwards, she had run out, hiding in the small playhouse that her father had built for her, watching the flames grow.

It had been his idea that had killed her step-mom and her step-sister in their sleep. His idea. He’d told her what to do. He’d told her when. What he hadn’t told her was that her father was still home.

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I Miss You, and Other Words

Morgen Knight

Mindy wasn’t one for titles, so she didn’t use any. They sounded tacky and suspect to her. She wasn’t only for the theatrics either—like bead-curtains, incense or sage to burn, crystal balls or charms, but those she couldn’t do without. The people that came to see her expected those things. She could do what she could do at a table in Taco Bell, but no one would believe. Surround yourself with all of this crap, and they look at you with wide eyes and accepting nods. It was ridiculous—legitimacy through illusion. Isn’t it usually the other way around? And maybe she use to understand people’s fascination, but now she thought that it was sad. The dead were dead. They certainly didn’t like being bothered. Let them go.

She sat at the round, wood table (another requirement) when her one o’ clock came in. The woman was in her late thirties, followed by a friend. Older than she was. She stood at her side of the table, a small crystal ball at its center, and invited Mrs. Doyle and her friend to sit. It didn’t matter who made the appointment, they always bring someone with them. Friends more often than family. Mostly, the guests just sat there with the same rapt attention as the person Mindy was focusing for.

“Thanks for having us,” Mrs. Doyle said, sitting. She smiled, but she had the eyes of a crier. Her hands went to her lap.

“My pleasure,” Mindy said. This was her first contact with Mrs. Doyle.  Most of her appointments were placed over the computer now, with a credit card. If Mrs. Doyle hadn’t made it, there would still be a hundred dollar charge for the time slot.

“I wasn’t sure what would work the best, so I brought this,” Mrs. Doyle said. Her hand placed a gold pocket watch on the table. It had a short chain attached to the top, and the front was engraved with a few ravens taking flight from a tree top. The gold looked old, tarnished. “It was my husbands. His dad gave it to him, and his to him. It is suppose to go back seven generations. Steve liked to say that it was won at a horse race.”

“This should be fine,” Mindy said. She picked up the watch. It wasn’t very heavy, but it did carry the weight of age—nothing that would show up on a scale, but in your hand, you can feel the years that have passed this by, all of the moments it saw from table tops and pockets. The chain was newer. She could feel the parts alive inside of the watch, making seconds tick. Mrs. Doyle was watching her face and the crystal ball, eyes expectant, like a miniature of her dead husband would appear within the sphere, ready to speak deep words and express his need for her with his eyes. People want a cold gust of wind or a flash of light. Let the table shake and levitate; that would be the best climax.

What happened when Mindy held the watch was only seen by her eyes and eyes like hers. Seen wasn’t quite the right word and neither was eyes, but that was how she would explain it so that it sounded simple. Her heart was involved as well as her mind. Not so much the eyes.

Holding the watch was like being in a crowded phone booth. It was old, and it had been a treasure to many more men than Steve Doyle. Mindy could sense the lingering connection left by each of them. The strongest one, thankfully, was the most recent. With antiques, that isn’t always the case. You may love the tea set handed down to you, but did Aunt Patty love it more? Longer? Stronger?

Oddly, a person can be just as strongly connected to something that they deeply hate, but Mindy didn’t use that. She thought that people might be taken aback if she asked them to bring in an item that the departed dearly despised.

“I miss Steve so much,” Mrs. Doyle said, voice low. Mindy’s free hand held the smooth top of the crystal ball for show, while the real work was being done inside of her.

“What will you ask him?” the friend asked Mrs. Doyle.

“Oh, I don’t know. What is it like, I guess. See if he is at peace. Tell him that I miss him.” She went quite, looking down at the table. “Should we hold hands?”

“That might help,” Mindy said. It wouldn’t.

Mrs. Doyle took her friends hand.

Speaking with the dead was not like having a conversation with a friend. They didn’t appear beside the table with words and expressions. It might be nice if they did that. Mindy had never seen a ghost or a spirit. Whatever this was, it was more like being inside of the dead person’s mind. Their thoughts were spoken to her, and she could absorb obtuse notions of memories, feelings, existence. She had to take the things given to her and filter them for the family sometimes, but first she had to find her target. It was like swiveling an antenna around to get a less crackly reception, until finally, the object, this time the watch, leads her to who she is looking for.

“Was his middle name Andrew?” Mindy asked.

Mrs. Doyle’s reaction was enough to tell her that she had found the right one. “It is—was,” the woman said softly. The anxiety and wonder was still shinning in her eyes, but there was a newer thing beside them. Fear. This was not a game and not a trick, and that made whatever Mindy had to say worth something. It gave her words weight. And things with weight—a brick, for instance—can hurt you when they fall.

“He died by accident,” Mindy said.

It was not a question, but Mrs. Doyle’s friend answered it like it was one. “Yes.”

Who are you? God?

Only Mindy heard the questions. She was in the man’s mind. His thought raged around her with cyclonic violence. No, not God, she thought back. Her eyes were closed and heat pushed against them. The heat was not pushing in toward her brain, but pushing out against her eyelids like her eyeballs were searing points of metal from a metal workers fire.

“What do I say?” Mrs. Doyle asked her friend. She looked at Mindy, sitting there with her eyes closed and twitching, one hand on the crystal ball like it were a melon, and the other gripping the watch so tight it wouldn’t be a shock to see it fizzle to dust.

“I—don’t know,” her friend mumbled. She looked tired all of the sudden. Neither one of them had thought that this was completely counterfeit, but now it felt so real. More real than they had expected.

Mindy could hear them discussing what to say, to ask; she could also hear Steve Andrew Doyle ranting and thrashing. Part of it was his attempt to dispel her, the remaining bit—more profound—was the pain coursing through his—body? Soul? Whatever receptacle the human remnant forms as.

She could not see out of his eyes—if he had eyes—but she could picture the state that he was in, see it through the way he formed it in his mind. Boiling heat whipped around him in vicious blasts. The picture she got was of a man standing in a platform above a black pit. He was naked, screaming in pain and anger like a madman. A discordant chorus wailing and screams shouted out around him from millions of platforms on the red hot rocks, the shimmering heat distorting the actual forms of them. When Steve stepped forward in the small space he’d awoken on, a small black footprint existed for a nonce before the surrounding heat erased the bare print, the way a neap tide will erase a single trail of footprints on the sand.

If there was the sense of smell here, it would be the stink of filth and burning flesh. Puss and blisters and caramelized blood. Meat cooking. There was no smell that Mindy could discern, but to her it translated as a taste. Her mouth was dry and nasty; she withheld the grimace from her face. This wasn’t a skill that she had always possessed.

I’m with your wife and her friend, Mindy sent to the man. A picture of the women went with her words. This picture sharing went both ways.

Jessica, he sneered. I fucked her right in the ass two days before I died. Maybe this was true, maybe not. The agony could make them say nasty things. I’m dead? How long have I been dead? What is this place?

“Tell him that I miss him,” Mrs. Doyle said. Mindy did.

Fuck her. Who is she? A wife? I had one of those. All she ever did was complain. I want a beer. I had to work late so I wouldn’t come home early. Where is home? Who am I? he asked sadly.

“He says that he misses you, too. He said that he is sorry that he always worked late, missing the time that you two had.”

Mrs. Doyle smiled, touched. “Is my mother with him?”

Everyone is here. All of us, and there’s plenty of room here for you, too. Burn with me, whore! Are you a witch?

“He said that there are a lot of people with him. Loving him.”

Mindy watched a tear fall from Mrs. Doyle’s face. “I miss him.” It sounded true.

You’ll burn with me. You, Jessica, and our kids. Ha! Rip your fucking heart out and eat it. They’ll tear you flesh and gnaw on your bones forever.

“He misses you, too. And your children. He’s been watching you all.”

“It has been hard on them,” she said. “Our daughter.”

A slut, he said.

“—wouldn’t come here today. She thinks that this is stupid, but I had to see, you know? I had to see if I could ask him something?”

“Ask him what?” Jessica asked.

“Ask him if he was happy,” she said softly, like she suspected that the response would be the one to crush her. “With me. With his life.”

Mindy did ask. What she heard was: Whore, slut, frigid cunt! She bored me, holding me at home, reading and watching TV. I use to play pool. Fat ass cow. She couldn’t turn on a lamp. Where are the worms? God this hurts. Oh, God, kill me! Let me die! Get out of my head, you bitch. I’ll kill you I swear it!

This is what they pay me for, Mindy thought. They didn’t pay to hear the dry words of a lost love; they paid her to give them peace, to help them sleep. It’s easier to float into tranquil dreams if you believe bright lights of warm love and cherished family blanket what is gone. Who could close an eye for more than a blink knowing your heart is boiling in the unwavering heat of hell?

“Of course he was happy,” Mindy said. “He said that he wouldn’t have done it another way. You were his life. He said that he didn’t know how to show it when he was alive. But, he said he use to like watching you read. That he never told you that.”

Mrs. Doyle was all tears now. So was Jessica.

“And he is at peace? He’s happy?”

Tell them that I’ll be waiting for them, witch. Tell them that it gets hot. Real hot. Boogie time hot.

“He’s at peace,” Mindy assured them.

The two women asked more questions, and Steve continued to get more and more belligerent. He was trying to focus his pain at Mindy. That pain grew and the conversation drew on. When they finished, said their good-byes and I love yous, and I miss yous, Mindy handed the watch back. It was very warm from her moist palm. Both of the women were crying quietly, leaving.

No more bitch

Or slut

Or cunt

Not for now. She brushed her dark brown hair out of her face as the bell to the front door dinged, the women gone. Her next appointment wasn’t for over an hour so she could take a walk. Get some orange juice to drink. Hopefully this next one was a spirit in purgatory or one lost, roaming the earth still. The others were always so loud and mean. She had noticed that she was getting more and more of them lately. And who wants to hear that their loved one is in hell? What can you do but lie?