Fiction: Confluence

Auten - the bear

Read Mrore: A brief interview with William Auten


Early on, when they were reconnecting again, nine times out of ten she sent e-mails or old-fashioned letters, but recently his sister has been calling on the phone, and she’s been opening up more with the phone calls, energetic with what she needs to tell. Ben loves hearing her voice, and he wonders if she’s been giving herself a break from using her hands, even though her handwriting has gradually steadied and improved after she moved in with their parents. Sydney refrains from blaming either the steel rods in her hand or the VA and its never-ending labyrinth of mirrors and switchbacks and paperwork. She says it’s the daily exercises, squeezing a ball and rotating her wrist clockwise and counterclockwise when holding a lightweight dumbbell, but she also says, now that she is really back, it’s her gumption and dedication to get better and to stay clean.

At the end of a phone call to Ben the other week, Sydney explained that the lawyer of her estranged husband, and by extension Danny himself, has agreed to let her see the kids. Starting once a month in June, she can have two hours maximum with them, on the weekends, but she cannot drive them anywhere, and she must remain within a certain distance of Danny’s house. So basically the front yard, Ben thought, squinting as she talked, imagining the scar pulsing through her lip, her eyes full, black pebbles again, holding the phone close to his ear like a bird in his hand. But all of this is dependent upon her completion of monthly testing and more counseling and therapy, as approved by the lawyer’s list of doctors. Her contact at the VA will have to weigh in on this too, given the rates, which could complicate the situation with insurance, given the rates. “I’m so happy,” she sang.

Ben has teased Sydney about the list of never-ending chores their mom has for her, but he knows they are also to keep Sydney busy and focused. She has told him that, since moving back home from the halfway house, she has raked leaves, cleaned, driven their mom around town, picked up groceries, picked up cigarettes for their dad, and organized the basement and garage.

Lately she’s been mentioning the bear more and more. It was sporadic at first, maybe once a month, just something passing in their talks, something to reminisce and bond over again, especially given that she lives again in the house where she and Ben grew up. He chuckled the first time he heard it, thinking maybe she came across it while rummaging through the attic. It must have shocked her, he thought, because the bear, the size of a toddler, rests in a plastic bag and has a red ribbon tied around its throat, cinching the bag closely to its button nose, the fur like a golden flower frozen under ice. Other things stored away have been stripped of color, reduced to off-white stuffing and strands, the meals of moths. This is how he used to remember it.

In one letter, she asked Ben if he remembered the bear, if he remembered where he last saw it, and, as he has every time she brought it up, he felt a reluctance to respond to or acknowledge her questions, avoided it in his replies, leading both Sydney and him back to the weather or how the Cardinals will stack up this season, especially against the Cubs, how their dad’s lungs decline day by day. She also mentioned that, when she was home by herself during a storm, the power went out, and the bear checked the windows for her and called the utility company to confirm they were the ones who cut it. She positioned herself in the living room, just in case.

The bear’s appearance intensified before Christmas, and Ben thought that maybe Sydney’s memories from childhood were firing more strongly and more frequently as the holiday season approached. She was only allowed to see Kimberly and Josh because Danny approved it and was in the room with them. Danny talked about the second shift he picked up, about selling the ATV and some power tools to stay afloat. It was an odd thing to watch, Danny holding Kim in his arms, Joshy with his hand, and saying to Sydney, “Yes, you can hug them,” the star on top of the tree sparkling. And as soon as both children left him, he rotated his shoulders slightly off to the side and texted, Ben assumed, to his lawyer. Minutes later Danny texted again, took both kids back, peeling them from Sydney, and told everyone goodnight, Merry Christmas. “Wait,” Sydney punctuated. Danny, Ben, and her parents smiled at her, while her children sheepishly waited behind their father’s legs. For several seconds, Sydney’s breath quickened as she stared into the orange light of the fireplace. “Do you want to see it?” she looked at Ben.

“What, Syds?”

“The bear.”

Tongue stuck to the roof of his open mouth, Ben started to shrug and turn to his parents.

“Never mind,” she shook her head. “Merry Christmas. I love you.”

Ben had the bear first, using it as a stand-in for Chewbacca, his obsession back then. By the time Sydney inherited the bear, Ben, after enough begging and pleading to his parents, had moved on to an actual Chewbacca toy. But within a few years, it no longer mattered. Comic books and action figures took a back seat to the universe. The Horsehead Nebula, the history of moon landings, National Geographic maps of the galaxies, a telescope in the corner of his room, cross-sections of the Saturn 5, its bell-shaped engine sliced open like a conch, the delta-shaped wings of Space Shuttles decorated his room. The top of his dresser, cluttered with model NASA rockets, consumed real and imaginary space. The bear had made its way to Sydney, inseparable, sleeping together, enjoying milk and ‘Nilla Wafers together, keeping an eye on Bugs Bunny cartoons, running around the house together, Sydney dragging it by its puffy arm wherever she went.

She has claimed that the bear followed her to Iraq and to the military hospital after she was injured on her second tour. Sometimes she saw it smoking a cigarette under the desert moon glowing just outside the rubble and the loops of razor wire. Once, she saw it hand out rounds of ammunition after a man walked too close to the perimeter. The bear was on watch that night, positioned on a rooftop fortified with sandbags and protective glass. It shot the shit with her fellow troops, many of the jokes making her blush. Sometimes she’d see it sitting at the foot of her bed, simply looking at her, leaning to one side whenever she leaned to one side, her ribs tender, her mouth dry, a great pain throbbing underneath the dressing of her right arm. Whenever she sat up, the bear was there too, sitting up with her, both of them bending from the waist in the middle of the night, awakened by sights and sounds. […]

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William Auten’s first novel, Pepper’s Ghost, will be released in 2016. His work has appeared in Hayden Ferry’s Review, Nimrod, Notre Dame Review, District Lit, Drunken Boat, failbetter, Cahoodaloodaling Origins, Rum Punch Press, Canada’s Saturday Night Reader, The Sandy River Review, SunStruckMagazine, and other publications. Auten’s work was read at the 2015 bicentennial celebration for North American Review. Find more at

Read More: A brief interview with William Auten