Bear in the Preserve

        When Mara’s mother died, her father emptied four bottles of liquor over six days. He sat in his flattened down lean-easy chair, patched and faded from years of use, watching reruns of The Simpsons. Mara didn’t cry once; she had no reason to. Her mother had moved across the county when she was six months old and told Mara’s father not to contact her, that she didn’t want anything to do with him or their child. She met her bills on time for child support and so that was that. They lived in a town large enough for gossip not to perpetuate, and the only reason Gary, Mara’s father, even knew his legal wife died eight years after he’d last seen her was because he read her obituary in the county newspaper. Nancy is survived by her sister and two nephews. No mention of him or Mara.

        When Mara found him hunched over like that after school, the TV’s glow the room’s only source of light, she knew he had fallen back into a person she thought Bear replaced. She thought Bear had come in and squeezed everything sad out of him. Bear was too large to leave room for anything else. She weighed one hundred pounds; it was impossible.

        When they picked Bear up at the shelter two years before Mara’s mother died, she was a wild, mangy thing. Mara strode the length of the shelter’s dirty tiled floor. She spoke to each dog and rattled the cage’s handle when it didn’t react. “Will you come home with us? Will you? How about you?” She bounced between cages like a marble in a pinball machine. Mara stared each dog up and down until it turned away from her. Most huddled in the corner to lick their sore-ridden paws. A vague sense of familiarity filled her, and Mara decided she didn’t want these dogs. She didn’t want someone depleted.

        When she came to Bear’s cage, the dog was scratching an ear with her back paw and Mara giggled at the way the dog’s skin scrunched up around her face. Fur hung in uneven strings across her body and her snout was a stub slightly longer than that of a pug’s. Bear was massive, too. A cheap dog bed lay in the middle of the floor and when Bear sat on it, it disappeared beneath her.

        “Boo!” Mara said, and Bear cocked her head to the side. Mara decided then that Bear would be her horse and her confidante.

        From her home, through the window of their living room, Mara liked to watch a grey-haired man take his daily walks. He bent over his walker with a purple leash tied to the front bar of the contraption, and at the end of that leash was a scrappy boney little rat of a dog with its tail curled over its back. Once, the dog saw something outside the frame of Mara’s view and pulled the leash taut, while the old man tried desperately to hold the walker in place. The suddenness of it all must’ve thrown the man off because as small as the dog was, it toppled the walker along with the man to the pavement. The dog, seeing its owner on the floor, lost interest in whatever it was that had caused its surprise and rushed to the old man’s head. It darted its tongue across the man’s chin and lips and nose and eyebrows, and Mara watched the frustration that had built in his face soften until there was nothing left but understanding. This she imagined Bear to become for her.

        “This one,” she said, and Bear pushed herself to her feet, struggling—puppy as she was—to carry the weight atop her joints.

        “This one?” Gary asked. 

        “This one.”

        So that was that. Bear was a part of their lives.


        A few blocks from Mara’s house was a preserve. It was small, no more than two acres, and it wasn’t maintained. The weeds stretched out towards the road in tangles. The bark on the trees peeled off in layers like exposed wounds, and the trees themselves grew in tight clumps, leaving space to stumble through only every three or four feet. 

        There was something in the woods, something lurking. Once, Ezra, a boy with oversized glasses from Mara’s school, bounced a basketball up and down the sidewalk, a cadence of uneven pats and pits following him as he struggled to dribble. He came to the part of the sidewalk that crossed in front of the preserve. He knew he’d reached this section even as he stared only at the ball bouncing between his hand and the concrete because the cracks in the sidewalk rose in number and weeds gnawed their way through the pavement. The pounding of the ball faded to nothing as Ezra let it roll to a stop. A squirrel crawled towards him from the woods, trying to sprint but slowed by one of its arms. It bumbled towards Ezra lopsidedly and when it came within a few feet of him, he noticed blood dripping from its shoulder, that its arm had been torn almost clean off. The squirrel collapsed onto its stomach. Its limbs fanned out so it lay flat on the grass like some sort of tortured snow angel. Since then, confusion and monstrosity tainted the forest. It was a place the children forbid for themselves.

        Mara had to cross in front of the preserve when she met the kids for kick the can and sardines. Sometimes Laura, Mara’s next-door neighbor, came with her. Laura tried to engage Mara in conversation, and as soon as they stepped into the abyss, the zone unprotected by the neat cookie-cut constructions of houses, Laura babbled all through their passage.

        Mara preferred to be without Laura. Only the streetlights illuminated the walkway, and Mara liked to step from one spotlight to the next, imagining herself momentarily caught in a beam. The lights were at opposite ends of the street and between the two rings, where the preserve lay, was darkness. Mara usually hurried by, anticipating a monster with furry tentacles would slither out and drag her into the heart of the forest. Sometimes she stopped dead center and stared into the mouth of the black hole. Mara squared herself off with the forest, her bony arms on her hips, daring it to take her without a word.

        Before Bear occupied most of Mara’s thoughts, she dreamt of her mother as that squirrel. She was fully human in this dream, but her body was squirrel-sized and, like that fated squirrel, her mother’s arm was torn clean off. Mara watched, a spectator incapable of action, as her mother wobbled towards her father howling. The dripping blood from her arm infected Gary, turning him red from the feet up like a rising thermometer. Mara never knew what happened when the blood reached the top because she always woke up just as the last strand of Gary’s hair began to redden. 

        If she really thought about it, Mara could make herself laugh: the mother who abandoned her crawling towards Gary like a zombie from the grave in a cheap horror film. But Mara didn’t like to really think about it. She liked to wake and will herself into forgetting.

        When Bear came along, Mara found herself remembering the dream less and less. They brought her home, and Bear bumbled around, bonking into furniture and slipping on the tile. When she hit an end table, a framed photo of Nancy and Gary in their wedding attire fell to the floor. The thud caused Bear to jump, and her tail shot between her legs. The frame had not broken; it remained intact except for a thin crack that ran from the top left corner to the bottom right, crossing through both Gary’s and Nancy’s faces.

        Slowly, as the days passed, Gary busied himself with potty-training and commands, and Mara suspected Gary decided he had grieved long enough. He no longer ruminated at the desk in the living room. He pulled the blinds when the sun started to dim and kept his world lit with artificial bulbs. Pictures of the foreign woman Mara knew as her mother with her pinched nose and short choppy bangs disappeared from the walls. The countertops were cleaned. The fridge was stocked with groceries. It was as though something had seeped into their home with Bear to make their lives better.

        At first, Mara was uncertain. She walked around their home on tiptoes. Bear stomped behind her, and Mara shushed her until Bear’s own paws became no more than a subtle clacking of her nails. The two of them snuck around like that, confining themselves to perimeters for fear Gary would resume spending nights in his chair and tortured moans would again break from his lips while he slept.

        When the fridge continued to be stocked and the mailbox emptied long after Bear knew to pee outside, Mara tested him. Gary was scraping eggs from their plates into the trash when she approached. She tapped him on the shoulder with an index finger.

        “Yes?” Gary asked, continuing to scrape, the fork screaming as Gary pushed it against the ceramic dish.

        “What’s mom like?” The last syllable was cut off by Mara’s jamming of her teeth against her lip. It was the test of all tests. The make or break. Gary was either okay, ready, or he would crack under pressure, eroding again to mush in his chair. She clenched her fists in her pockets. Bear bristled besides her. Gary didn’t turn around, but the fork continued to scream. There were no longer any eggs left on the plate and still the fork against the ceramic screamed.

        “What?” Gary said. 

        Mara stopped breathing. Fork on ceramic.

        “She doesn’t want us,” he said finally.


        For those two years before Nancy died, things were okay. But when Mara began to walk to school with Bear, the kids took notice. Laura went with her, and Bear darted between the two girls, boomeranging from scents of squirrels and pigeons paces away back to them. The trek led the three through their town square. Mara peered into windows and stared at the pedestrians going the opposite way in the crosswalk.

        “You’re going to run into something if you keep looking behind you like that,” Laura, six months Mara’s elder, said.

        “Sorry, that lady had bangs.” It didn’t cross Mara’s mind that hair could be cut and dyed. The more her mother disappeared from Gary’s thoughts, the more Mara wondered who she was, what she was like.

        During recess, Mara listened to the kids’ talk of tag and Nutella sandwiches. Her mind wandered while forming the letters of her name with pebbles.

        “You have a dog, right Mara?” Ezra asked.

        Mara nodded.

        “Did it come from the woods?”

        “No. I don’t think so.”

        “Good,” he said.


        That Bear might be from the forest wormed its way beneath Mara’s skin. She didn’t want Bear to be something that had slithered out the woods and hid in her home. When Gary went for takeout one evening, she snuck onto his laptop for lore about the creatures of the forest. Bear rested her head beneath Mara’s chair and the rest stuck out as a headless body.

        Gary returned home to find Mara with her legs splayed on the floor of the kitchen pressing the back of a spoon against Bear’s cheek. Mara had one hand on the dog’s chest, just below her collar, while Bear fought to lick her. Mara scrunched her lips towards one side of her face as she chewed her cheek. Gary grabbed a coke from the fridge and had one sandal through the doorway to the living room when Mara called him back.

        “Something’s wrong with Bear.”

        “Maybe she’s got a cold,” Gary said. The condensation on his coke ran down his hand. “And if she does,” he continued, “I don’t think a spoon’s gonna solve any of her problems.”

        “Is she from the woods?” When Mara walked Bear after school that day, Bear tugged at the leash directly in front of the preserve, nearly dragging Mara with her inwards.

        “You know as much as me.”

        “But she acted weird earlier. Someone said silver tests these kinds of things.”

        “She’s a dog. She probably just smelled something.”

        “Maybe,” Mara said, but she continued to chew her cheek.


        Nancy’s obituary ran in the paper on the twenty-third of November. It was a Monday. The paper boy looped up and down the streets of Mara and Gary’s neighborhood, tossing plastic-wrapped news onto driveways.

        Mara heard the TV before she opened the front door after school. Gary was on his chair with one shoe halfway off his foot. The shoelace dangled, grazing the carpet. Mara tried to speak to him, but he mumbled incomprehensibly. 

        When she tugged on his thumb, Gary looked right at his eight-year-old daughter and said, “If we hadn’t had you, things would be different.”

        Mara raced to Bear, forgetting her worries of tentacles and forest lore. She buried herself in Bear who hadn’t heard what Gary said. Bear who would never say what Gary said, who would never wish Mara away for a past long gone. Mara took Bear by the scruff of her neck and led her towards her room.

        She saw the obituary on the table as she passed and studied the picture, the only one she’d seen where Nancy had wrinkles around her mouth. She had the cropped hair of a boy and Mara’s gut tightened knowing she’d been looking for her mother in all the wrong faces. Her mother would never again look any different than she did in that photo, but with that, there was no longer a chance Mara might pass her on the street. Mara folded the paper back up and tucked it into the waistband of her pants. She shut her bedroom door behind her.


        On the fourth day of Gary’s dance with alcohol, surrounded by the fog of drool and slurred speech, he nudged the front door softly enough that the latch didn’t quite click into place after coming back from the convenience store down the street. A line of light spilled into the darkened halls of their foyer, tempting enough that Bear wedged her snout in and squeezed out onto the front lawn, the open outdoors, where she wasn’t confined any longer to four walls. Bear paraded up and down the grass, sniffing each tree she passed, until she skipped into the street at the same time an F-150 barreled down the road ten miles over the speed limit. 

        Gary was asleep when Mara pressed his shoulder. He snorted but didn’t wake up. She searched their nine-hundred square foot house calling the dog’s name. Bear didn’t come, so Mara grabbed a couple treats and wandered out the backdoor, barefooted. Through the chain link fence, she saw Bear crumpled in a heap with an oily liquid spilled out around her. Mara tiptoed her way through the fence’s gate and down to the street until her big toe turned red from the edge of that liquid. She refused to realize this was the same substance that came out the cracks in her knees when she fell at the playground.

        Bear was limp and her tongue hung from her mouth. Mara reached out her hand only to pull it back again and again. Mara couldn’t touch Bear like that, not when Bear’s back legs bent unnaturally inwards towards her stomach and not when the skin of her shin peeled back to reveal a knotted mess of tendons and exposed bone. Mara could imagine this was what happened to the squirrel, but she told herself this was not what happened to Bear. This wasn’t Bear.

        Mara lay on her stomach in the middle of the street a foot from the edge of that liquid. She stayed like that until a pair of the department of public works employees prodded her and told her they needed her to move. She watched from the curb as they scooped Bear up and flung her in the back of their van. They wore gloves and touched Bear like she was diseased. As they drove off, one of them rolled down his window. “Sorry, kid,” he said. Then they were gone and all that was left was a stain on the road and a little girl sitting beside it.

        Mara sat there on the side of the road until the sky turned black. She cranked her neck towards their living room window, the same one from where she saw the old man fall. The lights were all the way up, and Gary was still in his chair. He slouched forward and chuckled at something on TV. Mara ran from him and his laughter.

        She ran until she reached the preserve. The moon above her was a jaundice yellow and her arms prickled with the breeze. She faced its gaping mouth. The roots and grass and weeds were alive, and she was sure they’d grab her, draining the life from her to feed theirs.

        Mara entered the forest. When the brambles grew thicker, she picked her feet up faster after each step. If she left a shoe in one spot for too long, Mara imagined the forest might snap her up. She couldn’t tell if a branch was already curved or if it had moved when she wasn’t looking. Mara’s breath picked up. Her underarms dampened. Thorns in her shirt. Blood on her forehead. She couldn’t see through the thicket. She fell. 

        Her palms pressed into the ground leaving indentations. She leaned back into the dirt, hoping she would sink into it until it closed around her. Mara decided she hated her father and that she would never forgive him. “Yes, I hate him. I do. I hate him,” she cried, but even as she screamed the words, she didn’t believe them. Not really. Hot tears rushed down her face. Gary in his chair laughing as Bear lay dead in the street haunted her vision. He was pathetic. She pounded the ground with her fists calling Bear’s name. Again and again she yelled until the coyotes began to bay. Her tears slowed as she listened to their howling, imagining they were werewolves and that Bear was among them.


Biographical Note: Morgan Jeitler is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin studying English and Plan II Honors. She has previously been published in Hothouse Literary Journal and won an honorable mention in the writing flag award at her university.