She can’t get Kelly to wear a winter coat or any coat and she wonders if maybe kids actually can’t feel cold. The other girls at drop-off aren’t wearing jackets, either. They’d rather shiver in their microscopic t-shirts and jeans. Lisa gives up. Kelly is thirteen and that is the age where you realize your mother is completely full of shit. Most days, Lisa agrees with Kelly. She is full of shit. She has no idea how to raise a teenager. Caring for an infant, in hindsight, seems like a piece of cake.
Kelly looked horrified yesterday when Lisa joked that Child Protective Services might haul her away for not protecting her kid from the cold. She shamed Lisa. “You know that there are actual kids in actual abusive situations, right? That is not funny.” Kelly was right, of course. It was an insensitive thing to say. Lisa took her lumps. I’m such an idiot.
Today, she will take some more lumps. She is presenting for her boss and his peers this morning. The proposal is a last-ditch effort to save her job. She has thirty minutes to prove her department’s worth to the new organization. She expects to fail.
She waves goodbye to Kelly, but her daughter is already lost in a cluster of identical blond girls, chatting and shifting their backpacks as they funnel through the doors. Lisa would normally wait until Kelly was completely, one-hundred-percent inside the school before pulling away, but she is in a hurry. She is already sweating through her blouse.
Kelly won’t notice if she goes now. Kelly wouldn’t notice if her car blew up right there at the curb. She pulls away. She doesn’t see Kelly touch the edge of the front door and pause. She doesn’t see Kelly swing her curtain of hair around towards the bus paddock behind the school.
Someone is calling her name from that direction. The voice seems familiar.
Frank finally sees Kelly. Look at her little muffin top. She’s adorable. He really admires how she tries to keep up with what the other girls are wearing. Cropped shirts are in fashion and Kelly is not letting a little baby fat keep her from participating. He reminds himself to tell her she is brave and also that her belly is beautiful.
He is hiding amongst the parked school buses, acting as natural as possible, though his heart is racing. Today is the day! A bus driver gives Frank a casual wave in passing. He barely looks at him. I’m blending in.
Frank is waiting for Kelly’s mother to pull away. Meanwhile, his gut is like a coiled spring. Kelly is talking animatedly with her friends while they walk. The sunlight glints off her braces. Frank rubs his arm, imagining what it would feel like to be bitten with all of that metal. Hopefully, he’ll get the duct tape on before she has a chance. He needs her not to scream.
Until she gets to know him, she will have to wear the tape. That is what he’s hoping for: that they will talk and talk and come to an understanding. His ultimate pie-in-the-sky hope is that she will come to love him or, at least, like him enough to give him a gift.
Either way, he is going to have a piece of her, finally. He worked methodically to cover his tracks, buying supplies at different places all over the state, spacing out his purchases. All the time and planning will be worth it. Mother taught him lots of things, but mostly she taught him patience. Waiting for a lock to turn. Waiting for food. Waiting for air. Frank is very good at waiting, even when he is in pain, even when he can’t breathe.
Of course, he would rather that she give it willingly, her toe. He is going to eat her toes, one at a time. Ten perfect, round morsels. Frank thinks there is a world where Kelly smiles at him and snips off her own toe for him to savor. Her littlest piggy. The one that goes all the way home. Frank feels an erection starting against his zipper.
He cups his hands to his mouth and calls Kelly’s name.
There is a huffing noise behind him, soft and close. It’s like a breath of wind in a cave, but low, like the deepest note you can still hear. A harsh whisper into a hollow barrel. Something is pulling on his pants leg.
Momma Bear is starving. Two cubs were enough without this extra one. He is too needy. She nurses him a bit, but the others love their solid food, which is good and bad news. There simply isn’t enough to go around this winter. There are no acorns left at all. Momma is eating bark and any scraps she can find, even dead things that she knows might make her sick.
Taking the dog was a big risk. How many days ago was that? Her insides burn. She is consuming herself.
She will try the bins again, even though they are not safe. They are difficult to plunder; too exposed to the road and hard to get away from if men come. She has learned to approach the school from the south, using the bus paddock as cover. She sniffs the air.
Momma stops. There is a human all alone in the paddock, hidden like a treasure you can dig out. He is a big man. Momma thinks he might feed all four of them. She looks back at the woods. The little ones are rolling each other in the snow near the edge. She looks back at the man. He is not paying attention. She swings her head around again, judging the distance.
Momma is large, but she is good at being silent. She thinks she can see a handle on the man.
What a mess. They are trying to herd the kids inside, but a few stragglers are screaming and crying on the pavement when they pull in. The victim is reported to be a bus driver. He’s in pieces.
The rogue bear that’s been smashing chicken coops has stepped up her game, apparently. She took a dog last week. Now, this. The cops are combing the woods, but she’s gone. She took her cubs and most of the poor guy’s arms and legs and skedaddled. She tried to walk off with the whole body at one point, judging from the massive scalp wound. His whole head fit in her mouth, it looks like. Pam shudders. That bear is a big mother.
Pam takes one look and knows that he won’t make it. There can’t be any blood left in him. She still throws her whole arsenal at the patient. She thinks this is what sets her apart and makes her a good paramedic. She stays focused and never gives up, not until she has exhausted herself and every shred of hope.
Pam knows the paramedics who worked on her son. They are made of the same stuff. She knows that they gave everything they had. They cried with her afterwards, too. Pam will never give up on someone else’s son.
Jessica Sarlin is a freelance writer from New Jersey. Recent work can be found in Holy Flea Literary Magazine (May 2021), Seaborne Magazine (October 2021) and Byline Legacies, the anthology from Cardigan Press. Her short story, STATIC, appears in the Winter 2021 Issue of Door is a Jar Literary Magazine.