Bear, Otter, & the Kid 03 - The Art of Breathing

Dedication

For Eric

I didn’t know how to breathe until I met you.

Thank you for teaching me how.

Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.

 

Part One

How We Became Who We Are

Maturity is a high price to pay for growing up.

—Tom Stoppard

 

Prologue

Or, Where the Kid Hears the Word of the Day

 

 

H
E

S
A
big kid, much to my dismay.

Bear’s always told me that being a vegetarian is stunting my growth, and even if I thought that was true (which it’s
not
—Bear’s always saying stuff like that because he’s jealous of how awesome I am and nervous about his immortal soul), I still don’t think I could eat a baby cow to become taller. Try to think of that the next time you stuff your face with a hamburger: that cow was somebody’s
mother
or
father
or
son
or
daughter.
It’s easier to not eat meat when you anthropomorphize what you are putting in your mouth. Besides, Bear’s short and he’s a carnivore of the highest order. I may only be nine years old, but even
I
know my big brother can be full of crap sometimes. He’s special that way.

I’m only a few houses down from the Green Monstrosity, after having followed a line of ants for the last half hour (did you know that some species can carry up to
fifty
times their body weight? That’s like me picking up a
car
) when I feel eyes on me from somewhere. I try to ignore the feeling because I’ve got things to do—
big
things—and I don’t want to be interrupted by some nosy neighbor we have yet to meet because we’re too busy actually living our lives for once. But that needling sensation doesn’t go away, and I give in, maybe out of curiosity, or maybe just to glare at whomever is interrupting my expedition. For all I know, these ants would have led me to some secret underground ant colony where I would have made the find of a lifetime by discovering a new species that would forever be known as
Tysonious McKennnicus
. That alone would have been my ticket into the Ivy League of my choice and cemented my future as the world’s leading vegetarian authority on this rare find. But
no
. Not going to happen.
Now
I have to deal with some looky-loo who’s probably wondering why I’ve been staring at the sidewalk for the last thirty minutes, oblivious to his impending doom from interrupting my scientific endeavor that would have changed the face of myrmecology (the study of ants, duh)
forever
. I swear to God if I end up having to go to Arizona State because they’re the only school that’ll accept me, there’s going to be
hell
to pay. I refuse to go to a college whose only claim to fame is having the world’s longest keg stand at a party thrown by the fraternity Notta Hava Fuchure just because I couldn’t complete my destined quest.

I’m gonna have to make it rain all up in here.

(Man, I
really
need to stop watching Maury Povich with Bear. It’s destroying my vocabulary.)

I look up, and for a moment, I don’t see anyone. I think maybe I’ve made a mistake and can get back to the ants when a movement across the street catches the corner of my eye. I look over and see him.

He’s
huge
. Damn you, genetics!

Some older boy is standing on the other side of the street, his shaggy dark hair falling around his face. He’s got big shoulders hidden under a plaid button-down shirt, the rolled-up sleeves showing the black hair on his arms. His eyebrows are epic, kind of bushy, and I know, I just
know
, he can do that thing that Otter can and arch one so it makes him look like a dastardly villain. I can’t do that and it sucks. He can’t be much more than fourteen or fifteen years old, but he looks like he’s been injected with bovine growth hormone, given his size. I almost want to run across the street and ask him if he’s been trapped at some secret government animal-testing facility that has been administering new serums on cattle to make their cutlets bigger and juicier, only to let him know that I could rescue him and take him to a farm where he can live out the rest of his days with a salt lick and all the grass he can eat. But Bear said I shouldn’t talk to strangers because they’d be scared of me. I always thought
I
was supposed to be afraid of
them
, but Bear said I would just end up talking them to death and that any nefarious purpose they might have had would become moot.

When Bear McKenna accuses you of talking too much, you know you have a problem.

Whatever.

So I wait and watch. So does he. He looks away for a moment, down the road, and then stares at his feet, which he shuffles back and forth, kicking a rock and a leaf. He’s trying not to look at me, but I catch him peeking from the hair that has fallen over his eyes. What a weirdo. I’m not going to have a staring contest across the street. I’m not even wearing my special Staring Contest Gloves, so… you know. There’s
that
.

I sigh and look back down at the sidewalk, trying to collect my thoughts, wondering if Otter or Bear will build me a mantel where I could put my first Pulitzer next to my Lifetime PETA Awesome Award for Services to the Greater Good of Our Animal Companions (this may not have been invented yet, but don’t worry; I’ve written PETA, like, four times asking for such an award to be created and to let me be the first recipient of the prestigious LPAAFSTTGGOOAC. My last letter ended up being fourteen pages. Single-spaced. With size ten Cordia font. I haven’t heard back yet. The “P” in PETA doesn’t stand for “punctual,” after all). I don’t think it would be too presumptuous for me to ask Bear and Otter for at
least
a shelf. I could start there before eventually asking them to move out of the Green Monstrosity and just let me use it for a trophy house. Heck, by then, Otter and Bear will be married and I’ll be superfamous and will buy them a house in some country that actually
likes
gay people. United States of America? More like United States of Extraordinary Injustice Against Certain Segments of the Population All Because Rednecks Are Scared of Butt Sex.

I let this distract me for a few minutes as I find the specific ant I’ve been following (I’ve named him Helmholtz Watson after my favorite character in
Brave New World
). He’s carrying a crumb of something that’s twice as big as he is, and it’s cool because it’s like Helmholtz doesn’t have any awareness of anything except moving from point A to point—

I’m still being watched.

“Well, Helmholtz,” I mutter, “looks like you’re on your own for a bit. Don’t worry about waiting for me. I’ll catch up. Tell the ant queen I’m still going to discover the crap out of her.”

Helmholtz doesn’t respond. But then I don’t expect him to: he’s an ant.

I look back up as my future runs away from me and see the strange boy has moved slightly down his side of the street, like he’s following me. Once he sees me watching him again, he looks at everything
but
me. A master of subtlety he is not. That’s okay, I guess. According to the guys in my life, I fall into that same category. But at least I give it some
panache
. This guy couldn’t be more obvious if he had a big neon sign blinking above his head that flashed “I’M STALKING YOU, BOY GENIUS.” I feel nervous, if only for a moment, remembering back to a couple of weeks ago when we sat in the attorney’s office (okay, but for real: how cool is it that I have an
attorney
? I’ve gone Hollywood!) and Erica asked us if we had seen anyone following us or noticed anyone we hadn’t seen before. Well, here’s someone following me. Here’s someone I haven’t seen before.
Oh, calm down
, I chide myself.
What’s she going to do, jump out and snatch me while I’m distracted by her weirdo accomplice across the street? Get real.

Get real. Right? But no. No. Not right. Real was Mom showing up out of the blue. Real was the look on her face when I opened the door, like for that one tiny split second, she didn’t recognize me. Real was that dawning comprehension. Real was the way my hands started to shake. She didn’t look like I remembered, not like that picture I have of me and her from when I was just a little kid that I hide from Bear in the bottom of my drawer. Then, she was smiling, or at least as much as she could smile. Then, she looked happy, or at least as much as she could be happy. That was real. Or so I thought. In the end, it showed how much I didn’t understand how
real
things could be. Real was the
real
smile I saw on her face once recognition sunk in. That was real. I don’t stop myself from looking over my shoulder, and I don’t miss the relief coursing through me when I see Julie McKenna isn’t hiding in the hydrangeas.

Oh crap. I gotta stop it. Pretty soon, I’ll start thinking of oceans and earthquakes, and I’ll be forever trapped in my head like some people I know.

Only one way to deal with this: like a man.

“Hey!” I say loudly, trying to make my voice as strong as it can be. It doesn’t help that puberty is still a pipe dream (oh joy, let me tell you how I can’t wait for
that
; I’ll start growing hair in weird places and probably want to smoke, flip up my collar, and put my ball cap on backward and say things like “Right on, dude. It’s time to par-
tay
.” Ugh. Adolescence will be the bane of my existence). “Hey!” I shout again, knowing repetition is needed when dealing with big galoots.

He looks down at his feet. God, he is so
frustrating
.

I take a deep breath and square my shoulders. My head is held high as I step off the curb and cross the street, trying to keep myself from running. I’m intimidating. I’m smooth. I’m a badass. I trip over my own feet. I stumble. I catch myself before I fall. I blush. I walk a little bit slower. My head is still held high. I’m still a badass. Kind of.

Bovine Boy hears my approach and glances up at me before looking down at the ground again, his arms behind himself like he’s in the military or something. The lace on his left shoe is untied, the aglet missing from one side, the end frazzled. It looks like he’s drawn little stars on the whites of his shell tops with a Sharpie. That’s kind of neat, I guess. If you like that sort of thing. I wonder if Bear would let me do that. Is that what big kids do? Draw on their shoes? I can’t make very good stars, but I can write the Greek alphabet. From memory. That’s not something I brag about because people tend to look at me funny when I tell them. Bear says it’s just because they’re jealous. I hope he’s right; otherwise my life is going to be one awkward moment after another. I know too much about nothing.

I stand in front of the other guy, and I think this may have been a mistake, because he looked a little smaller from all the way across the two-lane road. I wonder if this has to do with faulty depth perception, but before I can even begin to diagnose myself with some ocular disease, the big kid grunts. Like a gorilla.

I can’t help it: I laugh.

I don’t mean to, it just comes out on its own. I smoosh my hands against my mouth to block the sound, but this causes me to snort, and snot comes out of my nose. I try to cover it up and jerk my left hand up, but it bounces off my nose and I poke myself in the eye. My eyes water as I hiss and knuckle my eyeball, but I’ve still got snot on my hand and it gets all up in there, making it burn even more.
Ow
. I want to turn and run, but I’m temporarily blinded by my own devices, and I know, I just
know
, that this big kid is probably some popular jock and I’m forever going to be stuck with the nickname Booger Eye Snot Face. I ask God quietly if he wouldn’t mind opening the ground beneath my feet and allowing me to fall down a chasm to save me from myself. The ground doesn’t open. I’m still laughing, but it’s that high-pitched thing I do when I find something
really
funny. I hate that laugh. It always sounds like a clan of female hyenas all going into labor at the same time.
Yip! Yip! Ayyyyyyyy! Yip! Yip! Ayyyyyyyy!

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