Bear, Otter, & the Kid 03 - The Art of Breathing (2 page)

The other kid doesn’t say anything.

Right. Awk. Ward.

He allows me the honor of death by mortification for a few moments more, but then I feel a gigantic hand pull my own away from my eyes, and another hand grips my chin. Something presses gently against my eyelid. It feels like a shirt. It rubs softly, getting all my grossness out. He brings it lower and brushes the tears from my cheek, wipes the snot from my nose. I crack open my right eye. My chin is still in his hand. There’s a look of concentration on his face as he finishes using the tail of his shirt and drops it back down. He inspects me for a moment more to make sure it’s good, and then he lets me go and takes a step back. But his blue eyes never leave mine, even as he towers over me, twice my size.

Focus, McKenna. Remember, he could be a spy.

“Why were you watching me?” I ask him, unsure of what else to say.

He doesn’t do anything for a moment. Then he shrugs.

Annoying. “You know,” I tell him, “when someone asks you a question, it’s rude not to answer.”

He shuffles his feet and looks down.

Dammit. Now I feel bad. “Okay, I didn’t mean
you’re
rude. I’m just saying, societal norms dictate that when a question is asked, a response should be given.” I try not to think of him as a gorilla again, because he already has a lot of my boogers on his shirt. A man can only take so many boogers before he walks away. Wait. Why do I care if he walks away? He’s probably a
traitor
. One of those lackey Redshirts you always seen in stupid movies where the main bad guy needs hired muscle. Bear doesn’t let me watch too many movies like that because he says my maturing brain doesn’t need outside influences of gratuitous violence. I told him my brain was already more mature than his. He told me I was grounded. I told him
he
was grounded. Then he gave me soy ice cream and we watched a show on the History Channel about World War II. That was a good day.

The big kid hasn’t said anything yet. “I do like hearing myself talk,” I say, “only because I have a lot of neat things to say, but eventually the conversation will run out in, like, four or five years, and then where will we be?”

Wonder of all wonders, he cracks a little smile. I don’t blame him. I
am
pretty funny. I see the in and take it. “My name is Tyson James McKenna. I live with my brother Bear and his partner Otter. I know, I know. Who has names like that, right? Well, before we go any further, you should know that everyone calls me the Kid. Kind of like Billy the. But without that part. Just the Kid. I don’t even really know how that started happening, I guess it just did. I don’t know if it was Bear or my mom that started it, but I guess it stuck. I was the one who started calling Bear ‘Bear,’ ’cause that’s not his real name. His real name is Derrick, and when you meet him… well, I guess if you
want
to meet him, you’ll see he looks nothing like a bear. It’s something of a misnomer. I just learned that word yesterday. Misnomer. It means ‘a use of a wrong or inappropriate name.’ I learned it from the word-of-the-day calendar Bear bought me for Christmas. I have been just
waiting
for a chance to use it, so thank you for letting me try it out on you. It’s a great-sounding word, don’t you think? Mis. No. Mer. I like words. Inevitable. That’s another good one, ’cause it just rolls off the tongue. You can say it, if you want.” I stop. Nothing. “Okay, maybe not right now. Later, though? You can say it with me. If you don’t know what it means, I’ll tell you. You just need to ask. Do you live around here? I do. I live in that green house back there. We call it the Green Monstrosity because the color makes you want to punch a baby in the face. Okay, not really. I would never punch a baby in the face. That’s just something Otter said once and I just
died
. It was sooo funny. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you! Otter’s real name is Oliver Thompson. Another misnomer. Ha-ha! Sweet! I got to use it twice in one day! Man, that’s awesome. Anyway, Otter’s my brother’s partner. Do you know what that means?”

He’s watching me now. He shrugs again. Maybe that’s Bovine Boy for “Keep talking. You’re way cool.”

“It means my brother and him love each other and that’s okay, because who really cares if someone is gay or straight or whatever Bear is? I know
I
sure don’t. But then I never understood why people are homophobic. Who cares what two guys or two ladies do in the bedroom, right? It’s not like anyone wants to see what
those
jerks do in
their
bedroom, you know? But it’s okay, I guess. For now. This whole past summer was this whole big…
thing
, but we all got over it and now we live together in the Green Monstrosity and it’s the best time ever. Do you live around here? I already asked you that. You know, you could jump in here anytime, really. How old are you? I’m nine, going on forty. That’s what my brother says. You should know he thinks he’s hysterical. Which he’s not. Do you live with your parents? It’s okay if you don’t. I don’t, so we’d have that in common, which would be rad. I don’t want to talk about my mom right now, though.” Oh crap. I should have asked already. “You don’t know her, do you?” I ask quietly, not sure I want the answer.

His eyes widen, but he quickly shakes his head. I believe him. I don’t know why.

“Whew!” I say, relieved. “
That’s
a load off. Do you eat meat? I guess it’s okay if you do. You should know that I’m a staunch vegetarian. That’s another word I learned: staunch. It means ‘faithful’ and ‘loyal.’ That’s another great word, huh? Loyal. So if you eat meat, I won’t mind. Heck, I might even be able to convince you to come back from the Dark Side. Do you like
Star Wars
? I do. Bear and Otter and me had this marathon one time and we watched all
six
in one day and Bear made me spicy edamame and it was sooo good. That was another good day. I wish lightsabers were real. Do you like to read? What’s your favorite book? I can’t pick just one, ’cause I like them all. Wow, you sure don’t talk much, do you?” Oh crap. “
Can
you talk? I feel bad now ’cause maybe you
can’t
talk. Were you in an accident? Or were you born that way? I wonder if that’s genetic. Or is it—”

“I don’t live with my parents,” he says quietly as he watches me. His voice sounds broken, like he’s gargling gravel, like he’s not use to speaking and it’s hoarse from disuse. But I’m so happy that he
can
talk and that he’s talking to
me
, I don’t give it another thought. Maybe that’s just how he’s supposed to sound. “I live with fosters,” he rumbles.

“Oh.
Oh
. Like, not your real parents, but people who watch you anyway? You don’t have to tell me why if you don’t want to. Maybe later, huh? Then I can tell you about my… mom.” That word hurts more than I thought it would, and my voice catches on it and almost breaks, but I push through it, blinking back the burn in my eyes. No. Not here. Not now. I don’t want to get in the bathtub today. There will be no earthquakes. So what if I’m still scared? So what if I worry that she’ll come back again and I’ll have to go away with her? So what if I’m worried that Bear is going to leave me too now that he has Otter, because now that he’s found himself, he won’t need me anymore? So what? Who cares? Blah, blah, blah. I don’t need the damn bathtub. I’ve been doing so
good
, dammit. I don’t need this. I don’t want this.

I hope he doesn’t notice my mini freak-out, but he does. Of
course
he does. I’m a little surprised when he reaches up and drops a hand on my shoulder, patting me twice before dropping his arm. I feel better almost right way. Weird. Whatever. He’s really cool.

“What were you doing over there?” he grumbles at me, pointing across the street.

I grin. “Following Helmholtz Watson as he carried a crumb back to the queen where I would have made the discovery of a lifetime and had my name emblazoned in the annals of ant culture.” I groan inwardly as I realize what I’ve just said. Crap, could I sound like any more of a freak? I blush and it’s my turn to look down as I shuffle my feet. “Just watching some ants,” I mutter.

“Can I watch with you?” he asks.

I look up at him, suspicious. “Are you making fun of me?”

His eyes widen and he shakes his head. “No.”

He seems sincere. “You’re not gonna get made fun of for hanging out with some little kid? Even though I’m not. I’m practically
ten
. Well, in another nine months.”

He shrugs. “I don’t care. I’m bigger than everyone. No one makes fun of me.”

I sigh. “I wish I could be big. That would be so cool.” I grab his arm and start pulling him across the street. I glance back over my shoulder and see he’s watching my hand on his arm. “Do you like ants?” I ask him. “I do, because the colonies they make are just
fascinating
, and I hope that we can find out where….” I stop and turn around. He watches me. Still. “You never told me your name,” I remind him.

He looks down the road, toward what, I don’t know. “Dominic.

“Dominic,” I say. “That’s a good name. So, ants! Have you read
Brave New World
? That’s where Helmholtz comes from. It’s kind of a dense read, but I have it and I can lend it to you, if you want to read it. Oh! Or you could get your own copy and we can read it at the same time and I can help you with the parts that confused me at first. Is that okay? I don’t want you to have to do anything you don’t want to do. That’s not how friendships work. And we’re friends now, right?” We reach the sidewalk, and I look up at him again.

He smiles quietly. “We’re friends,” he says, his voice soft and broken. “It’s inevitable.”

I grin. “I really like that word.”

1.

Where Tyson Learns to Breathe

 

 

Six Years Later

 

“D
O
I
really want to know why you’re suggesting getting a jumping castle?” I ask Bear and Otter, narrowing my eyes. They exchange one of those secret looks that couples do, full of smiles and memories and heat, and I’m giving serious consideration to vomiting right here and now. “Because I don’t think finding out your brother and his partner have a rubber castle fetish is something an almost sixteen-year-old should ever have to know. Think about what that could do to my eternally fragile psyche. I was in therapy for nearly four years. I’d hate to have to call Eddie to tell him I’ve regressed to the mentality of a nine-year-old, even if I was pretty much the most awesome thing in your tiny little world at that age.”

Bear rolls his eyes and sits back in his chair in the kitchen of the Green Monstrosity. “If that helps you sleep at night, keep telling yourself that, Kid. And jumping castles are awesome. Ask anyone, anywhere, ever.”

“Dominic is turning twenty-two, and most of the people coming are going to be cops! You know what? I changed my mind. Get the jumping castle so I can have you arrested for embarrassing the crap out of me. I’m pretty sure that’ll get you the death penalty.” God, Bear is so annoying!

“Jumping castles hold special memories for me and your brother,” Otter says, grinning at Bear like he’s the greatest thing to have ever existed. I might have to take umbrage with that.

“I so don’t want to know,” I mutter. “I don’t think I’ve recovered yet from Bear trying to fumble through the sex talk he had with me. You’d think he’d never
had
sex before the way that went. I’m giving very serious consideration to being a virgin for the rest of my life.”

“Hey!” he snaps at me. “Just because I didn’t know what a dental dam was when you asked doesn’t mean you can give me shit for it.
You
didn’t know either.”

“You told me you thought it was some kind of sexy dental floss used to tie people down during BDSM scenes! I couldn’t take going to the dentist seriously for a year afterwards because I was convinced Dr. Kao was some kind of kinky Dungeon Master.” It definitely didn’t help that he was at least four hundred years old and had removed my wisdom teeth right after Bear had told me this. I was absolutely sure I’d been part of some dirty scene while I’d been under the gas.

“Maybe he is,” Otter says thoughtfully. “I could see him in all leather.” We stare at him and he scowls back at us. “What? Just because I
could
doesn’t mean I
want
to. You’re both prudes. I still remember finding you two hiding in the pantry looking at the ingredients of canned tomatoes after I explained what a dental dam actually was.”

“You didn’t have to use visuals,” I grumble. “I could have done without the demonstration involving a plastic baggie and a cantaloupe. I have the most humiliating parental figures out of everyone I know. It’s like you
want
me to be a social outcast.”

“Your awkward teenage angst is really neat,” Bear tells me. “I’m so glad you’ve morphed into a surly adolescent. Lord knows I don’t get enough of those during the day. And you
better
be a virgin for the rest of your life. I won’t hesitate to bust some little blonde girl’s head should she try to get up in your business.” He mutters about some whore named Tiffani.

“Sure, Teach. No unwanted teenage pregnancies for me.” And that’s pretty much true. What with skipping grades and applying for colleges, I don’t have time for girls in any way, shape, or form. Or, if we’re being honest, boys. I haven’t quite decided where I fall on the spectrum, though I’m pretty sure it’s about as full-on gay as one can possibly get. Of course, right? Of
course
that would happen. Just one more thing piled on top of all the rest. But hell, I figure I’m young enough that I don’t have to make up my mind about such things until I’m ready to. Or maybe never. People are too complicated. They confuse the hell out of me. Not Dom, though. He never has. Well. For the most part. There are times when I—

Nope. Not even thinking about it. Not today. Not again.

“That’s
Mr
. Thompson to you, Kid,” Bear says, winking at me.

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