Trigger warning: Domestic violence, children in peril, offensive language
My baby brother, Davey, and I are playing on my bedroom floor, taking turns guiding a mismatched set of plastic animals through a Lincoln Log gate toward a red Fisher-Price barn. We make up rules about who does or does not belong in the barn as we go. We decide that the elephant, zebra, rabbit, and cow all belong in the barn. But the lion, t-rex, and shark do not.
“What ‘bout bear?” Davey asks, thrusting a brown plastic bear in my face.
I pluck it from his hand and roll it between my fingers. “The bear?” I pause to decide. “He belongs outside.”
I can hear Daddy singing along to his shower radio from the big bathroom inside his and Mama’s room when Mama comes rushing up to us. She looks scared.
“We have to go. Now! Vamos ahora!” Her voice is just a whisper above the splish splosh whoosh of the shower, but I know enough to pay attention whenever she starts speaking in Spanish.
Davey’s brown curls tumble over his eyes as he tilts his head to the side. “What ‘bout Dada?” he asks. His bottom lip pushes forward pulling his mouth into a pouting frown.
Mama doesn’t answer. Her large brown eyes are darting back and forth between us as she anxiously runs her fingers through her thick black hair, brushing stray tendrils behind her ears.
I swallow hard as my stomach drops out from underneath me. “Is the bear back?” I ask.
“Bear back?” Davey diligently repeats but Mama still doesn’t respond.
I sandwich my cheeks between my hands, trying to smoosh out the sickly tingles spreading across my face. “Where are we going?”
“Shh!” Mama’s eyes are on her bedroom door. “I don’t know yet. Somewhere fun this time. I promise.” She gives a half-reassuring smile but she’s shaking her head no and her eyes look through me to somewhere far away. “Davey, escúchame, listen to me. Go stand by my room and listen to the water, okay? I need to know when the shower turns off. Can you do that, mijo?”
He nods and takes a few waddling steps toward Mama and Daddy’s room before turning back around, “Why? No bear, Mama?”
She ignores him and turns to me instead. “Little Coquí, you got anything in here like rope or string or– “
Mama pulls a pair of sneakers from my closet and starts frantically tugging out the laces. I want to tell her to stop because they’re my favorites, but I’m too scared. I know what’s happening. We’ve been here before. So, I just sulk in silence as she claws at my shoes with long fingernails that match the shade of her lipstick. “Hey,” she throws the sneakers down at my feet, “put these on.”
“But they don’t got laces now,” I whine.
“Can’t you just trust me for one fucking minute and do what I say?”
I put them on.
Davey is lying down half inside Mama and Daddy’s bedroom with his pants off and his sticky bare feet splayed against the door frame. Mama walks over and drags him out by the leg. She carefully pulls the double doors leading to her room closed. The soft splish splosh whoosh of the shower muffles into a quiet purr as Mama uses my dirty pink shoelaces to tie knots around the doorknobs. She tests her work with a couple of tugs before grabbing Davey by the shoulders and bending down to look him in the eyes.
“You gotta tell me when you hear that water stop, Davey, or that big bear is gonna come. Do you understand?” She doesn’t wait to see if he does. Just turns and yanks me roughly by my sleeve, pulling me back to my room. “I need you to grab some clothes. Don’t forget underwear.” Her eyes look full and glassy with tears, but I never see her spill a single drop.
I turn toward my tall, white, and gold dresser and try my best to keep myself from crying. But just when I think I’m in the clear, my vision goes all swimmy and hot tears start pouring down my face. I’m not sure why I’m crying. Maybe I’m mad about my shoes. Maybe I’m afraid of what will happen to us for running away. Or maybe it’s because I believed Mama when she said this wouldn’t ever happen again.
I haven’t even opened the first drawer to start grabbing clothes when Davey comes scrambling back into the room.
“He out! Mama! He out!” He runs toward Mama, blind with terror, colliding against toys and furniture.
Mama pulls him into her arms and shakes him sharply. “Shh. Shut up. Lemme hear.”
The room falls to a hush, and panic cascades over her face. “Hurry up,” she says, shoving an old olive-green vinyl travel bag at me and letting go before I get a chance to grip it.
I reach down to pick it up and suddenly Mama’s nails are digging into my shoulder, pulling me behind her. She looks back at Davey and me with a finger pressed against her lips and we all freeze. It’s like the whole world becomes silent except for one sound: the doorknob to the master bedroom is beginning to turn.
My pink shoelaces swing from side to side as the door breathes in and out. I can hear Daddy’s strong, swelling voice behind it.
“Jean? What the hell’s going on? Open the damn door for chrissakes,” then gentler, “Honey, c’mon, open the door. It’s okay. I’m not mad.”
Davey and I hug Mama’s hips like heavy armor as she ushers us toward the stairs outside my room. Next to us, the door is rattling harder, and Daddy is roaring so loudly for Mama to open it that his words come out as a string of unintelligible growls.
There is a loud, splintering crack and the three of us – me, Mama, and baby Davey – all jump as the doors swing open. A giant, golden-haired bear with blue eyes bursts out between them where I had expected to see Daddy. A wet towel is clutched in its giant paw and its broad, hairy chest is heaving in and out. Nostrils flaring, it sniffs the air and looks the three of us up and down before its piercing eyes settle on the olive-green travel bag at my feet. With a deep, booming bellow, the bear charges at Mama and herds us all into a corner of my bedroom. Davey and I cling to Mama’s sides trying to protect her, but the bear easily swipes us aside with its massive arm like limp little dolls being brushed off a bed. Davey goes flying, and I am hurled halfway into my toy chest. Plastic building blocks and Barbie doll legs jab into my side.
I reach for Davey and hold him tightly against me. I can feel his heart beating like a frightened bird’s against my chest. The big bear looms over Mama with one paw raised up in a vibrating fist.
“Go ahead. Hit me,” Mama dares. “You know you want to.” She lunges forward to give the bear a hard push, but it grabs her arms from the air and holds them tightly by the wrists. She tries to yank free, but the bear is too strong.
“You’re hurting me,” she huffs, unable to untangle herself from the pretzel shape the bear has hugged and squeezed her into.
Davey struggles against my arms, screeching loudly and hurting my ear, “No hurt mama!” He breaks free and bravely rushes to Mama’s defense, wrapping his arms and legs around the bear’s ankles. He’s scratching and biting but the bear shakes him off easily with hardly a glance and Davey crashes against the bedroom wall. He lays crumpled on the floor like an empty heap of clothes.
I scream and try to run to him but the bear wrestles Mama to the ground and blocks my way. Mama is pinned beneath the bear, flailing, and beating against its face and chest with her fists. It catches her wrists again and lowers its big head close to hers.
“None of this would be happening right now if you calmed down,” it growls.
Mama spits in its face. “Vete pal carajo, you piece of shit!”
“Go to hell!” she repeats.
The bear lets go of Mama’s wrists and starts crushing her neck with its paws as she slaps and kicks back at it.
I hug the wall and squeeze around them to check on Davey. He’s facedown, crying on the floor with his knees tucked under his tummy. Mama is yelling at me to go get help, but I’m afraid to leave Davey alone. I kiss his head and tuck a stuffed rabbit under his arm for protection. Then I run out to the hall without looking back.
The carpeted steps extend down into what looks like a dark, infinite cave. But there is a small nightlight at the bottom illuminating the front door to the outside. I run so fast I can hardly feel my feet touch the stairs. I can see nothing but the door at the bottom as I fly past the collage of smiling family portraits hanging on the wall.
In the dark, the heavy wooden door looks like the entrance to a castle, large and unmovable. I wrap my fingers around the brass doorknob and freeze.
At the top of the staircase, the bear is pulling Mama into the hallway by her long, dark hair. It’s shouting at me to keep away from the door. It says it isn’t safe outside. It says it will gobble me up if I try to leave. Then it lets out a huge howl as Mama scratches its face with her long, pointed nails.
I can hear something pop as the bear’s clenched paw pounds against Mama’s jaw. The hallway light shines on them from above like a spotlight on a stage as the bear pushes Mama down and locks a muscled arm around her neck. Her coral-colored lipstick is smeared across the golden brown of her cheek, and she gasps and gargles as the bear squeezes tighter.
Downstairs, I can’t get the door open. The doorknob won’t turn no matter how hard I try. I push and pull, and nothing happens. Then, I hear Mama yell, “Coquí, the lock!” from the top of the stairs. “You hafta turn the lock!”
My hand vibrates with fear as I fumble with the small dial in the center of the knob. It clicks to the right, but the door still doesn’t open. I pull harder, and it jiggles just enough for me to realize why it’s stuck.
The deadbolt. It towers above my head just out of reach. I try standing on tiptoe. I jump up and down. I strain my fingertips until they ache. But I am painfully too small. I am five years old, and I can’t reach the lock to save Mama and Davey. I bring my hands back down to my sides in defeat and stare vacantly at the door.
Mama is begging me to keep trying. She’s crying and the bear is panting loudly. I cover my ears, loudly humming to drown out the sound of them both. I wish I could teleport somewhere far away.
I stumble through the dark to the brown sofa in the living room and squeeze under the heavy foam cushions. Still humming, I rock my body rhythmically and stare out into the black until my eyelids get heavy. I think about how, if I were a bear like Daddy, I could stay right here all winter, safe and warm beneath a pile of pillows.
When I fall asleep, I dream about springtime and butterflies and me and Davey in a big open field. There is no Mama. No bear. Just me and Davey running free under a bright yellow sun.