“Damn. I’m gonna be late again.” I rapid-fire my horn. “Move over!” I yell at the mud-caked forest-green John Deer. The fast-paced Orlando traffic is nothing compared to the frustration of crawling behind an overgrown tortoise. I’d much rather race a hare down I-4.
I dig my cell phone out of my corduroy knapsack and call the school to tell them I’ll be late. Thank God I have first-period planning. Although I still expect Principal Sanders, AKA The Sarge, armed and ready for ambush outside the door of my sixth-grade classroom.
After calling the school, I hit play on my audiobook, a steamy new contemporary romance. It’s the only thing I look forward to on this commute from my boyfriend’s house to rural North Lake. But before I can settle into the cringy love scenes that make me wish I was back in bed with Brandon, something ahead catches my attention.
A plump medium-sized, brown teddy bear wearing a bright blue bow sits at the base of a large pine tree. Other than the tractor, there’s not another vehicle, nor a house, in sight. Weird.
As my Honda Civic hybrid inches past the black-eyed stuffed animal, the tractor pulls over. Finally!
I offer a courtesy wave. The driver, a scrawny old man in dirt-streaked overalls and a weathered baseball cap, grins, exposing a missing front tooth. A shiver surges down my spine. “You’re one creepy dude,” I say aloud as I force a smile.
My eyes dart back and forth from the empty road to the rearview mirror. I turn a sharp corner, and finally, both the creepy tractor dude and that bear are out of view.
I park next to a jacked-up truck that belongs to some redneck P.E. teacher. I’m pretty sure he’s the one who left the love note on my car my first day that read, “Nobody in North Lake likes granola.” Classy. As soon as I have some teaching experience under my belt, I’m outta here.
My racing heart slows when The Sarge isn’t lurking near my classroom door to slap my wrist for being late again. But even though I dodged his bullet, I still feel—off.
Throughout the day, students come and go, bells ring, and I fake teaching. I can’t shake an increasing curiosity about that damn bear and why someone placed it at the base of a tree in the middle of nowhere. It had to be intentional. By day’s end, driven by a now-consuming curiosity, I dash out of the campus as soon as my last student leaves.
I don’t bother turning on my audiobook. I won’t be able to concentrate on it anyway. Instead, I hypothesize about the bear. Is it a memorial? A secret message to someone? A prank?
My pulse quickens when I spot him at the same tree. His bright blue bow sits in stark contrast to the pine’s dark brown bark. “Hello, there, Little Bear. Who put you there and why?”
I brake to get a better look at him. There isn’t anything unusual except his large dark eyes seemed to have, I don’t know—depth. There are no signs of anything odd around him. No footprints or notes.
A horn honks. Oh shit! A car whips around me. “Bye, Little Bear. Let’s see if you’re here in the morning.” I don’t fight the urge to keep an eye on him in my rearview mirror until he disappears.
“Hey, Hon. How was work?” Brandon asks when I walk in the door.
“Exhausting. Is it Friday yet?”
He comes up behind me and wraps his arms around my waist, kissing my neck. “I know why you’re exhausted, and it has nothing to do with teaching.”
Brandon and I are still in the honeymoon phase of our relationship, and often, the nights are long. But as I lay in his bed tonight, the only thing on my mind is that damn teddy bear. I wake up early the next day, curious to see if he’s still there.
As I speed down the road and near the spot, I wipe sweaty palms on my long skirt.
Yesterday, he was fresh and plump, but now he’s weathered from the overnight dewy mist. I stop in front of him. “Good morning, Little Bear.” I resist the urge to get out and save him from the elements. Someone put him here. But why? That question bores into me as if the answer is as significant as the meaning of life.
For weeks this is my routine. I stop in front of Little Bear each morning, say hello, and study his degrading appearance. The first time I’d seen him, he looked like he’d just come off the shelf at F.A.O. Schwarz. Now his once fluffy fur is matted. Instead of sitting erect, he slumps to one side. I don’t know why, but this makes me sad.
I leave the school for Brandon’s as quickly as possible to visit Little Bear in the afternoon. Each time, I want to get out of my car, take him home, and clean him. I think about him at night. I wonder if whoever put him there ever visits him. Or, worse, if they’ve forgotten about him.
After school, as I pack my bags, the intercom startles me. “Ms. Hawkins, Mr. Sanders would like to see you in his office.”
“Oh, shit.” I say out loud,” I’m sure Mr. Sanders’ secretary heard me. “Sure, I’ll be right there.”
“Ms. Hawkins, please have a seat.” Mr. Sanders adjusts his tie and crosses one leg over the other from behind his enormous desk.
I wrap my long skirt around my legs, pull my hair to one side, and crouch into the tiny chair in front of him.
“Can you explain this?” He unclasps his fingers and slides a document toward me.
At the top, it reads Employee Attendance Log. I recognize it immediately. It’s the sheet he requires us to sign in on each day when we arrive and sign out as we leave. So old-school. This must have been a copy because everyone’s name is struck through except mine, which is highlighted in bright neon yellow.
“Nearly every day for the last two weeks, you’ve arrived late and left early. I’ve also received several phone calls from parents that you were a no-show to conferences. You also were absent at the last two Wednesday afternoon staff meetings. Is there something you need to tell me?”
I twirl my long curly brown hair around my finger as he goes through the checklist of my offenses. I’m a criminal in front of Bad Cop sans Good Cop. But I can’t tell him the real reason. Sorry, Sergeant Sanders, I’m obsessed with this stuffed teddy bear by a tree on my drive. I know it sounds crazy.
But it doesn’t just sound crazy—it is crazy. “I don’t know what to say. I’ve not been myself lately. It won’t happen again.”
“Ms. Hawkins, you know I run a tight ship around here. And if we hadn’t been in the middle of 8th-grade testing, we would’ve had this conversation days ago. Consider this your first and last warning. The next time, it’s an official insubordinate write-up.” He peers at me with spectacled eyes. Gray, neatly trimmed brows are barely visible above the frames.
I exhale a sigh of relief. “I understand, sir. I appreciate the leniency.”
When I return to my classroom, I call Brandon.
“Hey, Gorgeous. I can’t wait to celebrate our six-month anniversary tonight. I’m making that vegan pizza you love.”
I hate doing this to him, but I can’t go. I can’t drive past that bear again. Not yet. “That sounds delicious, but I’m sorry. Something’s come up, and I won’t be able to make it.” I hold my breath and wait for his reply.
“Well, that’s disappointing. I guess it’s just me and my teddy bear tonight.”
His comment startles me. “What did you just say?”
“Nothing, just being funny. You know, like if I don’t have you to squeeze, I’ll have to squeeze my teddy bear. It was a joke.”
The urge to defend my irrational thoughts is overwhelming. “That wasn’t funny. Not even a little bit.”
“You’re acting weird. You have been for the last few weeks. I don’t know what’s going on, and apparently, you aren’t going to tell me. But it’s like you’re hiding something. I care about you, but I really don’t want to play games. I gotta go. Give me a call when the real Naomi comes back.”
“Brandon, wait.” A dial tone tells me it’s too late. I collapse into my swivel chair. Everything’s falling apart. I haven’t updated my classroom calendar. Stacks of ungraded papers cover my desk. School’s only been in session for six weeks, and I’m off to a rocky start. If I ever want to transfer out of this rural hell, I need to leave behind a clean resume. Things must change.
By the hour’s end, every paper is graded, each mark recorded in the grade book, and the chairs neatly stacked. The last thing to do is update the bulletin board. Sixth-grade social studies had just started a unit on U.S presidents.
As I aim to put a staple through the face of the twenty-sixth leader of the United States, I freeze. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. I rub my hand across his bespeckled image. I remember hearing somewhere that the teddy bear was created in his honor. I drop the items in my hand and dart to my computer.
In about five minutes, Google delivers. I learn in 1902, President Roosevelt took a bear-hunting trip to Mississippi. I shudder, thinking of a group of men with rifles hunting bears. So barbaric.
Days into the trip, Roosevelt still hadn’t tracked and shot a bear. Some men cornered one on his behalf, bashed in its skull, and tied the poor creature to a tree, proud to deliver the prize to their leader.
But the president believed shooting the captured bear was non-sportsman-like. The papers called him a hero. The real story was he refused to shoot the bear not out of compassion but because it lacked the thrill of the hunt. Although he tried to proclaim himself as a conservationist, he’d killed more animals than any other president in history.
Instead of aiming his gun at the bear, he ordered others in his party to stab it to death. A political cartoon, captioned Drawing the Line in Mississippi, depicted a hunter tying a cute bear to a tree with Roosevelt walking away. Not long after, a Russian immigrant family in Brooklyn, inspired by the cartoon, made a stuffed bear they called Teddy’s Bear. The rest is history.
My heart sinks. Little Bear is helplessly at the base of that tree. It’s getting dark and has started to rain, but I must see him. I have to save Little Bear. I grab my umbrella, rush to my car, and speed toward the tree.
I reach into my bag for my phone to call Brandon. I need to tell someone about Little Bear. But he’ll think I’m crazy. Maybe I am. But I don’t care anymore. I just want to save Little Bear.
Heavy raindrops pelt my windshield. My wipers can’t go fast enough. It’s getting hard to see. I turn on my brights and scan the tree line looking for him. “Dammit,” I passed him. I try turning my wheel, but the car hydroplanes and spins. I clench the steering wheel and try to regain control. But it’s no use. The last thing I see is my car crashing into Little Bear’s tree. Then everything goes black.
A blaring horn won’t stop—raindrops splatter on glass. I open my eyes. The crushed car engulfs my contorted body. A warm liquid gurgles up my throat into my mouth and fills it with a copper taste. I try to swallow it back, but there’s so much of it. I can’t squeeze my arms free to try and unbuckle. But even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to open the door because the car is so mangled.
Headlights shine in my rear window. Thank God! Maybe it’s the police, an ambulance, or a passerby with a cell phone who can call 911. “Help! Help!” I weakly cry as I choke on the blood filling my mouth.
But even through the deafening blare of the horn and torrential rain hitting my car, I know the sound—a tractor. Help is here. The machine stops behind my car. My rearview mirror shows a blurred image of an old man in overalls and a dingy yellow raincoat.
He shuffles in front of my car. “Help. Help.” I think I’m screaming. But no sound is coming out. My headlights shine on the tree where Little Bear sits. The man smiles, revealing that missing tooth. He then picks up Little Bear and walks away.
I can’t hold my eyes open any longer. Horn, rain and a tractor’s rumble blend into a peaceful medley. The last sounds I’ll ever hear.
# # #
“Mom, it’s fine! I’m not going to be late for school. I promise. I like staying with Dad on weekends. It’s not too far.” Ugh. I hang up on her. No use continuing to argue. It’s not my fault she and Dad divorced, and she moved to the middle of nowhere, forcing me to switch schools from Orlando High to BFE, North Lake.
I open my visor and check my newest piercing in the mirror. The septum bar is the seventh piercing to my face. That meant I had five more than any other student at North Lake High. And I’m perfectly content being that girl.
I shut the visor before almost rear-ending a tractor. “Seriously!” The freakin’ slow-ass machine crawls at a snail’s pace ahead of me. I slow down and slam my hands against the steering wheel. If I’m late, Mom won’t let me stay with Dad on a Sunday night again.
But on this windy two-lane road, there’s no way I can pass. I beep my horn, “Pull over, asshole!” He ignores me. I’m about to gun it and risk my fate. My Dad’s old BMW can certainly whip around this hick in no time. But before I gas it, something catches my eye. At the base of a pine tree ahead, something looks like it doesn’t belong. As I creep at a pace I could probably walk, I see a fluffy teddy bear with a blue bow around its neck. That’s freakin’ weird.
Focusing again on my task at hand, I gun the gas about the same time the tractor pulls over. I look over at the driver. A gray-haired man in dirt-streaked overalls smiles at me, revealing a missing tooth. I flick him off and then speed toward Hicksville, USA.