A Bear at the Door
Lauren O’Neal


In winter, there was a trip to the mountains, where the other girls set about ignoring Dolores as soon as they reached the cabin. She tried not to mind—she had her book, and besides, the whole point of the Cherokee Maidens group was for fathers to bond with daughters, not daughters to bond with other daughters, right? She had learned not to be in a room alone with Mr. Ronson around, so she sat on a little wooden chair in the corner of the room where the dads were gathered. Her book was a good one; now that she was in sixth grade, her mother had finally started letting her check out books from the big public library instead of the school library.

She looked up to see Martha taking a seat on a couch nearby. Martha was the only girl in Cherokee Maidens less popular than Dolores. Dolores had glasses with sparkly pink frames, and ponderous red hair that had once taken the teeth off a comb, but Martha had to wear an actual eye patch, like a tiny, mousy pirate. As she did whenever they had these father-daughter weekend trips, Martha tried to cajole Dolores into a card game, but Dolores demurred, leaving Martha to play solitaire. The dads, as usual, poked fun at her when they saw her cheating, especially Mr. Ronson, the puffy, reddish “chief” of the tribe. Dolores tried to keep an eye on him without getting too distracted from her book.

In what seemed to Dolores to be a natural consequence of Mr. Ronson’s status as chief, his daughter Nicola was the most popular girl both in the “tribe” and at school. Dolores had already heard her telling the other girls that the cabin was lame and she didn’t want to be here and she was going to throw a fit if she really had to use a sleeping bag instead of a bed.

***

“Which name are you going to use for the meeting after dinner tonight?” Dolores’s father had asked on the drive up.

She wasn’t sure yet. You had to have an Indian name for an Cherokee Maidens meeting. Dolores was always switching between Gray Wolf and Golden Owl. She liked wolves, with their easily parsed social hierarchy, but she also liked the owl as a symbol of wisdom. She wanted to prove to her dad that she was wise, wiser than all the other girls, wiser even than her mother. That was why she had told him that she knew Cherokee Maidens wasn’t racist, even though she’d overheard her mom say that it was. She knew he thought it was better for her than the Girl Scouts, which, he said, ran on entirely too much estrogen, with the little green sashes and the cookies and everything.

Every meeting, the daughters would go around the circle and tell the group one good deed they had done that week. This was the most stressful part of the meeting for Dolores. Sometimes she wasn’t even sure what counted as a good deed. One time, another girl’s was doing all her homework, which Dolores thought was something you just had to do. The fathers didn’t join in, because going to work and raising children was already a good deed. At some point, though, you could probably cancel that out with bad deeds. Mr. Ronson had a lot of points in the good column—he was a doctor at the hospital where her dad worked as a nurse, and she knew he’d saved a lot of lives—but she bet the bad column extended much further down the page.

At the last meeting, Dolores’s good deed was sweeping the floor without her mother asking her to do it. Mr. Ronson laughed and said, “I bet you hid all the dirt under the rug.” She insisted she hadn’t, until her dad explained it was just a joke. She hated when she didn’t understand jokes. She would have to try harder to prove to her dad how smart she was. She’d go with Golden Owl tonight. Maybe she’d pick Golden Owl two meetings in a row.

***

There was too much noise in the room to read, so Dolores dog-eared her page and stepped outside. The air was cold, and minty with the scent of pine. She walked to the edge of the cabin’s driveway. She was in her tennis shoes and could barely keep her purchase on the crust of snow over the ground. In front of her were more cabins and the bony dark mountains heaped up in the distance. Maybe in some past life she’d been a cougar out prowling those hills, fearlessly ripping the throats out of deer and squirrels and hunters.

***

When she went inside, Nicola Ronson was telling everyone she had seen a bear snuffling around the garbage cans outside the cabin. The other girls—Stephanie, Taylor, even Martha—joined in. “It was huge,” said Nicola. “With big claws.”

“It was brown,” added Stephanie.

“But kind of gray,” said Martha.

“Oh, what do you know?” said Taylor. “Like you can even see with that eye patch.”

Dolores tried not to think about how she had just been outside, alone as a stray cat and just as easy for a bear to swallow whole. Could danger pass by so silently? How foolish would you feel in your last quivering moments for not simply looking around before you stepped out? The headlines would read, “Stupid Girl Gets Herself Eaten.”

***

“You don’t have to go to the cabin if you don’t want to,” Dolores’s mother had told her weeks before, “but you’ll have fun if you do. You might see a wolf.”

“Wolves have been hunted to extinction in this state for years.”

“Well, your dad would really love it if you two went. I know he’s at work a lot, but he wants to spend as much time with you as he can.”

“What do you care what Dad wants? You don’t even like him.”

“I don’t have to like him, because I love him.”

“Then why’d you throw the alarm clock at him yesterday?”

“We all love each other in this house, Dolores.”

Dolores thought about this. She supposed it was true, but only when her father was gone on long shifts at the hospital. “Will Mr. Ronson be there?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. Why?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll go, if you think Dad wants me to.”

***

For dinner, the dads made the Cherokee Maidens spaghetti and meatballs. Dolores’s dad was in charge of ladling on the tomato sauce; he didn’t know how to cook at all, except for grilling burgers and hot dogs. Dolores didn’t like the sight of the brown-gray beef. Her mom always made her spaghetti slippery with butter and salt, no sauce, no meatballs. The thought of the ground-up flesh between her teeth made her feel she might throw up. “Dad, I’m going to go to the bathroom real quick,” she said.

“Too much information!” said Mr. Ronson. The whole table laughed, all the dads and all the daughters, and Martha with her eye patch blotting out her right eye socket. Even Dolores’s dad smiled. “Why would you tell the whole room? You think we want to know that?”

Dolores’s face felt like a stovetop coil. She walked casually toward the bathroom, then ran up the stairs as quietly as she could, to the room Stephanie and Nicola had been forced to share with her. Her Pocahontas sleeping bag was laid out neatly (her dad had pointed out it would be perfect for a trip with a group called Cherokee Maidens), and she crawled inside. Nicola had made fun of her for it: “What sixth grader still has Pocahontas stuff? You probably like like her.”

Maybe she could fake sick and convince her dad to go home early, even though she knew he liked going to Cherokee Maidens because he was stuck with mostly lady nurses all day at the hospital and two females at home—three if you counted Muffin, the family retriever. This was one of the only places he could go to talk about sports and whatever else men talked about.

What if there really was a bear outside? Would that be enough reason to leave? What if it walloped through the cabin door, smashed the windows into gleaming powder? What if it ate Stephanie and Nicola and Taylor and Martha, tearing streamers of flesh from their bodies? The thought of it made her feel flustered and scared, and the nook between her legs began to prickle. Lately she noticed it tingling when she was frustrated or anxious, or when she thought about bad things happening to other people.

She missed her house, the warm intimate scent of scalp and shampoo rising up from her mother’s pillow when she climbed into bed with her. She tried to calm herself down by reciting her times tables. She could multiply any two numbers faster than everyone else at school. Still, she wasn’t one of those geniuses who could calculate change faster than the cash register. She could be one day, though, maybe, if she practiced. It was too hot in the sleeping bag. She climbed out of it and into the back of the closet, where she clasped her knees to her chest.

The sound of footsteps echoed up from the staircase, and she felt a neon wave of hatred at herself for trapping herself alone. The headlines, if anyone ever found out: “Idiot Girl Deserves What She Gets.” She prepared herself to be numb, to let her mind sweep out of her body like an empty drawer. But it was only Martha.

“Are you going to come eat dinner with us?” she asked, her good eye doleful. She smoothed out her hair under the elastic band of the eye patch.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Me neither. I’ll just stay here.”

“You’re not even sleeping in this room.”

“Why don’t you switch with Taylor? You could come sleep in my room, and she could sleep here.”

“Too much trouble,” said Dolores.

“It’s just moving sleeping bags around.”

“I don’t want to. What don’t you understand? God, it’s like you like like me.”

More loud footsteps, and then Nicola came into the room.

“You, get out,” she said to Martha. And to Dolores: “You, stop sulking.”

“I’m not sulking, I’m just not hungry.”

“I’m not hungry either,” said Martha.

“I said get out, Cyclops.”

“You don’t have to be such a … bitch about it,” said Martha, but she whispered the swear word and her voice was about to crack. She went downstairs, digging her heels into the floor hard and loud with each step.

“My dad says we can’t start dinner until you’re at the table,” Nicola said. “So hurry up.”

“And what if I don’t?”

Nicola reached for a water glass on a nearby bedside table and began to slowly pour it out, the water clattering onto the carpet in front of Dolores where she sat in the closet. When there was only a little left, Nicola stopped pouring. “If you don’t, I’ll splash the rest of this on your crotch and tell everyone you peed your pants.”

***

At the dinner table, Mr. Ronson looked at Dolores as she halved her meatballs and lifted them to her mouth. His eyes were so small that sometimes you didn’t even notice the whites. She pretended not to see him, pretended never to have met him. Then she pretended she had met him, but had pushed him over a cliff, and cougars came and ate him, and no one ever figured out it was her.

***

In the morning, she was the last one up. The others were downstairs making rubbery pancakes. Martha told her she’d woken everyone up screaming in the middle of the night, though her mind was bare of the memory. She also told her that the trashcans on the side of the cabin were all overturned, the snow trampled flat. Some wire or other seemed to have been chewed through; the power was out, and flipping the switch in the fusebox did nothing.

“It’s probably just raccoons,” said Dolores’s dad.

“Too bad none of us are actually Indians,” said Mr. Ronson. “Then we could identify the tracks.”

“They’re called Native Americans,” said Nicola.

“Don’t tell me what they’re called,” he said without looking at her. “Dolores, do you mouth off at your dad like that?”

“Boy, does she,” said Dolores’s dad.

“When I was a kid, I would’ve got smacked for doing something like that.”

“Tell me about it.”

Nicola looked back at Dolores and rolled her eyes, as if to signal that they both knew better than these men. A smile seeped through Dolores’s mouth. Nicola motioned to her to follow after her. They went around a corner, out of sight of everyone else.

“We did see a bear yesterday,” said Nicola, reaching into her coat pocket. “Here’s some of its fur.” She put a handful of hair into Dolores’s palm. Dolores looked down, expecting something needle-coarse. Instead, she saw a lock of her own hair, red and woolly.

“How did you—?”

“With my dad’s Swiss army knife while you were asleep. And if you tell anyone that you didn’t see a bear, I’ll do worse.”

That prickle again. Dolores was pretty sure she could stay up longer than Nicola. You didn’t need a Swiss army knife to hurt someone if the someone was asleep.

***

A half-hour later, when she was back in the corner with her book, Dolores’s dad came over and put his hands on her shoulders. “I need you to tell me the truth about the bear. This is important. You were outside when it happened.”

Dolores didn’t think she had seen a bear. Surely, a bear would be unmistakable, a great billowing lump of sinew and hair and teeth. And how could it be brown or gray like the other girls said, when the only kind of bear that lived in the region was a subspecies of black bear? But maybe, now that she thought about it, she had seen some sort of shadow hulking in the corner of her eye. She looked at her father’s face with its watery eyes and thin lips, and tried to think of which answer would convince him she was smarter than all the other girls. Then she saw Nicola watching her from halfway up the stairs.

“Yes,” Dolores said. “I saw it.” Her father pressed his lips together. The headline blinked in her mind: “Father Realizes How Dumb and Worthless Daughter Is.”

***

They couldn’t cook with the power gone, couldn’t even open the refrigerator without letting the cold out, so they drove into town just down the mountain, all ten of them piled into Mr. Ronson’s SUV. The snow was lumped up on the side of the road like long white dirt-streaked eels. Stephanie’s dad, Mr. Kucma, said his cardiologist forbade McDonald’s, and the Italian restaurant said there’d be at least a one-hour wait. That left only one restaurant. It was loud and murky on the inside. “You need, what, five?” asked a waitress in a plaid skirt and high heels. “Oh, ten? All together?”

As they took their seats, Dolores realized that the whole restaurant was wallpapered with hundreds of pictures of naked women. Women with long hair and red open mouths, standing and sitting and draping themselves over cars and school desks. One of them was doing the splits, which Dolores had been trying to learn in ballet class for months. Her face began to feel hot again. She felt it would be rude to stare at the wallpaper women, even though they couldn’t really tell she was staring. She tried to avert her eyes, but that left her with no safe place to look. The other girls didn’t like it, either. Even Nicola, who had kissed three boys, was asking to leave.

“Why don’t we just go to McDonald’s?” said Dolores’s dad. “Phil can have a salad. They have salads there now.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Mr. Ronson. He turned to the girls. “Girls are allowed to see each other naked. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.”

But Dolores hadn’t seen these things before. She had seen her mother naked, but that was years ago, when she would take Dolores in the shower with her and wash her hair and sing a song about raindrops. She didn’t remember much of her mother’s breasts, but she knew they didn’t look like the enormous slick orbs on these wallpaper women. She had seen herself naked, obviously, but she was spongy, pale, flat-chested.

“Promise not to tell your mom about this,” said Dolores’s dad.

She decided to make a strategic escape to the bathroom and asked the waitress where it was, keeping her eyes on the floor. “I’ll walk you over there, hon,” said the waitress. She tried to take Dolores’s hand, but Dolores pulled it away.

***

The ladies’ room was a sink, three stalls, and a painting of a naked woman covering one entire wall: eyes closed, back arched, mouth open, legs spread. She had orange spiraling hair, erect nipples, and—unspeakably—a triangle of hair where there should have been none. Dolores tried for several minutes to see the hair as a shadow or some piece of clothing, but it was hair. Dolores was still staring when Martha walked in. “I didn’t follow you in here because I like like you,” she said. “My dad just told me to wash my hands before dinner.”

“Your dad,” said Dolores, “do you think he can get us out of here? I’ll switch rooms with Taylor, I promise.”

Martha didn’t have time to reply before Nicola opened the door. She looked up at the mural. “In here, too?”

The prickling felt like an earthquake. Before her brain could stop her body, Dolores had shoved Nicola against the wall under the canopy of the painted woman’s bare breasts. “This is your dad’s fault.”

“Yeah, he’s the one making us stay here,” said Martha from behind Dolores, putting her hand to her patch self-consciously.

Nicola pushed Dolores backward. “Well, it’s not like your dads are putting up a big fight.”

Dolores felt an unmooring in her chest. She grabbed Nicola’s hair, long and smooth and golden, and dragged her shrieking toward one of the stalls. With Martha’s help, she forced Nicola to her knees. She was ready to thrust Nicola’s head down into the scummy toilet bowl, to drown her, to open her skull against the ceramic.

Then Nicola’s neck went limp. “I just want to go home,” she whimpered.

Dolores paused. Martha looked up at her, but she was lost in wanting to go home, too. Her mother would be there to tuck her in and help her study for math tests, and she wouldn’t have to eat meatballs. She could read uninterrupted by pocketknives and naked women on the walls. But Mr. Ronson would still be around. The alarm clock would still thunder against the wall like a rampaging bear when her parents fought.

She took her hands off Nicola and ripped some toilet paper off the roll for her to dry her tears on. The girls walked out of the stall. Dolores had the odd sense that they were no longer in a restaurant—no longer even on earth. Instead, they were in a little decorated box, sliding through outer space, just the three of them and the painted woman, her lips parted in a false smile.



Lauren O’Neal grew up near Berkeley, got a bachelor’s in creative writing at Stanford, then fled to Austin for a few years. She is getting her MFA at San Francisco State University. She has written for publications like Slate, The Hairpin, and The Rumpus, and can tap dance and twist balloon animals. Though she’s not very good with the balloon animals.