by BL Rehage
Anne braced her legs against the hot, artificial wind of the passing traffic. Her little car rocked slightly at the side of the road. The narrow strip of grass was a dangerous place to park, wedged as it was between the busy road and the khaki-colored bayou. It would be so easy for another car to veer into hers. One brief mistake then the scream of brakes, the shock of impact.
Sometimes she imagined it happening while she was still in her car.
She turned her back on the traffic and opened the trunk. A huge teddy bear slouched inside the cramped space, leaning against a black duffel bag like a weary traveler. It was yellow, with spiky fur that smelled of overheated plastic. Its eyes were vacant black and white felt circles. She tried not to look at them as she took it from the car and tucked it into the crook of her left elbow.
It flopped limply over her arm, the sticky fur making her skin sweat in the late morning heat. It was an ugly bear. An unworthy gift. Her daughter deserved better.
She could throw it away. She should throw it away, toss it into the bayou and let it vanish in the silt-thickened water. Let it pass from her sight and her memory.
Ah, but it was too late for that. She was here, and bringing Kylie a new teddy bear every year had grown into a tradition.
It was a useless gesture, Anne recognized that. It changed nothing. She had planned to end it, to resist the pull of habit, but her resolve weakened a little each day until she woke this morning with the need to continue the ritual consuming her like an addiction.
In the end, she couldn’t abandon Kylie so she came to this place once more, carrying the offering of a yellow bear bought in a frenzy of haste and guilt. It was easily the biggest she had ever bought, more than half Anne’s height. Surely the size alone meant something. Surely that made up for its other failings.
The very first bear had been perfect, plump and solid and velvety soft. Anne dressed it in a pink tutu because Kylie loved ballerinas.
There had been so many since.
Four feet away, a semi truck rocketed by. Grit swirled up in a wash of hot air, stinging Anne’s ankles like a swarm of angry gnats. A paper cup rattled and danced on the hot asphalt until another vehicle silenced it.
She shouldered the bag and walked along the sloping bank past a line of tender young willows. The trees drooped toward the bayou like synchronized swimmers on the verge of plunging into the water.
Just past the trees was Kylie’s place. Last year’s bear was still there. Exposure to the weather had bleached most of its fur, leaving only a pale ghost of its original pink.
Anne set the bag and the new bear on the ground. She knelt with her back to the road and unpacked her supplies. Rubber gloves, a thick black plastic trash bag, wire cutters, a roll of paper towels, a spray bottle of diluted bleach, a bottle of liquid car wax. She had learned what to bring.
She pulled on the gloves, picked up the wire cutters, then with a few practiced moves clipped the wire that held the old bear to an ornate white iron cross. The rusted wire left a reddish brown slash like a wound across the pale fur.
Anne stuffed the faded bear and the wire into the trash bag. She sprayed the cross with bleach until grime dissolved into toxic gray rivulets and she could see her daughter’s name again.
She traced a finger over the fading letters. The constant roar of traffic faded, drowned out by the memory of an explosive jolt and twisting metal and the warm slickness of blood.
Kylie had been silent through it all. Surely that meant she had felt no pain. Anne took what comfort she could from that. She clung to that knowledge during the funeral with its small white coffin, nurtured it as her marriage crumbled under the weight of her grief.
Her daughter had not suffered.
Anne squirted wax onto a rag and rubbed it over the delicate curves of metal, smoothing an extra layer over Kylie’s name to protect it from the elements as long as possible.
This time she had plastic straps to secure the bear. They would be better than wire, which rusted in the rain. Some things just didn’t last once you put them out into the world.
She arranged the gaudy yellow bear behind the cross then looped the straps around both, cinching them tight enough to dig deep furrows into the toy’s body. Anne sat back to inspect her work.
One cross and one bear. Such a small memorial.
Once, when the heartbreak and the cross were new, the place had been crowded with toys and balloons and rafts of flowers. They hadn’t lasted and eventually Anne cleaned away the decaying remains, leaving the stuffed animals until the very last. Getting rid of them had been like losing Kylie all over again. Anne had collapsed sobbing with fresh pain, her face pressed to the limp cotton bodies with their thick smell of mildew and damp.
These days there was only the lonely cross, the annual bear, and the unloved grass. These days she didn’t cry.
The big yellow bear drooped over the cross. Anne tried to straighten it but it sagged no matter what she did.
God, it was an ugly thing.
God, she was so sorry.
At the bottom of the duffel she found a wrinkled blue ribbon from some long ago birthday gift. She scraped the length of it between her fingernails over and over to work out the worst of the creases then tied it in a bow around the bear’s neck. It wasn’t enough but it was all she could do.
Anne repacked the duffel and zipped it shut. She tied the trash bag closed. Dry-eyed, she carried them to her car and locked them in the trunk.
The bright cars flickered past. She placed her keys on the back of her car and waited. When the time was right, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and stepped out.