Sisters in the Woods

Avra Elliott


        The year she would turn thirteen, Cassie’s parents sat her down to announce their divorce. Her father handed her a Fudgsicle, as though that might soften the news that he was gay and leaving New Mexico to live in New Jersey. He rubbed his nub of a goatee and said, “I’ve always wanted to see the Stone Pony.”  

        School had let out the day before, and Cassie had been looking forward to weeks of swimming in their small, above ground pool. Instead Cassie rode shotgun beside her mother—who seemed to think imminent abandonment demoted Cassie’s father to the backseat—and dropped her father at the bus station. She waited in the parking lot, picking up fallen change. Her father patted her short black hair with the hand holding his ticket.

        “Save those pennies, little magpie. I’ll send for you.”

        “Don’t tell her things you don’t mean,” her mother said, her fingers digging into Cassie’s shoulder.


        The second week after her father’s departure, Cassie found her mother swimming naked in the pool. Her mother’s arms and legs, tanned to a cardboard brown, made her pale exposed belly appear shockingly white.  The scar from where they’d cut Cassie out of her was iridescent. 

        Seeing the whole of her mother frightened Cassie. She shifted her focus to a dead lacewing floating in the water. Her older sister, Helen, once told her lacewings were fairies.

        “I can’t do this, Cassie,” her mother said, her mascara bleeding into her dark freckles. “Waking up every morning and facing this. I need time. I called Helen. She’ll come get you tonight.”

        Cassie’s mother resumed floating on her back. Her cries were silent. Black rivulets slid past her ears into the water.

        Helen lived north, in the woods and mountains of Ruidoso. Cassie knew this would not be an overnight stay. She didn’t want to say goodbye to her shorts and sunglasses, the feel of the hot sidewalk on her bare feet or the shock of cold when her mother playfully shot her with the hose, but something about her mother’s silent crying told her she had no choice. She packed the shirts her father had left behind. Some of them were old band shirts with holes in the underarms. She used to poke through to the soft hair, and her father would feign torture. Now she stuck two fingers through, widening them, listening to the soft tearing, finding nothing beneath.


        Helen arrived wearing the same white button down shirt and blacks pants she’d worn that morning while working in the resort. She smelled vaguely of coffee grounds and cinnamon, more Christmas-y than anyone should smell in the summer. Her blonde hair, inherited from their father, was pulled into a slick ponytail, making her skull look small. Helen complained about the three hour drive and hugged Cassie as if they were meeting at a funeral. It was the way people hugged who knew the deceased and therefore thought they knew you too.

        Although there were photos of Helen holding Cassie as a baby, Cassie couldn’t remember ever playing with her sister. The ten years separating them felt enormous.

        “Are you packed?  I want to leave first thing.”


        The following morning Helen sat at the kitchen table in an oversized t-shirt and jeans, one arm around their mother. Their father’s mug had a mark of Helen’s red lipstick on its rim. 

        “Ready, kid?”  Helen asked when she saw her.

        Their mother hugged them both tightly, but stayed sitting at the table when they left.

        “You got everything?” Helen asked as she threw the suitcase into the back seat of her jeep. “Toothbrush, underwear, socks?”

        Cassie shrugged.

        “Not an answer, but okay.”

        Helen’s stereo had been stolen the year before she moved, and she never bothered to replace it. The absence of any other sound made Helen’s gum chewing doubly irritating to Cassie. Helen was a chain chewer, sucking the flavor out of one piece and then moving on to the next.  She offered some to Cassie, saying it might help as they drove into higher altitude. The cinnamon flavor felt like it was biting her cheeks. Cassie spat it out her window.

        “Sorry I wasn’t there when they told you,” Helen said. “Although I’m sure hearing it in person was nicer than hearing it over the phone.”

        Cassie wondered what the correct response was. She didn’t feel sorry for Helen. 

        “Okay,” Helen said, as though some question had been asked, “Ground rules. You listen to me, since Mom asked me to be a second mom to you. Don’t make a mess of my place. It belongs to the resort owners. They just let interns stay there. I haven’t told them about you, so stick around the condo, I don’t want anyone to know you’re staying with me all summer. Actually, just try not to talk to anyone. And don’t drink my booze.” Helen paused and added, “Also, don’t touch my clothes or makeup.”

        “I don’t need a second mom.”

        “That’s not what Mom thinks.”


        The complex was deep in the woods. They drove through gates built to suggest a castle’s entry, but the closer you looked at the two towers, the less impressive they appeared. Where some of the stones had broken, Cassie could see they were artificial, cast from plaster. She tried to ignore this and imagine herself in the fairytales her parents read to her when she was younger. She imagined herself locked in a castle where she would never escape because no prince could climb her short hair.

        They passed several buildings, each two stories with four apartments. They were built from wood and designed to resemble cottages with dark green gingerbread trim along the roofs. In the center of the complex were a pool, tennis court, and the only single residency apartment. This was Helen’s. She said it was referred to as the clubhouse. The lower half of the clubhouse had its own entrance and housed a small gym and game room. Helen lived on the second floor. Stairs led to her front door and the balcony.

        “We have our own entrance to the game room,” Helen said when they were inside. She gestured to a door beside the couch. “Just keep it locked. Some tenants or their kids get curious and try the door.”

        The kitchen and living room were separated only by the counter. 

        “My bedroom is through here. You have to walk through to get to the bathroom, but try not to wake me. I’m usually up for work by five, and I’ll try to be quiet too. If it isn’t cloudy you can swim during the day.” Helen tapped her fingers on her thigh. “It’s usually cloudy.”

        Cassie sat on the neatly made queen bed and held a pillow to her chest.

        “Where do I sleep?”

        “Either couch is fine.” Helen handed Cassie a fleece throw. “Let me know if you get cold.”


        For dinner Helen made macaroni from a box. They ate while Helen watched the country music video channel. Cassie hoped this was not the extent of her sister’s cooking skills. Their father made bread and cookies, and their mother often baked chicken with orange slices. When Helen lived at home she would help Cassie harvest heads of artichoke that their mother would then steam. They dipped the leaves into bowls of salty melted butter.

        “Time for bed,” Helen declared.

        Cassie had forgotten her toothbrush. She put paste on her finger and scrubbed at her teeth before changing into one of her father’s old shirts.  On the couch her butt slipped through the cushions and she struggled to find a comfortable position on her side.

        A light came on beneath the door leading to the lower floor. She could hear a ball being hit back and forth and the scuffling of feet. She went to Helen’s room and stared at her sleeping sister. Even with her mouth slightly open, Helen looked like a princess. Cassie touched her own nose, which she had recently decided was a little too wide. Her hair was a matted mess of curls that her mother had given up on fixing. She felt like a gremlin, a minion to Helen. She knelt a little closer.


        Her sister jumped awake.

        “Oh my God, don’t do that.”

        “Someone’s playing ping pong. I can’t sleep out there.”

        Helen scooted over and lifted the blanket, revealing her partially bare midriff and boy’s shorts. Cassie climbed in beside her.

        “You feel like a little radiator,” Helen murmured, already drifting off again.


        Helen was gone when Cassie woke up. Cassie settled in front of the TV to wait for Helen’s return. She kept finding soap operas or men interviewing people about their irrational fears. When she turned off the TV and checked the clock two hours had gone by.

        Cassie’ swimsuit was tight, but she squeezed it on and walked down the steps to the pool. There were a few clouds, but she decided to swim where the light hit the water. She would tell Helen this if Helen caught her. 

        The cool water made Cassie’s skin rise in little bumps. She kept her head above the surface. She pictured her family on one side of the pool, and danger on the other. A storm. She swam as fast as she could to warn the others. When she stopped she noticed a man carrying bins of trash to the dumpster near the clubhouse. Cassie ducked lower into the water, submerging her nose, and watched him.

        She had never described someone as burly before, but she thought this man must be what that word meant. He wasn’t fat, but he was large and awkward, his movements slow, and bumbling.  His dark beard, marked with patches of redder hair, covered most of his face. He went into the game room and came back with a bag of trash. As he turned toward the pool, Cassie went under. She waited till she thought the man had left before emerging, gasping, and proud of how long she could stay beneath the water. She floated on her back and watched her wiggling toes, imagining she was the Little Mermaid, newly discovering her feet.

        “There’s lightning coming.”

        Cassie brought her legs back under her, sputtering slightly from the unintended splash. The man stood near the pool fence, watching the sky.

        “You better get out,” he said and walked back toward a golf cart, stacked with clear bags of bottles and cans that tilted precariously as he drove away.


        Helen brought leftovers from the resort’s restaurant that evening. She said it was some kind of gourmet lasagna and heated it in the microwave till it was gummy. 

        “I’ll be going out for a bit tonight.”

        “Can I come?”

        “Not this time.”

        Helen put jeans on instead of her black pants, but kept the white button down. She released her long hair from her ponytail and put on small sparkling earrings and red lipstick.

        “We’ll go out soon,” she said as she left.

        Afraid of sleeping near the doors, Cassie decided to wait in Helen’s room. She got up when she heard a car pulling into the gravel driveway. Another car followed. Cassie opened the kitchen window a crack and heard Helen laugh.

        “You can’t follow me back like a puppy,” her sister said to the shadow behind her.

        “I’ll crash here,” a man’s voice answered. Cassie could barely make out his shaggy hair beneath the porch light. He leaned in toward Helen.

        “My sister’s here,” Helen said softly.

        The man tilted his head toward Helen’s neck. She giggled. Cassie went back to Helen’s room and pulled the covers up high.  She heard another laugh and covered her head with the pillow.

        When Cassie woke again it was to the sound of someone crying, garbled and throaty, outside. She wondered first if it was Helen, but the noise was too strange. Perhaps a disabled person had become lost in the woods. Her uncle worked with the disabled and it sounded like a woman who once tried to speak to Cassie. The sound came again. Cassie turned to Helen’s side of the bed, but it was empty.

        Cassie went to the living room, trying not to run. Her hand was on the front door before she heard her sister’s voice.

        “Don’t go out there.”

        Cassie’s eyes adjusted and the figure on the couch became Helen.

        “I thought you’d gone.”

        “I was out with friends. You were asleep and I didn’t want to wake you.”

        The cry came again.

        “What is that?”

        “A baby bear. He followed me onto the porch a little while ago. He’s down by the dumpsters now.” Helen stood, and with a hand on Cassie’s back guided her to the window above the kitchen sink. 

        Down by the trash, Cassie could just make out the running cub.

        “He sounds so sad. Should we do something?”

        “No, the mothers are dangerous.”

        Cassie climbed onto the counter and pressed her face against the glass.

        “When will she come back for him?”

        “We should go to sleep,” Helen said, but the sisters remained by the window. The cries continued for what might have been an hour, Cassie couldn’t tell, before the bear finally ambled away. When his     cries were too far away to be heard, Helen followed Cassie back to her room. Helen slept on top of the covers, her arm draped over Cassie. It wasn’t comfortable, but Cassie didn’t complain. 


        Cassie tried to reconcile herself to the idea of rubbing toothpaste onto her teeth with her finger all summer, but hated the way the coffee left her tongue a tawny brown.  In hotels her mother often asked the front desk for a toothbrush or some other forgotten necessity. Cassie had seen an office when they first arrived, and after Helen left for work one day, she ventured down the gravel road to find it. When she reached the office she realized she might need to explain who she was, and suddenly she was afraid of the well-dressed woman behind the desk. She went back outside and sat on the step.

        “Hello,” a man said.

        Cassie looked up into the blue eyes of the bearded man who took their trash. 

        “I fixed the chlorine levels for you. I usually don’t bother, no one seems to use the pool anymore, but I thought you’d appreciate it if you hair didn’t turn green or your skin fall off.”

        He grinned and looked even more like a bear. Cassie wondered if her skin falling off was supposed to be a joke, and she tried to smile back. 

        “Did you need something from the office?” he asked.

        “A toothbrush.”

        “Wait here.”

        He went inside. An older couple in polo shirts pulled up in a golf cart. Their faces were an almost orange color with white circles around their eyes. Cassie was glad her parents didn’t golf. 

        “The children are just everywhere here,” the woman said as they walked past Cassie. “These parents let them run wild.”

        “Wild child,” Cassie said to herself.

        The burly man returned and held out a plastic sealed toothbrush.

        “Thank you,” Cassie said. 

        “Do you need a ride back?”

        She was tired, and the clouds were coming back. She told him she lived near the pool. 

        “This is it,” Cassie said as he drove in front of the clubhouse.

        “Are you Helen’s sister?”  the man asked.

        Cassie recalled her sister’s warning.

        “Yes, but I don’t live with her. I’m visiting with my father. He stays across from her.” She pointed arbitrarily to the apartment across the road. 

        “He must be my neighbor.” The lie sat between them for a minute. 

        “He isn’t home right now,” she said.

        “I know.” He waited till she was inside, then she heard the golf cart go across the street. 


        Helen didn’t protest when Cassie climbed into her bed that night, and after a few days it was unspoken but understood that they would share the bedroom.  Cassie liked to think they were playing house. She kept the room clean and heated leftovers for their meals and rewarded herself with Helen’s mascara. In the evening they sat together watching TV, Helen’s legs stretched over Cassie’s. At night Helen let Cassie curl against her. Helen, who was always cold, benefited from Cassie’s natural warmth, and Cassie felt calmed by Helen’s coolness. 

        Cassie had decided this was the summer she would drink coffee. She was now the product of a broken home, and this fact justified new habits. She started her mornings with milk and whatever coffee was left from Helen. She always left half a bear claw by the dumpsters for the baby bear, in case he was hungry and then went to collect tennis balls that had been hit past the courts and never retrieved. These she kept behind the couch as a secret Easter egg stash. After her walk she would swim and scrub at the sap on her legs.

        Sometimes she tracked the man she had seen come for the bottles while he mowed lawns. She pretended he was the cub’s father, and had almost convinced herself that this was a fact. 

        Cassie found a channel that played a show she had watched with her father about a band. She wrote a postcard to the address her father sent them to tell him he was right, the tall guitarist was the best Monkee, but she thought the blonde one was better looking. After she sent it, she was afraid he might respond and agree. But he didn’t write back, and Helen didn’t have any more stamps. 


        One morning Helen woke Cassie before leaving for work.

        “There’s a party tonight. Do you want to come? I can come get you after my shift.”

        Cassie had known she was being kept from something. The glass bottles for recycling had stopped after her arrival, but Helen’s breath usually smelled sweet when she crawled into bed, like their parents’ after wine.

        “Can I borrow something to wear?”

        “Nothing skanky.”

        To Cassie’s disappointment, her sister could have saved her warning. Helen primarily wore t-shirts and button downs. Finding a red scarf on the floor of the closet, Cassie tied it around her chest. She liked how her bare back looked. Despite the clouds, her days in the pool had created a light tan. She brought her shoulder blades as close together as she could and then rolled the muscles forward. Through swimming she was giving herself wings. 

        She found her sister’s brown eyeliner and drew a line along her mouth, filling it with a deep burgundy lipstick. 


        After sunset she waited on the porch steps for Helen. She wore her father’s denim jacket with sheepskin lining to hide her outfit, in case Helen tried to make her change. A light rain cooled her. She kept an eye on that morning’s Danish. So far she hadn’t caught the baby bear eating. 

        The bearded man waved from down by the pool where he was cleaning out dead insects with a net. He came over to the steps.

        “That’s a good coat,” he said. 

        “It’s my dad’s.”

        “Your dad okay with you wearing makeup like that?”

        Cassie looked away.

        “His fault for not being here,” the man said.

        “He’ll be back soon,” Cassie said.

        “Why are you sitting out here in the rain?”

        “I’m waiting for the bear.”

        He leaned against the wall.

        “Planning on catching him?”

        “I just want to see him.”

        She wanted to raise him, and ride him into imaginary battles. Her hair would be long by then, and flow behind her like a warrior in a painting. She wouldn’t be a princess, but a warlord. She felt dangerous in her scarf shirt. She wanted to create some kind of havoc.

        “Well here’s your chance.”

        The bear was coming out from the trees, clumsy and faltering. He was only a few feet away from the pastry when Cassie heard her sister’s jeep. The bear did too, and ran back into the trees as Helen rolled down her window and nodded a hello to the man. 

        “Let’s go,” she called out.

        Cassie jumped into the jeep, trying to tilt her head so that her hair covered some of the eyeliner.

        “You know with all the TV you watch it seems like you’d know something about predators,” Helen said. “George is a nice guy, but you shouldn’t be hanging around strange men while I’m gone.”

        “Who’s George?”

        “Geez, kid, you didn’t even know his name?”

        They took several curving roads before reaching a large house meant to look like a cabin. Cars and a few golf carts lined the road. Helen explained how her coworkers borrowed carts for transportation. Cassie knew from her sister’s tone that they were borrowed in the same way her makeup and scarf were.

        Cassie could feel the pulse of music before Helen opened the door. Every space was filled with hazy smoke and barely illuminated by the red hall lights. 

        Helen pulled her deeper into the hallway, through a room of couches and bodies and into a kitchen so narrow it felt like another passageway. A boy who looked in-between their ages was in the kitchen. His sand colored hair pointed in different directions as though someone had just rubbed a balloon on his head. Beside him another man mixed drinks. This man was taller. Cassie looked at his shaggy hair and recognized him as the shadow that bit her sister’s neck on the porch. 

        “This is Peter,” Helen said, gesturing to the first boy. “He washes golf carts. This is Isaiah. He’s—” Helen hesitated,  “a bartender. My sister, Cassie.”

        Isaiah handed Helen a drink before embracing her and passing another cup to Cassie with a wink.

        “A tiny chaperone? Why is she glaring at me?”

        Cassie took the cup without speaking. She hadn’t meant to glare. The more she looked at Isaiah the more he looked like a wild animal. The parts of his eyes that should be white were yellow. He was too ugly for Helen.

        Cassie sipped her drink and made a face.

        “What did you give her?” Helen asked.

        “Orange juice. Relax.”

        “Where’s the bathroom?” Cassie asked. She felt crowded, unaccustomed to people after the weeks alone.

        Peter volunteered to show her. They left Isaiah with his arm around Helen’s waist, his large face pressed into her shining hair. 

        Cassie let Peter lead her past the couches once more and to a closed door. Peter knocked and a girl’s voice yelled for him to “get lost.” He gave an apologetic shrug to Cassie.

        “I really just wanted to sit down,” she said.

        He took her back to the living room. Bodies shifted around till a space was cleared for them on the couch. Peter offered to take her jacket, and she let him slide it off her shoulders. One of the bodies whistled. Another body said, “Ignore them, sweetie.” Peter placed a hand on her forearm and tilted his face till he was looking into her eyes. “You okay?”

        Cassie nodded and drank from her cup. Peter raised a hand toward her and then placed it on his own leg again. Finally he touched her knee, spreading his fingers over it. She shivered. He leaned close till she could hear his voice over the music, feel his breath on her ear.

        “How old are you?” he asked.

        “Thirteen, next month.”

        He drew his hand back and muttered, “shit.”

        A girl staggered toward them from the hallway. She wore a button down similar to the ones Helen always wore, but most of her buttons were undone, revealing a red lace bra. She jerked her head toward Cassie.

        “Pretty,” she said, taking one of Cassie’s black curls between thumb and finger. She pulled it gently, straightening it, and then released it. “Boing. Pete, your neighbors just accosted me in your driveway. Noise ordinance.” She produced a small blue glass pipe and a baggie of green buds. She packed the pipe with care before leaning toward Peter. He held a lighter to it while she inhaled. Then she offered it to Cassie.

        “I’ve never done weed.”

        The girl laughed.

        “You don’t ‘do’ weed. You ‘do’ heroin. Weed…well you just smoke it.”

        “I don’t know how.”

        “Open your mouth a little,” the girl said. She inhaled again and leaned toward Cassie. Her mouth was soft against hers.

        “The hell, Sonya!”

        Helen pushed the girl’s face away. “Thanks for watching my kid sister, Pete. Jackass.”

        “You brought her.”

        Helen looked down at Cassie, seeming to notice her shirt and makeup for the first time. “Put your jacket back on. Jesus. I leave you alone for five minutes. Wait here. Peter, if you let anyone touch her or give her anything I swear to God I’ll mess you up.”

        “I’ll come with you,” Cassie whispered, but Helen was across the room again, speaking to Isaiah and disappearing down the hall.

        Red and blue lights flashed through the windows. Another party goer said something about police. Cassie was carried along in a wave to the door, spilling out with them into the yard. Isaiah was driving away, alone. One girl stood still among the chaos, the lights reflecting off her fair hair and white shirt. She searched the crowd, one arm raised as though hailing a cab. It was Helen. She shouted Cassie’s name, and Cassie ran to her.

        Helen took her behind the houses, deeper into the trees, explaining they would circle back when the police left. Helen took careful steps, testing the levelness of the ground, giggling when they slipped and had to catch each other’s arms to regain balance. They slid together and laughed, giving up. Lying on their backs in the wet moss, they stared up at the stars that appeared brighter in the Ruidoso skies than in their old city.

        Helen took Cassie’s hand and Cassie felt sure that she loved Helen more than her father and mother. Helen would protect her.  She leaned her head onto Helen’s shoulder. Helen sniffed.

        “That bastard. That was definitely not orange juice.” Helen said bastard fondly. Cassie considered her sister’s use of profanity eloquent. 

        “This was the best night of the summer,” Cassie whispered.

        “I’m glad, kid,” Helen said.


        When the flashing lights drifted away, they went home. In their room Helen sighed, but it was not directed at anything in particular. She began to change, removing the blouse and flesh toned bra, slipping into a t-shirt. She let her hair down, leaving the tie around her wrist in a way their mother would have scolded her for. 

        Cassie untied the scarf and replaced it with one of Helen’s shirts before climbing into bed. 

        “I was thinking maybe I could go to school here,” Cassie said in the safety of the dark.

        “Mom will miss you,” Helen said.

        “She doesn’t want me there.”

        Helen began to make short braids in a section of Cassie’s hair.

        “I don’t think that’s true. It’s gotta be rough for her, right? It’s weird for us, and we weren’t married to the man.”

        “It isn’t that weird.”

        “We don’t even know where he is.”

        “Yes we do.”

        “A P.O. box in Jersey? Mom wants us more than he does.”

        Cassie wanted to explain that a mother whose body swam while her mind was absent was worse than a father who was entirely absent, but she didn’t know how. 

        Helen held her close.  “You can’t live here in the fall.”

        “She won’t care—”

        “I’m moving in with Isaiah when you leave.”

        “Maybe I could live with you guys,” Cassie said.

        Helen was silent a moment.

        “Please don’t act naïve.”

        Cassie thought about Isaiah, the way he held Helen as though he owned her, as though he might devour her.

        “Mom wouldn’t like him.”

        “I don’t think she’s in a place to judge my taste in men.”

        “He’s gross.”

        “He’s a little weird, but we have a good time.”

        Cassie pushed Helen’s hand away from her hair.

        “I don’t want to sleep next to you.”

        “So take the couch.”

        Cassie took her pillow and a blanket. She tried to think of something else mean to say as she left, but Helen’s shoulders were already crumpled, her face pressed into her pillow. 


        When she could hear the soft breathing that was Helen’s snore, Cassie felt more alone. She hoped someone would come in downstairs and play ping pong, but the doorway remained dark.

        Garbled sounds announced the arrival of the baby bear near the trash cans. He was pathetic in his cries. Cassie gathered the bag of tennis balls she’d collected and searched the kitchen for anything else she might throw. Beneath the sink she found a can of cleaning spray, and a few bottles of liquor Helen must have been hiding from her. She sipped from one to spite her sister. It burned. Carrying the bottles and tennis balls onto the porch, she let the door slam. She waited for the sound of the bear and then threw the first tennis ball. She heard it bounce off the dumpster. She threw another. The bear remained. She threw a bottle, and this time it gave a satisfying crash. The next thudded before breaking. She’d hit him. “Good,” she thought, but her cheeks were wet. She lifted the last bottle over her head. Helen’s hand caught her wrist.

        “What are you doing?”

        Lights came on in the apartments across from them.

        “Let me go,” Cassie yelled, and hoped Helen would not. Cassie pulled away and slipped. As her head struck the bottom step, she felt a nauseating pain flash through her. She wished Helen had tried harder to hold her.


        Cassie woke in Helen’s bed. The bearded man was standing at the foot.

        “There you are,” he said. 

        Helen came in from the kitchen.

        “Thank God. I think you only hit your head. I called Mom. She thinks you might have a concussion. Do you know what day it is?”

        Cassie didn’t. She didn’t know if this meant something was wrong with her, or if it was merely a sign of how the past weeks had run into each other. There was no Monday or Tuesday. There was the day her father left, the day Helen picked her up, and the day the bear woke them. Now there was the day of the party.

        “You should take her to the hospital,” the bearded man said. 

        “We don’t have insurance. My dad cancelled it when he left.”

        The man looked angry, but Cassie wasn’t sure why. She began to cry.

        “Becoming emotional can be a sign of a concussion,” the man told Helen.

        “Thanks Dr. Yard Man, it’s also a sign of being twelve.”

        “We should keep her awake,” he said. “Let’s move her to the living room, have her sitting up.”

        Feeling sick and weak Cassie leaned heavily on Helen. 

        “Let me help you,” the bearded man said.

        Cassie felt tiny as he lifted her from the ground and carried her like a fainted heroine into the living room.

        Helen turned the TV on to an overly excited man selling CDs with the greatest hits from the Sixties. 

        The bearded man made a pot of coffee. He drank it black and brought Cassie a mug of the same. 

        Helen rested her head on Cassie’s shoulder and by the time the CD man was replaced with a woman selling an elliptical, Helen was asleep. 

        Cassie was afraid she might also fall asleep. She imagined her mother coming to get her. Her mother wouldn’t be wearing any makeup, and her hair would be messy. She’d look like she hadn’t slept in days. Cassie would hold a hand toward her, in case she went to comfort the wrong daughter. She heard her mother telling her not to sleep, but she was so tired. She saw a hybrid mother with the body of Helen, lithe in boy shorts. This mother had the head of a bear and eyes that cried mascara into furry freckles. 

        Cassie forced her eyes open. The bearded man was watching her.

        “Let’s go,” he said.

        He picked her up again. Helen stayed asleep as he quietly carried Cassie out the front door and down the steps, to his car across the street. 

        “Do you think the bear is okay?” Cassie asked. 


        She touched his beard. It was softer than she expected. He set her down to unlock the car door. Her body was fighting her efforts to stay awake. 

        “Hey, stay with me now.” She heard him, but it was as though she were swimming. He swore as he struggled to buckle her in. She took long slow blinks. He could be the wolf or the huntsman, she thought as her eyes closed, but the parents never seemed to make it back at the end of the story.


Avra Elliott is a writer and toymaker from New Mexico. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, Elliott's fiction has been published in Shadowgraph Quarterly and Noctua Review. Her poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Tinderbox, Tupelo Quarterly, Jam Tarts, llanot Review, Red Paint Hill and Barrow Street.

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