Angels and Bears by Sarah Harris Wallman
This opening excerpt of Sarah Harris Wallman’s Angels and Bears is the second-place winner of the 2022 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, guest judged by Maisy Card.
As a child, Raleigh lives with her mother, Janelle, and the ghost of her little sister. Janelle welcomes the haunting, teaching Raleigh to acknowledge her sister’s moods. Janelle also had a sister named Eleanor, but what happened to her isn’t revealed in these chapters. Told in vignettes, the novel’s opening alternates between Raleigh’s childhood, a brief glimpse of her in the future, and the voice of Eleanor, which we hear through notes she left and the stories she once told. Not only was Eleanor frequently sick as a child, but we also learn she eventually became someone another character refers to as the “Bear Woman.” What exactly that means, I have no idea, but the mystery of it, the surprising narrative shifts, and all the fascinating puzzle pieces make me want to keep reading. —Maisy Card
“Only you can prevent….”
The ice cream truck is coming. Get moving.
Raleigh yanks a drawer: a thatch of utensils skids toward the light, but no loose change.
The next drawer resists her tug—promising! Maybe the previous tenants stored their treasure here. Maybe they left it behind. Another yank and it reveals its secrets: take-out menus. Duck sauce.
The first tinkling notes of the ice cream song reach her.
Better hurry, says the voice that isn’t quite a voice.
Raleigh finds her gaze pulled to the pile by the door: shoes and jackets and handbags. Her mother, for reasons that Raleigh at seven has not deciphered, often switches bags before she goes out. She’s out now. The bags not chosen lie where Janelle dropped them.
Deflated, but not empty.
Each purse has a maddening number of pockets, some zippered, some yawning like mouths, some narrow as pencils.
Don’t miss the secret compartments.
Deep in the bags, Raleigh’s fingertips pass over spilled raisins and sharper crumbs, crumpled gum wrappers, some pregnant with gum already chewed and spit. A narrow crater of lip balm in a short tin. Finally: some pennies. A quarter with something sticky on one side.
She spreads the money on her open palm. The sweaty copper smell quickly transfers to her skin. The essence of all the people who’ve handled this change.
It isn’t enough.
The music is closer now, pushing itself into all the houses on the block, ferreting out children wherever they hide. Fudgsicles! Drumsticks! Bomb Pops! Spiderman rendered in a frozen wedge, gumballs for eyes.
As the volume of the music (turkey in the straw, ha ha ha) increases, it drives Raleigh into a frenzy. The whole day will be ruined if she does not get ice cream.
She is not a wild child. They’ve had so many cranky landlords: she is a child who knows better than to leap and dance and frolic or in any way draw attention. But ice cream! It just sounds so good today! Janelle said she’d be back by lunch, but the current hour can only be classified as afternoon.
She isn’t supposed to leave the apartment when Janelle isn’t home.
Raleigh is not a rule breaker. But: ice cream!
You have to try!
The corner of the bedroom is stacked boxes, many buckling in the middle, all of them held together by ungodly amounts of tape. All stuff they should unpack, some of it never unpacked in the previous apartment.
Which one, Raleigh asks, and the voice—she can almost hear it—draws her to a liquor store box already splitting along the seams.
When Janelle packs, even when she cleans, she throws things into any container that will hold them, anywhere she won’t have to look. From this box, Raleigh unloads plastic bottles with pretty labels and a little lotion clinging to the sides, a smoky-smelling desk lamp, a sock with a broken watch inside. A paper-plate sunshine Raleigh made back in preschool. And finally: a coffee mug full of unmatched earrings and spare change.
As she lifts the mug from the box, she only glances at the framed photo stacked beneath: two tiny girls in swimsuits, each with a sugar cone of soft serve. Her mother, Janelle, with her huge grin. Her swimsuit has slipped down beneath her nipples, but she does not experience this as exposure. As long as you have ice cream, who cares? The second girl, Raleigh’s aunt Eleanor, holds her half-melted cone in two hands, and glares.
The truck is right at their door, blaring Brahms’s lullaby.
Raleigh cups the slippery money in her hands and runs. At the door to the apartment she pauses. The voice you can’t quite hear rushes past, up the concrete stairs and into the sunshine—Hurry! Come on! Now!—but as she is a ghost, she is not forbidden to do so. She has no body for snatching. No blood for the mosquitos.
But ice cream! Ice cream! The way it softens! The way it coats your tongue. After you’ve eaten it, your belly is full and water tastes wonderful.
Setting down the heap of money for a moment, Raleigh runs back to the unpacked box and grabs the biggest thing, an oversized book with a leatherette cover, to prop the door. She regathers her treasure and steps outside.
Later, when she comes back down the cool stairs into their dim apartment, she will discover that this is a yearbook, one of her mother’s. She will read all the notes on the inside pages, people who swear that her mother is sweet, that they will see her soon. Someone named Ren took an entire page to transpose the lyrics to “Mayonaise” by The Smashing Pumpkins in loopy script.
And that Aunt Eleanor wrote only: LYLAS, I guess. See you at home.
Turning to the photo pages, she will see her mother’s familiar smile. On a different page, she will see that not only is Eleanor not smiling, but that someone has taken a pen to her picture and added a set of vampire teeth to her flat-line lips.
Raleigh gets to the sidewalk just in time to see the brake lights of the ice cream truck. It is not braking. The sign on the back says, SLOW! WATCH FOR CHILDREN!
Too slow, sings the ghost sister. Down low, too slow, nothing for you.
This time, Janelle does come back. Burgers in a paper sack in lieu of apology. You wouldn’t believe the traffic.
But Raleigh will. At this age, she’ll believe whatever she needs to.
Just Like Sisters
In the apartment with the queen bed, Raleigh woke to her mother’s gentle shoulder-jostle, Janelle’s knee fitting into the back of Raleigh’s like potato chips in a tube.
“I can’t sleep, lamb. Can you?”
“I’m up,” said Raleigh, though possibly not aloud. She’d been dead asleep and the transition was not complete.
“Big day tomorrow.”
This yanked Raleigh to full wakefulness. With some difficulty (her mother’s weight anchored the sheet), she rolled over to face Janelle.
“What kind of surprise?”
“Good surprise, silly. She is excited.”
She had a name, of course, but they rarely used it. Janelle had a particular way of saying she: somewhere between a rock-a-bye hush and a snake’s hiss, a little word that never failed to bring the ghost into the room.
It was annoying though, the little ghost’s apparent immunity to surprise. The things she knew that were kept from Raleigh.
In these pockets of the night, Raleigh was allowed to say the magic words, Tell me about my sister.
She was never a calm baby.
She liked bananas and Christmas lights.
She would be old enough now to ride a bike to 7-Eleven, to hide in her room with a diary, to enroll in driver’s ed.
Or maybe not. Her age was fluid because the stories were fluid. The lines blurred between what had happened and what would’ve happened if she’d lived, the stories that were Raleigh’s and the ones that were hers.
In the fairy tale of Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes, and Little Three-Eyes, which Janelle sometimes told when they really couldn’t sleep, the normal-faced heroine makes the fatal mistake of singing a lullaby to the wrong sister. Janelle’s retellings always had continuity issues. She forgot crucial plot points, let important characters wander off into the ether, and was prone to tack on happy endings. But Little Two-Eyes always made the same mistake, sang the wrong name, and her three-eyed sister always killed the magic goat.
Raleigh had two eyes. She was not careless, but with sleep half covering her, she could say things she’d otherwise let lie, lines of inquiry that would otherwise be squelched.
“Sweetie, you’re not making sense. I think you’re talking in your sleep.”
The yearbook was troubling her. She spoke the wrong incantation.
“Tell me about your sister.”
Janelle’s big knee nestled itself more tightly into Raleigh’s smaller one. “We aren’t close.”
In daylight, she might’ve left it there.
“But we were once. I used to get scared in the night. Couldn’t sleep. I’d go to Eleanor’s room and she would explain all the noises in the house. She’d tell me stories. She was always collecting stories—
“Or making them up—
“She went through this phase of being sick all the time. Puking her guts out, day and night. It got to the point, she’d just put her hand on her belly and give our mom a meaningful look and she’d get to stay home and watch soaps. Me, they sent to school no matter what.”
“Did she get better?”
“Oh, yeah. It was just a phase. We went on with our lives and had a lot of fun, until we didn’t anymore.”
“Story for another day.”
“That woman was your aunt?”
This is the future: Raleigh will sit on a barstool, angled toward the barstool beside her. Two pint glasses nearby are half-empty; beer glasses can never be half-full.
Raleigh has been listening to the person on the other barstool. People want to talk about themselves; Raleigh has always been an exceptional listener.
But she has a secret, seldom-used spell, a charm that can stop the complaining of the most aggrieved coworker, silence the monologue of the most evangelical whiskey dude, dazzle the most blind of dates.
“The Bear Woman was your aunt?”
Raleigh will nod. “Eleanor.”
“How did she…I mean why?”
Raleigh will feel suddenly tired. She has remembered an early appointment in the morning. She will pay her tab, shoulder her handbag, bring the emptiness of the pint glass to its inevitable completion.
“Story for another day.”
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was always sick. She missed so many days of school that she was rumored to be dying, rumored to be one of those cancer kids.
The children in her class couldn’t agree whether death was an adventure or a bore. One of them pulled the girl’s hair to see if it was a wig. Another shared her lunch and asked, not as subtly as she intended, if Eleanor would be allowed to make a wish involving a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disney, and if she might need a best friend to come along.
Eleanor pushed the zippered baggie of Oreos back across the table. “No thanks.”
Eleanor was not like the other children. She never would be.
After she’d convinced the teachers that she was too delicate for the playground—all that shoving and scampering and sun—Eleanor was permitted to spend her recreational time in the school’s basement library. She rolled the little wedding-cake stool, olive drab metal with a trefoil of black rubber on top, up and down the narrow aisles. The stool made a pleasant squink when you hopped aboard to reach some old-smelling tome on the tippy-top shelf. The girl had great faith in the serendipity of subterranean libraries. She pulled books at random. Each of them had something to say.
She read fairy tales in their original forms: children murdered for being inconvenient, their flesh hidden in pies. Bluebeard and his skeleton wives. The little match girl frozen on Christmas.
And it wasn’t all made up.
She learned that “Ring Around the Rosie” was a children’s song about a deadly virus. A pinkish ring on the skin was the first symptom. Ashes, ashes…that’s civilization collapsing. We all fall down.
But this wasn’t the only kind of plague.
Here is what she told her little sister: Five hundred years ago, life was even more terrible than it was today. It had reached, in fact, a kind of summit of horror: life was short, people threw the contents of their toilets out the windows. It was dark. People were afraid all the time. They believed that witches and demons could fly into your bed and suckle your stray flaps of skin.
Here is what she told her sister: There were rats everywhere and fleas on the rats and then the fleas who’d bitten sick rats bit people and made them sick. Everyone was dying.
This was the bubonic plague, and pretty much everyone knew someone who died, except maybe some of the royalty who escaped to the country for a while. Somewhere they couldn’t hear the wailing or smell the carts loaded up with bodies.
Finally the plague was over. The king’s court all returned to the castle and the king sent out the musicians to parade through the streets to celebrate the end of the great sadness. Windows that had been closed for months against contagion opened to let in the music. People waved and cheered, a little weak but still smiling. Some of them had never heard music before, or at least not so close and with so many instruments.
Then the procession passed the house of an old woman. She probably wasn’t even old in today’s terms. She had lost her husband to the plague, and then six children. One at a time, they lost their appetites; they got the rash. She held them while they talked about what they’d do tomorrow when they felt stronger and then held them as they got worse and by the third time it happened she knew their talk of tomorrow’s strength was a sure sign they’d be dead by morning. She listened to their final fevered thoughts, but offered no hope. The last was her oldest daughter, engaged to be married to a shepherd who lived safely out in the country. Though she had been warned not to do so, this daughter had helped to wash the body of the smallest one to prepare her for burial. Already there were rumors that the sickness had run its course. But then this daughter got the rash, the delusion that strength would return with the next day’s sun, and this time the old woman could not resign herself. For hours she believed her last daughter would be spared. That the shepherd would have his bride. These hours of belief lasted even after the girl’s arms and legs grew stiff and cold. At last, the woman relented and, without tears, for she had no more, she carried the daughter beyond the city walls on her own back and buried her in the forest. The cemeteries by then were more than full; the man who drove the body cart lay dead beneath it in the stable.
Two days later, with her back still sore and nothing in her belly but grief and bile, the woman heard music approaching her house.
We have many blanks to fill in the next part of the story. She didn’t write a diary. Not literate. And she never got the chance to just tell anyone why she did it.
What she did was leap from her bed. She ran from the house to meet the musicians and as they approached she began to dance in a wild way. She did not stop when they had passed but followed them all through the city, dancing in their wake.
Some people laughed at her, of course, an old woman dancing with such fever, such focus. But some people joined in. Mothers who’d lost children. Young brides already widowed. Some men too. All of them people who’d lost the ones they loved.
The musicians reached the central square and kept playing. They were afraid to stop. Soon five hundred danced on the cobblestones. If the musicians paused between songs the dancing kept on, and the jerk of the bodies without accompaniment was so creepy the trumpeters fumbled for their instruments and went on without pausing for breath. To avoid such silences, the king hired more musicians to replace the first ones as they collapsed from the strain. Some of those who could no longer play joined the dancing.
The king might’ve made a decree to try and stop it. He might have sent soldiers to knock the instruments from the musicians’ hands.
But he let it go on. Maybe he thought the dancers could get it out of their systems, go back to being tax-paying subjects. But Eleanor’s theory was that he couldn’t face the eeriness: without the music, the dancing would reveal itself for what it really was—suffering. The dancing itself had become a disease, and he was tired of ruling a diseased kingdom.
And even though the king told himself he was hosting a celebration, in the end the dancers died. Their hearts stopped or they starved. It was a new kind of plague.
When they had to call her something, they called her “the Angel Baby.” Raleigh’s lost sister would’ve been older, maybe even old enough to know the reasons behind things. Why they moved all the time. Why Janelle’s perfectly wonderful plans never worked out. Still, she wasn’t totally useless. When they moved to a new place, the Angel Baby would tell Raleigh which corners held bad luck, which closets were good for hiding. The Angel Baby loved to nestle in a sock drawer. She showed Raleigh where to hang school art projects…though she also pulled them down when she wanted to make herself known.
Maybe she was jealous that Raleigh’s days were schooled. Not that she was missing much.
When Raleigh was bored at school, she drew mazes. She used graph paper to get the angles crisp, designated every pale square either a passage or a dead end. She taped them to the wall and told the little ghost to work them if she got bored.
A morning in early summer: As Raleigh walked groggily down the narrow hallway that connected the bedroom to the kitchen, each paper maze rose on a personal breeze. One by one, the taped upper edges pulled free of the wall, so that by the time Raleigh got to the kitchen every paper was on the floor. Maybe she’d solved them. Maybe she was just cranky.
Janelle, scrambling eggs, thought otherwise: “She’s happy this morning. She likes the longer days.”
This meant that Raleigh should be happy too.
“She took down my drawings.”
Janelle clucked her tongue as she pushed the eggs onto plates and tossed the pan into the sink for an indefinite soak. “She’s got a lot of energy.”
Or maybe she hated the new place. It was a “garden apartment,” meaning, in this case, it was somebody’s basement. Concrete block walls. Windows only on one side, offering a view of weeds and feet.
Hadn’t Janelle said something about a surprise? In the night?
“She’s been extra cuddly all week.”
“Hmm,” said Raleigh.
The apartment only had one true bedroom, and they were still dancing around the issue of whose it was. So far, when she didn’t doze off with Raleigh, Janelle spent the night on the couch, as if keeping vigil for the arrival of the missing room.
Or talking on the phone in the staircase outside the only door.
“Eat, Raleigh. I’m telling you she’s in a good mood. We’re all in good moods. Who knows what the day has in store?”
Janelle never said “who knows” unless she herself knew. Janelle always had “A Plan.” After breakfast she put on a swimsuit under a low-cut dress. Wedge sandals like slices of cake. Giant sunglasses.
Janelle had a lazy eye. You couldn’t be sure which way she was looking.
But Janelle in sunglasses: a goddess.
They drove singing, windows down—even on the turnpike where the thunderous air tried to drown them out.
The shore exerted a magnetic pull on Janelle. She’d been going those days in early June when Raleigh was still in school. When Raleigh got home, the kitchen floor was gritty with sand spilled from her mother’s shoes. She’d have a dreamy look, even a telltale swipe of powdered sugar on her cheek. That is, if she were home at all. Once Raleigh got off the bus and found the door locked, a sure sign that Janelle had stepped out of time and into the world of surf and fried dough.
When Janelle found Raleigh crouched over her homework on the back step, she put her hand over her mouth to cover her laugh. Her only apology was that she had no choice. This time of year the car just pointed itself that way.
Now that school was over, they could go together. Raleigh hoped they had enough money for bumper cars and Skee-Ball; Raleigh could hardly imagine having to choose one pleasure and rule out another.
“Everything!” Janelle said, and though you couldn’t see it, she wore the Angel Baby like a windblown scarf. “Today you’re doing all of it. And a jumbo box of taffy.”
Janelle had built up a momentum impossible to resist, Raleigh’s hand in hers as they passed the Death Drop, the balloon race, the little paper stars waiting to be obliterated by buckshot.
But wait, stop. The little ghost tugged.
They never passed up the Wate and Fate outside the souvenir shop. Janelle had taught Raleigh to keep a lookout for oracles, and the antique scale, which only sometimes worked, was one of their favorites. Raleigh liked the springy give of the platform, that feeling of being held and considered. The verifiable fact of one’s weight lent credibility to the machine’s other verdicts. Seventy pounds and headed for glory, right? The dial spun, but landed between two pronouncements: something about romance, something about loyalty.
Raleigh barely kept her feet as Janelle pulled her along, threading the crowds until they thinned down to a lone figure: a broad-shouldered man standing in front of an arcade, awkwardly holding his own hand and smiling with a particular type of pride.
The pride of a man beholding his woman in a low-cut dress.
This man was the surprise.
The Angel Baby fluttered away at the sight of him. She liked the shore too. She could ride the roller coaster for free.
This wasn’t the first time Janelle had staged a big reveal for a new boyfriend. Raleigh had been ambushed at pizza places and petting zoos.
Janelle had a body that drew attention, and an easy laugh, so you might think steroid cases in tank tops, gelled hair: stereotypical New Jersey. But her usual type was the guy with a little toothpaste at the corner of his mouth. The bad haircut. Perhaps a stutter or an unfortunate birthmark. Never hideous, but handsome only from an optimistic or even hypothetical perspective. If his nose were fixed…. If he lost the paunch….
This one already knew Raleigh’s name. Never a good sign. If Janelle wasn’t keeping her motherhood secret, she must have him pegged as father material.
So many of these boyfriends were kicked dogs, unable to trust their luck. The more Janelle gave them, the more their gratitude curdled into contempt. They belittled her gestures of specialness, shrugging off backrubs and swatting at the decorations she put up for every occasion, even Flag Day.
Inevitably, the fight came when the guy would mention the eye. That was when Janelle really lost it. She believed that her eye’s drift was not very noticeable, and to be told otherwise filled her with venomous fury. Curses. Slaps. These relationships unraveled swiftly and the next morning it was just the two of them again at the table, eating cereal and discussing recent signs of the Angel Baby: a lost earring found, a shampoo bottle turned to face the wall. The boyfriend’s name dropped from their vocabulary.
Once the fury was expelled, Janelle went back to believing in her camouflage techniques: batting her lashes, looking up and to the left when she spoke. She could get back to the business of being a good mom. Back to listening for the next plan.
In the years ahead, Raleigh would think often of the Wate and Fate’s wavering needle. If only the warnings could’ve been more specific.
Despite the sun, the new boyfriend wore a leather jacket so big and heavy that it seemed to be causing his crooked posture. He scowled as he took a drag of his cigarette, but rather than make him look tough, the expression emphasized how his features crowded a bit too close to the middle of his face.
“Hullo,” he said. Smoke poured out of his smirk.
“This is Serge!” She pronounced it in one purring syllable: surge. “He owns the arcade!”
He was a key holder or, at most, a manager. Janelle clung tenaciously to her own exaggerations.
“Do you like Skee-Balls?” he said, and then, without waiting for an answer, “I can give you Skee-Balls.”
“We go then.”
And so they followed him out of the beach light and into a cave that smelled of burnt popcorn and feet. The joyous shrieks of the boardwalk were replaced by an incessant wayoo-wayoo-wayoo timed up with the rotations of an ambulance light. Two boys a little younger than Raleigh were peppering screens with digital gunfire despite the game’s flashing exhortation to insert more coins. Most of the games were running demo sequences for no audience at all.
Serge’s tour of the arcade took longer than the square footage of the building would suggest. They spent a lot of time at the prize counter listening to a speech that, Raleigh realized pretty quickly, was going to culminate in him offering her a toy from the glass cabinets. She scanned for something desirable: disappearing ink, plastic slingshots…probably safe to assume the headphones were off limits, but maybe the basketball-hoop trash can.
“A thousand tickets!” Serge marveled, straightening the whiskers on a stuffed rabbit. “Do you know how much quarters you must put in the machines to get so many?” This was the miracle of the arcade business, he explained: on their own, the prizes had no worth, but if someone were made to fight for them by whacking a mole hundreds of times, an instinct more primal than money took hold. Serge poked his grabbing-stick at a loose ceiling tile just above the prize counter: no matter how many prizes were earned, more waited in the storage area above. No end of useless grails. He chuckled at the sustainability of such a business.
When the big moment came (“And now, Miss Raleigh, you want something from this shelf?”), she chose a pair of plastic glasses attached to a false nose and mustache. She wore them for the next hour, lobbing brown balls up the scuffed Skee-Ball lanes, well beyond the point that the motion became rote. She imagined the other customers’ intrigue over the mustached Skee-Ball ace with the childlike build, but in truth almost no one came in.
A few feet away, Serge shot blue basketballs into a moving goal, flexing his biceps for Janelle every time he made a shot (he made a few). Each time, her face lit up like one of the nearby pinball machines. The Angel Baby never rejoined them, and Janelle did not mention her. When we get back to the car, Raleigh told herself, she’ll be waiting for us there. Driving in that car with the windows down and the music loud, those were the best times for the three of them: mother, daughter, little ghost.
Janelle appeared in her sister’s bed: “I can’t sleep.”
When they were this small, both of their heads fit on the same pillow. The breath between them smelled of children’s toothpaste, a chemical notion of grapes.
“What’s that?” Janelle said. “That clicking.”
“Sometimes little pebbles get caught in the plumbing,” Eleanor explained. “The water moves them all around and they bump the sides of the pipes.”
Janelle accepted this. Janelle accepted every story.
Janelle went right to sleep.
But Eleanor knew that she’d lied about the little pebbles. Or at least, that the story had come from her mind, not from anything she’d been told.
She lay awake, listening to the noises and wondering if she could be right.
SARAH HARRIS WALLMAN’s collection Senseless Women was awarded the Juniper Prize for Fiction. She teaches at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut. Find her on Twitter @SH_Wallman.
Featured image by Michael Benz courtesy of Unsplash