And so Natalie came to see sleep as the solution.
It made her feel like barfing a little, like the time at her old school that she traded her fruit cup and pudding to Tammy Brewster and Kristen McGillicuddy for their cafeteria lunch hamburgers. It made her feel like she had two dry, gray, disgusting beef-part patties digesting in her stomach, but Natalie knew she should thank Ms. Wendell. She hated Ms. Wendell’s homeroom but she reluctantly thanked the stodgy old fart for providing a way out of fall term at William Rawlings Prep. Silently, of course. To herself.
And it was about time too.
Nothing else was going to work.
Natalie would be the new girl until some unforeseeable day when she was the new girl no longer. Tommy Wheeler and Jordan Phelps (Natalie had never met a girl Jordan) wouldn’t magically start being nice. She wouldn’t suddenly be invited to birthday parties or have friends to eat with at lunch. Tommy and Jordan would keep stealing her erasers and snickering when her allergies provoked violent sneezing fits. They would make fun of the way her jeans didn’t quite cover to the tongue of her shoes. Most of all, they would induce their minions to change her name anywhere it was written down. That wouldn’t stop, first and foremost, because she would always have a peculiar last name. They’d use ballpoint pens to change the name tag on her desk. They’d use Sharpies to change the big chart that hung at the end of the whiteboard where Ms. Wendell pinned the star stickers that students earned for quiz grades, helping classmates, and other good elementary school deeds.
They’d keep that up, because her last name would always be Butte.
Natalie Butte, pronounced like the city in Montana or the first syllable of beautiful.
Her name was Natalie Butte, pronounced like futile or skew or boot with a letter ‘y’ stuck between the ‘b’ and the ‘o.’ But unfortunately for Natalie, third graders cared little for details when there were butt jokes to make.
Her eight stars and counting (the most in class) were constantly stuck next to variations of her name that brought tears to her little eyes: Natalie Buttehead, Natalie Butteface. Ms. Wendell made a new poster each time it happened but Natalie wished she wouldn’t. She could get used to being called Buttehead but every nice, clean surname was an opportunity for her classmates to exercise their imaginations. Buttebreath. Buttelicker. Et cetera. Ad infinitum. On and on and on until the cows came home. Even the cows were relevant because Natalie used to live in Amherst. She used to live in the foothills of the craggy, greenish-brown Blue Ridge Mountains (so many colors) where she could hear wind whistle and thoughts in her head. She lived in Amherst with farms and woods and tractors on the roads sometimes. She lived in Amherst with cows everywhere but, starting in June, she was in Arlington with no cows to come home, no cows at all. Buttemunch. Fat Butte. Et cetera. Ad infinitum. Until the cows came home. But there were no cows. They would never come home.
She couldn’t take it.
At least, not until she found a solution.
Ms. Wendell taught science on yellow days (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) between ten and noon. September was Earth Science; a mess of magnets, atoms, and rock cross-sections. But on the first Monday in October, they switched to Life Science; an enticing array of marsupials, snakes, flowers, caterpillars in jars, and pie-tin dioramas of animal cells. Ms. Wendell was a stinky old bag of bones but Natalie enjoyed the subject matter. That Wednesday, Ms. Wendell began a unit on mammals and discussed bears at great length. Teachers frequently lingered on topics inexplicably, for no other reason than personal interest. In Natalie’s limited experience, Ms. Wendell did so more often than others. She stood at the front of the class with her hair pulled back in a rigid, silver bun so tight the follicles groaned. Her eyes widened behind her old clunky glasses and she went off to the moon over the importance of subtraction, movie adaptations of the stories they were reading, or cautionary tales about old students. The kids stared slack-jawed watching the hands on the clock tick by. Often, so much class passed that they were unable to cover what they needed for the homework. The days that followed became relentless torrents of scolding and disappointment, Ms. Wendell standing sternly at the black board wondering why no one could identify the capital of colonial Virginia.
But this time Natalie was grateful.
Ms. Wendell rambled on about the time she and her husband were camping off of Skyline Drive and had a close encounter with a great lumbering black bear, a brush with certain doom. But it wasn’t just her bear. She talked and talked and talked about all matters ursine; about Kodiak bears, Brown bears, Grizzly bears, Polar bears, Panda bears, and Koala bears (not really bears, apparently). Natalie learned that many bears were omnivores and were often fast runners. She learned what an omnivore was. She learned that some bears climbed trees and that Kodiaks could weigh fifteen-hundred pounds. She weighed precisely sixty pounds last time she went to Dr. Walsh and she drifted, trying to determine how many Natalies equaled one Kodiak bear. Fortunately she gave up just in time to hear the most important bit of information.
A Kodiak bear could weigh at least as much as twenty Natalies. She felt satisfied with that knowledge and abandoned her quest for the exact figure just as Ms. Wendell began yacking about hibernation. Many common bears ate their fill of salmon and nuts, found a warm cave, and slept through the entire winter. Natalie had an epiphany and she silently thanked Ms. Wendell for the fix to all that ailed her. She listened to the old fart discuss the benefits of hibernation for the bears: how they woke up, feeling rejuvenated, to a world in bloom. They went to sleep with limbs bare and crooked, air biting their wet noses, bushes wilting, flowers dying, insects falling out of the sky, water freezing over, nights interminable. They woke to lush, soggy ground, leaping fish, and bugs a-plenty. They woke to a spring far more accommodating of their needs and appetites.
And so Natalie came to see sleep as the solution.
She would do as bears did; fall asleep a new girl with a weird name and marker scrawled on her desk. She would wake up long after the joke wore thin, after another new kid had taken her place at the bottom of the pecking order, when the sun was longer and the weather warming rather than cooling off day by day. Natalie would sleep through her miserable fall term and wake up to a new, brighter, fresher spring world.
Natalie would hibernate.
She didn’t make the decision lightly. She didn’t go about her day, sitting quietly at lunch with a peanut butter sandwich and box of Sun Maid raisins. She didn’t work on word problems and tuck away the books neatly in her desk. She didn’t even contemplate faking illness or incapacity before gym class. She didn’t leave school, hop into her mother’s green Chevy Windstar, ride home, and go straight to bed to sleep until spring.
Hibernation wasn’t casual; it wasn’t something a person just did. Even bears prepared. So Natalie spent lunch munching raisins one-by-one, contemplating her challenge and staring at the maiden beaming out from the box over her bucket of grapes. Natalie smiled back: she would beam like that come spring. Just wait. Jokes would be dusty, bullies would have a new quarry, gym would be back outside. Natalie returned to class and pretended to pay attention to the multiplication tables Ms. Wendell wrote on the board – they were up to multiples of six. She bore down on her spiral notebook, writing ideas she’d brainstormed between bites of peanut butter. Eat big dinner. More blankets and pillows. Warm clothes. Use shades. Play music? She went to gym and fell from half way up the rope onto the enormous, bouncy gymnastics mat. She was too distracted. Real bears could climb but there was too much on her mind. Harry Weinstock yelled as she stood up and dusted her shorts off.
“Hope you didn’t bruise your Butte!”
Mr. Rowland yelled something back at him and ordered him to the corner for pushups. Natalie didn’t care. Her spirits were high. That sort of thing would no longer be a problem because, by the time she hopped into her mother’s green Chevy Windstar in the bus loop, she had a plan.
“Good day at school, honey?”
“Can we have fish for dinner?”
When they got home, Natalie’s mother made a snack and sent her to her room to do homework. She couldn’t know that Natalie wouldn’t be in school the next morning to turn in that math worksheet or discuss Beverly Cleary. But Natalie did. So, with the door closed, she ignored her assignments and took inventory of the linens on the bed: fitted and regular sheets, fleece, heavy quilt, small blanket folded at the foot. She may need more.
Her old room in the mountains was drafty and got cold after Thanksgiving. At the end of the upstairs hallway, the wood floors hopped two small steps down into her large, irregularly-shaped fantasy room. She never saw another room like her old one. It had stairs, walls that slanted away from each other at strange angles, and a ceiling that sloped from a dizzy height by the hallway to a cozy six feet by the bed. The window opened onto a tall, bushy maple tree that scratched against the pane when it stormed and threw shadows when cars passed at night. It was a spectacular room but it got cold. She’d be ready for the dull, carpeted box in the new house to get cold too.
And two pillows wouldn’t be enough. She would need at least two more. Her teddy bear Boris sat at the foot of the bed with a stuffed dolphin from the Baltimore Aquarium and a gangly giraffe she got at the National Zoo. There was no time to find more stuffed animals but they weren’t functional, anyway. They were for company. Natalie nodded to Boris, thanks for the inspiration, and left her room to begin the work.
She went to the living room shelves where her dad kept his CD collection and found a boring white case with black lettering. Violins and stuff put her to sleep straight away. Maybe they’d help her stay asleep too. She took the plastic jewel case and went about the solemn work of collecting the quilts and pillows from various closets. She got even more than she thought she needed. She was already in the closets and it was better safe than sorry.
“Natalie, honey, what do you need all that for?”
Chicken would have to stand in for fish; potatoes, salad, and boiled corn on the cob, for nuts and insects. Natalie ate until she could eat no more, then went for seconds. She scarfed potatoes until her stomach felt like exploding, ate chicken until she felt every bit as big as that Kodiak. She was skeptical of the corn: kernels stuck in her teeth and drove her crazy. They might make it hard to relax and get to sleep. She skipped the salad until her mom made her eat it. She was preparing for hibernation but was still a flesh and blood girl. Salad was still salad and tasted like a hunk from the box bushes that lined the front of the new house. They had box bushes in front of the old house too. And bears ate all sorts of vegetation. Good point. She ate until her mom seemed satisfied and then went back for a third helping of potatoes.
“Slow down, honey.”
“I can’t. I should’ve been doing this for weeks.”
Natalie was so full after dinner that she was too tired even to watch The Brady Bunch. It was a hard show anyway. Jan hit close to home even though Natalie was an only child with no Marsha to envy or Bobby to make trouble. Instead, she went straight to her room and changed into her flannel pants, fuzzy socks, and favorite t-shirt. She shuffled to the bathroom and brushed her teeth; even flossed. With minty breath and an eagerness to sleep, she darted back to her room and drew the blinds. She put the CD in her boom box and Mozart’s String Quartet No. 14 whirled about the room like a butterfly. She climbed under the covers and let the weight press down on top of her, let pillows curl around her ears and layer after layer of fabric and batting hug her warm.
Her eyes grew heavy and she drifted off, smiling.
Her eyes opened and shadows crawled across the sloping ceiling like spider’s legs. They didn’t fill her with dread. She knew the ceiling and the shadows. Finally she was back at the old house in Amherst County, overjoyed. But she realized gradually that she couldn’t breathe and joy faded to panic, shadows started to waver and melt, light in the room changed. She tried to sit up but instead her rigid body rolled off the bed and fell to the floor. There was no floor.
Her room was a pool of cold, murky water and she fell and fell and fell, panicking and holding her breath. Finally, she could hold it no longer and gasped with desperation, sucking in mouthfuls of water. But she could breathe. She gathered herself, kicked and paddled with arms and legs that felt strangely rigid. The water felt like train tracks on the ground, but tracks she could lay wherever she wanted. Her little body was powerful and she shot herself toward the surface, now only a bead of light in the distance. It grew brighter and bigger and brighter and bigger until her head burst through the viscous surface and the sun hit her square in the eyes.
Natalie was outside; no longer in her room. She squinted around at the familiar shapes of her old front yard in the mountains: the maple that shaded her window, the lawn chairs her dad put to the right of the front stoop. Her breath drew shorter but her eyes came into focus and she could see the house in the distance, green door and gray paneling. It was getting closer but she wasn’t walking. Why was it so big, so tall, like she was looking at it from flat on her belly? It grew bigger and closer and bigger and closer. The walkway wasn’t cement poured between stained pine two-by-fours but rather water like the floor in her room. She tried to stop but kept hurtling forward, gaining speed as she shot toward the door. She was only feet from the stoop and she couldn’t stop. Every muscle in her body strained but she couldn’t turn around. The current carried her forward and resistance was worthless. So she wasn’t a salmon: that she knew. They could swim against the strongest currents.
Why did that thought enter her head?
Because she was a fish.
She knew intuitively that she was a fish the way she entered dreams knowing things that made no sense whatever.
She stopped struggling and looked ahead at the water that covered the stoop like a rapid. The cement rushed at her but the water went over it and into the house. (How was the water flowing up the steps?) She might be able to hop the stoop and continue swimming; it was a chance. She leapt with all her might.
A great paw came from nowhere and walloped her mid-leap. Her body shot through with infernal pain and she flew through the air. She flipped end over end with the sky spread out over her and then the house, upside down and tumbling into her vision. She kept sailing and it was sky again but when it receded, she didn’t see the house anymore. Instead, she saw serpentine mountain roads, carving through brown and orange clumps of trees. Then sky again. Then big gray highways paved with traffic in each direction separated by dull strips of grass and mud and trees. Sky again. Then the traffic-clogged highways of her new city. Sky. Then the little road from the highway to her new neighborhood in Arlington. Sky. Then the postage stamp lawn of their suburban house.
After what felt like hours of hurtling end over end across the state, she landed with a splat in the wet grass and squishy mud. She couldn’t breathe but at least she was on land again. She tried to move her feet and felt her whole body wriggle; tried to lift her arms but they were gone too and she just wriggled more weakly. That’s when she saw a great bear, brown and shaggy and muscular, lumbering toward her. His jaws were open and strings of slobber hung from his tongue. He was going to eat her. Her heart pounded and she lay perfectly still, hoping the beast wouldn’t notice but it thumped right toward her. She squeezed her eyes shut and waited for slashing teeth and pounding paws but nothing happened.
“Hey. Hey you.”
She opened her eyes. The bear stood over her on his hind paws with his forepaws on his hips like Ms. Wendell when someone gave her lip.
“Sorry about my friend back there. He’s looking for dinner.” The bear shrugged. “Still – you shouldn’t be out here.”
Of course she shouldn’t be out there but she couldn’t breathe, let alone say so.
“Here. Let me help.”
The disapproving bear leaned forward and Natalie squeezed her eyes shut again. The dull points of his claws and coarse pads of his feet grated against her skin and lifted her from the mud. Then she was falling. She hit the water with a splash and could suddenly breathe easily. But there was the house again, far off in the distance; green door and gray paneling, tree in the front yard. She gained speed and panicked again at the realization that she was in water. The hard wall of the cement step leading up to the front stoop rushed forward, a waterfall barreling toward her. She leapt with all her might.
She jerked upright in the bed and heaved air into her lungs. The lights were off and blinds drawn. Sun seeped through cracks in the shades.
“Natalie!” It was her mother. “Natalie! Last time before I come up there!”
Natalie rubbed her eyes but didn’t move. A pillow was on the floor and her left leg, flannel pants and fuzzy sock, stretched out from under quilts that twisted uncomfortably on top of her. She rubbed her eyes again, straightened the quilts, and sank back into them. The lids grew heavy but her door suddenly burst open and bounced hard against the doorstop.
“Natalie Jeane Butte,” her mother almost yelled. “We’re leaving for school in ten minutes. Get up and brush your teeth this instant.”
“What day is it?”
“Thursday. Now get up.”
“No. What date is it?” she said drearily, biting the ’t’ sound so that her mother understood.
“Good grief, Natalie. It’s Thursday, October Fourth, Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twelve. Now get UP.”
Natalie’s heart sank.
She’d slept only ten hours.
She pushed her face into the pillows and wondered what went wrong. She’d eaten enough to last at least a week and had made her room warm and comfortable, a cave of her own. Music still fluttered about. What happened? Her mom stomped across the bedroom and yanked the blankets off her body so cold air rushed in. Natalie had no choice: it was too late to fake illness or claim that a friend was picking her up. She didn’t have friends anyway. She would need to go to school.
She sat up and rubbed her eyes once more, put on her school clothes and brushed her teeth. Her mother watched from the top of the stairs, arms crossed the entire time. Natalie walked down the stairs and found her backpack beside the door, slipped on the shoes she never untied. She hadn’t even done her math worksheet or read the assigned pages of Ramona Quimby, Age 8. Her mom opened the door and waited for her to walk through into the fall sunlight. Natalie did so reluctantly and skulked to the back seat of the van. It smelled of dust, sweaty socks, and Nipchee crackers.
Her chest grew tighter and tighter as they zoomed onto the highway and glided off again, stopped at stoplights and clicked turn signals, hopped over speed bumps and paused at the final intersection. The private drive was straight ahead with elegant, brick William Rawlings Prep looming at its end. Why couldn’t there a bear be waiting there? Why no hairy giant sitting on the steps waiting to swat the van back into oblivion? Her mom slid up to the curb and put the van in park. Natalie began to tear up.
“Oh come on now, Natalie,” her mom said. “It can’t be that bad.”
“But it is!” Natalie cried.
Her mom reached back with a tissue in her hand and Natalie took it.
“Wipe your eyes, honey. I need to be off to work.”
Natalie wiped her eyes and opened the sliding door. There was nothing separating her from the wilds of William Rawlings Prep, no more delay, no more postponing the inevitable. She unbuckled her seatbelt, slid out of the van, and walked toward the front entrance without looking back.
The hallways were colder; the chatter of voices and scuffing of tennis shoes against tile floors louder. She dragged her feet down the hall until something thudded against her backpack and cracked on the ground. She froze and milk ran across the tile around her shoes. She turned and saw a little cardboard carton from the cafeteria burst and gushing on the floor. The tears came back.
“Got her! Right in the Butte!”
The carton hit her in the back, not the Butte, but third graders cared little for details when there were butt jokes to make.