The Water Bears
A quirky, empowering story about a boy recovering from a bear attack with the help of his friends and, maybe, some magic. For fans of Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones and The Canning Season by Polly Horvath.
Newt Gomez has a thing with bears. Having survived a bear attack last year, he now finds an unusual bear statue. Newt's best friend thinks the statue grants wishes. But even as more people wish on the bear and their wishes come true, Newt is not a believer.
But Newt has a wish too: while he loves his home on eccentric Murphy Island, he wants to go to middle school on the mainland, where his warm extended family lives. There, he's not the only Latinx kid, and he won't have to drive the former taco truck--a gift from his parents--or perform in the talent show. Most importantly, on the mainland, he never has bad dreams about the attack. Newt is almost ready to make a secret wish when everything changes.
Tackling themes of survival and self-acceptance, Newt's story illuminates the magic in our world, where reality is often uncertain but always full of salvageable wonders.
An Excerpt fromThe Water Bears
I turned thirteen the day after a storm came in with a king tide.
High tides climb up part of the shore, but a king tide can make the whole beach disappear. It squeezed Murphy Island until seawater rose and salted the trees. The smell of waves pushed through the woods, through the cracks around my bedroom window, and washed away the dregs of a bad dream.
People notice details when they hope a day might be special. It could be a surprise-visitor day, a hey-I’m-starting-to-grow-a-mustache day, or a blow-out-the-candles-on-your-favorite-cake day.
I found my mom on the computer in my brother Carlos’s old room. I stood in the doorway behind the desk, where she couldn’t see my leg. I am an expert at keeping furniture between us, especially when it’s hot enough for shorts. Even with the desk and me standing with my good leg in front of the bad one, Mom was careful not to look down. She hugged me and sang “Happy Birthday” like an opera singer. I clapped for the effort.
“Where are Dad and Little Leti?” I asked. I thought they might be out getting me a present. My sister always waits until the last minute. Or they’d gone to the bakery to pick up a cake. Dad used to make our favorites at home, but he’s working more this year.
“They’re down at Gertrude Lake. Everyone’s down there,” she said. Everyone but us. She brushed dog hair off the keyboard and straightened a stack of bills. “Your dad saw it this morning.”
“Saw what?” The first thing I thought of couldn’t be right, but she said it anyway.
“He saw Marvelo.” She smiled again, like that was good news, or a joke, or the start of a conversation. She stretched and turned back to the computer, scrolling through recipes and fishing reports.
There was nothing to say back.
Marvelo is a creature that supposedly lives in Gertrude Lake, in the middle of the island. Optimistic tourists rent paddleboats and pump quarters into the telescopes on the beach, hoping to see it. There’s a warning at the paddleboat stand that boaters might get eaten. It’s a joke with the locals. Every year, Marvelo is “spotted” before the Marvelo Festival. Bits in blurry pictures could be a lake monster if you squint, or they could be logs. We have a lot of logs.
I walked slowly over the squishy mud so my leg wouldn’t be too sore on the way back home. I almost stepped on a salamander, but I shooed him off the path into the ferns.
Islands are shaped like things, the way clouds are shaped like things. On a map, Murphy looks like a wonky avocado half, thirty-seven miles from the mainland. Rocky beaches and smooth mudflats are the skin, and Gertrude Lake is the pit. Everything else is the creamy green stuff that goes brown if you leave it out.
Dad stood with the pack of friends he calls comrades beside a gazebo that Mom helped build out of old farm equipment and blue bottles. The bottles hummed from a lake breeze, and Dad waved his arms toward the water.
“Just forty feet that way!” he said. “It spy-hopped and breached like a humpback, but leaner and more serpent-like. It splashed down hard enough to slosh a wake up onto the shore.” Dad pointed to his still-wet shoes. The guys around him nodded, and a waiter came out from the café across the street to sell coffee and pastries to everyone standing around.
“Hey, buddy. Ready for summer?” Tom-with-the-beard tilted his head and smiled at me. He runs the paddleboat stand, and he’s not my buddy. He asked how physical therapy was going, like he should get points for knowing about it. I said I was done, and he said I was brave and squeezed my shoulder, which is the absolute worst.
I shrugged and he left to rent a paddleboat to a tourist. Somebody could ride a blue cat boat or a purple fox boat out to look for Marvelo. Tom-with-the-beard must have left the paddleboats unchained, because a couple of them drifted around the lake like lost pets. Little Leti sat in the orange zebra boat still chained to the dock. She threw a basketball up and caught it, over and over.
“Newt! Come here!” Dad pulled me in for a hug. “Happy birthday, mijo! Thirteen! You feel different?” I shook my head. “Can you believe it?” I didn’t know if he was talking about turning thirteen or Marvelo. My answers would have been yes and no, but he didn’t wait. He spun around when someone asked about the reward. A cryptozoology club in Portland offered three thousand dollars a while back to anyone who could prove that Marvelo lived in the lake. The lake isn’t huge. It’s a pretty safe bet that the club will never have to write that check, no matter what Dad says. The club has reward offers for Sasquatch and jackalopes too. It’s that kind of operation.
I don’t even want to get into it, but my dad is writing a graphic novel about an island with two monsters called Marvelo and Manxadon. Manxadon is the sidekick, a superhero mutant that’s half mastodon and half Manx cat. He stays on land, and Marvelo stays in the water. I used to help Dad sometimes, bounce around story ideas, but it’s been a while. They’ve put short sections of the story in the Murphy newspaper a few times. People who don’t think too hard about the logic love it. He wants to make it a full graphic novel, but he’s too busy building condos on the mainland to ever finish.
“Is this for the book?” I said.
“Absolutely. Marvelo moved like I thought he might, but I got the skin texture totally wrong. How are you feeling, mijo?” He brushed my bangs back, but I pushed his hand away.
“Fine. Did you get any proof?”
“It’s all here.” He pointed to his temple.
“You need proof for the reward,” I said. Dad waggled his eyebrows and rubbed his fingers together. He made it all up. If he can convince other people he saw it, then he can collect the reward. Maybe you can’t blame a guy who works all the time. But maybe you can.
“I don’t have proof. Yet,” he said. “It’s lucky I didn’t pick up your present, or I would have missed Marvelo! Meet me at the ferry dock after school on Monday, and I’ll give you your present then. Today I’m helping with storm cleanup. It washed Tom’s patio table away!”
I nodded and waded around in the shallows, away from the crowd, so people would stop looking at my leg. Even when they think they’re being subtle, I can feel it. I should have worn pants.
The water stayed flat as Dad described Marvelo all over again to a new group of passing comrades. I’m not a comrade, so I walked home.
Last year, I said I didn’t care what I got for my birthday and got shirts and a sleeping bag. This year, when they asked, I said I wanted a bike. I left windows open on the computer to new bikes I liked. I ordered bike catalogs and left them lying around. No surprise camping gear this year, even if I do use the sleeping bag to sleep in the tub sometimes. Plus, the doctor said riding a bike would be good for my ligaments.
There are a finite number of bikes already on Murphy Island. None are new. A lot of them are cruisers that were here for guests to use back when the island was a fancy resort. They are older than my parents. I detoured to the bike rack near the parking lot to see if maybe Dad was just being sly and was setting me up for a surprise. A new bike would stand out like a jewel, but old island bikes filled the rack. One had a motorcycle windshield welded on and a Jolly Roger flag. The next bike had antlers for handlebars, and the one beside that was covered in Astroturf, with a raccoon tail attached to the back of the banana seat. I walked home under the whirligigs and mobiles on the pedestrians-only trail.
Mom sat on the porch with our dog, Chuck. He is a giant rescue mutt who guards our goats, unless one of us is outside, and then I guess he figures we’ll do it. Chickens pecked around in the wet yard, hoping worms had come up to dry off. The grass smelled bruised from the storm and stained my wet shoes green.
“Mail came,” Mom said. She handed me birthday cards from her side of the family.
“How’d it go?” She leaned out of the swing she made from old skis that sat on our porch, and balanced a row of peanuts on the railing. The phone rang inside, but she pretended not to hear it, like she usually does.
“He said he’d give me a present on Monday,” I said. I sniffed. “Is that a cake?” It smelled like pineapple and banana. I opened a card from my uncle and five bucks fell out.