Britta's Still Here

New fiction from Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World.

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Britta is fourteen. Her parents named her after the water filter.

"We did it so that you would be pure," her mother says.

Britta thinks that a girl named after a water filter should have pale, clear eyes that are the lightest possible shade of blue.

Her eyes are black.

Her hair should be black and wavy, but instead it is short and straight and the ends are hot pink.

"You grew up too fast," her mother says.

More From Winter Fiction Issue No. 2
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It's not Britta's fault that she grew up too fast, just like it's not her father's fault, not really, that he sometimes has to walk around the house with an angry crisscross of duct tape over his mouth. Britta's mother always puts it on with a smack, slapping the sides of his face as he stands still, not saying a word. He still lets his facial hair grow, even though the tape rips off pieces of his salt-and-pepper beard, leaving bright-pink patches of exposed skin.

Britta's mother should also have black and wavy hair, but she doesn't, either. Instead it is dyed blonde and curled underneath so that the ends touch her ears.

"Like Marilyn Monroe," her mother says. Britta doesn't think it looks at all like Marilyn Monroe's hair, but she is grown up enough to know when to keep her mouth shut.

Britta has a brother who never kept his mouth shut. When he wasn't talking or singing or shouting at their parents, he was eating honey. Stephen is his name. "Stevie," her mother said. "Steve," said her father, when he said anything.

When Stephen turned fourteen, he started eating honey, on its own, all the time.

He ate it only straight from the plastic honey bears, tilting his head back and squeezing it straight down his throat. Britta kept the bears. Britta kept everything. She kept Stephen's old T-shirts, the ones he bought at shows, and the trophies that he won at school and didn't want. She kept her mother's old high-school yearbook and her father's forgotten souvenirs from his semester in Paris — a sack of business cards and matchbooks with French addresses and notes from old girlfriends.

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The first time Stephen gave Britta a honey bear, their father was sitting on the sofa cutting his fingernails with a tiny, silver pair of scissors. He carefully snipped a line in the tape so that he could say, "Make sure you wash that out good, baby." Her father felt very strongly about ants. Back then the tape was just a joke, something her parents would do together. They would use masking tape and giggle as they rubbed their sealed mouths against each other. Britta thought it had something to do with sex, but she wasn't sure what.

The first time Stephen gave Britta a honey bear, their father was sitting on the sofa cutting his fingernails with a tiny, silver pair of scissors.

By the time Britta was twelve, she had 200 little bears. They stood under her bed in neat little rows, twenty to a row. There were other things under her bed — mostly dirty socks and crumpled drawings — but the bears didn't mind. Soon the bears no longer fit under the bed, so Stephen built her a wall of shelves. She had to take down her poster of Einstein (the one at the blackboard, not the one with his tongue sticking out) so that the shelves would reach up to the ceiling, the way she wanted them to. Then Britta turned thirteen and Stephen stopped eating as much honey as he had the year before.

"He's turning into a fucking druggie," her mother said.

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Britta was hoping that Stephen would wait a little longer to turn into a druggie, at least until she had 1,000 bear guardians to count before she fell asleep, but he didn't. Instead, he gave her another bear, bear number 852, and told her that he was leaving.

That night Britta woke up to her mother's screaming. She threw off her covers and ran into the hallway, sliding a little on the wooden floor. Her mother was holding an umbrella, Britta's umbrella, and screaming as her brother, Steve, Stevie Stephen, dropped down to the ground. For a minute Britta thought that he was dead, or dying, but just as she felt tears push out from behind her shock, he bounced up off the floor, grabbed the tip of the umbrella, and stared their mother straight in the eye.

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"You can't," Britta's mother said.

Stephen didn't say anything, just reached up and touched the blood trickling from his head. It was thick and dark and Britta could almost taste the iron tang of it in the back of her throat. Still looking at their mother, he held up his reddened fingers and smeared a streak of blood across his cheekbone, right under his eye, like a warrior, or a surfer. Britta half-expected him to flick a bead of it at their mother, to splatter the white silk of her blouse with his blood, but instead they both dropped the ends of the umbrella at the same time and took a step back from one another.

Britta was a kid when she got that umbrella. A green one, shaped like a giant frog head, with black and white flaps that stuck up at the top, like eyes. Britta wanted to run downstairs and pick her umbrella up, she wanted to save it so that it wouldn't have to lie there between her mother and her brother, flappy eyes outspread. She didn't even realize that her father was downstairs too until he moved in to pick it up — but Stephen kicked it out of his grasp, turned, threw open the front door, and ran out of the house.

She didn't even realize that her father was downstairs too until he moved in to pick it up — but Stephen kicked it out of his grasp, turned, threw open the front door, and ran out of the house.

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Now Britta is fourteen, and she still has 852 honey bears. When her friend Stacey sleeps over they draw pictures or write messages and put them inside the bears. Stacey is a boy, but he is allowed to sleep over because his mother and Britta's mother have been friends since they lived with the same man, a man who was not Britta's father. Britta's father doesn't mind if Stacey sleeps over because he thinks Stacey is gay. Britta knows that Stacey isn't because sometimes they kiss and Stacey gets excited, even though he's not her boyfriend.

Britta writes on a square of notebook paper: "All is nothing. Darkness is light." She has just finished reading the Tao Te Ching and the Myth of Sisyphus and thinks she might understand the world, but isn't really sure.

Stacey pushes a scrap of paper over to her. She reads: "I got the world on a string. It ain't nothin' but a thang." Stacey has just discovered irony, but he doesn't do it quite right. They both make fun of bad rap music, but secretly Britta likes most of the jumpy lyrics and hard sounds, even if they don't go well with her pink hair and pierced nose and sparkly blue fingernails.

When Britta brought the release form home from the piercing parlor she didn't expect her mother to sign it.

"Girls are full of holes, anyway," her mother said.

She signed it and gave it back to Britta and now Britta is the only girl in the ninth grade with a pierced nose, though two other girls already have nose jobs.

Britta's mother spends most of her time on the new bears. They are small and perfect, with mink fur and real suede patches on their paws. Britta's mother started making them when Britta turned fourteen, not quite a year ago, even though she had never sewn more than a button before. Now somehow she can make these pensive-looking little bears, who start out as sheets of fur and come to life wearing neatly fitted miniature doctor jackets or ballerina outfits. Now her mother is a company — Grin and Bear It, Ltd. — and people flood her with orders because she personalizes the stuffed bears.

"People are suckers," her mother says.

Britta's mother dresses the bears in outfits, which people pay extra for. She's working on one with a fisherman's hat and waders for some fly fisherman's 50th birthday, ordered by his wife.

"I'll bet he'd rather have a blow job," her mother says, when she thinks that Britta isn't listening.

Britta's mother also embroiders messages on plump red satin hearts and stuffs them deep into the plushy bear innards. "I love you" is the most popular message; there are also a lot of people — women, mostly — who ask for "Forever," or birth dates, or their own names. People pay a lot of money for the bears with the hidden hearts that Britta's mother makes. Even Stacey sees the irony in this, but he is also grown up enough to know when to keep his mouth shut.

"I love you" is the most popular message; there are also a lot of people — women, mostly — who ask for "Forever," or birth dates, or their own names.

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Britta and Stacey are trying to come up with something new for the school craft fair. Last year Stacey made T-shirts painted with the names of old punk bands: the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, the Butthole Surfers. This is why Britta's father thinks Stacey is gay. That, and because Stacey was the one who dyed Britta's hair pink.

"She looks like a whore-in-training," her mother says.

Her father doesn't say anything, even though he doesn't have any tape on his mouth, because he isn't allowed to talk anywhere near the bears. The Grin and Bear It bears, that is. It's OK if he talks near Britta's bears, but he never comes into her room, so it doesn't matter that it's OK. He rarely leaves his office at all because he's usually working on a novel.

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Nobody buys his books because they aren't very good. Even Stacey knows that because it is something that nobody keeps their mouths shut about. Britta's father once published a book that was very, very good. Better than good. Newspapers reviewed it and called him the Voice of a Generation. There had been interviews and photo shoots and invitations to speak at writing colonies and universities. And then, suddenly, he'd stopped doing all of that and moved them here, to this collection of houses that barely made up a new town.

Now, years later, critics keep reading each new book that he writes, hoping to find The Voice returned. They are always disappointed, and print the usual bad reviews: "clunky, overwrought prose," "leaden characters," "soap-opera plots." This Britta knows even though she doesn't read the newspapers because her mother cuts out every review and tapes it on the refrigerator door. Each time a new one goes up, her father stands in front of the refrigerator, staring at the tape.

Britta doesn't mind that her father is a bad writer, because he gives her a kiss on the forehead whenever he sees her, even if it isn't very often and even if his lips are covered with bumpy gray duct tape. She doesn't mind, for now, that her brother left and never came back. She knows that when she needs to, she can go and find him. And she doesn't mind that Stacey doesn't want to be her boyfriend because she doesn't want to be his girlfriend. Britta doesn't want to be anyone's girlfriend, yet.

And she doesn't mind that Stacey doesn't want to be her boyfriend because she doesn't want to be his girlfriend. Britta doesn't want to be anyone's girlfriend, yet.

Britta wants to be more alone. Or maybe she wants to find different people to be alone with. She isn't sure. She has sent away for brochures from boarding schools and signed herself up for the PSATs. Britta likes the names of the boarding schools. None of them sound like they were named after water filters. Deerfield. Andover. Choate Rosemary Hall. Every time a new brochure comes in a thick cream envelope, the school's seal printed in the corner, her mother brings it upstairs and puts it on the floor outside Britta's room. "Go," her mother says. Britta never hears that, because she's always at school when the mail comes, but it wouldn't have surprised her.

One night, just before she turns fifteen, Britta is finishing her project for the craft fair. Stacey's painting T-shirts again, but Britta has decided to make cell-phone holders out of felt. But these need something else, something extra. She slips down to her mother's sewing room, looking for the box with the red hearts. Sometimes her mother makes dozens of these "I love you" hearts all at once so that she won't have to pause after completing a fireman's suit or a little college professor's jacket.

Inside the cardboard box are the little hearts that her mother started that evening. They are still gaping open a bit at the end, because that's the part that has to be hand sewn after they've been stuffed. Britta picks one up. It makes a crunching noise. Britta always thought that the hearts were filled with the same soft plush that plumps out the furry bears, but this one seems tougher.

She reaches the tips of her fingers in and pulls out a scrap of paper like a fortune-cookie fortune. There is something written on it, but Britta can't read it in the dark. She rips open the little red heart, tears it in half right between the already-sewn "love" and "you." Then she flicks on her mother's lamp and spreads out the minuscule scraps of paper buried inside. Printed there, in neat, cursive script, are the things her mother never says:

"He's gone."

"He took everything."

"I hate him."

"I love him."

"He left nothing."

Britta snatches up the scraps of paper and the shredded satin heart, shoving them into her pocket. She doesn't cry.

The next morning Britta carries a stack of applications downstairs. They are all filled out, fitted carefully into envelopes plastered with extra stamps. She passes her father on the stairs.

"I wrote these," she says.

He nods, mouth taped, and touches his hidden lips to her forehead.

She sees her mother in the sewing room, surrounded by half-finished bears.

"Please mail these for me," she says.

Britta's mother looks up from behind her eyelashes, shakes her not–Marilyn Monroe hair, and reaches for her roll of duct tape.

Britta turns before her mother can say anything and grabs her jacket. She walks to the post office, even though it's three-quarters of a mile away, and marches straight up to the counter. There are other people in line, but it doesn't matter.

"Please send these right now," says Britta.

The woman behind the counter smiles. She thinks Britta is cute, with that pink-streaked hair and baby nose ring. "How old are you?" she asks, taking the stack of applications.

"I'm sixteen," decides Britta, as she smiles back and walks out the door.

Jade Chang is the author of The Wangs vs. the World, a New York Times Editor's Choice and one of Buzzfeed's 24 Best Books of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.

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