Polar Bear is in bed or she's tearing through the kitchen, eating and eating. Us kids find her scooping handfuls of flour into her mouth, the bag ripped open, white caked in the corners of her lips, white dust in her hair. She bites into raw potatoes, the earthworn skin and eyes, like they were apples. She sucks on woodchips she picks out from the bottom of the firebin, rolling them in her mouth until they are soft, her cheek bulging with the wet-splinter ball.
Polar Bear's stomach is big. She was sick and then she got better, and then she got sick again and Fox left to work the slope.
"Maybe August," says Colleen. "Kitty won't be the youngest anymore."
Kitty is Fox's favorite. We know this and she knows this, but what she doesn't know is that we were all his favorite once.
Colleen finds Kitty's ragdoll in a heap of shredded scraps.
"Look what she did," says Colleen. "It took me months to save up the fabric." And then Kitty rips out pages in one of Ben's books, The Sea-Wolf, the one he reads over and over, worn and cracked cover, broken spine he's glued.
"Why she being such a shit?" says Ben.
"Don't say that," says Colleen.
"Shitty Kitty"," says J.J.
"Stop," says Colleen. But she's itching to smile.
"Shitty Kitty," says Ben. He spells with his hands for Rias
And this is what we call her.
We fill up the tub with hot water and bathe in order, oldest to youngest. We are allowed to fill up the tub one time. First Colleen. The water a little cooler, a little soapy. Then Ben, then Rias, then J.J., and when the water is gray and cold, then Shitty Kitty. But Shitty Kitty screams, claws at Colleen when she undresses her.
"She's running through the hall," says Colleen.
Ben grabs her. She hisses and scratches and he picks her up, her feet kicking.
"Let's stop giving her baths," says Ben.
Polar Bear says this one is the worst. "This one is the last one," she says to her puffy feet. This flour-potato-woodchip blob of a baby coos and gurgles in Polar Bear's gut.
"Did you hear that?" whispers Colleen, out of range from Polar Bear.
J.J. nods. So does Ben.
Rias taps Ben's shoulder. What? he signs.
Ben rubs his belly. Polar Bear, he mouths, her belly is talking.
Shitty Kitty runs naked-fast away from us. We try to catch her, to force her flailing arms and legs into clothes and boots.
"Just let her be," says Polar Bear from bed. "I can't stand the goddamn screaming."
When Rias made Polar Bear sick-hungry, she got red spots on her face and then all over. Then she got better. "Didn't think nothing of it," she said. But she had been standing in the doorway of the homestead and Fox shot a moose from the porch without so much as a warning, Rias hadn't fussed or flinched. She knew something was wrong. "Take another shot," she said. And same thing, Rias calm like the gun hadn't gone off and she drove back to Anchorage, she went to the doctor and he said that she'd had German measles and so Rias was born deaf.
Shitty Kitty crouches in the corner, and when J.J. walks by, she pounces and bites his leg, hard. He lets out a yowl and he's got his fist raised.
"No," says Colleen. "You can't do that."
"I'm about to knock her teeth out," says J.J.
"J.J. please," says Colleen. She puts a hand on his shoulder.
Shitty Kitty backs into the corner on all fours. Colleen reaches out to her and Shitty Kitty attacks, bites Colleen's hand and runs away.
"We have to do something," says Ben.
"What the hell has gotten into her?" says J.J.
"I've just about had it," says Colleen. She shows the red marks of teeth in her skin, the blood.
Rias spells b-i-t-e h-e-r b-a-c-k.
There are never enough woodchips. Ben has to chop some up special for Polar Bear because the ones on the bottom of the firebin run out. Colleen keeps needle-nosed pliers on her at all times because Polar Bear yells when she's got a splinter in her mouth.
"Your turn," Colleen says and holds out the pliers to Ben.
"No, give them to J.J.," says Ben.
"She almost bit my hand off last time," says J.J. "Make Rias do it."
"I'll do it," says Colleen. "But we're all going in there."
"What the hell took you so long?" Polar Bear stretches out her cheek with her finger and we stand next to the bed. Colleen goes to it, but can't get a grip. The splinter is deep, a jimmy right in the side.
Polar Bear grabs the pliers from Colleen and holds them up. "You digging a hole?" says Polar Bear. "God."
"I see it," Colleen says. "That don't mean it wants to come out."
"Somebody's got to get this out," says Polar Bear. Ben takes the pliers and he feels around for the splinter. Ben has J.J. hold Polar Bear's mouth open.
"Stop," says Polar Bear. She jerks her head left.
Ben and J.J. jump back.
"It's no use," Ben says.
We have to wait for it to work itself back out.
"Scram," says Polar Bear. After we do, she calls out, "And get me a potato."
"Why aren't you talking anymore?" says Colleen, hands on her hips and looking down.
Shitty Kitty hisses from where she sits on the floor.
"We know you can talk," says Ben.
"Shit. I don't mind if she never talks again," says J.J. "One less mouth going off around here."
"Rias here can't talk," says Colleen. "And you think if he could, he'd go around like you are?"
Polar Bear is a bellyache, a moan, a bucket filled and a bucket empty. Colleen and Ben stay home from school in turns to take care of her and then school ends and we all stay home. Polar Bear says she doesn't need us to ask Aunt Shelia to come and help. "What I need," she says, "is a little piece of quiet."
We tiptoe. We whisper. We stop talking out loud, mouth and spell with our hands like Rias, even J.J. who never learned to sign the alphabet when Rias first came back from school. Rias brings out his books. When he learned to lipread, Polar Bear put them away and we all stopped learning to sign. Ben learned the most, and he still moves his hands whenever he speaks, a habit. The sign Rias uses for Fox is the letter F and Polar Bear is P.B. Ben looks up the sign for fox and tries it, thumb and ring finger close into a circle—the letter F, and then he puts the circle over his nose and twists.
"Looks like him," says Colleen.
For bear, Ben crosses his arms over his chest and flexes his fingers like claws.
"Let's do one for Shitty Kitty," says J.J.
Kitten is the letter K stroked on the cheek to draw a whisker.
"That's too nice for her," says Ben.
Rias pretends to bite his arm. We laugh.
"This is Polar Bear," says Colleen. She covers her mouth and heaves like she's sick.
"No this," says J.J. He grabs handfuls of air and stuffs his face, chews, and puffs out his cheeks.
We can't find Shitty Kitty. We look in cupboards, in the crawlspace upstairs next to Colleen and Kitty's closetroom, under Polar Bear's bed where she's been sleeping tucked tight against the wall. Ben, Rias and J.J. open drawers and check the top bunk in their room. We don't call out for her. We don't want Polar Bear to know. Outside is Fox's shed, what he used for a garage and keeps tools and parts for his truck. Ben has the key to the lock and he's the only one allowed in. We walk around it, slow, and there's a loose board, a spot of tunneled out snow. Ben opens the lock and we go in and Shitty Kitty is nestled in a pile of old tarps. Nails and screws are scattered on the cement floor.
"If Fox sees this . . . " says Ben.
"Then we're all dead as fuck," says J.J.
"Stop talking like that," says Colleen.
Shitty Kitty opens her eyes, yawns and stretches out her arms, burrows her face into the pile of tarps.
"Let's hurry," says Ben. "I've got a bad feeling."
We let her be, pick up her mess and put the nails and screws back in the box on the shelf.
"Is that a truck?" Ben says, eyes scared open.
We all freeze.
"That's nothing," says Colleen "Nothing at all."
We get back to work. Every ax, hammer, and scrap has its place and Fox notices when something's not where it's supposed to be. When he's home, he's in the shed working. Ben said he built it so it's warmer than the house, even in the middle of winter.
Colleen walks slow toward Shitty Kitty, kneels down.
"Don't," whispers Ben.
Colleen pets her black hair and Shitty Kitty sleeps, doesn't bite or hiss. Colleen cradles her head, picks her up, and takes her into the house. Rias refolds the tarp. J.J. hammers the loose board. Ben locks up the shed.
Shitty Kitty moves out from under the bed, and sleeps on the bottom corner of the mattress, near Polar Bear's feet. Each night, she inches up, sleeping at Polar Bear's ankles, her knees, her hip until she settles with her face nuzzled into Polar Bear's neck. This goes on for a while, but then Polar Bear yells for Colleen and we all go running up the stairs. Shitty Kitty is jumping on Polar Bear and Polar Bear, weak and pale and sweaty, is shielding her belly with one hand and swatting the air with the other. "Get her off of me," screams Polar Bear. We tackle Shitty Kitty, drag her to the closetroom and close and sit against the door, her feet and fists thudding our backs.
"She tried to sleep on top of my stomach," says Polar Bear. "I told her no, she was too big and then she went goddamn crazy. Don't let her in here anymore."
We hear the engine of Fox's truck arrive and cut off. He walks through the door and naked Shitty Kitty scrambles out from under the kitchen table and hugs his leg.
"Where the fucking hell are her clothes?" says Fox.
"She won't wear them," says Colleen.
We hear a choke-puke and Fox goes upstairs to see what's the matter with Polar Bear.
"You going to talk now that Fox is back?" says Colleen.
Shitty Kitty hisses and her eyes sliver mean. Rias is closest. She leaps and bites his calf. He grabs her, picks her up, and bites into the meat of her shoulder. Her scream breaks our keep-quiet-sign-and-whisper-rule. Fox comes running down the stairs and Shitty Kitty crawls to him and whimpers.
"Rias. He bit me," she says.
"You fucking animals," says Fox. Before we can tell him why, he undoes his belt and flies at Rias, whipping-wild. We look away and brace for the slap of leather on skin, the floor.
Fox packs us up and drives us to the homestead so we're all out of Polar Bear's way for a few days. Shitty Kitty is wearing clothes again, because he told her to let Colleen dress her, and she's going on and on, talking Fox's ears off, like she's been saving up all her words for him while he's been gone—"and then I go outside and there snow and Leen say look and a moose there and then one day I play in the snow and then..." We want to tell her to shut up, but we don't. She chit-chatters up a storm and Ben and J.J. roll their eyes and plug their ears. Rias rests his head on Colleen's shoulder.
We're done with our chores and chopping wood and Colleen says we should take a walk. Fox is snoozing. He dove into his stash of Jack-Slack as soon as he could. Shitty Kitty tries to follow us.
"No," says Colleen. "You stay here with Fox." She closes the door and locks Shitty Kitty in the homestead with the stopper latch on the outside.
The ground is a melting slush of white and brown and the trees drip down on us. We wander the woods above the swamp. When we make our way back, the door to the homestead is open. Only Fox could have opened it. Fox isn't there, but Kitty is, crumpled on the floor and crying. The smell of smoke lingers. The shirt on her back is shredded through. She's covered in red, swelling marks. Her bottom lip is bleeding down her chin. "Christ," says Colleen.
There's a pack of matches on the floor, a burned hole in one of Colleen's sweaters. The homestead Fox built by himself, log by log, and Kitty could have ruined it all with one spark. Kitty, Kitty, Kitty. We pick her up. We wipe the blood, clean her face. We shhhh Kitty.