Calvin is packing Benji into the car for the trip out to the grandparents when he sees the toy his son is clutching.
“Hey, isn’t that—?”
“Middah Buns!” Benji pulls it back. “Mine!” He curls his arm possessively around the worn old bunny rabbit’s neck and leans away from his dad, like he thinks it’s going to be taken from him.
“Okay, but does your mom know you have Mister Bun?” Calvin pulls back out of the car. “Susie!”
“We’re coming! We’re coming!” Jiggling the baby in her arms, carrying every bag known to motherkind, Susie comes out of the house. “I couldn’t find the diaper bag, so I’m hoping it’s still in the car – what?”
He gestures at the kid and the toy as she’s settling Hils in the car seat on the other side. It takes her a moment to spot what he’s indicating and when she does, her eyes go wide. “Oh, Benji-boy, what have you got there?”
“Middah Buns.” Benji wraps his arms around the toy. “Mine!”
“Yes, you’ve got Mister Bun! He used to be mommy’s when she was very young.” She throws Calvin a ‘what’s the fuss?’ stare before she tucks Hilary’s dummy in her mouth and closes the door.
Calvin gives the stuffed bunny a hard look. Mister Bun gives him a hard look back. But then, his eyes are black buttons, so it’s not really a surprise.
“I thought you’d be more annoyed,” he says as he climbs into the passenger seat.
“Why? Because Hobbes still sits on the bookshelf above your computer desk?”
“He likes it there!”
“Yeah, whatever.” Susie starts the car, and begins tuning for the radio for the music station she likes. “Either way, if he has to attach to something, at least it’s not expensive, plastic, or with easily breakable but utterly unrepairable parts.”
Calvin’s not thinking about Mister Bun as a toy, per se. He’s thinking about Mister Bun as an irreplaceable part of Susie’s childhood.
“Would you take one of my kids?” Calvin asks Hobbes that night as he pauses to think about the next logical step in the app he’s writing.
“Maybe. They’re still young and tasty.”
“Haha. Not what I meant.”
“This is about Mister Bun?” Hobbes stretches out so he’s a little more comfortable, and Calvin watches, fascinated anew by the way the toes separate out, by the bean pads of Hobbes’ feet.
“Sort of.” Calvin sits back in his chair and folds his hands over his stomach. Then he realises that his pose right now is exactly like his dad’s today as they sat out on the porch. Benji and Mister Bun scampered around the back lawn, while Hilary crawled around trying to eat blades of grass before spitting them out with a horrified expression. “Dad didn’t like it. He thought Benji having a stuffed bunny would make him a target for bullies at pre-school.”
“Did he say that around Susie?”
“No. Thank God.” Calvin chews on his thumbnail. “Not that having a tiger made a difference when it came to Moe.”
Hobbes rests his chin on his paw and yawns. “I still think you should have let me bite him.”
Granted, Hobbes is a tiger. But he’s also (sort of, kind of, weirdly not) a figment of Calvin’s imagination, and he’s long since given up trying to work out if these thoughts are his, Hobbes, or the thoughts he gives Hobbes because he doesn’t want to think them, shouldn’t be thinking them, or isn’t prepared to think them.
He contemplated seeing a therapist for years – not about Hobbes, exactly, but about a raft of other things of which Hobbes would have been one. Then he decided that he could cope with the issues, he didn’t want to navigate the American medical system unless it was dire necessity, and he didn’t want to scrape together the money.
And, as delusions go, a tiger sitting on the shelf who has a personality of his own isn’t the worst kind to have. After all, Hobbes mostly gives advice that Calvin doesn’t want to hear, rather than telling him to go around killing people.
A snoring tiger on the shelf, making those little whuffling noises he does.
Calvin watches as Hobbes grunts and kicks out a little before settling back down again.
The problem, as it turns out, is not Benji having a stuffed rabbit toy, or there being bullies at pre-school. The problem is that Benji is his mother’s son. Which is to say that he knows when things aren’t fair, and he goes in swinging.
“Joe was picking on Mikey because Mikey wanted to play house with the girls,” Benji argues sulkily. “But Mikey doesn’t fight, and the he’s scared of Joe. I’m not scared of Joe.”
Calvin exchanges a helpless look with Susie. This is your area. He was never the kind to use his fists. He much preferred to run away, or else give in and not get hit. Sometimes he could sweet-talk his way out of it, but not often.
“Okay, so...sometimes, Ben, we don’t want to...” Susie stops. She sighs. She sets her shoulders. “You know what, honey? It was a good thing you did in defending Mikey. You maybe could have done it differently, but it was right to defend Mikey. If Mikey didn’t want to play with the boys, then that’s nothing to do with Joe and Joe was wrong to tease him about it.”
Later, when the kids are in bed, Calvin retreats to his study and finds Susie sprawled on the couch there, staring up at Hobbes, who’s snoozing, the tip of his tail flicking idly.
“I can bring him down for you to cuddle if you’d like,” he offers. “Seeing as Mister Bun is sleeping with Benji.”
The short laugh is the one she gives when she’s frustrated and amused and unamused all at once. “How do you explain the difference between doing the right thing and doing the right thing in a way that won’t get you into trouble to a five year old?”
Calvin sprawls in his office chair and thinks about it while Susie watches him. He can hear Hobbes snickering from the shelf above his head. “I wouldn’t. I’d get you to do it.”
The division of labor in their household is pretty egalitarian.
It’s partly because Susie Derkins, insistent feminist, would never have married a man who wasn’t willing to take up a reasonably equal share of the household load, and it’s partly because, for all her passion and drive, Susie’s a slob, while Calvin likes his t-shirts ironed.
Calvin’s programming work can be done from home, while Susie’s work at the state representative’s offices can’t. The rep is a pretty progressive politician, though, so Susie gets to take Hilary in to work while she’s still a baby, and there’s childcare once Hilary’s old enough to play with others. But frankly, Calvin lets his imagination run free while he’s doing housework. Dustbunnies flee in terror as he bears down on them but his dustpan is mighty. Germs melt into puddles as the suds wash over them and melt them away. He is Calvin, Destroyer of Bacteria, they tremble before the swipe of his dishcloth!
(Okay, so maybe that’s a bit far fetched, but it gets him through the housework. You do what you gotta.)
When Hilary turns four, however, it’s an election year, and the childcare operator gets closed down for an infraction of specious rules put in place by a mob who have it in for Susie’s boss and who were just looking for a way to make life harder for the rep. So Calvin finds himself ‘caregiving’ (it’s most definitely not ‘babysitting’) in addition to working and general housekeeping.
He also finds himself spending more time with his daughter.
His app is between upgrades right now, and his newest product isn’t quite ready to go out on the market. He’s tapping out a kids novel about a little girl who discovers she’s a hero in another timeline at night, but he has time. And Hilary is fun to play with.
Benji is the practical one, with Susie’s intolerance of injustice and a tendency to come up or go down swinging. Hilary is the dreamer, the storyteller, the one with the imagination. She’ll take anyone on a ride, from her parents to either set of grandparents, to her exasperated and not-always-tolerant older brother.
She’s going to hunt buffalo on the plains with her gun. Only her gun is actually a fairy wand, and waving it makes the buffalo grow wings and fly off into the sky. And if it’s not hunting flying buffalo, it’s going on an expotition to the North Pole to look for heffalumps.
The gnomes in Mr. Heller’s garden next door have varied and dramatic lives. Fishing Gnome smacks Hammer Gnome in the head with his pole, and starts a big fight, and because Butterfly Gnome is dating Hammer Gnome, he won’t give Fishing Gnome any more worms until Fishing Gnome apologises.
And then there are aliens in the cookie jar and they must eat their way to the bottom of the jar to make sure that none of the aliens remain hidden. It’s for the good of Earth!
“Nice try, kiddo,” Calvin tells her when she proposes this, “but no.”
“Oh, but Daddy—!”
She’s not as persistent as he was – thank God. Sometimes Calvin wonders that his parents didn’t kill him before he was eight. On the other hand, he got his sense of humor from somewhere. And seems to have passed it on to at least one of his kids.
Hilary’s sulks are likely to go for another hour easily and the best way to put her off is distraction.
“It’s nearly lunchtime,” he says. “What do you want to eat, Hils? That aren’t cookies,” he adds before she can get the request in. Might as well block her before she gets the idea.
Hilary pouts, her arms folded across her chest. Then she brightens up. “Can I have tunafish sandwiches?”
Calvin blinks. That’s not on the list of foods that Hilary typically eats, unless she’s recently changed her tastes and Susie didn’t mention it. “Uh, I guess. Let’s see if we have tunafish...”
He sticks his head in the pantry to see what they have, and sure enough, there’s a few tins of tunafish up the back, use-by date is ‘not yet’ and he thinks he can fix something up that will satisfy the daughter who’s babbling on in the background.
“...never had a tunafish sandwich. Is it nice?”
“Who are you talking to, Hil...?” Calvin turns around and gapes.
Hobbes is sprawled on the floor at Hilary’s feet, head on his paws. “Uh...hi.”
“Hobbes is going to have lunch with us, Daddy!”
Calvin gives Hobbes a hard look. Hobbes studies his claws with pointed innocence.
“Is he now?”
“Yes. Tigers love tunafish sandwiches!”
He has no idea how she knows that piece of Hobbes' backstory. And given that his daughter has apparently never had a tunafish sandwich, making one is a risky proposition. “I’m just wondering if you’re going to eat the tunafish sandwich, Hilary.”
Hilary gives him a scornful look. “Of course! Unless I don’t like it,” she adds. “Then Hobbes can have it, and you make me peanut butter!”
Calvin nearly just makes the peanut butter sandwiches straight off, even though he’s pretty sure that Susie would not be pleased. It’s not that he minds eating Hilary’s unwanted tunafish, or that he thinks Susie’s stricture against peanut butter sandwiches is particularly draconian, it’s that he’s swiftly learned the importance of getting food in a small and energetic human being so she doesn’t get hangry. Because nobody’s happy when Hilary gets hangry.
But he sucks it up, makes tunafish sandwiches, and doesn’t think about what it means that Hilary and Hobbes are having a conversation about the Gnomes next door and whether Fishing Gnome’s refusal to apologise to Hammer Gnome and Butterfly Gnome constitutes ‘de-skinning-nation’ (as Hilary pronounces it), and that he’s following it.
As it turns out, Hilary loves tunafish sandwiches. She eats nearly all of her sandwich, leaving only the crusts. And then falls asleep on Hobbes.
“She’s a bit younger than you were,” Hobbes says, making himself comfortable under Hilary’s chubby pink cheek. “And she smells nicer.”
“Is this real?” Calvin wonders as he sits back, not really expecting an answer.
Hobbes stretches his chin out so it rests comfortably on his paw and closes his eyes. “Does it matter?”
Susie finds him standing by Hilary’s bed, watching Hobbes and his daughter sleep. Calvin comes out and closes the door, because if Hilary wakes up, then they’re all doomed for the rest of the night.
“You’ve been pretty quiet all evening.”
“I'm...thinking." Calvin more or less resigns himself to telling Susie. She has a habit of managing to pick up on his moods with disturbing accuracy. Then again, she’s known him since they were younger than Hilary. “How did you feel when Benji adopted Mr. Bun?”
She leans back against the wall by their kids' rooms and studies him. “You know, it took me maybe two years to remember that I put Mr. Bun away in storage. And that although we might have talked about Mr. Bun in front of the kids – I never said what kind of toy he was.”
Calvin stares at her. “But, then—”
Susie just nods at his shock. “When did you get Hobbes down from the shelf?”
“I didn’t.” Although Hobbes might have just tumbled off the study shelf, and yet... "You're saying..."
"I'm saying nothing," Susie says firmly. "I'm going to have some ice cream.”
Calvin snorts. But thinking about this is going to make his head hurt, so he follows her out for ice-cream and leaves their kids and their toys sleeping.