Susie was repotting her Christmas cactus when her daughter wandered into the kitchen with a thoughtful frown on her face, both Hobbes and Mr Bun in tow.
"Mom," Bacon said, in her cautious way she had when she wasn't totally sure how her mother was going to react to, say, her plan to climb up onto the catwalk under the local major bridge. She put Mr Bun on a chair, pulled the chair over and then climbed up on it so she could sit on the counter, Hobbes still dangling by one paw from her hand.
(Calvin's mother insisted that they should break Bacon of that habit as soon as possible; Susie privately insisted that seriously, she would never take much in the way of parenting advice from her mother-in-law.)
" . . .yes?" Susie said cautiously, putting the plant into its new pot and hoping whatever was on Bacon's mind was a plan she meant to carry out in the future, rather than something she'd already done and was trying to figure out how to explain to her parents.
"Do tigers really have their own secret universities that teach them things like pre-da-tion," Bacon sounded out the word carefully, "and stalking and other stuff?"
Susie paused. A few different answers floated to mind, including "don't be ridiculous" and "have you been talking to your granddad again?" and "well, metaphorically speaking - " She looked down at her bright green gardening gloves and decided to temporize with, "Why do you ask?"
"Hobbes says they do," Bacon replied, still in the cautious voice. "Mr Bun says he's full of - " at Susie's warning look Bacon appeared to remember the recent lectures on Proper Language and how Just Because Mom Or Dad Says It When They Stub Their Toe Or Are Mad At Other Adults Doesn't Mean It's Okay For Bacon To Use Ever, and substituted, "beans."
For a minute, Susie wondered if other parents agonized this much about respecting their kids' fantasy life. And at the back of her mind, wondered if other parents sometimes wondered if, you know, it really was all fantasy, but she ignored that part of her mind and decided on, "I can easily believe that Hobbes went to Predator University. But I think most wild tigers learn that kind of stuff from their moms."
"Huh." Bacon looked thoughtful and then beamed and said, "Okay!" kissed her mother on the cheek and ran out the back door. Susie had just enough time to notice that her daughter had bare feet, and not enough to stop her. She sighed.
"So how many times did you have to retake the final exam before they let you pass out of pity?" Mr Bun said, a little nastily. Before the fight could really get going, though, Bacon glared at them.
"If you two can't be nice, I'm going to start leaving you both at home," she warned.
Actually, no, that was a lie: more than one person had asked her if she was insane, citing a long list of what they thought were good reasons to think she was, often starting and ending with "and what the hell kind of job is a cartoonist and children's picture-book writer, anyway?" Other reasons had included "total lack of responsibility", "that time he got arrested for replacing the flag at Town Hall with a series of skull-and-crossbones motifs because he thought the mayor was a jerk", "that time he accidentally set three vacant lots on fire and still insisted it wasn't his fault" and "his parents are crazy, you do know that."
They tended to come back to "total lack of responsibility."
Susie, armed with the help of idiosyncratic but incredibly smart help from the specialized agony aunts of the internet, thanked them for their concern, changed the subject, and then eventually told them that if they didn't shut up she was going to light fire to their garages. Well, actually, she didn't: she told them that if they didn't shut up she would stop talking to them at all until they did. The lighting fire to garages had predictably been Calvin's idea. Susie had tried to pretend it didn't sound really, really tempting.
So they'd shut up for a while, and in the meantime Susie passed her Uniform CPA Exam, Calvin had totally failed to graduate from several college programs and had then had a modest breakout success with one of his webcomics and eventually signed a contract on a series of illustrated middle-grader books based around the antics of a radio-active hamster. He also got arrested at two protest rallies and once for interfering with a police investigation (that is, shouting at a police officer he thought was being a jerk and demanding to see his badge and threatening him with various reports to his superiors) - the latter of which actually ended up in a police officer getting fired and a formal apology from the Department.
Calvin had kind of strutted for a month about that one.
Then - despite a lot of obnoxious non-cooperation from Susie's reproductive organs, which pissed her the hell off considering the misery they'd heaped on her since menarche in the first place - they'd decided to have a baby.
And Susie felt the need to set garages on fire again.
The clock said 12:52AM. Susie hadn't actually been brooding sleepless all this time, but she had woken up needing to go to the bathroom and come back to bed to brood sleepless for about fifteen minutes. She always felt that after about fifteen minutes, Calvin deserved to share whatever was keeping her awake.
"Mzzgh?" Calvin replied, turning over and looking at her in bleary concern.
"Wake up," she said, just to be sure.
"M'awake, waddyawant?" Calvin replied, the "want" turning into a gigantic yawn.
Susie pulled a pillow down to rest her chin on and hug at the same time. "When do you think we should start worrying about the fact that Bacon talks to her stuffed animals?"
Calvin blinked at her and then scrubbed at his face with his hand, appearing to decide to actually drag himself out of sleep and consider the question. "Uh," he said, looking at the ceiling. "Um. I dunno. When did you stop talking to Mr Bun?"
Susie narrowed her eyes at him and pushed herself to sit up. She reached over and turned on the light, barely not knocking her nighttime glass of water off the bedside table and totally knocking her current romance novel onto the floor. "Why are you asking me that?"
Calvin gave her a perplexed frown. "I thought we'd established that you're the normal, sane parent."
"That is totally a dodge of my question," Susie accused, as Calvin also sat up and stretched his neck.
"Yeah, well," he said defensively, and then after a pause to look around for a response that had a chance of winning the exchange (Susie knew that look) said, a little triumphantly, "you're dodging my question."
"That's not the point," Susie objected.
"That's totally the point," Calvin retorted. He scrubbed his hand through his hair. "You asked me when we should worry about Bacon. I'm trying to establish a baseline because we both long ago agreed that I'm not normal. So it is totally, in fact, the point, and you're dodging."
Susie narrowed her eyes at him again and then leaned forward and poked him in the shoulder. "You still had Hobbes on a shelf in your study," she accused.
"Yeah, well," Calvin countered, "until Bacon was born, Mr Bun totally lived on your desk."
"You learned to sew to keep Hobbes patched up," Susie snapped. "Don't think I don't know that."
"You totally did the same for that bunny," Calvin retorted. "Don't think I don't know that."
They glared at each other for a moment. A lot of unspoken stuff they both knew would be damn stupid hung in the air between them unsaid, along with a bunch of stuff neither of them wanted to say, and Susie wondered if all his stuff he wasn't saying was the same as her stuff she wasn't saying, which basically boiled down to well I never really did.
When the moment dragged on a bit too long, Susie's body decided to break it with a yawn. The tension broke with the silence and Calvin flopped back on the pillows. "Look," he said, "I'll give her a talk about group-based consensual perception and community based ideas of reality, okay? That should help."
" . . . Calvin, even you don't understand the shit you say about perception and reality," Susie pointed out, settling back down into bed.
"Yeah, right," Calvin admitted, "but that way she'll have such big words to talk to other people about it that they'll give up and leave her alone."
"The closet's been invaded again," the rabbit says. "This is your job."
Hobbes slits an eye open and then sighs, slinks off the bed and over into the closet. There's a bunch of banging and a yowl, and then Hobbes slinks back to the bed.
"Thanks," Bacon says, and rubs his tummy for him.
On paper their daughter's name was Sophia Hypatia, which had taken a lot of hammering and arguing and other constructive things until they'd settled on one that satisfied Calvin's need for "awesome names with meaning" and Susie's stipulation that the first name should not actually count as an act of emotional abuse given the fact that the girl (if it was a girl) would go to school with it. The name if the baby had turned out to be a boy would have been Laertes Edward, with the understand that it would be written "L. Edward" for the kid's entire life and that "Ned" was an acceptable nickname but only just.
But since they'd both refused to find out the sex of the baby before hand, they'd needed something to call the foetus swimming around in Susie's balloon (thank you, Calvin, for that description that would never get out of Susie's head, ever), and after being really tired of the ridiculousness of each of Calvin's suggestions and even more tired of morning-sickness, Susie had said, "Let's just call the thing 'Bacon'."
Calvin had stopped and looked at her and said, "Seriously?"
"I like bacon," Susie had retorted. "Or at least, I used to like bacon and I'm sure I'll like it again if I can ever eat real food, and besides there's Sir Francis Bacon and he was a guy but Francis is mostly a girl's name now, so it's fine. Also I need my bucket back."
When their daughter had been born, after the midwife had laid her on Susie's chest all still mostly gross, Calvin had remarked, "She even kind of looks like bacon. Like, all red and streaky and - "
"Ew," Susie had said, in a tired voice. "And also ew. And did I mention ew? And shut up. What is even wrong with you, Calvin?"
"Hey," Calvin said, still mostly gazing in rapt adoration at the thing that had just pushed out of Susie's body, Jesus fuck, and also yes did happen to be the most wonderful thing ever to dream of existing, "you married me."
"I did," Susie admitted. "And I even renewed vows after four years of living together." That had been to make a point to both their parents. "And then I had a baby with you. On purpose. Very on purpose."
"Exactly," he said, beaming at her.
"So I guess it should be a private miracle or something that you can still find new ways to completely gross me out and ruin foods for me forever more," she said, with a sigh. The beam he turned on her this time was almost transcendent and he leaned over to kiss her temple.
"I love you too," he said.
But "Bacon" had just . . . stuck.
And Hobbes was upside-down up against the door, which happened to be a particularly sad look for a stuffed tiger who, Susie noted, needed his eye sewn back on more tightly. Bacon was ignoring the stuffed tiger. Nothing seemed to be knocked over or broken.
"Do I want to know?" Susie asked, after a few seconds of her daughter not paying any attention to her, but instead sitting right down in the middle of the front hall (which Susie had asked her not to do) to take the (uneaten) red peppers out of her lunch-box along with the empty thermos and stand back up.
"Hobbes tried to pounce me when I came home," Bacon said blithely. "But I did a backflip over him instead." She paused and thought about it. "It was pretty good. I stuck the landing. I hope I can do it again at practice tomorrow."
"Oh," Susie said, a little weakly. She stared at the upside-down stuffed tiger, which stayed forlornly upside-down and not, as Susie knew it had been less than an hour ago when she'd gone in to make sure Bacon had enough clean underwear for the rest of the week, sitting right-side up on Bacon's bed. Because she couldn't think of anything else to say, she said, "You know you're not supposed to do flips without a spotter."
Bacon gave her mother a put-upon look. "Okay, fine," she said, "next time I'll let him pounce me and ruin my clothes."
"Don't start," Bacon warned. "I don't want to listen to wrangling, and besides, I need help with my homework."
Which was why these days Susie had to occasionally drag the man who used to be a little boy running a club (consisting of himself and his stuffed tiger) called G[et] R[id] O[f] S[limy] Girl[S] away from the internet flamewars he got involved in every time someone made a misogynistic or gender-rigid comment in his reading purview, in order to remind him to do things like eat supper, take out the trash, go to sleep, or work on his god-damned book already. Because the minute Calvin had realized he had a daughter, the future of all little girls everywhere and their right to be healthy, happy and do whatever they wanted became more important than pretty much anything else.
Of course, he wouldn't be Calvin if he didn't go at things like a, well, like Calvin, but he'd learned and his heart was both in the right place and in it. The protagonists of his comic strips and books had all magically broadened. Someone had off-hand remarked that it would be really sad if Bacon grew up to be gay and lived in a homophobic society, and suddenly Susie had got a Calvin-written primer on queer-rights and had to stop him from shouting at her father for hours when her father had mistakenly said something about not understanding why, say, civil partnership wasn't good enough.
Susie had only herself to blame for saying once, "Well, imagine if we had had to adopt and our adopted baby wasn't white, or something. Or, like, if Bacon had had, I dunno, cerebral palsy."
Nobody ever believed her when she said she hadn't done a damn course of Women's Studies or whatever at college and that no, she knew what the word "intersectionality" meant because of her husband, yes, the one who writes cartoons. Also, don't get him started on kids' programming, or he'll involve you in a letter-writing campaign.
As such, when one of the teaching aids mentioned to Bacon that a stuffed tiger wasn't a very nice toy "for a sweet little girl like you", and Bacon brought this remark home to her parents (totally unperturbed and mostly with the sense of relaying to her parents how stupid other grownups were), Susie had to a) forbid Calvin to go to the school and sort this out, and b) promise she'd go in and have a conversation about this sort of thing with the vice-principal.
Then she settled down with tiger and bunny in one of the armchairs with the book she had to do a book report on.
When her mom came in a few minutes later, she asked Bacon why she was reading aloud - really quietly and under her breath, but aloud. Mom was always asking weird questions like that, where the answer was obvious.
"Because then Hobbes and Mr Bun can help me with the book report," she says. She doesn't add "duh", because the last time she said "duh" to her mom she ended up in her room. But she kind of wanted to.
" . . . I see," Mom said. Bacon thought the look her mother gave her was a little weird, but she went away and left Bacon alone.
"Mr Bun doesn't like school," Bacon replied, fiddling with the iPad to take her mind off the fact that she hated having her hair done like she hated almost nothing else. "When the other kids tried to steal him and hide him, he got really upset."
Susie pursed her lips and hoped Calvin didn't hear about that one, or the school would find an anti-bullying seminar shoved down their throats whether they needed it or not - especially since Bacon went on to say, "I mean, Mrs Dormer got him back for me, and everything, but it still made him upset. So he stays home now."
"Did they ever try to steal Hobbes?" Susie asked, fishing around for the right size of elastic in the little dish of them.
"Yep," Bacon said, scoring another round of dead bad piggies with a bomb-bird.
"What did Hobbes do?" Susie pressed as she tied off the braid. Bacon tilted her head and frowned slightly.
"I dunno," she said. "But Peter gave Hobbes back himself, and they haven't tried to steal anything from me since."
But after a while, because it was Hallowe'en and because she'd been wondering for a while, she asked, "Do you think it's possible we've given our daughter stuffed animals that are more or less acting like idiosyncratic, I don't know, fetish bundles or something, for wandering semi-powerful entities beyond the knowledge of most of mankind, or at least the part of it that doesn't believe in spirits anymore?"
After a few minutes and a sip of hot chocolate, Calvin said, "Yep."
After another few minutes, an ignored bunch of trick-or-treaters, some of her own hot chocolate and some deep thought, Susie asked, "Do you think we should be worried about that?"
The pause was shorter, but still present, before Calvin said, "Nope."
"Why not?" Susie asked, knowing that they would never, ever have this conversation again, or probably admit that they'd had it, at least for a while.
"Worked okay so far," Calvin replied, and Susie had to agree with that.