When bears are cooped up
While flu season is raging
Mama must find a way
To keep from premature aging

The fall started out okay for the Bear family.

Papa was back at work making custom-made furniture, and the cubs were back at school full-time. Even though Mama still did all the housework, she also found time to post on her successful blog, I Guess I’ll Just Do This All Myself.

“It’s so nice to have things back to normal,” she had thought.

But then the seasons started changing. Sister came down with a mysterious cold she just couldn’t shake. Brother had a hacking cough and a low-grade fever. As soon as one cub started to get better, the other one caught a new, different bug.

“Whew,” sighed Mama, “all these cubs stuck at home feels familiar somehow—OWW, MY BACK!” she yelped, frozen in a stoop as she picked up one of the hundred used tissues from the floor.

“Help?” she cried feebly, but Mama knew in her heart there was no one who would save her.

- - -

After a long night of Sister’s dry heaving, Mama stumbled toward the kitchen holding the green popcorn bowl the Bear family used for movie nights and bouts of sickness. In the living room, she found Papa lying in his Lay-Z-Bear.

“I’m so sick,” he sniffled. “No one has ever been as sick as me.”

“Not you too…” Mama sighed, wondering what she had done in a past life to deserve this.

“It’s all part of the government’s plan, keeping us sick and fearful,” Papa growled, pointing a claw at the Foxes & Friends program he was watching. “Dancing Orange Circus Bear, 2024!” he managed, before sneezing onto Bear Steve Doocy’s face on the screen.

“That’s nice, dear,” said Mama. She was still holding the vomit-filled basin and near delirious from sleep deprivation. “It doesn’t help that our immune systems are down due to all the isolation of the last… three years… wait a second, it’s been THREE YEARS???”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying! It’s a conspira—” but Papa’s roar became a coughing fit that sounded like one of his rusty old chainsaws. “Ugh,” he moaned, “Can you make me some chicken noodle soup from scratch?”

- - -

At the Bear Country Pharmacy, the shelves were almost empty of everything other than Berry Bear chewable vitamins and honey suppositories, and there was a long line of angry customers waiting to talk to Kodiak Ken, the pharmacist.

Mama stared at the bare aisles, her mouth hanging open—how could they be sold out of ibuprofen, guaifenesin, and dextromethorphan?

“At least I found this elderberry elixir and a five-pound vat of Bear Trap Whey Protein,” she said sarcastically. “I’m sure THAT’LL kill off the RSV!”

- - -

Mama opened the front door, her arms full of groceries, and was immediately beaned with a soccer ball.

“HA HA HA, direct hit!” cackled Brother.

With great effort, Mama asked, “Oh, are you feeling better, dear?”

“Yeah, I just coughed up a huge wad of something rainbow-colored. I feel great!”

Deciding she didn’t have the energy to scold him, Mama went into the kitchen, daydreaming about running away to the Michael’s quilting cruise for crafty bears.

“Just a few days of peace where everything doesn’t smell like snot and suffering,” she whispered to herself. Just as she was floating away on the imaginary waves, Brother barged into the kitchen.

“I don’t feel so good—” he blurted out, then threw up on the hand-braided rug Mama had won first place for at the Bear Country Fair.

- - -

After months of sickness, the cubs had turned feral. Their fur was unwashed and matted. Both Sister’s pink jumper and Brother’s blue trousers were covered in dried body fluids and cough syrup stains, and neither walked on their hind legs anymore.

“Hmm,” said Mama Bear, hiding in the pantry and scrolling on her phone. “The San Diego Zoo will pay top dollar for a bear cub… wow, one cub can fetch fifty thousand rubles on the Russian black market!”

Mama was suddenly overcome with regret. Not because she was considering selling off her children to the highest bidder, but because she wasn’t sure how she’d even gotten here.

What kind of life was this? How had she allowed her identity to be erased by allowing everyone—including her husband—to call her “Mama” for the last decade? Was that all she was now? A mom / nurse / indentured servant who didn’t own anything other than four sets of the same frumpy blue-polka-dotted nightgown and matching cap?

And why, God, why had she named her children “Brother” and “Sister?”

“THOSE AREN’T NAMES!” roared Mama in frustration.

What in the actual hell was going on here? Not just in Bear Country, but in the world?

- - -

Mama was relaxing in her rocking chair, where things were eerily still. She couldn’t believe it: Brother and Sister were well enough to attend school for a single day before their week vacation. Papa was back at work, which was a relief even though he was now setting his prices exclusively in Bearcoin. It was a brief break from the horror of the last months, but Mama savored it.

But as she typed the last sentence of her latest blog entry, “I have walked through hell, and it is being a mama bear during flu season, ” Mama had a funny feeling. She felt light-headed, and there was a strange tickling in her throat.

“Maybe I better lie down for a bit,” she said as she closed her laptop. “The cubs will be home in another hour.”