A short story by Manelle Oliphant
Text and illustrations © 2017 by Manelle Oliphant
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A Short Story by Manelle Oliphant
I climbed onto the bear’s wet back, and he dove into his pool. The water was freezing, but I didn’t feel cold. I held my breath for a long time as he swam down, down, down, a few seconds later he moved upward until we broke the surface. I slid off his back and looked around. We stood in a winter wonderland of snow that shone like diamonds. Floating icebergs filled the water behind us.
A little way to the right was a forested area full of pine trees and quaking aspens. On my left side desert sands and scrub brush reached out to the horizon. In front of me, moist warm air blew out of a thick jungle.
The bear waved his paw around at it all. “Welcome backstage. This is where we take our breaks and get exercise.”
This new world was magnificent. Every so often I saw a bird fly through the trees or a lizard scamper around the desert rocks. “How does all this fit in the zoo?”
The bear smiled. “It’s not literally in the zoo. It’s best if you think of it as an imaginary world. Humans are only allowed by special invitation.”
I shrugged at him. “Alright. Thanks for inviting me.”
A seal broke the water’s surface by where we stood.
He took us both in with his large black eyes then turned to the bear. “I didn’t think you were off duty for another hour.”
“I’m not, but this kid was about to break into tears right in front of me. I had to do something.”
I felt a disappointed twinge just above my stomach. The bear’s words reminded about Machelle.
The seal grinned. “You’re a huge softy Horton.”
“As long as you don’t tell the zoo keepers I’ll let you live.”
The seal barked out a laugh. “Like they ever listen to us anyway.”
“Isn’t that the truth?”
I gaped at them as they talked. Who knew animals were like this?
“Well, good luck with the human. I’m off to take my break.” The seal glided back into the water. A few moments later I saw him climb onto a snow-covered rock.
Horton turned to me and pointed toward the pine trees. “There is someone I want to show you.”
Our footsteps crunched over the snow until we walked into the forest. We wove between the trees until we came to another beach. It didn’t look like the one we’d left. Dark mud covered it. Grassy plants grew in patches around us. I could see mountains across the lake.
Horton pointed to our left where a giant grizzly bear bathed himself in the sun.
“That’s Guffy. He used to be my best friend, but we don’t talk much now.”
“As cubs, we’d a lot in common. We were both born here, and the same keepers took care of us. When we grew older, our differences became clearer. For one thing, it’s much too warm here. I like to eat meat with lots of fat, but Guffy enjoys plants. Our differences made us grow apart.”
I thought of Machelle and me growing apart like Horton and Guffy. It wasn’t what I wanted. “Doesn’t it make you sad not being friends anymore?”
Horton sighed. “We are still friends, only we don’t play together like we used to.”
“Yes, but doesn’t it make you sad?”
“It did for a while. But now I appreciate it.”
I scowled. “Why?”
“Because if I hadn’t moved on, I wouldn’t be the awesome polar bear I am today. I could have tried to eat like Guffy or do the things he likes to do, but pretending to be like him would have frustrated me. We are both happier being what we were born to be.”
“Oh, I see,” I said. Only I didn’t really.
Horton looked at me. He must have heard the doubt in my voice. “My point is you have to let your friends become themselves, so you can also become yourself. In the long run, you’ll both be happier.”
I still didn’t get it. I took a deep breath. “Okay. Thank you, Horton.”
Horton stared at my face for a while. “I guess I better get you back, so people don’t miss you.”
We walked back through the forest. When we reached the beach where we’d come in Horton swam me back to his exhibit. He dropped me off where he’d picked me up. “Think about what I said. It will make sense some day.”
“Uh, okay. Thanks.”
He smiled at me. I smiled back.
He went back to enjoying his pool. I went to look for Mom, Dad, and Machelle. I walked toward the next enclosure where the brown bears were. The three of them were watching Guffy sun himself on a rock.
When I arrived, mom handed me an ice cream cone. “That polar bear must have been something special.”
Did she know where I’d been? “What do you mean?”
Mom pulled me into a side hug. “No matter what I said I couldn’t pull you away. I decided to bring dad his ice cream and head back over to get you. Were you trying to read the bear’s mind?” She laughed.
I smiled up at her. “I guess you could say that.”
Machelle nudged my arm. “Did it work?”
I didn’t think my little adventure would interest Machelle, so I only shrugged.
On the car ride home Machelle told me all about her plan to get Patrick to hold her hand in English class on Monday. Of course, Michelle added bits of conversation through text messages the whole time.
Machelle invited me to hang out with them when we got home. I imagined the conversations they’d have about purses and boys and declined the offer. Playing video games with my brother sounded like more fun.
I felt sad when we dropped Machelle off but not as much as earlier. I new from Horton’s story we may never get back what we used to have. I didn’t actually feel okay about it, but I also didn’t want to pretend to like things like mascara and glitter. Horton and Guffy seemed fine being friends from afar. It made me feel hopeful that someday I might feel all right about Machelle and me too.
Manelle Oliphant is the illustrator of over ten books for children and the creator of Tales Fantastic. A series of illustrated short stories available free at She lives in Salt Lake City UT, with her husband. Learn more about Manelle and Her books at
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