The Bear :
A quarter after nine, right in the middle of Dad’s favorite game show, the sound cut off. I winced, but before he could say anything the set started buzzing and the screen changed, turning the dark living room around us a deep blue.
“What’s wrong with the TV?” Dad said, leaning forward on his chair, glaring at the set like he could scare it into doing what he wanted. “What’d you do?”
“I didn’t do anything. It’s an emergency broadcast,” I said.
On the screen, the news anchor looked as calm as ever.
“This just in,” he said, with that winning smile I could never pull off no matter how long I practiced, “A prison transport bus has crashed near the state border. Though police were on the scene immediately, one inmate remains unaccounted for.”
A picture of the man appeared. He was just a normal guy: dark hair, square jaw. Maybe a little uglier than most. I thought he looked a little like my Dad.
“The inmate is to be considered extremely dangerous. Citizens are advised to remain in their homes, lock their doors and call the police immediately if they see anything suspicious. Authorities believe the fugitive was injured in the accident and will likely not have gotten far.”
While he talked, a list of towns started scrolling under him. Sure enough, the little nothing town ten miles from our house went crawling across the screen.
“Shit,” Dad said, slowly crushing his beer can. “Shit shit shit.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “we’re way out here in the woods. What’re the chances-”
His hand shot out like a snake. The empty can bounced off my head and clattered into the shadows. My Dad’s way of telling me to shut up.
“Little house in the middle of the woods, one back-ass road running by it, owned by an old man and his idiot son?” Dad spat. “We’re sitting ducks. Easy pickings.”
“He won’t know we’re out here.”
“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, dumbass. Maybe after he’s done gutting your old man, he’ll keep you around for a pet.”
Hands on the armrests, grunting and heaving, Dad tried to stand. I ran over to help him. He smacked at me and cussed, but I got him on his feet.
“No way in Hell I’m gonna just sit here and let some shithead take my house. Go get my gun.”
“Dad, you sure you-”
“Don’t backtalk me, get your thumb out of your ass and get my gun!”
I ducked a smack and went to Dad’s office.
Anyway, he called it his office. It was more of a trophy room: deer heads, fish and birds mounted on the walls, staring down at me with their black little eyes. In the corner by his desk was the big stuffed grizzly bear, up on its back legs, snarling at the doorway. I’d never asked him where he got it. I was always a little afraid to. When I was a kid, he’d call me into his office when I’d done something wrong. He’d be sitting at his desk, that bear looming behind him, both of them glaring right at me. Most of the time he didn’t even have to whip me, I’d be so scared of facing him and that monster.
His old hunting rifle was in a glass case on the wall, the place of honor. He used to clean it every day, for hours, running his hands over every piece of it. Before she left, mom used to say he touched that gun in ways he never touched her. Lately he’d been letting me clean it. Not that he wanted me to have it or anything, only because he had to. I had to do it when he was asleep, though, or he’d just sit there, staring at me, that hungry look in his eyes.
When I came back to the living room, gun in hand, he was already back in his chair, huffing and wheezing. Just standing up had done him in.
“You can’t go out there,” I said. “It’s too dangerous.”
He snorted. “Dangerous! Shooting goddamn tigers is dangerous. Shooting one man, running around in the woods at night?” He spat.
The way he was carrying on, I was afraid he’d have another stroke any second. But I didn’t know how to tell him that without making him mad.
“Let’s just stay here, Dad,” I said. “The police’ll take care of it. I bet that guy won’t come anywhere near us.”
He shook his head. “No. You go. Take the gun.”
A cold shiver went up my spine. “Me?”
“Yes you, moron. You know how to shoot. I taught you, didn’t I?”
He had, a long time ago. There’d been a couple months in high school, right after mom left, when he’d quit drinking and yelling. He’d taken me out to the woods and tried to teach me. I was a lousy shot, but the one time I’d managed to hit something, he’d put his hand on my shoulder and smiled.
Those days didn’t last long. Mom never came back, but Dad sure did.
“Yeah, Dad. But I never shot a man before.”
“No different than shooting a deer. Easier, really, don’t move as fast.”
I felt the weight of the gun in my hand. With every word out of his mouth, it felt a little heavier.
“Come on, wipe that dumb look off your face. You wanna let that son of a bitch kill your old man? Is that it?”
“Then quit being a pussy and get out there. Long past time for you to grow up, boy.”
He pulled the tab on another beer can. He tipped his head back to take a long drink. His neck was all skin and bones, and I could see every swallow. His eyes were wide open, still glaring at me, with that hungry bear look of his.
I pulled on my coat, hefted the rifle on my shoulder, and stepped out into the night.
The woods were pitch black. If anyone was coming from that direction, we’d never see him coming. I shivered a little thinking about it. I felt a little better looking at the house, seeing that the only light was the TV, and you could just barely see it through the window. Would some crazy guy running for his life see something like that?
The road was a little brighter. It was a little two-lane, winding street, the paint fading. Nobody really came this way anymore. When he’d been younger, Dad had yelled at the government to put up streetlights, but they barely worked now too. Most of them were dead, so between every pool of light was a long stretch of darkness.
No cars meant it was dead silent. Not even the wind blowing. Just my boots crunching through the grass so loud it was like smashing windows. I winced with every step.
Which way should I look? I couldn’t see anything around me past my own nose. When I stumbled too close to the trees, they seemed to just spring up out of nowhere, looming over me on their back legs, snarling.
The grass turned to asphalt under me. I looked around, but didn’t see any headlights. Just in case, I moved into the streetlight closest to the house. Looking up the road, I saw three more working street lights, far apart, and beyond them only darkness. I hunkered down and wondered what to do.
I don’t know how long I waited out there. It seemed like hours went by. Every once in a while I’d look back to where the house should be in the dark, and wondered if maybe he’d snuck past me and broken in. Would I be able to hear Dad if he was in trouble?
The gun felt heavier every second. I set it down, checked to make sure it was loaded for the hundredth time. Dad always kept it loaded, even years after he couldn’t go hunting anymore. He used to say it was just in case he ever got sick of that dumb look on my face.
I heard something, far away. A scraping sound. I tensed, looking everywhere.
Then I heard it again. Something being dragged.
And again. Coming from up the road. But when I looked, I couldn’t see anything.
A lump rose in my throat. My hands shook, the rifle clattering in them.
He appeared out of nowhere, out of the darkness and into one of the circles of light. His head was down, staring at the road. He was limping, one foot dragging.
Even in the cold, I could feel the sweat all over me. I tried to raise the gun, but I couldn’t feel my hands.
He was coming right toward me. He limped out of the light and vanished again, but I could still hear his foot dragging across the road.
I tried to swallow, but my throat felt thick, stuck. I couldn’t scream even if I wanted to. I squinted at the road, looking for some sign of him. There were two more working streetlights between him and me. Would he step through another?
His dragging steps sounded louder and louder.
Far away, I could swear I heard Dad growling.
In an instant I saw him again, under the second streetlight. I could see his dark hair, and blood on the leg he could barely lift. And now I could hear him grunting with every step. He sounded just like Dad.
I must have made a sound. His head whipped up and he looked right at me. His eyes were huge and wild.
He shouted something, not really a word. The cry of an animal. He raised his arms toward me and started moving faster.
I choked and stumbled back just as he reached the edge of the light. We both disappeared at the same time.
He was grunting louder, wheezing and gasping and making those animal sounds. His dragging leg came closer and closer.
There was one more streetlight between us. I raised the gun and tried to aim at the light, but I couldn’t stop shaking. Had he seen the gun? Would he stay out of the light until he could reach me?
His dead leg scraping against the road was the loudest sound I ever heard. It filled the whole world, echoing through the woods. His wheezes turned into growls.
I saw him. He came into the light. He looked just like my dad. My hands grew steady.
I fired. He crumpled to the ground.
For a long time, I couldn’t move. I just stood there, trying to stop shaking, to control my breathing, to make the world stop spinning.
He was just lying there. He’d twisted when he fell, his top going one way and his legs the other. One arm was stretched out the way he’d come, the other covering his face.
My mind was blank, echoing with the gunshot. Eventually, out of all that noise, I thought “I did it.”
I was still shaking, but not with fear. I couldn’t stop the smile spreading across my face. I did it. I shot him. He was dead!
I thought about Dad, sitting at his desk with that bear behind him. When he’d call me in there, I used to wish the bear would fall, bring those stretching claws and snarling teeth down on top of him. I used to stay awake for hours every night, imagining.
When I could feel my feet again, I walked through the dark to the body, lying there in the middle of that circle of light. I’d gotten him right in the chest, but the wound on his leg looked much worse.
I used my foot to nudge his arm from his face. I didn’t even hesitate. I had to look into his eyes.
The funny thing was, now that I was looking at him like this, he really didn’t look like my dad at all. I wondered how I could ever think he did.
I’d have to call the police. They’d want to pick him up, probably. I headed back, walking straight to my house. The trees were still there, looming, but I didn’t flinch or shudder any more. Holding my gun, feeling it in my hand like a part of my arm, I felt like the strongest man in the world.
Dad was still in his chair, watching the TV. He’d been going a little deaf lately, so I guess he didn’t hear the gunshot. He looked at me with his beady little eyes. But before I could tell him, before I could finally show him who I really was, he said “I hope you enjoyed your little camping trip, idiot. You missed the whole damn thing.”
The anchor was on the screen again. Dad turned the volume up.
“…has been taken into custody. None of the hostages were harmed, and police were able to arrest the fugitive without injury. However, witnesses say that one hostage escaped on his own after sustaining a leg injury. He was last seen fleeing down a back road into the woods. Rescue workers are on their way now.”