You think it could never happen to you, and then it does. You are attacked by a bear.
It happens on vacation. You decide, what the heck, you’ve been talking about Yosemite all these years. You pack your sleeping bag, your work boots. They’ll do on a hike. You load up the wagon and make the drive. It’s long and the AC craps out, but you’re seeing a goddamn national park. People lived in the heat for so long. People lived!
The price to camp in the park is extortion. You pull into the Jolly Kone in Bridgeport and order a malt. Tomorrow, you’ll leave the wagon and walk. Tonight, you’ll sleep in the backseat. You’ve slept in your car before. So little in this world comes free.
At dusk, you have to piss, so you cross a field in the dim pink almost-night to get to a gas station. The whole world smells like rock and diesel.
An old man loiters at the nearest pump. You are an old man. An older man, a man with a chicken gizzard. You aren’t afraid of old men.
The bathroom is locked.
“Need a key,” the old man calls. He puts a hand on his invisible truck.
You are gearing up to go inside when you feel a shadow from behind like a plane overhead and you find yourself in the grip of a bear.
It begins as a bear hug, but he gets you on the ground quick. His fur is wet and thick like a pelt of moss. He has been rolling in sweet grass.
You expect a beating, to be paddled around. But the bear drapes himself across you and lies there, heaving into your ear. Your right cheek flat against the gravel, you spot the Velcro sneakers of the old man.
“Help,” you call. You would scream, but your ribcage is compressed by the bear. “Help me.” You haven’t heard your own voice in months and it sounds weak, even considering the circumstances. You always hoped you’d be able to muster strength in a dire situation.
A pair of snakeskin sandals emerges from the gas station.
“Would you look at that,” a woman says.
“Tell me about it,” the old man says.
“He’s playing nice,” the woman says. Then she calls, “Good bear! Good boy! Good bear!”
Upon hearing these encouraging words, the bear nuzzles into you. His weight chokes your breath. “Help,” you try to say again, but nothing comes out.
It seems the bear wants to bore a hole in your back with his chest. He rolls across you and moans, plants his snout in your hair and sniffs. You have been driving all day in the heat. You don’t smell pretty, but the bear seems to like it. Maybe your pheromones speak bear. Maybe somewhere way back in your ancestry there is a bear enchantress.
With your one unpinned arm you wave at the sneakers and the sandals. You mean to express that you are frantic, but they interpret your wave as fun and games.
“Yes, hello,” the woman says. “You’ve met our friend. He looks smitten.”
“He doesn’t encounter too many strangers.”
The bear places his paw over your hand. You are submerged, swimming in his musk. The pad of his palm is soft like old, loved leather.
You think of Virginia, who always wanted to see the West, but never made it past the Mississippi. It never seemed like a good time to pick up and go. Still isn’t, apparently. Here you are trapped under a bear. Better than other kinds of being trapped, she might say. At least you can feel the life in this thing, feel it when the bear breathes in, a temporary release of the crush of your spine. Feel it when the bear breathes out, a heaviness that threatens to sink you into the ground.
You try to match your breathing to the bear’s, but he has astounding lung capacity. You shouldn’t have smoked all those years.
A pair of boots arrives, kicking up the gravel.
“What do we have here?” The boots circle you and the bear, exiting and reentering your line of sight. “Looks like he’s nodding off.”
And indeed the bear grows heavier. He lets his cheek rest on the side of your face. A fly that formerly buzzed around his ear takes up residence on your brow as your temple is pressed into a rock like a crushed flower. You blink the fly away. The pink of the sunset gives way to the yellow light of the gas station and the dark beyond. You will not be saved.
“Good bear,” says the Sheriff. And then to the sneakers and the sandals: “I’ve been trying to teach him to be gentler.”
The bear stirs briefly on the brink of sleep, then relaxes his full weight into you. You try to live on a little less air.
The boots approach you under the slumbering bear, stop a few feet short of your face. They are scuffed with a silver heel.
The Sheriff crouches and peers at you. His face is lined like yours. He has had to make hard choices like you have. He has half-trained a bear.
You blink twice.
“You know, you’re pretty close to Yosemite. You make it there yet?”
You blink once.
“Too bad,” the Sheriff says. “It’s beautiful out there.”
Shayne Terry is a Midwestern transplant living and writing in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in American Chordata, (b)OINK, and Wigleaf and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She was a contributor at the 2016 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is the recipient of a 2018 residency from the Vermont Studio Center. Shayne is a member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective.