“Wait! I have cookies!" Dugan yelped in fear. Yes, a stupid thing to say, but Dugan was desperate. He was miles from home, deep in the woods, and pinned to the ground by a massive bear. The smell of dead moldering leaves flooded over him like an omen.
The bear blew out an explosive snort that sounded weirdly like a laugh. It paused, head cocked, a paw the size of dinner plate on Dugan's chest. "What? Stale Oreos?"
"No!” Dugan said once he got over the shock that the bear actually talked. “Rocky road! Fresh! I just made them last night."
"You made them?" The bear’s tone was doubtful but nevertheless it took his paw off Dugan's chest. "They're probably not very good."
Dugan ignored the insult to his baking. It was probably an echo of his grandpa’s belief that men didn’t cook. His grandpa always complained that Dugan’s cooking wasn’t as good as his dead wife’s and then ate the food anyhow. Dugan frantically dug through his ancient ammo pack. He’d abandoned his equally ancient squirrel gun while trying to outrun the bear.
A small mental voice (and possibly the only sane part of his mind) pointed out that bears didn't talk, so this conversation was probably entirely his imagination. The voice was withholding judgment on the actual bear; it seemed too tangible to be imaginary. Said bear kept sticking its nose into the search, panting hot breath over Dugan's hands, and being terribly real.
"I've got them in a can.” Dugan pulled the old Danish butter cookie tin out of his ammo bag. “The lid is really tight. You probably couldn't get it open."
"Please." The bear held up its paw to show off four-inch claws. The bear could easily tear through just about anything. Dugan, for example.
"Right." Dugan pried off the lid. The scent of cocoa blasted upwards.
"Ohh." The bear stuck his snout into the tin. "Mhese mare mgood."
"Thank you." Dugan set the container gingerly on the ground. He edged away from the bear. His muzzleloader lay the dead leaves fifty feet back. He’d have to abandon it for now. "Okay, so, I'll be going."
"Hold it!" The bear growled.
Dugan froze in place.
"Let me see it." The bear licked the last crumbs from the tin and then stalked toward Dugan.
See what? "Excuse me?"
"Let me see the picture." The bear sat down in front of Dugan. It held out a paw and did a little "gimme" gesture with its massive claws.
Even with it sitting down, Dugan had to look up at the bear. It was a seriously big animal. It was too large and too brown and too talkative to be a normal black bear. It looked more like a Kodiak, which was the largest of the brown bears. Of course that didn't explain what it was doing in West Virginia and how it could talk.
If it was talking; that part was still unproven.
Dugan’s life was full of things that didn’t actually exist. He saw things that other people didn’t see and didn’t believe existed. The monsters didn’t normally talk but they could still wreak havoc with his kith and kin.
It had taken him months to track down a good digital camera that he could afford. Even used, it had cost several hundred dollars. He didn’t want to give it to the animal. The bear's paws looked strong but not particularly nimble. Dugan unslung the camera strap from his neck. He turned the screen toward the bear and started to thumb through the pictures he'd taken.
"Okay, you're a good baker, but you’re horrible at taking pictures." The bear said after the tenth photo. "You have a good eye. Your subjects are interesting and in focus, but your composition sucks. Also you're not paying attention to amount of light. Everything is either over exposed or under exposed."
"I'm just learning."
"Learn smarter. Get a book out of the library on photography."
"Google schmoogle. The Internet tries to compress everything to the attention span of gnats. Most things in life are too complicated for a bulleted list. Get a freaking book. Stop. Delete that one."
It was the first picture Dugan had taken of the bear. It was blurry because of his excitement at seeing such an exotic animal. He’d crouched down, carefully laid his muzzleloader in the dead leaves, and lifted his camera to snap a quick picture.
"You get any more?" the bear said asked.
Dugan had another two dozen photos. The first was the bear's head snapping around at the sound of the shutter. (Why did cameras still make that noise anyhow? It’s all digital now.) The next two pictures were of the bear charging. The rest were smears of the ground as Dugan took off running for his life, his finger still on the button.
The bear snorted with what sounded like giggles and had him delete the four photos that showed the animal. "You can keep the rest. Don't take any more of me. I'll know. I won't like it."
It stood, shook and lumbered off into the woods. Just before it disappeared from view, it turned and called back. "You've got a good instinct for what makes a great picture. Keep it up."
Tracking down the bear a week later was a calculated risk.
The few minutes of photography tips had jumped Dugan forward in ability. There was no question that his pictures improved. It could simply be that he’d found a useful book and studied it closely. He’d hit a wall, though, with some of the finer points. It was possible the bear could help him.
There was a good chance that the bear had been all his imagination, thus he was in no danger whatsoever. Certainly that made the most sense; brown bears were not native of West Virginia or even the East Coast. If it was a real bear, then it had escaped from a zoo or a circus. Such an animal could be considered somewhat tame.
As usual, he could find no proof that he saw something real. He lived deep within a mountainous two-million-acre national forest. A slew of bears could be roaming the woods without being spotted. Certainly there were no news stories about odd bear sightings in the area.
“Bear” and “talking” search terms pulled up fairytales (once he eliminated storytelling teddy bears). It was interesting to note that unlike wolves, bears were more like cats in such stories. They were usually good and noble and protected little girls and such. Of course, Dugan wasn’t a little girl, but then it was doubtful that the bear was a cursed prince.
All this considered, the risk in tracking down the possibly imaginary bear seemed minimal. Just to be on the safe side, Dugan made his best pastry.
He followed the big bear tracks for an hour. His loud footsteps on the dead leaves and occasional scolding from chipmunks were the only sounds in the thick woods. This deep into the national forest, there wasn’t even distant traffic noise. Dugan scrambled up and down the steep hillsides of the two hollows until he found the bear beside one of Deer Creek’s many smaller branches.
"I have macarons!" Dugan called as the bear grunted and started to turn away.
"Seriously?" The bear paused. "Macarons? You do know this is West Virginia?"
"Yes." Dugan wasn't sure what that had to do with anything.
"Macarons?" The bear ambled up to Dugan, snorting with disbelief.
"I'll be the judge of that."
He'd carefully packed the pastries in his tin, separated with wax paper. He used the lid as a plate, laying them out for the bear.
The bear grunted as if hit upon eating the first one. "You made these?"
"They're fussy, but not that hard to make well. Baking is just chemistry. The trick is to start with a good recipe and then follow it exactly."
"The rocky road cookies I understand, but macarons?"
"You don't like them?"
"They're amazing, but this is the freaking middle of nowhere. Why macarons? Where did you even have one in the first place?"
"I saw this video on YouTube. The girl made them sound so good. It was a little tricky figuring out what they're supposed to be like when they were done. I like being good at something to make up for being so bad at—other things."
"What other things?"
Dugan hesitated and then realized that if he was sitting in the woods, talking to himself, there was no shame in admitting the truth. "I'm bad at telling what's real. I'm schizo. I see things that aren't really there."
"Like talking brown bears."
The bear hit Dugan on the shoulder, sending him tumbling through the dead leaves.
"Ow!” Dugan said. “What was that for?"
"Just proving that I'm real."
Dugan groaned. "Oh, no, it doesn't work that way. My delusions are all self-referential. The logic loops around. I throw myself on the ground and then say that I fell because I was hit from behind. See." He held up his left arm to show off the scars. "I hurt myself while thinking I was fighting a monster in Brice’s cornfield."
Even now, eight years later, the memory of running through tall corn with Jenny Brice stayed vivid. The bright moonlight. The smell of damp earth. The sound of rustling leaves growing louder, as if it was the wind that chased them through the darkness.
The bear wrinkled its snout as it peered at the scar. There was cream filling on the tip of his black nose. "It looks like claw marks to me."
"No one else saw anything. No one ever sees them." By “them” Dugan meant all the weird things that haunted his life. Most of them weren’t as dangerous as whatever had been in the field. If there had been anything chasing them through the corn. When he was little, he had been oh so sure. Lately he started to question all his memories. Some of the “monsters” might have been simply a byproduct of his mother telling him scary stories and insisting that they were true. The others? Maybe he had always been insane.
"There are things in the world that most people can't see,” the bear said. “It means you're special."
“The talking bear tells me that only ‘special’ people see weird things. That’s the very definition of self-referential!"
The bear sent Dugan flying through the dead leaves again. "Why are you here other than to drive me nuts?"
"I want you to look at more pictures. I want . . . ” Need was more correct but he didn’t want to admit it, not even to the bear. “ . . . to get better at taking photos. What you told me last time really helped.”
"Did you get a book?"
"Three." He didn't add that two of the books had been for children and fairly worthless to him. He already knew "How all those little buttons on your digital camera work." He didn't want to know "How to make your pictures wacky."
After those two failures, picked totally at random, he’d tracked down a book by the man who started him thinking of a career in photography. He was a photographer with the unpronounceable name of Cerek Niedzwiedz. Dugan had seen his photos at the Fralin Museum of Art in Charlottesville during a school field trip. The docent explained that the photographer traveled to desolate, isolated places to take his world famous pictures. It seemed like a perfect job to Dugan. It didn’t require him going to college, got him out of West Virginia and yet limited the amount of time he needed to interact with other human beings.
It was a career path paved with its own difficulties. He didn’t initially own a camera. He had no idea how to take award-winning photos. He wasn’t sure how to make money once he did. He was tackling life one problem at a time, as quickly as possible. The clock was ticking. He had only another fourteen months before his world crumbled.
Cerek used his own photos, taken around the world, to explain various points. Between the exotic subjects of the pictures and the fact Cerek would only give one sample picture to explain a complex point like "leading lines," Dugan was left scratching his head as to how to apply it to the photos he was taking.
It took him a minute to find Cerek’s book. He kept everything personal in his old canvas ammo bag. His grandpa raided his room whenever he wasn’t home, stealing whatever he could find.
The bear snorted when he saw the book. "Yeah, right, not special at all. So they only had three books?"
Dugan opened the book to its index to find the page he wanted. “I got out two books for kids; I thought I should start simple. They were too basic. They just covered how to operate the camera. The books for adults all seemed to be about taking pictures of little kids and weddings.”
"Pandering to the masses." The bear covered the index page with his paw.
Dugan eyed the five huge claws resting lightly on the page. “I ordered this one through the inter-library loan system. It explains the things I wanted to learn but there are parts that I don’t understand.”
"Forget the book. Show me your pictures."
"Okay." Dugan waited until the bear moved his paw. He put the library book back into his ammo bag where it would be safe. "Well, I decided to take pictures like the ones Cerek uses as samples. When you're baking, you're basically trying to match someone else's results. What made the macarons tricky was I didn't have anything to compare them to see if I was doing them right."
The book safe, Dugan began to flip through his photos, trying to ignore the massive head leaning over his camera.
"Art is not cookies,” the bear rumbled. “A thousand little elements go into the makeup of a photo. The angle of the sun. If the sky is clear or overcast. The green of the vegetation or yellow."
This was because Dugan had stopped on the first picture of the tombstone.
The bear shook its head. "The weeping angel statue is very similar, but the original photo was taken earlier in the autumn. The yellow foliage was what made that photo striking. You took the picture about two weeks too late; the leaves have all fallen. You did well with the exposure. The bare branches clutter up the frame without adding to it. Whenever you can, you should simplify the photo. You can do that by blurring the background by playing with the aperture and focal length of the lens. Let's see the rest."
The bear was definitely not real, Dugan decided as he scrolled through the pictures. A black bear in their woods could be real, but a huge brown bear was so unlikely that in itself was suspect. Add in the fact it talked and knew about focal length of digital cameras, and Dugan obviously was sitting in the woods, talking to himself. Should he really be courting his insanity? Did he have a choice? He had to do something to earn money when he turned eighteen.
"Who's this?" The bear asked when they hit a picture of Gin Belle posing beside the weeping angel.
"My friend, Gin. Her real name is Virginia but she hates it. She has her own car; she gave me a lift into Marlinton so I could take these photos.”
"You tell her about me?"
"No!" He said louder than he intended. "I don't want her thinking I'm even crazier than everyone says. I don't tell her spit.”
“People say you’re crazy?”
“Crazy runs in my family. When I was little, I didn’t know to keep my mouth shut. I kept telling people about the crazy things I saw. The stuff that wasn’t really there, or at least, I couldn’t prove was there.”
The bear considered for a long silent moment and then asked, “Like me?”
“Yes, I know that you have to be imaginary. A talking bear of your size defies everything, but I’m learning a great deal about photography. Somehow.” Since he was simply talking to himself, he decided to be totally honest. “The thing is that this might be crazy but it works. I need it to work. As an orphan, I only get Social Security until I’m eighteen. I won’t be able to get a job around here. In grade school, we did a field trip into a coal mine. That didn’t go well. There’s not much else in West Virginia. I thought that I could bake wedding cakes and such for a living. Mail order cookies or whatever. I did research and that’s not going to fly. It’s still a fall back plan. I looked into woodworking but that takes a lot of expensive power tools. I don’t have the money for that.”
“There’s scholarships for bright kids who are disadvantaged.”
Dugan shook his head. “I was thinking about going to college. My guidance counselor Mr. Durham said he could get me a full scholarship based on my grades and the fact I’m an orphan. Then I went to Charlottesville on a field trip to tour the University of Virginia. I kept seeing wolves. No one else did. Just me.”
That had been a huge turning point for him in so many ways. All his life, people had told him that everyone in his family was insane. Up to that day, he was sure that they were wrong. He didn’t feel crazy. The wolves all pretending to be people made him realize that he couldn’t trust his own perception of reality. The day ended with a trip to the emergency room.
“I don’t think I can do college,” he told the bear. “The wolves made me realize that.”
“Yes, Charlottesville is thick with wolves but they’re not feral. They’re actually surprisingly academic. That said, there are colleges that don’t have wolves.”
“Says the talking bear.”
The bear looked away. “Fine. I’ll teach you. I don’t want you taking any pictures of me though.”
“I figured that was coming. Self-referential. No pictures mean no proof that you’re just my imagination.”
“Stop with the self-referential bullshit. Who taught you that anyhow?”
“My school is making me see a shrink. I had the panic attack at Charlottesville after being stuck in an elevator with two wolves. I tried to pass it off as just being claustrophobic, but then I made the mistake of talking about my diet. Apparently it triggered all sorts of alarms with the wrong people. I was seeing Dr. Metzer, the school psychologist. He was okay. He started me thinking maybe I was crazy. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Life is easier when you think its everyone else is wrong. Dr. Creepy is the new psychologist. He freaks me out. I’ve been trying to bribe Principal Adkins with cookies to get out of therapy.”
“What the hell do you eat?”
“I’m a little OCD about the few things I can control in my life. I was just seeing if my diet would change anything.” His grandpa grumbled loudly at the “weird” food but ate it none the less. “You know paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian . . . ”
“They sent you to a shrink for turning vegetarian?”
“ . . . and fasting.”
“Ah, let me guess, it was the fasting that triggered all the concern.”
“Yeah.” Dugan waved to indicate the mess was over. “I’ll talk my way out of everything eventually. I’m good at that; I’ve had lots of practice. I had to do a lot of research, though, to deal with Doctor Creepy. What to say, and more importantly, what not to say.”
“What shouldn’t you say?”
“That I’m getting photography lessons from a giant talking bear.”
“I suppose that would be a little difficult to explain,” the bear said.
“It’s just that Doctor Creepy is—creepy. He scares me. I don’t want to tell him anything; I’m afraid of what he might do. I’m not sure what he can do. The laws seem to say not much but—I don’t know—it just seems like he could do something—evil.”
“He scares you and I don’t?”
“You’re—you’re not real. And I feel safe around you. Even when you had me pinned to the ground, I didn’t really think you were going to hurt me. I thought about it later, how crazy it was to offer you cookies and I realized it was because deep inside, I felt like—like—you were just in a bad mood because you were hungry.”
The bear snorted, blasting hot breath over Dugan’s face. “Does Dr. Creepy have a real name?”
“Doctor Robert Creagh. I meet with him every Monday morning, first thing. I’ll have to see him tomorrow. Why?”
“Curiosity. I didn’t think his real name was Creepy. Okay. Let’s tackle your Medusa complex."
"You walk up, see something you want to take a picture of, and turn to stone. You’ve got it into your head that ‘holding the camera steady’ means you can’t move at all. You need to move around more. Try different angles. Kneel down. Find something to stand on to get a higher perspective. What you want to do is find the lines in the picture and maximize them. Come on, pick something out—not me—and practice taking pictures of it. No, not a bird either, they move too much for you to learn on. Start with a rock.”
Dugan stood in the doorway into the receptionist area of the high school offices, stunned at the chaos around him. He had dropped his coat at his locker, stopped in at his homeroom to make sure he wasn’t marked absent, and then come up stairs to the offices for his appointment with Dr. Creagh.
The rooms looked like a tornado had touched down within the area. The door was torn from its frame and lay in the hallway. Desks and filing cabinets were overturned. Paper littered every surface. The office reeked. A solid wall of something pungent made his nose wrinkle and eyes water.
It explained the police cars that had been parked outside the building. They delayed the unloading of the school bus until the officer by the front door had gotten a message of “All clear.”
Clear of what? Dugan had noticed the police officers walking the edge of the parking lot, obviously looking for something, but he couldn’t tell what.
“What happened?” he asked the room at large.
“A bear broke in last night.” Mrs. Casto was gathering scraps of a torn donut box from the floor. She answered without looking up. “Someone left food in their desk. Bacon maple donuts. No one is admitting to bringing them in on the sly.” From the tone of her voice, the classroom rule “must have enough to share with everyone” applied to the office staff too. “The police think that’s what attracted the bear.”
“Bear?” Dugan echoed. “A black bear?”
“What other kind of bear would it be?” Mrs. Casto stopped to look up at him.
“The black bear is the state animal.” Dugan backed out of the conversation as gracefully as he could.
“We put an electric fence around our garbage cans to keep the bears out,” Mrs. Westfall said. “My youngest son keeps forgetting and shocks himself every time it’s his turn to take out the trash.”
Dugan scanned the damage. Deep scratches on the walls and woodwork left little doubt that a large animal had rampaged through the rooms. To Dugan, they seemed too big to be made by a black bear. The security camera mounted high on the wall seemed untouched.
“Did anyone look at the video?” Dugan asked.
“Come on in, Dugan!” Principal Adkins brushed past him. “Apparently bears don’t piss in the woods, they piss in schools.”
Dugan wanted to ask if they were sure if it was a black bear. To quote Mrs. Casto, what else would it be? Not his imaginary Kodiak. Right? “Did you get the animal on camera?”
“Who knows,” Principal Adkins said. “The bear did a number on the recording equipment. There’s nothing left of the recorder but little pieces everywhere. It also took out the printers, the phones, and the PA system.”
Dugan had spent enough time sitting and waiting in the offices to know that the recorder was in a secure little closet under lock and key. While most of the equipment was logical collateral damage, the security system wasn’t. Destroying it would be have to be premeditated and deliberate. The wide path of destruction, though, would mask that fact.
“Self-referential,” he murmured to remind himself to beware neatly wrapped bundles of logic. That way lay true insanity. Yet he couldn’t help but wonder why would a bear destroy the recorder? Dugan resisted the idea that the bear knew that it was being filmed. That went against all logic. A bear was a bear and nothing more.
Unless it talked.
If it did talk, why would his bear show up at his school? To find out if he told Doctor Creagh about the photography lessons? Without supporting pictures, it wasn’t as if the psychologist would believe there was a brown bear. Dugan had searched all the local and state news feeds. There hadn’t been any escaped bears and no one was running a big game sanctuary within a hundred miles of the creek bottom.
Besides, he hadn’t considered continuing the photography lessons until Friday.
“Principal Adkins.” Dugan normally dealt with the man in his office. Adkins had a jacket in hand, apparently heading out to deal with the police again. Dugan held out a plastic butter container he’d filled with cookies. “Sir. I made chocolate chip cookies.” He said it quietly, screening the transaction with his body so the secretaries wouldn’t see. “I’ve been seeing the school psychologist for over a month. Can’t I stop? It was just one panic attack. There’s nothing wrong—seriously wrong—with me. I just don’t deal well with enclosed places on school field trips. It’s a weird combination of the two. I had the same thing happen at the Beckley exhibition coal mine.”
Principal Adkins took the container with a furtive glance toward his staff. He flipped his jacket over the cookies, hiding them. “I know, Dugan. We’re just being careful, what with your family history and all. You’ve had a rough time in life. I can’t just stop treatment on you.”
“Why not? I only had one attack brought on by stress. It could happen to anyone. I don’t need this. Dr. Metzer said I was fine. Can’t I just stop? Please?”
“It’s not up to me, Dugan. Dr. Metzer left us high and dry in terms of paperwork. Dr. Creagh needs to fill out the needed forms for you to stop. Until he does, my hands are tied.”
Dugan controlled the urge to take back the cookies. He’d used up all the flour, sugar, and eggs in the house to make them. Eggs he could get from the hen house, but the rest was money out of his pocket and required a trip to Marlinton to get.
“That’s the only way?” Dugan said.
“In theory you could go to an outside child psychologist. I don’t know of one in the area. Since you’re a minor, we’re not allow to get involved in your medical care beyond the school nurse or psychologist. Also, you’d have to pay the doctor yourself; the school wouldn’t cover it.”
The joy of living in the middle of nowhere. The entire county had a population of fewer than nine thousand. Dugan would have to go the whole way to Harrisonburg or Charlottesville to find one. Even if he had the money, he couldn’t get to either city without his grandpa driving him and that would never happen.
Principal Adkins waved toward the maze of narrow hallways that lead to the individual offices. “If Dr. Creagh agrees to sign off on your forms, then you can stop treatment. He’s in his office. There’s nowhere for you to sit out here. Go on back to his room.”
The pungent smell grew stronger as Dugan picked his way through the litter in the hallway. A left turn, a right and the doorway to Dr. Creagh’s office came into view, identified by the name plate that used to be mounted on the wall. It lay now on the floor along with the doorframe and door. The walls were ten foot tall. On either side of the opening, claw marks raked from ceiling to floor.
Had the bear marked his territory right at the entrance of Dr. Creagh’s?
Dr. Creagh’s room had been equally ransacked as the rest of the offices. If the bear had targeted the psychologist’s space, it was impossible to prove. There was only the lingering suspicion, urine and scat.
Dr. Creagh was brooding in the center of the chaos. As usual, the sight of him made Dugan’s skin crawl. He could never put his finger on why the man seemed so creepy. He was a thin, tall man of indeterminate age, somewhere between thirty and sixty. His flat-top hairstyle gave no hints as it was a color somewhere between white-blonde and gray. His eyes too were pale to colorless. There was something about his skin that made it seem as if it was too small for his frame and stretched tight over his bones. When he was still, he was far too still. When he moved it was in fast, precise motions that struck Dugan as inhuman even though they were all perfectly normal.
Like now, when Dr. Creagh suddenly turned his head to look at Dugan over his shoulder. “Do you know what did this, Dugan?”
“Mrs. Casto said it was a bear,” Dugan said.
“Do you believe that?”
“I don’t know—I don’t know what happened. I suppose it could have been a bear. I don’t know why a bear would have broken into a school though.” He was talking too much. He should shut up.
“It rifled my case notes and urinated on them,” Dr. Creagh said.
“There’s no saving the notes,” Dr. Creagh continued. “The ink ran. The paper is a biohazard.”
Did the man never blink? Dugan’s eyes started to burn in sympathy although that might be the stench. If it was his bear, what the hell was it thinking? Peeing all over everything?
Dugan glanced down at the paper. The smeared ink made it seem that the pages were covered with weird pictures and scribbles. They were clearly unreadable. “Since your notes are ruined, can we just drop this?”
“You are keeping secrets from me. Until I know your secrets, we will not stop.” Dr. Creagh flicked out his hand, making Dugan jump back. “Go on. We can’t meet today. We’ll meet on Wednesday during your study hall.”
“What are you doing here?” Gin greeted Dugan when he flopped down at her secluded table in the library. He normally kept his distance while they were in school because he didn’t want anyone decide that she needed to be “warned.” He searched her out because he needed the comfort of someone else’s voice. Someone who didn’t think of him as crazy because at the moment, he wasn’t sure if he was or not. Had there been a real bear in Dr. Creagh’s office last night? Or had Dugan totally lost it and trashed the school so it just looked like a bear had been there? The second seemed nearly as reasonable as a talking bear giving him photography lessons.
She had her long legs up on the table, idling tapping her booted foot to the music playing over her headphones. She actually wanted to know why he was there; she’d tugged the headphones down so she could hear his answer. Babymetal rumbled through “Karate.”
“Ordering more books on photography.” He didn’t lie. The bear gave him a list of books to order via the interlibrary loan system. It represented the world’s best photographers. Ansel Adams. Dorothea Lange. Diane Arbus. Walker Evans. Josef Koudelka. Elliot Erwitt. The list went on and on.
(“You need to see through the eyes of an experienced artist to understand what you’re looking for,” the bear had explained. “Learn from the best. Let it seep in until it’s in your bones.” Dugan had copied down the list wondering how the bear knew the photographers’ names complete with correct spellings of Arbus and Koudelka and Erwitt.)
“You’re supposed to be in therapy.” Gin’s tone indicated that she was annoyed by his dodge. “It’s first period study hall on Monday.”
Dugan threw his hands up. “I-I-I have not a clue. Something trashed the offices so Doctor Creepy rescheduled to Wednesday.”
“It’s so bogus that the school is doing this because of what you eat.”
His diet, his epic panic attack in Charlottesville, what was written in his elementary school records, and his family history of suspicious deaths that were ruled as suicide. He’d never told Gin about his past. Her parents had moved back into the area after years of traveling the world. Unlike all the other kids in their class, she had no memories of the weirdness that was his first years at the century-old Green Bank Elementary. Gin didn’t fit in at Pocahontas High School. Her Mohawk haircut, Goth makeup, and weird mix of clothes from around the world made her stand out too much. The other girls favored long hair, blue jeans and hoodies bought at Walmart. He wasn’t sure if Gin was friends with him merely because she was desperate or her sense of honor insisted that she champion him. It could be both. He didn’t want to explore the depths of her friendship. He was afraid it was shallow waters.
“I need to go to the supermarket today,” he said. “Can you give me a ride?”
She guessed the reason why he wanted to restock. “You need to stop baking cookies for the people in the office. It’s their job to take care of you. You shouldn’t have to bribe them with sweets.”
“They do take care of me,” he said. The teachers and administrative staff might think he was crazy but they were all mindful that he had no parents. “Principal Adkins bullied grandpa through getting SNAP set up in ninth grade; it really made it possible for me to start baking in the first place. Mr. Durham is still trying to get me a full scholarship even though I changed my mind about college. Mrs. Westfall helped me buy my camera; I needed a credit card to order it online. Mrs. Costa gave me a hat last year when she realized I didn’t have one. Mr. Simpson is letting me do the yearbook pictures.” He lifted his camera as evidence. Normally he wouldn’t risk it at school but Mr. Simpson promised to replace it if one of the other students broke it. “I’ll have published pictures to start a portfolio with.”
“Published?” Gin snorted. “Simpson is using you. The yearbook staff all quit once they found out how much work it was. He’s trying to talk me into being the editor. He says it will make me more popular. As if. And that hat is butt ugly.”
Dugan decided not to continue with all the many kindnesses that the staff showed him over the years. Today proved that trying to bribe Adkins was a waste of time. “IGA is having a sale on collard greens, dried black eye peas and corn meal. I need flour and sugar but I’m not making cookies for them. We don’t even have school tomorrow; it’s an in-service day. I plan to spend the day taking pictures. There are basics I need to practice.”
He demonstrated by pointing his camera at her. The bear had given him homework on finding the optimal lines to lead the viewer’s eye to the subject. By shifting to his left, he could use Gin’s long legs as leading lines to her face.
She blew a bubble with her chewing gum while glaring at him. He thought she was trying to decide if he was bullshitting her. “Pecan tassies.”
“I want pecan tassies. You make cookies for everyone else. I drive you around.” She stabbed the table with her pencil. “I like pecan tassies but the ones you get at the store are just cheap-ass cardboard tasting things.”
“Oh. Sure. I can make pecan tassies.” He’d been afraid that she would get angry at him if he made her cookies. He couldn’t remember exactly why but it had to do with her yelling at him about something to do with political alienation and gender roles. “I’ll look up a recipe and see what I need to buy.”
There was an angel in the Pocahontas IGA supermarket.
After school, Gin had driven him the twenty winding miles through the wide valleys between the mountains into Marlinton. Both Green Bank and Dunmore had little convenience stores with a pair of gas pumps outside, but they carried only the basics at a steep price. For bulk quantities of inexpensive food and pecans, he needed the bigger, cheaper store.
He hit the sales items of collard greens, dried black eyed beans, and corn meal first. He wanted to stock up. He wished it wasn’t so hard to get to Marlinton; he liked being able to shop without everyone paying attention to everything he did. He could pretend his life was completely normal.
He turned the corner and saw the angel.
She crouched in the center of the aisle, her wings gleaming brighter than the overhead fluorescents. The air was filled with the scent of thunderstorms and spring rain.
Dugan ducked back around the corner. He pretended to look at the shelf in front of him while trying to decide what to do. She'd been kneeling in front of the baking supplies. He didn't know what angels would want with King Arthur flour, but there she was, big as life.
To make tassies for Gin, he needed flour, dark brown sugar, and pecans. Even if he talked Gin into a different type of cookies, he would need flour and white sugar.
"Angels are not real," he whispered.
Neither were talking bears.
One delusion at a time.
He turned the corner, hoping that she might have disappeared.
The angel still crouched in front of the baking goods. She seemed to be picking up bags of flour just to put them down again.
He edged around the wings, trying to keep focused on what he needed. Generally speaking, if he didn't pay attention to his delusions, they didn't pay attention to him. The bags of shelled nuts were right by the corner. The white sugar was on the shelf below the nuts. The brown sugar put him closer to the angel. The scent of thunderstorms grew stronger.
It was never good when he could smell the delusion.
He braced himself against the fear skittering around in him, and shifted closer to grab the nearest bag of flour.
"What?" she growled. Her wings flared wide, like an eagle before its strike.
He squeaked and backpedaled. Not good. Not good.
She wore a black leather jacket, an expensive-looking silk scarf, knee-high combat boots and an open carry handgun. She had gleaming red hair with soft curls gathered with a green velvet scrunchie. She was the most beautiful being that he’d ever seen. Even without the wings, she was too stylishly dressed to be a local.
Maybe she was a tourist. A Hollywood starlet in Marlinton for—for—for some inexplicable reason and he was just imagining the massive wings. It would mean that there was a real woman in his path and he was simply being weird. Again.
He didn't normally notice people's eyes; he wouldn't be able to say what color Gin had. The angel’s eyes were too vivid green to miss. The angel stared at him in surprise and confusion. It was as if she didn’t expect him to actually notice her.
And he was staring back at her. It was clearly pissing her off as surprise gave way to anger.
"I-I-I--" He pointed. “Flour!”
She glared at him.
"Please. Can I just get a bag?" He edged closer to the flour.
She stood up to block him. "I'll get it for you."
It felt like a trap. He didn't want her to pick up the bag. Either she was as real as the bag or the bag was as delusional as her. He didn't want to leave the store just thinking he had flour when he didn't.
She crouched again and her wings brushed over him. They were soft as thistledown and brilliant as halogen lights and tangible as the wind.
Were they even really there? He tried to catch hold of the feathers as they trailed over his fingertips. His fingers closed on warmth, trapping nothing. She didn't seem to notice.
Wings not real. If she handed him flour, chances were that the bag didn't exist either.
"I'll get a bag of flour," he said despite the fact he probably wasn't talking to anyone. He added, "I'm almost out" just in case Gin heard him talking to himself.
"No." The angel picked up a bag and something black darted out into the aisle.
Out of pure instinct, Dugan stomped on it without seeing it clearly. It was the size of a very big cockroach but the shape been wrong.
It squirmed under his foot. It felt pissed.
He whimpered. He just knew if he lifted his foot, it was coming for him. Up his pant leg; all sorts of claws and fangs and possibly scorpionlike tail.
And at the same time—there may be nothing at all under his foot. Probably. It was unlikely anything like that was hiding among the flour.
The angel stared at his foot, still holding the bag of flour that she picked up. "Don't move."
She put down the flour. Reaching into her jacket, she pulled out a huge gleaming knife. It blazed as white as her wings.
Stabbed by angel or bitten by bug from hell?
Dugan jerked backwards. The angel shouted and stabbed. The blade missed the bug by a hair and buried tip first into the floor. The bug darted toward him. He stomped on it again.
"I said don't move." The angel grabbed hold of his wrist with her free hand.
"Don't stab me in the foot!" He stood still only because, without breaking free of the angel, he couldn't flee the bug. She had an iron grip on him.
She tightened her hold as if she knew he would bolt at first opportunity. "I need to be in position. Hold still until I say you can move."
"Don't stab me in the foot."
"I'm not going to!" She jerked free her blade. She shifted closer, knife pointed at his foot. "Move!"
She let loose his wrist. He snatched up a bag of flour and took off running. Something tiny screamed, like a baby rabbit caught by a cat. He glanced back. The black spot of the bug was pinned to the floor by the angel's gleaming dagger. Her wings were spread wide, hooding the angel as she pulled out a second dagger.
The aisles stocked with baking goods created leading lines that pointed directly at the angel. It was a perfect picture. He lifted his camera and took it.
Gin was at the magazine section, leafing through an issue of Field & Stream. “I really don’t understand this glorification of hunting wild animals.”
“It’s free meat,” Dugan said. “It’s like winning the lottery.”
She held up the magazine, showing off the cover picture of a pretty blonde woman holding a massive gun, dressed all in camo. “This is not about food! It’s about sport! The fun of killing!”
“Shh!” Dugan glanced behind for the angel. It didn’t seem as if she’d followed him. “That’s Field & Stream! You should read Garden and Gun.”
“I looked at that. This is West Virginia, not the Deep South.”
“That’s debatable.” Dugan grabbed her hand to drag her toward the checkout counter. “Let’s go. I need to get home.”
“What the hell is your rush?”
He didn’t want to tell Gin about the angel because she probably didn’t exist. “I shot three squirrels yesterday. I like to cook them slow for about an hour.”
“You’re eating meat again?”
“Yeah. Vegetarian wasn’t working for me.” He decided when he started seeing wolves pretending to be people in Charlottesville, it was time to give up on the weird diets. Seeing talking bears clinched the deal.
“Okay. That lane there.” Gin pointed to nearest line. She slipped the Field & Stream into one of the magazine racks opposite the candy. Below it was The Times West Virginian newspaper whose headline read “Massacre Body Count Rises!” In smaller font it stated “Utica Wolf Hunt Continues.”
See, Dugan thought, that’s what normally happened when people tried to interact with large wild animals. They ended up dead. They weren’t taught photography. Then again, wild animals normally don’t ransack high schools.
“Utica doesn’t have wolves.” Gin pulled the newspaper out to read the top story.
“Did you hear about the bear?” Dugan suddenly wanted validation that his world model on animal behavior was normal. He was right—wasn’t he?
“What bear?” a woman asked.
The angel was standing behind him. Gleaming wings widespread. Fierce eyes fastened on him.
He was sure he was staring back with horror.
“Hm?” Gin didn’t look up from her paper. “What about a bear?”
“What bear?” the angel repeated. “I’ve heard that there’s an unnaturally large bear in the area.”
He glanced at the huge pistol on the angel’s hip. It felt very dangerous to tell one delusion about the other. He needed the bear.
“Someone at school said something about a bear.” Gin flipped the newspaper to read the bottom half of the front page. “Is that why Creepy canceled on you?”
The angel poked him hard in the ribs. “What bear?”
Time to deploy decoys! “Yes. Someone left food out in the school offices. Bacon maple donuts. A black bear got in and made a mess. You know how bears are. They’ll break into a locked car to steal groceries. They’ll come up onto your porch to eat your cat’s food and lick the grease trap of your grill clean.”
“Yet another reason I can’t wait to graduate and go to college some place civilized.” Gin didn’t seem to notice the angel. “This is insane. A dozen people mauled by wolves in Utica. The sole survivor has gone missing. If I had his last name, I’d hide from the media too. I wouldn’t want it smeared all over the media. People are cruel.”
Did anyone notice the angel? Dugan scanned the people around them. No. No one seemed to be looking at the woman with gleaming wings. He made the mistake of meeting her eyes. A weird jolt of knowing that passed between them: he knew that she knew that he knew that she was invisible to everyone else. Her eyes narrowed with the knowledge.
“Dugan, are you ready to check out?” The cashier surprised him by knowing his name.
His heart dropped as he focused on her for the first time. The cashier was Jenny Brice, eyeing him with a wariness that suggested that she never forgot or forgave him for “monster lurking in the cornfield” incident. They hadn’t been in a class together since that night. Her parents first moved her out of his fourth grade room and then held her back a year. Eight years was a long time to hold a grudge. Jenny rubbed her left bicep. Did she have scars? The button-down shirt of her uniform covered the place where the monster’s claws had scratched her.
“Y-y-yes, I’m ready.” Dugan stammered. Oh, God, he was so screwed.
Gin stuffed the newspaper back into its holder. She added a pack of Big Red gum to his purchases. Since she paid for gas, he bought her snacks. It made Jenny’s eyes go wide as she realized that they were together.
He was still trying to ignore the angel. His illusion wasn’t cooperating.
Her wings brushed warm over him as she leaned forward to whisper, “Have you seen a big bear? It probably isn’t black.”
Dugan shook his head. He needed to protect the bear. This was not the time, though, to go full on crazy and talk to someone that wasn’t there. Gin was his only friend. He didn’t want to add fuel to the fire that was Jenny Brice.
“You’re new around here, Virginia.” Jenny didn’t score points by using Gin’s real name. He wasn’t surprised that Jenny knew Gin’s name. Gin stood out at Pocahontas High School. “You don’t know what’s dangerous around here, like poke berries and rattlesnakes and Dugan Harman.”
“Shush you,” Dugan said as calmly as he could. “I said I was sorry for every day we were in fourth grade together.”
“Sorry doesn’t cover having your whole life screwed up. All summer I have nightmares about the wind moving through the leaves in the corn field. I haven’t been in one since that night. And I still have this!”
She lifted her sleeve to show off the five parallel cuts across her bicep.
“Can you just check me out?” Dugan nudged his purchases closer to the scanner.
Jenny passed the flour over the scanner. “Harmans are all shifty people. Black pot moonshiners. Bootleggers. Snake oil salesmen. They get barrel-fever something awful, seeing things that aren’t there.” Jenny thumped the bag down harder than needed. “His father killed three men. The state of Virginia executed him for it. His mom threw herself off of New River Gorge Bridge. His grandmother drowned herself in Shavers Lake.” She picked up the pecans and shook them at Gin. “His family are all nutcases.”
“I like nuts.” Gin caught Jenny’s wrist and forced her to wave the pecans’ bar code past the red eye of the scanner. “They make life tasty. Got anything against dark brown sugar?”
Jenny snatched up the plastic bag of brown sugar and scanned it. “He had me believing that there was something chasing us through that cornfield. I believed I could hear it moving closer and closer.”
“You must be fun on a snipe hunt, then,” Gin said.
“He’s a crazy, mean bastard. He likes to scare people.”
“I haven’t done any of that for years,” Dugan said.
The angel put a Payday candy bar down beside his bag of white sugar. He eyed it. Was it really there? Had he missed Gin putting it there? No, Gin was glaring at Jenny like she was about to start throwing punches.
“I’m just being friendly . . . ” Jenny rang through the sugar, Gin’s gum and the mystery candy bar.
“You’re using a definition of that word I’ve never heard before.” Gin grabbed one of the store’s plastic bags and started to fill it up with Dugan’s purchases. “Save your breath. I’m not listening to you.”
The angel brushed past Dugan to pick up the Payday before Gin could bag it. “I’ll talk to you later, when you’re not in the middle of a cat fight.”
Jenny focused on ringing up the total. Gin frowned at the conveyor belt as if she noticed the candy bar’s absence. Neither girl looked at the angel as she unwrapped the Payday and bit into it. Dugan glanced at the cash register’s screen. Last item was a candy bar.
What the hell? Had he just paid for phantom food? Would he find it in the bag later? Was the angel actually walking away, unnoticed by everyone, eating his candy bar?
“I am so screwed,” he whispered to himself.
The angel drove a big, black Land Rover with Pennsylvania plates. It was parked five slots down from Gin’s ancient Subaru. The angel’s wings had vanished as she strolled across the parking lot to it. Dugan glanced into the SUV as they walked past it. A gun vault for rifles was bolted into the cargo area. Daggers, pistol, and rifles. Why would an angel be so heavily armed? What did she want with his bear? Why Pennsylvania plates? West Virginia was the place that was supposed to be “Almost Heaven.”
Filled with unease, Dugan buckled his seatbelt. If the bear and the angel were both mere delusions, what did it mean that one was hunting the other? Was this his super-ego fighting with his id? Could the bear be “killed” by the angel? What did that mean for him? Maybe if he lived near one of the big cities like Charleston or Huntington, he could hope to get a job earning minimum wage. Marlinton was the nearest “big” town. Despite being the county seat, it only had a population of a thousand. Green Bank had a total of 143 people in it. The handful of jobs weren’t trusted to crazy kids from infamous families. His dad’s family hadn’t been moonshiners by choice; there wasn’t any other way to making a living.
The whole photography thing was a long shot but it seemed like it might work. He was learning a lot from the bear. Was this angel going to mess it all up? Could she kill the bear? Were either one of them even real? Something had trashed Dr. Creagh’s office. Jenny had charged him for a Payday. The candy bar was not in his bag.
He thumbed through his pictures. Had his camera captured what he had seen? Had he even taken a picture? Yes, he had. The screen showed the angel kneeling in the baking aisle, her dagger a blazing whiteness in her hand. Her wings were an odd haze over her, like a fog reflecting a car’s high beams. What had appeared as individual feathers to him was merely brightness without form. The bug didn’t show up, not even as a blur of darkness, despite the fact that her boots were the most in focus objects in the photo. It looked like she was holding a dazzling glow stick over a random point on the floor.
Gin was going through her pre-ignition ritual of picking out a CD for her car’s stereo and muttering darkly about Green Bank’s ban on electronics. Gin glanced at the camera’s screen. “You took a picture of that woman? She was hot.”
“You—you saw her?”
“In the parking lot. She drove the black Land Rover. Yeah, I saw her. She’s not from around here. Not with a Land Rover, Doc Martins and a Hermes scarf.”
“You saw her in the parking lot but not in the store?”
“That’s what I said.” Gin stuck a Band-Maid CD into the stereo’s slot.
“She was behind us in the check-out line,” Dugan said.
“Nah. She couldn’t have been. I would have noticed her.”
“You were reading the newspaper.”
Gin started the Suburu. “I would have noticed her. She rocked.”
“Did you see the Payday?”
“The what?” Gin braked hard. She studied her rear view mirror as if he’d been pointing out something in the parking lot behind them.
“The candy bar. In the store. The Payday.”
Gin smacked him. “I thought Payday was some kind of weird car or something that I was going to run into.” She continued to back out of the parking space. “Yes, I saw that you bought a candy bar.”
“It’s not in the bag.”
“I thought you took it. Did that bitch cashier swipe it?”
Dugan stared at Gin as the world remade itself. There was no denying the damage done to his school via a bear. All the teachers and administrative staff confirmed it. Gin saw the angel. Gin and Jenny both saw the candy bar. The angel had taken his candy bar. Both the bear and the angel were real.
Dugan got up at sunrise the next morning and went out into the woods. He took his old muzzleloader and his camera but what he really hunting for was answers. He couldn’t talk to Gin; it was as if the angel’s wings had rendered the woman invisible to everyone else. Gin had only seen the angel after her gleaming feathers had vanished. The fact remained that there had been a very real woman at IGA who wanted to find an unnaturally large bear. More alarming was the fact that a bear—possibly his bear—had torn through his school’s offices. For the first time in Dugan’s life, there was evidence that what he saw might be real. It was the very lack of evidence that had made him start to question his sanity. He didn’t know what to think now that there was proof.
Mist wreathed the mountains as he scrambled up and down the steep hollows, looking for the bear. The forest was still and quiet except for the occasional crow and chipmunk calling warnings of his passing. He found the bear not far from the creek bottom where he had first spotted it.
The size of it still took his breath away. It lifted its big square head to gaze at him with dark eyes.
“Did you trash my school?” he asked it.
Dugan had braced himself for “No” and the need to decide if the answer was truthful or not. He wasn’t prepared for “Hm? Yes. What cookies did you bring?”
“Pecan tassies.” He pried the lid off the tin. “Why?”
“Because I’m smarter than the average bear.” The bear stuck his muzzle into the tin and inhaled the tassies. “Oh these are wonderful.”
“The only way I could find out what your Dr. Creepy was doing was break in and read the notes he was keeping in your file. If I made a beeline to his office, I might as well spray-paint the walls with ‘weird shit happened here.’ I brought a few donut boxes and candy wrappers in, scattered them on top of the chaos, and everyone buys that some random black bear trashed the place for food.”
“You brought the donut boxes with you?”
“I had to go all the way Charlottesville for them. Duck Donuts. Great place, weird name.”
“You went to Virginia to get donuts so you could cover up breaking into my school?”
“I told you: smarter than the average bear.”
“The average bear does not buy donuts! You are not a real bear!”
“Obviously this depends on your definition of ‘real.’ I am a bear. I am really here, sitting in front of you, talking with you. Occasionally I drive over to Virginia to touch base with civilization.”
“Drive? You drive?”
“It’s a hundred and eighty miles, one way. I’m not walking that.”
“You went a nearly four hundred miles for donuts?”
“No. That would be stupid. I had business in Charlottesville.”
“I had to meet with my lawyer.”
“Is he a bear too?”
“No, he’s a wolf. They make very good lawyers.”
Dugan pressed his hands to his face, chasing around and around all that he knew was real and everything that he suspected wasn’t. It didn’t make any sense. Bears didn’t drive. Wolves couldn’t be lawyers. The bacon maple donuts could have come from anywhere. The evidence in the form of torn boxes could have been from a school employee being selfish.
A bear had trashed the offices. That was undeniable.
“I don’t understand. Why did you want to know what Dr. Creagh’s notes said? I told you that he scared me. I didn’t tell him anything about you or anything else weird. Did you have to pee on everything?”
“I went to see if this man that you’re afraid of was actually a man.”
A shiver went all the way down Dugan’s spine. “Is he?”
“No. He’s some kind of monster pretending to be human. To most people, he’s as normal as they are. You can see the flaws in his disguise. You can tell that he’s a monster. Everyone’s been telling you that you that you’re crazy and that he’s a doctor, so you’ve been ignoring all the evidence that ran counter to that. Unconsciously, though, he’s been scaring the crap out of you.”
“What did the notes say?” Dugan cried. “You didn’t see him, so this—this guess of yours is all based on the notes. Right? What did you find out? He would sit and ask me questions and write down something. Stuff. I could never see what he was actually writing. What did his notes say about me?”
“He was drawing runes that would keep you from realizing he was a monster. Without magic to bolster his disguise, he wouldn’t be able to face you directly or interact with you any length of time.”
Dugan’s head started to hurt. “But how do you know he’s a monster?”
“He smells like a monster. I am a bear, after all. We have the best sense of smell of all terrestrial mammals. Black bears are said to be able to smell a carcass upwind from a distance of twenty miles away.”
“You. Are. Not. A. Real. Bear.”
“I told you. It depends on your definition of ‘real.’ In terms of my sense of smell, yes, I am very much a real bear. Besides, it’s been my experience that first thing any real doctor does is hang up all the paperwork that shows he’s a real doctor. I noticed that your Dr. Creepy’s credentials all had Dr. Metzer’s name on them.”
Dugan had looked at Dr. Metzer’s diplomas. He’d felt comfortable enough with the man to study the office. With Dr. Creepy, he felt like he had to keep his eyes on the man at all time. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“The question becomes: why didn’t Dr. Metzer take his credentials with him. I suspect the answer is: a monster killed him.”
Dugan hated to admit that there been something off about Dr. Metzer’s leaving. He was an idealistic young man, determined to make a difference in the isolated mountain community. The man had been proud of his framed credentials; he’d explained how the choice of his college reflected well on him. He’d thought that it be would be a good thing if Dugan applied to his alma mater of Boston University. “Okay. You’re a bear and Dr. Creagh is a monster. Shit. I have a session with him tomorrow.”
“Don’t go,” the bear said.
“I have to!”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I have to. If I don’t go, the county will start involuntary commitment on me because my mother and her mother killed themselves. It’s the real reason I’m in therapy. Everyone is worried that I might hurt myself. The school district has set it up that if I don’t go to these sessions, they’ll have me committed so they can’t be held responsible. Not even Principal Adkins can stop them if I skip the sessions.”
“Oh, bother.” The bear gave the tin one last sniff. “I’ll have to do something before then. Why aren’t you in school now?”
“It’s an in-service day.”
“So the teachers are all at school?” The bear stood up and shook himself.
“What—what-what are you planning?”
“I’m just going to have a little talk with Dr. Creepy.”
“No, no, that would be bad.”
“Trust me, I want to catch him alone.”
“He won’t be alone! That’s the whole point! There will be other teachers there.”
“Teachers-schmeachers. They’re not the ones to worry about. You just stay here and practice your picture taking.”
Dugan caught hold of the bear’s fur. It was like trying to stop a truck. “You didn’t look at my photos! I got some good ones! I even got one of an angel!”
“An angel?” The bear stopped.
“Yes! She was killing bugs in the supermarket.” Dugan was afraid to let go. “No one else could see her but I got a picture of her.”
“Let me see this angel.” The bear sat down again. He held up both massive front paws and made the “gimme” motion.
Dugan pulled out his camera. “See. Her wings are all cloudy in the photo but I could see each and every feather. She said she was looking for a bear. An unnaturally large bear.”
The bear grunted. “A Virtue. Bother. I was hoping not to pull the attention of the Grigori. It’s always like playing Russian Roulette with them, especially the young ones. It depends on what definition of monster they’re using. At least it’s not a Power. They like to nuke things from orbit. Let God sort them out. That’s the problem with religious zealots.”
“She’s dangerous then?”
“Heavily armed religious zealots tend to be dangerous.”
“She has rifles!”
“Yes, she does, but those daggers are the deadliest weapons she has. They’re magical. They can kill just about anything.”
“I made a mistake. I told her about the bear at the school. She’s probably there now.”
“What? No. That’s bad.”
“No, it’s good.” The bear stood up again. “If she takes out Dr. Creepy before I get there, then I won’t have to deal with either one of them.”
“It’s over twenty miles to my school. It will take you all day.”
The bear owned a Smart car.
It was tiny, shiny and blue. Decals of a snarling grizzly bear were plastered on its doors, hatchback, and headrests. It sat abandoned in a pull off on an ancient dirt logging road, a mile from anything vaguely like civilization. If it wasn’t for the decals, Dugan would have thought that a desperate tourist had stopped someplace secluded to pee and would be back any moment. Any doubts of ownership were erased when Dugan opened the door and a Duck Donut box fell out at his feet. The lingering scent of bacon, maple and fried dough followed.
The keys dangled in the ignition on a Chicago Bears keyring.
“Chicago Bears?” Dugan asked. “Aren’t you going a little overboard on the whole bear motif?”
“What? I’m from Chicago.”
“What’s Jay Cutler’s number?” His grandpa had watched the Chicago Bears play on Sunday. In their tiny cabin, it was impossible for Dugan to ignore the game as he baked cookies at the range. The commentators talked at length about the quarterback and his injuries.
“Pft,” the bear made a sound of contempt. “Six. Ask me something hard.”
“Where was he born?”
“Santa Claus, Indiana.” The bear cocked his head. “How do you know? You don’t strike me as a Bears fan.”
“I didn’t actually know where he was born.” It had been a test of his insanity; an imaginary bear should only know what he knew. Dugan wasn’t sure what he just proved; the answer sounded fake. “Santa Claus, Indiana? Are you making that up?”
“No. If you’re coming with me, get in.”
Dugan eyed the tiny car. “You actually fit in this?”
“It’s bigger on the inside.”
“It’s a Tardis?”
“No, it’s a Smart car.” The bear opened the driver’s side door. It fished under the driver’s seat to flip the latch and push it back all the way.
“Do you want me to drive?” Dugan said. “I do have my learner’s permit.”
The bear paused as if he was considering it. “It’s a stick.”
Dugan glanced at the shifter between the seats. Instead of labeled “PRNDL” it had “12345R.” “Manual transmission? I’ve never tried driving one before.”
The bear grunted as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “This should be interesting then.”
“Wait. It’s your car—isn’t it?”
“Doh.” The bear grumbled as he didn’t fit behind the wheel in any way that the designers imagined. While the car provided a lot of leg room, it wasn’t wide enough for the grizzly. “I just don’t usually drive it this way. Get in if you’re coming with me.”
Dugan wasn’t sure if he’d actually fit in the car with the bear. It overflowed into the passenger seat. Also enclosing himself in a very small space with a very big, meat-eater probably wasn’t the sanest thing to do. If he didn’t go with it, though, he couldn’t control the chaos that was about to ensue at his school. He didn’t like Dr. Creagh but the rest of the teachers and staff didn’t deserve to be terrorized.
He eased himself into the Smart car.
The bear smelled like clover hay, freshly cut and drying in the summer sun. It was a surprising and not unpleasant scent. Its fur was much softer than he expected.
Jenny’s parents had owned the skin of a black bear that they had tacked to the wall of their living room. The fur had been coarser than that of a coon hound. His bear was unnaturally soft—like a rabbit. That the grizzly was fluffy, soft, and sweet smelling jarred Dugan’s sense of reality.
With the bear overflowing onto his side of the Smart car, it took a minute for Dugan to arrange himself, his camera, his ammo bag, and his muzzleloader in the tight space left over.
“Close the door,” the bear said.
“I’m getting to it.” Dugan had to hitch himself closer to the bear to actually get it shut. There. He was in a very small car with a very big bear.
They sat for a full minute in silence.
“Can you turn the key?” the bear finally asked.
“I’m afraid that I’ll snap it off in the ignition.” The bear held up his massive right paw and flexed it. “Not a primate. No opposable thumb.”
Dugan leaned over to turn the key, wondering how the hell the bear drove the car when he didn’t have a passenger.
Backing the car onto the logging road required several minutes of annoyed rumbling and furry elbows in Dugan’s face. An angry grizzly in a tight enclosed space was a frightening sound. Dugan pressed himself tight against the passenger door and made sure it was unlocked, so he could bolt quickly. The only comfort was that the bear wouldn’t be able to quickly follow; it was wedged in tight behind the steering wheel.
Once on the road proper, though, the bear proved to be a calm, skilled driver, manual transmission and all.
He was in a car with a grizzly bear going to fight a monster at his high school.
Maybe. If he wasn’t so crazy that he could no longer tell truth from reality.
His high school was in the shadow of Thorny Creek Mountain. It had been built in 1968 as a merger of three different towns whose old schools were being torn down. It was, by necessity, equally distant from all three population centers. He’d just never noticed how isolated it was from everything. There was nothing but fields and trees for as far as the eye could see.
Dugan scanned the parking lot full of cars. The angel’s black Land Rover wasn’t among them. He wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad. He wasn’t sure what kind of car that Dr. Creagh owned. He wasn’t even sure if the man—monster—whatever—drove. He vaguely remembered someone saying something about the new psychologist living near the school, with the implication that he walked to work. There were some houses on down the side road, out of sight of the school.
The bear started to pull into the first free slot. It put the Smart car in direct view of the offices.
“No!” Dugan pointed toward the narrow lane that led back to the baseball diamond. “If we drive up there, we can park the car where no one will see us get out.”
The bear grunted. “I suppose that would be wiser.” It guided the car up the lane. There were one or two worrisome grinding sounds as the car bottomed out on the rough, twisting steep grade. The school was ringed with pines, screening the baseball diamond from anyone that might have noticed the Smart car drive past.
The bear fumbled with the key ring and then growled with annoyance. “Turn it off.”
“Okay.” Dugan turned the key. “Let me go first.”
“For God’s sake, why?”
“If anyone sees you they’re going to call the police.”
“Hm, I suppose you’re right.” The bear cursed as he attempted to open the door without breaking the handle.
Dugan hopped out of the car. He ran around to the other side and opened the driver’s door. “Stay back and let me do the talking. I’m good at talking.”
“So you claim.” The Smart car shook and swayed as the bear attempted to climb out without damaging his car. Dugan’s thoughts flashed to Winnie the Pooh, stuck in Rabbit’s door for a week. Surely the bear couldn’t get wedged in his own car.
The right side wheel lifted off the ground as bear heaved himself to the left. Dugan scurried back, afraid that the car would roll. With a curse, the bear forced himself out the door and the wheels thumped back onto the ground.
They walked down the hill, keeping the pine trees between them and the school. It was weird that despite the fact that they’d been traveling for nearly an hour between walking to the car, struggling for the bear to get in and out, and the drive itself, Dugan hadn’t considered the actual upcoming confrontation. What was the bear planning to do? Maul Dr. Creagh?
“We just need the man to sign the paperwork saying I don’t need therapy anymore.” Dugan was keenly aware that he still wasn’t entirely sure that there was a talking bear walking beside him. The fact that he was at the school seemed to prove he was, but it all felt more surreal that any other moment in his life. How was this real? Shouldn’t real feel more normal? Boring? It didn’t help that sheer nervousness was making him want to giggle like a five-year-old. This had to be actually happening but cold reason insisted that he wasn’t about to walk into the school with a grizzly bear. He had to be alone and something was seriously wrong with him to not be able to find any rational proof that he wasn’t.
Why was he so torn? It seemed fairly clear in the woods. The forest was a place of changing nature, shifting shadows and whispers of old magic. Fairytales recognized the mysticism of the place. In the woods, anything could happen.
His high school was a place of fact. One plus one always equaled two. Earth was a planet circling the sun. Reality was what one saw and no more.
Up to this point, he could see his possible insanity as an uncertain quirk. He may or may not be imaging monsters. It was possible that he was actually seeing creatures that slipped away, leaving no track, like a quick snake or elusive mouse. There and gone before anyone else saw it.
When they walked into school, he’d know for sure. He was afraid that the answer was that he was as insane as everyone said. That all this time, he had fooled himself into believing that there was some rational answer and that he was sane as he felt.
If he was crazy, then he had little hope for the future. Photography might hold hope for him, but that was questionable if he was so delusional that he was taking pictures of things that weren’t there.
He lengthened his stride as nervousness jangled through his system like pure electricity. He reached the glass doors that faced the parking lot. The first two doors he tried were locked. The hallways beyond the glass were strangely dark; he couldn’t see into the black to pick out any details. He glanced back at the parking lot. Had the teachers all gone home? No, the tight huddle of cars sat in the reserved parking spaces. Mrs. Costa’s ancient wood-trimmed station wagon sat beside Principal Adkins’ red Ford Mustang. Two dozen cars in all indicating that the teachers and the administrative staff were all at work.
The third door he tried opened to a rocky, dark tunnel.
He stood there a moment staring at the jagged cavelike opening.
So much for his sanity check.
The bear peered over his shoulder and grunted. “Not good.”
Dugan glanced back at the cars in the parking lot. “Where are the teachers? Are they in there?”
The bear sniffed deeply. “Yes, they’re in there—wherever there is. Most likely it still looked like a school to them when they went through the door.”
“It is a school. My school.”
“Nah, something twisted this doorway. It doesn’t lead to the school anymore. It leads to someplace dark and wet and cold. I might have rattled your Doctor Creepy a little too hard. He’s taking this fight to somewhere he’s more comfortable.”
The truth that Dugan could feel in the statement jarred horribly with the everyday logic that he normally operated on. People didn’t just transform buildings into caves overnight. Bears didn’t talk.
The bear turned and headed back to its car.
“You’re just leaving?” Dugan called after it, unable to tear his eyes away from cave.
“Letting your enemy chose the battlefield is a loser’s gambit.”
“What about the teachers?”
“Unfortunate collateral damage.”
“No! We can’t just leave them there.” Dugan started back to the car. “I’m getting my gun and going in.”
“That’s not a very sane thing to do.”
“Nothing here is sane. I’m just winging this! Just like I always do.”
He got his muzzleloader and ammo bag out of the Smart car.
“That thing works?” the bear asked with surprise.
“Yes. I hunt with it. Mostly small game. Squirrels. Rabbits. Possum. Anything to put meat on the table.”
“I thought you were carrying around because . . . Well. I wasn’t sure why you were carrying around a Civil War weapon. I just thought it was one of your quirks.”
“I don’t really have money for a new gun and it works fine.” Placing the butt on the ground, Dugan took a cartridge from his ammo bag.
The bear blocked his hand holding the cartridge. “What is that?”
“It’s a bullet and black power wrapped in a spell charm.”
“Spell charm?” It roared into Dugan’s face, blasting back his bangs with the force of its shout. “Why do you have bullets wrapped in spells?”
“They fly truer that way.” Dugan pulled his arm free. “I need the advantage to take head shots. I’ve tried hunting using just normal paper but I miss every time.”
“Where the hell did you learn spells without knowing monsters are real?”
“My grandpa always says that my mom was just a kid herself when she had me and filled with nonsense from her mother who had been bat shit crazy. When everyone tells you the same thing, you start to believe it, even when you know it’s wrong. I started to think that it was all in my head that I needed the spells to hit a target. That’s why I tried hunting with normal paper.”
Dugan ripped the top off of the cartridge with his teeth and poured the black powder down the barrel.
“Does this thing have enough stopping power?” The bear eyed the gun closer. “I mean—you’re killing squirrels with it. Dr. Creepy is bigger than a chipmunk.”
“I do headshots for a reason. Its bullet is bigger than what people usually use for deer. If I hit a squirrel in the body, I’d ruin half the meat.”
“What the hell? This gun is covered with spell runes! Where the hell did you get it?”
“It was my mom’s gun and her mother’s before her and her grandmother’s before that.” He cut the excess paper off, careful not to damage the spell written on the bottom edge of the paper. He slid the ramrod free and tamped the bullet down until it was seated firmly against the base.
“Are you coming with me?”
The bear looked away.
For a minute, Dugan was sure that the bear was going to say no. Then it gave a loud sigh, and said “Oh, bother. Fine. I’ll come with you.”
Dugan started for the school, gripping his muzzleloader tightly. There’d better be monsters at the school or he was about to get into a hell of lot of trouble.
His class had gone down into a coal mine in fifth grade. It was an old shaft, long played out, the remaining equipment repurposed for educational field trips. They’d been given helmets—as if this would save them if the ceiling collapsed—loaded onto a squat train car, and taken down into the darkness. It seemed at first like a very slow roller coaster ride as they rolled away from the loading zone. The tracks led into a shed made of corrugated tin and then into the arched mine opening. The horror started once they plunged into the darkness.
He suffered déjà vu as he walked down the hill to open the door into his high school. The “hallways” were lined with the same rough-hewn, light-devouring black rock. Dust hazed the cold, damp air. The absolute darkness was held back by bare light bulbs strung a dozen feet apart. The lamps created small islands of dim light surround by shifting shadows. To finish the illusion, intermittent posts and support beams held up a low ceiling.
Was it an illusion or did the doorway into the school now lead to the heart of a mountain?
He’d forgotten to take his camera off. He lifted it up to focus the lens on the hallway. It showed the minelike passage. He hit the button. It flashed in the dark of the hallway. The saved photo indicated that he was really standing in a shadowy rocky corridor.
“You’re still not sure of yourself?” the bear asked.
“I thought that the school would prove things to me. Green Bank elementary was full of creepy stuff. Here? Weird shit never happened at my high school before. It always made me feel more crazy since everywhere else is ‘anything goes.’ If the world is full of scary monsters, then all the world should have them. That my school was excluded made me question myself.”
“I’m not sure if I should say congratulations or condolences.”
“This is not a good thing.” Dugan stalked forward into the dimly lit tunnel.
“No, it isn’t. It would be helpful to even know what kind of monster your Dr. Creepy is. I thought I was somewhat knowledgeable about such things, but I have no idea.”
“This all reminds me of stories my mother told me. My grandmother had taught her a shitload of crazy tales on top of the ones everyone else knows. You know: the fairytales that Disney have animated. Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and that girl that spun gold out of straw. What the hell is with that shit? Why do people tell kids stuff like that and then expect them to know reality from fiction?”
“There’s a story about monsters in caves kidnapping school teachers?”
“Sort of. If I didn’t eat my liver and onions, my mom would say that a dvergr would carry me off to its lair under the mountains. She’d sing this song about it asking if I should be boiled in broth and gravy, roasted on a spit or browned in stewpan. It scared me silly.”
“No wonder your grandpa thinks she was off her rocker.”
“She said that dvergr were white maggots that fed on the body of this giant by the name of Ymir. He was so massive that when the gods killed him, they created the world out of his bones and flesh. The dvergr were maggots that burrowed into Ymir’s flesh, feeding on his body. They grew intelligent but remained maggots in thoughts and deeds.”
“Hm, yeah, there’s a bit of a carrion smell to your Doctor Creepy. Did she tell you anything useful about killing these dvergr?”
“Not really. They’re fearful things. They won’t attack the strong. They like the dark. They’re clever but you can never figure out what they’re after. My mom says that the girl spinning the straw to gold was dealing with a dvergr. Why did Rumpelstiltskin want the king’s firstborn son? To eat him? To overthrow the king? The stories never say. In all the fairytales, the heroes used the dvergr’s pride against them. They like to think they’re smarter than anyone; the problem being is that they usually are.”
“That’s not promising.”
“Yeah. The reason my mom’s stories frightened me so bad was they weren’t like fairytales. In her stories people didn’t live to be happy ever after. The monsters usually won.”
“A childhood like that and you didn’t know monsters were real?”
“She told me lots of things that weren’t true. Santa Claus. Easter Bunny. The tooth fairy. That my father was a good man when he’d killed three men in Virginia. He was executed shortly after I was born. Everyone else told me that monsters were just make believe. Old stories to scare kids into behaving. It wasn’t until she’d—died that the monsters started to show up.”
They picked their way down the rough-hewn tunnel. The naked bulbs barely held back the dense black of the mine.
The narrow tunnel branched. The passage to the right opened up to large dark chamber. At least, Dugan sensed it was large. He couldn’t see into the darkness beyond the feeble light in the hallway.
“Which way do you think we should go?”
The bear sniffed. “Oh, bother, the teachers are in this big room. They’re not moving. They might be dead, but they don’t smell like it.”
“Dead?” Dugan plunged into the dark.
“Wait!” the bear shouted behind him. “There’s a big drop off right in front of you!”
Dugan froze in place. “What?”
“Don’t go running blindly in the dark!” the bear grumbled. “I can see a hundred times better than you. There’s a huge hole in the ground straight in front of you. The teachers are on the ground in front of it. It feels like a trap.”
Dugan wavered in place. He couldn’t see anything. He should have brought a flashlight. He needed to see in order to shoot anything. Any coon hunter knew that. The muzzleloader, though, needed both hands to fire. He couldn’t hold the long barrel steady enough to hit anything.
Did he have anything that made light? His camera had a flash but that would only destroy his night vision. He thought over the contents of his ammo bag. He had matches. What else?
“What are you doing?” the bear asked as Dugan picked his way carefully back to the last lamp.
“I need light.” He fumbled blindly through his ammo bag, finding things mostly by feel. He found the length of cotton clothesline first. He measured off a couple of inches and cut it with his hunting knife. “I’m going to make a lamp.”
Dugan took out his glass flask. It was only thing he had that belonged to his father. He kept it in his ammo bag to keep it away from his grandpa, who would drink the contents and sell the antique flask. It should be full of his family’s dangerous black pot moonshine. He couldn’t tell by weight. The leather cover made it impossible to check. He stripped off the cover and held it up to the light bulb. Yes, it was still full.
He unscrewed the lid and dipped one end of the clothesline, and then the other, into the moonshine. He threaded the damp line through a grommet and then stuffed the loose end into the flask.
He found his matches and lit the wick. The light it put off was feeble in the oppressive darkness. He picked his way into the large room, holding the flask out in front of him.
The teachers lay in untidy heaps in the darkness. It seemed as if they were all carried to the room and dumped on the floor dangerously close to the edge of a huge hole in the ground. Principal Adkins had his right arm dangling over the lip.
Dugan wedged the flask lamp upright so his hands were free to move Principal Adkins to relative safety in the hallway. He was heavier than Dugan expected; he couldn’t actually lift the man up and carry him. The bear helped drag the man over the rough ground.
“He’s breathing.” The bear sniffed Principal Adkins. “He’s drugged or poisoned or something. The others are probably in the same condition.”
“How am we going to get them all out?” Dugan paused, thinking he heard something. “Did you hear that?”
“Something is coming,” the bear said. “It sounds weird, like a wasp or something flying.”
Dugan listened intently. There was the dry rustling like the thrashing of leaves. It grew louder, like a storm front moving through a forest. He gripped his rifle tightly.
“Look out!” The bear sent Dugan tumbling.
Something flashed over Dugan as he rolled. A large pale shape flickered in and out of the light given off by the flask lamp. He caught the fleeting impression of a large pale wasplike creature with translucent wings. It tugged at the shoulder of his coat, slicing through the thick wool and the flannel of his shirt beneath it, and then was gone.
“What was that?” Dugan scrambled to his feet, bringing up his rifle.
“Dr. Creepy!” The bear shouted the name like an insult.
“You should have stayed out of this, bear!” Dr. Creagh’s voice came from someplace up high. “This is none of your business!”
The bear roared in reply. It reared up on its hind legs, swiping at something diving out of the darkness.
Dugan caught the flash of white as the creature flashed overhead. He pulled the trigger out of sheer instinct. In the muzzle flare, he saw the pale giant wasp dodge the bullet. It flitted away, vanishing into the darkness.
He swore. He needed to reload the muzzleloader in the near dark before it attacked again. He popped the percussion cap out of the lock.
“Shit,” the bear swore lowly. “It stung me.”
“What?” Dugan pulled a second cartridge out of his ammo bag.
“I thought if I could get a paw onto it, I could take it.” The bear stumbled back from the lip of the gaping hole in the floor. “Most things are a pushover for me. I didn’t think that the thing could sting me.”
Dugan tore the top off the paper cartridge. He fought not to panic. If he did, he could screw up reloading. He couldn’t help but curse under his breath. He should have listened to the bear and run. He could have called 911 and hoped that the police could rescue the teachers. He should have tried to find the angel.
Beside him, the bear collapsed onto the ground with a groan.
Dugan poured the black powder into the barrel. He placed the paper-wrapped ball into the barrel, listening for the rustle of wings. If the creature managed to poison him, it would be all over. Everyone would die. The teachers. The bear. Him.
He heard the rustle of the wings. He wasn’t reloaded yet. He couldn’t get a shot off. He needed more time!
He closed his eyes and hit the shutter release on his camera. He saw the brilliant flash through his eyelids. Dr. Creagh cried out in surprise and pain.
Dugan opened his eyes. The wasp winged past him, the stinger nearly grazing him. It circled wide to attack again.
He kicked the flask lamp at the monster.
The glass broke on impact, dousing the wasp in burning moonshine. Dr. Creagh went up in flames.
Dugan pulled the ramrod free. He tamped the lead ball down the barrel until it hit the seat. He pulled out the ramrod, slipped the percussion cap into place. The burning wasp was crawling toward him, the flames reflecting in its multifaceted eyes.
He took aim and fired. Without thinking, he took a headshot.
The monster bore little resemblance to Dr. Creagh. It looked even less like the man with the massive hole in the forehead. It collapsed, still burning.
Dugan stood panting as the flames died away, leaving him in darkness. After a moment, his eyes adjusted and he realized that he was standing in the combined gym and stage. The lights were off and the big, cavernous room was lit only by the small windows high above the bleachers. The teachers and the bear lay scattered around him, unconscious. The dvergr smoldered, looking less and less like a living creature as the exoskeleton turned to ash and collapsed.
What did he do now? If he called the police, how was going to explain this? There was no cave. No monster. Just him, a bear, and lots of mysteriously wounded teachers.
The fire alarm went off.
It was loud blaring noise. The light beside the exit strobed bright white.
“Shit!” The sound made Dugan jump. He raised his muzzleloader to block attacks out of sheer reflex. He stared wide eyed at the rifle. Gun. School. “Shit!”
He had to hide his rifle before the police arrived or he was going to be in so much trouble.
He raced for the nearest the door. “Wait! My ammo bag!” He ran back, picked it up, and realized that he couldn’t leave the bear lying unconscious on the floor. While the police would help the teachers, they’ll probably shoot the bear. “Oh no!”
He tried shaking the bear awake. “Get up! Get up!”
It grunted but didn’t wake up.
It was no use. He had to hide the bear.
He glanced around the huge room. Besides the closed bleachers and the basketball hoops, the room was utterly empty. Extending the bleachers would take too much time. The stage curtain was closed but he wouldn’t be able to get the massive animal up the short flight of steps. Nor could he get it down the steps to the locker rooms under the stage. There was the storage room for the gym equipment and large play props but it usually was locked. He ran over to the doors. Stunningly, they weren’t. He ran back to the bear and tugged feebly on it in an attempt to pick it up.
How long before the police showed up? Neither Dunmore or Green Bank had a police department. They would have to come from Marlinton. It was twenty-minute drive but there could be a squad car patrolling the area. The sound of the alarm might bring the people that lived down the road. They would have guns. Everyone hunted in this part of the woods.
Dugan ran in a circle around the bear. How could he move such a huge creature alone?
He remembered that the gymnastic team had dollies to move their equipment. A couple boys got into trouble last year for racing them around the gym. He ran back to the storage room. Four dollies sat by the door. He stacked them together and wheeled them back to the bear.
He struggled to roll the bear onto the dollies. He heaved up the huge head and kicked the first dolly under its shoulders. The big front paws were easier to move. “You are a seriously big bear!”
When he lifted the bear’s hindquarters, its front started to roll across the gym floor. “No! Wait!”
It took three tries with the bear rolling willy-nilly about the gym to get the last dolly under the massive butt. Over the loud fire alarm, he could hear a distant siren growing closer. The police were coming!
Dugan pushed the bear to the storage room and hid it under bags filled with soccer balls. He ran back to the gym to snatch up his muzzleloader. He heard shouting of men filling the halls. He’d run out of time; he couldn’t leave the school unseen with the gun. He ran back to the storage room.
The door didn’t have a latch on the inside. Dugan supposed it was so students wouldn’t lock themselves in it. The doors opened out, so he couldn’t barricade them shut. He closed them firmly and turned off the lights. All he could do was sit in the dark and pray.
Within minutes, the police determined that there was no real threat of fire. The alarm was silenced.
Sitting in the dark, listening to the muffled voices of the first responders was a weirdly enlightening. For the first time in his life, people saw the evidence that something strange had happened to him. They doused Dr. Creagh’s body with fire extinguishers and then proclaimed that the smoldering remains “weren’t human.” The puncture wounds were discovered on the teachers and staff. One victim was roused enough to cry out. “A mine! We fell into a mine!”
He wasn’t crazy. He was sitting within feet of a snoring bear that could talk. It owned a Smart Car. It could drive. There been an invisible angel at the supermarket.
There was an invisible angel standing in the open doorway.
She’d yanked open the doors and glared down. Her brilliant wings were stretched out behind her, shielding them from the first responders. He knew that she knew that he was at the root of the chaos behind her.
“I didn’t do anything,” he blurted out. “Well, I did something but only after Dr. Creagh—he’s a dvergr—they’re these bugs that look like people—well, I didn’t know they were bugs, my mother never told me about that part. Dr. Creagh did this! I don’t know why. I don’t know anything. My mother never told me . . . ”
Actually, his mother had. He had spent years thinking she was crazy. That he was crazy.
Any relief of finding out he wasn’t crazy was stolen by the knowledge that the world was filled with all the monsters his mother told him about. Her world was a frightening, dangerous place.
Was that why people kept saying that there were no things as monsters? Did it feel better to stay ignorant than admit the truth? But wasn’t it more dangerous to walk around with blinders on? Dr. Creagh had scared him silly but Dugan had no power to investigate Creagh’s credentials or research his background or even check on the well-being of Dr. Metzer. None of this would have happened if the teachers had taken off their blinders and acknowledged something weird was going on.
“Where’s the bear?” the angel snapped.
“The bear didn’t do anything bad!” He stood up. His muzzleloader wasn’t loaded but it would make a good club.
“Where is it?”
He knew it be bad to lie to her. Angels probably were like Santa Claus. She probably knew when he was lying.
Before he could think of a safe answer, the bear grunted loudly from under the soccer balls.
Dugan blocked her glance toward the hidden bear. “I’m not going to let you hurt him,” he said. He had no idea how he’d stop her since her gun was probably loaded and his wasn’t.
She glanced down at his muzzleloader, eyes narrowing.
He pressed on, hoping that he could talk his way out of this since he couldn’t win a fight with her. “The bear is my friend. He’s teaching me photography. He protected me.”
“Do you even know what he is?” she said.
“I know that he’s good.”
“Good is subjective.”
“All my life people have told me that what I knew to be the truth were signs of insanity. They’ve said that every shred of evidence that I could gather was proof that I was crazy. Nothing I could do or say or show them would make them change their minds. It’s because they didn’t want to admit that they’re possibly wrong. They’ve been fed one safe, clean version of reality and refuse to believe anything that goes against.” He waved his hand toward the teachers lying on the floor being examined by paramedics. “They’ll find some stupid, impossible, wrong explanation for this. Toxic gases from some abandoned coal mine. Food poisoning. Something. Anything but the truth, because the truth would require being open to the idea that they don’t know everything. I know that the bear is a good person not because I’m using some preconceived notion of what is good and evil, but because I’ve weighed the evidence.”
She scuffed her boot beside a smear of blood on the wooden floor. “It’s wounded. Is it poisoned like the others?”
“Yes.” It felt dangerous to admit but the evidence was clear.
“You know how to cure dvergr poisoning?”
He knew only what his mother taught him. “Would the nine-herb charm work?”
He dug through his ammo bag. His mother had taught him to make a healing salve with herbs that they picked on the mountain. It had mugwort, cockspur grass, lamb's cress, plantain, mayweed, nettle, crab-apple, thyme and fennel. Like the spell charm bullets, the salve worked too well to abandon. It was more evidence that he’d been ignoring.
He smeared the salve into the bear’s wound. "Bone to bone, blood to blood, limb to limb, as if they were mended.”
I’m not crazy, he thought. It felt like stepping back to the sanity of his childhood, where the world was a frightening place but he was strong within it. He saw wolves at Charlottesville because they were really there, not because he was insane and seeing things that weren’t real. He saw the truth. The evidence was there if he believed his own eyes and not what others told him was the truth. He was powerful because he could take action.
“You do realize that you’re petting me,” the bear grumbled.
“It’s all right.” The bear heaved itself to its feet. “Get your gun, let’s go.”
“What? You think we can just walk out of here?”
“You heard the firemen. Toxic gas!” the bear muttered. “Makes you see the damnedest things that aren’t really there.”
“They still might try to record us with their phones.”
“Oh, the joy of vacationing in this area is that most people don’t own cell phones because they can’t get any reception. It’s the National Radio Quiet Zone. But just in case, walk fast and keep your head down.”
Copyright © 2017 Wen Spencer
John W. Campbell Award Winner Wen Spencer resides in paradise in Hilo, Hawaii, with two volcanoes overlooking her home. According to Spencer, she lives with "my Dalai Lama-like husband, my autistic teenage son, and two cats (one of which is recovering from mental illness). All of which makes for very odd home life at times." Spencer's love of Japanese anime and manga flavors her writing. Her novel Tinker won the 2003 Sapphire Award for Best Science Fiction Romance and was a finalist for the Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award for Fantasy Novel. Her Wolf Who Rules was a Top Pick by Romantic Times and given their top rating of four and a half stars. Other Baen books include Endless Blue and Eight Million Gods. The Elfhome series includes Tinker, Wolf Who Rules, Elfhome, Wood Sprites and Project Elfhome. The following short story is set in the world of her latest novel, The Black Wolves of Boston, available at booksellers in February.