This story is by Barbara Bates and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I answered the phone.
“Hi Dad, it’s me,” said Bea, “Jay and I will pick you and Mom up in an hour.”
“Great. We’re ready. See you soon, Bear.” Bear was the pet name for my daughter, Bea. She and her husband, Jay, were going with us on a short back pack trip. I was so grateful that my family also enjoyed the same things I did. Camping, hunting and fishing were my favorite pass times. On this back pack trip we were scouting for a new elk hunting area.
When we reached the trail head, Jay, Bear and I loaded our packs onto our backs. My pack was heavier than I would have liked, but it was necessary. My wife, Ellen, was struggling with a bad back and I didn’t want her to carry anything, so I had everything for both of us. We had argued about it. She insisted she could carry something, but I put my foot down. She knew when to stop pushing. To save weight, we would be sharing a sleeping bag. The tent stayed behind also.
It had been an almost perfect day. True, we hadn’t found the lake for which we were looking, but being in the great out-of-doors was always special. Being with my family was icing on the cake. Who wouldn’t enjoy a day like today? The weather had been perfect. The air fresh and clean. We chose this perfect camping site by the little creek, which was humming a lullaby. We had even taken a couple of grouse which we roasted on a stick over our camp fire. If the truth be told, the meat was rather tough, but in my opinion, it was a banquet.
I was concerned about Ellen, however. We had meet a hiker on the trail that morning. He was a nice enough fellow, but he mentioned he had seen a bear. She is afraid of bears. I have told her repeatedly that wild animals don’t attack unless provoked. All you have to do is show them some respect and give them room. I knew it didn’t change anything for Ellen. She is a good sport, but I knew she was scared. “What was that? Was that a wolf or a coyote?” she asked after we were snuggled in our sleeping bag.
“It was just a bird, honey,” I reassured her. “Go to sleep.”
We were spooning, not so much because we were feeling romantic, but because we were stuffed into the single sleeping bag. She was using my folded arm as her pillow. On the other side of me, Bear and Jay slept in their double sleeping bag. I usually fall asleep the minute my head hit the pillow, or in this case, my wadded up jacket. Tonight was different.
I took a deep breath and inhaled the pungent pine boughs we had cut and laid out for our bed. Ellen’s hair held the remnants of camp fire smoke. I smiled. Sitting around a campfire was another favorite pass time. The warm glow stimulated good camaraderie.
I turned my head enough to see the starry sky. There was a quarter moon, just enough to serve as a night light, but not enough to cover the stars. The Milky Way had left her brush stroke.
The creek’s lullaby, accompanied by the gentle beat of the tree branches in the breeze, lulled me to sleep.
Suddenly my perfectly peaceful night exploded. A scream. A powerful blow to my forehead. Ellen yelling, “It’s a bear!”
The bruin was standing right by my head. I didn’t do anything to him. Why would he hit me like that? I was furious. “I’ll get him!” I yelled. Being an avid outdoors-man, I pride myself to always be prepared. That meant I had a weapon close at hand. Even though my head was pounding and my vision was blurred, I was ready to defend myself and my family from this aggressive, unreasonable animal. I struggled to free my arm from under Ellen’s head. She had me trapped. I wiggled my arm up a little bit so I could reach my knife.
Once on the trail, I pretended to need a break or stopped to point out a special view or an interesting rock. I wanted to make sure Mom and Dad were not over doing it. If Dad caught on to me, he would be furious. He was a proud man and in good shape, but he was carrying a lot of weight. Mom seemed to be doing fine. If her back started spasming, we would be in trouble.
I, like my father, had enjoyed the day. Mother was always a good sport and went along with us on these camping trips, but it was Dad and I were the driving force. I often wondered if it was the camping or the special time and bond with my father which was more important to me. I was worried about Mom tonight. When we were talking around the camp fire, I was aware Mom was even quieter than usual. I asked if her back was hurting but she claimed it was fine. Mom seldom complained, so I wasn’t convinced.
Or maybe she was worried about bears. She wasn’t only quiet, she was staring into the night. I wished she wouldn’t read all those stupid bear attack stories. I hoped she would sleep well tonight.
As much as I liked camping, I never slept very well. Sleeping on the ground wasn’t comfortable. There was always a rock or stick to poke me. Tonight one of the branches cut across my ribs. I have to change positions frequently. I often just laid on my back and watched the night sky. That was what I was doing that night. I was aware of the deep breathing coming from Jay and the light snore from Dad. I smiled to myself. A shooting star streaked across the sky and I made a wish.
A tiny animal ran down my chest. It’s feet felt like a pin cushion rolling down my body. I was sure it would get down to the bottom of the sleeping bag and realize it was trapped. Then it was going to bite me. I screamed and was out of the sleeping bag in a flash and crouched down by Dad’s head.
I saw the glimmer of moonlight on the steel blade of Dad’s knife.
“Dad. It’s me,” I yelled.
“Come back to bed,” Jay said.
“Is it gone?” I asked.
“It’s gone! It ran across my neck. I grabbed it and tossed it.”
“I really don’t like mice.”
“Me neither, but it’s gone.”
I got up before the rest of them and started the fire. Just as the coffee was ready, Bear joined me.
“What in the world happened to you?” she said staring at my black and blue goose egg.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Something whacked me in the head last night. Was it you?”
“Is that why you were coming at me with your knife? You thought I hit you?”
“I thought you were a bear and that the bear had hit me.”
Ellen joined us then. “Good morning.”
“Good morning, Mom,” said Bea. “How did you sleep?”
“Not very well. I worried about bears all night.” Then she noticed me and my deformed forehead. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. Did I do that?”
“It was you?”
“Probably,” Ellen shrugged.
“Why would you hit Dad?” Bea asked.
“I got worried about bears after that man said he had seen one. When we were sitting around the camp fire, I kept searching for any motion. I kept telling myself that a bear wouldn’t hurt us, but it didn’t work. When we went to bed, I kept hearing animals. It was too dark to look for any movement. I squeezed my eyes shut, but I still heard sounds. I tried to convince myself there was no danger. Really, I did.” She looked at me pleading for me to understand.
I nodded for her to continue.
“Then I heard a bear walking across the tarp over us. Each step was so clear and my heart was pounding. I heard Bea scream. I thought the bear had gotten her. I threw back my head and yelled, “It’s and bear!” The back of my head slammed into something. I’m sorry, honey. It must have been you.”