This story is by DL Strand and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Kara’s face felt swollen. Numb, like she’d just been punched hard. She brought her hand up to her nose and winced at the pain. Her fingers came away smeared with blood. Gradually, she became aware that she was sitting in her car. The airbag, deflated and pale, drooped like a used condom from the middle of the steering wheel. Country music blasted from the radio. She switched it off.
She felt groggy. Disoriented. Detached.
Her car rested among trees next to the dirt road, its hood folded like an upside down taco.
“…the hell?” She asked in a groggy voice.
Broken Bud Light bottles littered the floor. The stench of stale beer tipped the balance, and she wrenched open the door and vomited in the dirt. As she did, the pressure on her sore abdomen caused her to cry out.
Kara wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, took a few calming breaths, then reached down, carefully pushing the damp shards out of her way, to pick up her phone. It was sticky with dried beer and cracks marred the screen. Still, it came to life as she tilted it upright and read “3 missed calls. 1 voice message from Mom.” She touched the icon to listen.
“Hi Dear, I hope you’re on your way. I just wanted to make sure you got the juice. Your sister doesn’t let the kids drink soda. I don’t know where she gets it. How is soda any worse than juice? It’s all loaded with sugar. You girls grew up drinking whatever you wanted and you seemed to do fine… Also, I wanted to make sure you checked the cake. It should say…”
“‘Happy birthday, Gampa.’” Kara mouthed the words, as her mom said them.
“…They always mess that up.” her mother continued.
“Alright, thank you, dear. See you soo…” then her tone changed to alarm. “Sam, what are you…? I have to go dear. Your father’s gotten into… Sam! Those are for the…” the phone went dead.
She sighed, and beginning to regain a little sense of herself, opened the door and stepped out.
Her head began to throb as she stood up on wobbly legs, leaning on the car for support. She’d been drunk enough times to recognize the aftereffects.
What happened? Keeping one hand on the car, she shuffled around to the front, afraid of what she’d see.
There was nothing. No second car. No body. Nothing. The driver’s side headlight was shattered. The front grill – creased, but whatever she’d crashed into was gone now.
Things began to come into focus. She remembered picking up the cake and the beer She also remembered opening a bottle or two for the drive. (Apparently, she forgot the juice.).
Her eyes focused on a brown clump jammed between the bumper and the paint. She reached for it, tentatively. Was it weeds? Hair?
She pulled it out.
No, not hair. Fur.
What the hell had she hit? Where was it?
She tried to call her mom, but the phone merely beeped three times and read “No signal”.
It was 4:35. Her father’s birthday party would’ve started already.
Kara rejected the idea of driving. Neither she, nor her car were road worthy. Should she stay? It could be hours before someone drove by. People tended to avoid the mountain pass this time of year. One of her father’s sayings played in her head. “Learn how to do for yourself. Ain’t no sonofabitch gonna save you, ‘cept him who’s gonna make you pay for it in the end.” A real poet, her Dad.
“Fuck it.” She said.
She reached into the car, grabbed her purse – it went with nothing, but it contained her life – and (with a touch of guilt for leaving her father’s cake behind) began her trek down the mountain, toward the interstate.
She kept to the side of the road. The gravel crunching in rhythm with her stride.
The sun, which had hung low in the sky when she’d awakened, slipped below the trees. Already, it was dusk, and miles still lay ahead.
The sound of the forest seemed to increase with the waning light – the breeze blowing through the pines punctuated by the occasional sound of a pinecone dropping into the undergrowth. As the day faded to full night however, the woods began to change. Her view was limited to the line of trees bordering the road.
Each pop or crack carried with it a picture of something sinister she needed to explain away. The sound of her footsteps seemed to increase, obscuring the more subtle noises of the woods. Despite her desire to hurry, she found herself pausing to try to decipher various muted noises, then she’d continue on, clutching her oversized bag more closely to her.
It wasn’t until the moon peeked through the treetops that Kara heard the first grunt. She paused, hoping it was a trick of the wind. The trees stood still in their roots, as if they listened as well. Then, four grunts in rapid succession followed by – was that chattering teeth?
Kara switched her bag to the left arm, quickening her pace while searching in every direction at once, hoping against good sense that she’d see headlights – a flashlight – anything that would show her she wasn’t alone with her fear.
The moon crested the trees completely, painting the dirt road a light gray, leaving the forest black on either side.
The sounds continued at irregular intervals. Just as she began hoping that whatever it was had gone away, it would return, and it seemed to be getting closer, as now was added the crunch of heavy steps.
Her breathing quickened to rapid, shallow gasps. She was almost running now. Her head swiveled left and right.
A growl started deep and low, then became savage and shrill. It chewed on her nerves. Tore at her resolve. It became a scream that ripped at any hope of seeing her family again. It contained a physical weight that drove her down to her knees. Seeming to be endless, it climbed in pitch and volume, filling the space between the trees. Then it stopped. Replaced by snapping twigs and crashing branches. The forest gave way, and a furious mass of wild fir barreled onto the road. It roared again. Its eyes and teeth gleamed white in the moonlight.
Kara was done. Her life spent. She couldn’t watch as her ruin bore down on her. Its claws chewing up the road in its mad scramble for her life. Defeated, she bowed her head. Her purse slipped off of her shoulder.
Her purse! Damn. Her purse!!
Kara ripped it open, and started to dig. She recognized familiar items by touch. A lipstick, her phone, a stick of gum, a box of mints. Her gun!
She tried to pull it out, but its holster caught on the purse’s strap. She jerked it free from the holster and let the bag fall, then she pulled back the slide and fired.
The shot went wild, shattering leaves and twigs before it imbedded in a tree, but the explosion halted the bear. Surprised by the gunfire, roaring in rage, it raised itself up on its back legs, towering over her, just a few paces away. As it did, something caught her eye. A patch on the beast’s left haunch appeared wet. Could it be blood? She spotted shards of glass jutting out from its wound. As she watched, that leg seemed to buckle, stifling the beasts roar. It gave out a kind of yelp, then topped over onto its side.
The world went silent save for the blood rushing through her head.
Slowly, she stood up and approached the animal, keeping low. Her weapon aimed at its head.
It struggled to get upright. The rage in its eyes now replaced by pain and fear. It managed to get its front legs underneath and raise its massive head. Sitting there, panting like a huge dog, it growled impotently at her.
Kara finally had her answer, as she realized what she’d hit with her car.
She had a choice to make. She could walk away. Continue on her quest to find a ride home. Or she could finish the job her stupidity had begun. End the beast’s misery.
The animal laid its head back down onto the hard, dirt road. Panting.
Kara worked her way behind it. Her eyes filling with tears, she stifled a sob and aimed the weapon at the base of its head, where its skull joined its vulnerable neck. She paused to wipe her eyes with her sleeve, took a deep breath, then another, raised the weapon again, blinked back the tears and fired.