This story is by Stephen James and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Droplets of blood stained the knife and cutting board, though none of it touched Alexander’s now crust-less PB & J sandwich.
Alexander was in the living room watching morning cartoons. I placed the sandwich in front of him and then took my black coffee outside to the front porch. I sat in the cool morning air, sucking my finger to stop the bleeding. “Clumsy,” I muttered to myself.
The air outside was crisp, but the sun beamed its warmth upon my face. There was snow on the mountain peaks, and the forest was turning green, bristling with life again. It had been six months. I still was not used to it. The clean air, the openness of it all.
I was still sucking blood when I noticed Bud walking out of the forest towards the house.
“How goes it?”
“Fine, fine. Fancy a cup of coffee?”
“A’ready packing.” Bud shifted the rifle that was slung over his shoulder and pulled out a thermos from his carrying bag. “What’d you do to yer finger?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just a little cut.”
Bud stared at me with his cold gray eyes just long enough for me to feel awkward. Alexander’s giggling from inside broke the silence, but Bud’s eyes never wavered. My phone rang. I excused myself and wished Bud a pleasant day. From inside the house, I saw Bud still standing there, staring at where I had been sitting. I wasn’t used to him either. Every time he came around, I felt the hairs stand on the back of my neck.
Bud was our only neighbor for miles, and according to the folks in town, he had lived in these woods his entire life. As far as I could tell, he lived almost entirely off the land, hunting, fishing, foraging. It was a way of life that I didn’t understand. Yet, here I was halfway there.
I went to the kitchen and grabbed my ringing cell phone. That we even had cell service out here amazed me. When I returned to the living room, I saw Bud had disappeared just as quickly as he arrived.
Katrina phoned to remind me I needed to register Alexander for swimming lessons, along with several other household tasks that needed to be done. We were running out of toilet paper. The upstairs bathroom needed another coat of paint. The mountain bikes needed new tires. I would have to travel to town. Katrina kept lists. That was how she operated. They kept all of us organized.
“What are you doing? What is that noise?” she asked.
I wandered up to the bedroom, still sucking my finger. “Nothing. I’ll take care of it.”
I collapsed on top of the bed and gazed up at the log beams supporting the wooden ceiling. The smell of wood was everywhere here: pine, maple, birch, oak, spruce, balsam. I could not escape it. It had been six months. I promised Katrina at least a year.
We moved here, to the county of Northern Sunrise from Calgary, just before the winter. Katrina was offered her dream job to be chief engineer for the county. She loved the outdoors, and it was an opportunity that would not only advance her career but would also allow her – us – to live the life she always pictured.
I was hesitant about the move and had so many questions. What about my teaching job? How many elementary schools were in Northern Sunrise? Would we be able to find another daycare for Alexander? Was there at least a Starbucks?
Katrina was sure the one elementary school in the county would hire me. They didn’t. The one daycare that looked acceptable put us on an eight-month waiting list. Katrina’s optimism never faltered.
“You said you always wanted to be a stay-at-home dad. Think of all time you will have. You can write that book you’ve been talking about. Alexander will have enough room to run around and be outside. It will be so good for him. It will be so good for us.”
I couldn’t bear to say no. I had not yet made progress in writing my book, though I accomplished several false starts. There was no Starbucks either, but I was becoming habituated to grinding my own beans.
I felt myself fading, falling back asleep on the bed. I wanted to sink back into darkness, just for a moment. Then I noticed it. A subtle shift. The air stopped moving. Something was wrong, and then I realized it. The giggling from downstairs had ceased.
I called out to Alexander, but there was no answer. Fighting paranoia, I forced myself to walk down the stairs. Upon entering the living room I saw the barren rug, the half-eaten PB & J sandwich teetering off the plate, and Alexanders’ cup turned over. A dark pool of apple juice was coloring the rug fibers. Every detail felt sharp. I ran into the kitchen, calling Alexander’s name. Nothing. I returned to the living room and noticed the front door was open. Alexander wouldn’t have been able to open it himself. Did I close it when I left Bud?
I stepped outside of the house, calling Alexander’s name with an urgency that surprised me. A sense of panic I had never experienced before invaded my entire body. I was unprepared for the sight that was before me. Down the road, headed towards the forest, I saw the black bear with Alexander hanging from its mouth.
All thinking ceased, and the actions of my body took control. I grabbed the blood-stained knife off the cutting board and chased them down the road. I kept calling Alexander’s name, looking for any recognition that he could hear me. His blond hair and tiny legs were swinging from side to side while the bear trotted into the woods. I was gaining ground, but I needed to gain more, so I did not lose sight of their direction in the forest.
Alexander was the best thing to happen to me and Katrina. We had been trying for a year with no success. Then one day Katrina surprised me with a positive test result. We could hardly believe it. Becoming a parent was life-altering. The one thing I didn’t expect was the hyperawareness of all dangers that could harm him. Living in the city, I magnified every possible harm. I often imagined potential scenarios in which I needed to react, to jump into the road to pull him away from a speeding car or anticipate a fall so I could catch him before he hit the ground. I never once imagined the scenario I was in now.
Inside the forest, I could see the bear slowing down, hindered by the dense packing of trees. Without thinking, I grabbed a rock the size of a snowball and threw it at the bear. The rock hit the bear square in the back, causing it to turn in my direction. I could see Alexander now, his overalls gripped by exposed white incisors. The bear looked into my eyes. The eyes of the bear reminded me of Katrina. They were the same color, and they spoke with a confidence that was always beyond my reach, a sureness of knowing of how everything would work out. I watched in slow motion the bear toss Alexander aside like a dog’s rubber chew toy. The bear charged and my grip tightened around the knife.
What happened next comes back to me in pieces, but the pieces are jumbled, fragmented, out of order, like a dream. What I remember was the sound of the gun, and the pine needles on the forest floor jumping in a dust cloud of earth. There was one more shot, which I realized later was Bud finishing the job.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table about to finish the first draft of my book. In the living room, Alexander is sitting on the rug watching Snow White. It has become his recent favorite movie to watch on repeat, as only toddlers can do, hearing the same songs and watching the same plot details play out to their inevitable conclusion again and again. His favorite part is when they get to happily ever after.
In the year that has passed, I keep playing the movie of that day over in my mind, thinking about what I could have lost. Some nights I’m haunted by it, waking Katrina with my screams. When this happens, I walk downstairs and sit out on the porch. I gaze at the stars, the mountains, the forest and realize how much I love the smell of the wood.