A bear meandered at the edge of the backyard, big and brown. Bears weren’t native to the area, so this merited some wide-eyed gawking. It even earned the kids’ attention, had them scrambling over furniture—and each other—to join Liam by the sliding glass door. Emily looked uneasy.
The apple tree at the back of the yard had dropped fruit in a ten-foot radius around its base. The bear gobbled them up. With its dog-like face and mannerisms, and the way it used its tongue like a spoon, Liam found it rather cute. But the cloud of dirt that flew from its fur when it shook spoiled the friendly illusion, reminding him that this was a dangerous animal.
Liam ushered the kids upstairs. With them tucked safely away in their rooms, he retrieved a spear from the back of the bedroom closet, where it lay behind a row of mothballed suits, still in the box it arrived in. He took it downstairs.
Emily fretted over their cat. Fumbles, chubby and orange, warmed himself on the back porch, oblivious to the danger. The bear and its smorgasbord of half-rotten fruit were a dozen yards away. Though the cat lounged closer to the door, Emily didn’t want to grab him. Fumbles didn’t like being approached when outside. He might run off, and one of his avenues of escape contained a bear.
The creaking stairs sounded Liam’s descent. She took one look at the spear, at his face, and set her own face in opposition. “No. Put that thing down—what’s wrong with you? What do you think you’re gonna do?”
Liam had expected the challenge, but hadn’t prepared a rebuttal. He felt ridiculous all of a sudden. What had he meant to do? “I… I don’t know.”
He took the spear back upstairs, resolving to just sell the thing.
When he returned, Emily had slid the patio door slightly ajar, tapping a can of cat food with a spoon—a siren’s call to which Fumbles promptly responded. The bear raised his head too, but then returned his attention to the apples. Emily closed the door.
“We need to call animal control or something.”
“Why? It’s not hurting anyone.”
“Didn’t you just have a spear?”
“Well I wasn’t gonna use it. I don’t think.”
He really wasn’t, forgot he’d even purchased the thing until it showed up on his porch, and only kept it because it looked cool. Now, with a staircase separating him from the violent influence of that sleek, expensive, oversized kabob, even calling animal control began to feel too extreme. He didn’t want the bear shot just for wandering into their backyard. Fumbles ate the can of cat food as though it were his first time eating. An idea formed.
During a brief interest in aerial photography, Liam bought a drone. He returned from the garage with the expensive, little-used toy. Grabbing lunch meat and string from the kitchen, he tied up some ham and attached the wad to the drone.
“It’s got a camera and a mile radius.”
“I think we should just call animal control.”
“Let me try this. There’s nothing but marshes out back anyway. I’ll
lure it away, then we can call.”
Liam placed the drone on the porch, then stepped back inside and closed the door. Watching his progress through the small screen on the controller, he teased the bear to get it interested, dipping near and rising up as it swatted. He kept it low, and led the bear out of their yard to the fields and forest beyond.
“What if it just follows the ham back?” Emily asked after he’d flown it half a mile.
Liam hadn’t considered this. Fortunately, the problem resolved itself as the drone hit a tree and the video connection broke.
“You’re not going after it. Not right now, anyway,” Emily said as she called animal control.
Liam stood by the door, watching for signs of the bear while Emily was on the phone in the other room. She came back a few minutes later.
“They said it’s got something to do with the climate—bears are coming further east. It’s probably going to get worse. We’re supposed to keep our cat inside and put up a fence if we want to avoid a recurrence.”
Liam tried installing a fence. He’d dug latrine pits in basic training and thought the skills would translate. They didn’t. After several attempts, they paid a company to do it.
* * * *
Once a month, they went to Liam’s parents for dinner. Out of familial duty, the kids raked their grandparents' leaves into neat piles, then messed them up by jumping in them. Liam’s father, Frank, cooked food on the grill while his mother listened intently to Emily’s recounting of the bear story.
When Emily finished, Frank spoke. “You said ‘We paid a company to do it.’ What do you mean?”
Liam regarded his father. “Well, I’ve never installed a fence before. I tried but, you know, it’s hard.”
“No, I get that. But what did she mean ‘we’ paid for the company? You ain’t got a job.”
“Emily does, but we—”
“Ah, so your wife paid for it.”
“Well, it’s our money—both of ours. That’s how we’ve always done it.”
“She’s been supporting you for a while now and it’s supposed to be the other way around. How long since they fired you? Four years?”
“Six years, and I quit to stay home with the kids. You know that.”
It might have ended there, but Emily stepped in. “It’s better with him home, it really is. He gets the kids ready for school, cooks breakfast, cleans—honestly, I don’t know how we managed before.”
Frank turned away from the grill. “So he’s the wife? He does the wife stuff?”
“Well, he…” her voice faded to nothing. Liam shook his head at her.
Liam’s mom went inside, got Frank a beer. He took it from her and popped the cap off with the edge of the patio table. “It ain’t right for you to work and not him. Not my son. The club we go to just posted a help wanted ad for a security guard. He’s gonna take the job. Third shift, so he can still be home to cook and clean and all that other nonsense.”
Liam, ever the peacemaker, pushed the conversation along. “How’s the club been? I read they renovated the gym.”
By the end of dinner, everyone was joking and having fun. But as they packed up to leave, Frank grabbed Liam’s elbow and said, “You’re taking that job.”
He repeated this to Emily once they got home. “He’s got a point, Em.”
“If you want the job, take the job. But we both know you’d only take it because your dad is bullying you into it—and I think I finally had enough of that. From now on, they can come here to see the kids. They can come to my—our house.”
The slip did not go unnoticed.
“But, Em, it isn’t okay for me to mooch off you. And anyway, it’s not like more money is a bad thing.”
“You quit because I got a big promotion and would be working longer hours. It made sense for us to do it that way. I make more than what we both were making together. It’d be better if you stayed home, but whatever—keep caving to your dad’s demands.”
* * * *
Like most humans, Liam was a diurnal creature. The abrupt reversal of his sleeping pattern proved hard to reconcile. His first night at work, he showed up with a gallon of coffee in a comically large mug and bags under his eyes that could hold watermelons. His second night was much the same. And the third.
He got used to the night shift in stages. Each day got easier, but in the way lifting heavy weights got easier—through application of tremendous effort. The repetition of non-events was a waist-deep mud he slogged through nightly. So little happened around the club at night, the camera feeds were more like movie stills.
One night, something triggered the motion sensors along the fence surrounding the golf course. A corresponding node on the security room's electronic map blinked red and beeped like a watch alarm. They didn't have cameras installed that far out along the perimeter, so he grabbed keys for the security golf cart to investigate.
In the distance, a light scored through trees. He approached the source—a truck idling outside the fence, its dangerously bright headlights bathing a group of people with its beams. Liam turned his own lights off to surprise the trespassers. He got within a stone's throw of the group without them detecting him.
It was a group of teenagers. Trees of all kinds grew along the fence, a tasteful way to disguise the chain-link that also blocked the view of houses further out. Some of the trees were apple trees, like the one he had at home, and the kids used shovels to pick up fallen apples and whip them at each other.
Liam switched on the cart's lights, red-and-blue like the police, and the group all jumped and backed up to the fence. There were eight of them. Cans of cheap beer littered the ground.
The kids’ surprise melted, and some mental math played out on their faces. Liam misread their sums and exited the cart.
“Just stay where you are and we’ll figure this out.”
A boy took a few steps towards him.
“I said stay where you are, dammit!”
“What’s your plan, man? Gonna chain us to the cart and drag us?” said the boy, propping himself up with his shovel.
These words were the camel-breaker. Before the boy could say anything more, Liam grabbed the shovel from his hands and pressed the butt of it into the boy’s stomach.
“Now, if you don’t want me to call the police, get—”
The boy rocketed forward and punched Liam in the face, snapping his jaw closed and breaking a tooth. They ripped the shovel from his hand and swung it against his legs, knocking him on his face. All the kids punched, kicked, and stomped him.
Liam crawled, and the edge of a shovel shattered the elbow of his right arm. He tried dragging himself with the one that worked. In doing so, he exposed his stomach—an opportunity quickly seized. They kicked him so hard, he vomited as he rolled on his back.
From the ground, the kids didn’t look like kids—they didn't look like people. Their faces were stretched, misshapen, and hungry. He stopped his feeble attempts to protect himself, resolved in his mounting delirium to just let the event play out.
Then, a deep roar sounded, sonorous as mountains forming. It caused the kids to scatter like a burst bag of marbles. The chain-link fence rattled as the kids hurdled themselves over it, and the truck peeled away. For a while, all was quiet save for the sounds of nearby munching. With great effort, Liam opened an eye.
There was a bear. A big brown one. It nuzzled at the ground, moving away the cans to eat the apples strewn about the area. Liam groaned. The bear noticed, lumbered over to Liam, and sniffed. So cute with its dog-like face—but when its wet nose touched Liam’s own, he smelled the animal's breath, and the illusion of cuteness was shattered.
Chances were slim this was the same bear. It wouldn't mean anything even if it was. Thinking he was going to die anyway, Liam lifted his good arm and pet the big head.
The bear lingered a moment longer, then went back to the fruit.
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This story brillantly demonstrates the superiority of the animal kingdom on anything labelled as "human", in more ways than one. The title brillantly demonstrates the superiority of the well-placed coma, in more ways than one. The two of them put together brillantly demonstrates (SPOILER ALERT) how you can clue in both twist and moral of a story in its title. Now, that was well thought out. (The story I mean, not this comment.) Or, as we say around here, very goddamn good.
Sorry Liam had to go through that. Good story, though. Nice attention to detail - all the business with the cat, and the drone. It felt unfocused for a while, but then you brought it all together. Well done.