By E.C. Haskell
“I’ve had three reports now. Just yesterday, a guy cataloging invasive plants came in with hands shaking, face so sweaty I thought he was gonna pass out. Before that, a bunch of backpackers, one guy hyperventilating like he’d seen a tree octopus or something and–”
The office door next to me reverberated beneath a salvo of hard knocks.
My friend Liam, Aussie ex-pat and evolutionary biologist for the Olympic National Park, looked up with annoyance. “Later!” he yelled.
I hurried on. “Bottom line is, we’ve got a bear out there stealing food from people’s bear-proof canisters. I’m told it can open them, easy. And humans don’t scare it. Heck, it even charged a guy and tore a canister off his backpack.”
“Exactly. So I went up to the ponds where it’s been seen and set out spy cams, but two days later … Poof! Gone.”
Liam dug one hand through thick black hair. “That’s–”
The door to his office quaked with another barrage. Frowning, he leaned to pull it open. There stood two men in slickers and heavy hiking boots, their faces set with determination.
The bigger of the two slipped into the room, dark eyes fixed on me. “Sorry ‘bout this, but you’re a hard lady to find. We need to talk.”
“My boss has been hearin’ about some crazy smart bear out here. He wants a look-see.”
“Park’s open, twenty-four, seven, all year long.”
The man chuckled. “Guy’s a billionaire, ya know? He sent us. And you–” he reached for my arm.
Liam’s chair clattered against the wall as he stood, gray eyes glinting ice.
The man stepped back, hands raised. “Easy, dude. From what I hear, this bear could be damned valuable. Ya know?”
“Don’t care.” Liam’s deep voice could have curdled stone. “Park wildlife is protected.”
The man huffed, his eyes narrowing. When Liam didn’t budge, he pulled a silver card from his pocket and handed it to me. “Give the man a call. Could turn into a nice hunk of funding. For the park.”
With that, the two men turned, clomping down the hall.
As the footsteps faded, I felt Liam’s hand on my shoulder. “We better get up to those ponds, pronto.”
We started up the trail at dawn, the early sun shooting slivers of liquid gold through cedars. Moving steadily, we wound our way past the prickly arms of blackberry bushes, forded a frothy stream and dodged a goshawk defending her nest. At last we came to a wide meadow, studded with ponds, smelling of bog and water lilies.
We made our way to the largest of the ponds. Liam placed his newly-filled bear proof canister next to it. We circled the area, looking for signs of the creature. All we found was one peculiar footprint, ursine but with a rudimentary transverse arch. Liam grunted in disbelief. He photoed and measured it before we retreated to the shelter of a shallow cave.
It was early afternoon when a pair of marmots hooted an alarm, their rounded bottoms disappearing into rocks. On the slope below us, a cluster of hemlocks swayed. A flash of reddish gold appeared, a massive bear, moving toward the canister. It reached out, black claws glinting in sun. Liam raised his camera.
The noise punched through air. The bear swerved sideways, diving into the murky waters of the pond. Next to where it had stood a hypodermic needle quivered, oozing liquid.
“Knock out drug,” Liam murmured. “Betcha anything. And there,” he said, scowling across the ponds, “are the billionaire’s lackeys.”
The older man held a Barrett rifle; the younger a tranquilizer gun.
I groaned, cursing myself for a fool as I pulled a silver card from my pocket.
Liam glanced at it. “Business card with tracker, huh? Damn billionaire. Keep your eyes on that rifle.”
Liam shrugged. “They want that bear alive. You and me … we’re optional.”
The younger guy reloaded the tranquilizer gun, then gestured to his companion. The big man produced a thick cylinder from his pack. A moment later, he threw it, flaming into the air.
It arced high, then splashed into the pond.
A geyser of water erupted. It should have stunned the bear. But the animal had anticipated it. A thick madrone tree behind the big man began to morph. Water-slick fur glinted in sun. The bear charged. A deep growl as it ripped through flesh and bone. The man wailed, a high-pitched screech, drowned in a gusher of red.
The younger guy froze, his face the color of old urine. He peddled backwards, raising his weapon. The creature dodged behind a boulder.
The big rock jiggled. It began to rise. When it was high enough to show the bear’s hind legs, the man fell to his knees, tranquilizer gun pointed.
The bear grunted. And hurled the rock forward.
A thud shook the ground, accompanied by crackling bone.
I gagged and turned away from the man’s flattened skull. The forest fell silent.
The bear huffed, a mournful sound in still air. Then it turned, dark eyes fixed on the spot where Liam and I crouched.
Liam stood, his hands held high. “Join me.”
On shaky legs, I did.
The bear watched. Assessing. Slowly, the sounds of the forest returned. A raven’s croak. The buzz of mosquitos.
The creature nodded to us. Then bared its teeth.
Liam let his breath out. “I think that means piss off.”
We began backing up, the bear watching.
We were almost at my cabin when Liam spoke. “You going to report this?”
I bit my lower lip. “If someone finds those bodies–”
“That bear’s no fool.”
Liam wrapped his arms around me. “World’s changing, and creatures are adapting, just to survive. Rattlesnakes getting bigger. Hyenas finding new foods. Beetles mimicking dried vegetation.”
“And now a high IQ bear with the instincts of Genghis Khan?”
“Think of it as evolution 101. Forced into hyper drive.”
* * *
After focusing for many years on non-fiction writing (ads, magazine articles, documentaries etc), Ms. Haskell began to study fiction writing as a way to explore the alternate realities impacting our world. Thus far, she has contributed to several publications, most recently The Fantastic Other. She lives on the edge of the Salish Sea with her family, three rescue dogs and assorted wildlife.