by Tim Ryan
Bryan had read a couple of books about bears. Reading about bears hadn’t made him any more comfortable with bears. Bryan didn’t like bears. He didn’t like being in the forest. Bryan didn’t like being alone. He really didn’t like being alone in the forest with bears.
Yet, here he was, alone, in the forest, watching for ... well, he didn't actually know for what. He was watching. The others said they would be back, that it would not take long, but even when they said it, he wasn't convinced. Already it seemed like a long time. He was thirsty and getting tired.
In the forest.
Guarding a fort.
It’s a nice fort. Wooden walls tied together with rawhide and duct tape, window cut out of one side, two sheets of overlapping corrugated aluminum for a roof. Inside, an old bookshelf sits at one end of the room and some chairs—two with broken legs—are scattered along the sides. An old indoor-outdoor carpet covers two-thirds of the floor and a blue tarpaulin, the last third. A large wire spool table is littered with comic books, two intact battle chestnuts, a bag of marshmallows taken from the kitchen and jug of chocolate milk missing its lid.
This was the fort they asked him to guard. He wasn't sure what from. They hadn't been very specific. He hadn’t asked the right questions—any questions, really. They had invited him to come to their fort, so he wasn’t going to anger them by asking too many questions. That he would be left behind in the fort, in the forest, hadn’t occurred to him when he agreed to join them, but they explained that he was the newest member of the club and that new members always had to guard the fort while the others went on expeditions.
So here he was, standing, listening, watching. They would be back soon. Not that he had seen or heard anything to guard against. Not yet anyway. Sure, he could see trees, a few birds, lots of bugs, and he counted seventeen toadstools from where he stood. He liked to see those things. If he had a choice, he’d like to see them up close, maybe even touch them, or sketch them. What he didn’t want to see was any big animals. Especially not a bear.
Of course, they had given him a hockey stick. In case. To protect the fort.
He looked at the hockey stick: it was long and slender and he could swing it back and forth. But as a weapon against a bear, he could see a few problems. The most obvious problem being that in order to use the hockey stick to hit a bear, he would need to get pretty close to the bear. More precisely, he would have to be less than the hockey stick’s length away from a bear. And, in looking again at the stick, it didn't seem to Bryan that the hockey stick was all that long. It actually seemed pretty short. Like it was a little kid’s hockey stick. He wondered whether they had, on purpose, left him with just a little kid’s hockey stick to guard the fort against a bear. But he wasn’t sure.
He had read about bears. The book had said that bears were scared of humans. If that was true, then any encounter he had with a bear would be terrifying for both him and the bear. But mostly him — a ten-year old against a bear. If a bear came at him, he'd have to get close enough to smell the bear’s breath, feel the bear’s fur, hear the bear’s growls. Even with a hockey stick, he didn't like his chances. Not even with a good swing. The book about bears said a bear’s skin was thick, their skulls were hard, and they were very fast. Even if he somehow managed to hit the bear with the stick, it was not likely to stop the bear. Not even if he yelled or whistled as loud as he could.
He could whistle very loud. Kids at school said it hurt their ears, his whistle. They’d asked him to teach them how to whistle like he could: not using his fingers. But their front teeth didn’t overlap, so his whistle wouldn’t work for them. Even if it could hurt their ears.
But a bear? Bears either didn’t have good hearing or didn’t have good vision. He couldn’t remember which it was, just when it would be handy to know. If bears didn’t hear very well, then a loud whistle wouldn’t be much help. He’d be back to just the hockey stick.
Of course, he could run. Back to the cottage. That’d be a sensible thing to do. His grampa, who everyone called the Doctor, told everyone to get in the cottage if they saw a bear. It was the Doctor’s cottage, so he should know. The bear wouldn’t come inside. But Matt said that on no account should Bryan leave the fort. Bryan had asked why, but Matt just asked him whether he wanted to be part of the club or not. That was just before Matt said they would be ‘right back’.
Where were they anyway? He was starving. It was bologna sandwiches and chips for lunch. His favourite. After cheeseburgers and pizza … and those pocket things Mom got from the Indian grocer. Okay, so his fourth favourite, but still. Maybe that’s where they were: at lunch, eating all the sandwiches and chips while they left him stuck in the forest. They were probably laughing at him. Like at school, where he was sure they were laughing at him, behind his back. Everyone was nice to his face, but he knew. One day he would walk into the cafeteria or the gym or homeroom when they weren’t expecting him, and he’d catch them at it.
Or they’d be aliens.
He had a theory that other people were really aliens or animals in disguise. They’d change back into their actual form when he wasn’t around. He’d tried to sneak up on other people a couple of times, but they must have heard him or seen him.
It had to be lunchtime by now.
At least if he knew where any bear was, he could watch the bear and maybe do something. Plan something. Not knowing if there was one and not knowing where it was and not really knowing even what kind of bear it was … well, he had read about bears.
He saw a big dark, round, lump through the trees. It hadn’t moved, but bears hibernated sometimes. So, if it was hibernating, it wasn’t going to attack him. That was good. Except that it wasn’t winter. Bears hibernated in winter. They slept in a cave or the base of an old tree, so whatever he was seeing through the trees wasn’t a hibernating bear. He read that after months of hibernating, bears came out hungry, starving really, ready to eat. Anything. Maybe even skinny boys with hockey sticks.
Bryan started, tripped on the doorframe, stumbled and almost dropped the hockey stick. Stupid bird!
Where were those guys? How long would he have to guard this fort?
The lump was still under that tree. Had it moved? He squinted through the trees and shafts of sunlight in the forest, searching, trying to get a better view. The forest was dark and creepy and full of noises. And you couldn’t tell what was what. All he could do was watch and listen and hope there wasn’t anything out there.
He heard something.
The something was tromping through the forest. The something was making sound. Even if he couldn’t see the something, he could hear a twig snap. Maybe a footfall? Maybe growling — what exactly did a bear’s growl sound like? He should have read more about bears.
He thought maybe the lump was getting bigger. Moving. Then a head poked up from the lump. Then a waving arm. Bryan gripped the hockey stick and held it up so the blade hovered over his shoulder. He planted his feet in the doorway of the fort and bent his knees—
“Bryan!” it bellowed.
He dropped the hockey stick and ran—through the trees, over the brush and roots, trampling shrubs, making a beeline to the cottage. He didn’t care about the fort. He didn’t need to join a stupid club. He didn’t care if people laughed at him.
Bryan had read about bears. Bryan hadn’t read anything about bears who waved at you. Bryan hadn’t read anything about bears that called your name.
Bryan needed better books.
About the Author
Tim Ryan is a writer living in Calgary, Alberta. He has published short stories in Canada and the U.S. "The Fort" and "The Candy Tree" form part of a short story cycle, two of which stories have already been published, including 'Scottie' which won the 2017 Alberta Views Short Story Contest and was a finalist in the AMPA Fiction awards for 2018. When not writing, Tim coaches his daughter's hockey team, does the dishes and tries to stay out of people's way.