Ready. Aim. Fire.
when they barely knew each other, Ben told her he had a secret. It prickled for years, under the surface, under her skin. He would often come up to her place in the city from the wilds, smelling of sweet dried grass. Her tundra was full of flashing lights that would dazzle, blind, bind him. In her apartment, his presence at first was a welcome return to rough and tumble play-fights with her children, he’d make them fly like aeroplanes on his feet, teach them acrobatic tricks. On weekends he’d show her his landscape. They’d crunch through bracken in the dense woods, pick berries: eat wild mushrooms with soft underbellies like the pelt of a mouse.
His visits through time changed, as often these things do. His presence in her apartment felt both overpowering and meek; he would prowl around, unsure of where to sit, to sleep, how to be. The only time he seemed to be at ease was when she’d lie next to him; stroke the silver-tipped spikes of his beard. But those occasions grew less and less frequent as she became busy with all.of.her.other. things. He soon took to pacing, counting numbers; obsessing. There was a space between them growing; like a clearing after forest trees had been felled.
When Ben came to see her, finally, but wouldn’t go inside her place. Meet me by the river Jess, he’d text. She looked at him as she walked towards the bridge that arched over the rush of water. He looked different; his stance didn’t have that familiar awkward and eager look. He was more self-contained, held back, distant. He seemed taller, more ominous. It was summer and he wore shorts and t-shirt. The hairs on his body seemed thicker, darker. A tangled sprouting over- spilled like spiders legs at the line of his t-shirt. His hairiness before had turned her off, that and the fact she could never quite decide if his chest had the small swelling growths of a prepubescent teenager. Now his hairiness, his stance, made Jess weirdly want him. Why was it when the balance of power shifted, she wanted that which was about to be taken away? All those years, Ben had desired her, ripped at her ribbed tights with his rough hands in his attempts to get close. Now he’d grown restless. She could see his unease with each car that roared past on the bridge, with the sour smell of beer that belched out from a nearby pub and with the hot puff of damp smoke that blew out from the subway.
They walked, her talking incessantly, wishing to avoid the necessary. He looked to the river swirling past them, the fleeting fish under the surface, the birds darting between trees. She wanted to be at his place now, the place she had been avoiding; let him come to me, she’d thought previously. Now she would give [what would she give] to be back in his landscape.
Jess sought those places out, alone. She would take herself off into the woods, rough tracks she had never walked before as if to prove to him that she belonged there too. She felt Ben could see her as she became stronger, more adventurous, climbing mountains, seeing the land as he saw it.
It was on one such trip, as she hiked alone through a forest with tall slender trees on the hill to her right side, when she was unsure if her imagination was beginning to play tricks on her. She wasn’t easily spooked but something made her turn back and look up the slope. A few trees had fallen creating wooden chutes down the hillside. On the other side of one of these fallen trees she saw it. There. Yes. A bale of hay? No it’s moving; a brown figure, a shape, two eyes. She felt the muscles in her legs loosen, then felt her skin suck in tight all over her body. The bulky figure appeared to shape shift as it moved at full-tilt down the slope towards her. Its eyes, something about its eyes, startled her. She moved. Quick. Climbed up the slope on the opposite side of the fallen tree, holding onto spindly branches that broke off uselessly in her hands.
Up and up she climbed, her nails clawing at the earth, her boots slipping in the squelch and mush of the autumn leaves. She stopped at a small clearing and turned. It was there in front of her. She knew it was a bear of sorts but it was it's eyes she couldnt help but stare at. Was she going mad, she hadn’t drunk or ate anything in hours? She fell backwards onto the earth, resting on her elbows, her legs stretched out in front of her tanned from all the hiking. The bear rose up in front of her and lifted a paw, swiping it down at her, its claw ripping at her shorts, raking at her skin, shredding her yellow top. She wondered why she felt no pain even upon seeing the deep welt marks. Instead she felt some sort of animalistic urge and she reached out and pulled it towards her.
Jess lay there, dirty, blood smeared; like she had been skinned. She turned to look at the bear and saw it was watching her. It all made sense now; its eyes, the grassy scent, the way it had ripped at the things it wanted. It was him. She sat up and he did too, placing a heavy arm around her shoulders, hugging her in tight to his chest. There, there. Here, this is what she wanted. No matter what he had become.
He reached behind her and dragged at a bearskin which was under the fallen tree. Why it was there Jess didn’t know, or really stop to consider. She let him drape it over her bare shoulders and watched as he yanked at long pieces of twine and looped them with his claws around her wrists and ankles, attaching the skin to her. It was then that she heard a huffing blowing sound, followed by a low growl. Glancing to her right, she saw a smaller brown bear at the edge of the woods, watching them, its snout raised, open mouthed.
It called again, and Ben stood up on his hind legs, his full height in front of her, reminding her of all those times at her house when he had wandered from room to room in his dressing gown with that same dark vacant look in his eyes. He then dropped onto all fours, and looked at her, from her ankles up, taking in the makeshift fur. He shook his head, grunted then bounded off through the forest to the bear waiting on the other side. She watched as they gently nuzzled each other and then with one last look over his shoulder they disappearing into the dark lines between the bone-white trees.
Jess pulled the loose flaps of bearskin over her shoulders and hugged it in tight. The searing pain felt like it was starting to rip her skin apart as the fur began to mesh to her bloodied body. The snap of a broken branch to her left startled her as she saw a figure stride along the track below, bearing a satchel with a long nuzzle of a gun sticking out the top. Quietly, painfully she rolled over onto her stomach and drew her body in like a hedgehog pulling the bearskin all around her. She heard footsteps crunch, crunch, squelch.
She heard a whoosh, like an exhalation of breath, and then felt a sharp prod prod in her rear. A clink clunk of metal. Ready. Aim. Fire.