Excerpt from Will, by Dan Cardinal

He was mostly asleep when he heard a thump on the door, followed by the creak of hinges as it opened. These sounds woke him, but he did not open his eyes. Something entered the cabin. He could hear the floorboards creak, and the unmistakable bellows-like noise of heavy breathing.

Will smiled to himself. What could it be? The angel of death? The ghosts of Leigh and April come to collect him? Or, shit, this was probably it: it was his dad. Will had apparently survived the night, and now his dad was here. He opened his eyes, expecting to see the familiar face of his father looking down at him.

What he saw instead was a black bear, gigantic in the little cabin, with its head jammed deep into the small garbage can next to the kitchen counter. Will blinked and noticed two more dark shapes moving under the kitchen table. A whole bear family—a mommy and two little ones—had infiltrated the cabin. Cold air wafted in through the open door and carried the earthy smell of the creatures to his nose.

He would think later that he should have just stayed still and waited for them to leave, but he was so surprised by the unexpected sight that he sat up in the bed. One of the cubs, seeing the movement, let out a startled cry that caused the sow to jerk her head from the garbage with a deep-toned grunt. Will froze, but it didn’t take long for the alerted bear to notice him. He sat there looking back at her with perfectly round eyes.

He knew that bears, like most wild animals, do not like to be caught off guard. If it’s a sow with her cubs, then the surpriser can be in real danger because, even though black bears are generally nonthreatening to humans, mommas are fiercely protective of their cubs. Also, as Will discovered that night, if a sow with her cubs is surprised in a confined space (a one-room cabin, for instance) the surpriser is in for some truly crazy shit.

The beast let out a roar that rattled the windows and tickled at some primordial part of Will’s bowels. She took two massive strides that brought her to the foot of his bed and stopped—apparently not sure what Will was or where he ended and the bed began, since he was still swaddled and shapeless in the sleeping bag. The animal took an exploratory swipe with one of its big, short-clawed paws at the bedpost closest to the center of the room, sliding the bed a bit. The unnaturally stiff movement of such a large object scraping across the floor seemed to surprise the bear, and she took a step back.

By now the two cubs, sensing danger, were mindlessly mewling and running around the cabin. One of them clambered up on top of the heavy wooden table, and it tipped over under the small bear’s considerable weight. The sound of the table toppling was very loud, and the sow turned to look at the ruckus and let out a short roar of consternation. Then she looked back at Will and seemed to consider her options regarding where to strike next. Will just sat there, dumbfounded and still clutching the sleeping bag to his chin. He was certainly scared but had no idea what to do and figured by holding still he might somehow continue to confuse the angry bear.

The beast settled on its next move and took a swipe at Will’s midsection. He cried out in fright as two-inch-long claws tore through the sleeping bag and caught the fabric of his shirt beneath, not quite reaching his skin. The sleeping bag exploded in a shower of down feathers that again gave the big bear pause. She growled and paced back and forth at the foot of the bed a couple of times. This gave Will a little time to think, and he realized his strategy of inaction was probably not going to work much longer. He also noticed that he could reach the window’s latch from where he sat on the relocated bed.

Slowly, he extracted his arm from the ruined sleeping bag and stretched it out toward the latch’s small black handle. This movement caught the bear’s attention and, letting out a snort, it stopped pacing and stared at him. The cubs were still aimlessly crashing around the cabin, letting out small cries that seemed to fuel their mother’s rage. Will took a deep breath and twisted the latch. The bear pounced, bringing her front paws down on either side of the foot of Will’s sleeping bag with enough force to bounce him on the bed like a small child. Her massive head was so close to him that he could see pieces of white rice—the remnants of his last supper—stuck to the fur around her mouth.

He probably would not have made it if one of the cubs had not finally found the door at that same moment. The sow heard the sound of the escaped cub coming from outside the cabin and turned back in time to see the second small bear trundling out the door. Will took the opportunity to pull himself up on the windowsill. He was still tangled up in the sleeping bag, but that didn’t stop him, bag and all, from flopping over the edge and out into the darkness.

The bear, with the immediate threat to its cubs gone, turned and followed them out the door. But the three animals then came tearing around Will’s side of the cabin just as he finally freed himself from the bag and got to his feet. They all saw each other at the same time, and the two cubs veered to run toward the edge of the woods while the sow adjusted her course to resume the defensive attack on Will.

Cursing in frustration and disbelief, he turned and hoisted himself back through the open window. He managed to land on his feet, spun, and slammed the window shut—nearly breaking the glass. He looked out and saw that the bear, just a shadow in the darkness, had stopped a few feet from the window. They looked at each other for a moment, both breathing heavily, and then the bear let out a snort that misted the glass with snot and spittle. With that, she turned and bolted after her cubs into the woods.

Will hustled over to the open door and swung it shut. He stood there, breathing heavily and looking around the cabin. It appeared that little was broken, but everything was in a state of disarray—the table on its side, garbage everywhere, and white feathers still floating around the room, making it look like a freshly shaken snow globe.

He collapsed into one of the kitchen chairs and let out a small chuckle of disbelief at what had just happened. As the adrenaline subsided his head started spinning, reminding him of his seriously failing health. He walked carefully to the kitchen cabinets and found a bag of potato chips. He took it and a bottle of water back to the chair and ate the entire bag in a series of messy handfuls. He thought he could feel each chip hitting his stomach and bursting into raw energy like dry leaves catching fire after being tossed into a starving flame.

He felt better. 

“Jesus. What happened?” he said.

Had he actually just lay there for almost a week letting himself starve to death? Yep. He probably would have, too, if the bear hadn’t come and tried to tear him apart. One hell of a wake-up call.

He chased the chips with the water and some beef jerky, double-checked that the door was locked, and went back to the window. After staring into the darkness for a bit, he opened it and leaned out to recover his sleeping bag. There was plenty of it left to keep him warm, and he wrapped it tightly around himself as he settled back into bed.

Tomorrow his dad would come. Will would clean up the place in the morning and would tell his dad everything when he got there. He would try to explain what the week had been like, how he had indeed been content to let himself whither away. How the experience with the bear (his dad would hardly believe it) had jump-started the more stable parts of his brain. He would even show him the note he had written, to prove he wasn’t hiding anything.

But in the morning he couldn’t find the note. He looked all over as he cleaned, but it had somehow disappeared with the bears.

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