Diana stands at her kitchen sink, gently lifting the steaming corn cobs out of boiling water with silver tongs. Her hands are strong and muscular, a mismatch for her soft, maternal body. If you saw only her hands, you would suspect she was a pianist or a sculptor; the rest of her is fragile, almost uncomfortable, the body of an aging woman, stuck between the loose beauty of child-rearing years and the gentle thickening of middle age.
The tongs slip out of her hands, and her right hand plummets into the boiling water. Crap, she whispers, bringing her thumb up to her mouth to suck, feeling the warm and pregnant spot forming. I’m so stupid. She shakes her head; strands of dirty blonde hair streaked with gray fall into her eyes, momentarily blinding her. Margaret, her therapist, wants her to stop criticizing herself. Diana is supposed to speak encouragingly during her interior monologue; calm and soothing words will prevent the adrenaline rush she normally gets when she’s anxious. Old Diana would have asked herself: How am I going to get dinner on the table with this burn? Do we have any ointment? I’m supposed to clean the toilets tomorrow. New Diana repeats her mantra: You are strong. You are worthy. You can have two glasses of cabernet Sauvignon later tonight.
Distracting herself, another technique for combating anxiety, she looks out the kitchen window at her serene backyard. She wanted this house primarily for the expansive, flat yard opening onto the private golf course. Though the yard is a half-acre in size, it appears much larger, as if she and Mark own not just the yard, but also the golf course and the forest behind it. There is a wooden deck outside the kitchen, with steps leading down to the yard on the left. The lawn is wide and sweeping, shielded from the neighbors to the right and left by silvery evergreens and burnt-red Japanese maples. It is perfect for children to play in: flat, lushly grassed, with no holes in the ground to speak of. One large white soccer goal stands sentry at each end, and sports balls, in black, white, and orange are scattered atop the grass. The back line of the yard is free of landscaping, giving it the illusion of melting into the fourteenth hole of the golf course. Beyond the fourteenth hole is a small man-made lake with a beaver hut. A majestic forest of pine, maple, and evergreen trees—well over one hundred feet tall—reaches up beyond the pond towards the darkening but cloudless sky.
A bald eagle flies overhead from the direction of the pond towards the house. Though they are common in the Pacific Northwest, Diana, a transplant from Florida, still gasps when she sees them. The eagle veers right and lands on an old tree in her yard, to her left, causing the beefy branch to wobble. At times, especially when she’s not feeling well, Diana envies the eagle—its simplicity, its lack of rumination, its conviction. It must be exhilarating to act on instinct rather than thought. Thinking is what gets her into trouble.
Fireworks, set off by neighbor kids, pop and cackle outside. Diana’s husband and son, positioned in the backyard near the deck, smile and open their own boxes of sparklers and fireworks. It is 8:30 PM on July 4th, 2013, and the family of three is about to eat a late dinner of ribs, mashed potatoes, corn, and watermelon. Diana takes a band-aid from the kitchen cabinet and applies it to her swollen thumb. The distraction has worked; her heart rate has slowed; her body has quieted.
“Mark, do you want a drink? Have you guys started the sparklers?” Diana walks out onto the porch and smiles at her boys. Her husband, tan and muscled from weekly golf, looks up at her with clear blue eyes. When they met in college, Diana was the beautiful one. However, age has reversed this status, and now Mark turns heads, his steel-rimmed glasses the only reminder of his former nerdiness. It’s as if Mark has grown into his body, and she has grown out of hers.
“Gin and tonic?”
“Save some sparklers for me.”
Father and son light two sparklers, walk out into the middle of the yard, and wave them around in the fading light. Diana lingers on the porch to watch.
“Dad, guess what I’m drawing?” Isaac, who is nine, draws a triangle in the air with his sparkler. He is small and fine-boned, more bookish than athletic, with a dry sense of humor reminiscent of an old man, not a young boy.
“Hmmm, is that a teepee?”
“No, Dad, it’s an animal.” He draws again, this time with an even larger triangle.
“Is it a hat?”
“Dad! It’s an ANIMAL!”
Looking up from the ground mimicking mighty concentration, Mark smiles a warm and mischievous smile.
“Is it a shark?”
“Finally!” The boy grins and nudges the ground with the toe of his grubby, white sneaker.
Diana’s heart swells. She smiles and retreats into the kitchen to make the drinks. After a few minutes, she returns to the deck and trips on a buckled plank of wood, spilling sticky drops of tonic on her right foot. She looks down at her red-white-blue toes, sandwiched in gold Birkenstocks, and says “of course.” The sky is approaching navy; the crickets and toads are beginning their ribbit-chirp jam session; fireworks are popping left and right; the smells of roasting ribs and gunpowder permeate the air. As she brings her head back up to standing level, she notices a large, dark shape at the edge of the woods out of the corner of her right eye. Turning her head towards the shape, she wonders what it is. The furry mass lumbers out of the woods behind the pond and moves towards the golf course. It moves like a bear. She watches it amble around the right side of the pond and stop at the edge of the golf course, the length of a small soccer field away from their backyard. It lifts its head up in the direction of the family. It is a black bear. Diana’s heart races; her face and chest get hot. The creature is breathtaking in person—much more impressive than at the zoo. The wildness and closeness of the animal is surreal, and for a moment Diana forgets she is in her yard, with her family, in a neighborhood outside of Seattle. For a split second, she thinks perhaps she is in an episode of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” or on a hiking trip through Alaska. A cell phone rings. The bear doesn’t flinch. This is not good.
Diana knows that in less than three seconds she will imagine this situation as catastrophic and imagine a terrible attack scene of some type. Before her brain goes there, she takes a few more deep breaths and visualizes a safe and pleasant scene: she, Isaac, and Mark on a white, sandy beach, pink and orange umbrella drinks in hand, surrounded by an invisible fence only she can see. Just a few months ago, she couldn’t see the signs of her anxiety; in fact, she thought something was wrong with her physically, not mentally. She’d been up for three nights worrying about Isaac because he had a headache that wouldn’t go away, and fatigue. WebMD had her convinced it was a brain tumor. Mark told her she was being irrational, which she was. That’s kind of how mental illness works.
The sleep deprivation and worry caused a bit of a breakdown, and Diana found herself lost one day when driving home from taking Isaac to the doctor. She had to call Mark to come get them. He’d been so worried when he arrived.
“What happened?” His shaky voice and focused eyes looked much like they did the day Isaac was born, when her gynecologist told them they had to do an emergency c-section.
“I don’t know,” she said from the driver’s seat of her minivan, forehead resting on the steering wheel, mascara smeared on her tense and pallid face. “I just . . . I’m so tired. I can’t. I just got lost.”
“Why aren’t you using . . .?” checking himself before uttering, “GPS,” and instead entered the car on the passenger side and sat down gently, resting his hand on Diana’s shoulder. She remembers this next part very clearly—it was so classic, Mark. He turned around to look at Isaac in the back seat and said, “How ‘bout those Mariners, huh? Felix struck everyone out last night, first time in a long time.” The tension in the car eased, like a balloon being deflated in order to be twisted into an elephant trunk or a dog tail at a child’s party, a decrease in pressure to make something more useful and malleable for manipulation.
Isaac looked over at Diana and back at Mark, sighed, and said, “I have to pee. Can we go home?” And they did, Mark leading them out of their lostness back to the house, where he promptly sent Diana to bed and watched the game with Isaac. Isaac recovered from his virus (Mark had been right, of course; it was not a brain tumor), and she started seeing Margaret, a specialist in anxiety. Things were getting better.
“Mark, there’s a bear right over there. Look. It’s huge.” She puts the tray of drinks down on the deck railing and points to the right of the pond. The child and father follow her quivering finger, turn around, and spot the bear about forty yards away.
“Cool,” whispers Isaac. Mark stares at the bear for a few seconds, blinks his eyes, and says in a calm voice: “That must be the bear that keeps getting into the Hendersons’ trash. Apparently, he loves guacamole.” The boy chuckles. The father looks back towards the house, which is fifteen yards away. He puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder and backs him up a few feet. “Let’s get a little closer to the deck, just to be safe.” Isaac shuffles back, holding a sizzling sparkler in his hand, and looks up at his mom on the deck.
“Aren’t you gonna come down and do sparklers with us?” Isaac asked, cheeks pink with excitement, eyes wide and hopeful.
“I’d love to, sweetie, but I think you guys should come in. Animals like to hunt at dusk.” Mark glances back towards the pond, the woods, and the bear, which has not moved from its spot forty yards away.
“I think we’re OK, but let’s keep an eye on him,” he says, scanning Isaac’s face for signs of concern. Because Diana is an expert worrier, Mark has taken the route of non-worrier extraordinaire. Diana both appreciates Mark’s childlike innocence and resents it. On the one hand, it makes life more fun and carefree for Isaac. On the other hand, it is a tether for her, a lifetime sentence of carrying the full burden. “Time for something louder!” With a flourish, Mark removes a large plastic army green turtle from a cardboard box.
Diana crosses her arms across her chest and sighs. The disquiet inside her body is spreading outwards towards her skin, causing a pink flush to creep up from her bosom to her neck and face. “Mark, do you really think that’s such a good idea?” She wonders why she even asks him this. Of course, he’s going to say yes. He’s a man to whom nothing bad has ever happened in life, so his imagination, unlike hers, is limited. Just once she’d like to hear him say, “You know what? You’re probably right. Let’s go inside and wait for the bear to leave.” Why can’t he do that?
“Di, it’s the 4th of July . . . We’re supposed to be celebrating. I’ve got my eye on him. If he charges, we can be up on the deck in two seconds.”
“Mom, look, my sparklers will scare him off!” Isaac lifts up two sparklers and waves them in the direction of the bear. Diana recalls a story her neighbor, Linda, told her a few years ago about a deer chasing her while out on a run. The deer followed Linda for a quarter of a mile at the end of her run, gaining speed as they reached the house. Once home, she ran inside the open garage door, with the deer still in pursuit. Fortunately, she was able to open the door to her house and escape the deer at the last minute. Linda was still shocked by the incident. “Isn’t that crazy? You just never know what wild animals will do.”
“Guys, please come in,” Diana says, her voice increasing in pitch.
“Do you know the odds of that thing attacking us?” The boy takes out his iPhone and googles, black bear attacks, statistics. “Mom, there’s like a one in two million chance of a person getting attacked by a black bear.” He looks up at her, pride and borrowed confidence in his brown eyes. She detects a trace of hesitation in his voice, a hesitation which tugs at her chest. Sometimes at moments like this, tug-of-war moments when Isaac is being stretched between boyhood and manhood, she recalls him being inside her belly, his chunky little feet kicking the sides of her uterus.
She glances over at Mark, who is also checking his phone. Good Lord, both these males could very well be attacked by that bear at the exact moment they are researching the likelihood of it happening. Diana’s posture and voice change. It’s as if she’s remembered something about herself that’s important. Her voice deepens and she stands up straighter.
“When it’s almost in your own backyard? Listen, I know I’ve said this before, but there are several things that have happened to me in my life that are statistically unheard of. My cousin dying from a waterfall accident, for one. My mother abandoning us for her tax attorney is number two. Shall I go on?” Mark looks at her, stunned and actually worried now, head shaking from left to right, blue eyes imploring her to stop revealing unsavory facts in front of their innocent son. She continues, “Statistics are numbers. They’re not meant to be a roadmap for life.” She walks down the steps and onto the lawn, holding the bear in her view the entire time. She kisses the top of her son’s head and breathes in the smell of mint shampoo and boy-sweat. “Come inside,” she whispers, “right now.”
“OK, Mom, I promise . . . just a minute.”
“We’ll be there just a sec,” Mark says, walking towards the grill which is to the left of the deck. “I just need to turn the ribs. Isaac, go ahead and unwrap another turtle.” Isaac bends down to pick up a flaming turtle. Every year they start with sparklers and once Mark and Diana are convinced there are no cops on patrol or legalistic neighbors in sight, they take out illicit fireworks like sizzling carousels, confederate cannons, and flaming turtles.
Diana turns back towards the deck, ascends the stairs, and enters the kitchen. While at the kitchen sink, she looks out the window, anger growing with each second that her husband remains in the yard. She closes her eyes quickly to calm herself, adding a prayer that the bear will be gone when she opens them. It is not. As she reaches for the faucet to wash her hands, she sees the bear lift its head, rock back on its hind legs, and propel itself forward in the direction of her yard, and her son.
Diana’s heart cuts; her face heats; her pulse quickens. There is a low buzzing in her ears. She sprints out the back door, tripping down the steps, sees the black mass out of the corner of her right eye hurtling towards Isaac. The bear is now twenty feet away from him. Mark is out of sight, still over at the grill, oblivious. The buzzing in her ears grows louder. She sprints to Isaac’s back, clothed in the white American flag t-shirt she bought him two days ago from Target. Her son is frozen on the lawn, like a rabbit who hears a noise, all senses on high alert, only whiskers twitching, a flaming turtle dropped at his feet, partially unwrapped. A few more steps and she can reach him before the bear does. She stabs her right foot into the ground and smells the fresh and musky odor of the bear’s wet fur. She grabs Isaac around the waist with her strong hands, lifts him up over her right shoulder, and flings him behind her as hard as she can. She hears his body hit the ground with a thud as she pivots back towards the bear. It is upon her. There is a pressure on her scalp, not unlike labor pains, followed by sounds of ripping and tearing flesh. She is enveloped in wet fur. She hears something. Is it Mark screaming? Isaac crying? She tries to look up, but it’s a struggle to see between the white teeth, black fur, and blood. It’s the eagle. He’s soaring, gliding, circling right above her in the darkening sky.
Katie Humphries is a short story writer with no prior publications. She grew up in Florida and now resides in the Pacific Northwest with her family. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. www.katie-humphries.com