By Robert Currer
Part 2 of 3 – 1900 Words
This work of fiction contains elements of horror, violence, and drug use. Reader discretion is advised.
The campfire was silent save for the hissing, popping flame.
Then Lynx said, “That bear was your son.” A stoniness had solidified in his features giving them a grim neutrality like a sphynx or a justiciar. “And you killed him?”
Merlin bobbed his head, still staring deep into the cracking fire. His ocean eyes were wet and far away.
Sunshine felt a gouge in her chest like a melon baller to the heart. Tears ran straight tracks down her cheeks. She bit her lip but did not wipe them way.
“Fuck,” said Goat with the puffed-cheeked exhale of a man overwhelmed.
Sunshine studied the desolation etched into the fissures of Merlin’s features. His face was like the mountain, a cluster of ravines and ridges that gathered to create something more evocative than any would be alone. There was a depth of soul there and, perhaps because she was very high, Sunshine thought she could see what Ursula had seen in him.
She reached over and laid a hand on his arthritic knuckles. Then gently, in a tone she used to sooth her kindergarteners, she asked, “And then what happened?”
For a week after, Merlin wandered the mountain. It was a stormy week where tempests seemed to sit upon the mountain shoulders pouring endless oceans of rain into the valley. Merlin did not care. He gave no thought to the perpetual damp nor did he care that his softened skin chaffed until he was red and rashy all over. The wheels of his mind had many miles of revolutions to make, and they could not turn in town.
At last, the gales abated, and Merlin limped back down the mountain. His mind was still wracked by squalls of guilt and duty, but his personal storms had petered out into a perpetual gloomy drizzle. He expected those clouds would not leave him anytime soon.
Home was a rundown trailer that sat on the edge of both the town and the long acres of mountain that he had inherited from his grandfather. The sky was still gray and laden when Merlin pushed in through the front door. He eased his sodden pack onto the peeling kitchen linoleum, opened a beer from the fridge, and went to take a hot shower.
A damp but noticeably cleaner Merlin was holding a towel around his waist with one hand and cracking open another beer with the other when there came a knock. He licked the thin foam from his top lip and shuffled to the front door.
“Hey Merlin. Welcome back,” said the sheriff brightly. He was dressed in uniform—he was always in uniform—but carried a cumbersome cardboard box. “Mind if I step inside for a moment?” He gestured to the box with a tip of the head.
Merlin stepped out of the door, holding it wide open. “Come on in, Sheriff. Do you mind waiting here until I’m dressed?” He indicated a small square space of uncoordinated, found furniture. The sheriff nodded, set his box on the counter, and reluctantly took a seat on a sagging, stained couch. His face was the tight mask people wear when they are politely trying not to call a place a shit hole.
When Merlin re-emerged, he was bare foot still but dressed in jeans and a much-worn t-shirt with a faded design that once upon a time had been a stylized tree. He eyed the box on the counter. “Now what can I do for you, Sheriff,” he asked.
“Well, the town is just so grateful for what you did, Merlin, putting down that old boar like that,” started the sheriff, dusting off his uniform pants. He walked over to the box. “We—the whole town wanted to show you our appreciation.” He unfolded the carboard flaps. “So, we thought, what better way to commemorate your service than with this.” Out from the box, he lifted the head of a snarling black bear. It bared its fangs through squinting glass eyes that were not quite ocean colored but near enough. The head was attached to a pelt, tanned and taxidermized into a fine bearskin rug. The sheriff presented it as proudly as if he had shot the beast himself. Merlin’s ocean eyes turned watery.
Extending his hands, he accepted the creature’s caricaturized head and then winced when he touched it. There was no memory of life in the thing. A familiar squeeze gripped his chest. A tear broke the levies and trailed down Merlin’s face. The sheriff coughed into his fist uncomfortably, cuffed Merlin on the shoulder, and looked down at his feet.
“Look, I’ve got to run but we’re all real grateful to have you in these parts,” said the sheriff backing towards the door. Merlin did not stir. The sheriff let himself out.
That night, the clouds burst. Rain poured down in great unending sheets and lightning tore through the sky in violent purples. Merlin huddled on the floor of his trailer, drunk and sobbing. The bearskin rug that had been his only son lay folded in front, glaring at him through rage-filled, false eyes. A patch of fur stood up from its snout like scuffed suede and through his choking tears, Merlin clumsily smoothed it with his thumb.
His fingers lingered and trailed towards the creature’s brow, rubbing it soothingly as if to say “everything will be alright” which of course was not true. But it was a comforting lie between father and son.
Merlin pulled the rug closer, hugging it to his chest and nuzzling a tear-stained cheek into the coarse black fur. He sat swaying and clutching the rug to himself. After some time, his tears were depleted which was worse because there was no longer anything to distract him from the black hollowness that pierced his gut. Looking his son in the wrong eyes, he wondered what life must have been like for him as a bear. He could not have been more than fifteen years old, mature for a bear but not yet a man. Merlin wondered if his son was always a bear or if he could change back and forth like his mother. Maybe because Merlin was always human and Ursula could be either, the son was forever a bear to maintain some sort of cosmic balance.
Merlin blinked and wished he could cry again. What did he know of shape-changers and the bear-children of women? He was none of those things. He only knew that his son was dead, and it was his fault. He drew the pelt to his chest. The rug wrapped around Merlin, swaddling him in warm fur so tight it was like a second skin.
No, not like a second skin. It was a second skin. Merlin’s vision blurred and he felt suddenly farther from the floor. He looked down. His hands had widened and coarsened into massive paws with great hooked claws. Fur covered his round belly all the way down to his short legs and pawed feet. He was a bear, a colossal black bear as big as an Alaskan grizzly. Merlin reached a claw back and scratched behind his triangular ear. His furry brow furrowed. He thought that this was a strange development and would have puzzled further had not a gust of wind blown in from the kitchen window.
The air was a riot of screaming odors and Merlin’s prodigious gut growled. Tantalizing scents tugged him in all different directions. Thick ropes of saliva formed on his ursine lips. With some difficulty caused by his size, Merlin negotiated the path to the kitchen. Fumbling at first, he managed to pry open the refrigerator door with his claws. Inside there were only a few morsels of bread, deli meats and cheese, and a pot of yellow mustard. Merlin devoured each.
The rumbling of his belly had not abated when he licked the last of the mustard from his snout. He lifted nose to the air and drank deeply of the blustering night. The wind brought stories of forage to be found beyond these rooms. Merlin lumbered back toward the front door. He paused, grasping at the memory of how such contraptions worked but the knowledge wriggled from his grip. He bumped the door with a stout shoulder, rattling it in the frame. He tried again. When that did not work, he pushed himself to standing and then, paws out, fell against the door with all his bulk. The cheap, weathered wood cracked off the hinges and fell beneath him.
Outside, the wind howled, and rain pounded his face. He took a shuffling step back, considering retreating to the protection of his den, but the hunger gnawed all the way through him. Merlin the black bear stalked into the night guided by the siren song of food. Though his nose led him along the gravel road toward town, it was nearly twenty minutes before the first home came into view. It was a long, low boxy place, only a little larger than his den, but the smell of forage was strong here.
He followed the scents to a pair of trash cans, each ripe with toothsome delights. Merlin struggled to pull the lid free, but it was stuck fast. His gut tore at itself as he puzzled the riddle of the cans. There was a trick to opening this type of bin designed to keep creatures like himself out. He could remember that much but the secrets of his human life seemed so arcane, so eldritch, that Merlin struggled to call them into focus. The howling of his belly made thinking no easier.
A sound like the clattering of a screen door cut through the wind and rain. On the wet air, there came a smell so rich and succulent that drool frothed on Merlin’s jowls. In the dark, the odor took shape, growing legs and arms and a large black bag. It ambled closer with a lopsided gait. Merlin crouched in the shadow of the cans and waited. The scent was nearly within reach. Only a few steps closer…
Merlin sprang with a roar that rattled bone. He fell atop his prey with the full weight of his bulk, grasping it between rending claws and ravaging it with tearing teeth. Its scream became a gurgle and then became silence. Merlin licked the hot blood from his snout. He bent low, gripped the body by the shoulder, and dragged it into the darkness.
When dawn broke, heavy and golden like a cracked egg, Merlin groaned and threw a fleshy arm over his eyes. His head was pounding, his mouth tasted like stamp glue, and he was wet. He shivered. Why was he wet? Carefully, Merlin pried open his eyes. The sunlight was needles stabbing his brain. He grimaced through the pain. When finally, he could focus again, he was naked and lying on a bear pelt in the shelter of a large tree. How did he get here? He had dreamed that he had been a bear. His hands were wet and tacky with blood. Merlin’s heart pounded against his ribs. He touched his face and found his lips wet and tasting of pennies. Only then did he see it. A few feet away, half buried in the damp leaves was the sheriff’s corpse. His chest was torn open, and his innards had been eaten.
Merlin licked his lips and cocked his head. “Huh.”
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