WHEN THEY BLED
The light turned red, halting the Volkswagen beside a laundromat. Nighttime clouds were ripping open. Rain parachuted to the tar sandwiched between rows of brick buildings. Lightning flashed, illuminating a wooden statue of a bear standing outside the entryway. The sculpture wore a yellow painted-on raincoat and held an umbrella made of the same oak.
“The beautification commission is working hard,” Mickey Dou joked. “Cubs at the ballpark, bears holding diplomas at high school, bears lifting coffins at the funeral home. They’re all over town.”
The light turned green; the Beetle rumbled along Main Street. “We’re almost there.” Mickey turned left, the sharpness of the turn almost causing him to swallow his gum—something he swallowed easier than his pride.
His vehicle ascended, circled, dipped. Pavement yielded to gravel. Houses became sparse, roads narrow.
Blair Chambers brushed her blonde shoulder-length hair, shaping it for the mask. “I thought you said we were close.”
Mickey looked at the time on the clock. “We’ll be there in thirty seconds”
“You’re sure they aren’t home?”
Twenty-four-year-old Lance Faust lowered his face to hide the disgust written in its crinkles. Mickey, however, caught a glimpse before the expression retracted into darkness.
“Hey, kid,” he started, “you signed up to join. We’ve fed you, given you shelter.” He sighed and shook his head. “If you bail on us now, we’ll kill you.”
“He already knows,” Blair said matter-of-factly. She winked in the passenger’s side mirror. Mickey also peered into the boy’s reflection on his side, for a second, then returned his focus to the road. A second was long enough to see the wickedness flicker in his eye like the warming of a demonic crucible.
Lance’s expression became nonexistent. He had learned to hide emotions.
“We only accepted you because of your medical knowledge.”
Lance had completed a bachelor’s degree in premed Biology and had been attending a nursing school when he was arrested and barred from medical practice after stealing pain medicine. Now he was sober but living as a criminal.
The vehicle pulled into the vacant driveway leading to the two-story cabin belted by woodland.
Finally, Mickey answered Lance’s question. “We know nobody’s home because the spy nerd has done his spying.” When the overweight forty-year-old Dave Kunt wasn’t gobbling hamburgers in his mother’s basement, he was flying drones, setting up spyware, and reporting his findings to Mickey.
“His balls are too little to come with us,” Mickey continued. “Lucky for us, the extra mass went to his brain.”
Everybody laughed. Even Lance. (Levity, he had learned, made the tragic more bearable because it slowed the growth of insanity that bloomed from tragedy’s seed.) He slipped on his mask and backpack as they exited the Volkswagen.
They approached the front door.
“Don’t be worried about the lights,” Mickey said. “The owners left them on when they went on their month-long vacation.”
“Dave learns a lot,” Blair said.
Mickey started picking the lock. “That’s his job. And he disabled the security system.”
The door opened to a spacious living room. To the left, the staircase ran to the second story. The living room opened to the kitchen, where a fifth of whiskey set on a cherrywood countertop. A table against the wall harbored a jar of honey. Mickey put both items into Lance’s backpack.
All three searched the downstairs.
“Not much here,” Mickey said. “Bedrooms must be upstairs.”
“Usually they are,” Blair said sarcastically under her breath.
She and Lance followed their ringleader upstairs. Three unpainted doors stood in the corridor.
“Watch,” Mickey said. “They’ll all be bedrooms.”
Blair asked, “This is more boring than that one time, huh, babe?”
“Maybe a little.”
“Maybe a lot. The way you sliced open that guy’s chest looking for his heart while he was alive. And how you sliced off his wife’s nose.” Lance’s stomach churned. That day would never be forgotten. It had been the day he realized, yes, hell was real, and its location was Earth. Yes, demons were real, and they lived inside Blair and Mickey.
She said, “My favorite part was when we fucked beside their corpses.”
He removed her mask, then stroked her hair. “I can fuck you here, too.”
“Not as exciting.” She smirked.
“It’s always exciting when I’m a three-hole golfer.” He slapped her ass, bit her lip.
Her tone was sensual. “We’ve got all night to finish the hunt. Where you wanna do me?”
Leaning into her ear, he answered, “Let’s find the biggest bedroom,” then nibbled the lope. She moaned as he twisted the knob. The bedroom was missing the bed. The second door opened, revealing the same situation.
Taking Blair’s hand, he kicked open the door at the end of the corridor. The knob slammed into the wall, chipping wood. Two twins, a queen-sized bed, and a king-sized bed lined the front of the fireplace.
Mickey, pointing at each bed, wisecracked, “Little Bear’s bed, Little Bear II’s bed, Mama Bear’s bed, and Papa—” The sentence broke when the downstairs side door opened. Blair and Mickey heard the creak. But only Lance glimpsed the mindboggling sight.
Boots thudded, and then Lance Faust saw elephantine legs blanketed in thick black fur. In fact, all seven-foot of the body was furry. A ripped black leather hat set askew on the head. A shotgun rested in the arms.
Lance completed the broken sentence in his mind: Papa Bear’s bed. Although he didn’t see the face. He refused to look. Flight or fight instinct drum rolled. Lance darted down the steps, and out the front door.
Mickey stared at the black bear walking on two legs, a shotgun in its paws, a smirk on its mouth.
His heart jumped to his throat. He reached for his pistol. Papa Bear fired first. Buckshot dispersed, a pebble penetrating woodwork inches from Mickey’s face. He crashed through the second room, knocking over a dead beehive, shaky hands unlocking the window.
He skedaddled down the lattice.
A sudden shatter resounded from the backroom as Mama Bear crashed through the panoramic window. She stepped over triangles of broken glass. Her face was painted in makeup and a wooden purse dangled by her side.
Lance raced for the road. But heavy footfall drove him under the porch. An adolescent bear garmented in a yellow raincoat appeared, carrying an umbrella identical to the one on the statue at the laundromat. But now the rain-shield was held level and pointed forward. Dizziness tickled Lance’s consciousness. Panicky breathing dried his quivering throat. The young bear lackadaisically skipped behind a wall of shrubbery on the left. Crawling out, Lance ran in the opposite direction.
The backyard sloped toward a rocky edge which dropped 300 feet onto a lower floor of mountain. Stealthy but jittery, he traversed to where large tires leaned against a shed. He hid behind them. Blair started screaming. The cacophony electrified his nerves. Behind him, venomous snakes flicked their fork tongues. Their eyes were dim. They shared his fear.
Whimpers and cries originating under the back porch warped the air. He searched for their origin point.
Terror reigned upstairs. The bears had spoken no English but had seemingly heard Mickey’s libido-driven comment about golfing. Mama Bear and Papa Bear subdued Blair: her back was propped against the wall with her bottom half laying on the floor. Streams of tears coursed the red barren fields of her face.
The bear in the yellow raincoat opened the bedroom closet. She removed a golf ball and a driver (much longer than the “club” in Mickey’s pants). Standing in front of Blair, she dropped the ball to the floor. Papa Bear gave her a thumbs up.
Smiling, she swung the driver. It connected with the ball, which hit Blair’s chest. She coughed and cried.
Papa Bear rolled the ball back to his daughter. The teen hesitated, taking time to study the target. Sweet innocence blessed the girl’s face, and Blair found this fact as disturbing as everything else. She decided to trade the club for her umbrella.
The paws tightened around the handle. The umbrella swung back and forward. Then its curved but thick handle connected as the airborne ball whistled like steam released from a pressure cooker.
Blair was shrieking when the golf ball hit the “O” her mouth was making. The impact shattered her teeth. A fountain of blood poured forth.
Again and again, the ball hit Blair, whose face began resembling a busted tomato bandaged in human skin. She was alive, but her voice had entered death’s silent gates.
Lance crept to the back porch. A cub lay sprawled in a pile of last fall’s leaves, trembling. It wore a blue ballcap and blue and white striped shorts. He recognized the cub as a statue at the local baseball field. Blood caked the fur on its leg, which was caught in a bear trap. The cub’s cries amplified.
“You’ll be okay,” Lance consoled.
Cautiously but decidedly, he patted the cub’s trapped leg. The little bear jerked.
“Stay still,” Lance advised.
He used a mini flashlight (the moon serving as a secondary auxiliary) to assess the trap. The steel jaws hadn’t bitten too deeply. Lance managed to push downward on the springs, subsequently opening the clamps. The leg slipped to freedom. (Little Bear’s ankle was thick for a cub. Or else the injury would have been worse.)
After fetching a medical kit from his backpack, Lance made a torniquet amid periodic peeks around the corner. Where is the bear in the raincoat? Where is Papa Bear? Where is Mickey? Blair? She probably died with her screams.
“I have to go, little guy, but you’ll feel better soon.”
The cub sat up and patted Lance’s leg.
Lance asked, “Do you know why they want to kill us?”
Little Bear removed a photo from his pocket. A pile of slaughtered bears was next to hewed oak trees. Woodcutters sat drinking beers on a container stenciled with the company name Carters Forestry. A revelation cleared the mental fog clouding Lance’s mind: woodcutters had massacred a colony of real bears while stealing oak to sculpt fakes. And now the fakes were real.
Real and angry.
Mickey zigzagged to the backyard. He brandished his pistol and pounded his now-shirtless chest. Lance, still hidden with the cub, watched the madman go madder. He leaped, ran circles, and fired his widow maker at the moon.
“Come get me you stupid bears! I’m HERE!”
Papa Bear stomped to the backyard. Roaring and embracing the shotgun, he gained speed. Mickey fired but missed.
He fired again; he missed again.
Papa was not slowing.
The third bullet grazed flesh. The beast released an earsplitting roar, charged, and finally pulled the trigger.
Shell fragments pierced the air, two stopping in Mickey’s femur. He fell backward and his screams grew louder as Papa Bear drew near, boots shaking the earth. Little Bear watched indifferently.
Mickey tried spider-crawling away. But the bleeding leg refused to cooperate. The best he managed was a snail-like drag.
Mama Bear and her yellow-coated daughter came from the left side of the house. Mama Bear shook a claw at Mickey.
Her paws were dripping Blair’s blood.
Papa Bear loomed over him. Mickey shut his eyes—this is only a dream, only a dream—but once they peeled back Papa Bear’s face was an inch from his own. The grin on the beast seemed to say: No. This is reality.
Terror froze the burglar’s vocal cords until Papa Bear yanked the ring out of his ear. Pain unleashed screams that became a cacophonical train cutting through terror-capped ice in the tunnel of his throat. A large boot smashed his hand. Bones cracked; fingernails oozed blood.
Lance was the opposite to his kidnappers, who had sheltered him to use him. He hated violence; they bathed in it. But now a sadistic smile lit his face. They slowly had hoodwinked Lance into tagging along to a strange house and helping with their theft, never telling him that the crazed lovers would torture and kill the owners. Later, Lance begged them to let him start a life away from them. Mickey held a pistol to the boy’s temple and told him that he would kill him more brutally than all the rest if he ever left.
Now the tyrant had fallen.
Papa Bear whistled. Little Bear attempted to stand.
“It’s best to stay put,” Lance said.
The cub didn’t listen.
He was halfway upright when he lost balance. His paws caught Lance’s shoulder, accidentally scraping skin. “Ouch,” he said, his jerking feet stirring leaves.
Papa Bear squinted, sniffed. His head rocked side to side. A second later, he spotted Little Bear and the human. His roar shook birds out of 100 tree canopies as he charged, shotgun in paws. Lance contemplated running, but there was no escape. The other bears were here, and the one charging him was death incarnated as 1,000 pounds of furry fury.
The cub extended an arm in a gesture to halt. With his other hand, he pointed at his treated wound.
Papa Bear stopped. He understood. Lance’s and Papa Bear’s eyes collided. The big bear no longer grinned. His lips straightened and his head nodded in acknowledgement.
He stumped to one knee and clapped his paws. The cub, helped by a hesitant Lance, limped into the dying moonlight. After he and his father embraced, they worked on the ringleader. Mickey screamed continually until Mama Bear ripped out his tongue.
Lance’s fear dwindled enough to join the scene. Papa Bear patted his back. The colossal paw shivered his spin. But it resonated more warmth than he had ever known from the psychopathic burglars.
Papa Bear used Mickey’s good leg to demonstrate how to break a femur. As the bone cracked, a piece of skeletal matter poked out of his leg, the agony rendering Mickey unconscious. The cub worked at the other leg, merely breaking the ankle.
Papa broke the femur, then dragged the burglar to the front of the house. Lance followed.
They walked onto a platform harboring a firepit, a six-foot-long grill, and rocking chairs. Papa Bear threw Mickey onto the grill. Mama Bear placed a metal cap over the waking body. The red-gold cover had diamond shaped perforations useful for watching skin melt.
Lance turned to Papa Bear. “I have something that might belong to you. The others took it.” He retrieved the jar of honey from his backpack. The bear gladly grabbed it.
The whiskey bottle had been under the honey. Lance noticed that the label read, Honey Whiskey. He placed it in the paw. “And this.”
Papa Bear took the bottle. Then he poured the jar of honey onto Mickey and cranked the heat.
Mama Bear and Papa Bear sipped honey-flavored whiskey as they watched flames lick skin off a face that screamed blood. Finally, Lance watched the devilish flicker in his master’s eye melt to goo.
The meat was still cooking when Papa Bear and his children walked Lance deep into the forest.
Ahead, lights tore holes in darkness. Lance was ushered forward.
Candles burned inside treehouses belting every tree. Bears—wearing various colors painted on after their sculpting—stepped onto balconies, which were decorated in beehives, to see the newest arrivals. Lance gazed up in wonder.
Bears waved welcoming paws.
The four arrivals entered the largest treehouse in the land.
Papa Bear opened the door to a room where a 30-foot-long wall held boards tattooed in names and birthdates.
The names etched into the boards represented a variety of regions. In addition, birthdates included the young, the middle aged, and the old. Statues of bears had been sculpted throughout the nation, leading to the destruction of ecosystems and to the deaths of real furry critters. All hope seemed lost until they gathered and built this paradise.
Papa Bear pecked the northern window, out of which Lance had not looked. Happy-faced humans were mingling and playing games in a clearing. They had been outcasts in the normal world. All had been beaten, oppressed, or enslaved. But in this land of bears they were appreciated. Wooden and biological bears had experienced similar mistreatment at the hands of industrial society. They understood the misunderstood.
Lance etched his name and birthdate into a partially blank board. After that, he joined the fun in the clearing.
People disturbed various things, including animals. Some things remained undisturbed, never given attention, enveloped in oblivion. Sometimes people suffered such a fate. There were times when wooden statues were the sufferers. And nobody cared. Nothing changed…except for when they bled.