So, Malcolm. He was so pale. He'd been pale since the day he'd joined the troop, not a month before, and it was something we all noticed, of course. I guess I never realized how tan regular skin is -- I mean, we were all darker than Malcolm. But that's California, Mr. Mulroney says. Southern California. The Golden State. Malcolm was quiet, too, didn't say much other than to say where he was from, Minneapolis, and that he'd just about completed the requirements for his Star badge. His mom had brought him to the first meeting, and she was pale, too. But this pale tonight was a new pale, I knew from looking at Malcolm lying there. Spooky.
"He's really pale," I said to Mr. Mulroney, who was standing now, facing away from us, looking down the trail where Dr. Paber and the other boys had disappeared. I figured I had to keep him in the loop.
"He's lost a lot of blood, Jeremy," Art said quickly, pausing in his patrol.
Mr. Mulroney gave Art this long, funny look. Mr. Mulroney's pants were still covered with Malcolm's blood, but in the firelight, it looked more like someone had dropped a big, frosted chocolate cake in his lap. "Look at the moon, Jeremy," Mr. M said. I looked up; Art did, too, which kind of ticked me off. "Full moon tonight," he went on.
I nodded. I didn't quite
understand, but, as I've been saying, that was the way it was with Mr. Mulroney.
Sometimes he didn't seem to understand what he was saying, either. Art always
said it was cigarettes that did it.
I tried passing my hand over Malcolm's face. "He ain't going to see that," Art called over, but that wasn't what I was doing. I was trying to test the Moon-pale theory, and it seemed to be working. I liked it then when Mr. Mulroney told Art to get back to sentry duty, and maybe to widen his circle a little bit, so we'd have more warning if another bear came. Art clicked his flashlight a couple times and shuffled and kicked his way out a little farther. But I stopped waving my hand over Malcolm's face. I realized it seemed a little harsh -- like I was teasing him.
The bleeding had stopped, mostly. After talking about it a bit, we'd at first gone and elevated the head, which you weren't supposed to do -- except in special cases, the book said. Dr. Paber's one doctor-like move had been to declare that Malcolm was, in fact, a special case, and that seemed to mean we could do whatever we felt like would help. Some of us wanted to put the piece of scalp back on -- one of the guys had found it, puked, and then carried it over like a strip of bacon over to where Malcolm lay -- but Mr. Mulroney said it was too dirty to stick back on, and told us to wrap it in a wet neckerchief. Malcolm's head, meanwhile, we just kept wrapped in more neckerchiefs. That was kind of the scariest thing, at first, watching those neckerchiefs turn red, one after another, just about instantly. It was spooky the way the red just seeped through them; it spread so quickly, like one of those nature movies that speeds up all of the sudden: it's a bud, it's a flower. Watching all that bleeding, a couple of guys had gotten sick, and Dr. Paber had Art turn the flashlight off after awhile. We'd use the moon, he said, even though, by that point, there wasn't much to use the moon for. The blood seemed to be satisfied with the neckerchiefs.
Malcolm's lips were pursed now, like he was going to speak. He'd screamed when it happened, first like he was scared somebody was breaking into his tent -- which the bear was -- and then -- it must have been when the bear started scraping away, looking for scents -- Malcolm screamed this weird, really high, really freaky scream. You don't hear screams like that, almost ever. Maybe I've heard a scream or two like them in movies, but I think the closest you could come was the day this guy broke his arm during gym. I didn't get over there in time, but I heard you could see the bone sticking out. The way that scream echoed around the gym -- in a way, we could all see the bone.
But Malcolm, he hadn't made a sound since going back to sleep. Art had tried to keep him awake by shouting, but Mr. Mulroney had told him to "ease up," and Art did. Art didn't like Mr. Mulroney, but he had to respect him. Mr. Mulroney had been in the army, which Art was all hot on joining someday. Art would always try to cut himself short when he whined about Mr. Mulroney: "But then, man, he is a veteran."
The really creepy thing is that Malcolm and I were supposed to be tentmates. I mean, Art and I were tentmates originally, but then Art got in trouble with his mom, and all of the sudden he wasn't going to go on the trip, and that meant I was going to have to buddy up with Malcolm. But then Art did whatever it was he had to do, and he was back on the trip, and we were back in a tent together, and Malcolm was on his own. I tried to imagine what it had been like in the tent when the bear came in. I tried to read his face to see; the scratches were all there. I looked over at the tent, which was crumpled in a heap like somebody had popped it with a pin. But the bear had done a lot worse than that. It was like the thing had scissors. He went right through the rain fly, right through the tent roof, and then he was in, and on top of Malcolm. I think I was still sleeping then. The first thing I had heard was Mr. Mulroney shouting, "knock it off, boys." Then I heard Dr. Paber a few seconds later say, "Shit, Mulroney," and then I heard whistles blowing, and then Art and I were out of our tent, watching the bear shamble off, and listening to Malcolm doing that scream.
But since then, he hadn't made a sound. Now Malcolm was lying really still, and I thought, wow, he's dead. I put a hand on his arm, and it did feel cold, but then, it was a cold night out. I leaned a little closer, and just as I heard Mr. Mulroney say, "Everything all right, there, Jeremy?" I felt a little puff of air kind of smear across my cheek. Really nasty, but then, you knew he was alive, so I straightened up again. I told Mr. Mulroney everything was fine. And I told myself that that was o.k. I guess I wasn't so into his dying anymore. Sitting there, even with him doing nothing, I was getting to know him, in a way.
We sat like that for some time. Every so often, I'd let a hand linger above Malcolm's lips, just to see if any air was sneaking out, to make sure he hadn't died yet. The rest of the time I spent looking around. It was an incredible night with that moon. It was so bright it took away a lot of stars, but in return, you got to see just about everything you could want to see: the trees, the meadow, the mountains beyond. It was like somebody's backyard lit up for a party. I didn't like how the moon made some things even darker, though: around the edges of the meadow, under the trees, in the moon's shade, I guess you call it, it wasn't just shady-dark, it was black, spooky-night dark, the kind that just swallows you if you step into it. I could see Art was avoiding those dark places, too. In fact, the fire had gotten bigger and bigger since we'd been up with Malcolm.
"What if he dies, Mr. Mulroney?" I asked. Mr. Mulroney turned to me with these really sad eyes, like I had just told him that Malcolm had died, and like Malcolm was his own son or something.
"We'll take care of it," he said.
"You will?" I asked.
"No, I said, 'we', Jeremy," Mr. Mulroney said. "We'll figure it out. A scout is, what, 'Trustworthy, reverent, friendly -- there's got to be something in there."
"Trustworthy, loyal, helpful!" Art shouted over.
"Thank you, Art," Mr. Mulroney said.
"Friendly, courteous, kind!" Art continued, moving closer. Mr. Mulroney waved him off. "Obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and then reverent," Art muttered, as he wandered back out on patrol.
Mr. Mulroney nodded. "So, we'll figure out something. Or, more likely, the rangers will," he added.
"His mom's going to be really upset," I said. Mr. Mulroney nodded again, and gave me this face that, I don't know, made me think he really wanted another cigarette. It was weird -- in a way, I wanted one, too. I'd never smoked before, but it seemed to work for Mr. Mulroney. Sure enough, he fished around in his pockets and came up with a crumpled pack. I watched him tap out a cigarette, and then he started watching me watching him.
"Do you -- ah -- smoke, Jeremy?" I could hear Art's footsteps stop somewhere out there in the dark.
"Oh, gosh, no," I said, and then wondered if that was rude. "I mean, I don't think so." He looked at me with half a smile, the first of the night. Maybe the first of the trip. "No thank you," I finally decided.
"It's not a good habit," Mr. Mulroney said, trying to get the new cigarette lit again. "But you know what, it's not criminal, not the way it seems today. It's not illegal, for God's sake."
"Like mar-i-jua-na," I said, pronouncing it slow and careful just like the policeman did on D.A.R.E. day.
Mr. Mulroney took a deep drag, and then exhaled. He started to say something and then just rolled his eyes. "They've got you kids frightened out of your pants. What are we thinking? 'Just say no,' pot, cigarettes, drinking age is 21, crack, condoms, AIDS, chat rooms, seat belts -- the fucking ozone layer!" He was almost shouting. Another puff. "Jesus." Another puff. "And well, that, too: Jesus. Do you guys have school prayer?"
Art shouted before I could answer. "Mr. Mulroney!" Mr. Mulroney didn't turn around, but just tilted his head back and shouted, "What?" He blew up this little column of smoke.
"I need to go to the bathroom," Art said quietly, coming closer.
"Hell, Art," Mr. Mulroney said. "You've never asked me before."
"Well," Art said, "I didn't want to, you know, abandon my patrol."
away, scout," Mr. Mulroney called. Then he paused. "Just don't -- just
go where I can hear you." Art looked at him quizzically. "Don't wander
off, is what I'm saying," Mr. Mulroney said. "Who knows where Mr. Bear
is now, o.k.?"
Mr. Mulroney turned to Art: "Go. Don't dawdle."
Once Art had wandered off, Mr. Mulroney turned to me. "Where were we?"
"Jesus," I said.
"Listen," Mr. Mulroney began, but then he changed his mind. "It's not that -- "
"I'm right here, Mr. Mulroney!" Art shouted, but he sounded far away.
"Good, Art!" Mr. Mulroney shouted, but not loud enough, and they had to exchange shouts again.
I looked down at Malcolm. His color seemed to be improving, although when I looked up to check the moon, I realized it was setting. Maybe it was the color of the sky that was improving -- it was getting closer to dawn.
"Here's the thing," Mr. Mulroney said. "They've got you kids running from one 'No,' to another, when in fact, what's really going to kill you is -- " He took another puff, and gestured at Malcolm. "I don't think Malcolm did drugs, did he? Didn't smoke?" I didn't know; I shook my head. "I'm sure he didn't," Mr. Mulroney said. "But: it didn't matter. He got mugged by a bear."
I waited for more, but Mr. Mulroney seemed settled on this. I was trying to figure out something to say when an incredible new scream pierced the night. My first thought was Malcolm, but he wasn't moving when I looked down; my next thought was Art, but in a second, he was running toward us, mouth wide open -- but it was bizarre, the sound wasn't coming from him. Anyway, it was a girl's scream, a woman's scream, really. It wasn't a scream any of us could make.
"What -- what was that?" Art asked.
Mr. Mulroney looked a little shaken himself, but instead of answering, came and knelt by Malcolm. He ran a gentle hand across the neckerchiefs that wrapped Malcolm's forehead, asked Art to get some water to re-soak the scalp neckerchief thing, and then put his ear to Malcolm's mouth and looked straight down his chest, just like they told us to do in CPR class.
"Hey, boy," Mr. Mulroney said quietly. The scream came again. Mr. Mulroney rocked back onto his heels and settled into a squat.
"Mr. Mulroney," Art said. He hadn't gone to get the water.
Mr. Mulroney nodded. "I had a guy I served with who always said you should never scream. When you scream a little bit of your -- what did he call it? Your -- I can't remember. A bit of your soul escapes, was the gist of it." He stood up, looked around. "Now that scream, that was a mountain lion, I'd say."
"It sounded like a girl!" Art said.
"They do," Mr. Mulroney said. "It's very unsettling."
"But it could be -- "
"It could be a girl," Mr. Mulroney said. "We've not seen anyone else during our three days on the trail, though, and we do know there are mountain lions around here. I vote for the lion."
"Wow," I said. "Will it, you know, smell blood and come, I guess, over here?"
"They're pretty shy," said Mr. Mulroney. "We'd be lucky to see one."
"Lucky?" Art asked.
"XYZ, scout," Mr. Mulroney said. Art looked quizzical for a moment, and then looked down, and zipped up his fly.
We didn't hear the lion scream again. But Art didn't go back out on patrol. He and Mr. Mulroney took seats by the fire, and eventually Art had kind of slumped over and fallen asleep. Mr. Mulroney just stared into the fire, and I studied Malcolm some more. It seemed pretty clear to me that Malcolm was going to die. After a long time of turning things over, I'd decided that that mountain lion's scream we'd heard was actually Malcolm's soul escaping. I liked Mr. Mulroney's friend's theory, and this seemed the best way to make some sense out of what was happening. A mountain lion? A bear? A kid missing a hunk of his scalp?
Dr. Paber had said he and the boys would be back sometime around dawn. The next pass was only a couple of miles up the trail, and he figured from there, he could get the phone to work, or at least see some sign of civilization. If he didn't find anything, he'd come back and we would "regroup." I assumed that meant we would just do what we had to do -- hike out. I wasn't sure how we would take care of Malcolm, but I knew there was no way we could carry him.
I shifted a bit and a little moan came out of Malcolm. Mr. Mulroney came over, Art blinked awake.
"Malcolm?" Mr. Mulroney said. "Malcolm, buddy? Malcolm? C'mon boy, what do you got in there? Give me something here." Malcolm lay silent, and after a minute, Mr. Mulroney had to check his breathing again, he was so still. I started holding my breath, I don't know why.
"Still alive," Mr. Mulroney said, all flat. He went back to his space by the fire.
"Remind you of 'Nam, sir?" Art said, in a way that made it sound like he'd said "ham." I looked at him funny because I thought he had.
"What the fuck, Art?" Mr. Mulroney said. Art blinked at the F-word, but Mr. Mulroney, he just kept going. "'Nam? You mean 'Nam? Viet Nam?" Mr. Mulroney was getting really angry, I could tell. I looked around for his cigarette, but it was gone. "Why do you say that, huh?" Art looked like he was about to cry, so Mr. Mulroney softened up. "O.k., Sergeant Art, what are you talking about here?"
"I was just -- I was just thinking, you know, you probably had it pretty bad over -- "
"Aw, hell, Art," said Mr. Mulroney. "The bastards who didn't come back, guys I knew, they had it pretty bad, o.k.?"
"Well," said Art. "Yeah, I can see that," he said. He was digging this little trench with a stick. "I mean, yeah." Mr. Mulroney just kept staring at him, though, like he was waiting for the next question. After a minute or so, Art had one, I could tell. But it took another minute before he was ready to say it.
"You -- ever -- you know, you ever have anything, or, you ever have to deal with something like -- like this, I mean?" Art looked at him, and then at Malcolm. Then back at Mr. Mulroney.
This was about the stupidest thing I had ever heard. I'd seen movies. I'd seen a bunch of Vietnam movies with Art, in fact. There was all sorts of hard core stuff over there, but no bears. No bears scalping people.
Besides, guys wore helmets.
So I said something. "Geez, Art. It's not like they had bears over there or anything," I said, and looked at Mr. Mulroney. But instead of nodding, he stared.
"Listen, Art, Jeremy," Mr. Mulroney started. "OK, no, I didn't see any bears. I mean, I did hear of some, but no, that wasn't the problem. Bears are vegetarians, see."
"Oh no," Art said, shaking his head violently. "I saw this one mongo-size bear on Animal Planet just like eating all these fish and stuff and maybe a deer."
"What the hell is Animal Planet?" Mr. Mulroney said. "Is that like Planet of the Apes? 'Cause that was science fiction. Vietnam was real, trust me."
"This looked pretty real," said Art.
"Don't trust all you see," said Mr. Mulroney. "They can do stuff with TV. They can change the course of history if they want to." He looked over at me. "How's Malcolm?" I shrugged; I didn't really want to say. Just then, Art jumped up.
"Someone's coming!" Art shouted.
"Not another bear?" Mr. Mulroney said and rolled his eyes at me. He stood stiffly. It was Dr. Paber and the boys. They'd made good time.
"Hey, Doc," Mr. Mulroney said good-naturedly. Dr. Paber looked at him nervously, and started to draw him away from the fire, but Mr. Mulroney wouldn't go. "He's o.k.," Mr. Mulroney said. "In the sense that, he's still with us."
Dr. Paber closed his eyes and nodded. "That's a bit of good news," he said. "And here's a bit more." Dr. Paber explained how they'd found a man in a trailer not too far beyond the pass. And good thing, too: the cell phone wasn't working. The man in the trailer apparently lived there during the summer, was a kind of park volunteer. An older guy. He did odd jobs around the park, including one unusual one that interested Dr. Paber most.
"He's the bear hunter," Dr. Paber said. "He's coming to get the bear."
"Cool!" Art said.
"What's he know about first aid?" Mr. Mulroney said. "What about a helicopter? Rangers? The friggin' Air Force?" Dr. Paber shook his head. Apparently the man didn't have a radio; just a giant flagpole. If there was trouble, he ran up a red flag, which could be spotted down at the ranger station some twenty miles off. When they saw it, they sent help.
"That's a hell of a goddamn system," Mr. Mulroney said. He was pissed. And no more cigarettes, either.
"This is the 21st century. Buck Rogers and all that. No radio? Kids today should be able to go hiking, go to school, for that matter, and not get killed. Not get shot."
Dr. Paber looked at him quizzically. "No one's getting shot here, Tom," he said slowly, and went over to Malcolm.
"Sounds like the bear is," said Mr. Mulroney.
"Good riddance," said Dr. Paber.
I had to ask. "He's really going to hunt down the bear, Mr. -- Dr. Paber?"
"That's right, he's going to kill the bear before he gets help for Malcolm," Mr. Mulroney said.
"Tom!" said Dr. Paber, but Mr. Mulroney just shook his head.
"I'm going on patrol," Mr. Mulroney said. "Take over for Art." He wandered off into the meadow and stood there, looking up at the pass. It was lighter now, about five a.m.
"The man was telling us that this is standard procedure," Dr. Paber said. "After one of these encounters, especially one where the bear draws some blood -- they track the bear down and capture him. Well, shoot him. Once they've lost their natural fear of humans, they're not safe."
"Mr. Mulroney said bears are vegetarians," said Art.
Dr. Paber looked after Mr. Mulroney in the meadow. "Tell Malcolm."
Dr. Paber either didn't know the bear hunter's name, or wouldn't tell us. In any case, almost all the boys were up once they heard what was happening. And the ones who wouldn't wake up, Art got up. He didn't think it was something they'd want to miss. He wanted to go out into the meadow. He thought we could see best from there.
"It's not like you're going to be able to see him," I said to Art. "That bear could be hundreds of miles away."
"Hundreds of miles," snorted Art.
"I'm staying with Malcolm," I said. I was starting to get angry. This was about Malcolm now. I mean, there he was, breathing breath after breath. I felt funny, jealous almost. Breath after breath.
Art gave me this frown. "He's so done, man," Art said. "C'mon." I shook my head. "You like him," Art said after awhile and raised his eyebrows.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked, and wondered for a moment, not whether I liked Malcolm, but why I didn't want to see the bear get caught. Art hocked up something and spit it into the fire, where it landed with a sizzle. Then he headed off. I knew the bear wasn't hundreds of miles away. In fact, I knew the bear was close by. Really close by. There's no saying why I knew this, but I did, and anyway, it turned out to be true.
The bear hunter arrived about forty-five minutes later, just as the night was making that change that you never notice unless you're sleeping outside. It was that time when it was still pretty dark, but there was enough light coming in at the edges of the sky that it was clear morning was coming and nothing was going to stop it. It sounds like an obvious thing, but already on that trip I'd realized that some nights, if you weren't sleeping, if you were just lying there, awake and listening to all those sounds -- all those branches cracking somewhere out there, sometimes closer, sometimes farther -- that moment of morning sometimes took forever coming.
The bear hunter had a horse and two dogs. That much I had already kind of imagined -- except for the second dog, I guess. I looked at the dogs playing with the boys until the bear hunter said something down from his horse, and then Dr. Paber came over and corralled the boys away. Mr. Mulroney and the bear hunter said some words in private for awhile. I wish I could have heard what they were saying. I could see Mr. Mulroney asking him all sorts of questions. I had a bunch of questions, too, starting with the guy's outfit. He was wearing this raincoat sort of thing and a baseball hat with a long bill. I couldn't see what the cap said, but it seemed kind of disrespectful. I mean, Malcolm was here dying, a bear was about to get it, and this guy shows up in a ball cap.
Now Mr. Mulroney had raised both hands like he was either blessing the bear hunter or getting held up. I saw the bear hunter shake his head no, and then Mr. Mulroney moved away and found Dr. Paber. They got into some sort of discussion, and the bear hunter leaned out of the saddle and said something to the dogs, who all of the sudden bounded into the forest like he'd let them off a leash. I thought he'd gallop after them, but he didn't. Instead, he looked over toward the campsite -- toward Malcolm and me. I couldn't quite tell if he saw us, saw us clearly, but then he started the horse walking this way. Mr. Mulroney and Dr. Paber looked up at him, and he came to a stop, and got off. Dr. Paber and the bear hunter came over, leaving Mr. Mulroney holding the reins like it was the string of a balloon.
The bear hunter knelt and looked at me, and then at Malcolm. "Don't know much about first aid," he said, twisting to tell Dr. Paber. Then he turned to me, "You o.k.?" I didn't say anything, I just stared at him. What was wrong with me? Why was everyone asking me stuff? Dr. Paber looked at me for a moment, and then put a hand on the bear hunter's shoulder.
"He's going to make it," the bear hunter said. I wanted him -- the bear hunter -- to die, right there and then. What did he know? What did Dr. Paber know? I looked over at Mr. Mulroney, and he was just standing there, staring.
"I don't think so," I said, but Dr. Paber and the bear hunter were already walking. I don't think they heard me. They didn't turn around. I looked down at Malcolm. No, he didn't look good at all.
For awhile, we heard the dogs barking, sometimes at a great distance, and then sometimes really close. We never saw them, though, nor the bear hunter on his horse. Dr. Paber told all the boys to stay really close to camp, and then he told me that if I wanted to get some rest, I could. He said I'd done a fine job with Malcolm, that I was going to grow up to be a doctor someday. I wondered if he thought that's why I'd been sitting there. Then I wondered what kind of doctor he meant.
The truth was, I hadn't done much for Malcolm other than just sit there. It was really freaky to watch him, sure, but it was also very cool -- like a science experiment or something you watch over a long time to see how it changes. I don't want to sound like I didn't feel sorry about the whole thing, but I didn't really know him. He'd only been with the troop a month, and we hadn't hung out much during that time. By now, I didn't want him to die, but it was different -- more. It wasn't so much that I didn't want Malcolm to die -- I didn't want that breathing to stop, that pulse to stop. It was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen, Malcolm's body hanging on like this, trying to figure out whether or not to go on living or keep on dying. It just seemed -- it just seemed really important, somehow. Important to me. I didn't even know how, then, I just felt like I needed to keep my mind set on "record" and then go back later, and figure it all out.
I hadn't noticed right away, but while everyone had been out in the field, Malcolm had started breathing in this new, funny, way, like he was scared -- these little, short rabbit breaths: huh-huh-huh-huh. I checked for his pulse, but I couldn't find it. He was still breathing, though, so I knew he wasn't dead. Then I checked for my pulse and I couldn't find it either, and I felt a little better. Malcolm calmed down a little, and his breathing began to slow.
I heard the dogs again, really close this time, and then, wham, racing across the meadow, faster than anything I've ever seen run, came this bear. I was amazed how small it was. I mean, it was big enough, but it wasn't huge -- wasn't like anything on Animal Planet, that's for sure. It wasn't much bigger than one of us. Definitely smaller than Dr. Paber or Mr. Mulroney or the bear hunter. The dogs were right after the bear, too. The rest of the troop was screaming, yelling, starting to run, and Mr. Mulroney was in a crouch, his arms spread wide, like he was going to hold everybody back or like he was going to scoop the bear up. Dr. Paber was behind him, pulling at the back of his shirt and shouting.
But the bear ran right past the two of them, and the dogs followed, one passing in front of Mr. Mulroney and Dr. Paber, and one behind. At the edge of the meadow, the bear started to run into the trees, and then turned around like he'd forgotten something, and started scrabbling up this pine. The dogs skidded to a stop beneath, howling now, and the bear clawed away frantically, climbing and slipping, scrape, scrape, scrape. Something about it made me feel I couldn't watch, but when I looked down at Malcolm, it was worse. All I could hear was the scraping, those claws, and all I could see was that scalp.
The bear hunter gave a short whistle, and the dogs backed off, just like that. He threw them something out of his saddle bag, and they went after whatever it was -- some kind of food -- completely forgetting the bear. If I was the bear, I would have been upset. But the bear was up on this branch, maybe twenty feet up -- it was out of control, how high he'd climbed. You'd never have thought when he'd started that he would have gotten that far.
The hunter got off his horse, and then slapped it on the side and made some sound. The horse trotted off a distance into the meadow and started in on the grass. I saw Mr. Mulroney look after the horse and smile, and I felt a little better, too. It was just the bear hunter and the bear now, and the bear hunter wasn't doing anything other than standing there, beneath the tree, hands on his hips looking up. We'd just hold him there until the rangers came with a net or something. And some kind of stretcher for Malcolm.
The bear hunter looked down, then, fished for something in his pocket, and then turned his cap around backwards like a catcher. And then, from a place I couldn't see, he brought out a pistol. A pistol! You didn't have to be Art to be surprised by this. A man goes after a bear with nothing more than a pistol? Where was the big shotgun? This was completely bogus. Wrong. It was just all wrong. The wrong way to end things. I looked for Mr. Mulroney to see if I was right, and sure enough he was staring at his feet shaking his head. Even Dr. Paber was looking away, pretending to watch the horse, as though he were embarrassed about something one of us had done.
I checked to see what Malcolm thought of things, but he was still sleeping. I'd come to think of it as that. A shot rang out. I looked up. The bear scuffled in the tree, but didn't fall. Once he'd found his perch again, he let out a yowl. It was more of a scream, really, deeper and scratchier than the mountain lion we'd heard, but a scream, no question, no one would say it wasn't. The bear hunter shook his head, and looked at his gun. I looked at Malcolm. His eyes, long closed, were now open and colorless, if that's possible. He looked at me for a long moment, and then another, and then I realized that he had died, just then. I couldn't decide if I had missed it or seen it, and I was more angry than ever at the bear hunter, and Dr. Paber, at Art, at all of them. Not at the bear. And I didn't think Malcolm was, either. I rested my fingers gently on his lips and waited and waited. I thought about doing CPR, but imagined Mr. Mulroney telling me not to.
Another shot. I didn't look up this time. It was too noisy, it was too light. I looked down at Malcolm, and he lay there, just staring at me, which was wrong. He needed sleep. I swept my hand down his face, across his eyes, just like on TV when they want to close the victim's eyelids, and sure enough, it worked. Then I slowly began to unwrap his head. The bleeding had stopped, and the neckerchiefs stuck to one another, but one by one, they came undone, until it was just Malcolm's head again, the bright red gash much darker now and for some reason, smaller. I reached over for the damp packet we'd preserved the scalp in, and then unwrapped that, too. I picked it up carefully by a bit of hair, and then tried to lay it back into place. I checked Malcolm's face, but he took no notice. Then I started wrapping the neckerchiefs back on again, but they wouldn't wrap as tightly.
A third shot, and then crashing branches. Some shouts. I still didn't look up. I could see it well enough. I could see it, all of it, and I didn't want to see it. I didn't want the morning to come, the rangers to come, the moon to leave or the bear to die. I didn't want the bear hunter and his horse and his dogs and his baseball hat, his teeny little joke of a gun, and his silly flagpole. I didn't want to know for certain that Dr. Paber wasn't a real doctor. I didn't want to know what had really happened to Mr. Mulroney in Vietnam or why he had to do community citizenship. I didn't want Art to tell me what had happened, again and again and again. I didn't want to remember I'd ever wanted Malcolm to die and that I'd wanted to watch.
But then I heard Malcolm cough -- just like that, cough, a little cough, the same little cough the dying person makes in movies and then you know they're going to be all right. He blinks open his eyes again and looks at me, not saying anything just yet, but I knew he'd be talking soon. And he'd be fine.
And I hated him for it, hated him even then, though when I later told Art why, he actually laughed at me. I was trying to explain that scream we'd heard, the bear hunter, the bear, Mr. Mulroney, Malcolm coming back to life. I was saying that Malcolm, lying there -- his coming back to life had taken a chunk out of all of us, sure as that bear had taken a chunk out of his scalp.
"I know he got me," I told Art. "It was like I couldn't move."
"He stole your soul," Art said, and that was it: that was when he laughed.
And I wish Mr. Mulroney had been there with us to tell Art off, to tell me to go on, to ask me what I thought, but he wasn't, and worse, he wouldn't have. Because he would have known right then what it's taken me a year of talking and thinking to figure out: that Art was dead-on. Yeah, he laughed. And that first night, on the next trip we all took, the one where I woke everyone up with my screams, while Malcolm, all better, slept on like a corpse: they all laughed. But the next night, and the next trip, and the trip after, every night me screaming like a girl in my sleep, there was no more laughing. Just a bunch of moon-white eyes, wide open, terrified, peering out of their tents, asking each other just what it was that had been taken from me.
© Liam Callanan
“The Magnolia Under Glass”
"Our Father Who Walks on Water Comes Home With Two Buckets of Fish"
Photo © Pablo Campos
T. Coraghessan Boyle