Undraland, page 2
The movement became more patterned, and I could tell the raccoon or person or zombie or whatever was ambling with more purpose toward me.
Okay, seriously. Too much rustling to be the wind. Not caring that my messenger bag was banging my thigh, I picked up my pace to a jog, my heart rate increasing when I heard the movement in the woods following me. The hairs on my arms stood on end, and not to be superstitious, but my arm hair is never wrong.
Dread jolted my heart when I heard uneven running coming toward me from the trees. I broke out into a full on run, trusting my Chucks to make up for my natural lack of sprinting skills. I’m pretty sure there was something in the commercials about that. Nature whipped by me, and though I still saw nothing, I heard it charging at full force, crashing through bramble and crushing stray branches underfoot. I ran with all my might, turning my head to the side at the sound emerging from the woods to find… a bear?
I swear, I was so shocked, I nearly stopped running to gawk at the beast barreling toward me from my left. It was such an odd sight. A giant brown bear. In Ohio. On the sidewalk.
I screamed like the girl I am, alerting no one. I stumbled once as I turned from the beast and pumped my legs for all they were worth in the direction of home.
Then the chase stopped, quick as it came. The pounding steps ceased, and were replaced by animal howls and roars, reaching their crescendo when a horrific ripping sound cracked through the night. I slowed my flight and turned to see the largest bear that ever was. He was easily over ten feet tall, hulking in musculature, with massive paws and rabid foam clinging to its fangs. The bear was wrestling an olive-skinned man… and losing.
I still don’t understand it, but somehow the tall and muscular Atlas of a man, crazy enough to wrestle a bear, bested the beast. He knocked the furry mass onto its back and put the bear in a chokehold like a professional wrestler in a Lycra onesie. Only this guy wore jeans and a black t-shirt, which really, professional wrestlers should’ve adopted a long time ago.
“Run, Lucy! Go home!” the man shouted in a deep timbre.
“What?” I said stupidly. Shock is the only way I can think of to explain why I needed to be told to get the smack out of Dodge.
“Run!” he repeated, his expression wild as he wrestled the bear, who was putting up quite the fight. The bear clawed at his face, leaving a gouge I screamed at the sight of.
I wanted to help. I mean, who was I that this Good Samaritan should die because of me? With one more command from his angry mouth, I obeyed. I think we both understood how little help I could actually be to him in this scenario. I mean, seriously. It’s a bear. Some kind of a rabid giant brown bear who was gunning for Kincaid girl ribs and barbecue sauce for dinner. I ran away from the two, fishing through my bag for my phone and cursing loudly when the battery failed me. This was my punishment for texting Tonya while on the job.
Half a mile left, and the stitch in my side was begging me to join track next semester to replace weightlifting. Seriously. What a useless skill. What was I thinking? I ignored the discomfort and bolted to the apartment in record time, not stopping until I was safely tucked away inside. One bedroom, one bath, no dishwasher, three locks. Good enough. I bolted all three, then pushed a chair in front of the door for good measure.
Tonya was waitressing, and Danny was at work driving Cadillacs in the parking structure, so there was no one to freak out to. I let out one tearless sob to the empty apartment. I plugged in my phone and left Tonya a breathless message to watch out for bears on her drive home. I worried she would think I was joking. Visions of Tonya getting mauled by the beast plagued me until a fist slammed on the front door not five minutes later.
Bears don’t knock, but neither does someone with a key. I moved the chair and peered through the peephole, gasping at the grisly sight that greeted me.
It was him. Six and a half foot tall Samaritan Sam with a large cut bleeding through the arm of his grimy black t-shirt. My stranger danger alert went up, but knowing his injuries were my fault moved my fingers to open the door. “Come in. Oh! Your shoulder! Oo! The bear got your face!” The blood was far thicker up close than through the comfort of the peephole, seeping down from his high cheekbones and painting red streaks into his five o’clock shadow.
He didn’t need introductions, but barreled through to the bathroom without a word. Like he knew where it was. Like he’d been here before.
I knocked on the door lightly. “Are you okay? Do you need anything, guy-I-don’t-know?”
“I got it,” he answered gruffly. “Where’d Danny put the antiseptic?”
Danny recently sustained a life-threatening injury of scraping his elbow in a game of touch football. Two days, and we were still hearing about his heroic moves. “It’s probably out here. Hold on.” Danny was always leaving things in unexpected places. I once found the jar of peanut butter on top of the rickety bookshelf and the jelly under the duct tape-patched futon next to the remote. He’s lovely to live with.
I scanned the living room, fished under the futon, rifled through the pantry and finally found the antiseptic in the laundry basket. “I got it!” I called through the apartment. I was gripping the handle before it dawned on me I should probably never barge in on a man in the bathroom. “Can I come in?”
“It’s your place.”
With that warm welcome, I let myself into the narrow space. It was small with one person using the facilities; introducing a huge-chested hulking guy into the bathroom made the walls feel even closer together. “Here, let’s wash that and see what the damage is.” I put on my best professional voice, hoping it fooled him. If I really wanted to be a doctor, flinching at a gushing flesh wound was not an option. “You can borrow one of Danny’s shirts. Yours needs a washing.” Or a trash can. It was torn in three places and drenched in what I hoped was mostly the bear’s blood.
He nodded and pulled his shirt over his head. I tried not to look at his perfectly cut abs or his entire torso that looked straight off the covers of Tonya’s skeezy meet/cute-flowers-dinner-handcuffs romance novels. He had a rope around his neck with a pouch on the end, resting against his bare chest. Blood streaked the counter and pooled on the floor. One of his hands was shaking as he washed off his broad shoulder and too-large bicep in the sink, bending at odd angles to get under the wimpy flow. The two biggest culprits for his pain were the gash on his shoulder and the one on his cheekbone.
“I got it,” I offered, pulling a rag from under the sink and wetting it. I gently dabbed at his skin, aware of our close proximity and the discomfort that came with it. Aside from the assumption that he was Danny’s football buddy, I really knew nothing else about the guy. He made no effort to break the building tension, so I kept quiet, praying the wounds would not be super deep. I pressed the rag to the seeping gash on his shoulder, noting that he did not make his soreness known.
“You… there was a bear. He was chasing me, and you stopped him.” He said nothing to this, which for some reason made me feel relieved that at least I had not lost my mind and imagined the whole thing. “Thanks for that.”
His green eyes landed on mine, a million questions flickering between us. He swallowed. “Yup.” He reached for the antiseptic and removed the cap with his teeth, looking savage. Like, you know, a man who wrestles with bears. His thick black hair was messy and matted with blood that dripped down his forehead and touched the ornate diamond-shaped gold tattoo under his cheekbone. I’d never seen a metallic tattoo before, and didn’t even know that kind of ink existed. It blended into his olive skin, and I only noticed it when I was uncomfortably close to the stranger. I fought with the urge to touch it, feeling foolish as I moved my gaze to his very naked shoulder.
Occasionally Danny would walk around without his shirt on. With his pooched belly hanging over his boxers, it was hard to tell if he was trying to impress Tonya or if he’d given up on showing off for women altogether.
This was not the same. The guy looked like, well,
Why did we get an apartment with such a tiny bathroom?
I examined the fresh cuts on his face and his shoulder with a frown. “Why was there a bear?” And then the questions started tumbling out of me. “How did you survive a fight with a bear? How did I get away? Where were you going this time of night?” Then the most obvious question of all came to me, and I was chagrinned how turned around I’d gotten that I hadn’t asked it before opening the door in the first place. “Who are you?”
“You shouldn’t let strangers into the house.” His eyes hardened at my accusatory tone. “And I’m the guy who kept the Were from eating you.”
“You heard me.”
“Did you hear you?” I left the rag on his shoulder for him to put pressure on if he wished. “Who are you?”
“Jens.” He glanced toward the door. “And we should get out of here. Pack a bag.”
“Huh?” I shook my head, as if that might make sense of the night’s events. “We? Look, I appreciate you fending off the bear. Really, I do. That was some legit Ultimate Fighting Champion stuff, for sure. But I’m not going anywhere. I don’t know you.”
He leaned toward the door. His neck muscles were tensed, and he seemed to be listening for danger. It was then I realized his Spidey sense was tingling, and he had not let down his guard even in the solid bear-proof apartment structure. He spoke in a low whisper, grabbing my arm in a firm manner I did not appreciate. It didn’t hurt, but the I’m-bigger-than-you implication was clear. “Look, I don’t have time to explain the way of the world to you. We have to get out of here. If one Were found you, more are coming. I can handle one, sure, but a whole pack? You’ll have to trust me on this.”
“You?” My voice was shrill. “Who are you? Trust you? That may work in the movies, but I don’t trust on a dime. You can patch yourself up.” I pointed to the door. “Get out.”
Instead of arguing, he said the one thing that stopped my brain. He looked at me to make sure I heard him and said, “Salmon Seesaw.”
Salmon Seesaw. There it was. The secret family password. When our parents couldn’t pick us up from school or practice or whatever and they sent a neighbor, they had to use the secret family password, or Linus and I didn’t budge.
Jens smirked at my dropped-open mouth, which pissed me off. I did my best not to let it show.
“Well, that changes things. How did you know about that?” Not like my parents were sending him to pick me up from school. A dagger of pain shot through my heart, and I swallowed it down like a compartmentalizing champ as I began to bite my nails. My parents would never know about my schooling ever again. I never thought I’d hear the secret password after that. My heart warmed and hardened simultaneously. “Spill it, John.”
“Jens,” he corrected irritably. “And I know it because it’s my job to know it.” He pointed to the bedroom. “Pack.”
“Well, that’s nice and vague,” I grumbled, spinning on my heel away from him. “Tell me to pack. Like I’m not allowed to ask questions of the guy ruining my bathroom rug.” I stomped into the bedroom Tonya and I shared and grabbed a duffel bag. “Pack for a day, or longer?” I inquired, dreading the answer.
Jens turned on the shower to rinse the blood off his shoulder and called out, “Pack everything you don’t want burned to the ground in the next five minutes.” He sniffed the air like a dog. “Or less. I say go, and we run with whatever’s in your green backpack.”
I could feel my pulse banging in my cheeks. My green backpack. Not my school bag or overnight duffel, but the bag our parents made us keep packed and ready that had essentials in it in case whatever it was that made my parents up and move us around the country time and time again caught up with us. I got it out without thinking and shoved more clothing and a few keepsakes into the sack, praying it was not happening all over again.
No. Not this time. I was the only adult left, so the decision to leave or stay was mine. I wanted a home – was desperate for it. Sure, the tiny apartment wasn’t exactly the white picket fence I was dreaming of, but it was mine. I wasn’t leaving unless I was ready, and a stranger yelling at me didn’t make me antsy to follow him anywhere. The instinct to run away from him was stronger than the secret family password in that moment. “How… how do you know about my green backpack?”
Jens harrumphed, as if I was the one being a problem. “Just do it!”
I marched back out into the hallway and shouted at the bathroom door, “Don’t you think you can tell me what to do without giving me answers! I make the decisions now, and I say I don’t have to leave!”
“Dammit, Lucy! This isn’t the Fourth of July! I won’t fight with you about this. I don’t care if I have to pick you up and take you myself. We’re leaving in four minutes!”
My head whipped around in his direction. Fourth of July? It was my least favorite holiday ever since Linus and I got the grounding of the century from my parents for hotwiring the teacher’s car and moving it to the strip club parking lot. We even called a local news tip hotline to report the car’s whereabouts just for good measure. Like Mr. Morris didn’t have that coming. He was our Chemistry teacher who referred to Linus strictly as “chemo kid” and even chuckled at the nickname. He had wiry gold caps on his browned teeth and cigarette stains on his fingertips that were so filthy, I didn’t like touching the papers he graded. When Linus had to run out of class to throw up during a test, Mr. Morris failed him, even with the doctor’s note. I usually don’t retaliate, but you cross my brother, I go for blood. Our parents demanded to know why we hadn’t involved them, insisting they would have scheduled a conference with the principal.
We didn’t want a conference. Linus deserved Mr. Morris’s career on a silver platter. Maybe that’s overboard to some people. Really, we just did what a principal with a smackhole teacher on tenure couldn’t. Linus’s stellar defense to our parents’ tirade was that we wouldn’t have had to hotwire Mr. Morris’s car if his keys had just been in his jacket when I’d tried to pickpocket him earlier that morning. Linus had never been great at feigning contrition.
My cheeks reddened that Jens somehow knew about the third biggest fight our family ever had. “How do you know about that?”
“Ah!” His outburst of pain stayed my next argument. I rushed into the bathroom, knocking him in the rear with the door by accident.
I swear it was by accident.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, compassion tempering my rage. He held his head, rubbing the bloody spot on his left cheekbone. His fingers came away doused in red, so I sat him down on the edge of the tub and prodded his face with my fingertips to judge the depth of the two-inch-long cut. He flinched and batted at me like a child. Taking advantage of his seated position, I kept my fingers poised over the painful spot just in case I needed to convince him to behave. “This needs stitches. Like, needs them bad.”
“It’ll be fine.”
I looked at him, hoping to convey how idiotic I deemed his judgment. “No, it won’t. You need stitches now. Let me at least take you to the hospital.” Under his nose, my eye caught on a shimmer of purple glitter. It was nowhere else on his body, just a few pinpricks to distract me.
“No hospitals. Just give me a Band-Aid or something and let’s run.”
I shook my head and reached for the first aid kit under the sink. Thanks for this at-home lesson, Dad. We’ll see how well I was paying attention.
I ran to the kitchen and heated the needle at the stove, ignoring Jens calling from the bathroom that we were down to three minutes. “Would you shut up?” I yelled back. When I reentered the bathroom, his cheek was all bloody again, despite him having rinsed it twice. His aggravation at me was not as adamant, which was the first time I saw blood loss as a positive thing. “Close your eyes,” I ordered, wishing so
Okay, I’m not sure he would actually go blind from rubbing alcohol, but it accomplished my goal. He closed his eyes as I dribbled a bit of the clear liquid over his angular cheekbone. “It looks like the bear did you a solid and missed your face tattoo. Now, hold still.” I threaded the needle and exhaled what I hoped was the last of my nerves. With a shakier hand than I would’ve liked, I swallowed the girlish scream in my throat and gently wove the needle through his tanned skin.
Jens huffed. “Could you not make that face, doc? You’re scaring me.”
It was then I realized I had my horror movie expression on. I tucked that away, too, along with my revulsion. I was going to be a doctor someday, so I’d have to get used to this. I had no idea what I was doing, so I completed the task as fast as possible, with Jens hemming and hawing the entire time, commenting that we needed to leave.
“Really? Really? We need to leave? Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?” I snapped. “I’m not exactly a pro at this! I’m doing the best I can!”
His badgering grew less insistent, which was a relief, until I saw his eyelids drooping.
“Hey!” I barked, tying off the knot and snipping the thread. His hands pushed through the air like weighted paws, finally landing on my hips. I brought his head to rest on my chest and held it steady, permitting him a few balancing breaths. “It’s okay. You’re all done.”
Instead of a bratty quip, he held tighter to my waist. This was how I found myself participating in the bizarre, yet still tender, hug with the half-naked stranger. When my irritability finally broke, I held him tighter around the neck, not sure how to make sense of a bear attack that was almost fatal.