It was in the third week in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. He had begun to gather the idea of why nobody wanted to come fishing EVERY year. It was hard work, that didn’t bother him. It was the mental stimulation the bay lacked during his three hour breaks, and four hour sleeping times, that killed him. He finally understood where one geographical location had gathered its drug problem from. In the tundra he couldn’t see how you could remain sober for twelve, let alone six months. Thank god he was only here for three. Out of all he had seen thus far in the largest and most wild state the only thing that confused him was how some of the natives lived up here and remained untouched by the sins of sedation.
The one man he had talked to in depth was a native to the area and as now sober as he said you could be. Ryan traded cigarettes and hard alcohol for beer and weed. He considered himself well above the others because by 2 am at the second high tide he could still find his way to his raft and make it out to the ocean to net some fish. Ryan the native, along with the gang of cowboys from the lower forty eight, were consistently stoned with beer in hand made him question what they considered a problem. When does keeping it in moderation become addiction to substance use and not abuse? It didn’t matter they would be out of here soon enough. He was one out of three months in. He was making good money. It didn’t matter.
The twelve hours of daylight hurt at first but adding just another two he didn’t think would make the difference, it did. His sobriety at this point was almost more than he could handle. He tried to talk with others about it. They all gave him the same advice. Something that at the time sounded stupid but became the words that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
“ The tundra is different. Stay sober and stay at risk. ”
On the verge on the second month he was still feeling pressure from himself to have more than one beer with dinner. To have a little smoke in the middle of the night. At the least these would help him sleep more as the sun went down at midnight. He laid his head down weighing his options for how to kill his mindset of sobriety the next few days, it was almost his birthday. He had heard of the things the tundra could do to your head. He had heard from his brother about the killer off kilter dreams you had during the fishing season. He didn’t believe it until that night.
What was stuck in his memory was the shadow of a brown bear. The shadow so realistic you could see each individual split greasy hair as if it was directly back-lit. It appeared to be standing in front of a spot light. The light behind the bear slowly scrolling through the color wheel so euphoric, like it was connected to aurora borealis itself. Every low exhale grunt that came with each step made you gasp for air yourself. He could smell the bear. Like dead fish rolled in the swapy water of the tundra it was enough to stand up the hair on the back of anybodies neck. Bigger than a grizzly, not as mean, but much scarier up close. He could see the shadow as it slowly tumbled in front of what looked like a cabin’s door. His cabin door. He couldn't make out what was going on as the shadow that he presumed to be a bear started clawing at the door. He could hear the metal door screeching under the stress from the claws of the monstrosity as it peeled the paint away swipe by swipe.
At some point he had come to the conclusion this was a dream, yet it still didn't feel right. He looked at his hands. He looked around the room. Anything to get him out of this nightmare. It wasn’t that bad of a dream but it still had the eeriness of a nightmare. He didn’t know what is was that snapped him out but he woke up. He went immediately to the door. It was almost freezing and halfway through the three hour break they had until the next shift started. He didn’t care. He knew he had to see the door. He swung the door open to find nothing. No claw marks, no shadow bear, nothing out of the ordinary in the three hours of darkness. After one or two deep breaths he went to lie back down. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep for a while now.
Two more days of this blistering hand tightening work of pulling fishnets, walking through the mud and a few beers in between helped him gain enough traction to climb what he now considered the slippery slope of sleepiness. He still considered himself sober he thought as he laid his head down after two beers for the first time in what was now two months on the dot. As his head touched the pillow he knew it would be a good night sleep. He knew it would be a dream to remember. He knew he was done with that nightmare that had kept him sleepless for forty eight hours now. He just knew.
As he came to in his dream state he can’t recall the first portion. He doesn’t remember what lead him there. He doesn’t remember what caused him to stop, but he remembers the smell. Whatever dream he was in the middle of having slowly disintegrated into the background as he had the ferocious smell of fresh bear under his nostrils again. He dove back into int the nightmare without asking. This time as if he was walking beside the bear. The hump on the back of the boar stood as tall as a toddler on stilts. The paws as each one was lifted from the ground left a scratch in the sand from the wide stride in the beasts pigeon toed stance. Each breath he let go showered his vision in vapor. The back lit light was still ever changing and sparkled in each breath the bear took. The single strands of hair sparkled in the silhouette. As the steps slowed they came upon the stoop of the cabin he was resting in. As the bear stood back each swift swipe let a shriek of damage as it skinned the pain back off for a second time. The shavings of metal caused by each strike were shimmering as time passed slowly. Each sound sent shivers down his spine. Each vision sent vibrations into a part of his soul he didn’t know was still there. He had to get out. He looked around. The four wheelers were still there. The rain gear was still there. His hands looked normal. He couldn’t wake up. He knew he was going to die. He couldn’t do anything about it. He couldn’t move. He was in shock as the freak of something outside nature started to turn around.
He snapped out of it. He sprang off the pillow. Cold sweats and the smell of smoke as he came to. He was up. He ran to the door. As he flung it open fast enough to tear the hinges off. He saw claw marks All along the outside as the shadow bear had left. But the silhouette of a bear was nowhere to be seen. He didn't know was what real. He started to cry.
His brother was shaking him awake.
“You were screaming. You were shaking. You were panicking... It was like a sleep seizure. You aren't alright, you woke me up”
It took a minute to pass over the realization he just had. He was perspiring as if it was in the middle of some athletic event. He should be asleep. He apologized to his brother and went outside for what he said was a walk to clear things up.
“Watch out for bears” Snapped his brother as he laid back down. “ They’re out this time of night, hard to see like shadows at sunset.”
He laughed to himself and a little out loud. “Those bears are the last ones I’m worried about”
After a smoke, a shot, and anything else he could get his hands on he came back around to the cabin. He had three hours until he had to be back out on the water. He was fucked up enough to swear nothing could touch him now. Back to the sleeping bag. Back to the hell he swore couldn't happen. He swore it couldn't happen again.
His eyes fluttered. He swore he never fell asleep. He stood up and walked outside. One more cigarette wouldn’t hurt. He’d never smoked a full one before but it was time. Watching the smoke rise in the cabin light as the flare of red and orange slowly ate away at the paper wrapped around the outside leaving the string tobacco inside lit like warm fractal patterns. He was drifting in and out of focus when his hair stood up. The back of his neck, his arms, and all down his spine that seemed now to be shivering he knew what it was before he smelt it, before he saw it, before he heard it.
Around the corner an all black shadow like figure turned and headed right in his direction. No shapes, no definition, just outline. Outline down to the detail of every follicle. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The back lit euphoric light was less presumptuously colorful now. The shadow slumped down twenty yards away as it rose on the it’s hind legs. And cut away at the door. In awe he stood. Too caught up in his own mind and this recurring nightmare he walked toward the shadow. Bound to die or figure out what and why he was being haunted in his dreams. He wasn’t even sure this was a dream. Step by step every ounce of intelligence told him to stop. Yet everything he felt he was worth and his heart told him not to stop. He inched closer. Square toed boots dragging in the sand. As he got within four feet the shadow turned and swung. Struck him sideways standing him off his feet into the air.
He woke up. Panicked, he looked around. It was all a dream. He was okay. He thought he was okay. He could still hear the eerie sound of claw on metal. He couldn’t get it out of his head. He turned to yell at the beast by the door.
Fuck his brother, fuck all others who slept he knew it was there this time. He could hear it. As his head turned he saw her. A small girl dressed in an outfit no one could reasonably describe. It was closest to a ragged white shirt drooped over her small body. It was tattered and covered in blood, scratch marks, and sandy mud. Her hair rising and falling, only to come up again in seamless crashing curls with a whisp of white reflection at the peak, like that of waves from the day before. She was humming the whole time. No tune just a slight change in pitch. Then she stopped to smile. Her smile was translucent in the darkness. Her face was almost impossible to make out, just the shine off her hair, her beat to shit shirt, and her gleaming smile. He swung his legs off the cot. He had to get closer. He lunged forward to grab her from the bear. A handful of air and the sound of her giggle is all he got. On his knees face to face with the door, scratch, scratch….scratch. He was done. He was going crazy. He knew the shadow on the other side of this could kill him, he didn’t care. He was already dying to figure out what was going on. He flung the door open hard enough to tear it off the hinges, again.
His head popped off the pillow. It was His brother and their fishing boss. They were standing backs to him at the door. He felt the cold wet, salty air hit his face as he snapped his pants over his long johns. He made his way to the door. As he neared he heard the words he couldn’t believe. He didn’t want to believe.
The cool calm cowboy undertone was coming off at a pitch so high you knew he didn't smoke just a cigarillo that morning.
“Did you bring a little girl home last night? I mean she was either a little person"
"Yeah he's into midgets" His brother chimed in from the back.
"Or about in your age range…" the laughter started to bubble up like a percolator, well before the punchline hit, " ten”
As they burst out in laughter he saw the smeared bloody hand print down the front of the door. It was small. It was too small to even be finger painted by another. It had the details of and lines of real hands. The palm print, the finger prints, and the desperation in the streak across the door. He walked outside.Deep breath in, deep breath out. He knew what he was going to see, yet he knew he would still somehow be surprised. Slowly spinning around he could see the gashes in the door. The claw marks looked as if they were made by a can opener on an easy tin can and not a three quarter inch thick piece of stainless steel on an outside door built for the beach tundra of Bristol bay. The lines were iridescent with color as if the shadow bear was still in each one. Through the paint, through the metal, through his soul and sprinkled with bits of dried blood.
Luke the fishing boss walked out passing the marks on the door, the marks in the sand, and not making a note to the one on the inside of the door. His cowboy hat in hand he handed him a bottle of whiskey, lit a cigar, and spoke.
“Happy birthday buddy, it’s time to fish. You don't have to do it sober today”