|PREDATOR AND PREY|
BY AARON PFAU
Two hundred acres of woodland stretches out to the vision’s limit. Snow covers the canopies of the trees that aren’t yet winter bare. It covers the ground as well, except for where tall weeds poke through. A wide river cuts across the bottom of a steep hill, running too swiftly to freeze over. Wooden posts erected in haphazard file fringe the property’s boundary, some of which are outfitted with no trespassing signs.
Halfway up the trunk of a sturdy cedar, a hunting blind overlooks a clearing where the river opens out, providing an alluring waterhole for the wood’s animal inhabitants. Further on, a hunting cabin. A log house six hundred square feet in size.
A thin twist of smoke issues from the stovepipe. Inside, the potbellied stove in the corner of the main room is fighting a losing battle with the cold. The cabin had once been chinked, but most of the white insulating substance between the logs is now either cracked or peeling, leaving several envelope-thick gaps in the mortar.
A heap of firewood lies at the ready nearby. The room is very sparsely decorated. A chair and table, both handmade from wood, serve as dining arrangements. Support beams lead up to a low ceiling crisscrossed with rows of rafters. From these, numerous electric lanterns are hung for light. A single hallway extends to a small bedroom with a mattress on a metal frame. On the other side of the hall is a bathroom with a composting toilet.
The doors to each of these rooms, as well as to the cabin itself, are flimsy boards on hinges with no knobs, wooden latches existing to keep them from swinging open. The whole is a primitive yet not inhospitable arrangement for a hunter seeking a seasoned getaway.
Thirty-six-year-old Eddie Burton tossed another log into the stove and removed the rifle from above the mantle. He shoved a cartridge into its chamber and stuffed a few more into the pocket of his dungarees. His steel-toe boots trod heavily on the creaking wooden floorboards as he made his way to the small chair and table.
“I’m gonna go shoot us something to eat tonight,” he said, seizing the camo-coloured coat draped across the back of the chair and pulling it over his arms.
The young girl tied to the wooden support beam said nothing.
A twelve-year-old girl with brunette hair cut to shoulder-length, a face full of freckles, and large frightened hazel eyes. If you’re from the Matanuska Valley area in Alaska, you may recognize her from the news as Ellie Palmer.
Last seen ten days ago at a gas station just off the Glenn Highway. Her mother had gone inside to use the restroom. When she came back out the girl was gone without a trace. Bystanders could recall seeing a silver Ford F-150 pull up beside the unlocked car. CCTV footage captured the same vehicle peeling out of the parking lot minutes later with the face of a young girl behind the passenger-side window.
Now, nearly three hundred miles away, the same young girl watched her kidnapper pull a black wool hat over his bald head and fit his hands with a pair of heavy-duty workman’s gloves. A big man standing six foot two and weighing two hundred and twenty pounds.
The girl, who couldn’t weigh more than eighty pounds soaking wet, was dressed in a white nightgown. Her wrists were tied behind the support beam to a metal railroad spike driven high enough into it to make standing a necessity. Her bare feet barely brushed against the wooden planks beneath them, assigning most of the exertion to her toes.
The convoluted coils of thick rope binding her wrists left them raw and red. Her kidnapper bound her like this whenever he had to leave the cabin to hunt for food or to pick up some minor convenience in town. However, these trips weren’t common, for the nearest town was still thirty miles away and every paper from here to Anchorage was filled with pictures of the missing Palmer girl and of the silver F-150 now hidden beneath a blue tarp some three miles away at the mouth of a trail leading to the cabin.
The man rose from the chair, squatting above it as he did up the last few buttons on his coat. Then he snatched the rifle from the table.
“What if I have to use the bathroom?” the girl asked.
“You’ll just have to hold it,” the man replied.
“How long are you going to be gone?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if I can’t hold it that long?”
“Then you’ll just have to piss yourself.”
He sauntered over to the front door and opened it. A fugitive gust of sub-zero wind invaded the narrow room, making the barely-dressed girl shiver.
“What if the fire goes out?”
“Then you’ll just have to freeze as well.”
“What if I—”
The man turned on her with frank anger. “What if! What if! What if! What if you shut your mouth before I gag you? Christ, it’s bad enough that I have to hole up in this dump!” He slammed the thin wooden door. It hit the frame, knocking snow off on the outward side, and clattered back to him. “I swear by God if the next words out of your mouth are what if I’m going to strangle you and leave you at the bottom of some ditch!”
The girl, who had seen her kidnapper in these wild moods many times before, said, “What if I have to use the bathroom while you’re gone?”
Without speaking, the man stomped over to the stove, picked up and examined an empty steel pail beside it, and hurled it across the room to her.
“I can’t get my underwear down if both of my hands are tied up.”
“Then you’ll just have to piss yourself,” repeated the man.
“Can’t you untie just one of my hands? I’m not going anywhere.”
A contemptuous snort. “Fat chance.”
“No!” He trampled back over to the front door and opened it.
“What if I scream? What if I scream the whole time you’re gone?”
“You can scream yourself hoarse for all the good it will do,” the man said. “There’s not a living soul within twenty miles of us to hear you. Don’t be a dummy.”
He stepped through the frame.
“How long are we going to stay here?”
He stopped, his hand still gripping the door. He sighed. “Your pretty little face is plastered on every newspaper and billboard in town.”
Despite the misery of her own circumstances, the young girl found herself overcome with grief at what her mother must be going through. However, she couldn’t pursue this train of thought for long before being reminded of the dangers the present held.
“Are you gonna scream or am I gonna have to gag you?” the man asked.
She threw his own words back at him. “I thought you said there’s not a living soul within twenty miles of us to hear me if I did?”
“There’s not.” He rested the rifle’s barrel on his shoulder. “But that doesn’t mean I want you scaring off every rabbit or squirrel within twenty miles of us either.”
“I won’t scream.”
“Good. Otherwise, I’ll beat you to within an inch of your life.”
He searched her face for a reaction that his words might have caused. Ellie Palmer had spent the last ten days being molested, raped, and roughly handled.
She gave him none.
“I mean it,” the man prodded. “I’ll take that thick leather strap over there and beat your legs until they aren’t good for nothing anymore.”
“You know, even if you did manage to get loose, there ain’t nowhere for you to run to. Twenty miles is a long way, especially in snow like that.”
“You’d die before you made it ten miles in any direction.”
Grinning at the confidence he felt in his supreme authority and dominance over all things, the man closed the door on his helpless captive and did up the latch.
The grin faded from his lips as he stood there on the dilapidated wooden porch looking out over a white expanse of nothing. He sighed again. Bracing himself for the effort, he stepped down and began plodding through the knee-deep snow.
Ellie had long ago decided that she wouldn’t give her kidnapper the satisfaction of seeing her cry, beg, or show any signs of fright. She knew that predators like him thrived on such displays of submission. However, when the door closed, all of those emotions came gushing out of her like rain through a weed-choked gutter just unclogged.
Standing on tiptoe, bound to the wooden beam like a lamb offered up for sacrifice, she sobbed over her situation. The hot tears ran frankly down her cold cheeks. She thought about everything that had happened since the big man in the big truck had approached her in the gas station parking lot. If only she hadn’t opened the car door. If only she had locked it and stayed put. She had been too flustered and confused to think clearly. If she had been in a clearer state of mind, she would have asked the strange man how he knew that her mother wanted to see her inside the store. But she had obeyed him with a childish obedience.
That was when the predator pounced, seizing and pulling her into the passenger seat of his vehicle. She had yanked and clutched at the door handle but found it secured with a child safety lock. The blade of a six-inch hunting knife subdued her.
In its reflection, she saw her own doeish eyes staring back at her.
She imagined her mother standing alone in the parking lot holding the bottle of Dr. Pepper she had promised to buy inside. Standing there gazing into the vacant seat that had just moments ago been filled with her daughter.
After thirty minutes of sobbing and feeling sorry for herself, Ellie was spent. She hung there with her head bowed low, her chin resting on her sternum, her hair dangling in front of her face. She understood that attempting an escape was useless. She’d been tied in this fashion to the same wooden beam several times before. She knew every square inch of it by heart. The thick coils of rope around her wrists were too tight and knotted to loosen with wiggling. The railroad spike they were fastened to was equally unyielding.
And even if she did manage to perfect an escape, where would she run to?
Remarkably, Ellie began dozing. So fatigued was she that the strain on her toes from supporting her weight troubled her not. Nor did the pain on her wrists where the rope had chafed the skin. As she drifted off, an unfinished prayer floated from her lips.
She knew that only a divine miracle could save her.
After a space of time had elapsed, she heard the lumbering footsteps of heavy boots treading the wooden porch. Then the cabin door creaked open. They stopped in the entryway. Her kidnapper stood there unmoving and unspeaking. For some reason, his unusually furtive behaviour struck her as vaguely frightening. With an effort, she raised her head, half-expecting to find the barrel of a rifle gaping back at her.
When she did, her fright crystallized into absolute terror. She found herself staring into the face of black death. No more than three yards away, four hundred pounds of raw murder appraised her with identical curiosity.
An adult black bear.
Its long snout sniffed the strange air. As the fire in the potbellied stove crackled, its ears twitched this way and that. Its head swayed from one side of the room to the other, a slow, burdensome motion giving testimony to the creature’s sheer size.
With deliberation, it stepped through the threshold. The wooden floorboards beneath its massive paws groaned with exertion. A gust of wind blew the flimsy cabin door shut. It banged against the frame. The bear lurched back on its hind legs and let out an enormous growl. The sound sent shivers down Ellie’s entire body.
She struggled to suppress a scream. The bear, who had noticed the captive girl upon entering, had become more fascinated by the popping stove in the corner of the room. It crept forward to investigate the unknown object, its nose sniffing the sooty air. Ellie held her breath as the bear passed within five feet of her. She gathered herself close against the wooden support beam, wishing that she could evaporate through it.
The animal moved with extreme apprehension. Every time the stove gave a particularly loud pop, it paused and twitched its ears. Ellie wondered what effect screaming and stamping her feet would produce. If a sudden display of commotion would cause the bear to sprint back out to where it came from in fright or if it would simply turn its fury on her?
She thought about tiptoeing around to the other side of the wooden beam. The rope gave just enough clearance to accomplish the manoeuvre. However, she dreaded drawing notice to herself. In the end, she decided against taking any action.
The bear approached the sputtering stove. It nuzzled the door with the tip of its snout. The result was terrible. One touch of the searing hot metal sent the creature parading around the room in a tumult of trampling paws and wounded yowls.
Ellie closed her eyes until the ruckus died down. When she reopened them, the bear was taking inventory of the small chair and table. It sniffed the chair with indifference. The table bred more careful regard. Last night, the man had shot and skinned a rabbit for supper. Ellie wondered if some residual odour still lingered on its surface.
The animal slavered over the ghost-stench. It licked its drooping jowls with a long eight-inch tongue, making low grunting noises. Then it rose on its hind legs, placing its front paws on the edge of the table. Ellie gazed in awe at the height of the enormous beast. Upright, it must stand seven feet tall, she figured.
The bear licked the table.
Ellie had been pondering hard on what to do. She had never seen a bear up close before in her entire life. The only one she had seen was from in an enclosure at the Toronto Zoo. She recalled reading a nature article online that said if you do happen to encounter a bear in the wild, the best thing to do is to play dead. However, she couldn’t very well accomplish that in her bound and standing position. What other advice had the author imparted? She fought to remember. It came to her with a great effort.
Remain still. No problem there. Ellie Palmer knew very well that she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Stay calm. A snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you’re a human and not prey.
After it had finished with the table, the bear dropped to all fours. It sneezed and shook its shaggy coat like a wet dog drying itself. Then it looked up and fixed its two beady eyes on the trembling young girl in the centre of the room.
Ellie’s heart hurled itself against her ribcage. She tried thinking of something to say. No matter how hard she thought, nothing came to her. Even if her brain was capable of producing words, she felt sure that her choked throat wouldn’t allow them to pass.
At length, she repeated the Lord’s prayer out loud. “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will—”
The bear roared. The invocation died at once in Ellie’s throat. As the bear trod closer, grunting as it did so, the young girl urinated herself. Hot piss trickled down her thighs, her legs, onto the wooden floorboards beneath. The sound of dripping liquid seized the animal’s notice. Again, it lifted its snout and sniffed at the air.
“Please don’t hurt me. Please don’t hurt me. Please don’t hurt me,” Ellie whispered as the creature stepped forward to investigate the puddle of urine that lay just beneath her splayed legs. Its ears actually brushed against her ankles as it bent its head low.
Please don’t hurt me.
Words spoken many times in the past ten days to a predator of a very different breed. She found herself speculating on what the more merciful fate would be. If she did manage to escape from this encounter with her life, would it be worth it? Wouldn’t a quicker, though still painful, death be preferable to a future of beatings, rape, and misery? A future whose span would ultimately be determined by an even more vicious killer?
After all, the bear was indifferent: completely apathetic and uncaring to the girl’s plight. Kidnappings, murders, school shootings, wars. All of the horrors that twelve-year-old Ellie Palmer knew the world fostered were negligible to such a powerful force of nature. It lived outside the moral compass of man. It inflicted pain upon creatures and it killed them without remorse because that was what needed to be done to survive.
What human urge inspires the deeds of evil men?
Ellie didn’t know the answer to that. However, she felt quite certain that there was more honour in being killed as a necessity, even if it meant ending up as food in a bear’s belly, than being tortured and killed to satisfy the whims of a maniac.
With the realization came a kind of peaceful surrender. As she relinquished her life, she sensed the unloading of some heavy burden. She closed her eyes and sighed, exhaling a lifetime’s worth of sighs at once. When she reopened them, she found the bear’s face nose-to-nose with her own, its black eyes staring directly into hers.
Suddenly, she wanted very badly to live.
Bear roared. Girl screamed.
Still screaming, Ellie flung herself out of the way just in time to avoid the bear’s slashing paw. She revolved her body clockwise around the beam. The animal’s claws left deep grooves in the wood her back had just been pressed against. The coiled rope paid little allowance in this direction. Already, it dug into her wrists. Ellie found that she couldn’t move another inch. Her arms, which had been tied on the opposite side of the thick beam as herself, were bent in an unnatural and uncomfortable ballerina’s pose above her head.
The railroad spike was driven into the wood just two feet above. Agitated at its prey having escaped, now fully committed to the hunt, the bear leaped around the beam and snapped its jaws at the girl. She pulled back and sucked in her stomach. The bear’s teeth snatched the hem of her nightgown. It thrust its large head back and forth, shredding the thin fabric to ribbons. Its stout legs trampled the planks beneath them.
Then it rose to its full height. A black monstrosity standing seven feet tall. Ellie’s eyes gazed at the creature’s shrunken ribcage at eye level. Even the man who had kidnapped her would have only measured up to its broad shoulders.
What happened next happened very quickly. As the bear bore down upon her, Ellie Palmer reacted with the jerky, unsure movements of someone spurred by instinct. She dodged the attack by pitching her body back around the support beam. The bear’s claws slashed the wood from its own height to the ground. Astonishingly, Ellie felt herself jerk unexpectedly forward, released from the restraint of the railroad spike.
Her hands were still tied behind the post, but they weren’t held in place anymore. She found that she could move them about freely. In another instant, she realized what needed to be done. The bear, in an infantile display of animal stupidity, poked the beam with its snout, confused at where its prey had disappeared to.
She braced herself. She would have only one shot. Ellie started stomping her feet on the ground. To accomplish the escape she had in mind, she knew that she must get the bear away from the railroad spike. The distraction worked. As the creature sprinted clockwise around the pole to where the noise was coming from, Ellie dashed to the other side, finding herself engaged in a particularly high-stakes game of Ring Around the Rosie.
With remarkable deftness, the lightweight girl straddled the post and began climbing. When she reached the top, she stood hugging the beam with one bare foot curled around the top of the spike. The spiny piece of metal hurt her heel tremendously. She wondered how long she’d be able to maintain this awkward posture.
Seven feet below, the bear stood on its haunches as if in preparation for a killing leap. Ellie knew that she had very little time to spare. She crouched low on the railroad spike. The pressure of the metal digging into her heel seemed to triple. She winced. Leaning against the sturdy beam for support, she brought her tied hands forward, pushing her rump in first, then stepping one foot after another through the opening of her arms.
This successfully done, she set to work gnawing on the rope with her teeth. The bear suddenly rose to its hind legs. Its snapping jaws were within reach of the young girl’s ankle. After several seconds of tugging, the rope was loose enough to slip through. She freed her wrists just as the bear lunged. Closing her eyes, Ellie lunged too.
Her hands closed around the wooden rafter above in mid-air. She hung there, now ten feet high, well out of reach of the bear’s biting teeth. Just to be sure, she brought her legs up and wrapped them around the horizontal beam.
Beneath her, the bear roared with fury. It trampled about like a petulant kid throwing a tantrum because they were refused dessert. The dessert, Ellie knew, was herself.
Ellie was dismayed to see that the bear’s defeat in no way discouraged it. Sure, she was safe up here, but for how long? She considered her grim outlook. Her kidnapper had already been gone for a longer duration of time than was usual. He’d most likely be back any moment now. The way she saw it, her options were two.
When her kidnapper did return he might be caught unawares by the enraged beast. However, his potential mauling and killing wouldn’t serve to help her situation in any way if the bear didn’t cease its stalking of her. She’d love to see that child-rapist get his face torn off. To have his balls chewed to pulp. However, none of that would matter if she were next on the menu. Would devouring the man quench the beast’s appetite?
The second possibility was much bleaker. After all, her kidnapper had taken a high-powered rifle with him. What if instead of him being caught unawares it was the bear who was ambushed? The man would doubtless notice the paw tracks leading up to the cabin. What if he shot the animal dead before it had the chance to attack?
He’d shoot her as well. That would be merciful. Oh, he’d kill her, alright. But in all probability, he’d torture and beat her to within an inch of her life first. You better believe he’d enjoy doing it too. That’s what made her sick.
He’d enjoy doing it.
But how was she to escape? She couldn’t very well wait for the bear to leave. It paced around beneath her, snarling threateningly, its hunting instincts keyed to a deadly pitch by the teasing elusiveness of its prey. However, as she studied the creature she noticed a trivial circumstance perhaps advantageous to her situation.
During its circuit of the narrow room, the bear always gave the potbellied stove in the corner a wide berth. This was most likely due to the burn it sustained upon former investigation. Its eyes followed the girl about in hungry anticipation, except for when the stove popped or crackled. Then it would throw a cautious look in that direction.
She cast her gaze across the full length of the ceiling. Wooden rafters extended in a crisscross fashion to where the stovepipe rose through the roof. She devised a plan. It would be risky, she knew. She wondered if the other rafters were as sturdy as the one she clung to. If not, she might be giving up her safe perch for a fall to savage death.
Deciding that any possibility of escape, regardless of how slim, was worth the cost, she started her horizontal passage. From rafter to rafter she swung. It reminded her of the monkey bars that she used to play on in elementary school. She had always been too scared to mimic the older kids in climbing across the top on all fours.
A childhood jump rope rhyme came to her, one that she remembered from kindergarten. Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around. Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground. Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch your shoe. Teddy bear, teddy bear, that will do. Teddy bear, teddy bear, go upstairs. Teddy bear, teddy bear, say your prayers.
Roused to pursuit, the bear below tracked her progress. After a while, she stopped. Despite the cold, big beads of sweat stood out on her forehead. The rough, unsanded wooden planks left splinters in her palms and feet. Where two were joined together they creaked ominously as she shifted her weight from one to the next. This became more apparent as she neared the stovepipe, for the rising heat had worn those boards to greater brittleness.
Just as Ellie had hoped, the bear seemed reluctant to venture too close to the rumbling furnace. She swung her legs around two planks. Suddenly, the one in her hands snapped loose. It clattered to the ground. Ellie dangled there in mid-air, upside down like a circus trapeze artist. The bear squatted beneath her on its haunches, shoulders arched.
With a grunt of exertion, Ellie thrust herself up. Grabbing a hold of the rafter flush against the wall, she positioned her body in the nook. Then she eyed the distance she had crossed. No more than a yard from the beam in the middle of the room. To her, it had felt like a hundred yards. Panting hard, she gazed directly up at the stovepipe.
A draft of cool air wafted in from the jambs where it extended through the roof, channelling out plumes of thick, black smoke.
Still holding tight to the rafter, Ellie gave it a kick. The heel of her foot left a small dent in the hot metal. The seams where the individual pieces of tubbing were joined haphazardly together became wider. The bear watched her with interest. She launched another strike at the pipe’s middle. This time, a piece of the tubbing was forced askew. From the newly-opened gap, a cloud of dark, sooty smoke poured into the room.
The effect was instantaneous. Confused and frightened, the bear stomped around in search of an egress, yowling like an animal caught in a snare trap. Much to Ellie’s dismay, it appeared too distressed to remember the closed cabin door from which it had come. Soon, smoke filled the entire room, drifting upward and choking her.
She quickly realized that to stay up there any longer where the dense soot gathered would be to invite death by suffocation. If the dark smoke wouldn’t be enough to drive the enraged beast out, perhaps it might at least provide a cover for her escape. Hacking and wheezing, her eyes stinging, Ellie let go of the rafter and dropped to the floor.
She had underestimated the fall. She landed painfully on her elbows and knees, unable to move for a second. Looking up, she saw that the swirling fog had indeed blinded the roaring bear. However, its preternatural ears had caught the sound of her fall. The noise of scampering yet unseen paws broke the spell of paralysis that held her spellbound. Without stopping to glance back, she rose and sprinted down the hall.
The enormous footfalls of the bear were gaining on her, quickly closing the distance with her own. With a pang of terror, she saw that the bedroom door was shut and latched. Betraying her instincts, she allowed herself one backward glimpse.
The fog was thinner here, for it had not yet pervaded these further parts of the cabin. The bear, growling with the ferociousness of a vengeful hunter, was hurling towards her like a subway train, its massive bulk crowding the narrow corridor.
Ellie undid the latch. She ducked into the room and pushed the flimsy wooden board into place behind her. In another second, both she and the door were ejected onto the ground with tremendous force. Lying on her back, she held the detached plank like a shield between herself and the snapping jaws on the other side.
The pressure of the bear’s two front paws pressing down on her was crushing. Her ribcage felt ready to snap. She couldn’t breathe. Then the pressure lifted, and in a moment of absolute panic, she realized that the bear intended to pounce. Pounce, and squash her with four hundred pounds of fur and compact muscle.
She let go and scampered beneath the metal frame of the bed shoved against the wall just in time. The entire cabin shook as the full weight of the bear thundered down, splintering the wooden planks. Through the gap between the mattress and floor, she watched the horrible clicking claws click nearer still. As they approached, she scooted back, trying to put as much distance as possible between herself and death. Another inch, another centimetre, was valuable currency, and Ellie Palmer was flat broke. There was nowhere else to run.
The bear poked its long snout beneath the bed. Its two beady black eyes gazed soullessly at her with juggernaut malice. Its low drooping jowls slavered with animal lust. Its nostrils flared. It was gibbering with eager expectancy.
Ellie delivered a savage kick, sending the beast retreating with a whimper. It recovered its wits and gave a terrible roar. Again, it stuck its snout beneath the bed. This time, it lifted it high into the air, frame and all. To the giant, these seemed as light as a comforter.
Ellie was cornered. She covered her eyes with her hands, awaiting death any moment now, hoping that it would at least be painless and quick. A snarl, a flash of teeth, a severed jugular, and it would all be over. All of the pain and suffering she had endured over the past ten days would drip through the cracks of the floorboards.
“Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!”
Ellie peeked through her fingers. The bear twisted its neck in the direction from which the sound came, fur bristled, ears standing at attention.
“Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.”
The bear stopped growling. It listened intently to the approaching human. Ellie, recognizing the voice of her kidnapper, froze in place and did likewise.
Eddie Burton kept proud company with himself as he trudged through the knee-deep snow on his return to the cabin, sharing a song with the wind, satisfied in his mastery over nature. Two dead rabbits swayed from his left hand. The rifle that had killed them rested across his right shoulder. He held his head very high.
He sang, “In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea. With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me. As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free. While God is marching on! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!”
So content was he that he didn’t notice the large paw tracks leading up to the cabin door, already veiled by a thin layer of freshly falling snow, or that no smoke now jetted out from the stovepipe on the roof, or that the single glass-pane window on the front side of the house was no longer transparent but a sooty-black colour.
Not until he opened the door and stepped through the frame did he notice anything wrong. For a space of time, he merely stood there. The hides of the dead rabbits fell through his fingers. The song died in his throat.
“Glory! Glory! Hall—”
His eyes surveyed the scene. They travelled from the potbellied stove belching thick clouds of smoke to the vacant support beam the girl had been tied to.
“Oh, you bitch!” he said. “You stupid little bitch!” Levelling the rifle at his waist, he crossed the narrow room in four large strides, coughing as he did so. “Where are you? I’m gonna put you down like a dog. I swear to Christ I will!”
He heard a commotion coming from the bedroom. Grinning repulsively, he turned down the hallway and thrust the barrel of the rifle into the dense smoke that filled it.
“Come on out and take your helping!”
From the darkness, an even darker shape emerged. Four hundred pounds of fur and claws and teeth and appetite rushed out to answer his shouts. Like a semi-truck it came, curling the vapor as it hurtled towards him.
He squeezed off a single shot. It struck the mattress just above Ellie’s head. She cried out. Then her kidnapper gave a strangled cry of his own.
The bear sank its teeth into his left thigh. Blood geysered from a pierced artery. The man clubbed the animal in the face with the rifle’s stock over and over again. He was screaming. With very little effort, the powerful jaws lifted him off his feet and flung him backward. He crashed into the chair and table, knocking both to the floor.
The rifle sailed across the room. In another moment, those murderous teeth had locked themselves around the man’s right shoulder. The bear’s front paws held him in place while its jaws ripped. He felt himself being suddenly released. Then he realized with a clutch of nausea that the beast hadn’t let go after all. His entire shoulder was missing. The bear chewed on a large chunk of meat wrapped in a patch of camo-coloured fabric.
Grasping the empty socket where his shoulder had been and still screaming, the man started to where the rifle lay. A fountain of blood on legs staggered clumsily into the bear’s waiting grasp. Its teeth caught him around the abdomen. Another effortless tear and his guts spilled out. Coils of rope as thick as those that had bound the young girl lay in a heap on the wooden floorboards. The man spewed vomit when he perceived that they were his intestines. He swayed, tripped, and fell ass-first onto the stove.
Hot coals bounced out from the upturned furnace. The gurgling man lay among them, too weak from blood loss to even scream. Then the bear had his face. After a fluid swipe of its jaws, Eddie Burton could no longer smell the odour of burning wood or see the animal squat in preparation of a final killing strike, for his nose and eyes were gone.
The bear let out a thunderous roar of triumph that shook the snow from the trees’ barren branches. Eddie Burton, a predator from the world we know as belonging to the domain of man, was delivered a violent death in accordance with a violent life.
Twelve-year-old Ellie Palmer didn’t see any of this, thank God. But she’d heard enough to know that it was high time to get as far away as she possibly could. Crawling out from beneath the bed, she jumped on top of the mattress and began working the sash window above. The frame was frozen and wouldn’t budge an inch.
She pulled with all her might. At last, she managed to raise it enough on the track to squeeze through. Without stopping to think about her barefoot condition, the flimsy nightgown she was wearing, or the fact that she had no idea which direction to run, the girl slid her body through the opening and dropped into the snowbank below.
Did she run to a miraculous rescue or a cold death? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that. All I know is that she ran.