Wednesday, March 13, 2019

“Going on a Bear Hunt” by Lynda Sturgeoff

I can’t see it. Where’s the end? Sheila had been hiking the bush for hours. Her thoughts were going in circles. The forest had been beautiful that morning in the fullness of fall colours. But with the darkness coming soon and Harry at her side, Sheila felt the beginnings of panic.

Harry whined, again. “I’m hungry. I’m tired. Let’s go home now.”

Sheila tried very hard to put on a brave face. She knew it would help keep her own spirits up as well as Harry’s. “I know. We’re almost there.” There was no way she was going to help him her real thoughts. “Let’s sing a bit.”

Sheila had taken her little brother for a hike to get him away from home. Home was beginning to be too uncomfortable, almost downright unpleasant. It seemed their father was always in a bad mood these days. Sheila knew he was worried, though she wasn’t quite sure why. And Lisa was so demanding. That Lisa! She was the source of all the troubles. Sheila was sure of it.

But Sheila knew she had to push those thoughts down. She remembered the sign posted at the entrance to the woods warning of recent bear sightings. It reminded hikers what to do if they saw a bear: speak calmly and back away.

“Let’s sing ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’,” she said. It was one of Harry’s favorite songs.

“We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.”

Maybe not a good choice for a too-long hike in the woods. Oh well, too late now.

While they were singing, Sheila kept her eyes peeled. She was looking for the slashes on the trees that would show the trail. She also was looking for footprints in the mud. She’d heard that people who were lost ended up going in circles; she didn’t want that to happen to them. Sheila thought she knew these woods cold; she’d been hiking them all her life. But somehow nothing looked familiar.

Wait, what was that? She tugged at Harry, pulling him over to the hill on the right. It looked like a building. It was! An old school house. Sheila didn’t remember ever seeing it before.

Harry revived with the excitement of the discovery. “Can we go in and explore?”

The schoolroom smelled dank, unused. And yet, here and there were signs that someone had been there recently: a granola bar wrapper, a plastic water bottle. And there, in the corner, a blanket, neatly folded, a small pillow and a flashlight.

“Ooo,” said Harry, “it’s kind of creepy in here. Let’s go.”

But Sheila was drawn to that corner. She picked up the flashlight and tried the switch. The sudden light illuminated the corners and sent dark shadows leaping to the ceiling. She knelt beside the blanket and put out her hand.

“Don’t touch it!” Harry looked frightened.

“Look Harry, there’s a little stuffed teddy bear here, tucked into the blanket. I guess our bear hunt song worked. We’ve hunted down a real bear.”

Harry’s mood immediately lightened. He crouched down beside Sheila and pulled something out from underneath the blanket.

A notebook. Sheila looked at it. On the cover were the words, ‘Property of Lisa Chadwick, 52 Elm St., Big River, Ontario, Canada, the World. The handwriting was childlike; the notebook pages yellowed with age. 

Lisa Chadwick, that’s Dad’s new wife.  What was going one? Inside the notebook were several stories; seemingly a child’s English class exercises. Then on one page a name repeated over and over – Jim Marshall. Hearts were drawn all over the page. Sheila suddenly understood that her dad and Lisa had known each other long ago, before Dad married Sheila’s mom. 

“Okay, let’s get out of here.” Sheila took Harry’s hand and the flashlight.

As soon as they were back outside, Sheila saw lights moving slowly off to the right. “C’mon Harry, there’s the road.” Running over to it, Sheila suddenly realized where they were. The headlights of the truck approached. “It’s Dad!”

He saw them too. “Sheila! Harry! We’ve been worried sick! Where have you been?”

“We’ve just come from the old schoolhouse,” said Sheila.

“Yeah and we found a bear!” shouted Harry. But from the look on their dad’s face he quickly added, “Not a real bear; just a little teddy bear.”

“Oh, you found that did you?”

Well it seemed Dad already knew about it. “Dad what’s going on? Did you and Lisa know each other when you were kids?”

“Let’s go home; hop in the truck. I’ll just call Lisa and let he know I’ve found you. She’s worried sick.”

No one said much in the truck. Sheila was remembering the row Lisa and Dad had been having when she and Harry walked out. They both seemed grouchy a lot of the time, but Sheila knew Lisa was a worrier too.

When they got back Sheila and Jim went straight to the living room, walking right past Lisa who was waiting with a hug. Little Harry brushed off the hug, but grabbed the peanut butter sandwich Lisa had waiting. He followed his sister and dad to the sagging sofa.

“Dad, why don’t you just tell me? I know you two knew each other. You’re still keeping secrets. Who are you trying to protect?” Sheila felt the tension in her dad. Her curiosity was turning to anger.

Lisa hung back, feeling excluded. But she could hear their conversation. Shocked, she realized it was about her. Sheila had found the teddy bear Lisa had left in the old schoolhouse, and the old notebook. Oh my god, what will she think of me now?

Lisa came into the living room. “Jim, let me tell the story.

“Sheila, Harry, your dad and I knew each other as kids. We went to school together. Yes, in that little schoolhouse you found today. We were best friends when we were little and then when we were teenagers we went to the dances and hayrides together.”

Sheila was watching her warily. Harry was trying not to let jam ooze out of his sandwich. Jim was looking out the window.

Lisa took a deep breath. She seemed to be wondering how to continue. “I loved your dad. We were so young. Well, I got pregnant.”

Sheila’s eyes widened. She stared at the tears in Lisa’s eyes.

“Yes and I was so scared. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t tell my parents. I couldn’t tell anyone. I was only fifteen.”

Lisa looked back up at Sheila, then over to Jim. “Finally I told your dad. I had to. I couldn’t tell my parents. I only had my teddy bear to tell and teddy couldn’t help me. I thought then that your dad was angry. But now I know he was just scared – as scared as me. We kind of got into a tussle. I fell down against the big rock in the schoolyard. I lost the baby. You don’t need to know the details. It wasn’t his fault. Maybe it would have happened anyway.” Lisa was crying now, tears streaming silently down her face.

Sheila looked horrified; Harry puzzled, licking jam off his fingers. But Jim, well he looked relieved.

Later that evening, after the soup was eaten, the homework done, Lisa and Jim went back to the sofa.

“You mean you don’t blame me? Really?”

“No, I don’t Jim. I just realized it today. It wasn’t your fault, it wasn’t my fault. It just was. I couldn’t have looked after a baby then. It’s just as well. And I love Sheila and Harry so much – as much as if I’d birthed them myself.”

Jim’s arm crept around her shoulder and held her close. “I’ve felt so guilty all these years.”

Sheila left her listening post in the kitchen, quietly crept upstairs and opened the door to Harry’s room. She smiled to herself when she saw Harry’s teddy bear on the floor. She picked it up and tucked it into bed beside her sleeping brother.

Lynda Sturgeoff is a retired Ph.D. chemist, has finally found the light. After years of reading, writing, and editing technical reports she is now taking her writing into the creative arena. This is aided and abetted by Brian Henry's writing class. She is currently working on a piece of creative nonfiction, thus combining the two solitudes.

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including Saturday writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Alliston, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Hamilton, Jackson’s Point, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, New Tecumseth, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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