Ninety-eight percent of all fictional deaths are directly attributable to being eaten by bears.
Bullshit, you say? What about those shooting and stabbings and drownings and beatings and death by Doomed Gay Manlove?
Well, it’s not my problem if you can’t see the bears.
My buddy Downs calls bears the Final Solution to the Fundamentalist Problem. “Polar bears? They look at you and see lunch,” he says, tapping his fingers against his knee in some rock-opera adagio. “All we have to do is get the fundies up to the Arctic.”
Downs doesn’t actually have Down Syndrome. That was just our fifth-grade teacher’s way of calling him a moron. Downs read up, learned to be double jointed, and ran with it.
“We’re not getting any rednecks to the Arctic.” I don’t bother looking up. I’m reading a book of last words from death row inmates. Downs is reading comics. Ostensibly. His fingers tap-tap-tap through the twelfth-floor stacks against his freshman-fifteen gut. Downs always holds his belly when he’s talking about politics, like the state of the world is some pain in his lower intestine, just itching to team up with a special-effects studio and leap out to devour us.
“Tell ‘em it’s hunting season.”
“Tell ‘em Jesus crash-landed in his spaceship.”
“Fundies don’t believe in spaceships.”
“Hold a convention.”
“Shut up,” someone says from the study tables three shelves of geological reports away. Downs tugs the back page out of a treatise on why the earth is square and flings it, crumpled Aristotlean round, in the general direction of their head.
“You’re getting your retrenchment all over my youthful activism.” Downs scowls and flips the page. A bear shuffles into the upper left panel and sniffs at his fingers, then turns away, shuts a four-colour refrigerator on a four-colour dismembered body. Its face is all ursine innocence.
“I’m trying to save America here. What’re you looking at?” he snaps, and prepares another Defacement of University Property Bomb.
“Bears,” I say, and point.
The Green Lantern opens the refrigerator and reels back from the frozen body parts of his latest girlfriend. Static electricity forms over his head as he grits his teeth; he looks just as indigestive as Downs.
Off-panel, a bear laughs.
Downs, quite deliberately, takes his hand off his belly. “I,” he says, “have a cunning plan.”
“Shut up!” say five study table people, and then we get kicked out of the library.
We assemble around the common room table at ten to midnight, with the black light, the scratched CD of Dark Side of the Moon, and a stack of 1980s Batman. Downs clambers up on a chair so old it could be Ikea’s grandpa and pokes at the lightbulb in the rusty fixture. “I don’t think it’s gonna go in.”
“You don’t need the black light,” I tell him and put my feet on the table. The toothy faces on my bunny slippers and their little beady eyes remind me of bears.
“You have no sense of ambiance,” he says, rocking the chair, and almost breaks his ankle. He’s rubbing his stomach again—like he’s five months pregnant, now, not like he’s holding death inside. He looks almost pleased.
K.C. and Manda file in before Downs manages to get the black lightbulb in, wearing one pair of pink pajamas between them—K.C. has the long shirt (Downs stares at her legs) and Manda the pants (Downs peeks down her sports bra). Manda waves a lit clove cigarette. “We screening the Wizard of Oz?”
“Put that out,” I say, and try to keep my eyes off her sports bra. The bunny slipper falls off my foot and attacks a pile of comics. “This is a serious business meeting.”
Downs opens Exhibits A through G while Manda smokes her clove in my face and K.C. makes out with a paperback on the beat-up common room couch. Batman pushes perps off buildings. Perps shoot civvies in the gut. Henchmen hench. Gotham City trembles. Between it all, bears peer into frame with their pixel-wide eyes: destabilizing ledges, blowing bullets right or left with their curled-line bear breath.
You never see remains. The bears are fat and happy.
“Behold,” Downs announces, and the girls saunter over to the table.
“Your scientific observations?” I intone in my best thesis committee voice, the one I practice in the shower so it doesn’t catch me off guard whenever I finally finish a thesis.
“That you’re both nerds,” Manda says, and picks dirt from under one blue-painted nail. “And you didn’t bag and board these.”
“Shut up, I was twelve.” Downs hastily smooths a bent and distorted bat-signal and looks excessively not-injured.
“They look like shit.”
“Dudes.” I shake my head and straighten my slipper. “Best you’ve got after five straight years of taking stories apart for a living?”
“I study literature—” K.C. cuts in, and I stand up before it all turns into another mud-wrestle about medium versus content and Downs shouting that critical theory’s for people who can’t produce art of their own, just eat the last critic’s shit and tear down the people who can, and then the other R.A.s will wake up and I’ll get docked pay for letting drunken grad students fight at midnight and smoke inside a university residence.
“So apply your study of literature and narrative to this comic here, all right? Between the lines.”
“Thanks, jackass,” she says, and squints down over the page.
I can see when they see it. They press their noses to the page like it’s a Christmas toy store, and then back right off at the first flash of teeth. Bears. Bears pulling the road like carpet out from under that stock victim who trips. Bears sticking their salmon-flavoured chewing gum against a gun’s safety. Bears dragging the bodies off-panel, the ragged-edged bites in the windows of white space between.
“Whoa,” Manda says, and digs in her messenger bag for her camera.
“It won’t turn out,” Downs says in his best Spooky Mulder, and K.C. doesn’t even hit him. She’s entranced, watching the bears.
Nobody gets any sleep.
The next morning, Manda’s knocking at my door waving five DVDs in hyper-grammatical semaphore. “I checked frame by frame, every one of them,” she breathes, face fevered with caffeine and bad ideas. “There were bears setting up dynamite. There were bears putting arsenic in the sugar. Bears shot J.R.!”
K.C.’s right behind her, armed with a beat-up copy of Beowulf. “Bears in the margins! Eating Danes! Kicking Grendel!”
Downs rolls over and puts a pillow over his head.
“Yeah?” I ask, and rub my eyes.
“We’re in,” they say, wild with excitement.
“Excellent,” Downs purrs into his sheets.
I shut the door and go back to bed.
I wake up at two for a three-p.m. tutorial, and when I’m done handholding wide-eyed kids through Baby’s First Existentialism Course, I head back to the room to find Downs. He’s not there. Or in the common room, or the grad lounge, or the twelfth-floor stacks where a librarian in dusty jeans gives me one hell of a frown.
“Sorry,” I mutter, for whatever I’ve done today, and duck into the elevator down to the lobby. I’m halfway to the checkout desk when there’s a snuffle, and the floor vibrates as a translucent-white polar bear stretches and lumbers down the stairwell to the revolving door.
“The hell?” I say, and it turns to fix me with a speculative eye. I shrink back behind the book return cart and it whuffs a little laugh, slides the rest of the way down the banister with one paw outstretched, knocking books from hands, hats from heads, unzipping jeans with two precise claws. Undergrads swear and blush and grab for their stuff, looking for whatever wind just tugged it away.
Nobody shouts bear.
I head back up the stairs.
Manda, K.C., and Downs are sitting in one of the soundproofed study rooms, faces pressed to the outside window, watching a bear meander through the lobby, pulling the plugs on catalogue computers. There are tins of opened salmon all over the place. The study room stinks of fish.
“Ah-fucking-hem,” I say.
“Roomie! Operation Final Solution is go,” Downs says, and claps me on the back. He’s got a glass of Kool-Aid with a jaunty cocktail umbrella in his other hand. The umbrella looks like it’s been through a tiny cocktail hurricane.
“There are bears in the library,” I inform them. Manda has her camera out. She taps a button on her and steps forward to zoom in on my face.
“Yup,” K.C. says, “isn’t it great?”
“While you were acting as a tool of the oppressor class—”
“I had a tutorial to lead.”
“—we have been orchestrating the overthrow of the sinister forces which taint our society and throw a dark shadow over the promise of our enterprising youth.”
“You let bears into the library.”
Manda cuts to Downs for a reaction shot.
“Not just bears, my friend,” Downs says, smiling his Oscar acceptance speech. “Invisible bears.”
“The fuck? How do you know they’ll only eat fundies?” The bears nose at the revolving door, then stand up on their hind legs and shuffle discreetly behind earbud-clad undergrads as they push the door round and round. A line of bears merges with a line of oblivious students. The bears sit in the quad and cover their giggles with giant paws.
“Easy,” Downs grins. “I took ‘em all out of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and the Daily Show book.”
Bears flatten themselves against walls. Bears hide around corners, and unreel fishing line attached to twenty-dollar bills, old lottery tickets, and battered copies of The Catcher in the Rye. A student perks, reaches down, stares as the lure’s drawn back. “Man,” I say, “I don’t know if this is funny anymore.”
The lure jerks once more around the corner, becomes a tripwire, and then the skinny junior is down on his face, books everywhere, faceplanted on top of the Salinger. Bear teeth sink into the back of his head, and when they rise there’s nothing where his neck used to be, just a jagged little black line. Limbs disappear in chunks. There’s no blood when it’s over.
“Oh, ew,” K.C. whispers.
“Now we’re talking,” Downs grins.
My hand grabs Downs’s shirt before the bear lumbers off. “That guy wasn’t a fundie! He’s in my History of Western Thought class! He wrote his term paper on socialized medicine!”
Downs mops Kool-Aid off his shirt and frowns. “Maybe he was a closet fundie?”
“You fucking idiot,” I say as the bears stream out into the footpaths and vanish into the trees.
Bears rig Rube Goldberg machines from high-rise rooftops, sending a marble down a chute to strike a target to quiver a wire to produce a very specific F-sharp, which rattles the bridge between Commons and east campus and sends undergrads flying into the creek. Bears drop anvils and sit in the backseat of passing Hondas, just waiting for a hairpin turn to let out a breathy-voiced boo! Bears bury their invisible bear muzzles in the shocked and bloody remains, throwing back body parts in huge gulps. The bite marks they make are outlined in dark crayon.
By the time the cops show up there’s no bodies left at all. Bears are wily. They don’t leave evidence.
We barricade in the stacks, where the bears aren’t hanging out anymore. The door frames are littered with dangling participle traps, swaying in the institutional air-conditioning. K.C. waves a red pen around like a flashlight, disarming any she comes across with skills honed in the depths of Freshman Composition.
Someone’s spray-painted HUNNY in a printer’s serif font across the glass case that holds the Shakespeare Folio manuscript. We huddle behind it to catch our breath. There’s snacks and pop in the downstairs machines, but we only have so much change. And there’s no telling when the bears might show up.
We’re going up. People in zombie movies always go up. It gives you a good bottleneck in case the bears break the window, make a loud noise, drug someone asleep on that crucial watch and send the zombie hordes to bring you down.
“They weren’t supposed to do that,” Downs complains, wheezing from ten flights of stairs. “They were supposed to be social democrat bears.” I smack him across the back of the head.
“You are ascribing moral values to a force that is inherently without morality,” I tell him, and give him a shove forward. “Anyone who even rolled up and smoked a philosophy text could tell you—”
“Oh, don’t even start,” Manda snaps from behind her handheld camera. She’s filming it all, of course. I press a hand against her lens and she slaps it.
“Y’know, you’re a real big man pontificating ’bout ‘philosophy text’ when there’s real shit going on outside.”
“Like the bears you let out—”
“Like a war,” Downs snaps. His hand’s on his belly again. He’s holding himself in. “Like people starving. Philosophize that shit from your armchair.”
“So quit your cushy Masters program and go join the Peace Corps.”
“Fuck you.” The fist tightens on his shirt. K.C. gets between us waving her red pen like a torch.
“All right, back the hell off,” she says, and he stares at me hard for a second before he does back off, stalking across the floor and behind the rows of geology journals that nobody ever reads. K.C. follows him after a minute. Then Manda. Then me, because I know better than to split the party. We sit cross-legged in a little circle around our leftover cans of salmon and stare at the grey concrete walls.
“Okay kids, what scares off bears?” K.C. asks in her fake-cheerful T.A. voice, and we all play sullen students who haven’t done their homework.
“Big hands,” Manda puts in from behind the camera. “Standing up tall and yelling.”
“That’s for real bears,” I say. “Narrative bears don’t give a crap how big you look.” Something outside rumbles. I don’t dare to look.
“What do you suggest, then?” K.C. asks a little poisonously. As if I was the one who let the bears out.
“We find out what scares off plot devices,” I shoot back. “You’re the English student. You tell me.”
“Critical theorists,” Downs mutters, and Manda barely catches my hand before it throws five survey reports at his head.
“You can’t scare plot devices,” K.C. says, and pushes her glasses up her nose. “You can finish them, you can use them to the end. . . .”
“What’s the end? Everybody gets eaten?” Manda’s doing shakycam, and I don’t think it’s on purpose. I put a hand on her knee and she jerks it away.
“The end is the end,” she says, shrugs. “I mean . . . it’s when you say it’s over.”
As if it’s a sign, as if it’s goddamned narrative, the library lights all flicker and shut down.
“Okay,” K.C. says with a strain in her voice. “God has spoken. Move out.”
“Only fundies believe in God,” I say quietly. Downs cringes for the first time all day.
“Move out,” K.C. repeats, and holds her red pen high.
There are megaphones in the Spirit Squad room in the basement of the dorm. I don’t have my keys, so I force the lock. We dust them off, then go to battle stations. K.C. texts the book club. Downs finds some engineers. Manda hops a cab to the one indie theatre in town. And me? The Committee has unilaterally decided that philosophers are useless, one vote dissenting, so I don’t go round up my philosophy students. I get to be the bait.
The quad feels very wide open when you’re scanning for bears. There are bear tracks all over the grass, faint smudges of crayon on the road, the smell of old and yellowed newsprint. It makes me feel small and sorta hollow, the hollow Sartre says is at the centre of everyone. It makes me feel stalked and small and huddled against the winter at the beginning of time.
My left hand’s crept up to hold onto my belly, to hold the me inside me. I stick it into my pocket hard.
I press the button on the megaphone experimentally. It squeals, and the outline of a bear looks out from behind a tree with a grunt. “The end,” I say, kinda awkward. I sound like a dork amplified.
The bear licks its invisible bear lips.
“No, in all caps!” K.C.’s voice snaps at me from across the field. I tear my gaze away: she’s leaning out her window in the girls’ grad dorm.
“THE END!” I yell, making sure it’s nice and loud. “THE END!”
“DASH DASH THIRTY DASH DASH!” hollers Downs.
Manda hoists a flag lettered ROSEBUD into the sky and the whole Film Studies department roars “(FIN)! (FIN)!”
The music department sits in orchestral arrangement on the roof of their fancy building, and they play a long, long coda, Manda and K.C.’s next-door neighbour conducting.
The bear pauses.
And then the earth rumbles. Blobs of invisible fur emerge from the trees, fat and agile, pixel-eyes sparkling like printer’s-ink stars. Bears flock like birds through the grass without bending it, grunting and huffing as they pile across the darkening quad and towards the university library, muzzles low and no longer scenting the air. Bears part around me and rejoin behind me. A moonlight river of bears shuffles through the library doors and into the ruffled pages of books, through magazines and journals, going quietly to dream bear dreams.
Or maybe it’s just a trick of the light.
“THE END!” I shout until my throat aches and my voice cracks. “THE END!”
I’m the last one yelling. Everyone else has gone silent.
A ragged cheer starts up from the windows, the rooftops, the last stands at the tops of alumni-sponsored trees.
“The end,” I say once more for myself, and weave through the backslapping and teary girlfriends and illicit two-fours coming out from under beds, back to the room I still have to share with Downs until the end of spring semester.
He comes up late, smelling like beer and something smoky that isn’t rolled philosophy texts, and flops onto his bed with a sigh. I look up from mine. I’m rereading Heidegger, trying to find the words for that hollow spot I felt in my gut, out there with the bears.
“All’s well that ends well?” he says to me, eyes like a freshman’s, the most apology I’ll ever get out of him if things go like they have since the day we met back in grade three.
“You’re a fucking depraved ideologist serial killer,” I tell him, and turn down my sheets.
“Yeah,” he says real quiet, and doesn’t look at me. His hand twitches. He leaves it at his side. “Well, at least I’m trying.“
I turn off the lamp and it’s silent in our room, silent like it must be when you’re married and the part with the fights and the valium and the no sex hits. The clock ticks off time in the dark. I can’t tell if he’s asleep or not.
“Fuck it,” I say to myself, pull on my shoes, and go outside.
It’s gotten cold since the party in the quad broke up. There are beer bottles littering the grass; I wrap my arms around my chest and dodge them, look up to get a fix on the few stars you can see through the light pollution you get even in a town this small. The campus is happily asleep, and I wonder if any of them will remember their friends or classmates or floormates who aren’t here anymore. Who’re eaten by bears.
It’s a big university, is the problem. And as Heidegger says, we can walk through life as heroes of our own story only by being assholes: objectifying everybody else into non-player characters. Maybe everyone’ll just assume they ducked out of the story. Maybe it’s that easy to disappear.
A shadow in motion catches my eye, barely visible against the security lights that flank the cobble paths between residences. Heavy and thick and hard to see, it bends its neck and noses a few rocks, noses the place where my socialist medicine paper-writer got lured in and swallowed up in pieces.
Suddenly I’m mad enough to throw rocks, to spit, to jump on top of that furry back and just keep hitting. We dealt with this. It was supposed to be done.
“The end,” I hiss at it, hands in fists. It whuffs and gives me a withering look.
Of course. The end is for narrative bears. This one’s real.
There are bears in the world too. Between the lines in the newspaper, which is what I guess Downs has been trying to get across to me. Tucked into the corners and alleys. Bullshit, you say. Social forces. Market pressures. Go join the Peace Corps.
I sorta feel like an idiot that I haven’t been able to see the bears.
I put my arms up above my head and shout “Hey, bear! I’m here! I’m not disappeared yet! Not giving up!“
“Shut up,” floats down from a window somewhere along the quad.
The bear snorts, shakes its head sleepily, and jiggle-trots gracefully over to the science library. It disappears between a crack in the stairs. When I look I can see little bear eyes watching.
I don’t turn around. I back all the way to the dorm and run up the stairs to my room.
When I get in my hands are shaking. Downs is asleep. He snorts into his pillow as I close the room door and rolls away from my bedside lamp. I watch him for a bit: my best buddy, my stupid crazy best buddy. Ideologist serial killer. Fucking fundie for the other fundamentalism.
I sit up ’til dawn bagging and boarding his thirteen years of Batman. I make sure to tape the bags shut good. We don’t want the bears crawling out.