The Bear Across the Way
by Emily Rigole
I paid no more attention to the bear than I would have any new neighbors. Despite what my husband might tell you, the fact that he was a bear played into my curiosity very little. It was his behavior that concerned me. The same behavior that would have concerned me of any new member to our community. And if people had listened to me a little earlier, instead of tiptoeing about trying not to—God forbid—offend the bear, then maybe all this could have been avoided.
For one thing, he kept very odd hours. I only saw him in the early hours of the morning when I made coffee for Greg or late in the evening as I turned out the lights. I thought this very strange behavior indeed, but I would have been willing to leave it at that, if not for the other thing.
That was the sound. Usually, I could block it out with chores or television, but at night it came clear. A humming that seemed to rise out of the earth below the bear’s house and infect my dreams. I would have preferred it to be music. At least there are things you can do about loud music. Certain calls you can make. But what can you say about that alien hum? Even Greg looked at me as if I were crazy each time I brought it up.
Oh, but he was a darling of the neighborhood. He had guests most every evening. I watched them through the kitchen blinds as I prepared dinner. Joan and Terry and Marcia and Don. The women brought him pies and the men clapped his back as if they were old friends. When they finally left, long after sundown, it was with smiles and flushed cheeks. And always they left with a little glass jar.
This jar was the greatest mystery. At first, I thought it was a small flashlight, because of the way it illuminated everything around it. But then I saw the light seemed to emit from whatever was in the jar. I pulled Greg over to see, wondering aloud about radiation.
“You know, we could always go and find out.” He would say. I think he was teasing, but I had excuses prepared just in case. For months I escaped the bear’s den. But summer turned to fall and fall wilted to winter and finally fate caught up with me.
It was sometime after Thanksgiving. Greg came back from a morning run, his cheeks red with cold. He was smiling, some private joke on his lips, but it fell when he saw me. I knew then. He had spoken with the bear.
“It’s just once a week, Shell.” He said. “It’s the neighborly thing to do.”
That was easy for him to say. He had agreed to a task he did not have to perform. The bear was going to sleep for a long time and he needed someone to watch over his house. My wife stays at home, Greg offered. She’d be happy to help.
“And look, here’s your reward.” He presented me with a small, cloth-covered shape. I took it and the cloth fell away, revealing a tiny glass jar of gold. He laughed at the face I made. “It’s only honey after all.”
We went to the bear’s house that night. I brought no pies.
“Come in, come in.” He said as he opened the door. It was meant to be warm but his voice was horrible, like churning rocks. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this.”
It was cozy enough inside. A healthy fire glowed in the hearth and the air smelled faintly sweet. There was not much in the way of furniture, but the pieces he had were rustic and wood-carved. I might have been comfortable if not for the hum. I could hear it very clearly now, droning through the floorboards. I looked to Greg, but if he heard, he showed no sign.
The bear himself was massive. He walked on his hind legs and hunched to fit in the room. His eyes were small and shrewd, his claws long like fossilized fingers. There was no teddy bear warmth to him, but he dressed as a teddy bear might, in a night gown and cap. It was somehow more beastly than if he had been naked.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” He rumbled in my direction. “I’m Abernathy”
Blessedly, he did not hold out his paw for me to shake.
“As you can see,” he said, “I require little, so I hope it will not be much trouble for you. I will sleep here,” He led us to his room, which was empty save for a mass of pillows in its center. “You need not worry about waking me. I am a deep sleeper.” He made a huffing sound that might have been a laugh, then led us out to a door across the kitchen. The closer we got, the louder the humming grew. The door itself seemed to pulse with rhythm of it. Whatever was on the other side, I knew it was the source.
“But this is why I asked you here.” The bear said, gripping the handle in his claws and pulling. The hum exploded. A burst of static that rattled my bones.
“What, uh…what have you got down there Abernathy?” Greg asked, peering down the staircase the door had revealed.
“My greatest treasure,” he said. “The hive.”
There was no light in the cellar, only a small window, but there was no need for one. The honey produced its own light. It lit up the nests so they appeared as bright misshapen stars, clumping in the corners and hanging from the ceiling. I stepped forward. The air was so alive with bees that it seemed to speak with the beat of their wings. No longer a hum but a full-throated song. This was the heart of my nightmares and yet, now that I was here, it compelled me. My blood thrummed with its music.
“They should take care of themselves.” The bear said slowly, as if tranced. “They’ve enough honey for the winter months, but if it fades, you must take more from my stores and feed them. They will die without it.”
I do not know how I left that strange space. A part of me thinks I am there still, suspended in honeyed amber. I remember floating back up the steps, collecting our things and saying goodbye. I remember the shadowed silhouette of the bear, standing in his doorway, paw waving.
“Good night my friends, I will see you again in spring.”
And I remember that when I dreamed that night, it was of stars.
I knew it was unnatural, but I could not stop thinking of that golden place. Perhaps it was some sort of test the bear set up for me. Perhaps, knowing what I would do, he engineered all this from the start. Whatever the case, thoughts of the hive came to me in every empty moment. I counted the days until my return.
The day came a week later. I walked into the house half-giddy and half-shy, casting a cursory glance around the den, the kitchen. I peeped at the sleeping hulk of the bear in his room. He was nothing but a brown mound, swelling and deflating with each breath. Like a dragon over its hoard of gold. That makes me the knight come to reclaim it, I thought as I descended to the hive.
I lost hours there, sprawled on the floor, gazing at the fat stalactite nests. The bees whirred above me in the dark. I caught flashes of their furred bodies, saw their shadows move against the nests, but I did not see all of them—not even a fraction. They were a fathomless presence, like standing before the ocean. I found myself not wanting to leave.
As winter set the bees slowed. They bundled in their nests, dimming their light. It felt lonely without them filling the air. One day, I walked to one of the nests, looking inside. The slabs of honeycomb glistened like squares of butter. My mouth watered.
My hand moved faster than my mind. I broke off a piece of the nest and brought it to my lips. I had never tasted anything like it before, sweeter than sugar and headier than wine. I could drink rivers of it and never feel sick. Before I knew it that entire nest was a husk in my hand. I went home and ate dinner. I kissed my husband. But I could not chase that perfect taste from my mouth.
It became a habit. I picked the nests that seemed smaller, more separate than the rest. The ones I thought would not be missed. Whole afternoons I spent, licking the honeycomb clean. Then I’d lie down and let a great satisfaction settle over me. I did not notice the lights growing dim, until one day I entered the hive to be greeted with only darkness.
The bear had said to take honey from his stores, but I knew that would be no good. The air was dead. If I took a step, a carpet of insect bodies crunched beneath my feet. There was no going back from what I had done. I fled, and did not return.
The bear will be reasonable, I thought. He made this hive, he can make another. There are more bees in the world. But my heart whispered misgivings. None like those, it said. The bear will wake and when he does, he will come for you.
Weeks passed and the frost cracked. Green buds spotted the trees. I woke one morning to sun streaming through the windows and birdsong. I took a moment to bask in it, the bear and his hive an ugly memory melting in spring sun.
Then, the world broke.
It sounded like a storm, like an earthquake. I turned to Greg and saw my fear reflected in his eyes. He ran to the window.
“Its Abernathy.” He said, racing outside. I went to the window. The bear was there indeed. He stood in the middle of the street, beating his chest and roaring murder. Venom flew from his lips and he attacked whatever was in his path. I felt each strike, every snapped mailbox and smashed car. I knew it was meant for me.
I fell to the floor. Greg kept a rifle in the closet, but I didn’t know how to use it. There were knives in the kitchen, but if I got close enough to the bear to use a knife then I’d already lost. I could do nothing but hide. I squeezed under the bed, wincing, breath ragged, and waited for the walls to come crashing down around me.
They never did. Instead, I heard sirens. And voices. Car doors being opened and shut. The bear bellowed until it choked, the sound crumpling into something like a sob. Then: Pop, pop, pop. Three solid blasts, one right after another, like firecrackers. I did not hear the bear again after that.
I crawled out from the bed, legs shaky, and wandered outside. The whole neighborhood was there. They were speaking to each other in hushed voices, looking around warily. I followed their gaze until I saw the bear.
His body was twisted, arms and head bent at ugly angles. His red tongue lolled on the asphalt. His eyes were open, the same black holes I remembered, but his cheeks seemed dark and matted. As if with tears. The ground was black and wet where he lay.
I found Greg. He wrapped an arm around me and pulled me close to him.
“You were right, Shelly.” He said softly, stroking my hair. “All this time, he was just a wild animal.”
And then I realized what everyone was saying. He seemed so nice, they whispered, but you can’t trust a bear. These friends who had dined with him, who had laughed at his jokes. They knew nothing of the hive, or the honey. To them it was just a beast behaving as beasts do.
A weariness landed on my shoulders. I looked into my husband’s eyes, shining with shock and betrayal. I could have told him everything, but then that shock would be pointed at me. And besides, if it had not been the honey, then it would have been something else. I leaned into his arms and sighed.
“Well,” I said. “That’s just how bears are.”
About the Author
Emily Rigole is a software engineer and writer from Macon, Georgia. She grew up playing in red dirt and seeing strange things in the woods. She now lives in Atlanta, with a strange thing that claims to be a beagle, and enjoys writing about outsiders, curses, and horrible misunderstandings
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a jack of many trades, master of none. But seeing as she loves the rogue life, that’s ok with her. You can hear stories she’s narrated on all four Escape Artists podcasts, StarShipSofa, Glittership, and Asimov’s Science Fiction podcast or you can buy the audiobooks she’s narrated at Audible.com under the name Danielle Daly. You can also contact her on Twitter @danooli_dani or at danielledalyreads.com if you’d like her to read for you.