After his girls went to bed, Tyler stayed up late, flipping through magazines and finishing his six pack. Early August in the UP and the sun didn’t set much before midnight, anyway.
Their cabin, one of six pre-fab rentals strung out along the shoreline like boxcars on a train track, looked onto Lake Superior. The lake lay placid now in the faint light, but earlier in the day, he’d nearly lost his eight-year old Amber to the water.
While he’d fished the shallows, she’d clambered onto an outcropping of rock. That quick, a late afternoon storm blew in. Thunder belly-rolled over the lake. Lightning spider-webbed across low-dark clouds. Whipped by a north wind, ocean-sized waves boiled around the girl’s feet. Tyler snatched her to safety just before the slick rock went under.
Shivering with wet and cold, he’d lit a fire and told the girls their mother didn’t need to hear about this. Amber cradled in his arms. Jen, the teenager, glared at him. She’d hardly spoken to him since he’d moved out of the house three months earlier.
He fell asleep on the sofa only to be awakened not long after by the skitter of the garbage can lid on the patio. His first thought was raccoon, but he knew better when the bear overturned the can and crashed it against a tree.
Tyler pulled up his pants, went into the kitchen, and switched on the outside light. Paper, plastic, and food scraps littered the cement-slab. After a few moments, he switched off the light and waited for his eyes to adjust to what was now deep-woods darkness. He thought he saw something large moving among the trees, black on black.
He rummaged through cabinets for a couple of pans. Out on the deck, he strained to see the thing he could smell and hear, rank as a garbage dump, snorting like an old sow after slop. He banged the pans together. The underbrush rustled and the snorting ceased.
Tyler retreated inside and closed and locked the door, waiting to see if the bear returned. Bears were usually more fearful of humans than humans were of them. It surprised him when the bear ambled forward out of the tree line, shoulders rolling.
Through the window, he watched the bear climb onto the deck, overturn a heavy Adirondack chair like it was a toy, and then move on to nose the grill on which Tyler had cooked hamburgers earlier in the week. Charcoal and ash scattered. The bear licked the grease can clean before flinging it into the trees and moving off toward the neighbors.
If it had a mind to, the bear could break down the door or punch through windows and screens. As a precaution, Tyler pushed the sofa in front of the door. He pressed himself against the wall and listened.
“What’re you doing?” Jen spoke to him from the hallway, shining a flash light into the room.
He turned to face her. “Making sure we’re safe.”
“Nothing. The woods, I guess.”
He flipped on the light over the range, opened the refrigerator, found half a store-bought cherry pie, and began eating from the tin pan. “You want anything?” he asked.
Jen’s eyes judged him. “Internet would be nice.”
“No Internet up here.” There was no phone service or TV, either. The girls could watch movies on their iPads and read books on their Kindles. So far, they’d filled their days with hiking and horseback riding.
“Why’d you even bring us here?” Jen asked.
“I don’t know. Get away. Spend time together, just the three of us.”
“Used to be four of us.”
He’d seen this coming. Like her mother, Jen couldn’t leave it alone.
“Used to be,” he said.
“Mom says you’d rather be with your new girlfriend.”
Tyler forked the pie. “It’s more complicated than that. Stuff happens, Jen.”
“Like almost drowning Amber today.”
“I didn’t almost drown her. I saved her.”
She gave him a look, angry as her mother when he’d told her about Laurie. He was relieved when noise from the patio distracted them.
Jen accompanied him to the window. The bear was back, snuffling through scraps previously overlooked.
“Can he get us?” Jen whispered.
“No, we’re safe here.”
“What is it?” Amber stood behind them, her tattered blanket draped across her shoulder, her thumb in her mouth.
“It’s all right,” Tyler said. “It’s nothing. Go back to bed.”
“It’s a bear,” Jen said, pointing. “Right out there.”
Amber’s eyes widened. “Is he going to eat us?”
Tyler shot Jen a glance. “He’s eating our garbage. When the garbage is gone, he’ll leave.”
Jen hugged her little sister. “Daddy doesn’t know that,” she said. “That’s why he moved the sofa.”
Tyler knelt and extended his arms. “Come here, Amber. It’s all right.”
Jen held on to Amber. “Let’s go back to bed. You can sleep with me.”
Thumb in mouth, Amber asked Tyler when he was coming home.
“I don’t know, honey. We don’t have to decide that tonight.”
“He’s not coming home,” Jen said. “It’s just you and me and mom, now.”
Amber began to cry. Tyler stood and started for her, but she turned away, guided by Jen’s firm grip on her elbow.
Hands on his hips he watched them down the hall. “Shit,” he said.
He wanted another beer. The six pack was gone but he had most of a case in the car trunk. He returned to the window and flipped on the porch light again. The damn bear remained on the edge of the woods. It reared up on its hind legs and rubbed its backside against the bark of a dead tree.
Tyler could’ve sworn the sonofabitch grinned at him.