Eric Davis hunched over the counter of the hardware store and examined the mouse trap under the greenish fluorescent lighting, running his fingers over the delicately crossing wires that formed the mesh walls. It was a beautiful, kind little thing. How sweet its inventor must have been, to want the pests alive and unscathed as they were caught. The trapping mechanism looked simple enough, he thought, but scaling it up? He scribbled some arithmetic in the margins of the sheet of notebook paper and frowned at the sum. Eric sighed and crumpled the paper up before tossing it in the trash. The larger the creature, the more difficult it would be to make a humane version of the traps under an affordable budget. I don’t have that kind of money anyway, he thought. He scrubbed a hand through his uncombed blond hair, punched out, and exited Lonny’s Hardware and More for the evening.
The green trash bin lay overturned, greasy burger wrappers and newspapers quivering on the ground as the dusky breeze set in.
“Raccoons,” Eric said under his breath. He collected the garbage and struggled to right the bin. A deep scratch in the surface caught his finger. Eric squinted in the fading light and traced it. Three more, lined up like tallies. “Not raccoons,” he said aloud. “Definitely not.” His heart began to pound, but the young cashier straightened, and calmly marched to his car. His clammy hands fumbled with the keys. The drive home was not far.
“It’s ok, it’s fine, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them,” he told himself over and over again as his squeaky red sedan bounced down the street. Ten minutes later Eric forced his way into his small house, double checked the locks on his windows and doors, and slapped together a grilled cheese and veggie bacon sandwich for dinner. His cat sauntered up next to his knee in the kitchen.
“What do you know, Theo?” he said and patted the orange cat’s head lovingly. He flopped onto the couch with his sandwich and half-watched a football game, though he was more entertained by Theo playing with a blanket. After the game, Eric tried to read a book he had been enjoying, but as he sat in his bed with the comforter drawn tight around his shoulders and his cat in his lap, the young man couldn’t stop thinking about those scratches on the trash bin.
If there’s a bear awake, it’s hungry, he thought. Eric shut off the light on his nightstand and curled up to sleep, holding Theo close to his chest. The little animal’s purr comforted him, but a lingering concern tickled the back of his mind: it found food from the bins today; it’ll be back for more, eventually. When he finally did fall asleep, he dreamed fitfully of lumbering, thudding paws and screams that made his spine turn to jelly. The night grew dark and moist. West Virginia was shedding the last remnants of winter, and apparently, the animals knew it just as well as the people.
The bell above the glass door to the shop chimed. Eric saw Mike’s bulky frame walk into the aisle of screws out of the corner of his eye.
“Whatcha lookin’ at, Eric?” Mike’s voice echoed across the tile, backed by tinny jazz from the loudspeakers. Eric’s bloodshot eyes remained glued to the boxy beige monitor behind the counter.
“Bear traps,” Eric murmured.
“Bear traps?” Mike laughed. “Don’cha like animals? Or’s this one too big for you to handle?” His friend said nothing, but hopped off the wobbly stool and shuffled to the rubber hosing section. Mike’s brow furrowed. “Eric?”
“They’re waking up. Black bears don’t truly hibernate, you know.” Eric called over the shelves. “One got into the trash outside yesterday. The boss is still out of town, so I’ve gotta figure out a solution on my own. But the traps….” He fell silent as he scrutinized the hosing. His stomach churned when he imagined one closing on a paw, the animal crying out in pain, and – heaven forbid - chewing its own limb off to save its life.
“You see, it bothers me that there’s teeth on the darned things; I thought maybe there was a way to cage them, you know? Like a possum or mouse.”
His blond head poked out the end of the aisle, holding a length of rubber foam high. He jogged back to the counter. “But they’re just too big to build a cage trap. So – put your hands together in a circle, Mike – yes, like that!” Eric bit off small strips of duct tape and stuck it to Mikes hands over the foam.
“You couldn’ta used regular? I got hairy hands, man.”
“Shh, let me think. Now snap your bear-trap-hand-jaws shut for me, please. As hard as you can.”
Mike rolled his eyes, but obliged, clamping his hands around Eric’s thin wrist. Eric grinned. “That will work! I’m sure of it!”
“You could just call animal control, bud.”
“Well, I did, but they said unless I’d actually seen the animal, they couldn’t come out. I’m just trying to think of my options here.” Eric scrubbed his hands through his hair and pulled the foam off Mike’s hands, eliciting a small “Ow.” Mike pushed a five-dollar bill at him across the counter and pocketed his screws.
“Hope you get it figured out. Bears coming out of hibernation round here,” he whistled a low whistle. “I don’t envy you!” Mike called from the door. Eric grunted in agreement and turned back to the monitor. Not five minutes later, something scrabbled against the glass. The doorbell chimed.
“Forget something?” Eric said teasingly. A dingy, musky smell wafted behind the counter. Eric looked up. He froze. The black bear huffed at him, and the rank breath of such a creature filled Eric’s tingling sinuses. Eric slipped sideways off his stool and stood to his full height, which was not much. The bear wobbled up to the impulse purchase display and began to pull at the bags of jerky. Oh. Oh no. Mike had been outside seconds before. Is he okay? Eric hadn’t heard any noise, but then again, he wasn’t really paying much attention.
“Please,” Eric whispered to the bear. “Please, let me leave.” The hungry animal made eye contact, and snuffed. Those eyes were wild, and hungry. Eric took an experimental step, cold sweat trickled down his back. The bear stalked slowly around the counter, and Eric felt his legs twitch. He launched himself over the other side, slipped on the slick linoleum, and tumbled to the floor.
“Shoot,” he gasped. The bear snarled and Eric felt the floor shake under its thick paws. He didn’t remember standing, but Eric’s legs carried him to the farthest corner away from the creature. I should have gone for the door, he thought, appalled at his panic. He began to hyperventilate. Breathe, breathe! What do I know about them?
“How can I defend myself?” he whispered. A loud, metallic screech and thud echoed through the shop told him the bear had pushed over a display. It could smell him. They have sensitive noses. Eric felt his animal-loving gut writhe. He needed a weapon. To potentially hurt a living thing. He steeled his nerves and began to assess his options. There was some rope, but he couldn’t rip through the thick packaging fast enough. Garden shears? A pool of blood flashed through his mind. He shook his head. No, no stabbing. Another display crashed to the floor, accompanied by a rumbling growl.
It wants to kill me, he thought. He grabbed a small monkey-wrench, only eight inches long, and crept to the other end of the aisle. He had last seen the bear between him and the door. Maybe, if he snuck back through the hosing shelves, he could make a break for it. The shelf next to him shivered, and he heard spray paint cans clattering to the floor. The bear had moved. He could make it. Eric sprinted to the door, and his fingertips just barely brushed the push handle before he felt something tearing into his ankle. He screamed and twisted in the air as he was ripped to the ground. The bear’s teeth dug deeper into what little muscle Eric possessed and shook his leg violently.
Eric’s back popped and he grew dizzy as his own blood sprinkled across the floor. I’m going to die here. The sentence flashed through his mind. It isn’t the bear’s fault; it’s just being the way a bear is. But then, another thought. Who’s going to feed my cat? Theo didn’t have anyone else. He needed to live.
Eric writhed and swung his little wrench wildly. The bear’s slab-like paw slapped his flailing arm; Eric’s wrist flopped awkwardly. Something cracked beneath his skin. He kicked up with his good leg as hard as he could, the toe of his sneaker catching the bear on its snout. The bear yelped and drew back, rubbing its nose. Eric felt a pang of guilt. He dragged himself upright and raised the wrench to hit the creature again. His arm was frozen. In spite of it actively hunting him, he could only see a strong, terrifyingly beautiful beast. The bear’s coat shone in spite of its months of little nutrition. A trickle of bright red blood dripped out its soft nose, and its eyes sparked, almost intelligently.
Eric felt one of his eardrums shatter. He fell backwards against the front counter in shock. The bear whipped around, stumbling. Mike’s eyes were wide with terror. He raised his rifle and shot the creature again.
“Mike!” Eric knew he yelled, but he heard no sound. The bear swiped at Mike, catching his faded flannel sleeve, cutting into his arm. Eric looked on helplessly as Mike sprinted out of his sight, away from the enraged animal. The bear jolted backwards as Mike fired another round into its shoulder. Eric’s heart lurched as it fell on its side, feet pedalling in the air. Mike reappeared at the end of the aisle. He winced as he raised his rifle.
“Don’t look,” Mike’s lips said. A whine shrilled over Mike’s voice. Eric squeezed his eyes shut as Mike pushed the barrel of the gun up to the fallen animal’s eye. Tears rolled down his cheeks. A final pop deep in his ears told him that the bear was dead. His ankle and arm throbbed. He shivered when he felt wet warmth dripping down his ankle into his sock. Eric opened one eye and immediately looked away from the slain beast, resisting the urge to vomit at the sight.
“I’m going to call an ambulance for you,” Mike said, walking behind the counter to use the store phone. His voice moved in and out, like he was underwater. The ringing in Eric’s ears clearly hadn’t afflicted his friend the same way. Eric limped over to his stool behind the counter and sat down, cradling his broken arm. His friend patted his shoulder comfortingly and said into the receiver,
“Hello? Yes, I need medical attention, at Lonny’s Hardware and More on Walleye Street. There’s been a bear attack. Yes, I mean like a black bear. What, you think I’m lyin’? No! Send an ambulance!”
Eric shuffled through his mail at his dining room table and sipped at his coffee. His heart skipped a beat as he read the address.
“From the United States Patent and Trademark Office, to Mr. Eric Davis,” he breathed. Theo rubbed up against his pajama-clad calf. Eric hissed, a twinge of pain shooting up his leg, and gently moved the cat away with his other foot. “Mr. Davis: We are pleased to inform you that your invention, the Safe-T-Trap large animal entrapment device has been accepted for patenting. Your rights are as follows . . .” He skimmed the technical language littering the rest of the letter and whooped. Eric pumped his fist in the air, and limped to his phone on the wall to call Mike and share the news.
Every day since “the incident,” as his family and friends referred to it, Eric woke up thankful that he had survived, thanks to someone braver than he. His wrist couldn’t bend quite as well as it once could, his hearing wasn’t perfect, and deep, angry red puncture scars riddled his left ankle, but Eric had escaped death’s trap with his life. Theo purred, Mike yelled his congratulations over the phone, and Eric lived.