A great white mass exploded out of the evergreen foliage, burst out onto the trail, thundering downhill like—well, not like a zombie at all. The mind raced to make sense of what we were seeing. A bear. But not just any bear. A white bear. A polar bear. Polar bear? Bullshit. There aren’t any fucking polar bears in the Puget Sound and yet… No, nothing about this made any sense, but, unless our eyes were deceiving us, here one came, rushing headlong into the shallows, white caps bursting with each tremendous step out of that gunmetal creek, lowering its diminutive head just before the moment of impact so that it burst upward almost out of that water in a great white wave breaking on the shores, like some terrible sea creature emerging from the sea shallows to claim its terrestrial prey.
Our three zombic libertines were exceedingly brave.
Not only did they not try to move away, they didn’t so much as flinch, but only looked up, almost in unison, the same way they had a second ago been looking down into the creek as rushes of coolness caressed their legs, and neither with any philosophical flourish, not a trace of concern, not a trace of hoping someone might notice and recall their timeless nonchalance—neither Witness me! nor I will see you in Valhalla!—but only a glance toward death or final death, a simple recognition that a thing that was not there a moment before was suddenly there, and, with that, the great white bear was upon them, or among them, for a moment even at one with them, and all of them at one with one another, one whirling mass of swiping paw and severed arm and open cavity and spilling guts and skull bursting in gaping maw and, yet, not the foggiest trace of hatred, nor malice, not in the one wreaking havoc, nor in those upon whom havoc was wreaked.
Our squad took the opportunity to retreat.
Guns at the ready, we began backtracking down the trail until we were far enough away that we could no longer hear the splashing and crunching of bones and the grunts of the bear as she finished mangling her quarry.
I’ve noticed that, in the time of zombies, whenever a group of men witnesses something terrific, there is a kind of contest to say the first thing. It is a way of time-stamping an event with words, of giving meaning to the unmeaning. We are, after all, a verbal species—with precious few exceptions. Which is why, even now, after all that was to come in the coming days, thinking back on that moment, I wish that I’d said what I thought to say, because it would have been hilarious to look over at my winded, wide-eyed comrades and say, “Did you see that bear?”
But I did not. I was still too shaken to verbalize. So it was that the moment was won by Pippin, brave, loopy Pippin, who was still young, Pippin, who, in his exuberance, said exactly what was on his mind: “That was awesome!”
Neo confabbed with Jason and Ragnar, trying to decide if we should continue around or head back to the convoy, while Chief only stood immobilized and gaping back up the trail. I went to stand beside him, to get a sense of what the big man thought about all this polar bear business, not in a verbal sense, since he was one of the aforementioned precious few humans who was not verbal, but in a more qualitative, looking-at-his-face sense. He was chewing on his own lower lip, pondering. Yes, of course. That’s all it was. That’s all one could do. What we had seen was, above all, simply ponderous. Strange then that, in trying to understand the thing, I would be looking at him looking toward the thing, rather than looking at the thing directly, as if he were a camera and I was trying to get the right angle on things. He didn’t even have to say anything. I felt like a shit.
“But do you really believe the captain will be satisfied?” Jason was asking.
“No,” Neo said. “No. He won’t.”
“They can’t kill the bear,” Pippin was now pleading with Lard Ass, off to the side.
“The twerp’s right,” Ragnar said, flexing his forearms in unison. “I won’t do it. I didn’t sign up for this shit.”
“You signed up to follow the captain’s orders,” Neo said.
“And the captain hasn’t ordered us to kill any fucking polar bears.”
“No one’s saying we’re going to. We’re just—”
“You know what the fuck he’s gonna say.”
“That was my point exactly,” Jason said. “Custer is not … easily dissuaded.”
“Where did it even come from?” Lard Ass mused.
“I thought they were extinct,” someone said.
“The zoo?” Pippin said. “The zoo.”
“Ursus maritimus,” I said because it was all I could offer: a little bit of dead language.
“From the zooooo!”
“Everyone shut the fuck up,” Ragnar said.
“Wait. Did they even have a polar bear at the zoo?” Neo asked. “I don’t remember a polar bear. My little niece woulda loved that.”
“Does it matter?” Jason asked. “What we need to decide is whether we keep going this way or go back. Also, either way, whether we go back with a story—or a paw.”
“I’m not killing no fucking polar bear,” Ragnar said again.
“No one’s fucking saying you have to kill a fucking polar bear!” Neo shouted. “We’re just talking. But I’m telling you: if I say you’ll kill a polar bear, you’ll kill a fucking polar bear.”
Pippin pleaded to Lard Ass: “Don’t let them kill the bear.”
“And I’m telling you,” Ragnar said to Neo, “talking or not, I won’t kill that bear. I won’t have anything to do with killing that fucking bear.”
“You can’t kill the bear!” Pippin squealed.
“Chief,” Neo said. “Chief! There’s a situation!”
Chief glanced over at the others, but it was clear he was only half with us, if that. His dark eyes were hazy, distant, like a man who had just awakened from a wonderful dream and wasn’t quite ready to let his phantasms go, unfocused, hazy, even vaguely zombielike in his abstraction. He looked at everyone as if they were just strange imaginary figures, ghosts on his mind, then back up the trail toward the bear, as if we were all part and parcel of the same dream and he was the only lucid one and knew exactly what mattered most.
“In other words, he doesn’t give two shits about orders,” Ragnar said.
“Dude,” Neo said, the rest of his words pouring out like a waterfall: “I’m not ordering anything. I’m just telling you straight and I don’t want shit to develop here between us but you seem like you want to make that happen and, fine, if that’s what you want, if you want to make this between you and me, fantastic, because I’ve never backed down from a fight yet and I’m not about to here just because some fucking retro Viking wants to prove how totally Viking he is but I think you’re missing the bigger picture here and if you’d shut up for a fucking second, dude, and listen you’d know we are on the same side. No, no, just listen for a second! Ragnar, don’t look at my forehead. Don’t look between my eyes. Look right here in my eyes and listen. You looking? Thank you. I do. Not. Want. To. Kill. That. Bear. I absolutely do not. That fucking bear just blew my fucking mind out my ass. No, don’t say anything. Listen. This is important. The question of whether we kill that bear or don’t kill that bear is not entirely up to us. It’s up to Custer. And the rest of us are just trying to do some advanced thinking about how this whole thing plays out when we get back to the convoy with nothing but some story about some unlikely fucking trap by a fucking dead man that includes, you know, a fucking polar bear, and how Custer—who, if you haven’t noticed, isn’t exactly the most reasonable man—is going to perceive that story about that polar bear and whether we are, you know, willing to just accept that he’s going to send us back to do something we don’t want to do now and won’t want to do then either or if we’ve got to go back ready to fight our way out of a goddamned fucking shitstorm and—”
“You can’t kill the bear!” Pippin cried again.
“Jesus Christ, Pippin!” Ragnar shouted. “Shut the fuck up!”
“Hey!” Lard Ass snapped. “Watch it!”
Ragnar rubbed his face with his hand and opened his eyes as wide as they would open, as if this were the most his patience had ever been tried. It seemed equally likely that he would acquiesce or turn this into an active shooter situation and Neo was standing so that, from where I stood, I could see he was already switching off the safety on his rifle with his thumb.
“Whatever,” Ragnar said, waving everyone off. “Have a blast playing Jeopardy.”
“Thank you,” Neo said graciously.
The rest of us talked for a few minutes, the conversation quickly turning to the point that, no, Custer would not be satisfied if we didn’t proceed all the way to the lake, if we didn’t at least bring a paw from the bear to prove it existed, that the only possible options for dealing with this were as follows: (1) kill the bear and go all the way to the lake even though the whole thing had almost certainly been a ruse to get us killed by the bear; (2) circumvent the bear and go all the way to the lake, risking ourselves even though the whole thing had almost certainly been a ruse, then try to circumvent the bear again on our way back; (3) lie and say we went all the way to the lake and saw nothing of interest; or (4) go back empty handed, tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, that we believed the whole thing was a ruse and none of us wanted to kill the bear, dumping all responsibility on Custer, and see how things developed from there.
There was some question as to whether we should put it to a vote but Neo said no.
“I’ll decide. It’s on me.”
“You can’t kill the bear,” Pippin kept crying over and over while Neo thought it over, and with each passing moment, with each passing You can’t kill the bear, it became clearer and clearer that lying wouldn’t be an option, at least not re: the existence of the bear, unless we were planning to kill this poor, cracked boy.
“We’re not going to kill the bear,” Neo finally assured him. “We’re going back and telling the truth.”
“We’re not going to kill the bear,” Pippin repeated to Lard Ass, grinning as wide as a person could grin short of splitting his own face in two. “Talk about a relief!”
The tension dissipated a bit and the rest of us finally breathed, too, but whatever relief we felt was immediately interred within a very real and pressing concern: what would we do when—not if, but when—Custer ordered us to return?