He’d always kept himself hidden. In school he hadn’t let on that he was smart. He’d made sure to sit in the back of the room, face averted. He’d been too big for his age, those big hands, big feet, big arms. He was as tall as a man by the time he was ten. His back was misshapen, pushed up onto his shoulders. That was why he hunched, in the hope of disappearing. When he was younger, the boys at school had him lie on the floor so they could climb over him. They said he was a mountain. They beat him. He stayed still and let them. He could have easily crushed his attackers, but it wasn’t in his nature to do so. He felt like a mountain, alone, far away.
Perhaps there was a spell to undo what he was, one that would lead him to become something better. He prepared himself with a feverish attempt at self-improvement. He read voraciously at night while his aunt was sleeping, not just novels and poetry, but how-to books. He studied the skills he might someday need in another time and place: how to make a fire, how to gauge which plants were poisonous and which were edible, how to build a house out of sticks and stones. All the while he was getting ready for the life he yearned for, though it was so distant.
HE LEFT THE year he was seventeen. To earn money he had worked summers in a foundry where he could wear a mask when he welded, an old iron thing that made him look as if he had crawled up from the Black Lagoon. It was time to leave Albany and he knew it. His aunt didn’t want him. He shouldn’t have ever been her responsibility or her shame. He had gotten a wreck of a car and rebuilt it. He was a fast learner, and hard work didn’t bother him, not if it meant getting away. Maybe his aunt knew what he was planning as he worked on the motor all that year. Maybe she heard him leave. He drove for hours. He was looking for a place where his aloneness would feel right. He found exactly that when he happened onto a road that curved upward, in a county he’d never been to before. He was headed toward Hightop Mountain. He felt something inside him shift as he drove. It was the first time he’d felt hopeful or alive. He was struck by the beauty of the countryside—the hay fields, the orchards, the delicate leaves on the birch trees. As he drove through small towns, children who spied him ran after his car pretending to shoot at him with their toy guns. He understood why they would chase him and shout out names.
The more he drove, the better he felt. At last he was free. He stopped for gas on Route 17 at twilight, hat pulled down so no one would see him. He didn’t want to scare anyone. That had never been his intention. He gassed up his car, mumbled to the mechanic, handed over some cash. He wasn’t used to country roads, and it was growing dark the way it does in the mountains, suddenly, as though a curtain has been drawn. He kept on even though he was tired. Maybe he was light-headed or falling asleep.All at once something was in the road right in front of him. When he swerved too quickly, he lost control. The car flew into a ditch nose first, wheels spinning. It rolled over, and he rolled over inside of it. There was the sound of the axle cracking, the windshield breaking. He could hear his own hoarse breathing.
In a rage for all he’d just lost, he quickly climbed out of the car and started up to the road, indignant, ready for a fight with whatever creature had done this to him, ruined his car and his getaway plans. There it was. A six-hundred-pound male black bear. The bear didn’t scare him—he was used to being the one who frightened people. They faced each other and neither one backed down. The air was hot between them and then it wasn’t. Each took a step away into the dark, endless night. It wasn’t worth fighting over a mistake. Plus the bear was so beautiful the boy was glad not to have run him over. A car was just a car.
HE LIVED IN the old wreck for a while, down in the ditch. He had a sack of groceries in the backseat, a pile of books. After a while he began to explore, tramping up the cliffs, growing stronger every day. He found a meadow at the top of the mountain and a series of caves, some of which had recently been inhabited by bears. He discovered freshwater and streams running with fish. He’d brought along a saw and a toolbox and his how-to carpentry books. While he was still living in the car, he began to build the frame of the shed that would eventually be his shelter. He collected rocks ribbed with mica for the foundation and the fireplace. He liked working outside in the sun. He took off his hat, his shirt. He stopped thinking. He got away from himself at last.
By midsummer, branches were growing up through the rotting undercarriage of the wrecked car; vines twisted around the rusting axles. The woods were full of miraculous things—fossils, bats, grass so tall a man could stand in it and disappear. The boy was glad to be hidden, away from people. He’d gone to the nearest town only once, late, when everyone else was in bed. He felt as if he had wandered into a dream. All those houses with their dark windows. The bark of dogs tied up in the yards. The shuttered library, the town meeting hall. It was a world to which he didn’t belong. He jimmied open the back door of the AtoZ Market and hurriedly collected some items into a paper sack—a small bag of concrete mix, rice, matches, tinfoil, a frying pan—then left twenty dollars beside the cash register.