It was then that she saw something in the underbrush. “Cal?” she said. She took a few steps forward. Something suddenly stopped her. It grabbed hold of her. Kate felt herself grow cold inside. She thought it was a bear that was upon her, and that her life was over even though she was only fifteen and hadn’t even begun to live. He had his arm around her waist. She turned. Even when she looked at him, she still thought he was a bear until he spoke in a voice that surprised her by how human it was. “Stay back,” he told her.
Cal was below them in a clearing. There was a stream filtering down from the mountain, and Cal had found little fish floating in it. He was crouched there, trying to stab at them with a stick. But he wasn’t the only one in the clearing. There was a huge black bear beside some low-growing blueberry bushes. The bear was very still, and Kate remembered her mother once telling her that just because something was quiet didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. A wasp, a snake, a deep pool in the Eel River, a bear.
The creature Kate had at first thought to be a bear left her to creep down the hillock. He was quiet and quick. He grabbed Cal before the boy knew what had hit him and carried him toward the steep embankment, his hand placed firmly over Cal’s mouth. Kate blinked back tears. She thought Cal might be torn apart, fought over by animals, but when the bear eating blueberries stood up and made a sound deep in his throat, the one carrying Cal leapt onto a log and made himself taller. The big black bear backed away, and the one with Cal came up the hill. When he handed the boy over to Kate, she understood he wasn’t a bear at all. Just a young man. Kate stared at him, rudely, mouth open.
“Run,” she thought he said, and so she did, dragging Cal with her, ripping her clothes on stickers and briars, breathing so hard her chest was nearly bursting. She gathered the children together and got them running, then flagged down a passing truck. She safely deposited all of her charges into the flatbed. She quieted the crying ones and told the rowdy, overexcited ones to sit still. The truck was from the local orchard and it smelled like apples. Kate’s heart was racing. She thought about his hand on her waist, the look in his eyes. She wondered if it had all been a dream, a vision brought on by the strange circumstances of the day. She gazed back into the woods and thought about bears and men and how life was already not what she had thought it would be.
SHE NEVER TOLD anyone about what had happened. She wasn’t sure they would believe her, but there was something more. She was flooded with shame, but the truth was she didn’t want to share that boy in the woods. All the same, rumors began. The gardener at the church said he’d spied someone rummaging through the old clothes bin. The stranger proceeded to run away when the outside light was flicked on, but his shadow was seven feet tall. Several boys in town said they’d seen a creature at the Eel River that looked like a cross between a bear and an ape. It had slunk off when they threw rocks at it, tail between its legs.
Doug Winn, who owned the AtoZ Market, began to notice that on days when items were mysteriously missing from the shelves, there was cash left on the countertop. He rigged a Polaroid camera with a string and left it by the register, set to flash if anyone broke in after closing. When it happened, he showed the photo to nearly everyone in town, insisting the image he’d caught was that of a monster. People laughed and said Doug had merely recorded the presence of an individual who’d thrown his hand in front of his face, startled when the camera’s flash went off. After a while things quieted down. The rumors faded and people got more interested in starting a petition requesting that a stoplight be put in at the corner of Highland and Main, where there had been three accidents in a single year. Folks stopped talking nonsense about monsters. Still, they locked their doors at night.
KATE WENT INTO the garden in the evenings in order to be alone. She wasn’t the same since the incident on the mountain. She had a secret, one she could hardly admit to herself. She had the urge to be away from other people, to banish herself from the future she’d always planned. The garden was old, and Kate’s aunt Hannah grew tomatoes and red peppers and watermelon and radishes. One day Kate filled a basket and told her mother she was taking it to the town hall as a donation to the food pantry. But when she got to the town hall, she kept on. She carried the basket along Route 17 and set it on the side of the road in the spot where Cal Jacob had disappeared. She waited there for quite some time. When the stranger didn’t appear, she walked home, disappointed.
Kate grew even more moody and dissatisfied. People in town seemed provincial and small-minded. Her third cousin, Henry Partridge, came from California to stay before he went on to Harvard. He was predictable and safe. He asked her to the movies, but even though he was a distant cousin, once removed, Kate wasn’t interested. At the end of August there was the Founder’s Day celebration. This year Lucy Jacob was playing the part of the Apparition. She forgot her lines and had to be coached from the wings by her mother and wound up in tears.