There was a bear stretched to its full standing height, perhaps even up on its tiptoes, shaking the branch of a tree (she wished she could say exactly what kind of a tree but being a city kid she couldn’t) for whatever reason that would undoubtedly make utter sense to a bear, but the thing about the bear that was truly noteworthy (and made her assume at first she was dreaming) was its t-shirt. It was easily legible in the early morning light, the letters (black on white cotton) arranged in three fat lines like a stoner’s haiku bulging across the barrel contour of the animal’s chest: That Which Does Not /Kill Me /Pisses Me Off.
Because of the animal’s great height (she wasn’t a wizz at estimating lengths and distances but it had to be nine feet tall) the dirty t-shirt appeared to be a cut-off and gave the bear, with its exposed belly (coated in rills of articulated grime like tire-ridged curbsnow), a vaguely gay appearance. Not that there’s anything wrong with a gay bear. She’d have to get off her own belly and climb out of her sleeping bag and peek from a better angle to determine the bear’s sex with any certainty and common sense advised against it. Not that curiosity wasn’t berating her with its distant, cat-killing, megaphone voice.
Her little cafeteria argument with Aaron Waldauer about bears and periods suddenly came back to haunt her with a vengeance that would have had the brat in hysterics if he had but known. A lingering fingernail of moon was visible behind the bear’s ear and that plus several rindy clouds and the thickening spume of a vapor trail made Zoey think of debris in a swimming pool and the time she’d spotted a ring on the blue tiles at the bottom of the deep end and frog-kicked down to scoop it up and bring it to the surface like a pearl diver. Only to present it to Judy wrapped in lavender tissue and have Judy lose it.
Mom (who’d announced long ago that referring to her as “Judy” was perfectly acceptable, though Zoey, after toying with the option for a day or two, had reverted to the standard with a shiver of wise relief) was in one of her comas. Screwed so deep into the mass of her dreamless sleep and exhaling, through a mouth like a sprung valise full of gold, the rich breath of Marlboro and Merlot she reeled back again, her snore. Zoey decided against waking her. She was glad they’d been good campers: their bloody garbage deposited in a proper receptacle downwind. She also hoped that the air horn, the primordial fire extinguisher and the Taser (on loan from a possessive Mountie) were all where she thought they were (except the fire extinguisher, which was in the car) in the tent.
A shower of pine needles from the agitated branch glittered in the bright air like a static display that continued to function a while after the bear (satisfied, frustrated or simply bored) ambled off and the bear hadn’t been gone for five minutes before Zoey began doubting what she had clearly seen and wouldn’t remember again until coming to in a fog in her flower-choked hospital suite after the mastectomy.