The scientists put the metal box in my brain for a reason. They are wise and clever and I’m sure the reason must be a good one.
Now, three campers face me on the trail just outside Banff. The tall one, a male, shows his teeth. When I was just a regular grizzly bear, I thought that meant aggression but now I know it means fear. The damp spot on the front of his hiking shorts confirms that.
The female person addresses the male. “Gordie, it’s okay,” she says. “It’s Bear 178, the enhanced one. See the scar by her right ear?” She makes a pawing motion like scraping berries off a bush. “Go home, bear.”
I am puzzled because I am already home.
The littlest camper smells of hamburgers. I would like to taste her face. The box in my head fizzes, like snowmelt bubbling through moss. That means, if I taste her face, I will be captured and killed.
“You can find food higher up in the Rockies,” the one called Gordie tells me. “Head north.” He points up the mountain where the glacier used to be.
I am proud that they are treating me like I am smart. Like I am a person.
Perhaps I am meant to act like one.
I stand up on my hind legs.
The people shriek like grey jays. The smell of urine grows stronger.
I thump down back on all fours and snort.
I am not a person. I am a bear.
I give a mighty roar. The campers turn and run down the path to the campground.
The black surface of the parking lot hurts my foot pads. Beyond the campers cowering in their hot car, the garbage bins smell of deliciousness and rot.
A rusty spatula lies by the angled metal garbage cans with their bear-proof locks. I take the spatula in my paws and shove it under the clasp, releasing the catch. I shoulder the lid open. The delightful smell of burnt hotdogs wafts out.
My mother has taught me to eat only mushrooms, berries, and small mammals. I huff, remembering her wide face. A train struck her last winter as she licked up fallen wheat kernels on the tracks. I walked for an entire night before I found her body where it had been dragged, near one of the dark caves that the trains have dug into the mountains.
My empty stomach claws at my insides. Perhaps the scientists do not realize the mountain creeks have run dry and the bushes hold no fruit. But if I eat from this garbage can, my head will feel more than fizziness—it will burn like fire. I hesitate for a long time.
Finally, I let the lid fall and drop back to all fours. I am rewarded with a faint rush of apple-sweet happiness.
It does not last long.
And it does not feel as good as hotdogs taste.
I turn down one trail, then another. Everywhere are people. Everywhere is people food.
I snuffle and paw at my scar. The box in my head does not help me figure out where to go or how to find food. But, I realize, it has helped me figure out something else: the wise and clever scientists have enhanced my brain because they do not want to make hard decisions.
They want me to make them instead.
I head toward the setting sun.
The harsh smell of creosote hits my nose and I huff and snort. I follow the train tracks a long way, my claws clicking on gravel.
The sun is almost in the treetops when I hear a train rumble in the distance.
I stop on a railroad tie. The rumble grows louder.
I have made a decision: there is only one way to avoid humans.
I lie down on the tracks and put my head on my paws.
This is how.
Copyright © 2018 Holly Schofield. Originally published on the True North conference website in 2018 as the winner of Communitech’s We Shall Arrive Soon contest. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her short stories have appeared in Analog, Lightspeed, Escape Pod, and many other publications throughout the world. She hopes to save the world through science fiction and homegrown heritage tomatoes. Find her at hollyschofield.wordpress.com.