This year, I've decided to challenge my writing skills by creating a weekly short story based on suggestions from my readers posted here or on Facebook. Suggest any three of a character, location, object, or genre, and I will craft a story.
This week's story was inspired by recent events. I was heartbroken. I have a huge soft spot for animals and I can't imagine anyone wanting to kill for sport. Life is far too precious.
“No one can talk to animals,” scoffed Melanie Porter.
“My dad can,” Billy insisted. “My grandpa taught him how. He said he’s gonna start teaching me this weekend.”
“So you’re gonna know all the animal languages?” Cole Grundelson asked, wide-eyed.
Billy nodded. “Yup. Dad says it’s important to know everything about an animal.”
“How many animal languages can he talk?” Melanie asked, her voice doubtful.
“More than ten,” Billy said. He gestured around the room. There were pictures of William with tigers, leopards, rhinos, lions, deer, bears, and in each one, he wore the same cheerful grin. Billy could only imagine what it must be like to befriend so many animals. He dreamed at night of walking hand-in-paw with an enormous grizzly or riding the back of the swift cheetah. He couldn’t wait to learn.
Billy’s mother entered the room. “Billy, are you telling tall tales about your dad again?”
“They’re not tall tales,” her son insisted.
Lilah Tanner placed her hands on her hips. “Well, whatever you’re telling them, how would you all like a snack of animal crackers?” The children cheered and stampeded into the kitchen, the conversation forgotten for the moment. Only Billy remained, running his fingers over the photo frame. “I’m going to learn,” he whispered to the bear. Then he joined the others.
On Saturday morning, Billy awoke far earlier than usual. He couldn’t wait to get out with his dad and meet the animals. He waited in bed, hugging the blanket to his chest and rocking slightly with excitement. He pictured his first conversation with a rabbit. He imagined playing fetch with a raccoon. He wanted to sing with the bears like they did in The Jungle Book. He’d watched the movie at least three times that week and practiced the song. His mother even got it on video and showed to all of her friends. He dreamed what her reaction would be when he sang it with an actual bear!
Finally, after what seemed like hours, his father appeared in his doorway. William Tanner was a relatively fit man with a solid, strong jaw and an easy smile. He bestowed the latter on his only son and beckoned with a meaty hand, saying, “Come on, Billy. We gotta get going.” Billy leapt out of bed and ran to his father, wrapping his arms around William’s legs. William bent down and lifted his son into his arms, hugging him tight. “You’re getting so big. Soon you’ll be as tall as me.”
“And then I’ll be a man, right?”
William chuckled. “Yes. You’ll be a man, but there’s a lot you have to learn before that happens.”
“Will you teach me, Daddy?”
William looked into his son’s earnest, honest face. “Of course I will. Now go get ready. The bears’ll be on the move soon and we don’t want to miss them.” He put his son gently on the floor and chuckled again as Billy ran to get clothing. Then, whistling, he wandered downstairs and started to make breakfast.
The day was cool for spring; both father and son wore jackets. The sleepy town was just beginning to rouse as William gunned the motor of his sedan and drove out toward the nearby countryside. He parked at the campgrounds and let his excited son out of the car. Billy was practically bouncing as he asked question after question. William answered everything he could as he pulled his rifle from the backseat and checked to make sure it was loaded. He grabbed an extra round of ammunition just in case.
“Daddy?” Billy’s tone of voice had sobered. “What’s that for?”
“This is for hunting,” said William.
“I thought hunting was bad,” said Billy.
William snorted. “Hunting isn’t bad, son! The Indians used to do it. People hunt to live! How do you think people used to eat?”
“So we’re going to eat the bear?” Billy’s eyes were filled with horror.
“No, of course not,” said William in a soothing tone. “We’re hunting because it’s a sport.”
“Kind of, yeah.”
“Is it like laser tag?” Billy asked. “That’s a sport that has guns. It’s so much fun!”
“There you go,” said his father. “It’s more like laser tag.” He hefted the rifle.
“Can I try?” Billy asked.
“This one’s a bit big for you yet,” said William. “You’ll get your own when you’re older. Maybe, someday, you’ll inherit this one from me, just like I inherited it from your grandpa.”
“Alright, no more talking. You gotta be extra quiet if you want to see a bear. Took me a long time to learn their language, but now I know the way they move, the way they act, and what they’re saying to each other.”
“So they play laser tag too?” Billy wanted to know.
“They have different weapons,” said his father, “and they’re stronger, but we have strategy.” Noting the look of confusion on his son’s face, he added, “That means we have a plan.”
“What’s our plan?”
“We’re going to be so quiet, the bears won’t even know we’re there until it’s too late.”
“We’re going to win the game, aren’t we?”
“Yes,” said William, a hard glint in his eye. “We are.”
Billy hated being quiet. It was so hard to keep all of his thoughts inside. He thought about what he was going to say to the bears when it came time to shake hands at the end of the game. He would ask them to come over and play. He might even ask one to come to school with him for show-and-tell. He couldn’t wait to meet them. He wondered what their names would be. Perhaps one would be named Paddington. His mother had read him a story where the bear was named Paddington, but that was a much smaller bear and he wore clothing. What if one of the bears asked to borrow his clothing? Billy stifled a giggle at the thought of a bear walking around in his tiny shorts. He’d probably have to borrow some of William’s clothing and, of course, the girl bears would borrow from his mom. He pictured the bears and his friends coming together for a party. He would have to translate, of course, but he didn’t mind. He would be happy to have everyone there. He wondered if bears liked chocolate cake and ice cream.
Billy was so lost in his daydream that he didn’t realize his father had stopped walking until he bumped into his leg. William shot him a quick look and motioned for him to stay put. Then he pointed. Billy peered in the direction of William’s finger and saw a large, black shape lumbering through the woods. It looked nothing like Paddington. Even though Billy had looked at his father’s picture many times, he never really noted how large the bear was. This was a huge animal! Billy’s heart thumped in his chest as he considered riding the bear to school. They would be best friends. He looked up at his father, but William was no longer paying attention to his son. His eye was focused down the end of the rifle that was lifted to his shoulder level.
Billy could just picture the rueful grin on the bear’s face when he realized that his team had lost a point. He’d look around and wonder where the shot had come from and hurry off to tell his team about it.
Billy cried out in fear as the gun went off. He had never heard a laser make that sound. William breathed out and whispered in exultation, “We got him!” Billy looked to where the bear had been, but he couldn’t see anything moving. He followed his father down through the underbrush and there was the bear, lying among the foliage as though asleep, except for the hole between his ear and his eye and the trickle of blood that dripped down the side of his face. William pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and tenderly wiped the blood from the bear’s face. “Won’t make a good picture with that there, will it?” he asked rhetorically.
“Daddy,” Billy asked hesitantly, “did we win?”
“Yes, son. We won.”
“When will he get up?”
William turned to face his son and knelt down until they were looking eye-to-eye. “This is a part of life, Billy. Bears are just animals. They’re not as smart as men. We were put here to hunt and take whatever we need.”
“Do we need the bear?” Billy asked.
“The bear was part of the game,” said his father. “It’s all for fun.”
Billy scrunched up his face as he tried to understand. “So you don’t really talk to animals,” he concluded, disappointed.
“I know their language, Billy. I know everything about them. That’s how I win the game. That’s how you will win the game.”
“I thought- I thought we were going to be friends.” Billy’s eyes began to water.
“Men don’t cry,” said his father in a stern voice. “I didn’t cry when my father took me hunting for the first time and I was just about your age. The men in our family were born to be hunters. We have a skill for it. You have that inside of you. Don’t cry about a stupid animal. There are plenty of bears in the world, but they were put here for the enjoyment of man, just like all the animals. You are smarter than any animal and that gives you every right to hunt them.” There was fervor in the man’s voice.
“Yes, Daddy,” said Billy, sniffling back the tears.
William reached out then and held him close. With his head on William’s shoulder, Billy could see the beautiful black bear brought to destruction because of the man who held him. Ten minutes ago, the bear had been a living, breathing creature. Now, it was just a lifeless husk. It scared Billy to think how easily life could be taken. He felt cold in his father’s arms.
William released him and pulled out his phone. “Here,” he said, “take a picture of us.”
Billy held the phone with shaking fingers and aimed it at the father who had become a stranger and the animal with whom he felt a sympathetic bond. William smiled his pride into the camera and Billy snapped the picture. As he did, he made a vow.
No matter what, he thought, I will never, ever kill.