Xlin

woods

Photo by Derrick Cooper

Xlin’s stomach growled. They set water to boil on a smaller burner for black tea and oatmeal. The sun lacked confidence at this hour. A squirrel scampered to a low branch and chittered, a rattlesnake sound they chased away with a bullet of morning phlegm. Xlin yawned and dug in their backpack for a guide book they should have opened before leaving the lodge. Any movement reminded Xlin’s body of how unprepared it was for yesterday’s marathon hike.

They had wanted solitude but failed imagine the differing types. Being alone had always contained an out—the proximity of others. They could pass the day without speaking, only needing a wave or an accidental glance. In theory, they could have met someone of interest or started a conversation. This was solitary confinement. The forest’s grandeur highlighted the deprivation. Weeks might pass before their next human interaction. No stranger would cause them to blush. Xlin had abandoned humanity, that shimmering, belittling mass of bait fish, to swim in the open ocean.

The cinnamon raisin oatmeal scorched Xlin’s tongue, as did the tea. They set the mug on a flat patch of moss and thought of breakfast back home, the regulars filing into that dining hall, nodding hello.

Exhaustion had prevented them from hanging their food the night before. No creature had taken advantage of the lapse. A trailhead sign had warned of raccoons. Next to it, a series of panels with life-sized photos lamented the loss of bears in North America, extinct in the wild for nearly a decade. The first image showed a gaunt, brown corpse nestled in a patch of ferns. The last image, more vertical and exposed, had begun to fade. A male grizzly stood on its hind legs, its regard accusatory, its arms loose like a Saturday night wrestler. Xlin pressed a yellow button and the panel emitted a low, threatening growl. The smile this caused quickly faded.

Xlin remembered this faded image when a dark shape moved in the forest. It slowed and stopped, thirty meters away, its mass only a contrast against the dishwater gray of tree trunks and undergrowth. Xlin stopped breathing. It was not a person exactly, as large as the nearby boulders. It shifted a back and forth, rocking from side to side.

Running would be fatal. The impossible mass was now standing on its hind legs, tall and thick, pulling unusual scents from the air. It dropped to the ground. They stared at one another. Xlin’s hands shook. They searched for a pocket knife in their backpack without luck. The bear took a cautious step toward Xlin’s camp.

They rolled to their feet and retreated in step with the grizzly’s advance. Yesterday’s suicidal thoughts had lept over the death part, the physical act of dying that the bear now offered as a convenience. Instinct forced Xlin to hold the animals gaze as they shuffled sideways. The bear stopped at Xlin’s tent and sniffed the strange fabric. Xlin reached a cluster of boulders, a hiding place that didn’t hide much. Their arms and legs shuddered. The bear registered the retreat, then tucked into breakfast.

The animal’s claws were as long as Xlin’s fingers, overkill for oatmeal but ideal for slashing open a backpack or a tent. The animal picked through Xlin’s food. The nuts and dried fruit went quickly. The spaghetti broke apart and scattered. Punctured cans soon littered the ground. Xlin’s pulse slowed.

The bear knocked about the camp, examining every human object. Slanted sunlight began to break through the trees, illuminating patches of matted brown fur and a wet nose. Xlin had loved bears the way children loved Tyrannosaurus Rex. The species had fallen victim to a tick-borne disease that left them paralyzed. Most died of dehydration, fully conscious for days after their final steps, sometimes within earshot of a stream. Xlin’s miracle bear was smaller than the bear from the photo, less threatening, now almost playful and trusting in its regard.

The world would ask for every thrilling detail they could absorb. There would be interviews, blinding lights, cameras, microphones. She was big, but not massive. At least, I think it was a she. No old man balls, like two lemons in a sack. She wanted food. She seemed lonely.

What else? Xlin imagined running out of things to say on camera, the expectant look of an impatient reporter.

The bear plundered on like a schoolyard bully. The peanut butter took awhile. Watching her lick lick lick the container made Xlin thirsty. The bear took a final tour of the scene then wandered off in search of water. Xlin followed at a distance. A faint breeze carried their scent down to the bear, who drank her fill from thin steam running down a crease in the mountain. When sated, she turned her head in Xlin’s direction. She was still a predator, and as such, unknowable. In the space of an hour, Xlin had come to terms with the possibilities such a look contained. They were almost ready to die if this were the how and why. But the bear broke off her gaze to scratch, then did what Xlin had done the day before—she disappeared.

Photo by Janko Ferlic

#

Xlin ate alone in the village dining hall. Most villagers tolerated this preference with compassion. Three weeks before the bear sighting, a recent arrival hadn’t known any better. The traveler was chatty. She wanted to know all about the village and its island setting. Her easy smile kept Xlin from talking to their food, using paragraphs instead of stubby phrases without subjects. The traveler’s body odor and grubby clothes gave Xlin hope. Her name was Zita.

Her companion was a head taller than Xlin. Cricket was athletic with a square jaw and dark hair, tucked into a French braid. They shook hands with an amused rivalry and asked for a tour of the village.

Xlin had grown up in Dugong, a village housing block and the first stop on their tour. Most of their childhood friends had left the island to travel and live abroad. This first generation after the war had fallen into a simmering cultural upheaval, busily remaking each dot they encountered on the map. Xlin dreamt of leaving Dugong, but circumstance has not cooperated. They stayed put, sharing their father’s apartment, occasionally redecorating the pine-board room they had known since birth.

Xlin’s maternal and paternal grandparents were close friends who hid their young children on the island. The Puget Sound had sheltered countless children and families escaping the violence of the civil war years. Xlin’s parents had scavenged and farmed under the care of guardians. They lived day to day. School took place in the evening, if at all, with classes taught be teenage refugees. In turn, they became teachers, but never militants. It was not their role, particularly for Xlin’s father Roy, who also knew painful shyness. Fifteen uncertain and traumatic years baked an uncompromising thirst for calm and simplicity into the survivors. Xlin was born under a new constitution, part of an infant territory that joined with others but not all, the old ways of thinking defeated but not vanquished.

“Smells amazing here,” Cricket said. They were on a paved trail through the woods that connected the central village to outlying residences. “Great place to grow up. I can see why don’t want to leave.”

“Why didn’t you eat together?” Xlin asked. “You’re a couple?”

“We always do that,” Zita said. “Split up for a bit when we arrive somewhere new. We meet more people that way. Broadens the experience.”

Experience was the intangible currency of the age, a wealth, in theory, anyone could accumulate. Winners did not necessitate losers. Fulfillment was no longer a zero-sum game. Only rogue DNA or an illness could impoverish you. Xlin’s fixed personality consigned them to an invisible ghetto. By 30, most people had lived in a dozen places, big and small. They told interesting stories and had know many lovers. Xlin was nearing that age with empty pockets.

“You came back after college?” asked Cricket.

“Took some classes in Seattle.”

“So you’ve never left?”

“Nope.”

“What have you done so far?” Zita asked.

“Programming, mostly data manipulation,” Xlin said. “XPi.”

“XPi,” she repeated, amused. “Sounds menacing.”

“It’s a math-based language,” Xlin said, suppressing the urge to talk about spur algorithms. “Programming’s my long-term. I do repair shop as a secondary, plus dining hall and the garden. Everyone does those here.”

“I love repair shop,” said Zita. “It’s the best assignment by far.” The sun had fallen low and Dugong glowed before them, ringed by giant trees that blanketed the island. They paused to admire the building’s unusual shape, the near absence of straight lines. Children played on tiered wooden structures, a series of ladders and forts that followed a small stream.

“What a building,” Cricket said. “How old is it?”

“It was started in 2053, just after the war,” Xlin said. “Just before I was born.”

“We’ve been hearing about this village since Oregon. It’s got a reputation on the circuit.”

“Are there any openings?” Cricket asked.

In the lobby, Xlin spotted a favorite elder. Meesh greeted the visitors and sat them down for vetting. Zita and Cricket were on a year release and had been traveling the Pacific Coast for the past eight months, starting in Santiago last November. They had met on the road and paired up. The trip would end in Alaska. Zita was from Tonkawa originally, Cricket from Three Fires. Meesh ran her fingernails along Xlin’s back as she asked questions. Cricket requested a month’s stay. They had plenty of vouchers for room and board if needed, and were happy to work.

“Well,” said Meesh, looking away for a moment, “we’re full up for the rest of the summer, but there are a couple of travel beds in the shared unit. Mostly people your age. Are you monogamous?”

Zita turned to Cricket, a ripple of embarrassment visible at the corners of her mouth.

Cricket shook their head. Xlin exhaled.

“That helps,” Meesh replied. “Not a rule, but that’s the general vibe in shared, especially this summer. Are you vaccinated?”

The couple nodded.

“Recent tests?”

“Last week.”

“Well then, if you have all that paperwork and don’t mind signing up for a few shifts in the kitchen, we’ll get you signed in.”

A few minutes later, Xlin coded them into the shared unit on the ground floor. They lingered in the common room as Zita and Cricket unpacked, acutely aware that a permanent resident loitering in the shared unit was gauche, voyeuristic even. But this was hospitality. The evening had taken a thrilling turn.

A small group played cards around a large table. A second group occupied the couches, braiding each other’s hair and drawing on their naked bodies. Xlin wondered how anyone could initiate such a thing, why others joined in so casually, their desires so exposed. The kitchen seemed a safer place, but there, Xlin encountered Sagano. They had noticed Sagano on kitchen duty. Everyone noticed them, the same way people noticed a Clydesdale with an erection. Xlin involuntarily declined a beer as they exchanged names. Sagano smiled at Xlin’s embarrassment and patted their ass as they brushed past. Xlin’s central nervous system registered this event. Sagano took up an empty slot on the couch and a handful of hair from a receptive neighbor. Xlin’s furtive gaze followed them across the room then darted away upon discovery.

Xlin paced in the kitchen and then took refuge in a bathroom. Their breathing returned to normal. They heard Zita and Cricket arguing in a shared bedroom. Xlin stood behind the couch, arms folded. Sagano drew large wings on their neighbor’s back. Xlin considered shedding their clothes and undoing their ponytail, letting Sagano pleasure them, but this was mentally impossible. After another tour of the kitchen, Xlin returned to their position behind the couch. Someone had slid in behind Sagano, who threw at dismissive glance their way. Possibilities scattered and dissolved.

Xlin retreated to Dugong’s main lounge where the elders gathered at night. Cool evening air flowed in through the open screen doors. Meesh sat on a nicer couch, reading a book. She accepted Xlin’s head onto her lap without a word.

#

The camp appeared struck by a tornado. The bear had eaten or contaminated everything except a sealed wad of jerky, buried in an interior pocket of the backpack. Slashed tent fabric hung from its ribbing like dried skin on a carcass. The jerky would only last a couple of days if not supplemented with fish and whatever else the forest might provide. The round trip to Cheekye Landing would take more than a day. Their body needed rest. They began collecting fallen branches for a lean-to.

Every sound the forest made carried meaning. The snapping of a branch sent Xlin into hiding, reenacting the flight of their grandparents into the woods, chased by a mixed mob of police and vigilantes, holding their breath as footsteps fell closer and closer to their hiding place. Each threatening noise in the present was a false alarm. The lean-to wasn’t much, but it would keep Xlin dry in the case of rain.

The bear returned at sundown. Xlin retreated to the boulders and watched the animal’s puzzled reaction to the jerky sack hanging in midair. It swatted in vain then scratched the ground where the morning’s feast had taken place, looking about cautiously. Xlin imagined being the last human, marooned on an entire planet, roaming but never finding, an endless game of hide and seek. At one point, the bear sniffed to within a few meters of Xlin and emitted a low growl. The boulders offered little real protection. In the hazy grays of dusk, Xlin could now see the creature’s russet eyes staring back at them, knew its gamey odor. It resembled a dog, but with the mass of a cow, a muscular, intelligent cow that liked more than grass, liked things that ran when terrified. The standoff lasted several minutes. They bear seemed unwilling to close the final distance, as if it wanted Xlin to initiate the slaughter. When an easy ending did not come, the bear wandered to the edge of camp and curled up to keep watch. Xlin lost sight of it after dark, and night’s gentle quiet settled in. When Xlin woke the next morning, cold and stiff from confinement, they found only tracks and fur.

#

Cheekye Landing was a sprawling modern lodge on the banks of a mountain lake, a few clicks southwest of Mount Garibaldi. Hiking back to the lodge for food and supplies would require a full day in each direction.Xlin had found their camp by leaving a main trail and hiking over a ridge line. They had bushwhacked the last three kilometers, searching for a spot that was both flat and hidden from view. Finding it again would not be easy. They cut the remains of their tent into strips to mark their path and gifted the bear a last piece of jerky before setting out.

Their last encounter with Zita now lacked the voltage of days prior, before the bear. Nearly dying brought perspective. Their life was richer, too. Discovering a grizzly topped a ménage-à-trois on Mount Rainier or a year-long hike up the Pacific Coast. Who had seen a grizzly in the past decade, watched it sway back and forth only meters away, its eyes locked on you for God knows what purpose? Nobody. Surely grizzly sperm were preserved somewhere. The bear needed a name. Like Bongo. Bongo the Bear.

It took only a few steps to imagine the ridicule due for naming the bear Bongo. They tried others, but nothing seemed solemn enough. Telling the story would hinge on a good name. The rest would flow naturally. Xlin would not struggle for words. They would flow out of their mouth like snow melt running down a mountain.

Xlin paused to fill their water bottle and dig out a purification tablet from a back pocket. The mountain was awake now. The forest had given way to more open terrain with patches of snow hiding from the abundance of sunlight. They were following a stream uphill, toward the barren ridge line. When the trees thinned out, the wind gusts filled Xlin’s ears then died with an erratic rhythm. In one of the sudden silences, Xlin heard it—the unmistakable click of claws on stone.

#

A few days after Zita and Cricket’s arrival, Xlin began to molt. Their appetite for human interaction grew. They could tolerate hours of conversation, sometimes an entire afternoon, chitchatting about philosophy, travel, the unusual fate of their generation. Xlin posed questions for the trio. They were good at it, and questions made Xlin seem less of a rube. Zita and Cricket liked to talk, often at once, unwilling to wait for the other to finish. They remarked on Xlin’s willingness to explore every corner of an island that could no longer surprise them. Zita and Cricket argued less in a trio. Xlin brought them stability, the third leg of a stool. They spoke of Alaska and the responsibility to lead a fully engaged life. They tugged at Xlin’s anchor until it came loose.

Three is prime, but four divides neatly in half. Sagano had no travelling partners but was never alone. They resembled Cricket in some ways, social and attractive. They were the queen bee of the shared unit, adored like a famous work of art that people loved because of its fame. Although Sagano was fond of invading personal space and watching for signs of arousal, they also honored the limits of public vanity and engaged everyone with a humble curiosity. They were hard to dislike.

One night, Sagano joined the trio for dinner, plunking down in front of Xlin. They charmed everyone, particularly Zita, and invited themselves along for an evening swim the following day and a bike ride the day after that. Cricket beat Sagano in a foot race, but succumbed quickly in wrestling. Too quickly. They walked next together on the path and always managed to sit next to each other, wherever the setting. The more physical their relationship became, the more attention Zita lavished on Xlin.

Xlin’s crushes had been numerous, an internal form of entertainment. If the crush graduated to an infatuation, Xlin would find ways to encounter the person. They would sit near them in the dining hall or take up a sport the person enjoyed. When close enough to engage, Xlin would freeze up or mumble their way to a non sequitur, then flee. Sometimes there were multiple crushes underway, like a hand in cards that could win in multiple ways. The improved odds never mattered. No one was prepared to work through their awkwardness, to do all the talking. Not until Zita. The imbalance suited her. The loyalty cost her only a caress or a compliment. Xlin began to think of her obsessively, to blueprint their future together without Cricket.

Xlin applied for a year’s release. The foursome made plans to leave Dugong in ten days, as soon as Xlin’s paperwork cleared. They would head to Cheekye Landing, a beautiful lodge 300 kilometers to the north where Cricket’s sister worked as a ranger. The planning was mostly done at night, around a fire pit where Zita and Xlin would braid each other’s hair. Xlin’s was black and stiff. Zita’s fingers work it efficiently. Cricket’s was too thin and wavy, she claimed, too hard to control. When she completed a braid, she would tug Xlin from behind, as if breaking a horse, rough pulls that Xlin submitted to willingly, gratefully.

A few days before departure, Zita came to breakfast alone.

“What’s wrong?” Xlin asked. Zita settled roughly into a patio chair. A light rain fell, pattering against a cloth awning.

“How long has Sagano been here?”

“Maybe a week more than you. Why?”

Zita crossed her arms in annoyance. “Cricket has never been so clean.”

“Is that bad?” They hoped it was.

“They’re fucking in the shower. Again.”

A long silence began. Xlin risked laying a hand on Zita’s. “Have they done this before?”

Zita snickered in disgust. “What am I going to do all day with this rain? Normally we would spend it in bed, or at a museum.” Her voice trailed off as she pulled her legs onto her chair, wrapping her arms around herself.”I don’t mind the experimentation. Really, I don’t. But you have to do it with respect for your significant other. You don’t do it three times a day. You don’t wake the goddamn shared unit with a tantric fit.”

“It’s dessert,” Xlin said. “Not breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“Exactly. Dessert. Well said.” A local mutt wandered over to beg and Zita shooed it away with her foot. “But I’m not surprised. Not now.”

More silence.

“Why do I bother?” said Zita finally, as if arriving at a decision. “I need to get out of here for the day. Want to explore Seattle?”

Xlin refused, saying they had so many loose ends to tie up before leaving, which was true. Zita refused this answer with a look and an hour later, they were on a southbound ferry, searching for whales in slicked anoraks. Zita held Xlin’s elbow with both hands, pulling them near, owning them.

“When I was a kid in the South, rain made me so happy. It was like a holiday. But this,” she said, pointing with her nose. The more time she spent with Xlin, the more she spaced out her sentences, creating an gentle rhythm that gave her thoughts more weight and precision. “It’s not like rain in the tropics, over and done. This stuff doesn’t end. Makes me grumpy.” She cinched Xlin’s elbow tighter. “And horny. What do you say we take care of that tonight?”

Xlin pointed to a pod of orcas, barely visible in the distance, their hand shaking as Zita’s weight and warmth pressed against them. The whales faded from view and Xlin could think of nothing to say for a long time. Nothing interesting. But so much had happened in Seattle. “There’s something I need to show you in town,” they finally managed.

“What is it?”

“A place. Local history.”

#

Cheekye Landing was a cluster of new buildings, yurts, and cabins. The layout resembled Xlin’s village, a horseshoe surrounding a main building with a courtyard, playgrounds, gardens, covered seating and a stage. The main building was made of rough timber and large windows. Giant wood columns supported several floors and a red tin roof. It had an inviting warmth, particularly at night, when Xlin arrived, having left Dugong that morning.

There were several crowded reception stations in the main lobby, staffed by locals in lemon yellow shirts.Xlin checked into a shared room and explored the lodge, scanning for the periwinkle sweatshirt Zita wore everywhere. A cover band played outside. The crowd sang along, swaying like reeds. Xlin sipped a cocktail in the back. Their eyes searched in vain for a shape, a mass of hair that ended at the shoulder. They wandered back to the main building, then to the trailhead, finding their way with a small pen light their father had given them that morning. With it, they found the trail registry and Zita’s hand-written name, a page behind Cricket’s.

The following day, Xlin explored the main trails. They rambled through a verdant landscape not unlike the island but steeper, with more running water and wildlife. Deer, moose, squirrels, chipmunks. From a distance, any hiker with a tall pack could be Zita. Their feet began to hurt. They kept exploring, their compulsion deaf to reason. They grew hungry and frustrated.

Xlin spotted Zita in the dining hall that evening, and Zita had found Cricket. Her gaze fell upon Xlin by accident. She turned her back. The couple wandered to the deck for drinks and to watch the sunset. Xlin rehearsed what she would say. Zita went to the restroom and when she had finished, found Xlin waiting for her with wide-eyed silence.

“I told you not to follow me,” Zita said, pitiless and impatient.

“I left everything behind,” Xlin said, nervously fingering the end of their hair. “We had a plan.”

“And it didn’t work out.” Zita articulated each word. “So now, you need to start your own adventure. I’m sorry that it didn’t work out. I really am. I’ve already told you this. And seeing you here makes it all worse.” Zita looked up and down the hallway for witnesses. ” It was just a fling, Xlin.” Zita sighed, her hands now on her hips, watching Xlin stare at the ground, still clutching the end of their pony tail. There would be no reply. Zita grunted in exasperation then walked away.

Xlin sat on a chair outside the restroom while orange sunlight crept up the walls and dissolved. The judgement laid waste to their insides, throwing every piece of their emotional furniture into the yard, tearing back the walls until only the studs and faulty wiring remained. This was the price paid for failing to read the directions, the unwritten rules of hooking up.

They wiped their nose on the back of their hand. The evening lights came on. A child walked by and asked a parent why the person in the chair was so sad. The parent touched Xlin’s shoulder. Xlin shook their head without looking up.

Exploring this corner of the world was the only option. Traveling meant talking. People in the shared unit never shut up. They were always the loudest, the most interesting and annoying tables in the dining hall. They were assertive and spontaneous. They did everything in gregarious herds of normal people and Xlin would never be normal. Xlin belonged outside the human world, in a wordless wilderness that did not tease or betray.

#

In the morning, Xlin rented a tent and vouched for fishing gear, a guide book, a map, and two weeks worth of food, including an expensive bag of jerky. At the trailhead, they stopped to read the signage. The photos of the bears left an impression. The world missed things that disappeared. Their unique beauty was fortified through loss. Xlin grew drunk on self-pity. After a few kilometers, they left the trail and began climbing toward the ridge line, where they would cross into a wild region without lust or shared units or dessert.

photo by Julie Marsh
Photo by Julie Marsh https://unsplash.com/@juliemarsh

#

Xlin moved quickly now. They could no longer see the bear or hear her claws scraping rock as she advanced. They hiked toward the saddle, nearly jogging, fighting the lack of oxygen.This is how prey felt in their final moments.Xlin reached the tree line and doubled over, gasping loudly. The tree tops below undulated in the wind, the only motion in the panorama. No bear yet, but there was no way to outrun her. Cheekye Landing lay on the other side, too far away to help.

The ridge line offered some hope. Xlin stumbled toward it, sweat stinging their eyes. Every step on the irregular surface of the mountain required vigilance, but they risked a look back and their she was, plodding up the mountain, mouth agape, her gaze locked on the lonely two-legged oddity before her. Xlin was the same age as all their grandparents when they died. All of them 29. They had each other in the final moments, when death strode confidently through a Seattle park. Their integrity got them killed. Xlin was simply a meal.

Image by Luke Lawreszuk from Pixabay

The ridge line was close. Xlin could not get enough oxygen and running had excited the bear. They slowed. She was close now, and monstrous. Xlin stopped and the bear paused in confusion. Xlin removed the jerky from their back pocket and launched it into the air. The wrapping fell away on impact. The bear did not rush, nor did she seem to mind Xlin standing motionless, a few meters away. The bear stood over the diminishing pile of dried meat. Her tongue lifted each piece into hermouth. The claws, the sheer bulk, her obvious intelligence, all of it surreal and dangerous. No one would believe this. Xlin’s heart glugged and banged against their rib cage as if it wanted out, as if it had not agreed to this folly.

The bear chewed and swallowed the last piece. Two hundred thousand calories of warm meat stood a few meters away, needing to pee. Xlin slowly pulled down their trousers and squatted. The universal language of urine darkened the rocks between Xlin’s feet. The bear opened and closed its mouth, tasting the odor. Xlin finished and bounced a few times, then stood to let the wind dry their crotch. They raised their arms to the heavens, a mammalian declaration of some meaning, its interpretation left to the bear. She settled onto the ground.

“What’s it going to be, bear?” Xlin’s tremulous voice died in the wind.”I’m just getting started really. A late bloomer. I’d rather not die right now.” The words seemed to intrigue the bear. The canine quality of its curiosity reassured Xlin. “It would be a waste to eat a new friend. Not very neighborly. And who would feed you jerky? Who would set up tents for you to destroy or bring you peanut butter? Nobody else knows you’re up here. Just little old me, who doesn’t taste very good. Stringy and tough.” The last bit was not really true. Xlin worked at a desk and had thermal padding in places.

The bear yawned and looked away.

“That’s right bear, this is so boring.” Xlin slowly lowered their arms and pulled up their trousers. The bear laid her head on her paws, aware but relaxed. Xlin smiled uncontrollably, showing bright white teeth and dimples. They giggled. They undid their ponytail and let the breeze play with their hair. The bear watched patiently. The subtle gestures between the two animals created an informal agreement, an understanding expressed in loose ears and stillness.

Xlin soothed themselves and the bear by recounting all that had had happened that week. An hour passed. When they felt the bear knew enough of their current situation, Xlin took a crabwise step toward the ridge line, then another, and then several more. The bear perked up. “Don’t worry bear. I’m not leaving you. I’m just going to the lodge. You can follow me if you like. Just don’t change your mind and fucking eat me. Ok?”

The bear lowered her head and rolled onto her side. Xlin climbed the remaining distance to the saddle, and then looked down on the bear and the trees and a blue alpine lake they hadn’t noticed. They left the shutter open for several minutes, enriching the image of all before them so that it would never fade from memory.

Then Xlin crossed over and out of sight. They followed the ridge line’s downward slope. Where it dipped sharply, they could see onto the mountain’s eastern side. The bear was already on its feet, treading steadily upward. Xlin pushed off a boulder and clapped their hands. Cheekye Landing lay a few hours below. There would be questions and food and curious stares.

#

Zita snored. Not too loud or deep. A near moan finished each breath. She was bossy in bed. Xlin preferred that to the false kindness of claiming everything was great when it wasn’t. They were a novice. No one had shared Xlin’s bed since childhood. As morning crept into the room, they examined the graceful curling lines of Zita’s chin tattoo. Her nose had a distinctive bump at the top that, along with her mound of hair, defined her silhouette. Xlin wanted to caress the long eyelashes that bordered her shiny eyelids, to steal a loose one for themselves, but Zita was too peaceful, drooling on a shared pillow. It was finally happening.

Xlin couldn’t fall back to sleep. They dressed in a favorite outfit and almost skipped the short distance to the dining hall. The usual cluster of elders were talking quietly at the big table. At the back of the hall sat a traveler with their large pack taking up the next chair like an inanimate companion.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” said Cricket. They faced the back wall, which displayed a permanent installation on the history of the village. “It’s all part of the game. I bet you had fun.”

Xlin nodded charily.

“Didn’t know anything about the Seattle Massacre,” Cricket said, glancing back at the wall. The installation was of museum quality. Its words and images thoughtfully described the village founding in 2051, on the eastern edge of a military base. A series of police massacres on the West Coast had pushed the country into an undeclared Civil War. The one-sided violence continued until a network of rank-and-file soldiers mutinied and transformed their military bases into refugee camps. Their neutrality was short-lived. The Puget Sound base morphed in composition and character during the most traumatic years of bloodshed, cradling what was to come next.

“Did you know any of these people?”

Xlin nodded again. “Meesh was the first council leader. That’s her,” Xlin said, pointing at a group photo, “and my dad and my mom, just before I was born. They helped build this place.” Xlin’s words came easily. “These are my grandparents, all four of them. They were were very close.” A shiny photo showed two young couples in a occupied square, one of the women holding a sign that read, Will Castrate Fascists for Free. The next photo was a closeup of the same women, her right hand blocking a revolver pointed at her head, her expression defiant, her teeth digging into her bottom lip, shouting a word that began with f.

“That’s my grandmother Roxanne. It’s a very famous photo.”

“Did she die?” Cricket asked, now standing in front of the photograph.

“They all died together, defending her. She was a journalist, a radical. Bit of a hothead according to Meesh. They shot the other three, but Roxanne’s body was never found.”

“I’m so sorry, Xlin. I can’t imagine.”

“It’s ok. It was 50 years ago. I took Zita to the place where they were killed. Yesterday. We went to Seattle.”

Cops
The past.

“I know,” Cricket said quietly,humbled by the gravity of it all, the high price of sacrifice. Cricket’s face suggested a new appreciation of this awkward local, a recognition that they could not turn the conversation on or off in the way they had done a few days ago. The spilled blood ran in Xlin’s veins. “My grandparents were totally on the wrong side,” Cricket said. “My grandfather in particular. One of those over my dead body types, which is how it worked out. He was an embarrassment.”

“That’s not your fault.”

“I know,” Cricket said, turning to face Xlin. “Speaking of Zita, I need a favor.”

Cricket was leaving. Sagano would understand, not Zita. Cricket needed space, wanted to live like most travelers, drifting and impulsive. They were tired of seeing simple decisions turn into arguments. They were better off apart, and she would see that eventually. Xlin was to wait until that evening before telling her. They apologized for scuttling the group’s travel plans. Xlin would have only become a referee in their breakup. Xlin laughed at their good fortune then covered their mouth.They opened their arms and hugged Cricket, who turned the gesture into a bewildering, asymmetrical kiss. Xlin’s promiscuity would not last and only made sense later. They pulled away and mumbled Zita’s name with a naive pride, as if it were private property.

By late morning, Zita had noticed the missing backpack. She threw a fit and then calmed herself, saying it was for the best. She asked Xlin to give her space. They made plans to watch the sunset on the western side of the island. Xlin paced in the Dugong lobby. A half hour later, Zita appeared with her full pack and hiking boots. Xlin watched her approach the front doors. She seemed ready to walk through them, but her path arched and slowed until she was standing before Xlin.

“I’m sorry.” They could not look at one another. “Please don’t come looking for me, ok? Cricket needs me. Just me. We hurt them yesterday.”

Xlin snorted in disgust.

“But you can’t stay here either,” she said. “It’s not good for you.”

More silence.

“What we did yesterday was nice, wasn’t it?” Zita lifted her eyes.

Xlin’s did not let themselves cry. A final silence settled in. Xlin stood with one arm holding the other in place, shifting their weight back and forth, unable to concede the inevitable.

“You’re ready to leave this cocoon, Xlin.” Zita gesturing at the lobby as she shifted the weight of her pack. “You have to.” She pecked Xlin on the cheek and walked backward through the lobby doors. Sunlight poured in and swallowed her whole.

It was rainy and cold the next morning, unusually so for June. Meesh had organized the long-term residents into a crowd. Their father, Roy, was too nervous and overwhelmed to speak. Meesh celebrated Xlin’s decision to travel ad nauseam, the way old people did about anything in the dominion of youth. Roy saw the look of patient distress on his child’s face and clumsily told Meesh to wrap up, which she did with her usual grace. Xlin hugged dozens of villagers goodbye, then passed through the same lobby doors and into the wild. They were northbound and alone, deluged with love and purpose and doubt.

#

The bear didn’t bother to match Xlin’s pace as they hiked down to Cheekye Landing. With no trail to follow, the descent required constant assessment. In the longer pauses, the bear would eventually turn up. Below the tree line, the wind disappeared, and the afternoon grew hot and humid. The vial of water treatment pills had also disappeared from Xlin’s pocket. They had eaten little the day before and nothing since breaking camp. Their legs cramped and their knees complained. When they found a brook with a belly of deep water, they undressed and slid in. The bear arrived fifteen minutes later and parked itself in a lower flow to cool off.

“Thought of a name for you, bear.” Xlin was treading water. The bear would look in Xlin’s direction every now and then like a distracted babysitter. It sat upright and scratched itself, exposing a pair of nipples and a round torso. “Roxanne.” The bear was unmoved.

“You’re a healthy bear, aren’t you. Nice and plump. Bet you eat your fill of ignorant deer who don’t know what bears are. Not til you pounce on them.” Xlin took a breath and dove to the bottom of the pool. The water was clear with a green cast to its depths. The bottom was lined with stones that had long ago tumbled down from a higher purchase and the sides were slick and vertical, a granite bathtub.Xlin surfaced and slithered onto a bank. They rolled to a patch of moss, finding a ray of sun that would soon sink behind the trees. In the shadows, Roxanne snapped at insects and smelled the air lazily, ready for a nap.

‘You do realize that when the world finds out about you, they’ll want you pregnant. They’ll set you up with a nice zoo bear who can still get it up and everyone will watch. So my apologies about that. It’s for the best, but still. Not very romantic. There won’t be any candles or soft jazz. Then again, you don’t have one of these, do you.” Xlin touched themselves. There were footprints near the water’s edge. Someone could come along at any moment. The main trail could not be far away. Their hand lingered, its motion more deliberate. They let themselves moan. They pinched and pressed. Roxanne sat up to investigate.

“It’s ok, Roxy. Just having a little fun.” Xlin chuckled and sank into the moss.Could their grandparents see all the way to this moment? Staring at the muzzle of a gun would have made this future seem impossible. They had gambled. In death, they had lost and Xlin had won. How could anyone summon the courage to die for a maybe? Xlin closed their eyes and drifted in and out of a shallow sleep. It was good to be alive.

#

Cheekye Landing came into view, its red roof more brown at dusk. Xlin had waited for Roxanne at the main trail but the bear never appeared. Xlin backtracked in vain. It was growing dark. The thin mountain air had cooled quickly and they were famished. At the trailhead, Xlin could not help feeling disappointed as they scanned unfamiliar names in the trail registry. They sat on a nearby bench with names carved into it. They rubbed their feet and waited, no longer convinced that Roxanne was nearby.

a lodge at night
Photo by Adam Freeman https://unsplash.com/@freetheman

They heard a guitar and laughter from the lodge deck, some distinct words. A pair of headlamps passed by and said hello. If Zita and Cricket were still at the lodge, they would be lounging in a shared unit at this hour, teasing their next victims. But Zita was a victim, too. Cricket had tried to fuck their way out the relationship. Xlin ate the fallout. What a coward.

Beams of light bobbed up and down the forest trail, then shot off in random directions. Pounding feet and mumbled obscenities. A pair of teenagers descended on Xlin, more ebullient than frantic, imploring them to leave and return to the lodge. They had a seen a bear, a fucking grizzly or maybe a brown bear. It was huge, near the trail, 100 meters behind them, heading this way.

“You have to calm down,” said Xlin, taking each by the hand. “Running will trigger it. Can you turn your headlights off? You’re blinding me.”

“Friend,” said one, pulling the headlamp down around their neck. “Come on! This thing is huge!” Each tugged Xlin toward the lodge.

“The bear has been following me for two days.”

“You know about it?”

“She ate all my food and followed me here from the other side of the mountain. She’ not going to hurt you. Just stay calm.”

The teens glanced over their shoulders warily.

“I need you to go to the lodge and tell the rangers about this. It’s a grizzly, a female grizzly, probably in heat. They’ll know what to do.” Xlin released their hands and the teens set off for the lodge, walking a few meters before breaking into a run.

Xlin sat down again and pondered the lodge’s reaction. Panic bit into the calm that had accompanied them down the mountain. The sting faded quickly though, not having broken the skin. For once, need overcame their fear. A distant shadow moved in Xlin’s peripheral vision. The spot above the trail offered no details. Xlin unfocused their eyes and saw it move again. They stood and Roxanne stopped. Xlin wanted to call out, to let the bear know that this was not a betrayal, not even goodbye. Xlin stood on the bench, on the border of the human world, waving their arms, letting the stench of their armpits flow gently on the breeze to reassure Roxanne that they had not abandoned her, that a reckoning of human failures had birthed a renaissance that would welcome whatever Roxanne was willing to share. And that they would force her to have babies.

Maybe Xlin should have said nothing to the teens? Or told them bring jerky? Xlin’s arms kept moving. They whispered assurances. Footsteps on the trail, coming from the lodge. The shadow moved again, sideways at first.

How could it ever have been more than a fling?

Roxanne veered, correcting the misunderstanding that had brought her down the mountain.

“I’m not rejecting you.”

Roxanne was climbing now. Xlin wiped away tears then hugged their arms against their body.A new moon hastened the final moment, when the moving shadow faded over the course of several breaths then disappeared into the protective smudge of night.