It was the bear that brought him to an abrupt halt.
When he saw the hulking black creature emerge from the brush by the side of the road just a few yards in front of him, Nick stopped dead in his tracks. He stood there, frozen with fear, and stared at the bear.
The bear stared back.
Nick had never seen a bear in the wild before. His mind raced, trying to remember anything he’d ever been told about them. “Play dead” was all he could come up with. But did that really work, he wondered, or was it just an old wives’ tale, like eating chicken soup to cure a cold? It felt counterintuitive to lie down and let the bear come up to him, so instead, Nick took one step backward, then another.
The bear took two steps toward him.
“Holy shit,” he swore under his breath, as his stomach bottomed out. He staggered backward, but the bear kept moving forward. Nick fought the urge to turn around and run for his life, afraid this would only provoke the animal to chase him outright. He remained facing the bear and slowly walked backward, moving to the left shoulder of the road in hopes the creature wouldn’t cross it.
The bear followed him for five minutes or so. It stayed on its side of the road, but kept its eyes fixed upon him, matching him step for step as it stalked him. Nick could feel his heart racing inside his chest, but he tried to stay calm and focused. He watched the bear carefully, ready to react in case it came any closer. I’m taller than it is, he told himself. I could try to scare it away. His hand tightened around the neck of his water bottle, imagining himself hurling it at the bear.
But when the bear suddenly lunged at him, all thoughts of trying to intimidate it went out of his head. Nick stumbled back, tripped, and landed on his butt in the brush. The water bottle went rolling away as he unwittingly let go. He lost sight of the bear for a second, but could hear it huffing and snorting. Without hesitating, he scrambled up onto his hands and feet and frantically scooted backward up the mountainside, crab-walking like a little kid. His hope was that if he could gain the higher ground, he could somehow fend off the bear.
He felt his right hand hit something hard, and his fingers closed around a rock the size of a baseball. He picked it up off the ground and hurled it at the bear, aiming for a spot halfway between it and himself. His goal wasn’t to hurt the animal, only to scare it.
It worked. When the rock hit the paved surface of the road in front of it, the bear jumped backward, rearing onto its hind legs. Then it turned around and lolloped away on all fours, retreating back into the woods from where it had come.
Watching it, Nick was struck by how fast the heavy creature could run. If it had truly wanted to attack him, he wouldn’t have stood a chance.
His legs were still wobbly as he walked uphill, moving in the opposite direction of the bear, wanting to put as much distance between it and himself as possible. In the back of his mind, Nick knew he was going the wrong way, but at that particular moment, he didn’t care. He couldn’t help Kevin if he allowed himself to be mauled by a bear.
He knew now that Kevin hadn’t been hallucinating when he told them he’d seen a black bear. No wonder he was worried about it coming back. Nick had the same fear. He couldn’t imagine how scared Kevin must have been, lying helplessly on the ground, unable to move, as the animal approached him. He must have played dead, Nick decided. Whatever he had done, it had apparently worked, and if the bear did come back, he would at least have Howie to protect him. But the thought of little, peace-loving Howie fighting off a bear was almost laughable.
I can’t leave them out there alone, thought Nick as he trekked across the uneven terrain. Looking down, he saw the power lines lying across the road below him and realized he had backtracked all the way to the place where Kevin had fallen. He felt ashamed. He couldn’t bring himself to go back down there and tell Howie and Kevin he had failed to find help. But the fear of facing the bear again kept him from turning around and running toward town.
Nick knew he was wasting time, but he had to be getting close to the cabin by now. He and Howie hadn’t walked very far before finding the road blocked. He could go back and gather supplies - weapons with which to defend himself from the bear, and materials to build a stretcher so he and Howie could carry Kevin to safety. Then one of them could go call for an ambulance.
It wasn’t a great plan, but it was better than nothing. Determined, Nick made his way back down to the road, then broke into a run. It was harder running uphill, but he didn’t stop until he reached the front door of the cabin. Drenched with sweat, he doubled over, clutching at the stitch in his side as he gasped for air. He and Howie had left the cabin unlocked in case the other guys came back while they were gone. Kevin was the only one with a key. Once he’d caught his breath, Nick opened the door and went inside.
He gulped down a glass of water in the kitchen, then grabbed his backpack from the basement to fill with supplies. He found the flashlight Kevin had left him lying on the floor and tossed it in, then hurried back upstairs. He rummaged around in cupboards and drawers, looking for anything else that might be useful. He added a roll of duct tape, a pair of kitchen shears, and a large knife to his pack, along with another bottle of water and some extra-strength Tylenol. He even found a large red canister that looked like a small fire extinguisher at first, until he read the label and realized it was some kind of bear repellant. “Fuck yeah!” he exclaimed triumphantly, cramming it into one of the outside pockets.
Then he went into Kevin’s room and tore the top sheet and blanket off his bed. He wadded them up into a ball and stuffed them into his bag as well, thinking they could be used to fashion a crude stretcher. But he still needed something sturdy for the frame, two poles of some sort that would support Kevin’s weight.
In a small closet full of cleaning supplies, he found a wooden broom and floor mop that seemed perfect - lightweight, yet durable. He unscrewed the heads from the long handles, which he tucked under his arm when he left the cabin, his bulging pack strapped to his back.
These added burdens made it all but impossible for him to run like before. Besides, his legs felt like rubber. But with Kevin on his mind, Nick walked as quickly as he could, keeping an anxious eye out for bears all the while. To his relief, he saw the fallen electrical pole before he spotted any more wild animals.
“Yo, Howie! Kev!” he called as he made his way carefully down the hillside. It was starting to get dark, but he could still see Kevin’s bright red jacket at the bottom of the ravine. “I’m back!”
Howie looked up hopefully as Nick approached. “Did you call for help?” he asked. “Are the paramedics on their way?”
“Uh… no. Not yet,” Nick was forced to admit.
Howie’s face fell. “Why not? What happened?? Where the hell have you been this whole time?” His voice rose with each question, making Nick feel exponentially worse about his failure.
“Well, I felt like I was stuck in a bad reenactment of The Revenant,” he retorted. “I almost got attacked by a bear, dawg!”
“A bear-dog?” repeated Howie skeptically, raising his eyebrows.
“A bear, comma, dawg. D-A-W-G,” Nick clarified, exasperated.
“I told you I saw a bear,” said Kevin quietly. He was lying in the exact same position, looking every bit as uncomfortable as he had before.
Nick nodded. “I know, dude. I saw it, too. I almost shit my pants.” He regretted saying the last part, as the stench in the air reminded him that Kevin really had shit his pants. “Anyway, I had to backtrack a bit to get out of its path, so I ended up going back to the cabin and getting some supplies.” He dropped the two wooden poles and took off his backpack. “We’re gonna build a stretcher and get you out of here ourselves.”
He thought they would be pleased that he at least had a plan, that he’d come prepared, so it caught him by surprise when Howie reached up and grabbed the hem of his shirt, pulling him roughly aside. “Are you insane?!” he hissed. His voice was just loud enough for Nick to hear, but he may as well have been shouting. “He has a spinal cord injury! You can’t move someone with a spinal cord injury!”
It was exceedingly rare for Howie to sound so angry. Any sense of pride Nick felt in his own resourcefulness faded away instantaneously, as embarrassment rose up in its place.
“You kept us waiting here almost two hours, thinking you were going to call an ambulance, and instead, you come up with this?” Howie continued to berate him, a vein bulging in his forehead. “What the fuck, Nick?!”
Tears prickled in the corners of Nick’s eyes. “Fine!” he exploded, throwing up his hands in defeat. “I screwed up, okay? I’m sorry! But you weren’t there, dude; you don’t know how scary it was.” His voice trembled as he tried not to cry. Howie was a head shorter than him, but he had a way of making Nick feel small. “I couldn’t keep going that way... and I didn’t know else to do,” he tried to explain, offering an apologetic shrug. “I thought this would be better than nothing. I mean, someone would have to carry him out of here either way, right?”
“Yeah, someone who knows what the hell they’re doing! A team of people who’ve been trained in wilderness rescue.”
Howie was right, Nick realized with a sinking feeling. Any attempt to haul Kevin out on their own would probably just result in them hurting him more.
He had resigned himself to admitting defeat when he heard a weak voice drifting their way. “Howie, please…” They both turned to see Kevin watching them. “I think we should try Nick’s plan.”
Howie hesitated, then shook his head. “Kev, we can’t,” he replied, as he walked back to Kevin’s side. “If we try to move you, we might make it worse.”
“I don’t think it can get much worse than it already is,” said Kevin. Though he sounded surprisingly calm, there was a look of silent desperation in his eyes. “Please, y’all… I can’t stay here like this any longer.”
Nick exchanged an uncertain glance with Howie, who bit down on his bottom lip, looking torn. Nick understood. His head was telling him to listen to Howie, but in his heart, he wanted to help Kevin however he could.
“I know how to build a stretcher,” Kevin continued. “I learned at camp when I was a kid. I can talk you through it.”
Howie sighed. “It’s your call, Kev,” he said finally. “If you want us to try it, we’ll try it.”
Kevin’s reply was faint, but firm. “I want you to try it.”
Feeling vindicated, Nick unzipped his backpack and showed them both the supplies he’d brought, spreading them out on the ground and praying they would be enough. “I thought maybe we could cut the sheet into strips and tie them around the poles, kinda like a pool chair.” He was picturing the chaise lounge his father used to drink beer in out in the backyard when he was a kid, an aluminum frame interwoven with bands of brightly-colored, water-resistant fabric.
“It doesn’t need to be that complicated,” replied Kevin. “All we need is the poles and the blanket.” Patiently, he proceeded to explain how to build a simple stretcher by first spreading the blanket out flat on the ground and then folding it in thirds around the broomstick and mop handle.
Nick and Howie dutifully followed his directions, and when they were finished, they had something resembling a stretcher. But, looking down at it, Nick felt doubtful. “Won’t it just fall apart the minute we pick it up?” he asked, worried it was far too flimsy to support the weight of a full-grown man.
“As long as you hold it level, it won’t fall apart,” said Kevin, sounding far more confident than Nick felt. “My body weight will keep the blanket in place.”
But Nick was still skeptical. He pictured the blanket slipping from the poles as they were carrying Kevin, causing him to fall back to the ground and get hurt again. For a few minutes, he had felt hopeful that his plan would work, but now he was back to thinking Howie had been right all along. This was a bad idea.
Howie shook his head, looking equally uncertain. “It’s gonna be hard to hold it level going downhill.”
“Wait, downhill? Wouldn’t it be uphill?” asked Nick, nodding toward the road.
Howie raised his eyebrows. “Uphill? You don’t seriously think we’re gonna be able to carry Kevin back up to the road, do you? You could barely climb up there yourself!”
Nick felt his face heat up. “Well, I dunno… what’s your plan?” he fired back defensively. He hoped Howie wasn’t going to suggest carting Kevin through the dark woods, which were filled with bears and other wild animals. They would be safer on the road, where there was a higher chance of them running into another human.
“My plan was for one of us to go find a phone and call for help, dumbass!” Howie reminded him. “I don’t think we should be carrying Kevin anywhere!”
Nick fell silent. It was Kevin who broke it by saying, “C’mon, fellas, don’t fight. We don’t have time for that; it’s gettin’ dark already. Just try it, all right?”
“Nick first,” said Howie, motioning for Nick to lie down on the stretcher.
“Really?” said Nick with a derisive snort. “How you gonna lift me, Howie? I outweigh you by like thirty pounds.”
Howie gave him an annoyed look. “Just lie down, lardass.”
“I think we should at least add some duct tape first,” said Nick, reaching for the roll. He wrapped a length of duct tape around each end of the two poles to secure the edges of the blanket to the wood. Then he lay down face up on the stretcher and prayed it would be strong enough to hold him.
“Here goes nothing,” said Howie, sounding skeptical, as he stooped to grasp the poles near Nick’s head.
“Don’t drop me, dude,” Nick warned, as he felt his upper half being lifted off the ground. To his astonishment, the blanket stayed in place - the stretcher felt a lot sturdier than it looked. Howie held him at a forty-five degree angle for a few seconds, then slowly lowered him back to the ground. “How did it feel to you?” Nick asked him as he scrambled up from the stretcher.
Howie shrugged. “Okay, I guess. It’ll be easier with two of us, one at the head and one at the feet.” Like Nick, he seemed pleasantly surprised by the strength of the stretcher.
Nick looked at Kevin. “How are we gonna get him on it?” he asked in a low voice.
Howie thought for a moment. “We have to protect his spine. I don’t think we can lift him without bending his body. We’ll have to try rolling him instead. I’ve seen them do this on Grey’s Anatomy. If we do it right, we can keep his spine straight.”
“Dude, you watch Grey’s Anatomy?” Nick couldn’t help smirking as he gave Howie a sidelong glance.
Howie’s cheeks darkened. “Leigh likes it, okay?”
He snickered. “Yeah, okay. Whatever you say, Howie.”
“Will you just focus?” Howie snapped. “One of us needs to turn his upper half while the other one does the lower half at the same time. We can’t let him twist.”
“I call upper half,” Nick replied quickly.
Howie rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’ll get his legs and hips.”
They both crouched down at Kevin’s side, Howie on his left, Nick on his right, nearest the stretcher. “Okay, Kev, we’re gonna roll you onto your left side,” Howie explained. “Then Nick’s gonna slide the stretcher under you, and we’ll roll you back onto it. Does that sound like a plan?”
Kevin nodded. “Go for it,” he said with a grimace of pain.
“What about his backpack?” Nick asked, noticing it still wedged beneath Kevin’s upper body. “We should take it off him so we can lay him flat, right?”
“Yes… please,” Kevin begged. “It’s been digging into my back all day.”
Howie nodded. “Let’s just cut the straps. That’ll be easier than trying to get his arms out of them. Is that okay, Kev?”
Kevin gave another nod. “I don’t think I’m gonna be hiking again anytime soon,” he said quietly.
“You can’t think that way, Kevin,” Nick admonished him, as he used the kitchen shears he’d brought from the cabin to cut through the thick straps over Kevin’s shoulders. “The doctors are gonna fix you up and get you back on your feet. It may take a while, but once you’re fully recovered, you’ll be able to do whatever you want. You have to believe that. Positive thinkers get powerful results, remember? Some guy bought me a book about that once.” Swallowing the lump that had risen in his throat, he smiled down at Kevin, who had given him the self-help book he was referring to.
Kevin smiled sadly in return. “You may be right, Nick, but I also have to be realistic and accept the fact that I may never walk again.”
Nick shook his head, refusing to accept or even consider that possibility. He couldn’t imagine Kevin confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Howie cleared his throat. “You ready, Nick? We need to get going here.”
“Yeah. Let’s do it,” said Nick, grateful for the distraction. He put one hand on Kevin’s right shoulder and the other on his side, near the bottom of his rib cage. Reaching across Kevin’s body, Howie took hold of his right hip and thigh.
“Okay, on the count of three, we’re gonna roll him slowly toward me. Got it?” said Howie. Nick nodded. “One… two… three.” Nick began to push him up off the ground, as Howie tried to pull him over onto his side, but Kevin’s sharp hiss of pain made them both freeze. “What? What is it, Kev?” Howie asked worriedly.
“My back,” muttered Kevin through gritted teeth. “It’s killing me… but it’s okay; keep going.”
Howie gave Nick another uneasy look, but they both nodded, silently agreeing to continue. They rolled Kevin a little further, until Nick could slide the backpack out from under him and put the stretcher in its place. Kevin let out a another agonized gasp as they carefully lowered him onto it.
“Are you okay?” Nick asked anxiously, leaning over him. It was a dumb question, but he didn’t know what else to say.
Kevin was breathing hard, his eyes closed tight, his pale face contorted in pain. “Yeah,” he whispered, but when he finally opened his eyes again, they were full of tears.
“Here,” said Nick, rummaging through his own backpack for the bottle of Tylenol he’d brought. He twisted off the cap and shook two of the pills into his palm. “Take these.”
“He needs something stronger than Tylenol, Nick,” said Howie, shaking his head. “He should be in the hospital on a morphine drip.”
“No shit, Howie, but since this is all we have to give him now, it’s gotta be better than nothing, right?” Nick replied. “It should at least help take the edge off. C’mon, Kev, open up.”
Kevin opened his mouth, and Nick placed the tablets on his tongue. Then he tilted a bottle of water up to Kevin’s dry lips to wash them down with. Kevin swallowed with difficulty, spitting out some of the water as he started to cough, but the pills went down. Satisfied, Nick put both bottles back into his bag, zipped it shut, and slung it over his shoulders.
“The stretcher’s too short,” said Howie, frowning down at it. “His legs are gonna hang off the end.”
“So? We can still carry him on it.”
Howie shook his head. “It might put extra pressure on his back.”
“We could bend his knees to make his feet fit at the bottom,” Nick suggested.
“I don’t know if he’ll be able to keep his legs up like that. If they flop over, it might make him twist to one side,” Howie said uncertainly. “We need to keep his spine straight.”
Nick felt frustrated. His whole plan had become much more complicated than it had originally seemed in his head. “Okay, so let’s just try it like this and see. It might be fine.”
Howie sighed, but finally nodded. “All right, fine. We’ll try it this way.” He moved to the foot of the stretcher as Nick squatted near Kevin’s head.
“We’re gonna pick you up now, Kev,” Nick told him, then looked up at Howie. “Ready? On the count of three again: one… two… three.” Grasping the wooden poles, they slowly lifted the stretcher off the ground.
Kevin let out a strangled cry as the blanket sagged beneath his weight, causing his body to bend at the waist. “No, wait… put me back down!” he begged, as they hoisted him higher. “Please!”
Exchanging looks of horror, Nick and Howie quickly lowered him to the ground again, setting the stretcher down as gently as possible. “Sorry, Kev,” Howie apologized, looking stricken.
Kevin didn’t say anything, as tears streamed down his pale face. His upper body was trembling, while his lower half remained unnaturally still.
“We need to find something firm to put under him,” said Nick, looking around for something they could use as a backboard. Of course, there was nothing at all like that just lying around on the ground. He should have thought about that when he was back at the cabin; he could have searched the garage for a snow sled or even a piece of plywood.
“No, we need to find help,” Howie replied firmly.
Nick’s mind was still racing. “Maybe if we wait a while until the painkillers kick in, we could-”
“Nick!” Howie cried. “He needs an ambulance! Paramedics who have the right drugs and the right equipment and know what the hell they’re doing! We’re just gonna do more harm than good if we try to move him again.”
Nick looked down at Kevin. His eyes were squeezed shut again, his jaw clenched. His nostrils flared as he took noisy breaths in and out, trying to fight through the obvious pain he was in, a pain which Nick and Howie had only made worse. Nick didn’t want to put him through any more pain. “Okay,” he said with a nod and a sigh. “I’ll go get help.”
“How about I go get help, and you stay here with him?” Howie suggested, giving Nick a dubious look. Nick could tell he no longer trusted him to make good decisions.
“No, I wanna go,” Nick insisted. Really, he didn’t want to be left alone with Kevin. Not like this. He would rather keep running and risk coming across the bear again than have to sit here and watch Kevin suffer. “I won’t fuck up this time, I swear.”
Howie sighed. “Fine. But you better not come back again unless it’s in an ambulance.”
Nick nodded, determined to find help for Kevin or die trying. “You can count on me,” he said with a confidence he didn’t feel.
The trek back up to the road felt even more arduous the second time around, for the twilight was fading, and Nick’s limbs were tired. But he forced himself to keep climbing until he reached the top of the cliff from which Kevin had fallen. He kept one hand on the bottle of bear spray in the side pocket of his backpack and aimed his flashlight at the dark forest with the other, as he walked down the winding road to Bethlehem.