Prea Pearson inhaled with deep satisfaction and surveyed the scene around her. The fall foliage had begun its annual appearance and the usually verdant forest was surrendering to an artist’s assault of gold, crimson, burgundy, and burnt umber. The morning’s chill was barely holding on, with a promise of sunny weather peeking its way through the clouds.
The Smoky Mountains were living up to their name—plumes of mist rose in towering glory from the deepest valley to the highest peaks.
Prea checked the straps on her own hiking pack, and tightened her daughter’s before they set out on the trail. “Are you sure you don’t want to wear a jacket?” she asked her son, who had appeared that morning in his standard basketball shorts and t-shirt. Joshua shook his head no and headed into the woods. Danielle trotted off to catch up to her big brother. She let them get a few dozen feet ahead while she locked the car and put away the keys. It was uncharacteristically quiet—no other cars parked at this particular trailhead—for which she was grateful. She took a deep breath. The gentle musk of damp leaves blended with juniper and late wildflowers to welcome her to what she considered one of the most beautiful places on earth. She caught sight of a few early monarchs dancing in midair and headed after her children. It was going to be a beautiful day.
A couple of miles later, she was in the lead, as the kids’ energy flagged. It was interesting how they could run for hours and hours at home, but miraculously, they could barely walk another step after only an hour of hiking. They were too well-behaved to complain outright, but they had already needed two breaks, and Prea could tell a snack attack was imminent. They found a large flat rock that jutted out over the hillside, and sat down for a while. She tossed them each a clementine and some string cheese, gently reminding them to make sure their trash ended up in their backpacks. From their vantage point, they could see their trail down the hill as it cut back and forth on its ascent. Another mile, and their hike should begin to descend, making it easier on the kids. “Ready?” she asked as they finished up their snacks.
“Sure,” came Josh’s noncommittal response.
Danielle looked moderately more revived. “Yes, mama,” she answered, sticking her tongue out at her brother. “How much further is it?”
“We’ll start heading downhill in another mile or so, but it’s at least three ‘til we get back to the car.” They looked discouraged. “Look around you…hey, look over there!” She spun Danielle around, eliciting a giggle, “Darn, you just missed it! I would swear I saw a gnome duck behind that tree.”
Danielle brightened, “ Let’s try to catch him!”
“I don’t know…how would you feel if a big giant came into your house and tried to catch you? Gnomes are very shy creatures.”
“He’ll know I want to be friends!”
Prea scooped her daughter up in her arms and held her sideways with her arms pinned to her body. “Do you know I want to be friends?” She laughed.
“Uncle! Uncle!” Danielle screeched.
Prea put her back down gently. “Probably too late now anyway. He’s long gone. But, I’ll bet, if you pay close attention, you might see more gnomes along the way. Or,” she whispered with a dramatic pause, “if you’re really quiet, you might see one of the fairy-folk.”
Josh rolled his eyes, but his too-cool-for-this-scene facade was belied by the half-smile on his lips.
After checking their rest stop one last time for trash, they continued on their way. Picking her way carefully over gnarled roots and moss-covered rocks, Prea walked along almost silently. The thick bed of leaves made it easy to step lightly as a gazelle. Unfortunately, her two fawns had the grace and coordination of baby rhinoceros, and they tromped along, breaking every stray twig in their way, and intermittently bellowing at each other over real and imagined offences. Almost certainly no chance of spotting any fairies on this particular adventure.
Another half mile or so, and Prea was thankful for the short descent that was giving them some relief. It had been six months since they’d last been to Tennessee, and she was regretting not staying in a bit better shape. She was a sporadic exerciser at best, but with everything that had happened in their lives lately, she hadn’t been to the gym in ages. She took a drink from the spigot on her hiking bladder, and looked back at the Josh and Dani, who were pushing through like the troopers they were. The crack of a twig beside them caught her attention, where she expected a rabbit or squirrel had been flushed from hiding by their noise. Instead, she was greeted by the sight of a large black bear foraging for grubs, not fifty feet off the path.
Prea froze, and sharply hushed her children. The tone of her voice stopped them in their tracks. She put her arms out to shield them from the animal’s sight, and to stop them from passing. “Turn around and slowly walk back the way we came.”
“What is it, mama?” Danielle peered around her, and her eyes widened in fear. She started to back away.
“Stay calm. He’s probably more scared of us than we are of him. Just do as I said. Slowly.” Prea backed up behind their retreating figures, keeping her eye on the bear. He raised his head and eyed them warily. She looked around to see if they could change directions, which was the normal protocol for avoiding bears, but to one side was a steep descent that she would be lucky to make, and would certainly be too much for the kids. On the other was a wall of boulders too high for her to climb. She might be able to hoist the children up, but they still wouldn’t be safe from the bear if he was determined to reach them. The only option was to turn around.
For a couple of moments, it looked like they were going to make it out without attracting too much attention. The bear tossed its head a few times and coughed out some deep puffs of breath, warning them to stay away. Whether curiosity, hunger, or aggression changed his mind, Prea wasn’t sure, but he seemed to lose interest in the log he had been digging into, and began to amble towards them. She continued to move slowly away, hoping he would change directions when their path doubled back over the mountain. She lost sight of the bear for a minute. “When I say ‘run,’ I want you to run as fast as you can along this path. Do not stop, do not look back, do not turn around, no matter what you hear,” she commanded. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” came the breathless answer in unison.
“No matter what you hear! You keep running until you can’t run any farther. That is not a request—you are to obey that to the letter. Do you understand?” she asked more emphatically.
“Yes, mama, what are you going to do?” Josh asked, tears beginning to creep out the corners of his eyes. He wiped them away stubbornly.
“Do you understand me?” He nodded again. “Don’t be afraid, just run and watch out for your sister. Don’t leave her behind.” They had stopped, and she urged them on again.
“Walk a little quicker. We may have lost him, but let’s put some distance between us.” She could feel the blood pulsing in her temples, hear the sound of it rushing past her eardrums. The forest expanded around her as her breaths deepened. The colors were bolder, each sound punctuated and clear. Every leaf whispered to her that there was danger near. Proof momentarily appeared around the bend, and with a piercing command, “RUN!” her fawns sprinted up the trail.
Prea looked around her for potential weapons. She grabbed a good sized stick in her left hand and picked up a stone in her right. She mentally kicked herself for failing to bring her pistol. The bear was only about thirty feet away, and she hurled the rock with all her might. To her surprise, she hit him squarely in the nose. She grabbed another and another and continued her assault. “Get out of here! Go away!” she screamed. She made herself look as big as possible, waving the stick in the air, but her fight seemed to infuriate the animal. He came at her quickly, closing the gap between them in a couple of seconds.
She rained blows down upon him with the branch, slowing him down, but he finally braved her wrath and lunged forward at her. His teeth fortunately caught the branch, but one massive paw swept underneath, and she felt searing pain over her hip as his claws left their mark. She let go of the branch and began clawing back at him, aiming for his eyes.
One fingernail plunged deep into his right eye, and he hauled back in pain and fury. She picked up her stick and began to whale on him with all her might until it cracked under her assault. The only weapons she had now were her bare hands, and she struck as hard as she could with her right palm. Sufficiently recovered, and half-mad with pain, the bear lunged forward at the same time. Her entire hand went inside his mouth, and he clamped down hard on her wrist. She felt his teeth cut directly down to the bone. The pain was so intense she thought she was going to pass out, but the thought of her kids’ safety kept her conscious. Perhaps a bit surprised by the hand down his throat, the bear coughed and backed up a few steps. Prea unexpectedly found her hand freed.
She awkwardly backed up a few steps, and the thick heel of her hiking boot lodged firmly under a root. She bent down to try and pull it free, but it wouldn’t budge. The bear came at her one last time, but with one foot immobile, she lost her balance.
Time slowed down as she looked around her. Autumn leaves in all their multifaceted brilliance hung suspended in midair. The warmth of the midmorning wind caressed her cheek, and once again promised its beautiful afternoon. Crimson liquid spurted intermittently through the air, looking ever so much like the oil in a lava lamp. She looked to find the source, and some landed on her cheek. She realized she must have a severed artery and for some unknown reason this made her want to laugh out loud.
Michelangelo clouds drifted lazily in the sky, and some movement to her left caught Prea’s attention. A large figure rushed toward her in the distance—she caught a brief impression of a man with dark hair and eyes shouting at her. Then there was a loud BOOM, like a hundred firecrackers going off at once twenty feet away, and her reverie was over. She fell backward, her head hitting the blunt side of a rock and knocking her out cold.