The grizzly would find me in the early hours of a high mountain morning.
Grandpa and I began the day on the lazy currents of the Snake River, skirting along the boundaries of the Teton Range in his inflatable raft. The snow-touched peaks looked so tall they seemed to buttress the sky. There was never any religion in my mother's house in Denver, but looking at the Tetons almost made me believe. I wanted to call Cody's name until my voice echoed through the canyons to reach whatever part of him might linger there, but I couldn't. Grandpa wouldn't understand anything so irrational.
Grandpa didn't understand a lot of things. For the entire fifteen years of my life, I doubt he noticed anything about me. Few people did. Mom used to call me her little armadillo, and I didn't mind the nickname until third grade when I finally saw a picture of an armadillo in the encyclopedia at school. It's a gray, squat little animal with a dire expression on its face. I was already painfully shy, but after I realized my own mother saw me as a glorified lizard, I got even worse.
I trailed my fingertips in the water and watched the upside-down world reflected on its surface. The mountains looked as if they were hanging by their roots, dipping into a watery sky. The belly of an eagle flashed across their image, then hung, wings motionless as if caught in a web. Slicing the air with a subtle pivot of its body, it plummeted to annihilate its own reflection. Just as quickly, it burst back into flight with a trout wriggling in its talons. I watched it fly away, higher and higher until it became nothing more than a dark slash across gauzy white clouds.
"Where's your camera?" Grandpa asked, cocking his chin toward where the eagle had flown.
"I left it in Denver," I said quietly.
He was silent for a few moments. Then, pulling heavily on the right oar, he steered us toward a grove of willow bushes along the bank of the river. "Let's cut you a pole."
"It's not enough that I'm in the boat?"
"You can't lie in bed all day," he said, his chin pointed down.
"Why not?" For the past six months, lying in bed was all I'd done.
"Soon you'll be watching Mabel's grandson. She won't want him inside all day."
"There goes my plan to lock him in a cabinet."
His eyes flicked up to the mountains. He never seemed to get my sense of humor. "Your mother says it'll do you good."
No one had even asked me if I wanted the job. When Mabel called us in Denver, Mom had latched on to the idea as if babysitting were the next best thing to Prozac. No matter what I said, her response was always the same: "Your doctor says you need to occupy yourself." She insisted on calling him my doctor even though he was really just the school shrink. I wondered whose feelings she was trying to spare with the euphemism.
When the bottom scraped sand, Grandpa handed me his Swiss Army knife and I waded through frigid water to the willow stand. A deer carcass lay near the bushes, deflated and stiff. Something had been gnawing on it. Its eyes had turned to glass and they stared at me, making me shudder. I hated any reminder.
I hurried up the bank to find a willow rod that looked straight and strong, and went to work on it. The green wood refused to yield, so I had to saw on it with Grandpa's dull blade, twisting it until the vegetable scent nearly erased the odor of the dead deer. It was hard work, and the sun made me light-headed. That's why I didn't notice the third odor teasing through the breeze until the wind shifted. It smelled like a mixture of stale urine and rotting meat, a salty tang like beef jerky. It was a powerful stink, but somehow it smelled alive.
I wrinkled my nose and jabbed through the willow switch with the tip of Grandpa's knife. It finally broke away, but the blade caught my knuckle, deep. "Careful," I heard Grandpa say. I ignored him, and sucked on the blood that was pooling in my cut. "Annie." "It's fine," I snapped, but when I looked at him I realized he wasn't talking about the knife. His eyes on something behind me, he motioned with one trembling hand, telling me to stay still. I stared at Grandpa, he stared at me, his lips white, brow sweating. I realized he was terrified. A chilly fear washed over me.
Then I heard it. A rhythm in the breeze, gusting in and out, deep-chested and deliberate. Snapping branches and popping twigs, it sounded like a tornado whipping toward me. Fast. Whatever it was, it was big. I swallowed air. My body resonated with terror. Though my legs wanted to bolt, I willed them to stay still, repeating under my breath, Never run never run never run.
It moved closer still, so close I felt its presence on my skin. I could hear emotion in its breathingFear? Rage? Hatred?faint grunts, little hiccups. It swallowed. I whimpereddidn't mean to, but the sound squeaked out of me.
Oh God, don't let me die here.
Warm breath on my skin.
Puffs of air moved along my forearm, up my back to my neck. I imagined what would come next: quick motion, knocked to the ground, spine bitten clean through. Grandpa would only watch, helpless.
I looked at him again. His face twisted. His ice-pale eyes caught mine. He shook his head because he couldn't say Never run.
A cold nose was on my skin, saliva wetting my forearm, meandering along. My knees buckled but I jolted myself stiff. If I went down it might end here.
A tongue flicked at the tender skin of my armpit, curling and gentle, and then againa slow, languid kiss. It licked me once more, then nudged me toward Grandpa, who stood up, holding a dripping oar like a baseball bat, glaring over my shoulder. "Come on, Annie," he whispered. I didn't move, but he nodded to reassure me, so I took a shaky step, and then another and another, everything in my vision jolting as I struggled through the thick river grass and into the cold of the water. Finally, I fell into the boat.
And Grandpa was pumping the oars, swearing under his breath, rowing frantically until the current caught us midstream. He pointed the bow downriver, and we were away.
Finally I could turn to look.
It was a gargantuan, gnarled grizzly bear. Its winter coat was still shedding, poking from its hide in ropy tufts. It had followed me into the river, its belly dipping in the shallows as it watched after me, paws sliding deep into mud. I met its eyes, tiny brown pinpoints in a huge skull, and it raised its head as if in recognition, flaring its nostrils at the breeze. A memory of a faint dream nipped at the corners of my mind. I've seen you before.
We rounded a bend in the river.
I burst into tears.
"You're okay." Grandpa waved his bandanna at me until I took it from him. Tears always made him fidgety.
I wiped my eyes, biting the inside of my cheek until I could stop crying. I concentrated on opening my right hand to release the knife and willow switch that I'd been clutching the whole time. The cut on my knuckle popped open and I closed the bandanna over it, squeezing hard. Grandpa stopped rowing for a minute to look at me. "You're okay," he said again as he closed his big hands around the oars.
"You just sat there." What would he have done if the bear had attacked?
"Keep the pressure on that cut." He turned to face the water, glancing at me while I wiped my nose. "Must have been eating on that doe."
"I thought it would kill me."
He turned his eyes onto the Tetons. No response.
I couldn't stop shaking. With one casual swipe of a paw, that grizzly could have broken my neck. I wrapped my fingers around my wrist. It seemed so thin and brittle, so easy to shatter. But strength really doesn't make a difference. Cody was incredibly strong, and now he was just a pile of frozen flesh lying under the remains of an Andean avalanche. Six months ago I learned a secret that everybody knows but no one talks about: Death can happen to anyone, for any reason, at any time. It had happened to Cody, and now it almost happened to me. For a few minutes, a dumb grizzly bear had the power to decide whether I lived or died.
Excerpt. (c) Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.