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Touching Spirit Bear, Page 2

Ben Mikaelsen

  Several weeks earlier, Edwin, the Tlingit elder from Drake, had built a sparse one-room wood shelter for Cole on the island. He described the interior as bare except for a small woodstove and a bed—a good place for a soul to think and heal.

  Cole resented the cabin and all this gear. When his father had agreed to pay all the expenses of banishment, it was just another one of his buyouts. Cole had news for him. This was just a sorry game. He twisted harder at the handcuffs and winced at the pain. He wasn’t afraid of pain. He wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. He was only playing along until he could escape. He glanced back at Garvey. This whole Circle Justice thing had been such a joke. Back in Minneapolis, he had been forced to plead guilty and ask the Circle for help changing his life.

  Asking for help was a simple con job, but he hadn’t liked the idea of pleading guilty. “That’s like hanging myself,” he had complained to Garvey.

  “You can withdraw your guilty plea and go through standard justice any time you want,” Garvey said. “But once you go to trial, it’s too late for Circle Justice.” When Cole hesitated, Garvey added, “I thought you liked being in control, Champ.”

  Cole didn’t trust anyone, but what choice did he have? “Okay,” he answered reluctantly. “But if you’re lying, you’ll be sorry.”

  Garvey feigned surprise. “Let me get this straight, Champ. You figure if I’m scared of you, you can trust me?” He smiled thinly. “You sure have a lot to learn about trust.”

  “Quit calling me Champ,” Cole mumbled. “That’s not my name.” Then grudgingly he held his tongue. Nobody was going to make him lose his cool. This was a game he planned to win. “So,” he asked, “how soon do I start this Circle Justice stuff?”

  “You can apply, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically accepted. First the Circle committee will visit with you. They’ll talk to Peter Driscal and his family, your parents, and others to decide if you’re serious about wanting change. It might take weeks.” Garvey hesitated. “Remember something else. You’re wasting everybody’s time if you don’t truly want change.”

  Cole nodded obediently, like a little puppy that would follow every rule and jump through any hoop. When he reached the island, that would all come to a screeching stop. Then he would prove to the whole world he was nobody’s fool.

  Cole heard the motor slow and realized that Edwin was guiding the skiff toward a protected bay on the large island ahead. The distant green-black forests were shrouded in gray mist. Cole spotted the tiny shelter that had been built for him near the trees, above the shoreline. Black tar paper covered the small wooden structure. Cole spit again at the waves. If these fossils really thought he was going to live in that shack for a whole year, they were nuts.

  As the skiff scraped the rocks, Garvey jumped out and pulled the boat ashore. Still handcuffed, Cole crawled awkwardly over the bow onto the slippery rocks. Edwin began immediately to unload the supplies.

  “Why don’t you take my handcuffs off and let me help?” Cole asked.

  Garvey and Edwin ignored his question. One at a time they carried the heavy cardboard boxes up to the shelter and stacked them inside the door. When they finished, Edwin motioned for Cole to follow him up to the mossy bench of ground above the tide line. Cole moseyed along slowly, not catching up to Edwin until they reached the trees.

  Edwin turned to Cole. “Nobody’s going to baby-sit you here. If you eat you’ll live. If not, you’ll die. This land can provide for you or kill you.” He pointed into the forest. “Winters are long. Cut plenty of wood or you’ll freeze. Keep things dry, because wet kills.”

  “I’m not afraid of dying,” Cole boasted.

  Edwin smiled slightly. “If death stares you straight in the face, believe me, son, you’ll get scared.” He pointed to a tall plant with snakelike branches. “This island is covered with Devil’s Club. Don’t grab it or hundreds of tiny thistles will infect your hands and make them swell up like sausages.” Edwin motioned toward the head of the bay, a quarter mile away. “That stream over there is where you get fresh water.”

  “Why didn’t you put my camp closer to the stream?”

  “Other animals come here for water, too,” Edwin said. “How would you feel if a bear made its den beside the stream?”

  Cole shrugged. “I’d kill it.”

  The potbellied elder nodded with a knowing smile. “Animals feel the same way. Don’t forget that.” He turned to Cole and placed a hand on his shoulder. Cole tried to pull away, but Edwin gripped him like a clamp. “You aren’t the only creature here. You’re part of a much bigger circle. Learn your place or you’ll have a rough time.”

  “What is there to learn?”

  “Patience, gentleness, strength, honesty,” Edwin said. He looked up into the trees. “Animals can teach us more about ourselves than any teacher.” He stared away toward the south. “Off the coast of British Columbia, there is a special black bear called the Spirit Bear. It’s pure white and has pride, dignity, and honor. More than most people.”

  “If I saw a Spirit Bear, I’d kill it,” Cole said.

  Edwin tightened his grip as if in warning. “Whatever you do to the animals, you do to yourself. Remember that.”

  “You’re crazy, old man,” Cole said, twisting free of Edwin’s grip. Edwin continued speaking calmly as if nothing had happened. “Don’t eat anything unless you know what it is. Plants, berries, and mushrooms can kill you. There’s a book in with the supplies to study if you want to learn what is safe to eat. I suggest you read every word. Life is up to you now. I don’t know how it was for you in the big city, but up here you live and die by your actions. We’ll be out to check on you in a couple of days. After that, Garvey will head home and I’ll drop off supplies every few weeks. Any questions?”

  Cole smirked. He didn’t plan on eating any shrubs or berries. “Why did you bring me out so far?” he asked mockingly. “Were you afraid I’d escape?”

  Edwin looked out across the bay and drew in a deep breath. “Years ago, I was brought here myself when my spirit got lost. This is a good place to find yourself.”

  “This place sucks!” Cole mumbled.

  Edwin pulled out a key and turned Cole roughly around to remove his handcuffs. “Anger keeps you lost,” he said, as he started back toward the shelter. “You can find yourself here, but only if you search.”

  Rubbing at the raw skin on his wrists, Cole followed.

  Garvey stood outside the shelter as they walked up to it. He held out a small bundle to Cole.

  “What’s this?” Cole asked, unfolding a heavy wool blanket, woven with colorful blue-and-red images of a totem pole.

  “Tlingits call it at.óow.”

  “At.óow?” Cole repeated.

  “Like ‘a towel’ without the L,” Garvey said. “At.óow is something you inherit. This blanket has been handed down for many generations in my family. It once belonged to one of our chiefs and is a link to our ancestors. You can’t own at.óow. You are only its caretaker for a time. If you accept this at.óow from me, you must promise to care for it and someday pass it on to someone else you trust.”

  “You saying you trust me?”

  Garvey nodded. “If you promise to care for it, I’ll believe you. A man is only as good as his word.” Garvey looked Cole in the eyes. “Do you promise me you’ll care for this at.óow?”

  Cole tucked the blanket under his arm. “Yeah, sure, whatever you want.”

  Sadly, Garvey placed a hand on Cole’s shoulder. “Don’t waste this chance, Cole.”

  Cole felt a sudden rush of anger and jerked away. Why did everybody always have to touch him? He didn’t need anyone’s help. What he needed was for the world to butt out. “Aren’t you guys ever leaving?” he snapped.

  Edwin and Garvey turned and walked to the skiff. Edwin crawled aboard first. When he was seated, Garvey shoved the small boat off the slick gray rocks and jumped aboard himself. Edwin yanked the starter rope, and the outboard roared to life.

the skiff motored from the bay, the fading whine of the engine floated out across the choppy waters. In the distance, Garvey waved good-bye. Cole waved back, grinning. This far away, they couldn’t see the extended middle finger he brandished at them.

  Cole watched as the boat faded to a mere speck outside the bay, then he reached down and picked up a rock. He threw it toward the horizon with a hard grunt. Finally he was alone. For almost three months, he had been kept in detention, guarded twenty-four hours a day. For almost three months, he had put up with the adults from the Circle Justice committee. What fools. They had kept stopping by, asking questions that were a joke. Any moron could figure out what they wanted to hear.

  “Why should we believe you’re sincere?” several committee members had asked during their visits.

  Cole wanted to say, “’Cause if you don’t, I’ll knock your fat heads off.” Instead, he meekly said, “You shouldn’t,” keeping his face as serious as he could. “I’ve really screwed things up. Hurting someone really made me think a lot.” He’d pause for effect, then add, “I wish I could trade places with Peter. I really do. That’s what I deserve.”

  Cole had grown impatient watching the visitors jot notes in their silly little folders. What a waste of time. They were probably afraid to try him as an adult and send him to jail.

  “Why can’t they make up their minds?” he complained to Garvey during one of his visits. “What are they waiting for?”

  “Things take time,” Garvey answered. “The Circle needs to know if you’re committed to wanting change. Some think you still have an attitude.” Garvey grinned. “I can’t imagine where they got that idea, Champ. Can you?”

  “I told them I wanted to change,” Cole said, his voice edgy. “What more do they want?”

  “Talk is cheap. They want you to walk your talk.”

  “How can I prove anything sitting in this stinking place?”

  “Think about it, Einstein. What if it turns out you’re nothing more than a baby-faced con? What then?” Garvey threw up his hands. “A lot of people have already paid dearly for your anger and lies. You have bigger problems than getting out of this place.”

  “Yeah, like what?”

  “If you’re accepted for Circle Justice, who’s going to be your sponsor? The committee requires some person to go through the process with you.”

  “I thought you would help me,” Cole said, letting his irritation show.

  Garvey shook his head. “I don’t invest time in losers. Unless you’re one hundred and ten percent committed to this change, you’re wasting my time and everybody else’s—you’re better off in jail.” Garvey gave Cole a playful shove. “Make up your mind, Champ. The world’s getting tired of waiting.”

  Cole wanted to punch Garvey’s teeth into the next county, but instead he forced a smile. After Garvey left, Cole’s fists tightened until his knuckles turned white.

  It was late afternoon when the boat’s outline disappeared and the faint moaning of the outboard melted into the quiet. Sudden hot tears clouded Cole’s vision. This was called Circle Justice, but it was no different than being in a jail. Once again he was being abandoned by people who wanted to get rid of him. His parents were probably glad he was a million miles from their world. They wanted him locked up like a caged animal.

  Cole felt a familiar rage building inside him. The last time he had felt like this was back in his small detention cell. One afternoon, after he had refused to do the schoolwork they brought to him, his television privileges had been revoked. Cole purposely isolated himself in his room, sitting sullenly. His anger smoldered like a lit fuse.

  He fantasized about how he would get even with everybody if he ever got free. His rage ignited. Cole jumped to his feet and stormed across the cell. He tipped over his metal-framed bed and started hitting the wall harder and harder. Soon blood from his scraped knuckles smeared the concrete.

  Finally Cole fell to the floor beside the toilet, sobbing. He stared at his bleeding knuckles. Somebody would pay for this.

  He was still huddled on the cell floor hours later when Garvey had stopped by. Garvey walked thoughtfully around the overturned bed, then headed back toward the door.

  Cole looked up. “Leaving already?”

  “I’m tired of being around someone who blames the world for all his problems.”

  “So you think it’s my fault?”

  “I think the world isn’t always a fair place. The sooner you get that through your thick skull, the sooner you can get on with your life.”

  “So does this mean you’re not going to be my sponsor?” Cole blurted.

  Garvey shrugged. “It means you need to make up your mind if you want change.”

  “I already told you I did,” Cole said.

  Garvey glanced down at Cole’s bruised and swollen knuckles. “Are the walls getting the best of your fights?”

  “I fell,” Cole said, wishing he could wipe the corny smile off Garvey’s face and show him what fists were really for. “I hurt them falling.” He took a deep breath. He wasn’t going to let Garvey sucker him into getting mad and blowing this chance to avoid jail. “Are you going to be my sponsor or not?” he demanded. “I’m not going to beg.”

  Garvey stopped in the doorway and turned. He looked Cole straight in the eyes. “I’ll help you, but don’t waste my time. You understand? I don’t have time for losers.”

  Cole mustered a serious face. “I won’t.”

  “Okay,” Garvey said. As he left, he called back, “Hey Champ, try falling on your fists sometime.”

  Standing all alone on the shore, Cole felt his anger smoldering. Soon it would explode like gunpowder. As the fuse burned shorter, he tore off his clothes, turned each piece right side out, and dressed again. Now the game was over and he was in charge. He turned his back on the shimmering water and headed across the rocks.

  Driftwood, seaweed, and shells lay scattered among the basketball-sized rocks. Cole picked up a chunk of driftwood and flung it hard. The shelter filled with supplies was a buyout, something that allowed his parents and everyone else to pretend they had helped him. They hadn’t done squat, Cole thought. He would rather die than spend a single night in their dumb hut, playing their stupid game.

  He swore as he neared the shelter. Spewing a barrage of venomous curses, he took the blanket Garvey had given him and flung it to the ground. No more games. He barged through the door of the shelter and glared around with wildness in his eyes. Beside the stack of cardboard boxes sat a gallon of white gas for use in his lantern. Cole unscrewed the top. Recklessly, he splashed the gas over the supplies. He dumped the remaining fuel on the shelter walls.

  Ripping open boxes, he found matches, then, swaying on his feet, he pulled out a single match. He walked outside and stared at the supplies and at the shelter. His vision blurred. Rage controlled his tight grip on the match. It controlled the defiant flare of his nostrils and the striking of the match against the box. Rage controlled Cole’s hand as he drew back, paused for a split second, and then flipped the lighted match inside the shelter.

  The gas ignited, and flames spread quickly into a steady blaze that crept over the boxes. Yellow flames turned orange and red, then burned with streaks of blue. As the fire became an inferno, Cole tried to swallow the bitter taste that had come to his mouth.


  COLE STARED SULLENLY into the fire, then let his gaze wander. He had wanted revenge but felt little joy from this act. Overhead eagles drifted on the air currents. In the bay, a mother seal played with her spotted pups as a golden sun peeked through the gray overcast and glinted off the waves. “This place sucks!” Cole mumbled as the breeze drifted sparks upward like wandering stars. He stared back into the crackling, red-hot flames, and his anger burned.

  Cole rocked back and forth on his feet.

  Nobody cared about him. Nobody understood him. Nobody knew what it was like living with parents who wished he wasn’t alive. It angered Cole when people pretended they did. His p
arole officer was one of those people. Once Garvey had shown up at the detention center on his day off, wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt. He carried a brown paper grocery bag. Without saying hello, he set the bag on the small concrete table in Cole’s cell and sat himself down on the edge of the bed. “So,” he said, “tell me exactly what it is you don’t like about your life.”

  “Any moron can figure that out,” Cole grumped, turning his back on Garvey. In the summer’s stifling heat, the room seemed airless and threatening.

  “Okay, explain it to this moron,” Garvey said. “I’m pretty dense, you know. Your police file makes for pretty dull reading.”

  Not wanting to sit anywhere near Garvey, Cole slouched to the floor against the wall. “You don’t get it, do you? My parents are divorced and don’t give a rat if I live or die. All they care about is themselves. Nobody cares about me. All my life I’ve been dumped on.”

  “A lot of people can say that,” Garvey said. “Be more specific.”

  “‘Be more specific,’” Cole mimicked. “Last year I went out for wrestling. I had to beg my parents to come watch me. It was like they were ashamed of me.”

  “Did they ever come to see you?”

  “Yeah, after I got mad enough. And then I lost. You’d have thought I lost on purpose the way Dad acted.” When Garvey didn’t answer, Cole said, “So, have you heard enough?”

  “I’m still listening.”

  Cole didn’t know why he was spilling his guts to Garvey, but he fought back tears as he continued. “All my parents do is drink. They hate me. Do you know what it’s like waking up every morning knowing you’re not good enough? There are only two things wrong with me—everything I do and everything I say. They’ll never be happy until I’m dead.”

  After an awkward silence, Garvey eyed Cole. He spoke quietly. “There’s still one thing more, isn’t there?”