by Rahsaan Thomas
A bear crept down Boyland Avenue, scouting for shade and food in broad day. Urban expansion had pushed in on his habitat, drying the waterways and killing the fish. He had been roaming for hours. The inside of his throat felt like dirt.
Working in her garden beneath a relentless sun, Maria tended to her flowers. She adored gardening when her husband left for the office and the kids were off to school. Noticing her neighbor’s thirsty brown grass, she sprayed to the right, through the wire fence. Smiling at her good deed, she hummed.
Through Maria’s fence, the approaching animal saw the water spouting. He headed toward it in a lassitude, not caring about the woman. He pushed through an open gate in the three-foot fence and wobbled to relief.
Maria heard a strange snuffling sound behind her. When she turned, she dropped the hose and began to wail. Startled, the bear rose to his hind legs and lashed out with a paw, grazing her right arm. Blood dripped onto her tan clogs. The bear drank.
Running blindly into the house, Maria slammed the glass door, locking it behind her. Stumbling to the coffee table, she picked up her phone.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“I’ve just been attacked by a black bear,” Maria screeched.
A few blocks away, rookie officer Jose Lopez sat with his thoughts while his captain, Michael Conner, drove the patrol car. They were approaching the block where an officer had killed an unarmed teenager a week earlier. Out of the passenger window, a portrait of 17-year-old Rodney Sanchez had been spray-painted on the side of a Wal-Mart. The teen’s eyes stared down from under a baseball cap, a smile on his face.
Beside the mural, a pre-teen with brown skin and Hispanic features placed an old catcher’s mitt among rows of baseball cards, flowers, and flickering candles. Looking up from beneath his hoodie, the kid glared and raised his middle finger at the squad car.
Lopez felt Conner staring at him, heard him sign before speaking. “We have a duty to protect and serve, but you have to stay alive to do that. When you feel danger, trust your instincts and your training.”
The rookie heard what the captain was saying, but still couldn’t shake what happened to the teen memorialized on the wall. Interrupting Lopez’s thoughts, a dispatcher’s urgent voice stated, “The animal attacked a woman and is to be considered extremely dangerous. It was last seen in the back yard area of Eighth and Boyland Avenue.”
“Cut on the siren.” Conner wheeled the black and white, as red and blue lights flashed and the siren screamed. Lopez braced himself against the dashboard.
“It jumped a fence and headed toward Seventh,” crackled the radio.
“We’re coming down Boyland, approaching Seventh now,” Lopez answered.
The cruiser braked in front of Maria’s Tudor. A pathway curved around the side into the back yard. Conner jumped out and sprinted down the passageway. “Get the tranq gun when animal control gets here.”
The wait wasn’t long.
“Where is he?” asked one of the guys who jumped out of the green van, Animal Control lettered in yellow on the side.
“My partner’s in back. Follow me with that tranq,” said Lopez.
They found Conner in a nearby back yard with his firearm aimed at a seven foot black bear, standing on his hind legs. The bear bellowed, clawed at the air, and then dropped to all fours. A brick wall and a six foot wooden fence boxed the bear in a corner, leaving only one escape route. The bear charged toward the officers.
Lopez panicked, drawing his Glock 19.
“Don’t shoot, he’s just an animal!” yelled Conner.
Animal Control moved out of the way, corralling the bear toward another empty back yard. The animal jumped the fence.
Conner grabbed the tranquilizer gun from animal control and gave pursuit. The bear ran past the side of a house and reached the corner of Seventh and Boyland.
“Stop him,” cried Lopez, confused and angry.
The captain pulled the trigger and a shot echoed. A dart smacked the bear in his rear right flank. The animal halted in mid-step, growled and turned toward Conner, who fired once more. This shot hit the bear’s chest. The bear closed his eyes, shook his head slowly, and began to retreat with darts sticking out of him. The officers followed the bear down the empty residential block toward Rodney’s memorial.
The painted boy’s eyes watched the bear struggle until it landed on the ground with a thud, knocking over cards, smothering candle flames, and smashing stuffed animals.
Lopez couldn’t look up at the boy’s eyes.
Rahsaan Thomas grew up in New York City, but he writes from a cell in California. He’s a staff writer for San Quentin News and the co-author of Uncaged Stories. He has also been published in The Marshall Project, Missouri Review’s Literature on Lockdown, Life of the Law, The Beat Within, & Brothers in Pen’s 2014 & 2015 anthologies.
At age 45, he became a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and a co-founder of Prison Renaissance.