The rumble of a motor cut through the forest, disrupting the stillness of a cool June morning. Olen grumbled. That meant humans, and humans usually meant trouble.
Over the last sixty years, their fascination with his kind’s existence had pushed most of his species deeper into the woods. Who would have ever imagined that a few muddy footprints would cause such a fuss?
Olen headed toward the Craig cottage, which hadn’t been occupied since Mrs. Craig — his only human friend — had died. Her residence was the only lodging for miles; if there was a vehicle in the area, that’s where it would be going.
Once he reached the clearing behind her property, he observed the hustle and bustle. A young woman with wild red hair was unloading boxes from her car. Olen assumed it was Mrs. Craig’s granddaughter, Maggie.
Years ago, before Mrs. Craig got sick, a young Maggie had spent a summer here at the cottage. Olen remembered how happy that visit had made Mrs. Craig. He had enjoyed it too, but from afar, not wanting to scare the young girl.
The wind shifted and Olen picked up an unfamiliar scent. By the time he saw the black and white dog, it was barreling straight for him.
Unlike Mrs. Craig’s old dog, Cricket — a quiet little thing no bigger than Olen’s hairy foot — this one was the size of a coyote and barking up a storm.
Olen stood to his full height, bared his teeth, and growled.
The dog stopped dead in its tracks, yelped and dashed toward the cottage, tail tucked between its legs. Olen’s shoulders slumped. He had not wanted to frighten the dog, only prevent an attack.
Over the next few days, curiosity getting the best of him, Olen often returned to the Craig property to see what his new neighbors were up to.
Today, he followed Maggie and her dog — which he’d learned was named Nova — to the river. Maggie seated herself on an enormous piece of driftwood while Nova chased after her bouncy, goldfinch-yellow ball.
No matter how many times Maggie threw that ball, Nova retrieved it. Again and again and again. She couldn’t get enough. Dogs were peculiar creatures, Olen mused.
Suddenly, Nova darted toward the river bend. When Olen saw the two bear cubs, his stomach turned to stone. Mother bears rarely left their cubs to explore alone.
Maggie sprang to her feet and raced after Nova, screaming for her to stop. Moments later, the cubs’ distressed cries alerted their mother, who exploded from the shrubs.
In a panic, Maggie stumbled and sprawled forward, landing on hands and knees. The mother bear charged, and Nova retreated to Maggie’s side.
Nova gnarled and barked, but a mother bear protecting her cubs was no match for any dog. And she was closing in on them, pounding her front feet. Head low. Ears laid flat. Jaws gaping widely.
Every muscle in Olen’s body tightened; Maggie and Nova were in danger. There was no time to think—he thundered out of the trees, heading straight for the big brown bear.
The mother bear whirled around. Olen bared his teeth and released a deep, reverberating, primal roar.
Instantly, the cubs fled in the opposite direction, with momma bear at their heels.
Olen turned to Maggie.
She was clutching Nova’s collar and stared at him wide-eyed and slacked-jaw. “You — you saved us…”
Maggie had Mrs. Craig’s eyes; Olen froze—mesmerized by this youthful version of his dear friend.
“I knew I hadn’t imagined you,” Maggie said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Had she caught glimpses of him as a little girl? Was it the only reason she was here? Olen’s heart thumped wildly in his chest and he bolted into the forest.
For days, he remained on high alert and wondered if it was time to relocate, but a week later, Maggie was still the only human in the area.
That morning, while foraging for food, Olen found Nova’s bright yellow ball near the riverbank. Olen knew how much Nova loved that ball, so he grabbed it and aimed for the cottage.
At the edge of the clearing, he waited. When Maggie and Nova appeared, he threw the ball. Nova sprinted and caught it in mid-air, then ambled in his direction.
Olen held his breath, but instead of running off again, he stood his ground. Nova stopped a few feet away, dropped the ball and returned to Maggie, tail wagging.
“She wants you to throw it again!” Maggie called out.
Olen took a breath. His pulse slowed and a feeling of calm settled over him. Maggie and Nova trusted him — and something deep in his gut told him they could be trusted too.
So he threw the ball back.
G.R. LeBlanc is a Canadian haiku poet, fiction writer, and enthusiast of all things supernatural and otherworldly.
Help us keep the daily stories coming with Patreon.