by Mike Sweeney
There are innumerable jokes to be made about the Garden State in some quarters, but if you’ve ever seen Central Jersey in late July, just after the azaleas have bloomed and just before the cicadas come out to sing in August, you’d have no problem believing why the nation’s third state was nicknamed so. Read the letters of the Revolutionary War soldiers – Colonial, British, and Hessian alike – for their description of what New Jersey once was before industry and chemical. An earthly paradise where anything would grow, it was said.
And, today, in Central Jersey – the part that identifies with neither Philadelphia nor New York – that’s still true. The land is rich and green like in the days of old.
Well, it is in spots, anyway.
There is no better time to observe the lush greenery of Jersey vegetation than during a summer rainstorm, the kind that move in from the south and berate the coastal counties before sweeping off into the Atlantic just as quickly as they appeared. The water soaks the carpet of green grass that covers the rich horse farms and the small suburban homes alike. The rain renews the ubiquitous red oaks, the stately yew trees, and the solemn weeping willows, replacing what the day’s heat has wilted away.
It’s a moment of reverence.
Time seems to slip away and the land is what it always has been. Things that once were are again, things old and unseen. They roam the earth they called their own long before there was a New Jersey or even an America. They wander here and there and, occasionally, when the ashen sky cracks and opens, they ask to come in from the rain.
Little Ashley May Rue was by all accounts a well-mannered and polite little girl. Quiet, but strong, it was said. She was her mother’s rock in the days and weeks after her father’s death. Her teachers all thought she would do well and the neighbors all thought she would keep her mom – and her little baby brother – anchored and sane in the difficult years that lay ahead.
It was a lot to ask of an eight-year-old, but Ashley May never complained or cried. It was like she knew something the others didn’t.
But even if she hardly ever showed it, she missed playing whiffle ball with her Daddy and her cousins in the backyard, where the above ground pool was a home run and the swing set was a foul. She missed her Daddy holding the back of her bike – the pink sparkly one with the Power Puff Girls seat – as she wobbled and wavered along the sidewalk before lunch. Mostly, she missed the trips down the shore and the long walks with her Daddy in the sun, while Mommy sat feeding little Ben his bottle.
When she felt sad about not being able to do those things with her Daddy anymore, or when she just felt sad about all the things that had happened, the one thing that could always make her feel better was the rain.
It was her Mommy’s own daddy who taught her to sit with the garage open on the late summer afternoons when the thunderstorms would roll in from the south and drench the world for one half hour or maybe two. Grandpa showed Ashley May just the right distance – the length of an old picnic-table bench – to sit from the end of the garage so that you could feel the rain passing by without ever getting wet. They’d sit side-by-side in the rusty old beach chairs, the webbing frayed and yellow, and hum a song as they watched the water fall in sheets. Or sometimes, they would say nothing at all, and Grandpa and Ashley May would just hold hands and let their arms swing lightly as they stared off into the deluge.
It was where Ashley May learned to think of nothing when she wanted to think of everything. It was where she learned to find the calm even when everything around her made her want to cry.
Of course, her Grandpa was dead now too. From the cigarettes he smoked, they told her.
But Ashley May still loved looking at the rain.
It was three o’clock and almost as if on schedule, the slate sky began to crack and patter and another afternoon thunderstorm commenced. Little Ben was upstairs sleeping and Ashley May would have at least an hour to herself before she needed to change and feed him. She hoped the rain would last the whole hour.
She stopped using the beach chairs to watch the rain, as it didn’t seem right to sit in them without Grandpa. So she stood – and occasionally twirled a little like a ballerina – exactly one picnic-table-bench-length from the edge of the garage and let her eyes and mind drift off into the sheets of rain and the occasional streak of lighting.
In truth, Ashley May wasn’t quite thinking of nothing as the Werebear approached. She was concentrating on the poplar tree that dominated the front lawn of her family’s house. She was earnestly trying to decide if it was called “poplar” because it was a popular type of tree. At least two of their neighbors had one as well, so it didn’t seem that strange of an idea. She was just deciding her theory might have merit when the Werebear’s nose poked around the corner of the open garage.
Ashley May had seen a great many animals – deer, wild turkeys, raccoon, and, of course, bunny rabbits – while watching the rain. But this was her first bear. The turkeys – loud and brazen – had given her quite a start. The bear didn’t alarm her quite as much, as he was quiet. But he also was quite big and uncomfortably close. She took three steps back and looked to the door that led into the house at the back of the garage.
The Werebear cleared his throat and spoke. “Please don’t be frightened, young miss.”
Most people would be more than scared not just by a bear, but by one that spoke. But Ashley May had seen a great many things in her eight years and she wasn’t frightened. Not quite, anyway.
“You can talk?” she said. It seemed a good idea to her to get that out in the open straight away.
“Yes,” said the Werebear, in a deep, smoky baritone. “I can also catch cold.” He let his eyes drift up to the rain pouring down on his snout and shook himself a bit to show that his fur was getting quite inundated.
Little Ashley May Rue furrowed her brow. This was a pickle. Her mother had been quite clear on what she was supposed to say to any visitors while she was away at work. Ashley May had repeated her mom’s words exactly – to the social worker, to the mailman, to the college student who tried to sell her cable TV. But she didn’t know what she was supposed to say to a bear, let alone a talking bear.
The Werebear cleared his throat again. “I don’t mean to be forward, young miss, but might I – just for a few moments – come in from the rain?”
“You won’t eat me?” said Ashley May, asking what seemed to her an honest, if slightly rude, question.
The Werebear’s snout twisted into a frown. He exhaled disgustedly and turned to head down the driveway.
“Wait!” Little Ashley May Rue cried. “You… you can come in.”
“Are you sure?” said the Werebear in his rich rumble of a voice.
“Yes,” said Ashley May. “For a little while, anyway.”
The Werebear nodded and lumbered into the garage, blocking out Ashley’s May’s view of the rain – of everything – before sitting on her right.
Ashley May didn’t like this. It was where her Grandpa used to sit. She wasn’t sure she had done the right thing.
“Grizzly,” said the Werebear.
“You were wondering what type of bear I am.”
Ashley hadn’t been but she didn’t say so. Instead, she asked, “Do all grizzly bears talk?”
“No,” laughed the Werebear. “I’m special. And I’m not entirely a bear.”
“Not entirely?” asked Little Ashley May Rue.
“I used to be a person. A long, long time ago. Or at least I think I was. That’s how I learned to talk.”
“But now you’re a bear?”
“A werebear is the precise term. You see, something happened. I used to be a human, then I was a bear and a human. After a while, I just stayed a bear.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s all I know now,” said the Werebear. “It’s been so long since I was a person.”
“What’s the best part?”
“Eating little girls,” said the Werebear. Then he turned his head to look at Ashley May and laughed a loud and hearty laugh. He sat back on his hind legs and rubbed his belly with his front paws as he guffawed to show the little girl what a good joke he’d made. Ashley May laughed with him though she didn’t quite know why.
The Werebear shifted back onto all fours and walked around the garage a bit. He sniffed at the old rusty snow shovels, pawed a bit at the stacks of bound newspapers, and cast a disparaging eye at old the picnic-table bench Ashley May used to mark the correct distance for watching the rain.
“Where is your mommy?” he asked after a fashion.
“At work, but she’ll be home in a few minutes,” Little Ashley May Rue replied dutifully, saying exactly what here mother had told her to say.
“And your daddy?”
Ashley May was quiet for a full minute before answering. She waited until the Werebear moved back to her side before speaking.
“My Daddy’s dead,” she finally said.
“I see,” said the Werebear. “Well, I am sorry to hear that. It must be hard on you being here all alone.”
Ashley May didn’t say anything more. She stared off into the rain. She remembered that the rain made things better, made her feel safe. She wanted to be safe. She wanted the Werebear to leave, didn’t want to hear his breathing through his thick fangs, didn’t want to listen to the way he subtly sniffed at her. She liked the silence with her Grandpa, but with the Werebear it just made her more uneasy. Ashley May desperately searched for something to say. She blurted out the first thing that came into her mind.
“Do you know Winnie the Pooh?” she said somewhat sheepishly.
“You know, I could eat you all in maybe three gulps,” said the Werebear
The Werebear stopped looking at the rain. He moved his bulk full round Ashley May, blocking out her view again. When he spoke, his voice was still deep, but had an edge to it.
“I said, ‘I could eat you all in maybe three gulps.’ Shall we find out?”
“You said you wouldn’t eat me!” cried Little Ashley May Rue.
The Werebear laughed and it was not a nice laugh.
“I said no such thing. I never answered you. I was walking away when you stopped me. When you invited me in from the rain.”
Ashley May took two quick steps backwards and the Werebear lunged forward positioning his snout an inch away from her nose.
“Going somewhere, young miss?”
Ashley May tried not to cry. She said the only thing she could think of to save herself.
“Do you like babies?”
“What?!” growled the Werebear.
“Do you like babies?” repeated Little Ashley May Rue.
The Werebear nodded slowly. “Of course. Babies taste best. So soft and tender. One big bite.” He clamped down his jaws to show Ashley May just how he would eat one.
“My brother… my baby brother. He’s upstairs.”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” said the Werebear. He turned his nose to the air and sniffed hard twice. “Yes, yes he is.”
“You could take him – instead of me.”
“I could,” said the Werebear.
“He tastes better than me.” Ashley May’s voice was small and cold.
“Why shouldn’t I take you both?” asked the Werebear.
“Because I have the key to the door to the house,” said Little Ashley May Rue. “It’s metal and you can’t break it down.”
“Can’t I?” scoffed the Werebear.
“No, you can’t,” said Ashley May. “At least not without making a lot of noise and attracting attention.”
The Werebear nodded. “All right. You open the door for me. And I won’t eat you. But I want to hear you say it again.”
“Say, you want me to eat your little baby brother and not you. Say it for me again.”
His snout was right next to her cheek and Ashley May could feel the Werebear’s breath, wet and foul.
“You promise you won’t eat me? For real this time?” Ashley May said.
“I promise,” said the Werebear. “For real, I promise.”
“My brother,” Ashley May whimpered. “I choose my baby brother. Eat him.”
The Werebear laughed his dark, edgy laugh again. He didn’t rub his belly. “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Little Ashley May Rue reached into the pocket of her shorts – the denim ones with the SpongeBob face on both back pockets – and pulled out a small key. Her breathing was shallow and fast and she tried to slow it. She stepped to the door, placed the key in the lock and turned it. She felt an almost instant relief.
“There,” she said, stepping aside.
The Werebear brushed passed her and placed his paws on the door. A smile, if you could call it that, played on his snout. The Werebear didn’t normally go out of his way to be cruel, but he didn’t like this little girl very much. He couldn’t quite help himself.
“You know,” he said in his thick, smoky voice, “it’s really too bad your Daddy’s gone and left you here all alone.”
Ashley May swallowed hard and said what she said to all the others – to the mailman, to the social worker, to the man selling cable TV.
“I said my Daddy was dead. I didn’t say he was gone.”
She heard the door to the house open and covered her ears as the Werebear growled in agony, his roar echoing like thunder in the garage before trailing off into whimpers and the limp scratching of claws on concrete as he was pulled into the house.
Little Ashley May Rue still very much loved her Daddy, but she hated to watch him feed.
She turned her back and forced herself to focus on the downpour, the way her Grandpa taught her, and thought of nothing till everything just drifted away.
MIKE SWEENEY lives in Central New Jersey where he writes constantly but never quite enough.