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  • Writer's pictureAbe Margel

More Than a Shack

It was more than a shack but not quite a house. Uncle Festus had lived there for sixty years and saw no reason to move into something more comfortable.

“This is my home. I love the smell of it, the feel of it, the house, the land, everything. And you think I should leave my place? No! Bagby’s big enough and High Prairie is too big for my liking. Why should I move?”

“Maybe because High Prairie has supermarkets, pharmacies and a hospital?” Gail said. “It’s just common sense.”

“Like hell common sense. High Prairie also has a nursing home, if that’s what you’re getting at,” he said bitterly. “No, I’m staying right here.”

Gail, Festus’ niece, drained her mug of coffee and picked up one of the cookies she’d brought with her. “Not a nursing home but how about moving to a nice apartment or small house?”

“Absolutely not.”

That was in 2007, the last time they had seen each other in person. By then he had grown thin and appeared frail to her but surprised everyone by living another decade and a half. They were not close but she phoned him once a month. He had been a shy old man and now that he was dead Gail missed him. 

With his death it had fallen upon her, as his executor, to look through his junk, sell the hut and the large parcel of woods surrounding it. Although Festus lived with a woman for a time when he was young, he’d never married and his only sibling, Clarence, had predeceased him. The proceeds from the sale were to be divided among his nieces and nephews. 

Festus’ house was on the edge of the village of Bagby so it was hooked up to the electric grid and the water system. Cell reception was patchy but the house had a landline, now disconnected. The small isolated community was surrounded by lush forests of jack pines, maples and willows. Nearby a half dozen lakes teemed with pike, trout and perch. 

It was her second and last day in the place. She’d boxed all the things that might be useful and donated them to a church in Grouard, a small town southeast of Bagby. Everything else, not that there was much, she’d driven to the dump. All that was left was a wobbly kitchen chair and small table. There was also a mounted grizzly bear head and a photo album bound in alligator leather, filled with ancient black and white pictures. Festus was in some of them along with his late brother, Clarence, but who were all these other faces?

She was tired. At forty-one she found the hard work was more than she had expected. A small woman, she regretted not having asked her husband, Bill, or one of her three daughters to help her with this unwelcome task.

She was at the table looking at pictures when her cell phone rang. It was Bill. 

“Yes, dear I’ll be back tonight,” she said.

“It’s a long drive to Edmonton. Maybe you should stay the night at some motel?”

“I might just do that. Anyway, I’ll leave soon. The sun will be up till ten. It’s only four now, so I should be home by nine or so.”

The old photo album fascinated her. She took a close look at a picture of two teenage boys and their parents attending what looked like a rodeo. There was a long rivalry between Festus and Clarence. They both fought in Korea in different battalions, both dated girls from High Prairie. But Clarence moved with his wife to Edmonton where he became a refrigeration mechanic and prospered while Festus stayed near home and scraped by. 

“Clarence was lucky,” he once told Gail over a pot of tea, “horseshoe up his ass. Nice wife, good job, fine kids and me, nothing much. Lady luck never looked in my direction except I survived Korea. I guess that’s something, something no one remembers.”

“Clarence has been dead for years and you’re alive. That’s not nothing.”

Both brothers were now dead and soon their memories would fade into the ether. The thought saddened her.

She closed the warped front door to the decrepit house and fiddled with the lock till it finally worked. The new owners planned to knock the structure down and build a fishing lodge. They said they would be happy to have the mounted bear head. It was the only thing of any value left in the deserted shack. 

The sun was still high in the sky and it would be some time before the mosquitoes and no-see-ums were out. Gail climbed into her Silverado pickup and placed the photo album on the passenger seat. A chill ran down her back. It seemed to her something or someone was staring at her from among the trees. Nonsense, she reassured herself. She started the engine, gave one last look at the hut and was surprised to see the door had swung wide open. 

“Oh, no.” She got out of the pickup truck, hurried back to the wooden door, closed and locked it. She gave the handle a good shake to make sure it was secure.

Just past Kinuso she turned south onto Regional Highway 33, Grizzly Trail, a paved two lane thoroughfare. For the next hour she knew the road would be hedged in by woods, clear cut sections and fields with no buildings in sight, no houses, gas stations, or coffee shops, nothing. She didn’t like the thought of traversing this empty stretch of asphalt but it was still daylight and there would likely be other vehicles using the road.  

She settled back for the drive, searched for a local radio station just in case there was any traffic news she should know about. After a couple of minutes she found a country and western broadcast out of High Prairie and turned up the volume. She was tired but kept her eyes fixed on the highway. 

Suddenly the road ahead had her full attention. A large brown bear walked out from among the trees. It approached the asphalt without bothering to see if there was any traffic and began to cross. Gail slammed on the brakes a good distance from the formidable grizzly. Her stomach was in a knot. The road was too narrow to easily make a U-turn and escape. She rolled up the windows and waited as the half-ton animal took its time crossing the thoroughfare then disappeared into the woods. 

After a moment’s hesitation, Gail floored the accelerator and roared straight south away from the unpredictable beast. Ten minutes later she slowed down when she saw a man at the side of the road walking north. He wore baggy pants held up by suspenders. Who wears suspenders nowadays? And where could he be coming from and where could he be going? She was well past him by the time a feeling of uneasiness crept up on her. When she glanced in her side mirrors he was nowhere to be seen.   

She turned up the radio. Ryan Robinette was singing to her and she could feel her shoulders relax. The serenity didn’t last long. A tire blew and sent her fishtailing down the road before she could bring it to a halt. Jesus, Jesus, when will this day be over? Thank God I wasn’t speeding or the damn thing might have spun out or even flipped. She stayed in the cab for a couple of minutes waiting to see if a bear would show up, then got out and examined the vehicle. It was a rear tire and she wasn’t about to haul out the spare from under the truck bed. From her purse she pulled out her cell which thankfully worked and called AMA. 

“Yes, we have someone in Slave Lake. I’ll contact him and he’ll call you back.”

And he did.

She climbed back into the cabin to wait for the tow truck. Feeling a little absurd she combed the ash blond hair that framed her attractive face and carefully applied lipstick.

 A taciturn, overweight man with wavy brown hair showed up in a new tow truck. Thirty minutes later, spare tire installed, Gail was back on her way. 

It had been a long day and she was exhausted. Holding her cell with one hand and the steering wheel with the other she spoke with her husband. “Bill, I'm stopping in Swan Hills for the night at a motel. I’m beat and don’t like driving around without a spare tire. I’ll get it fixed or replaced at one of the local garages then drive home tomorrow, okay?”

“Yeah, that makes sense. Phone me after you’re settled in.”

Google rated all five motels in Swan Hills as good. This abundance of lodgings in a town of only twelve hundred souls was unexpected.  As she headed into the community it reminded her of a large industrial park. The place was built on oil and gas extraction and looked it, austere and uninviting. Three forest fires nearly burned the town to the ground; now trees were a rarity within its limits, less kindling to set the place ablaze. She chose the Dawson Vista Motel on Grizzly Trail. 

The young woman half asleep at the reception desk gave her a questioning look. Gail told her she’d be staying only the night.

“I had to change a flat and want to get the tire fixed or replaced. Any place you recommend?”

The woman spat out the gum she had been chewing and took on a contemplative look. “There’s a couple of good garages, Chuck’s Auto Repair or Innes’ Tire and Fender. They’re across from each other just a five minute drive from here.” She made a circular motion with her right arm. “They’d be closed now.”

Gail had supper at the local Chinese restaurant. It was a Formica and vinyl establishment straight out of the 1980s, clean and utilitarian. The only other customers were two men, both wearing stained baseball caps, khaki pants and construction boots, drinking beer and talking too loudly, cursing the provincial government’s oil policies. 

“Yes,” the waiter said to her shaking his head, “the Swan Hills Grizzly, they’re famous for their size. You don’t want to tangle with any grizzly. A couple of months ago one of them walked straight down the street in front of my house, scared the neighbourhood. The thing was bigger than my car. By the time police showed up, it was gone.”

She didn’t linger in the eatery. When she got back to the motor inn she unpacked the small suitcase she’d brought with and phoned her husband and eldest daughter then settled in to watch TV. Propped up by pillows on the king-size bed she suffered through a boring movie centred on the life of a woman aviator and her three marriages. Even the romantic scenes were sleep-inducing. After a while she gave up and pulled out a book she’d brought with her, an historic fiction set in 5th century Byzantium. 

The movie had been a bore and so was the book. She closed her eyes as the volume slid off her lap. Something strange was happening. She found herself in Byzantium being chased by a grizzly. Soldiers in armour and civilians in togas looked on passively as she ran for her life down cobblestone streets, past columned public buildings and street hawkers. The clanging of metal against metal reached her ears. She and the bear slowed down to look at a woeful sight, a dozen emaciated blond-haired men in chains being led to the auction block. Then a growl came from behind her. The beast had resumed his chase. As Gail picked up speed to escape him she was surprised to hear the roar of an engine and see her Silverado truck pass by her going in the opposite direction. Two men in chequered shirts and suspenders were in the cabin. 

Her Uncle Festus was driving and her Grandfather Clarence was screaming at him, “Stop, stop we have to help her.” But the pickup did not stop. 

The brown bear closed in on her, huge mouth open, long claws at the ready to rip her to pieces. From a million miles away in another universe she could hear herself moan as she turned her head back and forth on her pillow. The grizzly’s eyes were filled with rage. Her grandfather jumped from the pickup carrying a slingshot and ran toward her. He pulled back on the thick rubber band but was unable to fling the rock toward the attacking beast because Uncle Festus grabbed his arm. The two men began to struggle with each other. “Help,” she said out loud and woke up, heart racing, covered in sweat. 

After a few minutes she got up, put on her pajamas, brushed her teeth and went to bed. On the nightstand she placed her cell phone and plugged it in to charge. The book, she decided, was trash and dropped it in the wastepaper basket.  A few minutes later she was asleep. 

In the morning she woke refreshed and drove to Chuck’s Auto Repair. A large man in his fifties appeared. He wore grease-stained overalls and a green and yellow John Deere cap. With a big smile he invited her into his office. 

The room was a cluttered mess. An old metal desk was covered in papers and unopened envelopes, an overflowing ashtray sat in one corner on a beat-up laptop. A push-button telephone hung on a wall next to a photo calendar featuring a half-naked woman. The room had two chairs but they were occupied by a headlight, a carburetor and parts of a gearbox. 

“No problem, I can fix your tire. Come back in thirty minutes.”

“Maybe I’ll go for a stroll. Where’s downtown?”

“There really isn’t a downtown. Sorry.”

“I’m going for a walk around here then.”

It was a fine summer’s day, cloudless and warm. She retrieved her shoulder bag from her truck and rambled away. Not the prettiest location for a walk. Chuck’s garage was located in an industrial area, a harsher version of the whole town. The buildings were far apart with woods occupying the spaces in between. The structures were mostly prefabricated steel, unadorned and practical. There was very little traffic on the road and since no sidewalks existed, Gail walked on the asphalt. For no particular reason she headed north. Her mind wandered. What would she prepare for supper when she got home in three or four hours? Should she stop at a supermarket first? 

A large mass of brown hair, muscle, and teeth came looming out from among the trees. Gail froze. Her gut told her this was real, not a dream. The grizzly stopped, sniffed the air then came lumbering toward her, picking up speed as he moved. She knew she couldn’t outrun it, brown bears being at short distances capable of moving as fast as race horses and the distance was becoming shorter by the moment. She started to wave her hands trying to make herself look big, hoping the animal might believe she was a dangerous adversary and not its breakfast. 

From behind her she heard a rumbling sound. It got closer but she couldn’t turn around to see what it was. Nor did she care. Death was looking her straight in the face. The bear was now in the middle of the street, within fifty feet of her when an ancient GMC heavy duty pickup truck driven by two men in plaid shirts flew by her toward the grizzly. The vehicle flung the bear back so that it rolled several yards. The beast got up dazed but seemed unable to decide what to do next. The pickup truck had now turned around and was again bound for the brown bear. Having had enough, the grizzly hurried into the forest before the GMC reached its target. The vehicle slowed down as it passed Gail. Festus and Clarence waved at her before they and their truck melted into the ether.


Abe Margel worked in rehabilitation and mental health for thirty years. He is the father of two adult children and lives in Thornhill, Ontario with his wife. His fiction has appeared in Half Hour to Kill, UPPAGUS, Ariel Chart, Fiction on the Web, Scarlet Leaf Review, Academy of the Heart and Mind, 2020 and 2021 BOULD Awards Anthology and the Spadina Literary Review.


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