The Wonderful “What If?”

When I started writing fiction I found it so exciting to take a real situation and ask the question, “What if?” The fact that I could take something that really happened, change the sequence of events, sprinkle in a few new characters…and poof…it’s a new story.

Different, unique, totally fictitious. That was the premise behind the short story I’ll Keep You Safe. 

In 1996, Melvin and I spent two weeks in Alaska with a 36 ft. sailboat as our home. We loaded our provisions and water, then sailed the Kenai Peninsula for the experience of a lifetime. It was late-summer with barely two hours of  darkness that wasn’t really dark. We anchored in coves of crystal blue water, picked up floating glacier chunks to fill our freezer, and ate fresh-caught salmon for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Especially memorable was the four hour crawl through dense fog using only our instruments and charts. No visibility, just the latitude and longitude, and confidence that we knew our jobs and trusted each other to reach through the mass of white dampness and into the bright blue sky on the other side.

Then came the stretch of bad weather that forced us to tuck into a lagoon at the end of Taroka Arm. Three days of rain and a radio that was out of range for Coast Guard transmissions. Nothing to do but sleep, read, and watch the wildlife, mainly the parade of black bears that made regular trips along the shoreline looking for berries and fish.

Our anchorage at Taroka Arm. The white spot in the water is our boat.

That black dot on the shoreline is one of the black bears that paraded past our boat every day.

When Melvin decided to go ashore and hike to the top to get a photo of our location I stayed behind. Yes, he encountered a bear. Yes, there was a confrontation. But all passed with only a mild measure of drama.

So, my writer’s mind kicked in and asked, “What if?” The result is the story below. It was published in the 2011 edition of the Scratch Anthology.

I’ll Keep You Safe

He starts to slip—ten feet, now another five. He thinks of Janie. She begged him not to make this hike. Sharp edges of rock rip through his jeans, into his knees. Gravel digs into his hands as his fingers grip for something solid. He’s lean and strong but still can’t get his footing—every surface crumbles beneath him. A torrent of rock cascades from above. It bounces off his body, but shatters his equilibrium. He falls sideways, tumbling, plummeting down the steep incline.

Janie scoots her seat cushion across the deck to avoid the sun’s shadow on her notebook. She’s done her quarter-hour check, and has spotted Kip’s red jacket moving up the cliff. The shiny splash of red nylon in the distance lets her relax and focus on her writing. Grabbing for the binoculars, she pans the terrain one more time. Yep, there’s my man. I’m back to work. Satisfied that Kip is safe, she turns her attention to an accurate description of their remote location, determined to capture every observation on paper. 

 

Day 8 – Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska.

Our Location: The anchorage is tucked around a corner, at the end of a gravel spit. We are at the base of a long piece of water called Taroka Arm. Two Arm Bay is in the distance.

What I see: More glaciers, mountains, wildlife. New to this location is the water streaming from crevices in the two adjoining coves. We counted fourteen separate waterfalls creating the curve of cliffs bordering our anchorage.

Weather: After five overcast days we now have clear skies. This means an evening of sunlight past eleven o’clock. Nights are chilly. Days warm to mid-60s.

Comments: The smog-free sky glistens in the brightest blue, and the sun is close and intense. Resin from the evergreen forest blends with saltwater air to create a tangy freshness, while the white noise of our stereo waterfall combines with natural stillness to produce a decompression chamber of peace.

Janie draws a double line after the last sentence of her travel notes, and begins her personal journal.

July 29th

Five minutes after we set anchor, I saw a bear on the shoreline. Small, probably a baby, with mama close by, tired of berries, looking for a tasty little fat girl to gnaw on. Yikes! Any thoughts I had about hiking to the top of that cliff evaporated. My eyes, ears and nose can explore from the comfort of this sailboat.

Kip tried persuasion. “Come on Blondie,” he said. “You can count on me.”

Usually that “Blondie” line can coax my gutsy traveler personality to override the timid tourist. But this time my risk-o-meter registered off the scale. I’m already at my adventure limit.

I practically begged him not to go. When I saw bear, I smelled trouble. All I need is for him to get gobbled by Mr. Smokey and leave me on this damn boat in the middle of nowhere. We are so far out of reach, the Coast Guard can’t even pick up our radio signal. Kip laughed when I told him it was dangerous to be this secluded. He said if he didn’t come back, I should pull up anchor, set sail for Seward, and file a prize-winning story titled, “The Intrepid Deeds of an Adventurous Man and His Brave Wife.” That’s not even funny—it’s just plain morbid!

I settled in with the binoculars, a jar of Peter Pan, and a Diet Pepsi. Kip took the hint. I love that about him. He’s way more daring than I am, but doesn’t argue when my caution exceeds his enthusiasm. He takes me to the edge of risk, but never bullies me into jumping.

Janie slips the pen into her notebook and reaches for the binoculars. This time she sees no red jacket in the distance. She checks her watch. It’s been ten minutes. She refocuses, and looks again. She finds the spot where she last saw the jacket, and makes a loop of the area. Where is he? What’s happening?

Determined not to let “what if” get hold of her, Janie opts for a trip below. She’ll get crackers for the peanut butter, and give him a few minutes to reappear.

It takes Kip a second to realize that he’s finally standing still. He gets to his feet—heart pounding, hands throbbing, body staggering like a drunken sailor. Looking up he sees fifty feet of scraped surface. Below, he sees that even with the lost ground, he stands more than 1500 feet above the water. His line of sight is partially blocked by a row of brush, but through the vertical thatch he sees the sailboat—a slim white line in a blue pool. Kip squints into the glare of sun on the water to see the yolk-colored dot that is Janie in her yellow fleece parka. Did she see me?

He cleans the dirt from his face with a handful of snow, and finds it mixed with blood. He runs his tongue around the edge of his mouth, picking up the coppery taste that leads him to the source—a trickle from a gash near his cheekbone. Poking around in his pocket, he comes up with a half-eaten sandwich and a crumpled stash of tissues. He smooths out the tissues and pats his face dry. Next he tucks in his shirt, and tries to make the rip in his jeans look less dramatic. Kip remembers the giant leap of faith Janie took when she agreed to this trip. There’s no way he can hide a fall, but he can downplay the details.

“You want me to do what?” she had said, when he showed her the brochures. “Two weeks of isolation on a sailboat—in the middle of Alaska? Don’t you think that’s a bit too much togetherness? We’re far from honeymooners.”

Kip was prepared for her objections. “All I’m suggesting is a two-week summer cruise along the Alaskan coast. Eighteen hours of light every day, and temps in the mid-70s—perfect weather.”

“Yea, I guess.”

“And, don’t think of it as isolation, Janie. Think of it as quiet time—to rest, to play with your husband, to explore Alaska.” Kip had carefully crafted the list to fit her priorities. “And, you can catch up on your writing. How about an article on our trip? Wouldn’t that be a sweet addition to your portfolio?”

Janie’s frown line melted. She loved travel that paid for itself.

“Well, I have been talking to the editor about a story,” she said, convincing herself as she spoke. “Magazines like off-the-beaten-path stuff, and our expeditions are definitely off-the-beaten-path.”

He had walked Janie to the edge.

“I guess it could be fun,” she said, as she jumped.

Kip hugged her tight. In the back of his mind he pictured himself on a glacial mountaintop.

He steps from behind the row of brush and into Janie’s line of sight. Meandering to the shoreline, he works on a version of his tumble that sounds more clumsy than perilous. In Janie’s mind, there’s a big difference between risk and danger.

When the yellow dot develops arms that sway in recognition, Kip signals in return and shifts his attention to the natural beauty he rushed past earlier that morning. There are patches of receding snow under his feet, covered with a transparent layer of ice, visibly melting in the summer sun and headed for a liquid trip downhill. Centuries of granite rubble cover the hillside, with clumps of lush greenery softening the rugged surface. Delicate spikes of purple and cream-colored flowers run to the grey pebble beach. Reaching for the remnants of his breakfast sandwich, he dumps the bits of ham and crust, and scoops melting ice into the sandwich bag, creating a makeshift vase for a wildflower bouquet.

She’s crunching the last cracker when she spots Kip. She waves. Seconds later a large brown mound moves out of the woods behind him and traverses the clearing toward a distant patch of trees. Her throat chokes as if she’s swallowed a handful of rocks. The mound moves at a trot, but stops when it reaches the spot crossing Kip’s path. A long pause, then the mound becomes an upright, two-legged reality. Janie yelps when she sees the russet head tilt and the snout point in the air. I remember this from the brochure, she thinks. He’s smells a human, and he’s searching for Kip.

“Kip,” she screams without thinking. “Bear! Behind you! Run!” As the words travel uphill on the wind, she sees the bear’s entire body snap towards the high-pitched sound, and she knows she just made a bad situation even worse.

Kip hears the panic in her voice, but he can’t make out the words.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he yells, and begins a stumble-run, arms flailing at his side. Is she hurt? Is there a fire? Is the boat sinking? He sorts through possibilities and solutions as his feet dodge the boulders. A trail of flowers falls behind him.

“Bear! Bear! Bear!” She sees the animal begin to gallop down the hill, but all Janie can do is scream and point.

When he gets in earshot, Kip turns to see the furry freight train barreling his way. Years of hiking in the wild squelch his gut reaction to run. Instead, he remembers his training and drops to the ground, tucking his arms and legs into the fetal position. If he gets hold of an arm or leg, I’m finished. He rolls into a tight mound just as the bear slows to a halt beside his body. The animal sniffs, burrows his nose deep into Kip’s side, and flips him over like a partially deflated medicine ball. Kip throws out his arms to regain his balance, then resists, and uses the momentum to roll farther down the hill and closer to the water. He wants to reposition himself and catch a glimpse of the situation, but decides to holds out for the right moment. He locks his arms around his knees, and tries to slow his breathing. Tuck in tight—no sounds—play dead.

Janie stands at the railing, petrified. Distance keeps her safe—distance makes it impossible to help. The bear shakes his massive head, growls in frustration, and then chases after Kip’s body, swiping at the down jacket with his giant paws. Janie snaps.

Witnessing the attack propels her past the edge of her panic, and she leaps into rescue mode. The flair gun.  I’ll shoot the bear. Can I do that? What if I miss and shoot Kip? She runs below for the emergency kit, fumbles open the latch, and retrieves the gun. On her way back up she stops, returns to the case, and empties the entire box of flares into the pouch of her parka. If the first shot misses, she’ll just keep shooting.

“The Intrepid Deeds of an Adventurous Man and His Brave Wife.” Kips words flash through her mind. We know he’s adventurous. Let’s find out if I’m brave.

She steadies her aim and realizes she can’t shoot the bear without jeopardizing Kip. She points instead at the bushes, hoping to start a fire and scare the bear back into the woods. Could someone see the smoke in the distance? A forest ranger maybe—or the Coast Guard? She’s not sure if it will work, but somehow the idea makes sense.

Her shot lands between the bush and the bear. There’s no fire, but instead a fireworks flash that throws fat sparks on the fur of the stunned animal. He whelps in pain, and staggers away from Kip in confusion. She loads again.

The next shot hurls hot splashes into his face and turns the bear uphill towards the woods. She counts her ammo. Six flares remain. Janie plants the third blast right on his tail. He roars and takes off running. She blows on the barrel of the flare gun and feels very Annie Oakley.

“Kip, can you hear me? He’s gone. You’re safe.”

No words come, but an arm gradually extends from the muddy ball of red nylon and blue denim. She snatches the binoculars for a closer look, and sees a wobbly thumbs-up.

 

Ginger B

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