Flash Fiction: Spirit Animal by Val Muller

Welcome to the Spot Writers. This month’s prompt is to write about something summery. Today’s piece comes to us from Val Muller, author of the Corgi Capers mystery series with several other books in the works. Check out her blog for news about upcoming releases at valm16.sg-host.com/blog.

Spirit Animal

By Val Muller

It was the summer without vacations. Two of them cancelled already, and the re-rescheduled one for August not looking good, either. And with Benny being quarantined from friends, it was looking to be a summer to blemish the memory.

I kept thinking of my own summers, the freedom I had to bike with friends, to live outside until Mom called me in for dinner, to build secret campfires and clubhouses out of scrap wood. At seven, Benny was maybe a little too young to do all that on his own, especially without help. Our previous decision to cap the kid count at one seemed like a bad idea this summer. How much better might things be with a little brother?

Instead, it was up to me and Helen to make up for the global pandemic in Benny’s small world. Helen was doing her best, balancing work-from-home with summertime fun. And I’ve basically been on conference calls for the last ten weeks. I came out of the office for a coffee and I saw Benny there, looking dejected. On the most beautiful day in June, just sitting there on the steps staring at the carpet.

So for the holiday weekend, I knew I had to repair Benny’s summer.

We were watching a cartoon, something about spirit animals. Benny asked what that was, and that’s when I decided. “We’re going camping,” I said. “We’re going on a quest to find your spirit animal.”

“Camping?” Helen rose an eyebrow from the kitchen, where she was making dinner. “Where?”

With social distancing, I wasn’t sure campgrounds were even open. Benny looked at me expectantly. I opened my mouth and hoped for the best. “In the back yard, of course!”

So down to the basement I went, searching for my old gear. My tent, the sleeping bags. “It’s a two-man tent,” I reminded Helen, thinking back to our camping days.

“That’s okay,” she said with a little too much relief. “You boys have fun. I’m sure I’ll be okay having the house to myself for a night.”

That night, I remembered why grown-ups don’t camp so much. The humidity, the mosquitos. And, of course, the loss of that “I’m invincible” feeling of childhood and adolescence. Every rustling in the bushes on our three-acre lot, I wondered about our safety. Would a fox attack? Would they smell dinner on our breaths? And what about the bear everyone was posting about on the neighborhood Facebook page? At night, he owned the neighborhood. Even the coyote being tracked down the road would defer to the bear, I’m sure.

“What do we do now, Dad?” Benny asked. He sat on the sleeping bag in the tent, looking at me expectantly. He seemed so little, so young. I rustled his hair and gave him a hug. Sometimes I forget how much of a kid he still is.

“We should go out of the tent,” I said. “We need to find your spirit animal.” I smacked my arm. “And unless your spirit animal is a mosquito, we aren’t going to find it in here.”

“How do we find my spirit animal?”

I glanced inside at the warm glow of the television. Helen was finding her own spirit animal, no doubt. I didn’t know how to answer. I was winging this. I don’t honestly know what a spirit animal is. I’ve never had one of my own. I think it’s supposed to be some kind of vision quest or something. Not something I’m qualified for, really.

“I think a spirit animal has some qualities that you share with it. Something deep down inside of you. It’s powerful,” I hoped aloud.

“How will I know what mine is?” Benny asked.

“When you see it, you’ll know.”

We lit a small fire in the portable hibachi grill. We roasted marshmallows, and I wondered what kind of animals liked marshmallows. While we ate, a small brown toad hopped onto the patio nearby, perching on a damp spot.

“Is that my spirit animal?” Benny asked.

“A toad?” I glanced at its brown, warty surface. “I don’t think so, son. Do you like to eat flies?”

He laughed. “No, Dad, I guess not.”

We waited. In the distance, the crickets chirped, and some nocturnal bird warbled. Late-lingering fireflies blinked under the trees. An owl hooted.

“Am I a cricket?” he asked, moving his arms like a praying mantis.

We both laughed.

“I think you have to see your animal to know it,” I said. I looked at the toad again and wondered if that was my spirit animal. Just kind of sitting there. Being useless except for eating bugs. Maybe it would be good at conference calls. I shivered and shook my head. No. This was not my quest for a spirit animal. Tonight belonged to Benny.

I wondered what kind of young man he would be, what kind of man he would grow into. He was so young, so sheltered. What was this year in quarantine doing to him? Would he know how to socialize? Would he trust others, or be governed by paranoid fear? Would he follow what he was told without question? Would his basis for human interactions be movies? Cartoons where characters go on vision quests to find their spirit animal?

Was I a failure of a father?

At the end of our property, two eyes glowed.

“A fox,” I whispered.

Benny gasped and whispered to me. “Cool, but it’s not my spirit animal.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I just do,” he said.

We went to sleep that night without an answer to his spirit animal quandary. I woke in the middle of the night to the feeling that something was wrong. My first instinct was to check on Benny. He slept soundly next to me. I dashed to the house to peek in the living room window. Helen was sleeping on the couch, the TV still glowing, an empty wine glass on the table next to her. The glow from the house lights illuminated the camping area in an even twilight, and I turned to inspect the yard.

The humidity was stifling, but still I shivered. Something was off.

I turned around, and that’s when I saw it. The bear, the one everyone had been spotting. So far the neighbors had posted a picture from someone’s bedroom window, far-off and grainy; a picture of its muddy paw prints crossing the road; and several shots of its scat around the neighborhood.

This one was within striking range of me. It was brown—smaller than I thought it would be, but still a terrifying size, one that could tear apart dog or boy or man. And it was sniffing around Benny’s tent.

It’s a parents’ worst dilemma. Being useless to help your child.

I could have easily walked into the house to safety. But the bear was right next to Benny. I thought back to all the documentaries I must have watched, and I realized I knew nothing about bears. I thought I remembered that they like to leave people alone, that they are non-aggressive. But was I supposed to freeze? Play dead? One kind of bear, you’re supposed to raise your arms in the air menacingly to make yourself look bigger, I think.

And in the midst of my son’s life being threatened, I had the awful thought that my phone was in the tent, so there’s no way I could capture what would have been an amazing shot.

In an awful moment, the bear rose on two feet, sniffed the top of the tent, and let out a small groan, a grunt. What was it saying? Was the bear saying “Grace,” pre-dinner? And Benny the main course?

My mind raced with how I would tell Helen. It was then that I decided. I would scream. I would distract the bear and let it chase me. Maybe I would die, but that’s what parents were supposed to do for their children.

Something held my tongue. The bear turned to stare at me. Our eyes locked for an eternity. Stars lived and died. Planets crumbled.

I knew then I was looking at Benny’s spirit animal. Gentle, unprovoked, but with terrifying power beneath.

The bear grunted once, then lowered itself and walked nonchalantly back into the shadows of the yard. I knew Benny would be okay. Tonight and always.

I carried him inside a moment later, though, just to be safe. We slept on the floor next to Helen and her empty bottle of wine. I decided in the morning I wouldn’t tell Benny about the bear just yet. He would discover his power in his own time. For now, I’d let him be a little boy.

The Spot Writers—Our Members:

Val Muller: http://valmuller.com/blog/

Catherine A. MacKenzie: https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/

Phil Yeats: https://alankemisterauthor.wordpress.com

Chiara De Giorgi: https://chiaradegiorgi.blogspot.com/

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