(Read the rest of this series here.)
The sloth bear was 400 pounds of muscle encased in shaggy black fur and tipped with massive, razor sharp claws. It had spent its whole life in a cage, eating grain and protein supplements. Its wild instincts had been suppressed like a hand grenade covered in saran wrap. And now it was free and hungry and running our way.
These things don’t kill you quickly. They like to tear you limb from limb and suck on your bone marrow.
It came for us. Fur rippled and rumbled as it ran. Claws tore up the ground beneath it. I probably peed a little.
“Go!” shouted Sid, grabbing the manatee-laden stretcher. “Get it into the van!”
That snapped me out of my daze. Joe the manatee! Of course! We had to get him to safety immediately. He was like a minnow to that bear.
Sid wrenched open the double back doors of the van. Together we hoisted the stretcher as best we could, though Joe wasn’t making things easy for us. He was pure dead weight and utter indifference to his surrounding circumstances.
Grunting and pushing, I said, “Damn it, Joe, get in there! Where’s your sense of urgency?”
Finally, with the adrenaline-given strength of a mother lifting a car off her child, we managed to shove the manatee into the van. He plopped into the tank of water we’d prepared for him and just floated. Calm as could be.
Sid slipped around the side of the van, headed for the driver’s seat. I tossed the stretcher aside and shut one of the back doors. The bear took care of the other, slamming into it with its shoulder. I jumped backwards as it lashed out with its claw and shattered the taillight I’d been standing in front of a moment earlier.
I scrambled away, managing to snag my harpoon off the ground. The bear came around the side of the van. I steadied my hand, leveled my weapon, and threw the harpoon with all my might.
The bear swatted it to the ground like it was a toothpick.
Pictured: also not a bear killer.
It stopped two feet away, reared up, and stood on its hind legs, towering far above me. It snarled and spit. I just stared and felt parts of me tingle. Hey, don’t judge. I defy you to come this close to the raw, brutal power of nature and not get a boner. Boobs got nothing on this magnificence! The bear landed back on all fours and it felt like the Earth itself was crumbling beneath me.
“Chris, get in!”
Somewhere in the midst of my naturebating, Sid had gotten the van rolling.
I spider-walked backwards until I managed to push myself onto my feet. Then I put my back to the bear and ran with the van. I pulled open the side sliding door and hopped inside with several feet between me and the beast to spare. Easy peasy. I grabbed the inside door handle and started to close it when I heard a shout.
It was Maria the zoo lady. Somehow I had completely forgotten about her.
She was just a couple feet back, running after us, away from the bear. Judging by a quick glance around it seemed like we were her only option for escape. She couldn’t make a run for the closest building or even climb the outer fence in time to avoid becoming bear food. So that left us, the people stealing her manatee.
Oh, he’s fine. Clearly he’s having a great time.
“Shut the door!” Sid shouted.
Before I could do it Maria put on a burst of speed and threw herself at the van. She didn’t make it, not completely. She landed partway in the van, on her stomach, then immediately started to slip out. She caught the door and held on for dear life. Only her head and shoulders stayed inside the relative safety of the van. Her lower body dragged behind her, bumping and catching on the pavement, threatening to tug her away.
Maria said, “Let me in! Let me in!”
Sid said, “Kick her out! Kick her out!”
The bear trotted right behind the van, matching our pace, its gnashing teeth just inches from Maria’s ankles.
She made eye contact with me. She didn’t cry out for help. She didn’t need to. That one look said it all, conveyed every bit of desperation inside her.
I froze. What was I supposed to do here? Help her into the getaway vehicle? She was my nemesis, the very person I was trying to escape! In fact, letting the bear take care of her would be my surest path to victory in the manatee challenge. I’d put so much work into this, so much effort. If I threw it all away just to help some chick not get eaten by a bear, did that make me a quitter?
We hit a pothole and her grip broke. She flailed and started to fall all the way to the ground. Her gaze never left mine. I tried to look away. I tried to stop imagining the bear sucking on her bloody limbs.
Something like this.
All I had to do was nothing, and my life would be so much easier.
I snatched her hand out of the air.
Her body hit the ground, threatening to pull me out too. She cried out in pain as the asphalt tore at her skin and clothes. I braced myself and pulled as hard as I could. She kicked off the ground, landed with her knee on the running board. I tugged again and she flew inside. Her balance still off, she staggered across the interior of the van and smacked against the far window. She fell to the floor.
I slammed the door closed. The bear let out one last roar, muffled by the walls of the van. Then we were away, out the gates of Tampa’s premiere animal prison. The mighty sloth bear shrank in the distance. We skidded onto the main road and Sid gunned it. We had officially escaped the zoo. I had my manatee at last!