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Brian's Returnby Gary Paulsen
Brian sat quietly, taken by a peace he had not known for a long time, and let the canoe drift forward along the lily pads. To his right was the shoreline of a small lake he had flown into an hour earlier. Around him was the lake itself, an almost circular body of water of approximately eighty acres surrounded by northern forest—pine, spruce, poplar and birch—and thick brush.
It was late spring—June 3, to be exact—and the lake was teeming, crawling, buzzing and flying with life. Mosquitos and flies filled the air, swarming on him, and he smiled now, remembering his first horror at the small blood drinkers. In the middle of the canoe he had an old coffee can with some kindling inside it, and a bit of birchbark, and he lit them and dropped a handful of green poplar leaves on the tiny fire. Soon smoke billowed out and drifted back and forth across the canoe and the insects left him. He had repellant with him this time—along with nearly two hundred pounds of other gear—but he hated the smell of it and found it didn't work as well as a touch of smoke now and then. The blackflies and deerflies and horseflies ignored repellant completely—he swore they seemed to lick it off—but they hated the smoke and stayed well off the canoe.
The relief gave him time to see the rest of the activity on the lake. He remained still, watching, listening.
To his left rear he heard a beaver slap the water with its tail and dive—a warning at the intruder, at the strange smoking log holding the person. Brian smiled. He had come to know beaver for what they truly were—engineers, family-oriented home builders. He'd read that most of the cities in Europe were founded by beaver. That beaver had first felled the trees along the rivers and dammed them up. The rising water killed more trees and when the food was gone and the beaver had no more bark to chew they left. The dams eventually broke apart, and the water drained and left large clearings along the rivers where the beaver had cut down all the trees. Early man came along and started cities where the clearings lay. Cities like London and Paris were founded and settled first by beaver.
In front and to the right he heard the heavier footsteps of a deer moving through the hazel brush. Probably a buck because he heard no smaller footsteps of a fawn. A buck with its antlers in velvet, more than likely, moving away from the smell of smoke from the canoe.
A frog jumped from a lily pad six feet away and had barely entered the water when a northern pike took it with a slashing strike that tore the surface of the lake and flipped lily pads over to show their pale undersides.
Somewhere a hawk screeeeeennned, and he looked for it but could not see it through the leaves of the trees around the lake. It would be hunting. Bringing home mice for a nest full of young. Looking for something to kill.
No, Brian thought—not in that way. The hawk did not hunt to kill. It hunted to eat. Of course it had to kill to eat—along with all other carnivorous animals—but the killing was the means to bring food, not the end. Only man hunted for sport, or for trophies.
It is the same with me as with the hawk, Brian felt. He turned the paddle edgeways, eased it forward silently and pulled back with an even stroke. I will kill to eat, or to defend myself. But for no other reason.
In the past two years, except for the time with Derek on the river, in a kind of lonely agony he had tried to find things to read or watch that brought the woods to him. He missed the forest, the lakes, the wild as he thought of it, so much that at times he could not bear it. The guns-and-hunting magazines, the hunting and fishing videos on television sickened him. Men using high-velocity weapons to shoot deer or elk from so far away they could barely see them, or worse, blasting them from a blind or the back of a Jeep; baiting bear with pits full of rotten meat and shooting them with rifles that could stop a car; taking bass for sport or money in huge contests with fancy boats and electronic gear that located each fish individually.
Sport, they called it. But they weren't hunting or fishing because they needed to; they were killing to kill, not eat, to prove some kind of worth, and he stopped reading the magazines and watching the videos. His survival in the wilderness had made him famous, in a small way, and some of the magazines interviewed him, as did some of the hunting and sporting shows on television, but they got it all wrong. Completely wrong.
"Boy conquers savage wilderness!" some magazines said in the blurbs on the covers. "Learns to beat nature . . ."
It wasn't that way. Had never been that way. Brian hadn't conquered anything. Nature had whipped him, not the other way around; had beaten him down and pounded the stupidity out of his brain until he had been forced to bend, forced to give, forced to learn to survive. He had learned the most important fact of all, and the one that is so hard for many to understand or believe: Man proposes, nature disposes. He hadn't conquered nature at all—he had become part of it. And it had become part of him, maybe all of him.
And that, he thought as the canoe slid gently forward, had been exactly the problem.
If he had to name the final straw that had done it, that had driven him away, driven him back, it would, he thought, have had to be the noise . . .
Another stroke of the paddle and the canoe slithered along the water. It was a beautiful canoe, named The Raft—made of Kevlar, sixteen feet long and weighing only fifty-two pounds empty, as smooth as fish skin. It seemed to fit nature as well as wind or water, seemed almost alive.
He had tried. He had tried as hard as he could to fit in, to become normal again. After the fame wore off, the novelty of telling people what had happened, showing them how he'd made the first fire, how to make a bow, how to hunt—when all that was done and the world around him had returned to a semblance of normalcy—he'd tried to fit back in. For a year and more he had acted—in his mind anyway—as if he were normal.
School. He'd gone back to school and tried to become reacquainted with old friends. They were still friends, glad to welcome him back into their company. The problem wasn't them, it was him.
"Let's go down to the mall and play some video games," they would say. Or play softball, or ride bicycles or, or, or. And he would try. But sports and shooting electronic bullets or rays at imaginary enemies that clomped across screens seemed silly, pale in comparison to what his real life had been like: having moose attack him, living on the edge of starving, living only because his thinking, his brain, kept him alive. He couldn't get into the games, couldn't believe in them. It was the same with the people who made up extreme sports just to prove they could do it. Rock climbers, "radical" skateboarders, wilderness programs that were supposed to toughen up city kids—rich kids—and make them better people. All games.
He drifted away. Talking about which girl liked which boy or who was cool and who was not or who would be at what party or who was or who was not doing drugs—all of it became a swirl around him. He heard the sounds, nodded, tried to appear interested, but in the end, sitting alone in his room one evening, he realized that he couldn't care less about any of it.
He sought solitude. Even when he was in a group, nodding and smiling and talking, he was alone in his mind. Sometimes his thinking would catch up with the reality of what was happening and he would see himself talking as if in the third person. Here is Brian, he would think, telling Bill that he can't go to the movie tonight because . . .
Reality began to slip away from him. Not that he was mentally different, or mentally ill, so much as that it just bored him. There was a small park in town, a stand of trees with some hedges, and he found himself going there more and more, walking past the park on his way home from school, stopping under the trees, closing his eyes, remembering the woods, the wind, the movement of leaves, the world without the incessant noise.
Not just cars and horns and sirens and television, which he had come to hate because it took so much away from his thinking, but people talking and planes flying over, doors slamming—it all rolled into one kind of static sound, one noise.
It came to a head in of all places the front entryway of Mackey's Pizza Den. Brian had become aloof, sometimes unaware of the social life around him, and without knowing it had upset a boy named Carl Lammers. Carl was a football player, a large boy—his nickname was Hulk—and also a bully who envied Brian's celebrity. Brian didn't know him. Apparently Carl thought Brian had said something bad about him and he was coming out of Mackey's Pizza Den just as Brian was walking in with a boy and girl from school. The boy was small and thin—he was named Haley—and the girl was named Susan and she thought Brian was great and wanted to know him better and had invited him for a pizza so she could talk to him. Haley had been standing nearby and thought the invitation included him, to Susan's disappointment.
Carl had asked Susan on a date once and she had refused him. Seeing her with Brian made his anger that much worse.
He saw Brian through the glass of the door, saw him walking with Susan, and Carl threw his whole weight into his shoulder and slammed the door open, trying to knock Brian off balance.
It all went wrong. Brian was too far to the side and the door missed him. It caught Haley full on, smashing his nose—blood poured out immediately—and slammed him back into Susan. The two of them went flying backward and Susan fell to the ground beneath Haley and twisted her kneecap.
"Oh . . . ," she moaned.
For a moment everything seemed to hang in place. The door was open, Carl standing there and Brian off to the side, his face perplexed—he had been thinking about the woods when it happened—and Susan and Haley on the ground, blood all over Haley's face and Susan moaning, holding her knee.
"What—?" Brian turned back to Carl just as Carl took a swing at his head. Had it connected fully, Brian thought, it would have torn his head off. Dodging before it caught him, he missed the total force of the blow, but even then it struck his shoulder and knocked him slightly back and down on one knee.
Then things came very quickly. Haley was blinded by the blood in his eyes but Susan saw it all and still didn't believe it.
"Something happened," she said later. "Something happened to Brian—Carl just disappeared . . ."
In that instant Brian totally reverted. He was no longer a boy walking into a pizza parlor. He was Brian back in the woods, Brian with the moose, Brian being attacked—Brian living because he was quick and focused and intent on staying alive—and Carl was the threat, the thing that had to be stopped, attacked.
Brian came off the ground like a spring. His eyes, his mind, searched for a weapon, something, anything that he could use but there was nothing; pavement, a brick wall, a glass door. Nothing loose. It didn't matter. The thought did not slow his movement, and he had himself. He had his hands.
He did not box. Nothing in nature boxed, hit with closed fists. Instead he kept his hands open and jabbed with the thick heels of his palms, slamming them forward in short blows that taken singly might not have done much damage. But he did not hit once, or twice—he smashed again and again, striking like a snake, the blows multiplying their force.
Carl played football, and physical contact was part of it. He actually enjoyed the shock of blocking, tackling. But this . . . this was insane. He felt as if he were being struck all over at the same time. Brian hit his eyes, slamming them again and again until Carl couldn't see and reeled back against the wall, his hands up to cover his face. He tried to quit.
"All right . . ."
Brian was past hearing Carl. He was past anything. He was in a place where normal rules didn't apply. Carl was temporarily blinded, but he was far from finished in Brian's mind. With Carl's face covered, his stomach was open and Brian struck there, pleased to find he was overweight and soft. A place to aim, a place to hurt. He hit again and again, still using the heels of his hands, his wrists rigid, the blows up and into the top of the stomach, forcing air out of the diaphragm so it whistled from Carl's nostrils.
Carl's hands dropped to cover his stomach and Brian went for his face again, pounded the eyes so they were swollen shut, blow on blow until Carl's hands came up again. When Carl crouched, tried to protect everything and left the back of his head open, Brian took him there, clubbing down with both hands joined, pounding until Carl was on his hands and knees, his nose bleeding, the air wheezing from his lungs.
It can't get up, Brian thought, surprised how cool he was. He wasn't angry. I can't let it get up or it will hurt me, he thought. At first he didn't realize that he was thinking it and not him. It has to stay down. I have to keep it down.
Carl was on the edge of being senseless but something—perhaps the training of football—would not let him collapse completely. It would have been better if he had. Brian couldn't stop. He kept clubbing down, working silently, crouched on his knees now, bringing his joined hands in a double fist again and again onto the back of Carl's head as if he were cutting wood.
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