The diagnosis is like having someone punch you in the face, when all along you thought they were aiming for your gut. The doctor is still talking, spouting words like ‘long term prognosis’ and ‘treatment options’, while you inhale the sterile bandage-scent of the grey room. You aren’t the only one who finds it offensive. The bear in the corner sneezes wetly, rubbing a grizzled forepaw across its nose, and sneezes again.
You are numb, wondering at the feel of the cheap vinyl chair beneath your thighs and how in a second the roadmap of your life can be snatched from your hand and torn into pieces. The bear is chewing a corner of it, a small green square of vanished future. Now you need a new map, but no cartographer has gone where you’re going. You pick at a torn fingernail, a nervous habit from years ago rearing its head. The bear heaves its furry body up and begins pacing around the office, claws tapping a pattern on the tiled floor. It creates and recreates an intricate circuit as it loops around the room, behind the doctor’s desk, around the coatstand, under the exam table. How can it do this? you wonder. Such a complex pattern, over and again, without variation, without error.
As you think this, the bear stops, turning its head to meet your green eyes with its deep amber ones. It’s not that hard, says the bear silently. Routines are powerful. Later, you can’t remember whether the bear or the doctor tells you this. But you remember the bear’s quiet determination, how it knew exactly where it was going, without fail. Without a map.
You want to scream Shut up! at the doctor who is still droning on, picking up all your family’s hopes and dreams and setting them on fire, impassively watching them burn as you swallow rage and panic like bitter tea. The bear changes direction, mid-pace, and comes to stand beside you. Wet fur, forest earth, and something you can’t quite place flood your nostrils. Its carrion breath is hot and rhythmic on your cheek. It flops down with an oof, looking in the same moment like a favourite teddy and powerfully built predator. You struggle to make the two images match.
The doctor stops talking and, voiceless, you nod in reply. The bear’s steady gaze and breaths are strangely soothing. Without warning it drops its shaggy head on your shoulder, and even though seated you stagger beneath it. The warm body presses against you, and the weight is oppressive, but comforting. You lean in, embracing it.
Amanda McLeod is an Australian author and artist, whose fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Brave Voices Magazine, Rhythm & Bones, Spelk Fiction, and other places. She enjoys coffee, eats more cheese than she should, and is often outside even if it’s raining. Find her on Twitter @AmandaMWrites.