The old man couldn't see his wife. The living room was black. He knew when she stared at him though, and when she gazed into nothing. He sat in his chair. She sat in the facing sofa. He sweated and almost fainted from the heat. The shack was boarded shut. The door had a piece of plywood nailed over the inside. The two windows were filled with boards. He could look through a knothole at the bears. The glass was smashed.
The old woman mumbled against him. From the kitchen at the rear he heard his grandson move. The boy liked to stay near the peanut butter. That was all they had left to eat. He liked to be near the bucket of water. That was all they had left to drink. For days after the faucets stopped, the grandson sloshed the liquid around as fun. The old man made him stop. The kitchen was black too. The old man clenched his teeth until they hurt. He wanted the grandson and his wife gone. He opened his mouth but the teeth still hurt.
Snarls and growls came at the front door. Bears banged against the clapboard shack wall. They tore at each other. Their teeth sliced into fur and meat. They ripped with sharp claws at face and belly. At first the bears had eaten dogs and deer. The county was emptied of that meat. Then black and brown bears ate striped and yellow bears. Ground bears caught tree bears. The old man looked for but hadn't seen a grizzly.
The sound of wood tearing came from the kitchen. He tensed and felt happy for death. Instead, the grandson screamed in ecstasy and ran outdoors.
His wife laughed in the dark. The old man pushed with effort out of his chair. He stood. He became dizzy because he had sat so long, and the heat. A blacker black filled then cleared from his eyes. He stumbled from chair to table into the kitchen. Light pushed in from the sides of the opened plywood. Light hurt his eyes. He hated light. He hated the grandson for disturbing him. The boy was to stay a few days while his parents, with a farm down the dirt road, visited relatives in Nashville for the last time. The grandson was a nuisance. He ate their food until all that was left was the peanut butter. He drank their water until the bucket was next to empty. The old man grabbed a pot sitting on the electric stove. Electricity cut off weeks before. The phone stopped. Then the faucets dried up so the only water was a stream in the woods among the bears. He wedged his skeleton against the loose plywood. He banged in the bent nails with the back of the pot. A few points stuck in the door frame. The kitchen went black again. The old man felt better.
When he woke in his living room chair he was a few seconds being sure he woke. The room was thick with heat. Decades before, when he was a farmer, he liked heat in the summer. He worked hard. His heart beat loud. He moaned. His wife snored from their bedroom. She had become senile. As she got old she wouldn't help him around the shack. She made noises. He wanted rid of her. The old man went to the kitchen for a sip of water. He stuck his head in the bucket for two sips though there was little water left. He looked out the window through a crack in a board. The sky was blue. The hills were dark green. The light hurt his eyes. Scattered in the back yard were heaps of bone and fur. Bears died stripped of meat. A few dead bears were piled in a mound where he figured the grandson's carcass was. The mound was at the edge of the soy bean field. A farmer down the road sharecropped the field since the old man got tired of work. A brown bear ran across his weed-grown yard chased by a black bear.
Night came. The dark of the living room became darker. Heat rose to a peak he barely stood then eased a little. Growls and bangings of bears decreased. Bird calls came, the owl and the crow. His tongue lolled out. The old woman mumbled harder against him. She walked back to the bedroom. He stayed in his chair blank from the heat or dreaming in strips back to his regular days. His wife cooked hours then, chicken and corn he raised. His daughter was cute and good to show off to his neighbors. He hunted squirrel and coon in the Tennessee hills. From the River he hooked bass and catfish he fried. He couldn't get enough of farm work then, the row. TV shows came to talk about, and there was church to meet people on Sundays. His wife to kiss. There was the St. Patrick's Day parade in Erin, and the Okra Festival in Fulton at the harvest. Christmas. He couldn't taste anymore, not even oranges. A few months before, he heard the radio news: All the bears in the world were migrating toward his county.
He slept in his chair. Morning came. The black was lighter black. Bears roared and banged in the front yard. The air got swelter hot another day. He squinted through a knothole when bears roared so loud it hurt his hearing. His hearing was still good. Black bears fought over a brown bear where his wife's flower beds had been along the dirt road. Bears banged into his truck, turned over and burned. They ran, chased or chasing, by the dozen. Even bear meat was growing scarcer the more bears arrived. He had wondered what happened to bears running from foreign countries. Maybe those bears drowned in the ocean. He was disappointed he hadn't seen a polar bear. He got tired. All he wanted to hear about bears was on the radio before electricity quit. He sat in his chair across from her again. He heard her whine. He wished he could quit hearing too.
A few hours later he had to drink more water. The heat made his mouth cotton dry. The bucket was empty. He licked the bottom, which was still cool and wet. He heard his wife coming from the living room. He closed his eyes in time not to see any of her in the dark. A few days before, a ray of light like a line threaded through a front knothole and swept over her on the sofa. He glimpsed two red eyes wide open and gray jowls. He glimpsed her claw against her cheek and her white hair in tangles. She was naked.
He sat in his chair. Soon he heard wood being chipped away. He had been afraid a bear would find how flimsy the plywood and boards were. The old man stood up. The chipping came from inside. He sat down. The naked old woman pulled at the plywood with her fingers until the few nails pulled loose. He heard her awkward steps on the back porch. The roars started. He was tense she might bring the bears too close. He hurried to the kitchen best he could. With the pot he banged the nails in the frame again. Even fewer stuck. The growls were loud. He looked out a board crack. Black bears streamed from the woods at both sides of the shack. Dozens of black bears wrestled in a knot over his wife. He turned away. She hadn't said she loved him for years. They had loved, slowly, warmly, when they were young. The shack was so hot he didn't think long. He forced his breath. He licked the bottom of the water bucket again, but the tin was hot and dry. The porcelain toilet was dry too when he licked it.
That night he hardly had enough saliva to wet his mouth. He ate a few fingers-full of the peanut butter, scraping the glass bottom of the big jar. The brown paste was dry. He had to work for the spit to get it down. He felt free without his grandson and his wife in the shack. He sat in a chair at the kitchen table where he'd wanted to sit all along. Food he used to eat was what he pictured: Catfish and hushpuppies. His tongue swelled thicker in his mouth. He decided to sleep in his living room chair; his mouth was on fire. Fire was what he thought of.
Heat woke him many times in the night. Heat kept his sleep shallow. He woke at sunrise exhausted in a chair full of sweat. No thought stayed more than a few seconds of thirst and heat. Thoughts came by the dozens that died fragments. He had to drown his throat in water. The stream was a hundred yards in the woods by the shack. The old man fought taking the bucket to the stream. He messed around the rooms feeling the furniture. The overalls he'd worn for weeks bothered him with their touch. He shed them fast as he could. He got naked. His teeth ached. His body radiated heat like a fire. His eyes burned.
The bucket rattled when he picked it up from the kitchen sink. The plywood opened at the touch of his fingers. He stumbled through the back porch. The sky was blue. The sun was a red circle over the hills. His eyes became black from the sunlight. He had to close them then felt weak-headed. The back yard dawned into sight. His heart hurt. Piles of bones and fur rose scattered in the weeds. An extra big heap rose over his grandson, and an even bigger heap over his wife, dozens of dead bears. The air stunk. A black bear sniffed where the pump house lay on its side. The bear rose on its back legs. The old man rushed best he could down the steps and toward the woods. He wasn't able to run. A second black bear rounded the far corner of the shack.
The old man limped toward the stream in the dark woods. The bucket banged in his hand. Behind rose one roar, then other roars. The stream gurgled ahead, hidden by the tree trunks. Pounding shook the ground behind him. A black bear's claw swiped a chunk out of his back. He was on fire. Claws tore into the thin meat of his chest and his face as he fell on the leaves. He was a flame. A black weight of fur fought on top of the human. Black bears bunched in a fury. Tens of black bears ate each other, then hundreds of black bears, and in a day thousands of black bears. The dead fell in a mound big as a hill over him.