Published on 2012/02/05

Bear Hug

Lara Schiffbauer

Julia Vanelli stood on the dance floor of Dru’s Id, a silent island in a sea of movement and chaos. She searched the faces bobbing around her, but she didn’t see Leo, her thieving ex-boyfriend.

Of course it wouldn’t be that easy.

She pushed and bumped her way off the neon-bathed dance floor, beaching herself in the fringes of the enthusiastic crowd. Skirting the dance floor, Julia worked her way to the bar anchored along the back wall.

Please let George still work here.

It had been almost two years since she had talked to Leo’s twin brother. She wasn’t sure if she was wasting her time coming to Dru’s, but she had no other choice. Last she’d heard, George still tended the bar here, and if anyone knew where Leo was, he would.

“Thank God.” She saw him, behind the bar, handing drinks to a blond cocktail waitress who exposed significant cleavage as she leaned toward him.

“Oh, please,” Julia muttered. She strode over to the bar, and plopped onto the stool next to the waitress.

“Hey, George,” she said.

His brown eyes flickered over to see who spoke to him, and then lit up when he recognized her.

“Julia! I can’t believe it!” He came out from behind the bar and gave her a hug. “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in here in forever.”

The waitress gave Julia a dirty look as she walked away from the bar to deliver the drinks.

“It’s been awhile,” Julia nodded.

“So, you missed me? That’s why you’re here, right?” He grinned at her.

“Actually, I’m looking for Leo.”

George’s good humor deflated in an instant, his mouth flattened into a straight line.

“Come on, George. It’s not like that. I came here tonight because I need your help.”

“That’s right, I forgot. I’m Leo’s keeper,” George said as he returned to his spot behind the bar.

Julia ignored his sarcasm. “He took something of mine tonight, and I’ve got to get it back!”

George stopped wiping the counter. “Have you called the cops?”

“I can’t. The cops wouldn’t take this seriously.” Julia frowned. “He took my chinchilla.”

“Chinchilla? Yeah, I guess the cops would laugh.” George thought for a moment. “Why would Leo want your chinchilla?”

“Because he’s a jerk!” Against her will, her lower lip trembled. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s just Sebastian, my chinchilla, is special. He’s more than a pet. I’ve got to get him back.”

A flicker of something—maybe sorrow, maybe resignation—crossed George’s face. “You don’t need to apologize. Twin brother or not, I know what Leo has become. Anyway, I haven’t seen him for almost a year. Did you try some sort of tracking spell, or whatever you call it?”

“I scryed for them when I first realized what had happened, but I couldn’t see them. I think Leo blocked me somehow.”

“So what do you want me to do? I’m not a witch.”

“You know Leo, and how he thinks. You’re the only person I can think of that can help me.”

Julia watched as George’s resolve gave way. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll get off in half an hour. You want me to come to your place?”

“Thank you so much!” She grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “I’ll be waiting. I’ll try scrying again, too.” Feeling hopeful for the first time in many hours, she practically danced out of Dru’s.

#

Out on the street, Julia watched the crowd around her grow thinner as she got farther away from the bar. Soon she was by herself, the cold emptiness of the street an echo of the dark thoughts she had in her mind.

She hadn’t felt like rehashing for George the misery Leo had made of her life for the last several years. Although he was the one to break off their relationship, he continued to act as if he owned her.

He routinely toyed with her. He’d moved things in her apartment when she wasn’t there, or take things from her office at work and then hide the objects in her friends’ homes. Once he had even taken her car while she was out with friends and moved it to a different parking garage. Julia had gotten the point, loud and clear. He could do whatever he wanted to her, whenever he wanted, and not even her friends or family were safe.

She was certain Leo had taken Sebastian, and she was positive beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing but harm would come to her chinchilla if she didn’t find him quickly. Her blood chilled, remembering how easily Leo adapted to blood sacrifices to strengthen his magic. Even then, she hadn’t been strong enough to stand up to him. Of course, she wouldn’t be facing him down now if he hadn’t pushed the issue and taken Sebastian.

Wrapped so completely in her thoughts, she didn’t notice the asphalt under her feet turning a hazy gray, the buildings around her blurring to a dark shadow. It was only when a vague shape resembling a fawn colored rabbit streaked in front of her that Julia woke to what was going on around her.

“What was that?” Blinking her eyes once, a new world solidly replaced the street she had been walking on.

She found herself in a small meadow, pink and purple rhododendrons dotting the lush green carpet of grass and moss below her feet. A forest of leafy, green trees had replaced the buildings.

The heavy mist in the air quickly soaked her jacket, as well as her hair. The moist ground and wet leaves dampened forest sounds, creating a thick silence.

“I know something you don’t know.” Leo’s voice cut through the air. Julia searched the meadow, but couldn’t see him.

“Where are you? And where’s Sebastian!”

Chuckling as if she had said something funny, Leo shimmered into appearance, petting her little grey chinchilla. “You are so cute when you’re mad.”

“This is amusing to you?”

“You’re amusing to me. Your little pet here is amusing, as well.”

Leo hung Sebastian in the air by his throat. The chinchilla struggled with his back feet to get a hold of Leo’s hand, shirt—anything. Finally, he gave up and dangled motionlessly, his breath coming in short gasps. Leo smiled with satisfaction, as if Sebastian’s performance had been rehearsed and he’d carried it off perfectly.

“No!” Her eyes wide, Julia felt the blood drain from her face. “Don’t hurt him!”

“See, now? So, so predictable.” Leo tsked, shaking his head sadly. “What will poor, precious Sebastian do now?”

He held Sebastian, still dangling, at eye level. Looking into the chinchilla’s soft brown eyes, he asked him, “Who is going to save you?” Turning back to Julia, he grinned, “Certainly not your momma!”

Julia took a step toward Leo, when the loud roar of an explosion threw her to the ground. Intense heat flowed over her and the smell of burnt chinchilla hair made her feel nauseous. She began to summon the magic around her for a counter-spell, but stopped, realizing that Leo had gone.

Sobbing, she turned to one of the smoldering walnut trees, several of its branches still aflame.

Get a grip. Just calm down.

Closing her eyes, she took several deep breaths. Once she was no longer gasping for air, she re-opened her eyes and quickly drew a circle of protection around herself and the burning tree.

Standing with her feet solidly apart, she focused her gaze on the flickering fire at the end of the lowest branch. Breathing deeply and evenly, she quieted her mind and allowed the flame’s hypnotic movement to open up her awareness to the Other. As her eyelids became heavy, she concentrated all her thoughts on Sebastian—how silky his fur felt, how he liked his earlobes softly stroked, how playful he was in the mornings. The Other filled her, and she sent her awareness out from her body, searching for her little chinchilla.

After a few moments, she found them. Julia snapped back to her body and dropped to her knees with relief. Although singed and definitely scared, Sebastian was not hurt.

She whispered a prayer of gratitude to the Other, followed by an incantation of protection for Sebastian. Hunting on the forest floor, Julia found a walnut stick shaped as a “Y” that she could use to locate Leo. She had recognized the room in which she had seen him when she scryed. A divining rod would help her find her way through the forest.

Calming once more to begin divining their location, shame burned Julia’s cheeks and made her heart feel like lead. She hadn’t even tried to fight. Clenching her jaw, she took a deep breath. Leo had surprised her this time, but next time, she’d be ready.

#

Julia scrambled through the forest, the walnut stick pointing the way. Her hands, chapped to a bright red, were cramping so hard it hurt to straighten them. She stopped for a moment to survey her surroundings and, as she warmed her hands with her breath, her thoughts returned to George.

She wondered if he was at her apartment and hoped he didn’t think she’d stood him up. She didn’t want to hurt him anymore than she already had. Even after Leo had broken up with her, George had remained friendly. She had thought he was just being nice.

Considering his reaction to seeing her at the bar, she wondered now if maybe there was something more behind his kindness.

She scanned the clouds, hoping for a break from the cold drizzle, and noticed smoke drifting across the sky. She looked closer at the forest and identified the large sycamore tree to her right. It had lost its rounded top several years earlier after it was struck by lightning. Because she had come through the forest from a different direction, Julia hadn’t recognized it. The log cabin stood in a clearing just beyond the sycamore, water dripping from its eaves, carving holes in the dirt beneath. Her hands started to tremble. She had found them.

Thankful for the wet grass to silence her movement, Julia crept up to front windows and peered in. A fire burned in the wood stove, one of the many functional antiques that had always impressed her. Although isolated and rustic, the cabin was also cozy and inviting. Feeling at odds with the warm memories, Julia frowned.

She didn’t see Sebastian in the living room. He must be in the bedroom in the back, so just grabbing him and running wasn’t going to be an option. She was going to have to fight for him.

“You won’t win.” Leo said behind her. “I’m too strong.”

Heart pounding, Julia spun around and glared at him. “You don’t know me anymore. I want you to leave me, and Sebastian, alone.”

“You’ll have to make me.” Leo clenched his fists in front of him. Although he was several feet away from her, Julia felt his grasp around her neck. The suffocating pressure in her lungs panicked her, causing her heart to thud heavily in her chest.

She clawed at the air around her neck. A fuzzy cloud dimmed her vision until all she could see was Leo. She wondered how he could look so bored while he destroyed her.

As she started to drift away from her body, she remembered Sebastian. She couldn’t fail him again. A jolt of adrenaline coursed through her, clearing her mind in an instant.

It was time.

She forced herself to relax her body, hanging limply. She opened herself to the rage deep within her, allowed it to fuel the transformation of her body. All of the anger, all of the fear she had felt over the last two years came flooding through the gates she had erected to keep herself going, to keep herself and Sebastian safe.

Julia grew, expanding, reshaping herself to match the image of the grizzly bear she held in her mind. Fur sprouted all over her body—deep red, thick and warmer than her heaviest winter coat. Her face rounded to the size of a platter, complete with a blockish snout, filled with long teeth that would easily crush bone. Leo’s grasp on her neck broke as she grew bigger, too big for the invisible hands to hold on.

The grizzly mind was furious and Julia struggled to control it. As Leo began an incantation, she reared up on her hind legs, growling. Moving with speed that belied her size, Julia swiped at him with her large, oversized paw. Ducking, Leo spun sideways and nimbly hopped over a downed tree. Continuing to chant, he looked at Julia with contempt while backing away from her to put space and trees between them.

Barely in control of her anger, Julia gave chase, easily overtaking him. She reached out again with her paw, this time making contact. Leo flew several feet through the air before dropping to the ground with a loud thud, his head bouncing off a tree trunk hidden in the grass. He lay there, face down, breathing shallowly.

Lumbering to stand over him, Julia’s enhanced senses recognized the delicious smell of fear. Effortlessly tossing Leo onto his back, she placed her paw on his stomach. She lowered her snout just inches away from Leo’s face, snarling deep in her throat. Hot drool dripped onto his face and Leo turned his head to the side, grimacing, eyes closed.

The grizzly mind was excited, aching to make the kill. Inebriated by the animalistic instincts of the grizzly, Julia fought to remember being human. She pictured Sebastian and recalling his fear earlier in the meadow brought instant focus. She began reversing the shape-shifting process. As she returned to her human form, hand still on his chest, Julia looked into Leo’s eyes with a steely resolve.

“Now, where is Sebastian?”

#

Shutting the door behind them, Julia carried Sebastian into her apartment. Placing him on the coffee table, she sat down on the couch, and looked evenly into his big, brown eyes. The chinchilla stared back, blinking earnestly at her.

“I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. I don’t think Leo will bother us again. Are you okay?”

The chinchilla shivered, and suddenly there was a little boy, barely two years old, sitting on the coffee table in front of Julia.

She had known that Leo’s child would have powerful magic. He often played by shifting into different animals. Thankfully, it was at one of these times that Leo had stolen him. If Leo knew he had a child, he would never leave them alone.

Julia touched her son’s curly brown hair tenderly and placed her palm on the side of his face. The toddler giggled and leaned his face into her hand.


Lara Schiffbauer writes contemporary fantasy and general fiction, and has garnered some publishing success in the genre of horror. By day she works as a school social worker in an elementary school, and at night juggles writing, playing with her two adorable little boys, and doing everything else that has to get done in a day. She'd love to have you visit her blog at motivationforcreation.blogspot.com or to get to know her twitter style at @LASbauer.