15: The Bear

15: The Bear WOE.BEGONE


There. Are. No. Talking. Bears. In. Oldbrush. Valley.

[Warning: This episode contains a depiction of assault. Listener discretion is advised.]


[Hey guys. I’m proud to announce that the soundtrack album, WOE.BEGONE: Songs From The Podcast Season 1, will be available on March 17th $5/mo patrons (that’s patreon.com/woe_begone!), as well as on bandcamp at woebegonepod.bandcamp.com if you would like to make a one-time donation to the show. The album is a collection of the strongest songs from the season 1, many of them fleshed out in new and interesting ways. So check that out if you want to know what a full version of the arm-amputation song sounds like. Bandcamp preorders are available now. Speaking of patrons, thanks to Thanks to Risky Coffee, Plumule, Edith Wharton, Cooper Dukes, Jason Li, Mira, Austin Sleeper, Ashley Moo, Justin Clavet, Shannon M, Harrison Minnix, Mathew Robertson, Brendon Liner, Jenny Enciso, and Elizabeth Kirkman for supporting the show.]

[Warning: This episode contains a depiction of assault. Listener discretion is advised.]

There was a time in my life that I was a bit obsessive about bears in movies and television. It started with Grizzly Adams. I decided to put it on one day and was struck by my misplaced expectations of it. What I was expecting to be a hokey western show was, well, still a hokey western show, but exceedingly kindhearted and gentle. Grizzly is basically a mountain spirit, made entirely of goodwill and patience, who lives out in the mountains and corrects any wrongdoing that happens out in his frontier neck of the woods. His only permanent company is a bear named Benjamin Franklin, who Grizzly discovered orphaned as a cub and takes in to raise as his own. Grizzly is played by Dan Haggerty and Ben is played by Bozo the Bear. There are pictures of Dan and Bozo together outside of filming and they speak to a real connection between this man and this 1,000+ pound bear. Bozo’s powerful gentleness mirrors the undergirding themes of the show: Grizzly’s gentle stewardship of the land.

In the movie, Ben is played by Bart the Bear, the so-called “John Wayne of bears.” Yes, that is a real thing that people really call him. Bart also plays the bear in the surrealistically-cast wilderness survival movie The Edge, starring (and I am not kidding) Alec Baldwin and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins was so enamored with Bart that it was rumored that he spent all of his downtime just looking at him. From the Vital Ground Foundation: “Anthony Hopkins would spend hours on set sitting with Bart and admiring his calm presence. Unanimously, his human co-stars marveled at Bart’s abilities and temperament…”

I completely understand the allure of these bears and why these people felt so passionately about them, but it is hard to place into words. Is it because they are “like us”? No. They’re bearly like us. [Fake laugh.] See? We have fun here. I think our puny human brains treat them as gods on the landscape. They’re enormous, powerful, intelligent, beautiful animals. They have the appearance of grace and wisdom. If I were alive thousands of years ago and someone pointed out a bear in the forest and told me “that thing is a God,” I doubt that I would hesitate to believe them.

But all of that mysticism is just that, mysticism. In the real world, bears are enormous animals with temperaments and desires that exist entirely outside the human realm. Timothy Treadwell, subject of the documentary Grizzly Man, famously got him and his girlfriend killed by bears in pursuit of a platonic relationship with them. The only time I’ve seen been close to a bear that wasn’t in a zoo was when some friends and I came across a bear cub whilst on a hike. Bear cubs are bad news. The term “momma bear” has the connotations that it does for a reason. We tried to distance ourselves from it, but it was walking the way that we were walking and we didn’t want to take a detour so… awkward…

Why did I tell you all of that? Well, why do you think that this episode is titled THE BEAR? This is WOE.BEGONE.

[Intro theme plays.]

The story of WOE.BEGONE is being told in order. If this is your first time listening, go back and start at the beginning. If you didn’t know what I meant by “arm amputation song” in the intro, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

I think I know why my previous heists didn’t go as planned. I distinctly remember saying “cue the heist music” and yet, when I said that, heist music did not indeed cue. To get to the bottom of this, I sat down with my friend and producing partner, me, to see what went awry. According to me, he/I thought that “cue the heist music” was a metaphor or an exclamation or something like that. Not an actual instruction to the editor or soundtrack artist (both of whom are me) to actually insert heist music. Is that all heist music is? The theme from Mission Impossible? Is that really what you want? Is that what WOE.BEGONE is? We’re doing pastiche now? No. We’re going to create ambiance, mise en scene, joie de vivre, бесконечность. You know– a cheeky horror podcast. I feel like I’m losing you. Smash cut.

[Unnaturally soon after preceding paragraph.] Ugh, it was wet. Dew had settled all over everything, attached dropboxes on the outsides of buildings included. I wore the gloves that I had famously neglected to wear during the morning’s heist. They were cloth gloves. I wasn’t expecting everything to be so wet. I had to take them off because they got soaked and the cold water got all over my hands. Now my hands were even colder than if I hadn’t worn any gloves at all. Thanks, gloves. Jesus.

It was pitch dark. This was the first thing that had gone right during this entire mission. None of the buildings had outside lights on them and there was a new moon out, so it was difficult to see more than a couple steps in front of myself. This made wandering around in the dark to find a building far away from my cabin that I had only seen once more of a difficulty, but it meant that I would see anyone walking around with a flashlight from miles away and would have copious amounts of hiding time. I got to the building undisturbed and thought that I could hide behind it if I saw or heard someone coming. I had to be careful not to make too much light or sound myself, since likewise I would also make myself known from a great distance.

I pulled up the flap to the dropbox and held it open. It had a sliding mechanism that required thumbs to open in order to keep bears from getting in. And people without thumbs, I guess. It made a metallic creaking sound that I hoped didn’t carry very far. The hole was just wide enough for me to fit my arm in up to the shoulder. I stuck my arm into the dark hole that I could not see into. Almost at the end of my arm’s length was a stack of envelopes. Thank God they were still here. I did not have a plan B if this box had already been emptied. I scrambled around, trying to grab whatever I could that even remotely resembled the size and shape of the envelope that Hunter had taken from the cabin. There were all kinds of envelopes in there, dozens it felt like. Hundreds? It might as well have been as many envelopes as there are grains of sand on the beach for someone looking for a specific one in the dark.

I heard a rustling a couple hundred yards away from where I was doing my own rustling. In a panic, I grabbed a handful of whatever envelopes were in proximity to my hand and booked it behind the building. I looked toward the spot that the rustling had seemingly come from, but it was so dark that I could barely see the front of the building from the back of the building, much less something a football field away from me. Hopefully it couldn’t see me either. Maybe it heard me open the flap on the dropbox? Other than that, I had been as quiet as a church mouse. Maybe it was someone who had been following me all this time? Someone who was out on patrol already and spotted me being suspicious and had been watching me break into this dropbox the entire time. If they came over here and found me, they’d see Mike Walters with a handful of envelopes that were not addressed to him, cowering behind a building that he had no business in: all the hallmarks of a completely innocent person.

I looked down at the envelopes in my hand. One of them was the right size and shape. It had a little indent in the top corner where I remember Hunter mindlessly thumbing while we were talking on the way to the building. This had to be the one. It had no other choice than to be the envelope I was looking for. I command it. I will it into being through sheer need for it to be the one. The ability to return to the dropbox and do anything but put the other envelopes back was seemingly diminishing in real time.

The rustling continued, seemingly unperturbed by whatever I was doing across the way. I squinted hopelessly into the darkness, trying to figure out what was over there to no avail. I had only been out this way one time and that whole time I was laser-focused on that envelope and then this building that the envelope had been delivered to. I had no idea what the rest of the area looked like during the day. There could have been a fully functioning roller coaster across the path from this building and I wouldn’t have ever seen it that morning. Whatever the rustling was, it was more frantic than mine. It had the sort of character that mine might have had, had I failed this mission and in one final attempt just scraped everything out of the dropbox with no regard for who might hear it.

A pair of headlights appeared in the distance, closer to the source of the sound than it was to me. It was a golf cart. Whoever was on patrol in this area finally heard one of us, hopefully not me. It sped at top speed… which is like 10 miles per hour but that’s still pretty fast compared to how fast I could move on foot. As it got closer, I could see that its headlights were shining on a figure across the path from me, digging in the trashcan. It was dim and there were obstacles in the way, so I still could not make out for certain what it was. It began to retreat back into the trees and I could hear branches snapping as it fled.

“Get out of here you fucking bear!” I heard a voice shout from the golf cart. Soon after and without warning, a shot rang out. I heard the report of the bullet in flesh.

“Fuck!” the bear yelled.

The person in the golf cart got out and walked towards the treeline. In the light of the headlights, I could tell that it was Marissa Ng. I mean, you knew it was going to be Marissa, right? Out of everyone I had talked to so far, she was the one who was the most violently enthusiastic about taking care of Oldbrush Valley’s bear problem, in addition to being the most violently enthusiastic in general, of course.

I didn’t get a good look at whatever Marissa thought was a bear, but I know what I heard. That bear screamed “fuck” when she shot it, which leads me to wonder– what if that wasn’t a bear at all but instead a human person? It’s a long shot, but bear with me. “Fuck” is an exclamation in the English language, not bear language. Were a bear to exclaim an obscenity, he might say something more along the lines of [insert sound of bear here]. While it is entirely possible that one of the projects at O.V.E.R. could be to teach bears to speak English, I think it is slightly more likely that Marissa just shot a person that she thought was a bear.

I couldn’t tell if Marissa realized that she had shot a person or not. It was entirely likely that she didn’t hear him cry out in English. Guns are loud and she was right in the heat of the moment. Based on the amount of sound that he made while getting away, I assume that he didn’t stick around to explain himself. The sounds did go on for quite awhile, which gave me hope that he made it to safety and hopefully somewhere that he could get patched up. Marissa was loud and confident, but she was also pretty nice. She didn’t rat me out for sneaking into a red flag cabin. I highly doubt that she would be the “shoot first, ask questions later” type if she knew that it was a person that she was dealing with.

The headlights slowly crept into the distance as Marissa made it further down her patrol path. That would be one hell of an observation report for her to fill out tonight. Whoever goes over them should be quite entertained. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, a hundred more nothings, and then “shot a bear, it ran off into the woods.” While still behind the building, I quickly opened the envelope, took pictures of its 8 pages of content with my flashlight and phone, sealed it up with some glue that I brought with me, and stuff all of the envelopes back into the box. I then made my way back to the cabin as quickly and quietly as I could manage and messaged the gamerunners the pictures of the files.

They wrote back: “How the hell did you get these? Scratch that, we don’t care. Standby for next mission. In the meantime, get settled. -W.BG.” Communication with them had become more casual since I did the Big Challenge. I felt like one of the gang, which I knew that I wasn’t. I had just passed some level of trustworthiness and usefulness. I was a minion at this point. I was CANNONBALL. Yuck, now that I put it that way…

The files were gibberish. Not binary, not hex code, not a polybius square. He’s an excerpt: “b97040afe6d085eea5f2180b5f1f661b78f95a774a5e1c104d7ea5d9210952a7.” There are about a couple hundred of those printed across a handful of pages. It could be some type of hash code or a series of hash codes, which means that I have virtually no way to decrypt them and the gamerunners might not either. But they seemed to know what they were looking for so they must have been able to turn that into something that they could use in some way. Hell, they could have sent it forward into the future 50 years and solved it with some extreme code-cracking that we can’t even imagine yet and then sent it back for all I know. But there was no way to get myself further in my quest just by pouring over these numbers and letters, so I went to bed.

I got up bright and early and started making my way to the cafeteria. I was hoping that Marissa would be there and she would already be talking with someone about what she was up to last night because it would be beyond suspicious for me to bring it up. “Hey Marissa, how’s it going? Shoot anyone last night?” I also scoped out the crime scene on the way. I found a drop of blood, but that was about it. Whoever it was was probably fine or at least not dead. I would keep an eye out for anyone with a bandage, though.

This whole thing made me wonder if there ever really was a bear, though. Maybe there was someone out there meddling, right alongside me. Could they also be looking for the key to WOE.BEGONE? If they are, I will have to find them and figure out if they are a friend or a foe. It would be nice to have someone who was in on the whole thing here with me, but it would be not-nice to have a competitor that would keep me from getting what I want. WOE.BEGONE has a way of attracting unsavory types, myself among them. I mean, I sure as hell wouldn’t cut him into my plans if I ended up with the tech plopped into my lap. Screw that guy. Unless he wants to help me, I mean. And if he really is looking for WOE.BEGONE stuff at all.

The cafeteria had the same familiar faces as the day before, except I recognized Marissa this time. Chance, Shadow, and Hunter were all sitting together at a table again, so I joined them. What else was I supposed to do, make new friends? That’s literally impossible.

Oh, and to head things off before anyone asks: this is an enormous governmental operation of the utmost importance and secrecy. Everyone has been vaccinated. Not because they care about us or anything. O.V.E.R. can absolutely not afford a drop in its labor force.

So, anyway, I sat down at the table. I could hear Marissa being her normal loud, gregarious self across the room.

“I met her yesterday. Marissa. What’s she going on about?” I asked.

“She says she shot the bear last night,” Shadow said.

“Shot the bear? Did she kill it?” I asked. Looks like, even if she did figure out that it was a person, that’s not what she was telling people.

“Dunno. It ran off,” Shadow said.

“I hope not. All it wanted to do is eat trash,” Chance said.

“Yeah, I hope that she just scared it off. Maybe it won’t be back,” I replied.

“I could hear the commotion from my cabin,” Hunter said. “I thought about going out and investigating, but I remembered what happened last time I did that so I minded my own business and went back to sleep. I told you that story, right Mike?”

Oh, so now Hunter remembers stuff. What is up with him? “Yeah, it’s the only thing I’ve heard that was actually something happening instead of a bunch of nothing,” I said.

“It is much better to mind your own business around here,” Chance said. “If something really sinister is happening, there are much more important people that know how to deal with it. Even button stuff.”

“Marissa told me to never push the button,” I said.

“Marissa is right,” Chance said. “Everyone that I’ve ever seen get fired at O.V.E.R. were people who pushed the button. They all got into some sort of trouble or fell and hurt themselves or something and panicked and pushed it. The last day of their security job, every single one of them.”

“So what’s the point of the button?” I asked.

“My guess is that there’s something that might happen that is a Big Deal, capital B capital D. I’m talking nuclear explosion levels of important and catastrophic. Something so intense that we can’t even wrap our heads around it until we see it,” Chance said.

“Or they use it to weed out people who can’t handle the job,” Shadow said.

“Could be,” Chance said.

I think they are used to locate people who have witnessed time-travel related events and then make it such that they are no longer witnesses of those events by altering their pasts, but I didn’t say that out loud. I just ate my biscuits and gravy and nodded.

After my shift ended– nothing happened during it, by the way– I got a message from the gamerunners. “We need you to go to the red flag cabin tonight. It has to be at night and you have to take the long way. You do not need to go in, just touch the doorknob and walk back. Sorry in advance. -W.BG.”

“Sorry in advance”? I really am developing a better working relationship with these guys. They’ve never been sorry about anything else before. But also, uuuugh. Can’t I just saw my arm off again? [Whiny voice] That’s a long walk and my feet already hurt from walking. Come oooon, guys! Seriously, though, I expected something like this would happen. It’s not a “challenge” anymore. I’m calibrating some sort of system for WOE.BEGONE and tracking my movements or something will help do that. Maybe they can help pull me out of trouble better if they already have something like that on file? Who knows. But I’m basically doing data entry at this point.

As soon as the sun went down, I set out on my walk. The earlier the better, since it looks less suspicious the less late it is that I am out walking. Since I would be walking a total of 8 miles, I would almost definitely find someone out on patrol. What am I even saying? I’m not doing anything suspicious. I’m just taking a walk. These guys aren’t mind readers. They won’t just magically know that I’m doing this for WOE.BEGONE. But what if… nah. If there are mind readers at O.V.E.R., they are definitely inside the gate.

The muscles on the top part of my foot hurt from walking all day, so I was taking it slow. This was infuriating to me. Knowing how long a walk I was in for was at least as physically painful as the foot pain. I was hesitant to put in earbuds and listen to music or a podcast because I didn’t know how if it would mess with the results and I didn’t want to be caught off guard. There could be any sort of surprise out here waiting for me.

Do you remember the cold open? Do you remember what the title of the episode is? Have you figured out what the surprise that was waiting for me was? Are you tired of standing in line at the post office? Then you need Stamps.com[cut]

So there was a bear after all, in addition to whoever it was that Marissa shot in the middle of the night the night before. I was about 2/3rds of the way to the cabin when I saw him, digging through a trash can on the side of the path, not unlike that guy from the night before. The bear was fully grown, about the size of 6 Mike Walters, easily. Being one Mike Walters, I found its size to be quite intimidating. Unsatisfied with just eating trash and trusting me to leave it alone, the bear immediately saw me and took on an aggressive posture.

“Get the fuck out of here,” the bear said. Kidding. There are no talking bears in Oldbrush Valley. At least that’s what they want you to think!

They say that if you are attacked by a bear that you should curl up in a ball as tightly as possible. That way you can kiss your ass goodbye because you don’t stand a chance in a fight against a bear. No, I didn’t have a gun. No, I didn’t buy bear mace. That stuff is so expensive and it has a 1 year expiration date. What’s up with that? How does it go bad? I think that it’s all a scheme to get you to buy more because you probably won’t ever even be in a situation where you can use it. I mean, I was in exactly that situation but you probably won’t be. That is not advice. Do not take advice from any podcast, especially this one.

I’m rambling. But I did curl up in a ball as it approached me. I don’t know if this is actually the right thing to do, but now I’m afraid to look it up because I don’t want to get embarrassed if it’s not. I know that I couldn’t have outran it, especially after walking so much that day. I could smell its breath as it came over to decide whether or not to eat me. Its breath smelled like garbage, naturally.

The lashes from its claws came brutally slowly, like it was toying with me or trying to figure out what my deal was. Like, “why is this guy curled up in a ball? That’s not the right thing to do if you are attacked by a bear. Fuckin’ weirdo.” Except There. Are. No. Talking. Bears. In. Oldbrush. Valley.

The lacerations from the bears claws were hot and sharp, completely untempered by adrenaline or shock. I think I cried out in pain, but if I did I wasn’t directly cognizant of it. I’m jealous of people who describe leaving their bodies during times of intense pain. People who say things like “I could see myself and I was screaming.” But, no. I was very much inside the now tattered body of Mike Walters. The back of my shirt hung down around my face like ribbons. My back felt wet, like someone had poured a bunch of water on it but it was, in fact, my blood. The bear struck me for what I believe to be the third time. I was feeling weak. This was so much worse than cutting my arm off because at least I was in control of that.

After the third strike, everything got quiet. I no longer could hear the bear breathing over me. As soon as the breathing stopped, I snapped my head up and looked around. Nothing. The bear was nowhere to be seen. I looked around to see if someone had scared him off, but I didn’t see any people or any lights. The bear was just gone. Even if it had been spooked off by someone, I would have at least seen it taking off in some direction. I looked toward the treeline, nothing. Nothing anywhere. It had completely disappeared. I’ve been involved in discovering the underpinnings of a mysterious and violent online game uploads on Wednesdays for long enough to know that there was some WOE.BEGONEry afoot here.

Those gears would have to turn later, though, because I had just been mauled by a bear. The bear may have disappeared, but the wounds were still very real. I was incredibly weak. I bearly (it’s not so funny this time, huh!?) got myself out of the fetal position and laid down on my stomach. I did not have the energy to stand. I just laid on the dirt path that I was on and screamed and cried. I don’t even think I had the capacity to should “help!” I was in so much pain.

I remembered that morning’s discussion. Even if someone did hear something, there was a high likelihood that they would stay in their cabins and mind their own business. It’s what they’ve been conditioned to do. 112 guards actively tasked with discovering nothing. Temporality is a blur, but I think about 12 years later someone finally heard me and came out of their cabin to see if I was alright.

“Mike Walters!? What the heck?” It was Hunter, come to save the day. Makes sense, I had to be in the ballpark of where his cabin was.

“Bear,” is all that I could really get out.

“Did you hit the button?” Hunter asked.

“No,” I replied. I hadn’t even thought of the button. It was in my pocket the whole time, though I had been warned that this was not a legitimate reason to press the button.

“Good. I’m gonna call EMS, Mike. Are you okay?” He asked.

“No!” I said.

“Did he get you anywhere other than on the back here?” He asked.

He continued to ask questions to keep me alert while EMS arrived. It’s all sort of hazy from there until EMS got there. What a guy.

I’m alright, obviously. I’m back in my cabin recording this. If I ever die during one of these adventures, I’m legally required to talk in spoooooky ghoooost voice so that you know I’m a ghost now. I’m permanently scarred, but who isn’t these days? Bear attacks are far from the worst part of playing WOE.BEGONE. A smarter, more determined animal could have killed me right then and there if it wanted to and a lot of those smarter, more determined animals are controlling this whole time travel game. I’m so much better at murder than that bear. Stupid bear.

I messaged the gamerunners as soon as I was left alone in my medical ward bed that night. “Didn’t make it to the cabin, obviously. Couldn’t you have stopped the bear before it mutilated me?”

The responded almost immediately, despite it being quite late at that point. “We have no idea what you are talking about. This is not a joke, we really don’t know. You can’t make it to the cabin? -W.BG.”

The gamerunners not understanding the severity of my injuries led me to believe that they really didn’t know what had happened to me. But, I know that that bear disappeared. True, I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but I looked up as soon as the breathing stops. I know I did. True, I was under attack and my account might be far from an objective one, but I know what I saw. I know what happened.

And we’re right back to the Matt thing. Who did this? Who is helping me and why? It doesn’t make any sense and I don’t have any way of figuring it out. Is it someone else with access to Flinch? Who would that even be? Are there two shadowy groups of people toying with me now?

This has been WOE.BEGONE. Next time: I don’t know, man. Maybe I can walk down a path and walk up to a cabin without it being a big dramatic production. Unlikely. Thanks for playing.

[End theme plays.]