Exposure Therapy by Gray Winsler | Art by Austin Parkhill

NOAA Bear by Austin Parkhill

Exposure Therapy
By Gray Winsler

Art by Austin Parkhill

Published Issue 110, February 2023

“We’re dead,” Nervil said, looking through a window etched with frost to a blinding expanse of white.

“Easy, Nervil. It’s just a blizzard. It’ll pass,” Avery said as their shelter groaned under the unrelenting force of the wind.

“And then what?” Nervil shivered. “You saw the radio tower for this place. We’ve no way to let anyone know we’re here.”

“We’ll figure something out,” Avery bent down to rub his hands in front of the tiny gas-powered heater they’d found. It was already half empty.

“Anything’s better than out there,” Don added. “Two more minutes and you’d mistake my balls for raisins. Isn’t it supposed to be spring?”

“It’s the arctic,” Isaac said. “This is Spring.”

“But a storm like this?” Avery asked.

“With global warming, storms— ”

“Jesus,” Don interjected, “it’s always global warming with you people.”

“‘You people?’ You mean scientists?”

“I could spit off the Empire State Building and you’d say the extra rainfall was because of some schmuck driving a hummer.”

“I’d classify your spit as a natural disaster.”

“What is this place?” Aidan interrupted from the other side of the room, gazing upon a wall covered with photographs of polar bears.

“Must be a research facility,” Isaac offered.

“Well,” Don said, plopping himself into a rolling chair and sliding across the room to Aidan, “for once I’m glad to have stumbled into the nerd den.”

The group gathered beside Aidan in front of the photo wall, all except for Nervil who sat shivering beside the space heater.

“They’re hypercarnivores, you know,” said Isaac.

“Nah man, they are THE hypercarnivore,” said Don. “These beauties eat more meat than any other bear. They’ve been fucking up seals since before we could walk upright. Indiscriminate too. They hunt humans if they’re hungry enough. Nature at her finest.”

Aidan shivered at the thought, though the truth is, he didn’t need any extra motivation to be afraid of bears. He’d always been terrified of the furry beasts for as long as he could remember. He couldn’t even watch Winnie the Pooh without having nightmares of the stuffed animal stuffing its face with his own intestines. No amount of sanitized cartoon bears could deter his innate fear of the beasts. And now he was thinking that might be for the best.

“Guys,” Nervil called from across the room. “Not to interrupt, but what in the hell are we going to DO?”

“Nervil’s right,” Avery said, “that generator may only have a few hours left, and if this storm doesn’t let up— ”

“We’re fucked?” Don asked.

Avery glared at him. “We should look for supplies.”

“I thought Aidan was supposed to call the shots in here?” Don asked.

This puzzled Aidan who said, “Avery’s right — we should look for anything useful.”

“Aye, aye, captain,” Don said, and the group began to search their tiny confines for anything that may be of use. There were some MREs, a couple bags of Skittles, a ping pong paddle and—

“Holy shit!” Don said. The group turned to him as he hunched over a cardboard box. Slowly he turned around, eyes alit, grinning ear to ear — and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in his hand.

“It’s one in the afternoon, Don,” Avery said. Aidan glanced at his watch then, but the numbers fidgeted and he couldn’t seem to get a fix on the time.

“It’s not even the good stuff,” Isaac added.

“I don’t know why I ever agreed to go on this trip with you guys. Here we are, stranded in the middle of the fucking Arctic, and you’re criticizing the quality of the alcohol.”

“Lots of people die getting drunk in this weather,” Nervil said quietly.

“That’s true,” Isaac agreed. “The alcohol numbs us to the cold. People wander out thinking they’re okay, only to then freeze to death.”

“Well, I hate to break it to you all, but freezing to death seems to be about our only path right now. And I, for one, am at least going to die happy,” Don said, ripping the cap from the bottle and taking a swig.

“Guys … was this always here?” Aidan asked, stomach prickling with fear.

The group turned to see a message scrawled in dried blood across the wall: “WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST FEAR?” 

Nervil gasped and collapsed to the floor beside the heater.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Isaac said, snatching the bottle of whiskey from Don and taking a swig himself.

The storm raged on, wind moaning endlessly outside, begging to be let in. The shelter itself shivered. And as the hours slipped by, the men found themselves with nothing better to do except drink.

“Do you guys even remember how we got here?” Aidan asked. He couldn’t seem to recall how they ended up in the Arctic at all.

Don chuckled and snatched the bottle from him. “Aidan’s already had too much, fellas.”

“No no no — I’m serious, guys. How did we get here?”

“How did we get here?” Isaac mused. “They say all life began in lava vents stretching deep into the earth. That’s were the first single-celled organisms managed to climb from and give rise to humanity all these millennia later.”

“No one wants a biology lesson, Dr. Know-it-all. How about we answer that question,” Don groaned, gesturing to the scrawled blood on the wall.

“You first,” Avery suggested.

“Me? Oh, I’m not afraid of anything. You see,” Don swigged. “I live in the moment, in the here and now. Fear lives in the past, in the future, but when you live in the here and now — there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“That might be the first intelligent thing you’ve said,” Isaac said.

“Thank you.” Don looked to Aidan as if he was quite pleased with himself. “And what about you, Doctor?”

“Me? Oh, well that’s easy. I’m afraid of what I don’t know.”

“Booo!” Don jeered. “You’re all one note, Doctor. What about you, Aidan? You got something real for me?”

Aidan’s gaze drifted to the wall of polar bears, flashes of their gaping maws covered in blood and sinew flashing in his mind’s eye. He swallowed in a dry throat.

“Oh man — the poor lad’s afraid of bears!” Don chuckled.

“Is that true?” Avery asked.

Aidan nodded, “Have been all my life. Can’t seem to shake it.”

“I’ve fought a bear once,” Don said.

“No, you haven’t,” Avery said.

“Sure I have. Back home in Alberta. More bears than people there. All my best friends have gotten into fights with bears — and half of them are still alive.”

“You’re so full of shit.”

“How exactly does one fight a bear?” Isaac asked.

“I’m so glad you asked,” Don threw up his fists in front of Avery’s face. Aidan watched as he swayed, barely able to keep his balance. “You see, a bear’s gotta know you’re tough. You gotta show him who’s boss. That you’re not someone to be fucked with. Bear’s respect that. They respect strength.”

“Back up,” Avery said evenly.

“Or what?”

“Guys, come on,” Nervil said through chattered teeth.

“No, I want to see what tough guy’s gonna do.”

“You wanna see what I’m gonna do?” Don said, inching in closer to Avery. Aidan could feel the sudden tension that filled the room, like a wishbone about to be snapped in half — you just didn’t know which way it would break.

“I’m sure there are plenty of bears out there for you to fight.”

For a moment, all was still, only the howl of the wind outside. The two men stood eye to eye, neither so much as blinking. But then, Don began to laugh. And what began as a chuckle devolved into a fit of hysterical laughter until, abruptly, he slammed the bottle down on the table and said, “You know Avery, I think you’re right. How about we go find ourselves a bear?” He began to zip up his coat and put on his gloves.

“Come on, Don, be sensible for a moment,” Isaac said. 

“Oh, I’m mighty sensible, Doctor. In fact, I think I’m the only sensible one here. You see fellas — we’re dying. Ain’t no one coming to get us. But unlike you idiots, I’m goin out on my own terms.”

“By fighting a bear?” Avery said with indignation.

“By fighting a bear!” Don roared, and then before anyone could think to say anything else, he stormed across the tiny shack, slid open the door and stepped out into the snow white abyss.

“Fucking idiot,” Avery said as he began to put on his gloves.

“What are you doing?” Aidan asked.

“He’s gonna get himself killed. I’m going to get him back.”

“You’re just as likely to die yourself!” Isaac protested.

Nervil whimpered helplessly from his chair.

“I’ll go with you,” Aidan offered.

“No, you should stay.”

“And do what?”

“I’ll come too,” Isaac said. “I’ve always wanted to see someone fight a bear.”

“Guys, please, no,” Nervil begged. “You can’t just leave me here.”

“You’ll be okay, Nervil. Just wait here.” 

Their nerves steeled by whiskey, the three of them put on their gear, zipped up their coats and ventured out into the great white expanse, leaving Nervil alone in the shack. The storm had eased slightly, but only such that they could make out the faint imprint of Don’s boots in the snow.

“Don!” Avery shouted against the wind, which seemed to blow his own voice back at him. 

“Don!” Aidan yelled. He glanced back toward their shack, but it had already vanished in the endless swirls of snow.

They marched on and on through the biting air, calling Don’s name even as their teeth stung with the pain of the cold. But Aidan felt as if it was no use, the wind seeming to swallow up each word.

“We can’t be out here much longer, fellas,” Isaac shouted.

Aidan agreed, fearing they may have already gone too far to find their way back. But suddenly Aidan found himself bumping into Avery who’d stopped abruptly before him.

“Everything alright?” he called out, but just then saw what had made Avery pause. Blood. A bright red speckle of blood, glowing like neon against the pure white expanse.

“Looks like he may have found his bear fight after all,” Isaac said.

Avery cast a fearful glance back to them, and then continued following the trail. Aidan hesitated to follow him. His imagination conjured up images of Don, ripped to bits in a flash of gnarled teeth. He couldn’t shake the visions from his mind, but he clenched his fists and forced himself to continue on all the same.

The trail of blood continued. A speckle here. A splatter there. Preserved by the storm which seemed to ease more and more with each step. Until, abruptly, Avery stopped again.

“My God …” he said.

Aidan followed his gaze up the wall of white — except it was no longer a wall of snow that stood before them, but a mass of matted white fur billowing in the wind. His insides froze in recognition, eyes drifting up, up, up, until protruding through the wisps of snow and fur was a wet black snout pointed down at them. A plume of air burst from the beast’s nose and basked them in a clammy heat.

“Be still,” Avery said.

“We need to run!” Isaac husked.

“He’ll think we’re prey.”

“We are prey!”

The massive beast roared, making the wind sound as little more than a whisper, the hot stench of its carnivorous breath smothering them. Aidan could see the tendrils of skin in its teeth, which he imagined to be the last remnants of Don.

“Fuck this,” Isaac said before Aidan could hear his footsteps disappear into the wind. A part of him wanted to do just the same, to run and run and run. He’d rather freeze to death than be eaten by the beast that tormented him all his life. But something in him kept him rooted just where he was.

“Remember,” Avery said, “you’re in control.”

Aidan wondered how he could possibly be in control right now. But as the beast lowered its head down to them, he noticed something familiar in its eyes. A speckle of blue that reminded him of someone he knew.

“Stay focused on the eyes,” Avery said.

And the more Aidan looked into the bear’s eyes, the more it felt familiar to him. As if he had seen this bear before. As if he understood this bear, not as some malevolent beast, but merely as another being desperate to stay alive. The bear inched its nose closer to them, and he felt engulfed in the warmth of the its breath.

But when the bear opened its mouth and the smell of rotting flesh filled Aidan’s nose, his moment of peace vanished, replaced by the thudding of his heart, his thoughts overtaken by the site of sharpened teeth and beady black eyes he could no longer recognize, frozen still as the beasts gaping maw swallowed him whole and his world was engulfed in black.

Aidan sucked in a breath of air, eyes wide at the room around him, hands involuntarily clutching the soft plush he found himself sitting upon.

“Welcome back, Aidan,” said a voice that felt familiar to him.

The room by all accounts was as bland and neutral as any room could be. Beige curtains hiding away the sun. Cream colored walls that held no frames or books of any kind. A tan leather chair. And yet — every aspect was like an assault on his senses — even the sensations of his own body felt foreign. The warmth of the air upon his skin felt like a lie. He looked down at his hands, touching his fingers together, half expecting them not to obey his commands. But they did. And slowly, he began to recall where he was.

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m okay …”

“You made it out of the facility this time,” Dr. Isaac said as she removed the metallic VR band from Aidan’s skull.

“I did …”

“That’s wonderful, Aidan. You are making such great progress.” 

Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.

Austin Parkhill is an artist living in Alaska. He has shown his paintings nationally, including highlight exhibitions at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., Jonathan LeVine Projects (NYC), the Anchorage Museum, and the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. The artist has a sturdy studio practice that pairs with exhibitions and public art within the scope of his studio work.

An outdoor life continually influences his practice, often witnessing accelerated climate change in a vulnerable part of the world. He derives content from the Arctic Coast to the mountains of Kenai Peninsula. Through museum and gallery shows, public art and international publications, the artist takes opportunities to impact the world at large.

Parkhill is originally from the Front Range of Colorado, where he grew up playing hockey, painting, and making oven-baked clay animals. Prior to his time in the wilds of Alaska, he lived in Denver and Boston for extended periods. See more of his work on Instagram and on his site.

Check out Gray’s January short story, Reclamation, and Austin’s Centerfold, Polar Solar, or head to our Explore section to see more work by these two creatives.