The girl inside the black bear costume, whose community service job it was to jump out from behind a tree and terrify little kids at the Forest of Mystery fund-raiser for the nature center, had been stumbling around in the same sweaty suit every night for two weeks. People arrived in carloads and traipsed the woods to get the crap scared out of them by youth masquerading as indigenous species.

Some people came more than once. The stick-thin man with stringy hair the color of corn silk wore camouflage coveralls and orange gym shoes and, every night, Claudia watched the man who hiked alone, his head bent to the leafy path. His yellow flashlight illuminated two feet of the ground in front of him. It was identical to the one her father kept in the kitchen drawer. And there, the comparison stopped. Her father was buff and dressed like a catalog model. Her father wouldn’t be caught dead alone.

When the man approached her tree, she sprung, snarling. She felt more alive than ever. He never flinched. Where was the fun in that?

After the first few nights, Claudia anticipated the man, her goal to catch him off guard. She would pause a little longer or jump a little sooner. She amplified her growl. One night, she crept ahead, stood in the middle of the trail, and refused to budge, which bent the rules. The man stopped just short of bumping into her. Through the suit she sensed the energy of his body.

Claudia flushed, felt foolish, exposed, her arms poised in the air with the potential to grab. The inside of the rubber mask dripped condensation down her cheeks and into her mouth, tasting like hard-boiled eggs. The rasp of her amplified breath spooked her. She stomped to the safety of her tree.

The next day, she signed up for extra black bear shifts, swapped out selling caramel apples for the heavy costume. Her friends delighted. Who wanted to wear the bear suit?

All of her strategies failed. She needed a better plan, a rule breaker. She’d broken rules before: a lipstick here, a pack of gum there; loved, loved, loved the high. The bulky Hello Kitty wristwatch had been the risk that led her to community service hours, the scratchy bear suit, and the man.

She considered grabbing the man’s arm, but didn’t think the awkward plastic pads of the paws would allow it. Instead, she would fling her body into his as if it were a mistake, as if she couldn’t have judged the distance properly because of the puckered eye slits. Yes, an excellent excuse.

Halloween night. The parking area in the nearby field seemed dull with sparse traffic. Just before the usual time of the man’s arrival, Claudia felt her body tighten. She imagined the way the man might pace himself, waiting until others had gone ahead, wanting to be alone with her in the woods. He would move toward her with purposeful deliberation. Tonight they would speak out of necessity, she thought, apologies and laughter, embarrassment over the run-in.

She strained to hear footsteps shuffle the leaves, her heart a toy drum. She felt the muscles in her legs contract, ready to spring. Was he coming? Was he? The man was late. The ache in the hollow of Claudia’s gut spread and rose and lodged, an apple in her chest.

An afternoon long ago, she was ten, waiting on the porch for her father to pick her up for the weekend. She held a Honeycrisp in her hand, all polished up for him. He pulled his truck into the driveway. Claudia saw a woman riding shotgun­–big teeth, burgundy lipstick, frosted hair­ teased in a knot–leaning into her father’s shoulder. She looked nothing like Claudia’s mother. The car radio blared.

At her father’s house, Claudia practiced how long she could get away with skulking around the living room unnoticed. Her father and his girlfriend danced to Willie Nelson. Claudia could disappear right in front of them, a whole afternoon, but soon tired. It was a small change game. She tested her invisibility on the greater world, haunting the shops downtown. Her treasures grew. Whenever she pawed through her cache hidden in her closet, the sparkly feeling in her gut spread to her limbs as if the glitter nail polish she liked to swipe ran through her bloodstream.

Tonight, inside her bear costume, her blood felt cold and congealed. Where was the man in his orange shoes? She wanted warmth back in her limbs.

So she pictured herself the way she wanted the man to see her. Beautiful, poised, a woman. He could see that, through everything, and in her mind, the man’s hair was clean and trimmed. His clothes were dark and fine, a business suit maybe, his shoes made from Italian leather. Her image of the man’s form had shape-shifted into the stature of an athlete, more like her father’s, and his gait spread beyond the weak beam of the yellow flashlight.

She felt her arms and legs tingle beneath the rubbery suit. Sweat dribbled the base of her neck and between her breasts. Her thighs ached from squatting. She longed to stand and arch her back.

The parking area emptied. Night air that seeped into the eyeholes of her mask had turned cold. Still, he didn’t come. There would be no flinging. She wouldn’t jump. No stalking or blocking, not even any slinking.

Claudia crouched down further. She pulled dried leaves around her furry slipper paws, rolled to one side, and slid deeper into the moon shadow of the tree. She clutched her arms around her middle and curled. She willed her blood to slow and held her breath.

All she wanted now was winter.

Jodi Paloni

JODI PALONI’s work has appeared in Carve Magazine, Whitefish Review, Atticus Review, Spartan, upstreet, and others. She is the winner of the 2013 Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. She lives and writes in the foothills of the Green Mountains and has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She blogs at Rigmarole and curates the Facebook group, 365 Short Stories in 2013.

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