He refuses to discuss the incident. What he was thinking, I'll never know. How it happened, I can only guess.
That was the sound I heard. No more than half a second, and I was alone in the room. But before I even had time to wonder what the sound was, a tickle in the back of my throat grew to a pinprick to a scratch to a spasm in the span of a heartbeat. Through the ensuing coughing fit I could hear others in the house having the same problem.
That Christmas, my brothers and I had driven 15 hours down a deserted, icy highway to reach our parents' cabin in the middle of nowhere. Actually, one of my brothers drove, the other slept in the back seat, and I rode shotgun, forcing myself to stay awake to make sure the driver didn't nod off behind the wheel. A couple of times, the exhaustion was just too much for the two of us and he'd pull over, shut off the car, and we'd grab a little shut-eye. Eventually, the car would cool off enough that our shivering brought us around and he'd start the car back up and we'd be on our way.
The trip ended at a hunting and fishing lodge high up in the mountains of British Columbia, closed for the season. The lake was frozen solid, snow had been blown into 8-foot high drifts, and the only people within 50 miles of the place were a few lumberjacks and a cook holed up in a logging camp down the road. The main lodge where my parents and sister lived was warm and inviting though... A rustic log cabin style building with great big windows and a deck overlooking the place. Inside, my stepfather kept a blaze going in the fireplace and there was almost good enough reception on the TV in the corner to make out who was playing on Hockey Night in Canada. Mom made sure there was a steady supply of hot coffee and the kittens chased each other or little balls of Kleenex across the hardwood floors.
One of the simple realities of living in such a remote part of the Canadian Wilderness is the presence of bears. Maybe not so much in the dead of winter, but certainly during the warmer months. So, I wasn't the least bit surprised to find a can of bear spray in my mother's kitchen. For those unfamiliar with this product, it's essentially pepper spray, but powerful enough to deter a 7-foot, 850lb mountain of teeth and claws. But how strong is that, exactly?
From what I now understand, a half-second burst (which tends to sound like "Sssssst", by the way) packs enough punch to inflict coughing fits in 6 people in 3 different rooms, render the brother who pulled the trigger teary-eyed, red-faced, and sullen, and inspire jokes for something like 11 years now.
(That's pretty strong.)