Me and Aaron had been friends since…well, since birth. It all started in a small hospital near the bottom of Providence. The year was 1991, and Hurricane Elena was passing by. As it happened, two women were giving birth to us in the same delivery room due to lack of space. In a sense, it kinda did make us like twins. Our mothers became fast friends – both strong, divorced women who had better things to do with their time than waste it on men who would always ditch them. They really leaned on each other and wherever one went, the other followed. No matter where I was, Aaron would always be my neighbor, or even my roommate, and the vice versa would always be true.
Although we certainly had the connection that people always say twins have, we couldn’t be more different from each other. Appearance wise, sure, it was obvious that we weren’t related, but we also had some pretty big personality gaps between the two of us. I was a stereotypical extrovert, played sports, the whole damn nine-yards. I was always Named Most Popular since I can remember. Aaron, meanwhile, was more of an introvert. He liked reading and photography, and was named Most Likely to Succeed for as long as I can remember. I mean, I liked to read too, just not as much as Aaron, and Aaron also liked to talk and to be active, just not as much as me. It’s not that our traits differed in any way. The two of us just exercised them at a different capacity. But given all that, we never had any issues in talking with each other.
We…were inseparable to say the least.
I’ll spare you the monotonous details and just jump right to present day.
Well, by present day I mean the period where everything that happened…happened.
September of 2019.
Aaron had recently lost his amazing wife to a drunk driving accident (the other driver was drunk, not her).
I admit that we had grown apart ever since finishing college and going our separate ways, but we always kept in touch.
But during that time, I admit that I didn’t talk with Aaron nearly as much as I could or should have. I was embroiled in my own things and – uh – talking to a certain coworker of mine, so to speak.
Lizbeth was her name and playing hard to get was her game.
Her words, not mine.
Anyway, it wasn’t until a friend of mine and Aaron called that I realized just what a neglecting asshole I’d been. Hearing them describing just what a shell of his former self my best friend had become made me understand just how much I’d underestimated the emotional damage he’d suffered. So, when said friend mentioned that he would be going on a solo hiking trip the next day, you can bet that I showed up on his doorstep in full hiking gear. We’d both been avid hikers while in our college years, and I was sure that this was meant to be a therapeutic walk down memory lane.
I found it weird that he hadn’t called me to join, but then again, I hadn’t exactly been open myself.
I would be lying if I said that my mouth didn’t drop when I first laid my eyes on him. In the months since the funeral, he must’ve dropped something like thirty pounds and his body looked as though it had been pasted onto his skeleton.
Aaron must’ve noticed my expression and said “If only diets thinned my vocal cords as well.” referencing the fact that I hadn’t thought anything had been wrong the few times we had talked on the phone.
He gave a chuckle, but I sure as hell didn’t laugh.
Instead, I just stared at him, but as his eyes focused and noticed my camping gear, he frowned.
“No,” was all he said before closing the door abruptly and with a rather rude amount of force.
I wouldn’t let it go.
I knocked and rang incessantly, making sure that he knew I would be tagging along whether he liked it or not.
To avoid making an already long story longer, I’ll also spare you the details of how I managed to convince Aaron to let me go with him. I just left his house with a piece of paper he’d given me after he’d scribbled an address on it.
It was the address for a hiking trail out in one of the towns we’d lived in. Trouble was that said town was a good five hours away by car, and the time Aaron had written was so early in the morning I would have to start driving at least around midnight to make it on the time Aaron had specified.
A part of me wondered if I was being led on a wild goose chase, but at the same time I knew that this was my only chance, and I was willing to risk it if it meant I could be with my best friend in the whole wide world.
Insomnia had never been something I ever had to contend with, even in university where almost everyone else pulled all-nighters.
Why am I saying this?
Well, I feel it’s important to know how hard of a time I had having to drive all the way to the meetup spot without getting into a roadside accident. Even though my path was barren apart from a few scant cars or trucks, it still took everything I had not to crash.
When I finally did reach my destination, the sun was barely starting to peek out from behind the horizon, and the sky had turned a pale shade of lander mixed with wispy swirls of orange.
There were no other cars in the lot when I pulled up, and I remember feeling an incredible sensation of frustration when the idea that I had really been duped popped up.
But just as I was about to slam my fists on my steering wheel, I saw another car pull up, one I recognized as Aaron’s.
I stepped out of my own car and watched silently as he himself got out and pulled his equipment from the trunk of his car.
I don’t know why I didn’t just call out to him, as he could’ve easily slipped past the viridian green that surrounded us without ever having noticed me.
But he did.
He did notice me.
He froze just like a deer in headlights.
He had given me the right address all right, but he hadn’t actually expected me to show up.
I thought I saw the briefest of smiles on his skinny face, but then it disappeared.
“So,” he started as he walked up to me,” the King of Sleep pulled his first all-nighter.”
His voice sounded much huskier now, as if his vocal cords had degraded overnight, but I made no comment of it.
We just exchanged some small talk at first, but then things got real silent. Aaron looked at me quizzically, as if expecting an answer for a question he had never asked. I put on my own gear and was heading to the nearby trail, but then Aaron stopped me.
He pointed at a bush near us, and went over to it. He moved it out of the way, and exposed a dirt trail.
I stared as he held the bush up with his thin fingers, expecting me to go in.
Into the wild wilderness which hadn’t yet to be tamed by man.
But what choice did I really have?
“Ladies first,” Aaron teased, the air barely leaving his lungs
And that’s all it took.
The first red flag showed when Aaron started to pitch a tent. My legs felt like boiled spaghetti. We were in a small and secluded clearing; God knows how far from the parking lot or even any human-made pathway.
“Jesus,” I remember saying, the feeling of my legs searing from exhaustion still burning in my mind, “how long are we going to be out here man?”
I was mostly being sarcastic, but I can say that Aaron’s answer genuinely took me off guard.
“As long as it takes. Be it weeks or months.”
I stared at him.
I genuinely thought he was shitting me, but as we unpacked in the tent, I saw all the paraphernalia he had brought with him.
He had enough canned goods to last at least a month (two weeks if we shared), pots, pans, fishing hooks, and so on.
All things that one would need to “rough it outside”, as my former Boy Scouts coach taught me.
But what worried me most was the shotgun.
A plain, Mossberg double barreled shotgun.
Aaron, as he ate his dinner of canned tuna washed down with some instant tea, noticed me staring at it.
“See something you like?” he remarked, his voice devoid of any sort of humor or sarcasm.
Not like you could tell anyway.
“N-no,” I stammered,” It’s just that…”
My voice trailed off because I was hesitating to say what had been on my mind for the better part of that day.
“Why are we here, Aaron?”
I heard the hardest of gulps drift through the air.
The LED lantern that hung above us showed me the stern but equally sorrowful look on his face.
“Do you trust me?” was all he said, biting his sickly thin lips like a kid anxiously waiting for the results of a test.
“Yes,” I replied without thinking.
Aaron shuffled nervously in his spot for a bit before outstretching his arm to me, his skinny hand wide open.
“Then give me your cell phone,” he said, as if asking for a Dorito.
The tension that overtook the tent felt like someone had wrapped three garbage bags around my head.
Even though my brain was screaming at me not to, I said nothing as I handed him my old blackberry.
The days really did start to blend together.
Foraging for wood, walking till your legs damn near fell off, shitting in a hole, etc.
I became accustomed to it after a while.
Not like I had a choice anyway.
As me and Aaron walked under the auburn canopy above us – tinted with red, yellow, and some green – I would often find myself wondering what my friends and family back home were thinking. I wondered if they were worried, which they most certainly were. I wondered if they thought something bad had happened to me.
I wondered what was happening outside the forest.
Every day I did.
There was no denying that Aaron had become a wholly different person.
Despite his sickly frame, he would always find himself walking ahead of me.
Even if the ground was so muddy I’d have trouble walking, he would still be three steps in front, as though he had no trouble pulling his boots out of the thick diluted dirt which covered the ground.
A week had passed.
I really don’t know.
I just remember putting down the can I was eating from and looking Aaron right in his barely lucid eyes.
“What are we doing here?”
Aaron looked up at me for only a few moments before scarfing down a few more spoonfuls of his canned fish, not a word having left his mouth.
“You remember this forest?” he asked in-between his infrequent chews.
“Yeah,” I replied, somewhat caught off guard by this question,” our moms always told us to never play in it because we could get lost…and now I get why.”
For days we had walked, and no signs civilization had we found.
“What else do you remember?” Aaron pressed.
I had to squeeze my brain like a wet rag before another memory dripped and dropped in my consciousness.
“You…never listened,” I said,” Unlike me you were never scared to go in and stay for who knows how long while your mom was at work. I remember the oath to secrecy we had sworn to never tell any adult and…look, just tell me what the hell this has to do with this mess cause I sure as hell can’t connect the fucking dots here on my own.”
Aaron sighed, as if disappointed that I hadn’t said the most obvious thing.
“You know what I did all day in those woods?” he asked with a raised eyebrow, the annoyance in his tone clearly audible.
It was the first time any emotion had come out of him since we had first started this dreadful hike.
I left out a heavy sigh, more like a grunt than anything else.
“I talked to someone.”
I raised my head out of my palm and looked at him with the most dumbfounded expression I could muster.
“A friend,” he added before finishing the last of his Tuna.
Aaron paused before he chuckled.
A genuine chuckle.
“Right,” I said, my patience wearing thin, “you were talking to a kid from the neighborhood-”
“No,” Aaron interjected suddenly, “It wasn’t a kid.”
The weight of what he could be implying crept up on me like an iron hand.
Aaron sighed as he leaned back on his sleeping bag.
“A bear,” he said,'' a bear cub as black as coal who would always listen to what I had to say. We’ve come aaaalllllll this way just so that I can meet her again after all this time.``
It was night, and the rain outside certainly wasn’t helping my mood.
“Aaron…You’ve been sick,” I continued in a tone with a harshness I’m too embarrassed to admit, “You’re sick Aaron. You’ve been sick since the last time I saw you and you’re getting sicker by the minute. Every single second you’re out here you’ve been getting worse and worse, and hearing this, I can’t be sure if you’re not sick in other ways too. I sure as hell don’t want you to die, but I ain’t sure if you want the same.”
The weight of my words tugged at my chest almost as soon as I let them all out.
It felt like I had thrown an anchor that was chained to my heart down into a bottomless ocean.
Aaron himself had grown silent.
I was about to apologize when he suddenly cut me off with words that still haunt me to this day.
“Yes,” he replied sheepishly,” that’s what I want…I do oh so wish…to die.”
A soft, innocent smile bloomed on his face, one that still sends shivers down my spine every time I recall it, before he closed the light and crawled into his sleeping bag.
I no longer recognized my friend.
That much I was sure of.
Even in pitch-black darkness I could tell as much.
I don’t know why the young girl was staring at me. Her skin looked ragged and tattered, and the only semblance of clothing she had was her long and disheveled onyx-black hair which poured out of her small scalp. The forest around us, eerie and quiet, held its breath for her to speak.
“Turn back,” the young girl told me,” you don’t know what you’re walking into.”
I stared at my hands, and the extra digits on it confirmed that I was indeed dreaming, and lucid no less.
“Where are your parents?” I asked.
I felt surprised.
The small girl cocked and craned her petite neck as she looked at me quizzically.
A small sigh was all that left her fang-lined mouth before both of our eyes locked.
I warned you her pupils said while her mouth stood still I thought it wasn’t yet too late for you, but apparently it is.
That’s when I remember waking up, not being able to recall the latter half of the dream.
Aaron’s binoculars seemed to fit perfectly in the sockets of his eyes.
We both stood at the edge of a cliff, Aaron deeply focused on whatever the binoculars showed him.
I too had to admit that I was degrading more than I would have liked. The bags under my eyes hung like curtains, and the only thing I ever thought about was my friend.
My friend who had changed so much and had become wholly unrecognizable.
I heard his tongue clicking before quickly putting the binoculars back in his backpack.
“Shit,” he said, “we have to go.”
“Why?” I muttered.
Aaron looked at me broodingly as he zipped his pack and slung it over his shoulder.
“There’s a hail storm coming. A bad one by the looks of it.”
As my friend made his way down the path we had followed to reach the cliff, I looked back at the expansive sky.
The previously gorgeous blue had seemingly rotted into a decrepit gray at the drop of a hat.
We found shelter under an overhead rock formation as the hail shredded everything in front of us. While the pellets were small, they seemed to fall with the velocity of fired bullets, and the sound they made gnawed at my skin.
Aaron sat beside me, oddly relaxed despite the unnerving situation we both found ourselves in.
The ever-falling curtain of ice hid us from the outside world, as though we had stepped through a waterfall.
“We’re getting close,” Aaron said absentmindedly, “so you’ll have to leave after this storm stops.”
I looked at him.
“You heard me,” he said coolly as his dried lips touched the rim of his canteen, “when this hail storm stops, we’ll both get up. You’ll return back to the lot by following the trail we have followed so far and drive back home and I’ll continue on to my destination. I’ll give you the necessary supplies to make it back, if that’s what worries you.”
I remember the muscles of my face locking up as though I was being electrocuted.
“That’s not what worries me!” I blurted out.
Aaron regarded me with a benign interest as he continued to siphon water out of his canteen.
“Aaron,” I think I said after regaining some semblance of composure, ”you’re…not well. We have to leave together, cause I ain’t going anywhere without you…”
My best friend sighed.
“Do you know why we’re here?” Aaron asked earnestly, waiting for an honest answer.
“I...don’t know.” I replied.
Aaron nodded in approval.
The hail didn’t look like it was going to let up anytime soon.
“I told you,” he said,” I came here to look for my childhood bear, but I never told you why.”
He got strangely silent for a bit before continuing, as if his eyes were struggling to follow each bit of frozen hail that fell down in front of us.
“I started to have dreams. Dreams where I was back in our old neighborhood from waaaaay long ago, back in this very forest. I told you. I would talk to a bear cub. I would remember this intermittently all my life. A silly and cute scenario where I had been lucky that the mother of that cub had never been nearby. But after she… Lydia…died…I started to dream about that damn bear every single night.
However, in these dreams, I would be shown a new detail, one I was sure was real every time I woke up.”
He looked me dead in the eyes before delivering the gut-wrenching punchline.
“I would talk to it, I remembered, but in my dreams, it talked back to me in the voice of a smaaalllllll child. Don’t you think that’s positively fantastic?”
“No Aaron,” I said earnestly,” I think you’ve got batshit crazy and you need help.”
I honestly still don’t know why I said something like that, but Aaron didn’t seem to mind. He was in a trance, and nothing could shake him out of it.
The storm had created an impromptu confession booth, and no one but me would ever hear the truth.
“You remember Lydia, don’t you Eddie?”
“Your wife,” I said, as though I had forgotten up until now.
“Ah, fine woman she was,” my friend lamented,” best thing to have ever happened to me.”
“And taken too soon…” I said softly.
“Amen to that!” Aaron shouted, taking another swig out of his canteen. It was at this point that I realized his canteen wasn’t filled with water.
The stench of alcohol that leaked out of his breath burned my nostrils.
“Best woman of them all. Fine lover. I would wake up just to see her besides me, eager to spend the whole damn day with her. We were unstoppable, me and her. She was about to prove herself as a fine mother too, were it not for that sonnva bitch.”
I frowned at that last bit
“Aaron,” I said before he could go off into another tangent, “was Lydia…pregnant?”
He looked at me, and those eyes that he had at that moment will be ones I will forever remember.
They looked like those of a child who’d lost a pet, but behind that childlike innocence of denial I also saw a burning rage that was kept at bay. His eyes were like the fangs of a snake, filled with more venom than they could ever hold by themselves, a window into something that had been brewing and fermenting for the better part of a year.
“As fertile as Iowa soil!” Aaron suddenly yelled, raising his canteen up in the air like a victory gesture.
He seemed to recede back into his mental shell, and I knew I had to get whatever he’d kept from me out now or risk never finding out.
“And what did you do after she…was taken away?”
I chose my works carefully, making her death seem forceful because I knew it was the best bait.
And man…did he take it.
But now I wish he hadn’t.
“W-well…,” he said at first, metaphorically peeking out,” I-I cried Eddie. I cried till there were no more tissues left, and then I cried till I had no more tears left, and then I cried till I had no more will left in me. You know what hurt the most Eddie?”
I nodded and listened, unnerved by him having suddenly adopted his mother’s heavy accent, one which he had never displayed before.
“T-That motherfucker WALKED FREE! Some FUCKING crocodile tears and some fucking LEGISLATION was all it took for him to never have to see the inside of a cell and rot in there like the piece of FUCKING GARBAGE that he was.”
I was wrong.
Aaron hadn’t come out of his shell.
I’d cracked it open like a piggy bank.
“My wife a-and my unborn child would never live to breathe a lungful of air or see the sky above, but he could do that as much as he liked! I-It made my blood boil Eddie, but the steam only came out of my eyes, but then when I got the news, it just powered me like an unstoppable engine of revenge.”
His veins were bulging out of his frail hand, and I felt afraid.
I felt fear.
From being with my closest friend.
“W-what was the news?” I asked blankly, myself holding weakly onto some semblance of lucidity.
“Cancer,” my friend said flatly, before numbing himself with yet another swig, “malignant and terminal. My liver and stomach have already gone to hell, and I didn’t want to wait around for my brain to abandon me as well, so I decided to act! ONE LAST GOOD DEED BEFORE I MET MY FUCKING MAKER…and…the bastard who took away my wife and child too soon.”
The storm was somewhat letting up, and I could vaguely make out the forest in front of us.
I knew, from this, that his tale was about to end.
“And so, Eddie, while you drove here, I drove to his house and made sure to blow his fucking brains out with my shotgun. I always fantasized about turning it on myself, practically titillated by the thought of the cold barrel caressing the underside of my jaw, but I realized that would help no one. He would still run someone over again one day, if not very soon, and I didn’t want that to happen. I would be damned for pulling the trigger on myself, so at least I wanted to be damned for doing one last good thing in this rotten world!”
The curtain was almost gone, and the temptation to run away was growing. The aura that my friend exuded pushed me back, as though I was the wall of an ever-filling dam.
“I’m here to die, Eddie.” Aaron said, grabbing the collar of my jacket,” I will find that bear, and I will shoot at it, and I will let it maul me! I will let its claws purify me of my sin of murder, and should you try to stop me, I will not hesitate to SHOOT EDDIE, YOU HEAR ME?! We’ll both be together afterwards, so make your choice now. Leave…or die with me…”
The storm had stopped.
The curtain had been drawn.
The final act was nigh, and the silent world was about to hear my answer.
The cave sat silently like an unhinged maw, the darkness inside of it not daring to cross beyond its threshold.
The sun was slowly falling, and with each passing moment, the darkness seemed to creep out ever more beyond where it was guaranteed safety.
Aaron stood in front of it, his trusty shotgun at hand.
When shadow finally reached his boots, he fired his first shot.
I stepped back as Aaron cocked his firearm once more.
Another shot rang out, and I felt it, as I’m sure he did too.
Something was stirring.
Something was coming out.
We had stepped in its domain.
Closer and closer it got.
Each step it took made my muscles melt and smelt more and more.
By the time it peeked out from the curtain of darkness, I had become a statue, unsure even if I could breathe.
It’s maw, its grizzly, bloodied, and dirty maw was what peeked out first. It regarded us cooly, the rest of its humongous body shielded by the darkness that leaked out of that cave.
Standing up on its hind legs?
Suffice it to say, neither of us had the slightest clue what was about to take place.
But then something neither of us expected happened.
A hand gripped one of the coarse stones that made up the rim of that cave.
A human hand.
The head of the animal extended beyond the safety of the darkness, and stepped out.
A woman, with disheveled hair so long it reached her knees, stepped out.
Her head was that of a bear, but then I realized that…it was a mask that had been made out of the head of a bear.
I was frozen still, but although Aaron wasn’t, he didn’t so much as try to point his shotgun at her.
She craned her neck before slowly approaching my friend.
Her hands went around his neck like a lover’s embrace, their heights nearly equal, and not one word did she yet speak.
Only Aaron could start any conversation.
“I…knew it,” he mumbled, wrapping his arms around her as well, his shotgun falling to the ground.
The cold, dead, beady eyes of the animal head met his.
I was sure she said something, as I can swear on behalf of God that I saw her throat move.
Only Aaron heard whatever it was she had to say.
His response was all I heard.
“I wish to die…Only then can you uphold the promise you made for me.”
There was a pause, and before my eyes, her hair started to grow and extend, each strand wrapping themselves around her body like a cocoon.
It wasn’t long before she towered over my friend, covered in fur with paws as big as plates.
The head, unmoving up until now, seemed to twitch as she leaned back, before springing down like a trap, the gigantic jaws opening and swallowing Aaron’s head whole.
A sickening crunch was all that I heard.
The beast, surely as tall as a short-faced bear, and with fur blacker than coal, turned to face me.
Living, beady eyes examined me before the beast approached.
Frightened as I was, I couldn’t run, even though my life depended on it.
I closed my eyes, prepared for what I knew was to come, but something entirely different happened.
I felt something warm and slippery brush itself across my face.
It knocked me out of my trance and my eyelids flew open.
The bear was right in front of me.
Its gargantuan jaws opened.
It opened further than even that of a snake, revealing before me the head of the woman, situated right behind all those rows of razor sharp teeth.
“I thought I warned you…” she said, the hot breath of my friend’s blood making tears waft in my eyes as my skin felt as though it was rotting away.
With that, the jaw unhinged like a mouse trapped, starting me into falling down on the ground.
The massive beast lumbered away, back into the darkness of its decrepit cave.
Night had fallen, and so had I.
Fireflies are what led me back, and fear kept me alive, and the memories kept me awake as I drove back.
It’s getting dark now, as I write this.
I don’t want to write anymore.
I don’t want to go where my best friend is.
I don’t care that I cheated.
I don’t care that I promised.
I don’t want to go.
I don’t want to.
I don’t want to.
I don’t want to.
I don’t want to go.
I don’t want to.
I don’t want to.
I don’t want to.
I tell him over and over again, but he refuses to listen.
So what can I do?