Tall cedar and cypress pines lined either side of the highway. Flashes of abandoned gas stations, cheap motels with partially lit vacancy signs, all passed by in a blur. With the sun warming my skin through the window, my eyelids became heavy, and I felt a daydream coming on.
My thoughts predictably went to Aiden.
Aiden and his parents were Grandpa’s only neighbors. I hadn’t seen them since I was thirteen, four-years-ago. Aiden wore thick prescription glasses and had these big puppy-fat cheeks that made him look like a squirrel storing nuts.
By accident or on purpose, I wasn’t sure which; Aiden had kissed me in the woods at the bottom of Grandpa’s house. That had been the last time I had seen him. The thick wire of his braces had knocked against my teeth. Thinking back, it might have been spontaneous, but that didn’t explain why when he pulled back, there wasn’t an ounce of surprise in his eyes. Stunned into silence, I’d wiped my mouth on my sleeve and not spoken a word to him since.
The thought of seeing Aiden again made me squirm in my seat. I often wondered if he knew about me before I even had it figured out.
Redirecting my gaze to my parents in the front seat, I said, “Please, can I stay at home by myself? Or at least, why can’t you guys stay with me?”
Going to Grandpas was a banishment. My parents would force me to stay the entirety of spring break whilst they took a real vacation.
“Drew...” Mom said my name wearily, as though we talked about this all the time. “We need to be alone, your father and I,” she paused; her fingers knotted together.
The sun disappeared from the car, leaving a chilled void behind that I knew we all now felt.
After a minute’s silence, she turned on the radio. It was a pointless distraction; her face was visible in the wing-mirror. She said your name, not with her voice, but with her eyes. The broken shallows that rimmed them were a constant reminder of how dead you were. It was weird; I no longer remembered what her eyes looked like without you in them.
Gazing out of the window, she reverted to her usual thousand-yard-stare. The hardest thing was pretending in these moments that you never existed. Half a year had passed; we were learning how to be human again, six short months since you drowned in front of me on the living room floor.
With your blue-gray eyes and dirty-blonde hair, everyone said you looked just like me. It was the primary reason she never saw me anymore. Like every other time, I let our conversation drop.
An hour later, we arrived outside two ranch-style houses. A large barn was nestled between them. Fallen trees covered in moss framed the entrance to a dirt path into the forest. Getting out of the car, Dad unpacked. They would stay one night until Grandpa returned from his fishing trip. With no other place to go, I walked to investigate the barn.
Dead flies collected along the crevices of the rotten window ledges. Pitchforks, bridle leads, and spring-traps hung from hooks on the wall. The barn was split into two separate sections. On one side, hay littered the floor, but there was a distinct lack of resident animals. On the other, a workbench sat underneath a window; a red-speckled hammer sat on top.
Walking over, I picked up the hammer when a cough sounded behind me. Turning, I saw a boy about my age.
“Are you lost?” he said, grinning. The eyes looking back at me were watchful, yet familiar. Dark-brown hair curled around his ears, under a baseball cap, turned front-to-back. His teeth were perfect to a point he could be a poster child for modern orthodontists.
He pushed black-rimmed glasses further up his nose. “Nobody ever comes in here except for me. Your Grandpa mentioned you’d be staying for spring break.”
“Aiden?” I questioned. My eyes flitted down him, unable to match this version of Squirrel Boy with the one in my head. He seemed to notice because his smile widened a fraction, and he nodded.
“Sorry, I didn’t recognize you,” I almost stammered my reply. “What is it you do in here?” My eyes scanned the eaves and back down to him.
He held up a dead rabbit.
The hammer I was holding dropped to the floor. The barn door swung open, redirecting my shock when it smacked the door jamb with force. Mr. Harvey stood dressed head to toe in camouflage gear with a bright orange sleeveless jacket over the top. Without a doubt, I knew it was him. His big bushy eyebrows and signature cigarette hung out of rough-chapped lips. He hadn’t changed a bit.
“Hey, Dad.” Aiden didn’t smile when he said it.
“Clean up the muzzle-loaders,” Mr. Harvey instructed. “This weekend we head out at dawn.” Aiden’s face paled and for a boy holding a dead rabbit, I was curious why.
“Drew, long time no see, are you joining us this weekend?”
I shook my head; he’d got to be joking.
“It’s a sport, same as any other,” Mr. Harvey added, noticing my abhorrence for the subject.
“In any other sport, all participants know they’re playing,” I replied.
His dad smiled, but it wasn’t a nice smile. “Suit yourself.” He shrugged. “Aiden, your Mom needs a hand in the kitchen.” Mr. Harvey held the door open until Aiden moved. Without even a backward glance, he walked off. But I guess after the last time we’d seen each other, I kind of deserved that.
The guest room walls were adorned with hanging antlers and boxed butterflies pinned under glass. Lying down on my bed, exhaustion threatened to take me under, but I didn’t encourage sleep. It wasn’t the dreams that I disliked; it was the waking up. A light bulb would go off, and an icy chill would sweep through me like a slow-moving glacier. In that bitterness, I would remember you.
Formaldehyde consumed my empty thoughts. Salt-water flooded my mouth and my stomach knotted.
Sitting up against the headboard, I widened my eyes and stopped them from blinking. Waiting for any release, the sting of the air caused my eyes to well in response. The heaviness in my chest eased a fraction, and I blinked, allowing my tears to fall.
My legs bounced restlessly, and I couldn’t sit still any longer with just my own thoughts for company. Jumping off the bed, I grabbed my jacket. Lifting the latch, I pushed the heavy wooden frame of my bedroom window open. In a moment of indecision, I hovered out on the ledge and then against my better judgment jumped onto the veranda below. Climbing down the adjacent tree that curled up around the side of the house, I dropped onto the dry dirt. Looking towards the track that led into the forest, I walked.
Night-time has a certain smell to it, purer, cleaner. It was pitch black, but the night held a perfect peacefulness to it, and I wanted to breathe it deep inside. Stumbling to a halt, I heard the wail of an animal. Turning around, the ground bobbled unevenly under my feet.
Seeing movement in the tall grass, my gaze narrowed in on a bear cub. Illuminated by the moonlight, it clambered around aimlessly, grunting. In the forest’s serenity, we both stilled, locking eyes.
Despite the blackness of them, there was a sadness I recognized—it bore back at me. Animals weren’t capable of talking, that much I was sure of, but his eyes said something he physically couldn’t. He didn’t want to be alone. I knew exactly what that felt like.
Maybe he would become prey to wild mountain lions or, worse yet, starve to death.
Tightness built in my chest, and it increased the more that cub looked at me. Groaning out loud, I shrugged off my jacket, wrapping it around the cub. I wouldn’t leave him alone to die when there was the chance I could do something about it. Picking him up, I wondered what exactly I would do.
The cub’s husks of breaths blew against my cheek, and he buried his wet nose into my neck; it was sort of sweet. Aiden’s barn flashed in my head, and I silently nodded to myself. Perhaps I could feed him, keep him safe, and find somewhere new for him in the morning.
Once I was back in the front yard, I dashed to the barn. Scraping together the scattered hay, I made a make-shift bed and lay the cub down. Dropping next to him, he snuggled into me. For a while, we both mimicked each other, curled in our balls on the floor of the barn.
He seemed at peace, and the crushing weight in my heart lifted a little more. That night, I made a promise to myself, I would keep him safe. Not because I was under any delusions that I could keep him, but because at that moment, we both needed someone to give a shit.