Aiden climbed on the bear’s back when his body grew tired. He tore off one of the sleeves on his shirt and made a bandana for his head. He held his stick like a wizard’s staff, riding on the burly beast’s back through the woods. He was starting to wonder if he should have stayed in the car with his mom. The Good People were probably there now, wondering where he was. It was too late, though, to worry about all that. He tried thinking of something else.
“Do you have any bear kids? If you do, what are their names?”
The bear, like always, was silent on the matter. It lead Aiden to a marsh, sinking its paws deep into the murky soil as it walked. Crickets chirped and hopped between mossy islands floating in the swamp. The trees had on overcoats of moss and algae. The air was heavier than ever. Aiden’s back was damp with perspiration and the flies were loving it. He could not keep up with the swatting. Shirt on or shirt off? Be too hot or be too itchy? Asking the bear questions was the only thing keeping Aiden from erupting into a fit.
“Can I meet your bear friends?” Aiden scratched his shoulder. “I would like that a lot. I bet you have many friends. I bet you’re popular. You know your way around here.” Aiden was beginning to wonder if that was actually true. As the marsh grew deeper and deeper, he became more confused as to why they were going this way.
Aiden’s shoes started to get muddy. He raised his knees to get his legs out of the marsh. The muck was up to the bear’s shoulders now. “Hi, mister frog,” he said to a Cascade Frog perched on a lily pad. “Ribbit, ribbit. Ribbit, ribbit.” The frog answered in kind. Other frogs began popping up on lily pads, talking to each other. Aiden could not believe how loud it had gotten since they entered the marsh. He wanted to know where every sound was coming from, and what it all meant.
“Are you taking me to your bear friends now? Is this a short cut?”
The swamp was now up to Aiden’s thighs. The bear’s feet could no longer touch the bottom. It started to paddle. Aiden began to grow uncomfortable with the notion of his feet disappearing under the surface. Back home, when he swam in his grandma’s pool, he could always see the bottom. The water was so clear. Here, it was a cloudy mystery. Here, he imagined the worst things lurking below, waiting to nibble on his succulent flesh.
The bear started to sink. Aiden began to scream. The water was freezing and it smelled like rotten; not rotten eggs or rotten milk—just rotten. He flapped his arms as if to fly when the water came up to his chest. He was now floating in the marsh with the bear. He could swim (thank his mom in the summer of ’18 for that), but he was too scared to get his hands in order. Instead of nice, quick doggy-paddles, they flung about in agony. Water got into his mouth and he spit it out. Something wrapped around his legs.
“Bear! Bear! There’s seaweed!” He kicked his legs, trying to move away from the seaweed. “I don’t like this! I don’t like this at all!” His thrashing only made it worse. At one point, he thought he felt the rough scales of a fish scraping the bottom of his foot. That sent him over the edge. “Fishies! Seaweed!”
Aiden was a tornado of terror. The thought of something scary grabbing his legs and pulling him under was an unthinkable fear being realized. He tried holding onto the bear’s fur as it swam, but his grip was too slippery. “Mom! Mom! I need help,” he cried. He did everything he could to keep his limbs moving. He tried pretending the marsh was a waterpark, but it did not work. He tried pretending the bear was his mom, swimming alongside him, but it did not work. Nothing was working.
The bear was trying to get Aiden to hold onto its fur. His hands kept slipping, which only added to his frustration. All the frogs that had been talking to each other were silent, watching the ordeal with interested eyes. The bear let its body sink lower until only its head remained above the water. Aiden rested both of his arms on top of the bear, letting his head press onto its fur as he hung on for dear life. His feet floated up near the surface, away from the seaweed and other mysterious things in the deep that had been eyeing his legs for dinner. The bear paddled faster, moving them along, until soon they reached shallow water.
Aiden collapsed onto the mossy soil of the bank and was overcome with grief. In many ways, the experience had been more scarring than the accident. He could not remember the crash. Here, everything played out like a nightmare he could not wake from.
The bear urged him to get on his back again, but Aiden was exhausted. All that kicking and flailing made his body ache. His shirt got lost somewhere in the marsh, along with one of his shoes and his mom’s phone. His pants were a disgusting mess. The bandana was soaking wet.
“That was so scary, bear.”
He stood up, knees shaking, and found the last bit of strength left to climb on the bear’s back. He hugged the bear, loving it more than ever for helping him get through the marsh.