The sun was setting; the forest was coming alive again. Aiden’s lips were parched. His body was covered with what was best described as slime. He had hardly eaten all day, and he had not had a proper drink in twelve hours. All his energy was fading. The hope that he carried inside of him was flickering. One more tribulation and it would be disappear entirely.
“Thirsty,” Aiden said, not to the bear, but to the forest. He wanted it to rain like last night so he could take a drink from the forest floor.
The bear was struggling. Its mouth was open wide; it panted rapidly. Its tongue was long and dry. It began to walk at a faster rate.
Aiden thought about the time when his mom bought him a Slurpee after scraping his knee at daycare. “What flavor do you want?” She had asked him. “What flavor will do the trick?” As it turned out—half Grape and half Fanta Orange, and he drank it so fast that his head felt like it was in a vice. But it was a good kind of hurt, a silly sort of thing that made him feel better. He wondered how many of those Slurpees it would take to get him out of his funk right now. Three? Ten? A hundred? Perhaps, just one gulp of that precious blend of grape and orange would help. Yeah, one little taste of that sugary goodness ought to do it.
There was still a little bit of light left in the day, just enough to keep up the search for the Good People. The trees were starting to get thinner, not in diameter, but there were not as many as before. The bear stopped. Aiden hopped off its back. He started to count the trees by tapping them with his fingers. He got to sixty-five before he realized the bear was not following him anymore.
“Bear? Where did you go?” Aiden turned and saw the bear sitting by a tree, watching him count. “Let’s keep going.”
The bear did not move.
“What is it? Why won’t you come?” Aiden walked up to the bear and gave it a gentle pat on the side. It let out a soft growl and lifted up its left paw.
“What’s over there?” Aiden asked. “What is it?”
The bear waved its paw a few times. Aiden could not see what the bear was trying to point at, but there must have been something up ahead because he trusted the bear.
“Let’s go check it out, ok?” Aiden began to walk. The bear did not join him. He was starting to get frustrated. “Come on, bear, let’s go see!”
The bear let out an unfriendly growl, making sure it showed off its razor-sharp teeth. Aiden fell backward, afraid. He did not understand why it was being so mean. He threw down his hands and yelled back at the bear. A shouting match began. Aiden’s face was beat red. The bear’s mouth was foaming. If one were to stumble upon them in the forest, they would not get the impression that they were friends.
“What is it? Why won’t you move?” Aiden’s yelling became a cry, for he was beginning to understand what was happening between them.
The bear was leaving. The bear was going back home.
“I need your help to find the Good People. To help my mom.” Aiden started to push the bear. “Please!”
Aiden wanted his hands to squeeze the bear, but instead, they reached out and hugged it. He cried into the bear’s fur for what felt like hours. When he finally stopped and walked away from the bear, he found it almost harder than when he had left his mom in the car. Back there, he had a sense of urgency to find the Good People. Now, he had a sense of failure because he had not found them, and he was losing the one friend he had along the way.
“I’m going to miss you so much,” he said. He walked ahead of the bear until he could no longer see it. The sky was getting dark; nighttime was almost here. Strange lights up ahead made him curious. He was so interested in the lights that he almost ran into a picnic table. The bottom had a chain attached to it, tethered to a cement pad. A metal grill was adjacent to the picnic table, along with a trash bin overflowing with fast food wrappers. Aiden continued and found more picnic tables. The strange lights overhead were actually street lamps lighting up a sidewalk. A large building with a sign overhanging the entrance came into view:
Washington Welcome Center.
A young girl and her mother walked out of the rest area, holding hands. The girl had a sucker in her mouth. She noticed Aiden standing at the end of the sidewalk and tugged on her mother’s shirt. The mother saw Aiden and ran over to him.
“Are you ok?” she asked him. “Where are your parents?”
Aiden was tongue-tied. He pointed back at the forest.
“In … there?” the mother said.
“Mommy, where is his shirt?” the girl asked, pulling the sucker from her mouth. “Why is he so dirty?”
“Are you sure they’re in the woods?” the mother asked.
The mother noticed cuts on Aiden’s chest, along with the bites he had sustained from all the bugs. By the look on her face, she also noticed the smell.
“My mom needs help,” Aiden said. “Can you go get help? We had an accident.”
The mother pulled out her cellphone and dialed 911. She explained what she knew (which was very little) and told Aiden to wait with her daughter Lyla over on the bench.
When the police arrived, it took them a while before they were able to get Aiden to say his last name.
“Freely,” he said. “My mom needs help.”
They put a towel over his back and drove him to the nearest police station. They put a bandage on his arm, and Bandaids on some of his cuts. Aiden learned that his mom was in the hospital. The Good People had found her not long after he had left the car.
“What’s a coma?” Aiden asked one of the officers.
The policeman looked over at his partner, then said, “It’s when you’re asleep, but you can’t wake up.”
“So, when do you wake up?”
The policeman stood up and patted Aiden on the head. “Soon, we hope.”
Aiden’s mind was a whirlwind. He felt foolish for leaving the car, especially after learning that the Good People had been nearby all along. If he would have stayed, then he would not have gotten hungry and thirsty. He would not have lost his shirt and shoe. He would not have gotten dirty. He would not have had seaweed attack him in the marsh. But, he also would not have met the bear. Not meeting the bear, it seemed, was worse than all the things that had happened to him in the forest. He had made the right choice.
“A bear helped me,” he said to the policemen. He told them everything that had happened.