Aiden opened his eyes. There was hazy fog floating around the trees. Sun rays flickered between the branches. Birds talked to each other. It was a beautiful morning. Wait … was it morning already? Had he slept through the entire night?
His first instinct was to call out: “Mom? Hello? Anyone there?”
The same growl that had awakened him answered again, only this time he did not just hear it, he smelled it. The foul odor made him cough.
He slowly turned and found himself face-to-face with a seven-hundred-pound grizzly bear. Its fur was ruffled and brown, wet near the ankles from walking through a nearby stream. There was a scar on the right side of its face. Smoke seemed to be coming from its nose, and when it growled again, its brown eyes became a blackened pit to nowhere.
Aiden screamed and bumped his head against the birch tree. He tried to run, but only got a couple of feet before the bear cut him off. It growled again. Aiden was terrified. He had seen pictures of bears on the Internet. He remembered drawings of bears in books his mom read to him. There were the ones at Disney World, too. They were a lot friendlier and cuddlier, definitely not the intimidating beast that stood before him.
“Leave me alone!” Aiden shouted. He tried running again. The bear followed. Every step that Aiden took, the bear took two more. Every deep sigh that Aiden exhaled, the bear exhaled louder. This animal was, in his mind, awesome. Not awesome like the Spiderman boots he wore in the winter, or awesome like his mom’s Mac ’N’ Cheese—white cheddar sprinkled with bread crumbs. No, it was awesome because it instilled fear in him. It was a majestic beast, beautiful and deadly. It might have been the most amazing thing he had ever seen. It certainly was the most terrifying.
“Just go away,” Aiden said.
The bear stood still, steadying its breathing. Things were beginning to unravel in Aiden’s mind. He wished he had stayed in the car with his mom. He wished he had not fallen asleep against the tree. He wished a lot of things, really, but mostly he wished to disappear.
“I’m trying to help my mom, now go away!”
The bear did not listen. It stuck its nose out, smelling the morning air. The fog parted around the bear, like the introduction for a scary character in a movie. Something made the bear lift up its front legs and sniff the air.
“Go sniff somewhere else! I’m trying to help my mom!”
The bear began walking toward him, nose to the ground. Aiden pinned his back against a tree. Running was futile. The bear would simply catch up to him. Tears started to fall and he sucked on his thumb. He had not done this for almost two years, and the sensation of his tongue polishing his nail helped push away some of the fear. Not all, but some.
The bear’s nostrils flared up when it got close to Aiden.
There it was again.
His stupid heart letting him know how scared he was.
The bear was so close that he could almost touch it. A strong urge to pee overtook him. He squeezed his thighs together.
The bear’s nose tapped Aiden’s shoe.
“Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!”
The bear’s nose followed the sent upward, past Aiden’s leg, past his stomach. It stopped near his arm with the dried blood on it, flaring its nostrils. This was it, Aiden thought. It was like the sensation of smelling freshly baked cookies before devouring them. Oh, the anticipation. The smell! How could you not take a bite? But then, something unexpected happened. The bear opened its mouth, and it did not take a bite out of Aiden’s arm. Instead, it began lapping up the blood. The warm tongue went back-and-forth, a sponge cleaning up the wound. Aiden’s fear was replaced with a kind of pleasantness. He began to giggle.
“Leave me alone—haha. I said—haha—leave me—hahaha—alone!”
The bear’s tongue was very ticklish. Aiden thought, once again, he was going to pee his pants, not from fear, but from laughter. The bear gave his arm a bath until all of the blood was gone. Aiden was able to see what had ailed him: a puncture wound near his elbow. The area around the wound had black smudges on it, some kind of ink.
Aiden remembered …
He had been drawing a picture of his mom and him walking down a nature trail when a sudden jerk sent the pen flying. Not a second later, the car was weightless, flipping end-over-end before landing at the bottom of the rocky cliff. Somehow, the pen must have stabbed his arm when they crash landed.
Aiden’s eyes started to well up again. The bear tilted its head up and licked Aiden’s cheek, a kiss to say that everything was all right. Feeling brave, Aiden reached out his hands and placed them on opposite sides of the bear’s head. The fur was damp and much deeper than he expected. His hands disappeared into the brown fluff. The bear growled, not in a threatening way, but more like saying hello.
“Hello, bear,” Aiden said. He dug his fingers into its fur, scratching its head. “You’re a nice bear, not a mean bear, aren’t you?”
Again, the bear growled, softly, gently.