Yesterday afternoon I watched a story on the Discovery Channel about a man who lived with bears. I woke up thinking about it. He lived in the wilderness and thought that he was a bear-friend, sleeping on their ground and drinking the water from their streams and petting their heads when he could get close enough. I can’t get it out of my head.
I pull Gina closer to me, though she’s already close. There’s only so much room in a twin-sized bed. I lie on my back, one arm tucked beneath my head and the other wrapped around Gina’s shoulder, and I watch a spider crawl across the crossbeam above my head. I kick my toes out from beneath the sheet, letting them breathe. Gina’s a rock at my side, still sleeping off the alcohol. I like hearing her sleep, feeling her sleep. Her breathing is quiet and heavy, in-and-out life.
In the end, the bear-friend died out in the wilderness, fallen from a cliff with no one to help him. It makes me feel queasy and greasy inside, a strange color that I can’t even name. I turn my head to look at the clock. 5:24. The room has been getting lighter as I’ve been watching its shadows, some great hand shaking the blanket of night back up into the sky. I shake Gina’s shoulder with my own hand, brushing her sticky hair from her face. She grumbles at me, sleepy words mumbled into my chest. The vibrations of her voice tickle my skin, something that I’ve never felt before. I shake her shoulder again, not so much with the intention of waking her, this time, as with the hope of feeling her voice and her breath sink into me again. But she pulls her head up, her hair a nest of tangles, and she squints her eyes at me.
“It’s getting late.” I kiss her on the forehead, sweaty from the summer heat that sinks itself into my room every June and makes its home until October. The attic is immune to central air, but it’s private, and I like it. “You’d better go.”
Gina sighs and drops her head back onto my chest. “Just hide me under the bed if your Mom comes up, Ash.”
Ash is her own name for me. It’s my hair, she says. Like dirty blond ashes.
I brush her black tangles with the back of my hand. “That didn’t work last time, Gina. She can smell you, I swear.”
“Gee, thanks.” Gina sits up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and propping her elbows up on her knees. Resting her chin in the palms of hands, she sighs and closes her eyes. “This is so stupid.”
I sit up, too, climbing out of bed and walking around to face her. “I know.” There’s nothing else to say, really. I hold my hands out to her, and she grabs onto them as I pull her up. She’s so light, like I might just break her into pieces if I tug too hard. “You feeling okay?”
She nods, tucking the folds of her body into the folds of mine. “Like crap, but okay.”
“Good.” I take her hand, leading her down the stairs. I’m in my boxers, but she slept in her clothes. Jeans and a wrinkled top, and I don’t know how she does it. But then, last night she was too trashed to care. She smoothes her top as we walk down the stairs, and I peek the door open, listening. No one is awake.
I turn, kissing her on the forehead, and she scoots out the door, down the snake of a hallway and to the front door. I hear it close softly behind her, and I take the steps slowly back upstairs, stopping at the window to watch her walk home, her hands shoved into her pockets. I feel like she’s all mine, watching her from atop. No one else in the world would know that she was taking a walk at 5:30 in the morning but me, and that’s pretty special.
The bear-friend always got up early in the mornings, too. He didn’t like to sleep, he said, and I can understand him there. I don’t like to sleep either. But he was different, of course. He’d climb in the trees, walk along the water banks looking for his friends, whatever whim hit him at a given time. I only flip between MTV and Comedy Central until I find something decent.
I click the power button now, the TV fuzzing to life, and I flop back down in the bed.
We always eat breakfast as a family on Sunday mornings. 10:00 at the fancy dining room table, with no pajamas and no elbows on the table. Blueberry scones and fruit salad, like always. I’ve been up for five hours already, but I’m not hungry. I could go days without eating, maybe three or four. Gina doesn’t get it. She’s constantly pulling boxes of raisins out of her purse or packets of almonds out of her pockets. She’s the only person I know who keeps food in her pockets, and I miss her when she’s not here.
“Are you seeing Gina today?”
Dad leans across the table, grabbing another scone from the bowl. I take a bite and a gulp of pineapple orange juice. I don’t like pineapple, but it’s the only juice mom will ever buy. “Yeah, she’s going to come over in a few hours.” Whenever the hangover wears off. I smile, picturing her tangly head of hair bobbing its way down the street a few hours before. If she were here, she’d sit there across from me with her tangly hair and prop her flip-flopped feet up on the clean white chair cushion, hugging her knees while she ate. She never worries about manners, and I’ve always liked that about her. Manners are a silly thing to worry about.
Dad nods, pushing out his chair and taking his empty dishes to the kitchen. I hear them clatter as they drop into the sink, and I watch Mom cringe. We always use the china for Sunday morning breakfasts, ugly gold swirls and pink roses.
“Yeah?” He walks back through the dining room, his bare feet sinking into the plush carpet and his left hand enclosed around a neat stack of Oreos.
Mom’s never happy about the Oreos in the morning. I would think that she would be used to it by now, but then that’s just how she is. On Mondays she does the gardening, on Thursdays she plays tennis with the girls, on Sundays she yells at Dad for the Oreos.
“I want to take a vacation with Gina, during summer break. To the mountains.”
“Absolutely not.” He shoves an entire cookie into his mouth and walks away to the living room, brushing the cookie crumbs from his hands onto his polo. I hear the TV click on, the recliner click out. I don’t think the bear-friend ever sat on a recliner his entire life. He slept in a sleeping bag as a kid, he said, underneath his own bed with the spiders and the dust bunnies.
She shakes her head, carefully picking a piece of cantaloupe from the bowl with her manicured fingertips. A manicure and a pedicure, every Saturday morning. “You’re only 16.”
“Why does that make a difference?”
“Because 16 year old children can’t be taking vacations with their girlfriends. Besides, why would you even want to go out into the mountains? It’s dirty and hot, with no proper facilities. It’s not even natural.”
I pile another mound of fruit onto my plate, angrily stabbing the chunks of watermelon and mango with the tines of my fork. I don’t think about what I’m doing when I’m upset. I eat when I’m not hungry, I yell when I don’t want people to hear, and I run when I really want to stay put. It’s just how I’ve always been.
I look up across the table at her, getting ready to give her a good glare. She hates when I do that, but she’s not paying me any attention. It’s 10:30, and she has already gotten up, leaving her half-eaten food on the table to take the dog for a walk. She would have left the food even if she was still hungry. Clockwork.
The grass is cold beneath me, like it always is. I don’t think people realize how cold the grass is in the summer. It’s my favorite part about a hot day, an ice cream carpet beneath my neck, my legs, my arms. I lie next to Gina, our bare feet propped up on the wooden fence that lines my folks’ yard. Her toenails are painted deep purple, chipped and peeling like they always are. She throws her arms over her head, stretching her fingers as far as she can. Her arms are skinny, like little tree branches, little stems.
“We could leave in the night and just go,” I say. “Just drive. Take my Dad’s cooler, the tent from the basement. Why not?”
Gina shrugs her shoulders into the grass, twirling a finger through the end of her hair, like she always does when she’s nervous. “How would we know where to go?”
“I don’t know. There are maps for things like that.” I count the nails in the fence plank with my toes. Seven, eight, nine. “I won’t lose you, or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll carry you around on my back during the day and zip you up in my sleeping bag at night.”
Gina rolls her eyes, I can feel it. She’s proud like that. “I wouldn’t let myself get lost.” She pulls herself up, standing above me and holding out a hand. Her tank top is scrunched up high on her belly, a strip of white skin between her top and her shorts. “Let’s go.”
“Where to? I like it out here.”
“No, let’s go to the mountains.”
I sit up, trying to read her face, but she always keeps it just so. Small and pretty. “Really? You really want to go? Now?”
“Sure. Your parents are still out, right?”
I steal a quick glance at my watch. “They’ll be at their lunch club for two more hours. Well, two hours and twelve minutes.” I reach out and grab her hand, standing up. I feel the cold of her ring against my hand, a tiny ruby that I had saved for all last year, and I smile. It makes me happy every time that I see it, because it’s my promise to her. My promise that one day we’ll have a three-tiered cake and brick walls and a pile of bibs stacked up next to the towels. She takes it off and looks at it all of the time, holding it close to her eyes and smiling as the light bounces off the gem in little red sparkles, and when she’s drunk she tells me how she loves the color because it’s just like blood, alive and real. I’ve always known that ruby was her favorite color, but she gets forgetful when she drinks, and she gets real excited to tell me every time. I love it.
“So we just leave them a note, so your Mom won’t have a heart attack when she finds you gone, and we go. Just you and me.”
I keep her hand in mine, running to the back door. People say that they can feel their hearts racing, sometimes, but I feel like mine is jumping rope inside of me, kids on the playground clapping their hands and cheering it on. It’s something that the bear-friend would have done. He would have left on a whim from his tent in the morning, knowing that his only purpose that day was to find a friendly raccoon that he could adopt as a tent-pet or a good climbing tree where he could carve a picture on the highest branch. He wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
Gina doesn’t like the dark, but when you’re camping, there’s a lot of it. It’s dark now, and nature dark is so much darker than city dark. The campsite is deserted except for us, my car parked next to an out-of-place red pole marked with the number 19. I’ve pitched our tent, rolled out the sleeping bags inside, and we’re sitting cross-legged on the roof of the car. The dome light is on, shining up at us through the moon roof. The next best thing to a flashlight, when the flashlight’s still in the utility closet next to the washer and dryer.
“I should turn off the light. We don’t want to get a dead battery out here.”
Gina shrugs, nonchalance, but I know better. I kiss her nose and jump down from the roof, opening the door. No one knows that we’re here, just Gina and me, and it feels like how free would feel, endless and open.
“Don’t worry. There’s nothing scary out here, anyway. Just skunks and squirrels.”
I reach inside the car, grabbing a bag of pretzels from the floor. The car wobbles around me, back and forth, and I look up through the moon roof. Gina’s readjusting herself, lying down. Her shirt is crumpled against the windowpane, flattened pink crinkles, and I reach my hand up, tracing my fingers along the glass, over her belly button. I miss her.
“Can you grab a beer, Ash?”
I grab two from the cooler, tuck them under my arm with the pretzels, and I flip off the light. I’m like Gina in a lot of ways, but then in a lot of ways I’m not. I like the dark, mostly because it’s a mental thing. It makes me feel uneasy, makes my worries much more troublesome than they normally are, makes my thoughts less lucid and more chaotic, nervous, paranoid. It’s good.
I feel fingers on my head and on my shoulders, but I can’t see them. Dark is a whole new word out here. “Here, Ash, hand me the snacks so you can climb up.” I reach up blindly, offering out the crumpled bag and frosted bottles, and then they’re gone, taken up into the blackness by a hand that I can’t see. I climb onto the hood of the car, feeling my way up to the top, and I lie down on my stomach next to Gina. I can’t see her there, but I can feel her, solid and warm. The crinkle of the pretzel bag is loud as Gina opens it, like a television set in the library. She pops open her beer, and the cap clatters to the roof of the car, bouncing around and falling with a soft thud to the grass.
“I’ll get it tomorrow.”
“Okay.” I open my own beer, taking a cold sip. The beer bubbles against the bottle inside, high-pitched pops and fizzles. I cover the top with my hand, trying to ease the noise, but it doesn’t help. It’s just muted and strange, now, like crying into my pillow when there’s no one there to listen. I uncover the bottle and take a long drink instead, swallowing what I can of the sound. I think Gina feels it, too. The dark and the silence, the nothingness. She’s stopped eating the pretzels and she isn’t making a sound, just lying there warm beside me.
I’m sure the bear-friend knew the silence and knew the darkness. I’m sure that he knew it through and through, and maybe he never even noticed it, but it’s new to us, mesmerizing, like a kaleidoscope without colors. I feel a tickling on my hand and I reflexively shake it in the air, spastic, trying to throw away whatever is crawling on me. It lights up in front of me, a firefly, and then it’s gone.
I don’t know why the bear-friend bothers me so much. He keeps creeping back into my head, stuck in the jelly of my brain. I cross my arms in from of me, resting my chin on my hands. A lightning bug flashes to my left, to my right, somewhere back in the trees. Quiet, yellow life. I close my eyes, taking a deep breath. The roof of the car can be my bed tonight, the blackness my bedroom.
“I’ve never seen so many lightning bugs before, Ash,” Gina whispers. “They’re all around us.”
I open my eyes, leaning up on my elbows and peering off into the black. Gina’s right. Suddenly, they’re everywhere. Flashing gold and yellow, filling the darkness that’s surrounds us. They flash in sequence, thousands of them all together, a secret lightning bug code. Darkness, golden, darkness.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?”
I shake my head, but then I know that she can’t see. “No, I haven’t,” I whisper. I stare out in front of me, tossing my arm over Gina’s back and pulling her closer, nothing short of mesmerized by the throbbing blackness.
I’ve never seen something so beautiful before.
I shake my head, imagining Mom at the kitchen table, bubblegum nails smoothing the starched tablecloth. It’s not even natural, she’d said.
When you find a waterfall in the middle of the woods, even just a little one, the water is cold. Gina doesn’t care. She kicks off her flip flops and wades right in to the stream, just up past her knees.
“Oh man, Ash. This is freezing.”
“I told you it would be!” I sit down on the grass next to stream, propping my feet up on a slippery rock.
“You’re not coming in?”
“Nah. I think I like the warmth out here just fine.”
She sits down, her butt right in the water, and I can see a string of goose bumps work its way up her arms and across her shoulders. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Ash.”
She’s right. The bear friend would have dived right in, throwing his body into the cold and rinsing the icy water through his hair.
I stand up, splashing toward Gina, laughing and flopping my body down beside hers, the water spraying over our faces and settling into our hair. “Well, you’re right, Gina. I’ve never been so cold in my entire life.” She leans over and kisses me, her lips shaking and frozen, and then she leans back and stares out into the trees, bringing her hands out from beneath the water and sifting pebbles from the stream bed through her fingers.
“So why did he die, Gina?”
She lifts her arms up high, splashing the pebbles back into the water from above her head. “Who?”
“Oh, him.” She shakes her head and shrugs. “What’s your deal with him?”
I don’t know that I have a deal, but then maybe I do. “I don’t know. He did everything right, you know? He did this every day.”
She shrugs again, splashing her hands back down into the water. “Everybody dies, Ash. Doesn’t matter what you do.”
Maybe she’s right, but I don’t think that it’s going to help me get his pony-tailed, bearded face out of the dusty back corners of my brain. I stand up, then bend down and reach my hands under the water, searching for her hands. “Come on, let’s go get some beer.” Her hands are frozen solid, cold all of the way through, so cold that I don’t notice the familiar chill of her ring against my hand. I reach my thumb out, searching for it just out of habit, but it’s not there. My heart sinks a little, just like people say that it does when a realization falls square on your head.
“Where’s your ring, Gina?”
She looks down and immediately spins around in the water, scanning with her eyes before dropping down to her knees, feeling her fingers through the rocks. “I had it. I just had it.” She’s panicking, something that I’ve never really seen her do, and it almost makes me forget what has happened. I stand in the water next to her, watching her digging furiously through the pebbles, bringing handfuls of them out of the water before dropping them back down again.
“Okay, Gina, calm down. Let me help you find it.”
I kneel down beside her, sifting my hands through the pebbles beneath the water, squinting my eyes for a peek of red, but the water is so churned up that I can’t see anything. I crawl out of the water, comb my hands through the grass beside the stream, then I go back into the water and dig again. Gina doesn’t say anything to me, but she doesn’t have to. I can tell that her face is wet from tears, not from the water.
“I don’t think we’re going to find it, Gina.”
She looks at me and there’s a craze in her eyes, a hard black splatter when everything else is so soft. “We have to find it, okay? You can go if you want, I’m staying until I find it.”
I watch her dig, crawling along the stream bed, and she’s angry, fierce, any number of adjectives that just aren’t her. I close my eyes and feel her laying in my arms back at home, warm and indifferent and Gina.
“Come on, Gina.” I hold my hands out to her. “Let’s just get some beer, take a walk. Okay?”
She finally stops digging and looks up at me, mascara painted down to her chin. She grabs my hands and stands up, and as I pull her out of the water she looks back, her eyes scanning the water one more time. We walk back the way we came, over the fallen tree trunk crumbled with moss and between the boulders that sit like bookends to our path. I hold Gina’s hand the whole way, light and pretty in my own hand, and she doesn’t say a word.
There’s an overlook not far from our campsite. A worn bench sits behind a crumbling old fence that lines the drop off, and everything behind that fence is like magic. The land falls away hundreds of feet, almost straight down, and trees plump the valley with green. It’s so breezy, today, and the wind keeps rushing through the branches that hang from a maple tree over our bench, like a wind chime without chimes. The gusts swoop through that tree and over our heads and down the cliff into the valley, stirring everything around like a spoon in a pot.
Gina hasn’t smiled since yesterday. She’s just sullen, sad and gray and not even watching to make sure that she’s not stepping on bugs as she walks. I put my arm around her and pull her closer to me on the bench, squeezing her shoulder.
“Hey, do you remember that red dress that you used to wear?”
She shrugs, shaking her head.
“You wore it when we went to the festival that one time, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. The long one.”
“Yeah.” The wind makes its rounds again, blowing through our hair and down into the valley. “Well, I always liked when you wore that dress. Your ring matched it perfectly.”
She turns and glares at me. “You trying to make me feel better?”
I shake my head, watching a spider crawl across the toe of my tennis shoe. “No. But it’s just better now, you know? In my head, I’m at that festival with my girl in her red dress with her sparkly red ring, and that’s where she’ll always be.”
She doesn’t say anything, but she pulls her legs up onto the bench, hugging her knees. She curls her toes around the edges of her flip-flops.
“And now I’m sitting in the trees with my sullen girl in her dirty tank top and flip flops, and if I never see you wearing a dirty tank top again, it doesn’t matter. Because you’ll always be there.”
She turns to me, and she smiles.
The bear-friend knew so much more than me, is what it is. He ran with the bears and slept with the bears because that’s what he always wanted to keep back in the corners of his mind. His friends drinking from the streams and hanging from the trees.
“Come on, let’s take a walk.” I stand up and offer Gina my hand, and we turn from the bench and head back into the trees, her hand nothing but warm against mine.
Carrie Bachler is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2009, Carrie Bachler