I used to think that being alone was the worst thing in the world. Not anymore. I would do anything to feel that way again.
My father died before I was born. I’m convinced my grieving mother never came to terms with it. Not once during my childhood did she date or see anyone else. I never received other siblings to share the experience with.
Subsequently, I grew into a nervous, unsocial child. I was the one always standing apart from the other children at school. Whether it be bouncing a tennis ball against the wall or wandering around the outside of the field with my hands in my pockets. Even at my young age, I was aware of the burden I was becoming.
Shortly after my eighth birthday, my mother told me over dinner that it was time we moved out of our small, two-bedroom apartment into a proper house. Money was already tight as it was, but she was determined to make it work.
On top of fifty hours a week she was already putting in at her day job, she picked up a second one as a waitress. She started shifts every Tuesday and Thursday after her day at the office. To make it work, she had to get up extra early on these days. She needed to leave the office early enough to make the restaurant on time.
It would be difficult, but not impossible. She was willing to put herself through the exhaustion of making it work. The last hurdle was for her to figure out what to do with me when she worked those late evenings.
I didn’t have any friends whose houses I could visit after school. Paying for a babysitter would offset the extra money too much to be worth it.
So, as she sat there, watching me twirl spaghetti noodles with my fork, she told me what she intended to do.
The next day, I was enrolled in the Big Brother Program of America.
Introductory consultation was brief. They compiled all of my odd, introverted characteristics into one big personality profile. They ran me through their matchmaking program and tried to find a few potential Big Brothers in our small, Michigan town.
Pickings were slim. My mom singled out Cameron’s profile from the others immediately.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Cameron had just come to town a few weeks before. Apparently, the first thing he did upon arriving was enroll in the program.
I was in luck.
He was a twenty-six-year-old law student who had just moved to the area for school. On paper, he was squeaky-clean. He came from a rich family in Virginia (who he never wanted to talk about). He had a wealth of previous volunteer experience, including environmental reconstruction projects and teaching English overseas.
I remember the first time he came to visit. I played in the building courtyard as he rounded the corner, hands in his pockets, smiling the entire way. Dressed in an old grey sweater, Camo pants and an old pair of hiking boots, he looked, as he always would, like he was ready for a ten-mile hike through the brush.
Just the kind of guy to get me out of the house.
He met with us a few more times. We went for walks and played outdoors under my mother’s careful supervision. He hated the big city and always wanted to be outside. A stranger to regular showers as well. He was the ultimate outdoorsman
Perhaps he was a little rough around the edges, but there was no denying the guy had a heart of gold. He was the nicest adult I had ever met. You couldn’t rub out the smile he held between his chubby cheeks if you tried.
All positive impressions my mother initially had of him were confirmed. She finalized the paperwork and made the arrangements. Cameron was to come pick me up every Tuesday and Thursday after school.
From its beginning, the setup ran smoothly.
He didn’t own a car. He would always walk to my school to pick me up. The bell would ring and I would go out to meet him at the edge of the parking lot. He was always there, patiently leaning against one of the trees.
Conversation with him was always about me. What I liked to do, what I liked to eat, how big of a man I was going to grow into. Sometimes, he would ask about the father I had never met. He wanted to know specific details as if I knew him personally. What kind of person he was, how big he was, how healthy he had been.
The one thing Cameron never wanted to discuss was him. He didn’t mention his family unless prompted. As far as I knew, he didn’t have a girlfriend or any buddies in town. He never let me visit wherever he was living. He was always secretive that way.
It took me a while to warm up. But after enough evenings spent hiking, canoeing or any other of his constructive outdoor activities, I started to look forward to spending time with him.
As the school year progressed, it started to feel like he had become a full-time member of the family. Often, he would come in for coffee or tea with my mother when it was time to drop me off. She had taken a liking to him as well.
I still remember the one night where the three of us sat around the cramped kitchen table. She told us both that she was going to put an offer in on a house on the outskirts of town. In order to raise the money for a down payment, she intended to take on extra shifts at the restaurant.
She slid her hand on top of Cameron’s and asked if he would be sticking around for the summer. For different reasons, she and I would both need him around more often.
I remember Cameron’s reaction to the question well. His hand slid out from under my mother’s over to mine. A tear rolled down his cheek. I think he realized how emotionally invested our little family had become in him.
I couldn’t understand why he chose that night, over all others, to break his news to us. It was the most heartbroken I had ever been in my eight years of life.
“I’ll stay,” he said. “But I don’t know if I will make it through the summer.”
You see, Cameron hadn’t been completely honest with his reasons for joining the Big Brother Program. It wasn’t simply another act of goodwill or a genuine desire to enrich the community. He had an ulterior motive.
It was selfish. At least to me.
Cancer in the bones. It was passed the point of Chemo-Therapy being an option. His remaining life expectancy was less than six months.
“I just wanted to know what it felt like to have a son before I go,” he said as he released my arm. “I’m so sorry.”
The three of us wept together that evening. For the first time in my life, I had both a friend and a father. And soon, he would be gone.
The next Tuesday afternoon, Cameron took me out for a milkshake. Normally an advocate of vegetarian, healthy eating, it was something out of the ordinary. We also drove there in a brand new Audi Sedan he claimed his parents had just bought for him.
I sat at the diner booth, elbows resting on the table, looking blankly out the window. Cameron brought the chocolate milkshake to the table with extra whip cream on top, just as he’d promised.
He watched closely as I took my first sip. It didn’t taste as it normally did. It felt nothing like the sugar-high an eight-year-old should have gotten. My body rejected it immediately.
“I feel sick,” I said as I rubbed my stomach.
“Didn’t sound sick when I told you we were coming here in the car,” he answered with a laugh. “C’mon now, finish up. I’ll give you five bucks if you can finish the rest of it in under ten seconds.”
I tried to gulp it down, but couldn’t force more than a couple sips. My head started to feel clouded. I pushed the milkshake towards him.
“You finish it. I want to go home.”
“Alright you little wimp,” he said as he pushed it aside. “But don’t tell your mom we went for dessert. She’ll kill me.”
The drive home didn’t serve my already ailing body well. Between long breaths, I noticed Cameron kept glancing in my direction. Not wanting to appear like a weak little kid, I gave him a thumbs-up. I just needed to get home.
Then, for the first time since I started seeing Cameron, something happened that wasn’t part of the prearranged routine. We went straight through the intersection where we were meant to turn right. Then, we took the next left. It was followed by a few more. Soon, the suburbs gave way to a heavily forested country road. We were in a place I had never been before.
He looked intently through the windshield. He wasn’t lost. He knew exactly where he was going.
We passed scattered houses before they stopped altogether. Dense forest began to stretch as far as I could see on either side of the road. Cameron pulled the car over. We were in the middle of nowhere.
Out the window, I saw a small opening in the thickness of the brush. It looked like the remnants of a dirt path nobody had bothered to upkeep, if even walk on, in years.
“I want to show you something,” Cameron said as he pulled the keys from the ignition. The smile was wide on his face.
“I just want to lie down. Can we go home?”
“I’ll take you home after, Olly. Plus, the walk will be good for you. When have we ever not had fun in the woods? Will help your tummy dissolve the milkshake quicker too.”
His voice was calm and reassuring, just as it always was. With the vision starting to cloud in the corners of my eyes, I opened the door.
I walked a few steps before realizing that I was alone. I turned back and saw that Cameron was still at the car. He stood outside the driver door, his elbows resting on the roof. He looked to the sky intently, no longer smiling.
“Cameron?” I called back.
His head twitched in my direction. I had never seen him move like that before. The smile returned to his face, but it looked stranger than before. He closed the door and locked the car. After a quick jog towards me, he threw an arm around my shoulder.
We entered the forest together.
The walk proved both less interesting and longer than Cameron suggested. The shadows from the branches above grew longer as the sun started to set. A cold spring wind began to whistle through the trees.
I didn’t have a coat. Feeling fainter, I shivered from the chill. With his arm still draped over me, Cameron’s arm twitched.
“Don’t worry buddy, it’ll be over soon.”
After a few more minutes of trudging along the disappearing path, I stepped in a patch of mud. My left shoe sunk in and my foot slipped out. I fell forward onto my hands and knees.
Cameron chuckled and helped me up with shaking hands. The lower legs of my jeans were completely muddied. I rubbed my palms together in an attempt to ease the pain. I wanted to cry desperately but held the tears back.
“Sit down on the rock over there,” Cameron said as he tried to fish my shoe from the mud with a stick.
I did as he instructed.
Cameron cleaned off the mud as best he could with some fallen leaves. He knelt down in front of me as I lifted my foot into the air. He took hold of my ankle as he slid the shoe on.
“Sorry about that Oliver. Bad luck.”
“I’m tired of walking now, Cameron. Can we go back?”
“Can’t turn back now. We’re almost there. It’d be a shame to head back after coming all this way.”
I pressed my palm against my forehead. I wanted to think of some kind of rebuttal, but I couldn’t. Forming an argument proved too difficult in my increasingly clouded mind.
I had to force every step for the next mile down the deteriorating path. Carefully, I put one tired foot in front of the other. But, when we reached the base of the hill, I dug my heels into the earth.
“I can’t climb this. Take me home, Cameron. Let’s come back another day.”
His quivering hand patted me on the back.
“You won’t have to climb it though. I’m going to carry you. And when you see what’s up there, you’re going to wish that I brought you here a long time ago.”
He turned around and knelt down in front of me.
“Hop on. I’m going to give you the best piggy-back of your life.”
More compliant than I should have been, I did exactly as he said.
It was more than whatever haziness had taken hold of my mind. Aside from my mother, he was the only other person I held dear. Everything we had done together up until then had been a positive experience. Though something didn’t feel right, my boy self just couldn’t help but trust him.
I mounted his back and he brought his hands up under my calves. The cold wind rustled through the trees again as we began to climb.
The journey was shaky. His steps were sporadic and uncoordinated. We wobbled from side to side as we ascended.
“You know there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you, Oliver,” he said as he lifted the legs of my pants. “I know the reason the other kids don’t like you at school. I know why they call you names and laugh behind your back. It’s because they don’t understand you. They don’t know what it’s like to be alone. But I do, Olly. I know how it feels. I’ve been alone my whole life.”
He started to caress my shins up and down. His fingers pressed against my skin. I was too tired to react. My head began to droop.
“My body is dying,” he continued. “I don’t have much time left. I need you, Oliver. I came to you for a reason. We were meant to be together.”
Cameron’s body shook profusely by the time reached the summit. He nearly toppled over as everything came into view.
The terrain was flat atop the hill. Any remnants of a path ever being there had disappeared. Trees surrounded us on all sides. We were well out of sight. No one could have possibly seen us up there.
There was a pile of stones in the shape of a makeshift fire pit to our right. Behind it was an ancient, torn up tent that looked like it had survived a thousand thunderstorms. A muddied, white lawn chair sat between it and the rocks.
He released my legs and let me drop down. Like him, I could hardly keep my balance when under my own weight again.
Partly out of blind obedience, partly out of exhaustion, I sat in the old white chair. I fell into it and tried to regain composure. My head was spinning. Things went in and out of focus.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he unzipped his jacket and threw it to the ground. “I’m sorry that it has to be you, Olly. If I had time, I would find someone else.”
“Cameron, what are we doing here?”
“I’m going to show you,” he said as his breathing got heavier. “Please don’t fight, it will make this so much easier.”
He lifted his sweater. I saw his chest heave forward as he bared it to the open air.
Something was wrong. Even in my state of fatigue, I knew I was in danger. I tried to grip the sides of the chair to get up. But my arms had lost all strength. I could only sit there as the blurriness in the corners of my eyes continued to eat its way into my vision.
He stumbled to the side as he attempted to take off his pants. He caught himself against a tree. His arm shook violently as he used it for support.
With great difficulty, he managed to remove the rest of his clothing. His naked body shook like nothing I had ever seen before. His chest heaved like a bullfrog as he walked towards me. It wasn’t from the chill of the cold spring air that was now ripping its way through the forest. Something else was making him tremble.
“I’m sorry it has to be you, Oliver,” he said again. “I’m so sorry. I don’t have any more time.”
My eyelids were anvils. My head dangled forward as I fell asleep. Slowly, I began to sleep.
What followed must have been a dream. Because what happened next couldn’t have been real.
Cameron attempted two steps forward before staggering. He toppled backwards and fell. His body started to contort into impossible shapes.
His eyes rolled back and his mouth fell open. Sores started to open up in his arms. I heard the sound of muscles tearing. Blood poured out from lesions opening all over his body.
He didn’t try to get up from the leaves and dirt where he lay. His externalities shot outward as if pulled on by giant, invisible arms. Beneath the growing ripples in his skin, from the places where the blood was streaming out, I did not see the white of bone underneath. What I saw there was something else entirely.
Something brown. Something moving. Something with vitality.
A large crater opened in his abdomen. It didn’t start from the outside, but rather, pulled open from within.
It was like some sick, mutated act of birth. Something finally emerged from the hole in the body’s center, covered in blood and loose pieces of flesh.
It creaked like an old bed frame as it stood up, measuring maybe four feet high.
The body looked like it had been borrowed from various pieces of the forest. Its composition was nothing more than a series of slender twigs. It stood like a heron, its legs accounting for the majority of its height. Its torso and two arms were just a little cross of sticks. The head, like a piece of soaked, fallen bark.
It looked so feeble in the open air.
Little wooden cracks sounded as it turned in my direction. It walked towards me with slow, unbalanced steps. The wind could have blown it away at any moment.
The dream forced me down into the chair helplessly as it approached. One stick arm reached out. Slowly, it came into contact with my hand. I felt a cold, damp touch.
The last thing I heard before waking up was Cameron’s voice.
“I’m so sorry.”
That’s the first thing I felt as my eyes opened to the sunrise. My hair was wet from the morning dew in the grass. I was disoriented.
I heard men’s voices a few feet away. I rolled over in their direction. There were policemen standing on the road. Two cars were parked there.
One was a police cruiser. In front of it, was Cameron’s Audi. The one I later learned he stole.
One of the officers walked over and picked me up. As he carried me back towards the road, I realized I couldn’t move my arms or legs. The clothes Cameron had been wearing the night before we wrapped around me like a cocoon.
More than ten years have passed since that happened. Not a single day that goes by where I do not reflect upon it.
I haven’t seen or heard from Cameron since that night. As far as I know, no else has either.
There was a time where I obsessed over trying to figure out who he really was. It seems that everything he told us and was a lie.
All the references he gave to the program were dead ends. There was no rich family in Virginia, there was no enrollment in a law program and there was no Cameron Jacobs. As far as I’m concerned, he literally came out of nowhere.
Eventually, I let it go. I didn’t have a choice.
Now, I find myself preferring to spend my weekends coming home from college. There just isn’t enough green in the city.
I’m much happier to return home and see my mother. I love the little house she bought on the outskirts of town. She picked a great spot. The property backs right up into the forest.
I can’t help but feel compelled to go out and sit on one of the white patio chairs she has sitting at the edge of the lawn. I don’t need a phone, a book or any form of entertainment. I’m quite content to just sit in the presence of the trees.
It’s impossible to explain the recognizable voice that’s started to sound inside my head as I’ve started to progress into adulthood. It’s not like an annoying jingle that you can’t get out of your head. It’s more like someone broadcasting a message that I can’t control.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”, it says. It gets louder all the time.
My body often feels tight. It’s too rigid for a young man like me. And every time I try to stretch my arms and legs out, the crackling noises get a little louder.
I took a hike through the woods today. My shoe slipped in a patch of mud and my knee crashed against a rock on the way down. As I winced, pulling the leg of my pants up, I examined the wound. It was deep, well below skin level.
Below the pouring blood, I did not see the white of bone. What I saw there was nothing more than the deep brown of a living, vibrant wood.