Aaron finally emerged from his home, standing proudly on his front porch with a massive backpack on his back. Slipping from his hands was a densely packed duffel bag that contained a four-person tent. It seemed as though he was equipped to inhabit the Amazon rainforest for a week, rather than to go camping for one night on the outskirts of the neighborhood. Peter, Jill, and Cora were standing by the side of the road, laughing at Aaron’s failed attempts to thoughtfully carry himself down the steps. His three friends were each holding a sleeping bag that had items such as water bottles, flashlights, and their favorite snacks wrapped up inside of them. Peter and Jill had their fingers intertwined, and Cora’s eyes were a glimmering hazel under the setting sun. She was in charge of bringing the marshmallows, and Aaron couldn’t wait to roast them with her beneath tonight’s starry night sky.
“Ready to go, soldier?” Peter gave Aaron a forceful yet friendly pat on the back, his hand hitting Aaron's backpack.
“Ready as I’ll ever be! I’ve got the lighter for the campfire, stakes for the tent, and extra flashlight batteries for our lily-livered comrade over here.” Instead of pointing at Cora, who was notoriously afraid of the dark, he pointed at Peter, who seemingly wasn’t afraid of anything.
“Aaron, didn’t you say that you’re afraid to walk around your house at night because there are ‘ghosts of dead squirrels inside the walls?’” Jill chuckled as she raised an inquiring eyebrow at Aaron.
“No.” He drew out the word, an awkward smile rising onto his face.
“She ratted you out!” Peter teased as he punched Aaron's shoulder. Aaron rolled his eyes, still a bit flustered, but decided to let the girls know that Peter once had an extreme, irrational fear of the pineapple jello from the school’s cafeteria.
“Ha! That stuff was pretty revolting, but if we’re talking about fears, I say we get a move on before Petey here starts getting cranky,” Jill mocked, feigning a frightful expression. Peter squinted his eyes at his proud girlfriend and his two amused friends.
They were losing time to pitch the tent as the sun continued to set. The sky was now a mixture of warm purples, soft pinks, and fluffy, dark oranges. Cora grabbed the other end of the duffel bag, sharing the weight of it with Aaron.
“I’ve got graham crackers, chocolate bars, and a whole two bags of jumbo marshmallows in this bad boy.” She brought everyone’s attention to the rolled up sleeping bag in her other arm. “You know what that means!” Cora’s eyes lit up.
“A whole lot of s’mores!” Jill exclaimed.
“You betcha! And we can’t make s’mores until we’ve got a tent, so let’s get to it!”
Cora began to stumble towards Peter’s car under the weight of the duffel bag, Aaron following as he held onto its other side. In no time, all of their supplies had been tossed into the trunk and the four friends were off to the campsite, a location that was one of their favorite places in town, as it was where they had shared many childhood memories.
They were all delighted for their adventure, but they each had their own set of nerves that were running from knowing that there could be dangers lurking anywhere and everywhere. Despite this, they brushed off their uncertainties and turned up the radio, Jill giving Peter a peck on the cheek as the car’s engine sputtered. The music emanated through the lowered windows as Cora rested her head on Aaron’s shoulder.
“Do you know what I’m actually afraid of?” Aaron whispered to Cora, the music muffling the conversation of Peter and Jill, the front seats’ lovebirds.
“I’m not sure, but I think I’ll figure it out easily.” Cora smiled and scrunched her nose, Aaron’s cheeks turning pink as he looked into her pretty, hazel eyes.
After a five minute drive from Aaron’s house to the edge of town, they had reached their final destination. It was a secluded area that was located near a small lake and a wooden playground, all surrounded by a field of lovely, green grass.
Then, there were miles and miles of forest that led to a desert of immense, rocky mountains.
With the bit of sunlight left, Aaron was able to set up the tent with the minimum amount of struggle possible. He imagined having Jill and Peter attempt to put the thing up; it would have been a disaster, like newlyweds fighting over which direction the toilet paper should be placed on the roll.
“Isn’t this freaky?” Cora exclaimed, peering into the dark cracks between the forest trees.
“Totally,” Jill said dryly, creeping up behind Cora and lightly shoving her towards the trees. Cora shrieked and stumbled to the ground, Jill’s contagious laughter echoing through the field.
Cora spoke fervently through an annoyed grin.
“Wow. I’m not even afraid of the dark anymore!” Aaron helped Cora stand as she brushed wood chips and dirt from her shorts. “I’ll prove it.” The others were skeptical if she could actually confirm her claim.
Peter sat in the entrance of the tent, spraying bug repellent over his legs and fiddling with a jar of peanut butter that he couldn’t seem to get open.
“The first team to find a white rock in the forest wins,” Cora said with conviction. “Pete and Jill, and Aaron and I."
"W-What? Are you sure about this Cor?” Aaron said, studying her spirited expression.
“White rocks are like gold nuggets in there. We’ll never find one.” Peter twisted the peanut butter lid with commitment as it finally popped off.
“Exactly. One flashlight per team.” Cora hurried back to the tent, grabbing Aaron’s flashlight and tossing it to him. It slipped through his hands three times before he finally caught a grip on it. Peter jumped up with his body half sprayed with repellent, scrapped the peanut butter jar, and grabbed his flashlight with sticky hands. Peter and Jill, always ready for a challenge, met at the edge of the forest with the other two, Aaron dubious about entering the vast woods, and Cora jittering beneath her confident stature.
The pairs stood far from each other, linking arms as they took their first steps into the thick mass of trees. Cora’s pupils dilated as she advanced, her body unconsciously pulling backwards, although this was her own idea, and it would be humiliating to back out now. She no longer wanted to be known as the girl who was afraid of things that didn’t exist, so she continued on as the other team disappeared into the blackness, the faint, amber light from Peter’s flashlight becoming dimmer as the two groups separated ways.
“Are you alright?” Aaron tipped the flashlight towards her.
“Never better,” she said, faintly attempting to mask her agitation. Cora unlinked her arm from Aaron’s.
Aaron shined the light at the ground, searching intently for a useless white rock. He wished that they hadn't left the campsite, but he had decided to go along with Cora's idea to encourage her that there was nothing to be afraid of - at least, nothing imaginary. It was also interesting how being encapsulated in the forest had gotten his adrenaline rushing.
Wind whistled through the trees, twigs and leaves crunching beneath their feet as they continued farther on. Distant howls and hoots echoed across the woodland. Despite Cora’s sudden burst of confidence in that she was no longer afraid of what lurked in the dark, Aaron made sure to stand near her at all times.
There was an eerie silence. Then, a faint scream resonated towards them. It was Peter and Jill.
“Sounds like an owl started pecking at Jill’s hair,” Aaron said, attempting to reassure both Cora and himself with banter.
“Definitely,” she said, with doubt in her wide eyes. Cora stepped closer to Aaron, and turning behind her, she noticed that the tent and Peter’s car were no longer in sight. The light from the other group’s flashlight had flickered away, and when Cora turned back around, her eyes were in line with a blurred paper that was pinned to the bark of a tree. She froze in her tracks, yanking upwards Aaron’s arm that held the flashlight to get a better look at its message:
BEWARE of the Man Among the Trees
The letters were bold, and scribbled in a thick, red substance. There was no image of the man they should beware of. No reward for turning anyone into authorities. No description. Nothing.
As Aaron turned to face Cora, he could see the horror that was swelling in her eyes. He was at a loss for words, a jumble of emotions racking his brain; adrenaline, fear, uncertainty, all broiling in the cauldron of his mind. His friends could be in danger, and if they were, Cora’s fear of the monsters in the dark would forever scar her, silently burning as she fought to stay strong. She would be lost, scared, untrusting. He wouldn’t let fear overcome her. He wouldn't let fear overcome himself. He tapped the flashlight against his thigh, the light blaring brighter than ever. Aaron knew that his friends would survive. They were all strong, a trait that they surely had in common. The man among the trees, whoever he was, could not defeat them.
They would never lose their friends to a mindless stranger.
And Aaron would never lose Cora to the darkness.
With a glance downwards, Cora noticed a purely white rock among the blackened Earth, the flashlight's bright beam shining over it. She lifted it into her small hands and placed it into the front pocket of her shorts.
Aaron embraced Cora in his arms before they began the search for Peter, Jill, and the mysterious man that was among them.
This was the search that would ultimately tame their biggest fears.