Bonus story for Green Valley Shifters: Too Much to Bear
Too Much to Bear is a short story set in Green Valley a few months after the events of A Green Valley Christmoose Disaster. It does not have any major spoilers, but it will make the most sense read after the series, especially after the short stories Keeping Secrets and Joyous Tidings, included in Green Valley Shifters Collection 2.
The day that Clara left Green Valley was the very worst day of Aaron’s life.
It was also the best.
It was a very confusing day.
Even the weather was confused, with a spit of snow in the morning, sunshine at noon, and then rain.
It was the end of April, almost the end of fourth grade, and it was very late for snow. When Aaron woke up, he thought for a hopeful moment that it was a miracle and that Clara’s move would be canceled forever because of the weather.
Then he remembered that even if she stayed in Green Valley, he was leaving just a few weeks later, and he wanted to punch something, but his pillow was very unsatisfying, so he got up and stomped around the kitchen angrily until Shelley, making coffee, finally heaved a sigh.
“I’m sorry this is hard on you,” she said, in her coldest voice.
Aaron had long since figured out that she sounded most frosty when she wasn’t sure what to say. “I’m FINE,” he said, slamming a cabinet door.
“You’ll make new friends at your new school,” Shelley said. Aaron thought she tried to say it encouragingly, but Shelley wasn’t all that good at being encouraging. She was really good at yelling at people on the phone until they did what she wanted.
“I don’t want new friends,” Aaron insisted. His heart hurt. Clara was leaving Green Valley, and then he’d leave, and Trevor would be here alone and it all seemed too big and sad to bear.
“We’ll come back and visit,” Shelley promised.
But Clara wouldn’t be here.
Clara was leaving forever, for a town called Virtue in a place called New York (but not the famous city) that was probably a million miles away in the Bermuda Triangle or something, so she could be closer to dance schools and her Papa could restore houses.
Aaron had a very shaky grasp of geography in general, but he knew that it was a very long drive from Madison to Green Valley, and it was a hundred times further to New York, and that his chances of staying best friends with either Trevor or Clara were vanishingly slim.
“Too much to bear,” his dad liked to say, when something was just too hard to handle. He didn’t say it often, but he had a few times after the shop burned down, and when his correspondence school and the slow Internet was making him threaten to throw the computer out the window.
Shelley seemed to think the phrase was quaint, and it made her smirk fondly every time he said it.
Aaron felt like it applied now, like there was just too much that was sad and impossible and he knew he wasn’t behaving when he put his bowl on the counter with a crash and went to grab the cereal behind it.
He wasn’t sure if the bowl was poorly perched on the counter, if he was too violent with the cereal box, or if he just flailed weirdly at the wrong moment because he could never remember how long his arms were, but the bowl went flying and when it shattered into two pieces, Aaron flung the box he was holding after it and turned into a bear.
He later wondered if he hadn’t noticed the whispering somewhat earlier and ignored it. He was constantly being told that he was too imaginative, to be serious, to stop pretending to be a superhero or whatever fun thing he was doing at the time.
But this was definitely not his imagination, this was a voice in his head that told him how to wriggle out of what was left of his clothing, which wasn’t much.
He was a bear.
The thing he’d been hoping and wishing for, even praying for, when Marta guilted the family into attending special church things, had finally happened.
He was a bear.
It was the worst day of his life and…
It can’t be the worst day of our life, his bear said, puzzled. It’s the only day of my life so far. That makes it the best.
He was a bear!
Shelley had dropped her coffee cup, but only to the counter, and it didn’t break, only spilled the coffee everywhere before she could make it upright again.
She was saying words that Aaron knew better than to repeat, and anyway, he couldn’t, because HE WAS A BEAR.
Aaron lifted one paw after another and tried to figure out what all of this meant. At least he was in the kitchen with Shelley, and not at school or something. He’d known about Trevor shifting into a lion since they were six, and it had been drilled into both of them that it was secret, an imperative secret (that meant really important), not something they could tell anyone about.
Clara knew, about Trevor anyway, and Aaron would have to tell her about BEING A BEAR.
HE WAS A BEAR.
He capered around the kitchen, and the broken bowl halves danced away as cereal crunched under his feet.
Food! his bear said in joy, stooping his head to lick up the cereal morsels. A bear’s tongue felt much different in his much different mouth than a little boy’s tongue, and the cereal was weird.
“Dammit, Aaron, you’re going to step on the broken crockery and this was not in parenting books and be careful!”
That was when Bingo got wind of the commotion and came skidding into the kitchen. His little dog brain nearly broke at the anticipation of playing with a friendly bear and eating unguarded people food off the floor.
“Oh, no,” Shelley said. “Bingo, out! Aaron, shift back, now!”
Aaron didn’t really think about it. That was her I mean business voice, and he was obediently a little boy without figuring out how.
Aw, his bear pouted. That was fun.
His bear. He had a bear!
“I’m calling your dad,” Shelley said. “He’ll want to know. Bingo, don’t eat the cereal! Oh, no, he’ll cut his tongue on the broken bowl! That dog is as stupid as a box of rocks. Aaron, go put new clothes on! Leave those, I’ll see if I can fix them!”
Aaron took a reluctant Bingo with him up to his room to put on fresh clothes, still floating on the idea that he’d been a bear, that he was a shifter…until he remembered that Clara was leaving today, and most of his room was already packed, and everything was going to change.
Is change so bad? his bear asked wistfully.
You’re not bad, Aaron hastened to reassure him.
Maybe there would be ice cream for dessert, to celebrate being a bear.
Aaron spent the afternoon shifting back and forth, until he finally had to get dressed and go downstairs to say goodbye. They were all getting together for dinner together, and it was probably going to be awful.
Trevor was already there, with Andrea reminding him not to sulk. “This is the last time you guys will all be together for a while,” she reminded them both. “Try not to fight.”
It wasn’t that Trevor and Aaron didn’t like each other. It was just that Aaron knew they would still be best friends if they disagreed, and sometimes it was easier to disagree than it was to get along.
Trevor and Aaron eyed each other. Trevor was scowling and looked as if he was trying to find the fight to pick.
Aaron felt bad for him. It was easier to go away than it was to stay behind and watch your friends go away.
And it wasn’t all that easy to go away, either.
The grownups were all hugging each other and talking about moving costs and insurance and boring grown up things that didn’t really matter, so Aaron jerked his head for Trevor to follow him out into the back yard with Bingo.
The snow had all gone away in the sunshine, but it had clouded up since then and looked ready to rain.
The yard was at its ugliest—not winter any more, but not really spring. It was all dead grass and bare trees and no snow was left to make it bright and soft.
It occurred to Aaron that he would be shifter strong now. He knew how Trevor had to keep himself from running too fast or lifting too much, and now he’d have to, also.
“I’m a bear,” he told Trevor shyly.
Trevor didn’t get it at first. “I don’t want to pretend right now,” he grouched, going to the rusty swingset and taking the only swing that still worked.
“No, I’m really a bear now,” Aaron said. There was a baby see saw next to the swing and he perched on it. “It happened this morning.”
That did get Trevor’s attention. “Woah. Congratulations!”
If Aaron were staying in Green Valley, they’d be able to go shift together and play in the woods sometimes.
But Aaron was leaving.
They realized it at the same time and glared at each other as they fought back tears. They were too old to cry now.
“I’m going to miss you,” Trevor said gruffly.
“I’m going to miss you,” Aaron confessed.
They might have cried despite their advanced age, but that was when a car pulled up and they knew that Clara had arrived with her Papa and stepmom and baby sister.
Bingo went baying for the street and Trevor scrubbed a hand across his face as the two boys scrambled off the swing set and followed him.
Clara looked as gloomy as they felt and Aaron immediately wanted to cheer both of his friends up. “We should play hide and seek,” he suggested as brightly as he could manage, while the grownups all went inside.
Clara hadn’t dressed for hide and seek, wearing nice purple shoes, a skirt, and a frilly pink shirt, but she smiled gamely.
“It might be our last chance,” Trevor said darkly.
They all paused for a moment, then seemed to reach a mutual unspoken conclusion that they were going to have as much fun as they possibly could on their last day all together.
They played a few rounds of hide and seek, and several of hit-the-tree-with-old-crab-apples, suffered through a dinner with the grownups telling jokes and reminding each other of their most embarrassing stories, and escaped back to the yard for a few frantic last races. Aaron jostled with Trevor to let Clara win.
They ended up squashed together on the back porch swing, which creaked horribly and they’d probably have splinters in their butts, but for the moment, it was peaceful. The dark clouds had gotten darker with twilight, and it was starting to rain now, the patter of it on the porch roof above them.
It was chilly. Clara was as strong as a shifter because she was a dancer, but she was softer than Trevor or Aaron, and they cuddled together and could hear from the cadence of the conversation inside that their time together was nearly over.
“We leave tomorrow morning,” Clara said with a sigh.
They all squeezed each other. “We’ll miss you,” Aaron said.
“I’ll miss you both,” Trevor said.
It was easier to say things like that in the dark, when they couldn’t see each other.
“I’ll write,” Clara promised.
Trevor mumbled something like a promise in return that none of them really thought they’d keep. Aaron had had a pen pal once, and it had been fun for a few weeks, then too much work to follow through.
Maybe they could get email addresses, and Clara had a phone already.
But Aaron knew that it wasn’t just a matter of keeping in touch. It was never going to be like this again, three of them in the blissful carelessness of childhood, living together in the small, cozy town of Green Valley.
It wasn’t just that they were separating, it was that they were growing up, apart from each other.
He was a bear now, Aaron remembered, with a jolt of surprise. He’d nearly forgotten.
Well, I hadn’t forgotten, his bear scoffed.
It was so normal to have him there. As normal as Trevor or Clara, but he’d never leave. The tears embarrassing Aaron’s eyes weren’t only grief.
Clara was sniffling but trying to keep it ladylike, and she scrambled to her feet when the back door opened and Miss Patricia called, “Clara, it’s time to go!”
Their goodbye hug was awkward under the sympathetic eyes of the grownups, and Trevor and his family left at the same time as Clara’s.
Aaron felt all hollow after they were gone, except that he had a bear that felt like he was curled up in his chest.
That was when Aaron realized that he’d never told Clara about being a bear. He didn’t think the news would be of any comfort to her, and it had never come up in their conversation, and now she was gone, maybe forever. He sat down on the front step next to Bingo and gazed out at the quiet street.
It wasn’t the kind of thing he could write in a letter, supposing they actually did ever write letters, so she’d never know, until they met again.
We’ll see them again, his bear said confidently.
How do you know? Aaron asked.
His bear considered. I don’t know. I just do.
Even without a reason, that was enormously comforting to Aaron. It was hard to face saying goodbye, but it was harder to think he might never see his friends again. He knew it would never be quite like this—they’d be grown up and have jobs and boring things, probably.
Clara would be a famous dancer. Trevor was sure he was going to be an accountant like his dad used to be, even though he wasn’t that good at math. Aaron thought he might be an engineer, or maybe an actor, or a dentist.
But they’d meet again, Aaron had to trust that.
The door behind him creaked open and Aaron’s dad settled on the step next to him.
“Shelley tells me you shifted today.” Aaron’s dad looked proud enough to burst, like the time Aaron won the spelling bee because he knew the word discombobulate. “You’ve had quite the day.”
“Yeah,” Aaron said. He was a BEAR. He hugged his knees as Bingo went to lick at his dad.
“If you have any questions about it, you know you can ask. It’s a lot, especially at first.”
“Yeah,” Aaron agreed. “Thanks. I think we got this.”
He had a bear now, to help him when things were just too much.
It was the best day of his life. And the worst. And the most confusing.