When they all went back to school, Aaron wasn’t there.
He’d told Forrester he was leaving a bit early, just a couple of days, because his lease was starting then or something, but he wasn’t there. Actually, no one knew where he was, exactly; if he was studying abroad or dropped out, and the registrar wasn’t saying anything. Privacy or something.
His advisor knew, or at least Forrester thought so, because she just went quiet whenever he visited her to ask. Privacy again, probably, but with her it wasn’t legal. It was that she wouldn’t betray Aaron.
Not even to Forrester.
Forrester ran cross-country and read old-school detective books-it didn’t matter if it was Sherlock Holmes or Mike Hammer but anything less than thirty years old was out of the question. Other than that he wasn’t special at all; he had no idea what he was going to do with his life, though right now it looked like accounting, which he hated.
Aaron was special. Aaron was crazy and good-looking and wild; he partied ferociously on Friday nights but never had a hangover the next morning. Aaron loved drama and pure math and philosophy and dogs, and he too had no idea what he would do with his life, but no matter what, it seemed like it would be awesome.
But they were best friends anyway.
So Forrester worried and fretted and went to school and fed his dog-Horse, an Irish wolfhound who was ten but hadn’t seemed to slow down any and continued to chew shoes and bound up and down the stairs and wake Forrester up at four in the morning demanding to be let out so she could chase the squirrels.
And two weeks after class started, he got a postcard.
I’m doing very well and I love you.
It was a postcard of Stonehenge but the postmark was Prague and there was, of course, no return address. But it was Aaron’s handwriting, and Aaron’s affection.
Forrester didn’t know what Aaron’s I love you meant, though he told Forrester that frequently. He assumed it had to do with having four older sisters, all of them extremely affectionate, and Aaron’s own affectionate nature was just part of his charm. Aaron never let Forrester forget that he was loved, which was okay, because Forrester was a little attention-hungry sometimes and Aaron loved him, which was nice, even if he didn’t know what it meant.
The postcards came every week, always a different place and postmark, always a single sentence. Maybe two, if he was lucky-but then, Aaron was a crummy letter-writer no matter what so what was he expecting?
And always the sentences were like the first: It is snowing today and I love you. I caught a cold and I love you. Say hello to Horse for me and I love you.
Forrester kept them on his nightstand in the tiny house he lived in off-campus with Horse and looked at them every night.
He wanted to know where Aaron was. He wanted to talk to him.
He went to Aaron’s advisor every day a postcard came, asking her, cajoling her, talking to her. She was a philosophy professor, because that was currently what Aaron was majoring in. Though last year he had changed his major five times and the only reason it was still philosophy three months into the school year was because Aaron wasn’t there.
She never said anything, and Forrester realized in December that he’d given up on getting anything out of her long ago, and now only visited her out of habit. They talked, about philosophy and detective novels and the philosophy of detective novels. She thought Mike Hammer was thesis-worthy. Forrester signed up for two philosophy classes when he registered for the following semester.
He and Horse went home for winter break. The cold must have done it, because all of a sudden Horse was starting to act her age, getting up a little slower, waking him up at six instead of four, spending more and more time downstairs. Nothing drastic at first, but a little bit slower, and then as winter swept in it got worse.
She was getting old and Forrester wanted to tell Aaron, wanted to talk about how he was thinking of majoring in philosophy, how he’d started talking with Aaron’s youngest-older sister, the second-youngest after Aaron.
They met for lunch over break, and she said she’d gotten postcards too, once a week since mid-September, just like Forrester.
“They just say the usual things,” she said. “You know he’s so bad at written communication. My cold is better or it’s raining or I got really drunk last night but I’m still not hungover, or whatever. Just like his emails said when he sent me them from school.” She looked at Forrester. “I’ll send them to you when you get back. You know him better than me, maybe you can figure something out between the two of us.”
In February he changed his major to philosophy and Aaron’s advisor was his advisor too.
His parents said what are you going to do with a degree in philosophy? and Forrester didn’t really know and didn’t really care, because he loved it and he needed something to love, if Aaron was going to be gone and Horse was going to die.
And still the postcards came, and they didn’t answer any questions at all, unless the question was ‘Is Aaron still on Earth?’
In March his advisor stopped him in the hallway and handed him a slip of paper. “It’s not healthy,” she said. “For him to be hiding like this. Especially from his best friend.”
It was an address in London, a P.O. box.
Forrester composed a three-page letter, telling Aaron all the important things, how Horse was now having a hard time making it up the stairs and couldn’t even get all the way to the end of the driveway without being in pain, and how he’d switched majors, and how he’d read a couple of nineties detective novels and had really enjoyed them and how he missed Aaron and loved Aaron too. He wrote it by hand, because Aaron had always been the only person able to read his disastrous handwriting, ever since middle school, in blue ballpoint pen. He included a picture of him and Horse outside their little house, before Horse started getting sick, and added, P.S. Your family misses you a lot, you should give them some information, and then P.P.S. Horse and I miss you too, maybe you could come and visit before she dies? I don’t mean to be cynical or anything but it’s going to happen soonish, I think.
He stamped it and addressed it went out to the mailbox. The mail had already gone, so he pulled it out and replaced it with Aaron’s letter.
He had a package, a manila envelope. He set down the bills and the letter from Financial Aid and unfolded the flap, pulling out a stack of postcards, addressed to Aaron’s sister, the second-youngest one after him. A little note from his sister said that they’d talked about them, so here they were, do you have any idea where he is? We’re worried sick.
He unwrapped the rubber band from the postcards and looked at them.
I’m doing very well and I love you.
It is snowing today and I love you.
I caught a cold and I love you.
Say hello to Mom and Dad and everyone for me and I love you.
Forrester stared at them for a long time, something cold and tight in his stomach. Horse whined from behind the screen door.
He took the letter out of the mailbox and picked up the rest of his mail and let Horse out. He had to help her down the porch stairs, and she whimpered in pain.
He didn’t send the letter.