Your mother has always said there’s bad things in the woods. That’s why your father left her, you say, she was always saying crazy things like that.
You’ve never been afraid of anything, and you laugh at me for hesitating before you pull me into the woods after you.
We’re the baddest things here, you say, and press me up against a tree so I won’t fall away from you when you kiss me.
I think of your mother sitting alone in your small house, afraid to leave. You said she could have gone with your father if she’d really wanted, but she was afraid of that like she’s afraid of the woods. So she stayed behind to give birth to you, your father’s son, barely resembling your mother, thin-wristed, drawn. You’re more like the father that only your mother remembers, telling you stories of him to tuck you into bed, how he laughed.
All the girls love you, but they’re too good for fatherless boys, wearing shoes that pinch to school dances, limping back and forth with their arms around respectable classmates. They apply their lipstick for you, write your name in toilet stalls, dream you in the back seat of their respectable boyfriends’ cars, imagine your skin pressed against their own, sigh your name to each other in whispered conversations.
I know you’ve seen them looking. I know you’ve seen the notes they write on my desk in black marker, that I wipe and wipe with the edge of my thumb while our homeroom teacher calls roll.
You say girls like that will end up trapped here, like your mother. They haven’t got the imagination to leave. Their houses will be nicer, you say, but they’ll be just as stuck.
Not you, though, you say. You’re a wanderer like your father, a traveler. You never blame him for leaving.
You say: She could have gone with him, you know.
I say: I know, and you laugh again, the way, I imagine, your father must have done.
You lay me down near the remnants of someone’s campfire, maybe your own. At least you put your jacket on the ground underneath me. There’s an overturned beer can nearby. I drag my hand along the ground in front of it and my fingers come away damp, sticky.
I touch the side of your face with my clean hand, hope you don’t notice my trembling fingers. You pull me up. Let’s go.
You carry your jacket on the way back. I wipe my hand on the back of my skirt, tug at my knee socks.
Wait, I say, don’t leave me behind.
My socks, I say, but you don’t say anything.
Before we go inside your house, you let me straighten my skirt, smooth my blouse.
Your mother smiles when she sees us. She is always smiling at me when I go through her checkout lane at the convenience store. I like to buy candy bars there, unwrap them on the sidewalk outside, lick the melted chocolate off my fingers. I make sure to throw the wrappers in the garbage can when she’s watching so she knows I’m a good girl. The money for my candy bars is money my parents give me. My parents don’t approve of you, flinch when I say your name, whisper behind their closed bedroom door: it’s only a phase. I put the money they give me in my pink plastic purse, count out exact change for your mother. Sometimes I buy an extra candy bar, save it for you. When you kiss me after, you taste sweet.
Did you have fun? your mother says. She’s like any other mother, just trying to be nice.
A blast, you mutter, and pull me into your bedroom. It’s the size of my parents’ closet. You leave me sitting alone on your bed, clutching handfuls of your bedspread between my fingers. You go out your window to get something, a pack of cigarettes, a magazine, something.
Anything, you say when you glance back at me. Anything.
Your mother knows you’ve gone when she hears you slide the window closed. She stands outside your open bedroom door, gestures to the back of her head. I put my hand up to the back of mine reflexively.
Not there, she says. She sits down beside me on your unmade bed, tucks one hand into my hair.
Here, she says, and shows me a pine needle. I’ll throw this away for you. Or do you want to keep it?
No, I say, put my hands into my lap. No, I don’t want to keep it.
Of course you don’t, she says. She shows me a smile, different than her usual one. I’m not sure what this smile means. I smile back, lips pulling tightly away from my teeth.
I loved his father so much, your mother says, turning the pine needle over and over in her hands. You know?
I say: I know, and when your mother laughs, I think how much it sounds like you, though you would never say.
About the Author: Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in various journals, including Jellyfish Review, Ellipsis Zine and Menacing Hedge. You can find her on Twitter at @loki_writes.
Story Song: "Yes Mom" by Julsy