When I was four I saw two boys go into the woods behind our house. They did not come out again. They were big boys, maybe ten or eleven. The bigger of the two wanted to go through the iron kissing gate there, and take the overgrown path into the pine woods. He’d met a queen, he said, a real queen, with golden hair and starry eyes, and she was waiting. The smaller boy said there was no such thing as queens anymore, but went all the same.
I sat still, watching from a cedar hedge. I’d been told never to walk anywhere alone, but especially the woods. The woods were dangerous, my father said. There used to be an old farm back down that path, and old farmers always left junk around: rusted tin cans, barbed wire, old tools. And there were natural dangers too: rocks to trip on, or holes to break a leg in. And you never knew who you might meet in the woods.
“Who?” I asked. Someone bad who might want to take you away, he said. “Why?” Just away, my father said.
I told my parents about the boys when they were reported missing on the evening news two nights later. I recognized the smaller boy’s sweater: green with a blue rocket on it. A search team was assembled and neighbours, police officers, and dogs arrived at our home. One group took the path between the trees, the others spread out through the underbrush, leaving trails in the long grass like spreading fingers. My mother made sandwiches; I helped to make lemonade. I felt so grown-up.
On the second day, a nice police officer asked me to describe, again, what the boys had been wearing. The next day after that a reporter asked me if I had seen anyone else, maybe a man go into the woods with the boys. I said no, but maybe they found the queen. My father came out of the house and took me inside. He told me to watch cartoons. This made me happy. Usually I wasn’t allowed to watch television when it was sunny outside. Many of the people who wanted to help had children of their own and they brought them to our house. That is how I met Diane.
We were the same height and we even looked a little bit the same, although her hair was as blonde and as fine as corn silk, and mine was as dark as turned earth. We played Secret Princesses; all games were named back then. On the incomplete back patio, crawling between the unfinished slats, twirling around the square-edged posts, we breathlessly instructed one another on the rules as we went: “Okay, now pretend . . . now pretend, okay?” My mom gave us ice-creams. They were the same flavour, but Diane invited me to try hers, and I did. We giggled when I held her hand. I hoped that the boys were never found; I hoped they would look for them forever.
After a few weeks, the search party was called off. They had found nothing beyond the kissing gate but an old sneaker. It was the right size, but far too old and broken down to belong to one of the boys. I said it looked right, a bright green high-top. No one said so, but I could tell that everyone doubted that I had really seen anything at all, that I must have thought I was helping. I earned the reputation for having a vivid imagination—which I supposed was at least a nice way to be called a liar.
“Do you ever wonder about the boys?” I asked Diane several years later. We sat on my rusted, red swing-set, our shoes scuffing the dry dirt under the seats, raising small brown clouds.
“What boys?” she said.
The swing set was too small for us now, and it cha-chunged whenever I swung. Mom said I would break my neck on it, and dad was going to take it down that evening. He didn’t though, he forgot. It collapsed two weeks later when I was on it. I ended up with stitches. I still have the scar.
“The missing boys,” I said, watching the little gate at the bottom of the yard. I reached up and pulled the tight chains of my swing together, spinning myself a little.
“No,” Diane said. “I don’t remember.”
I said, “I wonder if they’re dead,” and I pulled on one of her chains, pulling her closer to me. “Still back there. Little skeletons now.” Our seats touched.
Diane jumped up. Her empty swing twitched uselessly from my hand, like an organ not yet aware it’s been cut out. I felt bad. I let it drop. It squeaked as it swung stiffly.
“Don’t be weird,” she told me.
I felt angry. “You forgot them anyway.”
Her cheeks were flushed. She licked her lips with just the tip of her tongue. “Just don’t be weird,” she said.
There is kindness in fiction. I started making my own stories. Even if it is a sad story, everyone is satisfied by the end. Because it does end. I filled my tales with characters who always solved the riddles, and nothing was ever forgotten. If someone is hurt or something goes wrong in a story, any story, you just have to go back to the beginning and there they are, safe and sound.
In middle school, I would invite Diane over to read magazines, or to do homework. She didn’t invite me over as much, but she would still show up when I called. We were mostly good, but to this day I cannot stomach the smell of anise. Diane and I had bought a plastic pint of ouzo from some older girls, overpaying, I know now, by a considerable amount. They said it was absinth, and we thought we were being dangerous; we wanted to see green faeries.
I do not remember ever seeing the older girls at school. I assumed Diane knew them. I never asked where they came from; I don’t know where they went. They were glamorous creatures. Standing tanned shoulder to tanned shoulder on the retired dirt road behind our school, they seemed impervious to the early April chill. They talked in a ring and sighed often, turning colourful plastic bracelets on their slim wrists as they passed around a hand rolled cigarette.
Diane and I fished around our pockets for our money. I smoothed out our crumpled bills between my fingers. Diane gave it all to the tall girl with golden hair. The tall girl had a pointed face, a silver charm bracelet of little crowns and hearts, and a choker necklace. Pocketing the money, she tossed me the pint. I fumbled and almost dropped it. She grinned. Her teeth were straight, but disarmingly yellow and thin, spaces between every one. She smiled like no one had ever noticed.
“Smooth, kid,” she said. Her troupe laughed; Diane laughed with them. I didn’t know what to say. I stood clutching the pint, wanting to go home. Diane returned a joke with them. I could tell they liked her; I could tell they’d forget me. I wondered when she had learned to be cool like that, and where I had been.
We hid our purchase deep inside Diane’s coat, and walked too stiffly all the way home. The drink, when poured, looked like water, and so we mixed it in our glasses, half-and-half, with cool water from the tap. We both marvelled the way it changed: something so clear with something so clear, and then suddenly pearls. It didn’t even taste so bad, and went down remarkably fast. My hands were the first to feel fuzzy, then my entire face. I felt like I was made of wind.
I don’t think I kissed her first. I was never brave enough. But I remember how pink her lips looked as we sat beside each other on the couch, how the moon was almost full, how her eyes kept flicking around my face. But I kissed back, and harder. The couch cushions slipped and parted beneath us while the radio played Bohemian Rhapsody. When I touched her feathery hair and then slid my other hand up the back of her shirt, she slapped me. She stood up quick.
“Girls just practice kissing,” she said. “For later.”
“I know that, what do you think we were doing?” I said, scoffing, but I felt achy in my stomach. “It’s not real.”
Diane’s mouth twisted in front of a laugh; I snorted into the back of my hand. We started giggling suddenly, surprised little chirps. I wanted it to feel like we were friends again and put on a movie, but ten minutes later Diane called an older boy. He had a car, a rusting black Stanza with a cheap decal of a sprinting white horse bursting across the front door. He came over, and five minutes after that they were gone. The movie was still playing, but the sound only carved out how empty the house was, so I turned it off and went to bed. I had to close my eyes tight to keep the ceiling from spinning.
When we buried my grandmother two years ago, the funeral parlour smelled exactly the same. Like powder, wood polish, and violets. A well-vacuumed smell. That’s the funny thing: it’s the things you don’t care about that stay the same forever.
I don’t remember when Diane and I stopped talking to each other. There was no fight; a frictionless gap simply opened between us. I would notice her in the school hallway, but she seemed blind to me. If she or I were in the bathroom at the same time it was to the mirror that we gravitated, applying lipstick or fluffing hair until the other could slip away. I fantasized about fighting, but I knew it was only a dream. Only friends or enemies fight. I was not invited to her sweet-sixteen party, and that evening I was at home watching television.
The next day at school we all found out she and three others in her boyfriend’s car had been killed while they had driven up the Old Farm Road for extended celebrations.
A giddy buzz ran through the classroom. Everyone was sad that they were dead, but excited that they had been killed. The one girl who survived the crash later said she didn’t even remember what happened. When she found herself standing by the wreck, after being thrown from the car, incredibly uninjured, she had still been laughing at a joke Diane had told. No one liked to hear it, but we were still desperate to be retold, over and over, how Teresa Kelly had still been alive in the backseat as the car burned. Her nails polish had caught on fire along with her hair as she beat on the hot, slick windows. They found Diane’s boyfriend’s left arm hanging from the tree above the car, like it had tried to climb away without the rest of him. There wasn’t much left of anyone, but there was nothing of Diane, just ash and a warped pair of diamond earrings were found in the charred remains of the front seat.
There was a memorial after school, but I did not go. I bought flowers at the convenience store, the largest bouquet of assorted tulips they had. The sidewalk was hot, the grass around it dry and yellow, and I tied my sweater around my waist as I made my way to Diane’s house. I had not been there in three years, and it was not how I remembered it. The lights were all off, and the car was not in the garage. I imagined that if someone were to take off the front wall, cut it neatly away from the roof and peel it back, they would find the whole thing scooped out and empty, like a dollhouse.
I climbed the three chipped cement stairs to the front door. The two tear-drop shaped windows stared blindly back at me. I stood, hand raised to knock, for a long time. The house was more than empty; the silence was a deeper silence. I found I couldn’t break that stillness, and lowered my hand; too many things break in such simple ways.
I knelt down, and began to push the flowers through the mail slot instead, gently at first. The petals began to fall; their long green stems bent, their sweet green scent filling the air. The petals bruised. I began to cram the whole bouquet in, pound it with my fist and jab with my chipping fingernails. I skinned my knuckle. I stuck it in my mouth, and it tasted like grass and copper. My fingers became sticky with sap. I picked up every last petal laying on the step, not one left behind, and poked them inside behind the tight metal shutter. When there were no petals left, I ran all the way home.
That night, my mother sat on the edge of my bed, stroking my hair.
“It is so hard to lose such a good friend,” she told me. Her hand stayed, just for an instant. “Your good friend.”
I didn’t say anything.
I was seventeen when a boy came back.
Mom was still at work, and I was home alone and washing the dishes. It was November, and the sky was a cold, fish-belly grey, the trees bare and stiff. The jack-o-lantern I had carved for Halloween had been taken to the edge of our property, to the kissing gate. That mouldering orange face, staring wanly at the sky, was the only bit of colour I could see through the warm steam rising around my chin and eyes. My hands were immersed deep into the sudsy dishwater. I was almost finished and feeling around for the dishcloth when I looked up and saw green and blue where there had not been any green and blue before. I stared at him. He noticed me, and stared back. After a moment, he started walking up the path towards our house.
I pulled my hands from the water, flicked them off, and then dried them on my jeans. I went to the sliding door at the other side of the kitchen and unlocked it. I made a pair of tuna sandwiches, cutting them diagonally, and poured two short glasses of orange juice.
When I turned back around and set the plates down on the small kitchen island, he had stepped inside and was now carefully wiping off his muddy sneakers. He looked up at me. He was skinny, and just the same (and not as all the same) as I remembered. Pulling on the bottom of his rocket sweater, he looked around the kitchen, and then to the plates. Without a word, he walked to the island, sat down on a stool, and began to eat his sandwich. I stood on the other side of the island to eat mine.
“I remember you,” I said. The boy just nodded, as though in agreement.
When he finished and was drinking his juice, I asked him how old he was. He set down his glass, and looked up. His large brown eyes were cradled in soft, purple sleeplessness. He pressed his lips flat, thinking. After a minute, he said he wasn’t sure anymore. He drank the last of his juice. Eleven, he decided finally. I nodded and agreed that that sounded right. I asked where his friend was.
“He stayed,” he replied. “Usually they stay with her.” He glanced all around the kitchen—from the new dishwasher, to the old, heavy laptop I had set up on the counter—with an air of disappointment and sighed. “I should go home now.”
He got up with his plate and mine, put them in the sink for me, and then he went back to the sliding door.
“Wait,” I said. The boy stopped, looked back a moment, and then left.
There were two dishes in the sink. There were two glasses on the counter, sticky orange juice drying in the bottoms. On the rung of one of the stools there were two muddy tracks. I cleaned everything and put the dishes away. When I was done, it was like it had never happened. I watched the local news carefully that evening with my mother. She commented that I was getting so grown up. When I didn’t see anything reported about the boy I decided that I wouldn’t say anything at all. I really don’t know why now, but I knew then. I knew exactly why.
Sometimes when I dream the person I am isn’t me; sometimes I don’t know who it is. It was like that. I crossed the yard the night after the boy came back, in my pyjamas and feet bare, and curled my hands around the top of the iron gate to peer down the path in the pine woods. There was no moon, but the sky glowed a faded lavender, and I could see. It was deeply cold. It started to snow a little, slow, tiny flakes. The snow fell around the yard behind me, through the trees, and down the path in front of me, spinning above the frozen ground. I had not expected to see anyone, but I was not surprised when I did, either.
They filled the lane, hundreds of them, all the way back, all staring with sleepless eyes. The snow danced around their feet in dusty swirls. The closest two held hands. One looked beautiful, the way I always remember her—except her eyes; they were exactly like the faded November sky behind her. The other had tumbling golden hair, a crown of silver and bone, perfect and hideous teeth, and a smile that was too excited to be kind. She was the only one looking at me. She reached out her hand . . . I tried to let go of the gate. My skin pulled and stuck, like it was glued there. I brought my mouth close to my fingers and breathed on them to warm the iron. Something sharp caressed my ear, and I let go, stepping back quickly. The pathway was empty, and quietly filling with snow.
I went back inside.
When I woke the next morning I was in my bed, and the world had become muffled with snow. I sat looking out my window for a long time, but there was no evidence of where or if I’d been to the gate; clean white covered all like a new rule to be written.
I have a picture on my wall of two little girls grinning like lunatics, swinging their legs over the ledge of an unfinished patio while vanilla ice-creams drool down their wrists. One of the girls is myself, although we look nothing alike. I don’t remember being her at all. I would not let ice-cream melt down my arm, and I would not grin with both rows of teeth like that—tiny teeth that I don’t even have anymore. But it must be true, because there we are. A little girl with whom I share a past, but perhaps nothing else.
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Copyright © 2017 Laura Keating