Inspired by the topics in The Sun magazine’s Readers Write prompts. I had no idea where this was going. Ended up more cliché than I’d have liked. Which is to say, it feels cliché to me.
Forgetting came easy. The scent of the redwoods that day, a dank and earthy smell hallmarking both decay and a disturbing fertility. She was never comfortable in the forest. A hawk had fled as they arrived, the flap of his wings imagined more than heard.
Mark had led the way, his long hair bouncing off his shoulders as he leapt across ravines the others crossed on bridges. He spoke to no one and as a result, they all practiced silence as they moved deeper into the woods.
That much she could remember. Almost didn’t mind remembering. The sun slanting through the towering trees illuminating dust motes and highlighting ferns that would’ve otherwise blended into the forest floor. As she passed through the sunlit spaces, the warmth permeated her. But then the shaded places would chill her once again.
A half-hour passed and then a lifetime. The world they knew, the one with Facebook and families and cell coverage, ceased to exist. There was only them, and the sound of their labored breath. At last Mark stopped. He pulled off his beanie, hair plastered to his scalp. He turned. “Here,” he said. Behind him loomed a burnt-out stump, gashed partway up the middle, the opening halted by a knot at the top. Liz and Kelly had glanced at each other, Liz sure she saw her own question reflected on Kelly’s face, but neither prepared with answers.
“Come on,” Mark said. He stepped a leg through the opening. “Come on.” With a twist, he vanished inside the stump. Robert looked at the girls, shrugged, and stepped through. Kelly moved closer to Liz, took her hand. Her palm was soft against Liz’s own.
They looked at each other again. We could run, Liz thought. Just go. Race out of the woods and emerge into the sunshine. She could see it, how they would be so scared until they reached the clearing by the road and then they’d collapse laughing about the absurdity of it all. Her legs shifted for flight.
“Come on,” Kelly whispered. The silence of the forest swallowed her words. She tugged Liz forward. Together, they climbed through the oval doorway into the charred inside.
Neither Mark nor Robert turned. Their attention was focused on the girl curled against the far wall of the stump. Her dark hair blended into the shadows, highlighted the paleness of her face. Her eyes were shut, but the quickness of her breath suggested she was not asleep.
“So what do we do?” Mark asked. “She freaked out when I tried to take her out of here.” He’d shown Liz the scratches on his arm earlier. That’s when they’d first talked about the girl. If they called the police, Mark worried, she’d end up back home or lost in the system. Home, he felt, wasn’t a good place. Liz had no choice to agree – if it was, she thought, why would this child prefer redwood needles and forest duff to her own bedroom.
And this is when the memories raced through Liz’s brain, the ones she’d worked so hard to set aside. Some things a person couldn’t fix. She couldn’t fix what had happened to her. She doubted she could fix what had happened to this poor girl. The options lie between suffering until one could leave for good, for college, for a job, for a roommate, anything that would enable a life beyond the hell of home, or caving into the system, a system everyone who’d as much as brushed against it knew was flawed, no matter how well-intentioned the social workers, no matter how sincere the volunteers. They’d given Liz posters with kittens and cute sayings.
“Hang in there,” echoed in her memories. Well, she’d hung in there, through Mick with his endless cigarette smoking and rough hands, through Sandra with her Zoloft-induced inability to cook and habit of leaving the burner on, through Father Joe with his recommendations that she stay after class for private tutoring. She’d hung in there, despite the surety that for all this to happen to her, she must have somehow deserved it. Despite the rough hands that left bruises on her narrow hips, the occasional slap across her cheek. Forgetting had been the only thing that had saved her. If she thought too hard about all that had happened before she fled to this small, safe town, she’d have cut her wrists a long time ago.
The girl had shuddered then, jerking Liz out of her thoughts and back to the present. Her eyes had opened, brown like melted chocolate and seeking to make sense of what stood before her. She focused on Liz, then Kelly, then Liz. Liz had held her gaze, recognized the damage done. Her breath had quickened. The air around her had darkened. The breeze raced by, rich with life gone to rot.