Tap, tap, tap.
He pushes the thin sheet off and turns to the window, where he’s left the curtains drawn back. The flickering streetlamp that normally stands behind her on these nights has stopped flickering and gone out—tonight, before she came, or last night after she left; he can’t remember. The world behind her is dark, and he squints for her silhouette, usually flashed against his window, but the expired streetlamp hides her from him. She is knowable only by her knuckles, steady and insistent.
Tap, tap, tap.
He sways as he stands, empty stomach protesting with a low rumble. The hand he places over it, to comfort and to quiet, is perhaps shaking too much to be effective; the hunger leaks through, wraps around him.
He opens the window. He expects her to leap through and perch on his bed, cross-legged and trying too hard for cheerfulness, telling him fairy tales and other myths until the sun starts to rise. His favorite story, the one she repeats the most, is about a far-off kingdom built for them, with sun-drenched hilltops and a castle filled with warmth and light and food—he’ll request this story tonight, if she asks.
But he waits a beat, two beats, and she stays outside.
“We’re going,” she says.
He blinks slowly. His eyes are starting to adjust to the night, but she’s still just a dark shape on more darkness. Her windbreaker rustles and he can picture her crossing her arms, growing impatient. Can she hear his stomach?
“What?” he says.
“Come on,” she says. “We’re going.”
“Mom isn’t here,” he says. “I should—”
“Wait for her to come back?”
He bites the inside of his lip, glancing backwards at the bedroom door, cracked open to let in a sliver of the light he left on in the hallway. She doesn’t know everything; his mother could come back soon, and he should say goodbye. Just because she wishes to never have to see her father again, doesn’t mean that—
“We have to go,” she says, derailing his train of thought, a note of insistence in her voice now.
In looking back into the light, he’s lost his ability to make her out at all in the darkness. Does she turn her head to look for the source of that snapping noise he heard? Did he really hear it? He shakes his head. He doesn’t want to be paranoid, doesn’t want to fear the worst the way she tends to. (Their castle, in her story, always has a moat—“To keep the monsters out,” she insists. He doesn’t understand why her fantasy world has monsters in it.)
He asks, “Go where?”
She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t scoff, doesn’t sigh, doesn’t move at all. Suddenly he is sure that she is no longer standing there, that he has missed his chance. He only wants to be together.
“I’m coming,” he says quickly, panic rising. “Just let me get dressed.”
She lets out a held breath and, more than a little surprised at hearing her, he matches it. He doesn’t bother to close the window or draw the curtains back as he changes. Does she watch? Does she know how he struggles to not think about it—their clothes, themselves—more and more during her midnight bedroom visits? No, he decides; it is not like that. He slips a clean shirt and oversized sweatshirt over his head and pulls too-baggy cargo shorts over the boxers he sleeps in. He can feel her impatience vibrating into the room. The only shoes in sight are his old, traction-less sandals, gathering dust against the wall, so he slips them on and scrambles out the window.
“Here,” she says, pressing a small yeast roll into his hands.
He cradles the bread like a precious thing, pressing his face into the flaky crust and inhaling, his nose coming away smeared with grease and what might even be a trace amount of butter. In this moment, he is perfectly happy.
“Don’t eat it right away,” she says. “It’s all I brought.”
He eats it in three bites, swallowing hard to get the big chunks down his throat. She exhales a low sigh, but waits. When he is finished, she takes his hand, and they are off.
She leads him behind the house, walking quickly, her hand cold and trembling in his. Here in the open yard, the moon offers some illumination, and he sees the swing set where they used to dare each other, go higher, kick faster, and she always won. “Jump,” she used to say, panting as they pumped their legs in unison, “jump with me!” And he wouldn’t; he would grip the rusted chains on either side and will his body to propel itself forward, but his body could sense all the fear, and wouldn’t budge. So she jumped alone, higher and farther each time, until the day her ankle buckled underneath her. She didn’t cry in front of him, and he always thought that she limped longer than she should have for someone so much stronger than he was, for such a minor sprain.
He sees, too, her long hair ponytailed high on her head, the ends brushing against the nape of her neck as she walks, and what might be a shadow or a stain just to the left, shining slick. He wants to reach out his free hand to touch, to see if his fingers come back wet with the things she doesn’t talk about.
But they are at the tree line on the edge of his property now, and she drops his hand and plunges into the woods. He hesitates, watches her not lift her hands to push branches away or shield her face, and he suspects as he always has that this is not a kind of pain that she notices. Arms up, he follows.
She walks straight into the woods, quickly leaving behind the sparse tree coverage bordering his yard for the clearing where he goes to eat the meager amounts of food she dares steal for him when his mother has been gone for more days than he’d expected. It doesn’t feel so much like a betrayal of trust, somehow, to eat it away from the house. He looks over his shoulder, and can no longer see the edge of the woods bordering his home. He turns back around in time to watch as something falls from her fingers into the clearing, but doesn’t stop to see what it is; there is urgency in her step and he trails some yards behind her, hurrying to keep up as they move into denser, darker forest.
Minutes go by, or an hour, with no sound but their feet on fallen leaves, her purposeful, boot-clad strides and his slipping sandaled scurrying. He looks back again and sees a treeless patch of meadow—the same clearing he recognized earlier? Are they walking in circles? He whirls on the spot, staring around him in an effort to identify any landmark, to recognize any familiar element of this place near his home. A shooting pain in his heel and another growl from his stomach tell him that they must have been walking longer than he thought.
“Are we nearly there?” he calls, slowing his steps and hoping she’ll do the same, to match him. She doesn’t. He coughs, partly to ease his dry throat, partly to remind her that he’s there. He wonders if she has forgotten him.
There was a time when he didn’t have to wonder these things, when he knew she thought of him, when she always was with him. He used to think, in fact, that there were multiple versions of her, clones or twins, who took him in shifts: The early morning her, who procured scraps of food for him as if by magic, and never stayed to partake; the public her, who laughed too loud against her locker and let him copy her homework, even—maybe especially—if it was wrong; and his favorite her, the midnight caller, his storyteller. It was this her he had missed the most, and whom he had assumed he was following into the woods tonight. But he thinks, struggling to catch up with her march to nowhere, that tonight she is something new.
Some time later, to his surprise, she stops. He draws up short of running into her, then backs off a few paces, watching as she reaches with steady hands up to the top of her head. She pulls her hair out of its ponytail, slips the elastic band onto her wrist, and rakes her fingernails against her scalp to shake her hair out. The moon shafts through some branches above her, making her motions seem stilted, as though she were only half a person—the half he can see flashing in and out of the light. He watches her left hand pull away, and blanches to see her fingertips stained with deep black-red in the moonlight. She doesn’t turn her head to look at it, just reaches both arms out to either side to wipe her fingers on the bark of the trees that flank her. And then she moves on.
He hurries after, eyes down and breath held as he slips sideways between the trees, though there’s plenty of room.
He follows her down steep inclines and through clearings and areas of dense bush and around winding wooded obstacle courses that only she apparently knows the way through. The moon emerges from cloud cover now and again and seems little by little to recede, or shrink, and he wonders how much time is passing, and if he should be able to tell. She stops, periodically and suddenly, to leave something behind: her hair elastic looped around a low-hanging branch that scrapes her knee; her dangling dove necklace jerked fitfully from her neck, breaking the clasp, and then dropped into a mound of dirt by her right foot; her windbreaker yanked over her head in a kind of desperation, only to be carefully draped over a berry bush.
She stops, then, down to her jeans and a thin white tank top, and wraps her arms around herself. He notices, not for the first time, that it’s very cold, and thinks that he should offer her his sweatshirt. But then a cloud shifts, covering her bare arms in thin, pale light. He forgets, in a moment, about the sweatshirt, about the long walk in the woods, about his blistering heel. Her arms are splotched, discolored, blossoming at random in angry shades of blue and purple, interrupted by thin red lines of broken skin and pale, finger-shaped patches.
“What—” He watches her go rigid, shoulders tensing and fingers tightening around her elbows. He can’t tell if she’s waiting for him to go on, or willing him not to. He can think of no more words. The last time it was bad enough to shock him, a few months ago, she had laughed it off, called them battle scars, and he’d believed that she was winning. There had been a black eye then, and she had noted that it brought out the blue without the help of eyeliner, and he had tried not to hate himself for agreeing. It has never been like this. He extends his hand, reaching for her, to touch or to hold.
She turns away. Drops her arms, hunches her shoulders. Hurries to the top of the hill a few yards ahead of them, flitting in and out of shadows.
He watches her go, letting his hand fall back to his side. He wonders if he should have said something else. Are you all right? I’m here. He wonders if he should be here. He glances behind him, trying to make out the path she seems to know so well.
“There,” she says, her voice a whisper. “Look.”
He turns to see her pointing at something beyond the hill. He waits. He leans back on his heels, and the impulse to turn and run flashes through his mind, hot and sudden.
“Come look,” she says.
The hill overlooks a shack, squat and ghostly in the dark. He lets out a sigh, feeling lost. She sighs beside him, simultaneously, and he startles, wondering if she somehow knows what he is feeling and feels the same, or else is mocking him.
But she says, “It’s perfect.”
And then, the longer he looks, the shack becomes a cabin, a house, a thing perhaps once grand, now worn by weather and time—but not so worn. It is perfect, in a way, this thatched-roofed home in the middle of a clearing, dappled in cloud and moonlight, standing as if waiting. For them?
Dry leaves crumble under her feet as she rushes down the hill, and this time he doesn’t need prompting to follow, close on her heels.
She stops running again as she nears the house, breath switching from fevered to hushed, footsteps longer and slower as she reaches out reverently. He sticks close by her as she circles the house, trailing her fingers along the textured walls, standing tall and breathing deeply. Finally, after twice around, she stops by the only door. She grips the handle and turns to him, a smile on her face for the first time since she came to lead him away those hours or ages ago.
“Ready?” she asks.
Not knowing for what, he nods.
The shadows warp her smile into a witch’s grin as she faces the door and what lies beyond it.
She walks a few steps in and stops, so that he has to peer over and around her to look inside. A few well-placed holes in the straw ceiling allow him to dimly see into a kitchen on the right, and his feet carry him there. He places his hands on a spacious wood-burning stove, like the one his mother had installed at home, and closes his eyes for a moment, letting the cast iron support his weight. The inside of the oven is coated with ash and what look like small remnants of bones. There is no refrigerator to search for leftovers. The limited counter space is littered with slightly fuzzy-looking baking sheets, and he resists the urge to write with his finger in the grime. In the back of a shelf in a cupboard he finds a few mouse-nibbled bottles of what are probably cooking spices, and some shriveled, fur-covered, vaguely vegetable-shaped objects. Even he knows better, he reminds his insistent stomach.
He turns away to survey the rest of the small house. It has the look of a place that was abandoned suddenly, without warning or explanation, and never quite recovered from the shock. A couch and a couple of chairs are turned at angles towards each other with a low, rotting wood table between them. A plain blue mug sits on the table, and from where he stands he can see that inside the mug is either badly stained or heavily molded. There is a standing lamp behind the couch, the shade shriveled and, like the cloth on the couch and chairs, discolored by what he thinks must be years’ worth of weather. He takes two steps and tries the cord on the lamp, which makes a rusty rattling sound and otherwise does nothing.
On the other end of the house, tucked into the shadowy far corner, stands a bed.
She beelines for this, apparently seeing it in the same instant that he does—has she been watching him, or just taking it in? She jumps onto the bed on all fours. The mattress depresses and doesn’t quite bounce back under her inconsiderable weight. The springs creak; she smiles, somewhat manic, but doesn’t laugh like she once did on the swing set. When he doesn’t immediately move to join her, she raises her eyebrows and pats the mattress beside her. She pulls her legs under her to sit cross-legged, and it reminds him of themselves, the moonlit sparkle in her eye and her waiting-for-him stance.
She smiles as he joins her and the bedsprings screech again. He smiles back at her, hates how foreign it feels. He works to keep it up as he crawls backwards on the bed to lean against the deflated pillow—suddenly, he is so, so tired.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” she says.
He nods. He folds his arms under his head and looks up at the moon through a hole. Dust motes dance in the trickle of light, and he thinks, yes, this is nice.
She says, “Being away. It’s so good.”
“It’s good,” he agrees, murmuring. His eyes start to drift shut.
And then her mouth is on his. From the back of her throat come a series of gasps he can’t quite place, something like fear, and then relief. Her body settles against him, tentative and then demanding, her curves pressing into his angles.
He doesn’t respond, at first. Doesn’t know if he wants it, doesn’t know if she really does; it’s not like that, he thinks again, reminding himself. But her tongue flicks out, not-quite-asking against his lips, which part to let her in and to let a low moan out—and, all right, maybe he does want this, maybe he has.
He kisses her back, savoring; she tastes of melt-in-your-mouth sweetness, of gingersnap, of something metallic. Forgetting the glimpse he got earlier of her, he wraps his fingers around her shoulders and pulls her close. A low ahh escapes her mouth and she draws her face back, then bites down on his bottom lip, harder than he thinks is supposed to be enjoyable. His hips respond anyway, twisting upwards for friction. She rolls her hips, sighs, moves her lips to his neck, still catching his skin in her teeth as she trails cold, short kisses along his accentuated collarbone. He hooks his feet over her ankles. She growls, bites harder, near the throbbing pulse point at his neck. His head tips back into the pillow and he wraps his arms around her back, uneven fingernails scrabbling against her shoulder blades. At that, she cries out.
And then she hits him.
Not hard, but his eyes fly open, and he springs into a sitting position, knocking her off and to the side.
What the hell, he can’t find his voice to say, what the fuck, get away. He stares at her.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, “sorry, I—I’m so sorry,” and the fury in him crumbles fast. Her eyes are wide, wild, darting frantically from him to the wall behind his head—is she looking for something, someone? She climbs up the bed towards him, and he backs away the few inches he can. Her fingers grip the sheets on either side of him in a vice.
“He hurt me,” she whispers.
The air around them thins, and he slows his breathing. He shakes his head, a small motion, keeping his eyes on hers. “I—”
“She leaves you?” she asks, though he knows what she’s talking about, and he knows she knows the answer. He doesn’t respond, and she accepts it as invitation to continue. “He hits me,” she says, and again he knows, but she’s staring into his eyes, pleading, and he is at a loss. “He always has,” she goes on, “but not like this time, it’s never been…”
She skitters into a standing position on the bed and he leans away, shielding his eyes as her fingers work at her button, then zipper. She’s breathing unevenly as she shimmies out of the jeans, and he feels panic or some other cold thing settle in his empty stomach as she kicks them aside and his gaze settles on her legs. Her left ankle is swollen, a tomato on the side of her foot. A gash runs from her inside calf up her thigh. There are more deep purple blooms here, marking the territory of her skin, discoloring the visible veins running through. They disappear under her underwear.
She watches him, and she’s started to sob, and he knows that she’s waiting for him to react. Only he doesn’t know how. He has known, about her father, has seen this coming. Part of him has expected to see these bruises each time she’s come to him over the last several months, maybe years. But now he thinks that he wishes she hadn’t shown him. He hates himself for the thought.
“You’re all right,” he hears himself say. He holds his arms out, and she closes her fingers around his wrists. He acts as a support, mechanical, not pulling, not plying. She lowers herself back to the bad, and her sobs dissipate into sniffing and sighing. He keeps going when he can. “Stop worrying. You’re here, now. You got away. You’re free.”
She nods. She lets go of him and sinks down into the bed, then curls onto her side, facing away from him. He mimics her position, leaving space between their bodies, and runs his flat palm gently over her back. “Shhh,” he says, as the sounds of her crying continue to puncture the air. “Shhh.”
“We got away,” she murmurs sometime later; he doesn’t know how much later, or if he’s slept at all in-between. “We’re free.”
He looks through the shadows at the deserted furniture, the empty kitchen. He refocuses, looks at the blood stains on the tips of her hair. “Yes,” he says. His hand starts on her back again, willing her to sleep.
Instead, she stiffens under his touch, and he pulls his hand back immediately. She turns over to face him. He can’t make out her eyes, and he closes his after a few moments of silence.
As soon as his eyelids touch his cheeks, as if she has been waiting for a cue, she says, “You don’t want to be here.”
He shakes his head, not sure if it’s a lie, not sure if she can see. “We’re free,” he says, the words hollow as they leave his mouth. “We’re together.”
“You don’t want to be free,” she says, an edge of spite in her voice. “You wouldn’t have ever left.”
He thinks about his home. He thinks of their swing set, abandoned if they stay away. About his bed, softer than this one, and the kitchen, bigger if equally empty. He thinks of the way his mother used to sing to him, used to read him stories, years ago. Of the big, red armchair they still have, where he would climb into his mother’s lap and they would sit together; where he now sits alone in the afternoons, paying tribute, waiting for her.
He thinks of how she hit him.
“Everyone wants to be free,” he says finally.
She lets out a long breath. In a spotlight of moonshine, he watches her trail a finger over a cut on her shoulder. “I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t,” she whispers.
He wakes to a stream of sunlight in his eyes and a knot in his back. Blinking, he pushes himself into a sitting position and looks around at the house—at the shack. Everything is covered in a layer of dust so thick that their steps have barely left prints on the floor. He feels a spring pushing into his thigh, likely the same spring that caused the knot he now reaches a hand back to massage. The holes in the ceiling are crisscrossed with cobwebs, and the couches and tables are riddled with holes from where anyone’s guess of creatures have snacked in desperation.
And she is gone.
He feels the depression in the bed beside him, touches the bite marks on his neck, wanting to be sure of her previous presence, of her existence. He is surprised by the lack of surprise he feels; of course she is gone. Of course he remains.
There is a note on the ground by the door, paperweighted by a dinner roll, identical to the one from yesterday. The note: Go. He picks it up, studies it, tries to understand. A blessing? A warning? Which is it? Which was she?
He follows her breadcrumb trail back home, collecting the landmarks she left—for him, he realizes, because she must have known that he couldn’t really leave, like he must have known that she wouldn’t stay ‘til morning. He ties the jacket around his waist, pockets the necklace, slips the elastic band around his own wrist. He stands between the two trees and takes a piece of bloodstained bark off of each, slipping them into opposite pockets. The thing she dropped in the clearing is a driver’s license. He holds it at eye level, squints at her sweetly smiling face, a face he doesn’t find familiar. Then he pockets it, too.
When he pushes through the tree line into his backyard, he pauses, shuts his eyes against the late morning sun, and balls his hand into a loose fist, feeling the ghosts of her fingers in his. Then he moves on.
He gathers most of her into a box—necklace, windbreaker, band, bark, ID—and burns the box in the kitchen stove. The note he holds, turns it over and over in his thin fingers as the fire cracks. He makes a decision. When the fire is smoldering ash, he carries the note back to his bedroom, tucks it around the latch on the window, and locks the window shut.
AUTHOR BIO: Catey Miller lives with her fantastic husband in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she is pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing at UNC Wilmington. In addition to appearing on Youth Imagination, her fiction is forthcoming on the Young Adult Review Network (YARN). You can find her tweeting about YA lit, makeup, Christian bands, and TV shows @beingfacetious.