Authors: Claire Svendsen
“I think your girlfriend is waiting for you,” I say, waving at the girl.
He looks at the table and then at me. “She's not my girlfriend. She's just a girl who's a friend.
Like I want you to be.”
“I don't have time to make friends, I'm dying. Remember?”
“What better time to take a chance and go for it?” he smiles.
How does he know? I haven't told anyone and yet here he is, baiting me with a promise I know he won't keep. My phone rings and even though I usually don't answer it this time I do, welcoming the distraction. Besides, I already know who it is.
“What is it Mom?”
“What do you mean, what is it? You know very well what it is. Where are you?”
“Out with Chloe. We're coming back now.”
“You'd better,” she says. “I can't believe you did this again.”
I know she's mad but she won't yell at me or ground me or do any of the things she used to do like take away my phone privileges. There isn't much point.
“I have to go,” I say to Ethan.
He grabs my arm as I pass him, leans in and whispers in my ear.
“Meet me tonight, in the woods.”
I pull my arm away from him.
“What did he want?” Chloe asks as we walk away.
I steal a glance over my shoulder. He hasn't gone back to his
he's just standing there staring at me with a weird look on his face.
“I'm not sure.”
Mom is pretty pissed that not only did I sneak out but also ate junk food and therefore have no room for her delicious organic salad.
“I just wish you had told me,
all,” she says.
“If I'd told you, would you have let me go?”
“Maybe,” she says.
I know that's a lie. Either that or she would have wanted to come with me but the more I'm around her, the less I can breathe.
“I’m going to lie down. I'm tired.”
“I'm sure you are,” she says shaking her head.
“Shinnying down the drainpipe.
I thought we were past this April.”
I lay on the bed thinking about Mom's disappointment but before long it's Ethan's face I'm imagining. I guess it's possible that maybe he likes me but it's also just as possible that he's up to something. Fucking with the dying girl's head in some last ditch effort to ruin what little life I have left. But the way he looked at me, I'm no expert but I think he really wanted to talk to me. I should go meet him, see what he wants but I'm so tired. Bob is a harsh
he takes all the good energy to grow his spongy, evil body and leaves me with the leftovers. I'm asleep before I can even decide whether or not I should go to the woods.
It's dark when I wake up. I grab my phone to look at the time. It is past nine o'clock and I have three missed calls from Chloe and an angry text message, typed all in capitals.
WHY AREN'T YOU ANSWERING YOUR PHONE?
DID YOU GO TO MEET ETHAN?
I toss the phone on the bed. Ethan. Is he waiting out there in the darkness for me? I doubt it. But what if he is? I think I might like him. I should at least go and see what he wants.
Opening the window, a cool breeze blows in. I grab an old sweater and push my phone into my back pocket, then step out into the starry night. I'm getting pretty good at going down the drainpipe. I can't believe I've missed the opportunity to sneak out quietly all these years. The grass is already wet with dew, the night air damp and cold. Shivering, I stick to the shadows until I leave our yard, then sprint down the road towards the woods.
I should have grabbed a flashlight but for now the moon is full, shining down from the velvet sky. I pass kids toys abandoned in yards and cats on the prowl for vermin. As I reach the edge of the woods, I slow to a walk. I haven't been in there since I was a little kid. I wasn't afraid then but playing in the light of day is different than venturing in at night. And tonight it's alive with the sound of crickets and tree frogs,
there are the things that don't make a sound but are far more deadly.
I need to stop being such a coward. I'm going to die anyway so what does it matter? I have nothing to lose. But stepping in between the trees, it still feels like a mistake. If only Ethan had told me to meet him anywhere but here, it would have been a lot simpler.
The woods aren't really a very nice place at night. Yes, there is the threat of imminent death but once inside, that becomes the least of my worries. The moon casts watery shadows through the trees, the branches snapping back and forth in the breeze. In the darkness tree limbs look like people, their twisted arms outstretched to grab me. The wind whispers words, calling my name and things far worse than that. When something touches my shoulder, I let out a strangled scream.
“It's okay. It's only me.”
“Ethan,” I cry, tumbling into his arms.
“What's wrong?” he lifts my face up to his.
I pull back and smack him in the arm. “Why did you make me come out here? I don't like it.”
“Then why did you come?”
I kick a pile of leaves with the toe of my shoe.
“I don't know.”
“Yes you do. You came because you want to have one last adventure and you know I can give it to you.”
I look at his smiling face and wonder again if he's some kind of mind reader.
Or possibly an ax murderer.
He grabs my hand and I let him.
“I thought you'd like it out here in the dark. Weren't you the girl who was always fascinated with death?”
“Death is less romantic when it's staring you in the face.”
“Yes. I can see how it would be.”
He leads me between trees. Fallen trunks litter the ground, moss and vines smothering them. Most days I'm upbeat, the girl with the smiling face who has accepted that she's going to die and wants to make the best of it. But at night the old me is back. The one who thinks maybe she should take charge and end it all now before Bob has a chance to ravage her body and rob her of any dignity she might have left. Shinnying down the drainpipe and running off to meet a boy in the woods is one thing but what happens when Bob makes it impossible for me to speak and I lose control of all my bodily functions?
“Wait.” I let go of Ethan's hand and stand there in the darkness.
“Just wait a second.”
I slump onto the nearest tree stump, the woods spinning around me. Place my head between my knees and gulp for air.
“Are you sure you're alright?”
There is concern in Ethan's voice. It's sweet but I'm stupid. That concern won't be there when I'm a drooling vegetable.
“This was a mistake,” I say. “I shouldn't have come. I'm sorry.”
I need to go home. Take my medicine. Prepare to die like a good girl. It's just I still want one last adventure.
One sexy adventure with a boy.
But Bob can't even let me have this one thing.
“You made it this far. Come on, it's not that much further.”
He grabs my hand and tries to pull me up but I'm rooted to the tree. I know when Bob gets like this it is better just to wait until the dizziness passes. If I try and fight it I'll only end up falling on my ass.
“Just give me a minute,” I say.
He stands there next to me, holding my hand. Just waiting like I asked him to. I have to give him credit. By now most people would have freaked out and called an ambulance or left me there under the pretense of getting help. But he just
the warmth from his hand traveling into mine and suddenly I feel better. I lift my head up and the trees are stationary once more.
“That's weird,” I say.
“Feel better?” he smiles.
“Good. Come on then.”
He pulls me to my feet and keeps hold of my hand. If it was anyone else, I would have pulled my hand away by now but invisible strands connect us together. I feel them binding our hands like silver ribbons of light. I don't think I could pull my hand away even if I wanted to. But I don't.
"So do you always hang around in the woods late at night?" I ask as he pulls me along.
"I like it out here, it's peaceful."
I wonder if he means it's the only place he can get some peace and quiet because his home life is so horrible. I want to ask him but it seems rude considering that I hardly know him. Plus the woods are getting thicker now. We have to twist sideways to squeeze between some of the trees. I scratch my arm on a twig and it starts to bleed.
"You okay?" he asks.
It doesn't matter."
I want to know where we're going. Despite the cold and the dark, my heart is beating wildly and not because I'm scared. Finally Ethan stops and I bump into him.
"What is it?" I ask, suddenly afraid that we've come across a giant, sleeping alligator or something.
He steps aside and points triumphantly to a massive tree. It must be hundreds of years old, thousands even. Four people standing in a circle holding hands, still wouldn't reach all the way around its trunk. Branches snake out in every direction, reaching up to the midnight sky.
"Wow," I say.
"I told you it was cool. But come on, there's more."
He drags me closer, my head still tilted back as I strain to see the top of the tree. Letting go of my hand, he jumps up to grab something hanging around one of the lower branches. A rope ladder uncurls and falls to the ground.
"You're not expecting me to climb up that thing, are you?"
"Yes," he says, smiling.
I want to tell him no. That there is no way I'm climbing up that flimsy piece of rope but considering I've already been down a drainpipe twice today, I don't really have much of an excuse.
"Well, what's up there?"
I have to admit I'm curious and part of me does want to climb into the giant tree. But the other part of me also doesn't want Ethan staring at my ass the whole way up.
"You’ll see. Come on."
"After you," I say.
He grabs hold of the ladder and climbs it like he's done it a million times before. I step onto the first rung, testing to see how well it will hold my weight. It sags but seems firm, the rope coarse between my fingers. I imagine that I'm climbing the hull of a great ship to take one last fated voyage. Or up into the endless sky where the stars twinkle high above us, obscured by the huge tree we are now climbing into. Like a beast that has opened its mouth wide, it swallows us whole with one silent gulp as we leave the woods beneath us. Hidden in the belly of the tree, the rope ladder propels us up.
"How much further?"
I shout out to Ethan, my voice echoing around the leafy chamber.
"Not much," he says.
But it must have been a lie. We climb until I think we might pop out of the top of the tree like a champagne cork.
My hands burn against the rope, bleeding in places.
Ethan should have brought gloves. He would have known how hard it is to climb a rope ladder. As I climb, I hear noises in the tree.
Birds shuffling in their nests, calling gently to one another.
Disturbed squirrels race across the giant limbs, eyeing us warily.
"I don't think I can climb anymore," I say breathlessly. Bob isn't exactly a fan of exercise. It usually ends in a skull splitting migraine.
"Made it," Ethan shouts triumphantly from above. "Come on, it's not that much further."
I want to yell at him. Tell him that this is the worst first date I've ever been on but above my head are planks of wood, nailed together to form a floor. Curiosity fuels me on and I reach Ethan, winded and breathless.
"What is this place?"
He grabs my hand and pulls me onto a wooden ledge, a porch that surrounds an actual tree house. The rough planks that make up the floor also stretch up to form four walls and a sloping roof covered in bright green moss. There is a tiny window and a door that Ethan swings open with a smile.
"Welcome to my home away from home," he says.
Stepping inside, I feel like I've slipped into another world. Rainbow colored cushions litter the floor, there is a table and a small chair in the corner and a cooler with the lid propped open full of drinks and snacks.
"You built this place?" I whisper.
"No. I'd like to take the credit but it was here long before I found it. Pretty cool though, huh?"
"It's the most amazing place I've ever seen."
"I knew you'd like it," he grins. "And look."
He takes my hand and tugs me down to the floor. We tumble onto the soft cushions and he points up to the ceiling. I've never seen anything like it in my whole life. Hundreds of tiny paper cranes hang from the rafters, the gentle breeze moving between them so that they look poised to take flight at any moment. They make fluttering sounds as they spin and twirl. Real birds trapped in a paper skeleton.