by Carlea Holl-Jensen
I don’t remember anything from that summer except the hollow—not the Fourth of July beach party, or our trip to the lighthouse. There are pictures, I know: you and me in our bathing suits and shorts, blinking into the camera while behind us someone sets off fireworks that don’t show up against the daytime sky. Whenever I see those pictures now, they look fabricated, like someone doctored us in. In every image, we wear identical expressions, softly stunned, as if we’ve just been woken from a mutual dream.
Even as we stood there having our picture taken, we were counting down the minutes until we could return to our cathedral of branches and vines. Our little bower, our home. We spent every moment we could there. I know we must have gone back for meals, or to bathe or sleep, but all I remember is lying down beside you amidst that secret green. That, and what it was like afterwards, once you were gone.
It’s been years since I rode the ferry across the sound, but the paint’s still peeling on the ship’s metal railings, the salt spray still thick in the sunset air. The shops along the main street have changed their names, but that’s all.
Some local boys, sunburned skin showing through their buzz cuts, pull me up into the bed of their pickup truck and tell me they’ll take me wherever I want to go. While they talk with yeast-smelling breath about their plans for the night, I am thinking about you. Your arm brushing mine as we lay on the ground, the smell of sweat that hung, ever present, on our clothes.
When we pull up outside your parents’ old summer house, the boys try to convince me to come with them, but I refuse, slipping out of their grip and down onto the breathing asphalt, away from them. Soon they’re nothing but tail lights receding.
From your back yard, it’s a short walk past the double-trunk oak, down to where the woods begin. How many times did we descend, breathless, into these trees? How many times did I squeeze your hand for fear I’d lose you in the reckless downhill rush?
The woods are exactly the same. All the old familiar landmarks remain in place—the snarl of blackberry bushes, the fallen tree across the stream. I follow our path. Even though it’s long overgrown, I recognize the way.
Sweat gathers on the surface of my skin. Even with the sun down, it’s suffocatingly hot, the air a weight, the way someone’s hand too tight on your shoulder is a warning.
I will not be afraid. We were never afraid of anything, you and I, the wild girls. We mapped every inch of the woods, pushing right into its tangled heart. We learned its secrets, its hidden ways—more than anyone else had ever known. No wonder they could never find you. But I will.
So many times I’ve tried to reach you, but this time I will not fail. This time, I’m sure of the way, and I know exactly where you’ll be.
The last night I saw you, we made a plan to meet in the woods. We’d seen them at almost every other time of day—at sunrise, at twilight, in the dappled radiance of midday—but never in true dark.
I remember the anticipation, the sound of the nighttime woods, as eager for us as we were for them. Soon, I remember thinking, soon we will run. Soon we will crash through the underbrush, until it yields to us and gives way, opening to us under the starry sky.
I lay waiting for the light under my parents’ door to disappear, like you told me to. When it went out, I pulled off my nightgown and changed back into yesterday’s clothes, feeling brazen even in the dark. Then I crept downstairs and out the back door.
You were waiting for me under the double oak, and when you smiled at me, your teeth flashed white. At the edge of the yard, we switched on our flashlights, and then we were off—running, running. You were a year older and an inch and a half taller, and your stride was long enough that no matter how fast I ran, I was always a step behind you.
I remember the beam of my flashlight glancing off your washed-white shirt, your strong, thin neck, the delicate curl of your copper hair behind your ears. You ran ahead of me into the night, never doubting I would follow.
The underbrush is getting thicker now, and the trees here grow closer together. Every tree seems to peer down over my shoulder as I pass. This, too, is familiar. The forest contracts in on itself the deeper you go, getting dense and more treacherous, protecting its tender center.
I remember the way perfectly: along the creek, past the ruined chimney and the old well where once you pretended you would push me in, until you reach the rise that gives onto the ravine, then down into the low-lying tangle below.
You’ll be waiting for me there, won’t you?
We ran along the edge of the stream, our shoes slipping in the wet dirt of the bank. Briars clung to our socks, and every step made a sucking sound.
We went single file, you in front. I remember the collar of your shirt stretched out at the base of your neck, your hair like wind-tossed copper wire.
We passed the chimney and the well, the stream whispering beside us. I remember thinking I could catch up with you and pull you down and we would fall laughing into the soft deadfall. I imagined holding myself above you, the smell of the sweat on your upper lip, your eyes rising to meet mine.
Then came the rise and you broke into a sprint.
“Wait!” I cried after you. My shoes were sinking in the mud, and by the time I managed to free myself and scramble after you, you had already gone down into the ravine with a crashing of leaves.
I stood there at the top of the rise, catching my breath and scanning the woods for the beam of your flashlight.
I called out to you, but you didn’t answer. I aimed my flashlight out into the dark valley, but the light was swallowed up. I couldn’t see you anywhere.
I thought you must have twisted your ankle, or slipped on some moss on the way down the side of the ravine.
In a minute, I told myself, I’ll trip over her leg and we’ll laugh with our backs on the ground and tomorrow we’ll compare bruises.
In a minute, she’ll sit up and shout, “Scared you!”
I called out to you again, so loud some sleeping birds startled awake and fled into the air. The woods seemed all at once so large and empty of anything alive.
It’s very dark now. The trees are so dense that I can’t see the sky. There are no stars anymore. There’s no noise, either, not an owl crying or the crack of a twig. I can’t even hear my own breathing, like the night has clapped its hands over my ears.
It was like this the night I lost you, too, this perfect darkness.
I waded blind into cutting banks of thorns, calling your name. You didn’t answer, but I kept calling, my voice rising and rising until it scraped my throat.
I never knew the dark could be so absolute.
It can’t be much farther now.
The undergrowth claws at my bare legs, leaving marks, drawing blood. A twisted root catches my foot, brings me to the ground. The rush of the fall knocks my breath from my chest and for a while all I can do is lie still while I try to remember how to work my lungs.
When the air finally rushes back into my body, I can smell my own blood, my palms having opened against the rough earth. I can’t see them in the dark, but I can feel the tender skin singing out in shock.
What would happen if I didn’t get up? What if I lay here forever, unmoving? Would the forest creep up and cover me? I’ve imagined you like that before, ivy cradling your skull, saplings pushing up between your ribs. In my worst dreams, your eyes are blue and staring beneath a blanket of damp leaves, just yards away from where I stood.
No, in my worst dreams, you lie there, yards away from me, and hold your breath so I won’t hear. You hide from me, hating me, wishing I would go away. You move to a new town, grow up, never once think of me.
But you would never do that to me. I shouldn’t even think it. I’m the one who abandoned you, not the other way around. If only I’d looked harder, if only I’d turned my head just a fraction of an inch to one side or the other, I might have found you.
The sun had just come up pale behind the early morning clouds when the sheriff’s deputy found me wandering barefoot in the stream. He picked me up and carried me back to town, his arms lean and powerful around me, the spice of his aftershave mixing with the smell of mud and the clear, cold note of dawn. I never knew when or where I lost my shoes.
They sent out search parties after that. Dogs barking, the beams of flashlights scattering off the trunks of trees, everyone calling your name. I wasn’t allowed to go with them, even though I tried to make them understand: the woods were our place, ours, and I was the only one who could find you.
Eventually, they stopped looking. You parents closed up their summer house, and mine decided it would be better for me if we went home, too. As if distance would make your absence easier. As if I wouldn’t always return to you. I hated them for taking me away, but in time I came to understand: they were frightened. They did not love you like I do. They gave up, but I never have.
So many times I’ve tried to come to you. Once I got as far as the interstate before a patrol car pulled me over in my parents’ car. Another time, a fall from a dormitory window, a broken wrist, evaluations. It’s going to be different this time, I can tell. This time, I’ll find you.
You’ve been so patient.
Pebbles and thorns bite into my palms and knees when I push myself onto my feet. The air is so thick before me that I feel walled in, and the urge seizes me to tear at the constraints of my skin.
My legs are shaking, and the night presses back against me, but I force myself forward. I put one foot in front of the other.
I can’t see anything anymore, not the stars or the trees or even my hands in front of me. The dark is too complete. Shapes that might be bushes or slow-moving animals creep past me, black-on-black. My eyes ache from straining to see and my pulse throbs in my palms. There is blood on my legs. Every step seems to take longer than the last.
I’ve made it farther than I did that night, at least.
Do you blame me for leaving you all those years ago? I didn’t mean to leave you out here all alone. I didn’t mean to keep on living.
Can you forgive me?
I’m here now, that must count for something. I’ve come back.
The ground is unsteady beneath my feet. The air gets darker and, somewhere far away, the stars are listening in like eavesdroppers.
When at last the tangle of vines and branches becomes a thick curtain, then I know I’ve almost reached you. I dip my hands into that veil and shove my way through, guiding myself by touch, by memory.
Inside, the quality of the air changes—the way sound echoes under the curving ceiling, opening out and reduplicating, growing thin and distant. The breeze grows sweeter, though it’s no less dark.
I hold my breath, turning within that empty cave of life, straining my ears for some sign of you. My eardrums quiver and I reach out, blind, my eyes open wide.
I can sense you coming closer. Yes, it must be. A dark shape I can almost discern against the darkness moves forward. That absence of light must be you.
I reach out my fingers to touch the velvet-black night, and, oh, you’re here, you’re here!
Carlea Holl-Jensen was born on a Wednesday. Since then, her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Queers Destroy Fantasy!, and Fairy Tale Review, among others. She holds an MFA from the University of Maryland. She is co-editor of The Golden Key, an online journal of speculative writing, and co-host of the podcast Feminist Folklore.