Saturday, January 10, 2009

Familiar Unknown (Full Story)

Something about the woods fascinated Emma. It wasn’t the way shadows fell through the canopy in scattered bundles of gray. It wasn’t the smell of pine and earth, or the crackle of leaves and twigs beneath her feet. It was more than that. It was part of her.

Emma sat on her back porch steps staring at the darkening tree line. Her tank top hung loose around her too-thin shoulders as she picked at a piece of her sneaker, ragged and worn from one too many runs down wooded paths that let to anywhere. 

The summer heat pressed against her, making her skin too thick to be in. Through the back porch door, their voices carried; her parents were fighting again. A shattering of glass made Emma turn her head, but their argument carried on inside, undeterred by whatever thing they had broken. It was probably something of hers.

Emma wanted out. 

“I’m going for a walk,” she said over her shoulder. The shouting didn’t cease. She leapt off the steps, stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jeans and headed toward the trees.


Jake abandoned everything he ever knew, none of it worth keeping. Not at the price he had to pay. He’d never been the outdoors type--he preferred to escape inside whatever movie, video game, or book that he could find, but fantasy was only temporary. The forest seemed endless. Some place he could get lost in, and never have to come out. Some place nobody would come looking. 

He stuck his thumbs through the cut-out holes in his long-sleeved t-shirt. He’d started doing it so no one would see the bruises that dotted his arms, but now it felt like security, a familiar gesture in a place so foreign to him. But then Jake remembered he didn’t want the familiar. He wanted something new, something different. He pushed his sleeves to his elbows and let his bare arms sway at his sides as he walked with no destination, and no intention of turning around. He’d walk on forever, as long as there were trees, and hopefully never see another human face.


Emma leaned back against a tall pine to catch her breath. Running in this place felt like living. The hammer in her chest and the ache in her side let her know she was alive. 

She slid down to sit in the orange and brown needles that covered the earth, allowing her toe to tap against a moss-covered rock. She picked up a twig and broke it into pieces, tossing each one farther than the last, not thinking about anyone or anything. Just breathing. Just being. Like this was where she had to be.

She couldn’t decide what made her look up; the weight of his eyes, all the colors of the forest, pensive and untrusting, or a change in the air, the light scent of some spicy fragrance that didn’t belong there. But when she saw the boy, faded blue jeans and a worn shirt that did nothing to hide his bruised arms, she couldn’t look away. It wasn’t because it was so unusual to see him standing there, though she had never met another person in the woods. It was because she saw something in him, in his tight shoulders and tired features. She saw something familiar. She saw herself. 


Jake folded his arms in front of his chest. He didn’t like the way the girl eyed his bruises, or the way she kept staring at him like she expected him to speak first. To explain what he was doing there. He already knew he didn’t belong in the woods. He didn’t need her to say it. 

“I come out here a lot, you know?” she said, not getting up. She picked up another stick, brushed the wet dirt from it, and started breaking it into pieces. “It’s quiet. Empty.” She tossed the broken sticks on to the ground, one at a time. 

Jake tried to find reason in it, tried to see what she was aiming for, but there was no pattern to it. She just was tossing them wherever she felt like tossing them. It made him smile.

“I like to be alone,” she went on. Jake’s smile fell and he turned away from her. He didn’t want to see the hint in her eyes that said she didn’t want him. He took a step back the way he’d come. He wouldn’t go home, but he’d go away from here, from her. 

“But I don’t mind some company,” she added. “As long as it’s good company.”

Jake turned around. The girl was watching him, her face curious, not condescending. Her pale eyes seemed washed out and tired, but they weren’t empty like the eyes of a stranger. Looking at her made him feel something he couldn’t define. She made him feel normal. Like it was normal to find a girl leaning against a tree in the middle of a silent forest. Normal, to have arms covered in bruises that needed no explanation. She made him feel like this was exactly where he was supposed to be.

He came to stand in front of her, leaned down toward her, blocking the setting sun with his shoulder so that he could see her face. Her eyes widened at the same time he felt it. Jake’s skin pulled tight against his body. He knew why she made him feel the way she did. He knew why her eyes weren’t cold and empty. 

He knew her face. 


Emma shoved open the side door of Hofstetler’s. The chill in the air pulled her skin tight, shrinking it around her bones, and she shuddered. It was freezing out, but she didn’t care. Anything to get away from her dad and the scene he was making in the middle of the frozen food aisle. It was bad enough when her parents fought at home, but doing it on the phone in the middle of the grocery store was a level of humiliation Emma couldn’t bear. 

She could go sit in the car – she had a key – but she didn’t want to be confined. She was trapped already. If they didn’t live so far from town, she would run home. But they did. As much as she loved the woods – her woods – she hated that they were so far from the places she needed them the most. 

Emma stuffed her hands into her coat pockets and stepped into the alley. She would stay as long as she could stand it. Until her father’s shouts at her mother became shouts for her.


Jake tipped his head back against the cinder block wall and watched his sigh float up to the flat grey sky. The air was icy but he pushed his sleeves up anyway, needing to feel free from something, even if it was just his shirt.

He heard the door open at the same time he heard her voice. “Oh,” she said. It was a soft sound, full of surprise and something else he recognized. Disappointment. She wanted to be alone. 

Jake peeled himself off the wall and turned to the girl. She stood stock still in her designer jeans and expensive down jacket. Her face was flushed, her brown hair messy in its ponytail as if she were running. He wondered how she could look so in motion without moving at all. “Hey,” he said.

She looked all over him, at his bruises, the stain on his sweatshirt, his boots. Everywhere but in his eyes. She looked, but she didn’t really see and he couldn’t tell if he was glad she didn’t or not. Mostly he wanted to be ignored, he wanted to disappear, but this time, with her, he wouldn’t mind being seen. 

“Hi,” she said with a disinterested shrug, before walking to the wall across from him and leaning against it.

The alley was narrow and they stood only a few feet apart. It felt too close, like they were invading each others' space. She tapped a heel of one foot into the toe of the other, her eyes on the grease-dotted ground. Jake watched her breathe in angry little huffs and thought that maybe they weren’t so different. The jokes he would’ve made, poor little rich girl, stuck in his throat. 

She lifted her head and looked him straight in the eye. “Parents really suck, you know?” 

He was pinned by her gaze. She searched his face, like she expected an answer, and that answer mattered. He had the sudden urge to tell her everything he knew about just how much parents sucked but he stopped himself and only nodded instead. “Yeah, I do.”

She reached up and pulled a band out of her hair. It fell loose and wild around her shoulders and Jake felt his fingers itch to touch it. He shoved his hands into his pockets and shifted his gaze to his feet.

“Hey,” she said, but he didn’t look up. 

Something small and soft hit him in the chest. He threw his hand out and caught it instinctively. Her hair tie. 

“You don’t go to Fremont do you?”

He shook his head, finally meeting her gaze. “Nope. I dropped out.” 

He expected to see something ugly in her eyes, disgust or pity, but it wasn’t there. Instead she looked wistful, maybe even sad. “You’re lucky.”

He didn’t know what to say to that but it didn’t matter. Before he could open his mouth a shout rang out from the parking lot. “Emma! Dammit, where are you?”

“Shit.” The girl jumped away from the wall. “I gotta go.”

And just like that she was walking away from him -- a breeze that passed through the alley on its way to somewhere else. 

She was halfway to the parking lot when he remembered the small black band in his hand. “Hey,” he called after her. “You forgot your hair thing.”

She shrugged, “Keep it.” And then she looked at him over her shoulder with just the hint of a smile, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”



It was the bruises that made Emma remember. The way they lined his arms in shades of purple, green, and yellow. She’d seen him before.


Something about the way he said her name made her heart beat faster. It was the mixture of surprise and hope. He was happy to see her. 

“What are you doing out here?” She asked, surprised that her voice was only a whisper.

The boy reached for the black band around his wrist. He slipped it off and held it out to her. A hair tie. “I think this belongs to you.”

Jake waited for her to reach up and pull the small band from his fingers, but she regarded it from a distance and made no move to claim it. Without knowing her at all, he knew what it felt like to have no claim on the world around you. Even on something so small and insignificant. He rolled the band over his wrist where it pinched his skin.

“It was a gift,” she said, adding, “something to remember me by when I’m famous.”

Jake felt a smile edging his lips. Her humor was honest and dark and he liked it. “I'm Jake.”

Light fell around Emma’s shoulders between pockets of shadow. Jake thought they looked like bruises on her pale skin, though he suspected her real bruises were buried far beneath.

“Do you know how deep these woods are?” He plucked the band at his wrist. The snap and sting providing a strange sort of comfort.

Without making a sound, she stood and turned away from the sharp rays of the sunset to peer into the darker places of the woods. “Deep enough.”


Emma traced an invisible path through the woods ahead, imagining what might lay beyond the darkest trees, imaging a place where glass didn’t shatter and where silence wasn't a thing to fear. She traced a second path and imagined a place where her muscles could relax. She traced a third path and imagined a place where sweet things tasted sweet and not like an apology crafted from refined sugar.

When she turned to find Jake, he too was lost in the woods. She wondered if her lips were as flat and pinched, if her eyes looked as heavy like some invisible thing were smothering her. She wanted to reach out and pull the smothering thing away from Jake’s face and suddenly, more than anything, she wanted to remove it from her own. All of her muscles shuddered beneath the weight of it.

Turning back to the woods, she saw a million paths. “I’m going,” she said, opening her eyes a little wider and experimenting with an expression that didn't make her mouth feel tight. “Are you?”


Jake’s eyes lingered on the curl of her lips as she spoke. They flashed in and out of a smile before settling back into a firm seal. He snapped the band again and frowned at the sun.

“Sun’s almost down. How will we get back?” He knew the answer, but asked anyway. It seemed like the sort of thing that should be asked.

Birds called softly overhead and Jake looked up, but they were all hidden between branches and needles. Emma heard them too and tilted her head back to search for them.

“Back to what?” She asked, stooping to fish in the dirt for another branch to dismember.

Jake watched the pieces begin to fall from her fingers. “Yes,” he said. “I’m going.”


Before either of them could choose, a white bird flew between them, coasting through the pine trunks as though drawn forward by a string.

Emma snatched up a handful of twigs and stepped off the path she’d jogged so many times. The ground was soft and quiet beneath layers of pine needles. She waited long enough to hear Jake fall in beside her and together they followed the trail of the white bird. It perched on a low branch just within sight and as they drew near, it leapt again into the air and charted their course.

They followed in the dwindling light and all the while, Emma snapped her twigs, letting the pieces fall behind them.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said when the bird had become difficult to see.

Jake reached out to squeeze her hand and she was grateful the sun was not there to reveal the flush of her cheeks.


The air was growing cool, but Jake felt warmth spilling up his arm. Before touching her hand, he had been concerned that they had no food or supplies, that they had made the sort of mistake they would both suffer for. But now he felt bold.

Still, Jake hoped the bird knew more than they did. But even far from home and lost, Jake couldn't help but think they were both in a better place. Together and quiet and cold was better than the alternative.

Just as the last light was fading, Jake smelled spice and mint. Again he reached for Emma and together they followed the scents to a place where light glowed warmly through thick glass windows, reflecting pink off of carved wooden shudders. The bird perched on top of the small cabin and sat preening its feathers after such a long flight.

The roof was black as licorice and front door white as snow. The molding was painted in a red and white swirling pattern than reminded Jake of peppermints. His stomach growled and he said, “It looks good enough to eat.”

“Are you coming?” Emma asked with a smile.

Photo used with permission by Matt Hill, aka Matt(ikus) on flickr

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