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.
Wednesday, Valerie will pick up the story where I left off.
Photo used with permission by Matt Hill, aka Matt(ikus) on flickr
Welcome to Tangled Fiction, where three YA writers collaborate to complete one story!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one TF writer will post a piece of the same story. Each of us will be responsible for one beginning, middle, and end in a single month. The fourth week will be full of surprises, we're sure, and we'll share them with you when we know what they are.