“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.
Valerie's up on Monday with a new story!
Photo used with permission by Matt Hill, aka Matt(ikus) on flickr