In my imagination, I see myself on that day. I wore new shorts in the perfect color of khaki, not too beige, not too brown. The leg hem flirted with the mole on my left thigh. My checkerboard Vans were scuffed from daily wear because that’s what all the other freshmen girls wore. I had on my orange Lipton Tea Lover t-shirt, but that didn’t matter. I wasn’t planning on seeing anyone from school.
I was on my way to my hideout tree, a stooped Monterey pine that bent over to hold me in its whiskery embrace. The tree was my invisibility cloak, tucked in a wild half acre next to a big old house. I don’t remember the reason why I wanted to go to the tree that day. Some squabble with my mom? A bad Social Studies grade? I should remember. I should remember everything about that day.
I wish I had a sweatshirt. Despite the sunshine, a cool breeze raises the hair on my arms, and it will be colder still at the tree. Overhead, a seagull squawks. Seagulls always look mean, staring at you and making their rusty-hinge cry. Like Gina at school, making fun of my fluffy kitten folder. The kitty looks just like Marmalade. I’m just teasing ya, she said, once she’d had everybody laughing mean seagull laughs at me. Can’t you take a joke?
And me, with tears stinging, my nose hot with snot. Hoping no one noticed. Why couldn’t I just laugh too, or even pretend to laugh? Why am I always so stupid?
The sidewalk ends, and I walk on the gravelly shoulder, the road heat ahead making everything wavy, like the trees and bushes are trying to wriggle away and hide.
For years I’ve walked down that road again and again, trying to rewrite what happened. But I can’t. I’m stuck circling. Watching myself as if from outside, my ponytail bobbing. My face dewy, smooth. My head lowered as my Vans crunch gravel.
Afterwards, too frightened and ashamed to tell, I’d sit in class hunched, stabbing a pencil into the pad of my thumb. I quit biology altogether. I avoided the school’s lawn because I gagged whenever I smelled the pines along its edge.
It was so silent that day, so still. Like the world took a huge breath before diving into deep, deep water.
A car roars up behind me and I scoot farther into the shoulder, where the dust kicks up and settles into the white on my Vans. The car, a burgundy four-door, rolls to a stop in front of me. I take smaller steps. I don’t want to catch up, but I don’t want to look afraid.
The strip of land with my hideout tree in it is just ahead. If the person in the car looks scary, I will run for it.
When the road is quiet, a boy climbs out of the driver’s seat. Jonas, the sort-of-cute junior from Biology class. Not a stranger, so it’s OK. In the sun, his brown hair has some red in it. Maybe he is more than sort of cute.
I watch myself as I get closer and closer to the burgundy car. His blue and yellow flannel shirt flapped in the wind, the shirt he put over my head and almost suffocated me with.
I was reassured because I had sat two rows behind him while we looked at skin cells through microscopes. Run, I tell myself at this point. Run. But I walk forward.
“Hey,” he says to me. “Caitlin, right?” His lips are too thin, too pink below the ghost of a mustache. Just sort of cute after all. But he knows my name. I wish I wasn’t wearing this stupid orange shirt.
“Hey,” I say, lowering my eyelids so maybe he won’t notice my frog eyes. He flashes white teeth and I move closer still. The sun warms my hair.
I smell the pines, sharp and sweet.
Ann Hillesland’s work has been published in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, Bayou, The Laurel Review, Corium, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, won the grand prize for prose in a Spark contest, and has been presented onstage by Stories On Stage. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte.
–Foreground Art by Claudio Parentela
–Background Art by Thomas H