content warning: suicidal ideation
- The animals scurry. Their hairs twitch against the coming storm. The pressure changes. The air heaves, and it is almost unnoticeable. Lorena’s skin feels it. Lorena does not. Underneath a tree, between the roots, the dirt is pulled out and tunneled. Quivering noses and their trembling bodies bury downward. She knows it is going to rain when her ankle and pinky finger ache. She’s broken both, and now, minutes before a downpour, she feels pain, or, more accurately, the reminder of pain, an echo of their shatter. She looks up at the sky, almost washed out with grey, and starts to run. She sprints over the brambles and fallen branches as the rain pushes down, finally. She is headed towards home, where her mother is waiting with a boiling pot and almost every part of the stew except the roots Lorena is bringing back, tucked against her skin under the sagging and soaked shirt. The rain pours. The brooks she leaps are roaring. In a moment, the sky will open and crack. The ground will reach for air and the white, hot flash of lightning will sear. The creatures know this. The hairs inside their ears stand up and they cower deeper. The insects’ spindled, centipedal legs make zig-zagged lines in the mud. The moles burrow. The squirrels jump from branch to branch, dripping wet. Lightning splits a tree in half only a few feet from her. She should scream. She feels the heat of it against her. She laughs instead, running a little faster, her feet making larger and larger splashes in the puddled ground. The oppressive weight of the rain is an invitation. The forest is hers. The animals are hiding from the rain, beaten back. The wilderness belongs to her. The harder it pours, the faster she runs. The storm and her race like two children. The rain slicks off her dress. She slips and tumbles. She laughs again, her pant legs cloaked in mud. The rain will wash it off. She comes to the edge of the forest. She skids like she’s at the edge of a cliff. The trees drop off and stop. They are sentries, tall guards at the edge of a kingdom. In the distance she can see her home. Her cottage. Where her mother is waiting. Where her brother is wheeling a toy car along the floor, and under the table, and through the legs of the three chairs. She turns back. The forest dances under the rain. Branches and leaves bend and bounce under the heavy downpour. Lorena looks out. The sky is noisy, but the forest is quiet. She could run back. Leave her quiet and too-empty house. She could learn to listen to the goosebumps on her skin. She could find a tree, thick with age, and dig between its proud roots. She could sink beneath the surface. She could pick at beetles and run down deer. She could cover her back in animal hide, and dance between the lightning bugs. It is right there. The emptied forest. Swaying arms open. The roots press against her stomach. She cradles them with one arm. The smoke rises from the chimney. She could go home. She could sniffle throughout the night, and shiver beside the fire. She could cool. The forest could kill her. The rain could kill her. A small spider underfoot could kill her. The lightning strikes again. This time back, farther from the edge. She waits to hear its thunder. Though things in her cottage could kill her too. Her brother could hit puberty and develop muscles and a sex drive, and a temper and kill her. A lot of men could kill her. Her prom date could kill her. Her mother could become old and senile with grief and forget which mushroom she is supposed to pick and they could spend three hours vomiting and then die. The rain could kill her at home. It could bring down a tree on top of them. It could form a sinkhole and swallow them. The loneliness could kill her. Though that would be slow. Life, the more she thinks about it, has no shortage of ways to kill you no matter where you are. Life is not so much the opposite of death as its home. So death and its many bodies will not help her. The thunder rattles the trees. The few birds too frozen to fly before the storm scatter now. Black tears in a grey sky. She does not want to be unhappy, but feels that unhappiness is an inevitability. She wants her father’s warm and large hands to hold her. The forest has a thousand hands. The forest will help her palms and fingers grow strong and calloused. She will strain against stone and bark and her hands will grow thick and twisted like tree stumps. Perhaps then she will be able to carry herself, she thinks. At home her hands will stay soft. They will be strong, sure, and perhaps her fingertips will harden, burnt like her mothers, but they will not be gnarled. They will not look strong. They will look delicate. She sees the lights of her cottage begin to glow against the darkening sky. The rain beats her hair down against her face and down her neck. The clouds swell. There is a howling from the forest. Then, a chorus of noise. Lorena turns to the forest and thinks she sees red eyes back behind the shadow of trees. She steps back twice. The back of her shoe hits a stone, and she tumbles over into a puddle. The roots fall from her shirt as she pushes herself up. She turns to run. Her hands are muddy and dark. But she stops. She looks back at the red eyes and takes a step towards them. Nothing changes. The trees hum and clatter. Lorena walks into the arboreal music, her skin buzzing with energy. The red eyes watch, then blink, then scurry away.
- Bass shakes the fogged car. Inside, William presses his body against Charlisse’s. Charlisse pushes her hips up into William. He shudders against the pressure. He fumbles, trying to press the seat back. He puts his hand up against the window and leaves a print on the sweat stained glass. They kiss. They make knots and loops with their tongues. It is fumbled and awkward, and William feels a deep insecurity and his arousal collide, head-first, horned bulls, inside him. Charlisse wraps around the small of William’s back. She slips a hand up the front of his shirt and plays with his chest hair, twirling the new strands around her fingers. William presses his face into hers, like he can slip inside her skin, like she can consume him, like he can become a passenger. After, William’s face burns red under the parking lot lights. After, they turn off the music and sit in the silence. “What do you think happened to your sister?” Charlisse asks, under the melody of crickets and frogs. William doesn’t answer. The closeness he felt is now a chasm. The question wedges in between them, screws into their sides and splits them apart. How long had it been on the tip of her tongue, he wonders. He doesn’t look at her, or see her face, or realize that she wants to be tight to him, that for her the question is a rope, a bind, and that this is what people who love each other do: whisper secrets in the dark. She doesn’t know that he has no answer. That he suspects she killed herself, but that once, when he was younger, he suggested this to his mom, who was still looking for her nightly, uploading pictures to websites and knocking on suspicious men’s doors, and she slapped him across the face and broke into tears. There is no way to really grieve, he knows, and they both ignore this moment. He breaks up with Charlisse the next school day, over a half frozen hamburger meat and tears. “You used me,” Charlisse says. William remains silent. When he goes home, he crawls into his bed. He plays opera on his turntable. He closes his eyes and tries to imagine what his sister would look like now. He imagines her taller. He pictures her with dyed hair and a spider web tattoo on her elbow. He tries to hear her laugh, but it keeps coming out as the soprano’s lilting voice. He smokes, blowing the scent out of the window over his bed, and waits to get high. He imagines her shoeless, ankle-deep in a river. She motions for him to come closer, but he can’t move. He is a statue, or limbless, the cracked torso of a forgotten Greek hero. He can’t see the details of her face. They are covered by mud and dirt. He can see her eyes, wide and blue and shining. She smiles behind the mud. Her yellow teeth don’t distract from the dimples that crack the dried mud. She smiles and makes words he can’t understand. She opens her arms, welcoming him. He wants to come to her but he can’t. He watches a deer kneel down in the river next to her and drink. He watches her muscular body twist and contort. He watches her grab the deer’s antlers and snap its neck. He hears the pop. The deer crumples. His sister kneels down and rips at its throat, then its stomach with her teeth. She tears into it and feasts. She turns and looks up at him, holding its fatty liver out, like an offering. She looks into his eyes, and is arresting. He cries in his bed, motionless behind his silent tears.
- The onion, carrot and celery are sliced thinly. The flat end of a knife slides them from the wood into the boiling broth. They splash and tumble. Lorena’s mother stirs the pot and watches three crows waddle through the uncut grass in her front yard. Yesterday a neighbor had come over and offered to cut it for her. He slipped and admitted that her lawn made the neighborhood look trashy, but he had, at least, tried to be nice. She thanked him, but told him she’d get to it soon and not to worry. The pot steams. She can smell her son’s marijuana from upstairs. Air bubbles race from the bottom of the cast-iron to the top, disappearing right at the surface of the water, losing their shapes and selves completely. They dredged the lake they thought she’d drowned in, where teenagers went and dared each other to jump off the rock faces. She’d gone night swimming by herself and drowned, they thought. Someone had seen her walking that way, twisting and turning through the woods. They didn’t find her body. They found tiny fish bones and bracelets and condoms. She stirs the soup. The broth sloshes up. The white insides of the pot rise and sink. She wants to go upstairs and ask Will for a hit, to make dinner taste more. They hadn’t found any of her clothes but they’d looked. She wants to put on the TV, or the radio, like her parents used to over the dinner table. She’d watch them stop and dance together when a slow song came on. They’d kiss softly as it ended, and smile at each other. She and her husband had never slow danced like that. They’d loved each other in spurts of passion and long slow years of pragmatism. They never slipped into complacency—she would come home to flowers once every few months. But there was a depth, an earth, that she sometimes felt missing even before he died. How far she was from a family. How weak she felt beside the one tie left, crumbling each day. She wants to put on the TV, but then she won’t hear the faint sound of Will’s music. That small, slipping noise, muted and faded, is all she has tying the two of them together right now. Outside the crows fight over a worm one of them found stranded above the dirt. They jump back and forth and spread their wings and caw until one of them gives up and launches in the sky. They weren’t closing the case, just putting it on the back-burner for a while. They were waiting for relevant and/or pertinent information to make itself available. She forgets where she is and leans her hand down onto the edge of the pot. It sears a bright red line across the side of her palm. She moves to the sink and runs it under cool water. They thought they had found her body but it was someone else’s, a hiker from out of state who had gone missing three days before her daughter. They dragged up the body from under a layer of fallen leaves. It was covered in mud and maggots and was unrecognizable. She worried it would give her nightmares, but it hasn’t. Instead, she dreams and watches Lorena pick the maggots of the dead body’s skin and chew them. She watches her swallow the insect protein. Lorena’s arms are lithe and taut. The muscles beneath them feather and ripple against her skin. Lorena looks strong and terrifying in all of her mother’s dreams. The skin swells up under the red mark on her hand. She has a sudden urge to dig into the skin with her kitchen knife. To cut out the affected area. To carve her way out of the hurt. She doesn’t. She knocks on William’s door and tells him that dinner is ready. Over their bowls of soup and the loaf of garlic bread in the middle of the table, she rubs her fingers over it and ignores his bloodshot eyes, deciding that tomorrow, she is going to steal her son’s weed and get so high she can’t see straight.
- William doesn’t even bother sneaking out. He just strolls past his mother, snoring and splayed on the couch, and the half rolled joints and burn marks on the glass table in front of her. He leaves the door open behind him. A cool wind meets the heat of their home.
- Mom wakes up to a black night sky and an open front door. She calls out for William. Her mouth is a desert. She is alone. The outside fills every recess of her home. She limps upstairs, her foot numb, pulsing with static. In her room, the bed is too large. She cannot sleep in it. She cradles at the edge, most of the sheets and blankets untouched, and rocks. She faces away from the center, over the side. The room is heavy with fresh and open air. There is no one here.
- William walks to the edge of the forest and screams. He tears his throat. He takes stones and throws them into the side of trees and watches the bark shatter off, and wishes he could strike a match and burn.
- Mom sees her husband in the open closet. He fills in a hanging suit, the grey he wore in winter. His legs fill the dangling slacks. Just for a moment she sees him.
- William walks to the edge and collapses. Overhead the sky churns over itself. Clouds fall and fold. The sky coalesces and brims. It sags with weight. William isn’t screaming anymore. He slides his back down the tree and looks back towards civilization.
- Her husband is gone. Her arms fall through the empty fabric. She coughs on the stirred up dust. She sits beneath the husk of him. She hugs his pant leg and cries.
- William will find a cliff and jump. He walks through the woods until he finds a precipice he is sure will kill him. There is melodrama and there is the singing, somewhere of his sister’s forgotten voice. He steps forward and closes his eyes. He feels the bloody arms of his sister wrap around his waist and knows he is ready to die. He is thrown back.
- Mom turns on the stove tops but doesn’t light them. She closes all the doors and windows and waits for her house to fill with gas. She holds William’s lighter, her hands like a prayer. Her husband’s ghost runs his hands up her spine. He turns through the cupboards. He folds laundry and his deep voice, soft and rasping, sings a soft song, and they finally slow dance in the kitchen, her head on his chest, waiting for each heartbeat. He looms over an empty crib. He laughs at Lorena’s jokes. He cradles William. He kisses her and leans his head against her neck. William is gone somewhere. William is gone, and he left her. She will call the police and they will tell her, in serious voices they will do everything they can to find him. They will mobilize and search. They will find a dead body crawling with rot that isn’t his. People will be sorry, but not that sorry. One missing child is a tragedy. Two is a punishment. She will skip their hollow sorries. She will skip the news interviews. She will skip everything and get right to the dying that comes when everyone in her life is gone. She closes her eyes. The rain falls down, heavy against the roof and the gutter, clamoring in a sudden burst for the ground.
- Lightning flashes and Lorena stands in the doorway. Her hair is matted and thick. Her mother looks up and sees her. She is silhouetted against the cracking lightning. Bright flashes light the gaunt edges of her frame. Her outline melts behind the street lights. The suburb is quiet. Houses glow against the storm, and families retreat to their living and bedrooms. They huddle, on instinct, for warmth. Lorena holds her hand out towards her mother. Mom shakily puts the lighters down. She takes small steps towards her daughter, waiting for her to vanish into a broom or a bird. She grabs Lorena’s hand. It is rough and knotted. It is like the side of an ancient tree. It feels like her father’s. Mom holds it lightly as Lorena leads her outside. Mom closes the door behind her. William is waiting on the lawn, petulant and wide-eyed. Lorena places wilderness in their throats, and they cannot speak. They follow her along the side of the house and towards the backyard. They walk towards the woods. They weave between houses and homes until they are at its precipice, and pause. They see rows of blinking red eyes. Lorena steps into the woods and turns back, right before the darkness and uncertainty swallow her. William and his mother hold hands. Far away, down the hill, their house is struck by lightning and erupts. It is enveloped in fire. Just behind the thin curtain of darkness and rain, Lorena waits for them. They cannot hear the music. Instead, they hear scuttling, murmuring—it is discordant, asynchronous, and chaotic. They cannot hear the music but Lorena can. The wilderness in their throats vines and weeds and weaves up into them. The moss moves over its stone, spreads and greens, its verdant limbs thin and many. The sky presses down one last time and stops. The gray hangs low, bowed. William and his mother walk to meet Lorena. The wilderness drags them to their knees. It spills out of their ears. Together, they crawl into the arboreal music.
Spencer Nitkey is a writer living in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Apex Magazine, Apparition Lit, Fusion Fragment, and others. You can find more about him and his writing on his website spencernitkey.com. You can also find him on twitter @Spencer_Nit.
photo by Tengyart (via unsplash)