Thirteen

Written By: Johanna Garth

Round bales of hay mounded the fields like unintentional art installations left by farmers. Log trucks thundered by as I pedaled my lonely bicycle. At the end of the road where pavement turned to gravel, trees and vines grew wild, poised to swallow the houses cowering in their shade. Sometimes I filled my bike basket with bouquets of Queen Anne’s lace gathered from the ditches. Their feathery white flowers supported by tough stems of pale green.

That summer I was always reading. Stephen King and Jean Auel mixed with the Fairy Books, hardbound in primary colors, crimson, blue, green and yellow. The first time I saw Mara, brown eyes outlined in coal, eyelids smeared with bright blue, she looked like something I’d imagined.

“You spend that much time alone and it makes you think weird shit,” she said when I told her I’d worried she was a figment of my imagination.

It was an easy thing for her to say. The youngest of eight siblings, she was the last in a long line of shared resources: space, clothing, attention. The stretches of empty time that made up my world before she appeared were unknown to her. Unintelligible.

My home was a shingled treehouse rising out of the evergreen forest, a remote haven for people who had different options but chose to reject them. Inside was stonework, walls of rough reclaimed wood and log beams. The front of the house was all glass, framing the view of the valley with its cattle, haymaking and paved road snaking far below.

It was a house that sprang from my parents’ imaginations and was birthed by their labor. Everything, they’d done themselves. Its walls contained secrets, bits and pieces from each of its three inhabitants like a soul jar.

“For posterity,” my father said when I poked treasures reclaimed from the woods into the bales of insulation. Feathers with soft brown whorls and stiff fingernail-like spines slid through the artificial cotton candy pink insulation, layered double thick to keep us warm in winter, cool in summer.

My mother dipped my palms in red paint and set me loose on the kitchen beams. Later, when my handprints were covered by siding reclaimed from the demolition of an old barn, I could picture them glowing underneath, red like the internal organs of the house.

“You’re like a fairy princess in one of them books you read,” Mara said the first time I invited her inside. Her eyes slid over my china dolls, assessed the handmade quilt on my bed.

She wore acid washed shorts and a tight t-shirt that showed off her nascent curves. Earrings, long and feathery, flashier than anything I could have hoped for, even if my father had let me pierce my ears.

We made sun tea in jars, leaving it to sweat on the wide wooden planks of the front porch. We turned cartwheels in the grass, tumbling down the sloping hill that spread out like an offering to the watchful spectre of my house. On the other side of the pole fence were cattle, lazy in the heat. They clumped under the copses of trees near the pond.

My skin was paler than Mara’s, a delicate white, like the underside of a mushroom – the kind purchased in a grocery store, not the exotic morels and chanterelles I hunted with my mother and her friends. That summer Mara and I wore nothing but swimsuit tops and shorts. We exposed as much of our skin as possible so it would turn brown, the color of glamour and movie stars from California.

The forest on the hill above my house stretched for acres, a dense canopy with underbrush and fallen trees.

“There,” said my father during a hike. “Did you see it?”

He pointed at a towering fir. Its weight was supported by the crook between branch and trunk of a neighboring spruce.

“What is it?” asked Mara, her excitement fluorescent on the dim forest floor.

“A Spotted Owl. They’re going extinct. Logging destroys their habitat. There it is again. See?”

Dark brown, with pale spots, almost invisible from its crevice in the fir. It looked over our heads, haughty like it held us responsible for the death of its brethren.

“Someday this will all be yours,” said my father. “You’ll be the steward of whatever happens next.” He looked at me, but I looked away, rolling my eyes.

Mara elbowed me and whispered. “You don’t got to be that way.”

Mara and I were separated by a five-minute walk up a dusty gravel lane where blackberry vines grew lush and sharp-edged over ditches still swampy from rain. The woods between us were a No Man’s Land where vines of glossy-leafed poison snaked around trees.

“Leaves of three, let them be,” said my mother. In the past, I ignored her warnings and paid for my heedlessness with sleepless nights, fingernails tearing at skin, a face swollen into elephantgirlitis. I’d learned to listen to her on the subject of poison oak, if nothing else.

Mara lived in a doublewide trailer plunked on a small plot of land carved from the hill of the forest. Inside, the television was always on. The air hung thick and smoke-filled like a nicotine campfire. Mara’s mother, Maureen, fed us hot dogs and hot pockets as though someone had challenged her to stick to a culinary theme of foods that contain the word ‘hot.’ For dessert we ate Twinkies and cupcakes shellacked in chocolate.

Mara’s brothers came and went at odd intervals, bringing beer and small children with them. They ranged from their early twenties through the indistinguishable years of their thirties. Their presence was so bountiful that I confused them, mixing up faces and names.

Jimmy came more often than the others. Skinny with glasses, he and Mara shared the same crooked smile. At dusk he would emerge from the trailer to claim one of the lawn chairs with frayed webbing. He drank beer from a can and watched us perform until the flat shelf of lawn was lit only by the occasional sparkle of blue death from an electric bug trap.

“Ten,” he’d say, holding up all ten fingers to praise my cartwheels and handsprings.

“You got some work to do,” he’d say when it was Mara’s turn, never giving her more than a seven.

One night, as I danced through the approaching nightfall, he caught me by the arm. “Did you know all the blood in your body is blue?” With his other hand he traced the delicate lines on the underside of my wrist like they were tributaries that led somewhere else.

“No it’s not.”

“See, you ain’t so smart after all.” He laughed and let me tumble away into the dark.

Maureen gave us an afghan to spread over the grass. At night we stared up at the stars, our backs separated from ants and dew by synthetic yarn. Mara’s wiry brown hair mixed with my soft auburn curls. Light and cigarette smoke seeped from the windows of the trailer.

“My brother says you’re gonna be a beauty.” I could hear the grin in Mara’s voice, the way she didn’t worry so much about her crooked teeth in the dark.

“Which brother?”

“Jimmy,” she nodded at the vinyl siding of the trailer where he’d disappeared.

“I’m not that pretty.” My vanity was as transparent as the skin at my wrists.

“Yeah you are. And smart too. That’s real rare to be both, but you don’t act stuck up about it or nothing.”

Beauty was a form of currency. To possess it was to be heard, acknowledged, and deemed more valuable than other less precious jewels. We searched for traces of it in the mirror, studying each other’s faces until they were as familiar as our own. We tallied up our assets and deficiencies like playing-cards that could be traded. The curve of her generous mouth, my high elfin cheekbones, her crooked teeth and my hair that refused to be tamed no matter how much Aqua Net we sprayed on it.

In Mara’s trailer we watched “Three’s Company.” “Family Ties.” “The Cosby Show.” When those weren’t on we watched cartoons. Little blue Smurfs running from Gargamel. My parents chose not to own a T.V. I was in a hurry to make up for what I’d missed.

“You can get you some Kool-Aid in the fridge if you want,” Maureen would say if she was in a good mood. Those were the days when she’d shuffle around the small kitchen in a tent-like gown. Her ankles indistinguishable from her calves, thick and pale in a way that made me avert my eyes.

On other days, Maureen wouldn’t acknowledge us at all. We’d tiptoe past where she sat, eyes half-closed in her recliner. Giggling Smurfs to her surly Gargamel. We’d hide behind the closed door of Mara’s cramped bedroom. It had bunk beds and a bureau that was missing a drawer. Dirty laundry mixed with clean, spilling across the bottom bunk and down onto the floor.

“Leftovers from Shannon,” Mara said when I asked about the bunk bed. Shannon was the sister closest in age to Mara. “She went to Texas. Joined the army.”

In the living room, on top of the television, was a framed photo of Shannon. Her hair was wiry like Mara’s, blonde instead of brown. In the picture she stood stiff in her uniform, looking tough. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how she got that way.

On Maureen’s bad days, Mara would call Jimmy. “She’s in a real mood,” she’d whisper into the phone. “Can you come out?”

Jimmy’s arrival shook Maureen out of her recliner. She’d find the energy to walk to the kitchen and cluck over dishes piled on the counter, sticky and condiment-smeared.

“Mara ain’t no help at all,” she complained to Jimmy. “Always running through the woods with her little friend.”

Jimmy sat on the couch with a case of beer. He handed them to Maureen, one by one, until the coffee table disappeared under a sludge of beer cans and overflowing ashtrays. As the light faded, their skin turned gray, lit by the flicker of the television. We waited until Maureen left the room before we skulked for the door.

“Mara, you gotta do a better job of helping out around here. This place is turning into a real shithole.” Jimmy grabbed the remote, clicking through the channels.

Mara didn’t say anything. The thick air made it hard to breathe.

“Goddammit, Jimmy,” Maureen returned from the dark unexplored region of her bedroom. “You knew I was watching that show. Why’d you go and change the channel?”

“Didn’t touch it, Ma.” His crooked grin landed on me, making us both complicit in his lie.

Together, Mara and I explored the creek that meandered along the boundary of my parents’ land. Its bed was switchback. Each turn revealed something new. A winter storm had pulled down a tree to form both bridge and barrier across the water, creating a swimming hole on its upstream side. The tree was wide enough for us to spread our towels on top, sunbathe.

“Let’s be naked mermaids,” I said as we stared down at the pool of water, dark and unknowable.

We stripped off our swimsuits. Our nudity made us feel brave—like we’d accepted a dare. In the water I showed Mara how to press her legs tightly together, to splash her faux tail hard on the surface of the water as she dived underneath.

“That’s the way real mermaids swim.” She followed my instructions without questioning how I came by my knowledge.

Birds spied on us while we stretched naked on our towels and pooled our snacks. My homemade carob chip cookies mixed with her Cheetos. We licked artificial cheese from our fingertips and didn’t care that it had the aftertaste of creek water. The dying moss under our towels cushioned the sharp bones of our hips. We told each other secrets and our bodies tanned without lines.

The boundaries between Mara’s world and mine faded. She slept at my house and I slept at hers. When we were too tired to talk, we held hands in the dark. One squeeze for ‘Are you still awake?’ Two squeezes for ‘Yes.’

Her parents often left us alone. Queens of her doublewide castle, we scavenged for dinner, subsisting on packaged meats and bags of chips. We drank her parents’ vodka out of plastic cups decorated with a large crescent moon sporting sunglasses. He grinned over a city skyline. Underneath, were the words, “Mac Tonight.”

“Matching set,” Mara said and touched her cup to mine.

We watched movies to educate ourselves about sex. I thought I knew all about naked bodies. There was a nudist hot spring near Eugene that I’d hiked to throughout childhood. It presented me with a wide array of drooping flesh that I’d learned to ignore in lieu of more interesting things. An agate embedded in stone covered by moss. Ants cannibalizing the carcass of a dragonfly. A remnant of bird’s egg left over from spring, the same color as the Oregon sky in August.

“Reproduction is all around you,” my mother liked to say. “You live on a farm. Go watch the cows.”

The movies available at Mara’s house illuminated the gaps in my mother’s teaching philosophy. This version of naked flesh was not to be ignored. It seized my attention, held it tight by the throat. Sometimes I’d make Mara turn them off.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“I want to imagine the romance. The way they fall in love,” I told her, drunk and dramatic on vodka.

She indulged me in the same way she indulged my other whims. We climbed to her top bunk to lie face to face in the dank air, earthy with the smell of unclean sheets.

“Do you wonder what your first boyfriend will be like?” she asked.

“He’ll be the kind of man who knows me better than I know myself. He’ll love me for my soul.”

“Love don’t always work like that.”

Hand in hand, our system of squeezes gave way to sleep. Two bodies squished together on her top bunk, stuck somewhere between the planes of girlhood and the curves of women.

My grandparents came to visit from California. There had been years when I didn’t see them, but by that time they were coming every summer. We’d visited Los Angeles once when I was little then never again. There was glamour everywhere. The stop and go traffic, the freeways with their bright billboard signs, the constant promise of Disneyland and the buffet breakfasts with unlimited ice cream.

At my grandparents’ house there were palm trees and sidewalks. Each morning my grandfather took me outside to collect exotic fruit from the back yard; avocados, lemons and oranges. The air was fragrant from the red flowers that climbed over an arbor scattering petal soft debris over the spongy grass.

“I feel like I can breathe again,” my father said when we reached the Oregon border.

“Doesn’t it feel good to be home?” my mother asked.

“Yes,” I said, but I knew I was a traitor. Already I longed for the feel of grass made thick by nighttime irrigation. The bright taste of oranges cut into slices and fed to me one by one.

My grandmother took us shopping in Salem. “Three generations of beauties,” she said pushing her food around on her plate without eating it. My grandmother had a facelift. I knew this because my father described the process.

“They take the skin of your neck and sew it up behind your ears.”

“That’s disgusting,” I said with a shudder.

“I agree. It’s much better to age naturally,” he told me. “Don’t try to be something you’re not.”

My grandmother did most of the talking, squeezing a year’s worth of declarations into a single meal.

“You should come spend the summer in L.A! You could be a real California girl. Your cousins would love that!”

“She’s not a California girl.” My mother’s voice had a soft edge. “She’s an Oregon girl, remember? Born and raised.”

“Oh, I remember.” The facelift left my grandmother’s skin tight and smooth in a way that obscured emotion.

My grandmother paid for our lunch with a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. “Let’s get you a swimsuit just like the girls wear down South.”

We found one that was pink, with ruffles that accentuated my chest.

“So cute. Just like something your cousins would choose!”

“Thirty-five dollars?” said my mother, turning over the tag that hung from my hip. “That seems excessive.”

“Let me spoil her. I hardly ever get the chance.” My grandmother pushed two twenty dollar bills into my slightly damp palm. “Go on. Go get it.”

My mother rolled her eyes like a teenager. “Go ahead,” she said.

“You make such beautiful babies. Why don’t you have one more?”

My mother shook her long hair. “Over population. We want to conserve resources.”

This time it was my grandmother who rolled her eyes.

We left the store, my grandmother holding my hand tight like I was a child. I took advantage of the moment to study the diamond rings pushed onto her gnarled fingers. Like thoughts of California, they glistened with bright and foreign promise.

*

“Ask your Mom if you can come up to the river. Jimmy and Billy said they’ll take us.”

Mara’s voice was loud in my ear. In the background I could hear the television and behind that the din of multiple voices. I imagined the dark interior of the double wide, blankets hung over windows to block out the sun.

In the kitchen my mother set freshly washed Ball jars in rows on the counter to drain. On the other side of the sink was a crate of apricots, their flesh warm, pliable and scented from the sun. By afternoon the kitchen would be humid with the sensuous smell of cooking fruit. Jars with apricots floating like embryos of summer, popping softly as they sealed. In the short, dark days of February they would taste like a promise that sunlight hadn’t abandoned us forever.

“Can I go swimming with Mara?” I asked.

“At the creek?”

“Her brothers said they’d take us to a river near Quartzville”

She hesitated.

“Please Mom,” I begged, interpreting the direction of her hesitation. “It’s Mara’s brothers. They’re all really old. Like in their twenties or something. Billy even has a kid. It’ll be fine!”

“What time will you be home?” she asked, because the parenting books she read told her to pick her battles.

Billy was waiting behind the wheel of a faded blue sedan. Cigarette in one hand, elbow propped on the open window. A dent ran along the driver’s side like a scar. He wore a loose t-shirt and baggy shorts, the costume of fathers everywhere. In contrast to my father, Mara’s brothers were nonchalant about their parental status. They didn’t lecture us on environmental responsibility or politics. In fact, they were chary with their words as though language was the limited resource that worried them most.

The car rattled down the gravel lane, picking up speed on the two lane road. We rode with the windows down. My hair whipped in a way I imagined was sexy. When glimpsed in the rear view mirror, I saw it was messy and tangled, like reality.

“Hey princess, what grade you in again?” Jimmy asked twisting around to face the backseat.

“Same as Mara. Starting high school.”  My stomach executed a flip flop of anticipatory nerves.

“Freshman year,” Jimmy said. He caressed the words, stretching his arms overhead. Dark hair poked out from the cut-off sleeves of his t-shirt and I looked away like I’d seen something I shouldn’t. “All the boys are gonna wanna take you out.”

“Thanks,” I said, even though his words didn’t feel quite like a compliment.

The mountain highway was a narrow switchback. Trees grew dense and close to the road, dark green like the color of money. That’s what the people who worked in the mills saw when they looked at the forest. My parents lectured me on the shortsighted fallacy of that thinking. Trees were clean air, habitat for animals, the future of our world.

No one asked me, but if they had, I would have told them the forest was ominous, a silent observer to survival of the fittest. It was the dark place that hid darker secrets.

“They used to mine for gold up in Quartzville,” Billy told us. “Real boom town, but now there ain’t nothing much left up there.”

“No different than anything else. They still cutting shifts at the mill?” Jimmy asked

“You guys want some cookies?” Mara tore open a bag of animal cookies frosted in pink and white.

“Mara, your fat ass don’t need no more cookies,” Jimmy said.

“Maybe we’ll find a rock with gold.” Mara’s voice was dreamy as though Jimmy hadn’t spoken. “Remember that time Shannon found one that glittered all over?”

“Yep, maybe you’ll get lucky like Shannon,” Billy said.

The river was a short hike through dense forest. Trees opened up to frame a sheer cliff. Water poured over jagged rocks in a twenty-foot freefall. From above we could see the bottom of the pool, its colors striated by layers of gold and mineral red. Water so clear it seemed shallow.

“Deep enough to jump.” Jimmy stripped off his shirt and leapt off the edge of the cliff. He reemerged, treading water and shouted, “What? I’m the only one with balls enough to jump in?”

“C’mon,” said Mara and I scrambled after her down a narrow path that led to a flat spread of quartz that formed a rocky beach.

Jimmy hoisted himself up on one of the underwater ledges then splashed out of the water.

“Fuck that’s cold,” he said shaking himself like a dog. One of the droplets landed on my leg, a pinprick of ice before it warmed to skin temperature.

“Snowmelt,” said Billy.

Mara and I braved the water to the depth of our knees. Large fish undulated at arm’s distance like mythical creatures of the mountain. I reached for one, but it was deeper than it looked.

“I have to get out. My feet ache,” I said

“Give it another minute. Once you get numb it don’t hurt no more.”

“How’s this for cold?” Jimmy crept up behind us to press cans of beer, straight from the ice chest against the exposed skin of our lower backs. We screamed and splashed back to the safety of our towels.

“What? I was just bringing you some beer,” he said feigning confusion as his denim cut-offs shed small rivers of water down his legs.

“Thanks.” I reached for the can of Budweiser, but he pulled it away.

“What you gonna give me in return?”

“Shut up, Jimmy,” Mara said bouncing to her feet.

“Whatever you say,” he said with a ferrety smile. When she took the beer he grabbed a handful of flesh at her stomach and twisted hard.

By unspoken agreement, we ignored the red mark his fingers left behind. The sun burned away the memory of the water. The beer clouded our memory of its cost. One beer became two. We pulled them from the ice chest without asking for permission.

Mara’s hand found mine, sleepy on the towel. One squeeze. I squeezed two times in return.

“Let’s jump in,” she said, her voice slurred with heat and alcohol.

The rock cliff shimmered in the sun with wordless invitation. We climbed to the top, barefoot and avoiding pebbles. Our skin was already red over the carefully built base of brown. On top of the cliff the pink ruffles of my California style swimsuit fluttered in the breeze. My muscles felt liquid and golden. I was beautiful. Filled with power. We both were.

“On the count of three,” I said intertwining my fingers with Mara’s.

“You ain’t scared?” she asked, looking down.

“Not at all,” I said and she laughed.

We jumped, falling at separate speeds, torn apart by individual velocity. The shock of cold was less with my body numbed from the inside out.

I came up laughing, but heavy hands on my shoulders pushed me back down. Ripped at the band of fabric over my chest, squeezing hard on unprotected flesh. Legs in cut-offs churned the water in front of me. The same hand groped underneath my bikini bottoms. Fingers with dirty half- moons pushed and twisted inside my body. My lungs burned. All I could think about was air; the hierarchy for survival clearer than that icy water.

Then he let me go and I came up gasping. I took flight, swimming away like a fish quicksilvering its way back into a mountain stream. Catch and release.

Behind me Mara was screaming, but I couldn’t understand the words. There was the sound of flesh hitting flesh. A solid thunk like fruit when it breaks open. I didn’t look back. I knew a better person would have turned around, but I wasn’t that person.

I sat shivering on my towel. Knees pulled up tight to my chest, heart thudding as I watched them stumble out. Jimmy walked past like I was invisible. Mara followed. A slick of blood drained from her nose. There was a cut on her lip. She sat down without looking at me. I studied the hairs on my knees bleached blonde from the sun. The skin on my shoulders was tight and hot. I knew it was the kind of burn that would peel.

Billy came over and handed a can of beer to Mara. “You okay?”

She nodded without speaking. She’d wiped the blood from her face with her towel. The palm of one hand was pressed against her nostril.

“Put that on your lip. It’ll keep the swelling down.” To me, he said nothing.

I felt blame settle in my stomach, hot and scalding as my sunburn. I wanted to play the day backwards, rewind it to the moment on the ledge when we’d been so powerful. But I didn’t know how.

In the backseat of the car, the frosted animal cookies had melted in the heat.

“They ain’t no good like that,” Mara said; her voice a mournful complaint.

“Fuck ‘em then.” I tossed them out the open window, wrapping and all.

The car sped away. Tires churning up dust. We left our litter behind like a desecration. Proof that we were there.

Mara and I stared out the open windows of the backseat. Dazed by heat, alcohol and sudden violence. The car crept along, stuck behind a long line of others winding their way down the mountain. From the front came the pop and hiss of beer cans as they opened.

“Goddamn it!” said Billy and punched the dashboard.

With a violent motion he jerked the steering wheel to the right. The car tilted, wheels spinning on the gravel shoulder. We passed the line of cars, flying free and fast around curves. In our wake were angry shouts and honking horns.

When there was nothing in front of us but road, Billy pushed hard on the gas. The speedometer edged to fifty, then sixty, around hairpin curves with signs of yellow caution marked twenty-five. I slid across the backseat, unbelted and unafraid.

“Faster,” I screamed and Billy complied. I was numb. There were parts of me that would never thaw.

“Aw yeah,” yelled Jimmy thumping a rhythm on the dash board.

I ignored those hands, not wanting to think about where they’d been. Falsely brave, searching for my stolen power, I held my arms up in the air like we were on a roller coaster. The speed filled my head. There was no space to think about anything else.

“Stop! Billy, stop!!” Mara screamed until her voice grew raw, but we ignored her, each of us letting our own desires drown out her cries.

When the rear tires lost their grip on the road, the car fishtailed. We skidded to a stop. Inches from a guard rail. Beyond it lay death. Mara’s body was pinned against mine.

“I hate you.” Mara pounded her fists against the back of Jimmy’s seat. “Both of you. I hate you so much.”

“Aww, Mara, I’m sorry,” Billy laughed. “You get a little scared?”

“I’m telling Ma when we get home. She’ll kick your ass.” She tried to sound tough, but only sounded broken.

I caught a glimpse of us in the rear view mirror. Two little girls with messy hair and dirty swimsuits, our legs sticking to the vinyl backseat. We amounted to nothing. Nothing at all.

That evening, locked behind the safety of my bedroom door, I stripped off my pink swimsuit and kicked it into a corner. I studied my naked body in the mirror and wondered why it had betrayed me and how much time would pass before it betrayed me again.

*

Cheerleading practice started in August. My mother drove me to a park in town where the grass was brown and the leaves on the oak trees were tinged with yellow and red. The older cheerleaders taught us chants and dances like tribal rituals. Then they sat, languid on top of wooden picnic tables, drinking Diet Coke. They assessed us, their faces hovering between disinterest and suspicion.

“Come with me,” I said to Mara. “It’ll be fun. You can watch then try out next year.”

“Nah, they won’t like me, I’m not like you.”

“You are,” I said because I wanted it to be true.

Danni was the captain of our squad. Tall with an adorably turned-up nose. We all wanted her to like us.

“Who’s that?” she asked spying Mara loitering at a safe distance.

“My neighbor.” I realized how I’d already downgraded her. “She’s thinking of trying out next year.”

“Hmm.”

I looked again and saw Mara through Danni’s eyes. Too-tight clothes paired with dirty sneakers. Angry acne covered her forehead. Wiry hair that would never bounce like ours.

We clapped and stomped on the dry August grass, building pyramids and practicing jumps. Our enthusiasm was more about being chosen for the squad than an inherent love of sports. We moved like a phalanx, as though we had innate knowledge of what lay in wait for those separated from the herd.

Our power was preapproved, a credit line of beauty provided by uniforms in red and white with stiff pleats of polyester. Skirts so short we couldn’t feel them on our legs when we walked. We pretended to hate them the same way we pretended to think we were fat. We didn’t yet understand how pretending to believe things could make them come true.

By the end of practice Mara had gravitated to the far corner of the park. Separated from the safety of our flock. She courted danger under a tree with two unfamiliar boys.

“Is your friend, like, a stoner or something?” asked Danni following my gaze.

“I don’t know. She’s actually just a neighbor.”

Afterwards, there was no more discussion of her trying out for cheerleading. Mara and I picked up where we left off, but our wood nymph games in the forest were marked by bouts of exhaustion. The late summer heat and our transformative state left us fatigued in a way that made movement unwelcome. We threw our bodies down on anything that would support us. Logs, the grass, my bed; there was a liquid elasticity to our limbs. Our bodies felt fused as though we were one person. At night, I imagined grafting Mara into my life where she would thrive like a hardy species transplanted at the perfect moment.

“You think we’ll still be friends this year?” she asked me.

We were lying in the hammock strung between the big firs in my yard. The rope pressed patterns into our skin. I held her foot in my hand and marveled at the delicacy of its high arch.

“Of course. We’ll always be friends.”

She laughed like she knew better but didn’t pull away when I draped my leg over her body, like a promise was something I could seal with my flesh.

When school started I was seldom apart from the other cheerleaders, a togetherness forced by practice times and game schedules. None of us complained. We flounced through the halls. Our uniforms commoditized us, announced our value. In those outfits, we knew we were in control, and we stuck together so no one could steal our worth.

Mara came for dinner on my fourteenth birthday, but our friendship had already faded like our dark summer tans. She wore a t-shirt cut high to reveal her stomach. The words ‘Glamour Girl’ were written in script across her chest.

“Slutty,” is how Danni would have described that t-shirt.

After dinner we went to my room as always, birds returning to roost, but the landscape of our nesting place felt different. Instead of flopping on my bed, we sat on the floor. The physical distance between us was like a foreign language.

“You could ride with me to school in the morning if you want,” I offered.

She shrugged. “I made some friends on the bus. They’re pretty cool.”

I nodded and we were silent.

“I got you something,” she said. “It’s downstairs.”

She returned with an awkward bundle of tissue paper and tape. Inside was a t-shirt, the twin to hers. On mine the word ‘Princess’ was substituted for ‘Glamour Girl’.

“I was thinking we could wear them on the same day or something.” Her grin was the unselfconscious one she smiled when she wasn’t worried people would see her teeth.

“Yeah, that would be fun.” When she left I buried the t-shirt in a dark corner of my closet next to the abandoned pink swimsuit.

Mostly, Mara faded from my life, but I caught glimpses of her in odd places. Behind the school where the buses unloaded, or loitering near the 7Eleven that served the Slurpees we drank with impunity because they were fat free.

“Stoner City,” said Danni.

“Hi Mara!!” I said whenever our paths crossed, stretching her name out as though my exuberance made up for everything else.

She smiled at me the way you indulge a small child. We let go of each other slowly, then all at once, each of us drowning in the water of our social pools.

In May, Mara appeared at my locker like a washed-out memory.

“I need to talk to you.” She stared at her Keds. They were scuffed with a small tear in one toe.

I followed her to the student union where we sat on metal chairs with hard seats colored in red or blue. At lunchtime, it was a room filled with girls who didn’t eat and boys who ate everything, but in the quiet chill of morning it was empty. Its emptiness made me equal parts grateful and guilty for feeling that way.

We sat on opposite sides of a brown table with whorls designed to mimic wood. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick and painted a chipped shade of glittery purple that echoed her false bravado. For a moment I wondered if we could recreate what we had before, like a seasonal friendship espaliered to bear summer fruit.

“It’s good to see you,” I said and even though I meant it, it sounded false.

“I need to tell you something,” she said without looking up.

“Okay.” I smiled for the last time that day and for a long time after that.

“It’s Jimmy,” she said. Her bitten fingernails traced the table pattern.

“Jimmy?”

The name evoked a ferret smile, hands holding me under ice water and the terrible stringiness of his muscles. Everything faded; no high school, no cheerleading squad, no separation. It was just the two of us. We were naked mermaids and he was the hunter. Already, some part of me knew. But I was the one who wasn’t brave enough to look back. I refused to believe it, in the same way I refused to acknowledge the danger of driving fast around those zigzag corners, drunk on a mountain road.

“Mara, what happened?”

“It don’t make no difference. He did the same thing to Shannon. Only it was worse for her because he was still living at home.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“You know.” She shrugged like it didn’t matter. She always knew more than she let on, protecting me from the heaviness of her knowledge. I needed her to say it. Otherwise it would be one more story told by implication, fairy tale monsters lurking at the edge of our lives.

“He made me do things with him.” Her voice was thick, words choked out. “You know, like sex and stuff.”

“He made you have sex with him?” Tears slicked my cheeks, but her eyes were dry.

“It was lots worse for Shannon.”

“He shouldn’t do that. He can’t do that.”

But we both knew he could.

“Don’t tell no one. Promise. No one at all.”

“I won’t,” I said, but my words were almost indistinguishable through my tears.

The bell rang, calling us out of one world and into another.

She hugged me, “Don’t cry,” she said, still protecting me from the predator with his greedy hands. “It wasn’t that bad. Honest. He was lots worse to Shannon.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. Then I said it over and over because there were no better words. Ones that would fix what had happened didn’t exist.

“If I get one more tardy I’ll get detention.” Mara turned to go. Her voice was light. “Remember, you promised. Don’t tell no one.”

Instead of going to class I went to the girl’s bathroom where I hid behind a locked stall.

“It don’t hurt once you go numb,” is what Mara told me when we waded into the snowmelt that flowed out of an abandoned mining town. I waited there until her words came true. Once I was vacuum-packed, sealed in ice, I called my mother from the office.

“I’m sick.” The numbness had crept into my vocal cords, flattening out their edges.

The road home was dotted with small trailers like Mara’s. The forest loomed over them, filled with the terrible secrets I’d always suspected. I closed my eyes and pressed my cheek against the window. I pictured the smooth sidewalks of California, houses decorated with fruit trees and promise.

At home I sat at the big wooden table in the kitchen. Out the window were mountains, evergreen trees and the pond that migrating geese treated like a roadside motel. They could fly away, but I was trapped.

“You okay?” my mother asked.

Despite my promises, I carried Mara’s secret for less than a day. The words tumbled out. As I spoke them I could feel sensation return to my fingers and toes, even though some part of me was ready to sacrifice them to permanent frostbite.

“I’m sorry that happened to her.” My mother’s words were oddly formal, as if Mara and I were separated by a vast distance. She didn’t understand our differences were membrane thin, water-soluble.

“This never would have happened if you hadn’t moved to Oregon,” I said because I wanted her to hurt as much as I did.

She shook her head, lips pressed together tight. “I’m so sorry about what happened to your friend, but this kind of thing happens everywhere. Even in California.”

“No it doesn’t! It doesn’t happen in California. You should never have left. If we were there I’d have cousins and family. Instead all I have is you.” The last word was filled with disgust.

My mother went to the phone book and returned with a scrap of paper. “If you really want to help her, here’s a number you can call.”

“But I can’t tell anyone else. I promised.”

“Life is full of hard choices.”

She left me with the phone number, slamming the back door on her way out.

My bedroom was a fortress. Outside, the sky was as grey and cold as my skin. When I closed my eyes I heard the sound of Jimmy’s hand as it broke open her face. She put her body between mine and his, and I abandoned her for the safety of cleaner, prettier girls whose hearts weren’t as big.

My hands shook as I broke my promise a second time.

“Speak up, hon,” said the woman on the phone. “I know this isn’t easy, but it’s better if you tell me exactly what she told you.”

I divulged it all. My body was damp like I’d been swimming. When it was over, I felt sick.

“I promised her I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“Some secrets aren’t meant to be kept. You did the right thing.”

The next day Mara was absent from school.

She was absent all the days after that too.

“You’ll see, one of these days you’ll hear from her,” my mother promised, but I didn’t believe her. My soulmate didn’t wait for me in California. Beauty was a false power. And promises were easily made, easily broken.

That summer, sleep evaded me. At night when the rest of the house was silent, I tiptoed down the stairs and let myself outside. Even in the dark, the forest was as familiar as the swell of my calf or the small scar I inflicted on the back of my wrist after Mara was gone.

The summer before, Mara and I discovered an enormous fallen tree deep in the forest. Baby trees grew around its body.

“Owl habitat,” Mara said.

“They’re going extinct,” I replied and we laughed for no reason other than that we were thirteen.

On the nights I couldn’t sleep, I followed a half-hidden trail to that tree. I climbed on top and thought about how our friendship was more ephemeral than the survival of those owls. I remembered the dark forest spirits and their evil eyes. With my arms spread wide, I dared those monsters to come and devour me whole. I wanted them to choke on my broken heart. But they saw through me. They left me alone, out of fear, or respect, or because their appetites had already been sated by the theft of someone else’s body.

Johanna Garth

Johanna Garth is a novelist and essayist. Author of, Losing Beauty, and, Losing Hope, her most recent essay appears in The Soapbox Review. Her newest novel, WishWorld, is slated to go out on submission in 2016.

Before writing, she practiced law with a New York City law firm. She now lives in McLean, Virginia with her husband and two children.

She is represented by Emily Sylvan Kim of The Prospect Agency.

You can follow her on either Twitter or Instagram @JohannaGarth.