Friday, March 28th, 2016:
Sirens blared through the streets. Helicopters whizzed overhead, blades droning. ‘Missing’ signs being put up everywhere, search teams calling out names in vain. An announcement played on the loudspeakers on repeat.
“Thursday, March 27, 2016 9:15pm… Two boys missing after swimming in the Cavet River near Duney Park this evening. They were swept up in the raging current. One is a strong swimmer, but the other is not. Friends report that they saw the two boys sitting and talking alone in the park moments before the boys abruptly entered the waters. Coast Guard and Police systems in the surrounding states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have been alerted and are on the watch for any sign. If you find anything that could lead us to the boys, contact 311 immediately.”
The loudspeakers crackled irritatingly, then the principal’s scratchy voice, thick with static, sounded. “I know this is hard on everyone. All students are dismissed from classes for the rest of the day.”
I shoved back my chair, grabbed my bag, and ran down the stairs. The kids around me looked just as confused. My pulse beat fast in my ears as I surged through the growing crowd surrounding the building. Stepping outside, the world was eerily quiet, as if frozen in time. Dodging a wailing police car as I ran, I silently prayed that this world was just a nightmare, feet slapping the cement in time with the pounding of my racing heart.
Monday, September 5th 2015:
School started today. I had music first thing in the morning, which felt like a knife in the gut. Music, in my opinion, was chaotic and pointless, and starting school off on my worst subject was definitely social doom. My schedule told me it would be in room 309, which was right next to room 311. As I arrived at the class I could hear a horrific screeching which I assumed to be a violin or flute in 311.
Class started at 8:30, but it was only 8:20, so I found an empty seat near the back of the class. I took out a piece of peppermint gum, popped it into my mouth, and began to blow loud bubbles. Over years of observing my classmates’ behavior, I had learned that if any other kid took out a piece of gum, every kid in the class would want some. But of course, being myself, no one bothered to ask.
When the teacher entered the room a few minutes later, my gum already tasted like sucking on a metal pole. The teacher had a brown mustache with two little curls on the end, the type that you assume took some careful trimming to grow. He had square glasses with thick white frames that couldn’t possibly aid his sight at all. He was sporting brown corduroy pants with identical straps hanging from his shoulders, on which he was wearing a white collared shirt and a green checkered tie. He looked a bit more like a large, shaggy Austrian shepherd than a music teacher. He set a case down on his desk and cleared his throat.
“Good morning class, as many of you know I am Dr. Fern.” He cleared his throat with a shocking explosion of phlegm, and many students politely looked away.
A few braver, or just more thoughtless pupils exclaimed in disgust, and I think I was the only one who noticed as Dr. Fern’s shoulders and moustache drooped slightly in synchrony.
He continued on with disheartened gusto, “I will be your new music teacher. Mhm, I do recognize a few of you from elementary school. But since we’ve got some new faces, let’s do an icebreaker!”
He started like any other teacher on the first day of school, playing a name game of sorts. He got down the alphabet to Claire, Declan, and Dianne just as the door flung open to reveal a panting boy with messy hair and bright red sneakers, steadying a pile of books, pencils, and papers with his chin.
I rushed into the room two minutes late. Everyone turned to stare, and my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. I slinked towards the back and took the only remaining seat, which creaked quietly as I flopped into it.
My neighbor glanced nonchalantly at me, blew a gum bubble in my face, and turned away, disinterested. I got my books set up on my desk, only to realize I had forgotten a pencil. I flushed again, but turned to the boy next to me. Before I could even ask, he slid a pencil towards me. I was a little creeped out, but impressed.
“Hey, I’m Russell. What’s your name?” I asked.
“Owen. Now hush,” he hissed back.
“Oh… ok… hey, you’re really good at blowing bubbles. Can I have some gum too?”
“Sure. Fine, whatever. Just be quiet,” he replied, but as he handed me the stick of gum, I saw a small smile around the corners of his mouth, and a slight blush that matched the one I had worn earlier.
As I walked out of the class my stomach lurched. I doubt people are usually that nervous about tests, but they really get to me. Especially considering I had no clue what the test was going to be on.
I looked up as Russell passed me leaving the classroom, almost bumping into me, as I doubted he could see over his teetering stack of books. I hated to admit it, but he had seemed to understand what the teacher was talking about. Maybe he could help.
“Russell, wait!” I said. He turned.
“Yeah?” He asked. I stood blankly trying to figure out how to say it without sounding dumb.
“Do you know what the test is going to be on? I didn’t get what we had to learn….”
He looked at me, confused. “Uh, yeah, you don’t? It was a puzzle, like he hid the information. Here, once I realized I started recording it. I kinda remember the stuff he said before I started, or I can at least try to piece it together. You can help if you want. What’s your number? I’ll send it to you.”
I sighed, relieved.
“Oh my gosh, yeah, thank you!” I recited my number as he copied down the ten digits into his ancient, dented up phone.
“I gotta go, but text me if you need anything.” I nodded as he ran down the hallway carrying the same stack of books to whatever class he needed to abruptly burst into next.
I had made it to Heroes Avenue and 7th street and was crossing the big intersection. A car honked at me as I sprinted to the sidewalk. Dried black gum littered the ground. A man walked out of Marmello’s Pet Supplies carrying a bag of cat litter. He looked at me strangely as I sped past him, my shoelaces coming untied and flying around my ankles. I didn’t have time to stop and tie them, though, like I would have on any ordinary day. The doors of the grocery store slid open as I passed them and my heart fell into my stomach. I could almost see Owen, Russell and I laughing outside the store just months ago. I turned down Calico Road and ran into Duney park, flying past the freshly painted benches and ornate water fountains and luscious, electric green fields. My legs moved as fast as a hummingbird’s wings, until they nearly lifted me off the ground altogether, and sped into a colorful, chaotic blur, nearly invisible. It made me question if they were even there. I sucked in a deep breath that stung my lungs, but renewed my energy, as I sprinted up the hill into the woods.
Four yellow, blue, and orange butterflies circled around me as I ran as hard as I could, wind pushing my hair off my shoulders and into a flowing, rippling tangle behind me. The butterflies flapped their wings delicately in the gusty wake I left behind as I sprinted. They were so innocent and simple, free of worries or mysteries or problems, it made me feel even more desolate, but I ignored them. I had to. I closed my mind to all distractions and pushed myself even harder, muscles burning as I neared the top of the hill.
Once I finally reached it, I bent over, planting my sweaty palms firmly on my knees as I panted to catch my breath. I could smell the briny water from the beach and see the tall weaving grass that often whipped painfully around my knees in the wind, but had also acted well as a shelter and hiding place many times in my childhood.
A week before the test, Owen and I were sitting in music. As usual, he was taking notes, while I silently whispered to him, poked him with my pencil, and did anything I could to distract him.
He quietly hissed at me, “Hey, quit it. You don’t take notes, so if you want to pass this test, at least let me take some!”
He said it as though he was just teasing, but I could tell there was a thin layer of exasperation under his joking, and stopped bothering him.
God, this class was so boooooring. I couldn’t stand to sit still any longer, and started whistling through my teeth and tapping a beat on the ugly carpet, which was a sickening shade of green-brown, and was sprinkled with stains of undetermined origins.
I tore my eyes away from it and forced myself to look back up at the board. I tried my best to focus, but after what felt like it should have been at least three periods, I felt my concentration slipping away as my eyelids drooped. Owen jabbed me quickly with his mechanical pencil and I sat up with a start.
“Hey, what the hell man?” I exclaimed drowsily.
He gave me a meaningful look under his eyelashes, and I looked up to see Dr. Fern staring intimidatingly down at me. However, his mustache was so ridiculous it was all I could do to hold in a laugh.
“Do you find something humorous, Mr….”
He consulted his clipboard of names and photos quickly, then snapped his head back to me.
“Mr. Akerman! Your notebook is blank! Are your notes written in some sort of invisible ink which only you can see?”
“Huh?” I said, startled. “Oh, no. No, sorry.”
He relentlessly continued my public shaming, “Why have you taken no notes, Mr. Ackerman? It seems you’ve been very busy laughing at a private joke. Would you like to share the joke with the rest of the class?”’
I noticed suddenly that everyone was looking at me, and my cheeks reddened in embarrassment.
I struggled to collect myself, and replied, “No–uh–no sir.”
A beat of silence rang in my ears, before I added lamely, “Sorry.”
He let me sit there, abashed, for a moment, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed a girl sitting in the back.
Her caramel colored hair had a few flyaways, but they looked cool, almost deliberate. A delicate pendant in the shape of a scroll hung around her neck, and she wore a soft blue hoodie, jeans, and tall black boots. Around her wrist was clasped a silver charm bracelet, holding a Star of David, a tiny canoe, a golden music note, a compass, and something else, a small metal shape I couldn’t make out from across the room. Her hair was held back with a buttercup yellow ribbon, with a small, barely wilted violet that she must have picked in the schoolyard this morning tucked behind her ear. Her glowing green eyes outshined the harsh fluorescent lights blaring overhead in the classroom, and suddenly she turned her head to meet my gaze.
I instantly looked away, flustered to have been caught staring and hoping she hadn’t noticed, but I saw the corner of her mouth curl up ever so slightly in an amused smile. It was the kind of smile that conveys a secret between two people, and two people only, that erases the rest of the world as the entire room spins into a blur, connecting the two people in on the secret in a powerful way that can never be fully forgotten. The kind of smile that in an instant changes everything, alters the whole course of destiny in one motion. However, unlike the rest of the class, she didn’t seem to be laughing at me. She seemed–I hoped–she was laughing with me.
Dr. Fern wrenched me abruptly out of my revelation with a throat clearing as loud as a boulder rolling.
“Very well, Mr. Akerman. I will let it slide for now, but do try to focus on the board, and not Ms.…”
He consulted his clipboard again, accompanied by more throat clearing. He produced a dirty handkerchief, and coughed spasmodically into it before stuffing in back into his pocket.
“Ms. Gilinsky’s ear.”
“Yes sir. I will sir,” I replied humbly.
“Good,” he declared.
He spun away from me, clapping his hands to divert the class’s attention from me and to him.
“I will be splitting you into groups of three! These groups are strictly to study for the upcoming test, I repeat, study. If I hear any chit chat, your group will be split up and you will have to work by yourself in silence.”
He procured a large black hat, tipping it forward to reveal the folded pieces of paper inside.
“When I call your name, you will quickly and quietly come up to receive a piece of paper. Whichever number you get is the group you will be in. There is no debating, you will not react. You will receive your number, go back to your seat, and await further instructions. Do you understand?”
Mumbles of assent circulated around the room, and Dr. Fern coughed again, nodding his head briskly.
“Alright. Abrams, Sarah!”
A dark haired girl shuffled up the aisle.
“Hurry, hurry, we don’t have all day!” Dr. Fern commanded.
She snatched a piece of paper without looking and headed back to her seat.
“Adramett, Lilith! Akerman, Russell!”
I jogged down the aisle, nearly tripping on a blue eyed boy’s backpack strap. He gave me a dirty look as I grabbed his desk for support, but I ignored him. I clutched my paper tightly in my sweaty palm, eager to get back to my seat, hidden at the back of the classroom.
“Avanowitz, Alejandro! Brenzor, Cristian! Dankworth, Lidia! Fensby, Adina! Loughtran, Chaya!”
After every kid had finally received a numbered slip of paper, Dr. Fern started barking our numbers.
“Group one, to the front!”
Three kids stood and were promptly directed to the back left corner.
“Group two! Back right!”
Groups three, four, and five, were assigned to the front two corners and the center of the room, until only Russell, the girl, and I were left sitting.
Dr. Fern glared at me, and I shrank down in my seat as the girl appraised Russell and I with mild, detached curiosity.
In a steely tone, he said to me, “You three will go in the hallway. I expect you to be mature, and not disrupt other classes with your antics. If I hear even one complaint from another teacher, you will be studying in the principal’s office. Do I make myself clear?”
We nodded in synchrony, gathering our notebooks and book bags clumsily into our arms.
“Good. Thirty minutes until the last bell, scholars!”
As soon as we got out into the hallway, I dumped my bags in the ground, releasing a sigh. I was just glad that music was the last period of the day.
As soon as we had put down our belongings, Russell made a whole show of sniffing the pencil he had jabbed me with, then pretending to recoil in disgust.
“Geez, I can’t believe I would waste a perfectly good pencil on someone who smells like this!” he teased, waving the pencil under my nose.
I snatched it out of his hand and wiped it against his shirt, then handed it back.
“Here you go!” I joked cheerfully. “Your stench is certainly strong enough to mask mine!”
He backed away as I tried to hand it to him, and ended up falling on his elbow. We went back and forth like that for a while, doing absolutely no studying. Soon, we were both doubled over in laughter, stitches in our sides, and all the humiliation from music was forgotten. Even though I had only known him a short time, it felt like much longer. He always knew how to make me feel better.
The next Wednesday Russell and I walked to a field in Duney Park. We had gotten notes in our lockers from the girl in our study group, suggesting Duney Park would be a good place to meet. It was a pretty big park, so Russell and I waited on a bench by the entrance closest to our school. Russell was “too hyped” to sit calmly and wait, so he decided to jump back and forth from the bench to the sidewalk like an excited rabbit. I didn’t see what was all that exciting about a music class study group, but it was amusing to watch.
About ten minutes of repetitive jumping later, the mystery girl showed up. I had seen her before in class. She was taller than Russell and I; most of the girls in our class were. She looked relaxed, contradictory to the ginormous backpack she was carrying. She smiled at us.
“What’s your name?” Russell asked shyly.
“X,” she responded.
“Oh,” I said awkwardly. I had never been good at making small talk.
“That’s pretty. Very unique.”
I was instantly mentally hitting myself for saying that, but she just smiled calmly and said,
“Thanks. It means X in X.”
“I see you got the notes,” She said. Russell and I nodded.
“It was a bit unconventional, but we did,” I said.
We walked to an open field in Duney Park and sat our bags down. I didn’t usually love parks but I had loved Duney Park ever since I moved from New York City five years ago. There weren’t any parks near my house then, so Duney Park was nice.
“I’ve got recordings of Dr. Fern’s lectures,” Russel said.
“Okay, good,” X said. “His whole method was confusing. I only realized it was a sort of puzzle about halfway through the first lesson. Can you play it?”
Russell nodded and played a recording on his phone. The voice came out slightly nasal, and garbled, but if you listened carefully, you could makemake out Dr. Fern’s lecture.
“Good morning class. As many of you know, my name is Doctor F-“
Russell fast forwarded the recording about 30 seconds.
“It is so wonderful to see all these new and old faces. I am greatly looking forward to a wonderful, educational, and productive year with all you bright, motivated young scholars of the future.”
We collectively rolled our eyes and sighed, and Russell skipped ahead again, to the name game.
“So, class! Let’s get to know each other! I’ll give you each a few questions about yourselves, and you can pick which to answer.” We heard the rustle of paper and a pencil scratching, as he presumably flipped through his obnoxious clipboard that he still brought to every class, even though he had had eight lessons by now to learn our names like every other teacher had. “Claire Lagnine? What is your favorite movie, favorite musician, or favorite soundtrack?” Dr. Fern asked with fake interest.
As he said this, a door could be heard slamming. I internally laughed. Russell had made his big entrance. Russell sped forward the tape a third time, slightly embarrassed.
“So, class, I’ve learned a lot about each of you. I suppose it’s time I introduce myself, so you can get to know me. Well, first, I like to get ice pops. My favorite flavor is Grape.” Dr. Fern was saying.
“My favorite flavor of ice pop is Great Grape!” One child whisper-exclaimed passionately from the back. Some disagreement could be heard.
“Shh! This is not an op-ed class.” Dr. Fern said sternly.
“Anyways,” he continued. “I love to get my ice pops in packs of eight, specifically the brand Sangies because the little musical riddles on them are so much fun.” Russell paused the audio.
“You guys think that’s important?” he asked.
“His favorite flavor of ice pop?” I snorted skeptically.
X shrugged. “We might as well write it down,” she said.
I took out a small blue notepad and began to scribble down notes. I had horrid handwriting, which wasn’t helped by the tiny paper I had to cram my words on to. Five minutes of audio went by, and all Dr. Fern had talked about was his dog, CD. Next Dr. Fern started talking about checkers, macaroni and cheese, and a few other topics we couldn’t care less about. Then the recording ended.
“Well that was useful,” Russell sighed. “Owen, can we see the notes?”
I nodded and set my notepad in the middle of us. We surveyed the notes but came up empty.
X smiled slyly and stabbed her finger at the word written at the top of the list. Sangies.
“Hey, it’s really hot out. Why don’t we go get some ice pops to help us cool down while we study? Dr. Fern seemed to think that Sangies are a really great brand,” she suggested with a grin.
Russell and my eyes widened as we realized what she was saying.
“Yeah, Sangies sound delicious!” I said excitedly.
“I think I’ll get grape!” Russell said happily. “After all, Dr. Fern seemed to think that was the best flavor.”
We all beamed at each other as though sharing an inside joke, delighted to have figured out the first clue so quickly. We hastily shoved our notebooks back in our bags, slung them on to our shoulders, and traipsed off to the supermarket.
The automated doors of the supermarket wooshed open as we approached the sensor, releasing a blast of cold air that knocked us in the face refreshingly. We split up and wandered up and down the aisles looking for the snacks and ice creams until X called eagerly from somewhere to my right.
“Over here guys, aisle three! I think I found the pops we’re looking for!”
Owen and I hurried over eagerly, nearly bumping into each other as we ran out of adjacent aisles. We ran over to X, and saw her triumphantly holding up a green box, with an ice pop surrounded by instruments and musical notes displayed on the cover.
“I think this is it! It’s $4.15 for the box, does anyone have money?” X asked.
We all scrounged through our pockets for a moment. I came up with 80 cents, X had $1.32, and Owen had $2.10, a piece of stale gum that smelled like rotting mint, and a lot of lint. I bit my cheeks to hold in a laugh at his embarrassment as he stuffed the lint back into his pockets sheepishly.
“Darn, I should really wash these pants more often,” he muttered.
“Gross, dude!” I exclaimed, pretending to pinch my nose.
X jokingly took a cautious step back from both of us, fanning the air in front of her face, but bumped into the tangerine display behind her. She nearly tripped, but spun around quickly, catching a tangerine that had fallen and placing it neatly back on the stand.
“Nice save,” Owen reassured her.
“Thanks,” she said, regaining her composure. “Anyways, are we buying these or what?”
We all had a silent competition to do the mental math, until Owen exclaimed with a little too much pride for this third grade level addition, “Yup! We’ve got just enough money.”
We all headed up to the checkout counter and bought the pops. As soon as we were outside, we ripped open the box, and Owen immediately snachted an ice pop, sliding off the wrapper and stuffing it in his mouth.
“Dude!” I exclaimed. “What did you do that for?”
“What?” he said in a sticky, muffled grunt. “Everyone knows orange is the best flavor! Don’t pretend that if I hadn’t taken it, you guys wouldn’t have.”
I rolled my eyes, unable to keep in a laugh at the sight of his satisfied, messy face.
“That was a clue, genius. Is the wrapper still intact at least?”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t matter, genius,” he mocked goofily. “If you were listening to Dr. Fern as carefully as I was, he said all we need is grape! The rest are fair game!”
And with that he snatched two more, letting them melt and drip stickily down his hand as he devoured them.
X followed suit, grabbing the lime and the lemon.
“Aww, come on, not you too! Those are the best flavors!” I complained.
“Sorry, you heard Owen,” she teased back. “First come, first serve. You snooze, you lose!”
I grumpily took the last two pops, leaving only purple sitting in the box. My mood brightened as soon as I tasted my ice pops, though. Dr. Fern may have only been using these to fit his puzzle, but they were delicious!
Once we had slurped every last drop of flavor out of our popsicle sticks, we turned to the purple sitting in the box.
X picked it up and read the riddle on its wrapper aloud.
“I have a thumb and a pinky ring, but no fingers. I have a bell but no steeple. I have a brace but no mouth. What am I?” The bold text read.
“How are we supposed to know that?” I asked.
“Uh, our phones?” Owen said.
“Yeah but what do we look up?” I asked.
“Let’s try things with pinky rings,” X butted in. We took out our phones.
I was the quickest and answered dismayed only twenty seconds later.
“Yeah, I’m not seeing anything about music,” I said.
“How about things with steeples?” Owen asked. I typed the search into Safari but only got links to church websites.
“What about we just look up music riddles?” I suggested. X and Owen nodded. I looked that up and clicked on the first link that came up. It was a list of musical riddles. The very first riddle was the same one we had read on the grape wrapper. I laughed out loud. Owen began to laugh too, apparently having done the same thing.
“Ha! They used the FIRST riddle they found,” X laughed. We shared a collective smirk for a minute, but suddenly Owen stopped.
“Guys what was it?” he asked. “Like what was the answer?”
“Oh, ha,” I said. “I think it was a trumpet.”
“Great!” Owen said, getting out his notepad. We’ll need that. “A trumpet has a thumb, a pinky ring, a bell, and a brace! One clue down!”
“You sure that’s the exact clue Dr. Fern wanted us to find? Laffy-Taffy has thousands of riddles that they randomize in each pack,” X asked us.
“Oh, yeah, we should have thought of that,” I said. “Let’s look it up,”
We typed into our phones.
“Oh great!” Owen said. “This brand is lame enough to only have eight working riddles! They literally never change them!”
I burst out laughing. “Okay, it’s official! One clue down!”
I sprung up in bed at the sound of my googly-eyed alarm clock and ran to turn it off. I got dressed, hastily ran a comb through my hair, and brushed my teeth. I splashed water to wash my spit away. As I dried my face I realized the sink wasn’t draining. I groaned. I ran more water to see if that would knock the other water down, but it just filled the sink up to the top. I quickly turned the faucet off to keep it from overflowing.
I ran downstairs, walking in on my mom talking loudly into the phone.
“I’ve been working for this damn company been six years! Mark was only just hired! How is that at all fair?” I walked up to her and began to ask about the sink, but she shooed me away. “BU-SY” She mouthed at me, pointing to the phone. I nodded. I went to the kitchen and pulled cereal out of the cabinet. It almost fell on me, but I steadied it with my head.
“No, I will not work extra time! You know I can’t do that!” Mom snapped. I sighed under my breath as she droned on. I poured cereal into a bowl and added just a little milk. I hated when my cereal got soggy. I was halfway through eating when my mom angrily hung up the phone. “Damn Daniel,” she muttered under her breath. She sat on the couch dismally shaking her head for a few seconds, before she got up and took a deep breath, trying to act like nothing had happened.
“Sorry, Russell, what was it you had to say?” I swallowed.
“Oh, I-” I fumbled. “I think the sink is clogged,” Mom sighed loudly.
“Again? That’s the third time this month!”
“Yeah, I know, I didn’t mean to do anything-”
“Hey, it’s okay,” My mom cut me off. “Can you tell Mr. Fosler on your way out?” I nodded. Mr. Fosler was our superintendent. He was good with pipes and things.
I finished my cereal and put the bowl in the sink. My older sister, Vivianne, walked down the stairs, holding her toothbrush and toothpaste.
“Mom, the sink is clogged!” she complained.
“I know, sweetie,” Mom told her, absentmindedly brushing my messy bangs off my forehead.
She rolled her eyes and huffed. “Okay, well I can’t brush my teeth if the sink is clogged, obviously”
“Use the kitchen sink, then, Vivi,” Mom said.
Vivianne sighed back in frustration. “Yeah, okay, fine, that works,” She walked over to the sink and brushed her teeth loudly.
As I was getting on my shoes and backpack, Mom called from her bedroom.
“Hey Vivi, can you walk Russell to the bus stop? I heard Ligi’s was broken into last night. I worry it’s not safe for a young boy to walk the streets alone so early in the morning in our neighborhood.” Ligi was Mom’s work friend who lived on the bottom floor of an apartment complex a few blocks away.
“Got it!” Vivianne called. She shoved past me and grabbed her blue jacket from the closet. It was 70 outside, warm for late September, but Vivianne wore that jacket everywhere.
Out on the street, Vivianne ran across the street to the other side, happy to be free of the burden of walking me.
“Hey!” I called, “You’re supposed to walk me to the bus stop!”
She shrugged. “Dude, you really don’t need me to walk with you, Ligi lives like five blocks away! Besides, I’m busy! I’m meeting… a friend! I already promised her.”
I began to call back, but instead swallowed my words and kicked a pebble into the road. Vivianne never wanted to walk with me.
We were studying in the park, it was cloudy, and about 60 degrees when X said she wanted to show us a part of the woods we’d never seen. We had been working for about an hour and had come up with nothing so Russell and I said sure. We packed up our backpacks and followed her down a path that went over a large hill and into the woods south of Duney Park. There was a wooden fence with peeling white paint, built sometime–a long time–ago. X hopped it in one confident leap. Russell and I scrambled over the fence, far less elegantly.
X strode deeper into the woods, ducking around broken branches and vines like she had been here a thousand times. I attempted to follow her, but crunched a few sticks loudly, and yelped when I scratched my ankle of a thorny plant, causing X to turn around. Not judgmentally, just watching us.
After a few more twists in the overgrown path X said, “Okay, here we are.”
Russel and I looked around. The woods had ended and the ground had turned from dirt to sand. A few feet away, water was washing in and out, back and forth; a tiny tide suggesting this inlet connected to the ocean some very long way away. Soggy sticks and glass were strewn across the beach, but it was beautiful. The beach was maybe thirty feet long, and on either side was trees. From the beach, in the distance, you could see a small freight bridge, riding low against the water. I knew that bridge. When I was little I used to pretend to fish with my Dad on it. It had been abandoned for years. I was about to point it out when x spoke up.
“This is my beach. Well, actually, it’s called Tobleryon Beach, but I like to think I’m the only one who still comes here.”
“It’s amazing,” Russell said from behind me. I nodded.
X walked down the beach making little circles in the sand. I attempted to skip a rock on the water, but it just made a loud sploosh. I grinned anyways and tossed another.
“Oh,” X said with a note of disappointment in her voice from down the beach ten or so feet.
“What?” Russell asked, craning his head in X’s direction. He had taken off his shoes and stuck his feet in the shallow water, and they were sinking slowly into the sand.
“Somebody’s been here recently. There’s blue chalk on this rock, and it rained just the other day,”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, walking over to X to look. Russell popped up behind us.
“It’s okay,” X said, though she didn’t look as if it was fine. Russell came over to comfort her, but froze when he saw the chalk. He kneeled down beside her, tracing the letter with his finger silently.
“Oh no,” Russell said. “VEFA. Those are my sister’s initials. And the other ones are the same as her ex’s. They broke up two months ago, and it was… not good. My parents were mad too; I don’t know why.”
X’s eyes widened, and we all stood frozen for half a second. I looked at the chalk. It was one of those hearts with little initials in it. They were practically everywhere.
“So. They’re together again?” Russell asked.
“Yeah, I guess so. Unless it’s a crazy coincidence. That happens, right?” I pleaded. X looked at me dismally.
“I don’t think so.”
We stayed at the beach for twenty minutes trying to enjoy it nonetheless. The long grass twisted in the wind and made swooshes like hushed thunder. The sun seemed to zip below the treetops in what couldn’t have been more than five minutes, and still we sat unmoving together, the only sounds the grass and our breaths. X was desolate, I was afraid, and Russell was stone-faced with trembling lips; his feet back in the water, sinking down to whatever rusted treasures were hidden beneath the sand.
To be Continued…