by Julia Sorensen
Artwork, “Home Away From Home” by Julia Sorensen
My mother always told me that when you heard the wind whistle through the trees, something good was about to happen. That was what she tried to explain to me when I was ten, and we were moving houses. She was talking to me while my dad drove, her voice distant as I watched the trees rush along the winding roads. Autumn had settled in – the leaves had fallen and left the branches exposed. I thought they looked like grasping fingers. The sky was cold and gray, and the world looked like it wanted to go back to bed.
“Marcie, honey, are you listening?” Mom said. “I said you’re going to love it. We turned the attic into a bedroom for you, so you’ll have tons of space.”
I was silent.
Mom turned back to me from the passenger seat and gave a sad smile. She reached out and rubbed my knee. “What’s wrong?”
I shrunk back and hugged my knees. “I’m not going to know anybody,” I said. “I won’t have any friends.”
Mom pursed her lips and whispered to Dad, “There really aren’t many other kids in the area, are there?”
I stared out the window in response, pretending I was outside and running alongside the car. The daydream was broken by the change of scenery – enveloping the land were giant mounds of dirt and mud. The trees poked out like they were drowning, and yellow tape that read Warning was draped across the remaining trunks. The weirdest things to me were the chunks of painted wood that splintered out of the ground piles. “What’s that?” I asked.
Dad glanced in the rearview mirror. “Oh, a landslide came through here a couple years back. Nasty one – took out a couple of houses.”
Mom smiled with pride. “That’s where your dad comes in,” she said.
“They’re finally starting to rebuild and they’ve hired me to do it,” Dad continued. “Moving here makes traveling easier.”
The yellow tape stretched on. “Did people die?” I asked.
Mom slapped his non-driving hand. “Jack!” she hissed.
Dad looked helpless. “What? I’m supposed to lie?”
“To a child?”
They both glanced back at me, gauging my expression. I didn’t see the big deal, and they resumed the drive.
“When does school start?” I asked.
“Next Monday,” Mom replied. “The school isn’t as big as Rosewood was, but there will still be plenty of classmates.”
Dad flashed his big smile. “Don’t worry, hon. You’ll make a friend before you know it.”
I didn’t believe him. But I couldn’t deny that through the small gap of the open car window, I could hear the autumn winds whistling through the branches.
* * *
I was afraid of our house. The driveway crept up a steep hill that made our car chug. Barren trees surrounded the house like bodyguards. No other house was in proximity, and from overhearing Mom and Dad, it seemed like only old people lived nearby. It only took a couple hours to unpack everything for my bedroom, but even though I had my familiar rocking chair and koala-print sheets, it didn’t feel like home. I was stuck until school started. I didn’t want to go though, and I didn’t want to stay. I wanted things back the way they were.
“We’re here because it’s closer to Daddy’s work,” Mom told me every time I asked why we had to move. She was growing weary of my questions. “Why don’t you go play outside?” she said as she was unpacking boxes in the kitchen. “It’s nice out.”
I looked out the window to the dreary fog, but didn’t feel like arguing. I took my volleyball and bounced it around in the backyard. “Remember, don’t go close the slope,” Mom called as I exited the house. “It’s too hard to get back up if you fall.” She muttered that she wished Dad would fix it. There wasn’t much of a yard – it slid down into a hill into a trench that I could barely see at the bottom. I stayed on the wooden porch, dried leaves crunching underfoot. There, on a narrow court, I was Marcie: Basketball Superstar. The sound of the thumping ball chiseled away my stress. I faked out my imaginary opponent, slid into position for a three-pointer, shot, and the ball bounced off the railing rolled to the edge of the porch. I carefully retrieved it as it teetered for its bouncy life. Exhaling in relief, I turned to continue, but my foot slipped on a dead leaf. Back I fell over the edge and I rolled and rolled down the steep hill. The world blurred; branches poked me as I tried to cover my face, and the sky and ground melded.
My body stopped rolling at one point, but my mind still whirled. I lay on the ground, eyes shut and groaning. I felt a cut on my arm start to bleed. Biting my lip, I willed myself not to cry. I could be a big girl about this. Only how was I going to get back up the incline?
“Are you okay?” I heard someone say.
I opened my eyes and saw a boy, not far from my age, with blonde hair that wisped over his big eyes. Freckles dusted his cheeks, and his mouth was parted in curiosity. He waved a hand in front of me. “Hey, you okay?” he asked again.
He held his hand out to me, and I hesitantly took it. I was taller than him. Words didn’t want to come out because I feared they would be sobs. “What happened?” he asked, looking at the big hill. “Did’ja fall?”
I turned and looked up, and my heart lurched to see how far I had fallen. I could barely see the house. “Fell,” I muttered. Mom was going to be mad. I scanned my legs and arms to find nothing more than a few scrapes.
“It’s okay,” the boy said. “People fall.” He grinned, revealing a chipped tooth. “My name is Dustin.”
I shifted to my other foot. “Marcie,” I said.
Dustin stared at me, and I felt a wave of angered embarrassment. He reached to touch my face, and I almost hit him in reflex. “Hold still, you’ve got…” he pulled out a large twig from her hair, “this stuck on you.”
I don’t know why, but the absurdity of the moment and looking at the twig made me start laughing. I felt my body relax, and Dustin eased up, too.
“Want to play?” he asked. “What do you like?”
“Castles,” I said instantly. I stared at my feet, ashamed to admit I still liked to play pretend. Dustin agreed, and asked if we can fight a dragon. I nodded, and I let him use the twig to be a magic wand in the forest castle. I wasn’t the princess, I was the knight. Dustin was surprised but played the wandering hero to my efforts in protecting the fortress. I laughed more than I had in a long time. After we saved the king from a dragon with a lisp, I told him I should go home. “If I knew how to get there,” I added.
“I can show you! I know how to get around the big dirt.” Weight soared off my chest. Dustin looked hesitant, though. “But can we play again tomorrow?”
I straightened up in surprise. Had I already made a friend? A smile snuck up on me. “Yes.” Dustin took my hand and led me a convoluted way back up the hill. My house was just in sight, and I was impressed he knew the way so well. “See you tomorrow,” I said as he went back into the woods.
When I entered the kitchen, Mom asked, “How are you liking it?” You were outside for a while.”
Shrugging, I hid how big of a smile I had. “It’s fine, I guess.”
* * *
I met Dustin the same time the next day after telling Mom I was going outside. We were the court jester and castle guard, sent on a quest to find the queen’s crown. And the next day we were the villains trying to conquer the kingdom that we ourselves had created. We always met in the woods beside the trench. After a while, I mentioned that I had made a friend at the dinner table with Mom and Dad.
Mom beamed as she cut the roasted chicken. She gave me the drumsticks, my favorite. “That’s so nice, honey. Did he want to come over to the house one night for dinner?”
“Now you’ll have a school buddy!” Dad said with a mouth full of potatoes. Ivy Elementary started the next morning, but now I wasn’t scared knowing he would be there.
I shrugged. “I can ask.”
Before bed that night, I triple checked that I had everything ready for school. Backpack, water bottle, books. Scouring through my stuff, I found the twig that was Dustin’s wand. I felt my cheeks warm up, and I excitedly put it in my bag to give to him tomorrow. With him, I wouldn’t feel embarrassed playing pretend at recess. I slept easy that night, wrapped in my koala sheets and dreaming of castles and freckled cheeks.
Dad made pancakes for breakfast, and throughout the car ride to school I was shifting around in my seat. “I’ve never seen you this antsy,” Dad said. “You excited?”
“For class, no.” To see Dustin, yes.
We pulled into Ivy’s parking lot, and I was on my way with a wave goodbye to Dad’s red minivan. An overly cheery teacher with neon nails showed me to the classroom: desks were arranged in a giant square and stars were stuck on the wall with facts about space. I sat on the far edge, next to “One million Earths fit inside the sun”. Kids entered and took seats, forming their social order, and I kept an eye on the door for Dustin. Some other girls sat next to me, absorbed in their own conversation. One wore a big pink scrunchie and spoke with her mouth gaping wide. The clock ticked closer to eight, and no sign of him. I gripped my open bag and fiddled with the twig nervously. Scrunchie noticed and stared at me.
“Why do you have a stick in your bag?”
I froze. “I – I, um…”
She clicked her tongue. “Weirdo.” Turning back to her conversation, she missed my face turn red and my back sink into the chair. Already I wanted to go home. When recess came, I sat aside and watched girls braid hair and boys wrestle. No castles in sight.
* * *
After school, and the “How was your first day?” questioning from Mom, I ran into the woods. Dustin was at our spot, his back turned to me. I was angry, and wanted to yell at him. But when he faced me, his face was sullen and his big eyes were dim.
“You didn’t come,” he said.
“I was at school,” I explained. “Today was the first day. Why didn’t you go?” Dustin kicked a pinecone. “I don’t go to school.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to ask about that. “I’m… sorry. Well, do you want to come over to my house for dinner? We can have fun there, too.”
“I can’t,” Dustin replied. His face fell a little.
“Why not? My Mom said it’s okay. What’s your favorite food, she can make it!” I knew I sounded like I was pleading but I didn’t care. “She’s good at mac and cheese, or chicken, or banana bread – “
“I said I can’t!” The forest shivered. I flinched at his tone, and he looked sorry.
“I’m not allowed to go.” When I tried to ask, he begged, “Can we just play? Please?”
The tension went away as we fought through an ogre’s den, but there was sadness in Dustin’s eyes that I couldn’t ignore. I liked it when he smiled. I liked a lot of things about him. So badly did I want to ask him what was wrong – why I could only meet him in the woods. But I felt like that was up to him to tell me. For now, I was fine with being a renegade princess. I remembered the stick in my bag. His face lit up when I gave it to him, and I beamed to see him happy again. We played until dusk when it was time for me to go home, and carried on for weeks with that routine. I would go see him every day after school.
“Do you have friends?” he asked me one day. “In class, I mean.”
I fell silent, and shook my head. “They think I’m weird.” My eyes stung at the recollection of Scrunchie, whose name I learned was Tammy, and how she would look at me. Other students copied her, like birds in a mirror.
“You’re not weird!” he looked surprised at his own tone. “Marcie?” His voice fell strangely quiet, with a gaze was so serious it scared me. “Don’t leave me.”
“What? Why would I?”
He shrugged, looking away. “It’s just been so long… since I had a friend. I don’t want to be alone again.”
I smiled and touched his hand. “I’m not going anywhere.” Words escaped before I realized I asked: “Um, Dustin? Where do you live?”
Silence rang like a gong. His pallor was that of a tissue rose, and his mouth formed a thin line, almost a grimace. “Do you want to see?”
I took his hand in mine in answer.
He led me through the woods, weaving between rotting trees. We came across the yellow warning tape of the landslide, and the illusion of its authority was shattered as Dustin lifted it for me to walk under. He took me to a mound of earth, bigger than the sleeping goliath we fought last week. I noticed he stopped walking, and stared at it.
I couldn’t find anything to say. Dustin knelt beside the dirt and extracted a big piece of wood. “This was part of my room,” he said. “My dad said we could paint it when I turned ten.
“And when was that?”
“It never happened.”
Realization hit me. “So you…” I chose words carefully. “Where are your parents?”
Dustin’s face crumpled. “Gone. It was only me in the house. They moved away when they learned they couldn’t fix it, or when they couldn’t find me.” His little body trembled. “They left me.”
I was close to crying, too. I reached out to touch him, and he jerked away.
“You’re going to leave me too,” he said.
“No, I’m not! You’re my friend.”
“What happens when you’re older? You’ll grow up, and I… I won’t.”
The thought stuck: I pictured myself getting older, going to middle school and then high school. Getting taller, playing sports, being pretty, kissing boys. I had assumed that Dustin would grow up with me. But he couldn’t.
“You’re going to grow up, and leave me,” he ranted. His eyes grew wild, and he looked to me in grievance. “I’m so lonely, Marcie. I don’t want to be alone again.”
He got close to me, and I noticed that I felt no breath come from his mouth. “Stay with me.”
“If you’re my friend, you’ll stay with me.” He looked around for something. “We can do it in the trench, by your house. Bury you in the earth. That way the woods will stay our castle.” Gripping my arm, he started to pull me. I yanked away with a cry. Hurt graced his face, and all I could see was a sad little boy.
“No,” I gulped. “No, Dustin, I won’t.” I stepped back from him in fear. “I… I want to grow up.”
“What for? To be called weird by people who don’t like you?”
His words hurt like a slap. He looked like he regretted saying it, and he reached out to me again. I flinched away. “Get away from me!” I cried.
Dustin stilled. “You promised me.” He started to run at me, and I fell back on reflex. “Are you afraid of me? Marcie, I’m your friend – your best friend.”
My best friend who’s dead, I thought.
His hand grazed my arm. “You can stay.”
“No!” I ran as fast as I could back home, ignoring that I could hear my name in the roaring winds.
* * *
That night, I didn’t sleep. I stayed in bed as long as I could into the Saturday afternoon. I stared at every detail of my room, and fixated on the first-place spelling bee certificate: the pride of my parents, and the death of me being cool. I wondered if Dustin liked spelling and words like I did. Then I felt guilt sink into my stomach – I ran from my only friend. I wanted to apologize, but wasn’t sure how. When I went downstairs for food, I sat at the table with Mom and Dad. Blueprints with house designs were sprawled on the countertop, held down with their coffee mugs. I munched silently on a peanut butter-banana sandwich, willing myself to pretend that yesterday didn’t happen.
“So we’re going to put this home here,” Dad was telling Mom over the prints. “The two-story will be an issue with the bad land, but it’s what the client wanted.”
“When will the debris be cleared?” Mom asked.
“Oh, my guys took care of it early this morning. I couldn’t ask for a better team, they worked on it since six this morning.” He sipped some coffee. “There’s still a bit left, but for the most part the old houses and piles are gone.”
I almost choked on my sandwich. I leapt off my seat. “Going outside bye,” I said as I hurried out the door.
My legs pumped throughout the woods – past the trench and rotting trees. Leaves kicked up underfoot. I went to our spot first. “Dustin!” Calling out, I received no answer. I seized with panic, and ran to where I had left him. The tape was gone, but instead there were abandoned bulldozers and heavy machinery that surrounded a giant pit in the dirt. I called out his name again, but only the rustling leaves responded. I began to cry. “I’m sorry, Dustin.”
I grabbed a nearby stick and cradled it like it would somehow help. He was gone, but to me he would always be the king of our forest castle.