“Want to climb a tree with me?” he asks, twisting his hand in his curls. He doesn’t ask my name. Or give his. He just smiles and turns, taking off for the tree he’s already picked out. Half-skipping. We’re the same age, but my legs are longer so I don’t have to skip to keep up.
The boy wraps his arms around the lowest branch, hoisting himself so he can grab it with his legs and pull himself around. I don’t follow, just watch.
“Get down!” I shout.
“Come up!” he calls back, laughing. It’s a challenge.
I can’t think of an excuse. I just say, “Get down from there!” in a boyish impression of my father.
He laughs again, buoyant and free. No matter what I say, he climbs higher. It’s easy.
“You’re going to get into trouble!” I yell. Then, when he’s so high my stomach lurches for his sake, I shout, “You’re going to fall!”
The boy isn’t laughing anymore. He looks out from his perch; his eyes are wide even from here.
“Come up and see. You’re missing it.” His voice is small from so far away. I’m not missing anything. I listen to every grunt and scrape as he climbs back down, but I don’t look up. It’s not as easy coming down, and if he falls, I don’t want to watch.
Coward. I hear the word in every creak of his descent. Coward. The wind whispers it in the leaves. Coward. Even the blood pulsing in my ears beats it out: Coward. Coward. Coward. And when the boy reaches the ground, I’ll hear him say it, too.
He jumps down from the last branch with a thump, and the impact forces the air out of him. He regains his balance and stands up, just as my fist connects with his face.
I knock him backward on his tail, and his hands fly to his nose. Above them, his blue eyes drown in watery disbelief. I’m breathing fast, like I’ve just run a mile, like it’s me who climbed the tree, not him.
I do the only thing that makes sense: I turn and run. Back to the lodge, up to my room. Where I can cry and no one will make fun of me. Because I can’t help it, crying. Even if I don’t understand why.
The tree is still here, halfway between our summer lodge and where his mother’s trailer stood. Forty feet of pine that looks no less threatening than it did when I was two feet shorter. The boy is long gone, and the trailer went some years later, after a hailstorm busted in the skylight and a falcon nested there a season or two.
I park down the road from the lodge to give myself a few more moments before going in. You can no longer see the lodge from here. My father’s wife, Phoebe, insisted on planting two large gingko trees around the same time the trailer was hauled away. I think she thought the pretty green and yellow leaves would give us privacy, but only someone who lived in cities all her life would think you would need privacy out here. It’s a quarter of a mile to the next house, now.
My father bought the land the trailer stood on when it went to county auction, the year after the ginkgoes. He let the land grow over. I can’t tell where the trailer stood anymore. It’s like it was never there, like it never happened.
But still there’s the pine.
I’ve seen from airplanes the lines in the land like scars. I don’t know what was once there, railways or fences or old roads, but I know something was there. The lines wind like rivers, like wrinkles, and they tell a story, I just don’t know it. I wonder if I climbed the pine tree now, would I see our story. The space where the trailer was, the line of the gravel road. I could tell the story, I still know it, but there’s no one left to tell.
After I punched him that summer when we were nine, the boy stopped asking me to play with him. He played out in the woods or down the road, but never crossed into our yard. I could hear his mom call for him, and I learned she called him Cindy, which seemed terrible, but I never looked for him coming home. I pushed the thought of him from my mind, like you push away the thought of breaking your mother’s crystal platter or the memory of your first school dance.
At the end of the summer, just before we’d head back to the city and I would go back to school, my father took me out for ice cream. I think it might have been the only time he’d ever done that. He told me in the fall I’d have a baby sister, and I wasn’t surprised. I noticed when Phoebe started wearing a ring on her left hand. I asked her who gave it to her and she smiled secretively and said, “A gentleman.” And I noticed when she swam in the lake how her swimsuit barely covered her swelling stomach. I wasn’t surprised, but that didn’t mean I wanted to acknowledge it.
I could see Cindy sitting with some boys in the parking lot of the ice cream shop. They each had cones, all except him. I could tell by his face he wanted one, but I could tell from his laceless shoes that he wouldn’t be having any. I got up from our table and walked outside. I tried to hand him my own bowl of vanilla.
“Here,” I said. I didn’t want it anyway. But he just squinted his blue eyes up at me, the summer sun blinding him. “Take it, Cindy.”
His eyes went wide and his mouth went small, and from the laugh that went up from the other boys I knew that they would never be his friends no matter how desperately he wanted them to be.
The other boys looked as if I’d just handed them a gift. They chanted the name, “Cin-dy! Cin-dy! Cin-dy!” and his face burned redder than the ice cream shop’s sign. He curled in on himself like a pill bug, and there was nothing I could do. I went back to my father and didn’t answer any of his questions.
I push away that thought, too. I’d put off coming back for so long because I knew it would bring up these memories. Things I’d managed to bury for years. But I’m not even inside and they’re already digging themselves up.
I open the door of the lodge and the air is still and dry inside. It sat empty this summer. My little sister, Beth, is thirteen now. She went off to a horse riding camp and my father and Phoebe went away. I don’t know where. Beth has been great through all of this. When my dad said I wasn’t welcome at the house anymore, it was Beth who said, “I thought family was everything.”
But that’s just it, isn’t it? I’d told him I’d never have a family, not the way he wanted. Never marry a woman, never pass on his name. Now I’ve traded his name for my mother’s. Disowning can go both ways.
I climb the wooden stairs to my old room, box under my arm, and open the door. The hanging plaque outside that read “Allen” is gone, but nothing inside the room has been touched. Everything has been sealed tight since I went away to college. White sheets lay over the nightstand, desk, chair… I pull off the one over the desk and the picture of my mother is still where I left it. I put it face down in the bottom of the box.
The summer lodge always felt more like her place than our home. She died at our house in the city, but she lived here. It’s where all my memories of her are. Where she taught me to swim and where we picked flowers. Where I fell on the gravel and cut my hands, and where she tore her shirt to wrap around them before she carried me home.
My mother had been dead four years by the time Beth was born. Up until then, I still thought about her all the time. But when I went back to school at the end of the summer that year, I couldn’t stop thinking about the blonde boy, Cindy. Wondering what he was up to. What school he went to. Whether he lived in that little trailer all winter, or if he had a real home to go back to like we did. Could his mother afford presents for Christmas? Did those other boys at the ice cream shop ever stop calling him Cindy? Did they ever use their fists on him instead of words?
Did he think I was just like them?
When we came back the next June, I made sure to pack an extra pair of shoes, ones I’d outgrown and hid so my stepmother wouldn’t throw them away, just in case. I waited until I saw him heading in to dinner, and then grabbed the shoes. I knocked on the trailer door—I could smell meat cooking inside—and a woman answered. Was this his mother? She looked too old, and seemed like she couldn’t catch her breath. The skin of her face was somehow both dry and loose, and her blonde hair was thin. I thought something might be wrong with her, and I was right.
I had no idea what to say. I couldn’t ask for Cindy. I just held up the shoes.
“Cindy,” she called over her shoulder, “I think you have a friend.”
He came, and I stood below him at the foot of the trailer’s steps. He took the shoes, said thank you, and shut the screen door. I went home. Figured that was it. He’d forgiven me but he wasn’t going to forget.
So I was surprised to find him leaned against the pine tree the next afternoon, as if I’d kept him waiting.
“Hi,” I said.
“Do you want to catch crawdads or not?” he asked, tilting his head and squinting one eye.
I didn’t, but I said, “Okay.”
He walked off into the woods toward one of the creeks that fed the lake. He was wearing my shoes.
“I’m Allen,” I said, following. I wanted to know what to call him.
“My name’s Cinder, but I don’t like it.”
“Why don’t you go by something else then?” I asked.
“Because then I wouldn’t be me.” He said it like it was obvious, like I was being really stupid.
But it was more complicated than that. He told me later that his mother adopted him and gave him the name: “When she didn’t have to give me anything. It’d be ungrateful to change it.”
We were older then, maybe thirteen, and his mom was getting sicker. I was sure every summer that I’d come back and they’d be gone. Moved closer to the city, to doctors, or just gone. I never thought I’d be there to see it happen. I thought that, like my mother, they’d disappear when I wasn’t looking. Burned up, cremated before I could even see the body.
A grass spider darts out from under the desk, jolting me back to the present. I watch it scurry under the door to hide somewhere else in the lodge. I’ve been here longer than I planned already, and I’ve barely begun. I throw almost everything in the desk drawers away. Dead pens and an empty journal, ticket stubs, a few magazines—things I didn’t think worth taking with me before. The clothes in the wardrobe that no longer fit, swim trunks and pajamas, I throw it all in the garbage. The books I keep. And the Polaroid of me holding Beth at the hospital. And the rocks on the windowsill. I can’t let them go for some reason. Cinder and I used to skip them on the lake. Slate, sandstone, and limestone, with the tops and bottoms worn smooth from the tide.
I taught Cinder to swim in that lake summer after freshman year of high school. The last summer. I’m a terrible teacher. Drove Beth to tears anytime I tried to help her with her math homework or teach her a backswing. I’m impatient, and never think to give any encouragement. Pointing out what someone is doing right doesn’t even occur to me. It just seems like a waste of time. But Cinder seemed to thrive on being discouraged.
His face was just like the lake: any small disturbance in him was immediately evident on the surface. Happiness lit him up, but even a single troubled thought would mark itself in his brow, pull along his jaw line. He was panicking just treading water, I could tell, but all I could do was bark at him to relax.
Then he closed his eyes, cleared his face, bounced a few times along the bottom, and tried again. Calm this time, quietly earnest, though still furiously kicking. I pushed through the cool, gray lake water to him and put my hands on his shoulders. He stopped kicking and laughed uncomfortably.
“You don’t have to work so hard,” I said. “You’ll tire too fast like that. You’re not going to drown in three feet of water.”
Without warning, Cinder flung his arms around my neck, knocking me in the chin with his shoulder. I remember rain was falling lightly, just a mist, and it was so hot out it was almost a relief. Cinder’s skin burned against mine.
I grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him off. “You know, you’re not actually swimming when you just cling on to me, right?”
“Yeah, but this is more fun.” His smile was a spark. “Do you think I’m going to bring you down?” He laughed, half-breathless from trying to keep afloat.
“No, I can lift you easy.” I was already swimming away. “If you want to hang on to me, you’ve got to swim out here and catch me.”
I watched as he braced himself, then pushed off from the rocky bottom. He swam slowly and awkwardly in my direction, limbs all a-flail, struggling to keep his head above water.
“You know babies are born able to swim, Cin?” I yelled mid-backstroke. The look of concentrated panic on his face flickered to an exasperated grin. “Monkeys can do it.”
When he doggie-paddled close enough to reach me, I slipped out of his grasp again.
I couldn’t touch the bottom, so I knew he couldn’t. No matter how tall he grew, I always outpaced him. I let him struggle a moment, then moved slowly to meet him halfway. Cinder threw his arms around my neck again, desperately hanging on to me and suddenly, everything in me was cranked up to eleven. His wet hair, his open mouth…
I shoved him away and swam out into the lake, out where I knew he couldn’t follow.
That might have been the last good day. It seems like the next morning his mother went to the hospital for the final time. But that can’t be right. There must have been time. Time for Cinder to make a plan, to buy a state map. Child Protective Services must have come a few times before the end. He must have learned enough to be afraid. Otherwise, why did he want to run?
She was still at home when he told me. We were sitting on the roof outside my window and he said, “I’m getting the hell out of here.”
I didn’t ask why. It didn’t feel important. “Where?”
“South. To the mountains.” I opened my mouth to say that he’d live closer to me then, but that wasn’t true. I’d be starting boarding school in the fall. I wouldn’t live near anything, at least not anything I knew.
Instead, I said, “Let me help.”
I didn’t know how far I’d go. Maybe just help him get on the road, or maybe go all the way with him and turn right back around. He was fifteen, too young to be emancipated, and I was only fourteen. But it didn’t matter. We needed to believe it was going to happen, or else how else were we going to get through.
We planned it all in his kitchen, while his mother slept at the other end of the trailer. My father told me later she died of a congenital lung disease, and it must have hurt all the time because she took pills so strong they knocked her out around the clock. It was a miracle she held onto Cinder for as long as she did, because she really couldn’t do anything for him. I couldn’t stand to look at her then, she looked like she was already dead when she slept.
If we walked down the road, my father could just drive after us and catch up with us. We’d cross through the woods to the highway. It was shorter than taking the road anyway, maybe five miles. From there we’d hitchhike to the state line. It’d be safer with two of us.
It was an eight foot jump down from the roof outside my window, and I could only do it because Cinder was waiting below, egging me on. I thought I could hear both our hearts pounding in the dark, over the sound of cicadas and crickets and whatever else. We crossed one creek, then another, then a third, and that’s when we realized we’d done something wrong. There shouldn’t be another creek bed for a mile or so, and even with the adrenaline we weren’t walking that fast.
It was dark and the trees were so thick, we couldn’t use the stars to see which way to go. As we crossed the fourth creek, Cinder slipped and his flashlight smashed against the rocks as he fell. The only light we had was my digital watch. I took his hand, so at least we wouldn’t lose each other, but Cinder was starting to panic.
“Do you want to go back?” I asked.
He just said, “I can’t.”
He was trapped. Not just by the darkness pressing hard against our wide pupils—but by a world that was rapidly closing in. It offered him no choice, and at least this, as terrifying as it was, was a choice he could make.
Had it been daylight, he could have led us out, I know it. He knew these woods better than I ever will, as only someone who had grown up in them could. But in the dark he was paralyzed. I had to lead him by the hand, and when we crossed the fifth stream I realized we’d gone too far north. I’d have to lead us up a ravine to find the highway.
It was steep and each step sent stones sliding down beneath us, but my eyes had adjusted and above the ravine the trees were thinner and I could see the stars.
I told Cinder to keep his eyes on them. His hand gripped mine so tight I began to lose feeling. When we made it out, I turned and kissed him there in the dark, where no one would see. I told myself I only did it because he was scared, but the truth is, I only did it because, for once, I wasn’t.
We reached the highway around four in the morning, and the first person to stop for us was the State Highway Patrol. There was nothing to do but let the patrolman drive us right back where we came from.
In the morning, the ambulance came, then CPS followed and took Cinder away. And then we left, too. Part of my punishment for running away. I came back the next few summers, but then I stopped. It was easy enough to find a reason not to go home.
The empty trailer was both fascinating and abhorrent to me. A corpse: all the life had gone from it. I would cross their yard to reach the lake, but I’d never get close enough to look inside. Even though part of me was sure he must have left something for me. Some clue. Some way to find him again. But I never looked.
I asked him to write once he got where he was going, but I never saw a letter, if any ever came. I used to think it was the kiss that kept him from writing, but now I think he probably did write. If my father had seen any letters, he would have thrown them away.
I pull the drawer to my nightstand out completely and place it on the bed. I reach in and find stuck in the back the map and the escape plan, in Cinder’s writing, just where I’d left them. I replace the drawer and put the pages into my box. I don’t bother checking the rest of the house. There’s nothing of me left here, nothing of my mother.
I walk between the gingkoes, avoiding the stinking fruit that’s just starting to fall, down the drive to my car and leave the box in the passenger seat. I turn back to the lodge, but I can’t see it from here. I decide to say goodbye to the tree instead.
Standing beneath it, it’s completely unchanged. I put my hand on the branch Cinder used to pull himself up, and then I start to climb.
Angela C Kramer is huge fan of warmth and being warm. She loves blankets, hot chocolate, and cuddling with her husband and two cats while watching the same movies over and over. Her work has appeared in Asterism Literary Journal, Red Cedar Review, Runestone Journal, and Catfish Creek. Find her on Twitter @sonotthatcool.