That summer, we ate sandwiches, thick slices of corned-beef on rye bread. Just bread and meat, but they tasted good, the spicy rye and the heavy flavor of the meat. We ate them and left the wrappers crumpled and tossed on the green, green grass. All of us ate them and tossed crumbs to the birds.
We stayed in the sticky summer shade, sipping water because lemonade will make your stomach ache. The clouds floated by while we lay under the trees up in the hills, with faded cotton t-shirts melded to our backs. Our creek, a drainage ditch that ran through the hills, lay a coppery dried out gash in the landscape. Even the thick, stagnant pools filled with buzzing mosquitoes fell prey to the relentless heat. The slimy green algae were replaced with darkened patches of russet mold rotting in the sun.
There was a swing in one of the trees. I think it had been there forever, just a rough hemp rope as thick as my arm that bisected the cerulean sky and stretched into the blazing emerald treetops. Sitting on the tiny board seat, the rope scraped our inner thighs, leaving them stinging and raw-red. With enough force the swing extended far past the creek out over the edge of the hill. For an instant it was like floating, being suspended in total nothingness before shooting back to earth.
But, that summer it was too hot to use the swing. Too sticky humid, or maybe the air was just too heavy to let us off the ground. So we lay on the cool grass, blowing on the wishing flowers, the little weeds with the ball of white fluff on the ends. Blowing all of the fluff away with one breath was supposed to grant a wish. I think there were more wishes than flowers that summer, and no one had enough breath.
I think it was that day. We couldn’t find any more wishing flowers, so I held a butter flower under your chin, and the tiny yellow-daisy flower left its tell-tale sunny glow behind. It meant you liked butter. No one said much that day. We just let the day burn on and on and let our sun-stained legs sprawl amid the tall grass.
That was the summer we met in the hills after dark. Wearing the same cut-offs but sliding our grass stained feet into scratchy canvas shoes without socks before climbing out our windows. With sweatshirts faded to dirty gray, replacing our t-shirts, we crept from our houses slipping away in the trees. Away from the houses, we kept quiet not wanting to get caught with our pilfered beer and cigarettes. In darkness, we lay in the same places we spent our days. Sipping beer we didn’t like and listening to your stories, your ideas. At night, we used the swing again. Getting a running start, trying not to trip in the darkness, swinging out into stars, hanging in that void made time stop.
And as we passed midsummer, you suggested the game. So instead of stolen beer and telling secrets, we played. I think we might have been afraid of your game, your witch game, that led us all deeper into the woods in the dead of night.
The mornings after the game, we all slept late. Our dreams were dark as the woods, and almost as difficult to escape. On nights with a full moon, the pale washed-out light glimmered on the white birch bark. It reminded me of those black-light posters at the record store. You laughed when I told you that. Even afraid, we all met you there, at the swing, and followed you through the creek bed. A few of those dry-dead spots weren’t quite so dry. We heard a few grunts of disgust as the still warm mud oozed into our shoes. There must have been a million stars that night.
We clambered out of the creek bed into your fairy circle. I wondered when you found the time to carve the circle into the sun baked earth. The furrow revealed the dark red earth beneath the dried grass. I was mad that you hadn’t showed it to me first because I thought I was your favorite. I was the only one who understood the game, except for you.
You invited us all in between the small circle of trees. The moon glittered overhead making everything bigger and darker. We slipped out of our shoes stepping onto the shriveled grass. We stood in an awkward circle shifting our weight from foot to foot. I stood next to you. We couldn’t light a fire, for fear someone would see it. But there should have been a fire, something to chase away the shadows and our unease.
You lit a small red candle and read from that notebook you always scribbled in. They didn’t understand anything you said that night, but I did, and it connected us.
You passed around a small plastic cup filled with your daddy’s wine. Everyone took a tiny sip and you told us to thank the moon. Was I the only one to notice you never drank? Then we danced, like crazed animals with whoops and growls. I looked and you were standing on the edge of the clearing in the darkness just watching. The moon made your eyes glitter, and I was afraid.
After, we lay on the dark grass, under the trees far up in the hills, until the dew-dampness crept through our clothes. The endless black sky filled our vision and the stars moved. We heard some crying in the darkness and fell silent; suddenly all of us were afraid of the darkness, of the game, of ourselves. You started whispering to us about the moon and kept saying she. That made me angry you talking about another girl. But I forgot about it when you lay next to me and pointed out the constellations, and the stars fell around us. We lay there for hours, before the sky finally sat slowed and stars seemed to stand still.
We followed you still groggy and entranced back to the creek bed. You told us to follow it back down and go home. We parted in silence, each of us drifting away as we neared our houses. Alone, we slipped into windows or through back doors and crawled into our beds. We slept with the morning sun on our faces, until our mothers yanked us from bed. All of us except you.
That night some little kids, not kids like us had gone missing. You woke up in your daddy’s trailer to find the sheriff demanding to talk to you.
We listened to the stories that morning with foggy minds. We wanted to tell. Tell about the game and being together, but we didn’t. We weren’t supposed to go into the hills at night, ever. It was worse with the kids missing. Now we couldn’t go into the hills in daylight. So we met at the schoolyard. The heat was broken, and we sat at the empty orange lunch table, the plastic was warm, and ate our sandwiches. Thick slices of roast beef on rye bread. They tasted good, the spicy rye and the heavy flavor of the meat. But you weren’t there, and we drank lemonade in the shade and waited.
The night they found the missing boys, they came for us too. They never got all of us; I don’t think they tried. We sat on the hard wooden benches until they took us away one by one to ask questions. I told them about the game, that was me. I think everyone else kept quiet about that. They left us alone together, all of us, without you. Sitting on stiff wooden chairs, with the big window showing us the hallway, the walls were stark white and empty. We stared at the white void of the ceiling tiles and searched for the constellations. But these black stars didn’t move.
We waited knowing our parents were coming to take us home. All except for you and me; our parents never came.
I was the only one to see you again, at least outside the papers and new stories.
My legs were itchy in the thick pantyhose, and I wore my Sunday dress with a ribbon in my hair.
We sat side by side in silence, finally just you and me.