In a Distant Wood

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A collection of short stories in which characters explore their humanity among the trees, rivers, and onlooking creatures of a distant wood. (2/?)

Allison Vanderzanden
Age Rating:

The Snake

“Where are you going, Melissa?”

“Somewhere quiet.”

“It’s dark out!”

Melissa let the back porch screen door slam behind her in response. She took off jogging across the backyard field, still hearing the remnants of her parents’ fighting. Tonight, it was about her brother’s grades, but it was quickly morphing into what most of their fights end up being about: her mom’s drinking problem. Her mother claimed to have it under control, but their pantry shelves told a different story.

Melissa silenced an echoing screech from her mom by slipping her headphones over her ears. She felt around for the play button on her Walkman and let Iron Maiden accompany her to her river bank hideout.

This was so often a part of Melissa’s routine that she knew the route to the river, even in the fading dusk light. She ducked through a gap in the arborvitaes that defined her family’s property line, and four steps later, hopped a fallen pine. She hung left towards the path she’d worn over the years, though the path to the right led down a recently-discovered shortcut. Melissa hadn’t committed that to memory yet, and she still needed to take her dad’s knife out and chop down some hazardous pine branches anyway. So she continued to the left, knowing the roar of the river was growing louder despite her being unable to hear it.

Melissa came to a clearing overlooking the rushing Snake River, and a small smile crept up her lips. The light of the nearly-full moon made the river sparkle enticingly. The crests of the current glistened pure white as it darted around and over huge river rocks with ease. She wondered for a moment if the Snake had grown wider since the last time she’d escaped to it. Though the sun had just recently set, it was already too dark to tell.

Melissa clambered down the boulders that framed the river bank, shoving her feet in the gaps. Finally she landed in the coarse sand, and she kicked off her shoes to feel the cool grains on her calloused feet. She stuck her right hand out and dragged it along the boulders, headed for her hideout nestled in a divet of the rock face.

Counting her steps as she went, Melissa fixed her eyes on the river. Simply being in the presence of the Snake began to drown out the haunting, ever-present echoing of her parents’ shouting in her mind. She absentmindedly observed how the biggest boulders towered over the surface of the river, voids in the shimmering light. The shallow water lapping at the bank just a few yards to her left tempted her, but she continued on counting. She needed a cigarette before she went to dip her toes in.

The same moment Melissa mouthed, “Forty-two,” her right hand met the empty air. She fell to her hands and knees and crawled to the right, through the cattails that hid the entrance to her hideout. Once her palms felt the ground change from sand to cardboard, she dragged her hand around in front of her in search of a metal coffee can. She found it, dug out candles and the lighter she stole from her mom, and lit the wicks so that her eyes could finally be of use.

Melissa pulled down her headphones and let them rest around her neck, still able to easily hear the music blasting through. She sat down with her legs crossed and pulled the coffee can into her lap. The lighter still in hand, she grabbed a box of cigarettes from the can. She opened the box and let out a tsk—last one. Even still, she lit up, put the cigarette to her lips, and inhaled with no hesitation. She knew where her parents kept them stocked.

Immediately, Melissa’s mind slowed down. Her mind’s echoes of her parents arguing fell quieter. She took in a breath through her nose. Though the cigarette smoke and cinnamon-scented candle prevailed, she appreciated the crisp, familiar smell of the river bank. The air was just beginning to chill, desperately holding onto the evening’s heat but losing the battle with every passing hour. Through a hole in her tarp roof, she could see the slightest tint of turquoise still in the sky.

Melissa narrowed her eyes. This hole was new. She had patched up several holes, as evident by the duct tape patches, but this little hole let her peek into the outside world.

Holding the cigarette in her mouth, Melissa crawled to her shoebox, protected from the rain by a plastic grocery bag. She got out her roll of duct tape, inched her way back to the culprit, and began tearing strips off.

Probably those damn starlings, Melissa thought. It sounded like something her dad would say. She and her brother both got a lot from their dad—something they took minimal pride in, but it was better than turning out like their mom. They both had his hair, boring brown and straight, and his height, growing an inch every year. And they took on his habits and hobbies: Melissa’s hideout reflected her dad’s college certificate in carpentry, and Joe could build LEGO skyscrapers in half an hour.

Melissa stood on her knees to press down a strip of duct tape. She remembered sitting on the living room floor on Sunday nights with Joe and her dad. He would dump out their box full of LEGO bricks onto the rug, and she and Joe would cheer as they dug into the bricks. Sometimes, they would work together on a tower, aiming for the ceiling. When the tower grew too tall, she and Joe worked together to hold it upright while their dad continued stacking. One day, she remembered, they did make it all the way to the ceiling.

Melissa shook her head and stuck another strip on. Her dad never had the time to do something like that anymore, as much as she longed to. She wished he would come down to the river with her. Set up some lawn chairs, watch the current go by, and share a smoke. She bet he would give her a pat on the back for her handiwork on the hideout. A hint of a smile came to her lips at the thought.

But her dad was at work more than he was home. When he was home he was asleep, if not in bed then in his beat up recliner in the living room. His under-eyes permanently dark, his waking hours seemed to only be spent arguing with Melissa’s mother. He didn’t even have the time to ask his kids how school was. Melissa’s stomach twinged as her grin fell.

By the time she had layered more than enough duct tape over the hole, Melissa finished her cigarette. She placed the duct tape in its shoebox home before plucking the butt from her mouth and grinding it into a patch of sand where she had run out of cardboard flooring. Instinctively, she reached for the coffee can for another, but she groaned as she remembered. Still, she pulled out the lighter, flicking open the lid.

Melissa sat back against the rock wall with a sigh. To the beat of the music, she lit the flame, closed the lid, and repeated. She dismissively noted how her hand was trembling. Just the cool evening air, perhaps. Her eyes focused on nothing straight ahead as her parents’ argument replayed relentlessly, just loud enough in her mind to grab her attention.

Her mom downed almost half her glass of wine as she glanced between her brother and his report card. Joe’s shoulders were hunched over, picking at his fingernails and avoiding eye contact. Melissa sat, eating a bowl of cereal for dinner, at the breakfast bar, the only table space that wasn’t covered in bills and beer bottle caps.

“You got an F in math again,” their mom said, her grip tightening on the sheet of paper.

“It doesn’t make sense to me anymore,” Joe said. “And Dad’s never home to help me.”

From his recliner in the living room, their dad jumped in, “Your sister could help you, Joe.”

“Mel gets F’s in math, too,” Joe retorted.

Don’t drag me into this, Melissa thought as she swiveled the bar stool so her back faced her mom and brother.

“Your father is home on Sundays,” their mom said. “Why don’t you ask for help on Sundays?”

“Dad is not home on Sundays,” Joe said.

“No, he has Sundays off, Joe.”

Their dad folded up his newspaper and sighed as he stood from his recliner. His lumbering steps illustrated his exhaustion from his third twelve-hour work day in a row. He came up next to Joe and crossed his arms.

“Julie, I got another job three months ago,” their dad explained as if talking to a kindergartener. “I had to start working on my days off because you got fired from your job.”

“Excuse me!” their mom laughed. “I left that job by choice.”

“No. You got fired because you had missed dozens of shifts from being too day-drunk to get off the couch.”

At that point, Joe and Melissa both knew where their parents’ conversation was headed. Joe clenched his fists and shouldered past his dad to go to his room, and Melissa slurped the leftover milk in her bowl hastily.

“Why are you telling lies about me in front of the kids?” their mom shouted. “Why do you always do this?” Melissa didn’t offer her parents a glance as she dropped her dishes in the sink.

“They’re not lies. Your mind is so fucked up from booze that you can’t tell what’s real anymore!”

Down the hall, Joe’s bedroom door slammed shut. In the same moment, Melissa grabbed her Walkman off the coffee table and slipped on her tennis shoes at the back door, not bothering to tie them.

“Where are you going, Melissa?”

Melissa threw the lighter back in the coffee can, the clang! of metal on metal ringing throughout her glorified lean-to. She tore her headphones from her neck and dropped her Walkman on the ground. She rushed out the cattail doorway and stood quickly to jog down the river bank, knowing the roar of the Snake could drown out her parents.

The instant her feet splashed into the water, a chill raced up her spine. She stopped as the sand beneath her began turning to gravel, and she let her feet go numb. She yanked her pant legs up as far as they would come—just above her knees—as she searched for the boulder she liked to escape to when her mind got this loud. Located about a third of the way across the Snake River, the heaping rock with a nearly flat top provided the perfect perch to get completely lost in the river, both visually and audibly.

Moonlight glinted on the surface of the rushing river, so Melissa looked for a solid dark patch that would be her boulder. The sun offered no more residual light, making her search all the more difficult.

“Your children are going to starve if you don’t cook dinner. They’re living things. They need food, Julie.”

“The doctors said I shouldn’t drive! I can’t go to the store.”

“There are no doctors! You made that shit up! Stop trying to make people pity you. You’re hurting yourself and you’re ruining our kids’ lives.”

“You’re the one who argues! You start it and they can’t sleep because of it! You’re the one ruining our children, don’t you see?”

Melissa huffed in frustration, unable to spot the rock. The echo of shouts in her mind were distracting her from finding it, she figured.

Melissa glanced back at the shore to make sure she was in line with her hideout. The boulder stood in perfect alignment with the hideout entrance, so as long as she walked straight, she would run into it. Carefully she stepped, dragging her feet so that they never left the river bed. Her hands floated above the water’s surface, ready to catch herself if she slipped. She inched along quickly, the water creeping up her legs and making goosebumps appear up to her neck.

Melissa didn’t pause until the current began lapping at her hips. She wrapped her arms around herself as she desperately looked back at the shoreline, then at the river. The current was smooth, the highlights of the crests unbreaking.

I should be there by now, she thought, though voices that weren’t hers overpowered in her head.

“Melissa, you better not be leaving the house looking like that!”

“Stop persecuting our child. She’s fifteen. She should be able to wear a tank top without being hounded by her overbearing mother.”

“I’m just being protective!”

“You’re shouting at her! This is why she’s never home!”

Melissa shook her head as if it would make them leave her alone. She shoved her hands into the water in front of her, searching for her sanctuary boulder as she pressed on.

The snowmelt from the Rockies was just beginning to fill the rivers, and the Snake was cold for May. An extra long winter that resulted in a whole week of snow days now fueled the rivers as more snow than Melissa had seen in previous years rushed down to the valleys. Could the river really swell so much to submerge her rock? She couldn’t remember a time when it wasn’t visible. Convincing herself of that truth, she continued trudging.

“The kids still love me. They have to. I’m their mom.”

“You’re not their mom when you get wasted. You don’t deserve their love when you’re so drunk you can’t even take care of them.”

Now the water climbed up to Melissa’s chest, enveloping nearly her whole body into an achingly cold embrace. It almost comforted her, like it was pulling her into a hug and hushing her mind, both her own already-quiet thoughts and the bellowing arguments. It was like her brain was numbing in the cold, just like her toes.

Desperately, Melissa pulled one foot from the river bed and took a full step forward. She expected someplace solid—the top of a flattened river rock, perhaps—but her foot fell deep into a crevice between rocks, latching onto her leg above her ankle. She cried out as she lost her balance and tumbled beneath the river’s surface.

The current immediately tossed Melissa to her left, urging her to follow it downstream. The Snake’s roar, now at once dull and deafening, mesmerized her as she floated freely for a single moment. It seemed to speak to her directly into her mind, gliding in through her ears. Even her parents quieted to listen.

Suddenly, Melissa’s ankle twisted with a snap as it tried to keep up with the rest of her body. Pain ripped up her leg, and instinctively, she gasped in a breath. Water rushed down her throat, instantly flooding her lungs and making her chest feel a thousand times heavier. She tried to feel around for somewhere to plant her free foot, meanwhile paddling wither her arms against the current to set her now-completely-numb trapped foot upright once more. However, she had never felt the river push back like this.

Melissa’s brain felt suffocated; any thought that whizzed by was muffled and dizzying. She could feel her lungs retaliating, screaming to cough up the water and take in a breath. Everything around her was nothingness, all the same murky black. Her mind knew, amid the whirling thoughts, that the surface was somewhere, and she could almost hear someone whispering, “Up!” But which way was that?

“Up!” they repeated. Although Melissa couldn’t quite discern it over the cacophony in her ears, she believed the voice was Joe’s.

I have to go up and get to Joe, Melissa instructed herself with a short burst of adrenaline. She directed her arms upwards before quickly propelling them down in one strong motion.

“Up!” another voice said. Her dad.

I have to go up and see Dad, she thought, and she repeated the motion.

Finally, Melissa’s face broke the surface of the Snake for but a moment. It was long enough to cough and take in a single breath, just like her lungs had ordered.

The river let her have a moment of relief, but just as quickly as she received it, the Snake snatched it away. Melissa found herself floating in darkness once more, and the river coaxed her to its bed. It wanted to tell her its grievances; how rude would she be to deny it? Maybe they shared the same troubles. Maybe they both needed someone else’s embrace. The Snake must have been unhappy with the cold, too.

Melissa’s chest was feeling heavy again; unbeknownst to her, she had let go of her breath. The murky current had become indistinguishable from the back of her eyelids. The Snake pulled her close and hugged her tightly. For the first time as far back as she remembered, she felt safe. She felt calm. How she had longed for a comforting moment like this with her parents, where they would quiet her worries and reassure her that she would be okay.

The Snake’s grip was so tight around her body that it could have suffocated her, but she didn’t protest. The roar of the river drowned out the haunting screams. It resonated through her entire body, numbing her and finally ridding her of the voices.

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