This week’s prompt for Paired Prose is “frolic!” Be sure to check out Aaron’s entry, The Meadow.
We were bushwacking through the thick woodlands, picking our way among the thin, brittle shoots of shrub and brush and the tall grass that had never, and would never, be cut. I remembered how my grandma used to say I’d get chiggers walking in the woods, but I didn’t even know what a chigger was. The trees seemed to bend low around us, as if in repose, and their canopy formed a dark latticework dome above our heads.
Sara was leading. She’d come to the back door, the sliding glass door that led out onto the back patio, and waved at me from the shadows of the deck furniture. Mom was drinking vodka at the kitchen table – she’d made the switch from wine months ago – and Jerome was engrossed in anything at all that happened to come on the television, even the commercials. Neither of them noticed when I slipped out the door into the warm summer night. They’d probably never notice I was gone.
We lived in the country, sort of. It wasn’t like we lived on a farm. We had neighbors, but only on three sides. The fourth side was Midwestern wilderness, often trifled with but still untamed. Our houses were close enough to town for near-daily trips to McDonald’s and Walmart, but far enough out that Jerome felt comfortably safe from terrorists, or the government, or whatever boogeyman he could imagine. Mom didn’t seem to have many feelings on the subject anymore.
Sara glanced back over her shoulder at me, her pale features appearing elfin and ethereal in the wan moonlight filtering through the branches. “Come on,” she said, an urgency in her voice. Her bare feet deftly found their path through the underbrush, and I struggled to keep up when she picked up the pace. I didn’t know where we were going. I didn’t have any reason to be following Sara at night through the woods, except that I’d take any excuse to get out of my house and I was half in love with her. Sara lived with her dad two houses away, and she was the only one that seemed, like me, to comprehend some cosmic mystery that we couldn’t articulate but were certain that no one else in school understood.
We passed through an aperture in the flora that debauched into a low clearing. Mossy rocks ringed the bank of a pond that glittered silver blue in the now-bright lunar gleam. Fireflies flitted above the surface like a congress of fairies. A smile crept onto Sara’s face and she grasped my hand tightly in her slender fingers, pulling me forward towards the water. “Wait,” I said, yanking back my hand and stopping to take my shoes and socks off. I danced hastily from one foot to the other, barely keeping my balance as I slipped off my sneakers and rolled up the legs of my jeans. Sara darted forward, a laugh like bells chiming escaping her lips.
She waded out into the pond until it came up to her knees and spun around, arms extended to either side, the hem of her simple white cotton dress caught and lifted by the wind before falling back to skim the water’s rippling surface. “Come on, Ben,” she said, beckoning. “Let’s dance.” My breath caught at the incandescence her delicate features took on in the light of the half moon, stars spread out in tapestry behind her. I noticed now the bruises on her arms and collarbone, but I didn’t mention them. Instead I splashed in after her, tripping as my toes stumbled across the mud slick rocks beneath the surface. As I pitched forward Sara’s arms came up to catch me. I embraced her, first to steady myself, then because I simply wanted to. We danced, her head nestled in the space between my chin and shoulder. It wasn’t really dancing, though, just turning slowly in place, swaying from side to side in time to the elegiac music of the katydids. My right hand stroked her chestnut hair and she hugged me tightly around my skinny waist. The fireflies gathered and orbited around us like electrons.
“Look down,” said Sara, so I did. Below us was another pair of children, reflected in the undulating mirror of the pond, their legs beginning where ours touched the water. “Those are our true selves, down there in the water. When we go home, they’ll still be there in the moonshadow kingdom under the pond, in the woods beneath the stars.” She stopped talked and gripped me tighter, hard enough to force the air from my lungs, clutching me fiercely as if afraid I might slip away. “I want to dive down deep and never come up,” she whispered.
I felt wetness on my shoulder. “Some day we’ll get out of here together,” I said vaguely. I didn’t know what to say, but I felt like in the moment I needed to say something. “We’ll leave and never come back. You won’t ever have to see him again.” She nodded against my neck, her soft hair brushing my chin.
Sara released me abruptly and pulled back, laughing nervously as she wiped the moisture from her eyes. Then with a whoop she spun away and splashed out into the deepest part of the pond. She dove in, her whole body submerged, and I counted to twenty before she came up, shattering the placid water. Her laughter rang through the woods as water streamed in long rivulets off of her soaked hair. “Come on!” she insisted. I shook my head, chuckled, and peeled off my shirt, tossing it back on the back on the bank with my shoes before lumbering in after her. She splashed me when I came close so I tackled her and we tumbled under the water together, sinking towards the glassy darkness below.
Eventually we waded back to the bank, damp and muddy. We found a spot in the tall grass between two rocks coated with emerald moss and lay down, hugging each other for warmth as the air slowly pulled the water from our skin and took some of our heat along with it. Sara’s breath was hot on my neck. She kissed my cheek softly, and when I turned my head to look into her auburn eyes she placed her pale lips against my own.
She fell asleep first, nestled against my side, her breathing steady and even. Even in slumber there was something reserved about her, held back from me and everyone else despite the secrets we shared by starlight. I lay awake wondering if we would ever leave town, or if things would even be different if we did. I wondered if Sara would make it that far, or if one day she’d swim down to the moonshadow realm and leave me behind. I wondered what she knew about life that I didn’t, and maybe never would.