Refuge

Fiction
Anna Evans


You lolled in the doorway, Zasie, finger raised as if to push the buzzer, as I opened the door. I’d heard you were home and I’d been waiting for you. I was sitting at my dressing table in my bedroom, staring out the window toward the woods, when I saw your familiar denim-clad figure strolling up our path. I flew down the stairs and was waiting for your shadow to gray the frosted glass of the front door.

The truth is I didn’t want my parents to know you were here.

“Mandy,” you said, leaning forwards an inch, as though contemplating how awkward it would be to embrace.

I gripped the door handle. “I go by Amanda now,” I said.

“Can I come in?”

I peered back down the hall. It was six o’clock on a June Friday, and I could dimly make out the host’s patronizing voice on the game show my parents liked, or was it a quiz show?

“Let’s go for a walk,” I said.

Without a word you turned and set back off down the path, shoulders slightly hunched, hands thrust in the pockets of your jeans. You were wearing grubby tennis shoes. I looked down at my own feet in alarm; I still had on the sensible black loafers I wore to work in the bank. A light drizzle had been falling all day and the ground was damp. If we were going where I thought we were, the shoes would be ruined.

It was too late to change them. I called back in the house “Mum! I’m going for a walk.” Then I followed you down the crazy paving.

You turned left at the gate, as I’d known you would. I hurried to keep up with you, but there wasn’t room for two people to walk abreast on the narrow stretch of paving that lined my road. I had to be content with following you, a step behind, as always.

Of course you marched diagonally across the road and veered right onto the narrow track that formed the entrance to the woods. This is where we always used to walk.

The track squelched underfoot; I watched the orange mud creep up the shiny sides of my loafers. Gobbets of mud started to cling to the hem of my smart black slacks. I was alongside you now and you looked down at my legs and grimaced sympathetically.

“You should have changed,” you said.

“It doesn’t matter.”

At the top of the dirt track we turned right as one body and began the steeper climb up the bracken-covered hill. Here the trail was merely a lightly-beaten indentation in the undergrowth, which could have been made by a deer. Our feet were originally responsible. Since you left, I’d kept it marked out on my own.

At the top of the hill the trees on either side seemed to come together, forming a low roof over the trail. I drew an overhanging branch aside like a curtain.

“Here we are,” I said.

You walked up to the tree, our tree, and traced the bark with one finger.

“Still here, then.”

The tree was an old English oak, thick-trunked, its bottom-most branches so low and broad each one constituted a kind of bench seat. When we were twelve we would ride them like horses. We sat down on the lowest one. Your long slender legs grazed the ground, my own chunky and anchorless alongside. I examined the muddy loafers.

“How is London?” I asked.

You enthused about London. You went on for fifteen minutes about the clubs, the bars, the theaters, your professors, the other students, your dorm, your life. Your voice rolled on and on, relentless as rain, leaving no space for the things you didn’t want to talk about: why you hadn’t called, why your letters petered out to the odd postcard.

You stopped. I think you wanted me to speak then, wanted me to say something forgiving, something that would allow us to begin again.

I hopped off the branch, bent down to look at the carvings on the lower half of the tree. Our initials were still there, faint now, for you had only had your tiny child’s penknife to work with: SG 4 AC, in a wonky heart with a terribly executed arrow.

“I got engaged to David,” I said.

You drew your breath in sharply, and looked at me with those beautiful green eyes.

“Why?”

“Little Wychwood isn’t London,” I said. “There aren’t any other interesting people here.” I didn’t add, “Now you’re gone.”

“Does he think you’re straight?”

“I don’t know what I am any more.”

“Do you have sex with him?”

I looked away from you. It was beginning to rain more heavily now—typical British summer weather. I couldn’t explain David to you, didn’t want to.

“We should go back; we’re getting soaked.”

 

You let me go at the front gate without a word, but the next day, when I walked into the kitchen to make myself some lunch after my shift at the bank, my mother confronted me, her lips set in a thin line.

“Susannah called,” she said. A little tic flexed the corner of her mouth. Mum had always refused to call you Zasie, and not a week went by without her telling me in some form of words how pleased she was that I had got over “that little strangeness with Susannah.” Mum and Dad loved David.

I feigned indifference and assembled a sandwich while Mum hovered about the kitchen, wiping counters and fiddling with bits of paper. I remember when I told her about us on my sixteenth birthday; she went into shock and knocked a cup of scalding black coffee over my left hand. The burned patch, a raised pink swathe about the width of two fingers, still itched when I felt guilty or embarrassed. I scratched at it absentmindedly as I nibbled. Mum stared at it; she seemed about to say something, but instead she bustled out of the room.

I called you back. You said that you wanted to speak to me, urgently, so we arranged to meet at the tree.

I changed into my jeans and sneakers before heading out and up the dirt track. The day was fine and breezy. Little clouds coasted merrily across the blue sky; the ground was soft and springy underfoot.

You were lounging against the main bole of the tree when I got there, and you were beautiful. Tendrils of your red hair kept blowing across your high cheekbones, forcing you to tuck them back behind your delicate ears. When you saw me you sprang forward, put your white hands on my upper arms.

“Mandy‚Ķ Amanda, I’m sorry,” you said. “And I know I should have said that yesterday, before everything else. I broke all sorts of promises to you, stopped calling, never invited you up to stay. It was all so new, so exciting. I just got caught up in it.”

I allowed myself to look at you, to hold your green-eyed gaze, and I believed you, or at least I believed that you thought you were telling the truth.

“Can’t we be like before?” you said. “I promise when I go back to college things will be different. You can come and stay. We’ll have the best times.”

I looked up at the tree. The wind had picked up and was tossing the branches like an old woman shaking a mop. The leaves rustled and sighed with low whispers.

“Did you see anyone in London?” I asked you.

You were silent a moment. “A couple of girls, once or twice,” you said. “No one serious. No one like you.”

I removed your hands and went to sit down on our branch.

You tried again. Your eyes widened as if struck by a sudden thought. “I know! You can get a job in London. Your bank has places everywhere, doesn’t it? You can get a transfer. We’ll get an apartment together. It will be perfect!”

You sat down next to me so that our thighs touched. I could feel the pressure of your hip bone pushing against my softer flesh. You began to talk with childish excitement about the things we would do, the fun we would have all summer. You spoke of June picnics and July trips to the beach. You promised to go apple-picking with me in August. I visualized the summer stretched out before you, a road you had to travel down to get back to London in September, a road you didn’t want to travel alone.

“Promise me you’ll think about it,” you said.

 

That evening David came over for our regular Saturday date. We got fish and chips, and ate them on the wall outside the shop, then we went to The King’s Head for a couple of drinks: Guinness for David, rum and Coke for me.

“I saw Zasie,” I said, eventually.

He nodded, squeezed my fingers, and put his listening face on.

“She’s just the same,” I said and laid my head on his comfortable shoulder. “Part of me still loves her; you know how it is.”

He slid his big paw of a hand around my waist, hugged me tight.

“I know,” he said.

As we walked back from the pub, arm in arm, it started to rain heavily, and when I unfurled my umbrella the wind seized it and blew it inside out.

“Let’s get home before the storm,” said David; he hoisted me piggyback and ran down the center of the street in his great galumphing strides.

I was laughing so hard I thought I might fall off him, but we made it safely to my front door just as the first fork of lightning tore the sky open, along with a discordant percussion of thunder.

“Going to be a wild night,” said David.

 

When we were young, Zasie, before anyone knew what we felt for each other—before we even knew, really—you used to sleep over at my house and if it stormed, we would sit on my dressing table and press our noses against the cold glass, watch the rain bucketing down and admire the gold darts of lightning against the dense blackness of the woods.

I did that on Saturday night, after David had accepted a cup of tea and a scone, made small talk with my parents, and then kissed me good night. I imagined you were with me. You used to make up such stories about the storms; you said the fates were angry, that the lightning was a way of evening things up, putting the world back in balance.

The fates must have been very angry that night. The lightning played over the woods for hours. A couple of times the thunder cracked so loudly I could have sworn the roof of the house was going to cleave into two.

 

On Sunday morning I waited until my parents left for church and then I called you. As I closed the front gate I saw you ahead of me as usual, already marching up the dirt track toward the woods. I ran a little to try to catch you, but you moved too fast.

I broke through the curtain of branches into the clearing, and I heard you crying. The clearing was too bright; my eyes ached under a dome of white sky. Our tree, broken in half, lay across the grassy floor like a giant’s discarded broom.

You were kneeling by the tree, arms wrapped round what remained of the trunk as though it were a dying lover.

I went up to you, gingerly put my arm around you. You sobbed and sobbed, kept saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I sat down next to you. After a few minutes you raised your tear-stained face to mine and kissed me.

I remember the day you first did that. We were fourteen, and neither of us got invitations to Sharon Miles’s birthday party. I was upset; you just laughed and called it a stupid party, right to her face. I practiced that nonchalance in the mirror afterwards; it took me months to get it right.

After we left Sharon and her friends spluttering, we went to the tree, and you looked at me earnestly, told me you loved me, and kissed me. I had always worshipped you—so smart, and pretty, and carefree—but that was when I knew I loved you.

Oh Zasie, I have never stopped loving you. For a minute I wanted it all, and for a second, I thought I might even get it: not just picnics, beaches and apple-picking, but the apartment in London, clubs, theaters, restaurants, you, Zasie, you, you, you.

Still, I cupped your chin in my hands and gently moved it away.

“You wouldn’t want me in London,” I said. “I wouldn’t fit in.”

You looked at me, opened your mouth as if about to protest. I put my finger on your lips. “No more pretending, Zasie.”

“I do love you Mandy,” you said. “You were my first girlfriend. That’s not something anyone else can ever be.”

I hugged you. “I know,” I said. “And now we’re going to be friends, good friends, okay?”

 

You’ve gone back to London now. We saw each other a few times over the summer, although it was always a little awkward. You promised to call and write. You haven’t; I didn’t expect you to. London sounds like such a wild and magical place. I’m sure there are plenty of interesting people there—people like you. I’m not like that. I’m too short and stocky to be pretty; I live in a village, work in a bank, and am engaged to solid, dependable David.

I am in the woods, Zasie, and of course, it is raining, but I am quite dry. I’m sitting on my jacket, knees scrunched against my chest. The tree has lost its greenery and is rotting from within. Yet, the way it has fallen, this split half lies supported by one of the branches we used to sit on, and forms a kind of canopy overhead. The tree may be here for another century, offering comfort even though it is a dead thing—the comfort always necessary for people like me.

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I am a British citizen but permanent US resident. My stories have been published by Outsider Ink and The Stockpot, and have won prizes in the 2003 Byline Short Short Story Contest, the Fiction “Words on the Wall” contest at the 2004 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference and the Great Blue Beacon Short-Short Story Contest. I have also had over 50 poems published in journals including The Formalist, The Edge City Review, Light Quarterly and Exit 13. E-mail: evnsanna[at]comcast.net.

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