Rocks skip down the dusty road. The boy is trailing his feet, hands forearm deep into his shorts’ pockets. Down the road, again. Who needs a home when a home is not a home? Who needs a son when a son is not a son? Someone has to be born the last straw, the boy supposes. The one that makes the haystack too crowded and the needle so hard to find. Always searching now, his parents, for that elusive needle that used to make them so happy. Before he dropped in and spilt the family cup.
It used to be random, the direction his escapes would take. But, that was before he found hope in the shape of a girl. A girl-shaped hope, waiting for him in a patch of forest at the end of the road. It used to be random the way his sadness would come rushing out. Sometimes kicking rocks with his dusty shoes, sometimes tearing bark off trees, sometimes throwing rocks in the river. Random, until it moulded itself into the shape of a happy family leaving the driveway. To the mountains, they went. To the beach. And the girl-shaped hope was left behind. Left behind so that he could find her at the end of his road. He would duck into the woods to stand by her side, as the family left with smiles and songs. She, sitting on a branch, feet swaying in an offset way that made them collide every so often. More often when, together, they watched them leave. The family, her family, driving by with hearts full of each other’s joyous company.
How cruel. Though the girl never said so. He could just make out the outline of her thoughts, moulded into the air by the weight of her silence. Why were the last children always left behind, always less wanted? One too many is a condition born of everyone else, as much as the odd one out. Wasn’t it? The boy thought so. But maybe that all last children thought so.
How cruel, how the family never even looked at her as they drove away. The boy should know, for he was invisible too. Though, perhaps not in such a cruel, secret way. At least his parents had the decency of clarifying his unwantedness. His unwantedness was such a loud and violent affair, no one would ever mistake it for anything else. His why was clear, unambiguous. His one-too-many-ness was the source of all the evil in his household. His family’s chances at finding the needle of happiness in the haystack of life were ruined by his existence. But at least they never pretended that it wasn’t so. His parents had the decency of making their unhappiness obvious. So that the boy could shove it deep into his pockets and walk. Walk down the road that led him to the girl-shaped hope. He knew his way and never cried about it. Not once, where someone could see.
The girl never cried either. But the boy could tell, by the way her shoes collided from time to time as they swung, that she was confused by her own type of unwantedness. To each unhappy family their own unhappiness. It was only fair, in a way. But not to the girl. It was fair in a roll-of-the-dice general sense. A lot of hidden snakes in the general world for a little girl to slide down. Even ladders can be slippery like snakes when someone else rolls the dice for you and you walk, blind, with your hands deep into your pockets. The boy knew. And so, he thought it a terribly cruel thing to do to a girl-shaped hope.
A girl-shaped hope did not stand a chance, but for her hope. Hope, because she could always hope that it might be an accident that her family always left her behind when they left for the mountain, laughing or the beach, singing. When they left camping or to do groceries in town. Hope, because it might be an oversight. Perhaps it was wrong to think the family cruel. The boy allowed that this might be the case. After all, the boy had never before seen something so exactly family-shaped, so perfectly whathemissedinlife-shaped. Perhaps it was just that the girl-shaped hope never spoke. That the family simply didn’t know that she wanted to share in their happiness.
‘Who wants to go to the beach.’
‘Who wants to go to the mountain.’
Perhaps it was the opposite of cruelty to leave her behind. To each their own happiness. It was only fair, in a way. But, again, not fair to the girl-shaped hope, who sometimes accidentally slipped on ladders in the dark thinking them snakes.
Today, however, the boy does not find the girl-shaped hope sitting on her usual branch. Rather, he finds the girl-shaped hope deeper into the woods, beckoning him. Surprised, the boy picks up his pace. The girl-shaped hope begins running towards him too. And, when they are about to collide—like once in a while the girl-shaped hope’s shoes do when she sits on the branch of the tree, especially when her family drives by with hearts full of each other’s joyous company—the girl-shaped hope reaches deep inside the boy’s pocket for his hand and leads him straight through a path in the woods to spy on the family who is in the act of leaving. Smiling and singing and leaving without her. The boy took this as a sure sign of the girl-shaped hope’s love for him. Or, at least, of a sort of unspoken camaraderie between last children. And, together, they watch with clammy hands the family leaving.
‘That’s your family?’ the boy asks.
The girl does not say. So, angry, full of resolve, the boy hikes up his sleeves and does not trail his feet as he strides up to the leaving family of the invisible girl-shaped hope.
‘Why do you abandon her?’ the boy asks, not crying, his hands somehow back to being wedged deep into his pockets.
‘Oh, hello there,’ says the hope-shaped mother. ‘Abandoning who?’
‘Who?’ asks the boy, not an owl, not saying it twice.
The boy now knows the whole cruelty of the affair. The crime of it. It hides in how understanding and kind they are to him. He is sure of it.
‘You live down the road, don’t you son?’ the hope-shaped father asks, prognosticating. ‘Yes, we see you sometimes, waiting alone in the woods by the road. That is you, isn’t it son?’
The boy now knows the reason for the girl-shaped hope’s silence. He stays silent too. The parents whisper to each other. He hears it all, but it isn’t news. Not to him. How his house is always so full of horrible violence-shaped sounds. Sounds of his unwantedness.
‘Do your parents know where you are?’ the hope-shaped mother asks.
‘What parents?’ the boy answers, surprising himself. Suddenly, he is unsure whether it was he who was invisible or his parents.
‘Right.’ the hope-shaped father answers, diagnosing. ‘Well, son, how about it? Would you like to join us?’
‘We’re going to the beach!’ the hope-shaped brother answers from the back seat of the car, chewing too much gum.
The boy knows now the whole unfairness of the affair. It hides in how the hope-shaped brother’s feet never collide with one another as they thud against the rear seat of the car.
‘Only if she comes too,’ answers the boy, thinking lightning-quick, pointing back at the girl standing on the edge of the forest.
‘Who?’ the hope-shaped father asks, weighing this new evidence with his eyebrows.
‘Yes, of course.’ the hope-shaped mother rushes to answer. ‘Of course. Tell your friend to come, of course.’
The boy rushes back to the bushes, pride in his heart. At least one family, he can solve. Even if not his own. He rushes back with too much pride, in fact, for he does not even wonder why the word friend has sharp edges to it, like some rocks do when you kick them and they don’t budge.
‘Hey, it’s alright,’ he says to the girl-shaped hope. ‘It’s not cruelty, they just didn’t know.’
The girl-shape hope’s skirt sways around her knees.
‘You were right to hope,’ the boy says now, for he is knowledgeable in the ways a sway can be made into a walk, with the right words. ‘They just didn’t know, that’s all.’
And the boy must have found the right words because, suddenly, it works. The girl-shaped hope grabs his outstretched hand and together they walk back towards the hope-shaped family waiting in the car, motor running. However, when they step out of the woods, the girl-shaped hope stops all of a sudden, shaking her head.
‘It’s alright,’ the boy repeats, patient, understanding. ‘It’s not a snake. I promise.’
But the girl-shaped hope does not budge, does not even sway anymore.
‘Is this not what you always wanted?’ the boy asks, confused, but still smiling, like the hope-shaped family smiles when they drive away to the mountain, to the beach. He smiles because he knows how close they are to being hope-shaped too.
The girl-shaped hope shakes her head.
‘They’re not so bad, see?’ the boy says, himself stepping into the open door of the idling car. He settles onto the comfortable seat. ‘See?’
‘All set?’ the father asks.
‘Is your friend all settled in with you?’ the mother asks, so kindly.
What are they talking about? Are they mad? The boy looks back and forth between the hope-shaped family and the girl-shaped hope. Can’t they see that the girl-shaped hope is still out there?
But when the boy looks back, about to point this fact out to the family who is too ready to leave without her, he finds that the girl-shaped hope is gone.
‘Hmm, yes,’ he answers, at length, helpless in his betrayal. Helpless, because he was betrayed first by the tears falling down his cheeks. ‘She’s right here with me.’
‘Good.’ the hope-shaped father says. And, reaching through his own window, he closes the boy’s door with a very definitive thud.
‘Here we go!’ the hope-shaped mother says, turning back with the cruellest most beautiful smile full of warmth and abandon. ‘How good of you two to join us today.’
The man flashes a glance full of eyebrows at the boy in the rear-view mirror. Together, the hope-shaped family pulls out of the driveway. Blurry-eyed, the hope-shaped boy watches out of his window and sees the girl-shaped hope sitting on her branch. Her feet no longer colliding the way they did, every so often. She waves at him. He waves back.
Copyright © 2021 by Etienne Robert