Rocks skip on the furrows of the dusty road. The boy trails his feet, hands crammed into his shorts pockets. Down the road, again. Who needs a home when a home is not a home?
Escape was wayward. Not always wandering by the riverside to swim, to sink rocks; not always circling the bog in his sister’s leaky duck boots, feet screaming with blisters; not always stoking fires by the old abandoned barn; not always running barefoot through the cornfields… But some ad hoc variation thereof. He’d awaken already in the act, once the voices in his head would stop yelling.
Now, those adventures felt… aimless. Back when to a time before he’d found hope in the shape of a girl. Could be last week, could be years; it wasn’t measured in time. Too monumental. A girl-shaped hope, waiting for him in a thin patch of forest at the end of the road. A magnetic north to his wildly spinning compass. Might only be measurable in psi, like his big brother’s shiny motorbike’s tires.
‘Psi. It’s the noise it makes, stupid. The valve.’
He could tell by his brother’s face he shouldn’t have asked. His dad’s face, that face, and he wondered if he made it too. But he never tried to explain anything really simple to someone stupid before.
The girl-shaped hope was a sort of valve. He’d known right away. That would be the story of how they’d met.
‘Pssssi, pssssi…’ the boy would say. Sighing soothed the voices some. Like a valve. Pent up so as to be almost explosable. Up and down the road, he’d sigh. Until he’d awaken doing something. Something that usually involved loud sounds. Like crushing cans or breaking glass or dropping rocks on rocks from the old railroad trestle bridge.
It all used to be so wayward. It’s almost funny to look back on it now. The way his sadness would come rushing out. He would kick rocks with his ducktaped kicks; strip bark off trees, carve dirty words on the soft exposed flesh; hold his breath so long stars would dance in the daytime; bounce big rocks off the rusty sheet metal culvert by the old reservoir, the one he’d manage to crawl through once and never again.
It all used to be so… directionless. It’s not like a motorbike tire. The valve is never at the same spot twice. One day you’d kill a frog. The next you’d kill three, smash ‘em good and dead and the valve, it wouldn’t be there anymore.
But the boy never stopped believing in it. He just needed to be creative about it, that’s all. He’d kept sighing it too, ‘Pssssi, pssssi…’ It couldn’t hurt.
And then, one day, on the way back from the cornfield someone answered. There in that patch of trees, he must have walked by a thousand hundred times. Only it was so close to the house so as to be drowned out by the voices.
‘Pssst, pssst…’ she said, the girl-shaped hope, only she wasn’t yet. Or he didn’t know she was. And together they watched a happy family leaving. To the tall mountains, they went. To the black sand beach.
And the girl-shaped hope, always left behind. Left behind for him to find at the end of his road. Ducking under the rhododendron, hopping the stream and sidestepping the nettle into the sparse wood patch to stand silently by her side. To watch, together, as the family left with smiles and songs. He would always find the girl-shaped hope sitting at the exact same spot, perched on the lowest branch of a crooked willow, feet swaying in an offset way that made them collide every so often. Clip-clap. Clip-clap-clip. Colliding always more often when, together, they watched the family-wagon pull out of the driveway and leave. Because the family was her family, always driving away with hearts so full of each other’s joyous company.
How cruel, even if the girl-shaped hope never said so. The boy believed he could just make out the outline of her thoughts, moulded into the air by the weight of her silence. How cruel, how the family never even so much as glanced her way as they drove away. Cruel, though not entirely surprising. Not to one as acquainted with such matters as he with this certain invisibility which some people have the power to confer onto you. At will.
In his family, the boy was made invisible too, though, perhaps not in such a cruel, joyful kind of way. At least his parents had the decency of clarifying his unwantedness. Luckily, his unwantedness was such a loud and explosive affair that no one would ever mistake it for anything else. But he knew what it really was. Just love that expressed itself crooked, or sometimes as the exact opposite of love.
His why was clear, unambiguous. His one-too-many-ness was invariably the source of all the evil in his household. His family’s chances at finding the needle of happiness in the haystack of life, invariably ruined by his existence. But at least they never pretended that it wasn’t so. His parents had the decency of making their unhappiness, their dissatisfaction obvious. So that the boy could receive it, shove it deep into his pockets and walk. Walk down the road that now always led him to the girl-shaped hope. He knew his lot and never cried about it. Not once where someone could see.
The girl-shaped hope never cried either. But the boy could tell she was confused as to her own type of unwantedness. It was all there, in the way her shoes collided from time to time as they swung. How they collided more often when her family drove past. To each unhappy family their unique unhappiness. It was only fair, in a way. But not to the girl-shaped hope. It was fair in a roll-of-the-dice, general sense. But there are a lot of hidden snakes in the general world for a little girl to slide down. Too many to navigate.
The boy knew all too well how even ladders can be treacherous, turn slippery like snakes when someone else rolls the dice for you and there is nothing for it but to walk, blind, with your hands pressed deep into your pockets. The boy could hardly cope, even when so well acquainted with his devils to bear. How terribly cruel a thing to do to a girl-shaped hope. To confuse her with joy and smiles and family excursions that never included her.
The girl-shaped hope would not stand a chance… but for her hope. Hope, because she could always hope that it might be an accident that her family 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, in the end, it was wrong to think the family cruel. The boy allowed that this might be the case. After all, he 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 could not interpret the odd clip-clap colliding of her shoes, especially as they drove past; as a plea to share in their happiness. Perhaps they simply didn’t know.
‘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 individual their own happiness. It was only fair, in a way. But, again, not specifically, not to the girl-shaped hope. She who sometimes accidentally slipped on ladders thinking them snakes.
So today, when rocks skipped on the furrows of the dusty road, as the boy trailed his feet, hands crammed into his shorts pockets heading down the road, again, towards the hope anchoring his inner-compass; he could not help thinking that all was lost when the girl was not to be found. Not sitting at the exact same spot, perched on the lowest branch of a crooked elm, feet swaying in an offset way that made them collide every so often. Clip-clap. Clip-clap clip. Colliding always more often when, together, they watched the family-wagon pull out of the driveway and leave. And the family? Her family? Would they still drive by with hearts full of each other’s joyous company. Would he watch them go by, alone?
The boy stepped deeper into the woodlot.
There, behind the cedar bush, she waited. Confused, the boy looked around. After all, it is not every day that one’s magnetic north alters. Why was today so different? Hunching slightly, he walked over to her side. The girl-shaped hope, acting as he had never known her to, reached deep inside the boy’s pocket for his hand and squeezed it tight. He winced but remained patient with his shifting north. If it was his turn to be a stable north to her wildly spinning compass, he would not fail her.
The girl-shaped hope lead him down a secret path towards the house. He followed, obediently. They halted on the edge of the gravel driveway in the shade of a young prune tree. There, together, they spied on the family who was in the act of leaving. Smiling and singing and leaving without her.
To the boy, in that unexpected moment, the girl-shaped hope’s hand in his, became a symbol of love. Much more than the unspoken camaraderie they previously shared. Camaraderie of last children. Of lost, of unwanted, of invisible children. It was love. About this, he could entertain no doubt, for it confused him like hate never did. And, together, hands clammy with the sacred innocence of hearts, they watched the family leaving.
‘That’s your family?’ the boy asked, not sure why he did, not sure why he never had. The girl-shaped hope did not answer.
So, angry, full of resolve, made unpredictable by love; the boy hiked up his sleeves and did not trail his feet as he strode up to the leaving family of the invisible girl-shaped hope.
‘Why do you abandon her?’ the boy asked, not crying, his hands somehow not wedged deep into his pockets.
‘Oh, hello there,’ said the hope-shaped mother. ‘Abandoning who?’
‘Who?’ asked the boy, not an owl, not saying it twice.
The boy suddenly understood the whole cruelty of the affair. The crime of it. It hid in how understanding and kind they were to him. He was sure of it.
‘You live down the road, don’t you son?’ the hope-shaped father asked, prognosticating. ‘Yes, we see you sometimes, waiting alone in the woods by the road. That is you, isn’t it son?’
The boy suddenly understood the reason for the girl-shaped hope’s silence. He remained silent too. The parents whispered to each other. He heard every word, of course, but it wasn’t news. Not to him. How his house was always so full of horrible violence-shaped sounds. Sounds of his unwantedness.
‘Do your parents know where you are?’ the hope-shaped mother asked.
‘What parents?’ the boy answered, surprising even himself. Suddenly unsure whether it was he who was invisible or his parents.
‘Right,’ the hope-shaped father answered, diagnosing. The hope-shaped parents exchanged a brief glance. ‘Well, son, how about it? Would you like to join us?’
‘We’re going to the beach!’ the hope-shaped brother answered from the back seat of the car, chewing too much gum.
The boy suddenly understood the whole unfairness of the affair. It hid in how the hope-shaped brother’s feet never collided, not even once, as they thudded against the rear seat of the car.
‘Only if she comes too,’ answered the boy, thinking lightning-quick, pointing back at the girl standing on the edge of the forest.
‘Who?’ the hope-shaped father asked, weighing this new surfacing evidence with his eyebrows.
‘Yes, of course…’ the hope-shaped mother rushed to answer. ‘Of course. Tell your friend to come, of course.’
The boy rushed back to the bushes, pride in his heart. At least one family, he would solve. Even if not his own. He rushed back with so much pride in his heart that he did not even think to wonder why the word friend, as pronounced by the hope-shaped mother, had such sharp edges to it. Sharp like the invisible rocks you sometimes step onto without seeing them. Like the rocks that don’t budge when you kick them. Why it did not quite fit in the daughter-shaped hole.
‘Hey, it’s alright,’ he called out to the girl-shaped hope. ‘Come on. It’s not cruelty, they just didn’t know.’
The girl-shape hope’s skirt swayed with indecision around her knees.
‘You were right to hope,’ the boy said, knowledgeable in the ways a sway could be made into a walk, with just the right words. ‘They just didn’t know, that’s all.’
And the boy must have found the right words because, suddenly, it worked. The girl-shaped hope grabbed his outstretched hand and together they walked back towards the hope-shaped family waiting in the car, motor running. However, when they stepped out into the open, the girl-shaped hope stopped all of a sudden and stood there, shaking her head.
‘It’s alright,’ the boy repeated, patient, understanding. ‘It’s not a snake. I promise.’
But the girl-shaped hope did not budge. Did not even sway anymore.
‘Is this not what you always wanted?’ the boy asked, confused, but still smiling, like the hope-shaped family smiled when they drove away to the mountain, to the beach. He smiled because he knew how close they were to being hope-shaped too.
The girl-shaped hope just shook her head, for she knew something the boy could not. That if a girl-shaped hope became hope-shaped, there would be nothing left but hope. And the boy would be left north-less and without a friend.
‘They’re not so bad, see?’ the boy said, himself stepping into the open door of the idling car. He settled onto the comfortable seat, just to show how. ‘See?’
‘All set?’ the father asked.
‘Is your friend all settled in with you?’ the mother asked, so cruelly kind.
‘Wha…’ the boy began. What are they talking about? Are they mad? He looked back and forth between the hope-shaped family and the girl-shaped hope. Could they not see that their daughter was still out there?
But when the boy looked back, about to make this point to the family who is always all too ready to leave without her, he found that the girl-shaped hope was no longer there.
‘Hmm… yes.’ he answered, at length, helpless in his betrayal. Helpless, because he was betrayed first. Betrayed by the tears falling down his cheeks. ‘She’s right here with me.’
‘Good.’ the hope-shaped father said conclusively. And, reaching through his own window, he closed the boy’s door with a very definitive thud.
‘Here we go!’ the hope-shaped mother said, turning back with the cruellest most beautiful smile full of warmth and abandon the boy had ever seen. ‘How good of you two to join us today.’
The man flashed a glance full of eyebrows at the boy in the rear-view mirror. And, together, the hope-shaped family pulled out of the driveway. Blurry-eyed, the hope-shaped boy watched out of his window and saw the girl-shaped hope sitting on her branch. Her feet no longer colliding the way they did, every so often. She waved at him. He waved back.