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It’s autumn. The trees outside of her yard shed their leaves, tainting the ground with orange and yellow, lining the streets with a carpet that becomes slightly soggy after the typical September storms sweep through town. The air is that perfect temperature, appropriate for wearing a light jacket; layers aren’t required just yet. The inside of her house is adorned with the scent of vanilla candles and the turkey that won’t be cooked until Thanksgiving.
She comes home from school bearing her new textbooks and her book bag filled with empty, clean pages. She knows in a few weeks or even a few days these pages will be filled with Math notes or doodles of flowers, but for now they are empty and clean. A new year, a fresh start, a clean slate, so desperately needed.
She steps outside; yesterday’s rain leaves the air odorless, but the sky a cloudy and murky gray. Her bare feet walk across the fog condensing on the grass, but she doesn’t slip, she has enough traction to walk into the middle of the yard. She stands right in the midst of two towering oak trees, their shade disguising her shadow. She looks up at the fog above her, at the colorful carpet beneath her, takes a breath, and apprehensively begins to dance. It’s awkward at first, without music to guide her or a mirror to correct her, but she soon realizes this is better, much better, than being confined to the four walls of a classroom. This is freedom. So she leaps, spins until her foot slips on one of the soggy leaves, and she sits on the ground and laughs, her relief escaping through her hysterics.
Autumn transitions into winter. The leaves disappear, or maybe just become covered by the thin layer of snow, white and clean like the pieces of paper that filled her binder just a couple of months ago. The trees are bare now; the branches jut into the sky, each wanting their own piece of the sun, which peeks out from behind a cloud occasionally.
Chelsea takes the bus home for the first time, and the heat doesn’t work, and her body shakes underneath her ski jacket and her breath comes out in wispy clouds. It’s crowded on the bus and a boy she’s never seen before slides in next to her, saying My Name Is Mark and I Think You’re Pretty and Do You Want One Of My Earphones? She looks at him and nods, takes the offer and listens to his music, and suddenly a warmth spreads over her, although the bus still has no heat.
She walks home, Mark’s phone number written on a hand underneath her mitten. Her boots crunch through the snow, leaving footprints – they leave such an impression, but she knows soon they will melt away or else be covered by another layer of snow. She drops her book bag by the couch inside, then ventures into the backyard. The trees have been waiting for her, and now she can see her shadow dance across the snow. She’s wearing boots and a jacket, but she’s not limited, not at all. Her heart roams through the snow and her usually logical brain floats into the sky. It’s not cold right now, because she is free, and freedom isn’t cold.
She builds a snowman when she’s too exhausted to dance anymore and the sun begins to disappear. The snowman’s stick arms face the sky. She smiles and in the distance she hears jingling bells, and she almost starts to dance again, but she knows she has to go inside and regain the warmth she hadn’t really lost.
The snow melts, and soon it is spring. Green is everywhere, it lines the trees and the lush gardens of Chelsea’s neighbors and it’s the color of Mark’s new sweater, which Chelsea has her face pressed in because he’s her Official Boyfriend now. One of her notebooks has a leaf pressed in it, the green standing out against the black and blue doodles of stars and hearts that are drawn where her History notes should be. Mark gave her that leaf, because it’s oddly round. It’s a circle that never ends and never begins but rather renews itself, and Chelsea knows it’s a symbol of her year, and so she keeps it with her always, reminding her that she wanted a fresh start, and that’s exactly what she got.
Spring brings allergies, congestion, coughs and over the counter remedies taken twice a day, but Chelsea doesn’t use that. Her medicine is natural and only requires a few steps outside her back door. Dancing may not cure, but it shifts her focus. Runny noses and the sniffles seem so unimportant compared to her freedom. She pirouettes, thinking of one thought for each turn. She didn’t like learning in a classroom. Spin. She didn’t like someone telling her how to dance, how to stand, how to do it right. Spin. She didn’t like the other students looking on, judging something so personal and raw. Spin. She was much happier now, with just the audience of the two oak trees and her shadow, her body free to do whatever it liked.
The sun comes out full force in the summer, beating down on houses and causing the tar in the roads to sizzle from the heat. The town pool is packed with people, the beach is overwhelmed with chairs and umbrellas, but Chelsea’s backyard remains blissfully quiet and empty. Without school to interrupt her day, she dances in between the oak trees in the morning, the afternoon, the evening, despite the heat, sometimes with Mark, sometimes without. Sweat pours down her body, but it’s nothing a shower won’t relieve, so it doesn’t bother her. Being free is hard work, because staying free is nearly impossible.
One Sunday in August Chelsea steps outside, only to see her dad’s new hammock stretched between the two oak trees, occupying the space she has occupied every day for almost a year, its shadow casting shade over the ground she has walked and danced on every day for almost a year. She can feel her throat choking on air; the hammock can’t move, so she must. No other place feels right for dancing except for that space. A classroom couldn’t contain her, and now the space between the two oak trees was no longer an option. There’s nowhere to dance. She can feel the panic set in, can feel her legs sink into the ground, and she sits without really realizing, just staring at what used to be her spot.
And then Mark. He comes out of nowhere, it seems, although he does live just down the road, and maybe he could sense her panic. He picks her up by the arm, whispering, “It’s okay. It’s just change. It won’t hurt. It’s just change. You can dance anywhere and you’ll still be free.” And she believes him, lets him lead her to another place. Her freedom hasn’t been eradicated, it’s just moving. A new location, a new year, a clean slate.