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I lie on the crumpled, flower-printed bedspread, my nose pressed against the window, my blonde hair, bright green eyes and freckled face reflecting in the glass. Sliding my window open, the hot summer breath slaps me in the face; I can taste the rain that waits to pour from the stormy gray clouds covering the sky. I crane my head out the window and look at the familiar brick house at the end of my street and watch as the tall, skinny, brown-haired girl mounts her bike.
“I’m going outside to play with Katie!” I yell as I wrench open my bedroom door and thunder down the stairs. I punch the button to open the garage door and hop on my bike, a gift from Santa last Christmas. Droplets are beginning to fall as I turn down my driveway, expecting to see Katie waiting for me, that big goofy grin stretched across her face. But she isn’t there. She turns the corner, heading out of our cul-de-sac, soaking wet from the rain that is now falling, auburn hair flying behind her. She is going almost as fast as she did a few weeks ago when she tried to go off the ramp.
She was at the top of the Falzone’s driveway, the steepest driveway on our street. I told her not to, but she didn’t listen. She wanted to prove that she could do whatever I could. She put her feet on the pedals, leaned forwards, and sped down the driveway towards the plastic ramp at the bottom. She got too scared halfway up the ramp and tried to go off the side of it instead. The crash was loud; and so was her scream. She only scraped her knee, but it took her a while to stop crying. When she did, she said that she would never do anything like that again.
“I told you not to do it,” I said with my hands on my hips as she picked up her bike. She glared at me, and then walked away.
Lightning streaks across the sky as I pedal, moving as fast as a cheetah, flying down the road with my wet hair plastered to my face. I know something is very wrong. Why would someone who is deathly afraid of thunderstorms be out riding her bike in the middle of one -- alone? I desperately try to catch up, not letting my eyes move away from that overstuffed pink and blue backpack slung over her shoulders. I move my legs faster, just a little bit farther; I yell her name, not sure if she can hear me over the storm.
My mind wanders back to when we were five, carrying that big plastic table all the way from my garage into the woods behind my house. We dragged it through the jumble of tall grass and weeds until we reached the shady serenity of the trees. Our picnic lunch sat spread out before us for hours, but it wasn’t ever eaten. We were laughing too hard at something we could never remember now. We danced, twirling in circles, weaving through the aged trunks, streaks of sunlight hitting our faces, letting our hair fan out behind us in the breeze. That moment lasted forever, laughing and playing and never getting bored, because best friends like us are never tired of each other.
My tired legs exert a final burst of energy as I ride up next to her. I slowly ease to a stop; Katie does the same. I look up at her and see the tears pouring out of her brown eyes, mixing with raindrops as they streak down her cheeks. I don’t say anything, not yet. I need to find the right words, the words that will comfort her, the words I know she is waiting to hear, because it’s my job as the older one to know what to do. I have to wait until we get there, to our shelter in the woods, then everything will be fine again.
We walk our bikes back to my house and dump them on my driveway. She leads the way to the woods, our safe place among the trees where anything is possible. These woods have always been there for us. I can almost hear us laughing at age five, singing at age six, trading secrets at age seven. My white tank top and jean shorts are drenched from the storm. The raindrops are fewer as we take shelter underneath the canopy of leafy, green trees. We walk through the creek filled with cool ankle-deep water, our plastic flip flops sliding on mossy stones.
Finally, we reach the house we built with logs and leafy branches. We step inside and sit on the little tree stumps that were left when some of the old dead trees were cut down. A fresh wave of tears pours down her face, and suddenly I know. She begins to tell me about the argument they had this morning. Her whole body shakes as she relives their angry yells. Even with her bedroom door closed and pillows pressed over her head, she can still hear it. I know; I was there once when it happened. We snuck out the window and came to this very same spot in the woods.
The cotton-candy-colored backpack is stuffed full of clothes, a hairbrush, a toothbrush, toothpaste, some food and her favorite stuffed animal and blanket. She was going to live back here in the woods in our little house. She planned to ride her bike around the neighborhood and sneak into the woods from the other direction. A brilliant plan, she thought. She would travel a different path so that no one would ever know where she was, but her plan didn’t work exactly how she wanted it to. I chased her. I thought I brought her back home, but she still got to her intended destination.
There are so many memories captured in these trees. They guide us, advise us and comfort us whenever we need them to. This place is always there for us, no matter what. All we have to do is close our eyes and imagine, imagine we can smell the cool, damp dirt, hear the constant gush of the stream, feel the warmth of the sun on our faces, the sweet summer breeze rippling through our hair. Even when we are a million miles away we can still be here in our refuge among the trees.
Right now, the memories are whispering their advice in my ear. They are telling me what to do, what to say to make Katie feel better. I imagine they are doing the same thing for her. Whispering things that will help her get through this rough patch in her life. The words I speak aloud to her have been proofread by every leaf in these woods. Just as promised, they bring that familiar grin to her wet, blotchy face. Once again, our refuge has worked like magic and made everything right.
Finally happy again, Katie and I run into our houses and change into our matching blue and green Gap bikinis. A few minutes later, we are diving into the pool in my backyard under the supervision of my mom. My eyes burn as I open them in the chlorinated water and the rough concrete on the bottom gently tickles my feet as I propel myself towards the blue-tiled edge. I laugh as my head breaks through the water’s surface; the troubles of a few minutes ago have been long forgotten. Although everything is fine now, the woods still watch us, ready to help if they should need to.
Almost two years later, I lie on my bed with all of my pillows covering me. If I sink down far enough, no one can see me; I can be invisible. If I squeeze my eyes shut really tightly, I can almost forget the world, almost. I feel the grass weaving its way between my toes as I walk into the woods. The smells of the bark and dirt fill my nose. My memory lets me feel like I am actually there, even though I am hundreds of miles away in an unfamiliar bedroom in Ohio. The memorable woods of my backyard in Virginia are long gone, but the remembrance of them is still with me.
The mailbox is empty, we have no missed calls, I have zero unread emails. She hasn’t even attempted to stay in touch. I have tried everything, but gotten no effort in return. We only moved a week ago and she has already given up on me. I dig my teeth into my lower lip and thrust my knuckles into a pillow. My heart pounds as I plunge my fists repeatedly into the soft cushion that smells faintly of laundry detergent. I am unable to believe that this is really happening.
She has her new life now and I have mine. Her dad is remarried and her mom has a boyfriend. My family hasn’t changed a bit. I guess we are growing apart, I think to myself as I walk through the woods, following the river. Which way did it turn next? Oh yes, I remember now, it turned right and went around that giant rock. My heartbeat slows as I imagine myself climbing that big oak tree, the bark scraping my bare feet, my callused hands tightly gripping the branches. Every new step taking me closer to the sky.
I open my eyes and break through the shell of pillows around me. The sun pouring through my window brings a smile to my face. I could be eight years old again, emerging from the covering of branches after helping Katie with another one of her problems. I walk towards my doorway, and at each step I leave memories of today’s journey into the woods. By the time I reach the hallway, a weight has been lifted, I am free. Even though Katie has left me, I know that our refuge never will.