Going Home©

Going Home

Joe came to see me again today. It was one of those blissfully golden afternoons, the kind that breathes in late summer and exhales early autumn. The first conkers were fleshing out in their husky green cases, spines bristling forward like permanently terrified hedgehogs. “Bomby-Knockers”, that’s the name the kids give them round here. You should see them, clambering up the lower branches of the chestnut trees to Knock the Knockers. No fear. None at all. Kids are invincible, to all intents and purposes. If only that were true.

Anyway, excuse my rambling – it happens more often around this time of year. Nostalgia sets in, sliding between dust motes and evening bonfires. That particular afternoon, it was still hot enough to leave a slick of sweat on the brows of the men dotted around the neighbourhood in their deck chairs, legs thrown out before them and beer cans balanced with ease at their elbows. The hum of lawnmowers in several gardens made me think of that great grey shield of a wasp’s nest, deep in the woods backing onto the neighbourhood.

Joe came lolloping across the grass towards my tree with his usual ungainly gait, trainers flapping and baseball cap skewed on his head. He was all fingers and thumbs, large eyes set in a small face, dark curls bouncing beneath the cap. Always and forever a scruff-bag. The plaster affixed to his right knee bore witness to yet another fall. He’d probably tumbled over those trainers; two sizes too big for him, but Joe wouldn’t dream of changing them – not only were they Sketchers, they’d belonged to his older brother before he outgrew them. That made them pretty much priceless. So the trainers stayed, come bloodied knees and scraped elbows from the daily tumble or three.

Stopping before the oak’s huge trunk, he threw his little head back, almost knocking off the cap as he raised a hand to shield his eyes from the setting sun’s rays. He peered up into the branches, looking for me. I was sat well back into the fork of two boughs, cradled there against the rough bark, legs dangling. My knapsack, as always, was by my side – I had been sketching some more of the neighbourhood lately, trying to catch those dusky evenings, the creeping silent line of sunlight edging into shadow. I alternated light strokes of the pencil-point with heavy vigorous rubbings, smudging and blurring with a careful fingertip. My wrist ached with its poise.

So far, my efforts had all ended up in the bin. I don’t know why I bother, really. It’s like trying to bottle smoke. You can’t capture the threads of purple-grey smoke lacing the air, or the tang of charred meat, or the whooping laughter of kids on their bikes as they race each other up and down the road. Not on paper, canvas or film. These are just some of the things best left to the mind’s echoing corridors.

Joe finally caught sight of me, and the widest, purest grin – the kind only a small kid can make – split his face. I saw yet another gap in the front bottom row of his teeth. At this rate, he’d be downing soup and ice-cream in place of burgers and chew-bars for some time before his adults came through. His mouth was starting to resemble a chequerboard. Putting one hand on the gnarly trunk, he called up to me with his fluty little-boys voice.

“Paul! Paul, can y’throw me down the ladder? Pleeeeease? I’ve gotta come up an’ talk to you!” The urgency was unmistakable. This was I-need-to-talk-to-you-right-here-and-now-news. I couldn’t help the grin that slid across my face.

The “ladder” in question was actually a long hank of blue rope, knotted about one of the central boughs of the tree, just before the branches started thinning out. A large fat knot had been put at its end, for kids like Joe to sit on while a helpful pair of hands pulled at the other end. Anyone climbing up it into the oak’s cradling arms for peace – usually me – could haul the rope back up with them and wrap it loosely around its affixing bough, to stop others clambering up after them. The rope disappearing up into the leaves was effectively reading a “Do Not Disturb” sign. But in Joe’s case, I could make exceptions.

Leaning over onto my stomach, I unwound the rope from about the bough I was sitting on. Carefully, I lowered it to the small boy hopping from one foot to the other on the grass far below me. His round face was flushed pink, though with either the heat or excitement I couldn’t tell. His large brown eyes were fixed on the blue rope slowly uncoiling towards him.

Before it had properly reached the ground, he’d leapt into the air and fastened deftly onto the knotted end. Pulling hand over hand like the swiftest of monkeys, Joe was soon straddling the bough I perched on, facing me and talking nineteen to the dozen. I watched his little mouth move, astonished, as he barrelled on with barely a pause for breath.

“Paul, we’re going to move today, can you believe it’s come round so soon? Remember when I said to you how Mum told me we’re moving away to another town somewhere nearer London ‘cause that’s where Dad works an’ he wants to be closer to work an’ I’m gonna have to change schools an’ make lots of new friends? But I don’t wanna leave my friends behind I’ll miss Richie and Becca and Sam an’ you of course  an’ I don’t think I really want to move but Mum says I’ve got to even though I asked her if I could stay here with you. She just sighed an’ said ‘no’ an’ I asked if I could stay living here in this tree and she told me t’stop being so silly I couldn’t stay here on my own an’ I said I wouldn’t be on my own I’d be with you but she wouldn’t listen…” At last, Joe’s breath gave out completely, and his chatter paused while he sucked in great lungfuls of air, face now red and shiner than ever. I waited while he composed himself, sucking my pencil thoughtfully.

This was all nothing new to me, of course. Joe had told me of The Move several months ago – then in typical little-boy fashion, had promptly forgotten it again. What child lives for the future, when there’s always a new day, a new hour and moment to explore? It’d lingered in my mind, though. I’d always known this scenario would come; but as Joe had said, who would’ve known it’d be so soon? I felt a cold dismay rising up inside me, knew I had to disguise it.

After a minute or two, Joe could speak again. He stared up at me with those huge eyes, a beseeching expression on his face. I braced myself.

“I could stay here with you, Paul,” he said, forehead scrunched into premature wrinkles as he made a show of thinking deeply. “If I stayed here, with you, I could keep on going to the same school as Richie an’ Becca and Sam… I wouldn’t fall behind… an’ we’ve just started reading this really cool book in Miss Avery’s group, I want to find out what happens at the end… If I moved away I’d miss that, but I’d miss you most of all, Paul…”

Joe could out-plead any puppy. He stared up at me with those eyes and that slightly whining tone in his voice, perfectly pitched for maximum effect. I didn’t know what to say at first, could only fumble with the clasp of my knapsack. I mean, how do you tell the kid you’ve been friends with since he was the tiniest tot that No, he can’t stay and live with you in a tree?

I had to deal with this somehow. Nip it in the bud now, while Joe was most likely to listen and the idea was fresh in his mind. If he got it into his head to stay, nothing his parents could do or say would sway him. He’d likely tie himself to the oak with this very rope, given half the chance. No matter where they took him, he wouldn’t be content unless I put it into his mind that the move was the best choice for him. I needed to make him see that he could take fragments of this place, and me, with him so he wouldn’t feel so lost and alone. But only fragments. Sometimes, there’s no choice but to stand still and let others move on around you, ahead of you, away.

Reaching into the knapsack, I pulled out a long white feather, shimmering like a streak of snow. Holding it up before Joe’s face, I saw his eyes light up with memory, and smiled. This was something he could relate to, something from our shared pasts.

“That’s the swan feather we found on the riverbank!” he yelped excitedly, reaching across with grasping fingers for it. I gave it up to him, watched as he stroked his little fingers up and down the little wisps near the bottom – afterfeathers, I think they’re called. I nodded, settling back against the bark more comfortably.

“Remember how we walked along that riverbank all afternoon, looking for duck feathers to stick on your Indian headband?” I said, my own mind flitting back to that early spring afternoon when the fluffy clouds seemed to have been washed an impossible white and hung out to dry. Up and down we’d traipsed, Joe’s ceaseless chatter occasionally punctuated with little whoops of joy as he’d spied yet another feather to fumble into his small satchel. He’d been younger then, even more excitable than he was now. But he’d always behaved when out walking with me – and walk we did, often and far, around the neighbourhood, into the woods and across the fields, his little legs pumping like pistons beside me, mouth working with his stream of little-boy thoughts.

Now, his head nodded furiously, brown curls bouncing just above his shoulders. Joe was always in need of a haircut. He pulled the feather through his fingers, waved it about like a sleek sword.

“I ‘member the swan coming out of the grass an’ hissin’ at us!” he babbled, nose scrunched up. “He stuck out his big long neck and went ‘ssssssss’ just like a snake, but I wasn’t scared oh no, ‘cause I knew you wouldn’t let him get us, an’ I had that magic lucky stone you gave me…”

 Joe reached out his little hand for my knapsack, fingers opening and closing in request. I handed it over, watched as that same hand disappeared inside; hoped that I’d stored my other pencils away safely so he wouldn’t jab his fingers with the freshly-sharpened lead. His tongue stuck out the side of his mouth in concentration. After a few moments, with a little gasp of relief, his curled fist emerged. Opening it wide, he produced the “lucky stone”, sitting snugly in his palm.

It was a small pebble, dusky rose in colour, glittering in places with tight pockets of minerals. What had captivated Joe, though, was the tiny hole bored straight through the centre of the pebble, like a wormhole in soil. I’d told him that this made the stone lucky for anyone who carried it; that I’d keep it in my knapsack, but since he’d found it, it was his by rights.  Joe now rolled the stone up and down his palm, watching the golden sun that filtered through the leaves pick out sparkling minerals.

“We found this down where the stream starts, in the woods, remember? That day when Mum said I wasn’t to go out ‘cause it looked like rain, but I snuck out anyway, an’ you found me down by the woods with that big dog being all scary…” His voice tailed off, and I knew he was picturing that slavering mongrel again, all dark hackles and bared teeth. It had somehow gotten loose from whatever backyard it had been tied up in, made its way down to the woods and backed Joe into a tight spot. He’d leapt off the stream bank onto a little island at the water’s centre, only to find there was no way of reaching the other side without swimming – and Joe is no water baby.

I’d heard his screams from deep within the woods, where I’d been walking alone among the bluebells and pale silver birch, stopping every now and then to make some quick sketches of my surroundings. Shoving my pad and pencils into my knapsack, I’d bolted along the path in the direction of those terrified shrieks, my hair standing on end, lungs soon clawing for air. My ears had picked up the rapid-fire barks of the dog harassing him, and I’d felt my heart falter in my chest.

Bursting out into a glade through which the stream ran, I found the boy perched on his little island, tears streaking his cheeks and eyes showing their whites as he stared at the great dog bouncing around on the bank furthest from me, its snarls and barks puncturing the calm of the woods. A chain dangled from its studded collar, the pin still attached to the end.

Grabbing a large branch from the ground, I’d set about the dog with all the strength of my desperation, trying to keep the fear from showing. Those flashing teeth had struck at the branch, once, twice! Then three times, but eventually the dog tired of being beaten about the head and neck with half a tree, sloping off into the woods with its tail between its legs and the chain trailing behind fittingly. I watched until it’d disappeared completely, crashing back through the woods in the direction of the neighbourhood.

Reaching out towards the sobbing boy on the island, I somehow convinced him – with many promises of sweets and no more dogs – to jump back onto the stream bank. I caught him and held his little body as it quaked with tears and noisy sobs. I must admit, my throat ached a bit, too.

When he’d quietened to snivels, and I’d dried his nose on my hankie, Joe was able to explain what he was doing out there in the woods. He’d sneaked out the back door while his Mum was making dinner, having been forbidden from going out again that evening. His Dad’s golf clubs hadn’t made the best walking sticks, apparently.

After giving him a few stern words (none of which I think he took to heart, since he knew my own mischievous past), I led Joe down to the mouth of the stream, where it bubbled up from an underground spring. Crouching down, I plunged my hand into the clear-running water, which waffled coldly around my fingers. Scrabbling in the silt, I at last found at what I was looking for – this very same pebble. I’d noticed it some days ago, nestling at the mouth of the stream in the shallows, its minerals winking in the sunlight, the little hole like a pupil in an iris of rose. I’d left it there, to show Joe at some later date – this seemed the perfect time, to distract the boy from his fright.

Holding it up to show him, I saw Joe’s red-rimmed eyes grow wide with delight, first at the beautiful duskiness of the pebble, then at the tunnel through its heart.

“It’s good luck to find a stone with a hole through it like this, Joe,” I told him sincerely, “though I can’t remember why. It’s lucky I heard you crying, and the dog barking, don’t you think?” Joe nodded empathically. “So I’ll keep it in my bag, for you to look at and remember why you should never, ever go wandering off by yourself – especially in these woods.” With this last part, I tried my best to appear stern again, hoping to imprint the warning on Joe. But the poor kid already looked so sorry for himself, with his dark curls damp from fear and clinging to his forehead, his eyes squidgy from crying and his hands and knees scuffed with mud from scrabbling desperately up onto the island. I just didn’t have the heart to press the reprimand. Instead, I held the pebble out, dropping it into Joe’s outstretched hands for him to examine. He turned the pebble this way and that, weighing it in his palm, holding it up to his bright brown eye and trying to peer through the minute hole.

He was doing it again now, still searching for the worms he was convinced had burrowed into and lived inside that pebble. I watched him, watched the evening sunlight sliding deft red-gold fingers over his plump cheeks, burning in his dark hair. I found a sudden lump in my throat. This little tyke had come to mean more to me than I’d care to let on.

I’d only ever been a loner; company of any sort just didn’t interest me. I could go whole days without feeling the need to say a word. But this little boy, with his almost ceaseless chatter and lively eyes, his openly questioning mind – he was different. I couldn’t imagine him not being here, waiting below this oak for me to haul him up. The thought of the empty space beside me, where Joe would’ve sat…it left an ache in my chest.

But nothing lasts forever. I should’ve got this by now.

Reaching into my knapsack again, I slowly drew out the last item I wanted to show him. It was my sketchpad. Flipping through the pages, I pulled one out and laid it on the boy’s lap. He glanced down, then lowered the pebble completely and stared. His eyes widened and a grin, like a slice of the sunlight, lit his face. He plucked it up.

It was a drawing I’d completed only the day before, and had been meaning to give to him. It was Joe himself, spread out flat on his stomach in the cradling arms of this very tree, eyes vacant and mind wandering as he gazed out to the distant horizon. The lightest breeze had been ruffling his hair, stirring the leaves that fanned out around him. He’d been laying this way some weeks ago, and it was too good an opportunity for me to miss. I’d grabbed my sketchpad and pencils quickly while his eyes were closed, savouring the balmy evening, and mapped out the lightest contours of his face; the way his arms crossed under his chin, nestling his head; how one of his legs had lolled down to the bough below, the other spread out behind him. This was Joe as I wanted to remember him, always – lost in his own world, forever the little boy with unruly curls and scraped knees, too-big Sketchers and gap-toothed grin.

Joe seemed as frozen as the image of himself on the paper. His long fringe drooped into his eyes, hiding their expression. I felt a cold, harsh feeling in my throat – what if he didn’t like it? I wanted this, my last gift to him, to be perfect – to bind together all the memories we shared, like a photo album holding precious snapshots. I lifted a hand, waved it in front of him.

“Joe, kiddo…what d’you think? Do you like it? I know you were away with the fairies, I couldn’t resist, really…” I was struck by the thought that maybe he was just too young to appreciate the sentiment of the gift.

 He looked up at me, brushing hair from his eyes, and I knew. He was beyond words. For once, this little boy’s mouth wasn’t working furiously to express his opinions or emotions. He was utterly dumbstruck. Not only that, but his eyes were shining – were those tears? Yes. Joe was crying.

Now it was my turn to lose the power of speech. I’d had no idea he would be so touched by this gift. That hard throat-feeling had knotted into a lump, caught in my throat, blocking whatever words I could’ve said to comfort him. Mindful of our precarious perches on that bough, all I could do was lean across and skim my fingers lightly over his eyelashes, leaving a trail of shining droplets on my fingertips. Sitting back, I stared at them in wonder. To me, they were the most precious gift Joe could’ve given back. To know that he not only liked my picture, but would treasure it in the days, months, years to come…time spent growing up, getting on with life as only a small child can. That was all I could ask for.

Joe was still staring back at me, his bottom lip trembling. I could see his fists bunched up around the pad, knew he was trying to be a Big Boy and not cry properly. But there were little hitches going on in his chest, stifled sobs. His nose was starting to run.

Glancing around, I suddenly noticed how the darkness had crept in upon us. The patches of sky visible through the leaves and branches were a deep azure, shot through with skeins of scarlet. I glimpsed the sun, a flaming eye about to close on the world, hovering on the rim of the horizon. The sounds of kids playing had given way to the friendly hum of chatter, neighbours leaning on fences for a last chit-chat before dinner. Golden squares of light were blinking on, as families settled down together around tables or in front of the TV. The warmth of the day still hung sultry and thick in the air, but now the freshening night breezes were weaving their way through the leaves of the tree, stirring Joe’s hair. It was time for him to be going home.

I stirred myself, reluctantly. Last Goodbyes were hard enough; how did you find the right words to say to a seven year old?

As if on cue, I heard footsteps below, on the path leading into the woods. The oak we sat in was on the fringes, the path running directly beneath it. Craning my head down, I could just make out, in the lowering gloom, the figure of a woman standing at the base of our tree. Her pale face, like a small moon, was tilted upwards.

“Joe?” she called softly, “are you up there?”

“Mum?” Joe’s reverie was broken. Gripping the bough, he leant over and peered down towards the ground. I wanted to tell him to be careful, to not lean out so far – but the words lodged in my throat like grit in a bird’s craw.

“Come on down now, darling, we’ve got to get going. Your Dad’s waiting in the car for us,” her voice floated up to us. “And you know you’re not supposed to be up there alone.” I heard the worry in her tone, wanted to ease it. Closing the flap of my knapsack, I tried to keep a brisk air, to alleviate the pain of what came next.

Disturbed by my movements, Joe glanced back at me. I could just see his face, in the last red rays of the sun – his eyes were wide and desperate. He shook his head to and fro. I knew what he was trying to say, that it was too soon, there was more he wanted to say. But there was no more time. I motioned for him to reply to his mother.

“I’m…I’m coming down, Mum,” he called, and my heart ached at the smallness of his voice. He was struggling so hard not to cry. “I’m up here with Paul. Can I…can I just say g’bye first? Please?”

 I heard the small sigh below, knew how her patience would soon wear pretty thin. But for me, she’d make time, as she had in the past. She knew how things ran between Joe and I. Her voice drifted up to us again, throaty with emotions she couldn’t hide.

“Come down when you’re ready, Joe, just … don’t make it too long, OK?”

 Joe reached across and took one of my hands, getting my full attention. His fingers felt sweaty as they clung to mine. “I’ve got to go now, Paul,” he said, a sob caught between the words. Come on, I willed him, you can do it. Let go now. Don’t cry. Go on to your new home. “I…I guess I won’t be seein’ you anymore, huh?” He sniffed hard, and I winced, giving him my hankie. He took it, gave his nose a good blow, tried to hand it back to me – I waved it away. He needed one of his own, anyway. With a grateful look, he pocketed it. Scrubbing at his eyes, he didn’t seem to know how to proceed. I finished for him.

“You just keep on growing and learning, Joe,” I said softly. “Don’t ever stop asking questions. Wherever you go to live, find yourself a nice tree to sit in and listen to the wind talking to the leaves, all right? You know I’ll be listening with you.” I squeezed his hand – the one not holding the picture. He gripped it suddenly, fiercely. In the fading light, I saw the tears on his cheeks.

“Can’t you come with me, Paul?” His voice was pleading, and I knew he was trying that pathetic-puppy look again, even though I couldn’t see it properly. “I’ll be so bored an’ lonely without you around. None of the other kids round here were so cool to hang out with…couldn’t I just ask Mum to let you come with us? Please?”

Before I could reply – and what could I say, really, that would make him feel any better? – his Mum called up again from below, impatient now, but also a little spooked by the darkening woods. “Joe! I’m not telling you again! Come down here now, the lorry’s about to leave and we’ve got to get you in the car!” A pause, then more softly – “I’m not leaving you here, so don’t even try it.”

Joe winced. I made it easier for him, silently passing the rope across; it still dangled down to the ground, its knotted end disappearing into the blurry darkness below. Joe stared at it, then at the items in his lap – the feather, the stone, the picture. Seeing his predicament, I pulled my sketchpad and pencils out of my knapsack, unslung it from around my shoulders and draped the strap over his head before he could speak. Ignoring the startled look on his face, I motioned for him to pop his gifts back into the bag. Once he’d done so, I closed the flap and put the rope securely in his hands.

Joe took the initiative then, sliding his little backside along the bough until he’d dropped off it, sending little puffs of green dust flying. He dangled on the rope, staring up at me while gravity tried to take over, tugging on his little arms. Wrapping his legs about the rope to give himself a moment more, he whispered, “Bye Paul!” And was gone.

I was left alone on the bough, listening to his small body making its nimble way down the rope – he was always better at going down than up – with the occasional grunt or scuffling sound as a Sketcher came into contact with the tree trunk. I couldn’t have watched him even if I wanted to, in the gloom. I sat back against the oak instead, feeling the gnarly bark through the thin shirt on my back, listening as Joe landed on the path below with a muffled thump. I knew he’d jumped the rest of the way, and shook my head. I couldn’t stop the grin spreading over my face, even as the tears fell.

“There you are, at last,” came his mothers’ voice again – it was reprimanding and soothing all at once, just as it should be. Warm and tangy, like fresh honey. “Let’s get going, OK? Before it gets too dark to see the path.” Peering down, I saw her kneeling before him, straightening the cap on his head, chucking his chin. Then she looked up. I saw her pale, blurred face almost directly below mine. She called up once more. “Take care, Paul…and thank you. I…” She seemed about to continue, then stopped, calling the words back on her breath. She looked back down at the ground; I saw her hunch her shoulders slightly. Then she stood and, taking Joe by the hand, began to lead him away from the oak.

“Wait ‘til you see what Paul gave me, Mum.” Joe’s voice floated up to me on the night breeze. I closed my eyes, straining my ears to hear them both as they walked away from the fringes of the wood, back into the suburban street. There was still the tang of wood-smoke in the air. “He gave me his bag an’ some things we found together, an’ this really cool picture, of me. He drew it for me.” I imagined him rummaging in the knapsack right then, hunting for the gifts to show her once they’d passed into the sodium lamp’s glare. “I asked him…I asked if I could stay, y’know, here in these woods…I know he’d take care of me…”

I sighed, shook my head in despair. The poor kid just didn’t know when to quit. I heard their footsteps pause on the path, pictured her kneeling in front of him, trying to explain while choking down tears.

“Joe, I know you’ve been friends with Paul since you were very little…but you just can’t stay here with him. We’ve been through this, remember? I know you don’t want to leave here…” She let out a long, shuddering sigh. I knew she hated herself for this, for parting her little boy from what might be his only true friend. “Please, don’t let’s talk about this again darling, all right? We’ve got to get in the car now. It’s time to go.” Their footsteps resumed on the path, and I could just barely make out Joe’s little voice as he protested.

“But Paul’s got no one else, Mum – he’s always out here, walking by the stream or sitting in that big ol’ tree, the one with the knotty blue rope…what if he gets lonely, without me?” Another little sniffle.

Then they were gone, and I heard no more. Heaving on the rope, I pulled it all back up and wound it carefully around the bough – I wanted no disturbances, now.

Stretching my legs out before me, I reflected on Joe’s last words, chewing my lip pensively as the darkness closed in around me. I belonged to these woods, it was true. I’d decided from my early teens that there was nowhere else I’d rather be. Even if it meant giving up the family house into which I was born, which I’d never called Home. Not after my loving parents had discovered the answer to all their problems at the bottom of a bottle, and had had trouble climbing their way back up those slippery glass walls.

They’d begun administering their own brand of “love” to me, and before long, my child’s mind had gone quiet, inverted. There was no one I could trust. I retreated to the one place of sanctuary left, somewhere they couldn’t find me – the woods surrounding the neighbourhood. My ownEden. No one, no matter how hard they looked – and believe me, they didn’t look for long, not in the depths of that wilderness, where only a small child could know where to find the darkest, dampest nooks to hide in – could hope to find me there. I learnt how to survive, alone, and pretty soon most of the neighbourhood had forgotten about me, save for some of the families whose children I’d once known but never fit in with.

Joe’s family had been just one of these. His Mum and Dad had been kind enough to leave out food and clothes for me, hand-me-downs from their older boy’s wardrobe. But they were also sensitive enough never to look for me, or try to force me to come back into the fold of society.

But then Joe had come along. My junior by years, but still somehow older than he was meant to be. Not a quiet lad by any means, but so peculiarly observant, with a smart head on his shoulders. Like me, he’d never seemed to fit in with his peers – he was happiest when exploring, watching, listening. It’d been his own back garden at first, then he’d started moving further afield as his age and courage increased. He’d needed someone to watch over him. For the first time in my life, I’d found someone who needed me, actually wanted my company. And even more startling – I’d wanted to return the favour.

          What if he gets lonely, without me?

Reaching out, I patted the bark of the oak fondly, swallowing. This was my favourite spot, somewhere to rest up for the night, until morning came. But this bough…it suddenly seemed too big for just me, alone. I shook my head fiercely. I had made him let go. He’d been the brave one, since he was small. Now it was my turn. I’d been alone for most of my life, one way or another – why should it hurt so much to go back to what I already knew? Who’d really needed who, when it came down to it?

In the distance, I heard the slamming of a car door, the revving of an engine. It might’ve been anyone…but then again, it might’ve been my last link to Joe. The final sounds of his young life, blending into my own. I listened to the engine turning over, and then trickling away into shreds, out of my earshot. The night was suddenly more a presence than a natural occurrence.

Letting one leg dangle below me, head back against the oak, I felt my eyelids closing on the world. The rope was the last thing I saw, through lowering eyelashes still wet with tears. I could just make out the frayed knot at its end, dangling a little loose where the rope wouldn’t wind one last time around the bough, swinging in the night breeze…


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