We were told to stay out of the woods that fall, but it was too late. We had traipsed through the trees all summer, even chopped down eight skinny ones to make a tepee. Stole Jayne’s mom’s AstroTurf rug from beside her pool so we wouldn’t have to sit in the mud. But we painted our faces with the mud and made crowns from the weeds we thought were dainty flowers. We made a rope swing to guide us as we crossed the brook, tightrope walking on a fallen tree. All of us but Jayne too scared to actually swing across. We knew Jayne hadn’t finished Bridge to Terabithia even though she said she did.
The parents heard about a gang in town. Said they stole from the shops along the highway and hid out in the woods. Our woods. So we weren’t allowed there anymore. But Leigh’s older brother Jonny said there weren’t gangs in the suburbs at all. Our parents were just worried we were becoming a roving bunch of lesbians hiding out in our dirty tepee and touching each other. We told Jonny he wished and pushed our non-existent boobs together and made kissing faces until he swore and walked away.
Ana’s mom asked us why we stopped swimming, why we’d want to hide out in the woods when we had a perfectly good in-ground pool over at Jayne’s. When it was still hot out in September we should be soaking up the sun, she said. That it would be winter soon and we’d regret it. We told her one of us always had our period and we didn’t swim in solidarity. She rolled her eyes and swung her purse over her shoulder. Told us to take Ana’s baby brother Jake with us. To be careful.
Jake was five and whiny but adorable, all fuzzy brown hair and chubby cheeks. Agreed to anything we asked if we said we’d be his best friends. We crowned him in wild daisies and pulled off his T-shirt to paint a jack-o’-lantern face in mud. He said it tickled when we circled his bellybutton with a grin. We told him we always swam in the brook and he should, too. Even though we just threw coins in with wishes or fished for beer cans and plastic bags—signs of gang-related activity, of course. Ana laughed the hardest when Jake whined he was freezing, mud running in streaks down his pale doughy body. The jack-o’-lantern crying too. We told her she was being mean and to take her brother home. That we’d see her tomorrow. We wiped the mud off Jake’s belly and each gave him a hug, saying: Don’t cry. Wasn’t this fun? Isn’t our tepee wicked cool?
As they left, Jake clinging to Ana’s back, Jayne led us to the furthest part of the woods. Turned out she had a plan and didn’t want Jake to blab. We went to The End, where the woods met the highway, and lines of cars zipped past in blurs. We thought it was funny The End could be so loud when we never heard the traffic back by the tepee. Jayne was curious about the other stretch of woods starting just beyond those four lanes. We didn’t say anything for a while, just listened as Samantha peeled the paper off the back of a Fruit by the Foot and ate it inch by inch. We didn’t say anything until Jayne pulled a bright yellow softball out of her backpack and smiled. Who bets me I can throw this to the other side? she said and stood before we replied. Jayne leaned over the guardrail and let the wind rushing off the cars brush her hair wild.
We told her she was being crazy. Did she have a death wish? Did she really want to die a virgin? We heard doing it made your butt bigger and all knew Jayne was obsessed with the idea. Anything to fix her pancake ass. Jayne mimicked one of the high school softball pitchers, the one with the long blond ponytail who whipped her arm in three wide circles before she sailed the ball to a strike. Except Jayne didn’t let it go. She looked out to the cars and said it’s not the right time. We watched her watch the cars, their tires kicking up bits of gravel and dust. She stepped away from the guardrail and pulled her arm back, bowling this time, then whipped the ball forward. It skidded through the first two lanes just fine but hit the tire of a rusty truck in lane three and ping ponged back toward us, skipping up into the air. We screeched and ran, not knowing where it’d land, not wanting to get yelled at by the angry drivers or, worse, our parents if the drivers found us out.
Once the honking and yelling died down, Jayne started laughing. She gestured wildly across the highway, laughing at all of us still crouched behind trees. The bright yellow ball was unmistakably sitting pretty on the other side, an egg in a nest of scraggly highway grass. Other tires must have hit it back to the other woods. What do you think they’re like? she asked us as we came back to the clearing. The other woods?
They aren’t real woods, we told her. The highway curves around. It’s just a pocket of trees, we said, but she had a look in her eyes like she didn’t believe. Before we knew it Jayne was lifting her leg over the guardrail, then straddling it. She sucked her stomach in and pushed her chest out, saluting us like a soldier in a sappy movie. She hopped off the guardrail and ran into traffic—behind a blue car, in front of a screeching minivan, in front of a black car, and blew a kiss to the driver of a car in lane four, an old guy who slammed on his breaks and swore out his window. On the other side, Jayne lifted the softball into the air and started a savage dance—all hip thrusts and whoops and waving arms. We joined in for a moment before sitting down, resting our chins and arms on the guardrail and whispering to each other about how we’d get Jayne back. She kept on dancing, did a cartwheel, then disappeared into the trees. We stopped whispering. We knew she couldn’t hear us, wouldn’t care anyway since she always admitted she was the crazy one. Well she clearly is the crazy one, we agreed as we pulled leaves from the trees and ripped them into tiny pieces. We showered ourselves in the green confetti and wondered what Jayne would do when she realized she was wrong. Those trees weren’t another set of woods, just a break in the highway.
If Jayne was disappointed, she didn’t show it, still danced as she emerged from the other woods, tossing the softball from one hand to the other. A knowing smirk on her face like a dare.
One by one we left. Kate saying she didn’t want to be here when Jayne tried to come back. That the traffic would get worse before it got better. Samantha having to finish homework and hungry for dinner. Leigh not wanting to get in trouble. Her mom would actually notice if she wasn’t back before dark. Until it was just me and Jayne, each sitting behind cold metal guardrails, separated by four lanes of traffic, and wondering if gangs were real or imagined. •