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.