by Yvette Ward-Horner
The bench feels old, cool to the touch and splintery. It is the last wooden bench in the park. She loves it the way some people love their hamsters. To her, it has the soul of a tree.
She sits on it with her legs pulled up to her chest and her notebook on her knees, forgetting to worry that someone might see her underwear. Her mother’s panties itch beneath her dress.
Oh Tree, she writes in her notebook. Oh aching Sky.
She sucks the eraser on the end of her pencil. The low harvest sun sends shafts of light drifting through the cottonwoods.
Two boys fly past on bicycles. Their shadows race each other on the path.
“Nelly, Nelly, weird and smelly!”
She flinches. She grips her notebook. If they take it from her and throw it in the pond, she will have to begin again. She watches them hurtle over the hill.
The poem must be turned in tomorrow. She sucks her pencil, gazing at the sky, then pops it out of her mouth.
You are like a choir.
She leans back, her eyes shining. Mr. Herbert will notice that. He loves similes. He always makes a big deal about it when she puts similes in her stories, and sometimes he reads them aloud to the class. He strokes his short red beard as he’s reading, strolling back and forth.
She rubs her left knee absently, a red bruise lumpy under her fingers. It still aches from being landed on, hard, at lunchtime. If she closes her eyes, she can feel the imprint of Kathleen’s shoving hand on her back.
“That’s what you get for making us listen to your dumb story!” Kathleen had yelled. The kids watching had smirked and nudged each other when she limped across the art room afterwards. “Get Herbert-the-Pervert to kiss it better,” someone said.
A breeze ripples up from the pond, bitter with an unexpected chill. Nelly shivers. It is the dying part of fall. Soon the cold will creep over the plains, driving in the entombing winter nights. Her fingers will redden and burn. Her lips will crack. That will give them something else to talk about.
“That’s disgusting, tell your mama to get you some ChapStick!”
But Mama wouldn’t, even if she asked.
Goosebumps spring up on her arms. She sucks her pencil, stares at the page, thinking. A wisp of hair tickles the side of her face. The pencil pops out again.
In your voice I hear the meaning of life.
Her face is rapt.
A song by somebody who loves me.
Voices rise from the other side of the hill. She stops writing and hugs her notebook, listening. A group of girls are shrieking and giggling, their piercing voices tearing at the sky. The boys on bikes must have been hunting them.
Nelly wipes the wet eraser on her leg. Her skin is pale and bumpy like chicken skin. She thinks of Kathleen’s legs, brown and round and solid, and wishes that her own legs looked so real. She rubs the eraser back and forth until it dries. If only, she thinks, she could erase herself completely.
* * *
On the bus in the morning, her nose runs and she wipes it on her sleeve.
“Ew!” cries the girl in the aisle seat. “Why do I have to sit next to her?”
Nelly leans away from her, staring at the world outside the bus. Winter is galloping towards them now. When she woke, the cold had seeped into her room; she rummaged, shivering, in the heap of clothes in the closet. She found her sweatshirt at the bottom. It smelled like wet leaves.
Many weeks have passed since Mama looked in Nelly’s closet. The laundry baskets have overflowed. During the day, Mama sprawls face-down under the red blanket on the couch. She tells Nelly to go away. In the evening she sits up and picks the scabs on her skinny legs, waiting for someone to come and get her. She stays out late.
Sometimes Nelly steals one of her cigarettes. She sits on the bench and smokes it slowly, hoping that someone from school will come by and see. But nobody does.
* * *
Mr. Herbert reads her poem aloud in English class. A few kids turn around and make faces at her, but she doesn’t care. Sunlight dances through the window. Her eyes sparkle. He tells the class they should be proud to have a talented poet in their midst. Kathleen makes a gagging sound. Mr. Herbert pretends not to hear. He walks over to Nelly and pats her shoulder. Up close, he smells like laundry soap and cologne.
“You have a great future ahead of you,” he says.
* * *
At lunchtime she remembers that P.E. is next. Her mother’s panties are bunched between her legs. Her face burns. If Kathleen sees the panties, she will chase Nelly into the playground and pull down her jeans. She will scream for the others to come and look. Nelly cringes.
She can’t pretend to be sick and skip P.E. The nurse hates her. The nurse is like a grown-up Kathleen; she turns red when Nelly goes near her. She tells her to hold her head up, to stand up straight. The nurse knows that if she calls Nelly’s house, no one will answer. She’ll be stuck with Nelly all day. She stares at Nelly like a pit bull, waiting to bite her.
Nelly’s hands are shaky. She chokes down her free lunch, fish sticks and soft carrots, feeling sick. The lunchroom teacher scrutinizes the room. Nelly stares at her empty tray, her head humming with fear. She knows she will leave. She will walk home. It’s a long way but eventually she’ll get there.
Outside, the wind is frost-tinged. Her eyes water. Mrs. Jackson is on playground duty, her face puckered as if sucking lemons. She stands with her arms folded, hunched against the chill, indifferent to the kaleidoscope of new winter hats and jackets. The mass of kids surges and ebbs, bobbing and racing and leaping. Their shrill voices rise in ribbons, torn to shreds by the wind. The older kids huddle in sneering packs, arms linked, heads bent, whispering.
Nelly stands on the fringes, waiting, chewing her thumbnail. A screaming girl assails Mrs. Jackson, tears spurting, her cheek red where another girl has slapped it. Mrs. Jackson shakes her hand off, impatient, turning angrily in search of the culprit. Nelly takes a deep breath and runs. Her flip-flops slap the ground. Her back is rigid as she rushes around the corner, expecting any moment a tell-tale’s shout, a voice full of lemons calling her back. Nothing happens.
She stands breathless on the other side of the fence, marveling at how easy it is to escape. The trees rain yellow leaves. Their roots have buckled the sidewalk. The sun sifts through a fraying canopy, scattering golden specks on the ground, on her hands. She has found a secret world. The view from here is nothing like the view from the school bus. She walks with her face upturned, enchanted.
Half a mile down the road, a black car pulls up beside her. She stares at the driver’s side window rolling down silently.
“Good gracious, Nelly.”
It’s Mr. Herbert.
“What are you doing here?”
She stiffens, blushing. She gives him a pleading look.
“Hop into the car,” he says. His car is small and sporty. Nelly thinks it looks foreign and expensive.
* * *
He listens to her explanation with a troubled expression. The heater blows warm air on her feet.
“My head hurts,” she tells him, twisting her fingers together. “My mama can’t come and get me.” It was true, they had taken away her license. “I just want to go home.”
He rubs the side of his nose slowly, pursing his lips like a judge mulling over a verdict.
“I’ll take you home,” he says. “If you keep it a secret.”
Nelly nods emphatically. She would never tell. He is the best teacher in the world. He makes a U-turn. She gazes out of the window, wondering how a thin piece of glass could put such a boundless distance between her and the trees. It is the difference between inside and outside, between Nelly and Smelly. Outside, she can rest in the leaf-shadows, sap-stained, closing her eyes to dream. Inside, her eyes must always stay open, to watch for a jabbing elbow or sudden push. Inside, people want her to disappear.
Her gaze slides forward as parking lots deaden the landscape. Brown leaves swirl across the street. The sun fades behind racing clouds.
“I’m very impressed by your work,” Mr. Herbert is saying. He takes his eyes off the road to look at her. She feels shy. “If you’ve written anything else, I would love to read it.”
They roll to a stop at an intersection not far from her house. They drive past the park.
“I’ve written some other things,” she tells him, flushing.
Her opus is a long rambling tale about a forest. The trees in the forest learn to speak. In the story, a girl named Jasminda wanders into the forest and the trees love her so much that they beg her to stay. Jasminda becomes their queen. She has sturdy brown legs and curly hair and she says holy moley when someone tells her a secret. The story is called The Adventures of Jasminda.
Nelly isn’t sure if she wants Mr. Herbert to read it.
Mr. Herbert pulls onto her street. He looks at her house for a moment. He leans back in his seat and put his arm on her headrest.
“Nelly,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to make friends. Nobody liked me when I was young. And look at me now.”
Nelly imagines all the people who must like him.
He leans toward her. His arm drifts forward until it grazes the top of her head. She smells his cologne and turns toward him. His beard looks dense. His mouth is small and full, surrounded by bushy red hair.
Her eyes flutter back to her knees.
“I want us to be friends,” he says. His voice is soft, as though he’s telling her a secret. He glances over his shoulder. “I’d like you to come to my house and read me your stories. Would that be nice?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
“I think it would be nice,” he says. He takes his arm off the headrest and pats her leg. He leaves his hand there, casually. He might have forgotten it. She stares at his pale fingers on her jeans. She doesn’t move.
He looks at the park. The sign by the entrance is quite far off and hard to read. “John-Glen-Moore-Park,” he sounds out, one syllable at a time. She reads it with him, silently. He pats her leg again, gives it a squeeze.
“Why don’t you meet me there after school tomorrow?” His voice is soft and low, telling secrets, making secrets. “Would you like that, Nelly?”
She nods, biting her lip. He takes his hand back.
“Great,” he says. “Just watch for my car in the parking lot around four.”
She nods again. Her voice is leaking out of her body. He pops the unlock button and she gets out and watches him drive away. The tall weeds in the front yard shake in the wind. She looks at the park and sees dark clouds massing behind the trees.
* * *
“Mama,” she says.
“Leave me alone, Nellie.” Mama shifts under her blanket, kicking a beer can onto the rug.
Nellie gets into bed to stay warm.
* * *
In the park, the cottonwoods look mournful, half-clothed. Nellie sits on the wooden bench, her shoulders slumped, holding her notebook in her arms like a baby. It is a thick, well-thumbed five-in-one notebook with a flowery yellow cover. She won it at the library. Stories about Jasminda cram the pages, written in Nelly’s small, looping handwriting.
In chapter six of The Adventure of Jasminda, a stranger comes into the forest. They welcome him at first, only to find out that he is really A Very Bad Man. He wants to cut down the trees. He tries to distract Jasminda by giving her pretty things. The ruby rings and sparkles dazzle her briefly, but in the end she unmasks his plot and chases him out of the forest. Jasminda saves the day.
Nelly thinks about Jasminda now as she waits for Mr. Herbert. She imagines Jasminda sitting amongst the cottonwoods. She can almost see her, tall and brown, comfortable with her back against a tree.
Come here where it’s safe, Jasminda calls to her.
Nelly’s lower lip trembles. She tells herself not to be silly. She watches the parking lot, clutching her notebook against her chest. The park is deserted today. The pond lies still and depthless. The cold aches. Nelly’s feet, already too long for her flip-flops, look hard and red.
She sees the black sports car cruise down the street, sleek and purposeful like a shark. It circles the park twice. She watches it pull into the parking lot. She wonders if Mr. Herbert can see her. Stiff with cold, she rises slowly, wishing she could go home and get into bed.
Stay here with me, Jasminda says.
But if she does, he won’t talk to her anymore. He won’t like her. He won’t read her stories and hold her similes up to the light.
The air is dense and calm. She can see her breath. She trudges toward the parking lot. Now she can see Mr. Herbert through the windshield, waving at her to hurry. He looks agitated. Shadows streak the glass, distorting his face.
Nelly, Nelly, don’t go, Jasminda weeps.
Nelly gets into the car.
Dusk melts the frigid light away. Jasminda fades into the long shadows embracing the trees. Nelly stares out of the car window at their ragged branches thrust into the sky. She feels herself disappearing, a small speck dwindling to a pin-prick of light. Winter has come.
Yvette Ward-Horner lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she is working on her first novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Night Train, Storyglossia, Necessary Fiction, Cantaraville, Amarillo Bay, The Writer's Digest 78th Annual Competition Collection and others. Find her online at yvettewardhorner.blogspot.com.