When I was sixteen, the way to visit the preacher’s son was this: I would wait until my grandmother fell asleep, listening in bed for the house to quiet down. Then I would climb barefoot down the redbud beside my window. I would unlatch the gate, my feet wet with dew as I slipped my way through the fence post in the back garden. I passed houses, shut tight and locked, and in my youth I pitied all those trapped inside, ignorant of the fresh blue air of the night. I stomped my way triumphant through the old school yard. I couldn’t get to him fast enough.
He was always waiting at the edge of the forest. He would take my hand and lead me through the dark bodies of the wood, to the stone outline of the house that had burned down long before. We laid on the earth, the needles of Virginia Pine pressing their fine lines in criss cross shapes across my shoulders. In those days, I thought only of him and the way his hands felt on my skin, the glow of his shoulders in the moonlight while the stars winked down at us from beyond the shadows of the trees.
At twenty-three, once the house was still I walked down the stairs, moving slowly. I yawned my way through the front gate. Out in the town the hush of the night made me shiver. Older, I looked on the quiet houses with longing. I pictured the peaceful families, the children snug in their rooms and the fathers and mothers sleeping close together. Each porch light, each shut door was a reminder: “You may not have this.” I hugged my sweater tighter around me.
The woods were darker than I remembered them, still I met them like an old friend. A meadowlark at the forest’s edge called a welcome. A fox scurried across my path. The wind clicked the branches together and rustled the budding leaves. The woods are not quiet. They are singing always.
He was there, leaning against the snaggled trunk of a fallen maple.
“You came,” he said with a smile.
“I came.” I sighed deeply. The crickets hummed around us.
“I just wanted to talk to you. We haven’t spoken in ages, it seems like.”
“It has been a while. Christmas before last? Or longer, even?” I pretended I couldn’t remember. It had been three years since we’d last spoken, and I’d thought of him more often than I’d wanted during that time. Tears came to my eyes. I was glad it was too dark for him to tell. “I’m sorry for that, really.”
“It’s alright,” I said, “We’ve both been busy.” This was a lie. I was embarrassed at how little I’d let my life become.
“I know. And I haven’t been here much, but I’ll be home all summer, and I was hoping it could be like old times.” He laughed a little. “Well not like old times, exactly. Only we could be friendly-like. I’m planning on meeting Scotty over at the dam tomorrow for fishing, if you want to come.”
“Well, maybe Tuesday, then. I might head up to the falls.”
“No, Arthur. Because actually, I’m glad I can tell you now. I’ve decided to go to him. The boy.”
He was silent a moment. The wind blew harder, the branches bowing around us. His face looked hard and stern in the dark.
“I don’t expect you to understand. I have to.”
“What will you do when you see him?”
“I’m not sure. Bring him back with me if I can. Make sure he’s alright, taken care of.”
“When will you go?”
“I plan on leaving tomorrow.”
“Where is he? Marietta?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll start there.”
He turned his back to me and kicked at a tree stump. “Damn… This could turn into quite the scandal.”
“I don’t expect anything from you. Nothing. I never did.”
“I always figured there was no point in us both suffering. That hasn’t changed.”
“Ah, yes, but I’ve changed.” Far off, lightning flashed without sound. “I’m coming with you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Let’s just be discreet about it, okay?” I nodded. “We can take my car,” he offered.
“Fine. Meet me at the bus depot. Around noon, let’s say?”
“Alright…” He sighed deeply. “I’m not going to tell my parents. I’ll tell them I’m going camping with friends from school.”
“Cari…” He dropped his head, as if he spoke the words to his shoes. “Does he look like me?”
“I-I really couldn’t say, not now. He didn’t so much when he was a baby. He was darker. More like me.”
He took a deep breath. He seemed relieved. “Until tomorrow, then.”