By Kate Larkindale
Bare branches arced overhead, reaching for scuttling clouds like a nest of anorexic limbs. Gone was the lush summer foliage, the only reminder a single yellowed leaf clinging to the end of a branch, battered this way and that by bitter wind. She couldn’t see the water from where she knelt, but could hear its chuckle as it chattered across the loose stones.
She shivered, drawing her cardigan close in an attempt to keep out the chill wind. Her bare legs prickled with gooseflesh. She hugged the cardigan tighter, over the layers of t-shirts she wore, layers that protected her, layers of memories. Removing even one would render her bare, vulnerable.
At the bottom was his shirt, the one she’d pulled off him, soaking wet. That one never came off.
Over his shirt she layered others. The t-shirts from the many concerts they’d attended, obscure, loud bands with names that made her father wince when he read them: Smut, Corpse Jerk, Hellions, Slut Culture. T-shirts he bought for her online – vintage shirts, their slogans antiquated pop culture sayings that made them giggle.
Tears filled her eyes, running down her cheeks to pool in her ears. The wind dried the streaks, but she still felt them, raw runnels. Her legs were stiff as she hauled herself to her feet. She had no idea how long she had been there. Time held no meaning now. An instant could last days, and days could fly past without her even noticing.
She drifted to the water, watching ripples dance over the three boulders beneath the surface. From here she could not stop her eyes from searching out and finding the scarred branch, bark worn by years of friction. Already the scar was fading, nature erasing evidence of the rope that had swung there for as long as she could remember. She ached to gouge out the scar, make it fresh and new again. Next time she’d bring a knife.
The sun sat low now, traces of pink and orange rinsing the horizon. She stood at the base of the tree and looked upward, through the clamoring branches to the pastel clouds above. Keeping her face toward the sky, she began climbing, feet scrabbling against the rough bark as she searched for branches on which to stand. Her hands grabbed at twigs that broke off in her palms, yet she kept ascending.
When she could climb no higher, she stopped, standing on a thick beam that overhung the creek. She could see the scored branch below, the rope’s mark more defined from above. In the golden glow of dusk, the water seemed alive, dancing merrily along its course. She could still hear its gentle voice, the soft rattle of stones chinking against one another in their endless communion.
As the sun sank behind the hill, leaving behind a carnival of colored light, she leaned on the trunk, bark rough against the knobs of her spine. The boulders gleamed, golden in the twilight.