Helen McClory

Four boys run together along the sodden woodland track. Soon one of them will be lost. It had been raining in Maryland for the whole month of September. Even the mushrooms have drowned. Thomas runs at the head of the pack. He is strong, stout but leggy, his body undecided yet on its final shape. The second is Kush, who is taller than the rest, and thin, and stooped. It is his character that is yet to be fixed. Alfie runs like clockwork, never any faster or slower than the pace he sets himself. The final boy, too, is putting in a good show. Titch pants, wipes the snot and rainwater from his face. But beats, stomps, punches the air, to the next black tree, to the one after that, keeping line-of-sight of Thomas’ blond head though he can’t hope to catch up. It doesn’t matter, what matters is getting to the other side of the track, and Kush’s house, where they will pull off their shoes and clothes, shower, fold pizza into their mouths, play xbox. Titch is running to make an impression, but he is not sure what kind. He’s new, but he’s not afraid. He never will be, not at his core. Even as he shakes from the effort, from everything get slicked down, so that even his eyelashes struggle to keep up. The puddles deepen. He’s splashing through rust-coloured water, through the leaves falling wetly on his shoulders. He trips, scrapes his knee, and blood sprinkles as he wipes that away, gets up limber and runs on.

The wood darkens about the boys.

Alfie lets his clockwork run down. He feels something missing in the space in the woods behind him. Titch is gone. Forget him, says Kush. Probably turned back.

They’d played a game walking out to the woods after school called ‘how will you die’. Thomas was going to die trying to punch a bulldozer. Kush, falling down a waterfall. Alfie would go out in his sleep. And Titch? The other boys didn’t know him. They couldn’t agree: death by football? Mathematics? (they knew he couldn’t kick, couldn’t count). One phone buzzed: Kush’s stay-at-home dad. Home, alright?

Alfie, Kush and Thomas stare into the woods, breath steaming. Kush is first to shout. He has a little brother. Panic squirms. Thomas is cool, steps out a few paces into the brush. Alfie cups his hands around his mouth to amplify his calls.

Later they will walk to Kush’s house. Thomas will be the first one to speak up.

Meanwhile, Titch stands in the darkness.

The woman came out of the tree. She looks like a white branch, with black marks like kisses or eyes all over her arms. Her hair is stained and clinging. Her feet – he would say, if asked, there were no feet – don’t touch the ground. Titch looks at his own feet, mud-covered shoes, knowing he must be polite, even if he wants to throw up in fear, from the burn in his lungs from running. He can feel her staring down at him, going to say something. She holds out a long arm. There’s a small wet bag in it, a pouch. The kind for sunglasses. I don’t think that’s mine – he says. Sorry.

She keeps holding out the bag until he reaches up and takes it. Behind her appear more women all willowy and damp. The sisters open their mouths at him. Inside he sees only black. They open their arms. It doesn’t matter the details. No one will listen. Titch learned this young. He’s not afraid, but he has the scars. On the backs of his legs, in that body of his that fails to thrive. He could run, though. But he stands for now. He opens the bag. Inside it are several new things. A key made of wood, worn slick. A knife with a short hooked blade. And a tiny glass jar in which he can see four drops of blood. His own, which the woman has gathered after they were spilt when Titch fell. He opens the jar and spoons the blood out, wiping it away on his shirt. He crouches down and puts the bag on the ground, and the knife and the key on the top of it. There is a sound of branches relaxing. Can I leave you? He says, quietly, holding his hands so they seem loose at his sides. The rain falls louder. The forest disappears around him, until there is only the patch of forest soil on which he stands. Above him, new, heavy leaves begin to fall.

Helen McClory’s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in 3AM Press, Necessary Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, The Toast, and The Newer York, among others. She writes reviews for PANK and The Female Gaze. She blogs here.