The tree branches that run along Janice’s path twist and loop like licorice whips, as she circumnavigates her way through a patch of wild garlic mustard and knotweed. A woodpecker drums a little rat-tat-tat … rat-tat-tat. It’s mid-March and the forest, dormant and muddy, has lost a tree here and there, giant roots upended from so much rain. A trunk blocks her way. Janice grabs at the bark, swings her legs over to the other side. The whole valley is subdued and still. Except the woodpecker. His exuberance is unbearable.
Janice hasn’t been on this trail for years. As she walks, it transports her back to a time when she wandered in these woods and her mother cooked her meals—gravies and roasts and a soggy green bean smell in the kitchen as Janice pushed the side door open. What she remembers is her mother’s back, curved toward a pot of steam, a wooden spoon, early evening light tipping through the window, a radio bubbling a few crackling polkas somewhere nearby.
Today Janice has some loose change in her front pocket, a cell phone in her back pocket, and a sinking feeling, even though these woods make her feel weightless, a little lightheaded.
Her mother sometimes sent her out into the yard to the edge of these woods to throw scraps onto the compost pile, which Janice could never seem to locate exactly, even though she asked again and again. She flung the soggy onions skins and potato peelings and fled. She would soon have real things to fear, but back then it was just the edge of this space, those woods, and the dark rippling shadows within. Janice ran back to the house. It glowed on the rise, as the bright moist air settled down into the grass.
There had been a shack too, an abandoned shed on the edge of the property, wedged into a little slope so that the roof on one side was nearly level to the yard. The shingles were rough and black like razor stubble. The window blank and cracked like an egg. The structure was never used and then it was gone. Torn down by her father, she supposes. Her memory of him is sturdy shoes, thick arms, and the smell of cigar smoke rising.
There was the day she played with friends and a big boy joined in. He said he knew her brother Sam, although he didn’t. Janice, always the youngest, was happy to almost know this new big boy through her brother Sam, who was off doing big boy things.
The sun was kodachrome as the neighborhood children scampered, playing bloody murder across back yards. They looped in circles with braids and cut-offs and tank tops with spaghetti straps, knobby knees. And then the big boy hefted her on top of the scratchy roof. Suddenly, there.
He said, “Go ahead and yell for your mom.” She did. Then birds chirping, the world continuing on without Janice. Rat-tat-tat.
The big boy wanted a kiss before he’d agree to pull her down from the roof, the shingles scraping the backs of her skinny legs, little kid clogs dangling from her feet. She remembers saying no. Then she remembers kissing him. Then blank white space. That’s the rest of the story. A big blank marshmallow of an idea. A cloud, a word bubble. Empty. Floating in hot chocolate, which waits for her back at the house.
Janice walks through the brown woods. The sunlight muted. Her phone on mute, silencing the calls asking about the house for sale by owner. There’s a flash of feathers as branches lift and the bird takes flight. Her solid steps onto the soft lawn leave an outline of where she’s been.
Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness and two short story collections, Whiskey, Etc. and Thank Your Lucky Stars. Her fiction has appeared in many anthologies and journals, including Flash Fiction Forward, New Sudden Fiction, and New Micro, as well as Ploughshares, New World Writing, and Wigleaf. Her awards include fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Atlantic Center for the Arts. She served as series editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018 and is co-editor for Flash Fiction America, an anthology forthcoming from W.W. Norton. (Photo credit: Richard Kelly)