Fiction Finalist Josh Zancan

Aug 13, 2016 by

Fiction Finalist Josh Zancan

 

Sycamore River

 

We were on the path that ran along the Sycamore River in 1993. The mid-morning air was still wet and sticky, and the soil sunk like play-dough under our shoes. To the left of the path, deep woods created a wall of green where purple and white flowers popped out to greet us. On the right side, rocks barricaded the drop to the river, rushing white and loud with soothing anger. Maria stopped and picked one of those flowers and stuck it behind her ear. She was nine, and I was six. Our parents set up camp by each other a quarter mile down the path. We could still hear their voices mixed in with the river, still see the glow of their campfire and the smoke ribboning up to the sky and disappearing over the trees.

I didn’t see Maria pick the flower, but she called my name. I turned as her hand passed over her ear, revealing the purple and white against her skin, a quarter the size of her face, hiding half of one eye. She peered at me from behind it. I said pretty and then she took my hand.

A breeze cut through the humidity. Maria wore a dress with flowers. I think it was the same flower that was in her ear. But her dress was purple and white and I think it had flowers on it. It had no sleeves, and it didn’t make sense for her to wear it out camping. It was her favorite dress.

I picked up a rock and chucked it into the woods, astounded by the way it seemed to rip through the leaves. I let go of Maria’s hand and threw another.

Billy, Maria said.

I turned around and she pecked a kiss on me, then ran like hell. Her dress billowed up, her curly hair bounced around; bits of soil kicked up with each stride off her stained white shoes. Those were terrible shoes to go camping in. They seemed to slide right up off the soil. She should have been going faster than those thin legs would take her.

I chased her down the path and caught up. I wore sneakers, which had traction, and plus, I was a boy. That was the thought I had running through the play dough. I’m a boy, and I need to catch her. It took longer than I wanted to, and I was out of breath when I got there. She was a girl, but she was nine, and I was six. That’s what I told myself when she stopped and let me catch up.

When I looked up, her face was close to mine, smirking, and she had her hands on her hips. She stuck out her tongue and ran.

Hey, I called out, and she stopped and turned back to me.

I said I was tired of running, and she took my hand, and we walked. Only I walked, actually. Maria skipped up and down, and I didn’t understand how she could do that and still keep up with me. How she didn’t dash off, down the path, away from me. But I’m a boy, and boys can walk as fast as girls can skip.

On her last skip, both feet planted hard on the play dough, but she still kept up, because she was nine and I was six. I kissed her cheek and she giggled and tucked her ear to her shoulder and pulled away. But she didn’t let go of my hand.

That tickles, she said.

It didn’t tickle me when you did it, I said.

That’s because you didn’t do it right, she said.

But I just figured it must be different for girls.

We walked and we looked down at the path, and the air was colder than it was. My arm brushed against Maria’s and her skin felt like pool water when you first get in. I asked her if she wanted my jacket, and she said no. That she was nine and I was six. But I was a boy, so I gave it to her anyway. I told her it would fit, and it did.

She let go of my hand and ran off to the woods and came back with another flower, and tucked it in my hair. I protested: I’m a boy. But she said boys can be pretty too, and kissed my cheek. I tucked my face to my shoulder and said she didn’t do it right.

Baby, she said and skipped ahead, but I didn’t chase. I walked slower than before, when I held her hand. Her curls bounced up to the top of her head and then fell back down to her shoulders. She stopped and turned about thirty feet ahead of me. I can guess that distance now, but then, I only knew she seemed so much smaller.

When I reached her, she stared at me.

I’m taller than you, I told her for no reason. No reason then, that is. I know the reason now.

She stood on a stone by the path that put the top of my head at her chin, and she looked down at me. No you’re not.

She leaned her face in and crinkled her nose, and smiled. Then she bounded off the stone, and I sprinted to her. I tried to kiss her cheek.

Stop, she said, but she giggled as she said it. Then she cut back towards me and slapped my arm.

Hey, I said, but I giggled as I did.

Our game of tag took us farther down the path for who knows how long, then back towards the camp. I ran zig zags across the path and she jumped from stone to path to stone. We were traveling back away from the camp, when I hid. She jumped on a stone and I dipped behind a bush. I could see her through the branches, a foot taller than she was in those stained white shoes that were horrible for camping.

Billy. Her tone sounded like the one my mother used when I tracked mud through the house or left my toys in the middle of the living room floor or worse, the kitchen, under the table, where I would drive trucks back and forth as she cooked dinner.

I put my mouth over my hand and held my breath to not laugh. She called my name, each time more shaky than the next. Then her cry was sharp and short, the way my mother’s was when I belched in church, and I knew we were almost done with our game. Hide and seek. Although looking back, I probably should have asked her first if she wanted to play.

I let her do one more. One more Billy, just as sharp, just as short, but loud, with something new there. Like my mother’s when I hid between the racks at the department store.

I leapt through the bush and charged towards her laughing. She didn’t move. I think I remember her eyes rolling back as she closed them, but I know she groaned in frustration. Or relief. Sometimes they sound the same. I stopped at her knees, and we smiled at each other.

You scared me.

Sorry!

I pushed myself up on the stone and went to kiss her. She didn’t retreat, but instead I blew a burst of air in her ear. I thought it would be funny.

Those white, stained shoes were terrible for camping. The first one kicked up, then her eyes went wide, then the second one slipped back. I reached out for her and missed.

Maria’s body spun in free fall, arms and legs stretched out like a cartwheel, around and around. From a distance she didn’t look real. A babydoll wearing a boy jacket. She screamed until her voice faded into the roar of the Sycamore River.

I didn’t breathe, and I didn’t blink, and I didn’t move except for the way my knees tingled side to side, the way they still do. They way they’re doing right now.

It could have been a second, or it could have been a minute, but my mother and father and Maria’s mother and father appeared at my side. I can’t say for certain, but it must have been soon. I don’t think she’d stopped screaming for too long before they were there.

Then they were all screaming and running back and forth with their hands on their heads. My father ran back to camp. I didn’t know why until he came back with a ranger. Maria’s father began to climb down the part of the cliff that wasn’t so steep. He held onto a tree, then let himself slide, with his left foot out and his right foot tucked under, like a karate move. Then he caught himself on another tree. The whole time he screamed Maria’s name.

What happened, Billy? my mother said to me, what happened? she cried.

I didn’t answer, so she grabbed my arms and shook me and said, What happened, Billy?

That’s when I cried. I wonder, looking back, if I cried because of her shaking me, or her yelling at me, or Maria falling, or Maria screaming, or seeing my mother and father truly scared for the first time, or everything. Everything is what I tell myself, because I know it’s true, but it’s too much. I didn’t want to cry for everything. I only wanted to cry for Maria. But everything else was there, and I didn’t cry until everything else happened. But I cried.

And instead of saying what I did, I told her I went into the woods to go potty and and then came back out when I heard Maria’s scream. I went to doctor the next day, and that’s what I told him as well. I went to church the next week, and that’s what I told Reverend Greene. I prayed last night, and that’s what I’m still telling God.

I told myself the truth this morning, and I stand on a stone overlooking the Sycamore River and the air is still wet and sticky and my family hasn’t been here for years. I’ll catch you this time, Maria, because I’m nineteen and you’re nine and I’m a boy.

Josh (1)

Josh Zancan is a writer and musician from Crofton, MD who received his B.A. in English from Christopher Newport University.

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