A boy will break his arm today – something involving a Frisbee, first period. It’s Eli, his long skinny limbs sailing through the air, and all I do is watch. Normally I sleep on the bus, my cheek pressed against the glass. This morning the sun hides behind clouds and the sky overhead is a clear, cerulean blue. A hue like this, such a heavy, pewter cast, weighs down the morning with portent.
Colors open the world to me. Waves of light part and I can see the future unfold. Eli will be running for all he’s worth, his arm outstretched, when his feet fly out from under him. He will slip in the wet grass and the bones of his left wrist will snap like spaghetti and his arm will take on a wavy S curve as if the noodles have cooked. I won’t tell him what will happen; I learned when I was little that warning a person won’t change anything. I learned to keep what I see to myself, because no matter what I say, there will still be broken arms and car accidents and fires.
When I was little I thought the world worked the same for everyone, that colors gave all of us glimpses of the future. I never said anything – most of what I saw was in the vein of dropped spoons and lost gloves, so why mention it – but once when I was four years old the back of a box of Mini Wheats glowed gold, and I saw my father run a traffic light. He was T-boned in the intersection and I screamed and clutched his leg. I laced my fingers through his belt loop and told him he would be in a car accident. “You have to wear your seatbelt, Daddy, you have to!” I cried.
I always wear my seatbelt, Rosie.” He stroked my hair. “What are you talking about?”
When my mother and I visited him in the hospital later in the day, my father looked at me in a queer way, as if a changeling had taken the place of his daughter. It took months for that look to go away. I keep my secrets now.
As we pull up to school, another bus spewing kids, marigold breaks over me like glass. Everyday begins like this, a long line of yellow school buses, yellow being the color of intellect, announcing what is to come: tests, quizzes, discussions, edits, power writes, power points, problem sets, noodle bibs, posters, projects, pencils, programs – so many words beginning with the letter P. The letter has a nice color – it means love in some contexts – but at school with grades on the line anything purple has an undertone of menace.
I forget about Eli and his soon to be broken arm and concentrate on the fact that I have a math test this morning, one I am sure to fail if I don’t get some help. On the top step of the bus I pause. From here I have a good view of the crowd streaming toward the doors; there must be someone out there I can use, someone with a cheat sheet or a calculator already programmed for the test. I spot Eli, dressed in dark blue: his backpack, his fleece, his jeans. Blue is a good color for academic success, math in particular, but not very good for cheating.
“Hey,” I say, catching up.
“Hey.” Eli is surprised I am talking to him. I ignore that and pretend we are friends. He is a little taller than me and very skinny, with a pronounced Adam’s Apple.
“I forgot my calculator at home,” I say, “Can I borrow yours for the test?”
“Nope,” he says. “You should have studied.”
“Oh, come on, Eli! Don’t be a jerk. You’re not even going to need it.”
“What do you mean? I have math second period.”
“I mean, you’re so smart you could ace the test even without your calculator, while I, on the other hand, will fail. If I fail this test my mom won’t let me go on the camping trip.”
“Your mom won’t know you’ve failed until next week, when we get our tests back.”
“Wrong. My mom and Mr. Jeffers are in cahoots.”
Eli stops and faces me. We are right outside the front doors. First bell has rung and I will be late for class if he doesn’t hurry up and give me his calculator. Eli’s eyes are brown, which surprises me, because I thought they were blue.
“Okay,” he says, “But I need it back right after. Don’t walk off with it or anything.”
“I won’t,” I say, and I mean it; I am feeling very grateful toward Eli. I give him a hug, and I feel a jolt pass through his body. A jolt passes through mine, too, and I want to tell him what will happen. But I don’t. Because it won’t change anything, and because I’ve got what I need.
Eli’s programs are perfect and the test goes without a hitch. In the hall after class when word gets out about what has happened and kids run to the windows to watch the ambulance arrive, I pretend surprise. “Poor Eli,” I say, “he won’t be able to go on the camping trip.” I toss his calculator into my backpack. It weighs me down all day. I imagine what I will say to him Monday morning. I will thank him for the use of his calculator and express my sympathy. He’ll ask me to sign his cast, and I will, with a hot pink Sharpie – Love, Rose.
“Are you ready?” Mom says when she gets home, “Is everything packed?”
“Do I have to go?”
“I thought you wanted to.”
“I hate camping!”
“It’s too late to back out now. Besides, everyone in your youth group is going.”
“Not everyone; Eli broke his arm.”
Mom drops me off at church, and I get on yet another school bus, this one painted white. There are two teen counselors, a boy and a girl, and dopey Pastor Ken, who is always trying to drum up a sing-along. The church bus makes its wholesome way into the country, and Pastor Ken gets everyone singing the Rattling Bog. I stare out the window and search for a color, a sign that will tell me what comes next, but the heavy green of the forest and the beaten silver of the highway offer nothing up.
We unpack and pitch our tents and pray over hamburgers. After dinner we sit on logs around a campfire while Pastor Ken tunes his guitar. Kayla and Grace, my tent mates, whisper to each other about Eli. Not about what happened in PE, but about the fact they both think he is cute and are really disappointed he isn’t here. I remember the way Eli felt when I hugged him, and I squint my eyes and stare into the fire. If Eli were here, Kayla and Grace wouldn’t stand a chance.
The flames grow higher, bright orange fills my mind, and across the fire the high school counselors, Colson and Deirdre, sort chocolate squares and gram crackers for the s’mores. Side by side with food in their laps, she with the chocolate, he with the gram crackers, they take turns reaching into the bag of marshmallows. The orange flames thread through them, and I realize the counselors like each other. Behind the flames their clothes fall away and they begin touching. Deirdre straddles Colson and they move their bodies, find a rhythm, as if what they are doing is a dance. I feel ready to pee my pants, and it feels good. I’ve never been wrong once I’ve seen something, so I’m sure Colson and Deirdre will have sex this weekend. I watch them do it in the flames. I wish I could hear the sounds they make, the words they say as their bodies move, but I can’t hear anything over the crackle of the fire and the chorus of, “Jesus, Lead Me Home.” Later in our tent I ask Grace and Kayla, “Do you think Deirdre and Colson are, you know, into each other?”
“You can’t chaperone trips if you’re dating,” Kayla says.
“I didn’t say dating, I said into each other.”
“What’s the difference?” Kayla asks.
“When you’re dating, other people know you’re into each other. When you’re not dating, it’s secret.”
Flashlights cast cones of shadow, and the orange tent smolders and presses in on us. “Maybe,” Grace whispers. “Maybe they are secretly into each other.”
I lie awake thinking of Deirdre and Colson. I still have to pee and it still feels good, so I imagine sitting on Eli’s lap the way Deirdre sat on Colson’s. It is fun for a while but I am not getting sleepy and pretty soon I really do have to pee. I slip out into the night. My eyes acclimate to the dark, and I find a tree where I can squat. I am listening to the last trickle when I see the bobbing of a light and hear the crack of a twig. I stand up, and there are the counselors with leaves stuck in their hair. Deirdre points her flashlight in my face. “What are you doing out here?” she says.
“Stop!” I say, shielding my eyes. “I had to pee.”
“Get back in your tent,” she hisses at me.
I fold my arms over my chest. How dare she have an attitude with me when I’ve practically caught her having sex in the woods. “You’ll have to light my way,” I tell her.
“You’ve ruined my night vision with your flashlight.”
In the morning I wake up and Deirdre is stirring coals in the fire to cook breakfast, as if nothing happened. I tell Kayla and Grace about getting up to pee and running into Colson and Deirdre, and their eyes go wide and they ask for details. “They were mean to me,” I tell them, “and covered in leaves.” They whisper my secret to others and there is a lot of giggling after that. Later in the day Deirdre catches my eye and raises one eyebrow, as if to say, “Really?” Colson comes up beside me and says, “Why are you doing this?”
By evening I am too tired to sing or even bother roasting a marshmallow, and Pastor Ken smiles at me as if blisters and dehydration pleased the Lord. I look into the fire, eager to see what I saw last night, but all that’s there are bright coals blinking in the dirt like hearts. I’m falling asleep on the log, so I give up and go to my tent, where I listen to hymns and drift off to sleep.
I wake up in the middle of the night. I have to pee again. Maybe I can fall back asleep, put off peeing until morning; sometimes that works. I close my eyes and will my breath into a steady rhythm. I am falling asleep when I hear a noise. It is an animal sound, something between a grunt and a bark. Four short barks followed by a whistling trill. I can’t imagine what animal makes this noise. Perhaps it is something strange, something with wings.
Outside my tent the dark ripples with mystery. I bet Deirdre and Colson are out there. I bet they are freaking out, with weird animals barking all around. It would be great to see Deirdre crying with her pants down. I am no longer tired, nor do I have to pee. Hidden in the night is something I want to see – either a magical creature or teenagers having sex.
There is a thicket a few feet away, the darkest part of the forest, and I imagine Colson and Deirdre crouched in there, terrified. I step toward it. There are brambles in the thicket, they pull at my clothes, but I will not be distracted. With every step I take the darkness becomes more absolute. I am so sure it is Deirdre I will find that at first I don’t register the animal. It barks four times, four deep-throated bursts of discovery, then whistles, the intonation rising like a question. The creature is the size of a large dog, its coat purple-black and speckled with stars. It calls again, and I look into its eyes, which glow like sapphires.
It is close enough to touch and it stretches out its neck and inhales my scent. It blows out, its nostrils wet and quivering, and I feel its hot breath, smell the sweet-grass loveliness of it. “Oh,” I say, “Oh, you’re so beautiful.”
All around the woods are alive with the creatures. Their purple coats slip through the night like time, and a host of blue eyes stares back at me from between the leaves. A purple like that is a symbol of love, and a blue like that means wisdom. There is nothing I want more than to touch this animal, but when I reach out my hand, instead of offering up its velvet pelt and licking my palm, the animal squeals and spins away. All at once all the blue eyes in the forest turn from me and their starlit hides dance as they bound off deep beneath the trees. Their voices fade until I am alone in the dark.
I do not recognize the sound I make. Keening, I think it is called. Pastor Ken finds me like this, trapped in the vines and bawling. Deirdre and Colson are there also, three flashlights bobbing in the dark, blinding me.
“She was up in the middle of the night yesterday too,” Deirdre says.
“I have to pee,” I say, remembering.
“Too late,” Deirdre says, and she is right; my pajamas are soaked to the ankle.
“Are you a sleep walker, Rose?” Pastor Ken says. “Don’t worry about it. Deirdre will help you get cleaned up.”
Deirdre gives me clean underwear and a pair of her shorts. I expect her to say something mean in retaliation for catching her with Colson last night and gossiping about it all day, but she doesn’t. She sticks to her role as camp counselor and lights the way back to my tent.
I climb into my sleeping bag as quietly as I can. Pastor Ken and Deirdre and Colson did not see the animals. When I was changing into dry clothes I asked Deirdre if she’d heard them, but she said no; she woke up when she heard me crying. I think about the creatures’ jewel-like eyes, their dappled hides, their night voices. It is a mystery too heavy to carry alone, but I have no one to tell. Why did the creature run from me, and why does it hurt so much? What lesson I have failed to understand?
Jennifer Lee is a graduate of the MA writing program at Johns Hopkins University, and her stories have appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, Monkeybicycle, Jabberwock, The Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. She’s published a lot of literary fiction and is currently working on a large science fiction project.