The forest was a wall of barren twigs, bending and occasionally snapping across Rune’s jacketed chest, slowing his progress. He reached a clearing, checked the cold darkness around him. He could see where his boots had cratered the snowpack, could trace them back to the field where he’d entered — he felt confident of finding his way back.
The slope led down and to the left. The shore of Prosperity Lake would be somewhere in that direction. He hadn’t been there in years. He’d gone fishing there with Butch, back when he liked fishing. Tonight, Saturday, February — there could be ice fishers down there. They’d be drinking, would make noise, have a stove or fire lit. He would see them first.
Down and to the left. Then, a sudden sharp blow to the forehead, “AHH! Fuck.” He’d been looking down, hadn’t seen the branch. He took off a glove, reached under his stocking cap with bare fingers and swiped the area on his forehead where he’d been hit, then brought the hand down, found a patch of blue light snaking among the branches. No blood.
His eyes cleared, looked forward, then around. Up and further left, the forest seemed less dense. Maybe if he went up there a bit, he could find a clearer path down to the lake. His feet crunched the top layer of snow, his head up now. He went forward several minutes, cutting across, then his relief he saw a path, leading down, and began walking more briskly. Towards the lake.
The first Thursday
“Anyone care to answer?” Mr. Ratner’s voice was directed over his head, towards the rear of the class. Rune glanced at the board, knew without thinking the answer, and made himself ready should he be called upon. He sensed hands rising in the air behind him, felt confident someone would get the right answer — Mike perhaps, and if not him then Tori for sure.
Rune was sitting at the front of his class. This was his preference whenever he had the opportunity, partly due to his contrarian nature, partly because he found it easier to stay awake, but primarily because it usually left him alone, surrounded by empty desks on most sides. Far from the low chatter of other students, he found it easy to lose himself in his thoughts, the teacher’s droning lecture the only distraction he had to ignore. He found school boring, the classes pathetically easy and absurdly uninspiring. Rune performed well on tests and quizzes, not from a desire for academic achievement (college was an obligation, as it had been for his older sister and would be for his younger brother) but rather to compensate for his low scores on homework, too mundane to warrant his attention.
Rune looked down at his notebook, began doodling geometric patterns without lifting his pen. Boring, yes, but he also enjoyed the peaceful solitude of class time.
An hour later, he was walking towards the school’s rear exit, his eyes cast down and then catching the distinctive sight of designer boots. Annie chose not to display her family’s wealth in her wardrobe, except when it came to footwear.
“Hey.” Rune looked up, saw Annie’s smiling face. She was leaning on her left leg, the right turned slightly outward, right hand holding her left wrist at waist level in front of her gray down jacket. One backpack strap pulled down from the back of her left shoulder. She was wearing a wool cap on her head, her long brown pony-tail hanging from its back. “Ready to go?”
Rune shook his head, made no attempt to conceal his confusion. “What — where did you want to go?”
“Home.” She blinked, shook her head. “Sorry. Your home.”
Rune widened his eyes. “You’re giving me a ride home?”
“Nah.” She stepped forward, extending her right arm and hooking Rune’s left. “My parents went up to the city this afternoon. Something about the election, had to meet his campaign manager.” She twisted, tugged at Rune, propelled him forward with her. “Usually go to Gandy’s gym on days like this, but today I was like, let’s do something different, go to Rune’s house.” She pulled on her backpack. “We can study together.” With the hook of her arm, she pulled him close to her, as they approached the glass exit door. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “And we can be alone.”
As they exited the building, Rune could not escape the feeling that he was being led, almost pulled into the frigid afternoon air. He wasn’t comfortable with the feeling, but when she flicked her head away from him and he felt her long pony-tail slap the back of his jacket, and his nose caught that strawberry scent that was so distinctively hers, he felt suddenly comfortable going along for the ride.
“How’s the election going?”Annie’s head snapped back at Rune’s sudden question, and for a moment he saw consternation in her face.
But only a moment. “It just started. Only been a few weeks since my dad’s announcement. He’s on the phone a lot, talking to reporters all over the state.” She laughed. “My father’s never been this popular!”
“My dad still feels bad about what he said to him at the Christmas party.”
“Really.” Her voice was suddenly as cold and brittle as the icy snow that crunched under their boots. “What do you think about what he said?”
Rune shrugged. “I think he was drunk.”
“I think you are right.” He felt her squeeze his arm, as they walked into a ray of sunshine which temporarily blinded them. “And I don’t think we should talk about the election any more.”
“Fine by me.” They had walked into a shaded area again, their eyes adjusting to the residual spots in their vision. “How’d you know where to find me?”
Annie laughed. “Oh that was easy. You’re a creature of habit — you leave at the same time, through the same door, every day. Except Tuesday.” Fencing practice.
They continued walking, Rune noting how symmetrical they looked, almost exactly the same height, both wearing stocking caps and the same style of down jacket (mid-thigh length, no hood). Even their boots landed at nearly the same time.
A thought came to him. “You were born in June?”
“Yeah, the thirteenth.”
“Huh.” Rune squinted as they crossed the barrier of shade into another patch of late-afternoon winter sunlight. He tapped the chest of his jacket with his hand. “Mine’s the nineteenth. We were born the same week.”
“Huh.” Their feet padded on a patch of clear sidewalk where the sun had melted the snow. “Sunday.”
Rune nearly stopped. “What?”
“You were born on Sunday. The thirteenth was a Monday, I looked it up. So the nineteenth, that had to be a Sunday.”
“Yeah, I know.” Which he didn’t.
“So we weren’t born the same week. You were one week after me.” She was speaking with that confident tone he often found irritating.
“Huh.” Their feet were back in the shade, boots stepping into white crunchiness again. “But that’s only if you think that weeks begin on Sundays.”
“That’s right.” She stopped, turned to face him, an odd look on her face. “Weeks begin on Sundays.”
He turned towards her, put his hands on his hips, stuck out his chin. “Nuh-uh, the weeks begin on Monday.” He threw his hands above his head. “Everybody knows that.” He looked around where they had stopped, saw they were surrounded by almost pristine gentle snow, no glint of ice or mixture of salt and gravel.
“SUNDAY!” And propelled by a giggle, Annie thrust her arms forward into his chest, pushing him back towards the snowbank behind him.
He didn’t resist, allowing the slight momentum of the push propel him backwards and down, howling in mock despair. He spread his arms as he fell, and as he landed grabbed a ball of snow in both hands, then lifted his body quickly and threw both at a squealing Annie.
The snowball on her left went far wide, and she deftly dodged the other, then rushed forward and with a giggle landed on top of Rune. The two teens wrestled playfully, white puffs of snow flying around them, only the sounds of swishing jackets, mock grunting, and Annie’s giggle filling the crisp winter air around them.
He grabbed hold of her shoulders, locked his legs around hers, and twisted their knotted bodies until he lay on top of her. He thrust his arms into the snowbank and pushed his body up, looking down upon her.
Her cheeks apple pink, lips strawberry red, her face a landscape of eager invitation.
Rune all but fell on her, their teeth nearly colliding as his mouth descended on her. They held their kiss until Rune felt Annie’s mittened hand press gently up on his chest.
“It’s cold.” Her wool cap had fallen off, there was snow in her brown hair, like puffs of dissolved marshmallows in hot chocolate. “We’re what, ten minutes from your house?”
Knees digging into the snow between Annie’s legs, he raised his body. “Five, if we hurry.” Grasping her right arm, he rose to his feet, lifting her with the same motion. She picked up her cap, then her backpack, he held out his arm and she snuggled into him, the two of them resuming their walk down the icy sidewalk.
“This way.” Rune led Annie away from the icy sidewalk into a broad field of snow, blades of wild grass appearing above the white surface like tufts of stubble on a poorly shaved face. “Subdivision hasn’t begun selling these lots — ” he let go of her as they nearly fell in the deep snow — “we can cut across, to my house.”
Two pairs of snowprints cut across the field, then around Rune’s house and up to the front steps. Rune grunted with pleasure when he saw the sun had already melted that morning’s snowfall on the driveway and front steps. “No shoveling.” The garage door was closed, neither of his parents was home early, and his brother was at their cousin’s house for the evening.
He unlocked the front door and pushed it open, stomped snow from his boots before walking into the house. The boot bench to the left was covered with jackets, sweaters, scarves; Rune swept his arm across, clearing the bench, winter clothing scattering across the tiled floor of the entry. He sat, slid across the bench, patted the empty space to his right with his hand. Annie sat quickly, and moments later they had left their heavy boots and bulky jackets behind them, as they walked into the kitchen.
Rune opened the refrigerator door, peered inside. “You want a soda? We got diet, and some regular. My dad only drinks regular, says diet soda gives you cancer.” He heard her footsteps across the tiled floor. “We have juice too. My brother only drinks juice, he doesn’t like any soda, of any kind.” He heard her stopping in front of the door. “We got milk too, only skim — ”
He felt pressure on the outside of the door. He looked up, saw only her face. A gentle smile, patient eyes speaking a silent command. Close that goddamn door already.
“OK.” He closed the goddamn door.
And then she leaped at him, clasping his cheeks in her palms, her mouth finding his gracefully, like one of her perfectly executed lunges, but unlike the other times they had kissed she pressed on, her tongue thrusting forward and finding his; he nearly gagged from surprise but recovered, locked onto her lips, pressed hard, bending her head back willingly, the scent of her strawberry chocolate hair filling his heaving lungs.
And then she did pull back, her eyes darting to her right, in the direction of the living room. He grasped her left elbow and led her to the couch (making sure the opaque curtains were drawn across the bay windows that faced the front of the house), grabbed her by the shoulders and eased them both down to the cushions. And as they kissed again, he realized not only that he had no idea what he was doing, but Annie knew this as well and didn’t mind, she was taking the lead, and at some time that afternoon it came to him, it’s just like fencing practice, she knows exactly what to do and I’m just making it up as I go along. And when they heard the garage door open, rising quickly from couch and tucking their clothes back into place and smoothing each other’s hair as his mother walked in, Rune felt satisfied yet hungry, as eager and confident as he could ever remember feeling.