Upon resuming his descent to the lake, the woods thickened again, barring his path like a silent guardian, but Rune wasn’t going to turn back. He plunged forward with extended arms, breaking pushing aside branches with his gloved hands when possible, breaking them when not. He found he preferred the barren branches of the deciduous trees, as they held less snow that could fall into his face, so he attempted to stay closer to them than he did the evergreens as he continued his descent.
A moment later he saw a clearing among the dark branches. A patch of white, then darkness until the horizon of the starlit night sky. The lake! He still had much farther to go before he reached the shore, but feeling suddenly inspired and energetic, he thrust his arms forward, marched his boots into the snowpack with renewed enthusiasm.
He felt a tug on his right arm, but pushed on. The arm, though, didn’t come forward with him. He pulled, felt the muscles in his shoulder twinge, but he couldn’t get his arm free. He stepped back once, twice, then saw the problem among the mass of black twigs. A cedar branch had attached itself to the stitching of his jacket, not in one place but several. He took the glove off his left hand, tried to loosen the branch’s grip from his jacket, but this wasn’t a casual attachment, the branch seemed almost woven into the jacket. He pulled at the branch — it was green and supple instead of black and brittle.
“Shit.” His cold fingers pulled at the branch. “Come on. Really?” He couldn’t release the branch’s hold on his jacket; the tree seemed almost sentient, like it had been lying in wait, looking for its opportunity to ensnare an unsuspecting traveler like himself.
He tugged in frustration, loosening snow from higher branches, a spray of white powder hitting his face. Wiping his eyes clear, he saw the branch had partially dislodged. He tugged again, more slowly, changing directions with each motion, finally discovering that down and to his left seemed the most effective.
“Is this how it’s going to be?” His isolation freed him to bellow with loud defiance. “You WANT it to be like this? This make you HAPPY!” He felt the branch loose more of its grip, tugged harder. “Think I DESERVE this?” Now only a few needles remained attached, the branch bent sharply back towards the tree as if it were pulling away, wanting to be free of him.
A rush of angered satisfaction welled in him, but before he acted on his impulse to tug his arm violently free, an image of his parents came to his mind, looking at the tattered threading of his jacket. Hugh, what happened? His mother would understand, would use her limited domestic skills and mend the tear herself, would help him hide the damage from her father. But if the tear was too great to repair, or hide … and his father saw …
He looked down at his jacket sleeve. In the soft moonlight, he could see some popped seams. But no tears. He looked down at the remaining attached needles — they were in there pretty firmly, but only a few, he felt confident he could work them out with his fingers. Blowing air onto his bare left hand to keep it warm, he removed the remaining needles, the branch suddenly releasing and flying back, up and away into the black, swish.
Rune sighed, spun his body to the left, began walking down again, careful even more than before to stay clear of the evergreens.
The second Friday
“I don’t think so.” Rune turned his attention to arranging the books on the top shelf of his locker. He pulled Trig from its position at the bottom, put it on top of the pile. Look busy.
“Oh!” He could hear Butch breathing behind him. “I just thought, we could go to Page Turners tonight.”
“Not interested.” US History was second from the bottom, he pulled it out and put it on top. He still heard the breathing behind him. “You and your stepmother, will just have to go yourselves.”
Rune had grown tired of waiting for Butch to leave, so he turned quickly, saw his friend looking at the floor.
“Mom — ” Butch swallowed, looked up at Rune — “she can’t go, tonight. I was thinking, you know, maybe sometimes your parents — ”
Rune shook his head. “Sorry, they’re busy.” He actually had no idea if his statement was true. “If your stepmother can’t take you, why don’t you ask your dad?”
What Rune saw next was a look he had never seen before on his friends face. Butch looked desperate, his eyes pleading, as if he were about to beg forgiveness for some dark sin, or ask for an impossible favor. His voice was also uncharacteristically weak. “I don’t think — that would be a good idea.”
From across the hall, Erika Stephens called to Rune, asked to talk to him after class; Rune nodded, and turned his attention back to Butch. “Look — I’m sorry, it’s just that I’m not interested in going to Page Turners any more.”
“Oh!” Rune was relieved to see the typical look of confusion return to Butch’s face. “You know, I just thought, you know, the comic books — ”
“I don’t read those anymore!” Without looking, Rune closed the locker behind him, klang. He felt the eyes of nearby students fixing their gazes towards him, as he leaned over Butch. “I don’t wanna go to Page Turners, don’t wanna read their stupid magazines.You want to read that kids’ stuff, that’s your business, go ahead. Just keep, keep me out of it. OK?”
“Oh.” Butch’s voice was soft, his face was pale. Rune was reminded of a science fiction film he’d seen recently, in which a scientist discovered his colleague had been a spy for the entire five years they had worked together; that scientist had the same look of hurt and disappointment he now saw in Butch. “I guess I’ll just — have to find some other way to get to Page Turners.”
“Works for me.” Wearing a smug smile, Rune turned to head towards his next class — and froze. Standing in his path, books held across her sweatered chest, Annie wore the same expression he had just seen in Butch.