“I quickly learned that things don’t happen because you’re hungry, or sad, or dirty. You have to earn it. I was only eleven when I learned that lesson. I was eleven when I left.”
Hazel –– The Middle of Nowhere
Sometimes I wish I had a parent. Sometimes I wish I had a place to go, a goal to reach. Sometimes I wish… Enough, my brain scolds itself.
The sun is merciless against my peeling neck, my feet somehow still trudging on. I curse my hair for being blacker than the night sky, attracting more heat than my poor scalp can handle. I bring my bottle to my dry lips, and try to remember the feeling of being refreshed for as long as I can.
I honestly don’t know where I am.
I’m from somewhere called Jackville. What part of the world that’s in, I don’t know. Heck, I don’t care. I walk and walk for what seems forever. My home is everywhere and nowhere. I guess that’s okay.
I squint and see hills and hills of straw-like grass, going on for farther than my eyes can make out. A couple bare trees are in the distance, the sun still glaring down at everything beneath it. A small pond is glittering down a hill, reflecting the bright blue sky. The cracked soil beneath my worn sneakers is a dehydrated beige instead of a rich dark brown.
As I get closer to the pond, I realize the water is rippling slightly. I stop, crouch down, and listen. My eyes scan the pond’s edge through the grass. I need to decide on fight or flight.
Two large ears appear over the golden grass. I nearly missed it. The head pops out, its beady black eyes looking for me. Its fur is slightly more red than the grass, and it has a black back. I sigh.
I recognize this one as a black-backed jackal, smaller than its cousin, the side-striped jackal. Jackals are scavengers, and will feed on small animals and the remains of already eaten animals.
I pick a fight.
I stand up abruptly and roar. With that, the jackal scampers away into the grass. I kneel down at the pond’s edge and cup my hands. The water trickles down my chin and shirt, my lips form a smile. I run my cool hands through my tangled hair, and let the water tickle my toes.
My forearm is submerged in the water, my hand in the gooey muck. I take out a pebble from the pond and throw it as far as I can. Ripples come back to me like an echo.
“Hazel,” Mom said as we threw pebbles into the water. “Every pebble is like friendship and love. You know why?”
“Why?” I asked, letting her embrace me with her warmth. Her dark blonde hair fell over my face, but I didn’t care.
“You see the ripples coming back?”
“Friendship and love radiate, spread, and come back to you.”
“What do you mean?”
She caressed my hair. “My little star, when you give something, there is always a return.”
Only then do I realize that the pond is rippling more and more. My tears are like firecrackers, erupting in the pond, sending ripple after ripple, crashing into each other. That’s what she called me. My little star.
Mom used to say that when you give, there is always a return. I give love to Mom… but she’s too far away to return it.
Water bottle sloshing, lips a little less cracked, I set off from nowhere to nowhere.
“Mom?” I called into the empty living room. “Mom?”
I peeked in the kitchen. No one. I silently climbed the stairs. The TV was blaring in Mom’s room. I squinted through the crack… I gasped, a little too loudly.
“Shu’ up Malcolm! Are yeh a man or not? This movie isn’ even scary!” a gruff man’s voice scolded. He thought someone else — Malcolm — was the one who gasped. His hair was curly and out of control. His eyes kind of scared me. I felt like I should obey him or he’d punish me. His shirt was stained and he seriously needed to shave. He gave off a strange scent — cigarettes. A boy with dark blonde hair mumbled something that I can’t hear — I was already running to my room.
“Honey! I wanted to talk to you. Come sit.” Mom patted the space next to her.
“Who is that guy, Mom? What is he doing here?”
“My little star! He’s –– he’s your father, honey.”
My eyes widened. My father? Horror ran through me. I had his hair color and his dark, determined, powerful eyes. But I’d never met him before. I knew there was a reason for it.
“Don’t be scared, please. We were separated, right after we had you and Malcolm.”
“Why? Who’s Mal –– no way! Malcolm’s my brother?!”
“Sorry I didn’t tell you. But we think it’s time we live together again.”
I crumbled at her feet. Live with them? Live with –– with him? No way.
I take out one of the pebbles I collected from the pond and throw it as far as I can. I run after it, stomping through the grass. It’s softer now, less like straw. The soil is not cracked and beige anymore. I take that as a good sign.
But my mind is in the past, and as I retrieve the pebble and throw it again, I feel the same anger, the same surprise and shame, as I did that day I left home. How could that man be my father? But we have the same dangerous eyes and black hair –– only mine is straight, not a curly mess.
I sit at the bottom of a short tree, resting my back against the rough bark. I close my eyes against the sunlight, against the heat, against everything. I wish I could open my eyes and find myself with Mom, no one else. No father. Just Mom and me. I don’t call him Dad. He’s just… not. He’s Father. The distant father. The scary father. Not Dad.
I open my eyes to find myself alone with the grass, dirt, sun, and sky. I sigh. I guess things don’t happen just because I want them to. I stare at the grass and the sky and the dirt and everything there is to look at, which sometimes feels like a lot, and sometimes feels like too little. Sometimes I look at the sky and see how beautiful the clouds are, or I’ll look at the dirt and watch the worms wiggling their way around for hours, or I’ll look at a pond, and throw rocks and watch the ripples.
Other times I feel like the world is boring, and there’s only a blue sky, and brown dirt, and water in a pond. I wonder what normal kids do. They don’t stare at nature for all their life, do they? They don’t have to run away from their parents because they’re scared. It sounds so much more full. A little less scary. But I don’t know if I would rather have that life.
I quickly learned that things don’t happen because you’re hungry, or sad, or dirty. You have to earn it. I was only eleven when I learned that lesson. I was eleven when I left.
Tears spilled everywhere while I screamed for my mom, that I was sorry and I wanted to come home. I was hopelessly lost in the forest, the shadows starting to look creepy. They followed me, and every crunch of a twig under my foot made me jump. A sign was nearby, but it was hard to read. I took out a flashlight.
Why are you here? Go home.
This is Mason’s property.
I gasped. Mason hated when people were on his property. No one had really seen him, but he made it clear he didn’t like visitors. A growl came from my left. I spun around.
“Read the sign, little girl. You are the second to stumble onto my property. The first did not end well.”
I ran. I thought about the sign. Why are you here? it said.
I’m here because my father is back. I’m not going to be with him. That drove my legs farther and farther from home.
The sky, trees, and grass aren’t very good company. They don’t respond to your questions, or give their own opinion. They are just there, growing and reproducing and dying all over again. I live differently. I don’t live to bloom and then die. I live to –– what do I live for?
I have friends, I guess. They just aren’t different people. They’re part of me. They’re imaginary, which I know sounds babyish, but I need them. They’re my support. I only have two, Zoe and Kate. They give me a boost with everything I do.
The trees are everywhere now, not scattered like before. It’s almost a forest. I have shade now, but at night, shadows still give me the creeps. I’m probably nearing a deciduous forest, because brittle leaves are all over the ground, nearly up to my ankle. I kick through them, thinking about jumping into leaf piles and laughing and not caring that a dog probably peed on the leaves. I wonder if kids my age even do that anymore.
“Thank goodness the sun isn’t showing its face anymore!” Kate said. “My shoulders are sunburned and peeling!”
“Stop grumbling, Kate. We’re all going through that, you know,” Zoe smiled.
“Oh yeah, and I bet we got a whole bunch of vitamin D too. Right, Miss Know-It-All?”
“Oh quiet, you two,” I said, smiling secretly.
I heard a rustling sound. Kate and Zoe froze. The noise was coming nearer.
“Guys, this shouldn’t be something too big if you listen to its footsteps. But there are two, maybe a baby. Either way, if this is a mom, it’ll be pretty protective. It might feel that we’re a threat,” Zoe whispered. I nearly told her to be quiet. She’s your imagination, I told myself, as much as I wished she wasn’t.
A head popped out from a tree. Her ears were perked up, fur a reddish brown. The underside of her tail was white, and I heard Zoe hiss, “A white-tailed deer!” A smaller deer followed by her legs, trotting in the deep pile of leaves. There were circles around the deer’s black eyes, which were bright with interest.
I slowly crouched down by a tree, trying to be as quiet as possible. The mother deer stared at me intently for a very long time. She was wondering if I was a threat. I didn’t move. If I looked scared she’d sense it. So I relaxed into the tree, letting the branch’s shade cover me. They trotted past me, and when I couldn’t hear the deer’s footsteps, I stood up.
Only then do I realize that Kate and Zoe vanished from the beginning. I handled it all by myself.
It’s the next night, all peaceful and quiet, except for the rustling leaves and breeze that flutters my hair. I crawl into my little hut made of twigs and logs. They lean into a tree trunk, making a cone-shaped structure. My rucksack is in one corner, a pile of leaves in the other. That’s my bed tonight. I take out a small blanket and wrap it around myself, just like Mom and I did when we sat out on our porch. I duck under the small entrance of the hut and look up at the moon through the branches.
It’s amazing how far away the moon is. I feel so far away from other people, my mom, my brother. But the moon is so much farther away… doesn’t it feel lonely? Father is so far from my life, but the moon is still farther. Even my distant father. Or am I being distant? Do people think of me the way I think of my father? Does Malcolm think I’m a distant sister?
I shake my head as if to shake away the questions. What does it matter?
The wind picks up, now whipping my hair. I decide to go inside. I make myself as comfortable as I can in my leaf pile, wrap the blanket around me, and close my eyes. I wonder if whenever I walk, I’m getting closer or farther away from home. I’m not really sure what I want.
I wake up with leaves in my face. They smell like fresh soil and sap. The wind has died down, the morning sun peeking through the walls of the hut. It’s smiling at me, as if to say, “Today’s gonna be a good day.” I sit up and bang my head against the side of my shelter. What a start for a good day.
I yawn widely and look into my bag. Today’s breakfast is…
I know you’re thinking, “GROSS!” But, insects are the best thing you can eat in the wilderness. They’re full of protein and easy to find. Plants are faulty because a lot are either not easy to digest or poisonous. I learned that at summer camp.
I sling my rucksack over my shoulder and climb out of the shelter. I learned the hard way to always take my bag or animals get curious about what’s in that hut. The leaves are still, the forest only just waking. All is silent except for an early bird’s call. I kick through the leaves and trace my fingers on the bark. My stomach grumbles, but I tell myself to be patient. This morning’s breakfast might be a little more special…
“Aha!” I exclaim. My fingers find something wet and a little sticky: tree sap. Tree sap is good raw, and isn’t actually that sticky. A lot of it is made of water. Trees give sap when it’s thawing or freezing, and in this case it’s starting to melt. I collect what I can in my container (from home) and mix it with my bugs. Not bad.
I decide to eat and walk on, leaving my shelter. As I munch on my sap-glazed insects, I wonder where I’m going. The woods are getting noisier now. I walk and walk, finally coming across something I haven’t seen in a while. A sign. As I near it, I realize it says,
“Why are you here? Go home.
This is Mason’s property.”
A shiver runs through my spine. All this time, I was going in a circle? I turn around to go the way I came.
Kate jumped out of a bush.
“The Masons? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“No way! I’d rather fight an angry coyote!” Zoe gasped.
Someone growls from behind me.
“My, my little girl. Where have yeh been?”
What Parents Are For
I try not to panic. It’s just a human. No claws, no teeth, no poisonous venom. Just a human. I’ve been through enough to know this person is no harm.
I pick fight over flight. I’m not a little girl anymore.
I spin around and glare with my dark dangerous eyes. “Come out.”
A man with dark, out-of-control hair comes out from a tree. His shirt is stained and filthy, his eyes murderous. He smelled like something vaguely familiar — cigarettes.
I gasp. Father.
“So, little girl. How did yeh end up here?” He smiles, showing gray-yellow teeth.
“Don’t call me ‘little girl.’”
“Why not? Yer obviously smaller than me.”
“Parents don’t normally call their children ‘little girl.’”
His eyes widen. He doesn’t look so casual and unconcerned now.
“No way. Hazel?” He whispers. “My little star?”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Why not? Yer mother does. I’m yer dad, yeh know.”
“No. No, you’re not my dad. You’re my father.”
“What’s the difference, again?”
“Dads take care for their children! Dads love their children! Dads give a good example for their children! Dads —– ”
“And who says I don’t do all that?” he fires back. “Do you think I don’t love ye? Do you think I wanted to be separated from ye?”
I look at him straight in the eyes. I see his concern, his surprise, his guilt.
“Yeh got my eyes,” he says at last. “Come home. Yer mom’s been waitin’ a year now. Come home.”
I step into my home, not Father’s. It’s exactly the same, like I’m stepping into the past. Except this time, Father’s hand is on my shoulder.
“Hey, Malcolm! Call yer mother. I got someone.”
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“Just do what I say!”
Malcolm peeks into the living room, and his jaw drops.
“Hi, Malcolm. Remember me?”
“Uh… hi. What’s your name again?”
“Hazel. I’m your sister.”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, my sister. Yeah.”
“Call yer mother already!”
“Mom!” It’s strange that someone other than me calls her ‘Mom.’
Her dark blonde swaying, mom comes in. She looks at Malcolm, then at father, then at me.
“Hazel! Oh my God!” She hugs me so tightly that I can’t breathe. I hug her back, tears spilling down my cheeks.
Sometimes I wish… No. There’s nothing to wish for anymore.