There are two kinds of people; those who go over the wall, and those who stay behind. No one who goes over the wall is heard from again.
Friday night is ours, carved from teenage boredom. We gather in an alcove on the side of a mountain. It’s the spot where beer cans and used condoms decorate the worn paths to clear spaces, where couples make love and try their first heavy drugs. The spot is where we shed our childhood like snakeskin and try on adult costumes. Sometimes the adult skin clings too tight, fusing until we’re forced to change.
I sit back on a checkered blanket. Here, I’m not from a trailer park of cracked pavement and kudzu that devours every inch of yellow grass. At the spot I’m Marian, a fixture.
It’s infamous for bloody brawls and silly hookups. Sometimes kids turn up dead among the rocks. One was found, face up in the grass, right beside his car, with puke flaking off his chin. Police tape kept us away for a month.
Tim cracks open a beer while the scent of marijuana lingers in the air. The girls take off their outer layers, showing off low-cut halter tops, smooth midriffs, and hipbones.
I light a cigarette to forget the hunger riding low in my gut. Music drifts in and out. Bodies start to sway up and down. A guy raises his arm, beckoning a girl to grind his crotch.
The town below eats at us, breaking us down to skin and bone. Our soulless parents danced here before and with each sway, each sip of beer, more of our spark dims.
“Where’s Kerry?” I ask Tim.
“She hasn’t told you?” Tim leans back and starts to unbutton his shirt. “I’m gonna wait for her to tell you.”
I sit up, pulling a heavy drag from my smoke. It burns the inside of my throat in a way that reminds me that I’m killing myself.
“Let’s take a walk.” I take the beer from his hand and lead him to the tree line.
Alone, we can throw back pretense. Without our hard, outer shells we’re weak and tender-skinned. Outside our circle of friends anyone could call us trash, we wouldn’t care, but alone we whisper vulnerable things: people we find attractive, what we’d do with a thousand dollars, who we’d save, and who we’d let die. These small hopes and dreams make us as delicate as earthworms on asphalt.
Tim holds out his phone, illuminating our steps. Beer cans, bright wrappers for beef jerky, and chips litter the path like tossed confetti.
“Want to burn one?” he asks when we’re far enough away.
“Yeah.” I gaze up at the sky that blankets us like velvet. “Then you’re gonna tell me about Kerry. Her dad’s getting out in two weeks. She was really happy about it on Monday.”
I flick my butt into the path as Tim lights a joint. I tip his beer back, finishing the warm dregs. The pungent smoke fills the air between us.
The same skunk smell existed behind my mother’s bedroom door as I grew. I remember sitting against it as SpongeBob’s theme music played in the living room. I whispered the song while Momma laughed and coughed with Michelle’s dad.
“She’s pregnant,” Tim says, on inhale and hands me the joint.
Anger steals any mellow the pot might provide. I inhale, holding onto it. We were meant to escape together, not join the ranks of the fucked and damned. I drown my feelings with more smoke, filling my lungs until my eyes water.
Tim places his hand on the small of my back. He’s as boney as I am, as lost as I am. As fucked as I am.
“We’re getting older,” he says, as if seventeen is enough for him. “Hell, Misty took a test last month when she missed her period, I’m surprised she wasn’t pregnant.”
I shake my head, pissed that he thinks knocking up some chick is the same as losing Kerry.
A loud snap echoes to our left and we both pause, waiting for another footfall or beam of a flashlight. Maybe it’s the cops, ready to cart us off for a joint.
The song on the radio at the spot changes. In the space between the tracks we hear a deep, rhythmic hum, like a church choir warming up. A flash of silver and green darts through the trees.
“Stay here,” Tim orders.
An angry rock song replaces the last and covers the sound of our steps.
In school they taught us how to read and write, how to add and subtract. Even then, you knew which kids would make it out of town. They were quiet. Mindful. They shared their blocks and pencils, understanding that they’d have plenty.
“I’m Marian,” I told a beautiful little girl, sporting freckles across her nose and cheeks. We were in third grade. She let me borrow a pencil.
“I know,” she said, with a shrug.
She wrote her name on top of her paper. Heather. Even her handwriting was pristine.
Heather received top marks all the way through school until they let her out at sixteen after three days of tests. They controlled the wall, and gave her a ticket over it. No one sees them. No one talks about it.
I skipped two of those days to sit on Tim’s front porch. We drank cheap vodka out of a plastic bottle, daring one another to take shot after shot until we both ended up on the bathroom floor, taking turns worshipping the great porcelain god.
Tim’s mom owns an old, crumbling farmhouse that she inherited from her parents. She took in kids whose parents died of exhaustion or blew their brains out in bathroom stalls. The kids hung around the front porch like cats bathing in the sun. In a few more years Tim would be in and out of jail for fights or dealing pot, unless he’s moved on to meth.
She is bathed in silver moonlight, but there’s no moon shining through the treetops. We hold our breath. She’s silver, green, as if fireflies live under her skin. Her hair is a blanket of white feathers, speckled black and illuminated by her glow. She is naked, exposing extended legs, too long to be human. Her neck, like her legs, is elongated, as if her delicate bones are made for gallivanting through the trees. The word gazelle comes to mind.
She is who They are.
She hums. It’s beautiful, deep, and soothing. The sound warms my skin and teases at passion until I want to wrap my legs around her. Maybe it’s not her song. Maybe it’s the way her hands touch the tree trunks, swaying, like she’s free.
The hum changes into a cooing noise. They’re words, I realize.
Another form comes out of the forest toward her. The second one glows a soft blue and her feathers are dark orange. They hold hands, lovers that meet in the wilds for sweet kisses and silent promises.
I think they are woodland nymphs, Valkyries, or simply forest spirits come to be as alive as we dream we could be. We watch them sing songs without words, in voices that make my toes tingle and my nipples harden.
When they disappear between the trees we kiss and shove our hands down one another’s pants. We need to hold onto bliss, if only for a moment.
My daddy disappeared before I was old enough to remember. Everyone knows someone who never comes home, and they never find a body. It’s expected. It’s accepted.
Kerry’s sister disappeared when we were ten. Abby taught us how to put on makeup. We dressed in her halter tops and made kissing faces in the bathroom mirror. She put pale pink lipstick on me and warm red on Kerry. We left lip prints on the back of our hands. She’d spray us with apple body mist and tell us we were “Gorgeous!”
Even now when we get ready for a Friday night, we kiss the back of our hands and press them together in a silent salute to an outspoken sister.
Abby used to whisper, “They’re always listening.”
She’d press her finger to her lips and touch the crack between the wall and mirror. “They’re everywhere, waiting for us to make a mistake, and when we do—” She snapped her fingers. “We’re gone.”
And then she was gone.
Did she see them, dancing in the forest?
Before Kerry was pregnant, before we saw the not quite women in the woods, we used to lay in Kerry’s bed and wonder who they were. They sent tests for us to take. They decided when a doctor needed to be replaced. We always believed they were people, just like us.
We thought they were kings, like in storybooks.
“Priests,” Kerry whispered, her button nose pointed at the ceiling fan.
I laughed, imagining old men in pressed white robes and gold threading, showing up to take us away.
“It’s not funny. Religious men have started all kinds of wars, you can look it up.”
“This isn’t a war,” Tim reminded us.
“If it was, we lost a long time ago.”
That’s the most we’d ever said, until that night.
Kerry walks up Tim’s driveway to join us on the porch. I’ve got a little boy’s foot in one hand and tweezers in the other. The boy has a big splinter in the soft spot of his foot, right before the heel. His dark eyes glisten like wet glass, but he won’t cry out, they never do.
Kerry stops before reaching the steps. “You told her.”
Tim shrugs as if he doesn’t care. We have bigger issues now.
The wind pulls at Kerry’s thick, brown curls. I’ve always envied her hair and smooth skin. It’s hard not to love Kerry. She’s beautiful and ugly at the same time. Wide eyes and thick lips appear perfect until she sneers. She can make anyone cry with a few carefully chosen words.
“I’m not mad,” I tell her. “W-we saw something last night.”
“Are you going to help me or not?” the kid asks.
I roll my eyes and focus on the tiny piece of wood sticking out of the foot in front of me.
“What’re you looking at, skank,” the little boy says to Kerry.
Tim starts to laugh and I can’t help the edge of my own smile at the boy’s daring.
Kerry’s grin is feral. I expect strong words and let the tweezers hover, waiting for emotional fallout.
“I’d shut the fuck up and let my friend help you. The last little shit had to get his foot amputated.”
I lift my eyebrows and grab the end of the splinter with the tweezers. The kid sucks in a breath.
I pull, carefully, easily. In another life I could have been a surgeon.
“Bitch,” he says to Kerry before running back inside.
Kerry sits beside me. She grumbles about being called a bitch and I hover the tweezers close to her eyes.
“It’s small for all that fuss,” she says.
I shrug and Tim lights a joint.
“Listen. We think we saw them.”
I trade the tweezers for Tim’s joint.
He coughs behind a cloud of smoke. “We won’t say more than that, but we want you to come with us next time.”
“I can’t, not while I’m pregnant.”
I inhale, not quite touching the joint to my lips.
“And you shouldn’t be smoking that around me,” she says, waving her hands through the cloud when I finally let it out.
I smile, letting smoke lag on my lips. “No one knows that but us. Come with us, it’ll be for the last time.”
Pregnancy meant an end to the spot. After a baby no one had the time to party. You were tied to the home, or a job. A baby meant adulthood, and adults had bars and backyard cookouts.
Tim let the tweezers hover over the lighter’s flame.
“Fine,” Kerry sighs.
“Fine,” I repeat.
We are at the spot. I wear a tiny, strapless black dress that hugs all of my bones close together. I wear it with combat boots, meant to tromp through the woods.
Tim holds my hand and Kerry follows us down the beaten trail as the sun dies over the horizon. His fingers squeeze mine with every other step, as if he’s making sure I’m beside him. Each time I look into his eyes I think he’s asking me if I want to take this chance. I might just be high. I tend to believe I know what people think when I’m stoned, as if I can read them by the pressure of their lips, the tilt of their cheeks, and how they squint their eyes.
Kerry’s steps are like a whisper in our wake. She’s our walking contradiction, light footed and heavy handed. She gathers curly hair behind her ear, escaped from a messy bun at the back of her head.
“This better be something,” she mutters, and Tim shushes her.
“Fuck you, Tim.”
Tim and I laugh. We’re crass and careful. We have sharp tongues shaped by a wall that refuses to let us know what’s on the other side.
Tim points between two trees. The forest casts shadows in shades of black and gray. We find where we saw the creatures before and hunker down next to one another. Kerry’s knees bump mine. She smells of apple body mist and cigarettes.
I imagine the creatures we saw in control rooms, watching screens and collecting data to measure who to cull. Are we a herd? A zoo? Are we a theme park, where they wear our skin and pretend to be human?
Maybe they tag us and eat us, picking the smartest. Those with high test scores and the ability to question make it out. They take us early, and let the rest grow old.
If they discover us, we’ll disappear.
Fear makes my fingertips cold. My gut twists. For a moment I think I’m going to puke. I’ll pass out. The world is dark around me, folding in and spinning.
Then we hear a lone call, like a song. It has voice, tone, and depth. It’s almost human. Another voice reaches out, a soft hum, like the one we heard before. It dances into our ears, and the sound caresses our skin like lovers who know us best. I squirm with urgency.
Kerry gasps and I see one of them. It bounds like a deer through the trees. It’s light green with pale feathers. Another follows behind the first, skin glowing like tiny pieces of sunlight. Its feathers are an array of red and orange.
They chirp, and I think it’s laughter as they fall, scattering leaves. Their long limbs reach for one another, their glowing flesh touches, tumbles, and moves. They’re making love.
Tim tries to pull us away, but I can’t move. It’s beautiful and confusing, not at all the embracing chaos of two people sweating against one another. There is no dance for us, no song, and yet this makes me want to tear at my clothing and try to dance.
“Marian,” Tim whispers in my ear.
I twist around, but I’m too late. We’re all too late.
They stand around us, fluorescence dancing under their skin. Up close I see their slender bones and the ribbons of blood vessels. They are as silent as a grave, gazing down at us with giant, black eyes. Each one has a different feather pattern.
Kerry is crying beside me. Tim, shaking, stands before us.
Kerry, for all her big words, weeps as they march us onto a well-worn path, closer and closer to the wall. She says she’s pregnant, that she can’t go.
A phrase replays in my head, like an announcement in a department store, “Remember, no one who goes over the wall ever comes back.”
“Marian,” Tim says. It’s hard to hear him over Kerry’s sobbing.
“No one who goes over the wall ever comes back,” I say to him and to those beautiful creatures that flank us.
The wall rises, dark and shadowed before us. What’s behind it? Maybe everything will be okay. I’m too jaded to believe that. I remember Heather, the beautiful girl who believed a perfect world waited for her. She just had to be smart enough to reach it.
A gate is set within the wall with flashing yellow lights.
Kerry drops to her knees. Her tears and snot mix with the beaten dirt path. She holds her midsection, a sign she wants the baby.
“Your sister could be over there,” I tell her, because she needs to hear it. We all need to believe.
There’s a chirp, high and soft that calls Kerry to her feet.
They sing and Tim steps forward. My feet move next, as if they’re a part of the song. I can’t stop. We’re theirs. Kerry doesn’t cry out. I try to scream but my throat and tongue refuse.
All the choices are gone, but we never had any from the start.
The gate opens, and so does a door, further inside. I hear the sound of a chain and light erupts from the doorway, bright as a spotlight. Tim walks forward, a silhouette of a man I’ve known all of my life.
It’s not fair. I should at least be able to hold his hand.
“Marian,” he forces from his mouth.
He’s there, and then he isn’t.
I squint, walking ever forward into a song that’s warm, too warm. Like Tim, I go forward. I try to say goodbye. My jaw refuses to open, my vocal cords won’t work. I step away from cracked sidewalks, broken beer bottles, from hungry bellies, and chemical death.
I step into oblivion.