This is chapter 6 of a continuing story called The Woods and the Way
When he was twelve years old his appointed foster care social worker told him that no one wanted him.
“You’re too much of a hassle,” she said simply, shuffling through some papers on her desk. He sat across from her in a leather seat far too big for his small frame and tried to make sense of what she had said. He’d been bounced from home to home since birth, when his parents gave him up for adoption and no one claimed him. Orphanages, foster homes, even a few adoptions. They all ended at one point or another, and he was unceremoniously transferred to the next.
The blame was partly his, to be entirely fair. He had issues. Issues most families didn’t want to have to deal with. Still to hear it out loud stung, especially coming from one of the only people who’d been a constant in his ever-shifting life.
He cared too much. He grew overly attached to the people in his life, fleeting though they were, and was unfailingly devastated when they inevitably turned him away again. One therapist had called it “emotional acuity”, stemming from unresolved abandonment issues. A foster sibling at the time happily informed him that this was a dressed-up way of calling him a pussy.
His latest placement, a foster home in the sleepy little town of Woodsbrook, had lasted longer than most. This was partly due to the fact that he spent most of his time in the woods, effectively staying out of his foster family’s way. Already preoccupied with two other foster children younger than him and a third biological child (older than him), the family found they could hardly care less where he spent his days, so long as the government’s checks kept coming.
The woods were his escape, his sanctuary. After all, how could he be a burden when there was no one around to burden? The woods had become his home, the only home he’d ever known. And she had become the only family he’d ever known.
Which made it all the more difficult to say goodbye.
“Already?” she asked, sitting down on the well’s rim. “We just got here.”
“What? No- I mean… I’m leaving Woodsbrook.”
“Oh.” She studied his face, looking for a sign he was joking. She found none.
“I’m sorry,” he said, avoiding her gaze.
“Tomorrow. I wasn’t sure how to tell you,” he added quickly, seeing her mouth fall open. “I couldn’t tell you.” She took a deep breath, steadying herself.
“That’s… alright. Now you know how I felt.” She shook her head. “Sort of.”
“Sort of,” he agreed. They fell silent, thinking about that day.
“Why?” she asked eventually.
“Ah, university, believe it or not.” She raised an eyebrow.
“University? That means you’re a year ahead of me in school then.” She scoffed. “Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t either of us know that? After all we’ve talked about, after all the time we’ve spent together, we still don’t know much about one another, do we?”
“Of course we do!” he sputtered. “I mean sure, we left some things out, but wasn’t that part of the agreement? The outside world doesn’t matter in here, remember?”
“But it does, doesn’t it?” she said softly. “I mean, look at us. We’ve been playing a game, living this fantasy. It’s just a stupid facade.”
“Don’t say that.”
“But it’s true!” she blurted. “The outside world does matter. It has always mattered, and it always will matter. Escape is only temporary; at the end of the day when we walk out of this forest we will always end up where we were before. Always.”
“Yeah, but at least we can get away from that here, if only for a moment-“
“What good are temporary solutions to permanent problems?” He shook his head frantically.
“Don’t say that. Please don’t say that.”
“I need- I need you to tell me that there was a reason behind all of this. I need you to tell me that it wasn’t for nothing. That we had fun here. I need… I need to know that you’ll miss me.” She blinked.
“Of course I’ll miss you. How could you even think that I wouldn’t?” She waited for him to respond, and when it became clear he wouldn’t she grabbed his hand and pulled him over, sitting him down beside her. “Listen to me. You are, without a doubt, the best friend I have ever had. And I will miss you. More than you know.” He smiled, tears running down his face, and embraced her.
“Thank you,” he whispered over her shoulder. “Thank you.”
When they parted he sniffled, grinning sheepishly.
“You know, if this is going to be our last day together for a while, I don’t want to spend it harping over what’s to come.”
“The outside world stays outside,” she said, repeating the agreement they’d made all those months ago.
They talked, doing their best to move off of the subject of his imminent departure, but the topic loomed over them like an impending storm cloud. Even as she sang he could feel the shadow of his life, his real life, casting an uneasy atmosphere over them both. All the things he hadn’t told her, all the things he wished he could, filled the air between them and seemed to drown out her voice.
When the song was over she sat there for a moment beside him, ignoring the alarm on her watch.
“I have to go,” she said finally, standing to leave. “I, ah… I’ll see you when you get back, right?”
“Right.” He tried to force a smile, but it came off as more of a grimace. Still she returned it as best she could, and they hugged for what would be the last time in a long time. When they separated she started home, and he said goodbye to his.