I want her to forgive me. That is why I came here. I don’t remember the name of the town, but the roads are all “hollows” with names like “Beartown” and “Mormons Place” and “Hardscrabble”. They have Mormons here? From the looks of it I expected only coyotes. A rusted metal sign going into town says “We love you alive.” I write it down and decide to Google it later. I hope it is a piece of war-time propaganda; otherwise I’m a little scared. I am in a town that is either very welcoming and very illiterate, or very dedicated to making you feel safe when you aren’t. Neither option sits well with me. There is a Wall Street in this town and it runs directly parallel to Main Street, which makes me laugh. I’m almost uncontrollable though, when I realize that both are bisected by Church Street. It is October and that heightens my sense that this place has emerged from a Disney Channel Halloween movie—the leaves really do blow in bizarre cyclones above the sidewalk and the old women in their front porch rocking chairs really do glare at you as you walk past. There really are tree-covered hills so tall you can’t see most of the sky. The buildings really do have inexplicable slivers of dark between them even in the brightness of this October afternoon. But I haven’t come here to paint pictures of fear. I have come here for my sister’s last high school soccer game. I have come here to make amends.
When I get to the stands, I don’t recognize anyone. I only see people wearing maroon whatever-this-town-is jackets and sweatshirts and face paint. I worry that I am in the wrong place, but then I remember that I saw the Bloomfield school bus in the parking lot. This means that my sister is here somewhere and my aunt too. She is the coach. Oh yes, and my uncle the bus driver. Here, somewhere. I sit down on a wooden bleacher as far away from anyone as I can justify. It is cold and I didn’t wear enough clothes. I drove here right after class and it took two hours— I have a vague need to find a bathroom but I’m afraid to be seen confusedly looking for one. I’m cupping my phone in my hand as if it holds all the purpose in the world. A message pops up from a sometimes-friend: “How are you?” I get to tell him, “Scared,” not caring that he doesn’t know or care why. I’ll hide behind it when she gets here, pretend to be absorbed in something other than worrying about running into her. It’s not pertinent that I talk to her. I just want her to forgive me. She just needs to see me and then she’ll forgive me. I am banking on it.
She’s a soccer mom. Not mine. She has a son and I tried to ruin him. I thought it was fair because he’d done it to me first. My plan is to just sit here and take whatever she hits me with, so long as she forgives me. In a way it is nice that this place is so generally horrifying—at least I’m not distorting someplace otherwise wonderful.
I am looking at the woods all around us and I wonder why no one else is afraid of the beasts in them. We are from a small town yes, but our beasts are cattle and our places are made of field-covered hills with nothing to hide behind. We cut all the hidey-holes down and put up telephone poles. But here, we could be picked off these bleachers one by one like a campfire ghost story and only the last few people would realize what is happening. Not in time though. Never in time. Why isn’t anyone else noticing this? Probably because the concession stand is selling nachos and Starburst.
I remind myself that the ghost stories aren’t rooted in soft reality like that of junk food. Those kinds of details are never provided. The lights and the wind kick up and suddenly there are dozens of spirited dancing figures popping up on the brown grass. The Bloomfield school bus has unloaded. The field is shaped like a bowl with a rectangular flat bottom, and because the bleachers are set both back and up from the bottom of it, it is very hard to differentiate which figure is which. One is my sister. She is in white because the good guys wear white. That is as much reassurance as I will be getting. I am here to watch them lose and so are all of the other familiar Bloomfield voices that have materialized around me.
When I was driving through town, I saw that she kept going after I turned onto Bee-Man Hollow. I know that she is a ways behind the rest. And she was definitely lost. It’s not that I wouldn’t have told her she was going the wrong way, but how could I have? A shout, out the window from Malibu to Mustang of “Wait! You’ve got it all wrong!” Not hardly.
She won’t get here before kick-off, but this works to my advantage. I will already be cheering for her daughter by the time she does and there won’t be anything she can do to prevent it. And the daughter is just as powerless to stop my unwanted aggressive affection. I wore my Bloomfield sweatshirt carefully, to remind her that we are still of the same place even if she hates me. My parents appear beside me as I squint, trying to label the running characters with what names I remember. My dad hands me a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate when he sits down. He asks me about school and I remember the day he told me he never thought he’d be “so embarrassed of the daughter he was usually so proud of.” I tell him school was “great,” “wonderful,” that I think I’m getting the hang of public speaking and that the B minus on that essay was just because I messed up my citations. It was supposed to be a surprise that I was coming but I of course had to call him for directions after I spun around and around in the middle of town and the old ladies on the front-porch rocking chairs were not an option. The hot chocolate is warming and delicious, but I can only take small sips because I don’t know when she will get here. I can’t risk running into her on the way to the bathroom— her walking with the overwrought hell-bent purpose of getting to her daughter and I with the hesitancy of finding a bathroom in a strange place. Every surface here is very steep. She could push me and no one would disbelieve it if she said she just happened to watch me tumble down a hill.
I could see the event play out. End over end, head over feet and feet over head as I crookedly cartwheeled down the slope, my Bloomfield sweatshirt turning into a skin of mud, my hair turning into a matted mess of earth indistinguishable from tousled brown grass, my body flailing and broken like a cheap plastic pinwheel belonging to a troubled toddler, spinning in all the wrong ways. But no, she doesn’t hate me that much and I need to stop thinking this way. How could anyone hate me that much? I am here, and that is a shade of me that I hope she will at least notice—one she hasn’t known.
The cheers start getting louder and I remember the solid safety of the wooden bench. My need to find a bathroom is stronger though. The other team almost scores, once, twice, three times, and I am still waiting for her to get here. If a goal comes before she does, that will ruin everything. That will eclipse her casual looking around and appraisal of who else was dedicated enough to make the drive. I came here to catch some of that appraisal. To show satisfactory dedication. This game is my last tie to the time in which she and I had things in common. Bloomfield things. Good guys wear white things. So I join in with the crowd on my half of the bleachers as I, too, stomp my feet and shout individual names and useless directions that the figures on the field won’t hear and wouldn’t respond to if they did. I mean it the most though, and my shouts are ones their ears were trained to recognize just a couple short years ago, when I wore white and was considered a good guy too, so I hold out hope. “Don’t be afraid of her! You are just as fast! You are just as strong!”
“Why don’t you just suit up, eh?” asks one of the dads like mine who has a daughter on the field and one in college who used to be. I laugh good naturedly, “I wish.” And then my stomps stomp out I wish I wish I wish. I’m scared by how loud it is, but of course, this is Beartown. Is it? I don’t remember. In waiting for her I have let my yelling get away from me and now my throat is raw. And I can’t hold out anymore, I need that bathroom. I hand my dad my Styrofoam cup and my blanket. He takes them without looking away from the unfolding action. I make my way down out of the wooden bleachers and I run behind them, careful on the hill. I find the bathroom quick and discover it is a one-stall with a blessed no one else in it. I don’t look in the mirror or fix my hair and I still have damp hands when I emerge. I run back to the bleachers as fast as I can, so fast that my boots slide several inches to the side in the mud with every step. The knowledge of the hill catches in my stomach but not as tightly as the fear that maybe she is right. About me. About everything.
But she is not right. I love my sister and my town so big that I drove here on a school night to watch them lose their last soccer game. To sit in the cold and rub my hands together and yell my love to them.
Just as I get back to the bleachers and slide onto the seat next to my father the ball flies into the net. It is for the Beartown team, and as the maroon half of the bleachers jumps to its feet a train goes by with its whistle blaring. Those of us who are wearing blue and white and are still sitting feel the ground shake as it thunders past. “Well. That is some excellent production value,” comments my father in a sad little voice as he hands me back the blanket. I’m not sad for even an instant. I’m spinning my head under the guise of the frenzy, checking all angles, checking for her.
There she is.
I look hard at her face, unashamed, searching for recognition. Recognition in her eyes—of some sort of goodness in mine. But she doesn’t look over. She is huddled in a parka, perfectly planned ahead for Beartown. I’m shivering now in the sweatshirt that has gotten too much wear during these months of homesickness. She wraps a perfectly-manicured hand around a Styrofoam cup and sips without taking her eyes off of the bowl down below. She turns her head away from me to laugh with one of the other moms. I have to look at my dad. It’s because I wonder if the sight of her is as inextricably linked to the memory of my failings for him as it is for me. He seems unbothered but there’s no way to know for sure.
“Quick, while she’s in the bathroom,” I imagine her whispering to the people in blue, “I will tell the stories of every evil thing she has ever done.” The moms lean in close and then they drag my little sister by the scruff to listen too. Her lips drip venom but it’s not poison—it spills only truth. False apologies I have spoken and lies I have written, real pain I have inflicted and real suffering that I deserved but did not take with grace.
I shake the imaginary whispers out. The real world floods in. My dad is shouting something he thinks is witty at the referee and everything is fine. My uncle sits behind me and his cheers bounce around in my eardrum in the harsh, resounding way that they have done since I was eleven years old. My mother’s hat is covering her bare cancer head, but that is almost taken care of now, too. Just about everything has been set right, save this one thing. My mother is wearing blue eye shadow and she asks if I want some too. Mark myself? No thank you. But it is fine. Wait, no. Isn’t that the hum of a thousand rumbling padded feet that is making my legs shake? No, it’s just my plastic cell phone buzzing. Another message from sometimes-friend, but I don’t have time for him. I have to keep yelling. I haven’t yelled loud enough yet and the good guys are getting devoured.
This is all my fault. Last time I talked about these things, just fishing for reassurance, all I got were these words from sometimes-friend:
“Not all fears are unfounded.”
He grinned and slivers of dark showed between his teeth.
I blink hard and obliterate them. “YOU ARE FASTER! YOU ARE STRONGER!” I shout with all of the power I can muster. I shout because shouting shows that I am here. I shout because she needs to hear that I am here. It is easier now that my ears have popped completely on the side of this cliff. And there is no way she doesn’t hear me. I yell until after the whistle has blown and the good guys are just a used-up, used-to-be-white mess. I yell until I am crunching cold through the parking lot alone and I have accidentally stolen my dad’s blanket. I yell until I am in my car and passing by the illiterate town’s idea of welcome. I yell. I hope she hears.
Leaving town the sign says “Be back soon, love.”
I yell until I forget what the sign exactly said and I have to make it up.
It said something like that though. Something that indicated that I had not done what I’d come to do. Something that indicated that I would have to return. Something that indicated that nothing was settled, nothing was over. She never looked my way, never noted my presence. Nothing was going to make things right.
I drive back to school in the dark, with my eyes peeled for shifting figures on the side of the road. I flick on my high-beams and keep them on even when I see another car coming and hear their angry horns. I yell until the landscape turns collegiate and encased and there is not one single person in sight who thinks they know what I really am.
Kaitlyn Tiffany, is a Sophomore at Cornell University. Her work has appeared in Dead Flowers and will be in an upcoming issue of SunDog Lit. When not at school she lives on the same road as her entire maternal family in Bloomfield, New York.