a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
Ruth and I watch the leaves.
They flutter in all the various shades. Golden yellow, rusty brown, a shade of purple that seems more singed than eloquent. Our backs press into rasping rocking chairs with gaps stretched thin like old taffy, and we watch the leaves wind down stark lines and interstate roads. Sometimes, the sky looks like colorful fabric and the wind seems like sparse, invisible threads. Mom says that the falling leaves are a puppet show, worked by God.
Ruth and I watch until sweet smoke curls under our legs and the moon hangs so low we can see the glare off the tops of our heads. Ruth’s hair sweeps past her shoulders, so brightly colored that I can see it through hazy bars of lamplight. She loops it around her fingers with a grin that’s all teeth. “Shall we go to the kitchen? I smell pie.”
“I hope it’s apple,” I say.
“Well, I think it’s blueberry.”
“It’s too sweet to be blueberry,” I explain, but Ruth just shakes her head, gripping her wailing rocking chair.
“It’s blueberry,” she says. “I can feel it. It’s definitely blueberry.”
I press my lips together and look away. Dad says that Ruth is like Mom, with blonde hair and pebble-blue eyes and a voice that sings like a canary. I’m more like he is. Bony hands, seaweed hair, arms that cross and dangle like swinging branches. Our faces are acute angled jaws and bunched up lips. Mom and Ruth’s faces are loose skin and gentle curvesNat is the perfect one, the only boy. He’s tall, full of skin, and when his jaw slopes steeply, his cheeks curve like apples. He smiles with his teeth, like Mom and Ruth, and he swings his arms, like Dad and me. He watches the leaves, too.
Nat started watching the leaves first.
We sit around the table in plastic chairs that squeak when we shift. The light bulbs are stale and yellow. Dad licks his teeth, his face oily like someone painted on it, and Mom’s fleshy hands are thick, overlapping looms. I look at Nat; he’s got a vacant look on his face, his fingers brushing absently on the bristles on his chin.
“Do you want to make a bet?” Ruth whispers. The pie is still in the oven. Mom despises eating dessert before dinner, so she only takes it out after we finish slurping watery bowls.
“Sure,” I say.
Ruth grins. “I still say blueberry.”
I nod, though I don’t really believe her. “I still say apple.”
“You’ll regret it,” Ruth says somberly. “You always do.”
“Now, Ruth, that’s not true,” Mom says, breaking apart her fingers to slide fat oven mittens onto them. “But you’ll find out in a second.”
Dad looks up. He’s stopped licking his teeth. Now he’s swirling his soup, shifting big chunks of meat and soggy vegetables. “Pie? I want apple, too. I need some sugar in my system. How about you, Nat?”
“I think the only difference is texture,” Nat responds.
The tray creaks in the oven, smelling like burned fruit, and Mom takes it out gently. I turn to look at Ruth. Her cheeks are shaped like half moons. Dad’s spoon clinks on the bowl’s edge, coming to an abrupt halt.
None of us pay attention to Nat, except maybe Nat himself. His eyes blink rapidly and shut. He falls and his voice sounds like a scream.
Ruth stares with her round eyes, and Mom through furrowed brows, but Nat doesn’t get back up.
“Exertion,” the doctor says, at first. “Normal for a boy like him.” Ruth and I look at each other quizzically, because Nat is the type of boy who runs with the leaves, but our lips close like zippers. Mom’s face is pink with relief when she hears. Dad just shrugs his spindly shoulders, sets his legs on the table, and says, “I told you so.”
Nat sits away from the conversation, a stick figure leaning against the curtains. His cheeks are hollowed out, bone caverns like an actor, and he trembles a little when he hears us.
“I don’t know,” Nat says, but Mom is paying attention to Dad’s dirty boots and Dad is paying attention to Mom’s jittery fingers.
“What is it, Nat?” I say.
“There’s something wrong with me.” He runs the tips of his fingers across his stubble, nervous. “I don’t think Dr. Sullivan is right.”
“Then, what is it?”
“I don’t know,” Nat says, “but it sure as hell isn’t exertion.”
“Well, do you think you’re sick?”
Breath slices in between his teeth. Mom looks at us with slanted, question mark eyebrows.
“What did you say?”
Dad rolls off the couch and wipes his face. “Leave it, Eve.” Ruth stands in between them, her mouth open and her eyes glassy. “Leave it.”
“Don’t say that,” Mom says. Ruth stares at her. “Don’t you dare say that,” she repeats, wavering, until Dad has to dig his thick hands onto her shoulders and move her into the kitchen. But I ask Nat again, when he slumps onto the rocking chair and looks at the leaves. The light catches on his sloped chin.
“God,” he says quietly. “I don’t know.”
His eye catches on a falling leaf. He stills.
Ruth and I make another bet that night. My skin is warm under the quilted blanket. Ruth’s hair is dull gold in the lamp light.
“One quarter Mom will faint,” I say.
“One quarter?” Ruth’s nose scrunches, as if disgusted by the small amount. “Fine. One quarter she won’t faint.”
She pauses. “But do you really think so?”
I think of Mom’s marked eyebrows, like the bones on a pirate ship. “I think that she thinks too much,” I answer.
“She’s a mom. That’s what they do.”
“I don’t think Nat likes it.”
“He doesn’t need to like it,” Ruth says. For a moment, she’s quiet. “He just needs to live with it.”
Nat goes to a room where there are thick scans and a flood of wires. A tumor, the doctors say, or an irregular mass. But they need to check, more, later.
Mom stops listening. She doesn’t believe in it. Her skin strains around the bulge of her eyes. Her cheeks are papery, like a corpse.
Ruth and I strap ourselves with thick seatbelts that rub against our bare stomachs. Mom’s hands grip the wheel; gravity pulls her neck below her neck, below her shoulders, below her stomach.
“We’re going to church,” is all she says.
I turn away. I comfort myself by squinting to see the gaps in between each tree, small and bright, spaces that look like spills of glitter. I wonder if Nat’s ever bothered to look in between them, and then I swallow. I don’t want to think about Nat.
The church is somber when we enter, and the stained glass windows are dim. Once, Mom told me it was because God had wanted it that way.
Mom stumbles onto a pew and shuts her eyes. Her mouth moves violently.
“Let’s pray, too,” Ruth says. “Okay?”
“I want to look at the glass windows. I can pray while looking, too.”
“No, we need to speak it,” Ruth says sternly. “That’s how God will listen.” “God doesn’t listen. Don’t we know that?”
“He does,” Ruth says. “I know he does. How else will Nat get better? Tell me. If God can’t do it, who’s going to do it for him? The doctors?”
I don’t know, so I don’t answer. My teeth meet my tongue, biting until I feel hot liquid. “Shut up,” Ruth says, closing her eyes, “and pray.”
The next night, when the sun sticks to our grassy bodies, Nat and I race. We file outside the house, and then we pretend to be rebellious by streaking into the woods. Nat’s body is a curved parenthesis, tentatively substantial, and he runs ahead with plunging elbows. I hold my legs close to my body. They feel like my knotted braids.
Nat pauses when we are both suffused with sweat. His smile is dirty and brilliant, which makes my cheeks soggy. In between our sticked-up hands and mangled leggings, he seems limitless.
“Are you hungry?” I ask Nat, because I don’t know what else to say. “There are a lot of apple trees around here.”
Nat tilts his head. “We’re allowed to pick them, aren’t we? Or ain’t that superstition?”
“You’re seventeen,” I say. “Aren’t you supposed to know?”
Nat presses his knuckles to his head, then knocks it. He knocks it again. “My brain sounds hollow to me,” he says. I laugh. Nat’s smile settles in between his face, like a poor watery reflection, and then his eyes move at the rustle of leaves.
We stay there in the grass, quietly. Nat sits cross-legged and attentive. My sweater brushes the grass and makes me sneeze. We only get up once I’ve counted to a hundred, or maybe infinity, and the trance of leaves has ended.
“See,” Nat says, brushing his fingertips on his jeans. “That wasn’t so bad.”
I watch as he extends his hands to mine. They are curved and a little pointed at the top, brown like the darkest trees.
Church makes Ruth and me wear tight dresses that scrape our breasts. Nat pulls pinched shoes onto his toes and brushes back his light hair. His face is pale, and his fine lashes blink rapidly like he’s in some sort of stupor. Mom taps her shiny shoe, pressing a bony knuckle into her watch. Dad just lounges on the moth-bitten sofa. His hands twitch. He’s passed out.
Carefully, I watch Nat slide himself into the front seat of the Toyota Camry. His arms are too long, so they dangle off the car door and find themselves against his thin head. His eyes absorb the blur of trees. I find myself watching the leaves, too, as fickle as they are.
“Do you want to hear something?” Ruth says. We seat ourselves onto the pew closest to the cross.
“What is it?”
“I don’t think anything is wrong with Nat. You know, I really feel it.”
“Because of God?”
She grins, but she doesn’t reply.
When the time for offerings comes, Mom digs through clinking coins and torn dollars. Nat pulls out a crisp ten dollar bill from his wallet. “Here,” he says.
Mom smiles at him. Her lips are rosy pink. For a moment, I feel warm in my dress.
And then Nat breaks.
He bends down, his spine crumpling into his stomach, and his fists clench and strike against his chest. Wet sounds come from his throat. Ruth and I stare; we don’t look away.
My legs are rigid. Fear fills my throat, like water, and then my body is made of stone and I crack into pieces.
Ruth starts screaming. Mom is white and still.
I press my nails into my ears and listen for a steady pulse. I think I hear blood. Mom whispers, “Oh my God.”
Ruth and I watch the leaves on the steps of our house, away from the wailing rocking chairs and our parents’ chirps and slurs. We sit with our legs crossed and our hair tied back, even though my arms swing and hers don’t.
The leaves look different this year. They shift in darker yellow and darker brown, and a shade of purple that reminds me of a growing bruise.
Ruth twirls a strand of hair, then lets it drop, limp, to her neck. She sucks in her cheeks. “Do you remember?”
“When we last had pie.”
I shake my head, thumbing a quarter in between my fingers. “Do you want to make a bet?” I say instead.
“I bet that Nat’s looking at the leaves, too.”
“I know,” Ruth says, with a ghost of a grin.
“I can feel it.”
* = Editors' Choice work
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