Elizabeth O'Neill

The air hinted at musty pine needles. There was no breeze, only the damp coolness of the forest decaying upon itself.

Rain fell slowly and steadily, but barely reached the carpet of pine needles on the forest floor. The closely woven limbs of the tree protected the ground and obscured the sky. Fresh sap bled from bent places in the branches. The scars and veins of the bark rose and fell and receded. Mosquitoes whined in the woods. A fat blue jay startled, and flew away.

At 12 years of age, Angela Adams stood a full head and shoulders over her classmates, boys and girls alike. Her frame was slight and angular, except for her hands, which were somewhat large and clumsy. The nails were bitten to the quick.

Angela's hair, clipped close to the scalp, fell in uneven chunks over her ears. Her dark eyes had dark circles under them. Her pointed nose and thin lips gave the impression of anger, or disapproval.

Angela wore a small crucifix around her neck. Not a cross, mind you, but a genuine crucifix. One with Jesus on it. One that showed exactly what happened to him. Her clothes were masculine and baggy, left-behinds from her brother Jake. The torn Levis still had the outline from his wallet worn deep into the back pocket. The pants were so big she had to cinch them with a belt. Jake's tee shirt, the black one with the left breast pocket for his cigarettes, hung loosely over her thighs. Only the sneakers belonged to Angela - Keds, ragged and torn, a half size too small.

Angela sat quietly in the pine, watching a spider repair her web. She ran her fingers through her matted hair. It'll grow back, she told herself. If I want it to, it'll grow back. The spider worked furiously on one tiny corner of the web. The hole was as large as Angela's fist.

She'd been in Jakie's room again. This time it was the closet. She stood between his shirts and sports jackets, breathing in his musky scent. It's still here. I can still smell him, she realized.

Angela inhaled deeply and leaned back against the closet wall. She was standing on Jake's shoes. On impulse, she kicked off her Keds and stepped into a pair of his loafers. In her bare feet she could feel the soft grooves his toes had made in the insole. Angela closed her eyes and tried to imagine her brother wearing the loafers. But she couldn't get a picture of it in her mind. He must have worn these a lot, she thought. Angela imagined herself walking in Jakie's shoes. In her mind she imitated his confident, lazy stride. Her feet slid back and forth in the loafers. Her eyes were beginning to ache.

Angela stepped out of the closet, leaving the loafers in their original spot on the floor. She crammed her feet back into the Keds and tied the laces loosely. She glanced around at the adolescent clutter of Jake's bedroom. She smoothed the wrinkles in the quilt on his bed, untouched since that last morning. There was his battered chest of draws, painted and repainted green and green again. Above the dresser was a yellowed movie poster, Al Pacino, super cool in Serpico. The upper right corner drooped down where the tape had dried and given out. Al Pacino looked off into the distance, off somewhere where only he could see. What is he looking at? Angela leaned over the dresser and examined Al Pacino's eyes. They weren't real eyes. They weren't even real circles. When she looked closely she saw black globs with little triangles cut out. Round globs where the iris should be and stupid triangles cut out where the light should have been hitting Al Pacino's eyes.

Just below her gaze on top of the dresser lay Jake's hair brush. It was plastic tortoise shell, flat and wide. The handle was chipped in two places. Angela ran her finger along the groove in the handle, nudging her fingertips into the chips. She placed the brush face down in her hand. The bristles were soft and pliable. She drew it gently across her palm and fingers, stretching her hand like a cat that's been stroked. She drew it back over her wrist and the fine hairs of her forearm. Tiny goose pimples rose to attention on her skin.

Angela raised Jake's brush to her head, but then stopped when she caught his scent again. She examined the brush closely now, noticing the fine brown hairs trapped between its bristles. There was a the thin layer of dust between the rows of nylon spokes. She pressed the brush to her face and inhaled. There he was. It was him.

Angela placed the brush on the dresser. One by one, she opened his dresser drawers. Everything was still there - T-shirts, Levis, underwear. It was all there. How could he be gone?

Angela's heart beat loudly in her temples. Her breath was shallow and hard. She began to panic. She ran to the bathroom and sat down hard on the toilet. How could he be gone? she asked herself. She raised her hands to her face and pressed her palms against her eyes. Her forehead was warm and sweaty.

She stood at the sink. The old-fashioned spigots, with their four-pointed handles, were like spiders resting on the edge of the porcelain basin. She turned the cold tap and let the water run over her hands. She leaned into the basin and splashed her face. The cold of the water made her catch her breath. She reached for the towel and rubbed it against her face. She pressed hard on the ache behind her eyes.

Angela stared past herself in the mirror. Her face doubled, then tripled, then disappeared into the glass. Her face was Jake's face, then her mother's, then Father Dempsey's.

Father Dempsey shook his head. "A tormented soul," he said.

Angela's mother bit her lip. "A good boy," she said. Her eyes were raw and tired.

"He didn't understand," Father Dempsey said. "He didn't know what he was doing."

Angela leaned in and touched the glass. Her face swung sharply into focus. Her own face. Her face and Jakie's face, one on top of the other, identical except for the hair.

As Angela knelt in front of the tiny vanity, her head and shoulders disappeared into the damp insides of the sink. Underneath, the pipes dipped and turned, and the air was thick with the smell of must and hair spray. She shoved aside a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a tin of Band-Aids. There, underneath a pack of disposable razors, was the pouch.

Angela backed out from underneath the sink. She removed the scissors from the pouch. The blades were thin and cool in her hand. She ran her finger along the edge of the blade, resting at the tip. She examined her eyes in the mirror. Black globs, with triangles.

She grasped one long brown braid. She raised the scissors to her head and watched herself cut it off. It was easy. She cut close to the scalp, and her head bucked a little as the scissors relieved the tension between the braid and her scalp.

She cut off the other braid. That was easy, too.

She cut off all the other clumps that stood between the scissors and her scalp. Soon, the sink was brimming with hair, strand upon strand, like a dark misshapen web.

She examined her work. I'm done, she thought. I'm done for the day.

With that, she gathered a handful of hair and tossed it into the plastic bucket by the toilet. The braids still had the elastics fastened to them, one pink, one green. It's worth it, she thought. It's worth it to be closer to him. She wiped the scissors carefully on the towel and slid them back into the velvet pouch. She placed them back underneath the sink.

Back in Jake's room, she chose a T-shirt and jeans from his dresser. She tossed off her own shorts and shirt and stepped into his. She felt strangely calm as she cinched the waist of Jake's Levi's, first with a safety pin and then with his belt.

As a final measure she raised his hairbrush to her head. She ran it slowly over her scalp, feeling the stubs of her hair pass quickly through the bristles. She felt closer to him than ever.

Angela marched down the stairs and out the front door of the house into the pouring rain. She began to walk, down the driveway and out into the street. When she reached the road, she walked right down the middle, not on the sidewalk or close to the curb. See me, she kept thinking. Somebody see what I'm doing.

But nobody saw her. No cars came and honked their horns. Nobody slowed down or rolled down a window or even called her mother to ask if she was alright. Nobody said a word.

Angela stopped and squinted. A rain drop fell squarely into her eye. For a moment, she thought about lying down on the pavement.

Fuck it, she thought, and stomped to the side of the road. She stood on the shoulder, peering down into the woods. It's not right, she thought. None of it is right. Rain dripped down her cheeks and over her nose. It tasted oddly salty.

Angela glanced back at the street where she grew up, the neat little houses set back from the road. Everything appeared in black and white. This is the way it is. This is the way it's always going to be.

"Fuck it," she said aloud, and slid down the incline into the damp coolness of the forest.

© Elizabeth O'Neill

Elizabeth O'Neill writes poetry and novels. Her work has been published in Moving Out: A Feminist Journal, Interwire, the Red River Review, and That Takes Ovaries: Bold Females and Their Brazen Acts.

Submit your comments on this story to our MoxieTalk discussion group by clicking here!   You can also send your comments directly to the author using the form below.

You can do both by typing your response below, submitting it and then copying it, going to MoxieTalk, and pasting it into the form there for posting a message.

Email: (required)


Copyright 2002 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved