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