I found myself scared, cold, and sick running through the woods. Why had I come here. Something was behind me, chasing me, propelling my body forward. I was moving so fast I wasn’t sure if my feet were actually hitting the ground. I just kept moving, wondering what it was that I had actually seen. These woods were haunted, filled with ghosts…why had I come here again? I could see the cabin’s yellow light gleaming through the tree line. If I could just get to there, if I could beat down the door, and run inside I would be okay. My body seemed to move even quicker as whatever was chasing me breathed on my neck. It too knew I’d be safe once past the tree line so it raced after me harder. My clothes snagged on everything, my hair danced around my face. I could feel a warm liquid running down to my chin. I wasn’t sure if it was tears or blood or both. Something reached out and grabbed me, I screamed but no sound pierced the night–I screamed right? Just as it grabbed a wad of my hair I hit the tree line and everything was silent. The dark cold vanished along with the warm breath of whatever it was that had my locks in its grasp. I stood with my back to the trees afraid to turn around. I was afraid the minute that I saw it that it would swallow me whole.
The yellow light through the cabin’s glass windows beckoned me forward. It was up high off the ground in the middle of the tree clearing. A old man and his wife stepped quietly out of the door and walked down the stairs. A young man opposite of them caught the door as it closed and disappeared inside. Maybe I wouldn’t have to beat down the door–maybe I could just slip inside instead. I waited until my heart wasn’t pounding and I could feel my legs again. As I took a few steps away from the treeline I had the nerve to glance over my shoulder. The woods formed an impenetrable black wall that I couldn’t see beyond. I couldn’t even see where I had come from–like they had closed tightly after me. As I backed away heading towards the cabin I couldn’t fight the overwhelming feeling of a hundred eyes on me waiting for me to come back in.
In the cabin it was warm and bright. People walked around silently looking at the desks that displayed brochures about the area, admiring the photography on the walls, asking young volunteers where to stay. I walked up to the front desk to find my co-worker behind it. She didn’t know me, it was as if we had never met. I asked her where I was and how I could get home. She avoided my eyes and coldly told me that she couldn’t help me. She threw a stack of paperwork at me and told me to ask her supervisor. She pointed a long bony finger at a large closed door.
Suddenly I was on the other side of it. I had interrupted a meeting, a large conference filled with grim and serious faces. The room looked like a smaller version of the senate. Large men in long black robes towered around the perimeter of the room. There was a small girl in the middle of it all shaking. I told her I needed her help and she scolded me. She wouldn’t stop shaking as she told me that this wasn’t a good time.
“I understand but I really need to go home.” The small girl kept shaking like she was having a seizure. The men in the robes were silent, never moving or speaking.
“Fine.” She scribbled her signature across the forms and shoved them back at me. I gripped them all tight to my body to keep them from scattering across the floor. I was pushed out of the room without moving my feet and the door slammed in my face. I looked down again at the blank forms. My index finger had smudged the ink of her signature before it dried. It took me only a second to realize that she’d signed me away with blood.
I called the only number I had memorized. My memories seemed fluffy and round, I punched the number into the keypad but I didn’t know whose it was. A male voice echoed on the line.
“Michael.” I heard myself say.
“Hana? What’s wrong.” His voice seemed far away but the concern was real. It had been such a long time.
“I need help. Can you come get me?” I fought back the tears rubbing my face to preoccupy my thoughts. I realized how frightful I must have looked having mixed the blood and dirt mixture on my skin.
“I’m on my way.” The line cut off. I didn’t question how he knew where I was even after all of these years. I sat on the steps of the cabin in the dark while I waited. An hour later Michael pulled up in a silver car and waved me over. I tried to remember the last time that I had seen him. It was years before but I wasn’t sure exactly. Enough time had passed between our friendship that he was no longer obligated to rescue me. He was one of those friends that I had once been close with but somewhere along the way we forgot to make time for each other. It was nice to know though that after everything we’d been through and all the days that passed since then that he’d still come to me if I really needed him to. I think that’s what makes relationships like this so beautiful.
He sped out of the woods and I was relieved to be headed away from whatever was lurking in those trees. The farther we raced from them the lighter it got even though I knew it was still night. We didn’t talk on the ride back; without asking me he whisked me into town to a bar we’d been to a thousand times before. It was unsaid but assumed that I needed a drink. We got a small table for two in a dark corner off to the side away from the madness of drunk college kids partying on a Thursday night. From then the chatter came easy, he talked then I talked and soon we were in the present and no time had passed. He didn’t ask me about the woods or what happened. Instead he dipped his paper napkin in his water glass and folded it before handing it to me. I wiped my face clean of all the day had brought. He folded another napkin, I watched his hands as he methodically did so. I noticed a glimmer on his left fingers. It was like the ring suddenly appeared and took up all of my view.
“You got married?” I asked in disbelief.
“I did. Yea, I guess I forgot that part.” He smiled and it was a real smile. The kind of smile that is true after a lifetime of smiles that weren’t. I’d known him closely when the smiles were a forced facade. I knew them well because they were a reflection of my own. We’d spent years leaning on each other when faking it was too hard. Now as I stared at him from across the table over a long overdue beer I could see him clearly. I fought back the hot tears behind my eyes. He seemed to glow as he told me about his husband and the life that they had formed together. And for the first time his smiled didn’t reflect mine. I should have excused myself to the bathroom but I couldn’t face myself in a mirror. I knew that my smile wouldn’t look like his in the fluorescent glow of a bar bathroom.
I cried. In a small dark corner of a dive bar in Charleston, I cried. I cried as an old friend lay his hand over mine and cried too. We cried as the cheers from the Thursday night crowd cast over us like a blanket. We cried silently together over the years that had grown between us and the directions our lives had gone. We cried together but for different reasons. And inexplicably, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.