Growing up, I had one foot in the pine forests of my mother’s childhood and the other firmly on the ground, in an apartment near my father’s job in finance, pointed towards university and a job that paid the bills. I was the only child of only children, an introvert by choice or curse, but I was never sure.
My mother was born in a house three hours north of the hospital where I was born. Her best friend had a son, about my age. We became playmates as youngsters, doomed by proximity more than anything. Dean liked natural disasters and toxic plants, and I avoided speaking to anyone, hiding behind dark hair and inside books; I’ve been told we made an unsettling pair.
Throughout my childhood, Dean and I became close friends, when my mother and I visited the pine forests in the summers. I don’t remember much of the early years beyond how warm and safe it felt to be up north in my mother’s hometown, away from the cold people in stiff shirts and stern faces, and the sharp wind off the water. My mother’s town got colder as I aged; I retreated to books more and more often, keeping myself closed to people in the daytime, and at night, leaving myself open to the stars, streetlights, and, when I was in the forest, the moon.
I’m not sure why or what things changed, but we stopped visiting when I was eight. My mother changed, began to wear suits and gave up veganism. She rose with my father at six a.m. and took to blow-drying her hair in the morning, curling it under her chin just so. We went shopping and bought pink frilly dresses and chapter books labeled “I Can Read,” about talking animals, and little children with well-groomed hair and brightly colored plastic toys. I asked my teacher at school how to get a library card. I taught myself to walk five blocks, two north, three west, and I learned to think on my own.
I visited Dean again, during my thirteenth summer. The wind in the trees in the evenings sounded like a guitar murmuring, ever so slightly. The air starts to come alive, vibrating under the weight of the sounds; Jim Morrison speaks, “Hey, I’m not kidding, you gotta turn the lights down.” Turn them down, all the way, give the night some room to breathe.
The summer twilights that year were long and thick with fireflies, though the latitude was far enough north that the mosquitos stayed down in hell where they belonged. We lurked outside long into the wee hours, leaping among the pine trees and pretending to be cats, ghosts, goblins, anything but human children. Our screams and laughs would ring out over the still bay beyond the trees, and our parents would either stir in their sleep, or rock a little slower on the white porch wrapped snakelike around Dean’s sprawling house, listening for the next round of cries. Dean wore his hair long and wild, for all intents and purposes a lion’s mane, and I would follow him through the trees, trailing the glint of the moonlight on the gold. We were night and day in more ways than one.
On the nights we were ghosts, we would roam the family plot in the trees, play hide and seek in the mausoleums. Dean liked to lie at the foot of the tombstones and tell me macabre, made-up tales of the dead, tales that only disturb me in hindsight.
Some nights we were fairies, others goblins or gremlins, but we always played in the forest and the hills surrounding the bay. I learned to enjoy the silence of pine needles, and hate the urban forest for how unbending the concrete trees were in the wind.
One night that year, inexplicably, we decided to play as ourselves. We ranged far beyond our usual prowling grounds, up into the hills far beyond the last fence. Here, the rocks below the dirt poked through like broken bones, and heather trailed down the hillsides in purple rivers. It never felt gruesome when I heard the hills described as Mother Earth’s broken ribs poking through the skin over her heart; it felt more like someone had stepped inside and talked to the earth herself, and she had explained.
Dean took my hand carefully, picking his way along the stream a little more slowly than usual. The hill was the site of an old landfill, and the ground was littered with broken bottles, pieces of ceramic and other such detritus. Atop the hill, we sat and watched the moon glide higher and the shape of the shadows in the forest change; rather, I sat and watched in introspective silence, and Dean pranced around, kicking stones and howling gibberish at the sky. This was not the first night I had wondered at where his soul really wandered in from.
At some point in the course of the evening, Dean turned up an old bottle of something brown and evil-smelling, smeared with dirt where it had been buried.
“Drink it.” His eyes glinted malevolently. “Go on, drink it. I won’t tell.”
I curled my lip and pushed away his hand. It sprang back. “Pussy.”
I didn’t know what “pussy” meant, but it sounded bad, worse than “chicken” or “wimp.”
Keeping his eyes locked on mine in the way a predator regards prey, Dean yanked the cork out of the neck and took a deep swig. I saw him swallow a cough.
“See?” He straightened, carefully recomposing his face. “Not poison.” A snakelike smile crawled across his face. “Drink up, drink up!” He cried, dancing in a circle around me, waving the bottle towards me like a magic wand.
“No!” My voice rose higher on adrenaline and I shoved him away. “Dean, I don’t want to!”
“Ow, fuck!” Dean stumbled away, tripping and falling. The bottle shattered on a rock, and I had half a second to realize I had ruined his fun, and half to identify the cold feeling on my neck as fear before he stood slowly. “You bitch.” The bottle’s neck had survived the impact, but the skin on his hands was bloody from the glass and the fall. “Good thing you’re leaving tomorrow.”
Swallowing fear, I eased the remains of the bottle from his grip and tossed it away. “Dean let’s go. I don’t like it up here.” Delicately, I led him down the hill, careful not to appear as scared as I felt.
I had never been happier to climb into my mother’s minivan the next morning, and the farther we got from the white house in the forest, the lighter Dean’s threat became.
I turned fifteen on June third, spent the day alone at the art museum a subway stop from my house. A week later, Dean and I took to the pine trees just like in the waning years of our childhood.
Our games were less make-believe now; we spent more time spent walking ponderously underneath the moon. Dean talked to the air and blended in with the trees in a way that some humans aspire to. My father made a concerted effort to separate us, ostensibly worried Dean would cause some sort of disaster. Part of me thinks he was right to worry.
The year I turned seventeen, we went back to the white house on the bay. Dean and his family were much the same; despite the fact that Dean had turned eighteen, he behaved as if we were still the carefree goblin children of the earlier years.
My mother planned to stay only two weeks, but thunderstorms washed out the road and she resigned herself to stay another week. While it rained, Dean and I shut ourselves up in the attic with the record player and his collection of vinyl. He would drape himself in found cloth, or in fur coats and feather boas he had conjured from the storage part of the attic, and dance around like some sort of spirit made manifest by the music. We danced together a great deal, tangled together in ribbons and long bony limbs, cackling and shrieking, and I allowed myself to get to know the laugh lines around his eyes and the shape of his smile.
Eventually the rain stopped, as all good things do. My mother decided we would leave posthaste, having imposed on our friends long enough.
The morning before I was to leave, something woke me early in the morning, a sound like glass breaking on a linoleum floor. I checked the kitchen, but nothing was amiss and my eyes refused to shut again, so I wandered up to the attic and plugged my headphones in to the record player. The needle hummed and the record spun, and I settled back on the floor, closing my eyes and allowing the waves of the music wash over me.
When the first side finished, I sat up to flip the record, and made myself a cup of tea. The sun was tickling the horizon, and I watched it rise languorously over the forest I had such love for. Nick Cave whispered behind me, voice dancing in between the strings of the guitar, “All the ones who come, and all the ones who go, down to the water.”
The last night, Dean and I roamed around again, utterly aimless and comfortably silent. He didn’t scare me anymore; I took myself too seriously to give him that power. We watched the constellations rise from the hill over Mother Earth’s heart, the scene of such terror a few meager years before, such tensions between our impressionable younger selves. This time next year, I would be watching the same sky rise from my college dormitory, halfway around the world from the trees and the boy that had been so important to me.
Dean wandered away into the woods eventually, and I wasn’t sorry to see him go; he would make it home alright. Around the hilltop, the late summer air swirled, whispering of autumn. The fireflies wouldn’t venture beyond the trees; perhaps they felt threatened by the stars. Back at the house, back in the city, on my desk, lay a plane ticket, promising a ride halfway around the world, to a new home and a new orbit. This is the end, my lonely friend, the end.
This final evening, I lay down, heather for my pillow, and let my eyes walk from the moon, up, down, around. The stars glittered brightly too, next to the moon, their own points of brightness obstinate and proud. Their light had traveled hundreds of thousands of years from places no human would ever see; the least I could do was provide an appreciative audience.