Bare branches clawed at the sky and revealed the church steeple in the distance. Emily Grant kicked through the wet leaves, making her way out of the woods toward the landmark. The red-yellow rust color tourists took pictures of, colors that rested flat and glossy in calendars for people who lived below, where the black and white bars contained their days, had been brought down by the rain. Leaves clung to the bottom of her right sock. The pink, untied laces of her left sneaker dragged over wet tar.

Slices on her bare shins burned where the brambles tangled her legs and feet—how she lost her shoe. She crossed the road, all by herself, a secret she told herself to keep so her parents wouldn’t get angry. She tried to walk faster but the cut just above her knee stung when she bent her leg too much. She should have crawled under that barb-wire fence.

Emily could smell the moss and soil on the back of her hands when she wiped her tears. She smeared a dark streak over her small, freckled nose. Her hair pulled against her scalp, matted and tangled. She saw the corner where the bus dropped her off from school, where she’d dropped her art project the day before and the wind took it away. Her stomach tightened, and she wished she hadn’t given her snack to the Winslow boy who never had snack and sometimes wore the same shirt two days in a row, just like her today. She wondered if the kids would laugh at her, too.

Blood had dried to her cheek from where the glass cut her during the crash. Her tongue was dry, and she wanted something to drink. She wished she could taste something other than metal and leather, what his hand tasted like when he put it over her mouth. Emily wondered about cavities because she didn’t brush before she fell asleep out there in the woods. She wondered if her mother would be mad that she hadn’t been wearing her safety belt.

Emily hobbled faster, despite the pain from the cut on her leg. She fell to her knees on her front lawn and let the wet grass sooth the burning against her shins. She sprawled out so the coolness would seep into her thighs and ease the cramping that had come after she ran from the crash. Then she heard footsteps. A voice yelled that they got her.

The front door opened. Her mother peeled around the men exiting. The woman’s grip was tighter than the man who’d put her in the car. Emily nestled her face against the fabric of her mother’s blue cashmere sweater. Warmth fell on the back of her neck when they passed into the house. She looked toward the calendar hanging beside the door. All the days up to yesterday had been crossed off, that single black and white space that the rest of her life would cling to.

~ fin ~

Joe Ricker is a former bartender for Southern literary legends Larry Brown and Barry Hannah. Esquire Magazine referred to him as: “A man of letters who’s gentle in the way that only the toughest of hard-asses can be.” He has worked as a cab driver, lumberjack, and innkeeper. His collection of short stories “Walkin’ After Midnight” was published in June 2015.