Rachel knocked and invited me to McDonald’s. It wasn’t for either of us to eat. The mum who employed her as a babysitter had sent her on an errand. What was her name? Susan? Another single mother from the council estate. I was eight years old in the summer of ’97 and my imagination interferes with the facts. Rachel had a task and she wanted me along, that much is certain. You can’t imagine how quickly I tied my shoelaces. The allure of a McDonalds didn’t even register. You see, this invitation could only mean one thing: Rachel loved me back.
She was fourteen, wore faded denim jackets and tsked a lot. Between that and her corner shop perfume, in my eyes, she was the height of teenage sophistication.
We took a shortcut through the woods that was used by dog walkers and people who didn’t own cars. A rope swing hung from an oak in the middle of the path. “Come on then,” she said, rolling her eyes but taking pleasure in my excitement. Clumsy, I looped my legs around the branch. Wind slashed my hair as she pushed me. The bough overhead groaned, and I hooted and cheered.
I insisted on returning the favour. When she assented, my tongue bunched up in my throat. Every time she let out a shrill of excitement, my heart just about exploded. I thought, before we reached the other side of those woods, I’d tell her how much I loved her, throw myself at her feet if need be.
We emerged, and I didn’t say a word.
We bought the McDonald’s and started back, this time up Market Hill. No time for the rope swing now we were on the clock. She talked the whole time. I don’t remember what about. I listened and watched her lips move, the way she flicked her hair from her cheek to cheek. Occasionally, she’d smile my way and make my knees jangle.
“This is getting cold,” she said.
“Should we run?”
Rachel tried not to laugh, ruffled my hair and said, “My Fabio.” I wanted to be Kurt Cobain, but if I could be her Fabio, I was all in. “We should eat one chip. Just to check.”
“It’s not stealing, silly. We need to check it’s all right. I can’t give Susan cold food, can I?”
I agreed. We should check.
“But just one bite.”
The paper bag rustled. She plucked a chip from inside and held it to my mouth. Delighted, soft on my lips, I savoured it like a salty kiss. If I close my eyes, I can still taste that chip.
“Maybe one more,” she said.
We came to the lamppost on the peak with a view of the town below. It bathed us in a vibrant yellow. The moment had come. I stalled, pointing at the moth flopping and flapping under the bulb, casting shadows. She gazed into the light, and the moth’s wings beat like a camera flash on her face.
I love you, Rachel Myers!
A Car door. Footsteps. Gloved hands yanking at her shoulders, one clapped over her mouth. The shadow inside the van swallowed and snatched her away.
The moth went tap, tap, tap against the bulb. My shoe scraped a stone underfoot. I picked up the paper bag in the middle of the road and sat on the kerb, a child in shorts with scabby knees, and waited.
What had I witnessed? I didn’t know.
The stars were out before I snuck a chip. I felt that Rachel would burst from the brush behind me at any moment—got ya! But she didn’t. The chips were cold, limp. The cola tasted flat.
I should have declared my love in the woods, thrill of the swing beating in her breast. I could have taken her gentle rebuttals in good grace. Maybe she’d have ruffled my hair and told me, “You too.” She’d have held my hand, called me “babe”—she could have dated older boys after I went home, but I’d have been all right, out the way, blissful and in bed.
The van screamed to a halt in front of me and kicked Rachel out. She whacked the concrete, and the van fled.
She crawled towards the pavement, not so much to me. The shirt under her denim jacket was ripped. Upon seeing me, she hastily buttoned it, and though it was a hot summer night, she shrugged into a ball and rocked.
I don’t need to tell what took place in the van. You know.
“I ate a chip,” I said.
She glared at me like I’d spoken in French. I suppose telling her what I did, it must have seemed a most alien detail.
Not Fabio, now. Not even Mike. I wished I knew what to say. Something profound had taken place, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
She stood, teeth rattling, covered in grazes. “Would you take the food to Susan’s for me?”
She looked down at the woods. Eyeliner smeared her face. “Thank you for coming with me today, Mike.”
She rubbed her cheeks with a sleeve and set off. I watched her descend the hill and enter the woods, unable to uproot myself and call after her. The oak tree jerked to life, suddenly. I watched it slow and I watched it stop.
Or did I? It must have been awfully dark. Yet when I shut my eyes, there it is, my imagination filling the gaps.
I arrived at Susan’s house, looking at my shoes, and said Rachel had sent me. She told me the food was cold and asked about her change.
“Rachel has it.”
She crossed her arms. “And where is she?”
“On the rope swing,” I said.
And that was where Susan found her, in the woods, spinning. I don’t need to tell you how. You already know.
I revisit my hometown every year on what would have been Rachel’s birthday. I don’t say hello to anyone. I climb Market Hill. They’ve since put a bench there to admire the view, but I prefer to sit on the kerb, recalling the boy I left behind with scabby knees. Grass wafts under my nostrils and the lamppost thrums, ready to spotlight an unacted scene. I imagine what might have been if we stayed in those woods, if only my confession delayed us, or if I’d got my moment right here. If I could reclaim my stolen moment, I might have given Rachel a last smile. Better yet, a cause to change her mind.
BIO: J.M. Faulkner teaches English in Prague, Czech Republic. It is the perfect place for him to steep himself in the architecture and tumultuous history that fuels his curiosity. Outside of work, you can find him hiking in splendid, Bohemian forests with his beagle.