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The Place
by Jason Gurley

Hannah is dead; but to me, she is alive—in my dreams, my sleep, in the mirror for a brief glimpse, as a faint reflection in the sunlight on a store window—she is quite far from dead, and I still catch my breath with each sight of her smiling young face, forever locked into a fourteen-year-old body.

We grew up in Karroway, the two of us on small snips of land at opposite ends of a barren field that used to be part of the forest, still littered with charred splinters of long-dead trees and stumps. Hannah lived with her father in a mobile home that leaked rain; I lived with my grandmother in a small house with a single bedroom and bathroom, and slept on a couch for the better part of my childhood.

I think we met by accident, but things like that grow blurry with time: not just the memory itself, but your perception of it. Like the way you can convince yourself of a lie if you tell it often enough. It becomes part of your history. My recollection is this:

A muddy orange school bus on 17, lumbering down the bumpy dirt road that plowed into Farm Road 7, the street—if you could call a single-car dirt lane a street—that Hannah and I lived on, each at opposite ends; the bus turning toward my house and making a U-turn in the driveway with much effort; Hannah sliding out of her seat and onto the dirty floor; me offering her a hand while the other boys chanted "Robbie’s got a girlfriend, Robbie’s got a girlfriend"; Hannah smiling up at me with crooked white teeth and sitting beside me with her Curious George lunchbox in her lap and hand-me-down clothes on her back.

After that day I walked Hannah home from the bus stop each schoolday, then turned and walked double the distance back home. I walked her in the rain, or the snowstorm, or the inevitable strong winds that came to those that lived on the flatlands. We started eating lunch together; she would dump the contents of her lunchbox onto the table and shove them to me, and I’d give her my brown sack, and we’d eat each other’s food. After school Hannah would sometimes come to my house and we’d play checkers, substituting pennies for the missing pieces, but I would never go to her house. "Daddy doesn’t like people," she told me once. "He doesn’t get mad. He just stares and stares until they leave him alone. I don’t like it."

And then Grandmother got sick, and Uncle Jesse came to take care of her, and he drank during the days, and made me walk eight miles to the liquor store to buy him booze, ‘cept they wouldn’t sell it to me, and I’d walk back and dread the punishment, which alternated between a backhand and a kick in the butt. Sometimes worse, if he was already drunk. He started stealing Grandmother’s medicine, and he got real mad and weird when he did that, so Hannah and I started looking for a new place to go after school.

That was when we found the place.

There is a long forest that stretches along Route 17 in West Chester County, Oregon, a seldom used, neglected back road that dips into Karroway and Greenbeau city limits, though only slightly. Five miles outside of Karroway, 17 vaults over Tennebaum Creek, a dry bed beneath a bridge of the same name. On the north side of the bridge, the forest parts gently, and if you stand at the right angle, you might see a perfect slope of deep green just over a ripple of pale, intoxicating blue. It was there, sitting on the mossy rocks or wading in the overlooked stream—which, as far as I know, remains nameless—that I experienced love, grief, and utter remorse for the very first time, twenty-eight years ago.

We were eleven that fall, dipping our bare toes into the cold mountain stream and pushing each other into the water and laughing. She stood up in the water, resigned to being cold, and dared me to jump in, too, so I did, and her white, filmy skirt clung to her legs, and there was a dark shadow above her left knee.

I asked what it was, and Hannah bent her head and wouldn’t look at me.

"Did your dad hit you?" I asked, suddenly furious. "I’ll—"

"It wasn’t Daddy," she said.

I squatted, the seat of my jeans skimming the slow water, and peeled her skirt up her legs. The bruise looked like a rotten plum, bursting in shades of black and purple and fading into sick yellow shades of skin. "Wh—"

"I can’t tell you who done it," she said, and she never let me talk to her about the bruises I saw from time to time on her arms, her legs, her neck. "Can’t tell you," she would say again, and that would be that.

Uncle Jesse came to stay with Grandmother and me for keeps when I was thirteen. He was terrible by then, drinking all day and never giving Grandmother her pills. She wouldn’t have noticed; she was so out of sorts by that time that you could spend the day with your finger up her nose and she’d be oblivious.

I went to Hannah’s house one day after school, when she hadn’t shown up for class, and knocked. Her father answered—I’d only seen him once before, grungy and unshaven—and I almost didn’t recognize him. The greasy hands were clean, there was a tie around his neck, his face was smooth. He looked a dozen years younger.

"Robert," he said.

"Hannah home?" I asked, leaning on my bike.

"Nope," he answered. "She said to tell you to go to ‘the place,’ whatever that means."

"Oh," I said. "Oh. Okay."

I started to climb on my bike and he said, "You’re good to her, right?"

I stopped and looked at him, and he was serious. After a long moment I said, "Yes, Mr. Cayhall. Hannah’s my best friend."

He nodded, then said, "Good," and closed the screen door.

I rode to the place and the weather turned sour, the gray sky deepening into black. It began to rain, and the wind was the worst I’d seen; it drove me off of the road and into a ditch more than once, and I fought my way to the place only because I knew Hannah was there, waiting, and I couldn’t leave her there alone. I was worried.

"Hannah," I called into the wind as I stumbled down the hill with my bike. Her bike was on the ground, and I dropped mine beside it. "Hannah!" I shouted again, and this time I heard her, faintly calling my name.

I followed her voice, and she was inside the big oak at the beginning of the stream, where it seeped out of the rocks. I crawled down into the hole in the trunk, and it was cool and dry inside. Hannah was sitting there on a blanket. She had placed candles on small, knobby shelves in the wood, and they burned lightly, the smoke curling up the trunk of the tree, which was hollow for a good six feet straight up.

"You’re safe," I said, and Hannah leaned forward on her knees and kissed me quickly on the lips, then pulled back with a worried look in her eyes. I stared at her, and she stared at me, and then we kissed again, and we fumbled around in the dark of the tree trunk and learned all the things that boys and girls don’t know about each other.

We stayed in the tree for hours, curled up while the wind howled outside, and when it finally calmed, it was dark outside, and we rode back down 17 side by side, holding hands and steering our bikes with our other hands.

When we turned onto 7, we could see lights burning in the window of Grandmother’s house way off to the left, but to the right, there was just darkness. "The porch light must’ve burned out again," Hannah said, and we thought nothing of it. The moonlight danced on our wet bicycles as we rode to her trailer, but when we pulled into the short driveway we saw that there was more than nothing that had happened while we were gone.

The wind had rocked the trailer so hard that it was on one side, crumpled in by the cement porch steps, which hadn’t moved. I ran up to the trailer and banged on the side, shouting, "Mr. Cayhall!" and Hannah said, "Robbie," quietly, and I followed her finger to the surprised, glassy-eyed face of Mr. Cayhall, whose body was mashed somewhere beneath the trailer.

That was how Hannah came to live with us, and how things got worse for her.

The place became our only refuge, because Hannah wouldn’t stay in Grandmother’s house any more than she had to, and she’d never explain why. I started to wonder, though; I saw the way Uncle Jesse would look at her when he was drunk; saw the way he’d pull at her wrist when she passed him in the recliner; heard the way he’d growl her name in this low, rumbling baritone; watched her pull away and run; saw the bruises become greater in number and sometimes worse than ever before.

One day I went to the place and found Hannah lying there, stretched out in the stream, crying, and the water about her legs was an inky red billowing cloud, and she said, "He hurt me," in a child’s voice, and I saw red everywhere. Hannah said, "Robbie, no," as I jumped on my bike and pedaled angrily back to Grandmother’s house. Uncle Jesse was in Grandmother’s room, standing over her bed reading prescriptions, and he looked up and said, "Robert, go buy me s—" and I hit him with a closet rod until he was as blue and red as Hannah, and he said, "Robert, Robert," the whole time, and after a time, he said nothing, as silent as Grandmother.

Hannah was dead when I got back to the creek that day; the loss of blood, the cold water—shock and hypothermia, the doctors said. First degree murder, the courts said, except I was a juvenile and ended up in the hall until I was nineteen.

I see her all the time; I hear her repeat, "Robbie’s got a girlfriend," sometimes, then remember the way she kissed me; I watch her riding her bicycle down the freeway near my apartment, weaving in and out of traffic; I see her dancing in the river beside the boardwalk, and I remember how I was never able to make her life better, and I hope that I somehow made her life more bearable, and I think that now, all is good, because she is free.

I have never been back to the place. I like to imagine that it has stayed as young and alive as Hannah, that the moss is as green and the water as blue, that the old oak is still standing, a landmark of a young friendship. That’s how I want to remember.


Jason Gurley is the author of Close Program: Stories (Pixel Press, 2001). His work has appeared in The Mississippi Review, The Rio Grande Review, The Paumanok Review, and other fine journals. More about him can be learned on his website at www.deeplyshallow.com.

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