By Ellen Nimmo
Naomi took one leg over the orange mesh safety fencing, then the other. She called out to the dog, Winston, who had already clambered to the top of the short, but steep hill, “Winst, we’re not going that way.” She pointed to a cluster of trees off to the right of the approaching houses. Anyone watching would have known immediately that this wasn’t the first time the girl and dog had traveled this route. Before Naomi’s finger reached the peak of its point Winston had already changed direction and keeping her footsteps quick, she too found a familiar pattern of effortless, shrewd steps up the rocky embankment towards a narrow trail whose sand colored neck stuck out amid the green foliage.
Once they were safely between the trees, Naomi’s steps slowed. Safely was probably a stretch, after all Mrs. Thornton had warned that these woods, which ran behind their neighborhood, were where the “bums” hung out and she’d do well to “steer clear of that wood trail.” True enough. Naomi had often seen the evidences: a rogue sock or wet and wadded t-shirt, sleeping bags, cigarette butts, bits of trash, and the smell of urine that waxed and waned depending on the day or season. Still, Naomi didn’t like the idea of avoiding the trail because might run into someone, she thought that was rude and besides, she knew how to handle herself.
The sky seemed to be darkening moment by moment, but it didn’t quite feel like rain. Naomi didn’t mind the idea of getting stuck in a rainstorm now and then, anyhow, it would make her already adventuresome afternoon feel even more like a break from the consuming monotony of this summer. Sheltering-in-place felt like the road trip out west Naomi’s parents had taken her on when she was eight. Miles upon miles of nothing but boredom peppered with a hiway overlook here, a sugar-filled snack there, and games that they or she would tire of and abandon in increasingly shorter and shorter increments. Yes, it was a lot like that except, the sugary treats were mainly sweaty mints or half-melted Fireballs from Mrs. Thornton’s overstuffed pockets. That, and mom was gone. That and there weren’t many scenic overlooks either. Feeling a sense that someone was near Naomi remembered the boys.
Could they be following me?
She softened her footsteps. Listening. Suddenly she noticed Winston’s absence. Ugh, not now Winston. He wouldn’t go far. Would he? “Winston!” The woods were silent. Oh great. Naomi’s gait quickened, her eyes scanning up and down the trail and trees. Was it too much to ask for just one thing go right today? Was it too much to ask that things might just fall neatly into place? Too much to ask that things were easy for a while? Couldn’t loss be a thing of yesterday for just once in her life? Well!!? Wait, ask? Ask who? At this thought a bark from Winston jolted Naomi out of her questioning and into action. Scanning the thickets of saplings and brambles she heard a second yelp and spotted a frantic tail waving out the end of a rotting log. What have you got yourself into now, Winst? The dog appeared stuck, but he wasn’t. Probably a possum. Naomi had been through this with him before, and skipped straight to tactic number five: Fireball. She still had one in the pocket of her jean shorts and pulled it out noisily. Standing atop the log, Naomi tipped over at the waist making herself nearly parallel with the dog’s body (which was now over three-quarters of the way inside the fallen tree). Opening the sticky piece of candy, whose red dye was partially melted off revealing a bone white center, she made as much noise as she could – oohing, ahhing and rattling the red-stained wrapper between the dog’s barks as she tried to draw his attention outward. Quite the song and dance really. Whether it was at the prospect of food or for a moment to breathe, it mattered not, Winston’s head was out and Naomi was quick to grab his collar. Something hissed inside the log. She wanted desperately to look inside, but didn’t. “Let’s go, Winst.” Naomi pulled him away, keeping her hand firmly on the collar until they had gotten back down the trail several yards. There she let him go with an affectionate pat on the head. They had plenty of time before Mrs. Thornton would be back, but Naomi was starting to wonder if they shouldn’t pick up the pace. A raindrop hit her arm.
Her father loved the rain. Relentlessly. Each time the first delicate taps of rain could be heard on their metal roof, her father would call Naomi and her mother into the hallway, underneath the skylight, which was (according to her father) the very best spot to listen. It was too. Crowded together they would indulge her father in listening in reverence, for a while. They would stand together gazing up at the skylight listening until their eyes closed, until between blinks her mother’s grin would catch Naomi’s wandering eye and the whole thing would turn into a huddle of teasing and giggles.
Too much to ask for one more hallway huddle?
Maybe it was too much. About a month ago Naomi overheard her dad talking to a neighbor buddy of his, Jax. They were having a fire in the backyard that day, with marshmallows. Her dad had told her at the grocery store while they were picking up a few things that he had invited their neighbor Jax and his two kids (Marla 4 and Archer 10) to join them for some sandwiches, chips and marshmallows in the backyard while Jax’s wife had some time to herself. After they ate sandwiches, Naomi helped Marla toast a marshmallow, keeping one eye on Archer as he commanded Winston to “shake” using a piece of limp, grass-covered bread as enticement, never giving any of the bread over despite the many completed shakes. “It’s been tough, but, well hell, it was tough before too.” Naomi’s ears perked at the tone in her father’s voice. “It was like, it was like watching someone disappear, slowly, right before your eyes.” “Oh man, that sucks. Man, women, right?” Jax was comforting best he could. “Yeah, I guess,” her father nodded and looked out towards the road. Naomi was straining so hard to hear she forgot Marla’s marshmallow which fell into the fire, making Marla whine loudly for another. Still, the men might have let Naomi tend to the child while they kept talking, but Archer had progressed to tossing rocks disguised as bits of bread to the family dog, whose mouth was now bloodied with mocked effort. “Arch!” Jax yelled at the boy. He decided it was time for them to get going.
Like watching someone disappear. The words echoed in Naomi’s mind as the drops of rain started falling faster. She had noticed it too. It was a wet spring and when her mother stopped joining them underneath the skylight she knew something was happening. Something you couldn’t quite name and didn’t want to admit.
Lightening flashed a few times. Then, a rumbling crack! Winston tucked his tail and came instinctively to Naomi’s side. We’re OK. She pointed encouraging the dog to keep moving, they were just coming off the wooded trail. Things looked different in the rain, but after a couple minutes of searching they found and moved muddily underneath a hole in the chain-link fence and up onto a gravel circle drive flanked by five houses in a “C” shape. Girl and dog were only a few blocks from home, the rains came heavy now and they started to run.
Parts one and two of this fictional “Story Series” can be found here: