Branches stroked the window, their silhouettes waving against a moonlit backdrop. The faint smell of well water floated through the halls and into the bedroom. The house was still. No pets roamed, no floorboards creaked beneath pairs of feet. It had long since settled into itself and the silence pressed in around me, squeezing the breath from my lungs.
Shadows leered above as I burrowed beneath a worn flannel blanket, my thumbs rubbing the threads that clung to it. I breathed in the musty smell that wasn’t mine, the distinct scent of someone else’s life. My heart fluttered as I stared out at those trees. The dark shapes cast swaying shadows across the whitewash walls of the tight room.
My friend’s slim figure rose and fell, her breathing deep and smooth in the bed above me. She rolled toward the wall and murmured in her sleep.
I shifted on the pad. My hands began to shake. My knuckles whitened as I clutched the blanket, my breath coming out in quick gasps. The trees watched me suffocate. I started pushing the covers off with unsteady hands. I eased myself out of the makeshift bed, ready for another midnight escape.
Then I heard my name.
Her mother’s shoulders filled the doorway and I crouched back down into the covers. She came in and knelt beside me. “Sweetie, do you want to go home?”
I swallowed. My heart fluttered and I started picking at the skin around my fingernails. I bit my lip then shook my head.
She pulled the covers up over me as I lay back down. Then she sat on the floor next to me. We talked for over an hour. Maybe it was about school or mornings. Maybe it was about being afraid. We’re all afraid sometimes. But it could have been anything. We talked and talked until my eyelids slid downward and my heart slowed in my chest.
It was the first time I’d ever slept over at their house. I used to always slip out at one or two in the morning. I would creep down the stairs and find a phone that would take me back to safety, to a home with pets and streetlights. A home where the trees stayed far from the windows.
I woke to the light sliding through the window pane and the trees glowing in the morning light, glistening with dew.
We grew taller. By now my friend was a string bean, her long blonde hair straighter than mine could ever be. Her mother was just the same as ever, short and round with short, round hair that got caught up around her face, flanking her pale cheeks.
“She says it’s beautiful,” my friend told her mother, her blue eyes shining in the dim light. “It’s orange and right on the horizon. We can probably see it if we drive to one of the backroads. Can we please?”
It was midnight and the wind whipped across the blackened fields. Her mother stopped the car and we got out. The motor chilled and we stared up at the clouds. We sat in the cool, still air, and waited for the moon. We waited until our cheeks grew cold.
It might have been a harvest moon or a blue moon, I don’t remember. But apparently it was beautiful.
And her mother drove. She was always doing things like that. Once she took us to a toy store and said she’d buy each of us whatever we wanted. It might have even been more than once. She used to take us to the movies, and out to dinner, and bring us little gifts for no particular reason other than to show her love. But teenagers are different. We make a point to disapprove.
We held out for the moon. My friend’s breath hung in the air in soft grey clouds. Her mother wrapped herself in a shawl and her cheeks glowed in the car headlights. I rubbed my arms with my hands, hopping from one foot to the other.
My friend and I grinned at each other in the darkness. “No moon?” she said, a cloud falling from her mouth.
I shook my head. “It’s hiding.”
“Maybe it’s asleep,” she giggled through chattering teeth.
We ran back to the car and her mother followed. It was the last time I was with just the two of them.
I stayed at their house that night, the branches rubbing against the window and the scent of well water wafting through the halls. I slept on the floor beneath layers of flannel. And in the morning the light slanted through the glass window and cast tree-shaped shadows on the carpet.
We weren’t scared of the dark anymore. Or at least that’s what we said.
It was a weekday. I was riding in the passenger’s seat and my mother was driving. That’s when she told me. It took a minute to process.
“Oh,” I finally said.
My mother nodded mechanically. “She’d had it for a while and we knew it was coming. I mean, it was terminal.”
I asked if my friend would come home from college. After all, she was just a freshman.
My hand roamed the corduroy seat, fingering the grooves of the cloth. I stared out the window at the fields, illuminated by the dying light. My thumb circled the fabric of the seat. My heart beat faster and my breath caught in my throat. I closed my eyes and let my skull fall back against the head rest.
I’m no longer afraid of the dark, no longer afraid to sleep. I’m not afraid of the pressing silence of an empty house or of branches silhouetted against a deep moonlit sky. But I was afraid of that car ride.
Out on the field in the middle of the night, in the middle of our short lives, we didn’t find the moon: the one beautiful, glowing object in an otherwise cloudy sky, a cloudy life. But I hope in the end they did. That maybe my friend learned to love and say goodbye. And maybe her mother found that love, learned to feel it and hold it close to her heart.
I hope, in the end, she was finally able to sleep.
Phoebe Hartvigsen is a freshman Biology major at SUNY Geneseo who enjoys reading, writing, and hugging animals. She was born in New Jersey but grew up in the one and only Geneseo, NY.
Moon image citation: http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thumbnails/image/as11-44-6667.jpg