What Happened in the Woods
Written by Beth Couture
Art by Elham Asadi
The three of you know what happened to Vanessa, but whenever anyone asks about it you just shake your heads. Lately you frown at them, give them a look that says you can’t believe they would be so rude, not when you’ve made it clear you’re not saying anything. The three of you are above gossip, you say, and you shut your lips tightly and roll your eyes, watch with hard jaws as the asker walks away. You pretend you’re actresses in an old movie, classy dames with total control. You imagine the people who bother you—your parents and teachers, the psychologist, your classmates, the principal—feeling ashamed, playing the scene over and over in their minds and feeling stupid and guilty for days. You hope they feel guilty. You practice your reaction in the mirror after school, helping each other get just the right amount of scorn in your eyes, the perfectly prim mouth. You’ve become good at it with your classmates, but with adults you falter. You end up looking down at your hands or your shoes, biting your lips, letting tears well up in your eyes. You can’t be as hard with them. It scares you, and this more vulnerable approach seems to work better anyway. They want to know that you remember you’re still children, after all. “We just don’t know,” you say, and you can see they wish they could believe you. It would be easier on everyone. They bully you, try to make you feel guilty, but you are silent.
Even Mr. Antoni gets nothing out of you despite calling your parents and threatening detention, and you’re proud of this, proud that you can remain cool under such pressure. You never thought you’d be able to resist giving him what he wants. The three of you have always worked to please him. He sends you to the principal’s office one by one, thinking if he separates you, you’ll be more likely to break down and say what you know, but it never works. He always called you the Three Musketeers, the Three Graces, laughing at you for doing everything together, for never even going to the bathroom separately, but he never teases you anymore. He barely looks at you, but when he does, he just looks disappointed. “Something terrible happened to that girl,” he says over and over again. “You were there. You have the responsibility of saying something. It could have been any one of you. We just need to know who did it. You know who it was who hurt her.” But you stay silent, all of you. You know that if you keep quiet, if all of you stick to the plan and say nothing, it will blow over. It has to. They can’t keep at you forever.
But sometimes you want to tell them just a little, a small bit of the truth so they’ll leave you alone. You aren’t used to being nagged like this, to having a secret, and it wears on you. You wonder if telling is the right thing, if you’d prevent other little girls from getting hurt like all the adults say. You discuss it quietly on the playground while the other students run around and play softball, while they swing from the monkey bars and fall, scraping their hands and knees. You worry the teachers might overhear you, so you whisper, hold your hands up to your faces, start talking about something else whenever they look in your direction. There’s simply nothing you can say, nothing that would be enough without being too much. Any truth you can think of will reveal everything, will force you to say what you can’t say. You don’t sleep as well as you used to. You talk about this sometimes when you’re alone together, how you stay up at night watching movies after your parents have gone to bed, how you want to sleep but can’t. “My brain just won’t shut up,” one of you will say, “I just keep seeing her.” And the other two will nod. It doesn’t even need to be said, but you say it anyway. It’s comforting somehow, the way you understand each other, the gestures that prove it.
Vanessa is gone. No one will tell you where she went, but your classmates say she’s in a hospital somewhere, maybe in another part of the state. No one you know has seen her in weeks, and the teachers and principal won’t say if she is ever coming back. You overhear your parents on the phone with each other talking about her. They say her name in hushed and sometimes angry tones, but whenever you enter the room they hang up and refuse to look at you. At night while you are trying to sleep, your parents come into your rooms. They stand in the doorway and let in the light from the hall while they watch you. You don’t have to open your eyes to know they’re there. They watch you for a minute, sometimes two or three, and then they turn away and shut the door. This happens almost every night.
One of you finds a book on your parents’ nightstand: How to Cure Your Child of Lying. The three of you take the book and bury it next to the river where you always meet. There is a clubhouse there, an old shed you never go in that is full of spiders and dirt and snakes. Some of the older girls go there with their boyfriends, though, and you’ve stood outside listening to the noises they make. Your parents haven’t said anything about the book, but you hear them whispering, always whispering. You begin to think your parents are frightened of you. They are.
And the thing you don’t understand, the thing you never talk about even when it’s just the three of you, is that sometimes you wish it had happened to one of you. You think about the woods, about the boys and what they did, and underneath the fear, the sick feeling in your chest, there’s a hollow pocket of jealousy. You feel hungry, like you can never eat enough to be satisfied. It could have been any one of you. This is what your parents say, the teachers, Mr. Antoni and the principal. And it could have. It could have been one of you. So why was it Vanessa? Why did they pick her? You know it wasn’t a good thing, what happened to her. You know she’s fucked up now because of what happened (that’s what you say, that she’s “fucked up,” because that’s the only way you can describe it, really), but you can’t stop feeling like she got something you never will, like she’s something special now. Because that’s the thing—Vanessa was never special before. She was pretty, but not like the three of you. She never cared about how she looked. She never even seemed to think about boys. And they chose her. Your parents say it had nothing to do with Vanessa herself, that she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and she should have been more careful. They say what Mr. Antoni says—it could have happened to any little girl. But it didn’t happen to any of you. It happened to Vanessa.
You were never friends with Vanessa. There was never room for anyone else in your threesome, but even if there had been, you would never have chosen Vanessa. She just simply didn’t care about anything that mattered. She didn’t do anything. She made decent grades, but they weren’t good enough for anyone to think she was really smart. She was pretty, but she put so little effort into it that it was barely noticeable. You can’t remember her ever making a joke or saying anything interesting in class. You were in every grade with her, had gym and English and math with her as long as you can remember, but it was like she was never really there. But it happened to her. Those boys—the cute ones, the ones you always smile at when you see them in stores or coffee shops or restaurants, the three of them (one for each of you) chose her over everyone else, over any other girl they could have had. They chose her. You can’t understand it. Sometimes you look at each other, even just glances, and you know you’re all thinking the same thing. You can’t imagine anyone not thinking it. Of anyone they could have picked, Vanessa. She was wearing sweat pants and an old t shirt when it happened. It was right after gym class, and Vanessa never changed after gym. She just walked around in her sweaty clothes not caring what anyone thought. And she was the one they chose.
Of course you say—even to each other—that you feel so lucky it wasn’t you. You were there, after all. It could have been. You know your parents talk about that all the time. What if the boys had seen you hiding behind the bushes? It could have been any one of you, and you tell yourselves they would have stopped what they were doing with Vanessa and picked you if they had seen you. Surely they would have gone after one of you. But they didn’t see you, and they don’t know you know anything. You still smile at them when you see them in town, and they always smile back.
The three of you know what happened to Vanessa, but every day the memory of it gets hazier. You think it’s this way for everyone else, too. No one knows who did it except you, and everyone knows you’re not talking. Vanessa has been gone for weeks now, and you can’t really remember her face anymore. Sometimes you look at pictures to remind you, but you don’t do this as often as you used to. Your parents ask you about her less and less, and the teachers have begun to ignore you rather than trying to get you to talk. You used to sit in the front of the room, but you moved to the back weeks ago and you never talk except to each other. Mr. Antoni watches you passing notes to each other but he doesn’t say anything. If you catch him watching you, he looks away. You are beginning to feel invisible, like nothing ever happened, and nothing ever will again, either. Days go by and you only speak to each other, to your parents in short sentences about dinner, your bed time, feeding the cat.
You’ve begun to fantasize about hurting Vanessa yourselves. Sometimes you even dream about it. She’s with the boys, and they have her on the ground. They’re fucking her, but you three are hitting her, too. One at a time, in the face, on her breasts and stomach. You don’t know what the dreams mean, but you wake up sweating and exhausted. You don’t have to talk about it to know you’re each dreaming the same thing. The teachers took up money to send her a present in the hospital. They showed everyone a picture of the giant white teddy bear they sent, and everyone said it was beautiful. Vanessa never sent a Thank You card, never responded at all.
You see the boys almost every day. They drive around in the black Chevy, and they always seem to be wherever the three of you are. “It’s them,” one of you will say, and the others will look up hopefully. Sometimes they wave at you, their hands lazily trailing against the side of the car. You don’t say anything, but you take this as some kind of sign. Your paths have crossed before, and they are meant to cross again. When you see them, you get quiet. You can feel yourselves holding your breath, can feel your chests get tight. It feels like fear, but it’s something else too. You don’t know how to talk about it, but you look at each other. You know you feel the same thing, and there’s no need to explain. You put your hands to your chests and wait for your heartbeats to slow, for the flutter in your stomachs and throats to quiet. You wait until you see them again, until they talk to you. You know they will.
There are two weeks left of school before summer vacation, and everyone is lazy and bored. It is hot and still, and even though every building is air conditioned, your clothes stick to your backs, your legs to your chairs. Mr. Antoni shows movies with the shades drawn and lights off, and everyone can hear Matt Delban start snoring almost immediately but no one does anything about it. All anyone can think about is finishing the school year. You don’t care about school anymore. You just want something to happen. You sit in class and think about Vanessa, about how it couldn’t have been that bad, what happened to her. There’s no reason for her not to come back to school. You want to write her a card and tell her she’s nothing special, to stop pretending she is. It could have been any one of you.
Your parents have talked about sending the three of you to camp, somewhere you can get “guidance,” but they decided against it. Your mothers say they plan to spend more time at home with you this summer, to take you shopping and to the park and maybe even the beach, but you’re not sure you believe them. They’ve said it before, and you also hear them talking about how tight money is these days. You tell your parents you’ll be fine, and they say no matter what, they’re going to hire babysitters for you “just to keep an eye on things.” You haven’t talked about this either, but you’ve heard them say they think the three of you should spend more time apart. They say it isn’t healthy for three girls to do everything together, especially after what happened. You want to confront them with it, to sit them down at the kitchen table and tell them “no.” You want to tell them to just let you be. But you can’t, for some stupid reason you can’t tell them this, so you’ve begun leaving notes where you know they’ll find them—on their pillows, in the bathroom, taped to the refrigerator: “No.”
The boys are in their black car. You don’t know which one owns it, and it doesn’t matter. They’re always together. It is after school, and you’re sitting outside the McDonald’s eating ice cream, trying not to get it all over your shirts as it drips down the cones. They pull into the parking lot in front of your table, and you watch them get out of the car. They stand next to it for a minute, and you stare at them, willing them to look at you. One of them is smoking a cigarette. They are sixteen, but they could be so much older. They look like men. You watch them, all three of you, and one of you reaches for another’s hand until the three of you are holding each other’s hands tightly. Sweat makes them slick. As they enter the McDonald’s, after they’ve walked past you and not even seemed to notice, the boys look back at you, all three together. You pull your hands away and wipe them on your shorts, and the boys grin and go in.
You could leave. You’re finished with your ice cream and your parents will be mad you didn’t go straight home. They’ll probably yell, and they may even ground you. You know they’ll separate you for real if you don’t do what you’re told. But the boys are here. They smiled at you, showing their teeth. You could smell the sweat on their bodies, the cigarette smoke, as they passed you. They want you to stay. You’ve known this would happen, from the very beginning. From the day you watched them in the woods with Vanessa. It was just a matter of time. This time they’ll choose you. You run your hands over your hair, straighten your shirts and shorts. One of you gets up and leans against the table, and the others do the same.
When the boys come out of the McDonald’s, you are waiting for them. They know it, too. They smile and stand in front of you, holding paper cups of soda and bags of food.
One says: “What’s up?”
And another: “We’ve seen you girls a lot lately. You must be following us.”
And all three laugh. The three of you laugh too, and you feel your faces get hot.
One of you says: “Maybe we are.”
And another: “Do you have a problem with that?”
Their teeth are bright white in the sun, and there are tiny drops of sweat on their foreheads.
One says: “We’re just riding around, using up the AC.”
And another: “Yeah, there’s nothing else to do.”
And the third: “Want to come?”
You look at each other, smiling, sweat shining on your own faces, and one of you shrugs. “Sure,” you say, not quite in unison. The three of them smile at the three of you, and motion toward the car, like they are sweeping you up into a horse-drawn carriage. Like they’re gentlemen and they want you to know how special you are. They follow you to the Chevy and open the doors. You get in.
Beth Couture's work can be found in a number of journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, The Southeast Review, The Yalobusha Review, Ragazine, Dirty, Dirty from Jaded Ibis Press, and Thirty Under Thirty from Starcherone Books. Her novellaWomen Born with Fur is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press. She is an assistant editor with Sundress Publications, and teaches composition at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.
(Updated Nov. 2013)
Born in Iran, Elham Asadi lives and works in Milan, Italy. She has a BA in Graphic Design, an MA in Children’s Book Illustration, as well as a diploma in Painting and Visual Arts and Multimedia Languages from the Florence Fine Arts Academy. Her work has won awards and appeared in several personal and collective exhibitions including the 54th Biennale of Art in Venice and elsewhere in Europe, United States, and Asia. Since 2000 she has been working as an illustrator for children’s books; she has had many books published both in Italy and Iran.
(Updated Jul. 2013)