Hailey Foglio was one of the contributors in our Summer 2017 Issue. She has graciously allowed us to reprint her short story here.
We Are All Here
“I wish someone would write something important on these.” Val runs his gloved fingers along crooked shapes carved into the bark of an oak tree. Kat + Mike Brian 4ever. A heart with an arrow through it, a date underneath: 6/12/13. Delicate edges flake off and drift down, landing on the frozen dirt at our feet.
“Something like what?”
“Poetry.” Val rotates around the tree, sliding in and out of view, his fingers dancing wide against the white bark, searching for meaning. His breath freezes in the air and expands around him like a fog. “A manifesto. A math equation. A suicide note. Anything.” He stops, sees something a few trees away, and I follow him.
The word “HERE,” etched into a nearby birch, grows from the base of the tree to my chest, the letters wrapping around the trunk. I knock the toe of my boot against the angles of the vowels. “WAS” stretches from my chest to two feet past my head, and “I” extends far above me. Val reaches his arm toward the letter and slides his fingers into the empty space of it. The wood is damp with winter, but Val’s coat snags on dried-out bark as he moves his hand along the vertical carving. I WAS HERE. Nothing else. No crowding of other people’s initials between the letters, no pictures stamped along the letters’ edges. Just this. Untouched. I WAS HERE.
I take a few steps away, crane my neck. “How do you think he got all the way up there?” I imagine a giant stepping through these woods, slow and quiet, slouching to keep his head below the canopy, to avoid detection. His knife is a broken rock, and though his hands are huge and inelegant, fists that could crush entire houses, his fingers are dainty when he holds the rock, when he carves the letters. I imagine him lying on his belly, feet kicked up and swaying behind him, gusts of wind shaking the trees and freeing loose leaves from tired branches, as he carves the final word.
Val shrugs. “Probably a ladder.”
He traces his thumb back and forth along the lowest curve of the “S” and says nothing. I watch the muscles in his jaw clench, then unclench, over and over, eyes set on the tree bark before him and nothing else. He gets like this sometimes. Quiet.
“So does this count?”
Val startles at my voice. “What?”
“As something important?”
He drops his hand from the tree, takes a few steps back to meet me, and stares up. “No.”
He zips his fleece, burying the bottom of his chin in the fabric. “No.” He starts walking toward the edge of the woods, trying to locate the spot where we came in.
“Well, why not?”
He turns, eyes on me. “We are all here, Helen.” I only notice his accent when he says my name, an extra syllable sneaking in at the end. Helen-ah. “This isn’t news.”
__I have an old name. Helen Taft. Helen Keller. Helen of Troy. Old names. People with stories. I don’t have any stories.
“Helen?” The officer ducks his head to meet my gaze. “Are you listening?”
My dad shifts on the couch beside me. The officer sits in my dad’s recliner, a pen in his right hand, a small notepad in the other. A second officer stands behind the recliner, stone-faced and staring.
“When was the last time that you saw Valentyn Kozlovsky?”
This is the third time the police have been to my house, the fifth questioning in total. They’re trying to figure out what it is I’m lying about. In fact, there are one-and-a-half lies.
At this point, I don’t have to think before I speak. “One month and three days ago.”
“Where did you last see him?”
“Outside the woods.”
“Which woods?” There are a lot of woods in this part of Wisconsin.
“The ones by the park.”
“Which park?” There are also a lot of parks.
“What was he doing there?”
“Nowhere in particular.”
“Did you walk home together?”
“He went back.”
“He said he dropped something.”
“And then what happened?”
“And then he went back for it.”
“Nothing else.” This is the half lie.
I followed Val out of the woods that night, the one with the tree the giant carved. If we talked about anything while we walked, I don’t remember it. Chitchat about the weather, maybe, or about chemistry homework, or maybe winter break.
And then he stopped. “Helen.” Helen-ah.
I turned. “Yeah?”
I don’t know what he’d meant to say when he stopped, but what he said wasn’t what he intended. I know this because I know him. Knew him. I could anticipate him, could hear his laugh coming before the punch line, could see his eyes roll even before Rebecca Johanssen opened her mouth in the hallway. I saw all these things inside him, each one, all the time. And he’d meant to say something else that night, something hard, maybe, because his mouth was crooked and his eyes were set, and I’ll never know what that thing was.
“I think I dropped my wallet in the woods.”
A pause. “Yeah.”
“Well, let’s go back for it.” I took a few steps toward the trees. There is no entrance, no right way to get to the heart of the thing. You just have to walk in and keep walking until you find what you’re looking for.
“That’s okay. I can go alone.”
I laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Val. Let’s just get it and get out. The sun’s going down, and it’s already cold.” Wisconsin favors those who know how not to die of exposure, and wandering around the woods after sundown is tempting fate.
“It’s fine.” His voice was louder then. Firm. Then soft, like a whisper. “What do you think is on the other side of the woods?”
I shrugged. “More woods, I guess. It probably goes for miles.”
“Yeah.” Val nodded, adjusted his hat. “You should get home.”
“Helen.” Helen-ah. “Go home.”
I thought he was trying to protect me, from frostbite or freezing to death. I turned from the woods and walked to him, unraveling my buffalo plaid scarf from my neck. I unzipped his fleece.
I silenced him with a look. He sighed. I wrapped my scarf around him, tucking the ends down against his chest. I heard my dad’s voice: Always protect your chest. Keep it warm. Keep your heart pumping.
“Protect your heart.” I pulled shut the zipper of his fleece, the teeth pressed tight against my scarf. I took off my gloves, thin ones, the kind you can get for cheap at Walgreens. I pulled off each of his, replaced them with mine which were smaller but did the job just the same, then squeezed his own back over top. I pulled his hat down over his ears. “Don’t get lost. Call me when you’re home.”
I stepped back and Val grabbed my hand. “I love you.” He said that sometimes. He never smiled when he said it. It always felt like goodbye but never was.
“I love you, too.”
He dropped my hand, took a few steps back, and turned toward the woods. He paused at the edge of the trees and stared into the coming darkness for so long I thought he’d changed his mind, until he threw me a final glance and stepped in.
I began to walk away, but was struck by the silence. This time of year, every step sounds like ice shattering, but there was nothing. Val wasn’t walking. I waited, and I waited, and I waited, and decided to go back. One step toward where I last saw him and the forest started shaking, loud, like something slamming against several tree trunks all at once, tiny icicles and frosted branches breaking off and clattering against the frozen ground. Then footsteps like stomping, pounding the forest floor, disappearing into the distance. Val was running.
“Do you know anyone who might have held a grudge against Valentyn?”
“Boys at school or anything?”
“And you’ve known him for how long?”
“Twelve years.” His family moved in across the street when I was five and he was six. We were too shy to want to be friends, but our parents insisted on play dates. His family came from Ukraine, “the bad part,” he always said. He taught me some Ukrainian phrases, I helped him with his English. By grade school, we refused to be apart.
“After all that time, you don’t have any idea what might have happened to him?”
“Did he talk about running away?”
“No.” But then again, he didn’t have to. I could see it on him, the way he stopped paying attention in class, the way he stopped talking to his parents, the way he stared at the sky and the stars and the moon, like there was something waiting up there for him, expectant. While I was studying on the floor of his bedroom, he was in bed reading. Vonnegut or Bukowski or Murakami.
“What are you doing?” I would ask, and he would sigh in response.
“I’m bored, Helen.”
“Stop reading, then.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Well, what do you mean?”
He’d look at me for a long time and then smile, join me on the floor and never explain.
“Did he seem suicidal?”
I can’t help but roll my eyes any time this question is asked. “No.”
“And you’ve had no contact with him whatsoever since his disappearance?”
“None at all.” This is the big lie.
Val had only been gone for a week when I found the package on my bed, the window thrown open, the cold gusting in, making the curtains dance. It was wrapped in a brown paper bag from Woodman’s, a grocery store, the way we used to cover our textbooks for school. My name was scrawled across the paper in thick capital letters. A small sketch of a tree sprouted out from the top right peak of the “N.”
I let my backpack fall to the carpet and ripped the wrapping from the package. Inside, a box. Inside that, my scarf and my gloves, the ones from that day. I pulled them out and a slip of paper fluttered onto my yellow and white checkered bedspread. The note was seven lines long.
I’m beginning to understand.
I was here.
And so were you.
It was colder that day than the day Val disappeared. I put on long johns, a pair of thick pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater over that, my scarf, my gloves, a coat on top, a hat to finish it off. I ran through the park, too cold for kids to be on the playground, and stormed into the woods. As soon as I was in, I remembered the shaking trees, the pounding feet, Val in the distance. I ran until I made it to the birch trees, the ones with the words, the names, the initials, the giant declaration I WAS HERE.
I don’t know what I expected to find. I searched the trees for new markings, a sign from Val, his name, a date, but it would have been something important—poetry, a manifesto, a math equation, a suicide note, anything—but there was nothing. Nothing changed. Nothing added. Nothing missing.
I sat on the ground, knowing it would be a matter of minutes before the frost melted and seeped through my pants. I leaned my back against the I WAS HERE tree. And maybe he had been. But he wasn’t anymore. I’ve never felt more alone than being surrounded by a hundred names and dates and doodles and nothing of Val.
By the time I got home, I was tired. Confused. The trees had broken me. I didn’t understand Val’s letter, but I couldn’t show it to anyone. That felt like betrayal. I slid it inside an old history notebook, put that in the box beside my scarf and gloves, put the box in an old duffle bag, put the duffle bag in my closet, all the way at the back, and covered it with clothes I don’t wear anymore.
“So what do you think happened to him?”
I am sick of these questions. “I think he walked into the woods and never came back out.”
The officer nods. The one behind him sticks his hands in his pockets. My dad sighs.
“That’s it for now. You’ll let us know if you hear from him.” It’s not a question, but a demand.
__Six months after Val disappeared, Cody Brigand asks me to the senior picnic, the swanky outdoor dinner hosted by the school board and the last huzzah before high school graduation. He tells me there will be food and a lake and games and a Ferris wheel.
He rubs a nervous hand over his recent buzz cut. “It’s really more of a carnival.”
I tell him no. I tell him I have plans. Which is both true and not.
The night of picnic, I put on a dress I bought at Goodwill, brush my hair, step into a pair of old Mary Janes. My dad stops me as I’m leaving the house.
“You look beautiful.” He smiles but not all the way. I think he knows where I’m going, that it’s not to the picnic, but I can’t be sure.
I used to sneak into Val’s room all the time. He kept the ladder propped up against the side of his house, guiding me to the window. This started in middle school and continued for years after. Eventually, I stopped using the front door altogether and entered solely through the window, whether I needed to or not. For a long time, his mom was surprised to see me when she opened his bedroom door, but she was never upset. She knew about the ladder, and we knew she knew, and she let him keep it there.
Tonight, though, the ladder is gone. I search around for it, find it behind the shed at the back of their property. I haul it to Val’s side of the house, unfold the legs, and place it in its rightful spot, careful not to let it slam against the siding.
I climb up, hear the familiar groan of wood on wood as I lift the window, and crawl into his room. It’s different than I remember, and not at all how he left it. I’m positive of this. There are no dirty clothes sprawled across the floor, no blankets kicked down to the bottom of the bed, no drooping corners on any of his posters. I open his drawers to find that his clothes are folded, put away neatly, unwrinkled and untouched. I examine the bed, the corners of the sheets tucked just so, the top of the blanket folded down. I inspect the posters, now framed, not a fingerprint to be seen on the glass. I think I can understand why his parents did this. A matter of trapping a moment in time, trapping a person in time. An exercise in preservation. But this isn’t him.
I open the middle drawer of his dresser, pull out the t-shirts, unfold each and drop them randomly around the room. I dig out a pair of pants for good measure. I take his blanket off his bed, ball it up between my arms, and drop it at the foot of the mattress. I remove a frame from the wall, the one with a poster of a Ukrainian metal bed, open the back, and slide the poster out. I let it fall in the corner of the room, which is at least closer to how it would have looked. I do this all in the nearest thing to silence that I can. When I’m done, I stand back and examine my handiwork. It still doesn’t look right. I pull more clothes out of drawers, yank down the sheets, take all the frames down and lean them against the walls. And still, I can’t replicate the way it had been, the Val-ness of it all. Him and his smells and his sounds and his mess. Everything is here but not. He is here. But not.
When I’m too tired to continue, I stop, sit down in the middle of the room on top of all his shirts, and cry. It’s the first time I’ve done this. Because I thought he’d come back. But I am alone in his room in a dress that pinches my skin, and he should’ve been here by now. A thin shaft of light expands beside me, and I see Val’s mom in the doorway. The hall light casts shadows against her cheeks, her eyes, and she is ghostly. If she’s surprised to see me, she masks it. I watch her eyes dart from the laundry to the bedding to the frames. I open my mouth to explain and to apologize, but she stops me.
“Okay.” This is all she says.
“I’m sorry.” The words are so quiet that I’m mouthing them more than saying them.
She nods, closes the door. Again: “Okay.”
She doesn’t tell me to leave, and so I don’t. I climb onto the bed, and I cry, and I try to keep quiet. I imagine Val at his desk, bent over an algebra textbook, humming or grinding his teeth, depending on how confident he feels in his answers. I imagine him standing at the window, asking “window open or closed?” He knew I was particular about those kinds of things. I imagine him on the bed next to me, arms crossed over his stomach, staring at the ceiling, pensive. I lie down like that now.
He might have said, “How big is the world?”
And I might have said, “As big as we want it to be.”
“And also as small?”
“And also as small.”
He might have paused there. “You’re a smart girl, Helen.” Helen-ah.
We might have laughed.
An hour passes, then two. Val’s mom doesn’t come back. I put the Ukrainian poster back in the frame and hang all the frames back on the walls. I wipe them with one of Val’s shirts to remove any trace of my fingerprint smudges. I make Val’s bed, perfect, the sheets all tucked in, the top of the blanket folded down, the pillows placed symmetrically on top. I pick up all of Val’s clothes, fold them, put them back in his drawers. When I leave, I don’t know when I’m coming back or if I’m coming back. I close the window behind me, fold up the ladder, and store it back behind the shed. Everything is different.
I sleep late the next morning, and when I wake, I’m still exhausted. My dad isn’t home. I get dressed—jeans, a shirt, a sweater, a pocket knife I swipe from my dad’s end table—and walk to the woods. There’s no right way to get to the heart of the thing. I pick a relatively clear space and walk in, knowing as soon as I do that this will be the last time I go in these woods. I find my way to the birch tree. By now, other people have come, left initials, crowded the giant I AM HERE tree with pointless, unimportant things. I walk until I find a blank birch. It’s small, but I am not a giant; my letters will fit. I take the knife from my pocket and press it into the tree, bark flaking and dropping, wood bits curling and spiraling away. I am slow and patient while I work, and I think about Val and his letter. That he was here. That I was here. And I still can’t make any sense of it except to say
I step back from my carving.
We are all here. This isn’t news, I know. But it’s important.
Hailey Foglio hails from the state of West Virginia, where she passes the time writing, hiking, camping, and art-making. She has previously been published in The Opiate, The Bangalore Review, and The Oddville Press, among others.