Marnie teetered on the bump where the carpet from the living room met the warped hardwood of the kitchen. Her mother was cooking breakfast. The tune from an old country-western song made its way from the radio and washed over Marnie’s mother. She started the hum along to the chorus.
“They’re screaming for their lives,” Marine said.
Startled, her mother dropped the spatula on the floor.
“Sweet Jesus, Marnie!” She exclaimed. “Why are you just standing there watching me?”
Marnie didn’t answer. She just stared at the stove.
“They’re screaming for their lives,” she repeated.
“They’re singing, Mar. I thought you liked this song.”
Marnie pointed at the stove.
"I was talking about the potatoes.”
Her mother looked at the frying pan and then back at Marnie.
“Baby, they’re sizzling. They’re going to be nice and crispy. Just like you like.”
The mother handed Marnie a stack of napkins and forks and nudged her towards the dining room.
Marnie took her duties as Table Setter very seriously. She positioned the chairs to be evenly distanced from the table and each other. Then, she placed a napkin to the right of each setting. Lastly, the forks - dead centered on the napkins. She smiled at her work.
Moments later, Marnie’s father came out of the bedroom. He itched his shirtless belly, which jiggled with each scratch. Marnie smiled at this, too.
Marnie helped her mother dish out piles of warm scrambled eggs and potatoes.
“Where’s the other one?” Marnie’s father asked as he fell into his chair with a great thud.
“Marnie, go get your sister.” The mother pointed to the hallway.
Marnie opened the door to the bedroom. Her sister was sitting at the dresser, applying various shades of pink to her expressionless face. The sound of the door opening surprised the sister. The brightest of the pink powders fell onto her lap.
“You twerp!” She screamed at Marnie, “Ever heard of knocking?”
“But, Katie, this is my room too,” Marnie said, partially shielded by the door.
“Don’t remind me.” Katie brushed the powder off of her skirt. “Are you just going to stand there and stare at me, creep?”
Marnie directed her gaze to the carpet, “Breakfast is ready.”
Katie pushed past Marnie. She smelled of floral chemicals.
The breakfast table was quiet, with the exception of the sounds of forks scraping the ceramic plates. The father’s attention was devoted to the television, which was muted - mom’s rule. Headlines of football highlights moved like a conveyor belt along the bottom of the screen.
“So, Katie, what are your plans today?" The mother asked.
“Jen and I are going to see her sister at work.” replied Katie.
“Oh how nice. Where does she work?” The mother looked over at her husband, to see if he was participating in family time. He got the hint and rearranged his rather large bottom half so that he was facing his daughters.
“The salon at the end of Main Street. Jen’s getting her hair dyed.” Katie twirled a strand of her own hair as she spoke.
The father was definitely involved now. “Don’t you go dyeing your hair.”
Katie looked insulted. “I wasn’t going to, but why not? I’m almost seventeen.”
“I don’t give a damn how old you are. No need to be dyeing your hair. Under eighteen, still a kid.” The father had decided the conversation was done and started to reposition himself to face the television again.
Katie had no intentions of dyeing her beautiful, strawberry-blonde curls, but she wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to make a point, “So I can’t dye my hair, but this freak can shave her head?” She swung her head to glare at Marnie.
“Hey!” The mother and father shouted in unison.
Katie pushed herself away from the table with all the force her body could muster. It wasn’t much.
The parents looked at Marnie, but said nothing. The three ate the rest of their breakfast while silently pondering the same question: What is wrong with Marnie?
Hours passed but the question still lingered in Marnie’s mind, even as she and her best friend, Henry, rode their bikes through the neighborhood. Marnie couldn’t help but wonder if her parents were still asking the question to themselves, or worse, each other.
Marnie could see Henry was talking, but he was too far ahead for her to hear anything. It probably didn’t matter. Henry was always talking. He didn’t care who was listening, or if they were listening.
Suddenly, Henry turned his head to look behind him. His gaze wasn’t on Marnie, though. There was something behind her that caused his eyes to widen. He gulped.
Marnie looked back and saw what was headed their way. A group of teenage boys was leisurely zig-zagging between each other’s sleek BMX bikes. Once they realized they had been spotted, the group moved into formation. They were like birds flying in the sky, an arrowhead aimed at the younger cyclists.
Leading the flock was Keith Gendry. His backwards ballcap sat on his head like a crown. He was the king of the group, which he often announced. On more than one occasion, Henry had pondered aloud, like he did with most of his thoughts, why the other boys in the group tolerated Keith’s anger and narcissism. Marnie would simply answer, “Some people are weak.”
While Marnie didn’t necessarily consider herself weak, she knew she didn’t have near the strength to take on Keith’s crew. She and Henry stood above the seats of their bikes and pedaled as fast as they could. Henry made a sharp turn and led the pair on a shortcut through a nearby yard. Grass and damp earth made pedaling more difficult. As Marnie passed Henry, she offered some words of encouragement, “We’re almost there. Keep going!”
Henry leaned forward and willed his legs to move as fast as they could. At the end of the shortcut was their asylum.
Overgrown ladder ferns and saw palmettos surrounded a bean shaped pond that bordered the woods behind the neighborhood. Henry and Marnie pushed their bikes into the clump of vegetation and then started making their way further and further into the forest. Moving too quickly to watch her step, Marnie brushed one of the blades on the palmetto. She felt the skin on her calf tear open, but she couldn’t feel the pain. Fear of what the older boys would do if they caught up to them was all consuming.
Henry, just mere steps in front of Marnie, was suddenly pulled into a patch of wild coffee plants by an unknown arm. Marnie stopped in her tracks. She could feel the warm blood starting to soak into her sock. The sound of Keith and his lackeys was still behind her. She inched towards the coffee plants and saw Henry, shaking next to the mystery man who had pulled him into the thicket. He was a middle-aged man, probably only forty, but a life of bad decisions had aged him. He was shabby, to say the least. His gray cotton shirt was stained with sweat under his arms and around his neck. His jeans were torn, and not in a fashionable way. His feet were covered in scars, old and new, and caked on mud, which Marnie could see since he wasn’t wearing any shoes.
He pressed his finger to his mouth, signaling the children to stay quiet. He stepped out from the green shelter just as Keith’s group arrived. Marnie and Henry watched from behind the leaves.
“Mornin’ boys,” the stranger said.
Keith’s minions looked at each other, and then to Keith. Keith could sense them waiting for nonverbal instructions on how to react to the stranger. Keith straightened his posture and jetted his chest forward. This made the stranger chuckle.
“You see two kids come by here?” Keith’s voice shook as he spoke.
“Well,” the stranger looked around at the group of boys, “I see a bunch of kids standing right in front of me.”
“We’re not kids.” Keith stood up even taller and pushed his chin towards the sky. “We’re looking for a boy and, well, what looks like a boy, but it’s a weird ass chick.”
“That’s no way to speak about a lady,” the man said.
The group snickered. This put Keith more at ease.
“She’s not a lady. She’s a freak.” The word flew out of Keith’s mouth and hit Marnie like a bullet in the stomach.
“Well,” the man looked around, “I ain’t seen anyone like that.”
“You had to. They came this way.” Keith was getting agitated. He had an image to keep up.
“Guess they fooled you,” the stranger replied.
Keith looked over his left shoulder, then his right. He stepped closer to the man. “Look, buddy,” this lofty remark resonated with the rest of the group, and they all took a step forward as well, “those two are our friends. We just wanted to play a little game with them. You know, kid shit.”
Keith’s maniacal smile drew all signs of life from his eyes. He was starting to move closer to the man, who was firm in his stance.
“Gosh, boys,” the man reached his arms into the air and leaned slightly backwards into a stretch, exposing the worn handle of a knife that was covered by a tattered sheath. Keith saw this and stopped dead in his tracks. They all did.
“Somethin’ wrong?” the man asked, lowering his arms so his shirt once again covered the weapon.
Keith shook his head, he and the rest of the boys began backing up until Marnie and Henry could no longer see them. The man waved to the group for what seemed like ten minutes before he dropped his hand and turned to the bushes.
He nodded his head, signaling the all clear. Marnie and Henry didn’t budge. They were frozen with fear. Keith and the boys may have been gone, but neither of them felt safe.
“You’re good,” the man said, again motioning them to leave their hiding spot.
Marnie went first. She made it inches outside of the green shelter when some commanding force halted her feet from moving forward. The force was a feeling. Marnie couldn’t quite put her finger on what the feeling was. It was more than fear. It felt off. Something in Marnie’s gut was keeping her from getting any closer to the man.
Henry had stopped as suddenly as Marnie. He still had one foot in the bushes. He must have felt the feeling too. This was probably the longest he had gone without talking since he uttered his first words.
“Aw, come on, now,” the man said. “I know, I know. You meet some weird old dude in the woods. I’d be scared, too. I understand”
He didn’t look understanding. He looked amused and maybe a bit excited.
Marnie couldn’t help herself. Her eyes landed on the spot where she knew the knife was hiding. She couldn’t look away.
The man noticed this.
“It’s okay. I’ll keep him in his room.” He told Marnie.
The three stood there, unmoving for what felt like hours to the children. Finally, the man started walking towards them. A few feet before he had reached them, the man became distracted by something in the trees.
The children followed his gaze. Three squirrels were jumping from branch to branch, squealing as they chased one another through the canopy.
One of the squirrels jumped onto a branch in a large oak tree, disturbing a mother bird who was sitting on her nest. The mother bird flew away as the squirrel’s tail swung towards her, knocking the nest from the tree. Marnie, Henry, and the man watched as the nest fell to the pile of pine needles between them.
The nestlings had somehow survived the fall. They sang out for their mother in desperate, cracking voices.
“They’re screaming for their lives,” the man said as he met Marnie’s gaze. She said nothing, but her lips split slightly as she wondered if the statement was a coincidence.
The man crouched down and began to reach for the crying birds.
“Wait!” Henry exclaimed.
The man looked up, confused.
“Uh,” Henry stammered as he looked from the birds, to the man, to Marnie. “If the momma bird smells you on her babies, she’ll leave them and they’ll die.”
The man smiled as he carefully scooped up the nest, keeping it intact.
“That’s a myth,” he said. “Birds can’t smell.”
The man nestled the baby birds in a crevice between the trunk and a sturdy branch. He walked over to the children and the three watched for a while. Eventually, the mother bird returned to her offspring.
The stranger looked back at the children. “Name’s George,” he said.
When neither child replied, he went on. “Do you two have names?”
Henry shuffled a foot. He looked at Marnie in hopes her facial expression would guide him on what to do next. It did not.
“Well?” George cupped his hand around his ear in anticipation of their responses.
“I’m Henry,” he said, making eye contact with George for the first time. “And this is Marnie.”
“Marnie,” George repeated. “What a beautiful name.”
At the word “beautiful” Marnie looked at the ground, uncomfortable. It was not a word that was typically directed towards her.
“Would you two like an escort home?” George asked.
Marnie and Henry shared a glance that was interrupted immediately.
“Ah, come on,” George waved them towards him. “I’ll make sure those rude boys don’t bother you.”
George started walking the opposite direction that Marnie and Henry had come.
“That’s the wrong way,” Henry told him.
George turned around. He started walking backwards, watching the children slowly moving from the border of the bushes they had hid in.
“Well I don’t know about you two, but I’m not lookin’ to run into that group again.”
Marnie and Henry looked at each other once more.
“Better hurry it on up,” George called to them.
The three made their way through the woods. The live oaks above them reminded Marnie of fingers interlocking. Hands being held by their loved one, a protector, a parent. She suddenly longed for her mother. She was about to ask why they had taken so many turns through the trees when George interrupted her thoughts.
“You shouldn’t let those boys bother you.” He was talking to Marnie. She just shrugged.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you shave your head?” Marnie shrugged again.
“My mom says it’s because you’re a lesbian,” Henry looked down as soon as he spoke, as if he wasn’t supposed to repeat his mother’s theory.
“Is that true?” George asked.
“I don’t know.” Marnie answered to the leaves under her feet.
“How do you not know?” George pursued the subject.
Marnie kicked a pinecone as she thought about how to answer the question.
“I just don’t feel,” her voice started to trail off.
“Feel what?” George kicked Marnie’s pinecone. It went twice as far as before.
“I don’t feel like a,” Marnie paused, ”a girl.”
“Do you feel like a boy?” George kicked the pinecone towards Henry, and nodded towards it. Henry got the hint.
“I’m not sure.” Marnie stepped on the pinecone.
George stopped walking and rubbed his chin as he took in Marnie’s response.
“I guess it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You don’t have to feel like a girl or a boy. You just have to feel like Marnie.”
Marnie looked up and smiled at George. He wasn’t thinking What’s wrong with Marnie? and for a moment, neither was she. She felt safe. That is, until George pointed towards a narrow trail between two pines, briefly exposing the knife Marnie had forgotten about.
George noticed this.
“I promise, you don’t have to worry about him,” he told her.
Henry looked confused. George took the knife from the loop on his jeans. ”Look,” he pointed to the spot where the handle of the knife met the opening of the sheath. “See this button? The loop around it keeps him from falling out. It’s like a lock.” He handed the knife to Marnie. The leather hiding the blade was warm and cracked. The thread around the button was loose enough that when she pulled on the handle, the slightest bit of the blade was exposed. Marnie couldn’t help but touch. The steel was cold. It sent a chill through Marnie’s bones. She quickly gave the knife back to George.
“See? Locked.” He fastened the knife back onto a belt loop, one that Marnie couldn’t help but think was at an easier spot for George to reach.
George led the way through the trail, if you could call it that. The space between the bushes was barely wide enough for a single person. Marnie noticed beer cans lining the path like a breadcrumb trail.
The trail ended at a small opening in the trees. It looked like a cave inside the dense branches and shrubbery. Nestled in the corner was a twin-sized mattress. More beer cans were scattered on the ground. There was a five-gallon bucket overflowing with trash. The smell of pine needles was long gone. The odor reminded Marnie of a gas station bathroom.
While Henry and Marnie were taking in the scenery, George had made his way behind them to block their access to the trail they had just followed.
“This is my fort,” he said. “Ain’t it something?”
A feeling ran through Marnie’s body- like goosebumps, but painful.
“Aw. come on,” he continued. “I thought you two would think it was neat.”
Marnie and Henry were still.
“My boys would think it’s neat.” George was starting to twitch.
“Where are they?” It was the first time Henry had spoken in a long time. Marnie was standing right next to Henry, but it sounded like he was miles away.
George scratched his face and looked towards the sky. “They, uh. My ex. I just. They live with their ma.” Admitting this seemed to make George angry. The corner of his upper lip started to twitch and his tone became agitated. “They’re about your guys’ age. I was hoping you two would think it was cool - my fort. I thought maybe you’d want to come hang with me sometime.”
The children were frozen with fear.
“I mean,” George threw his hands up, “a fort in the woods is a kid’s dream. There’s something wrong with you.”
This struck a nerve in Marnie, and George could see it.
“Aw, Marnie. I didn’t mean that.” George stepped towards her. Henry took off through the branches behind them. George started to run after him but quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to duck and dive through the moss-covered obstacles as swiftly as a child. He turned his attention back to Marnie, who had missed her chance to run the other direction.
“My eldest's name Is Mark. I always called him my Markey boy.” George was slowly getting closer to Marnie. “I just, I just feel like I have so much to teach. I worked in construction. I can fix almost anything. Cars, too. I’m good with cars. I could teach you.”
Marnie took a step back, but it was too late. George had her arm. She screamed. In an instant she was thrown to the ground, face first.
“Oh god, oh god,” George flipped her over and cradled her face between his calloused hands. “I shouldn’t have done that. I don’t want you to be scared of me. I don’t want you to leave me.”
Marnie screamed again. She felt a wave of cold rush through her cheek as it met the force of George’s palm. George didn’t miss a beat as he pulled out his knife and rested it on the tip of Marnie’s nose. His pupils seemed to engulf the rest of his eyes.
“Please,” Marnie whispered.
With Marnie’s plea, George relaxed his shoulders. He tossed the knife behind him.
“I need you to promise me you’ll come back.” When Marnie didn’t immediately agree, George got closer. He crawled towards her, eventually backing Marnie against a tree.
“I promise,” she whispered.
“I don’t believe you,” George got even closer. “Maybe you should just stay here for a few days to start off with. It’s fun, man. All the wildlife that comes by. I mean, stuff you’d never see just walking through the woods. And, and, beer! Have you ever had a beer? Man, I mean, you’re still young, but I’ll share one with you every once and a while.”
“No, thank you,” Marnie replied.
George grit his teeth and growled with anger. He turned for his knife. Marnie closed her eyes as tightly as she could. Her shirt became warm. She anticipated the pain, but it never came. With all the courage she could muster, she opened her eyes. In front of her, George laid on the ground. Little streams of blood leaked from his mouth as he wheezed. Above him stood Henry, his face and forearms covered with little cuts from the branches he had run through.
“The neighborhood is just on the other side of those trees.” He pointed behind him.
“Okay,” Marnie replied.
Neither of them moved.