By the time she’d reached the willow stump, she could see the raccoon’s tail just disappearing into a bed of trillium leaves.
Penny’s shoulders slumped. She knew that she could never catch up with him. The raccoon was moving across the ground much too fast for her to follow. But Penny tried, anyway.
She was sure that by the time she got past the willows at the edge of the woods, the raccoon would probably be hiding amongst the branches of some tall tree, somewhere; or, if not that, then he’d be well into the thick clumps of alder beyond the willows, where the ground got really wet and muddy.
Penny didn’t want to go out too far beyond the alder line. She didn’t have boots, and she’d heard stories from her grandparents about how the ground got so muddy in some places that you could start to sink — like quicksand in the movies. Of course, her grandparents tended to exaggerate, as far as Penny was concerned. She wasn’t sure she believed much that they had to say. But the alternative to further pursuit of the raccoon was to return to the empty Yellow House and waiting until the next first day of July. And Penny, at this point, most definitely didn’t want to return to the Yellow House. The prospect hurt her brain to think about, really.
She looked back at the Yellow House, her head aching a little. The house was still visible — its mossy roof and chipped paint, viewed from that distance, suddenly made the girl feel very uncomfortable, like she wanted to take a long shower or something. She didn’t really know what that feeling meant. But she did know that she didn’t want to wait another year to try again. She imagined herself sitting in her bedroom back home in Manhattan, tried to think of how she’d feel knowing she’d given up without even trying. She wasn’t exactly sure how that would make her feel later on in the year, but at that moment the very thought alone seemed horrible to her. It got into her throat, and into her stomach. It took away the traces of those good feelings she’d had moments ago by the willow stump — as did any contemplation of the prospect of spending the whole rest of the week waiting for the rest of her family to come back from the fishing trip. And there was a part of her that simply couldn’t bear the thought of her family coming back from the fishing trip, at all. She didn’t like how that thought made her feel, at all.
So she walked into the woods. But she decided that she would only go out to where the lines of willow trees got scarce and the ground got muddy. That was the alder line. Then, past that, out in the depths of the wood, she’d find the alders joined by tall pines and thick oaks, and the odd black cherry tree. Penny had been there lots of times. It was beautiful — like a wild garden. That’s what Penny had called it in her diary. She thought about how long it had been since she’d written in her diary. She hadn’t even brought it to Drodden. That was all right, though, because she usually only wrote about the woods of Drodden once she was back in New York City. It helped her not feel quite so claustrophobic to write about the big woods while she was sitting in a tiny, shared bedroom. That’s how beautiful it was out past the alder line; it could make her forget where she was when she just thought or wrote about it. But there were also some problems with going there. The ground wasn’t anywhere near as stable out that far. So she decided it — once she reached the alder line, she’d have to face up to ending her efforts. She decided, too, that she could handle the prospect, without feeling too bad about it. If she was going to spend the entire rest of the year sitting around in a fog of regret that she’d failed, she wanted to at least be able to say she’d tried.
The realization made her feel a little better. She felt proud of herself for drawing these conclusions, and the pride lifted her spirits quite a bit.
Penny realized that she also felt energized by the morning air, too. Penny liked being outside, sometimes — in some places. And the woods were one of the. She inhaled the scent of the woods she walked, inhaling deeply through her nose. But she wasn’t trying to calm herself. She wanted to smell the woods. She loved the smells of the place, the way its dense combination of odors tickled her nose and made it somehow both easier to take big breaths even as the hilly terrain of the natural trails beneath the branches had her breathing harder as she progressed. And the overpowering scents of the forest were much better than the burning smell of a plastic bandage. That reminded her. Penny pulled the bandage off her cheek and touched the wound. It felt like one of those kinds of injuries where it hurt and bled a lot but was actually pretty small. She could feel with her fingertip that it had dried into a very small scab. She pulled the scab off; she wasn’t worried about scars. Wincing, she tapped her fingertip against the wound; she looked at the tip of her finger. There was a little wetness, but it wasn’t bright red blood, just that sort of gooey healing liquid one might expect from such an injury after the bleeding stopped. She waited a moment and then felt her cheek again. It felt dry. She nodded to herself., and then resumed walking. She walked along a vague and narrow path, Penny wondered if she would be able to tell her raccoon from the others in the woods.
She’d wondered over and over if it was possible that the eyes belonged to someone different each time they came to visit her, making her think that her secret belonged to just herself and her visitor. But Penny knew that such an answer made no sense. It didn’t explain the fact that her visitor showed up every first of July. It didn’t make sense that her visitor came at almost the exact same time … every time — doing the exact same thing. Until she’d come out after him, at least. Nor did that solution explain her visitor’s yellow-and-green eyes — so different from the eyes of the any animal she’d seen on her walks, let alone any raccoon.
Penny had taken a lot of walks in the woods – like, a lot of them. The Yellow House was the last building along Fell-Munch Road for miles in either direction, and Penny didn’t exactly have friends whose houses she could go visit. Beyond that, the only other alternative to the woods was to just wander along Fell-Munch road until you got to either the Industrial District or the Drodden Business Circle, depending on which way you went. And either was a long, long ways to walk. Not that she wanted to look at more big grey buildings. She got enough of that at home in New York City. Still, Penny had gone to either end of Fell-Munch Road a few times, usually when she was too bored to think of anything else — or too depressed about things. Trudging along in one direction sometimes helped her keep from getting depressed about things. Penny got depressed way more often than she wanted to tell other people. But she knew she couldn’t tell anyone – because there was no one to trust about it, especially not her parents or sisters. So, even with lots of people around, she sometimes felt lonely … and being lonely tends to make you think you deserve it, which tends to make it easier for depression to take over your day — not that Penny didn’t think she deserved it, anyway. And, besides all that, she wasn’t exactly what you’d call ‘friends’ with many of her peers, and she knew better than to ask whose fault it was that she was always by herself. It was hers. She just didn’t understand people her own age.
Once, at the end of one of those depressing walks to the end of Fell-Munch Road, she’d spotted some kind of handsome older-looking boys hanging out near the Drodden Visitor’s Center. When she’d seen them, she’d decided to try talking to them. But, as she’d gotten closer, she’d overheard that they were very loudly talking amongst themselves about killing animals out in the woods — for sport. One boy, a Native-looking kid with messy hair and weird-looking eyes – Penny had heard that boy proudly proclaiming to the other kids that he was going to ‘bring down fifty raccoons.’ Penny had slipped into the bushes, listening in the way you do when you’re upset by what you’re hearing but you’re also kind of hoping you’d been wrong about what you’d heard.
Penny hadn’t been wrong. Sure, the other guys had shoved the Native kid around at first, making fun of him. But it hadn’t been too long before the other boys had started escalating their conversation into the typical competitive bleating you’d expect from boys that age, with each one promising to kill a higher number of animals in more grisly methods. She’d been worried, then, about the boys. She’d wondered then if her visitor might be mistaken for some animal out in the woods. Then, she’d wondered if they’d see him and shoot him. Now, she simply wondered if they even could see him. She tried to make herself feel better about it, reasoning that they were local boys, and probably hunted all the time. And they haven’t caught him yet, Penny reasoned.
Her confidence in her visitor came to the fore in her mind, and she found she was able to walk a little easier, even as fatigue was really beginning to make her arms and legs hurt. And then she thought about her arms and legs hurting, and it suddenly got harder to walk again. She hated how her moods seemed to change how she felt, and how quickly it could happen.
And, as her arms and legs hurt, her gait was getting slower and her steps more ponderous — and clumsier.
She was crushing dry, fallen branches beneath her shoes. The trees weren’t fire-dry; but here and there, dead branches crunched and splintered under her weight. She started to feel very fat, from the way she was breaking the dry branches. So, she pictured herself like that — walking through the woods, trying to see herself from the perspective of the small animals she could hear moving in the underbrush all around her.
She imagined mice running in terror as she lumbered into view, and imagined her purple and orange sneakers scaring them into telling stories to their children about the fat girl who ruined the woods with her every step. “Watch out for the Girl with the Mismatched Shoes,” Penny imagined the mouse mothers and fathers telling their mouse children. “She is Death.”
“Fat, fat death,” Penny said, out loud. She often felt fat. At four feet and ten inches tall, she weighed 80 pounds. She reasoned that 80 pounds of fat girl would do a lot of damage to a mouse.
But she wasn’t looking for mice, she reminded herself. She was looking for a raccoon — a particular one with blond-white fur and speckled green-and-yellow eyes — a special raccoon; an animal that made her feel special, in the way that he came to visit her. And feeling special didn’t come often for Penny. She’d heard about how, sometimes, people can feel special like that. She’d seen messages on TV about how everyone was supposed to feel that way, in every situation, and absolutely all the time. But she was never entirely sure what it would mean to feel special all the time. She wondered if it was anything like the feeling she’d had when she was closest to the raccoon, and she decided that it was as good as any for a placeholder in her brain.
She stopped walking along the natural trail when she got to a particular tree she knew very well. She called it, simply, the Really Big Willow. It stood out to her, because of its size, and the way its leaves and branches seemed to create a little clearing underneath it, though that was mostly because the willow trees in this area were sparse and this particular tree was tall. She had visited it many times. This part of the woods was familiar to her. It made her feel a little safer, in that moment, as she tried to steady herself and think of what she needed to do next.
“What’s to think about?” she murmured to herself. “You just need to find him.”
But she didn’t know how to do that. And it was more than that. She had no idea how to do that. Not the slightest hint of an idea, beyond doing what she’d been doing so far — walking in one direction and hoping she got lucky. She’d chosen the general direction of the tree line of the alders, because she’d thought of them as a possible place the raccoon might go. But that had been her own thinking, and not an idea based on any actual evidence or reasoning. So she turned a slow circle, took a step forward and then stopped again. She had no idea which direction to go, except for knowing she didn’t want to go back the way she came. But she couldn’t find any clues, or any hints about where her raccoon might have gone.
There were raccoon tracks on the ground here and there, as there had been all over the woods — but Penny was no tracker, and had no idea how to figure out which ones were old and which ones were fresh, or to really follow them in any specific or useful way. She stifled a sob. “Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” she said, quietly, and then frowned. She disliked how much her voice sometimes sounded like her mother’s, and right then it had sounded like her mother’s — a lot. So, she decided to change that. “Okay, try that again,” she whispered. Then she said it again: “Quit feeling sorry for yourself.” Only, that time, Penny quietly tried to sound like one of the frightened mice she thought about earlier, all squeaky and terrified. This managed to make her smile. She shut her eyes, shook her head, opened her eyes again, and then took another two steps.
Then, she stopped a third time — except on this third occasion, it was because of a very loud cracking sound coming from somewhere far ahead of her on the trail — from the direction of the alders. Like someone breaking a branch over their knee.
Penny held her breath, went silent, listened as hard as she could, to be sure. She knew from experience that echoes could sometimes be weird in the woods.
Another loud crack came a few seconds later — louder … and closer.
Penny stood, still, on the trail, for about five seconds, her heartbeat growing more rapid, her breathing becoming shallow. And then, even though her shoes were not yet wet, and even though she had not yet found her visitor, Penny Ellen Greenlee decided that it was probably a good time to turn around and go back to the Yellow House.
But as Penny turned to walk back, she noticed something she’d never seen before that day. She couldn’t help but notice it this time. It couldn’t be missed. So how had she missed it before? There, in the bark of the Really Big Willow’s trunk, someone had apparently carved out letters just below Penny’s eye-level. Each letter was spaced out from the others, at weird angles, like a sign that was trying to be funny or cute. The letters were carved big, and clear, and easy to read:
H I T H E R