The Backpack

By Kylie Goetz

He rummaged through the backpack where the girl had dropped it. A tattered Jansport, once red, now faded into dusky pink. It was covered with drawings in Sharpie; skulls with girly bows and demonic kittens. His long fingernails fumbled with the zipper of the outside pocket.

 

He hadn’t planned to scare them off. He’d hidden in the shadows, just past the reach of the firelight. The charred smell of damp wood and the stinky skunky scent of the weed they’d been smoking were surely enough to hide his musky, matted fur scent. He’d been content to quietly watch. Laughter and guitars were noisy enough to mask his ragged breathing. Breathing filled with longing.

 

The campfire group was telling ghost stories.

 

Madmen and murderers and monsters peopled tales overlaid with the strum of an acoustic guitar played badly and with enthusiasm. He wished they’d dropped the guitar when they fled.

 

If he had it, he would compose a song for the girl. A song that sang of pine breezes and the soft rustle of beetles in the undergrowth. Of the smell of night. Of the halo around the moon that made it an eye, spying on her benevolently and whispering to the stars of her tiny halo which reflected back as she gazed upward.

 

Or maybe his song would compare her to a racoon. Quick and clever, curious and dark and small. Nimble and graceful, too.

 

There had been another girl; yellow of hair, brash and loud with a laugh that grated like a million starlings flying in to nest and covering the trees like squawking leaves. He would not write a song to her.

 

He’d watched the campsite for two nights in a row. The dark haired girl had been the one to harrang the boys about the empty beer cans. She’d been the one to sling the food in a sack and hang it in the trees so bears couldn’t get it. Not that any bears would show up while he was around, but there was no way she could know that. Despite her blue-black hair and purple fingernails, she was clearly the only one in the group at home in the woods.

 

He wished she hadn’t run with the others. He would take her to his hideout, a cavern behind a waterfall and from there they could watch the sunrise through the shimmering waters. He could share the rainbows that danced across the walls in the summer mornings. He’d always wanted to see if someone else thought it was as beautiful as he did.

 

His calloused, ragged hands pulled out some notebooks. He couldn’t read so good but some words he knew. Angry words like “fuck off” and “what the fuck.” There were other words too. “I love him.”

 

He wondered which of the boys that had been about. He hoped it wasn’t any of the boys she’d been with. Those were not nice boys. They did not care where they dropped things. One smoked cigarettes and flung the smoldering butts into the leaf mold. They were messy and imprecise. Not one of them would survive the woods in winter. The boy with the beard, the one verging on manhood who reeked of bravado and hair gel…she’d kissed that boy.

 

He called them boys and girls, but he wasn’t sure. They seemed to be his age, though precisely what that was, he wasn’t sure either. His people did not live in groups. His mother had abandoned him as soon as he could forage, make a sling, make a trap, catch a fish. How many cold times had he gone through? 17? 18? Enough. More than enough on his own.

 

His mother had not said much before she left him.  But she had said to stay away from the hairless. Though they had some hair, that is what she called them. “Hairless, soft. But not vulnerable. Never think that. They would hunt you as we hunt the deer, the hare. Head north to where the horned animals live, where the forests remain. Stay away from those creatures who cover themselves with fabric, who hide their bodies from the sun.”

 

She must have taught him to read some. He doesn’t remember the learning. Just the knowing.

Words that get shouted in the woods. Those are the ones he knows best.

 

It was lonely in the woods.

 

There are words in the front of one of the notebooks and several pictures of the girl with her friends. There is one though, to which he keeps returning his gaze. A group shot, the dark haired girl is slightly off to the side and looking so intensely, as if she could see him from the paper. His dirty fingertips almost, but not quite, caress it. It hovers gently above, near enough he can sense the connection, far enough so that he won’t smudge the face that scowls out with fierce beauty.

 

He reads the words “Edgeriver High School.” He knew where that was. The baseball field backed against the edge of the woods. Sometimes there were bright lights and crowds shouting there and he stayed away. But after those times, later in the dark, he would sometimes go over. He would would find sweet things to eat in the trash. Once he found a sweatshirt, now his pillow, that’s back in his cave.

 

He holds the bag close to his chest. He wants to keep it. He wants to return it. But for now, he wants to breathe in the scent of her, melded into the fabric by constant wear.

 

*

 

“Marjorie Watkins, Marjorie Watkins, please report to the Administration Building.”

 

“Oh shit, what’d I do now,” Jorie thought as she gathered up her bags and left the cafeteria.

It had been a hard enough week. Her dad was mad at her for losing her bookbag and was making her pay to replace it and all her books. Her mom was mad at her for claiming she was staying over at Brie’s only to have to come clean about camping. Jorie’s mom had grounded her.  Of course, if her mom had known there were boys camping with them, she’d be more than grounded, she’d be dead. So it was with heavy tread Jorie half slunk, half stomped to the admin building.

 

She was waved in by the security guard. One of the benefits of standing out with her goth/emo/punk/progressive melange ensemble was that everyone knew who she was. Despite having lost her ID, she hadn’t had any issues.

 

Steeling herself for the worst, stomach churning, Jorie was surprised when Mrs. Everly reached down behind the counter and came up with her backpack.

 

“This yours?”

 

“Yes!”

 

That it was her backpack, there was no question. Sharpied zombie kittens stared up her with bulging eyes.

 

“How did-”

 

“Groundskeepers found it under the bleachers of the baseball field.”

 

Jorie unzipped the bag. All her books were there. Her journal. Everything was there. Her wallet. Her ID. She pulled out the journal. Saw the smudged fingerprints on the outside. She opened it. One page was torn out.

 

Still, one page was a small price to pay. No summer spent paying back her father.

 

“Thanks, Mrs. Everly.”

 

She held the bag up to her face. It smelled of pine. Of damp coolness. She put her smaller bags into it and zipped it up. The clock on the wall said fifth period would start soon and she had to run to the science building. The forest scent fortified her. Grounded or no, she’d go hiking this weekend. And camping as soon as she could.

 

When Kylie was five, she wanted to be either a nun or a lounge singer. Luckily (for the church and lounge patrons everywhere) she discovered a love for storytelling around the same age.  This eventually translated into a B.A in theatre from Florida State University and a MA in creative writing from Macquarie University.  You can buy her book here and follow her Word of the Day Poetry Project

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