Lil pulled up the hood of her red velour jacket. There was a chill in the air, the sun was hidden behind the clouds. Smoke billowed out from her grandmother’s chimney. The sky was white and the trees were black. The leaves were as gray as her grandmother’s eyes.
The jacket had been a gift from her grandmother. Lil lived with her now. There was trouble at home. But her grandmother warned her, as if Lil didn’t know; the woods out there will eat you alive. Lil just laughed. Oh Grandma, she said.
His hair was long, down to his shoulders and black as the forest. Morning, he said, and took a drag from his cigarette. He wore a white T-shirt, he was muscled and tanned. Lil could picture him chopping up wood. She could almost see the ax in his hand.
Nice jacket, he said and flicked away ashes. Lil kept her eyes on the forest floor. The chimney was still belching smoke in the sky. The grass on the path was as gray as the leaves. Her shoes were brown leather. Old, and worn.
Wise, he said. Not speaking to strangers. He tossed his cigarette into the stream that gurgled and lapped over dark polished stones. His ring caught the light; opal and garnet, in filigreed silver.
I’ve seen you around. Back and forth through the woods, in your cherry-red jacket. Your sad, brown shoes. Your grandmother can’t afford new ones, poor thing. She worries about you. One day, she fears, you’ll be eaten alive. But she need not fear me. And you need not either, my sweet Valentine.
Lil thought of the nights she lay waiting and listening. Until she was sure the old woman was sleeping; crossing the room, slowly, carefully opening the door to moonlight and grass and the sweet smell of boys from the village. They kept the old woman in cordwood and kindling, and their scent stayed with Lil, in her hair, on her fingers.
Doesn’t matter, he said, as if reading her thoughts. The past is the past. You’ll be my girl now.
He held out his hand.
Opal and garnet. That’s us, don’t you see?
He touched her cheek lightly, and Lil turned her head. She kissed all his fingers and down to his chest. My girl, my girl; he pulled her in close and they fell to the earth and they made sloughing sounds, like rabbits in snow.
Lil stood leaning against a black tree. Waiting and listening, until she was sure he was sleeping.
The smokes. A ten spot, the ring and some change. Lil tossed the cigarettes into the stream. The ring was really too big for her finger. And Lil wasn’t really anyone’s girl.
There was a chill in the air, she pulled up the hood of her red velour jacket. The sky was as gray as her grandmother’s ashes. The chimney sputtered out small puffs of smoke.
He was really a sheep, in a bad wolf costume. Life and love, were really just cordwood and kindling and they said the world would eat her alive.
But Lil had been dead a really long time.