Maddie crouched at the riverbank on a small overlook. Brown water hissed around the rocks in front of her, foaming white, choking the edges of the river heavy with recent rains. She was never leaving. She would become a hermit, fish and hunt for game; the latter would provide food as well as warmth. Never mind that she had no taste for venison or bobcat or coyote. Loners — outcasts, weirdos — did what they must.
A balmy November wind blew at her back, rustling the weeds. Dead leaves curled around her toes. Maddie’s sneakers and socks lay behind her in the grass. She hadn’t meant to take them off. Somehow, though, she felt freer without them, unafraid, like her high school self, the barefooted camp counselor who’d taught the younger kids how to start a cook fire and purify water in this very park. Confident. Admired. Self-assured.
Nothing like the idiot who ran from Kevin earlier today.
Maddie loved Thursday evenings, the only nights that she and Mason both had free. After deciding to meet at five at a local restaurant, Maddie hung up and left the student center. She would shower, change, and finish some homework before leaving. She pushed the door open; cool air rushed around her jacket. In the entryway, a few feet from the door, stood Kevin.
They’d ignored each other since the spring. Maddie pretended he was a ghost, a figment of her imagination, the fading image of a nightmare, but today, she nodded to him.
Kevin slowed. “Oh, hey, Matt.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“You’re all alone. Scared away your new boy toy already?” Kevin stopped. “Must’ve been the lesbo haircut.”
“He’s probably undressing a real girl right now.”
Always, always, always it came back to gender with Kevin. Here at the park, Maddie could fire off a hundred replies: I am a real girl; Mason wouldn’t lower himself to your standards; even if he hurts me, you can’t have me back.
But at school, her words decayed like a dead fish washed up on shore; the noxious fume filled her mouth, her nostrils. Maddie fought a gag reflex.
Kevin laughed. Maddie didn’t stop. She passed the library and the dorms, feet pounding against the sidewalk in a steady run. What kind of god allowed Kevin to corner her like that, with no witnesses?
The same god that made her, obviously.
In the parking garage, Maddie didn’t wait for the elevator; she ran down the stairs. On one jump, she skipped two stairs. Her foot caught the edge and slipped. Her hand wrenched from the railing, and Maddie stared into the abyss — at the eight remaining steps and the concrete landing below.
If she let herself fall, would she melt into the concrete and disappear like water through a crack?
Maybe it was good balance, from the broken, dead trees over which she crossed rivers, or maybe it was luck, but Maddie stumbled down two more stairs, banging her hip into the metal railing. Breathing hard, she paused for only a moment before hobbling to her car and driving forty minutes to her woods, her river… Home.
Clouds hung in the sky, darkening the river as it lashed against the rocks. It was a battle, the water fighting for more space while the rocks, unmoved, stood in defiance.
Gender was supposed to be easy. But Maddie had always felt more comfortable outside — hiking, swimming, mountain biking, or mowing the lawn. She couldn’t do high heels or make-up. Not a girl, not a boy, Maddie was in between, fluid.
And Kevin hated that. Especially when she’d wanted to shave half her head and trim the other to a bob. “You can’t,” he’d said from the comfort of his dorm bed, leaning against the wall, his legs crossed. “I already feel like I’m dating a lesbian.”
Maddie rocked herself side to side in his wheelie chair. “What are you talking about?”
“You used to wear all those pink, lacy shirts for me. Why did you stop? Don’t I try for you? Don’t I dress up and bring you flowers?”
“You’re not dating my clothes.”
“All of a sudden, you dress like a man, and now you want to cut your hair. It’s like you want to be a guy. I date girls, Maddie.”
“You’re supposed to love me no matter what.”
“Don’t my needs matter to you?” Kevin asked.
They did. He wouldn’t be happy with her, so Maddie broke up with him. In his taunts afterward, Kevin made sure she knew about the “real girl” he cheated with.
The current attacked the boulder before her, bearing a stick; wayward water splashed onto the bank, dribbling across the dry dirt before seeping back into the river.
Maddie’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She’d blocked Kevin months ago, right? He couldn’t harass her, not here, not when there was nothing to stop her from staring into the abyss. The river water churned below her.
It was Mason. Where are you? his text read. Call me. It was five thirty, half an hour past their date.
Ahead was a bend in the river. The water beat against the rocks, brown frothing white before mixing back into the unrecognizable bulk of the river. Maddie stood. Her hip ached, and despite the balmy weather, her bare toes had numbed. On her phone, she typed, I’m sorry. It’s a long story.
But it didn’t matter. In the battle between the water and the rocks, the water — in its everlasting crusade for space, its attacks gentle or crushing depending on the current — won in the end.
Originally published at www.oneforonethousand.com on July 14, 2016.