She always felt so small when she looked up here, searching through the gaps in the pine tree canopy. No matter what age she was, whenever she came to The Pines and tilted her head towards the sky, she was reminded of just how little she was. She grew up in these woods; every time she came here, something changed her and made her see the world a bit differently. This place was the haven for all things ugly in this town, but that was its allure. It beckoned people into its shield from the outside world, from the ever-present eyes of the gossiping housewives and nosy do-gooders that sought to fix up this town. The Pines was the place people went to do things they would never even think of outside the safety of the trees. She did not understand its true purpose until she was older and had her own secrets she wanted kept safe.

When she was five, her ladybug rain boots trod softly on the pine needle carpeted floor. She examined the ground with her face pinched in determination; she only needed one more to complete the family. She had spent two hours collecting, scrutinizing, and discarding pinecones of all shapes and sizes, her father in tow making sure she didn’t stray toward the roads that confined this limited greenery. Her face still trained on the ground, she trudged forward searching for more fallen pine cones. She spotted the perfect mommy-sized pinecone to complete the family; as she knelt down to grab it, she noticed a shiny pine needle next to it. “Daddy, what kind of tree makes silver pine needles?” she asked. Confused, her father walked to where she sat, staring at this fascinating silver pine needle. He stood beside her for barely a second before he snatched her off the ground, carrying her far away from the silver pine needle and empty syringe that lay a few inches away.

When she was seven, her breath whooshed in and out of her chest as she gulped air like fuel that would propel her faster and faster. Sophia was catching up; she could hear her shoes slapping hard against the pavement path right behind her. She knew her only escape was to get away from the open expanse of the park and lead her assailant into The Pines, where she could outmaneuver Sophia. She refused to be “it” again; every time she was “it” she could never tag anyone because she was the slowest, but not being “it” just made her the target. She wouldn’t lose this time, though. Usually, she was not allowed to go in The Pines, but Casey’s mom was watching her today, and Casey’s mom didn’t have any rules against The Pines. She felt a rush of confidence as she took a sharp turn and booked it towards the bridge that led into the tree line. Her feet smacked the rotting wood with speed that surprised her, and there was a several second gap before she heard Sophia’s footsteps echo hers on the bridge. Now she ran between trees and took confusing twists and turns that gave her the advantage. She was finally losing her pursuer, and now there was enough distance between them that she could hide behind the risen gazebo without being followed. She sprinted towards it as fast as her tiny legs would allow. She ran around the side, hurtling towards the back. She came to a screeching halt when she saw that there were two people already occupying her hiding spot. She looked at their faces, their bare chests, and then looked at what the boy on the left was holding. He was holding a part of the boy on the right, a part she knew she was not supposed to see. She began to scream as they scrambled to their feet, clumsily throwing on shirts, buttoning buttons and zippering zippers. They ran as she screamed, and she ran away while she continued to scream. She rounded to the front of the gazebo and collided with Sophia, who merely stood and shouted “Ha! You’re it!” while she stayed there on the ground.

When she was thirteen, she was shaken from her daydream about Conner by the shrill voice of the crossing guard, “Hey! Come on kid, you’re holding up traffic”. The harsh words along with the sharp, annoyed hand gesture snapped her from her distraction and sent her awkwardly scurrying across the road. She mustered a quiet “Sorry, thanks” on her way past the crossing guard. She joined the herd of students that made their daily trek home from middle school, cutting through The Pines to avoid walking in the sidewalk-less streets. She timidly broke from the pack as they all entered the small dense forest. She remained closer to the edge of the tree line as she fished her headphones from her pocket and set to work on untangling them. She was about to secure them in her ears when a frisbee skidded across the grass and into her path a few feet in front of her. Without hesitation she knelt to her knees to pick it up; several pairs of footsteps sounded from behind her. As she rose from the ground, a voice called “Hey, why don’t ya stay on your knees for a bit, we’re almost there!” This received snickers from the others. She stood there taking in the three young men walking towards her. “Toss it here!” the one on the left yelled to her as he raised his lanky arm to catch it. Ignoring his directions, she began walking towards him with the frisbee in her outstretched hand. She hesitantly went to give it to him. “Um, I…I can’t really aim.”  The short one in the middle piped up. “We could teach you,” he drawled in a flirtatious voice. The one on the right turned to the other two and intentionally loudly whispered, “Oh I could teach her lots of things.” They laughed under their breaths in unison. She handed the frisbee to the one on the left, the one who gave her the least pervy vibes out of all of them. She quickly turned and started walking again after returning the frisbee. “Hey, why don’t you play disc golf with us?” said the middle one, still attempting a seductive voice. “No, thanks, I’ve got to head home,” she answered as confidently as possible. “Oh com-”, he began. “No, thanks”, she repeated quickly. “What’s with all the bitches in this town treating guys like shit?” one of them posed to the group, and she wondered just the opposite as she hurried away.

When she was sixteen, she lay on the musty blanket he’d taken out of his trunk, her hair splaying out messily around her head like a shattered halo. She peered down at her disheveled shirt, which turned to a pale pink in the moonlight, and absentmindedly corrected the bunched mess that sat above her breasts, wiping away his sweat from the crook of her neck while she was at it. She sat up and swatted away a mosquito as she reached for her pants and underwear, which lay unceremoniously strewn in the dirt. He wasn’t careful; he had been rough with her, even though he said he’d be gentle. She didn’t think he’d intended to; it seemed like he got caught up in the moment and maybe got carried away. He was still panting beside her. He removed and balled up the sad-looking condom, and wound up his arm to toss it deeper into The Pines. She grabbed his arm. “Stop! What are you doing?” she said harshly. He stared at her as if she’d suddenly gone crazy. “Um…I’m getting rid of it?” he stated, implying the question of why she cared what he did with it. Embarrassed by her overzealous reaction, she shyly explained, “I won’t leave it here for someone else to find, that’s disgusting. And it’s littering.” He shrugged. “Okay, fine, then you take it.” He placed the limp, crumpled balloon in her hand as he stood to get dressed.

This seemed fitting to her. The Pines was where just about every childhood-shattering event had happened to her. And now she lost it here; she finally contributed to the perverted nature of this place. She was grown up now; there was nothing left for her to discover here. This virulent place had gotten to her, just like it would get to everyone.

 

Jane Grogan’s short story “The Pines” won second prize in the Sixth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Jane is a sophomore in the BFA Photo and Video Department at SVA.