Christopher rides over on his bike to ask if I want to visit our house before it’s too late, and it might already be. The other kids are inside playing video games, watching evening cartoons, while the basketball hoops stand tall and lonely and the streets stay empty, but not Christopher and me. I hop on my bike, and we ride past cottontails on sidewalks overrunning the neighborhood. One dashes in front of us so quickly I almost lose my balance. Christopher and I live for the big Open House sign right in front of the house at the corner of the neighborhood and for the tall, two-story brick home behind it, with its smell of fresh paint and carpet, which we’ve taken as ours for as long as we can hold it.
The house is ours because we found it, claimed its dark wooden cabinets in the kitchen where we live a miniature life together: no one knocking around or blaring television or telling us to do homework; just clean lines of wood and granite inside, and, outside, the edges of a thick forest. The house is worth one hundred thousand dollars, and Christopher and I intend to buy it because we’re smart, we have plans, and because just on the edge of it is an oak tree with a tire swing that sways in the last rays of sunlight.
The house is never locked, because it wanted to be found, because no one has ever lived here before, because just six months ago it was forest too, and the forest creeps right up to its edge. Over the lot next door is a field with tall, grassy reeds and coyotes that howl in the evenings while the neighbors walk their dogs.
The coyotes are getting bolder, creeping out sometimes at night to the edges of the neighborhood, looking for land. Christopher says Mr. Donolon has started carrying a small handgun in the evenings, tucked behind his belt, in case he sees one of them getting close. I suspect if they really do see them coming closer, all the men will be out with guns like Mr. Donolon. They’ll want to keep Christopher and me inside all the time too, just like the rest of them, but Christopher and I have other plans.
We will miss our families when we move into our new house, but not much, because we’ll be too busy running from room to room like explorers. There is an empty bedroom, mine, with a long bay window, and a cedar closet Christopher claims as his study. Another room is for our boy, and one for our girl. Christopher and I aren’t in love and don’t want to be, but in this house, we are married and have two kids, each with their own bedroom. In real life, I am twelve, and Christopher is two years younger, a few inches shorter, and at school, he’s too shy to look in my direction.
I will not miss being home and the constant requests from my parents to do homework, to watch my little sister, to set the table, to shower, while outside the coyotes call out and the forest lies soft and green and waiting. Sometimes, I watch my mother under the fluorescent kitchen lights, her fingers chapped from the dishwater, and wonder whether she too remembers exploring the wilderness outside her home, climbing trees with her sisters, or the time they came upon an injured hawk, which she told me about. Out the window sometimes at dinner, I catch rabbits hopping by and follow my mother’s eyes resting on them. I dream some nights I am a silent, stalking forest animal, unafraid of the night and impossible to trap.
From the upstairs guest bedroom, a window lets out to a flat section of the roof where the whole world lays before Christopher and me: a landscape we know from days and days of exploring; a gully with a creek where we pull wild onions up from the ground; and, sometimes, by the water, under thick mud, real arrowheads.
I follow Christopher out the top bedroom window and onto the roof, where we sit, and no one even thinks to look up at us. From here, we can see all of Donolon Ranch: its gray-topped one- and two-story houses, green squares, swimming pools, freshly paved roads, and, between the forest and the edge of the neighborhood, other plots of land with fresh wooden frames going up.
Christopher is braver here than at school. He wrinkles his nose and says we’re going to hide the flyers so no one else can buy the house. Once we buy it, we’re going to make sure it’s the last house anyone builds around here, and we’ll stop the yellow diggers from pulling up any more stretches. That’s why, despite not loving Christopher, I don’t mind being pretend-married.
While I’m shooing away a housefly circling around us, Christopher stops talking and points his index finger toward the edge of the forest. Then I see it: a small, gray and brown body moving forward, noise pointed, with sure, feline movements so unlike the dog it resembles. It stops for a moment when a car speeds by, disoriented briefly. It looks around and then continues on its path. Roosting crows caw from a telephone wire in the distance. The animal picks up speed a little and begins trotting, starts and stops, comes right up to the house, and slows all the way down.
Then, it freezes, and we freeze with it. I feel the warm, gray shingles under my legs, a soft breeze rustling my hair. I see the stretches of trees and tall grass fading from green to gray under the slowly darkening sky. I see the coyote moving from full figured to the beginnings of an indefinable outline that will continue to lose its sharpness as the sun goes down. I know this moment will pass.
In the same way, I know these new houses, a neighborhood called Donolon Ranch—after the family that bought up the whole tract in the 1930s—will only look this way for a little while. The old clay pit and brick factory will disappear too. In ten or twenty years, maybe sooner, it’ll be nothing but houses and parks.
And probably, Christopher and I won’t grow up and get married. Likely, we’ll meet other people, lose touch, and decades will go by. If we see each other after that, we’ll glance at each other shyly and neither of us will mention the house. Years will go by, and I can see the edge of the forest becoming a library, the lake where the white egrets roost in trees will become a public park, places to cut ribbons and go on evening walks with pets on leashes and take wedding pictures, but not places to get wild and muddy or to catch a glimpse of a bobcat at dusk. Then, Christopher and I will have to remember this place, otherwise no one will, because years later, kids like us will walk across paved sidewalks, kids who couldn’t even imagine a place like this.
I might be a child, but I also know I’m getting too old for pretend. It is possible for me to dream of my house with Christopher and believe in it and save up for it and also not believe in it. Kids aren’t stupid. I’ll probably never buy this house with Christopher. I’m going to finish school, get too old and embarrassed to climb on roofs, grow up, and get married. I am so scared of that and I want to run away into the forest like the coyotes. That is why sometimes I go out like this when I know very well my parents are at home wondering about me.
Finally, we see it, the thing the small coyote has been pointing at, and it’s Mr. Donolon’s brown dachshund. Christopher leaps to the front of the roof so quickly I’m afraid he slipped, and then I see he’s reaching for a rock in the gutter. In a moment, his arm is raised above him, ready to strike. We’re close enough that just a little throw could probably hit the coyote or at least scare it away. I grab Christopher’s wrist hard to tug him away from the edge, but also because I don’t want him to hit the coyote.
That’s all the time it takes. In a moment, the coyote lifts the dachshund by the scruff of its neck and a great whine fills the air. Mr. Donolon bursts out of the house in his T-shirt, shorts, and bare feet, staring left and right. But in the darkness, he sees nothing out of the ordinary and he returns inside.
The coyote is gone again, lost in the forest. We can only imagine it now, tearing into Mr. Donolon’s poor dog, and Christopher is staring at me in disbelief, the rock still clutched in his fingers. For a second, I see his lip twitch, and his eyes get hard because he missed his one shot because of me.
I want to tell Christopher I didn’t want the dog to be hurt, that I know what I did is bad but so is shooting coyotes, tearing up their homes, and moving onto their property. I know it isn’t right or fair, taking up space that isn’t really ours and pretending it could be. I know we’re part of it too and I don’t see a way out.
Someday, I’m going to move very far away from this, from my parents and family, and take up space somewhere new. They’ll try to stop me, but I’m going to do it anyway. I think about that dog out there just beyond the forest line, maybe bleeding, maybe already gone.
Christopher puts the rock back down in the gutter, and I think he forgives me because he says the coyote must’ve been so hungry to come close to us. If we were older, I might do something like put my hand on his, but I smile at him instead.
I’m a little sad for the dog in the end. I’ll pretend to be sadder when I tell the story to my friends tomorrow at school, leaving out the part about the house and the roof, and make them swear not to tell about the coyote.
I’m tired of the kids in our neighborhood who want to play video games, who want to sit inside and play figurines, the parents who want us to do our homework and wash our hands and set the table for dinner. Christopher and I have the whole sky and forest and a house and many big and secret plans for our lives. Christopher says he plans to live forever in this house, taking care of the live oaks, picking up the knobby branches and sticks that litter the ground for firewood.
I am two years older and know these plans are pretend, like all of this. But I don’t tell him. I let him go on about his plans for the forest to stay and grow—to buy and move into this house together, plans of lifting our children to their bedroom windows to gaze at the tall grass—as we watch it now for a little longer, as the coyotes start howling, as our parents walk up and down the sidewalks looking for us.
Lauren Woods lives in Washington, DC with her husband and children. Her work has appeared in The Antioch Review, The Normal School, Fiction Southeast, The Forge Literary Magazine, and elsewhere.