Shades of White

There’s a skull near the crumbling foundation in the woods. Go past the rocky black river. Climb over rotten trees. Head a mile away from the shore. There are thorns guarding it like a jewel. Deer. Bear, maybe. Mountain lion, perhaps. I earn a patchwork of scratches reaching in for it. I finger the eye sockets, brush away packed dirt. I’ll bring it to school for show-and-tell.

I carry the skull back home. Jump a log. Tackle berry bushes. Cross the river. Kiss the fireflies. And there—the yellow lights of our house, the blue smoke of charred meat, joking voices by the fire, cans of beer, flirting.

Look what I found, I say. I hold the skull out by the fire so everyone can see. The laughter, the jokes, the peppery energy fall to the ground where it stays.

What? I ask.

Their expressions hit pause. Their complexions, shades of white: crosswalk-white, breath on a winter’s night-white, lace, lime powder, bone, snow, sunlight.

They stretch and reach from their lawn chairs. They want to steal the skull.

I sprint into the angular shadows of our yard and hide behind a maple tree. I’m young and fast—they’re not.

Give it here, they say. Right now! My mother marches on. The others follow. They trip over each other and drop their beers. They fall to the ground like the dead. Except my father. He stays seated by the fire, watching.

I leap into the woods until I don’t know where I am. The skull, popping white under moonlight, is pressed against my thrashing heart. It eyes me and then I see it too—secrets, regrets, rope, sweat, anger, last pleas, cold dirt.

My voice is silenced.  

My mother’s call, barely audible.

* "Shades of White" was previously published in The Pinch, Fall 2017.