Oliver didn’t seem to have any particular direction he wanted to go in. He just walked, further and further away from the retreat. I followed him in some distance, but never lost him out of sight. I knew he wanted to be alone. I understood the need for solitude. I just did not want him to get lost in the woods. He obviously did not know how to navigate them. He stumbled a few times, and hit his head on a low hanging branch once, and almost fell having slipped on a patch of wet moss. Still he moved on.
Until he didn’t, and just stood there, watching me close the distance.
“Why are you following me?”
I wanted to say, ‘because your mother asked me to watch you’, but I discovered it was not true and could refrain from doing so.
“Because I want to find out what’s wrong with you.”
“Why do you think there’s something wrong with me?”
Oliver walked a few steps and sat on a stone. Since there was just this one, I plopped down in front of him. I didn’t mind sitting on the ground.
“You are… not my enemy”, I answered cautiously. “Our parents are friends. And I know when adults are hiding something. Your mother obviously does. She invited us to this trip and she had her reasons for that. Obviously it costs money, and she’s paying for us to be here, so it must be important to her.” I watched his expression change from mildly annoyed to confused and finally to deeply troubled.
“It’s about my older sister”, Oliver said quietly. “And about my father. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t tell anybody.”
“You can tell me”, I said. “I can keep secrets. And besides, who would I talk to? It’s not like I have any friends at school.”
Oliver stiffened up when I mentioned school.
“Yeah, that”, he said. “I’m sorry.”
“I shouldn’t tell you either”, he said and looked around. There was nobody in sight. We were in the woods, alone, if you didn’t count woodpeckers and dragonflies and ants. Lots of ants. “It’s about Saul.”
“Of course it is”, I sighed.
“The day before we left…” – Oliver fidgeted. He was deeply uncomfortable with talking about it. I didn’t say anything. “The day before we left Saul made me go to your favourite tree.”
“Saul knows about my favourite tree?!” That was unpleasant news. I had a small hideout under its roots, I kept some of my books and drawings and personal things there. Suddenly fear washed over me.
“He doesn’t, but he knows I know. He made me go there and… break everything.”
I hadn’t been there for two days before we left since I had to help mother with her garden and packing and preparing our home for our absence. So there was no way I would have known. I felt a little bit numb inside, and angry, and for a moment I wanted to scream at Oliver. I wanted to beat him. I didn’t. It would be a stupid thing to do. It was not his fault. Saul was behind this.
So I did a different stupid thing.
“He calls me Forest Girl, yes?” – I proclaimed loudly. “So I am. I am of the Forest and the Forest protects me and the spirits of the Forest protect me and everything he has done shall be returned to him. Threefold.” I read that in a book somewhere.
Oliver fidgeted. “He has that coming”, he agreed with me. “So you’re not mad?”
“I am mad”, I said. “Just not at you.”
We sat for a while in silence and watched the ants together.
“What is wrong with your father”, I asked finally.
“He is sick”, Oliver answered readily. He has been waiting for me to ask. “You know he’s older than my mother. She’s afraid he may die.”
I thought about it for a minute. It was nothing to brush off easily. I decided to move our attention elsewhere. “And your sister?”
“Frances… she’s going through a difficult time. At least mother says. She has trouble at the university and her boyfriend left her. And when our father got sick…” Oliver took a deep breath. “She is barely eating anymore and staying out late and mother fears she’s doing drugs.”
“Is it why she didn’t come with us?”
“Yes. Mother fought with her for weeks. She could convince her. She wanted to take her but Frances ran away for two days. Mother went to the police but the police didn’t want to look for her because Frances is old enough to take care of her own self. They would look only for her if she’s been missing for a week or so.”
Oliver sniffed. I could see he was fighting hard not to cry. I waited a moment for him to catch his breath before I got up and put my hand on his shoulder.
“I’m not mad at you”, I told him quietly. “I’m sorry for your father and your sister. I would help you if I could.”
“You can’t”, he snapped and pushed me away. I knew he was sorry about it the moment it happened. “Nobody can.” He took a deep breath.
“I know”, I said. Oliver looked so wretched I didn’t even know what to do.
He took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry”, he said. “Would you be my friend for a few days?”
I simply nodded and chose not to elaborate on the few days thing. You didn’t become friends for a few days. You were friends or you were not friends, it wasn’t like lending a book at the library or something. But Oliver had so many troubles already, I decided not to add to them.
“Let’s go back to the retreat”, I offered. “My mother left me some money. We could get ice cream from the shop and watch movies.”
I never ever did that before. We didn’t even have a TV. But there was one at the cabin and there was a bunch of video tapes and I was fairly sure there would be some appropriate for our age.
We went back and Oliver did his best not to think about the problems at home until his mother returned, and, I think, the smile he gave me when she picked him up was nearly genuine.