The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2021 Winners Anthology, A New Story Rises here.
“Knitted Thing” by Sandra Detweiler, South Eugene High School
Second Place, High School Level, 2021
By Sandra Detweiler
South Eugene High School
“Jenna, I dropped my knitted thing. Jenna.”
“What, Lilly?” Jenna turns back impatiently.
“I need to go back to the pond. I dropped the knitted thing from Ava.”
Anthony glances back at me. “What’s up?”
“She lost this present her friend gave her,” Jenna says, sounding annoyed.
Anthony looks at Brian, and then they both stare in opposite directions like they’re trying not to laugh. Luke and Marley are still walking, and Jenna turns like she’s going to go after them.
“Jenna!” I hate it when my voice gets all whiny, but I can’t help it. I will not to cry in front of my sister’s friends. Luckily, Jenna hears the tone in my voice and comes over to me.
“I’m sorry,” she says gently. “But we can’t go back right now, Lilly. The guys wouldn’t understand.” Jenna’s voice is low and her gaze scans the trees behind me, avoiding my eye. “Look, we’ll come back and look for it later. Now come on and stop whining.”
She straightens up, and she, Brian, and Anthony jog to catch up with the others.
“It’ll be dark soon,” I say, but no one hears me.
I stand there on the muddy path, watching the backs of my sister and her friends get farther and farther away. The tightness in my throat subsides, and I feel like I can breathe again. Why do I always feel like a baby when I’m around Jenna? She’s only two years older than me, but for some reason I can’t seem to stop acting like a five-year-old when I’m around her.
As the boys’ laughing voices fade away, I start to hear the wind in the leaves above me and the gentle groans of the tree trunks. It had been just like this when I came here with Ava two weeks ago. It was the day before her family was moving away, but we didn’t talk about that. We followed our usual route to the tiny clearing we used as a hideout when we were younger. That was where she gave me the knitted thing.
I turn and walk quietly back along the path to the pond. I try to focus on scanning the path for the purple yarn of my knitted thing, but the smell of pines brings that last day with her back into painful focus. I concentrate on each step I take, trying to make my brain as quiet as my feet.
Ava and I always tried to walk as quietly as possible in the woods. When we were younger, we would pretend we were escaping from dangerous enemies. We avoided muddy patches where our sneakers would leave prints and give us away. Later we abandoned those games, but we never really stopped walking quietly.
Last summer, we were so silent that we managed to sneak into the midst of a herd of deer.
“Keep your mind quiet, too,” Ava whispered. “They can sense your thoughts.”
I did my best, but it was hard not to think about these wild animals, close enough to touch. They watched us with wide eyes, but they went on eating for a few minutes before moving on.
Now, fighting the memories, I focus all my attention on my surroundings. I notice the whisper of rain starting to spatter the canopy of leaves and then let my eyes drift among the sword ferns and vine maples that line the path. Despite everything, I start to relax.
I feel like a different person when I’m alone. I was always that person with Ava, but with anyone else I fall into these caricatures of myself that I don’t like very much. It’s all been so much worse since Ava left. I know Jenna feels sorry for me, because she started inviting me to hang out with her friends. I was glad of the company, but it makes me feel like I’m playing the role of friend’s little sister all the time. Now, as I breathe in the forest dampness, I feel more alive than I have in days. The woods can do that to you.
Before she moved away, Ava told me about the forests where she was going.
“The trees are scraggly and stunted, and it hardly ever rains. But there are thunder storms and flash-floods in the desert. That’s how the cactuses and stuff can grow.”
“Cacti,” I corrected her, and we laughed.
But then she got serious. “My parents keep telling me about the giant saguaros and desert sage, but it doesn’t help. Nothing will ever be as good as these woods.”
“I bet you’ll get used to it,” I said, but privately I agreed with her.
“You know I won’t.” Ava swatted my shoulder. “It sounds like a horrible kind of place to live. I’ve seen pictures of Arizona—all that bare rock gives me the creeps.”
“Well, you’ll just have to come back and visit a bunch,” I said.
“Yeah, I will,” she said.
I’m starting to shiver as my sweatshirt gets damp in the drizzle, and I’m worried I’ll start to spiral if I don’t find something else to focus on. I realize I’m almost back to the pond. I haven’t seen my knitted thing anywhere along the path so far, so it must be in the clearing by the pond where we hung out this afternoon.
The light is fading fast, and I seriously hope I’ll be able to find my knitted thing before it gets too dark. When I’m almost to the pond, the sound of laughing voices makes me pause.
I edge forward, keeping myself hidden behind a screen of bushes. Soon I can see them—three teenage girls on the near side of the clearing.
“This wood is totally soaked,” one of them moans. “I’m never going to be able to light it.”
The other girls laugh. One of them is pulling a rolled up tent out of big bag.
The girl who was trying to light the fire stands up. I hold my breath, hoping she won’t spot me. “God, it’s starting to rain,” she moans. “We’re gonna get soaked.”
“Shelley, come help us with the tent,” says one of the other girls.
I want to leave before they notice me, but I force myself to move toward a gap in the bushes. “Hi,” I say, stepping into the clearing.
The girl called Shelley jumps. “Oh, hi,” she says. “What’s up?”
Up close, I realize that these girls are a lot older than me. “I dropped something when I was here earlier,” I say, my face growing warm.
“Well, don’t mind us,” says one of the girls. “Katie, can you grab that corner? If we stretch it out it’ll be easier to see which way it goes.”
I start to walk along the edge of the pond, scanning the bushes for a splash of purple. Behind me, I hear the girls laughing and cursing as they try to set up the tent.
At last I see it, and my heart sinks. My knitted thing is ten feet up a tree, snagged on one of the branches. I have a feeling Anthony or one of the other boys put it there.
The urge to cry wells up inside me, and I feel like the little sister again.
“Is that what you were looking for?”
I jump, not having noticed the girl come up behind me.
“Yeah,” I mutter. “I think my sister’s friend put it up there.”
The girl laughs. “Your sister’s friend must be an idiot. Just a sec.”
She jogs back to her friends and returns with a tent pole, which she offers me.
“Thanks,” I say in surprise and start prodding the knitted thing with the end of the pole. In a few moments, it falls from the branch and the girl catches it.
“What is this?” she asks.
“Oh, nothing,” I say. “My friend made it for me before she moved away.”
The girl turns it over in her hands. “What’s it supposed to be?”
My breath snags a little in my throat. “It’s kind of a secret. My friend made it this weird shape because she knew I’d be the only one who could tell what it was.”
The girl laughs. “Okay, that’s cool. Where does your friend live now?”
I swallow, a heavy ringing growing in my ears. “It helps to talk about it,” the school counselor told me last week, but I don’t want to talk about it, because I would playing another role that’s a thousand times worse than friend’s little sister.
Staring down at my muddy sneakers, I say, “Um, I forget what the place is called.”
“Oh,” the girl says, apparently oblivious to my agitation. “Well, that’s super cool that your friend knows how to knit. I wish my friends knew how to build a fire.”
I look up. “I know how to build a fire,” I say, surprised at how normal my voice sounds. “I could try if you want.”
“Would you?” The girl looks relieved. “It was my idea to camp out here in the first place, so I’d rather it not get ruined by the rain. It’s Shelley’s eighteenth birthday,” she adds quietly. “Katie and I thought we should do something big, and I thought of camping. We brought marshmallows, but we didn’t realize that none of us have actually made a fire before.” She laughs. “Hey, what’s your name? I’m Elizabeth.”
“Oh, nice to meet you,” I say. “I’m Lilly.” I’m trying to process the fact that these girls are probably high school seniors. Elizabeth is older than Jenna and her stupid friends, but I’m having no trouble talking to her.
We walk back over to Katie and Shelley, who are yelling at Elizabeth to bring back the tent pole.
“Lilly says she’ll try to light the fire,” Elizabeth calls.
I gather a few handfuls of dry twigs and long pine needles from around the trunk of a tree and arrange them in the ring of stones the girls have made. Shelley hands me a box of matches and watches in disbelief as I set the twigs alight.
“God, you’re a genius,” she says.
I look up at the girls. They look impressed, and they don’t even seem to care that I’m way younger. I wonder if they would let me hang out with them, but I know I can’t stay. Beyond the glow of the fire, the woods are dim with twilight.
“I should get going,” I say. “I need to get home.”
“Do you live close?” Katie asks.
“Yeah, pretty close,” I lie. “I’ll be fine if I leave now.”
“Do you want us to come with you?” Elizabeth asks. “I could walk with you as far as the edge of the trees.”
“No, that’s okay,” I say, trying to think of a reasonable excuse.
Suddenly we all freeze.
“What was that?” Shelley whispers.
Something is moving through the bushes nearby.
We all jump at the sound of the voice, but I immediately relax.
“Jenna?” I call.
My sister steps into view. “Lilly, thank God I found you. What are you doing?”
“I came back to get my knitted thing,” I mumble.
“It was so lucky she came by,” Katie puts in. “We’re camping out here tonight, but we couldn’t get the fire to light. Lilly saved us from having to eat raw marshmallows.”
Jenna looks at me, and I expect her to roll her eyes and say something scornful. But she just says, “Come on, Lilly. We have to get back.”
I stand up and join Jenna. “Bye, guys. Nice to meet you. Thanks for helping me get my knitted thing down.”
“Thank you for lighting our fire,” Shelley says fervently.
I smile a little, suddenly shy. “Happy birthday.”
“Come on,” Jenna says, and we retreat into the trees.
Walking back along the mucky path through the dark, I can almost convince myself it’s Ava with me, not Jenna. Last summer we stayed out late almost every night, exploring a forest that seemed totally transformed from the one we knew. We befriended this new, nighttime forest, glorying in the freedom our parents gave us now that we weren’t in middle school anymore. This path is so familiar, but it feels all wrong knowing Ava will never share it with me again. Tonight I’ve found a third version of the woods, a world away from day and night; just clammy dimness and a blurry ache in my brain, wondering if ghosts can feel the rain and the sunlight and smell the trees . . . and at the same time knowing that dead people don’t feel anything.
I run my fingers over the lumpy wool of the knitted thing, willing it to make sense. The purple of the thick yarn is muted in the gloom, and I see at last that there is no hidden message, no meaning in its shape. Ava was the coolest person I’ve ever known, but she was a terrible knitter.
A splash and a cry from Jenna bring me out of my head.
“Gah, now my socks are all gross,” Jenna moans. “How am I supposed to see the muddy places in the dark?”
I’m silent a few moments, trying to pull myself together.
“Why did you come back for me?” I ask to distract myself from my morbid thoughts. “Did your friends know?”
She makes a disgusted noise in the back of her throat. “What, did you think I was going to leave you wander off and get lost in the forest?” She kicks a soggy clump of leaves with her shoe. “When I realized you were gone, I tried to convince them to come back with me to look for you. Brian and Anthony started laughing their heads off, and I made them tell me why, and Brian said he put your knitted thing somewhere it would be hard to get to.”
“So what did you do?”
“I left. I told them I was going back to find you and they should just go ahead. I wanted to say something really clever and hurtful, but I couldn’t think of anything. I just felt like . . . ” Jenna hesitates and I look over at her. “God, I act so stupid sometimes,” she mutters, not meeting my eye. “I’m always so mean to you when I’m around my friends. It’s like I become a different person. I mean, I’m not making excuses, I know it sounds ridiculous.”
“No, I know what you mean,” I say quickly. “I feel like that all the time. When I’m with you and your friends, I feel like they just see me as your little sister, and I act all immature and whiny.” I feel pressure building behind my eyes, but I keep talking, letting it spill over. “At school I feel like a different person, too, because now people just see me as the girl whose best friend died. I hate it. It’s not who I am, it’s just something that happened . . . ” I have to stop. The tightness in my throat is choking me. Rushing builds inside my skull. I struggle to breathe.
We walk on in silence for what feels like a long time. The roaring in my head slowly fades into the drumming of the rain on the leaves above us. It must be raining hard, because my hair is soaked despite the cover of the trees. I don’t bother to pull up the hood of my sweatshirt. The icy rain washes the hot tears off my cheeks.
After a while, Jenna says, “Are we going the right way? I can’t tell.” She sounds kind of scared.
“Yeah, we’re almost there,” I say, surprised.
She looks at me, and though it’s hard to see in the darkness, I can just make out a strange expression on her face. “You’re a genius, Lilly,” she says. “There’s no way I could figure out where we are right now.”
I suddenly realize that I still feel like myself. Just me, Lilly, walking through the dark with my sister. I’m not just the friend’s little sister, not just the girl whose best friend died in a car crash on the way to Arizona. I am those people, but I’m also the girl who knows how to build a fire in the rain and find her way home in the dark. My clothes are drenched and I’m starting to shiver, but it somehow doesn’t matter very much. A gentle breeze sighs through the dark as we reach the edge of the trees. The knitted thing is damp and warm in my hand.