I am 14.

I carefully put on the lipstick that I stole from the drugstore. Luscious Apple, it’s called. A luscious apple sounds like something delicious and appealing. It sounds like something even Billy McAndrews would like. 

A text comes through on my phone.

U sure this guys cool? Not a cop?

I smile to myself.

My parents are in bed by 9. I am out the window by 10. I start walking towards your house. 

“Hi Sunshine,” I say brightly. I can tell by your face that you are having a Good Day. 

“Hi Annemarie,” you return. 

“Remember that favor that I asked you?”

You frown. Memory isn’t your strong suit. “Favor...favor...”

“The beer, Sunshine.”

“Annemarie is too young for beer. She’s just a little girl.”

I roll my eyes at you coyly. “Sunshine, I’m practically older than you. Remember?”

You frown. “How old?”

“Yesterday was my 22nd birthday. Don’t you remember that I told you it was coming up?”

“It was?” You look distraught. “I forgot, I forgot, I always forget! I’m so sorry, Annemarie. I didn’t get you a present.”

“That’s okay, Sunshine. You can get me one right now!” I hand you a 20. “You can get me a 24 pack of Coors Light. And keep the change!”

You smile to yourself. The perfect solution. And then I am walking you out of the woods, up towards Ed’s Market, where I’ll be able to buy beer on my own in just a couple of years (14 is pushing it). I tell you that I’m going to wait outside and look at the stars. You look sad, like you don’t want to be left out of this activity. I tell you that you can join me after you get the beer.

Coastal Maryland isn’t the best place to live, but on this night, between the clear starry sky and the faint smell of crabs and the possibility of my first kiss later on, I’m pretty happy to be right where I am. 

You come out and give me my change even though I asked you not to. And I take it, because I’m 14 and I can’t see more than 14 feet in front of me.

We go back to your place in the woods and Billy shows up with some other kids from school. There is a girl with dyed black hair that seems attached to his side, and I feel stupid, stupid, but I’m not going to allow this night to get away from me. We each drink a couple of beers fast. You look displeased for a moment, but as soon as you see that I am happy, you are happy again. They offer you a beer but you say no. They seem disappointed but I try not to notice.

Billy suggests that we go down to the cove, and I like that idea very much. We thank you and leave your place. I don’t look back. I’d rather not see your forlorn face.

Billy is holding the hand of the girl with the dyed black hair and I try not to let it bother me. I hold the hand of his friend. I think his name is Joey but I’m not sure.

We go down and skip stones, scattering the lovely reflection of the stars on the cove. This keeps Billy and the girl with the dyed black hair, I think her name is Amber, occupied for about two minutes. Soon they are making out and soon Joey is throwing up. The other kid cannonballs into the water. I smile because that is what I think I’m supposed to do, but I’m not sure.

My big brother Derek left this place when he went to college in Colorado. He hasn’t been back since. My face hurts as it stays stretched in this false smile. It’s taken me my whole life, but I think I’m starting to get why Derek never came back.

I wonder if he can smile for real wherever he is.

I am 6.

My town is still a place to discover. It hasn’t become a series of chartered dead ends yet.

I walk down my road, away from the market and the pool and the places where everyone likes to go. My 1st grade teacher read my class a Robert Frost poem once and I guess it stuck.

There is a path next to the sidewalk that goes into the woods. If my mother was here, she’d never agree to go down it with me. So I take the opportunity to go alone.

Off the path is a smaller, intersecting path. There are more thorns in my way, and I am happy to have worn jeans despite the heat. I hurdle over a log and wade through a little stream. And that’s when I see the bright yellow thing.

It’s a tent. A tent like the one that my family took camping, but littler. I see that the outside is unzipped and I peer inside.

I don’t see a frisbee or a lantern or a canteen like we took on our camping trip.

I see rusty pots, chipped mugs, and dirty clothes in piles. 

This isn’t your campsite.

It’s your house.

And that’s when I see you, returning from the stream. I remember that my mother once told me not to talk to strangers, but if someone is an Important Stranger, talk to them and be very polite. I decide that you are probably an Important Stranger.

“Hello sir,” I say as formally as I can muster. “My name is Annemarie.” I extend my hand. 

You shake mine in a way much gentler than I expect. “Hello Annemarie,” you respond. “My name is Sunshine.”

I am 12.

My science teacher gives me a project where I have to collect a bunch of different leaves and identify them. I don’t tell my father because I know that he will want to help me and I don’t want him to. I wish my brother Derek could help me but he lives in Colorado or California, I can’t remember, but probably somewhere with better trees.

I take the assignment sheet down to your house. You are obviously skilled when it comes to knowing about the woods.

You are more excited than I’ve ever seen you. You eagerly take me to a clearing in the woods where there is a short, bushy tree. 

“Chinquapin,” you say. “My favorite.”

I think about how rare it is for someone to have a favorite tree, but looking up from under it, I decide that it is my favorite, too. The veins stick out of the underside of the leaf like it is an old lady tree. I remember what a nice lady my grandma was even when she was 85 years old and I become certain that there is no better tree than a Chinquapin tree.

With your help, I get my first A in science, ever.

I am 9.

I am going through my tomboy phase. And for the first time, I am feeling a sense of Belonging. Even my own mother is surprised that I am starting to have friends.

I spend my days walking around the woods with boys, smoking the cigarettes butts we find on the ground. We take baseball bats to mailboxes. We spraypaint abandoned cars. We are the meanest motherfuckers you’ve ever seen.

I’ve always known that I was smart. But I’ve never felt very people-smart. At age 9, I’m finally starting to get it. To make friends you have to act just like the people you want to be friends with. You have to say the things that they want to hear.

Maybe if my big brother Derek came home I wouldn’t have to be a weird only child that has to think so hard just to have friends.

“That looks like shit,” I say to Johnny as he spray paints his initials on a rusted out truck behind the old factory. I relish in saying the word “shit.” I am mean because that’s what Johnny wants me to be.

Johnny laughs through his crooked teeth. “Shut it, little bitch.”

Laughs all around. I laugh, too. Judging by the boys’ reaction, I realize that I wasn’t supposed to laugh. I grab the spray paint from Johnny’s hand. On the cracked back windshield of the car, I spray in my best graffiti-handwriting:

Lil Bitch was here.

Now, approval.

I throw down the spray paint. We run through the woods, screaming, beating on our chests. We are untouchable. Let them come take us to the police station. It would make for a legendary story.

Running through the woods, we suddenly come upon your house. I want to run in the other direction, but I know that will not do.

“Crazy old bum lives here,” says Brian, who doesn’t speak up much.

I stare at the ground. I know that to be a friend, I can’t disagree with this. So I just say nothing.

“Let’s fuck it up,” suggests Johnny.

I stand frozen.

Johnny takes your home and turns it on its side. You are not in it, thankfully. The boys have a laugh and we move on to our next act of mayhem. I have trouble with Belonging for the rest of the day.

After my parents go to bed, I sneak out my window for the first time to put your house upright again.

But I see that you have already done it. Through the thin walls of your house, I hear you sobbing. I can sense that you are having a Bad Day. I know that the best thing I can do for you right now is stay away.

My tomboy phase is over.

I am 15. 

I am standing in the high school parking lot after the Homecoming Dance and I cannot believe that I am holding hands with a boy. His name is Harry and he is in my Spanish class and he smells like Williams Sonoma.

We are drunk on existentialism and Everclear. Harry’s friend went all the way to Pennsylvania to get it.

“What now?” Harry asks me, and he is definitely being Suggestive. 

I am feeling agreeable, so I squeeze his hand and say, “Follow me.”

For once, I feel like someone who Knows About Things.

I know that it’s cold outside, but the Everclear makes my body feel like it’s summer. Harry and I traipse through the woods like we’re on a perfume commercial, and I have a feeling that things are going to change for me.

Your house is unzipped, so I know that you are not in it. Harry and I trespass into your house. Harry is taking off my pants and the Everclear makes me feel like I am on fire and I never want to be extinguished.

You look into your house and you scream. I am mortified.

“Annemarie is too young!” You yell at us. 

Harry is smirking. “You know this freak?” He motions at you.

I begin to cry.

“Johnny was right,” Harry says to me. “You’re a fucking spaz.” Harry runs from your house. I cover myself in your blanket and start to sob. 

In your side yard, I vomit intermittently and you hold my hair. 

“It’s okay,” you tell me. “Annemarie is normal.”

It’s funny, but that’s the biggest compliment anyone ever gave me.

I am 7. 

Madison Davenport is talking to me on the playground.

I do not want to be talking to Madison Davenport. But she is in front of me and her mouth keeps moving, so I keep making little head gestures to show that I am listening. My mother told me that was the proper way to handle a conversation that you don’t want to be having. I think it’s something that my mother does all the time.

“You’re an only child, right Annemarie?” she asks.

I cock my head extra far, because I know what an only child is, but I don’t know why Madison Davenport would be calling me one.

“You have no brothers or sisters, right?”

I shake my head hard. “I have my big brother Derek. But he’s in college.” I squint hard, trying to remember how long it is until Derek comes home. One more year? Or two? I will have to ask my mother later.

“But basically, at home, you are raised alone by two parents? So you’re really spoiled and their world pretty much revolves around you?”

Madison’s parents are psychiatrists and I don’t understand the words she is saying. But I do understand that they are meant to be mean. I turn away from Madison without saying goodbye, even though I know that is rude.

As soon as I get home, I come into the kitchen and ask my mother how many years it will be til Derek is finished with college and he comes home to be my big brother again. She stops cutting carrots and puts her knife down.

“Honey, Derek is much older than you. After college, he found his own life. Far away.”

I try to understand the words she is saying, but I don’t. “But when does he come home?” I say again.

“I can’t tell you the next time he’ll be home.”

“But he has to come home. What about all his stuff?”

“Honey,” she calls me again, which I hate. My name is Annemarie, thank you. That is what I want people to call me. “Derek probably has new stuff in California.”

“I thought he was in that other state. With the mountain.”

She chops her vegetables so fast that I am scared she will cut her finger like when she had me cut the carrots one time. “All states have mountains, Annemarie. I don’t want you to sound stupid in class saying something like, ‘The state with the mountain.’”

I think hard. “Colorado. I thought he was there.”

Mom makes little piles out of the carrots so that they look like whole carrots again, and I wonder why she cut them in the first place. “That’s because he was. Then he moved. Now he’s in California.”

I wonder, if he had to move, why he didn’t just move home. But my mother is not being very Agreeable or Easy To Talk To so I stop and just turn it all over in my head. I’m thinking of Derek with a bunch of shiny new things with a shiny new family. Does he have a new Mom and Dad and Annemarie where he is? Does he like the other ones better? Is Madison Davenport right about me being spoiled and having my parents’ world revolve around me, whatever that means? Do I sound like a fake when I talk about my big brother Derek? Did I make him up just like my imaginary friend Mimi?

I tell my mom I am taking a walk because I need to talk to you about all of this.

I tearfully tell you about Madison Davenport and her perfect hair and how she decided that I am screwed up because my brother isn’t really there. I tell you that I’m sorry but I think I am an only child and spoiled and that my parents’ world revolves around me. You get this look on your face that you always get when you are about to say something really smart.

“There are no only children,” you say. “Only lonely souls.”

“Am I a lonely soul?” I ask you, helpless.

“Of course not, Annemarie. You and I aren’t lonely souls because we’ve got each other.”

I am 19.

I am in my second year of college, far away from my stupid town in Maryland.

I get a call from my mother saying that my brother Derek has been hit by a car and killed.

I soberly report this to my roommate. She is breathing really short breaths and keeps asking me, “Why aren’t you upset?” 

I tell her that I hardly remember my brother Derek, that he left my family when I was 3 and never came back but she is still looking at me like I am a freak.

I fly home to go to the funeral, which is strange, because I thought Derek lived far away just like I was planning to do for the rest of my life. I ask my mother, wasn’t he in California or something, and she just looks at her feet and cries more, real quiet and shaky.

My mother, my father, and I are the only people at Derek’s funeral. Although I barely remember Derek, I think about the fact that there are only three people here and the idea itself makes me very sad.

I look into the casket even though I have never liked the thought of dead people.

And that’s when I see your very lovely lifeless body.