Wolf Girls by Allie Dokus
In many ways, the opening line of Allie Dokus’s short story “Wolf Girls” captures the piece’s essence, distilling five-thousand-plus words into six: “At the time, she was Xandra.” We have a hint of change, of evolution. We have our protagonist, who will emerge on the final page, carrying that change inside of her. But, most notably, we have that tiny passive verb lolling with deceptive innocence at the center of the first complete sentence. Was. The past tense of to be. A word that not only raises essential questions—if she was Xandra, who is she now, and exactly what does it mean to be Xandra?—but also launches the story into motion.
At the start of a new school year, two seventh-grade girls, Xandra and Maeve, embark on a friendship with fairytales and mythmaking at its core, inventing a story about two wolf brothers as stand-ins for their dream selves. Attempting to escape from their families, their circumstances, and even themselves, the girls eventually set off into the woods in search of answers to existential questions. In the drowsy reverie of a sleepover before they depart, Xandra asks, “Isn’t life an adventure?” And how does Maeve respond? “This can’t be all we get.”
Ironically, when they finally venture beyond the familiar confines of school and mothers and the suburban sameness of Xandra’s home, the girls end up closer to the reality of their lives—and farther apart from each other. As Dokus writes in her author’s note, “[T]he worst outcome for two girls looking for a storied adventure is nothing at all. And so, we were left with no magic and no wolves, but our characters confronting that the world is what you see.”
At play in the story’s opening is one of fiction’s endless magic tricks. Beneath the surface of the literal words on the page, “Wolf Girls” communicates with us, sending signals and teaching us how to read it. It says, This will be a story about identity. By the final paragraph, we’re reminded that we all use narrative to give shape and meaning to our lives, sometimes in ways that carry us very far from home and sometimes in ways that ultimately return us to ourselves. —CRAFT
At the time, she was Xandra. The decapitated torso of Alexandra. Her given name was Mary, but do you see Marys anywhere but behind the fluorescent Market Basket checkout, looking depressed and forty? September, seventh grade, the Latin teacher made them pick Latin names, and she picked Xandra. That’s not Latin, the Latin teacher said. It’s Greek.
Fuck you, she thought.
She said, Okay, Sylvia then.
But in her head: Xandra, Xandra, Xandra.
Here, she met Maeve. Maeve drew wolves in the margin of their conjugation worksheets. Amō, amābō, amābar. Maeve’s skin was porcelain. Her eyes, green. She claimed she didn’t know her biological father.
This, more than anything else, drew Xandra to Maeve. Fatherless characters were her favorite trope, especially if the character worshipped their missing father only for him to become the main villain by the story’s end.
Like, never met? Xandra pressed. Maeve shook her head. Here was the story. The father was crossing the street when a city bus came out of nowhere. Now he was in a coma, and Maeve’s mom refused to pull the plug. Maeve had visited him every Tuesday since she was a little girl, held his hand, sang to him, but never, you know, knew him.
They had been pacing the edge of the playground. As they crossed the blacktop, Xandra made some comment like, If your mom pulled the plug, maybe your dad would be able to visit you, like as a…
Maeve didn’t respond, just kept looking at the ground. In the September light—so clear! so crisp!—Xandra could fully appreciate Maeve’s body. Wider than hers, a hint of belly whenever she raised her arms, a peek of her pink—violet?—underwear whenever she crouched to examine an anthill, but somehow more comfortable, more better at being a body. How special she felt when Maeve rose from her anthill contemplation and studied her and said, You think they’re real? Spirits?
Each year Xandra had a new friend. In second grade there was Abigail, they had pretended to be horses; and in fifth grade she had Derick, they had pretended to be squirrels. With each friend, Xandra was different. With Abby she was a bossy version of herself and with Derick she was a boy version of herself. But with Maeve, she liked herself. During their first sleepover, Xandra showed her the Soviet helmet her father had bought on Etsy, dark olive with a bullet hole in the middle. They swirled their hands in the flaky bowl, guessing at the dead soldier’s last thoughts bouncing around.
Oh God, Xandra suggested. I don’t wanna die.
My wife, Maeve suggested. Will she wait for me? Or will she take another? Eugenia, wait for me. Wait for me. A pause. Maeve reached, uttered again, Wait for me. Then green eyes met Xandra. Why are you looking at me like that?
Oh, Xandra laughed. I was just spacing.
Xandra was in love. Friend love, sure. But Xandra will mark this as her first love, one so deep and important that later adult affairs will seem tame in comparison. She knew Maeve’s clammy breath in the morning and the slight violet under her eyes in the late afternoon, especially if they watched lots of YouTube. But mostly, Maeve loved being outside. How many times had Maeve reached, plucked a leaf, and listed without hesitation the plant’s domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus? That part of Maeve, the curious part, Xandra understood, even revered. Other sides of Maeve were harder to grasp, like the dark moods that could swallow afternoons, especially if Xandra hesitated on a plan set forth by Maeve. Like the time she suggested they march down the busy and sidewalk-less main road to the CVS for candy and descended into bitter silence when Xandra refused to follow. Or when Maeve refused to acknowledge her for a whole school day after Xandra’s mother said they couldn’t have back-to-back sleepovers. It doesn’t matter, Maeve finally said the next morning, after Xandra camped out by her locker to apologize. It’s not like I don’t have other friends. Once, waiting in the car backseat for her mother to return with Chinese takeout, Xandra spotted Maeve among the hooded teenagers who sometimes skated in the IBM parking lot across from the restaurant. Maeve loped after a lean boy making lazy circles on a razor scooter. But those difficult parts of Maeve somehow drew Xandra even closer to her, like a puzzle that she would never solve but couldn’t yet put away.
Xandra, by contrast, offered their friendship only suburban plights. She wondered how her house, a brick colonial in a cul-de-sac the developers had newly christened Pear Oasis, would appear through Maeve’s green gaze, who seemed to find everything about her home worthy of some comment. Do you even read all these books? she said, running a hand along Xandra’s over-stacked bookcase. She loved reading the bathroom decor in a breathy voice: If you’re not barefoot you’re overdressed. This place is paradise, Maeve announced sardonically every time she passed the walk-in pantry. Yet Maeve heeded the electrical current of Pear Oasis before Xandra even knew something was amiss. Comma’d together in Xandra’s big queen bed, Maeve reported her dry observations of Xandra’s homelife: Your parents don’t love each other. For the rest of her life, Xandra will never unsee this, the way her mother’s mouth curls when her father enters a room, the way her father hands her the phone if Mom’s on the line. Out of Maeve’s mouth, everything was true, almost biblically so. Here was another difference: She pencilled Xandra atop worksheets while Maeve coaxed fantasy into reality each time she arrived to school late on Tuesdays, cheeks pinkened, eyes hooded, reporting to Xandra that coma-dad’s eyes twitched when she mentioned she had a new friend.
Sometimes, you could hear coyotes yipping in the woods behind her house, but Xandra told Maeve they were wolves. She told her the woods were haunted. Haunted with the spirit of wolves. Or real wolves. Or they would turn into wolves there. Either way, there were wolves in the woods. The woods seemed, then, impossibly large and twisted, a fairy tale forest, misty and dark and forever. There, they pretended to be wolves, yipping and pawing at the wet leaves.
Young Brother! We must find the portal!
Elder Brother! I don’t think we can make it. There’s a cliff—
But we must. If we don’t reach the new world, you will surely die.
Why don’t you ever go over Maeve’s house? Xandra’s mom asked.
Xandra shrugged. She assumed it had something to do with her own house’s proximity to the woods, where they balanced on mossy stone walls the pilgrims had built and played pretend, even though they were thirteen. Much too old. But away from other people and among the many branched trees and dappled shadows shifting on her forearms, narrating her wolf-self’s actions, her skin still felt lithe and loose. At school and at the dinner table, cutting spaghetti noodles into microscopic morsels so even her parents wouldn’t observe her chewing, Xandra felt big and old and stupid and heavy.
Her dad’s dead, Xandra said. Then she realized that was half true, but she felt awkward explaining the coma to her mother, who would ask a lot of questions, so she said, I think it’s complicated.
Oh, her mom said. How sad.
Brother, we’ll never make it.
She pointed across the small thorny gully.
A chasm, deep and clear.
We must leap!
A running start, and—
Maeve said, Crack open your window. Xandra did, and they listened to the coyotes. It was almost springtime, and they were mating. Maeve kept her face pressed against the mesh screen long after Xandra settled back to her side of the queen bed. She hoped Maeve would lie back down. Then they would have their deep night talks, gazing together into the squirmy dark ceiling and saying things that made them feel like they were in a movie. It was one of the few times, lately, where she felt like they were best friends, closer than the mysterious parking-lot teenagers Maeve hung out with. It was only during those late-night talks when she knew for certain their friendship was special and forever.
Right before Xandra fell asleep, Maeve whispered, What if we went out right now and found the wolves? They sound so close. They’re right there.
Xandra opened her eyes and gazed at the ceiling. She wanted to lie there in the warm bed and talk about deep things. So Xandra laughed, It’s getting cold.
I just think, Maeve said, her voice stirring and wistful like when she was Elder Wolf, I just want to go on an adventure. Like a real adventure.
Lately, the wolf brothers game had gotten slippery for Xandra. If she started worrying about a test or if her scalp felt itchy, then the scene dissolved, and she saw what was really happening: two sad girls pacing around a birch tree. To interrogate the realness of the wolves would make it seem even less real, would break what little magic they had. And yet, she understood why Maeve would want the game to become more than what it was, to eclipse their regular pattern of school, parents, her little room with the unused IKEA desk and glassy eyed beanie babies.
Isn’t life an adventure? Xandra said, sounding sarcastic but secretly feeling hopeful. Isn’t real life enough?
Maeve sighed, and finally lay down beside Xandra. This can’t be all we get. You know?
Xandra rolled over to face Maeve, though her face was so shadowed she couldn’t tell if she was as sad as she sounded. What do you mean?
Maeve pressed against her shoulder. Xandra could hear her breathing and swallowing and she felt weird about it. Maeve repeated, I want a real adventure.
The coyotes sang louder. Maeve said, Like, we could find those wolves.
What if there’s nothing out there? Adventure-wise?
There is. People just stopped looking, Maeve said. They gave up.
A week later, Maeve was caught smoking weed in the chorus room with high school sophomores. Then she was imprisoned in the Alternative Learning Room. Despite the sting of being left out, Xandra slipped her notes under the door.
Why didn’t you invite me? she wrote to Maeve.
They’re just my older sister’s friends, Maeve wrote back.
Xandra stared at Maeve’s familiar loopy handwriting, rereading the note until it would make sense. She supposed, finally, that they were the sort of friends that dealt with larger matters—life, death, magic—not basic things like older sisters.
You have an older sister? Xandra wrote and slipped the note back, but it never returned. The rest of the day she felt like sand was leaking out of her. That evening, Xandra’s mom corralled Xandra into the master bedroom. Apparently, the older sister was known in town as being trouble. The older sister was a drug addict and had even been arrested twice. It was in the police log, which her mom read religiously. Her mom had only just made the connection between Maeve and the druggie sister because they had different last names. What kind of drugs? Xandra asked. But her mom refused to say. Xandra purposefully glanced at the dozen orange bottles neatly lined on the bathroom counter. Her mom had sleeping problems and saw a psychiatrist every other month. You take drugs, Xandra countered.
You’re so young, her mom sighed.
You shelter me, Xandra said, her voice raising and cracking. I don’t know things because you shelter me.
Her mom whispered with adult seriousness: Your friend’s trouble.
No, Xandra retorted. She’s my only friend and she’s in trouble.
Her mom rested a hand on her shoulder, like she was a wild animal. I just think maybe you need a break.
Xandra shrugged the hand off, and her mom recoiled, bitten. Xandra said, Maybe I need a break from you.
When her mom didn’t respond, Xandra felt brave enough to keep at it. Maybe I need a break like Dad needed a break from you.
Okay now, her mom said softly. Okay, okay.
Brother! Take my hand!
I’ve got you, brother!
Now, we have to make it to the Dark Castle.
We’ll have to fight our way through.
Lots of Beetle Guards coming. We’re outnumbered.
I’m so weak, brother.
We’ll make it. No fear. We have each other.
Lately, Maeve was placed in the Alternative Learning Room. Small incidents: talking back, stealing family photos from the algebra teacher’s desk, being caught in the boy’s bathroom with Derick. We were just talking, she informed Xandra, who didn’t want to think otherwise. But as the snow melted, Maeve grew bolder. She scratched Brytney with two ys. She took Xandra around the school grounds and revealed where she had hidden weapons in the shrubs and the playground mulch: shurikens, nunchunks, a long red blade she claimed she’d bought online.
Cool, Xandra said. What for?
When I leave, Maeve said, I’ll need to survive.
I’m running away, Maeve said, almost annoyed, like they had discussed this before and Xandra had forgotten. She said, I’m going to find the wolves in the woods behind your house. And then, you know, see what happens. She shrugged. Maybe become one.
Xandra thought to mention there were only coyotes, that wolves didn’t live in Massachusetts, but Maeve was finally looking at her as she had when they first become friends, like just by Xandra saying something, it could be true.
Brother! I am here!
Brother! Follow my voice!
They were walking the blacktop on the first warm day of spring. Most kids were playing four square, and their shouts carried across the back field. Through the thin line of trees, Xandra could see the flat brick rectangle of the high school. And they were talking about nothing really, the wolf brothers game drained out of them, all possible storylines exhausted. Xandra had gotten a sixty on a geography test, and she was telling Maeve how unfair it was. When Maeve didn’t respond, Xandra pointed to the high school and said, Does your sister go to the high school?
That’s when Maeve said, I’m leaving tonight to find the wolves. You can come if you want, Mary.
What if you called me Xandra, like in the game? she wanted to say. But she already knew Maeve would say she could be Xandra in the woods. Xandra of the wolves. And if she didn’t follow, then Maeve would say this is why you’re Mary. And she didn’t want to be Mary in Maeve’s eyes—dull, flaccid Mary. She wanted to be Xandra, the sort of person who could say Elder Brother, look out! and have Maeve duck as if something were actually, really there.
Not just in the game, but all the time, she wanted to be that kind of Xandra.
The four-square ball fell out of bounds and the eighth graders started arguing. On the hill, the popular kids and the druggie kids sat in semi circles, talking drowsily and picking at the new grass.
Maeve said, softer this time, Either way, it’ll be an adventure. Just the two of us.
In the thin hedges beneath the classroom, Maeve’s red blade shimmered in the cold sun.
Brother, what if we never find the lost kingdom?
I suppose, brother, we’ll make a home for ourselves here.
Xandra met Maeve at the edge of the conservation land. Maeve was prepared. She’d brought eight plastic wrapped sandwiches: beef, turkey, peanut butter. She wore a red jacket, yoga pants, and two cardigans. The moon, obviously, was full that night. It had rained recently, and the ground was stiff with frozen mud. They walked along the wide trail, selected thinner and thinner trails, until you couldn’t even see the orange streetlights or the bright floodlights over garage doors. Soon, the trail disappeared altogether. They had never been this deep, and certainly not this late. Maeve in front, tearing at the overhang with her red blade, Xandra behind, shivering, fingers bunched in her armpits. When Maeve said they had gone far enough, they huddled beneath an overturned tree’s gnarled roots and each ate a sandwich: Xandra, beef; Maeve, turkey. They drank from a nearby brook, the water cold metal on their teeth. Then they settled in for the night, listening to the brook babble and the wind hiss through the trees.
You can eat pine needles if it’s bunched in five needles, Maeve said. Otherwise, it’s poisonous. Remember that, Mary.
Did you bring matches or anything? Xandra asked. I’m freezing.
Maeve said, I don’t want to waste everything in the first hour. Besides, this is an adventure. Hardship is expected.
They slept little. And when they woke, in fits and bursts, the woods remained normal, howling and dark, then light blue, then light. Morning. They headed deeper into the woods, ducking under thickets, waiting to see a relic, a wooden door, a deep hole. It only felt like adventure when golden morning ignited the mossy stones a brilliant green. Only felt like a quest climbing over a huge, soft log. But then, on the second day, squatting in the brush, Xandra shit blood. Pulling her jeans back on and glancing back at the rusty heap of poop steaming in the yellow grass, her stomach twisting and her bumhole achy, Xandra thought, what if I actually die?
Yet they kept struggling during the day through the stiff forest, straining their ears against the wind in the night. They spoke little, only pointing at things that might hold promise: the white lichen on a boulder (a message?), a hollowed log (a portal?), the spine of an old stone wall (have we gone back in time?). By the fourth day, they ran out of sandwiches. Or so Maeve thought. Xandra kept half of a sandwich concealed in her pocket. It wasn’t like she was going to eat it; but just feeling it, hard as a rock in her jean pocket, gave her comfort. By then, they were so deep in the conservation land, it felt as if they truly had slid into another world, one where other people didn’t exist. She wasn’t positive they could make it back even if Maeve wanted to return to the real world. She kept her ears sharp for any adults looking for them, rescue helicopters, dogs—anything. But she heard nothing. The woods stayed gray and skinny and cold. On the fifth day, a checkering mist soaked their clothes. They slept under an oak tree, squirreled together for warmth. The next morning, she woke and knew instantly that Maeve was not pressed against her back. Just as panic swelled, she saw Maeve standing on a mossy ridge a few feet away. The sun had finally come out, and yellow light bled through the tree cover, blanketing Maeve in a bright shroud. She knew Maeve would not turn around until they found some sort of sign confirming the woods contained magic. Or a wolf. Or even a coyote they told each other was a wolf. But she wondered, desperately, if she could speed the process along. If she could maybe bring the wolves to them.
So Xandra said in her Young Brother voice, Good morning, brother.
Xandra could tell from the way Maeve shifted that she was becoming Elder Wolf. When she spoke, she sounded in charge: Brother, let us rest here. We need to gather our strength before we reach father’s kingdom.
Yes, she almost forgot. That was the story. The wolf brothers were the last wolf brothers alive, and they were searching for their kin, said to be hidden in a kingdom deep in the woods.
Maeve leapt down from the ridge. Come on, let’s find some good sticks. We’ll wait for them here.
So, they spent that day—gray and chilly, always—gathering sticks and leaves to construct a lean-to. Maeve cut branches with her red blade, and Xandra weaved them together, tighter and tighter. They used Maeve’s jacket as a curtain flap. That part was kind of fun, especially when they propped the crude wall against the oak tree and crawled inside. It felt, almost, like a real adventure. Like maybe they could just stake out here, like maybe something magical or wolfish would happen. Maybe.
Yet nothing happened, which seemed to confirm nothing would. Even the sky that night was starless. Xandra had hoped that in the course of the game Maeve would point them home. (Brother, it is time we give up and return.) But now she worried she had only sunk them further in these empty woods. Eventually, Xandra punctured the silence: What would happen if the castle doesn’t exist, brother?
We’ll reach it, Maeve replied.
What will we do if we can’t find it?
Maeve shrugged. We won’t give up.
But the woods just swayed, dark and wordless. The trees seemed to lean into one another each time she blinked, branches linking arms, sealing them off from civilization.
I’m hungry, brother, Xandra said.
Just a little while longer, Maeve said. We just have to keep at it a little while longer.
Aren’t we enough? Xandra asked. I mean… do we need the kingdom?
We’ve come so far, Maeve replied, not in her wistful Elder Wolf voice but her regular Maeve voice. We’ve come so far, and this can’t be it.
That night Xandra didn’t sleep at all, afraid if she slept she wouldn’t wake. The woods at night were no longer terrifying, but boring with how the wind swept, how the frogs croaked, how nothing happened. She missed her bed. She missed the four walls of her bedroom. She even missed her mother, whom she had been trying hard not to think of, first out of guilt and then out of embarrassment. She already knew her mother would cry when she finally found her way out of the woods and into her mother’s arms. Even if she and Maeve were groping in the woods for that kind of raw, real emotion, it seemed embarrassing to be loved that much by your mother. She didn’t know what to do with it. But at least it was more tangible than what she had with Maeve. The deeper they had strayed in the woods, the more unreachable her friend had become, to the point where she no longer remembered what they were looking for.
For another day, the seventh, Xandra’s last day, they remained in their little house. Though it rained a little, the lean-to kept them somewhat insulated and dry. Xandra kept petting the rock of the last sandwich in her pocket. They left only to shit and drink brackish water from a nearby vernal pool. You can go awhile without food, Maeve had said, but not water. But God, she was still so hungry. When Maeve left, she nibbled the sandwich’s bark-like edges, pulling it away quickly when Maeve returned with muddy lips. She wondered if the forest was waiting for them to act—if only then the woods would reveal their magic. Perhaps Maeve felt the same. By late afternoon, Maeve uprooted her red blade from the ground and announced that now they had a home, it was time to hunt. She went to the vernal pool alone and returned with a frog cupped between her wet hands.
No, Xandra said. This was not magic. This was something desperate people do, and she didn’t realize until this point that Maeve might be that desperate.
Come on, Maeve said. We need to survive.
She wasn’t playing the wolf brothers game. She really meant it.
Finally, Xandra said, Please, let’s go home. I want to go home.
They stared at each other. She had killed the magic, they both knew it.
Maeve said, Adventures are like this. Sometimes, it’s painful. But then you get stronger. This is just the beginning.
She handed Xandra the frog, who was slick and unmoving in her palms.
Please, Xandra said. Asking directly to go home had been her final trump card, and now panic began to surge as she gripped the frog’s little hands so he stretched out, exposing a lean and speckled belly. Maeve steadied her red blade and took a few test swings.
People eat frogs all the time, she said.
We’re gonna die, Xandra said, and she felt her throat close up.
One, Two, Three! and Maeve swung her blade at the frog’s middle. But Xandra hadn’t braced herself, and the frog was swept from her hands. A few seconds later, they heard a plop.
Shit, Maeve said. You lost it.
Xandra sank down and wept into her hands.
Don’t worry, Maeve said. You’ll see. Other animals do this all the time. The amount of suffering in the animal kingdom is like, astronomical. Every second some creature is tearing another creature to shreds. We’re just part of the animal kingdom.
Xandra rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands until she saw bursts of raw light: red, orange, purple.
When she opened her eyes, Maeve had returned with another frog. This frog was bigger and more active, struggling and kicking. She placed the frog on the forest floor and steadied her blade. Xandra watched through her hands. The frog hopped away, and Maeve followed with her blade. She breathed deeply. Xandra’s stomach loosened. Don’t, she said.
But the red sword came down on the frog’s back. The edge was too blunt, and it didn’t cut the frog at all. Still, the little guy opened its pink mouth in shock.
Fuck, Maeve said again. This stupid sword is too—
The frog hopped once more, stopped, twitched a little, and went still.
You killed it, Xandra cried.
Maeve wedged the red blade back into the ground and wiped her mouth.
Are you going to eat it? Xandra finally asked.
Maeve sank down next to Xandra by the tree. It had stopped raining, but the wind was picking up. The dark branches sang and a luminous mist rose out of orange earth. The frog stayed dead. She said, I’m not hungry anymore.
They were quiet, waiting for something to prove them wrong. A figure. A wolf. Even just to gaze at their inner souls with measured yellow eyes and stalk away. Something to test their mettle. A sign of something more. Anything. But there was really nothing out here.
Xandra said, Sometimes, I think about changing my name. You know, to Xandra or something. Something more epic.
Her heart rabbited, anticipating Maeve’s response. She watched the individual branches in the misty bright.
That’s stupid, Maeve said finally. Your name’s Mary. You can’t change it into something special and say you’re special. If you want to be special, be special.
Maeve kept her eyes glued to the dark brush.
But you’re not, Maeve said finally. You’re just… you know.
They heard something crunch. Someone? Wolves? They stayed quiet. But it was nothing.
Xandra began to say, If there’s nothing out here—
There’s something out there, Maeve said fiercely. There has to be something more, something everyone else misses. Otherwise, I’ll…
Nothing. I’m just saying, this can’t be it.
What if this is it?
Mary, just shut up.
Give me the sword.
It’s a fake sword. My dad buys fake war stuff all the time. It’s fake. This is all fake. See? It’s blunt. Plastic. Won’t do any good.
Xandra held the sword up like a hero and ran her hand down the side. It wasn’t even metal, wasn’t even sharp.
Give it back, Maeve growled.
She laughed and swung the sword mockingly and said: You just want to be special. But the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to you is that your sister is a druggie and your dad got hit by a car and now he’s in a coma.
Maeve chewed her lip. I wish he was, she said, so softly Xandra could not be sure it hadn’t been the wind.
Xandra snapped, What about your dad?
Maeve laughed, rubbing her temples. Oh my god, she said. He’s gonna be so pissed. He’s gonna kill me. Like, he’s actually going to murder me.
Wait, he’s not in a coma? As soon as Xandra said it, she knew it was true.
No, look. Okay. He’s not. Maeve finally looked completely at Xandra. For the first time, she seemed at a loss for words. He’s—
What? Xandra said, harshly. He’s abusive, so we’re running away? He’s a bad guy, is that it? And so you ran away?
In her favorite stories, the missing-father-turned-villain always shows up at the last second. She wouldn’t mind a villain bursting through those trees: any adult would suffice.
Maeve seemed to stiffen. No, she said.
What? Xandra said again, louder. He’s what? He’s what—dead? In another dimension?
He’s just mean, Maeve said, rubbing her thumb and forefinger together like she were starting a fire. He’s really mean. And so angry. All the time.
He hits you? He—
No, Maeve insisted. He just yells a lot.
Oh, Xandra said, almost laughing. Really. And you ran away because he yells? Your sister does drugs because he yells? That was enough to make you—
Mary, Maeve said, her voice tight. You know, our first sleepover I kept pretending I had been like, adopted by your family. You live like royalty. You have your own bathroom, all gold-trimmed and tiled, you have this fancy glass shower stall and like fifty different soaps, you have your own TV in your own bedroom and your own big comfy bed and your parents don’t even argue, they don’t even raise their voices and they don’t even… and you still sit there and say that Mary isn’t enough?
Xandra could only repeat, There’s nothing out here. There aren’t even wolves out there. Face it.
Then you can go back, Maeve said, and looked away, into the woods. You can go back to your big nice house, with your nice parents, and have a nice life, Mary.
Without thinking, Xandra brought the red sword down on their lean-to. The shelter split apart. Collapsing into branches and leaves, as natural and stupid and boring as can be. She stood there, breathing like an actual animal, white-knuckling the blade’s handle. They both watched as the last branch fell to the ground. Then they were quiet.
Hey, Maeve said sadly. Are you done playing?
Maeve picked up the biggest branch and leaned it against the tree, starting to build again. Her hands were shaking if you looked closely, and she was pale. It should have occurred to Xandra that Maeve had not eaten in three days, that she was sick, that she might have been just as weak and scared and uncertain. But still, she would not leave the woods. She would not give up.
Xandra left while Maeve was putting the shelter back together, blinking back stupid tears, and waiting for a Wait! that never came. Maeve would not follow her out of the woods the way she had followed Maeve in. The thought stung and though she almost turned back, she kept moving. God, it felt good to move again, to be going somewhere. Her pace picked up until she was running. For an hour, maybe two, she threw her body through the woods, bright and unfolding. The wind tasted verdant, the gullies fell and rose. She ran fast. Her legs worked into a roadrunner blur, lungs burning in the springtime air, but didn’t she feel at peace, headed forward for the sake of going somewhere, anywhere. The sun shifted through the canopy without warning, and it was finally getting hotter, and the mist burned away. She thrashed Maeve’s sword at brambles and low branches. Just as she was about to turn around, the forest broke into a neighborhood. Square houses and mint yards. The sun was just setting. A sprinkler two lawns over sputtered and started. A jogger breezed past without stopping. Ahead, kids bicycled in slow circles. All this time, she and Maeve had been maybe two hours from civilization. From all this. And here she was, a wretched and ragged girl, scarlet sword in hand.
ALLIE DOKUS is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Before that, she was a Sandwich Artist at Subway. Now she lives in Massachusetts and is working on a novel inspired by Dance Moms.
Featured image by Ganapathy Kumar courtesy of Unsplash.