“Stand there,” Shauna said.
“Here?” I asked.
“Yes, no. I mean yes, but not like that.”
She skipped over to my side and adjusted my shoulders. One of her fingers brushed against the side of my neck.
Funny how the same touch can provide a thousand different sensations. When my dad’s hand touched my neck in this way, it meant there was a mosquito there, and I could expect his palm to soon come down on it. I would complain. Mom would complain. Everyone would complain. Dad never understood why people didn’t like being slapped, or, excuse me, being saved from having their blood sucked.
But Shauna’s hands were half the size and soft. They weren’t soft compared to most girl’s fingers. I hadn’t been with other girls, but I knew Shauna’s hands were outdoors too long to be delicate. They gripped tree banches and dug through mud. Her nails had never seen polish nor, due to her habit of biting them, a nail clipper. I knew for a fact she spent less time on her hair than I did.
“Better,” she said. “Don’t move.”
Shauna skipped back to her foot prints in the dirt a toenail away from stream water. Her camera went up to her face, aimed at me, standing alone atop a rock jutting up from the water. My stance felt sculpted, but I was only standing. Photography can require so much work to make things look natural.
Her lips curved ever so slightly upward. “You look good,” she said.
“I do?” I asked on my way down from the rock. My toes joining hers in the dirt, she took my hand and showed me the viewfinder.
“I don’t see it,” I said.
“That’s okay,” she said into my eyes. “I do.”
I preferred to be the one behind the camera. We both did. That’s how we spent most of our time together, going places where we could point out creatures, critters, and creations to point our cameras toward. A few months back we took a trip to Roanoke, but we preferred the woods and the mountains to the city. There were enough people taking pictures of that place, Shauna liked to say. Let’s go find something forgotten.
Something forgotten. That’s how the both of us felt. My dad flew out of Roanoke every week, and my mom was always up to her neck in papers. Shauna’s parents hadn’t lived together since she was seven, and they hadn’t liked each other since before she was born.
No one really cared what we got up to in these woods.
No one cared what the squirrells got up to in these woods either. That’s why we never tired of taking their pictures. Or bird’s. Or butterflies.
We saw all kinds of life mating near the water or between bushes. We didn’t take those pictures, but the inspiration would make one of us double-check our pocket for a condom.
We thought of ourselves as wild. Not in the way you would expect from neglected children (our mating aside), but like the animals we cohabitated with among the trees of the Roanoke Valley.
The more time we spent around them, the less we cared what other people thought or said. And people did talk. Shauna and I gave off the impression of being both siblings and lovers. We were too close, and the way we were treated only made us closer. We regarded school as an unsafe place that taught us little worth knowing. We got good grades anyway, because like other animals, we knew how to adapt and survive. We knew our grades would get us somewhere someday.
“There!” Shauna said, letting go of my hand to point. At the other end of her finger, high up in a tree, was a great horned owl. We froze in our tracks. The bird was resting but alert.
Shauna lifted her camera, quieted the shutter, steadied, and snapped. She watched the owl. I watched her. Only when she started to lower the camera did I look back up at the bird. She, too, was beautiful.
I don’t know when Shauna fingers slipped back between mine or when we started heading back home. Life was like that for us. Fluid and aimless. As long as we were close together, safe in our habitat, not much else mattered.
It surprised me to see her bring a tripod on one of our walks. She used it as a walking stick, though it only made her clumsy.
“I want a picture together.”
She sculpted me again, then latched onto my side, her left arm intertwined with mine.
“The flash is on,” she warned me. That was unusual. We usually left that off so that we didn’t bother the rest of the woods.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“If I tell you here, I might not go back.”
“What do you mean?”
She didn’t say. Instead, we walked mostly in silence, her awkwardly walking with the tripod in one hand and maintaining a tight grip on my hand with the other.
She told me after we had made our way back to her house.
I never imagined that could happen. I won’t pretend I took the news well. I didn’t. But I knew not to take it out on her. Her pain, I came to find out, was much worse than mine.
There were still two years left of high school to go. I went to class. Things happened. Honestly, I don’t remember much. What stands out are the hours I spent in front of my computer screen, instant messenger open, staring at the words that appeared beside her screen name. We worked through our pain together. It was weird for us, a couple that had for most of our lives communicated more through being in each other’s space than through words.
But like other animals, we knew how to adapt and survive.
She found her way to Sweet Briar College. I ended up at Randolph College. Both shared a city that was smaller than Roanoke but still too big for us.
“Stand there,” Shauna said, holding a camera, gesturing for me to step a bit closer to the ledge.
“Here?” I asked.
“Yes, just like that.”
The shutter snapped. Then she skipped over and took my hand. We wandered off together back into the woods.