Beyond the backyard of my childhood home, through a thicket of trees, across the field and down the street was the white-paneled house where the Hartmann family lived. Two girls and one boy, all homeschooled. The girls, Root and Roseanna, were my closest friends. Together, we concocted potions out of crushed flowers, made red paint with smashed bricks and water, and drew maps of fairy kingdoms with sidewalk chalk.
Root’s real name was Ruth, but she never answered to it. She was a spinster in training, with her little bird mouth, high forehead, insignificant chin, and round wire frame glasses. She wore her dirty blonde hair in two long, staticky braids. Root was special in the pale way that those sickly Victorian children you read about seem special. She floated in and out of rooms, singing hymns in a soft, secret voice. She was oblivious to others’ eyes. Once, we played mummies and wrapped ourselves head to toe in toilet paper and she said, I feel like a cloud in heaven. I always liked Root best. She took our games so seriously that they felt real. If one of her made up characters was heartbroken or wounded, she would cry real tears.
Roseanna was nine—the same age as me—and two years younger than Root. She was quicker and harsher than her sister, and often lashed out at her siblings. She liked to play chasing games and she always had scratches on her knees. Sometimes it sounded like she had too much spit in her mouth when she talked. I thought she would do something unexpected when she grew up, but I wasn’t sure what. Quit the faith, become a lesbian, move to Vietnam, sell ornate ashtrays.
Jean-Luc, the only boy, was a mystery. His hair was always doing something strange, something I couldn’t believe the parents had allowed. Gelled into a mohawk. Dyed pink. Shaved zig zags into the sides. Other times, it grew curly and brown, haloing his sullen teenage face. Roseanna told me he was a foster—the son of a French woman who couldn’t take care of him—and this was the only way I could make sense of him. He moved through the house with the body language of an uninvited guest.
Once, during the last summer I called them friends, I went to see if Root and Roseanna were around to play. Jean-Luc opened the front door. My heart rocketed up into my throat.
“Hi, Willa.” The interior of the house was dark.
“Are Root and Roseanna around?”
“They’re at the pool,” he said.
“Oh,” I groaned, my chest deflating. “It’s not even that hot out.”
Jean-Luc shrugged. “I’m grounded. Watching the dog.”
He drew back into the foyer, moving to close the front door. I stepped forward.
“What’d you do?”
His eyes slouched. Merle the dog barked from the kitchen. “I took the Lord’s name in vain.”
“What’d you say?”
“Willa, come on. What are you, like eight? Goddammit. I said Goddammit. Root and Roseanna aren’t around today.”
Jean-Luc never paid much attention to me when I was over—I’m not sure that he’d ever even spoken to me before then—but he was five years older, had mean eyes, and was unlike the rest of his family. My dad said the Hartmanns chose to homeschool their children so they could brainwash them into being good Christians. Jean-Luc didn’t seem brainwashed to me. He seemed dispersed, as if he’d secreted little fragments of himself in private corners of the house to withdraw from the rooms he didn’t want to be in. Whenever I came over to play, I kept an eye out for these fragments: a punk CD, crushed coffee cup, black guitar pick. I thought if I collected enough, I could string together some justification for the way my thoughts flurried around him even when he wasn’t there.
Everything the homeschoolers did, they did as a family. An only child, I spent much of my free time alone, acting on whims without having to defer to a larger whole, except on the playground at recess. Root and Roseanna’s time was often at the mercy of family plans, but they never seemed to mind. Their mother had moved to America from Germany, and every now and then she would lead the family in baking a batch of soft pretzels from scratch. Mr. and Mrs. Hartmann mixed ingredients in advance, allowing time for the dough to rise, and once it was ready, Roseanna rolled and beat and kneaded it into easy knots. Jean-Luc dipped the shaped pretzel dough into boiling water one by one, with a precision so delicate it made the breath catch in my throat. Root liked to add the finishing touches, brushing the pretzels with egg yolk and placing them in the oven. If I came over on a pretzel day, they’d let me sprinkle the salt.
On gardening days, the parents dug holes to plant flowers. Roseanna tore up weeds with an angry vengeance, and Root watered what was left. I often watched them working in the yard from across the field, timing my visits so I’d arrive just as they were finishing up. One morning in June, I watched Root water the last corner of the garden, then invited myself over. We sat, legs crossed on the lawn, plucking up the weeds Roseanna had missed to make flower crowns. Root knew about a lot, and I thought she might be able to help me.
“Have you ever had a crush?”
Root cast her large eyes on my forehead. “A what?”
“Like, have you ever felt really nervous around someone?”
“Nervous,” she echoed, adjusting the strap of her overalls. “What an interesting question.”
Root always said that when she wasn’t going to answer something. What an interesting question. When I asked if she ever wished she could go to public school, she’d said the same thing. But she always had answers for the questions I didn’t even know I should have, and she answered those questions with uncharacteristic certitude. Where do we come from, What happens when we die, and How can you be so sure? I stared at her hands.
“Why is Jean-Luc always grounded?” I asked her.
Root completed her flower crown with careful fingers. “Jean-Luc is a sinner.”
I asked what she meant, but I never could remember her answer, or if she even had one.
The Hartmanns held class in their finished basement, which housed a large round table, a row of bulky desktop computers, and several plastic Ikea chairs. During games of hide-and-seek, I hid between computers, careful not to unplug anything. And once we were older, we played elaborate games of Manhunt with the other neighborhood children. Manhunt was played in the dark. One team was ‘it’ and the other team was scared out of their minds. We chose a spot and made it jail, and the only way to escape was to touch the hand of an undercover spy. The whole thing required a big set of lungs and electric feet.
Manhunt was a way to see the neighborhood with new eyes. Streets and sidewalks were danger zones, reserved for running. We cultivated intimate knowledge of the neighbors’ yards, noting gardens with tall plants, good climbing trees, and unlocked sheds. We scattered into the dark, clambering over gnarled terrain on hands and feet, scanning the dim contours of our neighborhood for some makeshift refuge by the cold light of streetlamps. We were fugitives, hunters, and spies, and we took great pride in the loyalty these roles demanded of us.
Roseanna was always on the ‘it’ team and she was merciless. Root and I preferred to hide, although she was a much more accomplished hider. One night in July, we hid in the rabbit hutch out back and it took them hours to find us. Root prayed silently while I watched the rabbits shiver and clean themselves in the glow of the house’s motion sensor lights. I tried to come up with my own prayer, but couldn’t imagine what a prayer was supposed to look like. I wondered how Root’s prayers looked in her mind—if they took the shape of words or images or something in between, or if they had any shape at all. Rubbing my knuckles against my eyelids, I tried to trace the kaleidoscopic neon fuzz into images, but the swirls and stars took no meaningful forms. Sitting in the dark, waiting, I learned three things that night: one, that rabbits eat their own dung; two, that they communicate with their ears; and three, they sleep with their eyes open. Four—I learned four things. I learned that Root didn’t care about being found. She could wait for hours.
Jean-Luc used to play Manhunt with us. He wasn’t too old for that yet. The boys always ended up on the ‘it’ team with Roseanna, so I didn’t see too much of them. You can’t see what you’re busy running away from. As the summer wore on, he stopped showing up, and I wondered if he was still grounded or if he had finally outgrown tag. I thought about asking Root in the rabbit hutch, but I didn’t want to interrupt her prayers. Instead, I imagined Jean-Luc running after me in the dark, grabbing the skin of my t-shirt, and dragging me to jail, saying Goddammit. Goddammit. Goddammit.
Root and Roseanna shared a room with bunk beds. Root slept on the top bunk, where she was “closer to Heaven,” and Roseanna slept on the bottom. I thought Roseanna lucked out, because her bed had star-spangled curtains draped around it, affixed to the top bunk. With the curtains pulled tight, it was like her own little room. The sisters kept their belongings organized and apart. Root’s dolls were proudly displayed in plastic stands atop her wooden desk, while a crate of Roseanna’s spilled onto the floor. Dolls clothed, dolls naked, dolls with detachable feet, dolls with detachable hair. They had a rug designed to look like city traffic and sometimes we played road rage, beeping and honking as we steered tiny sports cars up and down the soft black streets.
Root and the mother went to Chile in August. They went every few months; I didn’t know why. I spent all my time with Roseanna and our games were rough and cruel. She didn’t like to narrate games of pretend like Root and I did—she acted on instinct, knocking toys together and crying out in affected pain or anger. It was a late afternoon. We were playing car crash. I hadn’t seen Jean-Luc in almost a month.
“Roseanna?” I gathered doll heads and feet into a pile on the rug. “Is Jean-Luc in Chile with your mom and Root?”
“No. BANG. BOOM. Your stupid truck blew up,” she declared, tossing my truck into the pile of doll feet and wreckage.
“Is he still grounded?”
Roseanna dropped the Cadillac and stood up, motioning for me to join her on the bottom bunk. She pulled the curtains closed and folded her legs pretzel-style, facing me.
“Willa, is Jesus Christ in your heart?” Her eyes were shining and her cheeks had real color.
“Oh,” I said. “I don’t know how to tell.”
“Well, do you read the Bible?”
“We don’t have a Bible at my house. And there are too many words on every page. It’s hard to read.”
“Do you pray to God?”
“Sometimes,” I lied, reddening.
“Do you thank Him for your blessings? Do you ask forgiveness for your sins?”
“We’re all sinners.” Her voice lowered to a hiss. “Willa, if you don’t let Jesus into your heart and beg him to forgive your sins, you’ll be sent to Hell when you die. There’s no water in Hell and you’ll be so thirsty you’ll beg for water every day. And guess what? No one will give you any.”
I fixated on the curtains over Roseanna’s shoulder until my eyes stung and the starry pattern seemed to pulsate. I could feel her gaze, hot and unblinking. I wanted to wrap the curtains around my head and bathe in the cool indifference of stitchwork stars.
“If you go to Hell, all of your body parts will burn off over and over again and you’ll feel it every time. Forever. Don’t you want to go to Heaven with me and Root?”
“I don’t know,” I tore the curtains open and gulped air. “I think I have to go home for dinner.”
“Okay!” she said brightly, disorienting me with her sudden burst of cheer. She jumped down from the bed and resumed her game of car crash, stabbing at a pair of doll feet with the nose of her Cadillac and shrieking with mock agony. She glanced up as I made for the door.
“See you tomorrow?”
I ran down the street, across the field, and through the trees to my backyard. I didn’t see Roseanna the next day, or the day after. A week passed before the Hartmanns’ phone number appeared on our caller ID. I shoved the phone into my mom’s hands, shaking my head wildly. She frowned, then told Roseanna that I was under the weather. I didn’t see my friends until a month after Root returned from Chile, and from then on, we continued to see less and less of each other. By nine—and, in Root’s case, eleven—we’d slowly lost interest in playing pretend and discovered that outside of our games, we had little in common. Roseanna took up soccer and Root studied the violin. I became best friends with a girl at school and together, we invented a secret language.
I still spied on the homeschoolers through the trees behind my backyard. They still played Manhunt. I could hear them screaming and chasing after each other, tearing across the field at night. Root often went out to feed the rabbits and Roseanna kicked her soccer ball around the cul-de-sac outside their house. I never once saw Jean-Luc, but I spent long afternoons inventing reasons for his absence: he had saved his pocket money and booked a flight to Paris, where he could speak his mother tongue and dye his hair and sin all day long; he had been sent away to a Catholic boarding school, where he would write Bible verses over and over on chalkboards and the nuns would brandish rulers and beat his knuckles bloody; he had found the perfect hiding place and never come back out, the reigning champion of Manhunt; he had died, and the funeral was arranged by his birth parents, who didn’t know to invite me.
The week before Christmas, a card from the Hartmanns arrived in our mailbox. I pretended to be uninterested as my mom ripped open the envelope.
“Oh, how strange. Willa, look.”
I stared at the card, blinking incredulously, then snatched it from her hands. Smiling up at me were Root, Roseanna, and three toddlers I had never seen before, with tan skin and black hair. Beneath the photograph, in loopy red cursive: Merry Christmas from the Hartmann family, all seven of us. My stomach lurched. Suddenly, I realized why they’d made all those trips to Chile. Root and Roseanna had never mentioned anything about new siblings. And they’d never told me where Jean-Luc had gone.
I pictured three tiny children, pure and without sin, sleeping in a new bedroom and dreaming in a new language. They would learn to fold pretzels and tie fairy crowns. They would memorize Bible passages and sing hymns with bright, clean voices. They would find their own hiding places in the vast expanse of trees and hollows between our houses. And as for Jean-Luc, I pictured him in some strange place, wearing strange clothes, his hair some other color. I hoped he had his Walkman with him. I hoped he would listen to something lonely and defiant.
In bed that night I said my first prayer. Simple and angry, it went like this: Goddammit. Goddammit. Goddammit. My words formed a net, catching nothing.
There are times when I say this prayer even now, but I have lost the trick of it, the certitude, the sweetness.
a Philadelphia native, is currently an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech, where she has served as Fiction Editor for the minnesota review. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Ghost City Review, among others. You can find her at kirahomsher.com.
“We Ran” Rachel Linn, phoebe 49.2