“Watch this,” Payton said, their voice tight with the effort of drawing back the elastic of their slingshot. They released, and the ball bearing sliced through the aluminum can Payton had set up. Metal sounded against metal as Payton cheered and I sliced the final cut into my sculpture.
It still needed to be sanded, but it was done. A gently sloping valley, covered by a quilt that evoked how the fog and cold of autumn settled down on the earth and me. The quilt was marked by its patches, many of which had designs that meant nothing to me. But with a smile, my fingers ran across the five I had carved in honor of the people I was with. There was a sun lying beside a moon in lovely fraternity, a hardy dandelion beside a sturdy mountain, then above them all was a lone star. I wondered what the others would think if they knew they had inspired these.
I put my tools away with the gentle whisper of leather, but was stopped by the pressure of a shoe on the small of my back.
“Did you finish?” Addison asked, sitting unseen behind me slightly higher on the rocky incline. I turned back to see her lounging as if she were purposefully trying to take up more space than she needed. She was looking at me, head tilted and eyebrows raised.
“I’m done with this one at least,” I said. “I’m done for now.” She clambered down the rocks to me and peered over my shoulder. Her short black bob was just the right length to tickle my nose. The smell of fir and something floral burned in the back of my throat. Her slim, olive hand reached towards my sculpture, to caress or hold I didn’t know. I turned away, clutching my sculpture to my chest with force. Addison started and looked at me, face knotted.
“It’s not sanded,” I explained after a scrambling beat. “I don’t want you to get splinters.” I fought down the pain of the same sharp wood that pressed into the creases of my fingers now.
Addison straightened up and smiled immediately. “Got it! Thanks, bud!” I didn’t register her movement, but all of a sudden her hand was ruffling my hair. My ear pressed against my shoulder under her untempered force. She disappeared as quickly as she had come.
But her words had attracted the attention of the others, and I had four pairs of eyes turn on me as Addison picked her way through the brush on whatever unspoken mission moved her heart. She did that often; Addison was fond of disappearing and reappearing at random without a word.
Payton threaded their slingshot through their belt-loop and glanced expectantly between me and the sculpture, whose rough and rippling face was still pressed into my chest. I let it fall into my lap, reluctantly but somehow without hesitation.
Payton craned their neck to get a look from where they stood.
“Cool,” they said. “No idea what it is, but cool.” They turned away and pulled on their knitted gloves before taking up their slingshot again. It was a relatively warm day, so we had decided to break the tradition of Lily’s house in favor of the trees lining our old field, but it was still numbingly cold without a protective layer.
Connie and Addison both flanked me, giving more attention to this piece than my others. This was a major project that they had seen me working on for a while. I imagined they were excited to see the final result and gain some sort of closure. Lily poked her head in between them.
“It’s a quilt,” Connie said slowly. “Over a…”
“Valley,” I said, eager to end the swollen silence.
Connie let out a satisfied hum.
“I bet it’s all symbolic, yeah?” Addison asked, throwing her weight around to get a look from all angles. I nodded. She looked at me expectantly, but I had no idea what she was waiting for.
“Cool,” she said after another pause.
“Looks great, Ashton!” Lily added with her signature bright smile, holding up an affirming thumb on one hand while the other pushed up her glasses.
As an unspoken unit, the girls wandered off and split apart. I didn’t see where they went in favor of watching Jace, my only remaining admirer, who was staring motionlessly at my sculpture and the hands that held it.
He approached with quiet footsteps and steady stride, gliding like a mist-bound ghost. He reached out a hand, slow but sure, and this time I did not stop it before it landed on my sculpture.
Out of all the patch designs I had chosen at random, he went straight for the star. His fingers trailed down, going directly to the sun and moon, the mountain and the flower. He lingered for a moment, then his touch went further downward to a patch I had not paid much mind to. In the cluster was a lone tree, not bearing fruit or blooms but not quite bare, not incredibly young but at the same time far from fully grown. Jace lingered there for a moment, before brushing over the star one last time. After that, he took his hand away and looked at me through the dark of his eyelashes.
There was an unspoken question burning in his stormy eyes. I knew what it was, but a tightening in my gut forced it to the back of my mind with conviction.
“What?” I said, my voice tense with the single-syllable lie. Jace looked back towards my sculpture, and his nose twitched.
“Nothing,” he murmured. “Nice sculpture, Ash.” With that, he turned and went to Payton, who was prepping another can on a log already ringed by a scattering of hole-ridden aluminum.
I followed helplessly, hearing every crunch and crack below my feet as loud as a gunshot above the soft swish of Jace’s strides.
Payton turned to see us, face cracking intp a shit-eating grin.
“Come to see the mastress at work?” they jabbed.
They looked between the two of us, waiting for something. Jace glanced at me stonily, but didn’t seem surprised that I had followed him, as if this was the way it was meant to be.
Payton took another silent beat to trace the line between us with their eyes before ducking their head with a snort. They turned back towards their can and fired a shot in a flash of rubber and glinting silver. A resounding crack erupted from the tree standing beside the can. Payton hung their head and sighed.
“Nobody’s perfect,” they sang as they went to retrieve the ball bearing. A pang shot through my heart at the words.
“Why is Payton the one with a deadly weapon?” Connie called. I whipped around sharply at the sudden noise. Connie and Lily were huddled close, shoulder-to-shoulder, leaving just a few breaths between them. Addison was facing them, with her back to me. Conne looked at me, blinking and flexing her fists before breaking out in a kaleidoscope smile.
“Let’s give Ashton a shot,” she said.
“No pun intended, I bet,” Payton said from beside me now, winking at the ball bearing they had worked out of the tree and turning it in the light. Nodding, satisfied, they studied me for a moment with the same scrutiny. I thought I saw a grave seriousness in Payton’s face and it frightened me, but when they shrugged the sunlight flooded their face and chased away the shadows. It had just been the lighting; the Payton I knew was casually holding out their slingshot to me.
“I don’t see why not,” they continued. “I’d trust him with this. Definitely more than I would trust you, Adds.” Addison turned and shot Payton a lewd gesture which they promptly outdid with their own as the others cheered at my taking up the slingshot.
Lily began jovially cheering my name, her voice bouncing between and through the trees. Connie and Addison joined, followed by Payton at nearly double the volume, paying no mind to the houses that ringed our scrubby woods. For the first time, I wondered if this was private property.
There was an odd gap in the cheers. I didn’t have to look behind me to know that Jace was silent. Yet, I could feel his green eyes piercing into the back of my head. I could feel his gaze threading between my auburn hair, finding its way to my scalp and peeling away my dandruff piece by piece to make its way into my head.
A panic arrested my heart. Payton was explaining how to shoot the slingshot, but they were drowned out by the roaring of blood in my ears. I remembered how I had gone blind on the stage those weeks ago, collapsing and thrashing. I cut Payton off as the rubber of the slingshot groaned underneath my pull. Jace’s eyes had found my skull now, and they turned into drill bits, boring slowly but relentlessly. I felt desperate to make him look somewhere else, anywhere else. I let the ball bearing fly, praying Jace followed it rather than keep his eyes fixed so expectantly on me.
The shot missed its mark by an impossible margin, weaving between trees as if possessed and disappearing into the brush.
Payton’s shoulders sagged, and the others stared in silence.
“Wow, Ashton,” Addison said, something tense in her voice. Nervousness crept around my throat, but it broke with the tightness in her voice as she giggled. “That sucked.”
“And my dumb ass only brought one ball bearing,” Payton groaned.
“Yeah, the one I lent you,” Jace grumbled.
I felt a chill seep through me at the thought of losing Jace’s belonging. I felt myself start to slip below cold water, before Jace’s voice cut through.
“No worries, Ashton,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of ‘em. They were free. Used them for a robotics thing at school. It’s over now, anyway, so they’re just gathering dust.”
“Then can I have them?” Payton said excitedly.
Jace shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I can bring them to school-”
“Nope, I want them now,” Payton cut in, wearing a smile void of any apology. “Hey Adds, can I borrow your car?”
“Nope,” Addison said, not even pausing to think. But now she did, before saying, “Tell you what. It’s getting cold. How about I drive to Lily’s house, the girls hang out there and warm up, then you guys can run to Jace’s and meet back up there.” Payton’s mouth opened, but Addison shushed them with a wave. “Jace or Ashton can drive.”
“I’ve got it,” Jace said. I felt cool relief. I didn’t trust myself behind the wheel of someone else’s car. He blinked and glanced at his watch. “It’s Friday, though.” We didn’t stay out as long on Fridays, because Jace had to go home early those days, if he showed up at all. Weekends for him were a toss-up. He never elaborated, and we never asked. We still met without him, but our circle felt empty without his place in it. It was different from the days when Connie was working. It felt heavier somehow, ripe with something that hides in the shadows.
Jace stood for a moment, ice creeping into his wide eyes and artificially blond hair swaying gently in the winter wind.
He blinked in a quick scrunch and smirked. “We should have time. You two good? Ash, you can probably just dump your sculpture in the car.”
Payton and I nodded. “Sounds good,” Payton said.
After the ride to Lily’s, which was routine and riotous, Jace, Payton, and I got out of the car to help unload the trunk. We waved goodbye to the girls and followed Jace to the car parked with its face to the road.
Payton jogged ahead of me and went straight to my normal seat. With confusion twinging in my chest, I took the passenger seat beside Jace. In that moment, I felt so unlike disciplined Connie, whose seat I had taken, that it ached.
Jace checked either side of the deserted road diligently and pulled out of the neighborhood. Something in my heart plucked at his concern on one of the many empty back roads in these towns, but it snapped when I saw his eyes shine as he pressed the accelerator and let the wheel straighten in his hands, the vinyl sighing against skin.
I watched his hands on the wheel as it turned, sending this box of metal barreling across asphalt as fast as he wanted. Something heavy settled in my stomach, and it reminded me of what I had felt after Lily’s performance. The weight lifted as Payton said something, small and silly, and I threw my attention at it with all the force I could muster. Payton led the small talk, just like they always did. I felt useless.