The day Zach was suspended because of that little shit, he headed straight for the woods. Every day for three months he’d been driving the school route with no trouble until that little sod took the usual yahooing too far and refused to sit down and stop swearing. So Zach slammed the brakes on and booted him off the bus. The other kids were a bit more subdued after that. However, in his three months on the route the only two who’d ever smiled at him as they got on and off were Brigit and Tiffany. They always sat behind him and he learned, along with their names, that they spent each Saturday in the woods, which they called the Secret Forest, to sketch wildflowers and butterflies. He looked forward every day to seeing them and hearing their chatter. So when the mother of the booted-off little tyke complained to the Board and Zach lost his job, he also lost a great deal of joy from his life.
He didn’t want his mum to know about the suspension, so he kept up appearances by going out at the same time each day. In the woods he found the spot he’d heard the girls talking about. He liked sitting on the grassy bank overlooking farmland, listening to the birds and watching the butterflies flitting over the wildflowers. Some days he went to the library to borrow books on wildflowers and butterflies and took them to the woods to read.
On his first Saturday afternoon there he heard voices on the path. From his hiding place he saw Tiffany and Brigit approaching. Seeing their faces again and hearing their laughter made all the knots in his belly soften. He watched them dance on the grass pretending to be butterflies, looking as though a puff of wind might carry them away. He watched them make daisy chains and blow dandelion clocks into the air. He watched them take sketch pads out of their backpacks and start drawing. When Tiffany caught a Holly Blue in her hand he wondered if she knew its life would be shortened if she touched its wings. To his relief she opened her hands and let it fly away. He thought the girls looked the same age as his sister who’d tripped and fallen in the deep end of the swimming pool on her twelfth birthday. When she hadn’t come up again he’d thought she was just mucking about as usual. It was ruled an accident, but his mother had always blamed him. He pressed his face into the rough bark of the tree and watched Brigit and Tiffany until all those dark thoughts faded away. When the girls left the woods, Zach came out from behind the tree and lay down in the flattened grass where they’d been sitting.
After four Saturdays of watching the girls he felt confident enough to come out from his hiding place and stroll past them as if he hadn’t noticed them there at all. They looked up, startled to see someone else in the place they’d thought was theirs alone. He was sure they would recognise him from the bus and call out greetings, but to his disappointment they didn’t. He walked past them and felt their eyes following him as he went back along the track. He felt hurt that they hadn’t greeted him. Then it occurred to him that it might be because of the way he’d kicked that kid off the bus, and all the fuss that followed. They might believe he was a bad person. He thought of how they’d always smiled at him and said hello and thank you. He decided to stay hidden a while longer until he’d worked out a plan to regain their trust.
He resumed watching the girls every Saturday and listening to their conversations about the flowers and butterflies they were drawing for the end-of-term art exhibition. He heard Tiffany say that no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t get the butterflies’ wings right. Zach remembered he’d always been good at drawing at school, the only thing he had been good at really, and he wanted to come out and help Tiffany. He’d found out yesterday that a new job was in the offing for him, on another bus route, so the time he had left with the girls was precious.
The next week he brought chocolates. He would offer them chocolates. That’s what people did when they wanted to make friends. He’d ask if he could see their sketches. He’d offer to give some guidance about drawing butterfly wings. The day was warm and the girls closed their sketch books and lay back on the grass. Brigit pointed to a cloud and said it looked like a face and when Zach looked up he saw she was right. He wanted to tell her about all the cloud people he’d seen in the sky since he’d been coming to the forest, and sometimes even weird faces in the bark of tree trunks. He thought Brigit and Tiffany would be interested to hear that.
He stepped out from behind the trees and this time, as he approached the girls, he called out a greeting. They shot bolt upright. He smiled to let them see they had nothing to worry about and held out the bag of chocolate. He told them he was starting a new job next week and he wanted to say goodbye. He said he would like to help with the butterfly wings. He told them the Holly Blue that Tiffany had held was a female because it had dark edges around its wings.
If it hadn’t been for the way Brigit leapt up with that look on her face. If it hadn’t been for the way she ran off screaming like a banshee. If it hadn’t been for Tiffany tripping over a tree root and landing smack on her face. Oh, if it hadn’t been for that.
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in Canterbury, New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent work, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. Her flash fiction and short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally.