Mark’s house always smelled like peanut butter, because he ate the stuff all the time. He always used to claim that his day was not complete unless he ate peanut butter in some way: on a sandwich, in cookies, straight out of the jar. Even then I wasn’t too keen on that light brown sticky stuff. If I ate too much of it, I felt as if every bite had lumped together into a sticky wad in my stomach. The dense, sweet-salty flavor made me feel sick. Back then I couldn’t eat peanut butter unless I really wanted to, and that hasn’t changed much.
Mark and I are only a year apart, and we grew up like siblings. Even though we lived in different houses, his house was only a few minutes’ drive away from mine. On the way there you had to drive through the woods, and the tree branches reached over top of the road to touch one another, like children playing London Bridge. A canopy of trees, I called it. As you drove, the trees would thin, blue sky would mingle with leathery oak leaves, and finally you would pass the last tree to enter a vast expanse of electric green hills. A right turn where the road branched in two, a short, winding path around two or three hills, and then, at the top of the third hill, was the house. From the driveway, you could see everything: the brush-stroke texture of the trees, hills rippling the earth gently like the folds of a soft green blanket, a ridge of distant mountains like blunted periwinkle teeth pointing skyward to gnaw on the pale blue horizon.
This was the canvas of our imaginations, and we painted on it with bold, broad strokes of blue and green and red. We were knights and pirates and bandits and talking animals, decorating ourselves with sashes of brightly colored fabric that we had salvaged from an overflowing scrap box and brandishing smooth-handled wooden swords that Mark had made. We tousled with each other like the children of wild animals, both outside and inside. We tried climbing the metal supports of the basement; Mark made it about halfway between the floor and the ceiling, while I hugged the pole with my arms and legs, trying not to slide to the ground and feeling chilled from the cool, damp metal.
Upstairs we held our breath around the grown-ups, hoping that if we were quiet enough, my mother would forget it was almost time to go home. But our minds were restless and reckless. We watched Bill Nye the Science Guy religiously. We played the Oregon Trail computer game, crossing our fingers in hopes that our supplies of flour and dried meat would last until the next trading post and that we could make it across the prairie without dying from dysentery. We argued over who could read a book faster. (Mark eventually won when we were in fifth grade, because he claimed he had once read Brian Jacques’ Redwall in one day. I never believed him, but he was smart enough and crazy enough to do it.) We debated the best way to defeat our least favorite literary villains. (Was it better to stab the White Witch and get it over with? Or was it more ethical to blind her first and wait to see if she would reform?)
We took our battles with us and fought playfully whenever the two of us were together. If we sat together in Sunday School, he would step on my toes, and I would kick at his heavy brown boots. My shiny black Mary-Janes got scuffed and dented before each skirmish was over, but eventually I released a well-timed yelp of pain, and the teacher looked at Mark and lowered his eyebrows with a frown of annoyance.
When we were in middle school, every time my dad came home from work his voice was harsh and rigid, his eyes more icy. I curled up on my bedroom floor with my fingers in my ears, trying to force the thunder of his words out of my mind. Somehow, Mark’s mother told everyone at church about the situation. I don’t know what she said, but people seemed to think my mother was to blame for her husband’s anger. The visits to Mark’s house stopped. I haven’t seen the canopy of trees or the windswept hills or the big, sun-bleached house for eight years. I haven’t been to that narrow, gray-painted brick church building that smelled like stale coffee for several years, either.
It felt good to leave that church. Whenever someone looked at me, I knew they knew something horrible—although I never knew whether what they knew was what I knew—actually happened. Hearsay has an atrocious habit of embroidering the truth. Whatever the case, I was tired of people talking gently to me and looking at me with soft, sorrowful eyes. No, I don’t want to talk about anything. No, I’m not angry—trust me. I slipped in and out of the church service at my mother’s side, shoulders scrunched toward my neck, eyes on the slimy, fraying carpet. I spoke to as few people as possible. No one knew what to do with me.
After my dad said Sorry and we tried to live life over again, we started going to a different church, a church with wider hallways and soft new carpet and an open sanctuary filled with patches of light that drifted in from blue-and-green stained glass windows. I didn’t miss the little gray church at all.
When I was in high school, I made a game of avoiding people I once knew. I’d peer all the way down grocery aisles, look around corners, slip behind racks of clothing, slump deep into my coat when I was sitting in a restaurant booth. I got very good at the game.
In all this time, I only saw Mark maybe once or twice. I wonder if he ever played the avoiding game, too, and if we only said hello because it would have been rude to hide or pretend not to recognize the other person. We were casualties of someone else’s war.
Flash forward to my senior year of college, and I’m sitting at my computer, avoiding homework rather than avoiding people I used to know. I’m scrolling through Pinterest looking for cat memes, knitting patterns, Avengers cartoons—anything to distract me from having to write that 20-page annotated bibliography for my Literary Theory class. Suddenly, I notice there’s a new message in my email inbox. It’s a friend request from Mark.
I can’t decide whether to accept it or not. I’ve changed so much since we stepped on each other’s feet in a cold Sunday School classroom. I smile less. I search other people’s expressions for approval before I speak. I get chilled when a friend raises her voice. Still, I search for inspiration in soft green hills and toothy mountain ranges. And I would choose to let the White Witch live just in case she changed her mind about the whole evil witch thing.
I look at the friend request again, and click “Confirm.” Then I start scrolling through Mark’s wall, looking for the reckless boy I used to know. He writes facebook statuses the same way he used to talk: a long string of words all in one breath, with that I’m-smarter-than-all-of-you tone that never seemed to bother me when he used it. I grin impulsively, and I wonder if he still likes peanut butter.
Rachel Dark is an undergraduate student at Cedarville University.
© 2014, Rachel Dark