By: Nathan Leslie
He’s that weird kid. He’s that kid who smells like moss. He’s that kid who dangles chicken necks off the dock for hours at a time. Nobody knows that kid. Why wouldn’t you want to mingle with children your own age, find a date or something? Look at the girls in your homeroom. Why wouldn’t you aspire to improve your lot? Are you messed up in the head? Are you conniving? Do you love crayfish and turtles more than us?
Wayne knew the hustle. He was a redneck loner freak. He felt the judgments. He was the one who remained understood, underappreciated, underneath. It was okay. He really didn’t care what the cheerleaders thought or the muscle shirt kid or the kid who wore the product in his hair and spent his time waxing his Miata.
At fourteen he cared about how deep he could sink in the creek murk and how the dragonflies behaved when they saw him churning down the track and would the orange newt be there today and would the black and yellow salamander? And would he catch a glimpse of the turkeys this afternoon, or would they be gobbling further down the path, closer to the boulder and the pine grove?
Once a girl sat back near the creek, on a log–the rotten one surrounded by crow’s feet and clover. She was younger, by a few years–he could tell by her scrawny neck and her boyish chest and her voice–higher and reedy and somehow. She was ungainly. Her skin looked blotched and marked with acne, and she wore a yellow cap pulled down over her ears so that she seemed mashed and pinned down.
“This is a nice spot,” she said. “I like it back here.”
Wayne asked her where she came from and how she found the place–this was his nook and he felt a sense of ownership about it. Someday he should charge admission. He should construct a gate. She lived two miles away, close to the library and the elementary school. But she had walked here to get away from it all.
“Are you running away from home?”
“No, just a break. I do breaks.”
Years later Wayne wondered what ever happened to that girl–the one he met in the woods. They were friends for a while–well, sharers-of-interest might be a better phrase. He didn’t know her name or how old she was or what grade she was in or her favorite color. He only knew that she liked the woods–and so did he. Later he would wonder what would have happened if he tried to kiss her. He thinks she would have kissed him back. But he never tried–not once.
And in this photo he sits on the stoop and you can see the grit in the concrete and how it has worn over the years. His shadow casts off to the right toward the porch and the awning. His hair curls in the humidity. He owns nothing, loves nobody. He has no clue.
Nathan Leslie won the 2019 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize for fiction for his satirical collection of short stories, Hurry Up and Relax. Nathan’s nine previous books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs, and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice. He is also the author of a collection of poems, Night Sweat. Nathan is currently the series editor for Best Small Fictions, the founder and organizer of the Reston Reading Series in Reston, Virginia, and the publisher and editor of Maryland Literary Review. Previously he was series editor for Best of the Web and fiction editor for Pedestal Magazine. His fiction has been published in hundreds of literary magazines such as Shenandoah, North American Review, Boulevard, Hotel Amerika, and Cimarron Review. Nathan’s nonfiction has been published in The Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and Orlando Sentinel. Nathan lives in Northern Virginia.