There were giraffes in the woods. Georgia had heard them moving and talking to each other with their giraffe voices. She’d nearly seen their spotted necks. Nearly. She would see all of them soon.
Georgia put the pencil end in her mouth and bit the metal circle that held the eraser to squeeze more out. The soft metal yielded to her teeth, and when she pulled it out, pink rubber stuck out of the mangled metal where it had been worn flat. She smiled and started to erase a line of her picture, but the tongue-wet rubber only smeared.
“What’s that?” Roger leaned over her shoulder, pressing into her, all careless, his five-year-old body hard and soft and chubby and skinny, a human contradiction.
Georgia shrugged him off.
“A giraffe. See the spots?”
“Looks like a cow,” Roger said, and ran away before she could point out the long neck. But now that he’d said it, it did look rather cow-ish, and she imagined a bubble over the head with “Moo” inside. She crumpled up the picture and threw it away. If she could see a real giraffe, she would know how to do one.
She took her backpack from her room and went out the back door. She wasn’t supposed to go into the woods alone, but her mother was in her office on the phone with a client, who, from the extra-clear and polite tone of her mother’s voice, Georgia could tell was particularly frustrating, so she would have several hours. She could hear the thump of the basketball next door where Roger had gone to try to shoot baskets with the Baton boys, all of whom were at least twice as big as him.
The woods stood dense, welcoming and dark beyond the over-watered lawn and the safe clutter of Roger’s balls and trucks. Georgia walked straight in, weaving between the rosebushes and thick tree roots almost without looking, her eyes fixed near the tree-tops.
“You don’t understand—
“I understand you have more important things to do than come home for a week. I understand you’d rather you didn’t have to come home at all.”
“That’s not true, but why should I want to come home when all you ever say is that I don’t want to be here? Clearly you don’t want me here, so why are you upset when I don’t come?”
“I’m upset because you don’t care about your children.”
“Stop. No more.”
The door swung open so fast Georgia had no time to run. She stood there, cold in the dark hall, her pink sleep shorts crooked after a hurried bathroom trip. He looked down at her. He was so tall. Past him, in the bedroom, she glimpsed her mother sitting on the edge of the bed, her arms folded tight, staring out the window. He shut the door and turned on the hall light. He crouched in front of her and straightened her shorts, buttoned two buttons on her shirt that she hadn’t noticed were undone, picked her up and walked down the hall with her to her room where he put her in bed, never saying anything. She watched his hands as they pulled up the blanket, touched her hair, turned out the light. She loved his hands. The way they did everything right, the way they moved fast but slow, so as not to make mistakes, the way they talked to her when he wasn’t talking.
It made Georgia’s mother unhappy that Georgia was six and couldn’t read, but she could count, and she counted everything. How many cheerios to form the first letter of her name on the table, how many years until she was ten, how many buttons on the remote. Most of all she counted him. How many days since she’d seen him, how many times he smiled, how many cups of coffee he drank quickly at the table, how many minutes it took him from home to work or back.
Georgia pulled the blankets up farther as he shut the door behind him. Eleven days since he’d touched her.
Georgia picked up a stick and examined it for bite marks. What kind of teeth did giraffes have? Bigger than a dog’s teeth, she’d be able to tell the difference. She dropped the stick and picked up another. Giraffes probably didn’t chew on sticks this large, but she couldn’t study the leafy treetops for marks, so she made do with these.
After an hour, she sat down on a root to wipe her face and make her report in the blue-backed journal in the smallest pocket of her backpack.
Nothing so far, I suspect they are hiding.
The report matched every other report, only with better spelling as the columns marched forth across the days.
She snapped the book shut and stood up, looking at her watch. She’d only been gone an hour, but already the sky was growing dark. Wind shook the tops of the trees, and the air tasted heavy. As Georgia walked home, (she knew that bush, that bent tree, that rotted stump, that bit of yellow moss), she hoped the giraffes had a safe place to go. Maybe they would come out of the woods to seek shelter.
Georgia reached her own yard as the wind whipped her hair in her face, then out again, trying to blow from two directions at once. Her hand almost reached the back door handle, but as the first fat raindrops splatted in her hair, she stopped. Her father’s car sat in the driveway.
From the immediate silence when she opened the door, Georgia knew her mother was off the phone. She looked around for Roger, and found him asleep in front of the blank-screened TV. At least she thought he was asleep, but as she turned to go, he said with his eyes closed, “Dad’s home.”
“I know,” she said, and went to her room to draw giraffes. Down the hall she heard her mother’s voice, whispering at first, but beginning to rise. Georgia rummaged in the closet for a pair of old gray earmuffs and put them on. She tried to draw a giraffe crouching in a cave, rain streaking outside, but it still looked more like a cow.
Her door opened. It was him. He looked at her, serious, then laughed. She didn’t understand why until she realized she couldn’t hear him and yanked the off the earmuffs. He stopped laughing, and the serious look came back.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” Georgia said.
“What are you doing?”
That answer seemed to hurt him somehow. His hands trembled slightly, but he smiled and said, “Oh,” and sat down on her bed and leaned forward, his hands pressed together and he looked at her and she knew what he was going to say and she wanted to put the earmuffs on so she didn’t have to hear it or scream or clamp her hand over his mouth. But she didn’t. She sat and looked at his shoes and wondered about giraffes.
The storm grew more violent, shaking the house while the trees outside whipped around like bendy little twigs. He opened his mouth and they knew, but all he said was “Sorry.”
Everything went black. For a dizzying moment Georgia blinked wondering if she’d gone blind, but dim light came through the window. Her father stood and opened the door and the hall was dark. In the gloom, she thought she saw him smile.
“Come on,” he said, holding out his hand. Georgia slid off her chair and took it. She did not know how many days it had been.
That night they ate together and in the dark. Roger was extremely excited about the whole thing and kept saying he hoped the power would stay out for a good long time. The dark made Georgia nervous, but Georgia’s mother was frightened. She kept jumping and staring into shadows as if she expected something to come out at her. In the light of the single yellow candle they’d found, she looked pale and young.
“Are you staying the night?” She asked, as if the words had been dragged out of her, and Georgia’s father was quiet a long moment then said yes. His voice sounded like smiling.
He slept on the couch, and as Georgia lay awake listening to the shrieking wind, branches breaking and crashes that might have been trees falling, she felt safe. But she still worried about the giraffes.
The power stayed out the next day, and Georgia’s father was drinking coffee at the kitchen table when she came in for breakfast. He winked at her. Something hot moved inside her, and she grinned.
Roger couldn’t contain his joy, and kept running and jumping until their mother said he would break something, so both he and Dad went next door to the Baton boys’ house to shoot baskets.
Georgia waited until her mother was busy in the kitchen before running to the woods. She searched all morning and found no sign of them. But at least that meant none had been hurt too badly in the storm. The sky sang like there had never been a storm, clear and blue, the winds gone round to the other side of the world. Trees had fallen, and Georgia had to pick her way carefully, making new landmarks.
At lunch, her mother said, “The power is back on in town. I wonder if any of the neighbors have it yet.”
Dad looked up quickly and said, “It’s on in town? Good, there’s something I have to go get.” And he smiled again, a spark in his eyes that Georgia almost didn’t remember.
He was gone most of the afternoon. When he got back, he saw Georgia watching from the window and beckoned her out mysteriously. He opened the trunk of his car and showed her what was inside, smiling all casual and leaning up against the car with his hands in his pockets.
“A tent?” Georgia said. “Sleeping bags?” she said, and then without thinking, she said “Are we going to look for giraffes?”
“What?” He stared at her.
“Nothing,” she said. “What’s it for?”
He bent close, his lips almost against her ear. “Do you want to know something? When your mother was a little girl, she loved to go camping. She hated sleeping in a dark house, but she didn’t mind the dark in a tent. She said it was an open sort of dark.”
“Oh,” Georgia said. “I see.” She nodded.
“Come on,” he said, “You and Roger can help me set it up.”
They were in the middle of getting it up, laughing and fumbling as the poles stuck out every wrong way, when Georgia’s mother came out into the yard and stood watching. She didn’t say anything, but Georgia saw her lips move in a half smile.
Georgia lay on her back in the sleeping bag, her arms over the top. Roger, worn out after so much happiness, was already asleep beside her. On her other side, Georgia’s mother breathed slow and deep. She couldn’t hear him, but she assumed her father, on the other side of Roger, had also dropped off.
The zipper kept sticking as she pulled it down the bag, and the tent flap unzipped so loudly she was sure it would wake the others, but at last she got out. Her boots and backpack sat waiting for her, and she’d kept her sweater and jeans on. Georgia fished in her backpack for the flashlight, though the moon shone bright. She set her face towards the woods. Tonight she would find them.
“If you’re running away, can I come too?”
Georgia jumped and spun around. Her father sat by the tent door, watching her.
“I’m— she began, but he put a finger to his lips and stood up. He led her over to the edge of the lawn and sat down again. Georgia sat beside him. In the moonlight, though he smiled at her, his eyes were sad.
“I’m not running away,” she said. He raised his eyebrows.
“I’m not. I’m just— she hesitated, remembering all the things her mother had said about her search and the way he’d said “What?” that afternoon.
“I’m looking for giraffes,” she said, and looked steadily into his eyes.
“Giraffes.” He repeated.
He watched her eyes and then suddenly reached out and touched her cheek with his palm.
“Georgia, why are you looking for giraffes?”
She reached in her back pocket and pulled it out, very creased and worn, and handed it to him. He opened it and looked.
“What are you drawing, Georgie?”
Georgia lay on the lawn on her stomach, the grass littered with crayons.
“Not giraffes? Why not?” He dropped down beside her, rolling over onto his back.
“Miss Scott said I wasn’t paying attention when she said giraffes, but I was. I didn’t want to draw one.”
“Oh, so Miss Scott said, ‘Draw giraffes’ and you didn’t want to?”
“There was a picture to look at. We were supposed to match it. I drew boxes with stripes.”
“I see. Clearly Miss Scott did not explain about the amazing qualities of giraffes.” He propped himself up lazily on an elbow. “They can eat the tops of trees they’re so tall, you know. They have long eyelashes and these weird triangular faces. Here.”
He took a page and began stroking different crayons quickly across it. When he handed it to her, it showed a very tall giraffe biting the top off a tree, a big grin around the leaves in its mouth.
“Have you ever seen a giraffe?” Georgia asked, impressed.
“Do they live in the woods?”
He laughed and pulled her up onto his chest, eyes dancing. “You never know,” he said, “the woods could be full of them. Keep your eyes open, and you’ll be surprised what all lives in there.” And then he rolled over and over with her across the grass, their laughter mixing around, the picture left behind for the time.
“Did I draw this?” He stared at it.
“You said the woods could be full of them. I haven’t seen them yet, but I’m sure I’ve heard them.”
“Oh, Georgie.” He looked from her to the smudged crayon lines between his hands. “If I said that, I was kidding, there aren’t any—
“How do you know?” She said. “Have you ever looked?”
“No, but this isn’t even the right part of the world,” he began, but she cut him off again.
“Well I think there are.” She took the picture back, folded it, and put it in her pocket. Her fingers shook.
“Ok.” He said. He pulled her onto his lap. “Ok. I won’t lie to you. I do not believe there are giraffes in the woods. But what we believe is our own choice, and I would never try to force you to accept what I believe. So we will go and look for giraffes.”
Georgia turned so she could see his face.
“Even though you don’t think we’ll find any?”
“Even though I don’t think we’ll find any.”
“The Batons have power. They’ve had it since this morning.”
She felt his smile against her hair. “Well that’s what breaker boxes are for, isn’t it? Come on.” He stood up and held out his hand. Georgia took it.
Georgia knew there were giraffes in the woods. Maybe they would find them, maybe they would be hiding. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all.