They arrived at the campsite around two in the afternoon the next day and set up their tents together, one beside the other. It was a nice view, Gervassi thought, and he was always up for a conversation. He thought he had a type, see. The short and soft blonde girls with crystal clear blue eyes and laughing, twinking voices that made him melt faster than butter in July, those were the ones he thought he’d end up with, but now… now there was Afra and any kind of notion was shattered. He had this pull to her.
It was something overwhelming and irresistible and why was she so very cute? She was cute and beautiful. Cuteiful. Gervassi thought he liked soft girls with soft bodies and gentle eyes and lips that always said, “Yes, yes, yes,” but now he found himself staring after a girl with glinting eyes and sharp edges and a mouth that seemed to sprout nothing but lies. He couldn’t trust her and yet… he never felt more at home. He lay on his back in his tent that first day of the hiking trip and smiled up at the plastic wrapped sky above him. Why was he acting such a fool, he asked himself, but the only thing the universe gave him as an answer was Afra popping her head through the tent and stepping in beside him. She sat cross legged on the floor and yawned. She was bored.
“I’m bored. What are you doing?”
He sat up. “I’m doing…” Don’t say something you think is funny and accidentally ends up sounding weird, don’t you do it, chanted Gervassi silently before taking a breath and answering, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Do you want to play a game?”
“No.” She yawned again and Gervassi grinned. That was the best yawm he had ever heard, even though it meant she was very bored by the presence of him. She probably couldn’t stand him. What was he thinking? She had a boyfriend. Didn’t she? Maybe. He wanted to ask her.
“What do you want to do, then?”
“I have an idea…” She said this in a way that was at once worrisome and suspenseful and before Gervassi could even name three state capitals in a row, she had left the tent. She came back with a huge ziplock bag. It was filled with Sharpies.
Gervassi, of course, assumed the worst. “Is that um… do you like…?”
“Don’t worry, butterball, these aren’t for recreational use. They’re for artwork. Here, give me your hand.” When Gervassi didn’t hand over the limb in question, Afra reached over and grabbed it. “I don’t bite.”
She was trying to regain control over her senses, but now that she had his hand, whether he liked it or not, that was touching and it was almost too much. Her bones were humming. Her stomach flipped. She dropped his hand. She picked it up again and smiled, tightening her grip, and uncapped her marker. It was blue. She began to draw something, a delicate flowerlike something, on Gervassi’s hand. He knew he shouldn’t laugh- and he wasn’t laughing at her artistic talent- but it was funny! Why were they doing this? It was weird, right? Yeah, Gervassi shook his head, this is weird. And yet, he didn’t move an inch. When Afra was done, she pushed his hand back at his body and shrugged. “Well. What do you think?”
He shrugged back. “It’s cool. But,” he picked up Afra’s own hand cautiously and took a marker from the bag, “I think it’s my turn now.”
Afra’s heart disagreed with her ribcage; it was thudding so loud she found it a wonder Gervassi didn’t notice, or at least ask if there were woodpeckers nearby. He uncapped the Sharpie and started to draw a small cat. It was very cute and had a gap between its two front teeth.
“There, you like?”
Afra patted her hand. “Yes, I do.” She stared at Gervassi. “Though I probably should not be here.”
“Ha! No. Well, that either, but I meant here. This tent. Your tent.”
Gervassi shook out his hair again. That was true, for once. “Huh, yeah. I guess you should leave.”
They both stared at the tent’s exit. Afra didn’t pack up her Sharpies, though, and she didn’t leave. They kept drawing and talking and avoiding the heart thudding feelings in their chests until dinnertime, as one does, as one does. When they left the tent, they had semi permanent tattoos on all exposed limbs. Well, obviously not their faces. They weren’t trying to copycat Post Malone or anything. The hiking director was a serious woman with caterpillar eyebrows and a strong jaw. She was beautiful because she said so, and anyone who got in the way would see exactly how much stronger her leg muscles had gotten since the last time she kicked them in the face. Her name was Antonia Sprilloletta, and she was making spaghetti for dinner when she met Afra and Gervassi, the tatted tent teens. She put her spoon down and put her hands on her hips.
“You’re almost late for dinner.” She peered closer and their Sharpie markings. “What’s with all the…?”
Afra clapped her hands together. “We were practicing.”
“For what?” Antonia asked.
“For our school. We’re training to become tattoo artists. We train with the best in the land. In Russia. We’re here on furlough. I’m Svetlana and this is my partner,” she turned to look at Gervassi, “Klavdi.”
Antonia didn’t have her list with her, but she could see through a lie easily after years of hiking with at risk youth. She could tell from miles away that these two had run away from some shape or form of broken home. Plain and simple, that fact was. But she also knew it was fun to let the illusion run, so she pursed her lips and played along. “You’re all the way from Russia? Impressive. May I ask why you chose this program, Svetlana?”
It took Afra a moment to realize the woman was talking to her and not some actual Russian girl named Svetlana. “Oh! We chose this program because it showed the most potential. To connect with each other and the universe.” She gave a show stopping grin and, in Gervassi’s case, a heart stopping one. How could one girl have such a beautiful face, honestly? “Plus, we heard they served the best spaghetti around.”
Even Antonia had to smile at that one. She handed them bowls, filled them up with a ladle, and they headed to sit down at some logs a while away. Antonia didn’t forget about them, though. No, she’d be watching, and sooner or later the truth would come out.
Afra and Gervassi ate together, not talking, and watched how the other consumed their spaghetti. It was tantalizing in the strangest way. Afra ate like no one was watching, especially not Gervassi. She wound up her spoon deep in noodles and shoveled whole mouthfuls into her face without so much as glancing up. She was done much before Gervassi, because he took his time. He ate in slow, delicate little scoops of perfectly balanced noodle and sauce. He wasn’t precise in much else, but his food was something easy to control, easy to manage. When Afra finished, she set her spoon down and rested her head on her hands.
“I can’t see your teeth while you’re eating like that.”
Gervassi stopped chewing, swallowed, and said, “What?”
Afra rolled her eyes. “I can’t… you know what, whatever, Klavdi.”
“Okay, Svetlana.” He was upset, to be honest, about how easy she found it to lie. Even through all he had put up with for the whole of his life, he had never been much for tolerating lies. They ruined things. He didn’t want them to ruin whatever connection he had with this girl, too. He lowered his voice, “Why did you lie to her?”
“Why does anyone lie to anyone? I didn’t want her to know the truth. We ran away, so someone must be looking for us. I don’t want her to call the police. I didn’t think you’d want that either.” She shook her head. “Here I thought you’d be grateful for my help, and instead you’re upset. It didn’t hurt you. I don’t see why you care so much.”
His disappointment was written all over his face. In his gray tea eyes, in his lips, in his cheeks, in his jaw… probably even the gap between his teeth was sad at her. Oh well. This was why Afra hated to make friends. They always gave you the most pained looks when they learned who you really were.
“I don’t like how easy it is for you to lie.” He stared into his bowl.
“Well, when you have to lie to survive it becomes your only defense against the world.” Afra stared into her own bowl, not daring to look up and see how Gervassi saw her now. A liar, more than anything. “It’s my only way of controlling things.”
Gervassi dumped the remaining contents of his spaghetti into the grass behind their log and stood up. He did know how important it was to have control over things. Like his food. How he looked. How his food made him look. He sat back down. “I have a way of controlling things too, but neither of them are healthy for anyone. We tear apart our families this way.”
“What gives you the right to talk to me like this?” Afra’s cat covered hands shook violently, now out of anger than nervousness or anything else. “What do you know about families?” She swallowed hard and smacked her spoon against the bowl. “What do you know about me?”
“I know that, for whatever reason, we’re here together and I’m not going to let whatever issues we have come between a nice time, okay? I know your name is Afra, not Svetlana, and that I’m glad it is because I kind of love your name. You’re right, I don’t know you. But I want to, and that should be enough.”
“You sound like you’re reading from a script.” Afra crossed her arms. She was secretly thrilled, but she wasn’t about to tell Gervassi that. “Little mister romantic comedy.”
“At your service, madame.”
“I don’t need your help. Just talk to me. I like your voice.” She grabbed his hands and clasped them together. “Your hands are so cold. You’d better warm them up.”
“My hands are not cold. It’s the middle of July.”
“Oh, well, you can warm them up anyway.” And so Gervassi went to go get a thermos full of hot tea the almost same shade as his eyes and he shared it with Afra, for whatever reason they were there.
After finishing their delightful mid July tea party, Afra went to her tent to stare at the ceiling and Gervassi went to his tent to do the same but ended up falling asleep and dreaming about a long legged spider with braids falling down her back and eyes staring straight down his soul. In the morning, they packed up their tents and put on their backpacks and ate breakfast. Well, Afra did. Gervassi skipped. He shouldn’t have, not after dumping his spaghetti last night, but he did anyway. They started the hike up hill at seven in the morning. Afra was as chatty as she had been the day before.
“When you die, what do you want to be remembered for?”
Gervassi looked at her but didn’t stop walking. “Oh, going straight for the tough questions, are we?”
“Yes! Tell me, though. What do you want to be remembered for?”
“I guess… Bravely, if that makes sense.”
It didn’t. Not to Afra. “No, what do you mean?”
Gervassi and Afra passed a tree with the initials Y and D scratched in the bark but they were too busy talking to notice. “I mean that I don’t want people to ignore any part of my life. I don’t want them to celebrate all of it, but I want them to remember it. History isn’t always meant to be celebrated, but I don’t want them to forget me. What about you? How do you want to be remembered after you die?”
“I don’t want to die at all.” A wild look came over Afra and she stopped in the middle of the trail, grabbing Gravassi by the shirt. “I don’t want to die at all. But if I do, if by any chance my plans to be cryogenically frozen and revived later on don’t work out, you have to remember me truthfully. Forget all the lies I told you and remember me for me.”
Afra let go of his shirt. Gervassi said, “Okay.” He thought she was cuteiful even when she was mad. They kept walking. “Can I ask you another question?”
“You can. I may not be able to answer it though.”
“That’s fine, I just want to know. Why did you leave home to come hiking?”
“Oh, that’s easy. My parents were working for the FBI, see, and I accidentally let the rivals, well Russia, actually, get ahold of all these super important files and so now we’re all in the witness protection program and I wanted to go to a party but they said no. Because of privacy and all that. I couldn’t get arrested. I couldn’t get my pictures taken.”
Gervassi sighed. “So it was about a party, then? Your parents and something about a party?”
“Yes.” She shot her eyes at him sideways. “How did you know.”
“I ran away from a commune.”
“No,” Gervassi said, “A commune. They are very different. But I had to leave either way.” They had seemingly gotten halfway to the hiking destination and not even noticed the burning in the legs from all the uphill climbing. Gervassi looked down at the valleys below. “I just had to leave.”
“I know what you mean. Hey, look at those trees.” Afra was looking at the valley now too, and the wind was whipping the trees all around. “They don’t have any control over where they go.”
“And we do?”
“We do.” Afra glanced at the rest of the group, a few feet away from her and Gervassi, or as they knew them, Svetlana and Klavdi. “In fact, we should choose where we go right now. We don’t have to follow them.”
“Well, technically we paid to follow them.”
Afra smacked Gervassi lightly. “Don’t be so technical, then. Come on,” she pulled a lock of his dark hair loose from the tie, “Let’s get lost.”
They ran in the opposite direction of the group. Antonia noticed them escape from the corner of her eye, but luckily, she didn’t chase them. She might have been old now, but she knew how it was to be young and in love with a person. A stranger only days before, now someone you couldn’t imagine living without. She let them run, but kept watching. Insurance didn’t cover lovesick teens running into the woods and getting eaten by bears.
Afra and Gervassi ran and ran until they stopped. Afra hadn’t realized it, but she’d grabbed Gervassi’s hand and was still hanging on to it now. She held their hands up and laughed curiously. “What are we doing?”
Gervassi didn’t let go of her hand. She was so very strong. “According to you, we’re getting lost, but I have a funny feeling we’re about to be found.”
“Oh. My. Thunderturtles. You literally sound like you stole John Green’s manuscripts and you’re using them to lure me to you. Good thing it’s not working.”
“Good thing you’re such a terrible liar.” Gervassi pulled her close, their faces just breaths away.
Usually Afra would have flinched at the word liar but not when Gervassi said it because… He didn’t mean to use the word to hurt her feelings. He meant it to validate them. “Yeah, good thing.”
“What else are you good at, though?”
“Hmm. I don’t know.” Afra leaned closer and dropped her voice so Gervassi had to be quiet and listen to her. “I’m pretty good at… Running!”
She pushed away from his chest and shot off through the woods, limber limbs be blessed. Gervassi yelled after her and followed, happy to chase if it meant there was a prize at the end of the race. Afra broke through the thick forest and kept running until she was out of breath. She stopped once she was far enough away from Gervassi to give her some time to breathe without her heart breaking out of her ribcage. As she walked, she saw the appeal of nature hikes.
Everything was so green and pretty, but more than that, it reminded Afra that she was alive. She twirled in the middle of the trees and vines, laughing and spinning and falling. She fell right into the ground, cracking her foot hard against the roots of a sprawling oak tree. Darn it. Darn it all.
“Afra!” Gervassi couldn’t see her anymore. “Afra!”
He looked over the trees as much as he could. Something had happened. He knew it. He became more frantic and confused as he picked up the pace, walking and running but trying to watch his surroundings all the same. Why was he so intent on finding her? Why did his heart rate drop when he realized she had met her goal, or getting lost? Well. They were supposed to get lost together, first of all. Afra could hear him calling her but she couldn’t answer. Her mouth was full of dirt and blood, both tasting like copper pennies. She started to cry. She hated crying but maybe that way he would hear her. She was right. A few minutes later, he was at her side because as it turned out, he had a radar for Afra in danger.