I found the doll in the forest on the day I nearly died asking Olivia Sheehan to prom. It was the day Jacob, Ellie, and I had gone deep into the woods to intentionally hang me by the neck from a tree.

Because here’s the thing: you can’t just ASK a girl to prom. You’ve got to PROMPOSE to her.  It’s like high school’s way of immediately revealing your creative abilities or lack thereof. The more elaborate and creative the promposal, evidently the more you care.

Talk about pressure.

It was Jacob who suggested I go with the “I’m dying to go to prom with you” routine. But it was Ellie who, sensing the weight and urgency that I felt, refined the idea, taking it from an overused and stale approach to something alarming and fresh.

“Look, if you’re going to do this, then you gotta go the extra mile. And you gotta let me help you do that,” Ellie had said.

For Ellie, going the extra mile is about a half mile deep into crazy. Yet I capitulated. Mainly because I did feel an urgency. This is because Olivia Sheehan was insanely beautiful and everyone knew it. Guys were always going on about Olivia Sheehan. Of course, most guys spoke less about Olivia and more about Olivia’s body, drooling over the obvious stuff. It made me sick, really, because I’m much deeper than the average carnal fellow. Even though I barely knew her, I saw what was on the inside of Olivia. Like her teeth. She had this small gap between her two front teeth that was intoxicating. Erotic, even.

I dreamt of kissing Olivia. But more than that, I fantasized of running my tongue over that gap, letting my tongue melt into it. I looked up the dental term for a space between teeth and ‘diastema’ immediately became my password for all my social media accounts.

I don’t know if anyone else dreamt of Olivia the way I did. But I knew I needed to act fast if I was going to be the first to ask Olivia Sheehan and her diastema to prom.

Ellie had suggested my “dying” had to look unique and startling – not grotesque or disturbing – but haunting with a touch of gothic flair. Like something Tim Burton might dream up. She eventually landed on a ‘suicide forest’ theme, suggesting we stage the scene somewhere deep into the Sequoia National Forest.  She claimed to know of the perfect spot – somewhere that required we hike waist deep in ferns and brush past tree after tree for nearly an hour. Finally, after suffering a healthy dose of scratches and unyielding complaints from Jacob, we arrived at a towering oak sitting alone amongst a sea of spruces and pines.

“My tree,” Ellie said with her arms spread.

Jacob served as the technical engineer behind the trick to make me appear truly hanged to death, all the while remaining very much alive – or so he assured me. He ran black nylon climbing rope through my clothes, clipping me to a harness I had to squeeze into under my jeans (my balls being sufficiently squashed). The black nylon rope sustained my weight while the thick fat blonde noose around my neck would be the only rope visible.

Within minutes, I was effectively and safely lynched, hanging in the cool of the forest posing for the photograph that we would later blow up into poster size and place on Olivia’s doorstep that night in an epic doorbell ditch. The poster would read “I’m dying to go to prom with you. Please don’t leave me hanging.” Hopefully, Olivia would not only realize how clever I was but also reply with an actual yes at some point before prom.

I looked down at my shoes dangling high above the earth. The view made my feet tingle. Ellie stood below in front of me holding her camera, her brown eyes studying me in a way that made me feel awkward.

“What?” I said.

She brushed her bangs from her eye and tilted her head a little. “You don’t look right,” she said after a moment.

“What do you mean?”

Ellie looked at the rope around my neck, my shirt, and then my feet. “I mean, this doesn’t work. Your…I don’t know, your aesthetics are off.”

“Yeah? Maybe your aesthetics are off.”

Her eyes locked with mine. “Yeah, well I guess we all can’t be Olivia freaking Sheehan.”

“That’s not what I meant, I was just –”

“You look fine. Let’s get this over with.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Ellie pointed her camera at me and took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Relax, dummy. Try to look dead. Don’t just hang there all uncomfortable like. Your all tense like you’re in line to get a prostate exam or something.”

“You realize my nuts are in a canvas vice right now, right?”

She fiddled with her lens a little. “Didn’t know you had any, but whatever.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing. Just pose okay?”

“No, why would you say that?”

She lowered her camera. “It doesn’t matter, okay?” Ellie brought the camera back to her eye squinting with the other. “Actually, I’m impressed that you’re finally making a move with someone, even if it is Olivia, the Beautiful. Now, do what you can to look like a dead guy so we can go home.”

“Seriously,” said Jacob, holding the belay line.

I wiggled a little to shake out the stiffness in my limbs. I let my arms hang focusing intently on relaxing every muscle. I cocked my head to the side and stared into Ellie’s camera lens with unfocused eyes.

That’s when I saw it.

From my vantage point – hanging from the tree at least eight feet off the ground – something caught my eye. A small, white oval with what looked like two dark round stones pushed in deep like blackened eyes. The oval seemed to be floating within the darkness of the trees ahead of me. It was a few dozen yards away, lit up by a ray of sun that managed to somehow poke through the needly ceiling of the shady woods.

“What the hell is that?” I said pointing.

“Stay still!” yelled Ellie as her shutter clicked and whirred.

“No wait. What is that?” I continued. I had to squint to focus on the object. I could make out what looked like wavy red tangles of hair sprouting out of the white orb. “Dude is that a human head!?”

Ellie yelled at me again to shut up and hold still. I reluctantly obeyed keeping my eyes trained on the ghostly head in the forest staring back at me. After a few dozen clicks of the camera Ellie shrugged her shoulders indicating she was satisfied she got the shot she wanted. She never showed any signs of interest of anything other than getting the shot. Jacob, on the other hand, was eager to lower me down and quickly free me of all ropes, harnesses, and carabiners.

“So…what was that you were going on about?” Jacob asked.

“I don’t know. There’s something creepy out there,” I said as I stripped out of my jeans and the harness.

“Whoa,” said Jacob. “You’re just gonna drop trou right here in front of Ellie?”

Ellie didn’t look up or make any sign that she was listening; she just stared silently at the preview screen on the back of the camera. I tossed the harness to the side and quickly pulled my jeans back on over my boxers.

“Like Ellie cares. Besides, I just want to go find that thing,” I answered tying my shoes.

“So what was it?”

“I dunno…kinda looked like a ghost or a head or something.”

Ellie looked up. “Let’s get these ropes down and get out of here.”

I didn’t answer. I started running in the direction of where I saw the head in the trees. Jacob ran after me.

“I’m thinking it’s around here somewhere,” I said as I rummaged through forest brush. I wasn’t having any luck until I looked up, realizing that it was my elevated position while hanging that afforded me a proper view of whatever it was. In front of me was a tall and remarkably thick scotch pine. About fifteen feet up was a blackened hollow spot in the trunk open wide like a rotted mouth. Backing up to get a better look at it, I could see into the knothole. Inside, propped up in a sitting position, was a porcelain doll the size of a small child.

Her hair was red and bushy from what looked like years of neglect or exposure. The face was milky white with a tiny rose mouth. Her eyes black and huge – were staring out into the forest.

“Holy shit,” Jacob said. “That’s freaking creepy.”

I looked at Jacob and realized that Ellie was not with us.

“Ellie, come look at this!” I yelled in the direction of the big oak tree. I could not see her through the thickness of the woods. I could just barely see the upper branches of the oak. “Ellie!”

“I’m going up there,” Jacob said, looking up at the knothole. With one Nike firmly planted on a on a branch and his hands wrapped around another, he pushed his way up.

“Stop!”

I turned around to see Ellie coming through the ferns, her eyes wide and fixed on me.

“What?” Jacob said, pausing.

Ellie wasn’t looking at Jacob. She just stood there looking only at me. She stepped close. “Please don’t go up there,” she said quietly.

“What’s the deal, Ellie?” I said with a confused chuckle.

Ellie grabbed my shirt and to my surprise, her eyes were wet. She blinked, spilling a heavy tear. With that tear came a memory of when she and I were both eleven.

***

It was the last day of 5th grade and we had stayed out later than we were both allowed, figuring that because there was no school and no responsibility for the next three months, we had earned the unspoken right to disregard curfew. We were wrong. At least in Ellie’s case we were. It was around 9:30 that the lights of her mom’s minivan turned into my driveway blinding us. The contrast of the bright artificial light piercing the dark purple of the dying summer sky was like the abrupt cutting of a favorite song. Ellie’s mother was wearing a look of pure rage. Her polite mask that I was accustomed to was entirely gone. Ellie’s little brother peered at us with great interest through the backseat window.

“Oh shit,” Ellie said. We were both sitting together hip to hip on my longboard in the cooling grass of my front yard. Ellie had the left earbud of my headphones buried in her ear. I had the right one. I remember that night as the first night I had ever heard of Vampire Weekend. Ellie was always trying to bring me into the light.

Her mom rolled down the driver’s window. “Do you realize how late it is?” She spit the words out in clipped fury. Her eyes were narrowed seeing only Ellie through fake eye lashes that in the shadow of the car, looked to me like a row of spiders legs curling in the summer heat. Her mouth was a split line, receding in a snarl that exposed her unnaturally white teeth all the way to the gums. I remember thinking that look would fit nicely in a John Carpenter film (Ellie had introduced me to John Carpenter’s work months before).

Ellie was grounded for an entire month. But just two days after the incident, she had found a way to sneak out early in the morning when her mom was gone taking her brother to the doctor or something.

She rode her bike to my house to see me. Of course, I was deep asleep – it was summer, after all. Not wanting to risk ringing the doorbell and be seen by anyone in my family (someone like my mom who might, out of her sense of parental duty, call Ellie’s mom later to report her infraction) she chose to repeatedly hit my second story bedroom window with dirt clods. I remember dreaming it was a bass drum thumping randomly without concern for rhythm. Finally, one struck with such force that I jumped straight up out of bed.

Blinking in the light, I looked out the window to find Ellie standing in our side yard looking up at me. She stood in her father’s khaki trench coat (of all things) while holding an old school boom box, which she fumbled with in silence. She was giggling.

“Dude, what the heck are you doing?” I said through the screen after sliding open my window.

She didn’t say anything. Just held up an index finger. I stood there in my underwear, conscious of the fact that from her position in the yard down below, Ellie could probably see my naked shoulders and bony chest through the window.

Suddenly, the quirky sounds of “A Punk” by Vampire Weekend filled my yard. With effort, Ellie managed to hold the boom box high over her head, channeling Loyd Dobler. Her grin spread wide, her brown eyes becoming slits against the sun.

“She gave me a pen,” she shouted up at me.

“What?”

“She gave me a pen. I gave her my heart, and she gave me a pen.”

“You’re a dork.”

She could only afford to spend a couple of hours with me that morning. We had pop tarts and juice and my older sister – the only one else home – promised not to tell anyone.

We were eleven. And maybe being eleven is too young to forge a truly intimate, soul-to-soul friendship, one that rivals in importance and meaning the best relationships life can offer. But maybe such bonds are enhanced by youth, unshackled by the hardened protective shells of adulthood we build around our hearts, solidified over time from layers of insecurities, disappointments, and the quiet abandonment of dreams.

Over those pop tarts that morning, Ellie and I listened to some random eighties band she had recently discovered, we laughed about He-Man’s briefs after struggling through half an episode, and we played Mario Cart. I won, of course.

But it was later in my backyard, sitting facing each other in my old, rusted swing-set playing our invented version of Uno, that her big eyes filled with tears. A fat drop the size of a dime rolled down her cheek.

“Are you crying?” I asked, still holding my cards close. “Why are you crying? You won’t be grounded forever.”

She wiped her face and looked away. “I’m crying, you dumbass, because you’re my best friend.” It was the first time either of us had used that label to describe our friendship.

“Jeez, why would that make you cry? Do I suck that bad as a friend?”

She shook her head and stared at her cards. “You’re an idiot. Let’s just play.”

I spread my arms. “What the heck did I do?”

She looked up from her cards. It was then she did something that nobody besides my mom had ever done before. She lay her cards into her lap and then softly placed her hands on my face – one on each cheek, looking into my eyes. At some point she must’ve leaned forward because I suddenly realized her nose was maybe a half inch from mine. I could feel the heat of her face on mine. Instinctively, I pulled back. She blinked and again looked away. Then Ellie wiped her nose and stood up. “I gotta go,” she said. “Call me in a month, if you still remember me by then.”

I watched her go, confused. I was eleven.

***

I watched the tear roll down her face as Jacob returned to climbing up the tree. She had a red strand of hair stuck at the corner of her mouth. With an index finger, I swept it away. She just looked at me and shook her head.

“Jacob!” I shouted. “Don’t worry about it. Come on down.”

“Nah, I’ll reach it here in a sec,” he said still climbing.

“Is it yours? The doll?” I asked Ellie in a quiet voice.

She nodded.

“You…do you come out here a lot or something?” Again she nodded.

“Jacob, seriously, leave it be,” I said loudly at Jacob.

“Why? I mean, why do you come out here? And that doll…” I said to Ellie.

She looked away. “It’s peaceful out here. You know, peace — that’s something everyone wants, right? Well, it’s everything I want but never have.”

“What are you talking about, Ellie?”

“Hey!” Jacob yelled from above. “The creepy doll is sitting on a cigar box! Cuban, I think!” Jacob shouted down at us. His free arm was buried deep into the knot of the tree.

Ellie buried her face in her hands. Her dad was always smoking these 9-inch cigars. It was a repeated topic of argument between her parents.

I left Ellie and started climbing the tree after Jacob. “Hey man, leave it alone. That’s somebody’s stuff.”

Jacob looked down at me. “Holy crap, man. There are all these notes in here. In girl handwriting. It’s like a journal or something.”

I looked down for Ellie. She was gone. I started climbing with increased effort and speed.

Jacob shimmied his way into a sitting position on a large branch adjacent to the knot hole and rested the cigar box on his lap. Jacob looked down at me with a grin. “This is some serious shit,” he laughed.  I reached out for his foot and grabbed his ankle.

“Put it back man, this is wrong.”

He kicked me my hand off. “Stop, you’re gonna make me fall.”

“Put the papers back in the box and put the box back in the hole and come down. This isn’t right.”

He didn’t answer but just shimmied farther away from me and the trunk of the tree. He was rifling through the papers.

“These are like, poems, and shit.”

I climbed higher and reached the knot-hole. In my effort to gain purchase onto the same branch Jacob was on, I grabbed the inside edge of the knot-hole to balance myself. My fingers slid inside the knot-hole, and I could feel it’s damp and soft wall. The air of the hole was warmer than the outside spring air. I looked inside at the doll. It’s red hair wasn’t the same shade or color of Ellie’s, but it was red nevertheless. Each eye had a splotch of dark paint, giving the doll brown irises. A white wire hung from one side of its head. I shifted my weight to my other hand and secured my feet onto a more sure position to free my arm closest to the doll. I brushed the hair back to see the earbud of a set of headphones taped to the doll’s ear.

“Hey man, you should hear this,” Jacob said.

“Jacob, I -”

He started reading.

I am struck and I shrink. I shrink and I am struck.
I speak and I am silenced, I am silenced, but I speak.

And I scream.

My cage is their moonlight on my bed, reaching me dead; their light cold, so I sleep.
My life is his sunlight on my skin, breathing him in, his glow gold, which I keep.

Theirs is the rot in my soul tearing from my eyes the dying rays of love within.
His is the fire of my heart melting away their lies borne of cold parental sin.

I rise but am I seen? I am seen and I rise.
I hold but am I held? I love but am I loved?

And I dream.”

Jacob looked from the folded paper and looked at me. “Don’t quit your day job, girl.” He laughed.

I looked at Ellie and couldn’t find her. She was gone. “Come on, man. Put it away.”

“She’s a tortured soul, so she’s at least she’s got that going for her.”

I looked again for Ellie. I couldn’t see her anywhere. Something flashed in my peripheral. I looked up in the direction of the oak tree to see Ellie climbing its trunk. The noose still hung freely on the strong branch.

“PUT IT BACK!” I yelled to Jacob and started to carelessly climb down the pine at speed, scraping myself as I dropped.

“Yeah, okay. Shit, man,” I heard Jacob say.

I jumped the remaining five or so feet and landed clumsily on the forest floor causing me to tumble. I got up and ran through the brush in the direction of the oak tree.

“Ellie!” I yelled. I swatted away thorns, branches, and brush as I ran to the clearing of the oak tree. Ellie was sitting on the branch where the heavy yellow rope of the noose was tied.

“Ellie, what are you doing?” I said, out of breath.

“Nothing.”

“Let’s go, Ellie. Come on. Get down.”

Her eyes were puffy and red. She looked at me.

“Come on,” I repeated. “We gotta go.” She sat still for a few more moments. “Look, I’m gonna throw pinecones at you, if you don’t come down.”

She shook her head and took in a deep breath. She slowly exhaled. “Don’t tell anyone, okay?”

“Ellie, we’re best friends, who would I tell?”

She wiped her face and looked at me. Thinking back on it now, I can’t help but wonder how it works – how two people can connect without speaking a word. She sat there on that branch looking down at me and I up at her. Memories of us talking late into the night, walking home from school, playing video games, having stupid, ridiculous arguments, listening to music, and laughing – lots of laughing – flashed within my mind and filled me with a happiness that blurred into a hope I had never felt before. It was a brief moment while our eyes locked, but significance isn’t measured by time. The message was clear: we were best friends. And I don’t know what anyone else thinks, but from my experience, the souls of best friends are knit together through threads of…well, love, I guess.

And that’s when I knew.

Ellie untied the rope and let the noose drop to the ground. Within minutes she was safely down, too. I ran up to her.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Because, dummy, you’re into the Walking Diastema.”

I reached out to pull her to me. She let me. Slowly, she relaxed into my embrace. I held her tightly as her red curls tickled my face, one loop poking painfully into the corner of my eye. But the softness of her hair and the warmth of her skin brought a peace that I had never known. I think that was when I realized what it means to be alive.

“Hey,” I said. “Would you require a promposal, or is all of this good enough?”

She didn’t respond; at least not verbally. She just squeezed me tighter. I decided there was no better way to communicate.

Jacob caught up to us. “What the hell is going on?” he asked.

 

Ellie was beautiful the night of the prom. But then again, she was always beautiful.

###

 

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