We were up all night, just talking on the phone and planning the evening. It’d taken what felt like forever to find a time to meet up in our little treehouse, the one we’d found when we were little, covered in moss and bugs and tired love. Annie hadn’t been able to get away from her parents, still overprotective of their precious 19 year old, and Lord knows I’ve been too busy at work to have any free time on my hands. But after 3 weeks of being apart, we could finally meet in our little corner of the woods.
I’d laid out a blanket, brought flashlights, even water bottles and snacks. A proper treehouse picnic. Now I was just waiting for her to come. In the meantime, I surveyed the small space, making sure everything was perfect before–
“Maya? Are you in here?” Annie whisper-shouted up the ladder. I poked my head over the trapdoor, looking down at her. Her flawless white teeth literally shined up at me in the darkness of the night.
“You’re late,” I teased as she climbed up.
“I know, and I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t–” I cut her off before she could continue, hushing her with a kiss. We were both sitting, practically in each other’s lap, on the treehouse floor. Annie’s hand slowly found its way to my shoulder, then to my face, then tangled in my black Soul Train-inspired afro. Just the way I liked it.
Being with her… something about Annie, and only Annie, put me at ease. Maybe it was the way her golden hair shone in the light, or how I knew I could drown in those ocean blue eyes. Or knowing that if I did indeed drown in her love, she’d be right there, drowning in mine. My only sin? Being born a girl. We’d been coming to our secret spot for… almost five months now, I think? It was dangerous, of course–two girls, one black and one white, stealing away in the dead of night to some dark corner of the woods. We couldn’t be discovered. It’d ruin everything.
Annie took note of how I’d set up the place. “You did all this? For me?”
“No, Ann, the ‘Happy Birthday’ cake is for the squirrel in the next tree over.” I grinned. She punched me playfully.
“Oh, you want to mess around?” I continued, “Maybe I’ll just keep all this cake for myself! My birthday’s coming up, too, you know.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t!” She tackled me, laughing, blond tresses flying everywhere. I mean, really. There’s a reason I’d called her Rapunzel as kids. We rolled around on the blanket, pretend-wrestling like we used to when we were little. She fought until she was on top of me, then placed a kiss on my lips. Then to my neck. Then– lower. Softer. Lord have mercy.
We continued roughing around and messing with each other. When we were both tired, we laid down and just held hands. What a sight: two girls, one tall, blond, and beautiful, and one short, black, and average. Hands wrapped so delicately around each other’s, her right around my left, my head against her shoulder. Matching in gender and not in skin tone. Two dangerous, dangerous combinations. But what can be done when you love someone?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
We stayed like that for hours, just talking until we fell asleep. Then–
“Well, wouldja look at what we’ve got here, John, a pair of dykes,” an amused, rough male voice from above woke me up. My eyes opened slowly. Annie kept sleeping, she was never one to wake up quickly. Oh, shit. The man above me was tall, probably in his late 40s. Another man, younger than him and sneering, stood to his left. Hunting rifles hung from their sides.
No, no, this couldn’t be happening, we couldn’t have been discovered, it was all just a bad dream–
“Looks to me like this one’s awake,” crooned the older one, crouching so that his head was only a foot from mine. This close, I could see the entitlement, the pure hate etched into his features. Nothing–nothing–had ever been louder than my heartbeat in that moment. He flicked my nose, a cat playing with its food. Then, those hands stronger than a bull, he tore me from my love. Finally, she woke up and opened her eyes groggily.
The other one, John, grabbed her arm and dragged her to him. “This one’s pretty, Richard. It’s a real shame, ain’t it?”
I took a deep breath. “This isn’t what it looks like, sir,” I hissed at them, “we haven’t done anything, we’re just… friends, okay? That’s all, please–”
“Friends?” the older one laughed, “Friends, missy, don’t hold hands. Friends don’t sneak away in the middle of the night together, now do they? No, that’s not what friends do. I think I’ll teach you a lesson about friends, ‘cuz it seems like you need it.”
His grip on my arm tightened and he twisted, forcing me to cry out. We haven’t done anything wrong, I wanted to shout. Because we hadn’t, we’d just messed around, and besides, was loving each other really such a crime if we’d known each other our whole damn lives, and weren’t we better, really, than those couples who met at a bar and got married after a month, and this was our treehouse, and we were just kids, so please–
He shoved me to the trapdoor, grunted, and told me to climb down. And that if I tried to run, he’d show me how good his aim with that hunting rifle was. My hands shook, and I stole a glance at Annie. She was trembling, John’s strength overpowering her. Nothing but pure, undiluted fear shone back at me in those ocean blue eyes.
I looked the man, Richard, in the eyes. He was taller than me by at least a foot, but there was no way in hell I’d let him hurt Annie. I’d sooner light the place on fire than see her harmed.
“Do whatever the hell you want to me, alright? But leave her out of it.”
Richard looked at me, then Annie, then me again. “Deal,” he whispered. Then he shoved me down the opening of the trapdoor.
Time seemed to slow. I threw my hands outward, grasping for anything, anything at all to save me. No prayers were answered. There wasn’t even time to scream before I hit the ground. Then the forest floor slammed up to meet my body, and the breath was ripped from my lungs. I could do nothing but stare up at Richard’s sneering face, looking down at me with disgust and an evil sense of victory.
He climbed down, John and Annie following. Richard skipped the last three steps and jumped down, landing roughly next to my head. Like some show of power, to prove that he could hurt me with barely any effort. Then he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to a small clearing, just a few feet away. It’s easier to hit me here, I realized. And I couldn’t fight back. I could barely even feel my legs.
“John, why don’t you take Miss Blond over to her home?” John started to move, dragging Annie with him. But she fought him with everything she had, and I could do nothing but watch. She broke free, somehow, and gave him a perfect right hook. I don’t know if she’s ever been more beautiful than in that moment. But it didn’t last, it couldn’t, not when she was alone facing two men older, stronger, and swifter than she was. John hit back, pounding her head into a tree. Then he slammed the butt of his rifle into her head, knocking her out cold. I closed my eyes. I… I couldn’t watch. Not when there was nothing I could do. John threw her over his shoulder and walked away, barely being weighed down by her. Her golden hair disappeared into the dark.
“Now, this is where the fun begins, little missy,” he bent down to me, “you and me, we’re gonna have a great time.” He hit me, his fist clashing perfectly with my jaw. But I realized I could at least move my arms, and I blocked his next hit. He only laughed.
Then his boot collided with my jaw, and blood flew. A rock–no, a tooth–rolled around in my mouth. I spit it out before I could choke on it. That’d probably only make him laugh some more.
There was nothing I could do except cover my face with my arms as he kicked me. Again, again, again. I cried out, begged, and fought back, but not a single thing I did was significant enough to stop him. I wasn’t significant enough to stop him. So he continued, kicking, hitting, and laughing, until the world faded and I fell into darkness.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
My withered hands shook as I held the old letter in my hands. It’d been exactly forty-five years since that fateful day. It’d taken me months to learn to walk again. I was an old woman now, only a month from my sixty-fifth birthday. I looked up at the apartment walls around me, covered in pictures and heirlooms and scratches from years of raising children. The paper I was holding was withering, just like me, covered in smudged ink and dotted with tears. It was that letter from Annie, the one she’d given me with our last kiss just a day after those men had hurt us both so badly. It held our secrets, a million ways she wanted to tell me she loved me, and the painful bottom line: the last paragraph, where she told me we couldn’t see each other anymore. That it was too dangerous. She was right, of course. She always was. But that didn’t change the hurt I’d felt when I’d first read the letter. Or the second time. Or the third.
But those days were over now, and I’d had a life since then. Gotten married, had two kids. I hadn’t loved my husband the way he’d loved me, but he’d known that from the start. We’d only married and had kids to please our parents. I’d never shown him physical affection, never wanted to, and he’d never pushed too hard. Oh, he’d had his share of mistresses during those long years, but I didn’t mind- especially since I’d dabbled with a few of them myself. None had reminded me of Annie, but then, there was no one who could compare. It’s been a year since he passed of a heart attack. Damnit, Langston, I always told you to watch your cholesterol. Now I was all alone, my kids all grown and with families of their own, in this too-big apartment.
A knock on the door shook me from my reminiscing. I groaned as I got up–I’m too old for this shit– and answered. An old woman, likely my age, stared back at me, eyes wide.
Eyes. Ocean blue eyes. And she was tall, too– beautifully tall.
“It’s you,” she sighed, tears forming slowly.
“Annie?” I couldn’t breathe.
“You remembered.” I stood, breathless, as her arms wrapped around me. Of course I remembered, I thought, how could I ever forget you?