It rained through the whole week.

Students and faculty alike ran like Olympians, hoods and folders held about their heads as shields, with the downpour like a constant volley of liquid arrows. Soon there were no leaves on the trees and still the water came down, wave after wave, until late Saturday afternoon when it abruptly ended. The last echoes of thunder still rolled over the hills as the puddles soaked through the soil and disappeared into unknown reservoirs.

The stars were the first light from above to reach campus as the students and faculty made their way around the mud and muck. While everyone else left the dorms for open mic night, I stood in the field, watching the blinking eyes of the universe open from above the atmosphere. For a while I thought about the students starting their skits, and the boys and girls about to sing the same songs they always did with their dinky hipster stringed instruments.

My pocket rumbled, I reached inside to pull out my phone; on the screen was the picture of Zoe wearing my blue flannel shirt. I could see that she had ripped the shirt pocket. Just got here. Parked next to road.

I turned away from the sky and went back down the path through the bushes. I could feel myself getting nervous. A week had passed and she hadn’t changed her mind. I had nearly convinced myself she wouldn’t come back but now I was about to see her, just the two of us this time.

Her black SUV was parked near the dorms. I felt an intense desire to hold on to the moment, which felt like trying to keep a grip on a rock in the middle of a river rapid. My feet sped me forward. She came out of the car and turned. When I caught her eye, I felt a surge of energy crest over me, a spark that started in my stomach, arced through my lungs and caused my face to flash into a smile—which scrambled some ungrounded circuits, tempting me to chase that feeling right to her. Would we hug? This would be our second-ever interaction. My arms started to rise when we were still a good distance from each other, but thankfully I acted quick, put one arm down, and waved with my open hand.

“Silas!” She gave a little wave back and then held up her finger, went to the back of the vehicle, and waited while the trunk door opened automatically. I came around the side as she pulled out my borrowed shirt. I wasn’t sure if I should hug her or something, but I stood awkwardly until she handed my commandeered shirt to me.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Thanks for letting me borrow it,” she replied. Had she always sounded this way? I had thought about our brief interactions over and over for the past few days, had I already forgotten the sound of her voice?

“Want to walk? There is someplace I want to take you,” I found myself saying. 

“Sure. Let me just lock up.”

I nodded and waited as she pushed on her keys and the car flashed twice, locking. “Could you hold these? My jacket is in the car. No pockets.”

I looked her over. She had on a grey tank top and a black pleated skirt that ended just before her knees. She clearly had thought out what she was wearing with an elegance that drove my imagination into embarrassing situations. I couldn’t take my mind off what she might look like underneath and I tried to not stare, so I distracted myself by putting my flannel shirt on. I could see the tear along the bottom of the pocket, which came apart more when I stuck my finger through it.

We walked across the parking lot, filled with empty faculty cars. No one would go looking for me, and even if they did, they wouldn’t go all the way down to the Bow Shop to check. I felt her brush against me as we walked and her hand slipped into mine.

“Where are we going?”

“Cliff’s—my advisor’s office. We call it the Bow Shop. It’s a workshop, but for bows.”

“Like wrapping presents?”“Oh, no, like archery bows. Arrows. That sort of thing. I’ll show you.” 

I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. Passing the granite rock that marked the entrance to the woods, Zoe talked about her week at school. I wanted to tell her about my first days at public high school, when being forced to go to a boarding school only happened in YA novels, but before I had a chance to tell her, we had arrived at the Bow Shop. It seemed to be hanging from the stars tonight, instead of a shed half-sunk in the soft ground. Zoe gasped.

“I wish I’d brought my camera,” she said.

I walked forward and flicked on the lights. The room was suddenly bright and Zoe walked around examining the melted candle wax, saws, and long bows that hung from the ceiling, sweeping her hand against the table tops, upsetting a stack of wood chips onto the floor.

“You make these things?” she said, pointing to the finished bows. I nodded. “Where’s yours?” Even though my bow still lay unfinished in the corner, I pointed to one of the finished ones Cliff always used as an example. She gasped and held it in her hands. “This is beautiful. How’d you make it?” 

“Took a while. Actually, do you mind if I turn the light back off? If the faculty look this way and see the light on—”

She nodded. I turned the light off, but really we didn’t have to. Open mic was going to last at least until ten; even if a faculty member went outside, the Bow Shop was deep enough in the woods that the light wouldn’t make it through the trees, despite the absence of leaves.

“Check this out,” I said.

I reached around in the dark, found the ladder to the loft and Zoe’s hand. Guiding her to it, she climbed the rungs wordlessly. I had spent the last week looking for a place to take Zoe where no one would find us, so I had hidden all the stored cardboard boxes and snowshoes underneath the building. Should someone go to the Bow Shop, no one would think to look for us here.

I followed her into the loft. Zoe was looking up—there was a skylight in the roof that I had never seen before. I leaned all the way back and let my hands cradle my head as I lay down. Zoe did the same. It had been dark all week as I had snuck down here to clean and rearrange, but now a pale moonglow came, accompanied by stars. 

“Isn’t it crazy,” said Zoe, “how entrancing and unsettling the vastness of the universe can be?” This threw me off. I was thinking about when I would kiss her. Zoe kept talking. “It’s like an ocean carrying off planets with castaways, lost except for their light. I really wish I brought my camera.”

I sat upright and nearly hit my head against the ceiling. “Except they’re not even there.”

Zoe sat up with me. “What do you mean?”

“Well, the stars aren’t really there anymore. They’re light-years away and even then, it’s not like we are seeing them as they are now. Some of those stars have been dead for millions of years.”

Zoe shook her head. “Not all of them. Just because those worlds and stars are gone, doesn’t mean they don’t still matter. They are not lost entirely because their scrap of light is flung out into the dark, however many years later. Some still exist, and anyway they all still have a message in a bottle that’s only just now washing up on our shore. They aren’t forgotten. I’m cold,” she murmured, so I took off my flannel and handed it to her. She smiled and said, “I thought I just gave this back to you.”

“Hey I’m not warm either. Keep complaining and I’ll take it back.”

“We can share. Here.”

She moved closer and I put my arm around her waist. I wasn’t all that cold, but I could tell that she wasn’t either. I realized that she was talking but I wasn’t listening. I couldn’t believe what I was about to do, but I concentrated, held out my hand, and placed a finger on her mouth. She stopped speaking and I leaned forward to meet her.

The next few moments felt both an eternity and an instant, then we were back outside, her hand in mine. I felt more alive than I had ever felt. She was beside me now laughing into the night. I was grinning like an idiot and couldn’t stop. We ran out onto the field and I felt breathless and tender for Zoe. She laughed and pulled my hand forward. Soon we were in the parking lot. I worried that she was trying to make me take her to my room, but as I turned towards the dorm, she pulled my hand in the other direction.

At the car she stopped me and threw her arms around my neck. We were kissing again. I could feel the tug of her lips on mine, the indication of how much she wanted me, and this time I didn’t feel bashful and pressed my body against hers, letting her know how much I wanted her. I held her waist, feeling her back arch over. She was up on her toes, which brought her mouth a little higher than mine, but I didn’t care. We were both short. Everything felt so right and natural. Eventually, she let go and we separated. I felt the chill in the air now.

We pulled out of the parking lot and went down the driveway, going past the bright light in the windows of the auditorium, but when we turned down the road, the buildings faded into the darkness. It didn’t feel like breaking the rules. I was simply out for a ride with Zoe. Was this the person I would spend the rest of my life with? I watched her slow at the crossroads, come to a full stop, and ease the foot pedal forward till we sped up again. Was she this good at everything? Here was where I would sit for the rest of my days, slightly to her right and buckled in place.

It all felt very grown-up, although it also felt like I was being driven by a  parent. Zoe drove better than mine did anyway. She was seated firmly behind the steering wheel, hands at nine and three, eyes focused ahead, the headlights like an extension of her gaze, illuminating the rolling hills of rural Vermont with a fixed floodlight.

“Oh shit, forgot the stuff at home,” she said, suddenly pissed off. I waited a moment and she frowned, still looking forward. “I guess we can just pick up some on the way.” 

“That works for me,” I said, not knowing what she was intending, but excited all the same. It was mystery date of sorts. This is one of things I was supposed to expect from a new relationship, surprises and new experiences. Zoe had already decided where we were headed and I was her accomplice, like it or not.

We slowed down and she indicated to turn at a gas station. Then I saw Cliff’s truck and Cliff heading towards the pump. We were pulling in right next to him. 

“Stop. Turn back,” I said, trying not to shout. I unbuckled, sliding down the seat. 

“What’s wrong?”

“That’s my advisor. He can’t see me off campus.”

“You guys can’t go off campus? How short is your leash?” she said with a smile.

“You don’t get it. Back up slowly.”

“Well, that would just draw attention to ourselves, wouldn’t it?” I could see the mischievousness brightening her eyes. I took a deep breath and watched Cliff step out and twist the gas cap out from the rusted red metal. He was right there.

Zoe turned the engine off and with a glance I knew there was no persuading her. She took out some folded bills from a cup holder and said, “Why don’t you go in and get something for us to eat, and I’ll get some gas. There’s a plastic bag at your feet, get whatever you want. Or you can cower in the back seat if you like.” She was testing me. I doubted she even needed gas. 

I took the money and bag while she unbuckled. I watched as Zoe approached the pump across from Cliff. She turned, blowing me a kiss. She was clearly enjoying whatever expression was on my face as I got out. I looked at Cliff to see if he was turned this way, but he was staring out at the night sky, barely visible from the gas station’s neon glow. I was thankful that he was being introspective; if I was caught out here at this hour, I would probably be on the first bus down the coast before sunrise. I got out and hurried over to the store, not daring to turn back. “And a lighter!” Zoe yelled behind me, which made me quicken my pace to a jog.

The door opened inward and I was greeted by the air conditioning, which made the small crowded room seem like stepping into a refrigerator. I went through the stacks looking for things that seemed healthy and sophisticated, but there wasn’t much in that category. Besides, it wasn’t like she would drive me back to campus if I bought junk food. It was a gas station after all.

I walked to the counter with an armful of sodas, chocolate-covered nuts, chewy candy, potato chips, and a large can of iced tea. Setting the items down, I picked two lighters, orange and red, from the displays by the register, along with a pack of mint gum. I watched as the cashier, a girl not much older than me, rung up the items and I wondered if I should get cigarettes. Did Zoe even smoke? I thought for a moment until I realized that it was her money anyway, and if she didn’t smoke, I could keep them in my pocket and no one would be the wiser.

“Is that everything?”

“A packet of the blue ones too, please,” I said, pointing to the cartons behind her. She rang up the total and counted through the bills.

“You’re short.”

“Excuse me?” I said, offended.

“Short. $14.13,” she said defiantly, sounding irritated to talk any more than necessary.

“Oh. Uh, without the gum. And the drinks. And I guess just one lighter also.”

She removed the orange lighter and the other items from the plastic bag. I waited a moment while she subtracted them from the bill.

“Still short,” she grunted. “$9.23”

How could these things cost so much?

“I’ll pay it,” said a familiar voice behind me. “Without the cigarettes.”

I stepped to the side while Cliff came to the counter, took out his wallet and handed the bills over as he looked at me. I met his eyes but he didn’t say anything. I was in trouble, yet from the look he gave me, the trouble was just between the two of us. I made a mental note to remain busy in Cliff’s presence for the rest of the school year, took the bag, and went back outside to the waiting SUV. 

Zoe looked as anxious as I felt.

“Just drive,” I sighed.

“I wanted to stop him from going in, but I couldn’t think of anything,” Zoe said, flicking on the high beams and signaling to get back on the road. “I even texted you. Did you get it?”

I felt in my pocket for my phone, which had two new messages. Both were from Zoe: Advisor alert! and He’s behind you!!!!

“Is he going to get you in trouble?”“No, I don’t think so. It’s okay anyway.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for you to get caught. Is there anything I can do?”

“Do you have a smoke?”

“Yeah, I have a few, but this is Dad’s car. Can you wait until we get there? I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine. Want something to eat?”

Zoe perked up. “Did you get something to drink?”

I hadn’t but I didn’t respond.

We drove until we came to a densely wooded area, where Zoe parked on the street in front of a driveway. It was dark enough that I couldn’t see the house, but I could see it was a long path up to something in the woods. I thought about asking where we were but I didn’t want to pry; Zoe had been quiet for the last few miles. She turned off the engine and said softly, “Here we are.”

She put on a jean jacket, got a big quilt out from the back of the car, and we started to walk up the driveway in the dark. Zoe took out a pack of cigarettes and tossed them in the plastic bag I was carrying. She was struggling with the arm that was holding the quilt. “Can I carry that for you?”

“No, thanks,” she said, reaching for my hand with her free one, which was sweaty. I gave it a squeeze anyway.

“I’m glad you want to do this with me,” she said.

“Thanks for taking me.” 

The driveway curved up a hill as we came out to a flattened lawn with a few cars and a mansion. It had three stories, with columns at the entrance and a garage connected to rest of the house. It was massive, like nowhere I had ever seen. It was hard to believe that it was a house and not a museum.

“So, this your place?” I asked, hoping it was true.

Zoe shook her head. Were there tears in her eyes? I touched her shoulder. She pulled back and shook her head again. 

“I’m fine. I’m ready.”

“Zoe,” I said, “What are we doing here?”

Zoe looked at me. “Didn’t I say? We’re going to burn this house down. You bought the lighter, right?” She was putting down the blanket but I saw now that she had been carrying something under it. In her hand was a red plastic tank. “You did it, right?”

“Did what?” I said, realizing what she meant as I said it.

“You burned the building down at your school. You’re that guy, right?”

“What are you asking me to do?”

“Help me. You know how, right?”

I was outraged at what she was saying. “What the fuck do you think I’ve done?”

“Keep it down, can you be quieter?”

“What do you mean, keep it down?!”

Zoe raised her hands to quiet me. Then I realized why she wasn’t letting me yell.

“Zoe, are there people in there?”

She paused for a moment. I knew then that this had been something she had been planning for a while. She looked guilty and motioned to be quiet again. I started yelling at her and a light came on somewhere on the second floor, then I was running down the hill, back the way we came. Halfway down the driveway I stopped, tore through the bag, and threw the food on the ground. I found the red lighter in the mess and tore through the packet of cigarettes. Down at the car, the doors were unlocked but Zoe hadn’t followed me, so I took one of the cigarettes out of my pocket, lit up, and got inside. The smoke whirled about me in the darkness and I could almost feel it coat the upholstery. Screw her and her father. Why the hell was I here? Had she only kissed me because she thought I could start another fire? I wasn’t anyone’s pyrotechnician.

After another cigarette, Zoe came down the hill and put the trampled food in the back seat. I could hear the gasoline settling in the plastic tank as she shoved it into the trunk. Then Zoe got in the driver’s seat. We sat in silence. I stared straight ahead, but I could see her shaking in the corner of my eye. I didn’t know if I should pity her or get out and start walking.

After a while she spoke. “I’m going to drive you back now.”

“I’d appreciate it,” I muttered.

“This whole night was a mistake,” she said. “I don’t even know you.” I snorted. “What’s so funny?”

“Funny? You think this is funny, asking me to burn a house down for you? With people in it? Funny? You are out of your mind. Do you think I’d teach you how? Jesus.”

“I—I wasn’t thinking straight.” The interior lights above us went out. The car went back to pitch black, but I could tell Zoe was crying because of how her voice wavered. “It’s all been too much. I need to bring you back now.”

“Who lives in that house, Zoe?” Instead of answering, she turned the key. The car started, lights illuminating the cigarette smoke and Zoe’s teary cheeks. The dashboard’s dials climbed up to their limits and came back down to rest at their individual measurements. I watched as the fuel gauge rose halfway and stopped, and I sighed and settled back into my seat. Zoe stuck her hand out and I passed her a loose cigarette, which she put in her mouth, lighting it quickly. She opened the window as we darted back into the night with the cold air whistling past.

Slumped over the steering wheel Zoe hardly touched the brakes the whole way to campus. I barely stepped out of the car before she took off. I watched her get to the end of the parking lot and I could hear the tires spraying the gravel about.

The open door banged against the side of the car until it latched as she turned the corner and disappeared beyond the hill.

Someone grabbed my shoulder. Seizing the back of my collar and yanking hard, I was spun around to face my assailant. It was Townsend, my dorm parent, his bald head shining in the moon’s glow, the stars reflecting off his glasses. He was practically slobbering. “Gotcha this time, Silas.”

He barked and howled, dragging me backwards across the gravel. As I was pulled along by my nape, I jettisoned the loose cigarettes from my pocket by tearing them up and dropping them while I kicked at the gravel. He would probably notice the smell on me, but if there was no evidence, I wouldn’t be bothered about it. The real issue was how I was going to explain getting out of the car. He had seen me get out, that much was certain, but I struggled to think what else he might try to pin on me. Had open mic already ended?

Townsend the Terrible practically whirled me around his shoulder like a ballroom dancer as he shoved me towards the building. I opened the door and held it open for him, but he grabbed my collar again and threw me forward into the common room.

“My office. Now!” he shouted, loud enough so that just about anyone on campus that was asleep would be wide awake. He stormed up the stairs to his office.

“Where’s Kyle?” Townsend yelled from above. Some boys playing cards in the common room were on their feet. For some, Townsend had never been so angry, but I’d seen it before, although he had just broken into new decibels as he let out a noise from the stairwell that only barely resembled my name. The sound didn’t seem to just come from his throat. I needed to find some sort of excuse, quick.

Each step up the stairs to Townsend’s office was a struggle. As my legs carried me higher, I could feel my heart sinking in my chest and my head getting lighter. I had to calm down. What did they already know? I was certain that Cliff wouldn’t have told Townsend, at least not already. He practically hated Townsend as much as I did anyway. I sighed and entered the office. There was a barren desk with a swiveling chair that faced a beaten couch. In that couch there had been many young offenders over the years, and the fabric was just as torn as the sofas in the common room. Townsend stormed out as I sat down. I pulled out my phone, quickly changed the name Zoe to Aunt Zoe, and deleted the contact photo of her in my shirt. I could hear the boys scrambling out of the living room as Townsend descended the stairs. Then I tried to call her, thinking of getting Zoe to say she was my aunt and how she made an impromptu visit that had taken me by surprise, but it rang out twice. It was useless. That psychopath wasn’t going to cover for me. She was trying to frame me for the fire, I realized, as Townsend, closely followed by his lackey Kyle, burst into the room.

“Search him,” said Townsend to Kyle, turning away for a moment to rustle in the desk drawers. Kyle nodded and I stood; we had been through this before. All that he found was my cell phone and Zoe’s money, both of which he placed in front of Townsend. I thanked myself for the foresight to remove the cigarettes in the parking lot. I was also thankful for Cliff buying the food because he had the receipt and I didn’t.

Townsend sat on his desk, put one ankle on top of the other knee, and wiped at his bald head, dampening his hand, which he shook off onto the floor.

“Silas,” said Kyle, “Why didn’t you sign out?”

“I didn’t sign out because I didn’t think I was leaving,” which was true, and I was able to say so without letting out a smile. A smirk was the sort of thing that would usually give me away. It felt so perfect in front of Townsend’s shiny face, but Kyle’s composure remained calm and blank.

“What do you mean, Didn’t think you were leaving? Where’d you go?” I paused. This next part was important. If I said it wrong, they wouldn’t believe anything else I said. I took a deep breath, and then my cell phone rang on the table. 

It had to have been her. I had called her and she was calling back. I was done. 

Townsend picked up my phone and put it to his ear, his eyes not once leaving mine. I felt an urge to evacuate my bowels, but I crossed my legs and tried to look casual as my worst nightmares were being realized right in front of me.

“And who is this, might I ask?” he said, still looking me right in my eyes.

Kyle and I leaned in as the person on the other side spoke. Townsend seemed to wince, and then he took the phone off his ear for a moment and looked at the screen. His face turned  flush.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mrs.—? No, no, no problem, just … oh I see. Uh that’s Townsend. Townsend. T-O-W-N-S-E-N-D.” Townsend raised a finger at Kyle and ran out the door with my phone, saying, “No problem, no worries, we’re all fine,” which were the same words I was telling myself. Kyle shifted in his seat and shot me a questioning look. I shrugged.

“Aunt Zoe,” I replied, trying not to smile.

***
The Bow Shop is a full-length novel written by Jack Budd ’19 over two terms in Bill Carpenter’s classes, Starting your Novel and Advanced Fiction. This excerpt covers three chapters. 


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