The Last Summer
by Mandy Shunnarah
The shack stared back at us with hollow window-eyes. To my eleven-year-old self, finding a ramshackle cabin in the woods was like Belle finding the Beast’s castle—imposing on the outside with the possibility of a fairy tale on the inside.
Kaylin’s eyes widened with anxious glee, just as mine had. Though she was two years younger and even more knobby-kneed than me, she was more worldly. She’d already kissed a boy or two with tongue, and informed me that other people’s mouths don’t taste like anything. There’s nothing magical about them—they’re slimy and wet just like yours.
But this dilapidated shack, now that was magical. We’d had to traipse through the woods behind Kaylin’s new house for who knows how far just to be able to find it. Far enough that we couldn’t see the other houses in her parents’ new subdivision and far enough that we’d found faded bullet casings and rusty wire cages from long-ago hunting exploits half buried in the dirt. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, they’d led to this makeshift dwelling.
Our hair had been cut into Scout Finch bobs and we pushed it, stringy from sweat, behind our ears. Our khaki cargo shorts were full of supplies like a mini notebook, a couple of colored pencils, and a cheap plastic magnifying glass from the Dollar Tree. We loved Harriet the Spy and The Magic School Bus and would play outside all day, forgetting to eat, until our parents shouted dinnertime and threatened to make us stay indoors the whole next day if we didn’t come that instant. We adored school and were top of our classes, but we lived for the summer with its long, sweltering days.
The Alabama heat didn’t wilt us. We bloomed fierce and feral and bright. We lived for adventures such as this.
The shack was on stilts, like something you’d see in a bayou, though there was no water but a trickle of a creek nearby. We didn’t consider that the wooden floor might be too rotted to hold our weight, even as light and skinny as we were. We climbed the stairs and pushed against the unlocked door that stood ajar, tempting our curiosity.
The door opened into a tiny kitchen with yellowed linoleum curling up from the baseboards. A line of ants trekked across the top of the formica table that looked like a 1950s diner setup for two. The refrigerator, too, was mint green with doors that rounded outward like a full belly. A moldy cheese and white bread sandwich sat on a blue plastic plate on the countertop. There were penciled phone numbers in shaky handwriting on the wall beside the old rotary phone. Its curly line had been cut clean through and its multicolored wires poked outside its plastic casing in fanned salute.
The kitchen led into the living room where half the floor had caved in and we could see the grass below. It wouldn’t have been a long fall, though we kept a wide berth around the edges of the hole. On the other side of the room was the metal frame of an old bunk bed, though no mattresses were in sight.
We observed these things in silence—taking in the remnants of this life lived so differently than either of our own. As we were yet largely unconfronted with poverty, we marveled that it was possible to live with so little, as if such a lifestyle is a choice one only has to make—a choice made with the assumption that other options were possible. As if adulthood was a real-life game of M.A.S.H.
Covering the floor were magazines and newspapers, most of them tattered and disintegrating. There was only one intact enough to read. It announced the death of Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G. Knowing my pearl-clutching, lily-white mother would question me to no end and think Kaylin’s parents incompetent childcare providers if I brought home a magazine with a large black man on the cover, I wrote down his name in my notebook to Google later. My stepdad had recently bought us a humongous Gateway desktop computer with dial-up internet. Google would answer things your parents wouldn’t. I would learn Biggie died in a drive-by shooting in 1997.
Tiptoeing down the stubby hallway, careful of our steps after seeing the collapsed living room floor, we smelled mildew emanating off the mountain of damp clothes piled into the tub. The stench discouraged us from going forward. I spied a faded and water-crinkled paperback of Gulliver’s Travels on the back of the toilet and held it tight in my armpit. Craving a souvenir as proof I wasn’t dreaming, I was determined to make it back to Kaylin’s house with the book.
Whoever had lived there had left in a hurry. And in a haphazard fashion that suggested trouble—whether as the victim or the perpetrator, we couldn’t tell. Scooby Doo and Goosebumps didn’t prepare us for this.
Kaylin and I seemed to realize, simultaneously, that something wasn’t right. Who would abandon their home without some terror on their heels? Or who would choose to live like this? The shack’s ghosts hung heavy and invisible around us—felt, but not seen. I don’t remember speaking or if we spoke at all, but in an instant we were compelled to leave the house lest whatever caused the people before us to flee came back and did the same to us.
Unable to run for fear of the floor collapsing, we moved with as much stealth as two prepubescent girls who were not the Spy Kids could—which is to say, not much.
Once outside, we bolted in the direction we’d come from, right back to Kaylin’s yard. Having both nearly swept all the awards for our grades on Field Day, we ran like the lightning flashes we were—slight, there one moment and somewhere else the next. Back at Kaylin’s house, we hunched over with our hands on our dirty knees, panting from having sprinted the whole way.
Moments after we made it back to Kaylin’s yard, her mom came outside.
“Where have y’all been? I’ve been looking all over for you!”
We looked at each other, trying to decide if we should lie. But before we could speak, Kaylin’s mom spoke again: “I hope y’all weren’t off in those woods. Anything can happen out there.”
We never spoke of the shack again. But that old, tattered copy of Gulliver’s Travels sitting on my bookshelf reminded me of just how small I was and how small I still am.
We should have had some instinct for self-preservation—not because fear is inherent to girls, but because the world makes such fear necessary for our survival. The week before, I’d gone to Walmart and been leered at by a man who seemed to see right through my little girl tank top, right through to my newly budding chest, as yet uncontained by a bra. He made hand gestures I didn’t understand, but knew to be untoward. Now I feared my body, with all of its jutting angles and sprigs of hair and uncontrollable change, in the presence of men—and what it awakened in them.
Looking back, it’s difficult to recall the memory of finding the shack in the woods without judgment or commentary. My older, wiser, more fearful self interjects with thoughts of what I should have been feeling and doing. We should have never wandered off alone, out of shouting distance of Kaylin’s house in the days before cell phones were commonplace. We should have worried someone was in the house and what they might do to two trespassing little girls. My older self remembers reading Deliverance—the knowledge that bad things happen in the woods; bad things happen to children adventuring alone—and my stomach plummets at the thought. My older self, too, remembers that first leering man and the many leering men that came (and still come) after him.
That was the last summer I felt like the world was mine, that nothing could hurt me, that the misfortunes which befell other people would skip me like numbers stuck to the bottom of the BINGO cage. That was the last summer I felt strong enough to fight any would-be attacker, no matter the size difference or how spaghetti-like my arms. The last summer I felt like adventure with true reckless abandon was not only possible, but forever attainable to those who were just willing to take it.
A girl of a certain age will learn that fearlessness is fleeting. And once gone, a girl will never know anything like this self-assured contentment again. Adventure with abandon is a luxury female bodies rarely, if ever, are given. The world is too unkind to us.
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Her essays, poetry and book reviews have been published in Entropy Magazine, The Citron Review, Barely South Review, Heavy Feather Review, The Missing Slate, PANK Magazine, New Southerner Magazine and Deep South Magazine. Her work is forthcoming in Southern Women’s Review and the Columbus Anthology from Belt Publishing. Read more on her book blog at offthebeatenshelf.com.