The radio was the last thing Gwen packed.
It was an afterthought, an act of impulse. She’d been in the pantry, raiding every scrap of non-perishable food she could get her hands on. She shoved granola bars and bags of pretzels into the folds of the clothing that was already taking up the majority of the space in her beat-up purple backpack. She’d had the backpack since she started Kindergarten. Joel had never cared enough to buy her a new one.
When her bag was bursting at the seams, Gwen jerked the zipper closed, using her knee and the side of the washing machine as a makeshift clamp to hold the bag shut. Just as she tugged the zipper into place, though, a blush of pink caught her eye from behind the dryer. She set the bag down quietly on the stained linoleum and tried to get a better look at the object. It was small, pink, and probably plastic, but that description matched most of her childhood toys. She snaked her arm behind the monstrous machine and fished around for the plaything. Her fingers brushed cool, smooth plastic. She grabbed the small box and pulled it out from behind the dryer. It was her old radio.
The radio had been a Christmas present, one of the few that her mother sent over the years. It had a small compartment for cassette tapes, which confirmed along with the faded paint and broken buttons that it wasn’t new. But it was hers, and Gwen couldn’t often say that about anything. She remembered the joy she’d felt when she unwrapped the little pink gadget and the old airplane headphones her mom had sent along with it. But when she turned it on, it didn’t play music. She tried every station, but all that came out was static.
“Well, lookee there,” Joel had said. He’d been slumped on the dingy couch, as usual, with a beer in one hand and a slice of two-day-old pizza in another. “Your whore of a mother sent you another piece of shit for Christmas. Typical.”
Now Gwen cradled the radio delicately. She hadn’t seen the thing in years; she didn’t remember ever bringing it in the pantry. The headphones were still attached, albeit tangled. She placed them hesitantly on her ears and the familiar noise of soft static greeted her. She smiled. The static was the soundtrack of her youth. On the nights when Joel arrived home raving drunk and threatening violence, Gwen would lock herself in her bedroom and listen to the static of her radio until it lulled her to sleep. It was a comfort, and she kept the headphones on as she tiptoed around the couch where Joel was sprawled, snoring loudly, and slipped out the front door into the cool night air.
The sense of freedom was immediate. It washed over her like a waterfall, enveloping her body in ecstasy. Gwen reveled in her liberation. All these years, she thought, I’ve dreamed of leaving this place and never looking back. Now, I finally can. She felt as if she could soar into the dark clouds of early morning. Instead, she turned and sprinted down the street toward the edge of town and the interstate, the one-way route to her future. Chilly morning air tickled her skin as she ran through the small, ramshackle city she’d called home for sixteen dismal years. She passed the barber shop, the high school, the burger stand with no remorse. Her life here was over. There was nothing left here for her, anyway.
She had almost reached the freeway when she saw the sign. Andrew Tatum Park and Playground. Something from long ago tugged urgently at her gut, and her feet trudged to a halt so that she stood facing the gravel driveway that led to the tiny parking lot by the tumble-down old playground. The trees shielded the park in shadow. The early air was still. Gwen knew that dawn was fast approaching, but she couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to this place. Not to the park. To the tree.
She crept across the darkened playground and ducked into the thick brush that spread out like a barricade behind it. Thorny vines ripped at her bare arms. Sharp sticks bit her ankles. She persisted, hardly noticing the pain. She’d made this journey many times throughout her childhood; tonight, her last night, she deserved to see the tree once more.
The brush soon thinned and eventually disappeared so that Gwen was standing in a small clearing. Knee-high grass swayed in the faint breeze and the gurgling of a brook was audible from nearby. But most significant was the warped, ancient cypress tree that dominated the center of the little meadow, as stately and incongruous as a grandfather clock in a mud hut. Gwen waded through the tall grass until she stood beneath the tree’s swaying braches. She reached out to touch its dry, wrinkled bark. Small bits broke off on her fingertips. She smiled.
Climbing the tree was instinctive. She’d figured out the easiest path to the top nine years earlier. She scrambled up the tangled web of branches and sat on the highest sturdy one, slinging off her backpack and hanging it from a smaller limb. Gwen closed her eyes. The brook sang in the dark gray air. The grass danced below her. The breeze played with her crimson hair.
“Hey there, Firebird.”
Gwen’s eyes snapped open. She yanked off her earphones and whipped her head around to find the source of the voice. She grinned when she saw Caleb standing at the base of the tree, his mouth fixed in a crooked smile and his brow raised in question.
“Come on up,” she called down happily. She was always happy to see Caleb. They’d been the closest of companions ever since she was six years old, right after her mother had left. She and Joel had moved in with Joel’s parents. One cloudy day, Gwen’s grandmother took her to Tatum Park to play. It was the first time Gwen had ever been to a playground. The giant structure shared by all the smiling children in nice, clean clothes mystified her. She was used to traipsing around her grandparents’ wooded backyard alone, more comfortable among dirt and trees and brush than among other children, who were brought up by their anxious mothers to dart about like social butterflies. So, while her grandmother was engrossed in her tabloid magazine, Gwen snuck off into the forest and began to explore.
It wasn’t long before she heard the twig snap. She turned around and saw the gangly blond boy following her like a stray puppy, a goofy, crooked grin on his freckled face.
“You’re spying on me?” she demanded.
He shook his head. “Just wanted to see where you’re going. I never knew there was anything back here.”
Gwen shrugged. “There’s always something in the woods. You just gotta be brave enough to find it.”
“I’m brave,” the boy declared, his chest puffing with pride.
“Yeah? How brave?”
“Brave like a dragon.”
Gwen laughed. “You’re silly. All right, you can be a dragon. But then what am I?”
The boy pondered this. “You’re a phoenix. ’Cause of your red hair.”
“A phoenix. You know, a fire bird.”
The nickname stuck to Gwen from then on, and so did Caleb. Gwen begged her grandmother to take her to the playground on Tuesdays and Thursdays when Caleb’s babysitter wanted him and his brothers out of the house. They played in the little clearing for hundreds of blissful hours, wading in the brook and finding new ways to climb the tree. At school, Caleb was a year ahead, but they would often glimpse one another in the hallway and exchange knowing grins. They tumbled through stormy childhoods with the clearing as their sanctuary and one another as guardian angels.
Now he balanced expertly on a misshapen cypress bow facing Gwen. His gray eyes studied her face carefully. Finally, he gestured toward her backpack.
Gwen nodded. She had often told Caleb of her desire to escape from Joel. Still, his eyes grew sad at her affirmation.
“You could have told me.”
“You would have tried to stop me.”
“Maybe I want to go with you,” Caleb retorted, his face growing heated. But Gwen knew that this was a lie. Sure, Caleb had almost as much reason to want to leave as Gwen did. His mother had died from an overdose when he was eleven. His father was in prison for twenty-seven more years. His aunt and uncle had raised him without an ounce of love. But Caleb had his brothers, for whom he would give his life. He would never leave them behind.
“I’m sorry, Caleb,” Gwen answered softly. “But you know why I have to leave.”
“Come on, Gwen,” Caleb implored. “There are only two years left before you graduate. Leave town then. For now, I’m here for you. Isn’t that enough?”
Gwen considered this. Caleb had always been at her side since the day they met. He stood up for her when the schoolyard bullies mocked her tattered old clothes. He offered her refuge in his bedroom when Joel had beaten her bloody, even though his aunt would have killed him if she found out a girl had snuck in through the window. And he held her and wiped her tears last year when she got the news that her mother was dead. But that didn’t change everything that Joel had done to her. That didn’t change the fact that she had no future in this town. And it didn’t change the fact that two more years here would be two years of misery, with or without Caleb.
Gwen shook her head. “You’ve done so much for me, Caleb, but I can’t lie to you; it’s not enough anymore. Living here is hell. You’ve got to understand.”
Caleb nodded, unable to meet her gaze anymore. Gwen felt the tears building up in her eyes, threatening to spill over her eyelids and expose the pain she felt at this separation. “I won’t forget you,” she murmured.
Caleb looked up. “I don’t think it’s possible for either of us to forget each other.”
They descended the tree slowly, drawing out the moments before goodbye. Tears streamed down Gwen’s face in earnest now; she couldn’t stop them, no matter how hard she tried. At the base of the trunk, their feet teetering on the gnarled roots, they faced each other for the last time. The brook crooned a miserable melody in the distance.
“I love you, Gwen.” Caleb’s eyes were pleading, but he didn’t try to change her mind anymore.
Gwen simply nodded. “I’ll call you when I get to where I’m going.” She wrapped her arms around his body and breathed a last, long breath of his scent before turning for the woods again.
Caleb called out from behind her. “Where’s that?”
“No idea,” she shouted in reply, not turning back. As she plunged into the brush once again, she unraveled her earphones and turned on the old radio. The familiar static calmed her, and when she emerged into Tatum Park, she broke into a run for the interstate.
A funny thing happened about twenty yards from the interstate turnoff. The static changed. At first, it was a subtle difference, but soon Gwen could tell that it had distinctly lost its sharp edge. She continued running; ten yards more, five, three. The static gained uniformity, and soon its pitch rose and fell in cascades. By the time she reached the freeway, it had transformed entirely into a distant but welcoming melody.