The Girl in the Woods by Megan Pacelli

Photo by Dave Reed on Unsplash

The door buzzer drills its way into my dream, and I just manage to open one eye and peek out of my blankets at the clock so I can figure out how pissed off to be when it buzzes again. The only person who would dare this early in the morning is my father. 

I throw off my comforter and grab a sweatshirt. My head pounds. Last night had started with cheap champagne, but a shot glass of something darker flips around in the edges of my memory, and in my stomach. I stumble out of bed and trip over the sketchbook I keep underneath it – the one I only pull out when I’m way far gone. I shove it back under as the door buzzes again, and then hold down the intercom, grumbling, ‘Who could possibly be at my door at this ungodly hour?’

‘The person who’s the reason you can afford to live here,’ he answers drily. I buzz him in. My father has to duck to get through the door. He makes my apartment look sloppy and small with his bulk, his briefcase and his pressed to perfection suits. He glances at my hair and pyjama pants and though his eyebrows betray him, says nothing. He’d let Mom handle the parenting portion of parenting, and even with her gone it’s far too late for him to jump in now.

I clear some space on the couch and pick a few empty beer bottles off the coffee table to throw in the bin but then realise I don’t have the energy, so I just rearrange them into a slightly less careless cluster. It doesn’t work.  

‘I’ve got a job for you, Natalie,’ he says, looking at me with his giving orders expression, the one that scares all the ants that work for him at the production company. It doesn’t work on me though. I’ve seen my father in slippers and a bathrobe, seen him combing his hair in the mirror trying to hide the bald spot. I watched him sob as my mother slipped away from us both. My father is a powerful man, but I’ve seen him powerless.  

Besides, we both know I’ll say yes. He pays well and spying comes easily to me. People trust me. I look innocent, and it’s easy for me to act like I don’t have an ulterior motive because I don’t have any motives at all. I haven’t cared about anything or anyone since Mom died.  

‘This job… it doesn’t start before I can get my hands on some French toast, right?’

‘It does not. But Nat – this is important, okay?’

‘Got it, chief,’ I say. ‘Just tell me it’s not kids again.’ Though they do make my job easier. Once I get the kids on my side, the parents I’m there to watch let their guard way down, typing passwords right in front of me, leaving email inboxes wide open and vulnerable. Still, I’m over wiping snotty noses and faking enthusiasm about science projects and park swings.

‘No kids. Just a dog.’

‘Belonging to?’

‘Helena Bellweather. She’s a freelancer – lives in one of those luxury places by the river. Have you seen the Stargazer series? She illustrated it.’

‘Yeah, I’ve seen it,’ I say. I’d watched all 36 episodes, actually – a few years back. The animation was gorgeous; a younger me would have been dying with excitement at the chance of meeting Helena Bellweather.

‘She signed a five year non-compete, but I heard a whisper she’s working on something for Nutshell. I just need you to take a peek at some of her recent drawings. Your interview’s Monday at nine.’

I sigh. ‘Why do people insist on starting the day so damn early?’

‘The faster you start, the faster you can get back to your… other pursuits.’ His expression adds quotes to that last word but then suddenly turns sad. I look away. I crawl back into bed as soon as he leaves. The highlight of my day is the French toast.

My alarm buzzes at eight on Monday. Two espressos and an hour later I’m mildly awake and ringing Helena’s bell. Her door is turquoise and somehow makes me feel more alert than the espresso.

The other side of my spyglass is usually someone duller than you’d expect. Most of the time whatever they’ve done was just for the thrill, to add some excitement to an otherwise boring existence. But from the minute Helena answers the door in overalls and bare feet, I can see that she’s different. Her hair is long and wavy and her grey eyes look at me with interest. Curiosity. She’s lovely – the type that could definitely be someone’s muse. I’ve only just stepped into her foyer when I see it – the painting hanging in the entrance – of a girl standing in the woods and looking at something over her shoulder. I feel a sudden, unwelcome jolt of emotion.

A copy of this painting lives under my bed, collecting layers of dust. It had hung in my room from the time I was seven until the week after my mother died. She’d bought it for me at a museum gift shop after I’d stood in front of it in the gallery for twenty minutes straight. I’d been obsessed with it, how the expression on the girl’s face seemed to change with my own emotions, how the shadows in the woods did too.

I stand in this doorway and remember standing on a chair to tape that poster to my wall, my mother holding tightly to my calves so I wouldn’t fall. My chest and my throat feel suddenly tight.

‘Would you like some water?’ Helena asks, head tilted. I nod, cursing to myself. This is not how my assignments are supposed to begin. I look at the painting again, forcing myself to see canvas and some brushstrokes and nothing more, to push the memory back down with all the rest of the things I can’t bear to think about.

Helena returns and leads me into the living room, where three framed sketches hang above the couch – each one a set of eyes in different stages of opening. They’re signed by her, and they’re stunning. I move closer. The irises look so raw, so full of emotion. How had she done all that with a damn pencil? I feel something stir inside me.

‘How long have you been a dogwalker?’ Helena asks, and I startle like a baby. I’d forgotten where I was, and now I see that there’s a big, droopy dog at our feet – something a real dogwalker surely would have noticed. I take a breath, thinking of my bank statement, of my father. I do need this job.

‘I’ve always loved dogs,’ I say, kneeling, stroking his floppy ears. He looks at me, and his brown eyes are warm and trusting. His belly sags to the floor. I’m surprised to find that I like him.  

‘What’s his name?’ I ask.

‘Milton,’ she says, and I laugh. It’s such a stodgy name for this dumpling with fur.   

‘I know. I named him before he was…him,’ she says. ‘As you can see, he needs exercise – a schedule. I’m not the best with either and Milton’s favourite pastime is sitting on my toes and staring at me…’

I was right, she is someone’s muse. I do not mention that, compared to me, Milton is a go-getter.

‘I was thinking three walks and $75 a day. Would that schedule work?’

‘Sure. Things are slow at the moment… I’m on a break from school,’ I say. She nods, looking right into my face with her kind grey eyes and asks what I’m studying, and I suddenly want to put my head on her shoulder and tell her that I’m one final project away from graduating, that I haven’t been able to pick up a pencil or a paintbrush since my mother died, that I drink too much and have difficulty dragging myself out of bed in the morning.

Instead, I say ‘communications’, even as I picture the drafting table in the art department, my little space there, its surface dotted with pencils and brushes and stacks of clean, crisp paper.

‘I already checked your references. If you want the job, Natalie, it’s yours.’ I’m wondering how much my dad paid for those references when it registers that she’s said my name the way my mother had, with an accent on the end, and I suddenly feel the need to leave because the memories are stirring; a tiny dot of light is flaring inside me just from being in this apartment full of art and it’s simply too much.  

I hold my breath until she walks me out. I will call my father and tell him I don’t want this job after all. But when I pick up the phone that night, I realise how ridiculous it will sound, to tell him that I can’t even manage this, to walk a dog.

Helena gives me a key and I walk Milton every day for the next six weeks. She is absorbed in her work but sometimes peeks out of her studio to greet me, to offer a snack, a drink. I’m grateful that she doesn’t expect much conversation, but every so often she leaves a small gift with my pay. A packet of honeyed cashews, a tiny potted plant, a tin of chocolates. She has art hanging everywhere and I soak it up like a drink I didn’t know I’d been thirsty for. There are days when I find myself sitting with Milton in her apartment longer than I’ve been paid to, listening to the sounds of her work – the scratch of pencil, the rustle of paper – noticing the old, familiar itch in my fingers, in my bones. After one of these days, I take my sketchbook out from under the bed. I’m not ready, not yet. But I’m no longer so certain that I never will be.

As each week ends, I’m relieved to have nothing to report to my father. But one Thursday I return from a walk to find Helena’s studio door wide open. She gestures me inside. The room is full of light and the warm hum of creation hangs in the air. There are crackers and cheese, a bottle of white wine.

‘Early dinner,’ she says, ‘help yourself.’ I take a bit of cheese and pour myself some wine. Her work is spread out on the table and I can’t help but move toward it. Milton ambles in and sits at the sunny spot by our feet.

‘He’s looking trimmer already,’ Helena says, smiling. Milton, I suspect we both know, will remain a dumpling no matter how many walks we go on. I laugh. It feels nice. The wine is good, much better than what I usually drink, and it creates a looseness inside me as I look more closely at her sketches. They are of strangely plantlike characters, with many limbs, vividly coloured hair and glowing eyes. They are striking, but they are not Stargazer, and in that moment, I know that I will not tell my father. Because he shouldn’t get to own any of these things that have sprung from her pencil, her hands, her heart.

I call him that afternoon and report that I’ve seen only the sketches he’s commissioned, but that even though the money isn’t great, I’m going to keep walking Milton. I feel pleasantly light as I arrive at Helena’s the next morning, not even realising that I’ve arrived early, not understanding when the door opens to reveal my father.

My stomach drops. He must have sensed that I’d been lying.

He opens the door wider, and I look around for Helena. My father looks like an intruder, and I realise that I’ve come to think of this place as ours, just the three of us –I almost laugh at how ridiculous that is. Yet Milton seems to agree, planting himself on my toes as we both look at my father with wide, questioning eyes.

‘I’m afraid…’ he begins, ‘I haven’t been honest with you, Natalie. This job… wasn’t exactly how I presented it.’

I look at him blankly, and he continues, fumbling with the buttons on his suit jacket.

‘Helena… I admire her greatly. She’s become a friend. And I thought you’d like her work.’

I understand, then, that I’ve been played. I look up at the three sets of eyes on the wall and realise that I haven’t been spying on Helena at all. That they – both of them – have been spying on me.

My face heats up with embarrassment, with anger.

‘Can I ask for the reason you felt the need to… make me look like a fool? To manipulate me? I felt awful at the thought of betraying her!’ The anger is building, but when my father looks at me, there is such deep sadness in his face that it slows.

‘It was worth it then, Nat. Because at least you felt something.’ He pauses, then continues. ‘The first time I came here, I saw that painting in the foyer and I… I broke down. It was a business meeting, and Helena didn’t know what to do with me. It just brought me back, in an instant – to your old room, the old you, the girl you were when your mother was alive. Full of hope and purpose. Full of possibility.’ He looks down at the floor. ‘I realised at that moment that I haven’t been there for you. Not even close. I’d told myself the jobs were enough, that I was taking care of you the only way I knew how.’

‘And so you decided to lie to me? Why? After everything…’ I trail off, my father shakes his head and grabs both of my hands in his.

‘I get why you’re angry, Natalie. This plan was far from perfect, and we hated lying to you. But tell me this: Would you have come here? For seventy-five dollars a day and some dog?’

I look at the floor. We both know the answer is no.

‘And I thought – being around her and the art, it might spark something. You’ve been drowning, Nat. And I didn’t know how to save you. Helena, this place…they seemed like a lifeboat.’

I start to cry then, because I didn’t think he’d noticed, and because they have been. It’s too much, all at once.

‘I need to go,’ I say and stumble back to my apartment, where I sob out all the tears I’ve been holding in for the past two years and then sleep straight through the next forty-eight hours. When I finally wake up, the first thing I do is wonder how Milton is. The second thing I do is reach under my bed for the poster, for the girl in the woods. I brush the dust from her face and tape her back onto the wall, feeling the echo of my mother’s hands holding me up as I do. I stand back to look at her. The poster is slightly crooked – the trees slope and the girl tilts to one side in an uncertain way. But even so, I swear I see a tiny, flickering spark of hope in her expression. 

I pull out my sketchbook, and open to a new page.

About The Author

Meg Pacelli believes in the power of words, and likes to shape them into stories. She writes flash fiction and short stories in a variety of genres, and lives on the NH Seacoast with her husband and two daughters.

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