Her legs swing back and forth. Sprig is talking about his favorite type of beetle while he plays “HOP-scotch” on some rocks, and Polly is bouncing around on the nearby stump.
“ANNE! Anne Anne Anne Anne-“
She’s laughing before he can even get through the first Anne, and he’s grinning up at her from the ground with hands tugging at the sides of his cap because he just knows that makes her laugh, the little demon.
She kicks her sneaker at him, and the laces aren’t tied so it flies off to smack him in the face.
“HEY!” His arms wave up at her in an attempt to reach her, even though she’s like a foot above him on a tree branch and his fingers can barely brush her socks.
She pulls her feet up under her knees and sticks her tongue out at him.
“Throw me at ‘er Sprig! LAUNCH MEEEE-“
“Nope, nope nope nopenopenope nopenope Hop Pop would literally grind my bones into glue-paste!“
Anne is laughing.
She’s also just kind of thinking.
Sprig and Polly are jabbing and jibbering and she’s listening, kind of, but not really, just in the way where she can tell the pauses that she needs to nod at.
She tastes the back of her teeth with her tongue.
She can’t remember her neighbors’ faces. She can’t really recall the taste of mustard, or what color exactly her bedroom walls were(are), or how to format an english paper. Stuff she doesn’t care about, the roots pulled from the soil of her mind to be replaced with this:
sprig’s favorite kind of mushroom polly’s bedtime which plants are weeds in the tilled earth of the farm hop pop’s love for cheesy romance stories when beetle jerky is on sale at the grub’n’go walking with one foot in a sneaker and the other in a sock gone stiff with dirt and mud how to wash clothes with swamp water the way sprig smiles at her when she casually calls him her brother
She thinks she might be kind of sad about what she’s forgetting. She thinks she should be. She thinks of S-
Okay. Breathe in… Breathe out. Just like Hop Pop said. In and out.
She thinks of Sasha.
She thinks of her mom’s voice and her dad’s laugh and the smell of their restaurant and how Domino (One) felt under her hands as she pet him, and of her classmates and her bike and her computer and the taste of pizza…
Thinks of Marcy, frowning.
Thinks of Sasha, falling.
Anne thinks she should want to go home more than she does. And she does want to, misses it enough that it pushes at her skin from up between her ribs where her heart should be, but you can only miss things so much for so long before the ache kind of goes away, like soda going flat.
Her heart doesn’t feel flat. She feels like it should.
But then she looks down, at Sprig being chased by Polly with one of her leftover Boomshrooms, and she just can’t feel flat, because her parents will be there waiting for her when she is home, but she isn’t home and she can’t-
She can’t be flat for however many months or-
However long she’ll be here.
“STOOOOOP, Polly I’m gonna DIE, Polly Polly POLLY!”
“DIE, frog boy, die!”
Breathe in, breathe out.
“Hey Sprig, toss me my shoe!”
Hop Pop knows how to braid.
When he says it, he looks- not sad, but something just to the right of sad, like a distortion in a mirror. He says:
“Anne. I don’t know how similar us frogs’ hair is to yours, but I’m sure I could make it work, if you’d like.”
She says yes, because even if she didn’t want her hair braided (she totally does), there’s something in the set of his mouth that feels like her mom on the phone in the doorway of the kitchen, hand over mouth in the dark.
So. She says yes.
Polly wants a braid too, and when Hop Pop explains that it’s a hair style and not, in fact, a kind of weapon, she huffs and puffs and hops off to wherever Sprig is.
Anne crouches on her knees on the living room carpet so that Hop Pop can actually reach her hair. It’s nothing and everything like her mom’s wooden stool.
Normally she’s not thinking of her mom this much. Probably it’s the braiding. Her mom knew(knows) all kinds of hair things, buns and braids and updos and ponytails. Anne would get up on that stool, and she wouldn’t get off without looking like a new girl. Mom would curl and straighten and twist and clip and suddenly the mop on her head would be something shiny and slick and altogether sharp.
She wonders what kind of braids Hop Pop knows. She asks, and he chuckles from where he’s brushing the twigs out of her hair and says something about Sylvia and back in his day, which isn’t really an answer but she’s gotten better at knowing when not to push.
They talk while he works. Vegetable prices, plans for rebuilding the school, cool rocks shaped like faces in the woods that are actually haunted and deadly. Standard stuff. His hands twist about in her hair, with nimbler fingers than she would think.
“Pass me a tie,” he’ll say every once in a while, “Hold this for me, keep steady Anne, this one might hurt since you damn kids won’t never brush your hair.”
It does hurt. If she squeals when he pulls the tangle he’ll totally use it against her to make her and Sprig brush their hair more, so she doesn’t, just kind bites her tongue.
“No way, HP! This is like, kindergarten hair stuff.”
“It’s like- It’s absolutely and… I’m going to stop talking.”
“Alrightie then, sprout.” She doesn’t have to see his face to know he’s smiling.
And then the braid is done, and Hop Pop is pushing her towards a cracked mirror to see. She’s left scrambling up from the floor to half-crouch down to the mirror to be able to see her head.
She flips the braid, back and forth, and she can already see herself stimming so hard she breaks her nose by waving it around with her head.
It’s interwoven with little clovers and dandelions, like a fancier French braid. There’s turns and tucks and twists and it’s like… Like a mermaid.
She loves mermaids.
Before she even realizes it, she’s picking up Hop Pop and spinning-spinning-spinning around, dancing on the balls of her feet and laughing. “Thank you thank you thank youuuu!”
“Hah, no problem squirt. Now please stop squeezing me before I squirt.”
She stops squeezing him because… ew.
Anne tends to think of things in terms of food.
It’s probably ‘cause she grew up toddling around the back kitchens of her family’s restaurant, eating in a high chair while the patrons babytalked to her. Summer afternoons spent stirring with spoons and chopping mushrooms, drinking orange juice and doing her homework at the tables, hot and heavy air smelling like her favorite foods.
Food is a language, Anne knows. There’s these… intersections of food with other things. Food for grief in old tupperwares, food for joy on her mom’s special plates, food for thought and food for love.
She thinks of her current situation in food too.
Hop Pop can’t cook, but he knows his ingredients, and he hauls in piles of whatever he can find for as little as possible. Worms, beetles, peppers, squashes-
She learns to cook with squirming bugs and vegetables straight from the soil, with new things she’s never cooked with before. With firm hands she teaches Sprig to slice and dice up potatoes and mushrooms, and shows Polly how to grind ingredients with a mortar.
There’s no perfect ending to this, she thinks. Just this.
Just showing Sprig her stim toys and teaching Polly how to cheat at cards and quilts that go back generations, Hop Pop showing her how to sew as he patches up the knees of his pants. Looking at photos on her phone. Thinking of Marcy.
Being here. Being there. Being.
And maybe- it hurts, sharp and fierce, but she’s also happy and maybe-
Maybe for now, that’s enough.