The Cabin at the End of the World(2)

As she searches for a sixth grasshopper, she hears someone walking or jogging on the forever-long dirt road that winds by the cabin and traces the lake’s shoreline before snaking off into the surrounding woods. When they arrived two days ago, it took them twenty-one minutes and forty-nine seconds to drive the length of the dirt road. Wen timed it. Granted, Daddy Eric was driving way too slowly, like always.

The sounds of feet mashing and grinding into the dirt and stone are louder, closer. Something big is trudging its way down the road. Really big. Maybe it’s a bear. Daddy Eric made her promise she would yell for them and run inside if she saw any animal bigger than a squirrel. Should she be excited or scared? She doesn’t see anything through the crowd of trees. Wen stands in the middle of the lawn, ready to run if necessary. Is she fast enough to get inside the cabin if it is a dangerous animal? She hopes it’s a bear. She wants to see one. She can play dead if she has to. The maybe-bear is at the tree-obscured mouth of the driveway. Her curiosity shifts gears into becoming annoyed to have to be dealing with whatever/whoever is there because she’s in the middle of an important project.

A man rounds the bend and walks briskly down the driveway like he’s coming home. Wen is not a good judge of height as all adults exist in that cloud-filled space above her, but he is easily taller than her dads. He might be taller than anyone she has ever met, and he’s as wide as a couple of tree trunks pushed together.

The man waves with a hand that might as well be a bear’s paw, and he smiles at Wen. Given her many lip reconstruction procedures, Wen has always focused on and studied smiles. Too many people have smiles that don’t mean what a smile is supposed to mean. Their smiles are often cruel and mocking, like how a bully’s grin is the same as a fist. Worse are the confused and sad smiles from adults. Wen remembers presurgeries and postsurgeries not needing a mirror to know her face wasn’t like everyone else’s yet because of the crumbly, you-poor-poor-thing smiles on faces in waiting rooms and lobbies and parking garages.

This man’s smile is warm and wide. His face opens its curtains naturally. Wen can’t fully describe the difference between a real smile and a fake one, but she knows it when she sees it. He is not faking. His is the real thing, so real as to be contagious, and Wen gives him a tight-lipped smile she covers with the back of her hand.

The man is dressed inappropriately for jogging or hiking in the woods. His clunky black shoes with thick rubber soles piled beneath his feet stand him up even taller; they are not sneakers and they are not the nice dress-up shoes Daddy Eric wears. They are more like the Doc Martens Daddy Andrew wears. Wen remembers the brand because she likes that his shoes are named after a person. The man wears dusty blue jeans and a white dress shirt, tucked in and buttoned all the way to the top, squeezing the collar around his fire-hydrant neck.

He says, “Hi there.” His voice is not as big as he is, not even close. He sounds like a teenager, like one of the student counselors in her after-school program.


“My name is Leonard.”

Wen doesn’t give her name and before she can say let me go get my dads, Leonard asks her a question.

“Is it okay if we talk a little before I talk to your parents? I definitely want to talk to them, too, but let’s you and I chat first. Is that okay?”

“I don’t know. I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“You’re right and you’re very smart. I promise that I’m here to be your friend and I’m not going to be a stranger for long.” He smiles again. It’s almost as big as a laugh.

She returns it and doesn’t cover this one up with her hand.

“Can I ask you what your name is?”

Wen knows she should say nothing more, turn around, and go inside, and go inside quickly. She’s had the stranger-danger talk with her dads countless times, and living in the city, it makes sense for her to be vigilant because there are so many people there. An unimaginable number of people walk on the sidewalks and fill the subways and live and work and shop inside the tall buildings and there’re people in cars and buses that jam the streets at all hours, and she understands how there could be one bad person mixed in with the good people and how that bad person could be in an alley or a van or a doorway or the playground or the corner market. But up here, in the woods and on the lake, standing in the grass, under the sun and the sleepy trees and blue sky, she feels safe, and she believes this Leonard looks okay. She says so inside her head: He looks okay.

Leonard stands at the border of the driveway and grass, only a few steps away from Wen. His hair is wheat colored and moppy, swirling in layers, swoops of icing on a cake. His eyes are round and brown like a teddy bear’s eyes. He is younger than her dads. His face is pale and smooth and he doesn’t have a hint of the beard-stubble shadow Daddy Andrew gets by the end of each day. Maybe Leonard is in college. Should she ask him what college he goes to? She could then tell him that Daddy Andrew teaches at Boston University.

She says, “My name is Wenling. But my dads and my friends and everyone at school calls me Wen.”

“Well, it is very nice to meet you, Wen. So tell me what you’re up to. Why aren’t you swimming in the lake on such a beautiful afternoon?”

That’s something an adult would say. Maybe he isn’t a college student. She says, “The lake is very cold. So I’m catching grasshoppers.”

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