Daylight is fading to twilight in that slow, creeping way of summer evenings. Here under the shadow of the trees—so many trees, tall as the skyscrapers back home—it’s already night. My sister and I left New York for the fabled land of man buns, flannel, and old-school grunge, and I can see how the look would have come about in a place like this. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone was a lumberjack in their spare time.
“Eva, put your feet down.”
I ignore my sister, the Cranberries lulling me to sleep through my earbuds. Dolores O’Riordan’s haunting voice tells me I’m a dream to her as I drift off against the dark blur of forest sliding past my window.
My feet remain on the dashboard.
It’s an uneasy kind of sleep. The kind where I’m still half-aware of my surroundings but the details are shifting. Next to me, Rhonda’s presence is overtaken by a heavier, deeper feel as my dream-addled mind rearranges her form into Dad’s. In a moment, I’ve slipped into the back seat, my tiny feet pressed against the vinyl pocket in front of me. A younger, less somber Rhonda sits beside me again, staring contentedly at a dog-eared paperback. Dad, eyes shining, looks over his shoulder at me. His image is hazy, backlit by the sun.
How you doin’ back there, Bug? Excited for the beach? His voice isn’t quite right. It’s close, I think, but the precise depth, the way he forms his words … I’ve already lost them.
We hit a pothole, and my eyes fly open.
“What?” I ask, a little too loudly, startled into wakefulness.
“Feet,” Rhonda says. “Down. Help me find the turn.”
I sit up properly, removing my earbuds. My hand instinctively reaches into my pocket and wraps around the smooth oblong of Dad’s Swiss Army knife. Rubbing my thumb along the bumps of the corkscrew, I take a few breaths, gathering myself, tucking the ever-present ache safely into the background where it belongs.
“What’s the street again?”
“Fay Road,” Rhonda says.
As I watch out my window for street signs, the forest turns to brush, fields, a smattering of buildings. A carved wooden sign marks our approach to Madrona, Washington: population 723. According to my great-aunt Miriam’s estate lawyer, a madrona is a type of tree. Of course the town is named after a tree.
“Damnit.” Rhonda cranks the wheel and pulls into a run-down gas station. “We must have missed it. Go in and ask for directions while I fill up, please?”
Her tone is short, and I know she’s tired. So am I.
“You’re the one driving. Shouldn’t you ask?”
She shoots me a look.
“I’ll fill up,” I offer.
“Evangeline.” She tilts her head toward the gas station’s mini-mart.
“Eva,” I mutter under my breath, unclipping my seat belt.
Rhonda points out a handwritten sign taped to the geriatric pump. “Looks like we have to pay inside, too.”
I sigh and grab Rhonda’s wallet as I exit the car. The gas station is practically dead right now, despite it only being 9:00 P.M. Small towns aren’t open 24/7 like New York, but knowing this doesn’t help with the creep factor. I eye the mini-mart’s neon beer ads and grime-streaked bait-and-tackle sign with suspicion. The only trace of life besides Rhonda and me is an old blue pickup truck parked at an angle up front.
The bell on the door jangles against the glass as I push my way inside. Glancing over his magazine, the grizzled attendant catches my eye from behind the cash register. His brows twitch inhospitably. I hesitate, then make a beeline for the refrigerator cases in the back. It’ll take Rhonda a few minutes to fill up, and I could use something sugary and caffeinated. Or maybe I’m procrastinating.
Just go and ask him, I hear Dad’s indistinct voice in the back of my mind. Snatching at the essence of the words—ones spoken to me many times over the years—I try to squeeze out the exact tonality and cadence. Again, I’m unsuccessful.
As I pass the snack aisle, the store’s only other customer—a tall, blond-haired, country-looking boy—glances up from a display of potato chips. His clear blue eyes lock with mine for a split second before I duck my head and hasten my step.
Again, Dad’s voice runs through my head. You need to work on being more assertive. A frequent criticism from him, especially when I was younger, coaxing me to approach the counter and order my own food, or return something at the store. I won’t always be around to do it for you.
I never dreamed it would be so soon. It’s not that I’m shy or anything. I just need to prepare myself before interacting with people I don’t know. Some days I need more time than others. Especially lately, with everything still so raw. I continue to repeat Dad’s advice over in my head as I hurry to the refrigerator cases. His voice was deep, but how deep? I no longer know.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Impermanence. The speed at which things slip away. How something can be there one day, and a fraction of a second later, it’s gone. Pop. Like that. And how some things, smaller things, dissolve gradually, less noticeably, until you wonder if they were ever even there to begin with.
Shake it off, Eva. Get your soda, ask for directions, and go. Right.
When I reach the back of the store, I see the boy again, distorted in the corner surveillance mirror. Caught staring, he jerks his chin down and continues his examination of the potato chips. The corners of my lips quirk up involuntarily. Did I just catch him checking me out? I have to admit, he’s kinda cute.
It takes a hefty yank against the refrigerator’s suction to get the soda case open. I reach for an energy drink, then reconsider and go for a Coke instead. I just want to wake up a little, not run a marathon.
On my way to the counter, I risk another glance toward the boy. He doesn’t look back at me this time, fully absorbed in decision-making. Who knew choosing a potato chip flavor could be such a life-defining event?
“Evening.” The station attendant’s voice is low and gravelly. He smells like stale cigarettes. My eyes slide from his weathered face to the neatly embroidered Rob on the pocket of his polo shirt.
“Hi, uh…” Leaning back on my heels, I check which pump Rhonda’s using through the glass doors. “Pump four, please. Oh, and this.” I set my Coke can on the counter.
“That’ll be forty sixty-three.”
I fish Rhonda’s credit card out of her wallet and place it on the counter next to my Coke. “Oh, and could you, um, please tell me how to get to, uh … to Fay Road from here?” I cringe inwardly as I stumble over the words.
He juts his chin so far back, it disappears into his neck. “Fay Road?”
“Yeah, it … it exists, right?”
“Sure, it exists. Barely. Are you sure that’s the road you’re looking for? Nothin’ up that way but the old Sylvan place.” Before I can assure him I’m aware, he narrows his eyes and grumbles, “You’re not planning on meeting your friends up there, are you? Damn kids,” he adds, more to himself than to me. “It’s dangerous running around up there. Especially at night.”
“Dangerous?” My great-aunt’s house? Though … it has been vacant for a while. I feel a twinge in my gut. I hope these “kids” he’s talking about haven’t been breaking in. I hope it isn’t trashed.
“You and your friends stay away from that place. You’ll get tetanus, or worse. Oh, and cash only,” he adds. “Card reader’s broke.”
Fumbling, I fish out two twenties and a five. “You don’t understand. We’re just lost.” I fork over the last of Rhonda’s cash. “The road’s not showing up on GPS, and—”
His hand slaps down on the credit card before I can take it, startling me. Rhonda’s wallet slips from my fingers and hits the floor; dimes and quarters scatter, rolling and spinning with a chorus of metallic ringing.
“Holy shhhhh…” He stares at the card, his voice a strange whisper. “You’re a—a Sylvan?” For the first time, he takes a good look at my face. I can feel my cheeks burn under the scrutiny as he slowly shakes his head. “It can’t be. You look so much like—” He stops himself, then gives Rhonda’s credit card a hard push, sliding it across the counter to me. “You need to go.”
I stop the card from flying off the edge in the nick of time. I’m shaking, and so is he. What just happened? “I—” My voice is small. “I still need my change.”
After an impossibly long second, he reaches over and opens the register. Mouth set in a hard line, he roughly swipes four one-dollar bills out of the change drawer. “Good or bad, doesn’t matter,” he mutters to himself as he scrapes the rest of my change out of the drawer. “There’ll be trouble either way.”
“Trouble? We—we’re not—” I squat down, frantically gathering the coins that escaped Rhonda’s wallet. I’ve probably missed a few, but I don’t care. “We just want directions.”
“No,” he says, firm, as I stand up. “I don’t know why you’re here, but I’m warning you, you need to leave.”
Without further protest, I scoop my change off the counter and hurry for the door. “It’s dangerous,” he repeats as I yank it open and rush outside.
The bells on the door clatter angrily behind me as I march across the rainbow-greased pavement. My pulse pounds in my ears, and my breath catches in my throat. What the hell was that about? Why does he care that I’m a Sylvan? Or that I look like … who? My great-aunt Miriam? Some other relative? I’ve never met any of them, so I wouldn’t know.
I’m halfway to the car when the door jingles again and I hear a voice call out, “Wait!”
The boy from the snack aisle sprints over to me, holding my Coke. “You forgot this.”
“Thanks,” I manage as he hands it over. My heart’s still beating a mile a minute.
“Sorry about Rob back there,” he says. “He’s … well, he’s…” He shakes his head, then holds out his hand. “I’m Cal.”
I transfer my Coke to my left hand and am wiping the condensation off my right when my sister leans her head out the car window. “Eva! Did you get directions?”
“Just a second,” I yell back. Maybe Cal can tell us where to go.
His hands shoot to his pockets. “Why are you looking for the Sylvan place?”
“We’re moving in.” I watch him carefully, studying his reaction.
“Really?” His eyes widen. I can’t help noticing how bright they are, even in the dimming light. But his surprise, though somewhat expected, sets my nerves off and running again. What could possibly be so wrong with this house?
“That guy”—I gesture toward the mini-mart—“he said it’s dangerous. How so?”
“Well, it’s, uh.” He thinks for a moment. “It’s old.”
Old? Every apartment I’ve ever lived in has been old, but I wouldn’t have called them dangerous. “So, a fixer-upper?”
“Okay.” Good to know, I guess. “Can you tell us how to get there?”
“Not really,” he says.
My jaw tightens. Not him, too.
“I suck at giving directions.” His face reddens. “But I can show you. Follow me.”
I let out a slow breath as he sprints over to his truck.
“What was that all about? Did you get directions?” Rhonda asks while I climb into the passenger seat.
“Sort of,” I say. “Follow that truck.”
“Everything okay?” Rhonda glances sideways at me. The red glow of Cal’s taillights illuminates the circles under her eyes, deepens her worry lines, giving away the stress she tries so hard to hide. I wonder what it’s revealing about my own face.
I’m half here, half replaying the interaction with Rob on a loop, trying to understand it.
“Where the hell’s he going?” Rhonda leans forward and peers out the windshield, searching the side of the road.
Cal’s clicked his left blinker on, but there’s nowhere to go that we can see. He turns anyway, straight into the brush, and keeps going, the cab of his truck just visible over the weeds and wild grasses. As we approach the same spot, we find there really is an opening here—a gap barely wide enough for a single vehicle, marked by a pair of ruts. There’s no sign to tell us this is Fay Road. No wonder we’d missed it before.
I grab the oh-shit handle above the car door to brace myself as we make the turn. The rough road jars my teeth, and the stiff grass scrapes against the car’s sides and undercarriage, making any further conversation impossible.
Knots form in my stomach. What kind of person was my late great-aunt Miriam to live in a place as secluded as this? What have we gotten ourselves into? I reach for my soda but think better of it before cracking it open. This road’s probably turned it into the perfect fizz bomb by now. I grip my seat belt. Dad’s Swiss Army knife presses against my thigh in my pocket, providing some comfort.
Maybe it’s better if I don’t tell Rhonda what happened at the gas station. She’s stressed enough already, and besides, it won’t change anything. We’ve come all this way. No matter what we find at the end of this road, we’re not turning around.
Copyright © 2023 by Megan Morris