by Jessica McCormick
The cars blinked at me as I cruised down the highway, the tears staining my eyes. I was running; no one could catch me. My mountains lay ahead, and I drove steadily toward them. They were my refuge – the one place I could run to confidently. I knew they were always there for me. The sun was just starting to set, and I picked up speed so as to not have to drive too much in the black night.
I turned the air down, a chill coming back to my body as my tears dried up. It was the beginning of summer, what is supposed to be a time of renewal and feeling refreshed. I felt just the opposite of that, but where I was headed would hopefully lead to some ending, when my life would change whether I wanted it to or not.
The familiar mountains were my destination. On the edge of California there lies a cabin, one I knew was the perfect hideaway. There was still civilization around, but no one knew me there anymore. I changed lanes and tapped my left index finger on the wheel. I was getting anxious wondering if they could, or even would, track my car, or me, for that matter. I decided it wasn’t worth worrying about and adjusted my seat belt, which was digging into my collarbone.
I drove into the sunset, a straight shot west from where I was leaving. A red SUV passed me in the fast lane, and I flinched at the familiarity until I saw the little family stickers on the back of the car and knew it wasn’t hers. I breathed out air I didn’t realize I was holding in, and I glanced at the clock. I had about ten minutes before my only light was gone.
So I exited then and found the back country road I only vaguely remembered. It’d been so long since I’d been here. I was both comforted and haunted as I drove down the one lane road, trees parading along on either side of me. I knew the California woods smelled fresh, but I didn’t dare open my window. I was scared, even though I pretended to myself that I wasn’t. I ever-so-slowly checked my rearview mirror, and when I saw nothing but darkness, I turned my high beams on and cranked the wheel to the right, down the little path only big enough for my small car.
The sun was down now, but I felt alright because I knew I was almost there. I maneuvered up the hill to the cabin I knew so well from memories. It slowly came into view out of the trees, and I parked my car around the back. I turned off its engine and quickly and cautiously got out. I perked my ears up but only heard the buzzing of cicadas all around me. I breathed deeply and ran up to the porch and climbed the old trellis to the door to my old room. It had a balcony, and I smiled slightly when I found the key inside the wood I’d carved so long ago. I used it on the door, ready to be inside.
I was so focused on getting through the door and closing it behind me that I didn’t see the light on in the bathroom until I’d locked the door and the bathroom one opened. I held my breath, too late to run.
Out of the room walked a guy slightly older than me, maybe twenty, with wet, tousled brown hair and only a pair of blue jeans on. I only stared, not knowing what to do until he saw me. When he did, he exclaimed and shouted, “Who the hell are you? What are you doing in my house?” He took a step back, and his entire body flexed in perceivable anger.
I was so shocked to find someone in my cabin that my mouth wouldn’t close, but no words would come out for a minute either.
“I-I’m Piper. Who-why are you here? This is my place.”
The boy’s eyebrows crinkled in confusion, and he walked toward me. A slight smile flickered on his pink lips, and he clicked on the lamp on the table, knowing I guess, that I wouldn’t run from here.
“No,” he said, “this is most definitely my house. I’ve lived here for the past three summers. And it’s just an empty place the rest of the year. Always got cobwebs and dust and spiders in it when I get back to it. So unless you’re a ghost, I don’t think you live here.”
He pulled on a navy T-shirt then and walked back toward me and just looked down at my face, waiting for a response.
“Well, I’m not a ghost. Though sometimes I feel like one. Or wish I was. But I’m not.” I was rambling. “This…used to be my home.”
He waved me away from the door, and we walked down the stairs and to the large wooden living room/kitchen I remembered so well. It was the same place, but it wasn’t. I couldn’t feel them, smell them anymore.
“Used to be?” the boy asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “Used to be. My…my parents used to live here.”
He took a deep breath, seeming to understand. “The family that lived here before – they were your…”
“Yeah,” I said and sat down on a couch that wasn’t mine. The fireplace greeted my gaze, and the boy was behind me. I felt unsettled and slightly queasy. I shouldn’t be scared, not in this place.
“Well,” he said, walking around to face me but not sitting down, “you still never told me why you’re here now and how you got into my bedroom.”
My bedroom. No, I thought. That’s my room. I guess it used to be, at least.
“I, I hid a key in the wood on the balcony when I was fourteen. I used to sneak out. It was my ticket out…and in.”
The very tall boy nodded and pursed his lips in semi-understanding. His eyes held something hidden behind them. It was like he already knew me, like he already knew all my secrets. Who was he?
“Well I’m Luke. You look like you could use a place to crash for the night.” I nodded, apprehensive. I had expected to find this place empty, deserted. But now the soul of another was here. I didn’t trust him. “You know where everything is, undoubtedly. You can stay in the spare room or on the couch, whatever you require. The other bathroom is yours, if you choose. I have to be at work at ten tomorrow, but if you’re still here in the morning, we can go to breakfast in town, and you can tell me why you’re here.”
“Thanks,” I said, nervous. “We’ll see.”
Luke started to walk back up the stairs but turned back.
“Have you eaten recently?”
“A few hours ago,” I said, which was a lie. They don’t feed me that well back there.
“Eat whatever you want. Help yourself to anything you find.” And with that he gave me the smallest smile and took the stairs two at a time. What kind of person just trusts a stranger in his house? Maybe I’d find out….
I waited a minute until I could hear him lay down, the bedsprings just as squeaky as they used to be. I walked over the pinewood floor to the fridge and opened it. There wasn’t much. But I found some cheese and turkey and mustard and tossed it all on some bread I found on the counter, hidden inside a wooden bread box. It looked handcarved. The box, not the bread, and I wondered if Luke had a hobby. I don’t know why I even care, but I decided I wanted to ask him about it, and this was my consolation to myself, my silly reasoning for cleaning up my late dinner and climbing into a bed that used to be reserved for real guests, not a guest to her old home.
I fell asleep much more easily that I’d imagined I would, but my nightmares regaled tales of my past to me, blurred visions of belts and bruises passing over my eyelids. I woke up in a heavy sweat around eight in the morning to the ring of an alarm clock I couldn’t find. I groggily walked out into the hallway, not finding it in this room, and realized it was coming from Luke’s/my old room. He must be a heavy sleeper if he needs to wake up to that, I thought. I walked back to the guest room and quickly made the bed. Habit, I guess.
My old shower cranked on upstairs, and I was puzzled. Hadn’t Luke just showered the night before? When I first met him, his hair was wet. What had he done last night or this morning that required another shower? I decided to walk past the kitchen and the living room to the first floor patio. The sun was too bright already, the day promising to be one of the hottest we’ve had all summer. I didn’t step outside though because I felt that I was safer in our cabin. Our old cabin, that is.
I thought back to how it used to be here, when I only knew good, before I learned how to question those to whom I’m closest. I have foggy recollections of my mom cooking pancakes on the stove every Sunday morning and my dad bringing in firewood in the winter even though this is California, and it rarely gets cold enough for a fire. I just like the smell of it, he used to say. I can still just about smell the pipe tobacco on him as I passed the fireplace now.
A creak on the stairs. I jumped and looked up to see a freshly shaven Luke at the top of them, with a pair of old, light wash jeans and a black T-shirt on, his socks sticking out of the bottoms of his jeans.
“Good morning,” Luke greeted me, parading down the stairs.
“Hi,” I said, still wondering who he really is. All I know about him is that he lives here now. I don’t know why. “Why did you just take another shower?” I don’t know why I asked him this, but something about it felt wrong. I couldn’t place it though. Some odd deja vu, but I knew that couldn’t be.
“Do you not take four showers every day?” he asked me then, and I hesitated because I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.
He eyed me curiously and blatantly said, “I love showering. If I’m not in the shower, I think about showering. And when I am, I think about the next time I get to take one. I’ve always been like that. Dunno if that’s some sort of primal thing, or if there’s a better reason. But it’s my favorite place to be. I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t have to.”
I knew I wanted to leave. But I felt that if I did, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I suppose he sensed my fear and covered with, “If you want to eat, I can go get donuts and coffee and bring them back here if you’ll wait for me.” I just nodded, and I felt I had no say in the matter. All my caring went out the window yesterday. If I hadn’t died yet, why would I now?
With that last sentence of his, I noticed Luke had a slight Southern accent. It sounded just like my dad’s. He pulled some keys out of his back pocket and walked out the front door, locking it behind him. Maybe I should’ve felt worried that I was alone here, but I didn’t think she could find me in this place. After all, she’d never known my parents. At least, I don’t think she did.
My Uncle Jack is my mom’s younger brother, the only family I still have left. When my parents died last year, I went to live with them. I didn’t know Sylvia at all, and I had only ever seen Jack at family gatherings and celebrations and funerals. They lived a half hour away from where I had lived with my parents. We moved out of this cabin when I was fifteen and had lived in our townhouse, just the three of us, ever since.
But Jack and Sylvia live in a trailer park on the older side of town, and, for the past year, so have I. Things were alright at first. We all got along, and no one brought up the death of my parents. I was kind of like a new pet to them; they saw what I liked and didn’t like, and I slept on their sofa and didn’t complain. It was somewhere warm to sleep, and it was my next best alternative. I couldn’t move out until I turned eighteen. My birthday is three months from today.
It all started about a month after I had lived with my aunt and uncle. Jack would be at work – he’s an accountant – and I would come home from school to Sylvia, who is a beautician out of her trailer home. She worked mostly weekends, so when I got home, she would be cooking something or practicing hairstyles on wigs. One day she said, “Let me do your hair, honey,” to me, and I’d seen her style more people’s hair than I could count, so I gave in and let her.
Sylvia washed my hair and sat me in a kitchen chair facing the mirror on the wall. Close your eyes, she said. I don’t want any treatment getting in them. So I obliged. Then I felt something cover my eyes, and I tried to reach up and touch it – I felt a bandana – but she swatted my hand away. Just let it happen, she told me. Sylvia snipped her scissors right next to my ear, and I jumped. Was she going to start cutting my hair? I screamed in pain as I felt the scissors plunge into my wrist. I jumped up out of the chair and whipped the bandana off my face. What the hell? I screamed.
I’d never seen her look so deranged. She was standing, facing me, scissors in her right hand, the weapon covered in my blood. I yanked them out of her grasp before she could stop me. Her eyes, I noticed then, were bloodshot. She was as high as Mount St. Helens. I raced for the door out, but she stopped me. You ain’t goin’ nowhere, she growled. And she was stronger than I originally gave her credit for. She pulled me by my hair into the only bedroom in the trailer and locked me in. I screamed to be let out, holding my wrist as tightly as I could for fear of bleeding to death, before I understand that’s what she had been trying to do.
“So what’s a young girl like you doing in a place like this?” I let out a scream as I was yanked back into reality. I was breathing heavily, having been transported into the past. Luke was back, and he was staring at me like I was deranged.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I, uh, I just needed a place to get away to. You know.”
“Of course you do. This is the perfect place for that,” he said, quietly, opening up the two bags of breakfast donuts and coffees he had retrieved. “I didn’t know what you liked, so I just got decaf. I guess I chose correctly.” He chuckled slightly, as if to fill the empty and suffocating air.
“Where do you work?” I found one solitary question to ask amidst all this frenzy inside my head.
He smiled, fully this time, with all his teeth. “I have my own business. I make things. Out of wood.” He gestured to the bread box I had already noticed, but also to the clock on the wall and the coffee table I hadn’t picked up on but simply tuned out as background noise. “I love it. I find it so calming, out here in the middle of nowhere. No one has to know I’m here if I don’t want them to know.”
“You’re good, too,” I told him. I was out of things to say again. I didn’t know what to say to someone who spends all his days cooped up alone in the woods with sharp tools.
“Tell me why you’re here,” Luke prodded. He raised his eyebrows at me. I glanced at the clock he made. He had to go to work at ten, he’d said, which was in half an hour. Maybe I could stall. Or lie.
I lied, sort of. “My parents left pictures of this place. I still have them. And I remembered it. I lived here until I was fifteen. It was always so calm here, like you said. And happy. I can’t think of a single memory I have of this cabin that isn’t a good one.”
“Maybe you’ve just forgotten them,” he suggested. But I shook my head. Even if that’s true, I don’t want to remember them. I have too many demons already. I can’t afford any more.
Luke left for work and told me he’d be home at nine. A long day, I thought to myself. But I guess he makes his own hours, so he only has to work as much as he wants to. And he said he loves carving, so why not be completely isolated for hours upon end?
I contemplated leaving, going somewhere else, further away. She was only an hour from here. But I stayed. I suddenly remembered the basement. My parents used to play dolls and cars with me down there. I was never a tomboy or a girly girl. I was both. I had a little of my mom and my dad in me. I opened the door to the basement; it was through the hallway on the other side of the cabin from where I’d slept. I flipped on the light and walked down the carpeted stairs. We’d redone the basement when I was six. We have pictures of that too.
It looked as I remembered it, the layout. Of course our furniture wasn’t there anymore. The dark beige carpet lined the main room, which now had a large pool table in the middle of it, where my Barbie Dream House used to sit, in front of my dad’s favorite brown lounge chair. A dartboard on the wall replaced my elementary school masterpieces, and there was a mini fridge against the brick wall that used to be where my mom’s sewing basket was. Then there was a small half bath past there on the right and the laundry room to the left. It was small, but it was all I’d ever needed. Everything was dingier now, rotting away, and you could tell this place was abandoned the other three seasons of the year.
I found an old TV down here as well, to the right of the pool table, up high on the wall, sitting on a shelf; it had a tiny screen, but it was enough for me. There was a couch opposite it, and that is where I sat all day, glued to the screen but really watching my memories. I heard screams in my head, and I was suddenly back in Sylvia’s trailer. It was Sunday. It was last month. She had brought out her favorite toy as of late, Jack’s sturdy black belt. Jack never worked on Sundays; it was my one day of refuge. But he wasn’t home. He was visiting a friend in San Francisco. You two’ll be fine while I’m gone, won’t you? he’d asked. Of course, Sylvia replied with a smile he didn’t recognize as devilish.
I wasn’t allowed to drive. I wasn’t allowed to get away. It was too dangerous, Sylvia said. And whatever Sylvia said, Jack agreed with. She could die, she told him. She was just protecting me, she told me. I would like to know what she called her tricks with the belt to be. She’d lock us up in the bedroom, her vein pulsing with cocaine, and she’d beat, beat, beat me as she cursed at me and yelled things like, “You took him away from me!” Whip. “We’ll never have kids of our own now!” Whip. “Your parents just had to up and die in that stupid fire, didn’t they?” Whip. It went on like this until I passed out from my pain, and her drugs kicked in enough to numb hers.
When Luke returned home that night, I was asleep on the couch. This time, there were no nightmares, no dreams at all. He called out my name, and I jerked awake. “Piper?” I haven’t always been a light sleeper, but I grew to be prone to it living with Sylvia. I called up that I was down here. I heard him kick off his boots and stomp down the stairs. He had a funny way of clambering down stairs. My dad used to do the same thing.
“You’re still here,” he said, and he looked beat. I sat up then and turned off the TV which was still flickering in the corner.
“Yeah, so?” I asked, and then I felt dumb for saying such a teenager thing.
Luke came over to the couch and pulled something out of his back pocket. He handed it to me. I started to scoot away, but he stopped me and grabbed me by my wrist. “I think it’s time you know.”
I took the photo he handed me. It was old but not too old. Maybe my age old. It was torn on the bottom right corner. It had been held there a lot. I looked at the people in the photo, but before I could make out their faces, I panicked because in the photo I saw what I ran from. In the background was the trailer, and in the foreground were two people and a baby. I recognized a younger Jack and an even younger Sylvia. I tried to breathe. She couldn’t hurt me from a picture.
“How do you have this? How do you know them?” I started to panic and jumped up from the couch, prepared to hit the stairs and never come back.
“It’s okay,” he told me, but I didn’t feel okay. “That’s me.”
“What.” I deadpanned. “That is clearly my Uncle Jack.”
“No,” he said more forcefully. “The baby. That’s me.”
I started. What? Uncle Jack and Aunt Sylvia had a baby? Then wait. “Does that make me your cousin?”
Luke stared me down, right into the very depths of my eyes. “You’ve got it all wrong. Nothing is as it seems.” The basement room before us materialized, and in front of our eyes was the photo, but we were there, watching it come to life. It was the back yard of the trailer, summer just like it is now. Baby Luke is tottering about, Sylvia watching from her lawn chair. Jack stands behind her, smiling at the camera someone is holding. Jack must know the man who took the photo because the two of them go inside the trailer together, laughing.
Together, current Luke and I watch as Sylvia stops watching. She picks up a magazine and props her feet up on an inflatable kiddie pool in front of her. Baby Luke squeals to get his mother’s attention, but she doesn’t look up. So he climbs over the side of the pool, just tall enough to stand up in the water. Now she looks. It all happens very quickly. Baby Luke slips, his little feet falling out from under his unsteady body. She does nothing. The baby screams, but only once, as he goes down. After a few moments of thrashing, there is no more sound.
Suddenly current Luke and I are flashed forward in time, and we’re standing in front of the cabin in the woods. My mom and dad are walking up to the front door. Little Me is there too. My mom turns around. “This isn’t real….” she says, and they shimmer away, out of the picture. All that is left is Little Piper, five years old, sitting on the front steps. A red SUV pulls into the drive. I know it before she steps out, but Sylvia comes and takes my hand and leads me to the car. “I don’t wanna go!” I yell, but Jack sits solemnly in the passenger seat, quiet as he always is.
A final scene comes before our eyes. I see what I dreamed of last night, my wrist bleeding quickly as I lie on the bed of my parents. Except this time I know it isn’t my shot-up aunt who locks me in there but my deranged mother. My other parents were never real. They weren’t the ones who died. No one ever cooked me pancakes or started a fire in the fireplace just because they like the smell of it.
Luke and I watch as my, our, mother locks the door and sits on the sofa, bloody beautician scissors in hand. A wooden clock somewhere chimes six o’clock, marking the hour my blood stops circulating, and Jack, my father, walks in from his mundane day of work as an accountant. He can’t even say any words after he closes the door behind him because she reaches him first. There is no struggle, only confusion. Jack, my father, falls to the floor, murdered, like me, by Sylvia, my own mother.
The last thing we see is our mother starting a fire, not because she likes the smell of it, but because it will hide what she has done. She ties the belt to the ceiling of the trailer, and around her neck it slides. Our mother steps up onto the sofa on which she waited so patiently and falls into the hands of Death. His hands have claimed us all, and here in front of me, there is only the brother I never got to watch grow up. Everything else in sight disappears, and I take his hand and walk on, into the setting sun on the day that led to my ending.
Jeffersonville High School, 2019