I open my eyes as the car jolts to a stop. Hombre cusses and throws open the door before disappearing into the thick, green brush and giant trees surrounding us.
The road’s changed so much that I’m not quite sure how I know where we are. Perhaps it’s because of the rusty Dead-End sign, an older, newer, version of which peeks out at me from a half-forgotten memory, or maybe it’s the trees, which have grown larger but kept the same knots. Whatever it is, I have to hold back the urge to puke. Somehow, someway, and despite never being told about my connection to this place, Hombre’s driven us to the end of a path very near a place I hate: the summer cabin of my childhood.
“Where’d he go?” Alyssa demands from the back seat. “First we were going to the show, and then he said he needed to make a detour, and now we’re in the middle of nowhere and he’s gone?”
Beth is in the front seat, clearly having just woken up, too, as her blue eyes are almost concealed by droopy lids. There’s always been a sleepy, heavy look to them, but now it’s magnified. She stretches, then turns to us and asks, “What happened? Are we late?”
Alyssa sighs and looks back down at her homework, though she doesn’t pick up her pencil.
“I know you don’t like him, still, Alyssa, but stop worrying. We’ll get there. We left early for a reason, remember?” She grins, “Besides, I don’t mind spending some extra time with Hombre.”
“Yeah, I figured that out.” Alyssa mutters, probably thinking about the couple of hours Beth spent trying on every combination of clothing imaginable, finally settling on hot pink fishnets and an abnormal amount of skin. We met Hombre a few months ago at a show and then just kept running into him. Eventually we began to expect his presence, and this time, when he told us that he’d be at a show I’d been saving up for, we made plans to rent a car and drive out together. I mean, I thought we’d hung out enough times to know he wasn’t a weirdo. I tap my fingers against my leg. Yeah. This is probably just some really odd coincidence. Definitely. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.
Beth’s eyes roll and she pulls her bag of make-up out of her purse. “Go back to your statistics homework, jerk. You’re being a total stereotype right now, by the way.”
Alyssa sighs, “Nerdy Asian reference? Don’t you have anything else? It’s not like you don’t have homework in your purse. I saw you put it in there.”
“I didn’t plan to do it, though.”
I fiddle with my bracelet and look out the window at the bushes and huge tree trunks cramming in close to the car, as if trying to suffocate us. I never knew why this road was built, especially since it never seemed to lead anywhere. When I was younger it looked more like a road, too. It was barren and not bursting with this life which seems to be almost threatening to overtake any trace of the past. The only interruption to the dense foliage are the tree trunks and the tiny flowers some of the bushes sprout. Despite how pretty it is, I shiver. Even though it’s becoming something else, now, I can feel the taste of ash in my mouth and a sick feeling in my stomach.
When my father died and it was finally our choice to go, Cal made sure we didn’t come back. We probably could’ve lived in my mother’s cabin for far less than we were living for in the city, but it wasn’t something either of us even discussed. It was alright. I didn’t want to come back. I didn’t even realize how much I didn’t want to until now.
It’s unfortunate, because I think my grandmother had hopes that it might be different, at least for my mother. She left it for her, even though my mother had already been missing for six years. To no one’s surprise, the cabin failed to draw her back. Maybe by now my aunt has claimed the cabin from the “troubled sister” or maybe it’s just been left to dissolve into a decrepit mess, perhaps looking only slightly more haunted than before and holding trace amounts of the smell of cigarette ash.
“Carmen, are you okay?” I hear Beth ask.
I nod, “Yeah, fine.”
Maybe I should call Cal . . . but it’s not like he could really do anything. He’s too far away, now. At least eight hours away. And as much as I want to rely on my big brother still, calling him will just freak him out. I need to be a big college girl, anyways, after all, I’m halfway through getting my business degree, and then I can make money and be the adult and protect him for once.
I feel Alyssa scoot next to me. “Calm down, Carmen, what’s wrong?”
“You’re, like, hyperventilating.” Beth says, placing a hand on my knee. She pauses, glances behind her at her purse, and then back at me, “Do you want food? Water? I have that waterbottle of vodka if you need it.”
“You still have that?” I ask, “I thought you’d have gotten rid of it by now.”
Beth grins, “Glad you’re not dead, chica.”
“Relax. The dream I was having was really weird. Kind of put me in a funk, you know? I was trying to figure out what bothered me about it.”
Alyssa gives me a look, but she doesn’t say anything.
As I take a deep breath and steady myself, trying to get back to a normal state-of-mind, Beth muses, “Maybe it’s something about the drive. I had a weird dream too. You were actually in it. This spider kept trying to eat you, but then I rode in on a lion and it ate the spider and then the lion and I cut you free from the web. Once you were free, though, you stole the lion from me, which was kind of rude.”
“Who are you that you remember your dreams so well like that?” Alyssa asks, “I never remember mine.”
There’s a rustling in the bushes and Hombre’s hand appears, groping for the driver’s door, which he inches open, trying to force the brush away from the car at the same time.
He sticks his head into the opening with a perturbed expression that doesn’t quite suit his face. Okay, I will never admit this again, but in all honesty, he is very attractive. Or, at the very least, aesthetically pleasing. All his features are very well-aligned and, even if slightly rounded, still masculine – his jaw and nose in particular. I mean, if he really wanted to, he could probably get things pretty easily, at least from women. So this all must be a coincidence, right?
“My mom has a cabin here,” I say, cautiously.
He blinks and then his eyebrows furrow as he considers me, letting out a quiet, “Hmm . . .”
What does that mean? “Did you know that?” I demand.
He shakes his head, “Well, it’s interesting, but I brought you here because of the river, not your mom’s cabin.”
The river? Goosebumps ripple up my arm and I’m in two places at once; both seeing his face and running, my breath harsh in my lungs as I sprint from the path and the cabin and my life and away into the trees and brush hit my toes on a root and whimper keep going running faster than I do in the races during P.E. the brush catches my arm keep running running it hurts but keep running now down a hill my breath scorching and I rip through the branches to see it, see it . . . My leg gives out and I fall as I hear the pounding of the water just beyond. Pain hurts more because I’m small, my lower half aching and numb, but I gulp in air, can’t move for a moment, and then drag myself forward, bit by bit until I can part the last shrubs and see it: the river which charges through the forest. I crawl to the rocks at the edge, cup my hands to gulp down the water in between my gulps of air.
The river. The river had always been my solitary spot, the place I went when I needed to be alone and think, where I could watch the water bugs as they meandered in the calm spots. I swallow and want to shake myself. God damn it, Carmen, get it together. I glare suspiciously at Hombre, “Why the river?”
He considers me for a moment and then shakes his head, “It doesn’t matter. Just come with me. Don’t any of you make a scene, either, I don’t want to deal with it.”
“A scene?” Alyssa snaps, narrowing her eyes. “Maybe if you didn’t say it like that I wouldn’t want to make one.”
I can see him stiffen, but I cut in first, holding up a hand to calm her down, “Whoa, there, sassy.” I look at Hombre, “Where, exactly, are we going?”
“Well, it’s not really a ‘we.’ You’re actually the only one that I need to come with me.”
“You only want Carmen?” Beth asks, adding a mutter under her breath that sounds suspiciously like, “Bad taste.” I ignore her.
Hombre sighs, looks at the clock in the car, “Listen, come if you want. I don’t care. I just really need Carmen to come with me. That okay, chica?” It doesn’t really sound like I have a choice, even if he tries to soften it with my nickname. It’s odd, for a moment I swear I see his irises shift color, little red and gold flakes appearing among the green, but it’s gone again in a moment.
I rub my eyes. Strange. Whatever. He wants me to go with him into the forest. Well, maybe I’m down for something stupid. I was about to go to a show and be stupid, anyways, so what’s the difference if going with Darien gets us on our way? I nod, “Alright, I’ll follow. But anything serial-killer-like and I’ll . . . I’ll punch you in the balls.”
“You probably shouldn’t have warned me.”
“Don’t worry. You won’t expect it.”
Beth is leaning forward, scrutinizing him, “You said we could come, too?”
“No, I totally didn’t just say that a moment ago.”
“Don’t be mean.” She frowns, “I’m too cute to be mean to.”
“I’m wary of your ways, Beth. I’ve seen you pull that look on too many guys so you could get a drink from the bar.” He looks at me and turns, pushing the bushes away, “Just come on, whoever’s also coming.”
I open the door and get out, still nervous. I rub my arms to get rid of the goosebumps. It doesn’t work. They want to stay. He looks at us and then slams the door shut again, raising an arm to indicate he wants us to follow him. I struggle with my door, but get it open fairly quickly and squeeze myself out. I’m not surprised when I try to close the door again and find Beth’s crawled over the seat to follow, too. I see Alyssa considering us, and then she puts down her homework and opens her door.
Beth, now sliding out of the car, looks back at her, “I thought you’d want to do your homework.”
“Why the hell would I want to do that? I don’t trust him. I’d rather us be in a group.”
“I don’t think he’s going to hurt us,” I say, and though I accompany it with a reassuring smile, I’m not quite sure I’m convinced yet. Honestly, I’m glad the both of them are coming with me.