“Damn it!” Hombre’s curse awakens me as the car jolts to a stop on the narrow gravel road. He throws open the door, charging off into the bright green bushes and giant trees.
I look around, confused, and brush the sleep from my eyes as Alyssa, next to me, huffs, “Seriously?”
I turn to her for an explanation. She brushes back her short, disheveled hair, the heavy, black eyeliner that Beth made her wear smudged on the window. She wipes it away, her rounded nose wrinkling as she pulls her thin lips into a grimace.
“I fell asleep, okay?” She mutters, embarrassed. Considering how dense the textbook in her lap is, I’m not surprised.
Beth stretches and yawns before she catches sight of Alyssa’s makeup and groans, “I spent so long trying to make your eyelids even.”
Alyssa glares at her, “I know I’m not as pretty as you are, stop trying to rub it in.”
Beth blinks, “Whoa, I didn’t mean it like that.”
I ask Alyssa, “Where did Hombre go?” A nervous pit is forming in my stomach.
Even though Beth’s the one sitting in the front, it’s Alyssa who reaches over to pull Hombre’s door shut as she mutters, “I don’t know. He was fine until a moment ago. We should just leave him and get out of here.”
Beth shakes her head, her eyes locked on the bushes, which are still rustling even though he’s nowhere in sight, “Calm down, guys. He probably just had to pee or something.”
I look out the car windows and try to situate myself. We’re supposed to be on the highway but instead we’re surrounded by trees. But, wait . . . I sink my fingernails into the cigarette burn on my wrist, trying to stop the dizziness. I actually know where we are and it’s nowhere I ever wanted to be again.
I’m not sure how I know. Perhaps it’s because of the rusty Dead-End sign - a newer, or, well, older version of which peeks out at me from a half-forgotten memory - or maybe it’s that the trees, despite growing taller, have the same knots. But somehow, someway, and despite never being told about my connection to it, Hombre has driven us to a place I despise: the summer forest of my childhood. I sink my nails even deeper into my skin, the pain serving as a grounding force as I realize that my mother’s cabin hides somewhere beyond us. I can’t suppress the hope that it’s been swallowed up by the forest now that it’s been left on its own for nearly a decade.
Alyssa’s sliding into the front seat. She’s so thin and tiny that she makes it look easy. She lectures Beth as she searches for the keys. “You say he hasn’t abandoned us? Why did he take off, then? He kept saying he knew the way, but here we are at a dead end in the middle of nowhere. I don’t like it.”
Beth sighs and opens the mirror on the visor, smoothing her ruffled blonde hair and fixing her eyeshadow so that it highlights her blue eyes. “I’m sure he just got lost. It’s not like any of us were awake to give directions.”
“Maybe he wanted us to be asleep or something,” Alyssa responds, yanking open the glove compartment and hitting Beth’s knees, causing her to swipe ochre onto her cheek. Beth glares at her.
“Stop it, Alyssa,” I say, shivering as I look at the trees, which are squeezed so close to us on this tiny road that it feels hard to breathe. As much as I want to get out of here, I don’t think we should just leave Hombre. I shake my head. I really should call him Darien, now that I finally know his name, but I still feel like Hombre fits him best.
“Can we set a time limit?” Alyssa asks, irritated.
Beth now dabs foundation across her petite features, hiding her freckles, “Can you calm down? You don’t know Hombre as well as we do since you’ve been so busy. He’s a nice guy.”
“Maybe he’s nice, but what if he’s going to get some serial killer to finish us off?” Alyssa snaps, slamming her hand on the steering wheel in frustration, “He didn’t even try to wake us up and explain anything.”
Beth lets out a belabored sigh.
While they talk, I silently lean forward, nervously running my hands through my hair. Why has he driven us here? Why here, of all places? And why did he just leave?
I try to search for some reason, any reason, for his behavior, thinking back on my time around him. I met him a few months ago at a show after he heard me speaking Spanish on the phone with my big brother, Cal. I remember him following me out and refusing a cigarette from some too-happy hippie kid. I only noticed because the hippie seemed offended, somehow. Though Hombre was quick to calm him down, I’d turned away and fully expected them both to disappear before I finished the call.
Instead, as I slipped my phone back into my pocket and started to head back inside, I noticed Hombre still there, staring at me. A strange frown crossed his face as he asked, “What were you saying?”
Assuming he was just another guy making some lame attempt to get me to introduce him to Beth, I’d responded, “I was just talking to my brother. School stuff. Nothing important.” Even when I’d first met Hombre, something about him seemed trustworthy, despite the fact that I rarely think anyone is.
I remember his frown deepening, as if my statement was far more significant than I realized. And, though he’d dropped the subject immediately, somehow I ended up talking to him for the next hour, the headliner I had come to see completely fading into the background. When Beth and Alyssa came to find me he made like he was about to disappear, his conflicted look turning into a smile when I asked him if he was going to be at other shows.
I almost groan, now, as I try to think of anything weird he might have said. I kept meeting him at shows, but now that I think about it I don’t know anything except that his real name is Darien and he owns a car. He’s always dodged questions so subtly I didn’t realize he hadn’t answered.
I can feel my cheeks getting hot. Am I stupid? I go to a good college, have mostly A’s. I never thought I was stupid. Why didn’t his reticence set off warning bells? Why did Beth and I convince Alyssa that he should drive us? And why would he bring us here? I mean, I’ve never even told Alyssa or Beth about this place or its significance. Cal’s the only one who knows. I shake my head. This has to be a coincidence. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.
I consider calling Cal, but dismiss it almost immediately. I feel overwhelmed. I can’t process this situation, and if I call him, I’ll have to. Maybe if I ignore it all Hombre will come back and just drive us away. I try to distract myself, listening as Beth and Alyssa bicker again.
Alyssa must have insulted Beth because I see her eyes roll as she snaps at Alyssa, “Go back to your statistics homework. I can’t believe you were doing homework on the way to a concert, anyways. I should’ve expected it, I guess.”
Alyssa glowers at her, “Are you trying to group me into some nerdy Asian stereotype? Why didn’t you bring your homework, are you a dumb blonde?”
Beth sets her jaw, “I finished it already. And I wasn’t going for a stereotype. You’re always doing homework.”
“Oh, right. You just don’t want to admit it, now.”
They aren’t distracting enough. Usually I’d be trying to calm them down by now, but I can’t focus when we’re on this road. I twist the dragon engraving on my bracelet to the top, looking out at the brush and the huge tree trunks cramming in close to the car. They make the air feel foul, heavy, and oppressive, even as the bright leaves try to convince me that this place is anything but. I swallow hard, straining to see some sign of Darien. Where is he? My legs are cramped from sitting, but I resist the urge to open the door and stretch. I do not want to give us any excuse to linger.
My eyes turn to the Dead-End sign. When I was little I remember wondering why this road was even built. There was nothing but my mother’s cabin for a mile and another road led right into its driveway. From the degradation it’s clear the gravel still leads nowhere, though it’s no longer barren, clear, and flat but instead bursting with life that threatens to overtake all traces of the past.
I shiver. Nothing is burning anymore but I can still taste ash in my mouth. Maybe it’s better this way, letting the forest take back what was stolen from it. After all, when my father died and it was finally our choice to visit my mother’s cabin, Cal and I made sure we never came back. We probably could have lived in it for far less than our townhouse in the city, but it wasn’t something either of us even discussed. I know that my grandmother’s original hope was that it would draw my mother back to us, maybe even in enough time that my mother could have been by my grandmother’s side before her death, but instead it brought Cal and I a new version of hell.
“Carmen, are you okay?” I hear Beth ask.
I look at her quickly, hesitate, and then nod, “Yeah, fine.”
Sure, I’m fine. So long as I get away from this place and just go to this show so I can dance and laugh and maybe convince somebody to slip me a drink because I really, really need one. Maybe this time I’ll actually dance with the frat boy who tells me how ‘exotic’ I look because of my complexion and full lips. Maybe I’ll drink myself into enough of a state where I won’t feel repulsed by his touch when he tries to kiss me, telling me he thinks I’m beautiful because he thinks it might work. Maybe it will this time. I’m fine. Totally fine. The person starting to gasp for breath is not me, because I’m the finest person in the world.
“Calm down, Carmen,” Alyssa climbs over the seat, brow furrowed, eyes wide and inquisitive. She brushes her short hair out of her face, tucking her red streak behind her ear.
“You’re, like . . . hyperventilating.” Beth says, nervous. She glances at her purse and then back at me, “Do you want something to eat? Water? I have that water bottle of vodka if you need it.”
“You still have that?” I ask. Now that it’s presented, the thought of alcohol makes me feel ill. What’s going on with me? “I – I thought you’d gotten rid of it.”
Beth grins, “Pft. You know me, right? I mean, I’ve only been your roomie for two years, now. I’m that party chick.” Yeah, right, Beth. Only if homework isn’t calling your name first.
I let her have the title, though. “That’s why I said ‘still.’ Look, I just . . . I just had a bad dream okay? It’s throwing me off. I’ll be fine.”
Alyssa gives me another look, but she doesn’t say anything.
Beth muses, “Maybe it’s something about this car. I had a strange dream, too.” She scratches her head, looking at me, “You were in it, actually. This spider kept trying to eat you, but then this lion and I came in and saved you. Then you guys rode off without me.” She frowns, “It was rude.”
“How do you remember your dreams so well?” Alyssa asks, “I never remember mine.”
“I practice.” Beth says, winking. She looks at me and I smile so that she knows she’s making me feel better. I have no doubt that later one of them will try to corner me and figure out what happened and I’ll have to pretend that it’s nothing.
There’s a rustling in the bushes and Hombre’s hand appears, groping for the handle. He calmly forces his way out of the greenery as he pulls the door open. Despite my confusion, his presence makes me feel more at ease. I dig my fingernails into my scar again, trying to steady myself.
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. He’s angular, with tawny hair and a very straight nose, his skin a shade darker than mine. He’s about eye-to-eye with me, but he towers over Alyssa and has a few inches on Beth. Maybe it’s something about the way he holds himself, but I think most people would follow him into hell, especially because it seems he’d never want to take them there. Considering our circumstances, though, I’m starting to wonder if I’m misjudging him.
Words tumble out of my mouth before he can say anything, maybe because I need to see how he’ll react, “I’ve been here before.”
He blinks and then his eyebrows knot together as he considers me, “Really?” He doesn’t seem surprised, more like I’ve given him a missing puzzle piece.
I narrow my eyes, “Did you know that?” I demand. “My mom has . . .” I pause, “I mean, had a cabin here.”
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 arms and a ferocious memory tears through me: I’m 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 hit my toes on a root and whimper, keep going, running faster, the brush catching 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 water pounds deafeningly beyond. My lower half is aching and numb but I gulp in air, can’t move for a moment, and then drag myself forward bit by bit until I part the last shrubs and find it: the river which charges through the forest. I crawl to the rocks at the edge and cup my hands to gulp down water in between my gulps of air.
The river. The river was always 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 before darting away. My mother showed it to me before she left and so I always considered it a safe spot. I want to shake myself. God damn it, Carmen, get it together. I glare suspiciously at Hombre, “Why the river?”
He shrugs, “It doesn’t matter. Just come with me.” He looks at Beth and Alyssa, both of whom are leaning forward forebodingly, “Are you guys going to make a scene?”
Beth smiles innocently, but Alyssa chooses to take it personally: “A scene?” she snaps, narrowing her eyes.
I can see him stiffen, and I quickly cut in, trying to defuse the tension, “How far down the river are we going?”
“Well, it’s not really a ‘we.’” He glances at Alyssa as he continues to talk to me, “You’re the only one that needs to come with me.”
“You only want Carmen to go?” Beth asks, looking a bit hurt.
“That’s creepy,” Alyssa says, crossing her arms. “This whole thing is creepy.”
Hombre frowns as if he hadn’t considered that.
I ask, “Why don’t you want them to come?”
Hombre sighs, leaning in to look at the clock, “I didn’t say you two can’t, but I only need Carmen to be there.” He looks at me, “It won’t take long and I’m not going to do anything creepy. I just need your help.” He says it softly, but his posture is tense, rigid. He seems anxious. It’s odd, for a moment I swear I see his irises shift color, little violet and fuschia flakes appearing amongst the blue, but then they’re gone. Maybe I’m freaking myself out, imagining things.
It’s strange, my bracelet almost feels warm . . . comforting. And for some reason I’m not thinking that going with him would be such a bad idea if it means we’ll get out of here quickly.
I nod, “All right, fine. But anything serial-killer-like and I’ll . . . I’ll punch you.”
“You probably shouldn’t have warned me.”
“Well, I didn’t tell you where, so you’ll have to guess.” I find myself analyzing him, trying to figure out what this is all about and why he needs me to help, of all people.
Hombre frowns, “Stop looking at me like that. You’re making me think I might be a serial killer and not know it. Just come on, whoever’s coming.”
He pulls away and slams the car door shut, gesturing for us to follow him. I open my door and get out, rubbing my arms to get rid of my goose bumps. It doesn’t work. They want to stay. I’m not surprised when I turn around and find Beth’s crawled over the seat to follow me. I see Alyssa considering us and then she opens her door, too.
Beth, now sliding out of the car, looks back at her, “I thought you’d want to do your homework.”
“Why would I want to do that? I don’t trust him. I want to stay together.”
“I think we’ll be fine,” I say, and, though I accompany it with a reassuring smile, I’m not quite convinced. If I’m being honest, I’m glad both of them are coming with me.