“Damn it!” Hombre says as the car jolts to a stop and he throws open the door, charging off into the thick, green brush and giant trees.
I look around, confused, and brush the sleep from my eyes as I hear Alyssa huff: “Seriously?”
I turn to her for an explanation, especially as I can see Beth staring after Hombre. From how red her eyes are, she must’ve been asleep herself. I ask Alyssa, “What’s going on? Where is he going?” A nervous pit is forming in my stomach.
Beth frowns, but doesn’t do much else. Even though she’s the one sitting in the front, it’s Alyssa who reaches over to pull his 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 brush, still rustling even though he’s nowhere in sight. She mutters, “Calm down, Alyssa. He probably just had to pee or something. I don’t think he’s abandoning us here.”
Where is ‘here?’ 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. I sink my teeth into my lip to stop the dizziness, because I suddenly 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 kept the same knots. Somehow, someway, and despite never being told about my connection to this place, Hombre’s driven us to a place I despise: the summer forest of my childhood. I sink my teeth even deeper in my lip, the pain serving as a grounding force as I realize that my mother’s cabin hides somewhere beyond, hopefully swallowed up by the forest.
Alyssa’s sliding into the front seat. She’s so thin and tiny that she makes it look easy. She’s lecturing a still confused, sleepy-eyed Beth as she searches for the keys. “You say he hasn’t abandoned us? Why did he take off, then? He just left the door open, like he didn’t even care. He kept saying he knew the way, but here we are at a dead end. He’s a liar and I don’t want to know why he’s lying.”
Beth frowns, her make-up smudged and her blonde hair ruffled. She rubs her eyes, trying to make sense of everything.
“Stop it, Alyssa,” I mutter, shivering as I look out around us at the trees, squeezed so close to us on this little path 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 out there on his own. I shake my head. Maybe, now that I know his real name’s Darien, I should call him by it, but Hombre seems to fit so much better, now.
“Can we set a time limit?” Alyssa asks, irritated.
Beth shakes her head, with a doe-eyed look I’ve come to associate with her asking someone a favor, “You’re freaking me out. Can you calm down?”
“What if he’s going to get some serial killer to finish us off?” she hisses, still sorting through the car’s compartments, “He didn’t even tell me anything when he left and he knew I was awake.”
Beth rolls her eyes, “I wouldn’t tell you anything if I left. He’s probably peeing, like I said, or . . . maybe he’s looking for a signal for his GPS.” She holds up her phone and frowns as she stares at the screen, which is dominated by an awkward picture of her mom’s poodle catching a tennis ball, his eyes all haywire. “I mean, mine isn’t finding a signal here. We must be in the middle of nowhere.”
“Or, like I said, we’re about to get murdered,” Alyssa mutters, though she’s stopped her efforts to turn the car back on. She crosses her arms and snaps, “I’m not going to wait long.”
Beth yawns, “Are you going to get mad at me if I go back to sleep, Alyssa?”
“Are you kidding me? How can you think about sleeping?”
While they talk, I silently lean forward, my eyes still too drawn to the too-familiar place, and try to work out what to do about this uneasiness I feel. Why has he driven us here? Why here, of all places?
I try to search for some reason, any reason, 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 bumming a cigarette off some too-happy hippie kid. I only noticed because as soon as he took a puff on it, he gagged. Though it’d made me hide a grin and cracked the hippie kid up, I’d turned around and fully expected him 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 him staring at me. He was leaning against the wall, the cigarette forgotten in his hand, a strange frown on his face, he asked, “What were you saying?”
Assuming this was some lame attempt to get me to introduce him to Beth, I watched as he tossed the cigarette, still basically untouched, into the trash and responded, “I was just talking to my brother.” More almost tumbled out; something about the way he looked at me, maybe, made, and still makes, me feel as though I should trust him. But at that moment, I realized I should know better and just gave him a smile.
He frowned, though, as if my statement were far more significant than I realized. And, though he’d dropped it immediately, somehow I ended up talking to him for the next hour, the headliner I’d come to see completely fading into background music. It was only when Beth and Alyssa came to find me that he’d smiled, said it was nice to meet me, and disappeared. I almost groan, finding it impossible to even remember what we’d talked about. Nothing had really seemed important. We’d talked about music, I think, but every time I’d try to ask him a personal question he’d just smiled and redirected so masterfully I hadn’t even noticed until now. I knead my brow. Now that I’m thinking about it, have I ever really gotten more than his name and vague, unimportant details?
I can feel my cheeks getting hot, now, and my stomach feels like a pack of butterflies is trapped in there. Am I stupid? I mean, I go to a good college. I never thought I was stupid. Why didn’t his question-dodging set off warning bells? Why did Beth and I convince Alyssa that he should drive us? I mean, I’ve never even told Alyssa or Beth about this place. Cal’s the only one who knows. I shake my head. This has to be a coincidence, somehow. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.
I consider calling Cal, but dismiss it almost instantly. I feel overwhelmed. I can’t process this. If I call Cal I have to. Maybe if I ignore it, Hombre’ll come back and just drive us away. I try to distract myself, which is easy because Beth and Alyssa are very good at providing distractions.
Alyssa must’ve insulted Beth because her eyes roll as she snaps, “Go back to your statistics homework, jerk. I can’t believe you were doing homework on the way to a concert, anyways.”
Alyssa sighs, “A nerdy Asian stereotype? 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.”
Not distracting enough. I’m drifting off again. I fiddle with my bracelet and look out the window at the bushes 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. Right. I swallow, straining to see some sign of Darien. Where is he? It’s been a few minutes, now.
I chew on my lip as Alyssa and Beth snap at each other in the background. Usually I’d be trying to calm them down by now, but I can’t focus on them when we’re on this road. I move the dragon engraving on my bracelet to the top as I stare out at the Dead-End sign and wonder if fate’s trying to make some ironic statement about my life. When I was little, I remember wondering why this road was 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 bursting with life which threatens to overtake all traces of the past.
I shiver. Nothing’s burning anymore, but I can still taste the 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’ve 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 she could’ve stood by my grandmother’s side as she died, 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 from the over-21 side because I really, really need one. Maybe this time I’ll actually dance with the frat boy who tells me how ‘exotic’ I look, with my puffy lips and tan skin. 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,” The words, Alyssa’s, bring me back some as she climbs over the seat, brows furrowed and eyes wide and inquisitive.
“You’re, like . . . hyperventilating.” Beth says, nervously, and she glances behind her at her purse and then back at me, “Do you want food? 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 is making 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.”
“That’s why I said ‘still.’ Look, relax, I just . . . I just kinda had a bad dream okay? It’s really throwing me off. I’ll be fine. You know I’m weird sometimes, don’t worry about it. I’ll be okay.”
Alyssa gives me a look, but she doesn’t say anything.
Beth muses, “Maybe it’s something about this car. I had a strange dream, too.” She looks at me, “You were in it. This spider kept trying to eat you, but then I rode in on a lion.” She grins, proud of herself, “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.” She frowns, “That was kind of rude, actually.”
“Who are you that you remember your dreams so well?” Alyssa asks, “I never remember mine.”
“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. Probably it’ll be Alyssa.
There’s a rustling in the bushes and Hombre’s hand appears, groping for the driver’s door, inching it open while he forces the brush away. He does it calmly, and I’m not sure whether that reassures me or not, but somehow his presence does make me feel more at ease. I bite my lip, 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 has high cheekbones, tawny hair, and straight nose. He’s a little short, but that’s probably only something I notice because I’m taller than most girls. He’s about eye-to-eye with me, but he towers over Alyssa and has a few inches on Beth. Looking at him now, I can’t help but think that, if he wanted to, women would probably give him whatever he wanted. I release a sigh, my cheeks tingling a bit as I remember how much of an idiot I’ve been. I don’t know what makes me feel so comfortable around him, but now it all seems like some strange act, some trick.
It tumbles 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 furrow 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 arm and I remember, with a sudden ferociousness, 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 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 young, 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 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. Maybe it was because my mother showed it to me before she left and somehow established it as a safe spot. Maybe, maybe. I swallow and want to shake myself. God damn it, Carmen, get it together. I glare suspiciously at Hombre, “Why the river?”
He shakes his head, “It doesn’t matter. Just come with me.” He points at Beth and Alyssa, but mostly at Beth, “Don’t any of you make a scene, either, I don’t want to deal with it.”
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 I need to come with me.”
“You only want Carmen?” Beth asks, looking a bit hurt.
I can see Alyssa stewing, and 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 couldn’t come along, but I need Carmen to be there.” He looks at me, “It won’t take long. I promise. You still have a few hours until the show. At least, the worthwhile part of the show.” He says it softly, as if I have a choice, but I get the sense that I don’t. His posture is tense, rigid, and he seems anxious, despite his tone. It’s odd, for a moment I swear I see his irises shift color, little red and gold flakes appearing amongst the blue, but then it’s gone. Maybe it’s because I’m freaking myself out.
I look out the window and find myself chewing my lip again. I force myself to stop, sure I’ll taste blood soon. He wants me to go with him into the forest. Well, maybe I’m down for something stupid if it gets me out of here. I was about to go to a show and be stupid, anyways, so what’s the difference? I nod, “Alright, 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, still, and why he needs me to come with him.
He frowns, “Stop looking at me like that. It’s creepy. Just come on, whoever’s also coming.”
Hombre pulls away and slams the car door shut. He gestures for us to follow him, so 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.
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’d rather us be in a group.”
“I think we’ll be fine,” I say, and, though I accompany it with a reassuring smile, I’m not quite sure I’m convinced yet. If I’m being honest, I’m actually glad both of them are coming with me.