My senior year starts at a high school in Boulder, Colorado. That’s where I should be, but I can’t remember which high school I’m supposed to be attending. Not that it matters. I find myself driving home.
This wasn’t premeditated.
True, I left much earlier than necessary, but it’s as if my Prius has a mind of its own, or as if I’m a sailboat on the water without an anchor and at the mercy of a relentless gale.
For the first time since this hellish summer began, I’m going back to Raindrop, the most beautiful city in the world with the most insignificant name. There is a reason for the name, though. The inhabited area is a raindrop-shaped valley nestled inside the Rockies. The founder must’ve thought he was being clever when he discovered it from his helicopter.
The entrance to the city, the tunnel dug into one of the mountains, looms ahead. It’s lit by the dim lights embedded into it, but they’re impossible to see against the harsh morning sunrays. When I’m swallowed up, it’s like I’ve entered a vacuum. My senses are muted outside of the sensation of gripping my steering wheel. I remember to turn on my headlights as my heartbeat makes itself known, pounding against my rib cage. Finally, my eyes adjust.
“I’m in control of the car,” I say.
My Prius yanks right, taking me too close to the concrete wall.
“I am in control.”
I jerk left to compensate.
Right, left, right, left. My car keeps fighting.
If a police officer were around, they’d pull me over and try to give me a DUI, but I’m not drunk.
When I spot oncoming headlights, I gather my bearings. The car passes by me without incident, and I release a pent-up breath. I have one rule: never let them see me choke. If I pretend that I’m fine, everyone will pretend with me. If I slowly disappear, everyone will forget about me.
I’m failing at following my rule today. I have to make it through my senior year, then I can vanish. So, I make a deal with myself. I can go home, do whatever I think I need to do there, and then I’ll figure out what school I’m supposed to attend and go. I’ll tell Harvey I got lost when he asks about my reported tardiness.
Raindrop isn’t too far from Boulder, but it’s still a forty-five-minute drive. Harvey’s not going to buy my “I got lost” story if I continue, because I didn’t leave that early.
But I’m ten minutes from home.
“Turn back,” I mumble. “You can fix all of this if you turn back. What are you going to do when you get home anyway?”
Dad’s camouflage hunting jacket holds me tighter. The sleeves slip down to my fingers, covering them; it makes me look and feel like a child. I turn the air colder, blast it harder, because the fleece lining is sweltering. My sweaty hands are glued to the steering wheel, but I pry one off to grab Mom’s round locket hanging from my neck. The smooth, lukewarm gold meets my fingers. Check. That’s two items accounted for. My hand slides from the locket to my belt, where I’ve managed to stuff Corey’s slingshot. Check. I’m three for three.
I convinced Harvey, and my ex-therapist, that I’m not carrying these around anymore. I put everything away except for Mom’s locket, the one acceptable-to-wear item—until this morning.
The tunnel ends and the darkness recedes. Sunlight brings more heat, but soon enough I’m embraced by the shade provided by numerous quaking aspens. They’re the most prominent trees in Raindrop, tall and skinny with their white trunks. They’re always rattling that distinct song the wind plays on their leaves. I never appreciated them before, but my little brother loved them. My home is located on the outskirts of the valley, so the forest is accessible from the backyard. Corey would run through the aspens in his camouflage jacket or coat and melt against their trunks. Raindrop’s forest was his playground, the place he went to be alone with his dog, Rex. For hours. Sometimes, I thought he’d get lost forever or that he’d get killed by a black bear—though he always told me the odds of that were astronomically low.
I look through the aspens now, balancing the need to watch the road with the need to see Corey running, but he isn’t there anymore and Rex is at Harvey’s.
He’ll never be there again.
I’m half convinced I’ll find him if I look hard enough, though. I did spread his and our parents’ ashes in this forest. They were cremated and I didn’t want to bury them in the cemetery even though my parents had already bought plots for themselves in preparation for a far-off future. I think Corey preferred what I did. I know I did. I spread their ashes alone.
The memory of squealing tires echoes in my head. I shiver and roll down my window because suddenly the air inside my Prius is smothering, searing, as if it’s transformed into noxious smoke or gas. Screeching metal. Compacting, crushing, and cutting. Blood. So much blood.
“Breathe,” I say, and press my arm to my throbbing stomach and chest. “You’re okay.”
Houses peek through the trees on the outskirts, most commonly luxury chalets, but I’m safe from seeing any familiar faces. Corey would tell me that the aspens are protecting me. They’re concealing me from the people I used to know, the people who saw my breakdown at the memorial service. “It’s normal,” they said when it happened, but they don’t know the half of it. They don’t understand, not even my boyfriend or best friend, and make everything hurt more. I haven’t returned any of Johan’s or Sarah’s calls or texts all summer. They were persistent, the names I saw nonstop, but I’m immovable. Two weeks ago, names stopped popping up on my phone, if I even bothered to check it.
My fingers dig into the steering wheel, white-knuckled and aching as the joints lock up. I’ve embraced numbness and don’t know how to deal with this rush of emotions.
Why am I doing this to myself? I have a plan. Stick to the plan, Teagan. Go to school. Don’t come back here until you’ve graduated high school to appease Harvey. Feed him some story so he’ll keep Rex, pretend to move far away, talk less and less until he forgets you too. Then you can stay in your house and rot alone and die without causing anyone trouble. Don’t subject anyone to the pain you’ve been living.
I glimpse my house, the final destination on this road. It’s one of the luxury chalets with that outdoorsy stone-and-wood base. Harvey’s house has small windows. I forgot how small. My house has expansive windows, especially the ones that overlook the balcony that faces nothing but forest. It’s exactly how I remember it. The inside will be cozy but open with everything in its proper place, the way it was before leaving on our vacation to California. Corey was so excited about Disneyland, but we never made it.
I pull into the driveway and mentally prepare myself to enter my home. There will probably be a layer of gray everywhere since no one’s been here all summer, but it’ll smell like Mom’s favorite white-jasmine perfume. Or maybe that will have faded under the dust, too.
Ignoring my lightheadedness, I unbuckle my seat belt, open my door, and practically fall out of my Prius. A jacket pocket catches on the handle, yanking me back so that the concrete can’t bite me; it gently kisses my bare knees and hands. I blink a few times, orienting myself. Then I find my feet and slide the pocket from the door handle. I don’t lock up. I almost don’t remember to shut the door or grab my smartphone.
It’s cooler up here than it is in Boulder, and the aspens cast consistent dappled shadows, but sweat pours down my face. I avoid the front door and circle my house for the back, chin lifted. I envision Mom on the balcony when it comes into view, sitting on her favorite fir-wood rocking chair. Mom and Dad always tried to give Corey his freedom and space, but she’d sit out here, even in the winter, whenever Corey and Rex ran into the forest. She’d wait there until they returned, or she’d send me and/or Dad out to retrieve them.
I don’t see her chair. Harvey must have taken it inside.
I tap Corey’s slingshot against the trunk of our sugar maple. He made this slingshot by himself out of one of its branches. He was so proud, even pilfered Dad’s tools to do it. The memory coaxes a wobbly smile.
Mom made sure we all knew that our backyard is a backyard even though we have no fence separating it from the forest. That’s why we have this sugar maple, among other imported plants. Mom was dedicated to removing weeds and wild grass from our lawn, and she adored trimming the rosebushes lining the patio while sipping tea. We often spent evenings sitting around our fire pit, where Corey would have roasted marshmallows every night if our parents had let him.
The place should be overgrown, the forest moving in to claim the land, but it’s as though Mom never left. I wonder if Harvey’s hired someone to maintain it for me. Except something isn’t right.
This patio furniture isn’t ours.