O’Leary, New York was fucking impossible to get to.
I mean, on the one hand it was as easy as answering the phone to hear my mother crying like the end-times were upon us. It had been a hard year, and in that terror-struck half minute where my body was locked down and my mind was already flailing in anticipatory grief for whatever new tragedy she was about to share, I’d been easy pickings.
“Grandpa Hen needs your help, Ev,” she’d sobbed, and without sparing a single second to think why he might need help or exactly what that help would require, without remembering that Grandpa Hen and I had a relationship that was approximately as cordial as an armed nuclear standoff, I’d agreed.
“Of course,” I’d vowed, like a fucking idiot. “Anything!” Anything to avert another tragedy, anything to avoid another loss.
As it turned out, anything meant me packing up my shit and moving my ass to the backend of nowheresville for an entire academic year. It meant me fast-tracking a transitional certificate to teach art to kids who might not be aware that the earth wasn’t flat. It meant living with my homophobic throwback of a grandfather, who’d managed to break his leg in three places like the overachiever he was, in The Town That Time Forgot.
That was a tragedy and a loss right there.
But despite the hassles of packing and saying temporary goodbyes, of putting our… I mean, my… condo up for rent, the preparations for my departure were still easier than the fucking drive itself.
Route 222 between Camden and O’Leary was a serpentine hosebeast, and I was pretty sure it was trying to kill me.
“Fuck!” I breathed, trying to ease my Yaris around yet another hairpin turn that had popped up out of nowhere.
I imagined the road had started out as a footpath through the forest, snaking around rivers and ponds, trees and property lines. No doubt it had been perfectly adequate for taking your cow to market, and I’d bet the endless waves of trees were just lovely in the daytime. But trying to drive a tiny Toyota, in the dark, around turns so tight it felt like the road was doubling back on itself, I started to feel like the stupid trees were watching and giggling. Like O’Leary didn’t want me to come any more than I wanted to go. Too bad it was too late to turn back.
“Leave early,” my mom had told me yesterday at my goodbye party. She’d been on the verge of tears, per usual, and giving me the helpless, anxious look that was pretty much her standard these days — the one that made it seem like she was visibly restraining herself from trying to pick me up like a toddler, even though I was nearly thirty and outweighed her by at least twenty-five pounds. “Don’t take chances, Ev,” she’d begged.
Pfft. As if, I’d assured her. The Ev who took chances had died along with my husband Adrian last year. These days, I was self-reliant and responsible. I took care of my own shit, always. You could find my picture in the dictionary next to competent. See also: risk-averse.
But then, after everyone else had gone home — after my friends and relatives had gone back to their own houses, and families, and lives — I’d looked at the empty walls and the packed suitcases waiting in the spare bedroom, and… well, I’d lost my shit.
Everyone had said, “Wait a year, Ev.” and, “Don’t make any life-changing decisions in those first grueling months, when grief is fresh and your mind is clouded.” And since I was Everett Maior, Rule Follower these days, that’s exactly what I’d done.
I’d lived in our condo, which Adrian had decorated in the rustic, urban style he’d loved — a style I’d teasingly called Pottery Barn Puked, just to piss him off so I could make it up to him later. I made the bed every morning, because Adrian used to be fastidious about it, putting every fussy throw pillow into place in a way that would have made him proud.
I’d carved my own pumpkins into works of jack-o-lantern art, remembering how impressed Adrian used to be by my skill. Then I’d gone out and bought the giant Costco bags of candy we used to pretend were for trick-or-treaters even though there were no kids in our complex, and systematically eaten every piece of it. I'd made myself so sick, I hadn't been able to touch sweets since.
I’d hung Adrian’s stocking next to mine last Christmas, on the fussy ceramic hangers he loved, though I was still convinced that Daphne, our resident feline shithead, was going to pull them down and shatter them like ceramic shrapnel bombs. I waited for the Christmas spirit to overtake me. (I was still waiting.)
I’d planted pansies in the window boxes in April, for God’s sake, even though I thought they were the most disgustingly simple, chipper flowers in existence, because they were hardy enough to survive a cold snap, and Adrian had always insisted on having the first flowers in the neighborhood. I was determined to keep things up to standard.
I’d been as patient as I possibly could be, and I’d waited for time to work its healing magic. But seeing the essential parts of my life — our life — packed into a couple of suitcases, three boxes, and a cat carrier, while I prepared to move to New York without him, had called bullshit on this whole experiment. I didn’t feel any closer to okay now than I had at his funeral. My grief wasn’t a work in progress, but a permanent topographical change.
So I’d dealt with this realization the way any responsible, risk-averse adult would. I’d drunk myself blind on Adrian’s aguardiente.
By the time I’d pulled my sorry ass out of bed this morning, showered, and located Daphne at the top of the bedroom closet — seriously, she was such a shithead — it had been afternoon; hardly early, but the couple renting the place from me were moving in tonight, so there was no way to delay. Besides, I’d been pretty sure I’d rather die than greet Grandpa Hen for the first time in decades with an apology for not arriving Sunday night, as expected.
I hadn’t meant it literally, though. And driving down the road through the darkening, late-August twilight, I realized I’d rather have faced off with a disappointed Henry Lattimer, because this road was spooky-deserted.
There was no traffic in either direction – not a headlight to be seen. Plus, those crazy technological advances I’d been used to back in Massachusetts, like streetlights, seemed not to have made it to Backwards-land, New York. There had been nothing on either side of the car for miles but relentless trees and unmarked dirt paths.
“The upside here, Daph, is that we can’t get lost,” I remarked to the cat, who’d finally stopped protesting her imprisonment in the carrier about half an hour before. She ignored me, which was par for the course.
I rubbed my damp palms on the legs of my khaki shorts one at a time and stared at the miniscule amount of road illuminated by my headlights. I fucking hated driving in the dark. There was a reason I’d been the navigator any time Adrian and I had gone on a road trip.
“The bad news, though, is that a tree branch could fall on us at any time. Or we could crash through the brush and our remains won’t be found for a decade or longer.”
Daphne didn’t dignify this with a response, which was probably what I deserved.
Realistically, I couldn’t be more than a mile out of town. I remembered that much from my weeks of summer imprisonment in O’Leary as a kid. Soon, the road would open into a wide field, and not long after that came the fork where Route 222 continued on toward Rushton, and Weaver Street headed right toward O’Leary. It wouldn’t take more than two minutes.
But a lot could change in two minutes.
Like suddenly deciding you were moving to New York. Or realizing you were in love. Or finding out your husband’s pesky acid reflux was actually liver cancer.
The walls of the car started closing in, and I could feel my cheeks flush despite the air conditioning. My heart started beating double-time and there was a familiar cramping in my stomach. Oh, lovely. A panic attack was just what I needed. The cherry on the shit-sundae of this whole trip.
I took a deep breath and blew it out, then repeated the process, visualizing a calm and protective shield around the car with every exhale. Doctor Trainor would be so proud. You’d never guess I hadn’t suffered from panic attacks until last year, I was such a fucking professional at handling them now.
But tonight, my calm and protective shield was doing jack shit to hold back the tide. My hands started shaking and tingling, and my vision wavered. I tried to guide the car to a gentle stop on the side of the road and…
I swear to God, I saw a man running out of the woods, right at me.
He launched himself out of the tree line at my right, straight out of the brush and into the road. His pale chest glowed in my headlights, like he was some kind of otherworldly creature, and his hair was chin-length and dark, exactly like… exactly like…
At the last possible moment, I yanked the wheel left, sending the car careening through the opposite lane, just as the road curved right. The brakes squealed as I slammed down on the pedal, but there wasn’t enough pavement for me to stop. The car sailed over the embankment, weightless for a heartbeat, and in that time when gravity wasn’t holding me, I thought that if death was this peaceful, it might be okay.
Then the car slammed into something with a deafening crash, the airbag exploded, catching me in the face, and I was overwhelmed by the tang of metal. I sat there, stunned, even after the airbag deflated, doing a mental assessment. My knee had taken the brunt of the impact, cracking into the center console with bruising force, but I could feel all my fingers. I could feel all my toes.
Alive, then, I decided. And apparently car accidents were an antidote to panic attacks. I’d keep that info in my back pocket.
The headlights were on, but illuminated only a green curtain, since the windshield was so shattered it was impossible to see through. The engine was making an ominous hissing noise, so I turned the key and shut off the car. The headlights cut off with it.
When I heard a shuffling noise from the backseat, I remembered I wasn’t alone.
I pushed my door open and then yanked at the door to the back seat, peering inside the cat carrier I’d belted into the car. I swear to God, I’d never been happier to see those accusing blue eyes blinking up at me from her smushed white face.
“You’re okay,” I told her, unbuckling the carrier and lifting it up so I could see her better. “I’ve got you, and you’re gonna be fine.”
She let out a plaintive, guilt-inducing meow that rejected any comfort. I rolled my eyes. She’d always been more Adrian’s cat than…
Fuck. Thinking of Adrian made me remember the guy in the road, and I set the carrier on the ground in the small circle of light spilling from the interior of the car. The guy had been lean and pale, like Adrian, with hair that looked exactly as Adrian’s had when I’d first met him. And he’d been so damn close to the car.
My stomach churned. Had I hit him? It had all happened so fast.
“Hello!” I yelled into the darkness. “Can you hear me?”
The only response was the chirping of crickets and the tiny, terrifying sounds of the woods.
I scrambled through the thick undergrowth to the passenger’s side of the car and pried open the front door digging for my cell. The glass had cracked, but it lit up obediently when I touched the screen… and displayed exactly zero bars of service. Because of course.
I had a first aid kit in the glovebox, though, and a vague idea how to use it, so I turned my flashlight on and scanned the road where I’d seen the Adrian-lookalike. I steeled myself to see blood and broken bones. What I found was even scarier.
There was no one in the road. And no sign there’d ever been anyone, either.
Had I… imagined the man somehow? Did panic attacks cause hallucinations? Had I somehow conjured a ghost?
The last time I’d felt so completely alone had been the day of Adrian’s funeral, when his mother had turned to cry in his father’s arms, and his sister had turned to her boyfriend, and I’d realized the days of sharing my troubles with someone I loved were over. I could take care of myself; of course I could. But Jesus Christ, it was tiring.
I thumped my fist against the trunk.
“This isn’t how it was supposed to go, Adrian!” I screamed. “You were supposed to be here with me! We were supposed to do shit together.” I pushed my fingers against my eyes and found them wet. “If you loved me—”
I broke off before saying something incredibly dumb and stood up straight, pissed at myself.
If he’d loved me, he’d still be alive?
I knew better.
Adrian had loved me, he’d fought hard, but now he was gone. If there was a heaven or a beyond, if there was any justice in the universe, he would be floating on a cloud somewhere. He was most certainly not materializing just to jump-scare me in the woods of Upstate New York. I had my own broken mind to thank for that.
I limped over to collect my cat and started walking toward O’Leary, because there was really nothing else to do. The only way out of the woods, literally and metaphorically, was through them.