Day 1 DAY 1
I took inventory of the apartment one last time before loading up my car: suitcases waiting beside the door; key in an envelope on the kitchen counter; an open box half full of the last-minute things I’d packed up the night before. I could see every angle of the apartment from the galley kitchen—exposed and empty—but still, I had the lingering feeling that I was forgetting something.
I’d gotten everything together in a rush, finishing out the last few weeks of the school year while fielding calls from Daniel and finding someone to sublet my place for the summer—no time to pause, to take in the fact that I was actually doing this. Going back. Going there. Daniel didn’t know about the letter. He knew only that I was coming to help, that I had two months before I needed to return to my life here.
Now the apartment was practically bare. An industrial box, stripped of all warmth, awaiting the moderately responsible-looking grad student who would be staying through August. I’d left him the dishes, because they were a pain to pack. I’d left him the futon, because he’d asked, and because he threw in an extra fifty dollars.
The rest of it—the things that wouldn’t fit in my car, at least—was in a storage unit a few blocks away. My entire life in a sealed rectangular cube, stacked full of painted furniture and winter clothes.
The sound of someone knocking echoed off the empty walls, made me jump. The new tenant wasn’t due to arrive for another few hours, when I’d be on the road. It was way too early for anyone else.
I crossed the narrow room and opened the front door.
“Surprise,” Everett said. “I was hoping to catch you before you left.” He was dressed for work—clean and sleek—and he bent down to kiss me, one arm tucked behind his back. He smelled like coffee and toothpaste; starch and leather; professionalism and efficiency. He pulled a steaming Styrofoam cup from behind his back. “Brought you this. For the road.”
I inhaled deeply. “The way to my heart.” I leaned against the counter, took a deep sip.
He checked his watch and winced. “I hate to do this, but I have to run. Early meeting on the other side of town.”
We met halfway for one last kiss. I grabbed his elbow as he pulled away. “Thank you,” I said.
He rested his forehead against mine. “It’ll go fast. You’ll see.”
I watched him go—his steps crisp and measured, his dark hair brushing his collar—until he reached the elevator at the end of the hall. He turned back just as the doors slid open. I leaned against the doorframe, and he smiled.
“Drive safe, Nicolette.”
I let the door fall shut, and the reality of the day suddenly made my limbs heavy, my fingertips tingle.
The red numbers on the microwave clock ticked forward, and I cringed.
It’s a nine-hour drive from Philadelphia to Cooley Ridge, not counting traffic, lunch break, gas and restroom stops, depending. And since I was leaving twenty minutes after I said I would, I could already picture Daniel sitting on the front porch, tapping his foot, as I pulled into the unpaved driveway.
I sent him a text as I propped the front door open with a suitcase: On my way, but more like 3:30.
It took two trips to drag the luggage and remaining boxes down to the car, which was parked around the block, behind the building. I heard the beginnings of rush-hour traffic in the distance, a steady hum on the highway, the occasional honk. A familiar harmony.
I started the car, waited for the air to kick in. Okay, okay, I thought. I rested my phone in the cup holder and saw a response from Daniel: Dad’s expecting you for dinner. Don’t miss it.
Like I might be three hours later than I’d claimed. That was one of Daniel’s more impressive accomplishments: He had perfected the art of the passive-aggressive text message. He’d been practicing for years.
WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I used to believe I could see the future. This was probably my father’s fault, filling my childhood with platitudes from his philosophy lectures, letting me believe in things that could not be. I’d close my eyes and will it to appear, in tiny, beautiful glimpses. I’d see Daniel in a cap and gown. My mother smiling beside him through the lens of my camera as I motioned for them to get closer. Put your arm around her. Pretend you like each other! Perfect. I’d see me and Tyler, years later, throwing our bags into the back of his mud-stained pickup truck, leaving for college. Leaving for good.
It was impossible to understand back then that getting out wouldn’t be an event in a pickup truck but a ten-year process of excision. Miles and years, slowly padding the distance. Not to mention Tyler never left Cooley Ridge. Daniel never graduated. And our mother wouldn’t have lived to see it, anyway.
If my life were a ladder, then Cooley Ridge was the bottom—an unassuming town tucked into the edge of the Smoky Mountains, the very definition of Small Town, America, but without the charm. Everywhere else—anywhere else—was a higher rung that I’d reach steadily with time. College two hundred miles to the east, grad school one state north, an internship in a city where I planted my feet and refused to leave. An apartment in my own name and a nameplate on my own desk and Cooley Ridge, always the thing I was moving farther away from.
But here’s the thing I’ve learned about leaving—you can’t really go back. I don’t know what to do with Cooley Ridge anymore, and Cooley Ridge doesn’t know what to do with me, either. The distance only increases with the years.
Most times, if I tried to shift it back into focus—Tell me about home, tell me about growing up, tell me about your family, Everett would say—all I’d see was a caricature of it in my mind: a miniature town set up on entryway tables around the holidays, everything frozen in time. So I gave him surface answers, flat and nonspecific: My mom died when I was sixteen; it’s a small town at the edge of the forest; I have an older brother.
Even to me, even as I answered, it looked like nothing. A Polaroid fading from the edges in, the colors bled out; the outline of a ghost town full of ghosts.
But one call from Daniel—“We have to sell the house”—and I felt the give of the floorboards beneath my feet. “I’m coming home,” I said, and the edges rippled, the colors burned: My mother pressed her cheek against my forehead; Corinne rocked our cart gently back and forth at the top of the Ferris wheel; Tyler balanced on the fallen tree angled across the river, stretching between us.
That girl, my dad wrote, and her laughter rattled my heart.
I NEED TO TALK to you. That girl. I saw that girl.
An hour later, a moment later, and he’d probably forgotten—setting aside the sealed envelope until someone found it abandoned on his dresser or under his pillow and pulled my address from his file. But there must’ve been a trigger. A memory. An idea lost in the synapses of his brain; the firing of a thought with nowhere else to go.
The torn page, the slanted print, my name on the envelope—
And now something sharp and wild had been set loose inside my head. Her name, bouncing around like an echo.
Dad’s letter had been folded up inside my purse for the last few weeks, lingering just under the surface of my mind. I’d be reaching for my wallet or the car keys and feel a sliver of the edge, the jab of the corner, and there she would be all over again: long bronze hair falling over her shoulders, the scent of spearmint gum, her whisper in my ear.
That girl. She was always that girl. What other girl could it be?
The last time I’d driven home was a little over a year ago—when Daniel called and said we had to get Dad into a facility, and I couldn’t justify the cost of a last-minute flight. It had rained almost the entire trip, both ways.
Today, on the other hand, was the perfect driving day. No rain, overcast but not dark. Light but not bright. I’d made it through three states without stopping, towns and exits blurring by as I sped past—the embodiment of everything I loved about living up north. I loved the pace, how you could fill the day with a to-do list, take charge of the hours and bend them to your will. And the impatience of the clerk inside the convenience store on the corner near my apartment, the way he never looked up from his crossword, never made eye contact. I loved the anonymity of it all. Of a sidewalk full of strangers and endless possibilities.
Driving through these states was like that, too. But the beginning of the drive always goes much faster than the end. Farther south, the exits grow sparser, the landscape just sameness, filled with things you’re sure you’ve passed a thousand times.
I was somewhere in Virginia when my phone rang from its spot in the cup holder. I fumbled for the hands-free device in my purse, keeping one hand steady on the wheel, but eventually gave up and hit speaker to answer the call. “Hello?” I called.
“Hey, can you hear me?” Everett’s voice crackled, and I wasn’t sure if it was the speakerphone or the reception.
“Yes, what’s up?”
He said something indecipherable, his words cutting in and out.
“Sorry, you’re breaking up. What?” I was practically shouting.
“Grabbing a quick bite,” he said through the static. “Just checking in. How are the tires holding up this time?” I heard the smile in his voice.
“Better than the cell reception,” I said.
He laughed. “I’ll probably be in meetings the rest of the day, but call me when you get there so I know you made it.”
I thought about stopping for lunch, but there was nothing except pavement and field for miles and miles and miles.
I’D MET EVERETT A year ago, the night after moving my dad. I’d driven home, tense and uneasy, gotten a flat tire five hours into the drive, and had to change it myself underneath a steady drizzle.
By the time I’d gotten to my apartment, I was hovering on the edge of tears. I had come home with my bag slung over my shoulder, my hand shaking as I tried to jam the key into the door. Eventually, I’d rested my head against the solid wooden door to steady myself. To make matters worse, the guy in 4A had gotten off the elevator at the same time, and I’d felt him staring at me, possibly waiting for the impending meltdown.
Apartment 4A. This was all I’d known of him: He played his music too loud, and he had too many guests, and he kept nontraditional hours. There was a man beside him—polished, where he was not. Smooth, where he was rough. Sober, where he was drunk.
The guy in 4A sometimes smiled at me as we passed in the hall in the evening, and one time he held the elevator for me, but this was a city. People came and went. Faces blurred.
“Hey, 4C,” he’d slurred, unsteady on his feet.
“Nicolette,” I said.
“Nicolette,” he repeated. “Trevor.” The man beside him looked embarrassed on his behalf. “And this is Everett. You look like you need a drink. Come on, be neighborly.”
I thought the neighborly thing would’ve been to learn my name a year ago, when I moved in, but I wanted that drink. I wanted to feel the distance between there and here; I needed space from the nine-hour car ride home.
Trevor pushed open his door as I walked toward them. The man beside him stuck out his hand and said, “Everett,” as if Trevor’s introduction hadn’t counted.
By the time I left, I’d told Everett about moving my dad, and he’d said it was the right thing. Had told him about the flat and the rain and everything I wanted to do over the summer, while I was off. By the time I stopped talking, I felt lighter, more at ease—which could’ve been the vodka, but I liked to think it was Everett—and Trevor was passed out on the sofa beside us.
“Oh. I should go,” I’d said.
“Let me walk you back,” Everett had said.
My head was light as we walked in silence, and then my hand was on the doorknob and he was still nearby, and what were the grown-up rules for this? “Want to come in?”
He didn’t answer, but he followed me in. Froze in the galley kitchen, which looked out into the rest of my studio loft, one room with high windows and sheer curtains hanging from the exposed pipes, segregating my bedroom. But I could see my bed through them—unmade, inviting—and I knew he could, too.
“Wow,” he said. It was the furniture, I was sure. Pieces I’d mined from thrift stores and flea markets and had stripped down and repainted in bold colors to match. “I feel like I’m Alice in Wonderland.”
I slid off my shoes, leaned against the kitchen counter. “Ten bucks says you’ve never read it.”
He smiled and opened my refrigerator, pulling out a bottle of water. “Drink me,” he said, and I laughed.
Then he pulled out a business card, placed it on the counter, leaned forward, and brushed his lips against mine before backing away. “Call me,” he said.
And I did.
THE DRIVE THROUGH VIRGINIA had turned endless, with its white farmhouses in the hills and the bales of hay dotting the surrounding grass. Then the pass through the mountains—guardrails and signs issuing warnings to turn on the fog lights—and the static as the radio stations cut in and out. The longer I drove, the slower I seemed to go. Relativity, I thought.
The pace was different back home. People didn’t move as fast, didn’t change too much over the course of the decade. Cooley Ridge, holding you to the person you’d always been. When I pulled off the highway, went down the ramp, and hit the main drag, I bet I’d still find Charlie Higgins or someone like him leaning against the beat-up side of the CVS. Bet I’d still find Christy Pote pining for my brother, and my brother pretending not to notice, even though they went ahead and got married to other people.
Maybe it was because of the humidity and the way we had to fight our way through it, like syrup sticking to the bottom of our feet, sweet and viscous. Maybe it was from living so close to the mountains—a thousand years in the making, the slow shift of plates under the earth, the trees that have been here since I was born and would be here when I was gone.
Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t see anything beyond here when you’re in it. Just mountains and forest and you. That’s it.
One decade later, a hundred miles away, and I cross the state line—Welcome to North Carolina!—and the trees grow thicker, and the air goes heavy, and I’m back.
The blurred edges shifting back into focus, my own mind resettling, remembering. The ghosts of us gaining substance: Corinne running down the side of the road in front of me, holding out her thumb, her legs shiny from sweat, her skirt blowing up when a car passes too close. Bailey hanging off my shoulder, her breath hot with vodka. Or maybe that was mine.
My fingers uncurled from the wheel. I wanted to reach out and touch them. Have Corinne turn around and say, “Pull your shit together, Bailey,” catch my eye, and smile. But they faded too fast, like everything else, and all that remained was the sharp pang of missing her.
One decade, twenty miles away, and I can see my house. The front door. The overgrown path and the weeds pushing through the gravel of the driveway. I hear that screen door creak open, and Tyler’s voice: Nic? And it sounds a little deeper than my memory, a little closer.
Almost home now.
Down the exit, left at the stoplight, the pavement cracked and gray.
A sign freshly staked into the ground at the corner, the bottom streaked with dried mud—the county fair, back in town—and something flutters in my chest.
There’s the CVS with the group of teenage boys loitering at the side of the lot, like Charlie Higgins used to do. There’s the strip of stores, different letters stenciled in the windows from when I was a kid, except for Kelly’s Pub, which was as close to a landmark as we had. There’s the elementary school and, across the street, the police station, with Corinne’s case file stored in some back closet, gathering dust. I imagined all the evidence boxed away and tucked in a corner, because there was no place else to put her. Lost in the shuffle, forgotten with time.
The electrical cables strung above us on the roadside, the church that most everyone went to, whether you were Protestant or not. And beside it, the cemetery. Corinne used to make us hold our breath as we drove past. Hands on the ceiling over the railroad tracks, a kiss when the church bells chimed twelve, and no breathing around the dead. She made us do it even after my mother died. Like death was a superstition, something we could outwit by throwing salt over our shoulders, crossing our fingers behind our backs.
I took my phone out at the stoplight and called Everett. I got his voicemail, like I knew I would. “Made it,” I said. “I’m here.”
THE HOUSE WAS EVERYTHING I imagined those last nine hours. The path from the driveway to the front porch now overtaken by the yard, Daniel’s car pulled all the way to the side of the carport beside the garage to leave space for mine, the weeds scratching my bare ankles as I walked from smooth stepping-stone to smooth stepping-stone, my legs stretching by memory. The ivory siding, darker in places, bleached from the sun in others, so I had to squint to look directly at it. I stood halfway between my car and the house, forming a list in my head: Borrow a pressure washer, find a kid with a riding mower, get a few pots of colored flowers for the porch…
I was still squinting, my hand shielding my eyes, as Daniel rounded the corner of the house.
“Thought I heard your car,” he said. His hair was longer than I remembered, at his chin—same length mine was before I left here for good. He used to keep it buzzed short, because the one time he let it grow out, people said he looked like me.
It seemed lighter all grown out—more blond than not blond—whereas mine had turned darker over the years. He was still pale like me, and his bare shoulders were already turning bright red. But he’d gotten thinner, the hard lines of his face more pronounced. We could barely pass for siblings now.
His chest was streaked with dirt, and his hands were coated in soil. He wiped his palms against the sides of his jeans as he walked toward me.
“And before three-thirty,” I said, which was ridiculous. Of the two of us, he was always the responsible one. He was the one who’d dropped out of school to help with our mom. He was the one who’d said we needed to get our dad some help. He was the one now keeping an eye on the money. My being relatively on time was not going to impress him.
He laughed and wiped the backs of his hands against the sides of his jeans again. “Nice to see you, too, Nic.”
“Sorry,” I said, throwing myself into a hug, which was too much. I always did this. Tried to compensate by going to the other extreme. He was stiff in my embrace, and I knew I was getting dirt all over my clothes. “How’s the job, how’s Laura, how are you?”
“Busy. As irritable as she is pregnant. Glad you’re here.”
I smiled, then ducked back in the car for my purse. I wasn’t good with niceties from him. Never knew what to do with them, what he meant by them. He was, as my father was fond of saying, hard to read. His expression just naturally looked disapproving, so I always felt on the defensive, that I had something to prove.
“Oh,” I said, opening the back door to my car, shifting boxes around. “I have something for her. For you both. For the baby.” Where the hell was it? It was in one of those gift bags with a rattle on the front, with glitter inside that shifted every time it moved. “It’s here somewhere,” I mumbled. And the tissue paper had tiny diapers with pins, which I didn’t really understand, but it seemed like a Laura thing.
“Nic,” he said, his long fingers curled on top of the open car door, “it can wait. Her shower’s next weekend. I mean, if you’re not busy. If you want to go.” He cleared his throat. Uncurled his fingers from the door. “She’d want you to go.”
“Okay,” I said, standing upright. “Sure. Of course.” I shut the door and started walking toward the house, Daniel falling into stride beside me. “How bad is it?” I asked.
I hadn’t seen the house since last summer, when we moved our dad to Grand Pines. Back then there was a chance that it was a temporary move. That’s what we’d told him. Just for now, Dad. Just till you’re better. Just for a little bit. It was clear now that he wasn’t going to get better, that it wasn’t going to be for just a little bit. His mind was a mess. His finances were messier, a disaster that defied all logic. But at least he had the house. We had the house.
“I called to have the utilities turned back on yesterday, but something’s wrong with the AC.”
I felt my long hair sticking to the back of my neck, my sundress clinging to my skin, the sweat on my bare legs, and I hadn’t even been here five minutes. My knees buckled as I stepped onto the splintered wooden porch. “Where’s the breeze?” I asked.
“It’s been like this all month,” he said. “I brought over some fans. There’s nothing structural other than the AC. Needs paint, lightbulbs, a good cleaning, and we need to decide what to do with everything inside, obviously. It would save a lot of money if we can sell it ourselves,” he added with a pointed look in my direction. This was where I came in. In addition to my dealing with Dad’s paperwork, Daniel wanted me to sell the house. He had a job, a baby on the way, a whole life here.
I had two months off. An apartment I was subletting for the extra cash. A ring on my hand and a fiancé who worked sixty-hour weeks. And now a name—Corinne Prescott—bouncing around in my skull like a ghost.
He pulled the screen door open, and the familiar creak cut straight to my gut. It always did. Welcome back, Nic.
DANIEL HELPED UNLOAD MY car, carrying my luggage to the second-floor hall, stacking my personal items on the kitchen table. He swiped his arm across the counter, and particles of dust hung in the air, suspended in a beam of sunlight cutting through the window. He coughed, his arm across his face. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t get to the inside yet. But I got the supplies.” He gestured toward a cardboard box on the counter.
“That’s why I’m here,” I said.
I figured if I planned to live here for the duration, I should start in my room, so I had a place to sleep. I passed my suitcase at the top of the stairs and carried the box of cleaning supplies, balanced on my hip, toward my old room. The floorboards squeaked in the hall, a step before my door, like always. The light from the windows cut through the curtains, and everything in the room looked half there in the muted glow. I flipped the switch, but nothing happened, so I left the box in the middle of the floor and pulled back the curtains, watching as Daniel headed back from the detached garage with a box fan under his arm.
The yellow comforter covered with pale daisies was still rumpled at the bottom of my bed, as if I had never left. The indentations in the sheets—a hip, a knee, the side of a face—as if someone had just woken. I heard Daniel at the front door and I pulled the comforter up quickly, smoothing out the bumps and ridges.
I opened both windows—the one with the lock that worked and the one with the lock that broke sometime in middle school, which we never got fixed. The screen was gone, which was no great loss; it had been torn and warped from years of abuse. From me pushing out the bottom, crawling onto the sloped roof, dropping into the mulch that hurt only if you misjudged the distance, night after night. The type of thing that made perfect sense when I was seventeen but now seemed ridiculous. I couldn’t climb back in, so I’d sneak in the back door and creep up the stairs, avoiding the creak in the hallway. I probably could’ve sneaked out the same way, saved myself the jump, saved my screen the damage.
As I turned back around, the room now bathed in light, I noticed all the little things that Daniel had already done: A few of the pictures were off the walls, the yellow paint discolored where they’d hung; the old shoe boxes that had been up high in the closet, stacked neatly against the wall in the back corner; and the woven throw rug that had been my mother’s when she was a child, out in the middle of the floor, pulled from under the legs of my bed.
I heard the creak in the floorboard, Daniel in my doorway, box fan under his arm. “Thanks,” I said.
He shrugged. “No problem.” He angled it in the corner and flipped the switch. Heaven. “Thanks for coming, Nic.”
“Thanks for starting my room,” I said, shifting on my feet. I didn’t get how other siblings had such an easy relationship. How they could ease back into childhood in a heartbeat, dropping all formalities. Daniel and I were about to spend the day tiptoeing around our empty house and thanking each other to death.
“Huh?” he said as he turned the power up on the fan, so the low hum became a steady white noise, muffling the sounds from the outside.
“My room.” I gestured toward the walls. “Thanks for taking the pictures down.”
“I didn’t,” he said, pausing in front of the fan and closing his eyes for a second. “Must’ve been Dad.”
Maybe. I couldn’t remember. I was here a year ago, the night after we’d moved him out, but the details… the details were lost. Were the shoe boxes down? Were the pictures off the wall? I felt like I would’ve remembered that. That whole night was a blur.
Daniel didn’t know I had come back here instead of driving straight home, like I told him I had to—I have work, I have to go. I came back here, wandering from room to room, dry-eyed and shaken, like a kid lost in the middle of the county fair, searching the crowd for a familiar face. Curling up on the sheets in the empty house until I heard the engine out front and the doorbell I didn’t answer. The creak of the screen, the key in the door, his boots on the steps. Until Tyler was leaning against my bedroom wall. I almost missed you, he’d said. You okay?
“When was the last time you were here?” I asked Daniel.
He scratched his head, stepping closer to the fan. “I don’t know. I drive by, pop my head in from time to time, or if I need to get something for Dad. What is it?”
“Nothing,” I said. But it wasn’t nothing. Now I was imagining the shadow of someone else in the room. Rifling through my boxes. Moving my rug. Looking. Searching. It was the feeling that my things were not where they should be. It was the uneven imprints of dust, revealed in the sunlight. Or maybe it was just my perspective. I grew, and the house got smaller. At my place, I slept in a queen-size bed that took up about half my apartment, and Everett had a king. This full-size bed looked like it was meant for a child.
I wondered, if I curled up on the mattress, whether I would feel the indentation from someone else. Maybe just the ghost of me. I yanked the sheets off the bed and brushed past Daniel. The crease between his eyes deepened as he watched me.
By the time I got back upstairs after putting in the load of wash, the room felt a little more like mine. Like Daniel and me, the room and I took some time to grow accustomed to each other again. I took off the ring and placed it in the chipped ceramic bowl on my nightstand before tackling the bathroom and the dresser drawers. After, I sat on the floor in front of the fan and leaned back on my elbows.
Hour two and I was already procrastinating. I had to go see Dad. I had to bring the paperwork and listen to him talk in circles. I had to ask him what he meant in that letter and hope that he remembered. I had to pretend it didn’t sting when he forgot my name.
Didn’t matter how many times it had happened before. It gutted me every time.
I GATHERED UP THE guardianship paperwork to bring to Dad’s doctor—to start the process. So that, in life’s biggest irony, we would become guardians to our father and his assets. As I prepared to leave, I heard faint, muffled noises from outside—closing of doors, revving of a motor. I figured Daniel must’ve called someone about the yard. But then the screen door creaked, cutting through the noise of the fan.
“Nic?” I knew that voice like twelve years of history filed down into a single memory, a single syllable.
I leaned toward my window. Saw Tyler’s truck idling on the side of the road. Some girl in the passenger seat. Daniel’s sun-scorched back facing me as he leaned against the open window of the truck, talking to her.
I spun around just in time to see Tyler standing in front of my open bedroom door.
“Figured it’d be rude not to come in and say hi.”
I smiled without meaning to, because it was Tyler. A knee-jerk reaction.
“Kind of like not knocking?” I said, which made him laugh—but at me. I was going transparent, and I hated it.
He didn’t say How’ve you been or What have you been up to or ask if I missed him, joking but not. He didn’t mention the boxes or the luggage or my hair, which was longer than last year and curled into submission. But I saw him taking it all in. I was doing the same.
Face just a bit fuller, brown hair just a bit wilder, blue eyes just a bit brighter. When we were younger, he had these dark circles under his eyes that never went away, even if he’d spent the entire day sleeping. They kind of added to his appeal, but now that they were gone, he looked just as good. More youthful. Happier.
“Dan didn’t tell me you’d be getting here today,” he said, now fully inside my room.
Daniel liked us both fine apart, just not together. When I was sixteen, he told me I’d get a reputation if I started hanging around a guy like Tyler—I’m still not sure whether the slight was against me or against Tyler—and he never seemed to get over the fact that he was wrong.
“He didn’t tell me you were coming today, either,” I said, crossing my arms.
“In his defense, I was supposed to drop the mower off on my lunch break five hours ago.” He shrugged. “But I had to be in the area anyway. Two birds, right?”
I peered over my shoulder to check out the girl, but also for the opportunity to look anywhere other than at him. While it took Daniel and me days to slide back into some form of comfort with each other, Tyler and I took no time at all. Didn’t matter how long it had been or what we last said to each other. He stands in my room and it’s spring break two years ago. He takes a step forward and it’s the summer after college graduation. He says my name and I’m seventeen.
“Date?” I asked, seeing a blond ponytail, a skinny arm hanging out the window.
He grinned. “Something like that.”
I looked over my shoulder again. “Better get back out there,” I said. “Daniel’s probably warning her off.” Daniel’s upper body disappeared farther into the truck, and I jumped at the sound of the horn. “By the way,” I said, “that wasn’t your date.”
When I turned back around, Tyler was even closer. “If I didn’t know any better,” he said, “I’d guess he didn’t want me around his little sister.”
I kept myself from smiling at the running joke, because this was the dangerous part. Didn’t matter that there was a girl in his car or that he was heading out on a date this very second. Because every time I came back, this was what happened. Didn’t matter that I’d leave again or that he wouldn’t. That we never talked about the past or the future. That he’d give up something else for me and I’d pretend not to notice.
“I’m engaged,” I said. I said it fast, forcing out the words.
“Yeah, that part he told me.” He eyed my hand, my bare finger.
I ran my thumb against the skin. “It’s on the nightstand,” I said. “Didn’t want to get it dirty.” Which seemed ridiculous and pretentious and everything Tyler would hate about a girl and a ring.
It made him laugh. “Well, let’s see it, then.” Like a dare.
I tipped the ceramic bowl over into my palm and tossed him the ring as if it weren’t worth more than him and me combined. His eyes went wide for a minute as he turned it over in his hand. “No shit, Nic. Good for you. Who’s the lucky guy?”
“His name’s Everett.”
He started to laugh again, and I bit my lip to keep from smiling. I’d thought the same thing when we met—my neighbor’s Ivy Leaguing college roommate, partner in Daddy’s law firm. I’d thought, Of course that’s his name. Of course. But Everett had surprised me. He kept on surprising me.
“His name is Everett and he got you this ring,” Tyler continued. “Of course he did. When’s the date?”
“No date yet,” I said. “Just… eventually.”
He nodded and tossed it back the same way I’d thrown it to him. Like flipping a coin or tossing one into a fountain. Heads or tails. Make a wish. Penny for your thoughts.
“How long are you staying?” he asked as I dropped the ring back in the bowl.
“Not sure. As long as it takes. I’m off for the summer.”
“I guess I’ll be seeing you around, then.”
He was halfway out the door already. “Anyone I know?” I asked, gesturing toward the window.
He shrugged. “Annaleise Carter.”
That’s why he was in the area. The Carter property backed up to ours, and Annaleise was the oldest Carter, but not as old as we were. “What is she, thirteen?” I asked.
He laughed like he could see right through me. “Bye, Nic,” he said.
Annaleise Carter used to have these big doe eyes, so she always looked both innocent and surprised. I saw those eyes now—saw her leaning out the car window, eyes fixed on me, blinking slowly, like she was seeing a ghost. I raised my hand—hi—and then the other—not guilty.
Tyler got into the driver’s seat with one last wave to my window before pulling away.
What was she now, twenty-three? She would always be thirteen to me. And Tyler would be nineteen and Corinne eighteen. Frozen at the moment when everything changed. When Corinne disappeared. And I left.
TEN YEARS AGO, RIGHT around this time—the last two weeks of June—the fair had been in town. I hadn’t been home for it since then. And yet for all the time and distance, this still remained my sharpest memory—the thing that came to me first, before I could push it away, any time Everett asked about home:
Hanging over the edge of the Ferris wheel cart, the metal digging into my stomach, calling his name. Tyler down below, too far to focus on his face, frozen with his hands in his pockets as people weave around him. Watching us. Watching me. Corinne whispering in my ear: “Do it.” Bailey’s laughter, tight and nervous, and the cart rocking slowly back and forth, suspended over all of Cooley Ridge. “Tick-tock, Nic.”
Me, climbing over the edge though we were all wearing skirts, the shift in my weight swinging the cart even more, my elbows gripping the bar at the top of the cage behind me, my feet balancing on the waist-high ledge below. Corinne’s hands at my elbows, her breath in my ear. Tyler watching as the Ferris wheel started to circle downward again. The wind rushing up with the ground, my stomach dropping, my heart racing. The ride screeching to a stop at the base and me stepping off a moment too soon.
The impact from the metal loading dock jarring my knees as I ran down the ramp, dizzy and full of adrenaline, calling back to the worker who was yelling after me, “I know, I know, I’m leaving!” Racing toward Tyler, faintly smiling, his eyes telling me everything he wanted in that moment as he stood near the exit. An enabler. That was what Daniel called him, trying to find someone to blame other than me.
Run, Tyler had mouthed to me. I was out of breath, not quite laughing but something close, as I raced toward him. His lips curled into one of his half-smiles, and I knew we wouldn’t make it out of the parking lot. We’d be lucky if we made it to his truck.
But then a hand gripped me—“I said I’m leaving,” and I yanked my arm away.
But it wasn’t security. It was Daniel. He grabbed me, solid and forceful, and hit me. He hit me across the face with a closed fist, and the impact knocked me off my feet onto my side, my arm twisted on the ground between my stomach and the dirt.
Shock and pain, fear and shame, they all felt like the same thing in my memory, all tangled up with the taste of blood and dirt. He’d never hit me before. Not even when we were little kids, really. Ten years later and that moment hangs between us in every interaction, in every passive-aggressive text message and ignored phone call.
And later that night, sometime between the fair closing and six A.M., Corinne disappeared, and everything that had happened that day took on new weight, new meaning. In the weeks that followed, the potential for death became palpable. It was all around us, intangible yet suffocating, existing in every different permutation of events. She could always be dead, in a thousand different ways.
Maybe she left because her father abused her. Maybe that’s why her mother divorced him and left town a year later.
Or maybe it was the boyfriend, Jackson, because it’s usually the boyfriend, and they’d been fighting. Or the guy she was flirting with at the fair whom none of us knew—the one at the hot dog stand. The one who Bailey swore had been watching us.
Or maybe she stuck her thumb out for a ride home, in her too-short skirt and her long-sleeved, gauzy top, and maybe a stranger passing through town took her, used her, left her.
Maybe she just left. That’s what the cops finally decided. She was eighteen—legally, an adult—and she’d had enough of this place.
What happened, the cops asked, in those hours, with all of you? Lay bare your secrets, the Who and the What and the Why, between the hours of ten P.M. and six A.M. The same cops who broke up our parties but then drove us home instead of calling our parents. The same cops who dated our friends and drank beer with our brothers or fathers. And those secrets—the Where were we between ten P.M. and six A.M., the What were we doing, the Why—they wouldn’t keep with those cops. Not at the bar, not in the bed, not in this town.
By the time the people from the state arrived to help out, it was too late. We’d already turned inward, already had our theories set, already believed what we needed to believe.
The official line: Corinne last existed to everyone who knew her just inside the entrance to the fair, and from there, she disappeared.
But she didn’t, really. There was more. A piece for each of us that we kept hidden away.
For Daniel, she disappeared from outside the fair, behind the ticket booth.
For Jackson, from the parking lot of the caverns.
And for me, she faded to nothing from a curve of the winding road on the way back to Cooley Ridge.
We were a town full of fear, searching for answers. But we were also a town full of liars.
THE CAFETERIA OF GRAND Pines is a great deception—hardwood floors and dark-linen-covered tables better suited for a restaurant instead of a long-term rehab facility. A piano in the corner, though it seems to be more for decoration, and faint classical music playing in the background during dinner. The food, I’ve heard, is the best in any rehab facility in the South—well, that’s what Daniel was told when he picked this place, as if that should make him feel better and make me feel better, by proxy. Don’t worry, Dad, we’ll visit. And the food is to die for.
Today the nurse near reception escorted me into the room, and I caught sight of Dad at a corner table for two. His eyes slid over the nurse and me, then refocused on his fork twirling in the pasta.
“He didn’t tell us you were coming or we would’ve reminded him to wait,” the nurse said, her mouth scrunched up in worry.
Dad looked up as she walked me to the table and opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but the nurse spoke first, her smile practiced and contagious—my own and Dad’s stretching in return.
“Patrick, your daughter’s here. Nicolette,” she said, facing me, “it’s been so nice seeing you again.”
“Nic,” I said to the nurse. My heart squeezed in my chest as I waited, hoping the name caught, contagious as a smile.
“Nic,” Dad repeated. His fingers drummed on the table, slowly, one, two, three, one, two, three—and then something seemed to click. The drumming sped up, onetwothree, onetwothree. “Nic.” He smiled. He was here.
“Hi, Dad.” I sat across from him and reached for his hand. God, it had been a long time. A year since we’d been in the same room. Calls, for a time, when he’d drift in and out of lucidity, until Daniel said they were making him too agitated. And then just letters, my picture enclosed. But here he was now. Like an older version of Daniel but softer, from age and a lifelong appreciation for fast food and liquor.
He closed his hand around mine and squeezed. He was always good at this part. At the physical affection, the outward displays of good-fatherhood. Hugs when he stumbled in late at night, half drunk. Hand squeezes when we needed groceries but he couldn’t pull himself out of bed. Hand squeeze, take my credit card, and that should make up for it.
His eyes drifted to my hand, and he tapped the back of my ring finger. “Where is it?”
Inwardly, I cringed. But I smiled at Dad, glad he’d remembered this detail. It made me happy to know he remembered things I told him in my letters. He wasn’t losing his mind, he was just lost within it. There was a difference. I lived in there. Truth lived in there.
I flipped through my phone for a picture and zoomed in. “I left it at the house. I was cleaning.”
He narrowed his eyes at the screen, at the perfectly cut angles, at the brilliant stone. “Tyler got you that?”
My stomach dropped. “Not Tyler, Dad. Everett.”
He was lost again, but he wasn’t wrong. He was just somewhere else. A decade ago. We were kids. And Tyler wasn’t asking me to marry him, exactly—he was holding it out like a request. Stay, it meant.
And this ring meant… I had no idea what this ring meant. Everett was thirty, and I was closing in on thirty, and he’d proposed on his thirtieth birthday, a promise that I wasn’t wasting his time and he wasn’t wasting mine. I’d said yes, but that was two months ago, and we hadn’t discussed a wedding, hadn’t gone over the logistics of moving in together when my lease was up. It was an eventually. A plan.
“Dad, I need to ask you something,” I said.
His eyes drifted to the papers sticking out of my bag, and his fingers curled into fists. “I already told him, I’m not signing any papers. Don’t let your brother sell the house. Your grandparents bought that land. It’s ours.”
I felt like a traitor. That house was going to get sold one way or the other.
“Dad, we have to,” I said softly. You’re out of money. You spent it indiscriminately on God knows what. There was nothing left. Nothing but the money tied up in the concrete slab and four walls and the unkempt yard.
“Nic, really, what would your mother think?”
I was already losing him. He’d soon disappear into another time. It always started like this, with my mother, as if conjuring her into thought would suck him under to a place where she still existed.
“Dad,” I said, trying to hold him here, “that’s not why I came.” I took a slow breath. “Do you remember sending me a letter a few weeks ago?”
He drummed his fingers on the table. “Sure. A letter.” A stall tactic—I could feel him grasping, trying to remember.
I pulled out the paper, unfolded it on the table between us, saw his eyes narrow at the page. “You sent this to me.”
His gaze lingered on the words before he looked up, his blue eyes watery, slippery as his thoughts. That girl. I saw that girl.
I heard my heartbeat in my head, like her name, knocking around. “Who did you mean? Who did you see?”
He looked around the room. Leaned closer. His mouth opening and closing twice before the name slipped through in a whisper. “The Prescott girl.”
I felt all the hairs, one at a time, rise on the back of my neck. “Corinne,” I said.
He nodded. “Corinne,” he said, as if he’d found something he was looking for. “Yes. I saw her.”
I looked around the cafeteria, and I leaned closer to him. “You saw her? Here?” I tried to picture the ghost of her drifting through these halls. Or her heart-shaped face and bronze hair, the amber eyes and the bow lips—what she’d look like ten years later. Slinging an arm around me, pressing her cheek against mine, confessing everything in a whisper just for me: Best practical joke ever, right? Aw, come on, don’t be mad. You know I love you.
Dad’s eyes were far off. And then they sharpened again, taking in his surroundings, the papers in my bag, me. “No, no, not here. She was at the house.”
“When, Dad. When?” She disappeared right after graduation. Right before I left. Ten years ago… The last night of the county fair. Tick-tock, Nic. Her cold hands on my elbows, the last time I touched her.
Not a sighting since.
We stapled her yearbook picture to the trees. Searched the places we were scared to search, looking for something we were scared to find. We looked deep into each other. We unearthed the parts of Corinne that should’ve remained hidden.
“I should ask your mom…” His eyes drifted again. He must’ve been pulling a memory from years ago. From before Corinne disappeared. From before my mother died. “She was on the back porch, but it was just for a moment…” His eyes went wide. “The woods have eyes,” he said.
Dad was always prone to metaphor. He’d spent years teaching philosophy at the community college. It was worse when he was drinking—he’d pull on lines from a book, reordered to suit his whim, or recite quotes out of context from which I’d desperately try to find meaning. Eventually, he’d laugh, squeezing my shoulder, moving on. But now he would get lost in the metaphor, never able to pull himself back out. His moment of lucidity was fading.
I leaned across the table, gripping his arm until he focused on my words. “Dad, Dad, we’re running out of time. Tell me about Corinne. Was she looking for me?”
He sighed, exasperated. “Time isn’t running out. It’s not even real,” he said, and I knew I had lost him—he was lost, circling in his own mind. “It’s just a measure of distance we made up to understand things. Like an inch. Or a mile.” He moved his hands as he spoke, to accentuate the point. “That clock,” he said, pointing behind him. “It’s not measuring time. It’s creating it. You see the difference?”
I stared at the clock on the far wall, at the black second hand moving, moving, always moving. “And yet I keep getting older,” I mumbled.
“Yes, Nic, yes,” he said. “You change. But the past, it’s still there. The only thing moving is you.”
I felt like a mouse in a wheel, trying to have a conversation with him. I had learned not to argue but to wait. To avoid agitation, which would quickly slide into disorientation. I’d try again tomorrow, from a different angle, a different moment. “Okay, Dad. Hey, I gotta get moving.”
He pulled back and looked at me, his eyes roaming across my face. I wondered what version of me he was seeing—his daughter or a stranger. “Nic, listen,” he said. I heard the ticking of the clock. Tick-tock, Nic.
He drummed his fingers on the table between us, twice as fast as the clock. There was a crash from the other side of the room, and I twisted in my chair to see a man picking up a tray of dishes he must’ve dropped while clearing tables. I turned back to Dad, who was focused on his plate, twirling his pasta, as if the last few minutes hadn’t existed.
“You really should try the pasta,” he said. He grinned, warm and distant.
I stood, stacked the edges of the paper against the table, matched his warm, distant smile. “It was really good to see you, Dad,” I said. I walked around the table, hugged him tight, felt him hesitate before bringing his hand up to my arm and squeezing me back.
“Don’t let your brother sell the house,” he said, the conversation in a loop, beginning anew.
THE PORCH LIGHT WAS on and the sky almost dark, and I had a message from Daniel when I parked the car in the gravel driveway. He’d be back in the morning, and I should call if I needed anything, if I changed my mind and wanted to stay with him and Laura.
Sitting in my car, watching the lantern move with the wind, the light casting shadows across the front of the house, I thought about it. Thought about driving straight across town and pulling out the blow-up mattress in the unused nursery. Because I could see us, the shadows of us, a decade ago, telling ghost stories on that porch with the dancing light.
Corinne and Bailey rapt with attention as Daniel told them how there was a monster in the woods—that it wasn’t a thing they could see but a thing they could feel. That it took people over, made them do things. I could hear that version of me in my own head, saying he was full of shit. And Corinne tilting her head at Daniel and leaning back against the porch railing, sticking out her chest, placing her foot against a slat of wood, bending one of her long legs, and saying, What would it make you do? Always pushing us. Always pushing.
I hated that the ghosts of us lived here, always. But Laura was almost due, and there wasn’t a place for me there, and even though Daniel had offered, it was implied that I would say no. I had a house here, a room here, space here. I wasn’t his responsibility anymore.
I pushed the front door open and heard another door catch at the other end of the house, as if I had disturbed the balance of it.
“Hello?” I called, frozen in place. “Daniel?”
Nothing but the evening wind shaking the panes of glass in a familiar rattle. A breeze, thank God.
I flipped the wall light switches as I walked toward the kitchen at the back of the house, half of them working, half not.
Daniel wasn’t here. Nobody was here.
I turned the deadbolt, but the wood around it was rotted and splintered, the bolt cutting through the frame whether it was locked or not. Everything looked as I’d left it: a box on the table, a used glass in the sink, everything coated in a fine layer of dust.
The ring. I took the steps two at a time and went straight for the nightstand, my fingers trembling as I reached inside the ceramic bowl, frantic heartbeats until my finger brushed metal.
The ring was there. It was fine. I slid it back on my finger and ran my shaking hand through my hair. Everything’s fine. Breathe.
The bed was still bare, but the sheets were folded and stacked on top, the way Daniel used to leave them when he started taking over for the things Mom couldn’t do. I moved the shoe boxes back to the closet and the rug back under the legs of the bed. I centered the jewelry box under the mirror, a dust-free square where it had sat for the last year, at least. Everything resettling. Realigning.
I felt the memories doing the same. Falling back into place. The investigation. All I’d left behind, neatly boxed away for ten years.
I looked around my room and saw the rectangles of discolored paint. I closed my eyes and saw the pictures that had hung in each spot.
My stomach churned, unsettled. Corinne had been in every one.
A coincidence, I thought. Corinne was so wrapped up in my childhood, I could probably find her shadow in anything here if I went looking for it.
I needed to find out what thought had surged and then faltered, driving Dad to a sheet of paper and an envelope with my name. What memory had been flickering from the dying portion of his brain, begging for attention before it faded away for good. Corinne. Alive. But when? I had to find out.
Everything was stuck here. Waiting for someone to step in and reorder the evidence, the stories, the events—until they came together in a way that made sense.
In that way, Dad was right. About time. About the past being alive.
I walked down the wooden steps into the kitchen, the linoleum shrinking away from the corners. And imagined, for a moment, catching sight of a girl with long bronze hair, her laughter echoing through the night as she skipped up the steps of the back porch—
I had to focus, make sense of this house, and get out. Before the past started creeping out from the walls, whispering from the grates. Before it unpacked itself from that box, layer after layer, all the way back to the start.