We take my Prius because Crystal has to leave the minivan for Felix and the kids. Crystal stares out the window as the road rolls by. She hasn’t said two words in 40 miles. Is she mad at me? Worried about her kids? Scared of meeting Emily again? Or just rehashing her argument with Felix in her head?
My parents argued all the time. That’s how I thought grownups were. After a long time, and a little help from therapists and friends, I figured out that you don’t have to shout at people to get what you want. I still don’t entirely understand it, but I’m getting better. I don’t punch my friends nearly so often anymore.
Eventually Crystal leans back in her seat. Hills rise on the side of the highway. She sighs and stretches her arms over her head. “You know, I love him. And my kids. Even Ferdinand.”
I check on a truck in the left lane, coming up fast. “Yeah. I get that.”
She laughs. “But I never loved anything more than those summers.”
Me too. Even now, outhouse and sleeping bags and all the rest, the cabin feels like the happiest time of my life. The first time I felt free to be me, without anyone judging who I was or what I thought or how I felt. Even when we argued about feminism, love, and magic. People listened to me. It was like a drug. It was why I kept coming back.
“We’re close.” The sun is coming down. I pass the exit to the McDonald’s where I had breakfast yesterday. “LeAnn will be happy to see you.”
“Can we stop?” She points at a sign for Burger King at the next exit. “I can’t really deal with all the vegan food she’ll probably try to shove down our throats.”
I laugh. “Fine. Make sure you go to the bathroom.”
“Crystal?” LeAnn runs across the porch in the moonlight. “Oh my god, you’re okay!” They hug.
I leave my backpack in the back seat as they walk up into the cabin. A bat zooms over my head. I’m hoping I won’t have to spend the night here again, even if it means driving all the way back to Chicago on dark roads.
Inside LeAnn is chattering like one of Crystal’s kids, cutting a slice of homemade bread and offering her some corn from her garden. “So you’ve got kids? I bet they’re cute! What are you doing with your life?”
Crystal looks at me with a grimace. “Well—the usual, you know? Driving around in a minivan. Soccer practice after school. Marketing stuff at my job. But hey, Rachel and I busted an asshole killing animals to try and raise his dead wife. That was kind of exciting. Aside from that . . .” She rubs her eyes. “My husband’s cool. The sex is good.”
“That’s important.” LeAnn looks at me. “Oh, Rachel, are you hungry? I should get—”
“I’m fine.” I lean against the door, my legs tired from driving. I’m tired and I want a beer. “We should talk about Emily.”
LeAnn fills a plastic cup from her jug of water. “I haven’t seen her since the other night.” She sits down at the table. “I don’t know what to do.”
“She was at my house last night.” Crystal tosses the bread back down on the cracked blue plate. “She scared my kids.” Her voice sounds as unsteady as the wobbly wooden chair under her butt
Gretchen and Ben hadn’t seemed too frightened by the strange lady in the back yard. But Crystal probably knows her children better than I do. I grab a folding chair and sit down. “Why does she come here? Why does she talk to you?”
LeAnn sets her glass down hard, spilling water over the thin white tablecloth. “Maybe because I’m still growing my own food? Drinking good water, making friends with people who are different from me? This place is where it all began. For her, me . . . all of us. Down at the lake.”
Crystal glances at me. As if this is all my fault somehow.
“What does Emily say?” Maybe I should have asked this from the beginning.
LeAnn sighs. “She always asks if I want to come with her. Then she asks about the rest of you.” She looks from me to Crystal. “Then she tells me who she wants next. Then she goes back into the water. And I go to bed.”
“She asks about us?” Crystal looks nervous. “Are you . . . is she picking the one she wants?”
“She knew you worked in marketing.” I peer at LeAnn. “What did you tell her?”
She looks away from me. “I don’t know that much about any of you these days.” It’s close to an accusation. “It feels like—girl talk, you know? I probably talk to Emily more than any of the rest of you. I haven’t seen either of you in years.”
“I’ve been . . . busy.” Crystal looks around the room. “Doing . . . you know.”
“Soccer practice?” LeAnn snorts. “Marketing stuff? That’s what you’re doing now? I’m not mad.” She shakes her head. “But I like it right here. I just didn’t run off to the cities like everyone else.” She looks straight at me.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, LeAnn, you’re the one hiding out here in the middle of nowhere!” My voice is shaking as a breeze rattles the window. “There are bats outside! You’re holding this place together with duct tape! You pee in an outhouse! You don’t even have wi-fi!” Suddenly I just want to kick the table over and walk out to my car and drive away. But I can’t. And not just because I’d strand Crystal here.
“Is that what you think?” LeAnn plants her hands on the table. “I’m just some redneck living out here in the country, and you and all your friends are so much better than me? I made this place, and it’s a good place, and I don’t care what you think!”
“I think you’re scared.” I walk toward her, so pissed off I could spit. “There’s a whole real world out there, LeAnn, and some of us live there! And we do okay! I like my apartment, my car, my computer, my phone! Why are you still here?” I stop right in front of her. “Is it because of Emily?”
“No!” LeAnn steps back from me, frightened. “What are you talking about? I’m not . . .”
“Then what are we doing here? Why did you send me that message? Why is—” I stop for breath. “LeAnn, come on. Just tell us what’s going on.”
Crickets. Maybe outside. Maybe in the walls. LeAnn and I stare at each other.
I remember when I listened to everything she said. LeAnn was in charge, it was her house. But that was a long time ago. A lot has changed since then.
“Just listen.” LeAnn leans down over the table, her face inches from Crystal. “You don’t have to go. Okay?”
Crystal picks up a piece of bread. “Great. I guess.”
I look at LeAnn. “So she can just . . . say no? Is that it?”
“That’s what Emily always says. She says it’s in the book, no one has to come if they don’t—”
The book? “We should burn that book. Right now.”
“Hey, you were here with all of us!” LeAnn jabs a finger at my face. “You saw it—we all saw it! And you danced with all of us. But after a few years you all had better things to do, and you just ignored me! The crazy bitch living out in the country—”
“I never danced!” For some reason this burns more than anything else she’s saying. Okay, I sat by the fire, watching them. Envying them, maybe.
But I stayed on my ass, scared and—okay, a little dazzled.
I can still picture the demon, big and powerful in the flames. I watched my friends whirl around the fire, chanting in a language none of us knew or understood. I stared at him—it. Something deep and powerful made me want to join in. And scared me. And I stayed back.
Goddamn it, that memory of songs and dancing and a huge beast who wanted me still makes me horny. And somewhere deep inside my brain, I’m still ashamed that I held back. Because I wanted it too.
I want to punch something. Or someone. “Fuck you! You danced, and everyone else! Crystal, you were there!” I turn on her. “Did you see me—”
“Oh, both of you, shut up!” Crystal pushed the chair. “I can’t take this anymore!” She lurches towards the front door. “I hate this! I hate all of it!”
“Crystal?” LeAnn pushes past me. “What are you—where are you going?”
“Down to the lake!” She’s on the porch now, pulling her shoes off. “I don’t care about you or the rest of them anymore! I’m just tired of all this crap!” She steps down off the porch in her bare feet and staggers toward the path. “Kids, soccer practice, minivans, meetings, assholes . . .”
She walks across the grass and down the path.
“Rachel . . .” LeAnn looks at me as if now I have all the answer. “What’s she doing?”
“If she can decide—” I try to sort it out in my head. “If she can say no, then that means everyone Emily took—they all left of their own free will? Connie, Robyn . . .” Robyn was my best friend in college. But like LeAnn and Crystal, I hadn’t seen or talked to her in years. “They wanted to go?”
“I don’t know.” For the first time since I’ve ever known her, LeAnn looks scared and helpless. “What should we do?”
Crystal’s already disappeared on the path, I hope we’re not too late. “I guess we go down to the lake.”