Saturday, July 30, 2016

Emily's Back, Part One

He will call you out, make you sweat,
Give you a blessing that you'll never forget.
So revel in the chase and let your heartbeat run:
Blessed are the children of the Horned One!

“Hymn to Herne,” from “Blessings,” by S. J. Tucker

* * *

A big sign on the side of highway I-65 going into Indiana says HELL IS REAL. I hit the accelerator and speed past, cranking the radio as high as I can.
            The GPS on my phone stops picking up a signal two hours after that. I’m pretty sure I’m lost, but I’m driving up a twisting dirt road off the highway when I spot an old-fashioned metal mailbox with a sign that says L. WEATHERS.
            I make a sharp turn up the road, pushing my Prius up the hill until we’re wheeling into a long round driveway in front of a house that looks like a hunting shack from the 1920s. Yellow paint, a long porch, a broad window with duct tape holding up the cracked glass. High stalks of corn grow in a garden guarded by chicken wire. An outhouse lurks around the corner.
            I park next to a station wagon that looks like a relic from the 1980s, cut my engine. and look around. Skinny white birch trees with green leaves cast fluttering shadows over our cars.
            Nine years later, it all looks just the same as I remember.
            The front door swings open. LeAnn walks across the porch. “Rachel?”
            I stand up. The sun blazes down from a cloudless sky, and the air is thick and humid. But it feels good to be here again.
            LeAnn grabs me for a strong hug. She’s a big woman with long black hair and wide arms “It’s great to see you! Thank you for coming!”
            “Uh, yeah.” I’m not really a hugging person. “It was a long drive.”
            She looks me over with a smile. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
            I peer at the house. It looks just the same. I take a deep breath, filling up on the scent the scent of long grass and wild flowers. Then I pat LeAnn’s arm. “What’s going on? Your email just said . . . ”
            LeAnn sighs. “Emily’s back.”
            Oh no. I step away from her. “Who’s she looking for this time?” Not me. Please, please, not—
            “It’s Crystal.” LeAnn looks up at the trees. “She told me. Out by the lake.”
            Always the lake. “Where is Crystal?”
            LeAnn shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

The house has two rooms—a kitchen with a long table, and a big room for sleeping. I carry my backpack inside and try not to shudder, thinking about how much time I spent here when I was just out of college, trying to figure my life out.
            A bunch of girls in sleeping bags, taking turns cooking and cleaning up, talking about feminism, reading books like How to Suppress Women’s Writing and everything by Ursula K. LeGuin we could get our hands on from the nearest second-hand bookstore.
            We had to wash up in the lake behind the house. Keeping our eyes out for the locals who tried to catch us naked.
            At least LeAnn has electricity now—a lamp in the corner of the kitchen shines dim light around the room, and a two-plate burner sits next to a rusty sink. A half-size refrigerator takes up one corner.
            But there’s no computer or modem. “How did you send me an email?”
            She laughs. “I drive thirty miles to the public library in Martinsburg twice a week. Mostly it’s spam. Every few months I get something from my cousin in Oregon. But I sent you that message yesterday.” She brings me a glass of water. “You’re quick.”
            I slump into a wobbly wooden chair. “When did you see her?”
            LeAnn sits down and sighs. “Two days ago. She was out by the lake. Like always.”
            The water in the glass is lukewarm, but it has a lemon taste. I look up around the room. A calendar from last year hangs from a nail on the wall. A fly buzzes near the window.
            I want to punch something. Instead I try to breathe slowly. “What did she say?”
            LeAnn crosses her arms. “What do you think? I always ask her why she’s here, but she only says she wants one of us. There’s only a few of us left.” She closes her eyes. “Me, you, Crystal, Alison . . .”
            I look over into the other room. It’s so small, and I try to remember how so many of us could fit in there, crowding on the floor, fighting over pillows. Snoring. And yeah, a little making love.
            I shoo the fly away. “You used to have cats.”
            “Serena died last spring. I buried her near the garden.”
            I stand up, my legs still wobbly. “I need—I guess I need to wash up. And think.”
            “Sure.” LeAnn heads toward the mini-refrigerator. “I’ll start some dinner. You’re still vegetarian, right?”
            Sometimes I eat fish. “Yeah. Whatever you’ve got.”
            “Rachel . . .” LeAnn leans toward me. Her breath ins warm on my face. “Are you all right? It’s been a long time.”
            I back away. “I’m fine. I have a job. An apartment. Friends. Plants. I might get a fish.”
            LeAnn smiles. “I’m happy for you.”

I take the short dirt path down to the lake. The lake is small, maybe a hundred yards in each direction, but the water is cool and clean. Years ago we used to swim here, mostly at night, and when the moon was full it was like a festival of . . .
            What? Female empowerment? Or just a bunch of hippie college girls having fun in the water?
            I take off my T-shirt and splash water over my face and under my arms. Then I pull my shirt back on and trudge back up the path.
            Looking up at the house with the sun setting overhead, I suddenly flash back. It’s a cliché, I know, but I can’t help it, being here now. Again.

It was graduation year—the second or third time LeAnn invited a bunch of girls to the cabin for a weekend. The first night we build a fire outside and sing songs. The second night we build another fire and sit around it, and LeAnn brings out a book. It’s old, with a red leather cover, and she opens it up on her knees. “Listen to this. It’ll open your minds.” Then she starts to read.
            The words are ancient, but even though none of us understand them, they seem to burn with mystical power. When she finishes, giggling, the fire flares, and for a moment all of us watch something rise from the flames—a tall creature with big red horns, majestic and handsome, with a broad chest and thick arms and . . .
            And, okay, he’s totally nude. A wide grin splits his face. And some of our faces too.
            Suzanne giggles. Okay, we’re a bunch of college girls, and some of us have had a lot of sex, but nobody’s seen anything like this before. I shiver.
            Then Robyn lurches up, laughing, and starts dancing around the fire. “La-la-la!” She flutters her arms up and down like a bird. “Come on! La-la-lahhh . . .”
            The others rise up to join her. Crystal and Suzanne kick their legs high and giggle, like cheerleaders prancing in front of the football team. They join hands with Robyn and Mary, shouting at the sky as they spin around the flames. LeAnn drops the book and pushes her way into the circle like she wants to walk straight into the fire.
            I want to join in. But I’m frightened. I feel hot—my body tingling inside and out. It’s not just the fire. The creature is watching all of us. But I look away. Wishing I could dance with them. Why are they all so free? Why can’t I . . .
            LeAnn sits down next to me, out of breath. “Did I do that? Oh god . . . “
            The creature laughs from the middle of the flames. Then it disappears in an explosion of sparks that sends us scattering, laughing.
            “Wow.” Emily whirls around, kicking her sandals off, her long hair flying. “That was awesome! Let’s do it again!”

LeAnn makes a dinner of asparagus and corn from her garden, along with lentils that come from the closest store with organic foods. That’s what she tells me, anyway. I don’t know where she gets her money from—maybe growing weed somewhere far from the house. I’m not sure I want to ask.
            The food is good. Bland, but at least she has pepper. I wish for a beer, but I make do with water from a big jug with lemons inside.
            We chat about our lives. LeAnn has been living here for the last nine years, ever since that first summer. For a few years we came back for a week or a weekend, some of us, until our lives got in the way.
            LeAnn talks about her garden, managing the house, and doing business with the locals. She doesn’t have any problems with them. This is the middle of Indiana—maybe redneck country—but everyone in the nearby town is friendly these days.
            “My best friend runs a gun shop.” LeAnn shudders. “He keeps trying to sell me a shotgun. But he’s a really nice guy. He loaned me money last winter. And he never tries to, you know—” She holds up her middle finger. “It’s not like that. They’re good people.” She swallows some water. “They think I’m crazy, but that’s all right.”
            I tell her about my job—designing websites and marketing brochures, mostly. I don’t want to talk about the other stuff right now.
            After a while we sit quietly and finish our meal. It’s a comfortable silence, even though it’s been years since seeing each other.
            We clean up and then go out to the porch. The sun’s down and the half-moon is peeking through the trees. We sit on a pair of folding beach chairs, and LeAnn flicks a cigarette lighter. “Smoke?”
            I haven’t smoked weed in years. But right now it feels right. “Sure.”
            She lights up. The moon rises. I start to relax. And stop fighting the memories.
My parents got divorced when I was 14. Unfortunately, that was when I first started hearing voices in my head.
            Well, not really voices. Just feelings. But I couldn’t always tell the difference.
            Was I just bitchy, or did Roxanne Litch really hate me? Did my math teacher actually fantasize about cutting all of us up and dumping us in a landfill? Did my mother want to leave me with my crazy, drug-addicted aunt? Did Ray really love me, or did he just want to get into my panties? And what about that bird that sat in a tree outside my window all night, telling me stories about sailing on the ancient seas?
            I was afraid I was schizophrenic. It turned out to be worse—and better.
            Here’s the thing: I’m psychic. A little bit. I can handle it now. But at the time? Yeah, I was a little screwed up.
            My mom didn’t send me to live with Aunt Cara, but she did get a boyfriend who drank beer all day and tried to molest me whenever she wasn’t around. I had a string of boyfriends all through high school, and most of them were jerks, but I didn’t care just then. There was one counselor who just wanted to put me on drugs, but then I found an English teacher who read my stories and seemed to understand that the voices in my head weren’t all hallucinations. She helped me sort out my thoughts, figure out which ones were just adolescent paranoia and which ones really came from somewhere else—so I could confront them, or ignore them.
            Mostly she helped me get into college. With a scholarship. So for the first time in my life I didn’t have to fight my way through what other people thought about me. My mind started to clear. I actually understood what I was reading. I saw a way out.
            “How did we meet?” LeAnn passes me the joint.
            “Robyn.” I take a hit. “She was in my computer design class. And you invited her here one weekend, and she told me I could come.”
            “Oh, yeah.” LeAnn nodded. “That was a good time.”
            Six or seven girls in one cramped cabin. We drank beer, smoked weed, went swimming in the lake, read magazines, argued, made up, and then went back to campus on Sunday night. It became a regular thing, every few months. One November we almost froze. The next May we were attacked by mosquitoes and bats.
            I think LeAnn’s parents owned the property. Then they died during her senior year, and she just decided to live here. I wanted to go somewhere—a big city, like Indianapolis or Chicago—and do something with my degree in graphic design and my minor in philosophy. But she invited all of us to spend a long weekend after graduation, and a bunch of us showed up. Ready to get out of college, but not quite ready to leave it all behind.
            That’s when she brought out the book.

I lean forward, coming back to the present. “Where was Crystal the last time you talked to her?”
            LeAnn blows smoke through her lips. “Up in Indy, I think. I might have an address somewhere. I sent her a postcard one time.”
            Great. I stand up, my feet unsteady. Suddenly I’m pissed off, despite the weed. At Emily, mostly. But also LeAnn. She talks to Emily, but she doesn’t really know anything, and then she asks me to come down here and straighten everything out?
            “I’m going down to the lake.” I stagger off the porch. LeAnn calls after me. I don’t answer.
            Down by the lake again I take off my shoes and sit by the water, letting my feet get wet. I don’t really expect Emily to show up. I just want to get away from LeAnn for a few minutes.
             I was happy to see her, but now I’m just tired. I’m not a crimefighter. I’m not even a private detective. I’m just a designer with some very vague psychic abilities. And LeAnn expects me to somehow save Crystal from the problem she started years ago?
            I throw a stone into the water. I want to go home.
Of course LeAnn doesn’t have anything like coffee in the morning. I wash in the lake again, change my shirt and underwear in the cabin, and jump in my car. Good thing I’ve got a box of granola bars in my backpack, along with my laptop. And a good A/C.
            “I need to find a good wi-fi connection,” I tell LeAnn through the window with my motor running. “If I get anything, I’m going up to Indy.” If I don’t—well, I’m not sure I’m coming back.
            I’ll try to help Crystal if I can. But this cabin has too many memories. Good and bad, whatever. But I’ve got a decent life now. I’m not sure I want to come back.
            “I’ve missed you.” LeAnn smiles. “Thanks for coming.”
            I’ve missed her. And maybe the person I used to be, nine years ago. “Me too.”

God help me, I stop in the first McDonalds I see. They have coffee. And wi-fi. I order two basic Egg McMuffins, no meat—I’m vegetarian, but I do eat eggs and cheese—and a bunch of extra hash brown cakes. Then I grab a booth in the corner and open up my laptop. 
            Crystal is actually Christine Brown. I remember that much. She was a blond-haired, blue-eyed princess in college, although she was never stuck up about it. We were never best friends or anything, but she was smart and decent. Math major, I think.
            I search the internet. Crystal Brown, Christine Brown, Indianapolis, math—what else? I find a dozen Facebook pages for someone else. I expand the search outside of Indianapolis. If she’s not in the state, I’ll never find her, but then maybe Emily won’t either.
            I get a refill on my coffee and order more hash brown cakes. I manage to get a couple of likely phone numbers. A certain guy I know has resources only a private detective can have, but he won’t share his password with me. Jerk. So I start punching numbers.
            The first one actually sounds like Crystal, but it goes right to voice mail. “Hi, this is Christine, we’re not here right now, but you know, leave a message when I stop talking.” Beep.
            I haven’t actually figured out what I should say. “Hi, if this is Crystal, this is Rachel Spring. I, uh, think Emily wants to find you. Give me a call.” I leave my number and hang up. And wait.
            When she doesn’t call me back, I punch the next number. I don’t like calling strangers, but I know from TV that you don’t usually hit the jackpot right away. The next number is an elderly woman who thinks I’m her granddaughter. The one after that is a husband or a boyfriend. He takes my number, but he’s pretty sure his Christine doesn’t know me.
            The next two calls go to voicemail, and neither one really sounds like Crystal, but I leave my name and number anyway. Then I drink the last of my coffee, pack up, and use the bathroom. A real bathroom. Civilization.
            I buy another coffee and then sit in my car, trying to decide whether driving up to Indianapolis is really worthwhile considering I don’t know my way around. Crystal could be anywhere, and I don’t really know what to do if I find her. So I sit and wait and worry about all the work piling up for me back home.
            The phone buzzes. What? I’m not asleep, I’m just  . . . oh, all right. I pick up. “Hi, this is me. Rachel.”
            “Rachel who?” The voice sounds pissed. And familiar, even after seven years.
            I sit up. “Me. The same bitch who coached you through your final paper for Womens’ Studies, remember? That C+ you got is partly mine.”
            Crystal laughs. “Okay. I wasn’t sure. Look—” She talks fast so I can’t interrupt her. “I can’t talk long right now. Where are you?”
            I tell her, and she gives me an address. “Be careful.” Her voice is a whisper. “Look for my car, it’s a green minivan. Don’t knock on any doors.” She hangs up.
            A minivan? What the hell? I start the car and look at my phone. Come on, GPS, don’t fail me now.

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