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Hidden Valley was a town barricaded by the massive crowns of the Appalachians. They loomed over wide expanses of rocky, cow-covered hills and dense, hardwood forests; tangled webs of red dirt roads that had all but washed away after years of flooding; and decrepit plantation houses eclipsed by nephilim box hedges. Under their shadow, generation after generation of coal miners, school teachers, farmers, and nurses had lived and worked, rarely diverting from the familiar or the safe. To Kele, who had resided in five states and two countries during her seventeen years, everything about the town felt like stepping back in time. Back to a place where old men sat shirtless on their porch swings in the summer, staring blankly at the heat waves rising up off the crumbling asphalt; where football was the only important sport and a cold creek water baptism was a poor girl’s cotillion; where kids ran barefoot and caught blood-red crayfish in the muddy bed of the Rappahannock. And it was where Kele had spent every summer with her grandmother Adahy before her parents’ divorce five years ago.

       Hidden Valley was the first and only place she’d ever really associated with the word home, though she’d lived in Columbia for most of her life. Now that she had been kicked out of Hammond–the stuffy private high school her mother had forced her into after a knife fight had broken out between two seventh grade girls on her public school bus–she had decided to dip her toes in small town life once again. In truth, the decision to return to Hidden Valley had not been one she’d made willingly. Her mother had finally given her an ultimatum last week: “straighten up and fly right” or go to bootcamp. Kele remembered how much her father had loathed the military, and she wasn’t particularly fond of people yelling in her face, so like most teenagers, she chose what she thought would be the path of least resistance. She decided she wanted a fresh start away from both her parents, so she called her grandmother up and asked to come stay with her for the rest of high school. It was rash, but it felt right. She’d been failing all her classes at Hammond, except for English, and she’d like to say it wasn’t for lack of trying, but then she’d be lying. Literature afforded her the opportunity to get out of her own head; to try on someone else’s personality, to become someone she could be proud of, someone interesting and kind and intelligent and beautiful. And she liked knowing that some people’s lives (however fictional) were as complicated, if not more, than her own.

      At first, because she couldn’t seem to focus on anything for more than a minute, her teachers said she was slow. Until she made a couple of perfect scores on her standardized tests. She couldn’t count on her fingers and toes the number of times she had been tested for attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, sleep apnea–anything that a pill could cure. It seemed like everyone was always trying to fix her. Then, when she was thirteen, Doctor Patel, whom she’d never quite forgiven for telling her she was chubby when she was seven, led her mother out of the claustrophobically small room by her elbow. Kele could still see her mother’s black patent leather mary janes facing Doctor Patel’s stark white tennis shoes through a three inch gap under the door.

    “Katherine,” Dr. Patel began hesitantly, “after speaking with Kele and given your family history, I believe her to be severely depressed and potentially suicidal. I’m glad we caught this early enough, but. . .” He didn’t get to finish, as her mother slid onto the floor, scrunched her knees up to her chest, and began to cry silently. Kele could tell by the way the door rattled with each heaving breath her mother took.

      “Great,” her mother sobbed into her palms, “I’ve even managed to fuck up my daughter. Just one more thing Brennan can use against me in court.”

“Katherine, Katherine…” the doctor spoke to her in a soothing, yet wary and uncomfortable tone; the cautious, distant tone one might use to comfort a stranger’s child. Kele could practically see the uneasiness etched in his dark brow as he patted her mother’s shoulder with one hand, while frantically trying to flag down a nurse with the other. Kele leaned her head back against the crinkly white paper of the little half-bed, letting her choppy blonde hair fall across her eyes so she could only see bits and pieces of the yellowing poster of a cartoonized open chest cavity. “You think you’re safe from the flu this season? Don’t hold your breath,” a cartoon lung scoffed, wagging a gloved finger in her direction. She closed her eyes and breathed in the sterile room, which smelled like alcohol and the musty dampness of an air conditioner that hadn’t been turned on for a while. She kind of hoped she would get the flu because it was tangible, easily remedied.

    Of course her mother had blamed herself. For a very long time, Kele had blamed her too. Years later and her mother was still in love with her father, still grieving an empty marriage. “Sometimes I think,” she’d said softly one night over a bowl of cold cucumber soup, not meeting her daughter’s eyes, “it’d have been better if he had died there and the sands had swallowed him up.” Kele, who had idolized her father, believing him to be a great war hero for most of her life, said nothing. She was beginning to realize that didn’t really know her father. He’d been gone six months out of every year since she’d been born, either for field training or off fighting in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan. Part of her understood that for her mother, death, however final, seemed less of a betrayal. A husband who died in combat wouldn’t have left her feeling worthless and alone; she’d have been immensely sad, but she might have gotten remarried somewhere down the road. And she’d have been encouraged to do so. He’d have wanted you to move on, people would have told her, not because it would’ve been true–anyone who knew Kele’s father knew he was incredibly selfish–but as a formality. What do people say when your husband of fourteen years decides to run away with a woman he met on the internet? Nothing. At least, nothing hopeful or endearing. Her mother’s family had practically climbed over top of each other to have the chance to say I told you so first. Anytime her father’s name came up at family gatherings, Kele’s grandpa George would mumble “that goodfornothinguselesssonofabitch,” and then he’d smile shyly and pretend he hadn’t said anything. Katherine had given up trying to defend her husband to her family and Kele’s father had stopped coming to Easter brunch and Christmas dinner when she was still in diapers. Everyone agreed it was better that way.

     For weeks after the divorce, Kele had come straight home from school, crawled in bed, and lain there in the dark, thinking about why her father had left her. She thought about every interaction she’d had with him right up until he left for his tour in Afghanistan until everything was a mud puddle of memories and she could no longer distinguish the pleasant moments from the sad. She’d called him and asked him a hundred times what she had done? Nothing, he’d responded mechanically, this isn’t about you, love. If that were the case, why did it seem like she and her mother were a package deal? He’d dismissed her questions by telling her he’d always love her no matter what happened between Katherine and himself. But she wasn’t convinced. There had to be some underlying reason. She understood why he didn’t want to see her mother, but why had he gone back to Connecticut with his new girlfriend when he came home from his tour instead of coming to see her? One night on the phone, she overheard her father yelling at her mother: Because you disgust me, Kat! I can’t stand the sight of you! Do you hear what I’m telling you? I don’t want you anymore and you need to accept it and get over it and leave Jen and me alone. Stop fucking calling me. Her mother said nothing, but she flung the cordless phone at the wall, and it shattered, plastic shrapnel rained down on the stark white linoleum floor of the kitchen. Kele finally understood. Family and friends were always telling her how much she looked like her mother, with her big, green eyes and honey-brown hair.

    She went into her mother’s bedroom, took out her sewing scissors, and began lopping off off masses of her hair, tears mingling with the soft waves that fell across her bare feet.

    But even after a year, her father never came to see her. She was used to not seeing her father, but he’d never had a choice before. “You know,” Kele’s mother said in a dangerously low tone, “you know what really makes me sick? The fact that her kids are calling him ‘Daddy’.”  Kele hadn’t minded coming in second to her country when her dad was in the army, and it didn’t even bother her that Jen’s three young daughters had taken up with her father so quickly. They were just kids, like her, whose lives changed according to their parents’ whims. What irritated her was the fact that she was his daughter, but she felt like she had missed her opportunity to belong to him somehow.

    That was the year she purchased the pills. They were easily attainable in a school like Hammond, where everyone was on some kind of anti-depressant or painkiller or adderall or cocaine that made being human a little more bearable. What they really did, Kele thought, was numb you to life, to the important stuff, bad and good. And for a while, she had wanted that. She hated feeling everything so vividly. It was exhausting.

     Everyone in school knew that Jason Owens, a boy in her homeroom class, had a schizophrenic mother with dozens of intense prescriptions. Kele wondered why he bothered selling them in the first place. It wasn’t like he needed the money. And even without his wealth and rainbow of pills, Jason was easily one of the most popular guys at Hammond. He was mysteriously charming. Kele couldn’t put her finger on it exactly, but she had been his lab partner for an entire semester and more than once, she’d been surprised by his honesty when he’d mentioned his mother. His directness had made her want to tell him about her father, that she understood what it was like to have a vacant parent, but she hadn’t had the courage to be vulnerable.

    She’d sent Jason a text earlier that day, saying she needed to ask him something at his locker. She didn’t want to spell it out directly, in case he ever got in trouble and his phone records were examined, but also because she didn’t want him to think she was using him either. He was already there by the time she got out of Advanced U.S. History. He stood, leaning his dark head back, eyes closed, a pair of Skullcandy headphones jammed in his ears, with his left leg bent against the chrome lockers. She walked up to him, taking several deep breaths that were supposed to be steadying, but every breath after somehow seemed a little more shallow.

     “Hi,” she said shyly. He didn’t move. She poked him in his bicep with the end of her pen, leaving a tiny black mark on his pale skin.

    “Oh, hey,” he said, opening his eyes, blinking rapidly as they adjusted to the fluorescent lights, “you’re here.”

     “Yeah, barely,” she smiled. “So, how was your Christmas vacation?”

    He shrugged and said nothing, but arched an eyebrow inquisitively. Had she said something weird? Maybe she’d deluded herself into thinking he’d actually want to talk to her. But then he said, “So, you too, huh?”

      Now it was her turn to arch an eyebrow. “Me too what?”

    “You don’t text me for an entire month and a half, and have avoided me at every turn, but then today I get an odd text saying you want to meet me at my locker. So I am left with only one possible conclusion,” he lowered his voice “you’re after me lucky charms.” Her heart was racing, but that was so unexpected that she had to laugh. He laughed too, at first, but then became serious. “Wait,” he said, holding up a freckled hand, “is that really why you wanted to meet me?”

     “Jason,” Kele whispered, feeling confused and guilty. How was she supposed to have known he’d wanted her to text him? She couldn’t look at him. Why couldn’t she have just said no and forgotten about the pills? She dropped her head like a scolded puppy and stared down at the scuffed linoleum. One of Jason’s shoes was untied.  “Look, I’m sorry, and I’m not trying to use you or anything…I would have…I just need something to work.”

She felt his eyes on her, and she glanced up, just for a second. She saw hurt, and anger, and exhaustion. She tried to wrap her mind around the whole thing. It’s not like they’d been close, only ex-lab partners, right?

“Watch for the profs,” he snapped, turning toward his locker. Then, softly, he added, “you know, they can’t fix things that aren’t broken, but they’ll make you feel like the walking dead. Take your pick,” opening his locker to reveal a collection of twenty various bottles. He had the pills arranged by color, size, and expiration date and started to reach for a squat, green bottle, when Kele asked, “But, um, what about your mom?”

      He set the bottle back down and grumbled, “Who cares? She’s a bitch.”

     Kele thought she might be less of one if her son wasn’t selling all of her medication, but she sensed Jason didn’t mean that. She fumbled for words. Then a cloud of Red Door perfume suddenly permeated the air, saving her, and alerting them that Ms. Fredrickson, the Headmistress, was dangerously close. Jason grabbed Kele’s waist and pressed himself against her, so that their bodies hid the contents of his locker. A bit startled and acutely aware of people watching them, she began squirming uncomfortably in his arms. Jason only held on that much tighter. He smiled against her ear, whispering, “I might have to kiss you, you know, to make it look convincing.” Kele pulled back as hard as she could, which still wasn’t hard enough. “Calm down, Jesus, I was just kidding,” he said, his voice trembling slightly, as Ms. Fredrickson swished by in a long seersucker skirt, never even glancing in their direction.

      “Back to business,” he said, suddenly releasing her. Kele released the breath she’d been holding in a whoosh, and nodded. Jason cracked open his locker again and pointed to some large white ones. “These,” he said, grinning, a strange contrast from the intensity of their previous moments together, “these will make you feel like everyone in the world is invisible except you. It’s like, you know they’re there, but you can’t see them or hear them. You’re numb. Pretty cool stuff, huh?” Kele pulled a wadded up fifty out of her back pocket and he poured a handful of the pills into a little baggie. She counted them, twice, feeling much less satisfied than she had hoped, like she had just traded a unicorn for some lima beans.

     “Well,” Jason said very matter-of-factly, “it’s been real.” She smiled weakly. He stared at her for a few seconds, and she at him. She thought he might tell her not to take them, that she didn’t need them, maybe even ask her out, but he just shook his head before spinning on his heel and heading over to where some of the baseball players were standing, never looking back.

      That evening, she came home, kicked her shoes off in the living room because she knew that irritated her mother. She plopped down at the dark mahogany Italian table her parents had bought when her father was stationed at Camp Darby seven years earlier. Thing had been good then. Now, Kele thought it looked odd in their tiny dining room; a table that seated ten, crammed into a room that could barely hold Kele and her mother.

         “How was your day, honey?” Her mother called from the kitchen.

           No response.

The dining room reeked of her mother’s lasagna. Kele could identify italian sausage, peppers, tomatoes, cheese–all ingredients she loved, but today her stomach recoiled from even the thought of food.  She  felt beads of perspiration gathering around her hairline, and a sudden wave of nausea made her clutch her stomach. Her mother poked her blonde head into the dining room, a gingham dish towel slung over her shoulder.

        “Did you do anything exciting in class?”

         No response.

         “Kele?”

       “I took some pills,” Kele said quietly, glancing up long enough to watch her mother’s green eyes darken with worry and anger. She had wanted to scare her, and she didn’t know why exactly, she just knew that she was hurting, that she had been for a very long time, and she didn’t know if she wanted to make all the pain go away, or have someone to share it with.

      “Excuse me? Allyson Kele Musick, you did what, now?” Kele said nothing. Her mother crossed the few steps it took to reach her and grabbed her by her thin shoulders. “Kele!” She shouted in her face, “I’m not asking again. You tell me what you took, right this second!”  Kele stood up and started to storm into her room, but her mother grabbed her by the arm, her hand tightening like a boa constrictor around its prey. Katherine jerked her daughter by the arm, forced her into the dinning chair, and proceeded to bombard her with questions. “What did they look like? How many? What did they taste like? How long ago did you take them?” Kele shook her head and for the first time in a long time, felt sort of sorry for her mother.

       “I didn’t really take them, mom,” she’d said, pulling out the plastic baggie containing the pills from her pocket, “So, it’s fine. Chill out.” Her mother stared at the pills for a few seconds before snatching them away and walking into the kitchen. Kele heard the crunch crunch of the pills as they were chewed into snowy white dust by the garbage disposal. Fifty bucks like literally just went down the drain, she thought. Her mother came back in and sat across from Kele.

     “I really believed. . .” Her mother began, but she tossed her head back suddenly and let a short, bitter laugh escape her lips. Don’t smile, don’t smile, Kele told herself, but her lips twitched a little in the corner, as if her body couldn’t fully grasp what her mind was telling her. She always smiled in the oddest, usually unpleasant, situations; she couldn’t help it. It was instinctive, automatic. One of her shrinks had attributed it to a defense mechanism of sorts. Before Kele could turn, her mother leaned over and slapped her hard across the mouth. Kele was tempted to cup the right side of her face with one hand, but she didn’t move. It hurt like hell and she could taste the copper tang of blood, but she didn’t cry. Part of her believed her mother was justified in doing so, but another part of her thought, Dad would’ve never hit me.

    She and her mother sat there, saying nothing for hours. They stared out the window until the sky turned lavender-blue and sherbet orange. A handful of dark clouds settled across Columbia, a city alive with the sounds of gun shots, sirens, children crying, dub-step music, car horns, laughter, high heels clack clack clacking against pavement. Kele had often thought their house, which sat on the edge of a tiny, fenced-in park, was blessedly untouched by the madness that surrounded them; as if they existed independently from the rest of the city until they stepped out of their little bubble. A young couple walked by their little yellow house on their way to the park and looked through the dining room window for a millisecond. From a distance, they might have thought, how nice, a mother and daughter having a meal together on a humid Friday night. They weren’t close enough to see the tears in her mother’s eyes, the missing third place setting, the red and white hand print fading on Kele’s cheek.

    When the sun went down, her mother walked over, planted a kiss on top of Kele’s cropped, pale hair and whispered, “I love you, but I’m done.”

         ….

     As Kele drove down I-85, she thought about how her mother had told her over and over that she didn’t have to go to Virginia to change her life, that she could just as easily start over in South Carolina; she could even be home schooled, so she’d never have to leave (which was the furthest thing from what she wanted). When she’d called her grandmother Adahy and asked to stay with her for her junior and senior year, her mother had been more hurt than furious. “But,” she’d told Kele after a week or two of painful silence, “I will always choose you over my own heart.” And that was part of the problem. She could see how tired and afraid her mother was, how lost and broken. Before every meeting with one of Kele’s teachers or doctors, her mother would glance up through the sunroof longingly and Kele imagined she must be talking to her own mother, who had died of breast cancer when Kele was five. But after awhile, her mother had stopped looking up, and Kele knew that somehow, she was the reason. Her mother was still very beautiful and she deserved another shot at finding happiness without Kele holding her back.

   Besides, there was no way Kele could get into another private school in Columbia, perhaps even the U.S., but no matter how much she thought about it, she couldn’t bring herself to regret what she’d done. Ordinarily, Kele wouldn’t have considered herself a violent person, but Jerika Mallery, the cross-eyed, frizzy-haired daughter of Mr. Mallery, the Calculus teacher, had brought something animalistic out in her that she couldn’t quell. Jerika came into class one morning and started mocking Kele’s father, calling him a delusional nutcase (Mr. Mallery had let slip over the dinner table that Kele’s father had a severe case of PTSD). Must be in your blood, Musick, Jerika had hissed under her breath so her father wouldn’t hear. You’re just as, like, deranged as he is, just as psycho, aren’t you? Aren’t you? No wonder your dad left you. You know everyone secretly hates you. I kind of feel sorry for your mom. By then, a few people were snickering, even Jason, encouraging her further. Did your dad even go to war? I bet they wouldn’t let him because he’d probably end up killing his own men or whatever. Kele turned around in her desk to face Jerika with deliberate slowness. Jerika smiled confidently, but Kele saw panic rising up in the girls blue eyes and a bead of perspiration start to crawl down her forehead. Before anyone had time to blink, Kele hefted her textbook and sent it flying over the boy behind her, making impact with the left side of Jerkia’s head. Jerika ended up with a nasty eggplant colored knot on her temple and a slight concussion and Kele had gotten a letter of expulsion.

     She hoped public schools were less judgemental when it came to the records of their prospective students.

     Kele was ready to get out of the city. She missed the freedom of being able to aimlessly wander and the feeling of being totally alone in nature–a place without borders and fences which she believed were the physical evidence of mankind’s desire to dominate the universe, to reign in the wilderness like an errant, unpredictable child. In Columbia, she couldn’t even go five minutes around the block without her mother calling her to make sure she hadn’t followed a “wackadoodle” into his poor attempt at a Mystery Machine look-a-like because he’d said he was giving away puppies.

     Most of all, she missed the blazing summer evenings when she and Adahy had gone blackberry picking. They’d gotten two red-rusted tin buckets from the pine shed her father had built and set off down the flood-washed road behind Adahy’s old plantation house. The sun had hung low on the horizon and gnats had circled them as if they’d given off their own light. She remembered how the berries had stained their fingers a deep scarlet, making it hard to discern their blood from the bright berry juice when they got pricked by the thorns on the nest of dark green vines. Even now, she could almost taste the strange, metallic tang of blood mixing with the bittersweet berry juice. It seemed like a lifetime ago, but here she was, five years later, finally crossing the town line, hoping that she could finally find happiness with her grandmother.

……………….

 

       The familiar “Welcome to Historic Hidden Valley, the Redbud Capital of the World,” sign made her roll her eyes. More like the redneck capital of the world, she thought as she passed old Mr. Beauville trimming his grass on a canary yellow and green John Deere riding lawn mower. He wore an open plaid button down to reveal a hefty beer gut. People couldn’t leave anything to the imagination anymore. Truthfully, Kele was surprised he hadn’t been taken up to the Eagle’s Nest by now (the local nursing home–rumor had it that the name was symbolic of the patients’ ascent into heaven when they died). She remembered hearing her mother say that Mr. Beauville’s son was too busy to take care of him since becoming the mayor, but that was about four years ago. Mowing the grass was probably not the best thing for someone with dementia to be doing, but especially someone who’d already fallen off once and had to have his leg stitched back on at the knee. Mr. Beauville threw his withered hand up in a friendly wave, and she waved back, even though he couldn’t see her through her tinted windows.

     Everyone waved at everyone in Hidden Valley. It didn’t matter if they were strangers or sisters; you got a wave or a nod, at the very least. She’d missed that in Columbia, where hand motions by people in cars were typically not a good thing. If someone drove by in slow motion with only their thumb and index finger raised in your direction, you had better get the hell out of dodge. She shuddered involuntarily. Just last month, someone had shot a patient through his hospital room window on the fifth floor. Thankfully her mother hadn’t been working that night. Even though Kele had never been the target of a violent crime, she’d known plenty of people who had, and had seen enough of the T.V. show Cops to know the types of people who ran around like unlit roman candles.

      She passed a young couple holding hands as they walked along the rusted railroad tracks that divided Blessed Be Thy Name Estates trailer park and the Cardinal bed-and-breakfast. Kele thought she recognized the girl, whose onyx hair was tipped cotton candy blue and pink. The man she was with was clearly older, ten or fifteen years at least, and was wearing a black grease-stained wife-beater and pair of light-wash jeans that were so ripped at the knee they may as well have been shorts. She had just enough time to exhale a sigh of frustration as the couple continued to weave in and out of the road, before they simultaneously spit a mucousy-brown stream of chewing tobacco to either side of them and turned into the bike lane. Kele scrunched her face up in disgust. In her opinion, there were three kinds of people in the universe: the ones who were full of a healthy mixture of grace and sass, like her grandmother; the ones who did the best with what they had; and the ones who didn’t have an ounce of dignity (and wealth had nothing to do with it).

     Another country crooner came on the radio, singing about whiskey and ripped jeans and Wal-Mart. She couldn’t seem to escape them today, no matter how many times she switched the station. She silenced him with the base of her palm.

     She drove past her old babysitter’s house, which appeared to have gotten a makeover since the last time she’d seen it. All the shutters of the two story house had once been a hideous, spinach green and they were now a slightly less grotesque pepto bismol pink. She wondered if the old bat and unofficial rumor spreader, Ms. Ursula Trudgewell, was still alive and kicking or if someone else had taken over the daycare that had been her childhood prison. When her grandmother had had to work or take care of some grown-up business in town, she’d been dumped at Ms. Ursula’s with only Jemima and Nathaniel Pawthorne (two ancient, half-blind-and-deaf tom cats) and an extremely large print Bible to play with. She’d never told her mother or grandmother (they wouldn’t have believed her if she did), but Ms. Ursula had on several occasions locked her in the bathroom when she wouldn’t stop crying and the other children had periodically fed her rubbery celery sticks and stale oatmeal cookies by sliding them under the door. Something told her that someone so intent on the ruining of lives wouldn’t give the town the satisfaction of her passing. She was probably on the phone now, announcing to the world who she just happened to see rolling through town in a fancy black car.

   Kele wished, not for the first time, that she could just be invisible.

     For the past few years, her father had been buying her a plethora of expensive gifts–jewelry, clothes, iTunes gift cards–rather than actually just spending some time with her. Nothing she said or tried to say had had any effect on him. She’d often imagined him as a sort of human statue, a living, breathing Colossus of Barletta, capable of speech and movement and violence, but hollow and emotionless. She often wondered why he even bothered with the gifts, who was benefiting from the constant show? She had to admit, the car was pretty sweet (sweet as in awesome, not thoughtful). When he decided to cut her from his life, Kele had hated everything that reminded her of her father, which included his home town, and by default, her grandmother. It had taken a long time for Kele to come to the realization that Adahy couldn’t banish her own son from her life the way Kele had wanted her to. And now, now Kele was simply thankful that her grandmother had been kind enough to let her come live with her. She was ready to put the past behind her, but that didn’t mean forgot anything, or that she forgave her father.

          Here goes nothing, Kele thought as she crossed onto Autumn Chase road, which eventually gave way to grandmother Adahy’s driveway. She had always thought it was fit for a castle, the way the tall pines and firs stood side by side along the road like proud soldiers cloaked in their hunter green needles, silently watching every car that came onto Adahy’s vast property. Kele guessed that Adahy owned about a hundred acres of what once had been a vast tobacco plantation. Adahy’s father had bequeathed it to her on his death bed and she’d let the tobacco fields grow up, hating what they symbolized. Now, there were dozens of farms speckled with cows and horses on half the land, and the other half contained housing developments. Needless to say, her grandmother would never have had to work a day in her life, but that wasn’t Adahy. In her own words, she would rather die gardening than sitting at home like a couch potato, at least that way, the plants would benefit from the compost. It took a few minutes for Kele’s car to climb the winding path and by the time she made it to the top, she half expected to see a moat instead of the small, concrete bridge hovering over a dry creek bed. The house was exactly how she remembered it: baby blue with white shutters, perfectly square, looking as if it had been cut from the sky.

    Her favorite part of the house had always been the big cobblestone chimney that dominated the dining room. Kele distinctly remembered her Grandmother pitching a makeshift tent with blankets and pillows and mismatched dining chairs in front of the fireplace during a booming thunderstorm one summer. They’d roasted marshmallows and in less than five minutes, both of their hands and mouths had been covered in the fluffy, white goop. Adahy had tucked her under a pile of handmade quilts, snug as a bug in a rug, she’d said. Kele had gone to sleep to the raspy sound of Adahy’s voice as she told her stories about people who turned into powerful animals and girls in white dresses who grew old waiting for princes who never came, and the flames licking and crackling against the burning pile of rust colored dry pine needles and twigs.

      Adahy was waiting for her on the porch, with what could only be a steaming mug of hot chai tea in her hands. She smiled and waved as Kele’s car pulled into view. Kele let out a deep breath; she hadn’t seen her grandmother in years and now she was going to be living with her for the rest of high school. It was a big change, granted, a needed change, but still a little scary.  She took off her sunglasses and stashed them in the glove compartment. Adahy began walking towards the car and Kele was almost too stunned to move–she hadn’t changed a bit. It was eerie how young Adahy looked. In fact, if Kele hadn’t known her since birth, she would have guessed Adahy was in her late thirties at most. Her mother’s hair had more gray in it than a woman who was supposed to be twice her age. Must be something in the spring water, she thought, and she definitely wasn’t opposed to staying young looking. She parked next to her grandmother’s gold and champagne Lincoln and slowly climbed out of her car.

        “My, my,” Adahy began, an earth-stained hand raised to her mouth dramatically. “Well, just look at you, honey. You’ve blossomed into a beautiful young woman while my back was turned!” Adahy rushed over and hugged her granddaughter, hot tea sloshing over the sides of the mug. Kele winced as her grandmother encircled her in her thin arms and the mug pressed up against the thin material of her lavender cotton t-shirt. “Lord, girl. You’re skinny as a bean pole! Don’t your mama feed you?”

   “It’s good to see you too, Grandmother,” Kele said, pulling away as politely as she could manage.

   “Now, since when have you ever called me Grandmother? Call me Adahy, sugah, or people will start thinking it’s true.” She winked and walked around to the passanger side to grab a few of Kele’s bags.

        “Wait, those are…”

     “Light as a feather, honey. Don’t worry, I’m stronger than I look,” Adahy said as she carried five of Kele’s bags up the stairs and into the house. “Now, you come on in and we’ll get you settled in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” Kele just stood there for a few seconds with her mouth open. Her sixty-something grandmother had just hefted those things like they were pillows.

       “Kele,” Adahy yelled from the second floor, making her jump. “Close your mouth before a mosquito flies in. Damn things are everywhere at this time in the afternoon.”  Kele hurried to the back of her car to get more bags, wondering if Adahy had been working out, or if she’d just recently encountered the same spider that had bitten Peter Parker, turning him into a crime fighting superhuman. She shivered, hoping to God that wasn’t the case. Her grandmother had always been energetic and active. . . but she couldn’t remember ever seeing her lift a hundred pounds without breaking a sweat. Well, Kele thought, things are different now that Grandpa Luke is gone. Everyone thought he was dead in a ditch somewhere and death changed people. Her father was proof of that. Two tours in the Middle East had scarred his mind and body, and one beyond recognition.

        Kele grabbed the other trash bags with her clothes in them and dragged them into the house, the thin plastic ripping under the weight and pressure of her finger tips. She stopped to catch her breath and was surprised at how much redecorating her grandmother had done in the living room: a new mahogany leather couch and chair, the kind she’d seen in a dozen shrink’s offices, maybe new hardwood floors, but with the sun sinking behind the mountains casting a dark shadow, she couldn’t tell. The big portrait of her grandfather had been taken down from his perch above the fireplace; a dusty, rectangular outline was the only indication that he’d ever occupied the space. Adhay had replaced him with a beautiful oval mirror with an intricately carved gold frame.  How very Marie Antoinette, she thought, wouldn’t have picked it myself, but an improvement none-the-less. She’d hated that painting of her grandfather. She’d always heard that the mark of a true artist was to be able to capture a perfected reality. Well, there was certainly no question as to whether or not this painter had been talented. Wherever she went in the living room, she’d always felt her grandfather’s dark eyes on her, cold and disapproving. Menacing. She’d only met him once when she was very young and he’d disappeared shortly thereafter. When she’d asked her mother where he could have gone, she’d shrugged and by way of an explanation, said, “He was an alcoholic, Kele.”

     “House looks great, Adahy!” She shouted up the stairs.

   “Well there’s no need to yell, honey, I’m right here,” Adahy said from the kitchen, making Kele flinch.

      “Whoops, didn’t mean to startle you,” Adahy laughed. “Bless your heart, you sure are a jumpy little thing. Don’t let the renovations pull the wool over your eyes, honey. This is the same old house. ” Adahy squeezed her shoulder reassuringly.

      “I’m sure it is. . .” Kele agreed, though a twinge of uneasiness in the pit of her stomach told her it had more to do with the changes in her grandmother’s behavior than the house. Adahy followed Kele’s gaze to the virtually empty space framed by the years of soot and grime that had drifted up from the fireplace.

      “Sometimes I think about him, and I wonder. . .where he ended up, don’t you?” Kele asked, trying to discreetly get a sense of how Adahy felt about her grandfather’s disappearance. She knew her grandmother was a firm believer, as she had dragged her to the little white church in the center of town every Sunday.

Adahy chuckled. She sounded tired. “Honey, I don’t pretend to know what goes on in the spirit world, this one’s plenty hard enough for me to keep track of.”

      “But. . .” What Kele really wanted to know, was whether or not Adhay thought her grandpa Luke went to hell, or even if that mattered. She thought it did. But she also didn’t want to upset her, so she settled on: “You miss him?”

     “Sometimes,” Adahy said, her blue eyes flickering to the mirror, then back to Kele. But then she shook her head. “No. No, to tell you God’s honest truth, Kele, he was a bastard.”

      Kele nodded and said, “Some people are good being gone.”

 

—Khirsten Cook

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