The collision had completely totaled the car.
Dory's phone had dropped her brother into voicemail that afternoon. It took five minutes for her to decipher his distraught ramblings, and ten more for her to stuff a small bag full of her necessities, lock her doors, and start the eight-and-a-half hour drive south to the town of Fern Hollow, Georgia.
Dorothea Sage was born in Fern Hollow twenty-eight years ago. The town was the perfect place to grow up, to play kick-ball in the streets, to fall in and out of love in high school, and to leave the doors and windows open at night and fall asleep to the warm Georgia breeze and the soft chirping of crickets outside.
That is exactly why Nicholas and Leann Sage had decided to purchase the old Victorian on 629 Maple Street when they found out that Leann was expecting their first child. The house needed some tender-loving care, but even with its peeling wallpaper and out-of-date windows, they knew that it was perfect for their family, because Fern Hollow was perfect for their family.
Leann Landry and Nicholas Sage met while they were going to school in Atlanta. Leann studied photography, which, according to her parents, would guarantee her nothing more than a life of uncertainty. Of course, when she brought Architecture student Nicholas Sage home to meet her parents one Thanksgiving, their opinion of her life choices changed somewhat.
After graduation, Leann took a job in the city working for a photography studio. Nicholas proposed the day after her twenty-second birthday, and the two of them had been together ever since. Twenty-eight years of marriage, two children, and countless memories later, all of that came to a sudden and unexpected halt four short blocks from Dory's childhood home.
Dory's SUV rolled to a stop at the first of two stoplights along Main Street in Fern Hollow. The closer that the car got to her parents' house, the more Dory's hands shook as she gripped the steering wheel. She rested her head against the head-rest as the red light stared her down. Her stomach twisted itself into a tight knot, and her hand shot for the window controls. A fresh night breeze poured into the car, and Dory found it a bit easier to breathe with the fresh air circulating. She was somewhat surprised though, given the hour, to see someone familiar making his way down the sidewalk on the other side of the street.
"David?" Dory called out. She chanced a quick glance upwards. The light was still red, and the eyes staring back at her from her rear-view mirror were so blood-shot that they were unrecognizable. Of course, it was to be expected after spending half of the trip in tears.
"Dory!" David jogged over to her driver's side window. Dory noted that he looked almost the exact same as he had when they'd gone to school together. He had bright blue eyes and dark brown hair. It always looked a little messy, but just enough that Dory had always been suspicious that he did it on purpose.
David stopped just short of the driver's side door and flashed Dory a small smile. "Wow! It's so good to see you!" He exclaimed. His expression sobered quickly. Dory knew she must have looked a mess, but she couldn't bring herself to care. "I'm sorry about your dad." He whispered.
Dory tried to mask her pain behind a smile of her own, but her bottom lip quivered, the smile faltered, and all she could do was shake her head.
"Kris and I will be at the funeral," David continued on.
A horn blared behind the SUV, and Dory jumped, gripping the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles turned white. She turned back to David and let out an apologetic sigh. "I'll—We'll talk later, okay? I have to get home..."
In truth, Dory was dreading returning home. She was dreading the funeral. She was dreading the days that would follow it, and how different things would be. But mostly, Dory was dreading reaching the next intersection.
Four blocks from her parents' house, Dory found herself hesitating, her gaze fixed on the mangled telephone pole at the corner of Sycamore and Vine. Dory was glad that the sun wasn't out, that she wouldn't have to look at the asphalt glistening with minute shards of glass, that she couldn't see the tire marks on the road...
Dory wiped furiously at her cheeks with the back of her hand. The tears came silently. Several even managed to race their way downward and drip from her chin before she realized that they had started to fall. Her shoulders shook, and the SUV jerked forward, coughing and sputtering in protest as Dory sobbed against the steering wheel.
The old Victorian at 629 Maple looked almost foreign. Dory pulled into the driveway and took a deep breath as she turned her car off. With her duffle bag tossed over her shoulder and her camera bag hanging loosely around her neck, Dory stepped up onto the porch and pushed open the front door. The house was blanketed in darkness, except for a single lamp that flooded part of the living room and the hallway with artificial light.
Michael, Dory's younger brother, was sprawled across the living room couch, snoring. Dory tiptoed forward, but the floorboards squeaked under her weight, and Michael stirred.
"Dory?" He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Dory couldn't help but notice their redness and puffiness. She wondered how closely they mirrored her own. "What time is it?" He asked.
"Almost midnight." She answered, her voice barely loud enough to constitute a whisper. She sat her duffle bag down gingerly next to her father's favorite recliner and flopped unceremoniously onto the couch beside her brother. "Sorry. I meant to be here an hour ago. Where's Mama?"
Michael pointed to the stairs, and his shoulders sagged. "She hasn't come out of her room since the police officers came by," he said. "Hear that?" He paused, and Dory strained her ears. Dolly Parton's voice floated down the stairs. Michael met Dory's gaze and shook his head. "She's played it over and over again. I tried—I tried to go up and talk to her, but she wouldn't even open the door." His voice cracked.
Dory draped her arm around him and drew him in close. "I'm sorry," she cried. "I'm so sorry. I should have been here earlier. I should have answered the phone when you called. I could have been here sooner."
Michael's shoulders shook, and he buried his face in his sister's shirt. "You didn't know." He mumbled. "And you're here now. Maybe Mama will talk to you."
"I'll go see her in the morning." Dory nodded. There was a moment of quiet, and then the beginning notes of "Heartbreak Express" filled the silence. Dory bit her bottom lip and leaned against her brother a moment longer. "She probably just needs some time alone. I don't blame her. After what happened to Daddy..."
Leann Sage hadn't really been alone since she was Leann Landry. Nicholas had been her entire world for twenty-eight years. They raised a family together, cooked together, laughed and cried together. They weren't perfect. No one was. Leann had been battling depression since shortly after finishing college, and Nicholas had his own skeletons in the closet. They had navigated everything together though, and each small triumph, each precious memory was immortalized on the walls.
Dory glanced around at the living room walls. Practically every available inch was covered in family photos. Some had been taken by her mother. Some, mostly the ones starring a partial thumb in the corner of the photo, had been taken by Dory when she was a little girl. When she was seven years old, her parents had gifted her with her very first camera for Christmas. The year was 1994, and the camera wasn't anything special, but Dory fell in love with it at first sight. She sat on her mother's knee while her father entertained toddler Michael with his stuffed bear and learned how to put the film into the camera all by herself.
From that moment on, she lived her life through a 35mm lens.
Dory was delighted at the prospect of getting to follow in her mother's footsteps, which would have been ironic if she had taken a moment to consider that her parents had named her after the late and great American photo-journalist Dorothea Lange, or if, at seven years old, Dory had known or cared who Dorothea Lange was at all.
She didn't, of course. At least not when she was seven years old. What she did care about was putting a smile on her parent's faces. She followed her mother around like a tiny shadow, her little red Kodak held up like a shield in front of her face, and snapped pictures of everything from her mother's shoes to the neighbor's dog staring at her through the kitchen window on the other side of the fence. Her parents never told her to slow down, to stop wasting film. Instead, they framed her photos just like her mother's, and they earned their own place of honor on the living room walls.
Dory blinked. Her brother was staring up at her, his cheeks still red and streaked with tears. "Sorry." Dory frowned. "I was just thinking."
Michael pushed himself up off of the couch and wrapped his arms around his sister. Dory returned the embrace and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek.
"I'm going to go to bed, okay?" He stopped beside her duffle bag and picked it up with one great heave. Dory started to protest, but Michael gestured to the stairs. "I'm just going to drop it off in your room on my way past, Sis. You should get some sleep, too. You look exhausted."
Dory nodded and waited a moment, watching as her brother disappeared up the stairs. She heard the soft click of his bedroom door and let out a quiet breath. Her feet carried her into the kitchen. Photos stacked atop more photos littered the fridge. Dory's gaze fell on one in particular. It was a picture of her canvas shoe from when she was a freshman in high school. She had decided not to purchase a yearbook that year, and instead had her classmates doodle on and sign her favorite pair of canvas shoes. She had snapped a picture when she got home, and her father had placed it on the fridge. He confessed, after Dory graduated high school, that it had been one of his favorite photos she had ever taken.
He never really told her why he thought that, and now Dory would never know.
She turned towards the stairs, pausing for only a moment when she noticed a gap in the décor on the wall. Between a picture of her mother holding her little brother the day he was born and a picture taken of the whole family at Disney World when Dory was eight, a frame was missing. A single, slightly crooked nail marked its spot. Dory searched her memory to see if she could fill in the missing piece herself, but she came up empty. By the time she reached her bedroom door at the top of the stairs, the ending notes of Dolly Parton's "Release Me" were floating down the hallway.
The next morning came.
Dory groaned. A few determined rays of sunlight managed to make their way past the blinds that shielded her window and shine right in her eyes. She sat up. "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" was playing through the house. Dory could smell eggs and slightly-burned toast. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and inhaled deeply. Out in the hallway, the music was a bit louder than it had been with her door closed. Dory glanced behind her and was somewhat surprised to see that her mother's door was still closed. She caught the distinctive scent of bacon at almost the same time she began to hear it sizzling in the skillet.
The third step from the bottom squeaked noisily as Dory hurried downstairs.
"Mama, I don't know if Michael's up yet, but I got here late last night, and I didn't want to wake—Oh. It's just you." Dory's expression fell flat when she noticed her little brother bent over the stove. "Where's Mama? She's not still sleeping, is she?"
"I knocked," Michael shrugged. His shaggy brown hair fell into his eyes. He let out a huff, but it had no effect. "I figured I'd make breakfast."
"Did she say anything? Has she come out at all?" Dory glanced towards the stairs and worried her bottom lip with her teeth. Her brother turned towards her and shook his head. A moment later, he was back to toiling with breakfast, and Dory found herself heading back towards the stairs.
She hesitated for a few seconds outside her mother's bedroom door. Dolly Parton's voice was quite a bit louder from this vantage point, but Dory pressed her ear to the door nonetheless in an attempt to see if she could hear her mother.
"Mama?" She called through the door. Her hand rested on the door knob. "Mama?" She called again. "You want to come downstairs for a little bit? Michael is making breakfast. It smells delicious." She waited, and then tried the door. The door knob turned, and the door swung open.
Leann Sage was curled in on herself, her head resting comfortably against the pillow. Clutched tightly in her hands and cradled close to her chest was a framed photo of her husband. Dory recognized the photo as an older one, taken before her father's hair had its salt-and-pepper color, likely when she had been very young.
"Mama?" Dory repeated, her voice a bit louder than it had been before. "Michael is making breakfast. Don't you want to come down and eat with us?"
Dory frowned and took a few small steps forward. With the press of a button, Dolly Parton's music came to a sudden halt. Dory climbed up onto the bed and shuffled forward. She'd often done the same thing as a child when her parents were taking too long getting out of bed in the morning. Dory placed her hands on her mother's shoulders and gave her a gentle shake.
"Mama?" She repeated. Dory moved her hand forward and brushed a strand of hair out of her mother's face. Her fingers brushed the skin of her mother's cheek, and she recoiled, a gasp spilling past her lips.
Her mother's skin was cold. Too cold.
"Michael!" Dory screamed. "Michael! Call an ambulance!"
Nicholas Sage died on a Thursday afternoon.
Forty-eight hours later, Michael and Dory waited in the living room while paramedics flooded the home. Dory held tightly to her brother's hand. Voices came and went, as fuzzy as though they were emanating from an old television set rather than the people surrounding them.
Dory blinked, and then her father's photo was in her hands, and the strangers in her parents' home were carrying a long black bag carefully down the stairs. For a moment, the world stopped completely. Dory couldn't breathe. She couldn't think. She couldn't move.
Her brother's hand on her shoulder pulled her out of the haze and right back into the nightmare that was reality. Her father's photo fell from her hands, and the glass shattered as the frame hit the floor.
Growing up, Dory had always wanted to be exactly like her mother. She prided herself on her ability to turn a moment in time into a lasting memory. This was one moment in time that Dory didn't want to remember.
"We found an empty bottle upstairs," a man in blue was saying. "Was your mother taking any prescribed sleep aids?"
It was Michael who found his voice first. "She's been taking that stuff for years. She's—I mean, she was..."
"Depression," Dory said, the word so soft that she wondered if the man would hear it. "She's been on medication for a while. You're saying she did this to herself? Suicide?"
The man shook his head. "We can't say that for certain, but we'll be looking into it. We'll contact you as soon as we know something concrete."
"But that's what it looks like?" Michael pressed. "You think my mother killed herself? That's what you're saying?"
Dory could see the tears in his eyes. She gave his hand a squeeze. "We just lost our father," she explained. "We should have checked on her. We didn't want to bother her. We should have checked."
"We're not saying anything," the man said with a shake of his head. "It could be any manner of things. We won't know until we look a little further into the situation."
"Do what you have to do." Dory nodded.
There was silence, and then the screen door bounced off of its frame, and Dory startled at the sound.
The days following the funerals of their parents, Michael and Dory fielded concerned friends and relatives. They ate in silence. They took turns falling apart.
The family home felt strange devoid of their parents' voices floating through the halls. Dory hated the quiet. There were a few times when she dropped a plate or Michael had the television up too loud that she half-expected their Mother to appear at the top of the stairs and chastise them for making too much noise, but of course that never happened.
Adjusting to her life without two of the most important people in it was going to be difficult.
At least she still had Michael.
The puffiness of her eyes eventually faded. Several times, she thought she heard Michael crying in his room, but whenever she got the courage to knock on his bedroom door, Michael always managed to greet her with a smile.
Four days after the wake, Dory woke to the sound of a door slamming down the hall, and peered out of her bedroom door to investigate.
Her brother stood at the top of the stairs, a duffle bag slung over his right shoulder.
Michael turned as Dory stepped out into the hallway and offered her an apologetic smile. Dory didn't even realize he had seen her.
He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Sis. The wind caught the door. I was trying not to wake you. I didn't mean to slam it. I have to run by Amanda's, and then I have to take a load all the way to Phoenix."
Dory knew Amanda. Michael had been living with her since he had graduated high school. She was once one of Dory's best friends, and last she heard, had started working at the local grocery store to pay her way through college. Michael spoke of her often, but apart from seeing her at the funeral, she and Dory had lost touch years ago.
"I won't be gone too long," Michael continued. "Just a few days."
Dory nodded. Michael drove a truck. His idea of being gone too long was often skewed, but she also knew it couldn't be helped. "Just...Drive safe, okay?"
"I will." Michael promised. "I'd be back sooner, but Jim has actually started paying attention to the logs, so I can't rush things."
"Just drive safe." Dory repeated.
"I promise, Sis. Sorry I woke you."
Dory watched as he started down the stairs and waited until she heard the distinct sound of the screen door opening and closing before she finally returned to her own room. Her gaze fixed itself on the popcorn ceiling for a while after the house fell silent again. Eventually, her eyelids grew heavy, and she fell into a dreamless sleep.
It was the familiar buzzing of her cell phone that woke her some time later. The phone shimmied across the nightstand, an unfamiliar number lighting up the screen. Dory watched it, her hand poised to reach out and pick it up. It fell silent. Dory waited, and a new message appeared on the screen where the number had been only a few seconds before.
Dory rubbed the sleep from her eyes and scooped her phone up into her hand. She yawned as she keyed in the password and waited for the voicemail system to pick up.
"One new message... From number... Sent on Saturday, October 4th..."
Dory attempted to stifle another yawn as she waited for the message to play. There was a long pause, and then finally a distorted voice sounded through the receiver.
"Sorry about your parents."
There was a soft click, and the message ended.
Dory sighed and looked at the number once more. Much like the number, the voice wasn't one that she recognized. She pressed a button.
"Thanks, I guess." She mumbled into the silence.
She stared at the phone a moment longer before stretching her arms up and over her head and moving to get out of bed. The floor squeaked loudly beneath her feet, and Dory cringed, her eyes flickering to her door as though she expected someone to appear there at any moment.
Of course, no one would come. Her parents were gone, and Michael was likely on his way to Phoenix already. Her eyes started to water. For the first time since she could remember, she was completely alone in her parents' house.
Dory sighed and made her way down to the kitchen, where she was hopeful that the smell of fresh eggs and the sizzle of bacon on the griddle would be enough to distract her from her own thoughts.
Several minutes later, Dory sat at the kitchen table pushing her eggs and a half-eaten slice of bacon around her plate with her fork.
Her phone sprang to life again, and Dory glanced at the screen as it lit up.
Another number that she didn't recognize stared up at her.
"One new message... From number... Sent on Sunday, October 5th..."
"Sorry about your parents."
It was the same unfamiliar voice. The same phrase. Dory bit her bottom lip. She knew that she had deleted the message from the night before. At least, she thought she had.
"To replay this message, press one."
Dory's index finger hovered above the number pad for a second or two before she finally gave into temptation and pressed down.
"Sorry about your parents."
A shiver passed through her body as the message played again, and before she could torture herself any further, she deleted it. Dory held her breath and scrolled through her missed calls. Her gaze focused on the screen, on the two different numbers.
She frowned, highlighted the first number, and pressed the call button. She waited while the phone rang, her lungs burning for oxygen that she didn't even realize they needed. One ring. Two rings. Three. And then...
"We're sorry, but the number that you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service."
"Bullshit." Dory hissed into the receiver. Her fingers moved at lightning speed as she returned to her 'missed calls' list and scrolled to the unfamiliar number from the night before.
"We're sorry, but the number that you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service."
Dory tossed her phone back to the kitchen table in frustration. She pushed herself away from the table and left her plate with her half-eaten breakfast sitting in the kitchen sink.
A few minutes later, Dory stood in the bathroom, a robe draped around her body and her toothbrush hanging haphazardly from between her lips.
"Just relax," she told her reflection. "You're losing, it Dory. Just relax."
Placed on the highest setting that the house's old water heater would allow, a cloud of steam began to form in the bathroom as Dory filled the tub, fogging the single window and the mirror above the sink. Dory propped the door open slightly to allow some of the heat to escape and slipped into the water, her muscles relaxing as she stretched out. With her head resting against the back wall of the tub and a warm washcloth covering her eyes, it was easy enough to doze off.
Far more than a few minutes later, when the water from the tub had turned from piping hot to barely lukewarm, Dory startled. The washcloth dropped unceremoniously to the tile floor as she pulled herself up out of the water.
Dory twisted her hair into a bun atop her head and wrapped herself in a towel as she turned toward the mirror.
A shrill scream echoed through the small bathroom and out into the hallway. Staring back at her, scrawled onto the glass in red lipstick, was a simple but chilling message:
Welcome home, Dory. Sorry about your parents.