The bed was damp with night-sweat. Rob had been plagued by dark dreams. Again. Dragging his hands down his face he let out a deep sigh, then slid out from under the covers and pulled his terror-soaked sheets with him. A cold, grey light leaked in through the window. Winter still lingered. A comforting, warm aroma drifted into his room. Bundling the bedding over his shoulder he padded across the wooden floor and wandered down the hall towards the familiar scent.
Greeting him with a sunny smile, his mother held out a steaming mug. Rob barely acknowledged her but palmed the coffee en-route to the laundry. He missed the sunshine. The days had been cast in bleak twilight for too long. He craved the golden light, the blue skies, and the fresh breeze that soothed mid-summer's heat. Spring never really came to Presence. The mountains in this northern pocket of Montana, or the altitude, something hindered the natural occurrence of the seasons. But summer always seemed to happen as it should―when it should, though it was still months away.
Rob loaded the washer, stripping and throwing in his moistened shirt, his olive skin pale from a winter of rain. He set the cycle while inhaling his morning stimulant, and returned to the kitchen.
"They don't come from nothing, hon," his mother offered softly as he joined her in the breakfast nook.
Rob sipped his waking brew. "If there is a reason, I don't know it.." His words trailed off as his gaze was drawn out the small window beside them.
"The mind knows things we're not even aware of," she mused, her voice light and airy in stark contrast to how Rob was feeling. "Sometimes they're important, and the only way we notice them is by our dreams." Her soft tone helped ease his misery a little, and when you feel like hell a little goes a long way. But he was too drained to smile.
Out in the yard his father tended to their chickens. Panning over the vegetable patch he saw the harvest was as weary as himself. It was a small garden, backed by a steep incline that edged into the forest. When tended to, and when the weather permitted, it yielded ripe, colourful tomatoes and bell peppers. Their fruit trees grew juicy pears and purple plums in the warmer months, and lemons so sweet you could eat them as an orange. There was a blackberry bush that overhung the neighbour's fence. When Rob was a boy he would wander by on his way to school and pick the fruits for a treat. Many a garment was stained by the dark juices, though his mother was not the sort to worry about such things. She would simply smile, and say, 'Life is messy. Might as well enjoy the mess.'
"Rob.." her voice led him back inside. "Honey, they still may cease on their own, but if they're getting worse.." She clasped a hand over his in concern. "There may be something your subconscious is trying to tell you."
"..I don't think I want to know." He hadn't shared the details of his nightmares with his parents. He didn't see sense in disturbing their psyches, as well. She patted his hands and rose to refill her own brew.
"Your father's heading into town, if you want to join him," she called from the kettle. "You've time for a shower.." Returning to the table, she stood hopefully by her son, a comforting hand upon his night-dampened skin.
"Yeah.. I was going to spend some time at the shop.."
"Good, good.." She patted his shoulder, her own gaze drifting out to the misty morn.
When troubled thoughts weighed on him, Rob found only two things could alleviate his suffering: taking apart an engine and putting it back together helped clear his mind of dark distractions. And taking a dip in one of the forest pools situated in their mountain abode also helped. But Spring was late. Again. And chilled waters would only amplify his gloom.
"Étoile—?.." Carmen's husky voice contrasted the sweetness of her French as she set Eli's breakfast down before him, the teen drawing in a short puff of nicotine bliss. "What is that..?" she queried, tilting her ear to the music. Eli leaned his head back, a jet of pale smoke streaming from his lips.
Boisterous drums and electric guitars mingled their beat, layered with a strained vocal melody. The music sounded through the courtyard, bouncing from stone column to faceless statue, echoing out into the morning mist, searching for a place to land.
"Hey.. attend une seconde.." Carmen recalled a musical memory. The choice words, 'squeeze my lemon 'til the juice run down my leg,' sparked a head turn. "Oh, pour l'amour de dieu, Petit Prodige!.."
Eli rolled his head and flashed Carmen a cheeky grin. "It's not little," he said, and she promptly thwacked him aside the head with a newspaper. "Ow."
"The original is soul-full, but this—" she pointed at the source of the commotion, "―is just noise." With pursed lips she slapped the paper down next to Eli's plate.
"Jeeez.. aren't we in a sour mood this morning.." Eli pulled himself upright and reached for another drag.
"Ah—!" Carmen pinched the butt from his grasp and stamped it out in the little flower pot.
"It's not illegal(!)—" he whispered, "Jonas wouldn't mind.." and he pulled a pack of Camels from his chest pocket.
"My concern is not with your grandfather—" She snatched it, scrunched it, and shoved it into her waist apron. "My concern is with you, mon chérie." From the pouch she produced a small box of gum and placed it atop Eli's newspaper.
"..For those who smoke less than 25 cigarettes a day.." Eli read hovered over it, reading the label aloud. "..Two milligrams." His perennial blue eyes peered up at Carmen. "I'm gonna need to double that."
"No, mon chérie.." Leaning down, her frizzed coils tickled his neck, and she whispered at his ear in an almost seductive motion. "Cracher dans la soupe." The words trickled through Eli's mind, splashing over memories of their foregone French lessons. Her manicured nails removed from his shoulder, she stole a strip of his bacon and wandered back into the house.
The cool morning air sent a shiver through Eli's body. The pool was hidden behind a ghostly facade. He sighed, wishing they had built it indoors. Shovelling the eggs about his plate, he inspected them, dubiously. "..Don't bite the hand that feeds you.." The translation tiptoed off his tongue. He didn't know whether to laugh or fashion a drug-test. He'd been burned playing chicken with Carmen before. There was one particular event he wouldn't mind forgetting, which involved a spoiled rendezvous and a crotch full of itching powder. He did deserve it, though. As he slipped the gum into his jeans the music came to an abrupt stop, followed by a familiar face. "I thought you spent the night at—"
"—I did. And now it's morning," Jonas answered, his moustache widening with a forced smile. His grandfather sat down across from him, sliding the pot-plant aside and pilfering the remainder of Eli's bacon. "This stuff'll kill you," Jonas teased. Eli watched as more of his breakfast disappeared down someone else's gob.
"There are many things that work up a man's appetite," his grandfather shared, settling back into the cane chair, "a perpetual evening with a dozen actuaries earns top-billing."
"Shouldn't you be getting some sleep?" Eli wondered aloud.
"Oh, there'll be time for that. No rest for the wicked," said Jonas, his voice taking on a more serious vibe. Eli's brow perked up. "There's been another sighting, south of the ridge." His gaze calcified on his grandson. "There was.. an accident." His eyes flicked to Carmen standing in the archway, wiping flour from her hands, wearing a look of concern. "I'm headed 'round to Cal's," he continued, "we're gonna meet the Sheriff at the access road—"
"I don't know, Eli."
"Would you tell me if you did?"
"Of course. Now's not the time for us to be keeping secrets." Jonas' eyes dimmed. "Reports say.. they found a body." Eli stilled at his words. "They think it could be.. Human."
"Oh, mon dieu." Carmen frowned and palmed the stone arch.
"But let's not cause a panic," Jonas added, "I want you to keep this just between us. We don't need the villagers running scared—or worse, grabbing their guns."
"It's gotta be a local―there's no tourists yet—" Eli leaped up.
"—Or cultivateurs—! They've caught people growing on state land—" Carmen joined him as nerves and curiosity mingled.
"—Or a hitchhiker—!"
The two traded theories in a bustle of intrigue and anxiety.
"I thought I just said not to panic—?" A buzzing pocket pulled Jonas' attention. "Yeah—? Yes.. I'm headed there now—yeah.. See you soon."
"Take me with you," Eli said from his side.
"Eli, when it comes to business I'll happily drag you along to every soil test and backdoor meeting—but I will not submit you to the sight of a half-eaten bod—" Jonas realized his mistake too late and their eyes widened.
"—It was EATEN-?!"
"—People should know,” voiced Eli, “and we—we should really get fences." Carmen nodded with him.
"Arghh—" Jonas' phone buzzed again. "I'm going, Carmen—? Keep his feet on the ground, will you—?" With bacon and phone in hand, Jonas made his way down the stone path towards the front of the manor. "And stay OUT of the woods," he called before turning, eyeing Carmen who nodded at his request. She fondled her necklace as Eli paced back and forth, wondering what could have done such a thing. There were no bears in these woods, and there hadn't been a mountain lion, wolf, coyote or any other sighting in ten years.
"Maybe it's Bigfoot." He eyed Carmen with his sober thought.
She picked up the folded paper and thwacked his arm. "Oh, pour l'amour de dieu!.."
"Oww—! Hey, you never know! It may be some kind of hybrid creature—escaped from a secret lab, deep in the mountains.."
"You've been watching too many of those scary movies," Carmen noted with concern. "Humans are monstrous enough." Her eyes veered out beyond the courtyard to the misted cobblestone, grass, and the veiled tree-line. The Burnett estate extended far into the woodland, without so much as a wire fence to forestall intruders. Predators had never been an issue: with the ridge, and the river, they couldn't cross the threshold; it was nature's barrier. But humans, the ultimate predators are not so easily deterred.
The walls shook with anger. Ray pressed her muffs hard against her ears, the loud refrain drowning out any other noise. It had started at dawn, and she feared it would continue on through to the afternoon. The more time they spent together, the more volatile they became. This was always the way between them.
Spring Break meant nothing much for Ray. Being twenty and a waitress, nothing changed. But her father had leave from work, and her mother's job was home-based. She knew it wouldn't be a time of joy or relaxation. She knew they would clash more frequently, endure for longer, and generate harsher fallout, however temporary it may be. Ray found herself wishing for the first time in years that she had a friend. Someone she could talk to, someplace she could take refuge, where she would be welcomed with loving arms. She cursed her brothers for leaving, but at the same time admired them for managing to escape.
The melody strummed and reverberated through her. She identified with the music and vibe of the 90s and wished she'd been born ten years earlier so her teen years would've coincided with them.Ray watched her collaged walls animate with muted rage and match the beat ofLove. She had intended to dream the day away until she was forced to face a less painful reality; at least the diner was free from madness and fury, however crap the pay or tedious the work. She really didn't mind the work, actually. Most of the time she carried out her duties on auto-pilot and her mind would wander. She had two docket pads always in her apron: one for orders, and one for thoughts. Her parents working themselves into an uproar was no strange event, but they usually reserved voicing their hostilities until after she'd managed to caffeinate. She wasn't mentally prepared to deal with their shit so early in the morning. In their little mountain town of Presence, Spring Break was a fortnight's affair. And this was only Day One. She might've hoped their morning row was just a one-off, IF she believed hope made any difference. But she knew better, and instead looked to the worst outcome: two weeks of waking up to those two would surely see her crack. If she believed in God she would've prayed for the strength to make it through. But failing that, she relied on coffee and took solace in the facts―like how the town's upcoming festivities would offer a means of escape and distraction. But for here and now, she just needed to get out―to go anywhere. Ride the streets, wander into the woods―anywhere, doing anything other than being held hostage by her parents' unbridled emotions and severe lack of sense.
Fighting back bitter tears Ray seethed with a rage of her own. Pushing off the bed she dove into her cupboard, flinging out jeans, tops, socks, jackets and shoes―crumpled or dirty, she didn't care. She fumbled as she stripped and threw her clothes in a heap on the rug. Threading her music through her not-so-fresh tee, she lifted the dark curtain: Grey. Dismal. Damp. Cold. If it weren't for her intensely negative mood she might have found the veiling mist beautiful; magical, even. But that was sentiment for another time.
Tentatively, she exposed one ear to the door: a brief lull. Though she would not be fooled. They lived in a storm, constantly churning, the eye teasing overhead now and again. If she was cautious, she could slip out the back. Unlike the rebellious teens on T.V. she didn't memorise the creaks in their floorboards to sneak in and out after curfew and go on wild adventures. For Ray, it was a matter of survival―for her sanity. She would creep downstairs once her parents were in bed and spend hours revelling in the peace and quiet: reading, writing, researching her escape destination of choice and devising a plan to make it happen.
There was a room something like a library at the west end of their house, though much smaller and sparsely filled of books. It was furnished with a comfortable old sofa in the company of a few hardy potted plants and a stained-glass lamp. But it was a room with a view, and Ray loved it for the window. At night, the breach in the canopy and dip of the mountains gave sight to the plains. In the distance, lights of other towns glittered as if reflecting the starry sky. She wasn't deluded with thoughts of Paradise, but just as her mountain home was surely the desired locale for some, she sought the very place from which those people would yearn to escape: The coast. The ocean. California, she thought, and then Hawaii―or maybe down south to the Caribbean, somewhere unlocked by land and no bloody dark mountains in sight.
There was nothing holding her here. Her presence couldn't mend the relationship of her parents any more than the view of her dreams out a window could sustain her own heart forever. All she needed was money―a ticket out of there. Then, maybe, she could begin her own life. But it was that dangerous thing called Hope that scared her most. What begins tasting sweet eventually turns sour: relationships, good intentions.. She wouldn't allow her soul to dim any further, so while she planned her escape she did bridle her emotions, so that if any foul hindrance would arise she would not be disheartened. She had to steel herself, and concede that if life tried to stop her, she wouldn't crumble. She would find another way, even if it took time. She would find ways of coping in the meanwhile, but she would fight for her freedom.
Out in the hall, Ray peered through the balustrade: the coast was clear. She snuck downstairs, slipped past the kitchen and out into the yard, pulling the door silent behind her.
Ray jolted back against the house when she heard her father through the lull in lyrics. She yanked her muffs down around her neck. "You scared the HELL out of me!" Her father's brow raised in humour.
"Sorry, Bean," he chuckled.
Sighing, she moved toward her teal-painted bicycle leaned up against the rocked flower bed.
"Since when do you work the morning shift?"
"Since never," she mumbled. "I'll be out for the day.." Kicking up the stand she straddled the lowrider.
"Ray.." Her father suddenly stood before her, uprooted purple flowers in his palm. "It would be nice to spend some time together, while I'm here." His eyes were soft and his demeanour calm.
Were it not for the fleeting audible evidence against him, there was no sign of the recent conflict. He had always been able to tidy away his anger after a fight. Her mother made no such effort, and raged daily as if it were some sort of twisted workout. Of the two of them, Ray considered her father the Sane, and her mother the Fierce. But of the three of them, she considered herself the Survivor.
"Depends what you had in mind.."
She wasn't interested in any family time. In her younger years the two of them were close, but things change. She had grown less and less fond of her father as he grew more and more accustomed to the behaviour of her mother. Outside of their rows, he seemed ignorant: the eye of the storm drying any rain and brightening any gloomy shadows. But for Ray, the anguish was constant: the looming storm clouds liable to swoop in at any moment. With her sneakers on the pedals, she was ready to fly.
"I have some ideas.." He potted a handful of tiny roots. "We'll talk later?"
Reluctantly, she gave a small nod if only to avoid the bother of an excuse, and the time-suck that would proceed it―questions from her father she was in no mood to answer. Crimping her lips she manoeuvred her tunes back over her ears, slipping her beanie overtop. But before she could dash away a gift appeared at her handlebars: a miniature garland of purple flowers. Mercy flooded in, rushing against her rage, attempting to drown her animosity. A sharp exhale and a genuine joy―small, but mighty. Her dour mood eased, and she cursed her heart for giving into hope. The inner conflict edged tears in her lashes and she struggled to keep them downturned.
"Love you, Bean. Have a good day."
She slipped the wreath over her wrist and, against advisement, left her father with a glancing gracious smile.
Riding along the slick asphalt towards town, Hole on repeat in her ears, the lyrics resonated in her head: ..Ohh, and I knew―the darkest secret of your heart..
Now and again, one of them would show some sign of reassurance (usually her father), that things weren't so bad, that they would get better. But they were always sucked back into misery and chaos―her mother made sure of that, and Ray didn't care if it was unintentional because they made no effort to change things. They barely acknowledged their behaviour, and the closest they came to an "apology" was extra kumquat on her plate, or a flower bracelet made with care, or a vintage bicycle fit for a father-daughter refurbish―it felt like being bribed, and none of it was what she wanted―or needed.
Ray battled internally: every time hope dangled before her it was inevitably snatched away again―whether from her grasp, or before her eyes. To hold onto it for a moment had helped to alleviate some pain, but it only made the return of anarchy all the more harmful. So she watched Hope come, assessed it, and saw it thrown aside and trampled, while her own heart was safe at a distance. If her parents wished to dwell in their own personal hell-scape and think it fine for the brief flashes of goodness that passed their way, so be it. But they wouldn't shackle their sunray to their fleeting, foolish hope. Needing to feel free of her homemade prison, Ray coasted fast down the wet road, channelling her emotions into speed. Heart hardened, headstrong, wheels to roll if she hadn't the wings to fly. Survival was a lonely game but she would win it, or die trying.