It's funny, but for a brief period of time I took all those orders directed at Emily as a sign I was doing better: that my shoulders were straight enough, my pliés deep enough, my feet angled correctly. Then Emily got her pointe shoes and I didn't, and I realized the Lionels saw potential in Emily that they never saw in me. I quit ballet soon after.
I threw my head back against the headrest, then straightened up in my seat. I turned the key, shifted my car into gear, and started driving.
I've found that things are easiest when I don't think of Emily, when I push her back into the corners of my mind. Maybe you'll think that's wrong of me—or maybe, if you're being honest with yourself, Joshua, you'll admit that you've done the same. You're the one who left for good, after all, the one who stayed away. I came back, but I made sure to avoid places with special significance. I'd always turn off Main Street earlier than I otherwise would have to avoid the Northridge Roller Rink, where Emily and I became friends over a skinned knee (mine) and a shared granola bar (hers). I'd drive past your neighborhood but wouldn't drive through it. And I never went back to the campsite. I hadn't been back, not once, in the ten years since Emily died.
That day, though, I wasn't thinking right. I wasn't really thinking at all. I don't remember making a specific decision; all of a sudden, I was winding up Culver Street's sharp incline, up out of downtown Calvary, back into the woods. It's more developed now than it was when you were here, with new, hastily built subdivisions popping up along the edges of the road where thick forest used to be. But the developments become less and less frequent as Culver becomes steeper and steeper, and soon I found myself back in the same empty forest I recognized from when we were young. The forest where Emily, Alex, Ryan, and I would go, back before everything changed.
I eased off the side of the road and came to a stop. The stone pillars marking the entrance to the campsite were visible from the street for someone who knew where to look, moss-covered and misshapen, but still standing. I used to enjoy imagining how they would have looked when new: grand and imposing, welcoming guests to a nineteenth-century resort ('"sanatorium,"' Ryan always corrected, "resort was just a euphemism for sanatorium back then") and warning others to keep their distance. The resort stopped existing sometime in the early 1900s ("burned down," Emily always said, although who knows if that's true), and the space became a camp for city boys, bussed in from Philadelphia. Years later it was just abandoned, cabins locked up but beds and shelves left in their places, desks in the offices and pews in the chapel still intact.
I stepped out of my car, slammed the door behind me, and made my way up to the pillars. I rubbed my index finger along the cold, gritty stone. A series of foot trails jutted out into the forest, the same ones I had stumbled down dozens of times. I knew those paths well. One led straight back to what people in my class called the "lodge"—that large concrete slab ringed with stones that marked what must have once been a reception area for vacationers or campers. To the left was the "theater," the old wooden stage circled by an arch of bleachers, now mostly caved in and rotted through. Only a few stubborn beams had managed to stay upright over the years. The path to the right wound its way to the "altar," the four large stone slabs piled up on top of one another, maybe four feet high, and beyond that, narrow hidden trails led to old cabins and administrative offices and an algae-covered pond.
I stopped at the pillars. The wind breathed through the forest, rust-colored leaves shivering on the trees, and I wrapped my arms around myself for warmth. Quiet and empty, the forest looked so different from the last night I had been there. Then, a mass of people swarmed through the trees, and everything smelled like cheap beer and Abercrombie and Fitch—sharp and sweet and chemical. Loud laughter and shrieking giggles, dozens of conversations competing for dominance. Me, sick off of too much vodka and hunched over by the altar, twigs digging into my palms. Ryan sat with me, holding back my hair. Emily and Alex, gone, vanished into the forest. At the cinder block house, I know that now. I didn't know it then.
Beneath my feet, the root of an old tree snaked out of the ground, tangled and exposed. I traced it with the tip of my sneaker, slipping my foot underneath and pulling back to see how strongly it resisted. I was always the one who fell when Emily and I used to come back here. She was always so sure-footed.
It was wrong to go back. I should have stayed away. As I stood there by those pillars, all I could think of was the picture of Emily they used at Alex's trial, blown up on poster board and displayed on an easel in the middle of the wood-paneled courtroom. Emily's body, broken and sprawled out on the forest floor. Dark curls spiraled around her face, wet with blood. Her eyes, open and bulging, judging, asking: 'Why didn't you help me?'
7:41 A.M., MARSHALLS CREEK, PENNSYLVANIA.
329 MILES REMAINING.
My phone lights up and I glance down at the screen. A picture of Ryan, smiling up at me from our blue velvet couch, the one we found at Calvary Basement a week after moving in together. His hair, dark auburn, sticking out at the sides, a hand just run through it. His eyes, so focused and intent, locked on mine, almost as if he were looking back at me.
I feel a sob catch in my throat and bite down on my lip hard. I'm starting a new life now. I can do this. I can begin again.
Ryan was always so nice to you, wasn't he? Not in Alex's big-smile- and-pound-you-on-the-back kind of way, but more gentle, more likely to look you in the eye and listen when you told him how your day was going.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday, August 22nd, we begin the book FATAL CONFLICT by Matt Hilton.