Jacy came home to the smell of burning sage and knew this meant that Hannah had come to stay again. The smell was thick, and the smoke seemed to enter through her skin rather than just her nose. It was supposed to be calming, but it always put her on edge. She also wondered if Hannah bundled in some little known plant found only in the deep woods, growing among poisonous mushrooms, wild ferns, lichen.
Like always when this happened, Jacy moved quickly through her home, dousing each bundle with water and then throwing them out the open windows. At one of the windows, she paused for a minute to look at the garden. From where she stood the view was mostly of pokeweed, but she knew underneath its pinkish stems grew more weeds: garlic mustard, Queen Anne’s Lace, Creeping Charlie, and several others which she had no name for. For weeks now she had meant to rip them out and reclaim the garden. She had no excuse for not getting to it either. Ever since she had failed out of college she didn’t have many obligations.
Today would’ve been a perfect time to get outside, too, one of those warm autumn evenings where the air has a mildness that makes your whole body feel lighter. But now that her father’s ex had come she had other problems to deal with.
After putting out all the sage, Jacy found herself both shivering and sweating, as if she had been struck by a sudden fever. She washed her face with a cool rag, put on one of her dad’s old sweaters, and went to find Hannah.
She found her in the basement, in a small alcove where there were several wine racks and a couple massive shelves that had once been used for canning. The light from the room’s one window was diffused with the oranges and reds of sunset. Hannah stood in the far corner of the room, nodding and mumbling something at such a pace that she couldn’t understand even one word. She yanked the string connected to the room’s only light bulb, pulled her hands into the sleeves of the sweater, and said hello.
“This was your father’s favorite place in the house,” Hannah said, pointing to the window. “Something about how it got the last good light of the day.”
“I wish you wouldn’t do this anymore,” she said. “I don’t think my dad’s haunting this place.”
Hannah moved over to the wine racks and, after methodically touching a few of the bottles, finally turned to look at her.
“I know that, child,” she said. “The sage is to drive out the bad spirits, so your dad’s presence can come through.
Hannah pinched her eyebrows inward and whispered some more words Jacy didn’t understand.
“Basically, I’m trying to bring harmony to our house.”
She started to say that it wasn’t her house, but Hannah had turned to face the rack again where she slowly and deliberately went about rearranging them in what Jacy guessed was the order her dad put them in years ago. Each time Hannah came across an empty space she made a sound. When she was finished, she turned to face her again.
“All this drinking won’t help you deal with his passing, child.”
Jacy started to explain that it wasn’t just her drinking all the wine. Most weekends she had friends over, and they’d spend most of the night hanging out, taking advantage of the extensive wine collection and the many unoccupied bedrooms. As she spoke, her words seemed to take on the feverish qualities she was feeling; every word came out rushed and blurred at the edges. When she was finished, Hannah took her hand and held it for some time. The smell of sage seemed to come back all at once.
“That won’t help either.”
The next morning she found Hannah in the garden, stooping low to yank out the various weeds. She worked with a grace and quickness that didn’t seem possible for a woman in her late fifties. Hannah didn’t look up even when she approached. For several minutes, Jacy stood there, taking in the sight of the garden. Only a day ago, she had thought that maybe it wasn’t worth trying to save what she had planted. But now, in the brilliant morning light, the situation didn’t look too bad; the tomato plants looked mostly ripe and the bugs hadn’t done much damage to them; the peppers were almost ready too, and the rest of the vegetables seemed to be in good condition despite her neglect.
When she joined Hannah with the weeding she noticed there were two piles going; the larger one had only the vibrant colored pokeweed stalks, while the other contained everything else.
“What are you doing with those,” Jacy said, pointing at the larger pile.
Without stopping or looking up from her work, Hannah said that she was going to make poke salad.
“Aren’t those things poisonous?” Jacy said. “Even my dad wouldn’t eat them.”
At these words, Jacy remembered being a little girl and walking with her dad through the garden and then on to the forest that was also part of their property, land which now belonged only to her. Along the way he’d point out every species of plant they came upon and tell her whether it was edible or not. She was always surprised by how much you could eat, and also by how, despite the fact she never remembered many of the names, her dad would explain it all again with the same enthusiasm.
“They’re actually delicious,” Hannah said. “You just have to boil them enough times to get rid of all the toxins.”
She then went on to explain how Native Americans also made medicine from the plant but most of those recipes have since been lost. Afterwards, Hannah stood up, brushed her hands on the faded jeans she wore, and looked at the nearby forest.
“I thought after we finished up with the garden we could hunt for some mushrooms,” Hannah said. “And then for dinner I could make Coq Au Vin.”
Jacy set down the Queen Anne’s Lace she had been ripping out and turned to face Hannah.
“You know I won’t go into those woods. Besides,” she said. “That’s not why I came out here. I came out here to tell you that you need to leave after today.”
She spoke quickly, with her hands pressed hard into her pockets. For some time Hannah continued looking off at the forest where a few of the maples were just starting to turn. Jacy expected her to say something like, It’s been a year since we found him there. You’re going to have to go back sometime. But Hannah said nothing like this, and after a couple minutes Jacy repeated herself.
“Can I ask why?”
There were any number of reasons she could’ve given her, all of them valid, but she had used them before. And always Hannah would find some way to undermine her position or else make Jacy feel guilty for turning her out of the place she’d lived in for nearly a decade. Today, though, she decided to go another route.
“I met somebody, and I want him to move in here,” Jacy said.
The somebody was a guy she had met at one of the parties she’d thrown recently. Although they’d only hung out several times, it felt more serious than other relationships. Probably, she guessed, because he was a good bit older than her, and his maturity added some gravity to their relationship. It had, however, been at least a week since they’d spoken. Hannah opened her mouth to say something, but Jacy cut her off.
“By us I mean just him and I.”
Hannah sighed and looked over at the house.
“Well,” she said. “I’d at least like to meet him. Why don’t you bring him over for dinner tonight?”
Jacy pulled one more weed and then clasped her hands together. Even though she’d only been in the garden a short time they felt sweaty and raw.
“He’s working tonight,” she said. “So it’ll have to be tomorrow.”
Hannah nodded and then said something about going to pick the mushrooms by herself. Once again Hannah looked at the house with a feeling that Jacy guessed was nostalgia. The way she sucked on her lower lip and raised her eyes suggested she was traveling back to some distant memory, perhaps one that didn’t even involve her dad or the years Hannah had spent with him.
“I’ll finish up here,” Jacy said.
Without nodding or saying anything, Hannah turned and started off for the woods, measuring her steps carefully as the earth dipped past the garden’s edge. Jacy felt like there was more to say but couldn’t bring herself to follow Hannah’s path.
Her boyfriend – she used this term only because she didn’t know what else to call him – sounded friendlier on the phone than she’d expected. He said that he was surprised she’d called.
“I’ve tried,” she said. “I left messages too.”
Her face got warm as she remembered the rambling messages, some of them made late in the evenings after she’d lost herself in wine.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve been out of the house a lot lately.”
He went on to say that he thought he had told Jacy he’d be gone for a while and would call her when he returned. He sounded impatient, like he was talking to a child.
“I don’t remember that,” she said.
In her voice Jacy recognized some of Hannah’s defiance or whatever word it was that described how Hannah could turn a situation around and make the other person feel like they were at fault. She wished she could take it back. She waited several moments and, when the silence became too much, said, “Well, I don’t have anything going today if you wanted to get together.” At first it was quiet on his end, and she wondered if he was still there. She was about to hang up when he finally spoke.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s meet somewhere.”
She met him at a café in town. He had arrived before her and was already standing in line, chatting easily with the college age girl working the register. For several minutes, she just stood there watching him, this man she barely knew yet was considering living with. There was a natural energy in his every movement that made whatever he was talking about seem important. Part of it was his body language, the quick gestures that punctuated his thoughts and the air of reflection he took on when he was listening to others. A lot of it, though, was simply the timbre of his voice. Half the time she found herself focusing on this sound rather than what he had actually said. It was his voice which had initially drawn Jacy to him and now hearing it directed at another girl, perhaps even one of his students at the local college, made her jealous.
She was about to interrupt his conversation when he came her way carrying their drinks.
“I got you an espresso,” he said. “You like those, right?”
He was right although she had no memory of saying this to him, and they had never hung out anywhere except for her place. She nodded and followed as he walked past her and out the door, where he set the drinks down at a table. The chairs were positioned so that they would be sitting next to each other rather than across. She waited for a moment to see if he would move the seats, but he sat down right away, brushing against her hip in the process. His confidence now almost made her forget his shame as he buttoned his pants the last time they’d been together.
“How’s the garden?” he said.
“Fine, I guess. I haven’t been out there as much as I should. I probably missed my chance to plant a crop to harvest in winter.”
He placed one hand to his forehead like he was thinking of something. Then he closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened, them he was smiling.
“What if you used a cold frame?” he said. “Didn’t you say that you had some of those lying around?”
Her dad had constructed them years ago from old screen doors. They were basically miniature greenhouses and required very little work. For some reason, though, they had ended up in the basement, and she hadn’t taken the trouble of moving them upstairs and out into the garden.
“I guess I could,” she said. “It might be too late already, and it’d be more work than I care for right now.”
In these words, Jacy recognized the same attitude that had caused her to flunk out of college. The overall lack of motivation was something she was trying to work on. Her goal right now was to get a job before winter came. Elliot smiled, took a sip of his coffee, and then reached for her hand.
“I could come out and help,” he said. “I don’t have much going right now since I’m technically still on sabbatical. Plus, you said the house needed some repairs, and I could take care of those too.”
The meaning of his words seemed to hang thick between them, and she felt the sudden need to let go of his hand.
“What do you think?” he said.
Jacy looked again at the scene around her. No one was looking at them, but it felt as though they had been recently and had just now turned back to what they were doing, their raised books and coffee mugs covering up their silent laughter at her situation. When she turned back to look at Elliot, it was as though he wouldn’t look at her either; he was looking around absently as if the answer she gave didn’t have much importance. She drank her espresso in one swallow, and the quick rush of heat brought on the same feverish feeling she’d had the other day.
“Why don’t you come for dinner tonight?” she said. “Then we’ll see what happens.”
She decided not to tell Elliot that Hannah would be there for dinner. In previous conversations, Jacy had told him about Hannah and her strange ways – the burning sage, the teas she liked to brew up using roots and leaves from the forest, the way she showed up suddenly and ordered Jacy around – but he had never seemed impressed by the woman’s behavior or concerned about the effect they had on her. One time I woke in the middle of the night, and she was sitting in a chair next to my bed. I thought it was an intruder at first and nearly had a heart attack. Now every night I go to bed wondering if she’ll do it again. A person can’t live like that. All Elliot had said when she told him this story was that Hannah probably cared for Jacy more than she realized. That’s not a bad thing, he’d said. Now, though, he’d realize that Hannah was a little unbalanced, and he’d have to help get rid of her.
When she got home, her mind was racing from all these thoughts plus the espresso. There was still another hour before Elliot would come, and she felt a sharp impatience that she had to wait so long to get her new life started. She decided to work off some of her energy in the garden. When she got there, the first thing she noticed was the missing pile of pokeweed. She imagined Hannah in the kitchen, boiling the stalks and leaves for the third and last time before putting together a salad. At first Jacy was mad. There was no way she would eat something which every sane person knew was poisonous. She headed inside to tell Hannah not to serve the dish, practicing how she’d phrase it as she walked. But as she ran the lines over in her mind something happened: she began to hear Hannah’s voice responding to her order. Your father was the healthiest man I knew. He did everything he was supposed to, and he still died way before he should’ve. These words seemed to carry the implicit idea that just the simple process of waking up each morning carried with it some risks.
By the time Jacy reached the house she decided not to say anything. She even grew to like the idea that the three of them would all share the same risk by eating the poke salad. So when she walked through the back door and into the kitchen all she did was say a quick hello to Hannah and went upstairs to clean up.
Elliot showed up exactly at the time she’d told him, but she didn’t come downstairs right away. Instead, she waited around so he could get a taste of weird. Jacy left her bedroom door open and stood listening to their conversation. She expected it either to be filled with awkward gaps or else for Hannah to talk enough for both of them. But after a couple minutes, she had mainly heard Elliot and his pleasant baritone, the voice that probably drew more female students to his lectures than what was normal for Ancient Roman History. When Jacy heard Hannah laughing, she decided it was time to come downstairs.
She found them in the kitchen where Hannah was asking what type of wine he preferred.
“He likes a Cabernet,” Jacy said. “Elliot, why don’t you help me find one in the cellar.”
Hannah wouldn’t start the meal without giving a toast. But first she made a big deal out of refilling Jacy’s glass – she drank her first while they were still in the kitchen – and saying how maybe it wasn’t such a good idea that her dad let her try the stuff at such a young age.
“He was a great father,” Hannah said. “I suppose it would’ve been hard not to spoil your only daughter. Anyhow, I just want to welcome Elliot to this house. I think it’s great that Jacy found someone, especially someone a little older who can hopefully give her some direction in life. That’s something Jonas would’ve wanted. He always said. . .”
Up till now Hannah had been looking at Jacy, but as she broke off she turned to look at some photographs on a nearby table. They were all of Jacy’s father as a younger man. Some were even publicity photos which had appeared alongside articles praising his commitment to the environment. Hannah’s face while looking at them still contained the enthusiasm of her speech, as if she was just waiting for this moment to pass before she continued talking. The only gesture which revealed her sadness was in the hand she used to hold her wineglass; every few seconds she would lower it a degree or two so that after a few minutes it nearly touched the table.
“Anyhow,” Hannah said. “I guess we should enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it.”
Everyone at the table touched glasses. Afterwards, Hannah described for them the food she was about to serve. When she got to the bowl of poke salad she skipped Jacy’s plate and only served Elliot and herself.
“People have been eating this for years,” Hannah said. “But our girl here is afraid it’s poisonous.”
Jacy wanted to say something in her defense only she couldn’t think of anything which wasn’t either paranoid or childish, both qualities which lately she feared she possessed.
“I like things that are bad for me,” Elliot said. “The worse the better actually.”
It took considerable effort for Jacy not to watch where he was looking as he said the last part. It was even more difficult not to say something like, Well, then you’ve come to the right place.
Jacy could hear Elliot moving around in her room as she brushed her teeth. She had been in the bathroom getting ready for a while now, and the longer she took the more nervous she was to return. Their previous attempt at sex had not gone well. They had fooled around a bit but never made love. At first he hadn’t seemed nervous at all, though it was their first time; he went inside her right away and placed both hands on her lower back. When he started moving, though, he was so cautious, and there didn’t seem to be any logic to the impossibly slow rhythm. It all made her feel disconnected from what was happening, and the longer it went on the creepier it made her feel. She ended up saying something along the lines of, Would you just fuck me already! It surprised them both, and even after she apologized he wasn’t able to continue.
All of her former lovers had fallen into one of two categories: men who cared little for her pleasure and simply raced for the main event or men who, according to her, were insecure and therefore devoted themselves to her needs first with a focused intensity she didn’t think she was capable of repaying. Neither type of man was ideal, but at least she knew what to expect. She didn’t know what to do with Elliot, and it affected more than the bedroom. Up until a week ago, she’d felt his age, along with the fact he had a career, had given him an advantage in their relationship. Or if not an advantage, he at least played the role of senior partner, the one who had more control over the direction they’d take as a couple. The sudden shift had her confused.
When she finally entered the room, she found Elliot sitting on the edge of her bed. The cuffs of his shirt were rolled back, but otherwise he was fully dressed, whereas she had changed into the loose fitting t-shirt she typically wore to bed. Other than this, all that covered her body was her underwear.
Jacy walked toward the bed, pausing halfway to see what kind of effect she was having on him. He was looking right at her but not in a way that suggested he wanted her. She quickly got into bed and pulled the covers halfway up her body.
“I think I like Hannah,” he said. “She’s kind of an amateur historian, don’t you think?”
He had turned to face her but spoke as if to a classroom of people. The tone of his question seemed to want a brief nod from the audience rather than a real answer. She gave him neither.
“I like her stories too,” he said.
He went on to say that his favorite ones were about Hannah living in the nearby woods, which was something Jacy had been unaware of till earlier in the evening. Already Jacy felt troubled by the image of her out there in the woods, sleeping in lean-tos, eating strange plants, and tracking deer over the frost covered earth. She was sure these thoughts would twist and distort themselves as she slept.
“I like her fine,” Jacy said. “I just don’t want her living in my house anymore or out in the woods.”
She realized her tone had something of the impatience from the last time they’d been in her room. He nodded, said that he understood.
“Let’s not talk about her right now,” she said. “Why don’t you get in bed with me?”
He nodded again, slower this time, and then set about taking off his clothes. It seemed to take him forever, and with each article he removed Jacy grew more anxious. Her heart beat like it did whenever she smelled the burning sage. She’d never been this nervous with a guy before, not even for her first time, although with that boy the whole thing had happened so fast there wasn’t much time to be nervous. By the time he came to bed, her chest felt so tight she knew she would have to relax quite a bit if anything was going to happen.
Elliot took her hand and held it between both of his for a long moment.
“Thanks for giving me another chance,” he said.
He then moved forward to kiss her. She shut her eyes and willed herself to relax. But when their lips touched she found that his mouth stayed shut. One dry kiss and then he rolled over, said goodnight, and turned off the lamp. Only a minute ago she had felt closed off but now she felt a little bothered and didn’t know what to do about it. She could’ve tried to start something, but it didn’t seem like what he wanted right now. She could’ve kicked him out of bed, but this seemed too much like the impulsive reaction a child would have. After a minute of weighing her options, Jacy curled up against the warmth of his body but told herself it was only as protection from the dreams she might have.
In the morning, Jacy woke up alone. She had no idea what time he had gotten out of bed, although the rich, musky smell clinging to the sheets made her think he had at least stayed part of the night. After a minute of wondering what it would’ve been like waking up with him, Jacy got up, showered, and went downstairs.
The kitchen smelled of coffee, eggs, mushrooms, and herbs. A couple of plates and mugs had been washed and placed in the drying rack. In the refrigerator was a container which held the ingredients for omelettes, neatly portioned out for one. Jacy looked at it for a second but didn’t think it would sit well considering the amount of wine she’d had. Instead she poured herself some coffee from what was left in the pot, put on a sweater, and went outside.
She found Elliot and Hannah in the garden. They had apparently located all of the cold frames from the basement and hauled them out here. Now they were discussing where they should be placed and what they should plant in each one. Neither of them seemed to notice her until she spoke.
“Isn’t it too late in the season for this,” Jacy said. “It’s already October.”
Hannah looked at her in a way that suggested annoyance.
“It might be,” Hannah said. “But we don’t have anything to lose by trying. Besides once the plants start growing, they’ll be fine in these even after the snow flies.”
Jacy remembered her father using this expression except he had always said before the snow flies. As in, “Jacy, could you help me plastic the windows today? I want to get this done before the snow flies.” Growing up there was always a huge of list of chores she needed to help with so they could be ready for winter, and every year she dreaded them because it meant time she wasn’t able to hang out with her friends. Yet at the same time she looked forward to winter and the way her dad was more relaxed. In the evenings they would eat venison stew, drink a little wine, and then read books or watch movies together. Those nights held some of her favorite memories of her dad.
“How’d you sleep?” Elliot said.
“Fine,” she said.
Even though she didn’t ask him the same question, he went on to explain that he slept all right considering he wasn’t familiar with the environment yet. He also went on to say how beautiful she looked while she was sleeping.
“You have this look of expectancy about you that reminds me of how kids look when they’re pretending to sleep.”
Both Elliot and Hannah smiled at her. Jacy might’ve enjoyed this conversation if it had been spoken in a more intimate setting but out here, with Hannah present, she couldn’t help but feel there was a mocking undertone to his words.
“Elliot,” Jacy said. “I thought you and I could go into town this afternoon. Maybe see a movie or something.”
As she waited for his response, Jacy drank some of her coffee.
“How about tomorrow?” he said. “Hannah wanted to take me out into the woods today You should come too.”
Jacy drank the rest of her coffee then looked out at the woods. On some days, especially mild autumn evenings, she did miss taking hikes. However, the second she set foot in the woods, she felt what she could only describe as a premonition, a feeling that, just like her dad, she would die in the woods.
“Has she ever told you what happened out there?” Jacy said. “Because, if she has, you wouldn’t ask me to come along.”
Without waiting for a response she started walking away from them, away from a life that, in recent months, seemed to move forward without her control. As she made her way through the garden, she felt like giving everything up: the woods, the garden, the house, all the things her father had left her. The combination of money and land from his estate was too much for her to handle at the age of twenty two. Some days she felt it was somehow rotting her values, her outlook on life, while other days she felt her moods could be blamed on her dad’s recent death.
By the time she neared the garden’s edge, Jacy could hear Elliot calling out to her. She couldn’t make out the words yet, but she could hear the concern in his voice. She kept walking. Eventually he caught up with her and said her name in a near breathless way that made her stop.
“Hannah told me what happened,” he said. “And I’m sorry.”
He nodded and took her hand. The color in his cheeks and the work clothes he wore didn’t seem to fit with his styled hair or the careful way he wouldn’t look her directly in the eye.
“We can go to town if you want,” he said. “Just let me get cleaned up, and then we’ll leave.”
She nodded and he squeezed her hand. Together they walked inside and through the kitchen where the smell of breakfast still lingered. Jacy was feeling a little better about her life until they got upstairs and passed the room where Hannah stayed. Not only were there no suitcases packed, but there were picture frames on the nightstand and stems of Queen Anne’s Lace in a small, cut-glass vase Hannah had received as a gift from Jacy’s dad. Jacy let go of Elliot’s hand and said, “She’s never going to leave here.”
They tried making love again that night. Jacy made sure neither of them drank more than a glass of wine at dinner, so she could be sure it wasn’t a factor. More importantly, though, she tried moving slower, since it seemed like what he wanted. They spent a long time kissing before they even undressed. Then, after they finally took off their clothes, he went between her legs with his hand. She was surprised at his boldness and how good it felt. She could’ve finished this way but still felt the need to have him inside, not because it would necessarily feel better but because she had the overwhelming need to see something through to the end. So, reluctantly, she took away his hand and climbed on top of him.
There was an intense moment of warmth as she lowered herself until he was in all the way. She shut her eyes to fully enjoy it and then started moving.
“Jacy,” he said, his voice strained. “Don’t.”
She thought it was because he was worried about protection or perhaps finishing too soon.
“It’s all right,” she said, in a way she hoped conveyed both that she was on the pill and that it didn’t matter how long he lasted.
But it wasn’t all right. As she moved up he slipped out. She tried to start over, but the second she felt him she knew it wasn’t happening. Before she could say anything, he was apologizing.
“I didn’t think that would happen,” he said. “But we don’t have to be done.”
She had rolled off of him and curled up with her knees pressed together. He started kissing her neck, and then she felt his hand on her thigh.
“Don’t,” she said.
She moved away from him, away from the heat their bodies had created. Without really thinking about it, she got out of bed and walked over to the window. There wasn’t much moonlight. She couldn’t even make out the edge of the woods, but she felt its dim presence in the night.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You like me, don’t you?”
He responded quickly, but she didn’t turn to face him.
“Of course, I do,” he said. “I think we might really have something together.”
Hearing his voice without seeing his face made him seem younger somehow.
“Then what’s the problem?”
He sighed loudly and, as if in response, she shivered. The house seemed colder than usual, and Jacy wondered if it was because Hannah had left some windows open, a habit which Hannah kept up no matter how cold it was outside. She wanted to get back in bed but wasn’t ready to be near him again.
“I’m not sure what it is exactly,” he said. “But none of it’s your fault.”
He went on to explain that he had recently been involved with a college student. The relationship ended badly, and basically resulted in a forced sabbatical. From this explanation, Jacy had only a vague understanding of how these events affected their relationship. It felt like she had been handed just a few puzzle pieces with the expectation that she needed to create the complete picture.
From outside, she heard some noises that sounded like animals running; first there was a scrabbling noise like paws against the stone patio and then a rush of crackling leaves. She tried looking for whatever had made the noise but saw nothing. It had been this way when she found her dad in the woods. After accepting the fact he was dead, she tried to say a few words to him, but all around her she kept hearing branches stir, leaves crunch, air being displaced by the quick movements of whatever creatures lived nearby. At any moment she expected a whole menagerie of animals to surround the little clearing where her dad lay slumped against a fallen oak. In the end, she couldn’t control her imagination and took off to find Hannah. When they returned the clearing was very still and, although her dad didn’t look much different, his body seemed to be part of the decomposition that was going on all around them. Even when Hannah asked if she needed a moment alone she wasn’t able to find any words for him.
“Do you believe me?” Elliot said.
The sudden, pleading nature of his voice made her turn to face him.
“You have to give me something else to go on.”
She meant this, but there wasn’t much force to her words. Mainly, she just wanted a reason to get back into bed.
“I don’t know if I can explain it right. Especially since I don’t understand it fully myself.”
Jacy turned to look out the window once more before coming to bed.
“I think I can relate to that,” she said.
That night she dreamt she had gone into the woods. Usually this dream consisted of her wandering around until she came upon her dad’s body and either ran away screaming or else laid down next to him in the frost hardened grass, holding close to his body even though it seemed to draw the warmth right out of her. But now the content of her nightmare had changed. She was still walking around the woods, but not because she was looking for her dad. Instead she was simply trying to find a way out. Yet no matter how far she traveled in any direction, there was nothing but trees, giant trees whose trunks appeared blurry to her, the leaves lacking the distinct shapes which normally would’ve revealed what species they were. Gradually she realized the woods were a sort of purgatory, a place she was forced to roam as penance for a sin she had no knowledge of committing.
Jacy woke up from this dream feeling calm, resigned to whatever her life might bring. It was an emotion she hadn’t felt since her dad had been alive, and even then it only happened when they were out hiking together. She tried holding on to this feeling as she got dressed, left Elliot sleeping in her bed, and went downstairs.
Even though it was before dawn, Hannah was awake. Jacy found her sitting at the kitchen table drinking a bitter smelling tea.
“I made some coffee too,” Hannah said. “I know you don’t care for the tea I make.”
“Not now,” Jacy said.
Jacy found her dad’s sweater by the back door and put it on. She also put on the pair of shoes she wore when she was working in the garden. Hannah stood up, walked over to her, and laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
Jacy shook her head.
“I’ll go alone.”
She made for the back door before she could change her mind.
Outside the air was cold, but not cold enough that she could see her breath. Jacy tucked her hands into the sleeves and started walking. She didn’t stop in the garden to check on any of the plants or look at the cold frames which Hannah and Elliot had set up. She also didn’t look back at the house or in any direction except toward the woods in front of her.
Still, after walking for a few minutes, she hadn’t made it very far. She was shivering too, and she knew that if she didn’t do something she’d end up turning around, going back inside, and climbing into bed with a man she didn’t know.
She ran, and as she picked up speed all her thoughts fell away. There was only the cold air against her face and the crunch of her feet against the hard ground. But when she reached the woods, she stopped abruptly short.
For several moments she just stood there, catching her breath and taking in the crisp smell of the forest. The memories it brought to mind came quick but disappeared each time she exhaled. When she took her next step, she wanted to believe the moment would somehow give her the power to take control of her life or, at the very least, give her the strength to get rid of Hannah and Elliot and, more importantly, visit the place where her father had died. It all seemed within her reach.
But it was just a step, and before continuing on, she couldn’t resist taking a look back toward the house. She hoped someone was watching.
John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor who lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac Review, Georgetown Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Arcadia, Atticus Review, upstreet, Midwestern Gothic, Bitter Oleander, and many others. His poetry chapbook, There Should Be Signs Here, is forthcoming from Wormwood Chapbooks. For more information about his writing, please visit www.johnabbottauthor.com.