The worst part was the waiting. I swear I spent half my life with my chin on my hands, looking out the bedroom window. The summer I turned seventeen we were all waiting—our town was waiting for death to bring it back to life; my sister Trudy was waiting for me to grow up so the rest of her life could happen; Ma was waiting for Trudy and me to disappear.
I waited for Sundays. Every other day was just an empty square on the calendar that I couldn’t wait to put a line through.
Friday night: a pale crescent moon, no breeze. The air was so humid it was hard to breathe, and my pajamas clung to my skin. Even though it meant the world could see in, I switched on a light in every room. The sky was split open, and the stars were a blizzard; in the trees, the high-pitched buzz of the insects was like an electrical pulse. My blood kept time. Sunday was still too far away.
Just before eleven, a car had driven up the dirt road behind our house to the hanging forest. Now it was after midnight, and it hadn’t come back down.
I was good at being alone. I listened to the radio, played who’ll blink first with the possum in the gum tree, or wrote notes to Luke Cavanaugh that I’d never send. I had our old boxer Gypsy for company. She was twelve, arthritic, and half-blind, but her instincts were sharp. Her underbite was so bad we had to wipe her chin after she’d eaten.
Gypsy was lying in her corner of my room, blowing air and twitching in her sleep. I wondered if she was young in her dreams. Could she run again? Could she see?
I picked up my pen and opened my notebook. I wrote: I love you. Next to that I doodled his name over and over, in loops, in capitals, in daggers: LukeLukeLukeLukeLuke. Trudy always said you should never be the first to declare love, but by her reasoning it would never be declared at all. I crossed it out. I’d wait for Sunday and show him instead.
I slid open the window and plugged the hole in the screen with my finger. The air outside was still, but the ground moved—bugs, millions of them, drunk on light. A big Christmas beetle hit the window and landed on the sill, spinning on its back. A smaller beetle, maybe a male, clung to the mesh. I pressed my knuckles into the hole, working my fist until my arm went through, then flipped the big beetle over, unhooked the smaller one, and turned them to face each other.
“Here he is. Look.” I nudged the big beetle with my finger. “He’s right in front of you.” The female turned a slow circle, shuddered her wings, and took off, lured back to the light.
How on earth did they find each other, fumbling around in the dark, half-stunned and blinking?
I saw headlights, but coming from the main road. Gypsy’s reaction was lazy and late, so it had to be Trudy. I was relieved, but the other kind of relief would have been better. A minute later, Trudy’s wheezy Mazda pulled into the driveway.
I closed the window. When she walked in the front door, I was waiting.
“Are you my mother?” She smirked.
“A car drove up.”
Trudy’s irises turned flat and black. She shrugged. “I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed. Max kept the bar open way past closing.” She stretched, faked a yawn, and untied herself: hair, shoes, apron. She took too much care undressing, folding, and stacking her clothes on the arm of the couch. When she was down to her underwear, she frowned at the neat pile she’d made. “Were you waiting up for me?” Her tone was breezy, but a mad pulse in her throat gave her away.
“There was only one person in the car.” It was a lie. I was half asleep when I heard it, and by the time I got to my window, the taillights were all I could see.
“You’re obsessed,” she said.
“We can’t sit here and do nothing.”
“That’s what the ranger’s for. Anyway, cars go up all the time.”
“Not this late. I know. I listen.”
I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I wanted Trudy to stay up. She would never come to look for the car with me, so the best I could do was wait out the dark. Morning arrived late to our town and night came early; it was ten by the time the sun made it over Pryor Ridge and around four when it ducked behind Mount Moon. Everything in Mobius stretched to reach the light: We built our houses on stilts; our trees grew tall and spindly; our shadows were long.
Trudy roughed up the pile of clothes, and they fell to the floor. She went to her bedroom, switching off lights along the way, and came back wrapped in her robe. She poured herself a glass of wine, and I knew she’d stay.
“Just one,” she said. “Do you want to watch a movie?” She climbed onto the U-shaped couch we called the banana lounge and curled her legs under her.
“You pick,” I said.
She chose The Man from Snowy River, like I knew she would. Trudy liked films. I preferred documentaries. It was our version of conversation, and letting the other choose was as close to kindness as we got.
I watched her watching the film. She always mouthed her favorite lines. Maybe she thought I didn’t notice—more likely she didn’t care.
Male company will be a pleasant relief in this hothouse of female emotions.
Trudy snorted. Wine spilled onto her lap.
I didn’t think it was that funny.
It wasn’t often we laughed at the same things, and, considering the man ban Trudy had imposed on our house, it was kind of tragic. Under her rule it was okay for me to come home raccoon-eyed and bowlegged, but I had to come home alone.
Something inhuman screamed out in the forest.
“Have you been feeding that damned cat?” Trudy snapped.
I shook my head.
She poured another glass of wine but fell asleep before the movie finished, still holding the full glass.
I prized it from her fingers and set it on the table.
When she was drunk or asleep, the lines around my sister’s mouth disappeared. She unclenched her fists and smiled in her sleep. All of her spikes were laid flat. This was the Trudy I’d remembered and missed.
I lifted a stray rope of hair and placed it with the rest.
When the credits rolled, I turned the volume down and started the movie over. I draped a blanket over her.
Gypsy came out of my room. She shuffled to her spot by the back door and flopped down like someone had let go of her strings. Her eyes rolled back. I peeked through the curtains, but the moon had disappeared behind a cloud. The road stayed dark.
Mobius called itself a town, but it was really a populated dead end, a wrong turn, a sleepy hollow. Other towns had histories, natural wonders, monuments, and attractions, but Mobius was only famous for one thing: fifty-three people who had left their possessions in neat piles, gone deep into the forest, and never come out.
Ma used to say that it wasn’t healthy for the moods and fortunes of a whole town to be dependent on that dirt road and what lay beyond it, but the forest didn’t scare me. It was just a bunch of trees as old as time, and if there were ghosts, I’d never seen them.
People scared me.
• • •
Only Trudy could make coffee smell bad. My stomach lurched.
I pushed open the sliding door, stumbled onto the deck, and leaned over the railing, gulping air. After a night like the last, daylight always made me feel foolish—for being afraid, for thinking everything was bigger and darker and scarier than it really was.
“What’s this?” Trudy called.
Her foot connected with something. She’d found the box.
“What the hell are we supposed to do with a hundred cans of tuna?”
I didn’t give her an answer because I didn’t have one. That box of tuna accounted for nine hours of overtime—I’d had
a choice between taking the tuna and letting Alby feel bad that he couldn’t afford to pay me again. It wasn’t his fault the roadhouse was dying, like everything else in our town.
“Jack, they’re almost expired.” Trudy stood in the doorway. She waved a tin at me. “What about the pub? I’ll ask Max if you can start some shifts in the kitchen.”
“I don’t want to work at the pub. Alby needs me even more now his dad’s getting worse.” That would be on my headstone: Jacklin Bates. She minded the shop.
Trudy shook her head then turned to stare at our falling-down back fence. “You’re not going up there, are you?” Her gaze traced the line of trees up to the ridge. She looked back sharply. “Are you? It’s not our business. You can’t change anything. All you’ll get is an image you won’t be able to get out of your head for the rest of your life.”
I shrugged and flicked a dead beetle off the railing, onto the lawn. The backyard needed weeding. If you weren’t paying attention, the forest would take over; pull out one new shoot, and three more came up in its place.
I sighed. “I won’t go, okay?”
“I heard Alby’s old man was standing in the middle of Main Street the other day.”
“When you have dementia you don’t know what you’re doing.” I frowned at her.
“I heard he flashed Meredith Jolley and that’s why she’s in the psych ward. She’s never seen one before.” She laughed.
“She has a son. I’m pretty sure she’s seen one.”
“God, Jack, you have no sense of humor.” Trudy spun on her heel. She stopped and turned suddenly, one hand on a hip, the can of tuna cupped in the other. “Are you still seeing that Luke?”
“Yes.” I didn’t have to lie to Trudy. Apart from the man ban, she gave me plenty of space.
“You should end it,” she said. “He’s not the one for you.”
She had good reason for saying that, but it still hurt. We’re kinder to strangers and people we don’t live with. By the time I went inside, Trudy had gone back to bed. She worked so many late shifts, she was mostly nocturnal.
I stood in the shower until the water ran cold. I wouldn’t see Luke until the next day, so I left my hair unwashed and ignored the stubble on my legs. I turned off the taps and stepped onto the bath mat. One of Trudy’s hoop earrings was jammed between my toes. Strands of her long, white-blond hair were caught in my brush, tangled with my own darker, shorter hair. My tweezers were missing, my deodorant, too. I made a face at my reflection and, not a second later, forgave her again.
When my sister blew back into town a year ago, it was like she’d let the light back in. I was desperate to live with her. Trudy made anything seem possible. She was six years older; she’d been to Europe, liked it, stayed. Five years had passed without a phone call or a postcard, but I couldn’t
blame her—I blamed Ma for making her go. I missed Trudy so much I slept in her bare room for three months. Ma had packed away her things within a week.
I loved Ma. She made me feel like all my edges were tucked in, but she had a hundred ways to make a person feel shame. Dad was always there but not quite present. I think we were all picturing Trudy’s adventures in our imaginations, but we never talked about it—we simply gave in to the peace that settled when she left.
And I had to forgive Trudy when she came back. She refused to miss another second of my growing up, and if that meant being stuck in the same town as Ma, she could live with it.
I felt as if had to choose a side. It seemed impossible to have them both.
While Trudy was gone, Ma gave up trying to make me be all the things Trudy wasn’t. The day I moved out, I had just turned sixteen, and Trudy and I shoved my few belongings into her car as quickly as we could. Trudy didn’t go inside. Ma didn’t come out. She just watched from the window, blank-faced, like she wasn’t surprised I’d left her too. Ma always said the wrong thing and did the right thing; Trudy was the opposite. I occupied the space between, the unclaimed land between trenches.
I stopped going to school partway through Year Eleven, a few months after I moved in with Trudy—I kicked my
schoolbag into a corner and never went back. I got myself a job at Bent Bowl Spoon, bought a second-hand queen-size bed with my first paycheck, went to Ma’s, and picked up Gypsy.
For the first few weeks I was like a bird sitting on the floor of the cage, unsure what to do once the door was open. My dreams seemed close enough to touch now that my sister had come home. I was in a hurry to grow up, yearning for things I didn’t understand. I craved epic love and my name in lights. I was tired of waiting. With Trudy, I would soar beyond my life so far.
I’ve never been careful what I wished for.