Six years after our daughter disappears, I find two strangers digging through our dead garden.
I catch them as I head out to check the traps in the morning while Cliff is at work. The sky is a field of bruised clouds painting shadows over the woods surrounding our house, and the icy air claws at my lungs as I make my way toward the tree line. I scan the tops of hemlocks and evergreens, and I immediately hear Cliff nagging me in my head—as if he were my father and not my husband—to pay attention to the forest floor for any clumps of hair or torn up vegetation, traces of animals.
I squeeze my rimfire pistol, also recalling he had said I should take the Remington Model the night before, just in case. I scoffed at him. I’d lived on this mountain for as long as he, but I agreed. I didn’t want to fight. We hadn’t fought in several weeks, and the streak felt strong and solid like the grip of the gun against my palm.
I pass the fire pit that hasn’t been used for years, and as I get closer to the woodshed and garage that is near the forest, I see the leaves of my shriveled tomato plants trembling out of the corner of my eye from the garden to my right. Two beings are huddled together, their bodies hunched over, grunting. I yelp in surprise, and my one hand jerks up against my throat, fluttering, while the other allows the pistol to slide through my fingers and thump against the frost-covered ground.
Hearing the noise, the figures go rigid and then make a run for it, transforming into a young woman with a lopsided gait, and a boy clinging to her. The woman falls and tries to push herself up, but she wobbles as she moves her legs, slipping on the grass and falling to the ground like a baby taking its first steps.
I crouch and grab the gun, now chilly and damp, and a searing begins in my gut and creeps to my ears for being so careless. Cliff’s voice, curt and short, drills into me again, but I shove the gun into my holster and rush across the lawn.
I slow when I approach them, transitioning from trapper to nurse. Cliff says it’s amazing how I can do that. Go from tough and instinctual to gentle and cautious. Or he used to. But really, I don’t see a difference between the two. Both forms are all about reading what’s in front of you. And as I stop ten steps from the woman—who looks more like a girl in her early twenties—and the boy, I already know they are in trouble. The sign is a sickening metallic smell. Blood. Big trouble. There’s so much of it that I pull off my jacket to stanch the bleeding.
“It’s okay,” I say, putting up my hands. “I’m a nurse. I can help.” Their lips are smeared in dirt. I move to them again, and the girl sits on the ground but pushes the boy behind her to shield him, his long black hair falling across his face. He has to be no older than seven. As they fumble, a slight stench of burning leaves fills the air. The smell is so distinct that I search the girl’s face more carefully, following the outline of her sunken cheeks and arrowhead nose until I reach her eyes, the shade of them a muck-green, unlike anybody’s from around this side of the mountain.
Two sibling Varmints, I think. The girl flinches, and a slight panic moves through me for saying something so terrible aloud. But, no, it’s my hand she’s shying away from, the fingers spread and reaching out to her.
“Didn’t mean to spook you.” The phrase sounds ridiculous, as if I, a small, graying woman in her mid-forties, am threatening, especially to Hill Folk, the proper name for the mountain community that I grew up hearing stories about, the community that the boy and girl must be from. Locals have been living off Hill Folk legends for as long as I can remember.
As a child, I was so fascinated by the folklore of the witch-like cult that I believed Hill Folk weren’t even human, but magical creatures that only emerged in the darkest part of the night. When I got older, though, I saw them occasionally in town, getting supplies or heading to the local bar. Mostly men, though there was a woman who occasionally went to our church. It was my grandmother who informed me that Hill Folk were allowed to break free every once in a while, like a “walkabout” or rumspringa.
The boy whimpers. I have never seen ones so young without family nearby, and I am struck by the thought of my own daughter, Denver, alone somewhere and afraid. I kneel so I’m eye-level with the two of them.
“I have to try to stop the bleeding,” I say. “Is it okay if I—” I point at her right pant leg where blood has seeped all the way around her shin.
She blurts out a firecracker of words as I inch the seam up. “Went for a drive. Truck broke down. Don’t got a phone.” Her voice is a high-pitched chirp, each syllable crashing upon another as she speaks. “Slipped on a root.”
There’s no way a fall created the angry gape in her leg. The edges are too clean, and the end of the slit is pointed. I wrap my jacket around her leg.
“We got to get you to the hospital,” I say.
The girl fumbles backwards. “We won’t be going nowhere,” she says. Her shaking shoulders and eyes opening wide as a crocus tell me she’s already two steps ahead of me. If they go to the hospital, I will have to call the police. Denver gave me the same look one night when we found her shooting up in her room. She had just come back from rehab. We made her to go to the hospital anyway. It was not long after that she vanished, gone as if we had never known her. As if Cliff and I had made her up in our heads.
“Sorry,” I say. “I won’t call an ambulance.” The mere thought of interacting with a police officer churns my stomach anyway. “Why don’t you let me take a look at your leg in our house? I can make you some food. Let you lie down and rest.”
The girl hesitates for a moment, but the boy beside her groans. She attempts to stand, and I rush to her side. She weighs nothing, like a sliver of straw in the wind.
“Got no phone,” she repeats.
Hill Folk don’t use much technology. They like it that way. “You can use mine,” I say.
“There’s a blizzard a coming,” she says. “Won’t be able to drive.”
“Blizzard?” Pennsylvania weather can be unpredictable in the spring, but the forecast yesterday had shown that the temperature was supposed to rise throughout the week.
The girl nods. My grandmother used to claim that Hill Folk could predict floods, storms, and droughts. When I was eight, she told me she had heard the Hill Folk woman at the end of a church service mutter something about it hailing the next day. My father scolded her for filling my head with “make believe.” I bite my inner lip. “We’ll figure out the truck later. Let’s get the two of you warm.”
Purple hills funnel around us as we walk through our vast, empty yard to the house, which looks more like a wooden cabin, with two floors stacked on top of one another in a tiny frame covered by a tin roof. We make it to the porch and the girl leans on one of our Adirondack chairs. Bits of leaves swirl from her hand. “Sage,” she mumbles, as she stares at the swirling pile.
“Yarrow,” I say.
“No,” she says, her expression as smooth as the bottom of a river stone. “My name is Sage.” She nods to the boy. “Blaze. My son.”
I almost reel in shock over the age difference between her and the boy. “Augusta,” I say.
I clasp the cold knob, and as I usher the newcomers inside, my chest squeezes as it did the day after the Hill Folk woman had uttered her premonition in church, the hail smacking on my parents’ roof with a fury that we could have ever denied the possibility of it happening.
Cliff cusses as he stirs the flames in the wood burner, his grumbles of disapproval popping to a symphony of sparks. From behind, my husband’s body shows no signs of aging since I first met him in high school. His back muscles are roots jutting from the earth and he still has thick, pebble-brown hair that sticks up like a field of burnt wheat. When he turns to me, though, I’m slapped by how the past twenty-four years have eroded him away into wrinkles and a frown.
“Denver’s room,” he says. “You bring two outsiders—two Varmints no less—bleeding all over, and you put them in our…daughter’s room.”
I ram the knife into the tomato I’m cutting for lunch. Some of the seeds splatter onto my cheek, and I flick the buggers into the air. Our main floor is split between the kitchen and the living room with the wood burner shoved in the far corner. The area is so cramped and tiny that the house heats up within a few charred logs.
“Don’t call them Varmints,” I say. I put Blaze and Sage to bed an hour ago, so I’m sure they are asleep, but I keep my voice low, an old habit from when Denver was in and out of rehab. “Did you really expect me to let them sleep on our couch? You’re the one who wanted to take the money that we had left and build another shed, not a guest room.”
I hadn’t been to Denver’s room in months. I couldn’t even bear to knock on the door, the memory of asking if I could come in was too stifling. But I had no choice. I concentrated only on Sage’s leg, pretending I was in a dark tunnel so I couldn’t see the vinyls, seashell collection, and clothes I almost donated a year ago but left in a pile on the rug.
“What if more Varmints come looking for them? We ain’t their protectors.”
I flinch and dig my nails into the wooden handle of the knife. “You think I should’ve kept them out in the cold digging for frozen vegetables like some wild, desperate dogs?”
Cliff slams the door of the wood burner shut. “They’re Varmints. They prefer fending for themselves.”
I spin around and point the knife at him, “I told you not to call them that,” I hiss.
“You should’ve called the police.”
“Because they’ve been so helpful to us before?” I retort. He winces, and I get a slight thrill for forcing a hush over him. I go back to chopping the tomatoes. The knife pounding against the cutting board echoes around us.
I hear his feet pad toward me, a true hunter’s walk—light and delicate. He does not touch, but his warm breath dances along the loose bits of hair that have fallen out of my bun onto my neck. He smells of sawdust, woody and salty, after working several hours at the hardware store.
“I worry, Auggie,” he whispers.
I open one of the cabinets and grab some bread. “Don’t.”
I imagine him extending his arm to massage my back, a gesture that he has not done for so long I forget what his calloused knuckles feel like. He clears his throat, and I hear him take a plate and scrape a chair across the floor.
“How bad was it? The cut?” he asks.
I spread mustard in halo swirls on the slices of wheat. “It was deep. I stitched it up.” The gash reminded me of a flooded valley, the basin overflowing and the crevices and grooves turning a color the shade of red wine. Sage stroked her son’s hair as I pulled the needle through her slippery skin. She never gave a cry.
I sit across from Cliff at the cherry wood table, a wedding gift he had built for me. We eat without speaking. He’s far away from me, like he always is when we share a small space anymore, ever since Denver’s investigation dissolved. The search lasted for a year. We hoped she would just eventually show up, like she always did. We even hired a PI. But all the leads ran cold.
Cliff takes his empty plate to the sink and turns on the hot water. “I’m going to check the traps and chop.” he says. He plucks the ax from its handle near the door.
“Get more than the usual haul,” I say.
“Sage said we were supposed to get a lot of snow tonight.”
Cliff snorts. “What? She a meteorologist? That Varmint spiel magic and all is a crock of shit.” He lumbers to the door, the lamp and TV on the opposite side of the wall shaking, and a roaring noise catches my ear, harsh like a blues singer’s voice.
“The water,” I say.
He trudges over and jerks the handle. His eyes, like the color of blue cigarette smoke against a bright moon, latch onto mine. Behind him I can see the beast of silence approaching. We are no longer alarmed by its presence. It feeds off us every day. Though if you were to split us open now, all you’d find was emptiness.
I wake to an icing layer of snow eighteen inches thick the next morning. Cliff curses when he cranes his neck out the window.
I call the hospital to tell them I am snowed in and then prepare breakfast to bring upstairs for Sage and Blaze. I’m scrambling eggs and frying scrapple when I hear a cough behind me. I jump and catch the spatula, specks of eggs launching into my thicket of hair like a damn leaf-blower sputtering.
“Sorry,” I say. “Didn’t hear you come downstairs.”
Sage’s cheeks are a cardinal red, an improvement since I last saw her pale face. Blaze’s eyes are gaping at the food behind me.
“I was going to bring you a plate,” I say. “You have to be ginger about the weight you put on that.” I nod to her bandages.
“It’s fine,” she says, but she’s leaning more on the left leg, the injured one barely grazing the floor.
I load up a plate of scrapple and eggs and set it on the dining room table. “Here, Blaze. Sage, let’s just see how it looks, okay?”
Blaze peeps up at his mother, waiting until she gives the clear. She nudges him, and he plops in a chair and shovels food in his mouth like he hasn’t eaten in months. I go to the couch and pat a pillow. Sage sits down, propping up her leg, tilting back like she still doesn’t trust me.
“Where’s the truck?” she asks as I unwind the bandages.
“We’re looking for it,” I say. “Is there someone you would like to contact? Let them know you’re here?”
“Lost my cellphone,” she says. “Don’t know numbers.”
I examine her shin. The valley is bruised but remains sealed. “I know but—” I reach out to touch a silver line running along her ankle I hadn’t notice before.
Sage snatches my hand and holds it. The movement is so sudden that the rustling causes Blaze to pause mid-gulp. An intense heat travels from her hand all the way up my shoulder. She lets go.
“You ask a lot of questions,” she says. She speaks in a measured tone, her voice soft as laundry ruffling in the breeze. She runs a fingernail along the scar. “Forgot it was even there.” Her eyes shift over my body, really taking me in for the first time. It’s almost as if she can see right through me. Like she can not only see all my organs and skeleton but also the ugly parts of me.
I rub my wrist where she touched me, exactly where my pulse beats, warm and weighty against my thumb. “You ask a lot of questions too.”
The front door opens and Cliff stomps in, all brass and thunder, ripping off his jacket and beating the snow from his hair. “Well, I did find a goddamn truck, no license plate, and, of course, it’s fucking almost a mile away—” He freezes when he sees Sage and Blaze. “Shit,” he stammers. “Apologies.” His face blotches red like he was caught making out with a girl in church.
Blaze gawks at Cliff and inclines in his chair.
Cliff clears his throat, observing droplets of melted ice plummeting from his hair to the floor. “Well, like I said, I found your truck. Can’t move it. Trapped by the snow. But I’m glad you’re doing good.” He pauses. “I’m Cliff, by the way.”
“Blaze.” The boy points to himself. The first time he’s ever said a word.
Cliff’s lips twitch upward for a split second. I can’t remember the last time I saw him smile.
He picks up two slices of toast. “I’ll eat later. Going to check the traps.”
“You just got back,” I say.
“He can’t stay inside.” Blaze looks at my husband as if he is some sort of god. “He don’t like it. Neither do I.”
Cliff almost smiles again, but the movement seems too heavy for his face. He snugs his hat on his head. “Be back.”
Blaze stares after him, his hazel eyes glowing in the white morning light. “It was him in my dream, Mama,” he says to Sage.
She narrows her eyes in a warning, a mother’s look I recognize. “How long’s it going to take for my cut to heal?” she says to me.
“A week. Couple more for the stitches to dissolve.”
“A week,” Sage repeats. Then, she says, “Thank you.” She cradles her head against Blaze’s shoulder. I try to speak, but my voice dissolves in my mouth at the thought that those two words could exhaust her, as if gratitude was weakness.
I collect Blaze’s plate and push some eggs and antibiotics in front of Sage. “I’ll run a bath for you two. Sage, you’ll have to keep your leg out of the tub. I’ll show you then.”
I head upstairs. From the bathroom door, I hear Blaze say, “He was the giant in my dream. Wanting to rescue someone.” Then I remember. The Hill Folk woman at the church, the one who had predicted the hailstorm. I ran into her on the way to the bathroom one Sunday morning. She stared at me and, quiet as snow falling, said, “You were in my dream. You kept drinking water from a crick. But you were so thirsty you couldn’t leave the bank. You couldn’t let it go.”
I sit on the edge of the toilet. “Silly,” I mutter to myself. I had been so young. Just like Blaze. I know his dream can’t be true because, if anything, Cliff has gotten smaller over the years, so that I can’t even see him when I hold him anymore, can’t even let him fill the space of my palm.
Cliff is watching the evening news with his feet propped up on the recliner after shoveling for several hours. It’s been four days since Sage’s prediction and the snow is still piled outside. A blond anchorwoman appears on screen, her teeth glimmering for a few seconds before it cuts to a car accident. The stairs rattle as Sage and Blaze come down. They are fascinated by the sheer size of our TV.
“I’ve watched TV,” said Sage, the first night Cliff had it on. “Long time ago. But never on something this big.” It’s a fifty-inch flat screen. We had one before, but it was smaller and rarely on. Cliff claimed he needed a new one solely for watching the news, for keeping up to date if anything about Denver showed up. And for a while, it was mostly the news. But as the months whittled away, he began switching to other shows. Obnoxious ones with fake laughter in them. I didn’t know what I hated more: the 24-hour news cycle of horrors or Two and a Half Men reruns. I knew he loathed the program as much as I did, but it filled the void, the quietude between us. It was either that or alcohol, which eventually we had to clear the house of after I had last control of the car one night while I was out by myself looking for Denver. So now the TV blasted, and I hadn’t had a drop of whiskey in four years.
“It’s on again,” Blaze says, clapping. The two of them have been slipping out of Denver’s room more frequently, but they still hide, and I let them. I always had to be patient with Denver. She was a sullen teenager, reserved and often caught locking the door to her room. Sometimes it felt like I had to shake an answer out of her.
“Flip it,” I tell Cliff as a video of a crashed car appears. He waves his hand at me and changes the channel to National Geographic. A bobcat makes its way through the snow, twitching its head as snowflakes land on its ears. Blaze nestles on the couch next to Cliff’s chair. Ever since Blaze met Cliff, he hasn’t shut up. He follows Cliff around the house, asking him endless questions about what he did while he was outside.
“Don’t know why he does that,” Cliff said one night in our room. “Trailing me like a puppy.”
“Maybe he’s lonesome,” I said. “Sage won’t let him go out alone.” I didn’t tell him about Blaze’s dream. He would laugh at me again for falling for the Hill Folk legends.
“I seen them before,” Blaze says, pointing at the bobcat.
“Yeah, I’ve been to T&D Cats of the World too,” Cliff replies.
“No, I seen them in woods while we were on a hunt.”
Cliff stares at him. “You can’t hunt.”
“I can track.” Blaze smiles. “I make good animal sounds too.” He squawks and Cliff chuckles, a sound that hits my ears as hard as pebbles spilling onto ice.
“Need help?” Sage asks me. She looks healthy, lighter than the past few days, a glimmer of radiance haloing her head. I glance down at my flour-covered hands lingering over the dough I’m kneading.
“Sure,” I say. She cleans her hands and rolls the dough against the kitchen counter, her whole body pitching forward with every pummel.
“I used to bake bread with my mama and grandma when my daddy and brothers would go into town to work,” she says. “We would pass around the loaf and bite right into it. Felt special, like we were sharing a secret.”
I’m taken aback by this information, so fresh and raw and truthful. I don’t know what to make of Sage: one moment she’s as clear and see-through as a lake and the next she closes off, reeling back into her shell. But I haven’t shared secrets with anyone in so long.
“Haven’t baked bread in ages,” I say. “When I was pregnant with my daughter, all I wanted to do was eat sourdough. I was living with my parents at the time, waiting for Cliff to build our house, and my mother was so pissed at me. Not for getting pregnant as a spring chicken, but for turning her kitchen into a bakery.” I grin, and Sage gives one back. Cliff chuckles again from the far side of the room, and we pound the dough, each impact more satisfying than the last.
I’m nervous to leave them at home while I’m at work. The first few days, I struggle not to check on them during lunch, expecting the house to be empty when I return. But they are always waiting for me, Blaze playing in the backyard and Sage reading in the living room.
I heard that the Hill Folk had their own education system, but I was surprised by her choices of Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard from Denver’s bookshelf. She smirked at me. “You think just because we don’t go to school with you all that we don’t got good taste?”
Cliff and Blaze rise early in the morning to clear more pathways of snow, collect animals from the traps, and stock up on wood. Cliff had been hesitant the first time Blaze went out with him, but he came home later that day, his cheeks cheery, raving about how Blaze tracked a fox by following footprints and scat.
“Holy hell, Auggie,” he cried. “He’s just a kid!”
Sage shows more energy as she regains her strength. She assists me in skinning rabbits and teaches me how to preserve herbs in winter by insulating them with straw. She smiles more.
When the snow begins to melt, Cliff tows the truck up to our garage and the two of us inspect it. A 1995 Toyota Tacoma. Scrapes riddle the side doors, and the tire rims look like they’ve taken a beating. The transmission is the culprit, though. Cliff gives out a low whistle when we open the hood.
“How do you know how to fix cars?” Sage asks from the corner. Her obsession with the truck has grown since we retrieved it. “Didn’t think you knew mechanics.”
“And I was surprised you knew how to drive,” I say, not thinking. I’m bent over so I can’t see her face, and my lower back clinches.
Cliff chuckles. “She has fangs, Sage,” he says.
“She has more than that,” she responds. Her voice tilts, forcing it to be lighthearted. Cliff doesn’t take note.
“My father owned the only garage in town,” I say. “No choice.”
“Her dad hired me,” Cliff says. “That’s how we met.” From under the hood, I think I see his grin in the dark. I blink a few times to reassure myself I’m not dreaming.
We have dinner together every evening, Cliff cooking alongside me. I haven’t shared supper with him in years. He makes ham pot pie with all the fixings, chicken and waffles, and pork and sauerkraut. He asks me to taste everything, cupping my chin as he slides the spoon into my mouth. His touch sends trembles all throughout my insides.
Cliff and I recount stories to Sage and Blaze as our feet find each other, our knees bumping on purpose, like we are hungry teenagers. Cliff describes building the house all on his own, and I recount how I pushed my way through nursing school with a pocketful of money.
“You’re lucky you see the gentle side of her,” Cliff says. “She’s been known to be rough when resetting bones.” He rubs my ankle under the table.
Sage and Blaze never tell us anything about their past. I get close to learning two times. Once when Sage first reprimands Blaze in front of me. He was all antsy waiting for Cliff to get home from work. Sage had asked him to help her set the table, and he threw a fit, pounding his fists on the table. Sage knelt and held his hands.
“You’re not like him,” she said. “You’re a good boy.” The fight drained from him. He had never lashed out up until this point. Who is “him”? I wondered. But then Cliff appeared, and I never got to ask.
The next time is while we are baking muffins. I attempt to find out if someone, a family member, would be concerned for her and Blaze. She says there’s no one.
“But you mentioned your grandma and mama before,” I say.
“There’s no one,” she repeats. She sits in front of the oven, her eyes boring into it. “You of all people should know.” A shiver goes down my spine.
The other day Blaze had asked me where my daughter was, and Sage had intervened. “She’s away is all.” I excused myself, suddenly too afraid to ask how she could know.
I consult with Cliff about what to do a few days later while we are cleaning dishes, omitting Sage’s knowledge of Denver. I expect him to tell me to drop it, but he holds onto my hand as I give him a dish to dry.
“They’ll tell us when they’re ready.”
He pulls me by the waist and traces my collarbone, a motion that stuns me so much I gasp. He kisses me, slow and thoughtful, his way of telling me, I’m still here. Later in bed, I burst out laughing against his naked body. He leans away from me.
“How did this happen?” I don’t know what I mean by this question, whether it is the sex that we have not had in months or becoming hosts to two Hill Folk. I stop giggling because it sizzles against my teeth, feeling foreign. But Cliff starts chuckling as well, the sheets shuttering around us. I run my fingers along his shoulder blades, becoming familiar with them again.
Two weeks after mother and son stumble into our lives, the truck is fixed. I dawdle putting on the finishing touches, checking the clutch and pressure plate, though we replaced them with new ones. Sage’s stitches have begun to dissolve, and the snow turns to slush.
Some days, I wonder why they haven’t left, just ran on foot. It would be easy for them. But I can only wade into that territory for so long. Instead, I give myself to the small moments, like coming home after working a long shift, my feet sore and my head pounding, and I see Blaze, Sage, and Cliff from the living room window. Blaze jumps up and down and waves his hands while Cliff and Sage beam at him. It is almost dusk, and the chimney is puffing against the foamy pink sky. Sage is laughing, and a burning feeling rises up inside me, like the day she touched me. She turns her head to the window and her mossy green eyes find mine. A shadow passes over her face, and she gives me the same knowing look that the wandering Hill Folk woman gave me in church.
“You couldn’t let it go.”
Sage moves her gaze back to her son. I wait outside until the sun almost disappears just to look at them, to pretend the scene was cut from my own story I lost long ago, whose pages I am beginning to read again.
“Do you want to collect mussels with me?” I ask Sage. It is a Saturday. I have off, Cliff picked up a shift, and Blaze is taking a nap. Sage is lying on the living room rug, nibbling on toast, and reading the newspaper.
“There’s a stream nearby?”
“Bit of a walk,” I say. I dig rubber gloves and a bucket out of the closet.
The weather is now pleasant enough to wear light jackets, and the cool air coaxes the needles of hair to jut out from my arms. The sky is a crisp, larkspur blue. We walk north, past the garage and the shed, to a sea of trees.
“It’s right up this trail,” I say. The sun speckles through budding maple leaves and it smells of fresh rain, a sign of spring to come. The trees thin out and a soft, bubbling melody transforms into a rushing hum, the stream coming into view.
“Been a while since I’ve had mussels,” Sage says. I drop the bucket between us and snap on my gloves. We kneel and plunge our hands into the icy water, poking around in the muck and dropping the suckers into the bucket with a loud ping!
“They’re chewy. Kind of gritty,” I say. “Cliff likes them, though.”
“I’m just glad it’s not cold no more,” Sage says. “I need the heat. Mama says that I’m fidgety during the winter because my body is hungry for warmth. She says it’s because I was born on a hot morning. I came out blistering my grandma’s hands.” A woodpecker chips away at a tree nearby. “Blaze is the same. That’s how he got his name.”
The night I gave birth to Denver, I had been in labor for twelve hours, the pain crushing my hips, Cliff gliding ice cubes over my forehead. Right when I pushed her out, Annie’s Song played on the radio, and I snagged the end of Cliff’s collar.
“That’s her name,” I said.
“Annie?” he asked.
“No, Denver.” Later, we looked up the name in a baby book and its meaning was “green valley.” I liked it. It felt open, welcoming. A place where life could be sustained.
“Were you close to your grandma?” I ask. It’s a hard question. She could get defensive like before.
A water bug skates past us. “Course,” she says. “She taught me everything. She and Mama raised me.”
“And your daddy?” I ask.
“It’s all,” Sage says, standing up and chucking her gloves to the ground, the snap of them making me wince. Was he the reason she ran? Why she was so desperate to have the truck fixed, so she could escape him?
My arms have the prickles, and I realize that I’ve been frozen, my chest almost submerged in the piercingly cold water. I stand up and grab the pail.
We don’t speak, the only sound between us coming from our boots squishing in the dewy grass.
“We should stop at one of the traps,” I say. Sage nods and we turn right, going farther away from home. A cardinal flies overhead.
“Cardinals come ‘round when you miss someone,” Sage says.
“My daughter liked going bird watching,” I say, and I almost stumble, unsure of where the words came from.
“You miss her,” she says.
I long for her. “She used to love the woods,” I say. “We would hike together, and she could name every plant. I could never pull her from the tree line.” A silence grows between us, and I slow my pace, concentrating on every step.
“The forest does that to people,” Sage chips in like a saw splitting ice. “Lures you in. Strangles you if you leave.”
I picture Denver entangled in vines.
“She’s missing, ain’t she?” Sage asks.
I can’t breathe. I finally manage, “How’d you know?”
Sage is quiet for a moment. Our feet snap against fallen twigs. “Her room’s all dusty. Looks like it hasn’t been slept in for years. Your face broke every time you mentioned her.”
We come upon a large oak tree with a spring attached to it. A small animal is stuck in the trap, though from here I can’t tell what it is.
“I just wanted her to be safe,” I say. “Look out for her. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
“There ain’t many choices in this life,” says Sage. “So sometimes we make the wrong ones with the handful we got.” She raises her chin to the sun and closes her eyes, like she’s repeated the phrase so much it’s a kind of comfort that settles her.
“You’re not like other Hill Folk,” I say.
“And you’re not like your kind either, Auggie,” she says opening her eyes. “People are drawn to you. You see things others don’t. Why is that?”
My parents had said I was too sensitive of a child. But my grandmother thought I carried something deeper within me. She was the only person I had told about the Hill Folk woman’s dream. “Hogwash,” she had said. “I should have never filled your brain with such ridiculous stories.” But her voice came out quivering, like I could hear the butterflies flapping in her stomach. We stopped going to church after that, and she never brought up a Hill Folk legend again.
Sage turns to me, and I wait for her to admit she knows about the dream, about my doomed fate predicted years ago.
“You went looking for her,” she says. The forest sounds fall into a faint hum. Even my heartbeat drops to a shudder. “You tried coming to our mountain, but you couldn’t do it.”
I sink to the grass. It was the Hill Folk woman I had seen at the bar the night I lost control of my car and spun into the ditch. Or I thought I had seen her. The memory is hazy. After my fourth whiskey, I spotted her in the crowd, a gray wisp of a woman. Then the next second, she was gulped whole by a mob of people.
“I thought someone could help me,” I say, the confession as painful as a rib pulled from my skin. I stumbled to my car and drove in the direction I heard the Hill Folk lived. If that woman had identified me in her dream, maybe others would know about Denver. “But I didn’t make it.” The car wouldn’t start, and it was too dark to walk on foot. I remained in the ditch until the sun pierced the morning fog. “I failed.”
A pink snake slithers across the grass, and I almost fall backwards, but it’s Sage’s hand, warm and soft, that curls around my fist. She’s crouching beside me, and her skin still burns against mine, but this time I recognize why it’s so familiar. This touch was what I had been thirsting for, been starved of. A mother again.
“Sometimes we blame ourselves when others are hurting,” she says. “She was hurting. And you did all that you could to make it better. You still do.”
The fire in me smolders a little. I clasp her wrist. “I want you and Blaze to stay here,” I say. “Cliff and me, we’ll take care of you.” The fresh gash on her leg appears in my mind. “We’ll protect you.”
Her lower lip ripples. “It’s not that simple,” she says. “You think I’m running from something terrible.” She enunciates each word like the pluck of a harp’s string. “You think I can be saved. What I’m doing is not permanent. They will catch me, and I will go home.”
We both go quiet. I notice the animal in the trap is a weasel. Its neck is twisted, and the whites of its eyes are locked onto something invisible in the clouds.
“So, our time is soon up,” I say. Sage’s face is blank as she stares at the creature. It is this moment when she suddenly appears to be the Hill Folk I know, removed and closed off, the bright sun highlighting her sharp nose and knobby chin. “What do we do?” I ask.
Sage keeps her gaze on the weasel. She rubs circles into the back of my hand, a message I wish she wouldn’t say aloud, a request she’ll ask of me that I will not be able to refuse.
The next morning, Cliff hands me a sledgehammer. I’ve never held one before, and my muscles scream when I lift it over my head to test it out. He stands at the edge of the garage, fixated on the forest, right at the path we had directed Sage and Blaze through last night. We told them to follow it for about a mile, and then go west until they hit the next town. Cliff slipped them his compass. I helped hoist the backpack of food and supplies on Sage’s shoulders, squeezing her arm for a second longer, etching her warmth into my memory. Then I knelt down and brushed the hair from Blaze’s forehead. Cliff stood off to the side, his hand covering his mouth.
I slam the sledgehammer against the truck’s hood light, the thwack stinging from my hands to my knees. In a few hours, we’ll take the remains of the Toyota to the dump. Then I’ll scrub the whole house, wiping away every fingerprint, every eyelash on a pillowcase, until no evidence can point to two Hill Folk living here.
Cliff joins me. He smashes a window, his face a red cherry ruptured against a tongue and his blue eyes flare like sun hitting the tip of a blade. Birds shoot overhead, screeching at the racket, but I cling to the strikes.
I batter the taillights, the side mirrors. And it’s when I pause for a break that Blaze’s dream of Cliff transforming into a giant tumbles into my mind. My husband, this destroyer, this silent, angry man who held me against him when the trees swallowed Sage and Blaze in the twilight, rubbed my head as I whispered into his chest, We let them go, we let them go. This stranger I’ve been living with waits for me now, ready to swing until there is nothing left to break, until the glass crumbles to a white powder, floating beyond the tips of birches into a vein of cloud.
I angle the hammer over my shoulder. The two of us begin again.
Casey Reiland’s flash fiction and poetry have previously appeared in the Headland Journal, The Puritan, and PULP Literature. She received a BA in English writing from the University of Pittsburgh, and she currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area. This is her first short story publication.
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