I’d never been one to wake up early, not once in my life, even as a child. But I woke up as the sun rose, the light dripping through the windows whose curtains I forgot to pull. I would say it was nice, being able to see the dew in the grass, the birds slowly waking, but it wasn’t. My eye hurt, the ancient, healed bruises aching now, too, but I’m sure it was all in my head.
It sounded like no one was home yet. Or awake yet. The house was still; not an old floorboard creaking, or a door squeaking. I crawled out of bed and made my way to the back porch. I was itching for a smoke, but I’d have to go downtown to get a pack, and I wasn’t ready for that mile walk yet.
Three cushionless wicker chairs crowded the porch—the furthest one sat over the loose floorboard where I kept the spare house key I had copied, for when I inevitably locked myself out. Everyone always forgot it existed. Or maybe they never knew. Sometimes I stashed things I never wanted them to find. It was in a small metal music box, but the music part broke long ago when I tore it out.
I shuffled the chair aside and snuck my fingers under the board, tugging it from its place. There the box sat, rusting away, but still in one piece. I shook it once, listening to the faint jingle of metal, almost like the music had returned.
Car tires crunched across the driveway. A door opened, shut. Then the next. I dropped the box back where it was and slammed the board down. I guess it didn’t matter if anyone caught me. I was family, somehow. I adjusted the chair back where it was anyway.
Footsteps pounded through the house, then the back door swung open, slamming into the chipping paint. My niece stared at me with wide eyes, mouth unhinged. Almost like I’d disappear at any moment, fading into the morning fog like an apparition.
She flung herself at me. She hit me and wrapped her arms around me, clinging to my shirt. “FAUST!” she exclaimed into my chest.
“Uh, hi,” I said, patting her head.
“You look like shit.”
She detached herself from around my waist and flopped into one of the chairs. “God, I’m glad you’re here. Maybe you can talk some sense into mom.”
“About… what, exactly?”
“She says I can’t sleep at my friend’s place tonight. But I already did all my homework ‘n stuff.”
“I just got here and you’re already badgering me to fight your battles for you.”
“Of course!” she rolled her eyes, tilting back in the chair. “Won’t you help your favorite niece out, huh?”
“You’re my only niece. And therefore also my least favorite,” I took a seat across from her.
Harper’d changed a lot since I last saw her, but I guess there was a big difference between 10 and 13. She was almost as tall as me, which didn’t put her very tall. She’d cut her hair off, sporting a crew cut that made me wonder how long it took to convince my sister. It looked like a style she wished I’d got. But she still had a friendly, chatty attitude, that laid back nature she picked up from spending hours tagging along with me. But I’d dropped that act while I was away.
“Whatever, just talk to her? Pleeeease,” she tried to bat her lashes at me.
I crossed my arms and raised my brows in a way I thought my sister might. “You need to spend some time with the family, Harper Allan,” I imitated.
Harper groaned, then squinted as if she was thinking of a witty reply. Before she could muster up any words, her father poked his head out onto the porch.
“Nice to see you two still get along. Are you going to be here for lunch, Faust?”
“Why don’t we spend some time together?” I asked her. “We’re family after all.” I figured I would lie and just drop her off at her friend’s anyway, but before I could hint at it, her eyes lit up and she nodded with enough enthusiasm to tear her head off.
Her father didn’t look displeased. Just a slight smile. Maybe he thought extended family bonding would be good for her. For me. Did I really look so miserable? Regardless, I could already feel a lecture from my sister bubbling up, but she wasn’t here, so I didn’t have to listen to her nagging. Garrett gave Harp a gentle pat on the head, ruffling what little hair remained ever so slightly out of place. She squealed and swatted at him, then turned her attention back to me. I saw expectation in her gaze and my heart sank.
I wondered if she thought I’d changed, or if I was the same old Faust, who’d get her into trouble, and then weasel our way out. If she thought I was just as empty-headed as I used to be, without a care in the world. Probably. And she expected me to bring her the same sort of experiences I used to.
I considered my options. With the lack of a car, we could walk into town and drink or smoke—if she was older. Or we could commit grand theft auto and head to the hills.
As if reading my miserable thoughts, Garrett spoke up again. “You can borrow the car if you want. I have an extra set of keys.” He proceeded to produce said keys from his pants pocket, dangling them in front of me.
Before I could react, Harp snatched them with a grin. “Yay! Thanks Dad!” She threw her arms around him, all previous dregs of anger dissipated.
I never hated living in a small town. I never needed a car, unless I was going out somewhere else. But I learned to drive anyway, since we all needed to know how, just in case. I walked everywhere, still did, so it was rare for me to borrow the car. See, the walk from the house to school was never bad, except in the winter, and even then, it wasn’t far. And downtown wasn’t far either. I liked knowing everyone, even if they hated me. There were downsides, I guess, but I didn’t really mind people up in my business. The gossip wasn’t nice, but the people were nice to my face. So I survived.
And the city is a scary place, full of strangers I’d never meet.
The best part of nowhere was the mountains. I could drive around the winding slopes, let myself daydream, not another soul around. At the peak I could lay on the grass and gaze into the stars. After dinner I told Harp about how Mark used to pack us in the bed of his truck and drag us all up to get smashed, the constellations watching over us. We’d scream, and cry, and laugh. She insisted we go tonight. Of course, she clarified not to bring any booze. I wished I wasn’t driving.
I still remembered the way up to our spot. Even after all these years the path was burned behind my eyelids, and if I shut my eyes just a bit I could see which twist and turn I was supposed to take.
It was clear tonight, so I could see the stars through the trees. But there was no moon, so everything else was cast in darkness—if it wasn’t illuminated by aggressive headlights. And most wasn’t, because we were alone on our way through the churning hills.
Harp was staring out the window, pointing out any animals as we passed. Deer! Another deer. And another. Is that a skunk? Another deer. Bountiful deer.
Garrett and Beck were excited for our adventure, for some reason. They wouldn’t let on why, but it did seem like they just wanted Harp to spend time with family, and I was as close as that was gonna get. So they settled for me. Always settled for me.
The final fork in the road led us into a clearing at the top of the rounded mountain. When we entered, the headlights lit up metal—a pickup parked in the deadened grass patch, tires resting in years worth of grooves. It was green, though the edges were tinged in red, paint flaking away into rust. The license plate read “GO FISH” and the back bumper hung down, bent where it had detached. There was a worn sticker that said “I’d rather be fishing” just above.
I recognized the truck.
It hadn’t changed in the six years since it drove me out of this podunk hole.