Sunlight edges the top of the fluttering treeline, shafts of light punching through sporadically and highlighting the scene before her. The long dirt behind her was threatened on both sides by unruly brambles and too tall grass. The daisies and dandelions pushed through belligerently, unable to stand idly by as the world grew around them. Anita glanced down at her combat boots, the peeling patches just above the edge of her soles and at the tip of her toes, nearly hidden by the thick layer of dust creeping up the laces. With a sigh she settles her weight along the hood of the beat up truck she had earnestly kept from its well-deserved final rest in a junkyard.
The haunting structure before her jutted up from the ground as if it had grown from the mantle itself. Breaking up the peaceful waves of mandarin and cornflower that mixed in the sky, the old barn was a sore sight. The memory of its cardinal red paint and neatly lined bales of hay at its right door juxtaposed the reality of its bare, half rotten planks and weeds pushing through the cracks on the floor. From the opened doors she could see the tattered ends of a length of rope that was still tied to a tall rafter, and a half rotted carcass of a cornhole game. There were many mysteries about this place she once knew better than her own childhood home, that would haunt her for a while to come.
She wondered where the paint, the hay, and the barn cat Sicily went. Where did the three dairy cows go, whose eyelids had drooped so blissfully when their ears were rubbed or their noses kissed?
When did the exuberance fade from the air of this little farm? When the matriarch got sick? When the patriarch followed suit only a couple of years later? Was it much earlier, when she tore apart the greatest friendship she’d ever known?
The only answers to her silent questions were the groans of the barn doors when the wind moved just fast enough. Like feeble pincers reaching for easy prey.
“Oughta torch this place.” Anita muttered darkly, squinting at the shadows flitting across the barn floors and the only wall she could see. So entranced was she by her imagining the doors being a hellmouth, she squeaked and jumped when another voice responded to her short threat.
“I shouldn’t be surprised that the first words I hear from your mouth regard a crime, and yet I had hoped you would be blessed with the gift of maturity.”
Anita heard footsteps coming closer to her, before a visage both familiar and alien appeared before her. Alyssa Summers had delicate lines around her mouth, despite only being five months older than her, and a hard set to her shoulders. The funeral had been nearly five hours ago but there had still been crowds gathered for the wake, so Alyssa was still draped in a slightly too large black suit, her mother’s favored blue lace ribbon untied around the collar.
Anita sent the woman a small smile. “Sorry you wasted your time, then.”
The smile was not returned. “Yeah, me too.” Anita said nothing further as Alyssa moved forward, coming to a stop by the front of her truck. They both looked at the rickety barn, listening to the crickets come alive as the light turned mauve.
“You chose a hell of a day to come back Anita,” the bitter tone that broke the short silence, sent a chill down Anita’s spine. “Did you feel guilty for never visiting?”
“You know I had to get out of this town, or it would have killed me like my mother.” Anita countered quietly.
Alyssa couldn’t help but let out a snort. “Like it would have killed you to call? Send a letter? A fucking postcard?”
“No, you’re not sorry, but you sure as hell are pathetic.” The harsh words pushed Anita to whip around and face Alyssa with a glare.
“How dare you?” Anita spluttered, at a loss for words for all of five seconds before unleashing the torrent. “I came here to make sure you were okay!”
“Yes you did a fantastic job of that from ten feet away from the funeral didn’t you?” The question sounded weary, and more rhetorical than anything but Anita persisted.
“I know I left, and I know I should have visited or called when your parents started getting sick but I just . . . I just got nervous, because it had already been two years since I’d left and I was sure you were angry at me already- I just wasn’t sure hearing from me was what you wanted, especially considering how very much you were against me leaving in the first place-”
Alyssa let out a short yell and kicked at the dirt, a bony hand reaching up to grasp short brown strands. “You’re so full of shit Anita, you really are. You thought I wouldn’t want to hear from my best friend at a time when the only family I had left were sick? Don’t pin your fear of accountability on me, or I swear to God-” She stopped and sucked in a deep breath, bending at the waist to exhale forcefully.
“You know, Anita,” though her voice was shaky, when Alyssa’s head turned to look at Anita, her steely gaze pinned the grimacing woman to her spot. “You were always a wild card. Unpredictable, a little thoughtless, and plenty reckless . . . but I never thought you could be so selfish. Not once in the nearly two decades of knowing you did I think you could pull this.”
“Funny.” Anita chuckled mirthlessly. “I never once thought you could be a coward, but imagine my surprise when I rolled up in our getaway van to start our lives away from this deadend watering hole, and you decided to pull back.”
Alyssa rose up to her full height, over a head taller than the other woman, but Anita’s wasp-like voice cut her off again. “We were supposed to have one last amazing summer vacation, before you left for University and I tried my hand at the city, but not only did you forget to tell me you declined your university acceptance, but you decided to stay here!”
“My parents needed the help! We can’t all run away from our responsibilities as easily as you!” Alyssa screamed, tears filling up her eyes.
“The only connection I had to this town was you!” Anita matched her decibel for decibel. “And you knew I wasn’t going to stay my entire life in this town!”
“I never expected you to, but I had at least expected that you would try to keep in contact with me! With the person who’s been with you through everything, and loved you through everything!” Alyssa paced back and forth in front of the truck, one hand shoved in her pocket and the other pulling the front of her shirt away from her.
The sound of a barn owl made them pause, taking in for the first time the way the light was dimming even as the sky burned in brilliant colors. They stood, Alyssa facing away from Anita, and let the breeze cool the sweat that had formed. Alyssa shook her hair out, opening her mouth to gulp down three deep breaths. Anita roller her neck and interlaced her fingers together to rest over her belly.
“You were so awful to me when I said I was going to go ahead.” Anita’s wounded tone stiffened Anita’s shoulders. The older woman looked over her shoulder at the steady gaze of her former best friend.
Slowly, Alyssa nodded. “I was. I’m sorry I wasn’t supportive like I should have been.”
Anita took a deep breath. “And I’m so sorry about your parents.”
That seemed to nearly break Alyssa, who staggered a step to the side before crossing her arms tight over her chest. A ragged inhale was the only sign of oncoming tears, but Alyssa’s shoulders remained tossed back and her head kept upright. “Thanks.” she whispered. A hand rose to swipe roughly at her face, slowly dragging it down before she turned to look at Anita again. The dark bags and the crinkle between her brows hurt Anita badly, even more than the vicious words that had just been spewed. She knew she deserved at least some of it, and the rest was from a woman who had been stretched far too thin for far too long. A woman she could have helped, had she not been irrationally fearful of coming back to this town and getting stuck again.
Anita cleared her throat and looked away towards the trees, shadows giving a sinister edge to a scene that had once been idyllic. “So what now, Alyssa?”
“I, uh, I don’t know what you mean.” Alyssa sighed, looking in the same direction as Anita.
“I mean . . . I . . . I came back here to make sure you were okay. I don’t know what you plan to do with the house, or what your goal is five years from now but- I’ve got a tank full of gas, and a lot to make up to you if you can stand my face for longer than five minutes.” The weak chuckle this pulled from both of them made the next couple more genuine.
Alyssa looked at Anita, dark brown eyes meeting a brighter pair, and the two were locked in to each other. Though it had been years since they last saw each other, it was like they could pick up the old cues and twitches that had made up a good chunk of their close dynamic. And they saw enough.
Alyssa looked away and gulped, while Anita’s eyes were glassy and her mouth curved into a smile.
“Looks like you found your place.” Anita murmured, hands dangling by her thighs, nails tapping lightly against the driver’s side door.
“And I hope you found yours.” Alyssa half queried, half assumed. She softened when Anita grinned at her, the first full smile she’d gotten from the woman since before she’d left.
The sun was all but gone, and the blue of the sky was deepening into a smoky purple. Anita popped open the door and leaned in to insert the keys into the ignition and start it. The bassy growl was almost rude in its intensity but Alyssa welcomed the new sound, and the almost bulbous headlights that shined clearly on the area.
“You want a ride back?” Anita looked at Alyssa as she lifted one foot into the truck. “How did you get here anyway?”
“Oh, yeah, I walked . . . so a ride would be great.” Alyssa smiled gratefully and walked over to the passenger side. She stepped into the truck and wrinkled her nose at the almost overpowering scent of rosewood and vanilla car freshener. The various strings of beads and charms that hung from the rearview mirror had her looking askance at Anita, who simply rolled her eyes back. Looking around at the inside of the cab as Anita pulled off a shaky three point turn, Alyssa spotted a dull blue duffle bag.
Anita, who had been glancing at her as she made the inspection, saw what caught her eye. With a short sigh, she offered, “Got another city to be in tomorrow.”
Alyssa nodded with a short huff of amusement. They looked forward at the road, encroached upon either side by thick brambles and trees, as they drove forward towards the road.