I’m crying. I know it even before she wipes my tears away. “Stacey is marrying my husband . . .”
“Shhh.” She kisses my forehead and whispers, “Wake up, Joy. It’s not your time.”
I don’t want to wake up. “No.”
“Wake up, Joy. Now.” It is her mother’s voice, the one I only heard when I was in trouble, and I’m helpless to ignore it, even though I know that when I open my eyes, she’ll be gone. She won’t be beside me, holding my hand and kissing me. The Suave shampoo and menthol cigarette scent of her will be gone again. “I miss you, Mom.”
With a gasp, I’m breathing again. The pain is back, sharp as a piece of glass, throbbing in my skull. The air around me is thick with smoke.
Slowly, I open my eyes. It’s hard to see anything, hard to focus in the falling rain. The sky is gunmetal gray, swollen with clouds and smoke. Raindrops clatter on the fuselage of the demolished plane. In the distance, I can hear sirens and motors and voices and footsteps, but it is all far, far away.
I am deep in the woods, hidden. Huge ferns grow all around me. My shoe is hanging from a branch over my head. It bobs in the breeze.
It is amazing I didn’t hit a tree.
I crawl to my knees, grabbing a nearby nurse log for support. When I finally stand, I am struck by a wave of nausea. The world careens sickenly, then rights itself. I focus on getting my shoe, putting it on, as if I can’t be saved in bare feet.
When I finish, I look up. Across the smoky, debris- and plane-cluttered clearing, I can see the outline of emergency vehicles. A string of people is moving through another part of the dark forest. Their flashlight beams fan out like some giant, glowing cowcatcher in the smoke.
I can get there.
I take one painful, wobbling step, and then another and another. As I approach the edge of the clearing, I wait for them to see me. Any minute they’ll rush to my aid and take me back to my real life.
To the empty house on Madrona Lane where I’ll spend the holidays alone, to the Volvo with the tree strapped on top. To the calendar that will tick off days to my sister’s wedding and the birth of her child.
Don’t go back.
Is that my mother’s voice or the wind?
“No one knows I was on the plane.” I say the words out loud for the first time, and at that, the voicing of it, I glimpse an opportunity.
No one will notice my absence until school starts.
I glance around the forest.
Behind me, the trees are thicker, closer together, but moonlight shows me a path between them. It is almost like a sign, that beam of light. Although I feel shaky, and more than a little light headed, I begin walking away from the crash site.
It isn’t long before I see a break in the trees, and hear the distant roar of cars.
Somewhere up ahead is a road.
I walk slowly through this dark and ancient forest. My head still hurts, my vision is blurring, and this place is like nowhere I’ve ever seen. It is as if I’m journeying in another dimension. Before me, everything is a labyrinth of shadow and moonlit smoke. Spiderwebs connect it all together; in the uncertain light, the strands seem to be made of colored glass. Mist coats the ground, swallows my feet and the spongy earth.
At last, I come to the end of the woods and the start of civilization. It is a road, old and untended, and I turn to follow it. The dotted yellow line painted down its center is inconsistent, an afterthought, apparently, a suggestion rather than a law. Every few feet a yellow sign warns drivers to watch out for elk.
Every time I hear an approaching engine, I hide in the trees. I don’t want some Good Samaritan to “rescue” me. It’s mostly emergency vehicles, anyway, going too fast to see a lone woman who doesn’t want to be seen.
At last I come to the edge of a town. A brightly painted sign welcomes me to the heart of the rainforest. The sign is splattered with mud and half hidden by a gargantuan fern, so I can’t read the name of the town, but I see the word Washington.
I’m not in Canada.
“But I’m supposed to be in Hope,” I say to the emptiness around me. Trees commiserate, whisper in understanding. They know how it feels to be uprooted, disappointed. It’s bad enough that my one spontaneous decision in life leads to a plane crash; I could at least crash near my destination.
Then again, what difference does it make where I am?
I step out from the veil of trees and follow the ribbon of asphalt into town, smoothing my hair as I go. I have no idea how long I’ve been walking; this place seems too unreal to be tethered by something as scientific as time.
I should be wondering where I’m going, but I don’t care. My mind is floating.
The town that isn’t Hope looks like a movie set. Night tucks in around it; what’s left glows in the light of streetlamps and holiday lighting. Santas and snowmen hang from lampposts; strands of white lights frame the windows.
The stores are closed for the day, and I’m glad. I don’t want to see anyone yet.
What I want is a bed. My head is hurting again and I’m beginning to feel the cold. In a small, warm diner I find a wall of pamphlets and one old man drinking coffee at a bar. I see an advertisement for the Comfort Fishing Lodge, and a feeling of destiny settles around me, makes me shiver. It is the pretty little place I read about in Hunting and Fishing News. The place that welcomed me to come and stay awhile.
I could use some comfort. And I certainly need a place to stay.
I leave the light and heat of the restaurant and try to follow the map on the brochure.
I am alone again, and cold, and my head is really starting to hurt, but at least I have a destination.
I find Lakeshore Drive and follow it, walking along its crumbling edge, stepping over tire-sized potholes, for so long my feet start to ache. It begins to really bug me that I’m missing a sock. It’s odd; my head hurts, my skin feels raw, my stomach is on fire where the seat belt bit me, I’ve walked away from an accident scene (that has to be illegal), and I’m worried about blisters on my feet.
It is quiet out here in a way I’ve never experienced; it’s not the city way of silence, when folks are asleep and their cars are parked. This is a preternatural kind of quiet, where birdsong can startle you with its volume and a squirrel can be heard scampering up a tree as you approach.
I’m enough of a city girl to wonder what I’m doing in this no-man’s-land.
I find myself glancing back down the road, toward town, wishing I could hear a car. I’m just about to head back, in fact, when I turn the last corner and find myself in a large clearing, with a still, flat lake on my left and the immense forest on my right. The road becomes a driveway, lined on either side by bare-limbed fruit trees. At its end is a rustic—no, run down—log building. The roof is a carpet of moss. The wraparound porch sags tiredly to one side. To the left of the front door is a large chainsaw carving of a trumpeter swan. Beneath it is a hand-painted sign welcoming me to the Comfort Fishing Lodge. Beside this sign is another—one that reminds me of my own life.
Great. What do I do now?
I’m too tired to walk back to town. Some guy is playing drums in my head.
I will throw myself on the owner’s mercy. Surely he’ll have one room to rent. What choice do I have?
“No wonder I only dreamed about adventures,” I mutter, following an untended stone path from the parking area to the lodge, where I find the front door ajar.
“Hello?” I call out, stepping inside. My greeting fades into the quiet, unanswered.
The lobby is a big room with a huge stone and timber fireplace and twin floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the lake. Shadows cling to every surface, but in the moonlight I can make out a green-and-red plaid sofa that faces the fireplace, two worn red leather chairs, and an antique trunk serving as a coffee table. Black-and-white photographs, matted in white and framed in dark wood line the walls. Even from a distance, I can tell that the prints are antique.
To my right is a brass and wood registration desk, complete with an antique cash register. A display case in front of it is filled with brochures and flyers.
I stand there in the shadows, trying to figure out what to do, but it’s difficult to think. My head hurts.
Maybe I should just lie down on the sofa and go to sleep.
But I’m desperate for a bath.
I’ve already committed a crime—breaking and entering—so I may as well find a bathroom and a bed.
I move forward cautiously.
One by one, I try to open the doors. None of the knobs turn for me, so I go upstairs. A single door is open to my left. I creep cautiously forward, and step into the room. Everything is in shadows; it takes me a minute to focus.
When I do, I see a boy, sitting up in bed, rubbing his eyes and blinking at me. “Mommy?”
“No. I’m Joy. I’m sorry to just walk in on . . .”
“Are you real?”
I smile at that. “Yes. I’m trying to check in to the lodge, but there’s no one at the desk.”
“Oh. Is there another motel nearby?”
Now my head is pounding
This has certainly been my day. “Great.” This half-baked adventure of mine is going from bad to worse.
“We got rooms, though,” he says tiredly. “And I know how to check guests in.”
“Really? I need . . .” my voice cracks on that. There are too many things I need. It’s best to focus on just the one. “A room for the night would be great.”
“My dad won’t like it, but this is my house, too.” He throws back the covers and gets out of bed. Walking past me, he heads out into the hallway, and then looks back at me. “You coming?”
He leads me downstairs and shows me to the last door on the left side of the hallway. “Here.” He twists the knob and opens the door.
Inside the room, I find a narrow dresser, a queen-sized bed, and a desk in the corner. In the shadowy darkness, everything looks shabby but clean. “Thank you,” I say. “About paying . . .”
“People pay when they leave.”
That’s a relief. I can get my bank to wire funds at the end of my stay if I don’t have enough cash.
“Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says, and then he’s off, running for the stairs.
I close the door behind me, and there I am, caught by moonlight in the rectangular mirror above the dresser.
I look like hell. Leaves and twigs inhabit my red hair, which has somehow puffed up to three times its usual size. My blue eyes—usually my best feature—are bloodshot, and my pale, freckled skin is blotchy with dirt.
Where is it?
I see scratches and scrapes but no deep wounds.
It must have been rain I tasted as I lay there. Maybe I bit my tongue . . . or maybe that metallic taste was tears.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters are a bath and a bed. In that order. I open the small connecting door to my bathroom.
Shower. Not a bath. A shower. I’m disappointed but hardly surprised. This has not been a day when things went my way.