Laura’s mother always told her not to walk in the woods alone at night. But it’s 11:03 on New Year’s Eve, and she plunges into the mass of trees, armed with only a bottle of champagne whose gold foil rubs against her sweaty palm and a phone announcing unhelpful directions to her destination.
“In 500 feet, take a slight right,” the robotic voice says. The screen displays three different paths ahead, all of which veer right.
Laura has walked this path every New Year’s Eve for the past seven years; she should know, by now, which path leads to the gravel beach, which one ends in jagged cliffs, and which leads to the little cabin in the clearing. But the walkways look alike. They twist and turn and comingle in her mind like vines creeping up the side of an old house, so fused they no longer have an origin or an ending.
She proceeds down what she hopes is the correct path. The trees surround her, slightly bend over her like she is the elusive prisoner their army has just captured. Moonlight streaks through their leafy heads and casts dusty jade shadows across the pine needles. Early fireworks pop in the distance, an owl hoots, leaves bristle and stiffen. The phone honks, “Continue for a half-mile.”
Laura thinks about her friends’ reactions when she told them about her plans tonight.
“Again?” Jill said, lowering her wine glass. “We never get to spend New Year’s together.”
“Are you sure you still...need to do this?” Sarah asked gently.
Bella put her hand on Laura’s arm. “This is Laura’s tradition. Let her be.”
“There’s 364 other days of the year to do it,” Jill mumbled.
It's true, but something about doing this on another day feels wrong to Laura, somehow. A new year was just the end of a countdown to a beginning, but it was also a reminder that it was time to put away — or maybe just put aside — something old, something from a past life.
Ten minutes later, she reaches the familiar rock, the edges and curves of which resemble a smiling face, and she breathes a sigh of relief. She has taken the right path after all. That rock always feels like a reassuring presence, a small reminder that despite the isolation of this location, of this night, she isn’t alone. She continues down the path to the ramshackle cabin beyond.
She knocks on the peeling blue paint of the door three times before easing it open and walking inside.
“Betsy?” she calls. “It’s me.”
It is strange how a year goes by in between each of these visits, yet the cabin always looks the same. The windows, as streaked with dust and dirt as they are, are always the only channel for light to filter through, whether it’s sunlight in its fitful bursts or the pallid pulse of the moon. The various old side tables line the hallways like broken toy soldiers. The floor creaks under Laura’s tiptoes. She doesn’t know why, but tiptoeing feels right here, though there is nothing but peace to disturb. Or no peace to disturb at all.
Laura turns the corner and finds Betsy on the couch, wrapped in a blanket.
“Ah,” Betsy says, turning her head and smiling, although her eyes seem to look through Laura. “Hello.”
“I brought your favorite,” Laura says.
She uncorks the champagne bottle and takes a swig directly its mouth. They don’t do glasses here. She hands the bottle to Betsy, who does the same.
“How has everything been?” Laura asks gently.
Betsy shudders and shuts her eyes, but when she speaks, it’s in a pleasant tone of voice. “Not so bad. I get some visitors. Mostly of the four-legged or furry variety,” she laughs, “but visitors all the same. It’s a lovely little life out here.”
Laura’s eyes flick to the threadbare rug, so devoid of life all its color has been stripped, and the ripped cushion of the chair she sits on, and the crooked photos of generic foliage on the walls. Nothing about this life says “lovely” to her, but it’s the life that Betsy, what’s left of her, had chosen long ago.
“I do think of Redsy often, though,” Betsy sighs. “Have you heard from her?”
“No,” Laura mumbles, taking another swig from the bottle.
Betsy shakes her head. “I don’t understand how someone can just...not talk to her sister. There’s some bonds you can’t break.”
“You don’t have any sisters,” Laura points out. Neither do I.
“All those memories,” Betsy says. “All those years being friends, being Reds and Bets, and I don’t even know where she is now. I always think about that New Year’s, 2012, when we snuck into the Yacht Club in Everwood, our hair tucked in ball caps and mustaches stuck to our faces with fake eyelash glue. By midnight, those things were half-hanging off our faces, but no one noticed a thing. The theme was ‘End of the World,’ so Redsy told one guy who she really was, and he reported her to the club president and got us kicked out! But then he proceeded to call her for two months afterward. ‘I want nothing to do with Narcy Boy,’ she told me. She was always the wild one of us two.”
“She certainly was.”
“I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised I haven’t heard from her, though. Not after the year that followed.”
“You don’t need to relive it,” Laura pleads.
Betsy’s eyes narrow. “I always think about it. About her. It’s like if I think about it enough, I’ll be able to put it all together. I know she had had too much to drink that night — I was always the lightweight, but Redsy did like her wine. She had driven us to the party, and Narcy Boy was there, had whispered in her ear all night and rubbed her arm and told her she’d be his midnight kiss. Then his girlfriend showed up and suddenly he didn’t know who Redsy was. And Redsy was so upset...I told her we should wait a while, or take a cab, or I could drive, I wish I had —”
“You don’t have a license.”
Betsy looks down at the champagne bottle. “Still. I knew the basics, I could have done it if I needed to. But Redsy insisted. I shouldn’t have gone along with it, but she was so upset — I just thought...the house was only five minutes away, nothing too bad could happen in those few blocks…”
Laura rubs her eyes and sits back.
“But that’s where it all ends. Every time I think about it, the story always ends with me here, Redsy somewhere far away, never to be heard from again.”
“Maybe she’s ashamed. Maybe she thinks you’ll — we’ll — never want to see her again.”
“Would that be so much different than leaving me in the dark?” Betsy whispers. The moonlight shrinks into the sky and Laura joylessly wants to laugh.
They sit in the cold cabin, the only sound the hiss and gulp of the champagne flowing down their throats. Laura has a year’s worth of conversation filed away, ready to be pulled out if invited, but Betsy has never had much to say to Laura. Redsy is the only thing they have in common.
The champagne is warm. Laura holds the bottle out to Betsy, but finds air instead of a hand. She checks her phone. 12:47. “Happy New Year, Betsy,” she whispers, kissing the woman’s forehead and pulling the blanket up to her chin. She stands, stretches, and smooths down her own hair, gazes at the black strip between her fingers and remembers the fiery red it was, long ago. Seven years ago.
“What do you mean, there’s 364 other days?” Laura asked Jill.
“Well,” Jill said, clutching her wine glass with both hands, “doesn’t your aunt’s friend...doesn’t she have Alzheimer’s or something?”
“It’s just some memory loss.”
Jill sighed. “If you go on, like, January 3rd or something, she’s not going to know it’s not New Year’s, right?”
“Yeah, but I’ll know.”
“Doesn’t she have anyone else who can go?”
Betsy’s family and other college friends do check in on her, take turns staying with her and pleading with her to rejoin the world beyond the woods. But Laura knows Betsy is afraid of what else can happen, who else can persuade her into a place where she’s not comfortable before abandoning her to find her own way out.
Laura always tells herself this will be the visit. This time, she’ll tell Betsy that her best friend didn’t go into hiding, vanishing without a trace. That Redsy is the coward sitting in her living room. That Redsy is not the person she remembers, is not a good person, is someone she should hide and lock away in her withering mind like all the sins and mistakes of the past year. This time, she’ll do that, leave the future of these visits in Betsy’s hands.
There’s always next year.