Frank couldn't remember the last time he ran so fast. Thick brush grabbed at his ankles as he raced toward what he believed to be the edge of the forest, back to the gravel parking lot below the buzzing neon sign outside Lillies Diner.
"I have to get to Caroline," He pleads out loud as if someone will hear him through the dense trees.
He whimpers as he trips over a gnarled root and staggers along. His shoes are now heavy with caked mud. He braces his hands on his thighs. He pants big breaths of damp air as beads of sweat trickle down his forehead. There's a metallic taste at the back of his throat as he continues to suck the midnight air through his nostrils.
"Susan was right. It has all caught up to me," he thinks as he looks down at the last flicker of light from his cell phone.
Still no service.
24 Hours Earlier
Frank's phone lights up as it pings with a text from Caroline.
"Head out of town with me this weekend?" She asks.
The phone buzzes with a faint drone, vibrating his hand with an incoming call.
Frank rolls his eyes, briefcase in one hand, his jacket slung over his shoulder as he struts down the sidewalk toward his apartment. The city summer leaves sticky trickles of sweat down his back.
He swipes to answer the call, "Yeah, so, I'm not going to make it to the family reunion this weekend, Mom."
"I know, I know, but I have to go to that work event to help the less fortunate and it's crucial that I show the firm my support," He reasons with her and makes his way through the last stretch of crowded city sidewalk dodging the homeless people with their cardboard signs and wining dogs.
"Yes, yes, I haven't seen Uncle Larry in ages. Please send my hellos," He rummages through his bag for his keys, his cell phone pressed from his shoulder to his ear.
"Okay, okay. I love you. I have to go," He rushes his mom off the phone as he retrieves his keys and makes his way into the vestibule.
He swipes open his text messages and, with a smirk, replies to Caroline, "I'm down."
Frank has always had a knack for getting out of unwanted plans. He's narrowly escaped boring cousin's choir performances and high school graduation ceremonies of family friends. Frank obeys the rules of good clean lying. No one dies, and no one that he lies about is real. Frank's had thousands of pieces of homework eaten by a dog his family never even owned, and although it's a bit stereotypical, the lie worked every time. The little fib about charity work doesn't hurt his mom's feelings, and he'd rather spend a weekend with Caroline than with dog-faced Uncle Larry and his two unbearable sons.
Caroline insisted they meet in a small town a few hours outside of the city. Frank has always been weirded out by small towns. The ear-numbing drone of cicadas and the slow roll of a solitary vehicle down a gravel road made him long for the incessant car horns of the crowded city. Ironically, the silence disquieted him.
"You're going to love Verdad," Caroline gushes over the phone. "It was such a wonderful place to grow up! It will be a great break for us. You know, some time to get to know each other outside of the pressure of the city."
"Yeah, well, I'm glad I can meet you there," He says, forcing a smile even though she can't see him. He wants to sound genuine.
"Meet me at the diner on the corner of route forty-five and main," She says.
"I'll see you there," Frank replies, and Caroline ends the call.
"How I ever ended up dating a townie is beyond me," he thinks as he drives with his windows down, the thick summer air batting his eardrums. He knows that Caroline grew up in a small town, but he thought she was over that, ready to succumb to the city and forget dense forests and nowhere roads. The trees seem to close in on Frank as he gets closer to Verdad.
Up ahead on the roadside, Frank sees an old man, muddy and disgruntled, with a long slimy beard and a small dirty dog. His truck is a mess of rust and red, suspended on its tire jack with a freely rotating flat.
His hair is matted, and he's crouched over a rusty tire iron, leaning in to loosen the lug nuts. He stands up with a grunt as the tire iron hits the asphalt with a clank and hobbles past his open driver's door giving his dog a scratch behind the ear.
Frank catches eyes with the man as he rolls past. The old man stares through Frank's windshield with narrowed eyes as his muddy dog lets out a retching cough.
"Glad that's not me," Frank thinks with a shudder. He can't imagine being stranded in a remote area with nothing but a dirty coughing dog for company and the musty smell of caked mud.
Frank rolls up to a stop sign at a deserted intersection at the edge of town. He waits as a little old lady steps off the curb to cross the street. His turn signal clicks and casts a yellow shadow across her ankles. She looks haggard with silver hair that stands straight up from her scalp. The soles of her shoes are worn through, and she staggers across the street. Her outfit is made up of threadbare muslin, and it hangs from her bony frame.
Once she is safely on the other side, Frank lets off the brake, and the woman scurries back into the intersection, crossing the same way she came. Frank stops suddenly, his headlights jutting past the faint white line. As she passes the center of the intersection, she pauses. The woman slowly raises a bony finger in the direction of his headlights. He avoids staring into her cloudy eyes before she lowers her hand and continues.
Frank is white knuckle gripping the steering wheel, ready to pull through the intersection as soon as she's fully passed. The only sound is the faint click of his blinker and the small short shuffles of her feet as she completes her journey back to the curb.
"She must be absolutely mad?" he thinks as he peels away. He can see her continue her repetitive journey through his rearview mirror, swathed in gray fabric like a ghost doomed to haunt the intersection for all of eternity.
Frank pulls into the parking lot of the diner, gravel crunches softly under the tires as he rolls to a stop at the edge of the treeline and kills the engine.
A giant neon sign buzzes on top of the red shanty. It's blindingly bright against the cool dusk breaking across the sky. The smell of fried oil and dank coffee grounds hangs in a haze around the edges of the sign. Frank shields his eyes and hears the faint tinkling of bells as he walks through the diner door.
With no sign of Caroline, Frank finds a spot at the bar and perches himself upon a red vinyl seat. The countertop is cool against his forearms, and the vinyl creaks uncomfortably, making little whining squeaks in the empty diner. There's a slight clanking of ceramic coffee cups as a blonde waitress slowly rounds the corner from behind the bar.
"I'll be right with you," She groans with her head down as she limps over.
She arrives at the other end of the bar out of breath and stands across from Frank. She puts both hands down on the countertop, bracing to lift the weight off her ankle, and blows sand-colored curls out of her face with her musty coffee breath. Her eyes spark as she meets Frank's gaze.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't my old friend Frank," She says, crossing her arms and wincing.
"Do I know you?" He asks and glances at her name tag.
"You most certainly should," She chimes.
He looks perplexed.
"You don't remember, do you?" She's aghast.
He shakes his head. He doesn't.
"You don't recall, in college, when you wanted to get out of your cousin's wedding, you told everyone your girlfriend broke her ankle in a snowboarding accident, and you had to take care of her," She grimaces. "Well, I've been hobbling along on this ankle for six years now, never heals."
Frank's eyebrows furrow.
"I never dated anyone named Susan in college," He persists.
"Just like you never helped Old Miss Mazy cross the street when you were making excuses as to why you were late to your first period gym class. She's been out crossing that street at the edge of town for two decades. Unfortunately, she never seems to make it to where she's going."
Frank remembers the old woman in the intersection with her cloudy eyes and well-worn shoes.
"And I bet you never thought about Red out there. Stranded! On the side of the road for five years with a flat tire you never helped fix when you said you were sorry you missed your brother-in-law's birthday party," She scoffs.
Frank thinks back to the old man with his slimy beard and flat tires.
"And don't even get me started on his poor dog, coughing up page after page of mediocre book reports that you never turned in," She sighs.
Frank remembers the musty dog in the front seat of Red's truck, retching and coughing to no end.
Frank stares at her in disbelief. Sure, he's certainly told a fib here and a tale there to get out things he didn't want to do, but he played by the rules. No lies about anyone dying, and none of the people were real. At least, he didn't think they were real.
"Surely, this is one elaborate joke planned by Caroline," He stares up at Susan.
Caroline's always trying to outsmart the most brilliant lawyer in the firm, and she might have gotten him this time. "Taken by a townie," he laughs to himself.
"Look, can I just get a cup of coffee?" He asks, waving off her rantings.
"I'll get you a cup of coffee, but all those little lies are gonna catch up with you one day," She mutters and hobbles away on her defective ankle. "I oughta tell Caroline what a liar you are," she mumbles as she stands in front of the coffee machine.
Frank's phone buzzes, and he gets up from his seat at the bar. "Aw, Caroline," He thinks with a small sigh of relief and pulls the phone from his pocket.
"Hi, Mom," he mumbles and wanders out of the empty diner out of earshot from Susan's deranged waitressing techniques.
"Yeah, yeah," He mumbles as he walks away from the diner. He looks down at his phone.
"Yeah, listen. I don't have great service here. I might lose you." He's pacing along, kicking rocks in the parking lot as he makes his way toward the back of the diner.
"No, I don't want to talk to Uncle Larry and Brett and Jake," He grumbles and absentmindedly wanders past his car and into the thick trees as she hands her phone to her brother.
"Hi Uncle Larry, I'm in the middle of the woods… don't know. You're breaking…up." He says and looks down at his phone as he presses the end call button.
A sigh of relief leaves his body as he leans against a fallen tree. No more annoying calls from mom this weekend. Now, he's ready to wait for Caroline back at the diner and tell her how funny and clever she is for pulling off this elaborate prank with Susan.
His eyes climb up from the mangled roots of a towering tree toward the darkening sky above. He turns around in a rush and sees nothing but tree canopies and blinking fireflies on all sides. The bright neon sign of Lillies Diner is nowhere in sight.
He couldn't have wandered that far away from the diner. Surely, he can see it on a map.
Frank taps the screen of his cell phone to open his GPS, and it fails to load.
His heart races as the cicadas' ear-numbing drone fills his head. He's lost in the middle of a towering forest and doomed to never find his way out. All he can think to do is futilely run back in the direction he came.