“You wanna do something fun?” she says and throws her hands up in a question. If absolutely anyone else was asking, I’d fire off an excuse to not have fun. Like, I need to study or I have to go home and organize my book shelves, or my hamster, Albert, is very lonely, he won’t know what to do if I’m not there. I start to offer one of the usual responses, the words pushing against my teeth, when she yanks me up by my wrists and starts dragging me toward her car, a beat-up old thing, faded yellow, cracking and in disrepair. Of course, she somehow makes driving it look cool.
She throws her head back and cackles, turning her face up toward the sun and drinking in its rays. She is an actual ray of sunshine, but she scares the shit out of me. Looks like I have no choice in the matter, but today, it seems like a small part of me wants to go, to be wherever she is. I don’t even know if she knows yet where she wants to be, but she wants me with her and I’m really bad at saying no.
As soon as I buckle my seatbelt, my hand goes straight to my mouth, front teeth chewing maniacally on the jagged cuticle of my thumb. She has already lit a cigarette, rolled down the window, cranked up the radio, and lurched out of the parking spot, not checking a single mirror in preparation for takeoff. I go straight for my inhaler and puff in until I can feel my lungs relax and my heartbeat taper off. I put it back into my battered old Jansport and try to act casual, if casual means gripping the bottom of my seat with one hand and pushing against the glovebox with the other.
The wind is blowing her hair all around, whipping it into her eyes and dangerously close to the cherry of her cigarette. The persistent worry about something catching on fire makes my stomach seize up, but there seems to be nothing of the sort from her perspective. She flicks the ash, uses the other hand to clumsily shift gears, then uses that same hand to point at me and back at the road and then back at me while singing along word for word with some song blasting through the speakers. As she drives, she lets the feeling or the music or the pleasurable weather pull her along, undeterred, to our destination. Now it seems like she already knows where she’s going.
I busy myself by looking out the window, pleadingly, studying the road signs and the mile markers, trying to memorize the landmarks. She reaches out and gives my shoulder a quick squeeze. It is the only gesture that connects us; the rest of the time, she’s lost in her own jubilation, completely free and unencumbered. It’s like I’m not even here. But I am here and my throat is dry and my hands are now a pasty white, the blood having leaked out of them while holding on for dear life. She smiles and turns her attention back to the road, downshifting, then punches the button to surf the stations.
I’m trying desperately to regulate myself. I close my eyes, but immediately feel a jolt of carsickness. I rip them back open, take in some jagged breaths, and start to smooth my pant legs down in a slow, repetitive fashion. The self-soothing starts to work a little. I even half-heartedly try to sing along with her for a few bars.
I am almost afraid to ask, but I do anyway. “So where are we going?” “Oh, you’ll see. You’ll love it, I swear! Ugh. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before. It’s gonna be killer, Elliot!” I can’t focus anymore. She said kill out loud. We’re doomed. Doesn’t she know you can’t temp fate?
I let out a concerned sigh, shoot my eyes upward in some sort of prayer, and then swallow hard. I look out the window again. The leaves are changing color as we drive, garnet, then rust, then mustard and back again. The trees bend into us, shaking off their vibrance, ushering in the new season. Fall is my favorite, not too hot, not too cold, just right. I can count on the weather to find a happy medium, while my own amped-up body struggles, swinging from one extreme to the other.
The song ends and the DJ’s voice reaches out, weaving through a countdown of some sort. His voice is muffled to me now, as I sneak a glance over at her, lowering my eyes straight down to her waist, then clumsily landing on her upper thigh. Her plaid skirt is pinned together with what looks like an oversized gold safety pin, but a flap of it is being tossed around in the wind, revealing a half-hidden birthmark.
I feel a shock and look away. She hasn’t noticed me looking, and I’m relieved.
I see her every day in every class, in the hallways, in the lunch room, watch her walk to her car after school and what do I do? I pine. What a scared little boy, I am. But also, in my defense, she’s never given me any hint of acknowledgement, and there’s never been the right time to talk to her, to try to talk to her.
And now I’m riding in her car, a car that I’m suddenly realizing smells of stale smoke swirled together in a sickly mixture with Victoria’s Secret pear body spray. It’s almost vomit inducing but still manages to get me a little excited. I’m disgusted with myself, but still don’t tell her to pull over. To please let me out. No, I’m just white knuckling it and hoping wherever she’s going is safe. Normally, I will make a U turn at the first sign of impending danger. But I’ve never had the opportunity to choose the unknown and really lean into it like I’m trying to right now.
“Elliot? Elliot!!” she says. I look over at her and all the words catch in my throat. So I just continue to stare at her like an idiot. “Elliot, hello? Can you guess yet?” she says. “Can you guess the surprise? “Uh, well. Let me roll down my window and see if any smells can give me a clue,” I say. She gives me a little sympathetic laugh. I turn to the window and sniff upward like a dog. “Uh yeah. I got nothing, except maybe a hint of diesel fuel,” I say and then immediately regret any attempt at humor.
She continues to drive carelessly, from my vantage point, almost recklessly, but I keep holding out hope that we’ll get there unscathed. And also, this place better be epic. Or maybe not epic, but good enough to inspire her to at least look at me. Maybe talk to me. There are so many things I want to ask her but I’m usually pretty terrible at small talk. There must be something we have in common. I sit on my hands in an effort to warm them up and also keep them out of my mouth.
“So, um. Are you going to the football game tomorrow?” Where did that come from? I don’t even like football. “Oh God no! I hate sports,” she says. See, there’s one thing. We both hate sports. “Oh yeah, totally. Me too. I just ask because my neighbor, Darren, is on the team.” Elliot, seriously? Darren! Ugh, I’ve already tanked this conversation before it can get started. Just be quiet, Elliot. Just shut up.
So I listen to myself for once and stare straight ahead.
I can see now that we’re the only ones on this winding road flanked by mountains, a kaleidoscope of foliage. We are careening forward, but I’m still able to use a sliver of my brain to enjoy the scenery. It is breathtaking, but in the good, non-panic attack way.
I feel the car slowing down as she abruptly pulls off onto the shoulder. I worry it’s not parked far enough away from the road, pictures flashing in my mind of this little yellow wagon getting sideswiped by an oncoming car, flinging us into the dirt, injuries unknown. Elliot, just breathe, man. Just breathe.
I throw open my door and grab my backpack. I still have absolutely no idea where we are. It just looks like somewhere you’d pull over to change a tire. I can’t see anything beyond the rows and rows of trees, lined up like soldiers in perfect formation. I notice she has a canvas tote bag slung over one shoulder. She’s already walking ahead of me into the woods, not turning back once to see if I’m following. I’m certainly following though. The trail is virtually silent save for a few birds chirping and the crunching of leaves under our feet.
She turns back and motions for me to hurry and catch up, so I attempt a brisk jog, tripping over a root in the process, but somehow stabilizing myself. I hear her faintly chuckle, but I don’t really mind. The pine needle smell and the gentle breeze has righted me, and I catch myself smiling.
We continue on in what seems like one endless hike until the clumped trees suddenly part and the sun surprises us with heat. “Oh wow!” I say. “Right? It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she says. “Yes, it’s like a little piece of heaven,” I say and stop a few feet from the edge. She moves closer, so close that I start to get nervous again. “Elliot, come over here. You’ve got to see this,” she says. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a heavy pair of black binoculars.
“Are you a bird watcher?” I ask. “Actually no, but that might be a cool hobby,” she says. She reaches out for my hand and places the binoculars inside. She points ahead, across the wide expanse. “Just look over there.” I peer through the lenses and a house, set precariously on a cliff like stilts, appears.
It looks like it’s been dropped down from another planet. It’s also enormous. You could probably fit three of my townhouses inside of it. I’m trying to place its style, but it’s really like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Its roof branches off into three separate cones that look like they’re wrapped in copper. Purple iron fencing encloses wraparound patios on every level. It almost looks like a child’s crayon drawing come to life. I open my mouth and adjust the focus, zooming in a little more. “What?!?” I say, surprised, and hand the binoculars back to her.
“A freaking pool, Elliot! Can you believe it? When’s the last time you saw an inground pool? In the middle of the woods!” she says, laughing at the idea. “How’d you even know that’s what I was looking at?” I ask her. “Just a hunch,” she says and suddenly gets timid, shifting her eyes away from me and back across to the cliff.
The realization barrels over me, leaving me shaking my head. She wants to talk to me. She’s talking to me! I clear my throat. “So how many times have you been here?” I ask. “Oh, a few,” she says. I get the feeling she wants to unload some factoids on me. “Continue,” I say, stroking my two or three chin hairs, pretending to be a wise old man. She laughs and lowers herself to the ground, folding her legs into a pretzel. She pats the dirt beside her and I sit down too.
“Ok, so that monstrosity over there is the Sunny Gorge Home, built sometime around 1970. Very Brady Bunch on acid kind of vibes,” she says and I notice a shimmer in her eyes I hadn’t seen before. Maybe because I’d never actually been face to face with her. “Hey, take these again,” she says and untangles the binoculars from around her neck, passing them over to me. “If you look on the second level, you can really enjoy all of that shag carpeting. It’s red! Red shag carpet, are you kidding me? I can’t even imagine the parties they throw at that house. Guess nobody would know if you got wasted and spilled your wine all over it, right?” she says. I nod and smile, imagining myself at a party there, at a party anywhere. My stomach drops a little.
I pan around the first floor and stop at the fireplace. Even with all that space, I can tell it’s the centerpiece, the focal point. Its exterior is covered in chunky squares of blond wood, a repeating basketweave pattern, all the way up to the ceiling. I stare at it like it’s hung in an art gallery, trying not to think of the possibility that an ember might land on the wood, a spark that could grow and destroy the whole building, pulling it down the side of the mountain in a fiery ball. Then I realize she’s still talking about the house.
“Are you into architecture, Elliot?” she asks. “Because this house is inspired by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright.” “That’s cool,” I say. Guess I’ll need to figure out who ole FLW is now.
“So did you see how random those rooves are? Why so many and why cone-shaped?” she asks. “Yeah, I saw those…they remind me of those little paper party hats,” I say. She smirks and shakes her head in agreement. We sit in a comfortable silence and stare off across the canyon. She puts her hand on top of mine.
“Thanks for coming with me, Elliot. It’s nice to have a friend to share it with,” she says. “Uh yeah, sure. It’s a really cool place, it calms me down actually, which is hard to do even though I am very medicated,” I say. “Yeah, it’s probably my favorite place right now. I keep coming here and finding more things I’ve missed…or appreciating the things I’ve seen before, like in a new light, you know?” she says. “Yep,” I say. I notice that the leaves are all facing upward now, forming themselves into little bowls. I get nervous it’s going to rain, and neither of us have umbrellas.
“So, Mr. Hamilton told me everything I’ve told you. He’s ancient, as you know, and he’s lived here his whole life. I can’t find any listings for the house or any articles about it or anything though, which is weird,” she says. “I’ve literally only seen it from my binoculars. I just need to figure out how to access it from the other side and then we’ll be in! Oh also, I have to figure out when those people go on vacation. I have got to get inside and check it out up close. You down?”