By Maura Yzmore
Rachel swore out loud, hunched over her steering wheel, desperately trying to see her way through the torrent for which the wiper blades at the highest speed proved to be no match. She should’ve left earlier this morning. Now she was on the road in the middle of the night, her GPS useless in the storm, and it had been years since she’d last driven through these parts.
A bolt of lightning flashed in the rearview mirror, followed by thunder overhead. Rachel knew she shouldn’t be out in this weather, but she wasn’t going to stop now, not after she’d driven all this way. Not after all this time. Not after she’d finally gathered the courage to return. She imagined sneaking into the house where she’d grown up, climbing up the stairs on her toes, and sliding under the covers in her old room, unseen. She missed her family deep in her bones. They never did anything to deserve her absence.
The road cut through a thick, wooded area, with no settlements except for the hunting lodges, few and far apart. Somewhere around here was the Jacksons’ cabin that she and Liam had broken into several times that summer. She remembered his freckled shoulders and the wide, relaxed grin on his face as they lay under the Jacksons’ dusty duvet. It surprised her how effortless it was, after all these years, to bring up the image of the cleft-lip scar that broke the symmetry of his perfect face, which had always made him self-conscious, but which she had loved more than any other part of him as it had made him flawed and vulnerable and human and someone of whom she, so plain, so ordinary, might perhaps even be worthy—
The sky lit up, erasing Liam’s face. The boom of thunder echoed through Rachel’s chest. She felt the sharp pain of her eardrum bursting.
A muffled crack—
Rachel opened her eyes. It was still dark; a glint from the outside likely meant her headlights still worked. She tried to move and screamed, as though a thousand nails pierced her lungs. She took a few slow, shallow breaths, and the pain somewhat abated. There was pressure on her left side; she must have slid off the road as she lost consciousness and was now askew in a ditch. She was wet all over and starting to shiver.
She had to get out of the car. She moved her fingers, then her hands, then slowly raised her arms. She felt around for her purse and her phone. Nothing.
She ran her fingers down her chest and her stomach. Branches, thin and many, stuck out of her torso and tethered her to the large tree that had broken her windshield and that now lay atop the hood. She felt a surge of relief. One large branch through the heart and it would have been game over. She hurt all over, but she got lucky.
She pulled a branch from the left shoulder; thought she’d pass out from the pain, but didn’t.
One by one, the twigs came out, and with each one a new, warm stream. Rachel imagined all this blood blending with the rain into a pink puddle underfoot; the vision distracted from her distress.
Free of the branches, she pushed the door once, twice, and she was out.
The downpour diminished to a drizzle. Rachel started walking, her headlights getting farther and farther away. She felt the trees grow taller, closing in on her. She was weak and dizzy, but even with her head spinning, she remembered running through these woods, long ago. She steadied herself; the Jacksons’ cottage was dead ahead.
A light was on inside. Maybe the Jacksons were renting it out?
Rachel knocked on the door. There was no answer. As she waited, her arms and legs tingled. She saw vines sprouting from the holes in her torso, slithering down her arms and legs, tightening around her calves, burrowing into the ground.
She tried to make a fist, only to see leaves grow from underneath her nails. She banged on the door with her open palm. “Let me in, please! I need help!”
A young man answered the door, glowing like a small sun.
Rachel’s jaw dropped. “Liam?” A mix of joy and disbelief clenched her throat.
Liam opened up his arms in a welcome, a beatific smile on his lips.
Rachel scanned his face for the cleft-lip scar, but to no avail. He was too perfect; this was all wrong. A wave of anger washed over her and cleared her mind.
“You left me here, all alone in the woods,” Rachel pushed Liam’s outstretched arms away. “Remember that night? Our fight? I wanted us to leave town. You wouldn’t hear of it; you just stormed out and took the car. I waited for you all night. By the time I heard the sirens in the morning, the whole town had already decided to blame me because you died in that accident. They still do. Their golden boy, Liam, dead, ruined by that mousy Rachel who was never worthy of him.”
She brought her face to his.
“I stayed away from my family because of you, because this damn town wouldn’t stop making my folks’ life hell.”
Rachel tried to lift her foot off the ground, but several roots had taken hold.
“Fuck you, Liam’s apparition,” she waved her index finger with a pale green leaf on top. “I’m done running.”
She pushed against his chest with both hands; he disappeared and she fell on the floor.
The Jacksons’ cabin was dark and musty, just as she remembered it. Rachel dragged herself toward the cupboard, rummaged through a drawer, and pulled out a working flashlight. The leaves on her fingers had stopped growing; the vines, no longer tight around her calves, had stopped burrowing.
She cackled with relief and pointed the flashlight to where the Jacksons kept their old radio. It was time she called home.