By Zoe Marzo
I told Jill we were so close, and we decided not to stop for groceries, driving on from Holy Cross Cemetery, where we’d stopped to stretch our legs, to the Airbnb in Topanga.
Wobbling under heavy bags, I made my way up the path to the cabin, and Jill followed behind. A tree’s twisted grey arms held clear glass ornaments as if offering hanging fruit. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, and I poked and flicked to find the door code.
“Shoot,” I said. “I didn’t download the app.”
I ambled around the patio, and cupping my hands to the glass, peered through the curtainless windows at shining hardwood floors, copper pots on the walls, knit blankets draped over armchairs—as much as I could see beyond the overlaid reflections of trees and hills.
I turned. Delicate clouds scraped across the sky. Leaves clacked together. Houses were visible in the hills, but the distance seemed vast. Jill leaned over my shoulder to watch the grey circle fill as the app loaded. We laughed about the rugged ride up the mountain and the sign that said LEAVING COUNTY MAINTAINED ROAD. No kidding. The immediate bump and skid over broken pavement and packed dirt fed into a sharp curve and contributed to the dent in the nose of our rental car as we slammed into the winding driveway. The ocean and civilization rested somewhere below us, but the arduous journey made it all seem so far away.
I kept tapping the screen to keep it from going black. The sky was turning pink and clouds changed from streaks to puffs. When it greyed, the app still hadn’t loaded.
As Jill pushed on the tilde-shaped handles on a pair of French doors, she said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if—”
“No way,” I said as the doors swung silently open.
“Unlocked the whole time!”
We walked into the cabin. The space was identical to photos we’d cooed over on Airbnb. Staircase descending to bedrooms. Fireplace in the corner. Bottle of wine on the table. Copper kettle on the stove. The giant druzy geode heavy on the glass table. The sparkling crystal tilted when Jill touched it, grating as it scraped the glass surface, making us cringe. The frog lamp on the table—”So cute!” But as Jill continued to explore, I couldn’t help but consider the post protruding from the frog’s back to hold the bulb, and the off-kilter lampshade. With its head thrown back in an open-mouthed, pained expression, the frog looked as if it had been impaled. It made me uneasy.
Already, at half past five the sky was dark. We turned on the fireplace, and reluctant to travel on the mountain road again, dove into the stack of takeout and delivery menus on the table.
“Pizza and wine tonight?”
“Barbeque chicken with slices of fresh avocado?”
“I can taste them already.”
We ordered and waited, with jazz spinning on a turntable. I could see our faces sharpening in the sliding glass doors, our smiles illuminated with firelight and the glow of our screens, the rest of the world dissolving. Coyotes howled and echoed off the hills.
I checked the progress of food on the app, cheering when the status went from PICKED UP to ON THE WAY, but when the status blinked DELIVERED, I turned to Jill, and together, we peered out the dark driveway, which was void of headlights. I got up to investigate, but there was just the rental car and quiet all around. Light flickered off glass ornaments, but dully, as if sharing in my uncertainty.
Was the pizza delivered to the wrong house? Did the driver make it up the mountain? Give up and turn back? Quit and take our pizza? Fall off the mountain and disappear?
An animal’s strangled cry sounded in the distance, and shadows flicked through the trees, making the branches jump. When I strained into the darkness, Jill, nervous, tugged me back, back, pulling me into the cabin. I shut the door, ignoring my growling stomach, and looked at the windows. Blackness, solid as polished obsidian, stared back. Jill was right. We couldn’t go out there again.
We woke the next morning, stiff and too warm, windows revealing mountains fuzzy with brush, so hungry we couldn’t even consider the kettle on the stove, the collection of tea. We decided to go for breakfast. The car rocked over the uneven terrain, scraping low rocks, and as we came to the bottom of the hill, I realized I didn’t know which way to go. The GPS spun out of control.
The rental struggled forward around a narrow road until it widened where trees blocked the light of the new day. The dead end was crowded with broken trucks and rusted cars half-covered in tarps.
“I think we should get out of here,” Jill said.
The rental’s engine revved as I pressed the accelerator, but it didn’t move. The tires dug into the dirt. I got out, walking around the car, Jill following so close our shoulders touched. I shuffled forward, enough to see where the earth dropped into a ditch edged with jagged rock.
“Oh my god,” said Jill.
A glint of light flashed off the bent fender of a car crashed below.
A pizza box hung out the open driver’s door. I stepped closer without wanting to. Pebbles tumbled over the edge. Pizza had slid out of the cardboard. It was dusted with beige dirt and broken glass. Avocado greyed on top.
When I finally lifted my eyes, I found the road we’d traveled was no longer visible, having blended into the trees. Perhaps the road curved into them. Perhaps there was no road. There were only the mountains, now, broken cars, and talons scraping against branches overhead.