“Left turn ahead. Left turn ahead. Left turn ahead.” The damn GPS chirps just as it has been for the past hour, no longer guiding me to my destination, but rather to the brink of insanity. “Left turn ahead. Left turn ahead.”
If I could manage not to be so desperately lost without it I would throw the device out the window, but with my horrible sense of direction and trouble remembering which exits to take, I simply fiddle with it. An hour in of this nonsense and still my attention is stolen by what I desperately need to make a trip I have been going on with my family since I was five. My sister is sure to laugh at this if I am late, this being the fourth year I have driven to the ‘vacation’ myself and yet I am still hopeless in simply finding my way up the east coast.
“Left turn ahead.” I smack the GPS as hard as I can, desperate for a way to fix it. I glare at the pale light slipping across the dark road ahead of me. Very few cars dot the black ground leaving me with the temptation to scream my frustrations to the darkness.
At the moment all I know is that I am in Virginia by now, though I think I may have been in North Carolina when my GPS started to freak out. I should be good for a while simply going up 95… I hope. Then of course my car has to start making noises I am almost certain it shouldn`t be making, and it shakes slightly despite being on a smooth road. Twice last month it had stopped working yet I decided to make this trip without thinking to even check it myself (not like I would know what`s wrong).
Broken GPS, broken car, and no money as is, I decide on the dreaded idea of a detour, something I had been trying to avoid before now leading me to be on the road at 2 in the morning. Of course, if I can for a moment manage to find my way, I may be able to find a place to get help for little to no cost.
I reluctantly drive on for another half hour, uncertain if I will end up suddenly stopping in the way of a truck driving so early in the morning. I despise driving. I turn down a little road surrounded by trees. It isn`t an exit really… just a small side road sort of directly off of a major highway.
The trees don`t last long, but long enough that I question if taking that exit only a mile from here would have been the wiser option. The car answers for me when it comes to a stop. I slam my fist on the dash before hastily climbing from my car. I better be right, otherwise I am basically screwed. I continue down the road, not even bothering to walk on the side. No one is coming down this way, not with my car blocking the narrow road. At least my car isn`t at a standstill on the highway.
I walk for only ten minutes when I see the comforting sign. “WELCOME, GET OUT” written in bright red across the sign, possibly just repainted not even a week ago. This is the town I am looking for, well not a town so much as more of a small street lined with houses. I think it may stretch back further than this single road, but all I have seen are these 24 houses and the big, old church at the very end.
I walk past the creaky old sign, the rusted hinges making a horrible screech in the light wind. I suddenly wish I had a thin jacket, no longer safe from the slight chill of the night`s wind that bites my skin to form tiny bumps. I walk down the cracked sun-baked asphalt that has lost the heat from the previous day. The old houses are like mini mansions bathed in shadows and moonlight so the upper windows glint, but the wraparound porches creak and groan under the weight of age and darkness.
I move to the weed infested sidewalk stepping over the largest cracks and tilted sections of the concrete. I kick a tiny stone just enough for it to smack the chain-link fence causing it to rattle with a quiet cling. I look around, but no lights snap on and no dogs bark. I head to the last house on the right side of the road, the largest and oldest looking of all the houses. The stained white paint peels off of grey boards and pale blue shutters hang open slapping the sides of the house as their rusted hinges can no longer hold them in place.
The fence is in nice condition at least and the porch was repainted in a more cream color. I was here the summer they repainted that and, as I push open the white gate despite the pressure of the spring that holds it shut, I can even make out the small blue handprint along one of the columns holding up the top of the porch. The gate snaps shut with a loud slam leading claws to scratch along the wood of the porch then heavy feet pound the concrete.
A large shape with snapping jaws, curved yellowing teeth, and brown eyes that glow a greenish color in the dark barrels down the sidewalk towards me. In a matter of seconds a heavy weight crashes into me sending me toppling to the ground. I hit so hard I bounce up some only to be pinned in place. My head spins, as I try to rub it warm slobber slides across my face. The large shape plops down on me pushing the last bit of air out of my lungs.
I gasp and wheeze trying to shove up the fluffy beast, “Off Bear, get off.”
“Bear, get off of Sloane.” An older voice snaps from the edge of the porch.
The tan and white blob slowly rises off of me making sure to step on my stomach with a giant paw before bouncing back to the porch. Its curled up tail wags violently as it nudges the old man`s side. I sit up and catch my breath, wiping the slobber from my face with my arm.
“Hey Mr. Taylor. Sorry to wake you so early in the morning.” I keep my voice quiet enough to keep from waking everyone else.
“It`s fine, are you lost again?” He asks as he pets the Alaskan malamute at his side.
I laugh nervously, “Yea, umm, maybe just a bit…and, my car kind of broke down.”
“Still driving that old blue truck?”
“Maybe.” I mutter sheepishly.
“Maria warned you that car wouldn`t last much longer, yet here you are taking it on a long trip.” Mr. Taylor scolds me, a common habit since we started detouring here when I was five. “Well I can send someone to look at it tomorrow. Do you need a place to stay until it is fixed?”
I nod some.
“Well we have a few extra rooms since my sister passed.”
“I’m so sorry. When did she pass?”
“Eh a month ago.”
“Wow, I`m sorry. How are you coping?”
“Perfectly fine. I was waiting for the hag to keel over, stealing my money and insulting Maria. Can`t say I don`t miss her, but can`t say a part of me isn`t happy she is gone.” Despite his words his voice lowered some and I could hear the tears forming in each word. “Well come on now, we don`t want to wake anyone else.”
I head up the porch, the old steps groaning some under my weight, just as they had from the giant dog. I smile at the large old man. He is about seven feet tall and, despite being hunched over he still towered over me at only five feet and eight inches. He is mostly bulky though his arms squeeze in around his bones. His hair is still thick, but whiter than snow, and his grey eyes are more of a dead silver. As he turns and walks back inside he moves with a slight limp because his left leg had been amputated long ago above the knee. I can see his wrinkled, long, rounded cheeks twitch some even if he refuse to directly smile at me.
Bear beats us inside and finds the room I am staying in before either of us. It’s the same room they set up for me once we started detouring here regularly. It became a yearly visit until two years ago. The past two summers I grew to miss the lilac colored walls and soft green bed with hand carved flowers and animals across the legs and headboard. The quilt Maria and I made lays across the lilac sheets. I walk across the hardwood floors to turn on the little bear themed lamp. The room is clear of dust and dark blue curtains cover the windows in place of the useless shutters.
“This will work for tonight?” Mr. Taylor asks from the door.
“Eh, maybe.” I shrug as a smile erupts on my face.
I collapses on the bed as Mr. Taylor shuffles to his room before he can smile. Bear plods over collapsing on me before drawing out a long yawn. He licks my face while I gasp for breath.
“Yea, night to you too.” I mutter to the giant canine resting on me.
I squirm to get comfortable before closing my eyes. I listen to the old house creak and groan as it settles. I fall asleep to Bear`s whining and barks as he dreams.
I wake to Bear with his heavy paws on my chest and his rough tongue licking my face raw. I try to shove him off.
“Get off stupid dog!” I manage to lift his paws off me some before he lands on me again.
I cough violently as he pushes the air out of my lungs before jumping off of the bed. He stomps on my face as he hops down. I rub my stinging cheek and glare at the happy dog, big tail thumping and pink tongue lolling out of his mouth. I slowly get up and swing my legs off of the bed. I pull the curtain to the side some to be blinded by the sun. I blink my vision clear as I shuffle across the floor and open the creaking door.
Bear bolts out knocking the door open and pulling me along because I lack the ability to process the concept of LETTING GO. At least until I have already gained the momentum required to send me to the long green carpet going down the hall.
“Are you ok dear?” Asks Maria, as she stands over me.
She is nearly as tall as her husband and, for a moment, frightens my tired mind.
She notices and I hear her burst into warm laughter. “You must still be asleep then. Why were you out on the road so late?”
“I didn`t have the money for a hotel to stop at.” I slowly stand up, my elbows suffering from minor rug burn.
“I`m sure you could have pulled together enough.”
“Not if I want to return to a home after the trip.”
I notice her normally wide smile falter some, flickering off of her face before returning with a different light to her hazel eyes. For a moment she opens her mouth as if to speak before shaking her head. She turns and walks down the stairs, skipping steps like a teenager. Her skin was tanned by hours in the sun, and her hair bleached to a light blonde just barely holding onto the color against mostly silver strands. She looks closer to forty than seventy something.
I jump some when I feel heavy paws land on my shoulders and a wet nose against my neck. I turn quickly so the big dog thuds back to the floor.
“What?” I snap.
Bear barks back at me stomping his paws some.
“You want to go outside?”
Bear barks again before shoving past me and thumping down the stairs. I catch myself against the cream-colored wall. I chase Bear down the stairs sliding across the wood floor with my socks to yank open the door. The dog bolts outside barking and running to attack a bird. My eyes widen and I slowly shut the door as he jumps up and plucks the poor thing from the air in a cloud of feathers. Well at least we won`t need to feed him breakfast.
I slide across the floor, side to side like ice skating, all the way into the kitchen.
“Dear?” Maria says.
She looks at me from the back door where she had been feeding the squirrels.
“Hmm?” I look at her picking a peach from the bowl of fruit.
I run my hand over the furry fruit as I wait for her to speak. She throws another handful of peanuts out the back door before closing and locking it with a small click. The alarm system beeps for a moment.
A small smile pushes onto her face. “James and I are going grocery shopping then we will take your car to be fixed, will you take Bear for his morning walk for us?”
I look at their giant backyard for a moment. It is a more appealing thought to let the large dog out back rather than allowing him to drag me across the sidewalk, but with the kindness being shown to me I can`t really say no. I look back at her and smile some still running my thumb over the peach.
“Yea, shouldn`t be too hard, I hope.” I mumble the last part to myself.
I go and get Bear`s leash from some hooks by the door. I hug Mr. Taylor and Maria as they head out the door, Mr. Taylor struggling to slide on his brown leather shoes. They lock arms and smile as they head down to their driveway climbing in a car that ruins the simple scene.
I step onto the porch and call up Bear. He trots up the set of stairs on the other side of the house, his claws clicking and giving him away. I turn to look at him as he slides under the swinging bench that blocks off one path to the back side of the porch. He barks at me once he spots the plastic black handle of his leash. A bit of blood still stains his teeth.
“Was that bird good?” I ask as I click the silver hook onto the loops on his collar.
Bear barks and licks me. I gag some and try to wipe off the saliva.
“Thanks.” I mutter.
I wrap the black leash behind my back. I slowly press the button as I open the gate. In seconds I am sprinting down the sidewalk to keep up and prevent myself from landing face first on the concrete. I try to wave and say hi to those who greet me, but it is always cut short as they often fall into a fit of laughter and Bear drags me away. I lean back against the leash to try to slow him down a little, but it only allows the material to dig into my back. He drags me down what I had originally thought was a drive way to another street and more houses, until we reach a park.
Bear barks at the children playing on the brightly colored bars and swing set. I drag him past the kids, after he decides to tackle and lick a kid to death, to an open field.
I pick up a stick waving it in his face. “If you behave we can play fetch.”
Bear sits down and stares at the stick, panting then stopping. The hook clicks and I free Bear of his leash. I wave the stick around as he jumps and tries to bite it. I throw it across the field. He chases after it leaping and stretching out to grab the stick. He runs a bit before turning and looks back at me, sitting and waiting.
“Lazy dog.” I grumble.
I run across the green blades, a few lingering puddles I don`t notice leave my feet soaked and the base of my jeans muddy. I grab the spit soaked sick from the dog, light growls rippling through his chest as he tugs back playfully. Once I manage to free the piece of wood that had been lodged between his teeth, I throw it again. He runs, catches it, and waits again, and again, and again until the park is the size of an ant and the people are no longer visible. Bear then just lays down panting. He drops the stick and licks the mud off of his paws.
“What are you doing lazy dog?” I bend over, hands on my knees and catching my breath.
My throat is dry and my legs ache. My soaked and probably now prune-like feet hate me more than my mud coated pants and streaked shirt. Bear decides after tackling me several times and forcing me to chase him across the field he deserves a break. He gets up and laps water from a puddle before looking up, his ears perking.
A blur soars over our heads. In a second Bear is gone, bolting after the projectile, fur and face pulled back by the wind. He is a fourth of the way back up the slight hill before I can even process the mud he flings into the air from his run. I slowly take a few steps to follow then pause in my action when I hear an approaching squish, squish, squish. The steps are slow and lazy, the muck clinging to the bottom of the person`s feet slapping the mud puddles as it finally lets go.
A young man strolls past, half coated in mud and smiling like a moron. Bear runs back to him, slobber leaking from his mouth over a round white object. The young man reaches into Bear`s mouth not hesitating at his large teeth or, even more frightening, the long strands of thick saliva. He twist his wrist and jerks his arms around until he finally manages to free a soaked baseball. He suddenly turns and holds out the ball towards me.
“Want to give it a throw?” He asks with a slight upturned lip.
The young man`s upturned lip turns into an amused smile as my own lips curl down and I shudder overdramatically. He shrugs wiping the ball off in the grass, only making it dirtier, before tucking it away and walking off. Bear barks as his tail waves erratically and his ears bend back. His front drops in a bow while his entire back half shakes.
“You have a lot of friends, don`t you?” I mutter as I click the leash back on and begin the long process of dragging the giant dog home.
“We want you to have the house.” Maria says, half an hour after I manage to get home and take a shower.
“What? Why?” I look between them.
Maria sits in a chair in front of me, her cheeks lifted the slightest bit, but her eyes weighed down. Mr. Taylor stands a bit away, using the wall for support after carrying all their bags to the car.
“It won`t be any trouble for you. We will be leaving you the furniture and such, and even a few things we can`t keep that you can sell for a bit more money. A garage sale is a great way to get to know some of the neighbors here as well.” She continues on, avoiding my question.
I speak much slower this time. “Why are you leaving me your house?”
Maria sighs, looking to her husband then back at me. “I am getting old honey and James is ten years older than me.”
Mr. Taylor makes a grunting sound before it fades to senseless grumbles.
“We can`t stay here.” She brushes off her husband and continues. “We can`t be in the middle of nowhere with a twenty-minute drive to the nearest hospital and a five-hour drive to our nearest relative. None of our kids or grandkids want to move here, but we can`t just sell this old house. You`ve been visiting nearly every year for twenty years, since you were a little kid. We watched you grow and you are like family to us. It can`t hurt to stay. It will take a few days for your car to be fixed so you have then, and all of your family vacation to think it through.”
I look between the two of them a few times. Something cold is pressed into my right hand, then my fingers are slowly wrapped around it until the more jagged side starts to push into my skin. The house groans and the faint breeze whines and their feet click and clop. Warm arms embrace me tightly and a tear or two even stains my shoulder then they are gone and the house is silent and I am alone and now I have a new home.
Well almost alone. Big Bear is stuck with me as he whines and claws as the car silently drifts away down the road. I slowly grab the bronze knob, killing the small glint of sunlight. I turn the knob until there is a click before letting it slide open. Bear knocks it free the rest of the way with such speed and force he topples over his front paws and slides into the fence. I spot my bags on the porch slowly grabbing the handle of the half empty beige and brown streaked suit case and the even emptier colorful shoulder purse. I drag them inside and to my room thinking, there has to be more to this, there must be.
To dig deeper I would have to call the Taylors to clarify things, and they would be on the road or sleeping through most of the night. Clarification has to wait for now. I collapse face first onto the bed, my face smashing against the mattress. I pull myself in further and yank the covers free to bury myself deep in them. The door slams and claws click as I shake off a layer of skin and peer over the edge of the quilt. Bear soon jumps into bed with me, still whining his ear-splitting whine. I burry my face under the pillow with just enough room to breathe, falling asleep with the crying blob of fur.
By midday I get to finally set my phone down, the entire thing hot in my hand. I coil the wire around the phone and set it on the counter to charge. I retrieve Bear`s leash and drag the whining mess out for a walk. He drags his paws and tucks his tail between his legs so much that it brushes his stomach. The one time I get to walk peacefully and the time is filled with everything but peace.
Bear still pulls me back to the park, but this time he strolls over to the benches. He jumps up to the last free space on the bench and lays his head on a sobbing toddler. I stand-off a ways, as far as I can while still holding the leash, while Bear licks the child`s tears and coats her with long tan fur. Soon laughter replaces the quiet sobs and by the time I look back over the child`s face is lost amongst a sea of fur.
I glance around to attempt to pinpoint the child`s guardian amongst the ‘crowd’, but the park is only full of kids today. Three or four run between the bright yellow metal, and blue and red plastic. It is around noon so most parents probably left for lunch. The remaining kids probably live directly next to the park so their parents can watch from the porch, or more likely it seems, the windows. I shudder at the thought of some mother or father scowling as I let the giant dog suffocate their tiny child. I slowly pull Bear off of the little girl so he won`t hurt her.
The little kid sniffles quietly and glances up with big wet eyes, more tears pooling along the top of her bottom eyelid. Her eyes are so pale that on a quick glance I thought she had no irises. I mutter a quick greeting and departing word before tugging Bear along. He makes my arms tense and burn as he pulls back with each step I manage to make forward, then out of nowhere, perhaps just a random impulse, Bear flings forward and dragging me close behind.
My legs stumble and tangle, working without my brain. The lack of coordination sends me tumbling to the ground, meeting the cool grass and slightly damp dirt. The dirt bites my skin and tears with burning fire. Grass clings to me and the water builds, but everything blurs and runs together and I have no clue where I am or where Bear is dragging me. At some point I let go, but when I do so I don`t know because all my mind is on is catching my breath. I turn on my back. I stare at the sky.
“Are you ok?”
I jolt up and look around for the voice. Everything spins and spins and spins, then settles and focuses on the young man from yesterday with one hand extended and the other firmly holding a leash, Bear`s leash. Bear sits panting, but the man is calm and standing with his back turned to the direction I ran from…but Bear had run ahead of me not too long ago.
I manage to nod my now aching head. I slowly grab his calloused hand that’s unusually hot. I try to draw my hand back but his finger crushing grip just causes me to pull myself up and nearly topple into him. I mutter my thanks and reach for the plastic handle of Bear`s leash only for him to jerk his hand back to keep the handle out of reach. The giant Alaskan malamute does not take notice of the sudden movement in his leash.
My eyes snap to meet the deep, rich brown of the young man`s eyes. A smile dashes across his face, almost pausing at a smirk.
“Slow down there. Why don`t you let me walk you home so this big old dog doesn`t drag you around anymore?” Before I can respond he starts walking with long strides, another question already slipping from his mouth. “You live in the Taylors` home right? Or at least staying there for now? They spoke highly of you, absolutely adored you. They always said if their kids had lived long enough to have grandkids you would be the favorite.”
Goosebumps erupt across my arms as I fight the urge to move my arms from my sides and wrap them around myself. His words sink in and it hits me that the Taylors have lied to me about their children. My mind starts to spin, but I settle the forming tornado of thoughts to focus in on the empty air and the bland words spilling from the stranger`s mouth. Not matter how much I try to focus on his words something else always draw my attention, such as the now completely deserted park.
How long had Bear been dragging me around?
It doesn`t matter. The gate squeaks open. Being the polite person I am, I let the guy and Bear into the yard first. The giant ball of fur bolts for the porch the instant the black plastic handle of his leash bounces against the cracked concrete. The guy looks back at me with that same smirk as I slam the gate shut before Bear takes the chance to escape. Our eyes meet, his blue ones that are far too bright sparkle even more with amusement. The only thing filling the air is my irritation and Bear`s heavy pants.
“I`m Ernest by the way.” He holds out his hand, but quickly pulls it back and stuffs it in his pocket when my glare does not break. “It is a bit odd so I go by my middle name, Allen.”
“Sloane.” My voices is sharper than I intend.
Allen`s smirk falls and he starts to shuffle his feet. I almost feel bad for him, but as I brush past him I watch that same smirk explode across his thin lips. My blood boils, but a chill crawls up my spine. The two drastically different temperatures mix and swirl inside of me starting a storm.
“You`re welcome for the help with Bear.” He remarks as I grab the door handle. “I`ll see you around again, have a good evening.”
I wait for the gate to slam shut once more before I push open the door. Bear scrambles inside, claws clicking against the wood then tile as he rushes to his food bowl. His deep barks rattle the kitchen as his massive paw repeatedly smacks the poor metal bowl for his food. I kick off my shoes before sliding across the floor. I pull open the door to the pantry and slide out the big gray bin, the scent of dog food smacking me in the face.
I quickly feed the massive dog from the full container of food. I guess they filled it before I got here. Bear devours it like he hasn`t eaten in days. I make something for myself to eat and decide to settle in. Since Allen decided to be oh so nice and refuse to give Bear back until he got to show me the entirety of the small town, it is now six in the evening and I can only think about food.
I shuffle into the living room with my findings of chicken noodle soup, the bowl burning my hands. Everything else would have taken too long to make. I slowly settle on the sofa in the most awkward way possible to keep from spilling any broth. Bear hops up beside me nearly foiling my efforts as the cushions rolls in towards him. I glance out at the empty street, finding the still world completely captivating my attention.
The sun is sinking in the bright blue sky and the massive houses are decorated with fading light and thickening shadows against peeling paint and faded shutters. The few trees dotting the massive yards hold utterly still as if the heat in the air literally made it thick. Not a single bird dots the sky or heavy branches. Not a single squirrel jumps between trees or hops across the street. Not a single dog rests outside or pulls at a leash. Not a single person strolls down the side-walk or rocks in a rocking chair on their porch. Things are truly still in such a way that it freezes even time.
My eyes burn until the thin lids start rapidly moving up and down. A person plods down the sidewalk, freeing me from the trance of the stillness. As if she can feel my eyes pressing against her she freezes and looks at the house. She slowly lifts her hand and gives the briefest wave possible then slowly moves on. I sigh and look back at my now cold bowl of soup as silence buzzes in my ears. Tomorrow I will figure out why the Taylor`s were lying to me and what else they have hidden, well at least I hope I will.
A yawn parts my lips and echoes through the room, disrupting the buzz of silence. “I think its bedtime Bear.”
Bear rolls his heavy head on me. His large, rough tongue runs over my hand. I shove him off and finish eating before heading up to bed, the dog on my heals.