The bump in the road jostles Joni awake. She keeps her eyes half-lidded and, for a moment, she has no idea where the hell she is. Or how long she’s been asleep. She digs through the backpack at her feet for her watch. Early evening, she only dozed off for a few minutes. Out the window, she can see nothing but forest. So dense it’s desolate. Joni might as well be in outer space.
Dust and pebbles fly by, pelting the already dull windows. It’s been unpaved road for miles. The bus is so old, so rickety, that the rough road feels precarious. Dangerous even. It’s slowed them down.
The trip from the city was supposed to take five hours. They’re two hours late now and Joni hadn’t been able to find a payphone at their last stop. She knows a couple people are waiting for her in the Valley, knows they’ll be waiting a lot longer now.
An inauspicious start to running away. She looks at the road whizzing behind them. There’s nothing in the distance she recognizes. Which is good, she reminds herself. Necessary even.
When she’d first gotten her hands on her grandfather’s inheritance a year ago, she was almost rabid. She’d spent the money already in her head. New clothes and dinners out. She was going to blow through it, pad her life with stuff. Incensed doesn’t even begin to cover what she felt when she’d unfolded the deed to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. But that was before. And now she’s here, rumbling toward her destination, feeling paper thin and a little nauseous.
She almost calls her dad when she’s off the bus. Just to tell him she’s made it okay. The payphone by the stop looks ancient but like it probably works and she leaves her duffel on the grass and heads over. She’s already slid a quarter in when she remembers that she can’t call him. As far as he knows, she’s been in the Valley for a month already. Christ, what a stupid lie. But at the time it was easier to spin that lie than even attempt the truth. There’s no soft way to tell someone that you just tried to kill yourself with two bottles of Tylenol. That you’re checking yourself into a nut house so you don’t get it into your head that you might like to try again.
“Payphone doesn’t work.” Joni yelps in surprise. The woman who startled her laughs. She’s got deep set lines around her eyes that make Joni think she probably laughs a lot. She looks strong, hardy. Sort of motherly, actually. But maybe Joni just wants her to look that way. Her hair is a nest of cherry red piled on top of her head. A few wavy pieces have untangled themselves and hang around her face like ropes. The woman brushes some dirt off her jeans and extends a hand. “But the one at Pierre’s works just fine. I’m Robin.”
“Hi.” Joni sticks her hand out too quickly and misses. The only normal human contact she’s had since the hospital was the surly bus driver who brought her here. She’s out of practice.
Robin looks at her a little cockeyed but her handshake is warm and firm. “You must be Joni.” She winks. “God knows nobody else is coming into town today.” Joni’s laugh comes out like a wheeze. Her heart is pounding in her throat, so loud she can hear it, feel it in her teeth. She fingers the bottle of valium in her purse. “Mayor’s running late, but don’t worry, we’ll get you settled in no time.”
The mayor dresses like a Victorian clock repairman, but he has a nervous jocularity that makes Joni feel immediately comfortable. He insists she call him Lewis, gets flustered when she sticks to mayor.
Joni’s grandpa was all wiry muscle, even on his deathbed. She could easily imagine him out here, in the wilderness. Mayor Lewis, not so much. They have to stop twice on the half mile walk to the farm to let him catch his breath. He talks the opportunities to wheeze and puff through a short history of the Valley. Ancient redwoods this, tidal pool ecosystem that. Joni isn’t really listening. She’s looking off into the vast distance, squinting to try and find some trace of civilization. Lewis keeps saying that the town is only a mile in the other direction, but Joni sure as hell can’t see it.
Robin glances over and maybe Joni looks as shitty and lost as she feels, because she puts a reassuring hand on Joni’s shoulder and steers them a little off the path. They stop a few feet into the tall grass and Robin points out toward a meadow. It slopes down into a dense ticket of trees. “There’s a ranch down the way. Good friend of mine, Marnie, owns it.” Robin smiles. “You need anything, she’ll be up in a jiffy.”
It’s a chilly day. The early spring wind nips at their faces, but the sun is out and it feels so good on Joni’s skin. It feels different than in the city. Unfiltered almost, purer out here. The tall, honeyed grass in front of them ripples in the wind and little sprays of muted color flash when the breeze reveals them. Flower, Joni realizes, huge, bright swaths of wildflowers. “It’s amazing.” Her voice is quiet. That’s out of practice too.
Robin grins. “You can’t see it from here, but there’s a river that runs all along the meadow, right into the ocean. Do you fish?”
Joni bounces on the balls of her feet, arms tight around herself. “Ha, no.”
Robin shrugs, helping Lewis up from the tree stump where he’s waited out their little detour. “Well, it’s still worth a visit. Especially in the summer.” The summer seems impossibly far away. Joni’s whole life seems impossibly far away, fuzzy when she thinks too hard about it. “There’s an old artist’s colony down by the river too.”
“Oh yeah?” Joni imagines a group of skinny women in peasant skirts sunning themselves topless on the riverbank, eating sprouted lentils, and making little sculptures out of yarn and sticks. She makes a mental note to stay away.
“Doesn’t get much use these days. What with the war and all, but someone rented one of the cabins last summer. Think they’re still down there.”
“We should be about here.” Lewis huffs. Sweat is pooling down the fabric between his shoulders, falling in rivulets down his face.
Joni follows close behind. The trees are getting denser. “How long has this place been empty? Did my grandpa have renters or?”
Lewis chuckles. “Oh no, nothing like that. I’d say it’s been sitting empty for about, oh let’s see, fifteen years, give or take.”
Joni sputters. “Wait, seriously?”
Lewis looks over at Robin, a little panicked. “Oh come on now,” she chimes in, “it’s not all that bad.”
It is that bad, actually. It is really, actually all that bad.
Joni didn’t have a lot of expectations for farm life. And, yeah, maybe all of the ones she had she got by flipping through Town and Country magazine, so, okay, yes, maybe she was expecting something a little more Charlotte’s Web than Children of the Corn. She looks back at the path where they’d come from, overgrown with dandelions and a few solitary clumps of daffodil. They must be lost. There’s no way, no way, this is her inheritance.
“Whoo, Yoba.” Robin leans back, shielding her eyes from the setting sun. “Looks worse than I remember.”
Okay, not lost then.
“Oh my god.” The house is giving Joni vertigo. Birds have nested in the eaves. The porch is covered in their shit. Once upon a time, vines must have tried to make a home up the wood siding, but something killed them and their dry, gnarled corpses look like cracks against the chipping paint. The place looks like a scarecrow. The place looks fucking haunted.
Robin reaches over and squeezes Joni’s arm. She can tell by the way Robin’s looking at her, that she’s trying to be reassuring. “It’s not as bad as it looks.” Joni just gapes at her. “It’s got good bones. It’ll be home in no time.”
Robin immediately starts stalking around the place, examining the windows, the structural supports. Lewis is busy too, cleaning out a big, wooden box next to the porch. Joni kicks around the front of the house, muddying her shoes. She finds an old bike leaning up against the porch, choked with weeds. It’s missing its chain. “Fuck,” she mutters, kicking the spokes.
Robin emerges from around the back. “Might be able to get a phone line out here if you want.” She winks. “Discounted rate, just for you.”
“Yeah, okay.” Joni takes the porch steps two at the time, hauling her duffel up with her. The front door at least looks sturdy. She figures she probably won’t get eaten by wild animals in the night. The front windows are caked with grime and when Joni leans against one to peer through, the pane gives a little, sending dust flying. Scratch that, she thinks, there might be a whole zoo of wild animals already inside.
“Well, we’re gonna head out.” Lewis calls from the path. “Holler if you need anything.”
“Hey!” She calls after them. “Is there any place I can buy a six pack around here?” Her plan, right now, is to drink herself into a stupor, survey the ruins of her life by the light of day.
Robin looks back over her shoulder. “Pierre’s, but he closes at five.”
“Right. Okay.” Joni scuffs the toes of her sneaker on the porch. The wood creaks under her. “Thanks.” She watches them disappear down the path and a sudden, strong urge to call out to them rises in her chest. She doesn’t, just recedes back into the shadows on the porch.
The sky is a livid pink. Down by the tree-line, the coming darkness simmers and the stars blink on one by one above her. Joni looks out at the land. Her land. Jesus fucking Christ. It’s a vast swath of absolutely nothing. A palace of weeds. “Great,” she sighs, raking her fingers through her hair. “This is just great.”