The early morning air was crisp in Dylan’s lungs as she crunched through the frost. The sun was rising, light shining through the trees ahead, and she breathed deeply, reveling in the quiet solitude of the woods around her. The only sound was the wind in the dying leaves and the pew pew of a cardinal in a nearby tree; turning, she caught a flash of red as he flew across her path. These walks were her favorite part of every day. Nothing in the woods had expectations or demands of her.
The large swath of land that her family owned was both a gift and a burden. They were paying more in property taxes than they could afford. Dylan had tried to convince her mother several times to sell some of the land, but her arguments were always half-hearted because she herself didn’t truly want to let go of the woods. It didn’t matter, because Elise would never give up any of the acres that kept her safely separated from the outside world, and Dylan knew that damn well.
As Dylan approached a clearing, she and a grazing doe startled each other. The deer raised her head and stared nervously at Dylan. The two stood frozen, holding eye contact for a moment.
The air shattered. Dylan flinched backward, and when she opened her eyes, the doe lay bleeding on the ground, dyeing the frost around it a deep red.
“What the fuck,” she whispered under her breath, jogging into the clearing. The hunter was a short man with a creased face, clad in a neon orange vest. He jumped when Dylan emerged from the thicket, approaching his kill.
“Y’oughta be wearing orange, young lady,” he said with a drawl. “You could be shot.”
“You need to leave,” Dylan hissed. “This is private property.”
“That true? In town they say this land is abandoned.”
“No. My family lives here. You need to leave.”
“Alright, alright. My mistake.” He put his hands up in a gesture of surrender, threw the deer over his shoulder, and walked off the way he had come.
Dylan knew she needed to go home, but she was dreading the fallout.
All was quiet as Dylan approached the family home, but Dylan wasn’t naïve enough to get her hopes up. She creaked the front door open and called out, “Just me, Elise.”
Her mother – tall, blonde, beautiful, and always dressed in heels for some unexplainable reason – appeared in the doorway of an adjacent room, her shoes clicking loudly on the wooden floor. She breathed heavily; her make-up ran down her face.
“Where have you been? What’s going on out there?”
“Just the woods. Everything is fine.”
“I heard gunshots.”
“Yes, there was a hunter. I sent him away.”
Jackson appeared now, blond like his mom, peering around her. Dylan frowned inwardly as she noted that he was getting too thin again. Jackson’s general wellbeing was the yard stick Dylan used to measure her own success. Although Elise insisted on joining hands and saying grace before each meal, thanking God for the food on their table, Dylan was the one who was ultimately responsible for that.
“Shouldn’t you have boarded your bus by now, buddy?” Dylan asked him.
“Mum didn’t want me to go outside.”
“Goddamn it, Elise.”
“I heard gunshots!”
Dylan sighed. “Come on, bud, I’ll drive you in.” She and her brother walked out onto the gravel driveway, where the rusty Jeep Wrangler was parked.
Dylan stared straight ahead at the winding road, trying not to let her annoyance with Elise show through. Jackson’s middle school was a thirty minute drive from their isolated house. In the passenger’s seat, Jackson cleared his throat.
“We took aptitude tests in school yesterday,” he said.
“Yeah?” Dylan tried to see his face in the rearview mirror. “Aptitude for what?”
“And? What’d you get?”
Dylan’s heart sank, but she kept her face steady. “What do you think of that?”
“I think it sounds cool. Mr. McKenna says I’d have to go to college though.”
“Yes, you would. But I don’t want that to discourage you, okay? We can get you to college if that’s what you want to do.” Even as she said the words, she was wondering how she was going to make it happen.
But Jackson smiled, and that was all the motivation she needed. “Okay.”
Back at the house, Elise was passed out on the couch, her ridiculous heels dangling off her feet. She must have taken her Valium.
Dylan could barely remember when her mother had stopped being a mother. It had already happened before the day Dylan had come home from school crying that the kids had teased her about her boy name. Elise had merely explained that Charlie had wanted a boy. Charlie was absent too by then. Ironically, he walked out on the family while Elise was pregnant with Jackson. Now, fourteen years later, Elise sometimes still attempted to blame post-partum for her mental state.
Elise was hungover when she woke up. She filled a wine glass with water over and over, gulping it down.
“You’re out of refills,” Dylan said.
Elise groaned. “Can we not talk about this right now?”
“We’ll need to have Dr. Sarkis come over again.”
“Sure. Fine. You can set that up for whenever.”
“But the house calls are getting really expensive. And I think it’d be good for you to go to his office this time instead. I’ll go with you.”
Elise turned away from the sink and stared at her daughter, her eyebrows furrowed. “You say that like it’s so simple. You clearly have no idea what any of this is like for me.”
“Okay.” Dylan came forward and tried to stroke her mother’s arm, but she flinched away.
Dylan drove to the local library and got onto one of the computers. She scrolled through the apartment listings, just like she had done two days ago, and three days before that. She didn’t know why she kept doing this. She was just torturing herself with these possibilities that weren’t actually possible. There was no way she could leave, not while Jackson was still in school.
Pictured next to one of the listings was a face she recognized, a tan girl with dark hair and dark eyes and a bright smile. She clicked it and read. “Seeking housemate for nice two-bedroom apartment in Chattanooga. 1000 square feet. Contact current occupant Bea Martinez.” Her contact information was listed.
Dylan remembered Bea. Dylan hadn’t really been close with anybody in high school, but Bea had been a nice girl, outgoing and friendly. She typed a message.
“Hey Bea. This is Dylan Jacobs. We went to high school together. I might be interested in your apartment. Want to talk sometime?” She provided her phone number. Then she erased the message. Then she typed it out again and hit send before she could talk herself out of it.
She went back to her car and called Dr. Sarkis’s office. The receptionist picked up.
“Hi Julie. It’s Dylan.”
“Hi there Dylan. Your mum is due for an appointment, isn’t she?”
“Yeah. She’s would like to see him at the house again.”
Julie paused. “Dr. Sarkis is really hoping you can convince her to try coming into the office.”
“Okay. Talk to her one more time and then call back, okay? Dr. Sarkis actually wants to stop making house calls altogether. He’s finding worsened outcomes in the long term for agoraphobic patients who receive help in the house instead of being forced to confront their fears once a month.”
Dylan sighed. “I’ll talk to her.”
“Thanks, dear. Good luck.”
She hung up and ran a hand down her face, thinking about what Julie had said. She looked down at her phone and saw that Bea had texted her during the call.
“Dylan!!! Of course I remember you!!! How have you been??? Do you want to come see the apartment this weekend? It’s really nice you’ll love it. I just need help with the rent it’d be so great if you could move in.”
Dylan ignored the text. She had no idea what to say. Why had she even sent that message? She sat in her car for nearly an hour, watching birds fly overhead, migrating south.
Elise was in bed when Dylan got home.
“Dr. Sarkis doesn’t make house calls anymore. He wants you to come in.”
Elise sat up. “What? That’s ridiculous. I’ll just have to get a different psychiatrist then.”
“No one else within fifty miles is taking new patients without a referral.”
Elise didn’t respond.
“What else can I do, Elise? You have to go.”
She showed no signs of breaking her silence, but just stared up at Dylan with eyes so insolent that Dylan had to wonder briefly if she herself was the delusional one, for thinking that she was the daughter and that this child could possibly be a mother. She made a decision.
“Also, I’m moving out.”
Elise’s spine straightened like someone had run an electric current through it. “What the fuck? You can’t move out. What will me and Jack do?”
“I guess you’ll have to figure that out, won’t you?” Dylan pulled up a picture that Bea had sent: a plain, empty room that didn’t quite warrant the fourteen exclamation points she’d used in the caption, “This would be your room!”
“This is the apartment I’ve been looking at.”
Elise’s eyes were so wide that the full circle of iris was visible. Her stunned silence would only last so much longer and Dylan did not want to be around for the explosion. She turned heel and ran, throwing open the front door forcefully; it smacked the adjacent wall. The glow of the sun was diffuse through a thin layer of murky gray clouds. She ran past the Jeep – she had to leave that, in case Elise by some miracle decided to drive herself to the doctor’s – and found her shitty old bike leaned up against the side of the shed. She hopped on, feeling but not caring about the stuffing poking out of the seat, the rough rust on the handlebars. She pedaled madly, barely noticing the air pumping through her lungs as she crested the rolling hills, the wind blowing back her hair – brown, so unlike her mom’s, more like Charlie’s, she thought – as she picked up wild speed on the descent. Her crazed marathon ended only when her bike chains abruptly snapped and the pedals lost resistance. She threw the useless frame to the side of the road and kept going on foot. The nearest train station was about ten miles from their home, and she had managed to bike seven of them.
It was dark by the time she arrived, and it had begun to rain. The harsh lights illuminating the station were reflected in the wet pavement below them, casting a glow of green on the area. Dylan sat on a bench by the tracks and waited for the next train.
Jackson would have gotten home a few hours ago. What did he come home to? Dylan could not guess what her mother was capable of, just as she hadn’t known until the words were leaving her mouth that she herself would ever leave.The headlights were approaching, shining through the rain. It was time to go.