I stood at the riverbank, watching the clear water rush over the polished stones. Grey as a dreary winter morning, they lay there, waiting. Waiting to either be picked up, heading towards an unknown destiny, or for time and water to slowly dissolve them into nothingness. I carefully shoved my wool gloves into a pocket on my jacket, which was filled with used tissues, candy wrappers, and a large assortment of God-knows-what and bric-a-brac.
I knelt on the pale grass, browning and cold with last night’s early frost, and dipped my hand into the stream. It came out holding a mottled rock, a rusty gold colour with brown patches. It wasn’t quite as smooth as the rest, so I dropped it into the water, watching it settle to the bottom. Bubbles escaped as it sank to rejoin its companions, reminding me of a drowning person.
Drowning. The thought made me shiver. I took deep breaths, trying to let the fear pass. That was what she had taught me. Shivering from fear and crying it out made all the terrifying thoughts go away. She was gone now; I had no guidance. I stood up, erasing her from my mind, walking away from the stream. Who knew how much of its water had assisted in taking my sister’s life?
I thought about the water cycle, how the same water we drink today is the same that the dinosaurs once drank, millions of years ago. I thought about the water she had drowned in, and whether it had carried pieces of her into the sky and into swimming-pools and coffee-mugs. I couldn’t tell if the thought was comforting or disturbing, and so I decided not to think about it at all. Ever since it had happened, I thought it best to avoid water as much as possible, only using it to drink or bathe.
To escape the questions that floated within the stream, I hiked through the forest, regretting bringing along my best sneakers. Perhaps they were trendy, but they did not hold well out here in the woods. I stopped occasionally to listen to the birds and to watch the autumn leaves fall, dying flames against the pale sky.
Autumn. My parents had met in this season. Got married in this season. Named me after this season. In fact, it was so important to them that my older sister was jealous that she was named Jennifer, and I was Autumn.
It was my favourite season, as the weather became cooler, and the sun shone brighter. We would watch the birds as they made their way across the sky, flying south, and would visit local orchards to buy sweet corn and cider. The moon was often bright, and the skies were often clear. I was rather proud of my name, since I shared it with the beautiful pocket of time that meant so much to me.
The clearing was a few yards away from our cabin, and was a good place to go to sit and think alone, or to talk to someone, if there was someone to talk to. On a clear day, one could watch the clouds, or the Canada geese flying by. The sky, the trees, everything seemed endless here, as if on that small piece of the universe, I was breathing in infinity.
It was frosted over, as it was every year. Icicles caught the sun, clinging to the trees. I plucked one off, licking the tip. Licking icicles was a tradition I had started. We had raced to the clearing when we were younger. Whoever ate the first icicle got dessert for breakfast, and usually it was always her. Still, she insisted that I also shared the reward, only because it was fair. I thought about how icicles are frozen water, and what sorts of things they might hold. It seemed that everything reminded me of her, and I couldn’t escape it at all.
I raced from the clearing as fast as I could, revealing brown patches of grass, sleeping under the thin layer of snow that I had disrupted with my footprints. Everywhere I looked was another mocking reminder. The old picnic table that my parents had built together that had been abandoned since we’d last visited the mountain home. The fireplace with its blackened logs that had not been used since last year. The tallest tree in the forest, with a tire swing swaying in the soft breeze. And of course, the vast, endless lake that had stretched on, swallowing the horizon.
The lake. She was still there. They couldn’t find the body.
Closing my eyes, I raced to the cabin, trying to keep from crying. I burst open the screen door, flung off my jacket despite the cold, and ran up the steep stairs to my room.
The cabin was our home, at least in autumn, and sat alone somewhere in the mountains of Montana. I remembered once when the mountains, snow, and wildlife had first intrigued me, back when I was young and completely innocent, unaware of the permanence of human mortality. I sat on an old wooden rocking chair on the raised front porch, bleached bone-white from year after year in the bright sun. Sometimes, when I was little, I thought the sun never did its job right, always shining too bright, but not hot enough. But that’s how the weather was in the Crazy Mountains.
Crazy Mountains. That’s actually what it was called. Sometimes tourists would make a joke about the name, until they heard the legend about it. Many people say that the name was the shortened form of “Crazy Woman Mountains,” named after a woman who had fled here after becoming insane, after her family was killed. The story was always unsettling, but we tried not to think about it, shrugging it off. We try not to think about lots of sad things in general.
I wondered what it must have been like to be the woman in the legend, and I suddenly felt rather sorry for her. I’d only lost my sister; she’d lost her entire family. It wasn’t a wonder she went insane, really. I wondered if one day I’d finally snap. Maybe I’d run off into the wilds and the mountains, and people would tell stories about, how on a moonlit night, my voice could sometimes be heard rustling through the trees. I would disappear and never be seen again.
I walked inside, no longer bearing to look at the mountains, flopping myself onto my small bed. My feet hung over the rough wooden bedpost, so usually I grabbed my pillow and blankets and slept on an air mattress, with a patch of patterned thick tape in a large X where I had once accidentally punctured it. The broad, heavy-duty tape had a pattern of orange cats with handlebar mustaches. I still kept the roll of tape in a small drawer on my side table, even though it had no tape left on it.
Handlebar mustaches. Jennifer thought they were the funniest things. She had T-shirts, earrings, necklaces, all with handlebar mustaches printed on them. She had a mustache shirt for every day of the week and for every color of the rainbow. Someday, she said, she would marry a man with a handlebar mustache. I had laughed and thought the obsession was stupid, but last month, when we went to the circus and a clown with a handlebar mustache walked into the rings, I cried so hard, I was reminded of her. We ended up leaving the circus before intermission.
I sat up on the bed. The cabin had no Wi-Fi, so I found a book and started skimming over the pages, not feeling like reading at all. It was an old book, and a short one as well, and the last chapter had fallen out, the rest of the pages yellowed and the ink faded.
The book was about a unicorn. I had gotten it when I was five from my kindergarten teacher, and since I was the first kid in my class to read a book with chapters, my teacher had let me keep the book. It was quite childish, and pretty stupid, but I had held onto it for all these years, flipping through it from time to time. I always thought that the plot would change with every time I read it, but it always stayed the same. I thought, if the unicorn had not strayed from home in the first place, it wouldn’t have gotten lost. Sometimes, when I was younger, I would read the same page over and over again, as if the words would magically change if I did so. But I learned that, no matter how hard you wish, some things don’t change.
“Is everything all right, Autumn?” the door swung open, my mother standing in the doorway. She sighed, seeing me lying on the mattress, the unicorn book in hand.
I shrugged, not knowing how to answer. I’d been quite listless recently, especially since returning to the cabin. We only had a week here, for Thanksgiving break, and since I didn’t have anything to do since school was out, I’d been more lethargic than ever. I couldn’t contact my friends, nor could I do anything that remotely interested me. All my paints were at home, as well as my old typewriter. I’d found it in the attic a few years back, and I’d tried to write some sort of story on it, though I could never think about what to write. It was slow and annoying at times, though I loved the clicking noises it made when I typed, and the way it sat on my desk, giving off an antiquated air of wisdom.
“Yeah,” I shrugged at last.
Mom sat down on the air mattress, and it sagged. I knew what was coming- she was going to try and talk to me about Jen again, as if I hadn’t been thinking enough about the subject.
“It’s been a hard year, Autumn,” she sighed. “For all of us. But we need to keep moving with our lives. It doesn’t mean we’ll forget her; it just means that we’ll have to learn to live with one another and work our way around the hole in our hearts.”
I turned over, not saying anything. It sounded so fake, as if she’d read it out of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Stereotypical Mom Lines, if such a book existed. Perhaps there was some truth to it, but as of now, I didn’t want anyone to try to comfort me. I preferred to work out my thoughts within my own head, without anyone else’s opinions on how I should feel butting in.
“Dinner will be on the stove when you’re ready,” Mom said, closing the door behind her. I half-expected some sort of attempt at a reassuring statement, but there was none.
After a short, restless nap, I woke up with an excruciating migraine. I headed out onto the trail for a quick walk, hoping that I could clear my mind with a bit of fresh air. The resilient moss sprang beneath my feet, spongy and wet from the early frost. I ran my hands along the rough tree bark, breathing in the mountain air. It was nice to be alone out here, and despite my sorrow, I welcomed the beauty of the scenery surrounding me.
Then, I heard the twig snap. I was sure I was alone in the forest, so I turned around abruptly, grabbing a sharp rock in case I needed to attack. I had gotten good at throwing stones from years of doing so, and I was ready to take aim.
“Whoa!” I heard a somewhat high, raspy voice gasp.
“Who’s there?” I called back, lowering the rock.
A girl ran out of the undergrowth, brushing a tangle of thin, dark hair out of her eyes. If she owned a hairbrush, I wasn’t ready to believe it. She wore a lavender t-shirt with faded lettering, much too faded to read, and shorts, despite the weather. She didn’t seem to be shivering at all, ignoring the cold. Her huge, dark eyes darted nervously around the forest, but when she saw me, her mouth broke into a grin. I’ll say one thing for her: her teeth were perfectly straight and white, while mine were somewhat crooked, but that didn’t make up for the fact that she had just ambushed me.
“Fallon. Fallon North,” she breathed, sticking out a bony arm as if to shake my hand. I didn’t take it.
“Are you lost?” I asked. Maybe her cabin was somewhere down the road. Whatever she was doing, she was trespassing on my family’s property, and I didn’t want her here, especially considering what I’d been going through.
“Can’t say I am,” she responded. “However, I think you might be. After all, you’ve lost your sister, and I can’t blame you for feeling terrible about it.”
I tensed, clenching my fists. “How did you know that?” I asked.
She seemed nervous, like a rabbit that would bolt at my slightest movement.
“Sorry,” she answered. “It’s just…hey, why don’t we take a walk? Wouldn’t that make you feel better?”
I raised an eyebrow. Who was this girl to walk into my yard, know personal information about me, and then ask to take a walk with me as if we were old friends?
“What makes you think that you can-” I began before she cut me off.
“I can explain,” she said hurriedly. “I’m sorry if nothing I said makes any sense, and I’m sorry I scared you. Do…do you live here?”
I snorted. “You tell me,” I muttered. It wasn’t her right to know who I was at all, especially since she’d just met me.
She took a deep breath. “You do, but only for a few months,” she said slowly. “Usually, you live somewhere else, called… Florida, correct?”
I blinked, not sure whether I wanted to run from her or fight her. Everything she said was correct. “Explain how you know all that,” I growled. “Now.”
She took a step back. “You have a right to be angry,” she said. “It’s just… I have this sort of ability. If I look at someone, I can sometimes see their past. I really don’t mean to alarm you, honest…” she began to ramble, spewing out apologies and bursts of nervous laughter. I was intrigued, despite my anger. I didn’t believe much in the supernatural, but I did like hearing about it. It was fun, listening to stories about ghosts and Bigfoot and the like, even if I wouldn’t count them as true. But here was someone who said she could see anyone’s past, an idea I certainly had trouble believing, and although I was skeptical, I was curious. I decided to play along, just to see what she knew.
“All right,” I said, “if you know so much about me, what is my favourite color?”
She laughed. “There’s no way I can tell that!” she said. “I see into the past. I don’t read minds. I can tell you the names of your grandparents, or your first-grade crush, or any of that information, though I don’t see how we should be wasting time with those games. Like I said, I need to show you something here in the woods. I can take you to it if you want- it’s not too far away, Autumn.”
I shook off the uncomfortable feeling of someone I had just met knowing my name. I was unnerved, and yet so full of questions, I couldn’t resist finding out more about this odd power she had. It would, at least, keep my mind off Jen for a time.
“Okay,” I answered. “Lead the way.”