“Nothing bad ever happens in Dark Valley,” Mom said, as we drove across the bridge into town. On the other side of the river all I could see were pine trees and boulders.
“That’s because nothing happens in Dark Valley,” I said, staring out of the window. I didn’t want Mom to know but secretly I was glad we were here. After everything that went down in the city nothing sounded pretty good.
Our entire lives were packed up in a few suitcases and a couple of boxes, which were crammed into the back of Mom’s orange Beetle. We’d had to leave the city in a hurry. Life outside of Dark Valley had always been hectic but the last few weeks were a certified mess. A complete disaster. Life in this sleepy little town might be boring but at least it would be quiet.
“Feet off the dash, Katie” Mom said, swatting at my pastel pink socks. Pulling my knees to my chest, I looked at the water rushing by below, crashing into boulders the size of minivans.
I hadn’t been back to Dark Valley since we left, right before I was about to start middle school. But the place was etched into my memory like a stone carving. The woods, the sleepovers, the smell of pine, the campfire smores and the milkshakes. Nights out at the drive in, learning to fish with my Dad, my first kiss. It had all happened here.
There was a thick mist hanging below the tops of the trees as we drove on. Two dense lines of redwoods stretched as far down the road as I could see.
Part of me was scared about coming back. I hadn’t seen the friends I used to have here for years. We were all about to be seniors. How different would they be? How different was I? Would they even remember the awkward girl from elementary school? Would he?
What added to the stress was that despite the good memories, the old friends...I still thought of Dark Valley as the place where my Dad got sick.
Moving to the city had been the change Mom and I needed after he died. I just hoped coming back was the right decision for us now.
As we turned into town I pulled out my camera and looked through the viewfinder. The minimart came into focus before whooshing past, as did Rickie’s Diner, the bowling alley, TJs dive bar and the Sheriff’s office.
It was just the same as I remembered.
Up ahead was a new building, nestled in the foot of the mountain range on the East side of town. It looked weirdly modern and out of place. Some kind of resort or hotel, I guessed. Was I going to be like that new building? A strange addition, an anomaly which didn’t quite make sense amongst the natural landscape. Or would I fit right back in?
The streets were wide and empty except for a few kids on bikes.
We turned west, away from town, and started heading in the direction of my aunt’s old cabin. Aunt Vera was in Switzerland skiing with no plans of returning any time soon so she was letting us stay there indefinitely.
I could still feel the breeze on my face as I swung on the tyre swing hanging from the willow in her garden, or the tingle in my spine as I explored the abandoned shack in the woods nearby.
I smiled and took a breath.
This was the change I needed. Sure, it would be weird starting senior year at a new school. But nothing could have been worse than what I was leaving behind.
The stretch of road out of town was long and there was nothing but woods and nature on either side of us.
As we rolled past the old gas station I noticed a boy in a letterman jacket jumping on his bike. He must have injured his wrist because it was wrapped in a bandage. I grabbed my camera and snapped a quick picture, only to find he was staring back at me.
Could it be…?
I thought I recognized him but wasn’t quite sure. I didn’t know if he recognized me too or if he was just staring at the strange new girl taking his picture.
Either way he lifted his injured hand and waved.
I laughed a little to myself.
“Nothing bad ever happens in Dark Valley…”
I had no idea just how wrong that statement would turn out to be.
Standing under the veranda of my Aunt’s house, I looked out at the river. A cracked wooden bench sat in the yard, next to the tyre swing, facing out onto the slow moving water. Reeds shot up from the banks. I used to go swimming there as a little girl. I have this distinct memory of my dad building a raft and letting me sit on it while he pushed me around and splashed me.
A lopsided pier stretched out from the yard and I could still picture Mom laid out in her bikini in the summer watching us play.
“Honey, I put your stuff in your room.” Mom was poking her head through the sliding screen door. “Why don’t you get settled in? Oh and when you’re done I need some things from the shop.”
Harry’s Corner Store was a twenty minute walk away, or five minutes by bike. Too bad I’d not had a bike since we moved. Even if I still had my 'My Little Pony' trike I’m not sure I’d fit on it these days.
I rolled my eyes. “Sure.”
The house was dark and the furnishings were almost antique, a tribute to seventies interior design. So that must be how Aunt Vera was able to afford an indefinite ski holiday. She clearly hadn’t spent anything on decor or home repairs in at least twenty years. A thin layer of dust had settled over the flat surfaces in my aunt’s absence.
My room was pretty small but at least it had a double bed and a decent sized closet. I couldn’t be bothered to unpack right away so I shoved the box and a duffle bag full of my stuff into the closet and slid the door shut. There was a mirror on both of the sliding panels and I stood there as my reflection stared back at me.
My hair was flat, brown except at the tips where I’d bleached it months ago. What was once platinum blonde had faded to dull grey. There was nothing unique about my face except the mole on my left cheek which looked like a teardrop. Not that I was hideous, it just wasn’t the face of a girl people would write home about. I was wearing a khaki green army jacket, a grey t-shirt - with the logo of a band I’d never heard of on it - and jeans.
If you’d have seen me you’d never have guessed I was the girl who caused all that trouble. That this was the person responsible for such a controversy. Just the way I wanted it.
I grabbed my cell out of my pocket and glanced at the screen. Nothing. Perfect.
“I’ll head to the store now!” I called out.
Mom was in the kitchen unloading plates into one of the already full cupboards. Aunt Vera already had everything but there was no point in leaving all of our stuff behind. We were already giving up so much.
“Great, here’s a list.” She handed me a scrunched up page from a notepad and a fifty. “You remember the way?”
“I’ll be fine.”
She was just looking out for me but ever since the scandal at my last school Mom had been acting crazy overprotective. It was like I was a blown up bubblegum bubble… and I was about to pop.
My sneakers were covered in road dust by the time I reached Harry’s. The hand painted sign had faded in the last few years, and some weeds had sprung up around the base of the walls but other than that the place was exactly the same.
There was a young girl I didn’t recognize behind the counter and I was sort of glad. I wasn’t quite ready for the reunion parade or worse the realization that no one remembered me at all.
I grabbed a basket and began to scan the shelves. Mom’s list mostly consisted of cleaning supplies and pantry staples.
I stopped in front of the dishwashing liquid and couldn’t remember which brand we used to get.
“I hear citrus fresh is a popular choice.”
That voice… I spun around and locked eyes with a familiar face.
“It can’t be!” Spencer exclaimed and grabbed me up in a hug. “Katie Evans?!”
Spencer and his family were the closest thing my aunt had to neighbors and we’d come up through elementary school together. He was only a little taller than me, with carmel colored hair and dimples in his cheeks. He was wearing a tight polo shirt and jean shorts.
“You look exactly the same,” I marveled at him. It was true. He must have been seventeen now, same as me, and sure he was taller, but he looked like the same boyish kid. The boy who would always come over, when we visited Vera, just to play with my barbies.
“You look… well a little tired to be honest.” He scrunched up his eyebrows in a funny apologetic way.
“Yeah we just got back, long drive.”
I ran a hand through my hair. More like a long year!
“Ok, well let’s get your groceries sorted and I can walk you home.” Spencer grabbed the citrus fresh and we headed for the checkout.
I paid for everything on my list and Spencer bought two sodas. He cracked them open on the bottle opener which was screwed onto the shop’s door frame and handed me one.
“Thanks,’ I said, hating how awkward I sounded.
“Ok, tell me everything! I have to know where you’ve been?! What have you been doing?!” We started heading back in the direction of home. “Why would you come back to this ol’ backwater?”
I laughed and took a sip of my drink.
“We just needed a change of scenery,” I shrugged. “Think my mom wanted a slower pace.”
“Well, it can’t get much slower!”
Walking back with Spencer I started to feel like maybe we had made the right decision coming back. He was so friendly and hung on my every word. Yeah, I had to talk around the real reason we left the city but it felt like the first time I could really breathe in a good long while.
“This is me,” I said, when we reached Vera’s driveway. “Thanks for walking me back. It’s great to see you, Spence.”
“Are you kidding? After you left I had no one fun to play with. My dad kept trying to get me into toy trucks or sports! And, like, I just couldn’t with that. It was pretty bleak.”
“Oh hey I was wondering…”
“Oh my god!” I trailed off as Spencer erupted. He threw his hands in the air like a gymnast doing a dismount. “I’m such a ditz, I almost forgot!”
What is he talking about?
“There’s a party at Brock’s place tonight. Remember Brock Hudson?” I remembered thinking his parents were cruel to name him that. “It’ll be a bunch of hettie nonsense but if you come with me it’ll be sooo much more bearable.”
“I’m not sure my mom…”
“No no no, none of that. You’re coming. I’ll pick you up around eight.”
I guess, there’s nothing like jumping straight in at the deep end.
“Ok,” I said, biting my lip.
“Yas!” Spencer hugged me one more time and then headed for home.
I turned to head inside as well but stopped and swung back around.
“Do you think…will Connor be there?”
Spencer’s expression changed. His brow dropped and his mouth tightened.
“...yeh…” I felt my pulse start to quicken.
“That dick,” Spencer said. “He’s on the football team so he ought to be there. But who knows with Connor? He could be up to anything.”
I couldn’t help but let my shoulders fall.
“Hey Katie,” Spencer was looking at me with concern all over his youthful face. “Be careful around Connor, ok? He’s not the kid you remember.”
I didn’t know what to say so I just stood there. Spencer took a second before shrugging and smiling.
“I’ll see you tonight, angel delight!”
He wandered off in the direction of his house.
I hung out on the driveway for a moment thinking.
Conner was the one person I was most keen to run into again. And I didn’t expect everyone to be the same as they were when we were kids. I didn’t expect anything to be the same as back then. But surely no one could have changed that much. At least, not enough to elicit the kind of warning Spencer just gave me. Not Connor.