When I opened my eyes, I was lying on my back in a field of flowers. The sky was blue and endless above me. For a minute or two, I watched fluffy white clouds drag slowly by, creeping to cover the sun. I tried to lift my head, but found it stuck to the ground. With heavy, clumsy hands, I discovered that the long grass and flowers beneath me had been woven tightly through my hair, keeping me stuck to the ground. I began to unweave them. My fingers felt thicker than usual, like they’d been swollen to twice their size, but when I held them silhouetted against the sky above me, they looked no different.
Gnats buzzed around my face. I tried to swat them away, but my movements were syrupy and slow. One of them landed on my lip and I moved quickly to swallow it, happy to kill at least one of them.
I didn’t know how I’d ended up in the field. I couldn’t recall anything from the previous day, nor the days leading up to it. I remember talking to Ms. Dori in her office in the plaza by the Food Lion, but anything further than that was gone, replaced by muddled days of nothingness. My head hurt. I felt sure there was a reason for it, but I couldn’t place what it was until I identified a foul yet familiar taste in my mouth – sharp and stinging, but with an undertone of sweetness. Raspberry vodka.
With this realization came a swirl of nausea in my stomach, as if it’d just realized it, too. If I concentrated on the taste, I could recall hazy images of the tall, clear bottle, the burn of it in the back of my throat. I was supposed to be done drinking. As of the previous April, I’d been sober. I had the chip on my car keys to prove it. But where were they? At last, I undid the final thread of grass and lifted my head a few inches upward, the effort forcing a soft groan from my lips. The sound was unfamiliar, like it had come from someone else.
Only, when I finally caught a full glimpse of the world around me, I found myself to be completely, profoundly alone.
I was dead in the center of the field, surrounded by a ring of dense pine trees. Though the air was warm and windless, their feathery tips swayed and swam as if pushed by a breeze. I put my head back down on the ground.
I had the chills. They wracked my body at precise intervals, making me twitch inward every minute or so, jumping up and down my spine. The clouds finally moved past the sun, though its light did little to soothe my shudders. Goosebumps prickled up over every inch of my skin, rigid against the fabric of my dress, which I had only just taken notice of. I’d never seen it before in my life, and certainly not in my own closet. It was a long and light material, sticking down between my knees and branching out to either side of my body like a puddle, dense and white. My feet were bare and caked with mud, the left one torn with a long, jagged gash that I couldn’t remember the cause of. My bones ached. Another round of chills wracked through me, and I could’ve cried with the pain.
The sun was starting to sink behind the trees by the time I coaxed myself onto my feet. It was fear of the night that finally drove me, the horrible prospect of having to make it through the woods in the dark. It wasn’t until I tried to walk that I became aware of the extent of my injuries. One elbow was busted open into a crimson bloom of forming scabs. The right side of my ribcage throbbed terribly, and when I lifted my dress I found it smattered with bruises so dark they looked like were drawn on with magic marker. My fingernails were filthy and torn, and one of my pinky toes was horrifically discolored, hanging limply to the side of my foot like it’d been deflated. Worst of all was my nose. I saw stars when I raised my fingers against it, the chills breaking over me in a staticky haze that nearly buckled my knees. Sweat was pooling on my forehead in droplets so thick that they ran down my face like tears, and I leaned over to vomit in the grass before I even reached the tree line. Again, I detected the familiar taste of raspberry vodka as I doubled over, retching, barely able to remain upright.
I had no car keys, no wallet, no cell phone. I didn’t even have any underwear. I had no idea where I was, and I had no idea how I’d gotten there. All I knew was that I had a fever, and that if I went in the wrong direction, there was a terrifically high likelihood that I’d die in the woods. I thought back to childhood hikes with my family, and a new pang of longing throbbed in my chest. My father would know what to do. He’d give me a good long look of disapproval, but then he’d wrap his arm around my shoulders and guide me right out of the woods to my old home, where my mother would make us dinner and I’d retire safely to my twin bed upstairs, guarded by the army of posters I’d tacked to the walls as a teenager. I wondered absently if my mother had changed my old room into an art studio yet, the way she’d always said she’d wanted to do. It’d been a long time since I’d set foot in that house.
I walked through for what felt like hours, in a direction I’d chosen at random, burdened constantly by the knowledge that I could’ve been moving myself further away from civilization with each step I took. Twice, it became too difficult to persist and I had to stop and rest. I was almost unable to get back up the second time.
The sun was nearly down by the time I saw my first sign of hope. It was a gas station on the edge of the woods, populated only by a beat-up blue pickup truck, its owner smoking a cigarette as the gas pump dangled from its side. He was a small man, compact and tan skinned, wearing a flannel shirt that was at least two times too large for him. He regarded me as I approached him, squinting like he couldn’t trust his eyes. It took everything I had to not crumple at his feet.
“Help,” I said. “I need help.”
Though somewhat begrudgingly, the man helped. He said the nearest town was ten miles out, but he didn’t mind driving me. He told me to sit in the front seat of his truck while he went in to pay for his gas, and I ignored all the warnings that’d been hammered into me as a child, reasoning that even if he murdered me, at least I didn’t have to walk anymore. He situated me with a blanket from his backseat, apologizing for all the dog hair on it, explaining that it was usually Buster’s blanket, further elaborating that Buster was a sweet little copper-covered mutt he’d picked up from the street. I decided that he was trustworthy enough. The blanket, though coated in a thick layer of wiry chestnut hairs, was soft and warm. I curled up under it and watched him lumber off toward the building, flicking his cigarette onto the concrete at his feet.
The man, who I would later learn was named Bob Cooper, reemerged minutes later with a shopping bag on his arm. He tossed it at me as he climbed into the passenger seat, murmuring something about me needing some damned nourishment. Suddenly aware of the deep hunger aching in my gut, I rummaged through the bag without shame, immediately tearing open a package of crackers and stuffing them into my mouth, curing the dryness with a hearty swig of the water bottle he’d included. I didn’t even think to ask for his name until the package of crackers had been ravaged to crumbs.
“What’s your name?” He grunted in a way that did little to hide the fact that he was asking out of obligation. He began rifling through his center console for another cigarette, which he held out his window after shooting me a somewhat guilty glance to the side.
“Ivy,” I told him. Bob grunted in reply.
We rode the rest of the way in silence, broken only by the coughing of Bob’s motor and his occasional remark that his old girl was going up, sorry for all the noise. I thanked him for the food, and he waved his hand like he was shoeing away a fly. I liked him even more and was a bit disappointed when we drew nearer to the town, though things became more recognizable. We were in Blue Water, a dinky shrimp of a place about forty-five minutes from Nicholson, where my apartment was. I’d been to Blue Water a handful of times in my life, mostly because the liquor stores were notorious for not carding. I'd barely been there since I’d turned twenty one two years prior. Still, the alcohol wasn’t the only thing that’d ever brought me to Blue Water.
Bob offered three times to take me to the hospital, but I told him that Alpine Drive would be just fine, that I had a friend who lived there. It was half true. Cassie Pritchard and I hadn’t talked in a year, but she wouldn’t turn me away. She didn’t have the guts.
The only thing that’d changed about Alpine Drive in two years was the stop sign they’d added at its mouth. And thank God for it, I thought to myself. Cassie was always complaining about the amount of collisions that happened at the top of her street. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn she’d put the sign up herself.
Bob lingered in front of the house, pretending he was only pausing to smoke but probably just watching to make sure I reached the door without collapsing. I’d miss him. I pressed my thumb against the doorbell, listening to the stampede of dog paws scurrying within the house, the eruption of tinny barks followed by a woman’s voice shushing them. The porchlight flicked on against the creeping purple of the night, and Cassie pulled the door open, extending legs and feet to keep the dogs at bay, them barking and snarling and baring their teeth. Animals had never liked me.
It had only been a year since I’d last seen Cassie, but she looked much older than I remembered. Her mousy brown hair was shot through with streaks of silver that glinted in the light like Christmas tinsel, and her eyes hung heavy with dark bags. They widened in disbelief when she caught sight of me.
“Ivy?” She sputtered. “What the hell are you – what happened to you?”
I didn’t know. I opened my mouth to tell her so, but the words wouldn’t come out. Instead, I raised my shoulders into a shrug, dropping my head on the ground – the stance of a scolded toddler, a gesture I felt sure she recognized from my drinking days. The tears came suddenly and incessantly, falling in fat droplets from my cheeks and the tip of my nose. A croaking, animalistic sound escaped me when I tried once more to speak, and Cassie grabbed hold of my shoulders to pull me inside, clucking, still using a leg to hold the dogs back. Her house was bright and air-conditioned, full of the aromas of scented candles and simmering stovetop dinners. I crumpled onto Cassie’s shoulder. She held me as I sobbed, rocking me softly back and forth, hushing me and running her hands over my hair.
“Oh, Ivy,” she said, over and over, her breath warm and gentle against my forehead. “Oh Ivy, honey, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
That was the good thing about Cassie Pritchard. Even when you really fucked things up with her, and even when you were positive she’d never want to see you again, she would never turn you away from her doorstep. She just didn’t have it in her.
Cassie didn’t make me explain anything. She gave me water and a bowl of the chicken dumpling soup from her stove, sitting me down at her table and fussing over my nose, my toe, my fever. She held the back of one hand to my forehead as I shoveled down the soup, picking dried leaves and flower petals from my hair with the other, all the while telling me I’d feel better once I got some food in me. Cassie was a very firm believer in food being paramount to solving any problem.
After finishing my soup and practically having to shove her away to prevent her from ladling seconds into my bowl, Cassie cleared away my dishes and suggested I take a nice, hot shower. I salivated at the thought.
Cassie helped me to her bathroom. Since the final step I’d taken onto her doorstep, my legs had become weak and useless, and I could no longer walk without leaning against her. I stripped off the dress and a mist of dirt fell over the tile floor. Cassie had seen me naked enough times for me to not even consider the fact that it might’ve been weird until I heard her gasp, and my face burned in shame until I felt her fingertips brush over the bruising on my ribs.
“Oh, Ivy…” She said again before clicking her tongue sharply, as if to snap herself out of it, and bustling out of the room, saying she’d leave out a towel for me.
Finally, I forced myself to look into the mirror. I barely recognized the person in the reflection. I had an ungodly sunburn, my skin creased and flaking. My nose was crooked and purple, and my face was swollen from crying. I looked away as quickly as I could.
I sat shivering on the floor of Cassie’s shower with my knees clutched to my chest, huddled under the stream of warm water. There was so much dirt and blood caked onto my skin and in my hair that it was minutes before the water began to run clear down the drain. I discovered a tick near the crease of my knee and spent most of my shower trying to pull it off.
Cassie’s soap was scented like lavender and honey. The smell followed me like a mist when I finally got out of the shower. In a pile on the toilet cover were a folded purple towel, a padded robe and a balled-up pair of plush socks. I dressed myself quickly, covering the burnt outline of the dress’s neckline on my chest, grateful for the soft warmth of the robe. She’d cut the air conditioning back, although the day had been sweltering and Cassie was notorious for overheating easily. I nearly began crying again at the thought of her kindness, of which we both knew I was undeserving. The last time I’d seen Cassie, she’d told me she never wanted to see me again. She’d meant it. Still, she was walking down the hallway with a colorful armload of blankets and sheets when I emerged from the bathroom, heading down toward the guest room. Her three dogs followed behind her like a miniature waitstaff.
“Oh, Cassie, don’t,” I said. “I can just sleep on the sofa.”
“And let them keep you up all night?” She jerked her head down at the dogs, one of whom began wagging its tail at the mere sight of her looking at it. “No, that’s ridiculous. They’ll be jumping on and off that couch until the sun comes up.”
Knowing that there was no arguing with her and too exhausted to start trying, I resigned to following Cassie down the hallway to the very last door. Her guest room looked exactly the same as if had the last, and only, time I’d ever visited her house. I’d usually made her come to me, as driving was a terribly inconvenient thing to do while drinking, but that night I’d been plastered and had ended up in Blue Water for the sentimental value of its liquor stores, in search of something cheap I could sip on the way back. I’d been pulled over coming out of the parking lot, and the cop had only agreed to let me go home if I let him follow me to my friend’s house. I think he had the hots for me. In any case, I’d called up good old Cassie and she’d opened her door to me, even inviting Officer Chastain in for a cup of hot tea, to which he respectfully declined and told me I was lucky to have a friend like her. I was.
I’d spent that night tossing and turning in this same guest room, half-drunk and resenting the loss of the beer Chastain had made me pour out. The walls were salmon-colored and dotted with a good dozen pictures of sunsets and cats and seashells, and the knotty hardwood floor was blanketed with a fuzzy white rug the same texture as my socks. I watched Cassie spread the new coverings over the mattress, numb, half-regretting not letting Bob just drop me off at the hospital like a decent person would've done. I’d come because I’d known Cassie wouldn’t be able to turn me away, and I’d made myself her problem like I’d done when we were friends.
“I’m sorry, Cass,” I said.
Cassie ignored me, humming to herself as she smoothed out the wrinkles on the bedspread and jostled some fluff into the pillows, arranging and rearranging them against the headboard.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, louder. Cassie turned around suddenly, smiling, though her eyes were tired.
“Get some sleep, Ivy.”
Despite my exhaustion, sleep was impossible. My head buzzed with the events of the day, even louder with the missing spaces in the days leading up to it. I cried again. It was as if something in my head had been knocked loose, some crucial pin that’d been holding together all of my emotions, and they were rampant, rabid in my brain. I was angry, and sick, and relieved and disgusted. Though I’d scrubbed out my mouth with a finger full of Cassie’s toothpaste, I could still taste the raspberry vodka. Most disturbingly, I’d begun to crave it. I’d already fucked up my one year of sobriety, so what would be the point in trying to start over? I could’ve swung the walk to the late night bar on 5th if I really wanted to.
More time passed.
I really wanted to.
I swung my legs over the side of the bed one by one like they were made of lead. My body ached, but my spirits were light at the prospect of a tall shot glass brimming with raspberry vodka, maybe a few more than that, chased with a lemon and followed up by a platter of French fries with honey mustard like the good old days. One of the dogs – a shaggy white thing the size of a footstool – caught sight of me and leapt off the couch, sniffing suspiciously at my legs. I nudged it away.
The dress was missing from the bathroom floor. I figured Cassie had either put it in the washing machine or the trash, so I resigned myself to searching for her laundry room. The house was tall but compact, three floors of neatly fit rooms, me wandering around the first one and opening doors for a good ten minutes before seeing something that made my heart plummet down to my feet, freezing me to the spot in the stairway leading up to the second floor.
In a frame along the wall was a picture of Cassie and Daphne.
I could’ve fallen right back down the stairs. It’d been a year since I’d laid eyes on Daphne Ordonez, and my eyes took in the sight of her like a dehydrated mouth might gulp down water, greedily, desperately. My fingertips shook as I reached for the photo, brushing lightly against the glass, leaving a smudge over her face.
It looked like spring. Cassie and Daphne stood in candy colors before a cherry blossom tree in full bloom, pink and proud, speckling shadows over their faces. Daphne was in yellow. Her hair was long and dark over her shoulders – it must’ve been taken before she’d cut it short – and her smile beamed out at me, shiny with a layer of lip gloss. Be it any combination of sun poisoning, injury or confusion, I was struck by the undeniable feeling that Daphne was watching me from the photograph.
I went back to the guest room.