Strangers (Writer In Motion 2nd Draft)

You don’t notice the elevation change as you drive through the mountains. The only thing that tips you off is that your ears start popping. Blue mountains majesty, my ass.


What was worse? My girlfriend kicking me out, or the awkward one-sided conversation with someone I hadn’t seen since I was ten?


“Plenty of fish in the sea,” my brother said.


My side-eye wasn’t enough to stop his attempts at playing dad. I leaned back in the seat and pretended I was asleep.


“Plenty of fish…”


A virgin’s sage wisdom passed down by our father, no doubt. Not like dad was any better with relationships. The sun burned through my closed eyelids. I wasn’t fooling anyone. I sat up, and as we passed under the shadow of the mountain, I thought of her. “Hey, do you remember—”


“The woman in the shack? Grandpa shit a brick when we told him someone was living there.”


It wasn’t something a person could forget. Never speak to strangers, adults always say. She was the stranger they were trying to warn us about, but everyone became foreign eventually.


My brother chuckled. Adulthood had taken hold of his face. He was like a male version of mom. I wished I had fought a little harder for our summer visitations. My brother was the stranger now.


Drumming his thumbs on the steering wheel, he said, “That was a weird-ass summer, man.”


We laughed, but our minds were still on that hillside overlooking the mountain. The overgrown snapdragons pulled by the brisk winds of autumn.


“How has dad been doing?” I asked.


My brother shrugged. “Went from functional alcoholic to a dysfunctional one.”


That reminded me. “Just a heads up, mom is engaged. She says hi, by the way.”


For the first time in three hours, my brother finally went silent. Hawks perched on the fences focused on their next meal, but they had nothing on my brother avoiding complicated feelings. We had some things in common, after all.


“The woman told us we’d come back to her when the time was right,” he said. “Maybe this is what she meant.”


Maybe.


It had crossed my mind. It was the first time we had been together since that summer. She was petite. Her black hair dragged past her waist. She was wearing a long flowy black gown like a goth princess. We were going to make the shed our fort. We were shocked when we heard a gentle, feminine voice carry over the tall grass.


As if he were thinking the same thing, he said, “She came out, her dress dancing in the wind. She smiled with those wicked sharp teeth and—”


“Took our faces in her hand and like, examined each of us. She said, “hmm, not yet. Come back when you’re ready.’”


“Did they ever tell you what they found in there?”


My brother shook his head. “Nope.”


I leaned my head back on the headrest and considered the mystery. They weren’t allowed to leave the back yard after that. It was probably just some crazy homeless lady, but she was the hottest homeless lady I had ever seen.


“Maybe we should check,” my brother said.


Even after all these years, he was still the instigator. You had to do whatever it took to survive in a town where the stoplights turned red for tumbleweeds. “Sure,” I said. “Better than being told about fish in the sea from a drowning man.”


Now it was my brother’s turn to give the side-eye.


He parked on the backside of our grandparent’s property. We had to climb the chain-link fence. There was some competition to be the first to scale it. My brother’s feet landed first. What a dickhead.


“Why didn’t you go back to moms?” he asked as we hiked up the hill.


“I was going to, would have saved me the airfare. There was this postcard at the storage place. It was a generic mountain scene, but it reminded me of this place.”


We stood in the spot we once did years ago. The rundown shack remained as did the snapdragons. My brother kicked a broken padlock with his boots.


My breath caught in my ribs with the prospects of seeing her again. As I opened the door, my nose was assaulted with the smell of decomposition. Horseflies swarmed a heap of flesh, the wooden table. Black droplets stained the floor and trailed along the edge of the table.


It was a stag carcass. Its fur ripped as if attacked by a wild animal. “What the fuck,” my brother coughed.


A maggot crawled out of the stag’s tear duct, and I had to get out. I made it out the door before spewing on the wildflowers.


My brother followed right behind. “My hands won’t stop shaking long enough to call the police.”


My ears plugged, muffling the noise of the world. A high-pitched whine took the place of the rustling leaves and bird calls. My brother frowned and made a yawning motion with his mouth before tapping at his temple like a dead microphone.


I turned to find her standing there. It had been almost twelve years since we were last here, but she never changed. Her grey eyes locked with mine.


My heart pounded as she pushed the shack door open and motioned for me to follow with one long finger. Someone pushed me aside, but he wouldn’t get to her first. I grabbed the stranger from behind and threw him to the ground. His head cracked against a rock. His blood-soaked the dirt. No one would come between us. She was why I was here. Her song silenced the world.


I entered the room. She motioned to the table with a soft lilt of her head. I shoved the carcass off the table and took its place. She gazed down at me, lovingly, “Yes, I think you’re ripe enough now.”


I was ready. We were strangers no more.


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