Strangers (Final Draft)


I never notice the elevation change as you drive through the mountains. The only thing that tips me off is the jolt of the pop in my ears. Blue mountain’s 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…”

My brother’s sage virgin 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, the scent of snapdragons blew through the vents. “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. As children, we were told to never speak to strangers. She was the stranger they were trying to warn them about, but everyone became a stranger 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 on the hillside 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 old fence posts along the road. They waited for mice daring to go near the bales of hay. At any moment, the hawks would launch from their rotted pedestals into the farms. They were kings of the sky, but not half as adept as my brother was at 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.”

It had crossed my mind. This was the first time my brother and I had been together since that summer. She was petite. Her black hair flowed past her waist. She wore a long flowy black gown like a goth princess. We had planned to make the shed our fort. We were shocked when a gentle, feminine voice carried over the tall grass.

As if 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. We weren’t allowed to leave the back yard after that. She 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 back side 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 Mom’s?” 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 prospect of seeing her again. As I opened the door, my nose was assaulted with the smell of decomposition. Horseflies swarmed a heap of flesh, a 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 said.

A maggot crawled out of the stag’s tear duct. 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 hadn’t 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 I wouldn’t let him 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 had come. 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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