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By Aaron Emmel

When the Ford F-150’s tires rattled over the cattle guard the memories hit her all at once and Samantha had to grip the wheel to prevent herself from slamming on the brakes and thrusting the pickup into reverse. For a moment when she looked out at the overgrown hay fields and the apricot trees next to the narrow concrete canal and the lilac bushes along the low rock wall she was twelve again and Lida was still alive. But she wasn’t, and Lida wasn’t, and nothing could change that, so she pressed down on the accelerator and turned onto the long dirt drive of the house she was about to force its owner to sell to her for a quarter of its listed value.

Flowering thistles were flourishing at the sides of the driveway where the rose beds used to be, and the house was badly in need of a paint job and missing roof shingles. It looked as though no upkeep had been done on it in the past 17 years.

It wouldn’t have surprised her. They couldn’t have been good years for the Coopers. And if they had been, they wouldn’t be in the position they were in now.

She sat for a full minute in the cab before she drew in her breath and stepped down onto the cracked clay beneath the truck. She inhaled the desert mountain scents of juniper and pine. There was not a single part of her that wanted to be here. But this is what her otherwise polarized parents wanted, so this was what she was going to do.

At first she didn’t recognize him. Troy Cooper was a big, balding, thirty-year-old man with a paunch. But he recognized her immediately. His look of stunned hope was so intense that she wasn’t sure she could do what she’d come for.

“Can I come in?” she asked finally.

“Sam,” he said, as if verifying that she, too, agreed that it really was her. He shook his head, maybe clearing it of the dream of the intervening decades since he had seen her last. “Yeah, of course.” He swung the door open.

She stepped in past him, cautiously, awkward around this strange grown-up version of her childhood friend, ashamed for him of his rundown place—the creaking floor beneath her lavender pumps, the dusty windows in their rotting wooden frames, the ancient sagging furniture that she vaguely remembered from her tweens—this place that he had never left during all the years since she had escaped their shared past. She was ashamed because when they had last seen each other, when he was thirteen and she was twelve, they had both seemed to be on the same trajectory. They both could have gone anywhere. But even though their starting point had been the same, clearly they had both dealt with the accident in different ways.

He remained hovering near the doorway. She felt that she should have hugged him, at least greeted him. But that would have been disingenuous. She wasn’t here to catch up with him. And, anyway, she was having a hard time reconciling this broken-down man with the energetic boy she had known.

“Do you want me to get you a beer or something?” The room was cool and poorly lit and smelled like canned soup that had been left on the stove too long. To the other side of Troy was a huge old cathode-ray tube TV. The room was otherwise occupied by a couch, a leather recliner, and an antique wooden table covered with junk mail, magazines, newspapers and a phone book. People still used phone books?

Suddenly Bill lunged toward her. She flinched. But he wasn’t going after her, he was heading for the table. He swept up a scattered mound of envelopes and shoved it into a single unsteady tower of paper. “Sorry,” he explained, “I wasn’t expecting company. It’s kind of messy in here.”

He probably didn’t want her to see the foreclosure notices. But for an instant her gaze was drawn to an address that she thought looked familiar. Then it vanished into the pile of junk mail.

“It’s good to see you again,” Troy told her, his hands tapping his sides. Echoing all of the restless energy she remembered.

For a moment she was back in the long-ago summer afternoon when she and Troy had been stalking an imagined hippogriff through the hills above their homes and they had unexpectedly heard their sisters’ voices from somewhere up ahead.

“Good onya for not letting Mr. Conklin get to you,” Jennifer was saying. The younger girls spoke to each other in Australian accents and fit in the several Australian slang expressions they knew as often as possible.

Now she could see them. Lida and Jennifer were leaning against a basalt boulder surveying their town in the valley below them. Pieces of quartz threw up sparks of sunlight in the gravel at their feet.

“Maybe someday I won’t live in a town so small that every time you do something good your teachers think you must have cheated,” Lida said.

Jennifer abandoned the accent. “He knows you’re smart. Troy says that he was just the same when he was in his class. He knows Troy is going to be a big professor and Mr. Conklin’s just stuck here, so he took it out on him.”

Samantha had just started to move out into the open when Lida grinned and said, “I bet Troy is with Sam right now.” Jennifer just laughed at this, like some secret or important message had passed between them.

Samantha had flushed. She wasn’t sure then why she was suddenly so embarrassed at Troy’s glance in her direction, but by that night she had been able to articulate it to herself: because twelve-year-old girls no longer searched for mythical creatures with older boys. She didn’t consciously avoid him after that; they just gradually seemed to spend less time together.

“Troy,” Samantha said now. She had started speaking with the intention of telling him why she was there. But she couldn’t finish the sentence. Instead she said, “I want to see the place.”

He stared at her. His hands stopped moving.

“Where it happened,” she explained unnecessarily. “I’ve never been back.”

He sucked in a deep breath, looked down, and finally nodded.

The sky seemed brighter after the dimness of the house, a burning flat sea of turquoise above them. They followed the shallow creek as it spilled over its rocky bed beneath the broad limbs of leaning cottonwoods.

As dry grass crunched beneath her feet Samantha thought of all the things her parents had said about Troy and his parents over the years. That they were reckless. Lazy. Careless. That her parents had always known the Coopers didn’t care about their kids. That what had happened was the Coopers’ fault. And for all this time she’d believed it.

She’d believed it even though her parents had never expressed any hesitation about the Coopers before the accident, and even though her parents had kept repeating the same familiar accusations after her dad started drinking, and they split, and her mom hauled herself up onto her decade-long treadmill of ill-considered relationships. And she’d believed it even though her parents were themselves demonstrably okay with the idea of a distant relative from California whom neither of them could remember meeting—and who, at the very least, they showed no interest in ever visiting—being compelled by sympathy to pay Samantha’s way through school. She’d believed it because the alternative was to believe that the worst event of their lives was a random accident that could have happened on their own property just as easily as it had on the Coopers’. She’d believed it because she’d had to.

Now the trail—weed-covered, rock-filled, but still discernable—began to take its leave of the creek and head up a slight grade. As they got closer Samantha knew she’d made a mistake. It was time to turn back. Not just from this trail, but from this whole trip. He wasn’t an idiot; he could see that something was wrong, and she was just making it worse by dragging this out.

Her ankle twisted and for a moment she was falling. She threw out her hands and stumbled forward, but she remained on her legs. If she had known she was going on a hike she wouldn’t have worn heels.

She looked up and saw that Troy had stretched out his hand to catch her. She steadied herself and walked past it.

“You’re a lawyer now.” He had been leading; now he followed her. She still knew the way.

“An attorney. Yeah.”

“And you work at a one of those big New York firms?” He asked it as a question, but then he answered it himself. “Clark, Goldstein and Jeffries.”

She felt his eyes on her, appraising her. She added letting him get behind her to her long list of mistakes today. “How do you know all that?”

“It’s online. You’re photo’s on their website.”

She slowed down so that he would have to catch up, but she didn’t give up the trail, so he had to trudge beside her through fountain grass and knapweed. “What made you look me up?”

“I wasn’t stalking you. I just wonder about what you’re doing sometimes. I try to keep up with you.”

“That’s the definition of stalking,” she said. She couldn’t keep the grimace off of her face.

“Your last year of high school you went to Albuquerque Academy.”

She didn’t answer.

“And then Dartmouth, right?”

“What about you?”

“I stayed here.”

“Right. What do you do?”

“I fix things. Machines, cars, computers. I have ads, and people bring them by.” He paused, apparently debating how much to share with her. “And I write poetry. It doesn’t really pay. But I’ve been published.”

She nodded. He could have left it there, but then he added, “You went to law school at Columbia.”

All at once she was glad she had come. There was something wrong with this underachieving stalker who had never left and apparently still felt connected to her, still lived his life vicariously through hers. She wasn’t just ready to tell him why she had come, she was eager to do so. But then she looked to her left and saw the tumble of boulders against the broken cliff face before her, looking even after all these years as though the ground beneath them had only just arrested their powerful slide, and she lurched forward and somehow she was on her knees in the dirt, swiping at hot tears that stung her eyes and cheeks.

He knelt down beside her, close to her but not touching. He looked up at the violent arrangement of earth and stone. “We put fences up. After it happened.”

The tears blurred the world around her and she saw him as he had been, her friend who had watched with her as their little sisters got closer, and then—and then it was over.

The last time she had come here, back when Lida and Jennifer were still alive, she and Troy had stood at the edge of the now-buried cave and waged a fearsome battle with wooden sticks. But the tiny cave wasn’t a cave, it was the maw of a vast underground network of mines, and their sticks weren’t wood, they were adamantine swords forged by sorcerous elves and they could never chip or fail.

Samantha stood up and tried to brush the dirt off her designer jeans, but now there were two reddish-brown patches on her knees that wouldn’t go away. “I came to take this land. My parents intend to raze your house. They want to plant a garden here and get rid of everything else so that all that anyone will remember is our sisters.” She turned and strode back down the trail.

Then she stopped. She remembered what she had glimpsed on Troy’s table. An envelope with a familiar address, a California address that she suddenly understood was fake, written in a familiar but evidently affected hand. She turned and watched Troy come slowly toward her.

“You’re the one.” She thought she said it too softly for him to hear, but he nodded.

Her entire life, from the end of high school on. The Academy, Dartmouth, Columbia. Toward the end she got scholarships, but they weren’t enough. After they divorced neither of her parents had been able to help her, and they had barely been able to do so before. But the checks kept coming, every month. And gradually, year by year, their amount grew. All that time Troy was here, working the jobs he could get with his high school diploma, sacrificing his own prospects so that she could have a life he would never have, until last year, when the checks had stopped coming. Her entire life, all of the options she had seen in front of her, it had been him.

“Why did you do it?”

The face was a thirty-year-old’s, but the blue-green eyes were the artifacts of her childhood. “Jennifer was brilliant,” he answered. “She was going to do amazing things. After she was gone I still had all these hopes for her, but nowhere to put them. Until I realized there was still you. You wouldn’t be the women they were going to be, but you were going to do your own amazing things. You could do all the things our sisters couldn’t.”

Samantha listened to the wind in the cottonwoods, the murmur of the water. She closed her eyes and thought of Lida and Jennifer. With the sense of memory she could hear their feigned Australian accents. She heard the insistent hope in Lida’s voice that the world around her would someday match the vision in her mind.

Then she opened her eyes again. She looked at the mountains around her. Here were traces of the trails she and Troy and Lida and Jennifer had blazed. Here were the swords they had wielded, the universes they had explored. Somewhere in these hills was a hippogriff that had never been found.

Samantha stepped up to Troy and hugged him, her adamantine childhood friend, the one who had never forgotten or left.


Aaron Emmel’s stories have appeared in Jitter, Liquid Imagination, Riding Light, and other publications. He is also the author of a science fiction gamebook, an historical fiction graphic novel, and numerous essays. Find him online at

image courtesy of gratisography

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