Meridian sped down route 19. I looked out at the dying vegetation: sparse trees with their dry, grey branches; pale brown plants soft and mushy, sinking in surrounding soil; miles and miles of death covering wide open land with its foggy shadows.
“You probably won’t recognize much,” Meridian said, her voice loud, matter of fact. “Lots has changed.”
“I was here…” I started. “My mother died.”
“I know, my pa was upset by that. He stayed gone for ‘bout three weeks.”
“What do you mean he stayed gone?” I asked. I thought about Mother, how she stayed gone, how we searched for her, waited, worried, and finally accepted that she had to go.
“Just wait,” Meridian turned onto Highway 1.
The dashboard rattled: Meridian hummed. I clutched my bag to my chest, eyeing the cars Meridian swerved around.
I realized we were going to Prosper Road when she took the Briar Street exit.
“What are you doing?” I gripped the door handle.
“You’ll see. I gotta make a stop…something I wanna show you.”
The houses looked the same. The road empty, brush lining its edge. Meridian slowed so we felt each bump, every dip.
“This is where you used to live with your mama and sister,” Meridian said.
“Yeah…I know that.”
“And your Nana till she died.”
At the end where our house once stood was nothing but land, long, rototilled rows of lumpy brown dirt. My throat tightened. Memory boiled in my gut. There was no trace of us, just an emptiness that settled like dust on my skin.
“Wow…” I whispered.
“Lots changed, huh?” Meridian perked.
“Why are we here?”
“I wanted to see what it looked like from this side.”
“What what looked like?”
“The woods…” Meridian got out of the car, still barefooted. She slammed her door and headed for the property. “You coming?” she shouted back at me.
I jumped out, each step towards the property slow, careful. The upturned soil seemed to come alive, cries and laughter rising.
“Come on.” Meridian walked faster towards the woods. A barbwire fence lined the perimeter now.
“It’s closed off,” I yelled.
“Scaredy Cat,” Meridian teased.
“Scared? Sage and I used to run through these woods all the time.” I mumbled to myself.
“Come on…I want to show you something.” Meridian turned to look back at me and then ran towards the fence.
I followed her like I had followed Sage, eager and uncertain; afraid to deny her requests. I wondered how she knew where we lived, what she knew about us. I wondered what was in these woods we had ventured into so many times, chasing Mother until she disappeared.
Meridian’s pace was quick. We squeezed through a thin break in the wire fence, its sharp links scratching at our clothing. She led us through the woods and onto a winding path cluttered with tree debris. It was a flat terrain dense with trees. We stepped over dead branches and ducked under low hanging ones.
“Watch out for that rock…don’t step on that mound…stay close; there are coyote,” Meridian guided. “Hurry…we losin’ light.”
“Where are we going?” I lingered.
“You can’t see in the dark, can ya?”
“Then come on,” Meridian snapped. “This should bring back memories…these woods…running…with your sister…” She sped up, her hair winding in the breeze.
“What do you mean?” I chased.
“I used to run through these woods…I seen you…and your sister.”
“Wait,” my voice was layered with fright.
“Come on…” she yelled back, the distance between us growing.
“When did you see us?” I ran after her, my feet stomping the lush ground. “When did you see us? …Why were you there?” I shouted into the air.
I kept running, hard, with urgency. Leafy vines slashed my face. The air felt thick, stuffed with layers of earthy smells. Decay hung over our heads, a warning I didn’t know how to interpret. Birds squawked, rustling through the trees. I imagined the coyote still wild but cautious as we trampled through their home. Led equally by fear and curiosity, I followed, moving my body as fast as I could. It felt like an endless race. The harder I ran the closer my mind moved towards delirium. Memories of myself running merged with the present. I reached. Yearned. Sage held my hand tight, Mother in the distance wild and tireless.
“Wait for me…” I screamed, my breath labored. “Sage…come back…” She ran faster. The ends of her dress flaring, her bare feet landing hard against the ground.
Meridian was only about thirty feet away, but panic set in. My muscles ached; they felt like rubber bands, stretching and loosening, ready to give way at any moment. Fire burned in my chest, its heat seeping through my pores, warming sweat beads as they slid off my skin and fell to the ground heavy like pebbles marking our path.
“Wait…” I screamed again, sound trapped in my throat. “Wait…” I tried again. The same raspy call escaped. Meridian was now out of sight.
The path under my feet had disappeared. I imagined we were somewhere in the middle of the woods. And now my only guide was the dimming sky. I stared up, the tips of Juniper jagged, reaching for heaven. A cool, moist breeze crawled through my hair tickling my scalp. I stopped running and stood exhausted with my hands against my knees.
“Meridian,” I screamed, this time a little louder. “Where are you?” I heard branches cracking in the distance so I ran towards the sound.
“Sage,” I cried out, catching a glimpse of the end of her dress as she slipped through the trees. “Don’t leave me…”I chased.
I ran harder, my heart floating in my chest. I felt small, flashes of faded memories flooding from the back of my mind to the front.
“Sage,” I whispered, a question I posed to the air.
I ran as fast as my legs could go which didn’t feel all that fast. I raced towards Meridian, Sage. She beckoned me, “Come on slow poke.”
I reached my hands out. Memory slipped through my fingers, soft and hazy. My body weakened. I told my right leg to rise and then the left, letting gravity pull them back down against the now soft ground.
“Sage,” I cried, this time my vocal chords straining, exploding with pain as my right foot met with a hard, rock-like protrusion. I fell face first into the mossy forest floor. My chin bounced up and then back down, blood rushing through my teeth, warm and salty. I rested there for a minute and then looked in the direction Meridian had run, the place where Sage had called for me, where memory and reality collided.
“Come on slow poke,” Sage called.
I got up and followed the sound. I ran. I ran. I ran. I ran, only I wasn’t certain if I was actually running or if it was happening just in my mind. I closed my eyes tight and let darkness cover fear now building like a volcano under my skin. When I opened my eyes I was seven years old, running through a field of knee-high wildflowers. The sun beat down on my head. Sweat slipped from my pores and stained the sides of my face, the front of my dress.
“Come on slow poke…”
“…Catch me if you can.”
I ran. I ran. I ran. I ran until running turned to longing. It pulled me inside its cage and locked me there, binding my wrists and ankles, pinning me against is sharp, wiry walls.
The sun retreated. I lay flat on the ground, blood dribbling from the corners of my mouth.
“Life is slippery,” Sage said, her voice faint, trailing off. “There’s not much we can do about that,” I perked as her voice returned, but then it was gone. All that was left was meaning.
Life was slippery. I had always teetered, but Sage was there to keep me from falling. To keep me from surrendering to fragility.