Chapter 1: new beginnings
If you had told me that I would be finishing up the last half of my senior year at a high school on the other side of the country, I would've laughed in your face. If you then explained that I would be living with my sister, the antithesis of myself, well then I'd plum fall on the floor. And if you said it was because my father had received a promotion that would cause he and my mother to move outside of the country...let's be real. I wouldn't have believed any of it.
But there I was, in the passenger seat of my sister's car, the backseat and trunk stuffed with all of my belongings. We'd been driving for two days already, staying in sketchy motels when neither of us could stay at a safe level of coherence. I wondered how much worse it would be to just lean the seat back and try to sleep that way. But there was too much stuff behind me, so it was sleezy stays until we reached the West coast. Cara hardly let me drive at all, even when her eyes involuntarily started to drift shut. She had the notion that my driving was terrible and I'd manage to get us both killed, but that couldn't be further from the truth. I drove just fine.
When I wasn't driving, which was the majority of the time, I tried to occupy myself with a book or my phone. But the cell reception was spotty at best and all of my books had been read at least three times over, if not more. There wasn't much to do other than stare out the window and admire the scenery. Well, if you could call it that. Miles upon miles of field or forest, each one looking identical to the last. The only indicator that we weren't driving in circles was the little towns that we passed through here and there for food, sleep, and potty breaks. But even they were starting to look the same. Thank God we hadn't taken the scenic route.
The sun was starting to set just to the left of our course, streaking various shades of red, orange, and pink across the sky. At least the sunsets were beautiful. I could tell that Cara would want to stop soon. She'd been driving all day, minus the hour or so around lunch that she had relinquished the wheel to eat a cheeseburger. She wouldn't have much juice left.
It was the first word she'd spoken in hours. Who knew how loud silence could be until you had to endure a day of it? My stomach gave a feeble growl at the thought of food.
"Gettin' there," I huffed, still eyeing the scarlet light bouncing off a few wispy clouds.
"We'll stop at the next town and get something there. Then turn in early so we can get a jump on the day tomorrow."
This trip was taking a lot longer than it needed to and Cara knew it as well as I did. She was smart, having graduated two years ahead of her peers. Why was she so hell bent and determined to not let me drive more than 60 miles on open road?
We were close to some type of town now. A few signs rushed to meet us as we shot down the highway. One of them advertised a diner on Main Street, promising cobbler and hamburger steak.
"Let's eat there," I motioned to the raggedy billboard as we passed it. I was getting a little tired of fast food. Cara nodded and turned off the highway onto a local road, making our way to downtown at a much slower pace. A couple of cars lined the sidewalk in front of the little shops around the heart of the town. The quaintness of it all reminded me of home. A barber shop here, a boutique there. And then the diner I'd seen the sign for, Rodge's. It looked to be the busiest place in town. Only a few spots remained open, farthest from the door.
Cara pulled in and brought the car to a stop. How wonderful it felt to stretch my legs, no, my whole body! I reached to the sky, eyes closed and arms spread wide. There was just the slightest bit of warm from the sun now, almost undetectable due to the winter chill. Man, back at home it had barely dropped below 50.
Inside the diner, it was like the sixties had thrown up everywhere. Checkered floors, vinyl booths with stuffing poking out, and formica table tops to boot. Behind the bar were old fashioned sundae bowls and baby blue and pink tile. Kind of reminded me of the old Winn-Dixie back in Alabama. One booth remained open in the far corner. Cara and I slid- well, scooted- in on opposite sides and began looking over the menu. A nice plate of chicken fingers called my name.
"I'm ready to be back in Washington," Cara rubbed her eyes hard before blinking several times. The lines around her mouth were more noticeable than usual. She was only 30, way too young to be developing frown lines. I wondered if she was using the moisturizer I had recommend a month ago. A waitress appeared at our table, notepad and pen at the ready.
"What can I get you ladies," her words were more of a statement than a question. She didn't bother to look at either one of us.
"Um, I'll have the chicken finger plate with fries and honey mustard, please. And a Dr. Pepper."
I so could have used a large sweet tea right now but highly doubted it would be available anywhere this far from the Mason-Dixon. She'd probably think I wanted hot tea with a lemon slice. No thanks.
Cara ordered a salad and water for herself. Much healthier than what I'd gotten. I could worry about carb and sugar intake once we'd made it to Forks. For now, it almost felt like a vacation. Like we were in this liminal space between my old home and my new home. A boring vacation perhaps, but once we had everything settled, it would all become too real. I'd hold on to this feeling as long as I could.
The diner was slowly emptying out as we waited for our food. Couples trickled out to the parking lot that was now lit only by the neon sign and the lights off of Main Street. There were only a few occupied tables left: a family of three, some girls my age that kept laughing at what each other said, and a booth of what looked like construction workers. They'd probably be the next to leave, judging by their empty plates. The silence between my sister and I stretched out like a sea of choppy water. Sometimes it was hard to figure out the right words to say to Cara. This was one of those times.
"I bet your chicken fingers are holding up the order," she sighed, throwing me an exasperated look. Of course it was my fault our order hadn't been ready immediately.
"Sorry," I half mumbled, not wanting to meet her eyes. "Why don't you let me drive tonight while you sleep? We would get back a lot faster."
Cara sighed loudly.
"No. I don't want you driving so late at night, especially with me asleep."
I sipped on my Dr. Pepper slowly, again at a loss for the appropriate things to say that wouldn't make her anymore irritated than she already seemed. I hated the tension between my sister and I that seemed to spring up out of nowhere. Ten years apart and we still didn't get along the best. Thankfully, our waitress picked that moment to set down a bowl of sad leafy greens and a hot plate of freshly fried chicken. My stomach gave a much stronger rumble than earlier. I dug in, not bothering that the tenders burned the ends of my fingers as well as my tongue.
"Try and hurry so we can find a place to stay before it gets too late."
Cara had the unique ability of acting like a bossy mother rather than an older sister. My parents always said it was because she cared about me and felt responsible for my safety. I think she just liked the power. It's why she insisted on treating me like her baby sister, not younger sister. But this time, she did have somewhat of a point. The sun was completely set and night in an unfamiliar town was not where two young women needed to be alone. My eyes wandered around the diner, peeking at the other patrons, our waitress leaned against the bar with a bored look on her face, and the little patterns on the speckled tabletop. The Elvis themed clock above the bathrooms read seven 'o' clock.
The neon letters shone like a beacon. No, that wasn't quite right. Beacons were hopeful, good signs. This was an omen. A bad one.
Cara heaved a large, dramatic sigh and slammed her door shut for the third time. This was the last motel for another fifty or so miles. Sleeping in the car started to sound like our only option. I saw the look in my sister's eyes. The look of defeat, of knowing she would have to give in and let me behind the wheel for a couple of hours while she caught up on sleep. There was no way she could make it another minute on the road. Her fingers drummed anxiously on the steering wheel, before yanking the door open.
"Come on," she grumbled. I hopped out of the car and hurriedly ran to the driver's side, practically throwing myself into the car. Cara's eyelids were already drooping as I buckled my seat belt and started the car. By the time it was in drive, her head rested on the center console. Not the most comfortable sleeping position, but it would do for now. I settled my hand on her hair and gave it a little ruffle. Cara didn't respond with anything more than a light snore. A surge of ache, like my chest was tightening around my heart, shot through my body. So that was how she had been feeling. Cara reminded me a lot of Darry from The Outsiders. And I guess I could be a lot like Ponyboy and Sodapop. I was smart, but not always practical. With me, Cara saw the world from the perspective of a responsible adult. And I, the curious, reckless kid sister that would undoubtedly forget to put my head on in the morning if it wasn't attached to my body already. I guess I could cut her some slack, though that worked both ways. I wasn't nearly as ditsy as she made me out to be.
The full moon illuminated the sky just enough to see the silhouette of foothills and mountains on either side of the road. Instead of lush green grass like back at home, the side of the road was littered with scrubby brush and hard baked sand. I thought any second, some wild animal would spring out in front of my headlights.
There it was again. That liminal feeling. Like walking around a school at night or stopping to pee at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. It was like time had halted and the only real part of the world was everything I could see with my own eyes. Cara's cramped car, filled to the brim with my stuff. The heavy silence that felt like another person in the car. I started thinking about what was waiting for us at the end of our trip. For Cara, we were just heading back home. For me, I was about to be surrounded by complete strangers in the most unfamiliar place. The more logical part of my brain assured me that starting a new school in a new town wasn't all that unusual and people did it all the time without any issues. But I'd never done it. And if I had planned to, that plan would have included my parents being there, too. The rest of my brain, the more emotional part, had spun this whole fantasy about what life would be like from here on out. Maybe I'd have a life like something out of a romance novel where the main character is this soft, pastel pink vibing girl that sits in coffee shops and sips caramel macchiatos while reading her newest find from the thrift bookstore from down the road. That's how I imagined it anyway.
But with each westbound mile we gained, that light, dreamy feeling slipped away, replaced by the more concrete reality of my situation.
I was going to live with my sister in Forks, Washington, the most dreary place in existence.