Laura comes home to see her room scraped clean of all her belongings and piled in duffel bags in the living room. Her heart skips a beat before she rushes into James' room to see him packing too.
"What the hell is this?" she cries.
His back is turned to her. For a few moments all he does is rummage through his things, pulls out a long t-shirt and tosses it into a trash bag.
James rests on his haunches and looks around the room, assessing. "We're moving, Laura. Even you can see that," he says levelly.
"Why? Where?" she presses.
He stands and dusts off his pants.
Laura hates the drive there, she hates the unpacking, she hates the Chinese they order for dinner that night, and she even hates the name of the new school and the fact that she has to spend her senior year getting used to new people and making new friends. She's been questioning him all day on varying subjects including his sanity and what he hopes to accomplish by moving out of Ashfield, to which he replies, "You were a cocksucker in Ashfield. And I was, as you put it, an old pervert. We're starting over here."
After Laura stomps off, he adds, to no one in particular, "I'm James Sunderland. And this is my daughter, Laura Sunderland."
He hopes the ghosts they left behind won't follow them here, but he isn't holding out for it.
The day starts like any other. The morning comes with the chirping of birds and the too bright rays of light slicing through the shutters and stinging his eyelids, forcing him awake. He doesn't see the signs until the the coffee's brewing.
She isn't downstairs, lounging in the kitchen, her weary eyes staring into a bowl and her cheeks pouched with cereal, her book bag slouched against the foot of the stool she'd be sitting on. He thinks she's slept in, so he goes upstairs and lo and behold, she isn't there.
James doesn't officially begin to wonder until he sees she's not in the bathroom, his bedroom, out in the backyard, or even walking to school. They're only two blocks from the high school. He'd catch her walking there from the porch. He grumbles. She could have woken up earlier than him and went to a friend's house for breakfast. Except that theory doesn't hold up when it's 6 in the morning - far too early to leave. And Laura always tells him where she's going - be it via text, note, something. He's slapped the shit out of her too many times for her to forget.
He rubs his temples and his legs feel like running somewhere, but he doesn't know where she'd go off to, so there's nowhere to get to.
Then the panic sets in. Blood sears through his veins and his heart feels like it's doing this balancing act on a thin rope, teetering on the edge of falling and shattering on the ground, much to the horror or amusement of all the spectators.
She's gone. She's gone. She's gone.
James heart jumps in immediate action and he makes for the bed, where his cellphone is, somewhere. He tosses the covers around, patting the surface and feeling under pillows.
Oh my God, oh my God—
He growls and gets on his hands and knees, crawling around on the floor for the fucking thing. Where the hell is it? He presses his head to the carpet and squints his eyes at the narrow space underneath his bed. Dust bunnies, a stray coin or two and a bedroom slipper gone rogue. Shit.
It occurs to him that he might have put it on the kitchen counter and he runs to the kitchen, scanning the countertop, seeing nothing resembling his cell phone. Now he's about 2 seconds from popping a blood vessel—until he gets the bright idea to check the pockets of his own robe and feels the cool surface of his phone. James closes his eyes and grits his teeth. He could punch himself in the face for that.
He flips his phone open and dials Laura's number. It rings and rings. When he's sure that she's not going to pick up, he palms his forehead and and runs his fingers over his hair and down the back of his head, eyes closed at the ceiling.
Why the hell wouldn't she leave a fucking note?
He slouches down on the couch and lowers his head, his phone hanging from his hand's loose grip. James lets a shamed sigh drag out of him like a last breath. What's the use? All a cop's gonna tell him is that she's a legal adult and her whereabouts are no longer his concern, not unless he suspects foul play, and that'd just be pushing things exactly where they don't need to go. He can envision with embarrassing clarity the glare on the officer's face when Laura turns up safe and sound. She'd never forgive him. Then again, he's been beyond forgiveness for a long time.
He leans back and and slaps his thighs.
So now what?
The crisp morning air whispers through her hair and all she hears is the light slapping sound her sandals make as they pad along the observation deck. She crosses her arms as goosebumps form along her pale skin.
James is gonna be pissed for not leaving a note. Or a text. Or something.
Laura asks herself why she even cares. It's not like he can do anything about it, and she's safe, isn't she? She chose this all on her own. And if he doesn't like it, well, tough.
He fucking ruined her life.
He never let her be free for too long. She can't even count how many sleepovers he's cut short or flat out denied her, the unreasonable curfews, the constant moving. Oh, and let's not forget the drinking, the name calling and the beatings that he pretends he doesn't remember.
Her wavering, watery reflection shines back at her over the railing.
She wishes Mary were here with her.
After sending about four frantic unanswered texts, James has to go. He reaches into the hamper and sifts around until he finds a pair of crumpled jeans and shimmies them on. He plops down on the bed and shoves his feet into his sneakers. He pulls his old brown army jacket from the closet and heads out.
Children walk to school and cars drive through the streets in the morning rush. It's 7:14 am. He fears the longer he waits, the farther away Laura will be. She has a friend in Indiana that visits every few months, so for all he knows she could have hitched a ride with him to live in Indiana. That'd be putting a hell of a lot of distance away from someone she can't stand. His frown deepens. Sure, it sounds drastic, but at the tender age of 8 Laura had already the wit about her to escape from the orphanage and hitch a ride with Eddie to a town she's never been before in the hopes of finding his wife. Laura said she had faked a bad stomach virus by sticking her finger down her throat. When James asked why, she said, "The hospital wasn't the orphanage."
If she can get that desperate to leave a place, who knows what she'll do now that she's older, wiser, and more able?
He goes into the garage to see his car gone. If that isn't Laura making a break for it, he doesn't know what is.
James copes with these thoughts with motion. The faster his legs go, the more paranoia he can manage. Until he remembers that he doesn't know where he's going. So James stops at the corner of an intersection and thinks quick. He can start by going to places that she'd frequent. The mall, the theater, Katie's house.
But without a car he's confined only to where his feet can take him. He doesn't want to have to do this, but James takes out his cell phone and calls his father.
"Hello?" he hears after three rings.
"Dad," James breathes, "I need your help."
"James? That you?"
James slaps his thigh. "No, Dad, it's your other son. Jeff."
A hoarse laugh like a chimney being aired out is what he hears, almost as if he's breathed in dust and is trying to cough it out, but he's having such a kick out of doing so.
"Dad," he presses.
"Sorry, sorry. What's the matter, son?" his voice is gravelly yet soft. James is reminded how that can both comfort and annoy him. On one hand, his father's always been a mild person, disinclined toward any set of convictions and untethered by even the harshest of opinions, but on the other hand, he's too damn mellow for his own good and he won't take a stand even for something he really believes in, choosing rather to keep the peace. James doesn't want any of those qualities rearing their heads now, but considering James' past behavior, Frank just might take Laura's side in this and let her remain lost until she decides to come back. He almost always takes Laura's side.
"Dad, I need you to listen to me. Laura's taken the car and she's gone off somewhere. I need you to pick me up so we can look around. I'm about two minutes from tearing out my own hair."
"Oh, uh," Frank dawdles, already so unsure. James could have expected this. "Are you sure she just didn't take the car for a drive?"
To keep from exploding in a public space, James takes in a breath and keeps his voice level. "Laura is 17 and a pain in my ass. If she took the car just for a joyride, she'd have said as much. Are you aware she's supposed to be at school right now? The high school is a 10 minute walk from our house. Why would she take my car? Think."
He waits for Frank to get the message. It takes his father a moment, but lightening flashes in his voice and he exclaims, "Don't tell me, she took off to skip school!"
James closes his eyes and swallows, taking in calming breaths through his nose. "Something like that, Dad. Something like that."
James has his arms crossed over his chest, making masticating movements with his jaw. He wants to scream and pummel the dashboard and announce blaringly for his father and anyone in the immediate vicinity to hear that Laura is a cunt bitch who's about to get a red hand mark on her skinny pale ass, but that's perhaps too abrasive a response for Frank's heart condition.
"Maybe she's just having some trouble over there. You know, new house, new school, all these things you gotta get used to again," Frank offers.
His son shuffles in his seat, exhaling an impatient breath and resting his arm on the window ledge. "'S not that, Dad." he responds.
Frank looks sideways at James. "Don't yell at her, son," he says, "Being a teenager, especially a girl, ain't easy. Especially with someone like you. Life's hard for everybody one way or the other."
James wants to turn to him with a scowl, but instead stares a bit slack jawed at him. Frank knows next to nothing about how things are at home between Laura and James, and if he knew, he wouldn't be driving James anywhere. But Frank isn't completely stupid. At the very least he knows James isn't exactly a ray of sunshine, but he's also acknowledged that Laura can be difficult. Sometimes James forgets how understanding he can be. Perhaps his mildness isn't a weakness but a learned strength.
James slumps back into his seat and rests his chin in his hand, turning to the window.
Laura's been missing for four days and four nights. James calls the police, and a search party is formed. Neighbors and police dogs help James and Frank scour the streets, the woods and even some farmland way out in the boonies. Somehow James spends more time placating the worries and deepest fears of his neighbors than anyone spends placating his. It never once hits James that Laura could really be dead. He refuses the possibility out of anger and maybe sheer foolishness. He'd only called the police because Frank wouldn't allow her to be missing for a whole day and not fracture a hip bone over it. Despite not wanting to, James thought he'd speed things up by telling a lie. He said Laura didn't know how to drive, so someone must have taken her.
But he knows she can't be dead. She took his car and there's be a million places she could be, anywhere she'd escape. A teen girl can be very resourceful when need be.
And then it hits him.
James sits up in bed after an exhaustive day of searching. The cops have been calling him on and off, telling him she's in one place, but they'll search another. Essentially, useless information. The prolonging of dumb hope. But none of that matters now.
He knows where she is.
James throws the covers off and shuffles his clothes on, not even bothering with socks or his watch because every moment he waits is one more second wasted. He tiptoes through the living room, buttoning his jacket and slicking his hair back, eying the keys on the kitchen counter. He snatches them, stifling the clinking with clenched fists. He delicately opens the shelves underneath the countertop. Spoons and forks in one. Ladles, measuring cups, knives and turkey basters in another. He tries the last one, and sees a shelf filled with old take-out menus for various Italian and Chinese restaurants, some coupons, an old pair of scissors, and an open packet of screws. After some shuffling around and a look over his shoulder to make sure he hasn't woken his father, he finds the pocket flashlight. His bigger one broke after a botched attempt to fix a leaky pipe in the basement. He ended up having to call someone else to take a look at it. He remembers running up the steps and closing the door, his body pressed against it and panting hard. Laura's voice startled him. He jumped and asked what she wanted. She asked if he fixed it, and he shook his head, feeling the sweat on his temples. "It was dark. Too dark," he rasped. Laura didn't need another reason to believe James was pathetic, but she got one anyway. It's so easy to get caught up in the past. Just for tonight, he can't afford to do that.
James takes one last glance at Frank sleeping on the couch. He'd insisted James needed emotional support and couldn't be left alone. As much as he hates to admit it, it's true. James couldn't very well get smashed and crash his car into a ditch when his father's here for the sole purpose of helping him through this. It'd be a death in bad taste. And anyway, he can push something like that to another day, because he's going back.
Back to where it all began.
Hands on the steering wheel, James peers out at the road. The yellow line goes on for what seems like forever. He remembers, years ago, when he drove all night just to get his mind off of things. Mary lay in her sickbed, tossing and turning, and James was gradually numbing away to nothing, resolving never to feel so long as he could outrun it. It worked well for a while.
He feels his heart begin to thump and his blood quickens as he passes the sign that says he just left Brahms and the next right will take him straight through to Silent Hill.
It's no secret he hasn't been here in more than a decade. Not since that hellish year, 1994. He still remembers it like he only escaped a few days ago. Eddie, Angela, those monsters… and that Red Pyramid Thing. It all seems like a long, bizarre dream, a maze of decrepit buildings, filled with fear, sweat, and desolation. The radio's spurt of static made his heart thrash around like a bird in a cage. He remembers figures approaching, making noises like no animal he'd ever heard of.
Funny, he still had half a mind to turn himself in after Silent Hill. Maybe prison wouldn't be so bad after what he'd been through. Laura could go to a better home. Only if she didn't want to stay. James could beat himself over the head with it. She wanted to stay with him. And look how he's repaid her.
James' fingers drum on the rimmed steering wheel. He's mentally preparing himself, albeit doing a shitty job of it. He knows he's close.
Who could mistake that sudden shroud of fog?
His car grounds to a halt and the asphalt crunches one last time under the wheel. He turns off the engine. He knows cars aren't very welcome. It seems a funny thing to think, but the town prefers you on foot. He'll oblige this old friend one last time. He steadily approaches, taking note of every sound, feeling the glaring absence of any means of defense, just as it had been the first time. He steps out, not bothering to close the door of the car and running up to the gaping maw. The edges of jagged pavement drop off into nowhere. Years ago, this is what kept him from leaving. Now this is what's keeping him from entering. The world ends here. James shakes his head at it.
It won't let him through.
How? His heart thumps in his chest. It can't be. He was trapped here before, and now it won't let him in.
Two hours pass.
James had parked the car on the shoulder near the tree line. In that time he'd fallen asleep. He tries to rub the sleep from his eyes. He would turn on the radio to fill the surrounding area with some noise but he knows that he'll only get static. Unsurprisingly, cell phone reception is non-existent as well. The small red words OUT OF RANGE stare back at him and he's tempted to smile just for the sake of finding humor in a fucked up situation, but thinking of Laura out there by herself at the mercy of whatever nightmare that place conjured up for her kills any mirth he could try to summon. It doesn't take a genius to figure out there's no way into town. A steady stream of fog has been keeping him from further exploring, not that there's anything to see anyway. He hears the hoots of owls, the ruffling of the underbrush, the leaves shaking in the breeze. He has nothing here but a knot in his stomach and his own uselessness to keep him company. He hopes, he prays, as he often does, but always expects the worst. That is, after all, what life has taught him to do. You end up less disappointed that way.
Except he wants to hope for something better than a shitty outcome because this is Laura. His inability to help her in a time of need, a dire situation with too many ways of going wrong, finally shows him that all the fights they've had don't mean shit. All the yelling and the screaming and the hitting, the bar hopping, coming home drunk and slapping Laura to the ground when she tried to wrestle the bottle from him… These things, once so abrasive and acidic to recall, flow through him like water. He loves her, despite all he's done. All the names he called her. All the things she did to him in spiteful return. He knows what's important to him now.
He closes his eyes and wonders if she'll ever return.
James is startled by the rapping against his window, his heart nearly leaping into his throat. He looks around frantically, gripping the edges of the felt seat with tense hands. He turns his attention toward the driver's seat window, and a dirty figure is pressed against it. He blinks his vision clear and his breath hitches.
Laura. He swings open the door and she crashes into him and he latches on like a lifeline. She smells like a sewer. She's damp and trembling, sobbing into his shoulder and clutching at his clothes like he's the last man on Earth. He can't take the rush he's feeling, everything all at once. She's holding him like she understands.
She understands everything and it fills James with despair.
"I'm sorry," he says, and he can't even look at her. There's so much to say and yet it wouldn't mean anything at all.
Her eyes are somewhere else, quiet and despondent. Frank is just coming down from a swell of emotion. He squeezes her hand, seemingly unoffended by her smell and appearance. She's too unfocused for tasks like showering or eating, but she gulped down water like a camel and spent a lot of time just breathing, staring at nothing. Technically the cops are still looking for her, but James is so physically and emotionally exhausted the thought of adding any factors makes his bones ache. He doesn't think it wise to ask her what she's seen, so he stays quiet.
It's been a few days. Frank takes care of Laura while James is at work, but he's pretty much just a shadow on the wall after that. She's been eating here and there, so he can't ask for much more. She's as quiet as a mouse, taking everything without complaint. She doesn't say too much nowadays. Perhaps worst of all, she's adopted James' habits. She needs a light on, however small, before she can sleep. She prefers the light of the TV, as he does. She doesn't like loud noises, and she won't go anywhere near the basement.
James hasn't touched the liquor since; he didn't think it fit to, though it's hard sometimes to resist the inclination. He tried keeping it in plain view to resurrect Laura's tendency to dump it, but it didn't work and only made him throw longing glances toward the kitchen. He ended up dumping it himself and smashing the bottles so he wouldn't fill them with anything else. He got rid of the vanilla extract and the wine and truffle oil, even. He finds himself wanting her to be proud of him, but nothing matters to her either way. His heart tightens at it all the time.
Frank leaves her for a moment to go to the bathroom. James joins her on the couch to watch some TV, though they never pay that much attention. Their minds is always somewhere else.
"Why…" she starts, and he's startled by the sound of her voice. It is soft and light, though weary from underuse. "Why didn't it take you too?"
James decreases the space between them. He turns on his fatherly concern and hopes Laura will snap out of the fog she's in and scold him for his closeness or something, like the normal, snarky Laura would do, but it doesn't happen. She licks her lip once to help her voice, swallowing. "Why didn't… you get trapped there too? You did before, didn't you?"
James smiles plaintively at her. "Double jeopardy?" he shrugs. "Who knows."
Laura meets his eyes then, watering. Her mouth is twitching and she has a lump in her throat. "Why didn't you tell me," she cracks. The dam breaks and her arms quiver, her face reddening. Laura's always been a quiet crier, and he knows why.
She never wanted to give him the satisfaction.
James straightens and doesn't know where to put his eyes. He no longer feels worthy of her. He rubs his hands on his jeans in helplessness. Finally, all coming out in a stumble, he says, "If you want, you can leave. I—I won't bother you anymore. You could live with Dad. He'll be nice to you. He doesn't drink, either." Laura's sobbing has become audible and he squints his eyes closed. "Laura, you know I'm an idiot. A lowlife, a perverted…fucking idiot. You don't need me. I'm just an old, bitter asshole with no life left to live. And I made it a point to ruin yours just because… I could."
"Everything's changed. Nothing's the same anymore, and it will never be," she cries. She presses a hand to her chest. "I saw things, James. Those things… I can't…"
"Why didn't you tell me!" she stands, looming over him so for the first time since that hell of a town, he's made to feel small, helpless. "You were holding that in all those years and you didn't tell me. You drank and you hit me and you screamed at me, but you never once—" Laura is overcome again, collapsing on the couch. Her hands are upturned and her mouth utters words she can't bring voice to.
James bridges the gap between them and envelops her. He's readied himself for any reception, positive or negative. Instead of the slap or the shove he's anticipating, Laura brings him closer, muffling her voice in his chest. His hand buries itself in her hair and he presses his cheek to her head.
"I know you'd never believe me, Laura, but I love you. I do."
She sniffs, and pulls away, her teary eyes looking up at him, pleading and open. "You have to… promise me something."
"Whatever you want, sweetie."
She closes her eyes and a tear streaks down her cheek. "I don't want to fight anymore."
"Okay, okay." He says softly. "No more of this…push comes to shove. I don't want to fight anymore either."
She tries to smile, a little lopsided, and it doesn't reach her eyes.
He palms her cheek, "I promise."
"It isn't true, you know. That we can't start over. We're… equals now."
Laura finishes high school. James goes to the AA meetings. Things reach a tentative equilibrium.
The road is open ahead of them. Her blond hair wavers in the breeze while the trees pass and pass. In the air is the smell of earth and pine. It's nearing the end of June and the heat is searing. There's supposed to be a lake around here somewhere, but being a little lost doesn't seem to bother them. Being in motion, after all the stillness and the silence, the stifled nights and the terrible dreams, is a small blessing. The feeling of being able to go anywhere and be anyone hits her then. Laura smiles to herself.
"Your life isn't over yet, old man," she tells him. He likes to say the opposite every so often but she knows neither of them really believe it. James obliges her with a lazy smirk.
"Whenever you're done with this place, we can go… if you want." James says.
"You mean the lake?"
"I mean that town. Brahms."
Laura thinks for a time. They've come to the point that moments of silence between them are no longer uncomfortable. At length, she says, "Can we really go anywhere?"
She crosses her legs together on the dash. The sun trails behind them.
"Well… we're doing good here, I think."
James turns to her. "You think so?"
"Yeah," she throws her arms over the seat, closing her eyes to the wind. "I know we are."