Twigs pop and crackle under my feet, like I’m walking on a field of old brittle bones. I kneel and scoop up a handful of dry leaves. They turn to dust as I rub them between my fingers.
One match--one tiny spark--and they’d go up. Fire whooshing through the brush, blackening the trunks of trees, licking up to the tops.
I shiver and stand. My legs are still stiff from the plane and the drive from the airport. I’ve brought nothing but my coat with me on this walk by the river. A bitter wind blows, shaking the cottonwood trees. Against the darkening sky they look like mourners, faces twisted in agony, arms reaching toward the heavens.
A snapping sound. I look behind me. A figure stands in the shadows twenty feet away. Hands stuffed in pockets, hood up. I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. They don’t call hello or nod at me in greeting.
No movement at all. Just staring.
I’m not near the road. I picked my way through the weeds and leafless trees to get to this spot. This spot away from people. Away from where anyone would see me.
I turn my back to the figure and start to walk. My heart races, but I keep my movements calm as I listen for the pop of footsteps. I don’t hear any. I hazard a look behind me again and see nothing but trees.
Maybe it was someone who needed to take a leak and was just as surprised to see me as I was to see them. Maybe it was my imagination.
When I come out of the trees and onto the dirt access road, I pluck another dry leaf from the ground and crumble it. I let the pieces float away in the wind.
Everything out here is a fire starter.
My right hand slaps at the top of my left arm, protecting it. Tears form in my eyes.
Twenty-four hours ago, I was standing in the snow in Ohio suburbia. A few hours on the plane and the ride from the Albuquerque airport, and now I’m here.
A dog jangles up to me, mouth open and panting in a smile. I reach down and pat him on the head. His owner pulls him away, apologizing. She gives me and my glassy eyes a long look. She’s going to ask if I’m okay.
No. I’m not.
The lights are on in the motel’s office. I told Dad that I didn’t want any dinner. He doesn’t know that I went out. He thinks I’ve been tucked away in my room unpacking.
I dash across the parking lot to the melon-colored door with the shiny brass number 2. It’s unlocked. I didn’t want to risk Dad hearing me fumble with the key. Not that I was doing anything wrong. I just went for a walk. My pockets are empty.
I close the door gently and flop down on the bed. Despite the room’s fancy amenities, it’s still a motel room. The Los Ranchitos Inn in Las Piedras, New Mexico. A thousand people have occupied this space before. They’ve slept and watched TV. Argued and had sex. Drunk beer and shuffled their kids out to the pool.
That was fifty years ago. It’s been an empty, falling-down shell since then. Where I’m lying now was shelter for someone with no home, a place for bugs, and a nest for whatever kinds of rodents live in the desert.
But not anymore. This room is perfect. It has thick, plush carpet; yellow walls with crown molding; a lavender-oil-spritzed down duvet with a million pillows. That’s what the people will come for. The people with money.
This isn’t Route 66, but they’ll still want the old-timey road trip experience--to drive their cars right up to their rooms, but then stay at a five-star hotel. Or, at least, that’s what the brochure promises.
The bathroom is amazing. Marble, granite, Jacuzzi tub, glassed-in shower. It’s bigger than my entire bedroom in Ohio.
Outside, the place looks like a scene from a dystopian movie. Slabs of fallen concrete litter the parking lot; the other rooms are missing ceilings and contain decades of debris, broken bottles, and the remnants of old campsites. The pool was filled in years ago so no one would break their neck stumbling around in the dark.
Dad’s room--number 1--is on the other side of the office. Our rooms are the models, spaces full of hope, dreams, and possibilities. Enough luxury to bring in the investors. The project is a go. Five months from now, every room in this run-down eyesore will look like mine. The outside will be freshly stuccoed, the parking lot repaved, and the original neon sign illuminated for that extra cheese factor.
They’ll charge two hundred dollars a night to stay in this desert town. In a motel in the middle of nowhere, half a mile from the interstate, along a drying river.
I stare at the pristine white ceiling from my giant lavender-scented bed. I should unpack. Release my old life into my new one.
Most of my old life, that is.
I unzip my carry-on and pull out a framed photo. Smiling faces gaze at me.
Some old things need to stay packed away forever.
FaceTime rings. My chest tightens. I don’t want to answer. They’re calling to make sure I got here okay. To look me up and down. To see if I’m a brand-new girl now that I’m in New Mexico.
I let it ring a couple more times while I take deep breaths and arrange my face into a calm, happy mask.
“Hi, Hailey,” I sing when I answer and see the bouncing, smiling face of my seven-year-old half sister appear on the screen. My stepfather, Brian, hovers in the background.
Hailey wants to hear all about my “adventure.” That’s what Mom told her I was doing--going on an adventure. I walk my phone around the room, giving her a tour. I make up a story about a famous movie star having stayed here. I don’t give her one tiny bit of doubt that this isn’t the coolest place on earth.
For my grand finale, I pull out the hat she made me and stick it on my head. It’s pink and crudely knitted, with two giant black felt eyes glued to it. Hailey is obsessed with butterflies and how some of them have markings on their wings to make predators think that the butterfly is much larger and scarier. The hat is meant to help me feel brave on my adventure.
She claps her hands and laughs. Mom appears behind her. Hailey and I wave goodbye, and her father ushers her out of the room. He shuts the door, but he’s still there, standing behind Mom. Her fake smile is replaced by an anxious expression as soon as Hailey’s gone. I know she’s wringing her hands in her lap.
“How’s your father?” she asks.
“Everything is great, Mom.” She doesn’t look convinced. “The motel is nice. I got the welcome packet from Riverline Prep, and my uniforms were waiting for me.” Mom arranged everything. She wasn’t going to leave it up to Dad. She barely trusted him to pick me up from the airport.
Her voice drops to a whisper. “You can come home. Anytime. Just call, and I’ll get you a plane ticket.”
My eyes flit to Brian and then back to her. “Have you seen where I’m living?” I throw a hand out behind me. “It’s like I’m a princess.” I inwardly cringe. That was a step too far. Brian’s eye’s narrow.
I yawn dramatically. “I should get ready for bed. It was a long trip, and I’m really tired.”
Mom nods. “Okay. We’ll talk again soon. Call me if you need anything.”
My eyes land again on Brian. His face has fallen. He looks older, as if the last few months have taken ten years off his life.
I smile at Mom. “Night-night.” I hang up and place the phone facedown on my bed.
I dig through my suitcases until I find some pajamas. I put them on and crawl into bed, hoping sleep will overtake me instantly.