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The train car rattled and rumbled into the dusk, and Morgan Faust clutched the edges of her sketchbook to keep it from sliding off her lap. The light in the car was dim, much too dim for Morgan to see the pages of the book, but she held the graphite pencil just above the paper anyway, waiting for inspiration to strike. Her fingers trembled as they struggled to keep their grip on the pencil. The train passed through a tunnel, jolting sideways, and the pencil fell against the patterned carpet. Morgan’s eyelids drooped.
Morgan gasped slightly as her eyes sprung open. “What?” she mumbled.
“You dropped this.” A woman sitting behind her had stood, retrieved the pencil, and placed it carefully on the seat next to Morgan.
“Oh. Thank you,” Morgan said, and slipped the pencil into the front pocket of her bag.
The woman was still hovering in the aisle. “We’ll be in Westborough in the next few minutes. You might want to pack up your things.”
Morgan’s gut told her to be cynical. Thanks, Mom. Her upbringing told her to swallow her pride. I had no idea. Thank you for letting me know. And then she had spoken, and she couldn’t recall which it was. The woman bowed her head and returned to her seat regardless. Perhaps she hadn’t said anything.
The train shuddered to a halt and Morgan retrieved her large hiking backpack from underneath the seat. When she stepped onto the platform, she was welcomed by a humid gust of Massachusetts summer air. The sun had set, but the temperature hadn’t dropped, even in the shade. Morgan tightened her sweater, which was tied around her waist, and began the walk to the front of the station.
Parked out front was a grey Prius, dented and scratched from years of wear and tear. Morgan knew this could only belong to her former best friend, captain of her high school’s volleyball team, and quite possibly the most fashion-forward trumpet player the town of Langford had ever seen. To confirm her guess, Morgan rapped lightly on the car window with the back of her knuckle. With a weak squeal, the window rolled down, revealing the freckled chocolate face of Jazmyn Degrassi, known affectionately to most as Jaz. Her lips parted in a half-smile, revealing a perfect row of teeth. “Get in, moron,” she drawled. “I don’t have all night.”
Deftly, Morgan reached through the window, pulled up the child lock, and opened the car door. “Do you have until midnight?” She swung her pack into the back row of seats, then pulled the seatbelt over her chest and struggled to get it to click.
Jaz leaned her head back against the headrest and exhaled slowly. “Yeah, I do – that seat belt is finicky, you really have to jam it in there – but after midnight, I have to watch Jessie at home. It’s Carter’s baseball night.”
Click. A moment later, the SUV lurched forward.
“So he’s still playing?”
“Yep. As long as he has feelings in his arms, he’ll play.” Jaz turned sharply onto a country road, and Morgan tried to be discreet as she clutched the side of the seat for balance. “And I guess as long as you have feeling in your fingers, you’ll draw. Right?”
Morgan shrugged and replied, “Yeah, I guess.”
“Mind if I turn on the radio?” Jaz turned the volume up before receiving an answer. It was an old 80’s tune – Morgan couldn’t name it from memory – and Jaz bobbed her head to the beat, occasionally tapping the side of the steering wheel. A few minutes later, over the music, Jaz asked, “So why are you here?”
“In your car?” Morgan quipped. “Because you picked me up.”
Jaz groaned. “Don’t be such a smartass. Why are you back in Langford?”
“For the summer photography program. At the community college.”
“I never thought I’d see the day that you enrolled in community college.”
Morgan sighed. “Neither did I.”
“What? Sorry, the radio’s so loud.”
“It’s nothing,” Morgan said dismissively.
The SUV took a right onto a dirt road, and after a couple minutes of being jostled, Morgan caught sight of their destination: a scenic overlook, framed with evergreens and wildflowers. Jaz parked at the base, and then the two of them began the brief trek to the ridge of the overlook. Cicadas whined and squirrels chirped as they approached. A faint breeze wafted by, ruffling what little hair Morgan already had. They took a seat at the edge of the steep bluff. In the distance, the wind carried hints of sirens and late-night neighborhood games.
Langford was small, with a population of about four thousand. It was home to several neighborhoods, an elementary/junior high school, a high school, a Wal-Mart, a movie theater, and a couple chain restaurants. The community college Morgan would soon find herself attending was about ten miles up the road, practically in the middle of nowhere. Suburban bliss, as most of the residents liked to call it. Morgan couldn’t find bliss anywhere in it. It suffocated her, smothered her. As soon as she received her diploma, she escaped to Portland. The freedom and the rain had rescued her.
And now she needed another credit to receive her fine arts major, and somehow Langford Community College had one of the best.
Jaz broke the silence. “Nobody’s going to buy your story, you know.”
“My story?” Morgan repeated.
“The whole community college thing.”
“It’s real. I actually do need the credit. For my major.” She combed her fingers through her bangs. “Look, you stayed, and that’s fine. I’m coming back, and that should be fine too.”
“So it’s fine,” Jaz replied. “But you don’t want to be here. Not in Langford.”
“No. I don’t.”
“And that’s why people won’t buy it,” Jaz said, pulling out a box of Camels and a metallic pink lighter from her back pocket. “They’ll think there’s something else going on. You don’t pull a rebellious stunt like you did and then come crawling back. You gotta commit. Want one?” she added, balancing a cigarette between two fingers.
“No, I don’t smoke,” Morgan muttered.
Jaz chuckled, her teeth cradling the lit cigarette. **************
“I don’t,” Morgan insisted. “Not anymore.”
“So you’re off your high, then? Coming back down from last summer?” Morgan shrugged, but didn’t answer. Slowly, Jaz blew out a thin grey cloud, whistling quietly as she did it. She picked a stray curly hair out of her Neptune blue eyes. “I’m glad we’re not strangers,” she confessed after a moment.
Morgan grinned, grateful to have gotten something sentimental and genuine out of Jaz. “Me too,” she said.
They spent a little while there, legs dangling over the house-lit abyss of county roads and far off games of Kick The Can. Then the mosquitoes emerged, so Jaz and Morgan made their way back to the car and drove back down the road in near silence. The headlights on the asphalt and hum of the engine became a soporific blur. Finally, they pulled into the driveway of Morgan’s childhood home, an old Dutch colonial with a white roof and blood red shutters. There was only one light on in the house – the kitchen – so her mother must have been the only one awake, doing some late night dishes.
“When are we going to hang out?” Jaz asked as Morgan was grabbing her backpack.
“We just did.”
“No, I mean like hang out. Catch up on stuff. Get the gang back together.”
Morgan slung the pack over her shoulder. “I wasn’t aware there ever was a gang.”
“You know what I mean.”
She shut the door and leaned in through the open window. “I’ll call you.”
As Morgan’s boots crunched the gravel as she walked the path to her front porch, she heard the SUV roll away, muffled 80s music pumping behind the rolled-up windows. Cautiously, she stepped onto her front porch and knocked on the door, hoping she wouldn’t wake up more members of the household than she needed to. She heard something hit the kitchen counter, probably a plate, and footsteps nearing the door hurriedly. A soft series of clicks, and the door opened to reveal her mother.
Emily Faust was almost fifty years old, but it wasn’t obvious from a cursory glance. Even though it was midnight, she still wore a bright patterned blouse and slacks – her work clothes. Her hair fell in soft grey waves around her shoulders. She didn’t have wrinkles so much as she had smile marks, and she was putting them to use now. Noiseless, her expression hung somewhere between shock and delight.
“You didn’t tell me… you didn’t say you were…” she stammered. “I mean, you mentioned a few days ago that you might pop down to visit us but I didn’t realize you’d be here right now!” She grasped Morgan by the shoulders and pulled her in for a tight hug. They remained there for a moment, suspended, before Morgan’s mother let go and stood in the foyer, hands on her hips and tears welling up in her eyes. She sighed, puffing her cheeks out. “Your brothers will want to see you,” she finally said, reaching behind Morgan to close the front door. “But they’re asleep right now, so I’ll let them know in the morning. I can make waffles. You still like waffles, right? Of course you still like waffles. It hasn’t been that long. There are muffins in the freezer if you’re hungry, and grapefruit soda in the pantry if you need something to drink. Honey, you haven’t said a word, are you okay?”
“I’m great!” Morgan blurted, then, lowering her voice, continued, “I just had a long day is all. Jaz and I went to the old overlook.”
“You didn’t come by here first?”
“It’s on the way. And I only got in about an hour ago,” she lied.
“Okay. Well, make yourself at home. Your old room is exactly how you left it.”
“No, I straightened it up,” her mother admitted, somewhat sheepishly.
Morgan tried to make as little noise as possible as she lugged the pack upstairs and down the narrow hallway to her bedroom. She closed the door behind her and flicked on the light. Furniture was sparse except for a mahogany bedside table, an ages-old metal coat stand, and a twin bed with a faded gold comforter. Her mother was right – it was almost exactly as she had left it – except that her bed was neatly made, her stacks of CDs organized in piles by the window, and the clothes from the floor had been washed and hung in the closet. It was as if she was coming home after a long day of school, and not after eleven months of it.
She set her backpack on the ground and began to unpack everything she had brought with her: a week’s worth of clean clothing; her laptop, hairbrush, toothbrush, and headphones; her DSLR camera; an array of charging cables and USB connectors. Morgan set her camera carefully on the bedside table and hung the clothing in her closet. Then she shoved the rest of her belongings into an empty corner, fumbled for the light switch, turned it off, and made a running leap for her bed. It was something she had done since childhood. It used to be infallible protection against monsters that lurked in the darkness, especially underneath her bed. Over the past years, Morgan had come to realize that monsters weren’t constrained to the darkness, but she liked the running leap anyway. Maybe it was the illusion of safety.
• • •
“Mom! Alex is in the shower and I need to get in!”
“I am not! I’m downstairs! Mom, Aaron is telling a lie!”
“Well, somebody’s in the shower!”
Gingerly, Morgan wrapped a bath towel around her waist as she listened to her twin brothers argue hoarsely outside the bathroom. Part of her was frightened to open the door, knowing that her brothers didn’t know she was home yet. She wasn’t afraid of scaring them. She was afraid that revealing her presence without proper introduction would raise questions she wasn’t ready to answer. A couple minutes passed, and then Morgan heard her mother call Aaron and Alex downstairs, evidently to give her privacy. Morgan saw the opportunity to run and took it. As she tiptoed back to her bedroom, dressed in only a bralette and off-white towel, she heard,
“Mom, there’s someone up there!”
“It’s just your dad.”
“Dad stomps a lot louder than that.”
Once she was fully dressed, Morgan snuck downstairs to where she could see the dining room. Her brothers were seated opposite each other at the table, munching down blueberry waffles, their cell phones lying face-up beside their plates. They were both ten years old, a bit portly, with wild dirty blonde curls and sea green eyes. Her father Eric sat at the head of the table, his frame hinting at his years of college football, reading the morning paper through thick-paneled reading glasses. Her mother was at the stove, and Morgan could smell scrambled eggs from her perch on the stairs. It made her mouth water.
She took a deep breath, then cleared her throat to make her presence known. Three heads snapped up, and then her brothers began to shout.
“Morgan! What are you doing here?!”
“You cut your hair! You look like a boy!”
“I knew I heard someone upstairs!”
When the screaming died down, Morgan sat down with a plate of waffles and eggs. Her father still hadn’t said a word, undoubtedly disapproving of her haircut, her sudden appearance, or both. Aaron and Alex bickered quietly. As Morgan was clearing her dishes into the dishwasher, her mother sighed loudly, trying to command attention.
“I’m heading to work in a few minutes. Morgan, do you want me to drive you anywhere?”
Morgan shook her head. “No, I was planning on hanging out with Jaz today.”
“Yep. She’ll be here in the next couple minutes.”
“Well, if you need anything, just call. Your dad has a client today so he won’t be available.” She grabbed her leather purse from a hook on the wall and closed the front door quietly. A few seconds later, Morgan’s cell phone rang, and she answered it hastily.
“Morgan? It’s Jaz.”
“I know. I have caller ID.”
“Can you meet me outside in, like, ten minutes?”
“Okay, great.” There was a pause on the other line. Morgan heard Jaz exhale slowly. “There’s someone we need to talk to,” she said.
“Who’s that?” Morgan asked, bewildered.
Jaz chuckled. “You’ll see.” Click.
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