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Miles Larson huddled at his work table behind Patty’s Pawn Plus, scraping black, horrid gunk off the tray of a toaster oven. He shoved the razor blade hard against the flimsy metal, swore, shoved again, and when the razor blade clattered from his frozen fingers, Miles gripped the appliance with all his humiliation, his rage, and his sorrow and thought, I deserve so much better than this.
An unseasonably bitter October wind whipped up leaves around him, kicking a few into his face. Miles sighed and put the toaster oven down again.
The appliance was one Patty had salvaged from someone’s trash, and she’d brought it to Miles at noon while he still lay in his bed. One minute, he’d been tucked beneath three layers of clothes and four layers of covers cursing Minnesota, cursing winter, cursing Fellerman Financial for laying him off and every other business in Atlanta for not hiring him, hating Jeff and his floozy, hating his friends who forgot about him the second he left town and didn’t even bother to respond to any of his posts on Facebook—and then there had been the toaster oven, clanking against his legs.
“Get up,” Patty declared, “and fix this.”
That right there was what drove Miles crazy about Patty. She didn’t fight with you. She just told you what to do with enough butch power to make Wonder Woman herself acquiesce. In contrast, Julie had knocked on his door, nudged him gently, suggesting maybe he could get up. She promised she’d have some breakfast for him, that she even had cow milk instead of soy milk, just like he liked. Julie had been in every half-hour since nine, cooing and coddling, trying to get Miles out of bed, into a shower, and back into his life.
Patty didn’t roll that way. Patty dumped a toaster oven in your lap and shouted at you until you stopped moping and started working.
Miles now stood behind the shop, dressed in his long underwear and sweat pants and Patty’s too-big parka, fumbling with frozen fingers as he tried to scrape the baked-on gunk away. He could go inside, and probably he should, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. For starters, there really wasn’t room, and more to the point, he went crazy in there. He didn’t know why exactly, but it probably had something to do with being surrounded by the detritus of other people’s lives: the HDTVs and stereos and computers and MP3 players that people had purchased when times were better, goods that had ultimately been hocked, one at a time, to buy groceries and gas the car so the previous owners could go cash another unemployment check. It all hit a bit too close to the bone. So Miles worked outside, where his ego had space to explode, and where, when the cold dictated he had to stop and stuff his hands into his pockets to get feeling back into his fingers, he could stare off into the forest.
Miles loved this forest. If he were honest, it was the only part of Minnesota that he’d missed while he’d been gone. When he’d grown up here, he’d lived on the other side of these woods on his parents’ farm, and he’d cut through the narrow lip of the trees to Patty’s dad’s trailer to watch satellite TV pretty much every chance he could. His parents had moved to Minneapolis, and Patty’s dad had gone to jail, but the woods had remained, and every now and again, Miles still snuck inside to reminisce. He wished he dared to do that now.
He fiddled with his phone instead, checking his mail and his messages on Facebook. There were none in either place. He frowned, then scanned through his “Atlanta filter,” which was starting to feel like pouring salt in a wound, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. He scanned through page after page of people who had welcomed him at the bar, who had bought him a round and accepted his, of men he’d slept with and women he’d shopped with. He scrolled through the lives of his coworkers and his acquaintances, saw them laughing and kissing and teasing each other about the previous night out. They’d give him a quick note if he nudged them, but not once in six months had any of them instigated contact with him—not even the ones who were unemployed like himself.
Scrolling down a little farther in the feed, Miles saw a name highlighted at the beginning of a notification, and old habits made his heart flutter. Then he saw what the notification was, and his heart turned cold.
Jeff English is in a relationship.
Miles stared at the screen for a few seconds more. Then he tucked the phone back into his pocket, shoved his hands under his armpits, and walked up to the edge of the forest.
All the leaves had turned, and over half had fallen, leaving the place barren and still. Occasionally the wind would whip through, making the branches quiver and leaves rustle around in little eddies, but mostly the place was still and quiet and inviting. It was surely his fancy, but he felt as if the trees were beckoning to him, urging him to let go, to come inside. He couldn’t do that, but he did give voice to a few metaphorical scrapings of the black sludge caked against his own heart.
“I hate this,” he whispered to the forest. “I hate my life. I hate what I’ve become. I hate what I lost.” He let the fury and the sorrow rise to the top of his throat. “I hate realizing that I never really had it.”
The wind whipped up again as if in answer, and Miles shut his eyes, letting it embrace him. For a moment, it seemed warm instead of cold, and when it pulled at him, drawing him forward, he didn’t think—he simply stepped out, closing the distance between himself and the barrier of the trees.
If I keep walking, if I go into the forest, things will be better, a voice whispered in his mind. A feeling of peace stole over him, and Miles embraced it. I can keep going and never come back. In that moment, that was exactly what Miles wanted.
He took a step forward.
The back door to the shop opened, and the spell was broken.
“You about done?” Patty called. “I need you to watch the till until closing. Julie wants me to run into town for something for her soup.”
Miles startled. He felt empty, as if something great had been taken away from him, and it made him angry.
“No, I am not about done.” Miles stalked over to the toaster oven and picked up the razor blade, waving it angrily. “This shit won’t come off no matter what I do to it.” He gave the grime a particularly vicious swipe, but all it did was nearly cost him his thumb as the blade jumped the gunk and aimed itself at his other hand.
“Careful, now!” Patty scolded. “Nobody’s going to buy that if you scrape the hell out of it.”
It would have been so satisfying to throw the toaster oven against the wall, to watch the damn thing shatter into cheap metal and plastic bits. Instead, Miles settled for letting the tray clatter loudly onto the bench before tossing the blade after it, watching it skitter across the table.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll do this later.”
There was absolutely no satisfaction in receiving the glare that Patty gave him before ducking back inside the shop, and as Miles followed her through the towering shelves full of junk, he grudgingly admitted he deserved that, at least in theory. Whatever had gone on in his head at the edge of the forest had rattled him, but he had to push that aside now. He should be more gracious to Patty. She and Julie had taken him in when he had nowhere else to go, when he was bankrupt and sullen and friendless. She had given him a job and a roof over his head and a modicum of his self-respect back.
But Jesus H. Christ, did it have to be this job? And really, did you call it a roof when your house came with its own set of wheels?
I hate my life, Miles thought again, his hands clenching at his sides. I hate my life, and I would do anything and give anything to change it.
This time when the wind whipped up hard around him, it was so sharp that Miles paused, and on an impulse he couldn’t name, he turned around and looked out at the forest again. The pull of it was so strong that he swayed on his feet, and when the wind picked up again, it seemed to turn him and aim him at it, and Miles went, not interested in fighting.
“Miles!” Patty shouted. “What are you doing?”
Blinking, Miles turned back around. “I—” He frowned, then shook his head to clear it. “I’m right behind you,” he said, and followed Patty inside.
A Hispanic family browsed as Miles came out to the counter, moving in quiet symphony, scanning the goods available with expert eyes, conversing occasionally with one another in Spanish. There were three men, four children, and one woman, but the woman was clearly in charge, because one of the men—had to be the husband—kept holding up items to her, asking, “¿Y ésta?” and she kept shaking her head. The other two men conferred quietly with one another over a selection of stereos.
“Watch them,” Patty murmured under her breath, nodding at the two men. “And the kids. Don’t let anybody steal or break anything.”
“Racist much?” Miles murmured back.
Patty snorted. “Unlike most of the honkeys coming in here, these guys look like they might buy something. But if you space out like you usually do, they won’t see any point in paying for what you aren’t noticing they tuck away. And that will be true of anybody. Times are hard. If you want to survive, you look out for yourself.”
It was a grim outlook on human nature, but given what Miles had seen of Summer Hill since his return, it was also accurate.
Patty pursed her lips and shook her head. “Julie keeps saying I should do more, but she’s got no idea how close to the edge we are. I’m already doing more charity than I should be, taking their garbage. That’s why I need you fixing stuff, Miles. Toaster ovens, TVs, computers: whatever you can work your magic on, I need it.”
“Patty,” Miles said in warning, “I told you, I want to get a job again. Something in a city. Something in finance, not hobby repair. If this is about me earning my keep, I will absolutely pay you back for helping me once I get out of here. I appreciate your help, but this is not where I intend to end up in my life. This is just a temporary derailment.”
Patty turned to him and put her hands on her hips. “Miles, you don’t get it, do you? There are no jobs. Not in finance, not in anything. You’ve been looking for months, and you’ve got nothing. Yes, this is about you earning your keep. It’s also about you helping me. I don’t want a guilt check six months from now. I want stuff I can use. I want your hands and your head. Nobody fixes stuff like you, Miles. You’ve got a real skill, and I want you to use it for me and for Julie. For yourself too. There’s nothing wrong with your life, Miles. Just your attitude.”
This rankled Miles, and he wanted to argue back, to tell her he was so getting a job. He wanted to tell her the fuck if he was going to stay here and repair toasters in the backwoods—but he didn’t. He set his jaw and nodded curtly at her as he slid past her behind the counter.
He probably deserved the thin press of her lips that she gave him before grabbing her ski jacket and ducking out the door, making the bell above it jangle.
The family stayed in the shop for a solid twenty minutes, inspecting every item for sale at least twice, during which time Miles tried to watch them without looking like he was watching them. God, he hated this. He hated the store and all its cheap, sleazy, trailer-trash stock and its trailer-trash clientele. He actually liked the Latino families because they carried an air of hope and a sense of the future, though maybe Miles was projecting. The Caucasians simply seemed like a bunch of right-wing rednecks, which Miles knew was not fair and was also likely not always accurate. But he didn’t care anymore. He needed targets, and the “good citizens” of Summer Hill, Minnesota made easy ones.
He was supposed to be in a sleek office building in Atlanta, buzzing his assistant to order a latte as he went over a prospectus. He was not supposed to be tucking his fingers into his armpits to keep them warm while he gave a stony glare that wasn’t working to two jabbering children who were waving a hot pot around.
This is not the life I was meant to have, Miles thought, gritting his teeth and digging his fingernails into his sweatshirt. I’m better than this. I deserve so much better than this. The longing swept over him once again, and just as it had outside, for a second it burned in his chest, hot and angry and desperate.
A gust of wind blew up sharply against the pawn shop, rattling the cheap metal roof and sending a blast of draft through the single-paned window behind Miles. Outside the shop, the sheriff’s German shepherds began to bark. Inside, one of the children stopped running around and looked warily at the front door. Miles looked too, trying to figure out what the little girl had seen, but nothing happened, and no one came in. The little girl whimpered, though, and ran over to her mother’s pant leg.
“This,” one of the men declared, setting a small CD player on the counter.
He pulled out his wallet and began peeling off bills, which was a relief to Miles. He hated when people tried to dicker over price when Patty wasn’t around to demonstrate this was not an option. Miles rang him up and counted out his change, and as he handed it back, he happened to glance at the second man. The man buying the stereo was short and stout, but the man behind him was taller and leaner. He was also just a little bit handsome, and he smiled carefully at Miles. Miles, who was still smarting from a bad breakup. Miles, who had very little relationship confidence just now and had not had a partner outside of his right hand and Xtube for some time—Miles smiled back, and he felt his blood kick up a bit too.
Then he realized what he was doing and looked quickly away, rage and shame rushing back. Dear fucking God. He was being cruised in the pawn shop, and he was flirting back. He had to get out of here.
The thought, once spawned in his mind, would not go away, and he spent most of the remainder of the time Patty was gone twitching. He did so only inwardly while the family was there, deliberately not looking at the lean, quietly interested man and forcing a smile at the mother as she directed the purchase of a clock radio, an HDTV, and a popcorn popper. The children had calmed down, miraculously, though the young one kept repeating, “¡Vamos!” as she tried to urge her mother to the door. Miles watched them go, but he was unable to stop himself from making eye contact with the lean man before he disappeared. Oh yeah, there was an invitation there.
Miles shut his eyes to keep himself from taking him up on it.
Once the bell had stopped clanging and the shop was quiet again, Miles opened his eyes and looked around. There was no one in the place but him. Outside the dogs had quieted down, and the gravel crunched beneath the Mexican family’s tires as they pulled away. But Miles felt listless, and he was cold, so he paced back and forth behind the counter, letting his mind wander.
Oddly enough, he found himself thinking of the forest most of the time. He remembered that strange warm wind and that feeling of peace. The quiet of the shop was heavy, pressing down on him like a weight. He wanted the close, sheltering feel of the trees, the expanse of space, the fairy-like feel of it. When he’d been young, he’d wished there were real fairies there, that they would come and play with him. In fact, sometimes he’d pretended they had. When he’d been in junior high and figured out his orientation, so incompatible with Summer Hill, he’d gone into the forest to do the crying he couldn’t let his parents hear, and he’d wished, once again, for someone to take him away.
One day he’d thought the fairies had actually heard him, Miles remembered with a wry smile. One day he’d felt a breeze as if it were fingers touching his face, and he’d looked out into a nest of trees and sworn he’d seen a shining castle in the clouds before a silver lake. That alone had startled him, but when he’d heard what sounded like an animal moving through the woods, he’d gotten scared and gone back home. And actually, he hadn’t gone back into the forest after that, not until he was in high school, but then he was just cutting through to visit Patty.
Miles wanted to go into the woods now. He felt restless and aching and full of longings no fling with a handsome Mexican man would fill. He wanted the ease of his old life back. He wanted that peace, the centering feeling reaching for his dream had given him. Patty might be right. That dream might be gone. But the forest was here. He could reach for the ease the forest had given him when he was young. Right now he wanted that peace so badly that he ached.
When five o’clock came and Miles shut down the shop, he didn’t even pause to think, simply nipped around the back of the shop and headed for the woods. He felt the pressure build inside him and then release as he stepped over the border into the rustling leaves and dying undergrowth.
Miles smiled. Yes, he decided, this was what he needed. A brisk walk in crisp, October air through the woods of his youth. Just a short walk now, a short loop to say hello to the place again, but tomorrow he’d take a proper hike.
And if the fairies wanted to take him, they could damn well have him.
He’d meant the thought as a sort of joke, but he wasn’t fifty feet into the trees before it didn’t seem that funny anymore.
Something was wrong with the forest. Miles couldn’t put his finger on what it was, exactly, and part of him was convinced he was just being ridiculous, but a bigger part of him could not let go of the idea that something was very, very wrong here. It looked okay—trees, brush, muddy path, dead leaves, flowers—but it was like those hidden pictures where there was a toothbrush drawn into the bark of a tree. Something was wrong, and his brain had him on high alert because of it. Miles stood there, frowning, trying to figure out what it was.
Then it hit him. He looked down at the ground, at the small patch of silver and green at his feet.
Flowers. Flowers did not grow in Minnesota forests in October, especially three days after a hard frost.
Miles crouched down and inspected the blooms without touching them. He’d never seen flowers like them before. They reminded him of snowdrops, a flower which could bloom in Minnesota, but it generally didn’t in October. It was a flower of early spring. He could see it coming up early if the weather were unseasonably warm, but it was quite the opposite. The weather this fall was cold, even for Minnesota.
Though, now that he thought about it, the forest was distinctly warmer than the area around the shop had been.
In fact, Miles wasn’t shivering anymore, and he could almost feel his toes. The breeze against his face was warm and inviting. Very inviting.
Go deeper, it seemed to say. Go deeper into the forest.
Miles looked up, looked out across the barren landscape of dead leaves and dying underbrush, and he felt the pull.
Come. Come to me, lover.
The light changed. The yellow-pink light that ringed the edges of the trees didn’t match the dull, blue-gray light he’d left when he’d shut the door to the shop, turning into the darker rose-purple sunset of summer instead of the gray into deeper gray of October. It absolutely was warmer here. Much, much warmer. Miles tried to tell himself that it was because the trees were close and blocked the wind, but something in his hindbrain insisted it was more than that. The air felt lighter. The foliage had been stunned by the same early frost that killed everything in southern Minnesota, and above his head the leaves were well on their way to turned, some of them gone already. But it didn’t smell like autumn, like rotting leaves and cold. It smelled of grass and sun and dirt. And it felt like summer.
Miles looked at the snowdrops again, frowning. It had to be his stupid imagination. But it felt so real.
As he stared at the flowers, as the forest seemed to warm around him and confirm that he was losing his mind on top of everything else, Miles gave in to the despair that had been dogging him all morning. Instead of simply thinking it, he spoke the words out loud.
“I never thought this was where I was going to land at twenty-seven.” He stared out into the woods, letting his eyes lose their focus. “I thought I’d have a good job and a killer apartment. I thought that I’d be looking at a promotion, not shoveling my way through job applications that don’t get me anywhere. I thought I’d be adopting too many dogs with my boyfriend and planning vacations to Spain.” He shut his eyes and felt the pain and hurt well up inside him. “I’m more than this. I don’t belong here. I don’t care if it’s arrogant to think that way. I don’t. And if I could find the way to get out of this miserable life and into the one where I belong, I would. Because I’m so much better than this.”
Even with his eyes closed, he felt the light shift, which was why he opened his eyes just in time to see the rosy-purple fade entirely, replaced briefly with a deep, almost menacing indigo. For one second he could have sworn it was night, and suddenly his thirteen-year-old self’s fear of this forest didn’t seem so silly anymore.
Something deep inside Miles went cold and whispered, danger.
Heart beating hard inside his chest, Miles bent down and, without knowing why he did so, plucked one of the silver flowers.
A single light flashed, bright and white and pure. And then he heard the voice.
Come to me. Come to me, Miles.
Miles went still, and his heart stopped as he felt a ghostly touch, warm but disembodied against his face. In the distance, he heard the sound of hooves.
Come to me and realize all your dreams.
Miles dropped the flower and ran.
He ran, pulse racing, cold now not just from temperature but from fear, and as he fled the forest, he told himself he was simply overwrought, that this was just his stress and depression getting the better of him, and he even admitted that it might be time to look into some medication and possibly some therapy. He couldn’t help, though, turning and looking back as soon as he was into the trailer park again, trying to reassure himself it had all been his imagination.
The colors of the forest had faded back to normal, and the silver flowers were gone. But before Miles could sigh in relief, he saw that a single flower remained, and as he watched, its petals drifted eerily up into the sky, only to be carried away on an eddy of the wind.
A silvery ghost-like form appeared near the place Miles had been standing. It smiled sadly at him.
Miles gasped. Then he reached for it.
The ghost form faded, and the forest was normal once more.
Miles stood there a moment, hand still outstretched, feeling foolish and confused. Then he shook his head, lowered his arm, and went back to Patty’s trailer.