The streetlights were sparse in this part of town. The moon shone brightly overhead, easily dominating a night sky left open and exposed without the competition of the big city. But the moon provided no warmth, and Tara shivered. Maintaining a firm grip on the steering wheel with one hand, she extended the other to the instrument panel of the rental truck and turned up the heat.
Her eyes never left the road. The map in the passenger seat went ignored. Unneeded.
Hey, baby! You there already?
Signaling left, despite there being no other cars visible on the dark streets, Tara turned onto a gravel road. She drove slowly, almost reluctantly, seeming mesmerized by the sound of stones crunching beneath tires. It was the only sound for miles.
Well I guess thatís relative. Did you find the hotel okay? How is it? Oo, do you have little mints on your pillow?
I'm checking my pillow now, and ... no mints. But I think I have my very own complimentary bottle of shampoo.
I love those. They're so cute! And yet, functional!
It has a bed and a bathroom, so it's heaven in my book. I feel like I've been traveling for 10 hours.
14, according to my timetable.
Well at least now I have an excuse for the half of my brain that's fast asleep. Speaking of, I woke you up, didn't I?
Me? Piffle. I was wide awake.
Sweetie, just because I can't see the yawn doesn't mean I can't hear it.
The truck had stopped. Tara said nothing, made no motion to leave its safety. She sat, staring straight ahead. The knuckles of both hands were turning white as she clenched the steering wheel.
Tara slowly sucked in a lungful of air and held it, the action seeming to break her free from the trance. Just as slowly she exhaled and turned to the vacant passenger seat. Brushing aside the map, she retrieved a small sealed manila envelope with "MACLAY" handwritten across the front along with several official markings and checkboxes.
Okay, a tiny bit asleep. The smallest possible allotment of sleep that could still be called sleep. Napping! It was half a nap. A-A catnap. Not even that advanced. A kittynap. And anyway, it doesn't matter. I wanted to know you got there okay.
Hence the calling. I should let you go, though.
No, not yet! I mean, you're depriving me of Tara Snuggles here – the least you can do is ... ease me to sleep another way.
Ms. Rosenberg, you have a dirty mind.
Mm, you love my dirty mind.
I do, but after 14 hours of travel? It's competing with my love of a nice warm shower.
Okay, shower! Shower good. Let's go with that. And you can stop laughing at me now.
You're not even remotely sorry.
I'm really not. I do miss you, though.
The two-story house had been solidly built to withstand the ravages of time. Unpretentious in design, the interior was nonetheless spacious if somewhat lacking in imagination, most of the rooms being traditionally square-shaped. Swathed in darkness and illuminated solely by virtue of a blanched moon and the shimmering headlights of Tara's truck, the home radiated no welcoming message. Abandoned and desolate, its only neighbors were a nearby forested area and an ancient oak with gnarled roots, which seemed to stand guard over the uninhabited dwelling.
I miss you too. I-I know you wanted to be all- all big and brave and conquery and stuff which I think is really awesome and surprisingly sexy, but if you maybe ... need me...?
You know I always need you. But—
Cuz I can be there in a few hours. And I have absolutely no problem in abusing Council resources, unlike some of us.
I just ...
The envelope tore open easily, and Tara tipped its contents into her open palm. Out tumbled a house key on a thin, cheap keyring, labeled with markings similar to those on the envelope. They gave the key a sterile, impersonal feel.
The key slipped into the lock without resistance, however Tara couldn't seem to bring herself to turn it.
... this is something I have to do. Does that make any sense? At all?
I don't think voluntarily choosing to fly coach when you can have a private plane will ever make sense. But the other stuff? ...yeah. I get it. I just wish I could do— Oh! I-I can call you, every night!
That sounds great, but I don't think you can. The phones in the house must've been cut off when ... A-And I won't be there long enough to make an appointment. You can think about me every night, though!
I always do. And you are definitely getting a cell phone when you get home, Missy. ... Hey, you okay?
Tara hovered in the family room entranceway.
Despite a lack of direct lighting, the area was surprisingly visible. Moonlight shone through the paper-thin curtains, revealing a room that seemed almost at odds with itself. A dust-covered mantle framed the cold, dark fireplace in the far wall, its surface adorned with two framed photographs and two trophies. Their positioning was perfect, staged so as to catch the eye of anyone who might come calling. The furniture had clearly seen better days, and with its generic floral prints, managed to be anything but inviting. The television, the coffee table, and even the framed pictures that hung on the walls revealed no sense of true character. It was as though someone who had only a vague, Better Homes and Gardens idea of how a family room should look had decorated the area, but had themselves never found a use for one.
Her shoulders tucked close, hands folded before her, Tara stood at the threshold but did not cross.
Yeah. I ... It's hard. I didn't think it'd be this hard.
My poor baby. I wish you hadn't found out like that.
There's really no good way to find out your ... your father's dead.
In Tara's peripheral vision, she caught the sight of a shadowy figure standing in the darkness nearby. The figure made no move toward her; in fact, it made no movement at all. Tara watched it suspiciously from the corner of her eye for a moment before turning to face the figure, only to discover it to be a tall rack. The musty coat draped over one of the hooks had not been worn in some time, the hat atop it perhaps longer still. Tara's eyes narrowed, and she turned away.
... Though if I had to hear it from anyone, I'm glad it was you.
I don't like being the bearer of Things That Make Tara Upset. I'd rather be the bearer of- of chocolate. And a nice foot massage. So next time you need me to help you contact someone you haven't seen for a while ... well, then I'll still do it. But I'll bring the chocolate with me first.
Sounds like a plan. And speaking of contact ...
No joy. I can't find anything solid for your brother. I've got a couple phone numbers that don't answer and a few addresses you can try, though.
Thanks. I'll call and get those from you before I head for the house tomorrow. I'm meeting the executor at 1:30 ... I just hope he'll have more information about Donny.
With the aid of a lantern that looked like it should be on the shelf of a rural Americana-themed restaurant somewhere, Tara made her way down a narrow hallway. The flicker of the light illuminated patches of the walls in orange-tinted bursts, revealing photograph after photograph. Some were clearly old, their subjects worn and difficult to discern as the black and white gave way to yellow and sepia. Most, however, contained the same focus: two children, a boy and a girl.
The most cursory of studies easily identified Tara as the girl – the same basic features remained unchanged from her toddler years. The boy, too, was clearly the same individual in each photograph, from his russet hair to the cruel smirk that never seemed entirely hidden. Each picture was clearly a professional work – there was no room for random moments captured on film.
The main focal point of the gallery, the vertex point for all other pictures, was a photograph of the entire family. A dour-faced man sat in the center, his family gathered around him. To his right stood the boy, aged to around eight-years and looking uncomfortable in his three-piece suit. Sitting on the man's left knee, and doing her best to appear as though it was the most natural place in the world for her to be, was a six-year old Tara. And standing behind Tara, at the man's shoulder, was a woman who looked astonishingly close to how Tara herself might appear in years to come.
No one in the portrait smiled.
As Tara walked past, she made no attempt to look at this or any other picture.
I still can't believe he up and left everything there. And he didn't even try to tell you!
Well given that it happened over a year ago when I was still pretty dead myself, I think he should sort of be excused.
No! No excuses of any kind! He left it all there! The house and the land and just ... fwoom! Leaves a huge mess behind that you have to go clean up! Oh, but I betcha by golly when it's time to collect the money, he'll be right there expecting his half!
He can have all of it as far as I'm concerned. I don't care about the money. It's ... I grew up there. It's my home. You know? It deserves better.
All the doors in the hallway were tightly shut, and none bore any outward personalization to indicate which rooms had, once upon a time, belonged to whom. Tara remained focused straight ahead, paying them little heed. If her pace quickened as she passed by one door, reinforced with steel and with a sliding bolt on the outside, she didn't seem to notice.
And so do you.
You can't see it, but I'm smiling.
Then I'd like to transfer some of those karma points I just earned into a fine souvenir.
A souvenir? Hope Falls isn't exactly a tourist hub, Will.
The lantern hung from the branch of a nearby tree, casting its light over a generator that had seen little recent use. An open and mostly empty gas canister rested on the ground nearby as Tara repeatedly tugged on the generator's pull cord.
Well no, okay, but ... Montana! I've never been to Montana. Can't you get me, like a ... a black bear cub or something?
I'm pretty sure that's a no. Oh, but maybe a cheap trinket that we can pretend was really made by a Native American?
Dragging a hand across her forehead, Tara clenched her teeth and pulled back on the cord with all her strength. She was rewarded by the generator spluttering to life, and her determined expression immediately gave way to a bright smile. Several lights within the house began to flicker, uncertainly at first then with renewed strength. Tara took a step back, her enthusiasm fading as she regarded the newly-lit house and couldn't seem to find it any more inviting.
I-I should really go now. It's a pretty long drive from here.
It's really the pull of those sumptuous hotel showers, isn't it?
It totally is. I just can't stand the suspense any more: is it a thin drizzle or needle-like streams?
Let the allure of variable-speed shower heads speed your return. And ... take care of yourself, okay?
The lantern creaked as Tara lifted it from the makeshift hook and opened the small glass door. It only took a small puff to extinguish the flame.
Whatever happened back then, it's back then. It can't hurt you any more. Remember?
I'll do my best. I love you.
I love you too. Night.
Tara stood on the overgrown and unkempt grass, not caring as the dampness soaked into the cuffs of her jeans. She took a deep breath.
"Back then is back then," Tara muttered to herself. "It can't hurt me any more."
She walked inside the house, closing the backdoor behind her.