The trees cruising by on our left had pale, twisted limbs and bare branches. They cast long, jagged shadows toward the road from a low, orange sun. Wisps of grass grew from a dark ground that occasionally rose in small, misshapen mounds. On the other side of the road everything was green and leafy.
“These woods go on forever.” I stared out at them, my knuckles white on the steering wheel. We drove down the old highway in Val’s teal Prius, no other cars in sight. The gas gauge was on the final bar. “How long until the next station?”
“How much is in the tank?” Val leaned over the cup holders, pushing her head against mine. “There’s a whole bar left.” She sat back in her seat and stared down at her phone. “When it starts blinking, we’ve got about forty miles.”
“Are we going to make it?”
“We could have filled up at that last gas station.”
She didn’t have to make it sound like my fault. “Not with the look that guy behind the counter gave me.”
“It’s called checking you out, Amy.” Val shrugged her broad shoulders. “If you don’t like his behavior, tell him. Otherwise he won't learn.”
“Val …” No, we had more important things to discuss. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. Can we make it to the next gas station?”
She held her phone up to the window. “Sure. And when I get a signal, I’ll tell you when it’ll be.” Her hand lowered, along with her tone, “The service out here is spotty. I got a text from my partner twenty minutes ago, but my reply won't go.”
I was about to tell her to try my cellphone when I saw a lone figure shuffling down the road. A long-limbed man wearing a brown tweed coat, limping along with his cane. I pulled the car up beside him and rolled down the window. “Excuse me, sir?”
He looked in at us. One eye was a clear, milky white and the other was half-closed by an old scar running down his face. His hair was down to a few pale strands, his face lined and weathered, and his fingers bent and knobby when he thumped one down on the window. He grinned through straight, even teeth. “Hello, ladies. Need directions?”
I couldn’t help leaning back. “To a gas station.”
“Oh, that’s dead ahead.” He turned and pointed. “In Gullyvale. But don’t stop there. If you can drive another fifty or so miles, you’ll reach Laramie.”
“I got a connection.” Val turned in her seat to glare at the old man. “And why shouldn’t we stop in Gullyvale?”
The old man shook his head. “Bad times. Something’s been killing our cats, and we ship in water because green sludge sometimes travels through the pipes. But the biggest reason is they’re holding the funeral for the mayor’s wife today, so there's no one at the gas station.”
I turned to Val. “You said we could go fifty miles, right? Let’s skip this town. They sound busy.”
Val didn’t look up from her phone. “He’s trying to scare you. This is just some fake-spooky tourist trap.” Her finger tapped the screen. “I’m looking it up online to see what the scare ranking is. We’re not stopping for anything less than a recommended listing.”
She was no help. I turned toward the old man. He had vanished from the window. I bit back a scream and looked behind me, sure he would be sitting in the back seat, hands reaching forward - there was a slight motion at the window. I turned back around so fast my neck popped.
The old man was standing up, his hand on the window shaky. “Sorry, dropped my cane.” He took a firm step and stood taller with a grunt.
I managed a faint, “Do you need a lift, sir?”
Val grumbled, “Hitchhiking is illegal on state roads.”
The old man laughed, a little too high and fast. “Been a long time since I’ve been picked up. But I’ll decline. Still have to finish my patrol.” He pointed his gnarled hand toward the pale trees. “There’s things living in those woods, ladies. Someone has to keep an eye on them, or the people in town will have no warning when they get out.”
He walked off, cackling to himself. I stared at him for a moment, then started driving. The dashboard beeped and the last bar of the fuel gauge started blinking. Val snorted and pointed at the old man. I stopped a few feet in front of him.
“Sir? So, is there a turnoff for Gullyvale?”
“A-yes.” He smiled and pointed. “And a sign. A few miles further. You can’t miss it.” He waved until I drove off.
“The connection vanished before I could find anything.” Val was staring down at her phone. “I’ll keep trying. That old guy was not right in the head.”
“He was very helpful. I’m sure he was joking with us.”
“He was trying to scare you.” She sighed and leaned against her window. “I bet this town is full of weirdos.”
The sign was a big board with the name Gullyvale in large letters. Below that was a short message, ‘Visit our mysterious Gully Woods.’ Val pointed at the sign with a satisfied smirk. About a hundred feet after it I turned down a road into the woods. The trees here were a mix of the bare pale white we’d been seeing, and a sickly green variety dropping red, orange and yellow leaves.
“That's some ugly tree blight.” Val checked her phone and started tapping the screen. “Find the gas station and pull up to a pump. If it’s not self service, we’ll go find the attendant.”
“It seems really rude to crash a funeral,” I muttered. The sun was setting and I did not want to go walking around in the dark here. “But if everyone in town is attending, I guess we’re invited too.”
The houses that started appearing were mainly old wood and stone, like miniature Gothic mansions. They sagged under their own weight. There was no way they were up to code. I didn’t see a single light inside any of them. We found the first streetlamps further in, where brick and mortar became common.
The gas station was a national heritage site. A plaque on the station’s door said so. The pumps were little red posts with round tops. They looked like you would need a crank to operate them, and all we had was our debit cards. There was no one in sight. I hadn’t seen anyone since we entered the town.
After tapping a few times at her phone, Val sighed and leaned back against her car. “Signal’s gone again. If we can't find anyone to ask, I have a blanket in the trunk.”
I squinted down the street at a soft white shape emerging from the shadows. “We can ask her.”
Val turned and stared with me. A pale woman was gliding along the sidewalk. She wore a white dress and veil like a bride. I saw bright black eyeshadow and rosy red lipstick through the sheer material. She smiled and the streetlamp above her flickered. I pulled at the car door handle, deciding I would much rather be inside something if this woman was going to approach us, but the door wouldn’t open.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” Val took a few steps toward her. “Can you tell us which way to the funeral?”
“Of course, dear.” The woman’s voice was thin, with a slight drunken drawl. “I just came from it. You’ve missed the main event, but there’s food and drink.”
I squeaked, “What kind of event?”
The woman pointed at herself. “The departure of the dead, of course.”
I ran around to the other side of the car, away from the ghost woman, and started pulling on door handles. That was it. I was done with this town. We could drive forty miles more and walk to the next town.
None of the doors would open. “Val, open the car!”
“Why? Did you leave something inside?” Val turned back to the ghost woman. “Is that some kind of tradition?”
“Indeed, dear.” The woman smiled. The streetlamp behind her flickered. “Every year on this day we hold a funeral. One of the town elders gets dressed up as the deceased, we throw a party, and midway through the deceased has to leave.” She pointed back up the street. “Would you like to go? Follow this sidewalk and you’ll find Town Hall. The building with columns.” She yawned. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going home now. Good night.”
Val nodded. “Good night, ma’am.” She turned to me. “Well, let’s go. What's your problem?”
I sagged against the car and didn't answer her. Our choices were to stay with Val’s Prius until the attendant came back, or walk through the dark town at the directions of the 'ghost' woman. Gullyvale was silent around us, providing no help with the decision. Then a cold wind blew through, rattling all the branches of the bare white trees. That was all the motivation I needed.
Val and I walked off down the sidewalk. A wave of nausea hit me as we left the lamp light. I doubled over, hiding the involuntary motion by pretending to smooth down my ruffled petticoats. I do not know why I would be bothered. There were no men present, unless one counted Valory, who as always refused to dress as a woman.
I looked to her, passing a secret smile. She was not looking at me, but behind us with a cold stare to her Model T. Her hands checked the pocket of her suit for the starter plug, which she always removed upon leaving it anywhere. Seemingly reassured, she turned and helped me up.
“Still experiencing vapors, Anabelle? I knew the seaside would have been better.”
I shook my head. “We are out of the city and in country air.” Taking a breath of that crisp, chilly air, I smiled. “A case of wandering womb, I suppose.” The drive was quite bumpy.
Valory gave me a most unladylike frown, but said nothing. She held in low regard the voices of esteemed psychologists on the matters of women's health. I pressed my arm to hers, and she took it with a forgiving sigh. We walked off down the dirt lane. Behind us her horse and buggy disappeared into the night.
As the local woman had said, we found the fest hall lit with torches and gilded by holly branches. I did not recognize the tribe, and they were not Plains People. This was more like a hall for traveling fur traders, or anyone who did not have a home in the village. Wide and with a slanted roof, warmed by a central fire pit and the crowd within.
The men and women and children inside wore everything from silk shirts and flowing pants, to woolen robes and turbans, from coarse furs and mud-stained breaches, to padded jackets and hard metal leggings. A few had weapons at their sides, though the room had the easy feeling of peace.
Valoria brushed the rain from her fur cloak. “Amektca, some of these people are warriors. Take care in who you approach.”
I turned to her, breath pulling in my throat. “When did your River People tongue become so good?”
Her eyes went wide. “You as well – There is witchcraft here.” She touched the old maul hanging from her hip. “We should leave before we are further ensorcelled.”
Pointing back outside, I shook my head. “Sint Holo guided us here. This is sacred magic. We should stay until we find,” my head throbbed and I swallowed down my breath, “until we find the person we were looking for.”
Valoria stared around. “I see a man who draws power to himself. That will be the chieftain.” She stalked through the crowd, a hand on her maul.
I was about to follow her when I saw an old man on the far end of the room, atop a raised platform of standing logs. He was wizened yet hale, wore a monk’s robe, and had the light in his eyes of one who long ago had taken Sint Holo’s forehead crystal. This was the elder to answer my questions. I followed a wall of the room to reach him.
As I approached, the old man sat and smiled at me. He swirled a strong-smelling drink inside an earthen cup. “How interesting. I did not think we had any natives. Is this a surprise to you as well?”
I bristled at his tone, but bowed with respect. “Greetings, honored elder. I am searching for -” My head throbbed and I tried to complete my thought. “We need someone who can fix -” There was something wrong in my throat. “Someone with horses for trade.”
“Horses you say?” The old man looked around, a smile on his lips. “With the costume party in full swing, it will be hard to find the one you truly seek.” He glanced down, then offered me his cup. “Here, drink some of this. The tiniest sip, no more.”
The foul smell was like certain medicines I had seen before, but the red color could only remind me of poisonous berries. I took the cup, stared in for a moment, and brought it to my lips. When a medicine man tells you to drink, you must trust him.
The taste was worse than I expected, like fruit that had been left to spoil. But rather than an outward flow, I felt an inward-rushing pressure. The world was once again covered in water and I was drowning. Strange creatures moved around me, screeching and jabbering. I was scooped from the ocean and mixed with clay and the Master of Breath himself gave life to me.
Then I was Amy, with no idea who the Master of Breath was. I was standing in a wooden longhouse, wearing kind of a racist Native American outfit. A party was going on all around me. Everyone was dressed like people from long ago, talking and drinking and eating. This was still weeks until Halloween.
The old man snatched the wine from my hand. “Quickly now. What do you seek?”
“The gas station attendant.” I turned back to him, blinking. “Val and I were driving by and needed gas.” What had I been saying before?
The old man chuckled. “A bystander, eh? When the party is over, find Russ. I believe he works at the gas station.”
“Um, thanks.” I had to ask. “What’s going on here? I thought I -”
A wave of nausea hit me. My brain was being wrung, tightening and twisting out all the liquid. My mouth uttered a groan and I doubled over, wanting to throw up. Then I did. Something red amid the puke seemed to bubble and hiss in my bleary vision. Then it melted away. I stood, wiping at my mouth.
The medicine man grinned at me and took a sip from his cup. “There is nothing to be done. Stay out of trouble and enjoy the costume party.”
His words were strange, but I understood that he could not help. “May the Preserver of Breath smile down on you, honored elder.” I backed away with another bow and went looking for Valoria.
She was facing a giant of a man, taller even than my traveling companion. He wore rich furs, a black stone headband, and a long sword on his back. The two spoke in terse sentences.
“You are no king of mine, graybeard.”
“Mind your tongue, child, before I cut it off.”
Valoria raised her maul a finger. “No man has ever bested me.”
The giant reached for his sword. “I will perform your father’s duty.”
“Valoria!” I walked up behind her and grasped the hand on her maul. “Remember the Lucky Hunter. Do not fight when only pride is on the line.” She always acted this way, challenging any local leader who treated her lightly.
A woman wrapped in a silk robe stepped up beside the giant. “My liege, your feast will be upset if blood is shed. This barbarian woman is no threat to you. If she tries to wound you, I shall deal with her myself.”
Valoria and the giant stared at each other. They both let go of their weapons, slow and careful. I noticed many people in the room had hands near their weapons, and the children had been herded to the side. Perhaps noticing this as well, Valoria tilted her head toward the giant.
“I apologize for my words and deeds. We seek only to pass through your land.”
The giant grunted, giving her a cold smile. “I was surprised to be challenged. Your fearlessness now intrigues me. Stay, enjoy the feast and tell your tale.”
I whispered to Valoria, “The village elder tells me we seek a man named Russ.” My head buzzed, but the sensation vanished. “But we can find him only when the sacred magic departs.”
Valoria nodded, and soon food was brought to us. The people around were cautious at first, but warmed to us. Valoria recounted for the crowd the exploits of her life. I told a little of my own, and found the people interested in the stories of my people. In that manner we passed the strange night.
As Brother Moon descended in the sky and the feast came to a close, I began to grow anxious. Valoria and I had asked among those attending, but the name Russ was unknown to all. We knew he must exist if the medicine man said so, but the sacred magic prevented us from finding him.
People started to leave in small families and groups. The giant left with his wives, more groups left, and at last there were just a few remaining to clean and set the hall in order. I was worried, but found distraction in helping. The old medicine man sat still and silent on the raised platform, deep in meditation or fast asleep.
Valoria and the graceful woman in the silk robe came over to me. “San has a task for us,” Valoria muttered to me, pointing her thumb at the woman. I nodded and followed them to a quiet corner, away from others. Sometimes people we met asked favors of us, simply because we were outsiders who could leave afterward.
The woman in the silk robe began immediately. “There is a man who arrived in this village some time ago, giving neither name or past. I have noticed he shows an interest in me, but I am the adopted daughter of the chieftain. This man does not know it would be improper to pursue me.”
Half listening to the woman’s request, I saw the medicine man stand and walk to the edge of the raised platform with his eyes closed. Each movement of his limbs was sudden and precise, as if he commanded his body from a spirit walk. He raised both arms high and grasped at the empty air.
Vala sat in a cushioned chair, her plate armor rustling as she leaned back. “If this knave seeks to wed your ladyship, have him thrown in the dungeon.” She opened her travel bible and started reading the page.
The lady Sanna waved her fan from side to side. “If I accuse him of impurity, I myself would be reflected poorly on. Is there not some way you two could deal with him?”
I gave their conversation the barest attention. The wizard on the stage was more fascinating by far. Perhaps it was the dark arts he had used on me before, or that I was staring at his hands so intently, but I could perceive flickers of the world shifting and changing around his twisting hands.
Valair folded her ratty newspaper and slid it into her coat. She pulled her hat down over her eyes. “You’re asking wannabe cops to whack a guy?”
“No.” The dame in the dress sauntered over, lifted the hat and stared into her eyes. “I don’t hate him. I don’t want him dead. I just need him to give up on me, for his own good.”
The old man clenched his fingers, opened one eye and peeked around. The town hall multipurpose room was exactly the same around us, but he smiled and lowered his hands. Whatever he had done, the spell seemed to be finished.
Val grunted and stood. “Thanks for letting us crash your party, but I don’t deal with other people’s guy problems. If you don’t like the creep, tell him yourself. Amy, let’s go.” I gave an apologetic nod to the mayor’s secretary and started to walk away.
Senna sighed. “I understand. Thanks for listening to my request. Maybe … I could just talk to Russ myself.”
Val stopped in her tracks. “Dammit.”
I turned around. “Did you say Russ?”
We had Senna point him out to us. Dark hair, muddy complexion, and smoldering eyes. He was helping with the clean-up, but kept sneaking glances at the secretary. Between Val wanting to follow after he left and threaten him until he promised to leave her alone – and my saying we should just talk to the guy like reasonable adults – we ended up skulking in some bushes outside the town hall front door. I watched the entrance while Val tried to get her phone working.
A few street lamps shone down on the sidewalk. People leaving the town hall either went left or right, appearing under each pool of light and vanishing again into the darkness. The gas station was to the left. Senna walked out and went right. Russ came out after her, stared right for a moment, then went left.
Without speaking we followed him. He wore a cheap suit and a dark hat, and would have been untraceable if his shoes didn’t squeak against the sidewalk. I had a small tube of pepper spray in the palm of my hand. Val loosened her knuckles slow and quiet. We fell back a little when the Mayor walked past him and then us, mumbling that he had no idea why those women had followed him home. Then we walked faster, strode up on either side of Russ, and matched his pace.
He glanced at Val, then at me. “You two are needing something?” His English was thick and halting.
Val scowled and walked farther from him. “To talk, that’s all.”
“And get gas,” I added. “We heard you work at the station.”
Russ turned his intense, fiery gaze on me. “My apologies but I cannot. The station is closed tonight.” He nodded to Val. “What would you talk about?”
The tension in his shoulders softened, but his voice came slow and cautious. “Why talk to me about Miss Senna? Did she – speak about me?”
I sidled closer for a confiding whisper. “She’s seen you staring at her from a distance. Trust me, you’re making the wrong impression on her. But I think you can change that impression. If you like her, maybe tell her so. Tell her you were just nervous before.”
Val glared at me. “She said discourage him.” When neither of us looked at her, she huffed and took out her phone again.
Turning to me, Russ’ voice dropped near mine. “I wish to tell her. I asked her adoptive father, but he avoided giving permission. My standing is very poor.”
“Nonnno.” I waved my hands back and forth. “Ask her out some time. It’s totally cool. You don’t need her father’s permission. Tell her how you feel and ask if she feels the same. Rejection sucks, but at least then you would know. And talking shows you care about her as a person.”
“I do care about her,” he protested, staring at the ground. “She is strong and beautiful. Passionate and proud and kind. I like all these things. I am showing my feelings, and allowing her to react.”
“You’re letting her guess your feelings, which is why she has a bad impression. That’s why you have to be open and vulnerable with your feelings, and then ask her how she feels. I mean, let’s say I did this.” I reached over, took his arm and hugged myself close to his side. His shirt smelled like the smoke and cinders of fireworks, but I ignored the embarrassing heat rising on my cheeks and grinned at him. “How’s this? Has pushing myself on you made you fall for me yet?”
“No.” Russ frowned and pushed me away. “I care only for Miss Senna. I mean you no disrespect, but you are not her.”
Ouch. That stung. But I smiled triumphant. “See? You can’t force someone to like you. It has to go both ways.”
“Amy.” Val sighed, rubbing her eyes. “Don’t go full manic pixie on him. People need to work out their own problems.”
I retorted, “Maybe if we help him out, he’ll re-open the gas station. Come on, you know I’m good at this.” Here was a guy I could set straight. Call me a romantic, but I believe in the power of love. These two just needed to talk.
Russ shook his head. “I cannot help with gas. My boss has the keys. He closed the station tonight with everyone at the party. See?”
He pointed ahead as we passed the final dark building. We all stopped and stared at the well lit, inviting gas station. The pump near Val’s Prius was clicking and the top was spinning. A figure moved inside the station. It was the old man we had met limping along the road.
“Or maybe he is back,” Russ muttered.
Ten minutes later, the gas tank was filled. Val bought a few energy drinks inside and ended up listening to the old man spin a yarn about a giant deer that roamed the forest, its hooves echoing through the woods like thunder. She actually kept her phone down for the full story. I used the time to roleplay with Russ in the corner, pretending to be the disinterested Senna while he tried to ask me out. It was probably more of a confidence boost for me than for him, but I made him promise to try it for real.
As we got in the car, now with Val behind the wheel, I grinned at her. “Pit stops are fun.”
She rolled her eyes. “Let’s go before we have to deal with any more fun.” But I noticed she didn't take out her phone for directions. We just drove, like people who didn't care where we were going.