My stomach twisted itself into knots as I squinted into the neon-splashed darkness. She said I could meet her here, and if it weren’t for the guilt that curled itself around my every waking thought, I’d still be in my tiny apartment in Reno, preparing for a night of bar hopping in the university district. At twenty-six, I was growing too old for that, but at least it was something to do.
Like much of Beacon Falls, Red’s Tavern hadn’t changed in the eight years I’d been away. The music bumping from the speakers was still 90s rock, the walls were still covered in a shiny textured wallpaper that reminded me of the fabric inside jewelry boxes, and the patrons were still a mix of adults who should’ve long since moved on and 20-somethings who had yet to—and probably never would—move on.
For seven o’clock on a Thursday, the place was packed. A dance floor across from the red-neon-lit bar bounced and writhed with young and old alike, red solo cups raised high, booze sloshing over the sides.
When I was half-way through my second beer and Jennifer still hadn’t showed, I knew she wasn’t coming. I should’ve known better. Jennifer Stackman had been a flake in high school, so why had I thought she’d be any more reliable now? I just hoped that even without her help, I’d be able to find Zoe.
A woman wearing entirely too much cheap perfume sat beside me at the bar. I glanced over. A frown stretched across pale, vaguely familiar features. Her dark eyeshadow did nothing to distract from the deep hollows under her eyes. Curly blonde hair was pulled tight into a bun, and she wore a long-sleeved sequined top despite the muggy evening.
I blinked and stared at the woman before me. Elly Williams and I had gone to school together since kindergarten. Except for a short-lived friendship in high school, we hadn’t had much to do with each other.
“What are you doing here?” Elly said. “Your dad didn’t tell me you were coming.”
“He doesn’t know.” Then I added, “Why would he tell you?” Dad and I hadn’t exactly been on the best of terms in several years—but the last I knew, he and Elly had broken up years ago.
Elly’s spine stiffened. “You know what? Forget it.” She whirled away and hopped off the stool. I watched her saunter to the dance floor where she chose a well-dressed older man who’d been eyeing the younger set from the edges of the dance floor. Elly began to dance, alone, trying to catch his eye. When at last he pulled his gaze away from the younger ones, she moved in like a lion to the kill. She said something with a laugh before taking his hands and pulling him to her. The man resisted, but when she moved her hips against his, an awful gleam awoke in his eyes.
I looked away, disgusted.
“She’s high as fuck, you know?” A kid with a pale, splotchy face, took the seat Elly had just vacated. “I’m Tucker.” He held out his hand.
“I’m not interested.”
“Are you from around here?”
“How old are you?” I asked, annoyed that he wasn’t taking a hint.
“Twenty-one.” He gestured at my almost-empty beer. “You want another?”
I didn’t, but then I had a thought. “Do you come here a lot?”
“Yeah, kinda. I go to Kent and my parents—“
“Do you know if a girl called Zoe comes in here? Short pink hair? Lots of makeup?”
He grinned. “Chief’s daughter?”
John Mitchell had never been shy about talking to the press about his poor, addicted daughter. He used it often to gain support for anti-drug campaigns that, despite his best efforts, had never really worked. Beacon Falls was as drug-ridden and addicted as any other small town in Ohio. The vacuum left behind by the factories when they closed their doors had been filled by drugs, both prescription and illicit.
“Yeah,” I said. “Do you know where I can find her?”
The boy leaned in. His breath smelled like beer. “I can help you out with that,” he said. “Hook you up, I mean.”
“What?” Then I caught his meaning. “No!” I dropped my voice. “I mean, no, no, it’s okay.”
He shrugged. The splotches on his face seemed to shift in the neon light. “Okay, but if you change your mind, I’m—“
“No.” I knew Zoe was an addict, but was she a dealer too? Was that what had gotten her in trouble?
The kid got up. “Nice meeting you.” He melted back into the crowd. I glanced at the dance floor but Elly and the older man had gone as well.
I left Beacon Falls at eighteen, hoping never to return. But a late-night message from Zoe changed everything.
Hey, Mady. Ha ha. Long time, right? This is Zoe. I know this might be weird, but I was thinking about you. Your in Reno, right?
I ignored her message for three days. When I replied, she wrote back immediately.
I’m in it bad.
I asked her what she meant. Then asked again. And after two days of no response, I asked again. Then I called dad — the first time we’d talked since my birthday months ago.
I told him what she said and was met with silence.
“I gotta go.”
Uneasy and not a little scared for my one-time friend, I called dad several more times but got nothing more from him. He didn’t want to talk about, he said, changing the subject. And each time, his voice sounded funny. Strained and distracted.
I stewed on the situation, obsessed over it, really. Zoe and I hadn’t been friends for a long time, but we had once been inseparable. Until I’d abandoned her.
When I still couldn’t get Zoe or dad to tell me what was going on, I packed up my car and made the three day drive back to Beacon Falls.
Beacon Falls is basically a two-town street. Main Street, running north to south, is bisected on the south end by Elm, which leads to the school, a strip mall, and the dollar store. The buildings of downtown, with their brick and stone façades, are nestled on the north end of Main, next to the falls from which the town takes its name. The falls is fed by the languid, meandering Mahoning, although if I’m honest, no one comes to Beacon Falls for the falls. They come to raise their families in neighborhoods of mostly single-family homes where garage doors are left open year-round, and locking your doors is optional.
Stepping from Red’s that night, I could not believe how incessant the humidity was. How had I ever survived a place like this for eighteen years? Reno, where I’d spent the last eight years, was the opposite of Ohio in every way: brown, dusty, and dry. Even the persistent sweet scent of sagebrush had a dryness to it I found comforting in its opposition to the ever-present moisture of northeast Ohio.
I called dad but he didn’t answer. I hadn’t told him I was coming. I didn’t want him telling me not to—I didn’t want to hear the rejection of yet another person in my life, no matter the reason.
Working at Burger King had provided me with just enough money to get across country, but now I was broke with nowhere to stay but my dad’s.
After mom left, dad and I made a pretty good go of it on our own. We moved to a new house with a bigger yard, and dad learned to cook and how to take care of a nine-year-old. But time and festering resentments drove a wedge between us that eventually led me to move two thousand miles away and a million miles apart. Dad and I had nothing in common any more, which had made our telephone conversations short, awkward, and few.
And now here I was, about to show up to ask for a place to live while I sought a friend who may or may not be in trouble just so I could feel a little better about myself.
I checked my messages once more but Jennifer still hadn’t responded to my Are you coming to Red’s?text. Irritated but not all that surprised, I got into my old Chevy Monte Carlo and started the engine.
In the fading light of late summer, downtown Beacon Falls was actually kinda pretty with its brick buildings and overflowing flower baskets hanging from the lamp posts. Even though cute boutiques and mom-and-pop restaurants changed with the seasons, that didn’t stop the town from taking real pride in their downtown area. Stopping at one of the three stoplights in town, I remembered the many parades that had marched this stretch of road. Dad and I would get there early to stand along the curb and wait for the handfuls of candy to be tossed our way from the floats and firetrucks and souped-up old cars.
I pulled onto Canal Street—oddly named because there was no canal—and drove to dad’s house. It was strange how similar and yet foreign the houses looked. In many ways they were the same ones from my childhood and yet they had aged in subtle ways. The shingles and paint had faded, the bushes had grown larger, the yards so lush and green—such a contrast to the gravel and stone front yards of Reno.
I turned onto Grangeway and my heart dipped into my stomach. Grangeway was long, with houses separated by large yards. At the end of the road, a small forest took root. Set among this forest was dad’s house. Blue siding, a lawn landscaped tastefully with flower beds and bushes. My heart thudded.
Would dad even be home? Yes, it was Thursday night, but with dad, you never knew.
The house was dark. I sighed. He was probably out with some woman half his age.
The frogs known as peepers trilled loudly as I stepped from the car. I could smell the musty, sweet scent of decaying leaves, and the wet sour smell of an irrigation ditch that ended on the north side of dad’s property. I slapped at a mosquito and punched up dad’s number on my phone.
A phone trilled.
I hesitated, listening. It was coming from the backyard.
“Dad?” I pressed the End button and took a step on the path that led around to the backyard. The first paving stone had an imprint of my hands, from when I was nine, with my name scrawled beneath it. Mady Graves. I stared at it, remembering that day when dad brought home the dusty bags of cement from the hardware store. I remembered how cold and gritty the cement was when I put my hands in it, the scrape of the stick as I wrote my name.
“Dad, you back there?”
When he didn’t answer, a terrible foreboding washed over me, like a hand pushing me away, telling me not to go back there.
The backyard was narrow, rimmed on all sides by the forest, brambles, bushes, and ferns. A splintered wooden deck, where we’d hosted countless holiday parties, took up most of the yard. A picnic table sat in the middle of the deck, its paint chipped and peeled away.
Dad’s service weapon lay broken apart on the table, gun cleaner and a rag next to it. I could smell the faint pungent-sweet scent of the cleaner. Dad’s phone sat next to it.
Then I saw his shoes. Shiny black dress shoes he wore with everything.
“Dad?” I ran around the table. Dad was lying on his back, his head tilted to the side, his eyes wide open. “Dad!”
I dropped to my knees and that’s when I saw the blood. It saturated his shirt and puddled beneath him, soaking into the wood.
“Dad!” I reached for his face but recoiled at the touch. He was cold.
My chest—why was my chest so tight? I gulped air. It was like breathing water. The world went gray. I screamed.