My last year of high school, when Kaycee Mitchell and her friends got sick, my father had a bunch of theories.
“Those girls are bad news,” he said. “Nothing but trouble.” He took it as a matter of faith that they were being punished. To him, they deserved what they got.
Kaycee was the first. This made sense. She was the first to do everything: lose her virginity, try a cigarette, throw a party.
Kaycee walked in front her friends, like an alpha wolf leading the pack. In the cafeteria, she decided where to sit and the others followed; if she ate her lunch, the rest did, too; if she pushed her food around on her tray or just ate a bag of Swedish Fish, her friends did the same.
Misha was the meanest and the loudest one.
But Kaycee was the leader.
So when she got sick, we, the senior girls of Barrens High, weren’t horrified or disturbed or worried.
We were jealous.
We all secretly hoped we’d be next.
The first time it happened was in fourth-period debate. Everyone had to participate in mock elections. Kaycee made her way through three rounds of primary elections. She was easy to believe in the role of politician, convincing and quick-witted, a talented liar; I’m not even sure Kaycee knew when she was telling the truth and when she wasn’t.
She was standing at the front of the room delivering a practiced stump speech when suddenly it was as though the tether connecting her voice to her throat was cut. Her mouth kept moving, but the volume had been turned off. No words came out.
For a few seconds, I thought there was something wrong with me.
Then her hands seized the podium and her jaw froze, locked open, as if she were stuck, silently screaming. I was sitting in the first row—no one else ever wanted those seats, so they were mine to take—and she was only a few feet away from me. I’ll never forget how her eyes looked: like they’d transformed suddenly into tunnels.
Derrick Ellis shouted something, but Kaycee ignored him. I could see her tongue behind her teeth, a wad of white gum sitting there. Some people laughed—they must have thought it was a joke—but I didn’t.
I’d been friends with Kaycee, best friends, back when we were young. It was only the second time in my life I’d ever seen her look afraid.
Her hands began to shake, and that’s when all the laughter stopped. Everyone went quiet. For a long time, there was no sound in the room but a silver ring she always wore clacking loudly against the podium.
Then the shaking traveled up her arms. Her eyes rolled back, and she fell, taking the podium down with her.
I remember being on my feet. I remember people shouting. I remember Mrs. Cunningham on her knees, lifting Kaycee’s head, and someone screaming about keeping her from swallowing her tongue. Someone ran for the nurse. Someone else was crying; I don’t remember who, just the sound of it, a desperate whimpering. Weirdly, the only thing I could think to do was pick up her notes, which had fallen, and reshuffle them in order, making sure the corners aligned.
Then, all of a sudden, it passed. The spasm apparently left her body, like an ebbing tide. Her eyes opened. She blinked and sat up, looking vaguely confused, but not displeased, to find us all gathered around her. By the time the nurse came, she seemed normal again. She insisted it was just a weak spell, because she hadn’t eaten. The nurse led Kaycee out of the classroom, and the whole time she was glancing back at us over her shoulder as if to be sure we were all watching her go. And we were—of course we were. She was the kind of person you couldn’t help but watch.
We all forgot about it. Or pretended to.
Then, three days later, it happened again.
'Barrens has its roots in me. If I want it gone forever, I’ll have to cut them out myself.'
State Highway 59 becomes Plantation Road two miles after the exit for Barrens. The old wooden sign is easy to miss, even among the colorless surroundings. For years now, on road trips from Chicago to New York, I’ve been able to pass on by without any anxiety.
Hold my breath, count to five. Exhale. Leave Barrens safely behind, no old shadows running out of the dark woods to strangle me.
That’s a game I used to play as a kid. Whenever I would get scared or have to go down to the old backyard shed in the dark, as long as I held my breath, no monsters or ax murderers or deformed figures from horror movies would be able to get me. I would hold my breath and run full speed until my lungs were bursting and I was safe in the house with the door closed behind me. I even taught Kaycee this game back when we were kids, before we started hating each other.
It’s embarrassing, but I still do it. And the thing is, it works.
Most of the time.
Alone, locked in a gas station bathroom, I scrub my hands until the skin cracks and a tiny trickle of blood runs down the drain.
It’s the third time I’ve washed my hands since I crossed the border into Indiana. In the dinged mirror over the sink, my face looks pale and warped, and the memories of Barrens bloom again like toxic flowers.
This was a bad idea.
I shove open the bathroom door and squint into the early sunlight as I get back into my car.
At the turnoff I pass a deer carcass buzzing with flies, its head still improbably intact and almost pretty-looking, mouth open in a final sigh. Impossible to say whether it was hit by a car or struck by a passing bullet. Typically fresh roadkill gets scooped up by a good ol’ boy, loaded into a smoker, and made into venison jerky. I hit a deer in my old Ford Echo when I was seventeen; it was picked up even before I was. But this deer is, for some reason, undisturbed.
Hunting game is a main activity in Barrens—the main activity, actually. It’s built into the culture. If you can call it that. Hunting season isn’t officially until winter but every year kids sneak out with a six-pack, a spotlight, and their fathers’ guns to scout for a big buck or watch a few fawns and a doe grazing. And after a few beers, they take shots at whatever they can aim for.
My dad used to take me with him to hunt; our father-daughter bonding activities usually involved an outing to the taxidermist. Deer, coyote, and bear heads adorn the walls of our house like trophies. He taught me to step on the bodies of the pheasants he took down while he snapped their necks in one hand. I remember how annoyed he was when I cried over the first deer I watched him kill, how he made me place my hands on its still-warm body and the blood pulsing out of the hole that had ripped its life away. “Death is beautiful,” he said.
My mother was beautiful once, too, until bone cancer did its work. Chewed off her hair, carved her body into a shell of muscle and bone, took her cell by cell. After she died, my father told me it was the ultimate blessing and that we should be thankful, because the Lord had chosen her to be part of his flock in heaven.
I turn from Plantation Road onto Route 205, which eventually becomes Main Street, struck hard by the smell of cow manure in the heat. It’s mid-June, end of the school year, but it feels like high summer. Fields brown beneath the sun. Another mile on, I pass a brand-new sign: Welcome to Barrens, population 5,027. The last time I was here, ten years ago, the population was barely half that. Main Street is in fact the main street, but even on a nine-mile stretch, passing three cars is high traffic.
I count telephone poles. I count crows swaying on the wires. I count silos in the distance, arranged like fists. I turn my life into numbers, into accounting. For ten years I’ve lived in Chicago. I’ve been a lawyer for three. After six months in private practice, I landed a job at CEAW, the Center for Environmental Advocacy Work.
I have a future, a life, a clean and bright condo in Lincoln Park with dozens of bookshelves and not a single Bible. I meet friends in downtown Chicago bars and clubs and speakeasies where the cocktails have ingredients like lilac and egg white. I have friends now, period—and boyfriends, if you can call them that. As many as I want, nameless and indistinguishable, rotating in and out of my bed and life and on my own terms.
Most nights, I don’t even have nightmares anymore.
I swore, many times, that I would never go home. But now I know better. Any self-help book in the world will tell you that you can’t just run your past away.
Barrens has its roots in me. If I want it gone forever, I’ll have to cut them out myself.
Main street. What used to be the chapel—a one-story concrete building with no windows where we used to go on Sundays, until my dad decided that the pastor was interpreting scripture as he pleased, infuriated particularly that he seemed too lax on “the gays”—is now a White Castle. The library where my mother used to take me to story hour as a kid now touts a sign for Johnny Chow’s Oriental Buffet. When I was growing up, we had practically no sit-down restaurants at all.
But so much is the same: the neon light from the VFW bar still flickers, and Mel’s Pizza, where I would ride my bike sometimes to get a slice after school, is still churning out pies. So much might have tumbled out of memory intact—the Jiffy Lube Pit Stop, Jimmy’s Auto Parts Supply, the run-down porn shop Kaycee Mitchell’s father used to own. Might still own, for all I know. Temptations has a new roof, though, and a new electric sign. So business has been booming.
I spot a crow on a telephone wire and another one nesting farther along. One crow for sorrow, two crows for mirth...
Past Main Street nothing looks the same: brand-new condos, a Jennifer Convertibles, a sit-down Italian place advertising a salad bar in the window. Everything is unfamiliar except for the salvage yard and, just beyond it, the drive‑in movie theater. Site of many birthday parties with kids from Sunday school and even a depressing Thanksgiving right after my mom was buried. Our claim to fame, prior to the arrival of Optimal Plastics.
More crows perched on a pylon. Three, four, five, six. Seven for a secret, never to be told. A murder of crows.
Being back is giving me that tight-chest, lumpy-throat feeling. I grip the steering wheel tighter. At the first red light—the only red light in Barrens—I hold my breath and close my eyes. I am in control now.
The guy behind me lays on his horn: the light has turned green.
I press the gas pedal just a little too hard and shoot forward into the intersection. When a familiar orange sign flashes in my peripheral vision, I signal to turn without thinking and swerve into the parking lot of the Donut Hole—this, like the drive‑in movie theater, is totally unchanged.
I turn off the ignition. Sit in silence. After just a few seconds of no air-conditioning, it’s painfully hot. It must be eighty degrees—much warmer than it was in Chicago. The air is chokingly heavy with moisture. I wrestle off my leather jacket and grab my purse from the floor of the passenger seat. I could use a water.
As I’m opening the car door, a blue Subaru pulls up next to me, jamming its brakes at the last second and making me jump. The driver honks twice.
I slide out of the car, annoyed by how close the other driver has parked, and then notice the woman in the car is smiling at me and giving a frenzied, two-handed wave. She motions toward the Donut Hole and I have a split second to decide if I should turn back toward Chicago and forget this whole thing. But suddenly I am paralyzed. Somewhere along the line, my fight-or- flight instinct turned into freeze, turn invisible, wait for it to pass.
Misha Dale. Blonder, heavier, still beautiful, in her small-town way. Smiling. I used to dream of her smile—the way, I imagine, bottom-feeding fish must dream of the long dark funnel of a shark’s throat.
Misha at twelve: getting all her friends to pelt me with stale lunch rolls when I walked through the cafeteria. Misha at fourteen: planting an animal femur in my locker, claiming it was one of my mother’s bones, whispering that I kept body parts in my freezer, a rumor that achieved such aggressive popularity that Sheriff Kahn came over to check. At fifteen, she organized a campaign to raise money for the treatment of my acne. At sixteen, she circulated an online petition to have me suspended from school.
A sadist with a beautiful smile. She, Cora Allen, Annie Baum, and Kaycee Mitchell fed on me for years, grew fat and strong on my misery, ecstatic when junior year I tried to swallow half a bottle of Advil and had to spend a week at Mercy mental hospital—something my father refused to ever acknowledge and of which we have never spoken.
Next time, I’ll help, Misha whispered to me in the hall when I finally got back to school.
Terrible girls. Demonic.
And yet, I’d envied them.