light as a feather - preview
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Floyd County, Kentucky
It’s a good night to run away.
The moon’s a glistening silver dollar in the sky, pockmarked and ruddy, and the air is cool and crisp and clean. A light breeze is whistling through the grass, drooping stalks of dandelion rustling around his ankles, and the soles of his boots are crunching ominously against shards of frost-bitten dirt. There isn’t any blood seeping into the ground. Not yet. When he breathes in, it’s a stinging, icy-hot assault on the back of his throat, on the insides of his lungs, but he doesn’t smell rust or iron or the sour-sweet saltpeter tang of a perfectly fresh bullet.
It’s pure here; untouched.
The bulky silhouette of the McMahon barn looms large and seemingly impregnable in the distance. He can make out creaking gray clapboard and a rot-speckled A-frame, an uneven line of boarded-up windows and a yawning, blacker-than-black indent where the hay loft is. It’s a desolate picture, a frankly unnecessary reminder that this place had once been much better off—before the soldiers had marched, and the shrapnel had flown, and the languid, comfortable monotony of the past had been so thoroughly annihilated.
It’s remarkable, almost. How far the edges of the battlefield can extend; how sharply they can cut, how efficiently they can cull; how monstrously, gruesomely deep they can gouge.
There’s a house behind the barn, nice and white and big, with a smoothly winding drive and a neatly gabled roof. He imagines that the outward disrepair of the barn must be echoed, somewhat, in the guts of the house—loose shutters, peeling paint, squeaky hinges—but certainly not in its inhabitant. No, she’s exempt.
She’s a spring shower come to life, ivory skin as velvety as a flower petal and vibrant green eyes clearer than a sliver of sea glass. She’s a rare delicacy, finishing school polished and lemonade-soaked slow; a sugar-soft confection of silk dresses and lace handkerchiefs, butter-blonde hair and tinkling laughter and the sort of smile that most men would die for. That some men would kill for. She’s a treasure, truly, golden and glowing, and treasure should always be properly guarded. He thinks that it’s a shame she’s been left alone, but—
That was the plan, after all.
The needle-spired cast-iron gate at the rear of the house swings open with a gentle groan. His footsteps are muted as he walks along the cobblestone path to the kitchen door. It’s darker now, more difficult to see through the midnight gloom than it had been under the glare of the moon. A small tin plate holding two sputtering tallow candles is tucked against an upstairs window, providing just enough light to illuminate the lock on the door.
He licks his lips. The strap of his rifle digs into his shoulder as he bends down to retrieve a penknife from the inside of his boot. His Union blues have never fit him so well.
It’s a good night to run away.
It’s a good night to get away with something.
A PLACE WITH HISTORY
Charleston, West Virginia
Ainsley’s flight lands at Yeager in the late afternoon, just as the sun is starting to stray from the clouds.
She gets a glimpse of a brown-green sea of trees out of the tiny square of her window seat, as well as a massive, crumbling landslide of a cliff that she assumes must be a quarry. The scenery is pretty bleak; it’s too early in the season for the leaves to have changed, for that riotous editorial explosion of red and orange and yellow to have made an appearance, but there's a strange, almost surreal kind of desperation to the barrenness of the surrounding forest, even through a solid foggy inch of Plexiglas—like it’s reaching out for something. Asking a question.
Possibly, she's projecting.
Possibly, the foliage just looks like it's waiting to fucking die.
When she finally reaches the Arrivals gate, she discovers that it’s as depressing as it is empty. Dingy white linoleum stretches out from the cement walls, and an ancient, squeaking luggage carousel is chugging along in the far corner. A few people are milling around the rental car counter, and a few more are holding flimsy poster board signs and merging into an overly excited cluster by the double doors that lead to the airstrip.
Annabelle isn’t one of them.
Of course she isn’t.
“Hey, uh, I don’t mean to bother you, but are you waiting for someone in particular?”
Ainsley glances up, not really surprised to see a teenage boy standing a respectful distance away from where she’s sequestered herself against the wall closest to the parking lot. He’s older than her, she guesses, well over six feet tall and broad-shouldered enough to strain the seams of his jacket. His hair is that vaguely ashy shade of brown that had probably been blond at some point in his childhood, and it’s close-cropped and a little damp, like he’d recently taken a shower. She absently takes a second to catalogue his features—thick eyebrows and a full mouth, a strong chin and a square jaw and a slightly crooked nose. His entire demeanor is embarrassingly earnest. Sincere. He’s the epitome of All-American masculinity, cornfed and boring. And she wonders—can’t help but wonder—if he’s as wholesome under the cardinal red felt of his Letterman’s jacket as he seems like he is.
“No,” she finally answers, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m not waiting for anyone.”
He ducks his head, lips turning up in a grin. “Cool,” he says, scuffing his boots against the tiled floor as he rocks back on his heels. “I’m, uh, I’m Nate. You . . . from around here, then? Just visiting?”
He's almost charming, Ainsley thinks wryly, with a pinch of disdain, this bumbling southern linebacker with bulging biceps and baby blue eyes and an aw-shucks smile straight out of a chrome-trimmed vinyl diner booth. Almost.
“Seriously?” she drawls, tugging the sleeves of her cardigan farther down her wrists. "Am I from around here?"
His cheeks flush a dark, warm pink, but then a faint chirping sound erupts from the pocket of his jeans. “Shit,” he mutters, clearing his throat as he fumbles for his phone. He’s avoiding her eyes, Ainsley notes with a sharp stab of amusement. “Let me just—it’s my dad’s girlfriend, I’m supposed to be—uh, hello? Yeah, hey, I’m here. I haven’t seen her yet, no. What did you say she looked—”
Ainsley yawns into her hand, sniffing impatiently as she toys with the idea of calling Annabelle. Of actually using the number that had been texting her off and on for the past month, meaningless New Age platitudes and unnecessarily invasive questions about her emotions, a tissue-thin optimism staining every single message except for the last, which contained nothing but her flight information. A one-way ticket to a nightmare, complete with business class leg room and a shitty cardboard lunch service.
I’m so sorry, sweetie.
The first was always going to be the worst. An apology; no, a lie. Because there’s nothing worse than being sorry. Than hearing sorry. Sorry is pathetic, and sorry is infuriating. Sorry is the Junior League coordinator forcing a smile after spring cotillion while tucking a calligraphy-coated invitation for a Mother-Daughter brunch into Ainsley’s bag. Sorry is the wedding ring her dad had never taken off and sorry is the mountain of YouTube tutorials she’d had to watch just to learn how to put on lipstick properly and sorry is being summoned out of fourth period U.S. History to be told, succinctly and cryptically, both: “Miss Alvarez, there was an accident.” Sorry is having to wear her school uniform to the part of the hospital they don’t even bother to decorate, the knee-length maroon plaid skirt with the matching headband and the skinny black tie and the tailored white button-down, everything just the tiniest bit itchy against her skin.
Sorry is humiliating.
Sorry is unacceptable.
“—wait, did you—dark hair? Kind of . . . tan? Uh. Short? Fuck. I’m—sorry. I have to go. I’ll—yeah, I found her. See you later.”
Nate is staring at her now, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, gripping his phone like it’s his only remaining tether to a world that must be significantly less shitty than the one Ainsley's been inhabiting. He’s pale under the leftovers of his summer sunburn, and his gaze is much less appreciative as he opens and closes his mouth, visibly floundering. She snorts, not a little unkindly. She’s pretty sure she knows where this is going.
“Annabelle’s your dad’s girlfriend, huh?”
Nate scratches at the back of his neck. “Annabelle? You mean . . . your mom?”
“No, I mean Annabelle,” Ainsley says, deliberately slow. “Why didn’t she come to get me herself?”
“Uh. She had to teach a class. Why do you call her—”
“She teaches a class?” Ainsley asks, incredulous. “On what? Adultery and abandonment? Wow. Admirable use of her skillset.”
Nate furrows his brow, bending down to pick up her bags before he speaks again. “There’s a sewing circle,” he mumbles, nodding in the direction of the parking lot. “It’s part of the historical society. Your mom’s, uh, she’s really good at it? Sewing, I mean.”
At that, Ainsley pauses, struck by a grainy spliced-up memory of her dad wrapping an enormous pink bow around a commercial-grade Singer machine. Ainsley had forgotten about that. About the U-Haul box full of beautifully embroidered cashmere baby blankets currently sitting in a musty storage unit in Sherman Oaks. Her dad had never tossed them, but he’d kept the clothes, too, the toddler-sized polka-dotted circle skirts and the expertly stitched silk blouses, the crushed velvet Christmas dresses and the chambray gingham pinafores and the navy wool pea coats with the shiny brass buttons.
“Right, whatever,” Ainsley says, looping her arm through Nate’s elbow and steering him outside. “Airports are objectively terrible places to pick up girls, by the way."
“You said—I didn’t know who you were! You said you weren’t waiting for anyone!”
“Uh, yeah, you’re a stranger, I’m not telling you my life story.”
“How is that your life story?”
“Anyway,” Ainsley continues blithely, “where’s your car? I’m starving."
Nate licks his lips, looking a little lost—like he’d been blindfolded in the middle of the woods, spun around in a dizzying circle, and then instructed to find his way back home. Ainsley isn’t particularly sympathetic.
At least he’d had the blindfold taken off.
The house they pull up to a few hours later is exactly what Ainsley expects.
It’s large, wider than it is tall, with rustic blue clapboard and a gabled slate roof. The entire second story is one long bank of elegantly latticed windows, shutters painted a deep cranberry red, and the covered front porch is picture-perfect—a Southern Living centerfold brimming with columns and arches and carved ivy friezes. It’s quaint. It's pretty. It's the kind of house that's supposed to make a statement about the kind of people who live in it.
The property itself is fairly isolated, several rambling acres situated around a mile-long gravel drive that snakes out from a dusty country road. There aren’t any nearby neighbors, and the skyline is a seemingly endless panorama of rolling green hills and crisscrossing pasture fences. The soot-streaked remnants of a derelict old barn lurk in the distance, piles of splintered wood and chalky red brick strewn across the grass. It's . . . conspicuous.
“What’s that?” Ainsley asks, unbuckling her seatbelt and gesturing towards the barn.
Nate shrugs. “The barn? It’s pretty ancient. Civil War-era, I think?"
“Yeah. Dad’s been talking about tearing it down. Keeps forgetting, though.”
Ainsley hums, studying the slivers of ivory bark flaking off the trunk of the huge sycamore tree standing sentry in the front yard. “How long have you guys lived here?”
Nate jingles his keys. “Not long.”
“How long is not long?”
“A couple of months.”
“Yeah, we moved from Lexington. Dad wanted a place with history,” Nate says with honest-to-god finger-quotes, sounding, for the very first time, genuinely irritated by something.
Ainsley doesn’t respond for a while. She thinks about Annabelle, probably hovering by an upstairs window and watching them—spying on them—and how repellant the idea of going inside and facing her is. It’s been ten years. This shouldn’t be a big deal. Ainsley’s grown up, mostly, and she hasn’t missed whatever mystifying, half-baked maternal abstraction she used to instinctively associate Annabelle with. Ainsley had always known she’d have to see her again, of course—eventually, eventually—but she’d expected her dad to be by her side when she did. She'd expected to have a choice.
“History,” Ainsley repeats blankly. “Like the barn.”
Nate snorts. “Yeah. Like the barn.”
A surprisingly comfortable silence descends on the truck as the engine cools, occasionally interspersed with the whirring clink of a scattered piece of gravel trying to settle. She guesses that Nate’s not especially eager to go inside, either, and she wonders why—wonders if it’s her, or if it’s Annabelle, or if it’s something else altogether that’s making him look so tired. So wary.
“Anything to do around here?” Ainsley asks, drumming her fingers along the pebbled charcoal leather of the dash.
Nate squints at her in confusion. “What do you mean?”
She registers a prickling surge of impatience. Firmly ignores it. “Like . . . is there a town, or a mall, or a tractor supply store—anything? I don’t really feel like dealing with Annabelle yet.” That’s a laughable understatement, but Nate doesn’t need to know that.
“Oh,” he says, scrubbing at his forehead like if he just pushes hard enough, his brain will work faster.
“There’s . . . a Sonic? And a diner? And a drive-in, out by the highway, but it’s only open on the weekends.”
Ainsley sighs. “Please tell me you’re at least one of those guys who drinks PBR like it’s water.”
“I’m only eighteen. That’s illegal.”
“Oh, my god."
“We can’t go anywhere, anyway,” Nate goes on, as if she hadn’t spoken. “We’re supposed to all have dinner. Didn’t you say you were hungry?”
“I said I was starving, actually, but I’d rather bash my own skull in with the heirloom gravy boat than—”
The front door of the house swings open.
“Nate!” a woman calls out, voice light and airy and lyrical and feminine, familiar, unfamiliar, a wind-chime in a rose garden, and Ainsley—
Ainsley very abruptly has to fight the urge to scream. Or maybe it isn’t abrupt at all. Maybe she’s been choking on the jagged edges of all of it all along—of how much she loathes Annabelle, loathes the stainless-steel refrigerator packed with Wolfgang Puck casseroles and impossibly stale apologies that she’d left back in Brentwood.
Annabelle’s aged well, Ainsley thinks, somewhat clinically.
She’s a vision in sensible beige leather flats and cap-sleeved Laura Ashley, golden blonde hair thick and shiny, barrel-curled and pushed back off her face in a neatly pinned wave. She’s slender, delicate, fine-boned and graceful, and her lipstick is a pale, pearlescent pink, an elegant shimmer against the cream of her skin. Ainsley’s never been more grateful that there isn’t a family resemblance. She inherited nothing from Annabelle, takes after her dad in all the ways that matter. In all the ways that don’t.
“Come on,” Nate mutters, sliding out of the driver’s seat. “She’s been, uh, really excited to see you again.”
“To meet me, you mean,” Ainsley corrects him, clutching the handle of the car door for a moment too long. She shakes her head. Three months. That’s it. This is temporary. Annabelle hasn’t meant anything to her since she was six. She can do this.
The gravel of the driveway crunches beneath the soles of Ainsley’s boots as she follows Nate up to the porch and through the front door.
The foyer is just as tastefully traditional as the exterior of the house, a homey mirage of warm browns and gleaming gold light fixtures, a soaring tray ceiling and parquet wood floors and a scroll-legged mahogany end table sitting cattycorner to the foot of the stairs. It’s clean. Polished. A little too reminiscent of her dad’s house, actually—that lived-in veneer of modernism transposed over professionally chosen paint colors and candlesticks and artisan woven rugs—which is jarring. He’d lived enough of his life in the wake of Annabelle’s bullshit. Surely she could leave him alone now that he was dead.
“—in the attic, there’s an en-suite, too, so you have some privacy,” Annabelle is twittering, flapping French-manicured hands in a vague upwards motion. “I didn’t—I wasn’t sure what you’d like to do with it. The room. It’s a bit bare, but I thought it’d be fun to go to the city, finish it together.”
Panic swells. Wraps around Ainsley’s throat and squeezes. It’s the slow kind of suffocation; the kind that doesn’t allow for loss of consciousness, the kind that drags it out, needlessly, brutally, and—no. No. She can’t do this.
“Wait, what?” Ainsley blurts out, noting with a curious sort of detachment that Nate’s watching her, not Annabelle. He looks anxious. Worried. She wonders if the wrenching pull in her gut—the thundering avalanche of disappointment, disdain, disquiet—is that obvious. If he can sense the storm on the horizon. "Finish what together?"
“Oh, Ainsley,” Annabelle breathes in lieu of an actual answer, a wobbly little half-smile fluttering around the corners of her mouth. She smells like chocolate chip cookies and Chanel. “Oh, sweetie. I'm so sorry. About Steven. About your father, I mean. I can't imagine . . . I can't imagine how you must be feeling, but I—I'm here for you, alright? Whatever you need.”
Ainsley stares at Annabelle—they’re nearly the same height, practically eye-level—and feels something inside of her, something that’s already broken and already crooked and already bent out of shape; she feels it snap.
“No,” she says, and she’s impressed with herself, impressed with the steadiness of her voice and the clarity of her thoughts. “No, I’m not doing this right now.”
It’s a dramatic exit, a dramatic entrance, technically, and the sound of Ainsley’s footsteps as she stomps up the walnut staircase—it echoes painfully, slices through her eardrums like a guillotine, exposing all the soft, vulnerable parts of her, the ones liable to bleed all over the plush crimson runner, blending in as efficiently as they'll stain. It’s almost harrowing, how the filigreed walls are too narrow, pressing in on her from all sides, gilt-framed family portraits—matching white t-shirts and sunshine-dappled fields of bluegrass and broad, cheerful grins—snagging the sleeves of her cardigan and scratching at the backs of her knuckles and cutting into her skin, more vicious than the assortment of "Sorry for Your Loss" cards currently rotting in a Burbank landfill.
Ainsley can’t make sense of it.
She stumbles to a halt at the top of the stairs, aware, suddenly, that she has no idea where she’s going. The hallway stretches out both ways, a shadowy corn maze of hunter green wallpaper and bright-white doors. The thrumming rush of fight-or-flight dissipates for a second.
She blinks. She swallows. She curls her toes into the lush shearling interior of her boots.
“Ainsley, what was—” Nate doesn’t finish the question, just brushes past her to plant himself in the center of the hall. His expression is unyielding. Rigid. Flinty. His features aren’t nearly strong enough to support it. “Hey, you—you can’t do that.”
She stiffens. “Excuse me? Do what?"
“Talk to her—to your mother like that. She’s really upset.”
Ainsley huffs out a laugh that’s sharper than shattered glass. “Oh, my god. Annabelle will be fine.”
Nate clenches his jaw. “Stop calling her that.”
“What, her name?"
“She’s your mother,” he retorts, and a tiny, immeasurably cruel part of Ainsley wants to latch onto the catch in his voice, wants to force him to explain why he’s so bothered by this. “She’s been telling us about you for—for years, and now you’re finally here and you’re—”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Neither do you!”
Ainsley presses her lips together on a messy exhale. “Annabelle is just as much of a stranger to me as you are. Don't go there.”
"You owe her an apology. She’s doing her best.”
“Her best. Really.”
“Yeah, really. I don’t—I don’t know what happened before, with your dad, but she’s—”
“Exactly,” Ainsley interrupts, shortly, coldly, and she’s trembling, has to pinch her fingertips together to stop it, hide it, and she hates this. Fucking hates it. “You don’t know, and, honestly, it’s none of your business. Stay out of it.”
“Your mother is my business,” he insists, stubbornly, and Ainsley scoffs.
“What do you call her, anyway?” she asks, wrinkling her nose. “Mom? Mother? Or, gosh, do you also call her Annabelle, because, man, irony, am I right?”
“She’s been my mother for almost seven years.”
“Oh, nice, one more year than she was mine,” Ainsley coos.
Nate’s mouth clamps shut. “Like I said. You owe her an apology.”
“No. Like I said. She’ll be fine.”
“You don’t know—”
“Oh, my god, are you really—has it occurred to you—occurred to her, Jesus Christ—that my father just died and I don't want to be here?” Ainsley bites out, too loud and too hoarse and too sincere. “Leave me alone. You—don’t—know—what—you’re—talking about.”
Nate crumples under the weight of her words. “I didn’t mean to . . . ”
“Where’s my room?” Ainsley demands, avoiding his gaze.
He hesitates, and then points to a second, much smaller staircase at the far end of the hall. The attic. Of course. Annabelle had already said that, hadn’t she?
“Don’t follow me,” Ainsley says flatly.
He doesn’t reply.
And the frustration flaring to a dull, sputtering simmer in the pit of her stomach—it’s explosive, and it’s violent, and it’s weird.
She’s not emotional, not like this. She compartmentalizes. Represses. Denies. She doesn’t have tantrums, and she doesn’t slam doors, and she doesn’t cry. Crying is for the shower, where the salt of her tears can dissolve and swirl and melt and disappear down the drain before anyone else can ever see it. Her outburst with Annabelle—with Nate—the things she’d just shouted—
Ainsley collapses face-first onto her new bed—onto a pastel purple quilt, feathery against her cheeks, clearly handmade—and she breathes. Breathes in, and then out, and then in again. Her heart is still racing, hammering against her ribs and flushing her nervous system with enough adrenaline to fuel a two-hour car chase on the six o’clock news. She grits her teeth, hard, hears bone creak and enamel shriek and the ensuing flicker of rage is out of place and out of body and out of control. She isn’t angry. She isn’t. Because she doesn’t like being helpless, doesn’t like teetering off the rails at the top of a rollercoaster. Doesn’t like chaos. And yet. And yet.
A coolly ethereal whisper of what feels like satisfaction glides across her skin.