Floyd County, Kentucky
The worst part of moving isn’t the actual moving.
Saying goodbye to his friends sucks, yeah, and having to try out for a new coach—try out, like he’s the second-smallest kid on the junior peewee team again—on such short notice is kind of inconvenient, but he can make new friends, that isn’t hard, and it’s not like switching zip codes has magically messed with his ability to throw a touchdown pass. Friends are replaceable. Football isn’t ever gonna change.
And the house—sure, it’s different. Disorienting. It’s bigger, nicer, cleaner, a little bit like stepping inside one of those perfectly sterile furniture showrooms at the mall. But it’s still just a house, just a place to live, to eat and sleep and store his stuff. Books. Movies. Trophies. The cardboard box full of shot glasses—unused, gift-shop tacky shot glasses—from national parks he hasn’t been to yet and truck stops he can never find on a map and amusement parks, aquariums, tourist traps—Jupiter, Florida and Bangor, Maine and even a couple of tiny no-name lumber towns in Alaska.
Alaska, Nate figures, is a pretty decent hiding spot.
He can take a hint.
The cardboard box, though—that used to be for mason jars, from when Annabelle got really into canning and pickling and fruit preserves and farmer’s markets. There’s a decorative throw pillow made out of burlap sacks from around then, too, somewhere in the moving truck; another leftover.
Moving has stirred up a lot of those.
Old memories, tattered reminders, like dust bunnies floating out from under a couch that hasn’t been touched in ten years—practically designed to make his nose itch and his eyes sting, like being allergic to the past is a real, legitimate medical condition he can stab himself with an EpiPen for.
Somehow, that isn’t the worst part of moving, either.
No, it’s the barn.
Nate isn’t even sure why the barn is still there. How the barn is still there. It’s ancient, huge and hideous, literally falling apart at the seams—it looks like it’s one or two good gusts of wind away from collapsing in on itself like a deck of cards, like it’s being held together with toothpicks and duct tape. It’s weird, honestly, no matter how often his dad insists that it’s fascinating, that it’s cool, that it’s brimming with 150 years of appreciable, undeniable history. The weight of that, of what that means, doesn’t bother his dad, apparently.
It bothers Nate.
It bothers him the day they collect the keys from the realtor and he hops down from the backseat of his dad’s car and he feels—a lot. There’s the summer heat, thick and humid, eerily oppressive, more of a swarming buzz than the pleasant trickle of deep-fried honey that he’s used to; and there’s the gravel in the driveway, poking and prodding at the soles of his flip-flops, the shadows from the elm trees and the shimmer of the fresh white paint on the front porch steps; but there’s also something else, something oddly, tangibly separate—he can’t put a name to it, doesn’t particularly want to put a name to it, but it settles in the pit of his stomach like a grease puddle in the bottom of a pizza box.
“You’re gonna tear that down, right?” he asks his dad, squinting into the distance. “Eventually?”
“Eventually, yeah,” his dad agrees. “But I’d like to go through it first.”
“It’s not empty?”
“No, it is.” His dad smiles slightly as he watches Annabelle set up a camera and a tripod in the middle of the driveway. “Mostly.”
Nate grunts. Sweat is already beading on his forehead, seeping out from between his shoulder blades, across the nape of his neck. His t-shirt is sticking to his skin. “So . . . what’s in it?”
“In the barn?”
“Used to be an orchard here, so there’s an old cider press, I think. Some farming equipment.”
“Oh.” Nate grunts again. “That’s boring.”
“This whole area was occupied, too, during the war.”
His dad snorts out a laugh, wryly exasperated, and bumps their shoulders together. “Go check it out for yourself, if you’re curious.”
Nate cuts a glance back towards where the barn is looming, almost comically out of place against the postcard-pretty backdrop of clear blue skies and rolling green hills and zigzagging lines of crisp white pasture fence. It’s a blight on the horizon; a scummy-sweet bruise on the underside of an otherwise pristine piece of fruit.
It’s not as far away as he thought it was.
Annabelle clicks the camera remote, taking a series of increasingly ridiculous pictures of the three of them dramatically holding up the shiny silver house key and fighting to be the first to unlock the front door and stumbling into the foyer, tripping over each other’s feet, arms outstretched and faces blurry.
Not quite candid, obviously, but still nice.
They’re starting to unpack the kitchen boxes when Annabelle’s phone rings.
She puffs her cheeks out and heaves a sigh, carefully shelving a stack of geometric-patterned porcelain entrée plates and then leaning over the counter to check the caller ID. Whatever she sees there must surprise her—in a bad way, judging by the uneasy slant of her mouth, how her thumb twitches apprehensively as she swipes at the screen to answer.
“Hello?” There’s a pause, brief and stilted. “That’s my maiden name, yes, but I don’t actually use it any—oh. Yeah. Yes. I mean—yes, I’m her mother.”
At that, Nate’s dad looks up from the open drawer where he’s sorting silverware, his brow furrowed.
“Oh. Oh, my god. Could you please, um—” Annabelle covers the phone speaker with a shaking hand, staring up at his dad with poorly concealed panic. Her eyes are glassy. “Steven is . . . it’s about Steven. And Ainsley—I can’t—please. I can’t.”
His dad gently takes the phone from her, his posture strangely tense, and then clears his throat. “This is Paul Buchanan.”
Nate puts down his box cutter and goes outside.
Annabelle isn’t a secretive person. She’s warm like sunshine, sweet like lemonade, honest like his real mom never has been or will be. And it’s not that Annabelle’s the opposite of her, not exactly—it’s that Annabelle’s a more manageable, more understandable version of her, comparatively. Yeah. The same kind of fragile. Except Annabelle’s wounds aren’t self-inflicted and her secrets aren’t really secrets. She has a semi-famous ex-husband in L.A. who she doesn’t like to talk to and a well-worn wallet-sized photo of a scowling little girl in a private school sweater vest that she doesn’t like to talk about.
Nate’s always wondered about that little girl.
About Ainsley Alvarez, because that’s her name, even if it sounds a little fake, a little too much like a comic book character, like someone who isn’t entirely, completely real—he looked her up once, found a private Instagram with a profile picture that was just the back of her head, windswept dark hair and a carnelian red sweatshirt and a narrow strip of deeply bronzed skin, the scraggly hook of a brown-green California coastline spanning out behind her. Or—in front of her? Whose perspective is he supposed to default to?
He hopes she’s okay.
She probably isn’t, not if someone’s contacting Annabelle about her, but—maybe his dad can fix it. His dad likes to fix things; squeaky hinges, flickering lightbulbs, crooked nails. He checked and double-checked that all the mail from their old address was gonna be forwarded to their new one, 130 miles away, and he took Nate’s truck in to the shop when the transmission was lagging, even though Nate could’ve easily done it himself, and—
His dad’s never met a problem he wasn’t eager to solve.
A mess he wasn’t sorely tempted to clean up.
There’s a knife in the barn.
It’s sticking straight up out of the ground, just to the left of the hayloft rubble, like someone had placed it there, had intentionally left it for Nate to find. The blade glints in the shadows, conspicuously silver and glaringly bright, the sheen of it slicing through the must, the gloom, the overpowering scent of splinters and week-old rain and rotting leaves.
He’s tentative, when he bends down to pick it up.
It’s small, about the length of his palm, point tapered but dull with age; he holds it up to a jagged spear of sunlight, peering intently at the handle—at the hilt? Is that what it’s called? It’s sturdy, whatever it is, tightly wrapped in bloodstained strips of soft brown leather, with something engraved on the bottom. A word. A date? No, it’s two letters. A set of initials:
Nate frowns, struck by a faint, barely-there twinge of recognition. Like a pulled muscle, a sprained ligament—nothing serious. Ice it. Rest it. Take two ibuprofen before bed and be sure to stretch a lot in the morning.
He uncurls his fingers, letting the knife lay flat.
His dad would probably love this; an artifact. A tangible piece of all that history he claims to care so much about. He’d put it in a glass box, show it off to an expert, a history professor or a museum director, track down the manufacturer of the steel and the owner of those initials and try to figure out how, precisely, they ended up here. In this barn. It’s a good question, to be fair. A compelling mystery.
Nate’s scalp prickles.
Without warning or forethought, he plunges his free hand into the ground, into the soil, digging and carving, dirt crusting his nails as he flings it away. Scoops it out. Creates a hole, a grave, a space in the depths of that refreshingly cool, damp earth.
“Nate?” His dad’s voice echoes, fraught with exhaustion, from over by the house. “Hey, you out here, buddy? We’ve gotta—we need to talk.”
Nate immediately drops the knife and starts to cover it back up with dirt. Bury it. The knife; it isn’t his. It doesn’t belong to him. He isn’t sure how he knows that, why he knows that, but he does. Fundamentally, instinctually. It isn’t his to take, isn’t his to give away, isn’t his to use. It’s that last thought—the idea of using the knife, a knife, any knife—that startles him into blinking.
Has he not been doing that?
“Yeah,” he calls out, lurching to his feet and scrubbing his hands together, brushing the dirt off. His scalp is still prickling. His balance feels off. “Yeah, I’m right here.”
The worst part of moving isn’t the actual moving.
originally published june, 2020