Authors: Jaye Robin Brown
For all the small-town girls,
and for Raven,
who showed me how to fly
The man talking on the
local news has it out for me. Through the screen door, I watch Mama, remote control in hand, mouth gasping like a banked fish with each new tale of murder and woe. Every single day, morning and evening, she convinces herself the world beyond our doorstep is a Very Bad Place. I've managed to sneak off in plain sight all summer long, but I never know when she might decide an ax murderer is lurking in the woods and keep me home.
Devon's Jeep barrels around the curve in the road. I stand up, wiping the dust off my jean shorts. He parks and makes his way across our overgrown yard, guitar slung over his shoulder, foil-wrapped plate in his hand.
“Ready?” I say. “Mama's working herself into a scare.”
He peers past me into the house. “Hey, Mrs. Vaughn.”
I groan as Mama walks toward the screen door.
“You've got your cell phones? You won't be out too late now, will you?” Mama has her hand on the door pull but doesn't open it. “Devon, you look after Amber. Sometimes there are hikers from who knows where out on those trails.” She looks at the plate and his guitar. “What? No salamander hunting today? Y'all meeting somebody?”
“No, ma'am,” I lie. “Just us, going to go sing up on the overlook, and we may try and find us a hellbender or two.”
That's been our story. That we're on the hunt for the elusive hellbender salamander. That we spend our long teenage hours in the woods, alone, digging under rocks, trying to find a slimy amphibian. The reality is we're headed to the hiker barn. Again.
A twinge of guilt burbles in my gut. If Mama knew what I was up to it'd destroy her. But the thing is, Mama only sees what she wants to see. Even when I come home, lips swollen, with stars in my eyes and a hickey on my neck, she'll look at me all maternal and say, “Did you have a nice time, sugar?” She's as clueless about me as she is about my sister, Whitney, and her drug-dealing husband.
Or about Daddy and his
I wonder if the faithful are meant to be so blind.
Devon and I tell her good-bye, assuring her six ways to Sunday we'll call if we run into trouble, and cut across the back pasture toward the trail.
We traipse past Whitney's faded gray trailer and head for the tree line. Sammy, my sister's husband, is outside washing their car, his shirt off, his pale blond hair long on his back.
“Hey.” Sammy leers at me and starts playing air guitar on the garden hose.
“What?” I spit the word at him. Whitney may still be in love with him, but I see him for what he is. A low-life loser who'd rather sell oxy than do what it takes to make an honest living. He's a total idiot, but he
play the guitar.
Sammy sticks the hose between his legs, spraying water in our direction. “Have a good timeâsalamander hunting.”
I flip him the bird. “Go to hell, Sammy.”
Devon ignores him and whistles his favorite Lady Gaga song, keeping his eyes straight ahead until Sammy's hidden by the trees.
Devon's funny. Smart. He moved to town at the start of ninth grade, right around when Whitney abandoned
me for Sammy, and we clung to each other like rabbits in a storm. Unfortunately, despite what Sammy may think, Devon's not into girls. It's a crying shame, too, because he's dark-haired, boy-band cute, and although our taste in music runs toward polar oppositesâme, bluegrass and ballads; him, Lady Gaga and pop divasâhe loves playing the guitar and singing as much as I do.
But most of all, he gets me. Devon understands my burning desire to get the hell out of Sevenmile, North Carolina, which is a seemingly impossible prospect, given my mama's stalwart belief that her flock should settle within a couple of hundred feet of her back door. But Devon's willing to help me try to figure it out.
He jumps into the middle of the trail, tall stickweed shuddering as his guitar hits the leafy branches, and puts his hands on my shoulders. “This is it, Amber Plain and Small, our last night of reckless endangerment.”
I hate the nickname. Devon says he's doing me a favor to distinguish me from the other two Ambers in our grade. The two we lovingly refer to as Cheerleader Amber and Amber-o-zia.
Devon ignores my look. “We are going to make the most of this bonfire night with the through-hikers, a final salute to the bad girl that lurks inside of you. Or maybe, might you find . . .” He mock gasps. “Love?”
A part of me bristles as he says it. I mean, yes, he's right. I guess on some level love
what I'm looking for. Not necessarily the love of someone, but of
. The something that will help me rise above, make me special, make me feel like somebody. Like singing at a music festival or auditioning for one of those television music shows. What would it be like to go somewhere, to do something big? Hell, just to have the guts to sing in front of people besides Devon, my family, and my church. But I can't tell him. He'd tease the hell out of me.
Devon hits a chord and starts singing, “You're beautiful. . . .”
I roll my eyes and turn as he serenades me. We're walking in the middle of an overgrown logging road back behind Pastor Early's farm. The road takes us to the Appalachian Trail and then to the hiker barn. Our destination. The place where I've entertained myself all summer long with interesting boys who don't know my family's reputation.
I've met hikers from as far away as Europe and as close as Johnson City, Tennessee. I'm marking the towns on the map in my bedroom. I know on a certain level that meeting all these people doesn't really count as having been to the places they come from, but it's the closest I've ever gotten. I heard about a jazz festival in New Orleans. A
bluegrass festival in Telluride. I even heard from a Tennessee boy about a big festival outside of Wilkesboro where you can camp and play music all weekend long.
This summer has been different that way. The magic of the hiker barn lets me fly as far as I want in my imagination.
Whitney is the one who showed the barn to me first.
She'd taken me there the spring of her junior year, my last year of middle school, before she started dating Sammy. I'd noticed the carvings right away. On every board were names and dates and places. They said things like “Wooly Bear, passing through, June 2002” and “Mark and Joni, honeymoon hikers, Boston to Maine to Georgia, 1997.” I'd pored over those carvings, imagining what it would be like to be the kind of person who could pick up and walk away from home like that.
“Through-hikers, from all over the place,” Whitney had said. At the question on my face, she'd explained, “The Appalachian Trail is just up that path. There's a sign pointing the hikers to this barn. The property owners let them use this place as an overnight shelter.”
I remember thinking my sister was wiser than Jesus. Like she'd opened my eyes and the door to the rest of the world was right here, practically in my own backyard.