This was going to be a nice, normal, TWTC (this world, this century) story… and then it went weird on me. I kind of tentatively enjoyed it anyway, and I hope you will too.
In a given friend group of teenagers, there are a few archetypes that you can rely on to appear. There’s the quiet one who takes everything seriously, the one who is always cold, the athlete, the fashionista, the cool one who was drinking and smoking before anyone else, and the deeply uncool one who just happens to be a genius. There are also a couple of outsiders, pets, kept in a delicate balance between acceptance and rejection: invited along enough to leave them thinking they belong and hoping for more, but excluded enough to be confused and out of half the in-jokes. In smaller circles, like the high-schoolers in East of Nowhere when I was a teenager (there were ten of us all up) the archetypes might overlap, appear two or three to a person. There’s also one rarer type – not in every group, but unmistakable: the wildcard. At Atreides Bay, in the crowd my daughter runs with now, it was Alex, who dyed his hair green, went off to Chicago to join a punk rock band, and committed suicide by the highly conventional method of jumping under a train, all within three months of Maria breaking up with him in senior year.
In East of Nowhere, where I grew up, the wildcard was Shaniah, who conveniently doubled as the one who was always cold (it gave her a good reason for the RAF greatcoat she wore everywhere, year-round) and the deeply uncool girl who dressed mostly in black a decade after goth went out of fashion again, read – and collected! – Green Arrow and Nightwing comics, and played soccer long past the age of twelve, at which soccer ceased to be an acceptable pastime for girls.
The really bizarre thing about Shaniah (and never, ever ‘Shani’, we tried that) was that her parents were particularly normal, even for East of Nowhere: a South African lawyer who had been in town long enough to lose his accent, and Lindsey Carey, born and raised a quarter-mile from Hart’s Corner at the western end of town. Lindsey was the town’s one grade school teacher, just as her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother had been.
When our class graduated from the high school in Nowhere, an hour from home but still the nearest town, and most of the kids settled into a long, hot summer of working to save toward cars or college, Shaniah proved herself odder than we had yet guessed. She laced up her desert boots, threw some clothes, some books, and most of her life’s savings into a rucksack, donned the long grey RAF coat, and headed off to the western end of town. Lou Bell, who was starting another freight run across country anyway, had offered her a ride as far as the end of the run.
And so Shaniah set off to anachronistically seek her fortune, striding west down Main Street in the moonlight, toward the dark line where the forest met the town and Lou’s Mack rig waited with headlights glaring and engine growling. I was at my attic window that night, and saw her go. Nobody heard anything more of her, except perhaps Lindsey, and if she did she kept quiet.
Over the years, we had all become used to Lou’s routine – away three weeks, and coming home early on a Wednesday morning with the month’s drygoods for the Hart’s Corner store, and roaring away again late on the Tuesday night. On the third Wednesday in the April after Shaniah left, Lou was late. By noon, all of us kids who had grown up listening for the truck were edgy, uneasy, with no clear understanding why. The familiar grumble of the Mack rig dragging its trailer up the hill into town finally broke the stillness around sundown.
And in the roomy truck cab next to Lou, was Shaniah, though we didn’t recognize her at first. When she left, she was pale, with a dishwater-blonde plait swinging almost to her waist, and an easy, lazy, slightly twisted smile, rising higher on the left. The Shaniah who came home was thinner, darkly tanned, with the pale patch under the chin that said working outdoors, not sunbathing, and her hair was sun-bleached and roughly bobbed. She still had the grey coat, and it swirled along behind her as she headed east toward the sea, toward home, without so much as a word or glance to me, though we’d been friends all through school.
The next evening, she came and found me, sitting on the porch of the store at Hart’s Corner, drinking Pepsi. It was a fine, dry, still night – stars sprinkling the sky above the dark town, crickets out in force, and the murmur of the sea in the distance.
“Heard a good story while I was away,” said Shaniah, jumping up onto the porch beside me. “They say when you feel an unexplained chill, it’s because someone is standing on your grave. Where your grave will be, I mean,” she added, pulling the faded greatcoat closer around her.
“You must be buried at a crossroads,” I said. “You never don’t feel a chill. Who’s they, where were you?”
“We could check,” said Shaniah. “Go walk up and down the graveyard. Probably better try the unhallowed ground outside the fence, too.” So I went with her. Of course I did. When Shaniah said come on, I followed until she said stop, and I always had.
The graveyard wasn’t much bigger than a decent-sized backyard, and lay buried in the forest, separated by a dense tangle of yews from the house in the Hollow, and by a low blue picket fence from the swathe of coarse grass that, by virtue of a climbing frame, a swing, and a wrought-iron bench, was dignified with the name of park. Wandering down the street, to where the fence gleamed dully out of the whispering shadows of the trees, Shaniah laughed suddenly.
“It’s really quite a warm night, isn’t it?”
And I agreed, because it was. It stayed a warm night the whole rest of the way across town, and all the time we were pacing solemnly up and down the graveyard, trying to cover every inch of bare ground without stepping on too many graves. After a few minutes of this, Shaniah sighed, and leaned against on the sturdy granite block of her grandmother’s headstone. “Well, I think it’s pretty clear I won’t be buried around here. It always was kind of a long shot.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say, and the crickets chirped in the deafening silence for a while before Shaniah spoke, softly, answering my question of half an hour ago: “I’ve been all over, I guess. Probably be buried in a culvert somewhere.” Sensing a story, I sat cross-legged in the grass at her feet, and ignored the dew soaking into my jeans. The story was nothing special: Shaniah had spent the year walking, hitch-hiking, working here and there at this and that – waitressing, fruit-picking, cleaning, general casual work. “I like it,” she told me. “Sure, it’s not your idea of a good life, but I meet cool people, and if I get bored, I just move on.” We walked back through the quiet town, under a milky sprinkling of stars that the house lights couldn’t quite dim. According to Shaniah, it was cold again on the way home, but I didn’t notice a difference. It wasn’t late, even by small-town standards, but nobody was around, except Mr. Rickard, who owned the Hart’s Corner store, standing out on the porch, putting up the shutters.
Shaniah left again at the end of the week, riding away with Lou in the truck. Two years later she was back, for a few days: we walked down to the cliffs above the sea and beyond the Hollow, and sat there on the edge, drinking soda and enjoying the sea breeze. Shaniah told me about the places she’d been and the people she’d met. I caught her up on what had been happening in town: the Hart’s Corner cat had kittens. There was a storm and a power pole fell on Frank and Leslie’s front room. A kid puked during the gradeschool play. Normal East of Nowhere stuff. It was a Sunday, and a warm day even by Shaniah’s standards, and she seemed to have forgotten all about the creepy grave-mania. I guess when you’re traveling that much it could be anywhere.
Later that year, I gave up my job helping Jason Reilley in the ‘electrical and automotive workshop’ – a fancy name for a gadget shed that kept most of the town running – and moved to the city. I was busy and happy enough there that I didn’t miss town. Sometimes my dad would call and tell me the news – another fire in the Hollow, or Ellie who lives back of the church falling to arguing with the pastor and now she says she’s Zoroastrian, whatever that is, or Shaniah coming home to live, and marrying Harry Vaughan, who everyone knows is a waste of time, space, and pity, only apparently Shaniah doesn’t think so. I got Christmas cards from them, and a letter when they had their first kid; the usual contact you keep with an ‘old friend from school’.
The fragile illusion of normality fell apart one bright cold morning in April. I was taking a shower, getting ready for work, when my cell phone rang, and I reached an arm out of the shower to grab it.
“Is Shaniah there?” Lindsey sounded stressed, even down the crackly long-distance.
“Mrs. Carey, last I heard Shaniah was with Harry and Harry Jr. living across from Jason’s. Hey, I have to go to work, can I call you back?” Driving through the city, I dialled the number Shaniah had given me, and left a message. Then I called my dad.
“What’s with Shaniah?”
“Jason heard a row at their place a week of nights ago. Nobody’s seen Shaniah since. Henry dumped the kid with Frank and Leslie – because of course Frank, they’ve been raising Cain together since they were five – and left town, and today Frank called the police in Nowhere to say hey, we got us a missing person. But Frank ain’t got the brains God gave a grasshopper, so now most of the town’s out looking for her.”
“Dead or alive?” I asked bitterly.
“She’s nuts about that kid, she’d be back for him in a heartbeat if she could be.” There was silence on the line for a while, then Dad said slowly, “and there were drag marks along the alley behind Main Street, and blood in the drag marks. Jason found those.”
Something clicked in my head – a warm night years ago, with the crickets chirping in the forest, and Shaniah talking calmly about where she’d be buried one day. And walking her home through town, where only one other person was outdoors…
“He –“ I paused, feeling how insane what I had to say was. I pulled off the road and slammed my car to a halt in a driveway. “Go look under the porch of the Hart’s Corner store.” I hung up without waiting for a reply, but stayed put for a few more minutes. Because if I was right… my dad and Mr. Rickard were going to find something awful. And if I was right… there was no guarantee any of the superstitions in the world weren’t true.
I didn’t think I was there long, but the call log on my phone said, afterward, that two hours passed between the first call and the second, and me sitting there in that stranger’s driveway the whole time. The second call was Dad again.
“How’d you know?” he asked.