"What happened," Mom says. "Bryce and I are working it out, Sarah. He's a good guy. Can you just trust me on that?"
Above us, Bryce hits the last switchback and starts the climb toward the cliff-dwellings he told Mom about that morning. He'll be crowing when we get there.
Or maybe he won't. "Mom." I point over the pass. Dark clouds are piling up on the other side.
"Oh, haggis." That's Mom, right there.
"Can you make it?"
"Can you keep up?" Teasing and concerned both.
"Try me." That's me. Tough girl.
Mom kicks hard and I find myself struggling to match the pace. No surprise. She's spent more time at the gym than at home the last few months, and I pretty much lived on Pop Tarts and cigarettes all senior year.
The sky is black by the time we make the summit. The red rock towers above us, strangely bright, beautiful in the poisonous green stormlight. Thunder snarls. Closing in.
"We'll shelter in the cliff dwellings," Bryce says. His bike is nowhere to be seen. Good to know he's taken care of it. "Come on. I don't want to get rained on." He ducks inside. Not taking our bikes, not asking if we're okay. Like she's his secretary and I'm her yeast infection. That's him. Hemorrhoid.
I swing down, my legs rubbery and my lungs screaming, so dizzy I can barely stand. But we twist and tilt and shove and scrape, and at last we get the bikes and the packs through the little doorway at the base of the dwelling. We find ourselves in what might have been some Indian family's commmunal kitchen, nothing more than a firepit and a few big squareish rocks around it. Maybe they used to dance there. Tell ghost stories. All I know is that the room is dark, the smoke-marked ceiling too low to stand upright.
"Took you long enough." Bryce has already settled on a rock. All smiles, like he just carried us across the threshold and Topeka never happened.
"Thanks for the help." Acid in my tone.
"You made it fine without me." As you've taken every opportunity to remind me, he means.
Mom lowers herself beside him, pale in the dim light, alternating heaving breaths with pulls from her water bottle. "Sarah Grace."
A tree trunk leans against the far wall, bark long stripped away. Wooden pegs alternate on either side, up toward a square hole in the ceiling. I want to scream at him. At her. Instead, I climb.
The second floor has a pair of windows, set back from the cliff's overhang, black and empty as eye sockets. A purple-white tree of lightning splits the sky. Thunder detonates. Wind sweeps rain through the windows, splashing cold against my shins.
Through the hole in the floor, Mom giggles. "Sarah's right upstairs. And we're all sweaty." I don't hear Bryce's response, just Mom again. "Stop it, Bryce. I don't want to."
That's enough to set him off, and now he's bitch-thissing, tease-thatting, louder than the rain, and Mom's taking it. As usual. The sound of it chases me back to a corner. I slide down, cool stone pressing sweat-cold clothes against me, tears hot on my cheeks as Mom keeps her silence below. Gone away. That's her, too.
This trip was going to fix everything. She promised. All she and Bryce needed was time to talk things through with no TV, no internet, no work stress, no money problems. Just a long bike ride, campouts and sandwiches and time together. Bryce never wanted me along. Probably because I see through his bullshit. Well, he has her alone now.
. . . last time I ever . . . cheating on me, I know it . . .
Outside, lightning branches again, thunder hard atop it like the world ending.
By the windows, a mist is rising. Temperature differential. It's been sunny and hot all day. The stone soaks up the heat, then you add cold rain, and--but it isn't mist. It's a woman. Strong cheekbones, shadowy hair. A long face, old as time. For a moment she sits cross-legged on the stone.
Around me, the mist thickens. More women. Hunched backs, ancient faces tight with knowing.
Lightning flares. Thunder rumbles. Quieter, maybe.
The first ghost--sweet baby Jesus, the first ghost--extends a pale hand to the window, a bird flying free. The storm's passing, she's telling me.
From the hole in the floor comes the thud of fist on flesh, her shocked cry of pain. Mom told me he'd never even raised a hand to her before that night.
--lucky I don't just--
The ghost looks at the hole in the floor, cocks her head. As if to ask.
Part of me wants to close my eyes. To go away. Instead, I let the weight of my head bear it down. And I keep watching.
The mists stretch and swirl. Flow toward the hole, milky water down a dark drain.
The thunder almost drowns out the screams. His. Hers. Mine.
When it's over, when the only sound is Mom's sobbing, I climb down. Make her help me carry the body out into the downpour, help me sprawl it over his bicycle with his helmet askew and his stupid yellow shirt soaked and muddy. So the Rangers will know what happened.
And then I lead her inside, out of the rain. And we wait together for the sun.
This piece was for author Chuck Wendig's latest flash fiction challenge. He runs a very good site over at http://terribleminds.com/.