Cast of Wonders 492: Stillwater
by Valerie Kemp
Nothing ever changes in Stillwater. Nothing. I get up every morning at the crack of dawn, in the blazing heat, and drive our pick-up all over, delivering eggs and milk and whatever else my daddy feels like selling, to the good people of Stillwater, population 413.
I work my way in a circle from the edge of town, where we live, to the center. I endure all the little old ladies who like to pinch my cheek when they tell me, “Why Pruitt Reese, you are becoming more like your daddy every day!” Like that’s a good thing.
Then I stop over at Henderson’s, top off the gas tank, and wash the sweat off my face before heading to the Stillwater Cafe and Delilah. Not that she cares. The way her nose wrinkles up whenever she opens the back door for me, you’d think I’d rolled myself in manure.
To understand Delilah and me, you have to understand the Reese family–both halves. And to understand that, you have to go way back. I’m not gonna lie, it ain’t pretty. Although if you ask my folks, they’ll say they don’t know what you’re talking about. Our ancestors weren’t bad people. They didn’t break the law or nothing.
“Times was different,” my granddaddy would tell you. I s’pose he’s right, but that don’t really make it better.
Anyhow, once upon a time, a man named Jedediah Reese found himself a nice piece of land high up on a hill overlooking a little creek and started a farm. He had a lot of land, and only a couple sons, so he did what most folks did back then. He bought himself some slaves and set to work building his fortune. And he was so successful that he founded the town of Stillwater.
Then the Civil War came. Jed was already dead by then, his land split between his two sons, Ezekiel and Thaddeus. They both fought for the right to feel superior and died trying. Zeke had a son, so his half of the land went to him, but Thad didn’t have any kids that outlived him. And his wife, displaying a kindness unknown to the men in my family, left it all to her housekeeper, Elisabeth Reese, outing a long-kept family secret–that Elisabeth came by the name Reese honestly. Jed was her daddy, too.
And there you have it. The saga of the Reese families. One black, one white. Neighbors, and sworn enemies. At least, that’s how my folks see it. If you ask me, they spend too much time focusing on what we used to have, instead of making something of ourselves now.
Delilah, Elisabeth’s six times great-granddaughter, is the brightest thing in this whole town. And even though I’m supposed to hate her, I can’t help but notice. Even when she turns her nose up and walks right past me like I’m not her seventh half-cousin once removed or whatever. Like I’m nothing at all.
Today’s no different. She pulls the door open and steps back, her pretty brown eyes all scrunched up like just the sight of me is painful. I find myself fumbling for the right words and staring at her shoes, like always.
Delilah sighs. “Just put it in the back,” she says, as she leaves me to haul in my stuff, and opens the walk-in refrigerator.
She’s wearing a red Stillwater High t-shirt under her apron today. It brings out the little bits of auburn in her long, dark curls. Most people probably think her hair is plain black, but that’s ’cause they don’t pay attention. When the light catches it just right, you can see a whole rainbow’s worth of colors in it.
The way she handles the deliveries like she owns the diner and not like she’s just working there for her folks makes me feel like a sorry excuse. We’re both seventeen, but she runs circles around me.
“Delilah,” her dad shouts. “Did that boy deliver those supplies yet?”
“He’s here now, Daddy,” Delilah calls from the doorway.
“Tell him I’m tired of his father sending us the crap no one else wants. Needing money is no excuse for being a cheat.”
I can feel the heat rushing up my face. I got my back to Delilah, but I know she can see how red my ears must be. My daddy ain’t no cheat, just stubborn and proud. He overcharges Delilah’s daddy because he knows they can afford it. Delilah’s daddy pays because they pity us. Least, that’s what my daddy thinks. Which just makes him madder, and more inclined to give Delilah’s daddy less.
If you ask me, Delilah’s daddy is just as stubborn and proud, and he overpays to prove how much better his business is doing. Of the two Reese families, Delilah’s is for sure the more successful. But they’re equal when it comes to foolish pride. Only in Stillwater would folks choose to do business with each other out of spite.
I busy myself with clearing a space for the last crate until I figure he’s gone. It ain’t like I haven’t heard it before, but I feel like a fool all the same. I keep my eyes straight ahead on my way out and when I pass Delilah, she turns away.
Me and Delilah ain’t never gonna happen. I don’t know why I can’t get that through my head.
After I finish the deliveries, I drop the truck off and get on my bike before anyone decides they got something else for me to do. Once I get down the hill and through the town, there ain’t nothing but empty roads, and clumps of trees, and fields as far as the eye can see. I keep on going anyways, just looking for some kind of sign that there’s a world out there worth escaping to.
There’s got to be more to life than Stillwater.
The air is so thick I can’t hardly feel a breeze as I’m riding. It’s so humid my wheels don’t even kick up any dust on the dirt road. Sweat runs down my face in little rivers.
Days like this, when I’m hating everything about my life and wishing the summer would end already, I like to push myself.
I focus on the sound of my tires on the dirt, my heavy breaths. I pretend I can pedal myself into a new life. I just have to keep going, ignore the heat, ignore the pain. Ride just a little bit further.
I ain’t stopping this time til I collapse. They’ll have to scrape me up off the ground. I grit my teeth and pedal harder, right down the middle of the road. All of a sudden, my bike slams into something and I’m flying. Not over the handlebars, but back, like someone snatched me up and threw me. I have just enough time to give the bike a shove away from my body before I hit the ground. My back slams down first, and then my head. It don’t hurt as much as I expect. Just one bright white flash of pain and then the dark.
A hand grabs me by the jaw and gives my head a shake. “Holy crap, Pruitt! You alright?”
I open my eyes and see a face so much like my own that for a minute I think I’m hallucinating. Same slightly crooked nose, same dirty-blond hair, but shorter than I like to keep mine. He looks about my age, but his eyes are tired and older–an old soul my granny would call it–than mine could ever be.
He slaps my cheek and starts looking worried. “Pruitt, can you hear me?”
Matt. The name comes to me from the back of my mind. How could I forget my own brother? “Yeah,” I say, pushing his hand away. “What happened?”
He sits back, relief all over his face. “It’s what I wanted to show you.”
“What?” I’m lying in the middle of the road. Other than my bike and his, there’s nothing out here to see but trees.
Matt throws out his arms like he’s presenting something. “The Stillwater town limit.”
I start to lift myself up onto my elbows but a sharp pain in my arm stops me. I suck air in through my teeth to keep from crying out. My right forearm is shredded. It’s gonna be one hell of a scar.
Matt’s eyes are all lit up and I can’t figure why he’s so excited. He’s not talking a lick of sense. “Why’d you have to knock me off my bike for that?”
“I didn’t,” he says, frowning at me. “Something ain’t right about this town. Can’t you feel it?”
“The only thing I feel is a knot coming up on the back of my head.”
Matt smacks my good arm and stands. “Jeez, Pruitt, why do you have to be such a kid sometimes?” He holds a hand out to me. “Get up.”
My head aches. I lie back down on the ground and shut my eyes against it. “Just gimme a minute.”
Matt ain’t having it. “Pruitt. Get up.”
I sigh real heavy so he knows I’m irritated before I open my eyes and sit up. “Fine,” I say, but I’m talking to the air. There ain’t no one out here but me. It takes a minute before I realize that’s how it should be. I came out here alone, and I don’t have a brother. I must’ve been dreaming, but it felt more like a memory. Like that déjà vu stuff people talk about. I guess that’s what I get for riding like a maniac. Crazy dreams about brothers I never had.
My hands and legs are all scratched up and bleeding but when I lift my right arm to check the damage, it’s not there. Instead, I see the jagged scar I’ve had for as long as I can remember. The fall must’ve rattled my brain something good. I’m woozy but I manage to make it to standing. It’s gonna be a long walk home. Mama’s gonna love it when she sees me crawling in all scraped up and bloody, tracking in dirt on her kitchen floor. If I’m lucky I can slip past her and say I’m taking a nap before she can get a good look at me. That’s all I want anyhow, to sleep this day away like none of it ever happened.
When I wake it’s dark out, and I got pieces of a dream clinging to me. Not enough to make any kind of sense, though. Just me and Matt again, feeling so much like he’s my big brother, out on the ridge at the edge of our land. I keep hearing his voice telling me something ain’t right about this town. And even though I can’t think of one thing even halfway interesting about this place, in the back of my mind I know he’s right.
The clock says it’s after ten which means my folks are out cold for the night. I’m wide awake with nothing but time and a jumble of thoughts in my head. Might as well see if I can puzzle this thing out.
I climb out my window onto the porch roof and jump down to the grass. The sun might’ve gone down but it’s still too hot to be decent. I miss the fan in my room already.
In the northeast corner of our property, where it meets Delilah’s, the land rises then drops off. We don’t farm that area, so it’s mostly still full of trees, but there’s a clearing where the ridge juts out over the dry creek bed, and that’s where I’m headed.
If the moon ain’t full, it’s as close as it can get and I’m grateful for the light. I can’t remember the last time I been out to the ridge at night. Folks have been saying the ridge is cursed ever since the creek dried up forever ago. I’m not supposed to go out there alone on account of it’s dangerous, but I’ve never thought much of rules. Seems like my whole life is cursed. I can’t see how going out to the ridge makes any difference.
The night air is sticky and heavy with the scent of pine, just like in my dream. The closer I get to the ridge, the more them pieces of my dream start making a whole picture.
I was following Matt down this same path. He made his way through the tangle of branches like he’d done it a hundred times before, and I was just trying to keep up. He’d woke me out of a dead sleep and all I wanted was to go back.
“Can’t this wait til morning?” I asked. I was cranky, and the mosquitoes were biting.
“No,” Matt said, without looking back. “It has to be now, so you’ll remember it.”
“I remember things much better on a full night’s sleep.”
Matt just shook his head. “A full night’s sleep won’t do nothing but make you forget. Trust me.”
And I did. Even when he was talking crazy and marching me out through the woods in the middle of the night. So I kept on following him, right up to the edge of the ridge.
“Look,” he said, and pointed out into the dark.
All I saw was black. “I don’t see anything.”
“Exactly,” he said. “There’s nothing out there. Nothing at all.”
I gave him my best glare. “You woke me up to show me nothing?”
“Think about it Pruitt, shouldn’t you be able to see the fields out there? The stars? Clouds? Something?” He turned and pointed at the sky behind us.
I looked up, and sure enough, there were stars, and even a cloud in the night sky behind us, but in front of us, over the cliff, there was nothing. Just black. “What the…”
“Hold on, it’s almost midnight,” Matt said.
And this is how I know I was a dreaming and not remembering, because right then, the black in front of us wavered. Specks of light popped up, one by one at first, and then a whole world appeared. Headlights and taillights, streetlights and porch lights, and way in the distance, tiny skyscrapers all lit up and clustered together like a city.
“Do you see it?” Matt asked. It was the first time I’d ever heard him sound unsure about something.
My heart pounded in my chest. This had to be some kind of a trick. There’s nothing outside of Stillwater for miles and miles. Too far to see, even at night. “What is that?”
Matt blew out a long breath and then squared his shoulders. “That’s where I’m going.”
A rustle in the trees startles me, and I’m surprised to find myself standing right at the edge of the ridge. Just like in my dream, there’s nothing out there but darkness. No stars or signs of life. The crack of a branch breaking comes from my right, followed by footsteps, each one closer than the last.
I’m man enough to admit that whatever’s coming has got me scared. I don’t know if them rumors about this place being cursed are true. And this dream, or whatever it is in my head, has got me all shook up. The rustle of leaves on leaves gets louder and I crouch next to a cluster of big rocks.
For one crazy second I think maybe that dream was real and it’s my brother, come to take me away to the city. “Matt?” I mean to shout it, but it comes out all weak like I don’t want to be heard.
Delilah steps out from the trees. “Who’s there?”
My heart keeps right on stuttering in my chest at the sight of her. In the moonlight her skin could be any color: blue, silver, white. She stands still as a statue, frowning, fists clenched up like she’s fixing to fight. Her eyes catch on mine and I can’t look away, even though I want to.
She lets her fists come loose but holds onto her frown. “Pruitt?”
I stand and brush the dirt off my knees like it’s the most natural thing to be hiding in a bunch of rocks in the middle of the night. I try to smile but my mouth won’t cooperate. “Hey, Delilah. What’re you doing out here?”
She crosses her arms and lifts her chin. “It’s my land too.”
One sentence in and I’ve already stepped in it. “I know. I just meant, uh, what brings you?”
“Oh.” She shrugs and drops her arms to her sides. “Same as you, I expect.”
“Yeah?” My voice is too high, but I can’t control it. “What’s that?”
Her lips curve up a little in an almost smile. “Trying to escape.”
The hairs on my arms stand at attention. “You know about the ridge?”
Delilah’s almost-smile disappears as quick as it came. “Yes, Pruitt, I have been out here before.” She rolls her eyes and walks past me to stare out. I can’t tell if I’m relieved that she don’t seem to think the ridge is magic.
Delilah slips her hands underneath her long hair and lifts it up. My eyes fall to the spot where her neck curves to meet her shoulder and I get lost in the thought of running my fingers along it.
“I come out here to think sometimes,” she says, and then she turns and catches me looking. My thoughts must be showing on my face because her mouth falls open in surprise.
There I go again, making a mess of things. She probably thinks I’m a pervert now. “Well,” I take a step back so she don’t get the wrong idea. “I’ll leave you to it.” My face is so hot sweat’s beading up at my temples.
“You can stay, Pruitt.” She moves away from the edge and sits down on the ground with a shrug. “I mean, I can’t kick you off your own property.”
It sounds crazy, but the way her eyes hold onto mine for a second, it almost seems like she wants me to stay. She lies back in the grass and looks up at the stars. I feel like I might fall over just trying to get down there next to her. Maybe this whole night is a dream.
When I’ve finally settled into a spot that’s close but not too close, Delilah asks, “Aren’t you tired of it?”
“Of what?” She smells like lilacs, and I take a long, deep breath of it.
“Being a Reese, and all the mess that comes with it.” She rips up pieces of grass and tosses them as she talks. “Being locked up tight in someone else’s idea of who you’re supposed to be.”
“Hell, yes.” Every single day. But I’d have never thought Delilah felt like that too.
“I swear it feels like I’m never getting out of here. Like I’m never gonna turn eighteen and go away to college. It’s like time keeps on passing, but everything stays the same.”
I don’t know why I’m surprised. If anyone from Stillwater was gonna go to college, it’d be Delilah. It’s just, far as I know, no one’s ever left. But I keep that thought to myself and tell her, “I keep waiting for summer to end and school to start, but it never does.”
Delilah tilts her head to me and searches my face. Whatever she’s looking for, I guess she finds it ‘cause she takes a deep breath and says, “Sometimes I dream we’re all trapped–the whole town–inside a snow globe. And I just have to find the hole they use to fill it to get out. But I always forget what I’m looking for before I find it.”
She waits for me to say something, but she don’t seem anxious, just curious. I want to reach over and hold her hand but my palms are sweaty and I don’t think she’d appreciate it anyhow. I consider telling her about my own crazy dream, but I ain’t trying to scare her off now that she’s actually talking to me. Instead I ask her the question that’s been circling in my mind, “You ever feel like something’s not right about this town?”
“Yeah,” she sighs, and turns her eyes back to the sky. “All the time.”
We’re both quiet for a while and then, out of nowhere, Delilah laughs. It’s the kind of laugh that gets right under your skin and spreads.
“What?” I ask, a grin already fixing itself on my face.
“My daddy would kill me if he knew I was out here talking to you.” It’s a fact that should have me running for the house, but her smile is brighter than the moonlight and I know I could never leave as long as she’s aiming it at me.
“Mine too.” I picture my daddy’s face so twisted up with rage he looks like a cartoon character and that’s all it takes. We laugh until we’re both gasping for breath. Her eyes catch and hold on mine and for a second it’s like there ain’t no one in the world but us and that’s how it’s always been. Like I could just lean over and–
She twists her head away quick, looking toward the treeline, but I can’t help but notice I’m not the only one still breathing hard.
Seems like she’s done talking, but I’m all right with that. I’ve never been too good at it anyway. ‘Sides, just being with her, the stars look a hundred times brighter.
I’ve thought about kissing Delilah more times than I can count, but somehow just lying here next to her, knowing that she understands me, feels better than kissing ever could.
I think this might be the best moment of my whole life.
I don’t know how long we watch the sky before Delilah sits up.
“I gotta get back to the house. My daddy always checks in on me at midnight.”
I sit up too and fight the urge to grab her hand and beg her to stay when she stands. “I should get back too. Early start tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” She cocks her head and smiles at me. “You’re alright, Pruitt. You know, for a Reese.”
I feel myself grinning like a fool. “You ain’t so bad yourself.”
She laughs as she backs toward the trees and it makes me brave. “Maybe I’ll see you out here tomorrow night?”
“Maybe,” she calls over her shoulder, just before she gets out of sight.
I stay right in that spot, my face aching with the smile I can’t wipe off, til Delilah’s been gone long enough to reach her house. Then I let out a shout.
She doesn’t hate me.
I know I should get on home but I don’t want the night to end yet. I’m afraid if I go to sleep, I’ll wake up and find that none of this ever happened.
Knowing that Delilah hates living in Stillwater as much as I do has got me wired, so wired that it takes me a moment to realize that things have gone quiet. Too quiet. My mind flashes back to my dream. I remember how, just before the lights showed up, it was dead silent then, too. Almost like the whole world went to sleep, and only me and Matt were awake to see.
I look over to the ridge and everything beyond it is dark. Above it the sky’s split in two. Stars–not stars. Like one of them black holes they have in space just sucked up part of the world. I walk to the edge of the ridge and wait.
It starts with a sound. A faint whoosh, and then another, and then the black in front of me flickers in and out. Behind it are tiny points of light all red and white and orange. I can hear cars driving, and the hum of streetlights, and underneath it all, the faint sound of water, lapping at a shore.
It takes every bit of strength I have to keep standing. I pinch my arm hard but nothing changes. There’s a whole world out there. So close I can almost touch it. I can smell it–exhaust fumes and smoke and this metallic scent that must come from the city. Moonlight glints off something below me and I look down. In the place where the dried out creek bed should be there’s a pool of water.
I follow the faint ripples to the shore. And what I see there knocks my legs out from under me. A great big rock sits close to the edge of the water. Painted on it in giant white letters is a message. For me.
On my hands and knees, I read that rock over and over. It wasn’t a dream. Matt’s real. He got out.
All of a sudden, a heavy wind starts blowing. It pushes me back, away from the edge of the cliff. I press my back against a boulder and watch as my view of the outside world gets smaller and smaller. The black closes in around Matt’s message until there’s nothing left but darkness. Then the wind settles down and just like that, I’m alone, wondering if I lost my mind.
I’m shaking something fierce. My heart’s fixing to beat right out of my chest. I don’t know what I’m more afraid of, the idea that I’m crazy, or the idea that this might be real.
But it ain’t til I stand up and turn around that I realize I didn’t know the meaning of the word scared. ‘Cause scratched into the rock I’ve just been leaning on is another message:
DON’T FALL ASLEEP
But that ain’t even the craziest part. The craziest part is that I recognize the handwriting.
My message said not to fall asleep and I’m taking it to heart. I’m on my third pot of coffee when the sun starts to rise. My thoughts have been running around in my head all night, but there’s only one that’s dug its heels in and stuck–I ain’t leaving without Delilah.
Far as I can figure, last night wasn’t the first time I saw that hole open up in the sky. What I don’t get is why I don’t remember. And how I could forget my own brother. But I got all day to work that out. First, I need to see Delilah.
“Pruitt? Did you make the coffee?” Mama stands in the kitchen doorway looking perplexed. She usually has to drag me out of bed in the morning.
“I thought I’d get an early start for a change,” I tell her.
“Well, isn’t that nice,” she gets herself a mug from the cabinet and ruffles my hair on the way to the coffee pot. “Your father will be impressed.”
She smiles at me and I smile back, but we both know that ain’t true. Nothing I do will ever impress him. “I best get going, then.”
I make sure to kiss her cheek on my way out of the house. Seeing my mama makes me realize I’ve been considering running off and leaving without so much as a goodbye. My daddy will probably say good riddance when I’m gone but Mama, well, that just seems cruel.
I skip my usual deliveries and go straight to the Stillwater Cafe. Delilah is just tying on her apron when I burst through the door.
“Delilah,” I practically shout. “You won’t believe what happened last night!”
Delilah just stares at me with her eyes all wide. “What?”
“Last night after you left, it was–” The words dry up in my mouth. Delilah’s looking at me like I’m spouting nonsense.
“What are you talking about?”
My heart’s racing and I can’t tell if it’s from the coffee or something else. “Last night, up at the ridge?” If she don’t remember, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.
She shakes her head back and forth real slow.
I want to take her by the arms and shake her or something, but I just stand there with my hands out like I’m begging. “We saw each other, remember?”
“I was nowhere near the ridge last night.”
She’s looking me dead in the eye, so I know she ain’t lying. The way she’s standing there with her arms crossed and frowning at me, it’s like the whole night never even happened for her.
Then I notice she’s wearing her red Stillwater High t-shirt, just like yesterday, and it all makes sense–what Matt meant about a full night’s sleep making you forget, why I left that message for myself, why Delilah keeps having that dream. “Alright, I know this is gonna sound crazy, but you know that dream you have about us all being stuck inside a snow globe?”
Her mouth drops open. “How do you know about that?”
The coffee’s got my mouth sped up and my words tumble out all over each other. “You don’t remember but, you told me. And it’s true, I can prove it. I found the opening last night, and I think you’ve seen it too.” I reach for her without thinking, and my hands are on her shoulders before I can stop myself. “Meet me up at the ridge tonight, a little before midnight, and I’ll show you.”
Delilah stares up at me like she’s trying to figure me out and my heart kicks up just from having her eyes on me so long. I know I should let her go, but all I can think is how I’m close enough to kiss her. And how even though I’ve never touched her before, it feels right.
Delilah’s still got her eyes locked on mine. She leans toward me, just a tiny bit, but I could swear she feels it too. “I can’t,” she says, but doesn’t move away.
She bites down on her bottom lip and that settles it–if she won’t come with me, I’m just gonna lay down and die.
“Please.” I’m so desperate, my voice is practically a whisper. “Something ain’t right about this town, Delilah. Even if you don’t believe me about last night, I know you believe that.”
A tiny frown crosses Delilah’s face and I can’t tell if she’s mad or confused or something else. My breath is coming up short, like I’ve been running. She presses her hand to my chest and suddenly our heads are a whole lot closer together. And then I know, sure as the sun comes up every morning, I’m gonna kiss her and she’s gonna kiss me back.
“What in the hell?” Delilah’s daddy shouts so loud it echoes off the pots and pans.
I jump back from Delilah but it don’t even matter, her daddy’s already got me by the collar.
“Daddy, don’t!” Delilah reaches out for us, but we’re halfway to the door.
I raise my hands up high. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Mr. Reese unloads a stream of curses while he drags me out, and I hold my tongue. Even when he calls my whole family hillbilly white trash. I don’t know if it’s just ’cause I’m wired on caffeine but I can see it real clear now. Delilah’s daddy, our family feud, this whole town, they ain’t nothing but background noise. The only thing that matters is Delilah.
She follows us out, screaming, “Daddy, stop!”
When he slams me against the cab of my truck I twist my head til I can see her, and when we meet eyes, I do my best to smile. I got the wind knocked out of me but I mouth the words, “We can get out.”
“Okay,” she says, real quiet, just to me. The tears in her eyes catch the light as she nods her head. “Just let him go Daddy. He didn’t do anything.”
Delilah’s daddy shoves my head against the door and holds it there. I’m sure it’s gonna ache something fierce later, but right now I don’t feel a thing. He presses my temple into the metal and leans in close. “You touch my daughter again, I’ll shoot you. You hear?”
“Yes, sir.” It’s amazing how stuff ain’t scary once you know you’re never gonna see it again.
Mama’s unloading groceries in the kitchen when I get home. For once, I didn’t mind doing the rest of the deliveries. It helped pass the time and kept me awake.
Mama’s on me as soon as I set foot in the room. “What were you thinking?”
I guess she heard. Figures. Nothing in Stillwater stays quiet for long. “It wasn’t nothing Mama, Delilah’s daddy overreacted.”
Mama grabs a dish towel and starts wringing the life out of it. Her knuckles go white with the effort. “Are you messing around with that girl?”
I don’t have the energy for this. “Can we save this for when Dad gets home?”
Mama purses her lips like she’s upset at the suggestion but I know she prefers for Daddy to do the yelling. “Fine. But don’t you come out of that room until then.”
“Fine,” I say, and head for the stairs. If I know my daddy, he’ll be too pissed to deal with me til morning. He’ll make me sit up in my room all night without supper and “think on what I done”. I ain’t feeling so guilty for leaving anymore.
Now all I got to do is stay awake.
Nothing ever changes in Stillwater. Nothing. Every day in this town is exactly the same–hotter than all get out, and just as boring. I’m up with the sun, but I’m exhausted, and my head hurts like I hardly got any sleep at all.
I’m craving coffee, even though I can’t stand the taste. That’s different, but not so much as to be exciting. Mama and Daddy are at the breakfast table when I stumble into the kitchen.
“Morning, Pruitt,” Mama says all chipper-like. Daddy just grunts.
“Morning.” I can feel their eyes on me while I fix myself a thermos of coffee. I load up the truck and make my deliveries same as always. And like always, Mrs. Pearson pinches my cheek too hard when she tells me, “Why Pruitt Reese, you are becoming more like your daddy every day.” I never can figure why everybody in town thinks that’s such a good thing.
At least by the time I get to the Stillwater Cafe, I’m feeling more like myself.
Delilah’s at the back door before I’m even halfway out of the truck. “Pruitt?” There’s something different about the way she says my name. Like it matters to her whether or not I say something back. If I didn’t know better, I’d get my hopes up.
“Hey Delilah,” I say, as I put the gate down on the truck. “Just gimme a second to get unloaded.”
She puts her hand on my arm, giving me a start. “How are you feeling, Pruitt?”
I’m having a hard time breathing right now with her touching me, but I don’t think that’s what she’s asking. I can’t think straight enough to come up with anything else, so I tell her the truth. “I’m fine. Just a little tired, is all.”
She squints and nods like I just said something real important. “Me too.”
Delilah will always be beautiful, but she does look a bit tired around the eyes.
“How’s your head?” She reaches up and brushes the hair at my temple aside like she’s looking for something. I flinch both ‘cause I’m surprised and ‘cause it stings there like I got punched.
I’ve imagined this more than once–her coming out to meet my truck, reaching for me, but this is real life and I don’t know what to do. She smells like lilacs.
“Pruitt, I need you to do something for me.”
Right now, with her hands on me, standing this close, she could ask me anything and I know I’d do it. “Okay.”
She’s got her eyes on mine, and part of me keeps waiting to wake up. She only looks at me like that in my dreams.
Delilah gives my shoulder a squeeze like she knows what I’m thinking. “Meet me out at the ridge at 11:45 tonight.”
“Okay.” My voice cracks on the word but I’m way past caring.
She looks at me like she’s looking into me. “You really will, won’t you? Without even knowing why?”
I can’t breathe let alone remember how to say yes. I nod my head and hope she can tell how much I mean it. And then it hits me. “Wait, is this…” I take a step back, out of her grasp. “Are you messing with me?” It’s the only thing that makes sense, but I never figured Delilah for being mean-spirited.
She smiles when she shakes her head, but it’s sad somehow. “I would never do that.” Delilah closes the distance between us. She puts her hand on my chest and my heart stutters against it. When she lifts her pretty brown eyes to mine, I can feel her breath on my face.
Somewhere nearby a car backfires and I remember we’re right outside the back door of the diner. As much as I don’t want this to end, I don’t want to get caught either. Her daddy scares the hell out of me. “Is your daddy around?”
Delilah grins and my heart damn near stops. “We don’t have to worry about Daddy.”
Before I can ask why not, she slides her hand to the back of my neck and kisses me. Soft at first, but then she pulls me close and my arms find their way around her waist. It’s like our bodies already know how we fit together and we kiss like it’s the one thing that’s been missing in our lives.
“Delilah,” her daddy shouts from inside the kitchen. “Did that boy deliver the supplies yet?”
We fly apart, breathless, and Delilah backs toward the door to shout, “He’s here now, Daddy.”
I start unloading the truck. Delilah’s dad is still talking but I can’t hear a thing over the pounding in my ears.
Delilah turns to me. Her cheeks are flushed and I have to grip the handles of the crate to keep from grabbing her and kissing her again. “Promise me something.”
I set my crate down on the dolly and grin at her. “Anything.”
She looks me dead in the eye, as serious as I’ve ever seen her. “Don’t go to sleep today. Not even a nap. Just don’t sleep. Okay?”
I can’t imagine ever sleeping again. “Okay.”
She grabs my face with her hands. “Promise.”
I put my hands over hers. “I promise.”
She studies my face like she’s trying to memorize it and then lets me go. “Good. Remember, 11:45 tonight.”
How could I ever forget?
When I walk into the clearing, Delilah is there waiting. Her face lights up when she sees me and I want to pinch myself to make sure this ain’t just another one of my dreams.
“You came!” She runs over to me.
After this morning, I can’t figure how she’d think I’d be anywhere else. “Of course I did.”
“I’ve got something to show you.” She takes my hand and leads me over to a cluster of rocks out on the ridge. “Yesterday you asked me to meet you out here. You said something isn’t right about Stillwater. That the reason we felt so trapped here is because we were. You said there was a way out.”
“I said that? To you?” The only thing I remember about yesterday is that it was just like today–minus the kissing. I got up. I made my deliveries. I was bored as hell.
Delilah laughs. “I know. Yesterday you sounded as crazy to me as I sound to you right now–until you told me something I’ve never told anyone. And then I saw this.”
She points at the biggest boulder and on it, I see my own handwriting.
DON’T FALL ASLEEP
If this is some kind of trick, it’s a damn good one.
“You must’ve fallen asleep yesterday and slept til morning. That’s why you don’t remember, I think.” Her eyes are shiny in the moonlight. “You could’ve left, but you waited,” her voice hitches. “For me.”
There’s something familiar about what she’s saying, it’s right there at the edge of my mind. “I don’t–”
“You’ll see.” She squeezes my hand and pulls me up to the cliff’s edge. “It’s starting.”
At first all I notice is the quiet, like somebody turned off the night. Then the black sky beyond the ridge fades away and I’m looking at a whole other world. There’s cars and houses and skyscrapers where there should be nothing but empty land. It calls to mind a dream I once had.
“This can’t be real,” I say, but somehow, in my gut, I know it is.
“Look.” Delilah points down below us, at a pool of water, and then across it to the shore. “Out there.”
The letters on the rock are faded, but they’re still clear enough to read in the moonlight.
“Holy…” Matt. All them little memory pieces floating around in my mind pull themselves together and I remember. I have a brother. It feels as real as Delilah’s hand in mine.
“We have to jump,” she says.
My brain keeps trying to tell me this is crazy, but it just feels right. Me and Delilah, too. It’s like we’ve always been right, we just forgot. I turn to Delilah, squeezing her shoulders. “How many times…” This can’t be the first time we’ve discovered this.
She shakes her head, clutching my waist tight. “I don’t know. Dozens? Hundreds?”
I could stay standing like this forever but I know that won’t get us nowhere but stuck. We have to jump. Where we’ll end up, I don’t rightly know, but it’s got to be better than Stillwater. And Matt’s out there, waiting for me.
Delilah presses her thumbs into my sides. “We don’t have much time.”
Even as she says it, the wind kicks up and darkness spills back in around the edges of the hole in the world. It ain’t the world though, it’s a hole in Stillwater. The world is on the other side.
Over the ridge, the water glistens. “Think it’s real?”
Delilah laces her fingers through mine. “It has to be.”
The hole is getting smaller by the second. I step up to the edge.
“Wait,” Delilah reaches up and kisses me fierce and I know whatever happens, we can handle it together.
I take a deep breath, “Ready?”
She gives my hand one last squeeze, “Ready.”
We jump into the dark.
I think maybe I’m supposed to feel scared, but all I feel is free.
About the Author
Valerie Kemp is a mother, a genetic genealogist, a voracious reader, and a PhD student studying how media affects kids and why representation really does matter. In her copious free time, she writes. You can find her on twitter at @valeriekwrites
About the Narrator
Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him.
His full-time day job is as Marketing and Volume Purchasing Program Coordinator for Smoky Hill Education Service Center in Salina, continuing his career of putting his talents to work in support of education.
He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.
You can also hear his narration and audio production work on two mediocre Audible audiobooks, and as a regular producer and occasional narrator for The Drabblecast.