headshot of Alana

Autumn Leaves

Angela drives down the highway with her window open, the road sliding under her car with the occasional cthunk, cthunk of uneven surface. It is autumn, but it is one of those rare days when the natural world still seems to think it’s August. Autumn is her favorite season for exactly that reason. Any type of weather can happen; anything can happen.

She is driving through the hills in upstate New York. She has never been out this way before, but her father has been asking her to come out and stay with him ever since he moved to the Berkshires. College has been nearly intolerable recently, and she is glad for the break. She has not seen her father in ages.

She looks at the land about her, soaking in the colors of the trees, live fire sparkling on the hills. Her father has told her that the New Yorkers escape the City nearly every weekend just to see the hills of changing colors. She understands why. Michigan was pretty enough before she left, but not like this. It amazes her the difference the hills can make, layering the brilliance around her, bringing the fiery horizon closer to the sky.

Blood, his voice says in her mind, and she stops humming, jerking straight in her seat to calm the shivers attacking her spine. Angela realizes she hadn’t known she was humming until the point of stopping, and now she can’t even remember the tune that has been in her head. She turns her gaze swiftly from the hills to the road and concentrates on the signs. A cold wind blows in as a small cloud steals the sunlight, and she rolls up her window tightly. The road continues under her tires with a steady pattern of cthunk, cthunk, and she wonders how long it will be before she gets there.

***

The church wasn’t quite full, but there was enough of a congregation there for her to think it was probably a fairly lively church community. She sat down in a back pew, feeling slightly over-dressed. She’d never been to church in Mt. Pleasant before. Smoothing the plaid pleated skirt that always made her think she looked like a Catholic school-girl, she propped a small notepad open on her lap.

She usually avoided church when she could. She didn’t find much use in it—someone sitting up in a pulpit telling you how to live your life. She got enough of that from her parents. Even her brother Tim-"I'm-an-Artist"-Majeski had to put in his share. The only one who had always let her make up her own mind was her grandmother, and after the stroke, well, Angela didn’t want to deal with it. Although she was glad that they were in Minneapolis and she was in central Michigan, it still wasn’t far enough away.

The preacher, a huge man wearing a large cross hanging to his belly, stood up in the pulpit and belted out the welcome. Her spine jerked upright, and her notebook slid onto the floor. She hadn’t expected him to be so loud. She bent over slowly to retrieve her notebook, opened it on her lap, and began taking notes.

She was enjoying her comparative religions class more than she’d expected. To some degree, she supposed she’d taken it because she was sick-to-death of Christianity and wanted to be able to shoot back cultural references at her parents when they yelled at her for not going to church. Yet, here she was, at a church. Granted, it was a Chippewa church on an Indian reservation, but it was still a church. The thought made her giggle; she quickly stifled it and looked down at her notebook. Giggling in church. What was wrong with her?

Her heart crashed below her ankles when the preacher asked the visitors to stand. “I’m Angela Majeski,” she stumbled, when he looked at her. She was the only visitor in the room. “I go to CMU.”

The congregation welcomed her, and she sat back down, her face red. It was then that she caught his face, two rows in front of her. He smiled, and she felt herself melting into a puddle. She grinned back, and he faced the front again, listening to the sermon. Between her notes on the service and the sermon, she glanced at him. He didn’t really look like an Indian—oh, his skin was darker than hers, but everyone’s was. It didn’t take much to have more coloration than her Norwegian background allowed. She stared at the back of his head, focusing on the brown waves—not the deep brunette to black she had imagined all Indians had. His hair was cut off just above ear-length. During a hymn, sung in the Ojibwa language, he glanced back at her and smiled again. She decided that if there was a Platonic form for smiling, he wore it on his face.

She thought that he might be another student from CMU, so she approached him after the service. Everyone talked and chatted for a few moments before leaving, a few people shaking her hand to welcome her and invite her back—just like a normal church. He caught her eye and walked out with her.

“I’m Angela,” she said.

“I heard,” he said cheerfully. He offered his hand and she took it. “I’m Michael Pego.” Angela nodded politely, engraving the name in her memory. “So you’re at CMU?”

She nodded. “This is my first year. You?”

His eyes glittered with another grin, and she had to keep her knees from collapsing. “I take a couple classes at the tribal college,” he answered. “I may take a course or two at CMU in the spring, but that depends on money.” He glanced from the cars to the grounds outside the church. “You want to take a walk around the camp grounds?”

She raised an eyebrow, and tried to hide the revulsion that washed through her. She’d spent far too many summers as a prisoner of church camp. “Camp grounds?”

He led her out beyond the church to a circular awning set up in the middle of a large, cleared area. “The camp grounds. For powwows. You ever been to one?”

Powwows. That was okay. She shook her head. “I don’t think they do so much of that in Minneapolis.”

“They have great powwows in Minneapolis,” he informed her.

“You’ve been there?”

He grinned again and she almost wished he’d stop it. His eyes and mouth were perfectly symmetrical. His face was simply perfect. “No, just heard. Is that where you’re from?”

She thought vaguely of the five of them sitting at the dinner table at her parents’ house, her grandmother at the head. The familiar dinner sounds mingled in her head—Tim’s hum while he ate, her grandmother’s laugh, the cautious tones of her parents’ voices trying to hold back arguments until after the meal. “Born and bred.”

He laughed and her heart flew up into her throat. His whole body moved with the laugh, like it started in his toes and set light shooting out through his lips. “Then what are you doing in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, of all places?”

“Going to school,” she grinned coyly. “What else?”

***

The signs say Albany is nearby, and Angela breathes a sigh of relief. Almost there. Her father has told her it’s only about an hour beyond Albany. She is glad she will soon be leaving upstate New York. She hopes that western Massachusetts is slightly less rural. Her dad has always loved the city, and she wonders why he decided to move to what he calls podunk Massachusetts.

She had called her father from Canada last night to let him know that she’d settled in safely and would drive the rest of the way in the morning. He asked about Tim. She hasn’t seen Tim for any extended period of time in almost three years. She hasn’t really seen any of them for that long. But she does e-mail on occasion, so she told her father Tim was fine. Tim has sent her photographs as attachments to his e-mails, and he is no longer quite so zit-faced. He went to prom last year with quite the attractive-looking sophomore. Her father seemed proud, and she is happy she was able to give him good news.

Things have been hard on their family since she went to college. It had really been she and her grandmother holding them together. That was part of the reason she’d wanted to escape. She’s glad she left, but feels a little guilty on occasion for abandoning them like that. If she hadn’t, maybe her father would still be living in the Cities instead of out east in the middle of the hills in the middle of nowhere.

As she rounds Albany she glances at the city, taking the turns in the road carefully—they’re all at much sharper angles than at home—listening to the cthunk, cthunk under her tires. She wishes she had some company. If she were talking, she’d have someone else to help with the navigation, and she wouldn’t feel as if she were forcing herself to ignore the trees and hills beyond her windows.

***

Their first date had been a complete bust. She had never been to the Wayside before, but had heard it was a club that the Greek societies avoided, which gave it points in her book. She had not understood that this was because the music was loud and heavy, and most of the patrons wore black. All black. All the time. After trying to talk to each other for about an hour (it seemed neither of them was terribly fond of dancing) they skipped out and grabbed coffee at the Big Boy, talking until it closed.

“What are you majoring in?” Michael asked.

“Bio-chemistry,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “I’m trying to convince my parents to let me major in anthropology, but they’re not thrilled with the idea. They want me to have a real job, a good life.” She glared into her coffee watching the swirls of cream tangle around her spoon.

“Be glad your parents care about what you do,” he scolded. “A lot of people aren’t as lucky as we are.”

“I guess.” Yet another person was telling her how to live her life. That was the end of this relationship.

Then he held her hand across the table, and the light that came out of his laugh flowed into her fingers and down her spine, warming the pit of her stomach. “Hey, don’t take it that way,” he said. “It wasn’t any of my business.”

The light turned her lips upward, and her face warmed with a blush that she didn’t understand. “It’s not a problem,” she heard herself answer.

Michael invited her to a tobacco burning on the reservation for later in the week; she accepted, more than pleased. He kissed her goodnight when he dropped her off at her on-campus apartment. From there, neither of them turned back. Dinner one night led to a movie a few days later. A tobacco burning on the reservation was coupled with performances at the casino. They rented videos and watched them at her place. He didn’t have a television.

Michael told her stories. That was the only thing noticeably Indian about him. Any random little thing would prompt him into a monologue, no matter where it happened. At first, she had thought it charming. Sometimes, it annoyed her. But then he would look at her with that smile and brush her cheek with his hand and ask if she understood. She usually didn’t. She would nod and hold his hand, craving that light that seemed to pulse from him through her body. In January, he found the money somewhere, and started taking classes more than half time at the university. Whenever he was on campus, he would walk her to her classes, always hand in hand. They were almost always touching. They always got along when they were touching.

“God still speaks to the Indian people through nature,” he told her. He believed in God and Christ, but he also believed in his people, in their traditions. He believed in the power of the drum, of cedar and tobacco. He didn’t seem to think they were incongruous. Her parents were just pleased she was dating a Methodist. She didn’t tell them she only went to church to spend time with him. They asked her to come home for her brother’s confirmation, but she said she couldn’t afford the plane ticket. The truth was that she didn’t really want to see them, and she didn’t want to see her grandma. Not when she wouldn’t even recognize Angela’s face.

“I don’t believe in God,” she said once to Michael. It had been the answer to some question, but she didn’t even really remember what the question had been.

“What?”

“I don’t believe in God.” She was about to go into the reasons that the idea of a benevolent god who sent people to hell was contradictory, and that a benevolent god who let so many bad things like AIDS and cancer and all those other terrible things exist couldn’t be trusted. Michael didn’t let her get that far. He told her a story, another one that she didn’t understand. A conversation between a raven and a porcupine didn’t seem to support or contradict the belief in a higher power any more than a fantasy novel, and she told him so. He threw up his arms in disgust and left. He didn’t call her for days. He always disappeared when they were fighting, and though she told herself it didn’t matter, she had trouble convincing her stomach. Then one Friday morning he was waiting outside her classroom. She wasn’t ready to stop being angry.

She looked at him pointedly then walked past, and he grabbed her arm. The liquid energy she hadn’t touched for weeks flowed through her, and the anger tucked itself away.

“Hey,” he said quietly. The sparks danced in his eyes, reflected in his smile.

“It’s good to see you,” she said, and meant it. He walked her home, and they talked about nothing. He mentioned that, once, a beaver and a squirrel had gotten into a terrible argument. In the end, the two animals forgave each other, and Angela realized that was the closest thing to an apology she was going to receive. After he left, she was angry at him for making her forgive him too early, angry at herself that she had given in too easily.

Michael didn’t drink. He refused to drink. He downed cans of Diet Pepsi. She had ginger ale when they went out so he wouldn’t feel awkward. One of their longest fights happened shortly after her twenty-first birthday, around the middle of her junior year. They had been dating for more than two years at that point, and the fights came more often than at the beginning. It seemed that there were cycles to their fights; there were two or three in the span of two months, then there’d be two or three months without. Usually, it was about religion or ethics, sometimes it was about the future. But after she’d gone out with some friends from her genetics class and gotten stone drunk, he hadn’t spoken to her for weeks. She hadn’t been sure he would come back that time.

“You have no excuse,” he said. And she couldn’t think of a single reason why he wasn’t right. Not from his angle. Not at all. She had apologized that time. She wished that she had his strength, that she had something to believe in with such dedication.

She noticed that whenever they had a fight, he would smoke more often and with greater fervor. She asked once how he could smoke frivolously when he believed tobacco was a sacred herb. He didn’t answer directly, but told her a story about a possum who smoked frivolously. It seemed to her that the story supported her viewpoint, but Michael seemed to think he’d given her enough information. She thought about starting a fight, but he had kissed her, and she had forgotten about the question.

***

She realizes she has been replaying their arguments and sighs. She is tired of arguing. She wonders if that is why her parents are separated. They never argue, unless they’re in the same room. It must have been exhausting. She wishes Tim had the same knack for making everything seem ridiculous that she had had growing up. It had kept peace for so long, but that had made her tired, too. She wonders if she will ever stop being tired, or if she will ever stop playing back arguments in her head.

She is almost to the tollbooths. Not much further to go, and she will be with her father. She wonders what that will be like. They have never really talked. He only vaguely knows what her life has been like since she left home, little more than that she is in her fifth year at Central and is still majoring in biochemistry. Or majoring in biochemistry again. He knows, too, that she has been dating someone. Angela wonders if she can talk to him about Michael. She is still ignoring the trees, absorbing herself in the road, in the cars in front of her, in the cars she is passing. She realizes she is driving eighty and decides to slow down. She tells herself she will get there soon enough. She is not running away from Michael, but all the same, she doesn’t want his voice to sound in her mind. Maybe he is talking to her from the trees the way God talked to him. She glances out her window. It is a mistake.

Blood, his voice says again, and she watches her knuckles turn white against the steering wheel.

***

She managed to find off-campus housing the summer between her third and fourth year. She thought he would move in with her, but as always, his first priority was the rez. He wouldn’t leave his mother alone on the rez, for one.

He always called it the “rez,” never the reservation. When he said it, the connotations were vastly different from those of the Mt. Pleasant locals. To Mt. Pleasant, it seemed to be sort of an eye-sore, and the casino, as the largest employer of the city, was something to be jealous of. When Michael said it, there was an acknowledgement that it was something created by the government to house all the Indian people, but it was also home. There was a pride in his voice when he talked about what the tribe was making of it—the new housing developments that the Tribal Council had approved, or how with the casino money the tribe would be able to purchase back some of the land that was supposed to be theirs. The rez itself was huge, but the land that actually belonged to the tribe was small. Friends of hers from out west would laugh at the size of land that actually belonged to the tribe; they said they came from where there were real reservations. She almost universally leapt to his defense, less because she knew anything about the reservation than that it seemed to mean so much to him. “Just wait,” she would say. They would laugh or shrug and the conversation would turn. Her friends didn’t care, and Angela wondered if she really cared either. Whenever Michael talked about the rez, she got jealous. She was jealous of his faith, jealous of his hope, jealous of his dedication to something that was not her. When her friends changed the topic, she would join in with zeal, trying to think about anything but her relationship, trying not to feel guilty for not supporting him fully, for wanting him more for herself.

She thought, perhaps, they might get married someday. She wouldn’t have dated him for four years if she’d thought it wasn’t a possibility. But she never brought it up, not really. She would talk about the future, her plans, watching him for reactions. It wasn’t that he never gave any—his eyes would lift, or a story about badgers would suddenly become relevant—she just couldn’t understand them. Michael was going to stay in Mt. Pleasant forever, and he let her know that. She wondered if all Indians were so dedicated to their reservations, or if she was just dating a weird one. Angela wasn’t about to spend her entire life in a small university town in central Michigan. She wasn’t. She wondered why she was dedicating so much of her life to a person she’d end up leaving behind. But there was hope. Some days, she was sure she could convince him to go somewhere else, that he might change his mind. But then there would be a funeral and he would go play with the rest of his drum group, or there would be a ceremony, or a ghost feast. She knew he would never choose her over that part of him. She wished she didn’t resent it, but she did. She resented that she would never be as important to him as his people, as his world, and she resented that no matter what happened, she would always feel excluded from that world. No matter how many powwows he took her to, no matter how many times he asked her to dance, she would always be an outsider. She was, after all, a little Minnesota girl with white blonde hair and bleached skin. She recognized their differences, recognized that it would be better for them to split up, to find other people who would better suit their needs. But he would smile or kiss her hand or tell her another story. It was funny how she always forgot the words.

Michael stayed over sometimes. Early one morning before they’d gotten out of bed, she traced her fingers along his chest, imagining rivers and valleys and the entire natural world playing itself out across his body.

“It’s going to be autumn,” he said quietly. The heat of late August came in through the window. They’d been dating for four years, and she was still in college. She wasn’t looking forward to classes, but she was looking forward to the chill that would come in the air. No more hiding her pale skin from the wickedness of the evil summer sun. She tilted her head toward him and grinned. “Not soon enough,” she said.

“You know, there’s a story of the Christian Indian people about autumn,” he started. This morning, a story seemed right, and she relaxed into him, listening. “Do you know the story of how Lucifer fell from heaven?”

The vision rushed over her and replaced the sight from her eyes. The archangel Michael stood with his blazing sword and faced the army of angels who had turned their backs on God. Gabriel was nervous at his side; he was a messenger, not a warrior. Michael’s face was grim, and the entire army of the heavenly host behind him felt his mood. These were not pleasant times. No one wanted to fight his brothers.

She shook the vision from her head. He was the storyteller, not her. He had told her so many stories, but this had never happened before. “Yeah, I know it.”

“They say that there was a great battle in heaven a long, long time ago. Lucifer had turned away from the light of God and others had followed. A great sadness came through Heaven; this was the first betrayal in time, and no one had felt such sadness before.”

The images swept over her eyes again, though she tried to push them away. The Lord wept for his lost child, the one whom he had trusted, the most gifted of all of them, the one with the greatest powers and talents. Great tears fell, and the children who remained faithful wept as well. There was a great wailing, and the pain filled a world that until then had known no pain.

She shivered against him, and his arm tightened around her unconsciously. He was entirely lost in the story. “The battle was great, and the losses were many. It was the worst kind of war, brother against brother. Lucifer’s army had discovered that killing the enemy was an effective way to battle, and the warriors of God forced themselves to fight on the same level.”

This time it was a memory. “The Indians didn’t have a warfare based on killing,” her anthropology professor explained. “Killing was secondary to an honorific warfare. For instance, it was entirely dishonorable to shoot someone with your bow and arrow from across a field. Where is the danger to you in that? Anyone can kill someone from a distance. What’s important is the idea that you have faced danger—that’s where the honor comes in. There was a long tradition of counting coup on your enemies. You would get as close to them as you possibly could, then simply tap them and run away. They, of course, would then have to try and kill you, because it was a terrible dishonor to have gotten coup counted on you. This was a far greater prize than simply killing someone, because the danger was so great.”

She looked at him as the first light began to creep into her bedroom. He looked strange and distant, the shadows giving his nose and cheekbones greater prominence. There was a power about his eyes, and she realized she was frightened. She didn’t understand why.

“They met the other army, brother against brother, and the blood fell from that battle onto Earth. Eventually, God’s army pushed Lucifer’s back, and trapped him and his followers here in this world. But that blood had stained the trees, and we can see it every autumn. When the trees change color, that is the blood of the angels, the blood from that battle.”

Gabriel looked down at the Earth and wept. The hillside was stained with the blood of his brothers. Which brothers did not matter; they had sided with or sided against the Lord, but they were still brothers. He wept for Lucifer, who would have been the bearer of light. He felt the Lord’s presence around him, and still he wept. The Lord dried his tears. “We will make things right,” said the Lord. “In time, you will deliver the message that will begin to make things right.”

Gabriel stopped his tears but continued to gaze down at the blood soaked leaves on the hillside.

“Do you understand?” he asked.

She thought about asking her questions. Does that mean that the battle happens every year? Or is it a reminder that the battle happened once? What became of…? Her head swam with the images of dying angels, and the look on his face was hopeful. She nodded through the dizziness of the whirling images. She didn’t understand, but she didn’t want him to explain. She was afraid of the answers. He kissed her.

“I have work,” she said, sliding out from under the sheets next to him and pulling a robe around her. She was angry with him, she realized. She did not know why.

“It’s early…”

“I want to take a long shower. I’ll see you tonight?”

He sat up. “The powwow starts tonight.”

It was Friday, and she had forgotten. “I’ll come after work,” she said. Michael rose from the bed in the early morning light and she thought she saw a halo around him. He walked to her and took her in his arms, and her anger melted into confusion.

***

She crosses the line from upstate New York into Massachusetts. The fog is beginning to hit, or the clouds are beginning to get lower, she cannot tell. Keeping her eyes on the road, she turns on the radio and tries to find an oldies station. Her parents always listened to oldies in the car, and she has maintained the habit. It reminds her of when the family got along. She listens to them in spite of those happy memories. She gets static. She has a CD in the passenger’s seat, but does not feel like listening to powwow songs. Michael got it for her that summer, the same summer he bought her the bead worked barrette to hold back her long hair. Now that she has cut it short, she has no use for the barrette. She reaches over and opens the glove compartment, searching absently for another CD, wondering if she will be able to see the exit for the town where her father lives through all this fog. She ignores the powwow CD on the seat. She has no more use for it either.

***

Michael disappeared shortly after she’d gotten the phone call. He hadn’t been there to help her pack to visit her father, to help her through her parents’ separation. He hadn’t been around to hold her after she fought with her mother, to let her cry after she had comforted her father. He disappeared when she needed someone to tell her that even though her grandmother was dead, it would be all right. Her grandmother would forgive her for running away and never coming back, not even to visit. But he disappeared, just like he always disappeared when they were fighting. He should have known that she would need him. He should have had a story ready and waiting. He should have forgiven her.

He was there when she got the phone call. After her grandmother’s stroke nothing had been the same in her family. Nothing. And she had run away to go to college. She hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. She had always meant to go back and say goodbye.

The tears didn’t come right away. She was quiet throughout the phone conversation, although her mother was hysterical on the other end. That was probably why she was calm. Her mother had never been good at dealing with emergencies, so it was up to Angela to calm her down. But she couldn’t. Not this time. Her grandmother had died, and there was nothing to be calm about. But she couldn’t bring herself into a state of frenzy, just as she couldn’t comfort her mother. She didn’t have the energy. The guilt of abandoning her family came flooding down on her shoulders. Now everything was sure to fall apart, completely. There was nothing holding them together.

She hung up the phone in the same state of silence. She’d said nothing of value to her mother. She’d acknowledged the news but nothing more.

“My grandmother died this evening,” she said.

Michael started toward her, but she motioned him back. She didn’t want to be touched. She wanted to be alone. She wanted to be forgiven, but a dull fury settled in her belly and she knew she didn’t deserve it.

“Angela…”

“I always meant to go back,” she said listlessly. “I didn’t mean to be away for so long.”

“I’m sure she knows that, Angela,” Michael said, approaching her slowly. She almost grinned. He was trying not to frighten her away, the way a little child approaches a rabbit so they can get close enough to see it well, close enough to touch it, before it runs. “I’m sure she’s…”

The fury suddenly jumped into her throat. “Don’t you dare say it,” she commanded. “Don’t you dare. You can’t know.” The tears came now, but they were angry tears as much as they were tears of pain. She was angry at God, but Michael was here, and he was the next best thing. “You don’t know. We don’t know anything about God or what happens to people when they die.” How dare He take her grandmother away like that? “You may as well say she’s gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds.”

She said it because she knew it would get a rise out of him, and it did. The space between them fueled the anger, and she fed on it. She gloried in the power the anger gave her, inwardly laughed at the sudden absence of grief and guilt. The anger consumed her, and she rolled it over on her tongue. She was angry at the God that didn’t exist, angrier at Him if He did, angry at her grandmother, angry at her family, and angry at Michael. She drew out all of her jealousy and rage and allowed herself to be furious with him for believing, for loving his people more than her, for being Indian when she couldn’t be.

“Even if you were going to say she’s gone to Heaven, what if the dead become angels?” she demanded. “What then? The blood comes back every fall, the angels bleed every fall, and even in Heaven there’s pain.” She pulled the visions back, the images of war, the images of pain. They frightened her, and she used her fear to fuel her anger. “I’m supposed to just let her go so she can hurt all over again? So she can die in battle?”

“Slow down,” he commanded coldly. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Maybe not,” she seethed. “Maybe I don’t understand your story.” She thought about all the times she’d simply nodded that she understood because she thought it would hurt him if she didn’t. She realized she’d been trying to be something for him that she wasn’t, couldn’t be, simply because she didn’t understand his stories. The realization burned behind her eyes, and the tears flowed harder. “Maybe I never understand your stories.”

“Will you…” He was so quiet. How could he be so quiet when she was so loud?

She couldn’t stop now, even though part of her wanted to. Something inside begged her to stop, but she couldn’t. She let it all loose, the anger and frustration about their relationship, all the worries about the future, all the time she’d been wasting with someone who would never leave his home. “Maybe you weren’t supposed to tell me stories like that,” she accused. “Maybe the reason God doesn’t talk to white people through nature is because we can’t handle it. Or did you forget that I’m not like you?” She tugged on her white-blonde hair so hard it hurt.

“Listen…”

“Don’t you understand that I love autumn?” Oh, please Angela, stop. Please. “I love it. Do you know that every time I look outside now, I can’t look at the trees? I can’t because they’re covered in blood.”

“Wait…”

“Don’t tell me to wait! I think you’re the one who’s not getting the stories right. How can you believe that shit when you look at what God’s done to your people?” She choked on the tears now and leaned against the wall, sliding onto her knees. “Damn it, I can’t even look outside because of all the damned blood.” Her voice was quieter now, though the sobs were louder, and the anger faded away. The feeling of power, of victory, faded and she felt sick to her stomach. What have I done? She wanted him to forgive her that instant, to forget what a horrible person she was. She wanted him to draw her in, to hold her tight, to tell her a story that would make everything okay. She wanted him to tell her to believe in God, so that she could. She wanted him to say her grandmother was safe and happy, that her grandmother would forgive her for not coming. She wanted to be someone who could understand his stories. Through her liquid sight she saw how sharp his eyes were. He wouldn’t hold her, he wouldn’t come with her when she left, and everything was still wrong.

“I think you need to lie down,” he said coldly. He grabbed her wrists and pulled her to her feet. She felt the strength in his hands, saw the hurt in his eyes, and was afraid of what she’d done. She didn’t help him by standing on her own, so he threw her over his shoulder, and she cried harder. He carried her into her room and tossed her onto the bed. One of her stuffed animals lay conveniently nearby, and she clutched it to her stomach, sobbing terribly. She tried to call him back, but she couldn’t. She tried to yell out how sorry she was, how wrong she knew she was, to beg forgiveness, but the words couldn’t fight their way through her sobs. She was exhausted, but the tears wouldn’t stop, and the misery and guilt overwhelmed her. She heard the wind in the trees as his engine growled, but although she listened, she didn’t hear his car drive away.

***

The fog is getting thicker, and she can’t find the CD she wants. She has a pile out on the passenger’s seat, and is angry that the one she wants is nowhere to be found. She knows she should be paying closer attention to the road, but it is safer to look at the CDs than the trees. She thinks about how selfish she has been. She ran away from her family, she forced Michael to run away from her. She wonders if her father will understand, if he will let her talk to him. They have never really talked. Her mother is worse.

She has not seen Michael since they fought. She cut her hair and flew to Minneapolis for the funeral, then went back to school for a few weeks before she formally withdrew in order to move in with her father. She tried to find Michael before she left, but he was nowhere to be found, either avoiding her or just too busy to try to make amends. Once again, she hadn’t said goodbye to someone she loved.

She shakes her head and focuses on the road, but realizes she can barely see anything. Between the fog and the tears welling up in her eyes, the visibility is terrible. She pulls herself up closer to the wheel and squints, trying to focus on the white line she knows is just over to her right. She hates driving in the fog. She hates her stupid CDs. She hates her grandmother for dying; she hates her parents for getting separated. She hates him for telling her stories. She hates him more for stopping. She feels a scream building up inside of her and the tears throb behind her eyes. She commands both to wait. Not while she is driving. Driving is not a good time for screaming or crying.

She hears the wind lamenting as a strong gust hits her car, and she holds the steering wheel tightly as a great cloud of leaves flies through the mist and surrounds her car, stripping her of her sight. She thinks she is panicking, but somehow she feels too calm to believe it. She isn’t even sure what she does next, only that she turns the steering wheel and can hear the thunking of her wheels hitting something that isn’t road, feel the surface change texture completely. She holds tightly to the steering wheel, feeling like she is going more slowly than she knows she must be. It will not hold steady, and she is dimly aware that she has lost control completely. The world shifts under her vehicle, and the steering wheel seems to thrust itself at her head. Then she is flying. The fog has disappeared, and a rainbow of flames crossing the hillside fills her vision. Everything is too real—the trees stand out against the hills in a contorted third dimension, seeming closer because they are farther away. She can tell she is falling though she does not feel her own weight. She does not feel the ground under her, and is not sure if she has landed at all.

She breathes and finds that she is still driving, has just broken through the edge of the fog. She blinks twice at a road sign and it dawns on her that she is passing the place where she saw herself drive off the road and realizes she is still driving. She can feel her body packed tightly into the car, feel her foot against the gas, feel her fingers wrapped around the steering wheel. She forcibly shakes the remainder of the vision from her head and glances at her mirrors before she looks out at the leaves and the hills. Blood, his voice says, but it sounds different this time. It dawns on her that she is thinking about the story the wrong way, that it is larger than her, a story of connection, salvation. It is a different way of thinking about things, something she has not experienced before. The language that plays the myth back in her head is not one that she really understands, but she knows, somehow, that this is what the story meant, that it is both death and life in the same moment, and the trees do not torment her. The blood is still there, but somehow it makes sense. She wonders wistfully if Michael would perform a Ghost Feast for her if she died. But there are too many things to do before she dies, and there is life surrounding her like a promise. She sees the exit from her father’s directions and slows to turn off the highway.

The hug her father gives her when he sees her envelops her, and she realizes how much he has needed someone to lean on, to count on. It feels strange to think that her father is depending on her now. She thinks of the blood, the way it runs through both of their veins, living.

After her luggage comes inside, her father goes to the kitchen, insisting on making her dinner, and she sits on the couch, the phone next to her on the end table. She stares at it for a minute, then picks up the receiver and listens to the dial tone before pressing the familiar numbers.

One ring. Two. Then, “Hello?”

She almost forgets what she planned to say when she hears his voice. But then she finds the words. “Michael,” she says quietly. “I think I’m beginning to understand.”

He doesn’t say how good it is to hear from her, and she doesn’t apologize, but she can hear the smile in his voice when he begins to tell her another story.