The trees had swallowed them up late yesterday. From that moment to the present, no hint had been given that the end of the line existed. While the thought made her body break out in goosebumps, her mind considered that fate indifferently and decided there were worse things. All she wished was that she could smell the trees. Maybe they weren't actually there. Her hand stroked the worn out material covering her seat in the kind of loudly colored patterns only seen in retro bowling alleys and old people's pictures of by-gone glories, further dissociating her from anything that felt real. Touch without connection. Sight without matching scent.
Totally the Twilight Zone. Candace laughed without laughing, lips curled back from her teeth and the taste of bitterness on her tongue. Silent. People had been talking before the trees, but gradually the oppressive atmosphere of a reality where nature had conquered humanity forced them into morbid silence. She wondered if they realized their insignificance when Nature had taken them into the palm of Her hand. There was a certain spiteful satisfaction that this reality bothered her a shade less than it must have frightened them. Nature was clean and honest. It acknowledged the inevitability of death while fighting tenaciously for life. It was people that you couldn't trust.
Journeying into oblivion was surprisingly boring. She tried to spot things moving between the trees, pretending that there was something hiding just beyond the edges of her vision. If the supernatural existed anywhere, it would be here. Her eyelids eventually drooped closed and the lurking shadows took life as dreams. Memories. Candace remembered a little girl who spent every Saturday night watching old movies with her mother. Her very favorite one had been about a plain, sad little girl who finds herself flown from a grim, monochrome world into one alive with color. She desperately wanted to find that somewhere over the rainbow, where magic was real and having a different life wasn't just a dream.
The bus hit another pothole and Candace was nearly thrown from her seat. She snapped into awareness with a sickening lurch, throwing out her arms to save herself from sliding down into the sticky darkness under the seats. All around her, the passengers raised a feeble protest and were ignored. The young girl wedged herself into her seat more firmly and shut her eyes. She didn't want to be awake anymore. In her mind, the memory of an older girl sat with a bowl of popcorn balanced in her lap. The smell and taste of cheap, artificial butter and salt had been the flavor of happiness. Of safety. When her mother was home watching the Twilight Zone with her, then she wasn't out trying to find her next man. She had held her mother's hand tight. That mother laughed at the misfortune of others and screamed at the thrills, but the girl had always wondered if her mother would ever notice the stories were about people who learn life's lessons too late.
Candace woke up to the bus driver rapping his knuckles on the seat beside her. Candace stares him down, eyes narrowed and every line of her tensed body telling the man to go away. He appeared to get the message, shuffling awkwardly and clearing his throat before telling her that they had reached the last rest area before their destination. The driver is a chubby sort of creature that must have forgotten his hair at some far distant stop. What was left of it clustered on his lip and trembled as he struggled to string together some obvious statements.
"This is a very long trip for a teenager to take alone. Do you….need any help? Can I do something to help you? I… well… do you have money for food, Miss? I don't mind giving you enough for the vending machines."
Maybe he means well. Maybe he doesn't. Candace digs through her bag and holds up a meal replacement bar. It's her last one, but he didn't need to know that. The aunt she says is waiting to pick her up in New Haven doesn't exist, but he didn't need to know that either. When she gets back from using the slightly less disgusting bathroom in the rest station, she notices someone left a bottled water and a pack of peanut butter crackers on her seat. She carefully checks to be certain no one opened and tampered with either, before hiding them in her backpack and retreating back into dreams.
Candace shifted in her sleep, stretching out one numb leg and curling the other under her, as uneasy memories crept in once again. When she had been old enough, she'd been taught to keep out of sight when "mommy's special friends" came over. She had always been given the biggest boxes of crayons and markers to color with, then ordered to play quietly in her room. They had always found out, sooner or later. Most had screamed at her mother and left. A few had hit her mother. She had always told her daughter, looking down at her with an eye swollen shut or speaking through a split and bloodied lip, that it was because liars deserved to be punished. She had wondered, if that was the truth, why her mother had made her into a liar.
Lies were her mother's entire life. The face she had presented at work was always perfectly painted and plastered with a smile. Her hair had been cut in the latest fashion. Her clothes, though purchased second hand, had been spotless and name brand. The house had been kept clean and her mother insisted on buying the best place she could afford, even if it had meant they were short on food or had to cut the budget in other "small" and "creative" ways. There had always been a TV and a wealth of art supplies. People had rarely known that a daughter existed. Her mother had been happy living a lie and Candace had tried to be. She had really, really tried her very best.
The shrill screaming of a frightened child catapulted her into awareness, tensed and ready to run or fight anyone and anything she had to. The bus swerved and more screams rang out as the passengers were thrown into the aisle or against the windows. But not Candace. She'd dropped down into the filth between her seat and the next, bracing herself for the impact that made the bus bounce. And then it was over. Passengers were crying and cursing the driver, who yelled back that everything was fine. Sit down. Wait in the bus.
As if. Some obeyed, but many others followed him out the door to see whatever had been hit. Candace elbowed her way to the front, taking over the vacated driver's seat and looking out a cracked and blood splattered windshield. The elderly driver was bent over the bleeding corpse of a deer. A second deer struggled to its feet and ran, staggering and tossing its antlers, until it disappeared into the trees. She couldn't look away from the obscene way the velveteen body was twisted at unnatural angles, broken bits of ivory white poking through the softness of its pelt. Inky black eyes, blind and frozen forever in a pathetic look of surprise, stared up at her.
She could almost hear it ask her why humans had made a hard, ugly road through the peaceful eternity of the forest. Why had a monster of metal and glass come barreling out of nowhere to crush its innocent life? The driver glanced up and saw her. She couldn't really hear him through the glass, but she got the idea anyway from the waving hands and the horrified expression. He didn't want her to look. She'd seen worse. She'd survived worse, but it was nice of him to worry. Candace took one last glance at the way the driver's age speckled hands shook as he petted the stained fur before turning away.
But dreams were no refuge. Sleep took her back to the day He had showed up. Her mother had been giggling and hanging onto His arm until she noticed her daughter standing in the living room. He had smiled, sharp and cold as a knife, and backhanded her mother without even looking in the woman's direction. Then he had patted the little girl on the head and told her to go back to her room while he and her mother had a chat. Her mother had nodded from the floor, her eyes wide and frightened as a dead deer. Candace had run to her room and shut the door.
It hadn't been hard to open the ground floor window and climb out. The fenced yard had one tree; a tall oak that she ripped the knees out of her jeans and bent back three fingernails climbing, but she was safe. Mother Nature had held her and hid her when her own wouldn't. It hadn't been the first time and it wasn't the last. The scent of damp soil and green, growing things had surrounded her and a light rain had fallen on her through the branches. The child had shivered in her soaked pajamas, huddling in the dark until dawn. Her real mother never came to find her - not that time nor any other after that.
Raindrops pattered against the bus window. Candace slowly opened her eyes to a world blurred by the grief of Nature for its children. Her cheek was numb from pressing against the glass, but she felt no motivation to move. For now, the bus would move for her. After all, that was the plan or what had passed for one. There'd been a map at the Greyhound station and she'd picked a small dot on the New England coast surrounded by nothing but miles of protected forest. The woman she'd bought the ticket from had laughed and called it a Ticket to Nowhere. A nowhere place for a nonexistent girl. It had seemed perfect at the time and it cost everything she had left.
Nothing lasts forever. The forest did have an end and they reached it late afternoon.
An old Greyhound station waited a small distance from the tree line. That was the kindest way of putting it. Instead of building a bus station, it appeared that some overly optimistic person had tried to resurrect a 50's bowling alley or diner whose undead remains - complete with metal paneled exterior and retro decor - reinforced the eerie feeling that she'd entered a different time or dimension altogether. Neon signs flashing out in welcome or warning. Very deliberately, she waited for all the other passengers to collect their baggage and leave the area with the people who had come to pick them up.
It might have been wiser to sneak out under the cover of chaos, but it made her feel sick to watch the orgy of delighted reunions. Better to take the moment to check her backpack, carefully avoiding looking out the window until the last car had left the parking lot. On her way out, Candace paused on the last step, one foot still on the bus and the other hanging out into empty space. The driver was slumped behind the wheel, staring vacantly at the mostly clean but cracked windshield.
"Shit happens. It wasn't your fault." Her voice was so loud in the silence that they both jumped in shock. The man straightened up and stared at her so long that she began to regret her attempt at kindness. Candace shifted her balance, ready to jump if he was stupid enough to try and catch her. Ready to run if he'd called ahead and was waiting for the police to show up. Ready for a million stupid bits of advice that she didn't want to hear and offers she wouldn't accept.
"Thanks, Kid," he replied, seconds before she made up her mind to bolt. The driver ran his hand over where his hair should have been and smiled. It was not the effortless smile of someone who had never known pain or the artificial one of someone, like her mother, who didn't think it was safe to not smile. So much effort went into pulling the corners of his mouth upward that the muscles of his jaw trembled and tears came to the corners of eyes squinted with strain. It was a gift from one exhausted drifter to another. "Be safe. People tell me this is a strange town, but a good one too. I hope you'll find whatever you're looking for here."
Candace answered with a wave and pulled her hood up against the rain. She didn't hang around, just in case he had called in child welfare or the police or whoever else Good Samaritans called when they suspected a runaway. The fictitious aunt hadn't been brought up again and that was the thing she was most grateful for. She liked to believe it would be the last lie she ever had to tell.
Walking just as she'd taught herself, head up and with a confident expression glued unwavering into place, Candace walked into the outskirts of New Haven. Past experimentation had shown her that anyone who walked with a purpose and looked like they knew where they were going was less likely to be bothered - even when they didn't have a fucking clue. By taking sudden turns around corners and frequently changing directions, she threw off anyone who might be following her and, really, she wasn't any more hopelessly lost than she would have been anyway.
Before leaving her last town - she would never call it home again - Candace had scrubbed herself raw in a gym shower during its off hours. She'd been keeping a clean change of clothes in the backpack and that is what she'd put on before going to the Greyhound station. Don't look dirty. Don't look lost. Blue jeans and a long sleeved hoodie, charcoal grey and too plain to be used for IDing, hid the fading bruises He had given her. It hid the marks on her arms that she'd made herself too. She flinched away from that thought, the memory of sharp, cold metal pressed to her skin and the morbid fascination of blood beading on her skin was too real and fresh. He had left his razor blades out and she knew why. Candace refused to die, if only to spite Him.
But a small seed of fear had burrowed it's way into the dust and clay of her being. Like a weed, it kept trying to take root and no matter how hard Candace tried to dig it out, she couldn't ignore the reality. She'd survived for two weeks on luck and planning ahead, but the Ticket to Nowhere had been the furthest point she could imagine. Now that she was here, where no one would ever connect her with her old life and she could start over, how had she ever imagined a fifteen year old girl was going to find a job and a home. With a little effort, she might pass for over eighteen, but the whole game would be over when someone inevitably asked for her ID.
Her stomach gurgled to remind of more immediate problems. An emptiness verging on nausea was the only thing filling her now, but Candace had rarely been full enough to know the difference. There was one nutrition bar left in her bag and she'd need it tomorrow. Without noticing it, she'd been moving away from the busier, noisier sections of town, and found herself walking among clean, two-storied stone and brick buildings of a kind she didn't imagine still existed. The ground floors were shops but, from what she could tell from the upper windows, the top floors were living areas.
The novelty was charming until Candace caught sight of herself in one of the many giant picture windows. Her wraith-like reflection stared back at her like a vision of her own death. Sunken eyes, dark ringed from lack of sleep, glared out from a dark hoodie that had taken on the appearance of a funeral shroud. She reached up to push back the hood, twisting her fingers in the lank brown hair until tears of pain came to her eyes. Someone passed behind her on the street and the person's giggling rang discordantly in Candace's ears.
There came a point, somewhere around twelve, when Candace came to hate her mother's laugh. It was as fake as the face the older woman painted on every morning. The movie nights were over, but her mother still had one point of interest in her daughter. Only one. Candace gritted her teeth, hearing her mother's voice in the facing echoes of forced laughter.
You'll never get a boy if you scowl like that, sweetie. Why don't you put on a little makeup and find something prettier to wear? Please don't cut your hair, baby girl! Boys will think you're a dyke. You don't want that, do you? Men like happy, beautiful girls who smile and don't come with too much baggage.
Candace's fist smashed into the glass hard enough to rattle it in its frame. It didn't break, but she was suddenly aware that the people inside were looking at her like she'd gone crazy. Maybe she had. Clutching her aching hand to her chest, Candace darted across the street, forcing a car she hadn't even seen to swerve onto the curb, and ran. Blindly, frantically, struggling to breath around the stitch in her side and the words that had been choking her to death for years.
I don't want boys to notice me, mom! I don't want to waste my life chasing after bastards who care more about my tits than my thoughts! I don't want to be the baggage you keep hidden from all your so-called friends! I don't want to be you! And look, a man still fucking noticed me in the end!
Momentum carried her two steps past the point where her feet ran out of strength, sending her sprawling across the doormat of yet another shop. The world reeled beneath her as Candace forced herself up, heaving like the deck of a ship in a hurricane. Her hand caught at the doorknob for balance and she found herself stumbling inside. She needed to hide. Get away. She needed… please, she needed food and sleep and to be safe!
Through the fog of fear and exhaustion, Candace realized she was in a coffee shop. Not a modern, Starbucks-type hang out. Someone who'd left their wits in the sugar bowl of a 1940's British tea room had lined the entire room in expensive wood paneling and stuffed the place from wall to wall with comfortable looking vintage furniture. Painted tea sets and candy jars glittered in jewel-bright tones beneath hanging lamps that gilded everything the warm, mellow light touched in gold. Every breath was filled with the scents of chai tea, freshly brewed coffee, and chocolate.
Something small and breaking inside her chest whispered that it would be nice if she could hide here. Just for a moment.
A plump, redheaded lady in a frilly apron came out from behind the wooden counter and approached with both hands outstretched. Candace jerked back out of reach and the woman stopped immediately, respecting the clear refusal and waiting patiently to see what her latest customer wanted. There was no money left in her bra or the hidden inner pocket of her hoodie, but Candace made a pretense of patting her jean pockets anyway.
"I can't pay, but..." Candace paused, swallowing down the weakness of asking for help and trusting it to be given. Inhaling the sweet scents of food and spices was making her feel lightheaded, but that was no excuse to beg. "Do you have any odd jobs I can do?"
The woman's smile, so soft and welcoming, never wavered for a second. It reached all the way up to crease the corners of her eyes and bracketed her lips with deep laugh lines. Her mother never smiled in a way that might give her wrinkles. Although it was a beautiful autumn red, the woman's hair was a wild mess of steam frizzled curls. A fine dusting of flour appeared to be her chosen cosmetic and the only fragrance she wore came from baking. She wanted to like the woman, which was why the cafe owner couldn't be trusted.
"If you can wash dishes, then you've got a deal. I've got my hands full with the customers and minding the counter, so really this is perfect luck!" The huskiness of the woman's voice surprised her; animate cupcakes should sound annoyingly high-pitched and saccharine sweet. [h]The cafe owner tried to smooth down her ruffles and her hair with no notable improvement. A quick glance around only made Candy more suspicious, because the cafe could hardly be called bustling with only three tables occupied. She shoved her hands into her pockets when the woman tried to take one, but her rejection didn't make the smile waver. "I'm Cherry, dear. It's wonderful to meet you."
Cherry didn't ask for her name and Candace didn't volunteer it. While the cafe had a beautifully impractical stovetop with an antique oven for kettles and pots, it was in the back that the real and kitchenware was hidden. Restaurant grade, stainless steel ovens and cooking ranges filled an entire wall and the walk-in pantry with it's refrigerators and standing deep freezers mocked the starving girl with their abundance of food.
Even more than the sight of food, the oppressive heat from the ovens weighed down on the young girl like a smothering blanket. A large pot was almost boiling over, filling the room with a thick haze that would have made her dizzy even without the pungent smell of spiced cider. The older woman seemed oblivious to the temperature, humming tunelessly to herself as she shifted the pot off the burner. With her bare hands. There was a small table tucked into the far corner, away from the heat and Candace decided to sit down before she fell on her face.
In the shelter of a large cabinet filled with tea leaves in jars, she dropped her face into her hands instead of staring at the crazy person with asbestos hands. Candace vaguely remembered something about people who could walk on hot coals, so maybe this was no more weird. Practice, speed, and confidence probably could work magic. She shuddered, not really believing that at all. Something clinked against the table. Candace looked up to find a large glass of water, brimming with crushed ice and heavy with beading perspiration. It was straight out of a hydration PSA or the fevered dreams of some poor fucker lost in a desert.
The satisfaction and relief of gulping half of it down in one go was well worth the brain freeze. Slumping back in her chair, Candace sighed and looked around again. The back room was in much sharper focus, although she still felt like either the room or her must have been swaying. The room probably hadn't taken it into its head to slow dance, so Candace didn't try to stand up just yet. Cherry was darting around as fast as her chubby legs could go - and that was surprisingly fast. An entire ham, spiral cut and dripping with brown sugar, was thrown on a butcher's block along with a loaf of bread. And it wasn't just soggy, bland wonder bread; this bread was homemade and her mouth flooded with saliva at the crisp crunch it made when Cherry sliced it.
Before her mind had time to wrap itself around this extravagance, Cherry had made a ham and swiss cheese sandwich and popped it into one of the ovens. The knife wielding maniac then rinsed off her weapon and attacked a chocolate cake. A nearby pie was not spared from sacrifice either. Still humming as happily as a bee in a flower bed, the woman made Candace flinch again by not using mitts to pull the toasted sandwich out of the oven. In the end, a very large sandwich, two desserts, a glass of milk, and a cup of tea were arranged in front of her. In a little vase in the middle of the table was a vase of silk flowers, which dropped in the heat and humidity. Cherry prodded them upright with a chocolate smeared finger.
"I hope that's enough for a growing girl! I didn't know what you liked and I suppose I should have asked first, but…"
The older woman trailed off, fidgeting with her apron and looking from Candace to the wilting flowers, subtly trying to nudge them into a perkier state for her guest. A guest that could barely tear her eyes away from a greater abundance of food than she'd ever had, with the sole exception of her mother's wedding. She'd also been in a back kitchen then, because it would be an embarrassment for the bride wrapped in pure white to be trailed by the evidence of her youthful mistakes. That cake had been white and dry. Candace reached for the large, moist cake quarter and pulled it closer. Fudge icing dripped down the sides and a friendly looking cherry wobbled in a heap of whipped cream on top.
If she spoke, she'd cry. Candace licked her cracked lips and pinched herself under the table. She pinched hard. Harder. It wasn't a dream. She wasn't still on the bus, lost in a boundless forest where she was the only one who was real. Or the only one who wasn't real. She drew in a deep, shuddering breath and closed her eyes against the flood fighting to break loose. Cherry was still waiting, patient and worried, when Candace croaked out, "It's good. Fine. Great."
"Wonderful!" Cherry clapped her hands, but her expression was still troubled. She had given up on the flowers, but she did add a few more napkins to the pile beside Candace. "Then you just take your time eating and let me know if you need another helping. When you're done, the dishes are in the sink over there. Don't hurry, they're not going anywhere."
The older woman swept out of the kitchen seconds before Candace broke down. Tears were rolling down her face as, with shaking hands, she lifted the sandwich and bit down. Warm juice and caramelized sugar dripped from her chin and she almost choked on the hysterical laughter trying to fight it's way past the food. A second helping and she'd probably die from gorging. Her mind yelled and cursed at her for devouring the sandwich when she should have been saving at least half, but each bite was muffling the sobbing and filling the void in her stomach. It hurt. It hurt. Her stomach rebelled against being so painfully stretched, but she couldn't stop. Wouldn't. The emptiness had to stop.
She couldn't have said what flavor the pie was, except that it was stuffed with a fruity filling and that it disappeared down her throat blissfully. Candace took a little more time with the cake, chewing slowly and swallowing leisurely. It helped to slow down, because she felt like throwing up. The stabbing pain in her gut was in her skull now, throbbing away until she was as dizzy as she was nauseated. She patted the crumbs and drips of chocolate up with her fingers and sucked them clean. Then there was just her left, clutching at the edge of the table and bent over it, snot and drool oozing down her face as she made a sound that was neither laughter nor crying. The wildness of it all frightened her so badly that Candace knocked over her chair in her haste to attack the dishes. Anything to distract her.
Soap and scalding water washed away the tears as Candace scrubbed out her hysteria on the innocent pots and pans that took up most of the sink. Several times, she staggered away from the hot water, sinking to her hands and knees to press herself to the cooler tiles. Breathe. She waited until she was calmer to do the tableware, taking her time to make sure each patterned dish was mirror bright and each cup was entirely spotless. While her hands went through the mechanical motions, the young girl was making some rapid calculations. If she could work here every other day, trading dishwashing for food, she thought she could survive for a while. Cherry's idea of a healthy portion could easily be divided into two, maybe even three, meals.
Even if she had food, what could she do about shelter? Candace had no confidence in her ability to survive long if she was homeless and gave herself only slightly higher odds of surviving in some kind of shelter. Unappealing as she was, Candace was still vulnerable prey and she'd left behind the only safe place she'd found. On her first day in the streets, while wandering aimless and dazed, she'd passed by one of the more upscale local cemeteries welcoming a newly interred member into the club. Elaborate mausoleums towered around her, self-important and guarded by marble angels and saints. Mixing in quietly with the mourners, she made general but sympathetic remarks, lending half an ear to the grieving family while keeping an eye out for an opportunity.
Even the most long winded priest runs out of words and the most dramatic crier eventually finds their tears have run dry. When the gathering dispersed, Candace was able to follow the elderly funeral director into her office. It was easy to let the desperate tears overflow for a few seconds and the elderly woman had almost split her cold coffee on the rug as she sprinted out into the front hall in search of a tissue box. It felt wrong, taking the key from the filing cabinet, but when Candace left the funeral home her eyes were dry and the key was in her pocket.
Later that night, after climbing the fence and letting herself into the mausoleum, she knelt down in front of the flower strewn plaque and asked that if any part of the deceased was aware of her trespassing that they would understand. Their struggle for survival was over, so she hoped they would have forgiveness for someone who was still in the fight. The mylar emergency blanket she'd kept hidden in her backpack made her feel like a baked potato in tin foil and it didn't do too much to soften the stone floor, but it worked. Two weeks later she left the key, wrapped in an unsigned note of confession and apology, sitting on the front desk of the funeral home.
Candace threw the sponge on it's rack and stood back, studying the stack of clean and drying cookware and tableware. Her food had been repaid fairly, which was a small comfort. Her stomach was still aching, but it could take a ticket and wait in line with the other problems. It was too much to hope that she could play the graveyard trick twice and asking where the nearest cemetery was might be suspicious. The idea of doing any more lying or stealing made her feel sick enough to puke. And she already felt like doing that. Candace closed her eyes and saw once again the sheltering trees that surrounded the town; strong and arcing high above her head like the columns of a cathedral.[o] Soft, green tinted sunlight and reverent silence. A sanctuary. Peace.
"Hello again! My goodness, I think I could see my reflection in some of those pans!"
The plate Candace had been holding went flying as she jumped sideways to get away from whoever had snuck up on her; heartbeat spiking as her body went from zero to a hundred mph in seconds. She didn't realize it was Cherry until she was halfway across the room, putting the center counter and butcher block between them. The older woman wilted visibly at her scowl before bending down to pick up the fragments of the dish. It gave them both a moment to calm down. Candace found a dustpan and brush, quietly handing them over to the anxiety cleaner.
"That was my fault. I'm sorry I scared you like that," Cherry murmured. The older woman sighed and wiped her hands off on her apron. "I wouldn't mind some extra help and you can have supper here. Do you want to wait up front until we get enough dishes to be worth washing?"
Candace followed her all the way to the door before stopping short. There was a round window in the swinging door and her reflection was standing outside looking in. Against the backdrop of the cafe, a reality of high def and technicolor people, she was a smudgy monochrome rerun that no one wanted anymore. And in her heart, Candace had been forced to acknowledge that she had never been wanted.
The truth had existed in every lie that fell from her mother's lips. She had no children. Single, free, and looking to change that - haha! The truth had been in her mother's eyes when He had dragged Candace out to the road. Having taken out the trash, He had gone back inside. Her mother had paused one moment longer, her hand stroking the door frame of the two story house He had given her. The sunlight glinting on the diamond ring He had put on her finger seemed to fascinate her mother, who stared at it rather than the girl on the pavement. He called and the woman closed the door behind her.
"I don't want to," she said, quietly and firmly. "I'll stay back here. Thanks."
Cherry gave her a forlorn look that was almost immediately forced into a strained smile. She felt a little guilty for making the overly friendly woman unhappy, but Candace was growing used to ignoring that kind of feeling. She wasn't responsible for anyone's happiness but her own. Cherry looked around, but the answers were not in the cooling oven or in the open bag of flour on the counter top. They sure as hell weren't going to be found in Candace. Someone called Cherry from the front register and spared them both from any further awkward conversation.
The little table was near to the back door, so it was the ideal spot to wait. Candace hid her backpack behind a packing crate full of sugar bags and dug out her sketchbook. For a moment, she held the pages to her chest, pressing the comfort of their colors to her heart and thanking any lucky stars that might have guided her when she decided to keep an emergency backpack in her school locker. Two months ago she'd hidden all her best art supplies in her locker. Slowly, that stash had been added to. A small hurricane lantern here, a mylar blanket there. Whatever money she had saved from taking commissions from other students and school lunches she hadn't bought was deposited into a hidden inner pocket. A little preparation. Too little. Too late. She should have run then. Hope was nothing but fear of taking action hidden behind a nicer sounding name.
Candace cleaned the table top carefully before spreading out her sketchbook and the big zip bag of pencils, pens, and markers. The last two weeks had been spent in city parks and libraries, public places that were relatively safe and peaceful. She had hoped to draw a little while she tried to find a plan. Again, she had been tempted by a hope that should have been ignored. None of the half finished drawings, filled with hard lines and jagged angles, felt right and they had unsettled her mind as much as anything else had.
A new page was needed.
Gradually, the wandering tip of her pen began to form lines. There was no definite shape or idea at first. Candace breathed in the scent of tea and baking things, closing her eyes to better see what was in her mind. Spices and the undertones of charcoal and heated copper. Living fire that had been controlled to create new things instead of destroying. A small, red dragon was taking up the new page, curling around bunches of tea leaves and spices. Calligraphy letters flowed like ribbon to fill the empty spaces, naming everything in the image except the dragon. The dragon alone knew it's real name and that seemed fitting to Candace. Delicate strokes from a gold glitter pen added the fire in the dragon's eyes, the true nature of it shining through.
Hours later, she woke up with her cheek on the table. The little dragon felt warm under the hand she'd covered it's friendly face with. A domestic tea dragon. Candace smiled before remembering where she was. Her stomach lurched uncomfortably when she stood, but the pain was endurable now. The dragon was safely hidden in her bag by the time Cherry returned. If the older woman had been into the kitchen before and seen Candace sleeping, she didn't bring it up. More dishes were added to the sink and while Candace washed, Cherry set the table.
Family dinners really weren't her thing. Her mother had always been either working or going out with friends, so Candace was used to scavenging from whatever was left around and carrying it back to her room. After her mother's marriage, that had grown from a habit to an unspoken rule. When He was home or their kiss-ass friends came over, Candace was nowhere to be seen. She was happy with that arrangement. Candace didn't enjoy listening to human parrots and she didn't like the way He looked at her.
From a crockpot that Candace hadn't even noticed, the older woman had magically produced the kind of beef stew that deserved to be painted and framed. Juicy hunks of beef jostled around in a thick broth with sliced vegetables and russet potatoes so perfectly cooked that they almost melted in her mouth. It was too bad that the smell of food reminded her stomach that it hated her and would never forgive her earlier gluttony. She tried. She really did try. Letting so much good food go to waste was a knife twisting in her gut, but so was the nausea from overeating. After she forced down a few delicious mouthfuls, Candace gave up trying.
"It was very nice having your help today," Cherry murmured, her approval shining in bright gold eyes. It wasn't the lighting this time - the woman's eyes were amber gold. She pushed a softball sized dinner roll, golden brown and crusty, towards Candace. It would go in her backpack the moment the older woman turned her back. "It's been a while since I had a helper. The last one was an exchange student at the university, but he went back home months ago."
Cherry took another bite and chewed meditatively. Whether she was reminiscing over the student or deciding if she'd used enough seasoning wasn't clear, but the silence was friendly enough. Candace was fishing around in her stew for a particularly soft bit of potato when she felt the older woman turned her attention towards her again.
"I wonder," the older woman said slowly, drawing her fingernails along the surface of the table as she worked through the thought. "Would you be interested in the job?"
"I'm a total stranger and you want to offer me a job?" Candace speared a seasoned chuck of cow meat on her fork and chewed on it to spite her stomach. It was senseless and maybe even perverse, but the very fact that she did want the job made Candace feel like rejecting it. "I'm not here for charity. For all you know, I'm here to rob you or poison the customers."
"Will you rob me or poison my customers?" Cherry's neutral inquiry threw her off balance. The woman didn't look offended at all or… or anything really as she sprinkled a little extra pepper on her stew. Cherry tasted the stew again and added a more generous rain of pepper. Candace didn't know how to feel when Cherry smiled at her, offering the spice shaker. Patience and amiability was written in every line around her eyes and lips. Candace finally gave a tiny shake of her head to answer the question. The older woman nodded acceptance and continued, " In that case, would $300 a week work for you? It would be full time and you can have your meals on the house when you're working."
"Holy shit." Fear was a sharp, electric jolt racing through her nerves beneath the heavy numbness of shock. It was a job and food and if she could only find a home then she would have everything she needed to survive. But it was wrong. Something had to be wrong. Her life was the Twilight Zone, not the Wizard of Oz. A sharp plot twist and her dream come true would become a nightmare beyond all imagination. It must be Cherry - that was what was wrong. Her breath felt sucked out of her lungs with her whisper. "Are you crazy?"
"Not dangerously so, dear," was the serene answer from Cherry. Too bad nothing short of a hammer blow would have reached Candace in that moment. But she took the pepper shaker and mechanically chewed her dead cow while Cherry continued. "I understand it's a bit sudden, but I enjoyed having you here. I appreciate the way you honestly share your opinions, but please don't be quite so honest with my customers. Not all of them have a tough hide."
"You don't even know my name," Candace snapped back, raising her voice even louder. She'd never openly lost her temper before and it was more than annoying to have it treated with such amiable acceptance. "You haven't asked where I live or why I wasn't in school or… or… anything about me!"
"I was hoping you'd tell me when you were ready. You didn't look like you wanted me to ask you any questions." Cherry sighed, studying Candace's face before adding, "I understand having things in your life that you don't want to talk about."
The gentle consideration was lost on Candace. The illusion of safety and kindness was too dangerous to believe in. Stubbornly, she shook her head and snarled back, "I didn't want questions, but you should still be asking them! That's what you're supposed to do! It's not even legal to hire someone my age full time and there's all sorts of rules that you're ignoring!"
"Oh, believe me, I know that. I know I'm old, but I'm hardly blind. I'm sure that you have your own reasons to be here," The older woman was watching Candace from the corner of her eye, rubbing her fingernails together absently. Every so often Cherry's fingers would curl convulsively inward, as if the increasingly tense conversation was a physical thing that the older woman could get a grip on. "All I'm offering is a chance to stand on your own feet. This world isn't an easy place to make a start in and everyone deserves a fair chance to try."
She paused, turning her head to fully face Candace. Her voice softened, "It's an offer. You have the freedom to accept it or turn it down, but I want to give you the opportunity. It would give you time to decide what you really want to do next."
"What's in it for you?" Candace asked cautiously. Some quick mental math told her that Cherry was only offering minimum wage, so the pay was only remarkable because someone her age wasn't supposed to be hired full time. "If anyone asks why you have an underaged kid working here, what's your excuse? Are you going to claim I'm family?"
Cherry hesitated, humming to herself as she picked apart the question. The guarded look in her eyes darkened the gold to bronze, "That would be a safe excuse and probably the most simple one, but -"
"Forget it." Candace pushed away from the table and grabbed her backpack from its hiding place. Cherry stood up too, dismay written across her round face. She was probably throwing away the only hope she had, but Candace couldn't endure the idea of being forced into another fake family. "I don't want you."
In the next moment, she was out the back door and running down the alley. Candace plunged blindly through traffic and down streets, trying to escape the desolation of a world she didn't feel part of and that mocked her with fake families. People yelled and screamed as she knocked into them. Cars honked and swerved, the drivers cursing her and pedestrians trying to grab at her. She didn't care. She didn't care! If they hated her, well then she hated them too!
Someone grabbed her by the hair, yanking Candace's head back hard enough to make her see stars. The pricking of pain in her scalp was nothing compared to the explosion of rage in her head. The night He had cornered her in her room, she had almost made it out the window when He had grabbed her by the hair too. Candace whipped around, digging her nails into the person's other arm and sinking her teeth into yielding flesh. Her captor screamed hysterically, smacking at her but more importantly letting go. He hadn't.
She was knocked sprawling on the sidewalk, but when she scrambled up the faceless shadows of humanity backed away. Above the looming buildings, the dying sun had set the sky ablaze with a fire that didn't warm and whose infernal light only strengthened the darkness surrounding her. Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon,[v] but Candace was on her feet and running again. Sweat made her bulky clothing drag her towards the ground. The stitch in her side was a knife digging between her ribs and one of her sneakers was coming untied, but there was no stopping. People who stopped moving forward died and she wasn't going to die.
It wasn't until her shoes discovered the ground had grown soft and crunchy that Candace paused. The world of the city had been left behind and only the trees remained. She staggered to the nearest one, sobbing for air, and leaned into its strength. But these trees weren't the tamed and human-tended ones she was used to. They bowed their ancient crowns above her, the weight of their regard making her tremble as the last of her strength gave out. Wind was beginning to whip the treetops, the rustling of leaves and groaning of their waving limbs whispering a clear warning that was echoed by a roar of thunder.
A cold tear fell from the sky to land on her cheek. Candace flinched away from the rough bark, skin prickling with the eerie sensation of being watched. There was no way for her to climb these trees and reality hit her with the first wave of rain: she didn't know the first thing about camping. Slowly, Candace turned in a circle, but her untrained eyes couldn't see any traces of which way she'd come from. The forest had swallowed her up and there wasn't a single footprint left to prove her reality.
The deep loam crackled under her sneakers as Candace chose a direction at random. Her hoodie was already getting soaked through, the chilled clothing sucking up what little bodyheat she'd had. Candace hugged herself tightly, closing her eyes against the darkness closing in all around. She'd hoped walking would keep her warm, but her toes were numb as she wiggled them inside her shoes. A branch snapped somewhere in the eternal night and she froze, holding her breath. The sound of it moving through the undergrowth so faint that she almost convinced herself it was nothing. Almost. Candace took a step backwards, blind and deafened by the pounding of her own heart but certain she wasn't alone.
Lightning cracked overhead, illuminating everything in the sickly blue glow of an old TV. Eyes gleamed at her from a few feet away, reflecting the uncanny light. The light was gone as quickly as it had come, but it was still there. Somewhere. Another flash and the nightmares of a thousand years of children terrified into obedience by tales of the Big Bad Wolf took life in front of her. The hulking shadow, larger than any real wolf, was close enough to run her down between one frantic beat of her heart and the next. Lightning split the sky again and the Wolf was all she could see now, golden eyes locked onto her own before darkness extinguished all light and hope of life.
An ear-piercing howl filled the night, shattering the paralysis holding Candace in place. She ran. There were no directions now, no hope, sense, no stopping. Her thoughts whirled round in circles, demanding that she escape and in the same instant mocking her for fighting to live when dying would be so much easier. Die and end the fear. Die and stop running forever. Die and get away from an existence where she didn't belong. She ran to spite death and the devils in her own mind. She ran until her feet felt like they must be blistered and bleeding in her wet shoes, until her lungs felt ripped to shreds and her body was shaking like the leaves overhead. The gale blew her forward, away from the howling until she crashed through one last line of trees and fell headlong into a clearing.
Silence. The howling had disappeared, ghost-like, into the dark ether. High above, the full moon shone down through a break in the clouds. It's gentler light illuminated a silver-washed world, each leaf and blade of grass standing out in glittering relief. Long minutes dragged by as she lay there listened to the hushed pattering of rain in the distance. Nothing came out of the darkness to devour her. Tiny, flickering points of light blinked into existence and swirled around the margins of the clearing, a few braver fireflies dancing across the bare earth to circle the wreckage that had once been a little girl.
One sat on the back of her hand, where it was clenched into the dirt. It's humming was just on the periphery of her awareness, a sense of singing just beyond her ability to understand. More fireflies followed, investigating the foreigner to their forest. Candace pressed her cheek into the wet dirt, tears and snot oozing down her face. The little lights crawled under her hair, tickling her exposed cheek and pinching at the tip of her nose until she forced herself to sit up. Cupping her hands together on an impulse she didn't quite understand, Candace could only stare in wonder as the fireflies filled them like a bowl.
Something crashed in the bushes and the fireflies fled, scattering like the sparks from the sparklers she used to buy every summer until He came. Candace knew she couldn't run anymore. One tiny light still clung to her fingers as the monster forced its way into the clearing and she set it free with a gentle shake of her hand. Candace chose to watch it fly away instead of the shadow rushing across the open ground, glad that the firefly existed and would live on to dance another night. She was sorry that everything was over before it began. She'd tried so hard.
"There you are!"
Candace had just enough time to mouth 'what the fuck' before she was scooped up. The air was crushed from her lungs and she clawed at the arms holding her so painfully tight. He had thrown her down and crushed her too. The night was her enemy and so was her captor.
"Let go of me," she screamed, thrashing and scratching until she could feel blood under her fingernails. "I don't want you! I hate you! I hate you!"
She didn't even realize at first that she was free. She rolled over and scrambled to her feet, snarling and ready to fight to the death with only her fingernails and teeth if she had too. Her wide, staring eyes saw nothing but her old bedroom and Him. The Monster. The Wolf who was clever enough to buy its own sheep for the slaughter. Her mother had sold them both for greener pastures. And she hadn't come. Not once. Not ever. Not even when Candace needed her the most.
"It's okay, it's okay! You're safe now. It's going to be okay."
A clear, authoritative voice broke through the chaos and hysteria. It was Cherry, but not as she had been. Her corkscrew curls stuck out at crazy angles and were full of leaves and twigs. The frilly apron was torn and ruined with mud. She seemed to fill the clearing with her presence as if she was ten times her real size, frowning down at Candace with folded arms that were crisscrossed with scratches.
"Why are you here?!" Candace's voice was hoarse from shrieking and it broke embarrassingly. She retreated from the older woman. "Why did you follow me? I don't need you. I don't need anyone!"
Cherry's reply was simple and so quietly spoken that Candace was compelled to move closer in order to catch the words. "Everyone needs a little help once and awhile."
"I don't," she answered flatly, backing away again and trying not to think of how ridiculous she sounded. She was lost in the words and had almost been killed. "I was doing just fine alone."
"I have no doubt that terrible things must have happened to you to make you feel this way. It's hard to trust anyone when it feels like the only safety is in standing alone," Cherry spoke into the waiting silence. Her words rubbed Candace's nerves raw with the assumption that anyone could understand how she felt, but the older woman didn't make the mistake of reaching out to someone who didn't want to be touched. "Right now, what do you want most?"
Something inside Candace snapped with more rage than she'd known was inside her. It was terrifying, the scream that ripped its way out of the depths of her soul to accuse a world she had never been allowed to exist in as herself. "The truth! I want the truth!"
"The truth," murmured Cherry, the echoes of Candace's fury fading into the deep sorrow and exhaustion of the older woman's voice. Her ears were ringing, a prickling chill washing down her body like someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over her. But Candace didn't fall to her knees. She wouldn't. Dimly, she realized that Cherry had stood up and was waiting for her. Candace blinked until the older woman came back into focus.
"The truth," Cherry repeated louder, her voice ringing out into the night. The fireflies were back, Candace noticed, but they held a respectful distance and never broke the treeline. Her eyes met Cherry's and were held fast by the agony reflected in them. "Once upon a time, I was a mother. A man - a cruel thief - chose to steal my children's lives, instead of taking anything else. And I can't endure the thought of any other child suffering if I could do something to stop it."
"I can't bear knowing you're out here. That's also the truth." The older woman wore her pain openly and with the dignity of a warrior, her head up and her gaze unwavering. A flicker of grudging respect was kindled in the cold suspicion that filled Candace. She was the first to look away. Cherry waited patiently until Candace glanced up again. "You are lost. What if you went cold or hungry? What if you felt sad or afraid, or someone hurt you, and no one came to save you?"
"No one did!" Candace interrupted, growling in outrage at herself as much as Cherry. There had been a time when it would have been so easy to break down and throw herself into the older woman's arms. That time was over. "It's already too late!"
"As long as you can stand there, raging and screaming, it's never too late " The rebuke was immediate. There was fire in Cherry's golden eyes and steel in her voice that would allow no further argument. This was Cherry's truth. Unexpectedly, the older woman offered Candace a fierce smile and, for maybe the first time, the child felt that someone was proud of her. 'You might say it's too late, but your heart thinks otherwise. You're still alive. As long as you have the spirit to defy anyone or anything that tries to drag you down, it's never too late. That feeling got you this far - here. To this town. To my cafe. To me."
Eyes closed, breathing in the cool moonlight and the scent of the forest, Candace opened her heart long enough to feel someone else's pain. "Look… I'm sorry about what happened to your children, but I won't be anyone's replacement."
When the seconds dragged on into minutes, Candace opened her eyes. The happy, bubbly woman who had been serving tea and cupcakes hours before was gone. The cold, silvery light had robbed everything of color and left behind a woman carved of grey steel and stone. An ancient agony was the only flicker of life in the dark eyes that watched her thoughtfully. The hair on the back of Candy's neck raised at the almost inhuman stillness.
"A child is an irreplaceable treasure. My children can never be replaced. You cannot be replaced." The words were slow and measured, a strength of conviction in them so absolute that Candace felt her truth wavering against it. "Let me help you. I won't insist you live with me or be my child. What I will do is pay you fairly and tell you where a room can be bought without questions being asked. I will see to it that you have a chance to complete your education when it's safe. I can help you stand more firmly against the world. What do you say?"
All the years of running away and hiding, waiting hopelessly for her mother to care enough to find her, had led to a place where a motherless child and a childless mother could only stare at each other across a gap of a few feet and a lifetime of distrust. Her mother had feared reality with all it's disappointments and messes, retreating into the illusion she'd build of the perfect life. Candace needed something real. A job. A home. A purpose. Maybe she also needed a person who fearlessly threw herself into the pain and joy of life without worrying about mud or scars.
"Hey, did you leave the pots boiling on the stove when you ran after me?"
Cherry blinked. Looking over her shoulder in what Candace assumed was the direction of her cafe, the older woman grumbled, "I don't know... perhaps?"
"Let's go make sure the cafe hasn't burnt down. I'll sleep in the kitchen tonight and you won't have to worry about where I am. In the morning we can talk about plans. Deal?"
The pain was still there, but so were they. That was enough for the moment. There was no more conversation as Candace followed the older woman through the woods, but the fireflies danced around them all the way back to town, swinging from Cherry's curls and peeking under Candace's hood. One stayed hidden inside her hood, a tiny spark of hope that didn't leave her until she'd reached her destination.