Grey Harlowe Sampler: “Off the Beaten Path”

(Content note: One of my rare, non-scary offerings. Sure, there’s an element of fear here, but this piece is not meant to be read as part of the horror genre or any related one.)

*

We had traveled as far as the car could take us.

Which wasn’t that far, as it turned out.  Onyx had made one wrong turn too many, taking us way off the road, then into a choppy, tree lined path of wet November bark.  Soon, though the custom made vehicle our uncle called the Rune Buggy could keep motoring at a sort of sputtering, irregular pace, we were deeply lost in the forest.  I made Onyx stop the machine before things got any worse, which they promptly did anyway, when it began to rain.

At fourteen, Onyx was the oldest of the three of us, and, I thought, usually the most responsible.  His reputation with me had definitely taken a hit that afternoon, however, as he had a) ruined our carefree joyride in the stolen buggy, and b) scared Peridot, our seven year old sister, who was afraid of both woods and rain, half to death.  I intended to punish him in a most unusual way later.  A frog in his bed.  Toothpaste replaced with hemorrhoid gel.  Something worse.

Just a quick trip down the highway, Beryl, he’d said.  It’s deserted this time of day anyway.  Back in two hours.  See if this thing can set some kind of speed record.  Now we were god knows where.  It would have to be worse than hemorrhoid toothpaste.

Onyx and I left the buggy to argue under a tree about what to do next.  Peridot, who had figured out that neither of us had any idea where we were, refused to leave the safety of the buggy’s awning covered rubber seats.  Past caring, Onyx and I stood under a nearby tree and commenced bickering.

“I can’t believe you didn’t get that cell phone when you had a chance,” I said angrily.  Onyx had just had a birthday and an offer of blissfully modern communication technology had been made.  “That would come in handy right about now.”

“You didn’t ask for one either, genius, so don’t blame me.”

“You know they can’t afford it,” I grumbled.  “They got rid of Portia’s last year.”

Portia was our aunt.  Our parents had checked out two years back.  Portia and the odd but kindly man she called Kai, had taken over in their place.  Portia worked in a dentist’s office and paid most of their bills, while Kai worked part time at a surf shop in our Oregon coastal enclave.  He made okay money during the high season, which this wasn’t, so even with their combined incomes, three kids to support had forced them into a tight budget.

“Even if we had a phone, who would we call?  I don’t know Portia’s work number and Kai supposedly won’t be home until midnight.”  It was Kai’s spontaneous decision to sojourn at a friend’s for the evening that had inspired Onyx’s scheme to abscond with the Rune.

“Gee, I dunno, the cops maybe?  911?  Information?”

“Does Information even still exist?” Onyx joked.  “I thought that went away with video rental stores.”

“Okay, then, what are our options?  Start walking?  Scream for help?”

“All of thirteen and she thinks she knows everything.”  Onyx sighed.  Didn’t you ever see The Blair Witch Project?  That’s how they got seriously lost.”

“Like we’re not seriously lost already,” I snapped, checking the modestly priced digital watch I had felt it was all right to ask my cash strapped guardians for.  “It’s one p.m.  Dark in three hours.  What do you propose we do?”

Onyx sighed some more.  Despite my disapproval of his recklessness, he knew I was looking to him for answers.  Since our parents’ divorce had repelled them from each other like mismatched magnets, leaving us with understanding but not terribly involved replacements, we had stuck to a rigid pecking order.  Onyx in charge and Beryl for back up, with little Peridot, we had decided in automatic, unspoken agreement, a shared responsibility between us.

“Walk, I guess,” he declared, sounding no more confident about it than I felt.  “I can’t have gone that far off the main road.”

Gingerly, we approached the buggy to tell Peridot of the plan.  She whined a lot and warned us we would be eaten by bears or tree snakes, but eventually agreed and let me lift her from the back seat.

“Why do you think he didn’t just name it his dune buggy?” Onyx wondered absently as he leaned down to tie his sneakers.

“I’d be more worried how you’re going to explain how it got left out here,” I said.

“No, I mean, I get that it’s a pun, but it’s…weird he would use the word rune.  Isn’t that another word for crystal?”

“I guess,” I said.  It was unusual for Onyx to ask me to define vocabulary words for him.  He always thought he was so much smarter, especially since his promotion to high school freshman.

“Well, don’t you think that’s strange?  I know he’s one of these recycled happy hippies, but I don’t think he’s some whacked out New Ager or anything.”

Onyx had begun to walk us through the rough, disorderly trail the buggy’s tires had made in the muddy ground while I held Peridot’s hand and said a silent prayer this would actually take us back to the highway.  I hoped it wasn’t too dark when we got there.  We had only gone about a mile from our house and could probably walk back to it in reasonable safety as long as some light held out.

“You don’t suppose he named it after us, do you?” asked Onyx.  “Because of our names?”

“I have no idea.  Who knows why that guy does anything.  He once told me he thought the United States faked the moon landing back in the ‘60s.”

“I remember that,” Onyx admitted.  “Portia made him shut up and then talked about her college trip to England for the rest of dinner.”

We walked in silence for few minutes after that.  I pondered my brother’s sudden mention of our names.  We sometimes had to explain them to strangers, say they were different kinds of stones, and delicately steer them away from any questions about what on earth our parents had been thinking when they picked them out.  This self defense had become less necessary in recent times, during which enough parents had picked out stranger monikers that our own were considered no more unusual than our classmates, Marmalade and Vicar.  But it was tough to discuss our names and avoid mentioning Monica and Richard, the misguided souls who’d thought their babies would want to be named after rocks, even attractive ones.

Peridot announced loudly that she had to pee.  The rules of our hierarchy dictated that anything related to secret girl things had to be handled by me.  Less than thrilled with my status today, I grudgingly led her behind a tree.  Ten minutes later we were following the mushy tire treads again.

“Do you think we’ll ever hear from them again?” I asked Onyx, since he’d been bold enough to broach the topic of our original family.  For a while now, I’d wanted to hear his opinion.  Last we’d heard, Monica was teaching English to Latino immigrants in the Midwest, and Richard had moved to the East Coast to look for work at a cousin’s computer firm.  We had scarcely had more than a phone call from either in months.

“I’m not holding my breath,” he said.

“Me either,” I agreed.

Neither one of us could look at our younger sister.

 

By three thirty, the light was starting to go and I was beginning to get nervous.  I couldn’t even remember the last time we had gone camping let alone

what we’d done during the trip.  What if there were bears in these woods?  We hadn’t even dressed for the weather.  All of us wore sweaters but only Peridot had a coat on.  It wasn’t looking good for signs of highway or rescue.

As my mind started to dwell on any scrap of even basic survival skills I’d learned anywhere, Onyx suddenly blurted out,

“Do you think we’ll ever be, uh, normal?”

“You mean because of our weird names and an uncle who’s in the Flat Earth Society?”

What?

“There’s this group of people who think the planet is actually flat.  Kai says he thinks they’re not totally wrong.”  I was trying to lift the mood, change the subject entirely.  I had never known Onyx to question his mental state, or address the eccentricities of our lives in any serious way.  He was our guide out of the forest and the rest of the time, too.  I had to keep him sane.

“He thinks the Earth is flat?  Totally flat?”

“He told me there might be something to the idea.  And who even knows what he put in that buggy to power it.  Might not even be real gasoline.  Lady bug oil or something.”

“No, it’s regular old gasoline,” came a voice from the tree line just beyond us.  It was Kai.  Amazingly, he had found us.

Peridot and I rushed toward him, babbling about our relief, our fears of bears, how cold it was, other nonsense.  Onyx hung behind somewhat, approaching his uncle with a sheepish, downcast expression.

“How did you find us?” he asked Kai finally.

“I know my gemstones,” Kai said, winking.  “And the treads left a pretty obvious trail.  You’re lucky it’s me who found you, though.  Your aunt would have been a lot less amused.”

 

As we walked, the highway came back into view.  We had gotten fairly close to reaching it on our own, after all.  It was still cold, but there was plenty of daylight left.  Kai packed us into the back seat of his friend’s borrowed sedan.  For once, I could find nothing wrong with my life.  I gave my brother a knowing stare.  He held my gaze a moment, then returned to staring silently out the window.  I knew he resented me for refusing to answer his question, and it would take him a long time to let it go.

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