The day I follow Ever through the streets of downtown Manhattan, to an old building where the windows are not barred, where the windows still open, allowing passage in, and out, Tracy wakes in the pantry.
This is the story I’m told:
She remembers. Not only the events that led her here, but the person she was when, long ago, she drove with her boyfriend to check on their friend Oliver in Michigan. Only, those particular memories are harder to locate now. It’s something like recalling her years as a toddler: the memories are nowhere near fresh, but if you showed her a photo she would say yes.
She sits up. Bangs her head on one of the shelves. Lays back down.
There is enough light coming through the slats that she can see the shelves above her. Can see the rounded edges of jars. The pantry is fully stocked, it seems. She can make out a couple letters on the handwritten labels. Can see some of the crops behind glass. Before sitting up a second time, she tries to understand who she is at this moment in time, aware of the fact that, by virtue of doing this, she is still something of Old Tracy.
She hears voices.
They are mostly familiar in that they are the voices of her friends, but more like she’s caught her friends acting. This, too, she has heard before. Each of them, in character. Morris sounds less refined than he normally does, but that’s definitely Morris. And Connie, too. Connie doesn’t sound exactly like she did when Tracy saw her last. No, Connie sounds confident, less afraid. And there’s Rodney! Right? Yes! He’s responding to something said by… Karen! Right? Yes! It’s all Tracy can do not to sit up, not to burst forth from the pantry, not to bound with delight into the kitchen.
Then Oliver speaks.
He talks about replacing a shingle on the roof. Karen tells him why it’s tricky to do that, even on flat surfaces, and why he ought to be careful. He thanks her for the advice but assures he knows what he’s doing.
Tracy doesn’t move.
The Farmer in the attic, screaming. Then she was hurrying back down the attic stairs, out the bedroom, down to the first floor, out the front door, up the gravel drive, to her car, starting her car, driving away from Oliver’s farm.
She’d decided to cut her losses. Whoever she was at that moment would have to do. She would say goodbye to her younger self, the woman she was when she moved to New York City with aspirations of becoming an actor and there met a group of like- minded people, men and women who became her best friends. She was driving away from the farm. The sun was high. Blinding. She was shaking because of what she’d seen in the attic and the idea of Connie covering her face in the middle of a farm field, Connie who, so recently, had been sitting on a fire escape in Manhattan, cracking open a bottle of rum, telling the others about a one-night stand she’d had with a fellow actor in the scene, a guy named Murray of all things, who naturally grossed everyone out and that was the funny part, that Connie didn’t care if they all knew she had made out with Murray, not if it meant we all laughed together.
Tracy drove what felt like one mile an hour, too afraid to speed, to miss a turn, unable to shake the feeling that, if she wasn’t careful, she was going to make a bunch of lefts until she turned back into Oliver’s drive and there she’d hear the screaming of The Farmer all over again.
No. She was finished with this. Out. She’d left the farm. For good. She would go back to New York, start a new life, all new friends, deal with the changes she’d undergone like everyone deals with changes every day, everywhere, at all times.
Ahead, on the side of the country road, Rodney sat with his back to what looked like a wall of cornstalks.
Tracy cried out. Oh my God. Rodney. She could barely think, her thoughts scalding hot. She’d grab him. They’d go to New York together. It didn’t matter what happened, all that mattered was that it can’t happen any more.
She slowed, eased to a stop, rolled the passenger window down.
“Rodney,” she said.
He got up and went to her window.
They shared a look.
“Get in,” she said.
Rodney glanced up the road, back to Oliver’s farm.
“Get in,” she repeated, her voice hysteria. “We’re going home.”
Did he remember where home was? He remembered her name.
His eyes were like pools of pond water.
“New York. Let’s go.”
Rodney waited. Then, “Okay.”
He got in.
“Buckle your belt,” Tracy said.
Ten miles from Oliver’s farm, ten miles of dirt roads, Rodney said, “Something bad happened.”
They were silent the next twenty miles. Twice, Rodney looked over at Tracy like she was a stranger. Like he was about to say, Thanks for picking me up. Where are you heading to, miss? Instead, he said, again,
“Something bad happened.”
“Yes. It did.”
They drove. Past field after field after field. Once they reached the highway, Tracy went faster. She suddenly wanted to be pulled over. Wanted to be forced to tell the officers about what Oliver did, even if, when they went out there, they were met by a group of people who denied it all. She’d tell them everything. She’d lie about it if she had to. No mention of traits. No mention of change. She’d accuse Oliver of attempted murder. And isn’t that close to what happened?
Rodney looked bad. Thin. Tracy thought of Connie saying she’d only eaten from the pantry for days.
“Listen,” she said, trying to piece things together, what to do, how to handle this. “We’re gonna stop at that place up there. We’re gonna get something to eat. Something healthy. Then no stops but gas from here to home.”
“Something bad happened.”
There was no humor left in Rodney’s voice. No crumbs of the enthusiastic man she called a best friend.
The restaurant was two hours south of the farm and while the sun was lower, it was still up. Tracy felt safe for this. Safer.
She parked in the big gravel lot.
“You’re going to be okay,” she said. But she couldn’t look at him when she said it. Couldn’t lie to his face. Rodney was gone. The man beside her was a dropped box of puzzle pieces.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s eat.”
On her back, looking up at the shelves, the light from what she believes must be the next day glancing off the jars, Tracy remembers:
They got out of the car and entered the restaurant. People looked at them the way people do when anybody enters a space they were already occupying.
“Two?” the man behind the host stand asked.
“Yes,” Tracy said. “And we’re in a hurry.”
The man looked to Rodney, then back to her. She couldn’t help imagining him eating from a jar of suspicion.
“This way,” the man said.
He grabbed two thick menus and led them through the dining room. On the way, Tracy looked through the glass to her car. Saw an old beat-up Ford truck parked beside it.
“Was that there?” she asked.
“Excuse me?” the host said. He’d just placed the two menus on a table in the middle of the room.
Was that there?
She didn’t mean was it there in the lot when they pulled in. She meant was it at the farm.
The host frowned. He had no idea whether the truck had been there. When Tracy turned around, Rodney was already seated, already drinking water, going through the menu.
Tracy scanned the restaurant. Older, rough types at a counter bar. Two more together at a table. One with what looked like a lawyer.
Okay. Someone who might own the truck then.
She sat down.
“Hungry?” she asked. Then she didn’t say anymore. There was nothing to say. Like getting gas for the car, they had to get fuel.
Escaping a horror requires a meal.
They ordered. They waited. They hardly spoke. Once, Rodney mumbled something about something bad happening. Tracy nodded. Said yes, it did. She tried not to look him in the eye because it wasn’t Rodney. It just wasn’t. And even Old Tracy knew the worst thing in the world is losing a friend to change.
And how about herself? Had she changed so much, too?
The food came. Tracy’s fruit and eggs. Rodney’s stacks of ham and hash browns. Tracy didn’t tell him that he was a vegetarian. It was the first she’d seen of his eyes in full, the way he ogled the meal as it was set down in front of them. No salad, Tracy noted. Maybe never again.
Neither spoke as they ate. Tracy intrinsically believed Rodney felt the same way she did: alien. Life from another galaxy, life that did not know the ins and outs, the temperatures of dining rooms, the feel of seat cushions, how to process the many voices surrounding one in a diner.
Rodney shoveled the food down his throat. Tracy did the same. And oh how wonderful it felt to savor something, anything, to wash out the taste of Carpenter’s farm. She wondered, hoped, prayed, that a good old greasy American plate might be the antidote to the something bad that happened two hours north. Could it be true? The more they eat good food, the less Oliver’s crops hold sway? Might they return to the people they once were? Was it possible they’d one day piss and shit everything out, eradicate their bodies of Oliver’s crime?
It felt good to hope. It was easier, too, without such horrific hallmarks at hand; the kitchen, the stairs, the pantry, the deck, the fields, the bedrooms, the barn.
“Nope,” Tracy said, her mouth full. “No barn.”
Rodney looked up at her, his face close to his plate, like maybe he’d been licking the remains of the hash browns.
“Barn?” he said.
It was funny the way he said it. A mouth full of food. And so they both laughed and it was the first time they’d so much as smiled since he’d gotten into Tracy’s car. For one magnificent second, Tracy thought Rodney was back.
But no. He was only laughing. Enough so that he spit up some of his food. Then Tracy was laughing at the crumbs. They tried to be quiet about it and they reached across the table to grip hands, the way people do, this joke is our inside joke, let’s build a dam for the unfathomable flood of laughter that’s coming, that we both feel, that’s going to wash us straight out of this restaurant.
Then they got loud about it. There was no stopping it. Tracy held a hand to her mouth and looked around the room, attempting to say sorry in some way, but unable to stop laughing long enough for even that. It was hysterical. Everything, really. Poor Rodney was turning purple with it. Tracy caught sight of the truck parked beside her car, saw the old rusty men no longer at the counter, saw nobody in the room that might drive a vehicle that looked like it could’ve been parked behind the barn of an old farmhouse, unused for years.
“No,” she said, because nobody laughs the way they were laughing. Not even people who have triumphed over horror.
She stood up. Tried to anyway. But that alien feeling again, like she and Rodney had crash-landed in the farmland north of here, had donned their disguises, and stepped into this diner.
“Rodney,” she said, suddenly tired, but still laughing. “Rodney, get up, man.”
Distant recognition flashed in Rodney’s eyes and he tried to get up but his knees struck the table and his water tipped over and then the whole table started to go and the room was flooded with what felt like commotion as waiters and the host came to them, a manager, too, no doubt. They couldn’t stop laughing. Still. As the kitchen doors swung open and Tracy was unable to see who stepped forth, the cook, she thought, wondering what was so funny, as her eyelids got super heavy and the world dimmed a little and she heard (clearly) the voices of the people who ate here regularly and the people who worked here and another voice, too.
“No, no,” Tracy said.
But it was too late for no.
Laughing almost over. Sleep soon.
The wonderful world of change.
In her blooming darkness, she heard Oliver say,
“I’m sorry. These are friends of mine. They drank a little too much. Smoked a little too much. They shouldn’t have left the house.”
First, the violation.
Tracy remembers it all.
Now, on her back in the pantry, it strikes her that her car must still be hours south of here. That Oliver no doubt drove them back to his farm in that truck. And the voices she heard in the diner, as the world went fuzzy and dark, have been replaced by the crystal clear sound of the voices of her friends. But the tiny, unmistakable noises made by people using utensils and plates were not replaced, no, and Tracy understands that her friends are gathered in the kitchen.
She sits up now, avoiding the shelf above her head.
She tries hard to focus, to take stock of who she is, what has changed, what has not.
God it’s not easy.
Yet, there is one thing, already noteworthy, as she rises to a standing in the pantry.
She remembers herself. And she remembers all that has happened to her.
Why does it sound like her friends do not? Why did she drive back from New York and Ever did not?
Her hand on the pantry knob (there’s no reason to stay hidden, they must know she’s in here), she’s struck with an epiphany clear as the Michigan sky:
Oliver hasn’t figured her out yet. Her core, her essence, what to add and what to subtract, in the name of profound change.
She feels her pockets, feels for her phone.
She opens the pantry and enters the kitchen, seeing, yes, the faces of her friends seated around the kitchen table, all looking her way.
Karen raises a glass of wine.
Tracy knows she must now give the performance of a lifetime. Oliver must believe she is altered, in the way he wants her to be changed, in the way he thinks she should be changed, if she’s going to get out of this situation alive.
“Hey guys,” she says. She looks directly at Oliver and smiles. All while understanding that, because he hasn’t figured her out yet, that means she originally drove eleven hours west, desperate to check on the welfare of a friend who never took the time to get to know who she was in the first place.