The car ride up to the old place was awkward. Aidan had taken a few awkward car rides with his mom during his short lifetime, usually after he had pulled some particularly stupid stunt. But, this wasn’t the memory of his mom that Aidan wanted to hold in his mind’s eye right now: her sitting stiff behind the wheel with her hands clenched at ten and two, and her profile tight with reluctant fury. She never wanted to be angry — not because she loved her one and only child so much, just because she never wanted to be angry. She hated when the status quo got all ruffled up. Why can’t you just be a good kid? Why can’t you leave me be?
That was a laugh. He would’ve been happy to leave her alone, but she hadn’t let him.
He didn’t want to think about any of this. His mom was dead. He was never going to see that expression again. He felt guilty because he wasn’t going to miss seeing that expression. Not at all.
“I still can’t believe you’re gone,” Lee said.
It was the first time Lee had spoken aloud since they stopped for gas in Front Royal. Lee didn’t talk much. Aidan had no idea why, and told himself he didn’t care why, either. Lee wasn’t talking to Aidan, obviously. He was talking to the cardboard box on the passenger seat that held Aidan’s mother’s ashes.
Lee added, “And I cannot believe you named your son Aidan.”
Aidan pulled his earbuds out. “I can hear you.”
“I know you can.” Lee glanced in the rearview mirror. “Caroline always wanted people to think she was better than she was. As if her upbringing was something to be ashamed of.”
“That’s not true,” Aidan said. “Everybody knew where she came from. She was always talking about where she got the stuff for her store. About how the home folks would sell to her, only to her, because she wasn’t some outsider.”
Lee said, “It’s a city kid’s name. It’s snooty.”
“Well, you weren’t around to be consulted,” Aidan shot back.
He wished his father would shut up. Actually, he wished a lot of things right now, primarily that he hadn’t decided to tag along for this one last trip to Pine Lights, to spread his mom’s ashes. He could have stayed in the apartment in Georgetown. Could have, should have, too late now.
“My name is Aidan Lee Balfour,” Aidan pointed out. “She named me after you.” With that shot fired, Aidan put his earbuds back in.
Lee glanced in the rear view mirror at Aidan again, then returned his attention to the road.
Skyline Drive twisted through the Blue Ridge Mountains, cutting through ancient rolling hills aflame with fall foliage. The Xterra was a big vehicle, the speed limit was only thirty-five, and the narrow highway was made narrower by random people parking at the side of the road to look out over the mountains, and by the sun slanting in the right side windows as it sank slowly in the west, gilding everything golden orange.
Nobody had ever told Aidan that he looked like his mother. Aidan had never noticed the omission until he met Lee face to face. He looked almost exactly like his father, though Lee was taller and Aidan was all gangly legs and arms. They shared the same dark blond hair and greenish eyes, and sharp features. It must have driven his mom nuts, looking at her son all the time, and seeing the man who’d let her down so completely.
Lee had gone to jail before Aidan had even been born — for desecrating a grave, of all the insane things. He’d been drunk. Extremely drunk, according to Aidan’s mom, but that was all she’d ever said. Lee had only gotten a year in jail, and when he got out, Aidan’s mom had told him to stay away.
Aidan had to give him a minuscule little bit of credit for doing exactly that. There had been no letters, no phone calls, no showing up drunk on a rainy night. Lee had vanished. Until now.
It was weird, seeing this older, sadder, grayer version of Aidan in the driver’s seat.
The GPS Lady said, “U.S. Route 211. Right turn in one quarter mile.”
“I kinda miss Pine Lights,” Aidan murmured.
He hadn’t meant to say that out loud, not really. He wasn’t trying to start a conversation. Lee twitched, jerking the wheel. The big car shivered.
Aidan straightened up in his seat. “What the f–“
“What did you say?” Lee’s voice was sharp.
“I said I missed the old house. What did you think I said?”
“That’s what she called it?”
“That’s what it’s called. Pine Lights.”
“I never called it that,” Lee said.
“Why not? Too snooty for you?”
His father didn’t answer.
Aidan added, “The last time we were here, it didn’t work out so well. So, I didn’t…”
He shrugged. After that last time, his mom kept going back to the mountain on buying trips for the store. But she never wanted his company, so he stayed behind.
Again, Lee glanced in the rear view mirror, meeting Aidan’s eyes for a second. “It’s a bad luck name. Didn’t you ever ask her what it meant?”
“No. It means, like, the light through the pine trees.”
Lee shook his head. When he glanced in the mirror again, he wasn’t looking at Aidan. He was looking at the storage space at the rear of the Xterra, which was heaped high with unsold merchandise from The Blue Ridge Boutique. There were wood carvings and ceramics, mason jars of jam, and artisan soaps. And a trunk full of the fur coats that were only sold out of the store’s back room, and only by private appointment.
Lee had been adamant about bringing every single piece of merchandise back to the mountain. The rich bitches in Georgetown went crazy for his mother’s stuff, especially those fur coats, but Lee was determined to return it all to the land from whence it came, or some shit.
“Pine lights are like raccoons,” Lee said, “only bigger.”
“Mm hm,” Aidan said. “Hillbilly cryptids. Go on.”
“These hills are full of magic, and so are their people.”
“That’s the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“You haven’t known me very long,” Lee pointed out.
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“What did your mother tell you those pelts were?”
“Racoon,” Aidan replied. “She bought them for cheap at some roadside trading post, and then marked it up by five thousand percent.”
“No such thing as a silver racoon, son.”
“She said they were endangered. Which was why…”
Lee shook his head. “Pine lights show up in overgrown ruins. Or, in places wherever somebody wasn’t given a proper burial.”
His father’s voice had a slight, twangy lilt; a natural storyteller’s voice. Aidan huffed, and put his earbuds back in.
“My own mama told me about the pine lights. If you see them, leave them be. If you harm them, you’ll get the urge to wander away to your doom. A lot of fur trappers disappeared in these woods.”
“Mom never wandered away to her doom,” Aidan pointed out. “She always came back just fine. She’s right there in the front seat. Unless the funeral home ripped you off. She always said this was her special place; she came up to Pine Lights whenever she felt…”
He didn’t finish the sentence. The last time they’d driven up from D.C., they’d argued. About Lee. Aidan wanted to see his father. His mom said absolutely not. They’d fought about it again at the cabin. Afterward, she had struggled under a storm cloud of sadness, and Aidan knew he was the reason. He was an inconvenience. A burden she refused to lay down. She had never let him go.
Lee said gently, “She didn’t want you here, after that last time?”
“Maybe she thought I’d be bored off my nut. Who knows. Maybe she was right.”
But he was there at Pine Lights anyway, in the memory of that last argument. His mom had slapped him; it was the first and only time she had ever hit him. With his cheek still hot and stinging, he saw the horror dawning on her face. That slap was the beginning of the end of everything.
The GPS lady said, “U.S. Route 211, next right turn.”
Lee slowed the car, easing over to Route 211. The sun streamed in the front window, and he flipped the visor down. He drove west toward Luray, and turned onto Goosebill Road, following it through gathering dusk, until Aidan spotted the red-painted pillar with the reflective numbers on it reading 1656, which marked the turnoff for the private drive leading to the old house.
Lee stopped the Xterra, as the GPS Lady informed them, “Destination on the right.”
He climbed out of the Xterra to go and unlock the padlock that held the chain across the drive, and Aidan thought about leaving his father there. Just leaving. Going on to some totally new and different place, away from his mother’s death, away from the memory of being the one to find her; away from all of this. Somewhere far away. Where that was, he didn’t know. So he stayed in the car.
Lee unlocked the chain gate and chucked the chain into the bushes. He climbed up back into the car, and drove up the private drive. The sun disappeared behind the thick trees crowding the narrow, unpaved road. Twilight came swiftly in the mountains. The Xterra bumped up the rutted, overgrown track, its headlights beaming through the gathering gloom.
“When was the last time Caroline came up here?” Lee asked.
Aidan shrugged. “Maybe a week before she died.”
Lee grunted. They reached the old place at last. It was a tumbledown ruin, the grass and brambles high and wild. No one had stayed here or pulled a weed in at least a decade. Tenderly, Lee lifted the box of Caroline’s ashes off the passenger seat. He climbed out of the truck. Aidan joined him. Darkness settled. The old place looked even more sad and eerie, and lonely.
“She doesn’t belong here,” Lee said.
“She was sad here,” Aidan said. “She was sad everywhere, but… I know it’s my fault. That she was sad. That she killed herself.”
“It’s not your fault, Aidan,” Lee replied. “Sometimes bad things just happen.”
The moon glided from behind a cloud, gilding the scruffy, overgrown lawn, and also the animal in the fork of a twisted tree, that watched them with shy curiosity, its silver fur aglow. Another creature peered from the broken lattice of the crawlspace under the porch. It shone like a cold lantern.
Lee said softly. “I knew it.”
Aidan stared in wide-eyed wonder. The pine lights looked more like opossums or lemurs than they did like raccoons, but nothing about them was earthly. Their huge and shining eyes seemed to hold all the ancient wisdom of the hills. The one perched in the tree gazed directly at Aidan and chittered softly.
“She told me you ran away,” Lee said.
“I almost did,” said Aidan.
Lee turned and looked Aidan full in the face. “What happened here?”
“I wouldn’t let up. She slapped me. I ran out. Turned back in the doorway, and I was yelling at her, calling her a bitch and a c– you know. Horrible stuff. I stepped right off the edge of the porch.” He laughed, then pointed at the sagging porch, with its railing hanging off like a drunk clinging to a street sign. “She had tomatoes growing down there. The vines were all on stakes. I remember falling. Pretty sure my last thought was oh shit.”
Aidan slid his hands into the pockets of his jeans. Lee looked stricken.
“It’s not your fault, either,” Aidan said.
The look of sadness didn’t leave Lee’s face. “Aidan, she left you here. On purpose. To lure the pine lights. And then she took the pelts, and she sold them.”
Lee was holding the box with his wife’s ashes between his hands so tightly, the edges were denting in. Aidan reached out his hand. He couldn’t touch the box, but he directed his father’s attention to it, and Lee relaxed his hands.
“It doesn’t matter,” Aidan said. “You can see me, and you can hear me. She never could, but she still kept me stuck to her for ten fucking years.”
Lee sighed.”Show me where she buried you. I’ll tell the police.”
“What’s the point?”
“The point, Aidan, is for you to resolve your unfinished business. Find peace, and move on.”
“You’re kicking me out?”
Lee raised his eyebrows.
Aidan scuffed his sneaker in the general direction of the dirt. “Let’s just… do what we came to do, okay?”
“Alright,” said Lee.
Aidan followed Lee across the overgrown lawn to the old place, and the tangle of vines and weeds that had once been his mom’s garden. Lee lifted the top of the box, and let the night wind scatter Caroline’s ashes.