Matthias jumped out of the van, his sneakers crunching on loose gravel. He couldn’t believe he was here. He’d never done anything so grandiose as making a vow never to return, but he’d sure as hell never wanted to come back. The place even smelled the same: the deep green loamy funk of the encircling forests, mingled with the sweetness of the milkweed growing wild at the edge of the motel parking lot.
Karen stood with her back to him, hands on her hips, looking around. Her brother Wes stood right beside her, his hands poked into the front pockets of his jeans.
“What do you say, Karen?” Matthias asked her. “Is it everything you dreamed?”
Wes and Karen both turned to look at him. When people talked about looking daggers, the look on Karen’s face was the look they meant. Karen had pale blue eyes, intensely striking against her dark eyeliner and her dark, glossy hair. Those eyes were little deadly slits. Wes just looked disappointed. By Matthias, not by The Meadowlark Motel.
Wes said, “I thought Chokecherry Falls would be all prairie and bison. Or badlands. Like Mount Rushmore, you know?”
“That’s South Dakota.” Matthias heard how pissy he sounded. Well, he was pissed.
The eastern part of North Dakota, where it kissed the southern border of Canada and rubbed shoulders with Minnesota, was rolling hills and forests that followed the winding path of the Pembina River down from Manitoba. It was all very picturesque, and Matthias hated it. He also hated the fact that he’d been homesick for its wild, beguiling charm.
The town didn’t get tourists at all, just folks driving through on the way to Grand Forks.The eponymous falls of Chockecherry Falls were about four feet high and tumbled down a pile of glossy black rocks on the other side of town, behind the Kiwanis Lodge.
Wes said, “What is it, anyway? A chokecherry, I mean.”
“It’s a tree,” Matthias said, “with bitter berries.”
Karen arched an eyebrow. “Very on brand for Deathbed Regrets.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Matthias said, making a last-ditch effort. “It’s too on the nose. We should cut the song.”
“I’ll write a new one. In fact –“
Karen stomped up to him, and poked him in the chest with one finger. “I said no. We are not cutting the song. Or any song. I don’t know what’s crawled up your ass lately, Matt, but you are not rich enough, nor are you famous enough, to be this much of a diva.”
“Fuck you,” Matthias said. “I am not a fucking diva.”
“Stop acting like one, then.”
“Guys,” Wes said. “Come on. Please.”
“I told you I didn’t want to come back here, Karen.”
“Why did you get on the plane, then?”
“You know what I mean!” Matthias snarled at her.
A small hand on his arm brought him up short. P.J. stood behind him on the running board of the van’s open rear door.
“Matty,” she said, “We’re all tired.”
Behind P.J., Rosie, their drummer, was scrubbing a hand through his hair. He’d been asleep in the van ever since they’d left Grand Forks. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes still dreamy.
Matthias stepped away from the door, so P.J. and Rosie could climb down.
Karen said, “You didn’t have to come, Matthias. None of you did. I could’ve set all this up by myself.”
I don’t want you setting anything up, Matthias wanted to say. Karen shouldn’t be here. None of them should be here. But, they were here because of him; they were probably worried Karen would murder him, and dump his body somewhere in the wilds of Cavalier County.
Into the awkward silence, Wes said, “So, are we meeting somebody? A forest ranger, or the sheriff, or…?”
“No, no. I have a map.” Karen bent her head and dug in the canvas messenger bag on her hip.
“Just be careful,” Matthias said. “This forest is protected land.”
“I have a map,” Karen repeated, “and a permit for a day hike. Jesus, Matt, I’m not going to be dropping a lit cigarette every ten feet.”
P.J. said with forced cheerfulness, “Take only photos, and leave only footprints, right?”
Karen had given Matthias his own room, which made Matthias angry because everything Karen did lately made him angry, but treating him like a diva made him especially angry. He tossed his suitcase onto the folding rack next to the television, and then flopped onto the bed.
This was all his fault. It was his own massive fuck up to write a song called “Chokecherry.” He was a prize idiot to have written any of the songs he’d written over the past few months. But, he hadn’t been able to help himself. The words and the music had poured out of him. No, that wasn’t right. He’d vomited them up, as if they were poison. He’d written enough songs for an entire album: a love-hate letter to his home town. The songs were some of the best he’d ever created, and the idea of no one beside the band or their inner circle ever hearing them, hurt Matthias in a deep down intimate way.
Unfortunately, Karen agreed with him. She was convinced the album would put Deathbed Regrets over the top. Major label, radio airtime, the whole enchilada. She’d started pushing to arrange an outdoor concert scheduled for a month before the CD was available, or the album dropped on iTunes. One night. Two hundred fans.
Matthias doubted Deathbed Regrets even had two hundred fans. Never mind two hundred fans who’d come to North Dakota on their own dime, then hike two miles into the woods to the small, natural amphitheater. Karen’s plan was never going to happen. The town council would turn her down flat. There was no way in hell they’d okay a rock concert. That wasn’t what concerned Matthias. It was this “scouting expedition.”
He drifted into an uneasy sleep, lying diagonally on the bed in his clothing, and woke up with the light falling differently through the room shadows where there had been none before, the television and the framed landscape painting above it looking strange and surreal. He wasn’t even sure what had woken him so suddenly, until the knock at the door of his motel room came again.
When he answered the door, Wes stood outside, looking unsure of his welcome. Wes had the same thick, dark hair as his sister, cut short enough that it ruffled up in loose curls. Where Karen’s eyes were pale blue, though, Wes’s were darker, and closer to gray.
Matthias rubbed the corner of one eye with his knuckle, wiping away sleep sand.
“I texted you,” Wes said. “Last night. We all went to dinner at Ground Round. I guess you didn’t…”
“I fell asleep,” Matthias said.
That sounded like a shitty excuse he’d made up on the spot. If Wes thought the same, his face didn’t show it.
Matthias said, stupidly, “They still serving all-you-can-eat popcorn?”
“Yeah. Yeah, they are. Look, Matt… we’re hiking out to the amphitheater. You should stay here. It’d be better if you did.”
Matthias pressed his lips together.
“I don’t even know why you and Karen are fighting,” Wes added.
Wes was right. It was pointless. Karen was going to do what she wanted either way. She was a good manager. If Matthias kept this up, it would kick him in the ass. It would kick the whole band in the ass. He just had to chill. Everything would be alright, as soon as they got back to LA. If he told himself that enough times, he might even start believing it.
“I know you must have some bad memories here –” Wes began.
“Okay,” Matthias cut him off. “Fine.”
Wes relaxed. Visibly.
“Stick to the trail, alright?” Matthias said. “Don’t wander off.”
Wes laughed, then he stopped abruptly. “Are there bears? Or mountain lions?”
“No. Nothing like that. I mean, there’s some snakes, probably. But, it’s easy to get lost.”
“Don’t take anything,” Matthias told him.
“Protected land. I know.”
“Don’t cut a walking stick. Don’t pick up a cool arrowhead for a souvenir.”
“Okay, Matt. Don’t adopt a squirrel. I got it. I’ll come by when we’re back. We all have dinner together.”
“Great. Sounds like a plan,” said Matthias.
He spent the rest of the day regretting his decision to be a mature adult. He should have gone with them. Karen would have seethed at his presence for the entire afternoon, everyone else would have been unhappy and tense. Nobody would have enjoyed the day, not even Matthias, but he should have gone anyhow. Worry sat like a rock in his stomach. He was nearly sick with it.
The hiking trail was well-maintained, with regular markers. It meandered through the trees and undergrowth, up and down slopes. Narrower, less-walked paths split off from it. One path in particular, Matthias had walked when he was seventeen. It was barely a path, really just a deer track. The ground sloped down steeply. The trees were ancient. No axe had ever cut them. The Dakota Sioux called it a sacred place. A silent place. According to the stories Matthias had heard in school. Even in high summer, the air was chilly. The trees grew so densely intertwined that only speckles of sunlight reached the forest floor.
At the bottom of the slope, the deer track ended in a scrubby clearing, ringed by pillars of petrified wood. Some lay tumbled and half buried in the undergrowth, broken to show the variegated colors of the minerals inside. Though he’d been terrified, Matthias had the determination of a teenager who absolutely had to prove how badass he was to his friends. He’d stretched out a hand and laid it on one of the standing pillars. He felt only its rough outer surface, the profound coldness of its stone. Nothing had happened to him. He wasn’t cursed by the forest. Or, maybe he was. That feeling of his fingers and his palm meeting the stone stayed with him for years, waiting with all the patience of eternity, until at last his talent could express it.
Matthias came out to the parking lot when he heard the van pull up. Karen opened the passenger side door and jumped down. With a terrible, inevitable sinking in his heart, Matthias saw the flower tucked behind her ear. It was a chokecherry blossom, vividly white against her dark hair. Chokecherry trees grew everywhere in the forest. Their tiny white petals littered the forest floor like confetti. He didn’t need to accuse her. He knew she’d plucked the flower from some enticing, low-hanging branch, heavy with spikes full of blossoms at the edge of the trail. It was only one flower among thousands. It didn’t matter.
“Well?” Matthias said, “What did you think, Karen?”
Karen looked startled by the question, or maybe by the fact that Matthias’ tone wasn’t hostile, for the first time in about two weeks.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“It’s a long-ass hike,” said Rosie, as he climbed out of the back of the van with P.J. behind him.
“Remote,” Karen acknowledged. “But it’s a gorgeous amphitheater. The town really should consider putting a road through.”
“Absolutely not,” said Matthias.
Wes climbed down from the van and shut the door with a thunk. “Protected land, Kar,” he reminded her.
Karen made a face.
“I hate to be that person,” Wes added, “but we’ll never get all the equipment down that trail.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Karen said.
She lifted her chin, ready to take an “I told you so.” Matthias said nothing.
He went to dinner with them at the Ground Round. Karen kept eyeing him across the table like she expected him to start an argument. But, Matthias just nursed his beer, and left most of his burger and fries untouched.
If you hiked the trail to the amphitheater in daylight, you would not even see the narrow deer track half-hidden by the undergrowth. To find it, you’d have to follow the trail nearly another mile deeper into the forest.
Matthias was sure he’d lie awake in the darkness listening for a door opening, for footsteps slowly crossing the gravel parking lot, and fading into the distance. But, he didn’t. He woke up to full daylight and knocking on his door, and a rush of deja-vu. Had he dreamed it all? Would he open the door to see Wes standing there, telling him the others were headed out for the hike? He yanked the door open.
“Jesus!” Karen clapped hand to her heart.
Matthias stared at her, absolutely dumbstruck.
“We’re packing up. Flight’s in two hours. Chop-chop. You were supposed to be up at eight thirty. Hey.” She snapped her fingers in front of his nose. “Earth to Matt.”
“Are you high right now? Are you on something?”
Matthias pushed past her and stumbled into the bright morning.
P.J. was tossing a blue duffel bag into the back of the van. She grinned and raised a hand to him. “Morning, sleepyhead.”
Karen’s footsteps crossed the parking lot behind him. “I can’t find Wes. Have you –”
Matthias turned on her fast enough that she took a startled step back.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she demanded.
“Wes,” Matthias said. “I thought you were the one who picked that flower, but it was Wes.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The flower, Karen. The flower in your hair yesterday. I told Wes not to take anything out of the forest, not one thing, and he picked a fucking flower.”
“It’s just a flower, Matt. He wanted to cheer me up.”
Matthias turned away from her. He couldn’t see the trailhead from the motel parking lot; it was a couple miles down the road. But, in his mind’s eye, Matthias followed the trail, stepping off it to the deer track, the way he knew Wes’ feet had led him last night. Down the slope through the ancient trees and to the clearing. Wes wasn’t lost. But no one would find him. The town police would pretend to search, and then they’d call it off, and that would be the end of it. Wes would remain, deep in the forest, with all the others who had been there for decades, even centuries.
“Where’s my brother?” Karen said. Her voice trembled.
Matthias knew she’d never believe him, if he tried to explain. But maybe he could show her. Maybe Wes would still look like Wes for a little while, until the wind and the rain and the snow weathered him away to just one more cracked and jagged pillar of stone standing silent beneath the trees.