A squealing giggle broke through the radio static for a moment, making the laughter sound older than it might have been. ‘You’re coming home,’ it whispered as Lucy and Sawyer drove down the highway, the only light coming from their car. Weeds had even started to push their way up and through the yellow lines in the middle of the road. The neglect was fitting, Lucy supposed, given that she was here to photograph a ghost town. A portrait of a town created, then reclaimed, swallowed by the forest surrounding it. Lucy travelled to them all, to photograph the nearly lost.
‘How much farther, Sweets?’ Sawyer asked, playing with the dials, trying to find a station which was more than dead air.
Lucy looked at the paper map spread over the camera bag in her lap, their only recourse when their cellphones lost coverage in these forgotten places. She sized her fingers against the scale at the bottom and tried to measure the distance. ‘I think an hour, give or take a few minutes.’
She turned the map over, folding along the lines all maps have, until the single stretch of road they needed was isolated in front of her. A slim line of yellow across an almost empty field, leading a person home.
‘Accurate enough. Not far then.’ He put both hands back on the wheel, looking out into the dark.
‘If they like these photos, my boss said she might be able to get me a permanent contract. No guarantees, of course, but still …’ Lucy tucked the map between her seat and the door. It was getting harder and harder to say this. Every opportunity seemed to go to someone with more experience or a business degree.
‘It would be nice to have stability. Not just year-long leases,’ Sawyer said, his eyes darting over the road.
‘And put pictures on the walls, with nails.’
Lucy stared out the window, looking at passing tree trunks and dismissing them – there were already too many of those kinds of pictures, she thought. Everyone was trying to side hustle enough money for an exorbitant down payment on the cost of a house in a small, out-of-the-way town, filled with small, out-of-the-way people.
A flash of white.
The back tires spun out, skittering in gravel. Spinning. Sliding. Headlights catching at the trees. Silver birch bark. Eyes in the forest. Lucy lurched forward in her seat and the cross-belt snapped her back, the camera bag slammed into her stomach. Steel crunched. Sawyer’s head hit her left shoulder. Lucy’s head hit the window. Blood trickled behind her ear. A bruise started.
Pain grew in every battered part of her. Each bruise its own shining star in a new constellation on her body, blazing and vivid. Lucy ran the back of her hand under her bottom lip, her breath stuttering to a start. She pressed her fingers into the matted, wet tangle of her hair above her ear, winced, and pulled them away. Then reached out her left hand: she needed to feel Sawyer breathing. Slumped forward over the wheel, he heaved in at last, then turned the key in the ignition.
‘Sorry. There was something on the road. That flash looked like a person for a second.’ Sawyer laughed as if he was laughing it off. And then panic bubbled through, turning it into a high-pitched giggle, frothing up and over.
‘The airbags didn’t deploy,’ she said, her hand still bunching in his orange sweater, the minute flex hurting her shoulder. ‘A good sign for your driving. I think.’
They were okay, she thought. They were still alive. Still breathing. They were okay.
‘I don’t think this car has airbags. It still has a steel bumper.’ He was still giggling.
‘Next time we spend the money and rent a car, rather than borrow something from your uncle’s backyard.’ She groaned, pushing the camera bag away from her stomach. A heavy liquid weight of anxiety seeped down into the space it left. ‘Why does everything smell like pennies?’
Lucy undid her seat belt buckle, pulling it from the gouge it left in her neck. She looked at the cracked glass of the window, a spider web of damage caused by her skull.
She tried the door, the handle releasing uselessly. She pushed against the impossible wedged weight of it, needing to feel her legs under her.
When she turned to Sawyer, it made parts of the trees speed up and others slow down.
‘I need help.’ Fear dripped down, adding more to the weight in her stomach.
The task drew him back from the edge of panic, just like always. Sawyer turned on the driving lamps, fumbled for his cell phone, flicked on the flashlight. He kissed her on the cheek. His door opened easily. Lucy closed her eyes and pressed her sleeve into her scalp, trying to keep pressure past the pain.
Sawyer wrenched open her door with a crunch and a squeal. The outside rushed in with a heavy beat of wings, a rustle of leaves, and a gust of sweet salted air. He took the camera bag from her lap and lifted her seat belt, carefully, away from her neck.
‘I’m so sorry, Sweets, that might be permanent.’ He trailed his index finger next to the red welt at her collarbone. ‘We’re going to have to walk to the abandoned town; the last one we passed was two hours ago. Might be a phone there that still works.’
Lucy nodded. Dread seeped through her edges, dripping slowly into the churning pool in her stomach.
‘You’re going to have to come with me. I can’t leave you here,’ he said, cupping her cheek. She leaned into the warmth of it, nodding again. Sawyer stood and helped her from the car, his hand hovering over her head, vigilant against the new injury. He wrapped his arm around her waist, supporting her weight against his. Her head swam a little with the change in position, and new blood trickled behind her ear. ‘You ready?’ he asked, his voice high and bright.
The crunch of the gravel under their shoes sounded normal, grounding. The panic started to ebb, a reaction to the adrenaline washing away. A bit of shock which would do her no good on this walk.
The dark ahead of them swallowed the road. There were stars and a sliver of a moon, but not enough to see well, despite what people said. The only light was from Sawyer’s cellphone, catching at the trees and the eyes in the forest, looking for the turn from the road. Trees grew thickly around them. A rodent scurried in dry pine needles and rotting leaves. An owl called out, warning them the little thing darting in the night and underbrush was all hers. Lucy pushed herself closer into Sawyer’s side.
The first hint of the town they saw was a realtor’s sign.
‘I thought it was a myth that you could buy a town. Will I need to check with the realtor to publish the pictures?’ Lucy asked. The sign was battered around the edges, corners blunted by the weather and the laminated paper peeling away from lichen-covered wood.
The leaves rustled and Lucy turned her head quickly, her vision clouding at the fringes. A high-pitched cracked elderly voice giggling and a flash of white in the trees. She pressed her hand just behind her ear, hard, and closed her eyes tightly.
‘What’s wrong?’ Sawyer loosened the arm around her waist and readjusted the camera bag.
‘I hit my head too hard,’ she said, opening her eyes.
‘Stay with me.’ He pulled her in tight once more. ‘We’ll find you a place to sit while I find a phone. They never fully cut the lines off in town halls. Just in case.’
The uncertainty of his tone flooded through her. Lucy pulled him back, holding him still for a second. As she looked up at him, he smiled; the sad sweet one he used when he knew they had no other choice. She had seen that one before when these assignments became complicated.
They started off again, down the side road. The gravel gave way to hard-packed dirt and then the road grassed over. The remnants curled through the rocks, dipping towards the shore. A collapsed fence marked where the road once was; posts stood amidst a litter of rotten crossbeams disintegrating into grass and leaves. Lucy touched one of the standing posts. It looked splintered, but every part of it was worn smooth by wind and salt. It wasn’t long until they heard the roll, clatter, and crash of waves on a rocky shore. The creaking groan of old wood buffeted by water. The tuning whine of an old fiddle wafted toward them on the waves.
‘Is that a fiddle?’ she asked, as the light caught the curved body of the instrument buried in the grass, the neck long snapped.
Sawyer nodded. ‘Maybe they had to leave in a rush?’
She shook her head. ‘According to my research, this one was a planned abandonment. They had months to prepare.’
There was a house at the bend in the fence. Grass grew up through the front steps and birch saplings crowded the walls. The windows were gaping black holes that swallowed the light.
‘They took the glass when they left.’ Sawyer pointed the phone back to the fence. The strains of ‘Old Joe’s Jig’ flowed from the town behind, the music far too familiar.
‘I guess it isn’t totally abandoned.’ Lucy clutched at Sawyer’s sweater.
The dark made these towns uncertain. Usually, she took pictures of abandoned spaces during the day, when light flooded them. Lucy liked to see the shadowed crannies and the nooks filled with greenery. She loved researching what these communities used to be, trying to reconstruct a picture of a life scoured down to nothing by salt and wind. The light made it certain there was nothing left. But the town might have looked exactly this way at night, when everyone was tucked safely away, sleeping. There were still bits of life left behind, things they couldn’t easily carry or that they no longer needed. Secreted away in some corner to keep them safe from the wind and rain, in case those who left could come back for them when they had time and money.
Sawyer moved the beam of light over the buildings. The people who lived here, decades ago, painted their houses emerald green. Those not yet covered in the colour-leaching lichen were oxidising, copper carbonate giving everything an odd patina. A faded, jade green, just enough beyond a natural colour to be jarring.
The forest crawled through the town. Houses farther up the slope from shore already swallowed by trees. Sharp corners blurred by leaves. Wind-sculpted pines towered over the collapse of the clapboard church steeple. Tender trees tapered to cloudberries, and wild grasses swarmed the rocks near the shore.
‘Not much left for you to photograph,’ Sawyer said, stopping where the grass was still thin. An old road, not yet giving way to the forest.
‘I think my great-grandparents used to live here. I remember a photo in an old album that looked almost like this,’ she said as they looked around what was left of the fishing village. The cove too small for anything other than survival. The houses still standing tilted back from the ocean winds, all leaning into the rocky rises behind them. Decaying dories lined the shore.
Sawyer pointed up the hill, the church steeple collapsed into the pews below it. A tree stood in the lea of it, growing taller than it should have in the ocean winds. ‘Do you think you can make it up there?’
She followed the path that wound through the village and shook her head. Fatigue started to add to that liquid, sloshing weight in her stomach. ‘I need to sit.’
A chair, weather beaten and ice scarred, rocked on an ocean-facing porch. The decking creaked beneath them as Sawyer settled Lucy into it. ‘I’m going to the hall, see if the phone still works.’
Looking over his shoulder, Sawyer opened the camera bag, the zipper sounding supernatural against the rustle of the leaves and the crash and pull of waves. He put one of the flashes on the camera, the brightest one.
‘Here, use this if you need to see. I’ll be back soon, Sweets, I promise,’ he said, kissing her cheek. He looped the strap around her neck and settled the camera in her lap: it stung as it hit the gouge on her collarbone. Sawyer frowned as he glanced at his phone and she knew it wouldn’t have much charge left. They would be without light soon.
Lucy watched Sawyer as he walked up the little rise, the tall grasses bending beneath his feet and springing back, almost as if he hadn’t taken a step at all. He vanished behind the tilted green and grey house. ‘Old Joe’s Jig’ continued to play, the fiddle becoming faint and reedy. Her head ached. The pain radiated from the spot just behind her ear. She closed her eyes against it. The sounds of the ocean and the trees were louder now. Too loud. The rattle of the waves on the pebbled shore made her wince. She opened her eyes again, willing the pain and the noise to lessen.
Another giggle, worn through by age but losing none of its glee. A flash of white near the side of the porch. Lucy jumped even though her heart was slow to catch up. She swung the camera around, the snap of the shutter and the hiss of the flash, the space illuminated. Nothing except grass and rotting boards in the space beyond the porch. Lucy pressed her hand against her scalp once more, some of the dried blood flaking away from her hair. There was still liquid under her fingers, warm and real. Pulling her fingers away, she could see the sheen in the starlight. She brushed at the grey lichen clinging to her wool sweater.
At a call from the shore, she turned, her shoulders tightening. Three fishermen pushed a dory out into the surf, calling over the crash of the waves, shedding lichen in their wake. The pebbles on the shore clattered against each other as they shifted under the weight of boat and man. The slap and splash of oars in the water. The camera shook and her knuckles whitened as she raised the viewfinder to her eye. Another snap and whine. The keel of the ship was covered over with lichen, the hull bursting with grasses and shrubs in the viewfinder, starkly lit against the blackness of the ocean.
She shook her head. It throbbed, deeper than the scalp. The giggle again; as cracked and damaged as the wood around her. The chords of ‘Parson’s Pond Jig’ struck up, a fiddle whining against the paddle drum, keeping quick time. She brushed at the lichen on her sweater, its grey flakes easily seen against the dark colour. She pressed her fingers into her scalp, hoping the pain skittering over her skin would ground her.
‘It’s home,’ a voice whispered, whipping around her in the wind.
Lucy took another photo, the flash illuminating the space for a millisecond. Enough for her to see the priest walking to the shore, worn through by age and repetition. His step kept time to the paddle drum. Grey lichen floated from his cassock, eddying away. Another flash. Another millisecond of sight. A woman standing on the road, a basket filled with linen on her hip. All of her time-worn and threadbare, small grey flakes of her drifting away as she stood, face to the sea winds, waiting for a fisherman to come home.
Lucy closed her eyes, willing the darkness back. Dread and nausea swirled, rushing out on a breath. She coughed, inhaled lichen in her panic. She turned to look up the hill, watching for Sawyer in the dark, his cell phone illuminating the path in front of the church. The light from his phone cut off. The fiddle changed. A new song, the strings plaintive now. She raised the camera, another blaze of light from the flash. Men walking into the parish hall, Sawyer falling in with them. Their faces sombre. Their legs fuzzed as the lichen climbed and flaked. It floated onto Sawyer, clung, spread. The hard edge of his jaw and the straight line of his spine blurred. He looked back at her, his expression mournful, even at this distance.
Lucy stood up, stepped backwards, extending a hand behind her, feeling for anything in her way. She stumbled and landed on the porch, sitting and shocked. She brushed at the lichen sticking to her skin, flaking away as the wind blew through the cove.
The giggle again. ‘We all came home,’ said a whisper near her ear.
Lucy turned and the camera flashed again. Her heart struggled to catch up to panic. A smiling older woman; black holes swallowed all the light where there were gaps in her teeth. She was flaking away too. But the lichen had not yet swallowed her. White hair, white skin, a frail tattered hand extended to Lucy. The last drop of anxiety wrung from her and dripped onto that heavy liquid weight in her stomach. Her breathing stuttered.
A giggle bubbled up. The last words, before Lucy took the hand in the darkness were ‘Welcome home’.
Jen Cornick is a journalist, blogger, and emerging fiction writer. She is never without a book, whether it is the one she is reading or writing.