Maybe none of it is true.
I reach the end, and I wimp out: "I woke up, and it was all a dream."
Imagine that-I made up the Beautiful Dead, the whole thing. Jonas, Arizona, Summer, and Phoenix out at Foxton Ridge. I did it because I wanted them back in my life so bad. But there really is no such being as Hunter the overlord, no zombie stepping out of limbo back to the far side-nothing except me and my crazy, grief-fueled brain.
I play Summer Madison's song as I drive a winding road, late-spring aspens rising silver and green to either side.
"I love you so, but it was time to go. You spoke my name, I never came, 'cause it was time for me to go."
He's dead, I tell myself. Beautiful Phoenix, every day you break my heart. Your eyes stare into mine but not really. You hold my hand, and it's cold as death.
"You spoke my name, I never came, 'cause it was time for me to go."
I drive into the mountains. The roof is down. I feel the wind in my hair. Mid-May and the aspen leaves shake and shimmer in the breeze. Hot sun bakes my face, and the sandy soil, the dirt track crunches under my tires. I hit a sudden hollow, the CD jumps and sticks-"t-t-time for m-me to go..." I press the off button. Where am I heading? Who do I hope to see? Half a mile from Foxton Ridge I brake suddenly. The engine stalls.
I'm half a mile from Angel Rock and that steep dip into the hidden valley where the spring meadow surrounds the empty barn and the old ranch house. Scarlet poppies sing and zing in the fresh green grass, a wave of wind rolls through and sighs up dust in the deserted yard.
In the silence after the engine cuts out I'm unable to act. I sit trapped by invisible threads of memory and hope.
We never needed to talk, Phoenix and me. I would look into those gray-blue eyes and know-just know-what he was thinking. I remember the way he would push his dark hair clear of his forehead, once, twice, three times, without knowing he was doing it. And I would lift my hand to do it for him, then he would smile. That smile-raised higher on the right-hand side, uneven, quirky. The love light in his eyes.
Inside my silver memory cocoon I sit. Should I reach out and turn on the engine? I see myself coming to the end of the track, getting out of the car, walking into the shade of the rusting water tower, and pausing to gaze down at the barn. The barn will cast a long shadow across the yard. The door will hang open. Nailed above the door will be the moose antlers. Beside it, and in the old corral beyond, pure blue columbines will stand out among dark, straggly thornbushes.
No footsteps will disturb decades of untrodden dirt; no movement, no sound.
I know-I've done this so many times.
Once, twice, three times I walk down to the barn and peer inside. "Be here!" I breathe.
My heart batters my rib cage.
Four, five, six times I make out spiky farm tools stacked in a corner, horse halters hanging like nooses, an avalanche of decaying straw.
Seven, eight times I turn away. Maybe in the ranch house?
"Be here!" I cross the yard and step up onto the porch. The old boards creak. I press my face to the windowpane. "Be here!"
Nine, ten times the stove is there, the table and rocking chair, the plates on the rack. And undisturbed dust. I don't even try the door-I know it's bolted on the inside.
Twenty times I've gone through this ritual of hope.
Now the rocking chair will rock, now the plates will be taken down from the rack, a fire will heat the stove. Someone will come down the stairs and into the tiny kitchen-stern, serious Hunter, who built this place a hundred years ago and who died here-will throw another log on the fire. He will turn to speak to someone in the shadows. A tall figure will step out.
I know every inch of this person-the broad shoulders, the thick dark hair, high forehead, and lopsided smile. Now I will whisper his name. "Phoenix."
I can't do it, I tell myself this twenty-first time.
I sit in my car for a whole hour. Deer walk out from under the aspens. They lower their heads and graze. High in the blue sky a plane gleams silver, small as an insect.
One more disappointment and my heart will stutter to a halt.
Phoenix is dead and gone forever, along with Summer
Madison, Jonas Jonson, and Arizona Taylor. The Beautiful
Dead are imagined.
I switch on the engine, reverse down the track, turn, and head back to the highway.