The only memory I trust is that of the sunset.
The other things, they’re fragmented into a million broken pieces, all of them too sharp and deadly-bright to fit back together again. She had a pink balloon tied around her wrist. I remember what she sounded like when she screamed for help, and the way the woods seemed to swallow her. Everything else about it is molten-bright and too hot to touch, drowned in the hemorrhage of a dying sun.
I have to try. Too many years gone by with that billboard hanging there with her picture. Have you seen me?
Yes. Yes, I saw. God help me, I saw.
July of ‘99.
There was a nice woman who got me a ginger ale out of the vending machine at the police station. She said she liked my shell necklace. We sat at a plastic table together and talked. Were Asha and I friends? Not really, I had told her, coloring a picture of CatDog from the Nickelodeon cartoons. She was in the same music class as me, and sometimes I saw her at church. Turned out her family went to the same campground as mine in the summer, so I saw her at the fireworks display on Bunganut Pond. We waved hi, and passed each other by. She had a balloon, a pink balloon.
The next day, the day of the Fourth, was the day of the big cookout. It was a Sunday. I had no trouble remembering about the cookout, nothing in that memory was waiting for me in the dark. There were picnic tables laden with all kinds of food-potato salad, corn on the cob, hot dogs, hamburgers, big, juicy slices of watermelon. All the adults were drinking, my parents included. I had trouble making friends back then, so I got my piece of watermelon and went to swing on the swingset by myself. I had my bicycle with me, and most of the other kids had been making fun of me all weekend because it wasn’t a mountain bike. Why did it matter what kind of bike I had, I was wondering, and my watermelon fell out of my hand into the dirt. But the picnic tables were swarming with people, and there was no way I was gonna wait to maybe get another piece. Grandma and Grandpa were back at our campsite, though, and I could go back there by myself and get some of the watermelon that we had brought with us instead. I wasn’t going to bother trying to convince my parents to bring me back on the golf cart. They would just tell me ‘in a minute’ for hours and hours.
So I decided to leave by myself without permission.
Nobody was mad at me for that, the nice lady reassured me. Go on and tell me what happened next. Such warm, inviting brown eyes she had. Such pretty, flowery perfume.
I got on my bike and I headed down the dirt path to our campsite. It was the summer of my tenth birthday, and I was only that year granted permission to ride around the campground without an escort. I was enjoying my new freedom. I wished I had a friend or two to share it with, but I didn’t mind my own company, either. The thing was, I was so used to trekking around with my brother, or my parents, or somebody. I didn’t know the way back as well as I thought I did.
And the sun was setting.
I threw up the first time I told this part of the story. That was when I was talking to the fat police officer with the funny mustache. I just keeled over my chair and quietly regurgitated my turkey sandwich onto the linoleum. They brought the nice lady after that. She didn’t rush me or press me for details or make me feel like I was going to get something wrong if I didn’t tell it right. We were just chatting, the nice lady and I.
See, the campground consisted of these dirthpath loops where the campsites were situated around. The loop we were camped at–Motyka Drive–was three ‘loops’ north of the beach, going up a wooded slope. The easiest way to get back to the campsite was by taking this one dirt road that interconnected all the loops, but I was ten, and didn’t have a sense of direction. I should have headed north up Benoit Boulevard and taken a right once I saw the sign for Birch Lane. But I didn’t. I got cocky once I saw the rec hall and the convenience store, and just kind of…kept walking. The direction I had chosen was along Anderson Road, which led out of the campground altogether and into the town of Lyman, Maine. I didn’t explain it like that back then, but I told her how I’d made a wrong turn. And it seemed Asha made the same mistake.
See, the difference between Asha and I was that people knew she left the cookout. People saw her leave the cookout-her and her pretty pink balloon that she had carried around for a day. She told her mom and dad where she was going. She was my age, she was big enough to start exploring the area on her own. She wanted to go to the rec hall and try and win the chipmunk toy in the crane machine. The cookout was boring. All her friends had left that morning so she had no one to play with. People even saw her at the rec hall, trying to get that chipmunk. She spent all her money and left empty-handed, with that pink balloon trailing behind her. Two young teenagers saw her go, they had been playing ping-pong.
After that, it was only me.
Oh, God. Oh, God.
Anderson Road. It wasn’t actually a road. All dirt, with the deep Lyman forest on either side. I was walking my bike at that point because I was tired. I kept expecting to see the sign for Birch Lane around every twist, but it never came. I wasn’t worried yet, though. I was a lonely kid, and prone to daydreaming. It didn’t even bother me that the woods were too quiet. Watermelon was on my mind, watermelon and maybe one of those fancy blue raspberry sodas Grandma got from the local place. It wasn’t until I crested the little hill in the middle of the road that I started to think that maybe I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. From the top of that hill, it didn’t look like that dirt road was going to end anytime soon. But then, I saw the dying sunlight glint off of something farther down-something shiny, and metallic. The foily surface of a pink balloon. Then I spotted her, I spotted Asha. She was wearing a yellow dress with daisies on it, and those pink jelly sandals kids always wore in the nineties. I called her name, and she turned around to see who had shouted for her.
Part of me wants to remember something different. Sometimes in my dreams, she turns around and her eyes are missing, there are just these two, maggoty black pits. Her flowery yellow dress is all stained with blood, and when she opens her mouth to greet me, nothing but a deer scream comes tearing out of her throat and into the sky. But it was only Asha’s normal, pretty face when she looked at me, then–a little frightened, a little confused, with tears glittering on her cheeks in the sunset. But when she saw me, she smiled, and started up the hill.
The damnedest thing is, I can’t exactly remember how the conversation went. Every time I try to think about it carefully, it wriggles out of my mind. In any case, we decided to stick together, because, certainly, we were lost. There was a turnoff branching from Anderson Road to the left-–little more than a footpath, really. It had a sign. The letters on the sign squirm away from me when I try to remember, too. Slippery-like. Asha and I both saw it, though, and we came to the conclusion that maybe we could follow it back up to the rec hall and back to our campsites. So we turned left, off the main road.
No one is angry, the nice woman reminded me. Her fingers were warm and comforting when they wrapped around my own, but still, there was something in her eyes that told me that stopping wouldn’t be tolerated. There wasn’t a sign. There wasn’t a footpath, either. They combed the woods on either side with their dogs and their stomping feet, and there was no footpath. I must have imagined it…but I didn’t.
It wasn’t wide enough for us to walk down it side-by-side. We had to walk in single file. Every so often, her balloon would drift backwards and bump me in the face. The woods were so quiet, it felt like the pressure had dropped. My ears ached from the lack of sound. Our sandals crunched over the leaves on the path, but that seemed far away, somehow disconnected from the rest of it all. “I see the general store!” Asha exclaimed, from somewhere ahead of me. The sunset was bleeding, dripping through the trees. Orange and scarlet and crimson. Molten death in a summer sky. It was wrong, it felt so wrong, I was so afraid. Don’t go, I wanted to call to her, but she was already running. I followed. What choice did I have?
On the other side, impossibly, was the beginning of Anderson Road. There was the general store, and the little library that was the cornerstone of my childhood memories. Had the general store always had a spelling error on the sign out front, I wondered? GENERAL STORE. I was only a kid, but books were my solace, and I tended to notice things like that. I couldn’t trust my memory about it now. Nor did I trust that the library had an event sign on a chalkboard easel. SUMMER OF ‘97 READING EXTRAVAGANZA, it spelled, in big, blocky red letters. Wouldn’t I have remembered seeing something like that? And besides, they were two years late! Someone was watching from inside the library, but when I took a step forward, their shadow darted away.
The sun blazed on the horizon, hemorrhaging into twilight. Asha was running as fast as her jellies could carry her in the direction of the general store. I shouted for her to wait, and my own voice hurt my ears. I stumbled and fell when I chased after her, that’s why they found me with that gash on my knee. I didn’t even pause, just kept on chasing. We barreled through the entrance to the general store almost simultaneously.
Asha called for Mr. McBride. Once. Twice. The third time, I told her to be quiet. Her voice was just so loud. It made no sense, the way that our voices were. It reminded me of being in a car, when the car starts to go really fast and your ears pop. He didn’t answer. I started to pace around the store. There was nothing in there, nothing at all but dusty shelves. No candy or kerosene or piles of firewood, just empty. And the sunset…the sunset was making everything strange. My only constant. In any case, I didn’t immediately realize that Asha had run back outside, not until she cried out.
That’s when I saw the deer.
I turned around and I could see it out the window. It was massive, bigger than any deer I’d ever seen before, and its antlers seemed to blot out the sun. It turned to face me, and it had no eyes. Maggots squirmed out of its empty sockets and onto the earth. It grinned at me, Christ, it grinned. And then it screamed.
I covered my ears and closed my eyes. Waited until I could feel that it had lumbered past. I could hear Asha crying for help nearby, and finally the spell was broken. I ran to find her. I even saw her there, looking at me with helpless terror…and then the woods seemed to shift, and she was gone. The balloon drifted up into the terrible sky.
I didn’t think. I just ran. I turned tail and bolted back down the footpath as fast as I could. I could hear something coming after me, right behind me in the trees, and I didn’t dare look back. I remember bursting through to Anderson Road…and hours later, they found me, crying and shivering, standing next to a dead deer that someone had run over with their car. I remember seeing the flashlights shining out of the dark, and panicking, thinking that the sun was setting again.
The nice lady didn’t tell me that she was disappointed, but I could tell that she was. She was hoping I would talk about a car, or maybe an adult I’d seen. No, I still only wanted to talk about gigantic deer and strange sunsets. She left me with my picture and told me my parents would be coming soon.
I don’t know what really happened to Asha, but like I said, I have dreams. Sometimes, I think I hear that deer screaming in the night, even when I’m awake. And sometimes, when the sun is setting, I’ll look at a magazine cover or a website, or listen to a voicemail from a friend, or look at my daughter’s face–and I wonder. Always wonder.
I wonder what’s different. How I could have missed whatever it was I noticed.
Wouldn’t I have remembered something like that?