and there I'll be
Anna Vangala Jones
There is a fork in the road where they said they would meet again one day. This must be considered with a hefty sprinkling of indulgence. They were only ten-years-old at the time.
“You walk twenty steps past the Daltons’ sky-blue mailbox at the end of their drive. You can crane your neck much as you want, but you won't be able to see their house from there, so you probably shouldn't bother. It might as well be in another town, their driveway’s so long. Mom says they need their own zip code behind those fancy-pants gates of theirs,” Cheyenne told Noah, veering off on a tangent from which they both knew she'd return shortly, when she felt like it. “She says next thing they'll be hiring some armed guards to man the place. Keep riff raff like us out.”
Cheyenne hadn't paused yet, as she continued to draw a childish map into the red earth at his feet, with a combination of her fingers and a nearby twig. Noah sat silent and attentive, as he always did while she talked with the breathless allure of someone who had quite a lot of important things to say. It wasn't one of those common situations, though, where she wished he'd talk more or he wished she'd talk less. He hoped she'd go on talking forever and she hoped he'd go on listening forever, but those harmonious desires were put on temporary hold, by her parents deciding to move prior to the start of fifth grade.
Cheyenne would have been perfectly content to grow old in Stockton, New Jersey with her quiet companion. Together they would traverse dirt paths barefoot and cannonball into greenish brown canal water just beyond a crop of slick stones for as long as they were physically able, but her ambitious father had other plans. He couldn't become a household-name Broadway sensation from the living room of a hundred-year-old stone farmhouse in South Jersey. A historic home he didn't even choose, but rather one that had been dropped in his lap, by his wife’s deceased parents who didn't believe in his dream.
Pretty sure she supported her father’s hopes of stardom, Cheyenne was also afraid to leave the only home she'd ever known, and Noah. Her father’s pursuit of happiness had a way of directly interfering with her and her mother’s on a regular Tuesday, but never more than now, when he was uprooting them to a place neither of them wanted to be. The city that never closes its smoky eyes, just across the George Washington Bridge. Fine to visit, but Cheyenne’s mother had instilled in her, since birth, the conviction that pretty girls like her got snatched up in a lawless land like that and sold into sex slavery the minute they ventured outside.
“Your odds of it happening are only increased if you spend too much time there,” her mother reasoned. Her logic was sound, so Cheyenne had to agree. There would be no prancing barefoot on gravel roads littered with last night’s condoms and used needles. That was certain.
It won't be so bad, Noah had murmured after she told him. She then pushed him up against their old oak tree, the one they'd talked about carving their names into but had never gotten around to it, and planted a kiss on his cool, chapped lips. It was the first for them both. She had always imagined that doing so would taste like cinnamon, but it was more garlicky than she was expecting. We'll visit each other, he had continued, or maybe only his eyes had said that part. She couldn't remember words, only his way of looking at her.
“Anyway,” Cheyenne said, on that last summer afternoon together, placing her warm hand on Noah’s bare leg. “Once the trees start to be so tall and full, that it gets hard to see the sun through them, you'll know you're there. And when you look up,” she smiled, toothy and pleased with herself, “there I'll be.”
It was only a high school graduation, quickie marriage, two kids, and a divorce later that set Cheyenne to reminiscing. She started to think that probably Noah was waiting for her at the fork. She had told him that’s where she’d be when the time came. It certainly seemed to have arrived, she thought, as she gazed into the rearview mirror. Her boys were arguing and shoving each other in her ‘97 Honda’s backseat. Her eyes held the tired distance of a mother whose adoration and resentment battle too often, with a different winner each day.
Her parents scooped their grandchildren up in their arms when Cheyenne dropped them off without explanation that weekend, at their home in Connecticut. Her mother was covered in flour and smelled of cherries and almonds, as she beckoned the rabble-rousing monsters into the kitchen. Her father, the voiceover actor, followed and delighted them, as he performed impressions of all their favorite TV characters.
Sometimes, Cheyenne felt bad for him that the whole stage thing hadn't panned out, but it was that silly failed fantasy of his that had wrenched her away from Noah to begin with. Besides, he often got stopped out and about when passersby heard his booming voice and recognized it. They complimented him for the velvety smooth confidence that his words drizzled over consumers, as they watched various commercials and straight-to-video movie trailers. “I can't tell you how many cleaning products are sitting on my shelf that I don't even need, thanks to you,” they'd chastise him with a twinkle in their tone. So, the fame he'd sought when he fled Stockton was his, in that diluted way.
Cheyenne started to wonder, as she entered New Jersey, if she should have forced herself to drink more water before setting out on this extended drive. Surely, dehydration was to blame for the mirage up ahead on the shoulder of the road. The teenage hitchhiker was Cheyenne’s mirror image, from a time before pregnancy and childbirth had done irreparable things to her. Demolished her figure, her energy, her ability to remember herself as anything more than Henry and Oscar’s mom. Cheyenne blinked, turned down the radio, and slowed the car alongside the girl. She reached across the seat to crank the passenger side window down. “Hey,” she called out. “You look like you need a ride.”
The girl’s profile was stony. “No. You can keep driving. Thanks.”
Cheyenne smiled. “Don’t be ridiculous. If you’re not hitchhiking, what are you doing walking on the side of the road?”
“What do you care? Maybe I’m just holding out for a nicer car.” The girl turned and revealed her face, adorned with a mixture of contempt and fear.
Cheyenne began to feel silly. Her own color was wheat kissed with gold and the girl’s was peaches dipped in milk. Her features were also striking and drawn in harsher lines than the ones on Cheyenne’s soft, round face. Cheyenne’s chin grew less defined with each passing year. Why exactly was she bothering this young stranger again? She really needed to drink some water.
“Sorry. Stay safe out here, okay?” Cheyenne prepared to speed up again as the honking of the cars behind her reached a frightening decibel.
The girl grunted. “Thanks. Had a fight with my boyfriend and got out. He’ll go let off some steam and is gonna catch back up with me soon.”
As Cheyenne drove off, she glanced into her rearview mirror. She blinked to unblur her temporarily cloudy vision. Nothing. It was like the girl had never been there at all.
Before long, as if by magic, Cheyenne found herself standing in front of the old white stucco house where Noah had lived. It was a few feet from the foam green Stockton bridge. She could toss rocks into the water after this. Maybe she should do that first.
So, she did for a while. The Delaware stared at her, a little accusatory, as if wondering what she was doing here without Noah. He'd always been a much better shot than her anyway.
The house looked different than she remembered it, but this was it alright. There was a swing and a rocking chair on the rickety porch that hadn't been there before. Noah’s parents used to drag out chairs from the kitchen when they felt like sitting there. The wooden planks creaked beneath Cheyenne’s feet like always, though. It was comforting. Like a forgotten, familiar song.
The woman who answered the door was very kind. Said she and her husband, newlyweds, hadn't owned it long. The previous occupants had been a much older couple with several dogs but no children. “So maybe your friend and his family were here even before them. I'm sorry. How long has it been?”
Cheyenne told her not to worry about it, thanked her, and went on her way.
After a brief stop at the old stone farmhouse her father had escaped without a backward glance, Cheyenne meandered a bit around town. She enjoyed herself at all of her and Noah’s old haunts. Even went for a walk on the towpath, dipped her toes in the canal, and chatted with some men who were there fishing. She thought about how nice it would be to bring her sons here and share all this quiet beauty with them.
Soon, though, her desire to dawdle passed, and she knew there was only one place left for her to go. Once there, she made herself comfortable, settling in for the long haul. She sniffed the air for hints of cinnamon or garlic, but it just smelled fresh like spring after the rain.
Cheyenne shivered as the air grew colder and nibbled at her exposed skin. The setting sun’s remaining warmth couldn't be felt here, underneath the kingdom of trees clumped together that she had drawn for Noah so many years earlier. She wondered if the map meant to lead him to her was still there, stamped into the ground in her sloppy scrawl for all eternity.
Cheyenne heard a gentle crunch, like footsteps on dry leaves. Her eyes swiveled in the sound’s general direction, but she only found a squirrel there, watching her. She imagined its head cocked to the side, asking her, really? You’re still here?
“Yes,” she said aloud, a bit sassy. “I am.”
But no one tells you this is how it will be. That true love, the kind where being happy is actually an option, is really just waiting for something. And if that's all Noah is, something to wait for and believe in, then it's the only kind of love Cheyenne would ever want to know.
Cheyenne wasn’t sure if she fell asleep waiting or if time had escaped her, but when she opened her eyes, the darkness sent chills fluttering down her spine, like a spider soaring down an ethereal thread of its own weaving. As she hurried to stand up, she heard him say, “You’re really here.” Or at least she thought she did. It was only ever that look dancing in Noah’s eyes that lingered in her memory, not anything he said. She didn’t ask now if it was him. Just melted forward into the arms she felt sure were there.
Anna Vangala Jones is an Assistant Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket and Editorial Assistant on the Fiction team at Split Lip Magazine. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Catapult, Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, New Flash Fiction Review, Fiction Southeast, and The Brown Orient, among others. Her stories have placed in contests at Gigantic Sequins, American Short Fiction, Ruminate, and elsewhere. Find her online at annavangalajones.wordpress.com and on Twitter @anniejo_17.