Oscar Gatlin's BMW had plunged off the Edwards Plateau along the Devil's Backbone on a Sunday evening at seven forty-two p.m. That day in September had been sunny and clear, the sunset a watercolor wash of pink and orange, the only sounds to be heard those of tires chewing up the uneven road, and the whoosh of resistant wind as his car and the one following sliced through the late summer night.
With her eyes closed, it was all as real to Luna Meadows today as it had been ten years ago—the sights, the sounds, even the smells of cedar and juniper and pine. She'd been driving an appropriate number of car lengths behind Oscar and Sierra. Her window had been down, her elbow on the door frame, the wind—dry and hot and fiercely cutting—whipping at her hair held wound around her hand. Her seat belt had nearly strangled her.
She'd been clinging to any hint of warmth, the pain of the trip's purpose chilling her, when ahead on a too sharp curve, tires had squealed, and Oscar's car fishtailed, then vanished. Screaming, she'd slammed on her brakes, spinning in the loose gravel at the road's edge, and crashing into a barrier of boulders, barely escaping her friends' fate. Her eyes, already closed at impact, saw all too clearly the empty space where the BMW should've been. She remembered nothing else—except the secret Sierra had taken to her grave.
She opened her eyes onto the present, ten years since the accident, eight years since she'd set foot on the property in front of her which she, as of this morning, now owned. She’d driven by this house—Sierra’s house—plenty of times, watched the elements stake their claim, but done nothing; how could she move on with her life when Oscar and Sierra never would? What right did she have to plan for the future when her friends had had theirs stolen away? But now, because of the house, she had to.
All this time it had sat forlorn, mourning the family who'd left it abandoned. Luna missed them, too—day in and day out, beneath moonlight and sunlight, from behind painful scars. She missed them with more longing than she'd felt for anything else in the whole of her twenty-eight years. She missed them as if they'd been her own. In many ways, they had been, she mused, straining to hear the voices that had once filled the rooms, picturing the four youngest Caffey children running circles around the legs of the two older, the siblings' parents laughing the loudest of all.
Leaving her car in the driveway, she walked up the pebbled path to the porch where the swing still hung from now-rusted ceiling chains, where the two big rockers and the table between had weathered to the gray of old age. The lawn, in the past always lush and verdant, was dried to straw, and littered with rotting leaves and acorns. The dark wood of the structure was a victim of creeping moss and clinging mold and ground cover crawling above its station.
Key ring in hand, Luna searched out the one that fit the front door and let herself into the house. The interior was dark and stale, the living room lit only by beams of light able to cut through shade trees, through windows smeared with the dirt of time and absence. The lamps were long since gone dark. There were no bursts of illumination shining into the hallway from beneath closed bedroom doors, no glow from the kitchen as Angelo, the oldest Caffey child, stood in front of the open refrigerator searching for something to eat.
Angelo. Angel. While Sierra, a cellist, had attended the St. Thomas Preparatory School on a music scholarship, Angelo had played quarterback for the Hope Springs High School Bulldogs. Workshops and recitals often kept Sierra away, but Luna never missed a game, begging rides from her father to those across town, even those across the state during play-offs. Harry Meadows loved his football. And he'd loved pretending his daughter did, too.
With so much of her life tied to this house, Luna hadn't been able to bear the thought of it falling into a stranger's hands. She'd lost Sierra. For all intents and purposes, she'd lost Oscar, too. Once the Caffeys had left Hope Springs, the house had become her only connection to a friendship that had shaped her. Learning it was in foreclosure and would most likely be razed, she'd jumped; if the house was gone, no one in the family would have a reason to return to Hope Springs. And that had been the deciding factor.
Seeing the deterioration wrought by the years, however, she realized listening to her heart and ignoring her head might not have been particularly smart. Who bought a place the size of the Caffey homestead sight unseen? Fortunately, the time spent waiting to close had allowed her to settle on an idea for using it, one that would honor the friends she had lost. But she couldn't move forward until she knew what she'd paid for.
Tucking her keys into her front pocket, she gathered up her hair and knotted it at her nape. She needed to know if it would be worth her time to sort through what the Caffeys had left behind, or if hiring a service to empty the rambling two-story farmhouse would save her as many broken fingernails as it would heartache.
She pulled a chair toward the refrigerator and stepped into the seat. Opening the first of the high cabinets above, the one where Sierra had hidden things she wanted to keep out of her younger siblings' hands, she reached inside, finding nothing but light bulbs and sports tape and loose batteries, and wishing she'd thought to bring gloves. And a flashlight. Next time for sure, she mused, and then she went still, cocking her head at the sound of footsteps on the back porch.
She didn't need permission to be inside a building she owned, but no one knew she was here, and no one else had reason to be. She eased from the chair, her second foot touching the floor as the kitchen door opened and a man moved to fill the entrance. He stood still as he took her in, his face shadowed, his body large. Her heart thundered in her chest and her ears.
She thought she'd seen knives in the block beside the stove, but she’d never reach it before he did. She dipped her fingers into her pocket, her hand wrapping around her key ring, the keys jutting between her fingers like spikes.
The man stepped over the threshold, ducking beneath the door's facing. The light he'd been blocking followed him in, and in that moment recognition dawned, her stomach tumbling to the floor and unraveling toward him like a spool of thread.
"Hello, Luna," he said, his voice deep and sure and aged like fine wine.
Angelo Caffey wore the last eight years well. He was thirty now, to her twenty-eight, and she very much appreciated the differences wrought by his age. Though he'd left it loose and brushed away from his face, his black hair was long enough to pull back at his nape, and strands of silver shimmered in the sea of black. She wasn't surprised by the touch of gray.
Even knowing nothing of his current life, she was well aware that he'd earned those stripes. His strong jaw was darkened with several days' growth of beard, his nose blade-straight and narrow, his full lips pulled into a too familiar smirk. His body wore years of use that showed on his arms in muscles and scars. His hands were a mess of healed cuts.
"You scared me," she said, her voice a weak quaver.
"Wouldn't want that now, would we?" He closed the door, shutting out what light had been shining through. Shutting them in the room that was full of old pain, and Sierra, and that very sad silence, and moments only the two of them knew.
She wanted him to reach back and fling the door open. She wanted him not to know how nervous she was. She wanted to ask him a thousand questions. She wanted him to leave. She wanted him to stay. But most of all, she wanted to know why he was here. And if, somehow, he'd known she would be.
After eight years in the wind, Angelo Caffey, her first love, her first lover, had returned to Hope Springs. Be careful what you wish for, Luna. Be very careful indeed. "When did you get to town?"
"No, sweetheart," he said, stepping closer to where she stood, and smelling of sunshine and sawdust and the spicy soap she knew well. "You're in my house now. I get to ask the questions."