A Place to Get Away
by Jennifer Frost
Before the wildfire some years back, Great Grandpa George’s summer place was an aging cabin, built in the 1930s, home to spiders and centipedes for most of the year. It was a relic from a time when the mountain resort was a novelty to city dwellers; a picturesque place to get away only an hour’s drive from the buzz of downtown. The cabin could sleep no more than four, had no air conditioning, no washing machine. There was one tiny shower stall and one lonely electrical socket in the whole place. Then the fire came through the valley, its savage winds ripping down power lines and fanning sparks into flames. The little cabin was devoured along with those standing near it on Red Rose Drive, a gravel road overlooking a vast pine forest once believed to be sacred. The forest has renewed itself since the fire. Red Rose Drive has been improved and rebuilt.
Anne’s family was split about whether to sell Great Grandpa’s land after the fire and divide the profits or use the insurance payout to start putting things back together.
“Grandpa would have wanted us to keep the old place,” Uncle John pointed out.
“Grandpa is dead,” Anne’s mother, Carol, said, “What does it matter to him?”
After a family vote that could have gone either way, a contractor and architect were hired. The house was remade, not as a rustic cabin but as a proper summer home with four bedrooms, a modern kitchen, and several bathrooms. Neighboring plots were similarly improved. A miniature suburban neighborhood appeared along Red Rose Drive. Nobody wanted a cabin anymore. It took a lot more than the insurance money to finish the project.
“I told you,” Carol said, bills and bank statements in hand.
The new house was finally completed at the end of last summer. Scaffolding still surrounds the place going up next door. Mrs. Taylor, a permanent resident on Red Rose Drive for thirty-five years and the first to rebuild after the fire, has seen the new neighbors out with their building firm, blueprints rustling in the breeze.
“That place is going to have five bedrooms,” Mrs. Taylor tells Anne’s mother when they arrive on Thursday afternoon. “Can you believe that? It was Bob Graham’s fishing cabin before. It still had an outhouse!”
“I know,” says Carol, holding her nose.
Many of the closest neighbors, most of them family friends for decades, haven’t kept their places.
“It’s not the same without Mr. and Mrs. Rivers up here anymore,” Uncle John remarks, coming in with his two boys and all their fishing tackle. “No one made a better cherry pie for the Fourth of July than Mrs. Rivers.”
“We should have sold the place before we sank so much money into it,” Carol gripes from the kitchen table which she is dusting.
Anne winces as she sweeps cobwebs down from the light fixtures, dust falling in her eyes. “Come on, Mom,” she says.
“It sits empty all year,” Carol answers, “And it takes three hours to get up here these days. It’s not worth it anymore.” Uncle John shakes his head and takes the suitcases downstairs.
By dinner time, Uncle John’s wife, Molly, called to say that she’s not going to be able to drive up after all. A problem with the car, it seemed. That meant Anne’s brother, Jake, and his girlfriend, who planned to carpool, would be absent as well. Carol made a fresh green salad. Uncle John grilled burgers and hot dogs. His teenage sons, Will and Joshua, devoured a mountain of food then disappeared to play video games in their bedroom downstairs.
“Sure is different up here than it used to be,” Carol remarked as she loaded the dishwasher. Anne took a pack of cigarettes from her purse and opened the sliding glass doors onto the deck. “You still smoking?” Carol said reprovingly. Anne stopped.
“You smoked when you were my age,” she said.
“But I quit,” said Carol, “And you should, too.”
“Yeah,” says Anne and went outside.
She looked out at the black, black mountain sides, the sky above with its field of stars. It’s just us, she thought. She imagined her dad as he was in her childhood, long before the divorce, out on the back-porch smoking with Great Grandpa George before he died. Now they’re both dead, she thought. She remembered Dad and Great Grandpa talking through the afternoon and into the night about baseball.
“You think your boys from Chicago can beat the Home Team this year?” Dad asked Grandpa George teasingly.
“I don’t know how you can root for those bums,” Grandpa answered back, “I’m a Chicagoan ‘til the day I die.” They lamented the surrounding mountains which block out the radio broadcast. “But look at that view,” Grandpa said, still in awe after all those years.
“Yeah,” Anne’s dad agreed. They fell silent. Anne was alone again on the deck, cigarette burning. Before it was quite finished, she used it to light another.
Uncle John took the boys down to the lake for a day of fishing off the boat. They invited Anne to join but she declined. Carol said she’d like to spend the day reading since there was no one around. She had an inspirational guide to spirituality waiting on the coffee table. Anne sat on a barstool at the counter dividing the open-plan kitchen from the living room. Is that a million trees? she thought, gazing through a plate glass window. Does anybody count trees?
“You gonna’ sit there all day staring out the window?” asked Carol, bustling in. “I’m taking my book outside.”
“I’ll come out,” said Anne. She smoked a cigarette using Grandpa George’s favorite ashtray. It was one of the few things to survive the fire.
“We are not keeping that,” Carol had said.
“Everything else burned up,” John had insisted.
“Why don’t you go for a walk, Anne?” Carol suggested after a time. “Take the trail behind the Thompson’s old place. I was up there before breakfast this morning and it’s gorgeous.”
I hate walks, Anne thought. Just the word ‘walk’ & already I feel tired. She didn’t know what to say.
“It’s better than sitting here smoking half a pack of cigarettes, anyway,” her mother said, turning back to her book. “I came up here for the fresh air, you know.”
“I’ll go,” Anne said.
“Good,” said Carol, “And if you’re not too worn out, you can come with me after dinner tonight, too. Gotta’ get my steps in.” Anne nodded and went inside to put on walking shoes.
Anne came into the meadow at the top of the trail. There was a stream that came down along the far side with shade trees. Who was the first human to walk in this meadow, she wondered. Ten thousand years ago? Longer? Anne knew which tree she liked to sit under and found it waiting for her. The dirt was hard and dry; there was no give in it at all. The tree roots decided the shape of the ground. It’s only uncomfortable when you first sit down, Anne thought. Then you get used to it. The branches were in full leaf and the birds and insects went about their business. Anne leaned her head back and heard a radio playing close by. She looked around but saw nothing. The wind blew and she thought they must be playing music down at the Thompson place.
“I thought you’d never wake up,” said a voice.
Anne found she was opening her eyes and looking over her shoulder. Dad?
“You must’ve been asleep awhile,” he said.
It’s not Dad. He sat in a folding chair with a cooler & a portable radio quietly playing static beside him. He smoked a cigarette casually. She noticed a pile of butts on the bare ground stacked as neatly as firewood. He’ll take those with him when he goes, Anne thought. Dad would’ve done the same.
“You okay?” the man asked.
“I didn’t realize I’d gone to sleep,” Anne said, rubbing her eyes. “You look like someone,” she said. “You look like my dad. But he’s dead.”
“I’m not your dad,” he said with a wry grin. “And I’m not dead.”
The breeze changed, the radio static cleared, and Anne heard it was tuned to a baseball game.
“My dad used to sit up here and listen to ballgames sometimes,” Anne said. “He claimed you could get a signal if you knew how to tune in the AM radio.”
“It gets pretty patchy sometimes,” said the man, shrugging his shoulders. “Some days, I can’t hear a thing. But look at the view.”
“Yeah,” said Anne. She felt dizzy. “Did you buy the old Thompson place?”
“No,” said the man, reaching toward the cooler. “Can I offer a lady an ice-cold beer?”
“No, thanks,” said Anne.
“Suit yourself,” he said.
“You up here for the Fourth?” Anne asked.
“Looks like it,” he said. She waited for him to say more but he listened for the baseball scores. Anne heard the woods and the meadow, a mix of static and baseball commentary coming through on the radio.
“Who’s your team?” she asked idly.
“I always root for the Home Team,” he said.
Dad, too, she thought, her mind drifting.
“I have a daughter,” the man said after a while.
Anne nodded, feigning interest. “That’s nice,” she said.
“My daughter is something else,” the man said wistfully.
“Yeah?” said Anne.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Just like me when I was young.” He was the spitting image of Dad, biting his lip and looking far into the distance. “It all goes by so fast,” he said.
A loud bang came from the somewhere beyond the meadow in the direction of Red Rose Drive. Anne woke suddenly, her heart racing as the popping of firecrackers and smell of barbeque took her by surprise. She was alone on the bank of the stream, the rippling leaves above her sounding like quiet static on a small radio.
Jennifer Frost lives in Woodland Hills, CA with her husband and 4 year-old son. With an undergraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Iowa, Jennifer has spent her life as a devoted reader and ‘closeted’ writer. She worked as a bookseller and supervisor at Barnes & Noble for thirteen years, the first six in her hometown of Cedar Rapids, IA. Jennifer took every available opportunity to read titles new and old from every category, following her interests more than trends. Every day, she met fellow readers, exchanging recommendations, digging up obscure titles, being at home among the books. Today, she divides her time between writing, container gardening, and pirate battles fought from the couch in the living room. Though the chores are never quite finished, Jennifer once read that, “no artist was ever hurt by a little housework. Or helped by it.”