Surriquoia was so small that almost as soon as it began, it dropped off into vast, treeless plains with hardly so much as a dog trotting through the dust for miles. The edges of that place were like the frayed hem of a tablecloth. If company was coming, perhaps you'd notice how badly the threads had been worn by time and maybe be moved to mend them. But nobody was ever out that way. The highways that started at either end meant novelty. Comings and goings. Surriquoia seldom saw much of either, so the shanties and fall-down fences continued to fall into disrepair.
We went out there whenever we felt it was time to be away from listening ears. In the early evenings we walked the three and a half miles south down Main Street to where it met State Road 7 to sit on the porch of the old boarded-up pump station. We'd squint at the place where dirt road became pavement, waiting for cars that would never come. there were alot of cigarettes smoked. Alot of borrowed alcohol done away with. Tossing rocks at the rusty pumps, playing scratch games in the dirt; it lasted for hours, but the sun always started to sink too soon for me. In those minutes before nightfall as we headed back up the road, that bland expanse of flatland became brilliant and alien. It caught every dusky hue and stretched out toward the violent cerulean sky like an ocean, burning with blue, and you could've swore you were in some sort of magic place. I loved that it was just us, together, in our own hushed, lit-up world. It was enough to make a person forget, if only for a moment.
I have no idea why she picked me. People would talk, sure, but the men were still falling all over themselves. Sometimes she'd go after one. But even if it took her a few days, she'd always find her way back to me as if nothing had changed. As if she didn't smell like men's deoderant and the interiors of brand-new cars. As if, somehow, despite her total power over me, I too held her in some kind of orbit. It was beyond foolish to ever believe that I had any effect on what she did, but foolishly, I let myself. Used it as fodder for my one-sided dreams of a future that she had a part in.
It's just, at the time, we seemed to fit so well. Her ways were foreign and erratic, but she just did things, without thinking too much. She made sense to me. We steadied each other. And in spite of everything, I know--with a deep sense of conviction uncharacteristic of myself even now, I know--that whatever else we were, we were friends in the truest, most primal sense of the word. I'm sure of it. And to be honest, I'd ever been sure of anything in my entire life until I was sixteen and a half years old, meeting her mischievous feline gaze in that high school earth science class. We'd been learning about earthquakes.
Occasionally, I think back on my fifth birthday. I can reminisce about my first bike, or what I ate for breakfast this morning. As I recall, most of my life has been relatively commonplace. But she is like trying to catch a reflection in a submerged mirror. Fluid. Distant. Every memory I have of her seems more odd and disjointed than the last, and there are even some times I think maybe it didn't happen at all. Life, of course, offers us all our fair share of unanswerable questions.
She can't have been a dream; I know that because her picture is in the yearbook and in the news clippings. But within the little time I had her, I became slowly aware of something I cannot describe. That thing on the lips of the people of Surroquoia. It was constantly just out of reach, urging me to keep up with her as we played hooky, found eachothers' hands in the movie theater, ran screaming with unbridled glee through the buzzing woods. I was powerless to do anything but stagger, dazzled, in her wake. People tell you first love stories all the time, talk about how they were reduced to whining puppies and how they'll never meet "someone quite like that" ever again. But this...this is different.
The last time I saw her, we were out at the crossroads during the blue time. She looked like a painting. Even with all the dirt caked under her fingernails. Even with all the leaves and hitchhikers stuck to the old moth-eaten nightgown she insisted was a dress. The brown glass bottle in her hands caught the light of the dying sun, flecking bits of amber onto her chin, and I was mesmerized by way the tendons moved beneath her skin as she put it down. "Sometimes," she said solemnly, holding my eyes, "Sometimes I think I should've been born a tree." She saw all of me, always. I envied her that. People were nothing to her but a banging screen door, through which she was privy to everything, and she remained an utter enigma. But as she watched the feelings moving around in me then, even though her face never changed much, she managed to look sadder than I'd ever known she could be. Before I know what had happened, she was on her feet, disappearing around back of the building. I scrambled after her.
I was suddenly filled with an acute awareness of my surroundings. The thick, slow breeze. Every single gnat in the cloud of hundreds bouncing against my skin. The crushing smell of rot and moisture—all of this filled my senses to bursting. She knew I was following her, watching her, filled only with that strange, indescribable thing. Irresistable, omnipotent, filling my vision. She was the driving force of my being, the sole thing making my heart beat and placing each foot before the other.
In a daze, I watched the glowing, technicolor world slow around us for what seemed like the hundredth time as she allowed the restless cobalt grass to gleefully receive her. This slip of a girl with filthy hands and knees turned and walked so confidently backwards, her sagey eyes pulling me with her through the quivering waist-high sea of green; called to my blood with promises of skin and dark life beneath the distant branches of the ancient live-oak hulking at the end of the lot. I saw her her unmoving lips whisper not the name my parents had given me, but a real one, in a golden language of flowers and past beautiful summers. Of sandcastles built by my once tiny hands. That nagging, unspoken urge to chase, the irresistible strangeness about her that did nothing but unsettle and fill me with pining ache...lurking in the back of my mind until this very moment, it was now all painfully obvious.
The all-encompassing incantation of her existence; why it had always been impossible not to reach out, stumble frantically towards her impending absence. As the sky reeled and I could hear the micro organisms speaking in the earth, there came a moment of utmost clarity. She was never really anywhere, perhaps never had been. She was loneliness incarnate, a thing of mist and soil and sky, and was but a precursor to misery. She belonged in this place infinitely less than I ever possibly could. I walked into those familiar, alien, outstretched arms and willingly let her unlace me to the bone with her lips and dirty fingers. Only, this time, I finally understood.
I opened my eyes alone with the bugs in the harsh morning-after light, and sobbed in the mottled shadow of the oak as if I somehow hadn't known. A week, two weeks passed without her return. No fingernails on my window glass in the night. Her brother came looking for her and then the newspapers started asking, "Where did she go? Where is Faith Blanchett?" Like it was some big mystery and everyone hadn't seen it coming.
And the tree, which had remained vigilantly behind the old gas shack for about as long as anyone alive could remember, continued its patient vigil over the crossroads. If by some miracle you ever find yourself leaving Surriquoia, speeding southbound down State Road 7, The dark smudge of it will remain adamantly in your rear-view a little too long—even after town has disappeared behind you—before very suddenly leaving you alone with the dismal stretch of scrubland.