Before: The Middle of Nowhere
There were only two kinds of people in our town. “The stupid and the stuck,” my father had affectionately classified our neighbors. “The ones who are bound to stay or too dumb to go. Everyone else finds a way out.” There was no question which one he was, but I’d never had the courage to ask why. My father was a writer, and we lived in Gatlin, South Carolina, because the Wates always had, since my great-great-great-great-granddad, Ellis Wate, fought and died on the other side of the Santee River during the Civil War.
Only folks down here didn’t call it the Civil War. Everyone under the age of sixty called it the War Between the States, while everyone over sixty called it the War of Northern Aggression, as if somehow the North had baited the South into war over a bad bale of cotton. Everyone, that is, except my family. We called it the Civil War.
Just another reason I couldn’t wait to get out of here.
Gatlin wasn’t like the small towns you saw in the movies, unless it was a movie from about fifty years ago. We were too far from Charleston to have a Starbucks or a McDonald’s. All we had was a Dar-ee Keen, since the Gentrys were too cheap to buy all new letters when they bought the Dairy King. The library still had a card catalog, the high school still had chalkboards, and our community pool was Lake Moultrie, warm brown water and all. You could see a movie at the Cineplex about the same time it came out on DVD, but you had to hitch a ride over to Summerville, by the community college. The shops were on Main, the good houses were on River, and everyone else lived south of Route 9, where the pavement disintegrated into chunky concrete stubble—terrible for walking, but perfect for throwing at angry possums, the meanest animals alive. You never saw that in the movies.
Gatlin wasn’t a complicated place; Gatlin was Gatlin. The neighbors kept watch from their porches in the unbearable heat, sweltering in plain sight. But there was no point. Nothing ever changed. Tomorrow would be the first day of school, my sophomore year at Stonewall Jackson High, and I already knew everything that was going to happen—where I would sit, who I would talk to, the jokes, the girls, who would park where.
There were no surprises in Gatlin County. We were pretty much the epicenter of the middle of nowhere.
At least, that’s what I thought, when I closed my battered copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, clicked off my iPod, and turned out the light on the last night of summer.
Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There was a curse.
There was a girl.
And in the end, there was a grave.
I never even saw it coming.
I was free falling, tumbling through the air.
She called to me, and just the sound of her voice made my heart race.
She was falling, too. I stretched out my arm, trying to catch her. I reached out, but all I caught was air. There was no ground beneath my feet, and I was clawing at mud. We touched fingertips and I saw green sparks in the darkness.
Then she slipped through my fingers, and all I could feel was loss.
Lemons and rosemary. I could smell her, even then.
But I couldn’t catch her.
And I couldn’t live without her.
I sat up with a jerk, trying to catch my breath.
“Ethan Wate! Wake up! I won’t have you bein’ late on the first day a school.” I could hear Amma’s voice calling from downstairs.
My eyes focused on a patch of dim light in the darkness. I could hear the distant drum of the rain against our old plantation shutters. It must be raining. It must be morning. I must be in my room.
My room was hot and damp, from the rain. Why was my window open?
My head was throbbing. I fell back down on the bed, and the dream receded as it always did. I was safe in my room, in our ancient house, in the same creaking mahogany bed where six generations of Wates had probably slept before me, where people didn’t fall through black holes made of mud, and nothing ever actually happened.
I stared up at my plaster ceiling, painted the color of the sky to keep the carpenter bees from nesting. What was wrong with me?
I’d been having the dream for months now. Even though I couldn’t remember all of it, the part I remembered was always the same. The girl was falling. I was falling. I had to hold on, but I couldn’t. If I let go, something terrible would happen to her. But that’s the thing. I couldn’t let go. I couldn’t lose her. It was like I was in love with her, even though I didn’t know her. Kind of like love before first sight.
Which seemed crazy because she was just a girl in a dream. I didn’t even know what she looked like. I had been having the dream for months, but in all that time I had never seen her face, or I couldn’t remember it. All I knew was that I had the same sick feeling inside every time I lost her. She slipped through my fingers, and my stomach dropped right out of me—the way you feel when you’re on a roller coaster and the car takes a big drop.
Butterflies in your stomach. That was such a crappy metaphor. More like killer bees.
Maybe I was losing it, or maybe I just needed a shower. My earphones were still around my neck, and when I glanced down at my iPod, I saw a song I didn’t recognize.
What was that? I clicked on it. The melody was haunting. I couldn’t place the voice, but I felt like I’d heard it before.
Sixteen moons, sixteen years
Sixteen of your deepest fears
Sixteen times you dreamed my tears
Falling, falling through the years…