He cleared his throat and his gaze went back to me again, now pitiful. “You’re done with school. What’s left for you here?”

I cocked my head and snorted in disbelief. “Eric? The hell? You’re left for me here. Dad. Mel. There’s plenty.”

“You’re going to fall in love—”

My forehead scrunched, afraid of what he was going to say. Was it that obvious about Sage?

“—with Europe,” he finished, much to my relief. “And you won’t want to come back.”

“I might fall in love with Europe, but I’m definitely coming back.” I smiled at him, but he didn’t return it. In fact, he looked positively morose, his shaggy hair falling into his eyes, mouth permanently downturned. I hadn’t seen him this way in a long time.

It didn’t help that his gaze was almost…fearful.

I ignored the shudder that wanted to run down my spine and walked over to him, slinging my bag over my shoulder. I put my hand on his arm and squeezed it.

“Hey, bro, crazy monkey,” I teased gently as I searched his face for any signs that it would lighten up. “I’ll be back in less than a month. I’ll call you every chance I get. I’ll write you cool postcards. Maybe some nudie ones I’ll pick up from the Moulin Rouge.”

I thought he’d at least grimace at the idea of his older sister mailing him postcards with nude foreign women on them, but instead his eyes met mine. They’d never looked so dark.

“You feel it, don’t you?” he whispered so low that I found myself leaning in to hear him. “You feel…her.”

My throat felt thick and the room turned into a stuffy tomb, despite the breeze blowing in from the hayfields. “Feel who?” I whispered back, trying to hide the tremor in my words. “What are you talking about?”

He stared at me, thinking intently, his eyes narrowing. Then they relaxed. “It doesn’t matter. Just…come back. That’s all. Just promise you’ll come back.” He looked to the floor, to the tops of his scuffed Keds. “I hate it when you leave.”

I wanted to keep questioning him about what I “felt” and who she was. But the sharp horn from my father’s new old truck blasted through the house, and I could hear him yelling for me to get a move on.

“I’m coming back,” I assured him and pulled him into a quick hug. Our relationship had been very parent/child since our mom died, but now that his Tourette’s had (magically?) subsided and Dad was more of a dad, I was back into the older sister role. Eric had grown more confident, too, and with that came girls and dating, and with that came secrets. Space between us. It was jarring to see him acting like the worried five-year-old who used to run into my room at night when he had nightmares.

“Now come on before Dad has a coronary and I have to drive myself to the airport,” I said, leading him away from the room and down the stairs. We left the house, and as I saw my dad behind the wheel of the truck, staring at us impatiently, I turned back in the driveway, squinting at the sun, looking the house over. The paint was peeling, blue in some places where the years of summer heat hadn’t bleached it, and though my dad had started fixing the house up, the screen door still had a hole at the bottom of it where our old cat, Ratcatcher, had run through it once, and our name on the mailbox still said “merson” instead of “Emerson,” because the “e” had rusted away years ago.

I don’t know why I was taking it all in like that, smiling softly at the house that held more bad memories than good, but maybe my brother’s sober demeanor and that creepy, God-fearing look in his eyes did make me wonder if I would see it again.

Of course I would, though. There was no reason to think otherwise. No reason at all. No matter how many times I wracked my brain over the last ten months to find the source of the guilt I felt, the feeling that my time was running out, that I was in debt to invisible creditors, I hadn’t come up with anything yet.

I didn’t owe anyone anything and I didn’t owe anyone to anything.

“Dawn, sweetie,” my dad said, his voice gentle, like he didn’t want to disturb me. “We’re going to be late, and we still have to pick up Melanie.”

I turned and grinned at him and, by doing so, pushed all those dark thoughts and worries deep down. With my suitcase already in the back of the truck, I climbed in the cab, my knees smashed up against the back of Eric’s seat, and we took off down the dusty road, the windows rolled down and the air smelling sweet.

I shot the house one last look, willing myself to stay positive—I was going to Europe, I was writing for Creem again, I would see Sage, my rock god Sage—when I saw something that took the breath out of my lungs. There was something on the roof of the house. The shape of a woman, completely in black.

In the one second that I realized what I was seeing, the figure jumped. Disappeared from sight. And in the next second, there was no one there and the house was being covered by the dust clouds behind us. I kept staring and staring, frozen, hoping that I’d get an answer.

But I didn’t. I looked to the front seat, at Eric tuning the radio, at my father chewing on a piece of hay as he often did, and the sun was bright, and the future was off in the distance, and I figured I couldn’t have seen a woman jump off my roof because that just didn’t make sense.

You feel…her.

My mind didn’t want my brother to be making up crazy mumbo-jumbo, it didn’t want me to think that my brother was turning into my mother and not making sense, so I imagined her, whoever she was.

I chewed on my lip and took deep breaths through my nose until I felt relaxed. It wasn’t until we picked up Melanie and then another hour after that, when we all started discussing music and Europe (my dad had been to Spain when he was younger and had apparently been going through a Hemingway phase), that I made peace with what I thought I saw. Demonic horses in the night. Women in black jumping off roofs. My mind made it all up. Manifestations of guilt, plus too many sessions at the bong.

Right?

By the time we pulled into the Seattle airport parking lot, all my trepidation was gone and I was actually excited.

“I’m going to miss you, bitch,” Mel said as she squeezed my waist just before I went through the security team that was going through everyone’s bags. Eric and my dad had already said their good-byes; Eric’s was surprisingly upbeat, like whatever darkness he had in him earlier was banished, and my father was nervous but proud. I could tell from how tall he was standing and how he kept brushing imaginary dirt and grass off his finest denims.

“It’s just three weeks,” I told Mel again, prying her arms off of me. “And you know I’ll write.”

She wiped at her nose. “I know, but I wish I could be there.”

I smiled. “Most people wish they could go to Europe to follow around a hot rock star.”

“And not just any hot rock star,” she said, her tone growing serious. My stance stiffened, prepared for her to bring up the whole “he doesn’t love you, you’re going to get hurt, be careful” spiel, but instead she put her cocoa hand on my freckled shoulder and said, “Have fun, Dawn. Enjoy every second of it. And don’t you dare forget about me.”

I told her that would be impossible, and then I waved at them, committing their faces to memory, and went on through to my new world.

The flight from Seattle to New York was pretty uneventful. Since it was only the second time on a plane for me, I was still extremely nervous, convinced that we would all plummet to our deaths. The only thing that saved me was the Bloody Marys I downed—the inebriation combined with the empty middle seat meant that I actually got some sleep on the red-eye.

That said, I knew I was going to meet my assigned photographer looking like a hot mess, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. As soon as we unloaded at JFK in the wee hours of the morning, I ran for the nearest restroom and tried to wake up. I pulled my wild red hair into a ponytail, washed off yesterday’s makeup, and put on a thick coat of beauty cream before putting on some foundation and mascara, but even that wasn’t enough to make my face catch up to the new time zone. I sighed at my bleary-eyed reflection and ran my toothbrush through my mouth. I didn’t know why I was trying to impress some photographer anyway—he wasn’t Sage.

In fact, his name was Max, and that’s about as much as I knew. At first, the whole me-going-to-Europe thing was just Sage’s idea, but then somehow it became an assignment from Creem, and this time they wanted someone else to document the adventure. I guess I couldn’t blame them for wanting someone to corroborate this next story, but I did feel slighted. I really thought I proved myself with the story about the fall of Hybrid and all the other concerts I covered and musicians I’d interviewed since then, but I was afraid that Creem still thought of me as some flaky girl who lucked out.

And I mean really lucked out.

I left the restroom, my brain trying to remember what the French word for toilets was (la toilettes? W.C.?), and headed for my gate. The flight to Paris left in an hour, and I had been warned that these international flights boarded really early. By the time I reached the gate, I was sweating up a storm and my shoulder was feeling carved in by the strap on my messenger bag. Served me right for trying to cram too much stuff into it. I definitely didn’t need a whole tub of Vaseline on the plane for the dry air.

At the gate, the first class section was already having their tickets taken by trim, well-groomed women in pale blue skirt suits and jaunty hats. Their teeth seemed impossibly white, like something out of a Colgate commercial, and they had this aura of grace about them. Were all French women like this? I looked down at my corduroy bell-bottoms with frayed ends and my polyester tank top I had scooped up at the Salvation Army. I didn’t stand a chance if any of these chic French chicks decided to go for Sage.

“Excuse me,” I heard a southern accent drawl. “Are you Dawn Emerson?”

I brought my cloudy head out of my hate bubble for French flight attendants and looked beside me. There was a tall dude—like as tall as Sage, if not taller—standing beside me and looking me over. He was built like a brick house—not fat, but just large…broad shoulders, really wide chest. He was wearing a denim shirt with sharp points and embroidery, the kind that cowboys wear, and jeans with a massive bronze belt buckle. A cigarette hung lazily from his full lips, and his eyes were a bright emerald green and hooded in that way that you couldn’t tell if he was stoned or just naturally relaxed. His hair was an orange brown, and a few freckles were scattered across his nose and grooved forehead. I couldn’t tell how old he was really, maybe my age, maybe late twenties, and I just blinked as I tried to bring everything up to speed.

“I’m Dawn,” I said slowly, instinctively offering the man my hand. He eyed it, smiled to himself, then sandwiched my outstretched hand between both of his and gave it two quick and hard pumps.

“Max,” he said, still grinning. It was a nice smile, though it had a condescending jackass tinge to it. “I’m your photographer. They did tell you about me, didn’t they? Creem, I mean.”

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