where nothing grows

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Penny Winter, an eccentric and clever 18-year-old, accidentally stumbles upon the aftermath of a brutal crime. Given no choice, she swiftly vanishes into the night, abandoning her loving parents and the sleepy college town where she was raised. Bewildered by life on the road, disturbed by the memory of that fateful night, and tortured by her longing to return to life as she knew it, Penny finds an unexpected home in a trailer park. There, she meets an enchanting misfit who teaches her that she can bloom, even in a place where nothing grows.

 

Prologue

I had another nightmare last night. I sat on the rooftop of my parents' home. The full moon was heavy in the sky and it lit the entire neighborhood ashy silver, like a black and white film. The crickets sang, and every now and then, I heard a mob of bandit coyote pups yipping from the woods behind the fence.

I fixed my lens to the moon and captured its holy face looking down at me from behind rags of clouds. The late March air sent goosebumps up my arms and the chantilly lace curtains billowed like ghosts over the windows as I crawled back inside.

I walked to the record player and set needle to vinyl. A scratchy, skipping chorus of Courtney Love singing the song Doll Parts spilled into my dark bedroom. “I am doll eyes...” I put my camera on my nightstand and crawled beneath soft sheets that smelled of lavender. I closed my eyes missing my mother.

I awoke abruptly to a bright white flash, and there he was. Standing over my bed with my camera. He smiled and cocked his head to the side arrogantly.

“Well, hello, old love,” he said. His eyes were black, like they were the night I saw him in the yard. His oxford cloth button down was rolled to his elbows and stained with dark brown spots that looked terribly like blood.

That is always where the nightmare ends. I lurch from bed panting and covered in sweat. I fumble for the lamp, yearning for light. My eyes search the room for him and I honestly expect him to come around the corner. But, he never does. Not yet, at least. I’m always waiting for him. Waiting for the inevitable fate that I know will come.

Every day, I search the papers for my name. About a half mile from my trailer in Marigold Village, there’s Nana’s Desert Diner. I walk along an arid, dusty road so that I can read the paper there. The blinking red and green signage lit by marquee lights are beacons in the morning heat. The summer sky pounds white against my back as early as 8:00 a.m. I welcome the shabby air-conditioning and ice water inside the diner. I comb through the news for mention of my name.

There are only two news stories I follow. Both from my hometown. The first, the story of a missing girl. The second, the story of a girl who has been killed. The girls went to the same high school. They even knew one another, the reporters said.

I tore out a photograph of a vigil held for the girls. A thousand tea light candles flickered in the hands of students. They stood in the parking lot around shrines covered in flowers and photographs. Everyone mourned both girls, because they assumed that they would find the remains of the missing girl just as they had the dead girl.

I’m writing this in case they do. In case he does come for me and my bones wind up back in my hometown, in the woods behind my parents' house, in the river where they found the dead girl. I’m writing this for that reason, and I’m writing this because it is now the only story I have to tell.


*

 

Chapter One

It was the morning of senior prom. I told my mother this while she was preparing breakfast. “That it is,” she said as she scooped eggs from the pan with a spatula. She handed me a plate and I wrapped the english muffin sandwich in a napkin to take to the car. She followed me to the door.

“Know anyone who’s going?” She asked. I shook my head. I had never been to a school dance.

“What time is your last class?” I asked her. She pursed her full lips and twisted them to the side. She looked out the window as she thought to herself.

“I teach Native American Literature at 10:00 a.m and 20th Century Fiction at noon. I’ll have to confirm, but I was supposed to meet with a student about a poem she wrote. Why don’t you come by around 3:00 pm? Even if the student is there, I’d like for you to meet her. She is from Macedonia and has some fascinating thoughts on writing in English, being that Cyrillic is her first written language.”

“3, then. I love you, mama. Thank you for breakfast.”

I kissed her on the cheek and walked to my car in the driveway. An old red Jeep cherokee that had been my mom’s in the 90’s. Inside, it smelled dusty but when I turned on the heat I could always detect the faintest twang of cigarette smoke and sandalwood perfume.

I sometimes liked to imagine my mother when she was younger, driving west with my father, toward the Colorado college where they both now teach. I imagined this very car being loaded with cassette tapes and novels. I imagined that they would open the back door and sleep beneath the stars. Their love story is one that I know by heart. The very flesh of their romance is like a Shakespearean sonnet.

I waited behind a long row of cars to get into the school parking lot. All I saw were glittering banners and couples holding hands. Prom was in the air. In the common area, the student body president arranged pink and white balloons, handmade cardboard props and metallic streamers. She waved me down enthusiastically. “Penny!”

I looped my thumbs beneath the straps of my backpack and walked over to her. “Oh, hey Veronica,” I said.

“Will you be at prom?” She asked. She bounced on pink ballet flats and her long dark ponytail swished from side to side as she spoke.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Not really my thing, you know?”

She nodded. “Sure, sure. Well, if you change your mind, I promise that it will be great fun.” She held a ball of twinkle lights and she worked to unwind them as she spoke.

“You will be at the assembly this morning?”

I smiled, “Wouldn’t miss it. Any excuse to miss class.”

She seemed nonplussed by my comment. “Don’t you like Mr. Montgomery?”

I had forgotten that she was in my 1st period biology class with me. “Not particularly,” I sighed.

The ten minute bell rang, and I excused myself from the conversation. “Enjoy prom!” I said and I clonked down the linoleum hallway in my favorite Doc Marten combat boots.

I sat on the gym bleachers alone during the assembly. Mostly, I kept to myself at school. I brought a hardcover copy of The King of the Golden River with me. It was my favorite childhood fairytale and I had come across a spare copy in my father's study recently. I thought that I would read it if the assembly proved to be expectedly dull.

“Mind if I join you?” A voice behind me asked. I recognized her face, but I didn’t know her name. She must have seen this in my eyes, because she stretched out a hand.

“Ruth Rabe,” she smiled.

“Penny Winter,” I said, and I moved a few inches to my left to make room for her.

“Penny,” she said. “That’s a beautiful name. Like Penny Lane. Your parents like the Beatles?”

I shrugged. “My parents are both English professors. In 19th century England, there were literary publications called penny dreadfuls. That’s where they got the inspiration behind my name.” I told her.

“Huh,” she said, “that’s really weird.”

Our principal, Mr. Perez, introduced Veronica Hutchinson, our student body president.

She skipped up to the podium in khakis and a navy cardigan buttoned up to the neck. “I am proud to invite you all to join me tonight at Filbert Knoll High’s annual prom. Our theme is Night Under the Stars. Dress up and bring a date. There will be non-alcoholic punch and light snacks. Right out of these very halls, the band Give Peach a Chance will be performing. I hope to see you all there.”

She seemed slightly bewildered as she began to step down from the podium, then she turned quickly and spat into the microphone, “oh right, excuse me. I have the great privilege to now announce prom king and queen. Drumroll please.” She laughed nervously to fill the silence.

“Please come up when I call your name.” From an envelope, she pulled a card. “Prom King goes to Thaddeus Mars and Prom Queen goes to Zelda Owens. A hearty congratulations to both!”

The crowd erupted. A handsome, well-dressed boy slunk his arm around a beautiful blonde girl. The blonde girl, Zelda, smiled and she hugged Veronica. The boy, Thaddeus, stood with his hands in his pockets. One of his eyebrows was lifted in amusement, and a tuft of shiny black hair fell into his clear blue eyes.

“I want to thank you all for this vast achievement!” Zelda squealed into the microphone. “You did it! You made my dreams come true.”

Ruth coughed beside me and I stifled a laugh. She nudged me in the side, and gestured toward the exit. I nodded and followed behind her as she snuck out.

Outside the gym, she broke into hysterics. “Can you believe her? What a phony.”

I smiled. “Zelda? I don’t really know her."

Ruth led me into the school's courtyard. “Oh, she’s the worst," she said. “I’ve known her since I was a child.”

A flame plumed from the match she struck and the tip of her cigarette glowed red as she sucked in. “Her parents have this huge house in the mountains. In a gated community. Her dad drives a loud white pickup with a confederate flag sticker in the back window. It’s appalling. He owns an auto gallery or construction company or some shit.”

She blew smoke into my face. “Anyway, what’s your story?”


*