by Sarah Gignac

Not too far from the city, maybe a half hour’s drive to the east, a road led from the highway into the woods. The turn-off was unmarked and overgrown, barely noticeable to those looking for it, invisible to those who weren’t. The unpaved, grave-strewn road was part of a maze built, used and abandoned by the logging companies years before. It wound deep into the woods, through hills that were slowly recovering from horror stories. A chainsaw massacre, trees severed at the stump, the victims of industry. Or ravaged by fire, the victims of nature’s fury, a well-aimed bolt of lightning leaving only charred trunks to mark the forest’s grave. Some areas miraculously spared, but seeming out of place amidst the devastation. All of it, the living and the dead, frozen in a grey, snowless winter.

Theresa drove down the forgotten road slowly and carefully, unnerved by the rocky terrain and the desolate landscape. She did not know what she was looking for, or if there was anything to be found. But something compelled her to keep going, so she drove further away from the city, one hour, two hours, deeper into the forest.

A flash of yellow caught her eye. She slowed to a stop, put her car in neutral, and peered out her passenger window into the trees. A scrap of police tape tangled in a blackberry bush. The tape fluttered briefly, then lay still against the brambles.

Theresa closed her eyes, unable to believe where she was. Her window was open slightly and the smell of her car’s exhaust closed in around her. She took a deep breath and tried to imagine it as the last scent she would ever smell. The thought made her gag, and she quickly turned off the ignition. The engine grumbled to a halt, leaving her in silence.

She opened her window further, listening for any sound of life. There was nothing. No leaves rustling in the wind, no birds, no crickets. The air was still and stale. Dark clouds blanketed the sky and everything looked tired and grey. The land was silent, stagnant, dead.

Theresa usually found nature disquieting. She was used to the constant hum of the city, and its absence always made her uneasy. She told herself that was what she felt now. Uneasy at being so far away from her world. Uneasy at being so close to a world she didn’t understand. But that was why she was here. To try to understand.

She tried to imagine Marcellus sitting in his car just as she was. Why had he come here? Maybe he had been before, on a camping trip years ago. Her map showed lakes hidden within the labyrinth of logging roads. He and some friends may have gone up for the weekend one summer. It was probably nicer around the lakes, if the trees were still alive. Her map didn’t show which areas were destroyed and which had been spared.

Or maybe he had come here by chance. One random turn after another. Maybe he just drove and drove until he couldn’t take it anymore.

Theresa didn’t usually read The Mirror. It was barely a paper, just a collection of scandals: murders, crashes, deviant celebrities, all bundled together under the guise of news. Yet, four days ago had found her bored in a waiting room, flipping through a week old edition. The story had surprised her. Usually papers avoided mentioning suicides. She supposed it was the surrounding circumstances rather than the actual death that had interested the editors.

The article described an ‘unhinged drug dealer’ who had finally ‘gone over the edge’. A source told the paper that Marcellus Timberlake had been one of four partners in a home-grow operation. He was described as moody and unstable, and over the autumn his behaviour had become more and more erratic. Just before Christmas he had disappeared for a week. He finally returned to the grow house late at night and started tearing up the place. Two of his partners tried to stop him; he knocked one against the wall and broke the other’s collarbone. He managed to destroy around ten thousand dollars worth of plants before he ran out of the house and sped off in his car. Three weeks later a hunter discovered his Toyota. Marcellus Timberlake was found inside, curled up in his sleeping bag on the back seat. A rubber hose ran from his exhaust pipe into the driver’s window. The Mirror called it ‘the last desperate act of a crazed degenerate’.

Marcellus Timberlake. The name had scratched at her brain, a memory about to hatch. Hours later, driving through downtown traffic towards her prime-time TV and frozen entrees, the name jumped out at her. Her heart bashed so loud she thought she had hit someone. Slamming on the brakes, she swerved into the right lane, coming to a stop on the shoulder. Theresa felt like she had just regained her memory after twenty years of amnesia.

It was the ‘Timberlake’ that had thrown her. When she had last seen Marcellus he had been a Hart, just like her.

The silence was too much for Theresa. She got out of her car, then hesitated, unsure of what to do. She took a tentative step and stumbled, her heel catching on the dry, cracked earth. Not really appropriate footwear for this environment, she thought, and kicked off her pumps. The gravel dug through her nylons, biting the soles of her feet. One sore step at a time, Theresa walked up the road.

She looked for evidence of Marcellus having been alive there. A cigarette butt, a gum wrapper, a crushed beer can. Some turned earth where he had dug his heel into the ground. There was nothing. Just the police tape trapped in the bushes. Just a remnant of what happened after his death.

Maybe he used to go there a lot, to get away from the city. Maybe he opened his trunk for a beer and saw the hose and it just felt right. Or had it been carefully planned? Was every action calculated: park, get out, hook up the hose, get in, and that’s it? Did he fall asleep before the monoxide had a chance to touch his lungs? Or did he breathe every breath deeply and deliberately, drawing the poison into his body? Did he feel himself drift away? Was he aware it was the end?

Theresa stared into the dead trees. The silence was hypnotic. She felt the urge to step into the wilderness and never return. If she went far enough she was sure she would find a forest untouched. A forest that was still alive. She would walk and walk until everything fell away.

Billy, Theresa’s brother, had Marcellus when he was twenty. He and his girlfriend Caroline decided to work it out, as they put it. Caroline dropped out of college and Billy looked for full-time work. Theresa had been sixteen, old enough to sense it was a bad idea. Her family supported his decision and helped out when they could. But parenthood was hard on Billy, who constantly complained about his tough life. Theresa had always found this odd, for it seemed that Caroline carried most of the burden.

Billy left when the boy was five. Moved to another city and never mentioned his son again. He went to college and discovered a flair for marketing analysis. His first job was for a software development company, and he quickly worked his way up to head of sales. Billy (or William, as he insisted on being called after he graduated) married a woman who had a daughter, and they had two more children together. When he announced their engagement, Theresa wanted to ask why. Why had he fled one mother only to marry another? What would have been the harm in marrying Caroline, providing for the child he already had?

William never paid any child support, and Caroline never asked. She let him depart from Marcellus’ life without a fight.

After William left, Theresa and her parents kept in contact with Caroline for a while, but slowly their efforts tapered off. Theresa couldn’t say why. She supposed they simply got caught up in their own lives. Caroline wasn’t really family, and Billy’s new life took up a lot of their time. He was the family’s success story and they all gravitated towards him.

There was so much about Marcellus that Theresa didn’t know. Twenty-three years worth of memories she had missed. She was tempted to fear the worst; Caroline getting into drugs, prostitution, Marcellus being bounced from foster home to abusive foster home. Had he remembered his father? Remembered her? If so, had he hated them?

The article claimed Marcellus was unstable. Had he been seriously ill, requiring treatment that William could have provided? Or was he only messed up in the ordinary way so many people are?

Theresa didn’t have a family of her own. Her brother’s first experience had scared her. She was afraid one day she would get up and walk out. Or worse, her husband would walk out on her. She’d thought a family would get in the way of friends, of fun, of life. Now, on the verge of turning forty-five, Theresa regretted her decision. She wanted to gather everyone she loved close to her, as close as possible. She felt like life had slipped away from her.

Maybe Marcellus had felt that too.

There had been no funeral. There was no one to attend. His partners certainly wouldn’t show up, especially after the article was printed. Theresa didn’t know what had happened to Caroline. The police had been evasive when she had asked about Marcellus’s family. They wanted to know why she was interested. She hesitated to identify herself as a relative.

She didn’t think William knew. She didn’t know how to tell him. Or her parents. They spoiled their three grandchildren. Did they need to be reminded there had been an unattended fourth? She wasn’t sure her family could look each other in the eye and admit they’d forgotten about a grandchild, a nephew, a son.

Theresa considered staying on the road until she was found. It had taken three weeks to discover Marcellus. She would meditate and think and pray and mourn. She would beg forgiveness for letting him slip away.

The last time Theresa saw Marcellus, Caroline asked her to adopt him. It was on his sixth birthday. They’d met in a playground close to Theresa’s apartment. She hadn’t felt like straying too far from her neighbourhood. Caroline took two buses to meet her.  They watched Marcellus spinning on the merry-go-round.

“He’s being forgotten. I can’t stand to watch it.” There was no blame in Caroline’s voice, only sadness.

Theresa felt a tiny pang of guilt as she denied the truth in Caroline’s words. “You’re exaggerating.”

“He’d be better off. Your family would help if he was your responsibility.”

“He needs his mother. You can’t let him go.”

“I can’t do it alone. Theresa, please.” Caroline looked exhausted, beaten, like she could curl up and sleep the rest of her life away. Theresa suggested she take a vacation.

After that, Caroline and Marcellus seemed to disappear. Caroline’s number was disconnected, and when Theresa tried to visit a few weeks later she found another family living in their apartment. Despite their good intentions, no one in Theresa’s family had made much of an attempt to find them.

Behind the clouds, the sun went down, and a chill settled in the air. It seeped out of the dead forest and covered the road. Theresa tiptoed back to her car, her feet numb from the rocks and the cold. She tried to think of a parting gesture for her nephew. Carving his name in a tree, or taking the police tape and throwing it in the river. Nothing seemed appropriate. In the end she just drove away, slowly and carefully, leaving scarred woods behind her. She didn’t realize she had left her pumps toppled on the cold earth until she was almost home.

Gignac’s short fiction has been published in literary journals The Round-Up, Existere, Pilot Project and Pearls. She wrote, directed and produced her first short film, Curtains, in 2013, about four old circus performers at an unusual wake for a dear friend. It has screened in many film festivals across North America. She is currently working on a novel about a young women struggling to survive winter in a cursed town. She lives and writes in Halifax, Nova Scotia.