“Are you sure the car is alright?” I couldn’t help but ask for the third time. The engine of the old pickup sounded like it could explode any minute and I loved my life too much to die because of such a rolling pile of junk.
My uncle lovingly caressed the dashboard.
“She is an old lady, she is allowed to have an attitude.”
“As long as her, attitude‛ doesn’t get me killed …” I mumbled.
“I bet you wouldn’t find such a beauty in the big city,” he chuckled.
Damn right he was and I was glad about that.
Several times uncle Pete tried it with small talk like really tried, yet we didn’t manage to exchange more than a few sentences.
As a fifty-something plumber from rural Canada and a twenty-four-year-old model from New York we basically had nothing in common except our DNA.
On top of that an hour ago when my uncle had picked me up from the airport it was actually the first time we had met.
Over the last months, we had spoken on the phone a couple of times but we had just talked about my mother’s condition, so we ended up settling for mutual silence for the rest of the three-hour drive to Amber Grove.
My mother had run away from home when she was sixteen, wanting to escape a mundane small-town life and become a Hollywood Starlet. A classic. In the end, she only landed some minor parts in TV productions.
Still, that’s how she had met my father, the renowned – and married – actor Steve Cortega. It wasn’t love, for either of them. It was a moment of pure Lust that should never have happened, but it did and here I am.
Long story short: The scandal almost ruined the career and marriage of my father and my mother couldn’t handle having earned the reputation of a slutty homewrecker thanks to the media and started getting into drugs.
When I was thirteen, she went to rehab, but that was only her first visit of many. In the end, her body couldn’t take it anymore, her organs started to fail.
Her final wish had been to die where she was born, being reunited with her estranged family at last.
My uncle, her younger brother, had kindheartedly granted her this wish, that was half a year ago. I had come to Canada for her funeral.
Amber Grove was your typical rural small-town: a bunch of tiny independent shops lined the “main street” with corny names like ~Becky’s Bakery~ or ~Shakespeare’s and Company~.
I couldn’t spot one single building with more than three levels and according to the sign exactly 1351 people lived here, which I had serious trouble wrapping my head around.
It felt like stepping into a strange parallel universe, a world that to me up until this point had only existed in children’s books or tacky movies. I had always been a city girl.
Being born and raised in the bustling Los Angeles it was all I knew. Currently, I was living in New York when I wouldn’t have a shooting at a metropolis somewhere around the globe.
So to me, this trip was an experience, to say the least.
“Here we are. Home sweet home,” my uncle happily chanted when he pulled in to park the pick-up in front of his garage. His house looked old but one could see it was looked after and kept in shape with love.
The front porch was decorated with lanterns hanging from the roof, two rocking chairs, and a couple of flower pots sending off a cozy welcoming atmosphere.
My uncle growled heavily as he lifted the two big suitcases that I had brought with me out of the trunk. Lucky for him I had decided against a third one at the last minute, considering I would only stay here for three days.
Originally, I had planned it to be just one night and then head back to New York right after the funeral tomorrow.
But Pete had invited me to stay with him and his wife Susanne a little longer since they would celebrate the birthday of their oldest son James this weekend.
My father's family had always treated me like shit so I was quite skeptical towards this invitation at first, wanting to decline. To me, family was equivalent to rejection, insults, and sadness.
On the other hand, I knew my horrible experiences in that field were not in the least representative and if I ever wanted to get over them, what better way than to make some new good experiences in that department, right?
Okay, those had been the words of my shrink, but they sounded reasonable so I eventually agreed.
It was also the least I could do to thank my uncle and my aunt for taking care of my mother those last months even though she was basically a stranger to them.
“Wait up, I’ll help you, dad!”
A young man stormed out of the house – my cousin James I assumed. He was about my age, just a little taller than me, and wore jeans and a red shirt with the logo of a football team.
In comparison to his father, he was of slim build, but they both had the same short blonde hair.
“You must be Gemma. Nice to meet you. I am James,” he greeted me with a soft smile on his lips.
“Hi, James, nice to meet you too.”
“Wow, did you wear that stuff for the whole trip?” he asked, openly staring at my outfit. I wore a blue strapless blouse with puffy long sleeves, white trousers with a huge belt around my waist, and red high heels.
“I mean don’t get me wrong, you look gorgeous, but man does it look uncomfortable.”
He didn’t sound insulting, he was just honest and I immediately liked that about him.
“Beauty knows no pain. You get used to it. Thanks for the compliment, by the way.”
He winked at me.
“You are welcome.”
He grabbed one of the suitcases.
“Holy crap, did you put stones in there?”
“Should I have left them at home?” I teased.
He shook his head while muttering “woman”.
As soon as I went inside the house the smell of meatloaf hit my nose. My aunt had prepared dinner.
Susanne was a small, curvy woman with long straight brown hair that she had twisted in a neat bun. Their second son Mason studied in another state and would join us tomorrow.
“Do you want to change into something more comfortable before we eat, honey? Frankly, my eyes hurt just looking at you,” my aunt asked after she had introduced herself.
Now I knew where James had gotten his outspoken nature from. “There’s no need to impress anyone, we are family after all.”
I got to stay in James’ old bedroom since he had his own apartment twenty minutes away and didn’t mind.
I quickly changed into something more casual – black leggings and an oversized grey shirt – before I joined the other three in the dining room.
The food was delicious. Mashed potatoes and green beans completed the meal. Susanne beamed with pride when I praised her cooking skills.
“I am glad you like it.”
“We feared you’d only eat greens or fancy stuff like caviar,” James admitted, almost sounding a bit disappointed. “But no, you are practically a normal person.”
Uncle Pete threw me an apologetic look but I knew James was just joking. Besides I had already heard far worse in my life.
“What do you mean practically?”
“You live in a big city by choice.” He made a face as If he had just bitten into a lemon.
“Yeah, crazy, right?”
It was easy to talk with James and Susanne and I unexpectedly found myself taking them into my heart quite fast.
Both didn’t take themselves too seriously so even though we didn’t see eye to eye in a lot of things it worked out. They respected my point of view and I respected theirs.
We continuously teased each other in a playful manner while kindhearted uncle Pete watched and occasionally reminded his wife and son to not take their jokes too far.
After dinner, Pete showed me the guest room mom had stayed in to organize her belongings. Her bed was still there as were the machines she had been hooked up to.
It was a bright room with a huge window that gave a nice view of the garden. It was a good place to go. On the wall beside the window stuck a collage of photos.
My mom in some of her roles, my mom at the Oscars, my mom together with some celebrity friends of hers – and a whole bunch of photos of us together or me alone.
Our relationship was strained to say the least, yet seeing that she had cared enough to put me up there I couldn’t help but gulp.
“She really loved you, kiddo.” My uncle came up behind me, putting a hand on my shoulder to console me.
“She might not have shown it to you the way a parent should, but you were the most precious thing she had. She talked a lot about you and how proud she was of you.”
“I was a cash cow and a punching bag to her, nothing more and nothing less.” My voice was hard.
“Never once did she ask me what I want. It was all about her. Her dreams, ~her~ sadness, ~her~ success … She was selfish, and I can’t bring myself to forgive her for that.”
It felt good having said that out loud to someone other than my psychiatrist for once.
“Your mother made some poor choices and failed to deal with them. That’s unfortunate, but it’s also only human,” Pete defended his sister. “She was alone and she didn’t know better. Don’t be too harsh on her.”
I managed a wry smile.
Uncle Pete nodded and left, giving me the opportunity to calmly look through the few things my mother had brought with her and decide what to keep and what to get rid of.
When I was finished, Susanne offered me to join her on the front porch with a warm tea. Since the night was drawing close it got a bit chilly. Muffled up in a cardigan I took place in the big rocking chair beside her.
“Thank you. Taking care of my mom all these months, hosting her funeral, … You are good people.”
She took my hand and squeezed it for a long moment.
Suddenly the howl of a wolf cut through the night.
“Have you ever seen one?” I wondered. “A wolf I mean.”
“I have.” A strange shimmer lay in her eyes. “They are truly mesmerizing creatures.”
“I am actually more of a cat person,” I confessed. I got bitten by a dog when I was a toddler and never managed to get over my fear. Every sort of dog just freaked me out.
“Well, everyone has their flaws …”
The mortician had outdone himself preparing my mother for her last journey.
The traces of years of drug abuse and the last painful months were covered under a thick layer of make-up.
Her strawberry blonde hair that I had inherited from her fell in soft waves around her face and she wore a bright red dress that went just barely over her knees combined with red high heels.
She would have liked it.
“Bye, mom.” For the last time, I took her cold hand in mine. “I love you.”
Despite everything, she was my mother and I knew she had somehow cared about me in her own twisted way.
Up until this point, I couldn’t bring myself to cry over her loss. It would take some time for me to fully realize that I will never see her again, never hear her voice again.
My mother’s addiction had isolated her, more and more of her friends had turned away over the years until she had been all alone in the end, which was why I was the only American here and the guest list quite modest.
The oldest brother of my mother and his wife, a handful of cousins, three aunts, and an uncle plus Pete, Susanne, James, and I attended the ceremony which summed up to fourteen people in total.
Still, more than I had anticipated.
Pete introduced each family member to me and I exchanged polite greetings with everyone but I instantly felt they couldn’t stand me.
They eyed me contemptuously when they thought I wouldn’t look and I knew they were whispering about me behind my back.
Granted, I might not be completely innocent about that because the looks I gave them probably weren’t that charming either and if I had a friend with me, I would have gossiped about them as well.
To my defense: They were pretty much the embodiment of rednecks. It was almost satiric.
Everything about them, from their clothes to their language to their faces screamed country pumpkin and that just wasn’t the kind of people I would normally socialize with.
I didn’t understand their world and they sure as hell didn’t understand mine. It was hard to picture my mother had once been one of them and I began to understand why she had run away.
“You just need some time to warm up to one another,” Susanne tried to cheer me up but I could tell she wasn’t really convinced about that herself.
After my mother had been laid to rest everyone headed to Pete’s house. Since it was a lovely summer day, we had a barbecue in the garden.
Uncle Pete and his brother were the pitmasters, sweet James entertained his great-aunts, and aunt Susanne was busy looking after everyone else while I just awkwardly sat on a cheap lawn chair and watched the scene.
“Oh, Gemma, honey, would you mind getting a new bottle of ranch from the refrigerator?” Susanne suddenly turned to me.
“Not at all.”
I was actually glad to be given a task for once.
When I entered the house, I heard two voices from the kitchen and instinctively stopped. Uncle Benji, the oldest brother of my mother, and his wife.
“… Pete is an effing saint. No idea how he managed to deal with our sister for half a year. Probably because she was on meds and couldn’t do much but rot away in bed.
Served her right, that arrogant whore,” Benji snarled before taking a big sip out of his beer bottle. “And that girl is just like her mother. A big city bitch who thinks she is too good for us ordinary people.
I would never welcome such a slut in my house.“
“You want me to take that little bitch in? Are you out of your mind, Steve?” Angela snarled, pointing furiously at the thirteen-year-old me and my suitcases.
“Do you think I look forward to this?” my father snapped. “Believe me, I hate that girl as much as you do, but you know the media is watching us. I can just picture the headlines: ~Steve Cortega, the coldhearted superstar who rejects his own daughter~. We don’t have a choice, Angie!”
That stilled her. She pouted her lips and closed her arms over her fake breasts.
“Fine,” she bit out. “And how long will we have to put up with her?”
Out of the corner of my eyes, I spotted Pete’s car keys hanging on the wall and without much thinking, I grabbed them before rushing out the front door. I couldn’t stay here another minute. I just couldn’t.
It took me a few tries to get the engine of the old pickup started. On the first crossroad, I turned in the direction of the woods that surrounded Amber Grove.
A place with no humans was just what I needed at the moment.
Like a maniac I drove deeper and deeper into the woods, only thinking about getting away from society as far as possible. It wasn’t my fault I was born out of wedlock!
It wasn’t my fault my mother raised me in a big city far away from our relatives and became a junkie in the end! I didn’t ask for any of this bullshit!
A loud puff ejected from the engine and the car abruptly came to a halt. Smoke emitted from the hood.
“Great, just when you think it can't get any worse …,” I cursed and got out of the pick-up to examine the damage. That’s when I realized the road had morphed into a dirt track by now.
I must have driven pretty far. I was literally in the middle of nowhere and to make matters worse I didn’t have my cellphone with me.
I searched the driver's cab but all I found was a pack of old gum, some dirty rags, a flashlight, and two water bottles. I flashed my eyes at the little Jesus-figurine hanging from the rearview mirror.
“Was that really necessary?” I snarled at him. “What have I ever done to you?”
Exhausted, I rested my head against the steering wheel, fighting back the tears and trying to pull myself together.
I took a deep breath and decided to walk a little along the track. Maybe there was a hunter cabin out here somewhere or a camping ground or something like that.
Sitting here and pitying myself certainly wouldn’t get me anywhere.
Luckily, I was a high-heel prodigy thanks to my job so I was used to walking in them for a while. It wasn’t the most pleasant feeling though.
After a while, a rustling rang out from the trees on my left side as if something was rushing in my direction.
I took off my sunglasses and turned around to make out the source of the noise – and immediately cursed myself for not staying in the car. A huge dark something was running towards me with inhuman speed.
At first, it thought it was a bear but at second glance I realized it was a wolf. The animal was huge – at least four times the size of an ordinary congener.
I stumbled backward, my legs shaking like crazy. The monstrous wolf came to a halt but only a mere meter separated us.
Almost peacefully he stood there for a couple of seconds, doing nothing but staring at me out of his big dark eyes. Then the beast jumped and I screamed.
It went for my neck, pushing me to the ground beneath it. I tried to shove at the monster but of course, it was hopeless. The beast let go of my neck though almost immediately after it had bitten into it.
Now the animal hovered over me, watching me again with those dark black irises as if it meant no harm. With trembling fingers, I lunged at my aching throat.
They came back full of blood. Petrified, I locked eyes with the beast.
What do you want? Just finish what you started already! What are you waiting for?
I slowly tried to crawl away but as soon as he noticed the wolf let out an angry growl baring his teeth at me. A warning not to move. I had no choice but to obey.
I don't know how long we stayed like this. Maybe ten minutes. Maybe twenty. Maybe half an hour.
All I know is that at some point I started to feel a strange itch inside my body that grew until it was replaced by a pain so excruciating all I wanted was to die on the spot.
I felt like molten lava was running through my veins while all my bones started breaking one after the other. I screamed and cried as my body seemed to fall apart. I was in hell.