When Jana and I started out, pedaling away from her dad’s slumping cottage, the sky overhead was a rich blue punctuated by the white gaze of the sun. We packed plastic baggies of peanut butter sandwiches and a couple of oatmeal cookies into the basket fastened to her handlebars. The thermos of milk went into my backpack, along with a couple of towels, a patch kit, and a foot pump. Jana’s front tire had a bad habit of leaking and we planned to make it all the way to the lake with enough time to swim, eat, and work on our tans before we had to start back to beat the twilight.
The edge of town was a couple miles behind when the muggy air started cutting cold and the wispy white clouds transitioned into glowering black monstrosities like smoky demons leaping off the toasted landscape. Jana and I stopped and had a short debate about whether to press on or turn back. We settled on going ahead because that’s what Jana wanted. The sudden chill tugged tiny white goosebumps along the bare brown skin on my arms and legs, and Jana urged me faster so the exertion would keep us warm. I was just about to shout at her to stop and give up, that I wasn’t going to get in the lake anyway with it being so cold, when the hail started.
Later, I would imagine the hail as being the size of a corn kernel, sharp and dangerous to eyes and scalps. I think though it was smaller, just a flurry of tiny frozen raindrops. But they fell fast and hard, stinging on impact and cold across our exposed flesh. Jana stopped and turned, hands protecting her eyes, her face a ruin of apology and fear. I scanned the horizon for a tree or outcropping to hide under and stopped short when my eyes found a structure, a wooden shack scarcely larger than an outhouse, nestled in the crook of a small ravine just a few yards off the roadway. The most remarkable thing about the shack was that, having traveled at least this far along the road dozens if not hundreds of times, I had never noticed it before.
We left our bikes kick-standing just off the road’s surface, parallel to the shack, to serve as a marker in case some motorist or one of our parents happened by. I grabbed the food in one hand and Jana’s arm in the other and sprinted through the scorched, thigh-high weeds, ignoring the sharp stabs of brambles and dry foxtails poking through my socks.
The shack’s door was on the lee side, and we huddled there for a moment with the ill-fitting roof’s short awning providing us enough protection to catch our breaths and rub our arms, trying to coax some warmth back into them. I’m not sure I ever intended to try to go inside the little building. It looked rickety, unable to support its own weight well, and I was sure we would find it locked. Jana was always braver than me. As soon as the majority of the ice crystals had melted on her face, she turned and began studying the door. It had a ring on the wall and a hinged, slotted plate attached to the door which could fit over the ring and be padlocked to prevent opening. Both were oxidized and filthy, set to the locked position, but there was no lock, only a curved, whittled stick threaded through to keep the door closed. Jana tugged on the stick for a moment before it popped free. The plate was rusted in place, but she pulled on the small cabinet handle that clung to the door by a solitary screw and it shrieked open, howling like a protest on forgotten hinges.
Inside, the air was still humid and hot. I thought to remark on the apparent sturdiness of the wooden flooring, having somehow expected from the outside that the four walls had been erected around a simple dirt patch. I marveled at the overall pleasantness of the interior, particularly in contrast to the outside. It was obvious no one had been there for quite a long time, but before leaving they seemed to have lived there and left the place clean. The little cot was made; the tiny table had two place settings arranged atop a dusty but precisely positioned tablecloth; the small stone hearth, whose chimney rose along the back wall and had been invisible from the road, was unsoiled and loaded with two freshly cut logs.
“I feel a bit like Goldilocks,” Jana said, looking around what I now had to admit was more of a cottage than anything else.
“Except your hair is brown,” I said, sliding open a drawer on the nightstand and revealing a leather-bound Bible and a dog-eared copy of The Catcher In The Rye.
“Don’t touch that!” Jana scolded, slapping at my wrists.
“Because it doesn’t belong to you.”
“So? No one’s been here in a long time. I don’t think it belongs to anyone.”
“Don’t be daft,” Jana said, giving me the exasperated look I’d only ever seen used on me and her granddad, “of course it belongs to someone. Look around, it’s a wee home.”
“A home no one has stayed in for years, I’d say.”
“All the same.” That was Jana’s way of closing a subject. I fell quiet and we listened to the hail batter the roof, which was surprisingly water-tight, despite its appearance from the outside. We settled on the cot, careful to disturb the dusty blankets no more than necessary. Jana let one foot swing beneath the cot and then out in front, not putting much effort into the motion, only expending physical energy with the carelessness of someone unconcerned with time. After two or three swings she pointed her toe and her forward kick caught the lip of a loose board.
“You all right?” I asked.
“Why yes. I always say, ‘ow’ when I’m okay. Haven’t you noticed?”
I scowled and leaned over to see what she’d kicked. One of the otherwise tight fitting floorboards was raised a little, a seam around its edge. I bent nearly double to look closer and Jana leaned over the top of me, flattening my guts against my knees. “Hey, get off me!”
We scuffled a little as she countered my annoyed push with a tickling assault to my ribcage and we wrestled for a bit until I inhaled too much of the dust we were stirring up. I fell into a coughing fit. She patted me on the back and I sat at the edge of the cot with my legs wide, hands turned inward on my knees. I stared at the loose board. Jana followed my gaze and we regarded the thing for a long while, until our breaths had returned to a normal, even pace. With what I thought might have been feigned indifference, Jana pushed the toe of her sneaker beneath the lip of the board and lifted up. It rose an inch or two, not enough to see beneath, but enough to tell it was loose and could be pried up.
In unison we collapsed on the floor, arranging ourselves around the secret we’d discovered. “What do you think is in there?” Jana asked, her voice unusually hushed.
“Probably nothing,” I said, but my voice betrayed my restless imagination.
Jana ran her tongue across her lips, eyes down, the short locks of her plain brown hair slipping one by one from behind her ears and hanging over the floorboard as if pointing to it. She glanced up at me briefly, a starry shine in the depths of her olive-colored eyes. Her fingers gripped the edge of the board and her nails dug beneath it, prying it free. For a moment I thought her grip would falter and it would slip back, slam down, annihilate the abrupt silence that had fallen. But she caught the rising end with her other hand and the board came loose.
The space beneath the floor was no bigger than a shoebox, not even wide enough for the notebook to fit inside flat, it had to curl at the edges. The hole had been dug into the earth, but thin slices of balsa had been carefully wedged along each side and the bottom was lined with dry hay and pebbles. It felt tended, like a much-loved garden. Aside from the notebook, there was only a nub of a tallow candle which had started to rot away and a pencil case resting atop the book, obscuring the face of it.
I looked up into Jana’s eyes, mischief and delight boiling there and I could already tell that no matter what was in the notebook, the story she would weave of this encounter upon our return to town would involve pirates or treasure or, at the very least, a formula for a magical spell. She plucked the pencil case off and set it aside.
The book was well made, expensive when it was new by the look of it, but very old. The cover was a rough, thick, colorless thing, heavy with pulp and covered on most every inch with elaborate intersecting doodles. Geometric patterns framed doodles of flowers and weeping willows, whose branches spread out to become thorny vines ending in curious rose/orchid hybrids. In the upper third, centered in two-inch block letters was the word “US” which had been outlined concentrically a dozen or so times before those lines too faded off into other inky tangents. In tiny block letters, following the lower curve of the S, was the word, “Illustrated.”
“Us?” I asked, reaching into retrieve it, “or do you think it’s an abbreviation, like U.S.?” I picked up the notebook and was surprised at how pliable it was, and how heavy.
“It’s us,” Jana whispered. I thumbed the pages, noting that they were edge-to-edge with small, loopy handwriting, the blocks of text broken only by the occasional drawing, each with the same admirable, if juvenile, quality as those on the cover. I opened my mouth to comment but when I looked up and saw how pale Jana was, how wide her eyes, how worried her brow, I faltered.
She didn’t respond, just kept staring at the notebook.
“What? Jan? What now?”
After her silence extended far past my comfort or her characteristic chattiness, she swallowed with deliberate effort and licked her dry lips. “Put it back.” She finally broke eye contact with it, looked at me instead and I felt a shudder skitter up my spine. “Please.” The ache in her voice as she begged dumped acid into the back of my jaw like holding a lemon slice to my lips, anticipating the wash of sour.
“Are you okay? You look like a ghost,” I said.
“Put the notebook back, and let’s get out of here,” she was pleading.
“The storm’s not over yet. Anyway, what’s the big deal. Some girl’s diary, yeah? Probably long moved away. Or dead.” I sensed immediately this was the wrong thing to say, though I couldn’t know why. I also sensed that I was being obstinate for no sound reason, but it was Jana who regularly dragged me into half-criminal misadventures. For once I was playing the part of the brash one and relishing it, so I felt lofty in the face of her obvious discomfort. Had I seen then what she was already seeing, I’d have run screaming from the shack or set it on fire or prayed for the hail to batter it into rubbish. Instead I mocked her. “Don’t be such a nancy.”
I flipped open the cover and felt my own mood shift a fraction. The wall of handwritten text seemed familiar somehow. I scanned it and found it tedious in its attention to mundane detail, like reading a grocery list written by a nine year-old. I flipped the page, seeing in my peripheral vision that Jana was shaking her head, scooting her way backward across the floor, her bottom leaving irregular tracks in the grime. More tedium, so I flipped again and on the third page I encountered a rendering of what looked like my parents’ house. I paused and examined it for a moment, scoffing a bit at the way I had failed to realize how commonplace my residence must be for a child to so readily conjure something similar from her imagination. I flipped again and a violent jolt overtook me like a slap and I fumbled the book.
I had seen my name.
Looking up, Jana was across the room by now, difficult to see in the gloom outside the shaft of light from the open door. Her eyes were horse wide, spooked, and she hadn’t stopped shaking her head. “It can’t be,” she said, her voice a low, wet thing, a bullfrog holding back a sob.
“Are you playing with me?” I accused.
“No,” she said, “I told you to put it back.”
“Whose is this? Why is my name in here?”
“I don’t know, honest I don’t. It can’t be.”
“Well you know something about this, though? Otherwise…”
“Just put it back, we have to leave. Something isn’t right,” Jana said. She was infuriating me with her lack of lucidity. I felt like slapping her.
I leapt to my feet and rolled the notebook into a rod, brandishing it like a weapon. “We’re not going anywhere until you tell me what this is!” I screamed at her, threatening her. She cowered and I pitied her. I knew I could be cruel, the temper I so zealously hid from adults and acquaintances was only ever allowed to surface against those I was closest to. For a long time, Jana was the only one who knew how vicious I could be. She began to cry, hugging her knees, body tense, anticipating the blows I fought with equal strength to retain and to let loose. In the end they canceled each other out and I struck the wall with the palm of my hand in a stinging open-hand punch that drove a half dozen splinters into my skin. I shook it, hissing in frustrated agony, pacing the tiny room.
After a minute I leaned against the small table, shoulders rising and falling, burning anger in my focused glare on Jana’s huddled form. When my rage subsided a little, I flipped open the notebook again, stopping about a quarter of the way in. The hostile movements of my arm snapping pages across one by one were necessary only to make hateful noise, to dare Jana to look up again while my iron was still hot. I glanced down for a second and my temper froze, icing my veins like hot maple syrup dropped onto a snowbank. The drawing on the page was the shack. This shack. Straight, angled lines with tiny polygons at the ends represented hail and off in the background, overlapped a bit by the encroaching text, were two bicycles, propped upright by kickstands just off the side of a road. The road. Our road.
I read a short bit of the surrounding diary.
“We were surprised we had never noticed the little shack before, for as many times as we’d ridden along that stretch of road. When the hailstorm started we talked about whether to head home or press on and I’m sad to say it was my idea to keep going. I hoped the storm would flash gone as quickly as it had set upon us, but it was clear soon enough that would not be the case. So anyway, we raced down into this ravine and ducked behind the old shed that looked as if it might collapse at any moment…”
I flipped ahead.
“…But how can that notebook be this notebook? And they are the same, though the one in the cabin is far more complete, almost as if it is much older than mine. In any case, once Stef saw what was inside, a great row commenced and I was accused over and over of trying to induce madness. And I kept saying the whole thing was mad and couldn’t be possible and what good was it to blame me for something I didn’t understand any better?”
The sight of my name again, the predicted argument I fought as it rose in my chest the way I might try to suppress a cough during exams, the exact way Jana’s handwriting knew I wanted to tell her she was trying to send me bonkers. It sickened me. Instead of confronting her again, I pressed my lips together and flipped a few more pages ahead.
“I don’t know why I keep going back. Ever since the accident, when I found the older notebook it seemed like it was maybe supposed to be a warning. It makes my head hurt to think how it could have been there, but if I’d read it myself, if I hadn’t let Stef run out of there… when I try to sleep my thoughts are pretty much one word, over and over: Maybe. Maybe somehow the notebook itself tried to warn me. Maybe in the future we figure out how to change time or send things back like in one of Davey’s silly comic books and some older version of me… does something to try and stop it.”
I looked over the top of the page and saw Jana’s eyes, peering up over her tear-glistened arms, something in my expression alarming to her. My teeth squeaked from the pressure of my jaw and I whipped the page across, picking another point about halfway down to begin reading. There was a complicated diagram of looping arrows arcing over and swooping beneath a central line made from a thin rectangle, filled in by diagonal crosshatches.
“At some point we would have had to find the shack without discovering the secret compartment, or at least without finding anything beneath the floorboard. But it only makes sense to go back, to modify what happened there, if the accident or some other, similarly horrible, event took place. Otherwise there would be no need for a warning. Which then forces the question: If I wanted to warn myself, why not a big bloody plaque reading ‘JANA DURHAM! GET STEF TO THE SAFETY OF TOWN BEFORE 1:37 OR ELSE’? Or maybe that was tried and determined to be a failure during one of the cycles. And here we are, yet again, at that blasted word: Maybe.”
I checked my wristwatch and noted the time was 12:41.
Fifty-four minutes later I slammed the door to the shack behind me, intending to leave Jana in the dark of the cabin with her tricks and her phony protests of innocence. I stomped up to the road, barely noticing that the hail had stopped and though the vindictive clouds remained, the sun was worrying its way through like a tongue on a lollipop. The kickstand snapped up, its spring clicking from the sudden release of tension. My motions were aggressive, explosions of frustration inaudible against the roar of angry blood in my ears.
The car was silent as far as I was concerned. I never heard a squealing tire, a shout of alarm, even the crack of fender on bone or the hollow thump of body on hood. I don’t remember feeling the backpack open or seeing the contents scatter the road. I do remember smelling things: the reek of poison on the driver’s breath; the oddly metallic tang of blood, detectable only when large quantities are present; the cloying sweetness of Jana’s regrettable vanilla perfume.
I’ve never left the hospital, in all this time. Technically I’m in my room at my parent’s house, but the full-time nurse and the antiseptic environment they’ve created here to replace my cinema posters and favored tchotchkes make it indistinguishable from a space that never belonged to me. I missed graduation, and college, and marriage, and life. Jana came a lot in the early days, but she’s gotten busy. It took me years to figure out how to communicate so for a long time I just listened to her talk. Sometimes I would hate her. Some days I would love her. When she told me about Michael, I did a little of both.
Today when she visits, I will tap out my message to her in the morse code we’ve both gotten so good at, and I’ll hope next time will be the one where we get it right. I understand now that it’s not her we’ve got to convince, that her faults aren’t the ones she needs to concern herself with. The key is getting my stubborn, hot-headed younger self to open those miserable eyes for just a second, to absorb some of the wonderful curiosity Jana allowed us to live vicariously through.
She tells me the notebook is almost done. I ask if she’s been spending a lot of time at the shack and she avoids the subject, which means she’s either very close to discovering the secret or she’s very far away. I know she will figure it out eventually though. And we’ll try again, until I get it right.