Vega turned Riley so that he faced outward, and his cries grew softer. “Maybe you just wanted some fresh air, hey, bud?” She started walking. It felt good to move. The sun had risen higher, burning off the rainy mist that had clung to the ground, and the air skimmed warm across her arms. She started down Main Street and slowed when she came to the herb shop. The windows were packed with herbs, some creatively displayed in colored glass jars or ceramic pots, each neatly labeled. The small flower garden outside had been demolished yesterday by the pigs. Vega decided to hurry past, not wanting another run-in with the unpleasant woman.
When she got to the end of Main Street, she noticed a narrow trail hacked out of the weeds and following the road.
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She walked, enjoying the feel of her leg muscles working, the uneven ground beneath the rugged soles of her sandals, the tickle of foliage across her toes. Vega was accustomed to manual labor, jobs that taxed her body, and the last few months without work had worn on her in a different way. The woods were quiet, with the occasional chirp and rustle of a forest body flying or skittering through branches and leaves.
The minutes turned into a half hour, and the path sometimes petered out, then picked back up, looking more like a trampled human-and-animal path than a planned trail. She came to an opening in the trees and noticed that the path split—one side following the road, the other going deeper into the woods. She chose the woods.
It was darker under the trees, the sun blocked by budding leaves and thick limbs, shadows smothering the light. But it was peaceful, too, and Vega breathed in the fresh air and the baby’s rare state of contentment and kept walking. The trees moved closer, making her walk in zigzags around the trunks, moss below her feet muting her steps. Just as it occurred to her that she could easily get lost, an unnatural color glinted in the green and brown in front of her. She moved closer and her breath caught in her chest. It was a school bus—old, tires flat, grass and weeds growing up and around and through the wheels as if the vehicle itself had sprung up from below, a twisted yellow flower.
Riley kicked his legs, and it mirrored an excited twist in her chest. “I know this bus,” she told the baby. She was sure it was the exact same one in the picture she’d found as a girl. The one that still hung in the van. A concrete reminder of her mother’s life before Vega. She leaned her hand against a tree, legs suddenly weak. A deep sadness battled with twitches of resentment that she tried to smooth away. She hated to feel this way about Renee, especially now. But the truth tugged at her. Why had her mother kept so much hidden from her? Maybe Vega would have made better decisions if she’d understood what had driven Renee. What had made her so afraid to stop moving.
The moist earth absorbed her footsteps. It was quiet—a secret of the woods. She moved closer and her mother’s youthful form materialized in the doorway of the bus, a laugh frozen forever on her face. Vega stopped and looked up at the yellow beast and breathed in a past she knew nothing about.
It looked different from the picture, a little more worn for the wear. All the windows in the bus had been broken; a few had tattered, weather-torn curtains, but most were empty eye sockets. It sat rusted and alone and completely out of place in the small clearing, surrounded on all sides by trees. Graffiti covered nearly the entire bus: big cartoon faces; pentagrams; some good artwork, including a decent Bart Simpson holding a can of spray paint. That one was new. The graffiti was what had caught her eye when she was a little girl. It had reminded her of her mother’s tattoos.
The bus beckoned her, and without giving it much thought, she took a tentative step inside. Dark and musty, the air moved with her, dirt and leaves shuffling along the floorboards when she walked down the aisle.
In the front of the bus, the high-backed seats were torn, the padding spilling out. In the back the seats had been ripped out, leaving space for a table and chair. Oddly, this area had been swept clean—tidy, even—with a pallet on the floor neatly made up with what appeared to be clean sheets and a pillow. Suddenly, Vega felt like she was trespassing. The baby made a small noise, and she looked down to see that he was awake and staring, his eyes shifting as though he wanted to take it all in. She touched his soft head, ran a finger through his thin curls, smiled. A breeze from outside wormed through the windows, fluttering the curtain rags.
“A Light in the Forest”
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Vega sat down in the chair by the small table with an oval mirror on top. The baby’s face reflected back—round cheeks, soft pink lips. The spitting image of his father. She kissed his head and looked around the bus. What had this place meant to her mother? It had to mean something for her to have kept a picture of it all these years.
It looked like a childhood hideout spot in the woods. Vega’s hideout spot had been their lavender conversion van with the captain’s chair that spun in circles and the ladder that she climbed to sit on the roof with her mother to watch sunsets. They’d lived everywhere, taking jobs up and down the West Coast, weaving their way through the Rocky Mountains and down to the deserts of Arizona. They stayed mostly west of the Continental Divide. Her mother never wanted to venture much farther east. Vega had, though, and had begged Renee to find work on the beaches of Florida or North Carolina. Later, it became anywhere they could stay and call home. It wasn’t that she was unhappy—her mom was her best friend. She just couldn’t help feeling the pull toward something more normal, more boring.
She started to cry. It came on so suddenly she hadn’t even realized until a breeze swept cool over her wet cheeks. Maybe it was the loneliness of the bus that reflected her own or the realization that she knew so little about her mother. Or the still-tender skin around her wrist, the harsh truth that she’d stayed with a man like Zach because fear made him seem like her best option. Had her mother made a similar choice? Was that why she’d never speak about her past?
Melissa Payne is the bestselling author of four novels, including “A Light in the Forest” and “The Night of Many Endings.” After an early career raising money for nonprofit organizations, Melissa began dreaming about becoming a published author and wrote her first novel. Her books have been three-time Colorado Book Award finalists and Colorado Authors League 2019 and 2023 winners for mainstream fiction. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children. For more information, visit www.melissapayneauthor.com or find her on Instagram @melissapayne_writes.