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The map showed the way. The coordinates were all there, the exact place and the exact way to get there. It was planned out and the route mapped with the sort of detail that only someone with the most intimate knowledge of such a journey could have forged. Perfect direction. Accurate distance. Landmarks. And strangely, a different emotional resonance attached to each location along the way indicated by abstract symbols and suitable colors.   

The journey began at the entrance to the forest. It was barely noticeable within the thick vegetation. Just a narrow opening the height of an average person. She had to duck her head to get through and that always made her feel like Alice.

She was tall, with her legs accounting for most of that height, helped along by the oversized heel on her black leather boots that were laced over a pair of tight black jeans. Above that was a black concert tee shirt, the band logo on the front had peeled off, leaving only an outline of what once was. The concert dates on the back of the tee were mostly peeled away too, except for the year in bigger letters at the shoulders that could still barely be seen, and it was a year that didn’t match her age.

Her hair was an uninterrupted black, every strand straight to the root, and it was long and stringy. Sections separated and went in one direction, other sections another, like tentacles of the Kraken. 

Her skin was pale, so much so that it looked bloodless, or that she went to great lengths to avoid the sun. Her otherwise washed out face was accented by black eyeliner and black for the lips. There was a smudge on her cheek. Black. It was a mistake. There was nothing intentional about it. Nothing at all. It was smeared around the edges, an obvious attempt to blend it in to make it look natural like the rest of the detail. The haphazard blending was meant to be as though it was part of the vision from the start. But it didn’t work. It looked like a smudge, because it was.

Once inside the forest, the area was spacious with giant trees lining a dirt path. Outside, the sun was shining bright. Inside the shell of the forest, where the sky was blocked out by a canopy of branches that were thick with leaves, it seemed more like dusk. Inside, there were moist earthy smells, pine resins, the hint of smoky hot cinders nearly extinguished. And of course, there was the man with the plaid jacket and caterpillar sideburns who always accompanied her, every time.

“You can’t make it darlin. I keep tellin’ you that.”

She needed to follow the path through the forest until it forked, then veer to the right where the path became an abrupt downward trek and the dirt was replaced with varying sized rocks that were embedded into the ground. The halfway point was marked by the old oak with the large hole in it, nearly out of the forest when the downward trek evened out and it suddenly became much darker. It ended at the same narrow parting in a wall of dense vegetation.

The forest opened up to a mossy meadow. A dozen shades of green blanketed from edge to edge. She stepped out from the forest, ducking through the narrow parting. Oddly, she left dry to walk into the rain barely noticing the change. In the mossy meadow, it was always raining. She sloshed watery, sinking earth. The cold water brought chills to her bones. Behind, heavier footsteps sloshed.

“You’re nothing, missy. I don’t know why you try.”

After the meadow, she followed another path made of wooden planks half submerged in the dirt. The path looked as though it was once a boardwalk that had succumbed to nature. The longest stretch of the journey, the leg, was more than a mile that cut through high switchgrass and lavender. She knew it well and sometimes would rest there, seated on the wooden planks to breathe deep for the faint scent of lavender and other flowery smells, and sit across from caterpillar sideburns who smoked a cigar that killed the lavender. She had reached that spot so many times, too many times to count. That spot was the crescendo. It was the climax.

At no point on the path could she see the destination until she was a few hundred yards away. The path sloped down, dramatically so, similar to the drop in the woods. It led to an old wooden bridge.

She dreamt about the destination every single night since the first realization of another somewhere beyond reach. The vision was a child’s dream, the kind of storybook fantasy where dragons are slayed and after the battle, hearts are merged in a way that contradicts the reality of the surrounding adult experience – empty words, and vacant promises.

Caterpillar sideburns always hung his plaid jacket on the railing of the bridge and walked knee deep into the river, leather boots and all. Crooked smile, crooked teeth, tobacco stained tee shirt that fit tightly around his beer gut.

“Ain’t no way over that bridge. We have been through this before. You are worth where you are, nothing more.”

The bridge was where the journey always ended. She would reach it, only to realize it couldn’t be crossed. Every time something different. It washed away just before she could get across, there was a wall between, it was on fire, sometimes there was no bridge at all. That’s when she would feel the other creeping in with the fading sound of caterpillar sideburns’ throaty, smoke marked laughter.

Then she heard a voice calling from the pasture that was annoyed by the triviality of wandering.

“Gracie, get your ass in the house. You think we can day dream all goddam day long?”

The pasture led to a broken-down rancher on the hill, the only house for nearly a mile. Farmland and woods surrounded with the state highway cut so close, the cars were almost driving through the front yard. The sound of the car engines and the big rigs roaring by were a penetration to the natural. She counted them to get to sleep at night, and would guess what kind of car or truck, and who was inside, where they were going, who they loved, what were their dreams, which one could take her away.

She nailed the hand drawn map to the tree, along with charcoal sketches of the forest, the meadow, the bridge, and the tall girl with black hair and the smudge on her cheek that was a mistake. 

“Gracie, answer me this goddam minute.”

She rubbed her charcoal stained fingers and thumb together and looked beyond the screaming voice in the pasture to the rancher on the hill with a porch rotting and falling off the house. He sat on the ledge of the porch, smoking a cigar with a crooked smile and crooked teeth, and caterpillar sideburns.

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