This previous week commemorated the 6th anniversary of the day I started the original story that would become "Sleepwalking"'s proto-manuscript, at Panera Bread on a snow day.
This is also the very first piece written from the "Sleepwalking" world not told from Ronnie's perspective.
If you'd like to read Ronnie's other misadventures, check out 'Taking Flight'.
I probably shouldn’t have hated summer, but I did. Which sucked, because summer was supposed to be a happy time. No school. Sunny mornings. Late evenings. Lemonade.
But lemonade was too sour for my tastes. Without school to go to every day, I was constantly bored. I was sort of scrawny, so when I sweated t-shirts tended to cling to me and show off just how scrawny I was. And I absolutely, positively hated being hot.
I pulled the baseball cap off my head and instantly regretted it. My hair was soaked with sweat, and it stuck to my forehead in wet, limp strands. With a groan I shoved the hair back into place and crammed the disturbingly damp cap back onto my head.
“Isn’t this awesome?” My sister Crystal said from the driver’s seat, next to me.
“Have I mentioned how much I hate summer?” I yelled in reply, over the sound of the wind roaring through the station wagon’s open windows.
“Once a mile for the last three hours,” Crystal said with far too much glee in her voice.
“I have to side with Drew, here,” said a voice from the back of the car. “It’s like… a bajillion degrees in here.”
I turned and saw an angel in a white v-neck shirt. She had an old Atlanta Braves cap of mine crammed on her head. I’d loaned it to her before we’d left home. It looked so much better on her than on me.
I smiled at her. “Thanks, Ronnie.”
Ronnie gave me a wink, then directed her attention back to my sister. “Have you seen me?” She asked. “White is not my color. I’m so pale, I can’t even be considered white. I’m like, clear. If you were wearing this, you’d look like a cute hipster chick. I just look like I haven’t done laundry.” She tugged her bra back and forth through the thin material. “I have boob sweat. Me. I barely have boobs to have boob sweat beneath, and yet still my body manages boob sweat.”
At that precise second, I somehow found a way to choke on my own tongue. I coughed uncontrollably, seeking air.
Ronnie placed her hands on her hips and looked at me pathetically. “Oh, come on. You’ve lived with us for a year now. Like this is even close to the most awkward girl conversation you’ve unwillingly been a part of.”
Ronnie took her phone from her pocket and swiped at the screen a few times. She waved at Deidre, her adopted sister, who sat in the seat beside her. “Hey, take a picture of me. I want to keep Facetagram updated of our epic summer road trip.”
Deirdre was making faces at her own phone and snapping rapid-fire selfies. With her earbuds in, she might as well have been the only person in the car.
Ronnie rolled her eyes at Deirdre. “Drew, will you take my picture?”
These days, I tried my hardest not to let every little word Ronnie spoke to me set my heart aflutter. At least, I tried not to show it in front of her. She was my friend. And nothing more. “Sure,” I said taking her phone.
Ronnie didn’t smile much. Not because she was unhappy or morose… simply because that was her personality. More often than not, she’d always have a piece of sarcasm or wit to hand out instead of a genuine smile. But when I raised the phone to her, she briefly set aside the I’m-a-deep-and-complicated-individual moroseness to blow a kiss at the camera. She puckered her lips, eyes half-lidded, and held her mouth just above her palm, fingers extended toward me.
I froze, my finger hovering over the screen of her phone. Geeze, she was so beautiful.
Snap. She was forever captured in that moment.
“How’d it turn out?” Ronnie asked, reaching for her phone.
I blinked slowly at the picture. The sunlight made the porcelain skin beneath Ronnie’s plunging neckline glow opalescent. She blew that kiss at me in slow motion, and when I stared at the screen the right way I swore I could see her moving. “Um,” I swallowed. “It looks great.” I handed the phone back to her, and Ronnie glanced at it and nodded in approval before pressing her screen and sharing it with the entire world.
“How much further?” I Deirdre suddenly asked, returning me to reality.
As the designated navigator, I had been mapping our route on my phone. “It says less than twenty minutes,” I told her. “Didn’t you see the signs for Vance city limits when we arrived in town?”
Deirdre looked skeptically out the window. “I must have blinked and missed it. Besides, I think ‘city’ is a bit of a misnomer, Drew.”
She wasn’t lying. Since we had (supposedly) arrived in Vance, I had counted one streetlight, a grocery store, a bank, and four fast food joints. But we had left the signs of civilization behind more than a mile ago, and now the two-lane road wound through woods that got denser the further we drove.
“I haven’t lost cell service yet,” I told the car at large. “It says we stay on this road for another three miles, and then turn left and drive for another two miles before we get to the Langly Estate.”
Ronnie peered out her window. “That is, if we don’t run out of road before then and get kidnapped by some crazed hillbillies.”
Crystal rolled her eyes behind her aviator sunglasses. “There are no crazed hillbillies.”
“No, I think Ronnie’s right,” I added. “There are always crazed hillbillies. Don’t you watch the news? Haven’t you seen stories of people disappearing in the woods and then being found chopped to pieces eight months later? More victims of the killer hillbillies!” I gasped, and opened my eyes so wide I imagined they filled my glasses. “The killbillies.”
“You always think Ronnie’s right,” Crystal laughed. I looked away, shyly. “No one has ever been chopped up by killer hillbillies.”
“Then they’ll turn us into forced laborers instead!” Ronnie cried. She and I shared a smile. “They’re always looking for lost city folks to enlist to work their whisky breweries, or something like that.”
“Still,” Crystal said.
“Still, what?” I asked, momentarily pulled from our paranoid tirade.
“You don’t make whisky in a brewery, you make it in a big copper cooker called a still,” Crystal finished.
“What?” I asked, flabbergasted. “How do you know?”
Crystal lowered her sunglasses and flicked her eyes to me. “You’re kidding, right? Dad had one out back. It was inside that ‘extra shed’ that he always kept the huge padlock on.”
My jaw dropped, and I momentarily forgot the act about killer hillbillies. Crystal had just shaken my entire world. “He told us he kept farm equipment in there! We weren’t allowed in because it was dangerous!”
“We didn’t even have a farm! What on earth would he need farm equipment for?”
“I always thought it was a work in progress, sort of a bucket list thing. And how exactly do you know about it, anyway?” My phone beeped, and I quipped, “Turn here,” and pointed to a small side road approaching on the left.
Crystal used her turn signal, even though we hadn’t passed another car in miles. “Do you remember Rebecca, a girl who was in my grade? She and I found the key, once, in one of the drawers in the kitchen. And then, one day while Dad was at work and you were at band practice, she and I sort of… snuck in there.”
If possible, my eyes got even wider. “No way!”
“You were in a band?” Deirdre exclaimed from the back seat, still oblivious of most of the conversation happening around her.
“Not a band, the band,” Crystal corrected. “He was in the marching band. He played the tuba.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, it was the Sousaphone!” I jabbed. “And you’re avoiding the subject. What did you find in the shed?”
“I already told you: a still,” Crystal said. “It looked like a big, copper ball, with all these tubes and stuff coming from it. I didn’t know what it was until Rebecca told me.”
I tossed my hands into the air. “Am I the only one in the world who hasn’t heard of this thing? How did Rebecca know what one looked like?”
“Apparently her grandfather had one,” Crystal said. “Turns out, a lot of people back home were making bootleg hooch.”
“Did you try some?” Deirdre asked, sitting forward in her seat.
A small smirk played on Crystal’s lips. “Rebecca dared me, so I took a big drink from one of the jugs. I ran outside and threw up about ten seconds after that. We thought we put the jug back where we found it and locked it up tight. We figured there was no way Dad would find out. But he must have known, because later in the week the lock was changed and the keys weren’t in the kitchen anymore.”
“You’re my sister!” I cried. “My little sister! How is it you know more about this than I do?”
Crystal stuck her tongue out at me.
Ronnie, who had been sitting in silence for most of the conversation, was staring at Crystal in awe. “Wow,” she finally said. “Those killbillies are definitely going to chop you up last, since you have so much previous experience with whisky.”
Before we could continue down the road of Crystal’s adventures in our dad’s illegal bootlegging operation, my phone mercifully chirped. “Hey, looks like we’re here,” I said.
Just as my phone’s robotic voice said, ‘You have arrived at your destination,’ Crystal turned right onto a long, gravel driveway. At its corner was a beaten, old aluminum mailbox that had Langly lovingly scripted on its side in flaking gold paint.
The station wagon crunched across gravel and flattened the weeds that grew through the driveway. Long thrushes reached toward the driveway and brushed the car like delicate fingers.
“Wow,” Deirdre marveled, squeezing herself between the front seats to get a better view through the windshield.
At the end of the drive was a white, two-story house. It looked like it had been built a hundred years earlier, and hadn’t been cared for since. Most of the shudders had been blown off by wind and rain; those that remained dangled dangerously. The paint was cracked and peeling. Weeds grew so high that I couldn’t tell exactly how tall the porch was because it was completely hidden.
“I take back everything I said about there being no such thing as killbillies,” Crystal said darkly.