Hell is a Rock in the Woods

Sophia Nadler

The world is subdued again, suddenly gauzy and palatable. It is the day before Thanksgiving. My girlfriend Sydney and I drive to her parent’s house in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee. We brush our hair and play a fun game called: Pretend We’re Not On Dope Again, Pretend We’re Still Going To Class, Pretend Our Hair’s Not Falling Out, Pretend We’re Still In Love With Each Other And Not Something Else. 

          We meet Sydney’s parents on the sprawling porch of their two-story log cabin on the day before Thanksgiving. They’ve kindled their wood-burning stove so the house is warm and smells of pine upon our arrival. I see my breath in the air, and the breath before that. The amber-tinged trees are about to turn. They’re dying; it’s that time of year. How they canopy over the dirt road on our way in—the lack of road signs, the teetering cell reception— it’s as if the sky is caving in. I hold an Altoids tin in my hands, cradling it like a baby. Its contents are more valuable.

          Sydney’s mother, Ann, stands in the doorway—she’s always standing in a doorway. Each time I come to visit, she hands me the dog-eared book she’s just finished and asks me what I thought of the last one. This time it’s Tartt’s Secret History. She stocks almond flour and fresh vanilla in the pantry so I can make macarons in her kitchen, smudging every counter with raspberry buttercream filling. She’s a savant for imported salts. She sprinkles big chunks of them on dark chocolate and tomatoes and I eat them so she will stop going on about it.

          Before marrying Sydney’s father, Ann dated a woman for six years. I believe she desperately wants Sydney to remain a lesbian. How else can she so easily dismiss our absences from family functions, our long trips to the bathroom, the incessant nosebleeds? Once, at a bistro in Nashville, Ann and I were left alone. After some silence, she divulged details about her ex-girlfriend Vivian: “She made the most beautiful pottery. We tried to sleep at the Museum of Fine Arts after closing, under the Eros statue. It just didn’t work out between us. I really loved her,” she said with heavy, earnest eyes. I craned my head away, looked down.

          Sydney’s dad is a shy, slender man with glasses like Jeffrey Dahmer. He makes pork dumplings and picks okra from their garden and asks me to try everything he cooks. Except he doesn’t ask, he doesn’t say anything really. He just hands me tasting spoons full of green onion-laden marinades and I slurp enthusiastically, making a face like, “wow so good.” He bikes each morning with his two chocolate labs held taut on brown leather leashes. On weekends he heaves a kayak onto the roof of his Subaru and goes to the river.

          The two met on the rowing team at Boston College. Sydney spent the first eight summers of her life with them on a sailboat, sailing in Greece, Africa, Puerto Rico. She says she doesn’t remember any of it. The idea of finding my bearings as a child on a dingy boat, evading pirates off the coast of Guinea, and inhaling sea spray is cruel and unusual punishment. My family believes that the grocery store parking lot is nature enough. People like Sydney’s parents feel closer to God when they’re in nature. I feel closer to calling an Uber. I feel closer to my Netflix account, my cushy bed, and humidity-controlled air conditioning. 

          So imagine my horror when Sydney’s mother stands in the doorway on Thanksgiving morning and suggests we take a four-mile trek into the woods to see some “miraculous” rock formation called The Twin Arches. Of course, the Altoids tin is almost empty now. I’d fished it out from under Sydney’s bed and indulged as she slept. 

          Through the bedroom window, the sky is swollen and grey. Maybe it will snow.

          “Girls, I think seeing the Arches will be a transformative experience, truly. It will be the perfect Thanksgiving.” 

          My stomach turns. I’ve seen many rocks before. Probably every kind of rock and none of them stirred an emotional response. I just want to get high and watch The Great British Baking Show. But we do what normal people who are not grey in the face do. We struggle with our parkas and join her parents for the hike. 

          Ann slices dried salami, oranges, and stilton cheese for the trip. Sydney’s father drives us to the trailhead in his Subaru. Sydney and I sit in the back, holding hands, exchanging pained looks. We are playing that game again. 

          Sydney’s father leads with his hiking stick and the two dogs chucking along beside him. Ann follows, stopping to point out mushrooms and thick purple moss, giving them names. The first two miles are entirely uphill. Sydney and I lurk in the rear, saying nothing. I’ve never seen such a skinny, steep trail. Well, I haven’t seen any trail in a long time. Heroin addiction entails seeing a lot of your bed, television, and empty refrigerator. 

          After two miles of tripping on tree roots, being prodded by sticky leaves and possible poison oak, we come to a staggering wooden staircase frozen slick with ice. I look up at the sky and watch it move. I ask it something and it answers at once, quick and violent as the wind. 

          Ann turns around. “Sophia, did you say something, darling?”

          “No ma’am.”

          “It’s just up these steps, girls. There’s a clearing and we’ll see it.”

          And so we see it: tall as a ten-story building, hauntingly tall. Standing underneath the sandy uneven stone, I imagine the center buckling in on us. I squint hard. In another life, maybe this is what saves me— this enormous, imperfect rock in the woods weathered into a perfect arch, an ancient symbol enduring. 

          Ann spreads out a picnic mat and Sydney’s father sits down beside her. The dogs fold onto their haunches next to them, panting. Even the dogs seem to look up at the thing in awe, like they believe in God, and they are seeing God, and it is this rock in the woods. 

          Sydney and I stand some feet away with blue hands beneath our mittens. I watch Ann watching me from the corner of my eye. I pretend to stroke the rock’s surface; I pretend the whole thing is really moving. 

          “This is surreal,” I say loudly. And then quieter, to Sydney: “We’re going to run out. We have to leave tonight.”

          She knows. 

          I muffle a sneeze and my head fills with inexplainable dread. “I feel sick already.”

          “Me too.” 

          She gestures to her mother meticulously unpacking the food from her backpack. “Let’s eat something, I guess.”

          Ann hands me a plastic bag filled with orange slices. “I’m so grateful to have you girls with us. And you, Sophia… thank you for being with us today. You know we adore you; we’d do anything for you.” She is trying not to cry, but I see the tenseness of her jaw. Sydney’s father nods solemnly.

          There’s something in my throat, a jumble of words I cannot untangle. Suddenly, I am so hungry. I unclasp the plastic bag with shaking hands. Little threads from my mittens stick to the orange as I bring it to my mouth. I try biting down on it, but I can’t. I try another one, and another one. The swirling air strews my hair in opposing directions. My chest aches. Every orange in the bag is frozen solid, inedible.

Sophia Nadler is an undergraduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021