In advance of the publication of The Sojourner on September 30, here is a short excerpt:
I am sitting alone on the deck of our lodge, legs propped up on another chair, looking down the ridge at the river valley and the towering mountains on the other side, when a car pulls into the main yard by the office building. A man and a woman get out and linger by the door, which is locked. Neither of them speaks, though they share glances. They do not appear to notice me, and I go very still, blending into the background of the cedar planking on the deck.
Michael, the proprietor, appears on an ATV five minutes later, all smiles, no doubt having seen them arrive. He brings the couple inside the office, and I use the opportunity to slip inside our chalet, watching intently from behind the blinds of our kitchen window. My self materializes beside me, a blank look on my face.
“Go away,” I say, not glancing at me. My self heads to the door to go out to the deck. “Not outside,” I say before the door is opened. My self turns and goes back to the living room, no expression crossing its face.
When I am gone, I exhale in relief, feeling a tremor run through my body, which I let run its course rather than trying to hide it. There is no one here besides me to see it. Ana and Suon have gone into town for supplies and a break from this stifling monotony. The monotony is what I crave more than anything now. Sometimes it feels as though it is the only thing keeping me together, while I wait for the inevitable in whatever shape it comes.
Michael emerges with the couple after ten minutes and leads them to the chalet on the far edge of the property. Trees block my view of it and also hide it from the road and the office. We chose this chalet because it offered a clear view of the office and anyone entering from the road, thinking that we wanted to see trouble as it arrived. The lodges are a short drive up an old logging road from the main highway. It is the only way in or out, unless one descends the mountain by foot. The logging road proceeds up the mountain, but is a dead end and starting to get overgrown by forest in places.
Michael and the couple return, and they take their car around the path out of view to where the chalet is, while Michael disappears into the office. I wait another five minutes to give them time to settle in before I return outside to the deck and resume my study of the mountains. Michael emerges at more or less the same time I do and spots me. He waves, a gregarious, excited gesture, and, unable to contain himself, wanders over.
“Hullo,” he says, his accent one I cannot quite place, though he claims to have lived here most of his life. He has grey eyes that have a strange, dull sort of gleam to them. “Everything good for you folks? Enjoying your stay?”
“Very much,” I say.
“Excellent. You don’t need anything?”
I shake my head, careful to keep an empty smile on my face.
“Good. Good. Just let me know if you do.”
“We will. Thanks.” I wait, knowing that he will be unable to resist telling me what I want to know without me asking him any questions.
“You folks still planning on staying for another week or so?”
“We are,” I say. “We’ll decide in the next few days what we’re going to do.”
“That’s great. You just let me know. Happy to have you stay as long as you want. And now you’ve got some company up here.” Michael grins, counting the dollars he will be getting in his head.
“I saw that. Are they planning on staying long too?”
Michael nods. “A couple of nights, at least. Maybe longer. I told them about you folks, of course.”
“Of course. Did they ask any questions?”
If he finds anything innocuous in my query, Michael does not show it. “Not a one. They were mostly concerned about being private. I expect they’ll keep to themselves while they’re here. Didn’t say much about who they were, either. But then, I didn’t ask. Don’t want to be rude.”
“Of course not,” I say. “They’re probably just looking for a little romantic seclusion.”
“That’s what I thought too,” Michael says, happy that we agree. “That’s what I thought too. Now, there’s plenty of that here, as you folks know.”
Michael seems convinced that we are some kind of polyamorous contingent, and we have done nothing to dissuade him of that assumption. As he has told me before, we are not the only ones to have used the lodges for that purpose. But I think he is wrong about the couple. I saw their expressions before they arrived, and those were not the shared glances of lovers on a sojourn. They are here on business, but what business that might be I cannot say.
“Did you recognize them?” Suon says, her face pinched with worry. She is afraid of the newcomers.
I shake my head. “Nobody we know. Maybe not involved at all. How would anyone know which way we went?”
“We didn’t go very far.”
This is Suon’s usual complaint. In her mind, we should be running, staying nowhere long. She is probably right, though I wonder. There is nowhere in the universes we cannot be found.
“We haven’t done anything to put us on anyone’s radar. Besides, we don’t know that anyone is looking for us.”
Suon snorts in disgust. She knows the reason I remain here is because I believe any number of people are after me and that I cannot escape them, no matter what I do. Ana, who is sitting at the kitchen table with us, looks from Suon to me, a dim sort of concern on her face. I am tempted to ask her what she is thinking, but that seems cruel.
“I don’t like it,” Suon says. “I think we should go. Tonight.”
“You’re free to leave whenever you want,” I say.
“Fuck you, Laila. You know I won’t do that.”
“Maybe you should. It would be better for you in the long run.”
Suon slams her fist on the table, rattling the dishes. Ana studies her with the same faux-concern, not even blinking at her display of rage. “You think it’d be better for you if I wasn’t here, you mean. Well, it wouldn’t. You’d get to wallow in your despair, sure. Maybe throw yourself off the damn mountain.”
She pauses to gather her emotions, aware that she is shouting and the windows are open. We both glance in the direction of the chalet where the couple are staying, wondering if they can hear us. Ana follows our gaze. She has become a mimic. It is hard to watch, but I cannot banish her as I do my self, when the absence at the center of her becomes too much to bear. She is the reminder of what I have done and what is left for me to do to make it right, as impossible as that is.
“Anyway, where the hell would I go? This isn’t my world, in case you’ve forgotten. The Society will be after me too eventually.”
I don’t answer, looking past her at the mountainside, where dusk is slowly taking hold. Suon shakes her head in disgust and storms out of the chalet to the deck. Ana and I watch her go, neither of us stirring from our seats. I turn my attention to the fire burning in the old stove that we light in the evening, for the mountain nights are cold, even in summer. Ana fixes her gaze on me, studying me with an intensity that makes me uncomfortable.
“Laila?” she says. It is not spoken in the voice of the half-thing she is now, but the way she used to say my name.
I go still, not even wanting to breathe, as I stare in her eyes. “Yes,” I say at last.
She nods, as though that confirms something she suspected. It, too, is a familiar gesture. Tears begin to burn my eyes, and I fight to hold them at bay, while I watch Ana closely. She is watching me as well, and there is something like awareness in her eyes. I wait, unsure what to do, but she does not speak.
“Ana?” I say when it becomes clear she will not say anything further.
As I say the word, I can see the focus go from her eyes, the distant cloud returning as her awareness goes. For a moment, her eyes sharpen—a glimmer against the darkness that holds sway in her mind—and I think she will resurface. But just as it is there, it goes, her eyes dimming and her gaze empty again.
“Yes,” she says, eager to please, as always.
“Why don’t you go to bed,” I say, struggling to hold my emotions at bay.
Ana nods and heads to the bathroom. I wait until she is inside before I go to find Suon.