Mick Riley grew up a stone’s throw from the shallowest of the Great Lakes. If she wanted to, she could’ve chucked a rock from the porch and skipped it across the water. Eight skips was her all-time record. Not that she ever tried too hard to beat it. By the time she was eleven, she didn’t have time for stupid games like that. During summer, she’d spend her days bailing hay for her step-dad, Jeff, a bull-headed chain smoker who paid her three bucks for every hour she worked. Mick didn’t mind the scratchy heat or the prickly straw that always managed to wedge its way into her boots, or even that half the boys her age were out playing soccer or gone fishing. She’d just listen to the staticky radio in the barn playing songs by Joan Jett and Def Leppard, AC/DC and The Ramones, and pinch the ever-fattening wad of single bills in her pocket.
At fifteen, Mick already took after her old man, rarely seen without a cigarette between her teeth. That, plus her tall, wiry height and Patti Smith-type of androgyny made her look years older than she was. That summer, she had her first proper job. At the Shoreline Marina she mainly docked customer’s boats, refueled, and swept up other people’s shit. The tips were good, though, and she socked them away, along with all the rest of the earnings she’d never spent on anything other than cheap energy bars. After work, she started hanging around with the other dockhands who’d formed a three-person band called The Linex. When eventually they asked if she wanted to play lead guitar - bass, drums and keyboard were all taken - she agreed without bothering to mention she’d never touched an instrument before in her life.
Two days after she turned sixteen, Mick cashed in on a used Chevy Silverado and drove The Linex all the way to the state border. That night, they played their first real gig in a dive overflowing with boozy undergrads. She remembered being onstage, barefoot, with sweat collecting in half moons around her neck and underarms. What she didn’t recall was the after party or the name of the girl she found sleeping next to her the following morning, conked out on the pullout couch. Something about the way that girl’s eyeliner smeared to her temple, the crust of cheap red wine on the corner of her mouth, made Mick feel like throwing up. With a white hot hangover, she drove the band back to Sandusky, shrugging off their shift at the marina.
Mick left home at nineteen, with Jeff shouting at her back to “get the fuck out if you ain’t gonna pay rent” and moved into a shared house in Port Clinton. For six months, she lived with her band mates, occupying a room with no view of the lake. After a major falling out over something as yawn-worthy as management styles, the band broke up and the four of them went their separate ways. After that, Mick took a job working for the events coordination team at the biggest water resort in the state. That meant she worked mainly nights and weekends, setting up and stripping down tables and chairs and sound equipment. Now, instead of music and gigs and the possibilities of touring, she found herself talking to her coworkers about 4-H shows and professional sports that stank more of engine fuel than human sweat. By the end of her shift, in the early hours of the morning, she’d be stumbling back to her grandparents’ basement, too beat to even kick off her shoes.
One afternoon, as they were setting up for a wedding reception over in the grand hall, Mick spotted a pixie-cut blonde sitting on one of the stiff couches lining the corridor. Stranger still, the girl had on a grey sweater and denim. Not the sort of thing guests at a water resort typically wore. Even if she was only there for the wedding reception, it didn’t start for another four or five hours. Still, the Pixie seemed content, reading a fat book with a plain cover, just the title and the author’s name. Maybe she’s trying to avoid her lame-ass family, Mick thought, imagining a horde of screaming, pissing toddlers in the wave pool on the opposite end of the resort. After that, Mick went back to help with setup and didn’t give the reader another thought. Eventually the Pixie girl and her book disappeared from the couch.
Since Mick had a working knowledge of audio gear, she usually helped bands get set up at events with live music on the roster. She was toting two extra mic stands down the hall when she spotted the Pixie again. That hair reminded her of the spikey, bleached-yellow summer straw. This time, the girl was walking along the hall, slowly, more like pacing than with any destination in mind.
Only after she’d already passed by did Mick turn and call after her.
“Hey, you lost?” she asked. After all, the pools and gaming areas and food courts were about a mile in the opposite direction.
“Nah, I’m good,” the Pixie said.
“You here for the wedding?”
“Nope. I wasn’t invited,” she said, then added, “Just wandering, mostly.”
“Well, the band’s gonna start warming up in there, if you wanna listen,” Mick suggested.
The girl checked her phone, as if it were a Magic 8 ball with all the answers, then said, “Alright.”
Mick showed her where she could sit, near the audio techs, so she’d be out of the way of the setup crew. As the band started their sound check, Mick helped with laying table ornaments and place settings, periodically glancing over to see if the Pixie was still there. She hadn’t moved, and Mick caught her grinning at something one of the tech’s must’ve said.
Guests started arriving at six and no one bothered questioning the presence of one uninvited girl wearing faded denim to a celebration of marriage at a waterpark. For the next hour, Mick didn’t have so much as half a second to notice her either. She was too busy dishing out plates of salmon and garlic roasted potatoes to a crowd already halfway to hammered.
Finally, at eight, Mick got her first break since starting her shift. Turned out this job was the excuse she needed to cut down on her pack-a-day habit. Out back, next to a fragrant dumpster, Mick bummed a light off the events manager. They made meaningless small talk, but Mick stepped back inside before her boss got the chance to fully detail her divorce proceedings. On her way to the restroom, she spotted the Pixie leaving the event space.
“Where’s your book?” Mick asked. “Saw you reading on the couch earlier.”
“Oh, that. I left it upstairs. It was putting me to sleep.”
“What’s it on?”
“Environmental law. Stuff for school.”
“You go to B-W?” Mick asked. She’d gone to house parties out there a couple times, back when she was living with The Linex.
“Ha, no,” she said, sounding more regretful than Mick would’ve expected. “I go to a tiny school down in Kentucky. It’s small, you wouldn’t have heard of it.”
“Why you all the way up here then?” Mick asked.
“I’m visiting my boyfriend. I drove up this morning to see him, but he didn’t mention picking up a shift. I have to drive back tomorrow. Another five long hours on the road. Great decision on my part.”
“So why’re you, like, here . . . at the resort?”
“My boyfriend’s the facilities manager for the pool area, whatever you call it. I didn’t want to wait around at his place. His roommate’s creepy as sin. I’m just killing time till he’s done.”
“Least you got to read.”
“I did get most of my coursework done,” she agreed. “So that’s something.”
“You hungry? I could show you where the cafe is, if you want. I’m heading that way,” said Mick, even though the Pixie had spent the better part of the afternoon wandering the resort and had probably found any number of food stalls and restaurants already.
Somewhat surprisingly, she agreed. “I haven’t eaten since I stopped for gas,” she admitted.
“Alright. Gimme two minutes,” said Mick, who’d been on her way to the restroom.
There, she did her business then splashed water on her face over the sink. As she dabbed her skin with a rough paper towel, she checked her hair, her complexion, both on the dry side. Her teeth weren’t great, either. The cigarettes didn’t help. When she stepped back into the hallway, the Pixie in the grey sweater was standing off to the side, waiting for her.
“I’m Will, by the way,” she said. “It’s Willow, actually, but everyone’s called me Will since I was, like, two.”
“I’m Mick,” said Mick, leading the way down the unreasonably long corridor toward the opposite end of the resort. “But you probably could’ve guessed that from the name tag.”
“Is it short for something?”
“You don’t wanna know.”
“You don’t have to say, if you don’t want to.”
“Oh. Really?” Will asked, as if Mick might actually be lying.
“It’s my grandma’s name.”
“Oh, that makes sense. I like old names like that.”
They passed half a dozen families flip-flopping down the carpeted hallway, heading to and from the pool, wrapped in towels or otherwise decorated in colorful nylon-spandex.
“So, you must be dating Kevin,” Mick said. “Pool facilities manager, right?”
“Yeah. We’ve been together almost two years. We started dating before I left for school.”
“You’re from around here, then?”
“I grew up in Oberlin. I should’ve just gone to school there. I don’t know what I was thinking. Mostly, I wanted to get away. And I have family in Kentucky, so it felt familiar, but not as familiar as going to school right where you’ve always been. Does that make sense?”
It didn’t, but Mick didn’t say so. She’d never even crossed the state line. Hadn’t thought too seriously about it, either, to be honest. The Linex talked about touring, but they’d never made it any further than the east side of Cleveland.
It took close to five minutes to reach the cafe from the events wing. Mick knew her break was well past over, but she craved more time. And it’s not like they’d fire her; the crew was always too short staffed.
They walked through the line together, Mick ordering a chocolate shake, Will a slice of cheese pizza and curly fries, then carried their trays to a booth. Will set hers down, then rubbed her eyes until they turned red.
“So,” Mick began, “you gonna be a lawyer or something?”
At first, Will blinked, as if surprised to be found out, until she recalled mentioning the book. “I want to protect old-growth forests,” she explained. “They’re so incredibly vital to the ecosystem. The whole planet, really. But slow things don’t hold interest for most people. They’d rather cut down old trees to make space for quick growing lumber. Did you know forests are actually incredibly social places? Trees can talk to each other, they take care of their offspring. I was just reading a paper on it the other day. It’s fascinating.”
The idea was a new one to Mick whose closest interaction with wood had been sweeping the boardwalk at the marina.
“But yeah, assuming I graduate and pass the Bar and everything, I want to be a lawyer. It was either that or become an activist. Figured I might have more impact this way. So, how long’ve you been working here?” Will asked.
Mick wanted to hear more about Will, how she planned to fight for tree rights or whatever, but said, “Just a couple months. Played in a band for a while before that.”
“Wow, really? I should’ve guessed. You look the type, with the hair and everything.”
“What type’s that?”
The ridge of Will’s cheekbones reddened to a pretty shade of rose.
Mick smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m just giving you a hard time.”
Will smiled too and ate a few bites of pizza. She wiped the grease on a paper napkin. Mick had barely touched her shake. It’d more been an excuse to come here than anything.
“What kind of music did you play?” Will asked.
“Anything I’d know?”
“All of it, probably. Lots of 70’s and 80’s rock hits.”
“Do you want some?” Will asked, offering the basket of fries. “Guess my eyes were bigger than my stomach.”
Mick took one of the bright orange curly potatoes and bit it in half. “You gonna come here again tomorrow?”
“I might just head back early. After a shift this late, I’m sure Kevin’ll want to sleep all day. God, that drive is such a nightmare.”
“Does he go down to Kentucky sometimes?”
“Not really. His shifts come too close together.”
“So you’ll be back up here?”
“Maybe in a week or two. Or three. I really hate that drive and my car’s been acting up a bit. The check engine light’s been on for months, but I haven’t gotten it looked at yet.”
“Gotta be worth it, though. Here you are.”
“Yeah, here I am,” Will agreed, then sighed, rubbing her eyes again. “I’m so tired. I feel like I can hardly stay awake. God, it’s almost midnight. Maybe I will just head back to his place on my own. Maybe you could point me towards the admin office? I need to grab my stuff, but I get so turned around in here.”
“I’ll walk you over,” said Mick, and binned her shake.
For three weekends in a row, Mick kept an eye out, thinking she might spot Will pacing the halls or find her back on that uncomfortable couch. Sometimes, rather than spend her breaks with the dumpsters, Mick would wander over to the cafe or past the admin office, pretending not to look in.
Then, on the fourth week, Mick was heading into her shift when she spotted a familiar straw-blonde slipping around the corner near the coat room, the one reserved for event guests. Mick gave up fiddling with the name badge she’d been trying to pin on, and went after her. Sure enough, it was Will, weaving between racks of vertically stacked tables.
Will spun around. This time, she wore a black university hoodie sporting a yellow logo Mick didn’t recognize.
“Hey,” Mick said, feeling strangely out of breath. “Did you just get here? Drive here, I mean? From Kentucky?”
“Got in last night, but Kevin has a shift today and there’s not much else to do in the area. Figured I’d hang out, get some work done.”
“Gotta save the trees,” Mick agreed, trying not to smile too much.
“I’m just taking a quick break. Thought I’d stretch my legs.”
Just then, one of Mick’s coworkers passed them in the hall, saying, “You’re not on the clock, Riley. Better punch in or you’ll get flagged.”
“Don’t let me hold you up,” Will said, though Mick didn’t mind if she did.
Realizing she didn’t have much choice but to step away, Mick said, “Guess I’ll catch you later.”
She didn’t see Will again for the rest of that shift, or for another two weeks thereafter. By then, the seasons were decidedly shifting. Mother Nature shed her puffy orange and red coat for the long, grey wool one she’d wear into next March. Thanks to Will, Mick had been paying attention to the local foliage, the crew of maples behind her grandparents ranch, the oak grove that bordered her parents’ property. She’d visit once or twice a week to rake the dead leaves, say hey to her mom and Jeff, and have dinner with her half-siblings.
Recently, The Linex had talked about getting back together again, too. Just to jam, for old time’s sake. Nothing too serious. Two days before Thanksgiving, Mick dug out her old, second hand Gibson and drove the Silverado back out to Port Clinton, where most of the band members still lived. Between the four of them, they drank two cases of Pabst and played well past sunup the next morning. Mick slept through most of Wednesday, just in time to haul her butt back to Sandusky and gear herself up for the holiday shift. She’d miss turkey dinner with her family, but at least she’d be earning time and a half.
The Thanksgiving dinner at the resort turned out to be a marathon fundraising event - evidently she’d missed the memo from the events manager on that front - and didn’t get off work until ten AM the following day, on Black Friday. As she stumbled out to her pickup, eyes puffy and already halfway closed, she heard somebody calling her name. Thinking it was one of her coworkers begging a lift she ignored it and hoisted herself into the truck. Then she spotted Will, standing on the pavement in a navy peacoat, leggings, and unlaced duck boots, though it hadn’t snowed yet.
Mick climbed out of the truck and shut the driver’s side door behind her. “Hey, what’re you doing here?” she asked. “Mind if I smoke? I had a helluva shift.”
“I don’t mind. Did you work overnight, through Thanksgiving?”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s worth the extra padding in the bank.”
“I just dropped Kevin off. I’m not sticking around today.”
“I don’t blame you.” There was a pause. Mick realized it was up to her to keep talking, or else Will might disappear again. “So, you drove up for the long weekend?”
“Yeah. It’s been nice spending time with my folks for a change.”
“Good memory. They really like it there.”
“Too familiar for you, though.”
“Wow, sounds like I talk too much. Before long you’ll know my whole life story.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Mick said, before she could stop herself.
“Well, I better get going. Glad I ran into you.”
“Hey, uh, are you free . . . Now?”
Will didn’t answer right away, as if she needed time to think about it.
Mick jumped in, “I could use some breakfast. Or coffee,” she added, as an alternative, anything to keep the two of them together, talking, a while longer.
“Coffee sounds good,” Will agreed. “As long as it’s not McDonalds.”
“There’s a diner up up the road. If you keep following 250, it’s like three minutes away. I can drive, if you want,” Mick suggested.
“I’ll follow you. I’ll probably have to leave right from there, anyway.”
Mick beat Will to the diner, and started on a second cig while she waited. Will pulled up in a blue Buick that probably belonged to her parents at an earlier date.
“Do you come here a lot?” Will asked, climbing out of the driver’s seat.
“Not a lot. Once in a while.”
They went in and sat across from one another, just like that first time in the resort cafe. Will ordered coffee but Mick’s stomach felt too nervous to hold food. With the waitress hovering over them, notebook poised, she ended up pointing to the first item on the brunch menu. The waitress returned with a plate of eggs, sausage, and dry toast. Mick buttered a slice, more to occupy her hands than anything. She wished she’d had more practice with this sort of thing. At parties, with The Linex, with alcohol, it’d been a thousand times easier.
“You and Kevin have been together a while, then,” Mick said, and took a bite off the crusty corner.
“We knew each other before we started dating, actually. Friend of a friend type of thing. Have you ever had a boyfriend?”
Mick made a show of shaking her head. “Nope, never.”
“Really? I’d have guessed the opposite, being in a band and all. Sorry,” she said, though Mick couldn’t’ve guessed what she was sorry about. “I only asked ‘cause I could use some advice. There aren’t many people at school who know Kevin. Or what it’s like doing the whole distance thing, for that matter.”
“It’s fine,” Mick smiled. “I’ll help if I can.”
“I guess I’m just not sure it’s working out. It feels really one-sided lately.”
“I kinda got that vibe.”
“You did?” Will winced, as if tasting something sour.
“I mean, I don’t really know Kevin, but based on what you’ve said, sounds like you’re putting in a lot more effort than he is.”
“Yeah.” She sipped her coffee, then added another little tub of creamer. “To be honest, I’ve thought about ending it, but on the flip side the thought of being alone . . . God, I sound like a total wimp, don’t I? I just realized how pathetic and sad that sounds.”
“It’s not,” Mick said.
“Thank you for listening. For never having a boyfriend, you give really good advice.”
Mick decided against pointing out that she hadn’t offered more than a listening ear, and nothing whatsoever in terms of advice. Instead, she said, “I’m not really into boys, actually.”
“Oh? Ohhh . . . gotcha.”
Neither one said anything for a minute, as if they’d both realized a mistake had been made somewhere along the way. The waitress did them the favor of breaking up the tension, asking if they needed anything else. “Just the check,” said Mick, “when you get a minute.”
“Oh, here,” Will said, making a show of digging through her change purse.
“Don’t worry, I got it,” Mick said, and dropped a tenner on the table.
“Don’t you want a to-go box?”
“Nah. Wasn’t that good,” Mick said, a believable enough excuse. In the parking lot, she said, “So if you break up with Kevin, guess I won’t be seeing you around much anymore.”
“Yeah, who knows.” Will squinted into the glare of late morning daylight reflecting off car windows. She seemed to scan the parking lot, before looking at Mick again. “I should get going.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“Thanks . . . for the coffee.”
Mick desperately wanted to reach out, just this once, but then Will was digging around for her car keys, stepping away, towards her Buick. She clicked a button and the car beeped. Before she climbed in, Will raised a hand to shield her eyes, and looked back at Mick. Or maybe she was only observing the overdeveloped, tree-less horizon.
Mick watched the Buick pull into traffic, heading south toward the interstate. Then, Mick climbed into her pickup and started the engine. She considered driving over to her mom and Jeff’s. At the very least, her younger siblings would distract her for a few hours and she could down the holiday’s leftovers, but she was too exhausted from the ridiculously long shift to bother. She’d be lucky to make it to her own driveway before she passed out.
En route to her grandparents’ Mick got pulled over. The cop, a guy she recognized from high school, one of the jocks back in the day, said she’d been swerving all over the place. He let her go with a warning.
December rolled in and with it came sleet and black ice and longer, more frequent shifts at the resort thanks to all the holiday parties companies hosted for their employees. With all the overtime she was making, Mick considered upgrading her guitar, but figured, on second thought, there wasn’t much point. She wasn’t in a band and didn’t have time for one, anyway.
About a week before Christmas, she happened to spot Kevin, the pool facilities manager, all the way down at her end of the building. As he turned to go, Mick caught up with him. She was about to speak, but noticed a twitch at the corner of his mouth, a slight downturn that caused him to frown unattractively, and reconsidered.
The next day, Mick called to say she couldn’t come into work, she’d come down with something awful. She wasn’t the only one and got an earful from the manager who, in the end, couldn’t do a thing about it. Letting sick people handle buffet trays was out of the question.
Soon as she’d hung up, Mick tugged on the wooly-lined denim jacket her mom got her last Christmas, about the only seasonally appropriate gear she owned. Then she dug out a pair of her grandpa’s gloves from the cupboard near the door. She didn’t own boots, either, so she settled for the old Converse she always wore off duty, then headed for the pickup. On Route 2 she got held up only once. Stuck behind a damn salt truck going forty-five in a sixty, out prepping for whatever lake effect squall was about to ravage the roads.
Eventually an unremarkable, unwavering country road led her southbound toward the college town. In Oberlin, Mick ditched the truck in an empty spot on the vacant town square and started walking. Even on foot it took less than half an hour to cover each and every one of the town’s main streets. Downtown Oberlin was totally empty, thanks, in large part, to the college’s winter break. Without a hat or proper footwear, she got too chilled to carry on, and ducked into a cafe connected to a bookstore.
She ordered a drip coffee and found a table. Mick rolled the paper cup between stiff palms, trying to decide what to do next. The jingling Christmas music playing over the loudspeaker system prodded at her eardrums. She’d heard enough of that ultra-cheery sing-song crap at the resort to last a lifetime and a half.
From her table, she could make out a few of the titles in the connected bookstore, and realized many were academic, likely intended for students. It gave her an idea. She went up to the barista and asked where she might find the nearest library.
“The university library’s probably closed for winter break,” she said.
“What about the public library?”
“Oh, sure. Then, when you head out, turn left on North Main,” she said, weaving her arm around, pointing. “It’ll be a block or two down on your left.”
Mick thanked her then went back out in the cold. It’d started to snow light flakes the size of dust motes. She found the library easily enough and went straight to reception. She asked if they had any books on trees. The librarian guided her to the nonfiction section, asked if she was looking for anything in particular - trees of Ohio, botanical biology, poems? Mick said she was only browsing for now and the librarian left her to it. Once she felt certain she was alone, Mick chose one book at a time from the shelf, opening it to the back inside cover. Just as she’d hoped, the old stamped columns remained even though the library had converted to a digitized catalogue system. In the sixth book she selected, the name ‘Thomas, Willow’ appeared, alongside a return date five years in the past. She reshleved the book, ‘The History and Ecology of North American Forests’, and walked back over to the reception desk.
Again, the librarian asked how she could help. This time Mick requested the local phone book. Nobody her own age had landlines anymore, but some people’s parents still did. The librarian showed her to a single booth with a pay phone where a stack of phone books were kept. Mick nodded her thanks, then grabbed the white pages. She turned to the ‘T’s’. Thomas. There were dozens.
Mick held onto the book for a long while, reading over each of those tiny printed names, before putting it back. She jammed her fists in her coat pockets and left the library. It felt colder than before. Already a fresh layer of snow covered the ground. She ought to be heading home if she was going to beat the weather.
Emily is a former scientist turned writer and independent editor, and is now contracted primarily by research institutes, including the Cleveland Clinic and Medical College of Wisconsin. Her writing has been published in numerous scientific and literary journals, and she regularly contributes narrative nonfiction and photography to Chickpea magazine. Her short story titled ‘I Killed Your Wife’ was recently nominated for The Pushcart Prize.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.