by Ella Barnes | September 11, 2021
We had parked on the road heading west out of town, alongside the railroad tracks. Ahead of us, the dusty streets gave way to pastures, which in turn gave way to wooded mountains, cutting a crisp horizon. Mackenzie lolled out the passenger seat, and Bailey skipped between the car and the road. I watched them from my perch on the car bonnet. Then, the sound of music, a wiry country song, slipped into the hot silence. A beat-up truck appeared at the end of the road.
“That’s him!” Bailey said, running to meet Joe as he pulled up. He hopped out, put his beer on the roof of the truck, and hugged her quickly. He was brusque and burly and I shrank a little before him. “Pleasure to meet y’all.” he said, turning to Mackenzie and I: “How do you know my Bailey?”
“Mackenzie lives with me.” Bailey jumped in, flitting around Joe. “Alice is her friend from England.”
“Well, shit, a British girl in Montana,” Joe laughed, heaving our packs into the back. “Get on in then, girls.” He held the door open for Bailey, who climbed into the passenger seat. Sat behind Joe, I could see his arm resting on the rolled down window, and noticed the thick symbols tattooed on his blistered knuckles, curled around his beer.
After some time, we began to ascend into the mountains. “What’s your plan, girls?” Joe asked.
“We’re heading to Oregon, to the coast!” Bailey replied. “We were gonna go straight across Utah, but I thought we could come visit you first, then carry on through Idaho.” Joe listened absent-mindedly, smiling every so often – perhaps amused at our ambitious, albeit loosely conceived itinerary. Mackenzie was nodding off, leaning on my shoulder. Joe and Bailey continued to talk, about their lives, their plans – there was a lot to say, it seemed. I retreated into my head, thinking I should leave them to it.
It was too late to turn back now. The road was winding tightly, flanked by towering pines, our route back to town lost to the twists and turns. Every so often we summited a small hill, and I glimpsed our surroundings. The rise and fall of the earth, the rifts and tufts of the forest were like crests, exposing us then drawing us down again. The ride left me giddy, untethered by the heights to which we had ascended.
The cabin was in a clearing, looking over hills and backing onto forests. To the left was a pit filled with scrap wood and knackered trucks in the process of being dismantled. Joe led us inside. The interior was simple and snug, with a camping stove, an old wood-burner, and a few tatty armchairs. A couple of guns hung from the walls. “This is it, girls, make yourselves at home,” he said, shyly proud. He and Tyler had built the place three years ago, he told us, but they still hadn’t put in doors or windows. Everything seemed to tumble out into the clearing, like an upended toy-box. “I’m going to get Tyler from our buddy’s place. And I’ll pick up some blow for tonight, if you’re down.”
Bailey agreed enthusiastically, and so did Mackenzie. I went along with it, as I generally did back then.
The three of us sat down on the balcony sofa. “How’s it going with Joe?” Mackenzie asked. “He seems cool?” Bailey shrugged coyly. “Yeah, no, I don’t know.” There was a tender smile at the corner of her lips. “I mean, we’re getting along well, so that’s great. I’m just so happy to have met him, you know?” I didn’t know Bailey well; we had met that summer while I visited Mackenzie. She had been reserved the first time we were introduced and I had struggled to know what to say to her. However, this had passed: she was easy and open once she got used to your presence and had a way of energising a group. But in this moment she seemed tender, calm.
“I mean after that shit went down with my mom, I really needed someone. I had my ex for a bit, but he was such an asshole.”
Our conversation was interrupted by Joe’s return with Tyler. Mackenzie and I introduced ourselves and then we all settled back on the balcony. Over tins of beer, Joe and Tyler told us the story of how they became friends while working construction jobs in the area, eventually building the cabin together. They were a funny pair; after long months in the mountains together they both had grubby tans, dense beards, and an impressive ability to finish each other’s sentences.
Later on, as evening fell, Joe pulled out the bag of coke, cut lines on the table and offered me one. “It’s on me, girls,” he said, seeing me hesitate. There was enough for a party much bigger than just the six of us. It was good stuff. With those first few lines, we drew rapidly closer, fixated and ecstatic. Bailey grew in confidence. She was cheerful and proud – of Joe, of the cabin, of herself for bringing us together. I felt myself becoming more self-possessed, or possessed at least of who I was on that balcony among strangers.
“We didn’t show you the tree last time!” Joe said to Bailey, suddenly standing up. “You gotta see the tree.” Tyler agreed: yes, the tree – they had a tree. Well, it wasn’t their tree, but it was a tree and it was perfect, you’d think it had been made for climbing. They led us down the clearing, to a pine tree with a ladder set against it. Bailey and Joe climbed to the very top and perched there together on the delicate branches, laughing and shouting. I found myself on a branch next to Tyler. He had heaved himself up next to me, two beers in one hand, one of which he offered me with a nervous smile. From up there, it was a clear run down the hills; not a building in sight, just a flash of the Missouri river in the valley and one sagging fence trailing across the hillside in a comical attempt at ownership. In the early evening light, the blue sky was blotted with pink, and the crystalline light that outlined the Montana landscape had softened to a dozy blush.
Tyler and I spoke quietly for a while. Then, he said, “You know, usually when we come up here, we do this thing where we cuckoo.”
“Cuckoo?” I asked.
“Like this,” he said, and, turning away from me, he let out an enormous wail. Above us, I heard Joe laugh and let out a gleeful cuckoo of his own. Tyler moved closer to me. “Now you try. It feels good.”
It did feel good, I thought, as my own cry echoed tremendously across the hills. When I finished and turned back to Tyler, still in the throes of that explosive cry, I met his gaze suddenly and realised the intensity and warmth with which he had been watching me. In that exposed moment, I was struck by how close our two bodies were, suspended high up on that branch, legs touching and staring at each other. Thrilled by each other’s presence, yet keenly aware of the thousands of miles that still separated us, we stayed in the tree together, talking long after the others had left. When he kissed me later, I thought maybe the distance was closing.
When we returned to the cabin, we found the others inside playing Tom Waits records, which Joe crooned to sentimentally. “I know I’ve only met you guys once – hell, I’ve only really met Bailey a couple times – but you’re welcome here anytime.” Joe said warmly. “You’re good people.”
“I want to come up more, man. I want to hang out with you more,” Bailey said, bursting with enthusiasm. “Same,” said Mackenzie. “This place is perfect. It’s everything. I want to stay here forever.” I think I honestly believed I would return too, and that these people, this place, would be part of my life.
It was soon early morning. Mackenzie and Bailey were still outside, and I could hear Bailey talking intensely. Mackenzie came in as the sun began to rise. She looked tired. I called for her to come and sit down, but she declined soberly and climbed up the ladder to bed. Shortly after, Bailey entered. By the size of her eyes and the shake of her jaw, I saw in an instant that she was higher than anyone else. Immediately, she sat down and demanded another line. Joe laughed it off and said: “I think we’ve all had enough.”
“No, come on,” she wheedled. “Just one more, just a little one.” I flushed with discomfort. “We should probably hit the sack,” Joe said. “Man, you guys have gotta drive to Idaho today.” Bailey laughed manically, then said, “Sure, but I’m not driving, I’ll sleep in the car. C’mon. Please. Just a line. I’m so high already. It’ll make no difference.”
Joe shook his head. “We don’t got anymore.”
“That’s a lie!” said Bailey, her voice rising slightly. “There’s no way we finished it. You can’t refuse me this, you know you can’t.”
“Let’s leave it, Bailey, we’ll feel like shit later.” But she cut me off with a sharp “No. He’s got to.”
She turned to Joe, her eyes now blazing; he was shifting in his chair. “Fine. If you can tell me when my birthday is, I’ll stop asking.”
The silence in that moment hung like a noose.
“Tell me!” she yelled, “Come on!”
“March-” Joe began.
“May!” Bailey shouted. “May 25th! You have no right to tell me I can’t have another fucking line. You’re my fucking dad and you don’t even know when my birthday is!”
She began to cry. My heart dropped to my stomach. I fumbled to form a response to fill the silence, but could find nothing but a nauseating rush of devastation and fear. My nose burnt and I felt dirty. The night crumpled around me; a few hours suspended on the crest of a wave. A few hours of believing in and clinging to that crest had given us brief respite, but we had reached the inevitable crash, and I felt foolish for having believed this night would endure. Bailey sobbed and I put my arm around her. Joe was silent, staring at the floor. “If I can’t have a line,” Bailey said eventually, sitting up, make-up running, a darkly determined look on her face, “I wanna shotgun four beers.”
“Okay,” Joe said. “Yeah, go ahead.” He was slumped in his chair. I mentally willed him to speak.
I looked at my phone. 6am. If we wanted to get to Idaho, we would have to leave by nine.
“I’m going to bed, guys,” I said. But Bailey was gone. She was outside, ripping through a beer, tears streaming.
By 9am, I could still hear her drunken rambling. I climbed down the ladder and went out onto the porch. The sun was bright and clear. Bailey was drooped in a chair with vomit down her front, delirious. Joe still had a beer in one hand. He looked exhausted. Tyler was laid out on the sofa.
“Is she okay?” I asked.
“Not really,” Joe answered, stretching. “She won’t go to sleep.”
I nodded. Looking at Bailey, then at our surroundings, our absolute isolation, I was suddenly afraid. I thought of my home and my own isolation, the most absolute of anyone here. I lit a cigarette.
“Let’s go for a drive,” said Tyler, lifting himself up. Joe stayed back to watch Bailey.
We were quiet, and the music he played was all I could process. I felt shaky, as if wound up and sprung loose. When we surfaced at the top of the hill and stopped, I climbed out and let the wind run through me as if I wasn’t there. I sat on the bonnet and Tyler joined me, tentatively resting his hand upon mine. In the brutal clarity of the morning light, everything was laid out before me, from the roof of the cabin down below to some buildings I assumed to be the town.
Despite everything, I could still see how tremendous the light, lines, green, and space were. No pain, no twisted circumstance, no sadness has ever spoilt that for me.
Mackenzie was up by the time we reached the cabin. She was on the sofa, sipping coffee. Tyler went inside and crawled into bed.
“I don’t know.”
We fell silent. Then, an engine rumbled and some music started up. We followed the sound to the other side of the cabin. There was Joe, in the front seat of his truck, running the engine so the music could play, with Bailey curled, unconscious, on the seat beside him. He was smoking a cigarette and stroking her hair, watching her with such naked tenderness that we looked away and slipped back into the cabin, leaving him to soothe her, if only for that moment. ■
Words by Ella Barnes. Art by Oliver Roberts.