THERE WERE TOWNS, and then there were small towns, and then there was Darling.
It was a place utterly cut off from the world, nestled down in the flat valley between craggy California-brown mountains that peaked around its sides. The town rose up like a wellspring around the one single road that bisected the entire valley. Over the years a few barely paved streets branched off Main Street, collecting houses in cul-de-sacs lined with quaking aspens. Their leaves always trembled in the breeze and gave the whole town a permanent earthquake-like effect, in a melancholy, arborous type of way.
Darling was a town made up of small-town kids, who’d grown up and never left and had small-town kids of their own. Darling was dry and golden and lonely, sprinkled with sections of rustling woods that seemed to emerge from nowhere; it was sagging porches and sunburn summers and sputtering trucks with flaking paint. Despite the fact that there was nowhere to take wrong turns, confused tourists en route to somewhere else often found themselves stranded, somehow, at the town’s diner. The weight of eyes, heavy upon you, was ever present, although no one could really tell where it came from. Darling itself existed in a vacuum, and all passers-through looked back on their hazy recollections of the town and wondered if it had even really happened, or if Darling, with its gabled Victorians and dead-brown fields and fluorescent-lighted diner was simply some bizarre hallucination.
It was a curious place, sitting alone with miles of nothingness stretching out on all sides, and it kept its 333 citizens and their millions of secrets close.
Delta Wilding had lived in Darling her whole life, and she knew its oddness better than anybody. Sometimes she thought her town did things simply to amuse itself. Sometimes she thought her town was playing its own great game, and they were all just pieces on its chessboard.
Darling was not just a town, and the Wildings were not a typical family.
Strange things happened to them. Strange things just found them.
Even in times of utter mundanity—like right now, as Delta curled up on her window seat, waiting for Tag to text her back—Darling always seemed like it was holding its breath, quietly waiting for something unusual to happen. The air through the open window was shimmering with heat, and the call of the common starling bird repeatedly shattered the still air. It was the type of day that doesn’t let you know it will end in something completely unexpected, until the unexpected arrives.
Delta sighed, drawing her knees into her chest as she watched the starlings swooping outside. From her vantage point, she could see the strip of asphalt that led past her house into Darling proper. But if she were to open the wavy-glass window and lean out, she would see Victorian houses springing up a mile or so down the road, leaping into existence like a pop-up book. The Wildings’ home was settled on the very outskirts of the town. Along the flat stretch of highway, there was a dirt road that veered suddenly left. It bordered the town line, fields of Darling on one side and fields not in Darling on the other, and wound its way in and out of bone-dry, California-golden grass. The dirt road was bumpy and rocky, pocked with holes and wear, and it ended at a farmhouse.
The Wild West was white clapboard, once grand, and it had a wraparound porch, thin columns holding up the wooden awnings, and a gabled roof. Its best days were far in Darling’s past; nevertheless, it sat proudly amongst the abandoned fields while Queen Anne’s lace crept up toward the front steps. The house was all wooden floors that creaked and dusty windows with the original glass, warped and distorted. When the weather was sunny and hot, Delta rushed around throwing open the still-unbarred windows so that light streamed in, illuminating the dust that shimmered in the air. When it rained, she hurried on top of creaking floorboards, slamming down pails to catch the leaks, until the entire house sounded like a rainwater symphony.
Despite it all, the house was beautiful and full of memories and a quiet sort of magic, and Delta loved it. Every memory of her childhood was centered within the creaking walls. The Wild West had a feeling about it, a feeling like something fantastical was just around the corner. And in Darling, something usually was.
But in the minds of the citizens of Darling, anyone who preferred to live anywhere other than the central Darling cul-de-sacs was not to be trusted. At least, this is what they whispered amongst themselves, usually during the seventh inning of Darling Devils baseball games or after Book Club, three glasses of Merlot in. Delta knew it; she heard the whispers, she saw the stares.
She knew that she, her sister, and her dad were considered oddities in their town. There’s something off about them, came the whispers. There’s something not ordinary about those girls. There’s something strange about that house.
And they were right.
Because a dusty dirt road, a window seat, and waiting for a text back: these were the ordinary things about Delta.
The fact that the music playing from the dock next to her bed changed itself according to her mood: that was not.
The fact that her house, the Wild West, moved around her with a strange sort of sentience: that, too, was not.
The fact that her father had walked into their hallway closet and never come back out: that was perhaps the strangest thing of all.
And the worst.
Delta closed her eyes as if the sudden darkness could ward away the thought. Don’t think about it. Delta had to remind herself this multiple times a day. Don’t think about it, it didn’t happen, he’ll be back soon. He’d been gone for seventy-seven days—she’d been counting—and each day that passed without him returning made the knot in her stomach grow. It had risen to her throat now, clogging it—he was gone, and she was here, alone, in charge of everything, in charge of too much…
Don’t think about it. Sometimes she was worried if she allowed herself to really realize what her father being gone meant—for Bee, for their house, for the rest of their lives—she might start crying and never stop. Don’t think about it seemed easier.
Delta swallowed hard and set her jaw, glancing again out the window at the swooping birds. One flew down to perch on the windowsill, cocking its pure black eye toward her, fluttering its feathers. The wing shimmered like an oil slick in the sun.
Delta stared at it, the loud silence of the empty rooms echoing around her. She couldn’t hear Bee—and Bee, her flighty, freckly, flouncy sister, usually made her presence known. It was just Delta and the bird. Did it have a knowing look in its eye, or was she imagining that? Delta shook her head. Come on, Delta. It was a bird, for God’s sake, and birds didn’t care about humans. Birds didn’t watch humans—why should they? They had better things to do, like fly toward the stars.
Delta met its round eye. “Lucky you,” she murmured, and her heart clenched painfully tight as the bird took flight. She was just about to get fully into bed and pull the covers over her head and hope tomorrow would somehow bring her dad back, when her phone pinged with a text at the same time as the front door banged open and Bee’s voice carried up the stairs: “Del-taaa?” She heard the door slam again, then the sound of their fluffy Australian shepherd Abby’s feet click-clacking on the hardwood floor of the living room and the louder clatter of Abby’s leash landing on the floor from wherever Bee threw it.
Delta sighed again, sitting up and grabbing her phone. Tag had answered her Hey, miss you! text—the one that had been composed from melancholy and empty rooms, the one she’d sort of regretted sending the second her finger pressed send—with Miss u too! Everyone’s at the diner, u should come.
Maybe, she texted back, fingers flying across the screen. I’ll check with Bee. It was a ridiculous excuse, because of course Bee would want to come. Bee, after all, was the fancy-free whirlwind Wilding sister, completely the opposite of quiet Delta, who watched her world go by with careful green eyes, silently filing away strangers’ secrets.
Delta read Tag’s text again, eyes skimming over and over across the Miss u too! The words made the knot in her stomach both loosen and tighten all at once.
“Delta!” Bee’s voice called again, closer now, and her footsteps sounded heavy on the stairs.
“Yeah, I’m here,” Delta called back.
“Bedroom,” she answered, the word hanging in the air as Bee burst into her room, blond and fierce, a tornado in the body of a girl, a hurricane of glitter and throwaway smiles and highlighted hair.
“Oh, hey,” Bee said, one of her signature smiles coming out in full brilliance. Bee had a way of always smiling, but often Delta thought her sister’s smiles held more anger and sadness than anything that looked happy. But Bee smiled through it all. Delta sometimes wished she could be more like her younger sister; God, did she wish she could hide her emotions away in a smile. She wished she could pretend everything was okay. Most days it was hard to even summon up a stoic expression, much less anything beyond that.
“Where’ve you been?”
“Walking Abby,” Bee replied, her voice lilting, and she threw herself down on the bed next to her sister, closing her eyes and throwing an arm up over her forehead like a swooning starlet. “I am so hungry.”
Everyone’s at the diner, u should come.
Did she want to see Tag? Her emotions were petals: she did, she did not, she did, she did not. She did. If only to remind herself that she didn’t.
“We can go to the Diner,” Delta offered, and Bee sat straight up, her face the very picture of incredulity.
“I mean…” Delta trailed off; she could feel herself becoming unconvinced already. She could quickly cook up some pasta instead…. That would be the responsible thing to do.
“No, no,” Bee replied hastily. “That sounds so fun.”
“Well, I don’t know now,” Delta said, unable to keep a bit of fretfulness from creeping into her voice. She hadn’t checked the emergency money box, currently their sole supply of money, for a while—again, it was something that stressed her out to her core so badly, it was easier to pretend it didn’t exist—but she was fairly certain they weren’t flush with cash. Not anymore.
Not after seventy-seven days.
“Delta,” Bee replied, fixing her sister with a stare. “Don’t be so boring.”
Which is how Delta found herself behind Bee, following as her sister skipped down the stairs. While Bee grabbed the car keys from the peg by the kitchen door, Delta hurried into the living room. The room was tired. The furniture was old and sagging, the throw pillows almost threadbare, the fireplace boarded up. The two human-sized indents in the couch cushions were the only signs that this room was used. The wooden floor creaked ominously as Delta crossed it, and she shivered, moving over the floorboards quickly. Sometimes her house unnerved even her, with its constant sighs and creaks, as though it knew something they didn’t. As though the very walls were trying to tell her something. She knew the Wild West was strange, but she certainly couldn’t fathom the extent of its oddities, and Delta considered, not for the first time, that one day the floor might give way and she would fall into whatever was under their house. Maybe simply dirt, maybe a cellar, maybe another world.
There was just no way to tell.
Delta crossed to the mantel above the boarded-up fireplace. There were three objects on the wooden mantel: a photo of Delta and Bee as little girls, their long hair in identical braids; a faded photo of a young woman with a face like Delta and sparkling eyes like Bee; and a carved wooden box. Delta lingered for a moment near the photo of her mother—her eyes were always drawn to it, but she didn’t pause long enough for her mind to unravel into thoughts of What would my mother do?; not long enough to unravel into an empty feeling of loss. It was the box that Delta was here for: opening it, she glimpsed cash—too little, always too little—before she grabbed a twenty and stuffed it into the pocket of her jeans. She hesitated, then walked to the hallway closet and pulled open the door.
It was just a closet, full of boots caked in mud and winter coats and umbrellas and an ancient, barely used vacuum cleaner.
It had been just a closet the other times she’d checked, the other seventy-seven times she’d checked: once a day for seventy-seven days. But it didn’t matter about those times—what mattered was the time when it had not been just a closet.
That time, seventy-seven days ago, on a chilly March afternoon, the Wilding sisters’ father, Roark Wilding, had walked into the closet and had never come out. She imagined him standing there amongst the boots and coats and disappearing into nothingness. She shut the door, counted to ten, and then flung it wide open.
Boots and coats and Abby’s leash and stray umbrellas and the vacuum cleaner.
While their dilapidated farmhouse was most definitely settled in Darling, it wasn’t settled quite as firmly as all the other houses. Things went missing—pepper grinders, half-read books, rarely worn earrings—and none of it had seemed to matter much until the thing that went missing was not an old sweater but their dad.
Don’t think about it. Delta’s hand trembled in her pocket, fingers still clenched around the twenty-dollar bill. The emergency cash fund was running low, and there was still no sign of anything but dusty winter wear in the place her father had disappeared. Don’t think about it. Who was she kidding? All she did day in and day out was think about it. She couldn’t stop. The twenty in her pocket felt like a twenty-ton weight. The electricity and water hadn’t been shut off yet—Delta guessed she should feel lucky that their father seemed to have prepaid his bills. Lucky, yes. Lucky that the sisters had water and electric for at least another couple months. Lucky.
Delta didn’t feel lucky, not at all.
“Hey,” said Bee, and Delta quickly snapped shut the closet door, trying to keep her face calm and composed. She even managed a small smile toward her sister, although it came out more like a pained grimace.
“Hey. I’m ready.” She pointed to the sofa, and Abby obediently climbed up and nestled down into the cushions.
“Still a closet?”
Delta forced her mouth to keep smiling. Her sister was smiling back at her, and her smile was more like a grimace as well. “Yeah.”
“Yeah.” There was silence. For a moment Delta stared at the scuffed floorboards, stared at her shoes, and then she shook her head. She had to get out of this house. “Come on, let’s go.”
Bee looked like she might say something, but Delta couldn’t imagine anything she’d like less than to talk about what already pressed on her heart and lungs every second of every day. She knew Bee didn’t want to talk about it either; both sisters wanted to pretend nothing was wrong. Talking about it made it real, so Delta pushed past Bee and stalked out of the hallway and into the kitchen, grabbing a faded red-and-black checked flannel from the hook by the door.
Outside, above the woods pressing in against the back of their house, the flock of shimmering starlings wheeled about, forming murmurations of shining feathers and letting out deafening screeches. The sky was darkening from a soft pink to a murderous sort of orange, casting a fiery glow over everything. Bee swung out behind her and beelined for the old Ford truck that sat, weathered and solid and rusty, in the damp grass.
“I’m driving,” Delta said, heading immediately for the driver’s side door.
“I’m driving,” Bee replied, smacking Delta’s hand away.
“No, I’m dri—”
They struggled momentarily over the handle of the door before Delta gave up with a frustrated grumble and muttered obscenities and crossed to the passenger side. The truck roared to a start and they rumbled around the farmhouse, passing the sign heralding their house, and picked up speed as Bee maneuvered onto the unpaved, dusty lane. She wound the truck through the fields filled with deadened grass and Queen Anne’s lace and not much else, finally pulling onto the road that led into Darling.
Bee drove with confidence. She was sixteen and barely had her driving permit, so she wasn’t technically allowed to drive in a car with anyone under the age of twenty-five, but both sisters disregarded this fact completely. They were alone, after all.
Delta sat in the passenger seat, watching the waving grass pass by in a blur as they roared toward town. She was composed of elbows and harsh edges and freckles, and the gauntness of her cheeks and dull brown hair reflected her position as a teenager who held her universe together by a snapping thread. She hadn’t always looked like she wore despair as a shroud; disappearing fathers had that sort of effect on eighteen-year-olds. Delta, as unexpectedly as a sudden shot, was now in charge of Bee and the Wild West and shouldered the responsibility of keeping their lives moving forward.
Don’t think about it.
Who was she supposed to go to? There was no one at all. No one to tell, no one to help; their mother had died of cancer when Bee was still a baby. Delta had only vague memories of soft hands and the feeling of comfort that she wasn’t quite sure were even real. There were no other family members, no cousins, no aunts. She had Tag and she had Anders, but could she trust on-again-off-again boyfriends and friends from school with something like this?
No, there was no one to tell, no one who could step in and take over. There was no one at all. There was only her and the emergency money box on the mantel.
The neon sign of the Diner appeared through the evening haze. Don’t think about it. Delta attempted to pull some semblance of normality into her expression and tried to forget the rest.