There is a place where the lost go to be found.
It is a small farm tucked into a bend in Highway 38, between Scottsburg and Elkton—two towns barely on a map, and even less so after the earthquake shattered much of the West Coast. Once, this road was a bustling thoroughfare from the interior of the state to the coastal towns of Reedsport and Winchester Bay. Now it sits empty, giving more and more of itself to the hungry river it parallels.
The farm is nestled in a broad gap between the road and the river, hidden by swathes of shallow-rooted white oak, whose thick strands of sea-foam lichen and brown moss create their own ecosystems, creating space for the ferns and the birds and the insects, although there are fewer of all of those, now.
Nicole tends this farm, same as she has for the past forty years. She inherited it through a twist of fate and negligence after her parents passed, and then kept it with the stubbornness of a disowned queer child still tending old hurts. She replaced the hard memories with new ones, slowly rehabilitating the structures of her home and her soul.
The first few years were hard: relearning the lost skills of childhood, accepting the weird things found in her pockets and glove box and shoes, navigating the conservative mindsets of her neighbors—who knew the reasons for her leaving and still disagreed with her lifestyle upon her return. Life got a little easier as muscle memory took over and the collective current turned grudgingly towards acceptance.
What never changed was being viewed as an outsider. Ten years away transformed her into a stranger, despite being practically immortalized for a high school track record that remains unbroken nearly fifty years later.
The gym with her record etched onto the walls flooded in the quake of ‘22, erasing history but not memory. The football field and high school have been reclaimed since the flood, but the town dwindles with each passing year.
Those old enough to remember Nicole’s parents have died off or moved on to nursing homes in Roseburg or Cottage Grove or Eugene. Most of Nicole’s former classmates left when the nearest hills were stripped in the first gasping resuscitation of the after, when everyone scrambled to take what they could while they could, before the fires devoured everything or another quake hit or the Yellowstone caldera finally blew or another recession or, or, or. The reasoning was endless and short-sighted. Consideration of replanting and maintenance vanished, along with the northern spotted owls and the wineries and the frogs and the Roosevelt elk.
Nicole stayed, even as the years passed and friendships eroded and the pile of lost things grew. She stayed, though each winter the river takes a swallow of asphalt, another gulp of concrete and mud sluicing off the hillside into the brown water below, until the highway is barely passable by car, no matter what season. There are no funds to repair infrastructure, much less to fix a road leading only to graves and ruin.
It has been ten years since the last clear-cut, and life is slowly returning to the hills north of Highway 38, beyond Nicole’s farm. Spindly Douglas fir compete with red-bark madrone and scrub. Hidden trilliums emerge in the spring-time deep in the groves of mixed forest old-growth, and sometimes she finds shooting stars in the middle of July. Their vibrant purple headdresses and black-tipped noses give her small bursts of joy, tiny pockets reminding her that while the air pollution is high and the temperature scorching, life continues. Life will continue, even after the end, because nothing truly ends. And that is a small comfort.
Despite her isolation—with the road conditions and few connections to the rest of the world, the five miles into town is a day-long excursion, never mind the hurdles she must jump to arrange transportation to the nearest grocery store in faraway Sutherlin—Nicole is not lonely. Nor alone.
Finders are never alone.
This is what she tells herself.
This is what she has told herself for so long she believes it.
There is a routine to the seasons, and to the things she finds, and she’s fallen into the rhythm of her life without quite realizing the rut she’s dug.
Each October, a new band of Canadian geese arrive dazed and confused and diverted, and depart happily fat in April. April is also kitten and cat season, when mamas have babies and humans abandon the fanged teenaged terrors they had assumed were cuddly fluffballs. Dog season is year-around; runaways fleeing the terrors of a thunderstorm or wanderers ditched by their masters, for whatever reasons people leave their furred family members.
Nicole finds them all, save for the crows, who do not appear to be bound to the rules of the farm, and come and go as they please. Like Nicole, a crow is never lost.
She used to have quite a few human visitors, back when the world was only half broken. And a variety. More than one flying craft has made an emergency landing in the narrow, flat field that used to provide hay but now lies untouched. After the sixth time a lost pilot insisted they were in a different region of the county, Nicole learned to keep a map handy in her tractor or a back pocket, just in case. Summer was for lost kayakers and inner tubers, back when folks floated for fun. They’d put in around the high school to catch the rapids and came ashore on the lower pasture’s pebbled beach convinced they’d arrived at Umpqua Myrtle State Park.
Her wife, rest her soul, stumbled upon the farm by chance after taking a wrong turn in 2006 while searching for a bed and breakfast in Scottsburg. It was raining, and late winter, and the banks of the river were rising. Nicole invited this stranger inside, and Christine never left until the day she took her last breath, two years before the quake.
Even now, a traveler might get caught out late at night, far from where they are meant to be, and see Nicole’s porch light through the trees—a trick of the eye or the vegetation, as her house is guarded by a stand of fir and oak and hedges. She always keeps the guest bedroom ready, and has grown to read the signs of a new arrival’s approach. She knows, with bone-deep intuition, if the visitor will go, or if they might linger a while.
Some visitors, like Christine, stay longer than a night. Some find what they are looking for, but most don’t. Eventually, they depart, and never return.
Nicole stays, and she waits for her next visitor, even as the years stretch on and on, and the ache of loneliness morphs into something else. She knows there is a world out there, but she has convinced herself the larger world is not her purpose. She stays so she may find the lost and missing, like a lighthouse along a dark stretch of shore, a stationary point for the lost to be found, to reorient themselves and move on, in whatever way moving on means. Christine used to tease her about being a witch, but that’s not accurate. Lighthouses are not magic, and neither is she. They just are. Nicole is a finder and crow-friend and sometime farmer and old woman in the woods, and that is enough.
This is what she tells herself.
It is early fall in Douglas County. The first snap has hit, a wet cold that seeps through clothes and penetrates deep. Nicole’s root cellar and pantry are well stocked for the winter, although her arthritis has turned screwing lids into an ordeal, and her hip aches when she sits or stands or sleeps or moves.
This morning she found a set of car keys from a Mercury Cougar in her left house-slipper, and there’s a white-tailed deer in the barn, sleeping between two milking goats. It raises its weary head when she arrives, blinking in exhaustion and covered in soot and ash. The nearest fire is fifty miles away, and its smoke has traveled to the valley, layering everything with a hazy smog that brings brilliant sunsets and displaced wildlife.
Nicole admires the deer’s antlers as she feeds her small flock. First the cats, because they demand to be first in everything. Then the crows, who really should be first but who understand the cats in ways no other animal should. Then the goats, who eat and are milked, as much as it pains Nicole’s hands—a part of her wishes another runaway teen would arrive, not because she wants to put in the emotional energy of caring for a sullen and scared and bewildered child, but because she wouldn’t mind someone else doing the milking or morning feeding—and lastly the dogs and whoever else has wandered in during the night and refuses to feed themselves.
She is about to head into the house when a crow swoops, wings brushing her cheek as it lands on her shoulder, clawed feet digging through her jacket. It nuzzles her gray hair and chirps the word for stranger.
With a sigh, Nicole trudges out to the front, rubbing the side of her hip, pushing aside a feeling of trepidation. The crow remains on its perch, although its fellows have gathered on the eaves to watch the newcomer.
A car is parked outside the house, which means someone has fixed the roads. The car’s engine ticks in the cold, steam rises from the hood. A person huddles against the passenger door, arms wrapped about their stomach, tucking their tan jacket to their body. Their pale face is drawn and tense, as if they are preparing themself for a task. Their brown hair is cropped short, highlighting round cheekbones and thick eyebrows. Their head jerks, eyes widening as Nicole emerges from behind the house.
Nicole’s chest tightens. She does not know this person. She’s taken in a lot of strays, and only the human children refer to her as aunt—the easiest term to explain if anyone questions her foundlings. But none of the children ever return when they finally leave. No one returns. That’s the rule, unspoken and unwanted, but there all the same.
The person shoves off the car, shuffling toward her. Their bare hands are still tucked into their armpits. They are in their early twenties, maybe, or they might be forty-five, or thirteen with a stolen car. Nicole is bad at determining ages. At this point, everyone seems impossibly young.
“Um, you don’t know me,” they say. Nicole’s left eyebrow crooks, and their shoulders hunch, as if they are trying to make themself small, either to be non-threatening or to diminish themself before her. “But my mom talked about you. A lot. Jessica? Jessica, uh, her maiden name was Canby?”
Nicole waits. She doesn’t remember a Jessica Canby, but she has known a lot of Jessicas. Most of her strays don’t have last names, or they give false ones, and often, she recommends they tell her their destination dream, and that becomes their last name. She has known quite a few Austins and Portlands and Harvards.
The person fidgets. “She um, she said a lot of things about you, and I think she was here when she was a teenager? She’d run away from home and you, uh, you gave her a place to stay. I think it was in 2010 or something? I don’t expect you to remember—it was a really long time ago.” There had been two Jessicas in 2010: Cornell and Seattle. “Anyway, I um, I’m Aubrey, Jessica’s daughter. My pronouns are she or they.”
Nicole nods, smiles despite her uneasiness. Most times she knows what her visitors will need. A place to sleep, a hug, a cup of coffee to keep going, a map, a spare tire, a band-aid, a locked door, even a quiet morning alone on the porch, listening to the crows and robins talk to each other in the garden. Some just need to be seen and heard. But for the first time in a long while, Nicole doesn’t know what this lost person needs, and it scares her. Still. The child is lost, and Nicole knows her purpose. “Come inside, Aubrey. Let’s warm you up.”
Aubrey fiddles with a peeling strip of paint on the kitchen table, not meeting Nicole’s gaze. Aubrey seems fascinated by the table—one of Christine’s first furniture renovations, where she transformed the source of so many of Nicole’s shitty memories into pure pride—and her finger moves down the red stripe, then the orange, tapping each color of the rainbow. The table was painted before the intersectional flag, and lacks the now-ubiquitous brown, black, white, blue, and pink triangles.
“I’m not lost, you know.” Tap, tap, tap. “That’s what Mom said? That you find the lost.”
Nicole’s hands tighten around her mug of tea. “Did she, now.” The crow, who’s followed her inside and hopped from her shoulder to a perch on the sink’s edge, clacks its beak. “How is your mom?”
Aubrey winces, and Nicole bows her head. Well.
“I’m sorry,” Nicole says. The words are inadequate. They are always inadequate. Most times she finds the right words, but this time the well inside her chest grows, choking off platitudes, and she stays silent.
“She passed away in April. Cancer. It was—it was quick.” Aubrey still doesn’t meet her eyes. One fingernail continues to worry the red strip, the paint separating further from the laminate. “I tried to keep going. College, chin up, all that shit.” Aubrey looks up, gaze fierce. “I’m fine.”
Nicole nods. Aubrey is very clearly not fine, but Nicole doesn’t think she needs comfort.
“She said you were her only family.”
“Many do, I imagine. Where did she end up?”
“Pittsburgh.” Aubrey breaks a chip away, and bites her lip as the scrap flutters to the ground. “She wanted me to find you. Tell you she, um, she appreciated it.”
“That’s a long journey.” Pittsburgh is a lifetime from here. Dark shadows line Aubrey’s bloodshot brown eyes, and she reeks of greasy fast food and unwashed flesh and hard journey. Nicole’s instincts tell her to get this child into a bath and then bed, but there is something off. No one has ever traveled here intentionally. Not even neighbors, back when she had those. “Did you get lost along the way?”
Aubrey’s chin jerks up. Her lip curls. “No. I knew exactly where to go. I always do.”
Nicole exhales, long and slow. “I see.”
She does not see. She’s accepted her place for so long that she’s stopped questioning. Reopening that part of her mind is hard, as it involves grappling with concepts and ideas and implications she has buried for decades. She knows her purpose, has accepted her strange gift, and that is enough. She stands up. “You must be exhausted. Let’s get you a bath and a nap. We can talk later.”
Aubrey sleeps for two days, and when she awakes, she’s like the river—pushing beyond her boundaries, slowly carving new places and insights, whittling away at Nicole’s reserve and resolve, always hungry for more and more and more. Seemingly determined to shove her history into the past, she follows Nicole, learns how to run the farm, how to prepare for a wet winter or a drought, how to gather the last of the berries and the vegetables. She refuses to talk about returning to college or next steps, but seems content to stay.
She roots through the house, relentless, curious. Over the years, lost items have found their way into Nicole’s home: inanimate objects she doesn’t recall bringing back but which somehow squirrel into drawers or a back closet or her root cellar, and are then dumped into the guest bedroom and spare closets. Aubrey seeks it all, fascinated by everything from spare change to baby clothes to shipping manifests to credit cards to half-filled day planners to stuffed animals to thirty-day return receipts to cell phones, but it is the stuffed and mounted six-point buck’s head that really catches her attention. Nicole has to explain how it showed up on the hood of her car in 2003—or was it 2004? Time is strange—and the explanation drifts into the whole debacle of her attempt to find the trophy’s owner.
Aubrey brings order to the clutter, the bits and pieces that were once content to stay crammed into overflowing piles but now seemed to scream for attention, for organization. She even finds the plastic tub filled with old coins, invaluable gemstones, and an ancient dented goblet. “Is this what I think it is?” Aubrey asks, tilting it back and forth, staring at the etchings from an ancient language.
“Most likely,” Nicole replies, and Aubrey replaces the goblet into the bin reverently, returns the tub back to its place. She seems to understand that some things are best hidden from prying eyes. Nicole likes that.
But Aubrey’s incessant desire to seek grates, and Nicole’s unease grows as Aubrey comes to life over the winter, blossoming as the world dies down and the rain-bearing clouds leech color, turning the countryside brown and grey and damp. Having organized the house and the barn and the toolshed—even cleaned out Nicole’s rusting solar-converted car—Aubrey crosses the abandoned highway, moves through the woods with the enthusiasm of an explorer, and returns with truffles and mushrooms and late-season elderberries.
Then Aubrey begins venturing into town, navigating her car over impossible gaps and washouts, returning with pizza and canned peaches and secondhand stories of community as December sprawls into January.
“Come with me tonight.” Aubrey’s breath wisps before her, twining through her hair and cold-chapped cheeks. She has taken over milking duties and many of the more physical chores, completing them before vanishing on her next adventure. She’s explored the remnants of Scottsburg, and is now fascinated by the folksy vibes of the townsfolk of Elkton. The apparent ease with which Aubrey moves through the world is irksome and brings up feelings of inadequacy and loss, and yet each time she leaves, Nicole worries. Despite her mixed feelings, Nicole…enjoys this strange person. She likes the company.
“Come where?” Nicole asks, although she already has an idea. She finishes feeding the goats, and massages her stiff hands. Aubrey’s back is toward her. Hunched over as the girl is and dressed in Christine’s jacket, Nicole can pretend—for a moment—that she is talking to her wife. Then the moment is gone and she is in a barn with a young twenty-something, instead.
“There’s a basketball game at the high school.” Aubrey turns. Her nose is pink from the January cold, and her cheeks are two round red apples. “It should be fun. You haven’t left the farm since I got here. It’ll be good to get out.”
“I haven’t left because you get everything we need.” And the thought of leaving scares her. She hasn’t stepped foot off the farm or seen a human face that is not Aubrey’s since July, and Aubrey’s relentless pursuits underscore Nicole’s commitment to not leaving her home, solidifying and entrenching her position and reluctance and sense of place. Nicole has told herself the same things for forty years, and will not fathom a paradigm shift, even as the fear of something ending burrows deep into her core. She doesn’t want to know why Aubrey’s presence bothers her so much, because looking means digging deep enough into herself, uprooting her stories and unearthing the passivity of her existence. What will her roots look like? She doesn’t want to know.
The fact no one from town has come to check on her gnaws on that small place she keeps buried. She’s an old woman who’s had a strange youngster come along. It should send up red flags among the townsfolk, but then, Nicole is known both for being reclusive and for her mysterious, extended family. Aubrey’s words sink in, though. “A basketball game?”
“Yeah. The girls are playing some team from Oakland? They’re undefeated. It should be fun?” When she’s nervous, Aubrey’s up-talk returns, twisting her sentences into uncertainty.
Nicole has no desire to see the people of Elkton or anyone else. “It’ll be dark when we return.” It’s a paltry excuse, and they both know it. Still. She has no idea how Aubrey navigates the roads. Last month she crept to the end of the driveway, and discovered the large washout was still there. It was impossible to drive around, much less over.
Aubrey smiles. “Already covered. Andrea Gardner says we can stay with her.”
Andrea Gardner is the granddaughter of Molly Springs, who spat on Nicole in sixth grade and then outed her their senior year. When Nicole returned, Molly welcomed her back into the community, all smiles and acceptance and bygones being bygones and no apologies ever given or faults acknowledged. Nicole did not attend Molly’s funeral, claiming the roads were washed out, but really, she has not forgiven her bully. This offer is uncomfortable, but perhaps there is change between generations. And if she bends on this request, perhaps Aubrey will find what she has been seeking.
Nicole tilts her head, and Aubrey’s face lights with joy.
Trepidation builds as the day draws on. Nicole tries to push down the feeling this is the last time she’ll feed her goats or walk this path or pet a crow or find a wheat penny, that this is the end of something. The emotion she’s been suppressing all fall and winter, tamping down alongside all her other fears, bubbles over, churning acid up into her throat. She wants to hold on to everything all at once, and the pain in her chest builds until there is a bowling ball on her sternum, slowly crushing her. It doesn’t help that everything she finds is trash—a mummified, half-eaten Snickers bar in her left shoe, someone’s Walmart receipt for oranges bought in 2004 crumpled under her hairbrush, a used condom. She gingerly places everything into the trash and spends the rest of the day locked in her bedroom, staring out the window at the crows huddled on the fencepost.
But Aubrey steers her into the car an hour before the game, and glares until Nicole buckles herself in with shaking hands. As her house slips away behind the oaks and the ferns, the fear she’ll be unable to return increases. Aubrey taps her on the arm, and points ahead as they bump and jolt down the driveway. The crows are gathered along the branches of the trees, watching them turn onto the pothole-filled highway, wings flapping in farewell.
Nicole closes her eyes as they near the washout, unable to comprehend the how or why or what of Aubrey crossing an impassable gap in the road. She leans forward, pressing her fists against her closed eyes. Purple stars dance against the thin flesh of her eyelids, little shooting stars shouting in fear instead of joy. Each breath is a rasping sob, a half-groaned I can’t. This cannot be her end. Not now. She is not lost—she is never lost—and her home is for the lost and those who are found can never return. What if she can’t go home? She’s not lost. She’s not lost. She’s not—
“Aunt Nicole, are you—” The car stops. “I’ll turn around.”
Nicole stays hunched over, trying to breathe through the fear and the pain, until she feels the switch from asphalt to dirt. She holds her breath, peeping between her fingers until she sees her farm, her house, her fields, and all that is familiar yet again. Aubrey taps the brake as the house comes into view, and Nicole launches for the door release. The seatbelt pulls at her midsection, refusing to free her, until Aubrey presses the button and Nicole shoots out of the car, gasping, free, and home.
She presses her hands to her chest, breathing in the familiar air. The crows squawk overhead, wings rustling, and Nicole stumbles forward to lean against an oak. The brown moss squishes and crinkles under her hand, the opposing sensations grounding her. She is not lost.
The driver side door opens and closes, and Aubrey edges forward. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Nicole can’t face her. Can’t let her see the fear that’s been brewing since September. Fears long dormant, fears she’s pushed aside, that have risen and flourished. “It’s not your fault.”
It is her fault. Endings always have beginnings, and this is the beginning of an end.
Nicole is so comfortable here, in her home, where she knows everything and everyone, where she maintains the memories and keeps the lost, and she does not want to leave. She does not want to see people who don’t need her or understand her or who keep her at a distance. She does not want to take the chance of leaving, because she might never return. She cannot squash the fear of being replaced by someone who can bridge the gaps she cannot.
Footsteps crunch behind her, and Aubrey’s hand presses against her back, tentative and comforting. “You know, when I was little, I never understood how people could get lost. I kept running into people who couldn’t find their way, or their keys or their purpose or whatever, and it was so weird. I always, always knew exactly where I was and where to go.”
Nicole stays silent, unsure what Aubrey is saying. Unsure how this relates to anything. How this is supposed to soothe her fears.
Aubrey continues, “I didn’t know what being lost meant. Then Mom died. I knew exactly where to go, except for the first time there were two paths instead of one. I tried the first and it didn’t work because it was the path I’d been going on, and it wasn’t mine anymore.” She takes a deep breath, releases it. “So I took the second path and came here. And I met you.”
Nicole laughs. “And you think I’m lost?” The thought is absurd. The lost come to her to be found. She knows where she is. She always has. She has told this story often enough that she believes it.
“I think there are different ways of being lost.” Aubrey’s toe scrapes a circle in the dirt. “And, maybe, different kinds of being found?” Another scrape. “I know you’re nervous and you’ve kept yourself isolated here for so long, but I thought—”
“You thought a basketball game would help?” Nicole turns, faces Aubrey. This kid can’t be serious.
Aubrey twists her hands together. “No, the basketball game was an excuse. I found your name on the gym wall. For athletic records?”
“The quake flood destroyed everything.”
Aubrey crosses her arms over her chest, hugs herself. “Well, turns out there was this sophomore who went digging through the old internet archives. She found the records and convinced the principal to put them back up. And she saw your record and how long it’s stood, and she’s thinking about trying to beat it.” Her eyes dart to the right. “She’s a junior now, and going to play in the game tonight, and I thought it might be interesting for her to meet you. Put a face to ancient history.”
“Before she erases it.”
Aubrey rolls her eyes. “Before she beats a fifty-year-old record! That’s huge—for both of you.”
Nicole steps back, towards the trees. The fear is back, although now it’s competing with irritation and another worry. First the world ended, but everything was fine because Nicole found lost things and made a place for them, or gave them the space to find themselves and move forward. Now Aubrey is here to replace her, and this new child is going to remove her from history completely, never mind that she is erased already. She is a myth, a rumor, the old woman who lives with the strays on an abandoned stretch of highway. She finds the lost and has become lost in return.
Nicole finally sees the trench she has dug for herself. Years upon years of self-soothing stories, of unthinking rhythm and routine, of refusing to look outward, have built a fortress of isolation wrapped in false purpose and a fear of her fiercely protected comfort vanishing in a return to past prejudices. But she also sees that the walls are not so high she could climb out, if she had help.
“Please?” Aubrey asks.
Nicole stares at the branches, at the crows. She rocks side to side, hyper-focused on the black wings, the clacking beaks. They are not agitated, as she had thought. They are reminding her that all things end, and the ending makes space for beginnings. They are telling her there are finders, and there are seekers. There is alone and there is loneliness. There is family and there is community. There is fear and there is courage. There is the past and this is the present. They are saying happy hunting instead of goodbye forever.
This is a new beginning. A new story she can tell herself, over and over, until she believes it. This time, she will have help in the telling.
Nicole takes a deep breath and gets back into the car.