The Summer I Wasn't Me

by Jessica Verdi

Chapter 1

My mother drives right past the New Horizons sign.

“Um, Mom?” I touch her arm gently.

She doesn’t respond. She’s zoning out again. But these moments have been happening a lot less often lately. Maybe soon they won’t be happening at all.

“Mom,” I say again, louder. “You missed the turn.”

She finally snaps out of it and glances in the rearview mirror, where the New Horizons sign is still slightly visible.

“Oh!” She pulls a sudden U-turn, and my insides do somersaults. I knew I shouldn’t have let her drive. She glances at the clock. “Sorry, Lexi.”

She makes the correct turn this time around, and I manage a reassuring smile. “It’s okay.”

The narrow road up the mountain is so winding and bumpy that we’re forced to creep along at a measly ten miles per hour.

A thick forest surrounds us. The trees are dark and plush and reach up and over the rocky road like a fringed canopy. As we inch forward, the amorphous blob of green foliage comes into focus and I can see each leaf and branch in perfect clarity. I roll down my window and take a deep breath. It’s so quiet here. I rest my chin on the window jam so that all I see is the forest slowly rolling by. My mind takes me back in time, where I’m riding in a horse-drawn carriage through untouched woods.

But as we progress up the mountain, hints that this place is not quite as natural as it first seemed begin to emerge. The tree branches above us have been pruned back from the road. The narrow strip of grass that buffers the road from the tree line has been neatly cropped. Flowers sprout in patterns too perfect to be accidental.

Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to manipulate the raw landscape into some preconceived idea of what nature should look like. Goosebumps trickle across the back of my neck as I realize that’s exactly what they’re going to do to me too.

About halfway up the mountain, the signs start popping up. They line the edge of the road, sticking up out of the perfectly manicured ground.

You are on the road to truth.

Help is on the way.

God’s love heals us all.

I look down at my lap and run my left thumb over the tiny lightning bolt tattoo on the inside of my right wrist. Everything this tattoo means is about to change.

Salvation waits just around the next bend!

Almost there.

With no warning, a deer leaps out of the woods and sprints across the road in front of our car.

“Look out!” I shout.

My mother slams on the brakes, and the car skids forward on the gravel, missing the deer by mere inches. It scampers off into the woods unharmed, but we’re still too stunned to move. My knuckles have gone ghost white from my death grip on the dashboard, and my chest stings from where the seat belt jerked too tightly against my skin—but it’s my mother I’m worried about.

“Are you okay?” I ask once I’ve regained control of my voice.

Mom is facing me, her brown eyes wide, red splotches on her fair face and neck. The simple gold cross around her neck sways gently back and forth.

Though my heart is still thrashing around wildly under my ribcage, I unbuckle my seat belt and grab her shoulders. “Mom, talk to me. Are you all right?” She nods, and I exhale in relief. “Okay, I’m driving the rest of the way. Switch places with me.”

“I’m fine, Lexi—” she begins, but I’m already out of the car and opening the driver’s side door. She sighs and scoots over to the passenger seat.

I readjust the seat and the mirrors, make sure my mother is buckled in, and we resume the final leg of our journey. After rounding the next bend, the hill levels out and the woods open up. Ahead is a palatial log cabin with a wraparound porch. A woman waves to us from the front steps, her smile so big it looks painful.

I park the car, and the woman rushes over to help with my bags.

“Hello! You’re right on time,” she chirps. “I’m Brianna.” She’s in her midtwenties and dressed in head-to-toe pink, from her pink New Horizons T-shirt and sparkly pink capris to the bright pink elastics holding her pigtails in place. I tune out her perky words of welcome and stare up at the giant banner hanging over the log cabin’s entrance, a prominent lump developing in my throat.

Welcome to New Horizons, it reads in tall, imposing block letters. And beneath that, Say good-bye to homosexuality; say hello to your new life!

I take a deep breath and follow Brianna and my mom up the path.

Here we go.

Chapter 2

“Right this way, Alexis,” Brianna says, leading the way up the front steps.