Before and Again - Barbara Delinsky


Mackenzie Cooper had no idea where she was or, more critically, why she hadn’t already arrived. Her navigation screen said she was still on the right road, in the right town, but all she could see were woods left and right and a curve of macadam ahead. The turnoff was to have been five minutes past the café in the town center, and they had easily gone ten. During that time, she hadn’t seen anything remotely resembling a turnoff, much less the red mailbox that allegedly marked it, although a red anything would have been easy to miss. The fall foliage was a tangle of fiery shades, its leaves crowding the roadside like families at a parade.

A glint in the rearview caught her eye. Braking, she steered to the side until branches brushed the car. She toggled her window down, but before she could get an arm out in a plea for help, the pickup steered around her, sped past, and disappeared over the hill ahead. Assuming the driver knew where he was going, she accelerated and followed, but by the time she hit the crest, the pickup had taken another curve, and by the time she made that one, her car was alone.

She glanced at her phone. It was cradled in a vent holder at the perfect spot for viewing, which had served her well until her map app had frozen. The upper-left corner of the phone showed an ominous NO SERVICE where bars should have been, meaning that she couldn’t even call or text for help.

“Are we there yet, Mommy?” came a plaintive cry from the five-year-old safely strapped in the back. It wasn’t the first such cry, just the first that Mackenzie couldn’t honestly answer.

“Almost, sweetie,” she said, white-knuckling the wheel through another sharp turn. When the road straightened, she touched the SUV’s map screen to zoom in. The larger view showed tendrils where driveways might be—and, oh, she just passed one, she realized, but it was a barely there thing, thin and rutted, with no mailbox of any sort.

Turn around, her sane self ordered. But the red mailbox was likely around the next curve, she reasoned, and, if not that, her phone would wake up. Besides, she didn’t see a place to turn around. Her SUV was big, the road narrow, and it was snaking wildly through a forest that had no business being this close to the city.

Actually, this place wasn’t close to the city. Lily’s school was. But being a private school, many students traveled distances each day, which translated into playdates in the boonies. Lily’s new best friend had already been to their place twice, easily arranged since the Coopers lived close to school, but this was their first playdate at Mia’s. And why would Mackenzie hesitate? Lily wanted to go. She had asked repeatedly, had begged. Besides, Mackenzie liked this family. She liked that they didn’t live in an oversized shingle-and-stone rebuild, that the dad was a carpenter and the mom a struggling writer, that Mia was on scholarship. Edward, too, felt an instant connection—as if the Boyds were people they had both known in earlier, more modest lives.

Mackenzie had made the arrangements with Mia’s mom, including drop-off and pick-up times, clothes to bring for playing outside, Lily’s love of peanut butter and aversion to chocolate. She hadn’t thought to ask about cell reception. Her carrier was the best in their own neighborhood, clearly not so here.

The map screen switched to night mode for several beats, seeming as confused as Mackenzie. She knew it was a glorious fall day. Glimpses of blue could be seen through the high canopy, along with shards of fire where sun lit the leaves, but in every other regard, the day-darkness was unsettling.

“Are we lost?” came Lily’s worried voice.

“We are not,” Mackenzie said with determination. “Mia’s driveway is off this road.”

She just didn’t know where it was, and, no matter how often she glanced at the phone, it remained dead. Eyes shifting between the road and the SUV’s map screen, she zoomed the view out once, then again until she saw an intersection, which was good. At this setting, though, she couldn’t judge how far off it was. She was an artist, not a mathematician.

“All I see is trees,” Lily said, more curious than complaining. “Maybe Mia lives in a tree house.”

Mackenzie smiled into the rearview mirror. As dark as the woods were, her daughter’s blond hair sparked with light. “Maybe a fairy house. What do you think?”