It’s only when I’m halfway up the mountain, and I start to see snow covered peaks and clouds that are way too close for comfort, that I realize how high we’re going up. I snatch my phone from my sweatshirt pocket, yes, the only warm item I’ve managed to wear when knowingly traveling to the mountains during the winter, and open up my email while I still have service. Mom had promised to email me some instructions ahead of my arrival, and sure enough, there’s her email at the very top, sent only ten minutes ago. Since I’ve been in this Uber for thirty minutes already, that was after I landed. I cock my head to the side, a more demure way of rolling my eyes I’ve perfected over spending the last four years at Ivy Bridge Prep. Better late than never.
Subject: Instructions for the house—And welcome home Wren!
This time I really do roll my eyes. I just can’t help it. She makes it seem like she’s so excited to welcome me home after sending me away to school so she could travel the world, had been gushing about it before my arrival, for weeks even. Then suddenly, just a week before I was set to get here, something came up. A job in Costa Rica. My mom, like my dad, is a famous wildlife photographer, so it’s not like she can just say no to these things and wait for the next super rare animal migration. I get it, with my brain at least. But my heart keeps asking, just this once, if she would skip something for me. But she promises to be home on Thursday, which means I’ll only have to spend two and a half days by myself. Supposedly.
I tell myself it’s okay. I’ve been away for four years. I could use some time to get to know my old house again. The place I called home until my parents divorced right before my freshmen year of high school. Apparently shipping me away to school saved them a huge custody battle. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. They had sent my older brother Clay away to military school years before that, supposedly because he needed the “structure”. How much trouble a barely thirteen year-old like him could have gotten into while living in our small town is still up for debate. I try not to hold a grudge, and apparently neither does Clay. In fact, I’ve just come from spending the holidays with him and my newly remarried father. Although I’m not crazy about my new step-siblings just yet, it was nice to see Dad happy again. The breakup with my mom had taken its toll on him for too long.
I open up the email and begin to read.
I’m so excited to have you home! And so excited to get back to normal winter weather. It was 32 degrees Celsius here today (that’s nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit to you)! If you forgot your key, I kept the same spare underneath the dragonfly rock out front. I stocked up on canned goods before I left so there should be plenty to eat. I would have filled the freezer but the power has been slightly spotty ever since it started snowing again. If you have any problems, just go over to the Roswell’s property and ask them to help you flip the generator on again. Don’t be shy! I’ll see you soon!
Don’t be shy?
With the Roswells?
Right. . .
Are we now friends with them again? Or just friendly enough that I could ask them for help in keeping me from freezing to death?
The Roswells own the entire property our house sits on. They’re essentially our landlords. They also just so happen to be rival wildlife photographers themselves. Well, the parents John and Trisha are. As far as I know, their son Noah wants nothing to do with the business. I can’t say I blame him. Who knew something that should have been as positive and life-affirming as wildlife photography could get so petty?
Eight years ago, most likely against their own self-interests, my parents sued the Roswell’s for photography rights to a certain type of Bengalese mountain goat. Yes, a mountain goat. That was as much as I knew, thank god. The details probably would have made me hate my parents. Beyond that, the lawsuit made the Roswells hate my parents, and vice versa. Ultimately, they wound up settling the whole matter, but the relationship never recovered. While I was growing up, despite being the same age and living on the same property, I wasn’t so much as allowed to speak to Noah Roswell. Except, eventually, I did.
At first, it had only been a curiosity. How many times had I looked out the kitchen window as I soaped up the dishes, my assigned daily chore since my parents refused to get a dishwasher, and seen that golden-haired boy racing across the frigid dirt or icy snow? He filled my head with dreams of monsters, wild animals like the ones my parents photographed. Ones that would eat you if you gave them the chance. In those early days, we would hold staring contests across the fence, never a word exchanged, just the same cold stares until one of us broke or it became too dangerous. Neither one of us wanted to get caught, and the threat was always there.
Later on, it was a way to rebel against my parents. The wild little devil that used to bare his fangs at me was transforming. He was getting tall and lanky and liked to throw hand axes at imaginary targets on trees. Later he would spray paint actual targets on them. There were countless times I had found some excuse to go out to the yard to watch axe after axe unwind from the end of arms that no longer liked to wear sleeves. A special little thrill surged through me each time he got close to the bullseye.
And then suddenly, it was over. I went to Ivy Bridge, and he stayed on the mountain.
Maybe that’s why my stomach is flipping in nervous little circles the closer we get to the house.
“You’re really up here, aren’t you?” my driver says from up front. “I think my GPS just went out.”
“It’s not much further,” I say. “Just past this bend of trees.”
Sure enough, the house appears a moment later, the familiar façade seeming to gawk at me like an old friend who’s all too surprised to see me back in town. The car comes to a stop, and I yank my luggage out of the trunk before thanking my driver and telling him to just head straight back down the road we came up. He looks at me like he didn’t need the tip, and also like I’m a crazy woman for seemingly wanting to stay at this haunted looking house. Frankly, I’m probably starting to doubt myself too but it’s not like I have a choice. There’s nothing I can do but forge ahead. Just as I take my first step onto the property, it starts to snow. The perfect bad omen. I let out an involuntary shiver.
What am I thinking? A little snow is a bad omen? I may have spent the last four years a mile away from the sun soaked beaches that border Ivy Bridge, but I spent the first fourteen years of my life on this mountain. I can handle a little snow.
Still, a sense of foreboding washes over me as I approach the front door. It looks so familiar yet so different, and before I realize it, I’ve picked it out. What was once a gray door has now been painted a bright shade of cardinal red. Mom’s choice of color no doubt. I bite the inside of my cheek as I uncover the spare key from under the rock it’s supposed to be under. If she had time to repaint, let’s see if she had time to redecorate.
Sure enough, she’s stripped the place bare of anything I could possibly identify, but that’s not what I notice first. “C-c-cold!” I sputter out between chattering teeth as I drop my bags to my feet. It feels as though the house hasn’t been heated in weeks, and that can only mean one thing.
The power is out. Just like she said it would be.
Which means I’m supposed to ask for help.
Don’t be shy!
I let out an audible scoff that echoes through the empty bottom level of the house. Sorry, Mom. For once I don’t think I’ll be taking your advice. Ask for help from a Roswell? That’s just way too awkward for my tastes.
I slide my phone from my pocket, because there has to be a way I can figure this out myself. But as I watch my last bar of cell service blip away into oblivion, I quickly realize a YouTube tutorial is no longer within the realm of possibility. We still have a landline for emergencies, but what am I supposed to do, call 4-1-1?
Almost automatically, I turn towards the fireplace. At least Mom couldn’t get rid of that. The stone chimney is probably holding this entire place up. The closer I get to it, the more a deep feeling of nostalgia sets in. I have such warm memories of this fireplace, literally and figuratively. Clay and I opening presents in front of it on Christmas morning as Mom and Dad sat drinking coffee. Setting my notebook down in front of it to do homework but losing track of time as I became mesmerized by the flames. Falling asleep in front of a crackling fire on particularly cold weekend nights when I wasn’t mandated to sleep in my own bed.
I stoop down and hunch over, twisting my neck to see if I can see anything stuck in the chimney. I’m not sure what I’m expecting to see. Santa Claus maybe? Still, Dad always told me to check the fireplace before starting a fire. I bite my lip, suddenly patently aware of one major detail I failed to remember while reminiscing about the fireplace. I have no idea how to start a fire in this thing. It was just always there.
“Shit,” I mutter. Maybe I took it for granted, but why didn’t they ever teach me? What if something happened, and I was stuck here alone, aka right now? I wipe my freezing yet nervously sweaty palms on the front of my jeans. Well, some things you’ve just gotta teach yourself. I remember enough to know the switch right in front of me controls the flue, and that it has to be open or I risk smoke bombing myself. With a flick of my wrist, I flip it in the opposite direction and wait, but it doesn’t seem to do anything. No noise, no nothing. Curiously, I bend down again to see if I can see anything, only to get a face full of delayed black soot and dust.
Coughing and choking, I stumble away from the fireplace and mentally swear it off forever. Screw my warm and cozy memories. That thing is the devil!
Blindly, I retrieve a towel from the bathroom closet and rub it all over my face. Even with no light, once I open my eyes to look in the mirror, I can see I still have a thin layer of immovable dust on me. I turn the faucet on in the sink and wait for the water to come out, but it won’t even give me a trickle. I let out a groan. Frozen pipes too? I guess I should have expected that.
Staring at my reflection in the dusky gray of the darkened house, I watch my expression go from stubborn to desperate. I know night is fast approaching, and with no power or heat, there’s not enough jackets and blankets in the world that could make the next fifteen hours until the sun comes up again comfortable. Not only that, but if Mom just so happens to get home early and finds I was just stubbornly camping out in a thirty degree house rather than ask the Roswells for help like she told me to, I’ll never hear the end of it.
So it looks like I have no choice. If I’m in between a rock and a hard place, I’m just going to have to put on my big girl panties and go marching over there. Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Roswell, you remember me from next door. Wren Folsom, from the Folsoms that tried to sue you?
On the bright side, there’s kind of no way they can tell me no. What are they going to do, tell me good luck and slam the door in my face? They’re mature, reasonable adults, with a son my age. They’re not going to let me freeze to death.
Unless the Roswell that opens the door isn’t a Mr. or Mrs.
If it’s Noah Roswell I’m about to come face to face with, I am so screwed.