AN UNDERSTANDING THAT a small shift in the norm couldn’t possibly change the entire course of one individual’s life is nothing more than an overlooked detail. From my point of view, my father ordered to pack my things out of the blue. He woke me up from a nightmare, held me until I had calmed down, and then pulled out a decent amount of bags and boxes to pack up our entire small life.
I could remember something like that happening before. Except then I was a mere four-year-old toddler. I vaguely remembered my mother and father packing up our belongings and stacking everything in the car. When I closed my eyes I could still see myself sitting back there, between boxes and bags I could barely see anything over. Back then our route was from Chicago to New York. This time, fourteen years later, my dad seemed to pull all the necessary papers like magic out of his sleeve to cross the border and head on North.
MY MUSCLES ACHED from carrying my bags into house. My goal was to walk back and forth as little as possible with as tall a mountain of things in my hands as I could physically carry. But I was striving on a maximum of three hours of sleep and I hadn’t even reached the peak of sleep deprivation yet. One by one the bags began toppling down from the top as soon as I passed the doorway. I grabbed onto the railing of the staircase with an awkward “eek!” to stop myself from falling on top of the bags myself.
“Are you okay?” I blew the hair out of my eyes and looked up. My dad was hanging on another doorway, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
I pushed myself straight and grimly brushed away the dust from my jeans. “Yeah, just peachy.”
“I understand sarcasm, young lady. You inherited it from me.” He disappeared back into the room he’d come out from and I sighed. I’d drowsily walked in and out of this house already a couple of times with my things and I finally took some time to investigate my surroundings. The front door was made of dark oak, with long glass panels. However the interior of the house was light, new lime green walls, white stairs to the right of me. The ceiling was a wooden arc in the foyer from which hung a wide lampshade.
I brushed my fingers over the top of the table standing under the drop of the stairs, surprised to see the amount of dust on it. When was the last time someone went over these surfaces with a wet cloth? I threw a look through the doorway opposite of the stairs, where some of the furniture was still covered by sheets. When was the last time anyone lived here at all? And who lived here?
“In the study,” he called back. I followed the blue, patterned carpet forward and turned right to where he’d popped out from a moment ago. The study was a very open room, with two doors – one to the hallway, the other to what seemed like an unused dining room – and long windows over-looking the snowy mountains.
Buried under a mountain of boxes and papers was a desk, cut out from one huge slab of wood. Dad circled it, grabbing papers from one corner and setting them to the next.
"I don't understand why we're here. We drove fourteen hours for this abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. I missed school and my phone's battery died while Sarah was trying to reach me. Also, there are no bars in this..." I heaved a sigh before I said anything else and crossed my arms over my chest. I saw him giving me a look from under his dark, bushy eyebrows before he dug his hand into the cardboard box under his nose.
"It's not that bad," he muttered eventually. He pulled a framed photo from the box and looked down on it for a long while in silence.
"What's really going on, dad? This isn't a spontaneous trip, I've never been to this place yet you had the keys. Did you lose your job? Did you get into trouble?"
"This isn't about me in the first place." He held the picture out for me to take a look at. With my arms crossed over my chest, I leaned over it, slowly taking in the facial features of the young woman in the picture.
"Mom." I grimly stated. There was no doubt, it was like staring into a mirror, only about two decades ago. My eyes flitted up to his face and as always, he looked stoic as if he'd run into a wall void of emotions. The open grief was never not hard to look at. Then there was me – so naive and unknowing of the end of my mother, because he wouldn’t tell me the details of it. Actually, all I ever got from him was, "She's gone."
"This isn't about her either," he replied hastily. "But this is her hometown, this is the house she grew up in." I smothered the gush of words by pressing my lips together tightly. I'd never heard anything about my parents' childhood. But somehow it didn’t surprise me that there was no grandmother's warm hug waiting at the door or grandfather's cuckoo clock singing on the wall. It really was just me and my dad.
I waited for him to continue, but he didn’t seem like he would. I sighed and turned around, walking back into the hallway where I left my bag.
"Do you want some coffee?"
"No, thanks," I grumbled in annoyance. "I'd rather go to sleep if you let me that is."
"I have chocolates if you change your mind."
"Just tell me which room I can die in."
I heard him sighing and pulling out a chair from under the table. "At the end of the hall, to the right. The one where from the window you can see the town."
The town – small bit of nowhere in the middle of a larger nowhere, surrounded by tall mountains that acted as a barrier around it all. I had been there for an hour and I already felt claustrophobic, like this was where I'd die. ‘If my mother got out of here, surely so would I,’ was the thought that consoled me.
There was little to no light in the hallway but I could see the outlines of the doors I passed. But I felt the carpet under the soles of my feet and occasionally my hand would brush against the rough wallpaper.
Eventually my fingers found the doorknob and I pushed the door open. It scraped the floorboards and moved with difficulty, but the room it hid was beautiful. There was a bed to my left and a desk to my right over which hung a collage of pictures – memories, dreams, quotes. The atmosphere was left cozy by the last person sleeping in this bed and I had a feeling that person had been my mother.
I walked over to one of the windows in the room and peered out. My mother's childhood home was on the edge of a smaller hill among the many taller ones. It was on a bank and from my window I could see down the steep slope at the town right beneath us. If I were to tumble and roll down that slope, I would have been sprawled across the main street in the blink of an eye.
With a distasteful grunt, I knocked my finger against the window. The ice flowers on the other side of the glass were framing my view and while it was hard to look past the fact that I am in the midst of the coldest town I'd come across on the coldest season, I had to admit that it was sort of beautiful.
I wasn’t feeling very adventurous after the long drive. Aeredale and my mom's home which was fondly named "Head of Aeredale" would have to wait until I had my fair share of sleep before the adventures begin.
I FELT THE heat of the fire on my skin, the seductive burn of it on my cheeks and the warning sting of my eyes the further into it I ventured. My arms prickled with the warm sensation as if I'd just entered a sauna straight from one of Aeredale's treacherous weathers. It was all too warm for my frozen skin.
“This is a dream,” I assured myself out loud. But it felt different. Didn’t people feel oblivious in their dreams? I felt oddly attentive, aware of everything that surrounded me. Including the fire. I could see the elements of the hallway I was standing in that were consumed by the flames.
I tilted my head back and felt my knees going weak when I found eyes staring into mine several feet above me. His body was ravaged my flames and there was a weak struggle in his limbs as he tried to struggle himself off the ceiling. His gaze is captivating and I find it difficult to turn away.
“The fall from up there is enough to kill a man,” I said and suddenly the man ripped his head free from the ceiling. A long, snake-like tongue slithered at me, but I had no idea what he was trying to say. My steady heartbeat began to make irregular skips and I hastily drew my gaze away. I only had two options – either one way or the other down the hallway before the flames consumed me as well. I didn’t have time to dwell on the man on the ceiling. He was so far gone, soon enough he would just be a crispy stain.
The flames had almost completely consumed the long curtains framing tall and slender windows and I decided to move on. As I walk ahead, I throw a look out of the windows. Below the building I am in is a dark, tense forest. But ahead of the forest I see a sandy road reading to and away from the burning house.
During my time sightseeing, I realized I might have gotten too close to the walls when the burn got significantly worse against my left hand and I yelped. I jumped a step back, cradling my hand to my chest to inspect the damage. The length from my pinky to my wrist was turning a painful shade of red. I was so close to it blistering. None the less, it stung like hell and I blinked my eyes rapidly. Now that I knew that the flames, whether in a dream or not, could hurt me, I was sure my snail-pace would get me nowhere.
“Who's there?!” A cold wave blended into my quickening heartbeat and I gulped. For some reason I had a feeling like the owner of that voice was not someone I wanted to start a conversation with. Especially if it was their property I was trespassing. I took off running down the hall as it began to crumble all around me. One of the curtains floated down, I saw it from the corner of my eye, before it swathed me in its burning embrace. The embers left a trail behind me as I kept running and I heard metallic footsteps echoing behind me.
“You, in the cloak. Stop! Arsonist!”
I froze at the familiar sound to acknowledge the faint pain accompanying it. Mom. I looked over my shoulder at the young man chasing after me. He was just some lengths away, but I became paralyzed. The pain of grief physically paralyzed me in an unexplainable way.
Why can’t I move? I almost called out for my mother, but the approaching threat in the face of a young man makes me think otherwise. He was going to catch me, perhaps hang me to the ceiling to burn with the other man.
“Bethany!” The voice became deeper and deeper while I fearfully stared at the young man charging towards me. I could faintly make out the lines of his face, though the air ripples with heat. My entire vision started to become blurry and a drop in my stomach announced I was waking up.
The last time I heard my voice being called, it was deeper than ever – the baritone of my father. He stood in the doorway, while I try to blink away the sleep. “I kept calling you, you wouldn’t wake up. Come on, I’ve made some dinner. And if you don’t wake up now, you can’t sleep during the night.” My eyes were still stinging with heat, as if it had followed me from the dream.
"I'm tired, not hungry," I murmured, pulling the feather duvet under my chin.
"You need to eat." He pushed himself off the door-frame and cast a look around the room. I expected him to make a comment on how it was my mom's old room, but he did no such thing. Simply sighed and left the room. I groaned and dug the back of my head between two pillows. I didn’t want to leave the bed, but my father's rude wake-up call had scattered away the fragments of my sleep.
Yet once I stood up, I could tell I was still tired. A quick look at my phone and some math on my fingers later, I had to soak in the fact that my three-hour nap didn’t make up for the five hours I had lost in the night.
"Bethany!" I heard dad hollering somewhere downstairs and I replied with a loud and annoyed groan. As always he just laughed it off.
I grabbed a sweater off the foot-board of the bed. I was sliding my arm into the sleeve, when a sharp sting alerted me something was wrong. Carefully, I pushed my hand through and then inspected it. There it was, a sore to the touch red burn that according to all logic should never have been there. I gritted my teeth together. ‘I must have rubbed it sore against the bed’ was the explanation I agreed on and decided not to think more about it. Somewhere, dinner was waiting for me.
You could see the kitchen already when you entered the house. It was straight through the hall, past the living room and the study. However dad wasn’t in the kitchen and I followed the clattering of knives to the right and into the dining room. He sat at the end of the table and looked up once I entered. There was a lukewarm plate of macaroni on the table opposite of him. As soon as I sat down, he began speaking.
"Feel free to unpack your things."
I blinked in surprise. "What? We're staying?"
"Yes." He impaled multiple macaronis on his fork and twirled them absentmindedly in front of him.
"But I have school. All my friends..."
"You'll enroll here, in the Aeredale Academy."
I was more than mildly upset and I showed it in my facial expression. "Why?"
He stuffed the fork into his mouth and I leaned back, trying to tame my quivering lip. There was a hollow ache over my heart. I was already missing everything I'd left behind less than twenty-four hours ago. I had friends, a good amount of them actually, who would definitely wonder about my unexplained departure.
"You'll start after the Christmas holidays."
"Just three weeks staring off at these decaying walls?" I spat through my gritted teeth and he gave me an apologetic look.
"I will explain eventually. Just consider this as a... Getting used to period. Just try to settle into Aeredale the best you can. If you find it completely impossible, I'll figure something else out."
"If something else is going back home, then can I just admit defeat right now?"
"No. Now eat."
UPON INHALING, THE freezing air burned my throat and lungs, which I tried to save by taking shallow breaths until I'd mercilessly stomped a trail through the snow to the car. Why did it have to snow six inches every night? It was going to be a pain to continue with this trek through a new thick blanket of snow every morning to get to school.
I yanked open the door to my dad's civic, but before I could sit in and bury myself in the leather seats, there was an entire ceremony for knocking all the extra snow off my boots. Dad would follow me soon after, it was okay. He'd make the car warm by the time we reached Aeredale Academy, only for me to climb back out into the cold.
Out of all the warm places he could have taken me, he had to choose the dead-end town where it was the coldest all year round. Every wind that came our way was intensified by the tunnel between the two highest mountains only to get stuck in the town without a way out. This sarcastic thank you is dedicated to the high trees and hills-slash-mountains that have immured everyone in here.
I have to admit again, there is a sort of wonder and beauty to it, which is an old town in every sense. All the buildings with their 19th century elegance, the medieval paths below these nowadays cracked pavements, a bell tower in the distance converted into a library, an old church. I might have been looking at the scenery through the window of a car, but I felt like I was rocking in a carriage. In a loophole of the present where time stood still in this hollow nest between the mountains. But when you cast a look inside the one coffee shop they had there, it was modern and fancy, a whole other timeline compared to the building it resided in. A small town like that surprised me by having money to spend on such extravagant revolutions like iced tea dispensers and espresso machines.
I somewhat wished we lived down there between that ageless beauty, not just looking down on it. It might have made the new living arrangements a bit more bearable. Even the few friends who were not too angry at my sudden departure from our everyday life agree with me on that after I'd sent them picture after picture of every nook around the house.
While driving down the main street, I craned my neck to look at the house looming above, our house. Why didn’t I just tumble down that slope every morning? It would have been the quickest trip to school in this town's presumably uninteresting history. And I could keep breaking that record from day to day, experiment with different sleighs, tree barks and skis. Oh, who was I kidding. I couldn’t ski.
With the holidays behind us and two days of pretending to be sick, my father finally decided to force me to join the other students on our daily trip down inferno lane. The news of new arrivals had traveled fairly fast. When finally dad got me down the slope in the comfort of the car to school, I discovered wandering eyes to be a pretty common thing for a stranger like me.
There was not a single person who didn't turn around already at the purr of a foreign car entering the parking lot. That's how well everyone knew each other. Wasn't that big of a surprise after I learned that there wasn’t anywhere to go through the town, so passing visitors weren’t a very likely sight.
The parking lot was on the left side of the school, which was a small rectangular box, built up by red bricks. The windows were long and slender, appearing every five bricks from the other. At the sight of them I had an image of similar slender windows reflecting fire from the burning curtains conjured up in front of my eyes. I heaved a tired sigh and blinked away the nonsense.
The students hanging around in the parking lot had a lot higher tolerance for the cold weather than I did, some guys flaunting their jerseys, coats open in the front. I felt the breeze from just looking at them already before I stepped out of the car.
"Try not to get into any trouble."
I grimaced. "Trouble? What kind of a trouble could I get into?"
"Any sort. Your mother always told me how one single world could be made out into an avalanche in this town."
"I'm not surprised," I said while buttoning up my coat tightly. "I mean, have you seen those mountains? Anything that rolls down them has to be hazardous."
He eyed me from the side while I ignored his gaze. I couldn’t help but feel angry at him. He may be my only friend in this town to begin with, but it is his fault I've lost a dozen of them already in the past few weeks. It put a strain on our relationship. "You better get going. Text me when I should come and pick you up."
“Yep.” I dragged out the ‘P’ as I exited the car as to interrupt any other good luck biddings from him. I could keep it up until we either returned to our normal lives or he told me what exactly the entire thing was all about. His actions were putting more and more stress on me and it was delivered to me in the form of nightmares nearly every night. I either woke up drenched in sweat or by him shaking me awake. And most times he looked more frightened that I did.
I couldn’t anymore even remember what the dreams were about, but I would mumble about fires and weapons, men with morphed faces and someone chasing me. That and I was always tired these days. No good night’s sleep would be able to fix me anymore.
When I entered the chestnut colored doors, my name was called out from the table right next to it. “Bethany Ambrose?” I swallowed hard and walked over to the lady behind it. She was younger up close than she was from afar. Which might have been because of her colored gray hair up in a tight bun which made her look like a strict ballet instructor.
I may have also needed glasses, but I’d been putting that off for some time already.
“We were expecting you a couple days ago,” she said with a kind smile, while rummaging through her open drawer.
“I… Fell sick.”
“Yes, your father eventually called that in. Here’s your schedule. The school isn’t that hard to navigate, it’s a small place. All your lessons will be on the second floor, except for the Gym of course. We don’t have lockers so you are expected to carry your bag with all your things with you,” she explained, then giggled. Which seemed very out of character for a person who looked like she did. “Though no one will steal if you leave your bag in the classroom.”
I attempted to give her my best smile albeit being surprised by someone turning to me in the first place. “Thank you.”
“Of course. Just head up those stairs behind you and you should find your class pretty fast.” I clung onto the envelope for dear life and began walking up the stairs. Only at the top of it did I realize I should have probably taken a look at the schedule before take-off, so I stood there awkwardly, trying to yank the paper out of the envelope. The result? I wasn’t prepared for the extra information in it which scattered across the hall and one paper went as far as to float down the stairs.
I noticed a red-head snickering to herself and made the quick assumption she was one of the Mean Girls, until she fell to her knees to help me gather my papers. When she handed them to me, there was a sheepish look on her face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. I can’t help but smile at other people’s misery,” she said and we both stood up. Another paper is held in front of my nose and I looked to the side at a nerdy blonde who must have found it on the stairs.
The blonde scolded the red-head. “Of course, you do more than just smile.”
The red-head waved her off and turned to me again, with a wide grin. “I’m Willa.”
“And I’m Scarlet,” the blonde introduced and smiled warmly. “We’re your new classmates.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “You’re Scarlet? I mean, no offense but I’d imagine the girl with the red hair to be named Scarlet.”
"Yes, we know the irony. Hence why we're best friends," Scarlet admitted and pushed her black-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. "Forget that schedule, we can show you to the class. We have homerooms, so technically we don't have to walk between classes a lot." She turned around and with Willa's excited nod I followed them. There were only three classrooms on either side of the hallway, six in total, but scattered between them were multiple offices, a library and bathrooms. We had to walk to the very end before turning right. Just like my new bedroom.
As it was a corner room in the building, two walls were built of similar brick to that which was outside, while the other two are a light brown, decked with shelves and a few posters scattered across it. Dust motes fluttered by the windows, behind them the soft blue glow of the sleepy, snowy town. The air above us hung heavy with warmth and the different scents of perfume and soap.
There were five rows of desks, four in each and surprisingly only a few people were sitting in some of them. The rest must have been hanging out in the parking lot. There was a lot of spare room in the back of the classroom. I hesitantly paused in front of the blackboard. "Where's a free desk?"
"Oh there are quite a few," Willa sang. "You must not be used to being in such a small class. But come, there's one right next to me."
Scarlet dropped her messenger bag onto a table and jabbed a thumb behind her at a second to the last desk in the window row. "Behind me." I obeyed and slid my bag off my shoulder. With my head tilted to the side, I investigated the name carved into the edge of the table in sloppy handwriting.
"No idea. As far as I know, that name has been there since forever," Willa mumbled while unpacking her bag. I pursed my lips, but began pulling out a notebook and two pens, one spare.
"So exactly how many students are in this class?"
Willa and Scarlet exchanged a cheeky smirk. "Sixteen," they replied together and I widen my eyes.
"Only sixteen? This classroom could hold so much more."
"Sweetheart, do you have any idea how many people actually live in this town? The population here is growing old. The smallest number we have is seven students in a class. This is the second biggest class in Aeredale Academy."
I pressed my lips together tightly. I should have seen that actually. It may not be the smallest of small towns, but it was definitely small for the grand ambitions of nowaday teens. I imagined not many families moving to Aeredale to chase them.
I felt an oncoming yawn and slapped my palm over my mouth. Willa inspected me curiously. "Tired?"
"Haven't been sleeping well. Might be because of the new place and stuff."
"Oh, sure. But trust me, there's nothing too exciting here that should cost you any sleep," Scarlet commented, before spinning around to face the blackboard. I sighed. How could I handle this school day without a proper amount of sleep? Falling asleep in the first lesson probably wouldn’t make a good first impression.
But as it turned out, it was the third lesson that became a problem. It dragged into what you could call a half way through the day with most people, apart from Willa and Scarlet, avoiding me like plague. It was easy for my mind to find itself drifting away and turning to the sleep I needed a lot more than education.
I leaned my head against my arm and, albeit I tried to use all the "life hacks" I'd read online – like holding your breath to speed up your heartbeat – my eyes keep drooping. "Miss Ambrose." I licked my chapped lips and blinked away the sleep, giving the teacher whose name I'd failed to remember a small smile. "Maybe you should have stayed home, if you're still feeling ill. Or if my lecture is too boring for you, may you advise how we spice it up?"
So how was that 'don't get into trouble' lecture, dad?
"I'm very sorry, Sir."
"Try to control those wandering eyes and big mouth of yours." My cheeks prickled with familiar heat and I forced my eyes to the table.
AS SOON AS third lesson was over, Willa dug through her bag for a thermos and handed it over. "I always pack some energy with me."
"Except you never need it. You have as much current in your body like a plugged in blow-drier thrown into a bath filled with water."
The energetic redhead grinned and leaned across the aisle towards me. "Scarlet makes a lot of weird comparisons."
"It's just physics."
"No, it's your secret not-so-secret obsession with crime novels. I bet if you had anything to do with it, there'd be a serial killer on the loose in Aeredale every other week." I was far too concentrated on the scent of liquid life-saver between my palms to dwell long on their conversation.
"There wouldn't be an Aeredale if that were so," Scarlet refuted and pulled her blonde hair back with a hair tie. While they continued discussing Scarlet's interesting free-time activity, I greedily consumed mouthfuls of coffee. But Scarlet was right – Willa didn’t seem like she needed anything to fuel her other than her personality.
Their bickering turned into a small discussion on where they would go after school. I tried to steer clear of it, but Willa dragged me in there none the less. "I think Miss Ambrose here might need a shot of caffeine as well. So, you coming after school?"
I lifted my head, bemused. "Coming where?"
"To the coffee shop. And don't ask which one, you've been here longer than three minutes so I think you know we only have one."
I nodded. "I do. I saw it when we drove past it."
"So, are you coming?" Scarlet kept impatiently pushing.
"If you don't mind it," I replied with a small smile. Scarlet simply shook her head, but Willa's face lit up like the Christmas tree I wish we'd had this year.
"Great! Maybe the trio will go there too."
Scarlet rolled her eyes. "Willa, we are a trio now as well." Although Scarlet seemed impassive at times, it warmed my heart to know I was considered to be a new member of this small group. Maybe I had worried about being the loner without friends for no reason.
"Oh... Right. Lost count."
Willa turned a strand of hair into a knot around her finger before she let it bounce back to its original spot. "Just the three hottest guys in this town. Three is about all we have, so you can see how it's a struggle to get laid by them among the female population. These boys can make your ovaries explode by just exhaling that sweet... Minty... Aroma-"
"Willa," Scarlet snapped and threw a look around herself. "You mind?"
Willa playfully rolled her eyes. "No one from the trio is in our class. They’re a year older."
I giggled. "Thank God, for a moment there I thought your definition of a hot guy was very different from mine. There's still a chance."
THE REST OF the school-day was a torture to get through, but eventually, I was walking out of the building after Willa and Scarlet. I played around with the phone in my hands. I was just thinking about letting dad know about my plans, when Willa turned around to me, flinging her car keys back and forth. "You don't have a car?"
"I can't drive," I admitted with a shy smile.
"Good. Hop on, then." Willa and Scarlet walked around the mint colored car, with Willa dragging her palm over the snowy hood of the antique. I widened my eyes, the excitement bubbling in my stomach. This was the kind of older car you just had to love.
Willa noticed my appreciative gaze and smirked proudly. "This is my dad's Rambler Marlin. Oh, he loved this car, but not more than his daughter," she said with a wink.
"You can have the shotgun," Scarlet told me before she pulled forward one of the white leather seats and climbed into the back.
"Scarlet doesn't want shotgun even if it's just the two of us," Willa explained while staring through the window at her friend. I sank into the leather seat and stared around in the beautiful interior, a sufferer of time's magic and the owner's love for its originality. But it was obvious the car was loved and taken good care of.
After spitting nothingness a couple times, the engine finally started and without any other explanation Willa drove out of the parking lot, leaving behind my first day in the brick house. The town was small enough to reach our destination in no time. The coffee shop was in a 19th century three-floor storage building, along with a couple more local businesses. The coffee shop was on the first floor, the yellow light from its arced windows illuminated the street. It was already getting dark and the winter winds became colder the more the sun sank behind the mountains. The warmth and coffee aroma had us bewitched and invited us over as soon as we left the car. I made sure I had my credit card already in my hands when we entered.
The neon sign opposite of the entrance shone brightly in our faces right upon entering. Coffee Shot. So it was literally the shop for a shot of caffeine. I followed the girls to the left, past a counter full of coffee machines brewing something fresh, even something holiday flavored as the scent betrayed.