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I’m excited to share with you, the first three chapters of book one in the Cedar Valley Hauntings Series: Going Home

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“Meg, Dad’s dead,” Angela said.

I dropped Tracy’s phone in my lap, not from the shock from my sister telling me Dad had died, but from my roommate’s sudden reappearance in the living room. Tracy tapped her empty wrist, and I nodded.

“Meg!” Angela’s voice came from my lap.

I grabbed the phone and thrust it back at my ear. “I’m here.”

Angela sighed and lowered her voice. “I don’t want to get into the details right now; Bethany’s in the car with me.”

“How is my perfect niece?” It had been a year since I last saw Bethany.

“Running behind, but fine. Listen. They found him a few days after…uh, after it happened. They think—”

“I’m leaving in five minutes,” Tracy said, waving her mascara around like she was preparing to pull a rabbit out of the empty cigarette carton on the dresser. I blinked in annoyance. Obsessed with her phone much? “I need my phone back before I go. Five minutes. Do you understand?”

“Hold on, Ang.” I put my hand over the receiver and smiled with false apologetic eyes. “It’s my sister.”

“I know it’s your sister.” She spun around halfway to the bedroom, her long black braid slapping the paint-chipped wall. “I answered the phone. My phone. My couch. My apartment. My TV. Mine.” She applied her mascara without looking in the mirror on the back of the door, and I thought about how she poked herself in the eye the last time she attempted the reflection free application. “I’m going to get dressed.”

I nodded and flipped the bird behind her back. I shouldn’t, because even though she was in a shitty mood that day, she had let me leach off her for over a month. In my defense, she had said I could stay however long I needed. A margarita fueled conversation, but I was sure she meant it.

“Megan!” Angela shouted, and the inside of my ear vibrated. My sister, the marine, learned years ago how to scold in a deep voice; so unlike the high-pitched squeal she used to scream at the rest of us when we were younger.

“Jesus. What?” I grabbed the pack of menthols off the dented and nail polish speckled coffee table. “Oh yeah. Dad.”

A frigid silence set in, and I dug my big toe into the dusty carpet, rubbing it against the bald spot in the fibers. What did she want me to say? I jerked my toe back as I found something crunchy. Beetle, or cereal? I didn’t want to find out.

“Meg, are you fucking kidding me?” Angela must have been mad to swear in front of Bethany, who’d been on auto repeat since she’d turned four earlier that year. “Did you really say, Oh, yeah? Dad?”

“Dude, I didn’t even know he’s still alive.”

He’s not. That’s why I’m calling.”

“You know what I mean.” I pulled my legs up on the green and yellow checkered couch as I lit a cigarette.  “Well, what’s up? He got a bunch of debt to pay? I’m broke.”

“No shit,” Angela said. Bethany laughed in the background. “Don’t draw on that.”

I could imagine Angela sitting in her dent-free green Neon, her jet-black hair pulled up into a tight bun, her uniform pressed to perfection, makeup flawless. Most people didn’t notice the bags she sported under her eyes. The pack of cigarettes she hid in a pad wrapper. The only indications that life was not as simple as she wanted so badly for everyone to believe.

“You sound tired,” I said and she sighed. “How much does he owe?”

I hoped it was more than my creditors wanted. Might not make what I had done seem so bad to my brothers and sister. Oh wow, Meg. I’m so glad you never got to Dad’s level of—

“Surprisingly, there’s no debt.”

Dammit. “Then what’s up?”

“He left us the house.”

“What?” I asked, coughing on smoke. “I thought he’d leave it to one of his sisters.”

“I called Aunt Carol, he hasn’t talked to any of them in years either.”

I flicked ash off my leg. “No surprise there. Aunt Dee said Dad only ever liked Uncle Aaron.”

“That twin bond. Duncan and Ray seem the same way half the time.” Duncan and Ray were our brothers, twins, and four years older than me.

I shrugged even though she couldn’t see me. “Yeah, except if one of them died, I don’t think the other would forget about the rest of us. Not like Dad did after Uncle Aaron died.”

That was all an assumption based off of stories from Aunt Dee. She and Uncle Aaron weren’t even married a year before he died. Mama and Dad had felt sorry for her, and let her move cross country with them. She helped raise us, more so after Mama left.

“So, listen,” Angela’s words blended together in speed, “I talked to Dad’s lawyer and gave him Tracy’s address. The keys should be there in two days, a bus voucher, and Dad’s old car – he’s still got – had – the same one – will be in the parking garage by the depot for you.”

“Wait. What?” I dropped my cigarette in the ashtray and leapt to my feet, knocking into the table. A plastic vase fell over, spilling questionable water and a few dead flowers. My heartbeat sped up at the mention of a bus ticket and keys. Cedar Valley? The five of us vowed to never go back, so why was a lawyer sending me keys and a bus ticket? “Why the hell do I have to go there? If anyone, it should be Todd, right? He’s the oldest.”

“The boys and I agreed it would be best for you to go home and get the house ready to sell.” Of course. I gritted my teeth. She talked to our brothers first, and the four of them all agreed what was best for me. “It’ll give you a project.”

“A project? I don’t have time for a project right now.” Tracy snorted, crossing onto the linoleum of the tiny so-called kitchen. She tsked and shook her head as she poured day old coffee into an empty water bottle. A purple stain in the shape of the letter C sat, centered on the back of her white waitressing top. I opened my mouth to say something, but Angela spoke again.

“Oh, are you working again? Because the last I heard, you were laid off. Sleeping on Tracy’s couch. Living out of a suitcase—”

“I’m not living out of a suitcase.”

Tracy turned around and called out, “It’s a duffel bag.”

I changed my mind about telling her about the stain.

“Duffel bag, suitcase, whatever. The rest of us all have jobs and kids. We have lives. We can’t drop everything to go home. You don’t have things to drop. You can go home.”

“Oregon isn’t home.”

“Then where is?” Angela waited for an answer, but I was quiet as I watched the vase drip the last of its sludgy water over stray ashes. “I talked to an agent, Marcy from my lacrosse team, remember her? She thinks the house needs a deep cleaning, a few updates. The land’s worth something. But the real estate market still sucks. The better shape the house is in, the better our chances of selling.”

“What? I’m supposed fix the house?”

“Clean. Get rid of all the trash. Put fresh paint on the walls.”

“Are you going to send me money to buy paint and cleaning supplies? I don’t think it’s fair that I have to pay for it all if I’m the one doing everything.”

“Fair?” Angela laughed.

Crap, I said the wrong thing; Angela was a single mom, in the Marines, and still sent her little sister money. If I said the word fair again, I’d be in for a lecture. Wouldn’t be the first.

“Good morning, Parker,” Angela said, muffled and cheerful. Then clear again and frustrated. “How much money do you have?”

“Let me check my purse.” I walked over to the hook by the front door that held my bag and fished around inside. A roll of quarters and a bunch of loose change at the bottom. “If I had to guess, fifteen or twenty dollars.”

“Not cash. Like, in your bank account and everything.”

“I uh…” didn’t have a bank account anymore. At least, not one where the balance didn’t start with a minus sign, and wasn’t frozen from overuse.

“It doesn’t matter. You’ll have enough to make a fresh start after this.”

“The money from the house is mine?” I didn’t want to go home. I’d rather jab Tracy’s mascara wand in my eye, but I needed the money. How much would it be? The front half of the house was over a hundred years old, and not in the fancy historical way. The condition had been sad ten years ago when I left home; it would be downright pathetic now. The land? Thirty-something acres on the side of a forested mountain. A river ran through it too. Well, a stream or something. That had to be worth a lot.

“We’ll split the money five ways.”

“What? But I’ll be doing all the work.” Whining was something I perfected as the baby of the family.

“We all earned a chunk of that money by getting out of there alive, and sane. Most of us, sane.” She paused, and I bent my head to the side, propping the phone under my ear. I pulled my shoulder length blond hair into a ponytail, as graceful as an elephant doing ballet.

“Ang?”

“I’ll talk to the boys. Maybe a bigger percentage.”

A wailing noise came through the phone. “What is that?”

“I gotta go.”

“What is that?” I asked again.

“Sirens kicking off the base exercise. I have to drop Bethany off at the CDC so I can get to work.”

“What’s wrong with Bethany?”

“Huh? Nothing, why?” Angela’s sounded distracted; our conversation and any points I wanted to raise were lost.

“The Center for Disease Control?”

“What are you – No. The Childhood Development Center. I swear we’ve had this conversation before,” she said. Then muffled, she said, “Get your backpack.”

“Oh, yeah. Can’t you call it daycare like everyone else in the world?” I asked. She always had to make things complicated with her acronyms. “I’ll call you tonight when Tracy gets home. But, someone else has to go. Or at least come with me. I can’t do this.”

“You can do it. You need to do it.”

In the silence, I plopped back on the couch and stared at the piano in Tracy’s Johnny Depp poster tacked over the TV. She hadn’t been my first friend with that poster, but the first friend to hang it in her living room instead of her bedroom. I chewed at my thumb cuticle.

“Meg?” Angela asked.

“Yeah?”

“The bastard’s dead.”

That concrete like ball of tension that always sat on my shoulders, the thing that made me hold my breath when I stepped into a dark room, the thing that made me cringe when someone raised a hand too close to my face, that made me want to run away when I witnessed a couple arguing. That tension eased.

I smiled.

“The bastard’s dead.”

We exchanged goodbyes and hung up. Tracy walked by, hand out waiting for her phone. She pointed at the vase, laying on the table. “Are you going to clean that up?”

“Of course, I am.” Though I hadn’t thought about it. The flowers had been dead for months. Her weird, but hot, coworker had handed them out to everyone as a May Day gift, and it was now mid-summer. She should have tossed them a while ago, but she kept feeding them water as if that would reanimate them instead of prolonging the stench.

As soon as Tracy left, I grabbed her bath towel and mopped up the water. Most of it had already soaked in to the old wood, leaving behind thick and chunky brown goop.

After I cleared the slime, I hung her towel back up in the bathroom to dry so Tracy could use it that night. Smelling like BO and fish sandwiches when she got home from the diner, her first course of action was always to shower.

Yep. I was a considerate roommate.

I leaned over the sink and looked into my reflection, seeing Mama in the almond shape of my eyes and Dad in my dimpled chin. I closed my eyes and leaned against the mirror. “Mama, will you come back? Now that he’s dead?”

I stayed like that for at least a minute, soaking in the realizations. Sleepless nights and screaming matches were behind me now. Not that I had seen Dad in years, but a living fear always clamored at me when an unexpected knock came loud and angry at the door, or footsteps sounded too close to me in an empty store. A sinking pit in my stomach that told me hiding was over, and he found me. I had always been waiting for him to jump out of the shadows. He wouldn’t find me now.

Freedom.

My stomach growled. The annoying internal clock of a reminder. If it wasn’t for that daily growl, I’d have snapped in half years ago. I longed to feel hunger.

Back in the living room, I reached for my cigarette, but it had burned down to the butt. I lit a new one and turned the TV on, drawing in a shock from the remote control. The past few months had seemed dryer than usual, and the air sparked with electricity daily. A few mornings earlier, I had sworn I’d woken up to sparks tumbling from my fingertips.

A reality show droned on as one woman threw a glass of white wine in another’s face. Four equally spray-tanned and silicone infused women gasped in shock. I wondered how many times it had taken them to record that scene to get the right look. I grabbed a package of crackers and put them on the coffee table next to the vase. I guessed I should stand her ugly flowers back up since I knocked them over — even if they were dead and smelled like a gas station toilet.

I picked up the flowers, immediately dropping them. Instead of the shriveled flowers I’d been staring at since I’d moved in, five flourishing daffodils lay on the table. “The water was that bad, huh?”

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

West Virginia, 1977

Geraldine, 16 years old

 

My head was an extension of a book spine and my memories all the damn pages of my life. Only most of the time the story was fuzzy, like someone ripped all the pages out, shuffled them, and then shoved them back in. The feeling never lasted long, but always came with a drugged sort of sleepiness.

I quit bringing it up; no point when everyone treats me like I’m crazy. They’ll swear I’d never left the room, though I traveled my lifetime and more in seconds. Couldn’t remember much more than a snapshot of my trip, and all they wanted was proof. Dee believed, but Dee couldn’t make it stop.

The memory would be gone in a second, though at that moment it was clear as a movie screen; my husband dead on the porch. At sixteen, Daddy wouldn’t let me so much as date, let alone get married like some of the girls I went to school with already did. How could I have a husband? Let alone a dead one?

But I saw that bloated man on a porch, flies crawling up his neck, eyes oozing and picked at by the birds, and I knew. The bastard was finally dead. Or would be one day.

Seconds later the wind changed direction and there I was, leaning against a brand-new mint 1977 Buick Regal. West Virginia’s late summer sun bleached my hair and fried my skin. Daddy negotiated with the car salesman out of my hearing distance. My little sister, Ruby, and my best friend, Dee, fanned themselves with sale fliers.

One of the Zebenfaiger twins stood near Daddy with a clipboard in his hand, nodding agreeably with everything that the salesman said. Even though they were in training, the twins looked confident and relaxed in their new job. I still couldn’t find no way to tell them apart, even if Dee dated one of them. If you count a lot of sitting in the backseat of his car dating that was.

They were both handsome, with dark hair and eyes, dimples in their chins and lean frames. Like he heard my thoughts, the twin looked up at me from his clipboard and grinned. Before I returned the smile, the salesman scowled at him, and the twin turned back to his clipboard, scribbling.

“Daddy’s gonna win this argument,” Dee said, pulling her long black hair up high into a braid. Her deep-set brown eyes shined with excitement. “You got something I can tie it up with? In case he comes over.”

“You look fine.” She always had dirt on her face somewhere, didn’t matter how put together she was. The families who lived in the cabins right outside the electricity line lived better with a little dirt circling round them. But with Dee, even if she lost her footing and slid down a hillside of mud, she still looked like she had stepped straight off a movie screen. If I squinted, she looked like the new Miss Universe we saw get a crown on TV last week.

Our daddy ain’t arguing,” Ruby said, placing her hands on her wide hips and glaring at Dee. The two of them been fighting about everything all summer, as if Ruby was Dee’s annoying little sister, not my own. “It’s called negotiations.”

Ruby pulled the word out to twice its size, talking to us like we were the dummies. She always figured herself smarter than us, though she was bound to drop out when she turned sixteen just like most girls from our side did. She didn’t wanna admit it yet.

Dee wrinkled her nose and finished messing with her hair. Her dark tone deepened more by the sun, Ruby and I spent the summer envying her skin next to our pale arms. Granny Darling, that’s Dee’s gran, always said be careful what you wish for. She also said we was about the only white family in the mountain town that don’t hate Dee’s dark skin. When we go out where Dee and Granny lived, the families don’t trust no one, just as much as they don’t trust the next no one. No skin involved.

Which never made no sense to me, cause most of the folks I knew went brown as a raisin in the summer months. Girls from school wore their skimpies down at the creek, working to get their whole body olive. Not too good to look like Dee, still good enough to spit on her when we passed by their table at lunch.

“My girls.” Daddy walked over to us, twirling a keyring and smiling with his full set of crooked teeth. His eyes hidden under the low brim of his baseball cap, but I knew they’re as happy as the rest of his face. “Don’t scratch up our new car.”

Quicker than a blink, we all hollered and hugged Daddy. We’re all he’s got since we lost Mama and Danny, and he’s all we got since Granny Darling started forgetting who she was from day to day.

Granny had taken to cursing Dee and calling her the snake. Other times she’d hug her and fall at her feet, calling Dee the star blossom. In the months since Granny Darling’s confusion got real bad, Dee started blending right into the backseat of Daddy’s car next to me or Ruby. Just as welcome with us as I always been at Granny Darling’s hearth, ever since we met.

“Let’s go,” Daddy commanded, tugging on the end of one of Ruby’s dishwater blond braids, ending our peeking into the windows and hopping around. The Zebenfaiger twins watched us from across the parking lot as we opened the car doors, and Dee blew them a kiss.

“I’m going to marry him,” Dee whispered, climbing into the backseat next to Ruby. I sat up front with Daddy and looked over my shoulder one more time at the boys. I wondered which one she was gonna marry. And just like that the wind blew again, my pages flipped, and I went somewhere else.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

My forehead smacked against the bus window and I opened my eyes, disoriented. Another one of those dreams about Mama. They’d tapered off over the years, but since the call about Dad, the dreams started back, almost every night. This time, she was younger than I’d remembered her being in any dream before. A teenager. Normally, I saw myself running through the background of the dreams, a thumb-sucking toddler or a rambunctious five-year-old.

I think the memory was from before she met Dad. He watched her from across a car filled lot. His eyes were different. Clearer. I might even say friendly.

I know what you’ve been doing.

I shook Dad’s voice from my head; another fun addition to my mental instability since his death. I rubbed my forehead, glancing at the lady next to me. Her little Sudoku book still rested open, the bottom propped against her purple kitten covered belly.

“Tu-dy!” a toddler with red cheeks and spikey blond hair wailed. He stood on his mom’s lap, staring at me over the back of the seat. A long string of snot connected his nose to his chin, and drool connected lip to the vinyl headrest. If a window opened right now, his secretions would fly off and hit me in the face. I stuck out my tongue, and he turned around, crying even louder. With that, naptime was over.

That’s all right, I didn’t need a nap. It would just bring another dream about Mama. The dreams left me missing her more than I realized someone could miss a person they didn’t know. We passed a mileage sign.

Cedar Valley 15 Miles

I rubbed the stiffness from my neck and yawned. My sweat stiffened hair loosened from the base of my ponytail, sticking to my skin, and I lifted the strands. Looking at my reflection in the window, I went back to practicing my bottom lip quiver, the green covered mountain passing behind my face. That green was the only thing I had missed from Oregon. Ten years in a barren dessert did that to a person. I pushed my concentration towards my lip. “Quiver you stupid thing.”

A tear or two lurked behind my eyes somewhere. They had to. I mouthed, “I know, just awful how he went.”

A white bird flew low by the window, traveling alongside us for a few seconds. Then he turned skyward, giving me a glimpse of a brown underbelly. I thought about Aunt Dee’s birds, never one too far behind. Hopping from tree to tree as she worked in her little garden in the corner of the half-football field of a valley in the space between the house and the forest.

“Yes.” My lip quivered and my eyes blurred, but I lost the tears as soon as I pumped my fist. I caught Sudoku lady looking my way in the window, but I kept my back to her.

Aunt Dee taught me to perfect the pouty face growing up, insisting every woman should have the expression on standby. I had not needed to fake it in years, my life was pathetic enough to have an honest sadness to my face. My last serious crying session had been only a few months ago, when I asked Tracy if I could crash on her couch. Nowhere else to go and exhausted from barriers everywhere I turned, the tears flowed with ease in the hallway outside her apartment door.

The week before, I even called my oldest brother, Todd, to ask for a loan or a place to go. But every time someone answered, it was his witch of a wife. She only said he was out on the rig, and refused to give me his schedule.

The most important lesson I learned sleeping on Tracy’s lumpy couch was how to smother my emotions. Without sadness, pain, or pride, I managed rock bottom with uncomfortable ease. If only I had figured out how to turn off my emotions when I lived at home.

Not home. I whispered, “Oregon isn’t home.”

Sudoku lady’s eyes bugged at me in the window.  I turned to her, not dropping the lip quiver. I choked out, “My dad died.”

She adjusted her kitten sweatshirt so it didn’t cling to her stomach roll as much. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

She didn’t sound very sorry. But I’d give her the benefit of a doubt since she did catch me practicing my sad face in the window. “Do I look believable?”

Her awkward sympathy-laced eyes narrowed. “You shouldn’t go around telling people your father died. It’s rude to make up things like that.”

“Oh, no. He did die. We just didn’t like each other much, and I have to go talk to the lawyer and possibly all sorts of relatives, and not seem so…” I trailed off, shrugging. I hadn’t thought about the relatives. But, I doubted any of them would bother me. “Anyway, I don’t want to look like I’m a—”

“Money grubber?” she supplied.

I snorted. “If there was money to grub, do you think I’d be on the fucking bus?”

Language, Meg. Aunt Dee’s voice warned in my ear, and I swatted at the air like she was a fly I could bat away. I refused to hear voices.

Especially one warning me about my word choice in case I might offend the judgmental lady. If she wasn’t already offended after a nineteen-hour bus ride next to a fish scented bathroom, I doubted a little F-bomb here and there would do her in. But then maybe she’d only been next to me for the last five hours? The bus people were hard to tell apart.

She looked away, her lips pursed. As if to beat my point to Aunt Dee, the bathroom door opened and a sweaty man sidestepped out. Waves of BO followed him as he walked to the front of the bus. His hips hit several women in the head as he pushed his way through the thin aisle. Why had I thought it would be a good idea to sit in the back?

Sudoku didn’t talk again as we descended the mountain into town, and a few minutes later we passed through the bend. The bus took the exit, and the thick forest of trees on both sides made me take a sharp breath. No matter how much I never wanted to come back to Cedar Valley, the entrance to town was still one of the most beautiful untouched examples of the North West’s ancient forests. The trees thinned, and town came into view.

We first passed Cedar Valley’s mascot, a blue two-story tall horse with red eyes that glinted in the sun. The horse had been there something like sixty years, but the field of flowers he stood in was new. It used to be a massive historical barn that should have been condemned, but was a popular school field trip location. The ancient building must have given in and collapsed.

We left the horse behind and entered tax maintained old town. Hundred-year-old brick buildings filled with small private shops, offices and restaurants. We pulled into the bus depot, which was nicer than any depot we stopped at that day. But, it was the plastic side of town. The tourist side that real estate agents showed to people retiring or moving to the area for the greenery and lushness of it all.

One thing that could never be accused of being plastic was the view. Mountains towered over Cedar Valley, in a complete circle, creating the snow globe illusion when it came to the outside world. The green dotted mountains could not protect us forever, and the top of the globe was nothing more than fantasy.

Maybe the mountain’s dwellers knew that too, setting themselves up as some kind of feudal system, protecting the world we hid. Instead of kings and queens, the wealthiest families were led by pairs of doctors, old money snobs, or retired soap actors, perched nearest to the mountain peaks. Swimming pools, iron fences, and security systems; their motes and knights. They lorded down onto scattered trailer parks and centuries old ill-maintained homes, hiding behind trees.

In the winter, the wealthy hired youths from the lower mountains to run their snow plows, run their errands into town if they were too frightened of the icy winding roads, and run maintenance on their homesteading fantasy. In the summers, the wealthy hired the youths from the mountains to mow their lawns, wash their cars, care for their pets and children. Or pets masquerading as children.

It was rumored that one of the dogs from the Homeward Bound movies had retired with his trainer on top of Mount Tickle. Each mountain had a name, though certain ones were nothing more than nicknames. I doubt you’d find Mount Choad on any map, no matter how much it favored one. In its place would probably be something stupid like Mount Lincoln. I spotted Mount Poena (the boys had always been disappointed we didn’t live on Choad) far to the East and shadowing over the others.

“Home.”

The bathroom door popped open, and a surprised woman looked at us, mid-squirts from the sound of it. No, from the smell of it. Garlic and beer blasted from the tiny room before she slammed the door closed. Turned out that was the last straw before my nicotine and orange soda filled stomach gave out. I leaned over and threw up on the floor.

 

 

After I rinsed my feet off in the bus depot bathroom and grabbed my duffel bag, I found Dad’s station wagon on the top floor of the parking garage where the lawyer had said it would be. I walked by the almost unrecognizable car twice; most of the brown paint was missing from the roof. When I opened the door, years of stale cigarette dust swirled out, but I still finished my cigarette before getting in.

Leaning over the wheel, I twisted the key in the ignition and crossed my toes hoping the engine would turn over. For a second I believed it would only cry, cough and sputter. But then the old girl growled to life. I crawled around the car and rolled all the windows down.

Even with the breeze, it was still hot as a crusty scrotum crawling through town. Not until the car edged onto the highway and reached forty-five miles per hour on the highway, was I granted relief from the heat.

Other cars passed me going the actual speed limit of sixty-five, while ash and beef jerky wrappers flew out of the windows. I should have felt bad, littering and all, but I wanted to get the drive to Dad’s over with. Once I reached the real side of town, it became obvious that there was no beautification committee on our side.

It was still better than the crappy side of the town I’d been living in. There were no clusters of questionable men on the corners or women dressed in neon colored animal prints. In Cedar Valley, the hookers didn’t start coming out until at after dinner. They respected family time. In California, they would have been out by noon. Even without the hookers that morning, it was not the side of town real estate agents showed new money.

The traffic slowed, and I spotted a speed limit 25 MPH sign. “Well, there’s one thing that’s new.”

I passed by a trailer park I had spent a lot of time at in high school when my three brothers shared a place there. Kids ran through sprinklers; bathing suits, saggy diapers, and little tanned butts were visible from the highway.

After the park was Burgers, Man, which looked abandoned. The faded name said ‘urg Man’ above the boarded windows. We used to walk over from the park drunk or stoned to buy fries and milkshakes at all times of night. During the summer, vendors sat out front, selling vegetables and homemade items — mostly hippies and mountain people. Aunt Dee used to have a stand there.

I hadn’t thought about the tiny market in years. But I could see her table now; vegetables, wreaths of dried herbs, and odds and ends of jewelry she made. I remember cotton strings, crochet hooks, knitting needles, and dull gems. The relaxing scent of rosemary and lavender soap filled the air.

I blinked a tear and the memory away.

The other side of the road was forested and empty of man’s presence except for an abandoned church. It wasn’t the typical church out this way; full of peaceful retired deadheads. No, the people who came to this church wore suits and Sunday hats.

I didn’t remember anything else about it, other than a full parking lot and women in pastel dresses glaring across the street at the hippies during the market. They must have moved into town, fleeing from the weirdos out here.

The cars ahead of me slowed more, between the lowered speed limit and the tourist traffic, that shouldn’t have been surprising. In order to get to a very popular set of Oregon caves, tourists had to pop off the major highways and go on the one that ran through the center of Cedar Valley. The nearby state park also homed a handful of white water rapids that had been featured in a few movies when I was a kid. The traffic eased to a stop, and I squinted to see further up the road. A red light. When did they put in a light on the highway?

I let my mind wander, thinking about our few family trips to the rapids. The days always started so full of hope, ending with Dad passed out in the backseat. One or more of the kids would hold a cold beer on whatever fresh bruise he handed out that day. I rubbed my arm, remembering the rock he had shoved me into, the gash, and the monster purple, swollen skin that soon followed. If I trailed my finger along my upper arm long enough, I could imagine I felt a scar.

I crept along through three red lights until it was my turn at the front of the line. My stomach cramped as I realized which intersection the light had been installed at. I forced myself to look to the right and see if the old garage was there.

Maybe half a block away, a worn down building glared tiredly at the traffic from its perch against the base of a green hill. Dieter and Sons in stenciled faded black rested over the open bay door.

Strange to think there had been a time Jordan Dieter was one of us, blending into the Zebenfaiger brood, like he was made up of our blood. Even more so when his father decided there was something wrong with him.

His father’s favorite phrase had been, “No son of mine!” Like he was a soap opera villain.

A man who rivaled Dad in contempt for his own children, I remembered Mr. Dieter with his angry scowl and a raised fist. There had been a quieter time under those memories, but after Jordan’s mom and little sister died, easy days were gone for them.

A horn blared, and I jumped, turning my focus back on the road and the green light. I pushed down on the gas, ignoring the cars peeling around me as I inched back up to forty-five.

I pushed away thoughts of Jordan as I turned off the highway and maneuvered down the familiar roads to Dad’s house. Winding and turning through the woods, up and down through the hills was a meditative exercise. The houses became fewer and further between until the only evidence of their existence visible from the road were mailboxes and driveways disappearing into dense forest. Fairy tales dreams, just like when I’d been a kid, chased the car. What lay behind each tree?

Twenty miles outside of the useful part of town, when we were kids we felt like the mountain belonged to us. Tall, imposing and seen from almost anywhere in the whole town, Mount Poena was entirely privately owned. The mountain was broken into ten chunks of land belonging to families going back over a hundred years. It was always the greenest mountain; no logging or thinning had taken place on Poena, except where the few homes had been built.

Lucky enough to be the oldest of his six sisters, Dad got the land when his childless uncle died, just in time to marry Mama and move her out here. Mama gave birth to Todd the day after they signed the deed on the land, starting their own tribe.

The split in the road that led to our driveway loomed ahead. Goosebumps rose on my arms and I drove around the bend. The anxiety in my stomach made me feel right at home.

The road faded from paved to gravel and narrowed as I approached the house. Brush had grown over the edges of the driveway, scratching down the sides of the car. A thin branch dragged over the windshield and then through the open window, slapping me across the lip.

“Sonofabitch.” I tasted blood at the corner of my mouth. Back a few hours and already getting slapped around. The same reason I left home. Oregon did not miss me at all.

The cruel bitch.

I pulled up in between the house and Dad’s workshop at the roundabout in the driveway, took a deep breath and looked at the house. It was two stories if you counted the attic the boys used as a large bedroom. The outside used to be a deep pine green, and some of the slats still held their color between faded green. The shingles on the roof were torn and faded, and probably all needed to be replaced.

Resting on an old concrete foundation, the house sat up off the ground a few feet, looking unsteady in its old age. The second step was missing from the set of five steps leading up to the screened-in back porch. At second glance, the screen was also missing from the porch.

At least it looked like all the windows were still intact on that side except for one in the attic, covered up by particleboard.

Historical, with parts of the house over a hundred years old, had been breathtaking and ethereal once upon a time. Aunt Dee said it was like we brought a sickness to the house when we moved in, draining the energy and life from the wooden slats and screens.

I looked away, already defeated. It was worse than I thought it would be, and I didn’t understand how everyone expected me to sell it. Who would buy a house that looked like…

If I was running from an ax murderer in the forest and happened upon this house to hide in, I’d keep going.

My eyes ran over Aunt Dee’s vegetable garden down by the path into the woods. It looked like a few plants still thrived in the raised bed, and might be worth a look later that day.

Behind the garden was the forest, a living and dark thing, even in the afternoon sunlight. It’s hard to believe I used to roam it at all hours of the night with Jordan, Angela and our brothers. We weren’t afraid of bears, cougars or anything else that could hide in the shadow of a boulder or large tree. The darkness seeped out of the woods and onto the path towards the house. Despite the heat I shivered; feeling as though an ice-cold finger had just trailed across my shoulders.

“Time to go inside,” I said, turning back to the house and slamming the car door shut.

A movement in an attic window stopped me in my tracks. The curtain lifted. A figure appeared, leaning forward, the light catching her face just for a moment. I backed into the side view mirror, hurting my hip.

I have weird, tiny and broken memories of her, almost non-existent. Then the stories my subconscious made up in my sleep about her life. I didn’t know her though. Not really. But I saw pieces of her in the mirror every day and have leafed through her pictures enough times to know that face anywhere.

“Mama?”

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