Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.
My dad told me that once. He would never tell me anything again. Staring through the windshield at our old white Victorian, I reminded myself it was just a place. Still, I didn’t want to leave it behind. Driving away into the shrouded dawn felt final. I could never go back.
My hand drifted toward my iPod, but I returned it to the steering wheel. Movie scores used to be an escape, just one passion I shared with my dad. Now every note reminded me of him. Better to drive in silence.
I glanced at my little brother. Micah’s head rested against the passenger window, his eyes closed. My insides ached at the sight of him, but I pushed the feeling away. Micah was the only person who held me together. Or, I held myself together for him.
Our slumber party last night had been his idea. He’d wanted to spend one more night at home before we couldn’t call it home anymore. We’d walked into a tomb full of memories, full of shadows even after we turned on all the lights.
Camped on the living room floor, we’d huddled together against the emptiness. The house was a shell of what it used to be, like me.
Every mile I drove, that home slipped further behind us. Bare fields gave way to rolling hills covered with brown grass. Naked trees stretched toward the sky. Cast-off leaves blanketed the ground at their feet.
Lifeless. Jenna had called me lifeless. My best friend since preschool, and that was her assessment after having me as a housemate for two weeks. Her mom called her harsh, but I knew better. Jenna never said anything for the sake of being hurtful. She was just honest. Except when she said she’d miss me. I could tell she was relieved to see me go.
I couldn’t afford to let myself miss anyone. The only person who mattered sat in the passenger seat, snoring. Micah was the only home I had left.
When you find someone who feels like home, never let him go. Remembering my mom’s sage advice renewed the ache in my chest. So many nuggets of wisdom died with my parents.
The road wound through forests of hemlock and between foothills. When the sun emerged from the clouds Micah woke up and looked at me.
“How much longer?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
“We’re almost there.”
Minutes later we passed the sign welcoming us to St. John By the Water, population one thousand, five hundred fifty-three. Driving through the town square, I glimpsed the lake before it hid behind the narrow brick buildings lining the street. The sparkling water held no beauty for me.
My foot eased off the gas as the emptiness of the town closed in around me. No one walked down the sidewalk or bustled in and out of the shops. Plywood blanked a handful of storefronts, ‘for rent’ signs plastered several doors. As the buildings ended, the woods converged on the road again.
Leaving the town behind, I drove over the bridge into the village, Old St. John By the Water. Doubtless there were people who thought it quaint that the town and village had almost the same name, like the village played ancient wise grandfather to the town. Somehow it made me feel more isolated.
It wasn’t much of a village. The church and the school hunkered on the edge of the lake and a handful of houses hid scattered throughout the woods.
I pulled into the church parking lot and found an empty spot. Micah grabbed my hand as we crossed the lot and climbed the steps into the small white building. The lingering smell of old incense pierced my nose as we crossed the threshold. We walked up the narrow aisle amid whispers and pointing from the people scattered throughout the pews.
Taking a deep breath, I squeezed Micah’s hand. It felt so small in mine as he returned the gesture, our secret sign.
We didn’t find a pew to ourselves in the main body of the church, so we made our way to the annex, one arm of the cross-shaped building. My uncle often said the altar stood in the place of Christ’s heart as he hung on the cross.
My eyes slid past the crucifix hanging on the wall to the pews in the annex. Staring eyes darted away from mine as I glared down the aisle, steering Micah into the empty front row.
When the music started the pews creaked in unison as everyone stood. I stared at the floor as I went through the familiar motions: stand, sit, stand, kneel, stand, kneel. The routine had no meaning. I barely paid attention to the words. My uncle’s voice dripped from the altar like candle wax.
He smiled at me as we rose for communion. Bread and wine, body and blood. I could barely swallow it. As we returned to the pew, I looked at Micah and watched silent tears trace glistening lines down his cheeks. Nine years old was too young for this. Seventeen wasn’t old enough either. I squeezed Micah’s hand and he turned his tearstained face to mine.
I hated my parents for leaving us.
Anger was irrational. I knew it, but that didn’t change the way I felt.
Taking a shaky breath, I blinked back the hot tears welling in my eyes. I would not cry right now, not in front of these strangers, not while my uncle said Mass.
Micah squeezed my hand and scooted closer to me. I put my arm around his shoulder. I should have put my foot down about coming to church today. Micah wasn’t ready for this. Neither was I.
We both just wanted to be left alone.
As Uncle Thomas, Father Bailey to the people in the pews, sat meditating before the final prayer, I turned my head to kiss Micah’s hair and saw the altar boys staring at me.
The shorter, dark-haired one dropped his eyes. The other continued to look, unashamed at being caught. His expression was full of pity. He obviously knew who I was and why I was here. The joys of moving to a small town were endless.
Since he refused to look away, I stared back at him. His hair was white-blond, short and spiky. His hair color and his pale skin made me think he was an albino. He looked tall, though he slouched in the chair.
My eyes locked with his. Even when we stood for the last prayer he held them. When he walked out with Uncle Thomas, I stared at the space he vacated, feeling empty.
Micah tugged at my sleeve. “Marielle, it’s over. Can we go now?”
“Yeah, kiddo. Let’s get out of here.”
My car keys weren’t where I left them. I bent down to look under the pew. When I straightened up, I found myself face to face with the pale altar boy.
He was stooped over, my keys in his hand. He handed them to me wordlessly, fingertips brushing my palm, before standing up the rest of the way.
Boy was the wrong word for him. I had to look up to see his face now. He was a head taller than my five-foot six. From a distance he looked my age, but something in his eyes made me feel like a child. They were pale blue, almost gray, like the sky before dawn. An old soul, my mom would have said. I couldn’t look away.
“You know it’s rude to stare,” he said in a smooth baritone.
A girl with a heart could drown in those eyes. Anger was my raft.
“Then you should keep your eyes to yourself,” I said before stalking away, towing Micah along next to me. I could almost feel the altar boy following.
“Wait, I’m sorry. Please.”
I stopped where I was, halfway down the main aisle, but did not turn.
He came around in front of me, blocking my view of the doors, of freedom.
“My name is Lucca Malak.”
My turn for an introduction. I looked at him without speaking.
“You’re Marielle Waters.” There was no question in his voice. “Father Bailey told me about you.”
“Did he?” My voice shook, but Micah’s gentle squeeze sent a soothing wave through me.
“I’m sorry about –”
“Don’t be.” Clinging to Micah, I pushed past Lucca without looking back.
The tears that threatened during Mass won our silent battle as I slid into the car. Micah said nothing as he climbed into the passenger seat. I wiped my eyes before throwing the car into reverse and peeling out of the parking space. My quick exit was thwarted by my uncle, who was crossing the parking lot to the rectory.
Our new home.
My uncle’s eyes met mine, holding all the words of comfort he’d said over the past two weeks. Maybe he knew their repetition would be wasted on me. He stepped aside and I let my car creep past him at a slow, church-parking-lot-appropriate pace. I’d satisfied his request to show up to church, but now I needed some way to escape.
“Micah, are you ready for a hike?”
He smiled at me and nodded.
Hemlocks, stark oaks and brambles encroached on the road. Five twisting, climbing, falling miles out of By-Water the road dead-ended in a gravel parking lot. A rickety wooden sign mapped the boundaries and trails of St. John’s Falls Preserve. A new placard announced that the campsites were closed until further notice.
We both got out of the car, the only one in the parking lot, and I took a deep breath. The air smelled like fall –– dead leaves and decay.
Micah grabbed my hand as we started toward the trailhead.
“So, school tomorrow. Are you ready?” I watched Micah’s face as I spoke. He frowned and looked away before answering.
“I’m glad we’ll be in the same building.”
More aching in my chest. “Me too.”
The trail wound through the trees. Skeletal maples, dogwoods and oaks stood among the hemlocks. Leaves crunched beneath our feet and the occasional twitter of a bird pierced the air. Sycamores lined the banks of the creek, bare white branches scraping the sky with pale fingers.
So much had changed since our annual summer visit, the least of which was the change of season. I’d raced Micah down the trail then, relishing the clean smell in the air and the cool spray of water as we splashed each other near the falls.
We followed the creek upstream all the way to the cliff where it tumbled down a hundred-foot drop. Stooping down, I picked a flat rock from the edge of the trail and tried to skip it across the pool at the base of the falls. It plunked into the water, sinking to the bottom. Micah took a turn. His rock skimmed the surface, creating five circular waves. His mouth turned up at the corners, a hint of his old smile.
Reaching down as if to pick up another rock, I swept my hand through the water, sending a shower of cold droplets toward him. A small laugh accompanied the splash he aimed at me. I pulled him into a hug, brushing my fingers through his thick brown hair. His tiny arms squeezed my ribs, sending sharper pains through me.
When he released me, he led the way over the rocks lining the pool to a small cavern behind the falls. He reached the back of the cavern and leaned against its damp wall, looking through the waterfall. I copied him, mesmerized by the way the sunlight sparkled on the water as it fell through the air. We stood there, two feet apart, for a long time. There could have been two hundred feet between us.
Neither of us knew what to say anymore.
The silence between us now was more deafening than the roar of the water. Micah was first to speak.
“Dad always said that God has a plan for everyone.”
“God’s plan? Count me out, if this is his plan for us. And Dad?” He’d always seemed to know when something bad was about to happen. He’d acted strange the whole week before the accident. Like he knew, somehow. “He’s gone.”
Micah didn’t respond, so I stared out through the waterfall. The rush of water over the cliff hypnotized me. Maybe if I listened long enough the water would dissolve my anger like it had dissolved the rock from the wall behind me. What would it expose?
“Marielle, can we go now? It’s getting dark, and I’m cold.” Micah gripped my hand.
I glanced down at him. His face was flushed, his brown eyes wide with fear. Looking around to find what had frightened him, I saw nothing but the waterfall streaming down and the tumble of rocks at our feet.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Closing his eyes, he shook his head as if to clear it. “I don’t know. I just felt like something was watching us. It freaked me out.”
Goosebumps prickled my arms with is words. “Let’s get out of here.”
The sun hung low in the sky as we scrambled back to the trail. The trees cast long shadows on the ground. A crisp breeze cut through my damp clothes and I shivered.
“Micah, how long have we been here?”
“I don’t know.” His whispered response gave me chills that had nothing to do with the wind.
“I’ll race you to the car.” We took off running and I stayed a step behind, not wanting to lose track of him.
The feeling of being watched accompanied me down the trail, like ice trickling down my neck. Listening for the sound of pursuing footsteps, I heard nothing, not even birdsong.
As soon as Micah and I were in the car I punched the lock button and shoved the key in the ignition. Swinging the car onto the road before Micah buckled his seatbelt, I slammed my foot on the gas.
My pulse didn’t slow down until we reached the village.
Micah got out of the car first when we parked at the rectory, his duffel bag in one hand, pillow in the other. I sat for a moment, staring out the window. Seeing the church again reminded me of what happened after Mass. The memory wiped away my lingering goosebumps.
I grabbed my bag and pillow and climbed the porch steps, into the house. My uncle stood in the hall, arms crossed, the same ‘you’re in trouble, young lady’ expression as my mother ––furrowed brow, down-turned mouth. Micah waited just inside the door, looking from Uncle Thomas to me, apprehension in his eyes.
“Where have you been?” Uncle Thomas’s accusatory tone brought heat to my cheeks.
“At the preserve, hiking.”
He passed a hand over his eyes, wiping away his stern expression so that only concern remained. “This whole time? I’m glad you came home before dark. Those woods aren’t safe these days. A hiker disappeared there a couple of weeks ago.”
Remembering the feeling of being watched, I repressed a shiver. “What does that have to do with me?”
“Just promise me you won’t go hiking there alone.”
Losing the preserve on top of everything else was too much. I bit my lip to avoid answering.
“I just want you to be safe. Mrs. Lane called this afternoon. She said you stayed at your parents’ house last night. You should have told me.”
I shrugged. I wasn’t about to blame Micah, who had started inching up the stairs at the mention of Mrs. Lane.
Uncle Thomas’s face softened. “I’m sorry you couldn’t stay with Jenna. Dr. Nash thought a change of scenery best.”
I knew all about what Dr. Nash thought best. Post-traumatic stress and coping mechanisms were his favorite topics. He was a nice guy, for a grief counselor, but Micah was the real reason I was here. For his sake I struggled to keep the edge out of my voice.
“The scenery may be different, but it seems like everyone already knows about –”
“This is a small town, Marielle,” Uncle Thomas cut in. “There are no secrets here.”
Glancing at Micah I saw him watching us from halfway up the stairs. Our eyes met, and he turned to finish the climb.
“That altar boy, Lucca, said you told him about me. He was staring at me during Mass. What did you say to him?”
“I told him that you were coming to stay with me and would be new at school, too. He just moved in with his grandfather and could probably use a friend.”
Even my uncle’s concern for Lucca reminded me of my mother. He resembled her too much, and it hurt to look at him.
“Marielle, is something wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong.” Everything was wrong. “I’m going to get my things ready for school.”
Micah’s room was the first one off the landing. His window faced west, toward the lake. The trees on the opposite shore hid the sunset.
Micah lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. I sat down next to him.
“Are you two done fighting?” he asked.
“Yes.” I knew I shouldn’t take my anger out on my uncle. It wasn’t his fault we were here. “Do you need any help getting ready for school?”
Uncle Thomas knocked on the open door. “I usually go to Pete’s for dinner on Sunday. Or I could make something here.”
Micah hopped off the bed to stand by our uncle. He never passed on Pete’s Eats.
“I’m not very hungry, Uncle Thomas. I think I’ll just stay here and go to bed.”
A shadow of worry passed across Uncle Thomas’ face. “If you’re sure.” He turned and disappeared down the stairs. Micah leaned against the doorframe.
“Sorry about earlier, at the falls. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I wasn’t scared.”
He frowned, not taken in by my lie. “Yeah, okay. See you later.”
Micah went downstairs. The front door creaked open, then closed again, followed by silence.
My room faced Micah’s across the landing. Boxes stacked in front of pale blue walls reminded me of my uncle’s efforts to ease our move. He’d packed up my whole life and brought it here ahead of me. I tossed my pillow on the bed and took my duffel bag to the bathroom.
The shower felt wrong. Not enough water pressure and a faint sulfur smell stole the warmth. I didn’t linger.
The night darkened during my shower. I looked out of the window in my room toward the woods. Stars glimmered in the eastern sky and the full moon grazed the treetops.
A box labeled ‘sketchbooks’ sat by the desk under the window. Three empty tablets nestled in the top. The rest belonged to my mom, a reminder of everything she tried to teach me. I put the empties on the desk and closed the lid on my mom’s drawings. I could fill my own books, but they’d never be as good as hers.
I lay down, burying my head under my pillow. Even in the muffled darkness I couldn’t trick myself into believing I was home. The house sounds, the wind, the lake water lapping at the pebbled shore all whispered the truth. My pillow even smelled wrong already.
When sleep finally found me, it was broken by vivid dreams. I stumbled through the woods. Bare branches snatched at my clothes. The rustle of dead leaves, like sinister laughter, pursued me. Moonlight cast strange shadows between the trees, where I sensed someone or something watching me. A deeper darkness fell over me and a piercing scream ripped through the night.