When the pale morning sun gave me my first real look around, I found out we had tons of neighbors. Tall ones, with scraggly branches. Georgia pines smell sharp and clean, their spiny needles eternally green. The trees crowding close to my bedroom window looked bizarre. Their gnarled trunks shed strips of shaggy bark like old scabs. There wasn’t a house in sight.
It’s only the backyard. I’ll check out front.
I dodged between two rough posts to the windows on the other side of the enormous room. The view was bleak. Matted tufts of brown grass stuck up through the snow like weedy landmines. The salt-stained car slumped in the pitted gravel driveway and dreary grey forest walled us in on every side. I shuffled back to my sleeping bag hoping it was all a bad dream.
“Oof! Watch it!”
The voice came from my feet.
“Sorry – hey! What are you doing in my room?” I demanded.
Nate rolled over and glared at me out of one eye. “I could ask you the same thing!”
I barely got my shoes off before I passed out last night. Did I miss something?
A wide opening yawned on my right, the floor beyond it a step down from where I stood. On the lower level, mismatched chairs surrounded a long, unfinished dining room table. To my left, a blue velvet curtain blocked a second oversized doorway. My sleeping bag was where I’d left it, lying in a crumpled heap in the corner.
I’m not lost. What’s Nate doing here?
The curtain swooshed to one side and Mom staggered in, Dad close behind her. “What is it, Christine? Are you all right?”
“Tell Nate to get out of my room!”
“He isn’t in your room,” said Mom, her bleary gaze swinging back and forth.
My eyebrows shot up.
“That side is his,” she said, waving drowsily in Nate’s general direction. “This one is yours. The only other bedroom isn’t heated so we decided to keep it closed up for now.”
My mouth hung open, but no words came out.
Dad jumped in. “We’ll put dressers or bookcases between the posts so you’ll have some privacy. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
“Yeah, Dusty, it’ll be fine,” said Nate, pulling the sleeping bag over his head.
“Who’s Dusty?” I asked, frowning.
“Ask Pristine,” came the muffled reply.
I need a mirror!
I shuffled toward a closed door on his side of the room, my socks snagging on unfinished plywood floors. The tarnished knob turned easily, but the door wouldn’t budge. I pushed harder.
What was in there? A hibernating bear? Whatever it was didn’t like waking up. About the time I decided to run, the door popped open and I stumbled inside. Instead of a grumpy grizzly, a narrow shower stall shared the cramped space with a toilet and a cracked porcelain sink. I tiptoed over, keeping as much of my feet off the icy tile floor as possible. Using a sleeve to de-grime an oval mirror, I examined my reflection.
A huge cobweb stretched from my left ear to the top of my head. Smaller versions clung to the stray hairs that fanned out around my face. I snatched at the sticky strands, my hands trembling. Disgusting creatures could be lurking in there! With hairy legs and too many eyes and… Something moved, creeping slowly down the back of my arm.
“Arrrgh!” I’d have jumped on the toilet lid except it didn’t have one.
Nate, laughing uproariously, disappeared around the corner.
“I’ll get you for that! Mom!”
My “adventure” was off to a lousy start.
As time dragged by, the downward spiral continued. Three bookcases fit loosely between my “room” and Nate’s, but the books were all on his side. The woodstove was on mine which I found comforting – until Dad tried to light it. He muttered all kinds of stuff about chimneys with bird nests, drafts and flues – things he’d read about. All I knew was it smoked like, well, like a chimney, filling my room up with an acrid black haze. Opening the windows helped clear the air, but did nothing for the temperature. I huddled on my recently unloaded mattress, wrapped my sleeping bag around me, and shivered.
She’d never returned my call. And anyway, my cell phone was a complete loss. I’d run the battery down playing games that morning. The moving company delivered our stuff, but mine was buried under an avalanche of household boxes. Nate was around somewhere, but I wasn’t that desperate, was I?
“Hey Dad!” No answer. “Dad!?!” I called louder, my feet tangling in my sleeping bag as I stepped down into the dining room.
Mom stuck her head out of the kitchen and pointed with a wooden spoon. “He’s in the closed up room.”
“What’s he doing in there?”
“With your father, who knows?” she said, disappearing into a box labeled “Kitchen Essentials.”
Kicking free of the sleeping bag, I crossed between the table and an ancient cast iron cookstove that looked like it belonged in an old west museum. A crate for storing kindling was between the stove and the front door. Since the homemade container was made of hickory sticks, it was hard to tell what you were supposed to burn.
We’d dubbed the next room the “living room,” but the only thing separating it from the rest of the house was a tall counter. The counter top was a slab of yellow wood supported by… Yup – you guessed it. More sticks. They still had bark on them, glossy and black under a thick coat of varnish. At least we wouldn’t freeze – the whole house was made of firewood.
I dodged cardboard boxes and recycled packing paper until I came to a door.
“Dad?” I said, knocking.
“C’mon in!” Dad perched on a decaying fourposter bed, its sagging mattress almost touching the floor. I wasn’t sure if it was because of his weight or the weight of the books he’d heaped around himself. Up near the ceiling, a narrow shelf ran the entire way around the room. Every square inch was filled with musty books.
“You wouldn’t believe what I’ve found! Exodus – a first edition!”
I nodded blankly. Exodus was in my Bible too, right after Genesis. So what? “Could you help me get the computer hooked up? I need to get online.”
“Sure, Christine. I’ll be right there.”
Not when you’ve got a room full of “treasures.” I crossed my arms and waited.
“Alright, alright. I’m coming,” chuckled Dad, the bedsprings creaking in an alarming way.
I led the way through the maze of boxes, checking behind me periodically to make sure Dad hadn’t gotten sidetracked. Mom had neatly labeled each box, so it wasn’t hard to find the computer. Fortunately, it was at the front of the pile. Dad hunted for a phone jack while I ripped the tape off the boxes.
“That ought to do it,” said Dad a few minutes later, powering up the PC with a flourish. “Have a seat.”
I perched on an unopened box and jiggled the mouse. The cursor zipped across the screen and my internet browser popped up, welcoming me with its familiar logo. And then the computer went crazy. Weird windows flashed on screen while the speakers let out an ear-piercing squeal.
“Dad! What did you do?” Computers were normally his thing – his and Nate’s. Maybe the cold air had affected his brain.
“What’s wrong?” he asked calmly.
The shrieking quit, replaced by a grating, screeching, 15-car-pile-up sound.
I flung my arms over my ears. “It’s gonna explode!”
Dad chuckled. “Oh – you mean that noise? That’s dial-up internet access, Honey. You only worry if you don’t hear that.”
I frowned at the screen. “You mean it’s working?” I asked hesitantly. But Dad had disappeared, lured away by the siren call of his new old books.
It didn’t take me long to discover that dial-up is a techno-word meaning really really slow. Click. Whistle ‘Yankee Doodle.” Click. Twiddle thumbs. Click. Count ceiling tiles. Music barely downloaded over the molasses connection, photos took eons and you could forget videos. I thought about IM-ing Stacy, but would she get that IHIH was “I hate it here”? It looked more like a double “Hi” backwards. Email? Too much typing. No, I needed someone to talk to. Bad.
“Hey Mom,” I called, speaking to her stained back pockets. The rest of her had been swallowed by an oven that had seen better days. At least we wouldn’t be cooking on one of the wood-burning ones. Mom’s head appeared, black grime smeared across one cheek. “When can we meet the neighbors?”
Mom grimaced. “Not today, Christine. Your father and I start work Monday so we don’t have much time to get settled. Maybe you’ll meet some of them tomorrow.”
Sunday meant church and that meant kids. A plan started to blossom, chasing the gloomy cobwebs from the corners of my mind. Before I could grab my notebook and gel pens, Mom shot it down.
“I’ve already unpacked that pink skirt Grandma bought you for Christmas – matching shoes and purse too.” She looked at me meaningfully. “They’ve still got the tags on them.”
I managed a half-hearted “Uh – thanks” before hastily retreating to my room. I dove on the bed and buried my face in the pillow for a very long time. When I came up for air, the purse mocked me from the bedpost where it hung in rosy, blushing splendor.
Of course it’s got the tag on it! That way we can return it!
I’d choose something rugged, something fit for this great adventure I was supposed to be having. A canvas knapsack or army backpack filled with survival gear was sure to impress the neighbors. That pitiful pink scrap wouldn’t hold anything heavier than lip gloss. What kind of friend could I make with that?
The kind like Stacy.
I buried my face deeper and let out a muffled scream, kicking my feet for good measure. It didn’t help – it caused another problem.
“Where do you think you’re going?” asked Nate, blocking the bathroom door.
“You’re so smart, you figure it out,” I said, trying to duck under his outstretched arm.
“But you aren’t allowed in my room.”
“I’m not in your lousy room. Now get out of my way.”
Nate wedged his feet and hands against the door frame. “Half of that ‘lousy room’ is yours, you know. But not the half with the bathroom.”
“I’m warning you!” I said, stepping back and hunching my shoulders in what I hoped was a threatening way.
“Give it your best shot!”
I launched myself at Nate and braced for collision. It never came. Nate ducked away at the last second and I sprawled across the bathroom floor, skidding to a stop in front of the rust-stained toilet. Nate laughed as he retreated to his “room” and I slammed the door shut. Sunday was a long way away.