Chapter 1

Morning of the Mist

 

 

I woke up crabby as ever. I hated getting up, especially on mornings when it was still dark. As far as I was concerned, no one should get up before the sun. The darkness and the cold were irritating. My grandfather might have built an incredible house, but I was pretty sure he didn’t know a thing about heating and cooling because it was always crazy cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. Luckily, it was spring, so it was reassuring to know that the cold wouldn’t last too much longer. But then again, I lived in Pennsylvania, and winter here had a way of holding on for as long as possible.

          I pulled back the covers, and the cold air immediately hit me. I regretfully let my feet touch the arctic wood planks—I would have preferred to stay in the warmth and comfort of my bed—and quickly scurried over to my dresser. I yanked open the top drawer, which was a challenge because all the drawers tended to get stuck due to age and peeling paint. I pulled out the warmest hoodie I had and a pair of jeans that were way too short for me. I used to be embarrassed that most of my clothes were too small. I would beg my father to take me to the store to buy new ones, but he would simply nod and leave the room. I was never sure if he actually heard me. I tried to reassure myself that he was just forgetful, but as the years went on, I began to realize it wasn’t just the clothes. He didn’t seem to hear anything I said.

          After I changed, I headed across the hall to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. As usual, my hair was a mess. It always was. I had this thick, blond hair that grew like crazy. I tried to keep up with it and cut it myself, but it was a losing battle. And it wasn’t just my hair; everything seemed to grow like crazy on me—my fingernails, my height. Maybe if I had a cool rock vibe, I could pull off my shaggy hair and grungy clothes, but my awkwardly tall, skinny physique wasn’t doing me any favors. It wasn’t like I was a freakish giant, but I was at least a head taller than everyone else in my class. Unfortunately, this gave me a bird’s-eye view of all the crap that went on every day in the hallways of my school. Most days, I would keep my hoodie up and direct my gaze straight ahead, rarely looking at the harsh realities of middle school.

          I grabbed a comb and tried to make my hair look as normal as possible. I failed. You could say there was just no rhyme or reason to it. A professional haircut would help, but somehow, I never seemed to find the time to get one, even though I never had any legit plans. I then headed back to my room to gather my stuff for school.

          I threw my books and folders into my weathered backpack. Like everything else, I’d had this same backpack for forever. Lucky for me, it was just black. If my dad had bought the one with superheroes that I wanted when I was in elementary school, I probably would still be expected to carry that thing around. Fortunately, my dad had been extra cheap that day and bought me a plain black one that was on sale.

          I slung my backpack onto my shoulder, left my room, and entered the dark, windowless hallway. I turned on the light switch, and a line of antique chandeliers that hung from the ceiling flickered and then eventually illuminated the space with a dull, amber glow. I was careful not to hit any of the tribal masks or shelves randomly hung throughout the tight space. Getting through the hallways of my house was a bit like getting through an obstacle course. There seemed to be little consideration for the fact that people would actually need to use them to get from room to room. Instead, the walls resembled an ancient artifact wing of a very cluttered, disorganized museum. At the end of the hall was a stairway that led to the roof. I climbed the squeaky stairs and reached the door that opened to the outside world.

          The crisp morning air and dense fog greeted me. The rising sun was trying to break through, but the thick air prevented the rays from reaching their full potential. It was like a thick cloud had descended and engulfed my shoe house.

          No joke. My house literally looked like a shoe.

          More specifically, it looked like an old, worn-out work boot with peeling leather and shoelaces that were frayed at the ends. People used to say it reminded them of some old nursery rhyme about an old lady that lived in a shoe with a bazillion kids. At least, that’s what I think it was about. I mean, really, who reads nursery rhymes anymore? But I have to admit, my house did look like something out of a fairy tale. I think that’s why I dug the house so much.

          When I was younger, I used to imagine that my house belonged to a giant. I know it sounds stupid, but let’s be honest—little kids have crazy ideas about things. I just figured that a giant left his boot on my lawn, and my grandfather transformed it into our house. Of course, the older I got, the more I came to realize that there were no such things as giants, and the unique design of my house was simply the product of my grandfather’s imagination. As far as I was concerned, no other house could rival it. There were winding staircases that led to oddly shaped rooms and floors that slanted every which way. My grandfather used colored glass bottles to fill the window openings, and when the sun hit the glass exactly right, brilliant cascades of color projected on the interior walls. It always made me feel as though I was living inside a kaleidoscope.

          Even though I’d spent my entire life here, I was always discovering new, hidden rooms and crevices with odd objects in them. I had no idea what any of these things were. Most of them were strange instruments that I couldn’t make heads or tails of—books written in languages with unrecognizable alphabets, tiny sculptures of some really bizarre-looking creatures. One of the weirdest things I found were three small jars with rocks in them. These rocks didn’t look like they were anything special during the day, but at night, they glowed. Each a different color—red, green, and purple. In retrospect, I was a real idiot for not realizing how strange it was that these rocks could light up on their own. Then again, maybe it hadn’t fazed me because I grew up with all this weird stuff, so in a way, it seemed normal.

          Dark, racing objects began to emerge from the mist—a murder of crows, impatiently waiting for me to open the door to the roof of the shoe house. They began to fly in circles around the rooftop, dipping in and out of view as the fog concealed their presence.

          When I had discovered the rooftop years ago, there were a handful of bird houses and feeders up there. I thought they were so cool and decided to make one myself. Well, that one led to another and another until, suddenly, I was running out of places to put them. None of the bird houses looked the same. Many were nailed together with various materials; some were painted; some were made of clay with stones that had been pushed into them before they’d hardened; some had pieces of tin for roofs or old car parts that I would find when I walked through the woods that surrounded my house. But my favorite birdhouse on the rooftop was the plainest one that looked like a simple cabin.

          The reason I liked it so much was that my mother’s name, Abigail, was etched into the wood on the bottom surface. She must have made it when she was young, way younger than I am now, because the handwriting looked primitive. I ran my finger across the letters like I did every morning when I came up here. My mother has been in a coma since I was four, so my memories of her are muddled. My dad and I used to go and visit her all the time, but eventually, he stopped wanting to go. Instead, Mr. Fitzgerald, my neighbor who lived across the street, started taking me to go see her. So even though it probably makes no sense, there was something about this bird feeder that made me feel connected to her. It was confirmation that she was once here, in this place, with this birdhouse. Moving, talking, creating.

          I dumped my backpack on the roof floor and walked over to the bag of bird feed and poured seed into all the bird feeders. The crows pushed each other out of the way as they took their places around the railing that lined the edge of the rooftop, squawking angrily with puffed-out chests. They were glaring at me, waiting for me to acknowledge their gifts. Every morning, the crows would place an offering for me on the railing: pieces of fabric, bottle caps, beads, buttons, and even pieces of jewelry. If I didn’t gather up their offerings quickly, they would get irritated at me and eventually try to place these objects in my hands or pockets. And let me tell you, it’s a bit unnerving to have large-winged, black birds with claws and sharp beaks swooping down at you, even if they are just trying to show you gratitude. I gathered the random items—a broken watch face, a crumpled-up receipt, and a strange charm that looked like a foot—and shoved them in my pocket. I would put the gifts with the growing mound of offerings that were taking over my desk in my room later.

          I grabbed my backpack and walked to the door and left the rooftop. I made my way down hallways and two more sets of winding stairs until I reached the ground floor. I navigated around the multiple pieces of mismatched furniture that were scattered throughout the family room and headed toward the back of the shoe house. There, protruding out of the back heel, was the greenhouse. It wasn’t the prettiest space; it was slightly run-down, and many of the glass panes had cracks that were spreading outward like a jagged spider web. But the rich, green plants that dwelled there were full of life. They overshadowed the slanting ceiling and the tired-looking beams that struggled to keep the roof up. I walked over to an old, cast-iron sink that hung off the interior wall. Its lopsided position reminded me that I should tighten the screws before the sink came crashing to the ground and took out a chunk of the floor. I turned the handle of the sink several times before the water finally flowed out of the faucet, and I caught it in an ancient watering can I kept nearby. One by one, I watered my various specimens according to their specific needs.

          The greenhouse was my special place. In here, I didn’t think about how annoying school was or how my dad barely spoke to me. In here, the plants transported me to a thriving place, a place where I was successful, a place where I mattered. For some reason, I was really good at growing plants. I guess I was born with a green thumb or something because it’s not like my dad ever showed me anything. My only education in horticulture came from a couple of books my neighbor, Mr. Fitzgerald, checked out of the library for me. I guess I could’ve checked them out myself, but I never felt the need. It was like I instinctively knew how to grow things and keep them alive. Mr. Fitzgerald took an interest in my gardening skills and was always stopping by to see the progress. It’s not like he had much else to do since he was retired, and his wife had passed away a while ago. I didn’t mind his visits; I just figured he was lonely and bored, and the plants made him happy, which made sense to me. I always felt better in the greenhouse too.

          The plants grew and grew till the branches and leaves were pushing against the windowpanes, yearning to spread even farther than their glass boundaries. Once, I grew a pumpkin that was so big, I couldn’t get it out the door. I had to cut it up, which was disappointing because it would’ve made a killer jack-o’-lantern.

          After I left the greenhouse, I headed toward the kitchen, my least favorite room in the house. This room had been the setting for many uncomfortable interactions with my dad. I would walk in and was lucky if I’d get a grunt of acknowledgment. He was always hunched over his computer at the kitchen table, working on some elaborate plan to get himself out of Lewisberry. Of course, he never consulted with me about the plan or asked what I thought about moving. If he would’ve asked, I would’ve told him I couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than the shoe house or being far away from my mother.

          My dad had been trying to get out of town for as long as I can remember. He hated it here, and he hated the shoe house even more. I guess his parents and brothers disowned him when he married my mom, who was, in their opinion, the wild-haired woman who lived in the strange house that looked like a shoe, of all things. I always thought that sounded melodramatic and super outdated. It was like something you read about in some old book with ladies in corsets and men with top hats, but that’s what happened.

          My grandparents are a big deal in this town. They have the nicest house and, I guess you could say, the most money. I suppose they wouldn’t be such a big deal somewhere else, but in this small town, if you got invited to the Larkin Estate for the Christmas Potluck, you were someone special. That is, unless you were my dad, Ben Larkin. Everyone thought my dad was the idiot for leaving his upstanding family for the crazies who lived in the shoe house, and I was a result of that bad decision. I even had a cousin in my grade, Emmett Larkin, whom everyone followed around like he was a god or something. I couldn’t stand the guy—stupid superstar athlete with the perfect clothes, perfect hair, and gigantic ego. Emmett went out of his way to make sure that no one was too nice to me at school, like blocking me from sitting at a certain lunch table or making sure I didn’t have a partner for group projects. I guess you could say there was no way I was going to be invited to any pool parties or Friday-night tailgates. That was fine by me. Hanging out with Emmett and his friends sounded like torture anyway. I wasn’t interested in trying to win over the elites of the school with the slim hope of someday being accepted, especially since they could decide at any moment that I was no longer worthy. I saw one too many girls crying in the hallway after some popular kid decided they no longer made the cut. No thanks. I’d rather fly solo.                Anyway, that was why my dad had been obsessed with ditching this town for as long as I could remember. So far, none of his plans worked out, which made him even more upset and distant. Every time he got a rejection letter from a potential employer, he would barely say anything for days. During those times, I just fended for myself—found things to eat and even left him a couple of sandwiches outside his bedroom door. But today, when I walked into the kitchen, he looked excited about something. His face was all lit up, and I felt his eyes on me as I pulled a cereal box out of the cupboard. 

          “This is the one, Wren.” Even his voice sounded different; it sounded hopeful. “I think I finally found our ticket out of here. They must have liked me in the phone interview because they want to interview me in person.”

          “Where’s this one at?”

          “It’s outside of Pittsburgh,” he said as he leaned back in his chair.

          “Pittsburgh … huh,” I said as I poured the cereal into a bowl. “That’s pretty far away.”

          “Not really. Only about three hours.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest.

          “What about Mom?” I asked without looking back at him.

          I kept my focus on the opened cabinet door in front of me. The paint was peeling, and I could see the cedar wood grain beneath the peeling layer of pale blue paint.

          He was quiet for a while. “She’s not going to wake up, Wren. She would want us to move on with our lives.”

          I put the cereal back in the cabinet and slammed it shut. I wasn’t hungry anymore. I wanted to scream at him. How could he say that? How could he give up on her? There was no way I was ever giving up on her. One day, she would open her eyes. Even if he didn’t believe it, I did.

          “I’m not saying this to hurt you,” he said. “At some point, we need to face reality.”

          All I wanted to do was get out of that room. I wanted to get as far away from him as possible.

          “Where are you going?” He seemed surprised by my reaction, which pissed me off even more.

          How did he expect me to react? Did he really think for a second that I would be all geeked-up about leaving my home for some stupid job in Pittsburgh or being three hours away from my mother? More confirmation that he didn’t have a clue about what mattered to me … even worse, he didn’t care.

          I left without answering his question and headed for the door.