Preview the first three chapters:
Hello Summer, Good-bye Civilization
My heart plummeted into the depths of my stomach when I spied the shabby farmhouse at the end of the gravel drive. Dad pulled the car to a stop at the iron cattle gates blocking the entrance and hopped out to undo the chain locks. Perfect, it really is like a prison, locks and all.
I flipped open my cell phone for the hundredth time. No bars. Hell on earth. I had been in denial the entire four days it had taken to get to this God forsaken place, but now, completely shut out from civilization, I realized my utterly long and painful summer was about to start. No cable, no cell phone, no computer, no friends. There was nothing like that here. Not even close.
I stared in distaste at the cows milling about at the end of the driveway. Flies swarmed their massive bodies, and their tails swished and swatted in rhythm. I tried to swallow the nausea creeping up my throat. Turning up the volume on my iPod, I tried to block out the feeling of impending doom; it was well past the point of breaking into a screaming kicking fit of protest.
Hopping up and down eagerly on the seat next to me, my brother, Corey clapped his hands. Unlike me, this summer ranked high on his list of best summers ever. Riding tractors, hunting, peeing outside….it was what every seven year old boy dreamed about.
Gravel crunched beneath the tires as we drove slowly through the gate. Rolling down the window, my dad breathed in the air with exaggerated satisfaction. The warm, heavy scent of manure smacked me in the face as the breeze reached the back seat. Gagging, I plugged my nose and waved a hand in front of my face. God, I was going to have to walk around with a gas mask all summer, just so I could breathe.
“Welcome to God’s Country, kids! Smell that?” Dad shouted, exuberant.
“God’s Country smells like poop,” Corey said bluntly. It didn’t seem to bother him much. Personal hygiene and pleasant smells far from topped his list of important things.
Dad laughed. “That’s good, old-fashioned, fresh country air! No more stale AC for us this summer!” His excitement suddenly sounded forced.
Why on earth would any sane person want to go without air conditioning in the summer? I guess in “God’s Country”, nobody lived in reality. I sunk lower in my seat. After fighting with Dad most of the drive, trying to make his summer start off as miserably as mine, I had switched to the silent treatment, choosing to communicate anything I had to say through Corey. Just because we had arrived in the land of Little House on the Prairie, I wasn’t about to change my attitude and get all geeked out about slopping the pigs and climbing trees.
When the car stopped, Corey jumped from his seat, leaving the door ajar as he ran up the sidewalk to the screened porch where my grandmother waited with open arms.
Dad turned in his seat, fixing me with a stern look. “Remember your manners. Respect your Grandparents. I’m only asking for six weeks of your summer. Although after your little incident last week, I should move you up here permanently.” He paused. “This place will help you build some character. Get you away from some of those bad influences you have so unfortunately decided to hang around lately.”
Jeez. Dad’s always talking about building character, like somewhere, in some imaginary land, a building stood half finished that I was never going to complete. What was character anyway? And so what if I’d snuck out to see a stupid concert? It’s not like I had school the next day, and I was home by curfew.
I’d bet if you looked up the words controlling, irrational, and overprotective in the dictionary, my dad’s face would be printed big as day. I stuck my tongue out at his backside. “Whatever, Warden,” I murmured, referring to the summer as, what I felt was a prison sentence. The punishment of spending the summer in a town that was barely a dot on a map far outdid the crime. “Mom would have never made us come here,” I added, hoping the extra jab would hit him in a weak spot. It did. Dad slumped in his seat, sighed, and then got out of the car. I could only imagine what he was picturing the summer to be, and I hoped he was sorry.
As I grabbed miscellaneous junk strewn around the car, flies swarmed through the door Corey had left open. I screeched and swatted the giant, mutant bugs. They were at least five times bigger than the ones at home. I hauled my heavy bag from the trunk, and hurried up the sidewalk, lurching under the uneven weight of books in my arms, my purse hanging off one elbow, and my oversized and over packed suitcase. After first glance driving through town, I knew seven pairs of shoes were too much. Swearing under my breath, I tripped clumsily on the uneven path and stepped on my iPod as it fell from my pocket. A sickly crunch came from beneath my foot and I moaned. My last connection to anything remotely cool had just been crushed from existence.
I hadn’t even been there five minutes and I was ready to leave.
Gran immediately rushed me inside the screened porch, setting my things in a casual heap in the corner.
“Hi, Gran,” I said, forcing a smile onto my face.
She swept me into a warm, fleshy hug. “It’s your sweet lotion they smell,” she commented, excusing the poor manners of the flies as though they were members of the family. Pushing me out to arm’s length, she eyed me up and down, assessing my growth since the last time we had visited five years ago. “Oh, Kate,” she breathed, “you look just like her, my Sarah.”
I squirmed under her close scrutiny. Five years hadn’t been long enough. The curse of the unlucky genes had only been magnified apparently. Awesome. I get to hear all about my dead Aunt…again.
“Doesn’t she?” Gran turned to dad, as if expecting affirmation to her statement.
“Where’s Dad?” my father asked, dodging the uncomfortable question. He sneaked himself between us and gave a quick, awkward squeeze to Gran’s shoulders.
Grateful for the distraction, I subtly moved aside and inched my way into the corner, hiding in the slew of bulky coats on the coat rack. It was apparent the comparisons to Aunt Sarah were only beginning. I couldn’t wait for the rest of my uncles and aunts to arrive so I could hear more.
“Your Dad just finished chores and is taking the wreath down to the river. She would have been fifty-five today, don’t you know,” answered Gran, sadness entering her voice. Silence filled the room. Dad hung his head and she turned to stare out the window, glassy-eyed and far away.
I leaned against the wooden slats on the wall and sighed. Perfect. We had to arrive on her birthday? God, could my dad get some sort of medal for torture? I picked at the peeling paint, wishing to be anywhere but under the roof of this dilapidated house. My aunt’s ghost still haunted them all, and I got to be the living, breathing reminder of the loss they suffered long ago.
Dad coughed. “I’m sorry, Mom, that it’s been so long. The divorce, work, and the kids are in so many activities…..” He trailed off, out of excuses.
Corey burst through the door, skittering to a halt, his eyes bright and his breath coming in gasps. “The rooster’s after me! He almost pecked me, but I slammed the gate on him!” he yelled proudly.
Laughter filled the air, breaking the tension. The four of us walked inside, Corey animatedly filled everyone in on his quick tour of the farm. I plopped down in the first available chair, purposely leaving my luggage in the center of the room for everyone to have to walk around. Dad shot me a look of annoyance.
Taking in my surroundings, I could tell my grandparents hadn’t changed a thing since I had last visited. Typical. I didn’t even want to think about the thirteen inch, fuzzy television in the next room, its three available channels only showing the news, soaps, and Wheel of Fortune. It was going to be a long summer.
Gran placed a glass of water and a cookie in front of me as if I could be bribed into happiness like a three year old. Raising the glass to my lips, I took a sip and choked. The water had a trace of rotten egg smell. Well water…turn of the century well water. I had forgotten about the nose peeling smell of ancient well water; its rusty tang lingered in your mouth, making it feel like you had just sucked on an old pipe. I was going to have to stock up on Mountain Dew like a Costco Warehouse.
“Tell me about you, Kate,” Gran pried. “Any new beaus?”
Holding in a groan, I tried smiling politely, which probably came out looking more constipated than anything. “Actually, Gran, I think I’m going to unpack first. The drive wiped me out and I might lay down for awhile.” A long while, I thought. Maybe all summer.
Gran smiled sympathetically. “Of course, dear. We can talk later. You can have any room upstairs.”
Like their house is the Hilton with, oh, so many choices. I trudged the squeaky, treacherous stairway to the second floor, my suitcase banging each step with a dull thud. I could already smell mothballs and cedar.
In a perfect line, like a trail of train cars, the senior portraits of Dad and his ten brothers and sisters hung in succession on the wall. The youngest were at the bottom, twins, Laura and Linda. Then came Joyce, Janice, my father, Dean, Matthew, Patrick, and Louise. I stopped at the one portrait that didn’t have the traditional graduation pose. It held a photo of Aunt Sarah that could have easily been a picture of me. The curly brown hair and strong cheekbones, even the birthmark that resembled a butterfly by the right eye were all identical to my own features. Chills ran down my spine. Why am I the “lucky one” to look like her?
Hurrying past the photos of the eldest children, Bobby and Rodney, I set my eyes on the oval stained glass window at the top of the stair. I couldn’t look at her anymore. She creeped me out. Was it coincidence that we were here this summer, of all summers? The summer I turned fifteen, the same age Aunt Sarah was when she died? And why did we have to arrive on her birthday of all days? Dad couldn’t have had worse timing. Not only thinking of myself (although, I have to admit, that was my main concern), I also felt sorry for Gran, having to be constantly reminded of her dead daughter day in and day out for an entire summer. It gave me bad vibes just to think about it.
Of the three possibilities, I finally chose the middle bedroom and collapsed on the bed, exhausted from the thirty hour drive and the emotional battles waged with my dad. The springs screeched in protest to my weight and the headboard rattled against the wall, sending chips of paint from the wall floating to the ground. Sunlight filtered through the window in pinstriped rays across the bare wooden floor. Looking around the simple room that was to be mine for the next few weeks, I took inventory of my few possessions.
A single string hung from a lone bulb in the ceiling, the only light. A small wooden dresser stood empty in the corner and a metal rod acting as a potential closet, sorry as that was, hung on the opposite wall. Someone, probably Sarah herself, had scrawled crooked lettering into the side of the dresser closest to the bed. Upon close examination, I could faintly make out the words I am so alone. Tell me about it. I knew just how the writer felt. Who wouldn’t feel trapped and isolated here?
The headboard on the bed was scratched and cracked down the center; it was probably older than Gran and would, quite possibly, collapse on me in my sleep. The mattress, soft and squishy, felt like it could swallow me whole if I stayed still too long. A tempting idea. A handmade quilt decorated the bed in soft blues and yellows. It’s worn, pale shade made the room seem sad and tired. Even the paint on the walls was faded and cracked, as bleak as my hopes for the upcoming weeks.
That was it. No posters, no pictures, nothing. It could have been a room for anyone…anyone in a mental institution. I rolled onto my stomach and stared out the window. Outside the dark screens, the roof to the side porch stretched out beneath my window, a wooden ladder resting on the rusty metallic rivets, the perfect accessory for an escape. I perked up at the idea of possible freedom. My hope quickly vanished when I thought about my surroundings. There wasn’t anything to escape to, not for miles. The only thing remotely of interest, were the rapids just down the road, but I was forbidden to go there. No one really ventured there since the infamous drowning. Leave it to Sarah to take away the only thing of interest in a fifty-mile radius. It just wasn’t fair.
Pawing through my purse, I wondered if I could scrape together enough money for a bus ticket home. If I arrived on Mom’s doorstep without warning, there was no way she could turn me away. She was only spending her summer with Phil, the latest in a long line of boy toys. I could add a whole other element to their otherwise monotonous, take-out eating, movie on the couch watching, lives.
The sad wad of bills I unrolled on the bed answered my question quickly. Thirteen dollars and seventeen cents. Not even enough to buy a CD much less a bus ticket.
I closed my eyes, allowing my body to sink down into the spongy mattress. Maybe I could sleep away the summer living vicariously through my dreams. I tried picturing home; the beach with its colorful umbrellas and bright bikini prints. The smell of sunscreen and surf wax, salt air and coconuts, those were the smells of comfort, not cows and pigs.
Seconds turned into minutes. I let myself drift away, imagining a ride on the back of a jet ski, the wind blowing my hair into a frenzy, the salt water spraying my face.
* * * *
Loud laughter interrupted my dreams of home. Rubbing my eyes, I squinted at my watch, trying to read the tiny hands, seven p.m. I’d slept through dinner. Listening carefully to the voices below, I could tell someone had already stopped over to welcome my family’s arrival. News traveled fast in a small town. I snuck down the stairs trying to eavesdrop a little on the conversation, but the third step from the bottom gave me away with a traitorous squeak.
I peeked around the corner and froze. The visitor at the table was a man so gorgeous he took my breath away. He had what I liked to call “the three b’s”—blond, bronze, and built. His voice resonated from the walls, powerful and smooth as he laughed at something Gran said. I closed my mouth, realizing it hung open like a fish’s out of water and forced myself to enter the room.
“Just stopped by to pay my respects. Her birthday was always special to me,” said the stranger. He accepted a glass of lemonade from Gran along with a kiss on the cheek.
“You never miss a year, aren’t you sweet,” Gran answered, patting the man on the shoulder.
Dad looked up and motioned me to the table. He looked annoyed, which was his usual look these days when I was around. He was probably mad that I missed dinner. “Dave, this is my daughter, Kate. Kate, this is Dave Slater, the town’s new mayor.” He hesitated then added, “And Dave is an old family friend.”
Gran chuckled. “Oh, he was more than that. Dave was an old beau of your Aunt Sarah’s. The love of her life,” she said with a pang of wistfulness.
Dave turned in his chair to greet me, his glass of lemonade halfway to his mouth. Our eyes met and a spark of electricity jolted my body. Dave jumped from his chair as though he had been stabbed with a fork. His glass dropped from his hand and shattered into a million jagged pieces that skittered haphazardly across the floor. His tan face turned a shade of pale I could easily have called ghostly white, and it was his turn for his jaw to flap open, leaving a gaping hole wide enough to, as my father so delicately puts it, catch flies. I couldn’t help but feel surprised and a little pleased at such a reaction from a grown man. It wasn’t until he sputtered an apology that my heart sunk back down from its temporary high.
Shock evident in his icy blue eyes, Dave stuttered, “She…she looks like…Sarah.”
I sighed, reaching for a towel hanging by the sink. Of course. It was always about Sarah. Lemonade had made its way under the table and I could think of no better place to hide. Dave muttered a stream of apologies, all the while, clenching his hands uselessly at his sides. Gran clucked her tongue and ordered Dad to take Dave outside while we cleaned up the mess.
Dave’s feet retreated quickly through the front door, my father slow to follow. I could feel his eyes boring into my backside as I wiped up the sopping mess. I didn’t dare come out from the table until they were gone, embarrassed that Dave might have another half stroke. Too bad he had such a thing for Sarah, he could have been a decent distraction this summer. He’s ancient, older than my father! But so HOT!
Heavy boots clomped through the door just as I wiped up the last of the sticky drink. Grandpa, fresh from the fields, stood large and heavy in coveralls and a John Deere hat. Work gloves hung from his pockets and a beer was clamped in his work worn, grimy hands. He stared at me for a few minutes then grunted what sounded like a hello. I approached him awkwardly, trying to give him a hug without really touching him. He smelled of sweat and hay, grease, and of course, manure.
Edging past him and through the door, I left my shoes behind in the pile of worn work boots and garden shoes.
“I guess I’ll go find Corey and see what he’s up to,” I said to no one in particular.
Grandpa grunted in response, his focus turning from me to the fresh blueberry pie cooling on the table.
Dusk greeted me as I stepped from the porch into the evening air. The sun stayed out longer in the summer here, sometimes as late as ten at night, so the air was still warm and streaks of red and orange filled the night sky. After spending most of the day in my room, it felt good to be out in the fresh air stretching my car-cramped legs.
My stomach rumbled in response to missing dinner, but I wasn’t about to go back inside and share the table with my grandfather, the monosyllabic wonder.
Reaching for the gate, I jumped when the screen door screeched loudly behind me.
Gran appeared, her white hair sticking out through the crack in the door. “There’s a storm coming in. You kids don’t stay out too long,” she warned, wagging her finger in my direction.
I glanced up at the cloudless sky and tried not to roll my eyes. “We’ll be OK, Gran. Don’t worry,” I assured her.
* * * *
Far down the drive, I noticed the taillights of Dave Slater’s truck. As he turned onto the highway, I felt my emotions sway between disappointment and relief. He had definitely made the night interesting… in a peculiar sort of way.
Heavy, humid air kissed my cheeks and the grass tickled my bare feet as I made my way to the barn. Corey was already there, swinging on the thick ropes of twine, his body soaring far out past the open barn doors and into the hazy night. His happy screams were infectious, and I couldn’t help but smile at his crazy antics.
I plopped down on the first row of hay bales, content to spend the rest of the evening sulking as long as I remained far away from my father.
Darting through the bales like a hamster on steroids, Corey called out, challenging me to catch him.
At first, I ignored him, not wanting to show even the slightest bit of interest, but after his third or fourth plea, I found myself plotting his demise and planned my attack.
He made his way up to the rafters. I waited until Corey’s back was turned before making a mad, slippery dash to a wooden ladder that led to the loft. Once at the top, I lunged repeatedly after Corey, crashing into piles of loose hay, raising clouds of dust into the air. Corey giggled maniacally, and the two of us jumped through the open hatch to the bales below, shrieking in mock horror when our legs sank knee deep into the bales.
I paused, breathless. The first real smile I’d had in a week crept across my face. Corey sat across from me pulling sprigs of hay from his hair. I was glad none of my friends were here to witness my temporary display of juvenile behavior. They would never understand how I could have so much fun with just Corey and some hay. It almost made me forget I had been miserable only moments before. Almost.
Corey grabbed a rope. “Want to play chicken?” he challenged.
Chicken was basically a game of courage and stupidity. Two swingers, each on their own ropes, had to swing directly at each other from opposite corners of the barn. The first one to jump off in fright was the chicken and the loser. Once, I had gotten twenty-two stitches above my eyebrow when I refused to let go in a duel against one of my country cousins. I slammed into a barn pole and spent the rest of the day in the ER, but it didn’t stop me from playing again the next day.
But that was ages ago. Back to a time when I actually enjoyed coming here.
Thunder rippled through the sky, shaking the barn’s frame. I could feel a sudden change in the air; the hair on my neck seemed to pop with an electric current and the skin on my arms tingled.
The first drops of rain plinked against the tin roof and Corey’s head whipped in my direction, his eyes round and afraid. Corey had always been scared of storms, but his fear had increased ever since our neighbor’s house was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground. That was three years ago, and Corey lived it over and over again with the beginning of every storm.
Offering him a smile of reassurance, I couldn’t help but falter in my steps as Gran’s warning played in the back of my mind. I decided to end our night of fun before the storm could worsen, making our trek back to the farmhouse a soggy, traumatizing task. I grabbed the base of the wooden ladder leading up to the loft. Trying to distract Corey, who was hypnotized with fear as he stared through the open barn door to the flashes of lightning beyond, I yelled, “Race you to the house! You have to jump through the hatch, go across the bales, swing on the rope, and last one to the house owes the other a candy bar.”
Forgetting the storm for a moment, Corey’s eyes lit up at the prospect of any sort of candy. He scurried up the ladder, quick as a mouse. “I like Snickers,” he said cockily, doing his best imitation of a tough guy swagger; his skinny legs looking more like a chicken’s than a little boy’s.
I smirked. Corey didn’t have a chance, but I admired his determination. Leaning over, I grasped the heavy metal ring of the hatch. I planned on jumping through and pulling the hatch closed behind me, saving me a trip back up the ladder later.
Another clap of thunder and a flash of lightning made Corey scream in terror. Without a second thought, he jumped through the opening, darted through the maze of bales, and was through the barn poles of the entrance before I could think to say “go”.
I rolled my eyes heavenward. “Cheater!” I yelled at his retreating shadow. Thunder rumbled in response.
Without his little wiry body around, the atmosphere of the barn changed drastically. An eerie feeling began to swirl in the pit of my stomach. Alone in the darkening barn, it no longer felt like a safe haven for play, but a keeper of things that went bump in the night. The base of my scalp prickled again and sweat popped out on my brow. The farmhouse looked so far away, the isolation upping my feelings of nervousness.
“Quit being a baby,” I muttered to myself, as I barked out a fake laugh that sounded forced and tight. My eyes flickered to the dark corners of the hayloft. Sometimes animals took refuge in barns during storms. Animals of all shapes and sizes.
Thunder shook the roof and I bit my lip to keep from screaming. I was not going to give into my fears and act like a little seven year old. I was fifteen for crying out loud.
A pair of tiny beady eyes appeared under the fringes of a pile of loose hay, not far from where I stood. The last of my false bravado vanished and I let loose a piercing shriek. Turning to the hatch, I jumped through the square opening just as a flash of lightning illuminated the sky. For a moment, the entire barn lit up like fireworks, so bright that I could see each individual stalk of hay and every twisted knot on the wide barn poles.
Then all was dark again.
Like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole, it too felt as if I fell for an eternity. Except my feet never touched the barn floor.
I must have jumped too far. Helpless, my arms waving madly, I tried to twist my body in midair.
My head bounced against something hard and a wave of nausea ran through my body, engulfing my mind and swallowing my senses. Dizziness took over and then luckily… a blissful nothing.
The smell was overwhelming. Sort of a warm, gamey, animal smell mixed with… ugh… manure. It permeated my senses and threatened to suffocate me. Even in the stifling darkness, I could tell I was sitting on dry, crackly hay, its pointy stalks poking through the thin cotton of my T-shirt. The familiar rough wood grain of the barn walls pressed against my cheek. Heavy snorts of breath startled my slow process of puzzle solving into hyper-drive. There were positively, absolutely no animals in the barn when I had last been able to see. Right before the storm.
I tried to move, but the pounding in my head countered every motion, sending me back into a fetal position of pain. I ran my hands up and down my body, feeling for injury; my heart pounding loudly in my ears as I tried not to think about what was breathing in the mysterious dark corners. Nothing felt broken or even scratched. It was only my head that felt like it had been cracked in half, its pieces swollen and throbbing.
A pinprick of light pierced the darkness, sweeping the floor of the barn in a wide arc. As the light came to rest on my face, I winced at the stab of pain that shot to my skull.
A dark shadow approached. “Sarah! My goodness! She’s in here, Louis!”
The words bounced around my brain in a jumble. “Well, when you didn’t come in for cake, I should have known something was wrong.” The voice was a woman’s, accented heavily in that Minnesota-Norwegian twang.
I felt a hand grab my arm. “Are you all right, Sarah? What happened?” the woman prodded.
Pushing the light from my eyes, I staggered to my feet, holding on to the wall for support. “I think I hit my head when I jumped through the hatch,” I muttered, motioning to the square door above. And, did you just call me Sarah, twice?
Everything felt off… strange, fuzzy, like in a dream. The jackhammer in my head wouldn’t stop and I placed a hand against my temple in a futile effort to still the constant pounding. I followed the woman from the dark barn, uncomfortable with how close she was walking next to me; so close we were practically touching. I didn’t want to seem rude or ungrateful, the woman had found me after all.
No one else had the decency to even come looking. Where were Corey and Dad? They were probably clueless to my situation. Probably too caught up in a “riveting” game of cribbage or Lincoln logs. My thoughts dripped with sarcasm, tinged with a little bit of hurt. I knew Dad and I hadn’t exactly gotten along lately, but to not even notice I was missing? That stung worse than one of his lectures any day.
I noticed the rain had stopped, the ground already dry, which meant I’d been unconscious for a long time. Heat rose up my neck, coloring my cheeks. I could have been seriously injured – maybe even dead! And no one cared. Fuming, I didn’t notice the woman walking in front of me had stopped, and I rammed face first into her backside.
Staring into the shadows of a nearby shed, the woman addressed a large round figure in boots and coveralls. The face remained in the shadows, making whoever it was seem like a ghost, a silhouette in clothing. A faint murmur followed by a grumbling of rough speech came from the shadows.
“What’d you say, Louis?” the woman called back.
“I said she left the gate open and I have to go out and round up the cows. Send Bobby and Rodney out to help,” the gruff voice answered.
“I’ll save you some cake.”
A few grunts came in return, and the woman continued across the field, not bothering to check if I followed.
I kept waiting to come across someone I recognized. I couldn’t figure out why these people were out wandering the grounds of my grandparents’ farm, acting as though they belonged here. My eyes strained to see something familiar, but the grounds were dark and shadowed, the sky shrouded in a blanket of thick, black clouds.
The woman in front of me held open the gate to the farmhouse yard. “For your birthday, your father and I wanted to make sure you had some shoes for school, so…” she prattled on, something about selling corn for extra money, but my mind had already stopped processing, stalling on the former words—my birthday? This lady had it all wrong. And, remembering she had called me Sarah sent chills coursing through my body. It was all too creepy.
“I think you’ve made some kind of mistake,” I said, pausing on the path, not daring to enter the yard for fear I would cross over into the land of no return. “My name is Kate. I’m just visiting my grandparent’s farm for the summer. Corey and I… we were swinging on some ropes when the storm came. I tried jumping through the hatch and hit my head…” I trailed off, noticing how the woman looked at me, her face twisted in a curious manner.
Instead of affirming my story, she patted me on the shoulder as if to humor me, like I was three years old and needed her to believe some made-up charade. “Why don’t we go in and get you cleaned up. There’s a nice warm cake fresh from the oven. Your brothers and sisters have been waiting patiently for you to come in,” she said, concern etching her features as she looked closer at my face. She shined the flashlight into my eyes once more and I instinctively held my hands up in defense.
“Your pupils aren’t dilated,” she murmured. “You’re sure you feel OK?”
I didn’t know what to do, so I said nothing. I felt fine, other than my mammoth headache, but the whole… I don’t know… scenario didn’t feel fine. The woman seemed harmless enough, but then again, so had the woman in the movie, Misery. I began to wonder if I had hit my head hard enough to have temporary amnesia.
Did I wander off into the back woods to another farm? Was that even possible?
I had to believe anything was possible at this point. But I knew something wasn’t right. And it still didn’t explain why this woman, strange as she was, treated me like I belonged here, like I was part of her family.
Weary, I followed her toward the dark shell of a home. Entering a screened porch, I noticed several pairs of work boots and layers upon layers of reeking coveralls hanging in the corner. A tiny slice of light shone beneath the heavy doorframe that led inside.
Nervous, I wiped my hands on my jeans. What the hell was I doing? Willingly going into a strange house with strange people who could be murderers? Or kidnappers? God, this is what they wrote books about all the time. I could be gracing the front page of the newspapers tomorrow, my face printed on every milk carton.
Still, when I thought about my situation, what other options did I have?
I stepped through the door into a kitchen full of animated children of all ages and sizes. My heart jumped into my throat. I knew it. I’ve walked right into some sort of human trafficking ring. I made a move to turn around, but the woman closed the door firmly and ushered me into the center of the room.
This was the real first chance I’d had of seeing her face in the light. There was something about her eyes – and her nose. Strangely familiar. My head pounded and I shrugged away the odd sensation and took in my surroundings, walls of confusion hitting me from all sides. The room, with its drab pale colors looked like a black and white photo right out of one of Gran’s old albums. There must have been some sort of template all families in rural Minnesota used to decorate their homes, because this family had the same wooden clock hanging above their refrigerator, a framed print of the Last Supper above the dinner table, and an old black woodstove in the corner.
Weirdly enough, this family’s wood stove was operational, a full orange glow coming from its depths. Square cotton towels hung from a line above the stove, and a metal pan rested on top, where a fluffy white cake sat cooling. The rest of the kitchen was simple and bare of any modern conveniences. The sink, which consisted of some wood plank sides and a metal bin, didn’t have any plumbing beneath it, just a dirty five gallon bucket. Then I knew I was dreaming. Nobody in their right minds lived without indoor plumbing.
“Dean, get your sister some water from the reservoir on the stove. She’s banged herself up a bit.”
I snapped to attention as the woman’s voice broke into my thoughts. Dean? That was my father’s name. A boy – Dean, I could only presume – hopped from the table and ran to scoop some water into a bowl. His gangly, skinny body was somehow familiar; his freckled face and straight brown hair sparking a memory I couldn’t quite place. Numb, I took the bowl from Dean and leaned against the sink for support. I realized every eye was on me and I felt like some freak show at the circus.
“Can we have cake now?” one of the children pleaded. A chorus of similar pleas echoed the request.
“Sarah, can we serve your cake while you clean up? I made angel food – your favorite.” The woman moved briskly through the kitchen grabbing plates and forks, setting the cake on the table in front of the children who all looked at the dessert like lions ready to pounce on their prey.
I was just about to correct the woman for calling me Sarah again, when I spied my reflection in an oval mirror tacked above the sink. A lone trickle of blood ran just behind my ear and down my neck. I felt the telltale signs of a lump on the back of my head. It hurt at the slightest brush of a finger. Other than that, I looked the same. I felt the same. So why did everyone act as if I belonged here, as though nothing were out of the ordinary?
Dipping a tattered rag into a bowl of water, I wiped my face clear of the barn’s dusty grit. Water trickled down the sides of the basin, dropping with a plunk! to the bucket below.
Amazed at the large family living in such inadequate standards, I wondered why social services or the police hadn’t gotten involved. It was apparent, as I watched the children, though, that they were happy and content, teasing and joking with one another around the table. They didn’t seem to have any idea at all what they were being subjected to, or what they were missing.
The woman spoke up, jarring me from my thoughts again. “Rodney, Bobby, take your cake out and help your father round up the cows.”
The two largest boys, broad shouldered but thin, grabbed a handful of cake each and wordlessly headed for the door.
A young girl, with a face eerily similar to mine, but slightly rounder, cleaned up the cake crumbs and collected the plates. The cake had been devoured in less than five minutes.
“Louise, when you’re finished, take Laura and Linda, change them up and put them to bed. Joyce and Janice, wash your face and get to bed, it’s late,” the woman ordered.
Rodney, Bobby, Louise, Laura, Linda, Janice, Joyce, Dean? They have all the same names as my aunts and uncles. This is weird. I felt swirls of panic in my stomach. I managed to edge closer to the door, accepting a piece of cake from Louise in the process. Everyone was moving, talking, not even noticing my hesitant retreat. If I could make it through the door, I was a fairly good sprinter. I knew I could make it to the woods before anyone could catch me. I had to get out of the Twilight Zone before I went crazy.
Leaning casually against the small, boxy fridge, I waited for the right moment when I could slip through the door. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a calendar stuck to the side of the fridge, a magnet shaped like a tractor holding it in place. It was simple and ordinary, no cute kittens or dogs wearing hats on the monthly picture. Even the dated squares were plain and consecutively empty, all except for one, June fifteenth. A name, scrawled in miniature script fit neatly in the bottom of the square – Sarah Jane Christenson, 15.
Confused, I looked at the top of the calendar, searching for answers.
Large black numbers at the top of the page spelled out everything perfectly; the year read 1960.
My head suddenly felt light, like it had left my shoulders and was floating its way to the ceiling. The numbers of the calendar blurred and the voices around me swirled together, becoming a rush of overwhelming noise that threatened to engulf my body and carry it away.
It had to be a joke, a horribly cruel and elaborate joke. I felt my knees giving out, the weight of the bizarre situation taking me down. Trying to shut out the noise, I closed my eyes, praying this was all only a dream, or rather, a nightmare.
Most likely, I was really asleep on my grandmother’s bed and just needed to wake up. This was all a result of having Aunt Sarah on the brain; my subconscious was taking the comparisons to new heights.
Barely feeling the hands on my arms guiding me to sit down, I tried picturing something safe and familiar, someplace like home. Images of waves pounding the shore and seagulls swooping through the air helped my muscles relax. I imagined sinking my toes into white powdery sand, the salty air fresh on my cheeks. Home. I wanted to be home.
Putting the Pieces Together
A sharp elbow into my side made me groan and cover my face with a pillow. “Go away, Corey,” I muttered, still tired from my restless sleep. What an awful dream, I thought, remembering my fear from the night before. It felt so real.
“Dad said you better get up now, or he’ll send Rodney up with a bucket of water,” said a little voice in my ear.
I shot up in bed, sending the little girl beside me tumbling over the edge and landing on the floor with a thud. She scampered out the door, yelping like a wounded puppy. Scrambling from the sheets, I pulled on the first piece of clothing I could find; sometime in the middle of the night, I must have stripped down to only a T-shirt and underwear. “Wait!” I yelled after the girl, stumbling as my foot caught in the leg of the pants I was struggling to put on.
Lurching down the steps, one leg into my jeans, I caught hold of the railing and swayed off balance. The back of my head throbbed and a queasy, uneasy feeling tickled the pit of my stomach. The little girl on my bed looked strangely familiar – like one of the kids from my dream last night.
I rounded the bottom of the stairs and stepped into the kitchen, hoping to catch sight of the strange girl.
Instead, I came to a sudden stop, my eyes wide in disbelief. The kitchen was exactly the same as in my dream. The wood stove burning bright, the sink with no plumbing, the plain walls. It hadn’t been a nightmare. I doubled over like I’d been punched in the stomach.
What was happening?
The girl from my bedroom sat at the table, frowning in my direction. Before I could ask who she was, the woman who had found me in the barn last night entered the room, an overflowing basket of laundry in her arms.
“Janice! Outside and feed the pigs,” she ordered, a clothespin stuck between her teeth. “Sarah, if you’re feeling better now, get out and help your brothers finish the cows. Oh!” She faltered on her way through the door, “First, get the eggs for breakfast, then go out to the barn.”
Janice hopped from the table and ran to the porch, putting her tiny feet into rubber boots that were at least three sizes too big. I watched in a confused trance-like state as she made her way across the yard toward a large weather-beaten shed. Through the metal fence surrounding the shed, I spotted pigs rooting around in the soil.
Jeez, the pigs were twice the size of Janice. She had to be, what? Five years old? I shuddered to think of what could happen to the tiny girl amidst the snuffling, boorish pigs.
I felt the woman staring at me, her eyebrow raised in question. Standing there like a zombie, I was completely baffled by my surroundings, one bare leg sticking out of my jeans. I knew the woman expected me to move, to respond, but I was still trying to process where I was, let alone who I was.
Hastily, I put on my jeans properly. A quick glance at the fridge told me exactly what I learned before. The year still read 1960, and I was in the same backwoods country house with a family that didn’t even have running water. Water. Just the thought of running water sent a stabbing sensation to my stomach, telling me I needed to go to the bathroom. I looked around frantically, wondering where the bathroom could possibly be if the sink didn’t have any plumbing.
Embarrassed, I said, “I have to go to the bathroom…” I trailed off, hoping the woman would give me some sort of direction.
She sighed, running her hand through her hair in a tired motion. “Well, get out there, go! Hurry up, now before your father catches you moping around. And get those eggs to me quick.” She left me standing there, continuing to mumble to herself as she carried the laundry to the clotheslines strung up in the side yard.
Stepping out of the house, I tried to keep my fears in check. No one had hurt me yet. No one had tied me up or kept me from trying to leave. In fact, it was just the opposite. Everyone acted like I belonged here, even going so far as to expect me to jump right in and help with chores. And by far the weirdest part, which was also scary, was that they thought my name was Sarah. Coincidence? Yes. Disturbing? Definitely.
Rounding the corner of the house, I stopped dead in my tracks. I had found the bathroom. A closet-sized shack with a crescent moon cut into the door stood alone in the back yard. I fought back my instantaneous revulsion, too far past the point of holding it that I couldn’t care what the facilities were like. Inside, it was all I imagined; a wooden seat with a dark, endless hole in the middle. Spider webs graced the corners of the ceiling and my hands shook as I pushed my jeans down to my knees.
Sunlight filtered through tiny cracks of the outhouse boards and shone in muted strips across my legs. My jeans! All thought of spiders and creepy crawlies vanished as my hands brushed the knees of my eighty dollar vintage Express jeans. Patches had been sewn over the perfectly designed holes, the “worn” look now totally marred with tacky bits of mismatched squares of denim. Swearing under my breath, I tried pulling at the stitches. I had saved my allowance for three months to buy these jeans. It was one of the many things Dad and I had argued over incessantly. He refused to buy anything so expensive that looked, as he put it, like a hobo had worn already. Fashion was something a Dad would never understand.
When I finished pulling the patches off, I threw them down the hole in disdain. I looked around for the toilet roll, but the only paper in sight was a yellowed Sears and Roebuck catalogue hanging from a rusty nail. A few pages were missing, jagged edges left behind. You have got to be kidding me! I wanted to shout. I have to wipe myself with real paper? I know I’ve seen this in a movie somewhere!
Hesitant, I reached out and snatched a piece of paper from the book. Out of curiosity, I glanced at the ads on the page. Young girls, possibly my age, posed in wide plaid knee length skirts and creased, button down blouses. The girls all had shoulder length hair secured with a head band, their hair flipping up slightly at the ends. Everything around me screamed the fifties and sixties. It was as if I had gone to sleep, and instead of waking up in the future like Rip Van Winkle, I had gone back a few decades. How was that possible?
As I sat there in the stuffy confines of the outhouse, my thoughts began to run together trying to place the facts and clues into some kind of order. My family had arrived on the anniversary of my dead aunt’s birthday – a dead aunt who I resembled so much that I could have been her identical twin. During the storm, when I jumped through the hatch in the barn, lightning had flashed and I hit my head. I woke up in the barn of a family that was so similar to my dad’s that it was disturbing. Their calendar says it’s 1960 and it had my aunt’s name on it – the name they keep calling me. Could it be? Even as I thought the impossible, my head began to pound in a dizzying manner.
Could I really have gone back in time and become my Aunt Sarah?
The thought was so radical and yet, made so much sense that it sent my head into a spiral of confusion.
I jumped from the seat and retched into the seemingly infinite black pit.
Weak, I leaned my head against the wooden bench and held on to the seat for support. If my friends could see me now – bent over, puking in an outhouse, my pants around my ankles. God, I was in such a mess.
After patting myself gingerly with a piece of the catalogue, I pulled up my jeans and staggered out into the morning sunshine.
The weight of the world rested on my shoulders; if it was true, if I really had come back in time as my Aunt Sarah, then the next question was… why? Was I supposed to serve some sort of purpose? Or was I serving some sort of punishment? I pondered these questions as I wandered the fenced-in yard of the farmhouse.
The woman, who was quite possibly Gran – those familiar eyes and the nose – spotted my wayward wandering and shouted across the yard, “Sarah! Sarah!” Sheets snapped in her face and billowed in the morning breeze. “Sarah! Get me those eggs and quit lollygagging about. I’m two seconds from tanning your backside!” The tone in her voice led me to believe she wasn’t kidding.
I hurried across the yard, unsure of my next move. Should I go along with everything? Should I run away? How could I possibly go through with the everyday chores and be a believable version of my Aunt Sarah, if that were in fact who I was supposed to be?
I knew for certain I did not want my “backside tanned”, so I approached the fenced-in chicken coop warily, dreading the task ahead.
Chickens darted around the gravel enclosure in spastic movements. Their beady eyes and sharp beaks freaked me out – they looked sinister and calculating, eyeballing my legs like pecking posts.
Stepping into the pen, I shuffled my feet through the mass of feathers and feed toward the coop. I couldn’t help but flinch every time a chicken flitted across my path. Opening the door to the coop, a wall of musty, stale air tinged with the harsh scent of ammonia hit my nose with a vengeance, causing my eyes to tear. I pulled my shirt up over my nose and scanned the line of nests for eggs. Several laying hens still sat over their prizes, unwilling to leave their eggs unprotected. Through my blurred vision, I searched for something to help me coerce the chickens from their roost, my eyes finally locking on a long stick that leaned against the wall.
Feathers flew and chickens flapped in protest as I pushed them from their nests. “Sorry! Sorry!” I said from behind my shirt. “Just give me the eggs and I’ll leave. Ow! Dammit!” I swore as one of the agitated chickens mistakenly took my toes for feed.
Grabbing the first few available eggs, I threw them into the hem of my shirt as I held it out like an apron. My toes squished and slid on chicken scrap and I cringed as it oozed up and over my skin. I left the remaining eggs to the chaos and crashed through the coop’s door.
Bursting through the wired fence, I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to have escaped with five eggs, all of them still intact.
Apparently, my efforts weren’t enough, as the woman, who I realized with startling clarity, was Gran, sent me a disapproving look as she collected the meager supply. “Get out there and get your brothers. The oatmeal’s about to burn and I still gotta cook these eggs. Can you at least do that?” She turned before I could say anything, my cheeks red with shame.
I crossed the field quickly, my bare feet moist with morning dew. The red barn looked out of place on the farm, its bright cheery color a stark difference to the rest of the drab buildings on the property. I reached the heavy doors of the great barn and stopped, a shiver of anxiety creeping down my spine.
Was this where it had happened? Did the barn have some sort of magical powers?
The thought was so absurd I laughed aloud.
Shouting came from inside.
I heard loud voices raised in argument.
“You do her cows! I’m hungry and I’m going inside! She’s milking her injury just like she does everything else, and getting away with it. I bet she won’t be too hurt to meet up with Dave later,” I heard one of the boys argue.
Dave? Why did that name ring a bell?
I screwed up my face in concentration, trying to place the name.
Rodney burst through the barn doors and strode past me, brushing my shoulder and nearly knocking me over.
“Hey! Watch it!” I shouted, puzzled at his aggressive behavior.
Rodney never turned around. He headed straight for the farmhouse, his cheeks flushed red with fury.
Bobby came through the doors next. “You owe me,” he said, staring at me. “I did all your cows today, you do all mine tomorrow.” He followed Rodney’s path to the house, stopping to drink from a bucket by a rusty red water pump.
Anxious to get some sort of feedback, any sort of clues to my situation, I called out to him, “Wait!”
I knew then that it was me the two boys were arguing about and I was clueless to what I had done. How could I know what I was doing wrong when I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing in the first place?
Bobby paused by the water pump, allowing me to catch up.
“Thanks, for the cows, I mean. I’m….” I thought for a minute, said, “I’m still not feeling myself yet after the whole accident thing, you know?”
He looked at me strangely, and I wondered if I could trust him with my secret. Suddenly, he threw his arm around my neck and pulled my face into his armpit. I fought back, screaming in revulsion. The smell of sweat and body odor overwhelmed me, causing my stomach to turn. Bobby laughed hysterically and released me into a gasping heap on the grass.
“Next time, sis, you better think about the consequences of missing chores,” he teased, pulling me to my feet.
“You’re disgusting,” I retorted, wiping my shirt across my face.
Bobby laughed again. I followed him to the house, keeping my nose a healthy distance from his nasty body.
The kitchen was a picture of controlled chaos. Children, crowded elbow to elbow, sat eagerly at the table clanking their silverware against their bowls. Gran, unfamiliar to me with her full head of brown hair and slim figure, stood at the wood stove stirring a thick, gray mass I assumed was oatmeal. Grandpa was nowhere to be seen. I glanced at the clock. 6:20 a.m. I grimaced. It felt like I had been up for hours.
I scanned the group for the boy, Dean, who was supposed to be my father. His gangly skinny body sat with folded hands, a thatch of brown hair covering his forehead and freckles dotting his cheeks. A scene flashed through my mind of a recent fight we’d had before the trip to Minnesota. I would take it all back now, if it meant leaving this hellish sentence I served, being stuck in the past. It was ironic, me playing the part of my Aunt Sarah. My entire life I had hated being compared to her, and now I was her. It was enough to make me want to throw up again.
I took the last available seat at the table, trying to figure out the “who’s who” of my temporary siblings. Rodney and Bobby were easy, as were the twins Laura and Linda in their highchairs. After running through the names and picturing their portraits from the stairway, I figured out Louise, Matthew, Patrick, Joyce, and Janice based on their size and recognizable features. It was funny how it all seemed so obvious now, what I had missed before. My father’s family wasn’t something you could quite ignore or forget.
I spooned several scoops of sugar onto my oatmeal, trying to make it edible while listening in on the conversations at the table.
Before I knew it, everyone had finished and disappeared through the door, leaving a stack of dirty dishes and two fussy toddlers. I felt sorry for whoever had to do the nasty, crusted pile of dishes. Offering the twins a spoon coated in sugar, I sat back to contemplate my next move.
Gran appeared from the pantry and took the twins from the room, hefting their chubby bodies, one in each arm, with little effort.
I sat at the table in a numb state. What was I supposed to do now? It’s not like there’s a list or anything. Maybe I could sneak upstairs for a nap.
As if reading my mind, Louise stumbled through the door hauling a five-gallon bucket of water. Some of the water sloshed to the floor, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“Here,” she said, “I’ll go get the rinse water.”
“Oh,” was all I managed to say, realizing the nasty crusted pile of dishes had been left for me. I eyed the bucket with curiosity. Now what? If I couldn’t do the simplest of chores, what would the family think then? There was no way I could pretend to be Sarah, but until I could figure out why I was there, I would have to muddle my way through.
If I served my sentence, then maybe the god of time travel would let me go home.
I could only hope.
I plugged the sink with a rag and poured some of the cool well water into the reservoir on the wood stove. Waiting for the water to come to a boil, the little bubbles slowly forging their way to the surface, I let my mind wander, thinking about all the things I had heard about Sarah. Of course, I already knew I looked like her. But what about her personality? What about the details of her mysterious death?
Her death. The bare facts I learned as a child came to me all at once, weakening my knees. I grabbed the edge of the sink, the same nauseous, dizzy feeling from before overwhelming my senses. If everything were true – if I had come back to the year 1960 and I really had taken the place of Sarah, andthe family had just celebrated her fifteenth birthday last night… with all these things in place there was one thing I could know for sure. If I happened to be around in August, two months from now…. then I was supposed to die.