SOS, I’m being kidnapped. This devil woman put me inside the car and she’s driving to the middle of nowhere. Worst of all? She’s my mother.
I’m sorry I can’t be with you this summer. I really wish I could, but mom insisted that I had to visit my grandmother. I guess I’ll spend my time seeing flowers blooming, hearing birds singing or some shit. Have fun on the beach for me. Don’t worry, I’ll live!
My grandma has an inn in a place where only ghosts would dare to live. If something happens, help is hours away, so wish me luck! Luckily we’ll see each other again after summer break is over (or luckily grandma finally heard about the wonders of the internet, but I highly doubt that.)
I want to hear everything about your summer once I’m back. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you about my adventures with the insects, too.
I love you, bye bye.
Emma typed the message and sent it to her best friend, making sure that she still had a signal on her cell phone. Letting out a sigh, she leaned against the glass on the car’s window and stared outside as green fields passed by her, as if moving by themselves. She was sure they were driving that highway for at least three hours.
“Are we there yet?” She asked her mother driving beside her, not even trying to hide the dissatisfaction in her voice.
“Not yet,” Her mother said, keeping her eyes on the road. “I know you didn’t want to come, but your grandma misses you. She won’t be around forever, you know?”
“And yet, you’re not staying…”
“What? You want mommy to sleep with you?”
Emma looked out the window again. She studied her reflection. Her brown wavy hair was getting in her field of vision, but she didn’t bother to move it. Giving a glance at her cell phone, she finally saw the “NO SIGNAL” message and turned it off.
Giving a yawn, Emma threw her body against the seat and closed her eyes, feeling the tiredness of the long travel finally win over her. She blacked out.
“Emma, wake up. We’re here”
She woke with her mother shaking her body. Slowly opening her eyes, she was greeted by a nostalgic scenery. Her grandma’s inn was technically part of a small town in the country, but it was actually more desolated than the town itself. Approximately one hour away by traveling on foot.
As she got out of the car, the familiar smell of grass surrounded her. She could always tell when she was there, as the air was different from the big city she lived in. She could hear the birds singing and feel the wind blowing. Her unruly hair being thrown against her face as she looked against the wind reminded her again why her mother suggesting cutting it before.
She took a black scrunchie from the coat she was wearing and started to tie her hair while following her mother in direction of the big inn in front of her. The place looked the same as she remembered. A big wooden building with two floors and twenty rooms on each floor. She was sure not even half of those rooms were booked. It had a large porch covering the whole extent of the inn’s front, filled with chairs and tables.
As they walked in that direction, an old woman came to welcome them.
“Oh, oh, oh. My two girls are here,” she said while giving Emma’s mother a tight hug. She then turned to Emma. “Come to give grandma a hug, dear.”
Emma smiled and let her grandma hug her, giving a gentle tap on the old woman’s back. The scent of her strong perfume reminded her of when she was a kid and would sleep on the old woman’s lap. It was comforting, but also suffocating.
“You look healthy, grandma,” Emma said, not hesitating in giving her mother a judgmental look.
“Better now, dear, better now. Seeing my two girls always makes me feel better.”
“A shame mom can’t stay with us. She’ll be fooling around with dad.”
“Again, we’re not having fun. It’s work,” Emma’s mother said her in a reprehensible voice.
“Oh, but you’ll at least stay for lunch, right dear?” The old woman said.
Emma’s mother nodded and they were guided to the inside of the inn. The old woman asked for Emma to follow her to her room. Emma’s mother, holding Emma’s bag, followed them.
The room Emma was staying was on the second floor, number 204. Usually, she would get 201, but her grandma said it was being used now, which was rare, as the inn wasn’t a popular establishment, and most used to ask for the first floor.
“I have a helper, now. She’s living with me until we can sort out her situation. Such a sweet girl, and around your age. I’m sure you’ll get along well together,” her grandma said while opening the door to the room 204. That number gave a sense of familiarity to her for some reason.
The inside looked like it was cleaned recently. It had the smell of lavender and the table in the middle of the room had no signs of dust. The single bed in the corner was made, with a pink sheet covering it, which made Emma scoff, keeping her back to her grandma. It was the same sheet on her bed since she was five years old. Somehow, her grandma seemed to forget that she was sixteen now.
Emma’s mother left the bag on the bed. She walked around the small room, surveying her surroundings. She opened the windows and let the wind blow a cold breeze inside.
“This place… It was my room…” She said, finally.
That made Emma remember. Her mother did say it was her old room, but never got inside it when they were visiting the inn in the past. Emma had a feeling that her mother was actually trying to avoid it.
“Oh, you remember,” the old woman said with a smile. “Does it bring memories?”
“A lot,” then she threw a sad look around, without facing her daughter or her mother. “A lot of sad ones, too.”
“Mom?” Emma said, seeing that expression on her mother for the first time.
“Oh,” she switched back to a smile. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry, don’t worry. But that reminds me. Maybe you’ll find my ring somewhere.”
“Ring? Oh, the one dad gave you?”
“Yeah, that one. I lost it in this same room. We never found it after that…” Emma thought she saw a shadow cross her mother’s face, but soon she was smiling again. “Oh, but that was twenty years ago. Of course, it’s impossible now. Oh god, how I cried that day.”
Emma’s grandma invited them to wait in the lounge while she got their lunch ready. As Emma got out of the room, a small figure greeted them on the hallway with a timid voice.
“Good morning,” she said and turned to Emma’s grandma. “I cleaned the room 206 as you asked, misses Stephens.”
“Oh, thanks, dear, thanks,” the old woman turned to her daughter. “This sweet girl is the helper I told you about. Her name is Aleta Dennel. She’s living with me for the time being given some… circumstances,” she turned back to Aleta with a smile. “Aleta, dear, this is my daughter Rosa and my granddaughter, Emma.”
“Misses…” Aleta said, looking at Rosa.
“You can call her Stephens, dear. Sure, she’s married and has another name now, but these two are still my little girls. On this house, they’re just Stephens.”
Aleta gave a slow nod, letting her long and straight black hair dance with the movement. She was at least ten centimeters smaller than Emma, had black eyes like opals and long bangs on her forehead. The blue one-piece she was wearing looked as frail as her own body. She didn’t smile, giving a glooming impression in Emma. Even more considering how white her skin was, contrary to Emma’s tanned skin.
“What a cute girl!” Rosa said, giving voice to the same thought that crossed Emma’s head. She couldn’t deny that the girl in front of her looked like a carefully sculpted doll.
“T-thanks,” the girl said, lowering her head. She raised her eyes for a moment, but as soon as they met Emma’s eyes, she lowered her head again.
“Go rest now dear, you deserve it,” grandma said, giving a tap on Aleta’s shoulder before guiding her daughter and granddaughter to the floor below. “She’s a very nice girl. She had some problems with her family, so I offered to take care of her. But I don’t have the intention to keep the poor thing here. I’m looking for better opportunities for her, even if she’s a good helper.”
“She doesn’t look like the kind who would give her parents trouble,” Rosa said.
“It’s complicated, but she's not to blame, I know that for sure,” then she turned to Emma. “She’s around your age, so I thought about letting her help you while you’re here. She seemed happy with it. The poor thing is always around the old people who stay here and has no friends in the town, so she doesn’t get to talk with girls her age much. I hope that’s okay?”
“Oh, of course,” Emma said. She couldn’t understand how that girl had no friends. She knew for sure a cute girl like her would be popular at her school unless her personality was a problem, which didn’t seem to be the case.
After lunch, Rosa took off in her car, saying goodbye to her mother, Emma, and Aleta, who left her room to see the woman off. She left with a harsh comment from her daughter, saying she should have fun after abandoning her burden there.
Not that Emma hated to be with her grandmother. She loved the old woman as she loved her mother. Still, as a teenager, she wasn’t a fan of sacrificing her summer break to be in the middle of nowhere as that inn. Her mother guilt-tripped her, saying her grandma was sick and wouldn’t live much longer, but the old woman looked very healthy.
The inn was one hour away from the town because it acted as a fortress against the busy city life most of its guets had. Most of them were always the same, so Emma even knew them already. They usually came from places far away to take some time turning them off the rest of the world. For that sake, the inn wasn’t too close of civilization, but close enough for them to visit a store if necessary. That was also the reason why her grandma never installed internet in that place, even if it had a phone line. Cell Phone signal wouldn’t reach it, either, because of the high vegetation around them and the signal tower being so far away. The place was her mother’s home for her whole life before her marriage, and a place her family would always visit on their vacations. But that was the first time she would spend her time there alone.
In her room, Emma threw herself on the bed. She threw her coat aside and let her eyes rest on the old jeans she was wearing. Since it was a place in the middle of nowhere, she didn’t feel the need to use better clothes, and her mother actually advised that she shouldn’t.
Letting the sun bathe the room by the open window facing the front of the inn, Emma put on her headphones, putting some music on her cell phone while lying down. It was so comfortable that she didn’t even realize before she fell asleep.
“Miss Stephens,” Emma heard the soft voice interrupt her dreams while feeling someone gently touching her shoulder.
She opened her eyes and faced Aleta, crouching in front of her bed. She was carefully tapping on Emma’s shoulder but withdrew her arm with haste when Emma’s eyes made contact with her.
“The… dinner is ready,” she said.
“Dinner?” Emma looked at her clock and saw it marking 9 PM. “Wow, I slept through the whole afternoon. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, miss Stephens,” Aleta said, standing up while Emma sat on the bed.
“Huh?” Aleta looked at her, surprised.
“My name is Emma. It’s a little weird being called miss Stephens by someone my age.”
Aleta guided Emma to the kitchen. Her grandmother was taking the food to some guests who wished to eat in their own room, so Aleta was the only one there. The few guests coming down to eat were using the dining hall, but Emma said she wanted to eat in the kitchen. Aleta put Emma’s plate with food in front of her, making her frown her forehead.
“I know grandma said you should help me, but you don’t need to treat me like a kid.”
“S-Sorry,” Aleta said, sitting on a chair away from the table with her own dish.
“You know,” Emma said looking at Aleta, without touching her food. “Do you have something against me?”
Aleta almost left her dish fall from her hands, giving Emma a startled look.
“O-Of course not, mi...I mean, Emma.”
“So come sit with me.”
Reluctantly, Aleta walked to the table and sat across Emma. She tried not look directly at her companion, but Emma was the one to call her attention.
“When grandma told you to help me, she probably meant you should be my friend, not my maid.”
“I owe a lot to misses Stephens, so…”
“Do you? Looks to me like you’re helping more than she expected already. And anyway, I’m not my grandma, so you don’t owe me anything,” Emma said and took a fork of food to her mouth. “Wow, grandma’s food is really something else. So good.”
“I… That’s…” Aleta said, making Emma face her. “No, nothing. I’m sorry.”
“You apologize too much,” she said, after another fork. “Just relax. Speak with me as if I was your friend…” but Emma remembered her grandma saying Aleta had no friends. “I mean, just relax.”
“Ok,” she was eating on a slower rhythm than Emma.
“I’ll be honest since we’re friends now. I wasn’t too keen on coming here. I mean, it’s cool and all. Well, a little. But my best friend is on the beach, and she invited me to go with her. Have you gone to the beach before?” Aleta shook her head. “Well, it’s cool. There’s a lot of people. Lots of good food. The water feels nice. There’s also a lot of shirtless boys, too.”
Aleta stopped her fork mid-air after listening to Emma. She started to eat again before Emma could realize it.
“Speaking of which, you’re working a lot, right?” Emma said. “That’s kind of cool, too.”
“Is...is it? It’s nothing…”
“No, really, I couldn’t do that. I already hate helping mom on house chores. I won’t lie, I hate working. I hate school, too. Hopefully, I’m not that bad looking so my only hope now is marrying a rich guy and live an easy life.”
For some minutes, Aleta didn’t say anything, and the two girls just kept eating in silence. When her dish was empty, she looked at it and opened her mouth twice before finally voicing her question.
“Do you have a boyfriend, then?”
Emma looked at her, giving a wry smiling before answering.
“No, not at the moment. If I had, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. Or maybe he would come with me, knowing my mother.”
“I-I see…” Aleta said, and Emma thought she saw a smile on the girl’s face before she took her dish to the sink.
“What about you?” Emma asked, making Aleta turn suddenly. “Have a boy you like?”
“M-Me? Of course not!”
“Of course? A girl like you would totally be popular at my school. Speaking of, what about school? How do you do it?”
“I’m not… Misses Stephens is giving me classes at the moment. And she brings me books. She talked to the school, and they allowed it.”
“Oh,” Emma said, thinking how that was unusual, but her grandmother was smart enough to make it work. “Well, that’s a shame. You would definitely have better chances with a boyfriend than me.”
“But you’re so beautiful!” Aleta said, almost inclining forward. But then shut her mouth and blushed, after realizing what she said.
Emma also felt her cheeks blushing. It was common to receive compliments from her friends, but it was still embarrassing from someone she had just met.
“Th-Thanks…” She said, scratching her head. “I think you’re very cute, too. Like, really cute!”
Aleta turned fast to the sink.
“T-T-Thanks…” She said, hoping Emma wouldn’t realize how red her face had turned.
There wasn’t much for Emma to do. Sure, there was a television in the lounge, but she was not used to watching anything on it anymore, and she had no internet connection, so she decided to sleep early. 10 PM might not be exactly early, but considering she was used to going to bed after midnight, she wondered if she would have trouble sleeping. Especially after having slept through the whole afternoon.
So she lied down on the bed, wearing an old shirt and pants that she used to wear at night. As she turned off the lights, she thought it would take some time, but she ended up sleeping faster than she imagined.
She woke up in the middle of the night, feeling like she heard something. Looking at her cell phone, she realized it was 3 AM. She waited in silence, looking at the lit screen in front of her eyes.
She was sure, there was something knocking on her door.
She put her bare feet on the floor and looked at the door hesitantly. She didn’t know who could be at that time. She thought her grandma wouldn’t allow some suspicious tenant on her inn, but she was always cautious about strangers.
“Who is it?” She asked, loud enough for her voice to reach the other side.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
The sound was louder than before as if someone was banging on the door.
Her heartbeat became faster. She felt her hands shaking. She knew she could reach her grandma by the phone connected to the old woman’s room that all rooms had, but she wondered what a frail old woman could even do if someone was meaning harm to her.
And suddenly her mind moved to Aleta. The girl was on the 201, her old room. It was close to her, on the same corridor. Aleta was a cute girl and seemed so defenseless. She would probably have a harder time if someone attacked her. That thought gave Emma courage. She stood up and walked to the door.
Emma put her hand on the knob. She gave a deep breath with her eyes closed before opening the door in a sudden movement.
There was no one.
Emma looked around confused, surveying the corridor. It looked completely inhabited.
Then she heard steps coming up from the stairs. She wondered if whoever they were, they had gone down because she took so much time deciding whether she'll open the door. Her instinct said she should go back to her room. But thinking about Aleta, she couldn't. She wanted at least confirm the girl was fine.
So she waited for the figure going up the stairs to appear, feeling her throat drying.
The figure showed itself and looked at her, with a surprised face.
“Miss… Emma?” said Aleta, holding a glass of water on her hand. She was wearing a pink nightdress with a thin cloth, accentuating her figure.
“Aleta?” Emma said, with a sigh. “What are you doing up this time?”
“Ah...I’m...sorry. I was getting some water. Did I… wake you up?”
“No… I mean…” Emma surveyed the corridor again. There was no wind on that place, so she was sure the sound had to be someone knocking. “Did you knock on my door?”
“Huh?” Aleta said, looking at Emma with a serious face.
“I’m pretty sure I heard someone knocking. It wasn’t just once. They even reacted when I called them. To tell you the truth, it scared me a little. But there isn’t anyone else here right now.”
Aleta's eyes focused on the water she was carrying. Then she looked at the door of her own room, past Emma’s. She caressed the thin cloth of her nightdress on a nervous gesture.
“I...I did it,” she said, after all. “I’m sorry.”
Emma looked at her with suspicion.
“Why?” She asked.
“I… huh… Thought you might want to drink some water… too…”
“At 3 AM?”
Aleta bit her lower lip. Still passing her hand on her nightdress, she tried to explain again.
“Yeah, I… I’m sorry, that was a lie. I was… huh… afraid of going to the kitchen alone...yeah…”
“So why didn’t you wait after I called out?”
“I… didn’t hear it…”
“Hum…” Emma crossed her arms while observing Aleta’s nervous explanation. “Next time, use the phone. You have my room’s number, right?”
“I didn't want to bother you.”
“No, really, do it. The only reason I got the courage to open the door is that I got worried about you… Well, now that I think about it, I should’ve used the phone, too.”
“You were...worried about me?”
“Yeah. Well, I mean…” Emma scratched the back of her head. She had a messy bed hair. “If it was someone after me because I’m a girl, like, you know. If that was the case, you’re really cute, so you would be a target too. And such. Sorry, I’m paranoid with these things,” She gave Aleta a smile.
“N-No…” Aleta said, facing the glass with water again. But then she let a smile on her face. “Thanks for worrying about me…” After saying that, Aleta walked to her room. Before disappearing inside, she looked at Emma again: “I’m sorry for waking you up.”
Emma gave a nod and watched as the girl closed the door behind her. She still stood in that position for some time. Something in Aleta’s story was bothering her. But in the end, she decided there was no point worrying about it now, and went back to sleep.