The clear, sunny day followed Anna all the way to Glenwood, six hours winding through foothills to a small mountain town. Anna stepped off the train with her suitcase and wheeled it across the empty platform to the station entrance. She was the only passenger disembarking. Anna pulled the door open.
The wooden floorboards creaked under her as she stepped into the small room. There was a counter at the far end, but nobody stood behind it. Two people sat side by side on a bench by the street-side exit. They were the only ones in the station other than her.
“Hey, there she is. Right on time. I’m Kenny.” Kenny stood, smiling. He was tall and slim with thinning hair in a ponytail. He approached, hand out and Anna took it meekly. “Good to see you, Vivianna. You were much smaller last time.” He patted her shoulder, then took her suitcase from her hand.
“It’s so good to see you, dear,” Sarah said. Sarah was short and stout. Compared to Violet, she was fat, with wide hips, large bust, and broad belly. Before Anna could ask her not to, Sarah hugged her, enveloping her. When she was released, Anna gasped for breath. “Oh, and look at that hair,” Sarah gushed, ruffling Anna’s short locks. “It stayed such vibrant red. I thought for sure it would darken.”
Anna hunched her shoulders.
Sarah didn’t notice. She put an arm around Anna and steered her to the door while Kenny carried her suitcase. Anna bit her tongue. They didn’t know she didn’t like to be touched, that she’d prefer to carry her own suitcase.
Sarah squeezed her shoulders. “How was the trip?”
“Oh, um, fine.”
Outside, Kenny tossed her suitcase into the back of a hatchback before closing it firmly. Anna winced.
“I gotta get gas across the street,” he gestured katty-corner to a gas station. The red and white logo was faded and a bit grimy.
“You wanna walk or you wanna ride?”
“Ride,” said Sarah.
“I’ll walk,” Anna said, a bit too quickly. She blushed and looked away, hoping she hadn’t hurt Sarah’s feelings. “I mean, if it’s all right. I’ve been sitting for hours and I’d like to stretch my legs.” It was true, but she also wanted out from under Sarah’s motherly arm.
“Sure thing,” said Kenny.
He and Sarah got into the car and pulled out of the train station parking lot. Anna made her way to the crosswalk. Sarah smiled and waved through the car window and Kenny waited for her to cross the street before making his way to the gas station.
Next to the gas station was a post office. Painted beige with a white storm drain next to the front door, it had brick flower boxes, a bright blue post box, and a bench outside. Grass grew in the cracks in the sidewalk. The paint around the door was scuffed and peeling. Anna stared at the post office, already feeling guilty about not writing to Violet.
“You want a soda or something?” Sarah called from the car where Kenny was gassing up.
Anna jolted, looked across the parking lot, and shook her head, forcing a small smile.
“Not even a ginger ale?” Sarah said, her voice carrying easily.
“I’m fine,” Anna said, certain her voice didn’t carry. She shook her head again.
At the edge of her vision, a curiosity caught Anna’s attention, and she turned. Several yards past the post office, before the ground rose into foothills and cloud-capped mountains beyond, just before the sparse tree line, was a scarecrow. He hung upon a single, thick post standing straight and tall, at least ten feet, clad in weather-beaten finery. He wore a dusty, yellow, high collared shirt with a red tie under a faded, red and gold paisley vest. Over it all was a faded black coat with brass buttons whose tails hung nearly to the ground. He wore faded black slacks to match the coat, the ankles of which were twisted round the post from which he hung. His sackcloth head was featureless but for a pair of shiny, black button eyes. Atop his head was an old top hat with a frayed gold hatband. His shoulders were held to a crossbar by thick rope, and the arms of his coat dangled freely, frayed shirt cuffs poking out.
Anna walked down the side of the post office toward the scarecrow, stopping where the sidewalk ended and the field before the tree line began. It was a strange place for a scarecrow.
She heard voices approaching and instinctively hunched her shoulders. They sounded young, probably a little younger than her, a boy and a girl.
“I don’t know why you want to do a school project. It’s summer break. We’re supposed to be free from all that stuff,” said the boy.
“It’s cleaning up a hiking trail,” said the girl. “We’re supposed to be student class co-presidents next year and that means we need to show dedication.”
The boy groaned. “How about common sense? Can we show a little common sense instead?
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s common sense to take a break when you’re on break. We’ve broken free. That’s why they call it a break.”
The girl snorted her laughter.
“That wasn’t a joke,” the boy said.
“Hey, who’s that?” the girl said.
Anna stiffened. She glanced to her right. Kenny was still gassing up the car. Sarah was nowhere to be seen. She knew sprinting for the safety of the car would be too obvious—she’d be considered rude before she’d even laid eyes on them. But she knew what came next, and she knew she’d be awkward at it.
If I just turn casually and start walking like I didn’t hear them…
She tried to amble casually across the parking lot to the gas station. Kenny jiggled the gas pump, withdrew it, and hung it up. He was screwing on the gas cap when the boy called out.
“Hey. Are you new here?”
Anna stopped. There was no use pretending she didn’t know they were talking to her. There was no one else around. Besides, in a town this small, they probably knew everyone else their age. It was obvious she was new. So she turned to look at them, clasping her hands behind her back and swaying nervously. The boy was about her height and round with dimpled cheeks and careful spectacles. The girl had her hair braided into two tails. She had a small nose and a curious grin.
“You are,” said the boy. “You are new here. My name is Frank. This is Bertie.” They walked toward her and stopped a few feet away.
“We’re the student class co-presidents of Glenwood High’s freshman class next year,” said Bertie.
“Um, good morning,” said Anna.
“A-aand, what’s your name?” said Bertie.
“Oh. Um… I’m Anna. I’m staying with the Copelands for the summer.” She gestured at Kenny who was cleaning the windshield.
“Aren’t they the weirdos who live up on the hill and hardly ever come into town?” Frank said.
Anna frowned at him.
Bertie nudged him. “Don’t be rude.” She looked at Anna. “Don’t mind him. He’s a dope.” She laughed at her own observation, but when neither Frank nor Anna joined in, Bertie coughed awkwardly and looked around. “That’s some interesting hair you’ve got,” said Bertie. “How did you get it so ginger?”
Anna shook her head. “It just is.”
“You didn’t dye it?”
“You have naturally ginger hair?” Bertie persisted.
“Auburn,” said Anna. “It’s called auburn.”
“Oh, well, excuse me.”
Anna flinched. She hadn’t meant to offend the other girl.
“Well, I think it’s pretty,” Frank said.
He reached out to her hair, but Anna shrank back. “Please don’t.”
Frank pulled his hand back and laughed. “Kind of shy, aren’t you?”
Anna watched Bertie flush, shoulders tense, eyes narrowed. She hoped Kenny would be done cleaning the windows soon, that he’d call her over so she had an excuse to leave without upsetting them more than she already had.
“I saw you staring at Old King,” Bertie said, changing the subject.
“You don’t know about Old King?” Frank asked, gesturing at the scarecrow. “It’s our biggest legend. He was one of the gold miners who founded this place, struck it rich in the mountains hereabouts and founded Glenwood. Said he liked the hot springs. Ali Clayfield was his name. Baron of Hot Springs, Duke of the Valley, Old King of Gold.”
Bertie snorted. “There are all sorts of silly legends about him. That he was found as an orphan floating down a river, that he could turn lead into gold by touching it, that he was turned into a scarecrow by spirits.” She laughed and gestured at the scarecrow. “This is the town’s monument to the old ghost.” She laughed again.
“Don’t make fun of ghosts,” Frank said.
“Afraid of an old story?” Bertie mocked.
They weren’t talking to her anymore, so Anna edged away a bit, hoping they wouldn’t notice. But Bertie glanced at her and frowned.
“Uh, it was nice to meet you,” Anna said, trying to sound sincere. “But, uh, I think… I think I better get going.”
“Sure,” said Bertie.
“Yeah, see you around…” Frank hesitated. “Anna?”
Anna nodded. “Right.”
Frank smiled at her and Anna blushed and hurried away.
“She’s just as odd as the Copelands,” Bertie muttered.
Sarah met her, coming out of the gas station with a plastic bag. “Who’s that you’re talking to? Already making new friends?”
Anna shrugged uncomfortably. “Um, maybe?”
“Here, I got you a ginger ale,” Sarah said, pulling a green plastic bottle from the bag.
“Thanks.” Anna said. It was easier
The back seat of the Copeland’s car was dusty. A cardboard box took up the left seat and she squeezed in next to it. The seatbelt caught twice before she could snap it into its buckle.
“Everyone ready?” Kenny asked, his voice too big for the small car. He glanced back at her and Anna nodded. He turned the key, the car came to life, and they rumbled onto the road. “It’s a bit of a clunker, but it gets from point A to point B just fine.”
“For now,” said Sarah. “We might break down at any moment. You ready to get out and push if we need you to, Anna?”
“Um. Sure?” said Anna.
“Oh, she’s just teasing,” said Kenny. “We’ll be just fine.” The car made a noise like a cough, then again. Kenny patted the dashboard. “We’re just fine, old girl. You can do it.”
Anna looked out the window as they rumbled through the small town. Storefronts were brightly painted, rooftops brightly tiled. Down side streets stood houses with small yards. A large brown sign with white lettering advertised Glenwood Hot Springs, 3.75 miles, and an arrow pointing left. They crossed a bridge over a wide, slow-moving river, declared the Okagawa by a sign on the other side.
“You like hot springs, Anna?” Sarah asked. “They’d probably be good for your asthma.”
“Maybe,” said Anna. “Warm and humid is usually good.” She was glad Violet had suggested she pack her swimsuit, even though wearing it where people could see her made her uncomfortable.
“What about the fog?” asked Kenny. “We get it rolling down off the mountains all summer.”
“It’s probably fine.”
“Well, be careful wandering around when the fog is in. They say this town is one of the most haunted in the whole country. Ghosts have been known to seek out wanderers.”
“Stop that,” Sarah said. “Don’t try to frighten her.”
“I’m not trying to frighten her, I’m trying to warn her,” Kenny said, tone exaggeratedly innocent. He looked over his shoulder and winked at Anna.
“Don’t mind him, Anna,” Sarah said.
“Seriously though,” said Kenny, “People have gotten lost in the fog. It’s best not to wander when it rolls in.”
They left the town behind and climbed winding switchbacks up a steep hill covered in grass and wildflowers. Anna looked back the way they’d come, looking over the town shrinking away so she could take it in. It was tiny, or so it seemed to her, having spent most of her life in a large city. The railroad curved along the far side of town. The river in its muddy bank came through the mountains to cross the railroad before disappearing behind a bank of foothills.
“That’s not so bad, she said quietly.
“Hmm? What’s that?” said Sara.
“Oh. Um, nothing,” said Anna.
Sarah and Kenny continued to chat but Anna lost the thread of the conversation. Watching the town of Glenwood sink into the valley below, felt like watching the rest of the world, with its harsh words and cruel looks and sharp erasers, shrink to a manageable size. She took a deep breath and her chest did not clench.
Careful, she told herself. Don’t get too excited. It’ll just disappoint you later.
Sarah and Kenny’s house was at the top of the hill with more hills rising behind it into greater mountains looming beyond. They parked in the driveway and Kenny lifted out the large box Anna had ridden next to.
“You got your suitcase?”
“Sure,” Anna said.
Sarah opened the front door for them. Anna entered their home behind Kenny. She was struck first by the smell: wood stain, sawdust and glue, with a hint of tea somewhere in the background.
“Come on upstairs and I’ll show you where you’ll be staying,” Sarah said. “All five of our kids are grown up and moved out, so you’ll have the place to yourself.” Sarah slipped off her shoes and headed for the stairs in her stocking feet, so Anna did the same.
Upstairs, Sarah showed Anna to a bedroom with a bunkbed, dresser, and desk with shelves reaching the ceiling. They were all simply made and stained dark. The dresser drawers had patterns carved into them, whorls and swirls.
“The furniture is nice,” Anna said.
“Kenny made those,” Sarah said. “Yeah, he’s a real handy woodworker. The desk and dresser are empty, so feel free to make use of them. The sheets and pillowcases are freshly laundered. Clean towels are in the bathroom down the hall. If there’s anything else you need, just let me know, all right?”
“All right,” Anna said.
“I’m sure you’re tired after your trip. Go ahead and settle in. I’ll make sure to call you for dinner.”
Anna nodded and Sarah closed the door behind her as she left.
Anna took another deep breath and still her chest did not clench. The room smelled of dust and cleaner, laundry soap and mint tea. She rolled her suitcase to the side of the bunkbed and sat on the lower bunk.
After several minutes of staring into nowhere, not knowing what to do next, Anna noticed the balcony. A pair of gauzy curtains covered a sliding glass door. With a flutter of excitement, Anna pushed to her feet, pulled aside the curtain, and opened the door. The balcony ran the length of the sliding glass door and was just deep enough to sit upon comfortably.
She stepped up to the railing and put her hands on it. It was smooth and solid under her. She pressed down, lifting herself up until her hips rested upon it. She leaned forward ever so slightly, so she balanced, and felt her heartrate quicken. Looking over the side of the balcony, she found the shingled slope of the ground floor roof over a flagstone patio and the backyard. There was a fire pit and a grill and a clothesline and a garden. Mismatched benches stood near a pair of sawhorses further back. An old wooden tool box sat nearby.
Her gaze swept over the backyard and beyond to the vale between their hill and the next. The vale was filled with a dense grove of aspen and spruce. Her gaze continued to the top of the next hill.
And there stood a house.
“I wonder who lives over there,” she whispered.
She couldn’t make out details from this distance, but it looked like it was in need of maintenance. Shingles were missing. Paint was faded. The courtyard was overgrown. Just about level with her balcony, a window jutted from the house as though it supported a window seat.
Anna stared at the house across the vale, entranced. She didn’t know how long she stood on the little balcony, but eventually the rest of the world returned to her. The smell of an early summer breeze, the sounds of Sarah and Kenny rattling about downstairs, the distant ache of her back, having sat on the train for six hours. She unpacked her clothes and tucked them into the dresser. She hadn’t brought near enough to fill it, so she only took one drawer, second from the top. All her clothes were meticulously folded and neatly ordered. She put her new notebooks on the desk, spiral spines alternating left, right, left, right, left. She’d already opened one package of mechanical pencils, so she dumped the rest on the desk and stacked them in a neat pyramid. The unopened packages went in the desk drawer. The book of poems she set on the pillow of the bottom bunk.
Unpacked, Anna collected her little duffle of toiletries and opened the bedroom door quietly as she could. The latch barely made a sound. She tiptoed down the hallway, passing three other bedrooms, one of which looked like a guest room, one of which was lined with well-stuffed bookshelves, and one of which was packed with a sewing table, a cutting table, and stacks upon stacks of colorful fabric. At the far end of the hall was the bathroom. As promised, a stack of clean towels stood on the counter.
Anna made sure the bathroom door was closed and locked before she turned the shower on hot. She put her bag of toiletries next to the sink, pulled out her hairbrush and brushed her short hair quickly. She couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She didn’t much care for her face. Her nose was too small, her cheeks too round, her chin too jutted. But she’d always liked her hair, vibrant auburn and slightly wavy, red hair was uncommon amongst her peers, especially with her light brown skin. She’d cut it short when they’d started making fun of her for it.
Anna took a shower, got dressed, and went downstairs in bare feet. She’d only seen the entry and the stairs of the bottom floor, but it wasn’t hard to find Kenny and Sarah. Beyond the entry, the bottom floor was one large, open room with the kitchen on the left and the living room on the right, separated by an island counter with a myriad of mismatched stools. The living room was expansive with a pair of couches and a coffee table, a couple of bookshelves, another set of couches facing a large television, and a couple well-stuffed chairs next to the front window and a little reading lamp. A pair of large, sliding glass doors led to a patio and the backyard she’d seen from above.
The kitchen was about half the size of the living room but still large compared to Anna’s experience. The floor was tile, the countertops were stone. A deep, white sink and lots of cupboards, stained golden brown, took up one wall. Anna wondered if Kenny had made the cabinets.
Kenny sat on the patio, carving a piece of wood. Sarah was in the kitchen, chopping tomatoes.
“Oh, Anna, there you are. Did you find the clean towels all right?” Sarah asked.
“Wanna help me make dinner?”
Anna wasn’t an especially good cook, but she did know how to chop vegetables. She took the knife from Sarah, who fetched ingredients from the refrigerator and cupboards and set to work at the stove.
“Noodles and red sauce okay with you?”
“Sounds great,” said Anna.
She chopped tomatoes until Sarah told her that was enough, then got out of the way as the real cooking began. Twilight settled in just as dinner was ready. Anna glanced at the clock. It was only a quarter to seven.
“You all right, Anna? You look perplexed,” said Kenny.
“It seems a little early for sundown in summer.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s the effect of living in the valley. High mountains on either side makes days short.”
They all sat around the island counter while Sarah dished up penne noodles in tomato sauce with basil and garlic. Thin-grated parmesan was piled high in a small green bowl in the center of the counter. Fresh lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, olives, and celery sat in a large wooden bowl.
Anna took some of everything and ate quickly.
“Good thing I made extra,” said Sarah. “Eat as much as you want.”
Anna took a second, smaller helping.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a flicker of light through the kitchen window across the backyard, but when she looked, there was nothing. It’d been dim and small, as though from the house on the other side of the vale.
“Who lives over that way?” she asked, gesturing at the other house.
“What’s that?” said Kenny.
“In the other house,” Anna reiterated.
“Oh, that old place,” said Sarah. “Nobody’s lived there for a long time. A decade at least. I think it’s bank-owned.”
“I thought I saw a light or something.”
“That’ll happen,” said Kenny. “Reflections off the windows, or sometimes there are hikers out there.”
When dinner was done, Anna insisted on washing the dishes even though Sarah had a fancy dishwasher. When she was done, Sarah and Kenny had settled into their chairs by the front window. The cardboard box Anna had ridden next to was open nearby, filled with books. They each had a book open in their laps.
“Care to join us?” Kenny asked. “I could pull up a couch.”
Anna was tempted. She loved to read and the companionable quiet felt nice. But she shook her head. “I’m pretty tired. I think…” a yawn interrupted her. “I think I’ll just go to bed.”
“All right. Good night, dear,” said Sarah.
“Night,” said Kenny.
The bedroom was warm, so Anna opened the sliding door to the balcony. The cool of an early summer evening drifted past the gauzy curtains. She changed for bed into a sleeveless shirt and pair of shorts. She’d never liked full pajamas. They always made her feel she was drowning in her sleep. She sat at the desk for a while and stared at a blank piece of paper, pencil in hand. Eventually she turned off the light and went to lay down.
A glimmer of light from outside, beyond the balcony, caught her attention. She blinked and it was gone.
“Just a reflection,” she reminded herself.
She lay down, closed her eyes, and tried to still her thoughts.
Sarah and Kenny were kind. They hadn’t pressured her with unwanted questions, they hadn’t asked why she wasn’t smiling or speaking up. They hadn’t insisted she spend time with them. They hadn’t been in any way pushy or clingy, though Sarah liked hugging far more than Anna was comfortable with. The encounter with Frank and Bertie had been unfortunate. She hadn’t tried to be off-putting, she just wasn’t good at talking to people her age. Anna replayed the conversation in her mind, wondering if she might have done something different.
“Stop that,” she whispered. “Think about something else.”
She thought about the house across the vale and wondered who might have lived there, what they were like. It was such an isolated house, even more so than Sarah and Kenny’s. Whoever lived there must have liked to be alone.