The story so far:
Something happened in the world of dreams that is about to change Riley’s life forever.
I heard the screech of wood against wood, and then I felt it. All of my muscles tensed at once, and my body shriveled into a tight little ball that shouted: nope.
“Morning, Zoey,” I managed to get out around a yawn. My arms moved on their own, stretching like they meant to grab the ceiling fan from its perch. When I’d finally heard enough joints go pop, I cracked one eye open.
My friend was still messing with the window, trying to keep it from slipping back down on her head. “You gotta get this thing fixed,” she fussed back.
“Mmm,” I replied as I massaged the imprint of my keyboard out of my cheek. “Or you could use the front door?”
I took a moment to rewind my brain, and remembered the essay I’d been working on last night. My thumb spun the trackball’s marble, and the monitor hummed back to life. I sighed with relief: the assignment was done.
Go team me, I thought with a lack of enthusiasm. Another one down the hole.
Her self-satisfied chuckle cut through the room as I uploaded the assignment to my professor. “If you didn’t like it, you’d lock your window,” she pointed out.
“That’s the thing. I do, every night.”
I couldn’t remember exactly when this window business started. Somewhere around her junior year Zoey appointed herself to be my personal, drive-thru alarm clock. She wasn’t one to commit to anything long-term, so in her head this probably counted as a sacred tradition. A laugh escaped my throat with enough force to coax my other eye open.
The girl craned her neck to look at my window from the inside. “Maybe you’re not doing it right?” she pointed out as she shot me a doubtful look.
“You mean, maybe I don’t know how to flip the switch to the right?” I smiled my way through that to soften things up, but I was a little insulted. “Maybe it’s ghosts.” At least, I thought that was as likely as not knowing my right from my left.
She rolled her eyes dramatically. “Why’s it always gotta be ghosts? It could be demons. Or magic.”
“Forgive me for my simple mind.”
Down the hall, the pipes rattled as the shower shut off. Ethan must have been working on the farm this morning. He only took showers here when he was in a hurry to clean up for his next job. A moment later we heard his confident tenor shout out: “Asses in gear, ladies. We gotta be gone in five.”
Zoey made a mocking face, her mouth opening and closing soundlessly. “What a dork,” she declared then, just in case I hadn’t grasped her meaning.
I shrugged, wearing my ornery smile. “I like Ethan being Ethan. Plus, he doesn’t climb in my window.”
Hugging herself, she swayed back and forth, making kissing noises. “I bet you wish he did.” She extended an arm toward me theatrically, and in a deeper voice she added, “Riley, wherefore art thou?”
They shared a look, then broke into laughter. “You’re right,” she admitted reluctantly. “He would say ‘Riley, git on o’er ‘ere'”.
Her brother’s scowl appeared in my doorway. He’d draped a towel around his shoulders to catch the drops that trickled from his mid-length hair. “I’ve never said ‘git on o’er ‘ere’ in my whole life. I’m redneck enough without you adding any lies, Zo.”
“Zoey? I thought she was … ” Something slammed on the kitchen countertop with enough force that we could hear the slap of it all the way down the hall. “That little monkey.”
Ethan made an O with his lips and wiggled his eyebrows at his little sister. “Nice job. It’s not even eight yet, and you got that vein on her temple throbbing.”
“Is she in here?” Rose asked Ethan’s back. As a reply, he stepped into the room so that his mom could take his place in my doorway. Today she was wearing pink scrubs with little cartoon characters on them. It clashed with how red her face was. “Bad, Zoey. Bad! Use the door like a normal person. You promised me less than an hour ago!”
Her eyes cast sideways, my friend started to slink lower until only the top of her head was visible through my window. “Woof, woof,” she muttered a little too clearly when she thought she was at a safe distance.
“It’s fine, Rose,” I interrupted with a diplomatic grin. “I don’t really mind.”
“Ha!” Zoey exclaimed triumphantly as she stood up again, throwing out her arms to make a grand reappearance. “Told you.”
Rose’s eyes pleaded with her daughter. “What if the neighbors saw you climbing in through the window?”
Zoey framed her face with her fingers, and blew her mom a kiss. “There ain’t a man in town that couldn’t pick my ass out of a lineup. We’re good, ma.” Ethan barked out a laugh as Rose hid her embarrassment in her hands. Zoey, for her part, looked immensely proud of herself.
My grandpa Connor’s grey mop bobbed behind Rose’s shoulder, and then he entered the fray. Rose always said he was thin enough to thread a needle, and he used that to his advantage. He shuffled easily past Rose and Ethan, taking small, measured steps across my room. No one spoke until he’d shifted his oxygen bag and tugged off his mask. It slipped down around his neck as he turned a peaceful gaze across the room.
“What?” he asked innocently, challenging their stares. “Everyone else was in here. I felt left out.” He winked at me, and I laughed quietly to myself. No one could diffuse a fight like Grandpa.
But no one could keep one going like Zoey. “Technically,” she drawled, “I’m not in there. You all are.”
Grandpa smiled at her fondly. I was a little jealous of it, to be honest. The two of them had so much more history than he did with me. “Admirable restraint, as always. Oh, and I got you something in the kitchen. The toast is still warm… if you hurry.”
She bounced against the portal with excitement. Worried that the heavy window might come crashing down on her, I picked up a bit of 1×2 that I kept around for just this purpose. She rewarded me with a grateful salute as I wedged it under the open window, then turned her attention back to Grandpa.
“Nutella?” she asked hopefully, then crowed with delight when he nodded. She disappeared from the window, and a moment later we heard her burst through the front door, leaving a trail of fire to the kitchen. I shrugged, retrieved the wooden wedge, and closed my window.
With a hopeless sigh, Rose hugged herself and shook her head at Grandpa. “You spoil her, Connor.”
His answer to that was a warm laugh, then he pushed himself back onto his feet. “That’s what grandparents do,” he reminded her. “Now come on, Ethan said five minutes, and I don’t want to make him late for work.” He ushered mother and son out of my room, then winked at me as he shut the door behind him.
I stared at it for a long moment, feeling… content. It was still a new enough emotion to knock me off center, sometimes.
Zoey, Rose, Ethan… they weren’t family. At least, not by blood. Rose was my mom’s best friend in high school. Then my mom passed, and Rose’s husband took off, and … well, Grandpa stepped in to help out. Rose went to school to become a nurse. He raised her kids for a few years so that she could take a heavy courseload and get through faster.
Now that he needed a hand, Rose had all but put her career on hold to pay him back. She was his home-health nurse, but there was no doubt that she put in more hours than she billed for. Ethan seemed fine with taking extra work so that his mom could care for ‘his grandpa’, too.
So maybe they weren’t blood… but to us they were family in every way that mattered.
“What do you mean you can’t find your keys?” Rose lamented from the kitchen.
“They’re in here, okay?”
Ethan’s voice carried more clearly. “Well, hurry. Riley looked ready to go.”
“Because she slept in her clothes again!”
“I told you, she’s a vampire,” Ethan said, laughing.
It only took a minute to change, and then Rose was high-fiving me by the front door. “Tag. So, any drama last night?”
I shrugged, then grinned when I saw Grandpa coming over to say goodbye. “He doesn’t like the new mask at all,” I tattled deliberately. Behind her, Grandpa scowled at me and made a U-turn as quickly as he could.
“Connor?” Rose called out; a warning. “I can bring the cannula back if you won’t wear your mask!”
“Bah!’ he shouted back at her, and didn’t slow his retreat. “I’m not wearing that snot rocket!”
“Think you’ll be home in time to handle dinner?” Rose asked, turning her attention back to me.
“I’ve got Ms. Tillie and Mr. Louis today,” I said, and she instantly understood. One could never predict the mind of Ms. Tillie.
Ethan was radiating impatience. I could feel it all the way from his truck. “If it looks like it’s going to be a long day, I’ll call,” I relayed over my shoulder as I ran outside. I dodged Ethan’s helping hand, and with a practiced hop I vaulted into the truck bed.
Zoey blew me a kiss as I settled in next to her, and then Ethan was shifting into first gear.
It wasn’t far to Ms. Tillie’s house. A leisurely walk could get me there in twenty minutes. Ten, if I was feeling joggy.
We wound down Grandpa’s driveway. Looking backward from the truck bed, the farmhouse and fields were as picturesque as a postcard. It fed onto a bumpy, pothole-laced country road that had wildflowers growing right up to the gravel. Rose liked to complain that it looked sloppy, but I kind of liked it.
In the city they carefully manicured where the flowers could and could not be. It always felt like the world was trying to breathe from inside a corset. Acorn had more of a sense of freedom. Nature could take big, full breaths, and exhaled life where it saw fit. I sighed deeply, tasting the flavor of the air.
As we picked up speed, I wound my fingers through my hair to keep it from whipping into my face.
“You look happy today,” Zoey noted, nearly shouting just to be heard. “Looking forward to a few weeks off work?”
I shrugged. “I’m looking forward to finals. Well, to them being over. What about you? Feeling any graduation panic yet?”
She laughed at that. “Why would I? In a week I’m going to wash this stain of a town out of my life.”
She hung her hand over the edge of the truck bed, letting the wind currents whip it around. Her smile fell a little, then she tugged on my sleeve. “You should come with me. You don’t belong in Acorn any more than I do.” I winced at that doubtfully, so she puffed out her bottom lip and batted her eyelashes. “We could be roommates!”
I shook my head no. “I’m here for Grandpa,” I reminded her. “And I kind of like it here. It’s peaceful.”
“You mean boring,” she corrected me, her eyes pleading.
“Well, yeah. Back there, there was always so much going on. But it was … lonely.”
There was an undertone there that I hadn’t really meant to bring up. Zoey’s eyes turned sympathetic, reflecting what she knew about my mom’s passing and how my dad had changed after that. I hated seeing it. Hated that I’d put it there. I bit my lip, unsure of what to do about it. If I tried to backtrack, it would just help drag the forbidden topic forward.
Ethan’s truck bounced over a small bridge, and through a break in the trees I saw the sunlight glinting off the windows of the General Store. The gravel road ended, and we turned right onto the smoother pavement of the state highway.
Despite her indifferent shrug, Zoey radiated disappointment. “Yeah, you’re not coming. You called it ‘back there’ instead of ‘back home’, like you used to.”
A pocket of a dozen old houses surrounded the log cabin that was now Parker’s General Store. Ethan pulled his truck into the spot furthest from the building and cut the engine. It was habit, I knew now, so that paying customers could take the convenient spots closest to the building.
Zoey shouldered her backpack and leapt to the ground without a goodbye.
“Zoey,” I called after her. A plea. She didn’t look back at me, but I heard her say loudly, “It’s fine. You’re still gonna be my best friend, dummy.”
Her brother was grinning as he reached into the bed and shouldered a bundle of rope she’d been sitting on. “She asked if you’d move out with her?” Still feeling awful, I nodded. He put a hand on my shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “If it helps, I think she already knew you weren’t going to leave. She does understand.”
I deflated a little. Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to go with Zoey. After moving here, I had an idea of the culture shock that she would have to overcome. I could keep an eye on her, and set Rose’s mind at ease. It might be … fun, I thought, as I watched her disappear onto a school bus.
But I knew my time with Grandpa was limited. We’d barely gotten to know each other, and I didn’t want to say goodbye until I had to.
“No,” Ethan warned me, his voice low and commanding. “Stop it.”
Snapped back to the present, I cocked my head to the side and shot him a warning glare of my own.
“Don’t look at me like I’m crazy. I can read you like a book. You know why I told you no.” He offered me a hand to help me out of the truck, but I smirked at it and jumped out like I had jumped in: on my own.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” I teased him, feeling a little lighter.
“Sure I can,” he countered. “It’s up to you to listen.”
I saw his eyes dart past me, to the row of houses across the street. “Anyway, time for work.” I turned, and Ms. Tillie was waving to us from her porch. We waved back pleasantly.
“Careful with her today. She’s planning something,” he confided vaguely, then started off for the general store.