The story so far:
A drawing came to life and began the search for its creator.
Dean met his sister in a dream haven. When a girl fell from the sky and punched a hole in it, Dean and his sister were flushed into the Aether.
Two delicate hands pressed against the bedroom window. The nails were painted black, but coated with enough glitter to send a kindergarten teacher into therapy. They shimmered like galaxies as they coaxed the portal open by fits and starts, each hard-won inch punctuated by an ear-splitting screech. “Shhhhh,” she hissed anxiously at her reflection, then leaned into another firm push.
Riley lay hunched over her desk. Her eyelids twitched but, like the window, she stubbornly refused to get up. The dreamless void she was in felt so peaceful. So familiar. Its lonely, whispering melody called to her, and she knew she could understand the words if she listened just a little bit longer. Then the window gave another whine of protest, and the darkness slipped away. With a sad moan, she finally cracked open one bloodshot eye.
“Morning, Zoey,” she croaked through a yawn that would not be denied. Her arms moved with a mind of their own, stretching like they meant to grab the ceiling fan from its perch. When enough joints had finally gone pop, she blinked until it didn’t feel like her eyelids were made of sandpaper.
“Hey,” her neighbor greeted her brightly. Then the window slipped, taking a swipe of revenge at her skull. Faster than Riley’s tired eyes could follow, the girl’s hands sprung up to stop its fall. “Hey!” she yelled at it, like a parent scolding a child. She stabbed an accusing finger at the glass. “Stay.”
Riley scooted her rolling chair to the window and pulled a thick, wooden dowel from the sill. She leaned forward to wedge it under the top pane, then collapsed back into her seat. The other girl leaned inside again, her hips resting against the frame.
“You gotta get that thing fixed,” she fussed, annoyed.
“Mmm,” Riley replied, and packed a lot of baggage into that sound. Absently, she massaged the imprint of the keyboard from her cheek. “Or you could use the door?” She kicked her brain into rewind as Zoey recited a litany of excuses that she’d heard many times, then remembered the essay she’d been working on. She rolled back to her desk and flicked her monitor back to life, revealing a completed assignment that was already shipped off to be graded.
Go team me, she thought as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Another one down the hole.
Zoey’s self-satisfied chuckle filled the silence. “If you didn’t like it, you’d lock your window.”
Riley couldn’t remember how she managed to acquire a personal, drive-through alarm clock. She didn’t really enjoy it, but she also knew that her neighbor wasn’t one to commit to anything long-term. At first she’d been happy to wait it out, expecting it would become yet another abandoned ritual in the ever-evolving life of Zoey. As the months went on, and Riley realized that it wasn’t just a passing whim, she was more afraid of hurting her friend’s feelings than anything else.
Down the hall, the pipes rattled as the shower shut off. Riley and her grandpa took theirs before bed, so she guessed that Zoey’s older brother, Ethan, had been working the farm. A moment later they heard his confident tenor shout out: “Butts in gear, ladies. In the truck in five, or you’re walking.”
Zoey rolled her eyes, the lids fluttering dramatically. “He’s soo cool,” she snarked. “Doesn’t do any good to yell at us when he’s pushing the clock, too.”
The college girl shrugged dismissively. “I like Ethan being Ethan. He doesn’t climb in my window.”
“I bet you wish he would, though.” Zoey swayed back and forth, hugging herself and making kissing noises. She extended an arm toward Riley, and in a deep, theatrical voice she projected: “Riley, wherefore art thou?”
Riley arched a doubtful eyebrow, then they both broke into a fit of laughter.
“You’re right,” his sister admitted reluctantly. “He would say ‘Riley, git on o’er ‘ere’”.
Zoey recoiled from the window suddenly, and Riley’s head snapped around to find Ethan’s scowl in her doorway. He was dressed already, but a towel was still draped around his shoulders. Drops of water trickled from his mid-length hair. “I never said ‘git on o’er ‘ere’ in my whole life. I’m redneck enough without you adding lies, Zo.”
Something slammed on the kitchen countertop with enough force that they could hear the crack of it all the way down the hall. “Zoey? That little monkey,” their mother hissed as she stomped through the hall. Ethan made an O with his lips and wiggled his eyebrows at his little sister. “Nice job. Ain’t even eight yet, and you got that vein in mom’s temple throbbing.”
“Is she in here?” Rose demanded as she pushed Ethan into the room. Her son towered over her, but there was no question who was in charge even when she was wearing her pink scrubs with the little white cartoon characters on them. They clashed with her bright red face. She assumed his place in the doorway and planted her fists on her hips. “Bad, Zoey. Bad! We talked about this. Use the door like a normal person!”
Her daughter’s eyes slid sideways as she ducked under the windowsill, until only the top of her head was visible. “Woof, woof,” she muttered a little too clearly.
By the look on her face, whatever was about to fall out of Rose’s gaping mouth wasn’t going to be kind. “It’s fine, really,” Riley interrupted with a diplomatic grin. “I kind of like it.”
“Ha!” Zoey exclaimed triumphantly. She bounced back into view with her arms spread wide, embracing Riley’s admission. “Told you!”
Rose’s eyes pleaded with her daughter. “Just please, think about it dear. What if the neighbors saw you? Or the police?”
Suddenly shy, Zoey put a finger to her lips. “Oh, my stars,” she breathed, but every syllable dripped with disdain. Bored already, she abandoned the act and slipped into a more comfortable smirk. “There ain’t a man in town couldn’t pick my ass out of a lineup, ma. It’s fine.”
Ethan barked out a laugh as Rose hid her embarrassment in her hands. Zoey passed her friend a coy wink, but it was rejected when Riley saw something move in the hallway. Her grandfather’s grey mop of hair bobbed behind Rose’s shoulder, and then he entered the fray.
Rose always said that Connor was thin enough to thread a needle, and he used that to his advantage as he navigated the room. He ducked easily past Rose, around her son, and then shuffled across the room to his granddaughter’s bed. He leaned heavily on a cane that had four tennis balls for feet as he sat down. The oxygen bag at his side shifted as he tugged off his mask. It slipped around his neck as he looked around the room and noticed that everyone was staring at him.
“What?” he asked with the peaceful façade of a buddha. “Everyone else was in here. I felt left out.” He winked at Riley, and she laughed quietly to herself. No one could diffuse a fight like Connor.
But no one could keep one going like Zoey. “Technically,” she drawled, “I’m not in there. You all are.”
The smile Connor gave her was so fond that Riley blinked in surprise, then averted her eyes uncomfortably. It reminded her that everyone else in the room had so much more history with him than his own granddaughter.
“Well, aren’t you clever? I got you something in the kitchen. And there’s warm toast… if you hurry.”
Without another word, Zoey bounced down from the window. A moment later they heard her burst through the front door, leaving a trail of fire to the kitchen. “I love you, Grandpa!” they heard her holler around a mouthful of something.
With a hopeless sigh, Rose hugged herself and shook her head in frustration. “You spoil her too much, Connor.”
His answer to that was a warm laugh, then he pushed himself back up his feet with a groan. “That’s what grandpas do. That girl would swim to the moon for hazelnut toast.” Rose glared a warning at him, but he clapped his hands and pointed at the door. “Now out, all of you. Ethan said five minutes, six minutes ago.” He followed mother and son out of the room, then winked at Riley before he shut the door behind him.
Riley changed clothes in record time, but it was long enough to realize that she felt … content. It was still a new enough emotion that she was slipping on her socks before the right word found her.
She ducked into the kitchen to grab a homemade pie from the freezer. When she turned around with it, and saw everyone huddled around the kitchen table, she felt suddenly warm inside. Zoey, Ethan, Rose … they weren’t family by blood, but they were in all the ways that mattered. Riley smiled a secret smile, feeling like she finally found the place where she belonged. Connor seemed to sense her thoughts and nodded when he caught her eye.
“What do you mean you can’t find your keys?” Rose lamented suddenly.
Rose’s husband had taken off years ago, leaving them in a bind. Connor raised Zoey and Ethan while she overloaded courses to get through her nursing program faster. Now that he needed help, she was determined to pay back every cent of gratitude on her tab, with interest.
“Come on, Zo. Riley looked ready to go.”
Riley followed Ethan to the door. She knew that he took jobs wherever he could get them so that Rose could afford to work here full-time. Most mornings he was doing chores on the farm that Connor couldn’t handle anymore, to keep everything running smoothly. She didn’t need to ask why he’d give up so much for her grandfather. The answer was clear enough: Connor was his family, too.
“Because she slept in her clothes again!”
And Zoey? She took care of herself. Maybe that was why Riley had been so quick to take a liking to her when she held everyone else at arm’s length. Zoey handled it in her own way, but she knew what it was like to feel alone. She raised herself because everyone except Connor was too busy.
“I told you, she’s a vampire,” Connor revealed, laughing. “Just like her mom. Works all day, works all night. There’s no stopping her once she’s set her mind to something.”
Rose met her at the door and gave her a high-five. “Tag. So, any drama to report before you head out?”
Past the nurse’s shoulder, Connor was shuffling his way to the door to see everyone off. “He doesn’t like the new mask at all,” Riley tattled loudly, and stifled a laugh when her grandfather scowled. “I told you I’d tell her,” she apologized, but he was already cutting a tight U-turn back to the kitchen.
“Connor?” Rose bellowed; a clear warning. “I can bring the cannula back if you won’t wear your mask!”
“Bah!’ he spat, not slowing his retreat. “I’m not wearing that snot rocket!”
Riley could feel the aura of impatience that radiated from Ethan all the way from the driveway. She shouldered her bag and said goodbye as she darted through the front door. On cue, he offered her a helping hand up into the truck. She dodged it, and with a practiced hop she vaulted into the bed beside Zoey.
The teenager blew her a kiss as she settled in, and soon they were bouncing down the gravel driveway. As they pulled further away, the farmhouse and outbuildings looked as picturesque as a postcard.
They turned 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 Riley kind of liked it. In the city everything felt so planned. Boring. It always felt like the world was trying to breathe from inside a corset. In Acorn, nature could take big, full breaths, and exhaled life where it saw fit. She sighed deeply, tasting the flavor of the air.
As the truck picked up speed the girls wound their fingers through their hair to keep it from whipping into their eyes. “You look happy today,” Zoey noted, nearly shouting just to be heard. “Looking forward to a few weeks off work?”
Riley shrugged. “I’m looking forward to finals. Well, to them being over. What about you? Feeling any graduation panic yet?”
The girl laughed at that. “Why would I? In a week I’m going to wash this stain of a town out of my life forever.” She hung her hand over the edge of the truck bed, letting the wind currents whip it up and down. Her smile fell a little, then she tugged on Riley’s sleeve. “You should come with me. You don’t belong in Acorn any more than I do.” She puffed out her bottom lip and batted thick, dark eyelashes. “We could be roommates!”
Riley shook her head, trying to shake off the innocent accusation that she didn’t belong. “What about Connor?” she reminded her. “I don’t … I’m not ready to go back there yet.”
Ethan’s truck bounced over a small bridge, and through a break in the trees they saw the sunlight glinting off the windows of the General Store. The gravel road ended, and they 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.” Riley knew that she should say something, but decided to wait until they stopped moving so that she wouldn’t have to compete with the wind. By then, she might even know what to say.
A pocket of old houses surrounded the rustic log cabin that was now Parker’s General Store. Ethan pulled his truck into the spot furthest from the building and cut the engine. Once upon a time, he had explained to Riley that it was important so that the older, paying customers could take the convenient spots next to the entrance.
As soon as the engine was cut, Riley turned to her friend. The teenager shouldered her backpack and vaulted to the ground without a goodbye. “Zoey!” she called after her, pleading.
The girl didn’t stop, but shouted over her shoulder: “It’s fine. You’re still gonna be my best friend, dummy.”
Ethan looked concerned when he climbed out of the truck’s cab. He reached into the bed and shouldered the coil of rope his sister had been using for a cushion, then he finally met her eyes. “I guess she finally asked if you’d move in with her?”
Feeling awful, Riley just shrugged.
“If it helps, she isn’t actually going anywhere. She doesn’t have first and last month’s rent, or a car or …” He put his hand over hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. He ducked to lock eyes with her. “All she has is this idea that it’s just going to work out for her because she wants it to. She’ll figure it out, Riles. And when she does realize she’s stuck in Acorn, it won’t be your fault.”
He meant to make her feel better, but it didn’t. “Maybe it’s not a bad idea. I can’t do my clinicals in Acorn. I could help her out with the apartment; keep an eye on her for Rose.” When he shook his head she added defensively, “It could be fun. Zoey is, you know. She’s a lot of fun.” The school bus squealed to a halt, and they watched as she disappeared inside.
“And what about Connor?” Riley’s eyes snapped back onto him. “That’s what you told her, right?”
“How do you know?”
He shrugged. “Because we’ve met.” He offered a hand to help her out of the truck, but she smirked at it and got out like she had gotten in: on her own. “You have to stay,” he reminded her. “You’ll hate yourself if you leave him right now.”
“You can’t tell me what to do,” She teased, trying to lighten the mood.
“Sure I can,” he countered. “It’s up to you to listen.”
His eyes darted past her to the row of houses across the street. “Anyway, time for work,” he declared with a nod. When Riley turned, Ms. Tillie was waving at them from her porch. They waved back pleasantly.
“Be careful with her today. Something’s strange,” he confided vaguely, then started off for the general store.
With a sigh, Riley jogged across the empty, two-lane highway. Ms. Tillie usually was.