4. The Head of Sampson
Noah went back to the house shivering with a now-cold sweat. She climbed the stairs straight to the bathroom and turned on the shower, then waited as the pipes popped and groaned to life. She closed her eyes beneath the steaming spray and tried to convince herself that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. She worked the shampoo into a nervous lather, as though she could massage the memory right out of her head.
She knew that the things she had seen and felt were ridiculous. But the problem was that their being ridiculous didn’t keep them from being. Knowing did her no good at all when her feelings were stronger than thoughts.
Once, when she was very young, she remembered, her leg fell asleep during a family movie night. When she tried to get up and walk, she thought that her bones had dissolved. She’d panicked, and Mama tried to reassure her that her bones were just fine, and right where they should be. But Noah couldn’t believe her. Not when the feelings were so strong.
And then the tingling, prickling feeling of the blood crawling back into her limbs sent her over the edge. She could still remember the panic in her voice as she shrieked, “Mama, there are ants in my skin!”
Nobody had really understood, then, even though they could all laugh about it years later. Noah’s rational brain, in time, learned to tell the difference between crawling ants and tingling skin. But the darkness she’d felt in the woods was something altogether beyond her explanation, or anyone else’s willingness to understand.
She thought of Nico, of the disdain in his eyes when he looked at her, when she buckled under a weight he couldn’t feel. She thought of the darkness towering before her, and sprawling under her. She shivered and hugged herself until the hot water eventually ran out.
When she stepped out of the shower, she stared at herself in the mirror. She half expected to see some sort of change in her face, but there was none. She brushed her teeth with a heavy hand, leaving no trace of her nausea on her breath or teeth. She was well practiced at this.
By the time she came downstairs for breakfast, she felt as though she could behave normal again. She just didn’t feel normal. But the first step in behaving normally, she told herself, was to pretend that things were regular. People were rarely the wiser.
Nico gave her a few strange, short looks, but he didn’t mention anything about what had happened in the woods. The only upside to her being so regularly nauseated was that Nico rarely felt the need to update her parents about it anymore.
Fortunately, her parents seemed distracted today. Papa had finally gotten in touch with the moving truck and discovered that it had broken down about seventy miles outside of town, sometime late yesterday afternoon. It had taken the driver all day to find cell reception, and contact someone to help. But they’d assured Papa that the truck would arrive by this afternoon at the latest.
“To be honest,” Papa said, “I don’t really feel like waiting around to see if they’ll be on time. I thought that since we didn’t get to see much of town yesterday, we ought to go down and take a look around. What do you say?”
Nico was enthusiastic. Noah nodded in affirmation.
“We’re mostly going grocery shopping,” Mama said, addressing the kids but looking at Papa. “We’ve still got plenty to do up here, so we don’t have all day.”
“Right,” said papa. “But who doesn’t enjoy grocery shopping? I thought something nice and homemade would be perfect tonight. What do you guys think? Pizza? Lasagna? Spaghetti?”
Nico, when he was sure that neither of their parents were looking, caught Noah’s eye and pretended to gag, clasping a hand over his mouth. Noah rolled her eyes and pretended to be unaffected, even though every time her brother dry-heaved, it made her stomach clench.
“It doesn’t have to be Italian,” Mama said.
Papa agreed. “No, of course not! Whatever you kids want.”
“Noah?” Mama said, and Noah raised her head. She was surprised by the attentiveness in Mama’s eyes. “What sounds good to you, sweetie?”
Noah looked back and forth between her parents, avoiding Nico’s gaze because he was chewing with his mouth open. “What about…Khao Man Gai?” she asked.
Papa pursed his lips. Mama made a sort of consoling look with her eyes, like she knew what Noah was thinking. “Not my area of expertise,” said Papa, and before he could finish, Noah shook her head.
“No, don’t worry about it,” she said dismissively. “It’s silly.”
“It’s not silly,” Mama said. “I miss K-Man-G’s, too.”
“Me too,” sighed Nico.
Papa gave a thumbs-up gesture to nobody in particular. “Khao Man Gai it is. Now don’t expect K-Man’s, please. But I’ll give it a shot.”
Mama offered a soft-eyed smile, looking from Noah to Papa. “I’m sure you’ll do great, honey.”
The long, winding road down into town made it clear to Noah just how far removed from the world their quiet house in the woods really was. She expected a glimpse of town to come into view after every switchback, only to find more trees.
Having spent the last few days in the car, Noah’s endurance for sitting was worn down. Nico, on the other hand, pressed his face up to the window the whole way, overflowing with questions like, “What do you think these hills are called? Do you think the mountain has a name? Does every mountain in the world have a name?”
Noah stopped listening to him, even when he posed a question directly at her. Her whole attention was on the passing trees.
She wanted to know what kinds of trees she was looking at. Some were tall and straight as arrows, with soft-needled green branches protruding like shallow shelves. Others were ent, with bowed arms that stretched out in every direction. She caught glimpses of bright flowers amidst the universal green, pale purples and clusters of orange or shimmering yellow.
She didn’t see a single one like the giant behind her house.
“Do you think that’s where that kid lives?” Nico asked, pointing to the first house they passed. This caught Noah’s attention, and she twisted in her seat to get a look.
“It must be,” said Mama, a hint of awe in her voice. “Look at all those beautiful flowers.”
Between the house and the road, Noah saw long beds packed with bright flowers, with a solid wall of dark green lilac bushes beyond them. The house itself was small, half the size of the house at the top of the mountain, and in need of a new coat of paint. Standing just beside the door was Gideon, in a red T-shirt that had faded almost to pin, and a hat pulled low and shadowy over his face. He turned his head to watch them pass, with a look on his face that was almost surprised. He raised his hand in a wave, and without knowing whether or not he would see it, Noah waved back.
A moment later, Gideon was swallowed up by the cloud of dust that pursued the van.
Noah thought about the flowers in the vase at home and the flowers in the groundskeeper’s garden. Was it possible that the boy had left them in the bathroom as a sort of welcome gift? Did that mean that he had a key to the house? Was that something that groundskeepers usually had? And what exactly was a groundskeeper’s job? Was he just a gardener?
She pictured the first moment that she’d glimpsed Gideon’s light eyes between her parents’ shoulders, the way he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, heel to toe. She remembered what he’d said about his dad being sick, the way he’d turned look back at the window when he left, the way he waved at them when he passed by. She thought about this all the way down the hill, and the next thing she saw was a late wooden sign announcing that they were now entering the town of Hawking.
The narrow streets and buildings of town were tucked carefully into the narrow green as picaresque as a postcard. The buildings were mostly faded brick, all orange and pink with time, few more than three stories tall. Long lines of carefully tended trees ran down every side-street, giving Noah the impression that the forest had crept all the way back into town over the years.
Main Street split in two around a wooded park, creating a sort of island in the middle of town, on which Noah could see a concrete water-fountain and a statue of a tall man. She was too far away to read the plaque at his feet, but she knew that it was strange even from a distance. The man was big-bearded and heavy-armed, but rendered in a position of forced elegance—one hand on his hip, the other outstretched and open. As the trees broke, offering her a better view, Noah realized that his mouth was open in an ostentatious laugh.
“That’s so…weird,” she whispered.
Mama twisted around in her seat. “What is?”
“That statue. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a statue laughing.”
They all stared in silence for a moment, the turn-signal blinking. “I guess he must’ve been a happy guy,” said Papa
“Or crazy,” said Nico.
“They don’t build statues for crazy people,” Noah said under her breath.
“Well then I guess you’re never getting a statue,” Nico shot back. Noah stuck her tongue out at him, and he crossed his eyes back, wrinkling his nose.
Papa finally parked the car in front of a brick storefront with painted robins on the windows. The sign said that it was a realtor’s office. “Just gotta run in here to meet with Marie and let her know we’re all moved in—or part moved in,” Papa said. “Why don’t you three go and explore? Take in the sights?”
“What kind of sights?” Nico asked, unconvinced of Papa’s enthusiasm.
“Well that’s what we’ve gotta find out, its’t it?” Mama said, a glimmer of excitement in her voice. She put a hand on Papa’s shoulder. “Don’t forget to ask about that kid from yesterday, okay? And the spare keys?”
Papa nodded. “Consider it done, mon cher.”
The morning had turned gray in the valley. As Noah stepped out of the car, she felt a chilly breeze roll down the street toward them. She shivered, and took one of Mama’s arms when she offered it. Nico took the other, so that the three of them filled the whole sidewalk. There was a glimmer of excitement in Mama’s face like she was about to go on an adventure. At the sight of her, Noah felt a little lightness spring into her chest.
They had to dodge hand-painted sandwich boards and huge flower pots as they walked, their heads constantly turning to take in the bakeries and bookshops and sporting goods stores, the pizza parlors, pawn-shops and bars. The windows were all big and bright and full of colors.
Hawking felt clean. The air wasn’t quite so choked by running engines or trash, or any other number of unpleasant smells which Noah was used to, in the city. She smelled coffee and bread, and the ever-present hints of maple and pine. When she closed her eyes and just listened, she heard the wind in flags, car radios, and the sounds of pigeons.
She wondered how long it would take, living up on the mountain, to feel like Hawking was noisy.
“Are you going to the hospital today?” Nico asked Mama, but she shook her head.
“Nope. I’m on vacation, remember?”
“Most people don’t move while they’re on vacation,” Noah said.
Nico looked sideways at her. “Most people don’t throw up because their tomato felt weird.”
Mama shook her head at Nico, and then turned toward a nearby storefront, saying, “This seems promising. Shall we?”
Noah went in last, frowning at Nico’s back. He usually kept her secrets, but there was a price to be paid in barbs and low-blows.
The shop they entered smelled like jam and new clothes, and something else Noah couldn’t quite place. A cheerful woman with a thick voice greeted them from behind a counter near the back of the store.
Noah found herself surrounded by racks of clothes and shelves laden with the kind of trinkets she’d expect to find in any souvenir shop—engraved pocket knives, mugs with cliché slogans, Christmas ornaments that said ‘Happy Hawking Holidays,’ or something equally terrible. But one phrase reappeared everywhere she looked, on sweatshirts and hats and stickers.
“Welcome to Odd Country.”
She wondered what it meant as she meandered through the store, only to have her train of thought derailed by the sight of Nico, who stood motionless as the end of an aisle, staring up at the enormous, mounted head of a moose. She joined him, feeling herself shrink as she drew nearer.
The head took up a whole third of the wall above them. Noah could have fit her hands inside its nostrils, or laid down comfortably inside the curve of its paddles. Its glassy eyes stared blankly down at them, passing a silent judgment from beneath a layer of dust. Nico’s mouth was open in amazement, but Noah felt more uncomfortable than anything.
“Is it real?” Nico asked.
“It looks real,” Noah responded.
“It’s so big. It’s, like, almost the size of an elephant.”
“I’m sure elephants look bigger in person, too,” said Noah, and as she said it, she felt a tingle run up the back of her neck. She remembered the tree, and the horrible feeling that had haunted her since that morning. It was only for a moment, but she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. The moose felt different than the tree—it didn’t grow to take up her whole vision. It didn’t feel alive. But she still didn’t like standing under its vague, attentive eyes.
“I wonder how it died,” Nico mused, and from behind them, a woman’s voice answered.
“Sampson, here? He lived up to his name, let me tell you.”
Both Noah and Nico turned to see a heavyset woman in a flower-printed dress standing behind them, as if she’d been waiting in the clothing racks to answer their questions. She was taller than either of them, with bunched-up gray hair and an oval-shaped mouth that always smiled and rarely closed.
“For almost ten years, Sampson stamped around in the mountains outside’a town,” the woman said, looking up at what remained of the animal. “He was a legend, too quick and sneaky to be found when folks were after him, so big and brazen he’d walk right through town when they weren’t. Hard to believe, I know—the old boy weighed almost two thousand pounds, by the end, but he didn’t make a sound. Seeing him was like seeing a ghost, let me tell you. But true to his namesake, it was a woman who brought him down.”
Nico narrowed his eyes at the woman, like he had his suspicions. “You killed him?” he asked dubiously.
The woman guffawed. “No, not me. But I got the real honor, getting to hang the old boy’s head in here. It was a hot battle, let me tell you, try’na get it. Everybody in town wanted a piece of him. The boys at the VFW just about got him. But my husband weren’t about to let him go, not after all the trouble he went through. So by the end,” and here the woman started cackling again, “we got his head, and we sent his hind-end to the VFW. It’s still there, too, right next to the bathrooms. They call it the Ass of Sampson—”
She broke off, trying too late to calculate the age of her audience. She gave a little cough. “What a noble creature,” she said, like a reverent afterthought.
“Are all the animals here big?” Nico asked. “I saw a squirrel yesterday that was longer than my arm.”
Noah narrowed her eyes at Nico in surprise. “Really?” she asked. She considered mentioning the frogs, but in that moment she realized that the third, unidentifiable smell, was coming from the woman. Now that she was standing so close, Noah thought she might gag on the terrible perfume.
“I don’t know about squirrels,” said the woman. “It could’a been something else—like a raccoon, maybe, or a mountain lion. Hopefully not the second—we haven’t had a lion around here in years. But there’s lots of legends, or rumors you might call them, about giant critters up on the mountain. Bears as big as school-busses and elk as tall as giraffes. Personally, I doubt that last one quite a bit. But who knows what you’re gonna find in Odd Country!”
Noah felt—just a little bit—like she was in a commercial. Part of her wanted to ask the meaning of the phrase, considering she was surrounded by it, but she also felt the rising need to get away from this woman and her perfume. She looked over her shoulder for Mama and saw her looking back at them.
The woman’s attention shifted with Noah’s gaze, taking notice of Mama. “Ope, pardon me,” she said, and hurried across the room as if on tiptoes.
Noah let out a breath of relief, still hesitant to inhale, and turned to Nico hastily. “Why didn’t you tell me you saw a giant squirrel?” she asked.
“What, so you could barf on it?”
Noah scowled, then laughed a little through her nose. “I thought I might barf on that lady’s shoes,” she said under her breath. “What was that smell?”
Nico’s eyes lit up. “Like…peach blossoms and vinegar.”
Noah felt her stomach twist at the very words, but the look on her face only encouraged him. “Or roses and anchovies?” He lowered his voice so there’d be no chance of Mama overhearing. “Ass of Sampson?”
Noah wanted to laugh and gag in equal shares. She put out her hand for Nico to stop and he did, turning his attention back to Sampson’s stuffed head.
“Well if she didn’t kill him, I wonder who did,” he said.
“I’m not going to ask,” Noah said, measuring her breathing.
Nico looked back down at the souvenir keychains, hanging under Sampson’s head. “What do you think everybody means, Odd Country? It’s all over the plac.e”
“I saw it in a bunch of other windows, too,” said Noah. “Maybe it’s the town slogan.”
“Uh, yeah, if we were in a horror movie. Hey, look! They’ve got mugs with Sampson on them!”
He pointed to a high shelf where a pyramid of white mugs were stacked, each one bearing an image of the moose’s head in a simplistic style that did the creature even less justice than his dusty glass eyes. Nico stretched onto his tiptoes to reach one.
Noah kept her voice low. “I only asked you about the squirrel because I saw a frog yesterday that was the biggest frog I’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah, well, you haven’t seen that many frogs,” he grunted as he finally got his mug, holding it up to compare the representation to the real thing.
“Neither have you,” she retorted.
“This doesn’t really look like him,” Nico said, thrusting the mug toward Noah’s face. “They made his fur too light and red. See? The real Sampson’s a brunette.”
Noah shoved his hand away. “It’s not like you’ve seen all that many squirrels, you know,” she said. “All you’ve seen are city squirrels, which are way smaller than mountain squirrels.”
Nico looked at her hard. “Is that true?”
Noah paused and then shrugged. “I don’t know. It sounds like it’s true.”
Nico laughed and twirled the handle of his mug around his finger. “I’m getting this. It’s the best mug I’ve ever seen. I wonder if they have a match set over at the VF-Whatever.”
“It’s the VFW.”
“You haven’t even asked Mama yet,” Noah sighed.
“But she’ll say yes if you go pick something, too,” he replied in an annoyingly knowing tone. “So go find something. Because I want this mug.”
“What if I don’t want anything here?” Noah hissed. “I hate gift shops. Everything is stupid and cheap.”
“At least things have your name on them!” he sneered.
“I’m not going to get something with my name in it, that’s stupid,” she huffed.
Nico shrugged. “Well, you made me lose my knife by being weird.”
Noah felt that strange dread in her stomach when she thought of the knife. Had she really buried it? The act itself seemed so vague and distant, like she was remembering it from a dream. But when she looked down, she saw dirt underneath her fingernails. So she’d really done it, after all.
“So what?” she asked, her voice cool and quiet. “You want a new one?”
“Noo,” he droned, putting the mug in her face again, “I want. This. Mug. So go pick something out so Mama will let me get it.”
While she hadn’t seen anything she wanted in the little gift-shop, Noah felt a twinge of guilt about the knife, and decided that this wasn’t a bad way to repay him.
What she finally found, after milling around the store for a few more minutes, was a book about local flora called Great & Small, which claimed to contain the names of over 1000 species of plants. She thought that since her life was now surrounded by trees, it wouldn’t hurt to know their names.
They met up with Mama at the counter, where they found that she had already stacked up a pile of neatly folded sweatshirts. Nico held up his mug wordlessly, but with pleading eyes and a strained smile. Mama gave him a funny look, but gestured for him to add it. Noah put her book up next, and Mama touched it admiringly.
“That’s very nice,” Mama said. “I’m excited to take a look after you do.”
“Do all of these say ‘Odd Country?’” Nico asked, looking at the shirts as the woman in the flowered dress rang them up.
Mama smiled. “Yes. I thought we might as well lean into it. Plus, I think Papa will like them.” She turned toward the flower woman and asked, “is that the town slogan?”
“Well, yes and no,” said the woman. Nico looked behind Mama’s back and caught Noah’s attention, just so he could roll his eyes. “It’s not our official slogan, but it may as well be, seeing as we’ve all adopted it. You see, a few years back, there was this documentary crew came through here for a bit. The nicest folk you can imagine, all eager to listen to a story. And they made the phrase for their film.”
“Just a film about the town?” Mama asked.
“About Hawking, sure, but mostly about Harold. He was our founder. Well, we call him our founder, but the town’s older than him, and used to have a different name. But then along came Harold Hawking, who practically rebuild the place. All these businesses and shops and things, weren’t none of it here back then. We changed the name in his honor.”
Noah wondered if that’s whose statue she’d seen in the park, the laughing man with the funny look. The flower woman put all of their things into a bag, and then rummaged around beneath the counter like she’d lost something.
“Now let me see here…ope, here it is! I knew I had some laying around.”
She stooped and straightened again, holding up a DVD proudly. “I always keep some copies in case folk passing through want one. Go ahead, this one’s all yours! They filmed part of it in here, you know! Got shots of Sampson and everything. Of course, it looked a little different back then.”
Mama looked dubiously at the DVD for a moment, then smiled with her lips and took it. “Thank you very much,” she said. “We’re new here and don’t know much about the town. I’m sure this will be very educational.”
She put out a hand toward Noah, which Noah gladly took. The flower woman’s perfume had reached out with tentacles to squeeze the breath out of her.
“Here to stay, then?” asked the woman, like she was happy to hear it.
Noah looked up at Mama, and watched her face as she answered, “At least for now.”
“Most people who stop by are just passing through—it’s always good to see new faces. Where’ve ya’ll settled?”
“Woodhill Lane?” said Mama, like it was a question.
The flower woman raised her eyebrows. “Really? Beautiful neighborhood up there.” Noah thought that Mama narrowed her eyes a little, like she was waiting for the woman to say something else. But she only added, “I’m sure you’ll find that film very interesting. Have a good day now, and don’t stay strangers!”
The woman was still waving at them when they finally stepped back onto the sidewalk and into a sudden wind. Mama’s steps were urgent, her grip on Noah’s hand so tight that Noah felt a stab of dread move through her body in an instant. What had happened? Was it something that the woman had said?
As soon as they were clear of the shop’s windows, Mama threw back her head to let out a long gasp. Nico and Noah stood uncertain around her, watching as she sniffed and shook her head.
“I thought I was going to suffocate on that woman’s perfume,” she said, and Nico grinned. “A few more seconds and I might’ve passed out.”
Noah felt a thawing relief trickle through her arms. She almost laughed, but couldn’t quite muster up the breath for it.
Mama opened up her shopping bag and pulled out a sweatshirt, which she sniffed before handing to Noah, who realized she was shivering and goose-skinned only then. Mama smiled at her. “It feels colder down here than it did up on the hill, doesn’t it?”
Nico nodded his head. “This place is weird.”
“Of course it’s weird,” Mama chuckled. “All small towns are weird. Only some documentary crew made this one even weirder by capitalizing on its weirdness. It’s a no-thank-you from me.”
“Are we going to watch the movie?” Nico asked.
“We don’t have a TV, remember?” said Noah.
Mama snorted. “Even if we did have a TV we wouldn’t watch it.”
“Why not?” Nico asked, frowning.
Mama shook her head. “Because if something terrible happened on our street, I don’t want to know about it.”
5. The End of Woodhill Lane
The moving truck arrived less than ten minutes after the Martens got back up the mountain and unloaded their groceries. There were two men with it, one tall man who spat a lot, and a shorter, rounder man who never stopped talking. The latter kept making jokes to Papa about how they lived out in the middle of nowhere, which papa nodded along to. With each comment, Noah noticed the increasing dislike on Mama’s face.
But Noah was glad to be out of Hawking, which had made her feel tingly all day. It felt warmer on the mountain. Maybe the space between the clouds let in more sunshine, she mused, or maybe the trees just broke up the wind. Whatever the reason, Mama opened up all the doors and windows so that the slow breeze could move through the house as they unloaded and unpacked box after box.
There was some delicious, woody smell in the air, which Noah only ever caught in passing. Mama noticed it too. She took a deep breath and then joked, “If only they’d make that into a perfume.”
Noah watched the house fill slowly with lamps and desks, bedside tables and mattresses. She knew that there would be no camping out in the living room tonight. A strange, nagging feeling settled into the empty space between her chest and stomach and refused to leave.
It was a bittersweet feeling, like something she’d forgotten, but it carried a weight that she couldn’t describe or shake. It followed her through the house, and steadily grew stronger when she carried a box of her own clothes up the stairs and into her room.
She looked around at the bare mattress and empty bookshelf, and the feeling kicked inside her chest hard that she lost her breath and had to scrunch up her nose to keep from crying. Even with the sounds of her family floating up the stairs, she couldn’t help feeling like the only person in the world. She knew it was silly. She knew that it was childish, that she should have outgrown feelings like this. But knowing didn’t make a difference.
By four o’clock the movers were gone. The house, which had seemed so big and empty, now felt small and crowded. Mama breathed a loud sigh, her hand on her hip.
“I thought we’d already gotten rid of so much stuff, but look at all this. What’s even in these boxes?”
“Not a TV,” complained Nico.
“Five bucks to anyone who can find the rice-cooker,” Papa said from the kitchen.
Noah, still heavy with that sour, unspoken dread, turned to help when she heard a loud thump and a sound of surprise from Mama as a box slipped right between her hands and crashed into her face. She was still standing, red-faced and laughing, when Papa hurried out of the kitchen.
“Are you alright?” Noah asked.
Mama tried to straighten her glasses, but they leaned crookedly across her nose. She had to lean her head back just to keep them on, but she was still smiling.
“Oh dear,” said Papa, shaking his head.
“What?” Mama said. “They still work, see?”
She turned her gaze toward the kids, and Noah felt the urge to laugh at the ridiculous look on her face, magnified by the thick lenses. It loosened the knot in Noah’s chest and made it easier to breathe.
Papa crossed the room and gently lifted the frames from Mama’s face, untangling the broken piece from her hair.
“Well, I guess we’ll be going back into town,” he said.
“Not tonight,” said Mama. “Making that drive once a day is plenty. Besides, you promised Khao Man Gai.”
“Hey Mama,” Nico yelled, halfway up the stairs. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
Mama rolled her eyes, which seemed lighter without her glasses hiding them. “Hah-hah. I’m nearsighted, not blind.”
Papa’s Khao Man Gai was not the same as K-Man-G’s back home, but it was still delicious. After dinner they continued unpacking. By the time Mama finally decided they were done for the night, it was already dark outside.
The feeling in Noah’s stomach came back the moment she stopped moving, lurking near her sternum like a slow-churning whirlpool. She swallowed it down, forcing it to remain quiet inside her tired body. She tried to focus on doing things instead of thinking about them: stretching the sheets over her mattress, shoving boxes against the wall so the middle of her room wasn’t so cluttered.
But she couldn’t escape the feeling for long. It was bigger than she was, a radiating, many-armed sadness that took up the whole room. The smell of her old home was on everything, until she could’t breathe without missing it.
Eventually, she had to retreat. She shut herself in the bathroom, hiding beneath the sound of the running water as she tried to steady her breathing. She made the mistake of looking at herself in the mirror, and when she did, she saw her chin tremble. That was all it took.
She bent over the white basin sink and cried without making a sound.
In her dark room, Noah lay on her back and stared up at the sloped ceiling. It made strange sounds in the wind that she imagined were merely upstairs neighbors, though they were no longer the same middle-aged couple, yelling at their TV or their yipping dog. Now she guessed that they were raccoons or giant squirrels, or some other oversized forest thing that she didn’t want to think about.
Noah didn’t cry as often as she threw up. But in a very similar sense, she always felt a little better right after she did either one. She’d managed to shrink the sadness down until it was the size of a small stone. By morning it would have either disappeared or taken root like a weed. Uprooting it would take some time. It would make it hard for her to sleep, or eat, and the emptier her stomach was, the more likely she was to feel sick.
She closed her eyes and tried to tell herself it would go away all on its own.
Her parents would have gone to bed by now, and Nico was almost certainly asleep. Like Mama, he always slept like a brick in a pond—but Noah had to endure the same plight as Papa. She had seen too many hours of the night on the clock, and too much of her own home by moonlight.
There were times when she and Papa used to take refuge together on the soft couch in their old living room, while all the rest of the world was asleep. They rarely talked, and if they did it was in whispers. Sometimes Papa would put on a movie with just the subtitles and they’d watch it in the dark. Other times he’d make a snack in the kitchen and they’d toast to one another by tapping their cheese and crackers together like wine glasses.
Once, she remembered, Mama had woken up to Papa’s absence (which was one of the few things that could wake her) and while Noah and Papa were enjoying their foreign film, she came out and laid down on the couch beside them, with her head in Papa’s lap. They stayed there all night. Noah leaned against Papa’s shoulder, her arms around his arm, while he brushed the hair gently from Mama’s face, and stroked her cheek with his thumb as if he’d never get tired of it.
In that moment, Noah thought, the three of them were perfectly attached. More connected than any living things had ever been, like they all shared one single heartbeat. Mama’s face had never been softer or younger.
But in the morning, Noah woke up to find that she’d drifted off in the last hours of the night. She was alone on the couch, a blanket pulled up to her chin, and the white light of morning all around. The invisible thing connecting her to them had been broken while she slept.
In her room at the end of Woodhill Lane, Noah blinked away a few straggling tears. The small stone was the size of a cannonball again, and almost impossible to breathe around. There was no TV, which meant no black and white movies. And now she would have to climb all the way downstairs to see if Papa was still awake, and what if he wasn’t? Would they ever sit up through the night again, the only people awake in the whole world?
Knowing that these questions would only make her more miserable, Noah rolled onto her side so that her tears could have an easier route of escape, and willed herself to sleep. By morning she would feel better. By morning the light would be gold on the trees again, and Mama would not have to go to work just yet, and they could unpack boxes together side-by-side, and her room wouldn’t feel so empty.
To her surprise, sleep was not as elusive as she feared. Before long she was submerged in a shallow dream in which she could hear a sound like singing. It couldn’t have been singing of course, because there were no voices—but somehow she knew that it was.
The sound filled up her rom, growing clearer rather than louder, until it filled up every corner. Or was it only her head that was filling up?
The sound was silvery and soft as the breeze, cool like clear running water. Even under her blankets, Noah shivered, and then opened her eyes. She sat up, but couldn’t tell if she was awake again or if she’d never actually fallen asleep. The song was all around her, standing the hair up on her arms.
Noah slipped her feet out of bed, and as her toes touched the cold wood floor, the singing changed. It rose sharply in pitch—or did it grow deeper? It mutated in some way that she could hardly fathom, and that’s when she understood for certain that it wasn’t only inside of her mind. She could feel it under her arms like the current of a slow river. She could feel it in her nose like the tickle of pollen, a smell like jasmine and lilacs and upturned dirt with earthworms crawling. It was deep in her ears, deep enough to tickle her jaw.
Without consciously taking a step, Noah arrived in front of her window. She felt the curtains on her fingers, softer than feathers and white dandelion down. The song rose and fell and swam in and out of her lungs as she gazed out at the sky. She could see the uncountable stars, and a sky full of more colors than she could have imagined. And she realized that the stars spilled down as much light to the earth as the moon, and wondered how she hadn’t noticed it before.
That’s when she saw the tree. Against all of the light and the color, the towering head of the gigantic tree stood above all the others. At the sight of it, Noah felt something in her stomach drop, and the song twisted into something cavernous and deep. It was a depth that didn’t seem to end, that plunged down into darkness and rooted her feet in place. She felt herself go rigid with indescribable fear.
This morning, it had taken her minutes to reach the base of the tree. But now it stood on the edge of the forest and all the other trees seemed to lean away from it. The moon, only a delicate crescent, hung among its branches.
The song changed again. As Noah stared, open-mouthed at the towering giant, the song reached into her chest and touched the sadness that she’d hidden there. Noah felt her breath escape her lungs, as something split open inside her. Her sadness came pouring out. There were no words, no clear images in her head, only a toothless ache. She knew she was crying by the wetness on her cheeks, by the tightness in her throat, by the pressure in her skull.
Then all at once, the great weight on her shoulders was gone. It was as if an invisible hand had reached into her chest and pulled up her sadness by its roots. Noah gasped for air, her breath as feeble as a battered flag. She closed her eyes and felt the night air sweeten on her face. She felt cold and exposed, and warm and weightless.
When she opened her eyes again, she took a small, sharp breath of surprise. The tree had moved again. It was no longer at the edge of the forest—instead, it stood right outside her window, taking up the whole sky. It seemed impossibly dark, darker than the space between stars, its every leaf and branch stark against the feathery white light. The moon was gone, obscured by its enormous trunk.
Fear flashed across Noah’s mind like a flicker of lightning and then vanished. She felt for it, in the dark of her own head, but couldn’t find it. How was it that now, of all times, she wasn’t afraid? She must have still been dreaming, she thought.
The tree was so close she could reach out and feel it. Reach, she thought, her lips moving to shape the words. Feel.
A faint smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Of course this was a dream. Trees don’t move, and yet…it was so close. She could reach out and know for sure. “Reach,” she whispered. “Feel.”
But she was suddenly too tired to even lift her arms. She felt as though she’d been crying for hours and hours, and her legs began to tremble a little under her weight. She sunk slowly to the floor, the song rumbling softly all around her like a hundred humming voices. Her eyes drifted closed, and she could feel the warm blanket of sleep creeping over her inch by inch. But I have to know, she thought, and she stretched out her arm without looking, extending her fingers toward the sound of the ringing chimes. She felt the song heave all around her like a wave, and then—
6. The Hermit
When Noah woke up, she was half-in and half-out of her bed. Her skin was cold, soaked with the cool morning air. Her window was wide open, and the world beyond it had transformed into birdsong.
For several bleary moments she hid underneath the blankets, her limbs impossibly heavy. Downstairs she could hear music playing, and the clank of dishes in the sink. A moment later, the scratch and rumble of the van coming to life outside.
The thought struck her like a bucket of cold water, and she leapt up. Mama couldn’t be going to work yet. It was too soon. She could still hear the van running, but not the sound of tires on gravel, which meant she still had time. She pulled on the sweatshirt Mama bought her at the gift-shop and then flew to the door.
But her hand froze on the knob. All of the hair on her arms and neck stood up, her whole body prickling at once with the same alarm.
She remembered her dream in hazy pieces. The tree had moved. It had come right up to her window.
Noah didn’t move at first. Not to turn around, or to run. If she turned around, and there really was a tree outside her window where there hadn’t been, yesterday, what would she do? What would she say? Maybe Mama and Papa already knew—maybe Papa was going down into town to tell someone. But what would happen if he did? Would he come back with an axe, or a chainsaw?
The thought of a chainsaw sinking its whirling teeth into the giant roots of the old tree put a slimy, cold feeling in Noah’s stomach, just as Nico’s pocket knife had. She turned slowly, her eyes wide, only to see the empty window just as it had been when she opened it.
She walked to it and pulled back the curtains to stare out. The lawn ran right to the tree-line. The sun turned the edges of the trees yellow, and cast deep shadows beneath. The gigantic tree was right where it had been yesterday, far back in the woods. But seeing it, Noah felt like she was looking at something asleep, and her whole body shivered.
By the time Noah came downstairs, she found Mama and Papa fully dressed. Mama was not going to work. Papa had started the van to drive her to town to fix or replace her broken glasses. Noah felt a sigh of temporary relief ease some of the tension out of her body, as she helped herself to toast and jam.
Nico was still in his pajamas, his hair as messy as Noah had ever seen it. He yawned every couple minutes.
“Looks like you had a long night, bud,” said Papa, holding up the pot of coffee.
Nico reached out his Sampson the Moose mug and Papa filled it. “I couldn’t sleep,” Nico said. “Those wind-chimes are too loud.”
“Really?” Mama said. “I didn’t hear them at all?”
“How could you not hear them?” Nico asked, taking a crunchy bite of toast. “It sounded like they were right outside the window.”
Noah looked silently from one face to the next, nibbling her breakfast without making a sound. She thought about it and realized that Nico’s windows faced the side-yard rather than the back. Papa filled up a travel mug with coffee, screwed on the lid, and then kissed Mama on the cheek. “Ready when you are, the car should be all warmed up.”
“Is it always going to be this cold in the morning?” Nico asked with another yawn. He was scooping his fourth or fifth spoon of sugar into his mug.
“If I run into any meteorologists in town, I’ll ask,” Papa said, and then caught Noah’s eyes. “Will you be okay without us for a bit, Noah?”
Noah nodded, wrinkling her eyebrows, uncertain why he asked. “Of course.”
“Won’t be gone long,” said Mama, who kissed the top of her head. They were gone a moment later.
Quiet jazz music played from a speaker in the corner, the only thing that kept the silence from creeping through the whole house. Noah looked over at her brother, who was actively supporting his head with his hands.
“Did it really seem like the wind-chimes were getting louder last night?” she asked.
He nodded wearily. “Yeah, at like three in the morning they started to go bonkers-berserk. I thought there was a hurricane happening outside. It might’ve just been a squirrel, I guess.”
“A giant squirrel?” Noah asked, and Nico shot her a piercing glance.
“I know you don’t believe me,” he said, “but I did see one.”
“I do believe you!” Noah replied earnestly.
“It wasn’t a mountain lion,” Nico mumbled. “I know the difference between a mountain lion and a squirrel.”
“I know you know what a squirrel looks like,” Noah assured him. “I saw a giant frog too, remember?”
Nico’s eyes lit up again. “Oh, yeah! We should try to find it again.” He stood up abruptly and rubbed his eyes. “Where’s that movie we got from the crazy lady yesterday? Mama didn’t get rid of it, did she?”
Noah shrugged. “Why? It’s not like we can watch it.”
Nico was already in the other room. “I just want to look at it!”
It didn’t take him long to find the DVD in its plastic case. He sat back down and turned it over and over in his hands with the attentiveness of an old man reading the newspaper.
“Can I have a look when you’re done?” Noah asked.
“When I’m done,” he retorted.
She scowled. “That’s literally what I said.”
Nico forced the case open, using his fingernails to cut the little tape barrier.
“What are you doing?” asked Noah.
“It says there’s a pamphlet inside,” and a second later he waved it triumphantly in the air, and then slid the plastic case across the table toward her. “If we get a TV, we should watch it.”
“Mama didn’t want to,” Noah said without looking up. She was already studying the pictures on the back of the case with narrow eyes.
“We’ll watch it without her, then,” Nico said. “She might not want to know what happened on this street, but I do. And I want to know if there are any other giant animals.”
On the back of the case Noah saw Sampson’s head, mounted on the wall of the gift shop. Beneath that was a photo of the statue she’d seen of the town’s laughing founder, and then an aerial shot of downtown Hawking, where they’d walked the day before.
Beside the photos was a wide banner that read: A country rife with tall tales, a forest teeming with dark secrets, and the man who resurrected a dying town. What is the true story of this mysterious country? And who was Harold Hawking? Find out in ‘Odd Country,’ an OVSP Original Production!
In much smaller print, beneath the banner, were the words, See Inside Pamphlet for more! Noah looked up to see if Nico had finished reading it yet, and found him staring with startled eyes at the pages in his hand.
“What?” she asked, but he didn’t answer. She pushed out her chair and walked around the table toward him. “What is it?”
Nico held up the little booklet. “Noah, isn’t this our house?”
Noah snatched the pamphlet from his hand and stared, trying to read the description and study the image at the same time. ‘Outside of town, another secret lurks…while Harold Hawking gives his all to the little town in the valley, his hermit brother, Clem, carefully guards a woody refuge. What is Clem hiding in acres of untouched trees? And why does the mayor refuse to acknowledge his own family?’
The photo itself was very poor quality, as if taken right at the hour of dawn or dusk. But there were enough distinguishable details to be sure, even with only a moment’s study. The angle of the roof and chimney were the same; the shape of the porch, and the windows, and the curve of the driveway. This was the last house on Woodhill Lane.
“That’s our house,” Noah said. She couldn’t keep her heart from beating faster in her chest. “That’s our house.”
Without stopping to put on shoes or wait for Nico, Noah strode out the front door, the pamphlet in her hand. She tiptoed gingerly over the gravel until she was standing in roughly the same place that the photographer must have been. Had there been any doubt whatsoever in her mind, it was gone now.
The only difference between the photograph and the real thing was the color. By daylight, the house looked quiet and welcoming. But in the grainy photo, with the windows glowing orange and the dark woods creeping in all around, the place looked eerie and monstrous.
Nico came running out after her and craned over her shoulder to see. “Who the heck is Clem?” he asked. “Harold’s brother?”
“Apparently,” Noah mumbled.
“So the brother of the crazy guy used to live in our house,” said Nico, “only he was also a crazy hermit hiding all sorts of secrets.”
“According to the people trying to sell copies of this movie,” Noah nodded, and for a second they met one another’s eyes.
“Let’s not tell Mama,” Nico said.
The house on Woodhill Lane was not the only mystery boasted by the Odd Country pamphlet. There was also a photo of a waterfall on someone’s farm, a basement under some building on main street, glowing in the flash of a camera, and the stone foundations of what was described as ‘the home of a witch who escaped a house-fire by turning into a magpie.’
Then, on the last page, there was a photo of a face carved into a wall, or slab of stone, which depicted an old man with long hair and beard, through which ivy had grown, as though leaves were springing out of his very scalp, or curling out of his nostrils with his mustache. The carving had a very angry expression, with a hard, protruding lower lip and creased brow. The emotion seemed pronounced most severely by a crack, as wide as a thumb, that split the bridge of his nose and crossed his face at a slant.
He was described only as ‘The Bearded Man,’ a carving found in the woods, unable to be moved for the weight of the stone it decorated.
Under that, completely abandoning the sense of mystery, was a photo of a smiling blonde woman in a white shirt, who stood with her arms crossed and one eyebrow cocked. The headline beside her read, ‘Meet Hannah Stout, your guide through Odd Country, and OVSP’s Star Investigator!’
The little biography that followed was as bland as the rest of the booklet was dramatic. Finally reaching the end of it, Noah handed it over to Nico, but Nico was no longer interested in reading. He paced in front of the fireplace, bouncing from one foot to the other, while Noah sat on the couch in thought.
“So?” he said. “What are we going to do?”
Noah looked at him. “Well there’s not really anything we can do. This is a documentary. Which means everything already happened.”
“Yeah, but what happened?” Nico asked. “Is there treasure buried in the woods somewhere? Or is that where this Clem guy hid all the bodies of the people he brutally murdered?”
A gross shiver rolled through Noah’s body. Normally she might not have been so affected, but it was hard to shake the feeling that there was someone outside watching them as they spoke.
“Okay, don’t say stuff like that,” she said. “It does’t say anything about him being a serial killer.”
“But it doesn’t say he’s not,” Nico argued. “He could’ve done anything. Right here! In the house! In our rooms!”
Noah felt her stomach turn over. “Stop!” she said. “That’s disgusting, and it’s not the point.”
“No wonder Papa got this house for so cheap,” Nico’s eyes grew wide, like everything suddenly made sense. “Nobody wants to live in an old murder house. That’s why we got it!”
“Nico,” Noah said, trying to sound authoritative, “Nobody was murdered in this house. Alright? For one thing, I’m pretty sure real estate agents are, like, required to say something about that.”
“How do you know?” he wanted to know.
Noah wasn’t sure how to answer him.
“What if they did?” Nico asked, his eyes growing wider still. “What if she did tell Papa, and he kept it a secret from us?”
“Papa doesn’t keep secrets,” Noah said, and hurried to continue before he could interject. “Besides, people do like murder houses and stuff. Even in the city! If people thought this place was, like, haunted, they would’ve turned it into a hotel or tourist attraction. They wouldn’t have just sold it to a random family.”
“How to do know?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes at him. “Would you just settle down? You’re acting hysterical.”
“Really?” Nico scowled. “I’m hysterical? It’s been less than twenty-four hours since the last time you barfed for no reason.”
“Shut up,” growled Noah.
“I could hear you crying last night,” he went on, crossing his arms. “It was like listening to a little baby.”
“Wet the bed recently?” Noah scowled back.
“Heard from any of your friends recently?” he shot back, sticking his chin out like he always did, practically asking to be smacked. Noah ground her teeth, but tried to bite back anything she might say next. She couldn’t out-jab Nico; she’d given him too much ammunition, over the years.
Nico huffed and stomped across the room, waving his hands around his head.
“Where are you even going?” Noah snorted.
“To get away from you!” Nico yelled over his shoulder. He paused halfway up the stairs to lean over the railing, only his head and hands visible in the corner where the wall and ceiling met. “You know you ruin everything, don’t you? No matter where we go, you find a way to make it weird and unbearable.”
“I make it—?!” Noah lunged up from the couch. Her heart was beating hard enough to hurt, her breath coming in big, quick bursts. “I don’t even want to be here! I didn’t want to move in the first place!”
“So?” snapped Nico, coming two steps down just so he could yell more directly at her. “You always make everything in the world about you!”
“I do not!” Noah said. And all at once, her anger dissipated. It had been meager enough from the get-go, but it burned out like a too-short fuse and in its absence, she felt the trap door in her belly open, and her stomach fall through. Tears sprang into her eyes. “I do not,” she said again.
Nico’s face changed, like maybe he’d gone one step too far. The hardness in his eyes softened. He let out a long sigh and dragging himself back up the stairs.