1. The Blindfold
1. The Blindfold
Beneath her blindfold, Noah felt the red van ease to a rumbling stop. Before Papa could fully remove the key from the ignition, Nico had already opened his door, and Noah heard the sound of his shoes crunch down on gravel. She could feel the atmosphere of the car change as the sweet, fresh air from outside poured in.
Noah stayed right where she was, her fingers gripping her armrest, until she heard Papa open his door and then hers. Her heart squirmed anxiously in her chest until Papa’s hand touched her arm.
“Are you ready?” he asked, his voice an excited whisper.
Noah didn’t know how to answer.
“Can we take our blindfolds off, now?” Nico shouted from the other side of the car.
“Wait until your sister’s ready,” said Mama.
“Hurry up!” he whined.
Papa helped Noah out of the car and she stepped gingerly onto the gravel. Even behind her blindfold, her eyes were squeezed shut. Papa stepped away for a moment and Noah was stranded, an island in the dark.
All around her, she could hear the sound of trees. The uncountable leaves made a sound of like sea-waves, speckled with the song of birds. She felt warm and cold at the same time, as if she was half-in and half-out of a patch of shade. The sunlight warmed the end of her nose.
“Right this way, young lady,” said Papa as he put a hand on either of her shoulders and led her carefully around the car. She could hear Nico’s heels restlessly grinding right next to her.
“Are you both ready to see your new home?” asked Mama. Her voice was nearby, but Noah couldn’t quite tell where she was standing. A familiar, nauseous feeling expanded in her stomach. What would she find when she finally opened her eyes?
“Three…” Mama counted.
“Two…” said Papa, and Noah knew that her brother had already pulled off his blindfold and taken a few eager steps forward. A few steps toward what?
Noah finally reached up and pulled off her blindfold in one motion. The air felt cold on her temples, the sunlight orange and red on her eyelids.
Papa’s voice was soft in her ear. “Go on,” he said, “It’s alright.”
Noah opened one eye, then the other, her hands tight fists at her sides.
Beside her, Mama raised a hand to shield her face from the sun, her other hand on her hip. She was smiling with her lips pressed together. Maybe she felt uncertain, too. But Papa’s smile filled his whole face.
Noah tried to take in the small house all at once, but there was too much to see. Her eyes moved from the peeling paint on the shutters to the mossy shingles, to the veritable bramble which sprung up form the flowerbeds, encircling everything. The chimney stood tall and red against the quick-moving clouds, and somewhere unseen wind chimes jingled, their sound everywhere at once, filling Noah’s head with a far-off silvery sound.
Already, Nico was wading through the grassy yard.
“Come on, you two,” said Papa. “We can’t let Nico explore everything before we’ve had a chance to see it!”
He put a hand on Noah’s shoulder and pulled her forward again, waving to Mama to join them. “It’s so much different than I expected,” Mama said.
Nico yelled from somewhere beyond their sight, “Look! There’s a little creek back here!”
“A creek!” Papa’s face beamed. Noah watched him look at Mama gain like he was trying to get her to smile, too. Her lips stayed thin and pressed. He looked at Noah instead. “How about that? A creek of our very own?”
Noah didn’t know exactly how she felt. She looked back at the strange house with its empty windows. Papa’s fingers slipped from her shoulder and he took Mama’s hand, pulling her along as he ran through the yard and around the house. Finally, Mama’s firm lips gave up, and she laughed a little as she was forced to run.
Noah watched them go, not hurrying to catch up. The grass made a loud, soft noise as her shoes kicked through it, and it smelled cleaner and richer than she remembered any grass smelling before. She could smell pine, and a plethora of other strange scents, none of which were bad, but most of which were unrecognizable and alien.
When she turned around, to peer back the way they’d come, she saw the long driveway snake away amongst the trees, unbroken. There were no other signs of civilization in sight, though she speculated that there could easily have been a house close by, only hidden from view by the dense wall of trees that encircled the yard.
She’d never seen trees like this. They were huge, and compared to the trees that she’d known her whole life, unmistakably wild. At least, wild was the best word she knew to describe the strange shapes they made, the haphazard angles at which they leaned together or split apart. Sunlight broke through the leaves in bizarre shapes, dazzling like broken glass when the wind blew. She heard the chimes ringing again and turned a full circle trying to spot them.
She took two steps backward without looking, and nearly screamed when her foot plunged into icy-cold water. She sucked in a breath of tingling air and looked down, realizing that she’d walked directly into Nico’s creek—only now that she saw it, creek was the wrong word. It was more like a trickle, barely three feet wide, and so well-disguised by the grass that she was lucky she hadn’t fallen flat into it. It was just deep enough to soak her shoe, but despite its size, the little stream seemed well cared-for. Someone had gone through the trouble of laying smooth round rocks all along the edge of the flow, the likes of which also peppered the silty bottom, no doubt kicked in by clumsy feet, just like hers.
Noah withdrew her sopping tennis shoe from the water, shivering from the cold, and looked up, wondering if her parents or brother had seen her, only to find an empty yard. She could hear Nico’s voice in the distance and was just turning to follow the edge of the stream when a motion in the grass caught her eye.
On the far bank, not seven feet from her and almost invisible in the grass, sat the roundest, greenest frog that Noah had ever seen. Apart from the speckled white of its belly and the freckles of orange between its dark, wet eyes, it blended perfectly into the grass. If it hadn’t moved, she wouldn’t have seen it at all.
Noah held as still as if she’d been frozen through. The frog, almost the same size and shape as a half-deflated soccer ball, blinked at her and then plopped into the water like a slippery stone. Before her eyes could even track its movement, it had vanished completely.
Noah could still feel the quivering pulse of excitement in her veins as she came around the house and found her family. The stone-lined stream wound in a big S-shape across the yard, disappearing into the woods, at the edge of which Nico was standing. He peered into the trees as if looking through a barred window.
Mama and Papa were both gazing up at the house. Ivy crawled up a trellis toward the second-story windows, blanketed with white and yellow flowers, almost obscuring the back door with its little porch.
Papa caught the look on Noah’s face and said, “Well, look who’s smiling now!” He bent forward so that he was a little shorter than she was, and hushed his voice, pointing, “See that window, there? That, my dear, is your room.”
Noah stared at the blue shutters, the six panes of old glass with the waxy-yellow curtains behind. She felt something, but she couldn’t tell what it was.
“Are you sure it’s even…habitable?” asked Mama in a quiet voice, not wanting to be overheard.
“Habitable?” Papa laughed. “It’s beautiful! Charming! Rustic! Exquisite!”
“It’s certainly rustic,” Mama laughed uncertainly. “I’m half expecting to find the Seven Dwarves still living inside. Or at the very least, some wild animals and a few exotic molds.”
“Oh, come on, darling,” sighed Papa, “we haven’t even been inside yet.”
Mama whispered, though not quietly enough to keep the words from Noah’s ears. “Well until we have, I’m not sure we should be giving out rooms.”
Noah watched her parents, while also pretending like she wasn’t. She looked from the second-floor window to the winding stream. A pair of fat bees drifted by. The anxious lines beside Mama’s eyes were deep and distinct. At the sight of them, Noah’s chest felt tighter.
Papa dug around in his pocket and pulled out a silver key, which he held up very importantly. “In that case, how about we go take a look?”
Mama took the key from his hand when he offered it, and Papa looked back over his shoulder at Noah with a wink. “Mama and I are going to go investigate the indoors. We’ll call you once we’ve determined that the place is free of dwarves and mold.”
Noah watched them go and then turned to see Nico standing in the same place he had been. The trees were golden and gray, shifting strangely when the wind blew. Nico was motionless. Noah leapt over the stream and walked up behind him, shivering and hugging her arms in the cool shade. He gave her a sideways glance, his eyebrows high on his forehead.
“What are you staring at?” she asked.
Nico pointed toward the tops of the trees. “Do you see that?”
Noah squinted and stepped back. It took her only a moment to see what he meant.Where all the other trees stopped, their branches splayed and their leaves outstretched, one tree continued to tower. It rose and rose like it would never end, its huge branches swooping out like bent arms over the crowns of green pines.
“I’ve never seen a tree that big,” Noah said quietly.
“No duh,” Nico jabbed. “How tall do you think it is?”
Noah wasn’t sure. But as she stared at the enormous tree she began to feel a sinking, uneasy feeling in her stomach. The world spun dizzily under her feet, and she gulped back a threatening feeling of nausea. It was as if, as she stared, the tree grew even bigger, taking up the whole sky. The entire forest seemed suddenly dark and looming, as if every tree was leaning down toward her.
Breathless, Noah closed her eyes and swallowed around the lump in her throat. She rubbed her clammy face with both hands, and felt the feeling of irrational panic slowly subside. By the time she opened her eyes again, the woods had returned to normal. She avoided looking at the towering tree and let out a long breath of relief. It was all in my head, she thought. As usual.
When she turned her head, Nico was staring at her, his face scornful. “You’re so weird,” he muttered, and then turned to walk along the tree-line, leaving Noah alone.
She wiggled her toes inside her wet shoe and listened to the wind-chimes ring out from somewhere deep and unseen in the woods.
2. The Groundskeeper
All Mama’s fears of rodent infestation or black mold turned out to be in vain, as the inside of the house was instead dry and clean and in practically perfect condition.
While it was obvious that the house had been empty for some time, it was tidy, with a yawning fireplace and bookshelves built right into the walls. The couch and two armchairs were covered in protective white sheets, which Nico rapidly removed, scattering a cloud of dust.
Everything spoke of wood, as though the whole house had been crafted by a carpenter with nothing but time on their hands.
The kitchen was small but not cramped, with lots of sturdy cabinets, and a pale-green fridge that was curved on all its edges. Mama was carefully inspecting every detail, opening up every empty cupboard with the studiousness of someone expecting to find something incriminating inside, while Papa admired the sturdy kitchen table, knocking on it with his knuckles.
“Well this thing isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “It looks like it was built right into the house.”
“Maybe it was,” said Mama, adding, “There’s no freezer.”
“We can get a freezer,” Papa shrugged. He turned to look at Noah as she peeked her head into the room. “Did you see all the shelves?” He asked, smiling. “They’ll look better once they’re loaded with books.”
Noah nodded and gave him a tight smile, trying to imagine the shelves filled in. It helped to loosen the tightness in her stomach. She’d never been one for new places. Nico stormed up the stairs, already bored of exploring the ground floor, and Mama yelled after him from the kitchen,
“Nico! No shoes in the house!”
Nico yelled an apology down the stairs, but Noah could still hear him rummaging through the rooms upstairs. Part of her wanted to go after him, to see the room that existed on the other side of the pale yellow curtains and the flaky shutters, but she first went back to the front door to pry off her shoes and roll off her wet sock.
Listening to Mama yell about shoes reminded her of home, and made her all the more aware of the fact that this house was supposed to replace the home she’d known. She wondered if Mama had already accepted this new reality, or if she was just extending the same courtesy that she would have to a stranger’s home.
I’m in a stranger’s home, Noah thought to herself, as she felt the wooden floors with her bare feet. Someone else used to live here, and now they were gone. Most likely they were dead, judging by how old everything was. And now Noah lived here. And she didn’t even know where the bathroom was.
Nico came flying halfway down the stairs and craned his head over the railing. “There’s no TV,” he said gravely.
“No TV?” repeated Papa with mock severity.
Nico shook his head. “Not anywhere. I checked all the rooms. Nothing.”
Papa laughed. “Who needs a TV? Didn’t you see this place? There’s a whole mountain outside! The world is a playground!”
Noah looked up at her brother’s forlorn face and then back at Papa. She wasn’t sure how she felt about not having a TV, but Nico’s concern was expressive enough for both of them.
“Are you serious?” Nico sake.
“About what?” asked Papa.
“We’re supposed to live here with no TV?”
“Let’s focus on what we do have first,” Papa replied, “Before we make a list of what we don’t have. We can talk about a TV later.”
Noah found the bathroom right underneath the stairs beside the fireplace, just as Nico trudged back up, his steps thunderous on the slanted ceiling of the little room. A six-paned window let in the crisp light of afternoon.
Beside the bright, round mirror and the little basin of a sink ,Noah was surprised to find a blue vase full of fresh-cut flowers. She stood and stared for a moment at the perfect blossoms, glowing in the golden light, and wondered where on earth they’d come from. It was obvious that nobody had lived in the house for years, and yet the flowers couldn’t have been two days old.
To Noah they were both miraculous and suspect, and distracting enough that she did not at first notice the lack of toilet paper.
When Noah went back to the kitchen, she brought the vase with her, still puzzling over it. The smell of the flowers followed her, subtle but sweet and reminiscent of spring grass. She held them close to her nose as she walked.
Papa gave her a look of surprise when he noticed her. “Where did those come from?”
“I found them,” Noah said. “In the bathroom.”
Mama came over and lifted the vase from her hands, inspecting the flowers. “Really? They look like they were just picked.”
“They’re beautiful,” said Papa, smiling and pointing. “Lilies, daisies…solidago, I think? Well-arranged. Somebody’s got a good eye!”
Mama looked sideways at him, none-too-pleased. “And a key to our house, apparently.”
Papa put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure it was the realtor, honey. Someone had to check up on this place before we came!”
Mama handed the vase to Papa, saying, “And they couldn’t have dusted a little? I’ll just feel more comfortable when we know we’ve got all the spare keys.”
Noah watched the blossoms swing like tiny bells, when Papa set the flowers on the table, rubbing his hands together. “And I’m sure we’ll all feel much more comfortable once we’ve moved some stuff in from the car, hmm? Kitchen first, and we’ll get some food going. I, for one, am starving.”
Noah followed Papa back out to the car without bothering to put on her shoes, listening to Mama call Nico downstairs to help. The grass was softer and cooler than she could remember feeling, tickling her ankles as she walked. The gravel felt like regular gravel, sharp and regrettable.
Nico was beside them a moment later, in a characteristic hurry. “When is the truck gonna arrive?” he asked.
“Any minute now,” Papa answered, grunting as he climbed up the side of the creaky van to open the cargo box on the roof. “They shouldn’t be far behind us.”
Nico looked down the driveway as though he expected the truck to appear at the mention of its name. When it didn’t he asked, “Can we order take-out for dinner?”
Papa chuckled. “I’m not sure anybody’s gonna deliver way up here. We’re a long way from town.”
“How far?” Noah asked. With the blindfold on, it was impossible to tell how far they’d gone, or what she’d missed.
“A few miles,” he answered, shrugging. “Took us about half an hour to get up here.”
“Half an hour?” Nico repeated, aghast. “We won’t even be able to order pizza!”
“We can make pizza,” Papa said, grunting a little as he passed down a cardboard box, which Noah took in both hands, inching perilously back over the gravel.
Of course, she’d known in the back of her mind that there would be no delivery options. They left that behind with everything else. It was obvious, in a way, and yet strange because it hadn’t actually occurred to her. No more birthday dinners from her favorite Thai Restaurant, K-Man-G’s, which used to be right around the corner. It was a strange thing to miss, but she knew that she would miss it.
One by one the strange assortment of things she’d miss crept through her mind—the comfort of her own bathroom, for one, which had a flat ceiling instead of a slanted one. Or the cabinet in which she knew the drinking glasses were kept, or a freezer, or a TV. She hadn’t even seen the room which would be hers yet, and already she dreaded the fateful trip up the stairs that would make it a reality.
She dropped her box off in the kitchen where Mama was tying back her hair. She gave Noah a soft smile. It wasn’t the same sort of smile as Papa’s, or Nico’s. There was little excitement in it. Mama looked tired and worn down, the way that Noah had come to recognize her. But she smiled like she was smiling for Noah, not just at her, and said,
“I know this is all a little bit…”
Noah shifted from one heel to the other, waiting.
“Different,” Mama finished. “I know things are changing fast. But you’re handling it all really well. And I appreciate it very much.”
Noah tried to smile back in the same comforting way, but she couldn’t tell if it worked. She still didn’t know what she was feeling, or how she was actually doing—there were still too many things to see and too much to do.
“When do you start work?” she asked.
“Oh, not until we’re settled in,” Mama said, her tone reassuring. Noah wasn’t sure if that meant a day or a month.
It took less than an hour to unload the van. No moving truck appeared, laden with mattresses and bedding. Fortunately, Mama had packed the van full of kitchen and bathroom supplies. Papa tried to put dinner together from dry ingredients, while Mama unpacked the boxes piled in the corners of the living room. She checked her watch every few minutes, and Noah could feel her becoming increasingly concerned and irritated as the minutes passed.
“I can’t believe they’re not here yet,” said Mama, not for the first or last time.
Nico nodded in agreement and observed, “That’s really not professional.”
Noah rolled her eyes at him, and then asked, “If our beds don’t arrive, where will we sleep?”
“We can sleep without beds,” said Papa. “We packed sleeping bags in the van, remember?”
There was a gentle knock at the door that moment, and Mama stood up with an exasperated sigh, pressing both hands to her lower back. “Finally,” she sighed, walking to the open door. Her tone betrayed her surprise at finding someone other than the movers.
“I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am,” said a young voice, so soft that it was hard to hear. Noah looked up, pausing in the middle of unwrapping one of the last plates. Nico crawled sideways across the couch to get a look at the door. “I thought I should introduce myself,” said the voice. “My name’s Gideon, ma’am. I’m your groundskeeper—at least for the time being.”
“Oh,” Mama said uncertainly. “It’s so nice of you to come by. Honey?” She called into the kitchen and Papa appeared a moment later. “Honey, this is…I’m sorry, you’ll have to tell me your name again?”
“Gideon Tlāloc,” said the boy, and he shook Papa’s hand when Papa offered it to him with his usual eagerness.
“He’s our groundskeeper,” said Mama with emphasis.
“Really!” said Papa.
“I didn’t know we had a groundskeeper,” she added pointedly.
“No, but I’m not going to complain,” Papa laughed. “Aren’t you a bit young to be a groundskeeper, son?”
“No, sir,” said Gideon, and then hesitantly, “Well, yes sir.”
Noah crept quietly all the way to the foot of the stairs, where she could at least see between her parents’ shoulders. But all that was visible of Gideon was his head and his shoes.
His hair was a true black, with no trace of brown in it, and his skin, which seemed to be naturally bronze, had been darkened by the sun until it was caramel. His eyes were bright and light, and darted from place to place, a little to anxious to look anyone in the eye. As his gaze passed between Mama and Papa, he caught a glimpse of Noah’s face. Though his eyes lingered only for a moment, Noah felt the need to get out of sight, and she sat down on the lowest step.
“My dad was—is—the groundskeeper here,” explained Gideon. “But he’s been sick for a little while. So I’m taking care of some of his duties. I’m happy to help! And it’s no trouble!”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Papa, “though I’m sorry to hear about your old man. You know, my wife, here, is a doctor. Maybe there’s something we can do to help out.”
This was not the first time Noah had heard Papa say something along these lines, and Mama reacted with her usual correction. “I’m an ER Doc, honey, let’s hope I don’t have to meet anybody’s father. I’m sorry, I lost my manners, Gideon. I’m Dr. Marten, but you can call me Isabel.”
Noah already knew that he wouldn’t. There were few people in the world who met Mama and called her by her first name. Not even Noah’s school teachers could do it.
“And this is Mr. Marten,” Mama went on. Papa gave his usual smile.
“Call me Jonathan.”
Noah guessed that he might.
“It’s nice to meet you,” said Gideon, nodding.
“Do you live nearby?” Papa asked, casting an obvious glance around the driveway and seeing no other vehicle. Gideon shifted his weight from foot to foot like he was uncomfortable. Noah watched his shoes, beat-up sneakers that had been worn within an inch of their life.
“Yes, sir. Just a little ways down the hill, where the road splits.”
“Was it the cute little place with the garden?” Mama asked, and the boy must’ve nodded. “We saw it on the way up—what a precious spot!”
Noah frowned and looked over at Nico, who was still staying out of sight by peering over the edge of the couch. If she hadn’t been convinced to wear that stupid blindfold, she thought, she might have seen it, too.
Gideon thanked Mama bashfully and said, “Well…if you need anything, just let me know.”
Mama and Papa thanked him, and waved as he stepped back from the door. Noah could hear his shoes on the gravel, and she watched his disappearing outline through the thin, yellowed curtains on the window beside the door. The boy turned around once, and seemed to look right back at her.
As soon as the door was closed, Mama looked sideways at Papa. “Did you know this place had a groundskeeper?”
Papa made a pensive face that turned into an apologetic smile. “I do remember somebody mentioning it…something about a contract with the previous owner? With everything going on, it must’ve spaced my mind. I’m sorry for not bringing it up sooner.”
Mama crossed her arms, raising one eyebrow. “So there’s just gonna be some kid outside, pulling weeds?” she chuckled. “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
Papa shrugged again, his shoulders coming close to his ears. “Everybody’s gotta make a living. He’s just taking care of his old man.”
“We’re paying him?” asked Nico, scowling. “Will you pay me to pull weeds?”
“Most definitively not,” Papa laughed, going back to the kitchen. Mama stayed by the door a moment, gazing out the window. Noah watched her motionlessly, wondering what she was thinking, what she was feeling. It was easier than exploring her own thoughts and feelings.
Nico tossed himself back onto the couch with a loud sigh. “What kind of name is Tuh-la-lock, anyway?”
Noah rolled her eyes at him. “What kind of name is Nico?”
Mama smiled her tight lipped smile, turning away from the door at last. “Well. At least we know the neighbors are friendly.”
3. The Tree
The four Martens ate dinner in the living room beside the yawning hearth, surrounded by cardboard boxes. No moving truck arrived, despite all the phone calls Papa made.
“Sleeping bags it is,” said Mama, but she didn’t seem too disappointed when it came down to it. Her eyes actually creased when she smiled. “We can pretend we’re camping.”
After dinner, Noah helped her unload the last boxes, listening to the gentle clank and clatter of plates and cups as they found new homes in places she’d have to memorize. Nico was sent upstairs to shower, taking a huge armload of towels with him.
Even though a shower sounded close to heavenly, Noah decided not to take one. She still hadn’t gone upstairs. Tomorrow, she knew she’d have to. One thing at a time, she told herself, even though there were already a thousand new things.
It turned dark outside earlier than she expected, and with the dampening of the light in the windows, she became aware of how tired she was.
Even though it wasn’t really cold outside, Papa lit a fire in the hearth with old wood they found stacked outside, and the paper they’d used to wrap glassware in. Noah sat on the floor beside the couch, watching him breathe the flicker into life. Burning the paper felt very final, she thought, like their minds were all made up now and couldn’t be changed.
Nico came downstairs with wet hair, eyes wide and orange with the reflection of the flames. “Whoa,” he said. “I didn’t know you could make fire.”
“What do you mean you didn’t know?” Papa snorted. “Granted, it’s been a while.”
“Can we make s’mores?” Nico asked.
Papa thought about it, then shook his head. “We’re a couple of ingredients short, I think. But we’ve got graham crackers!”
“What good are graham crackers?” grumbled Nico.
“They’re one third of a s’more,” said Mama.
“Yeah, the worst third.”
Soon, all four of them were seated beside the hearth, half-in and half-out of their sleeping bags. The heat of the fire crept into every corner of the room, making beads of perspiration appear on Noah’s temples. Before long, Papa had to get up and open the windows. He smiled childishly at Mama.
“At least we know it’ll keep us warm.”
Mama had her hair down and looked more at ease than she had all day. Something in the firelight made her face seem softer, less worried. Looking at her made Noah feel able to relax, if only a little. Maybe they’d done the right thing, coming out here. She pictured Mama’s face in her mind, growing softer every day that they lived here, amidst the clean-smelling air and without the terrible stress of her old job. If that could be the case, Noah knew she wouldn’t mind the terrible change too much.
Other than scattered nights in hotels, Noah couldn’t remember the last time that her whole family spent the night in a single room, their arms and legs all practically tangled together. Despite the heat, despite her need of a shower, or her fear of climbing the stairs to her own room tomorrow, Noah felt safe. There was a warm, golden sensation low in her stomach, as she listened to Papa make Nico laugh.
There was also a pain in her chest, which had come and gone before. It came back whenever her heart was too full of things to feel, and her emotions spilled over. Feelings swam around freely inside her bloodstream. She could feel them tingling in her fingers or pressing on her lungs.
She laid down and closed her eyes, allowing the crackle of the fire to lull her tired, heavy limbs to sleep. Outside of the window, like distant voices, she could hear the ringing of the wind-chimes passing in and out of her dreams.
Noah was the last one awake. Papa was already whistling in the kitchen by the time she sat up in her sleeping bag. Sunlight streamed in through the open windows, and the cool air smelled like heavy dew. The ceiling creaked dramatically above her head, which she took to mean that someone was upstairs.
With resolution in her jaw, (but a little queasiness in her stomach,) she climbed out of her sleeping bag and set her bare feet on the lowest step. The stairs were steep, but not too narrow or too loud underneath her weight. She climbed them one at a time until she found herself in a short hallway with three wooden doors.
She could hear the gentle hiss of a shower behind one. The other two, she guessed, were bedrooms, which meant that the one on her right looked out over the backyard. She stood in front of the door for a long moment, her hands at her sides. There was a feeling of increasing gravity in her stomach, a tingle in her hands and feet and thigh bones. Just open it, she thought. What’s the worst that can happen? She reached out and turned the knob before she had time to think of any possibilities.
It was just a square room, no smaller than her old one, with two low windows and a wooden bed frame with no mattress, and a short, squat bedside table with no lamp or books. There was a slant to the roof that made one end of the room shorter than the other. While the walls were white, like the walls of the hallway, the door of the closet was blue wood, like the shutters outside.
It was clean, like the rest of the house, and the ceiling wasn’t too low, and it didn’t smell weird, which were among her three most pressing concerns, and therefore three different small reliefs. But it wasn’t like home.
Nevertheless, she let out the breath she’d been holding, grateful that nothing she saw made her either sad or nauseous. She crossed the floor, feeling the subtle squeaks and pops with her toes, until she reached the window and pried back the curtain. Below her she could see the yard stretching all the way to the trees, and the little stream carving its way through the grass. She thought of the giant frog she’d seen, and where along the stream it lived.
The window latch was stiff with disuse, but she forced the window open and leaned out into the brisk air. It was sweet and damp against her face, at once feeling sharp-edged and like being wrapped in something comforting. The morning was bursting with the sound of birds.
And that’s when she saw the tree.
Without a doubt it was the same tree that she’d seen the day before, reaching up its innumerable branches into the bright sky. It towered above the other trees like a man among children. It was less dizzying to look at, from a distance, but no less enormous.
Part of her wanted to run outside right then, and make her way through the woods until she found the tree’s gigantic base. But even as she thought it, she caught a glimpse of movement that sent her heart into her throat, before she realized that it was only Nico, scrambling among the trees. She saw him clearly for only a moment before he disappeared into the shadows.
Noah’s shoe was almost, if not completely dry, as she trudged through the damp grass of the lawn. Dragonflies, sparkling like diamonds, bounded beside the stream as she leapt over it. There was no sign of frogs, but she supposed it was still too cold for them to venture out for the day.
She paused only a moment when she reached the edge of the wood, staring at the shifting shapes and colors made by the slanting sun-beams. It was beautiful, but there was a wildness in it that made her feel uneasy. She thought that maybe it was a good kind of uneasiness, the kind that indicated excitement. The feelings were hard to tell apart, sometimes.
She pressed in after Nico, despite not knowing exactly where he had gone. The forest swallowed her up, hiding the house and the stream from view in an instant. Within a minute Noah had seen ladybugs and wildflowers and a dozen kinds of mushroom. She scraped her hand on a thorn bush hidden among the towering ferns, and the gentle gasp of surprise she let out seemed so loud that it startled her.
The forest was so quiet, and yet so full of sounds. Twigs snapped beneath the scurrying weight of a squirrel, and birds burst into sudden motion. Wind rustled in the high branches of trees, and yet Noah felt the silence like a weight. With the sunlight shifting all around her, she began to feel like she was underwater, her breath straining and her chest growing tighter.
Nico’s voice disrupted the sensation before she sank any deeper into it. “Noah? Is that you?”
She took a deep breath, mustering a shaky, “It’s me.”
“Get over here and look at this,” he yelled.
Noah pulled her shirtsleeves down over her hands to protect herself from anymore thorns as she pressed toward his voice. She didn’t have to go far before she caught a glimpse of his shirt through the all-encompassing green, but with every step that she took the weight in her stomach increased. Her legs were already shaky by the time that Nico—and the tree—came into view.
The trunk of the tree was so big around that Noah couldn’t even guess how many of her it would take, hand-in-hand, to surround it. Even the roots were as tall as she was, and snaked off into the grass like gnarled arms, crusted with moss and shelves of lichen bigger than dinner platters.
Nico straddled one of these roots, facing away from Noah. He had a pocket knife in his hand, and had nearly finished carving his initials into the trunk. The tip of the knife gouged roughly into the bark.
“Nico,” Noah said, the word paper-thin in her throat. A bottomless dread gripped her insides like a shadow passing over the sun. There was a feeling of gray in the pit of her stomach; a slick, moldy kind goo gray. She could hear Nico’s knife scrape against the trunk, and it was as though she could feel the pressure of his arms, the weight of his shoulders, and the tip of the dull blade against her own skin.
“Nico!” she howled. “Stop!”
Nico jumped and looked back at her, surprised and irritated. “What is wrong with you?” he snapped.
Ice ran through Noah’s limbs, turning her skin clammy. The feeling rolled through her in waves, as the tree, loomed up into space, growing darker and darker. Its roots seemed to spread out like claws, digging into the earth. Noah wanted to scream, to tell Nico to run from the tree before something terrible happened, but she didn’t dare open her mouth for fear of what might spill out.
The world spun. The woods leaned in, until she could hardly breathe. She could feel the tree. She could feel it reach out two invisible hands, one toward her, the other toward her brother.
She knew, with every rational cell in her brain, that these feelings were preposterous. Many feelings were, but Noah always felt them too strong, and in unusual ways. Normally she could let her rational mind sort through the tangled yarn of sensation and imagination, but not now. Now, the feelings were too strong, not just crawling beneath her skin but sinking into her bones.
“Nico,” she wheezed, doubling over, “stop it right now!”
“Im not doing anything!” Nico yelled, throwing up his hands in exasperation. He was still holding the knife in his right.
“Just…stop!” Noah said, choking back the need to vomit. There was a cavernous darkness underneath her feet—she could feel it through the bottoms of her shoes, as though she might fall down into the blackness. She could feel the bite of the knife everywhere at once, and an ageless, weary yearning that nearly split her in two. Tears streaked her grimacing face.
The tree rose higher. It swelled like it would burst, a black tower, a beam of solid, silent lightning that would consume everything.
Noah fell to her knees, heaved, and threw up.
Nico sprang down from the tree root, dropping his knife. “Are you kidding me?” he said, his voice thunderous and far away. Clearly he didn’t want to get too close to Noah, as she gagged and threw up again.
He made a disgusted face that hid all signs of concern. “Noah, what’s wrong with you? What is wrong with you?”
When she couldn’t answer, his voice got a little softer, more annoyed than angry. “Do you need me to get Mama? Or Papa?”
Noah shook her head. The world still spun, but in the moment of relief that followed throwing up, she was able to sit up. Her body felt like a hinge, bending unevenly. There was a cold sweat al lover her forehead and neck, and the burning sting of bile in her esophagus. The endless expanse of darkness under her feet was gone, but the memory of it remained.
“I’m okay,” she said, trying to breathe steadily. “I just need a minute. I’m sorry, Nico, something just…” There was no use trying to explain. What could she say?
“Do you need me to drag you back to the house?” Nico asked, less helpfully.
“I just need to catch my breath,” Noah panted.
“Right,” Nico sighed, with evident disdain in his tone. Noah, though she was still too dizzy to open her eyes and look at him, could hear his feet crunching among twigs and leaves as he left. “I’m going back to the house so I don’t have to watch you barf anymore.”
His footsteps receded into the distance. One sliver at a time, Noah was able to open her eyes. The tree had returned to its normal size and color, no longer blocking out the sun. But she could still feel it. It was as if the tree was the eye of a huge, swirling storm.
Noah inched her way toward it, compelled by a grip she could neither see nor describe, an urgency that slackened only when she saw the pocket knife lying amongst the ferns, half-open.
She scrambled toward it desperately on her hands and knees, and once she reached it, she began to dig, tearing at the damp, hard-packed earth with her fingertips. The hole didn’t have to be deep, she thought—just deep enough. A beetle scuttled by her knees, unaffected by the crushing force that pressed down on her. Aphids leapt clear of her frantic movement and the sound of her ragged breath, until finally the hole was deep enough.
She dropped the knife into the hole like she was touching something red-hot, and then pushed the dirt back over it until it was gone.
The world stopped spinning. The shadows returned to normal, standing straight instead of bending down toward her.
The wood returned to silence. The warmth of the sun poured down onto the back of Noah’s sweaty, tingling neck as she leaned forward and cried over the freshly upended dirt. She cried because she couldn’t remember feeling something so terrible, and because she could still feel it somewhere—that sensation of an endless expanse, both empty and teeming. She cried because she, like her brother and her parents, couldn’t begin to guess what was wrong with her.
And she cried, last of all, because there was a desperate sorrow in her chest like an inflating balloon. It was the same sorrow she’d felt when she came across a dead mouse on the sidewalk near her old home, a grief which had been so intense that she refused to walk that way for months, and insisted on going around.
She could still see the mouse vividly in her mind; the softness of its fur, the smallness of its hands, not unlike her own. Its white teeth pointing toward the sky.
“I’m sorry,” Noah said, tears rolling down her cheeks. She didn’t know who she was apologizing to, until she looked up and saw the fresh-carved initials again. NM, they said. The same as hers. “I’m so sorry!” Her tears felt painfully hot against her chin before they dropped onto the sweet-scented dirt. Somewhere high over her head, as if in some kind of answer, the wind-chimes rang.