1. The House on Woodhill Lane
Noah kept her eyes closed all the way up the mountain. The constant winding of the road made her sick to her stomach, but not looking spared her from other kinds of queasiness. There was the queasiness of watching her brother squirm in his seat. There was the queasiness caused by Mama’s worried eyes, visible in the van’s rear-view mirror. And of course, there was the queasiness of heading somewhere strange and unknown while home grew smaller and smaller behind her.
Home. The word was an aching tooth. She was able to forget it for a few minutes at a time, until she brushed against it with a daydream, or bit into a memory too hard. Then the pain came back, bringing all the worst parts of the last two weeks with it.
Saying goodbye to the rest of her history class. Taking the books off of the shelves in her room. Going for a last walk through her old neighborhood.
Nico pointed and chattered in the seat next to her, describing things as they passed by, asking questions that were impossible to answer.
“How much longer?”
“We’re almost there,” said Papa.
“How many people live here?”
“I’m not sure.”
“How many trees are in this forest? Millions? Billions?”
“Hard to say.”
“Who do you think owns them all?”
“The state, maybe.”
“Are we going to own trees? Noah, look at that!”
Noah shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut a little harder. She could practically hear the taunting face that Nico made. But then she heard Mama twist around in her seat to look at her. Mama’s worried looks could cut through any kind of dark. Noah could feel the gentle knit of her eyebrows.
I can’t make Mama worry, she thought. She forced the fear from her face. Can’t look afraid. She could feel the shadows of tall trees breaking up the warm, red light on her eyelids.
Is that what I am? She asked herself. Afraid? She was used to being afraid. This felt different, more final. She jostled the tooth. The moments drifted back.
Standing in the empty apartment with her family, listening to their voices echoing on the bare walls. Vanna’s thin arms around her neck, her chin pressed to Noah’s temple. There were tears between their cheeks that could have belonged to either one of them.
The memory stole the air out of her, and she had to struggled to breathe around the lump that climbed into her throat.
“Is everybody ready to see your new home?” Papa asked, his voice tinged with anticipation.
“I’m ready to get out of the car,” said Nico, half-serious.
For the first time in years, Noah felt the urge to chew on the end of her ponytail.
It’s alright, she told herself. Come on, you can do this. You’ve done scary things before.
But not like this. Not alone.
The van slowed down and then rattled to a stop. Noah could hear bated breath from the front seat. “Well,” said Papa, “This is it.”
Nico slid the door open before Papa pulled the key from the ignition, and his heels crunched down on gravel. New air rushed into the car, fresh and sweet and piney. It tingled where it met with the sweat on Noah’s scalp and back.
She started to feel dizzy. Was it just motion sickness? Was it the first warning of an imminent panic attack? Not now, she thought, her fingers digging into the armrests. Not in front of Mama and Papa.
Papa opened his door and then hers. His voice was an excited whisper. “Are you ready to see your new home?”
“Can I go look around?” Nico pleaded. He was on the other side of the car, but he sounded far away.
“Wait for your sister,” said Mama.
Noah tried to breathe, but it was hard in the dark. Papa touched her arm. He was always gentle, but she noticed it more than usual today. He always led, never pushed. “It’s alright,” he said, which seemed to mean take your time.
But Noah knew that she’d already taken too much time. They’d already reached the end of the road. There was nothing she could do now but look.
She opened her eyes and saw Papa’s face first. He was smiling, his soft edges blurred by the light. Behind him there were treetops as far as she could see, rocking gently in the wind.
She stepped out onto the gravel warily, like she didn’t trust it to hold her up, and walked around the car with her hands tightened into fists at her sides. She didn’t look at the house. She watched her feet until she found Mama waiting at the edge of the lawn. Her lips were pressed together, like maybe she felt uncertain too. Or maybe she was just concerned about Noah.
I can’t make her worry, Noah told herself. She straightened her back and sucked in a deep breath. There was nothing else to do but look.
She was surprised by how different it was from the picture she’d built in her head. The house was pale, but not in a sickly way, with two slender stories and a well-tended flowerbed. The white paint was peeling off the porch, and there was moss growing on the shingles. It wasn’t horrible or frightening. But it was still a long way from home.
“It’s different than I expected,” said Mama, crossing her arms the way that she did when Noah knew she needed a hug.
Right away, Papa put his arms around her from behind, resting his chin on top of her head. Mama smiled, but Noah watched her eyes, trying to guess what she thought and felt. It was different. But was different good or bad?
Nico was already halfway across the yard, wading through the ankle-high grass. “Look! There’s a creek back here!” he yelled.
Papa beamed, looking at Noah. “How about that? A creek of our very own. Come on, we can’t let Nico explore everything!”
He took Mama’s hand and pulled her along as he ran after Nico. Mama let out a laugh as she was forced to run, and in a moment they were out of sight, hidden by the house.
Noah was alone. She felt the knots in her stomach loosen for the first time in hours.
She stared at the house again. Light blue shutters. Dark green ivy. Bright red chimney standing against fast-moving clouds. She wondered how Papa could call it home when it wasn’t. Was he trying to put Mama at ease? Was he trying to convince himself? Or did he say it just for Noah, to reassure her that everything would be ok?
Things didn’t feel ok.
She followed after her parents, her shoes making a soft sound in the grass. She turned slow circles as she walked, trying to take in this new world. In one direction, the gravel road sloped down the mountain and out of sight. There were no forks, no neighbors. The house was alone too.
Everywhere else she looked she saw only trees. More trees than she’d seen in her life, not to mention bigger and wilder. At least, wilder was the best word she knew to describe the shapes they made, the way they leaned together or split apart. Only the little yard that encircled the house was bare.
Then she noticed the wind. It didn’t yank or tug like it sometimes did back home, but stirred. When it moved, the sunlight fell through the trees like dazzling glass, and the uncountable leaves made a sound like ocean waves. But there was something else scattered in that caught Noah’s ear.
It was the silvery ringing of wind-chimes somewhere far away. She couldn’t see them, but the sweet melody made her feel a little bit better. The lump in her throat receded slowly and she took a deep breath without its interference.
That’s it, she said to herself. Keep it together.
Nico’s creek wound in a wide S-shape across the back lawn, vanishing into the woods on both ends. Only now that she saw it, Noah wasn’t sure that creek was the right word. It was barely two feet across, narrow enough to step over and barely deep enough to stand in. It was clear that it had been well cared for once. Somebody had lined both banks with smooth, round stones, though many of them now lay scattered on the bottom. Noah wondered who would have taken the time to do something like that.
Mama and Papa gazed up at the house hand-in-hand and Noah joined them. The ivy was thicker here, climbing a trellis toward the second-story windows. Papa caught the look on Noah’s face and said, “Look who’s smiling now!”
Noah was surprised that he was right.
He gestured for her to come closer and then pointed. “See that window? That, my dear, is your room.”
Noah stared at the shutters, the six panes of old glass and the waxy curtains behind them. Something heavy sank inside her chest.
Mama’s voice was strained. “Are you sure it’s even…habitable?”
Papa laughed his reassuring laugh. “Habitable? It’s charming! Rustic! Exquisite!”
Mama laughed. It was a real laugh. A good laugh. Noah imagined the tight laces loosening in her, too. “It’s certainly rustic. I’m half expecting to find the Seven Dwarves still living inside. Or at least some wild animals or exotic molds.”
“Oh come on, darling,” Papa sighed. “We haven’t even been inside yet.”
Mama whispered, as though she didn’t want to be overheard. “Well until we have, I’m not sure we should be giving out rooms.”
As she usually did, Noah watched her parents, while trying to pretend like she wasn’t. She paid attention to the angles of their shoulders and the lines at the corners of their mouths. Mama tugged at the sleeves of her sweater, stressed, uneasy, unconvinced. Papa pointed his feet one way and then the other, his voice calming, confident, consoling.
Noah felt her stomach turn over and over. For the second time that day, she wanted to chew on the end of her ponytail. It was such a strong urge that Noah actually reached up without realizing it. Her fingers landed on the tie-die scrunchy in her hair. She pulled it off and stared at it, the wind pushing her chestnut hair into her face.
It was a gift from Vanna. So well-worn that it was starting to lose its stretchiness.
Papa finally dug into his pocket and pulled out a keyring. “In that case, how about we go take a look?”
Mama took the key from his hand like it was an offering. Papa shot Noah a wink. “Mama and I are going to investigate the indoors. You two explore out here a bit longer, okay? We’ll call you once we’ve determined it’s dwarf-free.”
Mama rolled her eyes. “Just don’t go too far.”
Noah joined Nico at the edge of the lawn, where he peered into the woods as if through a barred window. At fifteen, Noah wasn’t particularly tall, but Nico was on the short end of almost-thirteen, and their height difference made her feel awkward, now. She was all elbows and knees, while Nico was all eyes and chin.
She wondered if he was thinking the same thing that she was—about home, and how far away it felt. About how all of the tiny things that were disappearing into memory, which is all they would ever be.
Did he feel the same way she did, as if he had been left behind, too, with all of his memories, all of the places he knew, all of his friends? Did he wonder, the same way she did, whether or not they would ever make new memories as perfect and precious as the old ones?
Was he a mess too, underneath his unchanging exterior? Maybe he needed a hug. Or maybe she did, and was looking for an excuse.
Nico raised his arm and pointed unexpectedly. “Do you see that?”
Noah followed his gaze. “See what?”
“Nico, all I can see are trees.”
“No, but that big one. Can you see it?”
Noah had to take a step backward, but she immediately understood Nico’s stare. Where all the other trees ended, their branches stretched up as high as they’d go, one tree rose and rose like a tower, its huge branches swept upward like strong arms. It was so tall, Noah’s knees went a little wobbly, like she was standing at the edge of a canyon she hadn’t known was there.
“Whoa,” she breathed.
“What kind of tree do you think it is?” he asked. “Probably some kind of oak or something. Do you think it’s like those trees in California that you can drive a car through?”
Noah couldn’t answer. Something about the distant shape, with its head propped up against the sky, made her stomach feel tight and tangled. Just breathe, she thought. It’s just a tree.
She heard the jingle of the chimes echo through the trees again. They seemed closer this time, and yet quieter. Like their ringing was only for her to hear.
She jumped when Nico nudged her, his face scrunched up. “You’re not gonna freak out and be weird again, are you?”
“I’m not,” she answered. I’m not.
2. The Groundskeeper
Despite Mama’s fears of rodent infestation and mold, Noah stepped inside the house to find that it was dry and clean and livable. A fine layer of dust coated everything, from the kitchen counters to the hearth above the empty fireplace.
The couch and armchair were covered with sheets to keep them clean, which Nico immediately yanked off, filling the air with dust.
“Careful, Nico!” Mama said.
“Sorry,” he murmured. Noah covered her mouth with her sweatshirt sleeve. Papa propped open the doors and windows so that the slow-moving fresh air could crawl through the house.
The furniture was mostly wood, with leather backs and cushions on the couch and chair, almost the exact opposite of what Mama would have picked out. Noah slid her hand along the polished back of the couch, enjoying the smooth, cool feeling of the wood, until Nico asked where they’d come from.
“I guess the previous owners probably left them,” said Papa. Noah pulled back her hand. She didn’t want to be reminded that she was in someone else’s home.
The kitchen was small but not cramped, with sturdy cabinets and a pale green fridge that was curved on all its edges. Mama carefully inspected every detail, opening every cabinet like she expected to find something incriminating inside. Papa admired the table in the dining room, knocking on it with his knuckles.
“Well this thing isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “It looks like it was built into the house.”
“Maybe it was,” said Mama. “There’s no freezer.”
Papa shrugged. “We can get a freezer.” He met Noah’s eye in the living room and grinned. “Did you see all the bookshelves?”
Noah nodded and gave a slight smile. The living room was lined with shelves built right into the walls. She tried to picture them filled in and it helped ease the tension in her body. She liked being around books, even if they weren’t books she particularly wanted to read. They made a room warmer. As it was, the blank plaster walls made the house feel hollow and bare.
Nico finished exploring the ground floor and stormed up the stairs, swinging open doors and stomping around empty rooms.
“Nico!” yelled Mama. “No running in the house!”
“Sorry,” he yelled back.
Noah looked up the stairs, wanting to follow. She wanted to see the room on the other side of the flaky shutters. But listening to Mama yell reminded her too much of home.
She pried off her shoes by the door and felt the wood floors with her bare feet. I’m in a stranger’s house, she thought. Even though she’d lived her whole life in apartments, knowing that other people had lived there first, the house felt different. It didn’t feel like a space in which someone had lived—it felt like a person, like a hollowed-out shell.
Someone used to live here, and now they’re gone. She figured that they were most likely dead. Why else would someone leave all their furniture behind?
Noah looked around, shuddering. They could’ve died right here. And now she was supposed to pretend like she was home. She didn’t even know where the bathroom was.
Noah followed Papa barefoot to the car to help unload. The grass tickled her ankles, cool and damp. It was good grass, she thought. The kind you could lay down in. The gravel was still gravel.
Nico ran by her a moment later. “When’s the truck gonna get here?” he asked.
“Any minute now,” Papa answered, grunting as he climbed up the side of the van to the cargo box on the roof. “They should be right behind us.”
Nico looked down the road like 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 up here. We’re a long way out of town.”
“How far?” Noah asked. She might have known if she’d kept her eyes open. But in the dark, it might’ve been ten minutes or an hour.
“A few miles. Took us about half an hour to get up here,” said Papa.
“Half an hour?” Nico repeated. “We won’t even be able to order pizza!”
“We can make pizza.” Papa handed down a heavy cardboard box, which Noah took with both hands, tiptoeing perilously back over the gravel.
Of course, she’d known that there would be no delivery options. They left that behind with everything else. It was obvious, but strange because it hadn’t occurred to her. No more birthday dinners from K-Man-G’s, her favorite Thai restaurant. It was such an unexpected thing to miss.
Vanna appeared in her mind, lying on her back on the floor of her bedroom, asking, “What do you think you’re going to miss most? Not counting me, obviously.” The conversation had happened less than a week ago, but it already felt like years. Noah had laughed, but whatever she’d said then, she realized now that it wasn’t enough.
She didn’t know she’d miss the comfort of a freezer, or the cabinet where the glasses were kept. She didn’t know she’d miss the big windows, or the carpeted hallways, or pushing the buttons in the elevator. She thought of her bedroom back home and pictured the glow of the hanging lights, the mound of colorful pillows. Scrunchies everywhere. Vanna laughing on the floor.
When she thought of the room at the top of the stairs, she felt the warm itch of dread, like a bug bite inside her stomach.
She dropped off her box in the kitchen. Mama looked run down, the way Noah had come to recognize her, but she gave Noah a soft smile. It wasn’t the same as Nico’s or Papa’s. There wasn’t so much excitement in it. But she smiled like she was smiling for Noah.
“Hey, sweetie,” she said. “I know this has all been very…”
Noah chewed the inside of her cheek, waiting.
“Very different,” Mama finished. “And challenging. I know a lot of things are changing. But I want you to know that your father and I appreciate it very, very much.”
Noah tried to smile in the same comforting way, but she wasn’t sure if she managed it. She wanted to say something. ‘Of course,’ or ‘It’s alright,’ or ‘Are you okay?’ She felt the words forming in her mouth, but none of them came out.
“When do you start work?” she asked.
“Oh, not until we’re settled in,” Mama said. But did that mean a month? Or a day?
It took less than an hour to unload the van. No moving truck arrived. But Mama almost always planned for the worst, so she’d packed the van full of bathroom and kitchen supplies. Even so, Noah noticed that she checked her watch every few minutes as they unpacked boxes together.
“I can’t believe they’re not here yet,” she said, not for the first or last time.
Nico nodded in agreement. “Really unprofessional.”
“If our beds don’t get here,” Noah said, “where will we sleep?”
“We can sleep without beds,” Papa said, like he wasn’t mad at the idea. “People have been doing it for some time, from what I’ve heard. And we packed those sleeping bags, remember?”
There was a gentle knock on the door that moment and Mama straightened her back with an exasperated sigh. “Finally,” she muttered. But when she opened the door, the surprise in her voice was obvious. “Oh, hello.”
“I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am,” said a young voice, so soft it was hard to hear.
Noah stopped in the middle of unwrapping dinner plates and looked up. Nico sprawled sideways on the armchair and peered over the back 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. A-at least for the time being, ma’am.”
“Oh,” Mama said. Noah noted the uncertainty in her voice. “It’s so kind 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. He shook Papa’s hand when he thrust it out.
“He’s our groundskeeper,” said Mama.
“Really!” said Papa.
“I didn’t know we had a groundskeeper,” she added pointedly. Noah caught the emphasis and frowned.
“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 hastily, “Well, yes, sir.”
Noah got up from the couch and crept all the way to the foot of the stairs, where she could see between her parents’ shoulders. But all she could see of Gideon was his shoes and his head.
His hair was the kind of true black that turned almost blue when the sun hit it, and his skin, which seemed naturally bronze, had been darkened by the sun to a dark caramel. What surprised Noah was the bright, light shade of his eyes. They shifted from place to place, too anxious to meet anyone’s gaze. Noah felt a squeeze of sympathy in her chest. She knew that feeling well.
“M-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 dad. You know, my wife here is a doctor. Maybe there’s something we can do to help out.”
Mama cut in with her usual correction. “I’m an ER Doc, honey, let’s hope I don’t have to meet anyone’s dad. I’m sorry, I completely 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 called Mama by her first name. Not even Noah’s school teachers could do it. Even Vanna called her ‘Dr. M.’
“Jonathan,” said Papa. “And our kids…” he turned sideways, but Nico ducked down behind the back of the chair. Papa’s eyes jumped to Noah on the stairs and she shook her head urgently. It was too late. For a moment, Gideon’s eyes met hers. Noah sat down on the lowest step, hiding behind Mama.
“…are nowhere to be found, apparently,” Papa finished. “But I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to meet you another time.”
“It’s nice to meet you both,” said Gideon.
Noah felt the heat in her face and knew that bright red circles had formed around both eyes. She watched Gideon’s shoes as he shifted from foot to foot. His sneakers had been worn within an inch of their lives. In one place, she could actually see his socks through them.
“Do you live nearby?”
“Yes, ma’am, just down the hill where the road splits.”
“The cute place with the flower garden?” Mama asked, and he must’ve nodded. “We saw it on the way up! What a precious spot!”
Noah frowned and looked over at Nico, who pried down his eyelids with his fingers in a dramatic show of keeping his eyes open. If I hadn’t been so scared, she thought bitterly, I would’ve seen it too.
In a bashful voice, Gideon said, “Well, if you need anything, just let me know.”
Mama and Papa thanked him and waved as he stepped off the porch. Noah watched his outline through the thin curtains that hung over the window by the door.
As soon as it was closed, Mama looked sideways at Papa. “Did you know this place had a groundskeeper?”
Papa’s pensive expression turned into an apologetic smile. “I do remember somebody mentioning it…something about a contract with the previous owner? With everything going on, I must’ve spaced it.”
Mama crossed her arms and raised one eyebrow. “So there’s just gonna be some kid outside pulling weeds?” she asked.
Papa’s tone was sympathetic. “Everybody’s gotta make a living. He’s just taking care of his old man.”
“We’re paying him?” asked Nico. “Will you pay me to pull weeds?”
“Absolutely not,” Papa laughed, walking back to the kitchen. He pointed accusingly at both of them. “And nice of you two to be so friendly.”
“I don’t want to meet people right now,” said Noah, which was true, but not for the reason she used. “I look like a mess!”
“You always look like that,” said Nico, kicking his feet over the arm of the chair until he was upside-down. “What kind of name is Tuh-la-loc anyway?”
“What kind of name is Nico?” Noah shot back.
Mama was still by the door, gazing out of the window. One arm was still crossed over her body, the other hand pressed against her lips. Noah watched her motionlessly. Did this feel like a stranger’s home to her, as well? Had she accepted things the way they were? Or did she too feel like home was somewhere unreachable?
Then Mama turned away from the door and looked at her with a tight-lipped smile and a reluctant shrug. “Well,” she said, “at least we know the neighbors are friendly.”
The Martens ate dinner in the living room, surrounded by cardboard boxes. No moving truck came, despite all the phone calls Papa made.
“Sleeping bags it is,” said Mama, but she didn’t seem too disappointed. Her eyes actually creased when she smiled. “We can pretend we’re camping.”
Noah hardly said anything all evening. She helped Mama unpack the last boxes from the van, listening to the clatter of cups as they found homes in places she’d have to memorize.
Nico discovered the shower upstairs and journeyed up with an armload of towels and complaint. Noah still hadn’t gone upstairs. Tomorrow, she knew she’d have to. But she could put it off a little longer. One new thing at a time, she kept telling herself, even though there were already a thousand new things.
Papa lit a fire in the hearth using old wood they found stacked outside and the paper they’d used to wrap glasses in. Burning the paper felt very final, Noah thought. Like their minds were all made up and couldn’t be changed.
Noah sat on the floor beside the couch, watching him breathe the flicker into life. She had her scrunchy in her hands and tried not to think about what Vanna said when she gave it to her. Instead, she thought around it, seeing everything but the actual words. The wrapping paper, the Christmas ornaments, and Vanna, sitting on the couch like she belonged. Her borrowed pajama bottoms too small. Her T-shirt too big.
Nico came downstairs with wet hair, his eyes wide and orange with the reflected flames. “Whoa,” he said. “I didn’t know you could make a fire.”
“Of course I can,” Papa laughed tersely. “I’m not a total city-slicker like you.”
“Will you teach me to make a fire?” asked Noah. She wasn’t sure why she asked. It hadn’t occurred to her to ask. But she needed to say something, to disrupt the silence that let her thoughts roam unchecked. Papa smiled at her.
“Yeah, of course I will.”
“Can we make s’mores?” Nico asked.
Papa thought for a moment, then shook his head. “We’re a couple of ingredients short. But there are some graham crackers in the kitchen.”
“What good are graham crackers?” muttered Nico, throwing himself onto the couch.
“They’re one third of a s’more,” said Noah halfheartedly.
“The worst third,” he answered.
Soon all four of them were sitting in front of the hearth, half-in and half-out of their sleeping bags. It wasn’t particularly cold outside, and soon the heat of the fire made Noah start to sweat. Mama fanned herself with one hand. Papa grinned childishly. “At least we know it’ll keep the house warm.”
Mama let her hair down and looked more at ease, Noah thought. Something in the firelight made her face seem softer, less worried. Noah watched her smile and laugh, and tried to comfort herself by thinking, she’s happy. She’s alright. We did the right thing. She pictured Mama’s face growing softer every day that they lived here. If that could be true, then things would be alright.
Despite the heat, despite her self-conscious need for a shower, and her fear of climbing the stairs to her room, Noah detected the faint comfort of safe. She tried to lean into it, but the pain in her chest had returned. It always came back when her heart was too full of things to feel and the emotions spilled over. Feelings swam freely in her bloodstream, all different shapes and colors. It was too much, listening to Papa make Nico laugh. Thinking of home.
She closed her eyes, and there was Vanna, saying, “Even if you move to the moon, I’ll still be your best friend.”
Noah caught a sob in her throat. Somehow, she felt even further away than that.
She tried to listen only to the crackle of the fire, but outside the window, like distant voices, she could hear the ringing of the wind-chimes passing in and out of her dreams.
3. The Tree
For a few long moments, Noah stood motionless on the landing outside of the bedroom door. She’d had her jaw clenched for so long it was starting to ache. Her hand hovered over the doorknob.
Just open it, she thought. What’s the worst that could happen?
She didn’t let herself imagine any answers to that question.
She knew that she wasn’t alone. She could hear Papa in the kitchen downstairs. She could see the light underneath the bathroom door, and hear the hiss of the faucet as it ran. Even so, she felt as though she were in one place, and everyone else was in another. Like she was a ghost while everyone else was real.
It was just a feeling. But it didn’t matter how preposterous a feeling was, feelings always feel real.
You’re acting like a little kid, she scolded herself. What is wrong with you? Why are you so scared of an empty room?
She took a deep breath and pushed open the door.
One by one, her fears fell apart. It was just a square room, no smaller than her old one, with plaster walls and two low windows. There was a slant to the roof that made one wall taller than the other, but the ceiling didn’t slouch too much. It was clean and it didn’t smell weird.
But it wasn’t like home.
She crossed the floor slowly, feeling out the subtle squeaks and pops with her toes. When she reached the very middle of the room, she stopped and turned a full circle. She tried to imagine her lights strung up above the bed, her bookshelves, her bedside table, her clothes in the empty closet. It was harder to do than she expected.
Noah realized only then that the end of her ponytail had made its way into the corner of her mouth. She spat it out, furiously tying back her hair. She’d promised to think of Vanna whenever she wore it. But she chose not to this morning.
Her face was hot and her stomach twisted, so she forced the stiff latch of the window open and leaned out into the brisk air.
Mama had tried lots of things to stop the hair-chewing. Vinegar, special shampoo. Noah didn’t mind any of them. What broke the habit was a description Noah had read of a human hairball in some other girl’s stomach. The idea was so repulsive, and Noah felt it so viscerally, that it made her sick. It still did.
She spat out of the open window, wrinkling her nose.
The air was damp against her face, somehow sharp as glass and soft as a blanket. The morning was absolutely bursting with the sound of birds.
From the window, she could see the yard stretching out all the way to the trees, and the little stream carving through the grass on its way to who-knew-where. She could also see much more of the forest, spreading out endlessly in all directions. That’s when she noticed the giant tree.
It wasn’t as far from the house as she might have guessed, but shrouded in the low-lying clouds, it seemed hazy and out of reach. It towered over the other trees like a grown man surrounded by children.
A movement in the lawn caught her eye, and she looked down to see Nico leaping over the stream. Before she could call down to him, he vanished into the trees.
By the time Noah reached the edge of the woods, there was no sign or her brother. Of course, it wasn’t hard to guess where he had gone—Nico’s curiosity was as predictable as it was insatiable. Noah knew that he was going to find the giant tree, but following him wasn’t as easy as she expected.
The forest was so dense that she could barely see two yards. And unlike the smooth lawn around the house, the forest rose and fell and doubled back on itself. She’d hardly gone thirty feet before every trace of the house was erased. The tangled green ceiling of branches and leaves obscured any glimpse of the giant tree, so it was hard to get her bearings.
There was so much to see, especially for someone who had experienced so little wilderness. Noah had to scramble through ferns as tall as she was and thorn bushes that tore at her palms. Blankets of moss coated every sloping tree-trunk and hung from the branches like long beards. She saw mushrooms in a dozen shapes and colors and dragonflies as bright as diamonds darting through swirling clouds of black gnats. Invisible strands of spiderweb caught the jagged light and turned gold.
There was constant noise between the buzzing and the rustling and the chirruping of unseen birds. But it was quiet at the same time, as if the forest floor, so spongy under her feet, was soaking up all the sound.
Noah started to feel smaller the further she went from the house, feeling less sure of her direction. Back home she’d known how to get around. There were landmarks she could count on—colorful murals, the apartment with the striped cat, or mailboxes that looked like faces. There were street signs and people she could ask to point her one way or another. Now she had the feeling that there was no one to ask for miles.
She couldn’t feel the wind, anymore, but when it blew, the sunlight shifted and slanted down through the branches, until she began to feel like she was underwater. The thought made her lungs strain and her throat tighten. But then the wind-chimes rang again. They were surprisingly close.
Nico’s voice echoed through the trees. “Noah?”
“It’s me,” she sighed, forcing her shoulders down. For a second she actually believed she was lost.
“I thought you were a mountain lion,” he said.
“Come check this out!”
Noah pressed toward Nico’s voice and soon caught a glimpse of his blue T-shirt. She forced her way through the undergrowth and then stopped dead in her tracks when she realized that she had reached the giant tree.
It was even bigger than she thought possible. Its roots were almost as tall as her waist. They burrowed into the ground, pushing all of the other trees back to create a circular clearing. The tree’s skin was dark, as though it was all of the shadows in the forest had been woven into one huge pillar. The leaves were so far above her head that Noah couldn’t quite make out their color or shape.
Nico straddled one of the roots, surrounded by thick moss, curling ferns, and shelves of fungus the size of dinner plates. He was hunched toward the trunk with his back to her, and spoke without looking back. “Can you believe how big this tree is? It’s too bad all the branches are so high, we’ll never be able to climb it.”
Noah couldn’t answer.
Something pushed against her. It was like a warm wave, weightless and crushing at the same time. She rocked back on her heels as it rolled over her, quietly drawing the air from her lungs. It was gone just as quickly as it came. She sucked in a sharp breath, a shiver crawling up her legs and down her arms.
Nico glanced back at her. He raised an eyebrow and looked just like Mama for a moment. “What’s the matter? Did you forget how to talk again?”
“I—” Noah started to say, but the wave washed over her again. She took a step back, the words catching in her throat. What was happening?
“Do you feel that?” she asked.
Nico twisted around to look at her. “Feel what?”
“It’s like…like wind…” she tried to say.
Nico gave an obnoxious laugh. “You’re asking if I feel wind?” He turned back to whatever he was doing.
It wasn’t wind. Noah didn’t know how to describe it.
She felt it rise again and this time she heard it. There was a hum. Deep, cavernous, like a hive of giant bees. She felt the hair lift off of her neck and then swing back down against her shoulders.
She shook her head and rubbed her eyes. What is wrong with me?
She looked up dizzying height of the tree, but she suddenly understood that she was seeing only a fraction of its true size.
The wave rolled into her again. Her stomach dropped, and then all of her followed. She was plunging down, through layers of cold and thaw, into the gnawing, shifting currents inside the earth, the crawling tides of life heaving and churning. There was no sun. No light. The hum was all around her.
And then the wave receded and Noah gasped for air. She blinked in the bright light of the forest, her mouth gaping like she expected it to be full of dirt.
She rocked unevenly and reached out a hand for balance, her palm pressing against the roots. Her head filled up with leaves. Millions of them, stretched out like open hands, reaching for drops of sunlight as it fell. She could feel the wind rattling all the way down into her ribs, the stars swirling like carousel lights over her head. Pelting hail. Soothing rain. Aching, bottomless darkness.
She drew back her hand, gasping. The wave took all of the air with it. Noah felt her lungs burn. Breathe. She was panicking. She tried to picture Mama’s face, the gestures she made with her hands. Breathe in. Breathe out.
The clenching muscles in her diaphragm relaxed, and when they did, something in her mind fell into place. It wasn’t wind, and it wasn’t a wave.
It was breath.
Noah could feel it gathering in and up, tingling the air like the sky before a storm. And then it rolled out again, the hum swelling in her ears. Yawning waters. Restless mountains. Winking moon.
Nico’s voice drew Noah back into herself. “And now she’s being weird again,” he said. “Typical.”
She looked up at him and finally realized what he was doing. He had a shiny, silver pocket-knife in his hand. He’d already carved three lines into the thick root. Two straight, one connecting them. The letter N. Brown-red sap oozed out between the white and green layers of the tree’s smooth skin.
“Nico,” Noah said, her voice surprisingly raspy in her throat, “Stop it!”
Nico scowled, hunching back over the N. “Would you cut it out, please?” He gripped the knife with both hands and drove the blade down.
Noah’s mind went blank. For a moment she was too stunned to speak, to remember what words were. She could feel the knife digging into her side, the soft skin of her belly ripping as he drew the long, straight line of the M.
The breath rolled over her again and Noah screamed.
Nico jumped in alarm, almost falling from his seat. The knife slipped out of his hands and fell silently among the ferns.
Noah clamped her hand to her side, trying to smother the searing pain. Her tears burned her cheeks, her jaw aching from the tremble that climbed up her neck.
Nico sprang down from the tree-root, rushing toward her. “Noah, are you alright?”
Noah wanted to throw up from the pain. She looked down, expecting to see blood soaking through her shirt—but there was nothing.
Nico’s eyes were wide with dumbfounded fear. “What’s wrong? Noah, what happened?”
Noah fell to her knees, stretching out her hands to break her fall. She touched the cool skin of the tree again and the hum disappeared. The breath was gone. Relief ran down Noah’s back like melting snow, easing everything it touched. She let out a long, ragged gasp and bent her face to the ground, hiding her head with her arms. She let the rich smell of the moss fill her back up. The fire in her side was slowly fading, but it wasn’t gone.
Nico was right next to her but his voice felt far away. “Do you need me to get Mama? Or Papa?”
She shook her head, cold sweat clinging to her forehead and neck. “I’m okay,” she said. “I just…need a minute…I’m sorry Nico, something just…”
How could she explain it? And what was the use? She’d tried to explain little things to him before and he couldn’t understand. How would he understand this?
“Do you need me to drag you back to the house?” he sighed.
Noah shook her head. “I just need to catch my breath.”
Nico kicked his way through the ferns, searching the ground for his knife. Noah sat upright, her shoulders stiff. She looked up at the tree, her heart in her throat, waiting for the wave to wash over her again. But it didn’t. Her ears strained for the hum but it was gone. She swallowed and gingerly reached out to touch the roots. The wood was rough against her fingers.
The wind-chimes rang, as clear as if they were right over her head. She stared at the bright clouds, but couldn’t see them.
“It was right here,” Nico mumbled.
Noah tried to push herself back up to her feet, but her arms and legs felt useless. “Let me help you look.”
Nico threw up his hands and walked back to her.“It’s fine. This way I can steal Papa’s.” He grabbed her wrist and yanked her roughly to her feet. “Come on. Breakfast is probably ready, weirdo.”