For those of you who haven’t yet welcomed Raspberry Lynette Granby into your life, I present the first two chapters of Stolen Things. And yes, there are links at the bottom to purchase the book from Amazon, B&N or iBooks if you want to keep reading. It’s not a very sophisticated marketing plan, but it’s all I have at the moment. Oh, and don’t forget to sign up for the Stolen Things newsletter using the form in the sidebar. Thanks.
If she squinted just so, the flapping gray tarp in the passenger-side mirror looked exactly like a whale’s tail. Raspberry Lynette Granby rolled down her window until the rain painted her face with imagined saltwater, then squeezed her squint tighter until she was looking out of the whale’s mouth, searching the foggy, gray sea for an island where he might spit her out. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate the ride, but the smell of fish was…
“Where?” Berry snapped out of her dream to look left then right, searching the mostly-hidden landscape for…something. “Wait, I don’t know what that is.”
Her father laughed and turned to look at his daughter. “It’s not a real thing,” he said.
“So you didn’t see one, then.”
She gently pinched his chin between her fingers and pointed his eyes back to the road, which faded in and out of view in rhythm with the windshield wipers. She had always loved his profile – especially the way his wild, long hair used to frame it with unpredictability. His hair was short now.
“Making things up is against the rules. Does it even start with X?”
“I didn’t know there were rules. But I didn’t really make it up. It’s from a movie.”
“Have I seen that one?”
“No. I’m saving it until you’re old enough to be scared spit-less.”
“You mean scared sh…”
“I wasn’t actually going to say it.”
She rolled the window up and leaned against it, feeling the cool of the glass against her cheek, watching the forest blur by.
“So what’s a xenomorph?” she asked.
“A really scary monster.”
Berry shrugged. “It’s too foggy to play,” she said. “You won’t punch me in the arm if I ask how much longer again, will you?”
“How much longer?”
Her father’s arm shot out toward her. She twisted her torso away from him, but he just grabbed her leg and gave it a squeeze. “A couple hours.”
Berry groaned her disapproval. Leaving the home she’d known all her life – one day shy of a dozen years – for a new one she’d never seen was the second worst thing in the universe. The first, by a large margin, was her father’s stomach cancer.
“Let’s play a different game, then,” her father said. He coughed as he often did, cleared his throat and let out a giant sigh. “Ah…I know. We’ll go through the alphabet…”
“I’m so tired of alphabet games…”
“This is different.”
“How so? Are we going to use the Greek alphabet?”
“You’d have to learn it first. No, I was thinking we could name an imaginary creature for each letter.”
Her father shook his head. “I have truly failed as a parent. Unicorns are real. I’m talking about creatures that don’t actually exist.”
“Like Penelope, then,” she said. Berry turned to look directly at her father, gauging his reaction to the mention of her long absent mother.
“Okay, fine. I’ll go first then. Let’s see…A…”
“Yes, that’s the first letter.”
“Shush, I’m thinking,” said Berry. She leaned back against the window again, squinted at the darkening sky. She ran her index finger across the glass, drawing an invisible heart, then erased it with her palm. “Got it. My imaginary creature is…Aunt Annabelle. Double points.”
Her father snorted. “I can see you really don’t want to play.”
“I’ll play if you can convince me Aunt Annabelle is real. I don’t know anything about her.”
“What are you talking about? I’ve told you plenty.”
“No,” Berry interrupted, “you told me about when you were both kids. For all I know she could have been your imaginary friend.”
“You spoke to her on the phone last week.”
“I spoke to someone on the phone who claimed to be my aunt.”
Her father sighed again. He was clearly an expert at sighs because this one sucked all the air out of the pickup truck.
“Well, you know Annabelle and I grew up on Granby hill, but it wasn’t in the house that’s there now. That one burned down. Only the garage survived. Your aunt designed the new house herself, but no one would mistake her for Frank Lloyd Wright. Well, maybe if the light is just right.” He paused. Berry knew he was expecting a laugh or groan, but she had never seen a picture of Frank Lloyd Wright so she didn’t know which to offer. He continued, undaunted. “But I wouldn’t get your hopes up. It was built in 1980 and it’s kind of a box.”
“No secret rooms?”
“Not unless they’re so secret no one knows about them.”
“How old is she?”
“A few years older than I am.”
“But she never left home?”
“She tried to once. But Granby Hill is hard to leave.”
“You left,” said Berry.
“I did. Right after high school.”
“And now you’re back.”
“Why haven’t I met her before?”
“It’s…complicated. Or was. We’re fixing that.”
“Why didn’t Aunt Annabelle get married?”
“She nearly did. But then she didn’t. You’ll have to ask her about that. She tends to be a rather private person.”
Berry scowled. “Great.”
“Oh, but she loves you. Don’t worry. It’s going to be fine. I promise it’s—”
A dark shape darted in front of them. Berry screamed and her father pulled hard right on the steering wheel to avoid it. They slid onto the shoulder and spat rocks and dirt, the truck shimmying as he tried to regain control. When he finally did, he slowed to a stop on the side of the highway. For a moment the only sound was the whisper of gentle rain on the roof of the cab. Then Berry noticed her father’s raspy inhale and exhale. Breaths came in rapid chokes and lurches. Berry grabbed the water bottle by her feet, unscrewed the top and handed it to him. Her hands were shaking, but not nearly as much as his.
“That was too close,” he said. He took a series of small sips from the water bottle.
“What was it?” Berry turned to look behind them. A small part of her wanted to see a monster lurking in the shadows. But only a very small part.
“Probably a deer.”
“I think it was a bear.”
“Too fast for a bear.”
He was still breathing heavily. The look she hated most – the scared spit-less look – lingered in his pale blue eyes.
“Are you okay, Dad?”
He put his hand to his chest and held it there. “Just need another minute,” he wheezed.
She matched her breathing to his, then started to slow her respiration until she was breathing normally again, hoping he would fall into synch with her. Just as he used to do for her when she was little.
He took a deep breath and let it out.
“What if it was a bear?” said Berry.
“It was a deer,” he said. He reached for her hand and squeezed it, then grabbed the steering wheel and accelerated back onto the empty highway.
Berry held her breath and started counting to ten. It was most certainly a bear.
“Or maybe a Xenomorph,” she said, exhaling the words.
Her father laughed a nervous laugh. “Let’s hope not,” he said.
They arrived just after nine. Berry walked into the box-shaped house and didn’t know whether to be excited or disappointed. To the right of the small foyer was a walkway, a four-foot-wide landing that ended at a windowless wall. There were three doors on the right side of the landing. The one farthest away was Aunt Annabelle’s room. The middle door led to a bathroom. The door closest to the entry foyer led to the second bedroom.
Two bedrooms. Three people.
To the left of the foyer was a brightly-lit kitchen. Straight ahead from the front door and down three stairs was the sunken great room. It was a high-ceilinged space that looked almost as empty as their last house after all the furniture had sold. Apart from a large couch, a few odd tables, and a TV so old it probably didn’t even work, there was nothing in it. But there were two saving graces of the cavernous room: floor-to-ceiling windows and a sliding door along the back of the house, and a wall-to-wall bookshelf filled with books along one side.
Berry took everything in and filed all pending disappointments for later review.
Aunt Annabelle didn’t look anything like Berry’s father. Her hair was the kind of blonde that came from a bottle – and cut to a length somewhere between short and long and nowhere near flattering. She was tall, with big bones and big hands and pale, old skin. Not nearly as pale as her father’s these days, but obviously the skin of an indoor person. She did have her father’s nose, though.
It looked better on him.
Annabelle had smiled at Berry when they arrived. It was a smile that said, “You seem pleasant but I don’t know you very well yet so this smile is subject to change depending on your behavior.” The same smile teachers give on the first day of school.
“Good to see you, Kenny,” said Annabelle.
Berry looked up through travel-tired eyes at her father. “Kenny?”
“She calls me all kinds of things, Berry. Ken. Kenneth. Kennebunk. Just you wait.”
“You must be tired from the trip.” Annabelle placed her hand on her brother’s shoulder.
And from having cancer, added Berry in her head. After her aunt had given them the brief tour, she led them down to the great room, where she struggled to turn the couch into a bed.
“It’s actually quite comfortable,” said Annabelle as the bed frame finally plopped into position. It was made up with pink sheets and a floral comforter. Annabelle gathered a couple of pillows from behind the couch and tossed them onto the bed.
“So you’ve slept in it?” asked Berry. She looked over at her father. He was leaning against the walkway railing, shaking his head, a smile creeping onto his face.
“I’ve tested it. I don’t think it’s too bad.”
“I’ll let you know,” said Berry. She immediately regretted her tone. “I’m sure it will be wonderful, Aunt Annabelle. Thank you.”
It was long past midnight when Berry awoke. She sat up and struggled to make sense of her surroundings. Her breath caught at the sound of a muted snort. Once her brain recognized the noise, she exhaled.
Her father’s snore.
She looked up at his closed door, barely able to make it out in the darkness.
Berry sighed and took seven measured breaths. Seven is a magic number, she thought. She slipped out of the “actually quite comfortable” sofa bed and onto the carpeted floor. She crept on silent feet to the sliding door and reached for the latch. It was already in the “up” position. She inched the door open, pausing for every little squeak, then squeezed through a too-small space onto the deck. The outside air was almost exactly the same temperature as the inside air, but tasted of the recent rain.
The forest her father had told her about was little more than a silhouette. Shadows butting up against shadows. Somewhere at the edge of her vision, she glimpsed a flickering light – the kind of glow that might come from a campfire. But when she stared right at it, the light disappeared.
She tried to imagine herself living here, in this strange hill house with her strange aunt, but when she looked directly at the thought, it too vanished.
A cool breeze blew up the hill from the forest, and with it, something like a song. Just the tease of a melody that curled around a single word, a question.
The melody morphed into a low rumble. A deep, resonant growl.
Berry held her breath and squeezed back through the door. She closed it a little too fast, interrupting the night with a thud, then flipped the latch down, adding a snap to her song of retreat. She scrambled back into bed and listened for her father’s snore.
It was most certainly a bear.
The morning opened itself to her like an unexpected present. Berry climbed out of bed and stood at the sliding glass door to take in her new surroundings in daylight. The house was indeed set atop a high hill, close to the southern edge, like it was trying to escape the small town they had driven through the night before, a mile or so to the north at the end of a twisting gravel road.
The deck her feet had touched during the night ran the entire length of the house. Just a few feet beyond the deck, the grassy hill dove sharply down to a stone wall far below that seemed to go on forever in both directions. Beyond the wall was a thick green forest. A storybook forest. She was so high above it, looking down on the treetops was like looking across a rolling green ocean. She scanned the ocean for signs of life – a smoke trail, perhaps. But saw nothing.
After a breakfast of eggs and bacon and orange juice with far too much pulp, she helped her father unpack all their things into the second bedroom. Annabelle left around noon to go into town “just for a bit,” so the two of them decided to relax on the back porch until she returned.
An orange cat sauntered up, giving Berry and her father no notice, then began scratching at the frame of the sliding door.
“That cat wants in,” said Berry.
“I think she just does that to keep her claws sharp. For hunting.” Her father was sitting in the leather recliner the two of them had wrestled out onto the deck.
“What does she hunt?” asked Berry.
“Xenomorphs.” He smiled, staring off into the distance.
“Maybe she’s thirsty. We should give her some milk.”
“Check with your aunt when she’s back. It might just be a stray.” The cat rolled onto its back, wriggled against the weather beaten wood of the creaky porch.
“Nope. This cat lives here. I can tell. We’re both redheads. I can read her mind.”
Berry looked out across the forest. The wind was blowing the tops of the trees, rippling the leaves like waves. She thought of her gray whale and imagined him swimming below the surface.
“Is Aunt Annabelle getting me a birthday cake? Is that why she left for town?”
“I don’t need one.”
“I said ‘maybe.’ But if she brings one, then you certainly do need one.”
Berry nodded. She knew what he meant. Be nice to your Aunt Annabelle.
“Can I ask a stupid question?” she said.
“You’re supposed to say ‘there aren’t any stupid questions,’” said Berry with a mock scowl.
“Oh, but there are,” he said. “So far all of yours have been smart, though. I’ll let you know if this is the first stupid one.”
Berry sighed and shook her head. “It just might be.”
“Well?” asked her father.
“You told me a long time ago that magic was real.”
Berry paused, startled for the hundredth time by the broken sound of his voice. His words were fragile, like frightened dandelions expecting a stiff breeze. Maybe this wasn’t the best time to ask a stupid question. She looked out across the green sea. The treetops waved to her, urging her on.
“Can forests talk?” she asked, her words as unsteady as his.
Berry’s father scrunched his face into a thoughtful shape. A familiar shape. When he spoke again, he had found his other voice – his real one. “If they could, they’d have lots of interesting stories to tell.” He smiled, clearly pleased with the words he’d found in answer to her stupid question.
“So they can’t?”
“I think every forest has a voice. It might say something like ‘come play’ or ‘stay away’ or maybe ‘don’t bulldoze me.’”
“So forests can talk?”
“A forest speaks with the words we imagine for it.”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“So you don’t really know,” said Berry.
“Not a clue,” he said. He lifted his hand, and with a royal, sweeping motion, presented the forest below. “Ask the trees.”
“I will,” she said.
She inhaled through her nose, inviting the smells of a new place to register in her brain. She smelled the damp dirt and unnamable flowers and the tang of sweat that had redefined her father’s scent. And she smelled something like history. It was a musty, dusty smell, with a hint of ashes. She looked down the steep hill, then back to her father. “What’s the stone wall for?” she asked.
“To keep the monsters in and the children out,” he said. He straightened up and set his magazine on the wobbly metal table beside him. “Should I prepare myself for one of your world-famous interrogations?”
“Okay,” he said. “Ask away.”
Berry paused and took a deep breath and looked down at her bare feet. A tiny ant was navigating around them, heading for wherever it is ants go.
“Does Penelope know you’re sick?” she asked. She looked at her father, reading his face. There was the slightest of twitches in his left eye, but that could have been anything. The wind. The sun. A bug.
“You still don’t want to call her ‘Mom’,” he said.
“She stopped being Mom when she left.”
Her father pressed his lips together, opened them as if to speak, then closed them and nodded. Though far from what it should be, his hair was finally growing out from the ugly stubble that had served as a billboard advertising his illness. There were strands of gray hiding in the brown, but you could only see them if you knew what to look for. He had called the new color “distinguished,” but she had called it “old.” She wished she could take the word back.
“You still miss her,” said Berry, pulling at the tangles in her own, shoulder-length hair.
“What do you miss?”
He sighed. “Little things.”
“Like what?” asked Berry.
“Her laugh. Her songs…”
“The way she smelled?” Cinnamon, thought Berry.
“Especially that,” he said.
“I don’t think those are little things,” she said. “Aunt Annabelle hates her.”
“What? She doesn’t hate her. She’s just…disappointed.”
“I heard her say some mean things about Penelope. Last night after you went to bed. She was on the phone.”
“I thought you were dog tired?”
“New house. New bed. Hard to sleep, you know?” Berry decided not to mention the middle-of-the-night excursion or the whispering forest or the deep, resonant growl.
“Yeah,” he said.
“So do you want me to tell you?”
“Okay.” Kenneth turned toward his daughter, sat up as straight as his lounge chair allowed.
“She said, ‘I’m sorry, but that goddamn Penelope should have her head examined.’ What did she mean by that?”
“It just means she wishes your mom had made…different decisions.”
Berry decided not to press the issue.
Annabelle returned a little while later carrying a cake box and wearing an expression that was the opposite of birthdays. Berry and her father were sitting at the kitchen table, snacking on toast when she burst through the screen door. The red cat stole into the house between her legs, but Annabelle didn’t seem to notice or care.
“That idiot Norwood screwed up the cake.” She plopped the box down on the kitchen table and flipped it open. It was a small square cake with white frosting and multi-colored balloon candies scattered around the edges. The words, “Happy Berry Birthday,” were written across the middle in a perfectly lovely script.
Berry smiled and her father laughed.
“I think that idiot Norwood got it righter than wrong,” he said.
“I love it!” said Berry.
“It’s supposed to say ‘Happy Birthday Berry,’” said Annabelle.
“This is better,” said Berry.
The cat rubbed up against her dangling feet and she reached down to pet it.
“Is this your cat?” she asked her aunt.
“Nobody owns cats,” she said. “But this one and I get along just fine.”
“Does she have a name?”
“I call her Red. I suspect she hates it that I don’t know her real name, but so far that hasn’t stopped her from eating my food.”
Annabelle and Kenneth sang “Happy Birthday” loudly and off-key, the only way to sing “Happy Birthday” in Berry’s opinion, but there were no candles on the cake. Annabelle had wrongly thought she already had a box of birthday candles, so instead Berry blew the flame out of a flip-top cigarette lighter that had been unearthed in the junk-drawer search.
“That looks old,” said Berry. Her father turned the tarnished silver rectangle over in his fingers.
“It was grandfather’s,” said Annabelle. “Mom said he gave it to her as a wedding gift. Can you believe that? A lighter as a wedding gift? Did you know where I found it? In the ruins from the fire. Gotta love irony.”
“Tell me again what irony is?”
Annabelle opened her mouth to answer, then closed it and turned toward her brother. Kenneth tilted his head to the side, the way he always did before teaching Berry something new.
“It means…something that’s strange or funny because it’s the opposite of what you might expect.”
“The only thing that survived the fire was…something that starts fires?”
“Yes. Exactly. You are a smart little fruit.”
“I’m twelve. Too old to be a fruit.”
“Should we start calling you something different then?” Annabelle asked. Berry couldn’t tell if she was being serious. Perhaps after a few more weeks in her house that would change.
“No. Berry is fine.”
“Do you remember much about grandfather?” Kenneth handed the lighter to his sister.
“Not a thing. I was only four when he died.”
“I don’t remember Mom and Dad talking about him much.”
Berry watched the interplay between her father and aunt with interest. She often wondered what it would be like to have a sibling. She would have preferred a sister. They seemed to get along fine, though they each had a different way of speaking. Annabelle spat her words out like they were sour candies. Her father’s words floated out of his mouth like kites.
She liked the way her dad said things. He used interesting words that made her smile or made her think or both. He said he learned how to do that from Penelope. But Berry wasn’t so sure about that.
The second night in Granby House came slowly, then suddenly. After the dark descended, Berry folded open her door to dreamland, turning a corner of her blanket and sheet down in a perfect isosceles triangle, then marched into the kitchen to get a drink of water. When she returned, there was a wrapped gift on her pillow. She looked toward her aunt’s room, but the door was closed. The door to her father’s room was cracked open, and a swath of light spilled through into the hallway and onto the pink-trimmed comforter that made the sofa bed seem a little less intimidating in the middle of the room. She smiled at the path of light, imagining it as an arm caught in the act of delivering a secret.
Her father’s light clicked off and she slid under the covers through the dream doorway like he had taught her, then pulled them up to her chin. The package tipped and bounced as she settled in, then sat there, unopened, next to her on top of the mattress. She looked at it, seeing little more than a shadow against the dark night beyond the windowed wall.
The opening of a gift was a sacred thing.
“You don’t just rip the paper off without imagining first,” her father had said. “Sometimes the magic isn’t in the gift at all, but in the thinking about it.”
A scratching sound turned her head toward the kitchen.
Red, she thought. She wants in. Or out. Berry couldn’t remember which.
The door to her aunt’s room opened and Annabelle emerged wearing a robe with a high collar that made her look like a princess or a witch in a shadow play. She walked silently across the floor and into the kitchen. There was a hesitant squeak, then a thump and a click. Annabelle walked back to her room just as silently, not even acknowledging Berry as she walked along the north end of the great room to her bedroom door. She disappeared inside.
A minute later, Berry heard tiny footsteps across the hardwood floor, then a gentle thunk as Red leaped onto the sofa bed next to her. She sniffed at the flat package, then curled up next to it. Berry began to imagine what might be in the package to the accompaniment of purring.
When she looked to her right out the great window, she saw a sky full of stars. She knew about constellations, but didn’t know how to identify them. She waited until she could hear her father’s signature snore, then slipped out of bed and over to the sliding door. Her heart was beating fast when she carefully slid the door open just wide enough to step out onto the deck.
Berry had never seen so many stars. Red brushed between her bare legs, startling her. When she caught her breath, she turned again to the sky.
“Unicorn eating cake,” she whispered, pointing upward. “It’s a constellation I just invented,” she said to the cat.
Home, the forest whispered again. But this time there was no deep, resonant growl.
Berry stepped back inside, locked the door, and climbed into bed. Red curled up next to her, but not before resting a paw on the gift.
To guard it from monsters.
Amazon, Click Here
B&N (Nook), Click Here
iBooks, Click Here