That question had haunted me for the past two weeks. Since the day I killed my mother. It was as simple as signing my name. And now I was signing my life away, too. Moving to a new town to live with people I didn’t know. Fitting punishment for my crime.
“You haven’t said a word in over an hour.” Aunt Beth glanced at me and frowned.
What was there to say? The drive from the airport to Keene Valley wasn’t horribly long, but it was boring, and it wasn’t until we reached the town limits that anything even remotely piqued my interest—a waterfall carved through the center of a mountain.
Sitting straighter in my seat, I pressed my cheek to the car window. The glass was as cool and refreshing as I imagined the rushing water would be. Movement caught my eye, and I squinted. Were people climbing that mountain? What if they fell? Did they not realize how fragile and precious life was? I slumped in my seat and cradled my mother’s urn closer to my chest.
I missed her so much it caused a constant physical ache. But I refused to believe she was gone, that I would never see her again, never talk to her, never hear her laugh. I discreetly wiped the tears from my face. The steady hum of the car’s air conditioning filled the void left by the lack of conversation.
“We’re here, Chloe,” Aunt Beth said in a cheery tone so obviously for my benefit.
The colorful Keene Valley sign came into view, and a sense of dread settled over me. We’d never once visited this town, despite the fact that we had family here. My mother hadn’t ever explained why, and a small part of me felt guilty for dragging her ashes along. But they were all I had left, and selfishly, they were my only source of comfort.
“Abby is excited for your arrival.” Aunt Beth shut off the car.
I gave a quick, noncommittal nod, opened the car door, and stepped out. Aunt Beth lived in a two-story, Victorian house with pristine siding and powder blue shutters. The wraparound porch even had one of those quaint wooden swings. It was nothing at all like the small, attached townhouse I lived in with Mom.
“Chloe!” The front door slammed open, and a tall, wild-haired girl bounded down the porch steps, barreling straight toward me. “You’re finally here!”
I hugged the urn to my chest, afraid she’d knock it out of my hands when she threw her arms around me. But I stood perfectly still as she squeezed me.
“All right, easy, Abby. I know you’re happy to see her but give the poor girl room to breathe.” Aunt Beth shooed Abby away from me.
With a bit of distance between us, I sighed with relief. Why on earth was she so excited? We had literally met only once before. “Hi, Abby.”
Aunt Beth draped her arm around my shoulders and led me toward the house. Uncle Dean stood on the porch, arms crossed. His bushy eyebrows were pulled together in a tight crease. He was more imposing than I remembered. Then again, I would be, too, if my sister’s murderer was moving in.
Stabbing guilt forced the air from my lungs as I followed Aunt Beth and Abby into the house, which was much bigger than it looked from the outside. The ceilings must have been ten feet high. And everything was white.
The smell of beef stew hung in the air, and I scrunched up my nose. I hated stew. Not that I was going to say so. These people had opened their home to me, and I wasn’t going to be rude. I’d have to force myself to choke it down. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too bad.
Abby was by my side, smiling like my arrival was the greatest thing ever. I was positive nothing exciting had happened—or ever would happen—in this town.
“C’mon, I’ll show you around.” Abby grabbed my arm and steered me upstairs to her room where pink camo covered everything. I nearly gagged. She led me down the hall and flung open a door. “Here’s your room.”
I stepped forward, relieved the walls were a simple cream color. It was rather barren, with standard issue closet, bed, dresser, and such. It wasn’t anything like my room back home, but it would do.
“Well? What do you think?” Abby bounced over to my bed and flopped down.
“It’s nice.” I walked over to the only window and pulled back the soft blue curtain. Trees and mountains as far as the eye could see, yet it emanated loneliness. Perfect.
“Yay!” She clapped.
Moments later, Uncle Dean fumbled in with my luggage. Everything I owned was crammed into the four, black suitcases—clothes, shoes, photos, and some wall decorations. The rest had been sold. I probably didn’t have to sell all my stuff, but I needed to do something to contribute. It was my fault she was dead.
“Whelp, there ya go.” Uncle Dean rocked on his heels, his 6’4” frame filling the room. His black hair curled around his ears, and his too-large glasses covered half his face. Part of me wanted to throw my arms around him and apologize for what had happened, but he didn’t seem like the hugging type.
He didn’t scare me, though. Probably because Mom had told me stories about how caring and gentle he was growing up, which made being here slightly easier. Still, I wished I’d gotten to know them better, but Mom always said we didn’t have the money to visit, and Uncle Dean was not a fan of the Florida heat.
“Thanks,” I said.
Several long seconds of awkward silence ensued before Uncle Dean turned and left. I set Mom’s urn on top of the dresser, pushing it back against the wall, my hand lingering on the urn.
“Okay, you get settled.” Abby surveyed my empty room. “Maybe Mom will take us into town later, so you can get some paint for the walls or some posters or something.”
I closed my eyes against the rush of emotion that threatened to choke me. She said Mom like Aunt Beth was my mom, too. I took a deep, shaky breath. “Uh, yeah. I’m kinda tired though. I’ll probably go to bed early.”
Finally, Abby left me on my own. I didn’t know if I could take much more of her bubbly personality. I’d been here less than an hour, and I hated it already.
I wandered toward the window and stared out at endless trees. If I ran straight through those woods, would I be attacked by an animal or die from exposure before I made it anywhere? Only in death would I see Mom again. In Heaven or wherever we went when we left this world.
I yanked the curtain closed. Without much else to do, I hefted my largest suitcase onto the bed and unzipped it. It took me all of an hour to unpack and put away my life’s belongings.
“Chloe?” Abby stuck her head into my room. “Got a sec?”
“Yeah. What’s up?”
She stepped inside and quietly closed the door. “So, I know you’re dealing with a lot right now.” She glanced away as if that would somehow lessen the impact of her words. “And we have school tomorrow.”
I cringed. Starting a new school with a bunch of people I didn’t know—another check mark in the punishment column. “I promise I won’t leave your side tomorrow, okay?” Abby moved further into my room and sat in the desk chair.
“Okay.” I sat on my bed and hugged my pillow.
“Everyone is so nice. You’re going to fit in really well, so don’t be nervous.”
If only it were that simple. But I nodded anyway, knowing she wouldn’t fully understand no matter how I tried to explain it. “Thanks.”
“I’m so glad you’re here, Chloe. I’ve always wanted a sister!” She jumped from the chair and bolted across the room. As she threw her arms around me, she knocked me back against the headboard.
I returned her hug, trying to soak in some of her enthusiasm. Maybe being here wouldn’t be as awful as I expected.
She released me. “I leave around seven-fifteen for school, but we can leave earlier so I can show you around.”
And just like that, whatever momentary joy I’d felt was gone. Aunt Beth had mentioned she’d already registered me, so all I had to do was stop in the office to get my schedule.
Abby left my room with a wave.
Not knowing what else to do, I wandered around the room until I found myself at the window again, staring out at the woods. The moon was almost full and high in the sky, allowing me a peek at the night’s secrets. In the distance, a moose stood between two large trees, peacefully nibbling away, until it stopped and lifted its head.
I shifted on my feet, pressing closer to the window for a better look. The moose turned its head. Then a blurred shadow hurtled in front of the animal and vanished. I jerked back from the window. Goose bumps erupted on my arms, and I drew the curtains closed. No matter how they dressed it up, this town was never going to be home.