I spent my eighteenth birthday driving from New York City to Eden, Michigan, so my mother could die in the town where she was born. Nine hundred and fifty-four miles of asphalt, knowing every sign we passed brought me closer to what would undoubtedly be the worst day of my life.
As far as birthdays go, I wouldn't recommend it.
I drove the whole way. My mother was too sick to stay awake for very long, let alone drive, but I didn't mind. It took two days, and an hour after we'd crossed the bridge to the upper peninsula of Michigan, she looked exhausted and stiff from being in the car for so long, and if I never saw a stretch of open road again, it'd be too soon.
"Kate, turn off here."
I gave my mother a funny look, but turned my blinker on anyhow. "We're not supposed to exit the freeway for another three miles."
"I know. I want you to see something."
Sighing inwardly, I did as she said. She was already on borÂ¬rowed time, and the chances of her having an extra day to see it later were slim.
There were pine trees everywhere, tall and looming. I saw no signs, no mile markers, nothing but trees and dirt road. Five miles in, I began to worry. "You're sure this is right?"
"Of course I'm sure." She pressed her forehead to the window, and her voice was so soft and broken that I could barely underÂ¬stand her. "It's just another mile or so."
After a mile, the hedge started. It stretched down the side of the road, so high and thick that seeing what was on the other side was impossible, and it must've been another two miles before it veered off at a right angle, forming some kind of boundary line. The entire time we drove by, Mom stared out the window, enraptured.
"This is it?" I didn't mean to sound bitter, but Mom didn't seem to notice.
"Of course it isn't—turn left up here, sweetie."
I did as I was told, guiding the car around the corner. "It's nice and all," I said carefully, not wanting to upset her, "but it's just a hedge. Shouldn't we go find the house and—"
"Here!" The eagerness in her weak voice startled me. "Right up there!"
Craning my neck, I saw what she was talking about. Set in the middle of the hedge was a black wrought-iron gate, and the closer we got to it, the bigger it seemed to grow. It wasn't just me—the gate was monstrous. It wasn't there to look pretty. It was there to scare the living daylights out of anyone who thought about opening it.
I slowed to a stop in front of it, trying to look between the bars, but all I could see were more trees. The land seemed to dip in the distance, but no matter how I craned my neck, I couldn't see what lay beyond it.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Her voice was airy, almost light, and for a moment, she sounded like her old self. I felt her hand slip into mine, and I squeezed hers as much as I dared. "It's the entrance to Eden Manor."
"It looks.. .big," I said, mustering up as much enthusiasm as I could. I wasn't very successful. "Have you ever been inside?"
It was an innocent question, but the look she gave me made me feel like the answer was so obvious that even though I'd never heard of this place, I should have known.
A moment later, she blinked, and the look was gone. "Not in a very long time," she said hollowly, and I bit my lip, regret-ting whatever it was I'd done to break the magic for her. "I'm sorry, Kate, I just wanted to see it. We should keep going."
She let go of my hand, and I was suddenly keenly aware of how cool the air was against my palm. As I pressed the acÂ¬celerator, I slipped my hand back into hers, not wanting to let go yet. She said nothing, and when I glanced at her, she was resting her head against the glass once more.
Half a mile down the road, it happened. One moment the road was clear, and the next a cow was in the road not fifteen feet in front of us, blocking the way.
I slammed on the brakes and twisted the wheel. The car spun a full circle, throwing my body sideways. My head hit the window as I fought for control of the car, but it was useless. I might as well have been trying to get it to fly for all the good I was doing.
We skidded to a stop, miraculously missing the tree line. My pulse raced, and I took great gulps of air, trying to calm myself down. "Mom?" I said frantically.
Beside me, she shook her head. "I'm fine. What hapÂ¬pened?"
"There's a—" I stopped, focusing on the road again. The cow was gone.
Confused, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a figure standing in the middle of the road, a dark-haired boy around my age wearing a black coat that fluttered in the breeze. I frowned, twisting around to try to get a proper look out the back window, but he was gone.
Had I imagined it then? I winced and rubbed my sore head. Hadn't imagined that part.
"Nothing," I said shakily. "I've just been driving too long, that's all. I'm sorry."
As I cautiously urged the car forward, I looked in the rearview mirror one last time. Hedge and empty road. I gripped the wheel tightly with one hand and reached out to take hers again with my other, futilely trying to forget the image of the boy now burned into my brain.
The ceiling in my bedroom leaked. The real estate agent who'd sold us the house, sight unseen, had sworn up and down there was nothing wrong with it, but apparently the jerk had been lying.
All I did after we arrived was unpack the essentials we'd need for the night, including a pot to catch the dripping water. We hadn't brought much, just whatever could fit into the car, and I'd already had a set of secondhand furniture delivered to the house.
That night, my nightmares were relentless and full of cows with red eyes, rivers of blood, and water that rose around me until I woke up gasping. I pushed the blanket off me and wiped my clammy forehead, afraid I'd woken my mother, but she was still asleep.
Even though I didn't sleep well, I couldn't take the next day off. It was my first day at Eden High, which was a brick buildÂ¬ing that looked more like a large barn than a school. There were hardly enough students to bother building one in the first place, let alone keep it running. Enrolling had been my mother's idea; after I'd missed my senior year to take care of her, she was determined to make sure I graduated.
I drove my car into the parking lot two minutes after the first bell rang. Mom had gotten sick that morning, and I didn't trust the nurse, a round, matronly woman named Sofia, to take care of her properly. Not that there was anything particularly menacing about her, but I'd spent most of the past four years caring for my mother, and as far as I was concerned, no one else could do it right. I'd nearly skipped to stay home with her, but my mother had insisted I go. As difficult as the day had been so far, I was certain it was about to get worse.
At least I wasn't alone in the walk of shame through the parking lot. Halfway to the building, I noticed a boy followÂ¬ing me. He couldn't have been old enough to drive, and his white-blond hair stuck out almost as much as his overgrown ears did. Judging from his cheery expression, he couldn't have cared less that he was late.
He dashed forward to reach the front door before I did, and much to my surprise, he held it open for me. I couldn't think of a single guy at my old school who would've done that.
"After you, mademoiselle
I stared at the ground to avoid giving him an odd look. No use in being rude the first day.
"Thanks," I mumbled, stepping inside and walking faster. He was taller than me though, and he caught up in no time. Much to my horror, instead of passing me, he slowed so we were walking together.
"Do I know you?"
Oh, God. Did he expect me to answer? Luckily, he didn't seem to, as he didn't give me a chance to respond. "I don't know you." Brilliant observation, Einstein. "I should know you."
Right outside the office, he swung around, placing himself between me and the entrance. Sticking out a hand, he looked at me expectantly.
"I'm James," he said, and I finally got a good look at his face. Still boyish, but maybe he was older than I thought. His features were hardened, more mature than I'd expected. "James MacDuffy. Laugh, and I'll be forced to hate you."
Seeing no other choice, I forced a small smile and took his hand. "Kate Winters."
He stared at me for longer than was strictly necessary, a goofy grin on his face. As the seconds ticked by, I stood there, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, and finally I cleared my throat.
"Er—could you maybe…?"
"What? Oh." James dropped my hand and opened the door, once again holding it open for me. "After you, Kate
I stepped inside, drawing my messenger bag closer. Inside
the office was a woman dressed head to toe in blue, with sleek auburn hair I'd have given my right foot to have. "Hi, I'm—"
"—Kate Winters," interrupted James, falling into place next to me. "I don't know her."
The receptionist managed to simultaneously sigh and laugh. "What is it this time, James?"
"Flat tire." He grinned. "Changed it myself."
She scribbled on a pink pad of paper, then tore off the sheet and handed it to him. "You walk."
"Do I?" His grin widened. "Y'know, Irene, if you keep doubting me like this, I'm going to start thinking you don't like me anymore. Same time tomorrow?"
She chuckled, and finally James disappeared. I refused to watch him go, instead staring down at an announcement taped to the counter. Apparently Picture Day was in three weeks.
"Katherine Winters," said the woman—Irene—once the office door closed. "We've been expecting you."
She busied herself looking through a file, and I stood there awkwardly, wishing there was something to say. I wasn't much of a talker, but I could at...