Jennifer L. Rowlands
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© 2017 by Jennifer L. Rowlands. All rights reserved.
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Author & Artist
Morning finally casts light upon the two-story house in the middle of a field surrounded by woods. The terrifying noises that filled the night have finally quieted. Max tip-toes to the kitchen, careful not to trip over the many boxes. Every other room is how he remembers it from the night before. Bare walls, no pictures of his broken family. Moving boxes everywhere, full of memories that no longer matter.
The house is now home to four beds: one covered in blue and red blankets for Max, a white and pink one fit for a princess for Anne, one for Grams that she had had for ages, and one more. The last was bought fourteen years ago. It was once the bed of Henry and Julie, Max’s and Anne’s dad and mom. Dad sleeps there alone now. Mom won’t be joining them in this new house in a new town in the middle of nowhere.
At the end of the summer, Max and Anne will be going to a new school. Anne has no problem making friends. She is just like Mom: ginger hair, stunning green eyes, sweet, funny—at least to anyone who isn’t her brother. Everyone who knows Anne loves her. Everyone in her new fourth-grade class is sure to love her, too. Max will be a sixth-grader in a new place with no friends. And his mom won’t be there.
The carpet that once belonged to a happier family hugs Max’s feet as he walks. He wants to hate it, but it feels so soft and tickles as it rubs under his toes. Turning the bat in his hands, Max tries to focus. Although, he had wandered between these yesterday for the first time, he didn’t really see each room for what it was. Every window looks out on an empty yard that stretches toward the surrounding woods, reaching away from him, leaving him behind. The wallpaper is angry. The ceiling looks back at him with such a heavy sadness that Max feels it might topple down on him at any moment. Every door leads to another dead end. He hates it there already; and the first night wasn’t easy.
Max approaches the bottom of the staircase, which empties into the living room. No one is there. His feet are snug against the bottom step, his shoulder presses into the wall as he peers around the corner. The breakfast table is visible from where he stands. Behind the table, the side door leading outside lets in waves of golden sunlight. Max leans around the corner a little further. He can barely make out the edge of the counter and cabinets that line the far wall of the kitchen. Morning rays spill through the window above the sink and drip over the yellow tile.
Directly above the kitchen is his bedroom. Silence fills the space now, but not during the darkest hours of the night. The noises that had filled the kitchen were too alarming to allow him to sleep, too terrifying to allow him to leave his bed. He could have woken Grams, or shaken Dad from his sleep. He could have checked on Anne to see if she heard it too. Instead, Max remained beneath his covers until the safety of daylight was restored. Now, he sees no evidence that anyone has been here at all. Whatever had been there seems to have vanished without a trace. Then he spots something.
A brown mist. He steps closer, hands wrapped so firmly around the handle of the bat that his knuckles turn white. His feet are only a step away from leaving the plush carpet and pressing against the hard tiles. As he gets closer, Max scans the kitchen. The tiny brown particles swirl in the air, ignited in red when they pass through the sunlight. Then he hears it: a rustling noise and a squeak. Someone is here.
Max turns back around and presses his back against the wall along the staircase, out of view of the kitchen. He gasps when he finds his sister standing on the step next to him, her favorite doll tucked under her arm. “Anne,” he whispers, his voice angry and accusing. “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” she says. “Were you the one making all that noise last night?”
“You heard it too?” Anne nods in response. “I wonder if Dad did.”
Anne shakes her head. “I went in to sleep by him because I got scared. He didn’t even notice.”
“Maybe he was too tired from moving all our stuff.”
“I don’t know. I’m going to see if Grams is awake yet.”
“Wait—” Max tries to stop his sister, but she hops down the stairs and wanders through the living room and down the hall to Grams’ room. “She never listens,” Max mutters to himself.
The rustling returns. Max doesn’t dare speak aloud. Instead, he takes a long, slow, silent breath and mentally prepares himself for what he is about to do. In one, swift motion he is spinning. Max’s back leaves the wall and he faces the kitchen head-on, bat at the ready. His jaw drops by the sight.
He sees no one, but baking supplies are everywhere. Flour dusts the floor. Butter is splattered against the cabinets. A pile of brown goo—the source of which he doesn’t care to know—sits upon the counter. The air is as warm as it was while Grams cooked dinner the night before.
Max’s breathing slows and he begins to smell it. It is sweet. By the scent alone he feels his anxiety subside. Chocolate. But not in just any form. It is his favorite thing to eat. The one thing he could eat for all three meals and again for dessert. But there is movement in the sink of the island.
Once again, Max tightens his grip on the bat and moves in a large circle. From a safe distance, he leans up on his toes to peer into the sink. The sunlight bounces off the stainless steel and he feels momentarily blinded. When Max’s eyes adjust, he notices a bag of sugar. It lays upon its side on the counter. Most of the contents have fallen out and formed a pile in the sink. In the pile, something stirs. Cautiously, Max steps closer and reaches for a spatula. He stirs the sugar gently in the sink. Then it happens.