“Aspen!” The sounds of footsteps plodding up the stairs followed her mother’s frightened exclamation.
Caw! Another howl of anguish escaped Aspen’s mouth as the bird circled around in the air and made a dive for her one last time. It bore its sharpened talons and the red in its eyes brightened with a newfound hunger. With a murderous intent on drawing her blood. Aspen threw her arms up defensively. She was crying, her body shuddering with terrified, hiccupping sobs. Her eyes widened as the bird swooped down, its black wings flapping vigorously, and aimed a claw at her exposed throat. She let out a final whimper and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Aspen!” her mother cried as she reached the top of the steps and bounded down the hall towards her. “Honey! Oh my goodness! What’s wrong with you?”
Aspen didn’t speak. She cautiously lowered her arms and looked around. The evil bird was nowhere in sight. She spun around on the floor, expecting the mysterious door to still be behind her, its golden key jammed into the lock. A startled gasp escaped her lips. The door had suddenly vanished. She gawked in disbelief. But how? How is that even possible? She wrapped her arms around herself and willed her body to stop trembling. She stared at the blank wall with unblinking eyes.
“Aspen!” Mrs. Fischer cried. She dropped to her knees and threw her arms around her, dragging her into her chest. “Oh lord! What happened to you? You nearly gave me a heart attack with your screaming!”
But Aspen didn’t respond. She could barely hear her mother’s voice over the wild pounding of her own heart. Her eyes darted back and forth, searching for the winged assailant. But the bird was gone, vanished into thin air, and the door with it. She closed her eyes and sucked in a breath through her mouth. She suddenly felt cold all over. There’s no way I imagined that, she thought. Where did it go? How could the bird and the door just disappear like that? She took in another gulp of air.
“Aspen? Honey, can you hear me?” Mrs. Fischer asked. “Please say something to me!”
Aspen opened her eyes and turned to her mother. “It was the bird!” she bawled. “The black bird was here! It-It tried to kill me mom! It was here I swear!”
She collapsed into her arms and burst into a jag of fresh tears.
Mrs. Fischer smoothed her hair down as she spoke. “What bird honey? I didn’t see any birds in here. Mr. Blackwell told me that animals can’t get in the house—”
Aspen pulled away from her. “I saw it!” she insisted. “I swear I saw it! It was here! It really was! It was standing over there—” she pointed at the end of the hall “—where the door was! The bird wouldn’t let me touch it so it attacked me!”
Mrs. Fischer shifted her stare to where Aspen had pointed. “What door honey? There’s no door there. It’s just a wall.”
Aspen let out a moan of despair. “You have to believe me! I’m not lying! I promise!”
Mrs. Fischer sighed heavily. “Aspen,” she started, “If this is true, then where is the bird now? You said that it attacked you, but I don’t see a single scratch on you!”
Aspen’s weeping came to a rapid stop. She looked down at her rumpled clothing. The previous rips in them were gone. She shook her head in dismay. No rips, no blood. Nothing. Mrs. Fischer sighed and helped her to her feet. What’s happening? I know it was here! I know it! Aspen opened her mouth to argue, to plead with her mother, but was stopped by the sound of another set of footsteps tramping up the stairs.
Aspen went perfectly still. A new kick of adrenaline surged through her newly quivering body. The footsteps slowed as they neared the top of the stairs. Aspen clung to her mother’s side, dread hardening into a cold and hard ball at the pit of her stomach. The footsteps stopped and a man appeared at the top of the stairs. Aspen took an automatic step backward.
He was the biggest man she had ever seen: large and burly, like an overgrown bear, with massively muscled arms and a dark pin-stripe suit that seemed to stretch too tightly every time he moved. It was his face, however, that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She took another small step back. His eyes were dark and small, two black slits against a darkly tanned complexion. But on the side of his face was a violently jagged scar that ran from the left corner of his mouth to his temple, savagely tugging his face to the side in a permanently lopsided leer.
Mrs. Fischer cleared her throat and shot her daughter a warning look before speaking. “I apologize for the commotion, Mr. Blackwell,” she said and forcibly unhitched Aspen from her side. “My daughter was playing up here and managed to scare herself in the process. Says an animal attacked her.”
“An animal?” He inquired in a deep and throaty voice. “That’s highly unusual.”
“I thought the very same thing,” Mrs. Fischer replied. “She said it was a black bird. It was standing over there, apparently guarding some mysterious door. “
“May I?” He trudged forward, his stride slow and careful, and entered one of the rooms.
“Stop staring,” Mrs. Fischer hissed under her breath. “You know better than that.”
Aspen didn’t respond. She followed closely behind as Mr. Blackwell knelt down and examined the bedroom window.
“Strange,” he muttered. “The window screen is still on. I made sure that all the windows had these before you moved in so no bugs or animals could get in.”
He rose to his feet and turned his dark eyes to Aspen. “And you said it was a bird that attacked you?”
Aspen nodded mutely, no longer trusting herself to speak. Her eyes followed the landlord’s lazy gait out into the hallway. He moved into the next room, checking to make sure the screen was secure before returning with a shrug. Mrs. Fischer sighed and followed after him, leaving Aspen alone with her thoughts. I know what I saw! The bird was there! The door was too! Why don’t they believe me? Where did that stupid bird go off to now? She turned her attention to the window, searching the skies with narrowed eyes for the cryptic fowl.
“Aspen! Come downstairs! We have a lot of unpacking to do!” Mrs. Fischer called.
“Coming!” Aspen shouted. With a heavy sigh, she sauntered out of the room and descended down the stairs and through the kitchen toward the living room.
“I’ll be over later today to make sure that no animals got into the house through other means. But it’s unlikely that a bird would come in here and suddenly vanish without a trace,” Mr. Blackwell said. “Oh and I’ll send some movers over as well to assist you with rearranging the heavy stuff. No need for a lady to do such heavy lifting right?”
Mrs. Fischer beamed. “You’re too kind Mr. Blackwell,” she replied with a light laugh. “That help would be much appreciated. Thank you so much for your time.”
“It’s no trouble at all. I’m just glad nobody is hurt—”
“The bird was there!” Aspen injected. She scowled at her landlord. “It’s possible because that’s what happened! The bird attacked me! It really did!”
“But I don’t see any scratches on you, my dear,” Mr. Blackwell insisted. He shot her mother a concerned look. “You seem to be in great condition to me.”
Heat colored her cheeks red. “I’m not lying!” she shouted. “Why don’t you want to believe me? I saw the bird! The door was there too—”
“Stop it Aspen!” Mrs. Fischer said sharply. “You know better than to interrupt and talk back to an adult like that! Where are your manners, young lady?”
“Why don’t you guys believe me?” Aspen whined. “I never lie! I would never make it up! I don’t know where the bird and the door went, but they were there! I saw them...”
Mrs. Fischer scowled at her. “Why don’t you go outside and play? I have a lot of unpacking to do.”
Aspen frowned. “But mom—”
“Go.” Mrs. Fischer turned her attention back to Mr. Blackwell. “I apologize for my daughter’s rude behavior. She’s normally better behaved than this. I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”
Mr. Blackwell smiled, the scar tugging the smile even more to the left. “As I’ve said, it’s no trouble at all. Kids will be kids after all. Agreed?”
Mrs. Fischer nodded enthusiastically. “Agreed. Have a nice day, Mr. Blackwell.” With a final nod at his new tenants, he left the house, closing the door gently behind him.
Mrs. Fischer turned to glare at her daughter. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you Aspen Lee Fischer, but that behavior better not happen again. Do you hear me, young lady?”
Aspen sighed and nodded her head. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I won’t do it again.”
“The movers will be here soon to help me unpack everything so why don’t you go outside and look around the neighborhood? I’m sure you’ll find someone your age around here to play with,” Mrs. Fischer suggested. “Go and get some air.”
With an exasperated cry, Aspen turned away and yanked the door open. She didn’t look back as she slammed it shut behind her and stomped down the front steps towards the street. Her mind buzzed with unanswered questions. Where did that bird even come from? Why did it disappear all of a sudden? More importantly, why was it guarding that creepy door? This can’t all be in my head… right? She reached the door and reached inside for her coat. She sighed and shook her head, attempting to clear it.
Maybe I just let my imagination run wild after all. She frowned as she began her stroll through the neighborhood. I mean, what else could it be? Everything was gone when the grownups came anyway. Maybe I just imagined everything without meaning to. With a final sigh, Aspen dismissed the morning’s events from her mind. She glanced around, drinking in the leafless trees, nicely cut lawns, and flat gray sky. A chilly breeze blew past, whipping lengths of her long scarlet hair into her eyes. Aspen groaned. Stupid wind! She spit a few strands of hair as she reached up to pull it out of her eyes. I knew I should’ve—
“Oof!” Came an outraged cry, followed by an angry bark of a dog. “Ow!”
Aspen puffed and jumped backward, blinking the rest of her hair from her eyes. She glanced down at the sidewalk where a boy lay on the ground, rubbing the pain from his elbow. The dog beside him, a golden retriever, barked as it positioned itself it front of its owner. The contents of his bag were scattered about on the sidewalk.
“I’m so sorry!” Aspen gasped. “Really! I didn’t see you there!”
She dropped to her knees and began to scoop up the book items into the bag.
The boy sat up and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he replied. “It was my fault. I was looking through my stuff and I didn’t realize someone was headed my way.”
The dog barked once more, but moved aside as the boy leaned forward and took the bag from her. Aspen smiled sheepishly.
The boy narrowed his bright green eyes at her. “Are you new in town? I don’t remember seeing you around the neighborhood.”
Aspen nodded eagerly. “Yes! I just moved here today with my mom from New York. She told me to go out and take a look around. See if I can make any friends before I start school.”
The boy grinned. Aspen flushed. “We don’t start school for another two days I’m afraid. Not that it’s a bad thing anyways.”
They both stood up. “My name’s Garrett. Garrett Kennedy. I live on Devlin Road. Its two blocks from here. My hairy companion is Keeva.” He jabbed a finger over Aspen’s shoulder in the opposite direction before lightly nudging the dog’s side with his foot.
“My name is Aspen,” she said and timidly brushed her hair out of her eyes. “I live on… well I live over there where the moving truck is.”
She pointed across the street. Garrett nodded. “This is Sydcott Boulevard. Just so you know.”
Neither one said anything for several moments. Aspen dropped her gaze to her sneakers, suddenly interested in the improperly tied laces and scuff marks on the toes. Keeva barked and bristled in impatience. Well this is awkward, she thought. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other in discomfort. Garrett readjusted the weight of his shopping bag in his hand. Another gust of wind blew, tousling her hair yet again in the process.
Garrett broke the silence. “I can, um, show you around if you want. You know, so you don’t, um, get lost.”
Aspen nodded eagerly. “Sure!” she said. “I would love to.”
Keeva barked and pulled against her leash, anxious to resume her walk. Garrett rolled his eyes. “Okay, okay. Jeez. Let’s get on move on then.”
They started walking. “So… what made you leave a place like New York to come to a small town like Chagrin Heights?”
Aspen opened her mouth to speak, but quickly shut it. Why was she here in the first place? Instead, she just opted to shrug. Her parents had never fully discussed the reasons behind their sudden move. And she never bothered to question them after days of walking in on hushed conversations that abruptly ended when she was noticed or the sudden interrogations about her play dates with her friends and who she ran into on the way to their homes.
“And you? Were you born here?” Aspen asked.
Garrett shook his head. “Nah,” he said with a small smile. “I moved here about a year ago from Whispering Falls in North Dakota. My parents got divorced so my mom ended up taking a nursing job here. My sisters and I chose to come along. You know, new places have new faces.”
Aspen nodded her head in agreement. “What’s it like here then? I don’t really know what to expect here.”
“Most of the time it’s quiet,” Garrett explained. “Not quite like today. I assume everybody’s staying in since its Sunday. Possibly mourning the end of Winter Break.”
Aspen giggled. “And yet there’s no snow anywhere? Why is that?”
Garrett shrugged. “That’s the weird thing. Among many more weird things that happen around here. It’s the first day of January but there hasn’t been any snow since the middle of December. Christmas, New Year’s Eve—nothing. The warmest holiday season in the history of this town. Strange huh?”
Aspen nodded. She remembered the endless cascade of snowfall back in Manhattan and how it buried everything in a soft, thin blanket of white. Her heart squeezed with a tingle of homesickness.
“Speaking of Winter Break, what grade are you in? You look very…little.” Garrett scrunched his face up as he studied her appearance.
Aspen blushed. “I’m twelve in seventh grade. And you? You look like a kid too.”
Surprisingly, everything about Garrett was small: his round head, his hands and feet, his forehead, and his teeth. He seemed to be swimming in his black cargo pants, oversized, bright green sweatshirt, and dark blue sneakers. His hair was swallowed up by a gray beanie save for a few tufts of light brown hair that peeked out from beneath and into his bright, trusting eyes.
Garrett shrugged. “I’m in eighth grade. I’m thirteen. Doomed to go to the Big House soon too.”
Aspen furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. “The Big House? Where’s that?”
Garrett grinned. “You know. High school. Where you’re sentenced to four years of nothing but pain and suffering—”
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Gay-rett Kennedy,” a high, nasally voice sneered. “You babysitting or what?”
Both teens halted in place. Garrett narrowed his eyes. “Leave me alone, Natalie. I have things to do. Go away.”
A high, shrill laugh was offered as a response. Aspen frowned and regarded the girl in front of her with a glare. A bully huh? She was tall and blonde with ice blue eyes and golden freckles dusting her smooth, pale skin. A pink stud glistened on the side of her nose and her mouth was pained a bright cherry red to match the body-hugging sweater she wore over white leggings. A small white purse strap crossed her body and ended at her left hip. Her hoop earrings were brown like her high-heeled boots.
“Awe, what’s the rush Gay-rett? Off to go see your boyfriend somewhere?”
Garrett scowled. Keeva growled in warning. “I’m not gay,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Why don’t you go lie in a ditch somewhere? Not like anybody around here would miss you anyway.”
Natalie grinned mischievously. “Is that so?” she said in a falsely innocent voice. “Hmm. I don’t know about that one, Kennedy. I think my family and my many, many friends would beg to differ.”
Keeva barked, baring her sharp teeth menacingly. Natalie rolled her eyes. “What about you Kennedy? Would any of your friends miss you if you disappeared? Would Kyle or Sam?”
Her eyes suddenly flashed with a dangerous glint. Aspen’s heart skipped a beat. “Would Kara Summers?”
Garrett balled his hands into fists. “Shut up, Natalie. I mean it. You’re going too far.”
Aspen placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. Garrett shook her off. Natalie laughed. “Oh, come on. Can’t you take a joke?”
“You know what she did to me!” Garrett howled. “You think that’s funny? I nearly died that day!”
“That’s not my problem, loser!” Natalie retorted. “It’s not my fault you’re nothing but a desperate little slime ball in need of a good—”
“Argh!” Garrett cried. “Get out of my way!”
He shoved Natalie aside and sped off, ducking his head down in shame. Aspen gasped as Keeva took off after them, barking frenziedly, her yellow leash flying behind her like a rope.
“Garrett!” Aspen cried. “Garrett! Please come back!”
“Don’t mix yourself up with that loser,” Natalie warned. “He’ll get you killed before you even know it.”
“Go away!” Aspen snapped. “Why do you have to be so mean?”
She ran off in the direction Garrett had gone, calling out his name repeatedly through the silent neighborhood.
She was completely unaware of the single black bird soaring in the sky above her.