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The truth is, I can't believe it took our stepmother this long to throw us out.
She's never liked us, after all, especially me – she didn't like the way my father loved me, didn't like the fact that I perfectly matched the daughter she'd never met but my father ached for, the way I looked like his dead wife when she'd been a teenager. She said she just couldn't afford to keep us on anymore and, with me having just turned eighteen and Ansel nineteen, was no longer obligated to.
Obligated. We were obligations left behind by a father eaten alive by mourning, remnants of a shattered family.
'Are we in South Carolina yet? I zoned out,' Ansel says, his voice a forced calm as he peers over the steering wheel. He likes to have a plan of attack, like he did back on the football field in high school, but right now, we've got nothing more than the clothes in the car and the gasoline in the tank. He doesn't want me to see him worrying, but the truth is, I'm happy to be gone. I feel freer without a plan in the middle of nowhere than I did back in Washington State.
'Yeah, we crossed the border a few hours ago,' I answer, kicking my feet up onto the dash. The backs of my knees are sticky and sweat trickles down my chest – it uses too much gas to run the AC and the heat here is heavy. It's a little easier to bear if I imagine we're on an epic road trip, the kind that's a fun adventure, like you see in movies. 'We should be there in another three or four hours, I think,' I add.
'There' is the direct result of the folded and refolded pastel brochure in my hands: Folly Beach, South Carolina: The Edge of America. I picked up the brochure at a Tennessee rest stop, and ever since, we've been moving towards it, at my behest and Ansel's ever-accommodating apathy.
The photo on the front is of a peaceful, quiet beach with a red and white lighthouse by the water's edge. The sand goes on for miles, golden and flat, while the water peaks into elegant waves. It's the place of my dreams – whereas western Washington State, with its dense forests, was full of places for girls to disappear, to vanish into the trees at the hands of a witch.
A witch. The only term I have for whatever it was that took my sister. I visualise the witch as a twisted villain, an evil woman, a monster, a demon, a near-invisible force, every man in our neighbourhood, a trick of the light – something with horribly golden eyes that only I saw and Ansel has long insisted never existed in the first place. Whatever the witch is, she lives among dark trees, deep valleys, craggy ocean cliffs. I've spent my whole life longing for soft, endless sand and crashing waves that blur the sounds of the world, so I no longer stare at the trees and wonder where the other half of me is among them. I've spent my whole life wanting to escape the memory of my sister, wanting to start over, and hating myself for wanting that. How could I want to run away from a lost little girl?
But still. I open the brochure again and read.
A picturesque town of painted sunsets, elegant dining, and endless beaches, Folly Beach is truly the Edge of America – where the everyday ends and serenity begins.
Each second we drive, we get closer to the water, the sand, the flat shore where it's impossible to vanish, where I have plans: plans to start over. Plans to be someone new, someone who isn't haunted by a dead sister. We fly past exits that have nothing at them and finally see hints of the beach only a few hours ahead. Signs advertising resorts and speedboat rentals and little shops boasting floats and giant- size beach towels – it's early June, prime beach season, and most of the other cars on the road seem packed to the brim with vacationing families. I inhale the hot scent of cut hay and try to imagine that it's the ocean's salt.
The Jeep kicks. There's a loud crack, a boom, and the smell of smoke suddenly overpowers the air.
Ansel veers off the nearly empty road just as grey smoke billows from the front of the car. He jumps out, slamming the door as he runs around and opens the hood. I can't see him anymore, but his coughs and curses make their way to my ears. I lean out of my window, trying to see what's going on, just as Ansel makes his way back around the car.
'The whole damn thing is burned up,' he snaps, throwing himself back into the driver's seat. He shakes his head and punches at the steering wheel. 'We only have fifty- seven dollars left and the car burns to pieces.'
Ansel mutters another string of curse words, flipping through his wallet as if he might find an extra twenty-dollar bill hidden between old receipts. When he doesn't, he shakes his head, grits his teeth and breathes slowly. He has a fast temper, but he knows it and tries to keep it at bay around me. It was my mother's suggestion, when Ansel started to heal and I still stared at the forest, waiting for my sister to stumble out. 'Make sure Gretchen knows you're there for her. Don't upset her – be her rock, Ansel. You have to help her move on.'
It's a shame my mother couldn't listen to her own advice. She couldn't be anyone's rock, curled up in her bedroom until the grief devoured her. We weren't even allowed to say our sister's name in front of her, because it would set her off, either make her sob or yell at us, scream that we had lost her. So we were supposed to act as if nothing was wrong. As if there'd always been only two Kassel children, and Ansel constantly trying to find whatever it was that would make up for our sister's absence, doing everything he could to be my rock, the person I hold onto when I feel as though I might slide off the world and vanish like she did.
Ansel leans across me and opens the glove compartment, then pulls out a crumbly map, folded in all the wrong ways. He stares at it for a moment. 'We're closer to the town we just passed than we are to the next one. We'll have to walk.'
'What if we called a tow truck?'
'I don't think we can afford it, but either way my phone is dead. Wait – yours hasn't been used much. Does it have any bars out here?'
Of course it hasn't been used – no one would think to call me. I wanted friends, really, but at the same time, how could I go to the mall and laugh at movies when my sister was out there in the darkness? Ansel, somehow, forced himself over that hurdle – every time he hangs up the phone, he touches the thick class ring on his finger, as if it's his last connection to normal, to his friends, to their world. I feel bad that he's back in mine, despite how much I need him.
I shake my head at him. 'My phone died this morning. I forgot to bring a car charger.'
'Then we walk,' he says with a sigh. I grab my purse and climb out of the car.
And we start to walk.
Everything seemed hot before, when we were sitting in the car. But now things are truly hot, stifling in a way I've never known. The air doesn't move – it sits on us like a weight, crushing us into the long grasses we trudge through. The sky is cloudless, imposing, and for what feels like a million years the scenery doesn't change. The pine-saturated forest feels as though it's growing oppressively closer, and I can sense the familiar fear bubbling up in my chest. There could be something in the leaves; there could be something that makes me disappear. Ansel sees it and quietly moves so that he's in between me and the treeline. He thinks that makes it better, but really, who would I rather the witch take this time around – Ansel or me?
Finally, the exit ramp appears ahead, just as the feeling of insects nipping at my ankles is becoming too much to handle. Rivers of sweat carve down my back and Ansel's shirt is drenched, but we huff and jog up the ramp to a crossroad. There are two signs at the top of the ramp surrounded by black-eyed Susans. One is hand-painted with red and blue lettering and reads SEE ROBERTE. LEE'S RIDING BOOTS. The other is wooden with a white background and red lettering that isn't entirely even, as if it was hand-carved. LIVE OAK, SOUTH CAROLINA. HOME OF THE ACORNS – 1969 COUNTY CHAMPIONS.
'1969?' Ansel says, surprised. 'And they still have the sign up?'
'Maybe it's the only time they've won,' I suggest. Ansel frowns – in Washington, his school's football team won the state championship so regularly that they had to shift the oldest 'state champs' plaque off the sign every year to make way for the newest one. He was a defensive lineman – I think I see him smirk a little at the sign as we pass it. He loved all sports, but football was his obsession – he memorised plays, other players' stats, training regimens. He told me once that it was because he liked getting hit. That being knocked to the ground reminded him he was here.
'It looks like our options are limited,' he says. There's nothing but farmland to our right. To our left is a large store – floats in the shapes of orcas and alligators rest in bins outside, and beach towels are hanging in the window. Beside that is a gas station attached to a long diner with giant glass windows. Even from here, I can see people watching us as they eat lunch. They look as if they're glaring at us, but I can't really tell for sure.
Ansel walks quickly to get in front of me, and within a few moments we're close enough that people have stopped staring for fear of being caught. There's a faded red cursive sign over the diner: JUDY'S. Painted letters on the windows advertise famous blackberry pie and muscadine grape preserves. All the people inside are hunched over whatever they're eating, as though they worry someone might snatch it away from them.
When Ansel pushes the door open, a wind chime hanging on the interior knocks against it. The diner is mostly occupied by sun-spotted old men wearing baseball caps and jeans, though there are a few soft-looking women as well, all completely silent, eyes on us. I was right – they are glaring, but I'm not sure why.
'All right, all right, give them some space,' a weary- looking waitress calls from the other end of the diner, waving a rag at the patrons. They give her dark looks but abandon the suspicious glares at Ansel and me. The waitress drops off a stack of napkins next to an old man, then walks our way. Her yellow dress stands out against the faded aquamarine and black that decks out the diner. 'Forgive them. They don't like outsiders. I see enough that I'm over it, I guess. What'll you have? Coca-Cola? Sweet tea? You look roasted.'
'Uh, neither, actually. We broke down about a mile ahead on the road. I wanted to see if we can get a tow truck,' Ansel says.
'Closest tow company is over in Lake City, ever since the Bakers left town. They can be out here in about an hour, though, if you want their number,' the waitress tells us with a pitying frown.
'Can I use your phone to call?' Ansel asks. The waitress reaches down below the register and pulls up an ancient- looking phone, and she and Ansel begin flipping through a series of tattered business cards, looking for the tow company's number. I ease myself onto one of the bar stools and look around the diner.
Along with a few older blue-collar men sitting at the bar is a man – boy? – about Ansel's age, though something about him feels old. It's not his skin, not his hands, but something in the way he holds his shoulders, in the way his head droops down, something that makes me think he's handsome and dangerous all at once. Our eyes lock for a small moment through his layer of shaggy, almost- black hair. Bright eyes as green as mine are blue, eyes that don't match the tired look of the rest of his body – the gaze shoots through the air and startles me. I glance down, and when I look back up, the boy is hunched over his coffee again.
I'm jarred away from him by the sound of Ansel hanging up the phone harder than necessary.
'Interested in that sweet tea now? How about a Cheerwine?' the waitress asks Ansel.
'Why not? Two teas, I guess,' he mutters in response. The waitress nods and jogs towards a silver urn of tea labelled SWEET with a permanent marker. I don't totally get the need for the marker, because the identical one beside it is also labelled SWEET.
Ansel slides onto the stool next to me. 'The guy says it'll cost a hundred and fifty dollars. Might as well be a hundred and fifty thousand. I told him never mind. I didn't even ask how much it would be to fix the car.' He sighs and rubs his forehead. 'I could do it if I had the tools, but I didn't have room to pack them.'
The waitress slides two glasses of amber tea packed with ice onto the counter; I sip on mine tentatively. It's tremendously sweet, so much so that I feel the sugar coating the inside of my mouth. Ansel and I sit in silence for a moment, until an old man a few seats down coughs loudly and wipes his mouth with a handkerchief.
'Okay, okay, you got my pity. You good with your hands, by chance?' the old man asks.
'Good enough,' Ansel answers carefully, rising. He walks over and shakes the man's hand.
'Ansel Kassel' – Ansel nods towards me – 'and my sister, Gretchen.'
'Jed Wilkes,' the man replies.
Other people stare at Jed, as though he's broken some kind of oath about talking to strangers. He doesn't notice, though – he takes off his NRA ball cap and runs a hand over his mostly bald head. 'Well, if you can do some basic repair sort of stuff, I might be able to point you in the right direction to make a little cash.'
'I can do basic repairs – more than basic repairs. What do you need done?' Ansel says eagerly.
'Not me – Sophia Kelly. She runs a candy shop way out in the near middle of nowhere. Had some stuff she needed fixed up, last I talked to her.'
There's a sharp movement next to me; I turn to see that the green-eyed boy has lifted his head. 'Yeah, she needs help,' he mutters, slamming his coffee mug down so hard that liquid sloshes out the sides. The waitress cusses at him under her breath, lifts the mug, and runs a wet rag over the spill. Everyone else in the diner seems to share the waitress's sentiment – annoyed eye rolls and irritated glances fly his way. No one offers any sort of explanation before Jed continues.
'Yes,' Ansel answers immediately. 'Absolutely. If I buy your meal for you, would you give us a ride back to my car first? I don't want to leave our suitcases out there all day.'
'Hell, don't worry about it, kid. I feel bad for you – you remind me of my grandson, before my daughter up and moved to the city with him. I'll give you a ride to your car. Just remember to tell Miss Kelly how gentlemanly I was,' Jed says with a loud chuckle. The green-eyed boy responds by dropping a ten-dollar bill onto the counter and jumping from his seat. He moves to leave the diner but suddenly stops in front of me, eyes piercing my own.
'Stay away from her,' he tells me, loud enough that the rest of the diner can hear but so seriously, so desperately, that I feel as though he and I are the only ones in the room. 'Stay as far away from her as you can.'
Ansel makes it from Jed back to me in record time, but the boy is already gone – he storms out of the diner and slides onto an ancient-looking motorcycle, then squeals out of the parking lot. I'm left shaken, not by what he said, but by the way he looked at me, the way he spoke to me, the way he … everything. I try to swallow my reaction. Being afraid of a crazy kid in a diner is no way to start a new life, Gretchen.
'I'm fine. Seriously,' I tell Ansel. I hate him and love him for being this way, ready to run to my side. It makes me feel safe, but I wish so badly that I didn't need a rock to cling to.
'Ah, so you do speak, Skittles!' Jed says. Ansel takes the green-eyed boy's vacant seat, still warily watching the cloud of exhaust he left.
'Skittles?' I ask.
'Never seen so many colours since lookin' in a bag of Skittles,' Jed says, nodding towards the tips of my hair. Pink, blue, purple, faded strands of orange. I thought that maybe if I made myself stand out, I wouldn't feel so scared of slipping off the world and vanishing like my sister – if people noticed me, they could hold me here. Ansel didn't understand, but I still think it makes sense – you forget the number of wrens and sparrows you see every day, but if a macaw flies by, you notice her. You wouldn't stop using her name and try to forget she ever existed.
It didn't work, though, so I'm left with almost-healed piercings and a rainbow of faded dyes in the lower half of my hair.
Jed continues through my silence. 'He's got a thing against Miss Kelly. Don't you mind him, don't you mind any of 'em. People think she's either the patron saint of candy or the first sign of Live Oak's end days. She's the saint, I promise you that.'
'Right,' my brother says, as if that makes complete sense. If he's as taken aback by Jed's description of Sophia Kelly as I am, he's not letting it show.
'Any reason I should bother trying to find out what you two kids are doing out here all alone?' Jed asks.
'Our stepmother asked us to leave,' Ansel says shortly. 'So we did.'
'Right.' Jed shoves a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth. 'We don't get runaways too often,' he says with a laugh. 'But then, we don't get too many young people, period.'
'We're not runaways,' I correct Jed quietly. 'We were thrown out.'
'Yeah, yeah,' Jed says. His eyes sparkle. 'But if your stepmother is the type to throw you out, you probably woulda run away sooner or later.'
Without doubt, I think. I know I couldn't have lived with her in the shell of our childhood home for too much longer. Ansel shakes his head and takes a drink of his yet-untouched tea; his eyes widen in surprise at how sweet it is.
'Well, let's head out, then,' Jed finally says, nodding at the waitress. She takes a ten-dollar bill from his hand. Ansel fumbles with his wallet to pay for our drinks.
'Don't worry about it, hon. On the house,' she says with a kind smile. Usually Ansel would be too proud to walk away without paying, but I suppose being this broke has challenged his pride. He gives her an appreciative look as I follow Jed outside; the diner begins buzzing again behind us, as if they'd been holding in their conversations while strangers were around. There's a faded red truck that I can already tell belongs to Jed – it doesn't surprise me at all when he opens the door and waves us over. I let Ansel have the front, since he's huge and the back is crammed with tools and cigarette packets.
With the windows open, hot wind whipping through the air, we cut down the interstate to Ansel's Jeep. He grabs most of our things, tosses them into the back of Jed's truck beside some rusty animal traps, and we're on our way again.
The first stoplight we see is flashing yellow, and Jed coasts through it. The town appears ahead – strings of brick buildings connected to one another, though each with a slightly different storefront. On the sides of the buildings are old signs from businesses long closed, painted on the brick in faded colours. It'd be idyllic, if it didn't have a feel of abandonment about it – as though the buildings are stores merely because that's what they've always been. I feel as if the empty windows are watching me.
Finally, there's a break in the buildings: a town square, with a traffic circle around its border. In the centre is a statue of a Confederate soldier on a rearing horse. On the far side of the square, set just off the road, is a wooden building with an American flag out front and a bright red acorn logo above it. The windows are boarded up.
'Is that a school?' Ansel asks over the clattering of the truck's engine struggling down the road.
'Was. Ten or so years ago we stopped havin' enough students to fill it. All the kids are bussed down to Lake City now – hour ride, but the government paid for a bus to come and get 'em. Though rumour has it that might stop, what with there not bein' too many kids left in Live Oak.'
'You won the county championship in sixty-nine, I saw,' Ansel adds with a hint of amusement in his voice.
'Bet your sweet ass our boys did – against Lake City High, biggest showdown in the county. I was second-string, didn't get to play in the game, but Sophia's daddy was the big star of it. Touchdown, seventy-three yards. Proudest moment Live Oak's ever had!' Jed exclaims. If that was their proudest moment, I can't help but wonder what's been going on in the decades since, but I keep my mouth shut.
We emerge on the other side of town and delve back onto roads lined with pastures or trees. Jed begins taking strange turns onto roads that I'm certain can't lead anywhere, since they're all overgrown with branches and the paving is barely there at all, but no, eventually we come out on a decently paved street with forests looming on either side. They're just starting to bear down on me when I spot a break in the trees, and when Jed slows down, I realise what it is – a front yard. We're here.
It's a cottage, tucked away into a nest of mountainous oak trees that are draped with Spanish moss. The exterior is a cinnamon shade of wood, with a stone chimney that's being devoured by ivy. Flower boxes line the white-trimmed windows, filled with what looks like the peppermint plants our mom used to grow. The door is arched and liquorice red and sits behind a covered front porch that holds several rocking chairs. A wooden sign with Coca-Cola advertisements on either end hangs from the porch's mottled tin roof; pale violet lettering in its centre reads Kelly' CHOCOLATIER. The entire thing looks imaginary, like a gingerbread house in a quiet corner of a hot paradise.
Jed's truck rumbles off the main road and onto the gravel drive as he breathes deeply. 'It's a spell, I'm tellin' ya. A magic spell.'
I'm not immediately sure what he's talking about, but just as I'm about to ask for an explanation, I figure it out: the air is filled with sweet vanilla, a scent that makes me think of our mom's cooking and morning sun and summertime. It overpowers the cigarette smell of Jed's truck and thickens as we grow closer to the cottage, and I suddenly find that I don't want to speak – I simply want to breathe it in, close my eyes, and rest. I look to Ansel; his expression matches the same blissful, blurry way that I feel.
Jed pulls the truck into the tiny gravel lot in front of the cottage. Ansel gives me a hopeful look before opening the passenger side door and swinging his legs out of the car; I climb out after him. Outside, the humidity makes the vanilla scent almost drinkable. I pull my hair into a ponytail and try to ignore the forest on either side, and the trees and leaves and darkness behind the house. I prepare for the fear, the familiar twist in my stomach, but … it doesn't come. I inhale, exhale, waiting for it to strike, but I can think only about the vanilla smell. For the first time in ages, the trees are simply trees, instead of places for witches to lurk. Jed's right – it is like a magic spell. How else could a single scent erase years of fear from my mind?
Jed inhales again, then shoves his hands into his overall pockets. He crunches across the gravel in heavy work boots, towards the porch. Before he can go more than a few steps, the door swings open.
The first thing I see is the dog: a golden-coloured shaggy creature whose pink tongue lolls out of his mouth. He barks in greeting.
The second thing I see is the beautiful girl. I'm not sure how I missed her at first glance. She's young and built like a dancer, with a heart-shaped face and long hair that spills like dark chocolate curls. She's wearing a pink flowered apron and holds a lime-coloured bowl on her hip, the way a mother might hold her baby. Everything about her is lovely – classic, the kind of pretty that can't be created with mascara or lip gloss. The girl's dark blue eyes find Jed first, and she grins.
'Jed! You haven't been here in ages!' she scolds him playfully. She turns to set the bowl down inside the cottage, dusts her hands on her apron, then starts across the front porch with the dog following.
'I know, Miss Kelly. We're repavin' the road to the Clarks' place. Takin' way more time than we figured,' Jed says apologetically, sweeping the ball cap off his head.
The girl crosses her arms and laughs, a bell-like sound. Her eyes find Ansel and me. My brother inhales and stands up straighter. He's watching her intently, but melancholy edges around his eyes. He's never really dated. Girls have never been able to understand his – our – baggage.
'And you brought company?' the girl asks. At her words, the dog rushes towards us. Ansel steps in front of me protectively, but the dog simply sniffs around our sandalled feet before licking my toes.
'Sorta,' Jed explains, motioning towards my brother and me. 'They broke down on the highway and are lookin' to make some cash to fix the car. I was thinkin' if you still needed some work done, this guy might be able to help you out.'
'Hmm, okay,' she says, nodding. The dog sits at my feet; I lean down to stroke his head. When I look back up, I discover the girl's eyes on mine – and they're no longer sparkly, no longer happy, but rather, yearning. Desperate, even, as if she's searching for an answer within me but coming up empty. Her smile fades not into a frown but into a sad sort of expression, the kind you make before you start to cry. She's looking for something, and though I don't know what, I want to help her find it. I want to be her friend. I take a step forward.
She looks away sharply, and her bright smile reappears. Her eyes sparkle again, whatever sadness that had lingered there instantly vanishing.
'Well, if you're interested – what was your name?' she asks my brother.
'Ansel,' he says, his voice shaky and nervous. 'And my sister, Gretchen.'
'Sophia Kelly. I have a few things that'd probably only take the afternoon to knock out. Simple stuff – a few tree limbs that need to come down, a cabinet door that won't stop sticking, that kind of thing. Interested?'
'Yes, yes,' Ansel says breathlessly. Jed snickers, but there's a look of understanding on his wrinkled face.
'Great,' she says, grinning. She whistles, and the dog trots back towards her. 'Are you going to help your brother, Gretchen?'
'I can—' I begin, glancing towards Ansel.
'No. No, I've got it,' Ansel answers quickly. I'm not sure if he actually doesn't need my help or if he just wants to appear extra manly.
- "It is easy to care what happens to these characters, even when readers are left wondering who is on the right side and who is not...will still satisfy readers looking for a thrill."—VOYA
- On Sale
- Aug 7, 2012
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers