I think there’s a mistake a lot of people make when thinking about small towns, one we have TV to blame for. People think that they’re… I don’t know… ‘mini-cities’ or something; that you’ll find the same things you’d find in New York City or Philadelphia just smaller and a little off brand. They think small towns are overflowing with drama and tension from long-standing rivalries and close-knit gossip machines. And, I don’t know, maybe there are towns out there like that. In fact, there probably are. But for me at least, Golden Springs always just felt empty.
Here’s the thing—we had a Wal-Mart, and a McDonald’s, and all those other staples of the American Dream, they were just ridiculously far apart. By extension, walking anywhere was out of the question unless you lived downtown; and it wasn’t like there was anything super exciting there anyway. After seven years in Golden Springs I’d long since worn out any appeal in the tired old antique shops and specialized boutiques once held. We had some interesting small businesses, but they weren’t that interesting, which meant that my friends and I spent a lot of time just hanging out at each others’ houses.
I guess you could say that the most interesting part of Golden Springs was its name. I mean, come on, ‘Golden Springs’? It sounded fake, and corny, and overall just dumb, but nevertheless that had been the title of this area since it was founded way back when. Some guy had been specifically told by his parents not to immigrate to America and go hunting for gold, and he had responded by proceeding to ship himself over here and found this town. He came up with the name himself to reference that.
Somebody hadn’t had a good relationship with their parents, I guess. In some ways, I wished I could relate. Sure, we’d had spats here and there, but up until the end my parents and I had been as close as could be. I always knew that they loved me, and valued me, and wanted the best for me but also for me to find whatever that was myself.
I missed them a lot.
But this isn’t a story I tell for sympathy or for attention. Yeah, my parents died. The circumstances were weird and you’ll probably learn more soon enough. But that’s not the important thing. My life wasn’t changed by how my parents died.
It was changed by how they lived.
I wouldn’t consider myself an exceedingly social person. It’s not that I dislike other people, per se, but I’ve always had problems connecting with them. I think too hard about what to say sometimes, sometimes awkward things come out of my mouth without me intending it. Being a nerd isn’t as cut and dry as it used to be… popular kids like the Marvel movies same as everybody else, and sporty kids can still annoy the heck out of everybody else. So I felt sort of nerdy, but it was a hard thing to define. In any case, I didn’t have many friends.
The exception to this was Ashley Khan.
I met Ashley the very first month I moved into Golden Springs. I was ten, maybe eleven, and had just finishing unpacking my things with Aunt Emma. I was still in a fairly angsty phase, you know… my family had just died. Aunt Emma’s neighbors had thrown a welcome party for me, streamers and cake, strangers surrounding me telling me how excited they were to see me and it was too much. I’d run out of the house in tears in a typical preteen fashion.
Aunt Emma’s house was a townhome in a fairly well-to-do neighborhood just off of Thomas Aquinas Lane, a quiet street with some old school small businesses sitting across from an old playground. Though the playground was not connected to the vast, dense woods which surrounded much of the town it felt just as ethereal and isolated. I think that’s why I picked it to escape from the partiers. Quiet seclusion was all I really wanted.
Yet as I pushed through the trees and towards the old wooden structures, mostly too small for me at my age, I sighted another girl, idly humming as she swung back and forth on the swings. It was a song I knew- one I’d heard on the radio a few times- which relaxed me, oddly. The girl was my age, darker, with beautiful black hair streaked with red. She wore simple jeans and a sweatshirt but she wore them with an air of confidence. I stopped in my tracks, suddenly hyper aware of my tear-smeared face and childish, messy clothing.
“Hello,” she smiled at me.
“Uh… hi,” I smiled back weakly, crossing my arms unconsciously.
“You’re Marina, right?” Ashley guessed, the tips of her feet brushing the grassy soil as she swung.
“Yeah…” I nodded, blinking. “Do I know you?”
“Not really,” Ashley shrugged. “My parents tried to make me go to your welcome party. Said we had a lot in common.”
“But… you didn’t?” I pointed out, not sure whether to be offended or not by that.
“Sorry about that,” Ashley pursed her lips together. “I just thought… after all you’ve been through… the last thing you need is people around you celebrating your new life as if it cost nothing.”
I took a shallow breath. This girl seemed to know exactly what I’d been thinking when I’d left the party, exactly what I’d felt. It was a little creepy.
“Are you psychic?” I blurted out, my face going red as I realized what had just escaped my lips.
“Ha, no,” Ashley shook her head, giggling a bit. “No, I just… have some experience with losing family. Not that it’s something you get used to.” Her face darkened, and her words seemed to take on a new weight. “People think that when you start a new phase of life… when things change… the things before just sort of are in the past. But the past doesn’t exist and you can’t move on because you’ll always miss the old things. That’s how I feel at least.”
“That’s heavy,” I observed.
The strange girl shrugged. “It is what it is.”
For a moment we lapsed into an awkward silence. My gaze flickered towards the stars shimmering in the night sky, while Ashley kicked absently at the dusty earth beneath the swings. “Do you want to swing?” she asked suddenly.
“Uh…. sure,” I nodded, moving awkwardly to take a seat on the swing next to hers.
“I’m Ashley, by the way,” she smiled at me, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “Ashley Khan.”
“Marina,” I repeated, though I knew she knew my name. “Okendale.”
“Okendale,” Ashley wrinkled up her nose. “Wasn’t that a family in an old TV show?”
“Yeah,” I admitted with a laugh. “I’ve heard all the jokes.”
“Jokes? Why?” Ashley raised an eyebrow. “That’s a sick name. Marina Okendale.”
“It’s not that cool,” I looked away, embarrassed.
“No, seriously,” Ashley persisted, grinning. “My name is super generic. Do you know how many Ashley’s I know?”
“Uh… two or three?” I tried, belatedly realizing the question was rhetorical.
“Five,” Ashley took this awkward guess in stride. “Acreflow, Smith, Jeng, Matthews, and me. And that’s just at my school.”
“Seriously?” I laughed.
“Seriously,” Ashley smiled. “But I’ve never once been friends with a Marina.”
“Well…” I blushed, swinging back and forth idly. “I’ve never been friends with an Ashley.”
“I guess it’s my sacred duty to change that, then,” Ashley snickered, and so it was that Ashley became my best friend.
We couldn’t be more different- while I was shy and studious, Ashley was athletic and rebellious. She enjoyed going to parties and playing floor hockey with her friends, while I enjoyed rainy alone days and a good, long book. But somehow it worked. We told each other secrets, came up with codes and games, and went over to each other’s houses whenever possible. When I turned 12 Ashley bought me a ridiculously corny friendship bracelet, and I returned the favor the moment hers arrived. We just… got each other, in a way others didn’t.
Throughout the years, as we finished up at Aquinas Elementary and moved on to Thunder Hill Middle School, our bond remained strong, even as we drifted into separate groups. I hung with the nerdy outcasts, and she hung with the popular athletes, but we still found each other in the hallways, sharing secretive smiles and plans to hang out which dumbfounded our friends.
A few weeks before everything changed somebody asked me: “How can you be friends with somebody so different from you? Isn’t it hard to find stuff to do?”
I’d just smiled. Because the truth was, the differences between Ashley and I only ran skin deep. We shared troubled pasts, broken families, and most importantly, an intense love for board games of any sort.
So this was our ritual: Meeting together every Friday evening, after Ashley had had a chance to go home and shower after practice, and we walked together to the Chuckling Willow Tavern on Thomas Aquinas Lane. It was a relatively small pub and grill, never quite empty but never quite packed, home to the world’s best burgers and calamari. It was odd- I mean, we were nowhere near the sea- but everybody in our town agreed: the Chuckling Willow made some good seafood. The owner, Dr. MacBride, had been a researcher at Princeton before moving here. She was a good friend of Aunt Emma’s, and so she tolerated Ashley and my presence in her institution on a regular basis. We came here almost every week to share stories, play board games, and generally just relax.
Because that was Ashley and my thing- board games. It was a nerdy, silly thing, but it was our thing. We tried every game we could find, strategy, family, kids, or otherwise. Simple or complex. I mean, we were limited to two person games, but it was still fun. We weren’t even that good at them, and half the time we didn’t even try to win. It was just a thing to do to connect.
The night I broke my world… the night everything changed… Ashley and I were hanging out in a booth in the corner of the restaurant, scanning the complex instructions of a game we had just picked up. Our favorite table, situated by the large windows at the front of the restaurant, had been taken by a young couple, so we’d moved over to our second choice. Table 8, a quiet little nook tucked behind some decorative pillars, giving it a refreshingly isolated feeling.
“So, Anne and Meg would not shut up at practice today,” Ashley told me, popping a fry into her mouth with a mixture of annoyance and amusement. “They kept going on and on about Jackie’s last story like it was the biggest thing since Watergate. God, they’re such gossips. I don’t know why anybody trusts them with anything.”
“You trust them enough to play with them,” I shrugged, relaxing back into the plush booth seat. “I mean, I assume so at least. You’ve been doing well.”
“I trust them to catch a ball,” Ashley snickered, finding my comment hilarious. “But holding onto a piece of gossip for more than six seconds? No way.” She pushed over the remainder of our fries towards me, raising an eyebrow. “Want any more?”
“Nope,” I shook my head. “All good here; I had a ton of calamari. Besides, you’re the athlete.”
“Hey, you’re the one expending megawatts of brainpower figuring out this ridiculous game,” Ashley pointed out, though she took back the fries anyway and resume shoveling them into her mouth. “How many dice are we supposed to have again?”
“According to this guide I looked up online,” I bit my lip, sighing. “Only three, but the game was missing some parts. We’ll need five or six.”
“That’s what we get for going preowned,” Ashley rolled her eyes.
“We’re not made of money,” I laughed.
“Hey, I know, but some of these old things are just weird,” my friend tentatively poked at the dilapidated, fading cardboard box we had brought with us to our meal. “Like that antique Monopoly we found. I’m 99% sure that was blood on the box.”
I rolled my eyes. “Or, like, a smoothie or something.”
“Maybe,” Ashley was unconvinced. “But we have no way of knowing. It had a whole history just lost to time, just gone. A history none of us will ever know.”
“That’s true of most things, though,” I tilted my head, thinking through my next statement carefully. “I mean, you can never know everything about everyone. Everything has a story.”
“Ugh, you got philosophical again,” Ashley wrinkled up her nose. “You’re basically an English teacher.”
“You started it,” I crossed my arms.
“Yeah, but I was talking about a musty piece of cardboard,” she pointed out. “Not life in general.”
“I drew a connection,” I shrugged.
“Sometimes an object is just an object,” Ashley laughed. “Not everything has a hidden layer.”
“Having fun, girls?” Ashley and I started as we became aware of Dr. MacBride standing over our booth, arms crossed. Her graying hair was tied up into its usual tight bun, matching the remainder of her stiff, clinical, attire. Not for the first time, I wondered how a person so methodical and neat could be friends with somebody as insane as my Aunt.
“We are,” Ashley smiled, pushing away the now-completed dish of fries. “Thanks again for the discount.”
“Your Aunt and I have an understanding,” Dr. MacBride acknowledged in her typical cold way. “We both have been helping each other for a long time.” She gestured towards the instructions we were poring over. “Is this game going to be complicated? Because I lost a few customers the last time you tripped a server with those dice.”
“Oh, yeah,” both Ashley and I blushed at the memory, avoiding each other’s eyes. That had been quite the mess of blood, tears, and scorching hot chocolate.
“We’re standing by our promise,” Ashley assured the older woman. “Games with a lot of pieces stay at home.”
“Hmph,” Dr. MacBride jerked her head in a sharp nod, and I bit my lip. It was clear that she disliked disrupting our fun, but she did have a business to run. That was the funny thing about Dr. MacBride… for all her chilliness and bluster, she did seem to care. Sort of like a quiet, angsty older sister.
My heart hurt at that word. Sister. My face flushing, I shook myself back to reality. “We’ve paid the bill for the night, so I think we’ll head back to my house to figure out the game.”
“In this weather?” Dr. MacBride frowned, glancing out towards the front of the tavern with some concern. For the first time I saw the pounding tempest outside, and realized my ear had been filtering out the rumblings and rushings of a thunderstorm. It had been cloudy when we’d arrived here, but just barely drizzling. Once more, Ashley and I had lost track of time.
“We’ll be fine,” Ashley assured the doctor, slipping on her rain jacket with her usual air of fearlessness. “Marina’s house is close, and my parents can pick me up when things slow down.”
“If you’re certain,” Dr. MacBride blinked, stalking away to speak to another table. This was the Scotswoman’s way- dark eyes, quick gestures, abrupt entrances and exits. It took a bit of getting used to but I’d been in this town for quite a few years by now.
Ashley and I packed up and with some reluctance we set off for my nearby townhome. Within a few moments of stepping into the thundering darkness we were both drenched, only kept partially dry by our flimsy windbreakers. It would be a five to ten minute walk under these circumstances, which was far from ideal for me, but an adventure to Ashley.
“God, I love rain,” she spun around whimsically as we rounded a corner and crossed the street.
I raised an eyebrow, trying not to focus on the now-soaking locks of hair peeking out from under my hood. “Why?” I grimaced. “It’s so wet.”
Ashley rolled her eyes. “I don’t know. Everything seems more alive in the rain.”
“Except for the drowning earthworms,” I observed darkly, carefully stepping over a wriggling dark shape.
“God, you’re an Angst Lord,” Ashley laughed. “The Angst Lord.”
“I take my title and duties very seriously,” I giggled despite myself.
As Ashley and I chuckled together, making our way towards the darkened, creaking silhouette of my home, we had no idea what we would unleash that day. And we had no idea just how much our lives would change.
This was the last day we would be protected from the world beyond.
With some relief, I unlocked the front door and stepped into the cluttered foyer, with Ashley right behind me. Frowning, I dropped my keys onto a clay tortoise by the door and removed my drenched shoes, painfully aware of just how messy my home was. You’d think that by now I’d be used to Aunt Emma’s odd assortment of knickknacks, strange objects from all over the world which seemed to serve little or no purpose. It was frustrating, but everybody else seemed to find it endearing. Daniel had once told me that the clutter made it feel like a home. I had then told him he probably felt that way because he’d never tripped over a plastic swan sitting randomly in the hallway.
I had no idea how Aunt Emma afforded any of this, let alone the house. She didn’t seem to have any sort of career, simply vanishing during the middle of the day without explanation. If she wasn’t so… well, crazy… I might’ve suspected that Aunt Emma belonged to the mafia.
Ashley dropped her backpack in our kitchen and then the two of us headed up to my bedroom. The house wasn’t huge, per se, but since it was just Aunt Emma and I I had had plenty of choices when picking where I would sleep. I opted for a room on the third floor, not too big and not too small. It had big enough windows for me to enjoy a nice view, and it was located under an empty guest bedroom. Sleeping under Aunt Emma’s room was impossible… her room frequently produced creaks squeaks and groans which made it seem like it had a mind of its own.
I was grateful for Aunt Emma, really. But I needed frequent breaks from her overall craziness.
“Nice décor,” Ashley remarked as she entered my room, a tradition for several years now. She was referring to the wall of photographs above my bed, namely the fact that she was in over half of them. They were pictures of my family and friends- Mom, Dad, Amy, Lucy, even Aunt Emma, not to mention Ashley and Daniel and the rest of my friends. I liked photography quite a bit. I hoped I’d be able to fit it into my schedule when I started high school next year.
“Thanks,” I grunted, pulling over a small table to the center of the room so that we could set up our game. It was missing a few dice, which we replaced with some from our stash. After a few minutes, we had the board prepared exactly as intended.
“Hm, it looks like we’re going to have to pick roles,” Ashley wrinkled up her nose as she read from the pamphlet. “There are two rival families.”
“Like Romeo and Juliet?” I raised an eyebrow.
“I guess,” Ashley shrugged. “Uh, both of us need to pick a family to stand with.” She continued reading, and deflated a bit. “Aw, man. This game looks like a lot more fun with four people.”
“Well, you know Daniel is always down to join in,” I offered. “Do you know anybody else who wouldn’t judge us super hard for playing this?”
“My teammates would rather take a bath with a plugged in toaster,” Ashley rued, crossing her arms. “And who else do we know? Freaking Lilianna?”
Lilianna was an odd girl in our grade who had seemingly appeared from nowhere a few years ago. She rarely ever talked and kept to herself, yet always seemed to be hanging at the edges of Ashley and my lives, watching us with those eerie, unreadable brown eyes. She drifted along through life like a ghost, cursed to haunt Ashley and me with furtive glances and judgmental stares.
She also seemed to get exceptional grades in most classes, which was annoying.
“Yeah, maybe the four player game isn’t going to happen,” I sighed. “Also, do you know I think I saw her following me home the other day? It’s super creepy but Aunt Emma won’t do anything about it.”
“My mother thinks she’s homeless or something,” Ashley crossed her arms. “Tells me to be nice to her.”
“Maybe if Lilianna wouldn’t vanish into the shadows everytime we so much as say hello,” I blew some hair out of my face. “And people say I’m shy…”
Just then, there was a crash of thunder, so loud that Ashley started and accidentally knocked over the board. She swore and began to gather the pieces just as the lights flickered.
“Oh, that’s not good,” my friend paused, glancing up at my lamp with some concern as it flickered again.
“Yeah, our electricity’s days are numbered,” I observed, getting to my feet reluctantly. “I’ll get us some flashlights, just in case.”
“Sounds good,” Ashley gave me a thumbs up, and I pushed out of my bedroom and set off towards our pantry. I descended the stairs to the ground floor quickly, hurriedly turning into the messy kitchen and throwing open the doors to the closet. Unfortunately, the flashlights were nowhere to be found. I sighed- Aunt Emma’s messiness had struck again.
I flew through the entirety of the kitchen’s drawers, searching for anything I could use rather than precious phone energy for when the power inevitably died. Unfortunately, my search turned up little more than rubber bands and regrets, and I expanded its radius to include the family room and foyer. Neither of these rooms turned up anything useful either, and I slammed a wardrobe shut with frustration. As if on cue, there was an ominous crash outside, and suddenly I was plunged into darkness.
“Marina!” I heard Ashley yell from my room.
“Working on it!” I shouted back.
Thinking quickly, I remember the last time I’d seen the flashlights. Aunt Emma had needed them for some sort of midnight run she’d gone on with Dr. MacBride. Maybe they were still sitting in her room somewhere. I didn’t go into Aunt Emma’s room a lot- it was by far the messiest part of the house, made even worse by the fact that Aunt Emma seemed to think she was accomplishing something by the mess. Once I’d started to vacuum up a trail of salt peaking out of her closet and she’d yelled at me not to disturb her work.
Again—my Aunt was suspicious as heck.
I ran back up the stairs through the darkness, though this time I ascended one more flight so I could reach the master suite which Aunt Emma called home. Carefully, I felt around for a familiar doorknob and pushed. I was greeted by almost pitch darkness.
Sighing, I opened my phone and turned on the flashlight feature, shining it reluctantly into the void. Sure enough, the floor was littered with unlit candles and some odd crystals, which I carefully stepped around and closed the door behind me.
I stepped over the mess and made my way towards the wall to my right. I would skirt the edges of the master suite, looking over Aunt Emma’s many bookshelves for a trace of what I wanted among the mildewed old books and rusting copper pots. I passed her sputtering desktop computer, still barely working after all these years, and pulled myself over a comfortable armchair I knew to be a favorite of hers. No trace of what I was looking for. I bent down a bit, looking to see if the flashlights had fallen behind the chair, but suddenly found myself tripping over an unseen plate of a strange powder lying on the floor. I yelped as I fell backwards, grabbing for support from the shelf but only succeeding in pulling a piece of paper with me as I tumbled onto the chair. Embarrassing.
Awkwardly, I righted myself and got back to my feet, shaking off the heebie-jeebies and getting my first glance at the map in my hand. I frowned- it was of the United States, and somebody had circled Maine several times. Was I taking a vacation to Maine? What was in Maine? Scrawled in my Aunt’s handwriting were two words- Hunters’ Run. That sounded like a place. But why was my Aunt so concerned with it?
I shook myself from my thoughts, giving up on trying to comprehend my Aunt’s bizarre logic. Biting my lip, I placed the map back where I found it and started towards Aunt Emma’s closet. I was so intent on my destination that I almost walked straight past a door I hadn’t even noticed. A door whose outline seemed to be pulsing a strange light blue, like there was a giant TV on right behind it.
A door I had always thought led to the attic.
Well, whatever this was, it was a source of light. Carefully, I pushed against the doorknob, only to find the room was locked. Well, that wouldn’t be a problem- the locks in this house hadn’t been replaced in years, and some were defective. Defective enough that if you hit the door just right….
Carefully, I slammed the doorknob with a paperweight I grabbed from the floor. There was a familiar clicking noise, and as I pushed again, the door unlocked. My eyes widened as I saw what was inside the room.
The small, closet-like space was packed with more bookcases, but these were the only furnishing within the room. An old wooden ladder led up to what I assumed was the attic, but I hardly noticed it since the room was being lit by what appeared to be a giant glowing blue crystal in the center of the room, surrounded by rings of candles and… salt?
“God, this has got to be a fire hazard,” I blinked, trying to figure out what I was looking at. Carefully, I turned off my phone and put it away. I didn’t need the light anymore. Taking a deep breath, I bent down and reached for the glowing crystal. It was cool to the touch, and surprisingly light, but strangest of all there were no wires or switches or anything electronic attached to it.
“What is this?” I murmured to myself, turning the crystal over in my hands. “A glow stick or something?”
I squinted, trying to get a better look at the material, when a loud noise sounded behind me. I started, and dropped the crystal- it fell to the wooden floor with a crash and suddenly a wave of light pulsed out of it in all directions, momentarily blinding me. The candles flickered out.
“What was that?” Ashley asked from behind me, and I realized she was the one who had scared me. I tried to steady my breathing.
“I don’t know,” I told her honestly. “It’s just some lamp my Aunt owns.”
“Did you break it?” Ashley frowned, pushing into the closet and peering over my shoulder at the crystal. Shallow cracks flawed its surface, and the light coming from it was now flickering. “What was that burst of light?”
Without warning, the lights flashed back on, and I realized that electricity had returned to the house. I heard a frantic shout from downstairs, tinged with fear. “Marina?” My aunt yelled, and I heard the sound of pounding feet on stairs. “Marina, are you okay?”
I exchanged a worried look with Ashley and we exited the closet, hurrying to meet my Aunt halfway. However, the door burst open and an elderly lady decked out in funky old silks and hand-made jewelry pushed past us, going into the closet and letting out a scream. Disoriented, I stood for a moment and tried to regain my bearings.
“Wow, she’s fast for an old lady,” Ashley blinked.
Aunt Emma poked her head out of the closet, a storm in her usually placid blue eyes. “What happened?” she asked, shaking. “Who did this?”
“It was my fault, Ms. Okendale,” Ashley stepped forward before I could stop her. “I scared Marina, and–”
Aunt Emma didn’t wait to hear the rest, leaping back into the closet and slamming the door behind her. There was a faint whispering, and another flash of light from behind the door, and suddenly the door was back open. Aunt Emma emerged, suddenly perfectly calm.
“There, there,” she smiled, though there was a frightening something else behind it. “All fixed. No need to worry.”
“What was that?” Ashley crossed her arms, just as shaken as I was by this jarring turn of events. “What did you fix?”
“Nothing you need to worry about,” Aunt Emma repeated as if it had been unclear the first time, suddenly closing the distance between us and enveloping me in a hug. “It was only down for a minute. We’re safe. They’ll never find us.”
I shared a frightened look with Ashley. A pit formed in my stomach as I considered, for the first time, that the mafia was the safest explanation for all of this.
Because in my heart, I knew that Aunt Emma was wrong. I knew I’d made a mistake, and I knew that they were coming for us.
I just didn’t know who they were, and what they had to do with the fire that killed everyone I loved.