By Rachel Medina
As the windows went down, the scent of pine filled the car. Cool air rushed in and blew my hair back from my face. I gulped the fresh, crisp mountain air as I drove higher out of the smog. A glance in the rearview mirror revealed a long tail of cars behind me. I pulled into the next turnout to let them pass. The wind ruffled the papers in the folder on the passenger seat. I grabbed it and slid it inside my work bag. The road clear, I kept going.
Fifteen years ago, I lived with my aunt and uncle and two cousins in a small town on this mountain after my mother’s death. The cancer spread through her body like a wildfire devouring her health. She survived two weeks past the six-month sentence given by the doctors, passing away just as school let out for the summer when I was 10 years old. My father drove me from Oklahoma to his brother’s home in California. He processed his grief while I spent the summer on the mountain.
I remembered my father driving us up that first time and how scared I felt seeing how close to the edge the road brought us. We didn’t talk much. My mother’s illness and passing provided our first common interest…
“We’re almost there.” He gave my leg an awkward pat, then lowered the windows a few inches.
“Will I have my own room?” I held my hair to the side as the wind whipped it all around.
“No, you’ll share with Rebecca. You guys are about the same age. Evan isn’t that much younger. It will be fun.” He gripped the steering wheel tighter. “Do your best to get along with everyone, ok?”
“Ok.” I stared down at the book in my hands. I hope they get along with me. The twisting roads nauseated me when I tried to read. I preferred books to people. Most kids gave up on me before too long. I watched out the window as the edge of the mountain grew wide to hold groups of pine trees and at last roads branching off to houses.
The car crunched over the gravel driveway and my Aunt Heather came out to meet us. We climbed out of the car, cramped from the long trip.
“Welcome!” she said giving me a tight hug. “How was your drive?”
My father stretched as he answered, “Oh, not too bad. Where’s John and the kids?”
Just then my cousins burst out the front door, jumping and waving their arms, shouting, “Hi! Hi! Hi!”
I flinched toward the car, startled. My father gave a short wave, then started unloading the bags from the back of the car. Uncle John pulled in behind us in his work truck. He got out and hugged my father for a long minute. I looked away when I saw their shoulders shake. My cousins stopped their exuberant greeting, stared at their dad, who wiped tears from his cheeks.
My aunt put her arm around me and walked toward the house. “Hey, ok, guys, let’s tone it down. They had a long drive. Let’s give them the grand tour of this amazing place.”
The house was three stories. My aunt and uncle had a master suite on the top floor with a spectacular view. The main level held the living room and kitchen with the kids’ bedrooms tucked down a short hallway. The bottom level was the family room, a huge TV connected to an Atari next to a wall of game cartridges and VHS tapes. A cupboard held small bags of chips, Little Debbie desserts, and juice boxes, perfect fare for long afternoons playing Pac Man or watching a Star Wars movie marathon. The sliding glass door led to a small patio and steep slope open to the surrounding woods.
For dinner, Aunt Heather made spaghetti with the same Ragu sauce my mother used. I
put my fork down after the first bite.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Aunt Heather asked, dishing up second servings to my ravenous cousins.
I shook my head, a large knot formed in my throat. I threw a furtive glance at my father’s plate, still full. He was not eating either. Our eyes met for a long moment and he gave me a sad half-smile.
“Hey, you kids, clean up,” Uncle John said. “That means pots and pans, too.”
Rebecca and Evan groaned.
“The dishwasher is clean,” Aunt Heather said. “Unload and then load. Leave no dish behind!” She pointed at each of them. “Get to it!”
“Why don’t you help clear the table,” my father said.
I carried my plate into the kitchen then stood holding it, self-conscious and unsure what to do.
“You can scrape the plates if you want,” Rebecca said, pointing at the sink. I scraped the uneaten food off the plates into the garbage disposal. Evan flipped the switch and let it run, the noise created a swirling whirlwind until Uncle John shouted, “That’s long enough, thank you!”
Rebecca and Evan were loud and rowdy as they cleaned up together. Overwhelmed, I retreated to the couch with my book. The adults sat at the table with coffee as they conversed in low tones.
“Hey, kids,” my uncle called over the chaotic sounds emanating from the kitchen, “why don’t you take that commotion outside?” The light of the summer evening still shone, darkness not yet taking hold on the mountain.
“We’re not done, yet,” Rebecca hollered as a pot clanged onto the floor.
“Oh my God, just let them go,” Aunt Heather said, touching her temple.
“Finish later, just go outside,” Uncle John hollered.
The back door slammed as my cousins ran out onto the wooden deck. Rebecca knocked on the window across the room. She motioned for me to come out. Evan danced in a frenzy beside her, arms flailing. I shook my head and held up my book.
“Go outside and play,” my father commanded.
He answered my beseeching look with a swift shake of his head. My eyes averted in protest, I obeyed.
Goosebumps rose on my arms in response to the cool evening air. “Aren’t you guys cold?”
“Come on,” Rebecca said, pulling my hand. “Let’s play hide and seek! Evan, you’re it. Start counting!” We ran off the deck and down the hill behind the house.
She led me through some bushes and we emerged at a small creek. Rebecca crouched to put her hands in the water, then stood and shook them dry. “Sorry about your mom. She always sent great presents for my birthday.”
“Thanks.” I gazed up toward the house as I tried to see the sky behind the trees. Evan played on the deck with the dog. “Is this a good hiding place? Can’t he see us?”
Rebecca laughed. “We’re not really playing. I just wanted to get away from him for a minute. We can’t go far since it’s almost dark. The animals, you know, it isn’t safe.”
“Animals?” My eyes darted around. A rock crashed into the bush next to me and I jumped.
“Found you!” Evan yelled from above us.
Rebecca gave him the finger and snickered seeing my shocked face. “Just joking, scaredy cat! Want to go back up?” She took off through the bushes. I lingered at the creek. When I looked up at the house again, my father stood on the deck. I waved and he waved back, then went inside.
Rebecca’s voice carried through the woods, “Where are you? Come on!”
I ran to join her…
A horn blared, startling me out of my reverie. I sped up and exited the highway, entering the downtown area, small shops, and restaurants surrounding a lake.
The grocery store and park were unchanged. Aunt Heather shopped while we played at the park or fed ducks at the lake. Then we would all get drinks at the little coffee stand.
I spotted the Mexican restaurant where Evan insisted on trying the hottest salsa and then spent the rest of the time crying and holding a napkin on his tongue.I passed the art gallery where Aunt Heather went to daydream over Thomas Kinkade pictures when she needed a break. At the park, I saw the bench I retreated to when I needed my own break that summer.
I parked near the lake and strolled the sidewalk. The library looked the same. A sense of excitement still awakened in me seeing its doors, carved to look like tree trunks, that opened so much magic for us. The library was a treasure trove of books, magazines, and movies that we plundered. I introduced Rebecca to John Bellairs while she and Evan demanded I read every book in the Merlin Trilogy. No one was disappointed. Every trip concluded with ice cream cones from the vendor parked outside.
Further down, I peered in the window of the pet store that had kittens on display and cupped my hands on the glass to see inside. My heart skipped a beat at the sight of the green sign that pointed the way to Amphibians and Reptiles in the back.
After spending months in the stifling gloom of a sick room, curled up on the couch between the window and my mother’s hospital bed, life on the mountain rejuvenated my senses. My cousins and I explored every tree, rock, and gurgling stream of water that summer. They reveled in sharing their knowledge and I soaked it all in. We rolled logs over to inspect the damp underworld. Uncle John let us collect milky, fat woodworms with round, red heads to keep overnight in a foil-wrapped mayonnaise jar with air holes punched through the lid. He made us let them go in the morning.
“But I want to keep them!” Evan protested.
“It isn’t fair to keep living creatures confined. How would you feel being trapped in a tiny space? Release them.”
We discovered more wildlife as we peeled back layers of pine needles on the forest floor. One time, a small, red salamander stared at us, shocked by the sudden exposure to light. Rebecca and Evan weren’t impressed by the tiny, damp creature, but I was enthralled.
“A tiny lizard!” I exclaimed.
“No, salamanders are amphibians,” Evan said, shaking his head at me.
Rebecca shrugged. “Let’s see what’s for lunch. I’m hungry.” They ran off.
I stayed, mesmerized by the salamander’s glossy eyes. My reflection shone in the small orbs, a double image of my face in the blackness. Without thinking, I scooped up the tiny creature in a handful of moist earth. I held my other hand over it as I ran to the deck and found the woodworm jar, carefully dumped the dirt in, then screwed the lid on tight. The salamander stood tense, stared at me with those eyes where I saw myself staring back.
I snuck the jar in the house and hid it from view under my bed. The salamander moved to the side of the jar and never took its eyes off me. We spent the afternoon staring at each other, my face gleaming in the glossy blackness.
After dinner, I went outside and caught roly-polies that I carried into the house in my pocket. The salamander flicked a glance at the bugs after I dropped them in, but it stayed pressed to the side of the jar. The roly-polies burrowed into the dirt.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I whispered.
One blink in response.
I knew that I should let it go. But, I couldn’t.
My sleep that night was disturbed. I dreamt of being trapped, being sick, not being able to get out. My eyes opened to gray light behind the curtains. My head pounded. I leaned over the bed and checked the salamander. Still there on the side of the jar, barely breathing, red skin faded to brown, dull black eyes. I could not see my reflection.
The sun was just starting to show through the trees as I slipped out of the house carrying the jar. My slippers padded over the ground as I made my way back to the spot where the salamander lived. I unscrewed the lid as I walked, whispering to the tiny creature, “I’m sorry.”
My eyes filled with tears as I laid the jar on its side, the dirt falling around the salamander, but not burying it. I crouched, waited. After a few minutes, it crept to the mouth of the jar, then darted out, and scrambled beneath the pine needles. Hot tears warmed my cold face. I dumped the dirt and blended it back into the earth…
Around the corner from the pet store, I found the coffee stand that was always open. A young woman with a lip ring took my order. When she asked my name, I gave her my standard fake, “Summer”.
The first time I heard Aunt Heather order coffee, she gave her name as Olivia. When I asked her why, she told me, “Oh, that’s always been my favorite name. You should use your favorite name, too. What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, everyone should have a standard fake name. It makes life more exciting, especially when you’re just ordering coffee.”
The barista called out, “Olivia!”
Aunt Heather winked at me as she went to get her drink, “Right here! Thanks!”
I thought about it for days afterward. I could use my mother’s name, Ashley, but that wasn’t my favorite name. Maybe one of my favorite characters. Harriet with the notebooks? Katie with the silver eyes? Then one day, after spending the morning racing twigs in the creek with Rebecca and Evan, as I lay in the hammock my uncle had hung just for me between two trees where the sun always shone, it came to me. The sun warmed my skin as I gazed through the trees to a brilliant blue sky. The breeze tousled my hair and I closed my eyes. I am okay. Now I am okay. When we went for coffee again, I gave my name as “Summer.”
“Perfect choice. I love it,” Aunt Heather said, dabbing at her eyes with a napkin…
I got my coffee and headed back to the car.
My father and I had moved down the mountain after that summer. He transferred to the east coast after I graduated from college. I stayed for the career opportunities and was in the middle of a successful business launch, but lately, the hectic pace made me question if it was all worth it. I rarely saw the sun or spoke to anyone outside work. When Aunt Heather called, it had been over a year since I had heard her voice.
She told me that my uncle was struggling with health issues. “He’s been unable to work for a while. The arthritis in his hands is worse. He can’t hold his tools sometimes.” A long pause, then a deep breath. “We’re losing the house.”
My heart pounded. “Oh my God.” Even though I hadn’t been on the mountain for years, I felt comforted knowing they were there, in the house, with the hammock and the creek. But now they were losing it all. They had two months to get out. There was already a listing for it so the bank could find a buyer and cut their losses.
“You have a box of stuff in the crawl space, do you want to come up and get it? I can ship it if you want. I’m sending boxes to Rebecca and Evan. They can’t spare any time right now.” She blew her nose.
“I can’t believe this. I’m so sorry, Aunt Heather. I’ll come up.”
Her voice cracked. “I need to go. Love you.”
After we hung up, my thoughts swirled, grief then outrage. Uncle John worked so hard, how could this happen? What can be done? This is so unfair! Why aren’t my cousins helping them?
I called Rebecca the next day. “Hey! How are you?”
“Wow, hey girl! I can’t really talk right now. I’m at home with a sick kid and the vomit is flowing. What’s going on?”
“Oh, I just talked to your mom yesterday. I can’t believe they’re losing the house!”
“I know,” she sighed. “But are you surprised? I mean they always struggled to make ends meet up there…oh, honey are you gonna barf again? Go to the toilet! Run! Sorry, I have to go!”
Evan responded to my email from the military base in Florida. He was happy to be off the mountain and would not miss the small community now that he had seen the world with the Navy. He thought his parents should use the opportunity to downsize.
I spent the next week planning my trip. I left my aunt a message with my arrival date. She returned my call soon after, but I let it go to voicemail. Her voice was flat as she informed me that the dates were fine, but I should know that there was already a buyer for the house. Things were moving fast and escrow would close next week.
The car tires crunched over gravel as I parked in the driveway. I grabbed my work bag and walked up the steps of the deck, going around to the side to see the woods. The creek glistened through the trees. I inhaled the scent of pine and closed my eyes as the sunlight warmed my skin. I’m okay. I’m okay now. I turned at a tap on the window behind me. My aunt, her face red and swollen, waved at me with a tissue in her hand.
My heart raced as she opened the back door and gave me a weary smile. “Thank you for coming. I’m so glad you’re here,” her voice wavered.
I hugged her. “Well, why don’t you give me the grand tour. I just bought this amazing place.”