I watched the people rush around without seeing them. I held onto the photo without feeling it. Nothing mattered anymore. He was dead. My father was dead! My entire life was destroyed, consumed by the flames. I stared blankly as piece after piece of my home burned away and toppled to the ground. I saw the men trying to put out the fire and wondered what the point was. No one would live there anymore.
"She can't hear you chief. You'll have to carry her," said a female physician.
"Are you sure she will be alright?" he asked.
"Physically she's fine, but I worry about her emotionally. Who can take care of her now?"
"That's what we need to find out." The man picked me up and I hadn't the will to protest.
Just before the house left my sight, I saw a man dressed in black. His face was deathly white and his hair, blacker than the night sky, was tied into a long, stringy ponytail. I wondered who he was and what he was doing at this tragic scene. A small home in flames under a merciless, starless sky.
Three months later
"Back to your room Sophia!" I had heard that awful shout far too many times in recent months. "Do you have any idea how much trouble you're in?"
"You can't do much about it now can you?" I hollered back grinning with success.
I had never hurt a human being in my life and never planned to but my soon to be ex-foster mom was anything but human. She had given me one too many bruises and scrapes. And when the foster care center had come to check on us a second time, I had proved the truth about her. The first time I was in too much shock to resist her orders about making her look innocent, but now things were different.
"I'm going to kill you!" she roared.
I snorted. She said that at least ten times a day. "You would be the primary suspect for my murderer and you know it."
"You have no respect for me! What about everything I've done for you?"
I actually laughed. It was the first laugh I'd had since before the fire. "The only thing you've done for me was showing me that I need to defend myself in this world. You couldn't care less if I drowned in my own blood."
I rolled my eyes as she began one of her fake crying fits. "Oh how you must loath me! All I wanted was to be a good mother for you! I wanted to give you food and a place to sleep! How can you repay me this way?"
"I'm not buying one of your 'I'm sorry' acts again. Why don't you go back to your marijuana?"
She screamed then and slammed many doors. I listened with discomfort and reveled in the fact that it would be the last time I ever heard it. I grinned as the doorbell rang. He was here.
I rushed down the stairs with my few possessions. The only thing that had survived the fire was a photo of my dad and I kept it close at all times. My social worker motioned me out and I went gladly.
The car ride was uncomfortable after so many weeks of walking everywhere. It reminded me of the last time I had driven and who I had been with. I had buried all of that up but the pain was still there and it threatened to crush my sanity.
"Do you know where I'm going now?" I asked, not feeling too hopeful. At least it wouldn't be another child abuser.
"Well, we've been looking up anyone who might take you in. We contacted a few of those very distant relatives again but this time one of them agreed."
I perked up a bit. "Who?"
He looked back at me for a second. "Someone named Sharron Ross. She's from your mothers side of the family, about my age. Would you like to live with her?"
A granny? I was a bit disappointed but at least I was related to this person. Unlike her. "Where does she live?" I asked, hoping that it wouldn't be somewhere too isolated.
"Some mountain town in Colorado."
I couldn't help groaning in despair. I was a born Californian and my best option was to leave my beloved ocean for a rocky wasteland. I thought about my other options and in a moment of desperation asked, "What did my other relatives say?"
"Lucy Bennett has been recently widowed. She already has the responsibility of her son and wanted to avoid any other possible tragedy. She didn't think it would be good for her son emotionally either.
I had only two other options and I loathed them. I would either have to live with another untrustworthy foster family or go and live with my only willing relative. I finally came to my conclusion and said, "I would like to live with Sharon but I'll miss the beach."
"I would definitely agree with you on that, he said, "but Sharron seemed like a nice enough woman on the phone. Her records are clean and free of drugs, so that's reassuring."
I just nodded and was quiet for the rest of the car ride. I wondered what Colorado would be like. I knew very little about it. I looked at my photo and solemnly wished that my dad was alive. I then thought of something I hadn't for years. What had my mother been like? My dad had rarely talked about her. She had died giving birth to me. My family had a history of dying in child birth and dad had worried that I would too. For some bizarre reason my ancestors had only ever had a single girl before dying. I knew very little about my mother's side of the family and wondered what my relative would be like.
"Call me Sharron." she said, keeping her eyes on the road.
The woman had an average height and weight with graying hair and an obvious hate for animals. One of the first things I had learned about her was that she had a hunting license and carried a shot gut in her car. I definitely didn't want to get on this woman's bad side. For the most part though, she seemed very nice. Despite her no dogs allowed car stickers she seemed pretty trustworthy.
"Um, Sharron?" I asked. "How high up do we have to go exactly?"
She smiled, "Hold onto your guts. This is the flat part of the drive."
I examined the countryside from my window and then looked beyond to the rocky mountains. They looked sharp and menacing. Even though it was late May, some of the really tall peaks were snow capped. I hated long car rides and I wasn't sure I would have any guts to hold onto by the time we reached the mountains.
I watched the clear blue plane that was the sky and examined the fenced in horses and cattle with distaste. I wasn't sure, but I thought I might have even seen a couple of ostriches. We stopped for gas just before entering the windy road. I could take rollercoaster's, I could take g-force, I could even take parasailing, but something about this slow and windy mountain road at such a high altitude made my stomach churn. I almost wished I had no guts to loose.
After a long, boring, and miserable ride which included me puking twice, we finally made it to a stone sign that read: Estes Park. On the road down I noticed the lake. It was a very deep blue with ducks geese and something that looked like a seagull. What I could see of the town was small and un-crowded. Just the kind of place I hated. I was surprised when we got to Sharron's house so soon. In a city it would've taken a lot longer. It looked more like a cabin than a house and was in the midst of evergreen trees and an uneven meadow. The meadow was covered with tufts of a strange long grass. It was filled with numerous wildflowers and was quite rocky. There were some rock formations in the near distance.
"It'd be a perfect day for the outdoors." Sharon snapped me out of my thoughts.
"I guess," I mumbled.
"Still a California gal eh?" asked Sharon with a wink.
I shrugged and followed her in. The house was a nice and comfortable environment. The carpets were soft and the living room furniture looked cozy. I could see a fireplace, a real one, not just one of those gas flamed ones with fake logs. Beyond the living room I could see a simple dining room. It contained an oval wooden table with matching chairs. Beyond it were glass doors that let pleasant sunlight in.
I began to explore the rest of the house when Sharon sharply ordered, "The only places off limit's are the basement and upstairs. I don't even go there."
"Alright," I said and went on with my gloomy day.
The weeks passed without much to do. I went downtown a lot and got some personal favorites from the library, but most of the time Sharon kept me out of the house. I wondered why. She always gave me some excuse for going out and even gave me money for shopping. It was as if she wanted me in the house as little as possible. Whenever I asked her why, she talked it off and soon left the room.
One night in bed I thought about anything she might be hiding and found myself thinking of the forbidden areas. As quietly as I could, I got up and tried the basement doorknob. Locked. I went to examine the upstairs to find a strange door. It was a flat horizontal board with hinges against the wall. I tried to push it open but found that it was stopped by four locks. I had no key and wondered if there even was one. What was up there?
It seemed strange to have the entire basement and upstairs sealed from use. I wanted to ask Sharon about it but I knew she wouldn't answer. There seemed to be something she didn't want me to know, something she was hiding. My stubborn curiosity was kicking in. My desire to know the unknown was awakening in me after so many months. I finally had a goal, a project. I would find what was hidden.
A wave of uneasiness hit me as I wondered why I felt so adamant about the situation. I shrugged it off and silently crawled back into bed. I was grateful that Sharon was a deep sleeper. It seemed odd to me considering she liked hunting. I supposed that didn't mean anything though.
I awoke the next morning to find that it was still slightly dark out. The sun would soon begin it's assent and the darkened meadow would blaze with color. I had to admit that I was growing a fondness for my new surroundings, despite their alieness. The calm of the moment was shattered when a single, solemn howl rang across the valley. It was a coyote. A lonely Coyote.
I started to wakefulness to find that I had fallen asleep again. The warm glow of daylight had now shown its face and the hum of bees was heard nearby. I was startled that I had slept in so late. The sun was high in the sky ad I was still in bed.
I felt embarrassed about the fact. I felt immature and lazy. It wasn't a self pitying thought, it was a blow to my self esteem. I was a morning person. I quickly dressed myself and brushed my dark brunette hair. My pine green eyes glared at me in the mirror. I sighed and entered the kitchen.
I was startled to see Sharon locking the basement door. She did go down there! I pretended I hadn't spotted her when she walked over to me and I put on an apologetic smile. It fell when I beheld Sharon's grim face. I was really starting to get freaked by that door.
Sharon gave a poorly composed smile and said, "Why don't you go shopping today. Better yet, how about right now." The words were rushed and she was just as clumsy getting money from her wallet.
She handed me a twenty dollar bill, which was way more than she usually gave me and shoved me out the door. I shook my head and wondered for the first time if Sharon had mental issues. She was acting so odd. I tried to fathom what could have happened to stir her up so much and failed. I just couldn't understand her. What was wrong with this picture?
Frustrated and a bit irritated with my forceful removal, I started my walk downtown. As long as I did this every day, I wouldn't gain a pound. Walking around all day, mostly window shopping was exercise and it was the best exercise I was going to get in a place this small. The shops seemed less interesting than usual. It was probably because I'd seen most of them at least five times. I settled with a Blizzard from the Dairy Queen then grudgingly headed back home.
At least I was reassured that Diary Queen still existed. There was also a McDonalds and a cross between Taco Bell and KFC. For a town this small it seemed strange but I couldn't complain. The ten minute walk back to the house was rather boring and I kept eying the river that lined the sidewalk warily. I'd heard about a kid that drowned there. It might just have been a rumor though.
When I reached the cabin, I froze in place. What I saw filled me with fear. Several Coyotes were prowling around the front of the cabin. Their teeth were bared, their ears were laid back against their skulls, and their tails were bent in between their legs. All of these were the signs of aggressive intent in the canine kingdom. Was this what Sharon had been so upset about? There hadn't been any coyotes outside when I'd left though. I remembered with a shudder, the howling I'd heard early that morning.
Maybe they had been coming around often on that morning. Maybe that was why I'd been sent out of the house. Sharon did that everyday anyways though. Not like this. Not with such force. I struggled to hold still so as not to draw the attention of the hunters. They might be small but that many against a lone teenage girl was still dangerous. My confusion grew when I realized that I didn't seem to be their target. It was almost as if the house itself was their target, or something in it.
Something in it... A bizarre thought hit me at that moment. Did they want what was in the locked off areas? I shook the idea off immediately. That was ridiculous. Unless there was a room full of fresh meat in there and they had x-ray vision, it was impossible. Animals simply weren't that smart.
I squeaked when Sharon burst through the door with her shotgun. I was no tree hugger but I was not about to just stand still while anything furry was killed. Sharon had a look of fierce determination. Her mouth was set into a grim line. She aimed her weapon and was about to pull the trigger.
"Don't kill them!" I shrieked. I was too sensitive to death to even see these snarling dogs die.
Sharon seemed to notice me for the first time and eyes hardened even more. She pulled the trigger and hit a coyote on its leg. It yelped in pain and limped into the tall grass. I shook my head in anger, tears spilling. Sharon reloaded and shot again.
No matter how much I wanted to stand up for the creatures I was at that moment, terrified of Sharon. Something about her current attitude made me think, that if I were to get in her way, she would shoot me too. The bullet grazed the side of one's skull and it collapsed. Blood dripped from the wound and I cried out. I didn't know if it was simply unconscious or dead!
Sharon reloaded her gun again but before she could shoot for the third time, three of the coyotes slipped through the open front door. I gasped in shock. What were they doing? The blood drained from Sharon's face and she rushed in after them. I stayed rooted in place and stared blankly at the doorway. I heard several more gun shots and finally managed to look away. My eyes drifted to the fallen coyote. It's brownish grey fur looked soft to the touch. I wondered what it would feel like. Slowly, I bent over it and touched its side. I was relieved to feel the faint rise and fall of it's chest. It was alive!
I wondered what I should do. What could I do? If I went looking for Band-Aid spray or even water, Sharon would notice. I looked at my half finished blizzard. It had no chocolate in it. I hesitantly dipped my fingers into the cool yet melting ice cream and removed a scoop. I put it on the coyotes head and hoped that the cold would revive it. I sat there for minutes, waiting. It did not stir. I wanted to check it's pulse but I didn't know where to look. I felt it's side again and noticed that the breathing was even more shallow.
I felt tears fall down my face as it slowly died. What if this had been a parent? What would it's child do now? Who would take care of the baby coyote now? Dad... I couldn't hate Sharon but I was angry with her. Had she such little respect for life? What had animals ever done to her that she could hate them so much?
I shook my head in disbelief and cautiously stepped into the house. The sounds were gone now. It was over. I thought too soon. Three Coyotes sped out the door, nearly brushing against my legs. Panic filled me. Sharon! If Sharon hadn't killed them... I rushed through the house and found the old woman on the kitchen floor. Her legs were bloody and she was struggling to move towards a phone. Sensing her intent I dialed 911. I hoped an ambulance would get here soon.
I was relieved when the paramedics arrived; but at the sight of the stretcher my stomach knotted. I was having a recollection of the last time I'd seen someone on a stretcher. It had been the body of my dad, charred almost beyond recognition. I held back tears at the forbidden memory and watched as they placed Sharon into the ambulance.
Just before they closed the door, Sharon said three words. "Don't trust anyone!" Then she was gone.
I watched as the ambulance sped away and felt disturbed about recent events. They just didn't make sense! What was with those coyotes and why had Sharon been so aggressive towards them? Did they have rabies or something? I doubted that.
I decided to push those thoughts to the back of my mind and walked into my room. I swallowed a scream when I beheld a coyote on my bed. I was frozen in place, feeling certain that it would attack me. I noticed a ring of keys in it's mouth which it dropped moments later. Then it leaped out my window. My window! The screen had been shredded open and rain was billowing in.
I stared in shock for a while, but when my brain began to respond I felt a flicker of curiosity. I was afraid, because what I had just seen seemed to go against the laws of nature, but I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the unknown. After a moment of hesitation I picked up the keys. At that moment I knew what they were for.
I excitedly tried them one by one on the kitchen door but none of them worked. I rushed to the strange horizontal door that led to the upstairs and managed to unlock all of them. I pushed the wood upwards and against the wall. Dust came pouring down. I coughed and tried to get as much of the stuff off my shirt as I could. That was just downright disgusting. I liked that shirt too. Sighing, I made my way up a few steps then closed the door with a thud. Everything was pitch black. I literally felt ankle deep in dust as I trudged upward, feeling the wall for a light switch. When I finally found one and switched it I was dismayed by how dim and old the overhead light was. Then I looked around. There were dust covered wooden boxes everywhere but when I looked in them I found nothing but old clothes and candlesticks. The big secret didn't seem so exciting anymore, then I remembered that most of Sharon's panic had been directed at the kitchen door. I groaned and wished that I had the key, but Sharon had the key. But what if it wasn't the only key... What if the reason the upstairs was locked off was because a spare key was here? Excited at the possibility, I rummaged through the boxes and the dust, literally turning things over, then I saw a chest in the far left corner of the hall. I quickly unclasped the lock and threw the sewing stuff aside, then I saw it. A single brass key. Darkened with age. It was a classic key. It had the simple teeth you'd imagine old fashioned keys to have as well as a beautiful pattern of shaped metal at the end. It was an intricately smithed cross.
I didn't know why that bothered me but I quickly shoved it into my pocket, not wanting to look at it. I made my way back down the stairs and relocked the strange horizontal door. I cleaned up the dust and myself then went to sleep.
The next day around noon, Sharon got back from the hospital. She was in a wheelchair though. She seemed to hate being so helpless and glared at me nonstop. It was really irritating. What had I done? Seriously. I wasn't one of the coyotes, and she was treating me as if I was one. She refused to take her eyes off me all day, even when I was in my room. If I went to the bathroom she would wait outside the door and she made me fix all of the meals with her eyes boring into my back. She was beyond getting on my nerves.
When I was in bed she literally came into my room and watched me as if to make sure I wouldn't get up. She was sitting in her wheel chair on red alert. It was driving me crazy. I didn't have to ask why she had been acting like this all day because I knew. She knew that I would somehow try to get into the basement and she was doing everything in her nearly immobile power to stop me. I tried to sleep but that horrible feeling of being glared at all the time was preventing it. Eventually I just pretended to sleep in the hope that she would stop, then she did stop. I dared to open my eyes and saw that Sharon had finally giving into her exhaustion.
A small smile touched my lips and I quietly snuck out of bed. I tiptoed out of my bedroom and into the kitchen. Careful not to make a sound, I took the key out of my pocket and silently slipped it into the lock. It fit like a glove. Grinning now, I unlocked the door. I opened it and winced as it creaked like crazy. I stepped behind the door and closed it again. Then I relocked it. Sharon had a key too but it felt good to have the extra security. It wasn't like she could come down in her wheel chair though anyways and that made me feel even better. I flipped on a light switch and made my way down the creaky wooden steps. When I reached the bottom I stared. This wasn't what I had expected to see. The room was bare save mountains of dust and a single cast iron vault, laid down on it's back.
I eyed it critically then rushed over to it. I tried to open the lid but it was too heavy. Then I saw the keyholes. There were five of them. First I tried the kitchen key one keyhole after the other. The third one was it's match. I struggled to turn it and the lock clicked. One down. Four to go. I could guess only too well, what the four keyholes were for. I took the ring of keys I had used the previous night and unlocked each of the locks. Then I tried to open it again. It was still too heavy. Darn.
I wiped some sweat off my brow and gloomily started heading back for the stairs, then I heard a creaking sound. I turned around to face the vault and nearly screamed as I saw that it was opening by itself. When the lid was off, a figure weakly got to it's feet then looked at me.
"Mora?" he asked.