Cinder Creek

Chapter Two: Wooden Halls Like Caskets

© All Rights Reserved


Sorry about the bony elbows, sorry we

lived here, sorry about the scene at the bottom of the stairwell

and how I ruined everything by saying it out loud.

Especially that, but I should have known.

- Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out, Richard Siken


I crumple the letter into a ball and hurl it across the dimly lit kitchen.

"Shit," I whisper to the empty room.

Barely two seconds pass before I scramble out of my chair and hurry across the room to retrieve the letter I just threw. I unfurl it and smooth it out on the table. I'd been rash, impulsive, thoughtless, and there is no room for rash mistakes like this, not for me, not ever and especially not now.

The letter is from the bank. It's worded so politely that I could just about choke on all the empty courtesy. Even all the veiled pleasantries in the world can't hide the true purpose of the letter: because of Pa's hospital bills, they're taking the house. Our house. The house Pa bought when he and Mom got married, the house I was born in, the house we laughed and cried in, the house Mom died in… I guess when it's all said and done, the bad memories here outweigh the good. There haven't been many good memories since Mom died.

Besides, I'm not the kind of girl who can afford to be nostalgic. Silly little notes in yearbooks, looking at photos from the past, reminiscing about the good old days – those are the domain of other girls, girls who can rest comfortably in the knowledge that for every happy memory they have of the past, there'll be five more to come. Me, I know it's not like that. Things aren't getting better for me anytime soon.

So my distress at the notice from the bank has less to do with all the memories in this old place than the fact that my siblings and I will soon be homeless.

Cut it out, I scold myself. There's no time for wallowing in self-pity. I need to figure out what I'm going to do, how I'm going to keep us all together, where we're going to live now.

I take a deep breath, my head sinking into my hands. I've already had my sisters and brother hiding out in our house for the past few days. I'm afraid that if we venture into town, someone, some adult who "knows what's best," will snatch us up and take my siblings away from me. Split us up.

And I'm not going to let that happen. I promise, Mom. I'm going to keep all four of us together no matter what.

Suddenly, the loud chime of the doorbell draws me out of my thoughts. I jump out of my seat in a panic. Sure, it's possible that it could just be a friendly neighbor here to comfort us after the death of our father, but it's far more likely that it's the Dahls or Mr. Svenson or some well-meaning social worker.

I dash out of the kitchen and see Caleb and Bizzy at the foot of the staircase. "Do not answer that door!" I command vehemently in a whispered hiss.

They nod with identical wide brown eyes. "Is it someone bad, Sloane?" Bizzy asks in a small voice uncharacteristic of her rambunctious personality.

I bite my lip. "I don't know, Bee." I try to keep my voice calm. "Just stay right here and don't go near any of the windows. I don't want whoever it is to know we're home."

Luckily, all the lights in the house are already off anyway. I've been turning them on only at night, in order to save on the electricity bill. It means that it's pretty dark and gloomy during the day, but we all know this house like the backs of our hands, so at least it's not unsafe.

The doorbell rings again. My brother, sister, and I sit down quietly on the steps and wait. My heart is pounding out a nervous, unsteady rhythm in my chest, but I pull Bizzy into my lap and rest an arm around Caleb. All we can do is wait for the person to go away.

But whoever it is doesn't go away. He or she keeps ringing and knocking and ringing and ringing and knocking. Sometimes, there'll be a brief pause, and I'll think we're safe, but then the bell rings again. As I sit on the staircase, images flash through my head: maybe it's Mr. Svenson, here to cart us off to court; maybe it's Mrs. Dahl, here to snatch Bizzy away from me; maybe it's people from the bank, here to kick us out of the house.

Finally, I can't take the anxious waiting any longer. I gently slide Bizzy out of my lap and gingerly step onto the ground. "Stay here," I warn my siblings in a whisper. "And be quiet." I creep into the next room and over to the windows. I sink down to the ground and crawl toward the windowsill, slowly easing my head up until just the crown of my head and my eyes are high enough to peek outside at the porch.

I narrow my eyes when I see a complete stranger standing there. It's not Reverend or Mrs. Dahl or Mr. Svenson or even anyone I can recognize from Cinder Creek at all.

It's a dark-haired man, clad in the standard of jeans, a flannel shirt, and a jacket that's near universal around here this time of year. His hands are shoved in his pockets, and he's fidgeting impatiently. Every so often, he reaches out and knocks or rings the doorbell.

I watch him for long enough that he seems to get fed up. He turns to step off the porch, and then my heart leaps into my throat as he walks around the side of the house. Is he going to rob us? Hurt us? Thankfully, I locked all the doors earlier.

Eventually, he reappears in the front yard. He walks over to a beat-up, dusty blue pickup truck in the drive that must be his and leans against the trunk.

I wrinkle my eyebrow in confusion. What is he doing now? When minutes pass and he doesn't move, except to glance down at the street every so often, as if to look for someone, I feel a sense of dread creep over me. He's waiting, I realize. He's waiting for us to come home.

My suspicions raised even higher now, I give the stranger, now bathed in the glow of the afternoon sunlight, another once-over. When I take a longer look, I see that he is younger than I'd previously assumed, probably much younger. He must be in his twenties, probably early or mid-twenties, at that. He's tall and broad-shouldered; I can tell, even under his layers of clothes, that he is muscular. His hair is so dark that it's almost black, and there are faint signs of stubble on his face. His handsome face, I almost think, before I realize how ridiculous I'm being, weighing the attractiveness of a potential robber or serial killer.

And he must be some kind of unsavory character, because he certainly doesn't look like a lawyer or social worker to me. Not with his muddy boots, his athletic build, his beat-up old truck.

Taking a deep breath and willing myself to remain calm, I crawl away from the window and head toward Caleb and Bizzy, still on the stairs. "Go upstairs and find Charlie," I tell them in a low, steady voice. "Stay with her, do you understand?"

"Okay," Caleb replies.

"But why?" inquires Bizzy. "What are you doing?"

"Caleb," I look at him pointedly, and he nods and grabs Bizzy's hand, leading her up the stairs with one last look back at me.

I head for the family room, where the kids' toys are, and I make a beeline for what I need. It's a toy gun, either Caleb's or Charlie's, I can't be sure. Mom never liked having real weapons in the house, and Pa was never much of a hunter, so this toy pistol is the closest I'll get to the real thing. But it looks realistic enough to fool someone, and hopefully, it'll fool the strange man out front.

Don't think, I tell myself, my heart racing as I pick up the gun, head out the back door, and slip around to the front of the house. I need the element of surprise on my side if I want to successfully sneak up on the man. Just do it. The knowledge that I'm the only one standing between my siblings and this potential criminal gives me the courage to creep up behind the man and point the gun at the back of his head with unshaking hands.

"Who are you? What do you want?" I demand in a harsh voice that masks my fear.

At the sound, he whirls around to face me, hazel eyes widening when he takes in the sight of me, my eyes narrowed, my expression fierce, the gun in my hands pointing straight at him.

"Well?" I yell. "Speak up! I'll shoot you, I swear it," I warn.

I pray to my mother's God that he doesn't try anything, because if our encounter actually becomes violent, I'm screwed. My threats are as empty as this toy gun's cartridge.

He slowly raises his hands to show that he's unarmed, and he stares intently at my face with an expression of confusion and disbelief. "Sloane?" he finally asks incredulously.

My heart near stops.

"Sloane Lennox? Is that you?"

How does he know my name? Now I worry once again that he might be someone from the bank, some lawyer, some social worker. "I don't have to say anything until you tell me who you are first," I reply defensively in a steely tone.

He blinks. "I'm John," he responds. When my face remains impassive, he adds, "John Christiansen."

John Christiansen. I'm so taken aback that the toy gun falls from my hands and onto the earth.

"You are Sloane, aren't you?" he asks, peering down at me from his much greater height. I'm pretty tall, almost 5'8", but compared to him, I feel like a child. "I don't know if you remember me. We…I…your grandma married my father." He swallows, his jaw tensing. "And your –" he pauses for a moment. "Gracie, your mother, she, well I guess she was my step-sister."

I remember him, of course. I'd forgotten about him until now, but the sound of his name is enough to bring everything flooding back. This is Mom's abusive stepfather Thomas Christiansen's son, now grown. It's strange to think that he's an adult now, but I guess that's the only thing that makes sense. When Thomas married my grandmother, Mom had been fourteen, and her new step-brother John had only been a baby – two years old?

Growing up, I never saw him. When Mom got pregnant at eighteen, her family disowned her, and Thomas forbade his wife and son from seeing or speaking to her. But there is one memory from when I was eleven years old.

Charlie was tormenting Caleb again, and this time, their fight had gotten so out-of-control that I couldn't stop it. I ran out of our bedroom and down the stairs. Pa was at work still, but I was fairly sure that Mom was home.

When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I heard voices, one male, one female. That's strange, I mused. I thought Pa wasn't home yet. I walked toward the kitchen where the sounds were coming from. When I peered inside, I saw Mom seated at the table with a boy I'd never seen before. He was in his late teens, nearly a man, and his unruly dark hair fell over his face.

"It's getting worse, Gracie," the boy said. "Yesterday, he slammed your mom against the wall so hard she bruised. When I yelled at him, he came for me, too."

Mom looked worried, her usually smiling mouth drawn into a thin line. "Are you all right?"

"Don't worry about me," he responded. "I'll be fine. I can handle him. It's just…it's your mom I'm worried about. I don't know how much more of this she can take."

Mom reached over and rested a soothing hand on the boy's shoulder. "Listen to me, John. You only have one year left of high school. I want you to graduate, and then get out of that house, do you hear me?"

He opened his mouth to protest, but Mom beat him to it. "You have to. You have to get away from Thomas." She sighed. "And you really shouldn't have come here today," she told him seriously. "If he finds out…" Mom paused, and I frowned when I saw her blue eyes flood with tears. "I just…I don't know what he'll –"

"It's okay, Gracie," the boy offered, reaching over to run a hand up and down her back. But Mom only started to cry even harder.

I'd hardly ever seen my mom cry before, and I was filled with anger that this strange boy had come into our house and upset her like this. I entered the kitchen and hurried over to the table. "Mom!" I exclaimed, and two sets of eyes flickered to me in surprise.

When Mom saw me, she hurried to sit up straight and wipe the tears from her eyes. "Sloane!" she said, flustered. "I thought you were upstairs with the others."

"Please don't cry," I told her in concern. I glanced behind her to appraise the boy who'd made her cry, and I nearly flinched when I saw his intense gaze directed toward me, his hazel eyes alight with something I couldn't name. It almost looked like…anger? Hatred? "Who is he?" I asked my mother.

The boy's lips twisted into a frown, and Mom paused before answering. "This is John," she told me hesitantly.

I'd listened enough over the years to my parents' conversations to ascertain that this John was the son of Thomas, the man my mother so hated and feared.

"Did you need something, Sloane?" Mom asked.

I wrenched my gaze away from John and looked back at my mother. "Oh. Yeah, Charlie and Caleb are fighting again. I can't get her to behave."

Mom sighed and stood up from her chair. "I'll go see what's going on," she said as she left the room.

John stood too, and stared down at me with a dark expression on his face. I glared back up at him, this mysterious boy who had appeared out of nowhere to remind my mother of her unhappy past, with my hands on my hips.

"I don't like you," I told him bluntly. "You made Mom cry."

He scowled down at me. "And you took her away from us," he retorted resentfully, before storming out of the kitchen and out of the house altogether.

That was the first and last time I ever saw John Christiansen. Until now, that is.

My eyes harden as I meet his gaze. "I remember," I tell him. "But what do you want now, after all this time? Why have you come here?"

His eyes fall and he scuffles a boot in the dirt. "I heard," he mutters, "about your dad. I –"

"Don't be sorry," I cut him off brusquely. "He wasn't much of a dad, not lately, anyway."

John frowns and looks at me questioningly.

"He may have been a good man once, but he was a drunk who didn't have time for his own children at the end," I explain.

At this, John swallows, his eyes flooding with something like remorse. "I –"

"Listen," I tell him. "I don't need your pity. I get enough of that from everyone else in this goddamn town. What I need is for you to tell me why the hell you decided to show up here, now, of all times." I let out a bitter laugh. "The last time you were here was over six years ago. I'd forgotten you existed." Maybe it's harsh, but it's the truth. I still don't trust this John any more than I had when I saw him last and he made my mother cry.

"Six –" he echoes in disbelief, shaking his head. "Has it really been six years?" I assume he takes my silent glare as a yes, because he goes on. "Well, I guess it must be," John continues. "I thought you'd be a child still, but you're…" he trails off, staring at me intently as if he's trying to puzzle out how it could possibly be that I'd aged at all over the last six years, as if it weren't the natural way of things, of time.

"I'm almost eighteen," I say.

He blinks. "Yes." And then he takes a deep breath. "I know I haven't been here for you or your siblings after Gr – your mom died, Sloane, and I can't make that up to you. It's…it's been complicated." He reaches up to scratch his head uneasily. "But I'm not here to make any excuses. I don't have any excuses. I should have been here," he looks right at me, "but I wasn't."

I stare back at him and almost forget how to breathe under the weight of his gaze.

"When I heard about your dad, though, I knew I had to come, had to do something, had to try and make things right, for –" he cuts himself off and shakes his head. "I didn't know that things were bad, with him, before he died, like you said. If I'd known…maybe I would have come sooner."

I don't believe him, and to be honest, he doesn't really look like he even believes himself. I glare at him, crossing my arms. I don't trust you, I think. I want you to leave.

When he realizes that I'm not going to say anything, he scuffs his boot in the dirt again. "Are – are your siblings home? Charlie and Caleb and –" here he stops, and he turns his head completely away from me so that I can't see his face at all. "And…" his voice is shaky. After a moment, he looks back at me, his face blank. "I, uh, I don't know –"

"Elizabeth," I supply, and then, "Bizzy. We call her Bizzy."

He forces his mouth into some semblance of a smile. "Bizzy, then. Are they here? I'd like to see them." When he sees the fierce, protective look that settles over my face, he adds, "If you'll let me."

I'm about to lie and tell him they're not home, demand that he get back into his truck and get the hell out of Cinder Creek and out of our lives, but when he catches my eyes, those intense hazel eyes of his boring into mine, something in me breaks and I lose my resolve. I reach down to pick up the toy gun from the ground and then whirl around, heading back toward the house at a brisk pace.

Once I reach the porch, I turn back to see that he's still standing by the truck. "You coming?" I call.

He blinks in surprise, and then nods, walking toward me in long, easy strides. I open the door and let him inside the house. When he gets inside, he flicks the light on, and I hold back a reproachful glare.

"Charlie!" I call up the stairs. "You can all come down now. It's okay."

The bedroom door flies open, and my siblings tumble out onto the staircase. They run down the stairs to meet me, Bizzy leading the way, and she stops short when she reaches the bottom of the steps and registers the strange man standing next to me.

"Sloane?" she asks hesitantly, coming over to grab onto my hand.

"It's all right," I say comfortingly. "This is John Christiansen. His father was married to Mom's mother."

I look away from my little sister and over at John, who is staring at Bizzy with wide eyes. He breaks into a tentative smile. "So I guess that makes me your…step-uncle?"

I glare sharply at him when he says that, and his smile falls from his face. How dare this man, less than six years older than I, who hasn't been in our lives at all, call himself our uncle? He's not even related to us by blood!

Bizzy grins up at him, and I wonder not for the first time at her easy, open, loving nature. "Hi!" she greets. "I'm Bizzy. I'm five." She lets go of my hand and walks over to wrap her arms around John's legs, enveloping him in a hug. My hands clench into fists, but I try my best to suppress my irrational worry.

John stands awkwardly, like he doesn't know what to do with himself, before patting Bizzy on the top of the head. "Hi."

"And this is Caleb," I say, pointing to my little brother. "And Charlie," I gesture to my thirteen-year-old sister, still halfway up the staircase, eyeing John with distrust and suspicion.

John's eyes flicker to Charlie, and he does a double take. "You –" he draws in a sharp breath. "It's just, you look so much like Gracie," he tells her in a shaken voice. "It's like seeing a ghost."

At this, Charlie fixes him with an almighty glower. She loathes being told that she looks like Mom.

"She gets that all the time," I tell John, trying to soothe over the situation.

It's true. Charlie looks just like Mom did. They have the same honey blonde hair, the same big blue eyes. The same pretty faces. Your mother was beautiful, people tell Charlie. You should be happy you look like her. But my sister hates to hear it. She's a complete tomboy, even still, at her age, and she keeps her hair trimmed short, often hidden under a baseball cap. I think sometimes that she tries to hide her resemblance as much as she can.

Each of my siblings has something of my mother. Charlie has her looks. Caleb loves to read, just like Mom did. They could both spend hours engrossed in some book, dreaming about far-off lands and adventures. And Bizzy has Mom's personality, her liveliness, her bubbliness, that eagerness to love and be loved.

It's only me who's nothing like Mom. I'm all Pa, through and through, from my brown hair and eyes to my seriousness, my practicality, my closed-off nature and my no-nonsense attitude. Even my name is his mother's.

"Did you come to move in here and take care of us?" Charlie demands of John, and my eyes widen at her bluntness. "Because guess what? The bank is kicking us out." My head whirls to face her, and she shrugs at me. "I found the letter all wrinkled in the kitchen," she tells me.

"What?" Caleb exclaims, his eyes filling with concern.

John frowns and takes a step toward me. "Is that true, Sloane?"

Inside, I seethe with anger at Charlie for bringing up our problems at this exact moment. But I can't exactly lie about it, not now. "Yes," I admit. "It's true. But it doesn't matter. I'll figure something out."

I notice that John avoids Charlie's question, the part where she asked him if he came to take care of us. Typical. It's laughable to think that he could be responsible enough to care for four children. He's what…twenty-three? Which I suppose makes him technically old enough to be a guardian, but still.

Where was he after Mom died? I don't trust him at all. He clearly doesn't want to stick around this time, either, and I'm not going to argue with that. We don't need him. I don't need him.

"Where are we gonna live?" Charlie demands. "Huh, Sloane? Are you gonna get us a tent so we can camp out in the woods?" she asks with venom in her voice.

I glare up the stairs at my difficult little sister.

"I don't want to live in a tent," Caleb sniffles.

I sigh with exasperation and am about to explain that we will not be living in a tent when the doorbell rings again. We all freeze, looking at each other.

John, though, strides toward the door. "I'll get it," he volunteers, reaching out to open it.

"No, don't!" I exclaim, but it's too late. He's already swung open the door, and my stomach turns over when I see Reverend Dahl and Mr. Svenson standing on the porch.

Reverend Dahl eyes John curiously, and Mr. Svenson steps inside. "Hello, Sloane," he says to me. "How are you?"

"Fine," I grit out. Of course he came inside without my inviting him in. My heart is pounding and my hands are clammy, but I'm willing myself to keep it together. I can't let my siblings see how scared I am. "Reverend," I say, "what's going on?"

The pastor sends what's meant to be a comforting smile to me. "Don't worry," he replies. "We're here to take care of you and the children. You won't have to do it all on your own anymore."

My eyes widen. "What?" I ask. "No, I –"

"My car is waiting outside," Mr. Svenson tells us. "I'll drive you over to Carverton, where we can get you into the foster care system as soon as possible."

"And I hope you've come around to what we discussed earlier," Reverend Dahl says to me. "About Bizzy," he raises his eyebrows pointedly and I feel myself start to panic.

"Come along," Mr. Svenson says, and he reaches down to place his hands on Caleb's shoulders and begin ushering him toward the door.

I spring into action. "Hey!" I shout, leaping forward to grab my brother out of Mr. Svenson's clutches. "I said no before, and I meant it. You're not going to split us up. I won't let you."

Mr. Svenson sighs. "We've been over this. It's the law, and besides, it really is in your best interest."

"Well, I'm not going with you!" Charlie declares from her perch on the stairs. "You can't make me! I'll run away!" It's not an empty threat. She actually has tried to run away multiple times in the past.

Just then, John steps forward, into the fray. "Hang on," he says, and everyone turns to face him like they'd forgotten he was here. "Do you mean to say that you're going to separate these kids and have them go live with different families in foster care?" he asks in disbelief.

At John's words, my hold on Caleb tightens as Bizzy starts to cry. With two long strides, John crosses over and swings Bizzy up into his arms easily. For some reason, this doesn't concern me half as much as Mr. Svenson grabbing Caleb did. John rubs Bizzy's back, and she buries her head into the crook of his neck.

"Excuse me," Reverend Dahl says, "but who exactly are you?" he asks John.

"I'm John Christiansen, sir," he replies, reaching one arm out to shake the pastor's hand. "Grace Lennox's step-brother. And I'll be damned if I let you split up these kids," John declares, glaring at the Reverend. "Gracie would have hated that."

"Well," Reverend Dahl responds, "it's not ideal, of course, but given the situation, it's all we can do. My wife and I have kindly offered to take in little Bizzy here," he tells him, and at that, John's arms tighten around my sister. "And Mr. Svenson will make every effort to have the older children placed with the best families possible."

"Reverend Dahl," I say in a dangerously low voice, "I thought we'd had this discussion, on the day of the funeral. I said no."

The pastor looks patronizingly at me. "There's really no choice in the matter," he tells me. "You all need to come with us, now." He gestures to the door.

I feel bile rise in my throat. This can't be happening.

"Wait," John orders. "According to the law, shouldn't kids live with their nearest relative once their parents die?"

"Well, yes, but your family disowned their mother," Reverend Dahl rebuts. "So I hardly think –"

"That was my father," John interrupts, glaring at the pastor. "Not me. And now," he pauses, and looks over to meet my eyes. "I'd like to be appointed their guardian, if that's all right."

The other men think he's addressing them, but John and I both know that he's really asking me. I swallow, my mind racing. I still don't trust him. On the other hand, this might be the only alternative to being separated from my siblings.

"Now, hold on a minute –" Reverend Dahl starts.

"He does have a point," Mr. Svenson cuts in. "His legal claim may very well hold up in court."

The two men begin to bicker amongst themselves over the particulars of the situation. I glance around at my siblings. Charlie is glaring down from the staircase landing, her blue eyes dangerous and angry. Caleb is leaning into my side, and Bizzy is still in John's arms, her arms wrapped tight around his neck.

Finally, I tune back into the conversation as Mr. Svenson declares, "Well, all right. That's settled, then. It's a little unorthodox for a relative to show up this late in the game, but I think we can make it work. John, you'll have to come down to the courthouse sometime this week and get this all straightened out."

John nods solemnly and reaches out to shake Mr. Svenson's hand. "Thank you."

Eventually, the two men leave, Reverend Dahl grumbling all the way out the door, and John walks over and shuts the door behind them. He slowly turns to look at all of us, and I can see his eyes widen almost imperceptibly as he realizes what he's just gotten himself into.

I feel resentment unfurl in my chest, hot and bitter, at the fact that this virtual stranger was able to do what I couldn't – keep my siblings together.

"Sloane –" John starts, but I let go of Caleb, turn around, and walk away into the kitchen.


A/N: Hope you liked it! I'd love to know what you thought in a review.