“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -J.R.R Tolkien
Cold, grey, dreary. Another brilliant winter day in small town America. If this weather kept up, I was going to start losing track of the days… again.
The day started out like every other one had since I’d been dropped off in this sleepy little town. I dragged myself out of bed after hitting the snooze button on my phone multiple times. I pulled on whatever clean clothes I could find in the pile beside my desk. I didn’t bother grabbing breakfast, I was never hungry when I first woke up anyway
My foster mother was screeching at someone on the other line of her cell phone when I called out a meek goodbye. I doubt she actually heard me. She never did.
School was the same as it ever was. It didn’t matter what school I was in, it never seemed to change. Sure the faces of the teachers and the other students were different but the same cliques existed and the same bullies terrorized the halls. I listened to the same steady calls of “Frisk Johnson” during roll call. The teachers were all trying their best with their meager pay and the sub-par equipment they were given and their own steadily declining faith in the American school system.
By the time the lunch bell rang, I think we were all relieved to have a break from the monotonous day. As we flooded into the dated locker lined halls, we all held on to the small hope that something exciting would happen for a change. Not that anything would. Not in the small town of Ebott.
The high school reflected the state of the town. At a population of just over 9,000, with most of the residents being retirees and elderly folks, it was amazing that they even had enough children to fill an elementary, middle, and high school, instead of all of the kids being crammed into a single building.
Even still, the school wasn’t very large or fancy and the class sizes weren’t ridiculous. There was only one floor and each class was able to keep to their own sections respectfully. In fact, my sophomore class was clocking in at just under 70 students. The freshmen and junior classes each had about 100, I think and the seniors had the least amount at around only 50 or so. It was a far cry from the giant two story school I’d attended last year when I lived in Chicago.
I sighed as I trotted behind the only two people in the whole school that I actually enjoyed talking to. Cassandra “Cassie” Meyers was the daughter of small business owner down in the town square. Her parents owned ran a small general store that was modeled after an old time five and dime store but sold mostly modern day gifts and trinkets. Cassie said that it was a huge hub for town gossip and that her parents knew practically everything about everyone. Then again, it was kind of hard not to, considering the number of people in town.
Cassie was about my height and was incredibly curvy with striking blue hair styled into a pixie cut. She was usually dressed in what she lovingly referred to as “Punk Chic”, with dark grays and blacks along with an occasional spiky accessory peppered into her ensemble that complemented her. I remember when we first met at the beginning of the school year, I asked her why she had chosen blue of all colors to dye her hair. She’d only laughed and said that she felt the color on a spiritual level and wanted to show it off.
Then there was Lucas Mallory, a fellow foster kid. He’d been placed in a house on the opposite side of town with three other younger kids. He liked to joke that I must have won the ‘family of the month’ lotto since Joanna, my foster mother, was not only one of the wealthier residents but I was also the only child she’d chosen to take in.
To say that Luke was a little around the edges was perhaps putting it a little too mildly. He’d just transferred in for the spring semester and was every bit the stereotypical kid who had been raised in the system; angry and cynical. He was shorter than both Cassie and I but made up for it by being extra obnoxious. He had dark brown hair that he kept spiked up with what I assumed was a massive amount of hair gel. His dark eyes were shadowed like he hadn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in his whole life.
He was extremely skinny and super pale, and it wasn’t because he didn’t eat. Believe me, I’d seen that boy in he cafeteria on turkey-cheese rollup day. It was like something from a B-rated horror movie. Mostly though, I figure he was stick thin because he was a heavy smoker. On a bad day, Luke could suck down two whole packs. And that was while we were in school. How he hadn’t been caught yet was still a mystery to me. Then again, it wasn’t like the faculty was the most observant bunch.
It was only by happenstance that he even crossed paths with Cassie and me. I wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone in this awful lonely world. Cassie agreed. Especially when I explained to her how some of us preferred not to create close bonds because we never knew how long we’d get to stay in a place. None the less, Luke seemed to appreciate our feeble attempt at friendship and had started to spend his lunches around us
The thick cloud of smoke floated above our heads as we stood huddled together by the dumpsters behind the school. We usually snuck out here every lunch so that Luke could feed his habit. Not for the first time, I wished he’d give it up. It was already just above freezing and the slight mist that was coming from the overcast sky wasn’t helping much.
“God dammit, this sucks,” sneered Luke, zipping up his green puffy coat all the way to the top to try and combat the breeze. “I fucking hate winter.” He flicked his finished cigarette butt against the heavy metal containers.
“Luke!” screeched Cassie. She had the unfortunate luck to be standing right next to the spot where Luke’s still lit butt had hit before falling to join the dozens of others on the gritty broken asphalt below. “Would you watch where you’re throwing those things?” Unbothered, Luke shrugged and reached into his pocket. He pulled out his half empty box of Camels and took one out, then fished his lighter from his other pocket.
“You are really going to smoke another one of those disgusting things?” I commented. Seriously, I didn’t see the appeal of them. They smelled terrible and I’d be willing to bet that they tasted even worse. Plus there was no way I’d want to pull my hands out of the pockets of my dark purple coat to hold anything.
“You know you’re going to have emphysema by the time you turn thirty right?” I said. Luke rolled his eyes at me, lighting up and taking a long drag. He blew a thick cloud of noxious smoke into the air.
“No one’s askin your opinion, Frisk,” he snapped. I scrunched my nose up at the foul odor.
“Well, I guess what they say is true,” I quipped, irritated that he’d snapped at me. “A cigarette is a bit of tobacco with fire at one end and an idiot at the other.” Cassie snickered and I couldn’t help but smirk when he glared at me.
“Piss the fuck off, Frisk,” he retorted. “God damn, you’re such a fucking bitch sometimes.” he finished off his second cigarette in record time. This time he threw the butt straight down and stamped out the remaining embers with his boot. I couldn’t tell if he was being polite or if he was just pissed.
“Aw, Lukey,” I crooned. “I never knew you felt that way about me. You’re making my weak girlish heart go all aflutter.” So what if it didn’t make sense? Watching his tanned face go red was worth it. Cassie snorted beside me. “But you know that our dear parents will never agree to our union. Our love is forbidden after all. We will have to settle for pining from afar! Oh woe is me!” I posed dramatically as I said the last part, making sure my face was in an appropriate level of emotional agony. Luke rolled his eyes and shoved his hands back into his pockets.
“What the fuck ever,” he muttered. I laughed lightly and grinned at him.
“C’mon, you know you love me.” I said winking flirtatiously at him. Before he could reply, a shrill bell sounded from the building. Cassie groaned and rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck.
“Why does it seem it feel like these stupid lunch breaks get shorter every day?” Both Luke and I sighed in agreement. We walked out of our hidden alcove, the gritty and cracked pavement crunching underneath our feet.
We joined the large group of students making the chilly trek back into the school. I felt instantly more warm, even if the building’s heating systems were the oldest thing known to Mankind, it was significantly better than being outside.
“Well, guess it back to the afternoon grind,” huffed Luke, walking off toward the lockers to grab his bag for his last two classes. I rolled my eyes. The amount of cynicism I swear.
“You do know that idiom is supposed to be about a nine-five office job?” Cassie said, following right behind me. We were both heading to history while Luke, unlucky guy, was heading to Algebra. He stuck his tongue out at Cassie and walked away.
Ms. Faust, the history teacher was standing by her open classroom door, greeting students as the walked in. Ms. Faust was probably one of the nicest teachers that I’ve ever met. She genuinely seemed to care about her students and the subject that she taught. She was old enough to be my grandmother but her tongue was as sharp as ever. Her class was honestly one of my favorites.
I remember asking her when I first moved here, what made her decide to teach history in such a small school? Ms. Faust had only said that Ebott was her home and that it was her duty to tell its story so that one day, another could take her place.
I sighed, slinking into the stupidly uncomfortable desk chair. Seriously, why were these things so hard?
Beside me, Cassie cussed under her breath. I looked over and noticed that her desk was completely empty.
I raised an eyebrow. “Forget your pencil?” I whispered. Cassie frowned and gestured pointedly around her.
“More like forgot my whole damn bag. Luke’s stupidity distracted me so much, I completely forgot to go to grab my stuff out of my locker.” she griped. Oh right, Cassie liked to put her books and things in her locker before lunch. Something about not wanting to stare at lame ass homework while eating the lame ass food provided by the cafeteria.
I winced in sympathy. “Well I wouldn’t worry about it,” I said trying to make her feel better. “I mean you know how history teachers are. They have a tendency to Babylon.”
“Thanks for that,” Cassie said, less than impressed with my pun. She leaned back in her own chair and crossed her arms. I almost replied but I guess Ms Faust deemed the class full enough because she shut the door and walked over to the white board to put up the day’s assignment.
I huffed and leaned back over, taking out my own notebook and two pens from my back. I ripped out a couple sheets and passed them over to my friend as Ms. Faust started roll call.
What a glorious day in paradise.
I struggled to open the front door of my temporary house with my bag hanging in the crook of my elbow and my elbow and my phone pressed next to my ear. Joanna’s house was one of the biggest in the Ebott. I guess being one of the only decent defense attorneys in a 50 miles radius had its perks.
It was an enormous three story house with five bedrooms and three and a half bathrooms monstrosity. There were two living rooms in the house, one upstairs and a larger one in the basement. The top floor of the house was the smallest part and consisted of only three medium sized rooms. Strangely enough, no one ever seemed to stay up here. I’d snooped around once or twice but there wasn’t anything of real interest, other than a few old foot ball jerseys and a deflated basketball.
Joanna’s room was on the main floor just behind the first living room. I’d never been in it but I was pretty sure that it was biggest room. The kitchen was on the side of the living room and through a door there was the laundry room and the entrance to the entrance to the garage. A glass sliding door was behind the kitchen table and led out onto a small deck and ginormous back yard with a guest house and a large pond surrounded by a grove of trees and off in the horizon was the mysterious silhouette of the town’s name sake, Mount Ebott. The entire scene was beautiful in the mid winter snow and I would sometimes just sit at the table with my homework and stare out at the mountain and daydreaming of what kind of secrets that it might have held.
As much as I loved that sight, my favorite spot in the house was downstairs. Off the side of the main living was a singular clear door that opened to a staircase down to the finished basement and the second living room. Next to the bottom of the stairs was a slightly out of tune piano that I sometimes messed around with, and the living room was by far the most cosiest part of the whole fortress. There was a big couch that probably would have looked better in a home from the 70’s with a big wooden chest that served as a makeshift coffee table in front of it. There was big comfy arm chair and foot stool combo covered with a soft plush brown blanket that was perfect for reading. The second full bathroom was down here as well. Joanna had told me that she had originally had the downstairs made up for guests since there was an extra room down here, but I’d loved it so much that I just had to claim it for myself.
Alongside the main area were two other unfinished rooms that Joanna mostly used for storage. And of course by storage, I mean an old pool table, several different fake Christmas trees and assorted decorations. There was even an old retro style pinball machine. There was even a storage area inside of my bed room full of equally curious odds and ends such as an empty hunting rifle and several large boxes full of children’s toy and books.
There was also another door that opened up to my favorite view of the mountain and so many bookshelves that I wondered if I would ever be able to read all the giant tomes that they held. They were some of the oldest and most ancient books that I’d ever seen. I loved skimming through the faded and cracked pages, trying to figure out what the text might have once said. The ones that I could make out were all about some kind of fairy tale.
The first couple of weeks I was here, I secluded myself in my little sanctuary, completely mesmerized by all that was there. I wondered what it was like to be as loved and cherished as these items clearly were. Would someone ever care about me like that?
Don’t get me wrong, I liked living with Joanna. She wasn’t the worst foster parent I’d ever had. Her job at the law office demanded a lot of her time so I rarely actually saw her around the house except for mornings before school and she usually came home long after I’d scrounged up something for dinner. She always made sure that the fridge was reasonably stocked with teenager friendly nibbles so that was cool I guess. It definitely beat greasy fast food for sure.
I could hear Cassie grumbling about our history assignment on the other end of the phone as I closed the door behind me.
“I mean Joanna’s got a shit ton of old shit,” I said, walking into the kitchen and dropping my school bag on the breakfast bar. “I doubt she’d care or even noticed if I borrowed some of it.” Cassie whined loudly. I winced and pulled my phone away from my ear.
“I just don’t see why we have to do it all. It’s the same stupid thing they make us do every year.” I rolled my eyes and shrugged out of my coat with only slight difficultly.
“Well, Founder’s Day seems pretty important around here right?” I commented. “I mean, we never had anything like this in the city.” I noticed that someone had placed a bunch of bananas on the counter since this morning. I grabbed one eagerly as I listened to Cassie.
“Right,” she scoffed. “let’s celebrate some old white fuckers who probably displaced thousands of natives form their homes just so they could have the bigger playground. Sounds real fun, Frisky.” I choked down a laugh, okay so when you put it that way, it really did make a lot of sense why she wasn’t terribly thrilled about the project.
By all accounts, it should have been incredibly easy. All we had to do was find a local legend or story from Ebott or the surrounding area and create a presentation about its origins. I guess for someone who’d lived here their whole life, Cassie had probably heard all of them a thousand times before.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure out something,” I said, walking into the living room and flopping down in one of the chairs with my snack. I picked up the TV remote and started flipping through the channels for something entertaining to watch before starting on my homework.
“I’m just saying, Girl,” Cassie griped. “If I have to hear one more story about how so and so’s grandfather stole their neighbor’s prized goat and now their family is under some curse or that there’s some Slenderman looking fucker roaming around and haunting the square every Thursday, I’m going to scream.”
I snorted. Wow. Just wow Cassie. I gave up on live TV and switched to the YouTube app to look up Vine Compilations instead.
“I’ll be sure to ask you for all the details of Great Uncle Pappy’s mystical goat monster later,” I said, pulling a laugh from her.
“Oh definitely,” she said. “Ugh, Mom needs me up front. See you tomorrow I guess?”
I hummed in agreement and hung up. I sighed and put my phone on the glass table beside me and grabbed the banana. Despite my joking with Cassie, I was conflicted about what to do for my own Founder’s Day project. Having only just moved to the region that past summer, it almost felt like I was intruding on some sacred tradition.
I was still absentmindedly scrolling through videos and munching on my fruit when I heard the laundry room door open and close. I glanced at the mounted wall clock about the fireplace. It was only 4:37. Way too early for Joanna to be home. I frowned, trying to think of who else would have a key to the side door. Who ever it was, fumbled with something and cursed. I snickered. Oh, right. I knew that voice.
“What up J?” I called back loudly.
“Sup’ Kiddo, I didn’t realize you’d be home so soon.” I rolled my eyes at the male voice that came closer. I looked up into the face of Joanna’s younger brother, James, and grinned. James was a construction foreman who supposedly also did a lot of odd jobs for some of the older ladies around town. He was the spitting image of his sister with that classic All-American charm; dark hair, blue eyes and crooked grins that made you want to instantly trust them. James the first person who was able to put me at ease when I arrived buy cracking one of the absolutely lamest puns I’d ever heard.
From then on, he’d made it a point to test my punning skills whenever he came over to bother Joanna. I was only a little sad that he hadn’t been the one who had taken me in, but apparently his application to be a foster parent had been declined. As he put it, the government not only said ‘no’ they’d told him a giant ‘HELL NO’. Something about a past drug charge when he was younger. Even still, James had declared himself my honorary uncle and I guess I could deal with that.
“I know right?” I said. “It’s not like I’ve gotten home at the same time every day for the past five and half months or anything.”
James ruffled my hair and stuck his tongue out very maturely. “Yeah, well, no one asked you, Smarty Britches.” he grumbled. I twisted around to lean on the back of the chair. I held out the empty yellow peel between us. James raised an eyebrow at the seriousness in my expression.
“Something on your mind kiddo?” he asked. “Did the peel personally offend you or something?” I stared at him for a few seconds before shaking the peel and pouting.
“Hungry.” James snorted a laugh. He pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. My pout turned back into a grin as I waited for him to respond.
“Dammit Kid,” he laughed. “What is it with you teens and food?”
“I know, it sounds bananas,” I said, shaking the peel again. Both of us broke down into obnoxious giggles.
James wiped his eyes with his thumbs. “You know,” he said trying to catch his breath. “Maybe food does sound like a gouda idea,” I took a calming breath and climbed off of my perch. I put the banana peel on the small glass table and went around to stand beside my foster uncle. I noticed that the TV had put itself into sleep mode and was now dark.
I squealed when James hooked an arm around my neck and pulled me toward him in a one-armed hug. “Well then, since I assume my darling sister will be working into the late hours of the night, what do you say I treat my favorite niece to some of the world’s finest Thai food?” he gave me a wink. “I promise that you’ll have a good Thai-me.” I rolled my eyes. But yeah, I was feeling way too lazy to heat up the pizza rolls in the freezer. Someone else making my food sounded just fine to me.
“I suppose that would be acceptable, My Good Sir,” I said. James squeezed me affectionately.
“Water we waiting for Kiddo?” he asked, letting go and walking back toward the door he’d just come through not even twenty minutes ago. “Grab your coat and let’s head out.”
The restaurant was quiet for the moment, the dinner rush having not started just yet. It wasn’t the fanciest of places, more of a whole in a wall gems that anything. The walls were plain white and the tables reminded me more of my school cafeteria, but the food was good. Plus it was one of the only places in town where not everything was marinating in its own grease, so win for that.
James and I sat in our little back booth, picking at our plates. Well I was picking at my plate anyway. James was looked like his was already half empty, even though the server had just handed us our orders.
“So how’s your larb?” he asked suddenly. I looked up from my chicken, surprised with my chopsticks in my mouth. James looked at me pointedly, expecting an answer. I shrugged and swallowed. It was the same as it ever was. James narrowed his eyes at me suspiciously. He pointed his own wooden sticks at my me.
“Too larby for you?” he asked jokingly. “Oh, not larby enough?” I huffed in amusement and shook my head, though I still didn’t answer, preferring to take another bite.
“You know that I larb you berry much kiddo,” he said with a small grin. My shoulders shook with silent laughter as I struggled to swallow my food. James frowned and tilted his head.
“How many jokes do I gotta make before you talk to me?” he asked. I sighed and put my sticks on my plate.
“It’s just some teenager shit,” I said. “You know, school sucks, people don’t understand what I’m going through, projects that I’ll probably procrastinate on and then freak out because I waited so long to do something.” I shrugged. “the usual.”
“Ooh, school projects,” my foster uncle waggled his eyebrows at me. “What’s it over? Maybe I can help you procrastinate.”
“Pick a local story and describe its origins,” I said, leaning on my hand and twirling my dinner with my chopsticks. James nodded sagely and took another bite of his phad thai. He comically slurped up the noodles, flinging peanut sauce onto the table. I wrinkled my nose as a speck landed on my cheek. He grinned wider and wiped his mouth with the pad of his thumb.
“Whoops.” he said. I stuck my tongue out at him and went back to my own meal. James laughed.
“So the old Founder’s Day project huh?” he said and sat back in his chair. “You figure out what you wanna do yet?” I groaned and set my chopsticks down again. The familiar unease of not belonging bubbled up in the pit of my stomach, making my appetite dwindle to next to nothing. James raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Right...” he started. He crossed his arms just as our server came by and put a small plate in front of me. I blinked and looked down at it.
“Uh,” James said suspiciously. “We didn’t order any dessert...” The server, a tall slender kid who was probably in his late teens didn’t even spare my foster uncle a glance and gave me a flirty smile.
“Sticky Rice pudding. On the house.” he said and walked away. I could feel my face darken with a blush. I blinked and looked at James in bewilderment.
“What the hell was that?” I asked. James’ face was tight and he was glaring in the direction the server had disappeared in. Seriously, if glares could kill, the entirety of the kitchen would probably be up in flames.
“Uh...James? You okay there?” I tried again. My foster uncle shook his head and turned back to me with the fakest smile I’d ever seen on a person.
“Well, I guess someone else ‘larbs’ you as well.” he said cheekily. I groaned and hid my burning face in my hands, trying to forget that the dessert in front of me was actually one of my favorites.
“Shut up!” I hissed, suddenly thankful that neither of my best friends were here to see this humiliation Luke would have tried to fight the poor server, I was sure. So would have Cassie now that I thought about it. Right after she’d finished laughing.
James dropped me off right after, promising that he’d stop by later in the week to bug Joanna. I waved after his truck as he rumbled down the long gravel driveway. It was a beautiful night. The misty dreariness from earlier had cleared up and the sky was brimming with stars. I smiled softly. This was a sight that I didn’t think I’d ever get used to. There were definitely never this many stars in the cities I was raised. Not even before my parents died. I sighed and went back inside, ready to be bored for the rest of the night. I pointedly ignored the school bag still sitting on the bar and shrugged out of my coat again.
I really should have been thinking about my project but at this point all it would do was depress me. I sighed and picked up the bag. I needed to take it down to my room anyway.
As I neared the door to the downstairs, a huge thunk made me jump. It had come from behind me. Had something fallen off the shelves? I turned around and sure enough, it looked like a large book had come tumbling off its perch on one of the bookshelves. I tilted my head. I hadn’t seen this book before. Where had it come from?
It was old looking. Similar to the ones that were downstairs, but I was sure that Joanna didn’t keep any of those up here because of how fragile some of them were. I walked over to it with my bag slung over my shoulder. The book was lying on ground with its cover upright almost as if someone had simply placed it there for me to find.
I crouched down to take a look at the cover. The sketch was slightly fade but the golden lettering was clear and easy to read: Mount Ebott: A history
I blinked. I had definitely never seen this book before. I reached out, almost mesmerized by the tome. If I’d known then, the door that I would open by flipping up the cover of that damned book, I would have tossed the thing out of the window and never looked back…