MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
IT DIDN’T LOOK LIKE A HOUSE AT ALL.
True, it had many of the things you expect to see in a house—shingles, windows, bricks—but they didn’t seem to be arranged in a house-like way. Instead, the building slumped against the wooded hillside like a pile of debris left over from proper homes.
To the left, a door hung six feet off the ground, no stairs beneath it. On the second floor, a blue plastic tarp stirred in the fall breeze, revealing the wooden skeleton of an abandoned room. The front door was hidden in the shadows of a sagging porch.
From the back seat of his mother’s car, Arlo Finch took silent note of all the dangers he saw.
His sister, Jaycee, just said it: “It looks like a murder house.”
Their mother switched off the ignition and unfastened her seat belt. Arlo knew she was counting to three. Mom counted to three a lot these days. “We should be grateful it’s a house.”
“I’m not sure it is,” said Arlo.
They’d been driving for six hours—and three days before that—so at the very least it felt good to get out and stretch. The bright sun and cool breeze were refreshing, like jumping in a pool without getting wet.
The smell in the air reminded Arlo of the year in Philadelphia when they got a real Christmas tree from the empty lot by the gas station. Here, high in the Colorado mountains, everywhere he looked were Christmas trees, only much, much bigger. They swayed against the pale blue sky.
Their mother unlocked the U-Haul trailer behind the car.
“I need to pee,” announced Jaycee.
“Me too,” said Arlo.
“Well, go inside,” said their mother. “Your uncle is expecting us.”
Arlo followed his sister to the creaking front porch, past a rusted metal fence and stacks of lichen-covered rocks.
Jaycee was fifteen and sturdy, built like the women you see throwing shot put in the Olympics. Back in Philadelphia and Chicago, she’d spent most days in her room watching videos on her computer and dyeing her hair different colors, emerging only for meals with an exaggerated sigh.
Arlo Finch had just turned twelve, but he looked younger. He was small, with dark hair that never stayed put. His left eye was brown, but his right eye was emerald green. Heterochromia iridum was the medical term, which made it sound like a magic spell or a disease, but it wasn’t either one. It’s just how things are, his mother said. Like how some people have green eyes and others have brown. You have one of each. Some teachers assumed his mismatched eyes were the reason Arlo had a hard time reading, but doctors said his vision was just fine. It was Arlo’s brain that sometimes had trouble with words.
Still, he could read the sign by the front door:
SOLICITORS WILL BE SHOT AND STUFFED!
Jaycee knocked. The door slowly swung open. It hadn’t been locked.
“Uncle Wade?” she called softly.
No answer. “Hello?” said Arlo, not any louder.
The house beyond the door was messy but not murder-y. Peering in from the porch, they could see stairs leading up to the second story, each step cluttered with books and boxes and bits of scrap metal. To the left, the living room had three sagging sofas and an upside-down rocking chair. To the right, a dining room table was filled with fifteen stuffed animals. Not the cuddly type you give a child, but the kind that used to be actual living creatures, like you see on field trips to the natural history museum. Arlo spotted eagles and foxes and raccoons, all frozen mid-action.
On second thought, the house was a little murder-y. But Jaycee stepped right in.
“It’s trespassing!” warned Arlo in a whisper.
“Mom owns the house,” she said, crossing the dining room and pushing through a swinging door.
Arlo supposed that Jaycee was technically right. According to their mother, the house had been specifically left to her when their grandparents died. But Uncle Wade lived here and always had. It was his sign by the door, and his dead animals on the table. It seemed like a bad time to argue the details of inheritance.
Still, Arlo had to pee. He followed Jaycee through the swinging door.
The kitchen was dark and cluttered, with five open cereal boxes lined up on the counter. A dead plant hung over the sink, where dishes were stacked in a few inches of greasy water.
The bathroom was down one step from the kitchen, off a hallway that looked like it had once been outside. Arlo stood at the bathroom door, shifting his weight from foot to foot, eager to get his turn after Jaycee.
Then he heard the creaks.
Heavy footsteps made their way down the wooden stairs. As if suddenly blessed with X-ray vision, Arlo could imagine exactly where the feet were landing. The sound changed as the thudding steps slowly crossed the dining room floor. And then, just as Arlo expected, the door from the dining room swung open.
But Arlo couldn’t have anticipated what he saw.
The man behind the footsteps didn’t look like a man, but rather a bear that had most of his fur worn off. He wore thick glasses, sweatpants and a giant T-shirt with a stain the shape of Wisconsin. (Arlo was good at geography.)
Although he’d never met him, Arlo was sure this was his uncle Wade. In the photos in his mother’s album, young Wade had the same tangled red-blond hair.
The way his uncle was squinting, Arlo wasn’t sure he’d been seen. But then the bear-man grumbled, “Morning.”
“It’s three in the afternoon.” Arlo meant it to be helpful, but worried that it sounded bratty.
Uncle Wade pointed at the bathroom door. “Who’s in there? Celeste?”
Celeste was their mother. Arlo shook his head. “Jaycee.”
Arlo nodded. He could hear the toilet flush. Water was running in the sink.
“You get along with your sister?” asked his uncle.
“You’re lucky. My sister drives me crazy. Always has.”
Uncle Wade only had one sister, so he was talking about Arlo’s mom. This didn’t seem to be a promising start.
The bathroom door opened. Wade shooed Jaycee out and shut the door behind him. Arlo was going to have to wait a little longer to pee.
* * *
The house only had the one bathroom, but there were plenty of bedrooms upstairs. Jaycee claimed a room at the back of the house. It was dark and smelled wet, but the door had a lock that worked.
Arlo took the room at the front of the house that had been his mom’s childhood bedroom. The flowered wallpaper had faded so much that it looked like dusty snowflakes. The bedsprings squeaked, but the mattress was much softer than the one Arlo had in Chicago, or the foldaway in Philadelphia.
The windows looked out to the gravel driveway, the trees, and beyond that to the jagged, snowcapped mountains in the distance. But the view was not why Arlo had chosen this room.
He figured these windows would offer him the best chance of escape. If the house suddenly collapsed, or caught fire, or if a mountain lion entered through the creepy half-finished room at the end of the hall, he’d be able to get out quickly. He could simply tie a rope to the radiator to lower himself to the ground. Failing that, he could probably survive the jump with only a broken ankle.
A school psychologist once asked Arlo why he often imagined unlikely scenarios, like a tidal wave on Lake Michigan or gravity suddenly reversing. Did he really worry about these things happening? No, said Arlo, because I’m prepared for them.
He was only afraid of not being ready.
Arlo’s father was the same way, always preparing for contingencies and surprises: If you don’t have a plan B, you don’t have a plan. But ever since his dad left—a race to the airport without time for goodbyes—it was the unimaginable things that kept Arlo awake at night, the vague fears of terrible dangers he would never see coming.
He didn’t want to worry his mother and sister, so he worried for them. He took his job seriously.
Arlo decided he would need to learn the best knots for tying sheets into a makeshift rope, and, if possible, obtain a whistle or air horn to signal the rest of the family of the rockslide. (He suspected that a rockslide was the most likely danger based on the number of yellow DANGER: FALLING ROCKS signs they’d passed on the road to Pine Mountain.)
The sun was beginning to set, casting long shadows across his room. The snowflake-flowers of the wallpaper caught the light strangely, glistening a bit in the pink glow of dusk.
Arlo wondered if he had adequately scouted the area directly beneath his window. What if it was covered with rusty iron spikes, or broken glass? He carefully leaned over the sill, looking straight down. He was glad he had. Fifteen feet below the window grew a spiky bush. It wasn’t a cactus like the one he fell into in Carlsbad, or the yucca from Yuma, but it looked like something that would definitely hurt. He headed down to investigate.
* * *
Arlo’s mother had gone to take the trailer back to the rental place. His sister was locked in her room, unpacking and listening to music. His uncle Wade was off in his workshop.
So as Arlo inspected the spiky plant beneath his window, he was alone. Until he realized he wasn’t.
Fifty feet away, by the edge of the gravel driveway, a dog was watching him. Arlo assumed it was a dog, not a coyote or a wolf, though he had never seen either of the latter in person. The creature had a collar, which at least meant it belonged to somebody.
Arlo knew to be careful around strange dogs, but this one didn’t seem threatening, only curious.
Keeping his hands low and visible, Arlo slowly walked towards it. The dog’s head tilted. Its tail wagged. But as Arlo crossed some unseen line, the dog backed away.
“It’s okay,” said Arlo. “You don’t have to be afraid.” He knelt down and beckoned the dog closer.
The dog suddenly turned its attention to an empty spot of road, ignoring Arlo completely. It seemed to be staring at an invisible threat. It leaned back on its haunches, teeth bared.
The dog barked, but it didn’t make a sound. It was like watching television with the volume turned off. The only way Arlo could recognize it as barking was the shaking in the dog’s chest and the movement of its mouth.
Arlo knew there were breeds of Egyptian dogs that didn’t bark, but he’d never imagined it would be quite like this.
The dog suddenly took off running after the unseen threat, leaving Arlo on his knees on the gravel driveway.
* * *
Arlo found his uncle padlocking his workshop and asked what the dog’s name was.
“What dog?” asked Uncle Wade, confused.
Arlo described the dog, the silent barking, and how it ran away into the forest.
“Oh, that’s Cooper. You saw him? He hasn’t been around in a long time.”
“Who does he belong to?” asked Arlo.
“He was ours, but that was years ago.”
“Did he run away?”
“Nah, he died,” said Uncle Wade. “He was pretty old, and dogs, well, they just don’t live that long.”
Arlo spent a long moment making sure he had heard correctly. He studied his uncle’s face, looking for a trace of a smile, some hint that he was joking.
“If he’s dead, then how did I see him?”
Uncle Wade clipped his keys back onto his belt. “Your mom didn’t tell you any of this?” Arlo shook his head no. “Guess she wouldn’t remember. Things are different in the mountains. Not bad, not good, just different. Gonna take you a while to get used to that, I suspect. But you’ll come around.”
Hearing tires on the gravel, Arlo and his uncle turned to see the station wagon returning, this time without the trailer attached. The headlights swept across them.
Uncle Wade continued. “For now, it’s probably best you stay out of the forest. Just in case.”
Arlo’s mom got out of the car. “Would you help me bring in the groceries?” she called.
Arlo asked his uncle what was in the forest.
“Again, it’s not bad, it’s not good. It’s just dangerous if you’re not ready.”
Text copyright © 2018 by John August