Darius grinned out the car window. His family had moved from Boston to Washington State the day before. The small town of Olympic Vista was built up around a research and development facility referred to as The Link.
Darius and his twin sister, Davia, drove down the town’s main street with their father in a shiny black sedan. Darius sat in the back, while Davia sat in her usual position of prominence in the front.
Olympic Vista was a smaller town than the twelve-year-old twins were used to. Davia crinkled her nose as she watched the scenery unfold outside her window. She grimaced as the stench of manure wafted in from the farms outside of town. She sighed when she saw the tiny brick mall and noticed the marked lack of buses and taxis.
Darius loved what he saw. He smiled as they drove by the quaint mall and marvelled at how many children rode around on bikes. Darius had read his share of novels and he knew this tiny town must have a mystery that needed to be unravelled.
Their father navigated the car out of the small downtown core along a meandering road dotted with small homes. He pulled into the small parking lot a corner store at the intersection of a four-way stop. The lot was large enough to hold half a dozen cars, but was currently devoid of other vehicles. The pavement was uneven and there were no markings to denote parking stalls.
The store itself was a sad-looking single-floor building with stained white siding and bright yellow signage with red letters that spelled “Rutledge’s Grocery Store.” The building’s shingled roof was speckled with clumps of green moss. One half of the storefront was lined with a two-tier wooden bench that held white buckets filled with bouquets of pink, red and yellow carnations.
“Eww,” muttered Davia as she took in the store.
There was a “Loading Zone” sign with rusty edges affixed to the right-hand side of the store, next to a small makeshift loading bay. This section of the building was obviously a later addition and was set back a few feet from the main storefront. A wide set of sturdy wooden steps led up to an unmarked wooden door.
Three boys, maybe a year or two older than the twins, gathered at the side of the store in the loading bay. As the family stepped out of the car, they could hear the boys arguing. Darius noticed three bikes discarded on the ground a few feet from the trio.
“Don’t be such a chicken! It’s just a house,” a boy in a black shirt scoffed. He took a long pull on his carton of chocolate milk.
The second boy was identical to the first, except he was in a blue shirt. He wiped his mouth with his arm and squished his milk carton with his other hand.
“Then you two do it!” a third, shorter boy retorted.
“The place is haunted. No way I’m going in,” the blue-shirted boy chuckled.
“Besides, it’s your dare,” the black-shirted boy growled at the shorter one. He took another pull of his chocolate milk and turned to look at the newcomers. His eyes flicked from Darius to Davia, then turned back to his companions. “You could have picked truth and you didn’t, Dillon.”
“I’m not doing it. Give me a different one,” Dillon demanded.
The blue-shirted boy tossed his squished, empty chocolate milk carton on the ground. He glanced up and saw Darius’ father watching him.
Darius’s father, Drew Belcouer, was an average man in many ways. He stood at about five foot seven inches tall and had short, dark hair. On this particular day he was dressed in chinos and a polo shirt. His eyes, however, were not average. They were cold and angry. He had a sour look about him, as though he’d smelled something unpleasant in the air that no one else could sense.
The boy in the blue shirt looked away from Darius’ father and scooped his bike off the ground. He glanced at the crumpled milk carton, but left it on the pavement. “Then you’re out. Let’s bounce, Bru.”
Without another look back, the identical twins biked away. Only the shorter boy, Dillon, remained in the small parking lot of the corner store with Darius and his family.
Drew strode toward the entrance. Davia trailed behind him. Darius ran his fingers through his brown hair and followed them.
Drew opened the glass door to the shop, and a small bell dinged in response. He held the door open and ushered Davia into the store. Darius’s steps faltered as he crossed the parking lot. He paused and looked back at Dillon, who was picking up his bike.
“A haunted house?” Darius asked.
Dillon turned and scowled at him. Darius watched as the boy looked him up and down.
“Is there really a haunted house? Tell me where it is.” Darius knew his father was waiting at the door, but his curiosity had gotten the better of him.
Dillon’s scowl deepened. “It’s the boarded-up one on Hyacinth Street.” He turned away, righted his bike and pedaled off down the road in the opposite direction of the other boys.
“Darius,” his father called from the doorway.
Darius hurried into the store. His father sighed impatiently as he followed him. The bell above the door jingled again as it closed.
A freezer purred loudly near the entrance. The store smelled of must and newspapers. Rows of metal shelves were packed with potato chips, cans of soup, boxes of crackers, sticks of deodorant, packs of batteries and everything in between. Behind the counter a teenager slouched on a stool. His head lolled to the side and his long hair obscured half of his face, which was dotted with acne.
Darius caught a glimpse of two boys and a girl, about his age, by the display of milk, soda and juice in the refrigerated section at the back of the store. The girl glanced at Darius as the trio moved toward a door marked “Employees Only.” She had long, dark hair and the most solemn face he had ever seen. She was pretty, but in a strange way. He fought the urge to follow them as they opened the door and stepped into the back room. The door closed behind them.
“Pick out something you want,” his father said as he moved to the newspaper stand. Darius pulled his eyes from the door. The teenager behind the counter jerked upright. Darius was sure he’d been asleep. Darius glanced about the store and his eyes settled on the freezer. He stepped toward it and wondered if the store carried ice cream sandwiches.
“Not ice cream,” his father said without looking in his direction. “It’ll ruin the upholstery.”
Darius sighed. The upholstery was leather and could be wiped down, and Darius was sure he’d eat the whole ice cream before he got in the car anyway.
“Hurry up, Darius. I haven’t got all day,” Drew said as he placed a newspaper on the counter. Darius walked to the chocolate bar display and selected a Mars bar. He glanced toward the back room, but there was no sign of the three kids. He walked to the counter and placed his chocolate bar next to the newspaper. Next to the feature article, “Pine Park Reopens,” was a small article titled “Morrison Allays Fears at The Link.”
“Davia?” Drew called.
“What are people afraid of at The Link?” Darius asked the cashier, pointing at the paper.
The cashier shrugged.
Davia dropped a bag of assorted penny candies on the counter and Darius grimaced. As much as he enjoyed them, he hated how Davia sounded when she ate sour keys.
The pimple-faced cashier rung up their order without a word.
“Don’t get any chocolate on the upholstery, Darius,” Drew warned as they walked back to the car.
Tetsu led Adelaide and Kurt through the door marked “Employees Only.” The back room of Rutledge’s was dim. A single bulb leaked a sick yellow light over the excess goods stacked on the wooden floor. There was a big cardboard box labelled “Lay’s,” several cases of assorted soda, and all manner of other boxes and crates.
“We shouldn’t be back here,” Kurt fretted as he glanced around the room.
“Then look faster, Kurt. It has to be here somewhere,” Tetsu pointed out.
“It doesn’t have to be here,” Kurt argued. “They could have sold out already.”
“This fast? Fat chance. They’re hiding them,” Tetsu spat. He peered into the recesses of a deep shelving unit.
Adelaide looked around. “There.” She pointed at a stack of newspapers next to a side door that opened onto the alley. “Don’t they get rid of those?”
“Yeah, they’ll get picked up tomorrow,” Kurt agreed.
The three of them set to work rifling through the day-old papers. While Adelaide searched the pile, she thought of the family who had come into the store. She had never seen them around town before, and they weren’t the kind of people she’d forget easily. It was too late in the summer for tourists, and Olympic Vista wasn’t a popular destination for family vacations to begin with.
“I got nothin’!” Tetsu complained. He kicked the doorframe.
“I’m not finding anything either,” Adelaide said as she reached the bottom of her pile. She tucked her long brown hair behind her ear.
“Got it! Someone is cheating the system,” Kurt said. He pulled the latest issue of Conan the Barbarian out from between the sections of one of the newspapers.
“Gimme!” Tetsu snatched it. “Is there any more in there?” He held the comic close to his chest and craned his neck to watch Kurt.
“Are there,” Kurt corrected him.
Tetsu rolled his eyes. “Are there any more, Kurt?”
Kurt held up a single issue each of The Uncanny X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Detective Comics.
“Come to Papa!” Tetsu grinned. He snatched them out of Kurt’s hands. The sinister faces of Batman’s Rogues Gallery sneered at the Dark Knight.
“These weren’t even the ones you wanted,” Kurt argued.
“We have what we came for,” Adelaide said. “It’s time to go.”
The drive from Rutledge’s was as quiet as the drive there. Drew had lived in Olympic Vista once, and the tour had been his suggestion. Despite that, he had provided little information on their new home.
“Can we use the pool when we get back?” Davia asked, breaking the silence.
“Yes, sure,” Drew said with an ambivalent wave of his hand.
Davia’s lips smacked as she chewed her sour keys in the front seat. Darius had the back seat to himself and made the most of the view out both rear windows. He had seen some pastoral farms on the outskirts of town, but this area was comprised of mediocre houses with mediocre gardens. There were mediocre cars in driveways and mediocre people in their yards and on the sidewalks. Darius felt there should be something more. It was too mediocre. He just had to look harder.
The shiny black Lincoln Town Car passed James Morrison Elementary School. Drew pointed at the sprawling one-storey beige building. The parking lot was empty, its metal yellow gates pulled closed. The grassy field was withered from the heat of the summer, but it wasn’t as yellow as Darius might have imagined. He wondered if they watered it, or if it was the result of all the Washington rain he’d heard about.
“There, that’s your school,” Drew said.
“I don’t understand why we can’t go to private school, Daddy,” Davia sighed. “Isn’t there one in the city?”
“You’re going here.”
The school called to Darius. He craned his neck and watched the building until it was out of sight. Davia slumped into her seat and sucked on a sour key like an infant might mollify itself on a pacifier. They carried on, back in the direction of the family estate. Darius noticed a street sign up ahead. Hyacinth Street.
“Dad! Turn here.”
His father glanced at him in the rear-view mirror.
“This is a tour, right?” Darius pushed.
The car indicator clicked rhythmically. Drew turned the car onto Hyacinth —yet another mediocre street. The properties all looked similar. More mediocre gardens and mediocre houses. The whole town was mediocre.
Then Darius saw it. The yard was thick with weeds and dead grass. The paint peeled and flaked off the trim. The windows were boarded up. This was the house: a dilapidated eyesore. To Darius it shone like a new penny on the sidewalk.
“Eww.” Davia slurped harder on her sour key.
Darius turned to look back at the house as they drove by.
“I’ll buy you bikes, but I’m going to drive you to and from school,” Drew told them.
“What about your work?” Darius asked. He knew his father’s office was located in Olympia and would require a short commute.
“I’ll drive you to and from school.”
Darius nodded. Davia continued to mope in the front seat.
The rest of the drive was quiet, broken only by the intermittent smack of Davia’s lips as she ate another sour key. Drew turned up their long driveway. The front of the property was fenced, but there was no gate. Darius looked out over the expansive green lawn and perfectly manicured gardens. It was a far cry from their townhouse in Boston. Then again, it was a far cry from most of the houses in this town, too.
Their property was on the outskirts of Olympic Vista, closer to Olympia. Behind their back fence was a sprawl of unused fields set to be developed, and on either side were estates like theirs, but with tall fences and metal gates. As they climbed out of the car, their mother, Miranda, came around the side of the house. She was a slight, well-groomed woman. Her blond hair was styled into loose waves and she wore a high-necked blouse and jeans.
“There’s a slight problem, Drew,” she apologized.
“What now?” Drew scowled toward the backyard.
“The pool, it isn’t—”
“What about the pool?” Davia demanded as she slammed her door.
A slight frown crossed Miranda’s face. Drew waved in his daughter’s direction in much the same way a person might bat at a fly hovering around their head. He looked at Miranda expectantly.
“They won’t have it up and running today. It needs time to heat up and for the chemicals to be… balanced?”
Laughter and playful screams echoed across the lake. The light sparkled on the water as Adelaide floated on her back and kicked her feet gently back and forth. She closed her eyes and turned her face up toward the sun. The air was still. Combined with the clear sky and warm sun, it was the perfect summer day, which was a rare feat for Olympic Vista.
She needed to be here today. Rico, her mother’s latest boyfriend, was over. Adelaide hated being around Rico. She sighed in contentment as she stretched her limbs like a starfish and basked atop the water. Her eyes snapped open as something wrapped around her ankle. Adelaide tried to kick her leg free, but whatever it was held fast. She opened her mouth to call out, but only took in a mouthful of water as she was pulled below the surface.