A Town Called Solemn
“I can’t believe it’s really called Solemn.” I watched the strangely shaped pale blue sign as it faded into the distance behind our van. The letters on the opposite side felt like a joke. Welcome to Solemn. The early evening swallowed the sign completely a few seconds later. I switched my reading lamp back on and flipped my book over. Maybe I could get another page or two in.
“Did you think we were kidding?” Dad slowed the car as the town came into view.
My little brother belted out some garbled mess, ending with “Ki’ing!”
“Thanks, Fanny,” I scrubbed my fingers through the dark, velvet curls on his head. “But I don’t need two dads.”
Fanny clutched my hand to his creamy cheek, his dark brown eyes wide and a grin on his face. “’Ana pay five?”
“No, buddy.” My book in my lap, I stared out the windshield at the boring-looking town that would be our new home. “No playing five.” I tugged my hand free. “Maybe later.” I felt a tickle on the back of my neck and swatted. No bug. A soft tingle, like the touch of a feather, slid down my spine.
I squirmed, trying to scratch at the itch. No good. It drifted down and faded as it hit my waist. What the heck is that?
“Pay five!” Fanny’s shriek pulled my attention back to him in time to see his lower lip jut out. I wanted to laugh at the adorable face, but I couldn’t find the energy.
“Nathaniel.” Even Fanny, at almost two years old, recognized Mom’s discipline voice. “No screeching. And Hannah, I wish you wouldn’t call him Fanny.”
We passed Solemn’s first building. Short, flat, and gray-bricked. It looked like it might have been a glass store once. “Mom, he calls himself Fanny. I’m just showing him the respect he deserves.”
I sensed her eyebrow raise and met her unappreciative glare. “You’ve tried that line before, my dear. Would you like a moment to think of a snarkier comeback?”
Dad extended his left hand, holding three fingers up between the two front seats of the van. “Eye roll launching in three—two—“
Mom burst out laughing, slugging him on the shoulder and grabbing his hand. I watched their eyes meet. The skin around Mom’s eyes tightened and she gave him a flat smile.
I blinked long and deliberately, turning away.
Lucky me. Parents who thought it was fun to mock me instead of consult me about moving from our perfectly good home in perfect San Diego with perfect friends, especially perfect Brandon Williams—
To end up in an ugly, faded town in Iowa. Called Solemn. Seriously.
My mocking parents kept holding hands as Fanny kicked his bare feet and I stared out the van windows. I mean, I got why something had to change, what with Mom being laid off from her job with the city and Dad’s design consulting work drying up. But did we really have to move to this place? I poked my bare toe at one of Fanny’s balled up socks on the floor of the van, adding it to the pile of garbage he’d accumulated down there. As we drove down what had to be Solemn’s main street, all I saw were squat, brown and gray buildings, with random blobs of color here and there. We followed the curve of the street, passing a tallish building covered completely in reddish-brown wood planks.
Fanny kicked harder and shouted, “Tuck!”
I fished Chucky Chinchilla out from under his seat and handed it to him, spinning it by the tail. “There’s Chuck with his possessed hindquarters and crazed eyes. Now… chew him!”
Fanny wasted no time, inserting the beaten-up toy’s tail between his teeth and bobbing his head up and down. The balding stuffed toy danced crazily.
I laughed. What a goofball. The kid was insane, but adorable.
Looking past my baby brother to the buildings we were passing, I saw two people meandering down the sidewalk. It looked like they were headed to a small café with a worn awning.
At least there was a restaurant here. I wondered if they served fresh fish or Mexican food, or even anything that wasn’t brown or gray.
Would it have killed us to have just rented a small apartment somewhere in San Diego? Besides, what kind of job were Dad and Mom going to find in my dad’s old hometown in Iowa, anyway? What, were they going to start a corn farm? Make poisonous sweetener for poisonous soda?
Praetor’s Super Deluxe High Fructose Corn Syrup. I would inherit the family business when they retired. I’d be seven hundred pounds and would drink the stuff like water.
And I might as well be a bowling ball, since I was pretty sure Iowa didn’t have any beaches.
My multi-colored toenails mocked me, whispering, “Enjoy your view! Before long, you won’t be able to see us!”
And none of my friends will ever see me again. No more laying out with Emily and Emma. Em and Em. No more Emma laughing every time I put sunscreen on, and laughing harder when I told her milk chocolate could burn. No more Brandon Williams’ beautiful smile and stupid, charming puns.
No more evenings sitting on the beach, letting the motion and breathing of the ocean sweep me into dreams of captaining pirate ships in rescues of princes and queens and treasure. No more fish tacos at the shack near the big fire circle.
I felt the tears coming again and scrubbed them away. I didn’t need another lecture from Mom about how Dad grew up in Solemn and we could get back on our feet here and how it would only be for a year or two.
An eternity or two, she should have said.
We followed the main street as it curved to the right. I glanced around. “Wait. Are there seriously no traffic lights in this town?” I switched my book light off, studying the streets and buildings closer.
“Nope,” Dad said. “Be a waste of money.”
“Is there even a store here?”
“Sure. Two, last I heard.” Dad gestured vaguely back behind him. “We passed Barton’s Grocery a minute ago. Should be a FoodCity somewhere up here.”
“Two stores?” I felt happiness and good memories sink deeper, further out of reach. “And why did your family live in this place again?” Why did anyone live in such a boring place?
“I never really knew,” Dad said. “But the Praetors have been here for generations. Since Aunt Joan died, these last two years have been the longest time that no Praetor has physically lived in Solemn in ages.”
“Wow. Crazy that the town didn’t dry up and blow away while we were gone,” I said, trying to inject as much sarcasm as possible into my tone. I glared at the gas station we were passing as Dad turned left onto a street with a big sign that said Clarion Drive.
“Say what you will, Han,” Dad said, “but the legend is that this town was founded by the Praetors and a couple of other families. There were people here who actually felt betrayed when I went to Berkeley, got married, and never came back.”
“Yeah, but that’s just because—“ I stopped myself, realizing what I was about to say. Mom and Dad had talked about it, but they’d said I shouldn’t worry or anything.
“What?” Mom craned around to face me. “Because what?”
“You know.” I looked away.
“Tuck!” Chucky Chinchilla landed in my lap. I tossed him back to Fanny.
“Hannah,” Mom said. “Because I’m Black? No. These people aren’t like that.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but Dad broke in.
“Well,” Dad said. “Most of them aren’t. We can’t speak for everyone.”
“Steven.” Mom’s discipline voice again. “They’re not like that. These are good people.”
“True, generally. But people are people, wherever you go,” Dad said.
“But do you know a family anywhere that would never accept money for taking care of another family’s home? Ever? Anywhere?” Mom poked him in the upper arm.
“True again. But Wallace Ames.” Dad let out a breath. “Wallace is something special.”
“Seriously?” Clarion Drive had taken us through a small residential area and out to what felt like it must be past the edge of town. Now tall trees, evenly spaced, grew on either side of the road, with wide meadows stretching way past the trees. “Some guy’s been mowing the lawn and stuff? For free?” I realized that Clarion Drive had become gravel at some point.
“Seriously,” Dad said. He pointed out the front of the van as we pulled to a stop.
Our headlights threw shadows from a low stone wall across a wide expanse of lawn and onto the front of a huge house with four tall columns holding up a second-floor porch.
Dad laughed. “And it’s a big freaking lawn.”
I felt my mouth drop open. The front of the house went on forever, with wide, dark windows and all kinds of strange-looking stonework covering it. “This is it? This is it?”
“Yup.” Dad took a sharp right turn and guided the van through a break in the low wall and drove between two enormous stretches of grass, stopping under a carport. Night had fallen fast as we’d driven through Solemn, so that for a moment, all I could see was what the headlights illuminated, and that was mostly deep shadows. Tons of shaped hedges lined the ground directly in front of the house—and I could have sworn I saw some marble statues. Some of them didn’t even have arms. As we stopped in the carport, two massive floodlights came on.
This was like out of a movie. No way had my dad grown up here. “This is actually it?” I tugged the earbud out of my right ear and stuffed it in the pocket of my denim jacket. The battery had died in Nebraska.
“She’s genuinely stunned, honey. Nearly speechless,” Mom said. “Repeating herself, even.”
“We should arrive at the family home for the first time more often,” Dad said. “But yes, we’re here and I’m starving.”
“Hungry,” Mom said automatically.
“Nope, sincerely about to die of hunger.” Dad laughed. “Wallace said there would be basics in the kitchen.”
I reached for the van door, glancing at Fanny. His eyes were wide, his mouth open as he blinked in the floodlights. “We’re here, little chubs.” I pulled the van door open and dropped onto the carport, my bare feet registering cool, solid concrete.
“Hannah, will you get Nathaniel, please?” Mom closed her door and went around to the back of the van. “I’m going to get his bed set up right away. Too many movies and snacks in the car for this guy. He’s going to melt down any second.”
“Sure.” I stared all over as I walked around the van. Those were statues. “Dad, was this a plantation or something?”
“Nope. From what I was told, for the longest time it was a horse ranch. Now it’s just a bunch of hills, grass, streams, and trees. Dead boring place for a couple of kids.”
“Are there still horses?” Hope flared for a moment. Maybe this wouldn’t be awful.
“Not for a long time.”
Of course. But the place was still way different than I’d imagined. I’d thought it would just be an ancient, creaky dump of a house.
Dad pulled two suitcases out of the back of the van. “Wallace Ames has some, though. Horses.”
“Really?” Hope returned. I pulled the door on Fanny’s side open and unbuckled him. “Why didn’t you tell me what this place was like? It’s huge!” As I reached for Fanny to pick him up, movement caught my eye—something across the expanse of yard at the side of the house. Like a flash in the darkness. My heart skipped a beat. What was that?
“Really. He might let a responsible teenage girl learn to ride on one of them, too.” I heard a door open and glanced over my shoulder. Dad disappeared into the house, following Mom.
I pulled Fanny into my arms, and turned to go in. Movement caught my eye again and I turned, this time looking out the deep end of the carport. My heart stuttered again. I closed my eyes. “Don’t be an idiot, Hannah,” I said.
“Idut, ‘Ana!” Fanny shouted.
“You’re helping, chubs.” I stared out into the night. Nothing moved. I let out a breath. It had been a long drive. I needed food and sleep. I turned back toward the door.
Just as I was reaching for the knob, the door jolted outward. I stepped back, my hand going behind Fanny’s head.
“Oh!” Dad grinned and grabbed the edge of the door, stopping it from swinging. “Sorry. I thought you might need a hand with him.”
“I got him.” Dad stepped out and held the door for me.
I stepped into our new home. Chills exploded at my scalp. I gasped, holding Fanny tighter as the odd, tingly sensation spread across every inch of my skin. My vision swam, black spots dancing in front of my eyes. My fingertips went numb.
“Hannah?” Dad’s hand came around me, cupping my hands under Fanny. “You okay?”
I blinked, trying to clear my vision. I couldn’t think beyond the need to not let Fanny fall as I felt like my body, for a few seconds, suddenly wasn’t under my control.
I heard fear in Dad’s voice.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Mom’s voice now. I felt Dad’s arms go around me, felt Mom pulling Fanny from me. But it all seemed like I was seeing it through a piece of glass, like I had taken a step away.
Finally the tingles faded and feeling came back to my fingers. Dad came around to look me in the eyes. “Kiddo, what’s up?”
“I don’t know. I just—I just felt. I don’t know, almost like I was going to faint or something.” I leaned on one of the cubbies that lined an entire wall of the small, suddenly crowded room.
Dad’s big hands cupped my face, feeling warm and strong. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” Except for totally confused. What was all that? And the tingle in the van? Had Solemn suddenly made me sick?
“Yeah.” A strange taste had spread through my mouth. As if I had bitten my tongue, but also sucked on a rose petal or something.
“Well, let’s get out of the mud room and find something for everyone to eat,” Mom said. She took Fanny through a doorway, into what looked like a short hallway that led to a big kitchen.
“Good idea,” Dad said. He looked me in the eyes. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. It’s gone now.” I thought back. It had happened the moment I’d stepped into the house. Would it happen again? I made a quick decision. “Hey Dad, I forgot my shoes in the van. I don’t want to get tetanus from your old house.” I pushed the door to the carport open.
“Our house, my flower.” I heard the smile in his voice. “Our new house. And there aren’t any rusty nails.”
I stepped into the carport. Nothing as I went through the doorway. “I’ll believe that after I get my shoes.” I jogged around the van and opened the sliding door, suddenly sure I’d see movement in the darkness again. What was with this place?
“Well, hurry up and help Mom with dinner. I’m gonna go make a million bucks or something.”
I rolled my eyes as Dad’s laughter carried through the carport. Worse than a dad who was always joking around was a dad who was the only one who laughed at his jokes. I dropped my shoes to the ground, slipped my feet in them, and slid the door closed.
A sensation like someone pulling my hair made me turn fast. Heart thudding in my chest, I tugged my jacket closed. What was going on here? Was this place haunted?
I looked up as a light, tiny and gold, caught my eye. It fluttered and hovered for a moment, then more lights appeared. Fireflies. I’d never seen them before. They looked like magical, miniature stars. The small bundle of fear in my chest went away. I watched the flickering spots, feeling quiet settle into and around me.
One of the fireflies floated closer. I held out my hand. It came close enough for me to see its wings buzzing faster than I could follow. The glowing bug landed on my hand with a whisper touch. Slowly I moved my hand, bending closer to see better.
The firefly had a face. It smiled at me.