Zach brought the cup to his lips and felt the liquid sting his tongue for only a second before the world around him seemed to turn soft and warm. He heard his mother’s voice lulling him to sleep as the light around him became dimmer and more distant. The ground beneath him caught him softly and he was dozing as he listened to his mother saying his name over and over. His eyelids fluttered closed for a second or two only to open again when he felt something touching his face. He slowly opened his eyes, hoping to see his mother there but instead, it was just the delicate flakes of snow that had started to fall on his face. Shivering, he curled up and slowly let himself sit. He heard the echo of someone calling his name. Dazed, he looked around in the darkness but couldn’t see where the voice was coming from. The cold of the snow beneath him was sapping away whatever strength he had to sit up and he collapsed on the ground again. The urge to sleep was getting heavier than he could resist and he was prepared to just let himself fall back into a stupor. The voice knocked away that urge each time he thought he would let it happen. It was getting closer and soon he saw the outline of a figure in the dark at the gate.
His father raced up the small hill to get to him and Zach didn’t even have time to move before his father’s heavy jacket was thrown around his shoulders. He scooped up Zach in his arms and hugged him.
“Jesus, I thought you were gone,” his dad said, his voice panicked and harsh. He looked Zach over and shook his head before hugging to him again. “Come on, let’s get home.”
“I am home,” Zach muttered, sleepily.
His father hauled him to his feet and practically carried him to the waiting car. Once he was inside the warm vehicle, his eyes fluttered closed and he was lost in dreams. He saw the man with a cane walking with two identical children following on his heels. He would tap in time to their walk, occasionally tapping out of step and the children around him would giggle and skip along to catch up. He dreamt of the woman they called a hag, tending to a young girl and giving her a bouquet of white roses. The scent was everywhere around him and he was alarmed to see the roses all turned darker and red. He woke when he saw a large house that once stood tall and proud but was reduced to ruins and rot from disuse. For a second, he thought he’d been brought to the house in his dream but instead, he was in the driveway of the house they had just moved into. He realized his father had stopped the car and hadn’t moved.
“I’m sorry,” Zach started but his father shook his head.
“So am I,” his dad replied softly. “I know you hate it here and I don’t like it any better if I’m telling the truth. I never wanted to come here in the first place but this is somewhere I can get the money to make sure that we are going to be okay. I know I’m screwing up a lot. I’m not asking for you to like this but if you could just try to stick this out with me, I want to do better.”
“Maybe we can both do better,” Zach said, quietly. He looked down at his lap and smiled a little to himself. “Why don’t I cook dinner tonight?”
“Let’s both do it,” his father agreed, brightening up. “I should keep an eye on you anyway. You need some rest I think.”
“No, I think I’m okay,” Zach said. “Let’s make dinner together.”
The rest of the evening Zach spent teaching his father one of the few dishes that he knew how to make. It was something that his mother had made him sometimes but his father had different ways of adding to it and in the end, they had something better than the frozen packages they’d been living off for the last year. Their conversations were still a little stunted but Zach opened up about wanting to learn a bit more about the history of this place and his father mentioned that one of the people he worked with used to know the museum curator. It was small talk but it was nice to be able to really talk for a change.
Zach ended up going to bed early both on account of being exhausted from the day he’d had and his father wanting to see him get better. When he got to his room, he saw the book that he’d taken from the library was sitting on his pillow as if it were waiting for him. He checked the cover and realized that there was no barcode on it. There was no trace that it was from the library at all. At this point, Zach didn’t know that he trusted anything he’d seen this evening but he was okay with that. Maybe he didn’t love this place but it didn’t feel quite so lonely anymore. He tucked the book onto his night table and fell fast asleep.
He felt like he’d only been asleep for a couple of minutes when he opened his eyes to see that it was daylight. Groggy, Zach sat up and realized that he was hearing something in the distance. Something that sounded methodical and kind of like a sound he’d heard before. He dressed himself quickly and followed the noise to find that it was a staple gun going off outside. He hurried out the door to see his father on a ladder and a string of lights gathered at the bottom with about two feet already strung up along the edge of the roof. His father spotted him and began to come down the ladder.
“All they had was white and I had to go to the neighboring town to get them,” his dad explained.
“Do you want help?” Zach said, eagerly.
“Hey guys, that isn’t the best idea there,” a stranger’s voice interrupted them.
Zach turned and his father came down off the ladder to see a man had stopped in the road and came up to their front gate. The man looked flustered and shook his head at them both.
“Can we help you?” Zach’s father said, evenly.
“Those lights, they aren’t a good idea out here,” the man said, getting an air of offense to his voice. “You don’t hang lights here. You don’t know what kind of things they attract out of the dark.”
“Those things are already here,” Zach replied with a shrug. “It doesn’t matter if it’s dark or not.”
The man just shook his head indignantly and made his way back to the car. As he drove away, Zach looked to his father who just laughed it off.
“Come on, Zach,” he said, turning back to the ladder. “Let’s get these lights up.”