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The Secret of Spruce Knoll
By Heather McCorkle
Abbott PressCopyright © 2011 Heather McCorkle
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe bus flew like a roller coaster through the wooded landscape, flinging Eren toward a new, unwanted life. All too soon, it pulled into the bus station of a tiny town on the outskirts of nowhere Colorado. As if that wasn't bad enough, she and an aunt she'd never met were going to have to drive another hundred miles into nowhere to find the town of Spruce Knoll.
Eren's stomach turned as she entered the tedious crawl of sweaty bodies exiting the bus. What if her aunt didn't like her? Or worse, what if she was an unbearable tyrant who was furious that child services had saddled her with an unwanted niece? It was too much. She had to remind herself to breathe.
Clutching her duffel bag a bit tighter, she reminded herself not to overreact.
See the bright side until you're forced not to. That's what her mother had always told her. The memory helped slow her breathing, and she was able to regain a bit of calm.
Not willing to stand in the press of rank-smelling bodies any longer than she had to, she waited until the crowd around the luggage dissipated. When everyone walked away, her big blue suitcase was the last one sitting on the sidewalk. Pulling it up onto its wheels, she turned to follow the retreating crowd toward the small bus station. The sight of a woman who strikingly resembled her dead mother brought her to a jarring halt, and she sucked in a deep breath.
At five foot six, this woman was a bit taller than her mother, and she was slender almost to the point of looking anorexic. Her black hair was cut into a cute bob that framed her round face. At first glance, one would assume that she was Hispanic, but a closer look revealed a more exotic ancestry that was harder to pinpoint. She was Mayan, as was all of Eren's mother's family.
"Erendria! It's fabulous to finally meet you!" the woman exclaimed.
It was hard not to cringe at the use of her full name. Back in California, Eren had never used it. The name had just never fit into her "it-girl" persona. Before Eren could respond, the woman dashed forward and pulled her into a tight embrace. Everywhere Sylvia touched her sent a tiny electric shock across her skin. It wasn't unpleasant, just strange. It faded quickly but left Eren feeling charged.
When Sylvia finally let go, she began chattering about how much Eren resembled her mother, touching her face and hair as she squealed in delight. Eren could only stare at her in wide-eyed wonder.
"Oh, you have your dad's blue eyes! How beautiful!" Sylvia gushed.
She'd never really thought of it that way, but Eren supposed her aunt was right; her eyes did look like her father's. That kind of made her sad, and she wasn't sure how to react. Sylvia continued on without missing a beat, talking all the way to the black JK Wrangler halfway across the parking lot.
Impressed, Eren stared at the car and muttered, "Wow." It was the first word she'd gotten in so far.
"You like it, huh?" Sylvia said with a smile.
Before Eren could answer, though, her aunt started going on about four-by-fours, wheel bases, and all kinds of other car talk that might as well have been Greek. Eren tried to smile and nod at what seemed like the appropriate times. She wasn't about to be rude and admit that she just thought it looked cool.
Sylvia didn't so much as pause in conversation when she hefted Eren's fifty-five-pound suitcase into the back of the Jeep. Eren knew that it was fifty-five pounds, because she had been forced to pay extra when it had been weighed at the airport. Her mouth fell open, and she stared in awe at her tiny aunt.
But Sylvia paid her no mind; she just kept talking as she closed the back of the Jeep and walked around to the driver's door. When Eren tossed her duffel in the back and crawled into the passenger seat, Sylvia was still chatting away. In a way, it was a relief. There was no awkward silence that Eren felt obligated to fill, and her aunt's enthusiasm was kind of uplifting.
The Jeep purred to life, and they pulled out onto the highway that would lead them farther into nowhere.
Though the drive to Spruce Knoll took two hours, it flew by. Sylvia chatted the entire time. At first, Eren thought maybe she was nervous, but when she kept going strong after an hour, she realized that it was just the woman's personality. Being around her made Eren feel a bit like she'd had too much coffee to drink, as if the attitude was infectious. There wasn't a single question she could think to ask that Sylvia didn't already answer, so she hardly had to speak.
"I live alone, so you'll have your own room," Sylvia said, which caught Eren's attention. That was a relief.
"My dad is away on a hiking trip, but he'll be back in a month, and you'll get to meet him then," Sylvia said without missing a beat.
Hearing that sent a shot of pain through Eren's heart. A love of hiking must run in the family. Still, she wondered how he could go hiking so soon after what had happened to Eren's parents. The thought was quickly washed away in the wave of wonder over the realization that she had a grandfather.
But Sylvia gave her no chance to ask about him. "I'm just so amazed at how much you look like your dad's mother! Not to worry, honey; she is beautiful," Sylvia said.
That piqued her interest, too. Her dad had never talked about his family. She knew almost nothing about them. "Dad never talked about her," Eren interjected when Sylvia paused in her endless string of words so that she could take a breath.
Aunt Sylvia went quiet, and it was a moment before she turned a very serious look on Eren. Shadows of pain hid in the woman's eyes.
"They went back to Ireland when your parents got married against their wishes. They didn't want your dad's little brother to be influenced by his interracial marriage," she explained in a harsh tone. "But don't worry," she was quick to add with a smile. "On your mom's side of the family, we aren't nearly as old fashioned."
Eren's mind reeled. She'd had no idea that things had been quite that bad for her parents in Spruce Knoll, and she had not known that she had an uncle on her dad's side.
They crested a massive hill, and the encroaching forest drew back to reveal the shapes of houses in the distance. The sun had just begun to set, painting the sky a bloody red. Maybe it was just her pessimistic mood, but Eren took it as a bad sign. Dusk had brought with it a thick fog that obscured everything below about two and a half feet from the ground. Fifty feet or so from the road, at the edge of the forest, Eren saw a pair of eyes above the mist. No, not one pair—several pairs.
At first, she thought they were dogs. Then she realized that they were much too large to be dogs. Fear raced up her spine, setting every nerve on edge.
"Are those wolves?" she asked, her voice breaking on the last word. All she could think of was the policeman's words: animal attack. She would never be able to look at wild animals the same again.
Sylvia's eyes didn't even flick in the animals' direction. "Uh-huh," she murmured in an uninterested tone.
"So close to town! Aren't they dangerous?" Eren asked, working hard at not letting the fear into her voice this time.
"Some are," Sylvia admitted.
It seemed like such a strange thing to say. Eren wanted to protest but couldn't speak past the lump in her throat. Instead, she turned her gaze back out the window. The wolves were gone. A beautiful wooden sign welcomed them to Spruce Knoll with Population 1,005 carved at the bottom. Eren groaned. Back home, there had been more people than that in her prep school. No doubt the population had been part of why her parents had chosen to leave this Podunk town. It had to be! A horrible picture of cow-tipping hicks entered her mind.
As they approached the first of the houses, Eren started to feel a bit sick to her stomach. It wasn't the kind of sick where you needed to throw up, though. Pressure closed in from all sides as if they had driven into the middle of a storm. Her heart started racing, sending blood pounding through her head. That was going to turn into a headache for sure. This happened sometimes before a track meet, but never quite this bad. She took a few deep breaths, and the feeling started to fade. Like her aunt's hug had earlier, the deep breaths left her feeling full of energy.
They drove down the aptly named Main Street, heading straight for a looming mountain. Fine homes with ridiculously large yards lined the street. She was forced to rethink her original assessment. Podunk this was not, and it was not a simple mining town, either. There was money here—old money. The houses looked like something straight out of an old Dracula movie. They were massive brick structures adorned with far too much wrought iron. On the other side of the street, most of the houses were actually made from adobe.
After a few miles, they approached a roundabout that sat in the middle of four intersecting roads. Just beyond the roundabout, Eren saw houses and buildings that looked distinctly like Chinese architecture, and on the opposite side of the road were brightly colored homes that contrasted in their simplicity. These people took pride in their ancestries to extremes.
"That's kind of strange," Eren said.
"What's that, sweetie?"
"The houses. They're so different on each side of the crossroads of town," Eren said.
It was like four totally different cultures butted up against one another at the edges of the crossroads. To say that it was weird was putting it mildly.
"Spruce Knoll was colonized by immigrants from Ireland, Mexico, Romania, and Tibet," Sylvia said.
Normally, this would have sounded like a history lesson, and Eren would have tuned it out. But Tibet? She had never heard of people emigrating from Tibet. That seemed odd, not to mention the strange mixture of four very different cultures. What in the world could have brought them all here? Some kind of mine or something? But her aunt hardly took a breath and gave her no chance to ask.
"They were driven from their homelands, persecuted," Sylvia said.
She made it sound like the Salem witch trials.
When they reached the roundabout, Eren realized that it was more than just an intersection. For one, the roundabout was huge, easily a hundred feet across. It was raised above the level of the road and surrounded by tiered stone benches. There were four pathways between the benches, mimicking the intersecting roads.
"I've never seen a turnabout that big," Eren commented.
"They have them in Europe. That's more than just a turnabout, though. It's also the town's meeting center," Sylvia explained.
As they rounded the turnabout, Eren saw a shape standing right in the middle of the road. It was a teenage boy with dark hair and dark eyes. He was sneering at them as if they were the ones who didn't belong on the road. The Jeep lurched as Aunt Sylvia slammed on the brakes.
"Damn it!" she cried.
They came to an abrupt stop only inches from the boy. His lips curled up from his teeth into a sneer. There was a look of fury in his eyes that was completely unwarranted. Hate-filled energy rolled off him, raising bumps on Eren's arms. She tried to ignore it, knowing that it was crazy to think she could feel his energy. Things like that happened to her all the time, but she knew that she was just oversensitive because of her mother's new-age views. After spitting a few cuss words at them, the boy shot out of sight at a speed that would have impressed Eren's old track coach.
"What's his problem?" Eren asked.
"He's a little bastard," Aunt Sylvia mumbled, sounding like she wasn't surprised in the least. Shaking her head, she pressed on the gas pedal again. A few minutes later, they took a left turn onto a gravel road that wound up through a forest of spruce trees, and Eren forgot all about the turnabout.
The forest was beautiful and mysterious and so thick that it choked out the last of the fading sun. Rather than make it frightening, the darkness made it more alluring. Eren rolled down her window and breathed the sweet evergreen scent deeply. She loved the forest, always had. When she'd been little more than a baby, her parents had taken her on long drives through the coastal forests. She could remember sitting in her child's seat staring up through the sunroof at the pine boughs zipping by. The memory caused a stab of pain to shoot through her heart. Looking out into the darkness, she blinked away tears.
A moment later, they turned right and started down another road.
No, not a road, Eren realized. A driveway.
At the end of it sat an adorable log cabin surrounded by a meticulously landscaped yard. The sight of it made her smile. It looked like a mini version of the ski lodge that she and her friends had frequented back home. That memory hurt too; it reminded her that she no longer had any friends.
"Home sweet home," Sylvia said.
She was so genuinely perky that it brought a smile to Eren's face. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. Taking a deep breath, she removed her seat belt, opened her door, and stepped out onto the river rock drive.
Hefting her duffel bag over her shoulder, she followed Sylvia up the brick path leading to her new home. Though the cabin was definitely rustic, it also had an elegant charm to it. The front door opened into a great room dominated by leather furniture. There was a Spanish flare to the decor, but it wasn't overwhelming or tacky. On the far side of the room was a set of stairs leading to a loft above the kitchen. It was there that Sylvia led her.
The loft was around fifteen by twenty feet, open, airy, but with absolutely no privacy. It overlooked the living room and was in direct line of sight of the huge floor-to-ceiling windows on the first floor. Along the wall next to the stairs was a desk and chair that looked sadly barren. There was also a painter's easel standing alone near the railing. Eren's heart sank.
Could this exposed space really be her room? She loved to paint, so the easel made her think that it probably was. Horror swept over her as she contemplated how to curtain the space off and gain at least a tiny bit of privacy. But thankfully, Sylvia breezed right across the loft and opened a door that blended into the wood paneling. Eren breathed a huge sigh of relief as she followed.
The bedroom was larger than the loft and definitely had more furniture. There was a queen-sized bed in the middle of the room, a plush seating area in front of a bay window, and a large dresser. Her eyes were drawn to another gaping door that most likely led into a bathroom. A small thrill raced through her at the thought of her own bathroom.
It was far more than she'd hoped for, and it made her feel a flush of guilt. This looked more like a master suite than a guest room. Had Sylvia given up her own room for her? The woman certainly seemed kind enough to do such a thing.
"You didn't need to give all of this to me," Eren said.
Sylvia smiled and waved the comment away as she plopped Eren's suitcase down in front of the dresser. "It was just unused space. This house has two masters. Mine's downstairs," she said with a shrug.
Eren gave her a weak smile and nodded. It didn't look like she was lying. As bizarre as it was, she could tell when people were lying. They usually did something funny with their faces or looked off to one side. The signs were there if one knew where to look. It had always been something that had come naturally to her. Lately, she had become even more tuned in to the instinct.
That was normal compared to the other thing that had started happening, though. In the last month or so, she had started to notice that when she walked into a room, she could sense the energy of the other people in it. She could almost feel how they were feeling without even looking at them. It sounded as crazy as it felt, so she hadn't told anyone. Her school counselor would have probably committed her for it.
There had been so much to do in the last month that she hadn't had time to really think about it much. This had followed a crazy growth spurt that had come years later than it should have. Finally, she was starting to look and feel like a woman, and all she could think about was how much she wanted her mother. Maybe her mother could have explained some of this craziness.
"Now, honey, if there's anything you want to change—furniture or wall color—you just let me know. I want you to be comfortable here," Sylvia told her.
There was so much sincerity in her voice that it nearly moved Eren to tears again. No one had been this kind or understanding toward her, not even her old friends. People avoided her. They didn't seem to know what to say or how to act. Sylvia must have realized that she'd hit a nerve, because she turned and headed for the door, saying something about dinner.
"No, thanks. I'm pretty tired. I think I'll just turn in," Eren said.
Excerpted from The Secret of Spruce Knoll by Heather McCorkle Copyright © 2011 by Heather McCorkle. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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