The new place sounded strange. It felt like someone else’s house, but that wasn’t the bad part. It was the lack of sounds. It was like they were on a different world. They were used to cars streaming by, sometimes honking, not caring if it was after 3:00 in the morning. Back home, people regularly yelled at each other on the sidewalk below their apartment, swearing loudly, laughing or fighting. This was the lullaby of the city, and they missed it, but no one wanted to admit it. They’d sacrificed a lot to have this big house with its large porch and nearly two acres of land in Springtown. The kids knew it and only griped in private, via text, to the people they missed.
This new town was quiet and really dark at night. Their house was at the edge of town and there were no streetlights. Even their parents put a tiny night light in their bathroom, so that there was a bit of a glow. Everyone needed a sound machine to sleep. The quiet was so...quiet. The silence was scary. Henry was surprised at how scary. He didn’t tell anyone and didn’t ask if they felt the same. At 14, he felt like he wasn’t allowed to be scared of the dark anymore.
Luckily, his stepsister didn’t have the same hang up.
“I hate how dark it is here. It’s so quiet. It’s weird, don’t you think? It freaks me out,” Raya never hesitated to say what she thought. She was barely older, only three months, but a thousand times more comfortable with herself.
“Well, we’ll all get used to it eventually,” Raya’s mom Gen said, not denying that she felt uneasy, too. Her husband Blake nodded and changed the subject.
“We’ll have internet tomorrow!”
“Nice transition, Dad,” Raya rolled her eyes. The kids could barely remember a time when they weren’t related. They were in preschool when their respective parents got divorced. During playdates and school trips, they all got to know each other - Gen and Raya being the type to invite everyone to the park for birthdays, and Blake being the guy who loved to get everyone floating rivers and riding bikes. They were in kindergarten when Gen and Blake started dating. The summer before second grade, they became a family. Now the teens would be starting high school in a new town where they knew no one.
Henry was thinking that maybe he should have picked his mom’s house for the school year and his dad’s for the summer. He was worried that it would be harder to disappear into this new school. It was so small. He didn’t really like having to interact that much. Summer in a small town would be better. And when Gen brought up the idea of putting in a pool, Henry thought he might have to switch this new custody arrangement. He’d thought initially that it would be better to be here during the longer portion. At his mom’s, he had two younger siblings. Sometimes he had to babysit, and it wasn’t his favorite. His stepdad definitely favored them, too. It was like the older he got, the more trouble he got into there. With Gen and his dad, it was the opposite. And it was easier to be around Raya. She didn’t require any work. They were really just best friends. He knew that school was going to be hard, but at least she’d be there. She was always good at making friends and sharing them with him.
Raya lived with Gen and Blake full time. Her “biodad” - as she called him – gave up custody in order to quit paying child support, something that made her feel angry, then sad, then happy. To her, Blake was Dad and Henry was her brother. It had been years since she’d seen the other guy. She wasn’t sure she could pick him out of a crowd anymore. She was glad that Henry was here. Starting school without him would have been terrifying. Back in the city, they went to different junior highs. It worked out just fine then, but here she would need him. As outgoing as everyone thought she was, she was worried she’d have another panic attack the first day and be branded for life as an oddball. Walking in with Henry would be better. The anxiety was bad. Only meds made it better.
Gen’s aunt died, leaving her a small amount of money, enough to get them out of the city, something they thought they wanted. There was enough to start the bookstore they dreamed of and get the online store up and running. Neither was able to admit that they were second-guessing the move. Weren’t they supposed to want to give the kids this kind of life? A house? Fresh air? A chance to get their driver's licenses? Riding the subway and watching people pee in alleys wasn’t good for kids. Schools that were numbers instead of presidents?
“Yeah. We’ll all get used to it. And the internet will definitely help,” she kissed Blake and Raya pretended to be disgusted and rolled her eyes. Henry looked at his phone, his blonde floppy hair covering his face. He would never get used to how they were with each other.
His mom had texted, asking about the first week. All he could text back was that it was fine. What else was there to say? She asked about the house. It’s big. We might get a pool. The porch goes all the way around the house. It’s super quiet. She replied that it must be nice, that his sisters missed him, and that game night wasn’t the same without him. Okay.
“I’m going to my room,” he said, “Is it okay if I watch a movie on my phone?”
His dad nodded, already preoccupied with dinner plans.
“I’m going upstairs, too,” Raya said, unwilling to admit that she didn’t want to be up there alone. It felt better knowing that Henry would be up there, too. She wanted to be excited about her room. It was so big. In the city, she and Henry shared a room that was divided with old cubicle walls and a curtain. They hated it at the time. Now she wished he was just a stupid cubicle wall away.
“We should find our old walkie talkies,” Henry said as they walked up the stairs. He kept thinking it would be nice to have them at night, in case their phones lost service or something, and they wanted to talk.
“I think Dad stuck them in the totes with our old hiking stuff.”
“Oh. Those are in the barn, huh?”
“Yeah. Maybe tomorrow?”
“I kind of miss our old room. I never thought I would, but I do.”
“Can I watch the movie with you? Until dinner.”
Henry nodded. She followed him into his room. It was even darker than hers. The walls were navy blue.
“Maybe you should paint your walls white or something. It’s like a cave in here.”
“I don’t mind it.”
“I know Mom and Dad think I’m just weird after last summer, but I don’t really love it here. I think the anxiety is worse, not better. I thought it would be cool to have these giant rooms, but I feel really alone. The tree outside my window is like something from a horror movie.”
“I think you need to watch more comedies or better YouTube channels.”
They sat on the floor, backs against Henry’s bed, like they did when they were little.
“Probably. It doesn’t seem weird here to you?”
Henry was quiet for a minute. “I think we just need to get used to it, like Gen said. I don’t really like it right now. I’m not excited about school, but it’s probably not any worse than my old school. The classes won’t be any different. We would have had new schools this year anyway.”
“Yeah, but we would have had our regular friends.”
“I guess.” Henry only really had one friend at school, and Jeff had been hanging more and more with a girl from his tennis team, so they weren’t even texting anymore. He missed his friends from his D&D club at the community center, though. They planned on live-streaming their campaigns, so he could still play. “Want to watch YouTube instead of a movie?”
“Yeah. Something funny. You’re right. It’s going to be fine. I just get nervous. A tree isn’t scary, right? It’s just a tree. What’s there to be scared of? Squirrels? Birds?”
They both laughed.
Their parents heard them and looked at each other.
“It’s going to be okay, right? We didn’t just move our kids hundreds of miles for nothing?”
Blake took his wife into his arms and rubbed her back, “It is, and no we didn’t. We’re going to get the bookstore started, and the people in this town are going to love us for it. The kids are going to be fine.”
“I hope so. Raya’s anxiety…”
“That’s why we’re here. No more amnesia episodes, no more attacks. And having Henry for the entire school year? We’ll be able to keep him on track every week, not just play catch-up every other.” He pulled away and started to check the food.
“Hopefully he finds some D&D friends here.”
“Hey, when we Googled, we didn’t find any trace of hyper-religious fanatics. There are only three churches for 12,000 people! If not, we’ll just start playing at home.”
“You’ll love it! I told you I played for years!”
“Yep! You also told me it was a great excuse to smoke a lot of pot.”
“The good old days…”
He winked at his wife, who laughed and went to the stairs.
“Kids, you’ve got twenty minutes before dinner is done!
She turned back to her husband. “We can always move back, if it goes sideways, right?”
“That’s the plan, but I don’t think it will.”
For Raya, the dreams started the second week.
She always knew she was dreaming. The Darkness wanted her to know that she was trapped in her own mind, while her body lie unsafe in her giant room with the tree branches scratching at her window.
“Wake up! Wake up!” she would scream at herself. She watched her own body, immobile, under the covers that were melting like tar around it. The branches were insistent. Scratching, scratching, SCRATCHING at the window. Raya tried pulling at the gooey blankets, shaking her body. Nothing. She ran from her bedroom, a place that should have been her refuge, across the hall to Henry’s door, where she stood banging and screaming.
“Wake up, Henry! Help me!” but before he could open the door, she was back in her body, under the heavy covers, stuck in that in-between place, willing herself to wake up even as she felt the branches wrapping around the bed.
Every time she managed to get out, back to this reality, sweating, crying and scared.
The first night Henry heard her screaming and ran to wake her up. Their parents were seconds behind him. After the third night, Gen knew she needed to find a new counselor.
“There are no reviews online for the two therapists in town. I know we need to find doctors and dentists and all of that, but this has to be a perfect fit. What if neither of them have ever worked with teenagers?
“Gen. If there are only two, I’m sure they’ve worked with kids.”
“Not kids, Blake, teens. Teens with anxiety and sleep disorders.” She sat at the breakfast bar with her head in her hands, rubbing her forehead. “We shouldn’t have done this to them.”
“Hey, kids go through far worse. Sorry, teens go through far worse, and they grow into adults who can function.”
“I get that, but - honestly - I’m only worried about our teens right now. They’re...quirky. We had great specialists back in the city.”
“Yes, we did, and I’m sure whichever therapist we pick here will work with those specialists to provide Ray with exactly what she needs. Change without anxiety is hard. Our kids have been through a lot of change in their lives. They’ll get through this. School doesn’t start for a couple of weeks. We’ll get this figured out.”
Gen was looking at her phone, nodding, trying to decide which one to see first based on a generic profile picture. Both women looked kind enough. Raya walked downstairs and into the kitchen, dark circles under her eyes and Henry in tow.
“Hey, kiddo,” Blake welcomed her with a hug, “What kind of eggs do you want?”
“So gross,” muttered Henry, glad for something normal and routine.
“You’re gross,” Raya retorted, going with the normal flow.
Gen handed her the phone. “Which of these women do you want to talk with first?”
Raya glanced down. The woman with the brown hair seemed to stand out a bit.
“Her. Julie Palmer.” Genn saw the look on her face. It was relief.
“Let’s call her now, then.” As she looked for the number, Blake slid eggs onto a plate, and Raya sat at the small table next to the breakfast bar. Henry went to get a bagel. Everyone seemed happy to be squished together.
“Yes, hello. My name is Gen Foster. We recently moved to Springtown, and we’re looking for a counselor for our 14-year-old daughter Raya.” As the person on the other end talked, Gen put together a plate. “She takes Zoloft for anxiety… About eight months… Panic attacks and one incident of anxiety-related amnesia… Yes, we can get that for you… 2:30 today works! Thank you! Are you at the address on your site… Perfect. Thank you!”
“Wow! I sound like a nutjob!”
“Well…” Henry said with his mouth full.
“Hey! No talking with food in your mouth!” Blake cut in, “And we’re all nutty in this house.”
“Well, that’s certainly true,” Gen said, making sure that Blake saw the food in her mouth. He handed her a glass of water and pretended to throw up a little.
“So, what should we do before Raya’s appointment?” Blake asked.
Henry looked at Raya, “We were thinking we wanted to get the walkie talkies, but we were waiting until we were done unpacking the regular boxes.”
“Oh, good plan!” Blake said, “Are they in the barn?”
“Raya and I think so, with the hiking stuff.”
“So after breakfast, before showers, I vote we explore the barn. We also need to find all of our boots to see what still fits.”
“Probably not ours,” Raya kicked her left foot up in the air, showing off her long, skinny size 10. Henry pushed his right out from under the table, wiggling his toes.
“Okay, so we need to find a store that sells boots for giants…”
They finished up breakfast and went to change out of pajamas. Raya hesitated at her door, but it was just a normal bedroom when she went in. The tree outside wasn’t the creepy leafless monster of her dreams. It was a beautiful giant oak tree with leaves and a couple of squirrels.
“I am a nutjob.” She changed into jeans and a t-shirt, then sat in the middle of her floor, on the bright blue area rug that covered most of the hardwood. “You’re a room. A great room. The best bedroom a girl could have. I will cover your walls with posters and pictures. I will fill your shelves with books and graphic novels. We are friends, okay?”
There was a knock at the door that made her jump.
“Yeah?” she asked, getting up.
“Can I come in?” It was Henry.
“Who were you talking to?”
“No one. Just trying to tell my room we can be friends. Don’t make fun of me. It’s something my old counselor told me to try when I emailed her about my nightmares.”
“I won’t. Does Gen know that you emailed her?”
“No, but I don’t think she’d care.”
“I was just wondering. Do you think it helped?”
“I think so. I mean, it is a cool room. The tree doesn’t look like the tree in my nightmares, either. It’s just a really pretty tree. Why does my brain make it something else?”
Henry shrugged as their dad called up the stairs, “Hey, you two ready?”
“Yeah!” they yelled back in unison.
Downstairs, Gen was tying up her laces. She looked up and smiled at Raya.
“Mom, I wrote to Tracy about the nightmares.”
“I’m so glad! What did she say?”
“She told me to make friends with my room and the tree. She told me we really need to explore the house and Springtwon, so we can make it ours. She also said that her sister lives 45 minutes from here and that she’s going to be there for Thanksgiving, and that she wouldn’t mind taking a little detour to check in, if that wasn’t too weird with us.”
“Maybe she could meet with your new counselor, too… Raya! I’m so glad you thought to do that.” She gave her daughter a big hug and tried not to cry. Raya wasn’t the only one struggling with the move.
“Okay, okay, enough sappy stuff. Time to check out the barn and make sure the totes are okay,” Blake knew his wife was about to go into full meltdown mode, and wanted to catch it before it happened. He noticed that Henry was feeling uncomfortable, too, and wanted to get them back on track.
They went out the kitchen door that lead out to a gravel path. The barn wasn’t too far, maybe a tenth of a mile, and Blake and Gen were already making plans for fixing the landscaping.
“We’ll definitely need to add more gravel before winter. This probably gets muddy fast when the snow melts,” Blake pointed out bare patches.
“And we need to get the lawn healthy. The weeds are bad.”
The kids hung back a bit, letting their parents verbalize their lists.
“Your counselor was kind of like a friend, huh?” Henry asked.
“In a way. She gave me better feedback than any of my regular friends, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Um, I guess, because she’s trained to look at all the parts of a situation, she would ask me a lot of questions and help me find solutions. My friends just get bossy and tell me what to do. Sometimes they barely listened at all. I wish I had friends who thought like Tracy. I guess I should try to be that way. I never really thought about that.”
“Yeah. My friends don’t talk about stuff like that.”
“Is that a boy thing? I mean, my guy friends talk about all sorts of stuff with me, but i always wondered if they talk that way to other guys.”
“I guess. I don’t know. Mostly we talk about D&D or things we saw on YouTube.”
“That makes sense. Mom said that boys have it easier in some ways, because you don’t get too personal with each other. She was trying to make me feel better after Ava and I had that big fight last year. I said I was jealous that you didn’t seem to fight with your friends like that.”
“I also don’t talk as much as you,” he didn’t mean for it to be insulting, and Raya could tell.
“Yeah. I know I’m bad about that.”
“I don’t know. Mom seems happy about it.”
The parents reached the barn and turned back to wave them in. They jogged a bit to catch up.
Gen squeezed Blake’s hand, “I guess, if nothing else, they’re going to be even better friends after this.”
He squeezed back.