1. Welcome To Chagrin Heights
“They have arrived, Father.” The woman put the binoculars down and turned to face the larger of her two companions.
He trudged forward, his large, massive frame towering over her as he approached the window of the vacant property. The material of his attire stretched tightly over the thick band of muscles of his arms as he plucked the device from his daughter’s hand and leaned out the window. He brought the binoculars to his eyes and squinted.
He could see them, just crossing into the city limits from the east in a small, dark gray mustang. The driver, a woman in her early or mid-thirties, twisted her face in irritation as she maneuvered her way through the empty streets. She was slender, slight like a feather, with a tangle of dark curls tied messily at the nape of her neck, and skin the color of wheat bread. She was sporting a bright green windbreaker and a dab of lip gloss on her thin, pale mouth. But she wasn’t the one that had his full attention.
A lopsided smile spread across his face. He was more intrigued by the girl.
She was young, possibly eleven or twelve, and pale with a mane of frizzy scarlet hair and large blue eyes that stared wondrously through the backseat window. Her fingers fiddled nervously in her lap, and she seemed to be questioning her mother on the conditions of her surroundings. Her attire consisted of a white turtleneck sweater, a blue sweater vest, dark jeans, and everyday white sneakers. A red winter coat laid on the seat aside her.
She was exactly as the old woman had described her. Excellent.
“So she’s the one we’ve been waiting for?” the woman asked. “The one that miserable witch spoke of?”
“Indeed she is,” the large man replied with a nod of approval. “They couldn’t have come at a more pleasurable time, dear daughter.”
The woman smiled gleefully. “At last, we may begin. After so long, our dream will finally be realized.”
The bulky man held up a hand as he retreated back into the room. He handed her the binoculars and turned to the third companion. The young man stepped forward, his tall and lean body strutting with the haughtiness of a fox. He tossed his head contemptuously, sending lengths of his dark, wavy hair swirling around broad shoulders. His dark eyes flashed with dangerous excitement.
“So what do you want me to do?” he asked with a deep chuckle. “You name it. I’ll take care of it.”
“Nothing as of this moment. You will leave this all to me for the time being.”
The siblings looked at each other and frowned. They watched as their father pulled the window shut and reached into the hidden pocket of his robe. He pulled out a ring of golden keys. They jangled noisily as he shuffled through them busily. The woman spared her brother another glance to which he shrugged in response.
“Ah,” the man sighed as he plucked a key off its ring and held it out in his hand.
The siblings quickly gathered around and gaped in fascination. The golden key had a strange symbol etched onto its circular bow: a symbol of two fish, both chasing after the fin of the other. A small message was engraved on the key, the words twisting around the slender shank in elegant, cursive script and ending abruptly at the tip.
“The Gate of the Two Fish,” the young man breathed. “Does this mean that the girl…”
“Correct, my son,” the man answered. “This means that the Guardian of the Two Fish has been chosen.”
As if on cue, the golden key began to hum as it spun wildly in the man’s palm. The siblings gasped and lurched back in surprise. The larger man slipped the key back onto the keyring before dropping it back into his pocket.
“They will be here soon,” he declared. “You are both dismissed.”
“Yes, father,” the siblings replied in unison. They bowed deeply before crossing the threshold and disappearing into the hall.
Every town had its secrets, its haunting urban legends and tales that sent shivers down one’s spine. Their new home was no exception. At least, not for its latest residents: The Fischer family. Buried deep in the Olympic Western-most Peninsula and the Cascades of Oregon State, a small town named Chagrin Heights resided within its boundaries. The city was made up of four thousand five hundred people with a mixture of farmlands, mountains, islands, and the big cities over an hour away.
It was in this town, this gloomy settlement, where Aspen Fischer was to start her new life. The place where her sentence was to begin. She sighed and leaned back against the leather upholstery of her seat and let her gaze wander out the window. Green. Everything was green. The ground, the sky, and even the air had a lingering lime fog that hung like a curtain, obscuring most things in sight. There were no more skyscrapers or bustling city traffic here. No longer would she enjoy the familiar sounds of angry shouts and car horns blasting through the air or the smells of roasted peanuts and fried rice tickling her nostrils. No more gazing out at the brightly lit city every night before bed.
Instead, she was trapped in a town drowning in trees where the houses were small and square and built out of brick or wood. The air smelled crisp and musty like it did before it was about to rain, and the population was nowhere in sight. The streets were abandoned, the sidewalks emptied of people and animals. Not a sound could be heard. Just like a ghost town. A shiver ran down her spine. She had never felt so alone in her life. Where are the people? Why is everything so quiet? Surely they couldn’t be the only ones living in such a scary place.
“Where is everybody?” Mrs. Fischer murmured. “It’s like this whole place is empty.”
She reached up and tucked a dark, curly lock of hair behind her ear. She frowned and narrowed her eyes against the thick fog. Mrs. Fischer sighed heavily. The way she always did when she was irritated or stressed about something. Aspen turned her attention back to the window. The green had fallen away and was now replaced with several sagging houses that looked like they would fall over any minute. They were clearly old: outdated paint jobs were faded and chipped, glasses fragments from shattered windows decorating the old rotted porches like snow. The yards were unkempt: patches of dead grass yellowed with age and neglect, overgrown weeds sprouting from the crevices in the cracked concrete of the sidewalks and driveways, vines climbing the sides like green fingers.
What happened here? Her mouth hung open in awe as Aspen gaped.
Through the tall, anorexic trees that leaned askew across the properties, the windows seemed to glare back at her like angry, black eyes. Aspen turned away quickly. Surely where they were going to live was much prettier than this. She knitted her small fingers nervously. Did people actually live in those horrible houses? Why did her mom bring us here in the first place?
“Mom,” Aspen whispered. “I don’t like this place. I think it’s horrible.”
Ms. Fischer met her eyes in the rearview mirror. Dark brown and pale blue, earth and sky. She frowned at her.
“You haven’t even seen where we’re going to live, honey,” she replied. “I’m sure you’ll change your mind when we get there.”
Aspen returned the frown. “Where are we going? Where is everybody? Why are those houses like that? What happened to the people in them? When are you going to—”
“Aspen,” Ms. Fischer said and sighed heavily. She was irritated. “Hon, I’ll answer all your questions when we get to the house. There are a lot of things to do and my mind is hectic right now, okay? I mean, I have to go in and unpack, find myself a part or full-time job, get you ready for school…”
With a sigh of her own, Aspen returned her attention to the window. Yes. Her new home in a new town with a new life. A life she hadn’t asked for in the first place. She remembered when she first heard the news of the move: She had just come home from school that day, having just walked the way with Callie and Brenda, her friends when her parents called her into the living room to give her the news.
She smiled gleefully. Mr. Fischer, however, did not return the gesture. Instead, he had turned away and shifted his glare out the front window and let the watery sunlight in. Aspen’s heart skipped a beat as she took a tentative step forward.
“Hon, I don’t know another way I can tell you this, but… we’ll be going away for a little while. Kind of like a field trip or a vacation—”
“A vacation?” Aspen perked up. “Cool! Where are we going? Hawaii? Florida? California?” A broad smile broke out on her face.
Mrs. Fischer shook her head. “No, honey. You see… you and I will be moving away for a bit while Dad works on a special project.”
Aspen cocked her head to the side in confusion. Mr. Fischer pulled away from the window. “Washington,” he said before her mother could answer. “You two are going to Washington for a bit until we can… figure things out.”
“But why do we have to go away now? And what things do you need to figure out?”
Both parents looked at each other. “That doesn’t matter right now,” Mrs. Fischer responded. “What matters is that we pack as soon as we can so we can leave earlier. Okay?”
Aspen shot up to her feet. “I don’t want to go!” she argued. “I want to stay here with my friends and go to school here! I don’t want—”
“Aspen!” Mr. Fischer barked. “Go upstairs and pack your things. Your mother and I need to talk some more about the move. Don’t… don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
With a final huff, Aspen stormed up the steps to her room, where she busied herself with packing the rest of the day.
She felt a growing sorrow well up inside her as she let the memory fade away into the back corners of her mind. The car began to slow down as they neared their destination. Aspen turned and met her mother’s eyes in the rearview mirror. They had arrived. Mrs. Fischer cut the engine and stepped out of the car, stretching and yawning loudly. Aspen hesitated and leaned forward for a better look at their new home.
Surprisingly, the new house was a lot nicer than she had expected. It was tall, three-stories, and painted a perky buttercup yellow. The yard was full and boxed in with a newly painted red fence, and a single maple tree standing in the middle. The driveway was on the right with a moving truck already parked, and bunches of well-kept rose bushes sat on either side of the front steps that led to the porch where a wicker porch swing swung gently in the wind. Aspen smiled in satisfaction. Maybe the move wouldn’t be so bad after all.
She quickly exited the car and ran across the yard to the front door.
“Aspen!” Mrs. Fischer cried, holding her cellphone in one hand. “Wait a minute! I don’t think the door is open!”
Aspen paused and admired the bright red paint of her new front door. This is so cool! She thought gleefully. She reached for the doorknob.
The door swung open with a small whine. Aspen giggled with delight. “Mom!” she cried. “It’s okay! The door is already open!”
But Mrs. Fischer didn’t hear her. Instead, she made her way over to the moving truck, keys in hand, as she talked away on the phone. Aspen shrugged and entered the house. She wandered down the front hall and into the vast living room to her right. The room was empty except for a red brick chimney and a large window looking out at the front yard where the car was parked against the curb by the mailbox.
Aspen squealed with delight. Such a pretty house! She twirled as she left the room and moved on to the kitchen. She stopped and stared astoundingly. This room was empty too save for the small dinner table sitting by the back door with missing chairs, a metallic refrigerator, and bare white cabinets. Their doors were all hanging open like the gaping jaws of a shark. Weird, she thought. She moved on further into the house. She ducked her head in what looked like a laundry room, frowned, and walked out again.
“Aspen?” Mrs. Fischer called. “Honey, where are you? We need to meet the landlord soon. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“Okay,” Aspen responded. “Be there in a second—”
She stopped short and scampered up the stairs, giggling jubilantly. She was met with a long hallway of doors, four in total, and each with its door wide open, baring view of the empty rooms. Aspen frowned. Who left all the doors open in an abandoned house? She sighed and sauntered past the four entrances to another set of stairs. She began to climb. Maybe it’s more rooms, she thought despairingly. How many rooms does a house need anyway?
She let out a startled gasp. The hall had three more rooms, two with their doors pushed wide open, and the third being at the end of the corridor with a bird. Its black feathers seemed to shine in the pale light of the day as if made of polished glass. The bird’s head was turned, its dark eyes fixed on the view of the backyard down below, and its talons sunk deep in the plush beige carpeting. As if suddenly sensing her presence, it turned its head to look at her. A cold shiver ran down Aspen’s spine. Creepy bird! She took a step forward. The bird didn’t move. Instead, it kept its unblinking stare trained on her.
“Shoo!” Aspen cried and made a ‘go away’ motion with her hands. “You can’t be in here! You belong outside!”
Still, the bird did not move. Aspen frowned and placed her hands on her hips. “How am I going to get rid of you?”
She made another ‘go away’ motion with her hands. “Shoo! Shoo!” she cried. “Go away, you creepy bird! You’re not allowed up here!”
The bird didn’t flinch. Aspen sighed in defeat.
“Fine,” she said and curled her bottom lip out in a pout. “Stay here then! I’ll just go and explore without you!”
She marched forward in the bird’s direction and kept her eyes trained at the door. Another shiver ran down her spine. Stop scaring yourself, she berated. It’s just a stupid bird. It probably got in through an open window or something. But the goosebumps on her arms suggested otherwise. She glanced away from the eerie bird and fixed her attention at the final door. Unlike the others, this door was very peculiar: large and oval at the top as it towered over her petite frame, wooden, and chipped in several places where the blood-red paint was fading. Aspen’s eyes widened at the thick bands of golden chains securing the door shut and the golden key shoved into the lock, twinkling with a faint, baby blue shimmer of light.
“What in the world…?” Aspen carefully sidestepped the ogling bird and cautiously moved forward. “Why is this door locked—?”
Aspen whirled around, startled by the sudden outburst, and tumbled to the ground. The bird suddenly took flight, flapping its long, black wings maddeningly, and its eyes glowing with a dark red light. A scream tore out of Aspen’s throat as the bird circled through the air and dove directly at her, its pointed beak shining like a glossy blade of a knife.