Chapter 1: Christmas in May
She had followed the stranger's voice this far, so why turn back now? Looking up at the old house before her, a chill swept through her body. She knew this house, from the outside, at least. The weathered, gray siding, the filthy windows, the overgrown vines creeping up the porch supports - yes, she knew this house. Turning to look behind her, she realized that the whole valley was steeped in an eerie fog and the tops of the mountains barely peeked out above their misty cloak. The only thing she could truly make out was this house.
Drawing in a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and stepped up onto the ancient porch. The splintered boards creaked beneath her feet, but it was the groan of the rusty chains, swinging an invisible being on the dilapidated porch swing, that she found most unnerving. Her arm tense, she placed her hand on the tarnished brass knob, closed her eyes, and turned it.
The door practically opened itself and she gasped at what it revealed. She knew this house very well, in fact, because on the inside, it was her own. The trepidation melted away as she stepped over the threshold and took in all the familiar sights of home: the little, pale green roses on the cream-colored wallpaper, the faded, blue couch, the worn out wingback chair, the radio in its position of prominence.
With a sigh of relief, she shut the door behind her and walked toward the kitchen, expecting to find her family there.
But she didn't make it.
An unseen force pinned her to the ground. She tried to scream, but no sound came out. When she attempted to struggle against the phantom assailant, she found her muscles were paralyzed. Suddenly, a searing pain unlike anything she'd ever felt shot through her body, and she let out another silent scream.
Somewhere in the distance, she could hear her step-father laughing. She called out his name, in hopes he might come to her aid. But again, no sound escaped her lips, and she quickly gave up; he only laughed like that when he was drunk, anyway.
She didn't know how much longer she could endure the pain and she was beginning to feel like she was suffocating. No, she was suffocating. As the room around her blurred and the pain dulled, the voice of the stranger whispered in her ear, "Everything you've ever known is a lie."
Ginny Paserella awoke with a start, her heart pounding mercilessly in her chest. She rolled over on her back and closed her eyes again, grateful to be able to move and breathe. It was morning, but she still might be able to get a little more sleep in before having to get up for school. Her brother had other plans, though. She covered her head with her pillow in an attempt to drown out his pretend snoring down on the bottom bunk. Having already turned sixteen, he still was not beyond doing whatever he could to get under her skin.
She lay there contemplating how much she would enjoy going down there and shoving her pillow in his face to hush him up. But she knew she'd never get away with it; he would claim he'd really been sleeping and that her actions could easily be construed as attempted murder. She wished he was stupider than he was.
Only after several agonizing minutes of this did her mother stick her head through the doorway and put an end to Ginny's waking torment. "Y'all get up, now."
Ginny flung off the cover and rushed down the ladder in hopes of beating Kody to the outhouse, but being on that bottom bunk gave him the advantage. She groaned as he slipped out the back door in front of her; there was much to be said for being the first to use the outhouse in the morning.
After she'd had her turn and washed up and gotten dressed she wandered into the kitchen, where she found her brother staring into a pot on the cookstove.
"What is it?" she asked.
She knew that in those days they were fortunate to have oatmeal, or anything, for breakfast, but she couldn't fathom why Mama insisted on continuing to serve what neither of her children liked. Kody seemed to be genuinely debating eating it or not, but Ginny's mind was already made; eleven years of not liking oatmeal wasn't going to come to and end this morning.
About that time came the familiar rapping on the screen door and her cousin Jack let himself in. He lived on the ridge behind their small, wood house with the rusty metal roof, and like every other morning he'd descended the steep, well-worn path that ran through the woods between the two houses in order to accompany them on the walk to school.
"Morning!" he chimed.
"Good morning, Jack, " Mama said, pinning her dishwater blonde locks into a bun atop her head as she joined them in the kitchen.
Jack tousled Ginny's mess of short, dark brown hair on his way to the cupboard to help himself to a bowl. Mama laughed and put her hands on her hips.
"Don't your mama feed you?"
"Oh she does. But don't nobody make up a pot of oatmeal quite like you, Aunt Susan." He grinned, brown eyes twinkling mischievously, as he ladled out a generous portion. Mama shook her head and laughed to herself again.
Jack's acceptance of the oatmeal had convinced Kody to stomach a bowl himself. Maybe oatmeal had some miraculous growth-stimulating power to it. Though the same age, Jack was considerably bigger than him, broad-shouldered and nearly a head taller.
Jack straddled a chair and started talking a mile a minute in between bites of oatmeal. As usual, Kody listened silently, occasionally nodding to prove he was paying attention. Ginny pulled the previous day's graded homework out of her school book and flipped it over to draw on, doing her best to ignore them both.
When they had finished eating, the boys and Ginny told Mama goodbye and headed out on their two-mile walk into town. Ginny still attended the one-room schoolhouse in Mabry's Ridge, which was where the boys boarded the bus that took them across the mountain to the county high school. And it just so happened that this was the last day of school before it let out for summer.
After school, Ginny walked home with her friends, all of whom lived in town. She waved to her mother as they passed the company store, where she worked, and continued on toward the rows of painted-white company houses, where most of her friends lived. They all stopped off at their respective homes except for Tommy Montgomery, who this day walked Ginny all the way out to her house in the holler. He was a year older than the rest of them but had been held back a year in school. For him, summer meant one thing: baseball. It was all he could talk about, planning their entire summer around "practices" and "games" with whatever other scruffy bunch of kids they could round up.
"I dunno what we're gonna do without Rowdy," he said, referring to their short-stop. Rowdy had left the day before to spend most of the summer helping out on the farm of some distant member of his huge Irish family, in what sounded to somehow be a more underprivileged place than the suffering Appalachian coal mining town in which they themselves resided. Tommy was still babbling on about baseball as the rusty metal roof came into view.
"Maybe I can get my brothers to play. Ya think Jack and Kody'll play this year?"
Ginny scoffed. "Psht. What's in it for them?"
She noticed the enthusiasm in her friend's face suddenly die as the realization that he didn't have anything close to a whole team put together began to dawn on him. "But I'll ask anyway," she added quickly, as they arrived in her yard.
"Thanks. Well, see ya tomorrow."
"See ya, Tommy."
Tommy turned and headed back up the dirt road and Ginny stepped onto the porch, but turned and stepped right back off it. She walked back across the yard and out to the road, where the crooked, rusty mailbox stood. She smiled at the sound of the ancient hinges groaning as she opened its door. Mama was so particular about keeping a clean house, but this poor mailbox had been lop-sided for years, and Ginny couldn't remember a time when it didn't have that big dent in the side.
Checking the mail was like Christmas, in a way. They rarely got anything in that box, so when they did, it was sort of exciting, and Ginny had always delighted in being the one to fetch that excitement for the household. She peeked inside and found that Christmas had indeed come in May; there was an envelope in the mailbox. She pulled it out and inspected it. It was addressed to Mama and postmarked from Cleveland, Ohio - a letter from Uncle Kent.
After fighting the mailbox door shut, she went into the house and left the little present from Cleveland on the kitchen table for Mama.