Chapter 1 | Homecoming
On a balmy September evening, a woman who had grown accustomed to living alone was laboring to change that fact.
Rosamaria Arias-Moore--more lovingly known as simply “Rose”-- was lugging a box full of clothes and other teenage paraphernalia up to the second story of her shophouse.
“How many more boxes?” she asked, groaning as her half-niece handed her another.
“This is the last,” the girl replied as she balanced the final box on her knee. Once she judged it safe to do so, she lifted a hand off the box to shut the trunk of Rose’s Jeep.
They carried the last of the packages through the maze of antiques and furniture in the store front and up into the loft. Winter took a moment to stretch her cramped fingers and digest the years of changes that she’d missed in her half-Aunt’s apartment.
She was only a little girl when she last visited, no older than ten, and she realized that her childhood memory failed to capture many of the details in the home. She did not remember the dull blue board-and-batten walls accenting the living room, or the wooden hoosier cabinet with chevron accents stationed opposite the drop-leaf dining table tucked against the right wall of the kitchen. Winter inhaled the distinct scent of copal burning from a cone of incense set on the smallest of Rose’s nesting coffee tables and wondered what else changed and what else she forgot.
“I like what you did with the place,” she said. “Especially all the mid-century stuff.”
“Oh, I know, right? I scored big at a roadshow a few years ago and restored all of it,” Rose explained.
The two stood in silence for a moment while Winter continued to digest both the decor and apprehension she felt. Change was always frightening, but even more so when it was as deliberate as moving to a new country and being put in the care of you half-aunt, who you only half-knew.
Rose clapped her hands and rubbed them together. “Ok, I’ll show you your room.”
She guided Winter through the apartment, down the narrow hall past her own room and a bathroom, and finally to the back hall where an access door was fixed overhead. She tugged on the rope which hung from the hatch, pulling it and the collapsing staircase down so they could ascend into the attic.
The attic itself was as large as the entirety of the lower loft, though the gabled roofs restricted much of the space.
Even so, the room was stunning, complete with eclectic furnishings and a warm, bohemian vibe. Bursts of orange and azure blue decorated the space with a sense of liveliness that her Aunt Rose had always embodied. The brassware open-frame bed sat appealingly across the ways, adorned with decorative pillows and a green-blue throw blanket dangling off the footboard. Above the bed, an exposed-bulb pendant light dangled from one of the wood ceiling joists. There was even an alcove with a seating area and a wall painted from top to bottom with orange chalkboard paint that read ‘Welcome home, Winter’ in pretty cursive. Rose’s handiwork, no doubt.
“This is amazing, Aunt Rose. You really didn’t have to do all this.”
“Oh, please. God knows your dad sent over enough money to build a new house,” she joked.
Winter forced a chuckle, the sort that doesn’t reach the soul in much the same way a fake smile doesn’t reach the eyes.
“Well, kiddo,” Rose began awkwardly. Kids were not her forte, considering she had none of her own. “I hate to do this to you on your first day here, but I have a vanity that needs finishing for the morning,” she said, referring to her work in the shop. “But tonight is just you, me, and whatever takeout food your heart desires,” she added quickly.
Winter gave a sheepish wave of her hands. “Oh, that’s fine, really,” she assured. She was about to tell her that she’d take the time to unpack and relax, but her aunt jumped in before she could get another word in.
“But I’ve got a great idea for how you can spend your first day here!” she exclaimed, descending the steps in eager hops and collecting her keys from the dinner table on the way out. Winter followed.
“There’s no better place to spend a Saturday in Sharpton than at Pete’s.”
Winter grabbed her bag, as instructed, and joined her aunt in the Jeep. “Pete’s?”
“Well, it’s not really Pete’s, I guess, but it is,” she babbled.
This did nothing to quell Winter’s curiosity. After a moment, her aunt realized this.
“Oh! It’s a rock climbing gym,” she informed. “It sounds iffy, I know,” she continued, noticing Winter’s apprehension. “But it’s a big thing here, so you gotta try it at least once,” she reasoned.
Winter tried to mask her aversion to the whole idea with a polite smile, but she couldn’t hide such feelings from herself while they drove through the battered roads of the downtown area. The stark contrast between the suburban wasteland of Sharpton, Minnesota and the urban jungle of Toronto couldn’t be more clear to her now. She found herself missing the noise, of all things.
When they arrived at their designation, Winter exited the vehicle with great effort. The walk through the front doors of the building took even more effort.
“Pete!” her aunt called, waving her hand frantically.
The man in question, who Winter had decided was likeable enough by appearance alone, cantered over to them. His height would be imposing if it weren’t for his rosy cheeks and kind, green eyes that greeted them.
“Rose, lovely as ever,” he spoke in an English accent and hugged her. “and this must be Winter,” he assumed, turning to Winter and encasing her in an equally friendly hug.
“Nice to meet you,” she said politely as he released her.
Rose negotiated with the man to have Winter take a go at climbing, signing the necessary waver before encasing Winter in her own hug.
“It’ll be fun, I promise.” She began to walk away before abruptly turning on her heels to make dinner arrangements with her niece. Once the cuisine of choice was decided on, Rose offered Winter little but a thumbs up before abandoning her in the unfamiliar, plaster-scented gym.
After a moment’s pause and the realization that her climbing fee has yet to be paid, Winter pulled out her wallet. Pete refused her.
“Oh, no,” he said seriously. “I can’t have no niece of Rose paying. It’s on us today,” he insisted, giving her a friendly wink.
Winter felt in that moment that Pete must have been devilishly handsome in youth, as he was devilishly charming in age. He then shuffled over to a younger man, possibly a few years older than Winter, who was perched on a stool behind the counter.
“This is my grandson, Murdoch,” he said with pride, his hands gripping each of the young man’s shoulders. He gave his grandad an unamused look. “He’s your age, same year, yeah?” He looked to his grandson as if he would know. “Eleventh year?”
The boy gave no answer to that, but Winter shook her head in confirmation. After an uncomfortable meeting of gazes between the two teens, Pete introduced Winter.
Murdoch was a strong boy, from what Winter could tell through the dark tee that hung over his wide shoulders. His angular jaw was set into a frown, and his dark brows that framed his brown eyes only added to the seriousness of his look. She was even more sure now that Pete must have been handsome in youth.
Pete spoke up, breaking Winter from her train of thought. “Doch, set her up 'fer top rope, would-ya?”
“Why me?” he complained.
Pete leaned down to place his ear uncomfortably close to Murdoch’s. “Because I’m the boss,” he warned, his warm smile never leaving his face as he straightened out and gave a firm clap to Murdoch’s shoulder. He looked to Winter then, his smile widening, but his eyes apologizing, and excused himself to go do paperwork.
Murdoch fished out a harness from the back room and took Winter’s shoe size. Sensing the obvious malice from the boy, Winter made quick work of changing into her rental shoes while Murdoch wordlessly led her to the climbing wall.
“Here,” said Murdoch. Winter couldn’t help but catalogue his voice in her mind. It was a warm sort of voice, similar to his grandfather’s, but had a boyish rasp to it that indicated he was still only on the cusp of manhood.
He handed the tangle of a harness to Winter while he checked the rope. “Um,” she said dumbly. “I don’t know how to put it on.”
He glowered at her before letting out a dramatic huff and moving to help her put the harness on. What a prick, Winter thought.
He crouched down and held the harness below her for her to step into. She wobbled on one leg as she did so, so Murdoch placed her hand on his shoulder for support. He glared at her the whole time, though. A major prick, Winter thought. He tightened the loops around her waist and thighs with expert speed.
A small huff escaped him as he righted himself. When he stood, Winter was painfully aware of their height difference. He imposed well over a foot taller than her.
He hooked her up to the rope and stood at the other end of it to belay her as she climbed the wall. As she began her ascent, Winter noticed the grips of various colors and concluded that grips of the same color made a path she should follow. She began climbing up a series of blue grips, seeing as the path they laid out presented simple enough for a beginner.
“Don’t even bother,” said the boy below her. “Just use any grips; you won’t be able to climb any of the problems anyways.”
Winter bit the inside of her cheek. She didn’t want to admit it, but she was already struggling to follow the path--or ‘problem’ she was on. Rock climbing was not the friendliest sport for the vertically challenged.
She huffed and scaled the wall freely, not worrying about paths or problems. She didn’t mind the exercise, honestly. She was quite active back in Toronto, having been involved in a number of sports, and as she looked down to the mat below her, she was happy to note that she felt more thrilled than scared.
At the halfway point, she made the mistake of trying to spark up a conversation with her surly helper.
“So, Murdoch,” she began, finding the way his name rolled off her tongue oddly satisfying. “Do you go to Liberty?” she asked, referring to the school she would begin attending next week.
She looked down, locking eyes with the handsome boy, and Winter knew he registered her question.
“What? I can’t hear you,” he lied, bringing his hand to cup his ear for effect.
She repeated her question anyway, adding “I’ll be going there is why I’m asking.”
Murdoch had clearly hoped that the girl would give up trying to talk to him. He frowned and exhaled audibly. “Look, Winter. I’m on the clock, okay? Let’s keep conversations to a minimum unless they’re climbing-related. The more you talk the less you climb.”
Winter took the hint and made haste to finish climbing. Sure enough, the boy’s attitude and words soured any pleasure she would have derived from the activity. She scrambled to the top of the course and Murdoch belayed her back to the ground. Once her feet touched the mat, he begrudgingly asked her if she’d like to go again.
She acted thoughtful for a moment, before responding with a blunt “Nope,” and went to work on her harness, untying and tearing the straps open.
“Woah, slowly,” he cautioned, his hands up as he approached the girl.
“You know, when you pay for a service, you’re paying with the expectation of a certain quality of service,” she chided the boy, looking directly at him while she shimmied out of the harness.
This seemed to take Murdoch back a notch or two, but he quickly recovered. “Well, you didn’t pay for anything,” he reminded with a wry smirk. It irked Winter how well the expression suited him.
His smugness faded away when Winter replied without missing a beat. “Well, that explains the quality.” She dopped the mass of the harness into Murdoch’s arms and exchanged her climbing shoes for her sneakers before striding out of the building without a second thought.
The remainder of the 2 hour time frame Rose had set for Winter to spend at the gym was instead spent on roaming the downtown area. Winter quickly found herself warming up to the idea of living there. Sharpton, Minnesota, while a small and condensed suburban area, had the charm of an old European settlement, with brick buildings and wide sidewalks that allowed for café tables to be set up along the storefronts. Even the people had that old, classic charm to them (baring Murdoch, of course).
As she passed a boy her age accompanied by a young, blind girl, they greeted her. She was stunned by the action. That sort of small-town neighborliness was a foreign concept to her. She was instead used to brushing past hundreds of people only to be ignored by every single one of them. Toronto would always have a place in her heart, she thought, but she was beginning to realize just how cold urban life sometimes was.
“Good afternoon,” she replied a little late. The boy looked back at her and grinned, his lop-sided smile and green eyes flashing brilliantly in the setting sunlight.
By the end of her excursion, Winter had scouted out a new top at a local thrift store called ‘Pia,’ relishing in the nostalgia of thrifting with her friends for hours on end in Kensington Market. The shop owner was a tall, beautiful woman adorned with intricate tattoos, gaudy jewelry and a deep, natural tan. When Winter made her purchase, the woman chatted her up.
“Oh, great choice,” the woman complimented. “My little sister has been eyeing this one for a while, actually.” She began folding the top with the ease of someone who had worked in retail for years. When she glanced at Winter for a second time, her eyes seemed to sparkle in recognition (or rather, a lack thereof). “You’re new here?”
“Oh, yeah. Just got in today,” she admitted, surprised that the woman noticed. Sharpton was a smaller town, but not small enough to warrant knowing everyone, surely. Winter wondered if there was something about her that tipped people off to the fact that she wasn’t from the area. Is that why the boy greeted her earlier? She considered asking the woman, but didn’t get the chance.
“How fun,” she stated as she bagged the shirt. She began to type something into the register. “Will you be going to Liberty?”
“Yes,” she confirmed awkwardly.
“Oh, awesome. You should keep an eye out for my sister then. Her name’s Gina. Thirteen thirty,” she said, taking the twenty from Winter. “My name’s Pia, by the way.” That explains the store name.
“I’m Winter.” She grabbed her bag and change from Pia.
“Well, Winter, welcome to Sharpton,” she beamed, her pearly teeth gleaming in the dull light of the store. Winter thanked her and left to trek back to the gym to meet up with her aunt.
When they got home, Rose made quick work of setting up the table for them to eat. “I’m starving,” she cried. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”
“That’s a bad habit,” Winter called from the bathroom, where she was washing her hands.
“Well, I was a little preoccupied with picking someone up from the airport and moving them in,” she teased.
They began eating, gushing between bites about the heavenly flavors that danced on their tongues as they dug into their Indian takeout. Then, Rose’s phone rang.
Answering it, she said “Hello? Oh hi, John. We were just sitting down to have dinner.” Rose smiled at Winter as she placed the phone on the table and put it on speaker.
“Say hi,” she instructed.
“Hi, dad.” said Winter with melancholic excitement. It was her first call from her dad since moving.
“Hey, sweetie. How are you settling in?”
“Good. You should see the room Rose set up for me.”
“The attic?” he questioned.
“Mhmm,” Winter said, chewing on her food. “It’s great.”
“It’s insulated properly, right?” He seemed uncertain about his daughter living in an attic, considering the lavish lifestyle she’d lived up until that point.
Rose rolled her eyes. “Yes, I had everything surveyed and checked. Insulation, heating, AC, electrical, mold, structural integrity, fire alarm, earthquake-resistance...” she took a bite of her food. “Feng shui and exorcisms,” she added for good measure, smirking at Winter when she laughed.
“Okay, okay. I’m putting my trust in you, Rosamaria.”
“And rightfully so,” she replied, chewing and swallowing a mouthful of rice. “So, what’s it like there? How’s the weather? What time is it?”
“Uh, the weather’s fine. Feels a bit warmer than Toronto was, actually. And it’s uh...” John trailed off for a moment, presumably to look at the time. “One AM at the moment.”
“Oh, night owl, are we?” said Rose. She checked her stove for the time, confirming the six hour time difference between her and her brother. “So, when can we expect a visit from you? Are holidays different in Germany?”
“Ah, a little. I was originally aiming for Thanksgiving but I would have to take vacation time for it, and since I just got here, that might be tough to swing with the higher ups.”
“What about Oktoberfest?” Rose joked.
“Oh, no. We should go there for Oktoberfest,” Winter added, only half-joking.
Rose clapped her hands and pointed at her niece. “You’re right.” she hooted.
John laughed. “Yeah, I’ll be pretty busy for a while, but I’ll see about making Thanksgiving happen, alright girls?”
“Alright,” they answer in unison, both feeling a little hopeful about the prospect. Winter, however, couldn’t quell her skepticism.
“Okay, I really got to head to bed now. I’ll call again soon. Love you both.”
They said their goodbyes and I-love-yous and Rose hung up. The girls hung in awkward silence for a moment, having finished the conversation and the food. Then, Rose piped up, “So, are you gonna show me what’s in that bag?” she asked, referring to Winter’s latest purchase.
Winter looked over at the bag she’d left in the foyer and smiled. “Well, I’ve got a bit of a story to tell you.”
“Oh, I like stories.” The two cleaned up and chatted idly about Winter’s day, eventually heading to Winter’s room to pick out an outfit for her first day of school.
Hi there! Thanks for checking out my book. If you made it this far through this drag of a chapter, you deserve a gold star (⭐!) and a glass of something strong.
Until next time!