Well, this was going to take some work.
Jo dropped the dusty painting cloth that had been covering the living room...couch? It was so small and breakable-looking, maybe she should’ve called it a loveseat instead. Waving a hand in the air, she tried to waft away the cloud of dust she had released. It glimmered in the sunlight that was streaming through the broken pane in the otherwise grimy window.
The old Scott house, originally built by her great-grandparents, hadn’t been lived in for ten years, and it showed. It wasn’t like the floorboards were rotting under her feet or anything, but the years of neglect were apparent in the moth-eaten furniture, the heavy smell of must, and the intricate spiderwebs built by generations of spiders.
Jo sat down on the couch and instantly regretted it as more dust poofed around her, the motes dancing and threatening her with a coughing fit. The couch/loveseat/whatever was uncomfortable anyways; she could feel the wooden frame even through the cushions, and it was worn and threadbare. It was going to have to go, like so many other things she had uncovered since moving in three days ago.
So far, she hadn’t ventured out of the house, not even to explore the five acres of woodland and mountainside that came along with it. Normally she would’ve been all over that opportunity, hiking the trails her family had made over the years, but she didn’t have the motivation. Instead she poured the energy she did have into sporadically cleaning the house and watching pre-downloaded episodes of Netflix trash shows on her laptop. She knew that eventually she would run out of episodes and have to call an Internet company and actually start living again, but right now, she was content with coasting along.
Her choices had certainly surprised her parents. She’d been so motivated and excited about going to college, her mother had argued. There was nothing for her in some isolated mountain town, her father had pointed out. They had been thinking about selling the family land anyway, her parents said, to help pay for her college. At an excellent university, her mother had added, the hinting not subtle at all.
Instead, here Jo was, cleaning out a half-abandoned family homestead as she prepared to start school at a community college in a small mountain town she’d only visited a few times. The sure-fire set up for a successful life and wide social circle Jo thought with a wry half-smile as she grabbed up the dust cloth and stood to add it to her pile in the corner of the room.
Mom and Dad would never understand, but it was better this way. Safer this way.
Jo brushed stands of dark hair off her sweaty face--most of it was successfully tied back in a ponytail, but the humidity here was making it a bit impossible to control.
That was another thing to add to her checklist--she pulled out her phone and opened the notes app. Check and see if AC could be installed. You’d think no one had lived here since the early 1900s or something, but it hadn’t been that long. Guess she should be grateful there was at least indoor plumbing and electricity.
Jo sighed as she scanned down the list. She would need to stop by the store to pick up a number of items. Had to get cleaning supplies, more groceries, other things. College orientation was tomorrow too--had to pick up textbooks again.She closed her eyes. Looking at this never ending list was not helping. Instead, it seemed to be making an awfully good case for further procrastination.
Pocketing the phone again, she grimaced. Being an adult was not nearly as fun as she’d thought it would be back when she was playing house as a kid. Too bad she couldn’t imagine a dishwasher into existence.
The dust cloud was still lingering, and all the hand waving she had tried wasn’t really doing much to get rid of it. Getting up, Jo was about to head into the kitchen when she felt eyes on her. It was an undeniable sensation; someone was staring at her. She whirled around toward the front of the house to catch two pairs of eyes at the bottom of one of the windows before she heard a couple childish shouts.
“There’s a hobo lady in there!”
Really? Jo rushed toward the front door, feeling like some old grump about to yell for some wannabe pranksters to get off her lawn. All she needed was a cane to wave around and a housecoat.
“I told you two to knock, not spy on her like she’s a zoo animal,” a woman’s voice was saying as Jo stepped out onto the porch, reminding herself to be careful of splinters since she hadn’t bothered to put on shoes. There was a four-wheel drive blue truck parked in the overgrown driveway, and a brunette woman with gray streaks in her ponytail was frowning at a pair of little girls.
“That’s the hobo, Mom,” said the taller one, tugging on the woman’s elbow.
“You know, that’s not really a nice thing to call someone,” the woman chided.
“I actually own the house, I’m not a squatter,” Jo protested, crossing her arms over her chest. She wasn’t sure who this woman was, but her parents had both said that the people who did live on the mountain might be curious about her. Jo was more inclined to say “nosy,” but she didn’t want to think too badly of her new neighbors.
“Hi, sorry about them,” the woman said, waving at Jo. “I’m guessing you're Josephine Scott?”
“Just Jo is okay,” she said, “But yeah, that’s me.”
“Your dad called to say you’d be coming, he asked me to check in on you,” she said, “I’m Grace Taylor, I live right down the mountain, first turn off Gather Road.” That was the gravel road that led from the main road up the mountain. The old Scott house was the last home on the road. “This is Janna and Ayden.”
“Um...hi,” Jo said. She attempted a smile, but she had a feeling it came out looking more like a grimace. She was just caught by surprise--her dad hadn’t said anything about expecting any neighbors to stop by. But then again, if he had spoken to a neighbor and hadn’t told her, that was probably her fault too. Besides calling them to tell them she’d made it safely, she hadn’t really spoken to them since she’d gotten to the house. She just told them she was busy cleaning up. Which was basically true.
The taller girl, Ayden it seemed, snorted. “That’s a warm welcome.”
Jo stared at the sassy little redhead, but she was saved from replying by Grace.
“What?” Ayden mumbled, scraping a muddy tennis shoe against the ground, only getting it muddier in the process. She flashed a mischievous grin at Jo. “You always say honestly is the best policy.”
“It’s honesty.” Grace swatted at the back of Ayden’s head, though without any force, and the girl ducked out of the way. Ayden continued to grin unrepentantly. Despite herself, Jo found herself warming to this girl who could only be 8 or 9. She hadn’t exactly been a mannerly little girl either.
“It’s fine,” Jo said, sticking her hands in the pockets of her old overalls.
“Well, she knows better,” Grace said, giving Ayden a severe look, but there was a twinkle of warmth in her eye--the woman was clearly fond of her rebellious kid.
Ayden rubbed the back of her head and gave a dramatic sigh. “I’m sorry, Miss Jo,” she said, obviously used to having to make apologies. Grace nodded approvingly and then Ayden immediately bounded up the steps, contrition over and done with. “Is your house really haunted?” she said, peering past Jo into the hallway. “Charlie says it is. Says them ghosts’ll grab you real quick if you stay past sunset.” She peered up at Jo intently as if trying to figure out why the ghosts hadn’t taken her yet.
Jo grinned at Ayden as Grace hurried toward the house after her daughter, leading Janna along with her. “They leave us Scotts alone.”
Ayden considered this, then nodded. “Seems you’ll be safe enough then, even all by yourself. Alone. Without nobody.”
“Ayden!” Grace sounded more exasperated than scandalized as she overheard her daughter’s teasing. She rolled her eyes and looked at Jo as the two little girls moved down the porch, looking through the windows. “They’re a handful, but they keep you on your toes.”
“I can see that,” Jo replied. She hesitated. “Um, I’d invite you in, but I haven’t finished cleaning up yet...”
“Pshh, don’t worry about that, I didn’t come here to be entertained,” Grace said, waiving away Jo’s not-offer. “Just wanted to see how you were getting along. If you need anything, I can direct you where to go in town, or I’m always happy to lend you what I have.” She nodded at the girls. “Or if you need some extra hands, Ayden at least is a pretty hard worker if she’s a mind to help.”
“Thank you,” Jo said, smiling at her. “I’m still deciding what all needs to be done, but I’ll certainly let you know if I need anything.” Probably not, but the offer was still nice. She wasn’t exactly looking to be around a lot of people right now, and she didn’t think she wanted to be trusted with someone else’s children. Sorting out the family home would be a task all her own, and if it took a while, all the better--it would at least occupy her time and her mind.
“You don’t need a lot, right?” Ayden said, spinning around on her heel, throwing a hand out to bounce off the wooden side of the house. “You’re not staying that long.”
Jo raised an eyebrow. Where had she gotten that impression? Was it because Jo hadn’t shown up with a moving van? “I’m living here, not visiting.”
“Ayden,” Grace said. She was going to wear the girl’s name out, she was having to say it so often.
“No one just moves to Jackson’s Hollow,” Ayden said. She put her hands on her hips and looked up at her mother. “Right?”
Grace waved a hand at Ayden as if shooing her ideas away. Beside Grace, Janna tugged on her shirt and nodded.
“Well, I’m moving here,” Jo said, amused. “And I’ll at least be here a couple years. Maybe more.”
“Ayden’s been told so often by her cousins that no one would want to live here that she’s started to believe it,” Grace said, “She is right, though, so you know, about not many people moving here. You’ll probably stand out some in town, seeing how newcomers are rare.”
“No worries, that won’t bother me,” Jo said, even though she inwardly cringed at the idea. “I’m not planning on stirring the waters or standing out. I’m just here for college.” And to get away from certain things.
Ayden swung around. “You came here for college? That’s weird.”
“And before my daughter says anything else embarrassing, I think I’ll take that as our cue to leave.” Grace stepped backward and took Janna’s hand. “Oh, but Ayden, run to the truck and get that casserole, would you?”
“Do I have to--”
With a huge sigh, like her mother had asked her to make the world spin the other way, she trudged off to the truck. Grace sighed and shook her head. “We’re very glad you’re here, Jo. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“Oh, you don’t have to leave a casserole,” Jo said, embarrassed.
“If I didn’t, I’d feel like a terrible neighbor,” Grace said with a laugh. “And don’t worry about returning the dish, consider it a housewarming gift.”
Jo gaped. “I couldn’t--”
“But you’re going to have to,” Grace said, grinning as Ayden came stomping back, holding a tinfoil-covered glass dish that seemed half as big as she was. She shoved it at Jo, who quickly took it.
Jo had a feeling that Grace was used to people listening to her, even if her daughter seemed rebellious. “I’ll figure out some way to repay you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Grace said as she and the girls headed down from the porch. “Welcome to the mountain, Jo.”