Alex unconsciously dropped his phone onto the seat beside him. He was staring out of the window, looking along the highway leading out of town from where they were stopped at the flashing red light. He could see the highway curve away as it passed out of Ridgeline and out of sight, and above that was the sunset.
Alex was speechless. The sunset was huge, the sky a bright pallet of colors, oranges and reds, purples and blues the higher he looked. He had never seen such a sunset before. In the comfortable world of trees that he was used to, these kinds of things were always hidden.
Before he could take it all in, Roc pulled through the intersection and the sunset was lost behind the faces of old, main street buildings. They were brick or stucco, well-kept but obviously old, probably as old as the town itself.
The main street – Alex knew it was the main street from his Maps search – consisted of only about two blocks of businesses, and then it shifted into a residential area. Larger, old but fixed up houses lined both sides of the street. It took Alex a second to realize how these houses were different than what he was used to, but he soon realized that they were very spread out, each with large yards. Back on the east coast, there were neighborhoods with spaced-out houses like this, but they were mostly new, extravagant homes. There was nothing extravagant about these homes, just big yards.
About three blocks from the red light, Roc slowed and turned the pickup off the main highway and onto a side street. As they turned, Alex noticed that he could already see the end of town to the south, where the highway they had just left disappeared over a hill. That view, too, quickly disappeared as they entered the side street.
Roc took them two blocks from the main highway. The size of the houses diminished slightly as they went, and they pulled up along the curb outside a moderately-sized, two-story house on the corner. Roc turned the key and the engine stopped, but Alex could still feel the vibrations of the road.
It was a fixer upper. Alex could see this as he opened the door and slid out of the pickup to the ground. The house was mostly brick, the roof was shake shingled, but everything was aged. The house was square, or square-ish. There were lots of little nooks and crannies to the house, almost as if its whole was made up of a bunch of random smaller parts. There was a large yard that wrapped all the way around the house, but it was dead. February, Alex realized. Things didn’t grow here in February.
Also, it was cold. Alex reached back in for his coat and put it on. Three doors slammed, and Alex, Jax, and their father stepped up on the sidewalk to take in the house and its surroundings.
“This’ll do,” Roc said.
“It’s awesome, dad!” Jax said, and he took off across the yard. He was always excited about new places.
“Hold on,” Roc called, and started after him.
Alex stood on the sidewalk for a moment longer, taking in the house, the wide but sparse yard, the dilapidated garage off to one side near the alley, and the silhouettes of the ancient trees standing around the yard, leafless, stretching their black, skeleton fingers toward the sky.
It was quiet here, Alex realized, quieter than anywhere he’d experienced before. There was no sound of traffic, not a single car. The birds had bedded down for the night, if there had been any before, so there was no chirping. No dogs barked, no kids squealed, nothing.
Shaking off the strange sense of aloneness, Alex turned back to the pickup, opened the door, and grabbed his bag and sleeping bag, and then made his way across the yard toward the side of the house facing the garage, to the door where his father and Jax had disappeared. A light shined through a window in the door from inside, and the window rattled when Alex opened the door.
The silence he had been experiencing did not exist in the house. When he entered, he was met by the sound of Jax’s pounding feet and cries of, “Look at this!” and “What’s in here!” Jax was trying to see it all as fast as he could, like usual.
Alex looked around the little mud room right inside the door. There was a dark stairway leading steeply down to a basement. Beside that were two steps up through another doorway and into the rest of the house. Roc’s boots were standing by the doorway, so Alex slid his shoes off, too, and hung his coat on one hook in a row of hooks beside the door.
He padded into a small kitchen and set his bag and sleeping bag down against the wall. Roc was leaning against the worn counter near the sink, typing on his phone.
“How’d you get the key already,” Alex asked as he looked around the kitchen. It was small and the appliances looked old, but it would be enough for them.
“They left it on the counter,” his father said, “and left the door unlocked.”
Alex raised his eyebrows at that. They left the door unlocked? This place was already so much different than any place they had lived before. He shrugged it off and turned to go see the house.
The rooms were small and different shapes and sizes. The layout didn’t seem to make much sense. There were lots of windows in every room. The floors were hardwood, made up of narrow, worn boards. The walls were white. Boring besides the strange layout, Alex thought.
He already heard the pounding of Jax’s feet from the floor above him. He found the stairs and climbed them. They creaked, the stairway was narrow and dark, and the ceiling was high. On the upper floor, he found a short hallway, and he stuck his head into three simple bedrooms and a small bathroom. Alex was in a corner bedroom.
“This room’s mine!” he said.
“Looks good,” Alex replied. “Which one should I take?”
“Oh, I know just the one!” Jax said and pushed past Alex to leave the room.
He led Alex to a room at the end of the hall. It was not any larger than the others, but it had three sizable windows abutting each other and looking out the end of the house. It also had slanted sides to the ceiling, where the roof slanted down.
“You’ll like this room,” Jax said. “I can help you remodel it!”
Alex laughed. “We’ll see,” he said. He tapped on that wall. “Plaster,” he said to Jax. “Plaster is hard to work with.”
Jax blew out a sigh and rolled his eyes. “Whatever,” he said, and he was back out into the hallway and then down the steps in a flurry of stomps.
Alex walked across the room and looked out of one of the windows. One of the large, skeleton trees stood in the yard right outside his window. It was almost dark out now, and he couldn’t see much, but he was already thinking about changes he could make to the room.
He turned around and scanned the space. There was no closet, for one. He would tear the plaster down and put drywall up, and he would add a closet while he was at it. The room wasn’t really that big, but it would be big enough.
As he took a step toward the door to leave, the overhead light flickered. He stopped and looked at it. It was an old, ceramic lighting mount on the ceiling with one old incandescent bulb. A light cover of the type with springy wires that clung to the bulb itself covered it.
The flicker had been brief, and now Alex took another step toward the door.
It flickered again, and when Alex stopped, it stopped.
He stared at the light for a moment, thinking, and then he bounced his weight a little on the balls of his feet.
The light flickered and then stopped when he stopped.
Another thing I’ll have to fix, he thought, wondering about the age of the wiring that surely ran through the attic on insulators as old as the house itself.
He flicked the light switch off and headed back downstairs. His father was still typing on his phone and Jax was out digging through the bed of the pickup, looking for either toys or clothes, Alex supposed.
“What’s up, dad?” Alex asked, and when his father looked up, Alex indicated the phone.
“I’m still working on Jimmy and Elijah,” Roc replied. “If I can get even one of them here, it would help me out immensely.”
“Do you think they’ll come?”
His father shook his head. “I don’t know.” He was typing again.
Alex grabbed his bag and sleeping bag. “Heading to bed,” he said.
Roc looked up, a little startled. “Are you hungry?” he asked. “We could go find something to eat?”
“No. I’m fine. I really don’t want to get back in that truck right now.”
Later, Alex lay on his back in his sleeping bag, staring out the window at the moon shining through the bony fingers of the big old tree.
What a strange place, he thought. Never had his welcome to a place been so quiet. Never had he felt so alone, like he, Jax, and their father were the only people left in the world.
What would tomorrow bring? What would Ridgeline be like in the daytime? Those were the thoughts on Alex’s mind when he finally drifted off to sleep. Those questions, and the soft hooting of an owl outside his window, left him with restless dreams and fits of tossing and turning all night.