I've never been comfortable flying. My suspicious nature assumed the magic suspending airplanes in the sky would cease to exist at some master planner's whim. Listening to the whirr of a jet propeller change speeds—or experiencing the mysterious pockets of rough air jolt you up and down—equaled imminent death in an aluminum contraption destined for trouble. I spent the entire flight with my jaw clenched, hands clutching the armrests, and eyes glued to the seatback in front of me impatiently hoping the diligent crypt keeper didn’t claim another victim. Despite my uncanny knack for grasping anything mechanical and Nana D always calling me brilliant, I was entirely too doubtful of this mode of transportation. My gut promised I'd be safer plummeting over Niagara Falls naked and in a barrel.
After landing at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport on this miserable mid-February afternoon, I rented a Jeep to trek another ninety miles south into Pennsylvania. Several inches of densely packed snow and veiled black ice covered the only highway leading into or out of my secluded childhood hometown. Braxton, one of four charming villages fully surrounded by the Wharton Mountains and the Saddlebrooke National Forest, was nearly impenetrable from outside forces.
As I changed lanes to avoid a slippery patch, my sister's number lit up the cell phone screen. I paused Maroon 5 on my Spotify playlist, clicked accept, and moaned, “Remind me why I'm here again?”
“Guilt? Love? Boredom?” Eleanor said followed by a loud chuckle.
“Stupidity?” Craving something of substance to squelch the angry noises radiating from my stomach, I grabbed a chocolate chip cookie from a bag on the passenger seat. The extra tall salted caramel mocha—free, courtesy of a pretty red-haired barista who'd shamelessly flirted with me—wouldn't suffice on its own. “Please save me from this torture!”
“Not gonna happen, Kellan. You should've heard Mom when I suggested you might not make it. 'He's always coming up with excuses not to return home more often. This family needs him here!' But don't worry, I calmed her down,” shouted Eleanor over several dishes and glasses clanging in the background.
“Did she already forget I was here at Christmas?” Another cookie found its way into my mouth. I must confess, I'm powerless to desserts—also known as my kryptonite—hence, why I've always thought they should be a major food group. “Two trips home within six weeks is one too many by my count.”
“How did you let our darling siblings find acceptable excuses to skip the biggest social event of the season?” Eleanor said.
“Me? I gave up trying to compete with them years ago. It's easy to get away with things when they're not disappointing our parents like the rest of us.”
“Hey! Don't take me down because you can't escape the awkward middle-child syndrome.” Eleanor put me on hold to deal with a customer complaint.
My younger sister turned thirty last month and is unhappy about it given she still hadn't met the right man. She also insisted she's not morphing into our mother despite every hour of every day steamrolling those figments of her imagination into oblivion. Truth be told, Eleanor was the spitting image of Violet Ayrwick, and in one of those ways where everyone saw it but the two of them. Twinsies, as Nana D always said with the cutest lilt to her voice. Eleanor will definitely be at our father's retirement party as there wasn't a snowball's chance in you-know-where of me going to that boondoggle by myself. The man of the hour had been the president of Braxton College for the last eight years, but upon turning sixty-five, Wesley Ayrwick stepped down from the coveted role.
Eleanor jumped back on the line. “Was Emma okay with you visiting by yourself this time?”
“Yeah, she's staying with Francesca's parents. I couldn't take her out of school again, but we'll Facetime every day I'm gone.”
“You're an amazing father. I don't know how you do it all on your own,” Eleanor replied. “So, who's the woman you plan to meet while gracing us with your presence this weekend?”
“Abby Monroe. She completed a whole bunch of research for my boss, Derek,” I said, cursing the slimy, party-going executive producer of our award-winning television show, Dark Reality. Upon informing Derek I needed to return home for a family obligation, he generously suggested adding extra days to relax before everything exploded at the network, then assigned me to interview his latest source. “Ever heard the name?”
“Sounds familiar, but I can't place it right now,” Eleanor said in between yelling orders to the cook and urging him to hurry up. “What's your next storyline?”
Dark Reality, an exposé-style show adding splashy drama to real-life crimes, aired weekly episodes full of cliffhangers along the lines of reality television and daytime soap operas. The first season highlighted serial killers, Jack the Ripper and The Human Vampire, causing it to top the charts as a series debut. “I've got season two's massive show bible to read this weekend… ghost-hunting and witch-burning in seventeenth-century American culture. I really need to get a new job. Or kill my boss.”
“Prison stripes wouldn't look good on you,” Eleanor said.
“Don't forget, I'm too handsome.”
“I'm not gonna touch that one. Let Nana D weigh in before I crush you for saying something so pathetic. Maybe Abby will be normal?”
“With my luck, she'll be another bitter, scorned victim rightfully intent on justice for whatever colossal trauma Derek's caused,” I replied with a sigh. “I vote she's another loose cannon.”
“When are you gonna interrogate her?” asked Eleanor.
I'd meant to schedule a lunch to get the basic lowdown on Abby, but I barely made the flight cutoff at the gate in all the last-minute rigmarole. “Hopefully tomorrow if she isn't too far away. All Derek said is she lives in central Pennsylvania. He has no concept of space or distance.”
“It's getting busy here, I gotta go. Can't make dinner tonight, but I'll see you tomorrow. Don't commit any murders until we chat again. Hugs and kisses.”
“Only if you don't poison any patrons.” I disconnected the phone, begging the gods to transport me back to Los Angeles. I couldn't take the stress anymore and devoured the last two remaining cookies. Given my obsession with desserts, the gym had never not been an option for me. Some form of exercise happened daily unless I was sick or on vacation—which this trip certainly didn't count as. There would be no beaches, cabanas, or mojitos. Therefore, I wasn't going to enjoy the immediate future.
I navigated the winding highway drive with the heater set to die-from-sauna max and the wiper blades on maniacal passive-aggressive mode to keep the windshield clear of heavy sleet and snow. It was the dead of winter, and my entire body shivered—not a good thing when my feet needed to be ready to brake for deer or elk. Yes, they were common in these parts. No, I hadn't hit any. Yet.
No time like the present to call Abby and suggest a meeting. When she answered, I wasn't surprised at her naivety regarding my boss's underhanded approach.
“Derek never said anything about meeting anyone else. You got a last name, Kellan?” Abby whined after I'd already explained who I was in the first minute of the call.
“Ayrwick. I'm Kellan Ayrwick, an assistant director on the second season of Dark Reality. I thought we could review the research you prepared for Derek and discuss your experience working in the television industry.”
There were a few seconds of silence on the phone. “Ayrwick, you said? As in… well… aren't there a few of them working over at Braxton?”
I was momentarily stunned as to how a groupie girl would even know anything about Braxton, but then I speculated she currently attended the college or previously went to school with one of my siblings. “Let's have lunch tomorrow to discuss it. Would one o'clock be okay?”
“Not really. I wasn't prepared to chat this weekend. I thought I'd be flying out to meet Derek in the next few days. The timing is off.”
“Can't we meet for a brief introduction?” Derek sure knew how to pick the dramatic ones. I could picture her twirling her hair and blinking her eyes despite not knowing what she looked like.
“I'm in the middle of an exclusive exposé about a crime happening here in Wharton County. Might be something to pitch to Derek for… well, it's too early to say anything.” Her voice suddenly went cold and limp. She'd probably forgotten how to use the phone or accidentally muted me.
“Is this what you mentioned to him about topics for a future season of Dark Reality? I'm more interested in true crimes and investigative reporting. Maybe I could help with this scoop.” Once I realized she was in the same county as me, I tried all angles to snare a meeting.
“Are you Wesley Ayrwick's son? I heard he's got a whole slew of kids.”
My mouth dropped two inches. Nana D would've counted the flies as they swarmed in given how long it remained open. Who was this girl who knew something about my family? “I don't see how that's relevant, but yes, he's my father. Do you attend Braxton, Abby?”
“Attend Braxton? No, you've got a few things to learn if we're going to work together.” She laughed hysterically, reaching full-on snort level.
“Great, so we can meet tomorrow?” The woman's tone annoyed me, but perhaps I'd misjudged her based on Derek's normal taste in women. “Even thirty minutes to build a working relationship. Are you familiar with the Pick-Me-Up Diner?” Eleanor ran the joint, so I'd have an excuse to step away if Abby was too much to handle. My sister could arrange for one of the waiters to dump a bowl of soup on Abby, then lock her in the bathroom while I escaped. There's nothing more I disliked than foolish, clueless, or vapid people. I'd had enough of them dating my way through a sorority's sisterhood years ago. If I ran into one more LA valley girl, I'd consider letting Francesca's family, the Castiglianos, take control of the situation. Scratch that, I never said those words out loud.
“No, sorry. I'm gonna be tied up for a few hours investigating all the nonsense going on around here. But I'll see you on campus tomorrow night.”
I shook my head in frustration and confusion. I clearly heard her stifling an obnoxious laugh again. If she weren't a student, why would she be on campus? “What do you mean tomorrow night?”
“The party celebrating your father's retirement. Nothing's ever as it seems, huh? You can properly introduce yourself and set up a time to talk. I hope that'll work.”
Derek was going to owe me big-time for this ordeal. If he didn't watch himself, I'd give her his real cell phone number and not the fake one he gave to people the first time they met.
“How exactly do you know my—” The next thing I heard was a click as she hung up the call.
I continued on the main road directly into the heart of Braxton tooting the horn as I passed Danby Landing, Nana D's organic orchard and farm. I was especially close with Nana D, also known as my grandmother, Seraphina, who’d turn seventy-five later this year. She kept threatening to bend our town's councilman, Marcus Stanton, over her lap, slap his bottom silly, and teach the ninny how things ought to be done in a modern world. It's my second job to keep her in check after the incident where she was supposedly locked up in jail overnight. With no official records, she could continue to deny it, but I knew better given I was the one who had to convince Sheriff Montague to release Nana D. I hoped never again to go toe-to-toe with our county's ever-so-charming head law enforcer, even if it's necessary to save Nana D from prison. I felt certain that was a one-time card I could play.
The sun disappeared as I pulled up to my parents' house, parked the Jeep, and walked toward the trunk to get my bags. Given the temperature had slipped to the single digits, and the icy snow wildly pelted my body, I tried my best to hurry to the front door. Unfortunately, fate opted for revenge over some past indiscretion and came back with the vengeance of a thousand plagues. Before long, I skated across a sheet of ice like an awkward ballerina wearing clown shoes and fell flat on my back.
I snapped a selfie while laughing on the frosty ground, to let Nana D know I'd arrived in Braxton. She loved getting pictures and seeing me make a fool of myself. I couldn't decipher her reply given my glasses had fogged over, and my vision was worse than that of a secret lovechild of Mr. Magoo's. I searched for a piece of a flannel shirt untouched by the falling sleet or the embarrassing crash to the ground and wiped them dry. A glance at the picture I'd sent caused the loudest and most absurd guffaw to erupt from my throat. My usually clean-cut dark-blond hair was littered with leaves, and the four days of stubble on my cheeks and chin was blanketed in mounds of white snow. I dusted myself off and rushed under the protection of a covered porch to read her text.
Nana D: Is that a dirty wet mop on your head? You're dressed like a hooligan. Put on a coat, it's cold out.
Me: Thanks, Captain Obvious. I fell on the walkway. You think I'm normally this much of a disaster?
Nana D: And you're supposed to be the brilliant one? Have you given up on life, or did it give up on you?
Me: Keep it up, and I won't visit this weekend. You're supposed to be a sweet and loving grandma.
Nana D: If that's what you want, go down to the old folks' home and rent yourself a little biddy. Maybe you two can share some smashed peas, green Jell-O, and a tasty glass of Ovaltine. I'll even pay.
After ignoring Nana D's sass, I ran a pair of chilled hands through my hair to look somewhat presentable and entered the foyer. Though the original shell of the house was clearly a wood-framed cabin, my parents had added many rooms over the years, including a west and east wing bookending the massive structure. The foyer ceilings were vaulted at least twelve feet high and covered in endless cedar planks with knots in all the right places. A pretty hunter-green paint coated three of the walls where the entranceway opened into a gigantic living room. It was anchored by a flagstone fireplace and adorned with hand-crafted antique furniture my parents had traveled all over the state to procure. My father was passionate about keeping the authenticity of a traditional log cabin while my mom required all the modern conveniences. If only the Property Brothers could see the results of their combined styles. Eleanor and I referred to it as the Royal Chic-Shack.
I dropped my bags to the floor calling out, “Anyone home?” My body jumped as the door to my father's study creaked open, and his head popped out. Perhaps I had the paranormal and occult on my mind knowing Dark Reality's next season was unfortunately in my foreseeable future.
“It's just me. Welcome back,” replied my father, waiting for me to approach the study. “Your mother's still at Braxton closing on the final admissions list for the prospective class.”
“How's the jolly retiree doing?” I asked, walking down the hall toward him.
“I'm not retired, yet,” my father said with a sneer. “I finished writing my speech for the party tomorrow evening. Interested in an early preview?”
Saying no would make me a bad son. Eleanor and I had promised one another at Christmas we'd try harder. I really want to be a bad son today. “Sure, it must be exciting. You've had a bountiful career, Dad. It's undoubtedly the perfect example of oratory excellence.” He always loved when I stretched my vocabulary skills to align with his own. I shuddered thinking about the spelling bees of long ago.