• Published 30th Jul 2018
  • 3,011 Views, 356 Comments

Family Tree - miss-cyan



Getting cryptic notes from dead relatives is never a good thing. This was no exception. What are you supposed to do when someone wants you to solve a mystery when there's something out in the woods? That turns out to be the least of my problems.

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The Family

I don’t ask a lot from life.

I'm content with the things I have and I never want for much. I’m a decent person, in a broad sense. I respect my elders, pay my taxes, hell I’m practically a saint compared to some of the punks I hung around in high school. I think it wouldn't be too much to ask for the universe to cut me some slack.

Apparently my roommate hadn’t gotten the memo either.

“Stacy, why?” I sighed, head in my hands and rubbing my temples. “Why do you do this?”

“Okay, just listen. I know it’s unexpected but-“

“Unexpected! Goodness, what a polite way of putting it! I can roll with unexpected, this is just...the worst.”

There was a faint vibration from my pocket. I opted to ignore it like I always did, anybody with something important to say would leave a message.

“I can’t afford this place on my own, that's kind of the point of us splitting the rent, if you'll recall." I laughed, stress and agitation swirling in my head. "You were just saying the other day you could see yourself moving out maybe! Maybe by next summer. And I thought, ''Oh, that sucks, but I can figure things out by then." Next summer and next week are two very different things, Stacy McCallister.”

“I said I’m sorry! Look, it's not like I'm leaving tomorrow. I've still got time to get all my stuff packed and say my goodbyes. This job is gonna open a lot of doors for me Lottie. I don't want to stay in our hometown forever.”

As frustrated as I was, I knew that she was right. Stacy wasn't the type to sit around, content with the state of things. She'd been saving her money and studying hard. We celebrated her getting her Associate's Degree and I'd been really happy for her. She deserved the opportunity, in all honesty. I just hadn't expected her to move to the other side of the country right away.

“I just really hate the thought of finding another roommate.” I muttered, plopping down onto the couch next to her. “I had enough trouble getting used to the one I have.”

“Oh ha ha." she rolled her eyes, bumping shoulders with me. "Meeting new people isn’t gonna kill you, ya know.” She mockingly patted the top of my head, knowing it bothered me to no end. “But I bet you’re gonna miss me.”

I side-eyed my smirking sort-of-friend. I found myself wishing I had made more of an effort to really befriend her, rather than just live in the same apartment.

I'd known Stacy since high school. We weren't friends back then either but we had history. She knew about me, things that were hard to talk about, and accepted me anyway. In that acceptance came a mutual respect. Back then we avoided each other like the plague. But once we reconnected we realized we had stuff in common and could handle living with the other over a stranger. And in a weird way, I actually enjoyed her company, despite her high-energy lifestyle and her numerous attempts to get me to join her on morning jogs and trips to the gym. I didn't have to be something I wasn't around her. I could just be Lottie.

“Yeah, I’m gonna miss you. ”

Stacy nudged my arm with hers, grinning wide.

“And you’re gonna be fine?”

“As fine as I'll ever be.”

My phone vibrated again. Two calls in a row, that almost never happened. I pulled my phone out, checking the I.D. Dad was calling.

“Dad?” I answered, already feeling a little on edge. He almost always texted instead of calling. And he never did either during work hours.

“Charlotte. I'm glad you picked up. Listen...”

I did listen. My dad was a serious guy, not one to get emotional. But even he sounded flustered. In retrospect it had probably been a long day. I'd wonder later how long they'd waited to call and tell me. How long until they decided I needed to be told the bad news.

“Okay, yeah…I’ll be there soon.” I forced the words out, starting to feel a bit numb. “Love you too. Bye.”

I ended the call, I could feel Stacy’s eyes on me. I felt warm and sweaty and upset. Everything was quiet and uncomfortable and I think I was shaking.

“Lottie? Is everything okay?”

I shook my head, avoiding eye contact. I stuffed my phone back into my pocket.

“What happened?”

“I uh....I gotta go.” I got up, grabbing my jacket and my bag from the back of the kitchen chair and my keys off the hook. I didn’t look at her, I didn’t want her to see how I looked then.

“Lottie, hang on, are you okay?”

I stood for a second, shuffling on my feet awkwardly, not wanting to put it on her. It’s not her fault she dropped the news of moving out the same day my Grandpa died. No need to make her feel guilty for adding onto this increasingly shitty day. She didn't deserve that.

“I don’t know.” I said. And it was true. I wasn’t sure if I was okay. “I’ll...I’ll be back. Later, I guess, I don’t know. I...I gotta go.”

And I left. Stacy was a nice girl, more understanding than she should be of someone like me. I hoped she would be just as nice to her next weird roommate.



Grandpa’s house was always a happy place for me since I was a kid. Dad worked long hours at the hospital and whenever Mom couldn’t watch me, I was at Grandpa’s house. Long summer vacations and three day weekends more often than not meant spending as much time as I could there. To be honest, it’s one of the only places in the world I feel completely safe. Even my own childhood home has some memories attached to it that make me uncomfortable staying there for longer than I have to.

That day it was a miserable place to be. It was uncomfortably quiet save for hushed conversations between relatives. A few of them were crying. Mom met me at the door, catching me in an overwhelming hug, whether to comfort or be comforted I wasn’t sure. Normally her hugs were something I met with immature notions of being too old to be smothered, and too much touching made me nervous sometimes. But I didn’t resist the hug that day. Mom pulled back to stroke my short, dark hair, as if to calm me down despite her being the emotional one.

“Oh sweetheart...I'm so…”

“I know.” I muttered, struggling to get the words I meant to say out. Mom could tell I was frustrated and kissed me on the forehead. I hated seeing her cry. What kid doesn't hate seeing their mom cry? I wished I was better at this sort of thing. I wish I was better at being there for people when they needed me.

I saw Dad talking in a very authoritative way with one of my mom's sister, Aunt Lola, most likely discussing important arrangements. He was calm and taking control of the situation, as he was known to do. I was almost jealous of him, being a damn robot had to be easier than shoving everything down like I did.

That's not fair... I thought, feeling a little ashamed. He and Grandpa weren't close at all, he can act however he wants. Somebody has to be the level-headed one here.

My younger brother and I were very obviously our Dad's kids. We had his brown skin and dark hair, though a bit lighter with Mom being White. And despite my skin tone I got Mom's gene for freckles too, but I had Dad's tall hooked nose. And they both had curls in their hair so we were doomed in that category from the start. Mom's side of the family was full of shorter women, and I was no exception. The way Mason was growing though he'd probably end up pretty tall like Dad. As for Dad's side of the family...

I knew little about them, even as an adult. He looked a bit mixed himself, but of what I couldn't tell you. I had a big family on my mom's side so I never missed not having a second set of grandparents or more aunts, uncles or cousins, dear lord I had enough of those. But the fact that he had taken Mom's last name when they got married said plenty on the subject and I wasn't about to open up that can of worms, our relationship was delicate enough as it was. If they were alive he wanted nothing to do with them, and given what a grump he could be sometimes I guessed there wasn't a happy story there.

He excused himself from the conversation and made his way over. They switched places as Mom left to see her sister and talk things out, I'd imagine.

“Hi…Lottie.” He sighed. I was surprised, he almost never called me by my nickname. “Thank you for coming, I know this must be…stressful.”

I couldn’t think of what to say. He wasn’t the sentimental type so I’d keep the touchy-feely stuff to Mom. Dad would know what was going on though.

“How did it happen?” My voice was low, quiet. He breathed deeply through his nose, switching to his surgeon voice. His delivering bad news voice.

Turns out he had a fall in the kitchen the day before and hit his head, maybe because of his heart but they couldn’t be sure until things were sorted out. I had always imagined Grandpa being around a lot longer, even if it had been mostly wishful thinking.

Dad hugged me, though my heart really wasn’t in it. He needed to go pick up Mason from school. I bet that Dad being free to go get him would tell him right away that something was up.

“Lottie…I’m sorry, about all of this.” He didn’t seem to know what to do or say. Likewise, Dad.

“…Me too.”

The whole day consisted of relatives coming in from all over and funeral plans being made for the next day or so. It was all a blur. Mom hadn’t been able to attend, like with Grandma’s funeral. She just wasn’t the type to break down in public and she'd be doing a lot of that. They were her parents; I don’t know if I’d be able to stomach going to either of my parent’s funerals.

I remembered Grandma's though. I must've been seven or so. I'd never been to one before and I'd never needed funeral clothes. I remember that little black dress with the white collar and the shiny black shoes I'd spent a lot of time staring at. I remember Grandpa picking me up a lot that day, holding on tight and I dozed off in his arms near the end. I was old enough to understand the concept of death but it didn't really hit me until a week later, when I woke up and sleepily wondered if she would keep teaching me to sew and realized she really was gone. That I'd never see her again. That we'd never sit and read the paper at breakfast whenever I slept over. That she'd never listen to me babble on about the plot and characters of various cartoons, really listening. She'd always indulge any aimless curiosity I'd have with genuine response. And she was gone, way too soon.

There was a family get together the day after his funeral, too sad to be a party but too informal to be a gathering.

My family is a pretty unique group. Mom’s side of the family has them being old immigrants from some tiny European country or another. Lots of marrying into other families with their own boring origins, but we’re an interesting-looking bunch. When we have a family reunion every five years or so, a random onlooker might not make the connection it's all one family with how different we look.

I found myself sitting on Grandma’s old porch swing, the rest of the family inside. I used the moment of solitude to do something I hadn’t done in quite a while. I had bummed a cigarette off of my Uncle Teddy, who seemed surprised but didn’t say no. He’d been smoking like a chimney since this whole thing started so he wasn’t in any position to lecture me.

The air was cold, like it’d been at the service. The leaves were starting to change, but winter was still some ways off. And I was more or less mentally exhausted. I took another drag, holding it between my fingers and hanging my head off the back of the rickety old swing.

I was too old to just sit around and do nothing like my younger brother or cousins, and I wasn’t old enough to be involved in all the planning stuff that death brings with it. I’d been tasked with cleaning everything before everyone got there. I’d been offered help but I insisted I could use the break from the hustle and bustle of everything.

So I’d spent that morning scrubbing the place from top to bottom. Grandpa wasn’t a hoarder or anything but a house that old collects a lot of stuff. And dust. So much dust.

At least I stopped sneezing… I thought, my nose still itching every now and then.

Someone cleared their throat. I turned my head slightly only to have the cigarette snatched from my grip. I was about to yell when I saw who had “caught” me.

“Lottie, last I’d heard Charlie said you’d quit these things cold turkey.”

I smiled, half-heartedly at the old lady. For someone even shorter than me, she could be halfway intimidating sometimes.

“It’s been a stressful day, Ma’am.”

Grandpa’s friend Mrs. Russo. I’d known her my whole life and she never put up with my crap, not when I was a stupid teenager and not now.

“Bah! Stress or no, don’t let me catch you doing that again.”

I laughed. Had anyone else done that I might’ve given them an earful about how I was an adult and I could make my own terrible decisions, thank you very much. But she was such a funny old lady that I had a genuine affection for. She threw the butt on the concrete step and smashed it under her shoe.

“Glad you could make it.” I smiled faintly at her. “I didn’t see you at the service.”

“I admit, I’m not much for funerals.” She sat down next to me, smoothing out the ruffles in her dress. “I’d hope Charlie would forgive me.”

“Mom stayed home too.” I couldn’t find the energy to sit up and talk like an adult. She wasn’t one to bother me about posture. “And Dad went back to work.”

“Poor dear, Elisa was like this when her mother passed too. You were just a little thing back then.” She quickly went from sympathetic to very irritated. “But that father of yours! Work, I swear he’d live in that hospital if you’d let him!”

Her little, wrinkled face was all scrunched and huffy, it was kind of funny seeing the usually sweet old lady get so worked up.

“Well, you know him. He won’t sit around while there’s work that needs doing.” I sighed, running my fingers through my short hair. “He'd had surgeries planned before all this went down. He must’ve felt guilty leaving everyone with his work.”

She huffed again, still miffed at the whole situation. If any subject could get her and Grandpa all worked up like that, it was my Dad. Grandpa wasn’t the type to disapprove of the people his three daughters chose to be with, but he and my Dad always butted heads over stuff. And they both seemed like kind of intimidating men, if you didn't know them. It was like watching two big dogs run at each other on the ends of their leashes.

“Enough about him though.” she rocked the two of us gently back and forth. “What’s up with you these days, kiddo?”

“Nothing much.” I sighed, preparing for the round of well-intentioned questions. “I still work at Teddy’s hardware store on the weekdays.”

“You like it there?”

“It’s alright. I know more about tools than I’ll ever need to and the pay’s decent.”

“Any plans for school?”

“Not presently.”

“How’s your love life?” she asked with a grin, probably knowing the answer.

“Oh yeah, I’m a real catch.” I snorted, gesturing to all of me.

“Oh hush! You’re a sweet girl.”

“I’m a basket case, that’s what I am.” I was grinning now.

“See now, I could’ve sworn you were involved with someone.” She noted, ignoring my comment. “Gal named…Sally?”

“Stacy? No, she’s just my roommate.” I shrugged. “Well, actually former roommate. As of Friday she, her stuff, and her half of the rent will be gone.”

“There a juicy story there?”

I laughed, explaining the situation of Stacy’s new job out in Seattle. How I was going to need one thing or another to keep my current living situation.

“So you’re very nearly out on your ass, eh?” she sounded sympathetic at least. “And I suppose moving back in with your folks is out of the question?”

“Mm-hm.” They would let me of course, they weren’t the type to kick their kids out at 18 and hope for the best. But it’d be better for all involved if I kept living on my own.

“I see.” She got off the porch swing and stretched a bit, her joints were noisy. She was oddly quiet now.

“Mrs. Russo?”

“This house is…what 15 or so years older than me, creaks as much as me too I bet.” She chuckled, turning on her heel. “Any idea what’ll happen to it now that Charlie’s gone?”

“Nope, the will stuff’s not until later when the attorney gets here.” I sighed; remembering that there was still so much left to do. “I assume Uncle Thompson will want to fix everything he can get his hands on and maybe flip it for a profit. I hope Lola gets it. She’s got her three kids and some lady at the visitation was saying it’s a good school district.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlie left it to you, Lottie.”

“Me?” I scoffed, rightfully skeptical. “Jesus I hope not, what would I do with a big, ancient house like this?”

“Live in it I would think.” She grinned. “You stayed over so often when you were just a tiny thing.”

“Yeah, but I don’t need all that space. It’s just too big for one person. And I could still find a roommate. This place is like…a proper house. I’m only twenty-one, I’ve still got years of crappy apartment living in my future.” I huffed, an awkward smile on my face. “I mean I just couldn’t-I can’t-“

“Lottie." she wasn't skeptical, she was genuinely concerned. "What’s the real problem here?”

I was getting too worked up. I clenched my hands and forced myself to breathe.

“I just…I don’t know if I could live here now that he’s gone.” I sighed, wringing my hands. I shut my eyes tight, not wanting to see her looking at me with pity. I wasn’t about to cry today but her questions were pushing me towards the brink. Then I felt her arms wrap around my shoulders, pulling my head to her chest.

“It’s alright, honey.” She sighed. “It’s okay to miss him, you know. I miss him too.”

Neither of us spoke for a while. I just kind of let everything sink in. My breathing evened out and my heart stopped pounding in my chest. In time, the noise of my family inside breached the quiet moment and I came back down to reality.

“…It’s a bit chilly out here, we should go inside.” I sighed, trying to brush it all aside.

She smiled, the tension leaving her features and replaced with her lovable grin. “I think that’s a top-notch idea.”

I think what I liked most about Mrs. Russo was that we meshed so well. There was a connection there that I wouldn’t trade for anything. She wasn't some uptight meddler or some condescending old lady. She was one of Grandpa’s closest and oldest friends. It meant a lot to me that she came.

We made our way inside and I hoped my clothes didn’t stink like smoke. My family descended on her with a warm welcome. All the older folks in my family knew Mrs. Russo well. Uncle Teddy made his way over and even though he towered over the tiny older woman, he still bent down for her to give him a big hug.

“Teddy my boy, I must be shrinking because there’s no way you got even taller.”

“Good to see you too, ma’am.”

“I’ve got stuff to take care of so just make yourself at home, okay?” I snorted at the sight of my tall, bushy bearded uncle being talked to like a toddler.

“No problem, dear.” She motioned for me to get close for a moment and I bent down a little. She hugged me once more and I did the same. Before I could pull away, she whispered in my ear.

“If things get too stressful around here, you’re welcome to find me and cry on my shoulder, honey.”

I sighed and escaped the hug as politely as possible, patting her shoulder. I made my way farther into the house, pushing the emotional talk on the porch into my stomach for now. I had stuff to do.



Lots of cleaning up after people and being reintroduced to relatives I hadn’t seen for a few years. Who of course remembered all the embarrassing things I’d done at family gatherings of the past. My second cousin or something of course remembered Thanksgiving twelve years ago when I had climbed the tree in Aunt Bernice’s yard to get away from her neighbor’s poodle and refused to come down. I distinctly remember that poodle and how it chased me up that tree, stealing the shoe I had thrown to scare it away.

And so many personal questions. Dear god, my family was nosy.

I found myself picking up some empty cans, alcoholic and otherwise, and some dirty plates from the coffee table. I hoped everyone else could be more considerate about cleaning up after themselves in a dead man’s home.

“You’d think this was a party or something…” I muttered to myself, collecting the dishes. I ran them over to the sink and decided to scrub for a bit, to calm my nerves.

But I could still hear my family, unfortunately. The more distant relatives had bigger mouths for some reason.

“Isn’t that Elisa’s girl?” Some old woman asked under her breath.

“In the kitchen?” Another one.

“Yeah…Isn’t she the one that-“

Nope not listening. I pushed them out of my head. What I wouldn’t have given for some headphones to drown those two out. Couple of great aunts I think, from way out of town. Nosy pieces of work they were.

“Oh god, did Charlie know?”

“Mm-hmm. Broke his heart, if I recall.”

Nope, you ain’t gonna get to me, not today.

“What do you do with a girl like that? Elisa must’ve-“

They stopped abruptly when I set a coffee mug a little too hard on the counter, trying not so subtly to send the message that they weren’t being as discreet as they thought. They tapered off, wandering someplace else to gossip about some other family member hopefully. I tried not to let it get to me, but I could feel how warm my face was and my chest felt a bit tight. Their words kept ringing in my head. No matter how hard I tried to push them out, they kept creeping back in.

Just…stop. You’re better than that-than you used to be. Grandpa understood that better than anyone. I tried to convince myself. It’s been four years, you’re okay. You’re okay…

I let myself settle down, scrubbing and rinsing under water that was a little too hot. My hands were a little raw by the end of it but I felt better, even if it wasn’t by much.

I had taken Mason with me that day. He had spent most of the time hanging out with some of our cousins once everyone started arriving. I hadn’t really had a chance to really talk to him about everything, not that I was the best person to offer emotional advice. But he was his Grandpa too.

I found him on the back porch on his 3DS, in his own little world. I sat down beside him, my legs dangling off the porch.

“Hey Bud, watcha playin’?”

“Pokemon.” He said, tilting the screen to let me see. “I was playing Mariokart before this but I got bored doing single player.”

I leaned on him a little, mostly to annoy him but also because I was feeling a little worn down. He tried to nudge me away but he was busy with a gym battle by the looks of it.

“Valerie’s Sylveon keeps killing all my dudes!” he grumbled, giving up trying to push me away. “Why are you trying to crush me?”

“Crush you? Why, whatever do you mean?” I leaned on him even more, smirking at his discomfort. “And that’s nothing. You should count your blessings that you never had to go up against Whitney and her Miltank.”

“Whatever, you’re too fat, get off.” He elbowed me, not that hard, and I laughed. I cut him some slack and sat up straight. “Why are you being so needy?” he asked, annoyed but still nice in his own Mason way.

“No idea what you mean, bud.” I smiled, giving him back his personal space. He rolled his eyes and went back to his game.

“So, are you holding up okay?” I asked, trying to be a supportive older sister for a bit. He was too smart to need advice from his weird sibling on most things and the times he actually needed my help were getting farther and fewer between.

“I guess.” he wiped the screen with his sleeve. “I was looking forward to going fishing with him this summer, since Dad’s...Dad.”

We had been planning on driving up to the lake and making a day of it, just the three of us. We never really did much of the outdoorsy stuff with our Dad since his schedule was always so hectic. A chance to get out and do something with my little brother was always fun. I would’ve just sat and read a book but it still would’ve been a nice day.

“Yeah that sucks…” I sat, mulling it over. “We could always go, just us.”

“Yeah but I actually want to learn how to fish, and you always get grossed out by everything.” he huffed. He had me there. Between the bait and the fish that didn’t survive the catch and release, it all just made my skin crawl.

“I...could learn.” I said, clenching my fists and giving him a determined look. “I would bravely make that sacrifice for you.”

He snorted, grinning a little. I smiled back. I laid down on the porch, staring up at the old weary wood of the portico. It was nice and cool out and it was doing wonders for my nerves. Talking with Mason probably helped too.

“Those old ladies were talking crap about you.”

Shit. Never mind, nerves were back.

“They sure were.” I sighed. I was hoping that no one who would mention it had heard those two.

“Is that why you’re acting weird?” And I laughed, despite how my stomach was in knots.

“Yup.”

It was quiet for a second, I heard the gym music stop.

“I was getting bored anyway...” He said, probably to himself. “You want me to say something to Uncle Teddy for you?”

“Nah. They’re not worth the trouble.”

“…Want me to mess with them?”

“No. But…thanks.” I said, feeling almost touched at his offer. “Mom would throw a fit if you caused trouble.”

“Mom would throw a fit of she knew people were gossiping about you.”

I sat straight up, grabbing both his shoulders and staring him down. “Don’t you dare!” The thought of my mother going after those two and causing a big fuss was downright mortifying. Someone would tell a different someone and soon the whole family would hear about how I was talked about and then the whole town would know because that’s how they operate. “Mason I swear, not a word!”

“Fine.” He shook off my grip and popped in another game cartridge.

I heard the screen on the back door creak open and looked over my shoulder. It was Teddy.

“Lottie.” He motioned to us, still halfway inside. “The lawyer’s here.”

“Uh…okay?” I gave him a little wave, confused. “You need me to keep everything running downstairs while you’re busy?”

“No, kiddo. We need you in the office.”

I shouldn’t have been so surprised, in retrospect. I felt like an unimportant player throughout the whole day. Like all my older relatives coming to town had turned me into the same quiet, moody kid I used to be. But I was an adult, needed for adult-type matters.

“Uh, I’ll be right up.”

Teddy headed back inside, and I sat with Mason for a moment longer. He softly nudged my side, never looking away from his game.

“What d’ya think they want?” he asked.

“Maybe they want me to get whatever he left Mom. I’ll be back in a bit.”

“Sure, sure.”

I followed Teddy up the stairs, hoping I could get this last thing out of the way, say my polite goodbyes and get the hell out of there.



I drove Mason back home, and Mom was waiting for us on the porch. She looked tired, and if her pajama pants were any clue she hadn’t left the house all day. She caught both of us in yet another hug, and we both made an unconvincing fuss over it.

Mason had retreated to his room and Mom had sat me down in the living room with a mug of cocoa. It was really rich and cool enough to start drinking without having to wait.

“So, how did everything go?” She asked, her own hands occupied with a mug filled with what looked like tea.

“It was okay. Lots of people, more than the funeral. But I’ll be glad to not go to any family function any time soon…” I sighed, answering her without thinking about my words. Like an idiot.

She paused for a moment, looking up from her cup with an eyebrow raised. “Why, what happened?”

“Nothing, just a little tired." I partly lied. I was exhausted in every sense of the word but she didn't need to know why. I mustered a yawn for good measure. "I was cleaning the place all morning. And then everyone just kept on making messes."

She was thinking, eyeing me with part suspicion and part worry. I never was the best liar. I was good at keeping my mouth shut but when I said anything at all I was pretty easy to read. Or maybe it was a mom thing. But she could see something in me that I had tried all afternoon to push back down into my gut.

“You’re mad. Why are you mad?”

Damn it Mom.

I cast my eyes down at my mug, biting my lip and hoping against all hope that she’d drop it. But of course, she didn’t.

“Lottie…”

“Nope.”

“Lottie.”

“...”

“Lottie!”

“Alright…fine. I…” A deep breath, bouncing my leg when the words get hard to say. “There was…some stupid gossip.”

“About?”

“…Me.”

“You?” she actually looked confused, bless her heart. Like she couldn’t even think of what they could’ve possibly been saying. “What about you?”

I REALLY didn’t want to say it. But if I didn’t give her anything she’d keep pestering or worse, she go and question Mason who was a huge pushover when it came to her. And I couldn't be mad at her for trying to help me. She was my mom.

"Okay. But be cool about it, alright?"

She nodded, listening intently. I sighed, knowing very well she would not be cool.

“…You know…when I was seventeen.”

She blinked. Once, twice. Then very calmly she set her mug down and picked up her phone from the coffee table.

"I miss one family get-together and somebody thinks I won't hear about them talking about my kids." she laughed under her breath. "Like they think just because I'm gone they can pull this kind of shit."

“Mom."

“Lottie, who was it?” I could see the crazy in her eyes. There was no stopping this madwoman. "Somebody needs to be reminded of their manners."

“Mom, please.”

“Let me guess, Great Aunt Vicky came back to town and forgot the lesson I taught her?" she started towards the V's in her contacts. "Motherf-...maybe Teddy has her number."

“Mom. No."

“At my father's funeral reception no less!” she was getting madder, and louder. "Your Grandfather's! It's like she has no respect for anyone else's privacy!!"

“Mom?” Mason called from his room, sounding mildly concerned.

“Duck and cover Mason!” I shouted, trying to warn the poor fool. “It’s the 4th of July barbecue all over again!”

“Ah jeez!” He cried, slamming his door shut.

“I can’t believe someone would bring that up!" her anger was giving way to frustration, her eyes were getting teary. "It's like they don't even care how much you've been through! They just think it's all a big joke!"

I knew she'd get pissed but I didn't want to make her cry. I thought. Not because of me.

“Mom, I get it.” I put a hand on her phone. “I was upset too. But…ya know they weren’t saying anything that wasn’t true.” I sighed. She wound down, wiping at her eyes and squeezing my hand.

“Lottie, sweetheart…back then…you were going through so much and...”

It was a talk we’d had a dozen times before and we both knew it. It never really made me feel any better, and four years of meds and therapy sessions only went so far.

“It's fine.” It was a bold-faced lie but it would calm her down for the moment.

“Well...how was everything else?” she put her phone back in her pocket, taking deep breaths. “Did your brother at least behave himself?”

I laughed to myself. “Well, no one complained so I have to assume the best.” He was known in the family for being a bit of a wise-ass when adults talked down to him, and he pulled dumb pranks on the repeat offenders.

“Good, good… And the lawyer? How did all that go?”

I wasn’t looking forward to this part. The whole drive home I debated whether or not just to drop Mason off and head straight back to my apartment. But ultimately that wouldn’t be fair to her, she deserved some kind of report of this miserable day. He was her dad and she was too upset to be there herself.

I told her about the meeting, which surprised her just as much that I was called in with the rest of the older family involved in all the legalities.



The lawyer was a Ms. Thatcher. She came in as a favor, usually she held these things in her own office but she knew our family and wanted to see us in a more or less unprofessional setting. It was myself, my aunts, and various older relatives all in Grandpa’s study. I leaned against one of the bookcases, trying to blend into the background. Ms. Thatcher sat at the desk with important-looking papers in her important-looking briefcase. She was pretty, if a tiny bit intimidating.

Everyone in the room was left something and signed some paperwork, Teddy got sole ownership of the hardware store he’d co-owned with Grandpa for years. So I guess that made him my only boss now. I didn’t know he owned some stock but those went to a few of them, myself not included. I was starting to wonder why I’d even been called up here with everyone when Ms. Thatcher asked for my attention. A lot of my relatives had left, having gotten everything meant for them, I supposed. It was just Uncle Teddy, my Aunt Jane and me left.

“You’re Charlotte Jacqueline Petrou then?” she asked, and I nodded, trying not to seem intimidated. She adjusted her reading glasses and went on.

“And my Granddaughter Charlotte, on the condition that she has turned eighteen, will be given the rights and sole ownership of my family’s home on Cedar Ln.”

And I tried not to freak out. Honest.

“But I…” I dumbly pointed to my relatives in the room. “But they-“

None of them looked surprised, or stupefied like in my case. Had they all been in on it? Mrs. Russo’s speculation earlier seemed more like the most unsubtle hinting I’d heard in my life. She’d basically shoved what was gonna go down in my face. He must've told her about his plan before.

I listened to the rest of the will, still hardly believing what had felt like a slap to the face in legal form. I tried to talk Teddy or Jane into bailing me out of it, but they both told me that it was out of their hands. When I tried to shut the whole thing down, Ms. Thatcher just shrugged and said that she could hold onto the paperwork for a week at the most, but there was no mortgage on the house and selling it would fall on us regardless.

The thought of owning the house terrified me, but with no real options I relented. Against my better judgment I took the keys from the lawyer, if only to stall and find a way out of it all.



With a heavy sigh, I reached into my pocket. I held them up for her to see.

She smiled, taking the keys and holding them against her chest. “Good…” she said softly. "Here I was thinking you'd just hightail it on out of there."

“You knew?” I asked, a little bothered.

"He said he would, back when he was writing the will. And I didn't stop him."

“Mom, I can’t…I’m barely past twenty." This wasn't a conversation I'd imagined having twice in one day. It was pretty frustrating really. "I’m not supposed to...I’m not ready for something like this.”

“He was so worried about you, about the future.” Her voice hitched, she was getting worked up again. “He wanted you to have something more stable. So do I. ”

She went to hand them back but I shook my head. “Keep them.” I insisted. “I don’t want it. You, Dad and Mason makes more sense living there than me.”

“Lottie, no one’s saying you have to live there.”

“Good, because I’m not.” I was being stubborn. But she was just as determined as I was.

“Lottie…” she warned. “You’re not going to be able to stay in that apartment much longer. That house’s been in the family since before your Grandpa was born. I grew up there, heck you did too, to be honest. I know it’s a big decision, but I know it would mean the world to him if you at least gave it a shot.”

And I know. I should've felt grateful. At the pace I was going through life, a house of my own wasn't going to happen any time soon. But every since my...incident four years earlier, my family had treated me like I was made of glass, like one bad day was going to destroy all the progress I'd made.

Everyone thinks they're so clever, going behind my back. I clenched my fists, my nails digging into my palms. They think they're watching out for me, but they're just shuffling me where they think is best. Like I'm some stupid kid who can't take care of myself. Like...like I'm such a failure they need to handhold me through my entire life.

I almost missed the days when they mistook my lack of motivation and reckless abandon for a bad attitude and laziness. At least then they expected something of me. Nowadays the only one who still hoped I'd amount to anything was my dad.

I wasn't going to win this. Nor was I going to suddenly start making enough money to keep my current place on my own. And finding another roommate when I barely knew anyone...

Without any further argument I held out my hand and she dropped the key ring, looking sympathetic but also a bit pleased that she’d been able to sway me.

“There’s my girl.”



One good thing about having a big family? You never have to hire movers. Uncle Teddy and my cousins volunteered to help me move down from the city. Frankly I think they were just eager to get me out of that rinky-dink operation I called an apartment. I was never picky about how small or cheap it was, but I never needed much to get by.

That being said, I didn’t really have a lot of stuff to move in. I was glad that the place was already mostly furnished, save for a few pieces that had been left to certain relatives. One of the bedrooms had been converted into Grandpa’s study years before I was born. It was kind of nice that I’d have a place for all my books. There was only enough room for one smaller shelf in my old place and the rest were in boxes back in my parent’s basement. I moved them over before we had started moving the rest.

I thanked Uncle Teddy and my cousins and tried to offer them something in return, but they of course said no. That’s how I was raised too, politely refuse money from family and take it only if they insist. With a goodbye and an invitation to lunch that weekend, I was finally alone again.

“Jesus, it’s been a long day…” I said, stretching out my back. “I still need to go to the grocery store…”

Laziness won out and I decided to order a pizza and go shopping the next day. While I waited, I sorted the books in the office and filled empty shelves with my own books. There were still various knickknacks around the office, no one had claimed them after the funeral and I didn’t have the heart to box them away. The desk was too big to move on my own, but I could never see myself using something so…official-looking. It would feel like a waste if I just piled books and junk on it and maybe use my laptop there every now and then.

“I better clean out all the stuff if I’m gonna put it away. Maybe the basement? Or maybe Uncle Thompson would like it. This fancy-schmancy stuff is more his speed…”

I got a box and started packing everything from the drawers. Old receipts, pens, folders with important-looking documents that no one had taken. I made a mental note to turn over anything legal-looking to Teddy in case someone overlooked any important papers in the desk. There was a big, boxy 80’s adding machine I remembered playing with as a kid. Printing random numbers onto receipt paper whirring away was apparently pretty entertaining, I think it got boring right around the time my house got a PC.

The last drawer on the bottom was locked. Grandpa’s keyring had one small key I hadn’t found a use for yet. I debated opening it. It was an invasion of privacy, even if the potential injured party wasn’t here to object. But if there was anything in it, it would get cleaned out sooner or later.

“Might as well check at least.” I shrugged, turning the key and sliding the drawer out.

The inside was a bit cluttered, more papers to file away. That drawer was apparently where Grandpa kept all his letters. There were stacks of envelopes and opened letters, most of them were business-looking, a few looked like personal letter he’d collected over the years. I decided to leave those be, if only for sentimental reasons.

To my surprise, there were three unopened letters, things he’d probably meant to mail out before. A greeting card-looking envelope addressed to a cousin of mine who lived out in Arizona.

“Jenny’s birthday is coming up…I’ll write them a note with this so they know how it got sent.” The next was a trash bill, by the looks of it. I put that out to run to the post office in the morning, maybe put a rush on it.

And the last one. It was just a plain white envelope. But it had my name on it.

“Oh…c’mon Grandpa, what’s this about?” I asked no one. I had the strangest suspicion that it was gonna upset me, no matter what it said. I sat at that desk for the longest time, but my curiosity won out and I opened it, and inside was a handwritten letter.

...

Lottie

If you're reading this,either you’re snooping through my desk or something’s happened and the house is yours now. I've put off writing this as long as I could but I'm not getting any younger and things need to be said before they can't be.

As I’m writing this, you are twenty one, moved out and on your own and you still have no clue what to do. Don’t worry kiddo, at your age I had no clue either. I'm proud of you for working at the hardware store these past few years, even if it's not the most thrilling job for you. I don't think you'll need to find this for a bit, maybe by then you'll have already figured your life out and you won't need any help from me anymore. I'll try to keep this up to date in the meantime.

“He wrote this pretty recently…” I muttered, but pressing on.

You’ve been through some tough times for somebody so young. It’s not fair, but life likes to screw us over sometimes and we have to keep on anyway. Everybody's worried about the future. I don't expect you to live here forever, but having a roof over your head can ease your worries enough to let you work out the rest of your life. Let you figure out what you want to do and how to be happy. I know you can do it.

But this letter’s not just a pep talk. Lottie, I’ve sworn on my life never to mention what you’re possibly about to find out to another living soul. Not even your Grandma knew.

"Oh nooooo..." I groaned, suddenly terrified of what I was about to read. "Grandpa what is this?"

"I'm not gonna write it here. I know that seems like an excuse to not actually tell you anything but if the three drafts I've written of this so far have taught me anything, it's that it sounds so ridiculously unbelievable that you'd think I was a crazy old bastard and throw this out in a heartbeat. Plus, if anybody else got their hands on this and I’d spilled the beans, I’d be in a heap of trouble.You need to see it with your own eyes, you need to know that I'm not lying and that certain things are possible. So I'll let you see for yourself."

In the woods behind the house there’s a box, buried about three feet deep, on the north side of a weird-looking maple tree.

There was a disposable camera photo of a tree that grew out into two thick trunks, forming a V. I vaguely remembered seeing a tree like that when I used to play in those woods as a kid. It was huge, and very easy to climb.

Once you find that, you’ll know where to look next. I’m sorry this is such a thrown-together kind of thing, I’m still debating whether or not to just tear this letter up right now. If you’d be better off. But hopefully it’ll all make sense soon. And trust me, it’ll be worth it.

I know you can sort things out.

All my love,

Grandpa Charlie.

...

I must’ve re-read that letter a dozen times, trying to see if I’d missed something. Some detail that would have it all make sense.

He had to be so freakin’ cryptic...Is it that bad? I mussed my hair a bit, my leg bouncing with irritation. The goodbye I'd secretly and foolishly hoped for turned out to be "Oh by the way there's a terrible secret take care of that, thanks bye."

The empty envelope still had some weight to it. I shook it and a tiny, round key plopped into my hand. I just stared at it, the cold metal felt like it was burning into my skin.

The doorbell rang, and my head zipped back to reality.

“Okay.” I grabbed the cash from the bookshelf, heading down the stairs. “Pizza first, then I gotta find a shovel.”



The shovel I’d gotten from the garage was a little heavy for me, but it was all I had. I’d put on some work gloves I’d found that were about my size and started off towards the woods. It was well beyond Grandpa’s property, maybe a near five-minute walk. It was still plenty bright out and I planned to get this over with before losing daylight became an issue.

The walk over was a little sobering. Every step made me wonder what the heck I was doing, shovel slung over my shoulder, that I should turn back.

None of it seemed real. The letter, the “big secret”, even his death. Walking into those woods seemed to turn back time. I half-expected to turn around and see him following me, tagging along to watch over me as I climbed tall trees and lost myself in my imagination. But I was alone.

“What else is new.” I said, my chest felt heavy. I sighed, refusing to get pulled into one of my moods when I needed to be focusing.

“No more of that now, ya sad sack of crap.” I kicked the dirt up, frustrated with myself. “You’ve got a weird tree to find.”

It wasn’t that far in. It was tall and thick, just off the beaten path. There were very faint patches of moss on the trunk of the tree, which if I remembered correctly always grew on the north side of trees.

“Well, time to test that, I guess. Okay…north, three feet deep.”

I broke earth at dead center north, out of the way of the roots. Hopefully Grandpa buried this box close to where I started or I’d just be out here, some jackass digging a random hole in the woods. On that note, I was pretty sure the area didn’t actually fall on anyone’s land but I’d make sure to leave everything mostly the way I found it.

I wasn’t a terribly active young person, so digging a hole had me working up a bit of a sweat. My arms ached a bit by what must’ve been two feet down but I kept digging. At this point I was just digging out of spite.

“Stupid…dirt.” I huffed. “Grandpa, you dick…this is punishment for something, isn’t it? Like when I was nine…and I broke the kitchen window-”

My heart jumped when I plunged the shovel back into the dirt and a low metallic thunk rang out. My hands were trembling so bad I almost dropped the shovel.

Sitting in the dirt was a black metal lockbox, wrapped several times over in plastic. A little tattered and dirty but still intact. It was a little bigger than a shoebox.

“I…guess I found it!” I laughed nervously, dusting off my jeans. I lifted the shovel up and leaned it against the weird tree, unearthing the box. The dirt was a bit wet this far down, so chunks of mud stuck to the plastic.

“Okay, okay the box is real. I’ll just…fill up the hole and bring this thing back home.”

Part of me wanted to open it right then and there, but the middle of the woods in a three feet deep hole didn’t seem like the best place for a potential emotional crisis.



I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to do anything special when refilling a hole, probably just overthinking it. I just put the dirt back from whence it came, patting the top with the shovel for good measure.

My boots will need a good scrubbing. I thought to myself, seeing how caked in mud the bottoms had gotten in the deeper soil.

I hoisted the shovel over my shoulder, sighing what would be the deepest sigh of all. A new, heavy and burdening reality came with this little metal box. My grandfather had something he wanted me to know, even though he was dead. Maybe because he was dead. He’d already sprung a house on me without being alive for me to yell at him. What was in that box could be a simple heirloom he was protecting, or a horrifying family secret he couldn’t let stay forgotten and buried.

Something he didn’t have my mother find instead. Or any of our other relatives for that matter. Maybe he saw my vast, empty future and pitied me. He wanted to give me a reason to stick around. To give me a reason to stay in that old, empty house.

“Well, congrats Gramps.” I laughed, leaning the shovel against the tree, the weight of it suddenly making my skin crawl. “I’m here! I dug up your stupid mystery box! This was your plan right!? To make me feel like I have some…reason to be here, and not feel like the big disappointment I am!”

My head was swirling with the events of the past few days. Of the past few years. All those eyes, looking at me with pity. Shame. Anger. Regret.

My mother and her big sad eyes. Mason, trying so hard to understand me. My father telling me how I was wasting my potential, how I was a screw-up. My Grandpa holding me.

“You’ve got to be brave, Lottie.”

“I’m not brave…” My chest was feeling tight. I wiped at my eyes, trying to stop the tears I felt coming. “I never was. You made me want to change. But now…you’re gone.”

He was the one who really tried to understand me. To help me face what I’d turned into and be someone better. He helped me want to fight for myself, value who I was as a person. My parents tried their best, but they saw too much of the person I could’ve been to really help me cope. They had big dreams for me. I studied so hard to be something better, to have a good life.

But then…

If I had just kept at it...I would be miles away by now, living like a proper adult, away from this mess, my family, this dead-end town...

"If I had anywhere else to go...I just wish I wasn't here."

I pulled myself out of my thoughts, just in time to wonder how long it had been so quiet.

No breeze in the branches, no rustling in the grass, not a single living thing made the slightest of sounds. I felt a bit tense, afraid. But for the life of me I couldn’t recognize what there was to be afraid of.

Then the trees. They moved ever so slightly, in a breeze I couldn’t feel. But they still didn’t make any sound.

“What the hell…” I whispered, not sure why I was keeping my voice down. My heart started beating faster, I felt cold and clammy, even though I’d worked up a sweat digging. Was this like, instinctive terror? The kind you get when you can’t see or hear the danger but you still knew it was there? Just moments ago, I had wanted to leave, but it felt like I would be making myself a target. But for what?

Then I finally heard something. Something moving closer? Coming from behind me, I turned sharply but nothing was there.

Something brushed past my ankle.

I yelped and stumbled around the hole, taking off in the opposite direction. Something was out here and I wasn’t going to be so stupid as to stick around and find out what. I didn’t try to find the more open spots in the trees or the brambles and thorn bushes. I just kept running. I could feel the occasional pull against my momentum when my clothing must’ve caught on stuff. But I couldn’t care less. I just kept on in a straight line, panting and shaking the whole time.

I came over a little dirt ridge without warning and the drop made me take a nasty spill. I coughed and sputtered, having very gracefully eaten the dirt underfoot, clutching the shoulder I’d landed on. I looked around, desperately trying to find a way back, but it was just dense forest on all sides. I scrambled backwards in the dirt until I hit a tree trunk and hugged my knees, full-blown panic bearing down on me.

“No no no no…please stop please stop.” I pleaded, shutting my eyes tight and hiding my face in my hands. “I don’t wanna be here!”

A few seconds passed, then…sound. The gentle noise of wind rustling through the trees filled the air again. I was too afraid to open my eyes. I was shaking and panting, scared out of my wits, but the longer I sat in the dirt the less afraid I felt. I peeked out from between my fingers, and I only saw more trees. I was alone.

I stood up and looked around, panting and still trembling a little. I tried focusing on my breathing and surprisingly it worked, and I could feel my heart slowing down. The creeping feeling was gone and my nerves were settling. I could feel a bruise forming where I’d landed on my shoulder and my legs were wobbly from running.

“So, I’m not dead. Okay. Good. Good…” I picked a few burrs from my sleeve, shaking some leaves from my hair. I looked around again, trying to figure out where the path had gone.

The woods around me were familiar, but somehow strangely off.

“Have I ever been this deep in?”

The oddest thing was that it was quiet. Not the dead, unsettling silence I’d experienced just moments ago. It was calm, tranquil.

“I…I can’t hear the town.”

No cars, no church bells, nothing to make me think I was anywhere near the small town. It wasn’t a bustling city by any means, but what I heard around me were the sounds of the wilderness. Nothing more.

I’ll just get back to the path, that’ll lead to a road in no time. I reasoned. I pushed my way through the brush and stepped over the undergrowth. Between digging and all this blind running through the woods my clothes would need to be thrown in the wash as soon as I got back, the bottoms of my pants would need a little repair.

A few minutes of trudging through and the thought crossed my mind that I might be going the wrong way, deeper into the unknown parts of the seemingly endless trees.

Then a sound.

Something moved nearby. And oddly enough I wasn’t as freaked out as I had been before.

Is it a person? I thought, staying as still as possible. Or…it could be a wild animal…

Before my imagination threatened to get the better of me, I heard…

Singing.

It was close but not immediate, farther in, maybe on the path? I heard someone singing a little melody to themselves.

“Maybe they can show me the way back to town?”

I moved towards them, the singing getting clearer. I got closer, the plants rustling loudly around me as I tried not to trip or get my clothes snagged. They must’ve heard me because they stopped.

“Hello?” a feminine voice called out, still a bit far off. I kept moving towards the sound.

“Hey! Sorry, don’t mean to be a bother.” I laughed nervously. “I’m a little turned around.”

“Oh!” they sounded relieved, they probably thought the same thing I did and were glad I wasn’t a wild animal. “You’re lost? Where are you?”

“I think I’m close. Just a moment!”

The trees weren’t as thick this direction, the path had to be close.

“Do you need some help?”

“Oh, um…just directions, if it’s no trouble. I’m okay, otherwise. Didn’t mean to go that far in!”

“Oh, it’s no trouble!” They were very near now.

“Thanks, sorry I-oof!” with a graceful flop, my foot caught on something and I fell into some bushes with a solid, painful thwump.

“Oh dear, are you alright?”

I could hear steps coming my way. I sighed, wincing as I turned over in the thicket, my shoulder sore from both of the falls I’d had that day.

“Yeah, sorry I-“

Two large, green eyes peered down at me, and a shock of raspberry-colored hair framed the face of a tiny, light cream colored horse.

Its pupils shrank and it reared back suddenly, I rolled away as fast as I could to avoid being stomped. My mind was reeling the whole time, why horse? Horse in woods? Horse?

But the thud of hooves on ground never came. It flailed backwards on its hind legs, its back hitting a tree. I got to my feet like my life depended on it and did the same, my eyes wide and my mouth hanging open. Its…knees (I guess?) were shaking. It was short, but even standing this thing was a couple heads shorter than me.

It didn’t move, it just stood there, looking terrified and I wasn’t in much better shape. It didn’t look right. It was too…aware, it’s large eyes staring into mine from across the beaten path, panic clear as day.

And then it screamed.

A very shrill, very human scream. Coming from that tiny horse. I couldn’t stop my own scream from tearing out of my throat.

It ran, and so did I.

I ran down the path as fast as I could. I was panting in no time but I didn’t slow down, not one bit. Wherever I was going, as long as it was in the opposite direction of that thing, I didn’t care. I must’ve ran clear across the county and into the next.

My head was pounding. I needed to stop, but nothing made sense at the moment and all I knew was I wanted to keep going, as far away as possible.

“Ha! Okay! Alright!” I laughed, panicking again. I squeezed my eyes shut tight, hitting the heel of my palm into the side of my head a few times. “This is INSANE! God I wanna go home! Anywhere but here! I wanna go home I wanna go home I wanna go-“

My eyes flew open and I spotted something up ahead. Plain as anything through the trees, leaning against the weird maple was the shovel, the freshly-filled hole not far from that.

I laughed again, panting and sounding a little crazed. I slowed to a stop, my feet heavy and my chest felt like it was on fire, every gasp of air was agonizing but I just couldn’t bring myself to care. In the grass was the metal box, I left all the stuff behind when I got spooked. My lungs were still on fire but all I wanted to do was scream about everything.

“What…the actual hell…was that!?”

Author's Note:

well, here it is, the first chapter of my long time in the making Hie fic.

this chapter is so damn long because it was originally 2 chapters, but i figured you guys would like to get some hint of ponies in the first part. normal chapters will probably be much shorter. thanks for reading the whole thing!

i'm not a terribly fast writer, but i'm gonna try my damnedest to get these chapters out as frequently as i can stomach. i just started full-time college so i'll do my best. so if you liked this chapter or at least are curious about where it could go, i recommend tracking it so you stay in the know.

i have big plans for this story, lots of characters to bring in, a mystery for Lottie to solve. what's up with her? what happened four years ago? what's in the box??? all will be revealed.

i've re-written this chapter so many times it's not funny. I started planning this story in like 2015. it's gone through so many plot revisions they blend together a bit. but as of now i've got the details down.

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