East of Everywhere
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It’s been almost a decade since the end of the war, when the telegram first arrived at their house on Lennox Lane.
Four years since the apartment on Harker Street, where food was scarce and nights were long and their mother slept away her grief.
Three months since Janie was forced to leave her little brother, Brayden, and best friend, Leo, behind at Anthers Hall.
Two weeks since she stole a bicycle and ran away from the new children’s home on the other side of the state.
One day since she arrived in Montours City.
No one knows her secrets in this small town. If Janie is going to make it back to her brother and the only place she’s ever called home, she needs to keep it that way. But when a hard-hearted widow, a boy in a boxcar, and a dog named Panda weave their way into her life, Janie begins to wonder if what she’s searching for isn't better off laid to rest.
“Wake up.” She felt something poking her arm, then heard an urgent whisper. She stirred, lost for a moment in the unfamiliar surroundings. Then she remembered the events of the past day and where she was, and she closed her eyes again, desperate to return to the dreamscape where her mother was alive and she wasn’t all alone.
“Wake up. Wake up, please wake up.”
Janie rolled over and opened her eyes to see Brayden standing at her bedside in his print pajamas, the moonlight washing his face and glinting off tear-stained cheeks.
“What’s wrong?” She sat up quickly.
“I wet the bed.” His voice quivered. Janie had her arms around him in an instant.
“Go meet me in the hallway,” she whispered. She glanced at the other girls, their forms unmoving in the dark, then slowly tossed back her covers, pulled the sheets from the mattress, and bundled them in her arms. Closing the door behind her, she nodded for Brayden to lead the way to his room.
“I can’t see. Where’s your bed?” she asked, trying to make out the shapes in the dark.
“The empty one. In the middle.”
“Okay. Go change your pajamas.”
“What’re you doin’?” a small voice asked from the other side of the room.
“Go back to sleep,” she ordered.
“Did he wet the bed?”
“Go back to bed,” she said more firmly.
The little boy plopped back down into his pillows and threw the covers over his head. Janie bunched up the wet bedsheets and shoved them in the small space between the springs and floor, then secured the fresh sheets and tossed the pillow to the foot of the bed.
“There, you can sleep at this end tonight. Okay?” she asked. Brayden nodded, and she patted the mattress. He climbed in, and she knelt on the floor beside him and tucked the top blanket around him.
“We’re gonna be okay here,” she said, pushing his hair from his eyes. “I promise. And I don’t break my promises, right?” He shook his head. “Go to sleep now.” Janie watched him close his eyes, then pressed her lips to his forehead and snuck out of the room.
A loud thud echoed down the hallway just as she was pulling the door shut behind her. She turned towards the sound, moonlight streaming in through the windows, creating a path through unfamiliar terrain. At the end of the hallway was a curved entryway, the few steps leading upwards visible only thanks to the light from the wall sconce. Evie and Louise had given her the full tour once Janie had composed herself—the kitchen, the dining room, the classrooms. They’d even pointed out each of the caretakers’ rooms. But they hadn’t mentioned that there was a fourth floor. Janie was certain there wasn’t another staircase like this in the west wing—only a single window at the back of the hallway.
Another thud sounded from upstairs, like something being dropped onto the floor above her.
Janie turned to head back to her room. Curiosity only got her into trouble, and if she really wanted to explore, she could do so tomorrow in the free time after breakfast. It had been a big day—a long day—and it was so far past their curfew. She needed to sleep. It had been so long since she’d slept through the night, and maybe now that there were others to watch over Brayden…
A light tune drifted towards her, stopping her just as she reached the balcony that wrapped around the main stairs dividing the two wings of the house. Whistling. Five notes, repeated over and over and over again—sometimes quick and upbeat before morphing into something melancholy and lonely and familiar.
Janie followed the sound and peeked around the open doorway, glancing up the narrow staircase. A door was edged open at the top, a dim light sliding past and casting shadows on the teal walls. She ran her hand along the walls as she climbed, the smooth wood of the stairs feeling cool on her bare feet. The whistling stopped as she was halfway up, and she paused, but then another thud sounded and the whistling resumed. When she reached the landing, she peeked into the room.
It wasn’t what she expected.
She didn’t know what she expected, but it certainly wasn’t this.
A single brass bed was set against the far wall, a nightstand and lamp beside it. Mismatched rugs covered the hardwood floors, and to her left, heavy curtains with a thin, silver-threaded design pooled on the ground. A light shaped like a lantern hung from the middle of the ceiling, and to her right beneath the eaves a low bookcase wrapped around the corner of the room, a boy in navy blue pajamas sitting cross-legged in front of it, piles of books surrounding him.
Janie jumped when she saw him staring at her and stepped back towards the door.
“Don’t go,” he said. His voice was deeper than she expected it to be, and she realized he might be older than she first realized. His blond hair looked red in the light, like it had always seen the sun, and there was a spattering of brown freckles across his nose. “You don’t have to go.”
“What are you doing up here?” she asked, glancing at the books strewn around him, a lamp sitting on the floor beside him.
“Redecorating.” He shrugged and grinned sheepishly. “You just get here today?” She nodded. “I’m Leo. Leo Wesley.”
“I’m—” Her voice caught, and she shook her head and started over. “My brother, Brayden—”
“Is right behind you.” He nodded behind her, and Janie whirled around to see her little brother standing in the doorway, closed fist held to his mouth like he was trying to hold back a cry.
“Did you?” Janie asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t wanna be alone.”
She hooked an arm around him and pulled him close.
“It’s okay, buddy,” Leo said, getting to his feet. “I bet I was scared when I first got here, too. Why don’t you hop in my bed there? We’ll keep you company.”
Brayden nodded and ran across the floor. Janie followed after him and tucked the covers around him, clicking off the lamp on the bedside table so that the only light came from the ceiling fixture and the lamp on the floor near Leo. She kissed Brayden’s forehead and straightened, glancing around the room.
“What are you doing up here?” she asked again, her voice now a whisper. “Is this some kind of punishment—being sent here to the attic, all alone?”
Leo frowned and crossed his arms, leaning against the bookcase.
“In a house with forty kids, you learn real fast that being alone is a perk, not a punishment,” he said. He nodded towards the heavy curtains. “Go take a look.” She glanced over her shoulder and hesitated, but he nodded in encouragement. “Go on.” She crossed the room and pulled back the curtain to reveal a pair of floor-length windows with a narrow ledge and decorative balcony. The moon was full, casting the sky in a bright white glow that crested the farmland and painted the river. “Best view in the house.” His closeness made her jump, and when she turned around, she saw his eyes matched the blue of a pre-dawn sky. “You can see everything from here.”
“How’d you manage that?”
“I’ve been here since I was three months old—Ms. Noble practically raised me. Got sick with the fever when I was seven so they moved me up here away from the other kids. I recovered, but,” he tapped his chest, “it weakened my heart.”
“So you can’t go outside? You’re just stuck in a room all day?”
He flinched, like she’d said something that stung him. “Sure, I can go outside, but why should I when I can travel the world right here?” He crossed the room and flung his arms open wide.
“Books.” She raised her eyebrows. He glanced down at the shelves, then back at her. “Books,” he repeated, more emphatically. “Come on, tell me you read.” Silence. “Gulliver’s Travels? Huckleberry Finn? Frankenstein? Oh, come on. You had to have read Frankenstein—monster abandoned by his creator? It’s practically our biography.”
She inhaled sharply, his words hitting too close to home. “Look, I’ll just get Brayden and we’ll—” She moved towards the bed, and he stepped in front of her, resting a hand on her arm to stop her. His touch was warm, gentle.
“Wait, look, I’m sorry.” He stood a few inches taller than her, and his eyes softened as they peered into hers. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I’ve been here for so long, I forget…”
“It’s fine,” she said. She reached around him and pulled back the covers, gently wrapping her brother’s arms around her neck and scooping him up. “I should get him back downstairs before we get in trouble.”
“It’s a good place, this one,” he said as she crossed the room to the door. “It’s hard to feel like family with so many of us, but they try, at least.” He paused. “You’ll be okay here.”
She nodded and forced a smile and reached out with one hand to open the door wider.
“Here, wait a sec.” He crossed to the bookshelves and ran his fingers along the spines before pulling out a hardbound book and handing it to her. “Jane Eyre. Creepy manor house, strange figure in the attic… Right up your alley.” He winked, and she fought a smile.
She looked at the book in her hand, at the fading colors of the dust jacket. She’d never felt so…relaxed before. Never felt so certain that this time, she was being cared for. Never felt so close to whatever home felt like.
She looked up at Leo, who was watching her, an intensity in his eyes she’d never known from anyone. “I’m—”
“It’s okay, Jane,” he said with a gentle smile. “Go get some sleep.”
Jane. She liked the way he said that name.
Tell Your Story
AVAILABLE NOVEMBER 11, 2021
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