Chapter 1: Far from Home
1 Far from Home
Ashley Baxter tapped her foot on the car floor. Every interstate sign they passed meant just one thing. She and her family were getting farther away from Michigan. Farther away from her best friend, Lydia. Ashley slumped into her seat and stared out the window. All she wanted was to get out of this hot, stuffy car and run the other way. Back to Ann Arbor.
The only place she would ever call home.
She looked down. A blob of ketchup from lunch had landed smack in the middle of her white T-shirt, and the rest-stop bathroom paper towel had only made it worse. Her shorts were bunched up and the truth was, she’d had enough of this whole moving trip.
Ashley put her hands on her hot cheeks and leaned into the space between her parents in the front seat. “I’m feeling faint back here.” She blew at her damp bangs. “Are you sure it can’t get any colder in this place?”
“That’s all we’ve got, sweetheart.” Dad glanced over his shoulder.
A huff came from Ashley’s lips as she sat back again. Fine.
Her parents said their new house in Bloomington, Indiana, was only six hours away. But it might as well have been a hundred and six. Ashley took out her sketchbook and studied her last picture. The one she had drawn as they left their old neighborhood.
A picture of their house. Their home.
Ashley breathed deep and rested her head against the window. She closed her eyes. Why did they have to move, anyway? She thought about asking, but she didn’t want to ruin her family’s happy mood. So she kept the thought to herself. A quick blink and she stared out the windshield. The trees along the side of the highway looked familiar. Her heart lit up. Maybe Dad had turned the car around at the last stop and he was secretly taking them back to Michigan. A smile tugged at her lips. It was possible, right?
A few seconds passed and the scenery looked different again. The truth hit hard. They weren’t going back.
“Ten minutes!” Dad peeked back at Ashley and the other kids through the rearview mirror. His eyes twinkled and his smile was the happiest of anyone’s all day. “Who’s excited?”
“Woo-hoo! Me!” Brooke’s shout came first. She was the oldest Baxter child and she sat against the opposite window. Kari, a few years younger, sat between them. Brooke bounced a little. “I can hardly wait.”
Ashley frowned. No surprise Brooke was happy about all this. She didn’t have a best friend back home. No one like Lydia. From the rear seat, their two youngest siblings—Erin and Luke—clapped and cheered.
Ashley sighed. “I’m happy for you, Brooke.” She turned so she could see Erin and Luke better. “And for both of you. My sweet young innocent siblings.”
“It’s gonna be great.” Dad took hold of their mother’s hand.
Ashley breathed a long breath. Calm, Ashley. Be calm. Maybe Dad was onto something. Wherever they were going, at least they had each other.
A big map stretched out across Mom’s legs. A thick yellow marker line ran all the way down from Ann Arbor to Bloomington and it finished with a huge red circle labeled Home!
Ashley stared at that word. Home. What did that mean, really? If her family was leaving home, how could they also be heading home?
Mom’s eyes got wide, and her voice was a happy squeal. “Take this exit, John. North Walnut Street… We’re here!”
They left the highway and turned onto a city street. The trees were tall and thick with lush canopies of green leaves. Like something from one of their summer vacations.
“Okay, kids!” Dad looked in the rearview mirror again. “This is downtown Bloomington!”
“Look!” Mom pointed at one of the buildings. “There’s a coffee shop and a farmers’ market. And see down there… a little theater.” Her voice trailed off.
The city reminded Ashley of commercials for Disneyland. Old brick buildings, bright-colored flowers, and neatly trimmed bushes. Families walked along both sides of the street, everyone smiling. Like something from a movie.
A butterfly feeling came into Ashley’s stomach. Was she afraid or excited? She couldn’t tell. The place looked special. A spot she might want to visit. The butterflies flew all the way up to her heart and a thrill ran through her.
Lydia would love this place.
They drove past a sign that read: SUNSET HILLS ADULT CARE HOME. The sign had an arrow pointing to a skinny street. Ashley tried to see what was down there, but their van was moving too fast. She liked the name. Sunset Hills.
After a while they turned down a country road that stretched into wide green fields and rolling hills. The houses here had open spaces around them. Very different from their neighborhood back home.
Kari began to bite her fingernails. She did that when she was nervous. “We…” Her voice sounded shaky. “We’re going to live in the wilderness?”
“No, honey.” Mom looked back and smiled. “This is the country. Our new house is in the country.”
This detail made Erin and Luke and Brooke release another round of cheers. Luke patted Ashley and Kari on their shoulders. “I knew I was going to like it here!” He jumped in his seat a few times. “I’m Christopher Robin! With my own Hundred Acre Wood! All to myself!”
Erin giggled. “If you’re Christopher Robin, I’m Piglet. Cause I’m little.”
“I’ll be Owl.” Brooke raised her hand. “I’m the oldest.”
Next to Ashley, Kari’s smile turned sort of dreamy. “Then I’ll be Winnie-the-Pooh! I can help you explore, Luke.”
They all talked at once about how there would be ponds and toads and bunnies. Places to take walks and catch fish and look at the stars. A sigh built in Ashley’s heart and escaped through her lips. “I guess that makes me Eeyore.”
“Nah!” Dad did a half laugh from the front. “You’ll be Tigger. One of a kind.”
“And fun, fun, fun!” Kari grinned at her.
“Hmm.” Ashley tossed that around in her brain. Before she could stop herself, she smiled. “Tigger is definitely better than Eeyore.”
“Much better!” Kari put her arm around Ashley’s shoulders. “Plus we can’t be sad forever.”
Dad turned the car left onto a long driveway and nodded at the house up ahead. “This is it! Our new home!”
“Wow!” Mom clapped. “It’s beautiful.”
The van slowed to a stop and Dad checked the road behind them for a few seconds. “Our moving truck should be here any minute.”
Ashley studied the house. It was tall and white. Like a place where Pollyanna or Anne of Green Gables might live. A long porch stretched around it, and orange and yellow flowers decorated the front. On either side of the house there stood trees that looked perfect for drawing.
When they reached the house, Dad parked and everyone climbed out. Kari and Brooke ran up the steps onto the porch, while Erin and Luke took off for the backyard. Their parents smiled and headed for the front door.
Ashley crossed her arms and stayed planted near the car. She looked the house up and down and pursed her lips. “You’re pretty.” She squinted. “But you’re not home.”
Mom noticed her hanging back. “Ashley! Come on!” She held her hands up high. “What do you think?”
“I think”—Ashley whispered to herself—“it looks like a castle.” She walked up to her mom. “It’s a bit big.” She turned her head to one side. “I’m not seeing an actual house here. Maybe at a different angle…”
Mom stooped down so they were eye to eye. “I see what you mean. It’s not the same as our other house.”
“No. It’s… different.” Ashley bit her lip. “Which can be—”
“Good?” Mom finished Ashley’s sentence and placed a loose piece of hair behind Ashley’s ear.
“I don’t think so.” Ashley felt tears sting her eyes. “But maybe. Someday.”
“Atta girl. Come on.” Mom took Ashley’s hand and led her into the house. “You’re going to love it.”
Inside, Kari raced up to them. She was out of breath. “Ash! Come see our room!” Then she took off up the stairs.
Ashley had no choice. She took hold of the wooden banister and trudged along behind her sister. One slow step at a time. At the top, she turned down the hallway. She walked past what looked like Erin’s room on one side and Luke’s on the other. Then Kari stepped out of the second door just ahead. “Wait till you see what I found! Come on!” She pulled Ashley into the room. It was a lot bigger than the one in Michigan and the ceiling was taller.
Also Ashley noticed a small purple stain on the carpet. At the other end of the room stood a window as tall as their whole room and beneath it a built-in bench.
“Isn’t it perfect?” Kari ran to the window. “You could even sketch here! Come look.”
“Hmm.” Ashley took her time. When she reached the window she wrinkled her nose. “It’s too big. No privacy.”
“No it’s not. It’s beautiful. It looks like a princess window!” Kari pressed her nose against the glass. “Plus… we have so much space out there! Look at all we can see.”
Ashley made a face. Five houses could fit in the front yard. “It’s like a park.” Ashley stared out the window. The only neighbors were very far away. The place really was the Hundred Acre Wood. “It feels like a hotel.” She stepped back and crossed her arms. “Not a home.”
“Don’t be silly.” Kari stared out again. “It’s the best view in the world. Our own little kingdom.” Kari had never sounded happier.
Ashley frowned. Who wanted to live in a lonely kingdom? And what sort of girl wanted a castle for a house? Her regular old bedroom was perfect and it was all she could think about. All she wanted.
Kari pulled Ashley to the closet and they stepped inside. “We could have a sleepover in here alone. It’s huge!”
“True.” Ashley kind of liked this idea. But not enough to smile. The best sleepovers were back home in Michigan.
“Look!” Kari put her hand on the closet wall and there, etched in pen, was a message. Kari read it out loud. “To the next person who lives here. This is the best room ever. Sorry about the carpet. My friend spilled purple nail polish. Love, Susie Macon.”
“No wonder the place doesn’t feel right.” Ashley lifted her chin. “It belongs to some girl named Susie.”
“Girls!” It was their dad calling from downstairs. “Come down!” He paused. “We have a problem.”
Great. Ashley’s shoulders sank. First she and Kari were being forced to live in someone else’s room. And now there was another problem.
Downstairs Dad told them the news. “I’m glad we had the phone hooked up early. I just heard from the movers. Their truck broke down.” He frowned. “They won’t be here till tomorrow.”
“Excuse me.” Ashley raised her hand. “What if someone steals our stuff? I have important things in there.”
“My best hairbrush is on that truck.” Brooke crossed her arms.
Before Dad could answer, a thought came to Ashley. She cleared her throat. “You know, Dad… maybe this is a sign.” She smiled politely. “We could tell the movers to turn around and we could meet them back home. Forget the whole thing.”
The other kids started talking all at once until Dad let out a whistle. “Easy.” He waved his hands a few times. “Everyone relax. We aren’t going back. We’ll order pizza and sleep on the living room floor.”
“Pizza!” Luke cheered.
“And in the morning we can paint the back porch! That’ll keep us busy till the movers come.” Dad made it sound like this was a great change of plans.
Mom laughed. “Wasn’t how I pictured tonight going, but it’ll be a memory.”
Then Dad walked to her and wrapped his arms around her. “Elizabeth, my love… we’re home.”
“Yes.” Mom put her head on his shoulder. “Yes we are.”
Watching them made Ashley feel a little better. But they were wrong about one thing. This definitely wasn’t home.
The pizza arrived and after dinner they explored some more and then they made their beds on the floor out of sweaters and pillows from the car. Ashley closed her eyes and tried to sleep, but the noises kept her awake. First, a chatty owl and then a crying wind, which made the house creak. Suddenly a howl shook the air. Ashley sat straight up.
Wolves! Right outside the back door!
Everyone else was asleep. The moon through the windows cast strange shadows on the carpet. The house was empty and lonely and scary. Definitely scary. What if the wolf got inside?
“Dad.” She whispered in his direction, but there was no response. She lay back down on her side and pulled her knees up close to her chin.
Dear God. It’s me, Ashley. I’m in this new house. And I think there’s a wolf outside. The moon was bright enough for Ashley to find her sketchbook. With quick pencil strokes she drew a different kind of wolf. Friendly and funny-looking. Then she waited. The wolf was quiet now. Okay, God. I know different isn’t always bad. But please can I go back home? Someday soon? Thank You. Good night.
Ashley didn’t hear a response. But she felt better. God was always listening. Even still, the noises started again. Ashley opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. She’d never be happy in this house. Not with the chatty owl. Not with the howling wolf.
And not when they were so very far from home.