Chapter 2- The Middle of Nowhere

Twenty-five minutes of hairpin turns and sheer drops later, Dad turned off the highway and into a very small town. Smaller than small, Tyler thought.  Tiny even, his resentful mind asserted. After passing a Burger King and a gas station, there was a church, what looked like a little park beyond that and bunch of crushed together shops that could have come straight out of a wild-west picture book. There’d been a sign just before the church that said “Welcome to Natalie” in big bold letters and beneath that, in much smaller print, “The biggest town in the county.” Carved in relief beside these declarations was some semblance of a pioneer (maybe?) that appeared to be winking. Right back at’cha, Tyler thought and briefly considered flipping the whole town the bird just to make himself feel better.

A glance at Sarah next to him revealed that she was looking up and around instead of reading, and he really didn’t want to be the recipient of any of her patented dirty looks, so he refrained. At sixteen, Tyler was a year and two months older than Sarah, but she had the uncanny ability to make him feel like an errant two-year old when she put her mind to it. Especially in recent months.

He knew she’d taken the brunt of everything after their mom died, but Tyler really couldn’t help that. He’d just had to get out of that house and away from his suffocating family. At first he felt bad about it, but, after a few illegal beers with his buddies, he forgot about her and Benji and his dad. More importantly, he forgot his mom was dead and his life was permanently changed. He suddenly felt free to party with his friends and see how many girls he could make out with while he was at it. When he finally got home, Sarah was usually waiting, and somehow she made him feel guilty without even saying anything. As if it was all his fault. And since it wasn’t and he certainly didn’t want to feel guilty about, he went out again as soon as he could.

Things had been getting better, he thought as he stared out the window at a low brick building with peeling blue paint. Valley Time Video, professed the plain black and white sign. A small hand lettered piece of poster board claimed they also had tanning beds in bold red letters. What a wonderful place, Tyler mused sarcastically.

He could see that Sarah was having a hard time. She never went out anymore and, even he noticed she put on weight. To his chagrin his friends used to ask him if she’d go out with them, they’d thought she was pretty and smart, which she was. Not that Tyler ever admitted that, of course. But not long after Mom died, his friends stopped asking about her. Maybe at first they were just unsure of what to say even if they could get a date with her, but Tyler slowly realized that his sister had taken on the appearance of the walking dead. And who would want to date that?

He was also aware that Benji was going nuts. Benji would be fourteen this summer and a freshman in high school this fall. But now the little kid was constantly yelling and punching at the nearest thing at hand. Tyler was home once when Benji’d started screaming and punched a hole in the wall because Sarah wouldn’t get him take-out or something. Sarah just stood there, blankly staring at her little brother. Tyler guessed she simply didn’t know what to do. He didn’t either, but he tried to be around more after that.

Sometimes he couldn’t help shutting himself up in his room with his music. His siblings still made him feel irrationally overwhelmed sometimes, but he thought he was coping. He even started talking to the goofy guidance counselor at school like he was supposed to. But, of course, Dad had to go and ruin it.

“The change will be good for us,” Dad said. “You’ll make new friends,” Dad said. “You can play basketball again,” Dad said. And with every word Dad uttered Tyler wanted to run further and further away. Since he couldn’t, he shut himself up in his room and drowned out the world with music. Tyler didn’t think this move would be good for any of them, and he certainly wasn’t going to help Dad run away to Australia. Especially since that was exactly the kind of thing Tyler himself wanted to do. But he still felt guilty about Sarah and Benji.

Tyler figured they both needed somebody, probably Benji more than anyone else. So he didn’t fight the move, either. Instead, he kept his mouth shut and his music on and did whatever was needed to get this all over with. Maybe once Benji and Sarah were in a place where they could be taken care of, he’d finally stop feeling guilty. And maybe his Dad would start, he added meanly.

After the video/tanning place they turned onto a road lined with a few crappy apartments and some log cabin-like houses. There was a sign to his right that said “This way to Uphill Lake 6 Miles, All Uphill”. Tyler guessed it was supposed to be funny.

“Uphill Lake?” Sarah wondered.

“It’s a big lake further into the valley,” Dad told her. “It’s good fishing, but the edge of the lake is really steep, kind of like the edge of a crater. It’s quite a climb, hence the name.”

“Sounds interesting, huh Benji?” She tried to get a response from the morose little guy in the front seat.

“Maybe,” Benji said with a shrug.

They passed a road that went off to the right labeled “Uphill Rd.” with what looked like an abandoned gas pump and garage on the far corner. Instead of a sign, the white painted cinder block structure was covered with black spray paint declaring it Seymour’s Service Station. More to break the stifling silence that was descending than out of curiosity, Tyler asked, “Is that place still in operation?”

“Probably,” Dad answered. “It’s looked that way since I was a kid, but old Mr. Seymour keeps it going.”

“If he’s still alive,” Tyler pointed out.

“He’s probably still kicking. He was a tough old man and pays kids in free soda if they haul around some of his junk.”

“I think I saw some guys in the garage part,” Sarah added.

“Then it’s probably still running. A car breaks down, Seymour’s is pretty much it if you want it fixed around here. At least it was the last time I was here,” Dad amended.

“How come we’ve never been here before?” Benji asked abruptly.

Dad was quiet for a moment. “It’s ten miles from the service station to the main gate,” he said instead of answering Benji’s question.

Apparently, Tyler thought, he can’t even answer the kid’s simple question. He glared at the back of his dad’s head and began to put his ear-buds back in, resuming his music, but Sarah put a hand over his. She shook her head with a pleading look. Did she have to look so sad all the time? Tyler grunted and put his iPod in a backpack on the floor. “So, what is there to do around here?” he asked with a look at his sister that asked, “Happy now?”

“Yeah, what did you do as a kid, Daddy?” she asked in a too-bright voice. Tyler rolled his eyes at her.

“Well,” their Dad began, “There’s some cool stuff up at the main house. A pool, for instance, and a croquet field. And a life size chess board.”

“Really?” Benji asked doubtfully. “Like in Harry Potter?”

Tyler had to hand it to his sister. She sure knew how to defuse the tension in their family. Not for the first time he thought she should go into diplomacy or something. Benji now looked grudgingly interested and was gazing out the window instead of staring down at his feet (his handheld video game died hours ago). Even Tyler was a little bit intrigued. What kind of place had a life-size chess board?

“Yup,” Dad replied with a little laugh. “One of your ancestors built it after he made it big in the gold rush. He liked chess and used to play the game with his wife. The pieces don’t move on their own or anything, but it can still be pretty fun. You’ll have to get your Grandpa to teach you,” he added.

“What else?” Benji asked.

“Umm . . . let’s see,” Dad started hesitatingly. “There’s lots of animals and a fish pond; a big old barn with a wooden swing inside the hayloft,” Dad started listing things off. “There’s a garden that has a big hedge maze. It was another showy contribution by our gold rush ancestor.” He gestured behind them towards the town. “The town has a park with a few duck ponds and it used to have a mini-golf course. The teenagers generally hang out at Uphill Lake,” he said glancing back at Tyler and Sarah. “There isn’t much in the town square, just offices and a diner, but on the other side of town are a movie theater and an old restaurant. The high school art club used to show old movies in the gym, classic black and whites.”

Sarah interrupted his list with a laugh, “Gee Dad, I thought all you guys had back then were black and whites!”

Dad laughed a little too before defending his age by saying he wasn’t that old and continuing to name off a few things, like the video store they’d passed. “You’re Aunt told me they built a community center near the elementary school a few years ago. They do little league teams and exercise classes and bingo and stuff. Probably not too interesting for you guys,” he said, “but maybe worth checking out.” Dad paused to navigate a sharp curve that ended in a bridge over a river.

“This is the Springy River,” he informed them. “Too shallow for swimming, but sometimes kids get together and float down it in inner tubes. It widens out to a little cove further downstream where you can get out have a party or a picnic. It’s pretty cold, though.”

“What if you get really, really bored?” Benji prodded. “I mean that’s really not much stuff when you think about it.”

“True,” Dad agreed. “I suppose if you got really bored you could go south for the day. Durango is about an hour south of here and it’s a pretty touristy-type place with lots of shops. There’s a river where they do white water rafting there too. And between here and there are a few other ‘tourist traps’ you might say: Ouray is a town famous for having a singer from the seventies as mayor, Silverton has little shops and skiers and a train that goes to Durango, and to the West is a place called Telluride which has a film festival and some celebrities have cabins or ranches up there. That enough stuff to do?” Dad inquired.

“Maybe,” Benji hedged, but Tyler could tell he was satisfied. Then he let out a quickly smothered gasp and pointed ahead. “Is that where we’re going?”

Dad only nodded as Tyler and Sarah leaned forward to get a better look. Ahead of them was a massive carved wooden gate set in a thick stone wall twice as tall as Tyler; at least twelve feet, maybe more. As they approached the gate, the road turned to gravel and Tyler could see the stone part of the wall ended about six feet away on each side to be replaced by a wooden fence.

“Does that fence go all the way around?” Tyler asked. “How big is this place?”

“Yeah,” Dad answered. “I think it encloses the whole sanctuary, but it becomes mostly barbed wire later on. And I honestly have no idea how much land is here.” Dad sounded oddly nervous.

“Black Rock Wildlife Sanctuary,” Sarah read off of an engraved bronze plaque bolted to the right stone wall.

Tyler read a similar plaque on the left. “Trespassers Will Face Punishment.” That was weird. “Nope, that’s not ominous at all,” he commented sarcastically. Tyler shared a look with Sarah.

“Isn’t this a farm, too?” Sarah asked.

“Part of the land here is used for farming,” Dad said slowly, “but most of it is for the animals and plants that live here. Your grandfather keeps track of the animals in the sanctuary and the government pays him in grants for the upkeep, but that’s not always enough. So he also runs a farm and sells milk, eggs, and produce for extra income.”

“That’s smart,” Sarah observed as they passed through the gate. “This is a long drive way,” she observed a few minutes later.

Tyler had to agree. Dad had slowed because of the gravel, but they were at least a mile into a dense forest that started just beyond the gate. As the minutes passed, the SUV eked along what must have been nearly three miles before there was a break in the trees. This time it was Sarah who gasped and Tyler let out his own gurgle of amazement. His objections to the move were momentarily forgotten as he stared at the weirdest house he’d ever seen.

A long, thin oval drive, at least half a mile itself, fronted the obnoxious building. Tyler saw gardens to the right (and maybe the hedge maze?) before a huge, round, stone tower rose up. The tower was attached to the right side of the house, also stone, which had a flat roof like a castle’s. The stone then gave way to a wood and plaster-type wall that made up the front of the house. Tyler wouldn’t have been surprised if it had a thatched roof, but a glace up revealed normal shingling. The left side of the house was more modern looking, if anyone could call gothic Victorian modern, that is. The roof jutted up like a high cathedral complete with a round stained glass window at the top.

Of course the weirdest part of the house, Tyler realized, wasn’t actually part of the house. Four white Doric columns stood on a (marble?) platform to the far left of the house. There was a long stone beam across the top of them with some kind of carvings in it. Behind the columns was a blue swimming pool flanked by an identical set of columns on the other side. To left of the pool was another small building made from smooth, white stone. It was like a roman bath or something, Tyler thought.

The whole place looked like Sleeping Beauty’s castle meets the Seven Dwarf’s cottage meets Frankenstein’s manor meets the Parthenon. It was . . . weird, Tyler decided. There just weren’t a lot of other words coming to mind. He suddenly realized that Dad had stopped the car and was staring silently just like Tyler, Sarah and Benji, minus the open mouth. “So this is it?” Tyler prompted, struggling to put a shrugging nonchalance into his voice. “Doesn’t look like much of a farm.”

“No,” Dad said, starting to ease the car into the circular drive. “I guess not.”

Tyler confirmed the north side of the house with the tower was where the garden and the hedges began as they drove past it. Ahead, the double front doors opened and two men and a woman stepped out. The front steps were wide, almost like a porch, and shallow.

When the SUV came to a stop, Dad waved a hand towards the building. “Welcome to Black Rock Manor,” he said nervously.

Nope, Tyler thought, not ominous at all.


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