Excerpt: Hollow


Chapter 1- Mornin’ Glory, Chicory and Paleo Seaweed

I’ve just stubbed my toe on the corner of the most peculiar birthday present a girl could receive from her friends and family. As I sat on the edge of the bed nursing my toe, I imagined my no nonsense mother’s incredulous glare. “You’ll live,” she said, “and for God’s sake, be careful with that thing. It’s brand new.” My sister and I received little sympathy from our parents unless more than a cup of blood is lost or amputation was required, and if something ends up broken they knew to place the blame on their eldest, me. I suppose a mildly swollen toe wouldn’t kill me, but I suspected the ruined pedicure might. After today, how could anyone still care about the condition of toenails or feel put out by chipped coral polish? I was a teensy bit pleased that I did still care, and that I wasn’t completely transformed by my extraordinary birthday.
Before I began my nightly routine of slopping on a pore-cleansing facemask and slathering my feet in shea butter then insulating them in microfiber socks, I stopped despairing over my feet and focused on the positives. An orange glow seeped through the cracks as I opened the rosewood chest, which held my irreplaceable birthday gift. I knew to resist the urge to admire it too much for the sake of my own sanity, but I couldn’t help but peek at it and feel proud of how I got it, near the end of the longest day anyone has lived, ever.
12 Hours Before: Oct 12  - The Morning of My Fifteenth Birthday

I don’t usually wake before dawn. I’m not lazy, but I do require a few beams of sunshine streaming into my window before I feel ready to face any day. This morning I was up and out of bed without aide from the alarm clock. I felt like I hadn’t slept, but I know that I must have succumbed at some point during the night. Obsessing over my birthday plans made me anxious to the point of nausea, and my stress manifested into nearly one hundred delirious dreams about the test, the reception, and the ceremony.
In one dream I saw my sister, who had somehow turned into a tractor driving kitten, digging a birthday cake out of the ground in the community garden. The cake was placed on the back of a rusty mustard colored flatbed truck and driven into a hedge maze. Naturally, I was troubled by the wrong details, like the cake being driven away without first being covered with a protective tin foil, but not at all curious about why my sister was a cat, or when at age ten she learned to drive an eighteen-wheeled vehicle. Thinking back on the dream, she did look cute with whiskers, and I would much rather her use a litter box than share a bathroom with me. Even in a feline form, Lindsey would undoubtedly make a mess.
All other dreams were equally wacko and all contained some therianthropic version of my sister. In one dream, she was a monkey. In another, she was a jellyfish in a glass of lemonade. The contexts of my dreams were absurd but many of them seemed real, and in most cases I thought I was awake and tried to make sense of what was happening around me. I repeatedly woke whimpering and covered in sweat, because trying to make sense of Lindsey as an alpaca playing a fiddle is tough work on a brain that is supposed to be at rest. This restlessness and my intolerable body, clammy from sweat, were the reasons I defied my usual waking routine and arose from my cozy feather bed wrappings and zombie walked toward the shower.
More than once, I stumbled over clutter on the way to the shower. The bedroom floor is not typically littered with fashion magazines, underwear, highlighters and sticky notes. I surveyed the mess with bleary sleep vision and cursed at myself for not doing anything about it before I went to bed last night. I blamed Lindsey for the condition of my room. I suspected she was trying to find me a birthday present. She could be quite sweet sometimes; however misguided she may be by her own wackiness and lack of income. I would not have been surprised at all if she presented me with my own tube of used lipstick wrapped in the cover of this month’s Vogue. Bless her sloppy little ten-year-old heart; she really was an adorable pest. I made a mental note to organize the clutter before heading to breakfast, but first, I had to brew some coffee and bathe.
I may be the only teenager to have a personal cappuccino machine in her room, but it’s a luxury I’ve decided I cannot live without, even to make room for more make-up on the vanity. I was far from spoiled. Most residents in my remote village would agree that we find comfort in anything we can. For me, this little extra indulgence is perhaps the only thing my parents have ever done that could be construed as spoiling their child. When I received this cappuccino maker as a Christmas gift last year, my parents cautioned me that I had pushed my extraneous comforts to their purchasing limits. I did not ask for anything for my birthday.
I positioned my rhinestone bedazzled mug under the coffee dispenser, pushed the ‘Brew’ button, and avoided looking at the chaos on my floor because it was damaging to my psyche. My bedroom has always been my sanctuary and an ongoing project. I am comforted by a space perfectly decorated to my taste, which changes with the seasons. Over the summer I painted my walls pastel green and the trim, a muted pink. Curtains were forbidden accessories in my home. The zero tolerance policy for anything that might suggest our family is hiding a secret, like concealing curtains, suits me fine as my current décor is best viewed in natural light. To satisfy my desire for ruffles, I methodically attached frilly white lace to the rim of each lamp, blanket and pillow. For a few months, I was satisfied with the soft feminine colors and their calming effect, but I was already feeling an itch to switch to an urban chic theme of black and pale blue. Decorating my room keeps me busy and happy, and despite the lack of curtains, it is my only semi-private space.
If I could enforce a no trespassing law to protect the boundaries of my room, I would have done so many years ago. However mysterious we are to other members of our community, there is a strict “no secrets allowed” rule within the house, and not one door has a lock. This lockless room policy includes the bathroom and has led to many unfortunate surprises for all members of the family at some point or another.
            My mother was not sympathetic to my night of restless sleep. She practically knocked the door down while I was in the shower.
“Carys! Out of bed.”
I didn’t bother to respond, since I was in the shower and thought she would figure that out as soon as the door split from its hinges. “Carys, don’t make me come in there!” she screamed from the hallway.
What on earth was she planning on doing to me if I had “made her come in?”  I wondered. I’m taller than her, but my towering height was no comfort. Despite her diminutive size, I still feared her wrath. I bet she could still find a way throw me over her knee.
“I’m in the shower, mom,” I yelled back.
“Breakfast is ready,” she said calmly. “I’ll bring your coffee down.”
I understood why she was so irritable. She was under just as much pressure as me to have the day’s events run perfectly. She had the weight of an entire community and much more than that, I learned later, resting on her little girl’s shoulders. This burden was a bit too much trouble for anyone to endure, ever, never mind on their fifteenth birthday, but I’m “not like other girls,” as my father likes to remind me. So, I trudged into my morning routine of teeth brushing followed by facial cream and make-up application. On the way out of the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of my profile reflected in the chrome rim of the mirror. I took a moment and amused myself, as I often did, playing with the side-by-side images. My reflection in the mirror looked as it should. The silver chrome frame of the mirror elongated my face, and when the two contrasting images met, they created a silly funhouse effect. Juvenile though it was, the game always lightened my early morning mood, but today was different. Maybe it was because I was not smiling, but the freaky shape of my funhouse face seemed eerie and hollow and filled me with a sense of foreboding. I ran the brush through my hair one more time, spritzed my skin with pink grapefruit body spray and resolved to ignore the outer rim of the mirror. Little did I know then, those activities would be the last things I would do today that bore any resemblance to normalcy until after the stubbed toe incident later that evening.
            I went downstairs for breakfast and found my sister already at the table and thankfully lacking tabby stripes. My father was also awake and discussing the day’s plans with our Dig Master, Leonard Smyth. I suspect my father never sleeps. If he is not on the dig site, he is taking inventory in the store or traveling to secure more clients or miners. He is always awake before me and unless he falls asleep on the front porch watching fireflies with my mom, an activity she requires of him at least twenty nights of each summer in order to get any time with him at all, he’s usually still awake and busy with one thing or another when I go to bed.
My mother had her back to me, as I took my seat and sipped my coffee. She had already fixed the coffee almost the way I like it, with one half shot of sugar-free raspberry syrup and skim milk to the brim with no foam. I like foam, but getting my mom to use the steaming wand is asking too much. For one thing, she would have to bring the milk from the kitchen to froth it in my room. She is extremely efficient, and frothing would have required an extra trip up the stairs. Also, in my straight black coffee drinking mother’s eyes, foam equals froufrou. Anything froufrou is frowned upon. She justifies her foam free stance by declaring that drinking foam will make me gassy. I suspect; however, that the real reason for my coffee’s lack of a frothy topper is that the technology behind the cappuccino maker is far above my mother’s head, and she is simply intimidated by the steaming wand.  So, whenever my mom makes my coffee, I get no foam. I’m just grateful she makes it at all, but for some reason I have not been forthcoming with a “thank you.” I need to work on that.
I watched my mom pour herself a cup of black Folgers from a ten-year-old white Mr. Coffee pot. The appliance is pristine, as is the rest of the kitchen. I suspect that nothing in the kitchen is less than ten-years-old, yet the room looks new thanks to my mother’s scrupulous cleaning habits. After each meal, the kitchen gets an antibacterial wipe down, and you can forget stealing in for a cookie, or evening snack, once the kitchen is declared “Closed” after the dinner cleanup. I think it’s a shame that everything is in such great condition because the kitchen could use an updated look. As the kitchen shows little threat of falling into ruin, I suspect we’ll be living with these same bland almond-colored appliances and Formica laminated countertops for another twenty years or more and the kitchen will soon look as antiquated as the rest of our house.
Our home is nestled in Pole Cat Hollow, a thickly forested valley, within the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. The location has remained secret for several generations, with little effort on the part of residents to keep it so. Bevan Barbour, an ancestor of mine, chose the location of our home for its stink factor. I’m completely serious. Surrounding the entire glen lives multiple colonies of Pole-Cats, more commonly known as skunks. Once he breached the stink zone, which is a quarter mile wide thicket, hosting colonies of smelly skunks, he discovered a perfectly secluded hollow with all things necessary for a self-sufficient and protected community. The hollow contained fresh flowing water, sparse yet fertile fields, and was surrounded by unstable and treacherous mountainous geology, making it place few would likely wonder into by accident. To make life within the stink zone bearable Bevan’s wife, Narys, planted sweet scented lavender around the entire perimeter of the settlement. Arrangements were then made for the Barbour ancestral home to be sailed across the Atlantic from Wales. I have been told that not one brick was left behind. The upper floors have been renovated and modernized, with the obvious exception of the kitchen, but the foundation of the home remains the same as it was the day it was disassembled in Wales so many years ago.
My mother, father, sister and I live on the top two floors of the ivy covered and somewhat lopsided bluestone building. The store, Pole Cat Antiques, or Skunkies as locals affectionately call it, is on the ground floor. Buck, the stock boy, lives in a room behind Skunkies. However, the business in the basement is what the spectacle of my birthday is all about. The business in the basement, though slightly illegal, supports the entire community. Thanks to being first born, today I have to prove, through a test and an elaborate ceremony, that I can successfully handle the business in the basement.
I guessed the dig master never slept as well. Leonard was at our house ridiculously early six days a week. He’s a grumpy man, and most definitely, not a morning person. Wren Strickler, my best friend, pointed out that his eyes are too small and way too close together. Tall, pinched faced and extremely hairy, his facial features look like they belong on a smaller man, which is a look that does not suit anyone who isn’t a ferret. I should also add that he is not exactly an afternoon or evening person either and has never had a kind word to say to anyone who wasn’t handing him a paycheck. However harmless my dad insists he is, I still find him to be a spooky character.
            “Mornin’ glory,” my dad said to me as I sat and honeyed a piece of toast. His eyes never lifted from the inventory list as he rambled his slightly modified customary morning greeting. “Today’s your big day. Nervous? …of coarse not. You’re tough as nails. My little tomboy’s all grown up. Still got those scabs on your knees? Probably. You’re always climbin’ somewhere or jumpin’ off somethin,’” his voice faded out as his eyes scrolled down the list he held in his gloved hands. He continued speaking at a whisper, incoherently, and as he neared the bottom of the list, something below the table caught his eye. “Good God girl, are you wearin’ pink pants?”
“Yes, dad,” I responded to the first question he let me answer. My dad is the hardest working man I know, and he is so wrapped up in work and responsibility that he has hardly noticed that I’m now a 5 foot 5 wavy haired brunette and no longer a 4 foot dirty blond, green-eyed, scabby kneed child, whose natural olive skin might have just been a layer of brown mountain clay.  He might not have realized it was my birthday if my mother and the whole village weren’t talking about it.  I also have no idea how he got the idea that I was a tomboy. I suspect he always wished I had been born a boy, not because he didn’t like girls, but because of the danger involved in the family business. I think he has re-invented me, in his mind, as a rough and tumble daughter who can handle any situation, so he would have less reason to worry.  With that said, I can’t escape the fact that, although I wish I could keep myself well maintained through the course of one day, I always end up with a bit of grit under my nails and dried mud on my sneakers.
Already forgetting the pants, my dad moved on to the plan for the day. He peered at me over the rim of his glasses and made eye contact. I decided to pay attention. “First Carys, you have to get the ingredients for the ‘shine. You’ll find what you need in the basement.” Clearly, he intended that I figure out most of this task on my own, and I knew I couldn’t trouble him for more details while Leonard was around. “Then, meet Leonard at the dig site by 5 PM for the Reveal and ceremony.” I glanced at Leonard in time to see him pretending not to pay attention when the basement was mentioned. I know he’d like to get a beady-eyed peek in there.
            “What will you guys being doing all day?” I asked. I couldn’t believe they expected me to do this all by myself.
            “We’ll be processing an order for Scarlett Arwain,” said my mom. “We won’t be in your way.” I knew not to ask any more questions while we had a guest, so I finished my breakfast while dad escorted Leonard to the door.
“Oh, that’s where I put it,” Lindsey said, pulling a rubbery grey carrot out of her jacket pocket. “I wondered what I did with that.” I didn’t bother asking how the carrot got there, and suspected it may have been there since the last cold spell, three weeks ago, when the jacket was likely to have been worn. Lindsey is a terrible pack rat and the most likely to evolve into a hoarder. Not only does she have every note she ever passed since she learned to write, but she also has every discarded tube of wrinkle cream from my mother’s cabinet, photos of relatives no one alive has ever met, and random bits of junk in overflowing shoeboxes all over the floor. She hasn’t been able to completely close her bedroom door the entire later half of her life. Even my mother surrendered the battle against Lindsey’s mess, though I suspect she occasionally sneaks in her room with a trash bag from time to time to make sure nothing has sprouted legs.
Once Leonard was out of the house, I felt a bit ill. The realization of my lack of personal preparation for the task sunk in, and I couldn’t bare the thought of going at it alone. Wren had offered to help several times. Up until now I was motivated to prove my abilities to my parents and myself, and so I turned her down. After spending less than a second reconsidering my need to show off my skills versus her offer to help, I devised a plan to smuggle her into the house without my parents finding out. The covert operation would be simple. I knew I would have the basement to myself most of the day. Buck, would not be allowed down there until around noon.
Unbeknownst to my parents, Wren and I had been using the secret tunnel entrance to the basement since we were eight. We found the passage completely by accident while playing Unicorn Spy, which was our favorite game at that time. Wren’s unicorn, required a special herb to fuel its’ flying power. Because we had to feed our unicorns before they were ready for international espionage, we often ended up playing “Find Food for Wren’s Unicorn,” and we were bored of the game before we were ready to find an unassuming local, a.k.a. vile villain, to stalk.  The herbal food the day of the tunnel discovery was Chicory. This blue flowered weed, commonly found on roadsides, would have been relatively easy to find in the summer, but the leaves had recently begun to turn, and the season had changed to a cool crisp autumn.  We trudged into the woods behind Skunkies, looking for the usually plentiful but today elusive plant. We found the herb in a small clearing I had never noticed before, against a slate wall. This particular plant had roots of steel, and while pulling it out of the ground, a slab of rock slid to the side revealing a cave. Diligent spies that we were, we had to investigate.
The adventure-promising cave turned out to be a disappointing, short, dry and electrically lit tunnel that led into the basement of Skunkies. “Woot!” I think I was the one to say that out loud. Wren and I were imaginative and easily able to see beyond the boring utilitarian use of the tunnel.   Although the tunnel was not the creepy, torch lit adventure we were hoping for, it was much more fun than using the bedroom window or front door for sneaking in and out of the house.  Considering what I now know about the secrets contained in the basement, I must confess I have some concerns that the tunnel was uncovered so easily by two eight-year-olds.  Anyway, I slipped out the tunnel exit to see if Wren was still game for spending an entire day risking her life to keep me company.
“Now Carys, remember, there’s water where you’re headed today, so dress appropriately,’’ said my mom. “The last thing we all need is for you to come down with something right before the ceremony. No pink pants. You should have no trouble finding the plant, the tricky part is locating the fruit.” I absorbed and considered every word because I knew she would give me all the information I would need and only give it to me once. My mother is observant and quick to spot inconsistencies or fluctuations in mood.  Even as she multitasked, scrubbing the breakfast dishes while dishing the details of my test aloud, I knew she could tell I was terrified. She grabbed my coffee cup and turned her back to me. “Look for a section of the plant where the reeds are braided together. Unravel the braids and you should find ripe fruit. There’s nothing else you need to do for to for the ‘shine. The villagers will take care of that.”
The “shine” my mother was referring to is moonshine. Our entire village is sustained on the trade of this illegal and intoxicating drink. Skunkies employs three breachers. Breachers are men, specially trained to breech the stink zone to deliver the moonshine and return with supplies and a bit of money. Without the ‘shine, we would have nothing beyond what we can grow and reap from the land. The secret ingredient, which makes our moonshine so unique and valuable, is the fermented fruit of a Paleolithic seaweed. I’m not even joking.
 “Your reveal stone will a diamond,” said my mother.
“What a coinkidinkie Care, my birthstone on your birthday,” said my dad, clearly pleased with himself for making the connection, which wasn’t really much of noteworthy coincidence at all.
“Brilliant dad,” I mumbled, cringing as I picked up on the potential for a pun on the gemstone cut. Dad didn’t notice the missed opportunity for another cheesy joke, which was fine because the joke would have never ended. My dad is always thrilled with his own cleverness, and his ability to pull jokes out the air, and I do find his silly humor a little cute in spite of my annoyance at his failure to know when to stop.
The Reveal Ceremony was the talk of the town. Any reason for the residents of Pole Cat Hollow to get together and party resulted in a high turnout, but the Reveal was one occasion that guaranteed one hundred percent attendance. The entire community has gathered for this magical and mysterious event for the last thirty decades.  The community of Pole Cat Hollow has been located around Skunkies in some form or another for the last three hundred years. Native Americans were the original diggers. Due to their reverence of supernatural dealings, combined with their respect of the Barbour family, the natives kept our family’s secret.  In the last hundred years or so, displaced Appalachian coal miners have replaced all but a few of their descendants. The miners, who use the most modern equipment we could allow, while not rousing suspicion from the outside, are highly efficient, allowing the ceremony to happen annually. Secrecy among the residents has been ensured by simply not telling the miners what actually goes on in the basement. Knowing they are involved in an illegal, but highly profitable, moonshine business is reason enough to keep the community quiet, productive and nearly invisible to the outside world. Wren has told me that most of the locals suspect there is more going within the walls of Skunkies, because the community is not full of dummies and blasting and digging have never been requirements for making moonshine anywhere else in the world.  Participating in the annual, mysterious Reveal gives the miners a sense of belonging to something otherworldly, and not a single person is willing to miss out. Reflecting on the history and importance of the ceremony only heightened my stress levels. I wished I had been given a chance for a trial run or dress rehearsal, at least. I did not feel prepared to please the crowd, and I imagined tonight’s ceremony would begin with me at the head of a train wreck.
I kissed my parents and tried to convey an illusion of confidence in my gate as I left the kitchen. In my bedroom, I struggled my way through the clutter I had vowed to clean up earlier. I knew the mess would remain until tomorrow, at the earliest, when I might have a free moment to clean, if I survived. Otherwise, my mother would mournfully, yet efficiently, tidy the room and box up my things. I changed my out of my pink cords and into some denim boot-cut pants and shuffled my feet in the direction of the basement, knowing the actual time my feet got me there never really mattered at all.

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