Noah and I stood outside the grimy ivory-white house. I was shivering from the sudden coolness in the breeze, I could hear my brother’s chattering teeth. His clothes were drenched and muddy. A rush of home-sickness overtook me; I longed for the comfort of home. But this is not how the story started, let me backtrack.
The summer before fifth grade, my mother told me and my brother we were going to spend a summer at our Aunt Jana’s house in Oregon. I did not know Aunt Jana that well. She never attended family reunions and didn’t have any children. Although I had not seen her in years, she always sent me and my brother money for Christmas and our birthdays. On the drive mother told us Aunt Jana’s husband had recently died of lung cancer. Mother was surprised by Aunt Jana’s behavior after her husband's death. When she called our home she was enthusiastic and joyous, never once bringing up Uncle Frank.
We left our house in the early morning and had been driving for hours when mother told us we were close. The neighborhood was spread out and old, very different from our suburban neighborhood in Reno. Mother pointed in the direction of Aunt Jana’s house. I gazed up at trees taller than we had seen before and saw an ivory house positioned on top of a steep hill.
We pulled into the driveway and began unloading our bags. Clutching our bags, we walked to the porch. The steps were old, unvarnished and slippery from the recent rain. I grabbed the rail with my free hand as my mother, brother and I moved up gingerly. As we came closer to the door we noticed it was slightly open. Surprised, my mother peeked in through the crack but Aunt Jana was nowhere in sight. As she knocked on the door it creaked open further. My brother stuck his head through the door opening but still could not see any sign of Aunt Jana. After calling her name a few times and waiting, we decided to go in. I was shocked to see the state of Aunt Jana’s house. Dust laid over every surface like dirty snow; papers and letters were piled up and cascaded all the way to the foot of the rough wooden stairs. I walked slowly to the staircase and set my duffel bag on the first step. I walked around the left side of the staircase to find a kitchen. Old coffee cups sat on the dinner table, seemingly untouched for ages. On the edge of the table was an ashtray with a large mound of cigarette butts accompanied by an unfinished glass of wine. I never saw Aunt Jana as the ‘smoking type’. Looking to my left I was startled to see Aunt Jana asleep on the couch. Upon closer inspection, I could see a cigarette positioned in between her fingers as well as a pile of ash burnt into the dingy sea foam colored rug. My mom came in from behind me and had a sudden look of astonishment. She nudged Aunt Jana. After no response she vigorously shook our slumbering Aunt by the shoulder. Aunt Jana opened her eyes, sat up, and appeared to be unsure of where she was or why there were suddenly people around her.
“Jana! Are you okay?” Mother asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she replied. “Kathy, can you pass me my lighter?”
“I was unaware of this new habit you have picked up,” Mother said sternly. ”How about saying hi to your niece and nephew first?”. Aunt Jana seemed to be unsure why we were there until a few moments later when she regained consciousness and remembered she told my mother we could spend a summer at her house.
However, this decision was made before her husband had died and before her recent addictions.
After mother and Aunt Jana finished catching up on family gossip, we said our goodbyes. She gave both of us a kiss and began to walk towards the door. Suddenly, Noah sprinted to mother and grasped her leg. He began crying and asking for her not to leave. She began to comfort him, and, after a few moments, pried his death grip off of her leg and walked out the door. I pressed my cheek against the window and waved as she pulled out of the driveway.
“Well,” Aunt Jana murmured, “are you guys hungry?”
I stood there quiet and still. I looked over to my brother and he glanced back at me. Then, we both shook our heads to signify that yes, were were indeed hungry.
“I guess I can fix something up,” Aunt Jana sighed.
She walked over to a small dusty bookcase adjacent the couch, pulling out a few cookbooks and began flipping through them.
“How about chicken pot pie?” Aunt Jana asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
“You guys can go outside and play. I need silence to cook,” Aunt Jana grumbled.
My brother and I walked outside. The weather was overcast, something we were not used to. The sky was almost an unbroken layer of white and grey, brilliant where the sunshine broke through. The lawn was overtaken by weeds and had not been cut for a few months. The tall grass and weeds scrapped and irritated my ankles as we walked. We walked down the slope of the backyard, approaching the open forest at its border. “Do you think… I mean… Aunt Jana wouldn’t care,” Noah thought out loud.
Looking back at the house I could see the top of Aunt Jana’s head through the kitchen window;wisps and clouds of smoke appearing in the air every few seconds.
“She won’t notice,” I replied. Let’s just go.”
I parted the branches of two small trees and began stomping through the grass. The forest was oak-brown, and the ground below us was damp and spongy. The air was heavy with moisture from the recent rain. I glanced back and saw my brother was far behind me and decided stop so he could catch up.Towering trees similar to skyscrapers of a city, I stood in awe of their size and majesty. My admiration was interrupted by the snaps of branches from my heavy-footed brother. We continued to walk until we saw in the distance a sudden break in the forest. I realized it was a dirt trail that I assumed was frequented by many people given its dilapidated condition. We both halted to rest our legs from the strenuous journey. Looking down, I saw small scrapes and gashes on my ankles; my white shirt under my worn overalls was stained brown on the sleeves.
“Hayley!” Noah asked, “Do you hear that?”
“No. What is it?” I replied.
“Listen!” Noah said softly.
In the distance I could hear the clatter and splash of a river or creek.
“Can we go see it? Please Hayley? I really want to see it!” Noah pleaded.
“No. I really think we should go back, Aunt Ja-”. Before I could finish my sentence, Noah had dashed down the trail and through the trees on the edge of the riverbank. I ran after him, but his pace never let up. Through the dense forest I could see a turquoise-blue river with Noah perched in the middle of a rock path leading through the river. It was splashing as it moved through the trees.
I came to the edge of the water and screamed, “Noah get off that rock you are going to slip and fall!”
“I won’t… see!” he said as he took the next step on the moss-covered stone.
With a shriek, I saw half his body plunge into the rushing river. His petite arms were embracing a slippery rock, fear plastered onto his face. The rushing rapids downstream threatening to take his small body if he were to let go.
“Hayley please help me!!!” he screamed.
In that moment I had no instinct or plan of what to do. I began shouting,
“Help! Help! Someone please help!”
I repeated this over and over but I realized no one could hear me. We were helpless.
“Hayley, I can’t hold on,” Noah said with panic, “It’s too slippery!”
“Hang on, don’t let go!” I shouted.
I kept yelling for help until my vocal cords began to give out. I stopped and looked around, tears blinding my eyes Then, in the distance, I heard the sound of branches snapping at a fast rate. The footsteps were coming from the direction of the trail. I wiped my eyes and saw the blurry outline of a man and large dog running towards us.
“I am over here!” I screamed, “Please hurry!”
He came to the bank of the river and without hesitation dropped the dog’s leash and dashed into the river. He grabbed Noah and placed him over his right shoulder making his way back to the shore.
The man set him down and asked, “Where are your parents? You guys shouldn’t be here alone.”
“We are here for the summer with our Aunt. She told us we could go outside,” I replied.
The man’s clothes were soaked, dripping water onto the sand. His dog ran up to him and began begging for his attention.
“Thank you,” I said to the man, grateful that my brother was safe.
“Glad I was here to help,” He replied, “I hope this was a lesson for you little guy,” as he pointed to Noah. “Never go in this river again, do you hear me?”
“Yes,” Noah replied. Then mumbled, “Thank you.”
“How about you guys head back to your Aunt's house?”
We both nodded. The man with the black lab headed back through the forest, his pants dragging along the sandy ground. We journeyed back to the trail. I did not say a word to Noah on the trek back to Aunt Jana’s house. We took a right back into the dense forest we had walked through. Through the trees I could see the ivory house on top of the hill.
I parted the branches again and began walking up the slope of the backyard. We stood there, Noah still soaked in water, nearly ten feet away from the house. I was cold, exhausted and hungry. I could not smell the aroma of chicken pot pie baking in the oven. Glancing through the window I saw Aunt Jana. She had a cigarette in one hand and an empty wine glass in the other. As we stood there I realized, this would be a long summer at Aunt Jana’s.