Below is the 1st chapter of Kathleen’s new book, The Visitant.
November 22, 1967: The Beginning
While Schulstown and a dozen other small towns of the Adirondack foothills had long ago faded from the rear view mirror, Sterling Farling squirmed uncomfortably in her seat. Little brother Jamie watched as big sister Selma belted out an off-key rendition of an equally bad song… and then suddenly everything grew quiet. For the first time in an hour, Sterling could actually feel her toes. No longer were they imprisoned by the huge metal jug filled with grape drink and its accompanying bag stuffed with assorted sandwiches and cookies. However, her feeling of freedom was short-lived, as a giant fog quickly engulfed her, forcing her head to pound with each dizzying heartbeat.
What was happening? She remembered taking off her shoes in the car to give her feet more room, but now they were cold…so very cold. Loose ground or some surface underfoot shifted, she wasn’t sure what, but now she lay on the cold, wet ground, her hands smarting from sharp icy needles. Ice? It made no sense. Tears welled in her eyes, further clouding her vision.
Where was she? Carefully standing up while rubbing her bruised shin, Sterling observed her breath puffing out in front, forming small frosty clouds. Why was everything so foggy and so cold?
Carefully now, putting one foot directly ahead of the other, she skated, climbed, and eventually crawled towards the only lights she could see. She tried to stop and gather her thoughts…the lights; they’re coming from what looks like a house made from a barn. She paused again. It looks exactly like the barn-house I was watching from the backseat of our car.
Bang! The door between the two lights flung open as her feet skidded out from under her, landing her in the ice and snow once again.
Standing in the doorway was the outline of a small person…a tiny girl who couldn’t be more than seven years old.
“Come on in silly, before you catch cold. What are you doing out there, anyway?” asked the girl.
Sterling Farling squinted at the figure in front of her. The girl by the door stood with her hair pulled back severely in into a single blonde braid. The braid swished back and forth as this strange girl became more animated, saying, “Where are your shoes, Sally? Mama is going to have your hide! Supper’s ready and I’ve been calling for you for ten minutes.” The girl placed her small hands on her hips and then darted back into the house.
Everything stopped swirling and came into perfect focus for Sterling. She knew who this girl was: Anna Stevens. Furthermore, she realized that they shared a history together. But how did she know this?
As Sterling slipped through the doorway, her head stopped pounding, and in that instant she realized that this house had been her home once. Here her name was not Sterling Farley, but Sally, Sally Stevens, and this in front of her was Anna, Anna Stevens.
She wiped her feet on the rough mat, her mind drifted away to somewhere not so long ago when she saw Anna and herself on a quiet green hillside. It was a warm summer afternoon, and there was a patch of buttercups near a cluster of young trees. She, Sally or Sterling…it was all so confusing… searched out the location for the perfect tree. This tree had to be at the edge of a clearing, and must be strong, and yet flexible, since the object was to catapult yourself like a giant human spitball shot from a rubber band.
There it was; tall and slim, but with a firm strong base. It stood with open branches, inviting her to shimmy up. Little Anna caught up, out of breath, but with enough energy to point at the tree, “Sally, me first,” she begged. “P – l – e – a – s – e!” and then giggled.
Anna kept looking at her with those doe eyes and the tree looked docile enough, so soon she found herself helping Anna wind her legs around the base of the tree. Grabbing ahold of the trunk, about four feet off the ground; Sally or Sterling pulled it slightly towards the ground. Anna crawled up the tree like a rambunctious squirrel, and as she reached the midpoint, the slender trunk began to bend. As the tree began to sag, Sterling followed the trunk with her hands, carefully reigning in this young colt of a tree, and wrestling it down to the ground just as little Anna reached the sparse branches sprouting not far from the tree’s top.
“Anna, are you ready to fly?” asked Sally.
The answer came in a wave of giggles.
Sally shrieked as she let go and watched the catapult tree spring into the air and then split in two with a sharp crack. Actually she was never really sure if the cracking sound came from the tree or from her little sister who had been thrown violently to the ground and lay screaming with her right arm twisted behind her in an unnatural way. After a trip to the emergency room ten miles away, everyone was relieved that Anna only suffered a simple break above her right wrist.
Sally, on the other hand had been grounded for the rest of the summer, and to her knowledge, neither one of them ever attempted to ride a catapult tree again.
Sally (AKA Sterling) blinked now at the brightness inside the barn-house. Standing at the threshold, she continued to rub her cold feet on the rag rug by the door.
“Sally, where are your shoes, young lady?” asked Mama, standing just inside the door with both hands placed on her hips, looking like an older version of Anna.
It took Sterling a moment to realize that the woman was talking to her. How could she tell this woman that a few minutes ago she had been in a car speeding fifty miles an hour past this very house? Or not? The car with the annoying sister and little brother was becoming fainter in her memory and being replaced by more memories of Anna and the family in front of her.
Sterling felt her forehead wrinkle into what her Grandmother Mimi called ‘furrows deep enough to plant corn in,’ as the puzzlement of new memories bombarded her from all directions. Suddenly she knew that in the living room there would be a new 19-inch black-and-white television in a maple cabinet and a brown overstuffed recliner parked diagonally to a well worn green couch. She could even picture the leaf-like design woven into it using both rough and smooth nylon threads with bits of metallic sparkle added for detail. Over the couch would be a huge brass star-shaped clock, patterned after Telstar, the first American satellite sent into space. The huge fireplace made out of perfectly rounded river rocks took up one full wall. She knew all of this without setting foot inside the room, but how?
Passing through the door into the country kitchen, Sterling Farley was surprised that she felt so at home here. She observed Mama, as Anna called her, at the nearby gas stove tending a pot. The steam spread through the air…beef stew…one of her favorites, and it blended enticingly with the heady aroma of bread fresh from the oven.
On the table there were settings for four, Mama, Pa, who she could hear talking back to the television in the other room, Anna, and presumably, herself. No one questioned her as to why she, a perfect stranger, was here. It seemed evident that she was expected. Walking through the archway into the living room, she spotted her homework spread out on the antique oak coffee table. Her favorite pink pen was laying there beside it. How could this be? Those same papers and books were packed tightly into her suitcase…and her suitcase was in the car on its way to Mimi’s. Her knees felt suddenly weak, so she quickly kneeled down next to the coffee table with her back to the warm fire. Sally searched for her writing tablet among the books and papers. She would feel so much more at home if she could write about it. Nearly giving up hope, she picked up her math book and out flopped her notebook onto the table.
Twirling the pen between her fingers, she sank to the floor, opened her tablet, and read the last entry:
Ahead on the left, I can just barely make out the lights of an old barn that over the last five years has transformed into a rustic, but stylish house. I have watched it gradually change from a large cow and hay barn to this new form; a beautiful barn-house.
In the daylight you can see how the new coat of red paint shines, even on the rough barnboard siding, but at night you can see the whole show. It is then that the lights inside glow, showing off the barn-house’s old high beamed ceilings, huge windows and magnificent stone fireplace.
Tonight is one of those magical times when light springs from every window, and flames dance in the fireplace. The barn-house is positively glowing.
I wonder what it would feel like living in such a magical place…
“Girls, wash up for dinner. Joe, if you’re through spouting off at the TV, it’s time to eat,” said Mama, ducking her head into the living room. It wasn’t until little Anna came over and pulled her towards the bathroom that Sally awakened from her stupor. Quickly jamming the pink pen into her jeans pocket, she washed up and headed towards the delicious aroma coming from the kitchen.
The beef in the stew was tender. Chunks of tender carrots, green peas and homegrown potatoes swam in rich, brown gravy. Nothing was mushy or overdone. It was just right like something out of the old children’s story, “The Three Bears.” Crusty bread, still warm from the oven, lay on a maple wood cutting board. A knife rested on the board’s long-neck handle. A jar of colorful and fragrant jam sat nearby, filled with the spring harvest of wild strawberries. She was quite sure that she had picked them herself in the field near the catapult tree.
How she knew these things still puzzled her. Why the Stevens family accepted her as a rightful member without question was even more baffling. This was not her family. Hers was well on its way to Pennsylvania to see her grandmother Mimi…wasn’t it?
Looking around, she saw baby pictures of Anna hanging on the rough planked wall across from her, but wait, there was something wrong. Jumping up from her chair, she raced over to the center portrait. It was identical to the one that hung in her dining room at home; her real home. In both pictures, two girls were seated on a blue shaggy rug, but this photograph held one big difference from the original. In the ‘real one’ she was the toddler sitting next to big sister, Selma. In this one, she was the big sister, and she was sitting next to little sister, Anna.
“What’s wrong, dear?” Mama asked.
“Oh, nothing…I was just trying to remember when this picture was taken. I thought that the date might be on it somewhere.”
“That is such a lovely picture, isn’t it? Now come back to the table, Sally, and I will see what I remember about that day. OK …yes. You were around nine or so, yes, nine, because Anna was just over a year old. The picture, as I recall, was taken at W.T. Grant’s when they were having their annual family picture special, and they only do that at the end of October, getting ready for Christmas.
Don’t you remember anything about that day? We stopped on the way home for dinner at Johnny’s Diner over in Norwich. You had a giant banana split and got it all over your new pink dress that you wore in the picture. I had a devil of a time getting that chocolate out. I’ve been thinking of getting Anna’s picture taken in that same dress when she turns nine. Wouldn’t that be so sweet to have a picture of both of you in the same outfit at the same age?”
“Yeah, that would be neat,” Sterling answered quietly, but she could feel the blood rushing through her temples. Her heart was beating so loudly, that it was impossible to think no one else could hear it. No matter how lovely these people were, and they seemed to be genuinely kind and loving people, it was wrong. All wrong.
Dessert was a plate of gingerbread cookies decorated with icing faces and raisin buttons. Was this how Hansel and Gretel felt as they spend their first meal with the ever so generous witch?
There was no point in denying her state of panic anymore. As much as she liked these people, they weren’t her real family. Acknowledging that even though her ‘other family’ could be challenging, it still didn’t make her miss them less. This new family was perfect; too perfect. Right now an errant smack from little brother Jamie or being forced to listen to big sister Selma belt some god-awful song in her off-key voice would be welcome. Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, she set out to figure out a way out of this alternate universe, or whatever it was before she was locked into it forever…
Somewhere in the middle of the second slice of warm bread that Mama had generously slathered with butter and jam, Sterling cast her eyes down at her simple steel watch, a watch that ‘takes a licking and keeps on ticking’ according to the TV commercials. Her other parents, now on their way to Mimi’s house without her, had given it to her on her last birthday. Realizing that her fists were clenched, she slipped them under the table and into her pockets. “I miss you so and I wanna’ go back,” she whispered.
As her eyes continued to gaze downwards, she felt her body become heavy. Her temples throbbed like they would explode at any moment. Her feet were suddenly driven painfully into a wedge-shaped trap of some sort. Reaching out to steady herself on the kitchen table, she found, instead, her hands resting on the cold vinyl back of a car seat. The thumping in her chest slowed to a slight murmur, but throbbing in her temples was reborn as a massive headache as one thought reverberated in her head, I thought that I didn’t have a place to call my own, and now I have two.