Aster Wood and the Lost Maps of Almara (Book 1)
Copyright © 2014 by J. B. Cantwell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, contact Books@JBCantwell.com.
We barreled down the dirt road to my doom.
The mud-yellow farmhouse came into view behind the tired, crumbling barn. Our car blew by the bare cornfields that lined the narrow drive. I looked over at my mom, but her gaze was set stubbornly on the road.
I had wanted an adventure. But it wasn’t meant to be.
I didn’t want to go. I mean I really didn’t want to go. I had tried every trick I could think of to get out of spending the entire summer at the old lady’s farm. But Mom hadn’t been swayed a single millimeter by my whining, my yelling, or my threats to purposely flunk out of seventh grade next year if she didn’t send me somewhere, anywhere, else.
The whole situation was colossally unfair. She was unloading me during the only time of the year I might actually be able to do something normal, or even make a genuine, real-life friend. And friends were hard to come by for a kid like me. An inept, diseased heart had resulted in near total rejection by the kids in our section of the city. I had to be careful, never knowing when the ticking bomb in my chest would decide to explode, ending my pathetic existence. I sat on the sidelines, year after year, as the other kids played on the yard, made friends, ran free.
Fragile, some adults might call me. Freak was the word the other kids would use.
I looked out the window as the fence posts slipped by. The openness of the land took my breath away, despite all my protests about being dumped out here. Dense, gray clouds billowed far away along the horizon, threatening the empty fields below. At least it was a relief to see the sky. I always felt so closed-in in the city, with its giant buildings shooting up on every side, blocking out the sun. Here there was nothing in my way; I might even be able to see some stars, something I never saw at home. I should have been happy; it was better than being stuck in the city, which would be wickedly hot come July. But I watched my mom’s eyes scrutinize the dry, cracked dashboard of the borrowed sedan as we sped along, and I was miserable instead.
I had begged her to send me to camp. They had camps, even now, even for sick kids; I had seen them on the snippets of news I pretended not to watch over her shoulder. They were in some of the last places we could go to visit nature, high up in the mountains above the acid haze. Hot sun would pink our skin during the day. And at night, an unpolluted view of the sky would reveal the cosmos winking down from above. Right now I could be paddling across a lake with some other ailing, misfit kid, all my efforts focused on trying not to tip the boat.
Instead I was strapped into the burning-hot passenger seat, all my efforts focused on not screaming in frustration. We didn’t have money for camp. I knew this, but knowing it didn’t help.
Grandma either heard the car coming down the drive or smelled the dust in the air, because she was standing in the doorway when we finally pulled up to the front of the house. Her belly, wrapped in a faded, flowered apron, preceded her down the porch steps as she walked out to meet us.
I didn’t mind the old lady, really I didn’t. But as my eyes took in the abandoned farm through my dusty window, I couldn’t help but blame her for her part in my summer imprisonment.
Mom unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door.
“You coming?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
I glared back at her.
She huffed, and then hauled herself out into the hot, sticky summer air. I could hear the loud buzzing of cicadas through the door of the car even after she slammed it shut.
Grandma waved at me as she hugged my mom. Then Mom said something under her breath and they both turned to stare. I sunk deeper into my seat, trying to burrow into the quickly warming pleather. There they stood, plotting a way to make me comply, and I fumed hotter than the fast-rising oven-temperature of the car interior.
They talked for a few minutes, giving me a chance to give in, but eventually Mom resorted to the only strategy she had left. She marched up to the car, opened the passenger door and commanded, “Out.”
I climbed out of the car and stood in the spot her finger had been pointing to. She pulled out my shabby suitcase from the back seat and stood it next to me, then gave me a hug I did not return.
“Love you, kiddo,” she said as her fingers knotted in my shaggy hair. “Be good.”
“Bye,” I groaned.
“Oh, Aster,” she said, taking my face in her hands. I looked up miserably into her pleading eyes. “It won’t be so bad. Maybe there are some kids around here that you can hang out with.”
Kids? Out here? Was she nuts?
“It’s only eight weeks,” she said.
“Eight weeks,” I replied blankly.
I turned to face the house. Grandma smiled. I walked up to her, dragging my suitcase behind me over the cracked dirt. Despite my efforts to grimace, I couldn’t help but melt a little bit at the sight of her. She opened her arms and I relented, letting her give me a big, squishy hug.
Behind me the car sputtered back to life. I turned as Mom put it in drive and rolled out of the driveway. Once she was clear of the big, dead tree that stuck up in the middle of the flat dirt lot, she hit the gas, leaving a cloud of dust where the road had been, and raced off to the airport.
I was officially abandoned.
I unloaded my suitcase up in the guest bedroom and looked around the sad, stuffy room. Wallpaper peeled from the corners, and an old clock sat still and powerless on the bedside table. A single fly buzzed up against the window, trying helplessly to get out.
I knew Mom didn’t have a choice but to work. She had spent years struggling to pay the rent, on top of the medical bills, on her own after my dad ditched us. He hadn’t made it through the “hospital days,” leaving around the time that all my heart problems started. Mom had stayed close with Grandma, which I guess was lucky considering that she was my dad’s mother, not hers. They had sat together during the long hours in the hospital waiting room after he took off.
When I was born my heart had a tiny hole poking right through its middle. It hid, undetected by doctors, until I started having trouble breathing at school. I overheard Mom crying on the phone one afternoon, a few weeks after my first surgery, telling someone on the other end that it was common for couples with sick kids to split up. She hadn’t seen me peeking around the corner until the phone call ended. She tried to reassure me, as she wiped the tears from her face, that his leaving wasn’t my fault. I was five.
He moved out of our city. He sent birthday cards. At least, some years.
Mom had already stopped listening to the specialists when they got to the part of assuring her that, after treatment, I would be able to have a normal childhood. She had different ideas in mind to protect me, no matter what the doctors said. From that point forward I was pretty much held under lock and key. She was forever worried that I would fall down dead if I so much as jogged across the schoolyard. Of course, I was scared, too. Years of doctors and hospitals would be enough to make anyone think twice before joining in the athletics offered at school, but it was the difficulty I often had breathing that really kept me in line. The tightness in my chest was a constant reminder: don’t push too hard.
I looked out the small, dirty window at the remains of the fields below. The now unused farm tools lay in piles, rusting in the mud as the earth slowly swallowed them up. Grandma had continued trying to farm, even after most other people had packed it in and left. She used to have animals on the property like horses and chickens and even a pig or two at one point, but now the barn sat abandoned. I had a vivid memory, from before I got sick, of riding the old draft horse around the place with nothing but a lead rope and a fistful of mane to keep me from the seven-foot fall to the ground. It had been thrilling and terrifying at the same time, and I had wailed when they finally tore me from the big brute’s back.
All the animals were long gone now, though where, I had no idea. But Grandma had stayed on. She had said that she just couldn’t stand to leave the farm, no matter what dangers the rains brought. She traveled into town once a month to pick up a box of supplies, and she grew a vegetable garden out back, covered by a clear arch of plastic sheeting. But most of us, people who didn’t want to take chances with the weather, lived inside the protection of the cities.
“Hey Aster.” Her rickety voice surprised me, and I whipped around. “Do you have what you need up here? I thought you might want to come on down and watch my shows with me this afternoon.” She looked at me piteously.
“Thanks, Grandma,” I replied. “Maybe later.”
She eyed me cautiously, as if she was trying to determine how to dismantle a not-entirely-lethal bomb.
“Alright, hon,” she said finally, pushing her glasses up onto her nose. “You go ahead and get settled in.”
While I looked at her I secretly wondered, how old was she? Eighty-five? Ninety? I had never asked, and I had never really given it much thought before now. It was amazing she had survived so long out here, all alone. But something in her tired eyes told me that I could expect little excitement from her. She turned and walked unsteadily back down the staircase.
As the afternoon passed, the hot sun was slowly covered by thick thunderclouds, and the bedroom gradually darkened. After I finished unpacking I flopped down onto the squeaky, lumpy mattress.
I lay back into the musty pillows as thunder boomed in the sky above and tried to come up with something to do. The pelting of rain began to beat against the window. No going outside now. I watched the drops slide down the rippled glass and rolled over, caught up in my misery. I considered screaming into my pillow just for something to do, and I was just starting to jerk it loose from underneath my head when I heard it.
The walls rattled around me as the sound shuddered through the house. I sat bolt upright in my bed. Was that lightning?
BOOM. BOOM. CRASH.
I jumped off the bed, alarmed. What on earth had that been? As I walked out of my room and into the hall I could hear the sound of Grandma’s quiet snore from the top step; she hadn’t heard the sound. The theme song of a forgotten primetime favorite whistled out of the set. So the power was still on, then. It couldn’t have been lightning on the rod fixed to the roof of the house or the power would have gone out for sure. What had it been?
I looked around the hallway, but it was empty. The noise had come from above.
A short, dangling string hung down from the ceiling at the end of the hall. I had never been into the attic before. I tiptoed along the creaky floorboards, grabbed at the string and yanked hard. As the door squeaked open, a ladder unfolded. I carefully placed the bottom rung on the hallway floor and started to climb.
The weight of my feet made the boards of the ladder bend and groan. I held my breath, trying to stifle every sound I made, but my heart thudded erratically in my chest. I could hear the uneven beat in my ears, sure that it was audible beyond my own eardrums.
At the top I stuck my head up tentatively through the opening. It was hard to see much of anything at first. A hazy beam of gray light came into the space from a single window, and the dust danced in the air in its dull glow. I climbed up further and sat down on the top rung, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. I stayed as still as I could, listening. But no other sound came. My eyes scanned over the piles of boxes and old trinkets. Nothing moved.
There in the corner, in the area right above my bedroom, was a large wooden box. It lay on its side, half broken and lid ajar. My stomach knotted. Anything could lie hidden in the shadows behind it. Maybe it was a raccoon, I thought, or possibly a rat. A really, really big rat.
I thought about running back downstairs and sounding the alarm with Grandma, but she wouldn’t be able to make it up this ladder. She’d probably have to call the cops or animal control or something. What if there was nothing there? Or, worse, what if there was no one left this far out in the country to help?
I got up from the floor and carefully picked my way over to the corner of the room. I held my hands out in front of me in the darkness, ready to defend myself if the hidden beast decided to jump out and attack.
Just a few steps in I felt a tug on my pant leg and practically leapt out of my skin. I looked down and saw a floorboard jutting up through the mess, catching the fabric near my ankle. As I stooped to untangle myself, I noticed the variety of other hazards around me. Rusty nails stuck out from forgotten scraps of wood. Huge piles of books were stacked precariously on all sides. A broken lamp lay two more steps ahead. I righted myself again and continued, creeping as silently as possible towards the box.
My breathing had started up again, but the air just barely made it in and out through my clenched chest as I got closer. Since my surgery, my chest always got this way when I was nervous. My heart would cramp up when I felt threatened, or scared, or even excited. This, of course, is the last thing you want if you’re facing something that could actually be dangerous. I wondered if anyone would miss me after I was eaten alive by what was now a bear-sized rat in my mind. I reached the far edge of the room and stopped.
No sound. I stood motionless except for my eyes, which darted from side to side, up the walls, along the floor, seeking the hiding menace. I peered around the backside of the broken box. Nothing. I knelt down to look inside. Empty.
I slowly let my breath out with a long sigh of relief. All I had heard was the old place, already in the midst of decay, falling apart just a little bit more. Bolted to the wall was a long shelf piled with cardboard boxes and books. Broken on the floor was another, matching shelf. It must have finally given way under the weight of decades, sending the heavy wooden box tumbling down.
Next to the box a pile of yellowed papers littered the floor. As my breathing steadied, I cleared them away to make a spot to sit and compose myself. I slumped down on the hardwood planks, and a plume of dust flew up around me.
As I looked again at the box’s interior I realized that, scared as I was, I had been hoping that something interesting might be inside. Hidden monsters, while terrifying, were more appealing than going back downstairs to stare at the wall some more.
I crossed my legs and put my chin in my hands. Well, that had been fun. For, like, a minute. A film of dust lay over everything in the room, and I stretched out a single finger, drawing circles on the floorboard. My nail brushed across a groove in the wood, and I cleared away the dust with the palm of my hand. There in the floorboard, carved deeply into the plank, was a marking.
I got onto my hands and knees and blew into the crevices of the carving, pushing away the cardboard box on the floor next to it that was blocking the light from the window. As the dust in the air cleared, a strange design appeared.
Two long ovals crossed over each other, and a tall, deep diamond carved out the space in the center. Completing the shape at the top and bottom were two stars, mirroring each other.
I stared at it and ran my fingers along the ovals. I had never seen anything like it before. It didn’t match with any of the symbols I had learned about at school. It wasn’t a Roman numeral or a symbol of the Greek gods. What other ancient types of writing were there? Maybe it was some sort of hieroglyph. But that was ridiculous. Grandma’s attic was not the sort of place that a hieroglyph made any sort of sense in. Yet still, here it was.
I couldn’t shake the chills that were crawling down my spine as I looked around the room. Maybe this place wasn’t everything it seemed to be. Was there something here, in the attic, in the house, on the farm, that I was missing?
“How long have you lived in this house, Grandma?” I asked an hour later, between mouthfuls of sticky spaghetti. She looked up at me and then her eyes focused on a point beyond me as she thought of the answer.
“Hmmm, let’s see,” she said, “I moved here with your grandfather right after we were married. We moved in with his parents, which is what most young couples did back then. So that’s about sixty-five, no, sixty-seven years.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a long time. When was this place built?”
“Oh,” she said, “your grandfather’s grandparents built it, so you do the math.”
I twirled my spaghetti around and around my fork. That had to be almost two hundred years back. And it sounded like the place had been in the family that whole time. I eyed her, trying to decide if I should ask my next question.
“Did anyone in the family ever do anything… strange?” I asked.
She snorted and said, “What do you mean strange? We’re just farmers, Aster, not magicians. At least, we used to be farmers.” She smiled at me lovingly. “Though you with that blond hair, you might have a little magic in your blood.”
I snorted. It was true: everyone in my family had brown hair except for me. In the old baby pictures I had seen, most people on my dad’s side had white blond hair as kids that then darkened as they got older, and Mom’s side of the family was almost entirely brunette. But I had always had a light blond mop on my head, a “toe-head” as some people called it, and it had barely darkened at all since I was little.
“Hair aside,” I said, “was anybody in the family not a farmer? You know, before? Like did anybody travel a lot or disappear or do anything strange?”
“Disappear?” she asked. She thought for a moment. “Well, your grandfather once traveled to New York City,” she said, “but that’s not that unusual, is it? I really wanted to go on that trip with him. I was so excited about seeing the Empire State Building. But your father was just a baby and I couldn’t leave him alone here with my parents; they were getting on in their years and wouldn’t have been able to manage an infant on their own.” She paused. Finally she said, “I’ve barely made it out of this town.”
I stared down at my plate. My father. His mother had cared so much for him and the people around her to not leave them when they needed her most, a trait he apparently did not inherit.
“Do you ever see him?” I asked, eyes still on my marinara.
“Who, Jack? No, not for a few years now,” she said quietly. “He sent me a letter a while back. Said he was getting married. Don’t expect I’ll ever meet her.”
We both sat in silence, the weight of the conversation hanging around us.
“Your ma doesn’t know,” she said. “I didn’t see why I would need to burden her with something like that. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything to you, either.”
So he really had moved on for good. I stayed silent, fuming with anger at the man I hadn’t seen in seven long years.
“Aster,” she finally said, “I’m so sorry…about everything.”
When I looked up from my plate she had tears in her eyes. My eyes fell back to the faded tablecloth. I had set down my fork, and now my fingernails were tearing the woven fabric to shreds on the edge of where my plate sat. After a couple minutes I raised my head. She was watching me, and quickly wiped a tear from her cheek.
“You know, your ma…you know she had to go, right?” she asked.
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
“I know this place isn’t where most kids your age would want to be for the summer, but you know she’s trying as hard as she can. You know that.”
I nodded. I picked up my fork and poked at what was left of my dinner. We ate in silence for a while but with much less gusto than before. Finally, I pushed back from the table.
“Maybe you should take a trip somewhere,” I said, standing. “Somewhere you’ve always wanted to go.”
“What, you mean like New York?” She smiled at me, shaking her head. “Hon, all I really want to do these days is nap and enjoy what time I have left. Besides, I doubt that the New York I wanted to see is still there.” Her eyes became serious. “Things are a lot different now, you know.” She shook her head slowly from side to side. “I don’t need to travel all around creation at this stage of life. Not to see that. I’ve done my living.”
In spite of myself, I felt sorry for her. She’d spent her whole life working here on the farm, never going anywhere, and then had watched her home slowly being ripped apart by the elements as the planet’s systems had become unpredictable. And what did she have to show for her efforts? An embarrassment of a son and a falling-down house.
I looked around the old-fashioned kitchen, at the family heirlooms hung on the walls, and thought about what her life must be like now. She was all alone out here, scraping by, surrounded on all sides by ruined earth. City life was a bit drab, but it was reliable. We knew we would eat. We knew we were safe. A framed photograph of a young family sitting outdoors at a family gathering, surrounded by brilliant green grass, caught my eye. The people around the table smiled as if they were laughing at a joke somebody just told. It was a type of life I had never known.
The photo brought me up short, and the pity I felt for her swirled uncomfortably in my chest with a different emotion. The eyes in the photo shined with something I had rarely seen in my life in the city. Maybe I had it wrong. Maybe Grandma’s reasons for staying so far out were more inspired than I realized. The people at the table, they looked so…happy. But it was more than that. They looked like they knew where they belonged.
“What were you doing up there in the attic all day anyhow?” she asked, snapping me back from my thoughts. I turned and brought my plate to the sink.
“Oh,” I said, over my shoulder, “I’m just digging around. There’s a lot of interesting stuff up there.”
“Yes,” she said. “Some strange treasures are up there if memory serves. Just about anything from hundreds of years ago can look so foreign to people now. You know, your great great grandfather was a cartographer. Do you know what that is?”
I shook my head as I turned on the tap.
“A cartographer,” she went on, “is somebody who makes maps. Brendan Wood was his name. He used to travel all around this area, come to think of it. People would hire him to map out their plots of land for them. Most of Adams County is probably up there in that attic.”
I kept quiet and scrubbed my plate with the gray, ragged sponge. I wondered if Brendan had carved that symbol into the attic floor himself, or if, in the long years that had passed since he had built this place, it had been one of his descendants to take the knife to the wood.
The rain continued, so I spent my days exploring the attic. With each new search I found more to keep me wanting to return, and I soon forgot my irritation at having been dumped on the farm. The place was full of a century’s worth of discarded treasures, and I soon realized that I could have spent a year up there digging and still not have discovered everything worth discovering. This realization came on unconsciously, but within a short space of days I started burrowing like a madman, trying to solve a riddle that didn’t exist. I had a strange, tight sensation in the center of my chest, one that was unrelated to my medical condition. My brain buzzed furiously all day, and thoughts of treasure teased me all night. Something needed finding in that attic, I was sure of it.
To say the attic was a magical place would not be quite the right description. The grimy collection of prizes did not seem to go together. Curious things were mixed right in with the ordinary. A broken compass folded in with a box of old clothes. A tiny, and curiously bright, white stuffed bird perched on top of a stack of books. A perfectly round, smooth ball of some kind of stone I had never seen. An old jewelry box with an assortment of broken gold necklaces snarled into an impossible knot the size of my fist. The place was on my mind twenty-four hours a day, and I always wanted to be up there. As the days passed I forgot about the possibility of leaving the house at all. Mom would have been downright proud of my lack of adventure.
On my fourth day in the attic, I was looking through the items on the shelf next to the one that had fallen down. A pile of old papers was stacked up along one side, and propped up behind them like a plate on a wall was a large framed picture of a ship. When I moved it down from the shelf to take a closer look, a squiggly painted line emerged on the wall behind it. It was the width of my finger and ran up and down right behind where the painting had been.
The old papers, a box of used clothing and several poster tubes came down and made a pile at my feet. The more I unloaded, the more of the drawing I could see. After half an hour of relocating stacks and stacks of ancient junk, I could see the entire wall.
It was a map.
But it was a map of no place I had ever seen. It looked vaguely like a squashed combination of North America and Australia, but there were no words to clue me in about what location it showed, only lines. I knew my geography pretty well; all those hours after school and lunches on my own in the library had resulted in brainiac grades in all my subjects. But this was an outline I had never studied before.
In several places on the map, golden rings were painted within the black borders. The paint the mapmaker used was some sort of metallic, because the rings had a strange flicker to them. They reminded me of sun reflecting on water. I looked around the room, trying to figure out if maybe something shiny was reflecting a sunbeam onto the wall. But then I realized it was still raining outside.
As I backed away from the wall, my hand struck the corner of a sharp piece of wood. I cradled it to my chest and spun around, looking for the offending piece of junk I had knocked into. It was the big wooden box that had fallen on my first day up here, still in the place it had landed when the old shelf had given way. I bent over, grabbed the sides of the box and heaved it upright.
I slapped my hands together and a cloud of dust filled the stale air. Poking out from between two slats of wood in the back of the box was a small corner of parchment. I hadn’t seen this before; after the box fell I hadn’t bothered to investigate it further.
I knelt down and gently tugged on the paper. It took a little bit of back and forth, but after a minute it gave way and I was holding an old, crumpled envelope. There was no writing, but on the backside it had a deep red wax seal, like the kinds I’d seen illustrated in history books about the middle ages. Pressed into the wax was a design, and I gulped as I recognized the now familiar oval and diamond shape, the same one that was carved into the wood beneath my feet. The seal on this envelope had never been broken. Could that be right? If so, then that meant that nobody but the person who wrote this letter had ever seen what was inside of it. Nobody.
I looked around the attic. I was a little nervous about being the first person to open it; it didn’t belong to me, after all. But curiosity got the better of me, and I carefully slid my thumb under the seal. It gave way with a surprising little pop. I opened the flap of the envelope, and read the writing on its underside:
Dare free what lies within
And see where we have been
Huh, I thought. The writing was mysterious enough, but the ink had a strange flickery glow about it. Just like the golden rings on the wall behind me, the words on the page shimmered brightly, though this part of the attic was quite dark. What did it mean? Was some ill fate awaiting me if I opened what was inside?
I decided that I would simply have to open it. It was just an old letter, anyhow, I told myself. My heart did not hear my brain’s logic, and it pounded in my chest with excitement. I slipped the parchment from the envelope and unfolded it, taking care not to tear the ancient document. I opened it along each crease, spreading it out on the floor in front of me.
It was blank.
I stared, feeling a little cheated. What was the point of going to all the trouble of saving a blank piece of paper for what looked like hundreds of years? I smoothed the parchment and knelt closely over it, looking for clues to its secret. Old and discolored, its edges ripped, it matched the paper that made the envelope. I pressed my nose close to every inch of the page, looking for any marking or indentation. Nothing. I sat back on my heels and blew out a long sigh of frustration.
Then I saw it. Writing was appearing on the page, as if from an invisible hand. I watched, my jaw dropping open, as the same gold ink traced the outline of the first oval.
I grabbed the paper off the floor and raced across the room, holding it up in the hazy, overcast daylight coming through the high window.
My chest slowly unclenched beneath my shirt as my shock turned to wonder. The second oval and the diamond were completed now, and the invisible pen drew the tiny stars on the top and bottom of the symbol. I stared, unblinking, at the paper, as the next set of lines appeared, letters in ornate script.
The writing stopped.
“Go,” I began, “What on earth does…”
But I was cut short.
A light as bright as the sun burst from the page, and I put one hand up to shield my eyes. Around me the contents of the attic moved inward. And then with a deafening BOOM they exploded away from me.
All was brightness. All was light. I spun in space. Where had the floor gone? My insides were stretched and then squashed and then stretched again. I closed my eyes to keep from getting sick.
And then, blackness. Under my cheek I felt cool, wet earth.
I was lying, face down, on grass.