It happened way back in first grade, but I still remember it perfectly. I was wearing my favourite knitted red sweater and these really awful matching scarlet track pants—not sure why that outfit was allowed by my parents—the combination made me look like a particularly large and plump strawberry.
Our usually strict teacher, Mr. Bugbutter, surprised us with the news that we were going to play a quick game of Duck, Duck, Goose before home time, and the class happily marched down to the gym with me at the lead. I loved Duck, Duck, Goose more than anyone. Well…I did. That was about to change.
We sat in a circle, and I tucked myself in between Teresa Little and a really shy kid with a super freckly nose named Daniel Pittwell. Portia Carson was selected to go first. She stood up slowly, scanning the group for the perfect target. I saw her eyes dart from one face to the next like a predatory lioness. I watched her circle the group, tapping one nervous person after another with an almost whispered “duck,” and then, as she passed out of view behind me, I tensed, ready to move. I already knew what was coming. She slapped me on the head with those dainty, little, manicured fingers and shouted, “Goose!” The game was on.
I scrambled to my feet and took off around the left flank. You’re always at a disadvantage as the goose, of course; the picker is up and running. But I had a strategy. Take the inside track—force the picker wide. It gained you valuable seconds.
The plan worked perfectly. Portia Carson had to go around me, and I grinned wolfishly as I rounded the circle at a full sprint. I had a slight lead. The game was mine.
I think Mr. Bugbutter saw it coming first. I saw him look at me and then at Daniel Pittwell, who was sitting beside the now vacant spot in the circle. Mr. Bugbutter’s big brown eyes widened, his mouth opening with a desperate warning, but he was too late.
I don’t know what happened. Maybe I was too competitive. Maybe I slightly miscalculated my jump. But whatever the reason, I over-sailed the opening and landed directly on poor, innocent Daniel Pittwell.
I should probably mention that I was the biggest girl in class. Actually I was the biggest kid in my grade. I was at least four inches taller than Daniel and probably thirty pounds heavier. He never had a chance. I heard a loud crack in his arm, Daniel started to scream—he was flattened beneath me on the floor at this point—and there I was, sitting on his stomach and looking around at a circle of horrified faces.
For years, they called it the Strawberry Squish. And the Dead Duck Disaster. There were a lot of names. But most importantly, that was the day they all realized something they would never again forget: Laura Ledwick was very large.
Six years later I left Newcastle Elementary for the last time, basically skipping down the hallways to the tune of the final bell. My family was moving to the next town over, Riverfield, in late August, and I would spend eighth grade at a new school. My dad had found his dream fixer-upper there, and we were making the short move to undertake the new project. My uncle Laine already lived in Riverfield with my aunt Sandra and their two kids, and he had recommended the place to my dad as a promising opportunity. I still hadn’t even seen it.
Most kids probably would be at least a little upset to be moving so suddenly, but I was thrilled. Portia Carson had naturally evolved into some sort of evil Barbie Doll, and she’d led her minions in a six-year campaign to remind me that I was fat. I’d had many names myself over those six years: Laura Largebottom, Laura Lardo, Laura Lumpy…you get the idea. Alliteration is always popular with bullies. Easier to remember, I guess.
Like I said, I was happy to leave Newcastle behind, although I knew that I was going to miss our house. I had this pale-yellow room with bright-pink unicorn border that hadn’t been changed since I was a baby. I know that sounds completely awful, but it felt like home. The bedroom was really small though: I couldn’t even fit a desk in there, and considering I loved to write and draw, that was a big issue. I had to use the floor, or sometimes the window, which probably confused my neighbours and didn’t help my reputation of being the reclusive, chubby girl who almost killed an innocent first grader.
To make matters worse, one of my aunts—my mom’s mean older sister Tara—also liked to refer to me as the Closet Monster when she came over and saw my tiny little bedroom. Not overly nice, considering I clearly had weight and self-image issues, but it was kind of true.
Overall, my years at Newcastle Elementary were long and painful and mostly unpleasant. I had hobbies to keep my mind off of things: writing, drawing, working on the house with my dad, and softball. Ugh, never mind the last one. But when I saw other kids laughing with friends and playing in the schoolyard, I would get jealous. And upset. No one wanted to make friends with Laura Largebottom and no one wanted to become a new target of Portia Carson. So I was alone.
Even the town was bad, to be honest. Newcastle looked like an evil fantasy kingdom: ominous black smoke clouds would drift out of the old car plant down by the lake, blocking out the sun, sticking to windows and clothes, and generally making everything smell like burning rubber. I felt like I was living in Mordor. Combined with my super-bully Portia Carson, I was definitely ready to start somewhere new.
The house was perched at the end of a sleepy little dead-end street that was appropriately named Raven’s End. There were only six old-fashioned brick houses on the street, all backing onto a dense forest that wrapped around the entire town. My parents had bought the house at the beginning of summer and insisted that it be a surprise for my brother and me on our first day—September 1st, only two days before the start of school. Now I could see why: they wanted to make sure someone was already living in our old house so we couldn’t run back to it and refuse to ever leave. Clearly Uncle Laine hadn’t actually looked at the house before he recommended it.
The house was awful. The exterior was painted white, but the paint was peeling off everywhere and flying into the wind like artificial snowflakes. The steep roof was a patchwork of missing black shingles and exposed wood, while a large, rotting porch wrapped around the front of the house. The windows were worse. They were dark and grimy and one of them was even covered with a piece of plywood. Then you had the sprawling front lawn, which was at least a foot high and spotted with menacing thistles.
My dad is a big man with a bit of a gut and a thick brown moustache. I like to call him Stache. His wispy chestnut hair is thinning and he’s almost fifty, but he’s got crazy amounts of energy. He’s the one who likes renovations. This was his big dream. A fixer-upper.
I guess my mom was equally to blame. She didn’t really like Newcastle either and quickly jumped on board when my dad suggested the move. She got in a fight with this woman on the parent council and decided she hated Newcastle. When she gets in a fight with someone, it lasts for like twenty-five years, so we didn’t have much choice.
She is an aesthetician, so she does people’s nails and waxing and things like that. My dad is an accountant, and he would still be commuting to the same job in the city, but he had the week off so he could try to get as much done around the house as possible. He likes to consider himself a handyman and always does everything himself.
I should probably tell you about my brother. His name is Tom, and he’s nine years old with sandy-blond hair and these really cool icy-blue eyes. He’s also blind. Not completely. He sees sort of different shades of black. Shapes sometimes. I’m way overprotective of him, but we have kind of a weird relationship where we just say things that should be faux pas. Like I call him Bat Boy and he calls me Giant Girl.
“It’s not that bad,” my mom said, giving me a disapproving look. “You should see the floor space. It’s twice the size of our old house.”
My father rubbed his big, calloused hands together eagerly. “Not for long,” he said. “I’ll have this place looking like a dream in no time flat. You just wait.”
My bedroom was worse. First of all, I had to walk up the narrow old staircase with floorboards that groaned and complained like an African bull elephant was trying to climb the steps. I could see this house was going to be great for my confidence.
“Just needs to be nailed down,” my dad said, coming up the stairs behind me and noticing my sour expression.
Then I opened the door to my room. I’ve never seen so many spiderwebs. They looked like drapes. I would have needed a machete to get in there.
I hate spiders. Hate them. I’m not a girly girl by any stretch—I think I wore a dress once when I was six, and that was for a wedding. But spiders are my weakness.
When my dad has a mission, get out of the way. He plunged into spider city with a broom and some garbage bags, and ten minutes later I could actually tell it was a room.
It did look spider-free. It was actually a lot bigger than my old bedroom, with a large double window looking out onto the woods behind the house and lots of space for my bed and dresser, along with the new desk my parents had bought me. There was even a walk-in closet. I wasn’t much of a clothes person, but who doesn’t like closet space?
My mom followed me in. She was definitely a clothes person. She liked to do her makeup and hair and always wore lots of jewellery. We didn’t have much in common.
“What did I tell you?” she said, putting her arm around my shoulders. “I made sure you got this room. Haven’t you always wanted a walk-in closet?”
She smiled. “We’ll buy you more. This is a new start for all of us. You can go to school on Monday and make new friends and leave the miserable bullies in Newcastle behind. This is going to be great, Laura. Trust me.”
When she left, I reluctantly started unpacking my stuff from the small trailer we’d lugged over here. My parents had basically bought all new furniture for the move, and there were already huge boxes scattered around the main floor when we arrived—dropped off by the store. Everything was a bit rushed: we’d only officially gotten possession of the house last week as it had taken the summer to close and finalize everything with the bank, so there wasn’t a lot of prep time. The rest of our stuff had already been moved here through the week by Stache, so all we’d brought with us today were clothes and other random personal possessions. For me that wasn’t much. Besides my clothes, I had some books, a laptop, two big boxes of trophies, and another small box of collectibles—random things that I’d kept, like a pen that was my grandpa’s and an old coin I’d found the night my nana died. I was always close to my grandparents. Just my dad’s mom, Grandma Elly, was left now.
After hauling everything upstairs, I started hanging my clothes up, marvelling at how much space I had now. Walk-in closets were kind of cool. It was definitely old-fashioned though: large white wooden panels covered the bottom half of the closet, while the top half and ceiling were finished with regular plaster. I didn’t even want to know how many spiders had been in here. I shoved the trophy boxes in the bottom corner and was just turning to leave when I noticed something written on one of the panels. I leaned down for a closer look. There were small, crooked words carved into the wood:
“Oh…perfect,” I murmured, looking around uneasily. It looked like the words had been carved into the panel with a pocket knife or something. But what did it mean?
Frowning, I shook my head and went to unpack my last box. Just one more creepy thing in a creepy house. Maybe it meant it wasn’t too late to move out of here again. But could my parents be convinced? Judging by the way my dad was basically skipping around the house, I sincerely doubted it. I would just have to try and settle in. Somehow. I left most of my little collectibles in the box, at least until I could get my dresser up here. I did pause and gingerly pick up the old black pen, thinking about my grandpa Roger. I wished he was here. He would have snuck me some German chocolates and laughed about how I could become a biologist here, specializing in spiders. I missed his laugh.
I put the pen back in the box and climbed to my feet, deciding to check out the yard. Maybe there was a pool or something. I walked over to the window and looked outside, scanning the forest that encircled our overgrown backyard. It was mostly tall, narrow oak trees, packed tightly enough that it grew dark just a metre into the woods, even during the daytime. Thick brush filled the space between the trees, as well as squat pines that blocked out much of the sunlight breaking through the overcast sky. It wasn’t a happy-looking forest. I probably wouldn’t be hiking very much.
I was just turning away when I saw a strange flicker of colour. I squinted, trying to peer into the shadows. Leaning close to the glass, my eyes fell on a particularly dark one. As the shadow took shape, the sunlight caught another flash of pale blue. Eyes.
Suddenly the shadow became a recognizable form, and I realized with trembling hands that a man was standing in the forest, staring right at me.
I froze, unable to scream or move or even look away. The man was tall, but it was difficult to see much else of his face beyond those piercing blue eyes as he was wearing a loose-fitting hood or cowl. The hood flowed back into a long cloak, making his shape indistinguishable as well. But there was no mistaking a second glint of light at his waist, where the tip of a gleaming sword protruded from the cloak. The shadowy figure just stared at me for a long moment, his cold eyes locked on mine, and then he stepped back into the darkness and disappeared completely. When he was gone, I slowly moved away from the window, feeling my skin crawl.
I took a last look outside, trying to stay calm. Nothing. I must have imagined it. But as I hurried out of my bedroom, I had the distinct feeling that something was watching me.
We ate dinner that night sitting on boxes of furniture in the living room. Stache was covered in so much dust that he looked like a statue in progress. My mom tried to brush off my account of a shadowy figure watching me in the woods, telling me I was clearly imagining things because I was shaken up about the spiders and that it would take a few days to get used to the new house. Thanks, Mom.
In fairness, I did have a bit of a history with some…creative concerns. I mean, I have a pretty developed imagination, and I am kind of a worrier. Okay, I worry a lot. I asked for a carbon monoxide detector for Christmas when I was four—which was totally valid, by the way—and then I also had a theory that we had a possible sinkhole beneath our house and tried to prove it by digging a hole in our yard to inspect the soil content when I was nine. I also have a lot of nightmares and check on Tom ten times a day.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was probably right. It could have been a shadow from a tree or something, and I was just a little freaked out from the message in my closet. It was probably nothing. I decided to forget about it.
He nodded. Tom had amazing hearing. If Tom thought he heard a mouse, there was probably a mouse. One time when Tom was five years old we lost our cat, Muffin. We searched the entire town for three days, and then my mom finally told me that Muffin wasn’t coming back. I cried for another two days after that.
A week later Tom and I were in the backyard playing house—I always made him be my butler—when he suddenly looked up and said, “I hear Muffin.”
Our old house backed onto a forest too, and I ran to the back fence and listened for a few minutes, not hearing a thing. I patted his shoulder.
I still thought he was imagining things, but Tom was persistent, so I got Stache and the three of us set off into the woods. We walked for at least five minutes before I finally heard a faint, weak-sounding meow filtering through the trees. It was another five minutes before we found Muffin lying on her side next to a tree, covered in dirt and almost completely unable to move. We rushed her to the vet, and Muffin—who was already sixteen—lived for two more years after that.
I scanned the living room. Like most of the house, it was in rough shape. The mossy-green paint was peeling, the stucco ceiling was covered in yellow water stains, and the windows were so filthy you could barely see out of them. Dark hardwood ran through the entire main floor—except for the kitchen—but it was dusty and dirty and cracked.
A huge red-bricked chimney stretched like a pillar right up to the second floor, though I noticed it didn’t actually have a fireplace. It must have gone right beside my bedroom to the roof. I wondered why they would have a chimney with no fireplace.
My dad followed my gaze. “Yeah, not sure what the point of that is,” he said thoughtfully. “But I think it may actually be a support structure, so have to leave it.”
“Six years ago,” my mom said. “Got it for a steal. The last owner…gave it to the bank, and they sold it as an estate sale. We only got to see it once, but we fell in love.”
My mom waved a hand. “It’s no big deal. Every house has a story. Trust me, once we get this place fixed up—”
She was suddenly interrupted by a loud, booming knock at the door. My mom jumped and almost toppled right off the box. There was another pounding knock.
I glanced at the curtainless windows, thinking of the shadow I’d seen in the woods. I watched nervously as my dad approached the door. He pulled it open.
Stache was suddenly embraced in a hug by an even larger man. Stache was huge: six foot four and about 250 pounds, with big hands, and a strong jaw. But his brother was even bigger. He was about the same height, but while my dad had a gut, Uncle Laine had muscles bulging out of his usual button-down plaid shirt. He had a thick black beard to match his hair and big, friendly brown eyes. Despite his intimidating appearance, he was almost always in a good mood and was my favourite uncle by far. I was happy we were now living in the same town with him and Aunt Sandra and my two younger cousins.
“There’s my girl,” he said, wrapping me in a strong hug as I stood up to greet him. It was like being hugged by a bear. He looked down at me. “You like it?”
He quickly gave my brother and my mom hugs as well and then plopped himself down on one of the boxes.
“Sandy and the kids would have come, but it was already getting late. We’ll have to have you over sometime next week for dinner. I got off a bit late tonight, or I would have come earlier. Got to get as many shifts in as I can.”
Laine forced a smile and shook his head. “Closing the factory down. Got a few months and that’s it.”
“Been a long time coming,” Laine replied. “I knew at least six months ago. Been trying to find something new, but no one’s hiring around here. Not a big lug who’s been working the same job for twenty-five years, anyway.” He waved a hand. “Never mind that. Something will come up. It’s going to be a lot better now that you guys are around.”
My mom sighed. Tom had told everyone he’d seen faint light in the shape of a hole in the woods that day, which was highly unlikely for any number of reasons. Laine just ruffled his hair.
There was something strange in his voice, but I couldn’t pick it out. We talked for another half an hour or so after that, and then Laine said he had to get back home to help put the kids to bed. We gathered at the door to see him off, and he gave everyone a last hug before climbing in his old beat-up black truck and pulling out of the driveway. He smiled when he waved and drove away, but I could tell he was a bit off. Obviously he was thinking about the factory.
“I hope they’ll be all right,” my mom said as she closed the door. “Sandra doesn’t work either. If they don’t find something, they’re going to be in trouble.”
Stache is the perennial optimist. He strapped on his tool belt and rubbed his hands together eagerly, looking around. “What should I do next?”
That night I lay down on my mattress—we still had to put my bed frame together—and tried to be positive. I was mostly thinking about spiders crawling on me, but I was trying. Maybe the weird message in my closet didn’t mean anything. And maybe I imagined the shape. And maybe the last guy who lived here just decided to move or something. It was possible.
And maybe, just maybe, the kids in my school would all turn out to be good friends. There might not be a Portia Carson at my new school. Maybe they viewed plumpness as a sign of wealth and power. It was unlikely, but I didn’t know. And until I did, it couldn’t hurt to dream.
I could even try dieting again. I’d tried plenty of times before, but after two weeks of being completely miserable and not seeing the slightest change in my reflection, I usually just gave up. My mom said I just had big bones, which was fine, except apparently they made my butt big too. Go figure.
I’m a pretty big girl in general, taller and heavier than all the girls in my grade and probably most of the boys as well. My grandma Elly always tells me I’m pretty, and she might be right. I have long, wavy chestnut hair that falls down past my shoulders, bright-green eyes, and fairly good skin—most days anyway. My grandma says I could be a model, and she doesn’t ever add the if. I love my grandma.
She lives in the city, which is about a forty-minute drive from here. She is seventy-one, but she still lives all by herself in a big old house and has for almost ten years since my grandpa passed away. She is proud and fiery and fiercely independent. Some of my favourite weekends were spent at her house, going to movies and taking walks in the park. We went to visit her before we moved.
“Are you excited?” she’d asked me from the kitchen, where she was making food as usual. You weren’t allowed to sit in my grandma’s house without eating something. She was always baking or making soup or something like that.
She always said that. I guess it was an easy way to end an argument, since she was fifty-eight years older than me. But maybe she was right. I was pretty hard on myself.
I decided to make the most of the move. I was going to start eating right again. And exercising more. I used to play softball—I was the best youth player in the state—but I kind of quit that. Long story.
And hey, with some new clothes and a new look, I could even be popular. Laura Legs. Laura Lovely, maybe. I pictured myself wearing a white tank top and fitted jeans like Portia used to. Laura Lovely. Wouldn’t that be nice?
And then I heard it. Rattling. It sounded like a screen door smacking against the frame in the wind. Maybe a loose windowpane. There was just one problem.