Mama always said we’d move to her hometown over her dead body. Guess she was right, since she died a week and four days ago, and here we are in her little hometown. I stare at the scarecrow standing at attention beside the store door, unoriginally called Gas & Store. It feels like the scarecrow stares back. Black beady eyes, a straw hat, an open red flannel shirt showing off the straw of its belly. It’s holding a hand painted welcome sign.
“That’s creepy.” Justice comes up beside me, she’s got a lollipop in her hand and uses it to gesture to the scarecrow. “Aunt Jenny said we’re not supposed to talk to them.”
“Aunt Jenny thinks the government spies on us with birds,” I respond.
“No, like it’s a town rule and everything. No talking to the scarecrows.” She clicks her teeth on the lollipop, tucking the wrapper in her pocket like Mama taught us if a trash can isn’t nearby.
“Why, are they spying on us?” She shrugs.
“Now, don’t eat all those at once.” We both turn at the sound of Aunt Jenny’s voice. She’s holding Henry’s hand and in his other is a handful of gummy worms. Mama never let us have candy before, but I guess what she would’ve wanted doesn’t matter anymore. Henry was just introduced to it a few days ago and met it with more enthusiasm than he does his favorite cartoons.
“We were thinking of stopping at the diner nearby before heading to Mom and Dad’s, they’ve got great pancakes, y'all love pancakes, right?” We don’t.
I shrug. Justice shrugs. Henry crams gummy worms in his mouth. I envy him. He’s too young to understand that our parents and Joseph are dead. That a bridge collapsed while they were driving home and killed them. That we’ve moved over three hundred miles away to a town with a population of 528, no traffic lights, no mall, barely anything but fields of corn and trees. That we’re moving in with our grandparents, people we’ve only ever been around on holidays and special occasions, like Nana’s 70th birthday and when Aunt Jenny got married. He’s content to gorge on sugar and doesn’t realize that we’re all orphans and I’m now the oldest.
“Justice says we’re not supposed to talk to the scarecrows?” I ask Aunt Jenny.
“Oh yeah, it’s a silly superstition but it’s officially in the town rules, no talking to the scarecrows, stay away from the lake, and if you see the silver path, don’t go down it. There’s more but two of those are left over from back when the town was founded. And they’ve been engrained in all of us that lived here since childhood.”
“Why do we have to stay away from the lake?” I ask.
Aunt Jenny gets an uncomfortable look on her face, that kind of look that adults have when there’s a touchy subject they don’t know how to broach with kids. Henry might still be a baby, and Justice is a preteen, but I’m no kid. My sixteenth birthday is the end of the month. We were supposed to go to the beach for the day. Now, who knows.
Aunt Jenny glances down at Henry and then to Justice and back to me, but before she can answer Uncle Kane shows up with a couple of bags of junk food in hand. Mama and Daddy would’ve been appalled.
“We’re going to Marie’s next?” he asks. A relieved expression takes over Aunt Jenny’s face at the sight of him.
“Yeah, I’ll tell Mom and Dad. They might want to meet us there. You know how Mom loves their coffee.”
“Aunt Jenny was telling us the town rules and why we’re not allowed near the lake.”
Aunt Jenny and Uncle Kane both exchange a look. I know one of them is going to answer me but before either can, Henry starts screaming that he needs to pee. He just peed, right when we got here. It was part of the reason we stopped to begin with.
Uncle Kane lifts up Henry to take him to the bathroom and Justice and I share a look, both of us roll our eyes at him. I swear Henry sometimes says he needs to pee just for the attention.
“Let’s go wait for them in the car where it’s cooler,” Aunt Jenny says.
The summer is in full swing and it’s hot here, somehow feels even hotter than it did in the city. I can practically feel my shirt sticking to my back. I swipe at sweat drops as they roll down my forehead. Justice follows after but I turn to eye the scarecrow one more time.
“I bet you would explain to me if you could, wouldn’t you?” Ha broke one of the rules already. The scarecrow doesn’t answer, of course.
The diner is small, with only seven booths, over half of which are filled. It looks like there’s only two workers. Nana and Gramps are seated nearby, coffees in front of them and we all squeeze into the booth, a highchair at the end of the table for Henry. The seats are this plasticy vinyl that sticks to my legs. Cheery Christmas music plays throughout the diner, even though it’s nowhere near Christmas time. There’s a Christmas tree nearby decorated with ornaments of snowmen wearing sunglasses.
“What do you think of the place so far?” Nana asks.
“There’s a lot of corn,” Justice says.
“What do you think, Willow?”
“Aunt Jenny says we’re not supposed to go near the lake,” I say.
Nana gives Aunt Jenny a look as if she wasn’t supposed to say anything, but if we’re going to be living here, we need to know these things.
“What would y’all like to eat?” a waitress asks from the end of the table.
“I think we might need a few more minutes, right kids?” Aunt Jenny asks.
“I want the veggie burger and fries, water to drink,” Justice says.
“Candy.” Henry claps his hands together.
“Same as her,” I respond, handing our menus to the lady. She turns to Uncle Kane who rattles off his own order.
“Neither of you want pancakes? Marie’s makes the best.” Aunt Jenny frowns. Meanwhile Henry is banging on his highchair and demanding candy while Nana tries to explain to him why he can’t eat that for dinner. Justice has turned to her phone, playing a game, so it’s up to me to answer. Aunt Jenny will have to realize sooner or later that she doesn’t know us. Not that it’s her fault. At least I don’t think it is. Mama never explained why she wasn’t close to her family.
“We don’t like pancakes.”
I look over to where Nana is still struggling to reign in Henry. This is probably why Mama never let us have candy.
“Hey Henry, instead of candy, what about grilled love?”
I can see everyone at the table exchanging looks, since they have no idea what I’m talking about. “Want that! Want that!” Henry starts chanting for grilled love. The waitress looks at me confused.
“He wants the grilled cheese and could you have them cut it in the shape of a heart?”
“You got it sugar, and what kind of side would he like?” The waitress looks at me as she asks this. Everyone at the table is looking at me, now.
“Henry, you want fries or eyes?”
“He’ll have the peas, please.” Daddy started calling them monster eyes when I was younger and afraid of the monsters in my closet. ‘Don’t worry Willow, see, Daddy already took care of all the monsters for you, so you just eat the eyes and they won’t be able to bother you tonight.’ Morbid, yes, but it worked to stop my fear.
“Water, but no ice.”
“You got it, and for you?” She turns to Gramps. Aunt Jenny is still frowning, and Nana looks at me with a mixture of gratefulness and disappointment. I don’t know why she’d be disappointed in me.
“None of you kids wanted soda or juice? And I didn’t even realize they had a veggie burger here,” Aunt Jenny says after the waitress leaves.
“We’ve never had those before,” Justice says, not looking up from her game. Mama and Daddy were vegetarians and both health freaks. No candy or soda, no meat, and sweets only once a week, but I swear she hid vegetables in her cakes and muffins too. They were still delicious. It wasn’t like we were missing out. And it’s not like Mama and Daddy were preaching at us to eat vegetables while not eating them themselves like some of my friends' parents did. I think that’s the only reason it never bothered me. I tried a soda once, over at my best friend, Georgia’s house. It was gross. Same with the chips and candy bars. I swear I got a headache from all the sugar and sodium.
“What? Never?” Uncle Kane looks up now, eyebrows raising. I wonder if he’s rethinking his double cheeseburger with extra bacon and fries now.
“So, about the lake?” I ask before they can continue asking about our diet. The looks on their faces say they’re surprised I’m still wanting to know, like maybe they thought the food would distract me. See, they don’t know any of us at all.
“Well, back when me and your Mama were kids, we could still swim in the lake but, no one’s allowed to anymore—”
“We shouldn’t talk about such things at the table,” Nana interrupts.
“No, it should be explained, so they understand the danger,” Gramps argues.
“All the sudden anyone who swam in the lake just up and died. After like twelve people and a few animals ended up dead, they closed it completely off. Now no one’s allowed to swim or go near it,” Justice says in a monotone. We all glance over at her, and I see she isn’t playing a game after all. She’s got a web page pulled up titled, The Strange Town of Silver Ear.
Aunt Jenny recovers first, “well, that’s right. So, you kids know to stay away from it now. It’s very dangerous. People have died.”
How dangerous could a lake really be? I bet it was just some people that couldn’t swim or something and animals die all the time. The circle of life and all that. Justice shrugs, she could care less about a lake or the outdoors at all. She wants to go back to the city and finish middle school with her friends. I’d like that too, but I’m not optimistic like Justice is. Doesn’t matter how good we are, Nana and Gramps have lived here for nearly eighty years, no way they’re moving, and no way they’re sending us back alone. I nod, knowing I’m going to visit that lake.
“Hey, send that link to me?” I ask Justice.
Off I-40, through a long stretch of forest and hills and practically hidden away, you’ll come upon a little town called Silver Ear. Where the town rules are more than a little strange.
1. Don’t talk to the scarecrows.
2. Do not go down the Silver Path if you see it.
3. No swimming or going near the lake.
4. No feeding the crows.
5. Don’t wear open-toed shoes in the forest.
6. On Sunday everything is closed.
The rules go on, there’s over thirty of them. Some of them weirder than others.
“Hey, what’s this Silver Path in the town rules about?” I ask. Searching it only brings up vague articles about missing people and conspiracy theories on aliens.
Nana coughs on the sip of coffee she just took.
“We don’t talk about that,” Gramps says sternly.
“It’s a stupid superstition with no validity to it,” Aunt Jenny waves her hand in the air as if this Silver Path is a nasty smell she wants to be rid of.
The waitress, coming to refill the coffee’s, taps her head, chest, left shoulder, and right shoulder. I vaguely remember seeing Georgia’s devout Catholic grandmother do that before. Making the cross is how she explained it.
“The Devil’s Path, only fools go down it,” the waitress says before hurrying off.
Finished with her coughing fit, Nana gives me a harsh look. She reminds me so fiercely of Mama with that look. It was the look Mama always had right before she told me not to do something. “If you see it, do not, for any reason go down it. The Silver Path is more dangerous even then the lake.”
If I see it. What is this, some urban legend? Paths can’t just come and go. I look over to Justice who really is playing a game on her phone this time. But I know she’s paying attention.
“Do you understand? A few misguided folk that swam in the lake survived, no one has ever returned from the Path.”
Another mystery then. Maybe living in the middle of nowhere won’t be so awful. If I have to stay here, might as well unearth all the town secrets.