So, how is it?
Tina stared at her phone, amazed she had cell service, then back out the window of her parents’ car.
OMG. Just…OMG. I can’t believe they’re doing this to me, she texted back.
When Jessica didn’t reply, Tina sighed. It’s like being on Mars. All red and brown and flat. No trees. Some mountains, I guess. Alien. Horrible. She sent that text and waited.
Her phone beeped, searching for signal, then found reception again.
Hugs. I’ll come visit soon. I miss you. Gotta go. TTYL.
Tina put her phone away and stared out the window. She saw nothing out there. No stores, no restaurants, no school, no people. Just empty desert–horrible.
“Honey, we’re almost there,” her mom said, sounding excited.
“Almost where?” she muttered, crossing her arms and glaring at her feet.
Her dad glanced over his shoulder with a big grin on his face. “Almost home, sweetheart.”
“Almost to hell,” she said, even more quietly so her parents wouldn’t hear. Even the radio broadcast more static than music as reception faded in and out.
Tina went back to staring out the window since it was marginally more interesting than her feet. She supposed she would have to get used to the view. Like it or not, she couldn’t escape this hellhole until she went to college. The next two years would drag before she could return to lush green trees that dotted the concrete sea of New Jersey.
Her dad slowed and turned off the highway onto a dirt road. The car bumped, waking her little sister, Betsy.
“Are we there yet?” Her sister stretched and glanced out the window. She paused mid-stretch and Tina could see the surprise on her face. “Wow!”
Tina shook her head. Of course Betsy would be excited.
“This is so cool!” She bounced in her seat. Or maybe that was the potholes in the road. Did they ever fix things out here?
Tina ground her teeth. All she could see in the distance were more of the weird, red mountain things and a dirt road stretching to nowhere. “Where is this place we’re supposed to be going?”
“Home, sweetie,” her mom said in a sugary sweet tone.
“Sure, if we were Martians.”
“Tina Harker,” her dad said. “Do not talk that way to your mother.”
Tina sank down in her seat and crossed her arms again. This totally sucks, she thought to herself. She tried not to hit her head on the top of the sedan as they jolted down what was supposed to be a road.
“Hey, look, a house!” Betsy bounced again in her seat. This time Tina knew it wasn’t just the bad road. “And, Tina, a horse. Maybe they’ll let you ride it.”
Tina sighed and tried to ignore her little sister. Her parents had obviously sold the ten-year-old on the adventure, but Tina had left more behind than Betsy. Not wanting to see any horses right now, she didn’t even try to look. She missed Frankie, the thoroughbred she had leased for over a year. It wasn’t fair that she had to leave him behind. Tina had planned on buying him, but with the move, there was no way. Her parents had told her there were plenty of horses in Arizona and she’d find one there. They didn’t understand. She didn’t want just any horse. She wanted her horse.
Tears welled in her eyes, and she took a couple of deep breaths, trying not to cry.
A few minutes later, they passed another house on Tina’s side of the car and she couldn’t help but stare. A fence surrounded a large, dusty yard. The front porch seemed welcoming, except that one side sagged dangerously and the chipped tan paint peeled badly.
She wondered if anyone actually lived there. She didn’t see anyone, but saw a swing set in the yard and a rusty pickup parked in the backyard. It reminded her of a bad T.V. show.
Ages later, they passed a couple more houses in better repair than the last. Finally her dad pulled off the bumpy non-road onto another bumpy non-road. They continued for another small eternity before Tina saw a cluster of buildings that looked like stores. Her dad turned down something like a main street and stopped in front of one of the small stores.
“Welcome to Golton, kids.”
Tina looked around her, horrified. “I thought you said we were moving to a town.”
Her dad smiled at her and opened the car door. “It’s a ghost town.”
Tina stared while he got out and stretched. The hot blast of dry air made sweat bead on her forehead, and then quickly dry. She felt like her skin would crack. Her dad shut the door, but with the car off, it would heat up fast. She didn’t want to get out, but she couldn’t stay in. Betsy had already jumped out and, as usual, bounced around her dad.
The heat made her wish she were wearing a halter-top, but the intense sun made her glad that her shirt covered her shoulders. The tan she had from riding her horse wasn’t enough to protect her.
She wondered if her dad joked about this being Golton. Forget about ghosts. There was nothing here to haunt.
“Come on, honey, let’s go see the store.”
Tina sighed. Maybe it would be air-conditioned.
Her dad talked quietly with the man behind the counter. The store had a little of everything, but not much of any one thing, and no variety. If you wanted toothpaste, you got Crest. If you wanted apples, you got red. Tina folded her arms across her chest and tried to pretend she was in a bad horror movie and she’d eventually be rescued and taken back to civilization, but not before the movie-monster got her sister.
Speaking of horror movies…Tina picked up a book called Missing in Arizona. The intro page said something about Golton being an area with a large number of disappearances.
“Tina, come here for a minute,” her dad called.
She hastily put down the book, hoping it was a joke, and joined her dad. Betsy shook the clerk’s hand.
“Tina, this is Mike. He owns this store,” her dad said.
The man behind the counter had the brownest skin she’d ever seen with short, jet black hair and an easy grin. He looked about her dad’s age, forty or so.
“Hi,” Tina said, smiling, and trying not to stare. She offered her hand and managed not to ask Mike if he was a real Indian.
Betsy had the benefit of being ten. “Tina, guess what? He’s a real Indian. A Nav…” She hesitated and looked up at Mike.
He smiled down at the little girl. “Navajo.”
“Betsy, they are Native Americans,” Tina’s mom said, sounding horrified.
Mike smiled at Betsy and winked. “Navajo,” he repeated.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Tina said, glad to meet another human in this desolate waste.
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Tina. Welcome to Golton. If there is anything you need and we don’t have it here, I can probably order it for you.” He smiled again. He had an accent, but Tina didn’t know if it was because he was a Native American or an Arizonian.
“Thanks,” Tina said. “Hey, that book back there said a lot of people go missing here. What’s up with that?”
He shrugged. “Conspiracy theories mostly. Seems like people go hiking in the desert and get lost and die. Stay close to civilization until you know your way around and you’ll be fine.”
“Thanks!” Tina was glad to know that the book wasn’t serious.
“It’s good to see you again, Mike. I just wanted to introduce the girls and my wife,” Tina’s dad said.
“Oh, those government boys were by the house with your things yesterday. I stopped in, didn’t seem like they were making too much of a mess, so I left them to it. My wife locked up after them. I’ll call her and have her meet you there with the other set of keys,” Mike said.
“Thanks.” Her dad placed the money for Betsy’s candy bar on the counter, and reached across to shake Mike’s hand.
They spoke for a few more minutes, but Tina tuned her parents and Mike out and glanced at some of the knickknacks in the store.
Finally, her parents and Betsy headed for the door. Tina followed them outside.
“See, it’s not so bad here,” her dad said, opening the car door. “Lots of nice people.”
Tina wondered where the other people were, but she didn’t feel like getting into another argument. At least not right then.
The car had baked in the sun and it hadn’t completely cooled down by the time her dad stopped again in front of a house. It was a two-story house with wooden siding and a large front porch. It looked like it may have been painted sometime in the past decade. As an added bonus, the porch only sagged slightly in the middle.
“There’s a fence,” Betsy said, bouncing again. “Can we get a dog, since we have a yard and a fence?”
Tina rolled her eyes. Their townhouse back in Jersey wasn’t big enough for a dog, or at least that’s what her parents kept saying.
“We’ll talk about it once we get settled,” her dad said.
“Cool.” Betsy nodded, as if they had already decided they would get a dog.
Tina wondered if she could talk her parents into a horse if Betsy got a dog. She doubted it. Especially since the horse she wanted lived in New Jersey. Frankie probably wouldn’t like it here anyway. Tina didn’t.
The hot, dry air blasted her as she stepped out of the car. The paint was probably white at one point, but it looked kind of yellowish now, though it hadn’t started to peel yet. It reminded Tina of a farmhouse out of an old movie.
Her mom had a funny expression on her face, kind of like the first time she’d tasted Betsy’s cooking and had to pretend she liked it. She stared at the house.
Tina’s dad put his arm around her and gave her a hug. “Just needs a little fixing up.”
“Well, let’s go explore,” her mom said after another few moments of silence. She sounded as cheery as before, but Tina wasn’t quite convinced. Betsy, on the other hand, seemed excited.
“Look, we’re in a real house, with space and stuff. Can we get a swing set?” She bounced up the front porch and tried the doorknob. “It’s locked.”
“I have the key,” her dad said, following Betsy.
Tina placed her foot gingerly on the steps up to the front door. They also sagged in the middle, but at least held her weight.
“Tina, I bet it’s haunted,” Betsy said once they were inside. “Look at this old picture. Think she’s still here?”
Betsy pointed to a portrait of a woman on the wall. She wore a bonnet like in an old movie and a dress with flowers on it. Tina wasn’t sure, but she thought the woman might have been a Native American.
Her dad laughed. “Mike assured me the house wasn’t haunted. This house has been in his family for a long time.”
“I thought Indians lived in teepees,” Betsy said.
“Some of them used to, honey. Most of them live in houses these days,” Tina’s mom said.
Tina turned away from the picture. A lighter spot on the yellowed wallpaper next to it had probably held another picture. She noticed stairs to the second floor that started right by the front door. The bare wood floor looked polished, probably by years of footsteps. The kitchen was straight back from the front door, and there was another room opened off to her left. Their new house didn’t seem terribly large, but it was bigger than their townhome in Jersey.
Huffing, Tina glanced around. “Is there electricity?”
Both her mom and dad gave her the don’t-be-ridiculous look.
“Hey, a fireplace,” Betsy shouted from the living room. “Can we have a fire, Mom?”
“When it is cooler, dear.”
Tina sighed and followed the sound of her sister’s voice into the living room. Their stylish leather couch and loveseat were completely out of place across from the stone fireplace. Boxes were stacked everywhere and spilled into the kitchen. She wandered toward the kitchen.