What do you do when you wake to find your parents missing?
Hannah sat alone in the kitchen that morning, staring at the cold breakfast in front of her. Her Ma must have made it. But where was she? Hannah had looked everywhere. The neighbors', the river, but so far, nothing.
There were plenty of chores to be done, but she couldn't bring herself to start. Not without her mother.
She thought about her brother, Riordan – Rio – lying asleep two doors away. He was a young boy, only eleven or twelve, doted on by her mother. What would she tell him if he woke up?
A sudden knock at the front door startled her; she jumped, making the table clatter. That must be them. No, wait ... they wouldn't have knocked. They would have just walked in. She scuttled outside, yanking open the door to meet her visitor. She had to squint against the morning light before she recognized him.
"Mr. Avery," she sounded. She couldn't hide her disappointment. The man on her step was Tom Avery, her father's best friend who lived on the other side of the village. A huge fellow, he practically strained the frame coming through.
"Morning," she answered dully. "I'm sorry, but my father isn't here."
"I know. He asked me to tell you that he and your mother have gone into town today."
To town? That was strange. Hadn't her Da gone into Dalen only a month ago to trade? She remembered because he'd taken her candles to sell – and she'd made a bad fuss about it. It embarrassed her, but even at her age, she still hadn't lost her fear of sleeping in the dark.
Tom Avery leaned down, studying her face. "You all right, Hannah? I hope you weren't too worried."
"No, but ... do you know why they went into Dalen?"
"To trade of course. As usual."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, why else?" he put back to her, wiping his brow.
Hannah started to frown at him, but he turned away, inching towards the door. "I should be going. I'm sorry I can't tell you more." He paused outside on the step, looking back at her. "How's your brother?"
She shrugged. "You probably see him more than I do." Rio was a restless boy, and like his father, was best friends with an Avery – Fadden, Tom's second son.
"Well, you know how boys are."
They're no help, is what they are.
"You'll be alright," he said to assure her. "Good day, Hannah."
She nodded back, watching from the doorway as he waddled heavily down the path. She let her eye roam, over the houses of Chell, towards the trees past which lay Dalen. Somewhere in that big, messy place, her parents were working to make what money they could. Even she knew it had been a bad year – winter was running long, and all the families in Chell were worried about harvest. She just didn't understand why they couldn't tell her these things. For all her work around here, they still treated her like a child. It hurt, feeling like they couldn't trust her. No, they had to get Tom Avery to pass her a message instead.
Her eye wandered slowly, gazing in the direction of the store. She got to her feet, pulling open the door and staring inside the musty room. The smell of tomatoes, greens and spices blended to a pale tang. But looking closer, she saw that it wasn't as much there as she'd remembered. They must have spoiled more of their stock than she'd thought over the winter.
Are we going to starve?
A little while later, Rio got up while she was getting ready to head out to the river. He didn't even bother to eat. He just breezed out the door, mumbling something about going to the Averys'. Of course. Now she was really alone. She was glad to get out and bring the clothes for washing.
On the way there, she heard boys' voices coming in her direction.
The Doone brothers. She was only really interested in one of them, and that was Eli, the tall middle child. Hands deep in his pockets, he loped quickly along beside his brother, laughing about something. Dark, too-long hair swept into his eyes, but he did nothing to push it away.
Hannah stiffened, curling her lips tight. For as long as she could remember, people in Chell had been matching her with Eli. Apparently, they were the same – quiet, boring, and hopeless at romance. But despite all the 'good Samaritans' all around, nothing had ever come of it. It was a shame because – even though she'd never admitted it – she actually did like him.
The boys were coming closer. She could hear them now – chattering about someone's goat on the loose. Eli was nodding thoughtfully, eyes crinkling as he mulled over possible hiding places.
It was such a good chance. All she had to do was look at him, wave her hand – something. She opened her mouth, words sitting on her tongue. She must look like such an idiot. "Hello," she croaked.
And … they walked right by her. The three of them swished past her, still yapping, taking down the street towards their house. One boy disappeared after another, the door clanged shut, and that was it. It was like they didn't even see her.
Hannah dropped her shoulders, practically sagging. She couldn't believe she'd made such a fool of herself. Never would she try something like that again.
"Hannah!" she heard a voice calling to her at the river, and was glad to see her good friend Kaye coming up. Kaye had a basket twice her size, and the contents didn't smell pretty. "I see we're both late," the older girl remarked. "So what's your excuse?"
"Ma and Da were not around this morning. They went to Dalen again."
"Oh." Kaye seemed to understand what that meant. "Well, I'm sure they'll manage everything. They always know what to do."
"I just wonder why they didn't tell me."
Kaye nodded, but didn't try to say anything about it. "Look, there's some some space over there. Come on." She barreled ahead, making good use of her height and size to conquer a stony spot. Hannah strolled after her friend, kneeling between her and another girl. A pretty girl, that Hannah felt even plainer sitting next to her. She caught a glimpse of herself in the frothy water, staring. Pasty, small-eyed, with limp hair. She was just a little too tall, too broad, to be womanly or striking. A girl as plain as she would be lucky to ever marry at all.
Hannah raised her eyes, looking at the cold, gray sky above them. "It should be spring now."
"I know," Kaye answered.
"Do you think it's going to be like this next year too?"
"That's what I'm afraid of."
That night, after dinner, Hannah waited for her parents. She sat in her Da's rocking chair by the hearth, going through the clothes that needed mending. Most were her brother's, torn from his exploits running around the woods and swimming in the river. She worked slowly, but even so, finished before her parents came home. When she finally heard the lock shifting, she stirred, opening her eyes. She must have dozed off without realizing. She put aside the clothes, getting to her feet as the door swept open.
In came her father, shivering from cold, his boots trailing dirt. He stopped at the sight of her there, standing stiffly for a minute. Hannah leaned around him, checking behind his back.
There was no one there.
He didn't answer. Silently, he shut the door behind him, one hand resting on the wood.
"I thought she was with you," Hannah pressed, impatient.
"Well, she's not," he answered, a little roughly. He stepped forward, going past her.
"But Mr. Avery told me – "
"Yes, I know what Tom said. Exactly what I told him to."
She stopped, staring at him. A cold feeling started growing in her stomach. "Where ... is she?"
"In Dalen." He would not face her as he said it.
"She's taken up work there."
"Whatever she makes, she'll be sending back to us."
Hannah pressed a hand to her mouth, shaken . "You sent her away?"
"It was her decision," he stressed, his voice climbing suddenly.
"I don't believe you."
"Don't then!" He started towards his room, but she cried after him.
"How long will she be gone?"
"I don't know," he answered coldly. "That means you're responsible now."
"For the house. The work. You know what I mean."
"But I can't possibly – "
"You have to. We have no choice. Do you think I like this situation either?"
Hannah was stunned silent. Had they planned this, the both of them? Behind her back?
In front of her, Da shifted on his feet. "She wouldn't have left you to it if she didn't think you could manage," he told her, his voice quieting at little. "I'm sure … I'm sure someday you'll understand."
She looked at the floor, his voice ringing in her ear. It couldn't be. It just couldn't be. She barely heard as her father shuffled away, slipping into his room. Without her mother, what did anything matter now?