Chapter One: Never Gonna Break
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Settle past a patience where wishes and your will are spilling pictures
Water's running through in the valley where we grew to write this scripture:
Never gonna break, never gonna break, never gonna break, never gonna break
- "Minnesota, WI," Bon Iver
If you smell the air in Cinder Creek, I swear you can still catch a whiff of burning wood.
Back in the nineteenth century, my little Wisconsin town was riding high on the lumber industry until the Great Fire of 1893, when the town's name turned out to be a prophecy and the forest burned down. Ever since, the town has been dying, slowly but surely.
No one ever leaves Cinder Creek. It's just not possible. You get born into the town and then the town takes hold of you, traps you, squeezes all the life out of you until you die there, your ashes settling into the earth along with the cinders of trees from over a century ago.
I used to dream about getting out of Cinder Creek. But like Pa always said, "Dreaming never did anybody no good."
When I was eleven, during that last happy year, I was playing tag with my little brother and sister, and we somehow got lost in the woods on the outskirts of town. My sister Charlie was seven years old and a holy terror. While I tried to find us a way out of the woods, she occupied herself with taunting our brother, Caleb, with tales of the ghosts and monsters that live in the trees until he started to cry. Caleb was only two, and he's always been the sensitive sort.
"Cut that out now. I mean it," I warned my irrepressible sister.
She grinned up at me with mischievous laughter in her blue eyes. "What's the matter, Sloane?" Charlie asked me in a faux-innocent tone. "I'm not saying anything that isn't true. There really are evil ghosts in these woods that like to eat little boys for dinner!"
At that, Caleb burst out into even louder tears.
I glared at Charlie and scooped the bawling Caleb up into my arms. "Don't listen to her," I soothed my little brother. "There's no such thing as ghosts."
After an hour or two of wandering amongst the trees, even Charlie's impossibly high spirits had grown weary. We were all tired, and my siblings were complaining of hunger and boredom and exhaustion and fear and just about every other thing on the planet. But I'm the oldest, so like always, I had to put on a brave face and keep going, trying to find us a way home.
My feet were sore and my shoulders were aching from carrying Caleb on my back when up ahead, I spotted a gap in the trees. I sped up and hurried forward, my breath catching in my throat when I stepped into an unexpected clearing. The sunlight could reach us there, and I looked down in wonder at my own skin, candescent in the late afternoon light, as if seeing it for the first time.
And then I heard the sound of running water, and I smiled at the realization that I'd found Cinder Creek, for which our town was named. I followed the stream, and it led us out of the woods and all the way home.
Every family tree is a tragedy unto itself.
Maybe that's kind of a depressing thing for a seventeen-year-old girl to say, but I know it to be truer than anything I've learned in school. Take my parents' families. My Pa, Jacob Lennox, was the son of a gambler and a stonehearted bitch. Reverend Dahl would probably say I'm sinning something terrible by calling my grandmother a stonehearted bitch, but trust me, if you'd met Morven Lennox (nee Sloane), you'd agree with me. Never was there a meaner woman than my Grandmother Lennox. She was from Scotland and complained incessantly about how much she loathed Wisconsin. She used to love to tell me that my hair was too flat, my eyes too muddy brown, my freckles too ungainly. Once when Charlie talked back to her, she locked my sister in a closet without food or water for twelve hours straight.
She's dead now, thank God. But the fact remains that I'm named for her – her maiden name is my first name. Sloane Lennox. An unimaginative, practical name for an unimaginative, practical girl.
So Grandfather Lennox gambled away all of the family's money and Grandmother Lennox was bitter and cruel. But their only son, my father Jacob, was a quiet but hard-working boy who had a chance at really making something out of himself. After graduating high school, he took a job at the nearby tire plant (which has since closed down), and quickly worked his way up to become a lower-level foreman. Then, when he was twenty-two, he got an eighteen-year-old girl from a strict Lutheran family pregnant.
That girl was my mother, Grace Engel.
Mom's father left his wife and daughter early on, and it was hard going for a single mom in northwestern Wisconsin in those days. When Mom was fourteen, her mother (my grandmother) remarried. His name was Thomas Christiansen, and he was a loud-mouthed and jolly man who seemed like he'd make a very good stepfather for the teenaged Grace. He was grieving the recent passing of his own first wife, and he had a small son from his previous marriage. But Thomas ended up being verbally and occasionally physically abusive to my grandmother and even, on occasion, my mother. He was devoutly religious, and when my mother got pregnant in her last year of high school, he disowned her and kicked her out of the house, forbidding the rest of the family from contacting or seeing her.
So it was that Pa and Mom came from fairly unhappy childhoods. But somehow, maybe through some latter-day miracle, they put their pasts behind them and created a wondrously happy home for my siblings and me.
Once Mom got pregnant with me and was kicked out by her family, Pa married her. They were already in love and their marriage was a joyful one. Pa was taciturn and a bit gruff, but Mom was lively and energetic and could always put a smile on his grim face. Pa was the practical one who always made sure our house was comfortable and that we had enough to eat, and Mom was the dreamer, who told us fantastical stories she'd read in her beloved books and made us laugh until our stomachs hurt.
And Charlie and Caleb and I grew up surrounded by this safety and laughter and love, and there wasn't much in Cinder Creek but it was enough for us. Then one day just before my twelfth birthday, Mom told us that she was pregnant yet again. We were so excited, Charlie and I squabbling over good baby names and whether it would be a boy or a girl.
Then Mom went into labor dangerously early. The baby survived, but she didn't. And that was the end of the safety and laughter and love.
After Mom died, Pa near fell apart. He started drinking, all the time, and the tire plant he worked at closed down. Now and then he found odd jobs to bring in some money, but we've been struggling to make ends meet for the last five years. He became so withdrawn into himself that he barely realized his children existed anymore.
The raising of Charlie, Caleb, and the new baby, little Elizabeth, fell to me. No twelve-year-old girl grows up so fast as one with a dead mother and an alcoholic father. I started taking in folks' laundry and mending to do so I could make us some extra money. Some days I skipped school to take care of my siblings. I became their mother and their father as well as their older sister.
Things are tough. Little Bizzy is only five, and she has Mom's joyous, bubbly personality, but the rest of us aren't such a happy bunch. Caleb is eight now, a quiet, thoughtful little boy who spends all his time with his nose in a book. I think for him, reading is the only way to escape our difficult lives. In books, he can leave Cinder Creek and travel to New York, to Hogwarts, to the moon. Charlie's attempts at escape are much more literal – she's tried to run away from home at least five times in the past year alone. She's thirteen but she walks around with this perpetual glare in her eyes, like she knows more than everyone else around her and isn't afraid to let you know it.
Then there's me. But like I said, ever since Mom died and every responsibility fell to me, I don't dream of getting out of Cinder Creek anymore. Dreaming never did anybody no good.
I remember that Tuesday last winter so vividly that it might as well have been yesterday. It was just a normal day of pointless classes and insipid people at school. I got home and started mending Mrs. Hall's skirts, while simultaneously keeping an eye on Bizzy and Caleb playing and talking on the phone with my best friend Matthias. Then Pa came home and told me the news. He said it so nonchalantly, you'd have thought he was talking about the weather. He had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The doctors didn't think he had much time left.
His drinking problem was so bad that his condition worsened rapidly. These past seven months have been even more exhausting than usual, with me careening between school and home and the hospital and the store in town (where I've taken yet another job to try to make up for the fact that Pa could no longer work and bring in money), so busy that I rarely sleep more than four or five hours a night.
Two days ago, the fifth of October, Pa died. I didn't cry like I did when Mom died. Actually, Bizzy was the only one of the four of us who cried, which is ironic because I think sometimes that Pa blamed her, maybe even hated her, for Mom's death.
So you see what I mean when I say that every family tree is a tragedy unto itself.
I can feel Charlie fidgeting beside me, so I jab her in the side with a sharp elbow. It doesn't matter if she's bored or uncomfortable. All eyes are on us today, and it won't do to show any signs of misconduct.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," intones Reverend Dahl, his stern voice echoing in the old graveyard.
It's a little funny that Pa's being buried with a Lutheran service. For one thing, his side of the family was Presbyterian, and for another, Pa wasn't religious at all. Mom was, but when she died, Pa had us stop going to church. In fact, most of the people at his service and surrounding us in the graveyard right now didn't much care for Pa at all. To them, he was just the grumpy town drunk.
Reverend Dahl is droning on and on. I keep my face impassive but let out a soft sigh. I don't much care for the psalm he's reciting. "My cup runneth over" and all that. What the hell does that even mean?
Since we stopped going to church, I'm not so good at knowing Bible verses by memory or anything. But I remember one my Mom used to like. "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."
I wish the pastor had recited that one instead.
Afterward, with pitying eyes and concerned voices, the citizens of Cinder Creek all come up and offer their condolences to my siblings and me. I paste on a smile and make myself go through the motions, shake his hand, lean into her hug, force out dozens of thank-you-for-comings.
It's fake, all of this. I want nothing more than to get the hell out of this graveyard and hole up inside our house with my sisters and brother. It's not that I'm particularly devastated by Pa's death – I've known it was coming for months, and even before he got sick, he hardly interacted with us much at all. It's just that I can see these people circling us, reveling in their pity, staring at us like vultures. They think they're well-meaning and maybe they are, but I know they'll all go home and gossip (that drunk Jacob Lennox, it was only a matter of time before his drinking got the better of him, and oh, his poor orphaned motherless children, how sad, how pathetic, how utterly tragic) as soon as this is over.
After the funeral, we're ushered over to the Dahls' house for dinner. Mrs. Dahl clucks her tongue sympathetically and gives us plates of casserole. It smells terrible and looks thoroughly unappetizing. Charlie pushes her plate away from her dramatically, the food untouched, and Caleb and Bizzy wrinkle their noses. I know I have to be polite, so I force the casserole down. I guess I'll just make my siblings macaroni and cheese or something later once we get home.
After dinner, Bizzy goes off to play with her toys. Before Bizzy started Kindergarten last month, Mrs. Dahl used to watch her sometimes when I was in school, so she still has some books and dolls here. Mrs. Dahl calls her daughter, Nina, over to play with my little sister now. Nina, seventeen like I am, is a self-absorbed, manipulative girl who likes to think of herself as the queen bee of our little high school. Needless to say, we are not friends. Nina has her minions and I have Matthias, and if I'm lucky, our paths rarely cross. Unfortunately, today it seems that I am not so lucky.
I appraise Nina with a cool gaze, but she seems to be actually being nice to Bizzy, so I decide to let them be. Charlie and Caleb run off to play with thirteen-year-old Lukas Dahl.
Mrs. Dahl then ushers me into her husband's study, where the pastor and another man are waiting for us. She closes the door behind us, and we sit down on an uncomfortable couch.
"Sloane," Reverend Dahl begins, looking over at me sympathetically, "this is my friend Robert Svenson. He's a lawyer who drove up from Carverton when I asked him to come talk to you."
I smile tensely at the stranger. "Hello, Mr. Svenson. It's nice to meet you."
"Likewise," he replies. "And of course, my condolences for your loss."
I nod my thanks, then turn back to the pastor. "Excuse me, Reverend Dahl, but I don't quite understand. Why did you ask Mr. Svenson to come talk to me? I'm not in any kind of trouble…at least, not that I know of," I finish with a forced chuckle. My pathetic attempt at a joke unsurprisingly does not elicit any laughter from the three adults present.
"Well…" Reverend Dahl replies. "It's a very difficult situation, you see. I know that your father's passing is still quite recent, and I'm sure you'll need some time to mourn. But there are some…well, some matters that need to be addressed as soon as possible."
What does he think I am, some silly little teenage girl like his daughter Nina? I've been raising my siblings and myself for the past five years. I take care of all the bills and the accounts. So yes, I'm aware that my father's illness and death have put my family in a "very difficult situation." The hospital bills are so high that the bank might take our house.
To be honest, I don't know what I'll do if that happens. I have a little saved up from working at the store, my mending and laundry, and occasionally taking care of Ella Tallis' baby for her, but certainly not enough to afford even the cheapest of houses.
But that's something I can deal with on my own. I've always made ends meet and I won't stop now.
"If this is about the hospital bills and the house, don't worry, I'm – " I start, but the pastor cuts me off.
"No, no," he says. "This is about your father's will. Or more specifically, what wasn't in your father's will."
I wrinkle my eyebrow.
Mr. Svenson looks at me. "Unfortunately, Sloane, your father did not specify a guardian for you and your siblings should he pass away."
My heart leaps to my throat. I don't like where this is going. Guardian…
"It is my understanding, and correct me if I'm wrong, that your grandparents have also passed away and that you have no other living relatives," the lawyer tells me. He waits expectantly, and I nod tersely in affirmation. Grandfather and Grandmother Lennox are both dead, Mom's mother died years ago, and all I know about Mom's stepfather Thomas is that he abused her and then disowned her, so he's obviously not an option. He might be dead now, too, for all I know.
"That's correct," I respond. "But honestly, there's no need for a guardian. I've been taking care of my siblings all on my own for years now. And besides, I'm almost eighteen!" Okay, that's not entirely a lie…I mean, I won't turn eighteen until the spring, but there's no need to point that out just now, is there?
"The fact remains," Mr. Svenson says, "that you are a minor and will be until your eighteenth birthday arrives. Furthermore, you're in the midst of your senior year of high school. You're certainly in no position to take care of the children and finish high school alone."
"Yes, I am!" I try not to let my anger and frustration show, but it's hard. "I'll drop out of school if I have to, but I don't think that will be necessary. Bizzy's in Kindergarten now, and after school Charlie can watch the younger kids while I work more hours at the store. We'll be fine."
Mr. Svenson and Reverend and Mrs. Dahl are all staring at me patronizingly, like I'm a stupid little girl trying to pretend she's grown-up. I don't know how to make them see that I'm dead serious. I know I can do this on my own. It'll be hard, but it honestly won't be any different from the past year, when Dad was in the hospital and we were home alone.
"We'll be fine!" I insist again, desperation creeping into my voice at the pitying looks on their faces.
"I'm sorry," Reverend Dahl says gently, "but that's just not possible. Under Wisconsin law, all minors need a legal guardian."
"Since there are no relatives in the picture," Mr. Svenson explains, "you and your siblings may be placed into the foster care system, if there are no other families who can take you in."
I freeze and I feel my blood run cold. Foster care?
"What?" I exclaim in anger, my hands clenched into fists in my lap. "Foster care? No way! I won't! Absolutely not! There's no way all four of us will be able to stay together that way!"
"Now, Sloane," Mrs. Dahl lays a soothing hand on my shoulder, but I shrug it off.
"No!" I declare again. "That's not an option!"
"Unfortunately, it's looking to be the only option, at least for most of you," Mr. Svenson tells me.
I narrow my brown eyes at him. "Most of us?" I echo sharply.
Reverend and Mrs. Dahl exchange a glance, then Mrs. Dahl turns to me. "We'd like to talk to you about something, dear. You know that before sweet little Bizzy started school this year, I always loved taking care of her. Nina and Lukas are getting older, and it was always so nice having an energetic young child in the house once again."
As she speaks, an uneasy feeling grows in my stomach, until my whole being is consumed with dread.
"What I'm trying to say," she continues hesitantly, "is that we," she gestures to her husband and herself, "would like to adopt Bizzy."
The room is silent as I gape at her, my mouth open with surprise.
"We would take wonderful care of her, of course," Mrs. Dahl says when I don't respond. "You know, dear, if we were in the financial position to be able to take in all four of you, we certainly would. Unfortunately, we couldn't afford that right now, but little Bizzy on her own would make the perfect addition to our family –"
"No." The word is out of my mouth before I can stop myself. But I don't care. This woman must be batshit crazy.
Mrs. Dahl raises her eyebrows. "Excuse me?"
"I said no," I reply flatly. "I'm not going to let us be split up. Thank you for offering to take in Bizzy, but the answer is a definite no."
Mrs. Dahl frowns at me. "That's ridiculous. I don't understand why –"
"Now, I know it's a lot to consider, but we've put a lot of thought into this –" Reverend Dahl attempts.
"I think it's an excellent idea," Mr. Svenson puts in. "I know you don't want your siblings split up, but your sister Elizabeth knows the Dahls and she'd be in excellent hands. And, if we really try, we could probably get Charlotte and Caleb placed together in the same foster family. Of course, it is difficult for older children, since most families don't want teenagers, but –"
Suddenly, I leap to my feet, sick of their patronizing tones, their attempts to tell me what's best for my family. "No!" I shout. "Didn't you hear me? I said no. I won't let us be split up. I don't care what you say – you adopting Bizzy is not what's best for her." At that, Mrs. Dahl glares at me, but I glare right back. "What's best for all of us is staying together. That's what my father would have put in his will, and that's what my mother would have wanted."
Mr. Svenson sighs and shakes his head, and Reverend Dahl gets to his feet and walks toward me. "I realize this is a lot to take in, but perhaps if you went home and thought it over tonight, tomorrow we can discuss the matter again –"
"I don't need to think about it any further! You're not adopting Bizzy, and no one's taking Caleb or Charlie either!" I storm toward the study's door and fling it open.
Mrs. Dahl's cheeks are flushed red with anger. "You're being a very selfish girl, Sloane Lennox," she reproaches me. "You're taking away Bizzy's chance at a happy and stable home life, do you realize that?"
I seethe with anger, and it's all I can do not to stomp over to the pastor's wife and wipe that condescending look off her face. "Happy and stable home life?" I echo in disbelief. "Is that what you'd call it? Being separated from the only family she has left in the world? Besides, you'd make a terrible mother for Bizzy. Just look at how your precious Nina's turned out," I snap.
I realize too late what I've said, and to whom. Oh God. I've just managed to insult the Reverend, his wife, and his daughter in one fell swoop. Something tells me I'm not going to be very welcome at church after this, not that I'd planned on going anyway.
Mrs. Dahl gasps and opens her mouth to retort, but I turn around and leave the study. I blanch for a moment when I notice that my siblings and the Dahl children are all standing before me, clearly having been listening to our conversation. Nina sends me a death glare that I ignore, instead running over to scoop Bizzy up protectively into my arms and grabbing Charlie and Caleb by the sleeves.
"We're leaving now," I tell my siblings authoritatively, and I herd them out the door as fast as I can, Mrs. Dahl's extra casseroles left behind in the kitchen.
A/N: I just had the idea for this story today and I had to start writing it, but don't worry, I'm still working on Scandalous, too. Please leave a review and let me know what you think so far! I love feedback. And the romance will begin in the next chapter, this is just introductory exposition and all that.