Should I search up there or not?
Raelyn Bell stared up at the forbidden barn loft. Her truck’s keys clanked against the ladder as she hovered one hand over the rung. The sweet scent of straw wafted through the autumn air.
I have to look. Maybe there’ll be something of Ma’s up there.
Bear placed his fluffy golden paws on the ladder, his sharp barks echoing throughout the barn.
“Okay, Bear, I’ll go. But if Pa catches us, I’m blaming you.” She pointed a finger right at his big brown eyes.
Raelyn’s cowboy boots scuffed against the ladder. The higher she climbed, the whiter her knuckles turned from clenching the rungs so tightly. Once at the top, a damp musty smell crept into her senses. She stood alone in the abandoned loft. The emptiness around her felt familiar, paralleling all her current relationships.
While she looked around at the deserted space, Raelyn lost any hope of finding anything of Ma’s. She sighed and poked her head over the side of the platform. Bear’s rear wiggled back and forth on the ground, his whining bringing a faint grin to Raelyn’s face.
“Don’t worry, boy. You’re not missing anything. There’s only dust up here.”
He barked and danced in a circle below.
As she turned, the toe of her boot caught on one of the slats of the floor, and she fell straight to her knees. The strap of her satchel rolled off her shoulder, spilling her journal onto the cracked beams. Mid-groan, she glimpsed the sunlight shimmered through the rafters, reflecting off something metal in the back corner. Raelyn crawled closer. A latch protruded from a warped, wooden door. The door whispered her name, its secrets creeping over her like a cold chill. Her pulse quickened. She jiggled the rusty handle.
Raelyn gripped it harder and yanked.
“Hun?” Pa hollered from below.
Raelyn jumped at the sound of his deep voice. After stumbling backward in the loft, she started to hurry down to see what her father needed.
Wait! What about what I want?
Raelyn chose to ignore him for the first time since … ever … and moved back to the door. She accidentally kicked her journal. It soared over the side and landed on the barn floor with a splat.
Raelyn held her breath for a beat, praying Pa hadn’t heard it, and peeked between the wooden slats of the wall.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Under the oak tree, Pa swung an ax down hard, splitting each log with one swift blow. Heart pounding at the thought of getting caught, Raelyn turned and pulled on the latch again.
She gritted her teeth and rammed into the door hard with her shoulder but fell back onto her side. The straw she flattened tickled her forearm. Glancing around, Raelyn spotted her canoe paddle hanging on the wall. A soft grunt escaped her lips as she leaned off the side of the loft and pulled up the paddle.
Wedging the tip between the door and frame, she tightened her fists and pushed with all of her 110 pounds.
The door jerked open, sending her flying through the opening and tearing through a spider’s silky web and into a tiny room beyond. The chopping sound of the axe hitting the wood stopped.
“Raelyn?” Pa’s boots stomped and cast a bear sized shadow on the floor. The man others called William Bell, stood below with his broad stature filled the barn.
Raelyn hunkered down in the back corner of the secret space, struggling to quiet her panting.
Please don’t look up.
Pa ran his hand through his thick, wavy hair. Bear sat right next to her journal, tongue hanging from his mouth. Raelyn silently dropped her forehead into her palm.
Pa squatted, picking up her journal. His strong hands made her journal look so small as he laid it on a barrel. “Where’d she go, boy?”
Why does Pa suddenly care?
Pa turned quickly and jogged back to the farmhouse, dialing his phone on the way.
See. He gives up easily and forgets about me.
Once his footsteps faded, Raelyn looked around. Behind a pile of dusty crates was a large trunk.
In her way rested a canvas picture of Ma standing among a line of a dozen young women who were all covered from head to toe in hijabs. Raelyn hadn’t seen the picture before. Ma wore her typical journalist attire, her work ID badge reflecting the desert sun, showing her name Joanna Bell. The other women looked defeated and exhausted, but Ma’s sapphire eyes hinted of hope—like she possessed a secret. Raelyn flipped it over, revealing the year 2004. Twelve years ago. She moved the canvas and walked over to the large chest. Scratches and dents marred every corner of the worn, wooden trunk. It was sealed with a rusty lock.
What’s inside? Something of Ma’s? Treasure? A skeleton?
When she kneeled in front of the chest, her jeans brushed dust away from a small metal oval. She bent down and rubbed harder, revealing a name:
Joanna Rae Bell
Finally! I knew I’d find something!
She placed both hands on the top and blew out a big breath. Dust flooded the air like the faded memories swirling in her mind. Picnics by the lake, baking cupcakes, and planting strawberry seeds—all with the mother she had lost years ago.
Raelyn pulled on the lock, but it didn’t budge.
She descended fast, stayed out of view of the farmhouse windows and snuck around the side of the barn. The heaviness of the axe felt familiar from all the times she helped Pa around the yard. She lugged it back up the ladder as Bear watched the spectacle enfold. Raelyn raised it high above her head. Before swinging down, she peeked through the wooden slats again to check for Pa. She crashed the axe hard onto the lock, making her bounce back a bit. It didn’t even make a dent. Bear barked.
Raelyn whispered, “You’re right, Bear. The wood. I’m a genius.” She slammed the axe into the side of the trunk, creating a quick crack at the bottom. A hard grunt escaped her lips as she pounded the axe one more time, turning the split into a hole just big enough to fit her thin wrist through. Kneeling, she reached in and felt blindly.
There are way too many papers in here.
Raelyn tugged on a stack and pulled it out, having to re-angle her wrist to maneuver it through the hole. A bundle of her parents’ wedding pictures was wrapped with a rubber band. At the bottom of the pile, a thicker parchment stuck out. Raelyn cocked her head to the side, turning it over.
What is this a map of?
There were a bunch of handwritten symbols.
At the bottom, written in cursive, was one word: Zohaib.
Squinting, she read small numbers, potentially a serial number or USB code: 35.1415N and 79.0080W.
Raelyn snapped a picture of it with her phone.
She dropped the pictures but shoved the map into her pocket and hustled out. With the axe in one hand, she also grabbed her satchel and hurried down the ladder. A sharp piece of wood sliced into her fingertip, making her gasp, but she held in any signs of discomfort—as usual.
When she landed with a soft thump, Bear circled her heels. She crouched and kissed his forehead. “Don’t you tell a soul.”
His adorable growl brought a smile to her lips. She placed the axe back in its spot just in time and turned on a playlist from her phone as an easy distraction. The song, “Burning House” by Cam, played loud and clear.
Pa strode around the corner of the barn. “There you are. I was worried.”
Worried? No, Pa’s never worried.
His scent radiated fresh wood. Pa always smelled of the forest. If someone ever mentioned the word hunting, the comfortable memory of his scent whirled through her mind. Raelyn looked up to him, her neck uncomfortably angled to meet his gaze.
“Don’t disappear on me like that,” he said softly.
Raelyn turned toward the log pile so he wouldn’t see her eye roll.
Like he cares …
By her boot, a dandelion sprouted up from the hard-packed clay, tough despite all the odds stacked against it.
I’ll never be as strong as that dandelion.
Raelyn scrunched her nose. “So, did you catch any fish earlier?”
“Trout. It’s in the fridge. You’re still making dinner?”
After awkward silence, Pa rubbed his back and stretched. “I feel old.”
“Guess you’re falling apart before you even turn forty.” Raelyn picked up his axe and chopped the log in half with one swing.
“Good one, hun!”
Their conversation was longer than any of their interactions over the last week. Forgiveness came easily when Pa gave her some attention. She smiled and playfully pushed his shoulders, feeling his sturdy muscles beneath them. “Come on, Pa. You used to chop wood for hours.”
“I’ll just fix myself with some duct tape.” Pa grunted. “Remind me what it feels like to be seventeen?”
His green eyes went vacant, like he had gone back in time. What was he thinking about? Probably Ma—as usual. She used to bring him lemonade whenever he worked outside for too long and then sit on top of the pile of wood, flirting in that gross way parents should never do.
He scratched his chestnut beard, which was peppered with hints of gray. Raelyn looked nothing like Pa, with her thin frame and high cheekbones. His emerald eyes didn’t match her amber ones, either.
“Let’s borrow the Ferguson’s horses for a trail ride later?” she asked eagerly, hoping he would stay in this good mood.
Why do I even bother?
She twisted the heel of her boot and dropped her gaze to the ground. “Uh, so do you need anything?”
“Well, during my fishing trip, only one paddle was in the boat. Have you seen the other one?”
She wiped sweat off her brow and forced herself not to look to the loft. “Um. I’ll look for it.”
“Thanks.” His callused hand pulled out a rolled-up newspaper from his back pocket. A page flipped from the warm breeze. The date in bold on top read: September 23
The anniversary of the last time I saw Ma … so long ago.
Pa Handed it over. “Can you check for any listings looking for handyman work? I could pick up some extra cash on the weekends.”
He began chopping again, slamming the axe down strong. Raelyn’s fingers grazed the nearby tire swing that her parents used to push her on—a reminder of a different time, when family laughter rang like a constant melody. Neglected for years, its only remaining purpose was to tether them to the past.
Some days, her memories with Ma felt like wounds from a dagger—not a thin slice that barely grazed the surface, but a deep cut that could pierce her entire soul.
Raelyn leaned against the barrel and skimmed through her journal, landing on her book wish list, full of stories about desert worlds and handsome heroes. She plucked a pen from her messy bun and placed it on a fresh page until gold ink bled.
My soul split between the options ahead.
Searching for a clue of what beliefs to shed
“Hey, Bear. What rhymes with ‘shed’?” She tapped the pen to her round chin. “I wish Ma wasn’t dead.”
Bear nudged her leg softly, always knowing what she needed. Raelyn tightened the plaid shirt snug around her waist, working up her courage to investigate further. She drew in a deep breath before she could lose the nerve, and fabricated a lie. “Pa, I have a project for class. I need to bring in a family heirloom.”
“Use your grandma’s little mirror.”
Does he know about the trunk or not?
“Actually, I was hoping I could bring in something of Ma’s. The project is about connecting with our ancestors, and I thought you might have something you could lend me.”
His eyes hardened and flickered to the loft for a moment. “Got rid of all your ma’s stuff years ago. Plus, you don’t need Ma. You have me.”
No. I don’t have either of you.
Raelyn identified with the red leaf falling down from their oak tree, completely at the mercy of the wind—and alone.
As Pa turned, each stride he stepped away, he grew more distant from her heart.
She swallowed her nerves and raised her voice as she followed him across the yard. “You gave away everything?”
He marched into the house. “Yup.”
The scent of burning wood from the fireplace filled the air.
She stared at the compass hanging from his belt loop. “You still have the compass Ma gave you.”
He squared his jaw. “That’s different.”
Raelyn pulled the crinkled map from her pocket. “What about this map? Was it Ma’s?”
Pa hustled forward and tried to swipe it from her grip.
“What is it a map of?”
“Nothing. Just a souvenir.”
“Can I keep it?” She pressed the map to her chest.
Raelyn raised her voice. “Why?”
“Give it here.”
She reluctantly laid it in his hand. “Are you lying about–?”
Before she could finish, Pa ripped the map into pieces, marched to the brick fireplace, and chucked them inside. The paper turned brown, curling under the fierce heat.
Her heart pounded. “Why did you do that?”
Pa didn’t look at her. “I love you. That’s all you need to know.”
No, he doesn’t.
Raelyn looked out the window at the barn without responding.
I need to see what else is in Ma’s trunk.