Scotland, present day
Cia Flores scanned the street for the umpteenth time. She had left behind the tourists, ranging from disheveled backpackers to oblivious tour groups, on the busy lanes of Edinburgh. She’d barely walked a mile and the city already felt eerily distant. No more crowds to get lost in, no busy shops to duck through. The village of Cippus was supposed to be her safe haven, but the quiet serenity left her feeling exposed and vulnerable. Solitude unnerved her. She liked losing herself in a crowd.
The invitation couldn’t have come at a better time. Cia hadn’t sent a note or made a call to give word of her arrival. She was just going to show up, which she did as frequently as she moved on. Her timing was perfect for her if no one else.
Overhead, the sun glowed weakly through a thick layer of puffy clouds. She’d arrived in this small neighborhood at the end of summer. Back home in the States, that still meant sleeveless sundresses and strappy sandals. Here in Scotland, Cia wore a waterproof jacket and sneakers with cushioned soles. A man nodded indifferently as he passed by with a large shaggy dog of uncertain origins at his side. The nod she gave in return was a reflex as was the urge to ask him for help. Her mouth flooded with an unpleasant taste like stale bread. He continued past, Cia remaining silent. Somehow, she knew he didn’t want to be bothered. Instead she climbed the stone staircase to her left, musing on the decision to do it alone, to try a different way. There was still time to call out to the stranger, but not to go back to the States.
“That’s it? You’re going somewhere you’ve never been because a card says to come? You realize how nuts that sounds—even for you?” Wyn had said just a week ago. The only constants in Cia’s life were her best friend and a penchant for going down the path of least resistance. Wyn called her on it all the time, but Cia shrugged it off as Wyn’s worrying nature. Then again, Cia had to admit that this had been extreme even for her. She’d left town before to escape a bad breakup or a dull job, but leaving the country was a new tactic. Inside her pocket was the same card with a single word in heavy, dark calligraphy that looked handwritten—or hand-painted, more like.
On that one enticing word and the cordial, but vague invitation Cia had traveled to this little mill town where she didn’t know a soul. Well, only one. It had been years since she’d been here and then only a child. How could she be sure her memories weren’t false impressions? She’d known she’d comply even before she read the vague note on the other side. A brief introduction and an address had gotten her to this unknown part of the world. Well, not completely unknown.
Cia trudged up a hill that became rough-hewn steps and she didn’t meet a soul along the way. A sigh of relief, as much from ending the exertion of the climb as it was for finding the house, rolled through Cia’s body. The taste on her tongue had cleared, too. She now found herself in front of the door at the address she was given. A stone tablet with the name Grey Vale etched into it had moss peeking out from the vowels. Cia knocked on the cottage door. It opened with a small creak but without resistance. Looking behind her again and still finding the path empty, she walked in.
“Hello? Angie—er—Grandma . . . Abuela?” called Cia, stepping farther into the foyer. There was that feeling again, the same one she’d had when she left Edinburgh. She was being watched or followed, but no one was visible. Her glance swept over the living room. In her mind’s eye a face bloomed, accompanied by a slight ringing in her ear.
“It’s our little secret, querida,” the face whispered over the rail. Her exaggerated Rs were a battle between the woman’s Castilian pronunciation and an adopted Scottish burr.
Cia was suddenly carried back further, to a memory of the little girl who had roamed this cottage, awed by its comfort . . .
Cia crept down to the living room. The voices that had awakened her were now silent. They had been soothing, but their abrupt halt made her uneasy. Her chubby fingers slid down the banister inch by inch. She was careful to avoid the third step—its creakiness had startled her when she’d first arrived. Cia looked around, her face warm and shoulders tense, waiting for her father’s scolding voice.
There was no one to smile or shush her at the bottom of the staircase. Only a muffled uneven beat replaced the sounds she’d heard before.
“Damn,” said a soft, high voice. “Damn, damn, damn, damn!” Cia looked around the ornate living room. A large overstuffed sofa festooned with crocheted doilies sat empty but showed an indent where a person once sat. Half-empty glass mugs and a blue porcelain ashtray crowded a spindly side table. She tiptoed over high-pile pink carpets. Bookcases three times taller than Cia’s seven-year-old frame towered over the room. She followed the voice and found a boy hidden behind one of them. He was playing jacks, badly, and let out another curse.
“It’ll never work on carpet,” she opined. The boy dropped the jacks he’d managed to pick up, startled from his concentration. Bright silver and gold spikes caught the sparse light. “Here, let me show you.” Cia grabbed the jacks and ball and turned her head left and right looking for the right place. She found a corner where the rug didn’t quite touch the wall. The boy sat, transfixed. Meanwhile, Cia had marched over to the corner.
“Are you coming or not?” she asked. The boy scrambled up without a word, sullen, until he finally spoke.
“And what would you know about jacks? Do they even play that where you’re from?” She stared at his mouth carefully, but it still took an extra second or two to understand him. Abuela Angie always talked slowly to her with her rolled Rs and words that sounded as if they scraped her palate. Finally, she figured out what he was saying.
“Watch,” she said with exaggerated correctness. She scattered the jacks on the bare wood corner, their metal spikes making a sound like knuckles rapping on a door. They fell in clusters with two remaining apart. Chewing her bottom lip, she flicked her wrist down with a practiced hand, releasing the small pink rubber ball. The same hand darted out and retrieved the clump of four jacks in the middle before catching the ball. “See?”
“I can see, aye,” he muttered. That she understood faster, but only the general meaning—not the words. There was a hint of salted caramel in the air. The smell soothed her.
“You talk funny. Funnier than Abuela Angie. My name’s Cia and I’m eight,” she lied. Before he could respond, the creaky third step alerted them that a grown-up was coming. Cia dropped the jacks and scurried into the next room. The ball she kept.