“So, exactly how far away from home is this place?” asked Maggie Kim as she slouched down in the backseat of her parents’ car. It was Thursday evening and the start of a long weekend. Maggie should have been excited, but was anything but.
The car sped along through the suburban streets. Maggie glanced out the window longingly. The first swirling flakes of snow had just begun to fall, illuminated by the bright house lights. Maggie ran her fingers through her dark, shoulder-length hair. She squirmed in her seat, her thin frame twisting to find a more comfortable position for what she was certain was going to be an endless car ride.
“Just a little more than four hours,” Maggie’s mother replied cheerfully from the front passenger seat. Maggie’s mom had long brown hair with strands of gray beginning to work their way in. She always wore her hair in a ponytail and preferred T-shirts and jeans to suits and high heels, when she wasn’t working.
“Might as well be four days,” Maggie mumbled to her best friend, Sophie Weiss, who sat in the backseat beside her. Sophie smiled, trying to make Maggie feel better. Her freckled face beamed out from under a mop of thick, curly red hair. She was taller than Maggie, despite the fact that they were the same age. In fact, their birthdays were just a couple of weeks apart.
Maggie and Sophie were seventh-grade classmates in a big middle school in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. The two were inseparable, and so when Maggie learned last night that she had to make the trek to the mountains for a long weekend, she invited Sophie along. After all, a sleepover with her best friend was better than being stuck in a strange house with only her family all weekend. She wondered how many sleepovers she and Sophie would have left together, if her parents’ crazy plan went through.
“As long as the skiing rocks, I don’t care how far away it is,” said Maggie’s older brother, Simon. Simon was captain of his high school ski team. He lived to ski and felt most at home schussing down steep slopes.
“That’s not a surprise, Simon,” Maggie replied. “You spend nearly every weekend on the slopes.”
“I can’t believe there aren’t any ski resorts up on this mountain already, Mrs. Kim,” Sophie said.
“That’s why this would be the perfect investment, Sophie,” Mr. Kim chimed in from behind the wheel. His partially bald head gleamed in the oncoming headlights. Mr. Kim wore glasses, which rested on his slightly wrinkled face, giving him the appearance of someone older than his years. His youthful, sunny personality, however, more than made up for his appearance.
“A perfect investment in boredom,” Maggie quipped. “We’ll be, like, a million miles from civilization. Not to mention all my friends.” She reached around Sophie’s shoulder and gave her a hug.
“What friends?” Simon teased.
“Shut up,” Maggie shot back. “All you care about is that this place has mountains and snow. You don’t care about people.”
“Sure I do, Mags,” Simon said. “People have to make the skis, and run the lifts, and—”
“You’ll be able to visit your friends on the weekends, honey,” Mrs. Kim interrupted, knowing that the current backseat conversation could only move in one direction—escalation into full-fledged sibling warfare.
“I’ve managed somebody else’s hotel for years,” Mr. Kim pointed out.
“And done a fantastic job at it too,” Mrs. Kim added.
“Thank you, dear. And your mother has been the maître d’ at some of the finest restaurants in Colorado. We’ve always dreamed of starting our own hotel.”
“And you know how much we enjoy skiing,” Mrs. Kim added.
“So when the Wharton Mansion was posted for sale yesterday and for such a steal, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to realize our dream,” Mr. Kim said.
“You like skiing too, Maggie,” Mrs. Kim pointed out.
“Yeah, but I don’t need it to be my life—”
“What life?” Simon teased her again.
“Simon, leave your sister alone,” Mr. Kim scolded.
“Gladly,” Simon said. He popped his earbuds in. His dark-brown hair flopped around as he bobbed his head to the music.
Maggie peered back out the window. By now the multitude of lights had given way to occasional but bright neon strip malls illuminating the darkness. The earlier snow flurries had accelerated into a steadier curtain of white, descending in the night sky, visible in the headlights of the oncoming traffic.
“Your mother and I will be able to run the hotel, lodge, and ski slopes, all while living in a beautiful mountain setting,” Mr. Kim said. “It really sounded perfect from the description the realtor gave us when we grabbed the keys from her office this morning.”
“What a nice woman Nancy McGee is,” Mrs. Kim continued. “She also told us that the previous owner of the house, who was known to everyone as Old Man Wharton, died about a year ago. She said that no one has even been inside the house since then, because several distant cousins of the late owner have been battling over the will. They finally settled the estate just two days ago, and want to sell the mansion immediately. So Nancy posted the listing before she had even gotten a chance to clean it up.”
“We’ll be the first ones to see it!” Mr. Kim said enthusiastically.
“What about neighbors?” Maggie asked. “Are there any?”
“Sure!” Mr. Kim replied.
“Like five miles away?”
“No!” Mr. Kim cried, as if Maggie had just said the most ridiculous thing in the world. “More like three miles.”
“Oh, that’s a lot better,” Maggie said sarcastically.
“I’ll come and visit,” Sophie said, trying to make her friend feel better. “After all, BFFs are BFFs.”
“I know,” Maggie said and smiled. Sophie was trying so hard to cheer her up. “But you’ll get to go home. To a real town. With real people. I’ll be living full-time up in the middle of nowhere, with real bears.”
Mrs. Kim turned to face Maggie. “Please just give this a chance. This is very important to your father and me. At least indulge us and take a look at the place before you decide it’s going to be a living nightmare.”
“Fine,” Maggie said. Feeling satisfied, her mother turned around. Maggie slid even farther down into her seat. A living nightmare. That’s the perfect description for this. The only thing missing now is zombies.
She stared out the window again. This time she saw long stretches of darkness broken only by the occasional house glowing invitingly like a warm oasis in the frozen rural landscape.
Simon looked over at his sister and saw that she had slipped into one of her rare quiet moods. He figured the time was right to broach what had been on his mind since the moment he had climbed into the car.
“So Mom, Dad, can I go skiing tomorrow?” he asked. “I threw my skis onto the roof rack before we left, and I have my helmet and equipment bag, so I’ve got what I need.”
“I don’t know, honey,” Mrs. Kim replied. “From the pictures I saw online, the house is pretty dilapidated, and the slopes look like they haven’t been groomed or maintained in quite some time. We might have a lot of work ahead of us before anyone can go skiing.”
“Luckily, the mansion is so cheap that any amount of fixing up would still be worth it,” Mr. Kim added.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Mom,” Simon said, fully prepared with his comeback. “I’ve skied lots of rough slopes before.”
“Can we just wait until we see the place and then decide?” Mom asked.
“Sure,” Simon replied, though his mind had been made up the moment he’d attached his skis to the rack.
The next few minutes passed in silence. The snowfall continued to pick up, and the whish-whish, whish-whish of the windshield wipers lulled everyone into a deep quiet.
“Maybe there’s something on the radio,” Mrs. Kim said finally when she grew uncomfortable with the silence that had overtaken the car.
As she scrolled through the dial, country music blared from the speakers, followed by pop, classical, and talk. Unsatisfied with any of the offerings, Mrs. Kim kept pushing the scan button, hoping to land on something she liked.
Maggie turned to Sophie and leaned in close.
“Dilapidated?” she whispered under the clatter of the radio. “They didn’t mention that detail before.”
“Maybe it won’t be that bad,” Sophie said hopefully.
But Maggie was nervous. “And what about school? If my parents need to move right away to start getting set up for next year, then that would mean leaving school before the spring play and before softball season and before the yearbook committee starts to work on this year’s book. Starting a new school in the middle of the year is the worst!”
“Well, the good news is that they’ll probably have all that stuff at your new school.”
The phrase “your new school” sent shudders down Maggie’s spine. It brought home the depth of what this move would mean. If this crazy plan actually came to pass, every part of Maggie’s life would completely change.
“Great,” Maggie moaned quietly to Sophie. “They’ll probably do a fully staged production of She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain: The Musical. And who will I play softball against, a team of chipmunks? And their yearbook is probably black and white and one page long.”
“Come on, Mags,” Sophie said. “You know that stuff isn’t true.”
“I know, I know,” Maggie admitted. “It’s just that I’m not going to know anybody, and I’ll be the weird kid from suburbia.”
“You’re already the weird kid from suburbia,” Simon chimed in.
“Seriously, Simon?” Maggie gave her brother a look.
“What, honey?” Mrs. Kim said from the front seat. This last bit of conversation had penetrated through the blaring of the radio.
“Nothing, Mom. Nothing.”
Maggie looked out the window again. This time she could barely see past the heavy snow swirling around outside.
The last leg of the trip passed in complete silence. Maggie felt the car slow down.
“Are we here?” she asked.
“Almost,” Mr. Kim said. “We’re in the closest town. It’s called Piney Hill, population three hundred.”
Maggie sat up and looked outside. Most of the buildings were shuttered. Those that weren’t were dark and already closed for the night. All except one.
“Wait. This is the town?” she cried in disbelief. “Where’s the supermarket? Where’s the shoe store? Where’s—”
“There’s our dinner!” Mr. Kim interrupted.
He pointed out the front windshield. Just ahead, a single building appeared open. Light poured from its windows. A blinking neon sign flickered above the front door. It stayed lit long enough for Maggie to read CLEM’S CHINESE KITCHEN.
“Takeout!” Mr. Kim said. “See, Mags. Just like home.”
He pulled up to the entrance and opened his door. Blowing snow swirled into the car. “I’ll be right back.”
As Maggie waited for her dad to return with dinner, her mind raced through all the horrors she anticipated about her new life. No friends, having to start over at school, a house with guests coming and going all the time. A few minutes later her dad returned with a big plastic bag.
“Okay, I got egg rolls for everyone, spareribs, beef and broccoli, veggie lo mein, all your faves, Mags,” Mr. Kim said. “And by the way, Clem says hi. Says you’ll love his Chinese food.”
Maggie couldn’t help but smile a little. “Thanks, Dad.” Her dad was trying, after all. And sometimes, his unshakable optimism could actually be contagious.
“That’s the spirit,” said Mr. Kim as he pulled the car away from the curb and continued down Main Street. At the edge of the little town, he turned right and started slowly up a steep hill.
“Just fifteen more minutes up this hill and we’re there!” he said, his excitement growing.
Slipping and sliding a bit on the icy hill, the car finally made it to a level plateau in the road. A few seconds later an opening in the trees appeared on the left. Mr. Kim turned and the car rumbled up the long, twisting driveway.
Ahead Maggie spotted a sprawling mansion. She couldn’t believe her eyes.
“It’s just what they call a fixer-upper,” Mr. Kim said enthusiastically, anticipating everyone’s reaction.
“It should be called a tear-it-downer!” Maggie exclaimed.
“Now, Maggie. I—”
“Wait,” Maggie interrupted, pointing to one of the windows on the first floor. Through the heavy snow she could just make out the face of an old man. He was staring down at the driveway, glaring directly at their car. The light from the room he was in illuminated his whole appearance, making him look unnaturally bright.
“There’s someone already in the house!” Maggie cried.