“The Call of Llyn Caldwell” by Tamara Grubbs is the First Place-winning story in the young adult category of the 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the 13th Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Grubbs’s winning entry.
The Call of Llyn Caldwell by Tamara Grubbs
Kellen Slade was born in a pig pen.
As far as rumors went, this wasn’t the worst to work its way through Saw-Whet Valley, but it had the distinction of being the longest lasting. Kellen was 16, and still the humbling details of his birth tickled ears throughout the town.
It tickled the ears of Alice Taft on a Thursday afternoon. She’d grabbed a damp cafeteria tray from a dwindling stack and was standing in line, wiping from her palm what she hoped was warm water, when a girl in tight denim shorts and a Broncos t-shirt glanced back at her. She boldly took in the full sight of Alice, from loosely braided hair to well-worn boots, leaned slightly and asked, “Your parents bought the old Caldwell ranch, didn’t they?”
“Yep,” Alice answered. Her thoughts churned through the short list of names and faces she’d collected over the past three and a half days. The girl looked familiar. As far as the name card for this matching game, though, Alice came up blank.
“I’m Sylvia,” the girl said. “Hi. I’m Alice.”
“I know,” Sylvia said. Then, in the same abrupt, matter of fact manner she added, “That makes you Kellen Slade’s neighbor. He was born in a pig pen, you know.”
“What?” Alice asked, taken aback. She’d never been taken aback before; it turned out that the feeling literally caused her to take a step back, which, she thought, must be where the expression stemmed from. She made a mental note to look up the phrase now that she’d experienced it first-hand. Regaining her lost step, she asked, “When did that happen?”
“I don’t know. Like, sixteen years ago? He’s in second period Cultural Studies.” “Oh. Right.”
“Anyway,” Sylvia continued, sliding a plastic-wrapped salad onto her tray, “That tells you everything you need to know about that family. I’m just saying. Good fences make good neighbors and all that.”
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Alice quoted.
“Yeah,” Sylvia replied, a sudden disinterest dulling her words. “Or, you know, wire works, too.”
The remainder of the Frost poem tumbled around Alice’s heart, ashamedly concealed. Quoting old stuff like that had only ever won her quizzical or pitying looks; she wanted to punch herself for allowing her inner geek to slip out.
After paying for her salad-sans-dressing, Sylvia turned back to Alice, sizing the smaller girl up once more. Her lips formed into the bud of a question. Anticipation buzzed through Alice’s toes. Maybe the Frost quote hadn’t willed total social devastation; maybe today she wouldn’t huddle alone at the edge of a table while she scarfed down her quasi-hot lunch.
Any forthcoming invitation died on Sylvia’s tongue. She flicked Alice a smile and a wave, effectively casting her back into the unfriendly sea of SVHS.
After the final bell Alice navigated against the current toward room 209, where she dropped her bag next to the slim lined, pressboard and metal workstation at the back of the room. “Whoever said small town people are friendly, lied,” she declared. She slouched into a desk in the last row and angled the chair to face her mom. “I mean, yeah, they were real quick with the smiles when we visited last summer. They’re always kind to vacationers with ready bankcards. But dare to move in? Forget it. Trying to infiltrate one of their cliques requires a lifetime experience in clandestine ops. And even those guys would probably fail.”
Mrs. Taft glanced up from her laptop. A tired smile played around her lips; one that conveyed sympathy clinging to the edge of a frayed cord. “Ali, these kids have probably been together since preschool. It’s going to take time to gain their trust.”
“The other teachers any better?”
A shrug. A final,forced push of that frayed cord smile. “It takes time.”
“I guess.” Alice mirrored her mom’s shrug. The unconscious motion was just one of many ways she reflected her mother. Visually they seemed to be the same person separated by twenty years; June Taft saw her teenage self every morning hovering over a bowl of Cheerios, inevitably with milk dribbling down her chin; Alice felt no mystery in the aging process, only needing to flip through her mom’s old photos to track own future. In personality they were kindred to a point, but the veering off of personal preferences could be attributed to that two- decade gap. In all that mattered they were of one heart, and each heart beat for the other as they wondered at finding themselves so far outside their familiar element.
“At least it’s Friday,” Mrs. Taft said, turning back to her papers. “Mom. It’s Thursday.”
“Oh. True. It feels like Friday, though, doesn’t it?”
Alice sighed. The town of Saw-Whet Valley was so remotely wedged within the mountains of the western Colorado slope that the schools ran on a four-day school week, turning Fridays over to doctor’s appointments and shopping trips; things that required an hour’s drive at the very least. Things that, back home in their Denver suburb, could easily be slipped in on a Tuesday afternoon between school and dance. She felt the remoteness of Saw- Whet Valley like a vise around her soul. The four-day week was another reminder of how far they’d moved.
The next morning Alice’s mom drove to the school alone, eager to work on lesson plans in the quiet of an empty school building. Her father was already in the barn, or wandering the field, or doing whatever he woke before dawn to do each morning. Alice hadn’t bothered to learn his routine. Cow care and husbandry fit nowhere in her long skein of interests.
She wiped her chin clean and rinsed her bowl, pushing back ruffled curtains above the sink as she did so. The world beyond the kitchen window was cloaked in a gray veil. She’d read once that fog was a cloud kissing the earth, and that certainly seemed an appropriate description this morning. She’d never seen fog that settled so thickly; an old doghouse, which she knew to be only twelve paces from the back of the house, was lost in the low congregating clouds.
She felt awe, but no surprise. The phenomenon seemed a natural result of their elevation. After all, Saw-Whet had the courtesy of meeting the clouds halfway; the Valley was only a valley in comparison to the peaks that surrounded it.
In the mud room she found a rumpled sweatshirt next to the shoe rack, exactly where she’d dropped it two days earlier. She pulled it on and slipped into her favorite boots, pushing the edges of her flannel pajama bottoms down into its soft leather. With her hand on the knob she paused, considering. A flashlight hung from one of the coat hooks. She didn’t think it would be much help in such a cloak of fog, but taking it felt like the smart thing.
Alice was big on doing the smart thing.
The small hand on the clock tapped toward seven when she stepped outside, but the sun seemed reluctant to rise. An oppressive gray pushed down on the fog from above. Nearer the ground the atmosphere was the color of dirty cotton. It chilled her skin and felt damp and thick in her lungs.
“I wouldn’t call it pea soup, but I’ll be lost in ten steps for sure,” she said out loud. It was an impromptu experiment in how the fog handled sound. She was a little disappointed with the results. “Nothing,” she reported. “No echo. No dissipation. Oh, well. Let’s see what you do with light.”
She turned on the flashlight, aiming it first at her feet then bringing it up slowly until it illumined the small swatch of world straight ahead. While the fog ignored sound it toyed with light, scattering its particles, reflecting them back, transforming the air into a glistening haze. Then, less than twelve feet ahead, the dense fog wall swallowed the light entirely. She turned in place, scanning the flashlight up and down, marveling at the effect.
Until she realized that she was surrounded by nothing but fog and mist and the dissipation and absorption of light; she could no longer see her home.
She’d been walking in small steps during her experiments, but she had no idea how far she’d gone, or even the direction she was traveling. She knew that when she left the porch she’d started walking right, which meant that, looking back on the house, she should be nearest
the left corner. She shone the light around again, squinting through the haze, trying to pick out a hint of beams, a shimmer of glass, the wild blackberry bush that grew against the left side.
“I should probably turn the light off,” she whispered. “That would be the smart thing to do. The light makes it harder to see.” Though this logic rang true, and though Alice Taft was a logic fanatic, her thumb refused to move toward the off button. Instead she shifted the play of the beam toward the ground and chose a direction. “Twelve steps,” she instructed herself. “If there’s nothing in twelve steps, I’ll turn slight right and take another twelve.”
This is what she did. Twelve steps, nothing, turn, twelve steps more. Six times she followed this pattern. Midway through the seventh she realized she was going in a circle. She tapped the barrel of the light against her thigh and tried to reason though a new solution. “I should stand still,” she told herself. “The sun will burn off the fog soon enough.”
She backpedaled after a pause, not liking the idea of simply squatting on her haunches and waiting for the slow fingers of morning to peel back the veil. “I could pick a direction and stick with it. The entire property is fenced, so it’s not like I can wander into the wilderness. If I don’t find the house, maybe I’ll find the front gate, or the barn, or some other marker that’ll set me right.”
She nodded, agreeing with her own logic. “Pick a path and follow through to the end.” Her heart tripped over the last word, and though her feet were rooted she felt her body trip with it. “Destination,” she corrected. “Follow through to the destination.”
She scanned the light over the ground, hoping one last time to find a familiar rut or a stray plank of wood that would set her course. Nothing jumped out. In truth, she didn’t expect anything to. They’d lived on the ranch for only two weeks, so to Alice the ground was foreign even in the full light of day.
The old Caldwell ranch was a hundred and twenty-acre mix of field, gorge, lake, and mountain knees, with the front ten marked off for the homestead and the back one-ten for free-ranging cattle. When not in school, Alice had been too busy unpacking her room to explore this new world. Before this she’d known nothing but neighborhood living, and ten acres seemed a vast and foreboding expanse that required a bold spirit of adventure. A spirit she couldn’t conjure on a whim. Now, twenty paces into her straight-line course, she was officially farther into the property than she’d ever gone, and she hoped that her adventurous side would show itself.
Forty paces in she had to acknowledge that in all probability Alice Taft didn’t have an adventurous side, and an unguided walk through this fog was the most foolish thing she’d ever done.
Fifty-two paces in, she heard the first scuttle of footsteps behind her.
She whirled, flashing the light as far as it would go but catching nothing. “Scat!” she yelled. She stomped her feet as she turned. Then, coming full circle, she quieted herself and listened.
In the distance she heard the soft lowing of a cow. Beyond that, nothing.
“Just a raccoon,” she assured herself. “Or something else small and harmless.”
She reset her direction by turning her back to the lowing and then continued the count. Sixty-six paces in, she heard a giggle.
“Hello?” she called.
Her first thought was of neighborhood children, but she was quick to remember that there was no neighborhood. There wasn’t even a neighbor, not as far as the eye could see.
Another trill of giggles, this time to her left. At the same time small feet scuffed the ground ahead of her.
“Hello?” she asked again, fear forming sharp edges along the short word.
A shadow pushed against the fog. A lump of a thing. Too tall for a raccoon. Too small for a child.
She lifted her feet into a run. The ground seemed to reach up and pluck at her toes, forcing her to stumble. Wanting her to fall. Whispering the knowledge that once it had her, it wouldn’t let go. But she refused it; she caught herself again, and again, and again, until she finally found the momentum to break free.
Her feet pounded the earth. Her counting had shattered behind her, and she quickly lost track of how far she’d gone. It seemed a full half hour had passed since she’d stepped through her front door, yet the fog persisted in throwing up its damp wall. She breathed it in, thick and odorless. Swallowed it down in icy gulps. Swung her fist to beat it back, only to find it always out of reach.
Grass gave way to sand. Then sand gave way to water.
Alice stopped abruptly at the water’s edge. The toes of her boots pressed into soft, black mud. Water lapped silently, edging forward with the force of invisible waves, greedy to wet the soft brown leather and seep through the stitching around the soles. She pulled back. The mud tightened its grip, then released with a wet sigh.
A giggle rippled over the water, and this time she heard words, unrecognizable, undeniable, caught in the fall and rise of sound. Calling. Chiding. Daring.
Feet shuffled behind her. Softer than before, as if the tipping of the smallest toes across sand. Gooseflesh pricked the hairs of her neck. Alice didn’t dare turn. She saw in her thoughts that lump of a shadow pressing ever closer. A scream clawed at her throat, wiry and furious, but it found no breath for escape.
A dog barked. Once. Close.
The water pulled back. With a hiss so did the shadow, though she couldn’t bring herself to watch its retreat.
“Who’s there?” A voice asked. A male voice. Young. Cautious.
Alice opened her mouth to answer. Still, the breath required didn’t come.
Ahead of her the fog seemed to condense and darken. Then the darkness pulled together, solidifying into a broad, uneven shadow that, after a moment more, broke apart and solidified again.
“Who’s there?” the voice asked again.
This time Alice could assign a human shape to the voice. Then the shadow became a boy and she could assign a face. Her breath flooded back through her chest with a gasp of relief.
“So?” he asked. At his hip, a dog growled. It was a nightmarish beast, as black as the shadow it had emerged from. Its wide back was level with the boy’s waist.
When Alice found her voice it came out hesitant and small. “Is he… safe?”
The boy pressed his hand to the top of the dog’s square head. “Shana here’s a she.”
“Oh. Sorry. She?”
“She’s safe enough. As long as you’re not trespassing. And she keeps them away.” He nodded toward the lake as he stressed the word them.
“Keeps who away?”
“Not who,” he corrected. “What?”
Alice realized that he was studying her. Not in the ostentatious way Sylvia had inspected her the day before. It was furtive, his eyes flicking in an erratic pattern as if unsure where to land. When they did settle it was on her pajama pants. A soft smile mashed across his lips.
“Come on,” he said. “We’ll walk you home.”
Alice resented that smile. It seemed too much like the result of a joke that was on her, and she didn’t find any bit of this experience funny. “I can find my own way,” she argued, bending to stuff the bottom hem of her pants back into her boots.
“Yeah? Which way is your house from here?”
Of course she didn’t know. By process of elimination she assumed it wasn’t in the direction he’d come. With slow reluctance she turned her back on the lake and squinted into the fog. Then she lifted her left arm and pointed with a shaky finger.
He shook his head. “Not even close.”
“Oh, really,” she breathed. “How do you know?”
“You head in that direction, you’ll just skirt the edge of the field and find yourself at the north edge of your property about… thirty minutes later?”
With a sigh Alice motioned for him to lead on.
“I’m Kellen, by the way,” he said. He snapped his fingers twice as he began to walk, encouraging Shana away from the lake’s edge. “We’re neighbors. In case you were wondering.”
“Kellen Slade?” She felt her step falter as she recalled Sylvia’s words; it was that same feeling of being taken aback. She accidentally leaned into Shana as she sought to right herself. The mastiff leaned back, its muscular shoulder pressing into Alice’s hip.
“That’s the whole of it. Our ranch is about,” he pointed a thumb past his right shoulder, “a quarter of a mile that way.”
“What do you raise?”
Alice faltered again. She bit her lip to force her mouth from gaping.
“I think I’ve heard your name passed around school this week,” he continued, “but maybe you can remind me. In case I’ve heard wrong.”
“Oh. It’s Alice.”
“Like Alice Kyteler, the Irish witch.
“The witch?” Another faltering step. She started to think she would never find her footing around this boy. She’d only tripped over her own feet before around William Ollan, a filtered vision of green-eyed perfection. Kellen was a construction of long lines and sharp angles, his dark hair shaved down to stubble. Nothing like William. But there was something about him that set her off kilter.
“Most people mention Alice in Wonderland,” she finally said.
One shoulder rose and fell in an easy shrug. “I suppose that would’ve been more fitting, considering your tendency to fall down rabbit holes.”
“I – I don’t fall down rabbit holes.”
“What were you doing out here, then? Didn’t your mom ever tell you not to go out in the fog?”
“No. Why should she?”
He gave her a tight-mouthed stare, his eyes insisting that the answer was apparent; that, really, there was no point in asking the question.
“Well, what about you?” she asked. “You were obviously out.”
“With Shana. Like I said, she keeps them away. Then we heard you scream, so we ran over. I mean, we don’t need another neighbor dredged from the llyn.”
“Another? What do you mean?”
Kellen rolled his lips over his teeth, fighting the urge to elaborate. The ghost of an unpleasant memory settled over his dark eyes.
Shana let out a keening whine and pushed her body against his. In turn he leaned his hand into the thick solidity of her neck. “Well,” he said. He blinked rapidly and shaded his eyes from a sudden burst of sunlight. “Here we are.”
Alice also shaded her eyes. The fog had burned away with a breath-stealing suddenness and the old, whitewashed home lay no more than twenty yards ahead. Behind them the fog rolled back. Back, Alice imagined, toward the lake; toward the llyn, as Kellen had called it. Water rejoining water.
“If I never see fog again,” she whispered.
“You will,” Kellen said. “Just know to stay inside next time, Alice sans Wonderland. There’s no white rabbit on the other side of that abyss.”
She rubbed her face, hard, and pulled her hands through her loose hair. “Enough with the Wonderland references, okay?”
“Done,” he agreed. “I need to head back, anyway.”
“Already?” she asked. Something visceral inside of her wasn’t ready for him to leave. The idea of being alone felt hollow. Frightening.
She’d felt like this since moving to the valley. Hollow and afraid. Those feelings had taken brief flight during their walk from the lake but now they returned, threatening reinforcements.
“I mean,” she continued, “you don’t have to run off. I’m not all that horrible. I promise.” “Didn’t think you were,” he assured her. “But, I clean out the pens on Fridays, and it’s kind of an all day job.”
“Yeah. Pig pens.”
“Was that really where you were born?” She blurted. Two seconds too late she slapped her palm to her mouth.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I really am that horrible.”
A smile mashed across his lips; the same smile that had pressed his face when he’d noticed her pajama pants. This time she recognized it for what it was: an easy humor with an absolute lack of condescension. It was a smile that refreshed her soul.
He rubbed a hand over his stubble of hair, allowing the smile to fall into something crooked but equally real. “Welcome to Saw-Whet Valley, Alice. If you can survive the gossip, and the wildlife, you may find it a nice place to live.”
“I – yeah,” she sighed.
With a soft tilt of his head he turned. The sight of his back pushed an urgent gasp into her throat.
He stopped. Turned around. His smile tilted in the opposite direction and his lips parted slightly, ready to form a forthcoming response.
“I – I guess I’ll see you Monday? At school.”
“It’s not a holiday, so I don’t see there’s much of a choice.” And still that smile, lopsided but expansive in his narrow face.
“Right. Well. Maybe…” Again she faltered, though this time in words instead of steps. She curled her fingers into the opposite palm, rubbing away the last bit of chill left by the fog.
“Maybe,” he finished, “you can join me for lunch. If you’re not completely sold on sitting alone.”
“Oh!” She laughed softly, and in that warm exhale of breath she felt the last bit of cold exit her body. In its place something that resembled contentment blossomed, rich and full. “That sounds… tolerable.” She tried on Kellen’s relaxed, lopsided smile, finding it an easy fit.
He started to turn away again. Paused. Regarded her with a long, appraising lift of his brow. “The Celts believed that pigs were sacred, you know,” he said. “To be born in a pig sty was a foretelling of greatness.”
Alice laughed. "Yeah? Didn't they also believe in dragons and fairies?"
"Don't you?" he asked over his shoulder. His gaze drifted in the direction of the lake as he walked away.
Alice's gaze followed his. Though she couldn't see the lake from the house, she could see a lingering remnant of fog fighting against the rising sun. Water returning to water.
What else had returned?
The chill returned to her fingers with a biting fierceness. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her sweater, clinging desperately to her borrowed, lopsided grin.