I’m dead. I went to bed, exhausted after a day of training, didn’t I? I don’t remember doing anything to kill me, but hey. It’s obvious that this isn’t LA. Weird. I don’t feel dead. Guess I’m just one of those unlucky athletes whose heart gave out early.
Those thoughts reverberated in my mind as I scanned the area. Trees. I loved the trees—pine. That is one scent I could never forget. Camping with Dad whenever we went to Colorado for a meet. Forty-eight hours of downtime before it was back to training. Always about training.
Cold. No shirt, no pants or shoes, just boxers. Too cold to stand around like in the snow. Since when is heaven cold? Is hell cold? I thought fire. No fire here. Couldn’t miss that.
Gray. Everything so dull and gray. In my memory, all my trips to Colorado in the cold and gray months had still shown vivid green in the evergreen trees and the occasional red bird or berry. The berries here looked dusted with ashes—washed out and unappetizing. I passed them without temptation—good too, because my stomach clenched with hunger with every few hobbled steps.
My teeth chattered. I had to find a way to get warm. A breeze—trees rustled in what felt like an arctic wind. I stumbled, barefoot through the forest floor. Pain—as rocks and pine needles shredded my feet. Altitude. It would kill me. I despised meets in high altitudes. Dad used them to drive me harder. “Don’t let it beat you. You can do this. Think of the sacrifices we’re making for you. Dig deeper.”
Sacrifices. I’ve heard about almost nothing else my entire life—what little of it I had. Mom worked sixty-hour weeks in corporate finance to pay for my swimming career. Dad coached two other kids to help pay for our travel expenses—at least he had until the endorsements came.
I’ll never get to be on the Wheaties box now. Poor Dad. Another dream crushed.
Sometime around that thought is when I saw her. She looked like—I had no idea how old little kids were. She walked well, so she had to be more than what, two? Her hair whipped around her head as she dashed from tree to tree. Giggling. My brain strained to find the word to describe it. I know the word now. Musical—lyrical.
I shoved Dad’s reminders that I wasn’t very smart from my mind as I followed the kid. I mean, it doesn’t take a math geek to figure out that a little girl running around the forest had to have someone looking out for her—even in heaven they wouldn’t leave kids alone, would they?
Right about then, I smelled it—smoke. Dread hit me hard. How many times had Dad said, “Where there’s smoke, there is fire?” Usually, he said because I looked suspicious. Forget that. He always said it because he suspected me. It had been his signal. “Confess now and maybe I’ll only give you twenty laps in the pool.”
Look, he was usually right. okay? I tried to get away with stuff. It was like my own way of saying, “I’ve got to be a kid one way or another. I’ll do it by getting in trouble.”
I never minded the seemingly-endless laps on those days. I deserved them. They would help me in the end. I’d be stronger, faster, better for them. No, I hated the times I got twenty, thirty, fifty, or more laps because I wouldn’t confess to something I didn’t do. In Dad’s eyes, I always did it. I was always at fault.
Confess. I can’t tell you how many times I confessed to doing things I didn’t do just to save my own butt. When you’re a swimmer, you don’t have much of one to begin with. Gotta conserve what little is left by the time dolphin kicks sculp it into lean, nearly non-existent muscle.
No, the dread I felt was in knowing that fire meant this wasn’t heaven. Fire meant hell. God have mercy.
A small clearing appeared as if someone had ripped a handful of trees from the side of the mountain. Yeah, I definitely climbed as I ran—or attempted to run. It was more of a scramble-slash-limp. To one side of that clearing stood a stone and wood cabin. The smoke. I’d found the source. Not hell. Thank you, God. That was fast.
The little girl glanced back at me, still giggling. Was it my lack of pants? Were my lips blue?
A woman stepped outside, carrying something. “Let’s put on a sweater.”
The child pointed where she thought I was. “Man.”
The woman scanned the trees. I think she saw me, but she didn’t show it. “Who?”
What did she mean? I was a no no? What, “stranger danger?” Great. I’d be arrested for indecent exposure and attempted kidnapping or something equally jail-worthy. I flattened myself against the three. Don’t see me. Don’t look. Just go away. I couldn’t leave. She’d see me for sure.
“Well, go inside and get Bryn.” The child disappeared into the cabin, but the woman stayed out there, still looking—almost exclusively in my direction. “Hello?”
Echo. Lots of echoes. I kept quiet, still hiding. “Hellooooo. Is anyone out there? I thought I saw—”
A girl stepped from the cabin. “Odele?”
Hide. I needed to hide, but instead I stared as the girl strolled out into the yard. She used a long stick to steady her. Was she crippled or blind? When her eyes reached where I hid, I knew the answer. Crippled—somehow.
“I’ll be back. Bar the door.”
Amazed—I watched, amazed. The woman listened. I had assumed the woman was the girl’s mother, but it didn’t seem like it. She listened, her eyes riveted on the door, until she heard what she wanted to hear—probably that bar dropping down. Didn’t they have locks? Did heaven need locks? Purgatory maybe. Points to the Catholics on that one.
“I see you there. I know you are there. Come out here.”
“Why can’t you?” Each word—closer. I was thirty seconds away from mortification.
That worked. The footsteps ceased. “Really?”
“Well, I’m in my boxers, but that’s it.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
Hesitation. I think I broke a tooth while she hesitated. “Stay there. I’ll be back.”
Where would I go? What would I do? Who are you? Where am I? What is this? The questions bombarded me as I watched her return to the cabin door and knock. “Odele, I need a blanket.”
I expected “Odele” to tell “Bryn” to get inside and leave the weirdo out there alone. The cabin door opened and Odele handed the girl a blanket. “We’re coming back. Leave it open.”
Bar the door. Open the door. Leave it open. Get me a blanket. Why did the woman put up with it? While I tried to figure out what was going on, the girl must have been walking toward me. I never heard her. She shoved the blanket around the tree.
“Put it around you and follow me.”
No response. Wasn’t that kind of weird too?
Halfway to the door, I asked a question that would have earned me laps at home—for being stupid, of course. “Where am I?”
“You don’t know?”
“Some people think heaven will be like this, but I think it’ll be like Seaside.”
Seaside. What was that? “That is very helpful. Thanks.”
Sarcasm. Epic fail for Bryn. “So if this isn’t heaven and it isn’t Seaside, what is it?”
“That explains everything.”
She pushed the door in, holding it open for me. “Does it?”
“Not at all.”
“Then why did you say it did?”
Bryn gestured to the fire. “What kind of chasm?”
Warmth. My teeth could not stop chattering. As I stood before the flames, something dawned on me. I had obeyed much like Odele. Was Bryn some kind of weird archangel? Maybe this really was purgatory. “Yep. Bonus points for the Catholics.”
“What did you say?”
“This is purgatory, right?”
Bryn didn’t answer. She turned to Odele, ignoring me. “He needs a cup of tea, a tincture for shock, and perhaps something for memory.”
“Has he been hurt?”
She nodded. “Or partially frozen. I suspect amnesia.”
“I don’t have amnesia.”
“Then why did you ask if this is purgatory if I already told you it’s Highlands.” She frowned. “What is purgatory?”
Two men burst through the door before I could answer. The largest one, who looked like the Brawny man, said the best words I’d heard yet. “You called for us?”
“You have cell service up here? Great. Can I use your phone? I’ll be out of here in no time. My dad will be—”
“Who is that?”
I couldn’t believe it when they accepted that as a perfectly reasonable answer. I mean, come on. A man. That was insufficiently eloquent even for me—the “dumb jock with an IQ of less than an amoeba.”
“Why is he here?”
“Fawn found him out there. Naked.”
“Hey, I said I have boxers.”
Bryn looked at me and nodded. “Does it have a name?”
“Who names boxers?” My mind ordered me out of there. Go. Run. Steal the blanket. I didn’t.
“Is he hungry?”
She turned to the others. “I need that tincture. He really is addled.” As if a new thought occurred to her, she stared at me. “Unless…” Sympathy filled her eyes and she put a comforting arm around my shoulder. “Come sit over by the fire. It’ll be okay.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
Bryn smiled at me as she answered Odele. “He is simple.”
The room erupted in animated discussion. So maybe I really wasn’t the brightest bulb on Broadway or some other cliche that my father had used way too many times for my liking. It took me a minute of listening to figure out that she meant I was even more mentally deficient than my father thought. Simple. Weird way of putting it, but kind of nice.
“Wait. Whoa. I’m not simple. I am just cold, and you guys don’t make sense. I think it’s a regional thing or something.”
“Well, my boxers. They’re underwear, you know? To cover things—that need to be covered.”
“We call them underwear here,” one of the men said. “We don’t name them after dogs.”
After dogs. Yeah. “No, they’re named after the shorts boxers wear.”
“Your dogs wear clothes?”
I felt like they were messing with me. Make fun of the half-frozen dude from nowhere—that’s nice. “That’s not funny. Whatever.”
The little girl, Fawn, skipped up to me. She stood in front, arms wide as if to protect me and said, “No make my man cry!”
Embarrassing. So embarrassing… but cute too. The others didn’t laugh, though. Yes, they smiled, but it was the indulgent smile of people who are proud of their kid—my grandma used to do that before she died. I had the world’s best grandma. Had.
Odele sat on the arm of a chair and studied me. “Can you explain what a boxer is in your—your region?”
“We have boxer dogs too. But—” Why even try to answer such a weird question.
“But…” Brawny dude seemed interested. Really?
“But we also have men—athletes—who ‘box.’ They’re ‘boxers.’”
“What does a boxer do? Not make boxes, surely…”
Nuts. These people were nuts—or jerks. “Whatever.”
Dad’s insistence that I would never be an adequate communicator—in his face! With one word, I communicated perfectly. They left me alone.
You never know how important clothes are until you don’t have them. Yeah. Kind of profound. Hat’s off to ya, Dad. Pants. Shirt. Socks. Shoes too.
The door. I wanted it. So seriously ticked—I just wanted to leave and slam the door behind me. I would just freeze, though. I was barely warm enough and didn’t want to lose any of it.
Bryn brought me a few little bottles, a spoon, and a cup of tea. Tea. Yuck. “Do you want your tinctures in your tea or down the back of your throat?”
“For your shock. I have one for memory and one to help your body fight infection too.”
“I’m not in shock. I am perfectly cognizant of my surroundings.” There. A little articulation should show that I am not “simple” or suffering from whatever she thinks I am.
“Do you not find it odd that we all understand each other and do not understand you, and you do not understand us? Can you not see that it is unlikely that we are the ones with the…”
She didn’t know how to break it to me gently. Great. I tried something different. “Look, I don’t care what you think of boxing. If you guys don’t get into stuff like that, great. I’ve never liked it myself. I just think it’s a little rude to tell a guy that he’s—he’s—simple or that he’s sick simply because he is different from you. It’s not your fault that you don’t know boxing. It’s not my fault either.”
“Who said anything about fault?” Bryn didn’t seem to know what to think of me. “But what you say is true. I should not leap to conclusions.”
Why had I spoken? “Jump to conclusions.”
“Jump. Leap. What’s the difference? I think that it might be a little rude to correct people’s idioms just because they are slightly different from yours.”
Laughing. Yep, they all busted out laughing. okay, so dry humor isn’t my forte. I mean, I can deliver it sometimes, but I don’t always get it.
“Did you see his face?” Brawny pounded my shoulder. “She’s just joshing you, boy.”
Fawn crept around the side of my chair again. I didn’t think she wanted me to see her, but when I didn’t acknowledge her, she tapped my arm. “Whasure name?”
“Where are you from, Tony?”
Seriously? We’d already proven that we spoke the same language while not speaking it at all. I could only get “highlands” and “seaside” out of them. Why answer Bryn’s question about where I was from?
Then again, why not? “L.A.” As they looked at one another, I could almost read their thoughts. “A freak from down the mountain.” At that moment, I thought I understood.
“This is Arrowhead or Big Bear, right? Oh, or Wrightwood.” Their faces showed no sign of comprehension. “Mammoth?” Lots of people go to Mammoth for skiing on the weekends—even as late as May or June. Someone was playing a prank—probably Joe Fuller. The guy would do anything to get a day of training in on me.
“Bryn, I don’t care if it’s rude or not, you said this is Highlands, and he keeps trying to make it some other place. He’s addled in some way or another.”
“Oh, Arlie. I think those might be names—like they use in Prairie and Seaside. Maybe he knows someone he thinks might live here? A Mr. Wrightwood or Mammoth?”
Arlie stormed from the room, not happy to have his statement tossed aside. Juvenile—and enlightening. Arlie cared about what she thought of him.
“Gideon, will you go with Arlie? I need a pair of his pants, some underclothes, socks, and a warm flannel shirt or a sweater. I doubt he has extra boots, but we both know yours won’t fit him. I have to put something on this man.”
“I can dress myself without help. I’m also house trained.” That earned me a few snickers.
Gideon stood to leave. “I’ll be back.”
Odele followed, dragging Fawn behind her. “I’ll go too.” As she neared her sister, she hissed, “You could be nicer to Arlie.”
“I was not unkind at all. He suggested that names meant this man was truly injured, and I suggested that perhaps he meant people. He was unreasonable.” She glanced at me. “Or do you think that I was unkind?”
“Not to him.”
She almost apologized. I saw her open her mouth just the slightest bit before she pursed her lips, shaking her head. “I think our friend Tony is most definitely not injured or in shock. His sense of humor is too sharp for that.”
Odele stared at me for a few seconds. Her eyes—boring inside me. Awkward. “I’m glad Fawn found you before you died.”
Alone with Bryn, I wondered what she thought of her sister’s statement. Was it normal here to speak of death so candidly? Death. Can you die in heaven, hell, or purgatory? You can’t, can you? You don’t die twice. I hope you don’t, anyway.
“Don’t mind my sister. She’s a little shy and it makes her a bit awkward until she knows you.” Bryn poked the fire in the fireplace and turned to face me. “I’ll get a room ready for you.”
“Do you have anywhere else to go? I thought it seemed as if you were unconnected here in the highlands.”
The. It was a word that meant specific; didn’t it? Like the store instead of a store. Yeah. So highlands wasn’t a name but a place. Clarification. I wanted it. Probably not a good idea—not yet.
“Where did you come from? How did you get here?”
She asked the questions while working in a room just down a hall, calling out the door whenever she passed it. I could see her face.
I liked her face. She looked like a grown version of Fawn. They both had wide eyes—Fawn was named well in that sense. Her eyes looked like the pictures I’d seen of baby deer. Big, round, chocolately things with full lashes. Her lashes were so dark I swear I could see them from halfway across the house.
I’ve never seen someone so pale outside of those stupid vampire movies—not “naturally” pale anyway. Goths at school had been, but that was thanks to some serious makeup usually. Pale—foreign to my swim world. We were all very brown.
“Here you go. Try to rest a bit—get warm.” Bryn beckoned me into the room and swept her arm. “If you need anything, just let me know. I’ll be in the room at the opposite end of the hall.” She pointed down the hall to a room with a wide open door and lots of light streaming in. I liked the room from what I could see of it.
“Thanks.” What else could I say? I mean, “It’s the middle of the morning. I’m not two,” might be a bit rude. Okay, a lot bit rude. Considering my teeth might have been saved from a Tom and Jerry-like shattering, I just went with it.
The room had kind of a B&B flair to it—reminded me of some I’d been in when hotels didn’t have a room reserved like they were supposed to. Then we ended up at an overpriced place with junk all over every surface. But in Colorado, not so much. The place there was so cool that Dad used to reserve it if it was off-season. Read that, “cheap.”
The yellow-gray wood walls—big contrast to the snowy outside. Since when are log cabins warm? I mean, c’mon! Every one I’ve ever been in was cold. It was, though. Totally warm. All I could figure was insulation between a double wall of logs or something.
I took it all in. Mom would want to hear about the thin quilt on top of the bed—how would it keep anyone warm enough?—and the old-fashioned bowl and pitcher on the stand by the door. Of everything, I think I liked the painting over the bed best. Mom would freak. I mean, you just don’t hang heavy things like an old piece of wood with a lake painted on it over a bed in California. It’s a death trap in an earthquake. So I’m probably not in Wrightwood after all.
So I’d thought the idea of a nap for a guy my age was pretty insulting, but after the third yawn, I crawled beneath the covers anyway. Yeah, the wood over my head made me nervous. It’s hard to ignore your mom’s voice in your head—even if you are or want to think of yourself as a man now.
And that thought is when I thought I knew what happened. A man now. Twenty-one. The night before my friends and I had gone out drinking—first and last time, I might add. Alcohol didn’t agree with me. So I am dead and everyone got it wrong—unless this is some weird kind of reincarnation. Continuing my life in some new place maybe. Oh, God, please no.
Join Tony as he finds himself in a place that makes him face his own fears as well as learn to accept them.
Introspection–this place invites it. I’ve never allowed myself the time to pause and get to know myself. My father taught me it was weak. Focus on the prize–eyes off yourself. The goal matters. You are just the instrument to get you there.
Here… Is this what that goal was and I never knew it? The peaks above, the trees that stand tall beside me as if my own personal bodyguards.
I am alive–maybe for the first time in my life–and I think it’s because I’m dead.
Review from an advance reader:
Highlands follows the story of Tony, who is thrust from our world into a new reality. After falling asleep in Los Angeles, he awakens the next morning in Highlands; up in the snowy mountains, freezing… The Highlanders who find him have never heard of Los Angeles, or California for that matter. Follow the story of Tony as he learns to adjust in his new life. Chautona weaves an intriguing tale as Tony builds new relationships and learns to see himself and the world around him as God intended – a masterpiece in the tapestry of God’s creation. ~Emily
Another advance reader has this to say:
I love how Chautona’s books are filled with characters that seem so real you are sure you’ve met them somewhere! This is also true with her newest book, Highlands! Tony and his struggles feel so real, I’ve found myself feeling sorry for him, rooting for him, and even feeling annoyed at him! This story follows Tony as he works to figure out how he ended up in a strange place, and along the way, attempts to sort out his past… his journey has prompted me to rethink the way I approach some of life’s circumstances, and the uniqueness of how God has created us. ~Karin
** I recommend that those outside the US consider purchasing through Book Depository.
They ship worldwide–FREE! **