There is a middle world between life and death, and Tess must navigate it to save her brother in this heart-wrenching story infused with the fractured and fantastical realms of Finnish mysticism.
Axel and Tess are bewildered when a stranger shows up in their backyard accompanied by a giant brown bear, but before they can investigate the bizarre encounter, something more harrowing happens: their father is killed in a freak car accident.
Now orphaned, Tess and Axel are shipped off to Finland to live with grandparents who they’ve never met, and are stunned to discover that the mysterious stranger with the bear has found them again. More stunning—they come to understand that this man isn’t really a man…he’s a keeper of souls. And the bear isn’t really a bear…it’s a ghost. Their mother’s ghost. Wandering, endlessly, searching for their father.
Then the Keeper invites Axel, who is already fighting symptoms of muscular dystrophy, to join the path of the dead—and when Axel disappears into the deep snow, Tess knows she must find a way to follow. There are mysteries connected to this peculiar man, this keeper, and if she can untangle them, she might not only save her little brother, but also bring her parents peace.
The Winter Place 1 The Renaissance at Mud Lake Tess was sitting on the front stoop of her house, kissing a boy, when the knight rode up. It hadn’t, by any means, been a good kiss—all toothy and wet, kind of frightened and overeager. Still, nobody likes to be interrupted. The knight brought his horse across the road at a canter and charged right into the front yard. His armor flashed in the afternoon light, jangling like a set of expensive pots. The boy quit kissing Tess as soon as he heard it, dropping his hands from her shoulders and sliding away on the wooden step. The knight was named Sam, and he was Tess’s father. The boy had a name, too, but it hardly matters. Tess would remember him only as the boy she happened to kiss on the day that her life changed forever. Though the kiss would have nothing to do with it.
“Tess!” the knight said, his mail-draped horse stamping the ragged grass that passed for their front lawn. “Tess? Is that you, sweetie?” Her father had trouble seeing through the visor of his helmet.
“Nope,” Tess said. She scooted closer to the boy, but he edged even farther away. The sword affixed to Sam’s saddle was blunted but still made of metal. Real enough.
“Honey,” Sam huffed, gathering his patience. He dropped the festooned orange reins and snapped his visor up. “You know I don’t have time to fool around.”
“I told you that thing was dangerous,” Tess said. “You’re going to break your neck.”
“I don’t need to see faces for the joust,” Sam said.
The joust—that’s why he was done up like a gleaming tin idiot. In just over an hour Tess’s father would take part in the opening ceremonies of the Central New York Renaissance Faire. It was, far and away, Sam’s favorite time of year, leaving Thanksgiving and Christmas and all birthdays well in the dust. It used to be Tess’s favorite time of year too. Not that she was telling.
“Listen,” Sam continued, waving his hand in the air as though to shoo flies. “Did Axel leave yet?”
Axel was Tess’s ten-year-old brother. “He’s still inside,” she said, “sewing up his tunic and putting dirt on his face.” The boy beside her stifled a sort of hiccup-laugh.
Her father’s horse shifted and threw her cloaked head back. Sam hardly moved in his saddle. He wasn’t a bad rider, even in that heavy armor. “Good,” he said. “The road is getting busy, and these out-of-towners drive like lunatics. I want you to walk him to the faire tonight. I’ll bring you both home when it’s over.”
“It’s not even half a mile,” Tess said. “Axel isn’t—”
“Hey.” Sam cut her off, jabbing an armored finger into the plate-mail covering his chest, producing a little tink. “Parent.” Then he pointed at Tess. “Kid. It isn’t a lot to ask.” He zapped her his most guilty-making look, a tactic that usually worked whenever it had anything to do with her brother.
“Fine,” she said. “We’ll take him in a minute.”
Sam’s bushy eyebrows perked up, disappearing into his helmet. It was as though he hadn’t been able to see the boy until Tess said “we.”
“Who’s your friend?” Sam said.
“Rod,” she said.
That was not the boy’s name.
“Pleased to meet you, Rod.” With the lightest press of his heel, Sam urged his horse closer to the front stoop. He leaned down to shake hands.
“And you, sir. Your Highness.”
“No, no,” Sam said, apparently oblivious to the boy’s mocking tone. “I’m no royal. Just a knight of the realm.”
“Understood.” The boy was trying so hard not to smile that he actually frowned.
Sam straightened up in his saddle and turned back to his daughter. “Remember that I’m teaching tonight, so I’ll need to bring you and Axel home immediately after the joust.” As if being a knight weren’t nerdy enough, Tess’s father was also a professor specializing in forest ecology and lichens. Lichens.
“Come on, girl,” Sam said. “Come on, sweetheart.” These last words were directed not at Tess, but at the horse. Technically, she belonged to the faire, but Sam had been performing with her for the past five years straight, and they had sort of a thing. The mare gingerly turned herself around while Sam petted her neck and cooed. Tess slipped her phone out of her pocket. She dialed her father, and seconds later the sound of Gregorian chanting began to emanate from his groin area. Whether he was in front of a lecture hall full of dozing students or jousting for the king, Sam always forgot to switch his phone to silent.
“Hell,” Sam muttered, patting himself down. Then, noticing the phone in Tess’s hand, he said: “You know, the smart-ass thing is not so adorable.”
“Who says I’m going for adorable?”
Sam smiled, maybe in spite of himself. Tess knew that her dad didn’t simply love her; he also liked her, most of the time. He dug the person that she was, even now that she’d begun to do her teenage best to communicate that this was in no way mutual. “You know what,” Sam said. “It’s actually kind of fitting.” Then, with a ridiculous “Ya!” he pressed his mare into a gallop, crossed the paved road with a medieval clopping, and vanished into the trees on the other side.
The boy couldn’t hold it in anymore. He laughed so hard that he fell off the stoop, getting mulch on his nice new jeans. “How the hell did you save yourself from that?” He gestured down at the trees into which Tess’s father had disappeared. “With a dad like that, you should so be a loser.”
Truth be told, this boy was kind of a bully and a jerk. Tess had no illusions about that.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Must have been a miracle.”
The town Tess lived in was called Baldwin, and it sat smack-dab in the middle of New York State. She and her brother had been born there and—excepting the occasional trip to Florida to visit their grandfather—they’d never left. Baldwin was made up of a handful of shops, a drugstore, and a diner, all strung along the sluggish glitter of the Seneca River. Everything beyond that was hilly farmland, save the little county park where the Renaissance Faire came to drop stakes every fall. The park was called Mud Lake, and it consisted of a few miles of blazed trails running from forest to meadow to marsh, lassoed around a lake that took its name for the algae and goose crap that thickened the shallows to pudding every summer. The park was generally as quiet as the town it was stapled to, save these two weeks in October when it was positively bursting with costumed fools.
Tess opened the front door after Sam left and found her little brother racing through the living room. “Train leaves in five minutes!” she called after him.
“Go on without me,” Axel hollered. He ran into Sam’s bedroom, and Tess heard the sound of closet doors opening and slamming.
“Don’t think I don’t want to,” she shouted. The boy joined her in the living room, casting his gaze over the grotty furniture. There was a chest to one side of the room, the lid yawning wide, filled with replica daggers, maces, and war hammers. The boy snorted. This was the first time he’d ever been inside Tess’s place, and it seemed to be living down to his expectations.
“I can’t find Dad’s shield,” Axel said, charging back into the living room. Tess’s brother was dressed in a burlap cowl and tunic falling over sheer Peter Pan leggings. This was ostensibly for a reason—this year would be Axel’s first time as an official performer at the faire, playing their father’s squire. But honestly, Axel would have dressed up whether he was being paid to or not. His cloth shoes curled up festively at the tips, and he’d buffed them over with cooking oil and fireplace ash. He’d also dabbed his tunic, arms, and face in the stuff. The kid didn’t so much resemble a squire as he did a forlorn Christmas elf afflicted with mange, or rabies.
“Wow,” the boy said.
“I know,” Tess said. “He puts my dad to shame.” Then, to Axel: “Do you really need it?”
“Of course I need it,” Axel said, totally ignoring the older boy. “The squire is supposed to present the knight with his shield. I can’t go without it.”
The boy stepped over to the big open chest of weapons, and he began to root around. “Screw the shield. How about this bad boy?” He plucked out a short, one-sided ax with a mean spike at the pommel. Like all the other replicas, and like Sam’s full set of period-accurate armor, this was little more than an overpriced toy. Still, it would have ruined your day to get clobbered with it. The boy made as though to toss the ax at Axel, who flinched.
“That’s not even the right era,” Axel said, sort of sheepishly.
“ ’Course it isn’t.” The boy let the hand ax fall to the floor, where it scuffed the hardwood as it landed. He shut the heavy chest and then paused for a moment before reaching around behind it. From the space between the chest and the wall, he produced a diamond-shaped jousting shield with polished copper edging—it must have fallen back there when Sam opened the lid to get his sword and gauntlets.
“Thanks!” Axel said, rushing over to take the shield. But the boy held fast.
“What do you say?” the boy asked.
“I said it already. Thank you?”
“No.” The boy might have been a bully, but he was a practiced and patient one. “The word I’m looking for is ‘please.’ ”
“Oh,” Axel said. He shot his sister the briefest look. “Please,” he said.
The boy smiled and let go of the shield. “That’s right,” he said.
“Come on,” Tess said, unable to meet her brother’s eyes. “You’re going to be late.”
They locked up the A-frame and cut across the yard, heading for the Mud Lake gates down the road. Soon Tess began to hear the first strains of lute music drifting through the park. Flags and banners whipped in the breeze, flashing through the canopy. Axel hurried ahead, Sam’s heavy shield bouncing across his narrow spine.
“He doesn’t look that sick to me,” the boy said. “At least not, you know, not physically.”
This brought Tess up short. Rumors regarding Axel’s condition were rife in Baldwin, but no one had ever confronted her so directly.
“He’s not sick at all,” she said. It sounded like the lie it was, but the boy had sense enough to leave it at that.
They reached the park gates, where a cloth billboard was draped over the Mud Lake sign, brightly announcing the start of the Renaissance Faire. Sam’s picture was on the billboard—the good white knight. For the next two weeks he’d battle the evil black knight twice daily. Sam would win and lose on a predetermined, rotating schedule, as committed to his own defeats as to his victories.
Axel showed his performer’s badge to the leather-capped steward at the ticketing kiosk—shaped, unsurprisingly, like a castle battlement—and nodded his head in the direction of Tess and the boy. “They’re with me,” he said.
“Pass, then, young sirs,” the steward responded in a piss-poor, strangely piratical English accent. “All is well. You may pass. But mind you make haste. Their majesties convene the contest on the hour!”
Translated from high-nerd, this meant: “You’re late.” Axel didn’t have to be told twice. He gave Tess a parting glance and then raced into the faire, disappearing among the interpretive displays and vendors’ tents that had spilled out of the parking lot and into the meadows. Tess made to turn and go, but the boy took her lightly by the arm.
“If you think I’m missing this, you’re crazy,” he said.
Oh well. The boy was such a bummer at kissing that watching the joust with him was probably as good a way to spend their afternoon as any, even if it was just so that they could laugh at Sam and Axel. Tess certainly wasn’t above this. Never mind that last year she’d been right there with them, done up as an adventuring princess. She’d grown out of all that. Maybe “grown” isn’t the right word. It was more an act of will than an act of nature. Tess had decided to grow out of it. High school had come for her. It was every kid for themself.
“It’s not going to be as fun as you think,” she said, pulling her arm from his hand and stepping past the kiosk.
“I don’t think it’s going to be fun at all,” the boy said, his smile sharp and hungry.
The jousting field was set up in a meadow at the far end of the fairgrounds, just beyond the ax-throw and court-of-foods. On almost any other day of the year you could see whitetail deer grazing here, or maybe a skunk nosing through the wilted growth. But today every sensible animal had found its way to the deeper woods and marshes. A ten-foot riser had been erected at one end of the field, flanked by miniature cardboard towers, and bleachers lined both sides of the jousting green. Tess and the boy found seats on the lowest level, where a sign warned: YOU WILL GET MUDDY! in cheerfully ornate script.
A sudden commotion rippled through the crowd, and some people started clapping. It took Tess a moment to realize that this was for her brother. Axel stepped out from behind the riser, joined by an older boy who must have been playing the squire for the evil black knight. They certainly looked the parts of grim, downtrodden urchins. The knights themselves appeared moments later, galloping out of a large opening at the center of the riser, down to the end of the jousting green and back. The costumed crowd erupted, shooting to their feet, hollering and wolf whistling. Sam gave them a wave, then unsheathed his sword and twirled it in the air, the sun bright upon the blade. He accepted his jousting shield from Axel with a curt nod and turned to give the king and queen, seated on thrones atop the riser, a deep bow. Tess was struck, all at once, by how strange it was to be watching her father from the audience like this. Every inch of Sam was concealed. Tess couldn’t see his face, or his fingers, or even a thread of his long graying hair. But he wasn’t hidden—that was Sam up there. That was her father’s truest self. He may as well have been naked as covered in plates of tempered steel.
For as much time as they’d all spent practicing, the joust didn’t last very long. The knights retrieved their lances and charged leisurely at each other, while their squires led the crowd in coordinated cheers. The boy not only participated in this but, much to Axel’s chagrin, he way overdid it. Whenever Sam scored a point, the boy would jump to his feet, fist pumping the air like he meant to bruise it, hooting with luxuriously insincere delight. Whenever Sam lost a point, the boy would boo and hiss, spitting on the ground. His contempt for the proceedings wouldn’t have been more obvious if he’d dropped his pants and shown his ass to the gathered crowd. Tess tried her best to ignore it, staring blankly across the field. Axel did no such thing. He couldn’t exactly interrupt his performance, but he made a point of passing by their bleachers between the runs and staring daggers at the boy. Tess wished Axel wouldn’t—nothing good would come of it.
Nothing good did. After the joust was over, Tess and the boy went to the makeshift stables, where Axel had just finished putting the horse their father had been riding into her stall. Tess could tell that her brother was still fuming. The boy slapped Axel’s back a little too hard. “Not bad,” he said. “You were by far the least stupid part of that.”
“This one’s a bigger jerk than usual,” Axel said. It would have been a brave and rather foolish thing to say, had it been in English.
“Hell is that?” the boy said, his hand still on Axel’s shoulder. “Elvish?”
“Suomea,” Axel answered. It was Finnish, for Finnish. Only Tess understood what he’d said, on account of she spoke it too.
“Snow-ma?” The boy glanced back at Tess, a hint of irritated confusion behind his pasted-on grin. “I forget; they were on our side? Or did they fight for the Klingons?”
“Shows what he knows. They fought the Russians,” Axel said, shrugging out of the boy’s grip. That he thought he could score a point with this distinction was a little pitiable, and besides, he was still speaking in Finnish. But if he meant to get under the boy’s skin, he’d done so.
“Don’t be like that,” the boy said, more a threat than a plea. “Come on—what’s that you’re speaking?”
“What do you care?” Axel said, finally switching to English.
“Be nice,” Tess said.
Axel turned to look at her, and at once Tess realized that this had nothing to do with the fact that the boy had been nasty to him. This was happening because the boy had made fun of their father. Then he looked back at the boy. “You know that she’s going to be bored of you in a week or two,” Axel said. “So I wouldn’t bother trying to learn it.” His eyes went wide, blazing with certain awareness of his own foolishness. “Not that you could, anyway.”
The boy snatched the collar of Axel’s tunic, backing him up into a broad patch of horse-trod mud. He seemed almost sad as he did this—the boy must have realized that he’d been checkmated. Nowhere to go from here but down, so he gave Axel a hard push that sent him sprawling feet over face into the mud. Axel landed flat on his back, the wind knocked out of him so hard that Tess could actually hear his lungs empty. She knew that this was restraint on the boy’s part. He could have done a lot worse.
“Stop it,” she said, pushing past the boy and stepping into the mud to help Axel sit up. He was gulping air, trying very hard not to cry. “I think you should go,” she said, not even turning to look at the boy.
That was restraint, too. It wouldn’t have been impossible—or even all that difficult—for Tess to have put that bully back on his ass. She had the advantage of staggered puberty, to say nothing of the element of surprise. Because who expects to be leveled by a willowy girl with thin arms and post-goth hair? Certainly not this boy. But Tess could have done it.
She should have.
She knew that.
They found their father waiting in the employee lot, the engine of his rattletrap pickup running, his armor and weapons trembling in the bed. Sam knew that something had happened the moment he saw Axel’s muddied costume and bloodshot eyes—the look of bruised pride was not uncommon in their house. He reached across to open the passenger door.
“Get in,” he said.
“I’ll get the seat dirty,” Axel said.
Sam smiled lamely. “The seat’s already dirty.” His expression darkened as he turned to Tess. “You too.”
They pulled out of the lot without uttering another word, Sam flashing his high beams at the attendants, all of whom tipped their feathered caps respectfully—he was, after all, a knight of the realm. The drive home didn’t take two minutes, but it was a long two minutes. Their house lay just ahead, all alone between the park and the surrounding farmland. It was a boxy little single-level, above which their father had erected a sort of high-peaked, timbered bivouac, designed to keep the winter snows from flattening them. From the road the house appeared to be a traditional A-frame, but from up close it looked more like a shanty under a wooden tent. Sam turned down the driveway and put the truck into park, leaving the engine idling. “There are potpies in the freezer,” he said. “Tess will make you one.” There was a long silence. Nobody got out of the truck or said anything. “Give us a second, little man.” Sam had been calling Axel that for years, but only recently had the phrase taken on an air of unintentional mockery. Because Axel was little—too little.
“She didn’t do anything,” Axel said, loyal to a fault.
“Obviously, she did.” Sam waited, but Axel didn’t move. “Out,” he said, his voice loose and gravelly; about as close to yelling as he ever got.
Axel slid across Tess’s lap to dismount the truck. He whispered over her, light as Pinocchio, hardly bending the grass when he landed woodenly in the yard. He accepted the key without a word, leaving them to it.
“So I take it that’s the kid’s idea of flirting with you?” Sam said. “Who is he?”
“Nobody,” Tess said.
“Not nobody. Somebody. Somebody who’d hurt your little brother.”
“Yeah. Because I knew he’d do that.”
Sam gave her a look. “And now that you know?”
“I’m not going to talk to him anymore.” The answer was automatic, but it was also true. The boy, who’d meant little to her before, now meant nothing at all.
“And if he does it again?”
Tess squirmed, eager to be out of the vibrating pickup and free of this conversation. “I don’t know, Dad. I’ll kick him in the balls. I’ll give him a nosebleed. I’ll break his arm in three places.”
“Gosh, that’d be smart. Get yourself good and suspended. And who’d look after your brother then?”
Sam was always saying stuff like that. It hardly surprised her anymore. “Yeah, it sure would be a shame for Axel, me getting suspended,” Tess said.
Her father opened his mouth, ready to chop that sarcasm off at the neck. But he caught himself. “Sorry,” he said. “I know you were kidding. But the point is that . . . You know the point.”
Tess was quiet. Given the circumstances, her poor ground in this fight, an apology from her dad should be pretty close to victory.
“Want me to put a pie in the oven for you?” she said.
“I’m doing a session at the writing clinic after class,” her father said. “I’ll pick something up in between.”
“All right,” Tess said, stepping out of the truck. “See you.”
Sam reached across the passenger bench and pulled the door closed behind her. The window was still open, and he called to her through it. “I love you, honey.” Nothing but a throwaway had it been any other day. For years to come, Tess would play this moment over and over again in her mind. It was only a fluke, a temporary and benevolent glitch in the universe, that she answered the right way.
“Love you, too, Dad,” Tess said.
Sam nodded, glanced at the dash clock, and drove away.
Alexander Yates was born in Haiti and grew up in Mexico, Bolivia, and the Philippines. He is the author of the critically-acclaimed adult novel Moondogs, and YA novels The Winter Place and How We Became Wicked. Also a photographer, he lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with his wife.