The Sisters of Blue Mountain by Karen Katchur is a thrilling mystery that hurtles towards an unexpected ending that will leave readers speechless (available April 4, 2017).
The small town of Mountain Springs, Pennsylvania thrives on the snow geese migration. Each year, the birds flock to the dam, and the tourists follow, filling up Linnet’s Bed and Breakfast.
But one morning Linnet wakes up to discover hundreds of dead geese by the B&B and her life is thrown into the media frenzy when her father—a former ornithology professor—is asked to study the case. As the tourists cancel their plans and Linnet’s father’s health grows increasingly worse, the last thing she expects is to see her estranged sister, Myna, on her doorstep.
Myna has never stayed in one place for long after running from Mountain Springs. Although she and Linnet were close growing up, a family secret broke their bond, and Myna’s return has brought back memories both sisters have tried to keep buried.
When a reporter arrives in town who may have a connection to the sisters’ past, Linnet and Myna are forced to confront the event that tore them apart. But when a young professor who was assisting their father on the case turns up dead—and their father becomes the primary suspect—Linnet and Myna realize that their secret won’t stay hidden for long…
Spring came early the year the birds fell from the sky.
Linnet was standing at the kitchen sink with a cup of coffee, looking out the garden window, when a bird dropped. She was so startled that she’d jumped, splashing hot coffee onto her hand and staining the sleeve of her white oxford shirt.
What in the world? She leaned over the sink, first looking up and then down, but she couldn’t see where it had gone. It had to have been a snow goose. She clearly saw the white down, the black-tipped feathers of its wings.
They were everywhere, the light geese that migrated late winter and early spring, flying over Pennsylvania en route to Canada. Tourists traveled from as far away as Virginia to see the snow geese making their trip north, swimming in the dam, resting in the fields. Linnet’s sister, Myna, had often compared the experience of watching the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of migrating white birds to standing inside a snow globe after someone had given it a good shake. “And who wouldn’t love that,” Myna had said.
It was something to see, making the experience of the snow-globe effect Linnet’s busiest time of year, filling all four rooms in The Snow Goose—the B&B she and Ian operated. But she’d never seen a goose drop to the ground as this one had, as though its wings were made of lead rather than feathers, its bones solid steel rather than hollow tubes.
She leaned farther over the sink, hoisting herself onto the counter’s ledge, her feet dangling above the wooden floor.
“What are you doing?” Ian asked.
She lowered herself down, banging her knee on the bottom cabinet. He was buttoning the cuffs on his shirtsleeves. His tie was thrown over his shoulder so he wouldn’t accidently dunk it into his coffee like he often did, holding the coffee she’d brought him earlier.
“I was looking out the window.”
“I could tell. What’s so interesting out there?”
Before she could answer, their twelve-year-old son, Hank, walked into the room.
“Let’s go, Dad,” Hank said. He’d eaten two bowls of cereal, and now he was dressed and ready for school, wearing his jacket and backpack. His hair was damp and parted to the side. She could still see where the comb separated the strands. In another hour his bangs would fall into his eyes, the white-blond wisps loose and shiny. He was a mini-version of Ian, fair and freckled, their eyelashes light and long to match their hair and eyebrows. When Hank had been a toddler, she’d had to explain to strangers on numerous occasions that no, she wasn’t the babysitter, she was his mother. Yes, he looked like his father, obviously. Linnet’s hair was as dark as night, and her eyes a deep brown.
She handed Hank his lunch and kissed his cheek. “Have a good day,” she said.
“Yeah, I don’t mind you kissing me at home, but can you not do it in front of my friends?” he asked.
He was referring to the day before when she’d picked him up from baseball practice. She’d leaned over and kissed his cheek when he’d gotten into the car. He’d pulled away from her, sinking into the passenger’s seat, mumbling about his friends watching.
“Sorry,” she said now, wondering when the heck he’d gotten so big, feeling as though it was just yesterday that she’d brought him home from the hospital, her baby boy swaddled in a blue blanket, his skin wrinkly, his face pink and puckered.
Ian picked up his briefcase and grabbed a granola bar. He taught tenth-grade math at the high school. He’d drop Hank off at the middle school on his way.
“Tell me later what you were doing in the window,” Ian said, and kissed her softly on the lips. His breath smelled like coffee and toothpaste.
“Dad, let’s go!” Hank called one more time as he headed for the door.
When they’d gone and the house was quiet, she looked out the window again. She decided it was odd the way the bird had dropped, unusual enough to warrant a better look.
She stepped outside through the side door. Everything was wet from the thunderstorm the night before. The air was tinged with the scent of worms and bird dirt, the aroma unpleasant to some but not to her—to her it smelled like home. She walked around to the back of their three-story colonial. The daffodils were showing signs of life. The tulips that their groundskeeper, Al, had planted were starting to open. The maple and oak trees were sprouting shiny new leaves. The cherry blossoms were not quite in full bloom.
She could just about glimpse the dam between the branches. She made a mental note to talk with Al about trimming the trees to thin out the view. She charged more money for the rooms that had a view of the water, and she’d better make sure her guests got what they paid for.
When she reached the far side of the house by the kitchen’s garden window, she spotted the goose on the ground. Slowly, she walked to where it lay, thinking it might be injured. It didn’t move or try to get away as she approached. It still didn’t move when she stood over it and then crouched for a closer look.
Dead, she thought. This snow goose dropped from the sky, dead.
She looked up to the sound of honking overhead. The geese had arrived during the late winter months and then had moved on. But fortunately, more geese were coming, although the flocks had thinned. There had to be a couple hundred of them on the dam at this very minute. At least, that was how many had been there yesterday. The numbers could change as soon as overnight from hundreds to thousands of snow geese, the sound of their wings, their cries, deafening. And just as fast as they’d arrive, they’d disappear, leaving only the screaming silence in their wake.
She touched her neck where the skin peeked through the collar of her oxford. She was dressed in khakis and loafers, expecting the first guests of the weekend to arrive late that afternoon. She couldn’t have a dead goose in the yard, especially not when the guests she was expecting were coming specifically for the birds.
She stood and headed back toward the house to grab a pair of latex gloves. Pop had taught her never to touch a dead bird, or any dead animal for that matter, without first putting on gloves. Birds carried diseases. Pop was an expert on all things birds, a professor of ornithology at the university over the mountain, although he was retired now and spent most of his time locked in his study or sitting in his rowboat on the dam, a pair of binoculars in his hands.
She was about to pull open the side door to reenter the house when she heard the cracking of branches and the whoosh of something falling through the trees. She rushed around back again, jogging across the lawn to the entrance to the path that led through the woods and to the water. On the ground not far from where she stopped was another goose. This one was dead, too. Fear was building inside her chest. It felt a little like panic. But Linnet wasn’t an alarmist, not by nature anyway.
She hurried back to the house and thought about showing Pop the birds. He’d have some rational explanation for why these two geese had fallen from the sky. He was getting up there in age at seventy-three, and his mind wasn’t what it once was. But she had to believe he could make some sense of this. She wanted him to put her mind at ease.
She grabbed latex gloves and a large garbage bag, then went back outside and picked up the two birds, placing them inside the plastic bag with care. She was struck with a memory of her sister, Myna, when they’d been kids and their mother had been running the B&B. One of the guests, an elderly man who’d walked with a cane, had inadvertently struck one of the geese with his car when he’d pulled into their driveway.
Pop had been at the university teaching classes, and it had been left to their mother to handle it. He’d been absent more and more during that time. His research had often kept him away from home. Although Linnet hadn’t known the specifics of his ventures, whenever he’d come bursting through the door with news about some man named Grant, their mother would retreat farther and farther inside herself, the distance palpable. It hadn’t been until Linnet was older that she’d understood Grant hadn’t been a person at all, but the monies Pop had received for his never-ending projects.
Their mother had stepped outside with gloves and a garbage bag to dispose of the dead goose like Linnet had done now.
“I didn’t see it there,” the elderly man had said, clearly shaken.
Myna had cried, hanging on to their mother’s arm, begging her to let them bury it, to give it a proper funeral.
“You’re being ridiculous,” their mother had said. “It’s one bird. There are thousands more where this one came from.”
“No.” Myna had stood her ground, crying hysterically, blocking their mother from picking it up, pleading with her to leave it alone.
Linnet could do nothing but join her sister. “She’s right. Let us bury it. Let us give it a proper good-bye,” she’d said.
Their mother’s shoulders had slumped as she looked them over. Something sad had moved across her face, a kind of hopelessness. The light in her eyes had all but faded. She hadn’t always been this way when Linnet and Myna had been very young. And there had been one time in their mother’s short life that she’d been happy, ridiculously so. But Linnet had promised herself she’d never think about that time ever again.
“Fine,” their mother had said. She’d dropped the garbage bag and gloves to the ground by her feet. “Bury it somewhere by the trees at the edge of the yard. And make sure you dig deep enough so some other animal doesn’t come along and drag its carcass out on the lawn.”
Linnet hadn’t thought to ask her to join them in the burial. Myna must not have thought of it either because neither one had asked. Linnet had done most of the digging. She had been the older of the two and considered stronger. Myna had been in charge of the ceremony, lighting the candles for each of them to hold, reciting a poem she’d made up about birds and ashes and flying in heaven.
* * *
“Pop,” Linnet called, and stepped into his study. After her mother had died, he’d moved into the guesthouse permanently. It was located about thirty yards from the main house. He’d spent more hours in what he’d considered his study, more time there than any time he’d ever spent in the main house. He had set up a small laboratory for his work so he wouldn’t have to stay at the university sometimes until all hours of the night. He’d never liked driving over the mountain in the dark. He’d said it was dangerous enough in daylight, the road narrow and windy and isolated. Who knew what could happen to a person when it was black as pitch? Besides, his happiest days were spent in his study or on the dam, always, even when Linnet and Myna had been young, even when their mother had been alive.
“Pop,” she called again, and set the garbage bag with the dead geese on the floor inside the door. She was here just yesterday and already the place was littered with coffee cups, some empty, some half full, the coffee long cold. She’d picked up the few mugs she passed and placed them in the kitchen sink to wash later. Then she straightened a pile of papers on the countertop, information about the geese and their latest migration patterns. Next, she bent over and retrieved the slippers he’d left in the middle of the floor, knowing that when he would dress for bed later that evening, he’d call and ask where they were, and she’d have to come and find them for him.
“Pop.” She pushed open the bedroom door. He wasn’t there. Tentatively, she crossed the room and stopped outside the master bathroom door, knocking lightly. “Are you in there?” When she didn’t get an answer, she pushed the door open and found it empty. She exhaled, not realizing she’d been holding her breath, afraid of what she might find, the state he’d be in.
She laid the slippers on the floor on the left side of the bed so they’d be right where he could find them. The bed itself was in shambles. The blankets were in a pile on the floor, the sheets twisted and knotted as though he’d had another rough night’s sleep.
She quickly made up the bed, positioned his slippers back in place after kicking one of them when she’d reached across the mattress for the sheets. Satisfied with straightening up, she returned to the worrying she’d found herself in earlier. It was too early for him to be out on the rowboat, bird watching. More and more lately he’d rise in the late morning, and it wouldn’t be until early afternoon that he’d make his way to the dam.
Panic rose in her chest again, the same kind of anxiousness she’d felt when the second bird had dropped. She raced out of the guesthouse calling, “Pop!”
She ran through the yard and rushed down the path that led to the dock. She knew where every rock was located, where every root jutted from the ground, where the uneven terrain turned ankles. She could run on the path in the dark if she had to, but this morning the sun was rising over the mountain, lighting the way, drying the puddles from the earlier thunderstorm. It had been a fierce storm, the force of which had bent the branches of trees, rattled the shutters, wakened her in the middle of the night.
Heart racing, she broke free of the trees and stopped short when she saw him wading in the water up to his knees. But it wasn’t the sight of her father in the dam that had stopped her cold. Something like a gasp escaped from her lips.
There were dead geese everywhere, hundreds of them in the water and more dotting the shoreline. Hundreds more soared in the blue sky above, a cacophony of honking she just now heard, was so accustomed to the sounds after living here all her life.
“Pop,” she hollered, and rushed into the water, not caring if her shoes and pants got wet. “What are you doing?” she asked. “You need to come out of the water.” She slipped her hand under his arm. He turned to her, his face contorted. His spectacles were perched on the tip of his nose. In his gloved hand he held a dead goose by its feet.
“I know,” she said about the geese. “I know. Come on, let’s get you out of the water. You’re freezing. Look at you. Your lips are blue.”
She helped him to the shore and guided him to one of the benches near the dock. His khakis were rolled to his knees, and his feet were bare. He wore the usual button-down sweater over a collared shirt, the same clothes he’d always worn when he’d been teaching classes. She’d always thought of his khakis, sweaters, and loafers as his professor’s uniform. Of course now his loafers and socks were left on the dock, and his rolled-up pants were wet and caked with mud.
“Put that down for now,” she said about the goose. At least he’d remembered to put on gloves before he’d foolishly gone into the water and scooped it up.
Her phone went off. She reached into her back pocket. Ian. “Hey,” she said.
“Have you been to the dam? Have you seen them?” he asked, but he didn’t wait for her to respond before he continued in a rush to tell her everything he knew. “I saw a couple of them dead in the road, but I just figured a truck or something ran them over in the night.” He took a breath. “Everyone is talking about it. Does Pop know? What does he think happened to them?”
“I’m sitting with him right now on the bench,” she said. Ian would know the exact spot she was talking about. He’d proposed to her on this bench. How many nights had they sat here together, how many years? It had to be at least fifteen or more. She couldn’t remember and not because she forgot important dates like their anniversary, but more because she couldn’t stop staring at the water, at the birds, their wings spread wide, their heads submerged with no chance of coming up for air. She couldn’t process anymore than what she was seeing in front of her, the horror of it.
“Well, what does he think happened?” Ian asked.
“I don’t know.” She looked at Pop. He didn’t seem capable of processing the scene either.
“Let me dry him off and get him warm. I’ll call you back when I find something out.”
“What do you mean dry him off? What’s going on?”
“I found him in the dam picking up one of the birds,” she said. Although by definition it wasn’t a dam at all, but a lake created by several unnamed tributaries. The name “the dam” was just one of the peculiarities of the town of Mountain Springs. “But he’s okay. He’ll be okay.” She patted Pop’s leg to reassure him, to reassure her.
Ian didn’t say anything right away. “Let me know when you find out what happened.” He was being careful with her, knowing she wouldn’t want to push her father into answering the questions they both had about what might’ve caused this phenomenon.
“I’ll call you as soon as I know something.” She hung up the phone and turned toward Pop. “Why don’t we go back to the house? I’ll fix you a cup of coffee and get you some dry clothes.”
“Am I having another nightmare?” he asked. He looked so frightened all of a sudden, like a scared child, and not a grown man with a Ph.D.
“No,” she said, and wiped her eye. “I’m afraid this one is real.”
Copyright © 2017 Karen Katchur.
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Karen Katchur holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from West Chester University and a Masters of Education degree from East Stroudsburg University. She lives in Eastern Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. She is the author of The Secrets of Lake Road.