The old oak tree I’d climbed was one of a dozen or more on Juniper Street. I’d chosen that particular wooden giant because it was standing right next to a white picket fence—one just tall enough for me to use as a step to the lowest branch. It didn’t matter that the heels of my hands, knees, and shins were scraped and bleeding from the sharp bark and branches. Feeling the sting from the wind grazing over my open wounds reminded me that I’d fought and won. It was the blood that bothered me. Not because I was squeamish, but because I had to wait until it stopped oozing to keep it from smearing on my new camera.
Ten minutes after I was settled against the trunk, my backside balancing twenty or so feet in the air on a branch older than me, the crimson stopped seeping. I smiled. I could finally properly maneuver my camera. It wasn’t brand-new, but an early eleventh birthday present from my aunt. I usually saw her two weeks after my birthday, on Thanksgiving, but she hated giving me presents late. Aunt Leigh hated a lot of things, except for me and Uncle John.
I peered through the viewfinder, moving it over the endless acres of grass, wheat, and gently rolling hills. There was a makeshift alley behind the fences of the houses that ran along the street my aunt lived on. Two tire tracks bordering a strip of grass were all that separated the backyards of our neighbors from an endless sea of wheat and canola fields. It was monotonous, but when the sun set and oranges, pinks, and purples splashed across the sky, I was sure there was no place more beautiful.
Oak Creek wasn’t the desolate disappointment my mom described, but it was a whole lot of use tos. Oak Creek use to have a strip mall, use to have a TG&Y, use to have an arcade, use to have tennis courts and a walking track around one of the parks, but now it was empty buildings and boarded-up windows. We had only visited every other Christmas before Mom and Dad’s fights got so bad she didn’t want me to witness them, and they seemed to get worse in the summers. The first day of summer break, Mom dropped me off at Uncle John and Aunt Leigh’s after an all-night fight with Dad, and I noticed she never took off her sunglasses, even in the house. That’s when I knew it was more than a visit, that I was staying for the whole summer, and when I unpacked, the amount of clothes in my suitcase proved me right.
The sky was just beginning to turn, and I snapped a few pictures, checking my settings. Aunt Leigh wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type, but she’d felt bad enough for me to buy me a decent camera. Maybe she was hoping I’d stay outside more, but it didn’t matter. My friends asked for PlayStations and iPhones, and then they magically appeared. I didn’t get what I asked for very often, so the camera in my hands was more than a gift. It meant someone was listening.
The sound of a door opening drew my attention from the setting sun, and I watched a father and daughter carry on a quiet conversation as they walked into the backyard. The man was carrying something small, wrapped in a blanket. The girl was sniffling, her cheeks wet. I didn’t move, didn’t breathe, afraid they would see me and I would ruin whatever moment they were about to have. It was then that I noticed the hole next to the trunk of the tree, beside it a small pile of red dirt.
“Careful,” the girl said. Her hair was a little bit blonde, a little bit brown, and the red around her eyes from crying made the green in them glow.
The man lowered the small thing into the hole, and the girl began to cry.
“I’m sorry, Princess. Goober was a good dog.”
I pressed my lips together. The chuckle I was fighting was inappropriate, but still I found humor in a funeral for something with a name like Goober.
A woman let the back door slam behind her, her tightly wound, dark curls poofy in the humidity. She wiped her hands on a dish towel at her waist.
“I’m here,” she said, breathless. She froze, staring down into the hole. “Oh. You already . . .” She blanched and then turned to the girl. “I’m so sorry, honey.” As the mother stared at Goober, his small paw poking out of the baby blanket he’d been loosely wrapped in, she seemed to get more upset by the second. “But I can’t . . . I can’t stay.”
“Mavis,” the man said, reaching out for his wife.
Mavis’s bottom lip trembled. “I am so sorry.” She retreated to the house.
The girl looked to her father. “It’s okay, Daddy.”
He hugged his daughter to his side. “Funerals have always been hard for her. Just tears her up.”
“And Goober was her baby before me,” the girl said, wiping her face. “It’s okay.”
“Well . . . we should pay our respects. Thank you, Goober, for being so gentle with our princess. Thank you for staying under the table to eat her vegetables . . .”
He continued, “Thank you for the years of fetching and loyalty and—”
“Snuggles at night,” the girl said, wiping her cheek. “And kisses. And for layin’ at my feet while I did my homework, and for always being happy to see me when I came home.”
The man nodded once, and then he took the shovel propped against the fence and began filling the hole.
The girl covered her mouth, muffling her cries. Once her father was finished, they had a moment without words; then she asked to be alone and he allowed it, nodding before returning to the house.
She sat next to the mound of dirt, picking at the grass, just being sad. I wanted to watch her through my viewfinder and capture that moment, but she would hear my camera click, and I would look like a huge creeper, so I remained still and let her grieve.
She sniffled. “Thank you for protecting me.”
I frowned, wondering what Goober had protected her from and if she needed protection still. She was about my age and prettier than any girl who went to my school. I wondered what happened to her dog, and how long she’d lived in the massive house that loomed over the backyard and cast a shadow across the street onto the other houses when the sun moved into the western sky. It bothered me not knowing if she was sitting on the ground because she felt safer with her dead dog than she did inside.
The sun dropped out of sight and night settled in, the crickets chirping, the wind hissing through the oak’s leaves. My stomach was beginning to gurgle and growl. Aunt Leigh was going to rip me a new one when I got home for missing dinner, but the girl was still sitting next to her friend, and I’d decided over an hour before that I wasn’t going to disturb her.
The back door opened, a warm yellow light brightening the backyard. “Catherine?” Mavis called. “It’s time to come in now, honey. Your dinner’s getting cold. You can come back out in the morning.”
Catherine obeyed, standing and walking toward the house, stopping for a moment to look back at the grave once more before going in. When the door closed, I tried to guess what she might be looking for—maybe she was reminding herself it was real and Goober was gone, or maybe she was saying one last goodbye.
I slowly climbed down, sure to jump and land on the outside of the fence, giving the fresh grave plenty of space. The sound of my shoes crunching against the rocks in the alley stirred a few neighborhood dogs, but I completed the return trek in the dark without any problems—until I got home.
Aunt Leigh was standing at the door, her arms crossed. She looked worried at first, but when her eyes found me, instant anger flickered in her eyes. She was in her robe, reminding me of just how late I was. A single gray streak of hair sprouted from her temple, weaving in and out of the thick brown sections of her side braid.
“I’m sorry?” I offered.
“You missed dinner,” she said, opening the screen door. I walked inside, and she followed me. “Your plate’s in the microwave. Eat, then you can tell me where you’ve been.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, making a beeline past her. I passed the wooden, oval dining table to reach the kitchen, opening the microwave to see a foil-covered plate. My mouth instantly watered.
“Take that o—” Aunt Leigh began, but I had already ripped it off, shut the door, and pressed the two on the number pad.
I watched the plate turn in a circle under the glow of a warm yellow light. The steak began to sizzle, and the gravy on the mashed potatoes bubbled.
“Not yet,” Aunt Leigh snapped when I reached for the microwave handle.
My stomach gurgled.
“If you’re so hungry, why did you wait so long to get home?”
“Stuck in a tree?” Aunt Leigh handed me a fork as I passed and followed me to the table.
I shoveled the first bite in and hummed, taking two more before Aunt Leigh could ask another question. My mom was a good cook, too, but the older I got, the more starved I felt. No matter how many times I ate during the day or how much I ate at a time, I never felt full. I couldn’t get food—any food—in my stomach fast enough.
Aunt Leigh made a face as I hunched over my plate to create a shorter trip from the plate to my mouth.
“You’re gonna have to explain that,” Aunt Leigh said. When I didn’t stop, she leaned over to place her hand on my wrist. “Elliott, don’t make me ask again.”
I tried to chew quickly and swallow, nodding in compliance. “The huge house down the street has an oak tree. I climbed it.”
“So while I was up there waiting for a good shot with my camera, the people came out.”
“The Calhouns? Did they see you?”
I shook my head, sneaking another quick bite.
“You know that’s Uncle John’s boss, right?”
I stopped chewing. “No.”
Aunt Leigh sat back. “Of all the trees to pick.”
“They seemed nice . . . and sad.”
“Why?” At least for the moment, she forgot about being mad.
“They were burying something in the backyard. I think their dog died.”
“Aw, that’s too bad,” Aunt Leigh said, trying to muster up sympathy. She didn’t have children or dogs, and she seemed okay with that. She scratched her head, suddenly nervous. “Your mom called today.”
“What did she want?”
“Sounds like her and your dad are working things out. She sounds happy.”
I looked away, clenching my teeth. “She always is at first.” I turned to her. “Has her eye even healed?”
“Elliott . . .”
I stood, picking up my plate and fork, taking them to the sink.
“Did you tell him?” Uncle John said, scratching his round belly. He was standing in the hall, wearing the navy-blue pajama set Aunt Leigh had bought him last Christmas. She nodded. He looked to me, acknowledging the disgust on my face. “Yep. We don’t like it, either.”
“Just now,” Aunt Leigh said, crossing her arms.
“About Mom?” I asked. Uncle John nodded. “It’s bullshit.”
“Elliott,” Aunt Leigh scolded.
“It’s okay for us not to like her going back to someone who hits her,” I said.
“He’s your dad,” Aunt Leigh said.
“What does that matter?” Uncle John asked.
Aunt Leigh sighed, touching her fingers to her forehead. “She won’t like us discussing this with Elliott. If we want him to keep coming back—”
“You want me to keep coming back?” I asked, surprised.
Aunt Leigh folded her arms over her chest, refusing to toss me that bone. Emotions made her mad. Maybe because they were hard to control and that made her feel weak, but for whatever reason, she didn’t like to talk about anything that made her feel anything but angry.
Uncle John smiled. “She hides in the bedroom for an hour every time you leave.”
I smiled, but it faded. The sting from my scrapes reminded me of what I’d seen. “Do you guys think that girl’s okay?”
“The Calhoun girl?” Aunt Leigh asked. “Why?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. Just some weird things I saw while I was stuck in the tree.”
“You were stuck in a tree?” Uncle John asked.
Aunt Leigh waved him away, walking over to me. “What did you see?”
“I’m not sure. Her parents seem nice.”
“Nice enough,” Aunt Leigh said. “Mavis was a spoiled brat in school. Her family owned half the town because of the zinc smelter, but the smelter closed, and one by one they all died of cancer. You know that damn smelter contaminated the groundwater here? There was a big lawsuit against her family. The only thing she has left is that house. It use to be called the Van Meter Mansion, you know. They changed it once Mavis’s parents died and she married the Calhoun kid. The Van Meters are hated around here.”
“That’s sad,” I said.
“Sad? The Van Meters poisoned the town. Half the population is fighting cancer or some complication from cancer. That’s the least of what they deserve, if you ask me, especially if you take into account how they treated everyone.”
“Did Mavis treat you bad?” I asked.
“No, but she was awful to your mom and Uncle John.”
I frowned. “The husband is Uncle John’s boss?”
“He’s a good man,” Uncle John said. “Everyone likes him.”
“What about the girl?” I asked. Uncle John offered a knowing smile, and I shook my head. “Never mind.”
He winked at me. “She’s a pretty one, huh?”
“Nah.” I passed them and opened the basement door, walking down the stairs. Aunt Leigh had asked a billion times to rearrange it, buy new furniture and a rug, but I wasn’t there enough for it to matter. All I cared about was the camera, and Uncle John gave me his old laptop so I could practice editing the photos. I uploaded the shots I took, unable to concentrate, wondering about the weird girl and her weird family.
“Elliott?” Aunt Leigh called. My head snapped up, and I glanced at the small, black square clock that sat next to my monitor. I picked it up, in disbelief that two hours had passed.
“Elliott,” Aunt Leigh repeated. “Your mom’s on the phone.”
“I’ll call her back in a minute,” I yelled.
Aunt Leigh walked down the steps, cell phone in her hand. “She said if you want your own cell phone, you need to talk to her on mine.”
I sighed and pushed up from my seat, trudging over to Aunt Leigh. I took the phone, tapped the display for speakerphone, and sat it on my desk, returning to my work.
“Elliott?” Mom said.
“I, um . . . I talked to your dad. He’s back. He wanted to say he’s sorry.”
“Then why doesn’t he say it?” I grumbled.
“You don’t have anything to say about him coming home?”
I sat back in my chair, crossing my arms. “What does it matter? Not like you asked me or care what I think.”
“I do, too, Elliott. That’s why I’m calling.”
“How’s your eye?” I asked.
It took a moment for Mom to respond. “It’s better. He promised—”
“He always promises. It’s the keeping it when he’s mad that’s the problem.”
Mom sighed. “I know. But I have to try.”
“How about you ask him to try for once?”
Mom was quiet. “I have. He doesn’t have many chances left, and he knows it. He’s trying, Elliott.”
“It’s not hard not to put your hands on a girl. If you can’t, then just stay away. Tell him that.”
“You’re right. I know you’re right. I’ll tell him. I love you.”
I clenched my teeth. She knew I loved her, but it was hard to remember that saying it back didn’t mean I agreed with her or that I was okay with Dad coming home. “Me too.”
She breathed out a laugh, but sadness weighed down her words. “It’s going to be okay, Elliott. I promise.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Don’t do that. Don’t make a promise unless you can keep it.”
“Sometimes things happen that are out of your control.”
“A promise isn’t a good intention, Mom.”
She sighed. “Sometimes I wonder who’s raising who. You don’t understand, Elliott, but one of these days you will. I’ll call tomorrow, okay?”
I glanced back at Aunt Leigh. She was standing at the bottom of the stairs, her disappointment visible even in the dim light.
“Yeah,” I said, my shoulders sagging. Trying to talk sense into my mom was normally a lost cause, but feeling like the bad guy for it exhausted me. I hung up the phone and held it out to my aunt. “Don’t look at me like that.”
She pointed to her nose, then made an invisible circle around her face. “You think this face is for you? Believe it or not, Elliott, I think you’re right.”
“Thanks, Aunt Leigh.”
“If you think that little girl needs help, you’ll tell me, right?”
I watched her for a moment and then nodded. “I’ll keep an eye out.”