Scattered chalk littered the sidewalk in front of Avery’s house, making it near-impossible to cross. Avery picked her way around the chalk and gingerly stepped over a small stream created by a fallen water bottle. The child who had left the mess on their shared sidewalk was nowhere in sight.
“It’s the new girl from next door,” Avery’s mother told her that night at dinner. “Amara, I think.”
“Her parents should know better than to let her leave all that stuff outside. Someone could steal it.” At her mother’s snort, Avery rescinded. “Okay. No one would steal it. But it’s really annoying.”
Avery’s mother swatted her daughter’s shoulder. “Cut the kid some slack. She’s in a new city.”
“Is there a particular reason that you’re so argumentative tonight?”
“I guess not.”
“Was it already a bad day at school? Pace yourself, daughter mine.”
“Oh, you know. Only the second day, and it’s already clear that I’m going to be sitting alone for the rest of the year.”
“You know, I can’t understand that,” Ms. Mitchell said, giving her daughter a one-armed hug. “You’re a wonderful, amazing person.”
The next day, all that was left on the sidewalk were drawings of a tree and something with big teeth. Avery was careful not to step on them as she began her walk to school.
Two weeks after the Cordascos moved to Hodgenville, Avery finally ran into Amara. She was a tiny kid holding a dingy pink teddy bear. A chunk of her hair was standing straight up, stiff with glue. Why are children so messy?
“You live in the blue house?”
It had been a while since anyone had addressed Avery when her hand wasn’t raised. “Um, yeah.”
“I like blue houses. I’ve never seen an ugly blue house.”
“Your house is nice, too.”
“Yeah. But not blue.” Amara looked thoughtful. “Can we switch houses?”
“Are you sure? Maybe I could just live in your house for a little bit! You’d hardly ever see me! I’m good at hiding.”
Was it sad that a nine-year-old was being more friendly to her than her classmates? “Um…”
“Well? You should answer. If you need time to think, then stall by talking. Using filler words, like ‘um’ and ‘uh’, implies that you’re reluctant to answer a question or that you can’t.”
To be impressed or annoyed? Annoyed. She didn’t need to be sassed by a tiny little girl. “I don’t know. Ask your dad.”
Amara’s face brightened, and she ran back to her house.
Why are children so needy?
In late fall, Avery came home to a large envelope on the kitchen table. It had her father’s name on it. Avery hated how eager she was to read it, even as she tore the letter open.
But all that was in the envelope was a letter, scrawled in crayon, that was signed by Avery’s half-sister Elizabeth. Avery scoffed, dropping the letter back on the table. There was a drawing, too. But nothing from her father.
“Avery! Avery Mitchell!”
Avery dropped to the floor. The voice was just outside her house. Could Amara see her? Avery stayed silent.
“Avery! Are you there?”
Apparently, Amara had decided that Avery should know everything about her friends. “...and me and Lana made the world’s biggest hopscotch once! It was three blocks long and three hundred, forty-nine squares! Almost down to the factory!”
“Right. You’re from Covington, right? Did you like it there?” Why would they move to tiny Hodgenville from a bigger place? Avery’s goal was to leave this town and never come back.
“Yeah! I really liked it there. Mom’s still there. But my dad says the world is but a canvas to our imagination, so I can like it here, too.”
Avery’s family had lived in Hodgenville for several generations. But now Gram and Gramps were dead and her father had moved to Utah with his second wife.
“...and sometimes I think that I’ll run away because I hate grown-ups sometimes and I don’t get why we listen to them because they have stupid ideas. I think that I would be a better grown-up than Daddy is. You don’t listen to grown-ups, right?”
“I am a grown-up,” Avery reminded her. “Er, adult.”
“No! You’re only seventeen! If you can’t vote, you’re not a grown-up. Daddy says that government participation is what makes the citizen and the adult. I’m going to vote as soon as I can, and then I’m going to run for president. I already have fifteen votes. Will you vote for me?”
“Okay, President Cordasco.”
Sometimes when the Mitchells were too stressed, they came to Evelyn’s Diner to avoid the extra stress of doing dishes. Not that it was doing much good for Avery.
“You know I won’t be mad if you visit them,” Ms. Mitchell promised. “In fact, I think it’s probably a good idea.”
“Well, I don’t!” Avery snapped. “I don’t want to spend time with him, and I don’t want to spend time with his other family and see how much better they are than us.”
“Fine. You don’t have to visit.”
“It’s just so obnoxious!” Avery complained. “Why would he bother inviting me when he hasn’t even written in years?”
“Stop thinking about them,” Ms. Mitchell urged. “Let’s just eat food.”
“They’re just so—”
Ms. Mitchell smirked. “Actually, I think I know the perfect way to take your mind off of this.”
“Hey, Avery!” Amara Cordasco was running across the diner.
“Oh, no.” Avery felt a headache coming on.
Amara leapt into the booth beside Avery, smacking her head into Avery’s ribs. “I didn’t know you liked this place!”
“You know, burgers. They’re...good.” Amara was wearing that stupid dress that looked exactly like Avery’s. There was mud on the sleeves, though. What is Amara doing to get this messy?
“Do they have good veggie burgers?” Amara’s voice seemed to carry across the entire room. Everyone must have been looking at them, seeing how both of them were wearing red dresses and had their hair in ponytails. “Daddy says we won’t get good veggie burgers anywhere because Hodgenville is too small to have...um...niche restaurants. But the pizza is good...”
By some fortune, Mr. Cordasco and Ms. Mitchell finished their chat, and Mr. Cordasco plucked Amara off of her. “Come on, honey.”
Ms. Mitchell watched her daughter for a few moments. “That kid is energetic, huh?”
“Mom, I swear—”
“Sometimes she reminds me of your sister.”
“Half-sister. Half isn’t whole. I don’t have a sister.”
Ms. Mitchell shrugged, unsmiling. “You know, Amara said that you two should be sisters. That since you don’t have a dad and she doesn’t have a mom, and because you both have names starting with A, it’s meant to be.”
Avery gave her head a small shake like she was trying to get water out of her ears. “Mom.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Neither of the Mitchells were ready when Evelyn came by to take their order.
By the time December rolled around, Avery was deliberately forgetting her father’s birthday. She could call him, of course, and try and make him feel guilty. But what was the point? He would never pay attention to her, he was never going to put her above his other daughter. There was no reason to make him try.
Ms. Mitchell only made one attempt to get Avery to call him. “He’s still your father, honey.”
“Not really. He forgot my birthday, remember?”
“Elizabeth was sick. He was worried about her.”
Avery was silent for a moment. “Do you think that he worries about me?” She hated how plaintive and needy she sounded.
“Of course he does, honey!” Avery thought of how her father treated Elizabeth like she was the light of his world, and how he was probably glad that she wasn’t reminding him of his first family. “I think you’re lying.”
An inch or so of heavy, wet snow blanketed the ground, the air burning cold. Avery carefully maneuvered the half-mile home, but all of her caution didn’t stop her from slipping on a frozen stream created by a fallen water bottle in front of her house. A chalk dragon was covered by the ice, strangely contorted and magnified.
Avery entered the house unmolested by Amara. She dropped her wet backpack on the table and shot a glance out of the window at their tiny backyard. A branch of their sweetgum tree was nearly touching the ground, weighed down by too much snow. Avery groaned and pulled on her gloves as she went back into the cold. She rounded the trunk of the tree, expecting to see a branch laden with snow.
Instead, she was greeted by the little demon-child, looking at her with wide, sparkling brown eyes. She was in the tree, weighing down the branch. “Hi, Avery!”
“Amara, what are you doing here?” Anger exploded within Avery. Why did Amara keep invading Avery’s life? “This is not your home! This is not your tree!”
Amara’s voice was chirpy as always—why doesn’t she understand that I’m mad at her?! “Yeah, but we’re neighbors and you weren’t using your tree, and property ceases to be property through chronic misuse—”
“Oh my God, Amara! You can’t justify trespassing through—communism, or whatever idea that is! I’ve tried to deal with you for months, but you keep following me, so let me just tell you—stop it! Stay at your own place, climb your own tree—”
Avery choked herself off. Amara was staring at her with those big brown eyes, but now the eyes were subdued and sad and angry.
“If you don’t want me here, then I can just leave. I can be like Thoreau.”
Amara dropped out of the tree—the branch sprang up, slingshotting off a mess of snow—and then she clambered over the fence back into her own yard.
How far could Amara have gotten? She was only nine! Nine-year-olds weren’t supposed to mean it when they said that they would run away! Avery drove as fast as she could while still watching for a sign of Amara on the pitch-black road through the night woods, and tried to ignore the resounding knowledge that this was all her fault.
Oh my God, oh my God—what if she’s in the woods—what if she gets eaten by a bear or falls and dies or breaks her leg? Why are children so breakable?
There! Down the road, a small figure moved through the darkness. Avery sped up. The figure halted, and then ran. Avery pushed down the gas pedal. She couldn’t let Amara get away! But then Amara turned and ran into the woods. Avery screamed in frustration, hitting the brakes so hard that she jolted in her seat. She didn’t care about getting hurt anymore. She pushed the car door open and slammed it behind her, sprinting into the darkened woods. “Amara!”
The woods were dark, and the trees were huge and looming and where was Amara?! Avery was spinning, spinning in circles, trying to locate her, but she could have been anywhere! “Amara!”
The the woods were silent, and Avery heard her own heart thumping in her ears. I should call someone, right? Avery circled wildly, trying to find the shifting darkness that was Amara, but there were just deathly still trees that loomed above her like dragons.
Avery angrily wiped tears from her face, chafing her skin with the rough fabric of her sweatshirt. She stood silently for a moment, trying to quell the sense of being lost. She heard a strange sound coming from the darkened woods and began running in that direction. After a moment, she realized that the sound was crying.
It didn’t matter that Avery’s lungs were screaming. It didn’t matter that Amara might run away if Avery found her. Avery would just keep running, and catch up, and take Amara home and give her a hug because little kids should not have to cry! She sprinted toward the sounds of sobbing and saw Amara huddled against an oak tree. Avery didn’t say a word, just collapsing next to Amara. She threw her arms around Amara’s neck.
Amara shoved her away. “No.” Her voice was thick with little-girl tears.
“Amara, I’m so sorry.”
“I hate you.”
“I know. But come back.”
“No. I’m just going to live in the woods.”
Why did children insist on dreaming? “Well, then I’m going to live with you. We can set up house.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Avery kept her eyes trained on Amara’s legs, waiting for Amara to jump up and run away from her. A sense of weariness overtook her. What was the point of fighting when you couldn’t win?
But this battle wasn’t over. Amara could fight, Amara wanted to fight, and she could be convinced. Avery stayed silent next to her, inching her hand closer to Amara’s until their pinkies were touching.
“I want you to come back, Amara. Please. I’m sorry.”
Avery put her arm around Amara’s shoulder. Amara didn’t object. Avery stood, and Amara went up with her, leaning into her.
“Your dad’s going to be so glad to see you. And my mom, too. And me. Who else am I going to talk with after school if you live in the woods?”
The look on Amara’s face was peaceful and terrifying. She leaned her head into Avery’s elbow, closely following as Avery led her back towards home.