Chapter 2 - Alex
I was twelve when I met the boy. Just twelve. Twelve on the dot.
It was my birthday, although it didn’t really feel like one. You know when things just feel wrong? You can’t put your finger on what it is, but you have this terrible, uneasy feeling in your stomach that won’t let you sit still?
I had that feeling a lot back in those days. I suppose it might have been because we’d just moved to a new town. Daddy was a preacher, and the church plucked our family up out of our pleasant little southern hamlet and dropped us right into the belly of the big city midwest. It’s a good thing they moved us in the summer. If we’d gone straight into the winter I’m pretty sure Momma and I would’ve died right then and there.
Even in the summer, though, things weren’t good. I didn’t have any friends, for one. That was a first for me, and I spent many long hours trying to goad Tommy into playing with me because I couldn’t stand the silence. I suppose that was one positive. I’d been growing apart from my older brother before the move. When were kids, we were thick as thieves, always playing outside and getting into trouble. When I got older, though, that changed. I suppose the best way to say it is that, when I was five and he was seven, Tommy and I were perfectly in sync. Then I kept growing and Tommy didn’t. Tommy never will.
That summer, though, we found each other again. Momma didn’t seem to care much if we went outside. She trusted me to look after Tommy. We explored the little patch of woods behind our house which, to us, seemed like a vast and magical land full of dangers and hidden beauties.
There was a creek cutting through the woods that we splashed in during the heat of the day, and a magic spot in that creek that we decided made the world stand still. It wasn’t much. Just a spot where the flowing water had cut a particularly deep furrow through the earth. On one side, it had carved a cave beneath the roots of a massive oak. On the other, the ground sloped up into a natural clearing. In the center of the creek, framed by the cave and the clearing, was a sandy island. In the center of the island was a boulder.
Just wide enough for me and Tommy to sit side by side, that boulder was our magical thinking spot. We’d sit there in silence and as long as our butts were planted on the granite nothing was bad. Momma wasn’t sad, Daddy wasn’t gone all the time, and we had friends again. The world was bright and hopeful, so long as we didn’t leave the spot.
July 13th 1996 was my twelfth birthday. Like I said, it didn’t really feel like one. If we were back home, there’d have been a party. Momma would have baked a big cake, Daddy would have filmed everything with his bulky old tape recorder. My friends would have come over and sang and beat the candy stuffing out of a colorful pinata.
There wasn’t a party for my twelfth birthday. There was a cake, but Momma served it up on the plastic tray it came in, there weren’t any candles, and my name was spelled wrong in the icing. There were a few presents-- a bike from Daddy and a necklace from Momma. Cards from both sets of grandparents with crisp, twenty dollar bills enclosed. Tommy called it a good haul, which made everyone laugh a little, so he called it a good haul four more times and before he could get the words out a fifth Daddy told him to shut up.
Tommy cried and Momma’s face went dark and none of us ate much cake.
Tommy didn’t give me his present until later that night. He came and knocked on my door after Momma tucked me in.
“Come in,” I whispered and the door creaked open and Tommy’s boyish face peeked into the moonlit room.
“Happy Birthday, Aly!” he said, tiptoeing noisily across the room. “I brought your present.”
“Okay,” I said hesitantly, sitting up in bed. “What is it?”
Tommy made a noise of exasperation and sat on the bed beside me. “Close your eyes and hold out your hand,” he said, practically vibrating with excitement.
I obeyed, wondering what he’d come up with. The year before he’d given me a dead spider because he thought it would be funny. I hoped this year was better.
Something small, cold, and hard dropped into my hand and I opened my eyes, staring at my open palm.
“A rock?” I asked, looking up at my brother, quizzically. He grinned, floppy hair falling into his eyes as he nodded emphatically.
“From the spot!’ he said.
Objectively, it was a pretty crappy gift. There were about a million and one rocks strewn about on our little island in the creek and, even as far as those rocks were concerned, this one was unremarkable. It was plain old gray with darker gray spots. Ridged on one side and smooth on the other. Just a rock.
It was the best present anyone had ever given me, though, because I knew how Tommy’s mind worked. He knew the peace we found in the spot. Even if things at home didn’t bother him like they bothered me, he still felt it. He knew how much I needed it. This was his way of bringing that peace home. Of giving me a way to walk around with a little bit of it in my pocket.
“Thanks, Tommy,” I said, leaning forward and wrapping him in a hug. I wanted to cry, but I knew if I did he’d think I was sad. “We’ll have to get you one just like it.”
He nodded sagely and stood. “We’ll pick it out tomorrow,” he said. “Night, Aly!”
He left the room as he’d entered it -- noisily and thinking he was the picture of stealth.
I lay for a long time, watching the moon play over the speckled surface of my ceiling. The summer air was still so the tree branches outside my window were motionless, casting stark shadows on the wall. We’d been in the new house for over a month, but it still didn’t feel like home. The bed was wrong no matter which wall I pushed it against, and the shadows cast by my furniture felt foreign and dangerous.
I palmed the rock and tried not to cry as loneliness gripped me. I wanted so badly to go home, but home was too far away. What wasn’t too far, though? I squeezed the rock and smiled at the ceiling.
I was normally a good girl, so sneaking out was a bit out of character. Call it my first foray into teenage rebellion. Call it the nexus linking what had been to what would come next. Call it the terminus of Aly and the inception of Alex. At the time, though, I probably just would’ve called it scary.
I waited until my parents stopped moving around and the house went quiet. Then I crawled out of bed and crept to my closet, shedding my jammies and pulling on shorts, sneakers, and a t-shirt. I tucked my hair into a ballcap and grabbed my adventuring backpack, full of rope and snacks and other odds and ends that I never actually ended up needing but which it always felt good to have.
I slid my window open one hair-raising, butthole-clenching centimeter at a time. Then I popped my screen out which was way easier than it should have been. If my parents knew they’d have had a conniption fit. Momma was always overprotective, I guess because of what happened to Tommy. She’d have died on the spot if she’d seen me crawling out the window and balancing on the ledge, reaching for the branches of the sycamore outside my window.
Back then, I wasn’t afraid of heights. I hadn’t learned to be afraid of them, yet. That’s the thing about fear. It doesn’t come naturally. We aren’t born afraid. We learn what hurts us and those are the things we fear. When I was twelve, heights didn’t scare me at all. I hadn’t learned, yet, that they could hurt me.
That lesson was coming.
With the wiry strength of an active child, I slipped my right hand and foot around the branch and pushed off the window sill with my left, transfering my weight onto the limb. It bounced and shifted, but didn’t break and I shimmied confidently down to the stronger branches below. I dangled for a moment from the lowest branch, my toes scant inches off the ground. Then I dropped.
Normally I liked to walk in the woods, savoring the quiet sounds and the peaceful motion of the trees and the little animals that called them home. That night, I sprinted-- headlong through the moonlit forest, backpack bouncing against my butt, shoes slapping the earth. Sweat beaded on my face and slid down my neck. My legs burned and my lungs ached. It felt so good, just to be free.
I slowed, though, as I approached my spot. Something felt wrong. The air was different-- restless and tense. The sounds of the woods weren’t quite right, either. The symphony was there, as always. Frogs croaking, leaves rustling, water trickling over rock. Squirrells scrambling over the carpet of dead leaves on the forest floor. The sounds came together like music-- my favorite song. But that night, some new sound joined it and it ruined the melody. Like a wrong note from the back of the orchestra. Quiet in itself, but amplified in its wrongness so that as I drew closer it was all I could hear.
I slowed as I approached, peering at my moonlit haven from the privacy of the darkened woods. A boy was in my spot. On my rock. I didn’t know at the time that he wasn’t just a boy. He was the boy. My boy. I didn’t see my future like I should have. I just saw an intruder.
I crouched in my hiding spot and watched him. He was sprawled on his back, his legs dangling over the edge of the rock. I liked to lay like that and watch the sky, but the boy had his hands over his face, digging the heels into his eyes. His body shook as he cried, but all I could hear was the occasional gasping breath. I knew all about crying quietly. I cried quietly all the time at home, but when I was alone I cried loud and reckless. Not the boy. He cried quietly, even in solitude.
He looked ragged. Not like me, in my shorts-just-for-adventures and my stained t-shirt that Momma insisted I throw away with the shorts but I kept because I liked the rainbow logo on the sleeve. I was dirt-stained and torn. The boy was frayed and worn. His jeans were three inches too short, with gaping holes in the knees. His t-shirt was two sizes too big. His arms, protruding from the massive sleeves of his shirt, were skinny. Too skinny.
He made me sad. I’d been sad a lot, before, but always sad for me. I was sad when we moved because I missed my friends. Sad when Momma got quiet because I missed her. Sad when Daddy was stressed because I knew Momma missed him. The boy didn’t make me sad for me, though. Just for him. I guess that’s why I didn’t turn tail and run, leaving him there alone. Nobody ought to be sad and alone.
“You’re in my spot,” I declared loudly, standing up from my hiding place.
The boy flew off the rock with a yelp, crouching in the sand with his fists held up like he was about to fight. His eyes were on fire, but I wasn’t scared. Nothing about him scared me. I stepped out from the shadows.
“This is my spot,” I said, pointing at the rock he had just vacated. “But you can use it if you want. It’s a good spot. Especially if you’re sad.”
The boy hesitated, backing up a step. I took another step forward.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I just came here to think. I’ll leave. I didn’t know it was your spot.”
“I told you, you can use it if you want. It’s a good spot.”
He frowned. “Yeah,” he took another step back, but lowered his fists. “Yeah, it is.”
“Do you come here a lot?”
“Yeah… I mean… sometimes. I didn’t…” he shook his head. “I didn’t know it was yours.”
It was strange that it wasn’t strange at all. Neither one of us questioned whether a creek in the woods with the moon overhead was a reasonable place for a twelve year old to go in order to contemplate life and cry as the need arose. Neither one of us questioned the other’s presence. He didn’t question my assertion that the spot was mine. I didn’t question how he’d come by it in the first place. We both understood, I think. We understand each other, because whatever impulse drove me to my spot also drove him. Neither of us needed it explained.
“We can share it,” I said, ignoring his nervous gaze as I toed my shoes off and, holding them in my hands, picked my way across the rocky creek bed. He’d moved as far to the edge of the tiny island as he could and stood there, hands clenched in fists at his sides, as I placed my shoes and backpack carefully by the rock and boosted myself up onto it.
“We don’t have to share it,” he said. “I’ll find a new spot.”
“That’s silly,” I declared, patting the rock. “There’s room for both of us and I don’t have any friends.”
For some reason, that made him curious. “You don’t have any friends?”
“No, I just moved here and school hasn’t started.”
He nodded in somber understanding and dropped to a seated position on the sand. I was inexplicably disappointed that he hadn’t joined me on the rock. I was also inexplicably delighted that he wasn’t walking away.
“I move a lot,” he said with a shrug, grabbing a stick and drawing in the sand with it. “Do you?”
“No, this is my first time.”
“It gets easier,” he told me, looking up. His eyes locked on mine. Moonlight sparkled in them and I felt a strange warmth seep into my bones. It felt like going home. “The first couple days will suck, but you’ll make friends fast, I bet. You seem nice.”
“I’m nervous,” I blurted. The words surprised me. I hadn’t voiced them before. Momma needed me to be strong, and I knew Daddy wouldn’t have time for my silly problems. As much as my honesty surprised me, though, it didn’t seem to faze the boy.
“That’s okay,” he said, wrapping an arm around his belly as he drew in the sand with the other. I watched in silence as he doodled. He drew a circle and erased it. Drew a square and erased it. He looked up into the sky, squinting at the stars. Looked back at the sand and drew a star. Erased it. Drew a car. He stared at that one for a while, head cocked to the side. “It’s normal to be nervous,” he said thoughtfully, adding windows to the car. “I get nervous.”
For some reason, that surprised me. “You do?”
“Yeah. I’ve had a bunch of new schools so I guess you’d think I was brave by now. I’m not, though. I don’t think scared is something you can just choose not to be. You’ll always be afraid. You just gotta find a way to be smarter than the fear.”
“Yeah,” he looked up and grinned at me. “That’s what I…” he trailed off, staring at the sketched car in the sand. In a swift movement, he tossed the stick aside and smoothed a hand over the drawing. “My brother Jakey is scared of the dark,” he said, sitting back on his hands and staring at the sky. “He thought there were monsters everywhere. Under the bed, in the closet, outside the window, out in the… out in the hallway,” he shook his head. “He keeps… he kept me up with his whining, so I tell…” he shook his head hard, as if to dislodge something. “I told him, every night, he’s gotta smile while he’s going to sleep.”
“Yeah,” he flashed a grin at me, as if demonstrating his point. It kinda reminded me of one of Momma’s smiles. His mouth was smiling but his eyes were sad and far away. “I made some stuff up about how monsters like fear so you gotta fool them into thinking you’re not afraid. If you smile they go away.”
“That’s dumb,” I said. “You shoulda just told him monsters aren’t real.”
“Nah, he’s too smart for that,” the boy said.
His answer confused me, but I didn’t press. “I can’t really smile at everyone like a creepo on my first day of school, though,” I said. “They’ll think I’m crazy.”
He smiled at me again, at that. This time it reached his eyes in a small way. Just a quick glimmer that might have been the moonlight.
“Yeah, that’s true,” he agreed nodding. He sat forward, dusting his hands off and clasping them together, resting his chin on his fists in a mock display of thoughtfulness. “It still kinda works, though.”
“Yeah, I mean… don’t smile,” he said, grinning at me. I caught the full force of it, in that moment. It was like the sun broke loose in the middle of the night. “But I guess, y’know… Jakey was scared of the monsters and he couldn’t sleep because he was scared. But when he smiled he wasn’t scared, so the monsters left him alone.”
“Real to him.”
“Fake monsters,” I repeated, firmly.
“Okay, okay. So you’re scared of fake bullies.”
“Bullies are real!”
“But you’re pretty. They’re not gonna be mean to you.”
I felt my face heat at the unexpected complement, but scowled. “Bullies are mean to everybody.”
“At first, sure. But they’ll leave you alone if they don’t think it bothers you. They’re like the monsters. They bully you so you’ll be sad. It’s the sadness they want. Not you. Jakey smiled and his monsters left him alone. You just gotta pretend you’re happy and the bullies won’t touch you.”
“That won’t work,” I said, with absolute certainty.
“Have you tried it?”
Of course I hadn’t. I’d never been bullied. I had been with the same kids since preschool. I was popular. I had at least twenty friends. Maybe more. If there were bullies at my school, I’d never been able to see them through my crowd of allies. Allies I’d left behind.
I sniffed back tears as my vision blurred. “No,” I said forlornly, wiping a tear from my cheek.
“Why are you crying?” he asked, pushing himself to his feet. “I was trying to help. You’re not supposed to cry.”
“I don’t have any friends,” I said through my tears.
I buried my face in my hands, but I heard him approach and I felt him brush against me as he boosted himself up onto the rock. He nudged my shoulder with his. “Where are you going to school?” he asked.
“Sand Hill Junior High,” I said.
“Well, then, you’re wrong.”
I lowered my hands and frowned at him. “Wrong about what?”
“About not having any friends!” he said brightly.
I shook my head, utterly lost.
“I go to Sand Hill, too,” he said. “At least for now. So you’ve got one friend.”
“We’re not friends,” I snapped at him. Daddy never let me be friends with boys. I asked him, once, if my classmate Jeremy could come over after school and he put me in timeout. I didn’t understand it, but there were a lot of things about Daddy that I didn’t understand. The only thing I did know was that if he said something it was best to listen. “Don’t tell anybody we’re friends,” I hissed into the darkness, suddenly very aware of the waywardness of my birthday adventure.
The boy’s face went still at my words, and the smile dropped away. He swallowed and nodded. “Yeah,” he said with a sigh, slipping off the rock and sitting back down in the sand. “Okay.”
“Why do you want to be friends, anyway?” I asked, confused by the apparent sadness on his face. He hadn’t just moved here. He probably already had friends. Why did he care?
He shrugged, reaching for a new stick and drawing zig zags in the dirt. “I don’t,” he muttered to the sand.
“But you said we were friends.”
“Cuz I thought it’d make you feel better,” he said, as if I was stupid for asking.
“Why do you care?”
“Because you were sad.”
“But why do you care if I’m sad?”
“That’s a stupid question!” he snapped at me, glaring.
Hurt, I clamped my mouth shut. I thought it was a pretty good question. He wanted to be my friend because I was sad. But why would he care if I was sad if we weren’t already friends? It didn’t make any sense to me. Maybe I was stupid.
“I just don’t get it,” I mumbled, flopping back on the rock and staring at the sky. The moon was directly overhead, a massive, glowing orb that hung in the sky and seemed liable, in that moment, to drop right onto me.
“What don’t you get?” the boy sighed impatiently.
“Nevermind, it doesn’t matter,” I said to the sky. “My dad wouldn’t let me be friends with you, anyway.”
“Your dad?” His tone perked up.
“Yeah, my dad… he doesn’t like me to be friends with boys.”
“That’s why you don’t wanna be friends?” His voice was bright with hope and I sat up, gripping the edge of the rock. The gritty texture of the stone dug into my hands.
“Yeah,” I said. “And I do wanna. I just can’t.”
“Sure you can!” he said cheerfully, bouncing to his feet and hopping up onto the rock next to me. “We’ll just be secret friends!”
“Yeah, like… we can meet here sometimes and talk about stuff. And if anybody’s mean to you at school I’ll beat ’em up. I just won’t tell nobody why.”
I laughed at that. He looked too skinny to beat anybody up. Skinny and tired, I noticed. I hadn’t seen it from far away, but this close I saw the heavy shadows beneath his eyes and the gaunt angles of his face.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked, scowling at me.
“Do you beat up people very often?” I asked, by way of answer.
At that, his face darkened. It was odd. There were so many things about the boy that I didn’t know. Heck, I didn’t even know his name. But it was like he could speak to me without words. I knew my question made him sad, just as surely as I knew I’d hurt his feelings when I said we couldn’t be friends. It was that same, strange sixth sense that told me it’d make him feel better if I held his hand.
As skinny as he was, his hand dwarfed mine. The surface of his palm was rough, and his fingers felt strong and grown up as he linked them with mine and folded them over the back of my hand. We both stared at our joined hands. I was astonished at how unremarkable it was. I’d never held hands with a boy before. I thought it was supposed to be something special. I thought it was supposed to catapult me into feeling like a woman. Instead, it just felt the same as his smile. It felt like going home.
“What’s your name?” I asked, still staring at our hands.
“Nate,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Alexandra,” I said with a groan.
“You don’t like your name?” he asked.
“Now that’s a stupid question,” I shot back. “Alexandra is my grandma’s name. I hate it. It sounds like a grandma’s name.”
“Well, what do you wanna be called?” he asked.
I laughed. “What, I just get to choose?”
“It’s your name,” he said. “How ’bout Aly?”
I shuddered. “My family calls me that. Not my friends.”
I laughed and shook my head, rolling the names over in my head. “Isn’t that a boy’s name?” I asked.
“Not if it’s your name. If it’s yours it’ll be a girl’s name. Since you’re a girl and all.” Although I wasn’t looking at him, I heard the grin in his voice.
“So… Alex? That’s a good name?” I asked doubtfully.
“Do you like it?”
I shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Then it’s a good name. It’s nice to meet you, Alex.” He offered me his free hand to shake, and I stared at it, stifling a giggle. It seemed an absurd gesture, considering we were already holding hands. Then I looked up at his face and saw the humor in his eyes, and I laughed outright.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Nate,” I said, pulling my hand loose from his left and slipping it into his right, letting him pump it up and down dramatically.
“So we’re friends now, Alex?” he asked, whispering conspiratorially.
“Secret friends,” I whispered back.
Right then, in what was otherwise a glorious, memorable, flawless moment, my stomach bellowed out a massive, hungry growl. I hadn’t eaten much of my birthday dinner, and I guess it was coming back to bite me.
Nate snickered, letting go of my hand, and I felt my face heat in embarrassment. I slid off the rock and fumbled with my backpack, pulling out a candy bar and hopping back up on the rock.
“I’ve never heard a girl’s stomach make that sound before.” Nate was still laughing, stretching out on his back as I tore open the candy bar and took a bite.
“I’m hungry,” I said defensively, talking around my food in what Momma would have considered a gross display of unladylike behavior.
“So am I, but you don’t hear my stomach roaring about it like that do you?” he teased, propping his hands behind his head and staring at the stars.
“If you’re hungry I’ve got more.”
Nate stilled my slide off the rock with a hand on my arm. “I’m good,” he said, releasing me when I stopped moving. “I was just kidding.”
“You can have a Snickers,” I said, ignoring him. “I don’t like the peanuts but my brother Tommy loves them so I always bring them with me on adventures.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You just said you were.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Well,” I said, slipping off the rock and rooting around in my backpack. “You can just save it for later.”
Candy bar in hand, I boosted myself back up and dropped it on his stomach. Then I reclined next to him, staring at the stars.
“Do you know the constellations?” I asked, pretending not to notice when he plucked the Snickers bar off his stomach and peeled the wrapper back, taking a large, hungry bite.
“Some of ’em,” he said, his voice muffled as he chewed.
“That’s gross, you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.” I nudged him in the ribs and he nudged me right back.
“You were doing it earlier.”
“Which ones do you know?” Better to change the subject before he knew he won the argument.
“Uhhh, the Big Dipper,” he pointed up at the sky.
“The Big Dipper isn’t up right now,” I said, knocking his hand aside.
“Oh…” his voice trailed off as he took another bite, chewed, and swallowed. “I thought you were asking me cuz you didn’t know. I was just gonna make some stuff up.”
“Mm-mm,” I said, shaking my head against the rock as I chewed on my last bite. “I know all of ’em.”
“Okay, then, smartass. Show me one.”
“Don’t curse,” I snapped, nudging him again in the ribs.
“Ouch, fine. Show me one… smartypants.”
“That’s Scorpius,” I said, pointing at the J-shaped formation above us.
“What’s it supposed to be?”
“A scorpion. Duh.”
“I think you’re making shit--” he broke off when I hissed at him, poised to poke him in the ribs again. “I think you’re making stuff up,” he corrected, stuffing the candy wrapper into his pocket and folding his hands behind his head once more. “All I see is a bunch of dots.”
“Well they’re not just dots. They’re stars. They’re HUGE. Bigger than the sun. They’re just so far away way they look tiny.”
He made a thoughtful sound, and we sank into comfortable silence, staring at the stars. I don’t know what Nate was thinking about, but I was thinking about how small the sky usually made me feel. Those tiny dots were so massive. Sometimes I felt like a star-- so huge and important in my own portion of the world and so puny and insignificant to everyone and everything else.
Normally, it set me on edge, thinking about where I fit into everything. That night, it didn’t. It seemed to me that the spot worked even better at night. The world not only stopped, it seemed to have faded away completely.
Then Nate sat up, breaking the spell. “Well, secret friend,” he said without preamble. It’s been fun but I gotta go back to where I live.”
“Oh,” I mumbled, stifling my disappointment.
“I’ll walk you home first, though.”
He gaped at me in mock indignation. “Well I wouldn’t be a good friend if I let you wander around in the woods by yourself, would I?”
“I wander around in the woods by myself all the time,” I bragged.
“Sure, but that was before we were friends. C’mon, let’s go.”
He hopped off the rock and held out his hand and I took it, although I really didn’t need his help getting down. He took off his shoes and we stepped across the creek together, still holding hands. We sat on the bank and tucked wet feet back into our shoes in comfortable silence.
“I’ll take the lead,” Nate said, pushing me behind him as I shrugged into my backpack and took a step toward the woods. I planted my feet, arms crossed over my chest, scowling.
“You don’t even know where I live,” I said crossly. “I’ll take the lead.”
“But it’s dark,” he countered, gesturing at the shadowy woods around us. “Aren’t you like… scared or whatever?”
“Of the woods?” I asked. “I come here all the time. I’ll take the lead.”
He didn’t say anything, so I jogged past him into the moonlit forest.
“Wait up!” he yelled after me, and I heard his footsteps pounding the dirt behind me.
When we reached the edge of the trees lining the expanse of perfectly manicured lawn that comprised my backyard, Nate grabbed my arm.
“Hold up,” he hissed. We can’t go through there. Let’s go around.”
I frowned, confused, and pulled my arm loose. “We can’t go around. That’s my house,” I said, pointing at the white-paneled Colonial I reluctantly called home.
“Are you serious?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Yeah,” I said. “What’s the matter?”
He swallowed hard and shook his head. “I thought…”
He took a deep breath and let it out, taking a step forward and bracing his hands on his hips as he studied my home. I stood back and took the moment to study him. His shoulder blades jutted out sharply from his back, and his graying t-shirt was spotted with tiny holes. I looked down at his feet and saw that the heel of his left shoe was reinforced with silver duct tape.
And he thought I was, too, since I’d shown up in my shabby adventure clothes. I’d never had a poor friend, before and I’d lived in nice houses like this my whole life. Daddy worked with poor people all the time, but I’d never really thought of the fact that they were real people. They’d always been a thing the adults talked to each other about in sad voices, or used as a tool to make us finish our dinner.
“It’s okay,” I said, stepping forward and linking my arm through his. “We’re not rich. We don’t have guard dogs or anything.”
Nate just shook his head with a breath of disbelief and followed as I led the way, picking my route through dark corners of the yard. There were no fences in my neighborhood, and I didn’t want any nosy neighbors to peek out and see two kids traipsing around in the middle of the night. I’d be grounded until my grandbabies died of old age.
“This is kinda cool,” Nate whispered from behind me as we low-crawled behind a row of low shrubs. “I feel like a spy.”
“I know, right?!” I whispered back, that warm feeling of home curling into a warm ball in my chest. I’d always felt that way, sneaking about and exploring the outdoors. I felt like a warrior. A strong, stealthy warrior. I liked my dirty old cargo shorts for the same reason. They made me feel like someone else. Someone strong, and I was everything but strong in real life. It’d always felt silly, though, to pretend. Right now it didn’t feel silly at all. Or pretend. Not with Nate’s excitement so palpable and close and real.
We reached my sycamore tree without incident and stood below it, staring at each other. Dappled moonlight illuminated Nate’s face and I smiled up at him. “I’m glad we’re friends,” I whispered.
He smiled back. A full smile that shone out at me from his eyes. “Me, too,” he said.
“Can I have a boost?” I asked, reaching my hands up and standing on my tip toes to show that I needed help reaching the branch above me. I didn’t, really. I could jump up and grab the branch myself. I’d done it loads of times. I guess I just liked the thought of him helping me. “That window up there is my bedroom. I have to climb.”
Nate looked from me to the window, lines creasing his forehead. “There’s no other way?” he asked, frowning at me.
“It’s fine. I do it all the time.” Not true, but he didn’t need to know that. “Just give me a boost.”
Sighing, he stepped forward and sank to a knee, looping his fingers together for me to step in. I stepped into his makeshift foothold and grabbed the branch, using it to steady myself as he stood, boosting me up so that all I had to do was sling a leg over the branch. I straddled it and leaned down so I could whisper to him.
“Will you be at the spot tomorrow?” I asked.
He hesitated, then nodded. “Same time?” he asked.
“Same time,” I affirmed.
Without looking back, I scrambled up the branches and launched myself at the window, smiling when Nate hissed out an anxious breath as I gracefully latched onto the ledge and crawled through the opening. I poked my head and chest out, waving down at him. He waved back and, for a moment, hesitated, staring up at the window. I couldn’t see his expression in the dim light, but it felt like he was smiling. Although perhaps it just felt that way because of how hard I was smiling.
“Good night, Nate,” I whispered to myself as he turned and snuck away, retracing our steps back to the safety of the woods.
Within ten minutes I was back in my pretty pink nighty and safe under the covers of my bed. The bed felt better, and the shadows of the furniture weren’t so strange. I smiled at the ceiling and crossed my hands behind my head. It was a good birthday. My whole family was home for dinner. Tommy gave me an awesome present. I went for a moonlit adventure in the woods.
Best of all -- better than all of it -- I had a friend.