CHAPTER 1 Part One
Zach holds his new suitcase close to his body. He can sense the drumming of his heart against its taught leather skin and presses harder, burying his face in its core, willing himself to feel anything but the beating proof of his existence.
This summer will be different from the last eleven summers of his life. Why? Because this year, his mother is taking Zach and his siblings to spend the months with his untie and uncle in the big city. Zach doesn’t hate the idea of going away. He finds life to be boring and unfulfilling at home. But the notion of spending time with more family than what he’s already got tastes all the more bitter in his mouth.
They are taking the bus through the country towns between the two cities, his and the relatives’. His young brothers are screaming in the front of the bus, and his older sister is flirting with a couple of teenagers in the back. She rushes to him suddenly, causing his seat back to lurch with the impact.
“Zach, give me a piece of gum,” she demands. Her face is full of anticipation as she glances back toward the two boys, smiling sweetly.
“I don’t have any,” he says, reaching instinctively toward his pocket out of her view.
“Liar! I know you have some; gimme it,” she grabs his hair and yanks back.
He lets his face settle into a scowl and replies, “I only have one more piece, and I plan on eating it when we get to Untie Margo’s.” He had bought the gum with his own money and eaten the pieces sparingly, limiting himself to one per day as his own personal reward for being good.
Her hand is already grabbing for his, and she rips his arm from his pocket, sending the gum packet straight to the grimy bus floor.
“Knew you had it,” she triumphs, snatching it up and slinking back to her admirers.
Zach doesn’t bother fixing his disheveled hair. He rarely combs it these days, and the blonde locks his mother once fawned over so tirelessly, combing them this way and that, fiddling with them to draw attention to her sweet boy when strangers were near, now looks more like a pile of straw than hair. He doesn’t care. Besides, his untie and uncle will pet him and kiss him just the same, saying how wonderful it is to have them all to visit. He would rather stay home alone but, he wouldn’t be alone at the house this summer. His father is there.
He is old enough to know why they are going away. His mother always runs to her sister Margo and uncle Rich when things get too hard. And this summer, things were going to be too hard. But Zach doesn’t want to think about any of that now. He wants to keep watch out the window and wait for the wisteria bridge. The last thing he wants is to miss it. After all, the bridge is the only reason he doesn’t mind so much the long bus ride out of the city, into the big city, then back again. The country is so beautiful. Rolling hills, green forest, patches of wildflowers, and lines of fruit trees planted and forgotten--it seems so peaceful to him. But more than that, it all seems to call his name, especially the wisteria bridge.
The bus will pass the bridge approximately one mile after the orchards and precisely five seconds, he’s counted many times, before the sign saying Welcome to ---. Well, to be frank, he doesn’t know where he’s being welcomed to. That’s because the sign saying “welcome to” is so overpopulated with wildflowers and overgrown with weeds that it’s impossible to read from a passing bus what exactly it says. But he doesn’t mind that. To him, the name holds little importance. In fact, not knowing the town’s name makes its existence more mysterious, like the place is somewhere he can go to in his dreams, outside of reality, as his own secret garden, a place of refuge, of adventure.
He shifts in his seat, pushing his suitcase off his lap. It hits the dirty floor with a thud. The orchards begin to appear in his window, and he rests his head on its glass, letting the rough ride rock his head to and fro. Just a bit longer now. He watches as though a film is playing before him, a film he has seen before, and he waits now in anticipation of his favorite part. Splotches of flowering trees come into view.
And there it is! A simple stone walking bridge, though large, and one he supposes isn’t in use anymore, at least not for any important, everyday travel. It just sits perfectly, surrounded by the always present wisteria bushes and winding ivy that artistically complements the bridge’s beauty with its own. He feels such joy looking at the bridge; he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t need to know. It is beautiful. That’s all, really. But before he can fully appreciate it, the bridge is gone, the bus lurches over a hole in the road, and Zach’s head lifts off the window and comes back down hard.
He sighs. He won’t see that bridge again for another two months on his family’s trip back home. He will be sure to sit on the left side of the bus for his return trip. Thoughts turning toward a short nap, he moves his head, eyes waiting the next few seconds for the old sign saying “Welcome to”. It will be the last exciting thing his eyes see before his already-anticipated return.
But his eyes focus on something else instead.
A short distance ahead, past the welcome to sign, he sees two figures on bicycles. They appear to be riding hard, racing perhaps. After getting closer, he sees they are two boys, and they look to be his age. One is shirtless and tan, the other paler but quite a bit taller than the first with legs far too long for the small bicycle beneath them.
He loses interest once more, facing the truth that he has no friend to race bicycles with or even a bicycle where he is going. He will be alone all summer, maybe in the garden or at the local library. But then he sees the boy further ahead, the one with the sun darkened back, has come to an abrupt stop and hopped off his seat, tossing the bicycle to the ground in what looks to be victory. Did he reach the agreed-upon stopping point, the end of the two boys race? The second boy stops, not as harshly, and lifts one leg carefully over his bicycle while staying seated.
The bus in its speed has caught up to the boys. And though they are still far off, he can make out their faces with clarity now and is shocked by their expressions. The tall boy who lost the race blushes fiercely as the dark boy comes closer, saying something Zach wishes he could hear.
And then, right there in the open, the darker boy puts his arm around the long-legged boy, his other hand gripping the bicycle, and brings his face close to the other boy’s frowning face. But the bus has passed them now, and Zach turns his head, eyes following the scene. Does the suntanned boy get closer still? He thinks so, and his head seems to tilt slightly, maybe forcefully.
Zach’s face hits the quivering window as he strains to see more. But they’re gone. The two boys are gone from his view. The bus has passed them by, and he will never know now what it was they were doing. Maybe...he has an idea, though. But probably not. His blood is pounding in his ears again, and he holds his hands to his sore head, feeling the pain all at once of his foolish mistake.
After turning to see if anyone is looking at him, he reaches blindly for his suitcase to bring it close to his chest once more. The image of the shirtless boy is stuck fast in his mind. It’s all he can seem to see despite his miserable surroundings. And for some reason, he doesn’t want the image to disappear. He closes his eyes and wonders, just what was the boy doing? And... if he were the boy on that bicycle, the boy who had lost, how would he react to something like that?