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Author's note: I originally came up with the idea of writing a novel about friendship to bring back my very own fond memories of childhood. As people read this, I want them to have insight on two characters' points-of-views and how they view their childhood. (This book is written in first-person,but by both Betsy and Ryan.) I hope that as people read my book, they will remember their own childhood memories and be able to connect with the characters' thoughts.
The Raymonds’ house across the street had been for sale since before last Christmas. They were nice, old folks who treated Betsy and I like their own grandchildren—reading to us on hot summer days when there was nothing better to do, taking us to the park, and even giving us gifts for the holidays. But before I had made it into the first grade, Mrs. Raymond told me she was going to have to move away for health reasons. I never actually thought she and Mr. Raymond would have the heart to leave—that is, until I saw the SOLD sign posted by the FOR SALE sign.
Ever since the twentieth of June, Rosy and I noticed that our close friends’ house across the street was getting emptier and emptier. Mom kept urging us to go and help Mr. and Mrs. Raymond pack. I didn’t want to, but Rosy somehow forced me to go with her. So we spent the first could few weeks of our summer vacation helping the Raymonds move out. The only thing I really liked about it was all the trinkets and such Mrs. Raymond left me. It helped me have memories of how much she treated me like her grandchild.
It was the first week of July when the Raymonds completely moved out. We said our final goodbyes, and Mr. and Mrs. Raymond promised they would write Christmas letters. Then Rosy and I watched the moving truck drive off, headed for some huge city three hours away from Lakewood.
I awoke early one morning, about one week after Mr. and Mrs. Raymond had left, to the sound of a loud motor. I glanced out the window, only to see something quite interesting. It was a fairly large truck painted white and orange, with bold, black words. It was a moving truck! I leaped off my bed, sprinted out the door, and started for Rosy’s room. As soon as I forced her bedroom door wide open she yelled, “Besty, you idiot! What are you doing so early in the morning?” Wow, I really knew how to get my older sister mad.
“Rosy, someone’s moving into the house across the street! Do you think they’re nice?”
“Hey! Don’t you know that I like to sleep in? You need to learn to be considerate. Why can’t you go down there yourself?” Then she rolled over and fell back to sleep.
“Fine then,” I said sharply, “You’re missing out.”
I was too anxious to find out who was moving into the house across the street. Perhaps it was someone else my age. Mr. and Mrs. Raymond were nice, but I wanted to hang out with someone my own age. Since school had gotten out, I was a bit lonely. No one my age lived in the same neighborhood. All I wanted was a friend. Rosy was pretty much the only one I ever hanged out with, and she was my older sister. I mean, how fun is that?
I raced down the stairs. I was half a second away from yanking the front door open when I suddenly stopped myself. I slowly peeked through the curtains of the front window like an anxious child spying on her parents on Christmas Eve night. What if I was getting my hopes up? What if the new-comers were also old folks? What if there was no one my age? I couldn’t see anything but the huge moving truck. The only way I could find out who was moving in would be to go out there.
I was so close to opening the front door when I heard the tired voice of my mom behind me.
“What are you doing, dear?”
“Mom, there’s someone moving into the house across the street. Can I go see who it is?”
“Oh, alright. Expecting a friend? Listen, your dad and I are leaving for work in about an hour. I want you and Rosy to stay at the house all day, okay? Now go see who that mysterious new neighbor is.”
I left the house excitedly. That was when I had my first glance of the boy who no lived in the house across the street. He was about as tall as me, with very light, blond hair. His hair was short and each strand of it curled up into a thick wisp. He had stunningly bright blue eyes that were so bright that they could’ve been seen from a far away distance. His eyes were the only color in his face, for he looked very white. He didn’t have much of a tan at all. The best part about this new kid was that he was my age, my age.
I started across the street. The boy saw me headed his way. He tugged on his dad’s pants and pointed. His dad smiled at me. I smiled back and gathered the courage to say, “Hi.” But that’s all I said. I was too shy myself to say much more.
The little boy stared, with the look of annoyance written all over his face. He looked as if he didn’t seem too happy about being in this new town. But his father seemed friendly.
“You live here?” his father questioned.
“Yes. I live in that house across the street.” I pointed at my house.
“Well look at this, Ryan! You’ve got yourself a friend already. See, I told you moving wouldn’t be so bad. Why don’t you hang out with her a bit? I’ve got to help Mom unpack.” Then the boy’s father walked away.
“So your name’s Ryan?” I said exuberantly. “Hi, Ryan. I’m Betsy.”
Ryan gave me an exasperated look. He sure was a shy little boy. Perhaps he wasn’t so fond of moving from his previous home to some different and strange town, or maybe even a different state. I wasn’t so sure where he came from. I knew that if I had to move like him, I wouldn’t be happy either. Then I thought, he must feel lonely. If that was the case, it was a good thing I was there to make friends with him. It was good for me because I really wanted a new friend and good for him because he wasn’t familiar with anything or anyone, and meeting someone at that time was always good.
“So, where are you from?” I asked curiously.
“Arizona,” he replied, annoyed. “I’d better help my mom and dad with unpacking. It’s cool you live here too.”
“But unpacking is boring, and your dad said you could hang out with me. I’m sure you’d like to play instead. Want to come over? My mom and dad are getting ready for work. I’m sure they won’t mind too terribly if you come over for a little while. How ‘bout it? You can ask your dad, okay?”
“Um, okay.” He seemed hesitant.
I watched him slowly jog across the lawn towards the garage where both his parents were. His dad was in the process of hauling a giant card board box, and his mother was headed toward the moving truck to grab another box. Brian—was that his name, I can’t remember?—followed his mom with a look of dissatisfaction. He was saying something to her, but I couldn’t hear what. Then she looked up at me from the back of the moving truck and smiled. That’s when I decided to go over there.
The first thing I noticed about the new kid’s mom was that she was a bit pudgy in the front. It looked really awkward because only her stomach was big. Her arms and legs were thin. I must have been staring at her belly for some time because the new kid said, “My baby sister isn’t born yet.” Then I understood why his mom looked so pudgy in only her stomach.
“It’s really nice of you to be so friendly and all, but Ryan here is being very rude and doesn’t want to go over to your house,” said the new kid’s mom.
“Mom, it’s not that!” he stomped his foot. “I just don’t feel like it, okay?”
I felt the tears forming in my eyes. What was wrong with this kid? Why didn’t he want to come over? I really wanted him to come over so we could play. I really wanted to show him my house, my room, my stuffed animals, my yard—everything. I wanted to make friends with him. I was just trying to be friendly. I mean, what’s so wrong about being friendly? Isn’t that what my parents have been teaching me all my life? There was a lump in my throat before the tears leaked out.
“Oh I’m sorry, sweetie,” Ryan’s mom said to me. “Ryan will change his mind, wont you, Ryan?” Then she added, “How about you help Ryan unpack his things?”
“But, Mom, I don’t—”
“Dear, why are you like this? This girl is trying to make you feel welcome. You need to be a little gentleman and try to get to know her as well.” There was a pause before she said, “By the way, Cameron is still in the car. He’s been in there the whole car ride over here.” Then the new kid’s mother grabbed a large box from the truck and left for the garage.
“Who’s Cameron?” I asked curiously. I was feeling a little more blithesome now.
“The dog,” retorted the boy. I began to follow him towards the van that was parked next to the moving truck. Through the tinted windows of the van I could see the apprehensive figure of a small dog wagging its tail. He really wanted to get out of there. The poor thing was whining with anxiety.
As soon as the van door was pulled open, the dog, Cameron, rushed out to greet us. He was a tiny dog with a long, brown body and a long snout. He was a wiener dog! I had always thought that wiener dogs were funny looking. He was darling. I couldn’t help but pet and hug him.
Then Cameron ran for the garage where Ryan’s parents were.
“Are we going to unpack your things now?” I asked.
“I guess,” he sighed. “My stuff is in the moving truck.”
Then I heard my mom’s voice across the street. She and Dad were getting ready to leave for work already. She was going to make me stay in the house until Rosy woke up. I knew I would have to leave Ryan for a bit.
“Betsy, your father and I are leaving now!” she called.
I looked up at the boy I considered my new friend. “Bye,” I said. “My parents get home later today. I can help you with your room when they return. Or you could come over now and my sister can watch us.”
Before Ryan said anything more, my mom came up to me. She was all dressed up in a fancy outfit for work. She and Dad both worked in an office somewhere; I didn’t exactly know where because jobs didn’t particularly spark my interest at the time.
“Well you must be that new neighbor Betsy was thrilled to meet, huh?” Mom was looking at Ryan.
Ryan had that shy expression over his face again.
“Mom, can he come over while you’re gone? Rosy can babysit us, can’t she?”
“Well, it looks like he’s a bit busy. It’s his first day here in Lakewood. Give him a little time to get adjusted to the place.”
“No buts, young lady. Are you going to argue with me or are you going to be obedient?” She grabbed my hand and led me across the street. I shouted back at the new kid a goodbye, but he didn’t even smile. I wondered if he would ever accept me as a friend, or if he would find me as just annoying.
Tomorrow would be a new day, and a new chance to become his friend—his best friend.
It was early the next morning when I decided to tell Mom how excited I was about my new friend. I pulled myself out of bed, dressed, and slowly made my way down stairs. It was one of those lazy summer mornings of being too tired to think straight. The previous night I had stayed up too late thinking of wonderful things to do all summer with the new neighbor. My mind was still partially asleep and I almost forgot the reason why I was awake at that moment. For a moment there I understood why Rosy liked to sleep in so much.
But the reason I was even awake at such an early hour of the morning was because I was eager to share with Mom what this new kid was like. I wanted to catch her before she left for work.
“Mom, today can I hang out with that kid again? I’m deciding that he’s my new best friend.”
Mom was in the kitchen making coffee. She was still in her morning robe and her hair was all knotted. Her eyes were barely open. She looked so tired that she was pale, or maybe she just looked pale without her makeup on. I could never tell the difference.
I must have startled her because she jumped. “Oh, darling, what are you doing up so early? It’s seven in the morning and you don’t have school anymore.”
“Mom, I want to play with the new kid. He’s so shy, but I’ve decided that I’m going to make him feel welcome. He’s really nice though. I think his name is Brian or Brent, or something like that. I don’t really remember. So can I go over there and see if he’s awake? Or can he come over here and Rosy can watch us?” I looked up at Mom with a convincing smile.
“Oh, Betsy, don’t be so silly. It’s way too early in the morning for this. He is probably still asleep.”
I glanced out the window. The new kid’s garage door was open and there were a ton of boxes. His parents were helping each other haul big pieces of furniture into the house. But he was nowhere in sight. May be he was in the house sleeping on a futon, since it appeared that his bed wasn’t out of the moving truck yet.
“Mom, his parents are awake,” I replied hopefully.
“Is he awake?” Mom asked with a yawn.
“I don’t know,” I responded.
“Oh, fine, you can go see what’s going on out there,” Mom said. Why don’t you ask his parents if they need any help unpacking? In the mean time, I am going to get dressed. I want to talk to his parents. Remember, I have to go to work today.” She finished her coffee and headed upstairs.
As I was leaving the house I noticed that the new kid was already dressed and crossing the lawn to the van parked near the moving truck. He didn’t at all notice me, but I called to him. “Randy! It’s me, your new friend.”
As soon as he saw that I was headed in his direction, he took off at a sprint to the van. He shouted, “Mom, I’m really super hungry! I am ready to go now. Can we leave now?” Then he tried his hardest not to look up at me. It was very obvious that he was pretending he didn’t know I was there.
“Hold on, Ryan!” I heard his mother shout. “For crying out loud, you are so impatient. Your father and I are trying our best to get this couch into the house before we leave.” Then I heard the sound of the boy’s mother grunt as she was lifting up the couch.
I made my way around the moving truck to the mini-van. I wanted him to know that I would never give up trying to be his friend. He looked up at me with an embarrassed frown; his lips curling downwards and his eyebrows sort of caved in. His forehead was wrinkled in disturbance. I jogged right up to him and stared into his bright, blue eyes.
“My name’s not Randy,” he said indignantly. “It’s Ryan. Why are you here?”
“Ryan is too common of a name,” I replied. “Yesterday you said you came from Arizona, right? I’ll call you Arizona Boy. You can call me Betsy.”
“Why are you here?” he questioned again. “I’m going to leave in a second to go somewhere.”
Behind me I heard my mom greet Arizona Boy’s mom. I spun around. They were talking grown-up talk, which I could care less about. I dropped into their conversation just in time to hear my mom explain how Lakewood is a neat little town, and how we’ve lived here since I was born. Then Mom said, “Well, it looks like my daughter is getting to know your son a little bit. She woke up this morning telling me how excited she was to have a friend for a neighbor. I can’t tell you how long she’s wanted for a friend in the same neighborhood!”
“Well, I guess it worked out fine for her then,” replied Arizona Boy’s mom with a smile. “This morning my husband and I were thinking of going out for breakfast since we haven’t got anything in the kitchen yet. May be Betsy would love to come with us.”
“That would be nice. Yeah, I’m going to work with my husband in a little bit, so that would be really nice for you to do that. What do you think, Betsy?” She looked down at me.
I thought for a moment. Then I glanced up at Arizona Boy, who was beginning to sulk. He had an I-would-rather-not-eat-breakfast-if-she-comes expression written all over his face. I couldn’t understand why he hated me so much. Did he hate all girls in general? Would it be better if I was a boy? I knew that if I went, Arizona Boy would be sulking all breakfast. But then I thought about if I didn’t go. I’d have to be stuck at home all day doing nothing, except being my older sister’s slave. It would just be another boring summer day if I didn’t go to breakfast with the new neighbors. Too bad for Arizona Boy. I was going with them regardless of what he thought.
“I want to go,” I assured.
“Alright, Betsy, when you get back just be sure to—”
“I can have her all day,” Arizona Boy’s mom broke in. “She can keep Ryan company, huh, Ryan? It’ll be great.”
“You’re willing to babysit my daughter?” Mom asked. “Oh, thank you so much! You are already nice folks.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal. Ryan is really bummed out that he had to leave his buddies back in Phoenix. I’m sure he’d love to make a new friend. Hey, are there any nice cafes or anything downtown?”
“My kids love Rocky’s Café,” mom replied. “It is a neat little restaurant. Just go downtown and you’ll see it by the super market. Thanks again for letting my daughter go with you. It’s a real treat for her. It’s also nice for her to get to know someone who lives around here. Betsy, I’ll see you after work, okay? Have fun! I’ll tell Rosy that you won’t be home, so that she won’t worry when she wakes up. I love you.” Then mom hugged me and started for my house.
So we were off to Rocky’s Café. I sat next to Arizona Boy in the mini-van. He was facing the window, trying his hardest to stare out at the road instead of at me. He didn’t even try to talk to me. He was so rude and inconsiderate. Not once did he try to show that he was thankful for me making him feel welcome. Not once did he even try to be my friend in return. The whole car ride down to town I was beginning to doubt my friendship with him.
Breakfast went by laboriously slow. Sure, Ryan’s parents were nice and friendly, but Ryan himself wasn’t at all that way. He didn’t say one thing the whole morning except, “I want to sit next to you, Dad.” I decided that I would much rather be at home with Rosy than there with Arizona Boy.
Then breakfast was over. We were back on Strawberry Road at the new boy’s house—well it was pretty much my house too, considering it was only a couple yards difference. I was just about ready to leave this boy when I thought, “Well, Mom isn’t back from work, so maybe I can help him unpack.”
“Hey, Arizona Boy, what stuff is yours?” I was taking a peek into the moving truck. There were boxes upon boxes stacked up against the wall of the truck. It sure would be something to drag each one of those boxes out. They all looked pretty heavy to me.
“Can you leave me alone already?! You are so annoying, and my parents made me have to deal with you. Go away! I hate you already and I don’t want to be your friend. I just got here yesterday and it already sucks!” Then those beautifully bright, blue eyes of his began swelling up with tears. He rubbed them and ran for the garage.
A rush of embarrassment flooded my insides, drowning out any confidence I had in wanting to become his friend—his best friend. My hopes had been shattered with a sharp spear of disappointment. Then I realized just how ridiculous all this was. How foolish of me to have such high expectations to begin with. Who was this boy—my…my dream pal? What was going through my head when I decided to make this totally unpredictable kid my friend? Why was I so eager to make a new friend? I felt even sillier than ever.
I raced across the street with tears flooding my eyes. I didn’t want to have anything to do with Arizona Boy anymore. If he were to treat me like dirt, I didn’t want to have anything at all to do with him. Nothing.
For the next week, I stared out my window. I stared at the new neighbors as all three of them made the house look more and more like a home. I stared out the window, my heart heavy with nothing but dashed hope for a friendship. But every time my eyes caught the boy, I wanted to cry. I wanted to run out there and greet him with a new sense that he had changed his mind. There was a tiny molecule of hope that may be, for the strangest of thoughts, he would want to be my friend.
For a whole week I ignored Ryan’s existence. Every time Mom asked me, “So, how come you haven’t gotten together with your new friend lately,” I would say in return, “Mom, he’s not really nice. I don’t want to be friends with someone mean.” She would just go about continuing what she was doing. And I, on the other hand, would just play tea party or dolls with Rosy or find something productive to do in my own room.
Finally, by Monday I decided that I was too bored. Rosy was a bossy sister and Mom and Dad were always working. It had been a whole week—I mean Ryan had to have been situated in his new home by now. May be he was bored too! It was time for me to go see him again. It was time for me to change his mind. He was probably over there waiting for me. He was too shy to begin with. I wouldn’t at all have been surprised if he was over there waiting for me.
I started for the front door with certainty. Just as I was about to grab the door knob, a startling ring made my whole body jump. I gasped, but shortly afterwards I realized that it was only the door bell. “Only the door bell, Betsy,” I told myself reassuringly. But then I stopped myself before I opened the door. Who could it have been? Ryan!
I twisted the knob and pulled the door wide open. Okay, so I was certainly right. There he was, the new kid with his mother. He had a faint smile painted across his face, and a look of innocence portrayed in his eyes. Somehow, he looked different than when I first met him. It was indescribable. “Hi,” I said. “It’s you, Arizona Boy.”
“Your mom around?” Ryan’s mom questioned.
“Oh, that’s okay. Ryan just wants to say something. Go ahead, Ryan.”
“I’m sorry for making you feel bad last week.”
“Oh.” There was a little bit of an awkward silence. Then I said, “It’s okay.”
“Do you want to come over and hang out with Ryan a bit?” his mom added.
“Sure. I’m sure my mom won’t mind so much if I’m just going to be across the street. Rosy, I’m going across the street!”
So, Arizona Boy, do you really hate me?” I asked. We were in his half-barren room. Below his window there was a nice, little bed set up already, an empty toy box in one corner, and a book shelf stacked with books, but other than that it was pretty much empty. Smack down in the middle of his room were cardboard boxes piled high. Each one had Ryan’s name scribbled on it, along with what was in the box. I was there to help him get his room together.
“Call me Arizona Boy again, and you can’t be my friend,” he retorted. “My name is Ryan.”
“You said you were sorry,” I responded. “Doesn’t that mean you want to be my friend?”
“Mom forced me to say sorry. I said it, but who says I meant it?”
What a brat, I thought to myself.
“You’re not very nice to me. Are you upset that you moved?”
He paused. Then he looked up at me with a sorrowful look, but remained silent. He pulled a small box from the pile and began opening it. I reached for another box and ripped it open as well. Somehow I knew that he really did like my company.
Later that day, as we were pulling out his old action figures from boxes, I said, “So what’s so bad about being called Arizona Boy? I mean, there are too many Ryans in the world, but I doubt there’s any Arizona Boys in the world. Can I please call you that? You can give me a nickname if you want.”
“It sounds so stupid,” he replied, as he was sorting through all his toys.
“Can I just call you Arizona then?”
Somehow I convinced him that he should have that nickname.
We spent the remaining of the day placing things around and about his room. We would each grab a box, rip it open, and sort out whatever was in that box. Arizona seemed very particular with his toys. He demanded that action figures would go in his toy box and stuffed animals would only go on his bed. He also made sure that he was the only one to do away with his clothes, which were placed in his closet where a wooden arm wore was. I helped him decide where all his posters and pictures should go. He had one poster of Spider Man, another one of Scooby Doo, and another of just a tiger in the African planes. He also had a ton of random pictures that I had helped him mount. By the end of the day his room looked more cozy and warm.
It was nearing dusk. I was sure Mom and Dad would demand of my return soon, so that I could have dinner.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Arizona.” I flashed him a spontaneous smile. To my surprise, he smiled back, showing off all his teeth.
“Okay,” he replied.
I skipped home, my heart filled with joy. I finally had a friend. It took some time, but I had a friend.
Knock, knock, knock.
It was the following day. I was on Arizona’s front porch, waiting to see him again. Today I had high hopes that he would come to my house for the first time. Mom and Dad didn’t have to work today since it was a Saturday. They had told me the previous night during dinner that it would be fine if he spent the day with us. I was thrilled.
But nobody was answering the door.
It was mid-morning. The sun was shining bright, and a little too warm. The sky couldn’t have been more blue, and there wasn’t even the faintest trace of cloud. Just by the incredible warmth of the morning already, I could tell that the heart of the day would be a scorching, hot, and unpleasant one.
I knocked again and rang the doorbell. There was still no sign of life inside the house. Then I glanced toward the driveway. The mini-van and the moving truck were still there. Now where could they be? I thought impatiently. May be, I decided, they are still asleep. It is a Saturday and it is the morning. That could just be a possibility. I snuck around the side of the house like a burglar in search for a place to break in. There was a little window there in the side. I peeked through. It was very dark. All I could see was the front room and the kitchen. The front room looked very empty, with only a table set up for the television and a desk with a computer propped up on it. There were two small couches staring at the television.
The window was too high for me. I had to stand on my tip-toes to look in, and after awhile it hurt too much. I hated being so short, but then again; I was only seven years old. I rested my toes for a little bit before sneaking a peek into the house again. I could barely see passed the kitchen. There was a hallway leading into dark shadows, and that was the farthest I could see from where I was. Arizona’s family must have been sleeping still.
I made my way back to the porch and smacked the door several more times. Not even Cameron, the dog, wanted to welcome me. They were all snoozing away like cats. Sleepy heads, I thought, before turning back to cross the street.
Just as I began across the street to return home, my eyes met three people and a dog at the far end of Strawberry Street. I watched the shortest one of them point a finger in my direction. Then the figure jogged towards me, the dog following close behind. When the person came close enough I gave a welcoming smile, for it was Arizona and Cameron. Soon after, his parents arrived.
“Good morning, Betsy.” Arizona’s mother was quite cheerful, and had evidently worked up a sweat. She was breathing hard despite the fact that it was just a usual stroll around the neighborhood, not a hard run. It must have been because she was very large with Arizona’s sister.
“Good morning, Ms…” I realized at that moment that I had never actually been told what Arizona’s last name was.
“Oh, you don’t have to call me by my last name. You are quite a polite young girl, aren’t you? You can call me Terry.”
I decided that she would just be referred to as Arizona’s mom from that point on.
“So we were checking out the neighborhood,” said Arizona’s dad. “It is really a nice one. Don’t you think so, Ryan?”
I turned to see Arizona stroking Cameron on the back. He had a red face and was sweating a little himself. It was really getting hot out.
“Yeah,” he shrugged unenthusiastically.
“Ooh! Did you see back country?” I gasped with excitement. Just the thought of the back country made my heart just pound with anxiety.
“What is that?” Arizona questioned.
“Well,” I began, “a few blocks down is a narrow road that is really bumpy and needs a new paving job. Anyways, if you follow the road a little ways you come to a dead end. From there, there is a smaller dirt path that leads through a meadow, and the meadow leads to a big forest.” I leaned closer to Arizona. “I haven’t gone so far.” I whispered quietly so that no one else could hear. “But rumor has it that there is a murderer living somewhere in backcountry.”
Arizona’s eyes widened with confusion. Just by staring into the window of his eyes I could tell that he had a mind full of questions—and curiosity.
“A murderer?” he inquired. “How do you know?”
I pondered for a while. “Well,” I said simply. “Do you want to go to back country and see if it’s true?”
A daring smile crossed his face. His eyes had adventure written all inside them.
“Let’s go.” There was something about the tone in his voice that made me even more excited and anxious. But at the same time I was scared.
“Well, come on then! Let’s go to back country!” I exclaimed.
We started off at a run down Strawberry Street, but slowed to a walk when we turned the corner onto Rainbow Street. We said very little for a long while.
“So tell me about this murderer,” Arizona broke the silence inquisitively.
We turned onto Nixon Drive.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well there has to be a story behind this whole thing. I mean, you can’t just think that there’s a murderer.”
“You don’t believe it?” I questioned.
“He would be in jail—”
“The grown-ups don’t know about the murderer.”
“The grown-ups don’t know—?”
“No,” I said reassuringly. “I know all about the murderer because my sister, Rosy, told me.”
The curious expression on Arizona’s face was becoming more obvious now.
“One day,” I began, “Rosy was taking a walk with her friend when they came upon the road leading to back country. They decided to explore when they suddenly stumbled upon a shack. They didn’t know about the murderer at the time, you see, so they went up to it to check it out. There were cans of food stacked high in the garage and metal trash cans in every corner possible.
“Rosy didn’t know that a murderer lived in the shack until she lifted one of the lids of the trash cans. She said it smelt horrible! She said that the smell of decaying flesh was so overwhelming that she thought she was going to faint. Rosy and her friend ran away from there as soon as possible, and she hasn’t returned since.”
Arizona stopped walking. His eyes were wide with terror. “Should we go?” he asked.
“Don’t you want to see if there really is a murderer?” I said inquisitively.
We continued to walk.
“That’s not the whole story,” I continued. My heart raced at the thought of it all. “Rosy told me she heard the voices of ghosts calling out her name as she ran off. They were asking her for help. I’m not sure if she said that just to frighten me though. She does that sometimes.”
We came to the narrow dirt road I had talked about when I first told Arizona about back country. Surprisingly, there was a gate with a NO TRESPASSING sign posted on it. Underneath the sign was a skull and cross bones.
I turned to look at Arizona.
“I don’t know about this,” he mumbled. “What if the murderer kills us?”
“Oh, come on!” I urged. “Let’s go. This sign doesn’t mean anything—” Right after I had said that a cold shiver ran down my spine. It was a very hot summer day, but my body trembled with fear. I knew that the sign was there for a reason even though I said that it wasn’t.
Arizona and I exchanged glances.
After pondering for a long while, we finally made the decision to hop the gate. I daringly jumped it first onto the dry, cracked road on the other side, and Arizona followed shortly afterwards. Then we walked close to each other in complete silence down the road, which was surrounded by walnut trees orderly lined up next to each other. The trees were brown from summer and had the outward appearance of death. My mind was full of doubt.
Then the shack came into view. It was relatively small. There wasn’t any source of light glimmering through the windows, but an old pick-up truck was parked in the front. My heart pounded as we neared the shack.
“The murderer is home,” Arizona gulped. “Do you think he’s killing someone right now?”
“Probably,” I whispered in fear.
We reached the shack. The porch was sagging and rotted. Leaning up against the shack wall was an ax. At the sight of it my heart jolted. There was blood on the ax! I tugged at Arizona’s sleeve and pointed.
Then I heard a faint moan. It was a child’s voice, kind of like mine. It was humming something, and I felt its presence among me. I felt a cold force pulling at my soul. It kept pulling and its voice played a song in my ear. The child was humming in a distraught voice.
Arizona screamed and I immediately snapped out of my day dream. The faint humming of the child vanished completely. The door knob of the shack turned slightly. It creaked as it was being opened very slowly. The ax that was propped up against the side fell over and shook the old porch.
Arizona and I made a run for it. I beat him to the gate and hopped it without hesitation. We laughed together because we were so scared, but also because it was fun in that scary sort of way. We laughed as we attempted to regain our energy.
We walked home together in silence, sharing each other’s fear.
That day was the dawning of our friendship.
Since my arrival, all the times I had spent with the girl across the street brought me to the final conclusion that she really was a decent friend. Yeah, I must admit that I was a little too shy at first when Betsy tried so hard to be my acquaintance. But hey, she was quite annoying, wasn’t she? I mean, she kept on pushing and pushing. She couldn’t just let me get accustomed to my new home before nagging me to play with her. Besides, girls at that point were the last thing on my mind. They seemed too girly for me. Yes, I did say girly. That really was the only way I could describe girls—girly.
But this girl certainly wasn’t the girly kind of girl I was thinking of. She was interested in just about everything I was interested in. She evidently loved exploration and discovering new places and things. She was certainly daring too—especially when it came down to the murderer. I liked those characteristics about her. She was just like me: loving to explore and come away from the ordinary.
Another thing I had noticed about Betsy was that she was a fast runner. In back country, the whole murderer thing was absolutely terrifying. When we ran away from the shack, Betsy was so fast that she had passed me up. Just by thinking about how fast she ran in back country gave me an idea.
The following day I woke up bright and early in hopes that Betsy would come to the door. Just as I had assumed, she was knocking on my door only minutes after I had gotten dressed. I greeted her with the idea that I had fresh in my mind.
“What’s up?” Besty questioned in her usual exuberance. “Any nightmares?”
“I want to race today.” I jumped right into the topic of running, without even responding to her question.
“Why? What would give you that silly idea? Whatever, I don’t care. All I care is that I want to race too. It sounds fun.”
The day was too hot to race so we waited for evening to roll in. When it did, our time had come—our time to see who was faster.
“How ‘bout from the end of my driveway to—”
She scanned the street anxiously.
“—to the end of the block?”
We both agreed. I positioned myself on the ready, and she glanced at me with a nervous smile.
I pushed myself forward like a cheetah, or at least that’s what it seemed like. Besty was about a foot ahead of me already. It made me so mad. How could a girl be faster than me? How could I even allow myself to fall behind? It was my job to show off to her that I was faster than her. I eyed the finish line with determination. I sprinted full out and was so close to her. She looked back at me for a split second and screamed. I had caught up. As soon as the finish line was in jumping distance, I jumped. I jumped in hopes to beat her to it. But she had made it before me, just by a couple inches. I was so mad. Betsy was faster than I. She had beaten me. I could hardly believe such a thing could even be possible. It was a bad idea to race. I stomped home with a mind of jealousy, and a heart of unforgiving hatred.
July had reached its last week. It had been a total of one week and a half since my arrival at the new house. I didn’t mind it too terribly in Lakewood. I mean, it was a decent little town out in the country, away from the city and all. But I did miss my old friends back in Phoenix. The thought that I would never see them again depressed me senseless, and giving them a phone call every now and then was quite rare. So for the mean time, I was Betsy’s best friend. I guess I was pretty fortunate to have her be so befriending.
The last time I had seen Betsy was the day of the race. She had beaten me, and I had walked off on her to hold a pity party. Since then, I hadn’t seen her. I felt kind of bad about it because it was just a race. Just a race. It was so silly of me to have left her in the street like that. She was such a good sport and so nice to me, yet I had to have everything my way. It was just a stupid race. There was no prize to it, no money, nothing. I had realized that after I left her to celebrate her accomplishment by herself. I was too embarrassed to go apologize to her about me being a poor sport. So I decided to wait for her to come over to my house the next day, but she never did. It had never occurred to me that may be I had hurt her feelings, until now.
I finally decided to go to her house instead of waiting for her to come to my house. Bright and early one morning, right before my parents had left for work, I asked to hang out at Betsy’s house. Mom said it was fine, only as long as it was fine with Betsy’s parents also. Just as I made my way to the front door, the door bell rang. I froze in my tracks. Could it be…Betsy?
I swung the door wide open. Standing there in blue jeans and a pink T-shirt was Betsy. She was wearing her usual bright smile across her face. I returned her smile nervously. She spoke to me as if the race had never happened.
“You would never believe what I have!” she blurted out jubilantly. “I’ve gotten a kitten! Bought her at the pound just yesterday. Mom said that you can come over today to see her. She’s the cutest thing you could ever see!”
“Oh, that is really cool,” I replied. “I was actually on my way to your house when you rang the doorbell. Yeah, it’s fine if I could come over.”
Together we headed across the street to Betsy’s house.
“So what happened the other day when you lost the race?” she inquired. I knew it was only a matter of time before she would bring it up.
“Um, you won. There’s really nothing more to it.”
“You kinda left me when the race was over though. Why?”
“I was mad that I lost.” Somehow I was able to tell her that.
“It’s not that bad. I wouldn’t be too disappointed if I lost, you know?”
She opened her bedroom door a crack. Then she turned to me with her finger on her lips, whispering, “Shhh. Lily might be sleeping. She’s a little bit of a scaredy cat. She still has a few more days before she gets fully used to her new environment. Now come on.”
Betsy led me into her bedroom. I instantly breathed the odorous air that was trapped within her room. The first thing I noticed was that there was a litter box in one corner that needed some cleaning.
Betsy called for her new kitten. “She must be hiding,” she said. She crawled under the bed, and just seconds later, inched her way back out. She had the tiniest creature held tightly against her chest. It was an orange tabby with dark green eyes and thin whiskers.
“Would you like to hold Lily? She’s really nice and soft. She really does like people; it’s just that sometimes she’s a little frightened. Here, hold her.” Besty gently handed me the kitten.
I had never actually owned a cat of my own before, but all my friends had one. I remember cuddling with them and loving them so much. I always did love cats. They were nice, independent little animals. One of my friends back in Phoenix had a cat that gave birth to a whole litter. He gave most of the kittens away to all his friends. He offered one to me, but I couldn’t take it since my dad was allergic.
I held Lily for a while, until she insisted that she be put down. She jumped to her food dish, which was right next to the litter box. She was the cutest kitten I had seen in a long time. She was all orange and white and her fur was a soft as silk.
“We’d better leave her alone now,” Betsy said. “Come on. Let’s do something else. What do you want to do?”
I will never forget the look that had crossed her face when she first noticed the mischievously thoughtful grin on my face. I had the perfect idea of what to do. She gave me an “I hope you’re not thinking about what I think you are” expression. But by just staring into her thoughtful eyes, I knew that her interest had been sparked.
“I think we should go back to back country,” I admitted. “I don’t really think some old guy can get away with shooting us, do you?”
There was a glimmer in her bright, green eyes. “Let’s go. But what should we do about the heat? Remember how hot it was last time? It’s feeling pretty hot right now too.”
“Yeah, so? What about water bottles? We could always bring water bottles again. It isn’t terribly hot, considering it’s only morning. Come on. Let’s go before it does become too hot.”
So we took off down the road after telling Betsy’s parents that we were going on a little walk. We’d gotten away without having to tell them that we were going to back country. Even though I hadn’t known her parents for very long, I had a feeling they wouldn’t let us go where we were going.
It wasn’t too long before we approached the gate. Once again my eyes met the PRIVATE PROPERY NO TRESPASSING sign that was posted smack in the middle of the gate. My heart thumped at the thought of what had happened last time. I turned towards Betsy.
“Well?” she said questioningly. “Shall we continue?”
“Yeah,” I replied under my breath. The heat of the late morning was already beginning to drain my energy.
I hopped the gate after Betsy. She waited for me, and once I made it to the other side, we took off like two excited, little tiger cubs. We raced from the gate all the way until the old shack was in eye distance. That’s when we stopped running. I was out of breath completely. Betsy had her hands on her thighs and her head facing the ground, in a desperate attempt to catch her breath as well.
The sight of the shack terrified me. I had never thought that we would ever go near it again. Chills ran down my back. I didn’t particularly want to get murdered.
Betsy and I decided to proceed. The forest was just beyond the shack. It looked friendly, with all the shady trees surrounding the area. I was determined more than anything to get in the midst of the forest’s shade. Betsy seemed the same way too. Every now and then, when I had glanced over to see how Betsy was doing, she would just smile back in a way that told me she was relieved to see shade.
We joyously made our way through the forest. It was significantly cooler in the shadows of all the towering oak trees—at least I thought they were oak trees. We walked around for quite some time before I noticed something interesting. There was a little patch of grass between two short, fat oak trees. What had really caught my attention was the shape and size of the two trees. They were perfect trees for climbing. Climbing trees was my number one favorite hobby. I started for one tree in utter and complete excitement, leaving Betsy in a puzzled state. When she saw what my intention was, she automatically joined me. We climbed like little monkeys until there was nothing left to climb.
I snuck a peek at my surroundings. There’s not much that I could remember of it, but I do remember that I had never seen anything like that before. It was so beautiful, so scenic, so…I felt like I was at the top of the world. The tree wasn’t the tallest one of the forest, but it was tall enough so that I could see to the far mountains. There was nothing blocking my view of what was beyond the valley. It was so wonderful. I felt as if I could stay up there forever.
I glanced back at Betsy. She was staring past me, her eyes wide, and her bottom jaw dropped. Apparently, she had never seen anything like it herself. I watched as she closed her eyes. She took a deep breath of the fresh air. Then she opened her eyes again to take another look at the mountains far beyond the valley.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked.
“Yeah—see, wasn’t it a great idea to climb this tree?” I was looking for a way to impress her.
“I have an idea.” It was as if I hadn’t said anything at all. “Starting from tomorrow, we build a tree house—”
“That sounds like fun!” I blurted out.
“—in this tree,” Betsy finished.
“Yeah, let’s do that.”
“But nobody can know about it. We are the only ones who will know about it. Anybody else who tries to get involved can’t, understand? This will be our little secret hiding place.”
“What about the murderer?” I asked.
“The murderer will never know that we’re here.”
“What if we need help building? And how are we going to sneak here every day without everyone noticing?” Too many questions were popping into my head. Just the thought of us building a tree house was too exciting.
“We can handle a simple tree house on our own, right? I mean, we’re not that little. We can use my dad’s tools. He has loads of them in the garage. And we can get the wood from him too. There are a lot of wooden boards in my back yard we can use.”
“I still don’t know how we’re supposed to carry all of that stuff all the way here on our own. And how are we supposed to do it without anyone noticing? You still haven’t answered that question yet.”
“Tomorrow Mom and Dad have to work. Rosy’s watching us. She won’t pay too much attention to us if you can come over. She usually reads or watches T.V. We can tell her we’re going on a little walk, and then we can sneak out with all the stuff we’ll need to build the tree house. You carry the wood; I carry the tools. You’re the man. You can handle it.”
I couldn’t resist the wonderful idea—besides the part that I would have to carry the wood. Building a tree house sounded like a gigantic challenge, but that’s just what I liked about it. I was too excited to start it.
Betsy and I ran home.
The morning and most of the afternoon had already gone. Mom had wanted me home for a reason I did not know about. I headed across the street back to my house, waving Betsy a good bye. Neither one of us could wait for the following day to come.
“…And you’ll watch Betsy for me today?”
“Yeah, Mom, I already said I would.”
“Well, yesterday I had told Betsy that she could have Ryan over today, so if you could just watch them both, that would be great. Okay, honey, I’ll see you around three. I love you.”
I heard the front door close. I spun around to see my alarm clock, and it read 8:07am. I leaped out of bed and threw a blue shirt and a pair of overalls on. Then I made my way downstairs to eat breakfast.
“So when’s your friend coming over?” Rosy was in the living room watching Sponge Bob Square Pants.
“As soon as possible,” I responded as I stuffed a spoonful of Cheerios into my mouth. “I’m hoping he can come over right after I eat breakfast.”
“What are you guys going to do?”
“May be go on a little walk, if it’s not too hot out.”
“Can I join you guys? I don’t have anything to do. I’ll be a little bored today. Are you going to back country?”
My heart sank. I didn’t know what to say to her. She couldn’t join us, but I couldn’t say no to her either. I had never thought that she was going to be a little tag-along. She was older than me and she was the one babysitting me. There was no way Arizona and I could sneak to back country without her. I knew right then and there that Rosy was going to follow us.
I watched her carefully, trying to keep my worries and disappointment inside. She made her way to the television and switched it off. “Sponge Bob is funny,” she chuckled. “But it does get old after awhile.”
“I’m going to see if Arizona can come over now,” I declared, hoping that she would change her mind about following us.
“Arizona? How did you come up with that?” A smile was across her face.
“That’s just a nick name I gave him. He came from Arizona, so I call him Arizona. Can I go across the street now?”
Rosy was roaming the kitchen now. She opened the fridge door and removed the milk jug, struggling to carry the heavy thing out. Then she slowly poured herself a cup. I had noticed that she was already dressed, as if she had planned to be ready to follow us.
“Rosy, is it okay if I go across the street now?” I repeated. I found myself fighting back tears of anger.
“Yeah, okay. You never answered my question about me going with you on a walk. I think it would be a good idea if I did. I mean, Mom doesn’t want you two roaming the neighborhoods without someone keeping an eye on you.”
“But, Rosy, we went all by ourselves yesterday! Mom doesn’t mind at all. Please! We want to go alone!”
She gave me a disturbed look. “I want to come with you. I don’t care what the heck you say. I’m coming!”
I slammed the door behind me. It just didn’t seem fair. Arizona was my friend anyways. He was supposed to hang out with me only. How were we supposed to build the tree house without her knowing? I jogged across the street anxiously and disappointedly.
That morning was much cooler than yesterday morning had been. I could tell that the rest of the day was going to be significantly cooler than the day before. It was going to be the perfect weather for building a tree house—that is, if Rosy wasn’t going to ruin it by coming along.
I had just barely made my way up the steps of Arizona’s porch when the front door swung open. It was Arizona’s mom and dad. They were getting ready to leave for work—at least that’s what I had assumed. They were saying good bye to Arizona when they swerved around to see me standing there on the porch.
“Oh hi, Betsy!” Arizona’s mom exclaimed joyously. “Ryan was explaining to me how you two were going to hang out together today. I told him to behave himself because I know that your sister is going to be watching you guys all day. Well, have fun, okay?” She flashed me a friendly smile and headed for the car parked in the driveway. That was when I noticed how significantly bigger her belly had gotten since I’d seen her last. I wondered when her baby was due.
Arizona and I watched as his parents’ car disappeared from sight. Then we made our way across the street, around my house, through the side yard, and into the backyard. At the far end of the yard was a long fence separating my house from the house behind it. Right up against that fence was a thick stack of wooden boards—the boards that I had been talking about the day before. Those were the boards I was planning on using for the tree house.
“Here, you take these while I dig out the tools from my dad’s garage. We’ll need a hammer, nails and… what else?”
Arizona had his eyes fixed on the stack of boards, his bottom jaw dropped. “You actually expect me to carry these things? They are as wide as I am tall!”
I thought for a moment before my eyes met the wheel barrel across the yard. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that before. We’ll use the wheel barrel. We can fit as much wood as possible into the wheel barrel, and you can push it. I’ll still carry the tools.”
We started by carefully placing the boards into the wheel barrel. We managed to haul most of the boards in. Then I told Arizona to wait in the yard while I scavenged the garage for the right tools we would need. Unfortunately, it was then that Rosy walked in on me.
I was scooping handfuls of nails into a plastic sandwich bag when I first heard the squeaking of the hinges of the garage door as it opened.
“Betsy, what are you doing?!”
The sound of my sister’s voice made me jump right out of my shoes. My heart leaped up into my throat as if I were experiencing the dip of a scary roller coaster. The nails dropped onto the garage floor, scattering everywhere. Most of them rolled under the tool bench.
“Rosy!” I cried in anger and disappointment. There was no way I could explain to her what I was doing with Dad’s nails.
“You shouldn’t be messing with those nails. It’s dangerous. What are you doing anyways? Whatever it is, I want to be involved. I told you already that it isn’t fair for you to have a friend over and not include me. Now where is Ryan and what are you doing with those nails?”
“I don’t want to tell you, Rosy. Why can’t you leave us alone?”
“If you don’t tell me what you two are up to, then I’ll call mom and tell her that you aren’t behaving.”
I knew that I was going to have to tell her about the tree house. “Okay, fine,” I hesitated. Me and Arizona are building a tree house in back country. But I don’t want you to come. I only want it to be between me and Arizona. Can you please not follow?”
She gave me a look that was a mix between anger and excitement. “I think I should be allowed to come. I can help you. There’s no way that only you two can build a tree house.”
“No! I don’t want you to come! I hate you, Rosy. I hate you! It’s not fair.” A lump formed in my throat. There was no way of fighting back the tears. Once they started, they came in streams down my face. “It was supposed to be a secret between me and Arizona. And you ruined it!”
“Betsy, if you don’t let me be involved, then I’ll tell Mom. You know that she would never even let you guys build a tree house out there alone. If I come along I can help you, and Mom would never find out. It can be between us three. I can help keep it a secret.”
Somehow she convinced me to let her come along.
“I’ll make sandwiches and pack water bottles while you get the tools. Then we can start. Remember, Betsy, Mom’s getting back from work around three, so we’ll have to plan to be back before then. I’ll bring a watch.” She made her way back into the house.
I told Arizona all about the plan. At first he was just as upset as I had been about the tag along. He threw a yelling fit in my direction, but I yelled back at him by assuring him that it wasn’t really a big deal.
So we left the house late that morning with everything we needed; Rosy carried the backpack with sandwiches, Arizona pushed the wheel barrel, and I carried the tools. It took a whole hour, I could imagine, for us to reach the tree. When we did, Rosy decided to be the boss and assigned everyone a job. Arizona was the wood cutter, I was the one who did the nailing, and Rosy held the wood down where it was going to be nailed.
By the time noon came around the corner, the floors had already been built in. Where the trunk of the oak tree had ended, and where the thick, intertwining branches had begun, there was a perfect little place for the tree house. The first two branches that branched from the tree’s trunk were the strongest ones. They were the branches that we relied on the most for holding up the floor. Rosy had firmly wedged two of the big wooden boards from our backyard between the two sturdy branches. Then I had nailed the boards tightly onto the branches. So there we had it. The floor of the tree house had been completed.
Rosy slid down the trunk of the tree and rummaged through the back pack for the sandwiches. “Let’s eat them up in the tree. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m excited that we’ve got the floor done. I mean, that is pretty awesome.”
She gently tossed the sandwiches up to Arizona and me and climbed back up.
“You know what we forgot to do?” I asked.
“What?” Arizona responded with a tone of curiosity.
“We forgot to make little wooden ledges leading up the tree’s trunk, so that we can use them as a ladder, you know? I don’t like climbing up the trunk all the time. It kinda scares me. I’m afraid of heights, you know.” I looked across at Arizona and Rosy for some feedback.
“Where’d we get the wood from?” Arizona questioned. “I’m not cutting up those giant boards to make little ledges. We’ll need actual planks for that.”
Rosy suddenly elbowed me in the ribs. “Betsy, we have planks in the side yard. Why don’t you get them?”
“You mean, go back to the house and get them?” I felt the tinge of annoyance creep up my spine.
“Hey, you’re the one who knew we had the planks in the first place! I’m not going back to the house to get them. You shouldn’t have come!” Once again I felt myself keeping back tears.
Rosy had a sudden burst of energy. “I know! Rochambeau. We’ll do it three times, and whoever loses the most will get the planks.”
I stretched my hand out in a fist.
“Rock, paper, scissors,” we both chimed in.
The first time, we both had fists as rocks. The second time, I had a rock and she had scissors. Then the last time we did it, I had paper and she had a rock.
“Hah! You lose! You have to go get the planks now.” I stuck my tongue out at her. She gave me a friendly punch on the shoulder and left for home.
Arizona and I talked about the tree house. We talked about how we wished Rosy had never joined us, and then we talked about how Rosy was actually a help. Finally we came to the conclusion that if Rosy had never followed along, one of us would have to go back and get the planks. We were glad Rosy was the messenger—well, she was for the mean time, anyway.
When she returned, all three of us helped with the building of the ladder. Just before three in the afternoon had rolled in, the ladder was complete and Arizona tested it to make sure the planks were sturdy. When we had all approved of the new addition, we raced home in hopes that Mom hadn’t gotten home before us. Luckily she hadn’t.
Arizona’s mom still hadn’t returned from work, so we hanged out in my room for the rest of the day. Rosy, Arizona, and I planned the next move on the tree house. I could tell this tree house was going to be one heck of an adventure. And it was just the beginning.
It was a very special and exciting day for me. It was my birthday! The first of August was always my favorite day of the year, but that was only because it was my birthday. It was a day of friends, family, and best of all, presents and cake! I had already planned out everything I wanted to do. I wanted to have a party at Brook Park, which was a park with a nice, big playground and trails behind it to explore. It was also famous for its brooks.
I had invited all my friends from school: Mandy, Cherise, Lisa, and Jamie. And of course, I couldn’t forget about Arizona. He was coming to my party for sure.
We arrived at the park just in time for lunch. Mom set down a little blanket on the lawn for a picnic. We each had our own sandwiches and chocolate cup cakes. Presents were to be saved for after the playing. I could hardly wait.
Well, unfortunately for Arizona, it turned out that he was the only boy there. It hadn’t occurred to me that he never knew any other boys his age around here. He was surrounded by Rosy, Mandy, Cherise, Lisa, Jaime, and me. Arizona seemed extremely shy about it. He was the quietest one there at the party. I didn’t blame him.
“Hide-and-seek!” Rosy announced. “Okay, so you can’t go too far on the trails. Let’s try to stay on the play ground…”
The day was long, but fun. I had to admit that it was nice seeing my friends from school again.
I was eight now. Eight years old. I felt ahead of everyone else, except my sister of course—she was ten. I remember back when I was in first grade, I thought all the eight-year-olds were just so old, and cool. I thought that anyone who was eight was better than everyone else. But now, here I was. Eight. All my other friends had their birthdays during the school year. I felt quite special being the oldest of my friends. I wondered when Arizona’s birthday was.
“Arizona,” I said in the car on the way back from the park, “When’s your birthday?”
He turned and gave me an odd look. “It’s far from here, that’s for sure.”
“What day is it?”
“Wow, that’s not until forever!” I giggled.
“Yeah, I know. Whatever, Betsy.” He stuck his tongue out at me. Then we both couldn’t help but laugh.
Monday was packing day. Tomorrow my whole family and I were going on a trip to South Carolina to visit my grandparents. I was really excited. I only got to see my grandparents once a year, and that was usually during the summer. If we were lucky enough, Grandma and Grandpa would fly down for Christmas. Usually they just had Christmas down in South Carolina though because my aunt and uncle were also down there.
The thing Rosy and I looked forward to most was our grandparents’ ranch. They lived way out in the country where it was all flat, on a huge piece of land. There was an old, red barn, stables, and great big pastures with horses. I loved horses so much. Every time we went, Grandma May would be sure to give Rosy and me riding lessons on her nicest horses.
Grandpa George owned a tractor. He was a farmer, a good one too. He spent all his time working with his beloved tractor. Whenever I saw him he was always on that tractor, plowing away at the crops. He was the type of folk who always wore overalls, a straw hat, and leather boots. He was a good cook too. He and Grandma May would always make the best dinners.
It was so much fun visiting the ranch in the summertime. There was always something to do there. It was nothing but paradise for Tom boys. Rosy and I loved sleeping out in the barn. It was so warm at night in South Carolina. We would have a lantern and throw a party for just us two out in the barn. We usually tried staying up till midnight, but it was hard.
Rosy and I shared a suitcase. Mom helped us pack a whole week’s worth of clothes in it. I packed my overalls, extra pairs of jeans, my favorite pajamas—ones with penguins—and several shirts. Oh, and I couldn’t forget my stuffed teddy bear.
I jogged across the street to Arizona’s house to tell him about my trip. He sounded a little disappointed that I would be gone for a whole week.
“What about the tree house?” he questioned.
“Just leave it alone while I’m gone. It doesn’t need to be worked on.”
“So when are you coming back?”
“Next Wednesday,” I replied. “Hey, I was wondering if you wanted to take care of Lily for me while I’m gone. She’ll need to be fed and her litter box will need to be cleaned.”
“Ewe! Why me?”
“Please? You’re the only one who can do it. All you have to do is leave her in my room and fill her food and water dishes up. You can clean her litter box once while I’m gone.”
“Oh, fine. I’ll see you in a week then. Bye.”
The plane was leaving at 6:00 in the morning, but we had to wake up at three in morning because the airport was an hour away from Lakewood. Being two hours early seemed ridiculous to me, and waking up so early wasn’t something I wanted to do.
When we arrived at the airport, our luggage was checked, and then we had a whole hour to just hang around. Mom bought Rosy and me hot chocolate and muffins. Finally, it was time for us to aboard the plane. My heart was pounding with excitement. Plane rides were my favorite, especially when I got the window seat.
Unfortunately, Rosy had the window seat this time. I sat next to Mom and fell asleep instead.
The plane ride was a total of five hours long. When we arrived at South Carolina, it was late in the afternoon since the time there was a few hours ahead. We rented a car and took off onto the road. Then it was another couple hours before we made it to the ranch. It seemed like it was way out in the middle of nowhere. Rosy and I played with our Barbie dolls in the car almost the whole way. But by the last half hour on the road, we were both so excited to see the ranch again that we became restless. Neither of us could stop laughing and shouting every time we saw a cow.
loveliest smell I had ever smelled. I began to bounce up in down in my seat.
“Mom, drive faster!”
We pulled up into the driveway. The car was kicking up dust all over the place. I couldn’t help but cough as I leaped from the car. The scent of horse manure was the first thing that welcomed me. I glanced all around, trying to remember what everything had looked like since the last time The car turned off the main road onto a narrow dirt road. I looked as far ahead as I could and saw a tiny black dot in the distance. My heart sped up.
“I see it, Mom! I see the ranch!”
It had been a full year since I’d seen Grandma May and Grandpa George. I was so happy to see them, I could hardly wait. I could just smell the horses and the dusty barn. To me, that smell was the I was there. It was wonderful to be at the ranch again.
“Well, would you look at this? The whole crew has made it down!” I spun around to see Grandpa George waddling down the front porch steps in his overalls. He was a little chubbier than I could remember. He had his arms spread out, in hopes to steal a hug from someone.
“Oh, hi, Dad!” Mom ran up to him and gave him a hug. “It’s so nice to see you. Where’s Mom?”
“Here I am!” Grandma May was quickly making her way to the car. She had her long, grey hair tied up in a pony tail.
I waited impatiently to give Grandma May and Grandpa George each a hug. They were both so happy to see me. The friendly sparkles in their yes put joy into my heart. I loved my grandparents so much.
“Here, let me help bring your bags into the house,” Grandpa George offered.
“I want to go see the horsies!” Rosy exclaimed. “Come see the horsies with me, Betsy.”
We raced across the dusty driveway to the horse pasture. It was all green with grass. One horse was way out in the middle of the pasture nibbling and rooting around with its nose. I whistled, but to my disappointment there was no response. Then Rosy whistled. The horse lifted up its head with its ears pointed forward.
“He likes me,” Rosy chuckled.
There was another horse that was closer to the fence. It was on the other side of the pasture. Rosy and I sprinted around the fence to the other end. When we got up close, we climbed onto the fence. I reached for the horse’s head and stroked it. The horse put its ears back and snorted. Then it went back to eating the grass.
“Turkey!” Rosy gasped. If anything, she sounded frightened to death.
I spun around, and sure enough, there was a turkey. It was a big, grey one with an ugly red blob coming down its beak. Just the sight of the thing was enough to scare me. Right up behind it were several more turkeys. They were all making that silly gobble-gobble noise. Luckily Rosy and I escaped the menacing creatures.
It was dinner time at the ranch. Grandpa George made huge stakes for all of us. He also made mashed potatoes, green beans, and carrots. It was like Thanksgiving all over again. It was wonderful.
“Let’s say grace,” Grandma May urged.
“Dear Father in Heaven,” Grandpa George began, “I want to thank you for getting our beautiful family here today safely. Thank you for this nice opportunity for us to be here together like this. Help us to enjoy our time together. Thank you for the food. Amen.”
Then we ate.
“Hey, Grandma May,” I said. “Did you know that there are turkeys here?”
“Oh, yes, there are plenty of turkeys out here in the wild. They like to eat the horse’s feed. They don’t mean any harm at all.”
As soon as dinner was over, Rosy and I set up our sleeping bags out in the barn. We heard the crickets singing, and every now and then we heard the hoot of an owl. Once or twice I heard the horses conversing with each other by whinnying or snorting. There was nothing like being out in the country at night.
Rosy was reading me a scary book about ghosts haunting a ranch. By the time she had finished the first chapter, I was imagining scary, dark figures in the shadows of the barn. Once I looked up to see the contour of hay stacks and thought it was a monster waiting for its chance to attack. I was shivering all over at the thought. A few times I even saw something moving behind the hay stacks. When I told Rosy about it, she said that I was just so scared that my mind was playing tricks on me. I could’ve sworn it was not my imagination. Later I realized it was just a cat hunting for mice.
Then I head Rosy scream. I literally jumped out of my sleeping bag. “What is it, Rosy?!”
“There was a spider crawling on my arm. I think I killed it.”
I was too scared to crawl back into my sleeping bag, in fear that there were spiders in mine too. But when I looked into the dark abyss outside the barn doors, I decided that it was even scarier out there. As I sunk back into my sleeping bag, I began to cry. Rosy promised she wouldn’t read scary stories about ghosts anymore.
I woke with a start at the sound of roosters the next morning. It was dawn. Rosy was still curled up into a tight ball inside her sleeping bag. She looked like she could’ve easily suffocated herself in her sleep. I awoke her with a violent shake. “Rosy, c’mon. It’s breakfast time.”
We made our way to the house. The smell of fresh eggs welcomed my nose as I walked into the front door.
“Good morning, girls.” Grandma May was making scrambled eggs. I assumed the eggs were from her chickens.
“Can we ride today?” Rosy asked.
“Of course. What’s the sense in coming to a ranch if you can’t even ride the horses? I’ve been looking forward to giving you two riding lessons. I’m sure Spanky and Caroline have been looking forward to your visit as well.”
Spanky and Caroline were her two friendly horses. They were old. Spanky was the horse I remember riding last time. From what I remember, he was the dark brown horse with a black mane and tail. Rosy had ridden Caroline last time. Caroline was the white mare, as Grandma May had said. The other horses Grandma May owned were the grumpy, young ones; at least that’s what I thought Grandma May had told me before.
Right after breakfast Grandma May helped Rosy and I saddle up the horses. They were huge animals. I felt so tiny up against them. I was going to ride Caroline. She was a beautiful creature. I couldn’t get over how large she was. I guess I was just used to my little Lily at home.
We rode in the sandy arena by the pastures. For about an hour, Rosy and I walked our horses in circles. Then after that, Grandma May taught us how to make the horses go faster. She told us to kick the horse in the sides to get it to run. I was too scared to do it. Rosy kicked Spanky and I watched as Spanky trotted around in a giant circle. Rosy tried to convince me to do the same, but I refused. I was far too scared to make Caroline run. But finally, Grandma May somehow got me to make Caroline run. She jogged at a slow pace. I bounced all over the place in the saddle. It was so uncomfortable that I couldn’t help but laugh at it.
We rode until lunchtime. Grandpa George had home-made turkey sandwiches waiting for us in the house. Rosy and I shared our exciting experiences on horseback with each other. So far, our trip to our grandparents’ house was so much fun.
That evening, Grandma May sat down at the piano and showed us her talent in music. The whole family gathered around to listen. She was playing a beautiful piece from a movie I had never seen. I loved the sound of the music though. It was charming and relaxing. Then she played another piece that made everyone want to dance. She even sang along with it. Rosy and I danced, and Mom and Dad danced. Grandpa George just sat down and watched. We all laughed together as Grandma May sang. Her voice was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. She sounded so young.
We sang and danced and laughed all through the night. Finally, I couldn’t keep my eyes open by the time midnight came around. Rosy and I fell asleep on the couch; Mom and Dad ended up dragging us back into the bedroom. That night I had dreams of Grandma May’s voice and her playing the piano. Her music played over and over again in my mind. It was like a soft lullaby…
Uncle Jason and Aunt Susan were coming over to the ranch for a visit. They also lived in South Carolina. They were bringing my cousins with them. I had three cousins. Two of them were girls and one of them was a boy. Richard was the name of my boy cousin. He was thirteen—the oldest of all us cousins. Then there was Tania. She was nine. She was the one I hung out with most. We had the same similarities; she loved the horses and she loved the outdoors. But her sister, my other cousin, Jaclyn, was afraid of horses and hated the smell of ranches. She was more of an indoor girl. She was twelve. Rosy was always her friend when they saw each other.
Grandma May was going to give Tania and me horse-back-riding lessons. Grandpa George, Richard, and Dad were all going hunting for wild turkeys and any other wild animals—something I was not interested in whatsoever. Mom was going to take Rosy and Jaclyn downtown to get some shopping done. Shopping, for me, was nasty business. Staying at the ranch was my niche.
I was riding Caroline again. Tania and I were riding very slowly at first, just to get the hang of holding on—Tania needed some practice—while Grandma May rolled three large barrels into the center of the arena.
“I’m going to teach you barrel racing,” Grandma May said proudly. “It’s really fun.”
“Ahhh…” Tania and I exchanged nervous glances. We were both smiling, but deep inside we were scared as heck.
“Uh, Grandma May, I don’t like the sound of racing,” Tania mumbled.
“You don’t have to race. It’s called barrel racing, but you can go at any pace that you would like. The professionals call it racing because they really go fast. All you do is weave in and out of the barrels. Steering the horse is a big thing in barrel racing. Who would like to go first?”
My heart raced with anxiety at the thought of racing. But I was too frightened to want to do it. I couldn’t kick Caroline to make her move. My nerves were getting the best of me.
“I’ll go first,” Tania volunteered.
“Alright, dear. Choose which side of the barrel you would like to pass first, and then kick Spanky real hard to make him run.”
“But I don’t want to run!” Tania gasped. “I’m too scared!”
“Okay, dear. You may walk then. You still have to kick Spanky though.”
I watched as Spanky slowly carried Tania around each barrel. When they passed the last barrel, I heard Grandma May encourage Tania to turn around and trot back. Tania sped up at a fast trot on her way back to where I was. She had a tight grip on the saddle horn the whole way, as if her life depended on that grip. Her giggles were loud and uncontrolled as the horse continued to speed up.
“It’s so much fun!” Tania giggled as Spanky came to a halt next to Caroline. “You’ve got to try it!”
With the feel of encouragement and relief, I kicked Caroline as hard as I could. She started with a jump. My heart pounded and my stomach overflowed with butterflies. It was fun but scary at the same time. Caroline was obviously excited because she took off at a pace so fast that the wind smacked hard against my face. I screamed with fear, but somewhere inside, I felt anxious in such a way that wanted me to go even faster. I couldn’t stop laughing.
By the second barrel, Caroline took a sharp turn towards the gate of the arena. It was like she wanted to be put back in her pasture. She sped up at an even faster speed—a speed that was beyond my control. Then I remembered what Grandma May had said about steering and how steering plays an important role in barrel racing. I was certainly unable to steer Caroline now. Then the gate was really close. Caroline’s speed was still exceeding. I had a deep feeling in the pit of my stomach that she was not going to stop. She was going to run into the gate. I started to panic.
But she didn’t run into the gate. She made a sudden stop only inches before the gate. If I had never snatched onto Caroline’s mane, I would have toppled right over her head. Luckily I didn’t. I was in a state of shock from my terrifying experience on the horse.
“Grandma May! Grandma May! Someone help!” It was Tania shouting.
I gathered myself together and twirled around. My first regard was that Tania’s horse was also out of control. Then I thought that Tania and Grandma May were both panicked over what had happened to me.
“I’m okay!” I shouted. I was a little shaky, but I wasn’t injured in any way.
But it wasn’t my little episode on Caroline that was worrying Tania. I saw that Grandma May was on the ground. She wasn’t moving. Tania slid off her horse and sprinted towards Grandma May’s body. I dismounted Caroline, my heart pounding, and made my way to her as well. Grandma May’s face was as pale as the sand she laid upon.
We were all at the hospital. Mom, Dad, Grandpa George, Uncle Jason, Aunt Susan, Richard, Jaclyn, Tania, and me. We were in the waiting room. Grandpa George was mumbling a prayer to himself, and Mom had a single tear dripping down her right cheek. The rest of us were speechless because of the shock. I was the youngest there. I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on, or what had happened to Grandma May. All I knew was that our trip to South Carolina was up in flames.
It was probably a good two hours before the doctor came in. She summoned for one of us to come so that she could have a word. I watched as Grandpa George slowly waddled towards the doctor. Then they both disappeared into the room Grandma May was apparently in.
“When do we get to go home?” I asked. Fatigue was taking its toll on me and I had a terrible ache in my stomach from hunger.
Mom dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief. It was hard to believe that she had been shedding a few tears the whole time we were waiting. “As soon as we hear from Grandpa what the doctor says about Grandma.”
“What happened?” I questioned.
Mom paused. She looked up at Aunt Susan with a menaced expression. Deep in her eyes I could tell that she wished for someone else to answer my question.
“Look, Betsy,” Aunt Susan continued for Mom. “Something has happened to Grandma May, but hopefully she’ll recover soon. Don’t you worry about it now, little one.”
“But what happened?”
Before my question could be answered, the door in the hallway opened and Grandpa George came out.
It was a Monday morning. I was on my way out the door to Betsy’s house to feed her kitten. I missed Betsy. Ever since she had gone to her grandparents’ house, I couldn’t get my mind off the tree house. I was constantly having urges to just go to back country and hang out at the tree house. But then I would be alone, and that was never any fun. It was when Betsy was gone that my eyes first opened up to see how boring life was without her around. If she had never been my neighbor, I would’ve been so lonely. I was thankful to have her as my first friend here in Lakewood.
The sound of a car engine caught my attention. When I looked to see who was driving down the road, I realized that I recognized the car. It was Betsy’s! I could hardly believe my eyes. She was coming back early.
When the car pulled up in the driveway, I decided to wait on Betsy’s porch for her. She saw that I was there and gave me a wimpy smile. There was obviously something terribly wrong. For one, she wasn’t supposed to have gotten back until Wednesday. For two, she was always cheerful and exuberant around me—except for this time.
She helped drag some of the luggage from the car.
“Hi, Betsy,” I said. “How was your trip? Why are you back so early?”
“Something happened to my grandma. My grandpa said that the doctor said that she’ll be fine, but she had to stay in the hospital. So we came home.”
“That’s too bad, Betsy.” I wasn’t sure what else I could say.
There wasn’t much of summer left, but the remaining of it was spent building the tree house. Betsy’s sister continued to be a tag along all the way up through August. She was sometimes a nuisance and a boss, but Betsy and I got used to it after awhile. Then one day, on one of the last days of summer vacation, she stopped following us to back country. I came to the conclusion that she had no more interest in the tree house.
It was a warm September afternoon. Betsy and I were adding some final touches to the tree house. All it needed was a side. We decided that it didn’t need a roof.
Then I heard footsteps. “Betsy—shhh! I hear something.” Betsy was in the process of nailing a piece of wood onto the branch of the tree for the wall.
“Betsy and Ryan sitting in a tree….K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” Two girls jumped out from behind some thick brush.
“Rosy!” Betsy shouted in embarrassment, her face blushing uncontrollably. “You brought Shelly? You promised you would never show anyone! You lied.”
“Eww,” I gasped. “What is wrong with your sister?” It was all we could do to keep from crying with anger and frustration.
It was the fifth of September. Today was the day I had been dreading all summer—the first day of school. It was going to be my first day in a new school, away from what I had already grown accustomed to back in Phoenix. I awoke at seven O’clock sharp with a heavy feeling in my stomach. It was a mixed feeling of anxiety and nervousness, and my stomach was tied in a knot.
I was supposed to meet Betsy out on the porch in a few minutes. Mom handed me my old blue backpack from last year; it brought back memories of Phoenix and my first grade friends who seemed to be long in the past. The backpack was fairly light with a single notebook and a binder, along with many pencils.
“Have a great time, okay? Make some new friends. See you around three. I love you, Hun.” Mom waved me out the door.
Besty and Rosy were sitting on the front porch steps all ready to go. Betsy had on a purple backpack, and there was a lunch box in her right hand. When she heard the front door, she jumped up and twirled around to face me. Rosy did the same.
“The bus comes in about five minutes. We might want to hurry up to the bus stop,” Rosy urged.
All three of us started off at a jog down the road. Betsy and I tried to keep a conversation going in the midst of our running.
“So, when does school get out?” I murmured under my breath.
“About three, but it takes a full half hour for the bus to reach our neighborhood. That’s why we have to be at the bus stop at seven thirty.” There was a pause. Then she added, “I think you’re going to like this school. The teachers are nice—well, my first grade teacher was nice. But everyone is pretty friendly.”
Strawberry Street came to an end. We turned to the left and began making our way up a steep hill. I slowed to a walk, considering that my backpack was weighing me down. Betsy and Rosy continued to jog up the hill. They seemed determined to get to the bus stop before the bus.
“Hurry up, Arizona!” Betsy demanded. “I see the bus!”
I stopped in the middle of the steep hill to take a deep breath. Then when I saw that Betsy had stopped to wait for me, I continued on. I was tired and the tedious hike up such a big hill in the morning was not something I wished to do.
We finally reached the top of the hill. Sure enough, the bus was there waiting. I didn’t see much of the bus driver through the windshield, but I did see that he had an anxious expression on his face. I felt embarrassed about making Betsy late to the bus. She seemed like the type of girl who did not want to be late for any reason.
Betsy led me to the back of the bus where there were a couple available seats. The bus was a lot fuller than I had expected it to be. There were many unfamiliar faces staring at me as I boarded the bus. I recognized Rosy and the girl whom Rosy showed the tree house to that day Rosy broke her promise.
It appeared that Betsy knew everyone. She waved to almost all the girls and a couple of the boys. She even struck up a conversation with one girl who was also sitting in the back. She was one of the girls who had attended Betsy’s birthday party, but I hadn’t actually met her yet. Besty introduced me to her.
“This is Ryan,” Betsy said, in an almost proud tone. “He moved into my neighborhood at the beginning of summer. I call him Arizona.”
The girl smiled at me. “I’m Mandy,” she chuckled. “I think I saw you at Betsy’s birthday party.”
Mandy was a charming and exuberant girl. Her smile alone was bursting with personality, and her bright, blue eyes reflected her friendliness. She had her light, blonde hair tied up in pigtails. She was wearing a jeans skirt, pink shoes, and a pink T-shirt. Even her hair ties were pink. Thankfully, her backpack wasn’t pink though. The color pink was exhausting to look at after seeing all the pink she had on.
The bus came to a stop. I peered out the window at what appeared to be my new school. There were numerous buildings leading around the campus, and between the buildings were walkways. At one end of the campus there was a rather large building with many signs posted in the windows. I could tell right off that it was the principles’ office. Just the sight of it scared the living day lights out of me. The principles’ office was too grown-up and controlling for me, if you know what I mean. Then there was a huge lawn in the middle of the school. The picnic tables were lined up next to it and near the tables was the cafeteria. At the other end of the campus, however, there was the play ground. It was my favorite part. I remembered how, back in phoenix, I always showed off to the girls that I could climb above the monkey bars. Those were the good old days.
Betsy, Mandy, Rosy, and I were the last to leave the bus. We had arrived just in time for school to start. The bell rang. I followed Betsy to the class where all the second graders were supposed to be. The second grade teacher—my teacher—was standing in the doorway of the classroom, handing each student a card. When it was my turn to receive a card, the teacher uttered, “Welcome back.” I grabbed the card and it had a number on it. At first I was totally confused and hadn’t the faintest idea what the number meant. I wandered into the classroom, almost everybody staring at me.
Betsy was sitting in the third row of seats, near the back. She shouted out, “Arizona, what number do you have?”
I glanced down at my number. “Four!” I called back at her.
“Oh, yes! You sit behind me. I’m number three.”
I made my way down the row to the fourth seat. I was happy to sit in the same general area as Betsy. Then Mandy came in and sat in the desk right next to me. She had a smile across her face.
“Well, I’ve seen you before,” she said cheerfully. There was a pause. Then she replied sarcastically, “This class is going to be interesting, I can tell. I think this teacher is really weird.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to her in response.
“Welcome back, students,” the teacher announced. “My name is Ms. Norin. I will be your second grade teacher for this year. Now, I assume that, because you are all one year older, you will be more mature than you were last year. That means that things are going to be different from last year. Things will be stricter. Ms. Clayton was a nice teacher last year and let you get away with many things. But now you are second graders, so I expect you to be able to handle more rules and stricter instructions. I will explain these rules to you. Any questions before I proceed?”
I heard a few people around me murmur complaints. Now I was beginning to believe Mandy that Ms. Norin was going to be a weird teacher. We were only second graders, for crying out loud. Why did she expect so much from us?
“Alright then,” Ms. Norin continued. “The first rule is that you cannot argue with me about anything under no circumstances. If you do, you will have to sit in the orange chair in the corner of the room for a five minute time-out.”
I turned to see an orange chair facing one of the corners of the room. It was a rather frightening and dark corner.
“The second rule is no cheating. If I catch you cheating off a test, I will make you fail the test. The final big rule in this class is that you may not miss over three homework assignments a month. If you do, I will notify your parents and let them know. That is basically it. Any questions?”
In the pit of my stomach I felt an uneasy feeling of loneliness and homesickness. I wanted to get back home, away from this mean teacher. I wanted to be at the tree house with Betsy. I wanted so badly for it to be summer again. Something inside told me that I was going to get used to this system of learning, but something else was telling me that I would end up in the orange chair on time-out. When I looked up at Betsy, who was sitting in front of me, I felt a sudden security wash over me.
“We will be starting out with language arts. I am going to pass out your language arts text books to for the whole year. You will bring your books home, but you must remember to bring them back because we’ll be using them every day.”
Finally the bell rang for recess.
Betsy and I raced to the play ground. Mandy followed us. I was more than happy to jump onto the monkey bars and pull myself above them. Then I lingered on top of them for a long while.
“I’m too scared to do monkey bars,” Betsy whined. “They hurt my hands anyways.”
Mandy giggled a very high and obnoxious giggle. “How could you be afraid of monkey bars? They’re awesome!” Mandy jumped up onto the bars where I was sitting. She smiled at me and swung around, hitting the ground again. “I’m in gymnastics,” she said proudly. Then she ran over to the slide and gracefully slid down, glancing back at me every now and then to make sure I was watching. There was something about her that was very annoying, but I couldn’t quite make out what it was.
I dropped down from the top of the monkey bars and followed Mandy to the see-saw. She called for me to sit on one end while she sat on the other. We bounced up and down, watching each other disappear as the other went up. Betsy was watching from the side. She kept hounding for it to be her turn. I felt like I was leaving her out of the fun.
The bell rang again.
Betsy and I ran across the lawn again to the classroom, but Mandy ran right beside me; she was so close that her arm rubbed against mine every time I took a step forward. There was something up with her. She was either trying to annoy me, or she liked me…
The rest of the day dragged on slowly. It was like an eternity sitting in that classroom listening to Ms. Norin and doing work. It was the most laborious thing I had ever sat through. I couldn’t get over how much I missed my school back in Phoenix. I had more friends and they were all guys. Betsy was a great friend, but I wanted to be around boys a lot more.
The clock slowly hit three. When it did, I bounced out of my chair with a feeling of freedom. The last words I had heard from Ms. Norin that day were, “Tonight you don’t have any homework, but don’t forget to bring in your books tomorrow!”
The bus brought Betsy and me home. By the time we finally reached Strawberry Street, we decided to go to the tree house while the weather was still warm like summer. I dropped my backpack onto my porch because Mom and Dad were at work and the door was locked. Betsy and Rosy disappeared into their house. Shortly, Betsy came back out. We took a nice walk down the road together to back country.
When we arrived at the tree house, I climbed up the trunk where the ladder was. I looked out at the distant hills in deep thought. Betsy joined me. We both talked about how Ms. Norin was the strangest teacher, and I shared stories of my old school back in Phoenix. I told Betsy how much I missed it how I wished I was there.
Then Betsy said disappointedly, “Well, what about me? You wouldn’t know me if you were still in Arizona.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t change the fact that I miss Arizona and everything about it.”
“You just miss summer. I do to.”
The remaining afternoon hours were spent at the tree house. By the time I had arrived back home, supper was ready.
Tomorrow was going to be another full day at Lakewood Elementary.
For me, the days of September crawled by tediously. School was boring and some of it was even hard. Each day dragged on. It was a miracle that September was even approaching an end. However, the last week of it was very special for Arizona’s family.
On the twenty-first of September, Arizona’s dad had a talk with Mom while I was at school. By the time I had gotten back from school, Arizona’s house was deserted. Mom told Arizona that he was going to stay a few nights with us. I was overly excited about it. It was going to be the first time Arizona was staying over for the night.
“Where are my parents?” Arizona questioned.
“Well,” Mom began, “I had a talk with your dad right after you had left for school. He had to leave immediately for the hospital because your mom was getting ready to have your sister—”
“My sister is going to be born soon?!” Arizona gasped. “I wanted to be there!” He threw a little tantrum.
“Well, I’m afraid you can’t. The hospital is two hours from here and they had to leave as soon as possible. So, they won’t be back for quite awhile, depending on when the baby is going to be born. That’s why you’re staying with us for now.”
“Oh, yes!” I exclaimed. “Arizona gets to spend the night…Arizona gets to spend the night…” I sang joyously. It had been a long time since I was that happy.
The following day was Friday. Arizona and I did our usual routine of walking up to the bus stop and riding the bus to school. I was excited that it was Friday because it was the last day of school for the week. But I was also pretty hyped up because I knew that Arizona was going to have his first sibling very soon.
“So what are your parents going to name her when she’s born?” I asked curiously.
“Their first choice was Amber, but Mom told me that it depends on whether she looks like an Amber or not.”
“How do you look like an Amber?” I inquired.
“I don’t know, but I obviously look like an Arizona to you.” Arizona chuckled.
The bus came to a stop at the school and we got off.
What I particularly liked about Fridays was Shop. Shop was a game that all the elementary students played outside after lunch. The teachers set up booths on the lawn with toys or school supplies that could only be bought with special tickets that had been earned that week for good behavior. I was usually silent in my seat—except for the times that Arizona had attempted to chat with me—so I had a total of twenty tickets. That was enough tickets for me to buy myself a coloring kit.
When the school day had ended, Arizona and I were both eager to find out whether his sister had been born yet. She hadn’t, but we were all more than eager to receive the phone call from Arizona’s dad. The day continued to drag on.
Dinner crept by sans the phone call. Bed time was coming closer and closer, so Arizona and I were afraid that we would be in bed before finding out if his sister had been born.
The day had been long. I was making my way up the stairs tiredly when the phone rang. Mom rushed to answer it. I eavesdropped inquisitively, Arizona by my side. We poked our tiny heads through the railing of the stairs. Mom was in the living room, which was right around the corner from where the stairs were. I could barely hear her conversation on the phone.
“Oh, hi! We’ve been waiting so very impatiently for this fun moment,” Mom chuckled. “How’s Terry doing? Has she had the baby yet?”
I snuck down a couple more stairs. My curiosity had been sparked at its peak.
“Oh, that is so awesome. Congratulations! What have you named her?”
There was a pause.
“Oh, isn’t that sweet. I am so happy for you. So you won’t be back until Monday then?”
“Oh, Ryan is fine here for the next couple days. It’s the weekend, so no harm done!” Mom laughed. Then she continued, “Betsy just loves his company. Everything is working out here. I’m glad things are okay over there too, and I’m glad the baby’s in perfect health.”
There was another pause.
“Okay, well, I’ll let you go. Thanks for the wonderful call. Bye-bye.”
I swerved around and grabbed Arizona by the arms. “She’s been born!” I gasped excitedly.
“I know; I heard the conversation too! I’m so excited.”
“I’m excited for you too!” I exclaimed.
We bounced up and down joyously. We couldn’t help but scream at each other with excitement, our high-pitched voices echoing throughout the house. Rosy hopped down the stairs to where we were.
“What is going on?” She was completely oblivious. The news of a new born baby wasn’t exactly something to keep her interest.
Mom stomped up the stairs. “You two are supposed to be in bed,” she said in an irked tone. “It is way passed your bedtime. Well, I guess this is a pretty good reason to celebrate.” She laughed. “Ryan, they’re staying at the hospital for another two days, so you’re spending the weekend with us. They won’t be back until Monday.”
“So I won’t be able to see my sister until then?” Arizona asked.
“No, but you’ll have plenty of time to be with her in your lifetime. Betsy, take your friend up stairs so that you two can get some sleep.”
Arizona was going to sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, while I slept in the bed. But we were both too excited to even think about drifting off. I switched off the light, but we continued to talk back and forth in the dark.
“So do you think she was named Amber?” I asked.
“Most likely. Mom really likes that name.”
“What about your dad? Does he like the name?”
“I don’t know. I think he does. But back in Phoenix, I remember him talking about how he really liked the name Catherine. It’s probably a more likely chance that she was named Amber though.”
“Oh,” I said.
We talked about what it would be like to have a baby sister. We also talked about how she would be cute until she cried too much. Then we finally drifted off. It was probably past midnight by the time we fell asleep.
I had a dream that night. In my dream I was over at Arizona’s house and there was a crib in the living room. There was a baby in the crib and she wouldn’t stop crying. Arizona got so annoyed that he left the room. He stomped out of the house, slamming all doors behind him. I was scared because he was extremely mad at everything. Then the baby stopped crying and I suddenly found myself at the tree house. It was the first time I had been at the tree house since the first day of school. Arizona and I were building a third floor on the tree house. I climbed to the top and it seemed very high up. I became so terrified that I couldn’t stop crying. I was stuck up in the tree and didn’t know what to do. Then things started to become a blur and everything faded.
When I awoke the next morning, the sun had barely reached the top of the distant hills. I peered out the window to see heavy rain clouds hovering over the roof tops. It had showered a couple times since school had started, but nothing significant. There hadn’t been any huge storms. But by getting a good glimpse at the heavy and dark clouds, I could tell that it was going to be the first mighty storm since before the summer.
By the time noon had rolled around, the rain was just pouring down in torrents. There wasn’t much Arizona and I could do. We stared out the window for some time and listened to the loud drops pound against the roof. Then when the storm subsided we went out and played in puddles.
I returned home from school to a pleasing surprise. Arizona’s parents had returned from the hospital! Arizona was all hyped up. I could tell that he could hardly wait to meet his new born sister. I personally couldn’t wait either—that is, if his parents would even allow me to see her.
I followed Arizona directly to his house from the bus stop. I dropped my backpack onto his porch. I was hoping with all my heart that his parents would give me permission to enter his house. To my full surprise, they welcomed me just like any other day. Just as I stepped into the house, Arizona’s dad placed his finger on his lips, signaling me to be quiet. I felt honored walking into the presence of a new born baby.
Arizona’s mother was in a rocking chair, cradling the tiny baby back and forth. I couldn’t believe how adorable the baby was. She had her eyes sealed tightly shut as she sucked contently on her thumb. Her skin looked delicate and fragile. At first I could’ve sworn she was a doll. She was wrapped tightly in a pink blanket.
“Mom, did you name her Amber?” Arizona asked.
“Yeah, I did,” his mother answered. “Amber Lynn Scott is her full name.”
I exchanged a delightful glance with Arizona. He had a curious smile written on his face. He slowly made his way over to the rocking chair.
“She’s so cute, Mommy! Can I hold her?”
“You have to promise to be as gentle as possible, okay? Keep in mind that she’s only an infant.”
“So I can hold her?”
“Well, sure. She is your sister.”
I watched as Amber was gently placed into the tiny arms of Arizona. He tightened his grasp on the blankets, and I could tell that he was having a little difficulty holding her up. Amber’s eyes suddenly opened up wide and she began kicking. Arizona stared deeply into her eyes and smiled.
“I like having a sister,” he remarked cheerfully.
“Now you do,” Arizona’s father chuckled. “You may like her now, but in about a week, she’ll have a hard time keeping quiet. Hey, did I ever tell you the story about you when you were an infant?”
Arizona had a puzzled look on his face. “No, but Mom said something about me being a good baby.” He smiled at his mom, who was still in the rocking chair.
“You were not a difficult baby, but that doesn’t mean you were the greatest baby either,” his mom said. “Honey, you should tell Ryan how he was as a baby.”
I listened intently to Arizona’s father’s story.
“Well, you were just like Amber when you were first born. She was crying and kicking, and she was just so angry that she was born. She didn’t want to be born. And that’s how you were.”
“I didn’t want to be born?” He laughed. He was still holding Amber tightly in his arms.
“No, way,” his father continued. “You were mad. Well, when we brought you back home, you were the calmest baby there ever was. But when the second week came, you just wouldn’t stop crying and Mom and I had the toughest time getting you to bed. I guarantee you that Amber is going to be just like that—crying and screaming non-stop.”
“I don’t want to hold Amber anymore,” Arizona said. “She’s getting really heavy.”
That’s when I couldn’t resist. “Oh, um, can I hold her?”
I wasn’t sure who I was really asking at first. Nobody answered me. Arizona’s mother was staring at me with a thoughtful look and Arizona was looking right at me.
“Okay,” his mother finally responded. “Be sure to support her head.”
Arizona carefully placed Amber into my arms. She was sound asleep. I couldn’t get over how pure her face was. Her head was perfectly round, her ears were nicely detailed, and her nose was simply tiny. I couldn’t get over how a human being could be so small. She had some hair, but it was barely noticeable because it was very light colored.
Several thoughts raced through my mind as I held that baby. I am holding a miracle, I thought to myself. This baby is so perfect and so tiny. She is beautiful. There is nothing more beautiful than a newborn baby. I want to have a baby of my own someday.
I had created a new routine of visiting Arizona’s sister directly after school. Mom and Dad were always away at work when I came back from school, and Rosy would sometimes come home with a friend or get busy on her homework. So I really had nothing else to do; getting to know Amber more had become my new pass time. I also wanted her to grow up being familiar with me.
September faded into October. The mornings had become crisp and the afternoons were cloudy and cold. Some days the wind moaned like a ghost, and the wind had a cold bitterness to it. When it rained, it poured. But it didn’t rain much. It was mostly the wind that swept through the town. Every tree in the valley was dotted with bright red and golden leaves, and the leaves roamed all around the streets once the wind hit them. There was a thick blanket of leaves on my lawn, so Rosy and I raked a pile and jumped into it. The smell of fresh autumn was in the air.
Halloween was right around the corner. I could hardly wait. I had already planned out what I wanted to be—Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. One weekend Mom brought Rosy and I downtown to the Halloween Costume Shop. There were all sorts of fun stuff there. There were masks—scary ones at that matter—dresses, costumes, and make-up. There were even Halloween decorations. Mom bought some cobwebs and graves to put up in front of the house to scare trick-or-treaters. Rosy and I had fun setting them up.
Luckily, Halloween landed on a Friday.
Every student was to wear a costume to school for the Halloween parade. I dressed into Dorothy and grabbed my basket with stuffed Toto in it. Then I rushed across the street to meet Arizona at his porch. I still had yet to find out what he was going to be for Halloween. He had never told me because every time I would ask he would just say that it was going to be a surprise. It made me frustrated because I had told him what I was going to be.
Just as I made it to his porch, the front door sprung open. At first I didn’t see anyone, just the inside of his house. I scrutinized through the living room, which was the first room that I could see from the porch. Nobody. Something fishy was going on.
“Arizona?” I mumbled indignantly.
Then I felt a presence behind me. An alarmed chill ran down my spine. I spun around and, sure enough, Arizona was standing there. It was what he could do to keep from laughing.
“I’m a ninja. Can’t you tell?” He was smiling proudly as he spun around to show off his costume. He was wearing a long, black cape around his body with black pants. His black shirt had a Japanese symbol embroidered on it.
“Well, I can see that,” I stammered. “I was just wondering how you snuck up behind me so quietly and fast.”
Arizona burst into laughter. “Mom opened the front door for me and I ran out the back door, and around the house, and up behind you.” He continued to giggle.
“Oh, we’d better go! The bus comes in five minutes!” Rosy gasped. She had just come from the house. It had taken Mom awhile to rub pink make-up and sparkles all over Rosy’s face. She was a princess for Halloween.
Everyone in my class had dressed up. Mandy was a fairy. She had her blonde hair down, and it was temporarily dyed pink and purple. Her eye lids were sprinkled with heavy amounts of glitter. Her entire outfit was pink, including her leggings and shoes. She carried around with her a wand with a sparkling star at the end of it. Even Ms. Norin was dressed up. She was dressed as a scary witch; she wore green gloves and a purple wig.
Our second grade class was holding a Halloween party. There were tables set up in the back with drinks, cookies, and a whole bucket of candy. Ms. Norin put in a scary movie called The Nightmare before Christmas. It wasn’t as scary as I had thought it would be, but it was weird—weird in the kind of way that made me not like the movie. By the time the Halloween party had ended it was lunch time. We all went out onto the play ground and played in our costumes.
Right after lunch was the costume parade. The school was going to leisurely walk around the entire school, showing all the teachers and parents their costumes. I was proud to show everyone my costume because I thought it was the best. But as the parade dragged on, I noticed more and more girls who were dressed as Dorothy. It was a little disappointing, but that didn’t ruin my fun of the parade. There were many other interesting costumes as well. A couple of the sixth graders wore skeleton suits. Others had white blankets tossed over their heads with holes for the eyes. The parade altogether was simply fun.
As soon as the school day had ended, Rosy, Arizona, and I returned home, too impatient to wait for the darkness to come. The grown-ups in the neighborhood always waited for dark before setting out their candy for the trick-or-treaters. That always made it a lot more thrilling for us.
Shortly after my arrival back home from school, Mom came home from work with a giant bag of candy. She poured it into a great, big orange and black bowl with a rubber hand that attacked every time someone stuck their hand into it.
Once my eyes had met the candy, they bulged wider than my stomach.
“Mom, we want some candy. Can we?”
“Sure, but you can only have one. I need to save them for trick-or-treaters tonight.”
“But there’s so much of it!” I complained as I grabbed a Snickers bar. Arizona snatched up a Kit Kat.
Dusk slowly swallowed Lakewood. Heavy, dark clouds set in. A crescent moon peaked through narrow openings in the clouds, but not a star was visible. The wind was beginning to pick up again. It whistled and hummed. Some had said that the wind was the many ghosts popping out from graves and dancing and singing in celebration of Halloween. If a cold chill ran down your back from the wind, it meant a ghost had touched you.
I snatched up my pillow case, which was what I traditionally used to stash candy into. Arizona met me at the front door. We were going to trick-or-treat with Rosy and her friend, Shelly. I was disappointed at the thought of not trick-or-treating with just Arizona, but deep inside I was happy to have my older sister with us. I was genuinely afraid of the wind. I wasn’t sure whether I believed in ghosts or not.
Arizona and I trailed behind Rosy and Shelly. The first house we stopped at was Miss Susan’s house. She was a woman my mom’s age that lived alone. She was a friendly person, but a little weird. I didn’t know her too well because she was always away at work, but the rumor around town was that she was a workaholic. And apparently she always had a new boyfriend every week, but I didn’t know whether or not to believe that.
She gave me a whole handful of candy.
Our next stop was the house at the corner of Strawberry Street. It was one of the largest houses in the neighborhood. Carly and her husband, John, lived there. They had a graveyard on their front lawn and signs reading: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. There were arrows pointing in the direction of the garage. The garage door was open and in the middle was a dim candlelight with a dark figure sitting beside it.
“Oooh, a haunted house!” Arizona gasped. His voice wavered with fear and excitement.
“Let’s go in,” Rosy decided.
I was too terrified to move closer to the dim light in Carly and John’s garage. It was like entering into a nightmare. I didn’t know what the dark figure by the candlelight was, but I was too scared to want to find out. Rosy took off without me, and Arizona dragged me in because he really wanted to go.
There was green mist swirling around at the opening of the garage. I couldn’t see past it because it was so thick, but I heard a scream from inside. I bolted backwards, and deliberately changed my mind about going in. I backed away and watched as Rosy, Shelly, and Arizona disappeared into the green mist of the garage. I saw their contours move closer to the dark figure by the candlelight.
Then the wind whirled around me, hissing. I could have sworn it whispered, the ghosts are among you, Betsy. We are here for you…
I literally screamed. “Wait—Rosy!” I jumped for the garage once more.
It was all dark and misty inside. The only light was from the dim candle by the dark figure. My heart was pounding as I made my way to where Rosy was. She was reaching her hand into a black cauldron. She screamed. I backed away in panic, trying my hardest to stay away from the dark figure. When Rosy pulled her hand back out she had a handful of candy.
“Why’d you scream?” Shelly asked. “You scared us to death!”
“At first I didn’t know what I was touching. It’s too dark to see anything and it felt like my hand was going through cobwebs…”
Then the dark figure laughed a menacing laugh. I jumped back again. It—whatever it was—was staring right at me. Its face was pale white with a mouth smothered in dry blood. It was wearing a dark cloak and a black hood over its head, and it was holding an ax. My first thought was that it was the murderer from back country.
The figure suddenly became as still as a dead body. At first I couldn’t tell if it were real or fake. I could have sworn I heard it laugh. But just as I was thinking that, it moved and pointed its finger at the black cauldron. My eyes widened with alert.
“Betsy, hurry up and get your candy.” It was Rosy who spoke. “We’re moving on to the next house.”
I was so scared I wanted to cry. I made my way to the cauldron and screamed as I stuck my hand in it. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. I felt a couple cobwebs, but it was easy to tell that they weren’t real. I grabbed a handful of candy and stashed them into my pillowcase, which was already heavy with candy. As I scurried out of the garage, I heard a very familiar voice behind me shouting.
“Happy Halloween!” it shouted.
It was then that I realized who the dark figure was. It was John! The dark figure was my neighbor dressed up. It wasn’t a real monster, like I had thought it was.
Arizona and I followed closely behind Rosy and Shelly for almost the rest of trick-or-treating. We walked around several blocks, through many streets, and even into new neighborhoods that I had never known of before. This Halloween was a lot more fun than last year’s because Mom came with me and we didn’t go as far.
It was past nine by the time we finally decided to turn back. The streets were a lot more barren from when we had first started. It was rather lonely all of a sudden—and scary. The wind was still roaming the streets howling. There were only a few houses that still had candy left out on the porch. Every now and then we would stumble upon other trick-or-treaters, but for the most part trick-or-treating was over for the night.
Rosy and Shelly were so excited about their loot that they were speeding up and forgetting about Arizona and me. Arizona almost shouted after them, but I stopped him. We were near a very familiar place that we hadn’t been for a long time.
“Arizona,” I whispered. “We’re right near back country. Do you want to see what the murderer does for Halloween?”
“Are you crazy?!” His eyes shot open so wide that I was sure they were going to pop right out of his head. “Do you want to be killed? And what about the ghosts of the people who’ve already been murdered?”
I felt a sudden coldness come upon me. “Don’t you want to see what the murderer is up to?” I was scaring myself just talking about going to the shack on Halloween night.
“You were scared of that haunted house. How could you want to go to back country?”
I gulped hard. It was a scary thought, but something in me really wanted to go. “I’ve never been to back country in the dark.”
“What about Rosy?” Arizona asked. I could tell that he was frightened.
I glanced up to see where Rosy was. She and Shelly were just turning the corner onto Nixon Drive. It was going to be awhile before they would reach Strawberry Street.
“They’re too involved with each other to notice that we’re gone. C’mon. I really want to go. I’m just curious of what happens at the murderer’s house on Halloween.”
“Okay, fine. But once we hear ghosts, let’s get out.” Then he mumbled to himself, “This is all too spooky.”
We made our way to the gate where the NO TRESPASSING sign was posted. Beyond that gate was an abyss of darkness. No street lights could possibly penetrate the darkness of back country. The thought of it made me shiver.
“I want a flashlight,” Arizona whispered under his breath. “Why don’t we have flashlights?”
“Let’s just make this quick.” I was shivering from the coldness of the night, but also from fear. Just by looking into the darkness made me want to wet my pants. I decided that it couldn’t be any worse than the haunted house.
We hopped the fence and dragged our heavy pillow cases with us. As we walked further into the darkness, I suddenly noticed a dim light where the shack was. My heart continued to pound as we approached the shack. Any minute I expected a ghost to holler for help.
“Are we sure we want to do this?” Arizona’s voice was wavering.
I snuck a peek into the window. There was a warm light coming from inside. It was dim, but homey. I looked around and noticed some movement coming from the kitchen.
“Look!” I gasped.
Arizona stuck his head in the window beside mine.
“I think he’s kidnapped someone! He’s going to make his kill!”
I heard a quiet moan and thought it was a ghost at first. But then I realized that Arizona was sobbing. He was trembling like a terrified dog. Tears were rolling down both his cheeks. I felt like I was about to cry just by listening to him.
“I want to get out of here!” he cried. “I’m scared, Betsy.” He moved away from the window. I could tell he had genuine fear in his heart.
Then a figure suddenly appeared in the doorway leading from one room to the kitchen. At first it startled me and I ducked. Then I looked again. To my surprise it was a young girl dressed in a Cinderella dress. She had a cheerful look on her face and she was saying something into the kitchen that I couldn’t hear.
I waved Arizona over.
“Come look at this,” I said excitedly. “There’s a girl, but she looks happy.”
He doubtfully peeked in again.
Then a dark shadow appeared next to the girl. I couldn’t tell what the shadow belonged to, but the girl was staring right at it. Then her mouth opened and I could see that she was giggling. There was no sign of her being terrified. She ran into the room that the window we were looking through was in. I watched closely as she grabbed a paper bag and tipped it upside down. A pile of candy came out. She was laughing as she sorted her candy.
Arizona and I exchanged glances.
“Why is she happy?” Arizona inquired. “Isn’t she kidnapped?”
“I don’t think—”
“Look!” he interrupted.
An old man stepped from the kitchen into the room. He had a shaggy beard and white hair; his face was overwhelmed by wrinkles. He made his way to where the laughing girl was and smiled down at her. There was something comforting about the old man’s smile.
The holiday season blew in. From the start of November, Ms. Norin taught what Thanksgiving was all about. I had heard the story of Christopher Columbus and the May Flower at least hundred times already, but according to Ms. Norin, nobody knew the story. She was undoubtedly obsessed with the story of Thanksgiving.
The day before Thanksgiving break, I came into class to an unexpected surprise.
“Today we are going to be doing a little activity,” Ms. Norin began.
Everybody in the classroom was all hyped up because Thanksgiving was almost here, but also because there were rubber gloves, markers, and glue bottles on every desk. The desks were arranged differently. They were in groups rather than in rows.
“Since it is the day before Thanksgiving break, I am going to allow you to sit wherever you wish. You have been a wonderful class in the last month, and there were many high test scores on the test you took on Christopher Columbus. I am rewarding you.”
The whole class cheered in excitement as everybody dove for a desired seat. I aimed to be in the same group as Betsy, but she had already dashed for a desk around her girlfriends. I ended up sitting next to a couple of boys who were only my acquaintances, but they were friendly enough for me. One was named Jason and the other was nicknamed Raccoon. I had no knowledge as to why Raccoon was nicknamed that, but everyone called him it. I wasn’t even familiar with his real name.
“Ah, dude—” Jason remarked.
“What is it?” Raccoon asked, not even allowing Jason to finish his sentence.
“Dude, I know what we’re going to do. We’re going to make rubber glove turkeys! My brother had this class last year and he told me how to make one. You blow—”
“Oh, I know this too!” Raccoon exclaimed.
The two boys turned to me and asked if I knew how to make rubber glove turkeys. I told them that I didn’t and they gave me ashamed glances. Then they began explaining it to me when Ms. Norin caught the class’s attention.
“We are going to make rubber glove turkeys…”
Jason and Raccoon were laughing with each other the entire time Ms. Norin was explaining what to do. I didn’t understand what was so hilarious, but it made me feel like I was being left out. I wished I was in the same group as Betsy, but at the same time I wished I could have a wider range of friends.
Betsy came and knocked on my door the day before Thanksgiving. She was her usual exuberant self, smiling as if everything was perfect in life.
“What do you usually do on Thanksgiving?” she questioned.
“This year we’re just going to celebrate it alone. The rest of my family is in Phoenix and they’re not coming here. We’re not going there either. Why do you ask?”
“Perfect!” Besty replied.“Our family is in the same situation. Mom was wondering if your family would like to spend Thanksgiving with us. We’ll be more than happy to have you.”
I thought for a moment. “Well,” I said a second later. “I’ll have to talk with my mom, but that really sounds like fun!”
I disappeared into the house, leaving Betsy waiting contently on the porch. I raced upstairs, found Mom sitting at the computer, and bombed her with questions.
“We aren’t doing anything tomorrow right? Besty was wondering if we could spend Thanksgiving at her house. Can we—please?”
“Slow down, Ryan! What is going on?”
“Betsy said that her mom is willing to invite us over for Thanksgiving dinner. Can we?”
“That sounds delightful. I don’t see why not.”
I practically jumped down the staircase to deliver the news to Betsy. This was going to be the most exciting Thanksgiving ever! Back in Phoenix my whole family would get together for the feast, and I only knew my grandparents and a couple of my cousins. I had a huge family of many aunts and uncles and it was hard getting to know them all. A Thanksgiving with Betsy would be a good change for me.
The following day I spent with Besty. She was helping her mother clean the house and make things nice for when my parents were to arrive. Betsy and I willingly set the table and decorated the house with gourds and small pumpkins. Then we made hot chocolate with marshmallows.
Six O’clock rolled around the corner. Betsy and I spied out the window on my parents as they crossed the street holding umbrellas.
“It’s raining,” Betsy groaned. “I don’t like the rain much. It’s cold and wet and rainy.”
I giggled at her comment. “Well, duh it’s rainy! It’s the rain!”
She pushed me over in a friendly sort of way, but I pushed her in return.
Then the doorbell rang. We froze and listened, exchanging each other’s glances. Then we made a mad dash downstairs to where the party was. Mom and Dad greeted Betsy’s parents. Amber was crying.
The kitchen smelled of delicious food. I could taste the roasting turkey just by smelling it. The scent of fresh, home-made stuffing and gravy filled the air, and the sweet, honeyed ham made my stomach growl in pain. Betsy’s mother placed a large bowl of steaming mashed potatoes on the table. I could’ve smelled it from mile away, it was so strong. It was merely impossible for me to wait.
Betsy’s mother said a prayer before we dug in.
I grabbed for the honeyed ham first, just because it smelt the tastiest. I sat next to Betsy. She had placed her napkin in her lap. I wondered why she would do such a thing, but as I scanned everybody else at the table, I noticed that they all had napkins in their laps. It was probably a way of being polite.
The rain lightly pattered on the roof as we ate. It was like little mice were scurrying about on the rooftop. It was so quiet that it was barely noticeable, but I noticed it. I loved the sound of rain hitting the roof. I loved the sound of water. There was something about water that slowed my mind and made me calm. It was refreshing and soothing to listen to.
After dinner, it was late and the grown-ups were cleaning up the kitchen. Betsy had turned the television on and we were on the couch watching some show. We were both silent as we watched, but there was something special about it. I felt a strong bond between us that I had never felt before.
I must have drifted off because there wasn’t much of that night I could remember. I awoke the following morning in my own bed, the sun’s welcoming brightness penetrating through my window. I slipped out of bed to peer out into the calm morning and saw that the clouds were drifting by quickly. The ground was dotted with small puddles. The rain from the previous night had subsided, leaving little evidence that it had rained at all. Now, the sun smiled cheerfully down at Lakewood.
Now that the holiday season had become a faint memory of the past, the days began to blend together. The chilling rains of January swept through town. The mornings were foggy and the afternoons were cold and dreary. The days were slow and dull. School was continuous; there hadn’t been any breaks since New Year’s. January was a boring month, in my opinion.
Sometime in the middle of January, Ms. Norin made a new seating chart.
Unfortunately, Betsy and I were on opposite sides of the classroom.
Mandy ended up in the seat right beside me. We were a little more than acquaintances by now. She talked to me whenever she desired, which was annoying, but at the same time intriguing in an odd sort of way. She giggled often and there was something about her laugh that was mesmerizing. As the days went on, I found myself under Mandy’s charming spell. There was something about that girl I liked, but I wasn’t sure what.
At recess and lunch, Mandy followed me wherever I went. After a while it was quite obvious that she was becoming obsessed with me. Betsy laughed at me and teased me about her.
After awhile, I began to wonder if Mandy liked me—liked me in the kind of way that made me sick to my stomach. Every time she talked to me I felt a tinge of annoyance deep inside. I couldn’t decide if I liked her in return or not. The more I thought about it, the more I was confused about it. I wasn’t even sure what the romantic kind of love was all about. The thought of it was just over whelming, and simply annoying.
As the days of January slipped by, I realized I was becoming more involved with Mandy, leaving Betsy out of the picture most of the time. Mandy and I talked often during class whenever Ms. Norin wasn’t paying attention. At recess and lunch we shared a great deal of time together. Sometimes Betsy would follow us, but when she would leave, I never noticed.
Every now and then during class I would glance up at Betsy across the room. She was usually doing the work Ms. Norin had assigned, but sometimes she would chat with her girlfriends. Sometimes I wondered if something between us was changing. We weren’t the same anymore, and it all began when Mandy sat next to me in class.
One Saturday I heard a knock on my door. It was Betsy. It had been awhile since the last time we saw each other outside of school; usually I did something with Mandy Saturdays and Sundays. When I opened the door I was afraid in a way. It was like facing an old friend who hadn’t been seen in years. You wouldn’t be sure what to expect, whether the friend would be mad or loving. Betsy was smiling at me, but it wasn’t the kind of smile she usually had on. It was as if she was smiling just to break the awkwardness.
“Hi,” she said.
“Are you busy today?”
“Do you want to do something?”
She thought for a moment.
“Do you want to take a walk?” she asked.
“It’s about to rain.”
“What does that mean? Sometimes it’s nice to be out in the rain.”
“I thought you didn’t like the rain,” I said thoughtfully.
“It’s fun being in it once in a while.”
It was true. There was nothing wrong with splashing in rain puddles every now and then.
“Besides,” she continued, “I have an umbrella.”
We left the house just as it began to sprinkle. We walked down Strawberry Street with our little mud boots, Betsy holding the umbrella over our heads. For a while we walked contently, listening to only the drops of rain puttering on the top of the umbrella. It was calm and peaceful in a sort of way, even though the air was cold.
At the corner of Strawberry Street, between the road and the sidewalk, there was a large pothole where streams of rainwater gently flowed into. Worms thrived in the pothole like ants with food. Betsy playfully jumped into the puddle and splashed water in my direction. I giggled and returned her attempt to soak me. We splashed each other for a while, but after water had somehow seeped into my boots I refused to play anymore.
“I dare you to eat a worm,” Betsy giggled.
“I’d kill myself before eating one,” I responded. “Why don’t you eat one?”
“Only if it was a gummy,” she said.
We left the puddle, filled with the satisfaction of splashing each other. It was silent again before Betsy spoke.
“So what’s with you and Mandy?” she inquired after a long moment of silence.
The question was an utter surprise to me, and almost shocking. For a second I wasn’t quite sure if I had heard Betsy correctly. Why should she care about my business with Mandy? Mandy was just another friend of mine, and if she had a problem with it, it was her problem to deal with.
“Mandy is going to marry me when we get older,” I finally gathered the courage to say. I was excited at the thought, but at the same time, embarrassed. “Why should you care?”
“You are not going to marry her! That’s silly talk,” she said stubbornly. “Don’t you understand that Mandy was supposed to be my friend? You’ve been with her far more times than I ever have, and you are doing all that you can to stay out of my life! How could you even think about marrying her? You’re only seven! It’s not fair that you’ve stopped acknowledging that I’m your friend to be with her.”
“You never hang out with us—”
“Yeah, because you ignored me, so I decided to move on with my life!”
“Then why don’t you continue to move on with your life, and let me and Mandy alone?!” I felt the anger building up inside. I wanted to kick Betsy—I felt the sudden urge to hurt her somehow.
“…because you were my friend first.” She began to sound controlling.
We were both silent after that. We started home with crushed spirits, refusing to talk to one another. The rain was pouring significantly harder by now. Betsy’s umbrella was closed, dangling by her side. Her head was down and I could see that the back of her neck was utterly soaked. She walked in the street. I trudged slowly through the puddles of the sidewalk, allowing the rain to seep into my clothes. I had a hood, but I cared less about using it. It was just one of those gloomy afternoons.
The following day, I stared out my window into the pouring rain. I wondered what Betsy was doing across the street in her house. Then Mandy popped into my head. I thought of us on the playground and I thought of Betsy trying to be a part of my life. It was all so complicated. I wasn’t sure about marrying Mandy anymore. We had talked about it, but neither of us knew what we were talking about.
The rest of the weekend dragged on tediously.
Monday came. I met Betsy and Rosy on the porch as usual. Betsy was smiling as always, but this time I wondered why. The last time we had seen each other, things had not gone so well between us. I felt like asking her why she was so happy, but then I realized how ridiculous that would sound.
“How’s it going?” Betsy asked as we made our way up the steep hill to the bus stop.
“Okay, I guess,” I sighed. “How ‘bout you?”
“I’m not particularly excited about going to school.” She smiled at me.
When we boarded the bus I scanned the seats for Mandy. She waved at me from the back. I jogged across the isles, my backpack hanging on my right shoulder. There was a seat saved for me right next to Mandy. I plopped down in the seat she had saved for me. Her blonde hair was tied up in pig tails with pink hair ties. She had a cheery smile on, and I noticed that her two front teeth were missing.
“They were loose all weekend, so Mom yanked them out for me yesterday,” Mandy explained. “She told me the tooth fairy would come tonight to give me money.”
“There is no tooth fairy!” Abbie, the girl who was sitting on the other side of Mandy, announced.
“Yes there is!” Mandy argued. “There is a tooth fairy and I’m gonna get money from her tonight!”
“Last Christmas I woke up in the night and saw my mom putting presents in my stocking. If there isn’t a Santa Claus, then there isn’t a tooth fairy,” Abbie went on.
“Yes there is!” Mandy shouted stubbornly. Then she turned to me. “What about you—do you believe in the tooth fairy?”
“Yes,” I said. Lying to Mandy was probably my only hope in getting her to shut up. I wasn’t exactly sure what I believed in, but I wasn’t obsessed enough to care.
The bus slowly came to a stop at the school. All the kids teemed out in a rush. Just as I stood up, my eyes caught the attention of Betsy as she made her way to the opening of the bus. She glanced up at me right before exiting. There was a sullen look in her eyes. It was the kind of look that would make you have pity on that person, but fear at the same time—fear that you really hurt that person’s feelings, and fear of never being released from the guilt. It was the kind of look that appeared to be mixed with frustration and bottled up anger. I could have sworn she was about to cry. Perhaps when I saw her smiling as usual, she was masking her anger; but when she saw me with Mandy again, she couldn’t hold it in any longer. I felt a heavy weight on my heart, as if I needed to comfort her. But why? Why would I have that kind of feeling for her?
It all got the best of me. I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt bad for Betsy; after all, she was my very first friend in Lakewood. How could I let Mandy destroy our friendship? Mandy was my other friend, but what did that have anything to do with Betsy? Betsy was Mandy’s friend too, was she not? I decided that I wanted to be Betsy’s friend again.
I followed Mandy off the bus, but didn’t remain by her side for long. I ran after Betsy. Betsy had already reached the classroom and was waiting for the bell to ring. I made my way up to her and smiled the most charming smile I could make at the moment. She smiled back at me, but still didn’t appear to be very happy.
“You can be with us at recess and lunch if you want,” I suggested.
“You and Mandy?” she asked, surprised.
“Mandy’s not my friend anymore, Arizona.”
“But aren’t I your friend?”
“Do you really mean for me to hang out with you?”
“Well, yeah,” I replied shyly. “You’re still my friend.” It took a lot of guts to say that.
“I might want to hang out with my girlfriends at recess and lunch,” Betsy said. “But it’s nice that you offered.” She smiled at me. It was the kind of smile that told me she was truly happy.
The bell rang. I sat down in my seat, Mandy next to me. It was just another ordinary day.
February. The exciting thought of Valentine’s Day arriving soon filled the air with the sweet scent of chocolates. People joked about who were going to be their dates. Some of the girls even claimed they had a crush on the cutest boys of the second grade. The boys felt awkward being around the girls this time of year, but the girls found it entertaining. The girls enjoyed teasing the boys about stuff dealing with romance.
Rosy and I spent the first weekend of February making Valentine cards for friends. Rosy made cards for all her girlfriends and added little chocolate hearts to the cards. The first person I thought about making a card for was Arizona. He popped into my head, but I was doubtful. I was afraid he would not accept it. I feared that Mandy would make him a card, and he would appreciate it ten times more. Then I worried that he would think I had a crush on him or something ridiculous like that.
I created a Valentine for him anyways. I folded a piece of red construction paper in half and cut a shape of a heart out of it. Then I attached white lace around the edges and placed a chocolate heart inside. Inside it said: Rain Or Shine, Be My Valentine. I was so proud of it that I had forgotten about my doubts.
Gossip always became popular around Valentine’s Day.
“Anthony and Whitney were holding hands!”
“Did you know that Michael snuck into the girls’ bathroom?!”
“Tyler has a crush on Christine!”
“Oh, did you hear that Rachael kissed Jack’s cheek?!”
It was a big thing to hear a rumor that someone had kissed someone else. People would talk about it for days, even weeks, and it would most likely not even be true. If someone was truly caught kissing someone else, it was a huge embarrassment for that person. It was almost like a wrong doing, or something. But most people stayed away from the whole concept of love and kissing. It was beyond our understanding.
Valentine’s Day was on a Friday. Everyone came to class with Valentine cards and various kinds of candy to share with the class. Before lunch, we distributed our candy and cards to each other. My favorite candies were the candy hearts that had little notes on them. Some of them said: Cutie Pie, or I Love U, with a heart instead of the word love. It was always fun reading the little words written in the candy, even though most of them were ridiculous and made no sense; but sometimes it was nice for something not to make sense. That was what made it funny.
I hurried over to Arizona, who was on the other side of the room. He was handing out heart candies to people. Mandy was close to him, holding a small, red Teddy bear. She saw that I was coming over, and nudged Arizona’s sleeve. Arizona turned.
“I have a Valentine for you, Arizona,” I said, trying to keep from smiling. I couldn’t wait to see his expression when he would see what I had made him.
“What about me?” Mandy asked. “I gave you candy, so what do you have for me?”
“Well, I do have a card and candy for you.” I reached into my bag and pulled out her Valentine. “That’s a really cute bear,” I said as I handed her the card. “Who gave it to you?” I wasn’t trying to be nosy; I really thought her Teddy bear was adorable.
“Isn’t it so cute?! It’s soft too.” Then Mandy pointed at Arizona. “He gave it to me for Valentine’s Day. I gave him a chocolate frog. He ate it already.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, Arizona, I have something for you too!”
Arizona watched me curiously as my hand dove into the bag. I pulled out the red heart with laces all around the edges. When I handed it to him, he opened it and read the Rain Or Shine, Be My Valentine note inside. His face turned red as a tomato. Mandy started to giggle.
“Well?” I stared at Arizona for a long moment. For a moment, I felt the blushing coming to my face as well. I knew from the start it was a bad idea to make him a Valentine! I could tell he didn’t appreciate it.
“I don’t know what to say!” Arizona laughed in embarrassment. “It’s—it’s pretty cool, I guess.”
“Fine then,” I stammered. “I knew I shouldn’t have made you that!”
I ran back to my seat before he had a chance to say anything else. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and stupid. I should have made my girlfriends hearts with laces instead. They would surely treasure it. But Arizona didn’t treasure anything, unless it was from Mandy. I had wasted my time making it, and it wasn’t even worth it.
The bell rang for lunch. Everyone shot out of the classroom with their loot. I watched solemnly as Mandy chased Arizona to the playground, waving her Teddy bear. My friend Cherise noticed my disturbed look and walked up to me.
What’s wrong, Betsy?” she asked. “It’s Valentine’s Day—the one day of the year that we can chase boys around and get away with it!”
“I gave Arizona a Valentine and he didn’t like it.”
“Is Arizona the same guy you invited to your birthday party?”
“Are you in love?” she teased.
I punched her. “No! He’s just my neighbor.”
“Then why are you so disappointed that he didn’t like your Valentine?”
“I spent forever making it.” Part of that was true. But the real reason I was so disappointed was because it felt as if our friendship was falling downhill. I didn’t want to tell Cherise that because it would give her more reason to tease me about him.
Cherise and I walked the path that circled the grassy field near the playground. We read our Valentines to each other and ate candy. Cherise laughed all the while, but I walked in silence. Finally, Jaime came over.
“Do you guys want to play freeze tag?”
“Yeah!” Cherise nodded.
“I think I’ll keep walking,” I said. I didn’t mind being alone.
“Oh, come on, Betsy! It’s better with more people,” Jaime begged.
“Betsy’s mad that Ryan didn’t like the Valentine she gave him.” Cherise said for me. “Let’s just leave her alone.”
Jaime and Cherise raced off to the playground together. I was left alone. I decided to find Arizona and Mandy and spy on them. Spying was always fun to do, in my opinion. I searched the picnic tables to see if they had started eating their lunch yet, but they weren’t there. Then I scanned the playground. Satisfaction had come when I saw Arizona chasing Mandy down the big slide. She was screaming and laughing as she slid down.
I devised a plan to sneak up to them without them noticing. There was a large oak tree beside the swing set, and the swing set was right in front of the slide. Perhaps if I ran up to the swing set fast enough, I could dive behind the oak tree secretly. From there I could start my spying.
I casually made my way to the swing set, as if to play on the swings. I scanned the big slide, but Mandy and Arizona were no longer there. They must have gone to eat lunch at the picnic tables, I thought. But when I checked, they weren’t there. Frustration began to build up inside of me. May be I should have gone to play freeze tag. Why was I so interested in spying on them anyway? Couldn’t I just get over Arizona? The answer was no.
Suddenly the corner of my right eye caught something. I swerved around and froze in my steps. Mandy was dragging Arizona by the wrist, running towards the oak tree! I couldn’t tell if Arizona was willingly going along with her or not. I wasn’t able to catch a glimpse of his facial expression. The thought of Mandy grabbing onto his wrist like that was too much for me to bear. My feelings shattered and my heart collapsed.
I followed them behind the oak tree, but watched from a distance so they wouldn’t know I was there. Mandy was talking to Arizona, but I couldn’t quite hear what she was saying. Arizona was trying hard to smile, but it was obvious he wasn’t content. Something was going on between them, but what was it? Half of me wanted so badly to barge up there and get involved. The other half was chickening out and struggling to hear what they were saying without getting closer. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. I had to know what Mandy was telling Arizona. I had to know why they were hiding behind the tree, and why Mandy had dragged him there.
I quietly moved to the opposite side of the tree and stretched my head around the enormous trunk. Neither of them noticed that I was there. I intently eavesdropped on their conversation.
“Come on, Mandy,” Arizona said uncomfortably. “Why can’t you dare me to do something else?”
They were evidently playing Truth or Dare.
“You have to follow through with your dare. Don’t be a scaredy cat!”
“You try kissing my cheek then! Go on, I dare you.”
I could not believe my ears. I wanted to run off and tell the whole school that they were daring to kiss each other. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to get away, but at the same time I wanted to stay and see what would happen next.
“Fine then, you wimp,” Mandy sighed.
There was no way she would do it. She stood there for a long time, staring at Arizona. Arizona stared back at her, his lips almost at a frown. Then she leaned forward, pressed her lips on his cheek, and pulled away from him as soon as possible. The sucking sound was so clear and unmistakable that it was beyond disturbing. I wanted so badly to scream, but no sound came out. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t quite get my legs moving.
Mandy took the opportunity to leave. She shot off like a rocket towards the picnic tables.
“Don’t tell anyone!” Arizona shouted after her in embarrassment.
As soon as she passed me, I jumped straight into Arizona’s face. His bottom jaw dropped.
“Betsy, will you not tell anyone? I didn’t think she was actually going to do it!”
“What did you think you were doing!? That stuff is only for grown-ups to do.”
“We were only playing Truth or Dare. Nothing was meant by it. Don’t tell anyone, Betsy!” His face was bright red again. The look in his eyes showed he was mad.
“I won’t tell anyone, but she might.”
Arizona and I walked silently back to the picnic tables. People stared as we made our way across the playground. When I glanced over at Arizona, he was still blushing. His head was down and he was staring at the ground as if in shame. The more I thought about it, the more it didn’t seem like such a big deal. After all, it was just the cheek. She didn’t kiss his lips, and it didn’t last more than a second. It was like kissing a dog’s head or a stuffed animal. It wasn’t at all like the kind of kissing that was seen in movies.
As we trudged across the lawn to the picnic tables, Arizona finally lifted his head.
“I don’t like Mandy anymore,” he announced boldly. “I don’t like Mandy anymore!” Apparently it was a breakthrough for him to say it.
“Why not?” I questioned.
“She kinda scares me. She’s too girly and doesn’t like the stuff I like. Besides, she likes the color pink too much.”
“You changed your mind awfully fast. I thought you liked her more than me.”
His face was even redder than before.
“Was it the kiss that changed your mind?” I asked.
There was a pause.
“I guess so,” he finally said.
“So do you want to eat lunch with me today?”
After that day I didn’t see much of Arizona and Mandy together. Ms. Norin made a new seating chart, which split them up for good. I sat two rows from Arizona, but we spent more time together at recess and lunch than before. Mandy didn’t speak to Arizona at all. She didn’t even acknowledge that he was once a part of her life.
Then she moved. Nobody ever saw Mandy again after that. Arizona was once again my best friend.
It was a Thursday morning when I met Arizona at his porch. We did our usual routine of meeting each other before walking to the bus stop. He was dressed in blue jeans and a red shirt. His shoes looked like black bricks strapped onto his feet, they were so big.
“So, what’s up?” I asked as he met me at the bottom of his porch stairs.
He had a cocky expression on. It was almost like he was trying to hold back a smile, but was too happy to make that possible. He walked in such a way as if to show off to the world that he was all the best.
“What do you mean ‘what’s up’?” he blurted out. “I’ve been excited about it for the past two weeks! It’s my birthday!” He began bouncing up and down exuberantly, his backpack thudding every time it slammed against his back.
“Oh, that’s right! Finally you’re eight; I was waiting for you to turn the same age as me.”
“You didn’t forget, did you?”
“Um—” I did in fact forget that it was Arizona’s birthday. He had told me back in August when I asked him what his birthday was, but since then I had no way of remembering. I thought to myself, he must have been boasting about it to Mandy, that’s why I totally forgot.
“You forgot?!” Apparently Arizona’s birthday meant everything to him. Perhaps he was happy that he was finally the same age as me.
“You told all your other friends! Sorry that I forgot your birthday was the twentieth of February!” I was slightly annoyed at him.
“Okay, calm down you two,” Rosy said as patiently as possible before becoming frustrated with us. “Get over it, Betsy.”
“Over what?” I was so confused.
“Never mind. We have to hurry up. The bus is probably already there!”
We raced up the big hill to the bus stop.
“So what are you going to do for your birthday?” I questioned as we approached the top of the hill.
“I don’t know. But my mom said she has a big surprise waiting for me when I get home. I can hardly wait! I wish I didn’t have to go to school on my birthday though.”
“I didn’t have to!” I teased.
Arizona gave me a friendly punch on the shoulder. Then he stuck his tongue out at me and whispered, “Shut up.”
The bus arrived just as we made it to the bus stop. We hopped on and raced to the back, giggling. Rosy sat near the front next to one of her friends.
“We should celebrate your birthday in Ms. Norin’s class,” I said.
“Totally,” Arizona agreed.
About a half an hour later we arrived at school. Arizona jumped off the bus, boasting to everyone that it was his birthday. I followed him, laughing along his side. When the bell rang, I immediately ran up to Ms. Norin.
“It’s Ryan’s birthday, Ms. Norin!”
“Oh, we’ll have to sing Happy Birthday then.” She smiled down at me.
The bus dropped us off that afternoon after a boring day of school. Arizona and I could hardly wait before seeing the great surprise he said his mom had waiting for him. We raced down the big hill, almost stumbling on our own feet. Arizona shot off like a rocket as he ran. He was most determined to get home. I was excited with him, but not to extremes.
“So, what do you think the surprise is?”
“I don’t know.”
We impatiently turned right onto Strawberry Street and jogged to our houses. Arizona and I parted when we reached the houses. I quickly dropped my backpack off on my porch and told Rosy I would be at Arizona’s for the day. Lily was resting on the railing that circled the porch, her legs tucked tightly together and her tail curled around her side. When she saw me, a soft purring sound came from deep inside her throat.
“Oh, Lily,” I said. “I’ll see you later, okay?” I stroked her back softly. She lifted her back end, demanding for more of a massage. I hurried across the street to Arizona’s house.
When I entered his house, I could not believe how many balloons that were scattered amongst the inside of Arizona’s house. There were blue balloons all over the kitchen, green ones all inside the living room, and red ones all along the hallways.
“This is the surprise?” I questioned as Arizona closed the door behind me.
“No. I always have this many balloons on my birthday. They’re so much fun to play with! Come with me!”
I followed him to one of the sofas. He bounced onto it and flung himself at the biggest balloon—a Scooby Doo shaped one! It was at least the same size as him, if not bigger. He totally attacked it, wresting it to the floor. I couldn’t resist. I leaped straight onto it, punching it as well. We both screamed and laughed together as we attacked the balloon.
Suddenly Arizona’s mom walked into the room. She had little baby Amber perched on her hip. Amber was staring right at us, completely enthralled by the squeaky sounds the balloon was making.
“Hello, Betsy,” Arizona’s mother greeted. “How are you today?”
Then she turned to face Arizona. “Ryan, would you do me a favor?”
Arizona glanced at me, sighing. Then he turned back to his mother and asked, “Mom, what about the surprise?”
“I want you to go into the backyard and fetch Cameron,” she said, completely ignoring Arizona’s question.
“Oh, Mom!” he mumbled impatiently. “You promised I was going to see the surprise.”
“Go get Cameron or you’re not getting anything for your birthday!” she threatened. I had never seen Arizona’s mother so aggravated.
“Come with me, Betsy.”
I followed Arizona down the hall, dodging the ridiculous amounts of balloons blocking the hallway. He groaned and complained about how he had to wait even longer before seeing his surprise.
“Get over it!” I gasped, irritated. “You seriously need to calm down about your surprise. You’ll get it sooner or later.”
“Whatever,” he sighed.
Cameron was sitting by the sliding-glass door that led to the back. But the unusual thing was that he was not in the backyard! He was inside growling slightly, his tail wagging uncontrollably. He had his eyes fixed on something in the backyard, fur on end. When he saw that Arizona and I were approaching him, he immediately whimpered, in hopes that we would open the door for him.
“Wait—” Arizona paused before continuing slowly, “—did Mom say to let him in or out?”
“I’m pretty sure she said for you to let Cameron in,” I replied.
“Yeah, that’s what I—oh my, gosh!”
“What?” I jerked my head up and couldn’t believe my eyes.
“This must be the surprise!”
Arizona yanked the sliding-glass door open and charged out, Cameron slipping by. “He’s so cute—is it a guy?”
I followed him out back and neared the new dog. The dog was the cutest thing ever! Just a puppy. A very energetic puppy! It appeared to be a Chocolate Lab.
“He’s a guy dog! Oh, I’m so excited!”
“You’re so lucky, Arizona,” I said jealously. “Do you even realize how adorable these kinds of dogs are? That’s not fair, I want him!”
“He’s mine,” Arizona bragged.
Cameron sniffed the new dog curiously. The new dog tried to play with Cameron, but Cameron had mistaken it as a fight. He growled and snapped at the Chocolate Lab, but when he found out that the Lab was tougher than him he backed away.
“So are you happy with him?” Arizona’s mom asked as she stepped into the backyard.
“Is he the surprise?”
“Yep. I got him at the animal shelter in town. He had been there for quite some time, and he was going to be put down soon. So I bought him. Cameron needed a friend.”
“Oh, I love him! Does he have a name?”
“Nope. You can name him whatever you want.”
“How ‘bout Chocolate?” He took turns glancing back and forth to his mom and me. He was waiting for one of us to approve.
“Oh, how unoriginal,” I finally said.
“True. Wait, he kinda looks like a Conner, doesn’t he?”
I laughed. “What exactly does a Conner look like?”
“Conner it is! Conner and Cameron.” Arizona was way too excited.
The beautiful season of spring had arrived. Every morning I awoke to hear the sweet song of the sparrow or the morose song of the mourning dove. If I was lucky enough I could catch a quick glimpse of a humming bird hovering over the garden in the front, sucking pollen with the bees from the vibrant colored flowers.
One chilly spring morning, I awoke to meet Betsy and Rosy on the porch as usual. We hurried up the steep hill to the bus stop and waited a few minutes for the bus to come. Behind the bench was a large patch of dirt. There lay undoubtedly the most gorgeous tree I had ever seen. I had never noticed the beautiful cherry tree before because in winter it was just a trunk with bare branches. But in the spring time, it was a majestic tree. The mildly pink petals enriched the air with the pervasive fragrance of sweet cherry blossom. It was huge too. It towered over the bench, a few of its delicate blossoms scattered along the road from a soft breeze.
Betsy was busy picking the blossoms while we waited for the bus. She used the wooden bench as a boost so that she could grab onto the first branch and hoist herself up. From there she picked as many cherry blossoms as she could fit in both her hands. She climbed like a monkey to the very top.
I immediately found interest in what she was doing. I followed after her, but just for the climb. I had no intention of picking cherry blossoms for myself, even though they were lovely flowers. I climbed to where Betsy was sitting at the top. We both looked down at Betsy’s sister, who was plucking blossoms that were closer to the ground.
“You might want to think about climbing down soon because the bus should be here any minute,” Rosy shouted up after glancing at her watch.
Right as she said that, the bus pulled up. The door opened and Rosy boarded the bus, laughing at us for being in the tree. The bus honked and waited a couple seconds. I reached for the branches below and swung down onto the bench. The bus took off right as I reached the ground. It was too late; right at that moment I knew we both wouldn’t be attending school that day.
Then I heard a scream. Betsy was still in the tree! She was at the top looking down at the ground, clinging on for dear life. Her body was clutched as close to the branch as possible.
“Aren’t you gonna come down?” I shouted up at her.
“Help! I’m too scared to move!”
I wasn’t sure what I could do. I wasn’t going to climb the tree again, that was for certain. But I wasn’t about to leave her there either.
“Betsy, climb down! It’s not that bad.”
“I’m scared of heights, Arizona!” She whined impatiently. “Didn’t I already tell you that?”
“But you climbed the tree house.”
“That tree isn’t as tall as this one!”
I waited for nearly an hour, continuously prompting Betsy to start climbing down. She had slowly made her way to the middle of the tree, but was still too frightened to climb the rest of the way down.
“Would you come down now? Betsy, I’m tired of sitting on this bench.”
Then something dropped between my eyes so fast that I didn’t have a chance to see what it was. Betsy had dropped her cherry blossoms! After all the time she had spent holding onto them, she dropped them. I felt sorry for her. She really wanted those cherry blossoms.
It was around noon when Betsy finally made her way down the rest of the tree. She wasn’t crying, but she was shaking uncontrollably like she had just gotten off a roller coaster.
Her cherry blossoms were scattered all over the ground. The branches closest to the ground barely had any blossoms on them, and Betsy had no interest in them. She had climbed the tree for nothing. She had gotten stuck in the tree for nothing. We had missed school for nothing.
The warm mornings and dry, dusty afternoons of June were clear signs that summer was on its way. In the evenings, crickets sang soft melodies and moths danced upon the windows. Toads croaked from the bushes outside the house. The sound of nature in summer was so blissful, but only because it meant that the warm season was near and school was almost over. It reminded me of the hot days in Phoenix—the days that were memorably hot, but also the days that I enjoyed. It was the time of year in which everybody became restless during school hours, yearning for school to be out. Ms. Norin handed out popsicles as bribery so that she would not be interrupted by all the complaining the heat brought. But the excitement of school ending soon gave everybody high spirits, and nobody seemed to be motivated enough to listen to the teacher.
The last day of school was in the second week of June. During that week, papers were handed back, yearbooks signed, desks cleaned out, and good-byes said. Then the last day of school was party! The arrival of summer was a wonderful thing, but leaving all my well-known peers was a little depressing.
Betsy and I had more time together after school was over. We walked Cameron and Conner around the blocks, but sometimes the days became too hot to be outside. Those were the days we spent sitting by the fan in Betsy’s room, either playing games or deciding what to do. Every now and then Rosy would joke about us falling in love and marrying. It was all so silly.
Then one warm summer afternoon, Betsy had an idea.
“How come we haven’t been at our tree house in forever? We should go again,” she decided.
“Sure, we could. You’re right. It has been forever since we’ve been there.”
So that day we went to the tree house. It was hot, and the heat rays could be seen bouncing off the roofs of the houses. In the distance, the illusion of lakes in the road could also be seen. It was a hot day, but we couldn’t stand the thought of not going to the tree house. Betsy’s mother packed us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ice water, and strawberries.
After the hot walk to back country, it was nice to find the shade of the walnut trees near the old man’s shack. Their leaves were thick this time of year. It was wonderful to rest under their shade.
The moment I saw the old man’s shack again, I realized it wasn’t the same. There was no scary ax propped up against the side, no creepy cob webs in the windows, and no dead bodies. All the fear that Betsy’s stories last summer had given me faded away like a summer wind. Last Halloween, Betsy and I had discovered the other side of the old man. As we walked by his house, we did not hear ghosts howling our names. Instead, it was the slight, warm breeze that we heard.
We passed through the large field and into the oak forest. At first Betsy was worried we wouldn’t find the tree house. The ground was shrouded by the many skeleton leaves. Then I found a grass patch underneath two oak trees and remembered that that was where we had built the tree house. It had been ages since our last visit, possibly Halloween. But even then we didn’t go past the old man’s shack. Now that I thought about it, our last visit at the tree house was the first day of school.
The tree house was almost impossible to find, but when we did find it, there was a thick blanket of leaves and cobwebs over it. Spiders were hunched in every nook possible.
“We should have brought a broom!” Betsy exclaimed hopelessly.
“Well, we’re not going back,” I said.
Betsy placed the picnic bag in a small cranny located in the trunk of the oak tree. Then she began helping me with the clearing of the thick brush and fallen leaves.
It took till afternoon for us to make the tree house clear of all leaves and cobwebs. By then we were both sweaty and dehydrated. Betsy was lying on the dusty floor of the tree house, the palm of her right hand on her sweaty forehead. I myself felt as if a hammer was pounding on the inside of my head, trying to break through the skull. I felt as if I had to throw up, and could barely think straight. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to stay at home.
Betsy somehow managed to lift the picnic bag into the tree house. She was panting like a dog.
“It’s too hot out here,” she moaned as she lifelessly dug for her water.
“Can you hand me my water?” I groaned. We were both in pathetic shape.
“My mom once told me that a sign of dehydration is when the skin stays up when you pinch it,” Betsy said as she threw a water bottle at me.
I drank all the water in a single gulp. It stung my dry throat as it went down.
“I think I might be dehydrated!” Betsy complained. “My skin is staying up.”
“Yeah, I’m dehydrated too,” I moaned as I pinched my hand.
We both just sat there, cross-legged in the tree. I felt so lifeless; I thought I might fall asleep. After a while of sitting, and resting hand on forehead, Betsy reached for the picnic bag.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
She handed me one of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was all warm and disgusting. I felt even more miserable as I stuck the first piece of it in my mouth. I ended up eating strawberries instead.
For a long while we sat staring off into space, trying hard to get over the heat. Betsy had her eyes closed. I was staring at her for quite some time before realizing what I was doing.
Then a slightly cooler breeze came blowing in. I suddenly felt a rush of energy. Apparently, Betsy did too because she stood up immediately and made her way to the ladder. She crawled down without a word, but when she got to the bottom she called for the bag. I jumped up too fast and lost my vision completely. My head spun around so fast I almost toppled over. As soon as I gained balance again, I threw the bag down at her.
“Let’s go!” she called up.
I was all for it. I didn’t want to stay in the hot back country anymore. I made my way down the ladder and followed Betsy out of the forest.
“Next time we’re bringing a broom,” she said. “And I’m not coming here in such heat!”
As we approached the dirt road I had a sudden urge to race her, like the good old days of the previous summer. The cool breeze was really picking up again; it felt refreshing after such a hot day. But then I remembered that Betsy was still carrying the bag and it wouldn’t be fair if she had to run with something.
The wind was really picking up now, but it wasn’t as cool as before. It had a slight coolness to it, but was more on the warm side. Dust was blowing furiously, creating mini tornados. As we passed the shack, it got so bad that I couldn’t see far ahead at all.
“Look!” Betsy shouted over the howling wind. She was pointing. “It’s a dust monster!”
Sure enough, there was the most frightening thing I had ever seen. The wind was picking huge amounts of dust up, twirling it fiercely around and forming a tornado. It was spinning at a rapid speed, aimed in the same direction as Betsy and me. It twirled like a whirlpool. I could have sworn there was a monster’s face, and it was staring right at us. It came, but just as it were only a few feet away, it faded. Betsy and I ran to escape the other dust monsters.
Mom, Cameron is still on the driveway! Don’t back out of the garage yet,” I said, poking my head out of the back window of my mom’s van.
She evidently didn’t hear me. The van whipped out of the driveway like some crazy ride at a theme park. The way she drove made me feel like I had been kidnapped by some creepers who owned a dark and suspicious van. For a second, I wasn’t quite sure if I really was kidnapped or not.
My heart was racing as the van sped up and maneuvered around the mailbox. I heard the tires skid against the driveway.
“Mom, it’s Cameron!” I gasped. But it was too late. There was a loud THUD, kind of like a dull, unpleasant sound of a window being knocked, as something banged into the rear of the van. I turned and wanted to scream, but nothing came out. Something had happened, but I wasn’t sure what—until another THUD happened and I saw Cameron smack against the rear window. It continuously happened, over and over again like a tape rewinding several times. As it continued, the THUD became clearer and more real. Then I heard the faint whimpering of Cameron. He was dying, and there was nothing I could do about it.
But his whimpering continued on…
Thud, thud, thud.
I awoke suddenly. The thudding was continuing, but I knew clearly what it was. I turned over to face my small alarm clock on the night stand beside my bed. It was seven, but the sun was shining bright in the June morning. I then spun around to see Betsy outside my window. She was knocking on it furiously, whining my name.
“Arizona!” she called again.
I rolled out of bed and ran to the window to open it. Betsy had a worried expression.
“What are you doing up at seven in the morning?” I inquired.
“Mom woke me up getting ready for work,” Betsy said. “And Lily is usually on my bed all night—she wasn’t last night! I’ve been searching all morning, and still can’t find her.”
“So you woke me up?” I could not believe this.
“I want you to help me find her!”
“Fine then, wait on the porch.”
As soon as Betsy left my window, I threw some clothes on. Then I quickly brushed my teeth, told Mom that Betsy and I were going walking, and rushed out the door to meet Betsy.
Cameron and Conner were sleeping happily on the porch. I remembered my dream and was relieved to see Cameron alive.
“So yesterday I saw Lily in the back yard, but that was the last time I saw her,” Betsy said worriedly.
“Do you think she ran away?” I asked.
“I don’t know! That’s why I want you to help me find her.”
I followed Betsy down the road to the end of Strawberry Street, struggling to keep up with her.
“Jeez, you’re a fast walker!” I groaned impatiently.
“Come on!” she demanded bossily. “I need to find my cat!”
“I’m not going to help you if you treat me like that,” I threatened.
She pretended like she didn’t hear me. Instead, she walked even faster so that I had to run to keep up with her. But even though I had threatened not to help her, I had to continue following her. I decided that I couldn’t just leave her.
We walked around one block in search for her cat. Without any luck all morning, Betsy finally gave up and decided to head home. I quietly followed along her side, too afraid to say anything because she was snappy.
When we arrived at our houses again, Betsy invited me into her house. Her mother was there, fixing a lunch in the kitchen.
“Where were you all morning?” Betsy’s mom wasn’t in the best of moods.
“Searching for Lily,” Betsy replied. “Mom, I can’t find her anywhere! She’s gone!”
“Well, you didn’t say anything to Rosy—”
“She wasn’t awake, Mom! I had to find Lily.” Betsy’s anger was rising.
“—Rosy woke up and couldn’t find you anywhere, and I came home to find out that you were gone! You don’t leave the house seven in the morning to go walking around the neighborhood. That is unacceptable!”
“But I had to find Lily!”
“Anything could’ve happened to you out there. Lily will have to come back for food. Now, I’m gonna have to ground you because you ran off this morning—alone!”
“But Arizona’s mom knew where we were!” Betsy cried.
“I don’t care! Now, say your good-byes to Ryan. I don’t want to see you two together the rest of the day!”
I left her house with an overwhelming feeling of fear and shame. I had never seen Betsy’s mother in such a panic before. It was rather frightening, and embarrassing. Poor Betsy, I thought. She was definitely having a bad day. I wondered if she would continue her search for Lily on her own.
The rest of the days of that week sort of blended together like the many stripes on a tiger. I hadn’t seen Betsy since her grounding. Boredom was slowly taking its toll on my mind, tiring my brain unpleasantly. My summer so far wasn’t exactly exciting.
It was when the fourth of July rolled in that I finally saw Betsy again. She and her mother came to my house asking my parents if they would like to go downtown with them to see the parade. My mother took the invitation excitedly and gathered Amber’s stroller up for the walk downtown. Dad was coming too. It was his job to carry the backpack with drinks and snacks.
The afternoon heat had no mercy on us as we began our walk downtown. It was my first time ever walking to downtown Lakewood; I’d have to admit I was pretty thrilled, although the pounding heat wasn’t exactly exciting.
“I know a shortcut,” Betsy’s mom said. “Follow Steven and I.” Obviously, Steven was the name of Betsy’s dad.
We took a left at Strawberry Street, towards the big hill that lead to the bus stop. I wondered if it would be possible for Amber’s stroller to be pushed up such a steep hill. Mom ended up holding Amber while Dad pushed the stroller, but when we got to the top, Amber was placed back inside the stroller.
“Oh, I know the shortcut!” I blurted out excitedly. “This road does lead to downtown; we took the bus this way every day!” I jumped up and down, completely consumed by overwhelming anxiety.
“Yeah,” Betsy said in such a slow, ridiculing way. “You totally just pointed out the obvious. We already know, Arizona.” Then she laughed.
As we passed the cherry tree, I noticed that most of the blossoms were on the ground. The wind must’ve done it, I thought sadly. It was so depressing to think that those beautiful cherry blossoms would be gone till next spring. But now it was summer, and the remains of the lovely pink flowers were only on the ground. I remembered a while back when the flowers first started to bloom, and Betsy really wanted some. I remembered how we both missed that day of school because of her. Since that day, Betsy had never gone back to climb the tree and collect blossoms.
“Oh, look at all the flowers!” Mom joyously pointed out to baby Amber, who was enthralled by the many new sights. “Aren’t those flowers gorgeous?”
I suddenly remembered that Lily had gone missing.
“Oh, Betsy,” I said, “Have you found Lily yet?”
“No,” she responded with a sigh. “No Lily. Mom kept telling me to wait for her to come back, but she never did. So yesterday we finally made flyers and posted them all around the neighborhood. She’s just nowhere to be seen!”
“What do you think happened to her?” I questioned curiously.
“I don’t know, but my worst fear is that someone found her and decided to keep her as theirs.”
“Oh, that happened to my cat in Phoenix!”
“Great!” Betsy exclaimed sarcastically. “That’s not helping!”
“Sorry,” I giggled.
“But I’m hopeful she’ll show up now that we put flyers up.”
Before I knew it, we were in downtown Lakewood. The streets were cleared for the Fourth of July parade and everything seemed festive. I had never seen such activity before in a long time! It was all so exciting and overwhelmingly fun.
The parade had just begun. Old fashioned automobiles—blue, red, and white in particular—strolled down the main street, honking and showing off. I waved at every driver that looked my way. Then the marching band came forth. It was so large, I couldn’t believe it. The players were all dressed in red, white, and blue. It was such an amazing sight. Every bit of it was overwhelming to my eyes. Everything was bright and shiny, especially the instruments of the marching band. There was a beautiful array of colors floating around town. Townspeople crowded the curbs. Oh, how patriotic it was! People cheered, shouted, and the National Anthem was even sung by people on floats. Then the horses went cloppity-cloppiting in. Besty screamed and pointed exuberantly.
“Horses!” she shouted. “Mommy, horses!”
“Yes, Betsy, horses,” Betsy’s mother tried to say over the loud commotion.
The horses didn’t interest me much. It was the old automotives that caught my interest the best. Horses seemed big and scary to me. I never knew Betsy had interest in horses before.
By mid-afternoon, the parade ended and the festivity died down. People began to leave. Mom and Dad told me they were going to take Amber back to the house because she was getting fussy. Betsy’s family was going to stay and wait for dusk, when the fireworks would begin. I decided to stay with them. It had been more than two years since I saw fireworks last. The fireworks were what made the Fourth of July most exciting.
The rest of the day we strolled around town in search for a nice place to sit for when the fireworks would go off. Betsy’s father found a large lawn in front of the fire station. We all settled for a spot on that lawn.
Dusk swallowed the town. Crickets sang, stars came out, and tension built for when the first firework would come. Then it came. The red, white, and blue brightness lit up the sky beautifully. Strands of light blue sliced the dark sky. Then a gold ribbon shot up. The whistling sounds were deafening and uprising. All the townspeople stared in awe as the sky was painted with all sorts of bright colors. I had a magical feeling deep inside my gut. It felt good to watch such majestic colors shoot into the warm, summer sky.
Betsy still couldn’t find Lily. The flyers obviously weren’t doing any good.
One morning, not too long after the Fourth of July, Betsy and I decided to go searching the neighborhood once again. Betsy was still paranoid about someone taking her cat as their own. I kept telling her over again that that someone would have called after seeing the flyer. Betsy refused to think that. She had it in her mind that Lily was in someone else’s house, and there was nothing that could change that.
We made our way around the neighborhood, and finally ended up near back country. There was a small blackberry bush near the gate with the NO TRESPASSING sign. Betsy decided to stop and pick some blackberries.
“I love blackberries,” she said. “I think they’re my favorite fruit.”
I picked some blackberries with her. We enjoyed a little bit of the afternoon indulging on the juicy berries. It was refreshing. For a moment, I didn’t want to go back searching for Lily.
But we did.
“May be she’s happy at her new home,” I suggested.
“No!” Betsy denied. “She loved to sleep in my room every night! She loves me more than any other person.”
“Okay,” I sighed. “If you say so.”
We searched all afternoon without any luck. Betsy almost wanted to knock on every door in the neighborhood and ask about Lily, but she chickened out as she walked up someone’s porch steps.
Finally we headed home. But as we were on our way, Betsy screamed so loud that all of Lakewood probably heard it. I turned to see what was up. She had found Lily. But Lily’s body was all mangled and twisted. Her back appeared to be broken. Lily had been hit by a car.
Betsy grabbed her hair and pulled in distress. Tears formed in her eyes and the sobbing began. It was all so depressing. I had never seen her cry. Watching my best friend cry like that made me want to cry. I felt the tears coming.
“No!” she cried. “No! This can’t be Lily! It can’t be her! She was just a year old!”
Betsy picked Lily’s distorted body up, crying. She began home without another word.
I helped her bury Lily in her backyard. We made a special grave for her, placing lily flowers on top. We both shared the pain by crying because that’s what friends do.
It took me some time to get over Lily’s death. I missed the way she cuddled up close to me in bed and how her soft purring put me to sleep. I missed the way she sat on the porch during hot summer days, intently watching lizards scurry by or bugs buzz around. I missed everything about her—except the times she brought dead gifts into my room.
But by mid July, I wasn’t so bothered by her absence. I chose not to linger on the thought of her gone. It was one of those things that you just leave in the past, only to dwell on the happy memories.
One morning I awoke to hear some chattering going on outside. I peeked out my window and saw a red car parked in Arizona’s driveway. Had he gotten a new car? The van was still there. I continued to spy and found Arizona walking from his porch. He was following his parents. His mom was holding baby Amber and his dad had a huge grin on. Then I moved my eyes back to the red car. A woman about my mom’s age was standing behind the red car, her head just barely popping up from behind the car. A man about my dad’s age walked up to Arizona’s dad and they shook hands. I wondered who those two people were. Relatives, perhaps? My eyes followed Arizona to the red car. He had on a wide smile. Even from a distance I could tell he had a twinkle in his eyes. Then Arizona disappeared behind the red car. He was too short for me to see him anymore. I opened my window in attempt to hear what was going on over there.
The first thing I heard was: “Now aren’t you a little princess?” I didn’t recognize who had said it, but the woman that I guessed was Arizona’s relative was looking at Amber.
“It’s so nice to see you, Lauren! How are you?” Arizona’s mother said cheerfully.
“Oh, I’m just fine. I love your new house! It’s gorgeous.”
Lauren? Who the heck was Lauren? Was she a friend? I continued my meddling.
“So how’s your new job working out?” Arizona’s mom asked the lady.
“Oh it’s fine…”
I decided I didn’t find interest in that conversation. What really caught my attention was the obnoxious laughing going on behind the red car. I put all my focus on that.
“So what do you do up here, Ryan?” It was a guy’s voice that I couldn’t recognize.
“I have a friend in the house across the street I hang out with.” It was Arizona who said it.
Suddenly I saw him come out from behind the red car. He stood in the street, pointing at my house. I ducked to make sure he wouldn’t see me. How embarrassing it would be if he did see me! I kept my eyes low to the windowsill so that I could still see him, but he couldn’t see me. There were two boys standing beside him that were tall compared to him. They looked exactly the same! I could hardly tell them apart. Each of them wore the same clothing, but had different colored hats on. They were a bit skinny, with dirty blonde hair and freckles all over their faces. I couldn’t deny that they were a little cute.
“So, who’s your friend?” the twin on the right asked.
“Her name—” Arizona began.
“Your friend is a girl? How interesting!” The two twins talked in unison. “Is she your girlfriend?”
I watched as Arizona spit his tongue out at them and smacked each of them on the shoulder.
“It’s not funny! She’s just my friend.”
“So, do we get to meet this friend of yours?” the two twins said together once again.
I felt the butterflies coming in. My stomach churned and felt light. Who were those kids? And why would I want to meet them if they thought I was Arizona’s girlfriend? It was actually really scary to think of being his girlfriend. I trembled at the thought.
“Um, sure you can meet her!” Arizona said proudly. “I’ll go knock on her door.”
The twins exchanged glances and smiled at each other mischievously. “We’re following you,” they said together.
That was when I froze in a state of panic. No, there was no way I would show up at the front door in my pajamas. My stomach knotted and a rush of fear shrouded my heart. Why did Arizona have to come so early in the morning with some of his friends? I didn’t even know he would have such visitors. He had never told me. Just the thought of Arizona inviting random people to my house so early in the morning aroused my anger.
I rushed to the closet and threw some clothes on. Then I raced down the stairs as the door bell rang. Today was one of the days of the week Mom and Dad didn’t have to work, so I was worried they would hear the door bell and get all upset. I would be to blame. I was on the verge of hating Arizona at the moment.
When I opened the door, three boys were staring right at me. The twins were quite tall and appeared shy the moment they met me. I was a little shy myself, just staring at all three of them. I left the house and stepped onto the porch to greet them. I didn’t exactly want Mom to hear and wake up.
“Hey, Betsy,” Arizona mumbled. “These are my cousins. They came from Colorado. I thought you’d like to meet them.”
“Oh,” I said, bewildered. “Hi. I’m Betsy.”
I shook the boys’ hands. Cousins? Arizona had cousins from Colorado? How interesting, I thought.
“This is Brent.” Arizona pointed at the boy on the right. “And this is Brice.” He pointed at the boy on the left.
“I’ll probably have a hard time remembering who is who,” I chuckled. “I guess I could say that Brice has a bit more freckles.” I studied Arizona’s two twin cousins carefully. I guessed they were Rosy’s age.
Brent and Brice whispered opinions in each other’s ears. They laughed and looked back at me.
“I feel like I’m surrounded by too many guys,” I announced. It did seem a bit awkward to be around Arizona’s cousins, especially when they were older than me.
Suddenly Arizona’s mom called from across the street.
“Ryan, what are you doing at Betsy’s house?” she called.
“I’m introducing Betsy to Brent and Brice!” Arizona shouted back.
“Why don’t you invite Betsy over so that you don’t have to disturb her family?”
I accepted the invitation joyously. Brent and Brice seemed like nice boys. They laughed often and shared inside jokes like they were best friends. I couldn’t get over how cute both of them were. Their freckles were absolutely stunning and their eyes were a deep, genuine blue color. The twins talked the same and laughed the same. I had no idea twins were so similar like that.
By the end of the day I knew almost all I needed to know about Arizona’s cousins. When supper came around, I left for home and told Mom all about Arizona’s cousins. She seemed quite interested.
“So do you think you’re gonna see them again tomorrow?” Mom questioned.
“I hope so! They like to do all kinds of stuff. May be tomorrow me and Arizona—”
“Arizona and I,” Mom corrected. She was like that. She loved to correct my grammar.
“—can show Brent and Brice back country!”
“Oh, Honey, it’ll be too hot for you to go on a walk around the neighborhood. I don’t feel okay with you doing that.”
“I don’t want you to and that’s a fact. You are going to get all dehydrated and everything. What is it that you like so much about back country anyways?”
I remembered that Mom still didn’t know about the tree house. It was between Arizona and me, and was once known to Rosy. But after she lost interest, she never said anything about it. “It’s fun to explore back country,” I replied. “There are lots of trees and stuff.”
“Oh, well, can you think of anything else you want to do with the three boys?”
“Not really, Mom! I want to show them backcountry!”
The following morning, I met Arizona, Brent, and Brice at his house. Arizona was telling them all about the neighborhood and the town of Lakewood. His cousins seemed thrilled and I could tell just by staring into their eyes that they craved for an adventure. I wanted to tell them about backcountry, but there was no way Mom would let me take them.
“What do you want to do today?” Arizona asked his cousins as soon as I met them for the second time.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?” Brice said, depending on his brother for an answer.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?” Brent said, depending on his brother for an answer instead.
Watching the twins made me laugh.
“I wanted to show them the tree house,” I began, “But Mom doesn’t think it’s a good idea for us to be going in such heat.”
“Last night, Ryan told us about the tree house that you two built,” Brent conversed.
“That is so sweet of you guys!” Brice announced. “Two eight-year-olds in love.”
Arizona immediately ran up to Brice and kicked him in the shin. “Don’t tease! That’s not nice!”
As they argued, I suddenly had a brilliant idea. Suppose we went on a little night hike to backcountry…
“Hey, you guys,” I said excitedly, “Do you want to go on a night walk tonight—around the neighborhood? Arizona, we could take them to the tree house at night!”
“That sounds like fun! I’m all up for it,” Brice replied.
“Me too,” Brent added.
“Well,” Arizona began, “I’m just a little worried about—oh, I’m a little frightened by that idea!”
“Oh, don’t be a poor sport,” I begged. “Your cousins will be with us and it’ll be totally fun!”
“I guess,” he said unenthusiastically. “I suppose we could.”
Then it dawned on me that Arizona just might be afraid of the dark. I remembered how, on Halloween, he seemed too terrified to go to the old man’s shack in the dark. Now that was scary, but it wouldn’t be now. We had Brent and Brice with us, and we knew the old man wasn’t a murderer.
With the help of Brent and Brice, I convinced Arizona that it would be fun to go on a night walk.
It was a boring day of waiting for darkness to settle upon the town. It was day-light-saving-time, so we decided that we wouldn’t leave till after eight. I told Mom about our plans of a night hike ahead of time in case she wouldn’t let us go. Fortunately, she didn’t mind so much. But she did want to make sure Brent and Brice were coming.
Then night came. It was still pretty warm outside. Crickets sang and mosquitoes played like little violins in my ears. I felt like I was being eaten alive, but Arizona’s mother gave us some bug spray.
“Be careful!” she shouted from the porch as we made our way down the road in the dark.
Then Arizona’s aunt called, “Stay clear of wild animals!”
The dim light of the flashlight could barely penetrate the darkness of the oak forest. Arizona and I couldn’t find the tree house. We had been searching for it for a long time now, but neither of us had a great sense of direction. Arizona wasn’t exactly happy to be there either. Brent and Brice tried their hardest to scare us by hiding behind trees and jumping out. Arizona freaked out almost every time they did so, but I hid behind him. After awhile, however, he snapped at me for using him as a shield.
We were in the deepest depths of the forest by this time. Not even the crescent moon could be seen through the cracks of brush. Brent and Brice became too weary to want to frighten us anymore. Instead, they followed along, complaining frequently about the mosquitoes and bugs eating them alive. Apparently there were too many of them for the bug spray to take effect.
“Are you sure we’re not lost?” Brent asked in a frightened tone.
“We’re not lost,” Arizona replied, “But I can’t really find the tree house.”
“Forget it!” Brice retorted. “I think it would be a good idea to start heading home before we do get lost.”
“Alright then—” I replied.
“Whoa!” Brent gasped spastically as he slapped the back of his neck and spun around. “I felt something crawl on my neck! Get it off!”
The three of us—Brice, Arizona, and me—huddled together tightly out of fear from Brent’s startling cry. Things were starting to get a little creepy. Even the twins didn’t seem tough enough.
“I hate spiders,” Arizona whispered softly, as if someone or something was listening to our conversation from within the darkness.
“No kidding,” Brent gasped. “I think that’s what just crawled on my back! Help, Brice!”
“Let’s get outta here!” all four of us screamed in unison.
We sprinted back the way we had come, but all of us were too terrified to think about where we really were running. I followed Arizona, who was following Brent and Brice. They aimlessly trampled through all the brush, pushing tree branches out of the way. I could barely see anything since the twins had the flashlight. I stumbled into a ditch that Brent, Brice, and Arizona had dodged. Nobody seemed to notice my absence, they were so panicked. I attempted to holler out, but a sharp pain in my ankle prevented me from doing so. My heart raced and I found myself struggling to breathe. I didn’t know what else to do but cry.
I found my way out of the ditch. My ankle hurt so bad, I feared it had broken. I continued to cry as I felt my way around. There was no way of me knowing where to go. I could only hear the interminable hooting of owls, singing of crickets and the tickling hum of mosquitoes in my ears. It was all so lonely and dark. I had no way of getting back on my own. I needed a flashlight, but even then I would be lost. How stupid I was to have such a stupid idea of a night walk, I thought miserably. Stupid, stupid, stupid! The word stupid was the only word in my mind at the moment.
Then I suddenly heard a call. It was vague, but I knew it was the sound of a human. I saw a distant flash of a flashlight. I quit my sobbing so that I could hear if my name was being called out. It was quiet again, but I continued my hopeful waiting. The flashlight became even more distant than before. I shouted out, but the light was disappearing. I hopped up, regardless of my painful ankle. I limped as fast as I could and as far as I could before stumbling back down. When I did stumble the second time, I couldn’t get up. There was no trace of the flashlight, or the shouting out of people. I felt so hopeless that I thought it was the end of me.
Suddenly I felt something warm touch my shoulder from behind. I spun around, thinking it was some kind of large insect. I was shocked to see a person staring at me. It was rather frightening, but what was I supposed to do? The person was a young woman, perhaps in her twenties. There was a strange lightness to her, as if a full moon was shining on her, but there was no full moon. It was just barely bright enough for me to see her. She had blonde hair and her skin was white, as if never seen by sunlight. She wore a bluish night gown. Her eyes were blue and her lips were a lively red.
I was shocked by her existence. Apparently my facial expression looked startled because she said, “Don’t be afraid.”
I knew I wasn’t allowed to talk to strangers, but there was something about her voice that was calming and trusting. I was suddenly not afraid anymore. I felt safe, in a strange sort of way.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Come with me,” she said, completely avoiding my question.
She took my hand and led me through all the brush, clearing the way as if it were the easiest thing to do. Her hand was smooth and silky like satin. I went along with her, not even thinking about how weird it was for her to be there. I felt completely at peace with her.
After awhile, I saw the dim light of the flashlight again. I was so excited that I had forgotten I was with the young woman. I called out, and the person—Brent—who was holding the flashlight called back. It was all three of them. They came running in my direction. I ran up to them, forgetting that my ankle was hurt. When I saw Arizona, I gave him the biggest hug. He was a little taken aback by it, but ended up just smiling at me. That was when I remembered the nice, young woman who had helped me find Arizona and his cousins. I turned back, but saw nothing but the dark contours of trees and bushes.
I must’ve said it out loud because Brice asked, “Who’s gone?”
“The girl,” I responded, too shocked to think of where she could’ve gone so fast. “The girl who brought me to you guys! Didn’t you see her?” I could barely make out the facial expressions the three of them had because it was too dark.
“You’re scaring me,” Arizona said, his voice quavering.
“I think we should go home before something else happens,” Brent replied. “And before our parents get worried.”
“Yeah,” Brice agreed.
The rest of summer kind of blew away with the wind. Nobody could figure out where it had gone. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that summers go by so fast.
My birthday came and went. I turned nine.
As soon as school started up again, things began to change tremendously. I was still my same old self—happiest around people I knew best. But Arizona had changed somehow. Being in the third grade made us all feel more mature in some way, but Arizona was different from the way he was last year. I wasn’t sure what it was. Perhaps it was because he knew his peers a lot more, unlike the previous year. May be that caused him to come out of his shell and be the person he was back in Phoenix. But he was certainly different. There is no way for me to explain how he was different.
I didn’t mind so much that he acted more like the “cool kid” because he treated me the same way he had during summer. We were still friends. We still liked the same things, still found the tree house exciting, and still hanged out after school often. But it wasn’t till the middle of the third grade that it really started to bug me somewhat. He began to hang out with a group of loud, obnoxious boys who talked too much during class. What bothered me most about it was that those loud, obnoxious boys hung out with loud, obnoxious girls. It was all so irksome.
He became a part of the “popular” crowd. Everyone loved his group of friends. They all talked too much and cared less about their school work. They were all adored and looked up to. They were the “best” of the third grade.
My girlfriends and I stayed clear the popular group. We found them all quite annoying. I didn’t care so much about Arizona anymore. I guess it was time for me to let my old friends go. Oh, how different everything was from last year! The change was so depressing, but I knew I had to accept it.
However, one day I discovered something. During a spelling test, I quickly glanced up at the clock on the wall. That was when I saw Arizona grab a piece of paper from under the desk. He was sitting next to Jessica, one of the most talkative girls in the class. She had handed Arizona the piece of paper. I watched as he opened it. Then he quickly wrote on his test and hid the paper underneath his test paper so that our third grade teacher, Ms. Johnson, wouldn’t notice. I was highly disgusted in him. Somebody forgot to study!
I wanted so badly to tell Ms. Johnson. But I didn’t.
Lunch came and I boldly marched up to him.
“Why did you cheat on the spelling test?” I asked in a rude and disappointed way, right in front of all his friends.
“Betsy, why do you even care?” He sounded embarrassed.
I quickly glanced around to make sure Jessica wasn’t there. Luckily she wasn’t. She must’ve been in the bathroom because she was one of the popular girls and all of them stuck together like geese in a flock—with the boys. When I saw that she wasn’t there, I said, “Why did you ask Jessica for an answer? You two have a little thing going, don’t you?!”
I felt my blood rush through my body in adrenalin. I felt the rage build up, and I didn’t even know why I was so upset. I was jumping to conclusions. Where did I get such a ridiculous assumption? After I had said it, I realized how farfetched it sounded.
“I was sitting right next to her, Betsy! What is your problem?”
I couldn’t hold the tears back. I ran away, leaving all my friends in a questionable state. I had ruined my friendship with Arizona for sure.
The rest of the year, I couldn’t help but spy on Arizona and Jessica. They were the biggest loud mouths I had ever seen. They talked way too much to each other and all the other guys and girls in the popular group. The more I watched them, the more I saw a pattern. Every morning, Arizona would start a conversation with Jessica. She would continue with him, but then walk over to her girlfriends. He would follow her and engage in every conversation she would have with her girlfriends. Then other guys would walk over and it was this huge circle of friends again! It was almost the entire third grade that did this. And it was the same way every single day. But what was really bothersome was the fact that Arizona talked with Jessica first. The two of them together gave me the creeps.
One day, Jaime, my friend asked, “Betsy, what’s going on with you lately? You always seem so upset these days.”
I decided to tell all my friends about my problem with Arizona. I couldn’t get over the fact that he constantly talked with Jessica. Not only that— he always acted stuck-up, like the rest of the popular kids. It made me so infuriated that I was beginning to have a mental breakdown.
“You could go up to him and tell him how you feel,” Lisa, my other friend, suggested.
“No, I can’t do that!”
“He doesn’t like me anymore. He hardly ever spends time with me after school, even though he lives right across the street from me!”
“Well, maybe it’s time for you to just move on with your life and make new friends,” Lisa replied.
What she said was the painful truth. It almost made my want to cry.
It was so hard to let Arizona become too involved with being popular. I hated the popular people. They always thought they were the best. But then why was I so disappointed that Arizona wasn’t my friend anymore? After all, he was a part of the popular group.
I was so ready for school to be out. I had already made plans to hang out with my best friends—Jessica, Mike, Jordan, Tyler, and Jamison over summer. It was late May. My brains were already fried from the third grade year.
I didn’t think much about Betsy anymore. She was only in the dark depths of my mind, only to be brought out and discovered when I saw her in class. My subconscious pondered over why I never talked to her anymore and why I was so obsessed with hanging out with the popular kids. I ignored my subconscious; every time that tiny voice in the back of my head said, “What about Betsy?” I shut it out immediately.
But when summer did come, my plans never went into action. It turned out that my chances of seeing Jessica and my other friends were very slim, due to the fact that my parents constantly worked and none of my friends lived close enough. Betsy realized I didn’t have much plans, so she came over often. I couldn’t seem to figure out why, but every time I saw her I had a feeling of annoyance. It felt as if I wanted to move on. Leave the old friends behind. Just because she lived across the street from me, didn’t necessarily mean she was my only friend. I felt like I was blocked from the rest of the world, stuck in the same old neighborhood with the same old person and same old life.
All in all, it wasn’t the greatest summer. In fact, it was frustratingly boring.
One warm summer evening, however, Dad came home after work with a kitten named Teddy. He was the most adorable kitten ever! He was a tabby, with white swirls blending in with his orange coat. I was a little confused about where that kitten had come from, but Dad told me it wasn’t our cat to keep.
“He’s my friend’s kitten. My friend from work came down with a terrible illness, so we have to take care of his cat till he’s better, okay? Then he’ll come back for Teddy when he’s well again.”
“What about Cameron and Conner?” I asked.
“It’ll be okay, Ryan. Cameron and Conner won’t bother Teddy much.”
I was excited about this new pet, even though he wasn’t mine. He was going to live in the same house as me; that was good enough for me. I could hardly wait to show off to Betsy that I actually had a cat in the house. Knowing her, she would probably be over-excited to see him.
That night, as I crawled into bed and thought about ideas for the following day, I over-heard Mom and Dad talking in their bedroom next door.
“So which friend of yours became sick?” I heard Mom ask.
There was a long pause before Dad answered the question. I laid down in bed, trying to pick up every word in their conversation. Most of the time their conversations were boring adult talks, but this one was quite intriguing.
“Oh, it’s Tom again,” Dad replied with a sigh. “He’s the one who came down with cancer last year, remember? I’m not sure what he has now, but he’s an unlucky fellow. He told me it may be a long time before he asks for his cat back. I just hope Ryan won’t get too attached to Teddy.”
“Wait a minute, is he the one who’s married to that invalid?” There was a tinge of curiosity in her voice.
“Well, she’s not an invalid, but yes, he’s the one who’s married to her.”
“That woman scares me to pieces! She’s the grumpy lady who is totally self-centered, mean, and obsessed with her cat, isn’t she?”
“I’m afraid so,” Dad said. “You know what Tom told me when he was giving Teddy to me?”
“He said that his wife gives more attention to the cat than him! She practically worships the animal. She had such a fit when he told her he had to give up Teddy—even though it’s not permanent. She was mad.”
“Well, I should say so!” Mom nearly shouted.
Then their voices faded away as I fell into a slumber.
A week had gone by since the day Dad brought Teddy home. As soon as Betsy found out I had a cat, she burst into an excited rampage, explaining good memories she had of Lily. She was the first to fall in love with Teddy, even though I told her he wasn’t ours.
I learned how to clean Teddy’s litter box, which wasn’t fun at all. Cameron was okay with a cat being in the house, but Conner was quite curious and chased Teddy around and about every chance he had. Teddy was a tame house cat. He loved people and snuggled up next to me almost every night. Sometimes I caught him sleeping in Amber’s crib.
But things on Strawberry Street began to get a little out of the ordinary. One early Saturday morning—the day Mom and Dad usually slept in—a knock came on the door. I hopped out of bed, expecting to find Besty on the porch. I thought it was a bit odd that she didn’t come to my window, like she usually did when she wanted to see me in the mornings. And it was also strange that she would come so early in the morning; she never came early anymore. I made my way to the front door. But when I opened the door, I was startled to see a stranger standing on the doorstep. She had blonde hair, long legs, and wore a tight skirt. She tried to act polite as she said hello, but there was something about the gaze in her eyes and haughty tone in her voice that gave me the creeps.
I didn’t have time to think and ask who she was. I dashed down the hall and awoke Mom and Dad.
“Mom, someone is here! I don’t know who!”
Mom grumpily climbed out of bed and cursed under her breath as she slid her robe on. Dad opened the curtains and looked for a car parked on the street, but there wasn’t one.
Then I followed them both down the hallway to the door. Mom stopped in her tracks when she saw the woman on the porch. She turned to Dad, but he just frowned back at her. I hid in the living room on the couch.
“Oh hi, Susan. May I ask what’s up?” Dad said in the most polite way possible at that time.
Susan? Who was Susan?
“I am here for Teddy. I would like him back without questioning,” the strange woman stated firmly.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at home with your husband, Susan?” Dad questioned disregarding the woman’s request. “He needs your aid, doesn’t he? He specifically gave me Teddy for the time being. Teddy is completely safe here with us.”
“Where is my Teddy? I want my cat back!”
“How did you know where we lived?” Mom inquired.
“Those matters are of no importance,” the lady retorted. “Now I would like to have Teddy back, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, we mind!” Dad’s voice was almost at a shout. “Tom needs someone to take care of the cat so that you can take care of him. Now please just leave us alone. It’s awfully early in the morning.”
The mysterious lady stared at Mom and Dad awkwardly for a long time. Her eyes were full of grudge and her eyebrows were scrunched together. Then she left—just like that. No last words, no nothing. She slowly stepped down the porch steps and wandered down the street. I watched her out the window for some time. She didn’t even look back as she disappeared around the corner of Strawberry Street.
“Is she a neighbor?” I asked Dad.
“No,” Dad replied. “She lives across town. Don’t answer the door if it rings in the morning, okay, son? I wouldn’t be surprised if she came back.”
“Who is she?”
“She’s the wife of my friend who owns Teddy. Try to forget about her. She just misses Teddy, that’s all.”
“But why didn’t she drive here?”
“Stop asking your father silly questions and get breakfast,” Mom ordered.
I poured myself a bowl of cereal, keeping my eyes on the window. What if she does return? I thought to myself. What if she comes at night? I began to scare myself, but realized how ridiculous it was. She was just a person who wanted her cat back. Why was I so frightened by her?
By the end of the day I had forgotten about the strange lady who knocked on the door that morning. But just as I was slipping underneath the bed covers I saw headlights flash outside my window. The sound of a car was near. I didn’t think much of it— that is, until vicious pounding came on the door. I snuggled up tight in my bed, shivering. I heard one of my parents stomp down the hall and open the front door.
“It is very late at night! Why are you here?” It was my dad’s voice. He sounded aggravated.
“I would like my cat back now. Tom is fine. I can take care of him and the cat.”
“Please! Tom would’ve called if he was ready to take Teddy back. I am totally capable of taking care of your cat for a few weeks.”
“I am afraid I will not allow such things! I must have Teddy back right this minute.”
“I will call the cops if you furthermore disturb my household. Please leave.” I couldn’t believe the patience in my dad’s voice.
Then I heard the slamming of the door. Dad came stomping back down the hall and back in bed.
“God, I hate that woman! She must not understand how ridiculous she is,” he complained.
It wasn’t long after that before I heard him snoring. All was quiet again.
Another week flew by, but without a single trace of the strange woman. It seemed that everyone forgot about her. It nearly slipped my mind completely, but she came back yet again.
Only this time, it was in the form of a letter in the mailbox. Mom went out one day to retrieve the mail, and came back to the house with a letter that had no return address. But when Dad read the letter, it was obvious the writing had come from the woman. The letter read:
I wish to tell you that I am very upset that you will not give me back my cat! This is one of my last warnings before I call the police. My husband is no longer ill! He wishes to have the cat back. I must inform you that you have until tomorrow to give Teddy back. I will be dropping by to pick him up. I wish for you to please hand him back. I am asking nicely. I’ll see you soon.
Things were really starting to get weird now. Mom had the idea to call the cops, but Dad decided it would be best to just surrender. Early the next morning she came. She pounded on the door. I glanced out my window to see her car parked in the driveway. I noticed a pale, chubby man sitting in the passenger seat. I watched as Dad made his way to the car, stuck his head in the window, and spoke to the man. I was unable to hear what he was saying, but I honestly didn’t want to know. Then Dad left the car and came back to the house. The mean woman marched to the car from my house with a box. I knew exactly what was in the box.
And that was the last time I ever saw Teddy.
By late August the leaves on the trees were crisp and golden, and the skies were clear blue. Every day seemed hotter than the last. Mosquitoes were much more numerous this time in the summer.
I hadn’t seen Betsy at all since the incident with Teddy. She was off in her own busy world across the street, doing whatever. Once in awhile I stared out my window at her car taking off, or her girlfriends entering the house. She actually had a life. I was stuck at home as a loner. My main purpose in life was to watch Amber, who was growing up too fast. She was already beginning to learn words. Now that she could talk, I didn’t find her as cute as before.
But one Sunday, the day before the first day of school, Mom and Dad suggested that I invite Betsy on an evening stroll in the park downtown. As I expected, she accepted the invitation happily. She came over and we waited on the porch while Mom strapped Amber into her car seat.
“Is it Brook Park?” Betsy asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied unenthusiastically.
“I hope so! That’s my favorite park ever! I had my birthday there one year. That was so much fun!”
We hopped into the car and took off to the park with Cameron, Conner, and Amber. Betsy sat on the right side of Amber’s car seat. The entire car ride she made silly faces at Amber, which made Amber giggle. Amber tried to mumble “Betsy”, but all she could get out was “Bus”.
“It’s okay, Betsy,” I assured Betsy, who was saying her name over and over again for Amber. “She pronounces my name as, ‘Rain’.”
Then we both laughed as Amber mumbled, “Rain.” She pointed at me as if in deep thought. Her cheeks were chubby and her lips opened slightly. She said, “Brudda.”
“I am your brother,” I chuckled.
We arrived at Brook Park. Betsy and I moved to the back of the van to retrieve Cameron and Conner. Conner barked noisily, while Cameron wagged his tail in excitement. They were both anxious to be there.
“Which one do you want to walk?” I asked Betsy.
“I’ll take Cameron.”
I handed her the leash. We walked the trail that led through the forest, near the brooks. As we neared the water, Betsy pounced onto a rock and sat there intently. Cameron wagged his tail and nuzzled his nose into the water. I joined Betsy by jumping onto a rock beside her. The sound of water clashing onto the rocks, near and far, was mesmerizing and calming. I found it so tranquil. Amber was intently gazing at the water. Apparently she enjoyed the constant flow of white noise. Everybody seemed to love it. Even the dogs, who were splashing in the cool water, seemed content as ever. Mom took many pictures of Betsy and me playing in the water. I pushed Betsy in purposely and splashed her. She screamed. She was about to do the same with me, but Mom saved my skin by warning us that we could crack our heads on rocks and such.
After we hiked the trail that circled the brooks, Betsy and I played on the swings and climbed all around the playground. We chased each other around and had an overall good time. As the sun began to set, Betsy was shivering a bit from the cold water. Mom and Dad advised that we’d better leave because the next day was school and Amber was getting fussy for bedtime.
I had an awful gut feeling about school starting up again—as I had every year—but I knew I would see my good old friends again. The thought of it was so wonderful. I hated school, but at the same time I really wanted to see my friends. I felt ready for a new year.
The following morning, Betsy was going to meet me on my porch. Mom fixed me a PB and J sandwich for lunch, stuffed it in my tin lunch box, and gave me a good-bye hug. Then she told me to have a fun first day of fourth grade. I assured her I would, even though I was a little nervous.
“Ready?” Betsy asked as I left the house.
We hurried up the big hill to the bus and boarded. Betsy found her friend, Lisa, sitting in the front by an empty seat, so she took the seat. Rosy rushed to the back, with all the older kids—the scary sixth graders. The sixth grade class huddled in the back like a huge pack of wolves.
“Ryan!” It was the familiar voice of a long lost friend I hadn’t seen in forever.
I turned to the left and found Mike in the third row of the bus. I dashed to where he was and we did a secret hand shake we’d made up at that moment.
“Dude, where’ve you been all summer? All of us buddies got together during summer, but you never joined. What’d you do all summer?”
“Yeah, where were you?” Jamison butted in.
“My parents worked all summer,” I responded impatiently. It just didn’t seem fair that I couldn’t see my friends while they had the best summer. It sucked.
“So…?” Tyler put in.
“So, how am I gonna get anywhere when my mom isn’t around?” I finished.
“You could always ride your bike down to my place,” Jessica suggested. “That’s what we do all around town anyways.”
It sounded like a fun plan to me, but the past was the past.
We arrived at school. I followed my group of friends to the window of the office building, where the room numbers of our classrooms were located. Room forty-three was the fourth grade classroom.
Mr. Rogers was the fourth grade teacher. He was a pudgy man and wore a tight belt and glasses. His rosy cheeks made us all laugh as we entered the room. He glared at us furiously, but learned to ignore after awhile. The first time my eyes met Mr. Rogers, I had assumed that he was going to be a very strict teacher. But that was not the case at all. He allowed us to pick our own seats and there were no rules posted on the walls like all the other classrooms.
The desks were placed in groups of four. Unfortunately, my group of friends couldn’t fit in four seats, but Jamison, Jessica, Mike, and I sat together. I didn’t even notice when Betsy tried to find a seat near me. Mr. Rogers said that the seats were for us to have all year. However, when the first semester had ended, Mr. Rogers insisted that we put the desks in rows rather than in groups. I wasn’t too happy about that, but at least I was able to sit next to all my friends again.
Betsy chose the seat right behind mine. During class she picked at the hairs on the back of my head and drew unknown pictures on my neck with Sharpies. I asked everyone around me what the heck she was drawing, but they all laughed. Finally I couldn’t take it any longer. I found a new seat in the corner of the room. Of course, Betsy had to follow me.
“What is your problem?!” I finally managed to shout out one day as Betsy pulled at my hair. It happened to be in the middle of class. The entire class heard me and hushed. Several eyes were fixed on me. I felt the blushing coming on and wanted so badly to smack Betsy in the face or pull her hair.
Mr. Roger’s sent me outside for shouting out in the middle of his lesson. At recess that day I wanted to kill Betsy.
“Why do you find it so fascinating scribbling and pulling on my hair in class?” I questioned angrily.
She just giggled at me with the rest of her friends.
“You’re just jealous that you’re not in the same group of friends as me!” I exclaimed. “You’re not popular!”
“Popular? Who would want to be popular?” And she left with her small group of friends. After that day, she refused to pull my hair and draw on my neck anymore.
As the months dragged into February, I wondered why it hadn’t rained since November. The skies were always gloomy, the mornings always crisp, but what the heck had happened to the rain? Every recess and lunch I’d run out to the playground and stare up at the dark clouds hovering above, praying that rain would fall.
“You can do it, little clouds,” I mumbled. “Please rain!”
I didn’t think much of the unusual lack of rainfall—that is, until the CONSERVE WATER sings popped up everywhere in the heart of town. The sprinklers for the front lawn stopped going off and the lawn slowly began to die. Mom’s garden became sickly and soon perished as well. Mr. Rogers gave continuous lessons on the conservation of water, which were laborious and put us all to sleep each time. I’d have to say—being in a drought sucked.
The days slipped away and the months disappeared one by one. The rain still refused to fall. Rumors spread throughout school campus that the end of the world was soon to come because of the drought. For awhile I believed the rumors and became frightened. But then it grew old and the very thought of the world ending slipped from everyone’s mind.
Finally, spring break was on its way. I was pretty much jumping out of my seat the last day of school. Everybody was happy for a break, but I knew that nobody was as excited as I was. I was all too nervous, impatient, and jittery to sit still in my seat as Mr. Rogers cruelly forced us to sit and wait for the final bell to ring.
“Can’t you let us out early?” I begged anxiously.
“You are in fourth grade!” Mr. Rogers said matter-of-factly. “You can wait a couple more minutes for the bell to ring. When you reach middle school, you will never be able to leave class early.”
Then the beautiful sound of the bell permeated. Everybody jumped up, but I sprinted past everyone. Jessica stopped me by grabbing my shoulder.
“Hey, my friends and I are all going biking downtown. Do you wish to come?” Jessica was standing by all her popular friends. My guy friends were also there.
“I can’t! My mom is picking me up directly after school because we have to be at the airport in a half hour.”
“Airport?!” Jessica gasped astounded. “Where are you going?”
“Hawaii,” I said proudly. “My first time ever going!”
“You’re going to Hawaii?! How come you haven’t told us anything?”
“I don’t know. Look, I’ve got to go! Bye you guys.”
I dashed out the classroom door. The shouts of my friends became very distant as I quickly made my way to the parking lot. They were all throwing questions at me like, “When are you coming back?” Then I heard Jessica scream, “You’re so lucky!” Their voices grew faint as I left them all at the bus stop. The last words I heard were, “Bye, Ryan!” I was too excited to think about my friends.
“Good-bye, Lakewood,” I whispered to myself as I hopped into the van.
It took me some time to notice Arizona’s absence on the bus. I was too busy laughing and talking with my friends that I hadn’t even realized the lack of obnoxious behavior Arizona usually displayed on the bus on the way home. In fact, it caught me by surprise when I saw that Arizona wasn’t a part of his large group of popular friends. For the strangest of reasons, I was actually curious about where Arizona had gone.
When the bus came to a stop I gathered enough courage to walk up and face the most popular girl of the class—Jessica. I knew she would know where Arizona was. They were like best friends.
“Hey, Jessica,” I called. “Do you know where Ar—Ryan went?” I couldn’t believe how much of a habit it was for me to call Ryan “Arizona”.
Jessica and all her popular friends glared at me with blank expressions.
“Why do you care?” Jessica questioned haughtily.
“Uh, he’s my neighbor,” I snapped back in a stuck-up tone. I didn’t realize how harsh it sounded till after it came out.
The popular kids exchanged surprised glances.
“He’s going to Hawaii,” Jessica replied grudgingly. “There, you happy?”
“Thank you,” I mumbled.
The remaining time on the bus was extremely awkward between us. When the bus finally reached my neighborhood, I jumped off as soon as possible and raced home, nearly in tears. Lisa shouted good-bye after me, but I ignored her. Why hadn’t Arizona told me he was leaving for the entire week? Was he keeping it a secret from me on purpose, or were we just distant from each other and he didn’t think to tell me anything anymore?
I finally decided that it didn’t matter to me anymore. Anything dealing with Arizona didn’t matter. Why was it so difficult for me to let him out of my life? I desperately needed to get over him. He was a popular kid now, and popular kids were mean—to me at least. I wanted to run up to my room and block the world out. Arizona was on his way to a paradise while I was stuck at home thinking about how he failed to tell me he was even going. I felt lonely. Rosy’s friend, Kayla, was even over for the night.
I hid in my room the rest of the day, listening to Kayla brag about her new Blackberry next door in Rosy’s room. Rosy was bursting out in laughter every ten seconds. They’re so loud, I thought to myself. Rosy’s having so much fun. Why can’t I have a friend over? Then I thought angrily to myself, because I didn’t ask! Why am I too stupid to even ask for a friend over? Is it because I was relying on Arizona to be available?
I found myself struggling to keep back tears. This was certainly a bad day for me. Every time Rosy burst out laughing, it made me angrier inside. I wanted to bury my head in my pillow. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run into Rosy’s room and tell her to shut up.
Then I realized how hungry I was. Perhaps that was the reason I was so mad at the moment. I hadn’t eaten since lunch time! I made my way downstairs to the kitchen and scavenged for something to eat.
“Rosy!” I called loudly. “Can you make me some Mac ‘n Cheese?”
There was a long moment of silence. Finally I heard a door open and the stomping of feet. Rosy and Kayla appeared at the top of the staircase.
“It’s bout time you learn how to make it yourself, Betsy!” Rosy groaned. “You’re ten years old!” Rosy stomped down the stairs.
“But you have to watch me while Mom’s gone,” I retorted. “Besides, you have a friend over.”
“What does that have anything to do with you learning to make your own food?” She stormed into the kitchen and began to make my Mac ‘n Cheese.
At least I got my sister to make me a snack.
The following week was slow, boring, and filled with heaps of homework. Easter came and went. Something about Easter just wasn’t fun anymore. I began to understand that there was no Easter bunny. No white rabbits dropping eggs all over the yard. I finally came to the realization that it was an absurd idea. How could a rabbit hand Easter eggs out to children? Rabbits didn’t even talk. Now Easter was all about family and Sunday school. After Easter had passed, I tried hard to invite friends over. Nobody wanted to come, except Jaime. She was so close to coming over, until her mom decided she needed to finish up some chores. Finally I gave up on asking people to visit me. I watched every day as Rosy went about her wild life, having friends over constantly. I felt neglected. I guess it was time to get serious with my homework. Mr. Rogers was good about piling on projects during break.
It rained the second to last day of spring break. I awoke early Saturday morning to a calming and refreshing sound—the putt-puttering of raindrops on the roof. It was a very calm and steady rainfall. It had been a long time since the last rainfall. For the first half of the morning I just stared blankly out my window at the dark clouds. I imagined myself twirling about in a long skirt, allowing the rain to drench my hair and weigh down my clothes. I saw myself dancing in the fresh, spring morning, hearing the songbirds chirp in celebration of the rain.
I began to doze off again when I heard the faint sliding of a van door. I could’ve sworn it was coming from across the street. My eyes opened, and I glimpsed Arizona and his family making their way from the van to the house. I stood out of bed and glared out my window, spying on the one person I hadn’t seen all week—the one person whom I couldn’t decide if I was mad at or not. Why would I hold a grudge against my best friend? Yes, he was my best friend.
I slipped jeans and a jacket on and quietly made my way out the door. I could hardly believe how early it really was. The sun had barely begun to rise and nobody in my family was awake yet—except for me, of course.
“Arizona! Arizona!” I ran at him before he entered his house.
He had a lei wrapped around his neck and looked to be way more tan than before. He had bags underneath his eyes from exhaustion.
“How was your time in Hawaii?” I questioned.
“Super fun,” Arizona responded. “But now I’m so tired.”
I laughed. “I’ll bet! Did you have a nice Easter?”
“We didn’t do anything besides swim.”
I watched as he dragged his suitcase to the house before it got too wet from the rain. When he reached his porch, he turned towards me.
“Why can’t you give me a small break?” he asked. “I need to unpack and get some rest! It’s eight in the morning.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “I just wanted to welcome you back. And—well, I was wondering why you didn’t tell me you were going.”
“Oh, come on, Betsy!” he shrugged. “I didn’t tell anyone, not even my best friends at school. I didn’t even know I was going to Hawaii till the day before. It was a total surprise.”
“Yes, Betsy. I’m going inside now. I’ll see you some other time this weekend, okay?”
“Well, I don’t know for sure. I’d like to get a start on my homework. Shoot! I only have today and tomorrow to do it all!”
Then he slammed the door behind him. I stared at his porch and front door for a moment before turning back to my house. The clouds were parting. I saw blue sky and rays of sun blaring down. It was a beautiful sight.
I slowly made my way across the street, wondering if I’d have a chance to hang out with Arizona before school started up again. I found myself stopping at my own porch. I didn’t want to go back inside the house. I wanted to smell the fresh earth as it soaked up the little bit of rainfall. I sat down on my porch steps and waited for the morning to pass.
By noon Arizona finally left his house and met me at my porch. I was happy to see him. He told all the wild stories about his trip to Hawaii. He explained how he couldn’t believe that the water could be so warm and the beaches so beautiful and calming.
“I wish I was still there,” he said solemnly. “I don’t want to go back to school Monday. I wish it were summer.”
“I do too,” I agreed. “Well, if you think about it, it is almost summer, you know. “Just two months.”
“Just two months? That is going to take forever! I hate school. The only good thing about it is friends.”
“Yeah, but we could hang out together during the summer,” I said.
“I want to do something this summer though. I am so sick and tired of the usual, you know what I mean?”
The rest of the day dragged on. We talked and laughed and played. Then by evening, Arizona was called in and I didn’t see him again the rest of the weekend. I knew that after that day, he was going to be his usual self again, the way he was with all his friends from school.
Sunday snuck by like the blink of an eye. Then we were in school again. We were back into the same old routine of Mr. Rogers’ fourth grade class.
Everything went downhill after spring break. The school year was wrapping up. Summer was on its way.
Arizona became less and less a part of my life, and became more involved with the popular group. Whenever he was around Jessica and the other kids, he put on a different act. He was no longer the same person I had met that one summer morning he moved in across the street. He had changed into a rude, obnoxious preppy. He acted crude and crass. All his friends loved him. They all laughed at his ridiculous behavior. They all made unclean jokes, gossiped, and became more and more rebellious during class. And worst of all, Arizona was the center of attention when it came to the girls. Jessica and her friends were dominating and constantly blabbed on about who-knew-what whenever they were around him. It was overwhelming to watch my friend become one of them. It was painful, and it left a sense of rejection inside of me. I wanted so badly to walk up to him and say, “What about me? Wasn’t I your friend in the beginning?” I guess it really was time for me to move on with my life.
Every Saturday I watched from my bedroom window as friends entered Arizona’s house and activities were constantly taking place. All day I just sat and watched as Arizona actually had a life. Once in a while I would see Jessica enter his house, and felt a sudden loneliness. I kept trying to tell myself to get over him, but I couldn’t. I was bored and my friends had busy lives that didn’t involve me in any way. I was jealous, and my jealousy was keeping me from having my own life apart from Arizona.
The last pages of the fourth grade were finally turning. The warm days of June came in welcomed. Everybody was excited and hyped up for the summer—everybody except Arizona. Since I hadn’t been around him much anymore I wasn’t sure what had gotten into him, but I knew something was up. The last week of school was party time, but strangely, Arizona stayed clear his friends. It was a rare sight to see him away from Jessica and all the other preppies. I began to wonder if anything between them had happened. To be quite honest, I was curious. I couldn’t help but sit next to Arizona in class. Since it was party week, anybody could sit wherever they wished. Arizona was in the back. I found a desk directly adjacent to him.
“How come you’re not with all your friends?” I asked.
“What friends?” He sounded mad.
“All the popular people,” I said.
“Oh, those friends,” he smirked. “For one thing, they are way too stuck-up for me. The girls are too preppy. I just can’t stand it anymore! And for another thing, they’re gettin’ me into deep trouble. I don’t think it’s such a good idea to hang out with them anymore.”
“Wait, so you’re saying they’re not your friends anymore?”
“Yep. That’s what I’m saying.”
“Since when did you decide this?”
“Yesterday,” he replied.
I was happy, but at the same time sad for him. There was a pause. Finally I mumbled, “I’ll still be your friend.”
He looked up at me and smiled. “Okay,” he said.
It was summer. The earth was cracked and thirsted for rain. Hope for rain this time of year during a drought was like hope for snow in the desert. In other words, it was simply not going to rain for a long time.
The town’s main concern was the fires. The first fire occurred late June, not too far from Lakewood. South of Lakewood was a little town called Shadow Brook. Apparently the fire began when a young man threw his cigarette out of his car window while driving a country road. An entire field blew up in flames just like that and nearly spread to the heart of town. Luckily, the fire was contained and put out a few days later after intense labor by fire-fighters. The fire was shown all over the news, scaring everybody who lived in or near the town of Shadow Brook. It was known as the biggest fire in the area yet since 1975. The second fire was in a town north of Lakewood, known as Dunesdale. It wasn’t nearly as huge as the first fire, but it was closer to Lakewood. How the fire began, nobody knew. But luckily, it was put out all in one day. Two fires within a couple weeks meant bad news. However, between the two fires, only one building burned down, and it was an old warehouse that had apparently been abandoned before.
Mom was all worried about a fire starting up in backcountry. It was pretty dry back there. But Arizona and I prayed it wouldn’t catch fire because our tree house was in backcountry. That was basically the only thing we cared about.
One evening, Arizona’s mother asked us to take Amber on a walk around the block with the dogs. Amber was a big girl now. I couldn’t believe how big she was becoming. She could walk, talk, and she laughed often. She had learned to say my name.
“Betsy!” she squealed every time she saw me. I guess I was like an older sister to her.
We took Amber in the stroller. She pointed at random objects and screamed out what they were called so that the whole world could hear. During our walk she pointed in the distance and shouted, “Fire!” Arizona and I both looked in fear. I nearly panicked.
“Just kidding!” Amber giggled. “No fire.”
“That is not funny!” Arizona scolded.
We walked in silence for a while longer. Even in the evening the heat pounded down on us. There was a slight breeze, which felt wonderful.
We came upon the gate with the NO TRESPASSING sign. We stopped to peer passed the gate at a dry, barren land. The ground was as bone dry as a desert. I thought about how very possible it was for a fire to start up in such a parched place. How horrible it would be if a fire really did begin. I decided not to dwell on such thoughts.
“Hey, Betsy—” Arizona began.
“—it’s been so long since we’ve seen the tree house. I wonder what it looks like.”
“I do too.”
“Tree house?” Amber blurted out. “Can I see? I like tree houses.”
Arizona and I exchanged glances. We had never thought about taking Amber to our secret place.
“When does it get dark?” I asked.
“I don’t know what time it is now, but I don’t think it gets dark for another while.”
“Should we show Amber what the tree house is?”
We both glared down at little, innocent Amber, who was sitting in the stroller contently.
“Well?” I said impatiently.
“Well, how are we going to get the stroller over the gate? And what about the dogs? I don’t think it’s a good time to take Amber.”
“But I wanna see the tree house!” Amber burst out. “I wanna see the tree house, Rain!”
I glanced at Arizona. “She still calls you Rain?” I questioned curiously.
Arizona chuckled. “I don’t know why, but she can’t say the word ‘Ryan’ for the life of her.”
“I wanna go to the tree house!” Amber continued. “Take me to the tree house!”
“We can’t go!” Arizona cried out frustratingly. “Not now. Some other day.” Then he looked at me. “C’mon, Betsy. Let’s get out of here before she starts to cry.”
So we headed back for home.
The following day, news of a new fire spread. This time the fire was in Lakewood, but fortunately it was nowhere near our neighborhood. It was closer to downtown, where mostly everyone was. The haze caused by the smoke was so thick that it looked like fog, and the smell was so clear and so suffocating that I couldn’t stand outside without coughing.
“Mom, will the fire come up here?” I asked worriedly.
“I don’t know, dear. I just don’t know. Let’s hope it doesn’t, okay?”
Late that afternoon Arizona came pounding on my door, as if there was some kind of emergency. When I opened it he was jumping up and down in excitement.
“Betsy, do you want to go to backcountry to the tree house and see if we could spot the fire from up high?” He sounded extremely thrilled, as if he was dying to see the fire in person rather than on the news like we’d been doing.
“Oh, sure! You’re mom doesn’t mind?”
He stared at me blankly for a split second. “I don’t think she knows I’m even out of the house.”
I didn’t care so much. I thought his idea was quite interesting, and would be fun. It was fun taking risks once in awhile. Besides, the fire wasn’t too close, was it?
“Mom, Arizona and I are going on a walk!” I called. I wasn’t sure where Mom was, nor Rosy.
I heard a distant response from upstairs. “Where’re you going, dear?”
“Just on a walk.”
“Oh, alright. Please don’t go too far. I want you back in a half an hour.”
Arizona and I raced down the street at sprints. The air was so thick with smoke, it was unreal. There was an unpleasantly clear odor to the smoke that made us both choke as we made our way around the neighborhood to backcountry. It was not the kind of pleasing scent that came from a campfire. It was strong, powerful, and undoubtedly unlikeable. It took quite some time for me to get adjusted to the smell.
It wasn’t long before we found our tree house. It had been too long since our last visit. The cob webs were berserk—what a surprise—and the brush made it nearly impossible to find the tree house in the first place. But we didn’t care much about the maintenance of our tree house at the time. We were both reluctant to see the monstrous flames of the fire.
I boosted myself up as high as I could in the oak tree. All I could see were the tops of the other hundreds of oak trees surrounding. Arizona passed me up and nudged himself in between the two highest branches of the tree.
“Climb higher, Betsy!”I heard Arizona shout. “I can really see the fire from here. It’s—it’s a beast!”
“I can’t climb higher, Arizona! I’m afraid of heights. You should know that about me by now!”
Arizona ignored me after that. His head popped out of the top of the tree. There were too many leaves for me to see his face, but I heard him continuously comment.
“That is a HUGE fire! Gees. That thing is frightening! I hope it doesn’t spread to up here. It’s fire land here at backcountry.”
I listened to his comments for what seemed like an eternity before he finally climbed back down. His face was all sweaty as if it had been up to the fire itself.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to boost you up?” he asked. “It’s a perfect spot between those branches. You can see everything from there.”
“I actually think we should head back,” I encouraged. “My mom didn’t want us gone too long, and your mom doesn’t even know you’re out.”
“True,” Arizona agreed.
As we made our way back, I asked questions about the fire.
“Did you see any fire-fighters?”
“No. We’re too far to actually see details. I just saw the fire itself—well, the top of the flames at least.”
“And they were huge?”
“Oh, they were monster! I can’t believe there’s a fire in town. It’s just so totally awesome!”
“I don’t think so,” I replied, startled at his comment. “For all we know, people could be dying in the flames right now as we speak.”
“Oh, c’mon, Betsy. You have to admit that it’s a little cool somewhat.”
“I didn’t see the fire myself, Arizona. I don’t really think it’s all that cool though.”
“Why not?” Arizona was really beginning to get all fired up about the fire.
“I don’t think fires are all that great unless they’re under control,” I stated.
We made it home in time for dinner. Mom invited Arizona over for dinner. He talked about the fire all the rest of the evening.
In total, three fires occurred in the area before the Fourth of July. Because of that, fireworks were banned from Lakewood and several nearby towns. It was a real bummer to hear, especially since I loved fireworks, but it wasn’t worth the risk of another fire.
Mom made Rosy and I watch the news of the fire.
The outcome of the fires wasn’t too terrible, besides the fact that property and land was damaged. During the fire in Shadow Brook, ten acres of field were burned, but that was it. During the fire of Dunesdale, only the empty, abandoned warehouse was harmed. Everything else was pretty minor. However, the worst damage happened in Lakewood. Ten people were injured by the fire, and rushed off to the hospital. One house was burned to the ground; apparently there was an older couple who lived in it. They were out on vacation and returned two days after the fire had taken place, only to find that their house was gone.
But those three fires were the last ones that summer.
The summer was slowly fading away. Arizona and I made the best of it because we both knew it wasn’t going to last much longer. It seemed the older we became, the shorter summer was.
But once in awhile I visited the tree house alone, without Arizona. Sometimes it was nice to have alone time, sucking up as much fresh air as possible and taking in the beauty of nature. It was so tranquil, peaceful, and serene at the tree house. Sometimes I took my sketch book with me and stayed for hours. But other times I just thought; I thought about what it would be like when we returned to school, wondering if Arizona was ever going to be friends with the preppies again. I thought about how close I was to middle school, and how time flew too fast. Time just slips away like the many grains of sand slipping from someone’s fist.
Early September was my least favorite time of the year. It was the time in which everything about summer had vanished—daylight savings time, no school, and warm weather. Autumn came blowing in with the clouds and unpleasant, crisp winds. Mom began shopping for my back-to-school clothes, school supplies, and what not. September brought a sickly feeling of good-bye, summer.
But you can’t stop time. The first day of school came just like that.
Betsy was pretty much my only friend. I decided to give my world of friendship a brand new and fresh start. Why did I even get myself involved with those mean kids? I had noticed a drastic change in Jessica’s attitude before summer. She was becoming a mean girl, and so were all her other friends. And for my guy friends—well, let’s just say they were too obsessed with Jessica’s group of friends. I knew in my heart I would never again be friend with that group of kids.
From the start of the school year, I knew my fifth grade year was going to be interesting. The teacher was Ms. Glinford, a rather tall woman, maybe in her fifties. She had red, wavy hair with some gray strands, brown eyes, and wore a jeans skirt. Her face was freckled and pale. I wasn’t sure what, but there was something about her that bothered me just a hair. Maybe it was the way she talked. She had a steady, emotionless tone to her voice, almost like a monotone. Or maybe it was the way she looked into my eyes as I walked into the room for the first time. Her piercing, brown eyes were penetrating and it seemed like she stared into the deepest depths of my head when she looked at me. It was simply weird; she was simply weird. I couldn’t quite pin-point why she was so strange to me. All I knew was that she was strange.
So it was the start of my fifth grade year. I wondered what would come my way.
Months came, months went. As soon as the month of December hit, the mornings became frosty and the afternoons became chilly. It rained quite often now. In fact, it was all over the news that there was a high chance it might snow in Lakewood for the first time in fifty years.
It was Christmas Eve. I awoke just as the sun began to rise and peeked out my window. My eyes nearly popped from my skull when I saw that everything was white. A beautiful, white blanket of snow covered the earth! The lawn was white, the streets were white, and the rooftops were white! Little white specks continued to fall from the sky. It was my first time ever seeing snow in real life—it was absolutely gorgeous. Growing up in Phoenix, this was by far the most incredible sight I had ever seen in my life. It was snowing!
Without hesitation I raced out of bed, screaming, “Mom! Dad! Amber! Wake up! It’s snowing!” My heart raced with utter excitement. I couldn’t help but run outside. I didn’t think about how cold it would be. I didn’t care. I wanted to feel the snow; I wanted to play in it like they did in the movies. I scrambled outside with my bare socks. The cold didn’t bother me at all. I couldn’t believe it was actually snowing. It was nothing but a miracle!
It wasn’t long before Betsy and Rosy raced from their house. They were both wearing jackets over their pajamas and they both had rain boots on. Betsy skipped to where I was on my lawn. She scooped up a pile of snow with her bare hands and chucked it at me before I even had time to think. She giggled and continued to pelt me with snowballs. Rosy joined her side. I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t successfully hit her in return. All three of us were laughing.
Betsy decided to make a snowman. I joined her by rolling two giant balls of snow together. Then I ran inside to grab a carrot for the nose, and a broom. Amber had just woken up. She was standing in the hallway with her teddy bear.
“What are you doing?” she asked tiredly.
“Amber, it’s snowing! We’re making a snow man. Do you want to come?”
“It’s snowing?! I want to make a snowman!”
“Okay.” I led Amber back to her room to retrieve a jacket and warm shoes for her. Then we both ran out together.
When the snowman was completed, Amber named him Frosty. Then Betsy’s mother called us all in for breakfast. We watched the news on the weather while we ate our pancakes and bacon. Apparently it was supposed to snow all throughout the day. But towards evening there was risk of a blizzard.
“Oh, no!” Betsy’s mother exclaimed. “We may not be able to drive to your sister’s house for dinner.” She was talking to Betsy’s father.
“Oh, man! This is crazy.” Betsy’s dad said disappointedly.
“But we like it!” Betsy shouted out loud. “Isn’t this weather exciting, guys?”
By noon a heavy wind picked up. The weather was getting too wild for any of us to play outside anymore. Amber and I stayed over at Betsy’s house. For awhile, we all—Betsy, Rosy, Amber, and I—glared out the window at the snow falling rapidly. We watched as it quickly covered the ground till nothing could be seen except the white cover. The snow became so thick that none of us could see passed three feet. After that point, we lost interest in looking at the snow. So we spent the remaining of the day watching Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reign Deer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman. Amber and I also helped Betsy’s family decorate the Christmas tree. (Amber was too short to reach anything, so she handed me candy canes while I put them on the tree.)
By evening, Mom managed to make her way to Betsy’s porch without being swallowed by the blizzard. She talked with Betsy’s parents about something. Whatever they were talking about grasped my curiosity. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their conversation.
“…So my husband and I are just pleased to invite your family over for dinner tonight,” my mom said.
“That would be so great of you guys!” Betsy’s mother exclaimed. “We actually had plans to visit Steven’s sister for Christmas Eve dinner, who lives an hour away, but we obviously can’t drive in this weather.” Then she turned to Betsy’s father and asked, “What do you think, Honey?”
“That sounds like a wonderful idea to me.”
So that evening was dinner at my place. I’d have to admit that Mom wasn’t the greatest cook, but I knew she tried, and I learned to appreciate it. She basically made a Thanksgiving dinner of mashed potatoes and gravy, turkey, stuffing, and a side dish of vegetables (yummy, my favorite).
“This is a wonderful dinner, Terry!” Betsy’s mother said as she served herself some turkey. “It’s nice not to have to cook dinner.”
“Yeah,” Mom replied. “Glad you like it…Hey, Ryan, I want you to eat some vegetables, okay? You too, Amber.”
My plate was piled high with turkey mostly. I was hoping I’d get away with not having any vegetable. Just looking at them made me want to puke. Especially the steamed carrots. Yuk! The smell of them was putrid, the consistency was absolutely disgusting, and the taste—well, the taste was just so horrible that nothing could describe it. I couldn’t understand how Mom could ever make vegetables at all, let along steamed carrots. And it was plain torture whenever she forced me to eat them. I collected a couple steamed carrots to put on my plate just to make Mom happy. I knew later I would secretly throw them in the trash. Too bad I couldn’t feed them to one of the dogs while nobody was looking. I remembered when Mom made me tuna sandwiches for lunch every day back in Arizona. They were so nasty that I fed every one of them to Cameron when Mom wasn’t looking. Mom never found out.
During dinner Mom played Christmas music in the background and told stories of previous Christmases. When it came to friends at dinner, Mom was a blab mouth. She talked and talked and talked.
By the middle of dinner, Amber grew restless. She climbed out of her seat and made her way to the kitchen, where freshly baked cookies were sitting on the counter.
“Mom,” she called.
“Can I set these cookies on a plate with some milk so that Santa Claus can eat them?”
“Sure, dear,” Mom responded. “Let me help you.”
Mom left the dinner table and set out a little tray of cookies for Santa Claus.
“This reminds me,” Mom announced. “There is dessert!”
“Oooh…” Everyone gasped.
“Oh, I’m just so full!” Rosy moaned. “But I must have dessert.”
Mom and Dad both cleared the table and made room for the apple pie, ice-cream, and eggnog. Then they sat down, and Mom continued to talk and talk and talk.
I was too stuffed to eat dessert. Instead, I led Amber by the hand to the bookcase beside the Christmas tree. Amber loved books. She especially loved the Christmas ones, like “The Night before Christmas”. In fact, that was probably her favorite one.
Rosy and Betsy gobbled down their desserts as quickly as possible. Then Betsy joined Amber and me as we picked out a Christmas story to read.
“Betsy, can you read me dis one?” As usual, Amber had chosen “The Night before Christmas”.
When Betsy was asked, she burst out with energy and excitement. “Sure, darling!” she chuckled. “Where do you want to read it?”
Amber pointed at the couch. She ran up to it and bounced up onto it with a wide smile across her face. Betsy turned towards me and whispered, “She’s so cute!”
“Yeah, sure,” I responded.
Betsy sat down with Amber in her lap and opened the book. She began, “‘’Twas the night before Christmas…’”
An hour passed by after that. Amber had fallen asleep on the couch after Betsy read to her. Betsy, Rosy, and I were sitting in front of the fireplace, letting the warmth seep into our skin and listening to the cracklings of the flames. It wasn’t before long when the grown-ups cleared the table.
“I think we’d better go before it gets too late,” Betsy’s mother sighed. “And we can’t forget that Santa still has to come.” I barely noticed when she winked at Betsy.
“Oh, okay,” Mom began. “It’s Amber’s bedtime anyways. We are all so happy we could have you over. It was a pleasure.”
“Thank you so much for inviting us!” Betsy’s father exclaimed. “It was wonderful.”
We walked Betsy’s family to the door. As soon as the door was opened, a huge gust of chilling wind rushed in with some snow. I had almost forgotten about the blizzard.
“Will we be able to get across the street?” Rosy questioned worriedly.
“I sure hope so!” Betsy’s mother uttered. “We’ll have to go fast.”
“This weather is crazy isn’t it?” Mom inquired. “Well, have a wonderful Christmas.”
And Betsy and her family were gone. All lights were turned out except the Christmas tree lights. Then all was quiet as a mouse.
I cuddled underneath my bed covers and listened as Mom tucked Amber in next door. She softly whispered something into Amber’s ear—I couldn’t hear what—and gently closed the door. Then her thin figure appeared in my doorway, and she quietly began to tip-toe towards my bed as to not disturb me. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. Then I felt a soft kiss on my forehead, and a couple moments later, heard my bedroom door gently close. I opened my eyes again when I was sure she was gone.
I was tired but curious. For the last couple Christmases, I was almost positively sure Santa Claus really existed. But there was a small voice in my head that asked questions. Does Santa really exist? If so, how does he get around the world in just one night to hand out presents? I had such questions, but at the same time I couldn’t understand where the ringing of bells on the roof came from. Kids at school had constantly told stories of how they heard Santa’s sleigh bells on the roof Christmas Eve night. I myself woke up to the sound of pounding on the rooftop where the chimney was. Of course, it was possible that Mom or Dad could’ve gone out there to make such noises, but I could’ve sworn they’d gone to bed. And there were other evidences that Santa was real. Like all the times that I’d been the first to be awake and find that all the cookies Mom had put on the cookie tray were gone. Of course, Mom or Dad could’ve easily eaten the cookies while I was asleep, but Mom had sworn she was on a diet and Dad didn’t like the kind of cookies we’d always set out for Santa Claus. And other Christmases I heard loud noises coming from the living room in the middle of the night, but also heard Dad snoring. It was hard to decide if Santa Claus was real or not, but I knew that if I stayed up all night and waited, I would surely find out. I refused to give in to my tiredness.
Not too long after Mom left my room, I heard faint whispering outside my door. I had an urge to leave my bed and sneak up to the door, but was afraid they would hear me. So instead, I sat in bed and listened contently to the whispering until it was silent again. That was when I slowly lifted the blankets off myself and crawled out of bed. I tip-toed to the door, listened for a couple minutes, and then slowly and silently pushed my door open. The hinges made a squeaking sound. I stopped and waited a few minutes.
My plan was to see if Mom and Dad were in their room or not. As soon as the door hinges were done making squeaky sounds, I tip-toed into the hallway. Mom and Dad’s room was on the right side of my room. I peeked around and saw that their door was wide open. It was too dark to see anything, but I knew they weren’t in it because they usually slept with their door closed.
I glanced down the hallway and saw the dim glow of a light from the living room. It was so dim and colorful that my first assumption was that it was the lights of the Christmas tree. But there was another dim light glaring from behind the living room. That was where the kitchen was. Perhaps the kitchen light was on.
I silently made my way down the hall. I heard bells ringing softly where the fireplace was. I peeked around the corner of the hallway and saw Dad ringing the bells and Mom placing presents in the stockings. I wasn’t surprised when I did see them. Perhaps I knew all along that there was no Santa Claus.
I was tired and wanted to go back to bed. As I quietly slinked down the hallway and back into my room, I thought about how my childhood was slowly sinking into the past.
The drowning rains of winter slowly became the mild showers of spring. January faded into February, February faded into March, March faded into April, and April faded into May. By the end of May, schooling was the last thing on my mind and graduation was the first. I was a little nervous about graduation, partly because I knew I’d be going to middle school next year, but also for unknown reasons. But at the same time, the thought of graduation was invigorating.
There is a certain time during the school year, usually in June, when you are so excited about summer coming that it’s all you think about. But when summer does come, it shoots off like a rocket and it seems that you spend more time preparing for summer than you do experiencing it. Everybody, including myself, was just so anxious for the year to be over. But I knew summer wouldn’t last long.
Graduation came and went. And then it was summer.
The remaining of June was nothing but boring. Arizona and I cleaned up the tree house in backcountry and spent most of our summer afternoons in it. We talked mostly of our futures. We talked about how it would be weird being in middle school, and of other stuff like that. Once we brought Amber to the tree house. She climbed all over it and told us it was a magical place where a princess secretly lived and waited for her Prince Charming to come and rescue her on a white pony. I thought it was cute, but Arizona laughed behind Amber’s back.
Then June slipped away. It would never return; it’s weird to think that another June would come, but never the same as the last. And that’s the same for all the months.
One hot, July afternoon, while Arizona and I were talking in the tree house, I had an idea. I realized that we had never actually gone further in backcountry. What if there was something else, passed the tree house? What if we followed the forest further?
“Hey, Arizona,” I began, “What do you think is that way?” I pointed at a thicket of oak trees in the distance.
“Probably nothing but trees,” Arizona concluded.
I thought for a moment. “Do you want to check it out?”
He glared at me for the longest time, his brilliant, blue eyes endless in thought. Then a faint smile appeared across his face. “Let’s go,” he replied daringly.
We left the tree house far behind as we made our way to the ends of the oak forest. The brush seemed to get thicker. Arizona took the lead and cleared a path for me.
“What do you imagine is past these trees?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but I’d like to find out if there’s even an end to this forest.”
We hiked for some time when I spotted a clearing ahead. We both ran up to it. There was a tall, wooden fence. As we approached, I heard a soft, beautiful singing voice.
“Arizona, I think someone lives on the other side of this fence! Do you want to check it out?”
Arizona looked at me shyly. “No.” He nodded his head as if not to want anybody to hear.
“Well, wait right here then,” I demanded bossily.
I hoisted myself up onto the top of the fence and swung my legs over as to sit on my butt. I held on with my hands and let my feet dangle.
What I saw on the other side was quite a friendly surprise. My bottom jaw nearly dropped when I saw a girl grooming a grey horse. There was a huge yard with stables for the horse. It reminded me of my grand-parents’ house in South Carolina.
“Hi, there!” I called.
The horse looked up with wide eyes and pointed ears. He jerked at his rope and let out a high, alert whinny with flaring nostrils. For a second I was frightened. The horse didn’t seem as friendly as he was beautiful.
“Shhh! Shhh! It’s okay, boy! It’s alright!” The girl pulled back at the rope.
“I am so sorry! I didn’t mean to frighten your horse.”
“Oh, it’s fine. He’s just not used to seeing people climbing up onto the fence like that.” The girl chuckled. “Where’re you from?”
“Oh, my house is way across the oak forest. I live on Strawberry Street—not sure if you know where that is or not.”
“No idea. You know, you can come down here if you’d like.”
“Oh, sure.” I hopped off the fence gracefully as to not disturb the horse again.
“So, how’d you end up here?”
“I was just exploring around backcountry. I tend to be adventurous every now and then.”
“Backcountry? Is that what they call it? That’s interesting.”
“So, what’s the road you live on?” I asked.
“It’s called Ranch Road; you could probably guess why. We’re not the only ranch out here. About five others are down the road.” Then the girl giggled. “We never introduced each other.”
“Oh, I’m Betsy.”
“Nice to meet you, Laura.”
Laura turned back to her horse. She slid a brush through his thick, wavy mane and began to sing. Her voice was soothing and sweet. Apparently her horse loved it because his eyes closed and his ears pointed down at her. There was something about Laura that seemed…I wasn’t exactly sure. She had a soft voice, not only when she sang, but when she spoke. She had penetrating, blue eyes and long, blonde hair. Her hair nearly reached her waist it was so long.
“I think your horse is pretty,” I said after a long, awkward silence.
She stopped singing and turned towards me, her blue eyes at a long stare. “Thank you,” she responded in her soft voice.
“What’s his name?”
“Silver Dawn. Everyone calls him Dawn though.”
Silver Dawn was an absolutely stunning gelding. He had different shades of black and grey in his coat. His mane and tail were streaked with black, as if an artist had taken a paint brush to them. His eyes were crystal blue in color. His nose was pink with black blotches. Silver Dawn was a drop-dead gorgeous beast.
“So what grade are you going into?” I tried to strike a conversation with Laura. She seemed either shy or preoccupied with Silver Dawn.
She turned towards me once again and replied, almost at a mumble, “Seventh.”
“Really? I’m going into sixth.”
“I’m about to ride,” Laura put in. She glared at me as if expecting some kind of response.
“Okay…” I watched her as she threw the saddle on. Silver Dawn pranced about with anxiety.
“Are you going to watch?” Laura asked awkwardly.
“Is it alright? I love horses. My grandma owns a ranch in South Carolina—”
“Well,” she began, “Dawn and I have our special alone times together…I mean, I have this thing where I can’t stand it if people watch me. You see, I never go in horse shows or competitions because I hate attention thrown on me. It’s all so weird.”
“Oh,” I said disappointedly. “I guess I’ll see you around then.”
“Yeah.” She smiled at me.
I hopped the fence and realized how late it was. I felt bad inside, sort of shameful. Laura didn’t exactly appreciate my presence and Arizona was left all alone for a time that wasn’t even worth it.
“Arizona, I am so sorry! I think we’d better go home.”
No response. There was a sense of loneliness twirling about with the summer wind. The leaves of the oak trees blew together, making a breathing sound. Leaves dropped and spun in circles. Everything seemed lonely in backcountry.
I ran as fast as I could back to the tree house. My heart pounded when I thought I saw Arizona’s figure in the tree house. But when I climbed up the ladder, I saw nothing. My mind was already beginning to play tricks on me. I had one more thought: to go back home and see if he was there.
“Arizona! Arizona!” I called hopelessly.
I made my way across the meadow and back onto the dirt path that ran passed the old man’s shack. The wind was really beginning to pick up now, and it was no cool wind; it was a hot, summer wind that pounded against my head as I ran. I ran all the way home.
Without hesitation, I ran right up to Arizona’s front door and pounded as hard as I could. I almost panicked when a sudden clawing hit the door, but then I realized it was only Cameron and Conner. I knocked again and sat down on the porch steps in a desperate attempt to catch my breath. Arizona is probably safe, I thought to myself. Why am I so worried? Why did I kill myself running back here? What if he’s not even here? I waited in silence for several minutes. I didn’t even know what I was waiting for. Nobody was going to answer the door; that was quite evident. Perhaps I was waiting for Arizona to return from backcountry in search for me. But the longer I waited, the more hopeless I became. The wind whistled and made me anxious. I only had one more solution—to return to backcountry and search. I felt so guilty over it all. It was all because I wanted to meet Laura.
I didn’t wish to run against the wind, so I walked to backcountry. Everything was so lonesome. Every house on every street seemed abandoned. The driveways were empty, the streets were deserted, and even the houses lacked liveliness. Why did summer afternoons have to be so lonely?
I found myself in backcountry and at the tree house once again. The wind had calmed down somewhat.
“Arizona!” I cried out at the top of my lungs. “Arizona!”
I wandered everywhere—back to Laura’s yard, around her yard, and even in random places that I’d never been before. “He’s so stupid,” I said aloud to myself. “Why would he just wander off like that?” It had gotten to the point where I began to blame him.
“Ryan!” It had been a very, very long time since I called him by his real name. “Ryan!”
I was so close to losing hope when I heard a faint cry coming from a far distance. I called out again, and began to run in the direction of the shouting voice. I knew it was him. I just knew it. I sprinted through the oak forest with blind knowledge of where he was.
“Betsy! I am ever so happy that you’ve finally found me!”
It was so sudden that I jumped. Arizona’s nearby voice was like music to my ears.
“I’m up here.”
I turned towards the sky, but saw nothing but oak leaves.
“I’m to the right!”
I was startled to see that Arizona was perched on the last reliable branch of a towering oak tree. The oak tree looked to be twice the size of the tree our tree house was built in. I trembled just by looking at how high Arizona was.
“We have to go!” I called up at him. “It’s getting late.”
“No,” he shouted back down at me. “I can’t!”
“I’m sorry I left you for so long. I honestly lost track of time. Now, can you come down?”
“Betsy, I’M STUCK!! I can’t move my leg!”
Arizona was sitting with his right leg dangling over the branch, but his left leg was nudged in between the branch he was sitting on and another branch forking off.
“How’d you get it stuck?” I inquired.
“I was trying to climb higher when I realized it wasn’t safe to go any higher, and when I tried to turn back, my foot got stuck between the two branches.”
I sighed. “Are you sure it’s stuck?” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Yeah—Betsy, I need help! I’m scared!”
It was so out of character for Arizona to say something like that. He was usually bold and daring, willing to do everything. In fact, that was probably the reason why he was stuck in the tree in the first place.
“Can you take your shoe off?” I asked thoughtfully.
There was no response. I heard low grunting and assumed he was trying to take his shoe off. I waited for some time before he called back down again.
“My shoe is stuck too, Betsy! I can’t do it!”
Sudden fear overcame my mind. What was I to do? I hoped he wasn’t expecting me to climb up there after him. There was no way he could get me to do that.
We were both silent for what seemed like an eternity. Finally I had an idea. The only other solution to getting Arizona out of the tree was to tell a parent. It was too stressful leaving the problem to ourselves.
“I’ll be right back, Arizona!” I yelled up to him. “I’m going to go tell one of our parents that you’re stuck in a tree.”
“Don’t leave me, Betsy!”
“I have to. I’m sorry, but you’re never going to get out of the tree if we don’t do something about it.”
I waited for his response. When there wasn’t one, I left in hopes I’d be able to find my way back home. It took some time, but I finally found the meadow again and the old man’s shack. All was good…so far.
The wind had died down completely. The sun beat down gracelessly, which made me want to cry out of dehydration and anger of being forced to go back and forth between backcountry and home. I was genuinely mad; mad at myself for leaving Arizona to run off and climb a tree, and mad at him for being stupid enough to get his foot stuck between two branches. This was the price I had to pay to be friends with a boy.
Luckily by the time I reached Strawberry Street, things weren’t so lonely anymore. Mom’s car was in the driveway. I raced up to the front door and barged right through it.
“Where have you been, young lady?” Mom was already beginning to bombard me with questions. “I get home from work, and Rosy tells me you’ve been gone all day with your friend. I’m a little disappointed in you!” Then she turned towards Rosy, who was in the kitchen getting a snack. “Rosy, I’m a little disappointed in you for not babysitting your younger sister.”
“Mom, Betsy’s almost twelve year old!” Rosy screamed. “Why can’t she babysit herself?”
Mom glanced at me, then at Rosy, and then back at me again. “I don’t believe this,” she said angrily. “Betsy, you’re grounded. No more seeing Ryan for the rest of the week!”
My eyes swelled up with tears. “Mom,” I sobbed, “I was gone all day because Arizona got stuck in a tree. He needs help getting out.”
Mom looked at me impatiently. “I don’t believe it.” Then her mood suddenly lightened up. “Well, we’d better let his mother know. What tree is he stuck in?”
“A tree in backcountry,” I responded shamefully, wiping away my tears. I’d have to lead show you where.”
I followed Mom across the street to Arizona’s house. It felt almost as if this was my entire fault. May be it was. May be I was the reason why Arizona was sitting at the top of a tree at this very moment, with his foot wedged between two branches. I felt so guilty I wanted to cry again.
Mom pounded on Arizona’s front door. The door swung open almost immediately. It was Arizona’s dad who answered it. He had a shocked expression on.
“What’s up?” he asked. “Where’s Ryan?”
“Betsy just came home to tell me that your son is stuck in a tree,” Mom replied.
“Oh, boy. Well, it’s not the first time he’s been stuck in tree. Where is it?”
“In backcountry,” I mumbled. “I’ll have to lead you there. It’s a bit far away.”
So I got Mom, Arizona’s dad, and Rosy to follow me to the tree. Arizona was still waiting at the top.
“Dad!” he exclaimed hopefully. “Dad, help me out!”
“That is one tall tree,” Arizona’s dad commented. Then he began his climb to meet Arizona.
There wasn’t much I could see from where I was, but I watched what I could. Arizona’s dad reached the spot where Arizona was and began yanking hard at Arizona’s foot. I heard a painful shriek from Arizona and wondered what his dad was doing.
“Dad, my foot is stuck! It hurts!”
His dad climbed back down with a look of dismay written on his face. “I’m gonna have to call someone to get over here and cut Ryan’s shoe off. The branch is too thick for any of us to cut and his shoe is really stuck. Stay here.”
He left, and was gone for almost two hours. Finally he returned with the news that a helicopter was on its way to rescue Arizona from the tree. We were all shocked at how serious this was becoming.
Evening came by the time the helicopter showed up. It took some time before it found the tree Arizona was in. When it did, everyone had to clear because the wind the chopper caused was intense. I felt sorry for Arizona up in the tree. He was in the midst of the wind. It was almost impossible for me to see, but I did see the helicopter hover over the tree and a rope ladder being tossed down. A man with a black suit climbed down and when he got into the tree, I couldn’t see much of anything else. All I knew was that Arizona was finally being freed from the tree.
It was a long wait. Mom grew impatient and demanded that Rosy and I return home. I wanted to see how Arizona was, but Mom promised I could see after he returned home. So I walked home in utter disappointment. By the time I reached Strawberry Street, the helicopter flew directly over head. It was nearly impossible for me to wait for Arizona’s return. It was a little exciting to think that he had to be rescued from a tree by a helicopter!
Mom forced me to stay inside for dinner. I could hardly wait to see how Arizona was doing. Mom said I was still grounded, but I tried to get out of it by making silly excuses.
“He was stuck in a tree!” I explained over and over again. “How was I supposed to get home when I was trying to help my friend get out of a tree?”
“I am going to put restrictions on where you go,” Mom threatened. “No more backcountry. There’s nothing useful over there anyways.”
“But, Mom…!” I honestly didn’t care what Mom told me about backcountry. I just knew she would regret it later and give me permission to go back. There was no doubt about that.
After dinner I raced across the street to Arizona’s house. He opened the door and met me outside on the porch. We sat there talking and laughing and listening to the crickets sing. The whole tree thing was such a maddening and frustrating thing while it was happening, but now that I could look back at it, it was truly a fun memory. I called it Arizona’s Tree Incident.
“So what’d they do—the helicopter people?” I questioned.
“They literally had to saw my shoe off,” Arizona giggled. “Dad said he’d buy me new shoes tomorrow, but in the mean time, I’m shoeless.”
There was a pause.
Finally I said, “I can’t believe you were stuck in a tree. Why’d you do that?”
“Why’d I climb the tree?”
“Yeah, why’d you do that?”
“I was bored, okay, Betsy?”
“How come you didn’t come with me to Laura’s house? She is really nice, and has the most gorgeous horse ever!”
“Laura?” Arizona said quizzically. “So that’s who was singing behind that fence.”
Then Arizona broke the silence again. “Betsy, I don’t like the thought of going up to someone’s house and going into the backyard when you don’t even know who lives in the house. I think it’s a little weird.”
“Oh, but it’s exciting meeting new people,” I groaned.
“Well, I don’t like horses anyways, so I’m glad I didn’t go.”
“How come you don’t like horses?” I inquired.
“They’re too big and scary,” he responded.
“And giant oak trees aren’t?” I couldn’t understand Arizona’s logic.
An evening breeze came. It was a bit chilly. Perhaps the winds were starting up again. I hoped they weren’t. Wind was just about my least favorite thing. It was annoying and messed up my hair.
“I’d better go back home before Mom calls me,” I announced. “She’s been quite angry at me today. She grounded me, Arizona—for the rest of the week.”
“Seriously?” There was a touch of anger in the tone of his voice.
“Yeah, it’s dumb, I know. See ya.”
“Bye,” he sighed.
I fell asleep that night thinking about Arizona’s Tree Incident. It was quite hilarious to think that anybody could get stuck in a tree. At least he did get stuck rather than fall. Arizona lucked out.
The following day was Saturday. It turned out to be the most boring Saturday ever. I couldn’t hang out with Arizona. And it was then that I realized I hadn’t spent a single day of summer without him. No wonder this Saturday was so boring.
By late August I had a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. I had the same feeling every year about this time. It was mostly fear of the unknown, how the next year of school would turn out. But this year was different. This year I was terrified of school—terrified of middle school. I felt insecure about what middle school would bring. I couldn’t understand the concept of lockers, or dressing out for P.E. I was genuinely terrified for my sixth grade year.
Things were a little different the morning of the first day of school. I was not going to meet Arizona at his porch and ride the bus. Mom promised she would help me find my classroom at the middle school. It was going to be a different campus. At least Rosy was at the same school as me. It made me feel a little better. Arizona rode to school with us since his parents were at work and he didn’t want to take the bus alone.
Lakewood Middle School was behind the elementary. It was a rather large campus with trees surrounding and enclosing it. There was no playground, and there was mostly cement everywhere. Nothing about the campus appeared friendly except the front lawn, which was near the parking lot.
We arrived only minutes before the bell was supposed to ring. Everybody was scrambling about furiously in search for their first class. They all looked so old and mature. It scared me to see that some of the oldest girls wore make-up. Rosy didn’t even wear make-up and she was in eighth grade! I didn’t recognize any of my friends, or anybody else. I wondered where all of them were.
Rosy left with her schedule. I watched her as she disappeared into the wild crowd of middle schoolers.
I followed Mom to the office. The principle was a middle-aged lady with glasses resting at the tip of her nose and short, curly hair. She wore a purple blouse.
“My daughter, Betsy, didn’t receive a class schedule in the mail,” Mom told the principle.
“What grade is your daughter?” the principle asked.
“She’s a sixth grader.”
“All sixth graders are to report to the gym.”
That probably explained why I didn’t see anybody from last year wandering around. Arizona and I followed Mom to the gym, which was something new to us. It was huge, and absolutely crowded with sixth graders. Most of them I knew, but a great number of them didn’t look familiar. All the sixth graders sat towards the front of the gym. The adults—I wasn’t exactly sure if they were teachers or what—sat on the benches that lined the inside of the gym.
The bell rang. It was a loud, shrill ring that didn’t sound at all friendly like the elementary bell. Mom wished me well and disappeared out the side door.
“Mom!” I cried out.
There was so much chaos in the gym that it stressed me out. It had only been five minutes since sixth grade began, and I was already beginning to hate it.
“Students, can I get your attention?” It was the vice principle who was speaking into the microphone. He was a tall man in a black suit. Something about him scared me.
It was only a matter of minutes before the entire gym became silent.
The vice principle continued his speech. “Now I know this is your first day of middle school, and most of you may be feeling a little anxious about it…”
By mid-October I had grown completely accustomed to middle school. I had three teachers altogether: Mrs. Kaliphosdty—everyone called her Mrs. K—was my math and science teacher, Mr. Drup was my English and History teacher, and Mr. Milose was my gym teacher.
One October afternoon, Mr. Drup announced that we’d be going on a field trip to the ropes course right before lunch. (His class was the last one of the day). He handed out the permission slips and announced they must be signed and turned in by Friday. Then class was dismissed.
Arizona was with a few friends he had made back in September. They were all pumped up about the idea of a ropes course. I ran up to them and joined in on the conversation.
“I don’t like this,” I told Arizona.
“What’s not to like about it? I totally can’t wait! It’ll be awesome!” Arizona laughed at me as if he was pretending to be oblivious about my fear of heights.
He and his friends ran for the bus. I chased after them and found myself a seat next to Arizona. His mind was set on nothing but the ropes course.
“I’m afraid of heights!” I gasped.
“It’s time for you to overcome your fear of heights,” Arizona put in. “The ropes course is perfect. C’mon. It’ll be so much fun!”
“Yeah, you say that after you got stuck in a tree!” We both cracked up.
Friday came. Everyone turned in their permission slips, including me. I decided I’d have fun even if I refused to do any of the activities.
The ropes course was out in the middle of nowhere, so it seemed. The main street through town led north to another road called Oak Road. It wound deep into an oak forest, which ultimately ended up at the ropes course.
There was a rock climbing wall, a leap of faith, cat walk, and a course through the trees that ended with a zip-line. After instructions were given, everyone scrambled for a spot in the front of the line. My eyes followed Arizona as he raced his friends to the ropes course.
“Betsy, are you really that afraid of heights?” Jaime asked me.
“Yeah. I’ll just watch. I don’t mind.”
“C’mon, you have to try it.”
“Jaime, I get vertigo when I climb to a certain height.”
Then Jaime ran to the cat walk. The cat walk was a narrow log wedged between the trunks of two oak trees forty feet in the air, as the instructor had pointed out in the beginning. The goal was to walk across the log strapped to a harness, but without anything to hold on to.
For awhile I sat and glared at my fellow classmen screaming, having fun, and climbing all over things. Arizona had accomplished the ropes course three times, rock climbing wall once, and the cat walk once. He had done it all in the blink of an eye, like a monkey.
Then he made his way to the leap of faith with all his friends. I watched him do it once, and he grabbed the bar like it was the easiest thing ever. He made it look so simple. No fear involved. He ran to the back of the line to do it again. That was when he spotted me all alone on the bench.
“Betsy, come here!” He waved me over. His friends were also waving.
I made my way to the line. “I’m not going on this,” I said stubbornly.
“You have to do something while you’re here,” Arizona pressured. “I mean, you’re over there all alone. It’s time to overcome your fear. It’s super fun.”
I watched as everyone took their turn and the line shortened. Not once did someone back out of it from fear. Some of the girls screamed. But other than that, nobody seemed scared too terrified.
Then it was Arizona’s turn again. He clambered up the tree trunk and lifted himself onto the platform awaiting. He stood there for a split second, eyeing the bar. Then he made his leap of faith. He grasped the bar and everyone wooed.
Arizona’s friends pushed me forward.
“You have to do it at least once,” one of them urged.
At that point I guessed I didn’t have a choice. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Perhaps I was letting my fearful imagination get the best of me. Without second thought, I found myself being strapped into a harness and facing a tall tree, an extraordinarily tall tree.
“You can do it, Betsy!” Arizona encouraged.
It made me feel a ton better to hear my best friend cheering me on. My confidence level doubled as I looked the tree over. It’s really not that bad, I tried to convince myself. To start out, there was a ladder. I climbed it easily and began my climb up the actual tree trunk. But by the third peg, my hand began to tremble uncontrollably. Then my entire body shook. It was like I was shivering, but it wasn’t cold. I glanced down for just a second and my heart jumped into my throat like I was going down a very steep roller coaster dip. My mouth opened in attempt to scream, but nothing came out. I felt the dizziness slowly overcoming my body.
“Betsy! Can you hear…?”
The voices below grew faint.
The vertigo lasted only a minute. When I gained my vision back, I felt the tears of fear roll down my cheeks. I screamed and couldn’t keep the tears from coming down in streams.
“Help me, Arizona!” I screamed in terror. “I can’t go up further! I can’t do it!” It didn’t take long for the tears to blur my vision.
“Listen, you’re going to have to climb back down,” the instructor called up.
“No!” I screamed. “I can’t move. I can’t do it!”
“You’re gonna have to in order to get down. Listen—put your right foot on the peg below—”
“I can’t!” I sobbed. The quivering made my hands too weak to move.
Then I heard the sweet, encouraging voice of Arizona. “Betsy, can you please climb down? It’s the only way you can get down.”
For a second I thought about it. I glanced down and saw that the ladder was only one more peg away. I moved my right foot as instructed, but immediately froze after that.
“I can’t do it!”
“Alright,” the instructor continued, “Can you jump then? The harness will catch you and I’ll slowly pull you down.”
It sounded like a good plan. I closed my eyes and completely let go. I couldn’t help but scream. I swung in mid air and waited patiently as the instructor let me down gently. When I felt the stable ground again, I let out a sigh of relief.
Arizona ran up to me. “Betsy!” he gasped. “I didn’t think it was that bad. I had no idea you were that afraid of heights.”
I sat back down on the bench and took in as much air as possible. “I am never climbing a tree of any kind ever again.”
The day ended with that final note. I guess some fears can be conquered, but others…well, not so much.
It’s weird to think that, the older you get, the faster time seems to go. Sixth grade kind of vanished in the blink of an eye. When summer came I couldn’t help but ask myself, where’d it go? But when I looked back, I couldn’t believe how much change had happened. I had gotten my first cell phone, developed new friendships, and tons of other stuff that would be absolutely impossible to mention all at once. How could so much happen in such a fast year?
Summer ticked away even faster.
Then seventh grade came. Things were going to be a little different than the last year. Instead of three different teachers, but the same classmates, I had an actual class schedule. I would have six different teachers, and one of my classes would be an elective. I was most excited about having an elective. My first choice was woodshop.
I was a little nervous at first, but once the school year got grooving, I found seventh grade a little fun and challenging. But my friendship with Betsy slowly grew distant. We didn’t have the same classes anymore, since we both had our own schedules. We had math class together, but that was it. We had little freedom in that class, and with our luck, we always ended up on opposite sides of the classroom whenever a new seating chart was made. Betsy didn’t seem to mind. She had her other friends; in fact, I noticed that her circle of friends was growing quite large. Once in awhile, I came across Betsy by the lockers. I would try to strike up a conversation with her, but she would just ask to meet somewhere at lunch so she wouldn’t be late for her next class.
The year dragged into February. As Valentine’s Day drew closer, I thought of nothing but Betsy. When it did arrive, on a Wednesday, my closest friend, Mike, had an idea.
“Do you like her?” Mike asked.
It was lunch. For the strangest reason, I found myself spying on Betsy’s circle of friends. They all sat on the lawn by the parking lot. It was a beautiful day for sitting on the lawn. It was sunny for the first time all winter, and rather warm. Mike and I watched Betsy and her friends from a bench by the office door. It was far enough away so that Betsy wouldn’t notice us unless she was looking hard enough, which she wasn’t.
“She’s been my friend since second grade,” I replied.
“That doesn’t really answer my question.”
The problem was that I didn’t know if I liked Betsy or not. She was nice, and we had a ton of similarities, but I couldn’t decide whether she was just a friend…or if she was something more.
“Do you like her, Ryan?” Mike asked again, cutting my patience short.
“She’s just my friend!” I shouted. A wave of annoyance washed over me. I didn’t even know why I was spying on Besty. I had a feeling it was just going to lead to something bad.
“I have an idea,” Mike announced.
“What is it?”
“I think you should give Betsy a Valentine. It doesn’t matter if you mean it or not. What’ll matter is her reaction to it. What do you say?”
The idea was a bit intriguing. I couldn’t pass the opportunity up. “Yeah,” I said, smiling. “What should I use as the Valentine?”
I watched as Mike unzipped his backpack and pulled a piece of binder paper out. Then he rummaged through the smaller pocket and found a red pen.
“Write something fast. The bell is going to ring soon.” He handed me the paper and pen.
“What should I write?” I questioned worriedly and nervously.
“Something attractive,” Mike responded. “If I were you, I’d write something that would grab her attention. Don’t you want to win her heart?”
“Win her heart!? I’m only writing a friendly Valentine! This is nothing too serious.”
I thought for a moment. The only thing that came to mind seemed too deep, but my hand refused to write anything else. I wrote:
Betsy, you are SO hot. I love you a lot. Let’s kiss.
“What did you write?” Mike asked curiously.
“I think it’s too weird. May be this isn’t a good idea.”
I handed Mike the note. “It’s perfect!” he blurted out. “I’ll give it to her for you.” He folded the paper up. “Put your name on it.”
I signed it as “Arizona”.
I shivered in embarrassed. I almost wanted to stop Mike from delivering the note, but I was too embarrassed to do anything about it. I glared at Mike as he intruded Betsy’s circle of friends. He gave the note, and a second later, Betsy jerked her head up in my direction. I felt the red coming into my cheeks. How did Mike ever get me to do such a thing? It was all so humiliating. This was probably the most embarrassing Valentine’s Day ever.
Mike ran back to me. “She’s showing all her friends! This is great.” Then he added, “Dude, you’re sweatin’ up a storm.”
Betsy stood to her feet and began making her way towards me. Then the bell rang. Thank God for bells! Without another word, I ran for my next class. It was then that I realized my next class was math. Why?!
I sat down in my seat as soon as possible. Betsy stormed in after me and threw her backpack down at her desk.
“Was this a dare?” she asked, outraged. She held the Valentine up two inches from my face.
“I was just trying to wish you a happy Valentine’s Day. Mike told me to write you a Valentine, but I didn’t know what else to write.”
“Do you mean every word of it?” She looked disgusted.
“Of course not! It’s just a silly Valentine.”
Our math teacher ordered everyone to sit down. I watched Betsy’s every movement. Her friend, Abbie, passed her by. I barely heard her mumble, “He’s cute, Betsy.”
Then I heard Besty respond, “He wants to kiss. How nasty is that? I don’t even know him anymore. He’s changed.”
Changed?! I just wanted to shout across the classroom, “Well, look who’s talking!”
I decided I would never forgive myself for writing the Valentine.
Saturday. I stayed in my room all day and stared out the window. I wondered what Betsy was doing in her little world across the street. Why did I even care? Why was she still my friend?
The remaining of the year, Betsy stayed clear of me. I couldn’t understand why it was so hard for her to realize I didn’t mean anything in the note. Rumor spread that we hated each other. May be I did hate Betsy. It was sure obvious she hated me.
My friends couldn’t stop telling me how Betsy had blown it.
“I can’t believe you were ever her friend,” Josh commented.
“Yeah,” agreed Nate. “All she does is embarrass you and talk to her friends about who-knows-what. Girl talk about guys. She’s probably saying how much she hates you.”
“She has no idea what she’s missing out on,” Mike replied. “All the girls I know would love to be called hot like that.”
“I was never her friend!” I lied. “I hate her.” I couldn’t believe I said it, but it felt so good to get it out.
As the days dragged on, my angry passion towards Betsy grew stronger. I found myself telling terrible lies about her behind her back, out of insecurity. Every time I bumped into her at the lockers, she gave me evil glares. I felt horrible inside.
“Betsy is like the devil when she stares,” I told all my friends.
My friends laughed at every comment I made about Betsy. Finally, it came to the point where they began pulling mean jokes on her. In math, during a test, Nate passed around a note that read: BETSY HATES RYAN’S GUTS. The note finally reached Betsy’s desk. When she read it, she tore it up and glanced up at me, nodding her head in shame. I could’ve sworn her nostrils flared in anger.
One day I ran into Betsy at the lockers. It was between our first two classes. Ever since we had begun to avoid each other, I felt a little awkward around her. She probably felt the same way. But this time, she actually stopped me.
“Arizona,” she said quietly. She grabbed my shoulder. “Why do you avoid me? I know what rumor is going around. We hate each other apparently. But what about our friendship?”
I was so confused. “I thought—I thought you were the one who hated me!”
“I wish you wouldn’t spread false rumors, Arizona. I never hated you. It was just a little weird between us after Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh—” I began.
“Why do you even talk about me the way you do?” Betsy asked. “What have I ever done to you? I think we’d both be better off if we ignored each other and pretended we never knew each other in the first place. Agree?”
“Yes,” I replied. I reached my hand out to shake hers, but I was surprised when she gave me a hug instead. It was the first hug she had ever given me. I’d have to admit, it was pretty warm.
“We’ve made a deal,” she said.
Without further ado, we both split off in our separate directions. We were finally moving on with our lives. I felt good inside.
After that day, I refused to talk about Betsy behind her back.
“What is with you these days?” Mike asked during brunch.
I hadn’t even noticed I was acting different around my friends. May be they were so used to me bashing Betsy that when I finally didn’t, they thought something was up.
“Betsy never hated me,” I answered. “We just assumed that. I’m never going to talk to her again.”
“But you’ve always been friends!” Mike exclaimed, surprised.
“Not since Valentine’s Day because someone told me to write a Valentine.”
“Hey, I did not tell you what to write!” Mike grumbled. “Betsy is stupid. What kind of girl wouldn’t like a Valentine like that?”
“Well, she didn’t like the idea of kissing me. You know, Mike, I really don’t care anymore. We’re not friends, so whatever.”
“You should find another girl,” Mike suggested.
“NO!” I wanted so badly to punch Mike. “I’m over girls. If you’re so passionate about girls, then why don’t you get yourself one?”
“Dude, what’s gotten into you?” he snapped. “I’m just trying to help you move on with your life.”
Then the bell rang. I was certainly going to move on with my life.
Seventh grade wrapped up quickly. It felt good to be the highest grade in the school.
I had a new, wild feeling about summer. I wanted something more than just the everyday boring Strawberry Street, especially since Betsy and I didn’t even talk anymore. I wanted more friends, wanted to go downtown with them and hang out. I felt as if I wanted adventure in my life.
So one summer morning I took myself downtown. I decided that all I needed for company was Cameron and Conner. Nothing spectacular was going on in town. The streets weren’t at all busy; a few people strolled down the sidewalks; mostly all the shops were open, but there didn’t seem to be many shoppers. I noticed a few people from school riding their bikes together. They seemed content. Regardless of all the commotion in town, things seemed lonely. There was an empty feeling inside of me. Nothing is worse than a sad, lonely summer afternoon downtown.
I walked Cameron and Conner from one side of town to the other. It was great exercise, I’d have to admit. I peeked into every shop as I passed by. I had never spent so much time in the town of Lakewood before. It was quite interesting. I found a bookstore, a movie rental place, some nice restaurants… The list could go on. The small town of Lakewood was a rather lovely, little town.
I took Cameron and Conner to Brook Park. I sat by the brook and skipped rocks as the dogs chased each other around and about. Everything seemed so tranquil and peaceful. Perhaps a summer afternoon alone wasn’t so lonely after all.
Just as the sun began to set and the heat faded, I started my walk back home. I was sure Mom and Dad would be back from work by now. I hoped they wouldn’t worry too much when they saw that I was gone.
But when I reached home, nobody was there. Mom and Dad must’ve been working late. I fumbled up the porch steps out of complete exhaustion and hunger. But just as I was about to open the door, something caught my eye. There was a white slip of folded paper halfway underneath the doormat. At first, I was a little alarmed and taken aback by the sight of it. I couldn’t guess who it could’ve been from.
I snatched it up and unfolded it carefully as if it were some fragile piece of artifact. The hand writing looked familiar. It was a letter written by Betsy. It read:
I noticed that you were gone and found the perfect opportunity to drop this off at your doorstep. I just wanted to tell you that I miss being your best friend. I know it’s been a little weird between us since you wrote the Valentine. But now that school is out, I thought maybe we could start over. I want to be friends again. My summer so far has been so boring. I’ve tried to have my other friends over, but it’s just not the same. They’re not into things like the tree house and such. They’re into girly stuff, and that’s no fun at all. So, do you want to be friends again?
I turned to glance across the street at Betsy’s house. It appeared deserted. I knew Betsy was in there somewhere. In fact, she was probably watching me from her bedroom window. There was too much reflection in the window for me to tell, but it gave me the creeps to think that she was possibly spying on me. I opened my front door and went inside.
I wasn’t quite sure how to react to Betsy’s note. It seemed as if she couldn’t make up her mind. First she comes to me and tells me she doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Then she tells me I’m her best friend. I didn’t know what to do.
I spent the following several days completely ignoring Betsy’s letter. I had my own busy life to deal with; I had made the final decision that Betsy was only in the past. It was nice to have so many new things going on. Josh invited me to his house for his birthday party in July. It turned out most of the guys I knew from school were invited. We all went skateboarding at the skate park across town. The party was overwhelmingly large, but loads of fun. From that point on, Josh invited me over every Friday and we spent half the night downtown with his other friends.
Everything was going great, until Betsy slipped another letter under my doorstep. That was when I knew she would never give up. In the letter she told me she really missed me and that she had a surprise for me if I came over. I had doubts at first, but I finally convinced myself to visit Betsy before summer ended.
It was a warm, August morning when I crossed the street to the house I hadn’t been to in forever. Rosy welcomed me in.
“Betsy, Ryan’s here!” Rosy called.
“He is?!” It was the most excited yell I had ever heard.
I heard stomping from upstairs and saw Betsy’s head poke over the banister. She had a come-and-get-me smile written all over her face and the most excited expression in her eyes. I was her long lost friend, finally coming to see her. It was actually a nice feeling to see Betsy’s warm, enthusiastic smile again. Something about her was just so cheerful.
I made my way up the stairs. It felt like the good old days were rushing back to me like an ocean wave. I had only good memories of being in Betsy’s house. I loved my life now, but I missed the old days.
“How are you?” Betsy asked. She was the same Betsy I had known all these years. It was as if we had never been in a fight all of seventh grade.
“I’m alright, I guess,” I replied. “What’s the surprise?”
“Didn’t you say you had a surprise for me if I came over?” I asked, confused. “You said it in the last letter.”
“Yeah!” Her eyes bulged so wide I was sure they’d pop out of her head.
She skipped to her room. Her mom was in the hallway. She gave me a smile and asked how I’d been. Then I followed Betsy into her room. Her room wasn’t much different, but what really caught my attention was the acoustic guitar on her bed. She pounced onto her bed and sat on the edge, pulling the guitar strap over her neck.
“Sit.” She pointed at her computer desk chair.
“Wait a minute, Betsy! Since when do you play guitar? You’ve never been interested in that stuff before.”
“I started learning in April,” she said proudly. “I’ve really practiced. Do you like country music?”
“Not particularly my favorite, but Mike listens to it a lot,” I replied.
“I used to play country songs, but I’ve been writing my own songs lately. I wanted you to hear one of the most recent songs I’ve written.”
“Do you sing too?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied.
“I didn’t know you could sing!” I was shocked.
Before anything else was said, Betsy began strumming away at her guitar. It was a slow, moving tune that had a calming effect to it. A couple moments into the song, she began singing:
Look into his eyes, those eyes as blue as a summer sky
Look into his smile, that smile it brings me back
Look into his heart, oh boy how it’s changed.
I understand how the days, they fly away like they’ve got wings
The summers we once shared have faded like a sunset
And now that summer’s gone I sing this song about him
I wish we had one more time to share in backcountry
One more laugh, say it’ll be alright.
I wish we had one more summer, take me back
One more Valentine to say we’re sorry
He’s moved on just like that, I don’t know where to
So now I stare down this lonely road and sing this song
It’s rainin’ on me like it never has before
And so I wish we had one more time to share in backcountry
One more laugh, say it’ll be alright.
I wish we had one more summer, take me back
One more Valentine to say we’re sorry.
But I guess it sounds a little selfish of me
To not let him go
And the past is the past
I wish I had one less hope that’ll see backcountry
One less tear to cry tonight
I wish I had one less lonesome summer
One less broken Valentine
Look into his eyes, those eyes as blue as a summer sky
Look into his smile that smile it brings me back
Look into his heart, oh boy how it’s changed.
The calming tune of the guitar continued for a couple seconds after the last words of the song. And then it slowed to a stop. When it was completely over, Betsy stared at me from her bed.
“It’s a really cheesy song, but...yeah,” she said quietly.
Her voice had a beautiful and powerful tone to it, but it was hard to believe that such a happy person would write such a depressing song. It sounded cool and everything, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.
There was an awkward silence before I finally decided to break it. “When did you write it?” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Last week,” she said as she placed her guitar in the closet.
“Why’d you write it?”
“What, you don’t think it’s good?”
“No offense, but I would never listen to the words again. I thought the guitar part was genius.”
“Thanks,” she said softly. Suddenly she wasn’t the same girl I met only a few minutes ago at the stairs. “Arizona, I wrote the song because it has to do with us.”
“Yeah, I kinda noticed that!” I felt myself getting a little angry and impatient.
“I miss going to backcountry with you. I miss all the summers we’ve spent together, Arizona. We live across the street from each other and I never see you anymore!”
“Well, you can’t blame me! You told me last year you didn’t want to be friends anymore. I accepted your request.”
“Yes, but I told you in the first letter that I wanted to start over. Don’t you still want to be friends?” It almost sounded like she was begging to me my friend again.
“I think it was fun when we were in elementary,” I said. “But I kinda want to move on. I mean, it’ll be cool to see you in school again, but I’m not really interested in being friends with a girl right now.”
“I understand,” she said sadly.
I left Betsy’s house without further thought.
“How’s Ryan been lately?” Mom asked one evening.
I was sitting in the kitchen watching T.V. from the bar stools. “I don’t know,” I sighed. “We never talk anymore.”
“Well, why not?”
“We’re not really friends anymore.” I had reached the point where I didn’t care so much about Arizona. He was in the past, and that was all there was to it.
Mom looked shocked. “When did this happen?”
“Mom, nothing happened. Arizona has different friends now. There’s nothing more to it.”
Mom placed her hand on her hip and said, “Is it because of the song you wrote?”
“No, Mom! Just forget about it.”
Before she could say another word, I disappeared upstairs into my room. I couldn’t help but stare out my window at what was happening across the street. Arizona was coming out of his house with Cameron and Conner. Amber was dancing around like a little princess on the front lawn with a friend she had met in pre-school. I spied on Arizona’s every movement. After about five minutes I decided it was ridiculous to be spying. I made my way to the closet and grabbed my guitar. Time to write another song, I thought to myself.
Silver Dawn’s mane was as silky as a newly spun cobweb. He was rather blinding when the sun reflected off of him, but nothing could keep me from staring at his beauty.
Laura had been allowing me to ride Silver Dawn since the beginning of summer. I was getting quite good at riding horses by now. It became my new hobby. I also got to know Laura pretty well. She was a nice girl. At times she didn’t have much patience for my mishandling of Silver Dawn when I lost control, but other than that she was a descent friend.
One day Laura called me up to say that she was going on a trail ride with all of her other friends. She invited me and said that both of us could ride Silver Dawn. I was so thrilled that I forgot to tell Mom, and Rosy was at a party. But when I did realize I’d forgotten to tell anyone, I decided it didn’t matter since both my parents were at work all day.
I met Laura in her backyard. She was saddling Silver Dawn up. He was as shiny as always.
“Who gets the back?” I asked.
“You do,” she replied.
“Where’re we going?”
“The trail begins at a place across town and ends up at Shadow Brook Lake,” she said as she fed Silver Dawn a carrot.
“All the way over there?! How long do you suppose that’ll take?”
“Well, it’s an all day thing.” Then when she saw that I was in deep thought she added, “Still wanna come?”
I pondered for a few minutes. I decided I had nothing better to do.
“Yeah, I’m coming. When are we leaving?”
“When my mom is ready to leave. I’d better put Silver Dawn in the trailer now.”
I watched as she untied his rope and led him to an old, rusted trailer at the side of the barn. He was hesitant before jumping in, but after a few stubborn moments, he was locked into the trailer.
“So, how long does it take to get to the place across town?” I questioned.
“’Bout ten minutes,” Laura replied. Then she stared at her house, alert. “I think Mom is calling me,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
As I waited for Laura’s return, I stuck my hand through the trailer window and placed it on Silver Dawn’s velvety, pink nose. A deep grunt came from deep inside his throat, as if he was nervous to be in the trailer. I whispered calming words into his ears, and he seemed to calm down. It was one of those special bonding times between horse and girl that most people don’t even get to experience their entire lives.
Laura returned with the news that it was time to go. We hopped into her mom’s truck and took off down the road on what I would call an adventure. But to Laura, it was a normal event.
One of the most exciting parts of the day was meeting all of Laura’s other friends. One of them—Taylor—was a girl sweet in character. Her horse was as dark brown as a piece of chocolate. Another of Laura’s friends was Alexis. She had curly, blonde hair, and what made me giggle was that her horse looked just like her in that sense.
After the chatting and greeting process ended, the real fun began. The trail ahead was endless, but the scenery was beautiful. Oak trees surrounded either side of the trail, and the sun shone so brightly it was blinding. The oak trees gave me memories of the tree house, which I didn’t want to remember. I would probably never see the tree house again. The thought didn’t bother me though. Arizona was no longer my friend and tree houses were simply not interesting anymore.
Several hours ticked by. We took a lunch break and several stretching breaks. I knew I’d regret going. My legs were already in pain and sitting on a horse after a certain amount of time was horribly uncomfortable. I glanced at the time and saw that it was late in the afternoon. I had a deep and unsettling feeling of worry in the pit of my stomach. What would Mom think when she returns to an empty house?
“So how are you enjoying this?” Laura asked.
“It’s interesting,” I sighed. “My pants are getting all gross.”
“Oh, yeah. That’ll happen.”
Horses were beautiful creatures, but sometimes they were just too nasty for me. By the time we reached the lake, my jeans were drenched in horse sweat, which was purely disgusting because it had a foul stench, and it was horribly uncomfortable.
After such a tiresome ride up, I decided the lake was well worth it. Shadow Brook Lake stretched vastly through a ravine sided by two large oak forests. The surface was dotted with many boats and fishermen, and ducks. Since it was late afternoon, the sun shone brightly overhead, reflecting off the water so that the ripples twinkled like the lake was Earth’s eye smiling up at the summer sky.
The horses drank the water like they’d never drunk anything in days. Silver Dawn splashed his nose around with a satisfied look in his eyes. I could tell he was refreshed.
“How often do you come up here, Laura?” I asked curiously.
“We try to make this trip at least once a summer,” Laura responded as she took deep, soothing breaths in with her eyes closed. “I mean, isn’t it gorgeous? I love nature. I love breathing it in.”
Laura had interesting character. When she was content you could see it in her eyes, and she was the type of person who didn’t take anything for granted.
I sat by the water’s edge with Silver Dawn splashing beside me, and watched as two ducks followed each other contently. One of them had a green neck, but changed colors when the sun bounced off it. The other was a plain brown color, which I guessed was the female.
What a beautiful summer day, I thought to myself. This isn’t something you see every day. I thought about how some people don’t even think of nature as a treasure. The sun’s rays on the water, the stillness of the lake, and the ducks floating on the surface is such a simple thing, yet so lovely in every way.
“It’s time we head back before it gets too late,” Laura’s mother announced.
We all mounted on our horses again. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to sitting on Silver Dawn’s back again, but I was anxious to get home. I still had a bad feeling about facing Mom, after I deliberately didn’t tell anyone where I was going.
The trail on the way back didn’t seem to take as long since I had already seen everything, and I was only focused on getting home. But by the time we did reach the trailers, it was twilight. This was usually the time supper was, and after the time my parents came home from work. In fact, Rosy was probably home from her friend’s party too.
Apparently I had a worried expression across my face because Taylor asked, “Is something wrong? You seem to be a little paranoid or something.”
Her question caught me by surprise. I tried to perk up to cover my worried look. “I’m just a little tired,” I replied. That was partially true.
Laura and I said our final good-byes to Laura’s friends, and then we took off down the road. Ten minutes later, we arrived back at Laura’s house.
“I’ve got to get back before my mom starts wondering,” I told Laura.
“Oh, okay,” she said with a faint smile. “I’ll see you around.”
“I really loved the ride!” I shouted back as I hopped the fence. I didn’t hear another word from Laura.
I sprinted through the forest of backcountry and found my way across the meadow and through the tunnel of walnut trees, where I hopped the gate. The darkness of night was slowly overcoming the neighborhood as each precious second ticked away. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was only fifteen minutes after eight. Day-light-savings time was wrapping up with the summer.
I reached home and saw that both Mom and Dad’s cars were parked in the driveway. Well, yeah, they’d been home since forever ago. I slowly and shamefully made my way into the house and heard the sound of the television. Mom was in the kitchen. When she saw me, she gave an aggravated look.
“Where were you?” she gasped in a slightly irked tone. “I tried calling you twice, and the second time I heard your phone ringing upstairs. The whole point in having a cell phone is so that you can take it where ever you go!”
Of course, my stupid self forgot to put the phone in my pocket before leaving.
“Mom, I went horse-back-riding with Laura and her friends,” I said irritably.
“You could’ve told me!”
I honestly had no idea Mom would be so mad.
“I forgot, Mom!”
“Well, next time you need to call me and let me know you’re going somewhere. I thought you were over at Ryan’s house or something.
How many times did I need to tell her I wasn’t Arizona’s friend anymore? She seriously did not believe me, or she had a bad memory. Either way, I was over trying to tell her I wasn’t his friend anymore.
“Would you like dinner?” Mom asked, trying to lighten up the mood a little. I guess she wasn’t mad anymore now that she knew where I was.
After dinner I was so tired I couldn’t even think straight. I slinked my way upstairs and heard country music playing from Rosy’s room. Her door was closed, but I could hear her singing along. I wondered how her day went, and if I would ever get invited to a party. I locked myself in my room and drifted off.
That was the last day I spent with Laura and Silver Dawn. She was moving into high school, so all hope of seeing her at school was gone. And seeing her outside of school…let’s just say I lost interest in horses.
“Betsy, you have your lunch, right?” Mom called from the porch.
“Well then let’s go! You don’t want to be late for you first day of school, do you?”
I stuffed a notebook and binder into my backpack and dashed out the door. I was not used to getting out of bed so early, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to school. I decided those were good enough excuses why I didn’t exactly have it together at the moment.
As we left Strawberry Street, I stared at Arizona’s empty house. He no longer rode with me to school like he did in the old days.
I arrived at school just as the bell rang. The whole campus was in chaos as everyone scrambled for their classes.
“Have a great day at school, you guys!” Mom exclaimed.
“We will.” Rosy spoke for the two of us. Then she was off in a hurry because she had to walk to the high school, which was right next door to the middle school.
My first class was P.E. I wasn’t exactly excited to have it in the morning, but what could I do? I followed several people I knew from last year to the gym. As I entered the gym, my eyes met Arizona. At first they almost bulged out of their sockets with surprise. He was chatting with a girl by the name of Rachael. She was one of the more popular girls I remembered from last year.
“Hey, Betsy, what’s up?” I spun around to see Lisa and a couple other girls who were my acquaintances last year.
“Oh, hi!” I called back at Lisa. “I’m okay, I guess. What’s up?”
“Do you have P.E?” she asked.
“We do too!” Lisa blurted out.
I quickly scanned the group of girls. Cherise, Haley, Carmen, Allie, and Kelly were all there. All five of them were just so friendly and had smiles that were brighter than a summer afternoon. I was grateful for my friends.
The gym teacher—Mrs. Morrison—called for the class to be quiet. She announced everything that a gym teacher announces on the first day of school, which is extremely boring and repetitive. After we were all assigned lockers, everyone raced off to the locker rooms. I watched Arizona take off. He turned and our eyes met. It surprised me at first to see him staring at me the way he was. But it surprised me even more when I saw him suddenly start my way.
“Lisa, what number locker do you have?” I gasped, trying to cover up the fact that I was watching Arizona.
“Forty-nine,” Lisa responded. “Hey, maybe we’re right next to each other! What number did you get?”
“Thirty-six,” I said, trembling.
“Now what’s the matter, Betsy?” Haley demanded. “You’re all nervous, or something.”
“Well, Ar—Ryan is coming at me! I don’t think he’s too happy that he’s in the same P.E. class as me.”
“Oh, let’s just go, Betsy!” Haley was getting a little irritated by me.
All my friends disappeared into the locker room while I tried to fake a smile in front of Arizona. His eyes were the same old, handsome blue they’d always been. As he slowly and smoothly made his way over to me, he smiled. It gave me butterflies to see him like that.
“Hi, Betsy,” he said calmly. “I guess we’re in the same P.E. class. Well, I’ll see you around.” Then he turned around and jogged to the boys’ locker room.
I had no idea what to think. What was that all about? Is he trying to be my friend again? I couldn’t help but ask myself such questions.
The school day went by smoothly. I had absolutely no problems with any of my teachers. At brunch and lunch I saw that Arizona was hanging out with Rachael again. I couldn’t help but notice her wide smile and ugly, thick mascara. Once in awhile I came across Arizona at the lockers and he said hi. I felt so privileged to have the cutest guy of the eighth grade say hi to me every now and then. (Yes, I just said that.)
Every day after that point, it seemed that Arizona and I were getting close again. In gym class, I found myself competing against him and having fun with it. During the basketball unit, Mrs. Morrison split teams up so that girls played against guys. Arizona gave me the “I’m-watching-you” symbol and raised both his eyebrows before a game started. Then when Mrs. Morrison blew the whistle, I charged the ball faster than all the other girls on my team. I felt a rush of energy every time I tried to make a hoop.
Arizona did not play fair when it came to sports. He was aggressive, egotistical, and arrogant. Just by watching him play a game of basketball, I could tell that he trying to win the attention of all the girls in the class, especially Rachael. It became rather annoying after awhile.
Near Christmas time, Mrs. Morrison began the track and field unit. I was a little invigorated by the thought of it, but nervous at the same time. Arizona was one heck of a fast runner. The whole idea of running brought me back to the days Arizona and I used to race. I was all too anxious for what was coming my way in P.E. It was a little bit of a challenge, but I could hardly wait.
One icy December morning, I raced Arizona for the first time since the second grade. I was too cold to run, and felt a little over the whole racing thing. All I wanted at the moment was a cut of hot cocoa and a warm fire. But I was stuck at the track instead, waiting for Mrs. Morrison to blow the whistle any second. When she did blow the whistle, I put all my energy into one fast sprint. Arizona was right beside me for a split second before he sped ahead. I heard all my friends cheering me on, but the majority of the class cheered Arizona on. Then their voices became faint as I shot across the straight-away to the other side. I wasn’t sure how I did it, but I caught up to Arizona within seconds, and we both hit the other side at the same time. I felt so miserable I could hardly think. My sweaty body against the freezing air was not a pleasant feeling. My head felt as if it was going to explode, my teeth were cold, and my ears felt numb. I sat down at the bench beside the track and held my head in pain. Then the next pair of runners shot down the straight-away like a pair of bullets.
Arizona sat right next to me. “Dang, I thought I was going to win that one,” he mumbled in between breaths.
Of course you did, I thought impatiently.
Then I heard Lisa taking in deep, intensive breaths. “I hate running,” she managed to gasp. “Betsy, how are you so fast?”
I looked up from the bench. “You call me fast? You know, I’m not that fast.”
“Are you kidding me? You tied with Ryan…”
All sound drifted away as I focused my attention on Arizona. He was no longer sitting next to me; perhaps he had gotten up while I was talking with Lisa. He was now conversing with Rachael, and she was laughing so hard I was sure the whole class could hear her. Didn’t Arizona tell me last summer that he wasn’t into girls anymore?
Christmas came and went, and so did the month of January. By February—just in time for Valentine’s Day—I noticed a change in Arizona’s attitude towards me. He didn’t smile at me anymore at the lockers or in first period. He didn’t even talk to me anymore. Finally one day I saw the most startling sight. Rachael’s hands were in Arizona’s! Arizona was walking her to one of her classes and passed by me. He turned his head, but I turned away just in time.
It didn’t take as long as I thought it would to get over the fact that Arizona was dating Rachael. I had my own life to live, and it didn’t involve Arizona in any way. I became close friends with David, a really sweet and cute guy who shared Science class with me. He sat next to me and really knew how to make me laugh. Something about him was attractive, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. May be it was his deep, brown eyes. Or maybe his genuine smile. Whatever it was, I couldn’t help but like David.
And then the day came, the day I actually felt like someone cared about me. It was a Friday afternoon, after school had gotten out. I was walking home from the bus stop when my phone began to buzz. Now if you’re anything like me, you’d be excited to receive a phone call on a Friday afternoon. But it wasn’t a phone call; it was a text, and the text happened to be from David. I thought it was a bit odd that he didn’t call me since he usually called me every Friday. But the thought of him sending a text was a bit intriguing. When I read it my eyes nearly popped from my sockets and my stomach nearly exploded with the tingling feeling of butterflies. I was completely speechless after reading the text.
Without second thoughts, I texted him back. I couldn’t help but smile the entire time I was texting.
“Why are you standing in the middle of the road texting?” It was Arizona’s voice.
“Oops, I didn’t notice I was in the road!” I giggled. I felt my face turning red as a tomato, but I cared less. Life at the moment couldn’t have been better.
“What’s with you?” he asked.
I closed my phone, held it close to my chest, and began spinning around on the front lawn. “This is so amazing!” I squealed. Then I ran inside, leaving Arizona completely clueless.
Monday rolled in. I met David by the lockers and he gave me a surprise kiss on the cheek. It startled me, especially since I had never been kissed by a guy before. But it was a pleasant kind of surprise.
A split second after David gave me the kiss I turned to see Arizona walking by. He was holding Rachael’s hand while she laughed, but he wasn’t paying attention to her. Instead, he was staring right at me. But as soon as he saw that I noticed him, he immediately turned back at Rachael and began laughing with her. Such a cute couple, I thought to myself.
Several months passed by after that. The school year was beginning to wrap up. Eighth grade graduation was on its way, which blew my mind to think I was almost in high school. I felt so old and mature. It was a good feeling.
But graduation didn’t turn out as I expected. It was Friday evening; the day school had gotten out. I was so ready to graduate, so ready to leave middle school in the past. I saw David at the corner of my eye on the football field and he was coming towards me. My stomach tingled when I saw him, and I couldn’t help but run up and give him a hug. He looked at me awkwardly for quite some time before he spoke.
“I have to talk to you about something, Betsy,” he mumbled. Something was wrong. It was graduation night and David didn’t exactly seem to be high in spirit. He had a glum look across his face.
“What’s up?” I asked fearfully.
“Look, I know it’s only been like two months, but I’m breaking up with you.” He said it so fast I could barely understand him at first.
“I don’t understand,” I gasped in horror. “What happened? We’ve never gotten into any fights!”
“Betsy, listen. I know a few really hot girls in high school, and I really want a chance with one of them. I don’t think it’s going to work between us.”
For some strange reason I wasn’t too disappointed about the break-up. It was a little shocking at first, but I got over it within minutes. Perhaps it was a little too early to have a boyfriend anyways.
The October sky was as golden as the leaves on the trees. The warmth of summer hadn’t quite gone yet, but the beauty of autumn and festive feeling it brought was in the air.
So far I loved my freshman year. High school was all about freedom and fun, but what I liked the most was football. It was all about football.
First of all, I loved the fact that Rachael was on the cheer team. Secondly, I felt that being a strong man on the football team would turn all the cheerleaders on. It was a nice feeling to be strong and tough, and being on the football team was the kind of challenge I enjoyed above all other things. Coach Danielson was harsh, merciless, and cruel. He worked us to the ground, and when he yelled, it was almost like we were all at a boot camp or something. He was the kind of coach who really made football miserable. But I liked it.
The first football game was on the first Saturday of October. When I heard that Lakewood High School would be competing against Dunesdale High, I was a little nervous. Well, it didn’t help the fact that I was nervous in the first place since it was my first real game of football. But apparently, Dunesdale High had great freshman players and they were generally harder to beat in any sport.
“It’ll be loads of fun,” Mom told me at dinner time Friday night. “I am so proud of my little man.”
Little man? I thought anxiously to myself. I am not little anymore. I am a football player, for crying out loud!
Saturday morning, the opposing teams met at the Dunesdale High School campus. Apparently the football field was better there or something. I didn’t like the idea though.
Before the game, the Lakewood and Dunesdale cheerleaders gave their cheer. I watched Rachael. Even if she wasn’t my girlfriend, I’d say she was the best cheerleader. She had the best balance and hottest body. Not to mention she was the shortest of all the other girls.
Then the game began. I played defense. The game lasted all day, but when it was over my team left the Dunesdale campus as a big, fat loser.
The second football game was on the third Saturday of October. It was against Shadow Brook High School. Once again, I heard the freshman team at Shadow Brook was great.
Too bad for them, I thought. I had a gut feeling my team would win. May be it was because Coach Daniels worked us to the ground all week after we lost against Dunesdale. Or maybe I was too stubborn to let the thought of losing again pervade my mind.
Well, as it turned out I was right. The Shadow Brook freshmen team lost terribly. By the end of the game I was so tired I could barely think straight, but I was all too excited for the achievement. I wasn’t going to lie; winning felt good. That’s what football was all about, besides getting more muscular.
The entire week that followed, all the girls on the cheer admired me as the star of the football team. I didn’t exactly know why, but I loved the attention. They were all attracted to me like magnets. But Rachael was my favorite of them all.
It didn’t take long before football began interfering with my grades. Back in September, I was known to all my friends as the nerd in Biology. Sure, science was quite interesting and incredibly easy. I got away with guessing on tests and had an A the entire month of September. But when October rolled in, my grades slowly dropped as my attention focused only on winning the football games. My main concern for bad grades was getting kicked off the football team. I didn’t care so much about my grades.
Well, that all changed when Mom found out I almost had an F in Algebra. Okay, so it wasn’t my best class. Math wasn’t my strong subject at all, but it was obvious that football was the reason I was failing. One October afternoon, Mom had a nice, long talk with Coach Danielson and my school counselor. Fortunately, I had one more chance to raise my grades before getting kicked off the team.
I had to say good-bye to my friends the following weekend. The only thing on my mind was studying. My Algebra teacher made me retake two tests. It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It was all too humiliating, especially since all the other guys on my team had the best grades. And so did all the cheerleaders. Rachael was in my math class, and she had an A. Why was this happening to me?
It didn’t take long after that before all the cheerleaders—well, besides Rachael—lost interest in me. I was no longer the star of the football team. Kyle was. He was the tallest, most muscular freshman guy in the whole school. Of course, all the girls were in love with him. Apparently he had high grades too. Whatever.
It took me almost the rest of October to recover from my near failure in Algebra. I wasn’t sure how I did it, but I boosted my grade to a B.
Then the time came for another game. It was the last Saturday of October. The weather was beginning to cool down a bit, and the autumn wind picked up like crazy. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for my third game of football, especially since it was against Halton High, our true rival. Everything about that school was competitive. They had higher ranking than Lakewood, smarter students, and crazy coaches. I mean, I thought Coach Danielson was a scary coach. But the freshman football coach at Halton High School was a really scary coach. At least that was what the rumor around school was.
But it happened; Lakewood High did the impossible. My team beat Halton High School to the ground! I could hardly believe how it ended. I guess my first year of football was just a lucky one.
Every Saturday was just another football game. I had gotten quite used to it by now. It was a fun challenge. I especially loved the fact that my girlfriend was a cheerleader. That turned me on big time. We were perfect for each other.
November came. Football season was reaching its end. There were only three more games left.
And boy did Coach Danielson work us hard during the month of November. Football season was very important to me because I learned the art of perseverance, the importance of working hard, and what it meant to be committed. Well, I certainly learned that grades were most important as well.
The third Friday of November came—the Friday before our last football game of the year. The bell rang for school to be out. I made my way to the lockers to grab any last minute necessities before running to catch the bus.
The hallway was packed with people. I always hated retrieving stuff from my locker after school because of the crowds. Usually I waited until after football practice to grab my things, but today was different.
In search for my locker, I passed by a familiar face and felt it as my shoulder smacked into hers. Then I heard the disastrous THUD of books as they hit the ground.
“I am so sorry!” I gasped.
“It’s okay—oh, my gosh, it’s you, Arizona!”
“Oh, hey, Betsy. I’m seriously sorry about this,” I said as I bent down to help pick up her books.
“We haven’t talked in forever!” Betsy chuckled.
We both got up together.
“Thanks for helping me pick them up,” Betsy said.
“Well I knocked them down,” I replied. I tried to get away when Betsy stopped me again.
“Hey,” she began, “I don’t follow up on these thing because I’m not into sports, but I heard Lakewood is beating most of the other schools. I think you’ll do great tomorrow.”
“Oh.” I stared at her for quite some time, waiting for her to say another word. It was one of those awkward moments where you don’t know if you should say something first or not. A few seconds later I was about to break the awkward silence, when Betsy did it first.
“I was thinking of going to the game tomorrow,” she said cheerfully. “I haven’t gone to one yet and I was hoping to see you play. Tomorrow is my last chance, so I think I’m gonna go.”
“Cool,” I replied. “It’ll be against Cloveland.”
“Good luck,” she said. “See you around.”
And we went off in our own separate directions. I met up with Rachael on the bus. She had her slick, brown hair up in a tight bun.
“I am so nervous for tomorrow,” she commented.
“How come you don’t have cheer practice right now?” I asked.
“How come you don’t have football practice right now?” she said in a smart-aleck sort of way.
I decided not to answer her since she didn’t answer me.
I spent the remaining half of the day inside my house dreading the game that would come in the next twenty-four hours. I was worried that we might lose the last game, nervous about playing in general, and sad that football season was completely over after tomorrow.
Mom came home and made a spaghetti dinner. It was one of the first times she actually cooked, besides holidays. She said I needed a real meal to win the game tomorrow, which didn’t make much sense to me since the game was tomorrow and not tonight. But I didn’t complain because spaghetti was a special treat for me.
That night I went to bed with a strange feeling in my stomach. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
“GO TEAM…GO JAGUARS!!” chanted the Lakewood cheerleaders.
The marching band came marching onto the field. Everyone cheered and the noise was unbelievable. There was everything from trumpets blasting to cheerleaders doing the splits in midair.
Then they all disappeared.
We met our opponent on the field. All the players of the opposite team looked stronger and more competitive. Just the look in their eyes was savage and vicious. I was genuinely afraid.
Coach Danielson called our team together for a huddle.
“Robert, you are going to crisscross with Kyle, and the ball will be thrown to you, Kyle…” Coach Danielson plotted. “Ryan, you play defense. I believe that we can do this as a team.”
Coach Danielson exchanged glances with the coach of the other team to let him know we were ready to play. Whistles were blown, and the game began as Coach Danielson had planned.
Everything was going great. By noon the score was two to four, Lakewood in the lead. The game was actually fun so far, even though my opponents were probably two times more serious about winning than I was. It was scary to see Kyle get knocked completely off his feet, as big as he was. He wasn’t harmed in any way, but just the thought of him being knocked over said something about the players on the other team. But luckily, I was safe so far.
Evening set in. The day continued to tick away with Lakewood in the lead. But the scores were close. Only one more score on Cloveland’s side, and we’d be tied.
Coach Danielson called the team together again for a huddle. He whispered us the plan, and then the whistles were blown once again for the game to continue. Everything happened so fast that I barely had time to think. Someone from the opposite team came charging in my direction. He was at least twice the size as me, taller and wider. Five people from my team were chasing him. He attempted to throw the ball at one of his teammates, who was running behind me, but the ball fell short. It landed in my hands. I took off at a sprint with it, but the big guy was at my tail. I knew at that moment he would tackle me. I threw the ball at Robert a split second before the guy chasing me rammed into my back. I felt him topple onto me and heard a frightened gasp from the crowd. I didn’t have time to be afraid. Within a millisecond my head smashed into the hard earth, and everything went black.
I awoke with a pounding headache. I sat in bed, completely bewildered on where I was, what had happened, and why I was there. I nearly panicked when I couldn’t figure it out at first, but only a second later it all came back to me.
I was in my own bed in my own room, which was in my own house. I sat there for a few minutes before finally checking the time. The clock read eight fifteen. I couldn’t tell whether it was morning or night because the curtains were drawn. It wasn’t too dark in my room, so I guessed it had to be morning.
What a horrible way to end football, I thought miserably. I wondered what the outcome of the game was, and felt angry at myself for not being there. Then I began to worry that the game was called off because of me. But why would they do that?
I sat in bed for another couple of minutes before my bedroom door opened. Mom came in. She almost looked surprised when she saw that I was awake.
“Oh, look who’s finally awake!” Mom said cheerfully. “How’s your head?”
“It really hurts,” I groaned. “Mom, what happened with the scores…the game? Was it cancelled? Is—?”
“Slow down, Ryan.” Mom dragged my desk chair up to the bed and sat in it. “The game was paused for a few minutes as the coaches looked at your head,” she explained. “The doctor said you got a minor concussion. It’s no big deal; your head wasn’t bleeding at all. Thank God you were wearing a helmet though. Your head would’ve been crushed, no doubt.”
“How long was I unconscious for?” I inquired.
“Well, since the accident. Hey, you must be hungry! What would you like?”
“First I’d like something for my head,” I moaned in pain. My head hurt so much it felt as if someone was taking a hammer to it.
Mom stood up and made her way to the door.
“Mom?” I began.
“Did we lose the game?”
“Ryan, I don’t know because I didn’t stay long enough to find out. But it’s just a game, sweetie. Don’t worry about it.”
She walked out, leaving my bedroom door open. While I waited for her return, I thought about how horrible it was to have left the last game. I wondered what my teammates were thinking as I left the field. I wondered what happened to the guy who tackled me.
I was too distracted to think about the game any longer. I heard Mom shuffling around in the kitchen and Amber complaining that she was hungry. I wasn’t exactly sure where Dad had gone.
Then I heard the doorbell ring. It was so unexpected that even the dogs barked, and they usually never barked. I heard the door swing open and Mom say hi. My curiosity sparked. What I wanted most was for Rachael to come and visit me. May be it was her. I couldn’t help but listen intently as Mom welcomed the visitor in.
“I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you,” Mom said. “It’ll take him a few days to recover, so it’s nice for him to have a friend living nearby. You’re welcome to just walk on down the hall. He’s in his room.”
No doubt it was Betsy. I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if I hadn’t expected it to be Rachael. I wondered if Rachael would ever come to see me.
I heard footsteps in the hallway. Before long, Betsy poked her head into my room.
“Hey,” she smiled. At least her smile was bright enough to light up the room a bit. “How are you doing?”
“My head is throbbing, but other than that, I’m just a barrel of sunshine!” I replied sarcastically.
Betsy gave me an irritated look. “Come on,” she said impatiently. “I came here to keep you company for two reasons: number one, I know you’re probably going to need company after staring at the wall all day, and number two, I have nothing to do all day anyways.”
“I’m not going to stay in bed for the rest of the day, I hope you realize. There is no way Mom can make me do that. I only have a headache! It’s not like I’m deathly ill.”
At that moment Mom entered the room. She handed me Tylenol with toast and orange juice.
“Mom, I’m not staying in bed all day!” I complained.
“You must rest your head,” Mom insisted. “The doctor told us you should stay in bed for at least three days. I don’t want you to go running around, even if you have a minor concussion.”
She left the room without further words.
I was so infuriated that I wanted to throw something—at Betsy. She was standing there, uninvited by me, and in she was in reach. It was the most tempting thing, but I had enough self control not to do it.
“I seriously hate life right now,” I groaned angrily.
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Betsy replied. “It’s not your fault it happened. I mean, you were playing great until you were tackled.”
“That’s encouraging,” I retorted sarcastically.
“You know, I was feeling sorry for you,” Betsy stammered. “But now that you’re holding your little pity parties, I’m not anymore. I don’t want to be around someone who treats me like dirt!”
I had never seen Betsy so furious before. It was rather horrifying. Her eyes were wider than anything I had ever seen, and her eyebrows curved inward to the point where her forehead couldn’t have been more wrinkled. She stormed out of my room.
“What’s going on?” I heard Mom say.
“I don’t think it’s worth staying over here,” Betsy replied in the calmest way possible at the moment.
“Oh, Betsy, he only woke up from being unconscious a few minutes ago,” Mom assured her. “Give him a chance.”
There was silence. Then I heard footsteps nearing my room. Once again, Betsy poked her head in.
“Arizona, I’m staying whether you appreciate it or not,” she announced stubbornly.
We talked the day away. She told me how the football game was cancelled because I was knocked unconscious. She also explained that after the incident, the entire audience was in shock. Apparently an ambulance rushed over with its sirens screaming and I was rushed off. That’s when everyone left the school. Betsy even told me that the guy who ran into me felt entirely bad about it.
When evening came, Betsy wished me luck and left.
The following morning I almost slept till noon. When I awoke, I nearly panicked that I had over slept. I couldn’t afford to miss a day of school; my grades were already in deep weeds.
The house was lonely and empty. Amber was off at school and Mom and Dad were both at work. The house was silent as a mouse, besides the click-click sound the dogs’ claws made when they walked across the hardwood floor.
My head was pounding again, but not as bad as the first time. I climbed out of bed, nearly toppled over from dizziness, and clambered out my door and down the hall. My phone was on the couch from who knows when. I called Mom.
“Yes, dear?” she said as she picked up.
“Mom, I can’t miss school!” I yelled into the phone.
“You’ve been excused,” she replied. “Look, you need to rest. I’m not letting you go to school with a concussion.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do all day?”
“Sleep!” I could tell she was getting exasperated with me.
I hung up hopelessly.
I felt terrible for many reasons. For one thing, my head was killing me. For another, the rumor that I had hit my head was probably spreading like wildfire around the entire school campus. It was the worst feeling to have to stay home all day thinking about how my friends were telling everyone else that the game was cancelled because of me. I knew that my first day back would be the most embarrassing thing that could ever happen to me, besides getting trampled by a huge guy on the other football team.
I decided that the only way to be distracted from my horrible thoughts was to text Rachael. I sent three messages before falling back to sleep again.
The second time I woke up was when Betsy came knocking on my window. I rolled over to see her huge head looking in, and it nearly gave me a panic attack. She giggled at me when she saw how huge my eyes were from fear. I motioned for her to come in. A few seconds later I heard the front door open and footsteps come down the hall.
“Everyone’s talking about you at school,” she said as she entered my room.
“Go figure,” I shrugged. “Now I don’t want to go back to school.”
“Hey, at least tomorrow’s the last day before Thanksgiving break.”
“I forgot!” I gasped. That was one thing that made my day better.
After about an hour of talking, Betsy announced that she had to leave.
“I have a Spanish project due tomorrow,” she said disappointedly. “Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Hopefully I’ll go to school tomorrow,” I uttered in return. “I hate doing makeup work, especially when there’s a break coming up.” I groaned at the thought of it.
The following day I slept in yet again. I was so angry at Mom for not waking me up, but angrier at myself for not setting my alarm. Of course Mom wanted me to sleep in.
I could not believe how lonely and boring life was. I texted Rachael, begging that she’d come and see me. She only texted me back to say that she’d promised to go to the movies with her friends. I wanted my real girlfriend to come and see me, not the girl I knew all my life who lived across the street. But did I have a choice? No. Betsy came over again.
“Why do you keep coming over?” I asked to her face.
She looked at me, confused. “What do you mean?”
“I just don’t understand why you feel the need to come over every day.” I tried to say it in the most polite way as possible. Betsy was good about being there for me, and I came to appreciate it, but I really didn’t like the fact that she was almost taking over my life.
“Well, I thought you might be lonely during these days of recovery,” she responded softly.
“I have a girlfriend.” I couldn’t believe how harsh it sounded when it came out. I felt terrible, but there was no way of undoing the past.
Betsy stared at me, her hazel green eyes full of hurt. “I’m aware of that, Ari—Ryan. I’ve known that since last year!”
Hearing her call me by my real name was simply weird, and didn’t sound right. She had never called me Ryan before. Never. I watched as she left my room. I tried to shout an apology at her, but no sound came out. I was speechless, and felt horrible about it.
After that day I didn’t see Betsy for a long time.
My first day back at school was a bit intimidating. I wondered if anyone would say anything about the football game, even though the incident had happened a week before. Mike ran up to me and asked how my Thanksgiving went, but that was it. Perhaps people had gotten over it.
Then I saw Rachael. I was happy to see her, but a part of me deep inside was a little aggravated.
Rachael ran up to me and gave me a hug. “Ryan, I’m so glad to see you! I missed you so much!” she exclaimed.
I stood there, allowing her to give me a nice, long hug. But it was hard for me to enjoy it because of my anger towards her.
“Rachael,” I said a second later, breaking away from her tight grasp.
“How come you didn’t come to see me when I hit my head at the football game?” I inquired, trying to hold back my anger. “You didn’t even come to see me during the break.”
“I was busy all week,” she uttered in response.
There was an awkward silence after that. I stared into her eyes, she stared into mine, and life goes on. Sometimes you just have to forgive someone to move on with your life.
Second semester came in like a beautiful new dawn. Everything was a bright, fresh start—grades, schedules, and whatnot. It was hard to believe that my freshman year was already half way over. Where did time go?
When I found out what my new schedule was, I was a little excited to see that Arizona was in my Geography class. Last time I had spoken with him, things didn’t turn out so great between us. Yeah, he had a girlfriend, but when was he going to appreciate friendship? I didn’t know why I was so intrigued by the fact that he was in my Geography class, but I was.
By February Arizona and I began talking again. He sat two seats away from me, which made it easy to pass notes to him. One day, Haley, who was now one of my best friends, noticed me pass a note to him under the desks. At lunch we met at our usual spot in the cafeteria.
“So what’s with you and Ryan?” she asked in front of all my other friends.
Lisa automatically chimed in. “You’re still into that guy? No offense, but he’s a little bit of a loser.”
“We were friends ever since the second grade,” I replied. “And we live right across the street from each other.”
“So you’re in love?” Haley questioned.
“’Course not, silly!” I gave her a friendly punch on the shoulder.
“But you pass love notes to each other in Geography.”
“You do?! That’s so sweet…” All my girlfriends intoned.
“Listen, they aren’t love notes—”
“Look, Betsy, there he is!” Lisa teased. She pointed at the far end of the cafeteria.
I was dumb enough to turn and look. As soon as I did, all my girlfriends awed me.
“You should go over there and say hi,” Haley urged.
“Look, I don’t like him!” I shouted, completely irked. “He’s just becoming my friend again, that’s all. Besides, he’s going out with Rachael.”
“Oh, yeah,” my friends mumbled disappointedly. It was almost as if they wanted me to be his girlfriend or something. I had to admit, my friends were pretty weird.
But as the days flew by, I found myself talking with Arizona more and more. We laughed a ton during class. He told me how his relationship was going with Rachael, and I was genuinely happy for him. When I saw them together around campus holding hands or whatnot, I found the two of them quite cute.
By the end of the month, the Geography teacher assigned a huge project that would be due in a week. At first I wasn’t too excited about it, but when I found out we could have a partner I was all too happy. I ran up to Arizona before anyone else did.
“Would you be my partner?” I asked excitedly.
“Sure,” he replied.
“Hey, what about me?” Haley demanded. “I feel so left out.” Then she added, “Oh, well. You two will make good partners.” She winked at me as she went off to find someone else.
We worked together every day after school. I decided that being around Arizona was fun and well worth the labor of the project. The more I was around him, the more it became obvious that he enjoyed being around me too. We laughed over ridiculous things that probably nobody else would find funny. Sometimes we laughed to the point where we cried. Those were fun times.
By the time March came around, I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I entered Geography class. It was the same kind of feeling you get when going down a rollercoaster dip. I was anxious for class to start. Even while I was at home I could barely wait for the next day, just so that I could be in Geography with Arizona. We were different towards each other in class, but outside of class he was too involved with Rachael to care about me. At least that’s what I thought.
It wasn’t long before I realized what the anxious feeling in my stomach was—butterflies. Every time I saw Arizona, those little bugs fluttered around in the pit of my stomach. It was an odd, but indescribably wonderful feeling. I knew I had to talk with my girlfriends about it.
Early one morning, I headed towards the library. I knew I’d find Haley there. She loved spending her mornings in the library because it was warm, but mainly because she had a bad habit of finishing her homework right before class.
I found her at a table in the center of the library.
“Hey, Haley,” I whispered, sitting down next to her. “Can I talk to you about—well, about Arizona?”
“Arizona?” she looked at me, bewildered. “You mean Ryan?”
“Yes,” I responded.
“Okay, what’s up?”
“Well…” I couldn’t continue without a major blush coming on.
“Don’t make fun of me when I say this,” I warned. “I think I might be in love with Arizona.”
“What?!” I had never seen Haley’s eyes as wide as they were at that moment. Her smile was just as wide. “Oh my, gosh, Betsy! I knew it all along!” Her voice rose so high that the librarian had to shush her.
“What should I do?” I asked. “He has a girlfriend, but I just know he loves being around me. I can see it in his eyes when we talk.”
“Oooh may be he likes you too!” Haley remarked.
“I think you should go up to him and tell him your feelings.”
“Oh yeah, it’s that easy,” I said sarcastically. “Come on, Haley, be realistic. If I told you to walk up to Jack—”
“Wait a minute! Who told you I liked Jack?”
“Lisa kind of did,” I replied shamefully.
“Whatever,” Haley began. “Look, if you want me to help you out with your guy problem, you have to listen. Just go up to Ryan and let him know you have a crush on him. You must do it in person too. I think it shows lack of courage when you tell him stuff like that over the phone or email.”
“Do you think it’ll ruin our friendship if I do this?” I asked worriedly.
“I don’t know,” Haley responded as she packed her books up. Then she added, “The bell is about to ring.”
Sure enough, just as she said that the bell rang.
I dreaded the thought of walking up to Arizona and telling him I had a crush on him. It would be the most awkward conversation, and possibly ruin our friendship. May be it would be a bad idea to tell him.
Every day I tried to find the perfect opportunity to tell him. But I couldn’t quite gather enough courage to do so. I felt awkward around him in Geography because all I ever thought about was telling him.
Finally one day, Arizona realized I wasn’t acting myself around him anymore.
“What’s up with you, Betsy?” he asked. “You’re no fun anymore. You always seem…well, preoccupied.”
We had run into each other right in front of the lockers. We were surrounded by so many loud people that I was sure nobody would overhear me tell him that I liked him. It was the perfect opportunity.
“I have something I have to tell you,” I said straight out and clearly.
“What is it?” His brilliant, blue eyes nearly took my breath away as I tried to talk to him.
“Well, I don’t know how to say this, but—”
Completely out of nowhere, Rachael ran up to Arizona and gave him a nice, wet kiss on the cheek. Arizona acted as if I wasn’t even telling him anything.
I felt the red coming into my cheeks as I began to blush. I couldn’t have felt more stupid in all my life. I tried to pretend it was no big deal and mumbled, “I guess I’ll just tell you later.” After those words, I snuck off into the crowd. Arizona was so involved with Rachael that he didn’t’ even know I left.
They were in love, no doubt. How could I ever share my feelings with him? He would forever hate me afterwards. Was it worth risking our friendship?
The days were slipping through my hands like grains of sand. The month of April shot by and May didn’t slow down much either. I had the heavy burden on my chest to tell Arizona that I liked him. The feeling of butterflies every time I stepped into Geography class continued to haunt me. Haley wouldn’t stop asking what his response was, and when I told her that I hadn’t told him yet, she nodded her head at me in shame. I couldn’t give up the thought that I had to tell him. And I had to tell him in private.
May be it wouldn’t hurt to tell him at home, I thought to myself. After all, he did live across the street.
It was the last Friday of May that I decided I had to tell him. School got out; I hopped on the bus and played in my head over and over again the exact words I would tell him.
Okay, Arizona, I rehearsed in my mind, I have to tell you something. Ever since we started talking again, I’ve really enjoyed being around you. You’re fun to be around, and cute. Arizona, I have a crush on you.
Something about it just didn’t sound right. Perhaps it was a bit cheesy. Or maybe too sudden. Whatever it was, I was not satisfied with it.
I tried a new way of telling him. Arizona, can I talk to you for a second? I know this may sound a little weird, but I kind of like you. I know you have a girlfriend, but I just thought I’d let you know that. Can we still be friends?
I liked that one the most. It didn’t sound too cheesy and it satisfied me.
The bus reached home. I was all too nervous. I jumped off and walked to Strawberry Street. But that was when I realized Arizona wasn’t there with me. There was only one conclusion: he went to a friend’s house.
I had any other day to tell him. But I was ready to tell him at that very moment. I knew if I waited any longer, I’d just keep putting it off.
I decided to wait for his return, no matter how long it may be. I waited all evening and even after dark. I spied from my window, but all I could see were the dim street lights. He had never been out so late before. What if something happened to him? I was all too anxious to tell him what I needed to tell him, that was all.
The following day I made my way across the street to Arizona’s house.
“Oh, hi, Betsy,” his dad said as he opened the door. “What’s up?”
“Is Ryan here?” I asked awkwardly. I hated calling him Ryan.
“No, he actually went to spend the night at his friend, Mike’s house,” his father responded. “You could probably call his cell.”
No, I can’t do that. I have to tell him in person. “Oh, never mind,” I said. “I’ll just wait till he comes home.”
When Arizona did come back, however, I backed out of my plan. I decided life would be easier if I just didn’t tell him at all. But I couldn’t do that. I had to tell him. But when would I tell him? The entire thing was all too complicated.
The month of June came in as welcomed as a good friend. I was ready for school to be over. All of my classes were completely stressful, especially since my teachers were piling on the homework load. It didn’t help that finals were coming up either.
It was Friday, June sixth.
“How’s it going with you and Ryan?” Haley inquired in Geography.
“Get over it, Haley,” I retorted.
She looked at me, alarmed. “You told him, didn’t you? And you guys aren’t friends anymore? I never see—”
“No, Haley, I didn’t tell him that I had a crush on him,” I snapped. “I don’t even think I do anymore anyways.”
I wasn’t sure if that was completely true. The feeling of butterflies had died away after awhile, but every time I saw Arizona with Rachael I had a feeling of jealousy. They were in love, and there was nothing I could do about it. I might as well just move on with my life.
“Oh come on, Betsy,” Haley said. “You have to like him somewhat. Look, there he is.” She pointed across the room. Arizona was talking with a few of his guy friends.
I shook my head in pity at her. “Why are you so obsessed with me and Arizona?”
“That’s a good question,” Haley replied. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve always thought that you two were meant for each other. I mean, you’ve seen the way he acts around Rachael.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well,” Haley continued, “All the times I’ve seen Ryan and Rachael together I’ve never seen him laugh as hard as he does around you. I don’t know about you, but in my opinion, Ryan is only himself when he’s with you.”
“No he’s not!” I exclaimed. “I’ve seen him laugh with Rachael so many times. You obviously haven’t seen them together as many times as I have.”
Then Arizona glanced at me. I could see his handsome, blue eyes from all the way across the room. He smiled at me and there was a twinkle in his left eye.
After class was dismissed, Arizona ran up to me and walked beside me with to the lockers. Haley winked at me and said, “Well I’ll talk to you later, Betsy.” She ran off to catch the bus.
When we reached the lockers, Arizona met up with Rachael. She had her hands full of books and looked absolutely exhausted.
“What’s with you?” Arizona asked her.
“I stayed up past one last night studying for a math test, and the math test was over a hundred questions.”
“Your math teacher assigned a test right before finals week?” Arizona questioned.
“I know, it’s dumb, isn’t it?” Rachael rolled her eyes. “Here, hold my books for me while I open my locker.”
I already felt like I wasn’t a part of their conversation. I waved Arizona good-bye, but he didn’t seem to notice. Then I went along with my own business and unlocked my locker.
As I made my way towards the bus stop, I saw Arizona and Rachael holding hands. Rachael was doing all the talking and Arizona was nodding his head in agreement to whatever she was saying. He didn’t look like he was into the conversation. May be it was one of those boring conversations that you have with someone, and you don’t know what to say, so you nod your head the entire time.
They were headed towards the same bus as I was. I had an idea. I knew that it would take a ton of courage, but it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“Hey, Arizona, wait up!” I called from behind. Both Rachael and Arizona swerved around, Rachael having an exasperated look on her face.
“There you are,” Arizona said. “You kinda disappeared at the lockers. I thought that you had already gotten on the bus.”
Rachael was suddenly quiet. She eyed me like I was some ferocious dog ready to attack. May be somehow she knew I had a crush on Arizona.
The three of us were about to board the bus when I stopped Arizona. “Arizona, I have to talk to you about something,” I blurted out. My heart raced.
“Can you tell me on the bus?” he asked.
“Yes, she can tell you on the bus,” Rachael insisted in a harsh tone.
Arizona gave her a calm-down expression, but she just shrugged her shoulders as if to say she didn’t care.
So, the three of us boarded the bus. I followed Arizona and Rachael to the back. Arizona sat between Rachael and me. It was an awkward time to talk to him, but I only thought about getting it done and over with.
“Arizona,” I said boldly and clearly. “I love being your friend again after all the times we’ve ignored each other throughout the years. But now I have a different sort of feeling towards you. I know this may sound weird since your girlfriend is here, but—”
“What are you trying to tell my boyfriend?” Rachael blurted out. She did not look happy in any way.
“—I like you, Arizona. I have a crush on you.” I knew my face was as red as a tomato, but I didn’t care at the moment. All I cared about was that I got it done and over with.
Arizona was completely speechless. He glanced from me to Rachael, and then back to me again. “Um,” he turned towards Rachael for help. Rachael squeezed his arm tight and slipped her hand into his. Then she gave him an evil glare as if it were his fault.
“You like me? What a joke, Betsy!” It shocked me to hear such harsh words come from his mouth. It was already going a lot worse than I expected it to.
“I don’t mean anything by it, Arizona!” I cried. “I just thought I’d let you know. We could still be friends.”
“No, you can’t let her interfere with us,” Rachael butted in.
“I’m not going to,” Arizona assured her. “Betsy, our friendship is done!”
His words were as sharp and painful as a sword stabbing into a heart. I grabbed my bag and jumped up from my seat before he could see me cry, and waited for the next bus stop. I didn’t care if I had to walk home. It wasn’t too far anyways. All I knew was that I had to leave the bus as soon as possible.
When the bus came to a stop, I was the first to step off. I couldn’t help but give once last glance at the back window. Arizona and Rachael were making out! Arizona didn’t look too happy; perhaps he was feeling a little guilty about what he said. I hoped so.
I ran off as fast as I could, tempted to look back at the bus talking off again. But I didn’t. I just kept running until I reached a back road that led to my neighborhood.
The afternoon sun pounded down on me without mercy. I felt dehydrated and absolutely miserable in every possible way, mentally and physically. My head felt as if it a knife was stabbed into it, and I had cried so many tears that I had no more to cry. Only questions circled around in my head. Why did I have to tell Arizona? How could he be so harsh to me? What did I ever do to him? But what I really wondered was, How could Arizona love such a mean girl? Well, in a sense it did make sense because Arizona was just as mean as his girlfriend.
I found my way to the gate that led to backcountry. The blackberry bush was ripe with plump and juicy fruit. The walnut trees weren’t as tall as they once were (or perhaps I had grown), and their leaves were a simple green color. The old man’s shack was not too far away. It was just an ordinary shack; no murderer lived in it. I knew that somewhere beyond that point was the tree house. The lonely, forgotten tree house.
Then the memories flooded back to me.
It was warm and it was summer. The Raymonds’ house across the street was for sale, and it was all too disappointing to find out that they had to move. I woke up to find they’d gone, but also to find that a young boy my own age was moving in. He had brilliant, blue eyes. I told him about backcountry. I said the shack was haunted and he believed it and we were fearful, and we became best friends. “I am going to call you Arizona,” I said. Rosy found out about the tree house and we were both so upset, but she helped us build it. School started in the fall and Arizona and I rode the bus to school together every single day. It was September and Arizona’s beautiful baby sister was born. I held her for the first time and watched as she grew into a little princess. It was Halloween and I couldn’t decide whether I believed in ghosts or not. Arizona was dressed as a ninja. The autumn wind howled like the voices of ghosts and I didn’t want Arizona to leave me as he entered the haunted house. Arizona and I found out who lived in the shack and the little girl was happy and dressed as Cinderella. Arizona became close friends with Mandy and on Valentine’s Day she gave him a kiss on the cheek. She moved away and Arizona was my friend again. We shared another summer together. I lost Lily and cried. I hated winter because I hated the rain, but I loved the sound of water. Spring was my favorite season. I loved the cherry blossoms at the bus stop. They had such a sweet and beautiful fragrance. I hated heights and refused to climb down even when the bus came to pick us up. Arizona stayed home from school with me because I was too frightened to climb down. He stayed by my side the entire day like a true friend and didn’t leave me until he knew for sure I was out of the tree. During summer Arizona and I visited the tree house, but only to clear the cobwebs and brush that had overtaken it. During winter we walked in the rain together. As I grew older, I barely noticed as my childhood slowly slipped into the past. I met Laura and learned the skills of horse-back-riding. Arizona got his foot stuck in a tree and a helicopter had to come and rescue him. He no longer was my friend. Laura took me on a trail to the Shadow Brook Lake and it was so peaceful. I was David’s girlfriend because I wanted to feel good about myself, but it ended in an utter disaster. Arizona asked Rachael to be his girlfriend. I missed being his friend after that. He tried out for the football team. The last football game was cancelled because he was tackled and went unconscious. I spent a great deal of time keeping him company as he recovered from the head injury. Then we had Geography class together and became close friends again. Haley wanted us together, but he already had a girlfriend. A rush of butterflies came on and I felt for the first time like I was in love. Haley told me to tell him that I liked him, but I couldn’t gather the courage. But when I did tell him I had a crush on him, it didn’t end like a happily ever after story .He crushed me and crushed the very hope that we could remain friends. Arizona was in love with Rachael.
And that was the very reason why I was standing there at that moment, looking into the pool of memories. I wished there was a way to undo the past. May be if I hadn’t told him, I wouldn’t be crying my eyes out right now. Or maybe if I hadn’t talked to him all semester in Geography, I wouldn’t have had a crush on him in the first place.
The blue sky was raining down on me, but I just let it fall. Fall, fall, fall.
“Oh, come on! You’re dumping me because of her?”
“She’s my best friend. Get over it.”
I heard Rachael holler behind me as I left the bus, but I cared less. The bus door closed behind me and that was the last I heard from her.
I had the worst feeling in my stomach. I had never felt so bad before in my entire life. The guilt was overwhelming, and all I wanted to do was tell Betsy I was sorry. Rachael was the most manipulative person I had ever known. When she insisted on going out, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at first. I mean, she was my friend and having a girlfriend seemed interesting. But then she began ruling my life. Convincing me to say those cruel words to Betsy was the last straw. I had to find Betsy and apologize.
I wondered if she was home. Most likely not since she had gotten off the bus early. But it didn’t hurt to check. I knocked on her door and waited a few moments. Rosy answered.
“Is Betsy here?” I asked.
“No,” Rosy replied. “Didn’t she take the bus with you?”
“Um…it’s a little bit of a long story. See ya later.”
I walked across the street to my house and waited on the porch steps. It probably wouldn’t be much longer before her return. I decided to wait.
I waited and waited and waited. She did not return.
Where is she? I wondered worriedly. I hoped she was okay. I would never forgive myself if something happened.
Eventually I gave up waiting. I remembered I had her number in my phone. But she didn’t answer. Evening settled in. Mom and Dad both came home from work. Then I watched as Betsy’s parents arrived at her house. I hoped they knew where she was.
“What’s wrong, dear?” Mom asked. It was hard to keep secrets from my parents when they noticed I was moping around.
I glared out the window for awhile before responding. Finally I said, “I broke up with Rachael.”
“Why?” Mom and Dad both chimed in.
I continued to glare out the window. “She’s rude and mean, and I don’t think we’re meant for each other.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, son,” Dad said.
“Why do you keep looking out the window?” Mom questioned.
I was not exactly in the mood for telling Mom and Dad how I scared Betsy off the bus, and how she still hadn’t returned from school because of it.
“Well,” I began, “I’m just wondering what Betsy’s up to.”
“Do you have a crush on her?” Dad chuckled.
“They would make a cute couple,” Mom explained to Dad.
Then they went on talking on a whole different tangent. Dad began telling Mom how some guy at the office he worked in was leaving. After just a few minutes of listening to them blab on, I zoned them both out and continued to worry about Betsy. There was still no sign of her. I had no idea where she could be.
Then I felt even more terrible than before. Darkness was taking over and she was nowhere to be found. I felt completely responsible for her disappearance. I tried calling her again, but there was still no answer. Then an unexpected knock came at the front door. Betsy! I ran so fast to the door that I nearly ran into it. When I opened the door, a heavy feeling of dread weighed down my spirits.
“Hi, Ryan.” It was Betsy’s parents. They both looked worried and hopeless. “Have you seen Betsy anywhere at all?” they asked desperately.
“What’s going on?” Mom and Dad both questioned, making their way to the door. “What’s happening?”
“Betsy has been missing,” Betsy’s mother replied. “Rosy said she never returned from school, and apparently Ryan was also looking for her earlier today.”
Mom turned towards me. “Ryan, do you know anything about this?”
“Look,” I nearly shouted, “She didn’t take the bus all the way home. I thought—”
“Why not?” Betsy’s mom inquired at an almost angry tone.
“Well,” I began, “She was a little mad at me—”
“Why?” Everyone had their attention focused on me.
“She told me she liked me and I got mad at her!” I wanted so badly to scream. I wanted to cry. I felt so horrible that may be it would’ve been better if I went missing.
“Well does anyone know where she might be?” Betsy’s mother asked on the verge of tears.
Both Mom and Dad stared at me like I was behind it all. Well, in a sense I was, but I never meant for anything to happen to her.
“Would calling the police be helpful?” Mom suggested.
“I guess we’re gonna have to do that,” Betsy’s father decided.
Life was nothing but dreadful at that moment. The guilt I carried on my shoulders was so heavy that I felt as if I would collapse. Betsy’s parents were going to call the cops because of me. Their daughter was missing because of me.
I thought about all the possible places she could be as her parents dialed 9-1-1. Then it came to me so fast that I felt like an idiot for not thinking of it before. The tree house!
“I’ll be right back,” I assured everyone. “I think I might know where she is!”
I quickly snatched up a flashlight and took off out the door before anyone could stop me. It had been so long since I was at the tree house last. I wondered if I’d remember where it was.
I found my way to backcountry. Even with the flashlight, it was dark enough for me to be frightened. There was a dim light coming from the shack, which looked homey but creepy at the same time. Night wasn’t exactly my favorite time of the day to be in backcountry. Everything looked different in the dark. I wasn’t sure where I was or where the tree house was. But I was determined and sped up to a jog.
“Betsy!” I called hopefully. “Betsy, are you here?”
Then I heard a faint sobbing sound. It had to be Betsy. I followed the sound, praying that I’d find the tree house soon. The sound grew faint again. I shouted at the top of my lungs, a little exasperated that she wasn’t responding. I felt myself beginning to sweat with anxiety. I was so close to finding her and I knew it. I knew the tree house was around somewhere.
Then I saw it. The wooden planks in the trunk, the wooden railings, everything. Before I had time to think, I clambered up the tree trunk and found Betsy sitting with her arms wrapped around her legs and her head tucked down.
“Betsy!” I gasped. Nothing was more precious than the sight of my best friend. “Everyone has been searching for you! What are you doing here, Betsy?”
She refused to look up. “Is that really you, Arizona?” I barely understood what she said since her head was resting between her knees.
“Yes, it is,” I assured her quietly.
Betsy slowly lifted her head from her knees. It was too dark for me to see the expression on her face, but I could hear her sniffle. I could tell she had been crying for a long time.
I ran up to her and embraced her like it was the last time I’d ever see her. I held and squeezed her and she did the same to me. All my guilt was released right there. The only thing on my mind was peace. We held each other in the darkness for several minutes, neither one of us saying a word.
Finally I whispered in her ear, “I am so sorry, Betsy.”
She was silent for a moment. The she said, “You’re my best friend, Arizona.”
“I know,” I responded.
There was a pause. I released Betsy from my tight grip, held her hands, and stared at the dark outline of her face.
“Betsy, I want you to be my girlfriend.” I said it so clearly and boldly that it felt good.
“Okay,” she whispered.
I embraced her again.
“I love you so much, Betsy.”
Eight years later.
The small town of Lakewood hadn’t changed much. The people were the same old friendly, the streets just as small, and the neighborhoods were all the same. It was nice to be back home again. Living independent was fun, but I really missed Mom and Dad. I even missed my good, old sister Rosy. Nothing was like coming back to see those familiar faces again.
I had been in love with Arizona ever since he asked me to be his girlfriend on June sixth that one night in high school. Every second I spent with him ever since that day, I knew he was the one.
We came back to Lakewood for a visit together. It only made sense since our parents lived right across the street from each other.
Lakewood was a town of warm memories. It held the summers we shared together, the times we laughed, cried, and loved. It was the town we lived our childhood in together; the time of our lives when everything was bliss, every day was a gift and not a pain. The time we treasured every moment and laughed when we could. I missed those days, those days that were forever gone.
I was on the driver’s side of the car, Arizona in the passenger’s seat. I took a left turn onto Strawberry Street, my heart racing with anxiety. It had been too long since the last time I saw my parents. I parked the car in my parents’ driveway and Arizona and I walked hand-in-hand up to the front door. Before I had a chance to knock, the door opened wide. They were all standing there with open arms—Mom, Dad, Arizona’s parents, Rosy, and Amber. Sixteen-year-old Amber was all grown up and matured. She had changed a great deal. Rosy had a boyfriend, Wilson. She had met him two years ago in collage. He was a nice guy. Mom had cut her hair short, but other than that she hadn’t changed much. Dad was the same old Dad I had known all my life.
“Come in, you two!” Mom welcomed.
The house smelt of deliciously barbequed steak. Balloons were strung up everywhere, and WELCOME BACK signs were posted in almost every room.
We spent the whole day laughing and talking about whatever we felt like. It was a wonderful get-together.
That evening Arizona and I snuck out of the house for a breath of fresh air. We held each other’s hands and walked down the street. The summer evening was warm and balmy, and a colorful sunset could barely be seen from above the rooftops. Arizona and I were silent for awhile, listening to the crickets sing.
“Arizona,” I said, breaking the silence.
“Yes?” he responded in a mellow sort of way.
“What do you think backcountry looks like now? And the tree house?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “We can always go and see though.”
We giggled as we made our way to the place that held our most memories. It surprised me to see that everything was practically the same. The blackberry bush at the side of the gate was ten times larger than before, and was rather taking over. The walnut trees were taller as well.
We hopped the gate and made our way down the dirt road. The shack was not any different either. It had the same old, shaggy appearance and the pick-up truck was still parked in the front. The meadow was the same, old meadow and the forest was the same, old forest. It’s weird to think that some things don’t change.
The evening summer sky was a hazy orange color from the sunset. The crickets chirped in the background, an owl hooted, and the sun barely peeked over the distant mountains. This was the part of life I loved. I loved the tranquility of nature, the colors of a sunset, and the touch of summer as the sun was setting. I loved knowing that my best friend was walking beside me in a place we had been all along. I loved the memories, and to be back after a long time away.
We strolled into the oak forest. Everything looked so dried up. There was a blanket of oak leaves scattered amongst the ground. It made a crunching sound as we walked.
“Where is the tree house?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Arizona responded. “It’s just been so long. I wonder—oh, there it is!”
I glanced up into the trees and saw a wooden platform with wooden railings. It wasn’t very high up and it seemed smaller. In fact, it looked like it was built by children. That was funny to think.
“I know this seems ridiculous ’cause we’re all grown up,” Arizona began, “But I’m going in.”
I watched form below as it took three steps for him to climb up into it. He looked largely out of proportion to it, which made me laugh.
“Come up here!” he called.
I thought about it. Then I hoisted myself up onto the platform.
“This is silly,” I giggled. “I can’t believe you’re making me do this.”
“What?” Arizona chuckled. “Is it not okay for us to have fun while we’re here? This may be the last time we see this old tree house.”
The floor was caked with a thick blanket of dirt, and there were so many oak leaves scattered on the floor that the wood wouldn’t have been able to be seen. White balls of cobwebs from over the years had accumulated in every corner. Everything looked nasty and unrecognizable. It was too dirty for me to want to sit down.
“So, what do you think?” Arizona inquired.
“It’s very dirty!” I replied.
Then Arizona lowered his body in attempt to sit down, smiling at me. I was a little confused by what he was doing, but then it finally hit me! My heart leaped into my throat and that friendly feeling of butterflies returned to my stomach. I tried not to let him know I was excited, but it was hard to hide it. There was a twinkle in his blue eyes as he bent over. I was more than ready to hear what he was going to say.
But my expectations were let down when he stood back up again. He was a little red in the cheeks. I felt stupid for expecting something like that from him at that moment. I guess I was just a little too excited and ready, especially since he was literally two feet away from me bending down in position.
We both waited in an awkward silence for several minutes.
“I think we should get going,” Arizona finally said.
I had to admit, I was disappointed.
Arizona climbed down the trunk first. When he reached the bottom, he grabbed for my hand and helped me down as if the tree house was high up.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Oh, what do you think?” I said as I wiped the dirt from my pants. “You bend down and get my hopes all high!”
“Oh, you’re talking about that,” he replied awkwardly. “Well um, will you take my hand?” He laughed.
I couldn’t help but laugh myself.
The sun was just disappearing behind the distant mountains. The colors of the sunset had faded into the darkness of twilight. The stars and moon were beginning to come out, and the man on the moon smiled down at us. We were leaving the tree house forever. I knew that the only time I’d ever see it again was in a memory. But then again, that was the best way of going back, wasn’t it?
We weren’t too far from the tree house when Arizona came to an abrupt stop. It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to think. He knelt down on one knee and pulled the ring out.
“Betsy,” he said slowly and eloquently, “Will you take me as your lawful husband?”
He held up the ring. It was simply golden and thick, and had a single moderate sized tanzanite diamond engraved in the side. The diamond was as bluish-purple as the ocean and as deep as Arizona’s piercing, blue eyes. On the inside the words I love you, Betsy were engraved in italics. The ring was so simple, yet so gorgeous and elaborate at the same time.
A flood of joy washed over me like an ocean wave. I thought I was expecting it, but I was so surprised that it was as if I wasn’t expecting it at all.
“Yes,” I said ecstatically and without hesitation.
He took my left hand in his and slipped the ring on. Then he gently pressed his lips down. I felt like I was the princess and he was the prince.
We held hands all the way back, neither of us wishing to speak. I was so happy that I could hardly wait to get back to the house and tell the news.
James and Corey both had Arizona’s dazzling blue eyes.
They both grew up to be stars on the football team in high school, just like their father. They were both fast runners like their father as well.
Samantha had my good looks. As her mother, I had to say she was drop-dead gorgeous in every way. She had my hazel green eyes and lengthy, brown hair. Her teeth were naturally straight—from her father—and her hands and feet were as small and petite as mine. She had my bright smile and cheery attitude.
It wasn’t long before the three of them were off to college. It was a rather lonely experience to watch the kids leave home even though I knew they’d come back in the summer. I knew I’d miss James’s bold, mature, and independent personality. I’d miss Corey’s handsome looks and Samantha’s perks.
Seasons came and seasons went. Years flew by. I felt age gaining on me, but my love for Arizona never died. I was sure he felt the same way.
One summer evening we were sitting on the front porch steps watching the stars together. I sat in my own rocking chair, thinking about all the things in life. I thought about how it’s the simple things that make life fun, like a walk in the rain with my best friend or a birthday party at the park. Or even a tree house.
Every night we watched the stars from the porch. We wondered about the mysteries of space, and Arizona kept telling me that his love for me was as wide as space. I couldn’t believe I was sitting next to the boy I’d known since the second grade. It was mind-boggling to think that we’d been together for so long. He was my best friend, and he would always be my best friend.
As the night aged, so did Arizona and I.
Before leaving the porch to go inside, Arizona and I looked at each other. His eyes were as bright and young as they’d always been.