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Prologue

Elliott

The old oak tree I’d climbed was one of a dozen or more on Juniper Street. I’d chosen that particular wooden giant because it was standing right next to a white picket fence—one just tall enough for me to use as a step to the lowest branch. It didn’t matter that the heels of my hands, knees, and shins were scraped and bleeding from the sharp bark and branches. Feeling the sting from the wind grazing over my open wounds reminded me that I’d fought and won. It was the blood that bothered me. Not because I was squeamish, but because I had to wait until it stopped oozing to keep it from smearing on my new camera.

Ten minutes after I was settled against the trunk, my backside balancing twenty or so feet in the air on a branch older than me, the crimson stopped seeping. I smiled. I could finally properly maneuver my camera. It wasn’t brand-new, but an early eleventh birthday present from my aunt. I usually saw her two weeks after my birthday, on Thanksgiving, but she hated giving me presents late. Aunt Leigh hated a lot of things, except for me and Uncle John.

I peered through the viewfinder, moving it over the endless acres of grass, wheat, and gently rolling hills. There was a makeshift alley behind the fences of the houses that ran along the street my aunt lived on. Two tire tracks bordering a strip of grass were all that separated the backyards of our neighbors from an endless sea of wheat and canola fields. It was monotonous, but when the sun set and oranges, pinks, and purples splashed across the sky, I was sure there was no place more beautiful.

Oak Creek wasn’t the desolate disappointment my mom described, but it was a whole lot of use tos. Oak Creek use to have a strip mall, use to have a TG&Y, use to have an arcade, use to have tennis courts and a walking track around one of the parks, but now it was empty buildings and boarded-up windows. We had only visited every other Christmas before Mom and Dad’s fights got so bad she didn’t want me to witness them, and they seemed to get worse in the summers. The first day of summer break, Mom dropped me off at Uncle John and Aunt Leigh’s after an all-night fight with Dad, and I noticed she never took off her sunglasses, even in the house. That’s when I knew it was more than a visit, that I was staying for the whole summer, and when I unpacked, the amount of clothes in my suitcase proved me right.

The sky was just beginning to turn, and I snapped a few pictures, checking my settings. Aunt Leigh wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type, but she’d felt bad enough for me to buy me a decent camera. Maybe she was hoping I’d stay outside more, but it didn’t matter. My friends asked for PlayStations and iPhones, and then they magically appeared. I didn’t get what I asked for very often, so the camera in my hands was more than a gift. It meant someone was listening.

The sound of a door opening drew my attention from the setting sun, and I watched a father and daughter carry on a quiet conversation as they walked into the backyard. The man was carrying something small, wrapped in a blanket. The girl was sniffling, her cheeks wet. I didn’t move, didn’t breathe, afraid they would see me and I would ruin whatever moment they were about to have. It was then that I noticed the hole next to the trunk of the tree, beside it a small pile of red dirt.

“Careful,” the girl said. Her hair was a little bit blonde, a little bit brown, and the red around her eyes from crying made the green in them glow.

The man lowered the small thing into the hole, and the girl began to cry.

“I’m sorry, Princess. Goober was a good dog.”

I pressed my lips together. The chuckle I was fighting was inappropriate, but still I found humor in a funeral for something with a name like Goober.

A woman let the back door slam behind her, her tightly wound, dark curls poofy in the humidity. She wiped her hands on a dish towel at her waist.

“I’m here,” she said, breathless. She froze, staring down into the hole. “Oh. You already . . .” She blanched and then turned to the girl. “I’m so sorry, honey.” As the mother stared at Goober, his small paw poking out of the baby blanket he’d been loosely wrapped in, she seemed to get more upset by the second. “But I can’t . . . I can’t stay.”

“Mavis,” the man said, reaching out for his wife.

Mavis’s bottom lip trembled. “I am so sorry.” She retreated to the house.

The girl looked to her father. “It’s okay, Daddy.”

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