The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Thoreau, Walden
"I'm not going, Stenny."
At ten o'clock on a June Wednesday, I sat on the wood deck of my childhood sky castle. My bare legs dangled in the coolness-kissed night air. I had hooked one arm around the railing for safety – not because I was afraid of falling, but because holding on seemed like the smart thing to do.
I stared into the darkness. I'd never given much thought to how high thirty feet was. Kingsway was visible through the branches of the nearby trees even though acres separated me from my home. The branches swayed in the wind, and a pink-white glimmer from the desk light in Dad's office winked at me.
Was Dad still working, still trying to sort out what he had called a misunderstanding?
Beside me, his shoulder brushing mine as he moved, Stenny pried a splinter from the railing. He set the piece of wood aflame and dropped the burning sliver over the edge.
I leaned forward, peering at the streak of light. I counted under my breath, calculating how long the flame would take to land on the mat of leaves beneath the tree house. Would the splinter start a fire? Would the sharp little spike impale an ant, flambéing a life that neither of us could see or even imagine? Did ants wander around at night? Why was I thinking about the lives of ants when everything in my own life had gone so wrong?
"Why not, Van?"
The flaming splinter landed, spluttered, and went out. The breeze that had extinguished the flame carried the scent of Stenny's body spray, a citrusy, almost girlish fragrance he layered on so thickly the mosquitoes were avoiding him. I should have thanked him for wearing the spray, since the mosquitoes weren't landing on me either, though they buzzed all around. But the overpowering scent made me want to sneeze.
Stenny shifted to face me. "Why don't you want to go?"
He was close enough to kiss, the way we had inside the tree house before worry took over again and I had wriggled away from him and come out onto the deck. His face was a pale white smudge in the moonless night, and I couldn't make out his expression. Could he really be so dense that he had to ask why I couldn't go to France with him?
No, he had an IQ in the genius range, and stupid wasn't a word I'd ever use to describe him.
"You know why not." I turned back to Kingsway, to the light shining in the window of Dad's office. The memory of how he'd looked earlier that afternoon – pale, shaky, and trying not to vomit – haunted me. "I have to be here for Dad."
"Why? What can you do for him here that you can't do in France? We're not traveling to Mars. You could call him every day. Besides, your mom's here for him. She's not going anywhere. Come on. Be practical."
"Now isn't the time for being practical. Dad needs me."
"I need you." He put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close.
I leaned against him. For a brilliant geek who reeked of girly citrus fragrance, he was solid, not soft at all.
"We've been planning our trip all year, Van. I got tickets and reservations and everything."
I was pretty sure he'd asked his father's assistant to make the actual travel plans for what he called our "gap summer," the three months between high school graduation and our first semester as freshmen at Harvard. Still, even if he hadn't done any of the work himself, he was excited about going, just the two of us exploring a place some people called the city of love. He wanted this summer to be our special time.
I wanted a special time for us too. But my life had changed. Didn't he understand how much my life had changed?
"I can't go away now. Calling Dad is not the same as being here."
"Almost the same." Stenny's tone edged toward sulky. His arm loosened around me. "Maybe better. Over there you wouldn't have to deal with the journalists and the photographers."
"Are they still out front?"
The shouting, jostling throng at the gated entrance to Summerpath that afternoon had bristled with microphones, cameras, recorders and rude questions. I was grateful for our community's harried guards, who were keeping them at bay and away from the residents. Away from my pale, shaken father.
"Yeah. There's even more than when the FBI came this morning." Stenny chuckled. "I counted. I think they're breeding."
On a different night, I would have laughed too. Tonight, I couldn't. Having the Federal Bureau of Investigation knock on the front door sucked the joy right out of a day. I rested my head against Stenny. His heart beat with the same pulse as the buzzing of the mosquitoes and the chirping of the bugs living among the tree leaves.
I looked at the big house where I'd grown up. From here, my life seemed storybook perfect. I wished I could sit here forever.
I said, "If the attention gets too overwhelming, I'll move into the tree house."
Stenny snorted. "Sure you will."
"I could. I could be…I don't know, like Thoreau at Walden." The idea held a lot of appeal. Living alone in the woods sounded so independent.
"This isn't the eighteen hundreds. You can't live in the woods on your own like Henry Thoreau did. You'd have to have permits or licenses." Stenny's tone was impatient. "Besides, if you'd actually done the work on that paper you turned in for Honors Lit, you'd know what Thoreau wrote in his book. He was trying to find something, not run away from something."
"I did the work. Part of the work, anyway. And I'm not running away. I'd be having an adventure."
"Forget that idea. You're not the outdoors type." He paused. When he spoke again, his tone no longer carried an edge. "Seriously, is the money a problem? I mean, I know the FBI probably took everything your dad has, but the main stuff is paid for, and I have enough allowance to cover whatever else we want to do."
I stiffened. He was making assumptions, both about me and about my dad. Or was he? Had the FBI taken Dad's money? I didn't know.
"The money isn't the reason I changed my mind. I told you, I want to be here for Dad. Having to face these lies is really hard on him."
Stenny was quiet, and I relaxed against him again. Was he trying to imagine what my dad was going through? A lot of our friends thought Stenny had a computer in place of a heart, but I knew a side of him no one else did. He was probably thinking of how my determination to stay with my dad proved my loyalty. Stenny appreciated loyalty. That was one reason why he loved me.
"Are you sure they're all lies, Van?"
I jerked back. "How could you even ask that question? Dad never cheated anyone in his life."
He shrugged, the movement almost imperceptible in the darkness. That little shrug stabbed into my heart the way I'd imagined the splinter impaling an ant. I scrambled up, stomped into the tree house, grabbed my sneakers, and jammed them onto my feet. My hands shook, and I couldn't tie the laces. I left them undone, stalked out to the deck, and glared at Stenny.
His shoulders hunched into his turtle look. He got that drawn-into himself expression whenever he was trying to think of what to say or how to fix whatever he'd already said that had turned out to be wrong.
Let him figure out what he'd done all by himself. This time I wasn't going to rescue him.
I went to the stairs that spiraled around the tree and jogged down, circling the thick trunk, one hand trailing along the polished railing.
Stenny clomped behind me.
I picked up speed and took the steps two at a time, feeling dizzy, and too hurt and angry to care. When I got to the bottom, I dashed across the clearing to the narrow path leading to Kingsway.
Stenny caught up with me at the edge of the woods. He grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. "I'm sorry, Van. For whatever I did."
His cluelessness hurt almost as much as his doubt. Maybe he did have a computer for a heart. "Are you really sorry? Or do you just think you ought to be?"
"I meant the FBI doesn't usually make mistakes."
"My. Dad. Never. Cheated. Anyone." I ground the words out and wrenched my arm away from him, growing hot on a fresh spurt of anger. "If you think he could, you don't know him at all. And if you think I'd leave him to face these lies by himself, you don't know me either."
"That's not true. I do know you."
"Go away, Stenny. Go to France for your precious gap summer and don't worry about me or my dad." I whirled from him, breaking into a run as I plunged into the woods.
He called my name. I refused to answer. My pulse pounded in my ears as I ran, headlong, through the darkness, away from him – and away from Kingsway, away from Dad's anguish, away from the unwanted spark of fear that Stenny might be right.
No, he was wrong. Wrong.
I tripped over my shoelace, fell to my knees. A stick jabbed into my leg. I started to cry, partly from the pain, partly because Stenny didn't understand me at all, and partly for Dad.
A branch cracked behind me and leaves rustled. I scrambled to my feet.
Stenny had come after me! He really did love me, enough to follow me, and…
Pete Hawthorn stepped out of the woods, holding a flashlight. The backglow lit his face, which was drawn into the frown he wore lately whenever he saw me, and his mouth turned down into a scowl. "Don't you have any sense at all, Dandy-Vandy?"
I should have known Stenny wouldn't traipse through the woods searching for me. Running through the dark wasn't his style. He'd use his phone.
My own phone, tucked in the pocket of my shorts, burst into the first bars of Boyfriend. I ignored the noise and poked a finger at Pete's chest. "Quit calling me that. Don't you have better things to do than skulk around the woods in the dark? Like maybe going to work?"
"I took the night off." He peered at me. "Why are you crying?"
"None of your business!" Then, as his words sank in, I asked, "Why'd you take the night off? Is Gus okay?"
"Gramps is the same as he always is." Pete slid the button on the flashlight and the bulb dimmed. "I stayed home because we heard the news about your dad. We're going to help, in whatever way we can." His voice barely carried across the small space between us, the words and tone sincere.
"That means a lot. Thanks. Tell Gus thanks too."
"Yeah." Pete turned the flashlight on bright again and waved it in a searching arc. "Where's the jerk-off? He leave you alone out here?"
My gratitude evaporated like dew off grass. I planted my hands on my hips as my phone played Boyfriend again. "Stenny's not a jerk-off, and he's probably at the tree house, where I left him."
"How nice to know he'll stay where you tell him to. At least you won't need to put a leash on him when the two of you are wandering around France." Pete narrowed his eyes. "The woods are really dark, Dandy-Vandy, in case you haven't noticed. Do you have a flashlight? Or am I gonna have to walk you home?"
I didn't need him to babysit me. I opened my mouth to say so, and then reconsidered as the sounds of the night surged around me. He was right. The darkness crackled with noises I hadn't paid much attention to during my rush to get away from the hurt of Stenny's doubt. The air seemed ominous too, full of a sickly-sweet odor, a combination of gasoline, motor oil, and damp dirt. The mix stunk the way I imagined zombies – or worse, vampires – would.
"Thanks, Pete. That's a good idea."
"I have them occasionally." He gestured with the flashlight. "The path's this way."
We strode along single file without speaking. The dry leaves crackled beneath our feet and the occasional haunting cry of a bird shredded the air.
"Nightingale," Pete said.
We reached the end of the path, coming out of the woods behind a row of bushes fencing Kingsway's open lawn. A line of solar lights illuminated the back yard, glowing against the pool cabana and the house's white walls beyond – big, ornate…and home.
I smiled despite my worries. "I love how pretty our house is at night."
Pete shut the flashlight off. "I'll send you pictures while you're enjoying your European adventure with the jerk-off."
I was turning to him when a man carrying a portable video camera dashed across the lawn. I gasped. "He's headed for the house! I have to warn Dad."
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