They lived close enough to school to walk home, usually, but Marshall’s mom drove straight from skills lab to make the spelling bee. Now, the spelling bee over, his mom nosed the car out of its spot and they headed down Edith Street.
“That’s not right,” she said. “That’s how the lady said it. ‘Sur-seize.’ You spelled it like she said it and she said it wrong.” She laughed, a laugh like a half-erased period at the end of a sentence. His mom had a habit of smiling and laughing at the weirdest times, like now.
“It’s okay,” said Marshall. But it wasn’t. He had done the wrong thing somehow. Marshall and the fifth-grade girl were in the fortieth round when he had noticed. He spelled A-S-P-I-R-I-N and the pronouncer-lady had said, “That is correct,” and Marshall smiled so huge that his teeth showed and then he sat down again and that was when he looked out into the audience and saw that his dad was gone. His mom was there in the same place but the seat to the right of her was empty. Flipped closed.
The spelling bee was the wrong thing to do. He should have spent the last six weeks outside, not inside clicking through words on the spelling club website on his mom’s computer. He should have spent the last six months outside, not sitting in a fourth-grade classroom. School was his mom’s idea. But his dad had never said the spelling bee was the wrong thing to do, so how was Marshall supposed to know?
In the back seat, Marshall took the baseball cap out of his backpack. His mom bought it for him at the bookshop at her new school. She was studying to be a nurse. She had always wanted to be a nurse. Marshall never knew that. His mom told him this last June, the same time that she told him they were moving from the mountain. She had told him she wanted to help people, all different kinds of people.
He moved the cap from his right knee to his left and back again, to keep from thinking: wrong wrong wrong.
“I’m so proud of you,” his mom said. “Forty-one rounds. I saw how everyone looked at you. To stand up there on stage like that! To spell words you hadn’t studied, even. I hope you feel proud.”
Outside the window, a finger of the Ellerbee Creek snaked under the sidewalk and beneath the asphalt. Near the intersection with Virgie Street a low stand of trees threw their naked arms up along the road. Crepe myrtles. Lagerstroemia indica. Marshall had looked up the real name, the Latin name, back in the fall. He used his mom’s computer for that. She bought the computer over the summer, just before she had started school. And before he started school.
On the left their small yard came into view, pinned down by one giant willow oak. His mom’s cousin owned the house they were living in now; he was renting it to them for cheap. The rental house sat, squat and blue, on the corner. It faced west toward Hale Street, but there was nothing to block the view, you saw the yard and house from the back and also from the side as you came up Green Street from school. If Marshall was in the yard in the morning or the evening he saw folks walking their dogs and jogging and they saw him.
On the short drive home from school, from the spelling bee, Marshall didn’t ask where his dad went. He didn’t ask at dinner and he didn’t ask at bedtime. His mom didn’t say.
The day after the spelling bee, when they were leaving for school, his mom told him that his dad was sorry to miss the rest of the bee, sorry to miss saying goodbye. He had to make a big decision, she said, and he didn’t want to distract Marshall by talking about it, with the spelling bee coming and all. Marshall didn’t know about the job his dad was offered, the job with the farm in Costa Rica. They practically begged his dad to come, she said. It was a good opportunity. Marshall didn’t know about the job till his mom told him right then.
“Saying goodbye is hard,” his mom said. Then she got distracted, locking up, and she didn’t say anything else about it.
On Friday night his dad finally called. He told his dad about the alder trees, alnus serrulata, how the tiny pink buds were shoving out above the drooping catkins now. He hadn’t noticed on the way to school that day but he noticed on the walk home.
Linda and Serena owned everything, back at the mountain. They were the ones that had bought the land with the abandoned Christmas tree farm, before his parents had ever met them. They were the ones who had fixed up the old house. They bought the chicks and goats, they dug the pond, they started the little library in the shed.
Marshall and his mom and dad had lived upstairs. They had lived there since he was three. His dad built the water system for Linda and Serena. He tested the soil, started the apple orchard. His dad was working on cheese, too, up until the three of them left West Jefferson for Durham in July.
Downstairs, on the kitchen calendar, the week was divided up into “L/S” days, when Linda and Serena cooked, and “M/D” days, for Micah and Deirde. His parents traded off cooking duties, each making dinner on their own on the nights that were assigned to them. Their last year on the mountain, Marshall’s dad had started to teach him all the steps of the recipes he liked to make on his cooking nights. “Every man should know his way around the kitchen,” his dad said, in a way that meant that’s that, no arguing.
The best thing, every year, was the morning that his dad’s hand would reach through the dark and waggle Marshall’s shoulder till he woke up. They’d get the batter made as the light came through the windows, turning Marshall soft and periwinkle in his veins, his heart, his lungs. They would play cards while the scones baked. His dad always let him drizzle the icing over the top. And then, every year on her birthday morning, his mom would eat her breakfast scone in bed. She’d sit up against the pillows, serious, eyes closed. When she was done she’d give his dad a kiss and then she’d look at Marshall and smile huge, teeth and all.
His dad was away last year on his mom’s birthday. He had to go to Knoxville to teach some people about the soil in their zone, USDA 6B and USDA 7A. The people wanted to learn from his dad how to grow grapes in upland forest.
It was his mom’s last birthday on the mountain and a month before Marshall’s. He didn’t know it then, that they were leaving. His mom must have known it; they only moved a few months later. Linda and Serena had made a cake. It was a stack-cake, with the last of the Flat Fallawater apples sliced and fried in sugar and spooned over the top. Marshall helped. The four of them—Linda, Serena, Marshall, and his mom—ate their slices right there at the counter, standing up, crumbs falling all over.
Linda flexed her fingers and knuckled the top of her head under her stubby hair and complained that her arthritis was acting up again. “I just don’t want to go back on the meds, is all,” she said. “I know I’m stubborn.” Marshall told her and Serena and his mom about how companies could make the medications cheaper, way cheaper, but they don’t because they know they can get away with it. He knew all about it from his dad.
He was almost nine then. He understood things, not like before, he knew the expression was “Big Pharma,” not “Big Farmer,” like he used to think. He knew about factory meat, even. He knew what stuffed shirts meant when his dad said it, talking about his old job teaching soil science at the university. Back in Georgia, where Marshall was born.
Serena pushed her plate away and put her arm around his mom’s shoulder. She squeezed till his mom laugh-yelped Serena’s name.
“Good Lord, you’re young,” Serena had said in her wobbly voice, shaking her head, her feather earrings brushing her neck. “You’ve got so much yet to do. The whole world’s out there, just waiting for you. You’ll see.”
On the walk home from school a week to the day after the spelling bee, Marshall was thinking about something else when he remembered the watch that his mom got him for Christmas, when he was seven and a half. A digital watch. After the battery died he had put it in a shoebox. The battery dying seemed like the kind of thing you tell your dad but his dad didn’t seem to hear him the two times Marshall mentioned it.
As Marshall walked he decided he would open the shoebox when he got home and take the watch out. He remembered the weight of it on his wrist, thought how good it would feel to see the seconds blinking past again. He could set the watch for even earlier than his mom’s alarm in the morning. Get dressed before she asked. He imagined the house at that hour, when it was silent and slow, before time sped up and he was running late for school again.
This was really all he planned, at first, when he thought of the watch on the walk home, the week after the spelling bee.
But now, another week later, he reached under the mattress when the beeping started. It was one o’clock in the morning. He pulled a sweatshirt over his long johns and put on his baseball cap and also his dad’s old work gloves.
The concrete blocks of the back porch sent stabs of cold through the soles of his feet and up his calves. Through the porch screen, he could make out the silhouette of the willow oak’s branches against the sky. The stars were closer on the mountain than they were in Durham. He would make sure to tell his mom that. She had stopped saying, I’m sorry Marshall honey and you’ll get used to it here when he mentioned things about the mountain, but he could tell that she heard him every time.
He sat down and leaned back against the door. He knew he wouldn’t last long tonight. He wasn’t prepared. Next time he would try sleeping on the porch. That way he’d get used to the cold before he moved on to sleeping outside.
He closed his eyes. The insides of his eyelids were purple, the color of flowering skullcap. Scutellaria incana. He imagined water flowing up the xylem from the root, up the stem, toward the leaves. Then there was a foot, toes pointing up, the sole pressed toward him, like in his mom’s anatomy book. The Tibial nerve running through the middle of the foot and then dividing into tributaries. The nerves, leafless branches nestled in the ropy red muscle.
He shuddered awake. He pushed the button on his watch and 1:53 flashed back at him. It was quiet. He could smell the calendula balm that his dad rubbed on his hands every winter. It smelled like rotten flower stems from the bottom of a vase, but smoother, brighter. He didn’t know where the scent came from. Maybe from the work gloves. It was a sign, he thought. That he had made a good decision, waking up and sitting out on the porch, even though it was creepy at first.
He took it as a sign that he had done something right.
He kept to himself and was just about average for height, so no one had bothered him much for being new when he started school, back in August. He didn’t tell the other kids he had never been to school before. He learned names he’d never heard of: Dionne, Sharif, Rayden, Araceli, Mariela.
He had left on his own at the end of the school day every day for a few weeks at the beginning of the year, before the vice-principal stopped him and asked his name. She said that Marshall needed a note from his mom or dad, giving him special permission to walk home by himself. No exceptions. “That’s the way we do it at this school,” she said.
Marshall had told his mom and dad about it at dinner that night. “Why do I need permission just to walk home by myself?” he asked.
His parents didn’t answer him at first. His mom shifted in her seat.
“They just want to keep you safe,” she said. “If that’s how it goes, then that’s how it goes. We don’t get to make the rules.”
“What do they think’ll happen?” he asked. “I won’t get lost. Why do they have to treat me like a baby?”
“I told you,” his dad said. He didn’t seem to be talking to Marshall. “Rewarding submission. That’s how it is. With responsible adults, I mean.” He said this last thing like he was making fun, like when some of the girls in class leaned toward each other, mouthing Ms. Finney’s words when she turned away.
His dad had crossed his arms then, smiling, waiting for Marshall’s mom to say something back. She didn’t. His mom banged her water glass down and left the kitchen and shut the door to their bedroom.
She didn’t come out again until it was time to turn out Marshall’s light.
“I’ll send you with a note tomorrow,” she said. “Your dad and I agree that you are old enough to walk home on your own.”
Marshall’s mom had walked him to school the next day, like every morning. When he opened the door to Stairway A and turned to wave goodbye, he saw her standing by the lobby entrance, speaking to the vice-principal. His mom seemed to have a lot to say. Maybe she was telling the vice-principal about how hard it was for his dad to find a job. His dad was helping with a new orchard out in Rougemont but they only needed him through the spring, and he didn’t get the soil conservation grant that he applied for.
The vice-principal had patted his mom on the arm, nodding and then shaking her head and then nodding again. Like a branch lolling in the wind.
In early March the chorus frogs down by the creek started making their squeaking-door sound all night and Marshall’s dreams turned weird and bad. And then, one night, he burrowed into his sleeping bag and dreamed of Cyrus. Cyrus from the mountain.
Cyrus lived there for a while with his mom and his two brothers in a camper, past Duck Pond, where the gravel sloped down to the old Christmas tree farm. There were three boys, homeschooled like Marshall was back then, and each of them had brown hair that grew past his shoulders, longer even than Marshall’s hair. Cyrus was the middle brother. He was six.
The dream started out like it really happened: there are red and yellow leaves on the trees but not many. Mist rolls along the trail, up on the slope. At first Cyrus’s mom and Marshall’s mom are both calling, “Cy-rus! Cy-rus!” like they’re playing Marco Polo. Then they are really yelling his name. Their voices echo along the ridge but no one answers.
This was how the dream began, just like it happened.
And then, in the dream, Marshall realizes he is not walking but flying above the rocks and the rotting oak leaves, not too far off the ground but high enough to move fast with no fear of tripping. He is far ahead of the two women, going faster and faster, moving his head to see up and down the slope. He is sure he’ll find Cyrus before they do.
And then Marshall is pinned to the ground, face down. At first he thinks he feels hands on his shoulders and his back but then there is a flapping movement against the light, just out of his vision, above him. It must be feet or talons crushing his body against the roots and stones. He wants to yell for help but his mouth is in the dirt, he can’t pick up his head. And then his dad is standing there watching, telling him pretend it’s a butterfly in an impatient voice and Marshall can’t breathe.
That was the dream. Marshall woke up from it gasping for air. He flipped onto his back and felt that he had rolled up against the fat trunk of the willow oak, the only real tree in his yard, three times as high as anything around it. He stuck his head out of the sleeping bag.
A man stood at the curb, resting a bike against his hip. Plastic bags full of bottles and cans dangled from the handlebars. Marshall couldn’t see the man’s face in the shadows but there was a kind of stillness there, the man was watching but mostly resting. “Young man,” he said, as if he wanted to ask Marshall a question, ask him for directions, maybe. Marshall put his head down on his arms and when he looked up again the man was gone.
He decided that this was a dream, too.
He thought of his white sheets and his quilt and the next thing he knew he was on the porch and then in the kitchen, he couldn’t even remember standing up or walking. He pulled the back door closed behind him with too much force, but he was still pretty quiet and his mom’s door stayed shut.
He couldn’t take his eyes away from the illustration of the hypoglossal nerve, the cross-section of mouth and throat, in his mom’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. The book was wedged open on his lap.
His mom sat next to him on the couch, craning her head to see. “Learn anything new?”
“More enlightening than your homework, I bet. Smarty pants.” She laughed. Her two front teeth were long, like his, like a rabbit’s. She was pretty, so it didn’t matter that her teeth were so big.
“I’ve got something cool to show you,” she said. She finished combing her hair out with her fingers and pulled her backpack up beside her. She unzipped the outer pocket and felt around. She told Marshall to close his eyes and then to open them.
She held the thing pointing up, like a tiny missile. It was about as long as Marshall’s hand. He could see the needle through the thin plastic tip. A pink knob stuck out from the side, the size and shape of a spool of thread.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s called a cannula.”
“That’s Latin,” he said. “Isn’t it.”
“Yes,” she said. “One ‘n’ or two?”
He rolled his eyes. “Two?”
“That is correct,” his mom said, mimicking the spelling bee pronouncer-lady from school. She nudged Marshall with her knee, making sure he got the reference, and he grinned, he couldn’t help it.
“You use it to insert an I.V. into the patient’s vein,” she said.
“Have you done that?”
“I’m starting to.”
She told him to get an orange from the kitchen. She held it against the surface of the coffee table and then she stuck the cannula in, slowly. When she retracted the needle, a few drops of orange juice trickled into the tube.
“It’s called flashback,” she said. She told him that the important thing was to penetrate the wall of the vein without pushing it all the way through and out the other side. It’s easy to screw it up, she said, even really good nurses do it wrong, sometimes. “When the blood flows into the cannula from the vein, you know you’ve got it,” she said. “Then you attach the tubing and connect the I.V. You get the patient hooked up to what they need.”
She pulled the tube out of the orange. Marshall thought of something he saw in computer lab, researching tropical diseases for a science project. On the screen, at school, a stripe-legged mosquito was poised against a magnified patch of human skin, its proboscis descending through the surface. Marshall shivered now to think of it.
He could research tropical diseases right there at home, on his mom’s computer. His mom told him this over and over. The computer’s right there, sweetie, any time you want to use it. All you have to do is ask. He can look up anything he wants to learn about, she said.
But he wouldn’t do it. No way. Sucking up information from the screen like a zombie. He could just go outside and use his eyes and ears and hands and nose and tongue. That’s how you learn.
His mom covered the tube and needle with a cylindrical cap. Marshall reached for it, turned it in his hand.
His mom touched his knee so that he stopped jumping and jiggling his leg.
“I want you to know that you can talk about anything with me,” she said. “Anything that’s bothering you. Anything you’re feeling.”
He rubbed the cannula between his fingers.
“It’s okay to be sad,” she said.
“I’m not sad,” he said.
“It’s okay to be angry, too. Are you angry with me? With your dad?”
“When is Dad coming back?” There. He said it.
“I don’t know, Marsh.”
He considered this. It felt good to vibrate his body while he thought so he let his knee do its jiggling thing again.
“After this year is over, can I stop going to school?”
“Huh,” his mom said. She smoothed her face into its cheerful version. “I thought you liked being in school now. And what about Victor? He’s a good friend, you know that? You’re just blossoming, sweetie. It seems to me. It’s such a great opportunity. It’s good to be a part of things.”
“I know you’re busy with nursing school and all,” he said. “I know you really like it. So maybe I could go and stay with Dad this summer, by myself,” he said, as if this was the first time he’d thought of it. Like he just figured out the answer to a challenge-plus math problem in class. “I could help him out and learn all about the plants there.”
“Marshall.” His mom rubbed her face. The sun through the window lit up her hair like a white fire. He had told her he didn’t feel sad and it was true then but now, suddenly, he did feel sad and he rolled his lips together, back and forth, trying to draw the prickling feeling away from his eyes. It worked.
“Dad doesn’t want me to be in school anyway,” he said. “I could learn way more with him in Costa Rica, on the farm he’s helping. Then you could come, too, when you’re all done with school next year.”
His mom stood. She picked up the cannula. “I hope I don’t need to tell you that things like this are only for me to touch. I just thought you’d find it interesting to see.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I’m not going to mess with the cannula,” he said.
“I need to figure something out for dinner,” she said. “Spaghetti okay?” She rested her elbows against the window and looked out at Green Street, away from him.
“Yeah, spaghetti,” said Marshall.
“It’s good to be a part of things,” his mom said, still looking out the window. “It’s true,” she said, like she was arguing, though Marshall never said it wasn’t true.
His dad called a few days later while Marshall was scrubbing blackened sweet-potato goo from the baking sheet. His mom answered and took the phone to the living room. After a few minutes, she brought the phone to Marshall, handed it to him.
“Those dogwoods must be in full bloom,” his dad said.
“Cornus florida,” said Marshall.
“Yeah, they are,” he said.
“Beautiful, though,” his dad said.
He almost told his dad about recess the other day. On the playground, he told Victor and Keely about how, when the centers of the dogwood flowers turn pink, you can squeeze the juice into your mouth. No way, they said. No way. He had promised to bring a blossom, to show them. But he wouldn’t bring up school on the phone unless his dad talked about it first. It was an experiment.
His dad didn’t ask about what was happening at school and so Marshall bit his tongue until it watered.
“You should see the stuff that grows here,” his dad was saying. He described the soft red spikes of a rambutan, how it looked like something from a coral reef. He was growing pineapple, bananas, peppers, cacao.
“It’s a neotropic ecozone,” Marshall said.
“Exactly. The soil is totally different here, Marsh. I’m learning as I go. I should be paying them,” he said. Marshall laughed a little bit, it seemed like he was supposed to.
“And man, if you think the mosquitos are bad in Durham,” his dad said.
He thought again about the mosquito on the computer screen at school. He had to go to computer lab; he didn’t have a choice. He wanted to tell his dad this but he didn’t. The experiment again. He wanted to tell his dad, too, that he hadn’t touched his mom’s computer. I won’t even look at it there on her desk, he wanted to say, but he didn’t. He never got the chance.
“Marsh, I’ve got to go. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
His mom wrapped up an ice pack in a dishtowel for her headache and she went to bed early. Marshall took a pint of mint chip ice cream from the freezer. He remembered not to eat straight out of the container; he washed his bowl out, afterward. He wasn’t a little kid anymore.
He meant to set his watch and sleep outside but he fell asleep on the couch with his baseball cap on his stomach.
It was almost spring break, when she found out.
Marshall dreamed that a giant with one glowing eye kneeled down to him in a sickening swoop of motion. He jolted awake to find his mom shining a flashlight in his face. She told him to pick up his sleeping bag, to come inside right now. He knew at once that the long nights outside were done with: the rustling branches, the dew in his hair, the crazy, half-lit dreams. The tired, rust-colored feeling behind his eyes in class, at lunch, at recess.
Next thing he knew, he was sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor with his hands over his ears. His mom sat down across from him, her legs crossed, like she was a kid.
“What were you doing out there, Marshall?”
“Dad did it. When he was growing up. He said so. He said that he slept outside all the time. In the rain, even. In the snow.”
“Your dad exaggerates,” she said.
He closed his mouth as tight as his mom’s, tighter.
“Please tell me this is the first time you did this. Slept out there by yourself. Without me knowing.”
He said nothing.
“How long has this been going on?”
He balled himself up, mumbled into his knees. “Since a few weeks after the spelling bee.”
“That was more than a month ago,” she said.
She lunged for him, pulled his right hand away from his right ear and his left hand away from his left ear, pinned his palms to the floor with her own.
He squirmed away. “It’s not like it was every night.”
“No? Every other night?”
“More like two times a week. Sometimes three.”
“Two or three times a week,” she said. “And I slept through it, all this time.”
She laughed in two hard bursts and looked up at the ceiling; he could see the roof of her mouth, even in the shadows.
“What if someone found you out there?” she said.
“Who? Dad? Dad would like it if I slept outside.”
“No, not Dad.”
“Someone from our street? You think someone from our street is going to get upset about it? Who cares? I’m not hurting anybody.”
She grabbed him by the wrist. “Out there in plain sight, in the middle of the night, in nothing but a sleeping bag, with Hillsborough Road and the tire shops one street over. What kind of mom lets her little boy do that?”
“I’m practically ten.”
“There’s homeless people pitching tents down by the creek, did you know that? In the woods across from school. Not two blocks away.” She was shaking his wrist now like she was trying to wake him from a coma. “I’d hardly blame the neighbors for calling social services on me, if they wanted to.”
“Why would someone do that?”
“I’d hardly blame them for doing it. And I didn’t even notice what you were up to, all this time.” She clamped her mouth shut, opened it again. “Did you tell Dad that you were sleeping outside? Did you plan this with him?”
“No,” said Marshall. “Stop yelling. Are you crazy?”
“I thought we were doing just fine here on our own,” his mom said. “The two of us.” Her voice was closing up like she was going to cry. “That’s what I thought.”
That’s when his mom looked at his left wrist, still in her hand.
“Where did that come from?” she asked.
He looked at his wrist too. And then he knew that, like in a game, she had played the wrong card. She couldn’t take it back, she had messed up. He would win.
“This watch?” His eyes were slits. “This watch? You gave me this watch. For Christmas, two years ago. You don’t even remember!”
His mom sat back. “I remember. I thought you lost it.”
“I didn’t lose it. I saved it. Even though the battery died and no one ever fixed it.”
It was his dad he told about the battery. It was his dad who didn’t fix it. But Marshall didn’t say that. Not to his mom. No way.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, Marshall. I’m glad you saved it.”
“Ms. Finney got a battery for me.”
He knew, right then, that glad was exactly what he didn’t want his mom to be.
“Here,” he shouted. “I don’t want this stupid thing anyway. I hate it.”
It was hard for him to unbuckle the stiff plastic band but he managed. The watch flew, a perfect comet arc, past his mom’s head and across the kitchen. He punted the sleeping bag out of his way, put his hands back over his ears. He left his mom sitting on the kitchen floor.
His mom used to get home about twenty minutes after him, most days. But after she caught him sleeping outside that night, she got permission to leave class ten minutes early for the rest of the semester and she made sure to be back by 3:30. She drove straight home from Durham Tech so that she could pick him up from school, every single day. She lined up with the other parents till the vice-principal called out “Marshall Henning.” No more walking home by himself.
Marshall stood when the vice-principal called his name. He adjusted his backpack, walked through the forest of seated kids to the sidewalk outside. The vice-principal said, “See you tomorrow, Marshall,” and he waved a floppy hand back over his shoulder at her.
He didn’t greet his mom. She walked in front of him and he looked at the back of her head and then at each of the cars in the pick-up line as he walked by.
They crossed Edith Street and headed west on Green, passing the dip where the creek bubbled up on the right side of the road. That is where he thought of Cyrus. Ever since the dream, since his mom started picking him up from school and walking him home, he thought of Cyrus at exactly that moment every day. He wasn’t sure why.
He remembered asking his mom, after the scare with Cyrus, if the boy and his brothers were magic, maybe. He and his mom had been reading The Hobbit together before bed and elves were on his mind. “No, they’re real boys,” his mom had said. “They’re just a little wild.”
Cyrus was okay after all. He had doubled back, he hadn’t even been out in the woods alone for all that long. While they were out yelling for him that afternoon he was in Marshall’s room drawing cartoons. He had never come upstairs in the house before but he found Marshall’s room, no problem.
It was just a few days later that Cyrus’s mom and the three boys packed up and left. It seemed to Marshall that they simply vanished. He asked at dinner where they went.
“We don’t know, honey,” his mom had said. “We think they maybe went to Virginia. They have some family there.” Everyone else was quiet.
Linda cleared her throat and ran a hand through her hair. It was so short that Marshall could see her scalp beneath her fingertips. “Those boys needed some attention from a responsible adult. I hope they get it.”
His dad didn’t look up when he spoke but Marshall could tell that he was talking to Linda. “Let’s not pretend, okay? Let’s not pretend you didn’t make the call about the boys,” he said. “Let’s not pretend.”
His mom stood up and put her hand on Marshall’s shoulder. “Why don’t you run upstairs and start the tub? We can clean up.”
Until the sound of the rushing water drowned out the rest, he heard a few things. His mom didn’t say anything at first. Either Linda or Serena said, “Now, Micah,” in an angry voice, probably Linda. His dad didn’t yell; he never yelled when he was mad. Marshall could hear him talking loud and slow, like a big bell clanging. He said either, “ticked off the county” or “tipped off the county,” he wasn’t sure which one.
He heard the next part, between his parents, perfectly.
His mom said, “Those little boys. Don’t they deserve better? That’s all anybody wants. That can’t be wrong.”
“There’s no taking back authority,” his dad said, “once you give it away.” He said it in his loudest not-yelling voice.
Then Marshall had turned on the water and got into the tub.
Like every day on the walk home from school, on this day he finished thinking of Cyrus by the time he and his mom passed the crepe myrtles. He peeled off when they reached the yard. He could feel his mom turn her head to watch him, before she rounded the corner and mounted the steps to the front door. He hadn’t spoken to her on any of the walks home since they started two weeks before.
He crouched at the edge of the yard where the creek passed by. It didn’t smell like a creek was supposed to, like wet rocks and Rhododendron catawbiense. Rhododendron didn’t grow much where they lived now. Broken bottles nested in the creek. There was an empty plastic bag, shredded up and caught on a low bush that he didn’t know the name for. A school bus rattled past on Green Street.
If I’m just answering her questions at dinner, it doesn’t count, he thought. It was an experiment. If he didn’t say anything to her first, he had kept his secret promise to himself. If his dad called that night—that night—then Marshall would talk to her again.
Even though it was only April the temperature had spiked upward suddenly, an early heat wave. It was too hot in that little house, even with the windows open, to eat pizza for dinner. But that was what they were going to eat. Lately pizza was Marshall’s favorite food. He knew his mom was trying to make him happy. Fine: he’d eat the pizza, but it didn’t mean he had to talk to her about his day.
His mom called from the door. “I’ll be back soon,” she said. “Mrs. Bivins is home, I see her car. Knock on her door if you need anything, okay?”
She had tried to make him come along to pick up the pizza but decided, in the end, not to make a big deal of it. It’s as if she could hear what Marshall was thinking: I bet Dad would let me stay home by myself.
His birthday was coming up, on April twelfth. He would be ten. Last year, when they still lived on the mountain, his mom took him down to Boone for his ninth birthday. They had wandered in and out of the stores on King Street. “I’m a city girl, you know,” his mom said. At the big general store, she let him fill a bag with candy: gummy colas, Necco Wafers, salt-water taffy, a translucent lollipop with a tiny worm at its center. They walked up a winding street and saw a yard dotted with mannequins in aprons, a house with a mural of the solar system painted on its side. After lunch, she took him to the library in town.
She signed them up for computer time and then she logged him in. She showed him how to do a web search and sat beside him, looking on, for forty-five minutes. Marshall didn’t talk. He hardly breathed. There was so much, so much to see. Then they had looked for books. They checked out Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth, he still remembered that, too. It happened almost a year ago.
Now he heard his mom’s car idling and then he heard her drive away. She was going to Lilly’s for the pizza which meant she wouldn’t be back for a while, it always took forever there.
His dad hadn’t called since last week. Maybe he would call tonight. He hoped his dad would send something for his birthday, rambutan or dragonfruit, maybe. He wondered what they tasted like.
This was what he was thinking about when he sat down at the desk, the desk in his mom’s room. He hadn’t planned to do it. He just did it. He slid into the chair and rested his hands on the white surface, took a breath.
He hadn’t sat at the desk in a long time, since the winter, since his dad left.
His heart sped now to think of what they used to do together, he and his mom. She would stand outside the bedroom door. So that when his dad came home—he was still helping out with the orchard in Rougemont then—he wouldn’t find Marshall like that again. In front of the computer. Like a zombie, his dad had said about him, that time he caught Marshall at it, right after he started school. Hooked up to that damn thing, his dad had said.
And all that time he went along with his mom’s plan. Two against one. Not just the online spelling club. Other things, too—math games, animated stories. They did that for months. Secretly. From October to February, when his dad left. Then he stopped using the computer for good. She’s the one who thought of letting me use it, he thought. She’s the one. Not Marshall, no way, not him.
At his mom’s desk, everything was connected, he checked again to make sure. He drew the thin ledge out from under the top of the desk. The keyboard sat there. He rolled the ball of the mouse back and forth, nice and slow.
He had to be careful. He didn’t want his mom to catch him. He was using her stupid computer, that was true, but he wasn’t practicing math or researching Newton’s Third Law or writing a paragraph on Harriet Tubman. That’s what his mom wanted. No: he was using the computer for something important.
The search page sprang open. He typed “neotropical” into the box and then “herbarium.”
He would start with genus, he decided. Once he had learned the basics, he would move on to species. It wouldn’t take him long. He’d know about all the trees and plants. When they bloomed. What was edible, what was poisonous. He would know all this even before he got there, to Costa Rica. His dad would be proud of him, learning all this ahead of time. He wouldn’t have to tell his dad how he learned it.
He looked up at the screen and he wrote the letters down. They lined up like they were waiting for him. Like they were meant to move from ether to pixels to eyes to fingers and fall into place on the paper.
Aphelandra, he wrote.
He was remembering the words already.
Author Bio: Emily Alice Katz’s fiction has appeared recently in Sky Island Journal, Mud Season Review, and Kindred. She lives in Durham, North Carolina, with her family. You can read more about her writing and music here: https://emilyalicekatz.com/