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Phoebe Comes Home

Copyright Š 2013 by John KixMiller Contact the author at: or at our website All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. ISBN: 978-0-578-12080-5 Printed in the United States of America

The Protectors of the Wood Series

Phoebe Comes Home John KixMiller

Illustrations by Carlos Uribe

Design and Production Team Jean-Pierre Barthelemy Ashley Willhite Geoffrey KixMiller Gideon Chase Jim Paul

To My Family It was bitter cold on the darkest night And the wind swept through the town There was screaming in the labor room And nurses all around With your big round eyes and solemn face You were light as a feather The dreams we dream together The dreams we dream together The city of blocks had people there I remember now their names In Middletown Grimbledy Trimble And his friends all still remain As the nights ran by the story grew As deep and dark as a river The dreams we dream together The dreams we dream together The children appeared on the field one day It was a bright September morn And found adventure waiting there And a brand new world was born It was a world I knew and could share with you And wish could live forever The dreams we dream together The dreams we dream together Could we build a city there On that field so wide Made of people not of things A city all outside That all who heard could see it there With life that lives forever A dream that lives forever A dream that lives forever

CONTENTS The Everything Dream


What Happened In Town


Unexpected Friends


What Glenda Had to Say


The Crossroads






Another Secret Garden




The Green Car


Party Business


The Uninvited


A Letter from Abby


A Team of Detectives


Phoebe Puts Her Foot in Her Mouth


Into the Forest


The Dreamstone Mirror


Chapter 1


Back home in Middletown, Phoebe couldn’t sleep. Her knee ached. She couldn’t get comfortable. It had been a hot night even for June, when suddenly the coolness of the forest air began to drift in through the half opened window. The wind had changed. The odor of the Forest Preserve, just beyond the field across the street, began to permeate everything, smelling of leaves and pine needles and some flower Phoebe couldn’t name. The tension of a coming storm filled the air. Excited and scared, she lay in the darkness, her energy rushing and bubbling and frothing inside her like a river in flood. The possibility of empty weeks stretching on ahead set her on the edge of panic. She sat up and glanced at the vague gray shapes in the bleak and empty room. A bit of silvery light filtered in through the window. Two bulging 30-gallon black garbage bags full of her clothes and shoes, and her backpack full of books and small treasures, lay in the middle of the floor where she had left them an hour before. She didn’t have the heart to unpack. She tried to relax, but fear and excitement raced through her veins. A distant roll of thunder sounded deep in the heart of the forest. The wind was rising, and the leaves trembled in the breeze. Phoebe fell into a daze, still aware of the cool wind on her bare feet, the rushing noise outside the window, and the panic rising from deep inside. Without warning she was stunned by a shattering crash, a vibration that ran right through her. A dark form was smashing up against the window. The crash came again, even louder. A flash of light glinted on a pair of eyes 1

PHOEBE COMES HOME pressed up against the windowpane. “Wake up!” roared a voice out of the darkness. Phoebe could feel her entire body shaking. She had the vivid sensation that she was lying on the skin of the earth, feeling the unfathomable pulsing of life beneath her. “This is for you! Look at me.” A body was there -- dark green with a silvery shimmer like scales of a fish. There were leaves on the body as if the creature had risen from the ground. The head was pointed and had no hair, and the eyes met hers with a greenish glint. “This is for you! Your time is coming! You must remember what I say.” An enormous clap of thunder shook the earth. The green being pushed against the glass; the piercing stare reached deeper --unspeakably sad, yet fierce, and urgent, begging her to understand. Phoebe found that she could speak: “What? What is for me?” she asked. “Everything is at stake.” The voice was now hushed. “Everything.” Terrified, she tried to stand up and run, but found herself blocked by thick pine trees in a dark forest. The rain streamed down her face and the wind blew her off balance. Her heart raced. “Where am I?” she called out. A violent gust of wind shook the trees, and the branches moved like snakes in the air. Using her hand to shield her eyes from the rain, she thought she could see a tunnel through the trees, a path of some kind, and she struggled toward the opening. Soon she could make out a building she would know anywhere. The toy store! It’s still there! And the coffee shop! Her eyes filled with tears of relief. And from out of nowhere the eyes appeared again before her. The voice shook the earth: “Everything is at stake! Everything!” Thunder cracked again just outside the window. Phoebe sat up with a start. Her feet were wet with the rain blowing through the screen. She sat blinking in the darkness, fingering the good-luck charm on her necklace, and breathing in gasps. She closed the window to within an inch of the sill. A strong current of air still carried the damp smell of the forest and the sound of rain. Phoebe was afraid to look out through the glass, terrified that she would see the eyes looking back.


THE EVERYTHING DREAM She put her feet on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed, her head in her hands. “My God. What’s happening to me?” she muttered. Thunder burst again, but far away. She couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever had come in search of her was still there at the window. On an impulse she stood up and switched on the light. She stared blankly past her garbage bags and backpack at a bare desk, a chest of drawers, and the door to a closet. A landscape painting hung in the center of the far wall, the only trace reminding her that this had been her mother’s room the previous autumn. Suddenly she emptied both garbage bags onto the floor, and her shoes and dirty clothes lay in a heaping pile. She unzipped her backpack and removed two small objects packed in crushed newspaper and rubber bands, and then her books and laptop. Her heart was still sprinting, and she paced around the room to let off the energy that seemed to be steaming out of her. She glanced at the two small bundles, and removed the rubber bands and newspaper. Inside were two figures carved by her father out of wood and painted. One was an image of Santa Claus with his bulging bag of toys, and the other was an image of the Good Fairy – with wings and dressed in white -- reaching out with a wand that had a silver star at the end of it. She stood these figures on top of the chest of drawers and looked them over carefully. They had survived the trip in perfect shape. For a moment they comforted her, and then the tears began to roll down her cheeks. She let out a sob and buried her face in her hands. After some time the tears slowly ebbed away. She sat on the edge of the bed with her hands clenched in fists, pressing into her legs. “Tomorrow. I have to go tomorrow. It can’t wait.” She had made the decision to leave college and come back home to work at the toy store weeks ago, but now it felt like a promise. She could still feel the eyes of the strange being upon her, judging her. Phoebe flicked off the light, and crawled under the covers where it felt safer. Soon she began to see the room in the glimmer of the moon. The world seemed to slow down. Everything became quiet. The storm had blown off and the rain had stopped. She felt transformed, though she couldn’t understand it. She opened the window wide and lay back down. Her body felt calmer, and she was overcome with the sense that there was something important for her to do. So long as I don’t go crazy first, she thought. Then she fell into a deep sleep. Phoebe awoke to a delicious warm breeze wafting in through the open


PHOEBE COMES HOME window, and sat up in the light of the morning. Her memories of the night before came back in a flood. She looked over at the figures of the Good Fairy and Santa Claus and felt reassured. I think I can handle this. She considered her dream; along with the fear of recalling it too vividly, she felt an unexplainable glow in her heart. She looked out the window, across the street and across the field, to where the vast woods and the Half Moon Cliffs rose in the distance. This huge forest had been a looming presence in her life as long as she could remember, always visible from her window in the loft over the store. She thought of her parents, for the past few months living together in the greenhouse at the Middletown Garden Center, only a few steps from the forest. Her gaze shifted to the inside of the room and the chaotic pile of clothes and shoes left from the night before. She began pulling out her shoes and arranging them according to age against the far wall. Phoebe had a special ritual to begin each morning, of scanning her shoes and deciding which pair best fit her hopes for the day. Soon a long row of twenty-four pairs seemed to march across the floor like pieces of her life, moving from childhood to almost eighteen years old. She carefully examined the sequence of shoes, and dwelled on those from long ago, some too small or too damaged to wear. She zeroed in on a pair that she rarely wore now, a pair of indoor soccer shoes. One day before a big tournament she hadn’t been able to decide between her red pair and her black pair, and finally chose to wear one of each. That day she did not allow a goal in five 20-minute games in the huge gym in Evansville High School. By the finals it seemed that the entire gym was screaming for her, as her underdog Half Moon Ravens beat the home team Evansville Wildcats for the championship. I need some of that luck today, Phoebe thought, and chose the red and black shoes, ignoring the Nike high tops that she had been wearing recently. That decision made, she put on her dirty jeans from the day before. Out of habit she felt her pockets for her wallet, key ring, and cell phone. The keys were now mostly useless, and she removed all but the one for the house she was in, the one for the toy store gate, and the one for the toy store front door. She just couldn’t let the store keys go. Then she checked her phone and noted for the third time since arriving in Middletown that there was still no service near the forest. She tossed the phone and the useless keys into the desk drawer, and looked over at the pile of clothing that lay scattered in the middle of the room. Nothing was clean; but she picked out a navy blue tee shirt with a yellow Half Moon Soccer Club logo and put on her socks and 4

THE EVERYTHING DREAM the red and black shoes. Her knee brace peeked out from underneath some shirts, but she ignored it, and walked to the bathroom, her right knee stiff and straight. After rinsing her face, she caught her eyes in the mirror. I don’t think I’m crazy, but I do look different. Something’s not the same, she thought. She took her charm on its silver chain out from under her tee shirt and studied it in the mirror. It felt strange to be back in Middletown, as if she were in a new body and hadn’t quite gotten used to it yet. Phoebe limped down the stairs and into the hot, fragrant atmosphere of the kitchen, and poured herself a cup of coffee. Even with the door open to the backyard, her sister Penny’s baking raised the temperature of the kitchen by ten degrees. Penny sat on the little porch just outside the door. Phoebe joined her there at a small table half-covered by a breadboard and a large brown loaf of bread still steaming from a fresh cut slice. They had barely spoken the night before, even though they hadn’t seen each other for months. Phoebe had arrived late and claimed exhaustion and a headache to excuse herself. Now they tried to behave casually, as if their relationship had not been interrupted. Blinking in the bright sunshine, Phoebe slid into an open chair. The girls nodded at each other. Penny broke off a small piece of bread and nibbled at it, frowning. “Is this the newest experiment?” asked Phoebe. “It is,” said Penny. “But I’m not sure it’s what I’m looking for yet.” She cut a slice for Phoebe. “What d’you think? Don’t burn your mouth.” Phoebe felt the hot, moist heaviness of the slice and looked at its rich texture. “It’s almost like cake. What’s in it?” she asked, taking a bite. It was on the sweet side with the tang of fruit and hardly needed butter. “Amaranth… apples… crushed sunflower seeds...” “Sunflower seeds! I love the crunch. Really good. Your work is paying off.” “Thanks,” she said, frowning, and ran her hand nervously through her thick brown hair. “I’m still not sure I got it right.” “So…” said Phoebe. “I notice almost none of Mom’s stuff’s left in the room. Does she ever stay here anymore?” “Hardly ever. She’s been back with Dad for months. It feels like they never split up. I think Mom just moved here to concentrate on her painting. She couldn’t get anything done living at the toy store...”


PHOEBE COMES HOME “I know,” interrupted Phoebe, irritated that Penny had implied that the family was better off without the toy store. “Dad tried to keep me up to date on the phone.” Penny took a deep breath and said in a comforting tone, “Well, Mom and Dad are happy at the greenhouse, so the room is yours.” Phoebe looked around, and breathed in the beautiful morning. Any thought of the loss of the toy store stung her like a wasp, but she didn’t want to quarrel with her sister. It wasn’t her fault, and there was nothing they could do about it now. Her glance fell on several enormous tomatoes lined up to ripen on the wooden railing of the porch. At just that moment they were touched by light as the sun rose above the trees. There was something strikingly attractive in their varying colors and irregular shapes. The thin skins seemed to be bursting with juice. “Whoa! I’ve never seen tomatoes like those. And it’s only… what, June 21st? Dad’s growing those?” “Well, I think so,” replied Penny hesitantly. “I traded a few loaves for some of the vegetables Sammy sells at the coffee shop now. Chi Chi brings them over from the Garden Center. There’s lettuce, arugula, basil, peas…” “So Sammy’s selling Dad’s vegetables and your bread too? Way to go!” “Thanks… but… I’m not sure about the vegetables. The last time I was at the Garden Center Mom and Dad weren’t there. Alison says they’re out camping. I’d gone by a week before and they weren’t there then either.” Phoebe stared aimlessly at the grass, the trees, the garage. I knew something odd was happening. I’m not getting the whole story. “Camping! Since when do Mom and Dad go camping?” Penny just shrugged, so Phoebe went on thinking out loud, “Well, that explains why they didn’t call me back. But I just don’t get it. What are they up to?” “Mom is painting wilderness scenes for her show. You know her gallery in Evansville is giving her a one-woman show in September.” “Yeah? Nice! How about Dad?” “Practicing archery, I think. Alison says he shoots with Chi Chi every day. Dad told me he misses shooting with you.” “I miss him too. When will they be back?” “I didn’t realize you’d be here so soon. I’m afraid Chi Chi probably told Mom and Dad you’d be back in the middle of the week.” Phoebe’s face became thoughtful, and she stared into the distance. So much had changed, and it made her miss her parents even more. She suddenly shifted her gaze back to Penny. “There’s something new here… 6

THE EVERYTHING DREAM something’s going on,” she said. “I bet Dad has a new plan to save the world. Do you know something I don’t know?” Penny laughed. “You do know Dad… but don’t put me in the middle. You’ll have to ask him yourself.” She paused for a moment as if deciding whether to continue, and then her eyebrows came down low over her eyes. “But you’re right, there are new things around here that will take a while to get used to, and you’ve got to be careful with some of them.” “Like what?” “Well, people don’t know that Chi Chi brings the vegetables to Sammy. He wants to keep the source a secret.” “That seems weird.” “And your dreamstone charm. Keep it tucked under your shirt.” “I usually do anyway,” she replied, trying to keep her voice calm, “but why does it matter?” “People are looking everywhere for dreamstone – especially in Middletown – and they’re asking a lot of questions.” “Where’s yours?” Penny felt for the chain around her neck and pulled the small blue charm out from under her shirt. All four members of the Hood family had identical charms, with the same initials, standing for Phoebe Hood, Penny Hood, Patricia Hood, and Peter Hood. The P. H. initials were a family tradition. “I know that dreamstone’s valuable now,” said Phoebe, “but hiding my necklace!? Who cares?” She couldn’t keep her voice from trembling. “Now look, Phoebe,” replied her sister, “don’t go digging up this issue on your first day back. Promise me.” She gave Phoebe a very severe and significant look. “Please…” Taking things slowly had never been Phoebe’s strong suit. As a toddler she’d been too active and impatient to stay in the Middletown pre-school, and her parents found a way to get her into kindergarten a year early. People always told her to slow down, but she could never actually do it, until very recently. Ever since her knee injury, life had felt impossibly slow. “Well, thanks for alerting me to all this,” she said, and broke into a smile. “Now Phoebe,” warned Penny. “Watch out. I know that look. Don’t get involved. You’re going back to college anyway.” “Not this year. Without soccer I’m not so interested.” “What happened to environmental studies? I thought you were on a mission.” “I wish I was.”


PHOEBE COMES HOME They heard footsteps crossing the gravel driveway from the house next door, and in a moment a large older woman in a long navy blue skirt and pale blue shirt walked up to the porch. Phoebe saw her first and called out, “Dr. Bear!” in surprise. “I hope I’m not interrupting,” came the polite reply. “Not at all,” said Penny, jumping up, and glancing at Phoebe as a signal to end the previous conversation. “It’s Sunday. We’ve got to leave for church in just an hour!” Penny put together a breakfast tray in the kitchen and brought apple butter, juice, and coffee out to the porch. Dr. Bear gave each girl a kiss on the cheek, and then looked closely at Phoebe. “It’s so nice to see you, dear. You look just fine, a little older and more thoughtful.” She took a chair near Phoebe and went on: “Your sister and I always have breakfast on Sunday mornings. It’s my favorite meal of the week. And you can call me Geraldine. I’m your next door neighbor now.” “It’s going to be hard for me to call you Geraldine. You’ve been Dr. Bear my whole life!” Phoebe’s mind filled with memories of being cared for by Dr. Bear following her various childhood injuries. In a high school soccer game she’d made a desperate diving save into a shooting opponent and caught a knee on her temple. Dr. Bear’s kind but penetrating eyes had been so reassuring as she awoke groggy and sick from the blow to her head. Phoebe often wished she’d had Dr. Bear attend to her knee; but the injury had needed surgery, and she’d been referred to a specialist at the hospital near the college. “Well…” the doctor’s soft and low voice broke in on Phoebe’s thoughts, “anytime you’re at Middletown Hospital, or anytime you need me, I’ll be Dr. Bear. But call me Geraldine when I’m just your friend.” “Okay, Geraldine it is.” “And speaking as a friend and a doctor, how’s your knee doing?” “Mmm, that’s been hard. I’m on a sort of mandatory rest cure. No sports for months, knee strengthening exercises, a knee brace…” Geraldine studied Phoebe carefully with her calm brown eyes. “Sounds like good advice to me,” she said. Phoebe looked at her gratefully, glad to be spared any further questions. “And let me say how happy I am to see you back in Middletown. I do hope you’re going to stay awhile.” “Oh! Well, thank you.” Geraldine’s warm support was such a relief, but Phoebe was still afraid no one would understand her decision to drop out of college. “As a matter of fact, I’m going to try something new,” she explained. “Maybe I’ll apply to art school now that I can’t play soccer anymore. I’ll talk 8

PHOEBE COMES HOME to Mom about painting.” “You should,” said Penny. “You were really good before soccer took all your time.” Phoebe appreciated Penny’s enthusiasm, but deep inside she had no intention of applying to art school. The truth was, she knew exactly what she wanted to do, but wasn’t ready to tell anyone for fear she’d jinx it. “I’m not sure,” Phoebe finally said. “Maybe I’ll just find a job and make some money for awhile. I was training a girls’ team at a soccer club near the college this spring. My coach found me the job and I really liked it.” “I’m sure you’ll do great no matter what you choose to do,” Geraldine assured her. Phoebe relaxed and gave Geraldine and Penny a wide smile. “You know,” said Penny, “Geraldine and I were talking on Thursday night after you called, and we had an idea.” “Uh oh,” broke in Phoebe, “now you’ve got me worried.” “No really,” insisted Penny. “Just listen.” She looked at Geraldine. “Your sister and I think your homecoming calls for a celebration. We want to have a party for you, right here in the backyard. I know Penny will enjoy the catering, we could invite family and friends. What do you say?” “Oh, I don’t know…” Phoebe paused. “It’s just that I haven’t seen any of my friends in so long. It’s really nice of you… but…” Geraldine put her arm around Phoebe’s shoulders. “There are a lot of people here who love you.” She kissed the top of Phoebe’s head. “But if it’s not the right thing, we’ll call it off. We’re just glad to see you.” “If you really want to. Just something small.” “We do really want to,” said Geraldine firmly. “It’s true,” said Penny. “We’ve been worried about you, we’re glad you’re back, and we’ve been wanting to get everyone together! We’re thinking of this coming Friday night.” Phoebe burst out laughing. This party appeared to be inevitable, like the wind. “Okay, okay,“ she agreed. “We’ll do it.” They ate and chatted awhile longer until it was time for Geraldine and Penny to leave for church. They were going to the 11am service at the grand old church on Bridge Avenue, just as Phoebe, Penny, and their parents had done so many Sundays long ago. “You should come with us, dear,” said Geraldine. “Reverend Tuck’s finally going to present the church’s commitment on climate change. There’s going to be controversy, I’m sure, and he needs our support. I’m worried that he’s going out on a limb on this one.” 10

THE EVERYTHING DREAM Phoebe had stopped attending services when she reached high school, but Reverend Tuck spent a good deal of time at the toy store, so she knew him well. He was an intense man who had become a regular member of the Protectors of the Wood, the Middletown conservation group dedicated to buying and preserving forest and farmland. Phoebe’s father had made this charity his special hobby for more than twenty years. She was curious to see Reverend Tuck again, but she had other things on her mind. All morning she’d been remembering her dream, and the promise she’d made to ask for a job at the toy store. So when Penny and Geraldine drove off in Geraldine’s comfortable old sedan, Phoebe sat alone on the front steps. It’s time, she thought. Today, right now. I’ll figure it out as I go. She limped upstairs with surprising speed, two stairs at a time on her good knee, and put on a newer and cleaner pair of jeans and the cleanest shirt she could find. Looking at herself in the mirror, she thought she looked presentable. In a moment she was out on the front steps again, and after one deep breath she crossed the lawn and was limping up Main Street toward town.


Chapter 2


It was a warm and beautiful day. Day lilies and black-eyed Susans were blossoming along the roadside. The birds were singing. What’s my strategy with Gilligan, she wondered. Do I just walk right in and ask for a job? Or do I need to spend some time hanging around there and warm him up a bit? David Gilligan was the current owner of the toy store, and the brother of the owner of Miracles Gift Shop next door. He was also the uncle of Phoebe’s ex-boyfriend George. Gilligan and I could never even hold a conversation! Phoebe moaned to herself. What am I going to say? She moved along in her speed-limp, right knee straight, right leg jerked forward at the hip. Still debating the best way to approach Gilligan, she hit Bridge Avenue, took a left, and walked up towards the toy store and the church. The quiet town drew all her attention. She saw a few strangers and some people she vaguely knew; but no one seemed to recognize her, and she did not acknowledge anyone. She felt invisible, as if a decade had gone by since she had lived there. Phoebe stayed on the left hand side of the street, knowing that the toy store was on the opposite side, and allowed herself room to survey the situation. She was so focused on the toy store in the distance that she hardly noticed the changes in the storefronts to her left until she was walking next to them. Large fancy new windows and signs, a whole new facade, had been installed over a long area. What’s this? It’s all Scutter’s store! It’s tripled in size! It was true. Scutter’s new upscale gourmet food market had taken over


PHOEBE COMES HOME Louie’s Pizzeria and the Old Professor’s Used Books. It was already open and doing business before noon on Sunday. Phoebe glanced in the windows, saw a crowd of faces in the checkout lines, and hurried on by. Man, what a bummer. I liked the bookstore and the pizzeria. With her fists clenched in anxiety she skipped in her odd fashion across the street, determined to present herself to Gilligan as soon as possible. She was counting on fate or chance to help her decide what to say. With a deep breath she looked up and saw the padlock on the front gate. Across the small courtyard the front door had a closed sign. Of course! Gilligan won’t open until church lets out. Phoebe stood still on the sidewalk, flooded with relief and disappointment. The big moment had been postponed. What do I do now? I can’t just stand here staring at the closed sign. She started to head home, and noticed Sammy through the glass door of his coffee shop. The door was locked; but she knocked, and he opened the door with a big smile on his face. “For you I’m always open,” he said. Sammy was an old man with thin white hair who wore an old-style white apron. He had run his coffee shop since before Phoebe was born and long before that, as long as anyone could remember. He had a counter, and tables, and booths, and an old jukebox, and served eggs and pancakes and sandwiches and soup and sodas. He had all kinds of space, but the place was usually more than half empty. Sammy didn’t seem to care. His store was a throwback to an earlier age. “So how are you?” He beamed with another wide smile as he served her a cup of coffee. “Well, I injured my knee twice, and can’t play soccer anymore.” She felt a stab of sadness and regret. “I’m looking for something to do.” Her hopes were too fragile to discuss even with Sammy. What if Gilligan turned her down? People would just feel sorry for her. “With your energy?” Sammy was saying. “You’ll be busy in a week. Mark my words.” “Oh, I don’t know. This is a big change for me. It might take a while…” Phoebe’s eyes strayed to the shelves of candy to her left. Suddenly she reached over and grabbed a large handful of bubblegum – maybe ten pieces – and shoved most of them into the pocket of her jeans. She opened two of them and popped them into her mouth.


WHAT HAPPENED IN TOWN Sammy smiled and then began laughing. “I haven’t seen you do that in a long time. It does me good.” Phoebe chewed for a minute and then asked, “So what happened to Louie and the Old Professor? They were fine last summer.” “Oh, they were getting old and needed the money. You know how it is.” “What’s with Scutter’s? He just opened two years ago and suddenly his store looks like Disneyland. Is he rich or something?” “Oh ho! Something called investors! But don’t get me started on that -- I might say more than I should. But one thing I’ll tell you confidentially…” Sammy leaned forward and lowered his voice as if someone could overhear. “Last year I was thinking about retiring. They heard about it somehow, and wanted my store too! But I’ve decided to live another twenty years and stay open every single one of them, just to put a spike in their wheel.” Phoebe’s eyes lit up. “I’m glad to hear that! But what’s Scutter trying to do, take over the town? What’s up with that?” “Well…” said Sammy slowly, “I’m not sure it’s really Scutter behind all this.” His eyes strayed involuntarily to the newspaper open on the counter nearby. Phoebe reached over and pulled it close, glancing at the front page. “So what’s in the Middletown Standard these days?” She scanned the headline and the lead article:

Good News for Middletown! By Jerome Peabody With pride and a spirit of celebration we take this opportunity to be the first to announce that the Geddon Insurance Group will be moving its headquarters to Middletown over the coming year. Our sources assure us that a firm decision has been made, and a search committee already has its eye on potential properties. It goes without saying that a move of this sort will bring support for our local economy, and the kind of jobs and residents our citizens have been hoping for. “The Geddon Insurance Group…” muttered Phoebe. “What’s that?” “Bad news for Middletown, that’s what. They’re after every property


PHOEBE COMES HOME they can find.” He opened his mouth to say more, but looked at Phoebe and stopped. She was suddenly silent, thinking about the toy store next door. Will investors come after that too? Sammy read the look in her eye, and quickly backtracked. “Sorry. I don’t mean to bring all that up.” He waited, but Phoebe just shook her head sadly. “Now I can see you need some advice,” declared Sammy, standing up straight as if getting ready for a speech. “Don’t get caught up in regrets. Don’t second-guess your parents. They were smart to sell to Gilligan. They’ve taken advantage of no one over all these years. Everything they’ve touched has had some real life behind it. Give this some time.” But Phoebe’s sense of loss could not be shaken. With a sad, crooked smile she sat sipping her coffee, feeling that maybe she was too late. Sammy waited patiently, studying her in silence. “I’ll give it some time.” Phoebe sighed, shaking her head and frowning. “I don’t have much choice.” She put a dollar on the counter. As she spun on her stool to head for the door her glance fell on the wide shelves of plywood and chicken wire covering the back wall of the store. Somehow she hadn’t noticed them on her way in. “Now that’s new,” she said. “That’s right,” returned Sammy, “I’m selling a few local groceries now.” He emphasized the word local with a chuckle. “I get the satisfaction of taking away some of Scutter’s business, make a little extra money, and help out my friends at the same time.” Phoebe walked up to the shelves. They were empty except for stray leaves of lettuce and arugula and a couple of snap peas. Tacked to one shelf was a poster board sign featuring an image printed in ink of a tree with spreading roots and branches. Immediately below were the words, WORLD TREE BREADS AND MUFFINS. Phoebe instantly recognized the tree as a larger version of the image her father stamped at the front of all the family books. For a second Phoebe felt a surge of anger that someone was stealing the image, but in a flash she realized that Penny was using it. “Ah! My sister’s shelf!” She nodded with approval. “Very nice!” “Everything sells out in a hurry, too,” commented Sammy. “I don’t even advertise. Scutter wants to carry your sister’s line, but she’s not interested. I’ve got an exclusive in Middletown.” “Good for her!” cried Phoebe, smacking a fist into her open palm. “So…” She hesitated. “I get the feeling I shouldn’t ask about the vegetables.” Sammy nodded. “I knew you’d understand. Don’t forget…” he looked at her with a serious expression, “the less said the better.” 16

WHAT HAPPENED IN TOWN “Thanks. Well, I just want to say you’ve cheered me up. We’re counting on those twenty years you promised, every single one of them.” As Phoebe headed for the door her mind was working fast. She turned at the last second and said, “Um, one more question. What’s up at the church today? Dr. Bear said there would be controversy.” Sammy opened his sleepy eyes wide and stared at her. “I should be there myself! My conscience is bothering me, but it’s just too painful to see Reverend Tuck trying to reason with people who won’t listen.” “This is all about climate change?” Sammy gave Phoebe an odd, questioning look. “It’s a big subject,” he finally said. “There’s a lot going on.” Phoebe stared back, her hand on the door. Now he sounds like Penny. She remembered their conversation about dreamstone earlier that morning. “Well, maybe I’ll stop by the church and check it out. And it’s great to see you, Sammy, I’ll be back!” She was out the door before he could say goodbye. Phoebe turned right, and walked up the sidewalk past the toy store. She did not allow herself to stop, or even look through the windows. It wasn’t time for that yet. The faint beginnings of understanding were taking shape in her mind; something big was brewing and she wanted to be in the mix of things. She had the idea that this church service would lead her in the right direction. She reached the intersection of Bridge Avenue and Old Stone Road just in time to see a stream of people spill out of the church. Some crossed Bridge Avenue and crowded around the benches in front of the Middletown Standard office, and some crossed Old Stone Road and passed just in front of her. She stepped back against the wall of the gift shop and watched. There were many loud voices, laughing and cursing. Men in business suits, men in work clothes, a few well-dressed women – they all seemed to be angry and yet sharing some joke. Phoebe caught a few words, and then the drift of a conversation. “He’s a fool,” remarked a pudgy man in a dark suit. Phoebe recognized him as the man who ran the securities and investments office across Bridge Avenue. No one looked her way, even though she stood almost close enough to touch people as they passed by. “A fool,” the man went on, “a jerk. How this town tolerates him is more than I can say. Here’s what I think of his proposal.” He ripped a sheet of paper in half and let the pieces drift to the sidewalk. “But a dangerous fool,” added a tall, thin man in a dark tailored suit. “A fanatic. He’ll never join us, him and a few others I could name. We can’t let 17

PHOEBE COMES HOME them ruin our plans!” The man was clearly angry. “They must be defeated. Do you hear me? Defeated! This game has gone on long enough. It’s time to take their pieces off the board.” Something about the tall man rang a bell in Phoebe’s mind, but she couldn’t place him. “Let the Reverend talk,” said another voice as the crowd disappeared down the sidewalk. “Who cares? No one believes this stuff.” “I don’t know,” came another voice. “There’s got to be something in it, don’t you think? I mean a lot of people are worried about it.” “You see what I mean?” returned the tall man’s voice. “Even some of us are persuaded. Tuck is dangerous, I’m telling you. Him and the rest of that group leave us only one option… In fact, I’ve got an idea. Slow down a second.” The tall, thin man and the pudgy man began walking close together, speaking softly and intensely. Phoebe watched their backs – an odd couple, long and lean, short and fat. They conferred together, moving slowly down the sidewalk, but she could hear nothing. Reverend Tuck is definitely not dangerous. I’ve known him my whole life. She stooped and picked up the torn sheet of paper, stuffed both halves in her pocket, and quickly looked back toward the church. The sudden absence of people there seemed odd. The church doors were closed and the steps and front sidewalk were empty. She knew the group she’d seen couldn’t have been even a quarter of those who usually attended the United Church of Middletown, easily the largest church in the area of Middletown and Half Moon. With great curiosity she speed-limped across the street, up the steps of the church, and slipped in through the huge old double doors. The service was still in progress. She noticed the back pews were empty and quietly sat down. To one side a glowing stained glass window showed an angel with enormous white wings closely following two small children. A hand of the angel hovered protectively over each child’s head. The chandelier high above gave out a faint radiance. The front area remained crowded, and the people were intent on hearing Reverend Tuck preach. No one noticed Phoebe. One of the many strange features of the Middletown church was its high pulpit, fashionable well more than a century ago. Someone had set up the trunk of an ancient beech tree behind the altar, complete with bark and the stumps of branches, a tree that had lost its upper parts, perhaps blasted by lightning. A thin spiral staircase ran up the tree, and at the top, at the spot where lightning had struck, was a place for Reverend Tuck to stand and preach his sermons. The scene reminded Phoebe of the thunder and the voice in her dream. 18

WHAT HAPPENED IN TOWN At that moment Reverend Tuck was preaching in a loud, clear voice: “Let me repeat one more time the New Testament reading for today. We cannot repeat it too often.” Phoebe was impressed by Tuck’s robust frame, his firm, reddish face. His voice boomed out across the church: “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. ‘ “This is the good news! God loves the world! And we are all called upon to follow Jesus in helping to save the world in all its glory, with all its wealth of life and strange beauty. Every kind of life is precious, every species that grows or swims or flies or runs on the earth has a place in God’s eyes. “We – even you and I, those of us present here today – are called upon by God to be the faithful stewards of life on earth, even as Noah was called upon to save every type of living creature from the flood. Recall that God established his covenant with Noah, and promised life not only to humans – the descendants of Noah and his wife – but also to the descendents of every living thing. Yes, these living things are there for us, to nourish our legitimate needs, but we are also there for them, to insure life for their descendents as long as time shall last. “And it must be said that it is a sin to wipe out thousands of species of plants and animals every year the way we do. It is a sin for which we all bear responsibility. It is a sin that is growing and growing, and in the end, if we do not change, the payment will be ourselves and our children, and our children’s children. A terrible nightmare of loss will become our future. I know that the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do, but nonetheless… but nonetheless…” Tuck’s voice cut through the air like an explosion: “WE MUST CHANGE! WE MUST CHANGE! Look at the stakes! My dear brothers and sisters, look at the stakes! God is raising them with every year that passes. Soon the stakes will include everything! That’s right. Soon we will play this game for everything we know and hold dear.” Phoebe could hear her heart thumping loudly inside her. An eerie feeling set upon her, as the voice from her dream rang through her head: Everything is at stake! Everything! Tuck’s voice became softer, and now he spoke in a low, pleading tone. “Remember: God loves the world. Let us be his stewards on earth. Like Noah, let us establish our covenant with God to protect the future of our wonderful and precious and glorious world.” Tuck came to a stop and bowed his head. “Let us pray. Heavenly father, give us the strength and understanding to 19

PHOEBE COMES HOME change our ways, and to do what is needed to nourish the wealth of life on earth, and to share our resources with a spirit of sacrifice by those who have in abundance. One human alone does not make a life. The entire community of humans, and of each species, and of all species, make the life that God has made. Amen.” Reverend Tuck stayed silent with his head bowed. The church was perfectly still as the moments crept by. Finally he raised his eyes and looked at the congregation, and announced the final hymn. Phoebe slid quietly out of the pew and out the door into the glaring sunlight. The streets and the sidewalks were empty. Whoa! I never thought about it like that before. In school it was all science, but to hear Reverend Tuck call it sin… But who are we to tackle such a huge problem? Phoebe needed a quiet place to think. Better yet, she needed a friend to talk to. She gazed across Old Stone Road at the corner store, where she’d stood and watched the people leaving the church only a short time ago. The store displayed the same old sign from years past:

MIRACLES GIFT SHOP JEWELRY, ANTIQUES, AND UNUSUAL ITEMS “At least Geddon hasn’t bought the gift shop,” Phoebe muttered as she crossed the street. The metal shutters were open. A hand-written sign in the window caught her eye: Best Prices Offered for Dreamstone -- aka Skyrock, Glowstone -- any quantity, jewelry or raw stone. Phoebe tried the front door but it was locked. She knocked and looked into the store, hoping to see her exboyfriend George Thompson or his younger sister Ellie; but the lights were off, and inside nothing moved. I need to talk to George, or someone, someone. Phoebe continued down the sidewalk, and in a few steps stood in front of the gate to the toy store courtyard. A shiny silver padlock still held it closed. Ah man… this is not the moment. She shook her head, took a deep breath, and headed home.


Chapter 3


Main Street seemed less attractive than earlier in the day. The church service had finally ended, people were driving home, and traffic clogged the road. The lack of sidewalks annoyed her. A bank of clouds gathered over the Half Moon Cliffs, and rolled out over the forest. A few advance clouds, like scouts ahead of an army, reached out and blocked the sun. Phoebe put her head down and hurried along, pulling her stiff right leg forward with an effort. Despite her frustration with the toy store, her thoughts turned to her conversation with Sammy, the crowd outside the church, and especially Reverend Tuck’s sermon. A new world was opening before her eyes. The more she thought about it the more excited she felt. Still walking up Main Street, she pulled the ripped sheet of paper from her pocket. Putting the two pieces together, she read the following:

The United Church of Middletown Dear Members of the Congregation: In response to the task requested by this congregation, and after much deliberation, our Vestry Committee presents this proposal for your approval. Please return it to the box at the church door or place it in the offering plate. Many thanks to all for taking up this difficult and allimportant issue. With love and gratitude, Reverend William Tuck 21


_________________________________________________ We believe that human activity is changing the climate and environment of our earth and destroying countless species of plants and animals at an accelerating pace. We believe that this destructive activity constitutes a sin in the sight of God, and that we are called upon to correct our course of action and to improve the health of our planet and its nourishment and support of the vast diversity of life. We believe that this mission is a crucial calling of this congregation at this time. I approve______


am not sure______ of this proposal.

Okay. This certainly draws a line in the sand. I wonder what Dad thinks about all this. As Phoebe pored over these thoughts she arrived back at Penny’s house, and sat on the front stoop. At the back of her mind she’d been wondering whether any of her old friends might be around. She recalled that Glenda Trimble and her daughter lived on the dead end lane next to the field across the street. Glenda and her brother Jim had been like cousins to Phoebe and Penny when they were children. Phoebe looked carefully through the trees, trying to spot Glenda’s small cottage back near the forest. Glenda was well known in Middletown as a survivor of tragedy and hardship. Four years ago her parents had driven their car out of a parking lot onto Rt. 44 near Evansville at a difficult exit near a curve, and a speeding tractor-trailer hit them broadside. Both parents died instantly. Her brother Jim, already working in his father’s gas station on Main Street just a mile down the road from Penny’s house, had taken over both the family business and the parenting of his smart, outgoing younger sister. Within a year she was pregnant and married to a man eight years older. Glenda dropped out of high school to raise the baby, and the parents-in-law set up the newlyweds in the attractive cottage near the forest, not far from Penny’s house. A year


UNEXPECTED FRIENDS later, Glenda, somewhat mysteriously, returned to school for her senior year in Phoebe’s class. The rumor was that her husband had left town. During those years Phoebe had little time for friendships, always running between school and work and soccer. Now she regretted not paying more attention. As she gazed wistfully through the trees looking for Glenda’s house, she spotted someone in black riding a bike up Main Street and turning left onto Glenda’s street, Oak Knoll Lane. The figure reminded Phoebe of the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz. There was something similar in the tall, thin body with long arms and legs, the long dark hair, the black clothing, and the grim determination expressed by the face and the set of the shoulders. With a shock Phoebe realized that she knew that strange bike rider. It was Abby, another fellow-graduate from Half Moon High School. Phoebe stared at the thin dark figure riding up Oak Knoll Lane. Where was Abby going? There were only four or five houses on the block, and she must be headed for one of them, or riding into the forest. She had probably made friends with Glenda, Phoebe decided. The thought made her curious to find out more. Phoebe got up and began walking down the driveway with the idea that she’d just pop in and say hello to Glenda and Abby. She stopped suddenly, returned to the house, and reappeared immediately with one of Penny’s loaves of bread in a brown paper bag. In her off-balance run she loped across a corner of the field to the thin, barely paved street under the high oaks. At the dead end, almost in the forest itself, a fieldstone cottage sat back from the street behind a few rows of snapdragons and marigolds. The old blue pickup truck that had once belonged to Glenda’s father sat in the driveway, and Abby’s bike leaned against the side of the house. Phoebe knocked, heard Glenda’s voice, and opened the door to a living room cluttered with plates and cups among scattered blocks, books, and toys. The bright sunlight came through the side windows at a steep angle, leaving most of the room in shadow. In the back, the room seemed to extend into a kitchen area. Glenda sat on a couch near a coffee table and her daughter Tiny on the floor nearby. Abby sat on a chair set back from the coffee table with a plate in her lap. “Phoebe!” cried Glenda, jumping to her feet and stepping over things to give her a hug. Phoebe was relieved by the warm reception. “I’m back in town and just wanted to say hello,” she said, painfully aware of the nervousness in her voice. “I brought you a loaf of Penny’s bread.” “That’s perfect! You read our minds! We just got home and are having a 23

PHOEBE COMES HOME bite to eat.” Glenda quickly cleared a place on the couch. “Don’t be put off by all these things,” she said. Phoebe said hello to Abby and gave her a smile. Abby’s dark eyes smoldered in her thin, pale face, framed by long black hair. In black jeans and a black tee shirt, she looked even thinner than the year before. “I didn’t know you were back,” said Abby with apparent curiosity, as if this were important news that she should have known about. “I just got in yesterday. I’m staying at Penny’s, just a block away.” Glenda rushed about cutting slices from the new loaf on a breadboard and setting out a jar of apple butter. Phoebe noticed that Tiny was looking up at her from her spot among the papers and toys on the floor. She was a young child with thick brown hair and wide brown eyes. She held what looked like part of a cucumber in her hand. Phoebe smiled and waved, and Tiny shyly waved back. “We’ve got black tea with honey, still hot,” said Glenda, and poured Phoebe a cup. She handed out bread with apple butter on small plates. “We just returned from church,” she went on, “and in half an hour Tiny has a play date with Kayla across town.” Glenda seemed to move along at a breathless pace. “I’m coming from church too!” Phoebe exclaimed with enthusiasm. “I was just wishing I could talk to somebody about it.” Glenda stopped her flurry of activity and looking closely at Phoebe. Abby put a plate of some green vegetables down on her lap and waited for Phoebe to say something. “You know I’ve been gone almost all year, and I didn’t realize that climate change had become such a big issue around here. It really surprises me that Reverend Tuck is so involved.” “Reverend Tuck’s been building up to it for a few months,” returned Glenda, “so we knew something was coming. He says people feel hopeless and we’ve got to start somewhere.” She hesitated and then said, “He’s right. A lot of people seemed inspired today.” “I hadn’t seen Reverend Tuck in a couple of years,” said Abby. “But I knew he had it in him.” Her voice was low and her face and body seemed very restrained. Phoebe wondered how Abby knew Reverend Tuck so well. She thought back, trying to remember if she’d ever heard Abby or her family mentioned when her father was discussing the Protectors of the Wood, but she came up with nothing. “Well, I’m not sure that everyone was inspired,” said Phoebe. “I was 26

UNEXPECTED FRIENDS outside on the street at the beginning of the service, and a whole group of people came walking out of the church. They were angry, and one of them said that Reverend Tuck is dangerous and has to be defeated. Defeated, that was his word. What could he have meant by that? Reverend Tuck is not dangerous!” Phoebe felt her voice rise and caught herself. “At least not to me or anyone I know,” she added more calmly. Phoebe stopped and looked at Abby and Glenda, who were still and silent, staring at her. Even Tiny sat still and stared from her place on the floor. Phoebe felt herself blush, and hoped she hadn’t offended either of them. What if they were friends with some of those people she had seen in front of the church? She silently chastised herself for not being more careful. “You’re right,” said Abby. “He’s not dangerous, he’s good.” Glenda remained still, with lines of worry reaching across her forehead. “Who were those people?” she asked. “Is Reverend Tuck in danger?” Phoebe was relieved that Glenda and Abby seemed to agree with her. “I assumed it was just a bunch of hot air,” she said to Glenda, trying to be reassuring. Then she began to wonder; it hadn’t occurred to her that the people outside the church might actually hurt someone. “But Reverend Tuck did say that we need to do something about all of this. On that proposal he handed out he said it was our responsibility to fix the problem. On the way home I was trying to figure out exactly what he meant we should do.” “Well, I don’t think it’s something that can be fixed in just a few weeks,” Abby replied curtly. “You’ll be leaving town to go back to college.” Phoebe was surprised by Abby’s shortness. “Well, actually, I dropped out of college, and I can’t play sports anymore.” Phoebe waited for Abby’s response, but Abby said nothing, still sizing Phoebe up as though she were not completely convinced. “I’m so sorry,” said Glenda, jumping in. “I heard about your knee injury. I should have asked you how you were doing.” “No, it’s okay, really,” Phoebe hurried to reply. “I’m happy to be back in Middletown. I lost interest in college and I’d like to get a job for awhile. You don’t need to feel bad.” “Well then, maybe we can try to do something to help Reverend Tuck after all,” said Abby. She spoke with a strange intensity that startled Phoebe; it was nothing like Glenda’s bubbly enthusiasm. “Let me know if you’ve got any ideas,” offered Phoebe, glancing back and forth between the two girls. “I think it might be better to work together, maybe form a team or something like that.” She held her breath, afraid that they would think it a silly idea. 27

PHOEBE COMES HOME “Yes, I want to be a part of something like that,” declared Abby. She looked at Phoebe as if she were offering a challenge. Phoebe struggled to respond. “I wonder what kind of help Reverend Tuck needs? I’ve never been able to think of a place to begin. Climate change affects the whole world!” Glenda was watching Phoebe and Abby with rapt attention, like a spectator at a contest. Abby looked up at Phoebe again and said, “The people who walked out of church today – I might know some of them. These problems might be…” she took a deep breath, “very close to home.” Then, without warning, Abby jumped up and disappeared into the back of the house. Phoebe looked at Glenda in confusion. “Oh…” Glenda muttered, and sucked her teeth, making a smacking noise. “Don’t worry, it’s not you. She’s been having a rough time lately.” Glenda rose and went after her. Tiny calmly followed as well. Phoebe remained seated, and listened carefully. She couldn’t help thinking there was something eerie about Abby. For awhile there was no sound, but then came Tiny’s voice: “I want Abby to come back.” Soon they returned. Abby mustered an apologetic smile, but said nothing. Phoebe was unsure what to say, so she just smiled back. Then Tiny climbed up on the couch with a crayon drawing in her hand. Eager to take the attention off Abby, Phoebe took the paper in her hands and examined it. She could make out four stick figures with their arms out­stretched. They might have been dancing across the page. “Look! It’s us,” said Phoebe. “Do you think so?” asked Abby. “This might be you,” observed Phoebe, pointing to the tallest figure. “Yes, I see all four,” said Glenda, studying the drawing over Phoebe’s shoulder. She looked at her daughter. “You were making a picture of us?” Tiny nodded, and then took the paper from Phoebe and handed it to Abby. Abby stared at it for a while and then looked up. “Is it for me?” she asked. Tiny nodded again. Abby smiled at her and said, “I’ll keep it. This makes me very happy.” During the silence that followed Glenda looked at her watch. “Oh! We’re supposed to be at Ellen’s house. Tiny’s late for her play date with Kayla.” Glenda looked at Abby and Phoebe. “But I don’t want to end our conversation. I’ll call and say we’ll be late.” 28

UNEXPECTED FRIENDS “No, that’s okay,” returned Abby, standing up. “I’m due… in town. I’m trying to put together a job, sort of. A way to make some money.” “Actually,” said Glenda with some hesitation, “I was hoping maybe we could do something together tomorrow. It’s kind of a favor for me -- that is, if either of you have some free time.” “I do,” said Phoebe. “What’s up?” “Well, I’ve been trying for months to get myself to drive to Teacher’s College and enroll in some courses, but I never do. I’ve been thinking that if either of you could go with me, I’d be able to get up the nerve to do it.” “I’ll go with you,” replied Phoebe. “It’ll be fun.” “Really? Tomorrow morning?” “Definitely. I’m free.” Phoebe had already thought it through. The toy store had always been closed on Mondays, and there was no reason not to help Glenda the following day. “I wish I could join you,” Abby said, “but I’m trying to see if my new idea works out.” Phoebe wanted to ask about Abby’s idea, but didn’t dare. “Okay, then it’s decided,” said Glenda with excitement. “Tomorrow morning first thing.” “I’ll be here,” said Phoebe. “Oh – and one more thing. I’m hoping all of you can come to our party this Friday night in Penny’s backyard, with dinner and everything.” “We’d love to,” said Glenda. She glanced at Abby nervously, and then gathered some things for Tiny in a bag. Phoebe carried the tray of teacups and some plates to the kitchen sink. A brief flash of sunlight shone brightly through one of the kitchen windows, and her glance was caught for a moment by the fascinating colors and shapes of a few huge tomatoes ripening on the windowsill. “I’ll come too,” said Abby, so quietly that Phoebe could barely hear her amidst the noise of the group preparing to depart. Soon they were out the door. Everyone exchanged hugs. Abby was off on her bike. Glenda offered Phoebe a ride in the old blue pick-up, but Phoebe said she didn’t have far to go, and soon she found herself walking alone down Oak Knoll Lane. A long shadow suddenly covered the land, as a dark cloud hid the sun. When Phoebe reached her house she sat on the front steps with her chin in her hands. Her mind whirled with questions, and she realized that she knew very little about Abby’s life. Phoebe’s thoughts drifted back to high school. Abby had been perhaps the least popular girl that Phoebe knew, a 29

PHOEBE COMES HOME shy, sad, socially awkward girl with a chip on her shoulder, too afraid to try to be pretty. Phoebe guessed that Abby could be attractive. She had a nice, intelligent face, and a slim, boyish figure. But she totally lacked a sense of style. Abby seemed to be interested in things that no one else understood or cared about. She achieved some public notoriety by creating a small apple orchard in the school courtyard – eight trees each producing a different kind of heirloom apples. She planted the trees as a project for biology class her freshman year; by September of senior year the results were quite startling. As the students returned to school the trees were laden with ripening fruit. One day after lunch some students started a riot by picking the apples and throwing them at each other across the courtyard. The game spread like wildfire, making a colossal mess. Out of nowhere Abby appeared, screaming and lunging at a group of reckless boys. There were smashed apples everywhere. Phoebe remembered seeing Abby sobbing in a corner alone after some teachers put a stop to the incident. She had gone over to her and said, “The trees are still a good thing you did, even if those kids are such jerks.” Abby had looked up with her eyes full of pain and said, “I’m so tired of being angry. I’m so tired.” It seemed to Phoebe that this kind of thing often happened to Abby. She tried hard but something always spoiled it. One beautiful spring day before graduation when the trees were in full blossom, Phoebe noticed Abby sitting in the courtyard reading a book. The benches were thronged with their classmates sitting happily around the trees with the sweet smell carried on the breeze. Phoebe walked up to Abby and said, “See, I told you it was a good thing.” Abby smiled but never said a word. Remembering Abby’s smile from a year ago sent another shiver down Phoebe’s spine. She couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something peculiar about Abby, but she felt that Glenda wouldn’t let Tiny be around someone she didn’t trust. Abby’s mysteriousness intrigued her, and she decided there and then that she would find a way to become friends with her. Phoebe sat there on the steps, looking aimlessly into the distance. Then at some point, unsure of how long she’d been sitting there, she noticed the thin dark form of Abby coming back up Main Street, turning her bike left on Oak Knoll Lane, and continuing on up toward Glenda’s house. To her surprise, near the end of the lane Abby bent her course to the right and rode among the trees into the forest. Phoebe could barely make out her dark form 30

UNEXPECTED FRIENDS for a few moments, and then she was gone. Whoa‌ thought Phoebe. Where could she be going? Suddenly, thunder rumbled across the forest. She looked up at the dark clouds moving relentlessly her way. The wind picked up, and gusts bent the trees. A few drops of rain blew in the wind. So much for going to the toy store, she thought, and retreated into Penny’s house. What a day.


Chapter 4


On the following morning after breakfast, Phoebe sat on the front stoop finishing her coffee and looking out over the field. A cool damp breeze made her grab a hooded sweatshirt. Thunderstorms had been moving through the area since the day before. Dark clouds continued to mass over the cliffs and march north over Half Moon Valley, but at that moment no rain was falling. Phoebe left her empty cup on the edge of the step, popped a couple of pieces of gum in her mouth, and headed down the street to Oak Knoll Lane. She was eager to see Glenda again, and happy to have something to distract her thoughts from the toy store. She knocked on the door of the small cottage and Glenda shouted from inside, “Let yourself in!” Phoebe made her way to the kitchen where she found Glenda scurrying to prepare sandwiches. “I thought we could have a bite to eat while we’re there,” she said, slicing the loaf of Penny’s bread with a long knife. “How about cheddar cheese, tomatoes, avocado, and lettuce?” Glenda smiled and moved about, clearly excited to begin their adventure. “Sounds wonderful,” Phoebe replied. “I can’t wait to taste one of those tomatoes. I noticed them yesterday. They look just like the tomatoes on Penny’s back porch. Where do you get them?” “Oh… ah…” replied Glenda, obviously flustered. “Uh, Abby brought them.” They stared at each other in confusion. I should have seen this coming, thought Phoebe. Penny’s warning returned to her in a flash. People don’t


WHAT GLENDA HAD TO SAY know that Chi Chi brings the vegetables to Sammy. He wants to keep the source a secret. Phoebe considered changing the subject, but her confusion turned to curiosity. Does Abby know Chi Chi? Does she know my parents? “Oh, maybe Abby has a garden,” Phoebe replied casually, hoping to ease Glenda’s anxiety. “I remember that apple orchard she planted in high school.” Glenda stopped what she was doing and looked across the room at Tiny, who was engaged in a conversation with two little wooden figures in her hands. To her surprise, Phoebe recognized a figure of the Good Fairy that she knew must have been carved by her father. Reassured that Tiny was not listening, Glenda spoke in a low voice, “You’ve got to be careful talking about Abby. I’m worried about her sometimes. I’m afraid if people find out what she does, they’ll think she’s weird. I mean people already think she’s weird, but I don’t think that’s fair, I like her.” “Ohhhh,” returned Phoebe, feeling a little insensitive. “I guess she didn’t seem like she had a lot of friends in high school. Is that why she got upset yesterday when we were all talking? Because we might look down on her for knowing some of the people who walked out of the church?” Glenda frowned. “I’m not sure. There are a lot of things…” She left the sentence unfinished. “Well, I think it’s cool that she grows vegetables,” Phoebe offered finally. “Me, too!” Glenda perked up. “Abby drops by from time to time with a sack of vegetables like these tomatoes, big, beautiful vegetables, much better than what you get anywhere else. Here, taste this.” Glenda forked over a slice of tomato. Phoebe grabbed it between her fingers and stuffed it into her mouth. It was truly mouth-wateringly good. So juicy and sweet. “See what I mean? She grows them in a garden somewhere near that old abandoned house at the end of Bridge Avenue.” “The haunted house?” “Is that what you call it?” “The one that’s back in the forest. The road is dirt when you get there.” “Yeah, the dead end.” “Penny and I used to call it the haunted house because nobody ever lives there, and it has no light. We used to break in, but it’s creepy, and there’s almost nothing left but some broken furniture.” “Well, somehow Abby lives there; but I invited her to stay here, and she does sometimes – Tiny loves it.” I can see why people might think she’s a little weird. Where is her family? Reluctantly, Phoebe decided she shouldn’t pry into it. “I wonder how she 33

PHOEBE COMES HOME learned to grow vegetables like this?” Glenda’s voice grew hushed again. “Abby has a friend who lives out in the forest somewhere, but she won’t say who. A couple of times she mentioned her godmother, but I don’t nag her about it. She says it’s a state park and people aren’t supposed to live there, so she has to keep it a secret. She made me promise.” Phoebe felt goose bumps spread over her arms, but the part of her that felt a bit frightened of Abby was beginning to give way to curiosity. She hesitated. “I have a secret too.” She glanced at Glenda for a sign that she should continue and Glenda gave a cautious nod. “My parents say they’re living in the greenhouse behind the garden center, but they’re in the forest most of the time. I think they’re growing vegetables and giving them to Sammy so he can sell them at the coffee shop, but it’s a secret where the vegetables come from. Sammy won’t tell anyone.” “Maybe they’re from the garden center.” “Well, it’s possible, but I don’t think so. I haven’t figured it out yet and I haven’t seen my parents since I’ve been back in town. But you should know that Penny and Sammy have warned me not to discuss anything about this.” “Don’t worry about me,” said Glenda. “I’ve known there’s some kind of mystery for a long, long time, and I’m very careful to protect Abby from gossip. She doesn’t want people knowing where she lives or where the vegetables come from -- some are like nothing you ever saw before. You should see these beans.” Glenda grabbed a bag from the refrigerator and took out a few green sticks shaped like long, thick fingers. “Here, taste one.” Phoebe took a bite. The green pod was sweet and juicy, but the bean – large like an oversize lima bean – had the taste and consistency of a cashew nut. Not bad. She took a few more bites. The beans were meaty, far more substantial than a normal string bean. “Abby calls them finger beans,” Glenda went on. “And you won’t believe this.” From the same bag she produced a long green vegetable like a zucchini or a cucumber. “Watch this,” she said, and rolled the vegetable back and forth between her palms for half a minute. Then she cut off the tip and handed it to Phoebe. “Squeeze it and drink through the top. Go ahead, it’s good.” Phoebe took it between her lips and drew out a sweet liquid with a smell like cucumbers and a lemony flavor. It had the consistency of slush, like a snow cone, but without the crunchiness of ice. By squeezing the vegetable her mouth was flooded with the drink. 34

WHAT GLENDA HAD TO SAY “See what I mean? Tiny loves these. No need for box juices or those sugary ice pops. You know Chi Chi gives her one every time we see him at the garden center. And there’s more, lots more. We’ll try these peaches for lunch.” “Whoa, these are really good!” Phoebe took another swallow. “What are they called?” “Lemon cukes.” They sat in silence as Phoebe squeezed the skin dry. “What could be back there?” asked Phoebe, flicking her head at the forest while Glenda packed her sandwiches in wax paper and put them in a bag. “I don’t know. The forest gives me the creeps sometimes. I live right next to it, and it’s scary. All you hear are comments about the swamp getting bigger, the skunks and raccoons everywhere and the giant bats by night. People talk about the pack of wild dogs –- you can hear them sometimes -- and rattlesnakes coming out in the dry spells. My brother saw a bear last year. I’m afraid for Tiny. I don’t know how Abby does it.” “Me either. I’ve never been in very far. But, I gotta say, it seems way more intriguing now.” “I have this childhood memory,” began Glenda unexpectedly. Her cheeks and neck were flushed. She glanced quickly at Phoebe to gauge her reaction. Phoebe stayed very calm even though her heartbeat suddenly jumped, wild with excitement. “What is it?” she asked gently. “Oh, probably nothing, just…” Phoebe waited quietly. After some thinking, Glenda continued: “I wish my parents were still alive and I could talk to them.” Phoebe moved around the table and reached her long arm around Glenda and hugged her. It must be so hard for Glenda. A few tears appeared on Glenda’s cheeks, but she went right on talking: “When I was little my father and my brother used to hike in the forest, and I was never allowed to go. And sometimes I heard them talking quietly about the forest. I could tell they didn’t want me to hear. But I did hear a few things… though they just seem crazy, like a dream.” “Tell me,” said Phoebe. “Sometimes you can understand at least part of a dream in the light of day.” “Oh, I’ve tried, but all I remember is something about an old man with a white beard who lives in a cave in the forest and can do amazing things. They had a sort of code name for him: Captain Nemo.” 35

PHOEBE COMES HOME “Captain Nemo… I’ve heard that name before.” “He’s a character in a book. I looked it up years ago, but I couldn’t make anything of it. He lives in a submarine, and is mad at the world.” “Glenda! That’s fabulous! Did you ever ask Jim about it when you got older?” “Yes, but he just gave me an angry look and shook his head like that had never happened. I assumed I wasn’t supposed to talk about it.” “But Abby goes into the forest…” murmured Phoebe, half talking to Glenda, half thinking out loud. Suddenly she felt guilty prying into Abby’s business. “It upsets me,” said Glenda. Phoebe searched Glenda’s eyes for a moment trying to understand it all. Seeing that she had Phoebe’s attention, Glenda went on, “There’s something scary about the whole thing. Jim’s not one to get bent out of shape for no reason. And then Abby, Sammy, even my parents, over all these years? What’s it about?” Glenda looked at Phoebe eye to eye. “Something just doesn’t feel right at all.” She’s right. There’s definitely something strange. Phoebe’s mind raced forward, pulling together scattered pieces of the puzzle. She wanted so much to talk to her dad, wondering what the Protector’s of the Wood might be up to. “Yeah, you’re right,” Phoebe agreed. “I’ve always thought of Jim as the level­headed, responsible type.” “He is. I’m the flaky one of the family. This is all too stressful for me. I want Tiny to grow up safe and stable. I want to go back to school, become a teacher, and live a quiet life. That’s all I want.” “I understand,” said Phoebe. “Tiny is lucky to have such a great mom.” She could see the pieces of the puzzle, but she couldn’t find any way to fit them together. Why on earth would Abby be secretly growing vegetables in the woods? It doesn’t make sense – there are farms in Middletown and all the towns nearby. “I hope this trip today will be a good start,” Glenda was saying. “And try to keep these strange mysteries out of my way.” “Give the mysteries to me. I’m interested in that part of the deal.” “Better watch out. You might get more than you bargained for.” “It’s better than having nothing to do,” Phoebe replied. They both looked over at Tiny, still playing with the Good Fairy. “Okay! Here we go then!” Glenda snapped to attention. “I’ll just get Tiny’s stuff and we’ll be off.” She walked across the kitchen, still talking. 36

WHAT GLENDA HAD TO SAY “It’s not that far, less than an hour. We could be back in two or three hours.” With one hand Glenda gathered up her pocketbook, a canvas bag of toys and books, the bag of sandwiches and cartons of juice, and with the other hand reached for Tiny. But Tiny ran to the other side of the coffee table. “I don’t want to go,” Tiny complained. “Can’t we go to Kayla’s? I want to go to Kayla’s.” “No, we’re all going to the college together.” “Let me help you,” offered Phoebe, taking the bags. Glenda put her hands on her hips with fire in her eyes. “This is something we’re going to do now, so help me God. Nothing will stop me.” She picked up Tiny, who saw that resistance was useless, and off they went. Tiny sat between them on the wide seat in the cab of the old truck. Glenda turned left on Main Street and soon pulled into her brother’s gas station near the highway. “We’ve got to get our gas here,” confided Glenda. “It’s free for me.” “Jim! Jim!” shouted Tiny, scrambling to get out of the truck. She ran to a tall, lean man wearing an old wide-brimmed straw hat, jeans, and a football jersey. He picked up Tiny with his hands under her arms and held her high above his head, spun around a few times while she shrieked with delight, and gently restored her to the ground. Phoebe had been wondering when she would see Jim, and what he would be like. She’d hardly spoken to him over the past few years, ever since his and Glenda’s parents died. “So where are you off to today?” he asked, strolling over to the truck with Tiny, who climbed up into the front seat. Suddenly he noticed Phoebe and said, “There she is! I heard you were back in town, Phoebe. Great to see you!” He leaned in at the open door and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Hi Jim, great to see you too.” “So how are things?” “Well, just getting started, staying with Penny, getting used to being back. By the way, we’re having a little party in the backyard Saturday night. Dinner and everything. I hope you can be there.” “Ha! I wouldn’t miss it for the world – actually, I’m helping to plan it. I’m one of the staff.” “One of the staff!” Phoebe exclaimed. “I didn’t know it was so organized.” “Oh, you’d be surprised,” he called out as he moved to fill the tank. And who exactly are these staff? Clearly I’m not one of them.


PHOEBE COMES HOME Suddenly she saw someone looking at her from the garage door. He seemed like a teenager with long legs, and goggly eyes. His gaze held Phoebe’s. After checking the oil and adding a quart, Jim came back to the truck window. “Okay, that’ll be two hundred dollars,” he said, trying to keep a straight face. “Price of gas has gone up for these babies… No, don’t worry, I’ll just put it on your tab.” “Ha ha, Jim,” retorted Glenda. “It’s not funny. Just wait ‘til I’m making more than you. We’re off to State Teachers’ College where I’m going to enroll. So there! You and your tab.” She started the engine with a roar. “Say hi to that recluse Jeremy. I think he lives underneath a car.” “Hey, that’s awesome about college!” Jim raised his voice above the level of the motor. “I’m jealous. No kidding.” “Wait!” yelled Phoebe suddenly. “I want to grab a soda.” Glenda let the truck idle, and Phoebe jumped to the pavement. Tiny yelled, “Me too! Me too!” and followed her. “No you don’t, Tiny!” called Glenda, but she was too late, and Tiny ran with Phoebe to the gas station office. Phoebe slotted coins into the machine and two Seven-Ups clunked down the hatch. She popped open the cans for her and Tiny, and stood there looking around. Through the huge office window she could see Jim standing by the truck talking to Glenda. She noticed the cluttered desk and the phone and the calendar on the wall. And there was a ladder leading to a loft above. That looks new. The loft covered half the office, and lowered the high ceiling to about eight feet in the back, cutting off the high window. There’s a new room up there, she decided. And there was a nice looking guitar leaning on the painfully dilapidated old couch. That guitar… thought Phoebe, that loft… can mean only one thing. Suddenly the boy with long legs appeared at the door to the garage. He wore an odd little reddish jacket over what seemed to be a polka dotted tee shirt, with jeans very tight at the ankle and low black sneakers. His hands were dark with automobile grease. “Jeremy!” screamed Tiny, and leaped into his arms. “No!” yelled Jeremy in surprise, but he was too late. He had to grab her under the arms. Tiny’s Seven-Up fell to the floor and began gurgling soda onto the linoleum. Jeremy quickly set her down but dark grease marks like hand prints remained on her pale tee shirt. He grabbed the can, threw down some paper towels, and finally looked up at Phoebe in embarrassment. His slightly protruding hazel eyes were very shy. 40

WHAT GLENDA HAD TO SAY “I’m always making a mess of things,” he said, shaking his head, and looking down again. “I thought I was the one doing that,” she replied. “I’m Phoebe.” “Nice to meet you, I’m Jeremy. Can’t shake hands.” “That’s okay. Working with Jim?” “Yeah, I’m his cousin.” Tiny, suddenly still, watched them with great interest. “Here for a while?” asked Phoebe. Jeremy looked up at her with hope in his eyes. “I’d like to stay. I really would.” “Why don’t you then?” Jim suddenly swung the door open and said, “Glenda says she’s in a hurry. Hey, you’ve met my cousin Jeremy. And this is Phoebe, Penny’s sister. We’re going to her party next week.” Phoebe and Jeremy continued to look at each other with curiosity and embarrassment. Finally Phoebe said, “Well, come on Tiny, we’ve got to run. Thanks, and see you soon!” She swung open the heavy glass door, and they trotted back to the truck. Glenda spun her wheels in the gravel driveway, and in seconds they were through the green light and heading up the four-lane highway with little traffic. After getting over her annoyance with the grease stains on Tiny’s shirt, Glenda chatted for a few minutes about her hopes for school, but Phoebe was picturing the boy in the gas station office. He’s staying in that loft. And the guitar must be his. I bet he’s got a toothbrush in that foul bathroom. She tried to shift her attention to Glenda’s discussion of college, but as usual her curiosity had her mind spinning with thoughts. Suddenly Tiny said, “I’m going to school too.” “What was that?” asked Phoebe. “Me! I’m going too.” “That’s right,” said Glenda. “We’re both going to school in September. Our next step will be to enroll Tiny. She’s already visited a class. Her friends from the church group are all going.” “Dawn wants to put Emily back in school,” announced Tiny, looking at her two wooden figures. “For ages Emily didn’t go to school because for ages it was a weekend. They forgot to go to school. That’s why Dawn needs to put Emily back where she’s supposed to be. Know what they learned? The days of the week.”


PHOEBE COMES HOME “I think I get it,” said Phoebe, and glanced at Glenda over Tiny’s head for guidance. “Dawn is the Good Fairy,” explained Glenda, “and Emily is her daughter.” “They look like my father’s carvings,” Phoebe observed. Both figures had wings, but one was twice as tall as the other. The taller figure wore a crown, and held a thick wand alongside her body. Their dresses were painted pale blue. Tiny thought for a second. “Dawn and Emily. Penny gave them to me.” “How nice of her,” replied Phoebe. “I’m glad.” “Kayla’s going to the pre-school too,” Tiny went on. “Lucy’s already going. She sees Rose and Rob every day.” “Oh!” cried Phoebe in surprise. “Of course! I went there too! Yes… oh… fourteen years ago. I know Rose and Robert. They’re very nice.” Though I’m afraid I was hard to handle. She smiled to herself. “And they brought classes to the toy store every year for arts and crafts. I’ve got to get in touch with them again. You’re going to like it there.” “I want to go to the toy store too!” said Tiny with glee. “I want to do arts and crafts!” “That’s great!” Phoebe cried. “I do hope you get your chance!” She could hear the emotion in her own voice, and knew it was far too loud. She took a deep breath. Both Glenda and Tiny glanced at her with puzzled expressions. “It’s hard for me to talk about the toy store,” Phoebe admitted. “It was such a big part of my life.” “As if we didn’t know!” returned Glenda. “I’ve been wondering how you’d handle it.” “I’m so curious what it’s like around there now.” “Oh, nothing you’d want to talk about. No good news.” “Please. I need to know something – anything – however bad.” “Well, there’s nothing really bad. It’s just that whenever I go in there’s hardly anyone there, and I go pretty often for Tiny’s toys and books. All I see is Gilligan behind the counter reading a book. Sometimes George Thompson works there, but I can’t even tell what he does.” Phoebe’s heart skipped a beat. My God! George? He’s taken my job? Oh no, this is awful. Her heart sank. She took another deep breath and tried to calm herself. “I had no idea,” she said, trying to sound indifferent. “How did he end up there?” “Oh! Sorry, somehow I thought you knew.” Glenda glanced at Tiny and then shot Phoebe an apologetic look. “I heard he argued with his parents 42

WHAT GLENDA HAD TO SAY and wanted to get out of their store.” “Sounds familiar. That used to happen all the time.” “And his uncle Gilligan helped him out. Plus, well… you know George always wanted to work at the toy store.” Glenda gave Phoebe another apologetic look. George’s tragic crush on Phoebe was well known, almost legendary, among the teenagers in Middletown and Half Moon. Phoebe frowned and stared into the distance. Beyond the cedar trees by the side of the highway, mile after mile of swamp grass and water rolled away under gloomy skies. Glenda drove on and waited. “Do you mean,” Phoebe suddenly burst out, “that George finally gets to work at the store when there’s nothing left to do? That’s so sad.” “It’s true. The magic just kind of went away.” They both watched the road. The eerie view of stunted trees, reedy grasses, and pools of water went on and on. Dark clouds promised rain. The moments dragged by. Tiny relaxed onto the seat and then onto Phoebe’s shoulder and closed her eyes. After a long time, Glenda said quietly, “You know Phoebe, I understand how it feels to have a past that was beautiful and painful at the same time.” “You mean losing your parents?” Phoebe felt confused. “Well, that too – more than I can say – but I was thinking of my husband… Dennis, Tiny’s father.” Oh, she means she understands how I feel about George. Sheesh, I don’t know. I’m not even sure how I feel about George. It hadn’t even occurred to Phoebe to ask Glenda about her husband. She just assumed he was long gone. Phoebe waited and Glenda continued: “I know he’s never around, but he’s still my husband, and his parents are a big part of our life. They’re very close to Tiny, and see her twice a week, sometimes more. They’re rich people, well connected, and I’ve depended on them for a long time… It’s been hard. I really don’t have any money of my own.” A deep frown wrinkled her forehead and the corners of her eyes, but she remained focused on the road ahead. “Where’s Dennis now?” asked Phoebe. “He tried to get a job right here in Middletown, but his uncle, that smug jerk Bob Bentley, wouldn’t take him, so his parents finally got him a job with Bill Owens at the Owens Apples office in Fellsburg. It was a shock, but now I think it’s probably just as well. He’s not ready to raise a family, and if he hadn’t taken the job, what good would it be for us both to be here raising Tiny without careers, without any money? Now at least he helps pay for his 43

PHOEBE COMES HOME daughter.” “Things are going to get better,” Phoebe said softly. “We’re both going to get jobs and learn how to support ourselves. And you’ve always got Tiny no matter what. We’ll find our way. Let’s help each other.” Glenda gave her a smile. “I’m so glad you dropped by my house yesterday.” Phoebe beamed. “Thanks. I’m glad to be coming along today. Just think, you’ll be enrolled in college in a few hours!” “I sure hope so, a least a few courses. I’m ready.” The visit to Teachers College ended in late afternoon with hugs and the promise to get together soon. After being dropped off on Main Street, Phoebe watched the blue truck heading up Oak Knoll Lane and considered what to do next. She wasn’t ready to go home. The dark clouds hadn’t lifted, but there hadn’t been any rain yet either. Phoebe decided to walk back to High Street and up the hill past the apple trees. She needed to give Glenda’s news about George some thought. Her big plan in returning to Middletown was to work at the toy store, but discovering that George already had a job there certainly threw a wrench into things. And to top it off, Glenda had described a store with very few customers, and Gilligan probably had little cash to spare. In the dim light the apple trees looked twisted and contorted, shaped like grotesque humans struggling to stretch their arms and stand up. Phoebe put her hands in her pockets and limped up the hill. A fine drizzle began to fill the air. Without the toy store or soccer, I just don’t know who I am. Her thoughts took a sorrowful turn as she tried to imagine seeing George again. If he asks me what’s up, what can I say? How about,’ Oh… nothing.’ Or maybe, ‘Well, I had my heart set on working at the toy store, but you kind of ruined that for me.’ But that would be stupid. It’s not his fault. Phoebe continued on up the hill past Cliff Views Road, with the trailer park in the shadowy mist on her left, and a cornfield to her right. Soon she took a right and walked along a deserted lane. The rain began to fall harder, but with her hood up, she tried to ignore it. Memories of George and Ellie Thompson awoke and poured into her mind, memories of being thrown together as children working in their parents’ stores over many years. Ellie, three years younger than Phoebe, had copied her expressions and her clothes. George, a year older than Phoebe


WHAT GLENDA HAD TO SAY and in her class all the way through school, had nursed a crush on her since the age of twelve. For years – to his parents’ dismay – he had spent every free moment at the toy store and even tried to work there. th Phoebe vividly remembered during the first month of 11 grade arriving among the throng of students early one morning to notice everyone pointing at her and laughing and making remarks. A crowd had gathered by the big bare brick wall outside the gym; but on that morning the wall was not bare. The name PHOEBE had been painted in huge white block letters over twenty feet up the sheer face of the thirty-foot wall. Even now she felt overwhelmed with embarrassment. She hadn’t even been talking to George at that time. They’d had a bad break-up and that bombshell message was designed – like a colossal love note or bouquet of flowers -­to make her relent and restart their relationship. But Phoebe had been too confused about her own feelings for any normal romance. She’d felt horribly awkward in the high school social world. How had he even gotten up there, with a roller and a tray of white paint? Everyone seemed to know that George had done it; yet when Phoebe asked him, he denied it, giving her a hurt look. He seemed so sad that she never forgot the pain in his eyes. He must have known that this heroic effort had failed on every level. Soon after, the tag OUTSIDER – written as two words, one above the other, inside a circle - appeared all over the high school, Half Moon, and Middletown. Everyone seemed to know that George was the one tagging things, and in less than a month he ended up getting suspended from school for graffiti. For the rest of high school, they’d stayed on separate paths; George played guitar and Phoebe played sports. She’d never shaken the guilty feeling that it was partly her fault that he had gotten in trouble. Now she risked making things between them even worse. I’ve got to talk to him, but going to his job and asking for work is probably not the best idea. She noticed a crushed cardboard box by the roadside and gave it a kick, only to feel the pain of the kneecap grinding and the joint overextending. I just can’t see a way forward, no matter what I do. But I’ll find something. She remembered her dream, the part where she saw a way through the pine trees in the storm. Phoebe walked down past another orchard barely visible in the rain. She was now thoroughly soaked, and no closer to a solution than when she started. Maybe I could meet George somewhere like at Sammy’s, and just catch up with him, see what he’s been up to, how he’s doing these days. It occurred to her that maybe Jim and Jeremy would know where George 45

PHOEBE COMES HOME hangs out or who he hangs out with. And besides, there was something about Jeremy that intrigued her. She’d been hoping for a good reason to go back to the gas station, and now she had one. At least it’s a place to start, she thought, with hope coming alive. As she headed down the hill toward Main Street the rain broke loose and came down in sheets, and thunder rolled somewhere nearby. She limped along at top speed, heading for home.


Phoebe Comes Home