Authors: Jude Sierra
Copyright © 2016 Jude Sierra
All Rights Reserved
ISBN 13: 978-1-941530-59-7 (trade)
ISBN 13: 978-1-941530-60-3 (ebook)
Published by Interlude Press
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and places are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real persons, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All trademarks and registered trademarks are the property of their respective owners.
Book Design by Lex Huffman
Cover Design by CB Messer
Cover and Interior Illustrations by Nelli I
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Thank you for helping to make my dreams come true.
iles Graham is eight years old when they move to Santuit, Massachusetts. Simmering in the backseat of the car from Logan Airport, Milo pouts and keeps careful eyes on his father. He looks away at the slightest hint that his father might look back at him. He answers his mother’s mindless chatter meant to fill the space in the car. Still, the knowledge rolls inside him: nothing is ever going to be the same.
. Things suck enough in his life; he doesn’t need this.
They left behind the glow-in-the-dark stars his mother had put up on the ceiling for him—the ones he used to navigate the dark that presses on him and scares him when he’s left alone in it. They left his friends and the tree he loved to hide under where drooping willow branches and delicate leaves created a perfect refuge.
Once they turn onto Route 28 and ribbon their way along the Cape, his anger only increases. Who wants to live here, where sand blows over the road and the scrubby trees are spindly and strange? The scattered houses lack the comfort of suburban uniformity: orderly and easily navigated streets and pretty, neat lawns clipped into standard perfection.
This is gross. And awful. And so, so unfair.
Despite all this, Milo knows better than to ever, ever voice his anger. When his father’s eyes flicker up so Milo can see them in the rearview mirror, he wipes his face as clean of complaint as he can.
° ° °
into Andrew the third day there, when he’s lumbering down Chickopee Beach, kicking up sand that he knows will pool in his shoes and ruin his socks. Milo’s mother will have something to say about that, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care at all, because he’s running away and he’s never going back and he is never,
letting his father near him again. With his breath tearing through his lungs and his snail-slow pace across the sand, he knows he has to go back. But he still makes himself empty promises. He’s kept himself going in a sprint across an unfamiliar town, past the marina and the tiny shops lining Main Street. By the time he hit this beach he was winded but determined.
Milo is so focused on his belabored progress and the anger and hurt inside that he doesn’t see the boy until he’s tripped over him, flies and then tumbles into the sand and scrapes his knees impressively.
“What the fuck?” he yells, turning back to glare at the offending boy.
“That’s a grown-up word,” the boy says, pressing his lips together primly. “And you ruined my picture.”
Milo stands, shakes sand from his clothes carelessly and tries to ignore the way the boy shields his eyes to avoid the sand. “
,” he says deliberately.
The boy watches him for a few seconds. His hair is light brown shot through with blond, and his skin is tan. From what Milo can tell, he’s about his age.
“I’m Andrew Witherell,” the boy says, standing up and holding his hand out.
Milo’s cheeks burn. He looks down at scattered shells and bits of sea flotsam in disarray; some carved lines in sand are still visible despite the skid marks he made in his fall.
“I’m Miles Graham.” Miles takes his hand politely, then gestures toward the ground. “Did I... is this yours?”
“Well, it was.”
Milo looks away. The sun is low against the water and the wind is picking up, unexpectedly chilly. His parents barely paused in Boston when they arrived, but it was sweltering compared to this. The air here is crisp; heat is whisked away by winds and a clean open bay. He wants to offer to help Andrew fix it, or to sit, or to find a distraction of some sort before he has to face the music and trudge home. He doesn’t want to risk a
“How old are you?” Andrew asks.
Milo pulls himself up to his full height, which isn’t much. “I’m almost nine.” It sounds better than eight.
“I’m eight too. Wanna play?” Andrew says it easily; his smile comes fast and natural, and everything relaxes.
“Yes,” Milo says gratefully before plopping onto the sand.
“Cats or dogs?” Andrew asks.
“How is that a question?” Milo bites his lip, concentrating on tracing the same pattern Andrew drew on the sand.
“Because cats are awesome and I don’t think I can be friends with a dog person.”
Milo’s pretty sure Andrew is joking, because he’s smiling again.
“But dogs are way more awesome,” Milo explains.
“Hmm. Well, okay. Pizza or broccoli?”
Milo laughs. “Pizza of course.”
“Okay, good. We’ll be friends then.”
“You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”
Andrew laughs, nodding, and Milo feels himself relax a little.
“Well then,” Milo says as he clears his throat, “only friends can do this.” He pauses for effect so that the gravity of the moment can sink in. “You can call me Milo.”
“What kind of name is Miles anyway?”
“A lame one.” Milo’s squiggles on the sand are awkward and sloppy compared to Andrew’s. “But don’t... I mean if you ever meet my parents, call me Miles, please.”
“Okay, whatever.” Andrew sweeps away Milo’s lines in the sand and hands him the stick. “Try again.”
“What, are you an artist or something?”
“Maybe one day.” Andrew shrugs. “Who knows?”
Milo works carefully, biting his lip in concentration.
“What do you want to be?” Andrew asks.
“That’s a stupid answer. Everyone wants to be a grown-up.”
“Well, grown-ups can live
anywhere they want. And they don’t have to answer to anyone. They make their own rules
No one can
“Like ice cream before dinner?” Andrew asks.
“Exactly.” Milo gives up on his attempt at drawing like Andrew.
“Well then, let’s go.” Andrew stands, sand showering from his creased shorts. He gestures toward the sand dunes and the lurking woods past them. “I live right by here.”
“My parents aren’t home.” Andrew holds a hand out. “Come on.” He tugs Milo up and takes off up the beach. Milo follows, although his stomach knots at the idea of breaking rules. But
. What his parents don’t know might not hurt him.
° ° °
Andrew tugs Milo through the woods, pushes aside low branches and hops over logs easily, leaves him stumbling behind and getting slapped by those same branches. “It’s so cool.”
“It’s a pond. Like all the other ponds,” Milo points out, slapping a mosquito on his arm.
“No. It’s not. No one is ever here. It’s a secret pond.”
“Oh? How did you find it?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t the fleeting hummingbird, whispering secrets in your ear?” Milo teases.
“Oh my god, shut up. I wrote that poem when I was like, nine.”
“Drew, that was only like, a year ago. Plus it will never stop being funny.”
“I’m never telling you a secret again,” Andrew says. Milo forces a laugh. He knows Andrew doesn’t mean it, and that sucks because in the two years they’ve known each other, all Milo has done is keep secrets.
They work their way to the edge of the woods and onto boggy ground. The pond is small, lined with grasses and littered with lily pads. The bluest sky reflects on the still water.
“We’re explorers,” Andrew says with reverence that reflects the hush of their surroundings. “Discovering new land. Looking for gold in sunken ships.”
Milo raises an eyebrow and stops himself from pointing out that a pond is no place for a ship. He isn’t as good at pretending as Andrew is, but it’s fun once he gets into it.
“Last one to the treasure buys the candy,” Andrew shouts, whipping off his shirt and making a dash for the water.
“You suck,” Milo yells, struggling out of his own. “No fair!” He splashes into the water and his feet sink into the sticky mud. Once he’s in, though, he takes off; despite not having grown up by the water, he’s a much better swimmer than Andrew. He reaches the middle with ease, then, panting, waits for Andrew to paddle his way toward him. Weeds brush his legs, which is creepy. He flips onto his back, floating and warming in the sun. He yelps and swallows water when Andrew suddenly pushes him down.
“Fuck you!” he coughs out when he surfaces, splashing Andrew full in his laughing face.
“Ugh.” Andrew flails in the weeds. “This is so gross.”
“Maybe the treasure is in the woods,” Milo offers, already working his way to the shore.
Andrew follows without complaint. The best part of the hunt is the hunt, not the discovery, he’s explained to Milo many times. Milo doesn’t complain, ever, when Andrew takes him on adventures, because it’s so much fun, pretending to be someone else for a few hours.
.” Milo whips around at the sound of Andrew’s shocked whisper, tangled half into his shirt.
“What, where?” Milo scans the clearing for whatever has scared him. Only Andrew isn’t looking around, but at him.
At his back.
“Shit.” Milo scrabbles his shirt on.
, how could he have forgotten?
“What—” Andrew pushes Milo’s shirt up. His hands are cold from the water, and his voice is scared when he asks, “What happened?”
Milo closes his eyes against the sick feeling in his stomach, pushes Andrew away hard enough that he trips and falls onto his butt and then runs.
Of course, he gets lost. These are Andrew’s woods; this is the stretch of adventure they brave only with Andrew as head explorer, as the leader of whatever dumb enterprise he’s dreamed up that day.
Andrew and his
adventures and Milo’s stupid,
willingness to play baby games he knows he’s too old for.
He runs until he’s out of breath. Off the beach the heat sits wet and heavy, and the woods shift and chirp around him, full of things that creep him out when he’s here alone. He has no idea where he is, though, so he sits by a tree and closes his eyes and tries to slow his heart the way he used to when he was very little, closed into his closet, the darkest, safest space he had. He pushes down the fear of being lost, and tries his hardest to forget the look on Andrew’s face and the sick feeling in his stomach at knowing he’s been found out. He’s going to be in so much trouble if Andrew tells. Milo tries so hard to be perfect; tries everything he can think of. The worst is when it’s been so long he almost forgets what it’s like—when he lets himself believe that he’s earned his father’s love. It’s a long time before he hears Andrew’s voice calling for him, distorted through the rustling leaves and singing birds around him. Milo doesn’t want to answer, but he’ll never find his way out alone.
For one heart-stopping moment, the very idea that maybe he
stay here and lose himself forever feels good.
And that scares him more.
“I’m here,” he shouts. And then again, hearing Andrew’s approach.
Milo takes off faster than Andrew can get up. By the time he has his shirt on, he can’t hear Milo anymore. He headed east, and so Andrew does too. At first he’s not worried; these are his woods; he’d never get lost in them. Milo will, though. He hopes it will only be a matter of time till he finds him. He heads east and tries to imagine what path Milo might take, running in a panic through the woods.
Andrew stops after a bit, closes his eyes and tries to listen for Milo, but finds that his own heart is beating so hard it’s pounding in his ears. What he’d seen… that couldn’t be an accident, could it? Andrew isn’t dumb. There’s always been something weird about Milo’s family. Teddy even asked him about it once.
“You ever notice that we can never go to Milo’s house?”
“Yeah. So?” Andrew said. He had none of Milo’s secrets to protect, but knew that Milo did have them. Teddy was cool, but he wasn’t Milo’s best friend.
“It’s just weird. His dad is weird, right? Like super weird. Have you ever met his mom?”
, Teddy, it’s not a conspiracy theory.”
Andrew has wondered too, though, and hoped that one day Milo would talk to him about it. But never once in two years has Andrew thought those secrets might be
kinds of secrets.
Around him the birds are calling, and he can hear a frog singing somewhere to his left. Milo probably didn’t go that way, then. Andrew smooths his shirt; his hands are shaking. He needs to calm down in order to find Milo. Maybe, once he realizes how lost he is, he’ll have the good sense to sit down the way Andrew taught him. He seems to have headed deeper into the woods, and not toward Andrew’s house.
Andrew finds Milo about half a mile from the pond; he must have been running in a loop without meaning to. Huddled against the trunk of a big maple tree with his arms around his legs, looking into the verdant and shifting hues of the forest, Milo rests with his cheek on one knee. His hair is drying in wild tufts, dark enough to look brown where it’s plastered down. Maybe it’s the contrast, but it makes the dried clumps look more red than usual. Milo is always pale—more than Andrew at least—but right now he’s positively white, making his freckles stand out in sharp contrast.
“Hey,” Andrew approaches carefully. He doesn’t want Milo to run away, but he has no idea what to do. He’s not sure what he saw, but whatever it was, it’s the sort of thing grown-ups are supposed to take care of.
As if he’s reading Andrew’s mind, Milo speaks up. “You
“Milo.” Andrew kneels in front of him; the sharp poke of twigs and leaves scrape his already scraped knees.
“I know—” Milo looks at him. His eyes are dark and too serious, and Andrew’s stomach is doing this flipping thing and he might throw up. “I know this is the kind of thing you think you have to tell someone about. But…” He presses his lips together and looks away. The face he’s been making, scary and intense, falls apart as his lips quiver and his dark blue eyes tear up.
Andrew starts to put his hand on Milo’s shoulder, then changes his mind and sits next to him and wonders if he should, like, hug him or something.