Charlie Harris embarks on a philosophical journey that includes a lost love, death of a family member, and a death of his own.
A bird flutters across the golden field, darting throughout the wheat and flitting back up into the morning dawn. The small wings, I can see them so clearly, flapping against the soft breeze, racing back to its nest in a nearby pine tree. I stare at it a few moments longer and then look around.
This is my last day in my field. The music drifting with the wind, the chirps vibrating faintly behind me, the grass rustling against my legs. The vast sky tinted with colors of cotton candy, blueberries and oranges. The smell of pines and dirt, the beat of my slow heart. The rising sun breaking through pure white clouds, the yellow rays carving paths in the meadow. This is my last day in the field, before I died.
We are birds. We start off in our mother’s nest, venture out of it, and fly. Wherever we want to go, make some quick pit stops, and get back up in the air again. Our dreams are our wings. If we break a feather, a small part of our dream is lost. When we regain consciousness, we soar much higher than anyone else. And then nothing can stop us.
Except maybe a cat.
Crystal sits at the dinner table and complains, “Mom, this is the second time this month. When will we be having my favorite, spaghetti?” I roll my eyes and promptly sit next to her. Mom sets down the raviolis and says, “Maybe Thursday.” She looks over to my father and nods.
“Kids, we have news. Crystal, grip yourself.” My fourteen-year-old sister stares confusedly at him. I also stare confusedly. “We’re moving. To Nevada.”
Crystal immediately registers it and shock replaces her perplexed expression. “You can’t do this! We belong here in California! Nevada is like, way out there!”
All I can think of is Gabriella.
“Happens all the time, honey. Thousands of families move every day. You’ll have to get used to it.” Dad simply shoves a bite of salad in his mouth, not even looking at his own daughter.
“When?” I ask, hoping Crystal can wipe off that insane look on her face. Teenage girls are very dramatic.
“Week after school’s out. It has to be sooner than later,” Mom answers.
Crystal, again, is quick to figure out the math. “I only get a month left with my friends?” She pushes her chair behind her and irately says, “This dinner sucks, anyway.”
“Crystal!” my parents call out to her, but the door has been slammed shut. Mom turns to me. “Are you okay with this, Charlie?”
In my polite mind that’s only existed for nine years, I say, “Sure. New people.” But inside me, inside my real mind, I scream no over and over.Gabriella.
“Glad you understand, Charles.” I bristle whenever he calls me by my formal name. “I guess Thunder can have your sister’s dinner.” Our mid-aged collie licks her lips. I go ahead and scoop the plate into her chrome bowl, and consider adding my own in. I’ve lost appetite.
The only good thing, I’ve learned later on in dinner, is that Crystal and I won’t have to share a room. Dad’s transferring to a job in a new headquarters, which will finally be able to afford an extra bedroom and bathroom, so I get to tape all my posters of Phineas and Ferb and other Disney stars.
At her cramped desk cluttered with nail polish and lip glosses, Crystal furiously writes about a million letters while I’m tossing clothes in the small suitcase I have for vacations. I fling an orange polo shirt in and the phone rings from down the hall. Crystal runs out of the room, probably thinking it’s one of her friends, but instead I hear her angrily yell that it’s for me. I can’t imagine who it’d be other than Gabriella.
Her sweet voice fills my ears with warmth. “Hey, Charlie. Packed for tomorrow?”
I glance over to the floor. Socks and pants are hanging over the edge. “Yep. It’s very neat, I don’t know how I did it.”
Her giggle makes me happy. “So, tree house in five? One last time?”
“Already leaving.” I hang the phone and grab a flashlight. It’s dark, and it’s late at night, but Mom knows how Gabriella is to me and she’d let me go see her whenever I’d like.
A familiar worn pink flip-flop dangles from the rim of the tree and I smile. “How’d you beat me?”
“I ran. Wanted to get here before you for once.” Gabriella grins her goofy grin and my heart melts. She doesn’t know this, of course. I’m only nine and I’m sure she likes someone else.
We stare at each other for a few moments, drinking in the sight of each other, knowing this will be the last time for months, maybe even years. I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again. This makes me worry, and she senses this.
“I’ll miss you. Promise me you’ll write, okay?”
Knowing I’d never break a promise, I nod. “I don’t get why he has to take all of us. Can’t he rent an apartment for a few months? It’s not like the job is permanent.”
“Charlie, I don’t think adults can control that. Not your dad, anyway. It’s because he loves you and wants you to have a better life. Sharing a room with Crystal is not a good life.” I laugh at this, because it’s true. Often she’ll whisper in the night on the phone to someone, sometimes a boy, and I’m just trying to sleep. I don’t want to hear mushy nothings to something that last a week.
“It doesn’t seem like he loves me,” I mutter.
“Sorry.” Gabriella traces her pinky on the side of the wooden boards and suggests, “Why don’t we just do the usual, one last time?” She stretches out on her back, her head laying inches off the floor of the tree house. I lie beside her, my breathing catches, and then gaze up at the distant glittering dots.
“One last time. Til when?”
“Til we see each other again, silly. Won’t be too long.”
That was the only good night I’ve had in six years. We stayed up recounting stories of kindergarten, sharing milk and cookies, later finger painting for Mother’s Day, being inseparable. I soak in the crayon drawings scattered around us, the little red plastic chair that neither of us can fit in anymore, the rope draping from a nearby branch for our way to drop out of the tree. I begin to notice for the first time how little I’ve seen this tree in its true self. The pencil dents from trying to carve our scribbly names in the brown limbs. The smooth floor our fathers built just for us in this hidden forest, where nothing can scare us.
I glance over at Gabriella, and her beautiful hazel eyes are glancing back at me. Her curly brown locks spill close to my face, and I can smell children’s shampoo and mandarins. Her mouth is slightly curved, her breathing quite impossibly as slow as mine. But most of all, in this summer breeze, I can hear her heart beat to the rhythm of mine.
A tear slips out and lands on a rusty nail. This is what my father’s making me leave? This beautiful human that was my only friend since I was born? He must be crazy! Doesn’t he know what Mom knows? That Gabriella really is the only person I can be happy with? He must want me to be lonely.
Gabriella reaches out to hold my hand. “It’ll be okay, Charlie.” All I can install in my mind is that she’s actually comforting me. “You’ll be back here before you know it.”
“I swear, the second I can, I’m coming back.” I don’t break promises.
She just sadly smiles. This smile, I don’t like. Reminds me of a puppy dying. I want her to be happy, to see that real smile again. So we drop everything and just lay there.
In the morning I find Gabriella curled up in a sleeping bag that we stocked over a year ago. Our mothers realized that we spent so much time in the tree house it was like our own home, so they left some supplies. She looks so warm, but so cold. Her expression’s soft, gentle, but I know inside her mind her best friend is leaving. And it goes the same way for me.
The dew on the forest grass is sparkling as the beams hit them, the little animals scurry through the bushes and life resumes. I check my watch and remember that the car is ready to go in an hour. Luckily all my stuff is set, though I shouldn’t say the same for my sister. That girl is known to be preparing another suitcase thirty minutes before department.
Lightly I shake her shoulder. “Gabriella.”
She stirs, but doesn’t wake completely. She tends to do this; I’ve discovered when we were four.
I nudged a bit harder. “Gabriella.”
Her brown eyes flutter open, and I can’t believe I’m seeing her in the morning light, glowing and curled up and being an angel. “I have to go.”
Now she sits up, not as groggily as usual. “Already?”
“Well, I’ve got some time.” I don’t want to forget her face. I don’t want to waste a second without her.
“I’ll walk you back to the house.” She peeks around quickly. “Do you want anything from in here?”
I don’t hesitate. “Nah, keep it. Something to remember me by. And when I come back, we can reminiscence.”
She slides down the rope first, and I follow, landing on wet grass, which is something of a pet peeve of mine. But I’m with Gabriella, and I can’t possible care about any irritations right now.
We reach my driveway where my parents don’t even act surprised I was gone for the night. Crystal is nowhere in sight, as expected. Mom hugs Gabriella and tells her she’ll miss her and her family, and that she hopes she does well in school. My father does the same but with less enthusiasm. I pull her away to stroll through my house one more time, recalling that this room was where I first stood up, the kitchen I destroyed with breaking out the pots and pans, the book shelf I knocked over, the room I shared with Crystal. She holds my hand throughout all this and I’m trying my hardest not to cry.
To have privacy, I take her by the backyard gate and we hug for what I wished was eternity. When we pull away, I see that her own tears have escaped her luminescent eyes and so mine joined.
“I’ll never say goodbye to you,” I whisper, the sorrow dripping down my neck.
“Come back soon, okay? I’ll miss you.” Gabriella, the girl I’ve depended on all my life, is now vanishing. She walks off without looking back, into the mist, into the imaginary fog that I will have to leave behind, all because of my father.
I slump into the backseat, staring at the direction she went, choking on the words I should’ve said, regretting I never said what’s always on my mind whenever I see her.
I love you.
Crystal slides in the row in front of me, turns around and says, “What’s with you?”
“Leave me alone,” I snap.
The car rumbles and we’re now leaving behind the life I’ve only ever known.