a short story by Heather Haynos
The inescapable heat was what Davy most remembered about his first days in the nondescript, suburban neighborhood where he and his parents took up temporary residence. The air hung over the town like a shroud.
It was a new subdivision with lots of concrete—ample driveways and sidewalks for the sun to bake. Little vegetation survived in the inhospitable environment, but the residents were of an income and a moment in life that didn’t accommodate sprinklers and high water bills.
To quell the stultifying boredom of the repetitive days, Davy’s father took him to buy a three-speed Schwinn with a sparkly blue frame and seat. He peddled out onto the nearest arterial road—one that featured desiccated brush and cottonwood trees—and gazed at the older homes and cottages, many of them run down and uninhabited. One with broken window panes and a sagging porch beckoned, evoking images of another time and place, one that offered respite from the heat and uninterrupted views of the nearby fields—flat as far as the eye could see.
Further down the road were churches with strange names, like Tabernacle and Jehovah. Sometimes Davy leaned his bike on its kickstand and peered at their empty parking lots and dark windows. One church, he marveled, had no windows at all.
The air, as always, hung still.
The excursions were solitary. Davy couldn’t get anyone in the neighborhood to come along, much less explore vacant lots and tear-downs. Stephen, in the duplex next door, spent his days ensconced in his room waiting for his mother to make dinner.
But one day, Davy convinced Timmy Eaton down the street to go out exploring. They cycled down Strickler Avenue, toward the churches and the dilapidated house with the sagging porch.
“I’ve always wanted to go inside it,” Davy said, as the boys approached the old cottage. “I bet it was a really neat house before.” Timmy’s legs peddled back to stop his bike. Much to Davy’s surprise, he said: “Yeah, let’s take a look.”
The boys leaned their bikes against the trunk of an old cottonwood, feeling the welcome shade of its thick, gnarled branches. Timmy kicked at the scorched earth beneath his worn sneakers as he took in the crumbling facade of the old homestead. “I love exploring,” he said, squinting in the sun. “This place is kinda spooky, though.” Davy followed his gaze. The combination of the heat and the silence had suddenly made him sleepy.
“I know,” said Davy, yawning. “Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to it. I think it’s only spooky because it’s been neglected. It must have been an amazing place before. Look at that old rocking chair. I can see an old lady sipping lemonade—” he pivoted, gesturing to the vast acreage around them, “—watching her grandkids run through these fields.”
Timmy looked on as Davy placed his foot onto the first of the wood-rotted steps. The noon-day sun pelted their backs and their spindly, adolescent calves. Davy continued his ascent, finding shelter beneath the cobwebbed porch. The floorboards creaked as he leaned in and peered into the broken front windowpane.
“What’s there?” Timmy asked, anxious, still standing a few feet behind him.
“Not a whole lot that I can see,” Davy lied after a brief pause. In truth, he saw a lot of things—a frayed picture book, a banged-up saucepan, a ratty gingham tablecloth, and a multitude of dust-covered toys strewn all over the floor. One looked like a baby’s rattle, another, a much-loved doll. Davy’s brain did a thorough inventory, but relaying it to Timmy seemed like too much work, and he chose not to try. As he turned away from the window, his eye caught on something wedged between the old floorboards. He bent down and tugged at the faded cover of a worn miniature book. Looking up, he saw that Timmy had already mounted his bicycle and was waiting for him on the road.
Their energy waning, the boys slowly made their way down the road toward the Tabernacle church. “That’s where my family goes,” Timmy said, pointing to the deserted brick building. “You gotta come to our family retreat next weekend. It’s my favorite thing of the whole summer.”
Davy’s parents were leery of the retreat. “A weekend? Away? With the Eatons?” His mother said, her voice rising. His father chimed in from the patio where he sat with a bourbon.
“What does it involve? The getaway, I mean.” His father’s voice, per usual, was monotone.
“Like I said, it’s a family retreat,” Davy explained, suddenly on guard. “Lots of time outdoors, sleeping in cabins, picnics, singing around the campfire. What’s the issue? We know the Eatons.” He began to shift his weight from one foot to the other.
“Didn’t you say they were Pentecostals, Jane?” his father asked, lowering his voice. Davy wasn’t sure he heard him correctly; the word his father used was unfamiliar.
His mother stood in the dining room, a craft project spread before her on the table. “Davy, I’m sorry, but you are not to go on this trip.” She was a tall woman, but now she looked larger than usual. Perhaps it was how she was standing or the way her dress flowed around her body.
In time, Davy got over missing out on the retreat, although his parents never really explained why he couldn’t go. It helped that they moved to another neighborhood, into something bigger and better—a house with a real yard and mature trees whose regal branches guarded the green grass below. The miniature book he rescued from the old homestead —A Collection of Poems by Henry David Thoreau—found a home in his nightstand drawer. He often read it before bed, when the weight of his adolescent world got him down. The scribbled notes in the margins, now barely legible, gave him the most solace: "Don’t lose sight of the forest through the trees.”
Davy saw Timmy at a regional baseball tournament a couple years later. Both were taller, less gangly, with pimply complexions. “Davy!” Timmy screamed, running up to him. “I’m glad I ran into you.” Davy took a long swig from his water bottle, one eye trained on his old neighbor.
“Remember the old cottage you liked so much?” Timmy said, perspiration running down the sides of his face. “Our church bought the land it was on and tore it down.” Davy swallowed hard, looked at Timmy straight on.
Timmy smiled. “You still have to come to one of our retreats,” he said. “The youth-group ones, I mean.”
Art Academy of Milton will be featuring short stories written by the students of Michael Rash's Prose Writers' Workshop. To learn more about the next workshop and other events, visit our classes page!