Chapter 23

My parents had things figured out. My sisters, though, were off in the yonder somewhere. I couldn't connect to Clover because she wore sunglasses on her feelings. Mel and I got along -- she said we were best friends -- but she had no self-control; she had to run, or dance, or whatever. I preferred to sit and watch. We were strange together, because she had all the energy, and I had all the calm. We made forts in the trees, and helped the Larsons with their horses, and hopped on and off the trains that came through -- mom would have had a heart attack -- but we always seemed to go out together and come back separately. Either Mel would get bored with me, or I'd lose patience with her. Then we grew up a little, and stopped spending time together. She had horses and gymnastics and dancing and cheerleading. I had music and baseball and swimming, and the birds and foxes and plants. And we had different friends, different kinds of friends. That's what happens -- I was two years older than her, and eventually my little sister slowed me down. She didn't ride on my bicycle handlebars any more. I missed that, and I didn't miss it, too.

I spent a lot of my free time wandering around. I wasn't interested in plants and animals the way mom was, to learn their names, to study and memorize, or to grow them. I liked to see them where they lived. I started in the forest between the railroad tracks and Haskell street, but then I wanted to see more, so I started riding my bike out to the floodplain. Fifteenth Street was dangerous, even for cars, much less kids on bikes -- narrow and without shoulders, and the hills so abrupt that cars couldn't see you until too late. I ended up in the ditch on a regular basis. Two-wheel roulette. But the northern route was roundabout and gravel, and the traffic on Twenty-third Street was out of the question.

The floodplain was farmland, except for the old fertilizer plant and the tracks of the eastern rail line. They hadn't built the office park yet. Riding my bicycle, the land was so flat between the hills I'd come from to the west, and the hills to the east, where the little town of Eudora sat, that there was nowhere to coast and listen to my wheels click.

There were still wild patches here and there on the plain, places where redwinged blackbirds nested right on the marshy ground, the females drab as Arab women, the males in the trees and rushes keeping watch and calling, their red chevrons and raspy voices unmistakable. Here and there were little ponds where great blue herons hunted. Near one pond, south of the highway, was a big old barn hidden behind a hill. There were great grassy expanses there, and a pair of scissortails that hawked for insects. I liked their fluttering, maneuvering flight. Their nest was in a maple behind the barn. I watched the parents lead the fledglings from that tree to the next, and the next, the day they left the nest.

I liked the fields of corn, too, growing so fast in June that I'd notice the difference in height each week, and sometimes within a couple of days. In the places with corn on both sides I felt like I was like riding down a hallway open to the sky -- green and yellow on each side, with blue and white above. I liked the smell of the corn, floral and musty.

At night, except for the cars on the highway and the lights of the few farms, I could be alone, especially by the rivers. The Wakarusa was small and stagnant and usually green with algae. The Kaw was bigger and faster. I'd watch it, and listen to its sound, and dream about the Nile, the Mississippi, the Ganges, and wild, fast rivers in the mountains, and great waterfalls. I was obsessed with rivers and water, and planning to sail around the world when I was older. I read everything I could find about solo voyages. I would build a boat, and put in on the Missouri, and sail down to the Gulf, then through the Canal, across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, transit the Suez, and circle the Mediterranean. I'd cross the Atlantic and take the Intracoastal Waterway, then the Mississippi and Missouri home again.

When there wasn't enough time to get out to the floodplain I still continued to haunt the place where I'd started: the woods on Fifteenth Street. That's where I found the fox family: a male, a female, and three kits. I saw the male and the female together, and I knew they were mated. They stay together for life. This pair made their living from the rookery, where all the herons and egrets and ibises for miles around nested. The dam on an old fishing pond had broken, and never been repaired, and the silt that had been the pond bottom had sprouted trees, crowded and tall, with plenty of perching and nest space and cover. The foxes ate the young, and the eggs, that fell from the nests. They hunted the birds differently than they did mice: they rushed at birds, but they leaped at mice. They went up at an angle, made a bend at the top of their leap, and came down. I liked this about them more than anything else. I liked their color, and their ears, and their bushy tails, and their supreme alertness, but I liked that pounce better than all the rest together. No living thing could move like that. Their elegance was supernatural.

The foxes were fat, or as fat as foxes get -- skinny instead of emaciated -- from the bird young and eggs. Then, when the young birds stopped falling from the nests, the foxes lost weight and began to roam. I saw one a few miles east, out on the floodplain, the male. He was sitting at the end of a row of corn, waiting for the traffic to thin, waiting to cross. A fox knows how to watch -- he misses nothing, and knows how to use what he sees. They're beautiful animals, as springy and lively as an animal can be. I like them because they're vivid, they're truly alive. And they're smart. They can take care of themselves. You'll never tame a fox. A fox belongs to himself.

I used to sit on a log and watch the vixen and the kits. They knew me. They'd learned to trust me, or at least ignore me. Late evening was the best time. I usually threw out some dog food and retreated downwind, well away, and then didn't move. When I'd been there long enough, everything, not just the foxes but the birds too, would forget I was there, and come out again. One afternoon was especially good. I'd been sitting for half an hour, and the foxes had been out the entire time. The vixen had nursed the kits in a patch of grass. Her ears rose, she sat up and looked past me, and bolted into the trees. The kits ran after her.

"Hello," someone said. When I didn't answer she walked around in front of me and said hello again.

"What do you want?" I asked. I was annoyed that she'd frightened off my pets.

"My name's Julia Acker," she said. "What's yours?" Her smile was wider on the top than on the bottom, like a line drawn above a rectangle of even white teeth. She was skinny and pretty, and she wore jeans and a red shirt, and she was very clean. She had a mole at one corner of her mouth. Her face was triangular, with a sharp chin. Her glasses were steel-rimmed, a little low on her nose. Her hair was wiry as a metal brush, and didn't -- wouldn't, I found out later -- lie flat. It was cut just below the bottom of her ears, and stuck out at all angles, the same rusty color as the vixen. Something about her was vivid and awake, shining from bright eyes.

"I'm Gabriel Packard," I said.

"Gabriel? No, really."

"Honest. My name's Gabriel."

"That's so cool. That's the greatest name I ever heard."

I told her that if she was quiet, the foxes might come back. She was silent and motionless, something none of my friends, and neither of my sisters, could do. But the foxes were gone for the day. It was weeks before she got a look at them, and when she did, she saw the male hunting, and was as much in thrall as me.

We rode our bikes out to the Kaw that first day, after we gave up on the foxes, and I showed her the canoe I was making from a log. I wanted to float all the way down to where the river joined the Missouri, as practice for later, bigger adventures.

She was so excited she squirmed. "I go canoeing with my dad," she said. "I'm the bow paddle. Can I come?"

"This isn't big enough. We'll have to make another one."

The log was so long we could make another canoe from it. We worked for weeks, carrying the axe in the basket of my bike. The wood was oak, and the chopping was slow work. Then we rode out one Sunday, just to sit by the river, and found our logs had been burned. The ashes were still warm. Some partiers, probably college students, had drunk a case of beer and left their cans scattered around. They'd cut up the wood with a chain saw, made a fire, and burned our canoes. I threw some of the ashes on the river.

Julia cried, so I hugged her and tried to comfort her. She stopped crying and we stood there, with my arms around her and her fists between us, against my chest. She was as tall as me, but she bowed her head so it rested against my neck. We stood so long the sun dipped and the air cooled. We broke apart. I didn't know what to say. I looked at her, and she picked up my bike and started walking it, looking at me from the corner of her eye. I walked her bike without saying anything. When we got to the road and she started to get on, she noticed her mistake and we traded. We pedaled home without saying anything.

I leaned my bike against the porch and she stood looking at me, waiting. I raised a hand toward the house, in a half-invitation to come in, but only half, so I could pretend I hadn't meant it if she chose not to accept. She propped her bicycle against mine and I opened the kitchen door.

Mom was at the table reading a letter from Maria. I introduced them.

"Julia?" she asked. "Do you like lemonade?"

She set the letter at the corner of the table and poured three glasses and asked Julia what we'd been doing, as if they'd known each other forever, and Julia told her about the burned logs, and the foxes, and talked as if she couldn't stop. She told her about the Catholic school she attended, and her stamp collection, and even recited two poems she'd written, which mom praised. When I rode home with her later, Julia said, "I wish I belonged to your family."

I already had two sisters, but I didn't say so. I knew why she didn't want to be in her own family.

She always made me turn around a block from her house. She would never explain why, the same way she wouldn't talk about her bruises. To arrange anything I had to leave notes for her. I would ride my bike over at night, and watch the house, until I was sure no one was moving around, and then I'd leave the letter in the evergreen bushes in front of her porch, stuck into the fork of a branch, in where you couldn't find it unless you knew exactly where to reach. It was the thickest of the bushes, and always scraped my arm. We had to do this because she wouldn't let me call. Mrs. Acker eavesdropped on Julia's phone calls, and Julia was afraid of what her mom would do if she found out about me. She had frightened off other friends of Julia's, and those were even other Catholic girls. I was neither, so there was no hope.

Julia had been too shy to come to my house until the day we found the logs burned. She thought my mother might be like hers. After that she started coming in the morning and we'd do something until the day got hot. She'd go home for lunch, and claim she'd been visiting a classmate who lived near me. The friend, Cindy, was covering for her. Every so often Cindy would call up and say that Julia's mom had just phoned and what excuse Cindy had used ("Julia's in the bathroom", "Julia's outside"). Julia would call her mom and repeat the excuse her friend had given.

So she came by in the morning, went home for the hot part of the day, and came back later. Evening was the best time. We'd lie in the hammock with our feet in each other's laps and talk and daydream and be silent. I'd never been able to talk to anyone like that -- just say what I thought, and she would listen, and almost always understand, and usually feel the same. I told her once about the class picnic I went to. One of the parents loaned his farm in the country for us to go to, and all the other kids were playing volleyball, next to a stream, but I crossed the bridge to see what was in the forest on the other side. I found a road through the forest, and it looked very old and I followed it through the trees, and there was something in the light, something that kept drawing me onward. I thought that if I walked just a little farther, I'd discover it. When I finally gave up and turned around and came back, all the kids were gone, the bus was gone, and there was one teacher waiting for me, next to his car. Everyone else had left. When I told Julia this story, she sat up. When I finished she said "Yes!", and leaned toward me so suddenly that she tipped the hammock and we fell out, onto the ground. She ignored the fall and told me the exact same thing had happened to her once, only not at a class picnic, but a family reunion, and everyone stayed and waited for her. But all the rest was the same: volleyball, the stream, the bridge, the forest, the strange light that she kept following. Sometimes we had similarities that were so weird they were scary. She was my lost twin.

A lot of times we didn't say anything. The only important thing we didn't share was music. Maybe we'd hear dad practising in the studio, the sound of the piano rising and falling, and Julia would start talking exactly at the place I thought was the best part of a piece, and I'd get annoyed because she'd made me miss it. I heard a lot of dad's new songs by listening from the hammock, the songs he never recorded, which later I learned a different way. Julia never listened to the songs. That was good. We each needed our own thing that the other ignored. Hers was her family. I learned from the beginning not to ask about them, and from what I managed to guess, I was happy to stay ignorant.