Nels didn’t like the neighborhood. He thought it was too quiet, so tidy that he wanted to drop his gum wrappings on the sidewalk, maybe a wad of gum, too. The dogs were all well-behaved, not a snarl out of any of them as he passed. It wasn’t Chicago, he kept hearing from his dad, who grinned whenever he said it. Nels felt gypped. He had heard it was a cool city they were moving to, smaller but still with plenty of stuff going on. Portland was supposed to be bursting with music and art, tech nuts, young hippies and old hippies, skateboarders and cyclists, a famous bookstore. Mountain ranges soaring nearby. Two rivers (one that dumped right into the ocean, not too far away) with ten bridges.
Four were draw bridges, he’d read. He was fascinated with bridges so had planned on making his dad drive over every one of them in the first month. Nels was half-scared of being stalled high up over water, and when he thought about earthquake potential, it really made him crazy to consider being stuck on there. They had crossed two so far. He planned to document them in his notebook: “Bridges Surveyed and Survived”.
Presently his topic of research was farmer’s markets. He’d never been to a genuine market, not a large one with food grown in nearby farms. It was early fall so there would be pumpkins and weird mushrooms to check out. The possibility of tasting goat cheese, fresh smoked salmon and homemade Marionberry jam thrilled him. There was a market downtown, even with certified organic food (a concept that puzzled but interested him), which likely meant there were bugs on it and more.
Fifth grade had begun and all he could say was this school one was as boring as every other school he’d been to, all three of them. The last one was a Quaker private school (thanks to his aunt, who taught there), not one Nels would have chosen even if he did like the subjects better. He was relieved to be back in public school. But he daydreamed about his mother and his oldest best friend, neither of whom would likely visit him here too often.
Friends weren’t that easy to come by. He was just too new. His dad suggested he head out on his bike, see what he could see. He felt silly riding around the same area over and over, looking cool, unimpressed with the scenery which he found exotic. Often there were a couple of teen-agers playing basketball in the street at a portable hoop. But they ignored him. He saw a kid, maybe seven or so, with a crown on and she waved like a beauty queen from her porch. She looked more like a dirty fairy princess, wings and all. Nels rode by without a nod.
But there was something interesting that got his attention one Saturday morning. It was a bungalow with peeling white paint on a corner two blocks away. The drapes were half-open but the rooms looked dark. The yard was teeming with flowers. He slowed down. He’d seen roses, of course, but not growing like they were wild in every yard. In late August and September. There was tons of lavender–he’d seen it in a gift shop by the North Shore–with bees buzzing about. He laid his bike down on the outer grass and peeked into the back yard. There was a small play house, and red, yellow and blue chairs about a table. The little red house looked rusty, as if it needed fresh paint, too.
He heard the back door open and stepped back. A large orange cat leapt out, then zig-zagged across the yard, batting at something defenseless with wings. The play house looked abandoned. He didn’t see any signs of life, not even a dirty old tennis ball or a crunched pop can. Just looking at the yard made him want to be back in Chicago where you could rub shoulders with masses of neighbors. His current back yard was spacious and fenced and emptier than this one.
“Hey! What’re you gawking at?”
Nels head jerked up and he saw a girl balancing on a skateboard, watching him. Hands were on hips and her head was cocked to one side. She had shoulders that looked like they could level him in one mad rush.
“Nothing.” He got back onto his bike. “Just saw the playhouse as I rode by.”
“Yeah, now you saw that, what else?”
She picked up the skateboard and walked over to him. He felt she was one of those fictional Amazons as he sat on his bike curbside. She seemed to know this and lorded it over him, chin up, looking down her significant nose at him. She couldn’t be much older than he was even though she acted like it. Her eyes glinted in the sunshine, brown with golden slivers.
Nels shrugged and stared down the street. “Like your board. Want to ride around with me?”
She put her skateboard on the pavement and pushed off. He jumped onto his bike and caught up with her, then passed her, but she grabbed his fender and held on, getting a free ride.
“Why do you have a playhouse? Do you really still…play house?” he shouted at her and pedaled harder, his breath a little labored. She was not a light-weight.
“My dad built it when I was three,” she called out. “Now it’s a kind of clubhouse.”
“What?” He slowed for a stop sign and turned around. She drifted up next to him.
“CLUB HOUSE.” She enunciated as if he was hard of hearing. “For me to do stuff undisturbed. And maybe a friend or two.”
“How do you get in? On your hands and knees?”
She punched him on the shoulder and skated off, gaining speed with each push forward, then jumped a curb and landed without a wobble.
“Maybe a secret password, too?” he shouted after her.
“Hey, better watch out for Flora! She’s like a wild beast!” The basketball guys laughed as they rode by on their expensive bikes.
Flora. Flora the flying wildcat, he thought, and liked the sound of it. He headed back home.
The next two weeks it mostly rained. Nels had never seen it rain that way, on and off, on and off every day. Hard as pebbles, then soft as feathers against his window. He came home and thought of the bright cold air of Chicago, leaves going orange-gold, fire red. He thought of his friend Holden and the park that was a second home, the basketball court, a fountain in the shape of a lighthouse (with a light at top when it worked) near the swings and the patchy grass and weeds getting out of hand. When Nels looked down the street from his bedroom window now he saw bright bunches of flowers, perky despite the downpours. It looked like a wanna-be jungle down there. Lawns were so green they nearly glowed, as if drawn with florescent markers. Bushes were pruned into mini-sculptures. Trees he couldn’t identify yet elbowed more trees. Back home….(“This is home, now”, his dad reminded him at least once a week)….the lawns were skinny and you could tell what the neighbors were having for dinner and who was mad and if it wasn’t always the safest where they lived it was definitely lively.
One evening as he finished his English assignment–write a three-page report on your favorite author (he chose Tolkien to impress his teacher but he had actually read two books)–rain drops tumbled off rooftops. Then stopped for more then fifteen minutes. He opened his window and sniffed the air. Slightly cooler, earthy, fresh and breezey. The neighborhood shimmered under the street lamp. The block was calm, as usual. He grabbed his jacket and ran downstairs.
His dad looked up from the Irish mystery series he was watching, his phone lit up in his hand. Multi-tasking.
“Going for a short walk, okay?”
“It’s almost eight, be back in half an hour.”
Nels power-walked across the street, arms swinging. His breath emitted little clouds, or he wished they were clouds but really they were just damp puffs, nothing to indicate autumn temperatures. It was a few notches above balmy, in fact, and he began to sweat. By the time he reached the girl’s house, he had taken off his jacket and tied it around his waist as he jogged. He came to a full skid stop by Flora’s back yard.
A light appeared inside the play house. Rather, there was a wavering brightness leaking through small windows and a half-open Dutch door. Nels slinked into the yard, tried to see if she was there. All he made out was a fat round yellow candle.
“Who goes there?” A voice like Flora’s but deeper. “Show they ugly face.”
So she was the dramatic type. Nels sneaked up to the door and crouched, ready to scare her. Flora popped her head out the upper half of the door and looked around.
“Come on out. I can smell you,” she stated flatly.”Sweat mixed with cinnamon rolls.”
He stood up, avoiding her grasp. “Everyone sweats. Cinnamon bundt cake, vanilla ice cream. We bake sometimes.”
He thought she meant pieces of cake, as if he would bring her any.
Then Flora opened the half-door a couple of inches. “You alone, no dogs or other bad influences? Gilligan is with me.”
“Yeah, that’s right, like the old show Gilligan’s Island. My cat.”
She pulled Nels in and shut the door. He ducked down a few inches. He could see the tabby curled up in a corner, the cat that had sprung out of the back door. Flora bent over, too, as she made her way to a large plaid pillow on the floor, then pointed to the other one across from hers.
He sat clumsily after she did. She stroked Gilligan until he settled and purred, then glanced at Nels as if to check that he was behaving, as well.
The candle sputtered in the waxy pool. Flora poured some of it into the palm of her hand. She jerked her head at the candle and he followed suit, a warm carmelly drip stinging, then smoothing over his palm. They waited for it to cool, then crack. The flame on the candle steadied and illuminated the walls.
He saw her eyes turn more golden and imagined her a mountain lion come down from the mountains he had yet to explore. They were piercing and darted about. He wondered if she had long pointy nails, decided she didn’t, but would check later to be sure.
She thought he looked tired and parched, like a creature who finally made it to paradise after being lost in some terrible place. He knew all this was not a mirage but he still seemed very unsure. He had a baseball cap on and his grey-blue eyes reminded her of water trapped under ice.
“Where you from, Nels?”
“Chicago, home of the White Sox.” He tipped his cap. “How do you know my name, Flora?”
“Word just gets around, right? Wow, the Great Lakes. And a huge, freezing, windy city.” Flora shivered violently. “I’d like to have more snow. We get black ice, mostly. Except on the mountain. Mt. Hood, that is. You ski?”
He shrugged, stared at the flame as it danced, then rested, danced, rested. He felt the urge to say things. “Yeah, I can ski. And snowboard. And swim and ride in marathons with my dad. We came to this bizarre rainforest because my dad got a great job. Had to move…My mother, she lives in a townhouse and does web design. They divorced three years ago but I like living with my dad better.”
He shot Flora an angry look. Her mouth, which was hanging open, closed.
“I was way happier in Chicago.”
“Of course. You’re from the Midwest. You have culture shock, or so my mother would say. She has MS, and writes sci fi books and has nearly white hair even though she’s just thirty-eight. A genetic thing. I’ll probably get it before then–I saw a white hair the other day, swear it.” She patted Gilligan. “My dad left when I was four so I don’t miss him. You’ll get used to your mom being gone. Eventually.”
Nels let loose a sigh; he didn’t realize he had been holding his breath in after he’d let out so many words. He half-smiled at Flora, more out of relief to have air them. No one else knew those things here.
She didn’t smile back but held up a squashy little ball of wax. She pulled it apart and gave half to him. They picked at their pieces and dropped bits of wax back into the candle’s well and watched the flame, blinking and yawning. It reminded Nels of a cobra, the way it moved.
Nels leaned against the wall and got so sleepy he felt like he could sit back and snooze until morning. He noticed Flora was tired out, too, with Gilligan curled up on her lap. The candle flickered and threw monster shadows on the walls. Their shadows. He got up.
“I need to leave. You go to the same school right, right? I don’t feel like being caught in a play house…Is it the only place you’ve got?”
She frowned and studied Gilligan as he stretched. “I have an oak tree that beats the rest. There’s a good park a few blocks away. I like it here. We could sit outside at the table. I was going to say you could come back and visit here, but oh, well. You’d have to donate a candle, anyway. I like to light them as it gets colder.”
She caught Gilligan’s tail as he hopped off, then let it run through her fingers. Her nails were short.
Nels went outside but poked his head through the half-door. “You mean, for heat?” He snickered. “When you’re forced to put on fleece and wear real shoes?”
She flashed a toothy smile. “I wear sandals most of the year.With leggings or tights. You probably brought snow boots but forgot a water-repellant jacket. You might drown with all that weight on your feet.”
Nels laughed and waved. He crossed the yard and stopped to examine the rain jewels on roses, then looked back as the little house went dark. He didn’t wait to see Flora emerge. He took off down the street, Gilligan running after him then making a U-turn, off on a hunt. He thought about the market he and his dad were checking out on Saturday. Portland was possibly going to be a decent place. Eventually.