Two weeks after I turned eighteen, my stepfather and his girlfriend deserted me. They just up and moved out while I was at school.
I got home from basketball practice and the cottage where we lived—way out in the woods of Orange County, Virginia—was cleaned out. Well, almost. They left my dog, Damon, and my bed, and for that I was immensely grateful. And they left a plastic lawn chair in the kitchen, some plastic forks, and a half-empty bottle of lime Gatorade in the too-big-to-steal refrigerator. My clothes were piled up on the floor because they had taken my chest of drawers. Even my box of tampons was gone from the bathroom. I read the note I found on my bed:
Your 18 now and can fend for yourself. Me and your stepdaddy are gone to N.C.
See ya and good luck with basketball!
After four long years in my stepfather’s tiresome company (my mother died when I was fourteen), I wasn’t sorry to see him go. As for Evelyn, I never felt much “luv” from her. She was just Nelson’s girlfriend, the latest in a long line that didn’t understand why I had to be around. I think he was just lonely and I was someone to talk to whenever he got dumped, which was pretty often.
He never touched me, thank God. But I always thought that had less to do with principle or morals than his stated preference for “the cheerleader type,” otherwise known as wiry little blondes with leathery skin and raspy laughs and nicotine-stained fingers. I’m 6’1″, with a head of curly brown hair. I can bench-press more weight than most of the guys at my old high school, and I don’t do a whole lot of laughing.
Anyway, for the rest of the school year, I lived at the home of my basketball coach, Mrs. Brinkley, and her daughter, Amanda, and her son, Troy. It was fine and I appreciated the gesture. Mrs. Brinkley likes me because I’m a good basketball player, and Amanda looks up to me because—well, because I’m so much taller than she is. Smarter, too, but that’s not saying much. However, I got tired of Troy waking me up. He would open the door at six in the morning, run and jump on the bed, and yell, “Gahhh!”
A week after graduation, I decided to take Damon—a hound dog, with soft floppy ears—and go back to the cottage where I had lived with my mom and then with her and Nelson, and then with Nelson and his parade of chippies. A month earlier, the landlord had died—I’d seen the obituary in the Orange County Review—and the cottage was so rundown and out-of-the-way, I suspected it would be a while before his relatives came sniffing around it. With any luck, I could stay there all summer before I enlisted in the army.
On the day I left her house, Mrs. Brinkley stood in the driveway and said, “You’ll be scared living out there by yourself, and you don’t have to go to war.”
“People do it all the time,” I said. “But thanks for everything, coach.” I shouldered my backpack and gym bag, picked up the sack of food she had packed for me, and joggled Damon’s leash. He was eager to get going, and so was I.
“You could stay here, Pythie, and work at Country Cookin’, and go to Germanna,” she called after me. But I had no intention of waitressing or going to the local community college, and she knew it.
Damon and I walked the six and a half miles to Rapidan. It was a pleasant walk; we had done it many a time. You just have to watch out for the speeding trucks (with the drivers who never wave) and the cyclists dressed like Spiderman who come in packs. It was a warm June day, and when I looked up in the sky I saw hawks circling in the distance. They had found something to eat, and I was happy for them.
By the time we got close to home, it was the middle of the afternoon. We stopped at a stream both of us knew well, and Damon drank long and thirstily. I gulped down half of the bottle of water Mrs. Brinkley had given me. Then we went along the dirt driveway edged with wildflowers and weeds. I was looking forward to being back in the cottage without anyone around to bug me.
Damon was ahead of me, off his leash. Suddenly he stopped. I laughed to see him draw up so suddenly. Then I heard what he heard: an unearthly sound that made me think of angels and shooting stars. I felt goose bumps on my arms, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I beckoned to Damon and put him back on his leash. We stood together, both of us listening hard and straining our eyes toward the walnut trees behind which the cottage lay.
The sounds continued. I imagined the moon with a mortal wound. Or maybe it was a flame torch burning its way out of an iceberg—an iceberg that could sing. Whatever it was, it made me think weird thoughts.
Damon and I advanced cautiously. Once we got through the trees, I saw that the cottage looked the same: small and shabby, with gray plastic flaps hanging from the windows. That was Nelson’s idea of climate-control. On the stoop, I set down my things as quietly as I could. The sounds were coming from inside, and now they had stopped.
With a burst of courage or foolhardiness—I hardly knew which—I flung open the door. Damon barked sharply. There, on the old lawn chair, sat a boy with a handsaw propped on his lap and what looked to be a violin bow in his hand. “Don’t shoot me!” he cried out, his eyes wide.
I almost said, “Don’t saw me!” but thought better of it. “What’re you doing here?” I asked him, trying to sound stern. He was barefoot and looked about fifteen years old. Damon, no longer alarmed, went over to sniff him.
“I’m a runaway. I heard this place was empty.” He was petting Damon.
“What’s the deal with the saw?”
“I play it.” He relaxed a little. “Want to hear?”
“I heard. It sounds strange to me.”
“It’s beautiful, if you know how to listen right.”
“Who taught you?”
“And where’s he?”
“In the graveyard.” He jerked his head to the side, as if indicating a place I should know.
“Well, sorry about your daddy, but this was my home for a long time, and now I’m back. Squatter’s rights, you know.”
“Well,” the boy said, “I’ve been squatting here all day.” He paused and looked around. His eyes were the gray-green color of creek water. “Can’t I stay, at least until I find somewhere else to go?”
He was slight of build and seemed harmless, so I said fine, I wouldn’t kick him out just yet. While I brought my bags inside, he started up again on that saw. I pushed open the windows. Then I peeked inside the foul-smelling refrigerator and discovered the electricity had been turned off—no surprise there. In my old bedroom I found a paper sack containing the strange boy’s shorts, a pair of jeans, a couple of shirts. And there were his big old sneakers, crusted with Orange County clay.
I went back in the kitchen. “I’m Pythie,” I said. “What’s your name and where’re you from?”
The peculiar music stopped and the boy set down his bow. “I’m Dion, from Culpeper.”
“My mama wants to move to Syracuse, New York, where her sister lives, but I don’t want to go.”
“You better go on home. Otherwise, she’ll get worried and call the police.”
Dion gave me a pained look. “She knows I’m gone.”
“Her unemployment’s run out. I’ll be one less mouth to feed.”
“Maybe she’ll find work in Syracuse, and you could get a summer job.”
The boy waved his hand in a defeated way. “Seven of us kids—hardly matters if I have a job or not.”
“Every bit helps.”
He turned from me. I couldn’t decide whether he was black or white or something else. His skin was the color of peanut butter. He knew I was looking at him, and for a moment I thought he was going to cry. But then he touched the bow to the saw, and I let him be.
That night we shared the food Mrs. Brinkley had provided. There’s an old outdoor fireplace at the cottage, so we built a fire and roasted hotdogs. We each had a couple, along with a bag of chips, and a couple of pudding cups. Good thing Evelyn had left behind those plastic forks, not that they were so great for pudding. Neither of us felt full so I opened up a can of corned-beef hash and we ate that cold. I gave Damon his usual can of dog food—among the heavier provisions in my gym bag.
Oddly enough, I felt at ease with Dion. He chatted and asked me a few questions, but it felt all right when we didn’t talk. Damon took to him and that helped a lot. If Damon likes someone, he must be okay.
Ever since my mama died, and even before that, trust and friendship have not been what you might call my forte. For a long time I’ve prided myself on not needing people, not needing much of anything in life except Damon by my side.
Mama said to me in the hospital on her last night on earth, “You’re a big tall girl and you’ll be able to take care of yourself.” By the next morning, she was dead of cancer. And there I was, all alone except for a crazy stepfather who showed up drunk for his wife’s funeral.
Three nights later, he brought home a rat-faced little CNA whose voice I recognized from the phone calls he’d been getting. I got Damon and my sleeping bag, and we slept outside under the stars, even though it was October and chilly. I woke up only once, when Damon barked at some deer that were getting too close. Then he pressed close to my side and I inhaled his warm, earthy smell. I slept until I heard a car engine starting. It was Nelson taking his chippie back where she came from.
Dion borrowed my sleeping bag and slept in the kitchen that first night. I heard one last ripple of weirdness from his saw, and then things went still. Outside the birds were murmuring and the bugs were chirruping the way they always do. It felt good to stretch out my legs in my old bed.
When I woke up to the sun slanting through the open windows, Damon was in the kitchen cuddled up with the boy instead of on the floor by my bed. I was surprised but decided not to be jealous. Dogs are allowed to have more than one friend, I guess.
We continued like that for a few days. I had a little money, so we thumbed our way to Orange to buy more food and a cooler, and an air mattress for Dion. Afterwards we took a taxi back to Rapidan. Dion offered to pay for his share of things, but I sensed it was a hollow offer and turned him down.
Back at the cottage, I read from my books. There’s a used bookstore in Orange where you can get books really cheap, and I have a bunch on mythology and history. Paging through them, I was getting my mind ready for the army, trying to make a plan.
The only thing holding me back, really, was Damon. I would have to ask Mrs. Brinkley to take care of him. I could send her checks for his food and vet visits. Between deployments he would stay with me and eventually, I figured, I would get discharged (if I survived) and rent my own place. Maybe I could even buy the cottage and fix it up.
Dion and I talked about these matters while we cooked dinner outside. I had bought a grill pan for hamburgers. We made the patties and got the fire ready, and then sat on the ground inhaling the good smell of sizzling meat. I talked about Damon, and Dion played on his saw. Sometimes he used his bow and other times he just thumped it with his thumb and forefinger. He never offered to let me try it and I never asked. But I no longer minded how it sounded. Maybe I was learning how to listen right.
He told me he was sixteen, but when I looked for whiskers I saw none. “You’re not that old,” I said.
“I am, too!” But my skeptical gaze took the wind out of his fib. “Well, I’ll be sixteen in September and that’s coming up soon.” He paused to eat. “I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not going back to school ever again. By the time they come after me, I’ll be old enough to quit.”
“What’s so bad about school?” I asked him. “Do you get bullied, or what?” I figured a kid who played the saw might not be Mr. Popularity.
“Me, bullied? Nah. I have lots of friends.”
“Why aren’t you staying with one of them?”
He leaned over and tapped me lightly on my temple. “Think about it. Their parents would send me straight back to my mama.”
After that, we went quiet for a while. The boy finished eating and resumed sliding his bow along the saw. The eerie sound of it was really starting to grow on me. I tossed Damon the last bit of my burger. After he gobbled it down, he came and sat with his head on my lap and we listened to Dion as the sun set. It was a concert just for us.
Every night, Damon lay down on the floor next to my bed and every morning, I found him lying next to Dion. Unfortunately, the dog made short work of the air mattress with his sharp toenails. One morning I found the two of them lying on the sleeping bag, on top of this deflated, puddly thing. When I asked Dion about it later, he said the air went out very gradually, and he actually liked it better the way it was now.
The truth is, I enjoyed Dion’s company. Despite all his supposed friends, I knew he was a loner like me. I sensed he would never pry or do me harm. He had a lot of space around him, if that makes sense.
One night it rained and thundered. I sat against the kitchen wall and watched Dion play his saw by candlelight. Between the flickering candle and the occasional flash of heat lightning, I saw the contours of his face in a new way. I could see the man that he would become: intense yet unfocused, the kind that would haunt libraries to read up on subjects never touched on in college, let alone high school. He would have girlfriends, but they would always leave him.
Such thinking made me shiver. I had my own life to worry about, after all. When I turned in for the night, he was still playing, softly now, a duet with the thunder. Damon was lying at his feet and did not come when I called. I left the two of them and shut my door.
The next morning the rain had stopped. When I woke up, a breeze was blowing through the windows and the birds were chirping away. I quickly dressed and went into the kitchen. To my surprise Dion and Damon weren’t there. The saw was on the table, but neither boy nor dog was anywhere to be seen. I went outside and looked all around. At first, something kept me from calling their names. I was afraid they wouldn’t answer. And they did not, when I finally did call. I paced in circles around the cottage, went up and down the driveway, walked into the hayfield, and returned repeatedly to the kitchen.
I kept telling myself the boy had taken the dog on a walk, or maybe Damon got loose and ran way off and Dion was chasing him down for me. I sat on the stoop and waited, then resumed circling and calling.
The day slipped by. At noon I had a sandwich and at six o’clock I had another one. The rest of the time I repeated my search pattern so often that I began to feel a little crazy. They were simply gone: a boy I had known for four days and the dog I had owned and loved for four and a half years.
The next morning I hitchhiked to Culpeper and found my way to the high school. I walked through empty halls to the air-conditioned office. The receptionist glanced up at me in surprise. She could hardly have expected to see an unfamiliar and very tall girl standing there with a backpack in her hands.
“I’m looking for a boy named Dion who goes to this school,” I said, my voice tight with nerves. “Do you happen to know where he and his family live?”
“Diane? A boy named Diane?” She narrowed her eyes.
“Dion. D-I-O-N.” I’d seen his name inked on one of his sneakers.
“Never heard of him, and I know all the children who go here.”
“Are you sure? He’s one of seven kids, and his mother’s planning to move them all up to Syracuse, New York.”
The woman seemed to stop then and really think. “What’s his last name? What’s he look like?”
I could not say to her: His skin is the color of peanut butter. “Well, I don’t know his last name, but he’s a lot shorter than me. He’s fifteen, and”—I paused to open up my backpack—“he plays this saw.” I was so nervous that it slipped from my hands and slid aggressively across the woman’s desk. The sharp side caught her wrist and drew a small foam of blood.
She shrieked and jumped up. “You hold it right there, young lady! I’m calling security!”
I left the saw behind and ran as fast as I could out of the school building. It took me a while to get home. I ran blindly for a mile or so, only to discover I didn’t know where I was. Finally I found a fast-food place where I borrowed a kid’s cell phone to call a taxi. I got out on the Culpeper side of the Rapidan bridge because I didn’t want the driver seeing where I lived, just in case that secretary decided to send the cops after me. Walking across the bridge, I looked down into the river, but the water pouring over the dam offered no clues or signs.
Dion and Damon were still not at the cottage. The boy had taken his shoes but left behind his extra clothes—along with the saw and, to my astonishment, Damon’s leash. Somehow I had overlooked the leash earlier, but there it was, looped around the doorknob to my room. But had it been there the day before? I rubbed my eyes. I felt panic rising, and there were tears close behind.
I spent another afternoon walking, searching, calling their names. But my heart told me they weren’t coming back.
The next day I gathered up my belongings and walked to Orange. Seeing me red-eyed, in dirty clothes, with my arms full of everything but the dog, Mrs. Brinkley let me inside without saying a word.
After sitting me down and giving me a can of Pepsi, she wanted to know if someone had hurt me, should she call the police, and where was the dog. I said no and no, and it’s a long story.
I had never seen so much genuine concern for me in another person’s eyes, at least not since Mama was alive. But even so, I could not say what had happened in the days since I had taken off on my own. It was private and it scared me, and I did not yet have words for it all.
That night I heard her tell Troy not to bother me in the morning. He whimpered, and I lay on the guest bed feeling bad. I think I would have welcomed his wakeup call—his “Gahh!”—as if that could reset my days, get me back on track.
Now, five months later, I’m on a military jet headed to Kabul. All around me, soldiers are sleeping or pretending to sleep. Outside my window everything is black.
I talk to my fellow soldiers, but I don’t tell them anything. Maybe someday I will. For now, they don’t need to know that when I try to sleep, I see a boy with eyes like creek water. I feel a good dog’s warm breath on my hand. Sometimes I try to listen for a music that is no less beautiful for being strange.
Photo by Keenan Browe