Chapter 1 - A Forest
Bruno opened the back door of his family’s new house and stepped into the thickening air of dusk, having no idea he was about to fall in love. He left the flagstone patio and crossed the lawn to a high wall of cypress bordering the backyard. After passing through the hedge, he traversed a grassy alley and climbed two stone steps through another row of trees to the larger rear yard. There a neglected tennis court lay hidden under acorns and leaves, enclosed by more cypress and canopied by tall oaks. A picnic bench languished in the shadow of a tree. Fireflies blinked in the darkening corners.
Bruno went back to the grassy alley. At one end the peak of the garage roof loomed black against the purple sky. In the opposite direction the alley dead-ended in a copse of dogwoods and shrubs. Bruno figured the exact center of this neighborhood block must lie somewhere on the other side of those trees, surrounded by backyards. He walked to the copse, but it was too dense to see anything through it. A small flock of birds rose, whisking the sky, and resettled in the trees past the tennis court.
Cicadas thrummed around him. Bruno carefully stepped into the tangle of greenery and near darkness, and just when he thought there was nothing to find, the overgrown area gave way and he emerged in a clearing.
Bruno found himself on a small square of freshly mown grass, enclosed by solid walls of bushes and trees on all sides. He couldn’t see a roof in any direction. Well-tended clusters of white flowers grew in beds on each side of the clearing. An arched alcove sheltered a small fountain, its laughter echoing quietly off the marble. Turning back, Bruno couldn’t see how he’d made it through the thicket.
The air in this unexpected place smelled of cloves, with a hint of the seashore. Bruno wondered what could be brining the air here, two hours’ drive inland. He felt as though he had been transported to a remote sanctuary. The deep shadows held a chill.
There was a rustling that sounded too loud to be a bird, and he considered fleeing back into the trees, fearful of being caught trespassing. But before Bruno could move, a man emerged on the far side of the clearing, clad in a battered oilskin mackintosh, a dark work shirt and pants, and well-worn boots. His rugged face made it hard to guess his age; bits of dried leaves clung to his hair and the rake he carried.
“I thought I’d see you soon enough,” the man said. He had a deep voice with a little gravel in it and an accent Bruno guessed was Australian. “How d’you do?”
“You did?” Bruno asked. “Are you our neighbor?” “No, I don’t live here.”
“Are you the gardener?”
“That’s about right,” the man said, idly hefting the rake. “Are you Bruno, then?”
“How did you know?”
“It’s my job to know. But not many folks come through here, so there aren’t many others it could have been.”
“Why don’t people come through here?”
“Because they don’t know how to find it. It’s tucked in the middle of so many places, but most people don’t even realize it’s here.” With the toe of his boot, the man pushed a loose piece of sod back into place at the edge of a flower bed.
Bruno approached the fountain and read the letters carved into the arch. “Ebentwine?”
“I don’t know who named it. It’s been called that as long as I’ve been here, and I’ve been here a long time.” The gardener reached up to a branch and pulled it down slightly, inspecting it. “Where are you headed?”
It sounded like a suggestion that he be on his way. “Home, I guess.” He turned to go but realized he had lost his bearings. “Go this way.” The gardener pointed to a hedge on one side.
“Thank you.” Bruno carefully pushed through the hedge, expecting to reach the grassy alley behind his house. Instead he found himself in the far reaches of a lawn behind a house he didn’t recognize. The scent of the clearing was gone, replaced by the more familiar suburban smells of pine trees and grass clippings. The shades of green around him seemed duller, perhaps because of the fading daylight.
Now he was sure he was trespassing. The gardener hadn’t seen him come in; how could he have known which house was Bruno’s? Then again, how had he known Bruno’s name? Bruno turned to go, then stopped.
Music was playing somewhere—a song that tugged at him like a ghost. He scanned the house in front of him, looking for the source. In an open upstairs window, a slender girl stood in profile, pulling a brush through her shiny dark hair. Bruno stepped out from his cover among the trees, mesmerized by the sight. The music was faint, but wavering notes from an electric guitar reached him, and the low voice of a woman. The past and the future fell away.
He didn’t pay much attention to girls usually, and when he did, he only compared them unfavorably with his older sister, Sophia. But now it was as if Bruno were seeing a girl for the first time. The air around her figure seemed to vibrate like heat above asphalt, and everything outside her window went out of focus.
She set her brush down and looked out over the trees. Bruno guessed she was a few years older than he was, and her pale face was more elegant than that of any teenager Bruno had ever seen. The song floated down to him over the wash of guitar, the lyrics unclear. All of it was so unexpected, so other-orldly; Bruno no longer cared that he didn’t quite know where he was. He would have stood there all night watching her.
In the upstairs room, the shadow of another person slid across the ceiling, and the ethereal girl turned away from the window. She moved out of sight, and the spell on Bruno was broken. He became aware of the cicadas in the trees again, and he swatted at an insect by his ear. He waited, but after a minute the chill began to seep through his shirt. Picking through the wall of dark green, he found his way back to the clearing.
The gardener was still there. “Back so soon?” “That’s not my house,” Bruno said.
“Then why did you . . . I thought you said . . .”
“Come back whenever you like,” the man told him, pointing to another place in the hedges.
“My house is that way?” Bruno couldn’t tell if the nodding man was amused or annoyed. Bruno stepped carefully into the thicket, concerned he would wind up in yet another unknown place. But he emerged in the grassy alley and returned to his own backyard. In his mind he still saw the girl in the window. Who was she? He wondered how he might meet her. It felt like the easiest thing and the hardest thing in the world. He went inside his house.
His brother was calling his name as Bruno climbed the stairs, and the last bit of adventure faded from his mind. He shouted back, “What!”
“What time do we have to be there tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.” Bruno did know, but he liked holding out on his older brother. He went int...