Home > All the Little Lights(3)

All the Little Lights(3)
Author: Jamie McGuire

I sat back in my chair, crossing my arms. “What does it matter? Not like you asked me or care what I think.”

“I do, too, Elliott. That’s why I’m calling.”

“How’s your eye?” I asked.

“Elliott,” Aunt Leigh hissed, taking a step forward.

It took a moment for Mom to respond. “It’s better. He promised—”

“He always promises. It’s the keeping it when he’s mad that’s the problem.”

Mom sighed. “I know. But I have to try.”

“How about you ask him to try for once?”

Mom was quiet. “I have. He doesn’t have many chances left, and he knows it. He’s trying, Elliott.”

“It’s not hard not to put your hands on a girl. If you can’t, then just stay away. Tell him that.”

“You’re right. I know you’re right. I’ll tell him. I love you.”

I clenched my teeth. She knew I loved her, but it was hard to remember that saying it back didn’t mean I agreed with her or that I was okay with Dad coming home. “Me too.”

She breathed out a laugh, but sadness weighed down her words. “It’s going to be okay, Elliott. I promise.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Don’t do that. Don’t make a promise unless you can keep it.”

“Sometimes things happen that are out of your control.”

“A promise isn’t a good intention, Mom.”

She sighed. “Sometimes I wonder who’s raising who. You don’t understand, Elliott, but one of these days you will. I’ll call tomorrow, okay?”

I glanced back at Aunt Leigh. She was standing at the bottom of the stairs, her disappointment visible even in the dim light.

“Yeah,” I said, my shoulders sagging. Trying to talk sense into my mom was normally a lost cause, but feeling like the bad guy for it exhausted me. I hung up the phone and held it out to my aunt. “Don’t look at me like that.”

She pointed to her nose, then made an invisible circle around her face. “You think this face is for you? Believe it or not, Elliott, I think you’re right.”

I waited for the but. It never came.

“Thanks, Aunt Leigh.”



“If you think that little girl needs help, you’ll tell me, right?”

I watched her for a moment and then nodded. “I’ll keep an eye out.”

Chapter One


Nine windows, two doors, a wraparound porch, and two balconies—that was just the face of our looming two-story Victorian on Juniper Street. The chipped blue paint and the dusty windows seemed to sing a violent song about the century of relentless summers and brutally cold winters the house had endured.

My eye twitched at the faintest tickle on my cheek, and in the next moment, my skin was on fire under my palm. I’d slapped the black insect crawling across my face. It had paused there to taste the sweat dripping from my hairline. Dad had always said I couldn’t hurt a fly, but watching the house watch me did strange things. Fear was a compelling beast.

The cicadas screeched from the heat, and I closed my eyes, trying to block out the noise. I hated the crying, the buzzing of insects, the sound of the earth drying under a triple-digit temperature. A tiny breeze blew through my yard, and a few strands of hair fell into my face while I stood with my navy-blue Walmart brand backpack at my feet, my shoulders sore and raw from carrying it across town from the high school. I would have to go inside soon.

As hard as I tried to be brave, to talk myself into going inside to breathe the thick, dusty air and climb the stairs that would creak under my feet, a steady knocking from the backyard gave me an excuse not to pass through the double-wide, wooden door.

I followed the sound—something hard meeting something harder, an ax to wood, a hammer to bone—seeing a bronze-skinned boy come into view as I rounded the porch. He was pounding his bloody fist into the bark of our old oak tree, the trunk five times thicker than its assailant.

The oak’s sparse leaves weren’t enough to hide the boy from the sun, but he stood there anyway, his not-quite-long-enough T-shirt blotched with sweat. He was either dumb or dedicated, and when the intensity in his eyes chose to target me, I couldn’t look away.

My fingers pressed together to form a visor just above my forehead, blocking the sunlight enough to change the boy from a silhouette, bringing into view his round-framed glasses and his pronounced cheekbones. He seemed to give up on his plight, bending over to pick a camera up off the ground. He stood, ducking his head under a thick, black strap. The contraption dangled from his neck when he dropped it, while his fingers fumbled through greasy, shoulder-length hair.

“Hi,” he said, the sun reflecting off his braces when he spoke.

Not the profoundness I was expecting from a boy who spent his time punching trees.

The grass tickled my toes as my flip-flops snapped against the soles of my feet. I took a few steps closer, wondering who he was and why he was standing in our yard. Just as something deep inside told me to run, I took another step. I’d goaded much scarier things.

My inquisitiveness almost always beat out reason, a trait my dad said would result in my fate being shared with the unfortunate feline whose story he told as a cautionary tale. Curiosity pushed me forward, but the boy didn’t move or speak, patiently waiting for the mystery to overwhelm my sense of self-preservation.

“Catherine!” Dad called.

The boy didn’t flinch. He squinted through the bright sunshine, quietly witnessing me freeze at the sound of my name.

I took a few steps backward, grabbing my backpack and running to the front porch.

“There’s a boy,” I said, panting, “in our backyard.”

Dad was wearing his usual white-collared button-up, slacks, and a loosened tie. His dark hair was gelled into place, and his tired but kind eyes looked down on me like I’d done something amazing—if completing one full year of the torture that was high school could be considered, he was right.

“A boy, huh?” Dad said, leaning over so he could pretend to look around the corner. “From school?”

“No, but I’ve seen him around the neighborhood before. It’s the boy who mows the lawns.”

“Oh,” Dad said, slipping my backpack off my shoulders. “That’s John and Leigh Youngblood’s nephew. Leigh said he stays with them during the summers. You’ve never talked to him before?”

I shook my head.

“Does that mean boys aren’t gross anymore? I can’t say I’m happy to hear that.”

“Dad, why is he in our backyard?”

Dad shrugged. “Is he tearing it up?”

I shook my head.

“Then I don’t care why he’s in our backyard, Catherine. The question is, why do you?”

“Because he’s a stranger, and he’s on our property.”

Dad peeked over at me. “And he’s cute?”

I twisted my expression into disgust. “Ew. Dads aren’t supposed to ask things like that. And, no.”

Dad thumbed through the mail, a satisfied grin barely stretching against his five-o’clock shadow. “Just checking.”

I leaned back, peering down the stripe of grass between our house and the bare plot of dirt that use to belong to the Fentons before Mr. Fenton’s widow died and their kids had the house bulldozed. Mama said she was glad, because as bad as their house smelled from the outside, it had to have been worse on the inside, like something had died deep within.

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