Aunt Jantha is waiting for me when I get home from school, hanging out of her open-top Jeep in cutoff shorts and a tied-up t-shirt with dirty-blond braids sticking out of her baseball cap. Mommy says Jantha is an “overgrown hippie”, and she’s totally the coolest relative on Daddy’s side of the family.
“Hey kiddo. How was school?”
“Fine.” Boring. Like every day of school.
“No.” I already finished it during recess.
“Well good!” She follows me into the house and then into Papa Phil’s study, where I set down my backpack, “I was wondering if you’d like to go hiking with me today?”
“Hiking? Like in the woods?”
I think the last time I went hiking I was 6 and Cloud was 3. Daddy took us up a mountain and then spent the whole time going back down laughing at me because I had an accident waiting for the bathroom.
“Sure! I used to go hiking all the time when I was your age,” I have a hard time saying no to my own reflection in her perfectly round purple sunglasses.
In a few minutes we’re cruising down Race Street. Past the churches. Past the Sonic and the Dairy Queen. Past the middle school, the junior high, and even the high school. All the way back into the woods and out of town. We pull into a road with signs pointing left for “Camp Wyldewood” and right for “Riverside Park”. We pull right and park in front of a bright red caboose and a small wooden playground.
“Hey I know this place,” I realize slowly, “I think Papa Phil took us here when we were little.”
Aunt Jantha pulls her own backpack out of her Jeep as I jump down onto the gravel.
“Yup. But you’ve never been past the playground I bet! But I’d say you’re old enough for a little adventure. Just don’t wander too far and neither one of us will get into trouble.”
We follow the chain-link fence around the edge of the playground until we reach a wide concrete trail that crests into a steady hill, declining deeper into the wilderness.
“Think how much fun this would be on a bike!” Jantha says, and I can already feel the breeze through my hair and rushing past my face.
“Did you and Daddy ever ride your bikes down here?”
She laughs, “Well I did, but your Daddy was always ‘too busy’ by the time I was old enough. Back then he only cared about going outside if he could go swimming.”
The deeper we go the quieter it gets until all I can hear is the rustling of leaves, the chirps of birds, and the faint babble of the river next to us.
Mommy always says she hates hiking, camping, and wild nature in general, but I wonder what she would say about this place. Even the air seems cleaner, with just a touch of green as it shines through the canopy. Eventually the trail curves and dips sharply, and Aunt Jantha calls up for me to wait.
“Before we wander too far, we better find some good walking sticks to keep our balance. You’ll want a dry branch that’s about as thick as your arm and about as tall as you. There’s one right there!”
She pulls a large stick off the ground and brushes it free of dirt before she unhooks a pocket knife from her belt loop and opens it before handing it to me by the handle, “Here, smooth out anything on the top where you’re gonna hold onto it. Just make sure you always cut away from yourself, never the other way. Okay? If you get stuck ask for help. I’ll be right back.”
To my surprise it’s very relaxing, slicing off imperfections and bits of dirt and bark until I have a clean, white, smooth handle. Once Aunt Jantha finds her own and does the same, we march slowly along the river bed with me still taking the lead. It feels very grown up. Exploring through the woods and off the walking trail.
We reach a spot that Aunt Jantha calls “The Basin,” a big clearing next to the river full of dried mud and rocks at the bottom of a steep cliff.
She stands proudly on top of a big log next to what must have been an old campfire, “See? This is where the river floods, that’s why there aren’t any trees here. Lots of kids have cookouts here when the weather is nice. I used to do that all the time.”
“This place is pretty cool, Aunt Jantha.”
“You don’t have to call me Aunt.”
“So don’t do it then. It makes me feel old.”
After an awkward pause she clears her throat and says, “Hey, you know what might be fun? Let’s spell out our names with rocks and see if we can read them at the top of the cliff!”
“Yeah! And anyone else who walks by can see our names too,” Jantha always has good ideas. Her and Aunt Bobby. They’re the only grownups besides Mommy who understand me without asking a lot of stupid questions or telling me what to do all the time.
Lucky for us The Basin is full of smooth, white rocks, and it doesn’t take us long to spell our names out in a space that must have been cleared for an even older campfire. Two rows of logs are lined up like church pews, and we use the aisle between them as a canvas before settling down on one of the logs to catch our breath.
“So, how do you like Searcy so far?”
“It’s okay,” I tell her, except I hate it.
“Have you made any new friends yet?”
I’ve heard all these questions already from everyone else, but I’m okay answering Jantha, “I used to be friends with Elizabeth and Amy, but they won’t talk to me since the fight with Trent. And there’s a couple of boys in my Connections class that I hang out with, but they’re kind of dumb. Their names are Ricky and Clay.”
Jantha gets up and begins to lead me to another path up the side of the cliff, “You’ve had a pretty busy couple of months, huh? Do you like your new teacher as much as you liked Miss Funk?”
“Not really,” I shake my head, “She’s kind of mean. She’s making me teach myself cursive because she says I was supposed to already know it in third grade, instead of fifth grade like they did in Little Rock. And she gets mad when I read in class, even if I’ve already finished all my work.”
Jantha laughs, “I used to get in trouble for that all the time too. How is your Mom? Do you like her new house?”
I lean heavily on my walking stick up the steep slope.
“It’s a nice house. It’s got big rooms and wood floors with a big climbing tree in the front yard. But I don’t really like the other lady who lives there. She has two boys and they’re always loud and always rough and always breaking things.”
“Yeah, some boys are like that. Lucky you’re different, huh?”
I hate that word. Different.
Jantha gives me a strange look, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I’m trying not to cry, which seems stupid because there’s nothing I feel sad about right now, “I just wish I was normal sometimes.”
She leads me to the edge of the cliff and points down to the very bottom:
“DORIAN & JANTHA
Peace & Love”
“Wow! I didn’t think it would be so easy to see. It’s so far down.”
We stare into The Basin for a long time, not saying anything. I dangle my toes past the edge dangerously, imagining what it might be like to slip and fall, even if it was only an accident.
“Being normal is boring,” Jantha finally says, emptying her backpack of sandwiches and a canteen of water, “Only weirdos make a difference because only weirdos change the world from what it already is.”
That makes me smile. Maybe she’s right. Maybe it is better to be weird.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, Dorian, but how are you holding up these days?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what with your mom and dad and the move and everything, it just seems like you’ve been really quiet lately. You know you can always talk with me if you need to, right?”
It’s only then I realize this isn’t a spontaneous idea, but a planned outing while Cloud starts her new dance classes. I’m not sure if that makes me feel angry for being tricked, or happy to have time alone with Aunt Jantha like before Cloud was born.
“I don’t know. It’s all so different. Home. School. Everything. We hardly see Mommy except for the weekends, but Daddy’s never awake anyway, so I don’t know why we don’t just go live with her. Cloud would cry less, although then I would have to deal with those boys, so I wouldn’t really like that either. It doesn’t even matter because grown-ups never listen to you anyway.”
“Boy ain’t that the truth. That’s why I don’t consider myself a grown-up, just a big kid. You know, this used to be my favorite reading spot during the summer?”
My ears perk up, always eager for good books, “Really? What did you read?”
“Fantasy. Science Fiction sometimes too. Anything with fairies or dragons or wizards. What about you?”
“I just finished Harriet the Spy and I think it might be my new favorite. She spies on all her friends and neighbors and writes all their secrets in a private notebook and she lives in New York City.”
“I’ll have to start lending you books. I bet I have a few you might like. Have you read The Color of Magic yet?”
We thankfully avoid further discussion of my parents or their divorce or anything else serious. After our snack we continue to wander until we find a pasture surrounded by trees draped in white and yellow flowers.
Jantha says they’re called Honeysuckle because you can suck the nectar right out of them, and we pick and suck enough of them to make crowns of flowers around both our heads to wear. It’s silly and they’re hard to wear, but that’s why she’s my favorite relative on Daddy’s side.
The orange sky looks beautiful through the green leaves as we begin to make our way back to the playground and the Jeep. As we crunch up the gravel she nudges me playfully and points to the caboose.
“You see that caboose?”
“When I was growing up, we would sneak out at night and climb up in there so we could kiss!”
And then she plants a wet loud kiss on my cheek before racing me the rest of the way to the Jeep.
I wish I could tell Jantha about Ryan and his treehouse. But I don’t want to go to Boot Camp. And if I can’t tell Jantha, then I can’t tell anyone. But it’s hard to think about that when she cranks up her radio and pulls out of the parking lot to get us two big Blue Ocean Slushes from Sonic on our way back home.
My lips and tongue are still blue when I fall asleep.