Isa & Nate Meet
“Isabelle Marita Perry was born not on a Greek island as one might expect a girl with such an exotic name, but in the small town of Blue Cove, Virginia where the closest thing she came to an island was a moss covered rock that”—Isa tapped the tip of her eraser to her lips—”Aunt Hazel what’ a romantic word for protruded?”
“I haven’t a clue.” Aunt Hazel sniffed. “Like an old maid like myself would know anything about romance.” She turned on the faucet, rinsed her coffee cup, and placed it top down on the edge of the sink. “Stop that nonsense and get ready for school.”
“An autobiography is not nonsense. Besides, I’m ready.”
Aunt Hazel jutted her chin into the air and sniffed. “Cat’s litter box needs cleaned.”
“How can you smell it? It’s all the way in the basement.” Isa couldn’t help but be impressed with Aunt Hazel’s power of smell. If only she’d use it for good and not bad. Smelling the first buds of spring—now that would be a good use of a sniffer like Aunt Hazel’s. But the litter box? What a waste.
Aunt Hazel cleared her throat and looked pointedly at the basement door.
Isa tapped her pencil on the table. “I’ll get to it. I just need a romantic word for—”
“Protruded. Yeah, I heard you the first time.” She tugged on a piece of Isa’s long hair. “I hate to break it to you, but I don’t think there is a romantic word for protruded. Enough of this romance stuff. Go clean the litter box.”
“Mama, God rest her soul, could have found a romantic word for protruded.” Isa stood, but kept one knee resting on the kitchen chair. She started the staccato tapping of her pencil again.
Aunt Hazel placed a hand on Isa’s arm, stopping her tapping pencil. “You’re probably right, but that doesn’t help us now with that awful smell creeping up the basement stairs.”
Isa sighed as she started toward the basement. “Oh, Aunt Hazel how can you think of litter boxes on such a beautiful sun shiny morning?”
“Because it stinks.” Aunt Hazel said, swatting Isa with the kitchen towel.
Isa flipped the switch to turn on the basement light and started down the stairs. Days like today reminded Isa of Santorini, Greece where her mama was born. Of course, Isa had never been there, but she dreamed of it all the time. And she knew deep within her heart that the sun must always shine on Santorini. Her dad was born right here in Blue Cove, VA. Nothing wrong with Blue Cove, but it wasn’t exactly a Greek Island.
Isa’s mom and dad died in a car wreck ten years ago when Isa was only five. Isa couldn’t really remember her parents, but she imagined what they were like on a daily basis. Isa tried to imagine them with some flaws. It wouldn’t be fair to her parents to remember them as perfect. Nobody could live up to that standard, not even in imagination. Aunt Hazel is her dad’s older sister. And Isa couldn’t have asked for a better second mom. Even with Aunt Hazel’s overly sensitive sniffer.
She reached the bottom step and was accosted by the pungent smell of cat pee.
Seriously, Oscar. That’s disgusting.
Oscar was an orange tabby cat that wandered into their yard one spring day five years ago. There was nothing to do but keep him. He was a skinny, scraggly kitten when they first found him, but now he was a fat, robust cat who spent his days curled in front of the fireplace—fire or not.
After the nefarious deed of cleaning the litter was finished, Isa washed her hands in the utility sink next to the washer and dryer. She started toward the stairs but stopped when she caught sight of a small slip of cream paper peeking from under a box of Christmas decorations.
Always curious? Or nosy as Aunt Hazel would say, she bent over and extricated the paper from under the box. She unfolded the torn piece of stationary and read:
I’ve missed you so much. When will you return?
Isa gasped. Did this belong to Aunt Hazel? If so, who did she miss? Did Aunt Hazel actually have a boyfriend at one time? Impossible.
Nothing beat a mystery, especially one involving romance. Isa slipped the piece of paper in her back pocket. Oh, this was going to be fun.
But she had to do this without Aunt Hazel knowing because the instant Isa mentioned anything about a boyfriend Aunt Hazel would clamp her mouth shut tighter than a clam in winter. Did a clam close its shell in winter? Oh well, it didn’t matter.
Isa had to do this without Aunt Hazel knowing. And maybe just maybe Isa could find this mystery man and get them back together.
Isa squinted her eyes and zeroed in on the petite blue star-like flowers on the edge of her yard. They were so small that she’d never known they were there if she hadn’t been waiting for their arrival. They welcomed her every year at the end of February. She stepped across the dew covered grass and glanced at her watch. Five minutes before the school bus arrived. Plenty of time.
She dropped to her knees in front of the border and ignored her now wet knees. These were the first flowers of spring. Isa knew they were weeds, but she didn’t care. They deserved respect for daring to make an appearance in February when their life could be cut short by a cold snap. Isa tugged off her black hoodie and laid it on the grass. Wet knees were one thing, but she’d need a blanket to really see the flowers. And since she didn’t have a blanket, the hoodie would have to do.
The precocious blue flowers were so petite that only a fairy could truly enjoy their beauty. Well, fairies and Isa.
Isa settled down on her stomach and propped her chin on her left hand. She closed her eyes and opened them again. Now the precocious star flowers looked as they should—each blue petal had a swatch of white stemming from the yellow center. Their heart shaped leaves paid no attention to symmetry—sprouting wherever they desired. And Isa imagined herself a fairy traipsing between the leafy stems.
Isa may have been fifteen, but she was never too old to be a fairy weaving between blades of grass, dozing on a flower’s petal, or sailing on a leaf across a babbling brook. Or even better a fairy detective who finds her dear aunt’s long lost love.
A cough disrupted Isa’s reverie. She begrudgingly looked up at a figure silhouetted against the bright sky.
“Hey there.” A male voice accompanied the cough.
Isa shaded her eyes and took note of a boy standing beyond the flower bed that separated her yard from the neighbors.
“Hey.” Isa smiled, but she wished he would skedaddle. She only had a couple more minutes to be a fairy before the bus came.
“I’m Nate. I just moved in with my grandparents.” He jerked his thumb toward the blue siding house that was her neighbors.
Isa pushed herself up and stood. Clearly, her visitor intended upon a conversation and she prided herself on not being rude. At least not purposefully rude. She held her hand out. “Nice to meet you, Nate. I’m Isa.” He placed his hand in hers and gave it a hearty shake.
Good. Isa detested a wimpy hand shaker.
Nate had dark brown hair like Isa, but instead of brown eyes like Isa had, his were a deep blue. Most would think he was good looking, but Isa wasn’t sure if he was too good looking. A truly good looking person had a slight flaw to accentuate the really good looking parts. Like a scar or a slightly crooked nose. Not this Nate guy. He looked like a perfectly chiseled teen model. It made Isa thankful for her scar above her right eyebrow, placed there by a bike accident three years ago. That scar was what she needed to have true character. This Nate guy lacked scars which made Isa question his character.
“So is Nate short for something? Isa is short for Isabelle. People think that I go by Isa because that’s what my deceased parents called me. God rest their souls. But really I just like it. I mean why mess with a perfectly good name? Except names of flowers. That’s different. I can never remember their true names and besides their names never seem to match the flower. Except for daffodils. A daffodil looks like a daffodil. But a peony? There’s nothing puny about a peony. Don’t ya think?”
Nate crinkled his brow and his blue eyes studied Isa as if he were trying to determine if she was real or a figment of his imagination. “I guess.”
“You never answered my question.” Isa put her hand on her hip.
“Question?” Nate took a step over the flower border and stood directly in front of Isa.
“Is Nate short for something?” Isa asked it again, although she felt certain he should have remembered being asked such an important question as that.
“Oh. Right. No, just Nate.”
Isa nodded. “That’s a shame.” She picked up her hoodie and gave it a good shake. “It’s nice to have options in a person’s name. I guess I’ll have to call you Nate.”
“So you’re saying it’s an option as to whether I call you Isa or Isabelle.” Nate grinned.
“Well, I told you that they are both my names. So yeah.”
“Then I choose Isabelle.”
“Fair enough. If I change the name of a Peony to Penelope then you have every right to call me by my given name.”
“Thanks,” Nate said with a slight hesitation.
Nate and Isa turned toward the screeching hiss of the bus coming to stop in front of their houses.
“That’s us.” Isa ran toward the front porch of her aunt’s brick house which was almost completely overgrown with ivy. Isa loved her and Aunt Hazel’s little storybook cottage. It was small but just the right size for the two of them. She grabbed her purple backpack off the small porch and ran to meet Nate at the curb right as the doors to the bus opened.
Nate stepped aside so Isa could go on the bus first.
Isa stumbled over legs and backpacks until she reached the back of the bus, where Carolyn, Isa’s best friend waved her freckled hand. As if Isa couldn’t see her. Carolyn had bright red hair, but it was best not to mention her hair color. If you valued your life, it was auburn.
Isa slid in beside Carolyn and nudged her friend to slide closer to the window.
“What are you doing?” Carolyn asked as she shoved her backpack under her legs.
“Making room for Nate.” Isa patted the three inches of seat left beside her. “C’mon there’s plenty of room.”
“No there isn’t.” Carolyn groaned. “And who’s Na—” She stopped and looked up at Nate and a mischievous smile consumed her face. “There’s plenty of room.”
Nate glanced around the bus. “I don’t think I’ll fit.”
“It’ll be tight, but trust me its best.” Isa looked at Carolyn and gestured toward the only open seat occupied by Jake, the biggest jerk this side of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. That of course was just conjecture on Isa’s part. However, it didn’t change the fact that Jake was just plain mean. No other word for him. His favorite hobby was de-winging butterflies. Monster.
Carolyn looked where Isa gestured and nodded. “Trust us. Just sit.”
Nate shrugged and sat beside Isa. “Thanks.” He turned and smiled at Isa and Carolyn as he tried to balance himself on three inches of seat.
Carolyn grinned. “My name’s Carolyn.”
Nate nodded. “Nice to meet you, Carolyn. Can I call you Carol for short?”
Carolyn grimaced. “No. Whatever gave you that idea?”
Nate blushed. “Nothing. It was just something”—he looked at Isa for help—”that Isa and I—”
Carolyn waved her hand. “Say no more. If it has something to do with Isa, then there’s no need to explain.”
Isa scrunched her eyebrows. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing.” Carolyn patted Isa’s knee then stopped and looked at her hand. “Why are your knees we—you’ve been studying flowers again. Haven’t you?”
Isa shrugged. “I had a few minutes before the bus came.” Isa didn’t see what the big deal was. Carolyn never understood her love of flowers or nature. But right now Isa wanted to know more about Nate. She turned to look at the boy next door. “So why’d you move in with your grandparents?”
Nate stared at his hands that braced the seat in front of him. “My parents are going through a divorce. They thought it was best for me to live with my grandparents for a while until they figure some things out.”
“That is deplorable,” Isa stated.
Carolyn leaned forward. “Translation, that sucks. Isa doesn’t speak like the rest of us.”
Nate grinned. “I like the way she talks. It’s different.”
Isa smiled and nudged Nate with her shoulder. “I think we’re going to grand friends. Of course, that’s just a guess. It’s a little too early to tell at this point.”
Nate turned to look at Isa. His brown hair flopped in his blue eyes and he grinned. “I guess we’ll have to find out.”
The Bewitching Hair Princess
Isa held her hand high. She knew the answer, she’d read it in a book. She looked outside while she waited for Mrs. Spofford to make a decision on who to call on. Isa didn’t know why she took so long, it wasn’t like anyone else had their hand up.
Isa noticed the start of fresh buds on the maple tree outside the classroom window. How she loved spring. A robin hopped from branch to branch. What would it be like to be a robin in spring? She’d detest having to eat worms, but it would be so nice to flit from branch to branch announcing to the world that spring had officially come.
Isa was faintly aware of hearing her name, she turned to see Mrs. Spofford glaring in her direction.
“Are you going to answer the question?”
“I would gladly do so if you could kindly remind me what you’d asked. You see I got distracted by a robin announcing spring that I’ve completely forgotten your question.”
The classroom filled with laughter, but it wasn’t a scoffing laughter, more one of admiration. Isa could tell the difference.
Mrs. Spofford huffed. “Isa, you are the most exasperating student—”
Nate cleared his throat. “To be fair, Ms. I too have forgotten the question. You did take a long time to pick someone.”
Isa turned in her seat and looked at Nate, who was two seats back and one row over. He gave her a quick wink, then turned his attention to a flustered Mrs. Spofford.
“Nate, you are new, so I’ll allow you some grace when it comes to our Isa. But don’t let Isa bewitch you as she has the rest of the class.”
A titter of laughter travailed the classroom.
Bewitched? Isa didn’t think she bewitched anybody, much less her entire tenth-grade English class. But she liked the fact that she was thought to have bewitched an entire class.
Nate nodded. “I will try to remember that.”
After class, Nate sidled up beside Isa as she walked toward the cafeteria. “How did you manage to bewitch an entire class? Is it your long, brown hair? Does that give you a secret power?”
Isa smiled. “Yes. You are correct. It holds the power of the moon and stars and one strand can put people in a trance and then they are mine to do my bidding.”
Nate slipped his fingers beneath Isa’s backpack strap and tugged it off her shoulder. “Allow me.”
Isa grabbed at her backpack strap. “I can carry my own backpack.”
“I have no doubt of that, oh bewitching hair princess, but your lunch is leaking.”
Isa stared down at her flowered insulated bag and saw a darkened circle at the bottom, water dripped to the floor. “Dang it. My water bottle must’ve been opened.” She glanced up at Nate. “You seem to be coming to my rescue a lot lately.”
“Even bewitching hair princesses, need help now and again.”
Isa laughed. “It’s true. We do. Speaking of which, how are you at solving mysteries?”
Nate quirked an eyebrow. “I’ve never solved one before, but I’m willing to give it a try. What do you have in mind?”
Isa started toward the cafeteria. “Oh it’s just a little research into my aunt’s love life. Or lack thereof. You interested?”
Nate grinned. “I have no plans for the next few…years. So yeah count me in.”
Isa touched a strand of her hair and winked. “It’s still got it.”
“Hurry up we’ll be late for the movie.” Isa ran a brush through her hair and rolled her eyes at Carolyn who was looking in the mirror holding one leg up then the other.
“The black flat.” Both looked fine to Isa. “Nate has been waiting for like twenty minutes.”
“Nate can wait. He gets you all the time. What color lip gloss?” She dumped an array of lip glosses on Isa’s bed.
“Good grief, Care. You’re only staying one night. How much stuff did you bring?” Isa rolled the lip gloss around with her index finger. “And what do you mean Nate gets me all the time?”
“You hang out with Nate all the time. I miss my best friend.” Carolyn tugged on her sweater. “Does this look okay?”
“Nate and I live next door. Besides, you have field hockey.” Isa picked lint off Carolyn’s sweater. “The sweater’s great, but the skirt is way too short.”
“I have on shorts.” Isa pulled up her skirt revealing fluorescent pink shorts. “I know I’ve been M.I.A. lately. Coach is really riding us hard. So I guess I understand why you’d hang out with Nate. But I’d feel better about it if you two … forget it.”
“If we what?” Isa pulled her hair in a ponytail.
“If I thought you guys were… you know… dating.”
Isa shook her head. “Not going to happen. You know my ideal.”
Carolyn popped a hand on her hip. “A dashing Greek with the potential to do bad, but chooses not to.”
“Exactly. And Nate is…well, he’s sweet—”
“And gorgeous.” Carolyn grinned.
“That’s the other thing, he’s too perfect looking. You know my dashing Greek also has a slightly crooked nose.”
Carolyn groaned. “You and your crooked nose.”
“Come downstairs when you’re ready. I’m going to hang out with Nate.” Isa opened the door and as she shut the door she heard Carolyn whisper, “Of course, you are.”
Isa found Nate sitting in the living room with Aunt Hazel, a comfortable silence between them. Aunt Hazel knitted while Nate read Lord of the Rings. The boy was never without a book. Isa glanced at the clock on the wall. Only a half an hour before the movie started. They’d have to allow twenty minutes to walk. Carolyn better get a move on.
Isa took the book out of Nate’s hand. “C’mon let’s wait outside.”
“Sounds good.” He stood. “Later Hazel.”
Isa’s aunt looked up from her knitting. “I thought Carolyn was going to the movies with you two.”
“She is. She’s just taking her sweet time.” Isa and Nate turned to leave, but Isa stopped and turned back to Aunt Hazel. “Did you ever walk to the movies with your friends?”
Aunt Hazel rested the knitting on her lap and smiled. “As a matter of fact, I have great memories at that old movie theater. I’m glad they’ve kept it going. I’m also glad they play only the classics there, none of this new trash they put out now.” She picked up her knitting again.
“Who did you go to the movies with?” Isa asked in her most nonchalant voice.
Of course, Lucille. Aunt Hazel’s best friend. They still spent Saturday afternoons together combing the antique shops for treasures. Then again. She did say, usually Lucille. That meant she’d gone with other people. Isa just had to figure out who those others were. And were any of them the mystery man?
Isa tugged Nate’s hand and they left Aunt Hazel to her knitting. Once outside, Isa traipsed across the lawn to a row of tulips past their prime. Isa didn’t care though. They still were beautiful. She knelt beside the tulips, cupping a bloom in her hand. Isa shivered. April in Virginia was still cool at night.
Nate hunched down beside her. “Wouldn’t you rather sit on the porch?”
“Do you think we’ll ever find him?”
Nate cocked his head and looked into Isa’s eyes. “Why is finding your aunt’s mystery man so important?”
Isa shrugged. “Everyone deserves love.”
Nate tipped Isa’s chin. “She does have love. She has you.”
Isa shrugged off his hand. “Don’t be such a peacock.”
Nate cocked an eyebrow. “Peacock?”
Peacock? What was she thinking? “You know all cocky and know-it-all…and pretty.”
Nate grinned. “Thanks. I am pretty. Aren’t I?”
Isa stood and brushed off her jeans. “Where’s Carolyn? We’ll never make the movie.”
Right on cue, the front door opened and Carolyn walked out. “Ready?”
So ready. “Yep. Let’s go.”
Nate may have been her best boyfriend, but she wasn’t ready for the way he made her feel sometimes.
It’d be so much easier if he were just a girl.
A Box of Letters
Isa tugged off her purple gardening gloves and placed them on a shelf cluttered with clay pots, fertilizer, gardening tools, and seed packets. “Thanks for helping me de-weed. Most find it a loathsome job, but not me. I find it therapeutic in its repetition. Then again I do hate pulling up pretty weeds. Don’t you?”
Nate’s laugh filled the garden shed. “I’ve never given it much thought.”
“Look. What’s that?” Isa pointed to a shoe box on the top shelf.
“Looks like a shoe box.” Nate grinned.
“C’mon help me get it down.” Isa stood on her tiptoes and tried to nudge the box with the tips of her fingers.
Nate placed his hand on the small of her back and reached around her to grasp the box in his other hand.
He handed the box to Isa with a wink. “It’s cute when short people try to do tall people stuff.”
Isa stuck out her tongue at Nate. “Hush. I want to enjoy the suspense.”
Nate scrunched his eyebrows. “Suspense. It’s an old shoe box, probably full of old seed packets.”
“No, I have a feeling about this box.” The birds chirped outside as Isa swiped layers of dust with her hand.
Isa eyed the box as though it housed a grenade and carefully removed the lid. She gasped at the neatly stacked cream-colored stationary. “It’s letters!”
She carried the box with two hands outside to the weeping willow behind the garden shed. She ducked the branches and sat at the tree’s base—a shroud of green gave Isa the privacy she desired. That is until Nate barreled through her curtain and sat beside her.
The letters had the same elegant cursive as the piece of paper she’d found in the basement. “I’ve been in the garden shed a million times, I’ve never seen this box before,” Isa whispered in awe.
“Well, it was on the top shelf. You probably just didn’t see it.”
Isa nudged Nate with her elbow. “I’m very particular about my garden supplies. Short or not. I would’ve seen it. Aunt Hazel must’ve moved it in here recently. But why?”
“Does it matter?” Nate reached for the box. “Let’s read them.”
Isa slapped his hand. “Wait. These might be private.”
“Are you serious, Isabelle? You’ve been driving me crazy with this quest to find your aunt’s long lost love and now that you’ve finally got a major clue and you don’t want to read them?”
Isa sighed. “You’re right. It’s for Aunt Hazel’s own good.” Isa settled against the tree and read:
I’ve missed you and I can’t seem to find the right words to express my love for you. I’ve thrown away at least a dozen letters before this one because I can’t seem to get it right. I’ve come to realize that I can’t express my feelings on paper. You’ll just have to take my word for it and imagine this filled with poetical phrases. The best I can do is simply say, I love you.
“Devoted sounds like you,” Nate whispered.
Isa turned to look at Nate. “What do you mean?”
“You’re the only one I’ve met that has ever used the term, poetical phrases.”
Isa shrugged. “I guess Aunt Hazel’s Devoted was the romantic type. I like him already.”
Nate smiled. “I like the romantic ones too.”
A Break in the Case
Isa sat on the floor of her bedroom surrounded by cream-colored love letters. It was a beautiful day in April with birds chirping, leaves rustling in the wind, and flowers reaching for the sun. Yet, Isa was inside.
The lover of all things nature was inside on a beautiful sun-filled day. Isa had determined that she was obsessed. This was not healthy. She wanted—no needed—to be outside. But she couldn’t do it. She had to find a clue in these letters as to who “Devoted” was. Aunt Hazel was at the store, so she had a very limited amount of time to investigate.
She ran her hand through her hair and her fingers snagged on a knot. Did she brush her hair this morning? Didn’t matter. Carolyn was the only one to see her today. Nate had gone to lunch with his parents. Not that it would’ve mattered if Nate had seen her hair a mess either. At least that’s what she told herself.
A pounding on the stairs alerted Isa to Carolyn’s arrival. A few seconds later, Isa’s door opened and Carolyn came in and plopped on Isa’s unmade bed.
“What is all that?” Carolyn gestured to the sea of paper surrounding Isa.
Carolyn sat up straight. “From who?! Nate?”
Isa picked up a letter that she’d read twice already. “Don’t be ridiculous. They’re old letters from Aunt Hazel’s long lost love.”
“Are you still on that?” Carolyn rolled her eyes and came to sit beside Isa. “How do you know he just wasn’t a stalker?”
“Would you save a stalker’s letters?”
Carolyn nodded. “Yes. It’s evidence.” She picked up a letter and read. “’I can’t wait to see you again under our beech canopy.’” She dropped the letter. “I mean really who says that kind of stuff. Besides you, of course.”
Isa gasped. “What did you say?”
Carolyn furrowed her brow. “What? I mean it’s no secret that you talk kind of weird. I mean. It’s endearing.”
Isa waved her hands. “No. What did the letter say? What kind of canopy?”
Carolyn rustled through the letters and found the one she’d read. “Um…beech. Like the type of tree. I think. It’s scary that I knew that. I’ve been hanging out with you too long.”
“Of course.” Isa quickly picked up each letter and placed them inside the shoebox. “I should have known. I read that like three times.”
“Care to clue me in?”
“You know Old Man Roger’s land by the creek? The Clearing?”
Carolyn nodded. “We used to play there all the time. Of course, I know it.”
“Well, remember the abandoned house that we used to pretend was haunted?” Isa stood, her heart was pounding with excitement.
“Pretend nothing. That place is haunted.”
“Behind the house, next to the brook is an old tree with beautiful branches that twist and climb to the sky. Remember how we said we wanted to live in that tree.”
“You said you wanted to live in it. I said no such thing.”
“That beautiful old tree is a beech tree. It has to be their secret meeting place.”
Isa had to see if there was a clue at the tree. Or maybe even the house. Isa grabbed her purse off the bed and started toward the door. Nate would want to come with her.
“Where are you going?” Carolyn called after her.
“To get Nate.” Isa stopped and turned around.
“I thought you said he was with his parents.” Carolyn crossed her arms.
“Oh right.” Isa took out her phone and tapped out a text to Nate asking him to call her as soon as he was home.
A few seconds later, Isa’s phone rang. Nate’s name flashed across her screen.
Isa answered. “Are you already home?”
“No, but is everything okay?” Nate’s voice sounded deeper than usual over the phone. Usually, they just texted or hung out in person, rarely did the actually talk on the phone.
“I just found out a really important clue. I think it might have been their secret meeting place, an old tree deep in the woods. Maybe they carved their names in it. I have to check it out.”
“Okay. Wait for me and we’ll go together.”
“It’s okay. Carolyn can go with me.”
Carolyn held up her hand. “I’m not sure what you’re volunteering me for, but I have to meet my mom in a half an hour so I won’t be going anywhere.”
Isa shrugged with the phone still tucked up close to her ear. “No biggie. I’ll go alone.”
“No, you won’t,” Nate said.
“Yes. I will.”
“I’m a big girl.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Just wait for me.”
Isa groaned. “Fine. Come over when you’re done with your lunch.”
Carolyn tilted her head and looked at Isa with slight smirk. “That sounded kind of heated.”
Isa rolled her eyes. “He wants me to wait for him before going to the house.”
Carolyn’s smirk turned into a smile. “He’s awfully protective.”
Isa shrugged. “He’s just a friend who cares.”
Carolyn nodded with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “I wish I had a boy cared that much for me.”
The Real Reason
Isa cupped the lilac bloom in her hand and took a deep breath. Nothing like the smell of lilacs in the spring. Her dark hair absorbed the scorching heat of the sun, so she ducked under a birch tree. Where was Nate? She peered through the sweeping branches of the birch for any sign of him. She’d told him to meet him behind the Presbyterian Church in their neighborhood. He knew exactly where she meant. She’d already shown him all her haunts.
Well, not all. This would be the first time she showed him The Clearing.
When Isa and Carolyn first stumbled upon the clearing in the woods almost five years ago, Isa felt as though they had traveled into another realm. She was sure that they’d meet wood nymphs, fairies, and perhaps, the occasional troll. They started their adventure innocently enough. They used to always traipse around in the woods behind the Presbyterian Church.
One day they found an old graveyard and from then on they took it upon themselves to garnish the headstones with fresh flowers every mother and father’s day. They’d even place fresh flowers on the headstones marked for children. After-all, it wasn’t their fault they never made it to parenthood. Carolyn stopped going with Isa a couple of years ago, claiming it was childish. But Isa never missed a Mother or Father’s day.
On one particular beautiful Mother’s day, Isa and Carolyn had meandered much further than they intended looking for Virginia Bluebells when they both looked up and saw a field washed with pink, purple, and yellow poppies, sweet pea, and other magnificent wildflowers. They both stopped at the edge of the woods stunned into silence.
Beyond the field sat an old stone cottage overgrown with purple wisteria. And best of all was the sound of a brook babbling close by. Isa had skipped toward the house and didn’t stop until she found the brook behind the house, hugging the edge of the woods. A couple feet from the brook stood an old stone well that looked as though it’d been wisped there from another time.
It was a fairy-tale cottage. It was perfect.
Isa and Carolyn explored that magical place for hours, telling magnificent stories about the old house. Carolyn’s stories had ghosts in everyone. She insisted the house was haunted. While Isa’s stories always had a wood nymph. It wasn’t until later when they were forbidden to ever go back again that they found out it belonged to the Roger’s family. They’d been adamant that nobody ever trespass on their property.
That didn’t keep Isa from visiting the house now and again. She just stayed on the edge of the wood.
But today would be different. She’d have to risk the wrath of old man Rogers. He was in a nursing home anyway. What could he do?
She was determined that today was the day that she’d finally find her aunt’s long lost love. Or at least find out his name.
A couple nights ago, Isa tried again to ask her aunt about her old beau, but Aunt Hazel claimed to not know what she was talking about, but Isa knew that she was keeping something from her. She could see it in Aunt Hazel’s gray eyes.
Then again. It wouldn’t be half as much fun if Aunt Hazel just came out and told her.
“Daydreaming as usual?” Nate’s voice interrupted Isa’s thoughts.
“About time.” She stuck out her tongue at Nate.
She grabbed his wrist and pulled him toward the path that would take them to the clearing.
“What’s the hurry?” Nate stumbled on a branch.
“I need to be back in time for dinner. Aunt Hazel wants me to help her with making cookies for a bake sale.”
“Why don’t we just come back another day?”
Isa stopped and looked at Nate. “I can’t wait another day.”
Nate crinkled his brow. “Why is this so important to you Isa? Hazel has you. She doesn’t need an old boyfriend.”
Isa’s heart plunged. It wasn’t until now, looking into Nate’s blue eyes that she realized the real reason this was so important. It wasn’t because she liked a mystery. Well, that wasn’t the only reason.
It was because she needed to fix something that she’d messed up for her Aunt a long time ago.
Isa tilted her head back and watched a bluebird flit from branch to branch. The sun’s rays streaked through the branches above, illuminating the green leaves of the trees, making them appear fluorescent.
“I won’t go any further until you tell me what’s going on. Why is it so important to find this long lost love for your aunt?” Nate planted his feet firm on the ground and peered into Isa’s eyes.
She sighed. “It’s my fault that Aunt Hazel never got married. It’s probably my fault that this guy, whoever he is, left her.”
He placed a hand on her arm. “Why do you think that?”
Isa stared at the ground. She spotted a Jack-in-the-pulpit and didn’t care. Normally finding a rare flower like that would send a thrill through her, but not now. Not when Nate insisted on diving into her icky emotions.
Nate tipped her chin with his index finger. “Isabelle?”
“After my parents died, Aunt Hazel had to basically give up her life to take care of me. I’ve always suspected that she sacrificed a lot to take me in. But I never realized until I found that note just how much she did give up. I know she won’t tell me anything about it because she doesn’t want me to feel guilty. But I do. If I could just find this guy and get them back together, then maybe it would make up for being such a burden.”
He slipped an arm around her shoulder. “Your aunt loves you. You’re not a burden.”
She huffed and started back down the path. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Maybe not, but I do understand what it feels like to think that you ended a relationship. Sometimes I wonder if Mom and Dad would still be together if it weren’t for me.”
She stopped and turned back to him. “Your mom and dad’s divorce wasn’t your fault.”
“I know that here”—he tapped his head—“not so much here.” He tapped his chest.
“I’m sorry.” She slipped her hand in his. “The clearing will make us both feel better. Just wait till you see it. It’s a fairytale.”
Nate smiled. “Lead the way Princess Isabelle.”
They walked hand-in-hand until they reached the end of the path. It felt natural holding Nate’s hand. It wasn’t an awkward hand-holding between boyfriend and girlfriend type thing. But more of a hand holding between two really close friends who’d just spilled their guts to each other. Nothing more.
At least that’s what Isa had told herself.
When they reached the clearing, Isa heard Nate take a quick intake of breath.
“This place is a fairytale,” he whispered.
“I told you.” Isa looked at Nate and bit her lower lip. “But I should warn you this cottage is owned by a troll. A troll who hates trespassers. So we better be quick about this.”
“Of course, there’s always a troll.” He laughed.
They walked through the field and reached the stone cottage. “I’d love to explore that house one day.” Isa stopped and stared at the troll’s dwelling.
“Not today, Princess. Where is this tree that you’re talking about?” Nate steered her away from the house.
“It’s in the back near the brook. Can you hear it?” She smiled.
“Yeah.” He started toward the back of the house.
Isa skipped to catch up. She stopped when she saw a tall beech tree with a canopy of branches that arched in all directions. A stone bench sat under the tree. How could anyone so cranky have such a perfect house and setting?
“That’s it.” She pointed at the tree and took a step toward it, her heart racing.
Nate fell in step beside her. “How can this place be your aunt’s secret meeting place if Old Man Rogers is so picky about trespassers?”
“I’m not really sure. Maybe it was because of my aunt and her secret lover that he started cracking down on trespassers.”
Nate laughed. “Well, then your aunt has ruined it for all of us.”
“But then again, I wonder if what Aunt Hazel said was true about old man Rogers. Maybe, she just didn’t want me going out here because it was special to her. Maybe she wanted it to be only her and her love’s secret place.”
Nate nodded. “I think you might be right. This place seems made for people in love.”
Isa’s heart skipped a beat, she cleared her throat and picked up her pace.
When she reached the tree, she took a deep breath. She walked around the tree, studying the brownish gray bark.
Nothing. Not even a scratch from a squirrel.
She sat on the stone bench and tapped the seat beside her. Nate sat beside her. “I’m sorry.”
“I knew that I really wouldn’t find anything. What were the chances that they’d actually carved their names?”
Nate reached in his back pocket and pulled out a pocket knife. “Oh, I don’t know. Seems to me like a good possibility.”
Isa’s heart pattered as she watched him carve, “Isabelle & Nate” into the tree.
Aunt Hazel popped her head in Isa’s room. “Have you heard from Nate lately?”
Isa looked up from one of her favorite books, Jane Eyre. “Not since yesterday, why?”
Aunt Hazel’s gray eyes drifted to her watch. “It’s 12:15. I can’t believe he hasn’t come over yet. Usually, he’s invaded my kitchen and had at least three of my muffins before ten on a beautiful Saturday like today or any Saturday, beautiful or not. Or Sunday for that matter.”
“It’s already lunch time! I got lost in my book.” Isa set the book on her bedside table. “I guess Nate lost track of time too. He probably fell asleep on the couch watching TV. I’ll text him.”
Aunt Hazel shook her head. “Nate’s grandma just called looking for him. He’s not home.”
A sinking feeling invaded Isa’s stomach. He was probably fine. But still, something felt off. Nate spent every Saturday with Isa. And if he had other plans, he’d always text and let her know.
She picked up her phone and checked her texts. Nothing from Nate. There were several from Carolyn though asking her opinion on whether to get side swept bangs. She tapped in a quick response.
Isa: Nope. Bangs are a pain. Have you heard from Nate?
Carolyn: I’m bored with my hair, tho. And no I haven’t. You guys get in a fight?
Isa: Nate and I are fine. Let me know if you hear from him. And just say no to bangs.
Isa looked up from her phone and her stomach twisted at the drawn look on Aunt Hazel’s face.
“What’s going on? Did something happen?” Isa jumped off her bed.
Aunt Hazel flapped her hand and smiled, a forced smile. “Oh, honey. I’m sure everything is fine. His grandma is just a little concerned because he left the house around seven, acting all mysterious. And she can’t reach him on his phone.”
Isa tapped a text to Nate. Her fingers and thumbs never went so fast.
Isa: Where r u?
She stared at her phone, waiting for a response. “Why would he go anywhere so early on a Saturday morning?” Isa whispered.
“I’m sure he’s fine. Why don’t you come down for lunch?”
Isa and Nate had only known each other for four months, but it felt like they’d known each other forever. Their friendship was different than her friendship with Carolyn. Carolyn only tolerated Isa’s love for nature and books. Nate embraced it. Nate He understood her. And he’d never just go somewhere without telling her.
Something was wrong.
Fifteen minutes later, Isa picked at her turkey sandwich on rye. How could she eat with Nate missing?
His grandma called again and this time, she spoke with Isa. His grandma’s voice had quavered with concern. She told Isa that Nate woke early, acting all excited about something he’d figured out. He grabbed a backpack and headed out the door around seven this morning. He said he’d be going to Isa’s later that morning, but he had to do something first.
Nate’s grandma was ready to call the police.
Isa’s heart felt as though it was being crushed. What happened to Nate?
She couldn’t just sit by and not help. She had to find her best friend. She pushed away from the table and her chair crashed to the floor. “Aunt Hazel, I’m going out.”
“Oh no, child. The last thing we need is two lost kids.”
“I’m not a kid.” Isa raked her hands through her hair.
Aunt Hazel rested her hand on Isa’s shoulder. “I know you aren’t sweetie. But the best thing you can do is to be here when Nate gets back.”
Aunt Hazel walked over to the sink and washed the same dishes for what had to be the third time. The phone’s shrill ring filled the kitchen. Aunt Hazel dried her hands and answered the phone. “Okay, I’ll ask her.” She cradled the phone against her chest and looked at Isa. “Does ‘the tree grew’ mean anything to you?”
Isa felt her brow crinkle. “Why?”
“This is Nate’s grandma again, and she remembered that as Nate was going out the door he mumbled something about the tree grew…or growing trees. She thought maybe you’d—”
“Of course!” Isa jumped up and ran toward the back door. “I know where he is!”
She heard Aunt Hazel was yelling after her as she raced across the yard, but she couldn’t stop. She had to get to Nate.
Isa ran through the forest as fast as her feet could take her. Her heart drummed in her chest as she navigated over roots, broken limbs, and rocks. She got to the clearing and stopped for a second to search the field, the stone cottage in the distance.
No sign of Nate.
Normally the field of sweet peas would have stopped her in her tracks but not today. Today she charged through them like a bull.
“Nate!” She yelled.
As she got close to the house, she called again. “Nate!” Her lungs started to burn.
She rounded the house and went straight for the old beech tree, laden with green leaves. Not that she cared about leaves at that moment.
All she could focus on was Nate’s body sprawled beneath the tree.
Isa ran toward Nate and dropped to her knees beside him. Dried blood smeared his perfect face, a gash above his right eye, the source of all the blood.
Isa gasped. She took his hand and squeezed it. “Nate,” she whispered.
His eyes fluttered open and his lips curved into smile. “Thought you’d never get here.”
“What happened? Are you okay?” Stupid question. Of course, he wasn’t okay.
Nate sat up and winced. “It’s my leg. Pretty sure it’s broken.”
She looked at Nate’s twisted leg and she felt all the blood drain from her head. “Stay here! I’ll go get help.”
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere.” He smirked.
She started to run but stopped. “And don’t go back to sleep, you might have a concussion.”
He saluted. “Yes, ma’am.”
Isa charged back through the field, into the woods, and reached the edge of the church property before she had a cell signal to call her aunt. Aunt Hazel promised to call for help. Isa dashed back through the woods and field again—only managing to trip twice—and finally reached Nate again. She dropped in front of him, breathless.
She squeezed Nate’s hand as she tried to control her breathing. “Help is coming.”
He smiled. “Good to hear.”
He tried to sit up but winced and fell back to the ground. Isa scooted so he could rest his head in her lap. “Much better.” He sighed. “I fell out of the tree.”
“You fell out of the tree! Why on earth were you climbing it in the first place?”
Nate’s eyes zeroed in on Isa’s. “I found the initials.”
She opened her mouth in shock. “Really?”
“This morning I figured out that we hadn’t looked far up enough. The tree had to have grown since the two love-birds wrote their initials. So I came out here to see if I was right. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to get your hopes up if I was wrong. And it turns out I was right.”
She craned her neck to look up the tree trunk. “What did it say?”
He sighed. “That’s just it. It wasn’t your aunt. Unless your aunt’s name isn’t really Hazel?”
“No, it’s Hazel Marie. Why? What’s carved in the tree?”
“AB & CP”
Isa’s heart plunged. “Nope. Definitely not Aunt Hazel.”
After what felt to be a lifetime, a rustle in the field drew their attention. Aunt Hazel and Nate’s grandma lead an emergency crew of paramedics carrying a stretcher. The paramedics wore blue short sleeved shirts, matching blue pants, and baseball caps with ‘EMT’ embroidered across the front. They broke out in a jog when they spotted Isa and Nate. The driveway was long overgrown with trees, the paramedics had no choice but to walk.
The walk back to civilization was less than a mile, but it seemed like ten miles when your best friend groaned with every jostle.
And just as they were loading Nate on the ambulance, a realization of who AB & CP were broke through Isa’s addled mind.
Before the door shut Isa called out to Nate, “I know who AB & CP are!”
Nate lifted his head from his stretcher. “Who?!”
Isa grinned and winked. “Tell ya later.”
Nate opened his mouth to say something just as the paramedic shut the door.
First things first, Nate had to get checked out.
Seeing Nate’s face covered in blood and contorted leg, contorted Isa’s heart.
She knew that he meant more to her than any normal friendship.
But how much more, she wasn’t ready to figure out.
Not yet, at least.
“Are you ever going to tell me who ‘AB & CP’ are? Or do you insist on torturing me?” Nate repositioned a blue sofa pillow behind his back.
Isa glanced at Nate’s leg propped up on his grandmother’s coffee table. She’d been the first to sign his cast. Now there was a smattering of other names in various colors.
“I was waiting for the right time. I didn’t want it to be a letdown.” She gave Nate a small smile. “I’d made such a big deal of finding Aunt Hazel’s old boyfriend. I guess I felt kind of foolish.”
Nate shook his head and grinned. “Isabelle you could never be foolish to me. In fact, I don’t even find it weird that you used the word foolish. It’s you. And that’s what makes you…you.” He leaned forward. “Now tell me.”
Isa sighed. “’AB’ stands for Arabella Ballis and ‘CP’ stands for Charlie Perry—my parents.” She dipped her chin and studied her feet.
Nate gasped. “Of course, those letters belonged to your parents. That makes total sense.”
“It does?” Isa looked up at Nate.
“Yeah. Your Aunt was saving them because it showed how much they loved each other. Maybe one day she was going to give them to you.”
“What do you mean you guess? This means you didn’t cause your aunt to give up any boyfriends.”
“That we know of.”
Nate threw a pillow at Isa. “Your aunt loves you! And that is and was never a sacrifice. Stop being such a goose egg.”
Isa laughed. “Goose egg? You’ve been hanging out with me too long.”
Nate grinned. “Never.” He fingered the bandage over his eye. “I think this going to scar.”
Isa tilted her head and narrowed her eyes focusing on his bandage. “Good. You needed a little character.”
He scrunched his eyebrows, then winced. “I’m not even going to ask.”
She patted his leg. “Well, you better hurry up and get better. I may need your help soon on another mystery.”
Nate’s eyes got wide. “Do tell.”
“Not yet. I’m still working out the details. But let’s just say it involves a broken window, tiger lilies, and gum.”
“What?” Nate shook his head. “Life is never boring with you Isabelle.”
And Isabelle hoped it never would be.
The end for now.