As soon as Dad’s van pulled into the drive and came to a stop, Keene yanked open the door, jumped out, and bolted for the house.
“Keene, close the door!” Dad yelled after him.
Keene streamed up the veranda, right fist clenched tightly. Bunch waited by the front door, tail wagging. The border collie barked and reared onto his hind legs. Keene slung open the screen door.
Keene ran down the hallway, footsteps echoing on the hardwood floor. He slid into the empty kitchen, Bunch skittering to a halt behind him.
“In here!” Mum called from the dining room.
Keene slipped through the adjoining archway into the dining room. Mum stood at the upright piano, tidying a stack of sheet music and placing it into the piano stool. She closed the stool lid as Keene rushed forward to hug her.
“Guess what I got you!” he said.
Keene opened his hand. Nestled in his palm, as gold as honey, was a crystal pendant shaped like a teardrop. A fine leather cord ran from its eyelet and was secured by a bronze clasp.
“I got it from the school fair!” he said. “The woman said that the crystals make it so you don’t get sick! Put it on!”
Mum held the pendant up before her face, studying the way the light bounced off the crystal. Her eyes grew misty, the way they did sometimes when she was happy. Then, as if to prove it, she smiled, and fastened the pendant around her neck. It hung over her heart and sparkled in a way that made Keene think that Mum was shining.
“Thank you, Keene,” Mum said. She hugged him and kissed him on the cheek as the screen door clattered and Dad came into the dining room.
“Keene, what did I tell you about the car door?” he said.
“It’s still open. Go close it. Now.”
Keene nodded, grinned once at Mum, and left the dining room.
Keene kicked his legs back and forth. There’d been a lot of doctors lately. He was tired of waiting rooms and hospitals that smelled the way the floors did when Mum mopped them.
“Can I get you anything?” the receptionist asked him from her seat behind the counter. She was young with a pleasant, round face, and thick, pointed glasses.
Keene shook his head. Everybody was always trying to be helpful.
“There are some toys in the box over there.”
Keene had already seen the toys – a mishmash of trucks, dolls, and plastic animals. He’d played with them in the past, but that’s when Mum and Dad had been out here waiting with him. Then they’d all go in to see Dr. Ward together. This time, Mum and Dad had wanted him to wait here. He didn’t like that.
“I’m sure they won’t be long,” the receptionist said.
Keene nodded. He was thankful when the phone rang and she had to pick it up.
Keene lay on his bed, hand hovering over a line of colored pencils. His picture of himself, Mum, Dad, and Bunch standing in front of their house was almost complete. He just needed a yellow pencil to color in the sun. The question was, what sort of yellow should he use?
He peered out the window, shielding his eyes with one hand. The sun was a fiery ball so bright that it had frightened away every cloud and all that was left was the blueness of the sky.
Something rose above the trees that rimmed their backyard. Keene sprang abruptly to his feet – Bunch, curled up in the corner, jumped to follow – and bolted to the window. Beyond the yard, gum trees unfolded for as far as he could see and there, at the very end, billowed plumes of black smoke.
Keene shot from the bedroom with Bunch close behind him. The kitchen was thick with the smell of scones baking, Dad was seated at the kitchen table as Mum sewed a loose strap back onto his overalls.
“What?” Dad said.
Keene dashed down the hallway as Bunch barked behind him. He burst through the screen door and onto the veranda. A large gum tree shielded their yard like an umbrella, its branches intertwined with another gum tree standing misshapen amongst the rim of trees that surrounded the house. From here, there was no sign of smoke.
The screen door opened, but Mum and Dad had no sooner come out onto the veranda when Keene charged past them – beating the screen door as it swung close – and back into the house.
‘You can’t see from here!’ he said as he vaulted up the stairs.
He ran into his bedroom and to the window. Even Bunch jumped up, resting his paws on the sill. The smoke had blotted the sky. The stairs creaked as Mum and Dad hurried up after them and into Keene’s room.
“Keene, what’re you doing?” Dad asked.
“Look!” Keene pointed.
“Keene, if this is a game …” Dad’s voice tapered away.
“Oh my,” Mum said, as she put her hands on Keene’s shoulders. “If that turns …”
“My phone …” Dad patted his pockets. He ran from the room, feet pounding down the stairs. It wasn’t long before he could be heard shouting on his phone.
“What do you mean ‘if it turns’?” Keene asked.
“If the fire comes this way,” Mum said, “we might have to leave – just in case.”
Dad came back into the bedroom. “Small fire,” he said. “Already contained.”
“What does that mean?” Keene asked.
Mum nuzzled her face against his until their noses were touching. “It means we’re safe,” she said.
The front door opened and an elderly couple entered. The man was hobbling on a cane and leaning on his wife’s outstretched arm. They approached the receptionist and introduced themselves. The receptionist smiled at the elderly couple and focused her attention on them.
Keene hopped off his chair and started toward Dr Ward’s door. He closed his eyes, and inched his face towards the door, hoping to hear something – anything. If he could hear things were all right, he could wait. But there was no sound.
He reached for the doorknob. It was cold under his fingers. He moved his ear closer to the door.
Then it swung open.
Keene and Mum kneeled by the flowerbed that lined the front of the house. Bunch sat behind them, muzzle resting on his paws.
“What do you think?” Mum asked.
The roses smelled nice and a deep, velvety red spread through their petals, but their stems had thorns. Keene had stubbed his thumb once and cried. Now, the rose bushes tangled into the veranda’s spindles.
“Think it’s a mess?”
“Remember that. Okay?”
There was a pair of shears shoved into the soil. Mum plucked them out and put them in Keene’s hand.
“Close your eyes,” Mum said.
Keene closed his eyes. A wind cut across the yard and tickled his naked arms. Something wet hit his cheek. Mum’s perfume filled his nostrils, or perhaps it was the roses. It made him giddy.
“Try to imagine, in your mind, how we can tidy up the roses,” Mum said.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Think about your bedroom when you leave your toys out. That’s how the roses are, aren’t they? A mess?”
“Now think about how you would tidy them up.”
Keene pictured the roses contained into a neat square.
“Now open your eyes.”
As light rain began to spatter, Mum guided his hand and they clipped away the wayward stems.
“Gentle, gentle,” Mum said. “They’re alive.”
Keene nodded, concentrating until Mum’s hand fell away. He rose on tiptoes to trim the heads of the roses until their roof was a straight line.
“You have a green thumb, Kee.”
Keene looked at his thumb. “No I don’t.”
Mum laughed and hugged him. The rain grew heavier. The screen door opened and Dad came out onto the veranda, beer in hand. Bunch leaped up the stairs to join him. Dad stroked Bunch’s head.
“You two are going to get wet,” Dad said.
Mum took the shears from Keene’s hand, and shoved them into the dirt. “It’s only water,” she said.
“It’s foolish to stand out in the rain.”
“Is it?” Mum held her hand down to Keene. “Kee, will you dance with me?”
Keene stared from Mum to Dad and back to Mum again. Bunch barked, perhaps in encouragement. Keene held out his hand and Mum hoisted him up and held him close as she waltzed around the yard, humming Mozart’s Eine Klein Nachtmusik into his ear. Dad’s scowl was so greatly overdone that it was almost silly, and it made Mum laugh. Keene laughed with her and threw his arms around her neck.
Dad almost trampled Keene as he emerged from Dr Ward’s office. Keene jumped out of the way. Dad thrust out his hand.
“Come on, Kee,” Dad said.
Mum emerged, stooped, face white, as if she’d powdered it with the flour she used to make her Sunday scones. She walked past Dad and Keene like she hadn’t seen them, then pivoted, kneeled, and threw her arms out.
Keene ran to her and, in the instant before she folded him into her embrace and pulled his face to her shoulder, he saw her eyes were moist. Her right arm slid under his backside and, with a groan, she lifted him.
“Deidre,” Dad said.
Keene’s fingers stumbled across the keyboard of the upright piano. His eyes narrowed at the sheet music – Mozart’s Piano Sonata 16. Mum, seated next to him and swaying in time with his playing, turned the page. Keene struck the wrong key and the sound jarred through the dining room.
“It’s too hard!” he said.
Mum put a hand on his back. “It’s okay if it’s hard,” she said. “It’s all right to mess up.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Of course it is.” Mum turned back to the first page. “Who said it isn’t?”
“Dad doesn’t like when I mess up my reading.”
“Dad can be impatient. I’m not. We have all the time in the world. Try again.”
He tried and tried until the music flowed and he and Mum rocked in unison on the piano stool. When he was done, she laughed and kissed him on the head.
“That was excellent!”
Keene grinned. “Really?”
“Really. Do you like playing?”
Mum put an arm around his shoulder. “Kee, I like to watch you play. You’re very good. I think you have a gift. But you don’t have to play for me. I want you to play for you. Okay?”
“Okay,” Keene said.
Mum buckled Keene into the backseat of Dad’s van. Bunch, who’d been waiting in the passenger seat, jumped into the back with Keene, and Mum latched his harness to the adjacent seatbelt.
“What’s happening?” Keene said.
Dad closed the side door and moved to help Mum into the passenger seat. Mum glowered at him, buckled herself in and closed the door. She idled through a stack of CDs in the glove compartment, chose one, and slipped it into the CD player. Dad got in behind the wheel and started the engine. Music filled the van – slow and sad, with a simple piano accompaniment. Keene frowned. He should recognize it, but it didn’t sound like Mozart. Beethoven maybe?
“Mum?” Keene said. “Dad?”
Dad pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road.
“Why isn’t any—?”
“Keene!” Dad said. “Please.”
The rest of the drive was quiet, but for the music.
“Keene!” Dad’s voice boomed from outside. “Are you ready?”
Keene pulled his shorts out of the drawer. “Just a minute!” he said. He put on his shorts and sandals and hurtled down the stairs. Bunch waited at the bottom and barked. Together, they ran from the house. Dad and Mum – Dad in shorts and a shirt, and carrying a picnic basket, Mum in a summer dress, a bag slung over her shoulder – waited under the branches of the gum trees.
“About time!” Dad said.
“Shh, Nolan.” Mum held out her hand and Keene reached up to take it.
“Come on,” Dad said.
They crossed the yard and plunged into the trees, sunlight now just flickering shafts of light through rustling leaves. The smell of gums was thick in Keene’s nose. He gazed around, hoping to spot a bird, or maybe even a koala, but there was nothing
“You know never to come in here alone, Keene,” Dad said.
“He knows,” Mum said.
“You get lost in here, you could be lost forever.”
Dad led them until they reached gums that were charred, their blackened branches naked. Keene gaped. This was where the fire had been. Soot filled his nostrils.
“When will the trees grow back, Mum?”
“It could take a long, long time.”
“Maybe next week?”
“Longer than that, Kee,” Dad said. “We’ve been walking for a while. You tired?”
Keene released Mum’s hand and jumped towards Dad. Dad lifted him effortlessly.
It wasn’t long before they emerged from the bush and onto a plank bridge that crossed a gentle river. On the other side, gums rose up and up over mountains towering into the clear blue sky. The sun hung over the peak of the nearest, so close it might’ve been set there, like an angel on top of a Christmas tree.
“Wow,” Keene said. “Mountains!”
“No,” Mum said. “They’re just hills.”
They crossed the bridge and followed a winding path up, Mum puffing, Dad sweating. When they got to the top, they took a rest and had a drink. Mum gave Bunch some water from a bottle they’d brought just for him.
“Ready?” Dad said.
The other side of the hill flattened into a field of rainbow-colored tulips, unfurling into a scattering of towering Myrtle Beeches that embraced a shimmering lake. A river twisted away and hair-pinned around several other hills.
“There it is,” Dad said. “Miller’s Pond.”
Keene squirmed until Dad let him down. Together, they ran to the bank. Dad dropped the picnic basket, kicked off his sandals, pulled off his shirt, and took an old tennis ball out of his pocket. He bounced it once. Bunch looked up sharply. Dad threw the ball into the pond. Bunch splashed into the water, Dad diving in moments later.
Keene pulled off his sandals and drifted closer.
“Kee!” Mum said. She pulled some floaties from her bag.
“Mum!” Keene complained.
“Humor me, please,” Mum said, as she guided his hands through each floaty.
Then she rose and pulled her dress over her head. Underneath, she wore a red one-piece swimsuit. Keene gaped.
“You’re going in, Mum?”
“But you never go in!”
“Life is about trying different things, Kee – not doing the same things over and over.” Mum unclasped the pendant Keene had bought her. “Let’s put this somewhere safe.” She hung the pendant on the low branch of a white tree – a Candlebark, Keene thought to himself – where it gleamed as it swung back and forth, steady as a heartbeat. “Come on,” she said.
Keene took her hand and they started for the pond.
When Dad pulled into the drive, they sat silent for a time. Keene unbuckled himself, then Bunch, and waited for somebody to speak.
“Come on,” Dad said. He escorted them from the car and to the house, unlocking the front door. “Kee, go watch some television.”
“What’re you going to do?”
“Just go, please.”
Now was not the time to argue – Keene knew that well enough. He traipsed into the dining room as he heard Dad and Mum go upstairs, then their bedroom door close. Keene turned on the television, but instead of sitting on the couch he kept ducking into the hallway to look up the stairs.
It was dark outside by the time their door clicked open, and they started down. Keene jumped onto the couch – Bunch hurdling after him – and focused on the television as he heard them go into the kitchen.
“Kee!” Dad called, moments later. “Could you come in here please?”
Keene got up and went into the kitchen. Mum and Dad sat at the table. Dad patted the chair opposite Mum and Keene clambered up. Bunch curled on the floor under Keene’s swinging feet.
“What?” Keene said.
Dad and Mum exchanged a look. That wasn’t good. Keene folded his arms on the table and rested his chin on them.
“You know we saw Dr Ward today?” Dad said.
Keene lifted his head and nodded. Mum laid a hand on his forearm.
“We’re going to tell you this because you’re getting to be a big boy,” Dad said. “Okay?”
Keene straightened up. “Okay …?”
Mum’s hand clasped his wrist. “Mummy’s a little bit sick,” she said.
“Sick?” Keene said. “How? Like when I had a cold?”
“It’s more serious than that, Kee,” Dad said.
“But we’re going to do everything to make me better, okay?” Mum said. “We’re going to do everything possible.”
Keene didn’t like how serious they were. If they were this serious, it had to be bad. Mum’s eyes filled with tears. Keene’s own eyes grew bleary.
“When will you get better?” he asked.
The tears streamed down Mum’s cheeks. Dad put a hand on top of Mum’s and Keene’s.
“When?” Keene said.
Still Mum didn’t answer. Whenever Mum didn’t know what to say, Dad would take over, but even he was quiet. Mum wasn’t shining any more. She was dark. Like a shadow had fallen over – a shadow of dark and cold.
“When?” Keene said.
Mum leaned over and hugged him, and although she was warm and safe and he could feel her love all around him, all Keene knew was the darkness.