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The Summer Before

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One summer morning, when Brendon was at that stupid summer music camp and Ryan and Spencer were out of town, when Jon had nothing to do at all except watch his baby sister sleep and the babysitter talk all gross and mushy on the phone with her boyfriend, he went next door to see if the new kid wanted to play. It was almost August and he was going to have to start first grade soon, which meant no more kickball in the park every day, or Tiny Toon marathons, or building forts in the backyard, and he wasn't going to waste it inside. He waited until the babysitter Maura was busy painting her nails, and slipped out the back door.

The new kid wasn't really a new kid—he'd moved there months ago, but Jon had never actually seen him outside before, and his house was weird, with the windows all shuttered up and sometimes it was loud, like a cop movie on TV, with lots of shouting. But the kid was in his front yard, now, and Jon figured maybe he didn't have anyone to play with either.

"Hi," Jon said.

The kid looked up, ratty blonde hair falling in his face. He was squinting funny, and his mouth looked sort of lopsided. "Hello," the kid said.

"I'm Jon," Jon said, and sat down on the grass. They had good grass at this house, like no one ever cut it and it was mostly clovers and those red stalks that tasted sour when you chewed them. He picked a blade and started nibbling at it. "I live next door."

"I know," the kid said. "You have a little sister, and that loud kid comes over sometimes. And the twins."

"The twins? Oh, Ryan and Spencer. No, they're not twins. They're not even brothers."

"Hmm," the kid said. "If you say so. You're not wearing shoes."

"Shoes are stupid," Jon said, scowling. He wiggled his feet in the grass.

"I agree," his neighbor said, and took his own shoes off. He had muddy feet, like Jon's. "We shouldn't wear them."

"What's your name?" Jon asked, and proffered a stalk of the red grass. The boy looked at it and started chewing it gingerly. He looked pleased, and was smiling at Jon, a crinkly weird smile, all lopsided. Jon wanted to ask why he smiled like that, but his mom said it was rude to ask questions all the time, so he didn't.

"I don't have a name."

"Oh," Jon said. "What do your parents call you, then?"

"It doesn't matter," the kid said diffidently, and went back to poking at his pile of dead leaves and sticks on the ground.

"Okay," Jon said, and peered over at the ground. "Hey, what are you doing? Are those matches? My mom doesn't let me play with those."

"My mom doesn't care," the boy said, and Jon thought even if he was sort of funny looking he had nice eyes, big and brown. "You can play with mine, if you want."

"Okay," Jon said agreeably, and they made a bonfire in the front yard, like the ones Jon's dad made in the winter to roast oysters on, only smaller and without the marshmallows. Jon had never seen a fire during the day before, but it was still nice, crackling and hot. They burned the sweet grass, and it smelled like when his mom left cookies in the oven too long, and dead leaves, which just smelled like smoke, and the kid's shoes, which smelled terrible, but it was really funny, too, watching them sizzle and pop.

"Want to come watch TV?" Jon asked, when the fire had died down and the kid was poking the ashes with a stick.

"Mmm, no," he said, and frowned. "No, no, no. No TV for me."

That was okay with Jon. It was too nice out for TV anyway, and he spent the rest of the afternoon with the kid coloring the street in front of their house with sidewalk chalk, weird swooping figures. It was fun, even if he did miss his friends. The new kid was weird, but okay, though. Kind of quiet, like Ryan, but he had good ideas, and he was smart, like Spencer, good at tying knots. He wasn't like Brendon at all, except sometimes he started laughing for no reason and couldn't stop. Jon spent the rest of that summer sneaking out of his house when he could, going next door and hiding out in the woods at the end of the street with the kid. He never found out his name, though, only that he liked that baseball bubblegum you could buy from the corner store and that he could climb way higher than Jon, up to the top of the tree, where Jon was scared to go because the branches were thin and looked like they might snap.

"Careful," he told the kid. "You might fall."

"I don't care," the kid said. "But you probably shouldn't come up. Your friends will be back soon."

The kid said a lot of things like that, things that didn't make sense, but he taught Jon how to whittle a snake out of a twig—he had his own pocketknife already, which Jon thought was the coolest thing ever, and when he cut himself he didn't even cry. Jon cut himself, by accident, once, and it really hurt, but he didn't want the new kid to think he was a baby, and so he just sucked on his finger until it stopped bleeding.

Then one day, the new kid was gone. The house looked just like it always had, boarded up and bedraggled, but there was no noise at night anymore, and when Jon finally got up the courage to knock on the door, no one answered. He was just gone. Like a fire that had burned up and the ashes all blown away before Jon had even noticed the flames were out. But by then, Spencer and Ryan were back from vacation, and Brendon had finished his summer camp and was out in the Walker's front yard every day with his new tambourine, and most of the time Jon was too busy catching frogs or keeping Brendon from breaking his window to wonder about the next-door neighbor. Every now and then, though, even when he was much older, practically an adult, he'd remember the kid at the weirdest times. When he saw a bonfire, or a tight-rope walker, or a lonely pair of shoes by the side of the road, he remembered, and wondered if the new kid had ever found a name.