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Tav hesitated at the edge of the woods. The low afternoon sun was warm on his back, but the breeze that ruffled his hair had a biting chill. It was the first Wednesday of October, and there was no mistaking it — the change from late summer to early fall was complete. He peered into the trees but could only see about twenty feet. The dark trunks grew close together, and their branches formed complicated webs that choked out the light. Tav frowned and stepped under the tree cover.
Of course nothing happened. Get it together, Tav thought. He'd promised himself that things would be different in Virginia, that he'd be braver. So be brave.
Tav straightened his shoulders, adjusted his backpack, and walked farther under the leafy canopy, careful to stay where there was still light. He took a breath and smiled as his nostrils and lungs filled with an earthy smell. A few more steps over the spongy ground brought him to a mossy boulder that came up past his waist. The leaves all around Tav were just beginning to turn yellow and brown along their edges. The way the light filtered through the trees cast everything, including the boulder, in a greenish hue. Tav held up his hand. To his delight, it looked green, too.
The light was fading fast, and the dim woods were filling with shadows. Suddenly, the shadows seemed to reach menacingly toward Tav's body. Oh no. His heart began to race.
"Tavorian! Tavorian Kreet! I see you there! You get outta those trees!"
Tav spun around and scowled as his mom's cousin Millie — his second cousin? He wasn't exactly sure what Millie was to him — ran across the yard. Her eyes were wide, and strands of graying hair escaped from her tight bun and stuck to her face. Her arms pumped as she rushed toward Tav. She paused at the edge of the woods, just about where Tav had stood, then stepped under the trees and grabbed his wrist with her long, thin fingers.
"Ow! I'm coming, I'm coming. Let go of me!" Tav twisted his arm, but Millie held fast. She was strong for such a skinny lady. Tav tensed his bicep and thought about wrenching his arm free. He was almost as tall as Millie. If he threw his body weight into it, he was pretty sure he could get away. But if he did that, Millie would tell his mom. She'd blow the story out of proportion too, and he'd probably end up grounded. Not worth it. With a sigh, he relented.
Tav let Millie drag him across the lawn, up the stone steps, and through the side door of the massive plantation house that he and his mom had called home since August. Millie thrust Tav into the kitchen ahead of her, and he stumbled into the long wooden table where his mom and Great-Grandma Eunice were sitting.
"Tav!" his mom scolded, grabbing her mug just before it would have toppled. "Be careful!"
Tav clenched his teeth. "She pushed me."
"I did not. Lila, you can't possibly believe that, can you?" Millie was getting flustered. Millie was always getting flustered.
"No, of course not, Millie." Tav's mom rolled her eyes at her cousin, then narrowed them at Tav.
Tav's eyebrows dropped. He didn't see why his mom was glaring at him. He hadn't done anything. It wasn't his fault Millie was ridiculous.
Great-Grandma Eunice didn't speak, but Tav thought he detected a hint of a smile on her lips as he slid into a chair across the table from her. She sat with her back to the brown brick wall. Like most of the once-grand house, the bricks were crumbling. Great-Grandma Eunice's rattish eyes, which were too small for her face, snapped over to stare at Tav. He blinked and looked away. He remembered hearing his Grandma Rebecca — his mom's mom — telling his dad that all the Virginia relatives were "strange" and Tav should be kept away from them. But after Grandma Rebecca died, it was just Tav and his mom, and his mom wanted Tav to live near family. She said it was what Tav's dad would have wanted. Tav wasn't so sure.
"Lila," Millie said with wide, anxious eyes, "do you know where I found your son?"
Tav's mom let out an irritated breath. "Just tell me, Millie. I don't like your guessing games."
Millie began to get flustered again. "I don't see why you're getting mad at me! Tavorian is the one I caught," she paused for dramatic effect, "walking into the woods!"
Great-Grandma Eunice's smirk grew and twisted her wrinkly face into a demented, clown-like smile. Tav's mom sighed again. "Seriously? Millie, he's an eleven-year-old boy, of course he's going to go in the woods. That's what they do."
"But ..." Embarrassed red blotches sprang up on Millie's neck.
"No buts." Tav's mom sounded firm. "Stop scaring Tav."
"I'm not scared!" Tav blurted.
"OK, stop trying to scare Tav. We both know there's nothing in those woods. There wasn't anything when we were kids, and there isn't anything now. Right, Grandma?"
Great-Grandma Eunice nodded. "Of course not. Boys should play outside, climb trees. Especially strong boys like our Tavorian."
Tav squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. Great-Grandma Eunice had commented multiple times on how young and strong he looked. He wondered if she expected him to spend his free time repairing the house and property. His mom had said they'd need to help her out as much as they could, since they weren't paying any rent.
"Exactly." Tav's mom smiled at Great-Grandma Eunice. "Millie just doesn't understand, not having been around young boys."
A raspy laugh escaped Great-Grandma Eunice's twisted mouth. "Millie doesn't understand much of anything, do you, Millie?"
The blotches on Millie's neck spread to her face, but she kept quiet. Millie always seemed to back down from arguments when she started to lose. Tav couldn't really blame her. His mom was the kind of person who always won arguments, and Great-Grandma Eunice was downright scary.
The kitchen door swung open and Ms. Green walked in. Tav's mom had told him that back in the day, the house had a staff of over ten people, but now Ms. Green served as the housekeeper, cook, groundskeeper, and Great-Grandma Eunice's caretaker. She was a large, stern woman with pink cheeks and honey-colored hair. Her presence silenced the arguments in the kitchen.
"It's time for Ms. Eunice's afternoon medications," Ms. Green announced as she opened the cupboard and took down a large tray filled with pill bottles. She consulted a chart, then dropped pills into a porcelain cup. They made soft tinkling sounds as they landed.
A familiar warmth pressed against Tav's calf. He smiled and looked down. Mosley purred up at him from the floor. Tav reached down and stroked the large, molasses-colored cat under his chin. Mosley, in response, arched his back and continued rubbing his body against Tav's leg. "Sorry, no food," Tav whispered. Mosley stared at Tav a moment more before he sauntered off to look for neglected crumbs in the corners of the kitchen.
"Who're you talking to?" Great-Grandma Eunice asked, sitting up.
"Just Mosley," Tav replied.
Tav wasn't sure if Great-Grandma Eunice hadn't heard him or if she hadn't recognized the name. He cleared his throat and repeated himself. "Mosley. My cat."
"Oh. Yes." Great-Grandma Eunice made a face. "The cat. Why I agreed to let you bring that thing into my house ..."
Tav's mom smiled. "Eh, he grows on you after a while."
Mosley walked stiffly back over to Tav for a head scratch. The eighteen-year-old cat had belonged to Tav's dad before Tav's parents had gotten married. Tav's dad used to say that he'd been willing to give up his posters and old recliner for the love of his life, but he and Mosley were a package deal. Tav's mom didn't like cats, but she'd loved his dad, so Mosley stayed. From the moment Tav had been born, Mosley had taken a liking to him. The feeling was mutual. And now, living in this strange place, Mosley felt like Tav's last real connection to his dad.
Great-Grandma Eunice shook her head. "Disgusting creature, licking itself all the time and getting hair everywhere. Animals should stay outside where they belong!" She snatched the pills Ms. Green offered her and swallowed them one at a time with sips of water. A large drop dribbled down her chin.
Mosley walked around Tav's chair and hissed at Great-Grandma Eunice. Her eyes widened. "See? He's vicious! Watch it, cat, or you'll be in a bag of rocks at the bottom of a river!"
Tav clenched his fists at his side and clamped his jaw shut. He was fighting to keep the words he wanted to shout inside when Millie surprised him by speaking up.
"I quite like him." Millie reached down and picked Mosley up off the floor. She brought his soft face to her own. Mosley nudged her nose and purred.
Great-Grandma Eunice snorted in disgust. "You would."
Millie's face faltered. She clutched Mosley tight to her chest for a moment, then set him down and walked out of the kitchen. Tav watched the kitchen door swing to a stop behind her. He felt bad for Millie.
"Oh, there she goes." Great-Grandma Eunice laughed — it was a raspy sound. "Probably going to go cry in her room, just like when the two of you were girls."
Tav's mom frowned. "You should be nicer to her, she's sensitive."
"Bah." The old woman waved her hand dismissively. She swung her head to look at the door Millie had just gone through. A gleeful smile spread across her face. As she turned back, her eyes landed on Mosley. She scowled and said, "Lila, in the future, keep that filthy animal out of my kitchen."
Tav's mom said, "Of course, Grandma." She gestured at Tav and he stood, scooped Mosley up, and stomped out of the kitchen.
"And you," Great-Grandma Eunice shouted after Tav. "You need to show your elders more respect! Not be such a little ..."
"Grandma!" Tav's mom gasped as Tav hurried to the stairs. In that moment, Tav disliked Great-Grandma Eunice more than he could remember disliking anyone before. Sure, Millie could be annoying, but she wasn't mean, and Mosley had never hurt anyone. Great-Grandma Eunice, on the other hand, was old, nasty, and really seemed to like hurting people's feelings. The whole point of moving to Virginia was to get closer to family, but Tav found himself wishing Great-Grandma Eunice would get sent to an old folks' home or something. Tav wanted to be as far away from her as possible.
* * *
That night, Tav awoke to wailing and hurried footsteps in the hall outside his door. He sat up in bed and strained to hear the hushed conversation.
"Is ... is she ... de ..." Millie's wobbly voice dissolved into a sob.
Tav stiffened. When he'd wished Great-Grandma Eunice would go away, he hadn't meant die. He held his breath, listening.
"No," Tav's mom said with a weary sigh. "She's not dead."
Tav let out a breath and his body relaxed.
His mom continued. "Ms. Green already called for an ambulance. Now we just have to keep calm and hope for the best." She paused. "Seriously, Millie, calm down. You'll wake Tav."
Millie began to wail.CHAPTER 2
The following Saturday morning, Tav peered around the doorjamb into Great-Grandma Eunice's room on his way to breakfast. Her heavy curtains were drawn, and only a little light leaked in from the dim hallway. In the middle of her enormous four-poster bed, Great-Grandma Eunice was a barely visible lump, her head lost among the mounds of pillows. The woman made terrible gurgling sounds as she slept. Tav tried to breathe quietly. The stroke had been minor but had still weakened her — she couldn't even walk without Ms. Green's assistance. However, his great-grandma still intimidated him, and Tav didn't want to wake her.
Great-Grandma Eunice sucked in a loud, ragged breath and rolled over. A musty smell wafted from the room. Tav quickly shuffled back and hurried down the stairs toward the kitchen.
Tav had to sidestep quickly to avoid colliding with Ms. Green's daughter, Harper, at the bottom of the staircase. She was carrying a large tray loaded with covered plates of breakfast foods. The sweet smell of syrup and the salty smell of bacon floated out. "Sorry," Tav said. "Smells good." His stomach let out a soft growl.
"It probably is," Harper said. "I have to deliver this before I get to eat." She looked at Tav expectantly.
"Oh, yeah, sorry." Tav moved against the banister. Harper slipped past Tav and marched up the stairs, her blond curls bouncing.
Tav's stomach growled again and he pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen. The smells of bacon and syrup intensified, causing his mouth to water. He smiled when he saw a plate set at his usual spot at the table. Two pancakes and a small pile of bacon were arranged alongside a saucer of syrup. Ms. Green must have set aside some leftovers for him. Tav plopped down at the table and dug in.
Mosley rubbed against his leg under the table and Tav dropped a small piece of bacon down to him. His mind wandered back to Harper. He couldn't figure that girl out. When Tav and his mom had moved into the plantation house he'd been excited to hear that the live-in caretaker had a daughter. She was twelve, a year older than him and a middle-schooler, but he'd hoped they could be friends, especially because they lived in the same house. Harper had been at her dad's for the summer when Tav arrived, and right after she'd gotten back school had started, so there hadn't been any good opportunities to strike up a friendship.
Tav stabbed a pancake with his fork. So far, he hadn't fared much better with the kids at school either. He wasn't bullied or anything, he was just ignored. Mosley rubbed against his leg again, and Tav smiled down at him. "You're my friend, huh? Just need to get some human friends now." Tav dropped another bit of bacon to Mosley and wished his dad was there. He'd always given the best advice.
Tav popped the last bite of bacon into his mouth and looked out the window. The dark tree line that split the yard from the woods loomed over a raggedy area that Ms. Green had mentioned used to be a beautiful garden. She'd also told Tav that Harper was trying to restore it. Tav had seen Harper out there weeding almost every day. He wondered if she was going to plant flowers for next year. She'd better hurry with the weeding before it was too cold to plant.
Tav smiled as an idea struck him. There were about a million weeds cluttering the garden. If he helped Harper clear them out, maybe she'd see him as a potential friend. Nodding to himself, Tav stood, put his plate in the sink, and walked out the side door.
Mosley was right on Tav's heels as he made his way across the lawn and opened the low white gate to enter the garden. Tav walked down its center on a neglected, crumbly stone path. It was flanked by hedges that had probably once been trimmed to make low, green walls separating the different garden sections Ms. Green had talked about. Now they were filled with a tangle of plants. It was impossible to tell the weeds from the plants that were intended to be there.
As he reached the far end, it became clear that Harper had started weeding in the back-right section. She had ripped up every plant in the area, so Tav figured it was safe to do the same. He walked over to where the bare dirt gave way to a jungle of weeds, knelt, and began to pull them up, tossing the interlopers into a large yard waste bin next to the path. The more Tav ripped the little plants from the dark, soft earth, the more he enjoyed it. It was satisfying to watch a tangled mess turn into a uniform plot of soil ready to be replanted. And the dirt smelled good. Not good like cookies or wet concrete after rain, but it had a warm, earthy smell. It smelled real. Tav grasped another weed by its stalk and pulled. When its roots gave way and came up, he smiled and tossed it into the bin.
Next to Tav, Mosley let out a low growl. Tav turned to look at his cat. Mosley's ears flattened, his tail puffed up, and he growled again as he stared past Tav to the edge of the woods.
"What?" Tav asked. He stared hard in the direction Mosley's attention was focused but couldn't see anything among the trees.
Mosley hissed and moved his body between Tav and whatever it was he saw in the woods. The cat lowered his belly to the ground, tail flicking behind him.
Tav sat up and shielded his eyes. "Who's there?"
Snap. The sharp sound was followed by the rustling of something large hurrying away through the woods. Mosley straightened and stared intently toward the origin of the sound.
Tav kept his eyes trained on the tree line. The rustling noises had stopped, but he thought he saw something back in the shadows between the trees. Was someone, or something, watching him?
"Did you eat my breakfast?" a voice asked from behind him.
Tav whipped around to see Harper standing over him. Her hands were on her hips, and her lips were pursed. Mosley stared at her a moment, then sauntered back to the house.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Wicked Tree"
Copyright © 2019 Kristin Thorsness.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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