I still remember the day that I saw John Booker moving into the house down the street. I saw his father yelling at him and I saw him flinch as he thrust a box into his arms. That night after dinner, I put on my yellow converse with mud on the bottom and ran to Johns house. As I got closer to the house, I could smell the savory scent of barbecue chicken. I smiled and walked around to the window that gave me a perfect view into the dining room. The faint glow of a TV was flickering through the dark living room. The dining room was also dark. Not a single person was sitting there. Why isn't his family eating together in the dining room? I thought to myself. His father startled me as he got up from the worn couch and walked over to the table in the dining room. I hadn't noticed the store bought box of chicken until then. He grabbed the very last piece and went back to sit on the couch. I remember thinking what mama would say about him. She would say he was like daddy. That's what she would say about the man at the gas station. That man smelled horrid, it was a very sour smell. Daddy used to smell like that too. When I didn't see John Booker, I walked over to the side of the house, hoping to get a glimpse of him through the window. All I saw was another faint flicker of a TV screen. So with my disappointment, I walked over to the tree house in the backyard and climbed up. I waited for John Booker and I don't know why. Mama told me to be home by the time the streetlights were on but it was far past time for that. I still waited. Every time I would hear the faintest whisper of the wind or a tiny leaf crunching on the ground, I would look, hoping it was John Booker. But every time I would still see the faint flicker of the TV and I imagined him sleeping soundly in his bed. So I decided to go home and prepare a story for why I wasn't home when the streetlights came on. At the time, I was 8, I didn't critically think like I do now. I was taught how to think by John. He called it common sense and he always told me that I needed some. I thought it was something I could buy, so my eight year old self went to the Rite Aid down the street and asked for some common sense. The cashier laughed at me. "Who put ya up to this young lady?" I wasn't too sure what she meant so I just put a Hershey Bar on the counter and gave her my weeks allowance. Right then, I wasn't thinking either. I didn't even notice how late it was. That was, until I came out onto the road and felt completely surrounded by the darkness. My young imagination put very startling thoughts into my mind. I thought of thugs jumping out of the bushes. I thought of Mrs. Renee's cat coming after me. I didn't even make it up the steps to my house before a small boy ran past me, attempting to climb up the tree in my yard.
"What are you doing?" I asked as he was about to give up. He turned around to look at me and I saw a small bruise above his upper lip.
"It's none of your business" he said.
"Actually it is, you're in my front yard, on my willow tree." I motioned to the white picket fence surrounding the patch of green grass. He looked around and finally let go of my tree. Just then, I heard the doorknob to my front door jiggle and I turned around to see my mother standing at the doorway with her hands on her hips. She had an apron on and was holding a towel.
"Where have you been young lady?" she scorned. "It seems to me that the streetlights have been on for almost an hour." I was terrified now and if she saw John Booker, who apparently could not climb a tree, she would have a fit. I walked up to the steps and immediately smelled oatmeal cookies. I guess she really was worried. She would always cook when she was stressed. She let herself in the door before me and I turned around to look for John Booker but he was gone.
That day was the beginning of our friendship that lasted for 10 years. John Booker was my best friend. After that night we met, I found him that morning in the tree house with nothing but what he was wearing the night before. When I asked him why he didn't sleep inside, all he said was "My pops was drinking too much." He never said anything else until one day he showed up at my front door with a bag and a pillow. We were 18 then. Our birthdays were a week apart. Mama said that's why we were so close. When he knocked on the door that day my mama answered. I didn't hear a thing until there was a slight knock on my bedroom door. John Booker was standing there with an ice pack on his eye and his arm wrapped up in a sling. I recognized that sling from the day he fell out of my willow tree and cried for hours. He finally stopped when I made a joke about how he fell out of a weeping willow tree and now he was weeping.
"John Booker! What's a matter with you?" I asked. I moved my arm to grab his so I could see his eye but he moved it himself. I looked at the horrible thing on his eye. It was swollen and it was all purple. I laughed and said "John, you can't be getting into trouble without me! What'd you do, jump out of the tree house?" When this didn't make him even smile, I dropped mine and made him look straight at me. I told him to answer my question.
"My pops was drinking too much" he said. My mouth made the simple shape of an "O" and he couldn't even look at me.
"John Booker he did all this to you?" I asked and he nodded and gulped down a cry, cause "boys don't cry." His father always told him that. I held out my arms for him and he just let me hold him as he laid there limp. He was somewhere else.
He stayed at our house for almost a month. Every now and then John Booker would have to go to his house to get some clothes. He would get very scared and I would offer to go with him but he never let me come. He would always come back with more than before, like he would never go back. He was never really there with us. He was there, but never paying attention. We wouldn't laugh anymore and he would mostly stay in the guest bedroom. Every now and then, I would be sitting in the dining room and he would come get a book from the book shelf. We had many books that I had never read but once he would finish one, he would get the next.
One night, we were all sitting in the living room watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. John Booker was half asleep beside me and my mother was very invested in the show. I was not really paying attention. I was looking at John Booker. I felt physical pain for him. His chest would rise and then fall with a rough breath out. His eyes were clenched shut, not in a peaceful way. His breathing had just slowed down when a loud knock was at the door. Muffled yelling came from outside and my mother pulled her attention away from the TV screen. John Booker was already standing up and walking towards the door.
"Stay there, do not move. Please do not come to the door, I'll get it" he begged us. We did what we were told but not for long. John Booker opened the door and his father stumbled in immediately. I could smell the sour scent of beer coming off of him. I knew what that smell was now, I wasn't as naive as I used to be. My dad was an alcoholic and so was Mr. Booker. My mom walked over to Mr. Booker, she held out her hand but he did not take it.
"Give me back my boy! I never said you could have him here in the first place!" I had moved to the doorway now and the stench of alcohol was more prominent. My mother stepped in front of John Booker but he pulled her back.
"I'm not coming home." John Booker said this so simply that it was like he'd done it a thousand times before. Mr. Booker was obviously taken aback and he lunged at John Booker. His hand his John Booker's face, making a loud slap noise. I didn't know what to do, I was helpless. I thought Mr. Booker would stop and notice what he was doing was wrong but he kept going. He knocked over the small table beside the entry to our house. The small, glass rabbit that decorated the table was now shattered on the floor. The vase that held beautiful white and pink flowers was lucky enough to just spill the contents of it. John Booker yelled and his father grabbed him by the shoulders and started out the door. My mother, without hesitation, grabbed the broad shoulder of Mr. Booker. John Booker's shoulders were released and Mr. Booker swung his arm around and hit my mom square in the face. I had had enough then so I ran towards Mr. Booker with enough force to get him out the door. My mom grabbed the door and slammed it closed. She looked me in the eyes when we realized John Booker was still out there. Shakily, she told me to quickly grab the phone and call the police. I did what I was told and called the police. Before we knew it, the police were at our house and Mr. Booker was taken into custody. Still, there was no sign of John Booker.
"I have to find him mom, we can't just leave him out there! It's almost midnight!" I said, trying to be calm but it came out in a panic. We looked for him for hours. It was almost two when we arrived back home. Me and mama silently walked to our rooms. I walked past John Booker's room and saw the carefully made bed. I walked in and slowly opened the closet. His clothes were gone. The only sign of him that was left was a worn copy of The Giver on the bedside table. With tears streaming down my face, I walked into my room and lay on my bed. I laid there all night, remembering the time John Booker climbed in my window one night when his pops was drinking too much. My eyes were tired but I stayed awake. Waiting, just like I did in the tree house the first night I met John Booker. Then just as my thoughts were settling, there was a tap on the window. Then three more. The code me and John Booker used as kids. I swiftly moved over to the window and right there, staring up at me with those green eyes was John Booker.
"Do you want to come with me?" he said urgently. His eyes showed nothing but hope.
"Where are you going?" I asked with nothing but doubt. He didn't say anything but pointed to the tiniest light coming over the hill that was downtown.
"To that light, and then anywhere but here" he was smiling then. I didn't know what to say, I couldn't leave my mother. I was all that she had.
"John Booker you can't leave. Please don't leave. You can stay with us. It was just fine like that!" I said, hoping that maybe, just maybe I could persuade him to stay. It wasn't enough for him to stay and he couldn't get me to leave either.
"It wasn't fine Lena, and you know that. I cannot see my pops no more" he said, the smile gone from his face.
"Then I guess this is goodbye" I said.
"I guess so, goodbye Lena." He climbed down the side of my house, not looking back once more. I watched as he crossed our street, the Mrs. Renee's street, then the street to leave the neighborhood. I watched until all I could see was the tiny light coming from the head of his flashlight.
"Goodbye John Booker."
For some reason I wasn't sad. I knew that where he was going would be much better than anywhere he had ever been. I knew that he would get away from his father and he would no longer have to worry about him drinking too much. From the day that the green eyed boy showed up in my willow tree when we were eight, he had suffered. Now he was safe. I knew he was. It was like that for five years. Five years that I thought about him every minute. Five years that I had missed seeing him every day. Five years that I had regretted not leaving with him. Then one lucky day, I passed a man on the side of the road. His green eyes reflected the sun as he walked by, acknowledging me with a quick nod of his head. The world felt as if it stopped for a few seconds. I turned around to see that he had done the same. People pushed around us but I didn't care. I took in the man in front of me. The man with the same curly brown hair, the same red stained cheeks, the same man that I could never live without. As he held his arms out for me for the first time, I lay limp in his arms, taking in the same smell of the outdoors he would always have on him. I knew there was something that always held us together and somehow, I knew when he left, it wouldn't be forever. I knew that John Booker was finding himself before he could find me, Lena Booker.