I've snuck into his house through the window he snuck out of so many nights. It is nearly midnight, but it's the last day of summer, and so the night sky is a burning purple, the final moments of sunset. Not the deep black of the winter night. I know I should be home, in my own bed, waiting for morning, for the first day back to school. But I want to be with him, though I know he's not here. The house is completely empty of him, his mom, his brother. All of them are gone--furniture, posters, sounds of boys laughing. But there are shreds of them left in this house. There is a smell of wet leaves and dirt--the smell of him after he ran across the field of fireweed to my window in the dark. As I kneel on the floor, in the blue light I see streaks from sneakers and hiking boots and waders. And I stand and face the huge diamond-shaped window that looks out at the bay and to Iliamna, a pulsing blue peak two hundred miles away.
He was there, close to me, his arms around me, whispering like he had so many times. "Iliamna, that's you. Redoubt is Dottie, and Spurr is Gwen. The three sisters," he said, his arm over my shoulder, pointing at the range that looked so close because of its size. Iliamna was closest and looked the largest but was the shortest of the three. And Spurr was just a smudge in the sky, but it was the tallest peak on the range.
I turn from the window and drag my finger in the dust. Spiderwebs pull and pop as I break their delicate holds.
I open my sleeping bag and take off my shoes. I climb in with my jeans on. As I lay my head on my bunched-up sweatshirt, I catch a glimpse of a light in the cottonwood near my house. I drag the sleeping bag to the window and look closer, squinting. From the ground I can see our fort. I didn't know it could be seen. When we were kids, Dottie and I had checked it from the car and from a cottonwood across the field and it was never visible. But here on the floor of his house, I can see right to it. And inside there is a candle burning.
Dottie started disappearing during the day while Mom was at work and Gwen had a playdate and I was supposed to be cleaning or cooking or reading when all I really wanted to do was lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. She'd been fixing it. She'd been turning it back into a fort, instead of some planks of wood weathered and rotting in a tree. I knew she had fixed it well. She had built our shed and the shelves in the garage. She often said she would build her own log cabin one day. And this was her first attempt.
The candle burns bright in the little fort. It flickers and throws shadows, and then it is still again. She is up there with Sean. The boy she loves, but always says she doesn't. She is with him in the night, though she never agrees to bring him to the movie theater or goes with him to dances. And everyone at school knows they're a couple, though she never sits with him and never holds his hand. I watch that candle and as I grow sleepy, my eyes nearly shut, I see what I know will happen. The candle almost flickers out and then burns as bright as the sun, the whole tree lit, and for just one moment that fort burns, and then the fire fades back to a candle flame, and then two fingers reach out to snuff that final bit of light.
I know it will happen because it used to be that way for me and Steven, when we were alone in the night. The two of us under his tent in the back of his truck. Or alone in the movie theater if I had worked the closing shift. I know that burning, and now that he's gone, I know I'll never have it again.
I wake early with the rising sun. I roll my sleeping bag, put my shoes on and walk down the road to my house. It's silent inside, Mom gone to work, my sisters still asleep. I check on Gwen, who's drooled a large spot on her pillow in the night, and see Dottie tucked in, peaceful. Without her makeup she looks like the little girl she used to be. She looks like Gwen. I shower and make tea and eggs for them and slowly they wander in.
"Morning, Marty," says Gwen, and kisses me with sticky lips.
"Sister," says Dottie.
"Dorothy Ann," I say, and kiss the top of her head. She grunts and tries to dodge me, but I put my arms around her just to drive her crazy. She smells like a campfire.
"I hope everyone is ready for a new school year. Gwen, more boys for you to chase with scissors, and Dottie, with so many days to ditch ahead of you, how do you stand it?"
Dottie raises her mug of tea to her lips and with the other hand gives me the finger behind Gwen's back.
Gwen is scooping eggs into her mouth, and I sit with them and push my eggs around, because for the first time I am scared to go to school. I'm scared because Steven won't be there and everyone will know, they'll know what happened and why I'm sitting by myself.
My sisters finish and I wash the plates and yell at them to get ready faster. Gwen needs her jeans rolled--Mom bought them too big. I find Dottie back in bed and have to sit on her butt to get her out again.
"You suck." Her face is stuffed into the pillow.
"You too, though more often, like last night."
She rolls over, heaving me off the bed. "Martha, don't even try it. Mom would never believe you anyway."
"Just get up," I say, and slam her door, though I'm not mad, and I'm not going to tell Mom. I just want her to get up, because I'm not walking into school alone.
I drive the Jeep with the top pulled back and the heater on and I know I drive too fast. Flower bouquets and crosses line the road. Head-ons, black ice, cars driving off the road. But we're late and I hate being the reason for it. We pull up to Gwen's school and she jumps out, her backpack loaded and drooping. She waves and turns.
"She looks like a beetle," Dottie says. And she does and I want to cry, seeing her go, though she doesn't turn. She loves school. She loves the kids there. She voluntarily took summer classes, painting and Spanish and drama, though none really interested her. She came home with stories about the kids and the teacher and herself.
"Bye, beetle butt," I call.
She runs back to the car and kisses me again, this time with minty lips, and she turns and runs to the door.
"Ready, sis?" says Dottie, and puts her hand on mine.
"It's okay. They've had all summer to get used to it."
"I hope so. Where's your makeup?" It's the first time I've noticed that she isn't wearing her normal war paint. Her lips are glossy and pale, and her deep blue eye shadow is gone.
"Natural look this year."
"How long did it take to put the natural look on?"
"A little less than the mob moll look I used to work."
"You look pretty."
"I think you'd look prettier with your foot on the pedal and your hand on the shift."
"Too sweet." I pull out and squeal the tires on the driveway. Let them think even worse things about us. The three sisters and our mom living alone. Dad coming home only once in a while without warning when his Coast Guard ship docks.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Upstream by Melissa Lion. Copyright © 2005 by Melissa Lion. Excerpted by permission of Wendy Lamb Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.