That night at 7:17 Emily pulled into her driveway. After she’d run out of the natatorium, she’d walked around the Rosewood Bird Sanctuary for hours. The busily chirping sparrows, happy little ducks, and tame parakeets soothed her. It was a good place to escape from reality…and a certain incriminating photo.
Every light in the house was on, including the one in the bedroom that Emily and Carolyn shared. How would she explain the photo to her family? She wanted to say that kissing Maya in that picture had been a joke, that someone was playing a prank on her.
But it wasn’t true, and it made her heart ache.
The house smelled warm and inviting, like a mixture of coffee and potpourri. Her mother had turned on the hallway Hummel figurines cabinet. Little figurines of a boy milking a cow and a lederhosen-clad girl pushing a wheelbarrow slowly rotated. Emily made her way down the floral wallpapered hallway toward the living room. Both her parents were sitting on the flowered couch. An older woman sat on the love seat.
Her mother gave her a watery smile. “Well, hello, Emily.”
Emily blinked a few times. “Um, hi…” She looked from her parents to the stranger on the love seat.
“You want to come in?” her mother asked. “We have someone here to see you.”
The older woman, who was wearing high-waisted black slacks and a mint-green blazer, stood and offered her hand. “I’m Edith.” She grinned. “It’s so nice to meet you, Emily. Why don’t you sit down?”
Emily’s father bustled into the dining room and dragged another chair over for her. She sat down tentatively, feeling jumpy. It was the same feeling she used to get when her old friends played the Pillow Game—one person walked around the living room blindfolded, and, at a random moment, the others bombarded her with pillows. Emily didn’t like playing—she hated those tense moments right before they started smacking her—but she always played anyway, because Ali loved it.
“I’m from a program called Tree Tops,” Edith said.
“Your parents told me about your problem.”
The bones in Emily’s butt pressed into the bare wood of the dining room chair. “Problem?” Her stomach sank. She had a feeling she knew what
“Of course it’s a problem.” Her mother’s voice was choked. “That picture—with that girl we
Emily nervously touched the scar on her left palm that she’d gotten when Carolyn accidentally speared her with the gardening shears. She’d grown up striving to be as obedient and well behaved as possible, and she couldn’t lie to her parents—at least not well. “It’s happened more than once, I guess,” she mumbled.
Her mother let out a small, pained whimper.
Edith pursed her wrinkly, fuchsia-lined lips. She had an old-lady mothball smell. “What you’re feeling, it’s not permanent. It’s a sickness, Emily. But we at Tree Tops can cure you. We’ve rehabilitated many ex-gays since the program began.”
Emily barked out a laugh. “Ex…
“Your interest in young women isn’t genetic or scientific, but environmental,” Edith explained. “With counseling, we’ll help you dismiss your…urges, shall we say.”
Emily gripped the arms of her chair. “That sounds…
“Emily!” scolded her mother—she’d taught her children never to disrespect adults. But Emily was too bewildered to be embarrassed.
“It’s not weird,” Edith chirped. “Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all now. Many of our new recruits don’t.” She looked at Emily’s parents. “We have a
Emily wanted to throw up.
Edith placed her coffee cup on its saucer. “We’re going to have a peer mentor come talk to you. Someone who experienced the program firsthand. She’s a senior at Rosewood Senior High, and her name’s Becka. She’s very nice. You’ll just talk. And after that, we’ll discuss you joining the program properly. Okay?”
Emily looked at her parents. “I don’t have time to talk to anybody,” she insisted. “I have swimming in the mornings and after school, and then I have homework.”
Her mother smiled tensely. “You’ll make time. What about lunch tomorrow?”
Edith nodded. “I’m sure that would be fine.”
Emily rubbed her throbbing head. She already hated Becka, and she hadn’t even met her. “Fine,” she agreed. “Tell her to meet me at Lorence chapel.” There was no way Emily was talking with Little Miss Tree Tops in the cafeteria. School was going to be brutal enough tomorrow as it was.
Edith brushed her hands together and stood up. “I’ll make all the arrangements.”
Emily stood against the foyer wall as her parents handed Edith her coat and thanked her for coming. Edith navigated down the Fieldses’ stone path to her car. When Emily’s parents turned back to her, they had weary, sober looks on their faces.
“Mom, Dad…” Emily started.
Her mother whirled around. “That Maya girl has a few tricks up her sleeve, huh?”
Emily backed up. “Maya didn’t pass that picture around.”
Mrs. Fields eyed Emily carefully, then sat down on the couch and put her head in her hands. “Emily, what are we going to do
“What do you mean,
Her mother looked up. “Don’t you see that this is a reflection on all of us?”
“It doesn’t matter how it happened,” her mother interrupted. “What matters is that it’s out there.” She stood up and regarded the couch, then picked up a decorative pillow and smacked it with her fist to fluff it up. She set it back down, picked up another, and started all over again.
“It was so shocking to see that picture of you, Emily,” Mrs. Fields said. “
“I’m sorry,” Emily whimpered. “But maybe it’s not—”
“Have you even thought about how hard this is for the rest of us?” Mrs. Fields interrupted. “We’re all…well, Carolyn came home crying. And your brother and sister both called me, offering to fly home.”
She picked up another pillow.
Emily’s tongue felt leaden in her mouth. A gnawing hole at the pit of her stomach remained. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Her mother’s eyes flashed. She nodded to Emily’s father. “Go get it.” Her father disappeared into the living room, and Emily listened to him rooting through the drawers of their old antique bureau. Seconds later, he returned with a printout from Expedia. “This is for you,” Mr. Fields said.
It was an itinerary, flying from Philadelphia to Des Moines, Iowa. With her name on it. “I don’t understand.”
Mr. Fields cleared his throat. “Just to make things perfectly clear, either you do Tree Tops—
Emily blinked. “Aunt Helene…who lives on a farm?”
“Can you think of another Aunt Helene?” he asked.
Emily felt dizzy. She looked to her mom. “You’re going to send me
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Mrs. Fields answered.
Tears dotted Emily’s eyes. For a while, she couldn’t speak. It felt as if a block of cement were sitting on her chest. “Please don’t send me away,” she whispered. “I’ll…I’ll do Tree Tops. Okay?”
She lowered her gaze. This felt like when she and Ali used to arm wrestle—they were matched for strength and could do it for hours, but eventually, Emily would surrender, letting her arm go limp. Maybe she was giving up too easily, but she couldn’t fight this.
A small, relieved smile crept over her mother’s face. She put the itinerary in her cardigan pocket. “Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Before she could respond, Emily’s parents left the room.