There were only three rules to the game. They weren’t much like rules really either but Kai could play it for hours. The first was finding the perfect apple to throw from the tree in the front yard, the one that sticks out, a misplaced smudge of green in the middle of the brown that covered most of the yard. It covered most of everything now. The dirt. The second is making it to the wall the quickest because that way Kai could get the best spot. There’s one piece missing from the top of the wall—that Pop calls a fence but the rocks are aligned just right so no light can get through, so Kai calls it the wall—and if he got under it just right, he could launch the withered apple up and over so that when it came back down on the other side he could hear the familiar clank. This is the third rule, of course, to hit whatever made that noise. Sometimes, when Kai wasn’t playing the game, he would gather as many of the little sunburned apples as he could, plopping them in the front of his shirt, which he held out to make a little sack, and running to the back of the wall. He would send them over, one after another, sometimes even two at once so that when they came down on the metal thing behind the wall they made a sweet little tintinnabulation.
This morning Kai was walking the perimeter, one hand dragging along the rocks, the other barely grasping a stick, which he held out to the side, drawing a line in the dry dirt behind him. He was getting old now and the inside of the fence was beginning to seem smaller, less exciting. But Pop wouldn’t let him leave, He moved closer to the house, squinting up at it. The paint was peeling away from the trim, the dark grey wood underneath loudly announcing its presence against the white but Kai didn’t notice this. He walked up to the back porch, stick still in hand.
“Kai, leave that outside.” Pop nodded toward the stick from his seat in the brown chair.
“Can we go outside the fence today?”
“No, Kai not today.”
“But why not?”
“You know why, son. Go inside and eat.” Pop pointed him inside to where Mae had left breakfast on the little yellow table by the window. “I have to go work in the fields, we haven’t gotten much rain this month, so make sure you stay around here. Your sister will watch you.” Pop nodded toward Mae who was using a metal spatula to scrape off the pan she had made breakfast in. Kai didn’t answer, he just looked out the window, his piece of toast resting casually in these fingers. He sucked in his cheeks, angrily biting the sides; He didn’t want Mae to watch him, he was old enough to watch himself. “Mae will have lunch ready for you too, I think she said.” Pop gripped Kai’s shoulder, and shook him gently, just enough to get his attention. “You hear me?”
“Yes.” Kai forced a smile and the crumbs that were caught in the soft hairs that were starting to darken around the corner of his mouth fell into his lap.
Kai waited until Mae went to her room and until he could no longer see Pop from the window before he ran outside. He grabbed a handful of apples, a little more withered than usual, from the little tree in the front yard and sprinted to his spot along the wall. It was actually rather far to run and even though Kai played this game nearly every day, when he arrived at the wall he had to wipe little drops of sweat from his brow and calm his quick breathing.
“Uhhh, yuh.” Kai’s teeth were clenched together as he hucked the apples one after another up and over the, impatiently waiting to hear the satisfying clanking. But there was nothing. He grabbed a small stick that was lying next to him and threw it up and over. Still nothing. Kai scrunched his nose. He was smart, smart enough to know he hadn’t missed; he had played this game every day for many summers. And even some winters since the seasons had started to blend together. The rocks were pretty smooth and it was hard to find a place in the wall where he could wedge his feet, which had grown extraordinarily fast these last couple of months so that he could pull himself up. He put his hand up and started walking, feeling for anything he could use to climb over. He just had to get high enough to see what happened to his clanking noise.
Kai followed the wall all the way to the red barn. He had never been along the back here because it was usually wet and muddy and he didn’t like it when his sneakers got wet. But today it was dry and so he decided to keep going. He could hear the chickens clucking and fluttering their wings. The smell of manure and chicken feed mixed with old paint made Kai scrunch up his nose. The barn went almost up to the wall, leaving a space barely big enough for even Kai to fit. It was dark and dusty and each time he stepped his sneakers filled with dry sand and dirt that crunched under his toes. When he was halfway, in the middle of the barn and the fence, he found a bundle of vines which had twisted together up and over the rocks. Kai grabbed at the stem, grasping the thickest part and began to pull himself up.
I can do it; I can do it! Kai thought to himself. The muscles in his arms bulged and began to shake. The rocks were piled high, even for him to be climbing but Kai was strong from playing on the farm and from helping Pop and so, even though it took all of his strength, he managed to make it to the top.
“Whoooo.” Kai breathed out, gripping the top of the rocks so hard his knuckles turned white. His heart was pounding, beating so fast he thought he could see his shirt moving in and out with each beat. He peered down the other side and found himself staring at rows and rows of apple trees. But there weren’t the little brown apples like the ones he picked from the tree in this front yard. There were no apples at all, only the skeletons of the trees, gray and peeling. Forgetting he was at the top of the wall and forgetting he was not supposed to leave the property—Pop would be pissed—Kai swung his legs around to climb down.
The vines did not reach all the way around, however, and Kai found himself slipping down the side. The rocks scraped against his stomach and so Kai, unsure of what to do, closed his eyes and let go. The fall was not far but to Kai, he thought he was flying, just for a second. Until he landed and his sneakers went into a puddle of sand, soft and airy. He sunk down, flailing backward and landed with a plop.
The orchard was probably once pretty and green, but now it was grown over with that tall grass that kind of looks like wheat and clumps together. Kai meandered through, picking up sticks that had fallen off the low branches, snapping them in half, and throwing them as far away as was possible for a boy of thirteen.
“Hey! Whose throwing those?” Kai stopped and looked around, whipping his head from side to side to try to find where the voice came from. “Hello?”
“Hellooooo,” Kai called back.
“Kai, who?” The voice was getting closer. Kai was kneeling behind a tree, peeking out from behind the overgrown grass. A girl, a little older than him was coming towards him. He waited until he could see her whole body, her long brown hair was tied back in two braids and she wore jeans that were covered in mud stains and a red t-shirt that said something but Kai couldn’t read it.
“Hey!” The girl jumped back. Kai grinned. He was not the type to scare easily and he found it funny that the girl jumped.
“That’s not very nice!”
“But I scared you!” Kai laughed again and the girl smiled.
“Where do you live?”
“Over there.” Kai pointed in the direction of the rock wall. The girl narrowed her eyes, nodding and started walking the other way.
“Come with me, I want to show you something.” Kai ran to keep up with her. Though she couldn’t have been older than thirteen or fourteen her legs were twice as long and each step she took was two for Kai. They walked past the remains of blueberry bushes and what once might have been a garden but now was a jungle of light brown weeds.
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see…” The girl walked for a while longer in silence and Kai followed, unsure if he should go but too curious to contain himself.
The little apple trees began to grow sparse and eventually, they reached what seemed to be an opening to a small yard. Kai looked up at the girl, who had stopped walking. He could see the reflection of the dilapidated house which stood, barely, on the far side but he also saw something else. She pointed and so he turned his body, brushing his dark-brown hair, which had an annoying habit of falling into his eyes, off his face.
Off to the side of the yard, there was a car, with burnt orange rust crawling up the sides near the tires. It looked old like it had been left there for years. The girl nodded her head at Kai and together they walked towards it. He was hesitant at first but the girl was smiling with such excitement that Kai couldn’t help but smile himself.
The back window was broken, jagged around the orange edges but it was too dark, too in the shadows for Kai to see inside. The girl reached her skinny arms in and gipped something. She began to pull it out, scraping it against the glass at the bottom of where a window used to be, crunching it back into the door.
“What is that?” Kai asked, his voice quiet and disappointed. He had expected something more exciting, he didn’t know what, but anything would have been better than the metal box the girl now was handing to him.
“Take it with you. It used to be ours. Just-just don’t open it until you’re back home.”
“I don’t get it. What is it?” She looked at him, hard. He felt her eyes dig into his body, reaching inside of him. His heart skipped in his chest and he averted his gaze, flushing pink. Kai remembered Mae in the house cooking lunch and his stomach dropped a little. Maybe she hadn’t noticed he was gone yet.
“It’s all that’s left. You have to take it with you.” Kai furrowed his eyebrows, the two dark lines coming together to make one dark streak across his forehead. He could have sworn Pop had said no one lived here, outside the wall. But he couldn’t think past the echoes of his pounding heart.
“Why can’t you tell me?”
“Because.” Kai looked at it, the box was long and skinny, kind of like the toolbox Pop had. Small dents speckled the top, almost the size of the apples Kai liked to throw over the wall. He could barely lift it, the handle on the top was thick and it took two of his hands to fit around it.
“What’s in it?” Kai was growing impatient, and hungry. He thought, again, of Mae making his lunch and of Pop working in the fields. He knew he had to go before they realized he had left the farm but he didn’t want to leave the girl. He had so many questions, jumbled together, trying to force themselves out but coming to a stop right before they reached the tip of his tongue.
“You’ll see, one day. Take it with you. Here, I’ll help you carry it.” Together, they dragged the box back through the fields. When they got back to the wall, where Kai had climbed, the girl helped him up, handing the box to him when he was at the top. Kai wanted to say more, to ask more, but he was confused and tired and he wanted to ask Pop about the girl and the house and the rusted old car.
“KAI!” Mae’s voice, colored red with annoyance came up over the wall, shattering Kai’s chance to talk to the girl.
“Keep it safe for me!” And then she was gone, disappearing through the graveyard of apple trees. Kai pushed the box over the wall before pushing himself over too. He dragged it to the corner of the barn, behind a pile of rocks and ran up to the house.