It was the summer before I started high school when construction began on the new development. I would ride my bike to the town’s edge and watch the wooden frames erected, a dozen on one side of the road and a dozen on the other. All exactly the same. Large men with bad sunburns laughed and worked until four every afternoon. I would spit on the asphalt and watch it evaporate. Then I would get on my bike and ride back into town.
One day, deep into July, I took a bad fall on my ride home. I was right outside the McKenzie house, hit a pothole, went head first over the handlebars. My bike was fine but my elbow lost a good chunk of flesh. I sat on the curb and bit my bottom lip, tried to get through the pain.
“Are you okay?” she said from the McKenzies’ doorway and I looked at her but didn’t respond, continued to bite my lip. She disappeared for a moment, returned with a roll of gauze and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. I had never seen her before, this girl who was dressing my wound. Not at school, not in town, not in front the McKenzies’ and I rode by that house just about every day.
When all was done and a tight, white bandage hid my missing skin, I thanked the girl, asked her name. “Heather,” she said. “I just moved here last week with my dad. This is my grandparent’s place and we’re going to stay until dad can find some work and get back on his feet.” I introduced myself and offered to show her around town, maybe buy her an ice cream cone to show my gratitude. “It’s getting late and dad will lose it if I’m not home for dinner,” she said. “But maybe tomorrow.”
* * *
Heading out to the development the next day, I went by the McKenzie place at a crawl. Heather wasn’t in the yard, wasn’t in the doorway. I couldn’t see her in any of the windows. At the corner I made a left, then another and another and another and I came back up the McKenzies' block. This time she was there, sitting on the lawn, smiling, looking as if she’d been that way all morning. “Hey there,” she said. “Come sit with me.”
The lawn was little more than scattered patches of dead crabgrass and laying on my back, the beige-brown blades tickled my ears, scratched my neck. “Have you lived here long, in this town?” Heather asked me. I told her that I had, all my life. “That must be nice.”
Later, I again offered to show her around town. “Not today,” she said, and it was left at that. It would soon be dark so I headed home, mindful of potholes in the fading orange light. Over meatloaf and mashed potatoes my father assured the family that those new houses on the edge of town would never sell. They were too fancy for the current residents and there was nothing in these parts to attract anyone new. No, they would never sell.
* * *
Summer dragged on with little change. I rode to the McKenzies’ and watched the clouds move overhead. I rode out to the development and watched the houses edge toward completion. I rode home and watched the new flesh, pink and tender, emerge on my skinned elbow.
Near the end of August I asked Heather why she spent all her time on that lawn, why she would never go into town with me. “Show me that construction site you always go to,” she said and as I started toward my bike, “Tonight. Let’s go out there tonight. Meet me here around ten?” I said I would, then rode home.
I returned at ten sharp and Heather was waiting on the dead lawn. A black sweatshirt was zipped up, hood framing her face. She waved, stood up. I waved back, hopped off my bike.
We made our way to the development. Cars rarely ventured that far out of town, particularly so late at night, and the trip was quiet and dark. Heather did not have a bike so I walked mine. “I like the way the air tastes out here,” Heater said. “It’s sweet, almost like honey.”
By now the houses had progressed beyond skeletal beams. No doors had been installed and we entered one of the structures, sat against the sheetrock wall. “This will be a nice house when it’s finished,” Heather said. I had to agree. “And one day it will be old and it will not be so nice anymore.” I figured that was one way to look at it. “But when that day comes, it will be important to remember that once, not so long before, this was a very nice house.”
* * *
The week before school began rumors spread all over town about the McKenzies. People whispered all sorts of things to each other, shook their heads. As I heard it, the McKenzies gave their son a place to hide out. He was wanted for the kidnapping of his teenage daughter.
Some said the McKenzies didn’t know about any kidnapping, that their son said he was he was in town for a visit. Some said the whole kidnapping was the McKenzies’ idea in the first place. Either way, Heather was gone, her dad likely in jail. The Mckenzies couldn’t make it past the stares and the whispers and soon they moved out of town. And then life went on.
The development on the edge of town was completed before the winter storms rolled through. By spring all the houses had been sold. Over the next couple years all sorts of new shops, restaurants sprang up by the edge of town. And now, years later, those houses aren’t very new anymore, aren’t very nice. But I still remember a time when those houses were very new, were very nice. Back when the air smelled like honey, before life went on.