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That night, nestled under my electric blanket, I listened to the gurgling stream outside my open window. The Sierra air, drained of its warmth after sunset, smelled of bear clover mixed with the mustiness of my creaky bedroom. I drifted to sleep thinking about childhood summers when the cabin was filled with family and Collin and I shared this room. I remembered snuggling beside him, listening as Dad captivated us with fantasy tales set in the Foxglove cabin and the surrounding woods. I wished that I could have held onto everything that had drifted by in the melted mass of days since those evening stories: countless Sierra summers, grade school and most of high school, our parents’ marriage, and now, poor little Button. Outside, crickets began to chirp—or perhaps they were frogs.
A knock on the door shook my muddled consciousness. I sat up and squinted as Collin entered, letting in light from the hallway.
“I was sleeping,” I said.
“I was thinking,” he said, ignoring me. “Who poisons owls?”
“I don’t know.”
He began to pace but stumbled over the stack of books I kept next to my bookshelf, a rickety structure crammed with summer novels left at Foxglove over the generations. “This is a mess,” he said, picking up my books and attempting to make room for them on the cluttered shelf.
“Did you really wake me to organize my bookshelf?”
“No, listen,” he said. “Wait, were you really asleep?”
“So I went to go check up on Aunt Taylor,” he said.
“That’s sweet,” I said, guiltily realizing that I should have done the same. She had been understandably distraught over Button’s death.
“No, but listen,” he said. “Aunt Taylor thinks it was Royella.”
“Well, she’s not sure why.”
He recounted how he had found Aunt Taylor in her room, quietly staring out the window. When they began to talk about Button, she had become emotional and confessed that she had planned her long stay this summer largely out of concern for Dad but that she never would have come if she thought her dog would be a casualty.
Collin began organizing the top bookshelf as he told me that, according to Aunt Taylor, she had run into Royella gambling at Table Mountain. Seeing the pastor’s pious widow at the poker table, whiskey in hand, had made Taylor worry that she was misrepresenting herself to Dad.
I recalled our family conversation during Aunt Taylor’s first morning at Foxglove, when Button had found the snake coiled in the old growth oak as we ate breakfast outside. “Didn’t Royella say she did charity work at Table Mountain?” I asked.
“Well the thing is, she and the pastor were supposed to be doing some work there,” Collin said. He picked up a dusty hardcover and wiped it with his sleeve. “Taylor says that on the website for their church there’s a link to donate money to build a school for the reservation kids. But that doesn’t explain the gambling.”
“But what does that have to do with the owl?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Taylor said she decided she’d better make friends with Royella that day at Table Mountain, you know, for Dad’s sake, to make sure she wasn’t a complete fake. She’s been keeping an eye on her.”
“Well, she seems to have a gambling problem.” He crouched to work on one of the lower shelves. “Taylor doesn’t trust her at all.”
“Who knew Royella was secretly edgy?”
“I know,” he said. “Maybe she’ll be the cool kind of stepmom after all.” He let out a cynical laugh.
When Collin left, shutting the door behind him and shutting out the light from the hall, I listened to his footsteps recede. I fell asleep thinking of the trees too large for Dad’s spray paint, of Royella’s genuine shock when Ranger Cooper announced that spotted owls might be nesting on the property, and of the timber insurance quote addressed to both Royella and Taylor. I again wondered momentarily whether the faint sound I heard outside, largely masked by the bubbling creek, was crickets or frogs.
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