It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. Leah shook her head in disbelief, not accepting that she could be moving away from her beloved home in Chardon, Ohio. Sure, she’d known the possibility had been there, but she didn’t believe something this awful could happen to her. The news had been broken in such a gruff and unfeeling manner. Didn’t her parents care? Didn’t they understand how hard this was? Nobody moved in the middle of November. She felt like she had been punched in the gut, and her heart rose in her throat. But tears didn’t fall. Not yet.
It turned out the dental clinic her father had worked at for so many years was being shut down, but he had found work at a clinic in New Jersey. New Jersey. That felt like it was an entire continent away. Leah’s parents told her they had found a new family to live in the house Leah had grown up in. They had made an unsuccessful attempt to console her by telling her how wonderful the new house was. They said meaningless things like, “Oh, you’ll have such a great time” and “You’ll make plenty of friends. Don’t you worry.”
They had done this all behind Leah’s back. She felt betrayed. In a month, Leah would be in New Jersey.
Leah stood, still shaking her head. “No,” she said. “No.” With that, she ran out of the living room and out the back door. The old screen door banged shut behind her.
The crisp, late autumn air rushed to greet her. Leah pulled her sweatshirt tighter, trying to keep in as much warmth as possible. She jammed her bony fingers into her pockets.
The leaf-covered ground crunched as Leah trudged across the yard. She expected her parents to come after her, to apologize. Maybe they would tell her they had been joking after all.
Leah kept walking, the woods behind her yard greeting her with sympathetic words. She often spent time in the woods when she needed solace. The whoosh of wind through branches of the old oak trees and the chirp of a lone bird washed over he in a soothing manner. Leah continued to walk through the woods, dodging between trees stripped of their leaves.
After a few minutes of walking, Leah came to an abrupt halt. She was where she wanted to be. She was in a small clearing where she sometimes came to think and escape her problems, at least for the time being. This was where she was happy. Leah sat on an old log, taking in her familiar surroundings.
Tree branches extended upward, forming a protective canopy, which nearly blocked out the sun entirely. Only a small sliver of sunlight made it through to illuminate a small patch of grass in front of her. The crisp fall wind whipped Leah’s dirty-blond hair mercilessly against her face. Her warm blue eyes stung from the biting wind. But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Leah was leaving.
* * *
ONE MONTH LATER
The school bus was noisier than the packed stadium at a Cleveland Indians game. Kids hurled balled-up paper at each other and blasted loud music from their cell phones. They shouted out windows and tossed litter into the street. Leah glanced around nervously, afraid that one of these kids would pull her hair or hit her with any of a number of projectiles. The bus driver seemed unaffected by all of this chaos, which impressed Leah immensely.
The bus finally pulled up to the curb next to the school. The brakes squealed as the driver slammed down on them. The doors were thrown open, and the kids practically ran each other over to be the first off the bus. Welcome to New Jersey.
Leah didn’t know where to go or who to talk to. She didn’t know any of her teachers, and she had no friends. She rubbed her gloved hands together to keep herself warm.
She wished she could finish seventh grade in Chardon, where she had friends. She especially missed the woods. Leah’s new home was in a large housing development with hardly any trees. Everything was different in New Jersey.
“Hey, move it!” A boy shook Leah from her thoughts as he rudely shoved her aside. She had been blocking the sidewalk, which was lightly dusted with snow. Leah wandered toward a set of doors with a huge crowd of rowdy students around them. She joined the crowd, hoping she would be permitted to enter the warm building soon.
The rest of the day passed in a blur of loud, jarring sounds and unfamiliar faces. Leah got lost more than once, and she sat alone at lunch. The day had been a failure, except for science class.
The class had been studying dendrology, the study of trees and woody plants. Mr. Wilson, the bespectacled teacher, had asked, “Now, does anyone know why trees lose their leaves?” The class shifted uncomfortably, no one daring to answer the question. Leah tentatively raised her hand. She felt the curious eyes of the class turn to her. She took a deep breath to steady herself. “Yes?” Mr. Wilson nodded toward Leah.
“There are a number of reasons for trees to lose their leaves,” Leah explained, the words coming out in a huge rush. She knew that if she didn’t speak now, she would chicken out. “One of them is that trees can conserve moisture by losing their leaves. Trees can also save energy, which the tree needs to stay alive through the winter.”
“Very good!” Mr. Wilson had looked impressed. “Are you interested in the outdoors, Leah?”
“Yes,” Leah had said. I just wish there were woods here…
Now, the day was over. Leah twisted the lock on her locker one way, then the other. The locker clicked open. Out tumbled a small slip of paper. In a rush, Leah pocketed it, then packed up. She couldn’t wait to get out of this place.
The bus was even noisier than it had been that morning. Kids were unruly and wild, shouting and screaming. Leah sighed. She would have to get used to this. Leah leaned her head against the frosted window as the bus pulled away from the school. She was startled when someone tapped her shoulder.
A perky-looking brunette plopped down next to Leah. She was grinning in a friendly way, which she probably did a lot. “Hi! I’m Lizzy. Did you get my note?”
Leah shook her head, bewildered. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
“You mean… you didn’t get it?” Lizzy looked disappointed. Her green eyes turned down to her hands in her lap, then back up to Leah. “I thought I put it where you would see it.”
Leah pulled out the slip of paper in her pocket. “This?” she asked.
“Yeah! Read it!”
Leah read the messy script out loud. “If you are interested in the outdoors, please join the outdoor club. The advisor is Mr. Wilson, seventh-grade science teacher. The due date for spring sign-ups is tomorrow, December 13th.”
“Well? Will you join?” Lizzy looked hopeful. “You see, we don’t have many people who are interested in the outdoors anymore. They’d rather sit inside and play video games.” She frowned, as if there was nothing she hated more than a couch potato. “I could tell that you care about the outdoors when you answered that question in science class today. I sit right behind you.
“It’s too bad we don’t start until the spring, though. I would love to have the outdoor club in the fall, too, but Mr. Wilson only wants to have it one season per year. That way, it never gets old. I was in the outdoor club last year. It was great! We went on a camping trip and explored Chatsworth Woods.” The words bubbled excitedly out of Lizzy’s mouth.
Leah felt an excited trill of hope deep in her chest. Not only had she discovered a chance to experience the outdoors near her new home, she had also met a girl who cared about them. “What do I have to do to get signed up?” she asked cautiously.
“Easy.” Lizzy waved a permission slip under Leah’s nose. She took it. “Just get your parents to fill this out, and give I to Mr. Wilson tomorrow.” Leah nodded, smiling. She couldn’t wait to get home.
* * *
FOUR MONTH LATER
Leah closed her eyes and breathed in the cherished scent of fresh pine needles underfoot. Her new friends were already pitching tents and building a fire, but Leah was savoring the precious moment. She couldn’t wait to spend the night in the woodlands that she loved.
Her musings were interrupted by Lizzy’s excited voice across the campsite. “Come on, Leah! Help me pitch this tent!” Leah opened her eyes, gazed up at the distant treetops, and thought, Home is where you’re happy.