There's an elderberry tree between my house and Edgar's house, in the wash filled with desert grass. My dad says it shouldn't grow because there isn't enough water in this place to fill up a belly button, but it grows anyway. It's empty inside, an umbrella. You have to pull the branches up like skin, and only me and Edgar know the way in. Our tree has berries in summer before school starts.
"Don't go out after one, Phoebe," my mum says. "And keep away from that Hernandez boy up the road." She never says why I can't play with Edgar under the skin of our tree, so I think she doesn't have a very good reason.
We eat all the berries when they're ready-little blue ones with white icing on them. Edgar has the blackest hair you've ever seen. I found a long piece of it, once, hanging on the inside branches. When I held it up to the sun it wasn't even black. It was blue as the berries, red and yellow too.
We play cards in there and sometimes Edgar draws on my notepad. He draws some good pictures of dinosaurs and dragons. They look like the real thing.
He tells me about Adam and Eve.
"You don't know about Adam and Eve in their garden?" he says. His elderberry lips are dry and blue.
"No," I say. "Who are they?"
Edgar looks at me funny and wipes his mouth. He looks like one of those fighting men on the cover of our social studies book. He's got fuzzy black hair with a tail in the back that goes all the way down. He's got big feet like all the Hernandez boys do. His eyes always look like he's frowning. He used to frown, until he smiled and his eyebrows still stayed like two curled up caterpillars.
"I'll tell you the story," he says. "It's from our book. The Bible. You probably don't know it because you're from England."
"Oh," I say. "The Bible." I know the name of that book, but we don't have one in our house. We're non-religioners, my dad says. Not interested.
Edgar's not from America, either. He was born in Mexico and his mother carried him all the way here on her back when he was still small. He speaks American even though Mexican is his language. He says it's Spanish but my dad says it sounds nothing like real Spanish, so it's Mexican. Our tree is already losing its leaves. Hojas, Edgar says. They make a soft place to sit and listen to his story.
"Adam and Eve lived in their garden," Edgar says, "for a while." He draws a circle in the dirt with his finger and puts two dots in it.
"What happened?" I ask. "Did they move?"
"They moved," he says. He puts two dots outside the circle. "They had to."
"Because they ate the wrong food. First Eve and then Adam. It was the wrong food and God told them to leave the garden after that."
"What food?" I ask.
"Fruit." Edgar shakes one of the last bunches of elderberries he's pinched from the tree.
"Was it poisonous?" I ask.
"Maybe," he says. "But that doesn't matter. God told them not to eat it, and they did anyway. It was the Word of God and that's why they had to leave."
"I wouldn't listen to anyone telling me not to eat elderberries," I say. I grab for Edgar's bunch but he holds them away, back behind him.
"Yeah," he says. "Just like Eve."
When I get home my dad's sitting on the flowered sofa. He's searching the paper again for The Wants.
"Dad, I need to know the Word of God."
"What?" he says. "What word?"
"Who put you up to that, then?" He looks up from his paper.
"Edgar was telling me about it." I slap my hand over my mouth. Too late.
"Mad Catholics," is all he says and goes back to reading.
"What's Catholics?" I ask.
"What? Oh, too complicated love. You'll spend a lifetime untangling it." He makes a circle in pencil, under where it says Jobs.
"Painters wanted," he shouts to my mum in the kitchen.
"Oh good." She comes in with dirty hands from digging up her flower pots. She looks like me-boring brown hair and freckles that always turn into sunburn.
My dad's off to see about the job, and he forgets all about the word of God. He puts his hat on, the one that says Tropicana on the front, and says he hopes he won't be back until tonight because that means he's finally working.
It's just me and mum on the flowered sofa we got for free from the Ramsey's up the road. My brother James is off catching lizards.
I want to ask her about Edgar's story, but then she'd know. She watches the door for a minute to make sure my dad's really gone. She doesn't understand why he left his decent job in England to move us here where he can't work because it's not allowed. She says that's why we can't have our name in the phone book, but I still check for it every time we get a new one. They bring you a new phone book all the time here and leave it on the front step. Even if you're not American.
Edgar is in my class for third grade. There's thirty-seven kids in our class. That's another thing my mum can't understand. How can our small Arizona town pack so many big American children into every classroom? We have Mrs. Walker this year. She might be named after the walker she uses to get to our desks when we're taking our tests. She always knows if someone's cheating.
Edgar doesn't like the way she smells-like old fruit, he says. "Mrs. Walker's got a problem," he tells me, only he won't tell me what it is she's got. I sniff her the next time she scoots past my desk. She does smell like fruit and a little like my dad's drink he keeps over the fridge, the one he calls Liquid Grace.
The first problem with third grade is fractions. Mrs. Walker draws a picture of a fence on the board. She colors in some of the fence to show it's painted and then she rubs out some of what she's just colored. She says this is fractions and we'll be doing them soon.
The next problem is cursive. I never did letters like that in England, but the other kids write that way all the time. I'm still working on my American voice so I can sound like the others. Cursive might be too much for me.
And then there's science projects. I forget all about silly, curly cursive when we find out about science projects. We're doing them in pairs and I'm teaming up with Edgar.
Edgar sits one row over and four desks behind. He can see the back of my head and my leg where I mashed it on the hill above the elderberry tree. I can hear him making paper torpedoes and firing them at Clarence Joseph, who is the biggest big American kid in our class and the easiest mark.
"It's your choice to do a science project this year," Mrs. Walker tells us. "And it's your choice who you want to do it with. There's nothing inevitable about it."
Leticia Morena, who has the longest hair in school, asks, "Is it assigned?"
"Of course not," says Mrs. Walker. She has lines around her lips that make them disappear. She takes off her brown glasses, breathes on them, and rubs them on her trousers.
"So we don't have to do it?" Leticia asks. She sits up front.
"No," Mrs. Walker says, "you don't have to do it, Leticia. I'll tell you something useful, class." She starts to scrub the day's fraction fences off the board while she talks. "Science and art should never be mandatory, do you hear me? Industry has made itself mandatory. Paying rent, and third grade, and feeding yourself are mandatory. But discovery and aesthetic expression? These should never be forced. These are spontaneous expressions of whatever meager genius can be expected of man, as they say, and genius is not inevitable. Nothing manifest destiny about it."
Mrs. Walker turns to look at us like we've just magically appeared in her classroom.
"If you do a science project," she says, "I'm required to reward you in some measurable way. A patronage. You'll earn extra credit, which some of you may or may not need, and you'll have something to show on parent-teacher night next month."
That does it. Who wants to bring their parents to parent-teacher conference night with no science project? We all get into pairs and Edgar pushes his desk up, end to end with mine. He says one of his brothers did a science project with lemons and a light bulb. He wants to do the same one, only we'll use elderberries.
"But there aren't any more berries," I say. "We ate them."
"I kept some," he says. "At home."
"Did you freeze them?"
"Yeah, I froze them," he says, so fast I know he didn't.
"They won't keep if you don't freeze them."
"I know." He's writing on his desk in pencil. If Mrs. Walker catches him she'll make him stay and clean all the desks with something that smells of train stations and Dad's Liquid Grace.
Edgar has never seen a train station, he says. I tell my mum this at home, later, when I tell her about our third grade science project.
"You mean that Hernandez boy?" she asks. "From up the road?"
I nod and choose an apple from the bowl. It's the biggest and best with no stem.
"What Hernandez boy?" my dad asks her. He's just come in carrying his old backpack and plastic water buddy. He's covered in flecks of pink paint.
"Phoebe's doing a science project with one of the Hernandez boys from up the road."
"Edgar," I say. "Edgar Hernandez."
"I thought I told you we didn't want you hanging about with them," Mum says.
"Illegals," Dad says. "Illegals, all of them."
"You're one to talk." Mum goes back to the stove. She's making bubble and squeak with beef because Dad's had two paychecks already.
"I'm working on it." He sits down at the table. "Green cards don't grow on trees, you know."
"Dad?" I sit down with him.
"Mmm?" He's scratching his foot with his sock and staring out the window at the stripes of yellow grass and pavement. Grass, pavement. Grass, road.
"Dad, what's man-fest destiny?"
"Man-fest destiny, what is it?"
"What the hell are they teaching you in school?" he says.
"Da-ad. You can't answer with more questions."
He stops scratching. "Why not?"
"More questions!" I poke him in his soft belly. "You're doing it again."
He pokes me back and tickles me until I laugh up bits of my apple. "You want to come on the job with me tomorrow, then?" he asks. "You might learn something there worth knowing."
My dad's been on his painting job for two weeks. They're painting a big building all pink with white edges. He takes me and James with him in the morning and Mum picks us up for lunch. It's boring watching him up there on those ladders. Everyone else does things on Saturday. I watch the side of the building go from gray to pink while James draws dirty pictures in the nearby wet cement. They'll have to blow up the pavement to get rid of them.
After Mum picks us up, I sneak off to meet Edgar under our tree. The tree's lost all its leaves and you can see us from the road. It looks like a giant cobweb. It's not safe anymore.
"What do you mean it's not safe?" Edgar asks. He blows a bubble with his chewing gum, big as his face.
"People can see us here," I say.
"So, they shouldn't be able to."
"We can go to my house," he says. "No one's home right now, maybe."
"All right," I say, even though it isn't.
Edgar lives one road over, at the top. I've never been in his house. It's brown with two windows on the front, a door in between that cries when you open it. And people park on the grass. His grass is covered in dog poo and it's loud when you walk on it because of all the dried bits. There's music playing from the back that sounds like the sailor songs my uncle Mike sings, and people are home. Edgar has six brothers and two sisters and he's the youngest, which he says makes him the best. He has maybe more cats than brothers. I can't even count them all.
His bedroom is all bed. There's two beds shoved up next to each other and no room to walk around them.
"Edgar," I say, "read me the story."
"What story?" he asks.
"The Bible story."
Edgar leaves and brings back a book with lots of thin pages. He opens it and starts reading.
"...De versa Dios os ha dicho..."
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to understand. I'm itchy and hot and there's a smell coming in under the door. I don't know if the door should be closed or open.
"...y seréis como Dios, conociendo el bien y el mal. Entonces la mujer vio que el -"
The door opens. A man with a mustache is standing there looking down at us. He talks to Edgar very fast in Mexican.
"What did he say?" I whisper to Edgar.
"My dad says he saw you at Gloria's today."
"It's the restaurant he's painting."
"Oh, the pink one. Your dad works with my dad?"
Edgar says something else to his dad in Mexican and his dad says something back.
"You have to go home," Edgar says to me. He won't look at me. He's flipping the Bible book in his hands. His dad grabs it from him and tries to say something to me but I'm already running. I run past those cats and out the front door, over the crunchy lawn and back home.
My dad is back early from painting. He's sitting at the table with Mum when I come in and holding her hands because she's crying.
"Phoebe," he says as Mum reaches for me, "Phoebe, go to your room."
"But I'm sorry," I say. They know I went to Edgar's.
I only pretend to shut my door. That's a good trick with doors. No one really knows if you went into the room or not if you just open the door and shut it again. I sit down quiet in the hall to listen.
"It's all right Helen," Dad says to Mum. "It's all right."
"It's not," she says. She sounds like she's hurt herself.
"I'm all right, love," he says. "Nothing's happened."
"Nothing's happened? Nothing's happened? Christ, Tim, how can you say that?"
"Ssshhh," he says to her, the way he does when he wants me asleep. "It's all right."
"It was a drive-by bloody shooting," she shouts. "A drive-by killing spree, Tim. Right at you! Right at you... and the kids." She's crying in between her words. "The kids there just hours before."
"They weren't aiming for me, Helen, and the kids are all right."
"Does it matter where they were aiming?"
"Tony Flores went down," he says.
"Helen, it'll be all right. The police are handling it."
"Did they question you?"
"No, no. It'll be all right, love. They know I had no part in it. Gang violence. I'm just a bystander."
"You can't work with them anymore. We can't live here anymore, Tim." There's a sound in the kitchen like someone getting up. I get my legs ready. I see my Mum's big, stretched out shadow on the wall, but she can't see me. "This is mad. This is not safe," she says. "This is not the way we're going to live."
"Just give me a moment to reassess, Helen."
"No!" She's shouting. "No! You are not going to reassess. And you are not going to ask me to raise those kids out here in the middle of the desert in some bloody border town that you only picked because you wouldn't wait to make it a legitimate move. There is a reason this is the last frontier, Tim. And there's nothing Old West about it."
"No! I've had enough. I don't know who my kids are mucking about with, and you're getting shot at, and you expect me to just tolerate all of it because you want to live out some cowboy fantasy?"
"Helen, please. I'm just painting, that's all. No cowboy fantasy."
"No. Don't give me that. There are no cowboys left, Tim. It's a fantasy. Some fantasy America you've cooked up." She scrapes her chair again, a sound as loud as her shouting. "All there is is this. This! And you need to take a look around and see there's no more here than anywhere else. You have a family. We rely on you. Whether you asked for that or not."
Before I can move my mum is out of the kitchen and down the hall. She's coming right for me and I know she doesn't see I'm there. She catches her foot on my knee and makes a noise like all the crying has been knocked out of her when she hits the carpet.
I can see the police cars on Edgar's road. I'm not supposed to be here. I'm supposed to really be in my room this time, practicing cursive.
There are more flashing lights outside Edgar's house than people. I hide behind a car across the road. Six policemen step over dog poo to get to the door and then Edgar's dad is outside with them, listening. He stands still while the policemen talk. They have guns on their belts.
Two of Edgar's brothers come outside. They're bigger than their dad, which is how James will be soon if he doesn't stop growing. Edgar's brothers are wearing skinny no-sleeve shirts. The biggest one is drinking a Pepsi. A policeman takes hold of his shoulders and another policeman does something with his hands to keep them behind.
Edgar's mother comes out with Edgar's sisters. She's crying and shouting in Mexican. The biggest brother walks with his head down to the police car. He's left his Pepsi on the lawn. He walks fast, but the policeman wants him to walk faster so he pushes him.
Two police cars drive away with Edgar's brother and the other policemen stay and talk to Edgar's dad. Edgar never comes out. Maybe they took him in one of the police cars before I got there. I feel sick from the smell of all those cars.
"Phoebe." It's James right next to me, squatting in my hiding place. "What's going on?"
"I don't know," I say. James has his Nike shirt on. He looks like a regular American kid.
"Something criminal, no doubt," he says. "Something illegal. They're illegals, Phoebe. Did you know that?" He flicks a little rock at me, teasing.
"I don't even know what that is," I say and rub the rock sting on my arm.
"You don't know much, then," James says.
We duck as another police car drives past.
"Come on," he says. "We have to get back for dinner."
"But I have a science project." I'm crying.
"Come on, Phoebe. Nobody's doing any science projects today."
"How do you know?" I can't see him for all the crying.
"Come on." James picks me up in one lift. He can do that because he's almost fourteen.
"Some things aren't your problem," he says as he carries me. "Some things are just the way they are. Like the cops back there at your buddy Edgar's house."
"Don't say buddy," I say, into his shirt. "You're not American."
"You shouldn't be hanging with him, anyway," he says. "Those Hernandez boys are trouble."
"How do you know? None of them are in your class."
"Everyone knows," he says. He carries me all the way home.
When we get there Mum panics to see James carrying me and he has to tell her where I was.
"God, Phoebe," she says, feeling me all over. "Is she hurt, James? Is she hurt?"
"Course not," he says. "Just emotional."
"You're not to go anywhere alone anymore," she says to me. "Do you hear me?" She squashes my head against her chest.
"No more with that boy." My dad is sitting in the corner chair that squeaks when you rock it. It leaks stuffing out the back. "You are not to go near him anymore."
I don't bother reminding them about the science project. It's still light but I let Mum put me to bed.
Edgar isn't in school the next day but he comes back the day after that. I ask him about the police cars but he just looks away like he doesn't hear.
We do more fractions and I decide I'm not going to bother with fractions because you never have the whole thing in your hand, anyway. It's just parts and pieces and with Mrs. Walker it's always fences. We color fences all day.
The last bell rings. Mrs. Walker says we need to finish two pages in our math book for homework, plus spelling words. I walk to where the bus picks us up.
"Hey," Edgar says, catching up with me. "The elderberry light doesn't work. I tried it out. My brother told me to use lemons."
"Chico," he says right away. "He did this project before."
We get on the bus. Edgar unzips his backpack.
"Here," he says. He passes me four lemons with pennies and nails in them and a bunch of stringy wires. "Take it home and try it."
"Does it work?" I ask.
"I don't know. Maybe you can get it to work. You could do a poster about it for conference night. Chico says that's what they did."
"Okay. Hey Edgar what's Mexican for cowboy?"
"Vaquero," he says.
"Vaquero," I say back. It sounds funny coming out of me. "Hey Edgar?"
"Yeah?" he says. He's picking at a scab on his arm.
"Do you think Adam ate that bad fruit because Eve told him to?"
"Yeah. It says it in the Bible."
"Okay. But do you think maybe he was going to eat it anyway, only Eve just brought it to him first?"
"I don't know," Edgar says. "No." He's looking out the window, picking his scab. "You're not supposed to ask about it," he says. "Just read it."
"I can't read it. It's in Mexican."
"Not all Bibles," he says. We're at our stop. We get off the bus and walk up our different roads.
I set up the wired lemons in my bedroom. The teeth on some of the wires are meant to go onto other parts, but I can't remember which ones. I look at the oily lemons next to my bed like they're supposed to know what to do.
"Phoebe?" It's my dad knocking on the door. "Hi love," he says, "mind if I come in?"
"Sure," I say. I sound American when I say it.
"What's all this, then?" he asks and sits down.
"It's our lemon light. For the science project."
"Does it light?" He's fiddling with the wires. He puts the teeth on the nails and pennies until every lemon is connected to every other.
"No," I say. "Anyway, it's a tiny light." I hold up the small red light that's no bigger than a Lego piece.
"This might work," he says and takes the light from me. He pinches it with two fingers. "That's an LED. You don't need a lot of voltage to get it going."
He hooks it up but the light stays dark. It looks like a tiny police car Lego piece.
"It doesn't work," I say. "And I have to make a poster about if for conference night."
"Well, the poster is simple," he says. "You just have to get the charges right. See, there's a plus, a 'p' for penny, and there's a minus here that's your-"
"-Dad, I can't even do fractions." There. I've said it.
"What do you mean, love?"
I don't want to cry again but some things you just do anyway. "I'm supposed to do fractions," I say, "and I can't. I'm supposed to do cursive, and I can't do that either. I'm supposed to talk American but I can't always remember to whenever I have to say something."
"Oh, Pheebs," my Dad says, his hand on my head, "you don't have to do any of those things."
"Of course I do," I say. "I have to do them for third grade. And to be American. Don't you know ?"
"All right, love, all right. When is that conference of yours anyway?"
"Friday," I say. "You have to come."
"I will, I will. Do you want a hand with the poster?"
"Only if you can write in cursive." I'm still crying, but deep in my belly so he can't tell.
"I was born writing in cursive," he says. "I'm a better cursive writer than I am painter."
"Good," I say. "Because I have to write the whole thing that way."
Edgar is absent the two days before parent-teacher conferences and I know why. He's disappeared for good. I know before anyone else does, including Mrs. Walker. I think about telling her when she scoots over to my desk.
"I've called to check in on Edgar," Mrs. Walker says to me. The lines shoot off from her lips across her face like a leaf pattern. A giant elderberry leaf. "I haven't been able to get hold of anyone yet," she says, "but I'm sure Edgar will do all he can to be here tonight."
All the kids are looking at Mrs. Walker talking to me. They're supposed to be doing quiet reading.
"Can you present your science project on your own, if you need to?" she asks me.
I nod. I don't want to say anything. I'm not sure which voice is my voice-the one I brought here from our place in England or the American one I should have now.
"Okay then." Mrs. Walker scoots back to her desk.
That night my mum dresses up in her slim silk dress and makeup and perfume that smells of honeysuckle. My dad wears his trousers and jacket with the dark elbow patches, and even James comes to help me tape my poster up over my table. We set up in the school lunchroom and only the lemons look bright under those big square lights. The little red police car light still won't work, but people come by to see the project anyway and talk like they're impressed.
I keep watch for Edgar, even though I know he probably won't come.
"That's very impressive, young lady," Ella Sorenson's dad says. He's standing at the table, touching one of the lemons.
"Thanks," I say. "It's a lemon light."
"I can see that," he says. "And you've done a great job with that poster, too." He points at the picture my dad helped me draw with pluses and minuses over the pennies and nails. I've colored the pennies and nails with glitter pens. "You do all this yourself?" he asks.
I shake my head.
He looks at the empty chair next to me, the one I left out for Edgar. "Well, your parents probably helped out some," he says.
Ella Sorenson's dad walks off to the next table and I keep looking for Edgar, even after I'm sure he's not coming. It's like my eyes are confused about what I know. Every time the big lunchroom doors open I look to see if it's him. But it's just a parent or another kid coming in late.
I sit at my table until my parents come back. They have James mind my lemons so we can walk around and look at the other projects. Two boys from another class did a model volcano. It's making a real mess on the floor every time it explodes.
"That's such a boring project," I say, loud enough so the boys can hear. "Everyone does volcanoes."
My dad puts his hand on my head and we walk on. There's moldy plates of bread, jars of fruit flies and more jars of just fruit that looks all bubbly. There's spinning eggs, and candles burning, and a maze with a hamster in it. The hamster wants to eat the maze rather than run for the treat at the end of it, and my dad is trying to explain every project to me. I'm still watching the door.
"What is it, Phoebe?" Mum asks. "Do you want to go home?"
"No," I say. "Not until it's finished."
So we stay until Mrs. Walker makes a speech about us learning math and social studies and how well we are all doing, and until Mr. Lorenzo makes a longer speech to his parents and kids and the volcano explodes one last time. We pack up the lemon light and the cursive poster into our box, and my eyes still think Edgar might come and say he's sorry he missed it and did I get it to light? He'll say the poster looks better than his brother Chico's ever did and that he's glad I showed up, even if he didn't.
My mum tells me in the car.
"Phoebe," she says, "We're so pleased with how well you're doing in school."
I stare out the window. Mrs. Walker must not have said a word about fractions.
"I'm sorry your friend Edgar couldn't be there tonight."
"It figures," I say, talking American without even trying.
My mum looks at my dad, quick. "Phoebe, Mrs. Walker told us that Edgar and his family moved back home to Mexico. Edgar wanted to come tonight and help with the project, but they had to move."
There are nine blocks of houses that look exactly the same on the way home from school. They start with a white house and end with a brown one. Edgar told me about Mexico once. He can't remember it but he still knows what it's like. The roads and houses don't look like the ones we have. He says everything is different. But everyone is your family, the way everyone is your family here when you're finally American.
We pack faster than Edgar's family did, I bet. We're leaving halfway through third grade. No one says, but I know that my dad has given up on being a cowboy and that being an American is just plain hard. We sell our TV to the family up the road and we leave our couch and beds for the next renters. I don't have much to pack, but I've kept the lemons.
"What's this, then?" Mum asks, picking one up. She's trying to help me pack, but really she's just throwing my clothes into the suitcase.
"I want to take them," I say, holding the other three.
"We haven't got the room," Mum says. She rolls her lemon on the old bureau with one finger. "And they're disgusting, Phoebe. They're rotting."
"They still smell nice," I say. "They'll make my clothes smell nice, the way your lavender does."
"No, love," she says. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to leave them."
I only pretend to leave them. I put my lemons in the wastebasket and finish packing. My Mum nods and pats my shoulder. She doesn't know that later I put the lemons back in the hole between my stationery set and my pair of nice shoes.
We take the shuttle bus to the airport, past the dry wash and the elderberry tree. It's the only big thing growing there and it looks lonely without me and Edgar hiding underneath it. I make a mist on the shuttle bus window, draw a circle there with two dots outside it. The garden.
"Mum," James says next to me. "Mum, Phoebe's drawing faces on the window."
My mum doesn't hear him and I turn back to my drawing. It's already disappearing, and in a minute you won't know it was there at all. But just now it does look a little like a face-two eyes and a big round mouth open wide.