I sat on my rock in the small forest outside of my home. Surrounded by nature, I was purely happy. I could sit there, breathing in the smells and sounds of the birds and trees, all day, every day. And that’s pretty much what I do.
I live in Cantwell, Alaska, a small village with a population just over 200. Living in such a small world could get boring sometimes, I suppose, which is why I escape to other towns and cities outside the boundaries of Alaska. No, not literally, but through the magic of books and stories.
Reading has become my hobby and my passion. Almost every day I find a new book to read while sitting on my rock. Sometimes a willow ptarmigan, our state bird, comes and sits next to me, and listens while I read aloud. I read stories about London, Los Angeles, and Miami. I read about warmth, rain, snow, and wind. I read about plants, animals, and rivers.
But, I’ve never actually experienced them. I’ve got my town of snow and green, but hearing about carnivals and parades makes me yearn for a little change. Pestering my dad seemed to be a problem, so I just read and make plans for my future all by myself out on my rock.
Of course, 5 days a week, I work at the small general store in the center of the village. Every so often, we get a family of tourists who come telling stories of where they’re from. I make small talk with them, and it’s something I really enjoy.
On Saturday, May 17th, the little bell above the store door rang, and a family of four came inside. I greeted them and asked what I could do for them. The mom answered me.
“Hi, nice to meet you,” she said. “We’re from Chicago, and we’re just on a family camping trip. My husband was wondering if you guys have any tea.”
I stepped out from behind the small counter. “Yup, we’ve got several kinds. There’s a little station in the back and you can check out the flavors.”
The woman nodded thanks to me and she and her husband wandered back there. The two kids remained behind, curiously looking at me. I decided to break the ice. “Hi, I’m Avery,” I said, sticking my hand out. The oldest shook it and motioned for her little brother to do the same.
“I’m Jess,” the girl told me brightly. “I’m 12 years old.”
“Same!” I said, a little too excitedly. I lowered my voice again, so as not to disturb her parents. “Sorry, it’s rare that I meet someone the same age as me. This town is really small, if you haven’t figured that out yet.” I laughed, and so did she.
“Yea, but it’s cool. It’s the opposite of Chicago. I can never get any alone time, which is why my family and I love to camp. Nature out here is so beautiful.” Her brother nodded his head in agreement. “Oh, sorry. This is my brother Stanley,” she said, introducing him, and I said hello to him.
Their parents walked back over. “If you’d like, I could take you all on a small tour around town. There’s not too much to do, so it shouldn’t take up much of your time.” I winked at Jess.
“Sure!” Her mom replied.
We walked around for about an hour. I showed them the best fishing spots, the other little shops, and the lodges. By the end, Stanley was tugging on his mom’s windbreaker to go. I took the hint. “Well, it was really nice meeting you all. Maybe I’ll see you around?”
“Definitely,” said Jess.
Jess kept her promise and visited the store every day.
We talked about Alaska a lot, but mostly I wanted to know about Chicago. Since I’ve never been out of the state, hearing about the places I’ve read was a billion times better than seeing the words on a piece of paper. I learned about The Bean, all the museums, the skyscrapers, and The Water Tower. My favorite place that she described, though, was Navy Pier. Navy Pier has a huge ferris wheel with a great view of the city. I’ve never been on a ferris wheel. Even better, you can get cotton candy, peanuts, all the tasty things I’ve read about.
One day I invited Jess over to my house. Her parents agreed, knowing that my father was a doctor, should anything happen. We ran home from the general store, and only stopped inside my house to grab materials. Then we went outside and I showed her my rock.
Letting her see my rock meant that I was giving her my trust. Only my mom had seen my happy spot, before she passed away. Nobody else was allowed to invade my privacy. But Jess was my friend. My only friend, really. And having a friend felt like my mom was back, drawing and reading with me.
We set the markers and paper down on the flat part of the rock. Giggling, Jess drew a rough map of the US. She highlighted Illinois and Alaska in red, writing our names in the spaces. We drew a path all the way from Cantwell to Chicago. At the end of the trail, I drew a big blue ferris wheel, setting down my landmark goal.
An hour later, we were still on the rock, stretched out on our backs, enjoying the sun. “Hey Avery?” Jess asked, turning her head.
“Yeah?” I responded.
“Think you’re ever actually gonna come to Chicago?”
I closed my eyes to think. I’d never been out of the state. My dad had been, though, while he was in college. He’d seen the world, and I was left to read about it. Sometimes, laying out here by myself, I thought about it, and wondered what changed in him. But it was really none of my business, so I chose to stay out of it. When I was old enough, I was going to get out of the state. Sure, I loved nature; I loved it so much I spent all of my time with it. But exploring is what makes us human.
I turned to face her. “Definitely,” I responded, smiling. She smiled back.
It was Wednesday, and Jess hadn’t come for the past two days. She told me the other day that she was going on a hike, but that she would only be a day. I worried, but finally, her family came into the store. “Hi!” I greeted them, relief flowing through my body. “Where’s Jess?”
Her mom responded. “She’s not feeling too well. She’s coughing a lot, and I’m afraid she may have a fever. She wanted me to tell you not to worry.” I smiled. She was all right. Maybe just a little altitude sickness. “Also, do you have a thermometer so we can check her temperature?”
I took one off the shelf and watched as they walked out again, the bell dinging as the door closed.
Almost a week later, my dad diagnosed Jess with pneumonia. He said she didn’t have a severe case, and that she should be “back on her feet in no time”.
I picked out a postcard from the store with a picture of books on it. On it, I wrote:
Hey Jess, I hope you’re feeling okay. Sorry about the sickness. However, I know just what will cheer you up! I’ll bring over some books that we can read together. I have a few favorites that I want to show you. XO, Avery
I grabbed 3 books off the shelf. One was a pamphlet of Cantwell and a map of Alaska. I also put some pencils and paper in the stack, hoping that maybe we could draw another path or a make believe amusement park in my state. On top of that, I put a book of all the wildlife in Alaska. Finally, a book on Chicago. This was one that I hadn’t read yet. I became interested in it when Jess and her family came, but since Jess also seemed so involved in reading, I decided to save it for a special moment. This seemed about right.
I gave the books to Stanley the next time they came, and asked if I could come over a few times to read. They accepted the offer happily and brought me to their place. It was a huge van! They called it a eurovan, and showed me the inside. There was a mini stove, fridge, beds, everything! I’d never seen such a thing. Jess was laying down on a mattress, covered with blankets. Stanley gently woke her up and gave her the books. She sat up, looking super tired.
“Goodness! You look tired,” I said, and she laughed softly.
“I feel tired.”
“I brought you some books, but maybe I should come back another time-” She cut me off.
“No, definitely! I need something to do.” I smiled and sat down on the chair next to the mattress. She reached out for the Chicago one, and a rush of excitement went through me.
“I’ve been waiting to read this one. It looks really good, though.” I examined the pages and pictures in it, and flipped to the first chapter. “Hah! Look! The first picture is of Navy Pier,” I exclaimed excitedly, showing her the photo.
“Cool!” She mustered up a smile. “Read it to me.”
So I did. I read to her for two hours until she fell asleep. Quietly, I rested the book on the chair and thanked her parents for having me over.
Dinner was fish, and my dad and I ate by candlelight. “How’s Jess?’ he asked, while taking a bite. I nodded, with my mouth full, indicating that she was well. I swallowed.
“She was tired when I saw her, and she needed a bunch of blankets to keep warm. But she was happy to see me, and it seems like she is getting better.”
“Good.” We ate in silence for a bit. I thought back to the conversation that Jess and I had on the rock two weeks ago. Why hadn’t I travelled? Especially since I seemed so interested in it, why hadn’t my dad done anything? I played with the beans on my plate, my eyes down.
“Dad?” I asked, regretting it the moment I said it. But I already had his attention, so I might as well go on with it. “Have you ever, you know, thought about travelling somewhere?” I kept my eyes down.
“Avery, you know I travelled all the time during college.” I nodded, but pushed a little further.
“But, we never travelled. In fact, I’ve barely been outside this town! There’s so much to see outside of this state, but I’ve only experienced this. Haven’t you ever wanted me to go anywhere? It could be fun, a road trip, just the two of us, around the country.” My dad knew I had maps upon maps stacked in my bedroom. He knew I could lead us around. He knew-
“Maybe someday, honey.” That was the end of the conversation, on his part at least. He stuffed another bite of salmon in his mouth. I tried not to show my frustration.
“What’s your reasoning, though?” I put my fork down and looked him in the eyes. “You never told me why we don’t go anywhere. You must have a point somewhere in there!”
My dad shook his head. “Avery, honey, you’re overthinking it. It’s about money. We don’t have it.” The shocked look on my face must have been enough for him to keep going. “I’ve been doctoring this town at a very low price, because these people need it. And these people also don’t have too much money. I suppose we could muster up a trip some day, but without your mother working, it’s difficult.”
“Dad!” I let myself break down. “We- we’re poor?”
He patted my head. “Poor is not an appropriate word here. Are you happy with where we are, right now?”
I sniffed. I guess. “Yeah.”
“Then we’re rich. Happiness is richness. And if exploring means that much to you, I’ll start a savings account.”
I nodded, and put my dish in the sink. I wouldn’t tell my dad, but I would start saving up too. No more new books for a while. I’ll just read at the store. My savings were going towards Chicago. I knew my dad would love it there.
I stopped by the eurovan again the next day, and I continued to read Jess the Chicago book. She had the chills, but her fever had gone down from the day before. I asked if I could do anything to help out.
“I think we’re good, thanks for the offer, Avery,” Jess’ dad said. I saw they were cleaning up the truck.
“What’re you guys doing?” I said curiously.
“Oh,” her mom said, sitting down. “Well, when Jess gets better, we’re going back home. We planned to stay a month, and we’ve only got three days left. We have an event at home to attend, and don’t want to miss it. It’s a long trip back home.”
My shoulders drooped. “Oh.” It had already been a month? Jess had been out for 2 weeks, so that meant I had only spent 2 weeks with her. How were we going to finish our plans?
I don’t know why, but I started tearing up. “Well, come here!” I gave everybody a hug. Jess had quite a bit of strength now. I started to leave when she stopped me and handed back my books. “Oh, no you can keep them,” I said, smiling.
“No, no! You were so excited to read about this, you gotta finish it!” I reluctantly took the book, but smiled. I walked back home, but the lump in my throat continued to swell.
My dad greeted me at the door. “Jess is going home...” I told him, and he hugged me.
“Yeah, I know.”
“But Dad,” I said, confused as to why he wasn’t empathizing. “I’m never going to see her or her family again.” My shoulders drooped once again as this fact took over my body. “Jess is my best friend.” He squeezed tighter and kissed the top of my forehead.
“That may not be true for long,” he said, and I raised my head.
“What?” Confused, he took the Chicago book from my hands and opened the front cover. Inside lay 2 plane tickets, addressed for Illinois. “What is this?” I said.
“For taking care of Jess. And for being such a nice friend.” He tilted my head up to look at him. “Avery, her family loves you. So much, they want to see you again, in Chicago.”
It took a second for that to sink in. “What?!” I ripped the book out of his hands, and found a note inside the cover.
Avery- I’ve never had a more fun camping trip. Even though we spent half as much time as we wanted to together, I made a new friend. Friends are really important to me, Avery, and some are forever. Let’s be forever, okay? Can’t wait to see your face when we go to Navy Pier. Love you! -Jess
On August 15th, my dad and I stepped off the plane into Chicago’s breezy air. I couldn’t stop moving my head around. Everything was so big and bright and beautiful. Just the airport itself contained a kajillion more people than Cantwell. The neon signs lit up stores, and people posed for pictures.
Through the glass sliding doors came Stanley, followed by Jess, followed by her parents. We squealed as we saw each other, and I left my new polka-dotted suitcase with my dad as I ran across the shiny floor. We hugged and laughed, and it felt like the first week we were together.
“Well, are you ready to go?” Jess’ dad asked as my dad caught up. Jess and I jumped up and down, still so excited.
The long car ride was totally worth it. I thought the neon lights at the airport were something, well, this was really something. The children playing and eating cotton candy, the adults laughing it up, everything about the setting was perfect. And out of all of that, I spotted a big, huge, bright, beautiful ferris wheel. I ran off with Jess, and with our parents trailing behind, making small talk.
“This what you expected?” Jess asked as I looked around. I glanced at her, sparks in my eyes.