“Sorry Mom, can’t talk right now, I’m buying a hat at the Armadillo Hat Shop & a very kind-hearted armadillo is trying to show me a rad Fez.”
(text sending noise)
There. That should keep her occupied for at least a few minutes–
I knew it was our moving day & that it was just about uhhh the time we were supposed to be heading out to drive to our new city, but we’d been working so hard on cleaning & packing up those last weird objects like….you don’t even know how much weird stuff you have until it’s five minutes before you intended to leave & there’s a huge pile of uncategorizable objects chilling in front of you & hiding in those cabinets in your house you don’t open unless you’re ready to be pummeled by a waterfall of chaos.
And if I’m being honest, dealing with all of that plus the sea of unpleasant emotions & anxiety which haunted me like a bad apple hidden in the back of a cupboard was making me feel overwhelmed & overloaded, & the day was only half-over. I needed a break & time to hopefully reset myself the best I could so I could handle the rest of what was to come without triggering my sensory overload too much.
Which is why I was busy hiding out in my treehouse.
My mom kept texting me asking me where I was. I kept telling her I was in places like The Louvre museum or under a blanket on a spaceship driven by a cat, but I don’t think she believed me because she kept asking.
I was trying to think of a polite way to tell my mom I wanted some alone time with my treehouse, the second reason that I was dragging my feet about leaving. This is the treehouse I grew up playing in! It’s the treehouse I’d take shrimp ramen noodles up into when I wanted to eat those for breakfast instead of cereal. The treehouse I tried to keep pet ants in after scooping up their hill but they kept falling through the cracks in the floor & landing on my brothers. The treehouse I decided to start a secret slime factory in, except it didn’t remain a secret for long when I knocked over a vat of slime while trying to dance like my favorite musical duo “Meatball & Goates” & the slime gooped down through the floorboards & directly onto my dad, who’d been standing below moments away from asking me where all the hair curlers went. The hair curlers were part of my slime factory.
I looked around the treehouse, aware that some drippy-nosed kid was probably gonna move into my house next, & they were gonna come up here & eat cereal like a Good Kid & not bring ants up here or try to fill the treehouse with slime. (disappointed sigh)
“If I didn’t have to leave you, I wouldn’t.” I said to the treehouse, even though I didn’t really think it could hear me. If it could, it didn’t say anything back. “Twenty-two years of knowing you &…this is how it ends, anticlimatically. You didn’t fall down in protest because too many gay kisses have happened up here, you didn’t fall from the sky when I dramatically shouted “THOU WHO SPEAKS ILL OF PIPER LONGBOW SHALL BE STRUCK DOWN.” before tripping & accidentally dropping my bowling ball through that weak spot in the treehouse floor…you didn’t even fall when my brother Travis was in his ‘juggling with chainsaws’ phase & threw one of them too high into the sky & cut off the tip of one of your tree arms! And this is how it ends…..me, moving away & leaving you behind.” A tear dripped from my eye & onto the floor & I flapped my hands. I thought about my pet ants. I wondered if any of their descendents still lived up here.
(phone text noise)
It was my mom again. “You wouldn’t have had enough time to get on a plane & fly to the Happy Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica since I saw you this morning.” her text said. “We have been to Costa Rica before. We know this.”
Darn it. (sigh, pause) Maybe I could tell her I’m crawling through a ditch in a field in the wilderness trying to find a secret type of frog that only local fight clubs – which uhhh I’m not allowed to talk about – know exist?
I decide to go with the classic, “Mom, I’m gay & time is FAKE.”
(phone text noise)
Ugh, another text….oh! (Finley cheers up) Mom said that Brady just showed up!
(Pause, sounds sad again) Well then, I guess this is it. This is the final sleepover s’more of this glittering gay gala. No more ramen. No more ants. No more slime.
Just me, & my treehouse. This is how it ends.
“Thank you for being my treehouse. Thanks for all the fun times we’ve had together.” I said quickly, trying not to cry.
I took one last look around at those well-worn walls, & that cracked floor where the bowling ball fell through, took one final celebratory selfie, & then with great trepidation, quickly climbed down the wrinkled ladder to the treehouse.
I jumped off the bottom rung of the ladder, looked up at the treehouse, & waving like a princess in a car, I shouted,
“I SHALL RETURN TO YOU SOMEDAY, I PROMISE!”
My neighbor in the yard across the street was out mowing his yard for the fifth time that week, & he made a weird look over at me, but that’s how he always is. His name is Tom & he works for the HOA, which I used to think was a spy organization to watch over food establishments, but now I know it’s just a club where boring people go to die. I hope he enjoys the sound of children screaming in the treehouse. At least I didn’t do that very often.
I went around to the front of the house. The moving truck with the picture of a Tube-Nosed Fruit Bat clogged up the whole driveway, so Brady hadn’t been able to park his car in the driveway. Now he was having to clog up the street in order to see me, which I thought was nice of him. He I hoped that Dave, the security person from the HOA (you know what that means now), wouldn’t come by & stick an almost electrocutingly-sticky ticket sticker to his car & spit out a gummy bear onto the back windshield, something which I am not sure whether it’s a HOA security guard thing or a Dave thing.
“Brady!” I yelled, running across my yard & almost tripping over one of Papa Kev’s garden gnomes. I hopped on one foot after stubbing my toe, & Brady reached out reflexively towards me even though he seemed like he was still a mile away. I yelled an apology at the gnome.
Brady (calling across the yard):
Brady looked like he was considering meeting me halfway but then he seemed to decide against it, probably because I was still running towards him so quickly despite the gnome.
“I am just the KNEE ON A BEE-” I said, still running towards him.
I finally reached him, & we hugged each other. He looked sad, & I hugged him, but that didn’t really make either of us feel any better.
“I really wish you weren’t moving.”
He then absentmindedly tried to brush a piece of soil off of my mushroom & dinosaur-print crop top.
“But we’ll keep in touch! And maybe once a month or so we can visit each other?”
I nodded vigorously.
“Can we go bowling but while wearing costumes sometime? And go to the movie theater but wear earbuds with an unrelated podcast about botany playing in them so we can find the symbolism between plants & what’s happening on the screen? And hide under the bleachers at the BYMCA & eat sushi while planning our dream Bear Buddies plushies so we can get our dream ones when we go to the mall next time?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Finley.” (good-natured but also obliging chuckle) “We’ll plan some good things, in time, & those are good ideas”
“Will you still send me dinosaur memes?”
“Every one that I come across.”
“Will you still write me letters & hide them in my yard? I mean, probably can’t do that if I live two hours away, but maybe you can send them to me in the mail & then Georgia can hide them in the yard?”
“I’ll send you letters, Finley. I promise. And Georgia can indeed hide them in the yard.”
“Can we still watch new episodes of Billie & the Mushroom Field?”
“Yup! Not in person, but over Zoober for sure!”
“I’m really gonna miss you, Brady. There are so many friendship things I still haven’t got to do with you yet & I have to leave, what if we never get to do those things? What if after I move, you find another friend & do those things with them & not me?” I started to cry. “What if you don’t like me anymore?”
Brady tried to comfort me. He wrapped me in a warm hug & put his cheek against the side of my head.
“We’ll still keep in contact, Finley.”
I swallowed hard. He didn’t say he wouldn’t do those things.
“What if you do though?” I asked.
Brady (trying to reassure Finley):
“Both of us have other friends, me in town & you online, & I’m sure you’ll make new friends once you move. It’s okay for you to do that & it’s okay for me to have my friends here, but even if I do friendship things with my friends here, I’m still going to want to do those things with you. I want to continue being friends with you, Finley. You know I enjoy being friends with you, & I enjoy hanging out & the things we do. I’m still going to like you after you move!”
I was aware that no answer, shy of him dropping everything & deciding to move to my new town too, would never be enough to satisfy me or make me truly believe my fears wouldn’t become my reality, but I also knew it wasn’t reasonable or healthy to expect him to do those things. This was the best answer I was going to get. I had to trust that he cared about me.
“Thanks, Brady. You really are the best.”
Brady (kind of awkward, shying away from the attention & affection of the compliment):
“You’re amazing too!”
We loosened the embrace & looked at each other sadly. Behind him, I could see my mom standing by the moving truck that I had been assigned to drive. The one with the Tube-Nosed Fruit Bat. We only had a certain amount of time allotted to us for using the moving truck & we really didn’t have any extra money to pay for additional hours, so as much as it made me feel so sad inside, I knew I had to say goodbye to Brady. I saw my four siblings rocking our van back & forth from the inside in an attempt to knock it over. By the sedan, I saw my dad pointing to Papa Kev’s garden gnome, & I saw Papa Kev rushing to scoop up the same garden gnome that I had just tripped over.
Suddenly, in the middle of this lovely Hallstamp Family Movie Moment, Dave the Fun HOA Security Person slowly pulled up in front of our house in his bright red cruiser. He was twirling a toothpick around in the front of his mouth & wore a cracked leather jacket that was much too large for his thin frame, but I think he thought it made him look cool. To be honest though, I don’t think anything could make Dave look cool.
“What brings you fine people out here today on this fine morning?”
He boomed, sounding like a car salesman who regretfully had been given a megaphone by a boss who drank too much coffee & was obsessed with hustle culture.
Mom stepped forward protectively. She knew someone like Dave, who’d once abandoned his kid at a Martmart so he could rush to ticket a car after his wife told him it was parked in the street, was not here for no reason at all.
“What are you here for?”
No pleasantries, no B.S, only business.
“Fine yard you got here.”
Dave said, his hands in the pockets of his khakis. He walked a few meandering steps towards the edge of the grass.
“Nice house too, nice color. Are those begonias in the yard?”
“No, they’re sunflowers. Cucumber-leaf Sunflowers, to be specific”
“Ah. Sunflowers…really a pretty property.”
“What do you want, Dave?”
(continuing as though he hasn’t heard anything):
“Too bad your grass is five point two inches tall. You know the maximum is precisely 5 inches? Right? Precisely 5 inches.”
And with that, he pivoted on one foot like a ballerina with bear spray & in one swift, smooth motion, pulled a ticket sticker out of his pocket & slapped it onto the windshield of my dad’s car.
It was indeed electrocutingly sticky.
My siblings immediately stopped trying to knock the van over. Papa Kev almost dropped his garden gnome. Dad tried to square up in defensiveness but remembered Dave carried pepper spray around with him & had once accidentally sprayed an old woman in the face with it– I heard he now carried a can of bear spray, “for emergencies”. Mom looked like she wanted to summon a hellhound, but realized we didn’t have time for that.
“What is this, Dave? What do you mean by this?”
Dave didn’t say anything, but coolly tilted his head to look over his shoulder at my mom.
“That’ll be $100.”
He reached his hand back behind him & made a grabby motion with his fingers.
“$100 for what?”
“Snipping any piece of grass back down to 5 inches with these scissors right here.”
“There’s like five pieces, how can that cost $100?”
“My time is very valuable to me, ma’am. Maybe if more people charged what they were worth, we wouldn’t have such unfortunate events as these.”
He eyed the moving truck & my ragtag family pointedly.
I wanted to smack this silly toilet man in the face. He was talking about my family. He was making this very mean comment, & wanting to fine us, because he knew we had to move because we weren’t able to make ends meet in this neighborhood.
“I’m gonna SLAP him.” I said to Brady.
“No Finley, please don’t slap him.”
Brady half-heartedly reached for me as if to stop me.
“If you get in a fight with him, it’ll use up too much time & you’ll be late on returning the moving truck. There’s probably a fine for fighting him too.”
“Okay well then, if I can’t get in a fight with him, I’m going to get even with him. He is not getting away with this.” And I rushed away from him & started creeping towards the car with my siblings, who watched me wide-eyed.
In front of us, my parents began arguing with Dave. I heard them saying things like ‘how could he do this to us’, ‘couldn’t he see we were literally trying to move’, ‘if he knew so much about our financial situation then why was he fining us’, and more.
Travis rolled down the crank window on the car.
“Y’all were just trying to knock this van over. How about you make good use of those skills & try & flip Dave’s car? Don’t actually flip it, please, but like….make him think you’re gonna flip it. Make him afraid.”
“Make Dave afraid! Make Dave afraid!” My siblings whisper-chanted.
Then they all nodded vigorously, & without another word, they streamed out the sliding side door of the van & crept, spy-style, towards Dave’s car.
I snuck around the back, towards my dad’s car, where I silently opened the back door & took my printer, laptop, & printer paper off the back seat. Then I Carrotoe-ran like a dog who has just captured cheese from the kitchen table around the side of the house & used my key to open the side door.
“Think like Piper Longbow, think like Piper Longbow!” I muttered to myself, pacing & trying to come up with a good idea for how I could get revenge on this amoral jerkball strutting around on my front lawn with his bear spray & his twirling toothpick.
Aha! I had it. There was one thing security guards such as Dave feared above all other things. Kindness. And no, I don’t mean that he deserved kindness. I was NOT about to be kind to someone who wanted to fine my parents, on our moving day, minutes before we were supposed to leave, for $100 just because our grass was a fraction of an inch too long. In that situation, uhhh kindness took on a whole different meaning…
I made quick work of it. Using my graphic design skills & my visual memory, I whipped up something – several things, in fact – in a matter of minutes. I was so proud of my work, I wanted to dance around the garage like a banshee who has just won a late-night game show, but there was no time for that. I could do that later.
“You better remember the WiFi password, you stinky plastic pal”, I cursed at the printer who may have been older than me. I smacked it gently. I could still hear my parents arguing with Dave out on the lawn, & I could hear the sound of my siblings yelling.
My printer remembered though, & a few seconds later I had multiple shiny, perfect sheets.
Oh heck, I didn’t have any scissors. I did have a rad pocketknife that was shaped like a frog though.
I rushed out of the garage, just in time to see my siblings working as one unit to tilt the passenger side of the cruiser off the ground. I was so hecking proud of them. Dave was screaming, & my mom was half-heartedly trying to tell them to stop. Dad was struggling to keep a straight face, but Papa Kev wasn’t even trying to stifle his laughter, he just laughed openly at the scene before them with his booming laugh.
My sister, Georgia, noticed me coming around the side of the house, but I motioned to her to keep distracting Dave so I could put the printer & laptop & paper back in the car. Then, I crawled along the ground like a fast sloth towards the side of the cruiser where Dave could not see me. I whispered to my brother Basil my plan, & he abruptly stopped trying to flip the cruiser & said loudly enough for Dave to hear him,
“Alright y’all, it’s time to interrogate this freak.”
My siblings got the message & dropped the car back onto the ground with a thump. Dave looked ready to pull his hair out.
“No no NO, it’s not time for you to interrogate me, it’s time for me to interrogate YOU. Why were you trying to flip my cruiser over? You can’t just go around doing that!”
My siblings went to surround him in an uncomfortably-close circle, & right on cue, my youngest sister Ivy flipped the bird at him, getting him to turn his back on me & the cruiser as he lost himself to his own outrage.
I snuck onto the driver’s seat of the cruiser. I looked around his car, until I found the box of electrocutingly-sticker stickers sitting in his glovebox right next to his bag of gummy bears.
Carefully, I picked up all his stickers & replaced them with the ones I had made. Ones that, instead of having a jerk note with a sarcastic smiley face about how you had broken the rules & now had to PAY, these were coupon vouchers for a free slice of pizza at Mel’s Pizza Salon.
That was when I noticed the paper list right in the middle of the glovebox of all the people whom he’d fined. There were a LOT of people. And I noticed that next to many of them, he’d written rude little notes about what he really thought about them.
“Mrs. Lennard. Grass too tall. Wears too much hairspray. $100.
Mx. Jackson. Had unapproved signage in yard (bird feeder on pole).
Also they smell like beans. $50.
Mr. Peony. Grass too tall. Why does he wear such bright colors?
Makes him look like a traffic cone.
Neglected to say good-morning to me once. $100.
Ms. Elva. Small spot of mildew on driveway.
Her cat looks like a bear that got sunburnt. $75.
I knew all the people he’d written the names of. I’d lived here in this neighborhood for most of my life. They didn’t deserve those rude notes about them, & their alleged “crimes” were ridiculously petty, & while the rules were definitely strict, they were nowhere near as strict as the way Dave was enforcing them. I’d read the HOA handbook like three times because I had grand ideas of infiltrating into their organization & destroying it from the inside out like a Trojan Horse. I probably would have done that if we wouldn’t have had to move, so I know random facts like that your driveway must be at least 50% covered in mildew before they complain, or that the maximum fine for trees that need trimming is $30–
WAIT A SECOND– oh….HECK.
I looked at the list of people again. Unapproved signage only had a maximum fine of $20 but he’d listed $50. Mildew on your driveway? A fine of $40, he’d put $75–
And no wonder the fine of $100 for tall grass seemed like a lot when he said it, because the maximum fine for that was just $50, & they were required to give you three warnings before charging you–
Why had he written those amounts…oh wait…
Underneath the list was an envelope, full of the cash he had collected from each of them.
I quickly counted the amount of cash in the envelope. The sheet was for this week so I assumed the envelope was too, as rules had it at their meeting each Monday, they had to submit the fines they collected. Assuming my math was correct, in each case he’d collected two to three times as much as he was supposed to from each person. He had $325 in the envelope, but he should have only had $160. Which meant one thing.
Dave was stealing from the residents. If he wasn’t submitting this at the HOA meeting, the only other place it could be going was in his pocket!
I snatched up the cash & left in its place a series of prints featuring frogs wearing tutus that I’d meant to put in my backpack earlier, & I took a photo of the list with my phone. I could deal with that later.
I snuck out of the cruiser the same way I snuck in, then I crawled around the side of the house so I could pretend to come out from alongside it & act as though nothing had happened. Dave was still yelling at my siblings, & Tom was chuckling from across the street.
“Hey now sibs,” I shouted across the lawn. I noticed Dave was making my mom write him a check for the $100 because she didn’t have the cash (nor did she have it in her checking account, which I’m sure she tried to explain to him, we were really running low on funds despite his disregard for that fact). He put the check in his pocket & smirked like a hyena. “We gotta get going, it looks like what’s done is done.” I made sure to sound sad & defeated as I said that. “You should know better than to act like that.”
They caught my drift, & hanging their heads they muttered over-dramatic apologies to Dave & headed back to the van. I noticed Travis was smirking though. All three of my parents now looked super stressed, having just handed over money they didn’t have that my grandparents would now have to cover.
I ran towards my mom to go comfort her, & I bumped into Dave as I did, almost falling for the second time that day. “You’re kind of like a garden gnome but weirder.” I told him without context before embracing my mom & shouting “MOM ARE YOU OKAY? DID HE HURT YOU?”
(sounding so tired)
“No Finley, I’m fine.”
Dave, having received his check & protected his cruiser, saluted my parents with the utmost sarcasm & said,
“Hope your move goes FANTASTIC, maybe you’ll actually be able to afford the fees when you mess up at the next place!”
He threw a gummy bear into our yard, got in his cruiser, then pulled out of my driveway & drove away down the street, still twirling his toothpick.
My parents turned towards each other & started discussing how they were going to cover this fee. I started chuckling behind them.
My mom turned around, looking stressed.
“Finley, why are you chuckling?”
That was when I showed her. Folded in the palm of my hand was the check she had just given Dave.
(sounding like she wants to laugh & cry at the same time)
My dads beamed at me. Dad went over to hug Mom, & Papa Kev came over to hug me.
“We’re all SO PROUD of you Finley.” Papa Kev beamed at me.
“It’s you that taught them this, Kevin, I know it…..And I’m not even mad.”
My dad nervously looked at his watch & said ““Oh HECK. “We reeeeeely gotta get going, especially after all that.”
“Wait! There’s one more thing I gotta do.” I said.
“I gotta go to say good-bye to Tom, of course! What kind of neighbor would I be if I didn’t?”
I walked across the street. Tom eyed me suspiciously from his lawn as though I was going to pluck a perfect piece of grass from his yard & set it on fire right in front of him.
“I won’t touch the grass.” I said, walking up his driveway slowly, as though I was approaching a scared animal.
Good. I was just about to set that boundary for you…AGAIN.
It looks like Dave had a good little…meeting…with you guys. It seems like it was productive though. At least I hope it was with all that yelling & near-wrestling.”
I ignored his comments, & calmly continued.
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry for all the weird things you had to see me do. Like running around in my chicken suit or juggling rubber ducks while riding a unicycle while singing songs from ‘Les Un-Miserables’ at the top of my lungs, or that time I accidentally burnt down your mailbox when I was 12.”
“Don’t forget about the time you spilled bees in my yard.”
“Oh yeah! Those too. I hope your next across-the-street neighbors are more normal.” I said, then I waved a lil goodbye to him & went back to my own driveway.
As I approached, Mom looked at me & asked,
“Finley, did I see you stick something to Tom’s car when you were over there?”
“Oh, maybe I did, maybe it’s nothing…….maybe he just happens to have a new bumper sticker that reads ‘I Heart the HOA – Where Boring People Go to Die.”
It really was time to get going, because now I wasn’t sure what would happen first – running out of time on our rental, or prominent neighborhood jerks leading a crusade against me. Ready or not, this was a new chapter of my life I had to open, otherwise known as “skipping town real quick for a bit until the chaos you have ignited settles down”.
“ONWARD!” I shouted, heading for the cab of the moving truck.