The following is excerpted from All the Things We Never Knew by Liara Tamani. Copyright © 2020 by Liara Tamani. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Children’s Books.
All the Things We Never Knew – excerpt
Rex is leading me across his backyard by the hand. When the lawn ends and the forest begins, he doesn’t pause. But it’s dark. And who knows what’s in there.
I stop. “Umm, where are we going?” I ask and fold my arms across my chest like it’s cold, even though it’s pretty warm.
“Come on. You’ll see. Trust me.”
I don’t move. I feel like I’m the star of a scary movie and the audience is screaming, Girl, don’t do it.
“I come back here all the time. You’ll love it,” he promises.
The audience is still screaming, Don’t listen to him, girl. Not unless you want to die! And to their point, what good can come out of walking into a dark forest at night?
Rex reaches into his backpack, takes out a big flashlight, and shines it into the woods. “See, just trees.” He lights the ground. “And dead leaves and shrubs and fungus. No boogeyman.”
“What about snakes and raccoons and whatever else lives in there?”
“We’ll be fine,” Rex says, and shines the light at our feet.
In protest, I take a deep breath and let it out slow and loud. But when he grabs my hand, I start walking again.
After a few minutes, we reach a clearing with a wooden picnic table. “You brought this out here?” I ask.
“Yeah, it used to be in the backyard at my old house,” he says, and takes out a long, red lighter, like Daddy uses to light the barbeque pit. He hands me the flashlight and lights two tin citronella candles sitting on the benches, one on each side of the table. Then he takes a blanket out of his backpack and arranges it on top of the picnic table.
“This is actually pretty cool,” I say, admiring the setup.
“You better listen to your boy,” Rex says, smiling, and climbs up on the table.
I climb up, too.
And now we’re lying on top of the table with our pinkie fingers linked, looking up at the crowns of tall pines reaching for a patch of star-sprinkled sky.
This has always been my secret spot. Even at my old house, when there was just a tiny backyard with two cedar elm trees. This table, the trees, the stars, this stillness—they’ve always been there for me. And now Carli is here, and it’s like I’ve introduced her to my best friends and they’re vibin’. And it’s making me feel closer to her than I’ve ever felt. Like even if we were butt-naked having sex, I doubt I’d feel closer.
“Crazy that there are more trees on Earth than stars in the Milky Way, isn’t it?” Carli says, her voice soft beside me.
I was already looking up at the stars, but I look closer. At all the bright spots peeking out from the darkness. At the giant pines stretching toward them. “Are there really?” I ask, wondering why I’ve never come across that fact.
“Yeah, there’s something like three trillion trees on the planet. But scientists estimate there are somewhere between one hundred and four hundred billion stars in the galaxy.”
“Word? I never would’ve guessed that. Especially since fifteen billion trees are chopped down every year. Did you know that almost fifty percent of the trees on the planet have either been cut down or died some kind of way since humans have been around?” I ask, offering up my own facts.
“Really? I knew all the Amazon boxes had to come from somewhere, but fifteen billion? Dang, at this rate, our stars are going to start catching up to our trees.”
“I know, right?” I say, feeling my insides grin because I’m sitting in my favorite place talking to my favorite person about one of my favorite things. I didn’t even think Carli was into trees like that. She acted like she barely cared about the magnolia dying outside of her dad’s house. “Who knew you were into trees?”
“I’m not,” she says, bursting my little bubble.
“So, you’re into stars then?”
“Well, kinda. But I’m more into random facts. I like collecting ones I find interesting and putting them up on my walls.”
“Yeah, I saw all the stuff in your room. It’s dope. You must not let Cole take pictures in there because I’ve never seen your walls on his feed.”
“Cole and his Instagram,” she says, like she’s rolling her eyes. “Yeah, no pictures of my walls allowed.”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m afraid of them losing their magic.”
“Yeah, I’ve always found magic in small, random things . . . in thinking about them . . . in piecing them together . . . in seeing what they may have to say about big, important things.”
“What do they say?”
“A lot. But nothing, really. I don’t know. I mean, my walls still have a lot to tell me. And I can’t have them out there speaking to everyone else before they even let me know what’s up,” she says, and laughs a little.
I love talking to Carli like this. It’s like I’m inside her mind, hearing how it works. “So what are you waiting on them to tell you?” I ask.
“Everything,” she says.
“Everything like what?” I ask, remembering her necklace. It looked magical. I sit up on my elbow and reach for it. Rub my thumb along the curved left edge, where the raised crescent moon sits cradling a sun in the form of a cut-out circle. From the circle I slide my thumb along the engraved rays that reach toward tiny raised stars on the other side. It’s like she has the whole universe dangling from her neck.
“I don’t know. Just everything.”
“Everything is a lot.”
It feels like she’s kicked me out of her mind. I want back in, but I don’t know which words will get me there. So I lie back down. Don’t say anything.
And neither does she.
For a long minute.
Then she shifts around on the table. “I can’t see you,” she whispers. Her words—after our long, dark silence—feel like a spark.
I roll on my side to face her like she’s facing me. “I can’t see you, either,” I say into the blackness. There’s only a sliver of a moon tonight. And I’m not sure when, but our candles went out.
“But I’m here,” she responds.
It’s weird. In the darkness, it’s almost like we don’t have bodies. Like we’re spirits in the night. “You know I come out here to feel closer to my mom,” I say, imagining Mom’s spirit floating around us through the trees.
“I can see that. Out here, it’s like we’re closer to God or the Universe or whatever you want to call the mystery of all there is. And I guess your mom is a part of all that now.”
“Yeah, I guess she is,” I say, thinking about Mom’s soul leaving the Earth, traveling out of our solar system, out of our galaxy, and on and on through the stars forever.
Carli puts the palm of her hand against my chest.
“My father blames me for her death, you know,” I say, surprised at how easy the words glide out of my mouth. “I mean, he’s never said it, but he’s pretty much ignored me my whole life. And I always knew why. Then he went off and sold our old house. The house my mom lived in, my biggest connection to her, without even telling me first.”
“Oh my gosh. That’s awful. I’m so sorry,” she says.
“It’s okay. We’re cool now.” I try to reassure her. “Actually, you know that video your dad made?”
“Well, I sent it to my father, and afterward he came to my game. Like, for the first time in my life. And he’s been to a couple more. And we’ve been talking more. And he’s been out of his room more. He used to stay in there all the time when he was home. I rarely saw him. But now we’ve even chilled on the sofa a few times. Oh, I forgot to tell you. We want to hire your mom to help us make the house more of a home.”
“Wait . . . wait,” Carli says. “You mean your father basically ignored you your whole life and sold your mom’s old house, but now, just like that, everything is cool?”
In the darkness, her words almost feel like my own. The ones I’ve been shoving back down inside myself every time they try to rise up. But out here, I can’t push them around. “No. I mean, it’s surface cool, but that’s it. We haven’t really talked or gotten deep about anything, yet. And to be honest, I’m kind of afraid to. Afraid of everything that might come up. . . .
Liara Tamani lives in Houston, Texas. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College. She is the author of the acclaimed Calling My Name, which was a 2018 PEN America Literary Award Finalist and a 2018 SCBWI Golden Kite Finalist, and All the Things We Never Knew.
Music by CatLofe