It was early spring when she first appeared. I remember seeing her blonde hair shining through the new blossoms on the dogwood tree in our front yard. I pretended not to notice her as I clutched my books and trotted up the front stairs of the house. I shut the door behind me and peered out of the windows on each side.“There’s a girl in the yard, Mom.”Brushing her hands on her apron, Mom joined me at the window, “What do you mean ‘there’s a girl in the yard’?”I pointed. “In the dogwood. There’s a girl sitting a few branches up wearing a grey dress and patent-leather shoes.”“So there is.” Mom looked amused. “Well, she’s not hurting anyone. Come help me with dinner.” She started walking back to the kitchen.“Mom, she’s trespassing! That’s illegal!” The girl turned suddenly and caught me in her ice-blue gaze. Startled, I stumbled back from the window.“Honey, I’m not going to call the police because some girl wants to enjoy our tree.” Her voice echoed through the hardwood foyer. “Now come set the table.”She was there again the next morning when Robbie and I left for school. Pretending not to notice, I grabbed Robbie’s hand and practically ran through our front yard, hoping he wouldn’t see her.“Gross!” He snatched his hand away. “I don’t wanna hold your hand, freak!”“Well, come on, then. We’re going to miss the bus.” I snapped at him while trying to block his view of the dogwood.“Hey, who is that?” Robbie stopped and tilted his head at the girl. She smiled at him and raised her hand in a small wave.I kept walking. “I don’t know, but I’m going to tell Larry to leave without you if you don’t come on.”She was there when we got home from school that afternoon and every afternoon for the next two weeks. I sauntered past her to the front door, her dangling shoes catching my eye as they reflected the evening sun. She never changed clothes or seemed to do anything but sit and gaze wistfully from her perch, yet somehow she remained immaculately groomed, her hair straight, her shoes never tarnished. I started setting my alarm clock earlier to see if I could catch her climbing into the tree every morning, but even at sunrise, she was there, sitting solemnly.“I don’t like her, Mom.” I said at dinner one night. “Doesn’t she have parents or people who are looking for her?”Robbie giggled, “I gave her a daffodil and she said I was handsome!”“I really don’t see what the problem is.” My mother retorted. “Obviously she’s comfortable or she wouldn’t stay. She’s not hurting anyone, and from what I’ve seen she’s very respectful of all of us.”I dropped my fork. “What if she’s crazy? What if she’s an escaped lunatic from an asylum somewhere?”Mom laughed and winked at Robbie, “Nobody gets institutionalized at such a young age; she can’t be any older than you.”Irritated, I pressed on, “What if she’s a runaway or a criminal? We don’t want to be responsible for housing a missing juvenile, do we?”This time Mom sighed, “If she’s a runaway then how does she keep her appearance up? I’ve never met an escaped delinquent with an iron on her. For Christ’s sake, will you eat your cabbage before it gets cold?”After dinner, Mom took a tray of leftovers out to the girl and sat under the tree until she was done eating. I tried to watch from my room, but I couldn’t see much through the dogwood’s new leaves and wilting blossoms. When she was done, the girl climbed down and handed my mother the tray, smiling delicately. As my mom walked toward the house, the girl turned abruptly and looked directly at me, slicing through me with her eyes. She held me in her gaze for a moment, tilted her head and slowly exposing a smirk that covered me in chills. Gasping, I dropped the blinds just as she began to raise her hand in a gentle wave.“What are you talking about? She sounds so cool!” Mallory looked at me incredulously over her egg salad sandwich.Vanessa nodded and spoke through half-chewed pizza, “Seriously. She sounds very bohemian. Like Emily Dickinson.”“Emily Dickinson wasn’t bohemian,” I rolled my eyes. “She was crazy; I heard she had skinned cats in jars in her basement. And anyway, at least she did something in her spare time. This girl just sits in a tree all day.”“Can we come over and meet her?” Vanessa asked eagerly, completely ignoring my argument. “We could all climb into your tree and talk philosophy with her.”“What makes you think she’s philosophical?” I was aghast at my friends’ morbid curiosity in the girl.Vanessa sighed and exchanged knowing glances with Mallory, “Because she’s bohemian.”That night Mom was setting four places at the table when I got home from school.“Is Gary coming over?” I asked. “I thought you weren’t seeing him anymore after that thing with the car.”Mom blushed, “No, I asked that girl from the tree to come join us. She’s been out there for so long, I felt bad not inviting her in for dinner.”“Are you kidding?!” I couldn’t stop myself from yelling. “You don’t know anything about her!”Mom stopped and put her hand on her hip, “Now you listen. I don’t know where all this animosity is coming from, but in this family we share with those less fortunate than we are. Just because I don’t understand her doesn’t mean I shouldn’t show her the same kindness and generosity I expect to get from people. It’s what decent people do and, dammit, I’ve worked very hard to make this a decent household. So you’re going to be hospitable to her like an adult, and I don’t want to hear another word about it.”When the doorbell rang at exactly six o’clock, Robbie went tearing down the stairs bellowing, “I want to let her in!”The girl ate with a prissy discipline I’d only seen in really old after-school specials as Robbie rambled endlessly about school, baseball, and his trading card collection She listened politely and giggled at his tacky jokes while I scowled at them from my seat.Mom kicked me lightly under the table, “Sit up straight, honey. And if you didn’t want to eat your peas, you shouldn’t have taken so many, but don’t push them around your plate like that.” She stopped to smile at the girl. “I hope everything’s all right.”“Oh, Miss Stephens, everything is perfect! Thank you so much for your hospitality.” Her voice tinkled like windchimes and only irritated me further.“Who talks like that?” I thought as I fumed in my seat.Mom blushed and smiled coyly, “Well, we certainly don’t mind sharing with you. I just hope you get enough to eat. And you can call me Roberta.”“I was named after Mom and Grandma!” Robbie announced, and I rolled my eyes for the thirtieth time that hour.“Well, Robbie, I’m learning special things about you all the time!” The girl exclaimed in sickening perkiness. “Thank you very much, Roberta.” She smiled, revealing a mouth full of dazzling white teeth and my stomach churned.I stood abruptly as meatloaf lurched in my gut, “Well, I’ve had about all the fun I can stand. I have some homework to get to so I’m going upstairs. Goodnight!”Grabbing my plate and glass, I hurried from the table, hoping to avoid the disapproval in Mom’s eyes. I hadn’t even reached the kitchen when I heard the three of them giggling.Mom invited the girl to stay in the room over the garage that night. I could see her from my window as she explored the room and began preparing for bed. I stormed downstairs to the living room where Mom was sitting with a book and a glass of wine.“Um, how long is she staying with us?” I asked cautiously.Mom sighed in exasperation, “As long as she needs to. And for God’s sake, will you try to act civilized?”“Is she coming to school with us?”“Yes, I’m taking her to register tomorrow. She’s your age, but I don’t know if she’ll test high enough to be put in your class, so we’ll just have to see.” She put her book down and looked at me over her reading glasses. “She’s a very sweet girl and I think if you would at least give her a chance, you might make yourself a new friend. And you could certainly learn some manners from her.”Frustrated, I went to my room and closed my door. I changed into my cow-print pajamas and scrubbed my face until it felt raw. Grabbing a towel, I checked my pores in the mirror and yelped in surprise at the girl’s placid eyes staring back at me in the reflection as she watched from her window. Stray suds went everywhere as I leapt across my room and swatted the light switch by my bed. In the darkness of my room, I watched her through my window as she raised her hand to me.Mallory and Vanessa eagerly waved her over to our table in the lunchroom the next day. I pushed my salad around on my plate as they gushed over the girl’s attire and assaulted her with questions.“That grey looks so good with your eyes,” Mallory. “Where did you get such a cool dress? It’s so grunge chic.”Before she could answer, Vanessa interjected, “What sort of things do you read? I’ll bet you love Simone de Beauvoir. She was such an innovator of bohemian feminism.”With a gasp, Mallory excitedly clutched the girl’s forearm and let out a squeal, “You have to come to my Sweet Sixteen next weekend! We’re going bowling and then out to dinner and having a slumber party at my stepdad’s lake house! No adults!”“Will you guys chill out?” I sighed. “You’re probably scaring the girl to death.” But my words had fallen on deaf ears; Mallory was still yammering about her first non-chaperoned event as the girl blushed and tittered. In a huff, I stood and stormed out of the lunchroom.The next week Mallory got a new convertible for her birthday and asked the girl to ride with her and Vanessa to school in the mornings. I caught the bus with Robbie.To my dismay, the girl was invited to stay with us throughout the end of the school year and into the summer. For dignity’s sake, I decided to at least be cordial, so I didn’t say anything as she coyly muscled her way into my life. I didn’t throw a fit when my friends called for her, I never complained when Mom took her and Robbie out for dinner and ice cream when I was late getting home, and I even didn’t bat an eye with Seth Thompson asked her to the Spring Fling even though he’d promised to take me all the way back in January. Instead, I shut myself in my room and glared down at her as she skipped from the front porch to go with my friends to a movie, play catch with Robbie, or help Mom with the begonias.After a month or so, I took into consideration that perhaps the fault could have been mine. I began to appear enthusiastic about being involved in the household, only for my attempts to backfire in my face. I offered to help set the table only so the girl could join Robbie for Mom’s impromptu cooking class for three. (I was hopeful that it was a one-time event, but a week later I stopped repressing my cringes at the uproarious laughter coming from the kitchen during what they were referring to as “Roberta LIVE!” while I plunked down silverware with rhythmic numbness.)The girl went to the lake with Mallory and Vanessa every Saturday, so I took the next opportunity to offer Robbie help with his treehouse.He sighed as he hammered a short two-by-four into the trunk about a foot off the ground, “You don’t know how to build anything and you’ll just try to change my plans.”I would’ve left at that, but my desperation brought on patience, “I’ll let you build it any way you want. I just want to help. I think it’s really cool that you’re building a treehouse!”Without stopping to look at me, Robbie tested out his makeshift step and began to rifle around for another piece of wood, “Nah, my building partner will be back tomorrow, and it’s not fair to replace her. She’s done a lot of planning and work already, so…”He trailed off and we stood in silence for a moment before I realized I was dismissed. Awkwardly, I backed away from the tree, embarrassed with rejection.Not ready to surrender just yet, I found my mother reading on the back porch. I sat down in one of the old wicker chairs next to her and brightly attempted a conversation, “What’re you reading?”She answered in monotone: “Sue Grafton.”“Oh! Is that the lady who does the mysteries in alphabetical order?”“Mmm-hmm.”“Which letter are you on?”“’P’.”“What does that stand for?”“Peril”“What is it about?”“Oh my God!” Mom dropped her book onto her lap and whipped off her glasses. “Can’t you see that I’m relaxing for the first time in weeks?”I tried to mimic the girl’s angelic tone, “Well, Mom, we’ve both been busy in the last little while, and I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to you, and I was just wondering how you were doing.”She sighed and set her glasses back on her nose, “It’s not my fault you’ve been hiding up in your room being antisocial. You can’t expect everyone to stop what they’re doing just because you decided you were lonely.”My frustration caught in my throat, “Well, I realized that I was acting childishly and I’d like to start making it up to you and Robbie.”Mom turned back to her book, “That would be a first. Why don’t you start by taking over dinner for the evening?”At that moment, I realized that with her dowdy attire and innocent doe-eyes, the girl had won my family over. That night as I finished washing the dishes, I watched through the window as she glided down the driveway toward the garage. Before she climbed the stairs to her room, she turned to catch me in her gaze. Without thinking, I stuck my tongue out at her and she raised her hand, this time to stifle a giggle while her eyes taunted me through the haze of late evening.I was sitting in the living room when she came into the house. She was wearing only a towel and crept through the foyer, taking time to peek around every corner.“What are you doing?” My voice ricocheted around the front hallway, causing her to jump in alarm.“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t think there was anyone here.”I scoffed loudly, “Don’t put on that innocent voice with me; I haven’t bought into your act for a second, you know.”A moment passed and then she began to shift her body as though she was trying it on for the first time. She straightened her legs, adjusted her back, extended her neck, and in one fluid motion, seemed to grow five inches. A confident voice I didn’t recognize projected eloquently, “Fine, then. Could you tell me where I could find more shampoo?”I swallowed hard and clutched the back of my chair as a sudden anxiety shook my body. I continued casually, “Ah yes, taking more from my house. Really, help yourself to anything you want: my friends, my family, my cleaning products.”She tossed a smooth cluster of golden hair behind her shoulder and looked upward as she stopped to ponder aloud, “I know, it really must be difficult for you. You have a sweet family and a nice house and fun friends, and then suddenly a genuinely nice person comes along and takes it all away.” She shifted only her eyes down toward me as a smirk crept across her lips.I felt the words bursting out of me as I began to yell in fury, “You’re not a ‘genuinely nice person’! You’re a sick opportunist who tries to win people’s affection being manipulative and telling them everything they want to hear!”She leaned against the banister as if amused by my tirade and admired her freshly-manicured nails.“So, please tell me,” she spoke with nonchalance. “What damage have I done exactly? I’ve given your mother a mature confidante, your brother finally has a decent playmate and role-model, your friends have someone they can subject to makeovers… What’s the problem? I can understand that you’re jealous because people prefer my attitude to yours, but maybe it will inspire you to adopt some new people-friendly habits.”She taunted me with that overzealous smile. I was grappling for something, anything to fire back at her when I felt a calmness begin to radiate from my chest. The warmth swelled throughout my body, and before I could help myself I erupted in rumbling chuckes.The girl’s expression exposed her sudden fear as I began strolling toward her slowly, laughing casually.“What’s the problem?” I sneered. “The problem is that you’re a freak. Most people have friends and families that worry about them when they’re gone.”I paused and cocked my head in mock concern, “But you don’t… Do you?” I crossed my arms and moved closer to where she was standing at the foot of the stairs. She flattened her back against the wall as her eyes darted around.I couldn’t stop myself, “Well, gosh! Now that I think about it, you don’t have anybody looking for you. Nobody seems to care that you’re missing from wherever you got that hideous dress. I mean, I haven’t seen any posters or milk cartons with your face on them.”I could feel the warmth of her body now and I cupped her cheek with my palm, “So tell me, who was it that took the time to comb that lovely hair and buckle your pretty shoes every day? Why did they decide not to love you anymore?”Tears pooled in her eyes and she choked out a whisper, “You don’t know what – anything about me.”I smirked triumphantly at her trembling lips, “Oh, but I think I’m getting close. Tell me, who was it that made you crazy enough to sit in strangers’ trees all day? Did Mommy get tired of playing dress-up?”I ran my gaze along her shaking, porcelain shoulders and down to where her small breasts had begun to peek over the top of the towel and immediately I knew. I couldn’t stop myself from spitting my wicked realization at her: “Or maybe Daddy was too eager to see his little girl growing up.”At this, the girl began to whimper and I felt her tiny breaths on my lips. Her tears soaked my cheeks as I pulled her close and hissed into her ear, “So you know all about having your privacy invaded. You know what it’s like having your perfect life taken from you…”Her body shook with sobs as I supported her tiny frame. I pressed my lips to her temple gingerly and held her body in place with mine. I moved one of my hands up her thigh toward her bony hips and around her waist. My pelvis began to ache as my other hand moved between her legs, feeling the tiny curls that were just emerging. Before she could react, I snatched the towel from her frail body and stepped back to stare at her. Looking at me in surprised terror, the girl cried out and fell awkwardly against the wall, attempting to cover herself with trembling arms. Frantically, she clamored to turn her back to me, and I was face-to-face with a grotesque canvas of twisted burns and jagged scars that seemed to spill from her shoulder blades to the backs of her thighs. As I gaped in disbelief at the battlefield on her back, she stood to run toward the kitchen.I caught her by the shoulders and pulled her close to me again, feeling the scars scrape against my shirt. She wailed through her tears while reaching out for a handhold and writhing to break free of my embrace. Suddenly desperate to soothe her, I clenched the front of her neck and pressed my face into her hair, murmuring apologies that seemed lost in her tresses.Her legs gave out beneath her and she collapsed to the floor in great, heaving sobs. Staring at us in horror, my mother stood ominously on the threshold with tears streaming down her cheeks while Robbie squirmed to peek past her.The dogwood leaves are large and round now as the summer comes to a close. From my perch on the tree, I can just barely see them laughing and talking in the dining room. The fresh vegetables from the small garden in the backyard have provided an abundance of food for the household and will be on the plate of leftovers I’ll be offered later. My mother and brother begin to clear the table inside, and I climb down from the low branch where I’ve spent many days observing my former life. I walk leisurely toward the garage where I have been moved indefinitely.I stop before going inside and turn to face the girl, who watches me solemnly from the window. Tentatively, I lift my hand to her in a small wave. She stares, emotionless before she drops the blinds.