Chapter 1 Take this Kiss Upon the Brow

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The tree bore few branches and even fewer leaves

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The tree bore few branches and even fewer leaves. Standing in the middle of cracked concrete under a sky greened by smog, its trunk seemed to jut upside-down in space. The warped boards and jagged tarp among its branches looked like a garbage heap to anyone who happened to pass by.

To twelve-year-old Tipani Walker, this was home.

A tiny shadow below the city lights, she ducked silently under the broken fence. The sun was going down. In most homes, parents would be calling their kids for dinner. Tipani's mother, sitting in the dark house a few blocks away, wouldn't call her to eat tonight. She wouldn't even notice Tipani was gone.

Reaching her tree, Tipani looked around carefully. The shade between sunset-glow was growing, leaking onto the ground like spilled ink. None of it moved like people. Tipani gave a short nod to herself but her brown eyes didn't look away as she jumped up, grabbing a rope the same dusky color as the trunk it hung beside. It was only when she had it in her hand that she adjusted her thick black glasses, focusing her attention fully on the braid.

It was one of her favorites, a knot she had created herself. Nobody but her could follow the twists, turns, loops and ties she had fashioned into it. She called it the Not Knot, and it was her sentinel, guarding the only place she felt truly safe in the whole world.

She made quick work of it, her nimble fingers flick-flying in the fading daylight. Slipping away the last loop, she stretched up to unhook the slack from a nail above her head.


The ladder that dropped down was fashioned of the same rope, knotted every foot to make climbing easy. Unlike the Not Knot, these were average- easy to make and easier to loosen. But they held tight enough to carry her up the trunk and into the rickety treehouse.

Inside, the brown tarp made up most of the walls, accentuated here and there with duct tape and newspaper comics to cover rips and tears. The floor was a mishmash of odd-sized boards, old bits of linoleum taken from the Zip Mart dumpster around the corner, and the branches themselves, which criss-crossed through the area like fat, muddy laserbeams. There were no windows where Tipani's light could be seen from the street, but she had ripped a small hole in the top of the tarp to let smoke escape. At first she'd used a flashlight to keep the shadows at bay, but finding batteries was a lot harder than learning how to make fire using her mother's lighters, and fuel was a simple matter of playing pick-up-sticks in the dumpster... even if what she burned wasn't really sticks at all.

Once she was through the trap-door she leaned down and pulled the ladder up hand-over-hand, the rope-slack following. She re-formed the Not Knot but kept it with her, closing the trap door over the hole she'd cut in it for the rope to pass through.

She took a deep breath and smiled. Finally. Peace.

She made her small fire - the fuel today was a pile of old phonebooks she had been lucky to find - and turned to her book corner. Stacked almost as high as the ceiling, the stories she'd already read a dozen times were like old friends. She grabbed her very favorite, a dog-eared paperback titled Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and unrolled her sleeping bag to settle in. It wasn't until she had passed chapter four and her stomach growled that she remembered the peanut butter sandwich she'd packed.

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