Sugar Birds: A Novel is an evocative coming-of-age story about personal wilderness, trust, and the search for forgiveness. In this selection from the book, ten-year-old Aggie—angry with her unpredictable mother—has accidentally lit a tragic fire that drives her into the rugged Pacific Northwest forest, where suffering will compel her to grapple with the character of God.
Sometime in the night, she startled awake as Mama snatched her blankets and hurled them from the bed. “Aggie! Hurry!” her mother shouted, raspy, as she hauled Aggie from her mattress onto the carpet. “Fire!”
Aggie rose to her elbows, coughing. Her movements were jerky, her brain ragged with sleep and fumes. Mama dropped to the floor beside her and tugged her shirt. “This way.”
Smoke bellied over them as Aggie crawled after her mother, her hammering heart a blood drum in her ears. When they reached the stairs, Mama gripped her hand, and they groped their way to the back entry. Mama fumbled with the lock, threw the door open, and yanked Aggie past the porch and across the yard to the ancient maple at the lawn’s edge.
She pushed Aggie’s shoulders against the tree. “Stay here,” she barked, wheezing from the smoke. “Your dad . . . his fiddle.”
“No, Mama!” Aggie snared her mother’s nightgown, clawed it toward her. Mama wrenched, ripped the fabric from Aggie’s hands, and darted back to the burning house.
Aggie flattened herself against the trunk and slid into a crouch. And then, horror: flames gulped air through the open door and jumped into her mother’s hair as she disappeared inside. “Noooo!” Aggie fought her seizing muscles, leapt the porch steps in stiff strides. A whip of fire stopped her at the doorway. Unbearable heat bullied her backwards.
“Harris!” Mama wailed from somewhere inside. Voices melted in the roar.
Aggie flew off the porch through a swarm of sparks and raced the log home’s perimeter, skirting wide past windows that, opened for night air, now spewed licking tendrils of flame. A timber popped and sprayed pulsing embers across the lawn. Numb from adrenaline and terror, she plowed across them in bare feet.
At the front door, she hesitated at the handle’s thumb plate, glowing red with heat; covered her ears at the maniacal crackle of flames inside. Then she jammed her hand into a boot on the landing, struck the latch, and shoved.
Panting with fear, she pounded the boot’s heel on the door and bleated, “Mama! Dad!”
She flung the boot onto the lawn and again sprinted around the house, searching for access, but all the windows bloomed in the darkness, pushing, pushing fronds of flame out toward the sentinel firs at the yard’s edge. Could she climb in through the crawl space, through the trapdoor in the pantry? There had to be a way.
But no. The house screamed as the logs whistled and exploded in the heat. Flames punched outward from every window and doorway. She sped the circumference of the house again and again, but no route inside remained to her.
Beaten back to the trees, she doubled over, struggling for air and coughing up the acrid taste of ash. She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, sealing them against the smoke’s sting, and rubbed until she could again squint at the flames, at the charred ground, at a seared circle in the grass at her feet.
Her campfire circle.
A scorched trail led from the circle to some blazing lumber stacked by the house. With temples pounding, she stared at the smoldering path. This nightmare. Her fault. Her head hung over the blackened earth, her mouth agape.
The realization dizzied her, gutted her with dread. She tripped, righted herself, and tore back to the big maple where her mother had left her. She scrambled up the two-by-fours nailed to the old trunk, a ladder to her leaf-veiled treehouse, where guilt collapsed her over the little cabin’s half wall. Riveted to the unfolding devastation, she flailed against blame until shock lifted her outside of herself, detached her from the body she no longer wanted to claim as her own. Until denial, in a brief respite, made her an observer, not the cause. Yes. An observer. Of that girl in the treehouse. That girl crying. That girl who lit a fire.
Sirens wailed along the road. Smoke billowed around her, and she held her sleeve over her nose and mouth as fire trucks and an ambulance rolled in a procession down the driveway, their lights strobing the yard and barn. Men in heavy brown suits shouted, hefted fat hoses, and sprayed.
Water dented the blaze, then vaporized. The fire roared back, engulfing the logs and penetrating them until curved trunks glowed and exploded. Firefighters receded into the inferno. Aggie watched dumbly as a section of roof collapsed and her bedroom opened to the spark-filled sky. Fire stormed through the hole.
A firefighter crossed the porch carrying a limp body. Behind him, two more emerged with another lifeless form slung between them. When a man shouted, Aggie’s hands flew to her open mouth. Had he said, “Gone”? She wasn’t sure, but she thought so. Gone? Did that mean they were dead?
She fell forward on the treehouse planks, her breath shallow, the whump of falling timbers thundering around her. Sirens screamed. Orange light shimmered through cracks between boards; shadows contorted on the ceiling.
Then even more smoke, as firefighters fought the blaze. Someone called her name over and over, but trauma immobilized her, rendered her thoughts erratic and muddled. She wouldn’t answer. Couldn’t.
By the time dim morning light crept over her, the dying fire chewed quietly. Aggie pulled herself up the half wall and absorbed the scene. Embers snapped in black rubble where her home once stood. Only one man sprayed hot spots; others coiled hoses and stowed ladders.
And then they got into the trucks and drove them away down the road.
Her mind tripped and stalled with exhaustion and shock. Oh, her mama. Her dad. Gone. Gone.
To the hospital? A blip of hope rallied her, then died. She had seen those bodies, heard the firefighters yell. Her chest clenched, wringing her insides hard, like a dishcloth. Dad. Mama. She killed them with those sticks. With her fire. She beat her legs with clenched fists, bit her cheeks, tasted blood.
Her eyes flitted randomly. Think, Aggie. She couldn’t stay here. If they caught her, they’d take her to jail. Well, to juvie. And according to scary Mike Mackey, who knew firsthand, that was as bad as jail any old day.
She had slouched low in her school bus seat in front of Mike while he told Joe Paulson how an officer patted him down and searched his pockets and then took all his clothes and felt him all over for hidden stuff. How they put chains around his belly and irons on his legs when they took him to court. Chains! How the toilet was out in the open and he had to poop right in front of everybody. When he lowered his voice and told Joe what the dirty boys there did to him, Aggie had started to shake.
The memory galvanized her, nearly propelled her down the treehouse ladder. She would find her uncle’s farm. Find Burnaby.
Then a terrifying image of Uncle Loomis, his face skewed with rage, floated enormous and close.
She flattened herself against the treehouse wall and shut her eyes, reliving the fright from two months earlier, on the Saturday Burnaby first drove his new truck to the farm. After she promised to rake compost for Aunt Nora, Mama had agreed to let Aggie go with him.
Aggie had waved at her aunt through the kitchen window and skipped to the calf shed to let the newborns suck her fingers with their foamy mouths. From a mound by the door, she scooped a bucketful of fuzzy cotton seeds and poured little piles of them near yearling heifers grazing outside. A few were nosing the treats when Uncle Loomis climbed through the fence and lunged at her. He gripped her shoulder, leaving dirty fingerprints on her shirt, then bent low and thumped her chest.
“Wasting rations! Lost your brains?”
She dropped her head.
“Listen up, girl,” he hissed, his spittle spraying her face. She focused on his tangled eyebrows, dodging his speckled eyes. “I don’t need no more rats around here, stealing my feed.”
Aggie had avoided her uncle ever since. And now? If Uncle Loomis threw a fit over a few cotton seeds, what would he do to her now, after she burned down her house?
And killed my parents. She plucked at her pajamas and cringed. She was too bad for anyone to help. Too awful. Uncle Loomis. Burnaby. Everyone would hate her.
Such a tiny, practice fire. She put dirt on it, didn’t she? But not enough. And she flicked those embers all over the place. Mama was right. She was too hasty. Careless. Ohhh. The groan roiled inside her. Grief punched her guts.
A car engine alerted her to a sheriff’s rig crawling up the dusty lane. In the early sunlight, smoke hung over the wreckage like gold fog, blurring the uniformed men into specters who circled and poked at the smoldering ruins. One of them said her name.
Still trembling, Aggie dropped down the far side of the tree, where they wouldn’t see her, and fled.
Excerpted from Sugar Birds: A Novel, by Cheryl Grey Bostrom, releasing August 3, 2021. Available for preorder on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. Used with permission.