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Yerba Buena


They rode together up the hill. Blur of trees and sky outside, groan of brakes, a current between them. With each curve of the road, the press of one bare shoulder against another, until the bus slowed and stopped.

The doors folded open, they stepped out to the street. Armstrong Drive dead-ended there—a parking lot, a ranger’s station, the entrance to the woods. Sara unzipped her backpack and pulled out a thermos, unscrewed the lid and sipped. Their fingers touched as Annie took it, and Sara watched Annie press her mouth against its metal rim and drink.

It struck Sara every time—the way the air changed as she entered the forest. Cool, wet, fresh dirt, even bright days like this one dimming and softening. “Should we get a map?” Annie asked, but Sara shook her head. She knew the woods well, had no trouble getting lost or finding her way back.

She took Annie’s hand and led her past the station. A group of tourists brushed by them, their faces upturned. It felt good to feel small. That’s why her mother had taken her here when she was a little girl, why Sara kept coming after her mother died.

They cut onto Sara’s favorite trail—the steepest, the quietest—and hiked until they were breathless, eye level with the ancient redwoods’ branches, as close as they could be to the sky.

“Over there?” Annie asked.

Sara followed her gaze to a grove off the trail. She nodded, her heart quickened. They stepped as carefully as they could across the forest floor to a ring of young redwoods with a hollowed trunk at its center. There, they unzipped their backpacks, pulled out a blanket and a couple sweaters, and laid them over the pine needles.

The forest was quiet. Everyone else was far away.

“Can I kiss you now?” Sara asked.

“Not yet,” Annie said. She pulled her T-shirt up over her head. She unfastened her bra.


Annie shook her head. “Your turn.” So Sara took off her shirt, too, and Annie rushed to kiss her before Sara could ask again.

The relief of it, after the hours of waiting.

The thrill of it: two fourteen-year-olds, secretly in love.

Sara sank to the blanket, Annie atop her. They kissed the curves of necks and collarbones. Cupped breasts with their palms. Smiled, blushed, kissed deeper.

After a time, they rested together, Annie’s head in the crook of Sara’s neck.

“Look,” Annie whispered, and Sara saw a banana slug, bright yellow, emerging from a fern. It made its way to Sara and she flinched at the strange, cold slickness of it, tried not to laugh. The slug made its way across her pale stomach, and then to Annie’s. It took an eternity. They were three creatures in the forest. The girls held very still. The slug left a glittering trail of slime on their skin.

In its wake, a wave of grief: the tiny diamonds of a hospital gown. The flamingo-pink polish Sara had applied to her mother’s nails in careful strokes. Yellowed eyes, cracked white lips. The nurses’ concerned expressions and Sara’s little brother’s tantrums and how their father had stood in corners when he visited, his hands clasped behind his back. Throughout the weeks in the hospital—the sensation that Sara was hovering over an abyss. And then her mother was gone and she plunged into it.

“Hey,” Annie murmured, and Sara was back in the redwood grove, her heart pounding. “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing really.”

A breeze stirred the branches above them.

“Tell me something I don’t know yet,” Annie said. “About you.”

Her voice was close to Sara’s ear, her body soft, pressed against Sara’s skin. What could Sara say that would please her? Not anything from the last two years, not the months before either. Nothing from school because though it felt sometimes like they’d just met, they’d sat in classrooms together since they were small. She’d need to go further back … and then she found it.

“My family used to play a game together. A drawing game. We’d sit around the table and one of us would start, usually my dad. He’d draw a street or a train or a mountain. And then the next person would add something else to it. People or cars or the sky. Whoever was last would complete it, and by then the whole page would be full. I loved it so much. Waiting to see what they’d draw, thinking of something to surprise them. We’d do it for hours sometimes.”

She hoped it was enough, felt Annie pull her closer.

The sun was low in the sky by then, and they were due back—Annie to her twin and their parents, Sara to her little brother to make sure he was fed. He was probably mounting his bicycle, leaving his friend’s place now, heading home. Maybe their father would be there tonight. Maybe not. Either way, Sara would need to catch the bus back to town before the sun set over the ramshackle cabins and the rustic vacation homes and the wide, muddy river. Over the Appaloosa Bar and Wishes & Secrets Hair Salon and Lily’s father’s white steepled church.

But just another few minutes here, first, she thought.

Another kiss.

Another bird high above.

Another breeze cooling her skin.

How easy it was to forget the rest when they were small and safe in the woods.

* * *

At the other end of California, Emilie pressed a new green plant into the dirt of her Catholic school’s garden. Its leaves were familiar. She looked around and yes—there was more of it, spilling over the retaining wall.

“Same plant, right?” she asked, and Mrs. Santos nodded.

“If you see a bare place in a garden, look at what’s already growing. Good chance you can take a little from what’s there.”

School had cleared out a few hours ago. Now it was just the three of them—Emilie, her friend Pablo, and Pablo’s mother—tending to the small plot that separated the school from the street. Mrs. Santos had volunteered to make it both beautiful and useful. Some flowers, mostly herbs.

“What’s it called?” Emilie asked. She’d been learning the names of the plants but had missed this one somehow, growing in the shade.

“Yerba buena.”

“Funny,” Emilie said. “That’s the name of my parents’ favorite restaurant. Pablo, remember? That place on Sunset we went to?”

“The fancy one?”


Pablo dropped the weeds he’d pulled into a bucket and joined her in front of the plant. He plucked a stem, dangled it in front of Emilie’s face. “Here’s a sprig of mint. Give me all your money.”

They laughed, Mrs. Santos, too.

“So is it a kind of mint?” Emilie asked, rubbing a leaf between her fingers.

“Yes, it’s good in tea,” Mrs. Santos said. “Most of these plants are. A tea garden is an easy thing to keep. Tisane, technically. Small plants. Unfussy. I’ll gather some for you. See what you like.”

Verbena. Spearmint. Chamomile. Sage. Yerba buena.

“It’s a bouquet,” Emilie said when Mrs. Santos handed it to her.

“Use them fresh. Try some while you do homework tonight.”

They gathered their things and started the walk to their houses, across the street from each other, six blocks from the school. “How’s Colette?” Mrs. Santos asked.

“She’s okay. She’s teaching me guitar. Feel my fingers.”

Mrs. Santos touched her calluses. “You’ve been practicing.”

“Feel,” Emilie said to Pablo as they waited at a crosswalk.


The light changed and they crossed, and Emilie thought of Colette positioning her fingers, telling her when to switch chords. The two of them on Colette’s bed, learning songs. More often, though, these past couple weeks, Emilie had been practicing alone in her room while her sister stayed, alone, in hers. The scene from a couple nights ago came back—Colette screaming at her, slamming her door shut.

They were almost to their houses now. “Tell me what you think of the tea,” Mrs. Santos was saying. “Just hot water and a few leaves. Honey, too, if you want it.”

Emilie waved as she climbed her front steps. “See you tomorrow.”

“Come over and give me the algebra answers later,” Pablo called after her, and Mrs. Santos play-scolded him, and Emilie found her front door unlocked and let herself in.

No one was around so she sliced some cheese to eat with an apple and took her plate outside to the deck. Just a few months ago, her father, Bas, and his two cousins had taken apart the old deck and invited Emilie and Colette out to help them build a new one.

“Family tradition,” Bas had said. “We helped our fathers build houses and decks and all kinds of things.”

“And back in New Orleans,” said Rudy, the eldest of the cousins, the only one of them born before the families moved to Los Angeles, “our fathers helped their fathers.”

Colette rolled her eyes. She’d just finished high school, but barely, her second semester transcripts so bleak that the college she’d planned to attend withdrew its acceptance. “My friends are waiting for me at the beach,” she said. But it looked exciting to Emilie. The piles of wood, the cousins they rarely saw even though they lived in neighboring cities.

“Come on, sister,” Emilie said. “It’ll be fun.”

Colette leaned against the house. She was almost otherworldly to Emilie with her extra three years and two inches of height. Her hair was longer than Emilie’s, and her jean shorts were shorter, and she cocked her head and kept them all waiting. And then she shrugged and said, “Why not?”

Colette helped for about an hour before saying she had to go. But Emilie spent all day out there with them, listening to their stories, smiling along with their jokes even when she didn’t understand, hammering the nails where they told her to. They taught her to use the electric sander and she’d donned a mask and goggles and worked the guardrails until they were smooth.

She leaned on the rail now, looking over a bare patch of garden where a rosebush had died and never been replaced. Maybe she could transplant a cluster of lavender. Or maybe start her own tea garden. She saw a movement through the sliding door—someone must be home. Her parents didn’t keep regular work hours. Bas was a contractor, Lauren an entertainment lawyer. They came and they went and they let their daughters do the same.

Tea, Emilie thought. Not lavender. She would ask Mrs. Santos to help her get started. And then she heard a pounding from inside, boots down the stairs, heard Bas’s shout for help.

Copyright © 2022 by Nina LaCour

Yerba Buena
by by Nina LaCour

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250810515
  • ISBN-13: 9781250810519