Branson had lived with his aunt Farah since he was little. She was wise and hard and knew how to laugh. She’d been born into a film family but, lacking her younger sister’s looks and her older brother’s false charm, moved to Utah after three years of college. Whenever Branson asked Farah how she chose Utah his aunt would laugh quickly and look away,
“Because I wanted to live in the Holey Land!” she’d exclaim, her sad profile betraying her.
Farah’s house was on the Colorado river, a few miles north of Moab. The Holey Land was Arches National Park, a requisite destination for all true lovers of natural wonders. Branson’s mom had died during childbirth; he almost had, too. His father had been busy and sad, either rushing away from their cold modernist house, much too large for two, or staying shut in his room with his clinking glasses. No one was really surprised when he passed out at the wheel and one of his shiny cars fell quietly from a steep incline in the Santa Monica Hills.
Branson was pale and wide eyed with a constellation of freckles across his nose and thin, raised eyebrows that made him look perpetually curious or surprised. At his dad’s funeral everyone hugged him but not too tight and afterwards Farah was the only one with enough free time to take care of him. He remembered dragging his heavy chest full of baseball cards and comic books and video games that didn’t make it into the electronics bin into his new room. The old wooden floors were warm and comforting and very different from the cool tile of his dad’s house. When it was nighttime he saw more stars than he’d ever seen before and asked Farah to tell him their names. She knew some and had to look up others and was eventually as knowledgable as a novice astronomer just from researching to provide Branson with answers. Branson didn’t research much on his own, though, he just asked Farah. If she didn’t know one night he’d wait until the next when he’d be lying on the porch next to the Australian Shepherds, Falcon and Bronco, and her bare feet would quietly pat the distance from the bright kitchen doors to where they were sprawled.
“It’s Altair.” she’d say, looking up. “The brightest star in Aquila. Aquila makes an eagle, see him?”
Branson would nod without speaking, then point, “And that one?”
“Hm.” Farah would say.
They’d stare in silence before she returned to the house, and he knew he’d get his answer the next night.
Falcon and Bronco were the happiest dogs in the world, breathing their clean air and running until they were tired before even reaching the edge of Farah’s property. They rolled in the grass and wrestled in the dust and chased a laughing Branson when he wanted them to. Often Farah made hot chocolate for the people and peanut butter covered carrots for the dogs and they’d sit in the yard at dusk. Farah would read the science section of the news paper out loud or Branson would share an article from TIME for Kids that he’d gone over in school.
Sometimes he biked to the arches to think. He’d think about birthday cards he’d received from his relatives in Los Angeles or when he was going to play ball with Tucker and Derrick or about the new girl in class. Sometimes he’d think about his mom. She’d look just like she did in the pictures on his dad’s mantle and she’d sit on the top of the arches smiling or run around and through them, laughing as she disappeared and reemerged. Sometimes Branson would just watch and sometimes he would chase her, but not too far since he didn’t like having to look for his bike in the dark. Sometimes she would talk to him,
“The Holey Land.” she’d whisper, looking into his hazel eyes that mirrored her own.
Sometimes Branson would run and run, not caring if he lost track of his bike and got home too late. Farah would forgive him. Farah knew he was safe.